Thursday 13 May 2021

How much do the Gospels really emphasize the sufferings of Jesus?

It is my impression that there is a very long tradition of exaggerating without restraint the sufferings of Jesus, compared with how they are described in the Gospels - especially the Fourth Gospel (being our only eyewitness source). 

Suffering is not one-sidedly a matter of the cruelties inflicted-upon Jesus - but also of Jesus's response to the cruelties. And overall, my overwhelming impression through The Passion is of Jesus being stoic - that he suffered from the tortures, but not to the extremity I have so often heard described and seen depicted. 

Furthermore, Jesus predicted and willingly accepted his suffering - which is usually regarded as a diminishing factor. (e.g. A woman in childbirth suffers much less than she would if the same (extreme) pains were due to a fatal disease - because she wants the child). 

The reason for the long tradition of piling-on-and-on about the sufferings of Jesus, is related to theology, rather than scripture - to the idea that Jesus's primary work was to 'suffer for our sins' - by an account which regards 'sin' as primarily immorality. 

Thus, because of this theology but only because of this theology -  Jesus must (despite the Gospels) be regarded as having, in some sense, suffered to an indescribably vast degree in order to compensate-for and neutralize the vast (and still growing) scale of human immorality.  

Yet this is a narrow and essentially false understanding of what Jesus did - if we are to believe the Fourth Gospel. Jesus needed to die and be resurrected, in order that Men might choose to follow him. But there was no need for Jesus to suffer to an unprecedented extent when he died - and indeed this did not seem to have been the case.

If we are able to perceive that 'sin' meant (mostly) death; and that Jesus 'saving us from our sins' meant (mostly) becoming able to offer us eternal resurrected life - then we can see that the precise manner of Jesus's death was not of primary importance to the success of his mission. 

If Men like Caiaphas had been more virtuous and courageous, and made better choices, and Jesus had not been crucified but died in some other and less painful way - this would Not have sabotaged God's plan. 

The point of the plan was that Jesus should die in order that he could be resurrected, ascend to Heaven and send the Holy Ghost - but the exact manner of Jesus's death was not crucial.   


Francis Berger said...

Good observation. This occurred to me as well a while back. I found myself wondering what the overemphasis on Jesus's suffering and the under-emphasis on Jesus's victory over death revealed about traditional/conventional theology. I haven't arrived at any firm conclusions yet, but I get the sense much of it has to do with how traditional/conventional theology views man and man's overall place in the divine order.

Ranger said...

"the exact manner of Jesus's death was not crucial."

Was this an intended pun?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ranger - What do you think?

@Frank - Durther to your point; I was thinking about the major points in the Christian calendar, and how I regard them from my understanding of significance.

I decided that Easter Day was indeed primary - saving us from death, then Ascension Day (i.e. today) that with resurrection we dwell in Heaven, then Pentecost (Whitsun) - so that each man may know this, via the Holy Ghost.

In other words, I would be guided by the Fourth Gospel that neither Good Friday, nor Jesus's conception, birth or early life; were "crucial" to what he accomplished for us.

I haven't written about this - but it is probably significant the greatest emphasis of the Fourth Gospel is Chapters 12-17 inclusive. These amount to 30% of the allocated Bible 'chapters' from the original '20-chapter' Gospel. These are describing the last supper in Bethany - and the words of Jesus to his disciples before he was arrested.

It seems likely that the author (Lazarus, I believe) regarded these teachings as the most important part of the Gospel - or, at least as the part of the message of the Gospel that needed the longest and most careful explanation.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I agree that there is a theological need for Jesus to have suffered to an extreme and unprecedented extent. I think this is the origin of the Mormon idea that Jesus' primary suffering was not on the cross (because countless others have been crucified, and most of them suffered much longer than Jesus, who died surprisingly quickly) but in the garden, where he "suffered for our sins" in some mystical way which caused agony beyond anything anyone else has experienced.

This comes from the penal-substitution model of the Atonement, where Jesus is viewed as receiving the punishment that would have been just if he had personally been guilty of all the moral misdeeds committed by anyone anywhere at any time. (And somehow this is rationalized as actually *being* just, and merciful as well!) Crucifixion -- the standard Roman punishment for all sorts of crimes -- hardly seems grand enough for *that*!

Jonathan said...

It's well known that Christianity was melded with many elements borrowed from paganism early in church history (making it easier for the masses to adopt). I strongly suspect that blood sacrifice was entirely smuggled in, and is the most harmful element. My intuition is that the business of "our sin-stained robes are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb" is not only incorrect, but a deliberate demonic inversion.

whitney said...

Jesus' suffering, the scourging at the pillar the crowning with thorns and carrying the cross and the crucifixion where the outward signs of his inward suffering as he took on the sins of all men from the past present and future. His heart ached for the sins that you are committing today and to the end of the world. He prayed for his torturers as they were torturing him for the Redemption of their souls. The physical suffering pales in comparison to the spiritual. Our Lady of La Salette pray for us

Bruce Charlton said...

@Whitney - Yes, I know that this has been the opinion of many since early in the Christian church history - but my point is that this is not something from the Fourth Gospel in particular. Nor do its ethical assumptions meet the minimal standards of morality, even among corrupted mortal men.

@Jonathan- The superficial aspects of pagan influence (like the worship of specific pagan Gods being converted to the veneration of analogous Saints) seem to be better recognized than the much more pervasive and harmful deep metaphysical adoptions - such as the omni-god-deity of Platonism/ Neo-Platonism which bears near-zero relationship to the God of which Jesus speaks and with whom he interacts; or that God *must* exist outside creation and time (despite that Christianity is an intrinsically historical, temporally-linear, religion).

wrt your final quote - Indeed. WmJas has written incisively about the mixup regarding the significance of the sacrificial lamb - - that the perfect male lamb was the Passover sacrifice, and therefore linked to saving from *death* (not moral transgression).

@Wm - I have always thought it a pity that the job of revising Mormon theology away from its origins as a sort-of naïve literalist* Protestantism (hardly to be distinguished from other contemporary low church sects such as the Taylorites except in having also The Book for Mormon) was never finished after Joseph Smith's early death.

The implications of Mormonism's primary theological assumptions were never followed-through to modify such non-coherent, inherited doctrines as penal substitution - but after not very long (and a few ideas from the Brigham Young era that did not stick); following the abolition of plural marriage the whole structure of practice and doctrine was pretty-much frozen into place - with all its contradictions (that survive only because of the lack of interest in Mormon metaphysics and theology and the modern incapacity for consecutive thinking).

Lucinda said...

My own way of understanding what Jesus did for me personally is that he showed me how to not reject life. Jesus advocates for Life when we are tempted to find it frightful and unworthy.

Especially He shows me how to trust in the Father's love for me personally, even when things seem unfair and painful.

I don't think that Jesus is trying to get God to not reject and hate me. God is not the rejecter and hater in the relationship ... I am. I think he is trying to get me to not reject and hate the Father and the life he's offering.

Is this perspective maybe because I'm a woman, and prone to perfectionism in relationships?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Lucinda - Rather than trying to answer your question! - I will ask one: Have you ever given thought to the matter of Jesus's wife - which (I think) Mormon theology assumes he must have?

That matter was one of the main reasons why I began to look closely at the Fourth Gospel - because that tells us about Jesus's wedding (in Cana) and I supposed that - if read properly - the Gospel must also tell us who she was - which indeed it did.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - As well as the pagan distortions to Jesus's teaching, there are Jewish distortions. For example, it is often asserted that the Old testament is wholly compatible with the new - especially in terms of its moral teaching.

Behind this is the question of whether it was crucially important that Jesus was a Jew. Taking the cue from Matthew, Luke and Paul - most Christian believe it was. But going from the Fourth Gospel - it was not and in principle (ultimately) Jesus could have done his work whatever race he was born into (assuming he was 'without sin' - i.e. fully aligned with God's will); although it was expedient that he was a Jew.

The main way that it mattered that Jesus was a Jew was perhaps in leading Jesus to become baptized by John (a Jewish prophet) - which was when the divine spirit descended and Jesus became divine (while still mortal).

If Jesus had Not been a Jew then some other means of 'baptizing' him, some other prophet inspired with the divine power to recognize Jesus's role and able to 'channel' transformative divinity, would have needed to be found.

Lucinda said...

My thoughts about Jesus' wife became spiritually focused when discussing the "touch me not" scene with my husband. He had long before settled it for himself. Mormons generally don't discuss the issue to avoid offending people who prefer to believe Jesus was unmarried, and wanting to avoid any gossipy feeling. Although maybe the men speak more freely about it among themselves.

I'd like to speak to my question about the woman perspective. I believe mothers are more concerned than fathers about parents being judged by children. The fathers are much more comfortable with the judgment of children by parents. This is perhaps why it is necessary for Heavenly Mother to be hidden or subtle. Whenever I talk from the perspective of "what if they hate us later," Jared will say something to the effect of, "if we are guided by just that, they'll for sure hate us later."

Hatcher said...

I agree that God can , effectively, do whatever he wants to. The question is why He chose as He did.Why incarnate into the line of David? Why a painful, humiliating, public death?

TonguelessYoungMan said...

@BC - I have been a Christian for only about two years, I know my understanding might be simplistic at best, but I always thought that Jesus was Jewish simply because that was the only major monotheism, at least within the boundaries of the leading and most populous Empire of that time. Those who we now call pagans wouldn't have had the context for Jesus to make any sense (to them).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hatcher & TLM - Well, I think that Men really have free agency, therefore the specifics of Jesus's death could not have been foreseen.

The big question is what determined the time place etc. of Jesus's birth. Broadly, I think this would have been decided when Jesus, in premortal life, was *ready*. I assume that the idea was mainly that he would be incarnated 'as soon as possible'. As I said above, the biggest contingency in the plan seems to have been the baptism by John - and that is perhaps why so much attention is paid to John in the Fourth Gospel.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

A woman anoints Jesus' feet and dries them with her hair -- at a time when women generally kept their hair covered up in public. The only cavil unsympathetic onlookers can come up with is that the whole thing was a waste of money. You tell me who Jesus' wife was.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Doc - To understand my point you need to distinguish between what Jesus *did* for us - and all the stuff you describe; and to ask yourself whether Jesus could have done what he did if he had been a Roman, Greek, Ancient Briton or whatever.

Him being a Jew - as a was - had the advantage that we know it 'worked' - yet we also know (the Fourth Gospel tells us) that it didn't work very well! And in essential respects - and partly because he was a Jew - his teaching was pretty badly hijacked, by compelling the new and very simple teaching to fit-into a great mass of Jewish assumption (plus pagan philosophy).

God the Father did not know exactly how it was going to work out, and although he is creatively active in the world all of the time; this means that things are good-enough for us to choose salvation and to learn, not that they are always optimal.

Bruce Charlton said...

@:WmJas - Quite. If one asks the question, and reads the Fourth Gospel - it is there, confirmed repeatedly.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Doc, Jesus did not fulfill most of those prophecies. Hence the need, for those for whom the prophecies are primary, for a “second coming.”