"The White Crucifixion" by Marc Chagall
“The White Crucifixion” by Marc Chagall

In his ongoing #progGod series of posing theological questions to progressive Christian bloggers, Tony Jones asks, “Why a crucifixion?” I first wrote an answer to this question a year ago (read it here) in response to Tony’s ebook  A Better Atonement. Here is the essence of my take on the crucifixion:

  • I (still) don’t think Tony goes far enough in his rethinking of the atonement.
  • The simple reason for Jesus’ death is clear: he confronted the political and religious powers of his day with a radically alternative vision of the world as it should be and they executed him because they perceived him as a threat.
  • Probably from the very day of his execution, Jesus’ followers have looked for a theological reason for his death because they believe that everything happens for a reason, as part of God’s plan for humanity.
  • But not all Christians—myself included—insist that everything happens because of divine causality or providence. Perhaps this just isn’t the way God works in the world, despite centuries of holding on to this assumption. In our post-Holocaust world of weapons of mass destruction, ruthless terror, preventable suffering, and incurable illness, I just don’t think God is orchestrating history in the same way that the biblical writers and most Christian theologians traditionally have. Rather, I believe that bad things happen because they happen and God is present in the redemption, not in the causality.
  • The crucifixion is a fact of history that was given a theological explanation by followers of Jesus who were so stunned by what happened to their master that they assumed it must have been part of a grand scheme. But what if we don’t make that assumption? What if we don’t need a theological explanation?
  • Jesus died because he was executed by the powers he threatened. To suggest anything else is to overlay this fact of history with unnecessary theological speculation.

So my answer to, “why a crucifixion?” This was the preferred method of brutal execution employed by the imperial power Jesus threatened with his radical vision of God’s kingdom eclipsing the kingdoms of the world.

I’m not compelled to find God’s causality in the crucifixion or construct elaborate theories of atonement to explain it. I don’t believe that God designed and set the world in motion to culminate in the crucifixion of Jesus on a Roman cross in the first century, with two thousand years of subsequent history as nothing more than a footnote as individuals bide their time until death or the apocalyptic end of the world.

To read the story of God and humanity in the whole Bible, the incarnation of God in Jesus was one of several ways that God entered human history to save God’s people from their self-destructive ways and to lead them into the world as God intends it to be. The archetypal story of the Bible is beautifully simple: sh*t happens and God picks up the pieces, moving the arch of history forward toward goodness.

This story is told in three powerful ways:

  1. Exodus: the children of Israel are brutally enslaved in Egypt, but God uses Moses to save them and lead them to freedom in the promised land.
  2. Exile: Jerusalem is destroyed and the people are exiled in Babylon, but God uses a variety of people (notably the gentile Cyrus, whom God calls “messiah”) to bring God’s people home.
  3. Jesus: after proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom to radically transform the world, those in power execute Jesus, but God demonstrates through the resurrection that the emergence of this kingdom cannot be stopped and that all of us will experience new life.

The crucifixion was a tragedy caused by the worst evil of humanity. In his death Jesus joins countless others who suffer and who die at the hands of their brothers and sisters. But this is not the end of the story. Along with the exodus from Egypt and the return from exile, the resurrection gives us hope that nothing—no tragedy, no mistake, no sin, no evil—is beyond the redemptive power of God’s love.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. I follow you completely.. and agree completely…However, as a Progressive Christian, I still have an unanswered question, and this article did not address it. Do you believe there was a literal resurrection, or is the resurrection a metaphor for how we should live?

  2. Many years ago, the Rev. Carole Knight preached a Christmas Eve sermon about how Jesus in the stable is more about God coming into the manure (sh*t?) of human existence. I loved her for that image then, and I love your imagery now.

  3. Just another way of saying that Jesus was God’s “Plan B” – or in this case, “Plan C.”

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