Death of Jesus: Sacrifice vs. Execution

Savoldo,_crocifissioneThis year I have had the opportunity to discuss the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding the death penalty on a few different occasions. For those who are not familiar with the Church’s teaching on this matter, the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2263-2267 provides a helpful summery.

During each discussion with different groups of people, the same comment always came up: “Without the death penalty, we would not be saved.” The implication behind this comment is that the crucifixion of Jesus, an example of the Roman death penalty, was pivotal to humanity’s salvation. I have no quarrels that death of Jesus brought about our salvation, but this remark reduces his crucifixion to a mere execution. This presents a major problem.

Although the death of Jesus took the form of a Roman crucifixion and looked like a common execution to bystanders, the New Testament goes to great lengths to explain that Jesus freely gave his life out of obedience to the Father.[1] This distinction is so important that Jesus clearly spells it out to his disciples in John 10:17-18,

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father. (RSV)

Even though it appeared that the Roman judicial system had control over the life and death of Jesus, the Gospel of John gives us a different view. (continue reading…)