Christianity has every possible disadvantage as a faith. Some religions thrive by being vague (Rastafarianism) or by having only philosophical demands, or demands beyond verification (Buddhism, Hinduism). Others staked a claim to survival by isolation (Mormonism) or by the sword (Islam). Christianity did none of these things and had none of these benefits, other than a late flirtation with the sword when it was already a secure faith and it was being used for political purposes, as indeed any religion could be — not as a means of spreading the Gospel. Every disadvantage, and none of the advantages. We will explore how these so called disadvantages are actually the strength of the beliefs of millions world wide.
One of the reasons Christianity has succeeded for 2,000 years and can rebut any of the massive amount of tripe, illogic and BS being thrown at is because it is a faith that has come about by revelation to the believers — and because it has the irrefutable witness of the Resurrection.
Why would a religion be based on someone who was Crucified?
The crucifixion of Christ was prophesized in the Old Testament and mentioned many times in the New Testament. It is the foundation of the faith of Christianity – but why?
1 Cor. 1:18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
1 Cor. 15:12-19 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
Few would deny the historical reality of the crucifixion and the death of Jesus. It is well documented by many sources (although as in anything we will always have the ‘mythers’ and ‘truthers’ and conspiracy theorists who make assumptions based upon their own warped beliefs). But once the concept of crucifixion is opened, it brings about the first of our problems: Who on earth would believe a religion centered on a crucified man?
As Martin Hengel has amply shown us in his monograph, Crucifixion, the shame of the cross was the result of a fundamental norm of the Greco-Roman Empire. Hengel observes that “crucifixion was an utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene’ in the original sense of the word.”[i] As Malina and Rohrbaugh note in their Social-Science Commentary on John[ii] (p 263), crucifixion was a Roman “status degradation ritual” designed to humiliate the person every way possible, including the symbolic staking of their hands and legs to signify a loss of power, and the loss of the ability to control their body in various ways, including befouling one’s self with excrement.
The process was so offensive that the Gospels turn out to be our most detailed description of a crucifixion from ancient times – the pagan authors were often too revolted by the subject to give a comprehensive description in their writings – in spite of the fact that thousands of crucifixions were done at a time on some occasions. “(T)he cultured literary world wanted to have nothing to do with [crucifixion], and as a rule kept silent about it.” (p.38)
It was recognized as early as Paul (see 1 Cor. 1:18; and also Heb. 12:2) that preaching a savior who had undergone this disgraceful treatment was folly. This was apparent to the Jews (Gal. 3;13; cf. Deut. 21:23) as well as the Gentiles. Justin Martyr later writes in his first Apology 13:4 — They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God…
Celsus describes Jesus as one who was “bound in the most ignominious fashion” and “executed in a shameful way.” Josephus describes crucifixion as “the most wretched of deaths.” Augustine described Jesus as “a god who died in delusions…executed in the prime of life by the worst of deaths, a death bound with iron.”
The enemies of Christianity always referred to the disgracefulness of the death of Jesus with great emphasis and malicious pleasure. A god or son of god dying on a cross! That was enough to dismiss belief in a new religion.
And DeSilva adds:
No member of the Jewish community or the Greco-Roman society would have come to faith or joined the Christian movement without first accepting that God’s perspective on what kind of behavior merits honor differs exceedingly from the perspective of human beings, since the message about Jesus is that both the Jewish and Gentile leaders of Jerusalem evaluated Jesus, his convictions and his deeds as meriting a shameful death, but God overturned their evaluation of Jesus by raising him from the dead and seating him at God’s own right hand as Lord.
- T. Wright makes these points in Resurrection of the Son of God:
The argument at this point proceeds in three stages. (i) Early Christianity was thoroughly messianic, shaping itself around the belief that Jesus was God’s Messiah, Israel’s Messiah. (ii) But Messiahship in Judaism, such as it was, never envisaged someone doing the sort of things Jesus had done, let alone suffering the fate he suffered. (iii) The historian must therefore ask why the early Christians made this claim about Jesus, and why they reordered their lives accordingly.
Jewish beliefs about a coming Messiah, and about the deeds such a figure would be expected to accomplish, came in various shapes and sizes, but they did not include a shameful death which left the Roman empire celebrating its usual victory.
Something has happened to belief in a coming Messiah…It has neither been abandoned or simply reaffirmed wholesale. It has been redefined around Jesus. Why? To this question, of course, the early Christians reply with one voice: we believe that Jesus was and is the Messiah because he was raised bodily from the dead. Nothing else will do.
The message of the cross was abhorrent to the average Jew and Gentile, a vulgarity in its social context. Discussing crucifixion was the worst sort of social faux pas. Hengel adds: “A crucified messiah…must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian, asked to believe such a claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish.”
That a god would come to earth in human flesh and suffer in this ignominious fashion “ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people.” (10, 4) If Jesus had truly been a god, then by Roman thinking, the Crucifixion should never have happened. Celsus, an ancient pagan critic of Christianity, writes: But if (Jesus) was really so great, he ought, in order to display his divinity, to have disappeared suddenly from the cross.
This comment represents not just some skeptical challenge, but is a reflection of an ingrained socio-theological consciousness that persists to this day. Those who do not want to believe in a resurrected Christ will not. The Romans could not envision a god dying like Jesus – period. It would be like arguing that the sky is green, or that pigs fly, only those arguments, at least, would not offend the senses like a crucifixion would. This needs to be emphasized from a social perspective because our own society (due to time and the mythical imagination of many) is not as attuned as ancient society was to the process of honor.
Honor was placed above one’s personal safety and was the key element in deciding courses of action. Isocrates gives behavioral advice based not on what was “right or wrong”, but on what was “noble or disgraceful”. “The promise of honor and threat of disgrace [were] prominent goads to pursue a certain kind of life and to avoid many alternatives.”
Christianity, of course, has argued in reply that Jesus’ death was an honorable act of sacrifice for the good of others. However, that sort of logic only works if you are already convinced by other means that what you believe in is the truth.
So, why then has Christianity succeeded at all. The ignominy (deep personal humiliation and disgrace) of a crucified savior was a deterrent to the founding of a Christian belief. Why, then, were there any Christians at all? At best, this should have been a movement that had only a few strange followers (the disciples), and then died out within decades, left as a philosophical footnote, if it was mentioned at all.
The historical reality of the crucifixion cannot be denied. To survive, Christianity should have either turned Gnostic (relied on knowledge of Jewish spiritual truths), or else not bothered with Jesus at all, and merely made him into the movement’s first martyr for a higher moral ideal within Judaism. It would have been absurd to suggest, to either Jew or Gentile, that a crucified being was worthy of worship or would have died for our sins.
There is an explanation: Christianity succeeded because from the cross came victory, and after death came resurrection. The shame of the cross turns out to be one of Christianity’s most incontrovertible proofs!
[i] http://www.amazon.com/Crucifixion-Facets-Martin-Hengel/dp/080061268X p.22, $2.99 Kindle edition