Jesus' Crucifixion: What Was the Worst Part?

Of all the movies I’ve ever seen, the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan is the hardest scene I’ve ever had to watch.  The Hell of combat is depicted more realistically, and more tragically, than anything I’ve ever seen.  As hard as it is to watch, however, it is important and even good to do so: It is a vivid reminder of the tremendous sacrifices combat veterans have made in defending our freedom.

What was the worst part of Jesus’ Crucifixion?  As I’ve outlined in several previous blogs, Roman crucifixion included a number of demonically-devised tortures.  Cicero, who had seen a number of crucifixions firsthand, called it “that most cruel and disgusting penalty”, “the worst extremes of tortures.” 

Personally, having studied a variety of forensic analyses of Jesus’ crucifixion over the years, I think that the scourging was the worst part.  The Gospels give us precious little detail about Jesus’ scourging at the hands of His executioners.  Matthew, Mark, and John barely mention it, simply noting that Jesus was scourged before quickly moving on to describe Him being led to Golgotha to be crucified.  Luke omits any mention of Jesus’ scourging at all.  Many scholars believe this is because, even though he was well aware Jesus had been scourged, he thought it too unseemly to mention.  He couldn’t bear the thought of Jesus, the Son of God, the merciful and compassionate Savior he had come to love, being debased so violently.    

The reason for such scant references to Jesus’ scourging is easy to see.  Everyone in that day was familiar with the horror of scourging.  Most had likely witnessed it, or, at the very least, heard the stories.  And all were terrorized by the prospect of it.  That was the point.  This is how the Romans kept people in line.  So no one reading the Gospels would need to have the graphic, grueling, grotesque details of it rehearsed for them.  They knew all too well how “cruel and disgusting” it was.  Just the mention of it would conjure up images that would cause the most stouthearted to wince.  And, because it was their beloved Lord being subjected to it, likely cry.

But while the Gospels are lacking in detail, several ancient sources give us a good idea of how bad scourging was.  Written in the mid-Second Century, the Martyrdom of Polycarp (2.2) describes people who were “so torn by whips” that their “veins and arteries” became visible.  Toward the end of the First Century, the Jewish historian Josephus tells us in his Jewish Wars about a man who, in the period prior to the Temple’s destruction in 70 A.D., was whipped to the bone in Jerusalem by one of Pilate’s successors.  In a different passage, Josephus also reports on a group that was whipped so brutally their intestines were exposed. (JW 6.304; 2.612 respectively)   

This was the intended effect.  Prior to most crucifixions, the Romans scourged—i.e., violently whipped—the condemned.  In the most severe instances, when they wanted to hasten death on the Cross, they whipped their victim between 80 to 120 times.  Such was the case in Jesus’ circumstance—the Romans wanted to avoid sparking riots by leaving exposed bodies hanging in agony during the Sabbath which would gravely offend Jewish sensibilities.  Since the soldiers in charge of the scourging were expert at bringing their victim to the point of death without killing them, they could insure the victim wouldn’t linger on the Cross for two to three days as was usually the case.  So, Jesus’ executioners administered the most extreme form of scourging the Romans had devised, using what was called a “flagrum” or “flagellum”, which was a handle with three leather thongs, or at times ropes, affixed to it.  At the end of each strand fragments of bone or, more often, tiny “dumbbell” shaped pieces of metal—led—were attached.  The soldiers were adept at striking at such an angle and with such force that the straps would wrap around one side of the back and the bone or “dumbbells” would imbed themselves into the exposed flesh.  Then the soldier would violently pull the straps across the back to inflict maximum damage, literally, tearing the flesh to pieces.  Repeating this over and over again would rip the backside of the victim to shreds, even, as our ancient sources attest, to the extent that they would expose arteries, internal organs, and bone.  It was a gruesome, gruesome thing.      

But as excruciating as the scourging was for Jesus, the Gospels reveal to us that it wasn’t the worst torture He suffered.  Neither was the crucifixion.  Nor the denial and betrayal and abandonment by His disciples.  As Mark 15:34 reveals, the worst torture Jesus suffered was the pain of feeling abandoned by God, where He cries out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

In case you’re wondering whether Jesus actually uttered these words from the Cross, a simple historical analysis can establish that it is highly likely He did.  Heroic figures of the time faced death very differently. Greco-Roman heroes went to their deaths’ boldly, courageously.  Socrates, for example, exhibits no fear as he faces death.  He even waxes “philosophical” about it—since no one knows what the experience entails, he argues that we can’t know that it doesn’t turn out to be the “greatest of all goods.”  Thus, he reasons, there is no reason to fear it.  Likewise, the Jewish Martyrs faced death heroically.  In the Maccabean revolt, for example, all seven brothers remain defiant as they are being tortured to death, expressing their unshakable confidence that God will vindicate them.  After being burned to the bone and about to die, Eleazar prays only to inform God that he has endured to the end, even though he could have saved himself. (4 Maccabees 6:1-30)  Closer contemporaries of Jesus and the early church also face their deaths’ heroically.  Around 135 A.D., Rabbi Akiba is put to death as the Romans squash the last real Jewish uprising.  As he dies, Rabbi Akiba famously recites the Shema Israel, laughing to his final breath where he is heard to utter the word “One”, reflecting, even in death, his absolute trust in the One God of Israel.  Even Christian martyrs go to their deaths’ heroically.  Look no further than Stephen, the first martyr, who, even while he is being stoned to death, prays to Jesus, proclaiming boldly that he sees Jesus about to receive him into His eternal kingdom. (Acts 6:8-7:60) 

Even if some or all of these examples are embellished depictions and not really how these figures actually died, in the lore of the time, at the very least, in the face of death, heroic figures always express a  a “bring it on” mentality.  By contrast, Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane to have “this cup” pass Him by.  Jewish and Christian heroes consistently proclaim an abiding confidence in God not having abandoned them in their moment of need.  Jesus shockingly however, cries out to God in anguished disillusionment.  Bitter disappointment.  Agonized betrayal.  The best way to capture the sentiment of His words to the Father are along the lines of:  How could YOU—of all people—do this to ME—of all people, your “beloved” Son! 

And even if, as some argue, He was invoking all of Psalm 22 with these words, a Psalm that ends in trust, He still expresses a moment of actually feeling abandoned.  Psalm 22 is, after all, a Psalm of Lament, complaint.  So, even if He trusts His Father unto death, at least at one point during the crucifixion He felt, and gave poignant expression to, this angst, the very abandonment of God.

So, Jesus’ words in the face of death, the last words He utters according to Mark and Matthew, would have been beyond embarrassing to the Early Church.  Thus, we can be very certain that they never would have found their way into the Gospels if they had not been a firm and widely-known part of the historical record.  This is corroborated by the fact that these words are recorded in the Gospels in Aramaic—the language Jesus spoke—as well as Greek.  Since this rarely happens, as for example when Mark records Jesus addressing His Father as Abba, scholars tend to judge them as Jesus’ own words.  So, in that moment, we know that Jesus actually felt the abandonment of God. 

Since love is the best human experience we can have, for us, being abandoned by someone we love dearly is the worst thing we can experience.  Moreover, in times of suffering, the deepest agony we often experience is feeling that God has abandoned us.  But for Jesus, the experience of abandonment was infinitely worse.  Because, from all eternity, Jesus only knew the infinite love of the Trinity.  So, in His momentary experience of abandonment, He experienced an infinite loss.  His suffering was of an infinite magnitude, something we can’t even begin to comprehend.

People often struggle with the Atonement.  What Jesus was doing on the Cross.  How it takes care of our sin.  How He could pay the debt for, take on Himself, absorb the sin of the world.  But I think we get tripped up by the word “sin”.  In our culture, sin has taken on a meaning it never had back then.  Sin back then simply meant “to miss the mark”.  In both Hebrew and Greek that’s simply what the word sin meant—to miss the mark. 

In our time, the word “sin” is normally taken to refer to moral impurity, usually focused on sexual matters.  But for Jesus, the word sin would have meant not living up to who you are meant to be as a human being made in the image of God.  It would have meant not loving God and those around us the way God created us to.  And I think all of us have a profound sense of not doing that, of falling short in that way, of being way more self-absorbed and self-focused than we know we should be.  Than we want to be.  It’s not just that we hurt and disappoint others and find ourselves letting other people down.  We constantly let ourselves down.  We constantly disappoint ourselves.  We constantly fall short of who we want to be.  I think we’re acutely aware of our “sin”.  But because that word has become so problematic, I think we need to look at what Jesus is doing on the Cross from a different angle to make it intelligible. 

If we focus instead on suffering, the meaning of the Cross comes into sharper focus.  As many great thinkers have insisted, if God really loves us, then God has to suffer with us.  Like a parent who loves a child, who suffers whenever their child does, and even more so, a God of love will suffer whatever we are subjected to, even more so. 

And, in fact, this is exactly what Jesus says He does in Matthew 25:31-46 when He declares that whatever we do the least of our brothers and sisters we do to Him.  This means that, when we sin, when we fall short in the many ways that we do, whether we inflict some pain on somebody else or we callously fail to help someone who has a need, when we’re indifferent to them, we are doing this to God.  Precisely because God loves us, whatever we fail to do for the least of our sisters or brothers, whatever we do them, God feels.  Absorbs.  Suffers, as well. 

Since God loves us infinitely more than a parent loves their child, He feels all that we do.  He absorbs all our pain.  He suffers with us.  All of us.  All of our pain.  All that humanity ever suffers.

If you think about it, the suffering of the world is pretty much the sin of the world.  It’s sin which is, essentially, the root cause of suffering.  It’s sin which causes most of the suffering we see around us.  And it’s sin which, ultimately, is often the cause of suffering we don’t associate with sin.  It’s easy to see how sin is the cause of a situation like Ukraine where human volition, namely Putin—although he has a lot more people conspiring with him—is the cause of suffering.  But even in cases which don’t seem to have anything to do with human sin, we’re finding out more and more that things like cancer, for instance, are caused by things we’ve done, the way we’ve neglected or damaged the environment, the toxins we’ve released into it.  Suffering was brought into the world through sin; sin—human greed, cruelty, indifference, self-absorption, etc.—is the root cause of the vast majority of the suffering we experience.  The suffering of the world is intimately related and inextricably connected to the sin of the world. 

And this is exactly what Jesus is absorbing on the Cross.  He’s taking the suffering of the world on Himself—which means He’s also taking the sin of the world on Himself at the same time.  This is the only way for God to forgive and continue to love fallen creatures through all the suffering our “missing the mark” causes.   

A God of love can’t “just forgive” as those who protest that the Cross is unnecessary, gratuitously violent, a primitive superstition, assert.  Since love demands that God suffer with those He loves, God must absorb all the suffering sin causes.  And in that moment of agony, that moment of the most excruciating agony Jesus experienced on the Cross, the very abandonment of God, where He experienced an infinite loss, He’s able to take onto Himself all the sin and suffering humans are responsible for—past, present, and future. 

Because it’s so abstract, it's hard to get our minds around the infinite loss Jesus experiences in the moment of His cry of dereliction.  In our own experience of human abandonment we might get a small inkling of what He endured.  In our own experience of having felt abandoned by God during times of suffering we might get a tiny sense of what He felt.  But we can’t really get our minds around an infinite anything, let alone an infinite loss. 

That’s why I think it’s helpful to look at something like the scourging, to look at the physical torture that Jesus suffered.  It’s much easier for us to relate to that.  To understand that.  To wince at that.  To find that too hard to bear.  But when we look at that, when we face that, when we confront that, we realize that as bad as that is it doesn’t come close to what Jesus endured on the Cross for us.  His physical torture wasn’t nearly as torturous as the infinite abandonment He experienced for us.

That opening scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan is so difficult to sit through because it vividly depicts how ugly, how tragic combat is.  And yet there’s something really important about watching that scene.  As hard as it is to watch, there’s something really good about it.  Because, when you watch that scene, you begin to see what combat veterans have gone through.  You see the sacrifices they have made for our freedom. 

In the same way, this Holy Week, this Good Friday, I encourage you to contemplate the tortures Jesus suffered, whether it be the scourging or some other element of the Crucifixion.  Just sit with it.  Because, as hard as it is to look at, to face it; as much as it makes you wince; as unbearable as it is to think about God incarnate, or any human being for that matter, having to suffer that horribly, it reminds us of how much He loves us.  Contemplating the physical torture Jesus suffered helps us better understand the metaphysical magnitude of the sacrifice He made for us. 

That’s what He did for you. 

That’s how much He loves you.

I pray that you have a wonderful, powerful, and transformative Holy Week and an amazing Easter!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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