Home > Church Calendar, Good Friday, Herbert McCabe, Meditations > Reflections on Good Friday

Reflections on Good Friday

The following is a re-post of a Good Friday reflection I wrote last year.

See also my previous post: Reflections on Holy Thursday

Recently, I have heard a lot of complaints about so-called penal substitutionary atonement. Now it is important to remember that there is no one way to understand “the atonement” or God’s saving work in Christ. Certainly, some ways of understanding the atonement are better than others. However, I do suspect that penal substitutionary atonement is usually misrepresented and not all that well understood. There may very well be problems with this “theory,” but probably all theories of atonement are problematic precisely because they are always theories. God’s saving work in Christ is truly a mystery. This is not to say that we cannot reflect on it or attempt to articulate what it might be about, but our language and our analogies will always fail. To be sure, we can say that God in no way punishes his Son. The Father is nothing but “well pleased” with the Son. I think that we can also say that the Father is not interested in divine child abuse. Yet, the Father “knew” the Son would be killed because he knew his Son was entering a crucifying world, a world that rejects God. As Herbert McCabe notes, “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human” (93). Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause. We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus not the Father. We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death -by crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point. God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.

Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed. He posed a challenge to the ruling powers, to the establishment and to each individual and he continues to do so -and we continue to respond by crucifying him. The cross signifies humanity’s rejection of God and, indeed, of all humanness. It reveals the depth of our sin. Jesus pours his heart out and quite literally his blood for the sake of humanity. This is an invitation to love, to enter into a relationship with a person who is love.


The cross reveals that each of us reject God, we reject love daily, this is what is meant by original sin. This rejection is built into the very structures of the society we have constructed. As McCabe states, “So the cross shows up our world for what it really is, what we have made of it. It is a world in which it is dangerous, even fatal, to be human; a world structured by violence and fear. The cross shows that whatever else may be wrong with this or that society, whatever may be remedied by this or that political or economic change, there is a basic wrong, persistent through history and through progress: the rejection of the love that casts out fear, the fear of the love that casts out fear, the fear that without the backing of terror, at least in the last resort, human society and thus human life cannot exist” (97).

It is important to note that Jesus refuses to take up arms, to resort to violence in the building of his new society, the church, which is to be defined by self-giving love, forgiveness, and the sharing of life together. Instead, he trusts in the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet, he was killed. Jesus on the cross represents the failure of human life. The cross shows us the reality that all of our efforts to love, to struggle against the oppressors of this world, finally end in failure, in death. We continue to struggle just as Jesus did out of obedience and love, but even despite some gains we will continue to fall short. It is important to remember that whatever the political significance of Jesus’ death may be it did not transform the world. Killers continue to kill. Torturers continue to torture. The establishment continues to oppress the weak and marginalize the poor. McCabe notes that Jesus’ prayer to the Father is “to work through his failure” (100). “Before his death Jesus had tried, but in the end failed, to bring the Spirit of love to a small group of disciples; now through him the Father pours the Spirit through the world; by this the world is to be transformed into a community of love, the Kingdom of God” (100). Thus, the Father’s response to the prayer of Jesus is the resurrection.

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  1. April 10, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    The Cross does more than reveal that we reject God and reject love. Of course it does do that, but it reveals that the Son offered himself in sacrifice for our sins, along Hebraic cultic lines, as Lamb and High Priest. He intercedes on our behalf because he fulfilled our debt — he is our righteousness, i.e., a righteousness not our own, extra nos. All the benefits that we receive — justification and sanctification — are because of his penal substitutionary atonement, which itself derives its value from the holiness of God.

  2. April 10, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Your biases are showing.

  3. Lee
    April 11, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    I really liked this reflection. What’s the Herbert McCabe work that you’re citing?

  4. April 11, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks Lee. The work is God Matters.

  5. April 12, 2009 at 9:49 am

    “…The Father’s response to the prayer of Jesus is the resurrection…”
    Wow! That’s a backpack.

  6. April 12, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Yeah, I try to put my biases front and center.

    The gospel is incomprehensible to me without penal substitutionary atonement (along classical evangelical and Reformed lines). I’d be an agnostic without it.

  7. April 12, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    @ -Kevin-

    Very interesting.

    As a recovering ‘evangelical’, I’d now be an agnostic if I still believed in the doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement. The gospel is not comprehensible to me with the psa.

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