Who's to Blame for Jesus' Death?

by Sarah Sumner, Ph.D.

It’s an old story, but in case you haven’t heard, there was once a little boy who often came to church with his family. One day his teacher at church asked him a serious question: “Where is Jesus?” When the boy said nothing, she asked him again, “Where is Jesus? You know where He is.” Suddenly the boy burst into tears, took off running, and hid himself in another room. After the parents were notified, the father found the boy and asked him tenderly, “Son, what’s wrong? Why are you hiding?” The boy sniffed and answered, “Jesus is missing, and now I’m in trouble because my teacher thinks that I know where He is.”

I recount this little story because it illustrates the fear that people sometimes feel, not because they are guilty, but rather because they feel guilty about something they are not responsible for. Indeed, there are many Christians — and perhaps a great number of Jews — who, in the wake of all the marketing for Mel Gibson’s new film The Passion of The Christ, either feel guilty or accused of something they are not responsible for. On Saturday, February 7, my husband and I participated in the pre-screening of The Passion. The event was held at Azusa Pacific University, where I serve as associate professor of theology and ministry. Mel Gibson was there in person.

Former atheist and journalist Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ, was there too. He interviewed Mel Gibson live on campus for about an hour. Many people know that for several months prior to the debut of the film, both Protestants and Catholics have praised The Passion for its artistry and relative biblical accuracy. Some critics, however, have said that the film is anti-Semitic. When Strobel asked Gibson about this, it was noted that those who said the film is anti-Semitic voiced their criticism both after and before they saw the movie. This was no surprise.

For as with other generations, people in our day are wrestling with the uncomfortable perennial question, “Who is to blame for Jesus’ death?” Three main answers are typically given. First, some say that the blame belongs to people who are Jewish. Second, some say that the Romans bear the blame since they physically nailed Jesus to the cross. Third, others argue that everyone is to blame since the sins of the world occasioned Jesus’ death. So who’s responsible? Is it the Jews or the Romans or everyone altogether? Many claim the fault lies with the Jews. No doubt, it is true that the Scriptures make plain the historical fact that Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, along with many others delivered Jesus up to the Roman government. This is an historical fact.

For the Gospel accounts are narratives, not polemics; they are written by firsthand witnesses who saw what happened to Jesus with their own eyes. Thus historically it is true that the Jewish people disowned Him, but spiritually something else was going on simultaneously with regard to the sovereign plan of God. Nevertheless, it is common for people throughout church history to magnify the story of the Jews’ part in His death as if to say that Jesus was a Christian who was bullied by the Romans and the Jews. But Jesus was not a Christian; His followers are Christians. He Himself was a Jewish rabbi sent by God to fulfill the prophecies and also the law of the Old Testament.

When people blame the Jews for the death of Jesus Christ, sometimes they do so by appealing to the New Testament book of Acts. n Acts 3, Peter heals a lame man who was unable to walk from birth. Peter says to him, “In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene — walk!” Instantly the man’s feet and ankles were strengthened such that he began to leap with joy. Upon seeing him, all the people were filled with wonder and amazement.

But when Peter saw this, he replied to the people, “Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this? Or why do you gaze at us, as if by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers has glorified His servant Jesus, Whom you delivered up and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him” (Acts 3:12-13). The words are plain and simple. Peter said, “Men of Israel . . . you delivered up [Jesus] and disowned . . . Him.” To cite these words as a final indictment against all Jewish people is to misconstrue the message. Granted, the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day disowned Him, even after Pilate, the Roman governor, had decided to let Jesus off the hook. But Pilate, despite his high-minded decision, disowned Jesus too.

As a matter of fact, everyone — including Peter who is famous for denying that he even knew Jesus at all — fled, that is, disowned Him on the night of Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:50). Like Peter, Pilate dissociated himself from the death of Jesus Christ three times. Three different times Pilate publicly pronounced, “I find no guilt in this Man” (Luke 23:4, 14, 22). But the people put pressure on Pilate. Collectively they shouted, “Crucify, crucify Him!” When Pilate made efforts to release Him, the Jews cried out again saying, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar’s; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). Pilate, being Caesar's underling, found himself therefore caught in a political squeeze. That is not, however, to say that Pilate was forced to comply. But as it happened, when Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing and that a riot was breaking out, he took water and symbolically washed his hands in front of the multitude saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood” (Matt 27:24).

So does that mean Pilate was innocent? Or was he the most guilty of all? It appears from the biblical text that Pilate’s sin was less serious than that of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest. In John 19:11, Jesus says to Pilate, “. . . he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin.” The implication, then, is obvious. Caiaphas and Pilate both sinned. For Jesus did not say, “He who delivered Me up to you has the only sin.” He simply said that Caiaphas’ sin was greater. Though some might be eager to use this Bible verse to indict the Jewish people and assign all blame to them (or perhaps the bulk of the blame to them), that is a misguided response. For the issue, at root, has nothing to do with who sinned and how much. Yet many, many Christians mistakenly believe that it does.

A friend of mine, for instance, who was raised Catholic told me recently that she grew up believing that it was her fault that Jesus died — that because of her sins, she was personally responsible for His death. A different woman told me that she flat out refused to believe in Jesus specifically because she wanted no part in the guilt of having caused Him to be crucified. She said that she would rather deny the fact that He died on the cross at all than to take on such a weighty load of blame. Providentially, on the night before Mel Gibson came to APU, a Protestant Christian man (an elder in his church) just so happened to have told me that he knows it is his fault that Jesus suffered and died for his sins. Indeed, Mel Gibson himself has been saying the same thing. So here’s the question: What does the Bible say? Again, we are confronted by the facts.

For the Bible records the story of when Peter said to the Jews, “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene . . . this Man . . . Whom you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death” (Acts 2:22-23). Granted, it is true that both the Romans and the Jews sinned by having Jesus put to death. They sinned, and yet, that is not the same as saying it is their fault that Jesus died. No sinner is at fault for the death of Jesus. For those who disagree, it might be helpful to engage another question: Where in the Bible does it say that sinners are to blame for Jesus’ death? Nowhere. Nowhere does the Bible blame the Jews, or the Romans, or the Christians who count themselves guilty. On the contrary, the inspired Word of God says something quite shockingly different. Bear in mind that these are the exact words of Jesus.

He said that “no one” had the power to take His life. He said that no one — not the Jews, not the Romans, not the Christians, not the world, not even the devil — had the power to extinguish His life. Verbatim He said, “I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). Pilate did not understand this. Pilate thought Pilate had authority over Jesus. Thus Pilate said to Him, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus answered him saying, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it has been given you from above.” To paraphrase Jesus said, “Pilate, you’re not taking my life. I’m giving my life.” To miss this very point is to miss the Gospel message.

The Good News is that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. The gospel is that Jesus gave His life. He chose to die voluntarily. Some of us feel guilty (or defensive) because mistakenly, we believe that we are the cause of Jesus’ death. Mistakenly we see a cause and effect relationship that is not biblical. We see ourselves as the cause and Jesus’ death as the effect of our sin. But the cause of Jesus’ death is not our sin. The cause of Jesus’ death is Jesus’ love. Jesus’ love became manifest in the light of humanity’s need for salvation. Even so, our need was not the cause. Rather, our need was the occasion. In the context of our need, Jesus took the initiative to lay down His life on behalf of the whole world though none of us deserve to be so loved.

Because of His love, He made the decision to offer Himself to anyone in the world who might believe. The Gospel message is that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son Whom He did not have to give. The basic Gospel message is that Jesus laid down His life voluntarily even though He did not have to. It would not have been unjust for Him to allow the world, each and every person, to pay the full penalty of sin, for each of us to experience the wrath of God. (By the way, that is what hell is, an everlasting experience of God’s wrath). Jesus did not owe it to us to die. In other words, we are not entitled to salvation. It is fundamentally wrong to think that anybody’s sin somehow overpowered Jesus to the point that He had no choice but to die. The Bible says His death was utterly and completely gratuitous. It was His choice. His gift. His grace.

In fact, it took authority for Jesus to lay His life down. It took power for Him to surrender to the point of death. So what does that mean? It means it is not your fault that Jesus died on the cross. It means it is not the Jews’ fault, not the Romans’ fault, and not Mel Gibson’s fault either. Indeed, to focus on who’s to blame is to turn our focus away from Jesus and His love. I began by describing a little boy who ran away and hid because mistakenly he thought that Jesus was missing and that he himself was to blame. How many people have likewise been blaming themselves for the voluntary death of Jesus Christ? If so, then we have been self-absorbed. As a result, we have also developed a propensity to spend time unnecessarily trying to prove ourselves, absolve ourselves, hide ourselves, or escape ourselves. If this describes you, then hear the Gospel message: it is not your fault that Jesus died on the cross. You do not have to compensate for what He did for you. You do not have to earn God’s favor. Besides, it is impossible since there simply is no way to repay Him. The idea, rather, is for all of us to thank Him, love Him, model our lives after Him, and make it our ambition to exalt the Name of Christ above all. I was struck at the end of the interview when I heard Mel Gibson say, “You know, something’s happened to me in the process of making this film.

I’m an addicted guy, but I’m finding I don’t need that stuff anymore. I haven’t had a cigarette in a year.” What Mel Gibson is discovering is the power that resides in Jesus Christ. It is the power of forgiveness, the power of transformation, the power of God’s love that Jesus freely gives to the whole world.

Sarah Sumner, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Haggard School of Theology