Why Did the World Want Jesus Dead Even Though He Was Innocent?

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Bertrand Russell was one of the great intellects of the twentieth century. I remember someone saying that his famous Principles of Mathematics had only ever been read by a handful of very bright people. Russell was an atheist, and in 1927 he decided to take on Christianity with his booklet, Why I Am Not a Christian.

If you read the book you will be struck by how this brilliant man uses such puerile arguments. For example: 

The more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with all its tortures. (Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian [Touchstone, 1967], p. 20)

A brief study, however, shows that the Inquisitions were perpetuated by those who manifestly did not follow the teachings of Christ. More than once Russell forgets that any person may call themselves a Christian and yet disobey Christ's commands to love one’s enemy, to hate war, and to help the suffering. The true Christian, who obeys Jesus’ teaching, will strive to do these things.

Russell decided also to attack Jesus Christ himself:

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. (p. 17)

It never occurred to this great and brilliant mind that Jesus may have believed in hell because he had certain knowledge of its existence. And he had certain knowledge of its existence because hell describes the punishment that Jesus himself would sentence people to in his office as Judge of the universe (Matt. 25:41-46). It would have been cruel for Jesus, knowing that there is a hell, to not have warned people about it. 

To get the full picture, you will have to read Russell’s booklet for yourself. The question is, what caused this genius to write off Jesus and to risk trashing, with such thoughtless arguments, his towering reputation as an intellectual? It almost seems that he wanted Jesus not to exist. And it wasn’t just Lord Russell.

Why, for example, have we changed BC/AD to BCE/CE, “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini” (year of our Lord) to “Before the Common Era” and “Common Era?” The new terms beg the question, when did the “Common Era” begin? What has it been 2,019 years since? 

The answer is that the “Common Era” began with Jesus, and it has been 2,019 years since Jesus’ birth. Thus, the removal of Jesus from the dating system seems entirely gratuitous. 

It is almost as though we preferred that Jesus not exist.

I knew a young man who was a zealous believer. He married a strong Christian woman and even thought about the ministry. Then his brother gave him a book that claimed to disprove the Christian faith. I read the book, and it was full of the most thoughtless and abject nonsense. Yet, this young man lapped up this rubbish and threw away his faith overnight. It almost seemed that he wanted Jesus not to exist.

As Christians we so often face that moment of temptation and cold-blooded decision, “Will I deny Jesus and do what I want to do, or will I deny self and do what Jesus wants me to do?” And too often we decide against Jesus. We act at that moment as though he is not alive and Lord of the universe. We act as though he is not our Savior and Lord, alive in our hearts right now.

Sometimes the Christian life seems too hard. 

It is almost at that moment that we would prefer that Jesus did not exist. Sometimes the Christian life seems too hard. We look at unbelievers and envy their (apparently) careless spirit. “They don’t live with someone always looking over their shoulder.” Would not life be much easier if Jesus was simply not there? 

Does any of this describe you? The common thread, manifested in different forms and degrees, is a heart’s desire that Jesus not exist. This mindset would only surprise us if we had never read Matthew’s account of the trial of Jesus. 

First, Jesus himself knew that he was innocent.

Matthew 27:11-26 describes the conviction of a man who was absolutely innocent:

Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. (Matt. 27:11-14; all Scripture quotes from NIV)

Jesus was silent because at that moment he was actively giving himself to death:

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Isa. 53:7) 

Moreover, Jesus remained silent because he knew that he had no charge to answer:

“Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” (John 8:46)

The Bible always condemns the refusal to acknowledge sin as yet more sin (1 John 1:8-10). But Jesus had no sin to confess; he knew his innocence.

Second, Pilate knew that the chief priests knew that Jesus was innocent.

Pilate forced the chief priests to choose between executing Jesus and the known terrorist Barabbas, because he thought that this would compel them to release the man they knew was innocent: 

Now it was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. (Matt. 27:15-18)

But things didn’t go to plan: 

But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.  “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” (Matt. 27:20-21)  

Third, Pilate’s wife knew that Jesus was innocent.

In Matthew 27:19 we read, 

While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”  

Matthew paints this historical snapshot, so dramatic and pathetic, in a single sentence. Picture Pilate in the judge’s seat, poised to hand down his sentence. Picture his wife, waking up in a cold sweat, her heart racing. See her scribble a frantic note to her husband, rushing it to him by a slave. We are not told what she dreamed. We do know that it caused her acute suffering. In some way it convinced her that her husband was about to condemn an innocent man.

Fourth, Pilate himself knew that Jesus was innocent.

Pilate is troubled. Though the Romans were stern as iron and as cruel as nature, they prided themselves on their justice. He pleads for Jesus’ release. He fails:

“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man's blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (Matt. 27:23-24)  

So Pilate washed his hands, symbolically separating himself from the sentence that he was about to utter. 

Fifth, the crowd knew Jesus was innocent.

When Pilate asks the reason why he should crucify a manifestly good man, they do not reply with facts and information, but only a louder cry, Staurōthētō! Crucify him! 

Sixth, the world ever since has seen that Jesus is innocent.

Whenever Mr., Kennedy, my wonderful year-seven teacher, heard a student plead, “It wasn’t me!” he would reply, “There was only one person who was perfect.” I don’t think Mr. Kennedy was a Christian, but we all knew he was talking about Jesus. We all knew that Jesus was “a perfect man.”

Ever since the crucifixion took place, the world has seen (the Bertrand Russells being the exceptions that prove the rule) that Jesus is innocent. Though mountains of mud have been flung at him through the ages, not a single fleck has stuck to him. Jesus stands through time as a good and innocent man. Yet, there was such determination to crucify him.

They chose to free a terrorist instead of him. They bayed for his crucifixion. They lusted for his blood like a wolf pack. They cursed themselves to secure his condemnation. “We are prepared to be cursed by God and burn in hell, if only Jesus be crucified!” That was the chief priests and elders. That was the crowd. That has been humanity ever since, as we have seen. In fact, with “the crowd” Matthew holds up a mirror. The crowd who cried “Crucify him!” is the fallen part of me and you.

The question is, why? Why did the world want Jesus dead?

Why has humanity ever since preferred that Jesus not exist? The apostle John tells us:

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (John 3:19-20) 

And Jesus himself said to his disciples,

“The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.” (John 7:7)

No one likes being told off—especially when it is true, especially when it exposes your inner self. No one likes being told that they do not deserve anything good, that they deserve the opposite. 

Hear the shrieks and howls over Israel Folau’s internet post, quoting 1 Corinthians 6:9-10,

Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 

No one then liked to hear Jesus’ condemnation of the world, nor does anyone today. “Crucify him!”

But why does Jesus show us our sin?

Jesus is the good physician. He loves us. He wants us to know that apart from him we are spiritually dead. And not only does he diagnose our condition, he has given himself to be the cure—to be our life. In fact, the means that we used to attempt to silence him are the very means that he used to save us. Every blow of fist and rod and scourge, each one intended to silence him, was for us a blow of healing: “By his stripes, we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).

The nails that intended to fix him to the cross until he died brought a flow of blood that has washed away all the sin of his people.

“They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev 7:14)

And the spear in the side, the intended coup de grâce, brought a flow of blood and water that would purge and atone the nations.

We cannot silence Jesus.

The astronomers tell us that the whole universe emits a constant dull thunder, a “galactic radio noise,” inaudible to our ears but detectable by certain radio receivers. No one can silence this thunder, because it pours out from the very fabric of the universe. You would have to annihilate the universe first.

We might wish that Jesus did not exist. We might try to silence him in our own clumsy way. But we never will. He remains. His words remain. His condemnation of our sin remains. His offer of redemption remains. Let us just shut up and listen.

And then we will hear those awesome words,

“For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28)

May God turn the hearts of us all from the cry of “Crucify him!” to “Praise Him!”

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Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.

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