Jesus dies on the cross. He was crucified. Executed. Murdered. Killed. Tortured to death.
We don’t know who invented crucifixion as a form of execution. Some historians suggest a likely candidate was the Carthagian empire in the third or fourth century BC. Today we’d call it Tunisia. Even by ancient standards it was a savage regime. Its leaders used barbarism as a means of keeping its own people in subjection, and its neighbours at bay. The most famous son of Carthage was Hannibal, famous for taking a herd of warrior elephants across both the Pyrenees and Alps and less famous for using those same elephants to trample his opponents to death, using them much as modern soldiers use tanks.
Crucifixion was last used on an industrial scale by Islamic State during the recent civil war in Syria, because it was such a horrendously painful form of execution that it inspired terror and hence obedience. The previous mass murder by crucifixion occurred during the Armenian genocide of 1915. Under Henry VIII, a man could be executed for stealing 12 pence — a shilling — or taking five loaves of bread. While they did not use crucifixion, in parts of England the Tudors killed almost one sixth of the population.
Amnesty International suggest that Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are responsible for carrying out 85% of all reported death sentences worldwide. These countries know that illing your opponents is a good way of keeping order and getting rid of enemies. Interestingly, an early dictator of Athens was once asked why he sentenced so many criminals to death, and replied that he killed everyone because he couldn’t think of anything worse to do to them. That’s how Draco gave his name to our language because we still talk of someone, something, as being ‘Draconian’ if it’s excessively harsh.
Like people through the ages, most of us today are afraid of death. We avoid death at all costs … quite literally. For example, the NHS spends a large proportion of its budget on treating people in the last few months of their lives, keeping them alive, trying to prevent them dying.
We talk of something bad as being ‘a fate worse than death’, but can anything be worse than death? For a Christian, death is not necessarily a bad thing at all. True, we leave the people we love and the process of dying might be very unpleasant; but we are joining the God of love. We know this God through the relationship that is faith. That’s why John Wesley famously said of the early Methodists, ‘Our people die well’. He meant they were not afraid to die.
Jesus dies on the Cross and his earthly life come to an end. Well … for a short time it does. He returns to life. Death was not the end for Jesus. We too die, and death is not the end for us: like Jesus, we too die and then enter a new form of life.