A Good Friday Reflection – Did the Crucifixion Turn the Disciples Into Instant Atheists?

I’m staying with the theme of yesterday’s post of looking at Passion Week through the eyes of the disciples and can’t help but wonder what they must have been thinking throughout Passion Week.

I’m guessing if I was among the original Twelve, I would have loved being a part of Palm Sunday. Here’s Jesus, at the height of his popularity, getting a parade as he enters Jerusalem. Ancient cities typically only did that for war heroes, royalty, political superstars and the Beatles because music history people always try to convince us of their popularity. But Jesus doesn’t really fit any of that. Sure, many were hoping that We would lead a rebellion against the Roman occupiers but many saw him as a teacher and miracle worker. Still, it must have felt good for the disciples to see people waving palm branches and throwing their cloaks on the road as they came down Main Street.

Jesus, in typical rock star style, continues to anger the religious establishment, chases the money changers out of the Temple, rebukes them and is loved even more by the everyday guy. Though there’s plotting by the Pharisees and other religious leaders, I’m wondering if to the disciples, Jesus might have felt untouchable at this point. Heading into what would be forever known as the Last Supper, I am struck by the emotional whiplash the disciples are about to experience.

It’s common for us modern day types to be critical of the disciples’ lack of faith. “How did they miss it – Jesus was right there with them!” Well yeah, but if you didn’t have the benefit of 2000 years of Christian history/theology/practice and have already settled in your heart that the resurrection of Jesus truly happened, well, you may have missed it too.

I mean when Jesus gets betrayed by Judas and arrested by all these Roman soldiers and taken away, even with the brewing tension, I can’t think the disciples really saw it all coming like that. When we read the text, we see the disciples singing hymns and falling asleep in Gethsemane after their big supper. If they truly sensed danger, they’d be in hiding and fortifying their positions in case of an attack by the Jewish establishment. Could they really have expected a battalion of Roman soldiers to descend upon them in a garden while Jesus was praying?

I wonder how they pieced the news the next day. How much did they know about Jesus going from trial to trial? I imagine they kept hearing rumors and updates like “No one knows what they’re going to do with them but the Pharisees want him dead.” It must have seemed like an over-reaction on some level. They were after Jesus from the beginning but I assume they were more concerned with a zealot stabbing Jesus or possibly a stoning from these old Pharisaical geezers but a Roman crucifixion? They could fight or outrun any of that, right?

If I was one of them I would have started thinking backwards. How did we end up here? Certainly, looking back on Jesus’ words, particularly the ones cloaked in his parables were subversive towards Rome. But a crucifixion, I mean it wasn’t too long ago when we were entertaining the idea that Jesus might be the Messiah sent by God Himself. At least Peter said so, “You are the Christ!” Further, Jesus kept saying He was “the Son of God.” If that’s possible, how does God get arrested, found guilty and sentenced to crucifixion?

I imagine when the disciples heard that Jesus was carrying his cross to Golgotha that they tried to find their way to the streets to catch a glimpse. Some were in hiding, understandably.  But some had to see for themselves. As you may know, the idea of a resurrection was not built into the Jewish mindset. I wonder if a few kept a distance while trying to take it all in, these last moments. Could this really be happening? It must have been so surreal.

Then the actual crucifixion, the spikes being nailed to the wood with His flesh in between. They looked at all the suffering, the cheering from the crowd that we thought were on our side, the religious leaders satisfied but looking stoic, all the blood, the nakedness, the cries, the words, the gasping for breath, the inevitable affixation, all the defeat. I imagine as they disciples looked on they felt their heart beating in their ears. I imagine their grief had them in denial. And I have to imagine in their pain and confusion, they must have felt like fools for ever believing in all the “Father’s Kingdom” nonsense.

If it were me at that moment, I think I would have felt betrayed by the belief in God, in hoping for some type of supernaturalism, I think I would have felt scammed by Jesus. Yes, I think I would have become an atheist in an instant. I know this because while I have never called myself an atheist, my doubts have often pre-qualified me to be one.

I think my reaction would be to go into hiding, disassociate, try to revaluate what I was going to do now, not just for the rest of my life but next week. First step has to be get out of Jerusalem when the Passover crowd leaves. I think I’d head south and then east, definitely in the opposite direction of my home in Galilee. It would be all about preservation of self now.


  1. […] you know I’ve been trying to reflect on Holy Week through the lens of the disciples (here and here). Among the reasons is its my attempt to look at a familiar story with fresh eyes. I know that […]

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