FOR hundreds of millions of Christians around the world, Good Friday is the most solemn day in the church calendar. It is the time when they recall and often re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus. In Rome there is a torch-lit procession, led by the Pope, in which 14 stages in the agonising drama are remembered. Orthodox Christians, whose Easter celebrations move about in a different system, will mark the event in a week’s time with spectacular ceremonies. But apart from the obvious point that it leads onto the Resurrection of Christ two days later, many Christians would struggle to put into words the exact meaning of Good Friday’s drama.

That is partly because over the centuries, the faith’s most influential thinkers have disagreed on the matter. They generally concur in regarding the execution of their faith’s founder not merely as unjust and cruel punishment but as a kind of cosmic event which transformed the relationship between God and man, freeing humanity from the power of mortality. But how exactly does that liberation from death work? To that question, Christian theologians have offered several different answers.

Broadly, there are three schools of thought. One stresses that by undergoing death, Christ freed mankind through a decisive victory over the powers of darkness to which humanity was previously in thrall. (An elaboration of this theory holds that the devil was tricked by Christ’s death. The devil thought he was gaining a prize, but in the end it was his own power that was vanquished.) A second school, prominent in Western Christianity over the last millennium, presents Christ’s death as a kind of “satisfaction” offered to a God who has been offended by human sin. Anselm, a Catholic archbishop who died in 1109, argued that God’s honour had been injured and needed reparation. Protestant Reformers gave this idea a new twist by massively emphasising the concepts of punishment and debt. As they saw it, human wickedness had created an obligation which a just God was bound to call in, and which humanity alone could not discharge. Under this theory of “penal substitution” mankind could never have paid this vast moral debt, but God’s son did so instead, thus freeing man from its consequence which was death. A third, simpler way of thinking speaks of the moral influence which Jesus exercised through his loving life and self-sacrificing death. 

Disputes about all this still rage among today’s Christians. Evangelical Protestants, who are an influential force in the United States, put huge emphasis on the idea of penal substitution: the idea that God the Father had to impose a punishment for human sin, and that Jesus saved mankind by stepping in to endure that retribution. Some evangelicals see that doctrine as so basic to their faith that they cannot accept as Christian anyone who rejects it. Orthodox Christians, by contrast, have never been comfortable with penal substitution; their liturgy uses images of victory, ransom and cheating the devil. Some of today’s liberal Protestants are unhappy with penal substitution and they prefer to use a mixture of “victory” language and moral influence. Whatever happened on that hill in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, it was enough to keep people arguing for a long time.