Crucifixion, Failure, and the Revolution of Submission


Was the crucifixion of Christ a failure?
During his 2015 apostolic journey to the U.S., Pope Francis gave a homily at a vespers Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. During this homily, the pontiff said:

We can get caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management and outward success which govern the business world. … But the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes. To see and evaluate things from God’s perspective calls for constant conversion in the first days and years of our vocation and, need I say, it calls for great humility. The cross shows us a different way of measuring success. Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors. And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus … and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross. (Emphasis mine)

The Controversy that Shouldn’t Have Been

Now, Pope Francis does have a tendency to say things that cause people, especially traditionalists and political conservatives, to wince. At the same time, many of the same people would take issue with him if he said, “I like gelato.” And to be fair, like a basketball player who doesn’t commit fouls, a pope who never says anything controversial isn’t doing his job. But this statement shouldn’t have been controversial at all; not even Francis’ most virulent critics inside the walls should have objected to it. In fact, it shouldn’t have been necessary to add the words “humanly speaking.”

But not all Francis’ critics are inside the walls. Many Evangelicals will take issue with what he says because he’s the pope (and popes are almost by definition wrong about everything). That’s how I found out about this passage: A high-school classmate condemned Francis to Hell on Facebook for saying this. “No matter what context you put it in,” screams the unnamed author of On the Edge Again, “… the POPE clearly said JESUS failed at the cross[;] there is no excuse[] or explanation that can be offered to counter this statement that POPE FRANCIS said.”

Baloney. Context always matters because context helps us understand the author/speaker’s intent. Ironic and sarcastic statements often depend heavily on their context. To strip away the context is to risk misrepresenting the intent of the statement and does the author/speaker an injustice, which is why logicians consider out-of-context or selective quotation an informal fallacy. When it’s done deliberately, especially when creating “proof texts”, it’s a form of false witness. In this case, since the deprivation of context serves to portray Pope Francis as denying the Christian faith, we can consider it calumny (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2477).

Crucifixion as a Sign of Failure

From a merely human perspective, Jesus’ life did end in failure.

Crucifixion wasn’t a death awarded to heroes, great statesmen, or wealthy benefactors; it was reserved to slaves and non-Roman criminals, the lowest of the low. Roman citizens, if they were beaten, were struck on the legs with staves—painful, but not crippling. The Roman flagellum, on the other hand, had pieces of bone attached to the ends of its flails which could shred skin off the muscle. Forty lashes could kill a weakened man. Only very rarely—I think only in cases of parricide—were citizens scourged. Mostly slaves and non-Romans suffered this horror.

Crucifixion was a slow, torturous death. To breathe, you had to push up against the nail(s) in your feet or ankles, sheer agony. Death by asphyxia came either when you were too weak to keep pushing—which could be a matter of days—or when a soldier broke your legs so you could no longer push. While most depictions of the Passion show Jesus’ loins decently covered, the victims were usually naked so onlookers could gawk at and jeer about their physical defects.

The Romans meant crucifixion to be as humiliating as it was painful. They meant it to be an object lesson to others; the best example of this was Marcus Crassus’ staging the crucifixion of the Spartacan rebels along the Via Appia. By contrast, citizens were ordinarily beheaded or garroted in private; only the worst crimes were made public spectacles … at least, prior to the accession of Nero. The Sanhedrin knew this, and knew the people who witnessed Jesus’ death would count him damned: “… for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23; cf. Galatians 3:13).

Only the failures of the first-century Mediterranean world died by crucifixion.

“No Form or Majesty”

The wise man Simeon called Jesus a “sign which shall be contradicted” (Luke 2:34 DRA). To become the cornerstone, the builders had to reject it (Psalm 118:22; cf. Matthew 21:42).

Who was this Jesus person, anyway? Until three years before his death, he was a nobody, an obscure tradesman from the hick town of Nazareth in the rural region of Galilee. He had no prior reputation as a scholar, so far as we know. In his home town, he was dismissed as “the carpenter’s son”; i.e., no one of importance. Even his family didn’t think much of him. He had little money of his own, no house of his own. He was born among sheep and died among criminals … poor, lowly, and humble.

Even during his ministry, Jesus didn’t go out of his way to rub shoulders with the people who had what Ashkenazic Jews would later call yichus. Instead, he consorted with lowlifes—the poor, the sick, prostitutes, drunkards, and the despised tax collectors. One of the latter became one of his inner circle, which was filled with fishermen and other nondescript people. He even ministered to Samaritans and, once, the slave of a Roman centurion. His popular appeal, however, was ephemeral; the people who shouted “Hosanna!” on his entry into Jerusalem screamed “Give us Barabbas!” at his trial before Pilate.

For he grew up before him like a young plant,

    and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by others;

    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;

and as one from whom others hide their faces

    he was despised, and we held him of no account. (Isaiah 53:2-3)

… [T]hough he was in the form of God,

    [he] did not regard equality with God

    as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

    he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—

    even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

A Stumbling Block and Foolishness

Jesus’ crucifixion was a failure in human terms because, as St. Paul said, “… [T]he wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:19). Jesus didn’t come merely to save a self-appointed social-religious elite but rather to offer eternal life even to the dregs of humanity.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus preached an inversion of the human order: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last;” “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted;” “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He started, very sensibly, with the lowlifes because that’s where the sinners were: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Jesus spurned the scholars as “hypocrites” and denied that wealth is a mark of God’s favor.

Yet Jesus’ revolution was only indirectly a social revolution and not at all a political revolution. If anything, it was a revolution of submission, an exercise in civil obedience. He preached adherence to the Law of Moses “until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-20). He not only paid the temple tax but advised paying Roman taxes as well (Matthew 17:24-27, 22:21). He acknowledged (albeit grudgingly) the religious authority of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:2-3). Saint Paul later argued that civil authorities were servants of God in their own right (Romans 13:1-7). Jesus was not a first-century Che Guevara.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ “revolution of submission” turned the world upside down (cf. Acts 17:6):

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-25; emphasis mine)


“The cross shows us a different measure of success.” The world’s way of thinking accounts the crucifixion of Christ a failure because the world has false ideas of success. Wealth, power, fame, achievement—these things aren’t bad in themselves, but become false idols when they’re not subordinated to our true telos, our final cause or purpose: “… to serve and love God and offer all creation back to Him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 358). They’re things that “flesh and blood” (cf. Matthew 16:17; 1 Corinthians 15:50; Ephesians 6:12)—Man as mere creature, deprived of the grace of enlightenment—foolishly supposes can complete and perfect us.

That the world could account the Crucifixion a failure has been known by every Christian worthy of the title “saint” for 2,000 years. It can only be a scandal and a heresy to those Christians who know all about the Bible and little to nothing about the gospel. It’s not simply that they’ve missed Pope Francis’ point. They’ve missed Jesus’ point as well.

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16 thoughts on “Crucifixion, Failure, and the Revolution of Submission”

  1. The problem with the Pope’s statement is that it’s just not true. Jesus life did not end in failure.. failure at the cross. Because it didn;t end. He rose again. He died at the cross for us,, because he was the only one who could pay the penalty for sin, which is death. and rise again.. When you completely omit the most important part of his story., Then yes, it would have been a failure. Nothing about is life or death or resurrection was a failure. People comments, are all caught up in his death on the cross.. that’s not then end of the story. For some reason the Catholic Church has put more importance on The Crucifixion for our Salvation. But without the his resurrection. He death on the cross would have been a failure.

  2. This Pope is dividing the Church with his outrageous remarks. How do you think people are going to take a comment like this? What is the purpose of making such a statement? What is the true intention behind all of the controversial remarks this Pope has made over the years? He is not uniting us as Catholics in any way. Even though he may not have meant it in the context 99% of the people are taking it, it was an error in judgement, like so many have been. I would like to know the true intention of this Pope’s heart. I cannot judge, but I can question.

    1. Many of the Pope’s remarks wouldn’t be so “controversial” or “outrageous” if people heard or read them in context, at least through the official Vatican translations, and not through the distortions of the media — both the mainstream and alternative media. Within two hours after he was elected, the media stuck Pope Francis with the label “progressive” before he’d really had a chance to do anything, and ever since, both liberals and conservatives have interpreted his actions through the media’s “progressive pope” narrative frame. His remarks would also not be so “outrageous” or “controversial” if certain people would stop looking for booby traps and hidden agendas, and start giving him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll be the first to admit that Francis isn’t as prudent or as brilliant as his predecessors. On the other hand, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has been one of his most vocal supporters; no one outside the sedevacantist community has ever called him a heretic! And, as I said before, there would be people who would misconstrue his meaning if he said, “I like gelato.” If we were all forbidden to say anything that a malicious or suspicious person could misunderstand or distort, we wouldn’t be able to say anything.

  3. I’m with Martin. Jesus dying on the cross was a win no matter how you say it. It was all planned out. How exactly did he fail?

    1. I thought I’d laid it out fairly well: “The world’s way of thinking accounts the crucifixion of Christ a failure because the world has false ideas of success.” Are you saying you’re so filled with the Holy Spirit that you can’t understand worldly thinking? If so, I don’t know whether to applaud you or fear for you. For if you don’t understand the way the world thinks, how can you explain the triumph of the Cross to a person caught up in the way of the world?

    2. He doesn’t allow me to reply to his comments, but I can reply to yours. This is why the church is where it is. It’s not about the Gospel, but about our own way people see us and what we can gain from the world. Doesn’t matter how you spin it, what’s wrong is wrong.

      Matthew 12:36-37 
      I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
      Best part is, no matter what you will have to explain doesn’t matter which you are. When you’re a leader to Gods children your atonement is much worse, since had the word yet did not follow it. People may interpret as they wish, God says He was, is and will be do not take or add to the word. If I look how the church has allowed blasphemy, open agreement to sin and forgiving and even allowing it just to please people. The judgement that awaits them is scary, they’ve broken open commandments as if they’ve got the key to do so. Just to clarify, not certain denominations but many many different ones that have strayed I pray you repent or take what is awaiting.

    3. Martin, I still don’t get your objection. It seems to boil down to “How DARE the Pope to say that the worldly mind sees the Crucifixion as a failure!?” He dares to say it because it’s true — the worldly mentality doesn’t get the Crucifixion. Would it be any more or less shocking for him to say that atheists don’t believe God exists or that some people think life is an illusion? He was NOT saying the worldly mind is right to do so; in fact, he was reminding us that we’re called to a mindset that in many respects is 180 degrees away from the worldly way of thinking. That way of thinking leads us not only to opposition from the non-Christian world but also to division, dissent, and even heresy within our own ranks. And that way of thinking becomes no less dangerous or divisive by a priggish false piety that pretends it’s irrelevant and doesn’t bear mentioning.

  4.  and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, in the failure of the cross.

    Was that the epicentre of his statement ? Was that not where it went ? The thing that makes it so bad, is that he adds not only in human perspective but he says in the failure of the cross. People should start living with the fear the reverence, since people interpret and make remarks like He is someones play partner He is God The Son. If I come across passionate for my Religion, then Amen !!!

    1. No, actually, it wasn’t the epicenter of his statement or where Pope Francis was heading. You’re making the mistake of thinking that the last line or phrase of a paragraph is always the conclusion or main point, applying the normal structural rules of a whole essay or speech to individual paragraphs. In fact, the main point of a paragraph can be anywhere in the body, depending on the author’s style and the facts or qualifications to be brought up. (In fact, one composition manual I read recommended that the main point of a paragraph be stated in the first sentence.) But you’re going further; you’re either reinterpreting everything else in the paragraph according to the last phrase or discarding it as so much padding. That’s a prime example of the selective-quotation fallacy.

    2. Does the Catholic church even talk, teach or preach about the resurrection anymore? Because that’s the reason his life did not end in failure, on the cross.. He died on the cross. for us. For this purpose his came into World. But he rose again.. Without his resurrection., there is no Christ, no saviour or Salvation.,. That’s why i think it was irresponsible for The Pope to say this because it;s just no true. All but one of the 12 disciples and The Apostle Paul were matyred. Does that mean their lives ended in failure? Jesus told them they would have to suffer for his name. He does a life end successfully? i just don;t get what he means ended in failure.. Does he not know that he is risen?

  5. It is for those who do not believe, but people that are People of the way or as we now call it Christians it’s not. The Pope said these things not as someone in the world, but as someone that’s a Christian leader.

    1. Anthony S. Layne

      Yes, indeed. As a Christian leader, Pope Francis said, “The cross shows us a different measure of success.” As a Christian leader, St. Paul said, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-25).

      Like St. Paul, Pope Francis was pointing out that worldly people see things in a different way than do Christians, a way that isn’t God’s way, a way that’s false. It’s a basic statement of fact; it’s “Christianity 101.” Why are you getting worked up about it?

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  7. Man was created in God’s image. We are God’s greatest creation. Yet proud Satan lied to Eve, and death was created. Jesus redeemed man. Although he was indeed tempted by Satan, he was never fooled. The crucifixion was Satan’s “kitchen sink”. It was Satan’s last chance to get Jesus to say, “@$&+”. The crucifixion was indeed a failure – Satan’s.

    1. I have to disagree with the thought that it was a failure, how can Gods plan be a failure? This was His plan before the first cornerstone of creation was laid down, or are they now saying God I’d not perfect ? That would be blasphemy, also he is now interpreting what the Pope meant which can and will not be accepted then the Pope would have stated so. Since the gentiles with no better knowledge will accept what he says purely because of who he is, and God holds all accountable for every word spoken in secret or on the open. Let us not add or take away of the word, since that itself is a sin. Let’s us not interpret which we were not part of, and the Crucifixion was 100% perfect and Jesus had spoken of what was to come. He knew, yet still went through it because His/Our Father ordained it so. The Word was with God, the Word was God and the Word became flesh. Nothing came into existence without the Word. We know who the Word is, the Bread of life the Messiah Jesus the Lamb the Lion of Judah. What can a mere mortal do ? Jesus came and there is only one way the WAY to get everlasting life, and that’s through the Son Jesus and you have to Confess with your tongue and believe in your heart with Faith that He has saved you through His blood Amen.

    2. Anthony S. Layne

      Martin, of course neither you nor I regard the Crucifixion as a failure. It can only be regarded as a failure from a worldly perspective. That was my point.

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