“Crucified, Dead, and Buried”

Posted by R. Fowler White

Continuing our reflection on article four of the Apostles’ Creed, we examine what it means to confess faith in Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried.

In the ancient world crucifixion was believed to be an effective way to maintain law and order. The Romans reserved it for dangerous criminals, slaves, and the populations of foreign provinces. In the province of Judea, for example, it proved to be generally effective against resistance to Roman occupation. Applied as a form of execution, it was so frequent, and its details such common knowledge, that people in the first century were all too familiar with crucifixion. Despite its frequency—or maybe because of it—written descriptions of the act of crucifixion are rare. The more refined writers were hesitant to dwell long on an act so horrifying, brutal, and shameful. Reading the NT Gospel accounts, we realize that none of them goes beyond the barest minimum when they describe it. All that they say is they crucified Him. It is hard to describe a more cruel and unusual form of capital punishment, but we will have to try.

Imagine the shape of the cross: X, T, and were the most common. Imagine the height of the cross: ordinarily the victim’s feet were no more than two feet above the ground—to give wild beasts and scavenger dogs easy access to the dead body. Imagine the nails of the cross, the spikes used to impale the victim. Imagine the small wooden peg or block, often placed midway up the vertical post to prolong the victim’s agony by preventing his premature collapse.

Once impaled on the cross, the victim endured a seemingly endless cycle of pulling, pushing, and collapsing—pulling with his arms, pushing with his legs to keep his chest cavity open for breathing, then collapsing in exhaustion until the body’s need for oxygen demanded more pulling and pushing. The combination of flogging, blood loss, and shock from pain, all produced agony that could go on for days. The end ordinarily came from suffocation, or cardiac arrest, or blood loss. When there was reason to speed up death, the executioners would smash the victim’s legs. Death followed almost immediately, either from shock or from collapse that cut off breathing.

The shame of crucifixion compounded its pain. In fact, so intense was the combination of shame and pain that it was expressly prohibited that a Roman citizen be executed in this manner. Crucifixion was always public, at an intersection, in the theatre, or elsewhere on high ground. Victims were usually crucified naked to intensify the experience of humiliation, though Jewish sensitivities would have demanded that the victim wear a loincloth. More than nakedness, however, the act of raising the victim up off the ground on a cross was meant to make manifest the level of criminality and heinousness of his transgression. The cross itself was thus a visible symbol and physical embodiment of all that was morally shameful and aesthetically offensive, and crucifixion was referred to as “that most cruel and disgusting penalty.” As such, it is understatement to say that the crucifixion of the innocent, sinless Jesus was the most monstrously obscene act ever committed.

Here, we have to note that it was significant that Jesus was crucified instead of dying some other way. Death on a cross was cursed not only by human standards but also by God’s standard. Already by the first-century AD, victims of crucifixion were viewed in terms of Deut 21:22-23: he who is hanged on a tree is accursed by God. The form of Jesus’ death tells us that it was for lawbreakers that He endured the curse of God. His crucifixion was neither by chance, by accident, nor by the sole decision of Romans and Jews, but by God’s special providence and counsel (Acts 2:23). Christ had to be crucified to bear our curse and to share His blessing with us, to satisfy God’s justice and to free us from the curse. He had to be crucified to make peace for us with our offended, estranged Creator, to rescue sinners from bondage and misery by the payment of the price. Consequently, we must confess that Jesus Christ was crucified.

Confessing Jesus Christ crucified, we also confess Him dead, redundant to say so though it seems. Joseph of Arimathea, attended by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, took His dead body down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb. He had died in the sight of men—and also in the sight of God. He did not die of natural causes; nor did He die for His own sins, since He was without sin. The death He died was for our sins. He laid down His life as an offering for sin, as the sinless Substitute, putting Himself in harm’s way for His people, for His sheep, for His bride. He took the punishment to which God had sentenced sinners, and, as a result, He satisfied God’s displeasure against them. The death He died was according to the Scriptures. We confess, therefore, Jesus Christ dead.

We also confess Jesus Christ buried. His body was placed in a tomb, a grave. And again we wonder, as perfunctory as it sounds, why would Scripture and the Creed give such prominence to His burial? Because, if satisfaction for our sins came in no other way than by the death of the Son of God, we must have proof of His death. It was burial of His body, together with the women’s determination to anoint His buried body with spices and ointments, that proved the death of His body. Thus, the incarnate Son of God really and truly died, and His burial was the certificate of His death.

In the words of the Creed, then, we confess Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried: three stark words bearing witness to the horror, brutality, and debasement of His humiliation.

We consider the last phrase of Article 4 in the Creed here.

4 Comments

  1. May 30, 2022 at 11:03 pm

    […] Read More […]

  2. May 31, 2022 at 7:51 am

    Thank you for the article. How do I subscribe to the blog? I cannot find a link.

  3. rfwhite said,

    May 31, 2022 at 10:39 am

    Hello, Michial.

    Thanks for the word of appreciation!

    As for subscribing, if you scroll down (way down) the Home Page (below Archives, Blog Directories, and Top Clicks), you can sign up under “Email Subscription.”

  4. July 7, 2022 at 10:17 am

    […] We take up the second phrase of Article 4 in the Creed here. […]


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