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Jesus’ Death: Failure or Victory? (With Wavey Cowper & Thomas Fretwell)

By March 16, 2020No Comments

Today’s episode is a journalistic piece, a response to a clip from NPR’s “This American Life” where Professor Elaine Pagels states that Jesus’ death on the cross was an utter failure.

We decided to examine the question: Was the Cross Jesus’ greatest failure, or His greatest victory?

In this episode, you’ll hear from pastor Wavey Cowpar, Apologist Thomas Fretwell, as well as selected clips from pastor Cameron Heger (Door of Hope), musician Tinika Wyatt, and pastor Josh Kouri (Frontline Church).


We hope this content equips you as you continue to study and follow the Way of Jesus.

Listen to the episode by clicking the player above. 

If you’d like: you can read the transcript here:

Aaron Salvato: Hello, and welcome to the GoodLion podcast

I’m Aaron Salvato

today we’re going to be taking a moment to respond to a cultural critique about something we Christians consider very important

Jesus’ Death on the cross

Now personally, I really love NPR, enjoy their content

They’re one of the networks that inspired me to start our podcast Network, GoodLion

NPR isn’t a Christian network by any means, and I don’t expect them to ever act like it.

That being said, as I was listening to an episode of their amazing show This American Life, I heard something definitely got me thinking.

I’ll play the clip. Here’s Professor Eliane Pagels talking to Ira Glass

Dr. Pagels: The defeat and destruction of Jesus  is a massive problem for Jesus’s followers 

Professor Pagels is an American religious historian, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, and  has conducted extensive research into early Christianity and Gnosticism.

and the way they deal with it. Followers of Jesus say, well. It could only happen because the evil power was embodied in the world, in other people, and captured him and killed him.

Ira Glass: Oh, in other words, there’s the, there’s this evil force out there with supernatural powers as well, and that’s the reason why he gets turned over to the authorities and killed 

Dr. Pagels: exactly with supernatural powers, IRA. But at the same time, supernatural powers working through human beings.

What’s necessary for the followers of Jesus is that they have to explain, well, if  Jesus was God’s Messiah, his, his chosen, you know, future ruler of the world, why did he fail? Why did his, his opponents arrest him and torture him and kill him?

I mean, if he were God’s Messiah, that couldn’t have happened right. 

why did he fail?

Aaron Salvato: And there you have it. Prof Pagels lays out the question

Why did Jesus fail?

Today on the GoodLion podcast, we are going to talk about that. And I’ve invited several friends to talk with us

First, we’ll hear from Wavey.

Wavey Cowpar: My name is wavy Cowper and I’m the pastor of Calvary Limerick in Limerick in Ireland. 

Fans of the show will remember wavey from our righteousness series. Here’s what he had to say.

Intro: Disagree [00:02:18]

There’s literally no piece of this short interview that I can totally agree with as both a pastor and as a follower of Jesus because they only have at best half the story. 

Recap: Massive Problem [00:02:31]

both these statements are wrong. 

Jesus’ death only a problem if you don’t understand it [00:02:33]

Jesus’ death is only a problem for Christianity if you don’t understand it. 

How could this happen to the Messiah? [00:02:38]

In the first part, Jesus is death-causing problems for Christians. Links to what she says later about how cord. This defeat happened to God’s Messiah, 

Dr. Pagels: if  Jesus was God’s Messiah, his, his chosen, you know, future ruler of the world, why did he fail? Why did, his opponents arrest him and torture him and kill him?

I mean, if he were God’s Messiah, that couldn’t have happened right. 

Wavey Cowpar:  believe it or not, that was a very prevalent view in Jesus.

Most believed messiah would come in victory, small wonder they saw his death a failure [00:03:06]

His own time. There’s a lot of Bible verses in the Hebrew Bible or what Christians call the Old Testament that talk about God’s anointed one, his Messiah coming in victory. 

Wavey’s right. The jews in Jesus’ time grew up with this vision of their messiah riding on a white horse with a sword in his hand, ready to take out the roman empire that was dominating them at the time.

And so many people in Jesus’s day believed that the Messiah, he’d come in victory. He would defeat the Romans, and he would reestablish the free kingdom of Israel under his rulership.

 so  if that’s the view of the Messiah that you have, it’s a small wonder that you would consider his death to failure. 

Aaron Salvato: And many DID see it that way at first. When Jesus’ 12 disciples saw him get arrested, they all ran and hid. When they learned of Jesus’ death, they fell into despair and depression.

The Cross killed Jesus. It was a violent, bloody, horrible death. And for the disciples who saw Jesus hanging on the cross, it absolutely sent them into despair… and yet, somehow, soon after these events, these same disciples end up embracing the cross as a symbol of hope?

Tommy Fretwell: So, let me put this question in another way. How did an ancient Roman execution device designed as the ultimate symbol of humiliation become a cherished symbol of Christianity around the world?

Aaron Salvato: That’s Thomas Fretwell, Christian Apologist and host of the theology and apologetics podcast here on GoodLion.

Tommy Fretwell: we’re looking at the question of did Jesus fail on the cross? This is really the question we’re looking at here. How did the symbol of defeat become a symbol Of victory? 

Colossians: Triumph over enemies cross [00:04:58]

Let me now read to you just a small portion of scripture from the book of Colossians, chapter two verse 15 and I’m reading from the amplified version.

It’s one of these instances where the more dynamic equivalent translation helps us to understand the meaning of the text. 

Let me read to you verse five. 

Marker [00:05:13]

He says, when he had disarmed the rulers and authorities, those supernatural forces of evil operating against us, he made a public example of them exhibiting them as captives in his triumphal procession, having triumphed over them through the cross.

Exp of verse: Shame of cross, Romam Context [00:05:31]

Now, what’s this referring to here? What do you, what is the, what is Paul the author trying to help us to understand? Remember, this is the context in which it was written as first-century Rome. That was an honor and shame.

The Romans used a shaming ritual  , when they had defeated another nation in battle when they had a great  victory. What they would do is they would have a parade, a procession where they would exhibit all of the plundered treasures, and at the end of this procession would be the captives.

That they had taken prisoner from this defeated nation, and at the end of that chain of captives would be the King. The leaders in the King of these conquered peoples ashamed and humiliated and right at the back would be the defeated King, and he was killed as the rest were taken into slavery. This is what the Romans did.

We actually have evidence of this in the arch of Titus from 70 80 when the Romans sacked Jerusalem and you see them carrying off the Treasures of the temple that’s a Roman a processional. This is what they did. This is the language that Paul is making reference to here because everyone would have been aware of these things.

Exp of verse: The Victory of the Cross [00:06:32]

They were very, or inspiring and, and proud moments in Roman history. And this is the image that Paul is really getting us back to here. But what he’s actually saying is he’s flipping it 

 in Jesus. You see, God did what a Roman general would do at the end of a triumphal procession at the cross. All the spiritual forces were actually being led in a procession by the Victor and the Victor was Christ.

Aaron Salvato: So Paul writes that while Jesus appears to be overcome by both the dark spiritual forces and the dark human forces, in reality, the cross was Jesus taking the dark forces captive and parading them around.

And it’s interesting that Paul would say this. Here’s musician Tinika Wyatt explaining how before Paul Met Jesus, he hated him.

Tinika Wyatt:  through human wisdom, Paul knew better than to serve what he perceived as this false week Messiah human wisdom led Paul to persecute Christians and continue as he had been taught as a Pharisee, waiting on the promised Messiah and getting rid of anyone standing in the way of his righteous agenda.

Aaron Salvato: Paul was a religious leader from a group called the Pharisees, and starting out, he saw Jesus’ death on the cross as an utter failure as well.

Tinika Wyatt: Human wisdom told Paul that no real King, especially not one who is claiming to be God in the flesh would suffer at the hands of men and be crucified on a cross. But when Paul encountered Jesus for himself, everything changed. Everything else he knew in comparison was a heap of garbage.

You have to understand he was the quintessential intellectual of his day, a Pharisee among Pharisees.

Aaron Salvato: If you didn’t grow up in church culture… a Pharisee was a member of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by 

strict observance of the traditional and written law, 

and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity.

Tinika Wyatt:  Paul would say that he was the best one. He was a great leader and prolific writer, and we know that because we read many of his letters in the New Testament. He tells us that he has many reasons to be confident in his own flesh.

In fact, Paul said, if you think you have a reason to brag, I have even more reasons. And he lists his accolades and then says in Philippians three verses seven and eight but whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. Yes. Everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord, for his sake.

I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage so that I could gain Christ trash, garbage in comparison to knowing Jesus Christ. Paul counted everything else. A waste. All of his accolades, his commendations and his human wisdom combined were worthless in comparison to now knowing Jesus Christ.

Aaron Salvato: So we’ve got a death symbol, the Cross, that becomes a symbol of hope to millions

And Paul, a religious authority who sees Jesus as a fraud

Who eventually comes to view Jesus and his death on the cross as so important, everything else he’s ever accomplished is trash in comparison.

How could this be possible? When a man hanging on a cross bleeding to death looks so much like a failure?

Cross LOOKS like Satan is winning, but it’s not true [00:10:28]

Wavey Cowpar: It looks like Satan and the forces of darkness are winning. It looks like Jesus is failing, but this had to happen. 

Tinika Wyatt: He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life, and then he died. A selfless, obedient death and the worst kind of death at that, a crucifixion. This is a wonderful picture of Jesus. This is actually an awful Picture of Jesus. There’s conflict in this. Jesus lowered himself, put on frail, weak flesh and came to the earth to die on a cross to take on the curse of sinful man.

This is both awful and beautiful all at the same time

Wavey Cowpar: Jesus had to die to win. His victory is secured in his debt and his resurrection. 

Aaron Salvato: And Wavey is getting at the heart of it. What Christians believe is that by Jesus dying on the cross, and then rising from the dead, Jesus took the punishment for the sins of everyone, made it so that no one who believes in him will ever die an eternal death of the soul, gave freedom to humans in bondage to sin, and completely obliterated Satan’s plan to destroy humanity. That’s powerful stuff.

Tinika Wyatt: When we accept Jesus and we answer his call by saying yes, Jesus rose from the dead with power over death, hell and the grave, they have no victory.

Wavey Cowpar: What seems like a failure? What seems like to Satan and the demons and the hell, they probably rejoiced over it, which seems like a victory to them was God’s greatest move. .  

Aaron Salvato: So what’s the main reason his death seems like a failure at first glance? 

Secular worldview sees as death [00:12:27]

Tommy Fretwell: I’d say obviously it does depend upon your worldview. Those who look at this question and they have a nonbiblical worldview, probably a secularist or an atheist worldview, they do see death as the end.

Within their perspective. Death is the end. 

 That does seem like a, an end, a defeat, 

Biblical Worldview, death is not the end [00:12:43]

but to those of us who have a biblical worldview, we know that death is not the end, and we know that. In fact. Death is described as a defeated enemy because we know one who has power over death, and this is what the Christian Church has always proclaimed


Aaron Salvato: And it’s because of this perspective that Christians view death differently than the rest of the world. Death is not the end, there’s hope. Here’s Cameron Heger, one of the pastors at Door of Hope, Portland, with more on this idea

Cameron:  no matter how much we’re. Ostracized, no matter how much we lose in the here and now, no matter how much pain is injected into our circumstance, no matter what is taken from us, even up to and including our very lives,

he’s bigger than that as well. And that even our death is not the end of the story, but he has promises  that he is going to resurrect us the same way he was resurrected, that we might enjoy life with him into eternity future in a perfect, perfected new heavens and new earth with one another with everyone who has bent the knee to Jesus with endless time to enjoy him and one another in his world.

Forces of darkness statement, partially true. Only half story. [00:13:57]

Wavey Cowpar:  the second issue about the forces of darkness being supernaturally responsible by working through humans is partially true.

Ira Glass: Oh, in other words, there’s the, there’s this evil force out there with supernatural powers as well, and that’s the reason why he gets turned over to the authorities and killed 

Dr. Pagels: exactly with supernatural powers, IRA. But at the same time, supernatural powers that work through human beings.

Wavey Cowpar: But again, it’s only about half the story because Jesus himself said that no one can take his life. He gives it over his own free will, and if he gives it, he can take it again  

Aaron Salvato: That’s the amazing thing. It wasn’t a mistake that Jesus died. It was planned before time. He knew from the beginning that humans would need to be saved, and this was always the plan he had in mind.

And all throughout the Hebrew scriptures, he placed clues called Prophecies.

Only half the story. Prophecies about his suffering [00:14:50]

Wavey Cowpar: the old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. It also talks about the Messiah coming as a suffering servant 

 Isaiah wrote in chapter 53  hundreds of years before Jesus was born, and it describes what will happen to the Messiah.

It says he was despised and rejected by men, amount of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised. And we esteemed him not. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted, but he was pierced for our transgressions.

He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace. And by his wounds, we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray and we’ve turned every one to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him the inequity or the sin of us all. 

If I read that to you and told you it was from the New Testament and it was talking about Jesus, you would believe me because it’s so on point, but it was actually written around 700 years before Jesus was born.

God had always predicted the messiah would die [00:16:01]

 God always predicted that Jesus, the Messiah would die. Even back before Isaiah, way back in the garden of Eden, God makes Adam and Eve a promise after they first sin, and he says he was saved them. He will make a way to save them, but he puts it like this, speaking to the serpent, that Satan appeared, as he says, I will put empathy between you.

And the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring, he shall crush your head and you shall bruise his heel. So God tells Satan that a descendant of Eve will crush the head of the serpent or crush Satan’s head, putting in the process. Satan would wound, Jesus. And that’s exactly what happened on their cross.

Peter: speaks about Jesus’ death being the plan of god [00:16:44]

 Peter, in his first public speech about Christ on the day of Pentecost, said, men of Israel hear these words. Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst as you yourselves know this, Jesus delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.

You crucified him and killed him. Where the hands of lawless men. And God raised him up losing the Pines of debt because it was not possible for Jesus to be held by death. So Peter says it was God’s plan, even though the people are still responsible for their actions. Jesus, his death was long decided on by him and by God the Father, and by God the Holy Spirit.

And it didn’t come primarily by the supernatural forces of darkness as if they were able to defeat Jesus. 

Men are ignorant of the cross [00:17:40]

Tommy Fretwell: It has said that all heaven is interested in the cross and all hell fears the cross. It is only men who are ignorant of it. 

However, this should not be our position, brethren, because we know and we love the one who died on the cross. This is why Paul says, may it never be that I would boast except. In the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. We remember what it cost. Yes. But we also rejoice in what was accomplished in that moment.

Cross seems like the greatest act of hatred, but actually the greatest act of love [00:18:06]

Wavey Cowpar:  the cross can seem like the greatest act of hatred, but God uses it to show his great love for us. To us, it can look like the cross is a failure, but it’s actually God’s victory shown in Jesus’s resurrection and his current place in heaven at the right hand of God.

Tinika Wyatt: he had equal status with God, but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human having become human. He stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process.

No evil can overcome him [00:18:52]

Wavey Cowpar: no evil, supernatural power working through humanity or otherwise could ever defeat him or overcome him. . 

William Booth Story [00:19:01]

Tommy Fretwell:  in the 19th century when the great general of the salvation army William Booth, when they used to walk into the slums of London, proclaiming and offering the message of the cross to the poor and destitute in London.

In that time. 

They would often sing this hymn 

“Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war

with the cross of Jesus going on before 

Christ The Royal master leads against the foe,

forward into battle. See his banner go.” 

They were often met with violence, with jeers, with riots. People would throw things at them.

You see, the cross still evokes these sorts of passionate responses. 

A spiritual Battle [00:19:40]

Ultimately, this is a spiritual battle that we were involved in and it is through the cross of Jesus Christ that we actually have the victory. This is what William Booth knew.  It is through the cross that men are freed from Satan’s clutches. 

Here’s pastor Josh Kouri of Frontline Church in Oklahoma city talking about what that bondage looks like.

Pastor Josh Kouri: There’s a Pantheon of gods that tell beautiful lies. They promise to make your life better. They promise to answer the deep questions you have about identity.

They promise to give you security. They promise to give you comfort. And the problem with all of these little G gods. Is that they’re liars. They’re liars. They can’t change you. They can’t save you. They can’t redeem you. And one of the beautiful things about Jesus Christ, the son of God that was born of a Virgin and took on flesh and live the perfect life that we can’t and went to the cross to carry the shame and the pain and the punishment of our sin.

Who Rose from the dead historically, not in terms of mythology and mere human poetry, but who really literally came back from the dead and appeared at one point to 500 people at one time. The thing about that Jesus and what he taught and what he did, and what he’s doing is that he loves you so darn much.

He’s willing to confront the gods that promise freedom and give you bondage. 

Cross Was Jesus Succeeding at his missions [00:21:04]

Tommy Fretwell: It’s a very powerful imagery of spiritual victory by Christ, and it’s what booth knew when he had the cross of Jesus marching before. This is why the devil hates the cross because it disarmed him and it took away the power of death. And in that sense. Jesus did not fail. He succeeded in what the father sent him to do.

Victory over Darkness [00:21:23]

John one four in him was life and the life was the light of men, and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not comprehend it. You see, today, the cross stands as a symbol of victory over the spiritual forces of wickedness and as a testimony to the love of God for sinners. 

Tinika Wyatt: That is the goal of preaching and teaching the gospel message so that you encounter Jesus today, that you find yourself at the foot of the cross, that unbelievers come to know him as savior, that believers are drawn closer to him, and that we all experience God’s power.

Power not in the symbol but the reality of the cross [00:22:05]

Tommy Fretwell:  the power is not in the symbol of the cross, but the power is in the reality of the cross. A reality that is rooted in real history in this world. 

 what happened on the cross?

The cross changed everything. Nothing was ever the same. 

After the cross on that Hill 2000 years ago, all of history and prophecy converged culminating in that one moment that we now call the crucifixion.

Aaron Salvato: And that Cross inspires people all around the world to do radical things. There’s a saying Christians have: pick up your cross and follow Jesus. It’s this idea of laying down your own dreams, desires, goals, wants, temptations… and instead of following God’s desire for your life. Here’s Cameron Heger again,  explaining what that looks like.

Cameron:  I’m actually going to deny what I want. Cause I actually do believe that what Jesus has is better for me.

 Even though it’s hard…  we do these things because we have seen and trusted the goodness of God, especially in most prominently seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

 we trust that no matter how hard a God-honoring decision might,

it’s worth it. It’s worth it because? Because we’re confident that he only has our deepest good in mind and not just our deepest good, not just your deepest good, which he does, but the deepest good of your family, the deepest good of your friends, the deepest good of the whole world, the deepest good of your, your enemies, the deepest good of the creation itself.  that is exactly what’s at the center of his heart and his will and every one of his commands and decrees and everything. He does all of our deepest good.

Tommy Fretwell: the heme writer, Isaac Watts, said it best at the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light and the burden of my heart rolled away and it was thereby faith. I received my sight and now I am happy all the day. 

Tinika Wyatt: People are still offended and still think it’s nonsense to take up your cross and follow Jesus. But that is what he calls us to do.

We are called to a life of prayer service community with others and obedience to the spirit. God is calling us into abundant life. He is calling us into fellowship with Him and with one another to experience him in a new way to understand who we really are in Jesus Christ. God is calling us..

Wavey Cowpar: There’s an author in Ireland called Fraser Hosford, and he wrote in his book, God has always been the rightful King of this world, but now when Jesus, he is exercising this power after defeating the powers of sin and of death through his resurrection from the dead, Jesus, his death wasn’t a defeat.

It was his great victory.[/vc_column_text]

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