What was Pilate’s role in the crucifixion? Was he a villain for sending Jesus to be crucified, or is he a saint because he absolved Jesus of wrong-doing and put a sign on the cross to rebuke the Judean leadership?
Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”
—John 19:19-22, NRSV
Let me advance two propositions:
- Pilate is not stronger than God
- God doesn’t have plans
Pilate Is Not Stronger Than God
Whoever prevails in a struggle is more powerful, and by power I mean such things as strength, authority, and strategy. If I have a plan to do something, whoever can thwart or delay my plan has more power than I do. For example, if I have a plan to drive a car, but the DMV refuses to issue me a license, or if I have a plan to walk down the street but someone mugs me, or if I have a plan to perform in a play, but the director does not cast me, then the DMV, the mugger, and the director are more powerful than me.
To interrupt or frustrate God’s “plan,” Pilate would need to be stronger than God, which would mean we should stop worshipping God and worship Pilate instead. I think I have refuted this idea by reduction to the absurd.
Similarly, in order to expedite God’s “plan,” Pilate would also need to be stronger than God, because the implication is that God wasn’t powerful enough to accomplish His plan without Pilate’s help.
God Doesn’t Have Plans
Nowhere in Scripture does it say that God has a plan, but it does say that He has a will. Suppose I have the will to buy groceries. I have to examine my pantry, determine what I need, then decide whether I can get it all at one store, and if I can’t, I have to devise an efficient route, so that I don’t buy the frozen foods first. Then I need to make a checklist of items, so that I don’t forget any of them. If I want to assemble a chair from IKEA, I need a plan so that I can put the parts together in the right order.
God doesn’t need to organize His thoughts or make a checklist, because He isn’t going to forget anything. He doesn’t need a plan because His will is sufficient. He willed the universe into existence, and the universe must conform itself to His will.
We need a shopping list, God does not. God doesn’t need a plan, because His will cannot go unfulfilled.
Plans, Will, and Personal Responsibility
If God had a plan, then every detail of our lives would be mapped out in advance, and we would have no choice in our actions—the hitch being that we would have no responsibility for them, either. No one could choose whether they are the hero, the villain, or a background character in the story of their lives; no one could choose to be a good actor or a bad actor, and no one would earn an acting award. No one who went to heaven or hell would deserve their ultimate destination, and since God wrote all the parts, God would be the source of all evil.
None of that is true!
In any movie or TV show, there is casting director who chooses the actors for each role. Imagine however, that in the drama of real life, there is no casting director, and the actors choose their own roles. The actors can participate in the drama in any way they choose, and they can even improvise. Imagine further that the writer is constantly adapting the script so that the overall story has the same ending. God is the writer who has a will, not a script.
Since God has a will rather than a script—I mean, plan—you cannot help or hinder His will, but you can choose your role, you can choose alternatives within it, and you can choose to be a star or a failure. You can be rewarded or penalized for the choices you made, but God is not responsible for your successes or failures. No matter which role you choose and how well you act it, the overall story comes out the same.
Jesus Is Exempt From the Law
In Matthew 17:24-26, Jesus said that He doesn’t have to obey any laws. Because He is God’s Son and has, in modern terms, God’s power of attorney. Whatever He does is an act of God, whatever He says is the Word of God, and the Law is whatever He says it is. Because Jesus has the authority of God and there is no power greater than that, Jesus cannot constrained by any legal requirement to do anything, let alone die on the cross.
God did not give the Law and inspire the prophets and only afterwards realize—whoops—that Jesus would be obligated to die on a cross. There is no “whoops” with God. Rather it was Jesus’ will to die on the cross from the beginning, and He inspired the Law and the Prophets to foreshadow it.
Jesus didn’t need to die on the cross to redeem us, because God suffers no necessity. Jesus does not need to operate an apparatus or mechanism to save us, because Jesus can forgive and redeem us just by saying the word. All through the New Testament, Jesus forgives people their sins against God just by saying the word, which means the cross is not necessary for Him.
No One Is Responsible for the Crucifixion
No one can force Jesus to die on a cross. In fact, no one did. He did not accidentally put a booby-trap in the Law that forced Him to do it. The Temple officials and the Roman soldiers were only able to arrest Him because He allowed them to. Judas volunteered for the role of betrayer. Jesus gave Judas permission to do it, told him when to do it, and patiently and voluntarily waited for him in the Garden of Gethsemane instead of fleeing to safety. The Sanhedrin was incapable of convicting Him of blasphemy, because they couldn’t find two or three witnesses whose testimony agreed.
Jesus was only convicted by His own voluntary confession. The Sanhedrin could not put Him to death, because the Romans prohibited them from carrying out capital punishment. So they took Him to Pilate as a possible insurrectionist for Pilate’s evaluation—insurrection carried the death penalty—but when Pilate interviewed Jesus, he found no crime. Pilate ordered Jesus released, but being a wimp, he let events overtake him.
When Jesus was before Pilate, the crowds gathered, but they so far away that they weren’t able to see or hear what was going on. The leaders of the people infiltrated the crowd and reminded them of their civic duty to taunt the condemned, their goal being to intimidate Pilate. The people, believing that Jesus had actually been condemned, shouted for His crucifixion. They really didn’t know what they were doing, so Jesus forgave them all—even before He went to the cross. Pilate didn’t convict Jesus under pressure, but he did not even attempt to stand up to the crowd and do the right thing. He just acquiesced.
Jesus Could Have Just Walked Away
In Luke 4:29-20, a crowd of people tried to push Jesus off a cliff, but He just walked through the crowd and went on His way. From that we know that Jesus could have just walked away from the crucifixion. No one forced Him to be crucified, He volunteered.
He did not need to be crucified, because He can save the world just by saying the word. He didn’t need to be crucified, but we needed to see it. He gives us commandments that, within the bounds of this life, are self-defeating. If we give to those who ask, we will be impoverished; if we love our enemies, they will take advantage of us. Obeying Jesus’ commandments is not the way to riches, wealth, prestige, or even happiness in this world. Some people have that expectation, but it only leads them to reject Jesus, not because they lost faith, but because their faith was only enough for this world. The only motivation we have for obeying His commands is eternal life, because otherwise our obedience is self-defeating, and of all people we would be the most miserable.
The Three-Part Drama of Our Redemption
Jesus’ death on the cross is part one of a three-part story. The three parts are the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. Without the resurrection, the crucifixion is a tragedy. Without the ascension, the resurrection does not empower us.
Jesus’ crucifixion shows us that He does not ask us to do anything He is not willing to do Himself, even to die in painful misery. His resurrection shows us that He has power over death, and proves that He can reward us for obeying His otherwise self-defeating commandments by resurrecting us. After all, if He can raise Himself up from the dead, resurrecting us on the Last Day is a trivial matter for Him. The ascension is taught or mentioned in nearly every New Testament book, but we neglect it, because we fancy ourselves wise and reject a flying Jesus—but He really did ascend into heaven to demonstrate that no matter how rough the sailing gets, He is in control of the waves.
No one is guilty of crucifying Jesus, because in order to do that, they would have to be more powerful than Him, and that is impossible.
Pilate’s Role in the Crucifixion
Now we finally get to Pontius Pilate.
Pilate was incapable of stopping, interrupting, or facilitating God’s plan. Pilate did not sentence Jesus to be crucified, he just stepped aside, and Jesus voluntarily went along with it. Jesus could have easily walked away from the crucifixion, made His way through the crowd, and escaped.
Pilate did not do anything to contribute to the drama, one way or the other, he was just a bystander in a ceremonial role. After the events in the New Testament, he took sides in the office politics of the Roman Empire and lost. He was transferred and ended his career without dignity. He didn’t have enough power over the Roman Empire to succeed in his career, so he certainly did not have the power to obstruct God’s will.
Some eastern churches regard Pilate as a saint because he refused to crucify Jesus. However, given his character and his inability to carry out his own will, and his way of weaseling out of the martyrdom he would have suffered if he had stuck to his metaphorical guns, he does not deserve the honor.
Pilate is not an example of good or evil. He is an example of a wimp who knew the wrong thing to do but didn’t have the courage to prevent it. His action, or rather his inaction, actually facilitated God’s will to save the world, because in a round-about way he gave Jesus the opportunity to demonstrate His power to forgive, rescue, guide, and reward us. The church never would have grown explosively without the crucifixion and resurrection, and the apostles would not have been as emboldened without the ascension.
Pilate did not frustrate God’s will. Pilate did not force God into a detour. Pilate did not act outside of God’s will, he just chose a bad path through it. Pilate was neither virtuous nor evil. He was just a bystander at a critical juncture of events. He had the power to be powerless, nothing more.
Pilate doesn’t even qualify for a participation trophy.