Was Jesus a Coward?

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane Heinrich Hofmann, 1890
Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane
Heinrich Hofmann, 1890

This question was sincerely asked by a friend who was not trying to by funny or sacrilegious. He had made an observation from scripture and had an earnest question.  I am drawn to earnest questions, regardless of how outlandish or edgy they may sound.  In fact, I relish those inquiries.

Here is how my friend’s question can be understood:

In the Gospel accounts, Jesus is seen entering the Garden of Gethsemane with a very heavy heart.  He asks His disciples to pray and then He goes a short distance away and collapses to the ground (Matt 26:39).    He then asks His Father in heaven that the way of the cross (the cup) be taken away from Him.  It seems Jesus is asking for God to provide another way to accomplish what must be done. His anguish becomes so great that Luke tells us that His sweat becomes great drops of blood (22:44).  Under great torment, it seems that his blood vessels have burst, leaking into His sweat glands.

My friend pointed out that Jesus knew He was going to rise from the dead.  He knew that His death was not final for Him.  He knew this was a very temporary thing. With all due respect, he asked, why all of the torment?  In fact, haven’t a lot of people faced very difficult, even torturous deaths?  Peter, who was in the Garden with Jesus would later be sentenced to die by crucifixion.  Tradition suggests, however, that Peter took the sentence very well.  He didn’t collapse and ask that the sentence be lifted.  In fact, Peter seemed to add insult to injury by requesting that his crucifixion be carried out upside down!  Why did Jesus react the way that He did?  Why didn’t He take it like Peter?

The most common answer that I have heard is: this shows us Jesus’ human side.  Yet, that doesn’t really satisfy.  How about all of the humans who have suffered awful deaths without falling down and praying for another outcome?  Church History is full of men and women who have faced gruesome deaths. These were average people who had no special claim to spiritual powers, yet many of them faced death bravely, some even welcomed it.  How can it be, therefore, that Jesus seemed to be reluctant of it?  Was Jesus frightened?  Was He a coward?

Probably the next most common response is: well, Jesus was in agony because God the Father had turned His back on God the Son.  Because Jesus became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21), and God cannot look upon sin (Hab. 1:13), then God had to turn away from Jesus. This is further evidenced by Jesus’ own cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Although I will admit that this response might be true, I need to point out that the Bible nowhere confirms that God turned His back on Jesus.  The passage in Habakkuk is a poetic passage in which the author seems to be complaining that God was not doing anything about the evil in his day.  It wasn’t that God did not literally see the evil, but wasn’t responding to it.  If God cannot look upon sin, then how could He ever see or hear any of our prayers for salvation if His back is turned to us? Aren’t we all sinners coming to God?  And, the cry that Jesus was forsaken was in reality a quote from Psalm 22, which describes graphically the crucifixion scene.  Perhaps Jesus wasn’t bemoaning how He felt, but rather was pleading to get onlookers to recognize that He was fulfilling that Psalm? To me, that is a better explanation of that quote.

All of this brings us back to our question: was Jesus a coward? As you might have guessed, I do not believe that He was.  The fact that He withstood the fiery ordeal without flinching, giving in, or railing against His accusers shows us that He was not woven from cowardice material.  In my opinion, there is a much better way of understanding the torment in Gethsemane.

As already noted, Paul would later write that Jesus who “knew no sin” became sin for us.  As Jesus, God’s sacrificial Lamb, was becoming the supreme sacrifice, it would seem that He was “becoming” or taking on all of the sin of the world. I suspect that something extremely significant was taking place in the spiritual realm that befuddles the imagination.  I will admit that it is mysterious and I do not understand the full gravity of it, but I believe the weight of the sin that you and I commit had not only permeated the Spirit of God, but was beginning to physically and emotionally overwhelm Jesus.

It was not the human side of Jesus that I see suffering, but the divine. I see the sinless, perfectly-holy, divine side of God having fallen to His knees beneath the weight of our guilt, our shame, and our sin, wondering out loud how He could ever bear it. He wasn’t afraid of losing His life, but of becoming intimately acquainted with the ugliness of guilt that all of humanity has brought to Him.  It wasn’t cowardice that drove Him to His knees, it was the passion He feels for you and me.

I just wish we could understand sin the way God does. Perhaps we too would collapse and sweat great drops of blood beneath its weight if we could glimpse it as He does.



Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us







Leave a Reply