© Copyright 2014 by Jimmy Akin
Recently, Gretchen Passantino Coburn posted an interesting piece on whether Jesus was trying to avoid the Cross when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Not My Will, But Yours Be Done). The piece very correctly points out that Jesus knew it was his Father’s will for him to die on the Cross and that he lived his life in complete submission to the Father’s will (thus also setting an example for us). As a result, there was never any conflict between his will and the Father’s, properly speaking.
What are we to make, then, of his prayer, “Not my will but yours be done”? The article makes a striking proposal:
[W]e argue below that it was not death on the cross that Christ was longing to avoid, but death in the Garden before the cross; and that Christ’s will was not different than the Father’s will, but in harmony with the Father’s will. We argue below that Christ, in danger of expiring in the Garden, cried out to the Father for the necessary power either to remain alive through his Garden experience, or, if he expired in the Garden, to be revived by the Father so that he would be alive for his coming crucifixion.
I have a different understanding of this passage, and Gretchen has very graciously invited me to do a follow-up piece for purposes of discussion.
The First Question
The first question we need to address is whether Jesus was about to expire in the Garden of Gethsemane. According to the article,
Jesus was in danger of dying in the Garden. Luke says, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Matthew and Mark affirm, “he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:37-38, cf. Mark 14:33-34). [Theologian J. Oliver] Buswell notes that profuse perspiration is a medical sign of life-threatening shock, when the body is so traumatized that it cannot control basic life sustaining functions and instead “shuts down” preparatory to death.
What should we make of this argument?
“I Could Die”
The statement that he is sorrowful “to the point of death” is generally understood as hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point). This is a common mode of expression in the Bible and one that Jesus uses in the Gospels. We even have similar sayings in English where the possibility of death is raised without it being meant literally (e.g., “I’m so embarrassed I could die”).
The possibility (probability) of hyperbole is so significant in this case that Jesus’ statement about being sorrowful “to the point of death” can’t be relied upon as proof he was literally about to die in the garden.
The argument for the claim thus depends critically on Jesus’ sweat becoming like blood and this being an indication of imminent death.
Is the Text Original?
The statement that his sweat became like blood is found only in Luke 22:44. It is not in Matthew, Mark, or John. However, there are significant reasons to question whether this material was originally in the text of Luke. Most modern Bibles will carry a footnote on verses 43 and 44, like this one from the New American Bible:
These verses, though very ancient, were probably not part of the original text of Luke. They are absent from the oldest papyrus manuscripts of Luke and from manuscripts of wide geographical distribution.
It is risky to make a dramatic interpretive claim (Jesus was about to die in the garden barring divine intervention) concerning an event found in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) when the key detail is found only in one Gospel and there is strong reason to think it was not in the original.
Is Bloody Sweat a Sign of Imminent Death?
If we assume that the statement was in the original, there is still a problem, because Buswell appears to have been mistaken about the nature of this phenomenon. While rare, bloody sweat is a known medical condition. Referred to as hematidrosis (Greek, “blood-sweat”), it is caused when the capillaries rupture into the sweat glands. Hematidrosis frequently is the result of anxiety, and it has been successfully treated with beta-blockers such as propranolol, which are used (among other things) to treat anxiety: however, it does not appear that hematidrosis is “a medical sign of life-threatening shock, when the body is so traumatized that it cannot control basic life sustaining functions and instead ‘shuts down’ preparatory to death.” The condition is not on that order of magnitude. While often produced by anxiety, the condition is a dermatological one that involves the capillaries leaking into the sweat glands, not a sign of overall systemic shutdown.
I did a quick review of online medical literature and turned up many cases where hematidrosis was not a sign of impending death. (See, for example, here, where patients are noted to have had repeated instances of hematidrosis.)
Buswell, writing in the early 1960s, may have had less access to medical information about hematidrosis. In fact, the condition is rare enough that it had not been studied as much then as it has been now. As a result, it could be understandable for Buswell to draw inaccurate conclusions.
A Clearer Indication? An Explanation?
It also strikes me that, if the Evangelists meant us to understand that Jesus was about to die on the spot, in contravention of God’s plan for him to die on the Cross, they would have signaled this to the readers in a clearer way.
They also likely would have provided some explanation for why this last-minute crisis was occurring. For example, was it a final attempt by Satan to foil God’s plan? If so, how do we explain the Gospels’ insistence that it was Satan who prompted Judas to betray Jesus? Furthermore, Jesus himself describes his arrest (not the agony in the garden) as “the hour of darkness” (Luke 22:53), suggesting that Satan was behind it.
But if it wasn’t the devil that tried to bring about Jesus’ death in the garden, what did? It wasn’t the Father’s plan for him to die there, and so it wouldn’t have been the Father. That would leave us with either an accident that seems to threaten God’s Providence or Jesus simply having a panic attack so severe that it threatened his life. Personally, I’d be inclined to resist either of those suggestions.
An Alternative Theory
As an alternative theory of the event, I propose that Jesus knew in advance that he would die on the Cross and that he was resolute toward this goal. However, it is emotionally one thing when death is remote and another when it is staring one in the face.
Thus Christ was able to deal serenely with the prospect of Lazarus’s death—and even remark on how it would bring glory to God—when he was still in Galilee (John 11:1-4), but he nevertheless wept when he was standing at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35-36).
This response is rooted in the death aversion that is part of human nature. Being in proximity to death causes averse feelings in humans (fear, sorrow, revulsion), and that’s a good thing. It is part of God’s plan, and it leads us to try to preserve life.
By virtue of his human nature, Jesus had death aversion also, and—as with the rest of us—it manifested with particular intensity when the hour of his death drew close: nevertheless, he was resolute to go through with the climax of his mission.
“Not My Will But Yours Be Done”
Jesus’ statement “Not my will but yours be done” does not indicate an actual opposition of wills. Indeed, it indicates the opposite—that he is completely submissive to the Father’s will.
The paradoxical nature of this statement is to be understood along the lines of similar paradoxical statements that Jesus makes—e.g., “He who saves his life will lose it,” “The first will be last.” These statements rely on ambiguity of language for their solution (i.e., they rely on the fact that terms like “saving” and “losing” and “first” and “last” can be taken in different senses).
In this case, the term that is subject to ambiguity is “will.” This can indicate a determination, decision, or choice—or it can indicate a wish, preference, desire, or similar emotional rather than volitional state. One can even recognize that one’s wish is not going to be fulfilled, but still give voice to it as a way of expressing one’s feelings.
That ambiguity seems to be in play here. By making his statement, Jesus is expressing his fundamental submission to the Father’s will while giving voice to the fact that he is experiencing death aversion. His statement could be paraphrased, less paradoxically, as “Not what I might wish, but may what you determine be done.”
Emotions vs. Resolve
This does not imply that Jesus’ will is not united to the Father’s. Indeed, he indicates that it is united to the Father’s. Rather, it implies that Jesus is feeling something different than what he wills. What he wills is to do what the Father has determined, but he is experiencing the feelings of death aversion that are normal for human beings in the presence of their own imminent demise. His giving voice to those feelings allows him to achieve an emotional release—just as when he wept or when he cried out in anguish—but his will is still in submission to the Father’s.
This incident thus highlights the dynamics of Jesus’ experience as a man. We also find ourselves in situations, particularly when we are suffering or preparing to die, where we need to say what we’re feeling as part of dealing with our emotions—even though we are resolved in our wills to a particular course of action.
By way of conclusion, I’d like to thank Gretchen and Bob Passantino for defending the fact that Jesus was always resolved to do the Father’s will, and I’d like to thank Gretchen for her gracious invitation to do this post.