If Christians were not so familiar with these things because of 2000 years of tradition and liturgy, they might feel how utterly unlikely it was that this death would be the basis of a world-transforming faith. How could it be that a convicted, condemned, executed pretender to the throne of Rome would unleash in the next three centuries a power to suffer and to love that shaped the empire?

The Christian answer is that the passion of Jesus Christ was absolutely unique, and his resurrection from the dead three days later was an act of God to vindicate what his death achieved. The uniqueness is not necessarily in the length or intensity of the physical pain. That was unspeakably terrible. But I would not want to minimize the horrors of others who died gruesomely. The uniqueness lies elsewhere.

Unparalleled Divinity
The passion of Jesus Christ was unique because he was one of a kind. When asked, "Are you the Christ [=Messiah], the Son of the Blessed [=God]?" Jesus said, "I am." It was an almost incredible claim. The Messiah was expected to be powerful and glorious. But here was Jesus about to be crucified, saying openly what he had pointed toward so often during his ministry: I am the Messiah, the king of Israel . He said it openly at the very moment when it was least likely to be credible. Then he adds words that explain how a crucified Christ can reign as the King of Israel: "You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:62). In other words, he expects to reign at God's right hand and someday come back to earth in glory.

 He was more than a mere human. Not less. He was, as the ancient Nicene Creed says, "very God of very God." Christ existed before creation. He is co-eternal with God the Father. He was not created. There was no point when he did not exist. Forever and ever in the past God has existed with one divine essence in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the testimony of those who knew and were inspired by him to explain who he is.

For example, the apostle John referred to Christ as the "Word" and wrote:

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)

 Jesus himself said things that only make sense if he was both God and man. For example, he forgave sin: "My son, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5). This sort of thing is what finally got him killed. The outraged response was understandable: "He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7).

 It's an understandable reaction. C. S. Lewis the British scholar who wrote timeless children's' books and superb defenses of Christianity, explains: "If somebody cheats me out of five pounds it is quite possible and reasonable for me to say, ‘Well, I forgive him, we will say no more about it.' What on earth would you say if somebody had done you out of five pounds and I said, ‘That is all right, I forgive him'?" [1] Sin is sin because it is against God. If Jesus was not a lunatic, then he forgave sins against God because he was God.

This is what his words and deeds pointed toward. Once he said, "I and the Father are one," which almost got him stoned on the spot (John 10:30-31). Another time he said, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). The words "I am" not only signaled his existence before Abraham, who lived 2000 years earlier, but was also a reference to the name that God gave himself in the Old Testament. "God said to Moses, ‘ I Am Who I Am .' And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel , ‘ I Am has sent me to you'" (Exodus 3:14).