In the garden of Gethsemane, shortly before his arrest, Jesus becomes “greatly distressed and troubled” and says to his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” He moves some distance from them, falls to the ground, and prays “that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him”. Mark records his words: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk. 14:32-36; cf. Matt. 26:36-39; Lk. 22:41-44).
It is sometimes argued—in fact, I heard the argument attributed to John Stott in a sermon this week—that this extreme distress and apparent reluctance to accept what lay ahead cannot have been motivated by the natural human fear of torture and a horribly painful death. It is pointed out that the scribe Eleazar, for example, welcomed “death with honor rather than life with pollution” when he spat out the sacrificed pig’s flesh that he had been forced to eat by the agents of Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Macc. 6:18-19). The equanimity of many other martyrs in the face of death could be cited in addition.
If Eleazar could embrace martyrdom without any expression of fear, surely we would expect no less from Jesus? So we must assume that Jesus feared something far more terrifying than mere physical torture and a horribly painful death. He must have feared—and even then we may not want to call it “fear” as such—the spiritual or metaphysical pain of having to take upon himself the immeasurable burden of human sin, of having to drink the cup of God’s righteous wrath against all people.
Is this a valid argument? Not really.
First, the analogy with Eleazar is not entirely fair. Eleazar was already in the hands of the men who sought to compel him to act contrary to the Jewish Law when he welcomed death. This is not his Gethesemane moment. The proper point of comparison would be with Jesus at his trial, when he is given the opportunity to save himself by renouncing his messianic calling. Once in the hands of his enemies Jesus shows no fear of death. We also have to reckon with the likelihood that the synoptic Gospels give us a far more realistic and truthful account than 2 Maccabees.
Secondly, it is arguably a good thing that Jesus was afraid of the coming physical suffering and sought another way. He had earlier taught his disciples to pray that they would be delivered from such times of extreme trial (cf. Matt. 6:13), and in a moment he will rouse Peter from sleep and tell him to “Watch and pray that you may not enter into testing” (Mk. 14:38). He expected them to take up their own crosses and follow him, and Paul at times seems determined to emulate Jesus in his suffering and death (cf. Phil. 3:10-11; Col. 1:24). But there is absolutely nothing appealing about martyrdom. It is not to be pursued as an end in itself, for whatever reason, and only if it is unmistakably the will of God is it to be welcomed.
Thirdly, if the “cup” which Jesus will have to drink is not simply a figure for suffering but specifically the cup of God’s wrath, there is still no reason to universalize its scope and make it stand for God’s judgment on human sin in the abstract—at least, not according to a narrative-historical reading of the passage.
In the Old Testament the cup of God’s wrath is frequently a metaphor for judgment either against Israel or against the nations which oppose Israel. For example, Isaiah writes that the “cup of his wrath”, from which Jerusalem has been made to drink, will be taken from her (ie. she will be forgiven) and given instead to the people who tormented her (Is. 51:17, 22-23; cf. Jer. 25:15-29; Ezek. 23:32-34). This is the standard pattern: judgment against Israel through military action followed by judgment against the hostile nations; wrath against the Jew followed by wrath against the Greek.
There is no reason to think that Jesus would have used the metaphor differently, and since nothing in the synoptic Gospels suggests that he thought that he was about to die for the nations, we must assume that he means the cup of God’s wrath against Israel. His death on a Roman cross was to anticipate the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews by the Romans, many of them by crucifixion, which was the wrath of God against Israel.
Commentators who think that the cup refers to a universal judgment against human sin will often cite Isaiah 53:6: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”. On the cross Jesus must carry the burden of all human sin from the emergence of homo sapiens to the final destruction of the cosmos, or whenever; and it is this burden, supposedly, which causes him to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But the argument cannot be made to work. Isaiah 53:6 refers not to the sins of all humanity but to the iniquity of Israel, as is clear, for example, from verse 8: he was “stricken for the transgression of my people”.
So there is no need to spiritualize the suffering that Jesus contemplates in the garden of Gethsemane: it is exactly the same sort of appalling physical suffering that the Jews would be subjected to 40 years later. And if there is no need to spiritualize the suffering, there is no need to deny that Jesus expressed a very human fear of torture and a horribly painful death.