THE MERCHANT OF DEATH
Reading his own obituary was a shock. Even more surprising was the sharp criticism levied against him. How could they call him the “merchant of death”? Did he really “become rich by finding ways to kill people faster than ever before“?
Reading a mistaken obituary inspired Albert Nobel to atone for the sin of inventing dynamite. He dedicated his resources toward creating several scientific awards called the Nobel Prizes. These prizes would celebrate the virtuous pursuit of knowledge.
In our story of technology, we have used a broad definition. Technology is a human creation which extends mankind’s natural capabilities. Such innovation is often welcomed as good, or at least neutral. But people end up using neutral technology for evil purposes. They even create certain technologies with the explicit purpose to harm another person. What about inventions of evil?
One of the cruelest innovations in execution technology was the cross some time early in the first millennium BC. The first recorded usage in history occurred in 519 when King Darius of Persia crucified 3000 political opponents. Alexander the Great brought it to the eastern Mediterranean in the 4th century BC. The Romans perfected it for centuries before executing a carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus.
If Jesus was killed by technology, what does this mean for our creation and use of technology?
To explore this question, we’ll begin with the development of technologies of execution. Then we’ll examine the unique crucifixion of Jesus according to the biblical story. Finally, we’ll explore implications for the technology of our own world.
TECHNOLOGY OF EVIL
I am capable of killing another human being with my bare hands. It wouldn’t be easy. If my foe were stronger than I, things may turn out poorly. I could become the victim.
But technology can extend my capability for violence. It could allow me to kill from a farther distance. First the arrow, then the rifle, now the drone. Ancient cultures developed poisons to kill without injury. Alfred Nobel’s invention occupies the long line of weapons to allow mass destruction.
In creating technology, humans embed certain values. These values shape its use and its effect. Consider the execution technology of stoning in biblical times. This method of putting someone to death enacted several important values.
Stoning is public. A crowd witnesses the suffering. Stoning is participatory. The state doesn’t dole out justice; the community does. Stoning is painful, violent, and extreme. These values combine to deter crime and maintain community standards.
In 1885, the State of New York commissioned a report on executions. The full title: “The Commission to Investigate and Report the Most Humane and Practical Method of Carrying Into Effect the Sentence of Death in Capital Cases.” Not exactly clickbait.
This report surveyed 34 different methods of killing someone. Those included burning, boiling, flaying, hanging, poisoning, strangling, suffocating, and others. They hoped to find a method to embody their values of being humane and practical.
In the first century, the Romans had several technologies of execution in regular use. The Poena Cullei involved being drowned in a sack along with several animals to keep you company. It was usually reserved for people who killed their fathers. Arena executions involved lower class people. Being killed by animals suggested their status was equal to animals. Beheading was the most honorable way to die. Only Roman citizens enjoyed that honor.
Crucifixion enabled a powerful state to publicly disempower threats to their reign. Victims were naked and vulnerable. Their arms extended in humiliation. Their death was public, prolonged, and shameful. The corpse often remained on the cross for animals to eat. The cross transformed a would-be threat into a shameful, powerless victim.
KILLING IN THE BIBLE
Ancient Israelites knew nothing of crucifixion. But their early Scriptures warned against using a tree to execute a man. Deuteronomy declares,
A hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land. — Deuteronomy 21:23
The source of their livelihood would be defiled when they used a tree to execute a man. Was it the dissonance of using a source of life to bring about death, which tainted their land? It’s as if such misuse of a tree produced a kind of cosmic consequence. The land itself reacted to this use of technology.
Of course, it was this curse that the carpenter from Nazareth endured. The apostle Paul reflects later on that execution,
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us– for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” — Galatians 3:13
The Romans perfected a technology of execution which exposed and humiliated their victims. The Jews knew that such a death had far-reaching ramifications on even the land itself. This technological killing perfectly accomplished the purposes of those who commanded it.
But the purposes of another were accomplished as well. Jesus went knowingly to the cross, sent by his Father, to suffer the fate of crucifixion. God intended to reverse the curse, absorb the shame, and publicly defeat death. The gruesome technology of the Roman cross was a perfect tool. Perhaps no other technology could have embodied such a combination of values.
The worst evil ever perpetrated in human history was carried out by the most technologically advanced society of its day, using one of the most barbaric forms of technology at their disposal. The death of Jesus on a Roman cross demonstrated the evil of technology. Yet because of God’s incredible plan, this perversion of technology led to life for the world.
Fast forward to the times we live in: those bent on evil also use the technology of our world every day. On the dark web, illicit substances aren’t the only things bought and sold. People are for sale. The internet offers new ways for the powerful to abuse the weak. Online sexual exploitation of children increases every year. Revenge porn, cyber-bullying, and privacy hacking all allow ancient human drives for harm through new modern expression.
But the technological evil of the cross gives us hope for facing these developments. Long before Jesus hung on a tree, a young man foreshadowed his story. Joseph, the son of Jacob, suffered at the hands of those whom he loved. And yet, their evil didn’t succeed.
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. — Genesis 50:20
Once again we see the evil of mankind serving the purposes of God.
WISDOM AND HOPE
Christians have a real responsibility to look out for evil. As representatives of God on earth, we are called to create and use technology in a way that opposes evil.
A friend’s technology startup focuses on discovering security vulnerabilities online. Their intent is for business to protect themselves. But when I asked him what his work had to do with theology, he became grave. He pointed out, “You may not realize it, but we’re building a weapon.”
Another friend is a graduate student who works on the development of quantum computing. He pointed out their success would mean every code on the internet would break overnight.
Technology creates new possibilities for evil. But Christians have an opportunity to use their influence. Followers of Jesus contribute to biological research, medical devices, deep learning algorithms, information privacy standards, and dozens of other industries. Their voices could shape culture.
The creation of technology embodies values. As those who value love, we can offer wisdom for those decisions.
But even as we offer wisdom to avoid evil, we have a unique perspective. Even when evil manifests itself through new forms of technology, our hope remains. Not the most evil of technological devices can thwart the purposes of God.
In fact, even the worst technology used for the worst human purposes can end up serving the purposes of God. Who knows what purpose God may have for redeeming the isolation caused by social media? How might God restore a community destroyed by online sexual exploitation?
Technology can be used for evil. When Alfred Nobel realized this, he did all he could do to atone for his contribution. The God of the Universe can and will do far more. No evil will ultimately triumph. No technology will stand in the way of his goals.
Be wise. Avoid evil. But never lose hope in the one who transforms evil into good.
Father to five; husband to one; helping Christians engage thoughtfully as they follow Jesus Christ.
Pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA since 2007. Graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for Oracle Corporation as a Senior Product Manager designing software solutions.