04/17/2014 02:32 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Why Is Good Friday Called Good Friday?

Being the inquisitive type, I recently delved into the origin of the phrase Good Friday. It's a strange title for a day commemorating torture. Were we passersby in Jerusalem that day, we would have witnessed three men, naked or nearly so, flayed, hanging by their hands, affixed to posts, heaving for every breath, being executed with exquisite and prolonged brutality. Had we witnessed this cruelty by men to other men, none of us would have described it as good.

So why is today Good Friday?

We honestly don't know. Linguists are unable to trace when and where and why Crucifixion Day came to be known as Good Friday. The word "good" is sometimes used in the Bible in the sense of "holy." So the term Good Friday might be derived from some olden expression such as Holy Friday. The word good may also relate in its etymology to the word God. Our term goodbye is apparently a contraction of the phrase God Be With You. Perhaps Good Friday hails from a medieval phrase meaning God's Friday.

But I have another theory. In the providence of God, perhaps that is how He wants us to think of today. Because of Good Friday, we have the Gospel, a word meaning "Good News." The cross is the core of the Gospel and at the heart of the Bible. When Jesus was born, the angels called his birth good tidings of great joy. The book of Acts describes the message of Calvary as "Good News of God's grace." Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd... I have shown you many good works...for your good.... The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field... Repent and believe the Good News." The Bible promises God works in all things for the good of those who love him; and the New Testament reminds us that every good gift comes from above.

The goodness of God and the Good News--the Gospel--is rooted in the cross. The sacrificial death of Christ at Calvary is the means by which God pours the blessings of His goodness into our lives, and that's why the phrase Good Friday is improbably appropriate. The cross is the crux of God's plan of redemption and predominant in the heart and soul of Christians everywhere.

The day we commemorate as Good Friday is the most dramatic day in the history of the world. Last November 22, we observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. I was surprised to feel quite emotional that day because I remembered the event with clarity, though I was just a school child. I can still remember the exact moment I heard JFK had been shot and, an hour later, the moment I learned he was dead.

For my parents' generation, the same was true about Pearl Harbor. For my children's generation, it was 9/11. Every generation has its defining, history-altering moment when time seems to stand still and we instantly know our world will never be the same. But only one moment and one event in the span of human chronicles have truly amended the history of the world for all of times and for all people. Even secular historians, if they're honest, will have to agree the death of Jesus Christ is the most world-shaping, history-altering, life-changing, time-bending event that ever occurred.

How do you explain that? The simple death of a young carpenter in a troubled corner of the Roman world has changed this earth more than all the battles that have ever raged, more than all the rulers who ever lived and died, and more than all the cataclysms and catastrophes that have descended across the horizons of history. There's only one explanation: In being lifted up to die, Jesus Christ lifts us up to abundant and eternal life. There's an old hymn that says:

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
For it lifts me up to glory, and it lifts me up to Thee!

In his book, A Dangerous Grace, Chuck Colson wrote about the sufferings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the gulag. He endured unspeakable cruelty and was pressed into backbreaking work day after day while being slowly starved to death. One day the hopelessness overcame him. Solzhenitsyn stopped working, dropped his shovel, lumbered over to a bench and sat down. He knew at any moment a guard would order him up, and, if he failed to respond, would likely bludgeon him to death with a shovel. He had seen it happen to others. As he sat there, waiting, head down, he suddenly felt a presence. He looked up and there was an old man with a wrinkled unexpressive face. The man was hunched over. But with his stick, he drew something in the sand at Solzhenitsyn's feet. It was the sign of the cross. As Solzhenitsyn stared at that symbol, his entire perspective somehow changed. He knew he was one man pitted against the Soviet Empire, but he also knew that hope for all mankind was represented by the simple cross of one man who stood against the history of the ages and triumphed. Getting up, Solzhenitsyn reached for his shovel and returned to work, awaiting the day when his writings on truth and freedom would engulf the world.

Millions of people throughout the centuries have experienced the power of the cross--the love of the God-Man who died for our sins and rose for our justification. It's not just the passion of the Christ that we celebrate today. It's the power of the cross and the promise of the resurrection; it's the Gospel; it's the Good News; it's the hope we need. And that's why we call it Good Friday.