March 20, 2008
During this week preceding Easter, in millions of Christian churches throughout the world, one or more of the four scriptural accounts of the death of Jesus will be read. Over the centuries they have been so encrusted with theology and devotion that it is hard — for believing Christians surely, but even for others without a religious stake — to hear them for what they are: an appalling story of arrogance and fecklessness leading to the brutal execution of an innocent man. Novelists and movie-makers from atheist to fanatic have rarely been able to portray this purely human drama without sanctimony. For all its claimed realism, even that gory film, The Passion of the Christ, was so permeated by piety that the literal and universal theme of the crucifixion was obscured: Homo homini lupus: Man is a wolf to man.
But it was always so. Almost immediately after Jesus’ death, theological theories, esoteric sayings, and fanciful tales either sanitized these accounts or denied them altogether: Jesus, the divine Son of God, could not possibly have died like that, if at all. Some claimed that the whole thing must have been an illusion, a kind of trompe l’oeil painted by God to sift those without spiritual eyes from those with mere physical ones.
Early Christianity produced many versions of the life, work, and teaching of Jesus — "gospels," they were called — but only four of them contained narratives of Jesus’ death. The others avoided the subject, asserting instead that salvation lay in the illumination of the soul by the knowledge of spiritual truths communicated by Christ. These "gnostic gospels" (from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis) have sparked renewed interest today by scholars like Elaine Pagels, and for good reason. We’re "spiritual, not religious"; we want comfort, not contradiction.
But when it came down to choosing which gospels would form the center of the collection of writings recognized as inspired by God — a Christian Bible complementing the Hebrew one — the consensus of the churches over four centuries concluded that only those containing a narrative of Jesus’ death expressed the true nature of Christian belief. If they had sought uniformity, they’d have picked one Gospel as the official version; instead they included all four, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, similar in theme but inconsistent in detail.
What repulsed the Gnostics in their religious idealism and perfectionism was the fact that the narratives of Jesus’ death are a complete contradiction of what we even now expect religion to be: the protection of God for those who love him, the faithfulness of its adherents, the inspired role of religious authorities as moral leaders and agents of God’s work. Instead what we get here is an account of the vilest and most pathetic aspects of human nature, the self-serving use of religious authority, and most contradictory of all, the utter absence of any God throughout the whole chain of events. Stripped of the evangelists’ unique glosses, the story could have been reported by an atheist.
Among all the characters in this drama, Jesus alone is the man of authenticity and selfless courage. But even at that, as the leader of a moral and religious movement, he is depicted as a failure. It was understandable that the curious crowds that had followed him for his wisdom and his healings could turn fickle under stress, but even his hand-picked disciples, who had sat at his feet and grown to know him and his teachings intimately over three years, were unable to respond to his training. As so often happens in families, in churches, and in politics, his inner circle is the most depraved. Judas, his friend, betrays him; Peter, his "Rock," denies that he ever knew him, and three times no less, just for emphasis; and the rest of them abandon him. The authorities of his own religion, threatened by his integrity, put on a show-trial and convict him on spurious evidence, then expect the civil authorities to do their bidding and execute him.
It is an entirely dismal story, and it reads as real today as it did then. Why has religion, which on its face promises release from suffering and the redemption of the human personality, so often been the cause of suffering, and its fiercest adherents the most unredeemed? Why has Jesus’ admonition to the initially-aggressive, later sniveling Peter, "The ones who take the sword shall perish by the sword," been so roundly ignored through two millennia of Christian history? And why, in the end, was this ignominious death seen by believers as the portal to life? And where, in fact, was God amidst all this?
It’s absolutely absurd — as St. Paul wrote, a stumbling block.
Anyone, Christian or no, religious, atheist, or "spiritual," would do well to take up these passages, uncluttered by eyes of either devotion or suspicion — and stumble over them.