Too often we Christians have given in to the temptation to sanitize the crucifixion and sentimentalize the resurrection. But the resurrection was not, at first, a cause for rejoicing, but the source of fear—soul-shaking, knee-knocking, heart-pounding, earth-quaking fear.
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Dwight Longenecker as he contemplates the gruesome reality of the crucifixion and resurrection. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
One of the good things about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is the gore. He has not sanitized the torture and execution of Jesus Christ. After doing the research, Mel Gibson said, if anything he toned it down. The gritty death of Jesus Christ is important to remember because the other side of the coin is the gritty glory of the resurrection.
This was real. It was blood, sweat, and tears. It was gutsy and gruesome. He was stripped naked, beaten into mincemeat, and hung out to die. His friends wept in frustrated fury and fled in craven cowardice. Likewise, his resurrection was not a walk in the park on a Spring morning. This was not a happy ending with a nice lady weeping quietly and feeling sad about a friend who had died.
This was the terrifying realization that on top of it all someone had stolen his body. Then it was the even worse horror that we all would feel in the face of the un-dead. Was this thing a ghastly ghost? Was he an imposter? How could this be? Was this a fearsome ghoul from the underworld—some grotesque mannequin from the realm of the dead? This was not, at first, a cause for rejoicing, but the source of fear—soul-shaking, knee-knocking, heart-pounding, earth-quaking fear.
The physical reality of the cross and resurrection is a powerful antidote to the bad religion in our society today. Ross Douthat chronicles the bad religion in his book of the same name. He surgically lays out the Disneyland Christianity of the prosperity preachers with their fake smiles, false promises, and boasts of success. American Protestantism (and much of Catholicism) has fallen in love with this phony Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism—Christianity without a cross and therefore without a resurrection.
The prosperity preachers espouse a subtle form of gnosticism—that ancient heresy that dissolved the reality of the incarnation and replaced it with a subtle, secret message that promised a good life here and a better life hereafter—if only the devotee would follow the step by step rules to a better life.
More explicit in their preaching of gnosticism are the liberal Bible scholars who seem infatuated with the late, bogus gnostic gospels. They do everything they can to undermine and late date the canonical gospels while arguing as hard as they can for the early date of the gnostic gospels. They work hard to paint the historical gospels as a myth that should be dismissed while enthusing over the gnostic gospels, which we know are a myth.
Why all this bogus scholarship and phony posturing? Because the neo-gnostics obviously prefer Christianity to be a myth. If the gospels can be shown to be unhistorical and on the same level as the gnostic gospels, then the whole thing can be written off as a myth. What is even more ridiculous and scandalous is that these scholars continue to write their books and claim their paychecks and defend their tenure because they are objective scholars of an interesting byway of ancient literature and culture.
Gnosticism was known for turning the historical gospels into myth, for teaching a secret wisdom that would bring the devotees a better life, and for being a freewheeling, amorphous system of syncretism that took a pinch of this philosophy and a shake of that religion and blended them all together with a smidgen of this occult practice and a smattering of that ancient voodoo.
It’s all there in the supermarket of modern American heresy, and the third form of this neo-gnosticism is the individualistic non-creed of being “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, like Frank Sinatra, “I’ll Do It My Way.” So the American neo-gnostic gathers a few attractive religious practices from Eastern religions, a few moral ideas from Christianity, a bunch of bromides from daytime TV mixed with some popular superstition and half-baked philosophies. When this is combined with American consumerism and the entertainment culture, the heady high is complete and the neo-gnostic is suitably smug and sated.
Beneath all gnosticism is the assumption of dualism. The world is separated into good and evil, and the physical world is assumed to be inferior to the spiritual world. Therefore, the physical world doesn’t really matter that much. If it doesn’t matter that much, one must either negate it through asceticism (but that’s not really the American way!) or indulge in it as freely and wantonly as one likes because all that physical stuff doesn’t really matter that much anyway. What matters is the spiritual!
And that is why The Passion of the Christ and the real, physical guts and glory of the resurrection are so important. Richard Bauckham’s monumental study, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses proves and therefore stresses how important it is that the gospels record the experiences of people who were there. A myth does not report historical personages like Caiaphas and Pilate. A myth does not record the words of individuals like the centurion at the crucifixion. A myth does not record details like, “Mary the mother of Joses was there,” or “Simon of Cyrene was the father of Alexander and Rufus,” or that a young man ran away naked or a servant of the high priest had his ear cut off. These are not the details of myth. These are the details of death—a violent, bloody and terrifying death.
The details continue into the account of the resurrection, and to be sure there are discrepancies. Who was first at the tomb? What did they see? Was he real or was he a ghost? Did Thomas doubt? How many women went to the garden? The fact that at this point the details become confused and seemingly contradictory also point to the veracity of the event. Isn’t this just what you would expect when something so traumatic and life-changing had taken place? The disciples were scattered and terrified. Events were tumbling around them faster than they could process. The confusion validates the tale. Even the seeming discrepancies lend verisimilitude to the events of that day.
These are the gritty realities we must cope with if we call ourselves Christian. Too often we Christians have given in to the temptation to sanitize the crucifixion and sentimentalize the resurrection. This is our own form of semi-gnosticism, and we should repudiate it and cling instead to the old rugged cross—the emblem of suffering and shame. Then we should also wake up that Easter morning with the trembling realization that this was no conjuring trick with bones, nor was it a dream or a fairytale ending to a lovely story. It was a flesh and blood and bones reality. A boulder was rolled away. The stained and singed grave-clothes were placed there for posterity. The tomb was empty. Death’s dark prison cell was breached, and the prisoner was free.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in March 2018.
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 Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York, NY: Free Press, 2013).
 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017).