Was Jesus a tragic figure? The Crucifixion was certainly as brutal and bloody as anything in Sophocles or Shakespeare. It was the kind of death which the ancient Romans reserved mostly for political rebels, and the point was to humiliate its victims as well as torture them. Look how helpless you are when up against our power!” was the mocking message. The Roman official who ordered the execution, Pontius Pilate, was notoriously cruel and corrupt, and was finally dismissed from the Roman imperial service for dishonourable conduct. We know quite a bit about Pilate from secular sources, and he wasn’t the decent, vacillating type some writers portray him as.
If Jesus was a tragic figure, however, what about the Resurrection? Surely tragedies end badly, whereas Jesus was finally raised up in glory? Well, not all tragedies end badly. The first great tragedy we have from ancient Greece, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, ends on a note of reconciliation, and so do a good many other such dramas, including some of Shakespeare’s. Tragedy isn’t just about total catastrophe. There are usually some shoots of new life struggling to get through. It is about the fact that in order to attain that new life, you have to be hauled through hell. There can be no remaking without a radical breaking. Those who gain their lives have first to lose them. Or as WB Yeats puts it, “Nothing can be sole or whole/ that has not been rent”.
This is true of baptism. Baptism isn’t merely about symbolically washing the baby, but about symbolically drowning it. Our first act as human beings must be to give up our lives in order to have them richly restored to us. There can be no self-achievement without self-dispossession. But this process can only work if you approach the dark night of dispossession with utter seriousness.
Jesus himself takes it so seriously that at one point he asks aloud why his Father has forsaken him – the only moment in history, as GK Chesterton remarked, when “God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” His Resurrection is a victory over death and suffering, but it does not wipe it out. This is why his risen body is still marred with the wounds of the Cross.
You have to live your life to the full, live constantly in the shadow of it, in order to get beyond it. Only thus can a cul-de-sac turn into a horizon. You have to stare the reality of suffering, loss and despair in the face if you are to transform them into something rich and rare.
It is notable that though Jesus spends much of his time curing the sick, he never once urges the diseased and disabled to reconcile themselves to their afflictions. On the contrary, he seems to see those afflictions as the work of Satan. He has come to give his people abundant life, not to recommend misery as good for their souls. This is why the Gospel writers are careful to insert the Gethsemane scene in their narrative, which shows Jesus panicking at the thought of his impending death. He is afraid of death, and prays for it to be averted, because like all martyrs he wants to live. Martyrs give up the most precious thing they have; to die because you think your life is worthless is to be not a martyr but a suicide.
If you have to suffer, and can pluck some value from it, then well and good. But it would be far better if you didn’t have to writhe in agony in the first place. Jesus didn’t want to die; but if you speak out loudly enough for love and justice in a corrupt world, it is likely that the state will step in and juridically murder you, as it did with Jesus. It’s just that Christians believe that this isn’t quite the last word.
Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. He is the author of more than 40 books, most recently Tragedy (Yale University Press)