As humans, we are all subject to suffering and death. We can’t escape it. It seems like we can’t go a day without hearing of some new tragedy, either close to home or across the globe. The senseless evil of the shooting in Charleston, the horrendous cruelty of ISIS, the devastating earthquake in Nepal, the grief of friends, the list goes on and on.
Although we all live under the dominion of death, we are still estranged from it. Death seems unnatural to us. Therefore, it has always been one of the principal tasks of religion to make sense of the tragic necessity of our own mortality, to provide us with a framework, or meta-narrative, which makes death explicable, rational, and natural. In order to reconcile us to death, almost all ancient civilizations placed it within a sacred economy of sacrifice – a system of balanced transactions between humanity and the gods that was ruled by fate. In this economy death was necessary in order to sustain the life of the community and the life of the cosmos itself. One of the clearest examples of this was the Aztec’s practice of offering human sacrifices to the sun god Tonatuih. They offered up these victims, not out of some savage bloodlust, but because they believed that without them the order of the world would fall apart – the sun would refuse to move.
As modern people we are disgusted by the Aztec’s primitive religious practices, but our longing to make sense of suffering and death endures. Because of our desire to be reconciled with our own mortality, the sacrificial logic of antiquity has oftentimes made its way into Christianity. This type of logic can be seen whenever there is a natural disaster or some other type of tragedy. In the aftermath there are always Christians who try to make sense of why it occurred. Many people mimic Job’s friends saying that evil befalls those who are especially sinful or wicked. Others make the case that suffering serves some greater purpose—that God allows evil in order to further His ultimate plan. These kinds of explanations are consoling because they help us to make sense of the seemingly random violence that we encounter and they help us find solace in God’s guiding hand.
But are they in line with the Christian story?
In his book, The Beauty of the Infinite, and in the lecture posted above, David Bentley Hart argues that this type of religious resignation is deeply at odds with the proclamation of Easter. As Christians we are not called to become disillusioned realists, looking for reasons to explain why suffering occurs. Instead, Hart says that the doctrine of the resurrection “requires of faith something even more terrible than submission before the violence of being…it places all hope and all consolation upon the insane expectation that what is lost will be given back again.”
The resurrection shatters the sacrificial logic of antiquity, because in the empty tomb we discover that the God of Israel is not a tragic God. The Father did not accept the finality of Jesus’ death, but raised him from the dead. And in that moment the whole rationality of a world reconciled to death collapsed. Death no longer discloses any deeper metaphysical truth about the world, it is simply a shadow and a falsehood overcome by infinite love. For Christ trampled down death by his death and has thus transformed it into a passage to new life.
The cross has become the Tree of Life.