The Times of London: Easter’s Eternal Battle of Death Versus Hope
Originally published in the Times of London. Click here to download a PDF of the newspaper page.
Christians have persecuted Jews but have also led some of history’s greatest moral endeavours.
Christians around the world today, as they have for two millennia, pause to ponder the meaning of Good Friday for their lives. Believers see in the crucifixion of Jesus the justice and mercy of God on behalf of mankind. In the darkness of that historical moment, they discern a ray of hope for the human race — an eventual triumph of love over death.
Doubters see something else, however, something deeply disturbing about religious belief — a glimpse into its fearsome capacity to corrupt the soul.
In the gospel accounts, “the chief priests and rulers” of the Jews in Jerusalem play a critical role in the death of Jesus. They are portrayed as scoffers, jealous of his charismatic influence, afraid that he will undercut Rome’s tolerance of Judaism in a violently pagan empire. “We have found this man subverting our nation,” they complain to Pontius Pilate. “He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.” Once delivered to the Romans, Jesus can be charged with sedition — a capital offence.
The Christian Church seized upon this aspect of the story as a reason to persecute the Jews, despite its own deep connection to Judaism. As Christianity dominated the political and cultural institutions of the West, Church leaders brought their antisemitism with them. Throughout medieval Europe, for example, the “Passion plays” held on Good Friday — dramatising the final hours of Jesus’ life — produced vicious attacks on Jewish populations.
Here is what might be called the “poison of religion,” to borrow a phrase from the late Christopher Hitchens. It is religious zeal gone wrong. René Pascal, himself a devout believer, candidly admitted: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
The Inquisition remains the textbook example. In 1252 Pope Innocent IV authorised torture to put down heresy. Popular methods included flogging, burning and the rack. Not permitted to face their accusers, thousands were executed without mercy. Pope John Paul II called it “a tormented phase in the history of the Church.” Lasting well into the 18th century, it had quite a run.
Protestants condemned the Roman Catholic Church for its pogroms and witch hunts, but soon generated their own. During the Restoration, worship outside the Anglican Church was a criminal act. Dissenters faced imprisonment. “If Restoration England did not see a return to the burning of heretics,” writes John Coffey, a historian at the University of Leicester, “it did witness persecution on a grand scale.”
How do we explain this culture of violence in God’s name — and what does it have to do with Good Friday?
The spirit of the persecuting Church was not unlike the spirit that moved the “chief priests and rulers” of the Jews to turn against Jesus. No one in Israel’s collective memory had spoken so movingly about God’s relentless love for outcasts and sinners. In his kingdom, he said, there were no seats reserved for the rich and mighty, only for the humble in heart. But the purveyors of poisoned religion could not abide this subversive message.
The judgment against Jesus suggests an intellectual conceit: a fraudulent faith that confuses God, the great “I am,” with a self-aggrandising deity. It is a problem that touches every religion in every age: using piety to mask the will to power.
If Good Friday reveals the darkness of the human condition, Easter Sunday proclaims God’s victory over darkness. In the resurrection story is a vision of humanity no longer burdened by the forces of violence, hatred, and death. Christianity thus illuminates our universal predicament: the impulse to crucify rages against the longing to redeem. False religion thrives on the former. Authentic faith sides with the latter, the world’s rescuers and reformers. They led the historic campaigns to abolish the slave trade, achieve racial equality and overturn communist tyranny. Today we see them toiling in drug dens, war zones and refugee camps, bringing hope to those living in darkness.
The struggle between these forces reached a climax in the life of the Nazarene. The enemies of Jesus invoked the divine will when they sentenced him to the anguish of Golgotha. The great irony is that his followers also saw the divine will at work — the judgment of God against the shadow of sin and death.
Yet not only judgment. For believers, the love of God could not allow the story to end on the cross. Mercy must have its say: the resurrection must follow the crucifixion. Thus God uses death, the death of his Son, to destroy death once and for all. As foretold in the prophet Isaiah: “He will swallow up death for ever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.” If history is any guide, no pretence in the world — no counterfeit religion of any kind — can stand up to that.
Joseph Loconte an Associate Professor of History at The King’s College in New York City and the author of God, Locke and Liberty: the Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West (Lexington 2014).