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Bonus Easter Post: The Christian Story and the Formation of the Imagination

The painting above is Christ on the Cross by Eugène Delacroix. Of the many paintings depicting the crucifixion of Jesus, this one stood out for a few reasons. First is the almost palpable sense of distress, not only in the barely-visible face of Jesus but also in the faces of the spectators to the right of the cross. Second is the almost palpable sense of darkness in the background, where the thick brush strokes convey the thickness of ever-darkening clouds, as if reacting to the death of the God-man. All that covers Jesus is the white loincloth of a beggar and the crown of a mocked and beaten king. His disciples have scattered, leaving Him utterly alone with grieving women (and the man to the right, who is perhaps John), forsaken by God the Father Himself. If this man is the Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the One to whom the prophets testified, truly sinless in His death, then no greater act of injustice and tragedy has ever occurred in history. God Himself has faced the criminal's shameful demise.

Tragedy Turned Comedy

In classical literature, the tragedy refers to the genre of play involving the ultimate downfall of the main character. Classic examples of tragedies include Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare's Hamlet. One could characterize the crucifixion of Jesus as the end of the greatest tragedy, a compassionate and loving man and teacher who, because of His conflict with the religious authority, was killed by that authority. There are just two problems with characterizing the story in this way. First, Jesus was by no means merely "a compassionate and loving man and teacher." He was these things, but to say that He was merely these things is to grossly misrepresent His claim to the "I AM" who lived prior to Abraham (John 8:58). To be the I AM, the only eternally self-existent One, is to be God Himself. Either Jesus is telling the truth, or He is a lying blasphemer. This leads me to my second point. Read as a tragedy, the end of Jesus' story is ambiguous. Is this the great fall of the God-man, or a fraud?

And does the manner of Jesus' death point to either? It would seem so, from a Jewish perspective, for "cursed is he who hangs on a tree" (Deuteronomy 21:23). For the Pharisees, who had orchestrated this execution, the nature of the execution itself would have been proof, but then, what to make of His works? Jesus had said that His works would testify of Him; the Pharisees had responded that it testified of His collusion with the devil. Could the devil have raised Lazarus? If we're to take that Jewish perspective seriously, then Jesus' death is cursed and reveals Him to be a fraud. More significantly, nowhere in the Scripture is it said directly of the Messiah that he should die an accursed death, so to the disciples, His death raises serious doubts as to the truth of His claims. We may have ambiguity, but the evidence leans in the direction of a conclusion that Jesus is yet another failed Messiah. A special one, yes, but not of God. Thus, the tragedy is weighty indeed, for either Jesus was unjustly killed as the sinless Son of God and Messiah, or He was righteously executed for the most heinous of sins: blasphemy in claiming to be God.

Edouard Manet's The Dead Christ With Angels

Imagine those days following the death of Jesus. The disciples left for at least one full day without any answer to what had happened. Will the world go on, untroubled by the death of the One they thought to be the promised Messiah? What would the authorities do now? Undoubtedly, the disciples had heard reports of failed messiahs before. Usually, these were cases of some renegade who decides to try to overthrow the Roman Empire. They were always killed, but not without causing some trouble along the way. Because of this, both Rome and the Sanhedrin had a vested interest in keeping anti-Roman renegades at bay. If Jesus were seen as one such renegade, then who knows what they thought the disciples would do? The Romans had just killed their leader. So, rightfully so, the disciples were scattered and in hiding. Jesus' body, meanwhile, lay entombed, alone. If this were the true end of the story, then it is a tragedy indeed, and no foundation for a church. Yet not all the details point to this tragic end. Reports of a violent earthquake line up with the time of Jesus' death. Matthew tells us that there was darkness over the land from noon until 3:00 that afternoon, the time that Jesus died. The curtain of the temple, which separates the presence of God from the people, has been torn. It is as if creation itself reacted to Jesus' death. Is this consistent with the idea that He is a condemned blasphemer?

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones's The Morning of the Resurrection

Piero della Francesca's Resurrection

Then, on that calm Sunday morning, as some of the women disciples go to tend to the body, everything changed. The tomb was empty. At first, this is simply traumatic. Imagine that you visited a cemetery to lay flowers at the grave a loved one and instead found the casket had been dug up and lay there beside the hole, empty. Had Jesus' body been moved? Had graverobbers come and stolen the body for some reason? Undoubtedly, these questions are on these disciples' minds. What's just happened is terrible.

Though the details differ between the gospels, the core of the narrative remains. The large stone covering the tomb had been rolled away, and angels visit the women and tell them that Jesus has been raised from the dead. They go to tell the other disciples, and, in John, we read that Peter and an unnamed disciple, who is likely John, went to check the tomb to confirm what the women were saying. When they find it empty, they are also distressed. They leave, astonished at this discovery, and Mary Magdalene stands alone before the tomb, weeping. Two angels appear in the tomb and ask her why she weeps. She responds that she doesn't know what they've done with Jesus' body. Then another man, standing behind her, asks the same thing, to which she responds by imploring Him for more information about the body of Jesus. The gardener's response is poignant: "Mary."

At the sound of her name, she sees that this gardener is her Lord. I love the first resurrection painting above because it portrays the scene much like I'd imagine it. Many resurrection paintings share motifs in portraying the scene with great spectacle. Jesus, towering above all, muscular and bright and powerful, floating in the air out of the tomb. The second painting is actually one of the more grounded versions of this kind of resurrection painting. But Burne-Jones's painting is remarkably unembellished, like the gospel accounts themselves. It displays the uncertainty on Mary Magdalene's face, the sheer bewilderment at the fact that her crucified Teacher is now standing before her. He has no special features about Him except for the faintest glow of a halo, but He is the same. I get the feeling that many resurrection paintings confuse the glorified resurrected body with the transfiguration, but the text doesn't describe a transfiguration.

Perhaps a way to interpret this is that most resurrection paintings portray the theological significance of the resurrection through the use of symbols. This is why I've included Francesca's 15th century painting in this post, since it portrays the victory secured through the resurrection. I'll get into this more below.

With Christ's death, we have a terrible tragedy. The narrative seems to end with ambiguity, since the evidence points in the direction that Jesus is a lying blasphemer and failed messiah. With His resurrection, we see that the tragedy has become comedy. A comedy, in the classical sense, is not something that makes you laugh. It is a story in which the themes present are given a more lighthearted tone and that has a happy ending. Think Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. With the resurrection of Jesus, the narrative of His life ends with life eternal, where His shameful death plays a central role in bringing about eternal life.

It is important in reflecting on this element to consider that it isn't the case that, with the resurrection, we discover that the story was a comedy the whole time. This doesn't seem right to me. The narrative of the gospels leading to the crucifixion is both serious and foreboding, particularly during Jesus' last week, as He is predicting His own betrayal and death. There is a feeling of inevitability to His apparent downfall. I have compared this feeling to the sense of foreboding that we get from Episode 3 of Star Wars (a modern tragic tale) prior to Anakin Skywalker's turn to the dark side. It's difficult, on repeat reads of the gospels, not to get a sense of dread leading to the crucifixion.

So it isn't obviously the case that the resurrection turns the whole tale into a comedy. The tone of the gospels simply doesn't reflect this. It is instead that the resurrection reinterprets or reframes the whole of the narrative by showing where it would ultimately lead. Taken by itself, the suffering of the tragedy of Jesus' crucifixion is almost incomprehensible. The beatings, mocking, the nails driven into His hands and feet, the injustice of the whole affair. Yet this palpable sense of darkness, evil, death, the sense that good has lost and evil won, is necessary to bring about the comedic end. In other words, Jesus' suffering had to take place in order to bring about the end of the resurrection. This may seem somewhat trivial; obviously, someone must die to be raised. Let me explore this further by discussing four elements of the narrative of Easter that will hopefully make this point clearer. We've already discussed the theme of tragedy turned comedy, but they relate to the others:

  • Tragedy turned comedy

  • Divine irony

  • The collision of narrative and history

  • The divine pattern to follow

Divine Irony

Irony is a plot device that deals with the realm of the unexpected. The unexpected can often set in contrast themes that are to be given focus in a narrative. In Scripture, we often discover that God orchestrates irony in His guidance of history. There are smaller and larger examples of this all over the Old Testament, which contains a lot of narrative.

In the gospels, however, we discover that the Orchestrator of history is the main character. He is granted center stage in a drama of cosmic proportions. The battle is not between Jesus and the devil, but between Jesus and sin and death. God's invasion, if you will, into the seemingly mundane physical world is perhaps the most unexpected element of the whole story. God took on a body, with all of its physical limitations, to glorify the incorporeal Creator of all things. Yet John tells us that there is glory found in the embodied Lord, especially in His self-sacrificial death. The ultimate humiliation is the basis for Jesus' ultimate exaltation. This humiliation and exaltation reveal what we are told is an essential property of God: love. Love willing to take beatings, mocking, and even death, and love willing to forgive those who inflicted it. Love itself is ironic in this sense: in its fullness in divine expression, love loves the unlovable. And that, we're told, is you and me.

There's much to this theme of divine irony in the gospels. The Lord Jesus associates Himself with sinners, not to judge them, but to heal them. The first element, tragedy turned comedy, is part of the irony replete in the gospels.

The Collision of Narrative and History

The Bible tells us a lot about God. One of the less explicit things that it tells us is that God is the great Storyteller. In fact, much of His revelation of Himself is communicated via story, and it is narrative, not dry theological treatises, which communicate who He is so clearly in Scripture. God knows that we are a storytelling people who love stories because He made us like Himself. It is easy to see, then (if not easy to comprehend), why God would give His ultimate revelation of Himself through a story. Yet this story is not just a story. It is also history.

Using a modern way of understanding objective reality as opposed to value- and meaning-laden metaphors and subjective experience (what the apologist, Francis Schaeffer, called the first floor of facts and the second floor of religion and values), one would expect that no narrative emerges from the bland world of historical facts. In fact, reduced to a set of objectively-verifiable facts about certain events involving certain historical figures, history has nothing to do with narrative. Narrative exists in the world of value and meaning, metaphor and subjective experience. If all that is real is third-person description of some facts, then there is no unified way to interpret the whole with any organization. The patriot sees American history as a story about the onward moral progression of a great nation trying to achieve its ideals in practice, and the critical race theorist sees American history as a history reflecting the dominance and longevity of white supremacy entrenched in a corrupt system of government and culture. Both the patriot and the critical race theorist is doing something that facts alone can't justify them in doing.

Yet, I would suggest, a world devoid of the realm of value and meaning is quite mundane, boring, and even unlivable. There is a reason why the patriot and the critical race theorist have in common their value-laden interpretations of all of American history. How else can we understand the world around us? I've heard it said that the person who rejects God has his "feet planted in midair." With no God to write the story, we desperately attempt to write our own. We can't help it.

Yet, in the story of Jesus, we have the full collision of narrative and history. This point is closely related to the incarnation. If God truly became man in Jesus, then every physical movement of Jesus was revelatory. He is the God whose hand you can shake. Every word has theological significance far surpassing any revelation prior to this. No prophet can outdo the One whose message he is called to communicate.

This collision of narrative and history also entails that you can be sure that this narrative is true. The disciples weren't just told a nice story. They saw Lazarus risen, the blind made able to see, the lame walk, and the mute speak. They witnessed the nails driven into His hands and feet and His forgiveness of His executioners. They saw Him raised and placed their hands on His wounds. In other words, the narrative is strongly grounded in truth, and that means that this story, more than any other, is one both to live and, if necessary, to die for.

The Divine Pattern to Follow

Finally, in showing us that the tragedy of Christ's suffering must precede the comedic ending of eternal life, Jesus gives His disciples the pattern to follow. This is the element that extends all of what is Christ's to all who know Him, and it is probably the element on which we focus the most on Easter. If the story is true and something worth living and dying for, then we who trust in Jesus' death and resurrection will be given life in Him and strength to live according to the pattern of the God-man.

In this way, the narrative of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is extended to all of church history, as we see this narrative played out over and over again in the lives of wretched and redeemed sinners. Yet, the sobering reality is that we must take on both tragedy and comedy to follow Jesus. In His presence is the fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11), but we must take up our cross to follow Him (Matthew 16:24-26). We are promised trials and suffering in this life because we love our Lord.

The upshot of this, however, is that, if we live according to the pattern of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, then nothing is without purpose or meaning in His story. In Christ, even suffering is given its proper place in human experience. That doesn't make it easy to suffer as a Christian, but it provides the way to understand suffering and endure it, for your good and God's glory. Following the divine pattern, then, is the invitation of the Gospel, the invitation to join in with God story as He is writing it in history after the pattern of the One who came and did all of it already.

The Formation of the Christian Imagination

In closing, I want to reflect on the importance of developing a uniquely Christian imagination. I've come to be convinced that this is a necessary part of Christian discipleship and sanctification. The simple fact is that more than one story, more than one narrative and grand interpretation of history, vie for our attention. We must learn to think, believe, feel, and imagine after the pattern of our Lord.

It was C.S. Lewis who called the imagination the "organ of meaning," and I think that he is right. This long-maligned and neglected organ in a naturalistic Western world has led to two unfortunate consequences, which I think affect Christians just as much as non-Christians. First, without any anchor in truth, the neglected imagination can't comprehend the seemingly contradictory aspects of human experience. Human experience seems fractured and unenchanted. Second, without the development of the imagination to organize and grant value to the world and human experience, all manner of evil takes root in the human heart and mind. This occurs either in the development of false ways of interpreting the world, from Marxism to Nazism and everything in-between, or in the invasion of the kinds of fruitless entertainment and decadence that's good only for corrupting and decaying the mind and heart. The West is a puzzling place to be right now. We get up in arms about the supposed racism of a decades-old set of children books while avidly defending the murder of tens of millions of babies. We busy ourselves with pointless trivialities and celebrity culture while maligning those great intellectuals who came before us as "old dead men." It is a unique vice indeed to be both ignorant and arrogant.

How should Christians navigate this world in which the mind and heart waste away because of false worldviews and pointless trivialities? Starting this Easter, try to start meditating on Scripture. Meditate on it by taking a passage and reciting it to yourself, considering its meaning with each recitation. Get immersed more and more in Scripture and consider the significance of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross and resurrection. And join Him! Consider what that means and count the cost. Consider what's happening in your life right now and how it fits in, or might fit in, with God's story.

These are just a few suggestions from someone who isn't good at doing this either. This blog post was my attempt at trying it this year and making a practice of it for Holy Week. I hope to take these lessons and apply them more. My prayer is that this post has helped you think about Jesus' death and resurrection during this great time of year, when all of the Church comes together to worship the Lord for what He has done for us. I hope that you have a great Easter spent with family and brothers and sisters in Christ. If you found this post helpful and want to see more, subscribe to receive notifications whenever I post something new. And please consider sharing this on social media. It is not for my popularity but for God's glory. Who knows? Maybe God will use this post to attract people to Him for the first time. Thanks for reading!

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