One of the most beautifully moving passages I have read on why Jesus appeals to many is from the last section of the last chapter of Dale Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus:
“The basic sequence of Jewish eschatology appears again and again in the sayings attributed to Jesus: suffering then vindication, tribulation then blessedness, death then life:
- “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” (Luke 6:21; Gospel of Thomas 69)
- “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4; Luke 6:21)
- “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12; Luke 6:22-23)
- “Blessed are those who humble themselves for they will be exalted” (Matt. 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14)
- “Those who lose their life will keep it” (Matt. 10:39; Mark 8:35; Luke 17:33)
- “The last will be first” (Mark 10:31; Gospel of Thomas 4).
- “The Son of man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31)
- “But in those days, after that suffering … they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:24-26).
Part of the reason that Jesus so fascinates and inspires is that his life incarnates the eschatological pattern. He is the coincidence of opposites, embodying in his own person the extremes of apocalyptic expectation, which means the extremes of human experience. He is the first who becomes last and the last who becomes first.
On the one hand, Jesus announces and makes real the eschatological presence of the God of Israel. Satan has fallen like lightning from heaven and the demons are being routed (Matt. 12:25-29; Mark 1:21-28; 3:23-30; 5:1-20; Luke 10:18; 11:17-22). The lame walk and the blind see (Matt. 11:5; Mark 2:1-12; 10:46-52; Luke 7:22). Lepers are cleansed and those in poverty are cheered with good news (Matt. 11:5; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 7:22). The long-awaited kingdom of God has arrived and there is no time to fast, only to make merry: the bridegroom is here (Matt. 12:28; Mark 2:18-19; Luke 11:20; 17:20). Expectant crowds naturally follow Jesus everywhere (Mark 1:32-34; 2:1, 13; 3:7; 5:21; John 12:9), and elation, gratitude, and amazement seize them by turns (Matt. 11:25; Mark 2:12; 4:41; 5:20, 42; Luke 10:17, 21; 17:16). Even death does not put an end to all the celebration, for death is swallowed up in victory, and there is reunion with forgiven friends (Matt. 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-53; John 20-21). The old world is ashes; the new world has come.
On the other hand, that is only half of the story. Paradoxically, the joyful Jesus is familiar with sorrows and acquainted with grief. He has nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58). People abuse him with insults (Matt. 11:19; Mark 2:16; 3:30; Luke 7:34). Respected leaders assail his teachings and behavior (Mark 2:1-12, 23-28). Others turn a deaf ear to his appeals (Matt. 11:20-24; Mark 6:1-6; Luke 10:13-15). John the Baptist, a man he hails as more than a prophet, is arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded (Mark 6:17-29). Ever since then, the kingdom of God suffers violence (Matt. 11:12). His own companions misunderstand (Mark 7:18; 8:14-21, 31- 33; 9:32; 10:13-16). Eventually, one of them – “one of the twelve, as Mark says several times – betrays him to his enemies (Mark 14:1-2, 17-21, 43- 53). The others, in his hour of desperation, confusedly run away, leaving him alone – except for Peter, who spinelessly follows from a distance and then denies ever knowing him (Mark 14:66-72; John 18:15-18, 25-27). Pagan soldiers whip Jesus, mock him, and nail him to an instrument of torture (Mark 15:15, 24). Unfeeling crowds file by and stare, hurling ridicule (Mark 15:29-31). Finally, he dies un-Socratically, seemingly disillusioned, feeling as though God – the good Father who is kind to all, the good Father who opens the door to those who knock, the good Father who takes care of the lilies and the ravens and should all the more take care of the saints (Luke 6:35; Matt. 7:7-11 = Luke 11:9-13; Matt. 6:25-34 = Luke 12:22-31) – has forsaken him (Mark 15:34). His end is physical torment and mental anguish, loss of life and loss of meaning.
So the tradition gives us a Jesus who knows how to laugh loudly and to wail miserably, a Jesus who knows the presence of God and the absence of God, a Jesus who experiences what some of us find long before we die: both heaven and hell.
That Jesus is big enough to take in the extremes of human experience makes him both sympathetic and convincing. Any credible interpretation of human existence must come to terms with the acute polarities that characterize most of our lives. Even in the midst of our relative prosperity, anxiety and anger by turns grip us; malevolence and foolishness greet us daily; sin and guilt never leave us. Physical pain and mental pain haunt our lives, and we are ever the victims of the senseless sport of circumstance: something is always going wrong, when not for us then for others we love. And over it all is spread the eternal shroud of death. We blossom and flourish and wither and perish. Our cruel fate is to close our eyes and become short-term memories.
And yet, in the midst of such universal misfortune and heartbreak, an inscrutable Providence allows us sometimes to behold the good, the true, and the beautiful, enables us to happen upon friendship and love, laughter and delight, knowledge and wisdom; and those of us with religious faith may further believe that, through some enigmatic grace, we have sometimes encountered the ineffable presence of a loving God. So human experience in general and religious experience in particular offer intense paradoxes. Maybe this is what Pascal was getting at when he wrote, “It is incomprehensible that God exists, and it is incomprehensible that he does not exist.”
Jesus’ words and life give fitting expression to all this. The extremes of human experience are such that they are effectively represented by the extremes of eschatological expectation and by a life of celebration and crucifixion. If Jesus had pretended to know only the blessings of the future age, we should turn our backs on him, for we would know his faith to be a hopeless flight from the pain and dread of living. And if he had harped only on deaths doom and the tribulation of the latter days, we would have to judge his hope too small, the distance between him and God too great. But it was otherwise. By announcing not only tribulation present and coming but also salvation present and coming and then by living into both, Jesus commends himself to us.
One last thought. Although Jesus may be the coincidence of opposites, he does not reconcile or unify them. For him, death and life are not like summer and winter, the one always coming after the other, in an eternal return, without victor. He may believe in the devil, but he believes far more in God. Jesus’ dualism is relative, not absolute. There can be no tie, for evil is bound to lose. The divine love and goodness must triumph over all else. So the opposites are not complementary but antagonistic, not equal but sequential: in the end, the good undoes the bad. And in this, as in so much else, Jesus’ life instantiates his teaching. For the resurrection does not balance crucifixion and the grave. It defeats them.