In August of 1867, Fyodor Dostoevsky made a special stop with his wife Anna Grigorievna to see a painting. We know this from an entry she made in her diary:
On the way to Geneva, we stopped for a day in Basel, with the purpose of seeing a painting in the museum there that my husband had heard about from someone.
The painting, from the brush of Hans Holbein, portrays Jesus Christ, who has suffered inhuman torture, has been taken down from the cross and given over to corruption. His swollen face is covered with bloody wounds, and he looks terrible. The painting made an overwhelming impression on my husband, and he stood before it as if dumbstruck …
When I returned some fifteen or twenty minutes later, I found my husband still standing in front of the painting as if riveted to it. There was in his agitated face that expression as of fright which I had seen more than once in the first moments of an epileptic fit.
The painting, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb,” eventually found its way into Dostoevsky’s most autobiographical novel, The Idiot, as a central test of faith. The Christ-figure protagonist (and epileptic) Myshkin at first tries to avoid the picture:
“That picture! That picture!” cried Myshkin, struck by a sudden idea. “Why, a man’s faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!”
But later, much like Dostoevsky, Myshkin becomes transfixed before the painting, and he formulates the novel’s central question:
. . . Strangely, when you look at the corpse of this tortured man, a particular and curious question arises: if all his disciples, his chief future apostles, if the women who followed him and stood by the cross, if all those who believed in him and worshipped him had seen a corpse like that (and it was bound to be exactly like that), how could they believe, looking at such a corpse, that this sufferer would resurrect?
The Idiot frustrates many readers because it seems to end in Myshkin’s humiliation. No, it doesn’t seem to. It does end in Myshkin’s humiliation. The Idiot and Holbein’s painting are both forever frozen at the point of defeat, perpetual challenges to faith.
But why? Why would Dostoevsky torture himself before Holbein’s painting and then allow his most personal novel to topple like a folly whose builder had not counted the cost? It doesn’t seem helpful or healthy to pause at a complete liquidation of all hope. But Dostoevsky believed it central both to the establishment of an honest faith and a true identification with Jesus.
And Dostoevsky is not the only believer in God to consider this lingering necessary. Have you ever wondered why Jesus retains the scars of his crucifixion after the resurrection (Jn 20:24–29)? Why is the Christ, even in his ascended glory, pictured as a standing, but “as if slain,” lamb in the heavenly court of God (Rev 5:6)? Why are we told to eat and drink his body and blood and to perpetually proclaim his death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26)?
The answer to this undermines our Western ideal of non-contradiction, but it is nonetheless biblical: Jesus is, at once, both the perpetually crucified and perpetually resurrected God-man. I don’t mean that he is being perpetually crucified or perpetually resurrected. I mean that his death has an eternal quality to it, and that the only way for finiteness to represent infinity is for it to continue existing forever. So if Jesus’ death is to have eternal efficacy, he will forever be marked by it.
The reality here is that finitely imaging the infinite can start to get into mind-bending psychedelic territory real fast (just read Ezekiel or Revelation for examples). Eternity and infinity have a way of collapsing our Newtonian distinctions into a black hole of paradoxical mutualities. But learning to grasp two seemingly contradictory things at once is at the heart of growing in wisdom (Ecc 7:18), and it is also at the heart of the logic of the incarnation (and so many other Christian doctrines for that matter: free will/predestination, the Trinity, etc.).
And that’s where this whole thing wraps back around. God, in the incarnation, gathers the eternal realities about himself together and invests them like permanent multiple exposures into the Word of Jesus. The power of death and the power of life. The immanent and the transcendent. Perfect control and perfect surrender. Jesus is our only proper object of worship, for all things—in earth and in heaven—are “summed up” in him (Eph 1:10).
And among those things, quite uncomfortably, is destruction. All the destruction.
Consider if you can that the destruction of the Flood pales in comparison to the destruction of the Cross. In some ways, the Flood made it possible for us to understand what was really happening at the Cross—like the Grand Canyon does for the Milky Way.
And don’t forget the sacrifices. The millions and millions of oxen, sheep, and birds. Consider all of their blood. All of that death. It too was training wheels for the infinite. We look at the Cross, and we see only a man dying. How is his death all that different from the deaths of the people beside him?
Remember: infinity is flat and uninteresting. It is incomprehensible, and therefore meaningless, to us. But God displayed for thousands of years before and after the Passion what that incomprehensible single human death really meant. God approximated it for us, in other words.
The Cross contains the destruction of the Flood, and the sufferings of Job, and the persecution of the prophets, and the blood of every sacrifice, and every evil and calamity that ever happened before or after. If the virgin conception is a picture of infinite light contained in a single human cell, the Cross is a conception of a different sort—of infinite darkness poured into a single human vessel. And both of those eternal realities must remain in the resurrected Christ. He drank God’s entire eternal wrath to the dregs, and the reality of drinking the Flood marks his body and resides in his spirit forever.
And if that wasn’t enough to stop your breath in front of this picture, Jesus didn’t do a single thing to stop any of this. He opened his arms to it.
In Dostoevsky’s mind, it was precisely Christ’s complete surrender combined with his eternal power that made him beautiful. Friedrich Nietzsche outlined a similar conception of beauty in Thus Spake Zarathustra:
When power becomes gracious and descends into the visible—such descent I call beauty.
And there is nobody from whom I want beauty as much as from you who are powerful: let your kindness be your final self-conquest.
Of all evil I deem you capable: therefore I want the good from you.
Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.
Jesus has claws because God has claws. The Flood, among so many other things, proves that. God is terrifying. Jesus’ enemies mocked him, telling him to come down from the Cross: “Save yourself! You saved others, and you can’t even save yourself!” They had no idea what they were asking. They had no idea the Flood that he was holding back in his skin. When he hung his head and surrendered his spirit, that was ultimate power condescending to kindness. That was sublime and unspeakable beauty.
This was part three of a series on the sublime and infinite. If you haven’t read the other ones: Part 1, Training Wheels for the Infinite and Part 2, Why Most Christians Would be Atheists if They Knew Only a Little More.
And … this has turned out to need at least one more part. I was hoping this would be a clean trilogy of posts, but there’s a real problem here, right? Instead of freeing God from responsibility, it seems like I have further implicated him. Now, on top of all the suffering in history, he’s added to his rap sheet this monumental act of “cosmic child abuse,” to borrow a phrase.
So the question for the next post must be: “Is God evil?” And if he is evil, is all of this a lie? Stay tuned until next time…