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The Reactionary Utopian
June 4, 2009

The Incomparable One
by Joseph Sobran

[The finality of the Gospels]

VIRGINIA BEACH, VA — Jesus was far from being an old man when his earthly life ended. He was probably well under 40, roughly the age of Mozart, who died at 35, as his genius was still approaching its unimaginable peak.

By contrast, nobody thinks of Jesus as having died prematurely, as if he had been killed before his teaching had been fully developed, and as if it might have ripened into something more profound and interesting had his life span been longer. There is about his life a sense of completeness; he had done what he had come to achieve. At the very end, he said, “It is consummated.” He had foretold his own death and resurrection.

The Jesus Seminar, a liberal group that includes theologians as well as the director of Robocop, has tried to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic sayings of Jesus in the four Gospels; but nobody has ventured to suggest what he might have said if only he had survived another 10 years or so. Those Gospels do seem to indicate the fulfillment of a mission, don’t they?

It is, of course, impossible for anyone to invent a single saying worthy of Jesus. Much easier to coin a phrase worthy of a human genius like Shakespeare! “Heaven and earth shall pass away,” Jesus said, “but my words shall not pass away.” Once we have heard those words, they become part of us. They seem so familiar that we may think they are trite, but they are not. They are eternally new, even when we have heard them all our lives, and they always reward meditation on them.

Some day when you have nothing better to do, try improving on the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Don’t all religions agree on that? No. In most religions — see the Iliad, the Koran, and the Psalms, for example — it is normal to pray for revenge. Forgiving and praying for one’s enemies are among the hardest duties of a Christian. Being “nice” is far from the same thing as being a Christian; after all, Jesus was not tortured to death for urging good manners on his disciples.

But he did recommend good manners. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, the assertion that the meek shall inherit the earth is not at all a meek statement. “Meek” does not mean cowardly or timid; it means polite and unassuming.

If you want to contend that the Gospels are packs of lies and that Jesus never said all those things or performed all those wonders, you should at least admit that Christianity is the most brilliant hoax of all time. Everything fits so well. How could a few unlearned and provincial Jews invent such a supremely memorable character, endow him with the ability to speak immortal words on all occasions, then make virtually all the details of his story cohere so well, tallying even with Old Testament prophecy?

A cliche of literary criticism tell us that evil characters are more interesting than good ones. If so, why is this best of all characters — indeed, he is sinless — so fascinating? And how could four unpracticed amateur writers create the most vividly virtuous personality in all literature? And why does he sound like the same utterly unique man in all of their accounts of him?

In Jesus, goodness is not at all bland; it normally inspires, but it can also be disturbing, challenging, even frightening. He is incomparable; he never reminds us of anyone else. He spiritually dwarfs even the charismatic John the Baptist.

It has been said (again, by Chesterton) that whereas the death of Socrates seems to come as a rather arbitrary interruption of a conversation that might have gone on forever, Jesus’ death is the center of his story. Even during his infancy, his mother received intimations of his agonizing destiny. And he knew when his fatal hour had come.

Unbelievers have made it their never-ending task to explain Jesus away. Some have even suggested that he never existed at all! That degree of unbelief is itself unbelievable. Such daft doubts remind us that atheism is the extreme form of wishful thinking.

But there will be no wishful thinking in hell, where all comforting fantasies end forever.

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