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As a theology professor, I regularly confront—and help students to confront—God’s hiddenness in history.
For all the signs that point to God’s activity in time—Jesus’ authority, his miracles, Holy Scripture, the communion of the saints—there are others that just as surely seem to undercut it—Jesus’ similarity to other messianic preachers of his day, the bystanders for whom his miracles were ambiguous at best, the messy origins and internal tensions of the books that comprise our canon, and the church fathers and mothers who fail to inspire or who downright offend us.
I have never been compelled by Christian witnesses who attempt to smooth out these dissonances or simply ignore them. Counterintuitively perhaps, my faith has frequently been spurred by those who refuse to look away from them: the Catholic fiction writer Flannery O’Connor, with her constant inventory of the darkness and cruelty of human agents; and the deeply Orthodox novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose novels read like one long onslaught on the faith.
At times, I have wondered what has made these darker works a paradoxical source of hope for me. Perhaps it is that, in a movement that parallels God’s own, these authors refuse to keep the reality of evil at arm’s length, to hold the God-forgetting world at a distance. Instead, they confront it head on, with characters whose power lies not in their explanatory reasoning but in their suffering love.
Dostoevsky is said to have had a similar compulsion toward the darkness. In 1867, he encountered and was gripped by Hans Holbein’s painting of Christ’s emaciated body taken down from the cross. The lifelessness and disfiguration of Jesus made such an impact on Dostoevsky that he subsequently wrote the painting into his great novel, The Idiot. When the protagonist, Prince Myshkin sees the painting, he exclaims, “Why, a man’s faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!” (Part Two, Chapter 4).
Later in the novel, the character Hippolyte gives voice to the unsettling effect of the painting:
It is strange to look on this dreadful picture of the mangled corpse of the Savior, and to put this question to oneself: “Supposing that the disciples, the future apostles, the women who had followed Him and stood by the cross, all of whom believed in and worshipped Him— supposing that they saw this tortured body, this face so mangled and bleeding and bruised (and they MUST have so seen it)—how could they have gazed upon the dreadful sight and yet have believed that He would rise again?”Part Three, Chapter 6)
Just as God is concealed by Jesus’ lifeless body, so God often seems to go missing within the banal and the desperate circumstances of our days, where the lives of school children are hazarded for political gain, where God’s name is invoked as a cover for human cowardice.
Dostoevsky’s response to a godless age was to confront God’s absence squarely. According to his biographer, “In [the painter] Holbein the Younger, Dostoevsky sensed an impulse, so similar to his own, to confront Christian faith with everything that negated it, and yet to surmount this confrontation with a rekindled (even if humanly tragic) affirmation” (Joseph Frank, quoted by Gionanni Garcia-Fenech).
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I have a long-standing tradition each Holy Saturday of decorating a cake with the word “Yes” in large letters. The tradition goes back 14 years, to my middle year of seminary, when my friend Iliana Wood baked the first “Yes” cake, which she served with a quote from Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian known for his dialectical handling of God’s love and wrath.
Since then, my annual Easter “Yes” cake has made the rounds among Barthian circles on social media, causing a few other Princeton Seminary alums to take up the tradition, now a joyful shared observance among theology nerds.
Sometimes the “Yes” is made of bananas or walnuts or candy; sometimes it’s written in frosting. I like to bake the cake myself, switching up the recipe each year, but I sometimes resort to purchasing a cake from the grocery store. One year I secured a “dirt” cake interlayered with chocolate mousse and crawling with gummy worms, which I subsequently rearranged into my Easter “Yes.” These appropriate symbols of the grave were only surpassed the year that I baked a devil’s food cake—as fitting a sign as any of God’s subversive action on the cross.
You see, the “Yes” on my cakes is not just a “Yes”— not a cheery or triumphalist acclamation that all is well. Baked into the “Yes” is a real and substantive “No”: God’s negation of Sin and Death, of the forces that defy God’s righteousness and love. The “No” is baked in to the “Yes,” but the “Yes” is the inner meaning of the “No.”
Barth Writes, “Hidden deep beneath this inescapable No is God’s Yes as the meaning of his work and word…The secret of the judgment carried out on Golgotha is actually not God’s rejection but his grace, not men’s destruction but their salvation” (Evangelical Theology, 154). Without the empty tomb, the cross speaks to us only of defeat, devastation, and the absence of God. Christ’s resurrection from the dead re-interprets the cross as the paradoxical locus of God’s unrelenting resolve to live with and for us.
Easter then, is not a declaration that all is fine, that death is unreal, or that human sin and cruelty are trivial. Even less is it the report that God is finally indifferent to the horrors that grip our short run on this planet, horrors that make this life, for some, a living hell.
Easter is God’s ultimate act of subversion. Refusing to remain aloof from our created hells, God conceals himself in history, we might say, following to the end the dark and weary way where God is most hidden and, drawing us to God’s own heart, absorbs the venom of our evil.
“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18).
Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, trans. Grover Foley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979).
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Eva Martin (Start Publishing, 2013).
Joseph Frank, quoted in Giovanni Garcia-Fenech, “Dostoevsky and the challenge of Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ,” Artstor (July 17, 2019).