Christ Crucified and Resurrected vs. ‘The Therapeutic Jesus’

COMMENTARY: The current image of the Jesus of endless self-affirmation promoted in some circles is not the Jesus of the Gospels.

Fra Angelico's “Christ in Limbo,” 1441
Fra Angelico's “Christ in Limbo,” 1441 (photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

We are now well into the Easter season, and at this time every year my mind is drawn to the deep and profound mystery of the Paschal events of Holy Week. But this year it seems I am even more focused on the significance of the cross and Resurrection as the key to understanding the whole of Christianity. 

Sadly, even many in our Church seem intent on promoting an image of Jesus that is purely therapeutic in a manner designed to make it appear as if Christ would be just fine with our current cultural insanity over issues of sexuality and gender in particular, but also in all other areas where various “identities” are emphasized as absolutely central to a person’s happiness and well-being. 

Let us begin, then, with a simple question: What is the revolution that Jesus of Nazareth created, and why was it so shattering to the dominant power structures of the world and forever changed our view of who God is? These are hard questions to answer because the Gospel authors themselves seem reluctant to domesticate the image of Jesus inside the box of a ready-made “theological system,” realizing, I suspect, that as soon as one cages a tiger you really no longer have a tiger. 

The temptation has always been to domesticate Jesus, whether it be through a thousand abstract syllogisms or through his reduction to a gnostic guru of enlightened self-acceptance. I think our culture today is more prone to the latter than the former, as the coffee-shop Christ allows us to call ourselves “Christians” even while we justify killing inconvenient people, whether that be in our seemingly endless war-making or in our various “clinics” for “reproductive health care.” Thus does the Jesus who was crucified in an act of a self-emptying descent into the depth of the human condition, become, through the alchemy of a latte and yoga classes, the Jesus of “death from above” and “dilation and suction.”

The currently fashionable world of “spirituality,” with its dream catchers and its drug store, faux Buddhist therapeutics, knows nothing of the real Jesus. Indeed, these currently fashionable parlor-room curiosities are merely the Ivy League version of the prosperity gospel, complete with promises of body detoxification through the drinking of grotesque green liquids of unknown provenance. Jesus + essential oils = a brownstone in Park Slope.

By contrast, the piercing and lacerating image that the Gospels present is precisely that — an icon of God — and its logic is embedded in the dramatic aesthetic of a humiliated, crucified man who descends into the silent solidarity of the dead. And the Gospels make clear that this descent into the dissolute world of decay, into the moldering stench of Satan’s sting, was the very condition for the glory that follows. The Crucifixion and the descent into death were not mere preliminaries, or a forensic theological mandate that just had to be endured, stoically, in order to fulfill some bestial bloodlust on God’s part before he then rewarded Jesus with the golden ticket. 

No, the cross of Christ is no mere preliminary. It is no mere juridical act of appeasement followed by judicial exoneration and the lavishing of parting gifts. It is in truth the revelation of God’s deepest nature, the expression in human, worldly, time-bound form of the Eternal One. But what can it possibly mean that God’s very inner life is best exposited in this brutalized way? 

Jesus said, “He who sees me sees the Father” (John 14:9). And, according to the Gospels, to “see” Jesus is to look at the cross. Not exclusively (since the Resurrection is part of this event, too), but focally, centrally. It is to view the Resurrection in and through the Crucifixion, which is why the Resurrected Christ is forever the “Lamb who was slain” and whose resurrected body still bears the marks of his grotesque torture. 

Hans Urs von Balthasar points out that, in the Book of Revelation, it is the Antichrist who magically has a head wound healed, which astounds the masses. But Christ is presented as the Lamb who from eternity is slain and who still bears the marks of his crucifixion, which is a deep message of nature’s complete transformation and redemption from within the categories of death, not underneath or behind them. As such, the Lamb constitutes a direct repudiation of the religion of “therapeutic magic” and its quest for superficial dopamine-driven forms of happiness and reveals to us instead a different kind of power rooted in a deep moral and spiritual descent (kenosis in Paul’s Greek) and sacrifice for the sake of others. 

The cross reveals to us that God, as love, is nothing more than pure gift. He is giving, as such. He is decent and exhibits self-emptying sacrifice for the sake of the other, as such. This is the essence of what the Trinity is, as well, and reveals to us what the essence of the divine life within us truly is and what it demands of us in response by way of conversion of our whole being to this model of cruciform sacrifice. Christ is eternally “marked” by his crucifixion. So, too, must we be so marked. This is the criterion for entrance into the Kingdom. This is the essential difference of specifically Christian faith as opposed to all others, secular and religious.

We are not “resurrection people,” as the enneagram and craft-store chalice crowd inform us, as if the cross no longer matters and we can all just now embrace each other “where we are in life just as God made us.” Because if we are to be resurrected, it is into the Kingdom first inaugurated on the cross and is, therefore, the Kingdom of “the cross and resurrection.” And it is decidedly not, therefore, entrance into a Kingdom marked through and through by a concern that God blesses my concupiscence and after blessing it he calls it “good” since this is “how he made me” and is, therefore, my unalterable and God-given “identity.” 

This therapeutic view of Christ represents a kind of demonic reversal of the death to self that the cross represents. Instead, it misrepresents it as nothing more than God’s solidarity with all sinners, and who then “accompanies” the sinner without any further invitation to enter into the way of the cross and the singular path to regenerative holiness it makes real. As C.S. Lewis observed in The Problem of Pain, it is not really the loving God of the cross and Resurrection that we seek, but rather a senile benevolence in the sky whose apparent kindness is in reality a veiled contempt for our ability to reach higher, to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The actual Jesus presented to us in the Gospels shows us instead that if we are to be resurrected at all it will be as crucified and resurrected. There is no other path. And it is precisely the countermark of the Antichrist to imagine that there is.

The Church is indeed a field hospital designed to minister to sinners, no matter the severity of their sins. But a field hospital is still a hospital, and its chief function is to heal. However, a hospital is not a hospice, and yet lately there seem to be many in the Church who want to treat our sins, especially our sexual sins, as uncurable terminal aspects of our nature that resist regenerative recuperation and are impenetrable to the chemotherapy of grace. Or worse, to treat them as no sins at all, requiring no medicinal treatments. In this view, all we can do is to hold the sinner’s hand and to tell them that Jesus does not demand repentance of them since this is the “best they can do” under their “complex and difficult circumstances.” 

This is not the path of the cross. It is a form of medicine that is nothing short of arsenic laced with honey. Compassion and accompaniment are wonderful and necessary things and require of us an entrance into the dynamic of the cross of Christ in order to fulfill our mission of service to our brothers and sisters who are suffering under the yoke of modernity’s lies and illusions. We must indeed accompany them to help them break free from the enslavement to the “principalities and powers” of our current cultural collective of concupiscence. 

But it is a false compassion and a mendacious illusion of mercy to accompany a sick person by withholding curative treatments simply because they involve pain, both physical and mental. And it is certainly not compassionate to prescribe for them instead more of the same spiritual junk food that landed them in the hospital in the first place.

In short, this therapeutic Jesus of endless self-affirmation is not the Jesus of the Gospels. I think that should matter.