The Theological Terrors of Easter

Doubting Thomas

Last week the The Walking Dead brought its fifth season to a close with a stunning 15.8 million viewers, an accomplishment once unimaginable for a horror franchise. In a thought-provoking coincidence this finale kicked off Holy Week, a sacred period for Christians that culminates symbolically in a particularly terrifying narrative.

In general, the horror genre is about the inversion of the natural – and thus sacred – order. Consider Victor Frankenstein who creates new life (previously the exclusive domain of God) from dead scraps, H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones and their madness-inducing forays into our mundane universe, and, yes, the zombie, now a staple of popular culture, a shambling reversal of the inexorable power of death.

In their overturning of our understanding of the world, these classic tropes of horror are what I would call theological terrors. They challenge the sacred order by introducing existential chaos, totems of a new world order where the status quo is wiped out amidst a frenzy of gods and monsters.

Within the Bible, the natural order is routinely shattered, never more famously than during the Easter narrative.

While Jesus hinted at a reversal of the natural order when he reanimated Lazarus, it is the Easter narrative where Scripture downshifts into full horror-movie mode. Aside from the physical torture of Jesus at the hands of the Romans (think of the gore-filled depiction in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), readers of the Gospels are treated over Easter weekend to a parade of horror genre tropes.

The natural, sacred, and accepted orders are turned on their collective heads throughout the final days of Holy Week when, after Jesus breathes his last, the light of day ominously and unnaturally transforms into darkness followed by a rock-splitting earthquake, frightening and supernatural imagery echoed in countless apocalyptic horror narratives in contemporary entertainment.

Following this, the gospel of Matthew, predating the zombie craze in popular culture by several thousand years, reads, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” While we don’t know whether these revived corpses were muttering “brains” or “shalom,” it’s safe to say that the sudden reappearance of the dead amid unnatural darkness is, read literally, nothing short of a terrifying turn of events.

Fast forward to Sunday where we are confronted with the finale to the Easter story, where as the gospel of Luke tells us, those who saw Jesus “were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” By this account, while Jesus looked physically as he did before his death, his post-mortem appearance to the disciples was frightening to them—as it would be any time a dead person shows up for his own wake.

While I offer some of these reflections in an ironic spirit, I do think it’s important to acknowledge that religion and the horror genre are dueling narratives revolving around the unknown, of what lies beyond human reason and understanding. I would argue that one of the reasons The Walking Dead consistently draws tremendous ratings is that horror entertainment has emerged as another form of religious language. In some sense, due to the need for palatable religious ritual, the ghastly elements of scripture have been buried, only to arise in the sinister form of vampires, zombies, and malevolent elder gods, symbols that enable us to explore the shadow side of the divine.

It’s fascinating that pastel colors, bunnies, and the ritualistic painting of eggs have come to represent the torture and death of Jesus, the shocking inversion of the natural order, bodies raised from the dead, and a ghostly savior shattering the immutable barrier between life and death.

This is what I would name the horror of Easter, a narrative that, while powerfully hopeful, might also lead us to a darker deliberation of the nature of humanity and our search for the divine (benevolent or otherwise) in a fearsome and mysterious universe.


  •' Jim Reed says:

    I have heard it is hard to know exactly what happened back then with those hours of darkness and graves opening up and saints coming back to life because the chapters covering that time period are somehow missing from the libraries of those early days. It seems like some people checked them out, and then for some reason decided not to return them.

    The most freaky thing about all this is not the religious stories, or the horror stories. The crazy thing is it is now becoming possible to put the pieces together from the parts of history that haven’t been destroyed, and understand the beginnings of the religion. That is going to frighten some people, not so much the kids, but it will frighten some adults.

  •' Daniel Wheatley says:

    Thank you for the insightful parallel on the current culture(especially with the Zombie phenomena) I think humanity as a whole ,myself included will not except death as a friend and release.Our obsession with cramming our lives with things we feel we can never finish,fights against nature itself and we make the undead to battle it.The teachings of Christ in my opinion,talk of eternity in a sense of here and now,with the emphasis on death as very real and permanent and in showing kindness and compassion,that we all share with all of nature,will help us understand the common connections of everything universal.It’s something Zombies will never understand and mad scientists will never put together.

  •' Rmj says:

    Scholars have been putting it together for the last century or so. Where do you think fundamentalism came from, but a reaction to German Biblical scholarship in the 19th century.

    Dom Crossan’s books were published in the late 20th century, and while he is a Christian, he argued as a scholar that the body of Jesus of Nazareth was probably tossed into a shallow grave and the dogs ate it; the fate of many a crucifixion victim (since no one would want to claim the corpse and so be tainted by the crime that led to crucifixion, a punishment reserved for what we would, today, call political prisoners. It didn’t pay to disturb the Pax Romana.)

    The beginnings of the religion have been understood for most of the 20th century, at least. New points of view, such as recovering the voices of women (Paul was historically considered equal to Thecla, his fellow apostle, and a woman. Later centuries scrubbed her from history, but not completely) and reconsidering non-canonical texts, or finding texts like the Gospel of Thomas and the various fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Again, this history is coming together, and no it doesn’t look like the Acts of the Apostles; but it isn’t the Da Vinci Code secret that will bring the Church, Roman or Protestant or Orthodox, crumbling to the ground.

    Some will acknowledge it, others will deny it, most will ignore it. It’s been that way for most of 2000 years now; imagining that what we know now is all that has ever been known, and that those long before us were simple children who couldn’t have handled this “truth,” or even that no one today can handle it, is really rather insulting and arrogant, not to mention ignorant and baseless.

    There is no new line of thought that is going to crack Christianity like Humpty Dumpty, with no one to put it together again. This line of thought has been going on since the 18th century. There are devout Christians more knowledgeable about Church history and the New Testament than ever Thomas Jefferson was, and yet they are still more fully Christian than Jefferson ever wanted to be.

    To each his own, but that’s not a death knell you’re hearing; it’s just the fact that you are catching up with the world.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The missing pieces of ancient libraries dealing with years when Biblical miracles like the hours of global darkness, or wide area events like Herod killing infants are a minor issue, or one of many minor issues that early Christians had to deal with. The fact that there is a pre-gospel written record of Christianity that includes nothing from the later gospels is a major deal, because Christianity today is about 100% the gospel story. There may be a range of Christian beliefs, but once it settles in that the gospels were a later invention, and there is no actual Jesus that they describe, there will be a bigger fallout for the religion.

  •' joeyj1220 says:

    I have to reiterate what Rmj said above. Your saying that “Christians had to deal” with events that were “later inventions” keeps plugging into the false notion that people in the past saw the stories as do today’s fundamentalists, i.e., as if it were science or history. For the longest time Christians KNEW the Gospel stories to be just that, stories that inform their faith. There was no huge conspiracy to “invent” lies as a way to scam people. Modern Christianity has been so hijacked by biblical literalists that even secular folks equate the two.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    True, and now that we understand all that, we can begin the process of sorting out the implications. The basic question are of course how do these stories inform the faith, and what is the faith? We know that whether Jesus was real or not, his message was love. At the minimum, you have a do unto others kind of secular humanism. What else? Can a myth have a spiritual aspect? I guess it can, as long as we understand the spiritual side is not real. I think it is important to avoid the trap of Christianity being seen as a continuum where on the one side you have the conservative concepts of heaven and hell, the devil, the trinity, and on the other end you have secular humanism in the name of Jesus, and in between you have all the different possibilities tying it together so that you have one large brotherhood of Christianity that is preaching a gospel of progressive love and reaching for end times destruction that will wipe out non-believers.

  •' joeyj1220 says:

    I don’t think its possible to avoid “the trap of Christianity being seen as a continuum”. It would be like insisting that since all Americans believe in democracy and liberty, there should be no political parties that differ wildly in their philosophies (Tea Party, Republicans, Democrats, Anarchists. Etc)

  •' Jim Reed says:

    The gap between the two parties is wide, and as long as religion is involved unbridgeable. Like it or not, we are a 2 party system, and the politicians plan to keep it that way.

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