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The Flight from the Cross

Excerpt from Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, 95-98. Originally written in 1934 in Romanian, translated in 1992 by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. This is a challenging and complex text. I am not sure what to make of it yet. His points fit nicely with the last point of my last post, that Jesus models doubt and alienation from God.

“I do not like prophets any more than I like fanatics who have never doubted their mission. I measure prophets’ value by their ability to doubt, the frequency of their moments of lucidity. Doubt makes them truly human, but their doubt is more impressive than that of ordinary people. Everything else in them is nothing but absolutism, preaching, moral didacticism. They want to teach others, bring them salvation, show them the truth, change their destinies, as if their truths were better than those of the others. Only doubt can distinguish prophets from maniacs. But isn’t it too late for them to doubt? The one who thought he was the son of God only doubted at the last moment. Christ really doubted not on the mountain but on the cross. I am convinced that on the cross Jesus envied the destiny of anonymous men and, had he been able to, would have retreated to the most obscure corner of the world, where no one would have begged him for hope or salvation. I can imagine him alone with the Roman soldiers, imploring them to take him off the cross, pull out the nails, and let him escape to where the echo of human suffering would no longer reach him. Not because he would suddenly have ceased to believe in his mission—he was too enlightened to be a skeptic—but because death for others is harder to bear than one’s own death. Jesus suffered crucifixion because he knew that his ideas could triumph only through his own sacrifice.

“People say: for us to believe in you, you must renounce everything that is yours and also yourself. They want your death as a warranty for the authenticity of your beliefs. Why do they admire works written in blood? Because such works spare them any suffering while at the same time preserving the illusion of suffering. They want to see the blood and tears behind your lines. The crowd’s admiration is sadistic.

“Had Jesus not died on the cross, Christianity would not have triumphed. Mortals doubt everything except death. Christ’s death was for them the ultimate proof of the validity of Christian principles. Jesus could have easily escaped crucifixion or could have given in to the Devil! He who has not made a pact with the Devil should not live, because the Devil symbolizes life better than God. If I have any regrets, it is that the Devil has rarely tempted me . . . but then neither has God loved me. Christians have not yet understood that God is farther removed from them than they are from Him. I can very well imagine God being bored with men who only know how to beg, exasperated by the triviality of his creation, equally disgusted with both heaven and earth. And I see him taking flight into nothingness, like Jesus escaping from the cross. . . . What would have happened if the Roman soldiers had listened to Jesus’ plea, had taken him off the cross and let him escape? He would certainly not have gone to some other part of the world to preach but only to die, alone, without people’s sympathy and tears. And even supposing that, because of his pride, he did not beg for freedom, I find it difficult to believe that this thought did not obsess him. He must have truly believed that he was the son of God. His belief notwithstanding, he could not have helped doubting or being gripped by the fear of death at the moment of his supreme sacrifice. On the cross, Jesus had moments when, if he did not doubt that he was the son of God, he regretted it. He accepted death uniquely so that his ideas would triumph.

“It may very well be that Jesus was simpler than I imagine him, that he had fewer doubts and fewer regrets, for he doubted his divine origin only at his death. We, on the other hand, have so many doubts and regrets that not one among us would dare dream that he is the son of a god. I hate Jesus for his preachings, his morality, his ideas, and his faith. I love him for his moments of doubt and regret, the only truly tragic ones in his life, though neither the most interesting nor the most painful, for if we had to judge from their suffering, how many before him would also be entitled to call themselves sons of God!”

Photo by Craig Tidball on Unsplash

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