Easter’s Saving Pessimism

By David Mills Published on April 2, 2015

The other day, reading the comments on a religion website, I came across a whole string of people who were having a good time declaring Christianity negative, gloomy, dark, dreary, cheerless, unhappy and mean. Several used the word “toxic” and a few even mentioned the doctrine of original sin. Most had stories about mean Christians they’d known.

They weren’t talking about people who were just pessimistic, like Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh stories. They were talking about people who like being unhappy and really like making everyone else unhappy too. They think of Christianity in general the way the American writer H. L. Mencken (an atheist) thought of Puritanism. He defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

They think Christians are the way they are because the Christian faith itself is negative, gloomy, etc. It talks too much about sin. It has too low a view of human nature. It asserts the reality of hell and insists you could wind up there. It’s the religion of the wagging finger, the furrowed brow, the disapproving stare.

I knew Christians when I was growing up of the sort they described, but I also knew atheists like that. Christianity didn’t have a corner on crankiness and gloom. In fact, I was struck by how many Christians I knew seemed unexpectedly happy. Some suffered from sickness or poverty or some other loss that would have left me and my friends resentful and angry, yet they were happy. If I had to chart the levels of happiness of the groups of people I knew, the Christian bar would have been a little higher than any of the others.

The reason was kind of obvious, I thought, looking at it from the outside. If you believe that the story of your life and the world itself has a happy ending, you’ll be a lot happier than if you think your death is the end of you. When bad things happen, you only have to get through them and someday you’ll be happier than you can now imagine.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” as St. John’s gospel famously puts it. Or as we say in the Nicene Creed at church on Sundays: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

I didn’t believe it then, but it did make sense to me that if Christians were right about God, Jesus, heaven and everything else, they ought to be happy. If the first Easter Sunday morning was the defining event in human history, well, then, party on.

Even if some Christians are mean and bitter, and some make Scrooge look like St. Francis of Assisi, Christianity is a cheerful faith. It’s the most cheerful religion of all. We can’t always feel this, because life really can be hard, and some people have trouble ever feeling it, because their lives are very hard. But the Christian insists that “For God so loved the world” is the fundamental truth of our world.

Christian Realism

Christianity is also stone cold realistic. It’s a face-the-facts kind of thing. Christianity reminds us that we’ve hurt people, and we’ve hurt ourselves, and we’ve shaken our fists at God. Scripture tells us: That couple in the Garden eating the fruit God said not to eat? You would have done it. Cain killing Abel? Could have been you. That crowd in Jerusalem yelling “Crucify him”? You were there. This is what you’re like. Don’t fool yourself.

But the Faith also says something else: Jesus knows you screwed up and will forgive everything. You know you screwed up. You’ll be much happier if you just admit it and say you’re sorry. Jesus will leap to forgive you.

That’s what Lent, Holy Week and the Triduum (the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter) do for us: help us sincerely admit our wrongdoings, say we’re sorry and hand ourselves over to the mercy of God. We begin on Ash Wednesday with the declaration of what we’re really like — that “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” business —  and then through the disciplines of Lent tell God that we’re sorry for what we’ve done. In Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, we follow Jesus as he pays the price for what we’ve done. Then on Easter, the Church proclaims to each of us that you’re all right now, that everything’s cool, that Jesus knows everything and forgives you, that you’re friends with the Son of God.

It’s that realism about us that some people think makes Christianity negative, gloomy, dark, dreary, cheerless, unhappy and mean. (That, and the fact that some Christians really are mean.) But that’s to blame the doctor for the diagnosis. He’s only telling you the bad news so he can make you better. He can’t help you till you admit you’re sick and sign the forms. The Church only tells you that you’re dust on Ash Wednesday so you can sing “Jesus Christ is risen today” on Easter.

 

“Easter’s Saving Pessimism” is an expanded version of an article that appeared in David Mills’s column in The Pittsburgh Catholic. For more on the subject of the Lenten disciplines, see his And Now a Word in Favor of Negativity and Hey Buddy, Jesus Said No Ashes.

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