I always thought that Pontius Pilate is treated too harshly by many Christians. People who don’t even dare to contradict their neighbour when he talks astonishing bollocks in some religious matter are instantly ready to demand that Pilatus be ready to risk a revolution to save their hero. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.
The reality on the ground is that the vast majority of the people in his position would have behaved like he did; nay, worse than he did. In fact, it can be easily said that Pilatus did for Jesus more than most would have done in his position and only receded when he saw that the Jewish leaders would give him no other alternative than acquiescence to their demand or all out fall out.
Still, the fact remain that Pilatus clearly sees that justice demands one behaviour, and politics suggests another. Put in front of the choice and being, well, a politician, he makes a politician’s choice; a shrewd move from a political point of view, but a catastrophic one from a moral one. He is, therefore, certainly guilty to an extent – and Jesus tells him so in his face – but clearly not evil, or cowardly.
Pilatus is remarkable for another revealing expression: when Jesus confronts him with the Truth, he replies with the famous: “What is truth”? Little he knew that two thousand years later, the same expression would still be used by all those who, like him, see the Truth in front of them but refuse to accept it, because the acceptance means a price they are not ready to pay.
Pilatus is, then, not evil, but rather a mix of good intentions, political calculations, and less than steely moral standards. He perceives himself as doing “what he can” to help Jesus, but what he can is determined by the way he thinks. At the same time, he is acted as well as acting, as it is abundantly clear from historical sources that Rome truly didn’t want to see further troubles in Palestine. If Pilatus had started an all out confrontation, the first victim would have been himself and I wonder how many of us would, in the same situation, choose the heroic option: to throw to the dogs career and privilege – or worse – in order to make a point about a person he had never seen before – though he had heard about him -, who was unpopular among his own, and not even a Roman citizen.
Pilatus could, of course, have called the bluff and invited the Jews to the homicide-suicide: open revolt, Roman representative deposed or even punished, but Jewish hierarchy massacred by that time. Still, this is more easily said than done, as such a radical option can only be chosen by someone who has made a radical choice for truth. This was clearly neither the case in the concrete situation, nor part of the job description in general.
Pilatus chooses, therefore, to do not what is moral, but what is rational. Clearly, if he had chosen to accept the risk of a revolt over an individual case of such small (we would say today) geopolitical relevance for Rome, the accusations of having been utterly emotional and of having started a mess for the sake of his pal’s skin would have been, in the Roman perspective, clearly impossible to refute. Pilatus’ drama is, therefore, a dilemma that continues to be fascinating to this day and only the most stupid must tell themselves “If I had been in his place I’d have saved Jesus, of course!” Well, firstly with such a mentality you wouldn’t have been in his place in the first place and secondly no, you don’t even have the cojones to criticise the scandalous behaviour around you, so the jewish mob would have scared the crap out of you and no mistake.
Pilatus has become the epitome of cowardice, and I do not think it is fair. He behaves with consideration and humanity *; he goes to great lengths to save Jesus; he extensively tests the waters and leans himself out of the window more than most politicians of today would think of doing; but he recoils when he sees that no half solution is possible and that he is put in front of the fundamental choice and asked to decide whether justice or ragion di Stato should carry the day.
There is, I am afraid, a Pilatus in every one of us. His dilemma is our dilemma in our everyday fight to be coherent Christians; his ultimate moral defeat is, very clearly, ours.
I love to think that he has been forgiven and is now safely in Paradise. For obvious reasons, I like the “Good Romans” mentioned in the Gospels (say: the Roman centurion with the ill servant; or the other centurion under the Cross, Longinus, who – if memory serves – went on to convert and, some say, become a bishop). Pilatus doesn’t match them, but I don’t think he is the worst, either.
Tomorrow, I’ll hear the whole story again. Once again, I’ll be confronted with Pilatus’ dilemma. Once again, I’ll as myself what I would have done in his shoes (I mean really done, not as an armchair general safely talking with the benefit of hindsight, and of two thousand years of Christianity). And once again, I’ll bow my head in shame.
A prayer for Pilatus is, I think, fully in order.
* note that even his order to have Jesus flogged is from the background of the hope that after the flogging the Jews might renounce to have him executed.
They say that an image can say more than thousand words. This may not always be true, but in some cases I think that these words are very, very near to the mark.
Let us take the film, “The Passion of The Christ”.
This film is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it, I must hasten to add, for the faint of faith. If you subscribe to the “let’s celebrate” mantra so conveniently spread in these godless times, you won’t like this movie. Violent, you will call it. Insensitively focused on cruel details. Graphic in the extreme.
And in fact, this film is a truly shocking experience. Still, I can tell you that no reading of the Gospel, no homily and no personal reflection and prayer ever opened my eyes to the reality of the Passion so much as this shocking film did from the first viewing.
I could never see this movie without crying of sorrow and shame and I tell you, it doesn’t happen to me whilst listening to the homily. The reality is that the sheer violence of this film delivers the goods in a way the best homily could probably – for want of the necessary visual props – never achieve. And in fact it can – I think – easily said that if you found the violence of the film excessive, this is a clear indication that the reality of the Passion was never transmitted to you in all its crudeness in the first place.
This film is not dedicated to the message of Jesus. It doesn’t primarily intend to explain Christianity and, in this sense, it can only indirectly be considered a help to the conversion of non-Christians. What this film does, is to limit itself to the last twelve hours of Jesus’ human existence. This, the film does not by explaining, but by observing. The screenplay closely follows the Gospels and is here and there integrated with elements of Anne Catherine Emmerich’s “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord” (an unjustly neglected book, since come back to vast popularity). There are no frills, no hollywood-like “enrichments”, no attempts to make the story palatable. It is undiluted, brutal truth.
For this reason, the language has been accurately considered. No English-speaking actors here. The Jews talks in an Aramaic dialect (as they did in reality), and the Romans speak Latin. Astonishingly for the fans of the theory that Catholic churchgoers be too stupid to ever cope with Latin (much less… Aramaic!) you can easily follow the plot at all times through subtitles (just as you would, in church, with a Latin-English missal or booklet; but I suppose this is too much to ask of our liberal geniuses).
I watch this movie again every year during the Holy Week, but I think of it countless times during the year as its highly impressive visual message is a great help in my Rosary meditations. Every time, the violence of the Passion strikes me anew, which again tells me how easy it is to slowly but constantly sanitise the message until the sheer evidence of it is put in front of our eyes again.
To watch this movie is, to me, something akin to going to confession: unpleasant in the very thought, but highly salutary in the end result. I don’t sit joyously in front of the TV screen thinking “how beautiful, I am going to see Jesus being horribly tortured and killed again” in the same way as I – my fault, no doubt – do not manage to joyously run to the confessional, or to proceed to my examination of conscience without a sense of shame, humiliation and sheer inadequacy. Still, the spiritual benefits we can reap from such unpleasant activities can never be underestimated; not in case of the sacrament of course, but also certainly not in the case of such a powerful help to truly understand the Passion as this film undoubtedly is.
In the beautiful world of ours, for most of us this powerful Christian message is only a click away (or click here if you use the US version). Notice how cheap (particularly in the UK) this film has now become.
I suggest that you make the investment now and look at the film during next week.
You won’t like it. But you won’t regret it, either.
Interesting article on Catholic Culture about Hell. It is a pleasure to see that the invasion of the blogosphere from intelligent Catholics is slowly but surely bringing to the attention of discerning Catholic readers what a disgraceful clergy wanted them to forget or ignore. In this case the article is certainly not new (1995), but the internet is the way to make it better known.
Mr. Young doesn’t try to sweeten the pill; he is very clear on the unpleasant part, the one that in these days – when it is considered rude to say unpleasant things – is so often ignored. But at the same time – and with that mixture of common sense and good-natured optimism that is so typical of the best Catholic attitude – he sends a clear message of hope to those who may either be prone to scruples or thinking that if there is a Hell they are hopeless anyway.
In fact, negation of Hell (which in itself might well send one there) is rather common among those who don’t know the Gospels and prefer to fantasise about alleged Church conspiracies rather than to examine the facts. Jesus himself talks of Hell in a very clear manner, insistently, and nowhere more than in the Gospels do we see Hell mentioned. If one is able to read the Gospel without getting this message loud and clear he must simply re-learn to read.
Secondly and regarding the “conspiracy theorists”, it would appear rather extraordinary that the “conspirators” would be ready to die for Christ in such big numbers (and very often in such atrocious ways) because bent on creating – a couple of centuries after their horrible, humiliating death – some big organisation able to forbid one to eat meat on a Friday, & Co.
I have never seen conspirators so ready to die in order that their lie may triumph a couple of hundreds year later. I bet you never did, either.
Thirdly, Jesus’ clear insistence on Hell should make clear to everyone that Hell has not been created to allow Satan to play poker with Pol Pot, Hitler and Stalin. Hell is a clear, concrete possibility, a fundamental choice every one of us can make, a choice about which Jesus reminds us constantly.
“Oh Well” – you might say – “they aren’t three then, and perhaps not even three hundred; but compared to the world population…….. very few, surely?”
“The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
These words come from the alleged First Conspirator Himself and frankly, the idea that his words might have been wilfully distorted in a gigantic effort to cheat God Himself of the message he wanted to send is more than blasphemous, it is outright stupid. Rather a few people, then, “find the hard way that leads to life”. It doesn’t mean that only those few will be saved, but it certainly means that there is no ground whatsoever for complacency.
But this the problem of modern times: people talking of Christianity without knowing the first thing of Christ, or talking of an alleged “betrayal” of Christ’s message without stopping to think of the absurdity of the concept.
Aut Deus, aut homo malus. Excluding the obviously absurd hypothesis of clinical insanity (that you never hear espoused by any critic of Hell’s existence anyway), Jesus was either a fraudster and a con man, or he was God. No intelligent, thoughtful reading of the Gospel allows any other possibility. How people who claim a vague belief in Jesus may reconcile their belief with the extraordinary denial of what he said strikes me as so arrogantly stupid as to not even deserve a serious conversation.
Jesus couldn’t have possibly been ” a nice chap”, or ” a man of God” duped by scheming apostles, or “the Son of God who was conned in the end by scheming martyrs”. It just doesn’t square, because this nice chap did say that He is God in thousand different ways and nice men don’t go around making such claims. Therefore, every DIY Christian and every Christian by hearsay must simply face the fact that unless He was God, He was not nice and not a man of God, but the most tragically cruel liar Himself; a man whose schemes not only led to His own death, but who preferred to continue the lie up to the cross, thus causing countless others to be killed because of His lie.
If one does as much as to believe that Jesus was not positively insane and not a scheming fraudster, then he must deal with the clear intellectual evidence of His being God. One of the first consequences of this actually rather easy to achieve conclusion is that Jesus has given us so many warnings about Hell for a reason. Or is there anyone ready to believe that God Himself would need to lie to us about Hell in order to save us from it?
It is time to face reality. Atheism may be logically linked to the absence of belief in the existence of Hell, but any form of credit given to Christ is utterly incompatible with it.
Therefore, Jesus is God and Hell exists, but where does this leave us in our matter? To put it with the author’s robust common sense,
“I think we should say it is not unlikely that many are lost. We should definitely not hold the opinion that few are lost.”
At the same time,
we must avoid generating a morbid fear of hell or an obsession with it. It is not a fate that can overwhelm us against our will; any who go there have chosen evil deliberately.
Hell is therefore very real and certainly not very sparsely inhabited; but it is avoidable all right if one as much as takes care that he does not embrace it.
To close with the powerful statement closing the article (emphases mine),
The doctrine should be seen in the light of God’s greatness and our dignity as free beings. He is so great that hell is a just punishment for rebelling against him; our dignity as responsible beings is so great that we can deserve that fate.
This is rather easy, as the belief in reincarnation can only be (erroneously) held if no attentive and systematic reading of Scriptures has taken place. What generally happens is that a “hearsay Christian” (vast majority nowadays, I’m afraid) reads or receives from some friend some information about verses of the Gospel in which Jesus would seem to endorse the theory of reincarnation. Also rather spread are legends about the bible having been “manipulated” (an old dish of heresy, this one), but I am going to discard those for their evident absurdity.
One verse often cited is the one in which Jesus asks the Apostles who they think He is and they answer ” Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Mt. 16, 13-14). To an attentive reader it is evident here that Jesus could not possibly have been the reincarnation of John the Baptist, who lived in the same time as Jesus. Therefore, in order not to make the entire construct absurd the phrase must be read as “some believe you have in you the spiritual strength and power of John The Baptist (who had been executed already), some of Elijah, etc.).” This reading makes much more sense than reincarnation, which is in light of the pure historical event of St. John’s life utterly absurd. Also note that Jesus here does not say that what people believe is right. He says instead, emphatically so, that what Peter says is right. Peter doesn’t say anything at all about reincarnation. What he says is: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!”. There can be no more powerful evidence that Jesus, by so emphatically endorsing Peter’s claim, utterly disregards all the claims formerly made.
Another rather difficult part is John 9: 2 where Jesus is asked: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” If the man was born blind, goes the reasoning, then he can only have sinned in another life, which would prove at least that belief in reincarnation was spread in Jesus’ time. By answering “neither this man nor his parents sinned”, Jesus would thus implicitly accept the theory as he doesn’t explicitly correct it. Against such interpretation can be said: 1) that some Jews believed that a baby could sin in the womb, a theory known to Jesus and all present. 2) that there is no evidence in jewish sources that a belief in reincarnation was spread; 3) that Jesus does not endorse everything which he does not explicitly refuse, as we have seen in the former passage in which he doesn’t waste time in explicitly saying that he is not ” a new Elijah”, etc. When Jesus wants to teach, he always takes care to make the point.
Which last point takes us neatly to, well, the point. It is utterly illogical to give an adventurous interpretation to one or two Gospel passages, by at he same time disregarding the entire New Testament. Jesus alone talks of Hell, eternal punishment, Gehenna, fire everlasting & Co. more than any other in the Bible. The examples are too numerous and too well-known to limit ourselves to individual examples. If there is one leitmotiv in the Gospel, it is atonement, redemption, hell and heaven. It is immediately obvious on serious reflection that Christ’s death on the Cross doesn’t make any sense if reincarnation operates anyway; nor does His continuous, insisted mentioning of hell and eternal punishment. Here we see another sign of the times: that Jesus spoke so often of hell is nowadays completely disregarded; it has just disappeared from the radar screen to make place for platitudes entirely devoid of context a’ la “do not judge”, the rhetoric of peaaace and the like.
The concept of atonement is so elementary to a practising Catholic that it would barely be worth the mentioning. But in non-practising Catholics, and in non-Catholic Christians, the concept of atonement and redemption opening the way to everlasting life in God can be extremely diluted or even forgotten, with Jesus reduced to the task of spreading some rather good news and telling everyone to behave and be “inclusive” and “tolerant”. Just ask every non churchgoer to tell you in few words why Jesus came to Earth and stun in disbelief at the answers you hear.
Further difficulties for such interpretative “adventures” arise if we read further in the New Testament. “It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment”, says in Hebrew 9, 27. The author of this (be he St. Paul or not) is one of the first Christians. He lived in close contact with many of the (other) Apostles. This is real, first hand evidence of what the First Christians were ready to die for. Would Jesus ever accept reincarnation “by implication” but allow His disciples to be, in such an important matter, so tragically and completely wrong? Thought not…
In short, the belief in reincarnation is totally unscriptural not only because Jesus never endorsed it; not only because Jesus himself was extremely clear in his warning about eternal punishment; not only because the belief in eternal damnation was obviously commonly accepted among his disciples, but because if one accepts the theory, the entire mission and sacrifice of Jesus loses its meaning.