In 1938, J. R. R. Tolkien published a landmark essay, perhaps his most foundational, “On Fairy-Stories.”[i] In it, while seeking to defend the goodness of Happy Endings, he coined the term “eucatastrophe.” A eucatastrophe is built from catastrophe—literally “to turn down”—and the prefix “eu,” meaning “good.” Thus, in a story with eucatastrophe, at the point of greatest tragedy, you have the workings also of the greatest good.
As Tolkien would later explain, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”[ii] The Gospel—the good news that God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is the greatest story and, therefore, the greatest eucatastrophe.[iii] At Eastertime, therefore, it is fitting to think further about these ideas.
A LIFE WITHOUT SIN
Though sympathetic to our temptations and trials as our brother, as completely human, Jesus Christ maintained an important and vital distinction: he was without sin (Heb 4:15). While the testimony of all of Scripture confirms this, in Luke 23, an instance where the account of the trial and execution of Jesus is recorded, there are multiple statements affirming his innocence. If ever there were a place to record an infraction, a slight, an error, the record of the most pivotal trial in history would be the place to record such.
Yet, Herod says “nothing deserving death has been done by him” (Lk 23:15). One of the criminals, hanging next to Jesus on the cross, declared “this man has done nothing wrong” (Lk 23:41), and, after Jesus died, a centurion, an eyewitness to the death, said “Certainly, this man was innocent!” (Lk 23:47). The man in authority, a fellow convict, and a guard, any of whom could have understandably slandered Jesus, had nothing to say but to declare his innocence. Jesus came as both God and man, and was made like humankind in every respect, all while living a perfect and innocent life. But to what end? Why?
In John 3:16, Jesus says that God loved the world in such a way as to make provision for their sin in the face of judgment. Just prior to this, in John 3:14-15, Jesus alludes to the time Moses was instructed by God to craft a bronze serpent-like staff to hold up at a time when the people were dying due to their sin. All who would look to the staff would live (Nu 21:4-9). In the same way, Jesus said, all who look to him, when he is lifted up, will have eternal life (Jn 3:15). God’s love for the world and desire to provide salvation is why God became man. Or to use better wording, “Christ came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).
A DEATH FOR SINNERS
Reviewing briefly the end of Mark’s Gospel, we see that Jesus knew he was born to die for others. (Mk 10:45) And, yet, when that time was at hand, the God-man experienced the weight of his death both as God and man. Praying in Gethsemane, Jesus was “sorrowful” (Mk 14:34) and asked God the Father to remove “this cup” from him (Mk 14:36).
What was the cup? Throughout the Bible, “the cup” symbolizes one’s God-determined path in life. Psalm 16:5 says “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.” The cup can serve as a picture of salvation (Ps 116:13) or a reminder of redemption through judgment, as in the Lord’s Supper (Mt 26:27; 1 Cor 10).
However, more commonly, the cup is a symbol purely of suffering and judgment (Ps 75:8). In several instances in the Old Testament, the cup is referred to as the cup of God’s wrath (Is 51:17, 22; Jer 25:12). In the New Testament, the cup foreshadows the specific judgment Jesus will endure (Mt 20:22; Jn 18:11), and the final judgment to come (Rev 14:10; 16:19).
Thus, when Jesus asks the Father to remove the cup, it is not merely a request to avoid physical execution on earth, but rather an understanding that the cup would contain the full wrath God had restrained since the fall of man. Yet, in submission to the Father, and for his glory, Jesus obeyed and finally preferred God’s will and plan, and took the cup.
On the cross, when Jesus cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34), he is quoting or reciting Psalm 22. Wayne Grudem explains, in light of this understanding, that Jesus is not wondering why he is dying, but asking God why he delays in helping him.[iv] This is a cry of anguish from the one made “to be sin” for our sake (2 Cor 5:21).
On the cross, Jesus suffered a physical and excruciating execution, but infinitely more severe, he drank the cup of God’s wrath and judgment for sin “to the dregs” (Is 51:17). In that moment, the perfect and innocent God-man mediated our eternal punishment by taking our place. As John Owen describes, “There was room enough in Christ’s breast to receive the points of all the swords that were sharpened by the law against us. And there was strength enough in Christ’s shoulders to bear the burden of that curse that was due us.”[v]
With his last words, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30), Jesus completed the totality of his propitiation so that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Then, with his victorious resurrection, Jesus made available his own earned righteousness to all who believe (Phil 3:9).
A RESURRECTION HOPE
At the end of the first century, Clement of Rome invoked a curious symbol when describing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Borrowing from ancient legend—though he clearly thought the creature was real—he described the phoenix as a “an emblem of our resurrection.”[vi] Clement was followed by a second century catalog of creatures, the Physiologus (meaning Naturalist) that included biblical references and commentary for each entry. This work articulated more clearly that the phoenix (like Christ) has the self-sacrificial “power to slay himself and come to life again” and resurrects from the dead “on the third day.”[vii]
These two appropriations of the bird baptized this myth and led other Christians to employ the symbol for education and edification. In the third century, Tertullian referred to the phoenix as an instrument of general revelation God provided as a “complete and unassailable symbol of our hope” in the resurrection.[viii] In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote his Catechetical Lectures to train new disciples in the Christian faith. In his lecture on the resurrection he, seemingly believing that the creature exists, though “remote and uncommon,” mentions the phoenix also as an example in nature for the unbelieving world to have a symbol of Jesus’ own resurrection.[ix]
Now, lest we get sidetracked by the Christian usage of a fictional creature, it is helpful to remember the limits of knowledge and etymology in these early centuries. As professor Micah Mattix explains, even though many of these early Christians seem to believe the bird is real “most of them are less interested in animals as animals and more interested in their symbolic significance.”[x] By the Middle Ages the regular use of the phoenix as a Christian “resurrection bird” faded, but throughout other forms of literature,[xi] the avian myth appears to convey and remind of Christian hope.
What I love about the image of a phoenix—and I suspect it is what our friends in the early church loved as well—is that just at the darkest moment, when you think this majestic creature has died or given its life for another, it is reborn, returning to life. Just as Jesus said, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” (John 10:17) Only through the death of the phoenix do we see an even more glorious life, a eucatastrophe, for through its suffering and demise, it finds victory.
In 1 Peter 1:3-5, Peter aims to encourage his readers by underscoring that believers in Christ have been given a living hope. Regardless of their present circumstances, Christians have been regenerated and given a hope that is the very opposite of fear of the future.[xii] What does it mean that this hope is alive? Peter adds that the hope comes “through the resurrection.” That is, the hope that is given to believers through regeneration is grounded not merely in a series of propositions about what we can know and read as true—though it is grounded in such. More than merely what we can know, the hope that dwells within us is grounded in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. As A. T. Robertson shares, “Hope rose up with Christ from the dead.”[xiii] As sure as the grave is empty, our hope is alive—as alive as Jesus.
Tolkien’s evocative word, eucatastrophe, is remarkable, in part because it encapsulates both the dogma and doxology of Easter. In a later letter to his son, Tolkien wrote, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.”[xiv] This joy is exactly what Matthew records the Marys feeling after hearing that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. They “departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matt 28:8). This Easter, as we grasp the glories of this eucatastrophe, may we go and do the same.
This article is an adaption from my forthcoming Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism available June 1, 2018 from B&H Books.
Jason G. Duesing (with a foreword by Russell Moore)
B&H Books, 2018
[i] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in C. S. Lewis, ed., Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Oxford: OUP, 1947; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 90-105.
[ii] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 83.
[iii] For a wonderful exploration of the gospel along the lines of this definition, see Jared C. Wilson, Gospel Deeps (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 21 and following.
[iv] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 576.
[v] John Owen, Communion With God (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 66.
[vi] ANF 1:12
[vii] “The Phoenix,” in Physiologus cited in Joseph Nigg, The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
[viii] ANF 3:554. Tertullian mistakenly translates Psalm 92:12 as “The righteous shall flourish like the phoenix” to support his view of the existence of this bird.
[ix] NPNF 2 7:135-136.
[x] Micah Mattix, “Birds of Paradise,” in The Weekly Standard, March 20, 2017, http://www.weeklystandard.com/birds-of-paradise/article/2007167
[xi] See John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 5:272.
[xii] Paige Patterson, The Pilgrim Priesthood (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 31.
[xiii] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1930), 6:81.
[xiv] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), 100.