Few words scrape as dryly against the brain as “ontology.”
This branch of metaphysics examines “being”—what it means to have being, what it means to exist, what a thing is. Ontology is largely ignored by Christians. The initial intellectual outlay requires a “leap of faith” (a belief that the mental effort will be worthwhile) into an abstract world, a world that looks at things differently from the everyday world, and many people are unwilling to make the leap. Moreover, ontology has fallen out of favor among Christians since the Reformation, scorned by Luther and other reformers as destructive of simple faith.
But ontology is not dry and should not be destructive of simple faith. The understanding of being is imperative to understanding life and plays a critical part in any true religious insight. “The concepts elucidated by ontology,” observed Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, “are the key to everything else.” Ontological insight gives sustenance to imagination and makes the cosmos breath with drama. It is one of the few areas of thought that makes the heart pound while the intellect grabs at meaning.
The Passion and Resurrection of our Lord, examined ontologically, is one example.
Background: Creation, Fall, and Redemption
Before creation nothing existed. There was no matter, no energy, no desires, no images. God then created everything. As a result, everything that is, is from Him, and things have existence only in so far as they partake in the Creator, the source of all being. But when Adam sinned, he detached the world from God. He, in other words, detached the world from being. Through Adam, man lunged away from Being itself and plunged towards its opposite: Nothingness.
This was the state of affairs that God set out to correct by sending His son. God sent Jesus to fetch man from the depraved existence of sin, which meant restoring man’s full existence. The term “redemption,” accordingly, is full of ontological meaning. Redemption means to restore man to his fullness, to bring him back to his full status as a creature connected to God’s being.
In order to accomplish this in a manner that permitted human nature to cooperate in its own fulfillment, a man—Jesus—needed to undergo an ontological privation. Jesus would have to give his being in order to restore our being, analogous to dirt being taken from a hill to fill a hole. And, because our existence had lapsed dangerously close to nothingness, Jesus’ existence would have to be depleted to the point that it, too, scraped against the pit of nothingness. In the words of Romano Guardini:
God followed man into the no man’s land which sin had ripped open. God not only glanced down at him and summoned him lovingly to return, he personally entered into that vacuous dark to fetch him. . . The plunge from God towards the void which man in his revolt had begun Christ undertook in love. . . [T]he endlessly Beloved One of the eternal father brushed the bottom of the pit. He penetrated to the absolute nothingness . . .
Jesus’ descent into the abyss of nothingness began in the Garden of Gethsemane when God’s spirit began to withdraw from him. He who walked in being as God’s son now felt being draining from his body. The resulting terror was intense. All three spheres of human existence—the spiritual, emotional, and physical—began to tear apart: As God’s spirit drained from his soul, Jesus agonized emotionally and physically sweated blood.
This combination of agony and perspiration of blood is significant. In A Doctor at Cavalry, Dr. Pierre Barbet described the perspiration of blood as a physiological phenomenon that “is provoked by some great mental disturbance, following on deep emotion or great fear.” In this phenomenon, the capillaries “become extremely distended, and burst when they come into contact with the millions of sweat glands which are distributed over the whole skin. The blood mingles with the sweat, and . . . once they reach the outside, the blood coagulates and the clots which are thus formed on the skin fall down on to the ground, being borne down by the profuse sweat.”
This emotional and spiritual agony that burst into a bloody scene is a vivid augur of what would come shortly as Jesus descended into the pit of nothingness.
The Devil’s Feast
After the suffering in the Garden, Satan waded into the scene through Judas Iscariot. Fittingly, he greeted Jesus with a kiss—the ancient symbolic act of eating a person out of a loving desire to make the person one with the kisser. Satan’s kiss, however, was the flipside of the loving symbol of eating a person. It was a sign of Satan’s bitter hunger for Jesus as he prepared to devour him out of hatred, a hatred spawned when Jesus resisted Satan’s temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. In the temptation, Satan had offered Jesus far more than he used to tempt other men successfully, but was rebuked. The evil one was affronted with perfect goodness. Although he did not know Jesus was God, he sensed Jesus’ goodness and wanted to extinguish it.
Consequently, when Satan’s opportunity came, he took it lustfully, capitalizing swiftly on his initial success (gaining access to Judas Iscariot’s heart). Within twenty-four hours after the Passover Feast, Jesus was brutally tortured and killed.
The full terror of Jesus’ death is well magnified by looking at it through the prism of diabolic vengeance: Jesus took Satan’s beating. Jesus, Full Being incarnate and therefore Full Goodness incarnate, was assailed by Satan, the anti-being of evil. Satan unleashed his wrath on Jesus, and Jesus stood there, taking it, as Satan flailed away at him, evil unhitched, centered on one man, tearing through him, hurting him anyway possible. Everything that deprives a person of the dignity of existence was used against Jesus: Mockery, spitting, nakedness, whipping, cutting, bleeding, public humiliation, carrying one’s own instrument of torture.
Jesus’ excruciating torture, on the physical sphere, is documented by Dr. Barbet. The following are just a few highlights of his suffering:
During the beating in the Praetorium, with the skin extremely tender from the suffering in the Garden, he received blows with sticks. The beating bruised his cheek, broke the septum of his nose, and may have produced a serious concussion and broke vessels in the membranes that envelope the spinal cord and brain.
He was later scourged with a flagrum, an instrument consisting of long, thick thongs with lead balls on the end. The thongs cut into the skin and dug the balls into the body, scraping it open. This torture by itself often killed men. Although Hebrew law restricted the strokes to forty, Jesus probably received sixty.
The thorns which comprised his crown were long and very sharp and probably tore the whole head of Jesus, wounding the entire surface of the cranium and forehead, resulting in a further loss of blood (when cut, the scalp bleeds vigorously).
The cross was laid across Jesus’ tender and bruised shoulders, further tearing the skin. When he fell under its weight, the cross scraped away the skin across all the bony protrusions from the shoulder blade to the base of his back.
After nailing him to the cross (including a large nail through the middle of each wrist), he died the horrible death of crucifixion, the most-terrible death inflicted in the ancient world, in which a person dies slowly of asphyxiation,
On the spiritual plane things weren’t much better. Commencing with Jesus’ agony in the Garden, climaxing with his words on the cross, “My God my God why hast thou forsaken me,” and ending when he cried aloud in agony and gave up his spirit, Jesus’ spiritual suffering paralleled his physical torment.
Jesus suffered on the emotional front as well. Not only was the whole ordeal leading to his death humiliating and scary, but tradition tells us he saw his mother during it all. Stumbling with his cross, barely making his way, hearing the crowd jeer, he looked up and saw his mother see. And as he hung on the cross, he knew he was the cause of a mother’s worst nightmare, the death of her child.
In short, Jesus endured the most fearsome suffering imaginable: An ontological beating that produced an ontological suffering. In such a beating, everything in a person must suffer. In Guardini’s words, “No one ever died as Jesus died, who was life itself. No one was ever punished for sin as he was, the Sinless One. No one ever experienced the plunge down the vacuum of evil as did God’s Son—even to the excruciating agony behind the words: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Jesus was really destroyed. . . He no longer had anything, was anything: ‘a worm and not a man.’”
The pain couldn’t have been any greater.
Holy Saturday and Easter
But things got more interesting, in a way we will never fully know. Between his death and resurrection, a mysterious event took place that no historian can document: Jesus’ descent into hell.
By eating Jesus, Satan had swallowed God’s bait. He didn’t know he had swallowed the Godhead, thereby inviting Full Being into his fortress of nothingness and bringing about the ontological fall of his nothingness. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa:
The Godhead hid under the covering of our human nature so as to offer an easy bait to him who sought to exchange us for a more precious prize. And the aim was that just like a greedy fish he would swallow the hook of divinity together with the bait of the flesh. Thus life would come to dwell in death, light would appear in darkness, and thus light and life would achieve the destruction of all that stood against them.
You can imagine Satan’s smile as Jesus was sucked into the abyss. After watching Jesus enter hell, Satan was probably about to turn his attention back toward earth. But according to an ancient homily from Holy Saturday, Jesus, upon entering hell, met Adam, took his hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper and rise from the dead, and Jesus will give you light. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image.”
Thus the ontological terror was reversed: The tormenter, Satan, became the tormented; the tormented, Jesus, became the tormenter; hate, the weapon of the first tormenter, was replaced with love, the weapon of the second tormenter.
It’s difficult to imagine the full terror that raced through Satan as he realized what was happening, but there’s an excellent literary analogy toward the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the torment that befell Sauron, Tolkien’s literary parallel to Satan. The hobbit, Frodo, bearer of the Ring that was the source of Sauron’s power, had sneaked into the middle of Sauron’s kingdom, Mount Doom, and stood at the abyss of the Crack of Doom, home of the only fires fierce enough to destroy the Ring:
The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him . . . and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash . . . Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung. From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his strategems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, [Sauron’s] whole mind and purpose . . . was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, [Sauron’s highest servants, the Ringwraiths] hurtled southwards to Mount Doom.
But they got there too late. The Ring had been destroyed, and with it Sauron’s power.
Like his literary personification Sauron, Satan must have streaked southwards—downwards—to hell, only to watch helplessly as his evil work was undone. Ontologically speaking, man’s path to being had been restored and the path to nothingness, though still open to those who choose it, had been redirected to the path of Heaven. The path to full existence was opened to any person willing to accept the redemption—the restoration of man’s being—effected by Jesus’ death and resurrection.