As a minister, I’ve talked over the years to hundreds of people wrestling with issues of faith and doubt. One of the most frequent objections to Christianity that I’ve heard is that it is “too pat” or “escapist.” One man once said to me, “I can understand why people want to come and hear that someday God will make everything better. The stories of the Bible and of Jesus are certainly consoling. But in the end it’s all just wishful thinking.”
We live in one of the first eras of history in which it is widely believed that a happy ending is the mark of inferior art. Why? Many are certain that, ultimately, life is meaningless and that happy endings are misleading at best. Life therefore would be better represented by paradox, irony and a sense of frustration. Happy endings are all right for children’s stories, perhaps, but not for thinking adults. “Grown-up” art, whether it’s Seinfeld or Waiting for Godot, deliberately lacks narrative coherence and, of course, any happy ending.
Perhaps that is the reason that Steven Spielberg was refused any Oscars until he stopped making movies with only happy endings, yet his fairy tale-ending movies are his most popular by far. Critics observe this and scowl that, of course, “escapist” stories will always be popular.
But no less an authority than Professor J. R. R. Tolkien explains the abiding popularity of the stories the critics disdain. He insists that people sense that happy endings are not “escapist” but somehow true to reality. In his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien expounds his view that the mark of the most satisfying stories is eucatastrophe. Katastrophe is the Greek word for a dramatic, world-changing turn, but what does Tolkien mean by eucatastrophe?
[T]he joy of the happy ending … is not essentially “escapist” nor “fugitive.” … It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat, and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief … When the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.
Tolkien goes on to argue that people sense that such stories point to some underlying Reality. As we read or watch them, we are being told that the world is certainly filled with danger, sorrow and tragedy but that nonetheless there is a meaning to things, there is a difference between good and evil, and above all, there will be a final defeat of evil and even an “escape from death”—which Tolkien says is the quintessential happy ending.
The resurrection story is a moving story, but is that all it is?
Does the Gospel simply give us the temporary emotional lift that all stories with happy endings give us?
Tolkien argues that the Gospel story of Jesus is not simply one more great story, pointing to the underlying Reality.Rather, the Gospel story of Jesus is the underlying Reality to which all the stories point. It gives us more than a passing inspiration because it is the true story; it happened.
The fact of the resurrection of Jesus is what makes the Gospel story not merely a great experience to read, but a life-changing power. Imagine for a moment someone preaching to slaves in the ancient city of Antioch, and imagine Him saying, “Ah, the resurrection is basically just an inspiring story, you know. It means that somehow, good is stronger than evil. So let’s be kind to each other.” Would it be possible that any of the slaves would say: “Wonderful! This message transforms my life of grinding misery and oppression into one of triumphant hope!” Of course not. But that is not what Paul said when he got to the cities of the Mediterranean. He said, “They saw Him, and touched Him. He really rose. That proves that the Kingdom of God is real and will triumph. If you believe, you enter his realm and power now.” The story of Jesus changes our lives because it is true.
And in no way is the Gospel story sentimental or escapist. Indeed, the Gospel takes evil and loss with utmost seriousness, because it says that we cannot save ourselves. Nothing short of the death of the very Son of God can save us. But the “happy ending” of the historical resurrection is so enormous that it swallows up even the sorrow of the Cross. It is so great that those who believe it can henceforth fully face the depth of the sorrow and brokenness of life. If we disbelieve the gospel, we may weep for joy at the happy ending of some other inspiring story, but the enchantment will quickly fade, because our minds will tell us “life is not really like that.” But if we believe the Gospel, then our hearts slowly heal even as we face the darkest times because we know that, because of Jesus, life is like that. Then even our griefs, even the dyscatastrophes we know, will be taken up into the miraculous grace of God’s purposes. “Death has been swallowed up in victory … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54 and 57).
In a famous article, theologian Robert W. Jenson argued that our culture is in a crisis because the modern world “has lost its story.” We once thought that life had a purpose, that there was something to live for, and that there was hope for a resolution to the sufferings of the world. Now, many say, none of those things are true.
However, Mark has given us the story of Jesus and declared that this is actually the world’s true story as well: Jesus, the King, created all things in love. He has the power and the beauty to see His vision for the world through to its glorious end, to undo everything we have been able to do to harm it. To accomplish that, He had to come and die for it. Three days later, He rose again; and one day will come back again to usher in a renewed creation.
The Gospel is the ultimate story that shows victory coming out of defeat, strength coming out of weakness, life coming out of death, rescue from abandonment. And because it is a true story, it gives us hope because we know life is really like that. It can be your story as well.
Excerpted from Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God (Riverhead, March 2013).
Tim Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Va. In 1989, he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. He is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Reason for God, and most recently, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering.