Editor's note:

As we con­tin­ue to grap­ple with the ever-unfold­ing mys­tery of Jesus this week, G.K. Chester­ton joins us to lend his own inim­itable voice to the chal­lenge. Here, in this excerpt from his mas­ter­work on the his­to­ry of mankind, Christ, and Chris­tian­i­ty The Ever­last­ing Man, Chester­ton con­tends that our com­mon per­cep­tion of Gen­tle Jesus, meek and mild” is true, but incom­plete. He encour­ages us to read the New Tes­ta­ment with the eyes of a stranger to earth who comes to the sto­ry of Jesus as told in the Gospels with no pre­con­cep­tions, no fil­ters, no doc­trine. Chester­ton thinks that we will meet a star­tling Jesus with­in those pages — one who, as C.S. Lewis would put it years lat­er, is tru­ly not a tame lion, but one who is very good.

—Renovaré Team

Excerpt from The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 2

We have all heard peo­ple say a hun­dred times over, for they seem nev­er to tire of say­ing it, that the Jesus of the New Tes­ta­ment is indeed a most mer­ci­ful and humane lover of human­i­ty, but that the Church has hid­den this human char­ac­ter in repel­lent dog­mas and stiff­ened it with eccle­si­as­ti­cal ter­rors till it has tak­en on an inhu­man char­ac­ter. This is, I ven­ture to repeat, very near­ly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the church­es that is almost entire­ly mild and mer­ci­ful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many oth­er things as well.

The fig­ure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-break­ing beau­ty his pity for our bro­ken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nev­er­the­less they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its pop­u­lar imagery ever rep­re­sents him as utter­ing. That pop­u­lar imagery is inspired by a per­fect­ly sound pop­u­lar instinct. The mass of the poor are bro­ken, and the mass of the peo­ple are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to car­ry the con­vic­tion of the incred­i­ble com­pas­sion of God. 

But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of com­pas­sion that the pop­u­lar machin­ery of the Church does seek to car­ry. The pop­u­lar imagery car­ries a great deal to excess the sen­ti­ment of Gen­tle Jesus, meek and mild.’ It is the first thing that the out­sider feels and crit­i­cizes in a Pieta or a shrine of the Sacred Heart. As I say, while the art may be insuf­fi­cient, I am not sure that the instinct is unsound. In any case there is some­thing appalling, some­thing that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of hav­ing a stat­ue of Christ in wrath. There is some­thing insup­port­able even to the imag­i­na­tion in the idea of turn­ing the cor­ner of a street or com­ing out into the spaces of a mar­ket­place, to meet the pet­ri­fy­ing pet­ri­fac­tion of that fig­ure as it turned upon a gen­er­a­tion of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hyp­ocrite. The Church can rea­son­ably be jus­ti­fied there­fore if she turns the most mer­ci­ful face or aspect towards men; but it is cer­tain­ly the most mer­ci­ful aspect that she does turn. 

And the point is here that it is very much more spe­cial­ly and exclu­sive­ly mer­ci­ful than any impres­sion that could be formed by a man mere­ly read­ing the New Tes­ta­ment for the first time. A man sim­ply tak­ing the words of the sto­ry as they stand would form quite anoth­er impres­sion; an impres­sion full of mys­tery and pos­si­bly of incon­sis­ten­cy; but cer­tain­ly not mere­ly an impres­sion of mild­ness. It would be intense­ly inter­est­ing; but part of the inter­est would con­sist in its leav­ing a good deal to be guessed at or explained.

It is full of sud­den ges­tures evi­dent­ly sig­nif­i­cant except that we hard­ly know what they sig­ni­fy, of enig­mat­ic silences; of iron­i­cal replies. The out­breaks of wrath, like storms above our atmos­phere, do not seem to break out exact­ly where we should expect them, but to fol­low some high­er weath­er-chart of their own. The Peter whom pop­u­lar Church teach­ing presents is very right­ly the Peter to whom Christ said in for­give­ness, Feed my lambs.’ He is not the Peter upon whom Christ turned as if he were the dev­il, cry­ing in that obscure wrath, Get thee behind me, Satan.’ Christ lament­ed with noth­ing but love and pity over Jerusalem which was to mur­der him. We do not know what strange spir­i­tu­al atmos­phere or spir­i­tu­al insight led him to sink Beth­sai­da low­er in the pit than Sodom. 

I am putting aside for the moment all ques­tions of doc­tri­nal infer­ences or expo­si­tions, ortho­dox or oth­er­wise; I am sim­ply imag­in­ing the effect on a man’s mind if he did real­ly do what these crit­ics are always talk­ing about doing; if he did real­ly read the New Tes­ta­ment with­out ref­er­ence to ortho­doxy and even with­out ref­er­ence to doc­trine. He would find a num­ber of things which fit in far less with the cur­rent unortho­doxy than they do with the cur­rent orthodoxy. 

He would find, for instance, that if there are any descrip­tions that deserved to be called real­is­tic, they are pre­cise­ly the descrip­tions of the super­nat­ur­al. If there is one aspect of the New Tes­ta­ment Jesus in which he may be said to present him­self emi­nent­ly as a prac­ti­cal per­son, it is in the aspect of an exor­cist. There is noth­ing meek and mild, there is noth­ing even in the ordi­nary sense mys­ti­cal, about the tone of the voice that says Hold thy peace and come out of him.’ It is much more like the tone of a very busi­ness-like lion-tamer or a strong-mind­ed doc­tor deal­ing with a homi­ci­dal mani­ac. But this is only a side issue for the sake of illus­tra­tion; I am not now rais­ing these con­tro­ver­sies; but con­sid­er­ing the case of the imag­i­nary man from the moon to whom the New Tes­ta­ment is new.

Excerpt­ed from G.K. Chester­ton’s The Ever­last­ing Man (pp. 139 – 140), in the pub­lic domain via Jesus​.org.

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