An atheist’s Easter confession

I’ve been an avowed atheist for decades. I’ve always found the Bible and the story of Jesus incredible in the true sense of the word — not credible. Perhaps that accounts for some of the “D” grades I got in “Conduct” in Catholic school. But I have a confession to make, pun intended. Every year around Easter, I listen to Jesus Christ Superstar and relish it.

Although, or perhaps because, I’m an atheist, I’ve long been fascinated with Christianity’s history. How could the world’s largest religion and so much of our history arise from the story of a man who may not have existed? What explains so many intelligent people accepting a narrative so full of inaccuracy and contradiction? Still, Jesus Christ Superstar gave me a perspective my Catholic education lacked or ignored, lending some actual realism to the origin story.

If there’s any truth to that story, the musical established the political undertones from the outset. In the first song, “Heaven on Their Minds,” Judas is worried that Jesus is losing control of his followers and things are getting out of hand. He’s concerned that “all the good you’ve done will soon get swept away. You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say.” He reiterates that theme in “Everything’s Alright.” When Mary Magdalene anoints Christ’s head and feet, Judas says the oil could have been sold and used for the poor, who “matter more than your feet and hair!”

While Judas feared what the Jewish and Roman authorities might do, Simon the Zealot espoused a diametrical view. As they enter Jerusalem, he sees Christ’s popularity as an opportunity to foment rebellion. “Keep them yelling their devotion, but add a touch of hate at Rome,” he tells Jesus. My experience was that Catholicism simply focused on the religious import of these events. There was little or no discussion of the political crosscurrents, a societal element to which we all remain subject.

What I enjoy more is that Judas and Jesus are actually humanized, not die-cast.

Standard religious education seems to treat Judas as an evil traitor undoubtedly condemned to hell. Jesus Christ Superstar upends that characterization. When Judas meets with the Jewish high priests, he tells them three times, “I really didn’t come here of my own accord.” Why, then, was he there? Well, if this is all God’s plan, weren’t Judas’s actions preordained? Didn’t God assign him the role of betrayer? Reinforcement of this idea comes in an exchange between Judas and Jesus at the Last Supper. Judas tells Jesus, “You want me to do it! What if I just stayed here and ruined your ambition?”

Judas truly isn’t a traitor of his own accord. He’s playing a predetermined role from which there is no escape. As he tells God In his last moments, “I’ve been used, and you knew all the time. … I’ll never ever know why you chose me for your crime.” (Emphasis added.) To me, this wasn’t a miscreant shifting blame but a man ultimately realizing and lamenting his appointed fate.

The humanization of Jesus is as striking. Tim Rice’s lyrics often emphasize the latter aspect of being both God and man. That idea is most explicit in “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say),” where Jesus is praying in the garden before his arrest. Like any man, he’s scared and doesn’t want to die. He appeals to God, “Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die. You’re far too keen and where and how, but not so hot on why.” Most astonishing to me is when Jesus observes, “Why then am I scared to finish what I started? What you started – I didn’t start it.”

What a revelation! Like Judas, Jesus feels trapped in a preordained role, one doctrine says he planned. Yet now he feels trapped because God “hold[s] every card.” He ultimately concludes: “Take me, now! Before I change my mind.” Certainly, no one I knew in the Catholic Church, whether teacher, nun, or priest, ever suggested that Jesus was afraid, let alone that he might question how his story ends. Perhaps this wasn’t a divine automaton.

I still don’t buy religion. I still doubt that Jesus existed. Yet I still remind myself every year this can be considered a story of a man caught in political winds and struggling with inner turmoil and doubt.

I look for truth and find that I get damned.

“Trial Before Pilate,” Jesus Christ Superstar

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