Sunday, 20 May 2012

Sacrifice and Resurrection in Faith and Fiction


Roman state polytheism became inadequate when the city ruled an empire. One world empire needed one omnipresent god, to replace local deities, and one perfect sacrifice, to replace local rituals. Judaism provided one god and several executed Messianic claimants. The Romans accepted the Jewish god as their god and one executed Messianic claimant as the perfect sacrificial victim. Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish Roman citizen, Romanized Judaism as “Christianity."

A minimal Christian creed would have been, “I believe in one god who accepts a recent death as a universal sacrifice.” The sacrifice had to be seen as a new revelation superseding ancient rituals so the death had to be a recent historical event, not just a reinterpreted myth. However, this particular death came to Saul’s (Paul’s) attention because the Messianic claimant’s disciples had already proclaimed his Resurrection. Therefore, the Resurrection also came to be regarded as historical. The minimal creed became, essentially, “I believe in one god who accepts a recent death as a universal sacrifice and resurrected the victim.”

Thus, the Christian historical synthesis incorporated both the barbaric belief in blood sacrifice and the perennial myth of death and resurrection, the former of necessity, the latter possibly by accident. Paul needed a sacrificial death. Peter provided a resurrection from death. Paul accepted the resurrection but interpreted the death as sacrificial. 

Sacrifice and resurrection are not necessarily connected. Most victims do not rise. All rising gods were not victims. They were connected in Christianity because the sacrifice atoned for sin which had caused death so atonement for sin entailed resurrection from death, but who now believes that sin caused death? Our experience is that gods, if they exist, do not require blood whereas death and renewal are perennial. Therefore, we need to consign blood sacrifice to the barbaric past but death and resurrection to the realm of myths, meaningful stories present in consciousness.

Some Christians acknowledge that the Resurrection is a “myth” in this sense while also believing that it was a historical event. When God became man, myth became history, although to say this is to invoke the further myth of incarnation. Thus, the minimal creed became that the one god accepts a sacrifice and resurrected the victim who was himself incarnate. This in turn led to a distinction between the persons performing the divine functions so that the formal creeds incorporated the Trinity: one tri-personal god who as the father accepts a sacrifice and resurrected the victim who was the son incarnate… The creeds also identify the father as the creator but this came straight from Genesis so did not need to be imported. Complicated, but synthesizing several pre-existing ideas.

Resurrection was historicized because Paul joined the Jesus movement, not the cult of any other historical figure. Despite its Roman origin, Christianity has adapted. The perceived need for blood sacrifice remains meaningful to Evangelicals because it fantastically reflects our common experience of alienation. 

Graphic Fiction

The death and resurrection myth, instantiated in other gods before Jesus, is now instantiated in fictitious characters. In “cliff-hanger” cinema serials, the hero seemed to die at the end of each episode except the last. In one comic book adaptation, Flash Gordon is suffocated in a giant hour glass publicly displayed by Ming of Mongo. Flash’s friends cannot rescue him from the closely watched and guarded hour glass but do retrieve and revive his body later. Thus, in this case, there is a real death and resurrection.

Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Superman and others have all fallen off the cliff, literally or metaphorically, at the end of one volume but have returned in subsequent volumes and were last seen alive. A fantasy character’s death can be literal. Superman’s soul entered the hereafter but his foster father, during a near death experience, persuaded him to return. In this case, the editors and authors had planned an extended series about the supporting characters while the hero was dead but had always intended to restore him although by a roundabout route, with none of the four pretenders turning out to be the real steel deal although we were misdirected into thinking that one of them was so that it became necessary to re-read in order to check when we had been seeing the revived Kal-El and when we had instead been seeing a Kryptonian artificial intelligence that mistakenly thought itself to be Kal-El.

In a different version of this story, such an intelligence might have sufficed as the resurrected Superman. If an organism cannot survive indefinitely, might its memories and sense of identity be transmitted into a different medium? (St Paul claimed that the resurrected spiritual body differs qualitatively from the buried physical body.)

Lex Luthor, dying of radiation poisoning, convinced both characters and readers that he had killed himself by crashing a plane and had been replaced, a year later, by his illegitimate and previously unknown son, only to reveal that the “son” was Luthor’s preserved brain with a new body grown around it. Another way to handle this scenario would have been for a genuine son, Lex II, to become “Luthor.”

Between John Byrne’s revamp of the character in 1986 and Superman’s return from death in 1993, the Superman titles were worth reading although they never realized their full potential and deteriorated drastically later, quantity overcoming quality, the industry destroying the medium. I expected to collect the second fifty years, 1988-2038, which would have generated storage problems, but continuing the collection became a pointless waste of money and paper, although the character remains capable of innovative treatment, for example in the Smallville TV series and novels based on it. 

When a character is published indefinitely for decades, his story not only risks deterioration but also necessarily branches into different “continuities.” For example, the Superman of the 1940’s fought in World War II whereas the current Superman did not. Earlier versions of the character, regarded as inhabiting parallel universes, can also be regarded as having died by now. Thus, we know that one character, in different versions, has died yet is always currently active. 

The one-off “imaginary stories,” not obliged to conform to continuity, include one in which Superman was killed and did not return although his cousin faked his resurrection when arresting his murderer, Luthor. Alan Moore’s imaginary story, “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?,” written to conclude the post-War, pre-Byrne continuity, convinces the reader that Superman has died, then reveals that he has survived under a changed name without his powers but with a son who inherits the powers.

Once, Superman prosecuted and the Batman defended Lana Lang for the murder of Lois Lane. Lois looked dead but I did not find Part II which would either have shown her return or explained why she had not died after all. If a resurrected Lois really had died, then perhaps a murder charge could be made to stick although it would be difficult to prove in the presence of a living body. Lois cannot die permanently. She has married Clark in four comics continuities and one TV series.

When Moore took over writing the minor horror title, Swamp Thing, he had the character apparently killed by a military attack only to show that bullets and shells can stun but not kill a vegetable body. Later, Swampy’s body died from radiation poisoning but he grew another. Surviving as a disembodied consciousness in a vegetable dimension called “the Green,” he was able not only to control vegetation and to grow new bodies of different sizes and shapes but also to enter the hereafter, rescue his lover’s soul from Hell, where it had been unjustly imprisoned, and return it to her still living but unconscious body.

An Alan Moore story begins with Superman expecting to die from a Kryptonian fever but Swampy helps him through it. Luthor, an expert in the attempted destruction of an invulnerable being, advises a secret government agency on how to kill the Swamp Thing. Consequently, Swampy is apparently dead for two issues, while there is mourning and a memorial service on Earth, but he is really adrift in space, bouncing between inhabited planets, and returns to kill the covert team that had tried to kill him. After Moore’s run on the title, Swampy learns of Luthor’s involvement and pursues him as well but Lex, like every Metropolitan, is protected by Superman so Swampy backs off.

Lex is a continuing character who cannot die permanently, except in an imaginary story or “Elseworld,” but he has over time become a different character. He was a wanted criminal and frequent convict but now has “always been” a respectable though crooked billionaire-philanthropist who even became US President. The nature and extent of Superman’s powers has changed more than once and his character changes with his powers. Each distinct version of a character has a limited life-span but we usually see one version morphing into his successor rather than one ending and the next beginning. Even when Moore concluded one Superman continuity and Byrne initiated its successor, the pre-Byrne Superman appeared anachronistically after the cosmos-altering “Crisis” which was supposed to have effected a smooth transition between continuities.

Also under Moore’s successor, an attack from space apparently killed the Swamp Thing only to send him backwards in time. He interacted with historical figures (including Jesus as a powerful white magician but the publishers refused to publish this episode), met himself returning to the twentieth century, founded the line of plant elementals of which he is a member and returned to the twentieth century, meeting himself traveling backwards and arriving a few months after his departure, thus unable to help oppose the invading aliens that had tried to kill him. 

This summary shows the death and resurrection theme recurring several times for just two characters, Superman and the Swamp Thing. 

Prose Fiction

A realistic character’s “death” can only be apparent but can also be convincing. Doyle’s attempts to end the Holmes series included a literal death. Watson married and left Baker St at the end of the second novel. The married Watson stayed in touch with Holmes but then Holmes died at the end of a second collection. Two further novels recorded earlier cases. In a third collection, Holmes returned from apparent death but then retired. In the fourth collection, Holmes returned from retirement but only temporarily. A final collection recorded earlier cases and one during the retirement but then Doyle, the omnipotent author, said, “This must cease,” although he did not resort to another death. Appropriately, we last see Holmes still active in Baker St. As Holmes returned from Reichenbach, so might Moriarty. Both John Gardner and Alan Moore have made this assumption.

Bond seems to the reader, and was originally intended by the author, to be dead at the end of his fifth novel, is believed by other characters to be dead at the end of his eleventh novel and is shot in the stomach, so would have died unless rescued in time, near the end of his twelfth and last novel. His “Obituary,” near the end of the eleventh novel, You Only Live Twice, reduces his life by more than a decade so that he remains not only alive but also active longer than expected. “Obit:” rationalizes its contradiction of dates as given in the first novel by relegating the entire series up to that point to the status of fictionalized accounts written by a former colleague. Retroactively, previous volumes become, in dramatic terms, “plays within the play” or, in scriptural terms, Apocrypha.
Fleming’s subtle rewriting of the character’s career established in popular consciousness the myth of a perennially active hero, a myth perpetuated to absurdity by post-Fleming novels and additionally vulgarized by endless slapstick films. Since we are discussing myths as they appear either in religious belief or in popular fiction, the artistic contrast between Fleming’s Bond novels and the post-Fleming Bond films parallels the religious contrast between mystical subtlety and Evangelical vulgarity.

Both Doyle and Fleming had intended an irrevocable death but the logic of series fiction is that a popular character either does not die or returns, his “death” becoming not an ending but a major turning point. The Ministry of Defence switchboard receives calls from imposters after Bond’s publicly announced death. When he does return, initially mistaken for another imposter, he is not himself and does not regain his former status within the Secret Service until the end of this last book. The film, You Only Live Twice, with a different agenda and an unrelated script, shows an apparent death and naval burial at sea, then immediately shows how these were faked so that Bond could pursue his enemies without their knowledge. In the following film, Blofeld, evading a vengeful Bond, fakes his death at Bond’s hands by employing a double.
Doyle recorded earlier cases before resorting to The Return…, complete with a “man on the road to Emmaus” scene, whereas Fleming, writing each novel as a direct sequel to its predecessor, had to explain Bond’s survival early in the sixth novel but, even then, Chapter I, describing familiar characters in a familiar setting, avoids reference to Bond as if the world were continuing without him.

Raffles pulled a “road to Emmaus” stunt, attending his own funeral in disguise, on television but I cannot remember whether this scene was in the original Raffles series, having read the latter only once. This does not matter here because the present article is reflective, not researched. It evokes memories of resurrection images in popular fiction and in different media. The Flash Gordon story above is a beaut and one that I might well not have known about. What else is out there? 

Television and Time Travel

I read of a TV series that handled the death and resurrection theme with originality. The actor playing Robin Hood was not due to return for a second season. At the end of the first season, Robin dies. In the second season, a nobleman called Robert joins the merry men, becomes their leader and comes to be called “Robin.” We are to understand that the Robins merged in the legend which is in any case inconsistent. Thus, continuity is maintained, contradictions are explained and a real death does not end the story of Robin Hood, as indeed it cannot. This approach would have accommodated even the death of the first actor, which, fortunately, had not happened.

The time traveling “Doctor” explains changes of actor and longevity of the character by “regeneration,” periodic rejuvenation, which is easily invoked in a science fiction (sf) context. One early regeneration was treated very like a death and resurrection. However, the story of the Doctor needs to be retold from the beginning with Time Lords as future humanity, not an alien species, and with a subtler understanding of the relationships between life, death and time travel. A time traveller who has died is not dead all the time if, before dying, he had made extended excursions to periods later than the date of his death. (See The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger.) It would be possible to show in chronological order the Doctor’s adventures, then his death, then more of his adventures. The second set of adventures would be after his death to non-time traveling characters but before it to the Doctor himself. 
The British sf writer, Christopher Priest, once said publicly that he had written a script featuring a death of the Doctor that was not subsequently prevented or explained away. It was a real, not an apparent, death. I do not think that that script was used although, not being a big Who fan, I am not certain. Such unpublished and apocryphal stories add extra dimensions to legendary characters.

A time traveller would be able to fake a resurrection or ghostly apparition by learning the time of his death, then making a brief appearance after it. (See The Shield Of Time by Poul Anderson.)

The Doctor is currently described as “the last Time Lord.” This means not only that other Time Lords have died but also that he no longer meets them wherever or whenever he travels. However, if they were all killed in, for the sake of argument, 2000 AD, then a journey to 1999 or earlier will take him to a time when they were still alive. Further, if they, as time travelers, had visited periods later than 2000, then some of them may be around now (2008) and certainly are in the future. If, as is suggested, they died in a “Time War” and if, as seems probable, such a war involves time travel, with battles in different periods, then it is questionable whether they could all have died at a single time. Some of their deaths, or at least some of the Time War battles, could be still to come.

In any case, from a four dimensional perspective, everyone, whether a time traveler or not, is alive at some times and dead at others so no one is permanently dead to a time traveler, even before we ask whether it is possible to change events by preventing deaths, an issue that Doctor Who made a complete mess out of. It demands subtlety. A Time Patroller was seen to fall into a waterfall and records showed that she had never returned to her home base or to anywhen else so a colleague from a different era rescued her, then proposed to her, thus explaining why there was no further record of her under her maiden name. (See The Time Patrol by Poul Anderson.) The second Patroller changed not known events but their significance. Without his further action, her absence, under her maiden name, from subsequent records would have been caused by her death in the waterfall, not by her marriage to him, but Patrollers are forbidden to prevent deaths that are definitely known to have occurred, for example when the body has been found.

Breaking this rule would generate not one timeline with a death and resurrection but a first timeline with a death and a second with a prevention of the death. The Time Patrol is committed to preserving a single timeline. Cyrus the Great was killed as a baby. When he was needed as an heir in adulthood, a captured Time Patroller was forced to play the role. In order to be able to return home to the twentieth century, that Patroller with a colleague prevented the killing of the infant Cyrus so that the right guy played this historically necessary role after all. (The Time Patrol.

The Time Patrol exists in the same timeline as Holmes and must prevent him from detecting their activities in his era but I suggest that they would consult him in his retirement when there would no longer be any risk that their interaction with Holmes would affect Watson’s accounts of the detective’s adventures. These are historical accounts so the Patrol has to preserve them as they stand, including the one piece of evidence for time travel that is in there, but Patrollers might also need Holmes’ expertise to investigate a case concerning Jonathan Wild, the master criminal of the previous century, whom Holmes compares with Moriarty.

In another TV/film sf series, of course, Spock died and returned. Part of the process was the finding of an empty coffin with an abandoned burial shroud. (Spock should be re-written as a descendant of human extra-solar colonists, not as a human-alien hybrid. Since Vulcan was a hypothetical, although non-existent, solar planet, it is questionable whether that name should have been applied to a fictitious extra-solar planet but that is now a lost battle. "Vulcan” popularly means Spock’s home planet.) The series continued long enough to incorporate a real death of Captain Kirk without a resurrection although, even then, Kirk spent some time in another realm between his historically recorded death and his actual death.


This article began with the realization that sacrifice and resurrection are separable concepts in Christianity, then pursued resurrection in unexpected directions. Whenever we appreciate a work of fiction in which the hero dies or appears to die but is alive later, the myth remains active as it was in Adonis, Balder, Christ and Osiris. (The Norse gods failed to rescue Balder from Hel (= Hades, not Hell) but he will return after the Ragnarok when Odin, Thor and Loki have died.)

Sacrificial death and resurrection survive in Evangelical sermons. Self-sacrifice, death and resurrection recur in heroic fiction. Marxists hope to end the conditions that generate both Evangelism and nationalism but not to end appreciation of myth or fiction. I think that we will fully understand the Four Gospels and, for example, the James Bond novels when we have transcended current conflicts so that contentious issues no longer include the historicity of the Resurrection, the nature of alienation, the need for atonement, sexual morality or Cold War politics. We will then appreciate these texts without having to argue against contrary views and will instead debate the merits of as yet unwritten works, of which some will continue to express perennial myths though in new ways. Societies change but life and death are constants.


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