Christianity began not as an institution, not even as a creed, but first as an event that had no proper precedent or any immediately conceivable sequel. In its earliest dawn, the gospel arrived in history as a kind of convulsive disruption of history, a subversive rejection of most of the immemorial cultic, social, and philosophical wisdoms by which the ancient world sustained its order. And the event that the gospel proclaimed was the resurrection of Christ, which was neither a religious event, nor a natural event, nor even an event within the history of religion, but a moment of interruption. According to Paul, it had effectively erased all sacred, social, racial, and national boundaries, gathered into itself all divine sovereignty over history, and subdued the spiritual agencies of the cosmos, the powers and principalities, the thrones and dominions, and the “god of this world.” It was a complete liberation from the constraints of elemental existence but also from the power of law. For even the law of Moses, holy though it was, was still only delivered, so says Galatians, by an angel through a human mediator, in order to operate as a kind of probationary ‘disciplinarian’ and had now been replaced by the law of love.
Thus Christianity entered human consciousness not first as a new system of practices and observances, or as an alternative set of religious obligations, but first and as apocalypse, the visionary annunciation of the Kingdom and its sudden invasion of historical and natural time alike. As René Girard liked to say, the nature of this apocalypse was profoundly irreligious in some sense. It was a complete reversal of perspective in the realm of the sacred, the instant in which the victim of social and religious order—whom all human wisdom has always been prepared to hand over to death as a necessary and so legitimate sacrifice—was all at once revealed to be the righteous one, the innocent one, God himself.
So, in its original form the gospel was a pressing command to all persons to come forth out of the economies of society and cult as they were known and into the immediacy of that event, for “the days are short.” And, having thus been born in the terrible and joyous expectation of time’s imminent end—its first “waking moment” utterly saturated by the knowledge of the nearness of the end—the church was not at first quite prepared to inhabit time except in a state of something like sustained crisis. There was not an obvious medium by which a people in some sense already living in history’s aftermath, in a state of constant urgency, could enter history again, as either an institution, or a body of law, or even a religion. It would take some time, some degree of adjustment of expectations, and perhaps a considerable degree of disenchantment, for so singular an irruption of the eschatological into the temporal to be recuperated into a stable order.
From the beginning, consequently, there has also been a certain paradoxical tension at the very core of Christian belief. In religious terms, accommodation with and adaptation of cultic forms was possible, even within as radically novel an association as the church; and this occurred in some ways just as a kind of natural pseudomorphism, a crystallization of Christian practices in spaces progressively vacated by earlier devotions, even as the church strove to generate new kinds of community within the shelter of the culturally intelligible configurations it had assumed.
This was, of course, inevitable and necessary. A perfectly apocalyptic consciousness subsisting in pure interruption cannot really be sustained beyond a certain brief period. The exigencies of material existence demanded that Christianity would in time have to become “historical” again, “cultural” again, which is to say “cultic.” But, as was also inevitable, the results of this accommodation between apocalypse and cult were frequently tragic, as we know from the history of Christendom. As a religion, Christianity has provided many guises by which the original provocation of the Christian event has been made more bearable to historical consciousness but also under which it has often been all but entirely hidden. The religious impulse has served as the necessary way by which an essentially apocalyptic awareness has also been conveyed through “fallen” time which has also frequently enough striven to suppress that awareness. The alloy, moreover, was probably always somewhat unstable. At least at times it seems as if the Christian event is of its nature something too refractory and volatile—the impulse to rebellion too constitutive of its spiritual logic—to be contained even within its own institutions. This, at least, might explain why Christianity over the centuries not only has proved so irrepressibly fissile (as all large religious traditions all, to some degree, are) but has also given rise to a culture capable of the most militant atheism, even of self-conscious nihilism. Even in its most enduring and necessary historical forms, there is an ungovernable energy within it, something that desires not to crystallize but rather to disperse itself into the future, to start always anew, more spirit than flesh or letter. As the proclamation of time’s invasion by eternity, and as the seal of finality upon the annunciation of the presence of the Kingdom among us, the gospel of Easter must remain within the limits of time we know, an event that is always yet to be fully understood.
(David Bentley Hart, “Freedom, Rebellion, Apocalypse,” 2015 Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture Fall Conference “For Freedom Set Free.”)