In the days after my grandmother’s graveside funeral, I returned to a lecture given in Andover Chapel at Harvard University in 1955 by the then-famous Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann. Eventually published as a small book titled The Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?, Cullmann’s lecture opens by contrasting the deaths of Socrates and Jesus. “Plato shows us how Socrates goes to his death in complete peace and composure,” Cullmann notes. “The death of Socrates is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror.”
The reason for Socrates’s serenity in the face of death, Cullmann proposes, is the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul. Since death frees the soul from the body, then death can be welcomed as a friend. We can attain a state of “acceptance,” as some counselors tell us, borrowing from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous typology of the multiple stages of dying. Such, apparently, was Socrates’s experience.
In sharp distinction from this portrait, for Cullmann, lies the stark horror of Jesus’ death. “In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day.” And yet the contrast between these two figures’ responses could not be greater. Whereas Socrates maintains his equilibrium, Jesus “trembles” and becomes distressed (Mark 14:33). “Jesus is so thoroughly human that He shares the natural fear of death,” says Cullmann. “Death for Him is not something divine: it is something dreadful.” It leads Jesus to offer up “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He utters the “cry of dereliction” from the cross (Mark 15:34), protesting death’s most pitiless feature — its insistence that each person must endure it alone, with no prospect of a reprieve or rescue. “Death in itself is not beautiful, not even the death of Jesus,” Cullmann concludes. We might well say about the four Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’s final hours what Rowan Williams once said in a slightly different context: these stories “are about difficulty, unexpected outcomes, silences, errors, about what is not readily accessible or readily understood.” That’s what death means, even for the Lord himself.