Pain, Sentience and the Crucifixion


'Crucifixion' by Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto © Arte & Immagini srl/CORBIS

Consciousness and culture complicate our most basic physical realities, especially the reality of pain.

I've been thinking about the figure of Jesus Christ recently, for few figures of pain and suffering stand so towering in Western culture. We see such a stark difference between the serene bloodletting in Alberto Sotio's 1187 "Christus Triumphans" and the suffering, diseased Christ of Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece. One is a physical god impervious to pain, while the other is brought low by torture and illness.

In this we see the evolution of a religious symbol - or at least one branch of it, for the iconography of Christ is rich with meaningful alterations. The Christian New Testament contains much about the life of Jesus, but the focus increasingly shifted to his birth and death - just as images of his crucifixion shifted from a wide-eyed and painless god-in-flesh to the ultimate torment of god-as-man.

In her book "The Body in Pain," Elaine Scarry takes a deep dive into the meaning of human suffering - and she devotes an entire section to body and voice in the Christian scriptures.

One of her core arguments is this: While the Old Testament presents an immaterial god made manifest to humanity through scenes of wounding, the New Testament presents a material god made manifest through scenes of healing.

"Just as the Old Testament act of wounding is explicitly presented as a 'sign': the human body is in each the site for the analogical verification of the existence and authority of God, but the altercations are almost always now in the direction of recovery."

Scarry argues that while the Old Testament tells the story of a people's creation, exile and rescue; the New Testament concerns a physical god's creation, exile and rescue.

Therefore, both religious texts are writ in the ink of pain, but do we see in basic Christian theology a blurring of the lines between the immortal immaterial and the mortal material. God takes human form, suffers and dies, while humans gain a shot at physical immortality - for, make no mistake, the theology of Christian resurrection is based in the body.

"In the Old Testament scenes of hurt, Jehovah enters sentience by producing pain; Jesus instead enters sentience by healing and, even more important, by himself becoming the object of touch, the object of vision, the direct object of hearing. In both the human body is the vehicle of belief, but the vividness of pain in the one becomes the vividness of touch and vision in the other."

Far from a mere negative sensory reinforcement to reduce physical harm, pain becomes the method by which we establish the existence, sentience and will of the cosmos itself.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.