Wow Moments: Eucatastrophe and The Humor of Christ by Elton Trueblood

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Christianity has always been known for helping people face death without fear. This is part of the paradox of the gospel: the “Death of Death in the Death of Christ” as John Owen titled his book. Its why J. R. R. Tolkien coined the word Eucatastrophe, from the Greek prefix eu- and catastrophe. For Tolkien “a eucatastrophe is a sudden, miraculous, and unexpected turn in the story from the worst possible situation to the best” (click for source). For Tolkien, there are two ultimate examples of eucatastrophe:

  1. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, which he terms the eucatastrophe of “human history.”
  2. And Christ’s Resurrection, the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.

Since Christ’s resurrection sets the precedent for how God works in the world, Christians are able to respond to death not only without fear, but with humor. This is a bold claim, but there is evidence that faith fueled by belief in eucatastrophe is possible for followers of Christ.

Elton Trueblood reports an example of this in his book The Humor of Christ. Trueblood gives the account of Donald Hankey, a soldier from the First World War who described how the soldiers around him responded to sure death. On October 26, 1916, immediately preceding his death in action on the Western Front, Hankey wrote the following about how his fellow soldiers faced death:

“Their spirits effervesced. Their wits sparkled. hunger and thirst could not depress them. Rain could not damp them. Cold could not chill them. Every hardship became a joke. They did not endure hardship, they derided it. And somehow it seemed at the moment as if derision was all that hardship existed for! Never was such a triumph of spirit over matter. As for death, it was, in a way, the greatest joke of all. In a way, for if it was another fellow that was hit, it was an occasion for tenderness and grief. But if one of them was hit, O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory? Portentous, solemn Death, you looked a fool when you tackled one of them! Life? They did not value life! They had never been able to make much of a fist of it. But if they lived amiss they died gloriously, with a smile for the pain and the dread of it. What else had they been born for? It was their chance. With a gay heart they gave their greatest gift, and with a smile to think that after all they had anything to give which was of value. One by one Death challenged them. One by one they smiled in his grim visage, and refused to be dismayed. They had been lost, but they had found the path that led them home; and when at last they laid their lives at the feet of the Good Shepherd, what could they do but smile?”

Elsewhere in his book, Hankey defines “true religion” as “betting one’s life there is a God.” This sort of hopeful optimism contrasts strongly with the default pessimism of our time. By contrast, Hankey’s example offers hope that when our confidence is in God, even death is paradoxically humorous.

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