His case is, therefore, not the same as that of a man who, through the injustice inflicted on him by his times, was not allowed to be himself or to be valued at his worth, while history revealed who he was; for Christ himself wished to be abased—it is precisely this condition which he desired. Therefore, let history not trouble itself to do him justice, and let us not in impious thoughtlessness presumptuously imagine that we as a matter of course know who he was. For that no one knows; and he who believes it must become contemporaneous with him in his abasement. When God chooses to let himself be born in lowliness, when he who holds all possibilities in his hand assumes the form of a humble servant, when he fares about defenseless, letting people do with him what they list: he surely knows what he does and why he does it; for it is at all events he who has power over men, and not men who have power over him so let not history be so impertinent as to wish to reveal, who he was.
Lastly—ah the blasphemy!—if one should presume to say that the persecution which Christ suffered expresses something accidental! If a man is persecuted by his generation it does not follow that he has the right to say that this would happen to him in every age. Insofar there is reason in what posterity says about letting bygones be bygones. But it is different with Christ! It is not he who by letting himself be born, and by appearing in Palestine, is being examined by history; but it is he who examines, his life is the examination, not only of that generation, but of mankind. Woe unto the generation that would presumptuously dare to say: “let bygones be bygones, and forget what he suffered, for history has now revealed who he was and has done justice by him.”
If one assumes that history is really able to do this, then the abasement of Christ bears an accidental relation to him; that is to say, he thereby is made a man, an extraordinary man to whom this happened through the wickedness of that generation—a fate which he was far from wishing to suffer, for he would gladly (as is human) have become a great man; whereas Christ voluntarily chose to be the lowly one and, although it was his purpose to save the world, wished also to give expression to what the “truth” suffered then, and must suffer in every generation. But if this is his strongest desire, and if he will show himself in his glory only at his return, and if he has not returned as yet; and if no generation may be without repentance, but on the contrary every generation must consider itself a partner in the guilt of that generation: then woe to him who presumes to deprive him of his lowliness, or to cause what he suffered to be forgotten, and to clothe him in the fabled human glory of the historic consequences of his life, which is neither here nor there.
f. The Misfortune of Christendom
But precisely this is the misfortune, and has been the misfortune, in Christendom that Christ is neither the one nor the other—neither the one he was when living on earth, nor he who will return in glory, but rather one about whom we have learned to know something in an inadmissible way from history—that he was somebody or other of great account. In an inadmissible and unlawful way we have learned to know him; whereas to believe in him is the only permissible mode of approach. Men have mutually confirmed one another in the opinion that the sum total of information about him is available if they but consider the result of his life and the following 1800 years, i.e. the consequences. Gradually, as this became accepted as the truth, all pith and strength was distilled out of Christianity; the paradox was relaxed, one became a Christian without noticing it, without noticing in the least the possibility of being offended by him. One took over Christ’s teachings, turned them inside out and smoothed them down—he himself guaranteeing them, of course, the man whose life had had such immense consequences in history! All became plain as day—very naturally, since Christianity in this fashion became heathendom.