The evening of Easter Sunday, 2018, NBC produced a live show of Jesus Christ Superstar. Personally I think it was misguided, but only because the show ends on the Crucifixion and Easter is a celebration of the Resurrection. The show itself is inaccurate, unbiblical, and in some ways even unChristian, but I don’t hate it, for the simple reason that it was never supposed to be historically accurate, biblical, or Christian. It was always meant to be a questioning by those who are not Christians and who are desperately trying to understand Jesus without the benefit of a Christian perspective.
Superstar is an intentionally unbiblical musing on the story of Jesus through the eyes of the one who betrayed him. Judas is arguably the main character of the story. He’s the narrator, and he is (ironically) the only character we see after his death — not the risen one Himself. He is also the most proactive character, trying to get things done. Jesus is portrayed as passive, reactionary, and constantly under assault from one source or another. He’s tired and angry and sometimes even confused. Judas is also angry and confused, but only because he thought he had a handle on things before. He knew why he joined this movement but now it’s going the wrong direction, and he can’t understand why Jesus is allowing it to happen.
Judas later regrets his betrayal and commits suicide, but not because he realizes that he has betrayed the Son of God — he does it because his entire life has fallen apart and he has nothing left to live for. He has hitched his wagon to a failed Messiah, he has participated in a failed resistance against Rome, he will be hated by everyone for being Jesus’ betrayer to the authorities, and he blames God for letting it all happen. In his own mind, he is the victim of an injustice carried out by God himself:
God! I’ll never ever know why you chose me for your crime
Your foul, bloody crime!
You have murdered me! You have murdered me!
At his return, Judas, now a modern man with a dozen questions, surrounded by chorus girls, sings the words of the lost: “Jesus Christ… Who are you? What have you sacrificed?… Do you think you’re what they say you are?” They don’t know the answers, and they’re frustrated. They compare Jesus to Buddha and Mohammed, they question the status of Christianity in the world and whether Jesus would approve of it. They still don’t know the answers, and they’re still frustrated.
And then the show ends with the death of Jesus on the cross. Silent. Done. Murdered before his time, for no good reason. Meaningless. Resurrection-less. This is the final image, because this is what the writers feel.
As someone who does believe that Jesus is “who they say you are,” I find it a disappointing ending, because it’s not the ending. And I do know the reason it was necessary. And Jesus did plan it that way. But we have to realize that the feelings expressed in Superstar are genuine, and they’re worth engaging with honesty and love. The emptiness felt at the end, as the cross stands there alone, is an uncomfortable one, and I don’t want to shy away from it. Other people are feeling that, and that’s a good place to start if you’re wondering about it all. Is that the end? Did Jesus die for nothing? Why did he let it happen that way? Why did his followers do what they did? The story continues with what his disciples did after the Crucifixion — they started to claim that he had risen from the dead. Why? Just to keep it all going? That’s a good place to start, too. And that’s the point of Easter. So as we celebrate this season, these are all good questions to engage with, both for ourselves and for those who are wandering in the desert searching for answers.
Image from NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert