This post is inspired by a recent conversation I had with a friend in a Literature and Philosophy class about his assignment to write a paper about the essence of tragedy in the context of various works the class has read this semester.
I’ve been so inspired by that conversation as to write what I believe is the essence of tragedy, and how it has changed from the era of the Greeks until now. Tragedy, as we know it, started as a genre in Greek drama. Every Greek tragedy included a protagonist, often a hero type, struggling against fate. Most of these tragedies involved a prophecy which the protagonist attempted to avoid, ultimately fulfilling it. This fall was catalyzed by a fatal flaw, often hubris (pride). The point of the tragedies, plays like Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, and Antigone was to cause the audiences to have a feeling of sympathy and reflect intellectually about their world. Tragedy is thought-provoking because it reveals to us a key aspect of our lives, that we all have flaws. Greek tragedies never featured hope, because the Greeks did not have hope.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” -Romans 3:23
This verse outlines tragedy. We were created to experience the glory of God, yet sin pulls us away from that glory, it is the fate that we are tied to, it is our fatal flaw. Throughout history, people have tried to escape sin, and the death it leads to, but all have fallen. Not every culture had a name for it, but all humanity knows it. We see the consequences of our choices and try to change our choices but in the end, they lead us back to the same pit of despair. The Greeks and other cultures turned their attentions toward building character, wealth, and honor to distract from the futility of life’s struggle. Those things were somewhat tangible, but they were not satisfying.
This tragedy of humanity was finally given hope at the cross, in God in human form, Jesus Christ. As he bled and died, he took the tragedy of the world upon him. That day seemed to be the peak of tragedy, as a man who seemed to be perfect, without flaw, hung dying. Could there be hope for man? An outsider looking at just this scene would not think so, but the outsider does not know the whole story. “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” -John 3:16. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” -1 Peter 2:24 Jesus took that sin upon him so that humanity might not suffer the ultimate consequence of sin, but that was not the end of the story. “…that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”-1 Corinthians 15:4
This is the ultimate joy and hope, the opposite of tragedy. All who believe in Christ have hope in his resurrection! “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” 1 Corinthians 15:19 This verse is true, Christians, if Christ was not raised from the dead, have no more hope than the rest of humanity, in fact, it means that they suffer for nothing. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead (verse 20).” Now there is hope on earth for humanity. One must ask; since hope has been brought to mankind, is there still tragedy? The answer is yes.
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” -Romans 1:28 This is the essence of tragedy, when a person rejects God and the gift of salvation. A man given the hope of the gospel who rejects it experiences a greater tragedy than the Greeks who did not know of God’s salvation. The essence of tragedy in the modern world is the opportunity of redemption rejected.