Gethsemane as Hiroshima (First Part)
Reynaldo Santos Reyes- Arroyo
The sculpture “La Resurrezione”(Fazzini) contains important theological themes, like the problem of evil and the concept of redemptive suffering.

Gethsemane as Hiroshima: Themes of Redemptive Suffering in Fazzini’s “La Resurrezione”


The date is April 6th, 2022.  The sky had been clear with brief periods of scattered clouds since eight o’clock that morning.  The weather remained pleasant as various clergy and readers opened the General Audience of the Pope.  Pope Francis greeted the audience with a short lecture on kindness and delivered a criticism of the international logic of “geopolitics.”  He noted that the dominant logic of geopolitics is ultimately “the strategies of the most powerful countries to affirm their own interests, extending their area of economic influence, or ideological influence, and military influence.” [1]. All the while, Pericle Fazzini’s sculpture, “La Resurrezione,” loomed over the hall.  As the audience listened to Pope Francis’s lamentations regarding the violence of great power conflicts, one could not help but marvel at the scope of this enormous sculpture and its intense imagery [2].  While Pope Francis appealed for the audience to pray with young Ukrainian refugees in the wake of the massacre in Bucha, the sculpture of the resurrecting Jesus gazed down on the audience with a deep expression of pain [3].

Figure 1. Pericle Fazzini. “La Resurrezione.” Sculpture from Paul VI Audience Hall, 1977. Musei Vaticano.

Pericle Fazzini’s sculpture, “La Resurrezione,” depicts Jesus’s resurrection in the wake of a nuclear explosion (fig. 1).  Fazzini, a native of Grottamare on the eastern Italian coast, began his career with a focus on simple wooden pieces, but his later sculptures were almost solely bronze [4].  The Vatican was captured by his artistic works.  In 1972 – after seven years of negotiation between Fazzini and the Vatican – Paul VI personally requested the service of the sculptor, who finished the piece in 1977 [5].  This sculpture largely held to the pattern of Fazzini’s later works.  This was evident in its materials and scale, as the sculpture was molded in red bronze and yellow brass and measures 66 feet by 23 feet by 10 feet [6]. It dominates the Paul VI Audience Hall, presiding over the regular meetings that Popes have held in the hall to speak to general audiences about the Church’s affairs.  However, this domination is not limited to its size, but is also evident in the sculpture’s subject matter.

“La Resurrezione” and its portrayal of nuclear destruction was strongly influenced by nuclear anxieties of the mid-to-late 20th century.  While the world initially held neutral or positive opinions of nuclear technology entering the 20th century, this changed on August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped the “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, killing 80,000 Japanese civilians and destroying five square miles of the city [7].  Three days later, the world witnessed the death of an additional 40,000 people at the hands of the “Fat Man.” [8] As Cold War tensions escalated, the international community became increasingly aware of the danger nuclear weapons posed to life as the world understood it.  Surveys conducted in the 1960s suggest that 44 percent of children predicted a serious nuclear incident, a number that increased to 70 percent by 1979 [9].  Similar anxieties are evident in Fazzini’s sculpture.  He stated that he envisioned Christ rising in Gethsemane from a “crater torn open by a nuclear bomb; an atrocious explosion, a vortex of violence and energy.” [10]. However, the horrific imagery that Fazzini employed in his depiction of the Jesus’s resurrection is not limited to nuclear anxiety. Jesus’s resurrection from nuclear destruction is theologically significant.

“La Resurrezione” contains theological themes that speak to a variety of important religious issues and theodicies, like the problem of evil (POE) and the concept of redemptive suffering.  William Rowe summarizes the POE as follows: there is intense suffering that an omnipotent and omniscient being could have prevented without losing a greater good or permitting a greater evil and an omniscient and omnibenevolent being would prevent all suffering it could without losing a greater good or permitting a greater evil, so one must conclude that there is not an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being [11].  There are various responses to the POE.  John Paul II suggests that Christ “strikes at evil at its very roots,” targeting eschatological, temporal, and historical toil and suffering [12].  One must wonder whether one can possibly redeem evils like launching nuclear strikes on civilians; how does one redeem the world in the wake of horrendous evils?  Theology is rife with symbolism as a means of portraying important concepts.  Studying how these concepts manifest in different contexts provides important insight into their significance.  To better understand how “La Resurrezione” addresses the POE, this paper will briefly discuss theological themes that will be applied to the sculpture, analyze how the sculpture portrays theological themes related to redemptive suffering, and juxtapose the theological messaging of the sculpture and Toshi and Iri Marukis’ painting “III. Water.”

Background Theology

First, it will be necessary to understand the POE that theodicies of redemptive suffering respond to and how they differ from other variations.  In Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of Gd, McCord Adams states her explicit interest in responding to Mackie’s formulation of the POE as opposed to the evidential POE [13].  This is an important distinction: the logical POE seeks to establish a positive proof against theism while the evidential POE argues for the unlikelihood of Gd’s existence in a world with evil.  If the logical POE is true, then theism is “positively irrational” and inconsistent with observable facts [14].  McCord Adams’s approach to the logical POE demonstrates the consistency of the propositions in question: that God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent and that evil exists.  McCord Adams states that, “when the internal coherence of a system of religious beliefs is at stake, successful arguments for its inconsistency must draw on premises internal to that system…” [15] What this suggests is that, with the addition of premises consistent with Christian traditions, theodicies can answer the logical POE.  Is this true of horrendous evils?

In Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, McCord Adams attempts to address the logical POE by propelling the debate away from its focus on popularly discussed conceptions of theism in philosophical circles and differentiating between normal evils and those that rob the positive value of life [16].   McCord Adams defines horrendous evils as those that “the participation in which gives one reason prima facie to doubt whether one’s life could be a great good to one on the whole.” [17].  Such evils negate the positive meaning of life.  McCord Adams suggests a list of possible paradigmatic evils, including “…betrayal of one’s deepest loyalties, cannibalizing one’s own off-spring… [and] the explosion of nuclear bombs over populated areas…” [18]. These evils also appear to elude popular defenses or responses to the POE, such as Hick’s soul-making theodicy.  While this approach requires one to account for evils as pedagogically beneficial to the human soul, it also confronts one with what Hick calls “dysteleological evils,” that “break the victim’s spirit” with little to no benefit [19].  While Hick suggests these may still have pedagogical value, McCord Adams objects that some positive meaning for participation in horrors must exist outside of “educational benefit.”[20].

McCord Adams sketches three different models by which God may engulf and defeat horrendous evils in the lives of participants to them, thereby restoring the positive meaning of their lives.  These models all hold a commonality: that horrendous evil in a participant’s life can only be overcome by integrating this participation into a relationship with God.  The first model McCord Adams proposes is that this integration becomes possible because “God in Christ participated in horrendous evil through his passion and death, human experience of horrors can be a means of identifying with Christ, either through sympathetic identification or mystical identification…” [21]. For her second proposal, McCord Adams draws from medieval theology, stating that, “Julian of Norwich’s description of heavenly welcome suggests the defeat of horrendous evil through divine gratitude.” [22]. Here, Gd will express gratitude to participants  in horrendous evils, and their ensuing joy will overcome the suffering they experienced.  Finally, McCord Adams suggests that temporal suffering may provide an insight into the inner life of Gd; for example, one may conceive of Gd as being passible, with matched capacities for joy and suffering [23].  Still, other traditions hold different conceptions of redemptive suffering.

The concept of redemptive suffering is not limited to McCord Adams’s perspectives, as various works of Catholic theology reflect a similar attitude.  Initially, the Second Vatican Council caused the notion of redemptive suffering to retreat in prevalence due to theological perceptions of suffering as an experience of evil and concerns that this notion could encourage complicity in the face of oppressive social structures [24].  This is evident in conciliary documents released during this period, which limit the significance of suffering to unity with the Church or following in Christ’s example.  For example, in Gaudium et Spes, Paul VI states, “By suffering for us He (Jesus) not only provided us with an example for our imitation, He blazed a trail, and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning.” [25]. Like many other conciliary documents of the period, suffering is overshadowed by Christological and eschatological themes, but this did not continue.  In Salvifici Doloris, themes of redemptive suffering are evident: “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption.” [26]. Another commonality among proponents of redemptive suffering is their perception of the evil of certain actions.

Having read about redemptive suffering, one may object that, while this position is internally consistent, it contradicts intuitions that opponents hold regarding God’s ability to enact change in the material world.  All of McCord Adams’s proposed means by which God may engulf and defeat horrendous evils suggest the necessity of life after death [27].  This requires holding to two conclusions about Divine power and policy: that God has the power to intervene in causal relations in the material world and that God never has overriding reasons to do so [28].  If these beliefs are predicated on the possibility of miracles, then that may be problematic.  After all, “what is incompatible with a truth is itself false”; if it is a law of nature that all dogs are animals, it follows that a miracle report where a dog is not an animal is false [29].  In response, one may suggest that this is an a priori assumption that is not philosophically evident.  Further, McCord Adams notes that to redeem material reality from horror necessitates its sustained existence, which requires the miracle of resurrection [30].

Before analyzing how “La Resurrezione” portrays a theodicy of redemptive suffering in the wake of nuclear destruction, this paper will first elaborate how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be understood as examples of horrendous evil.  McCord Adams suggests that whether an evil was horrendous may be relatively determined to some extent [31].  If this is true, how does one address the issue that individuals may not be indominable judges of whether a form of suffering can rob their lives of positive value?  McCord Adams suggests that it is evident that a major consideration of whether one’s life has been a great good to them is their perspective [32].  It seems appropriate to suggest that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are horrendous evils because their victims remember them as such.  Sunao Tsuboi, a survivor, recalled the bombings, stating, “my ears were hanging off… I saw tens of thousands of bodies everywhere… a woman was trying to force her own intestines back into her body… the more I think about it… the more painful it becomes to recall.” [33]. Such testimony suggests that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki negated positive meaning in the lives of victims.  

[1] Pope Francis, "General Audience", Transcript of Speech Delivered at the Paul VI Audience Hall, April 6, 2022, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2022/documents/20220406-udienza-generale.pdf

[2] Pope Francis, "General Audience."

[3] Pope Francis, "General Audience."

[4] "Pericle Fazzini, 74, a Sculptor for Vatican," New York Times, December 5, 1987, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/historical-newspapers/pericle-fazzini-74-sculptor-vatican/docview/110707277/se-2?accountid=14244

[5] "Pericle Fazzini, Bozzetto per la 'Resurrezione,'" Musei Vaticani, https://www.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani/en/collezioni/musei/collezione-d_arte-contemporanea/sala-5--scultura-italiana-tra-committenza-e-ispirazione/pericle-fazzini--bozzetto-per-resurrezione.html

[6] "Pericle Fazzini," New York Times.

[7] History.com Editors, "Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," History, November 18, 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/bombing-of-hiroshima-and-nagasaki

[8] History.com Editors, "Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

[9]Milton Schwebel and Bernice Schwebel, "Children's Reactions to the Threat of Nuclear Plant Accidents," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 51, no. 2 (1981): 262-263.

[10] "Pericle Fazzini," New York Times.

[11] William L. Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1979): 336.

[12]John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, Apostolic Letter, Vatican Website, February 11, 1984. https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris.html.

[13]Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of Gd, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1999), 15.

[14]McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils, 14.; J.L. Mackie, "Evil and Omnipotence," Mind LXIV, 254 (1955): 200.

[15]McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of Gd," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 63, (1989): 298.

[16]McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 299.

[17]McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 299.

[18]McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 300.

[19]John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 330-331.

[20]McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils," 53.

[21]McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 307-308.

[22]McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 308.

[23]McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 308.

[24]John. C. Sikorski, "Bearing Death Bravely and Undertaking It in Charity: Redemptive Suffering and the Ars Moriendi," ProQuest LLC (27700963), 2019, 63-64.

[25]Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes, Encyclical Letter, Vatican Website, December 7, 1965, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html

[26]John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris.

[27]McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 307-308.

[28]McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors, Revised ed. (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 214.

[29]Nicholas Everitt, "The Impossibility of Miracles," Religious Studies 23, no. 3 (September 1987): 347.

[30]McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors, 212.

[31]McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 299.

[32]McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 299-300.

[33]Emily Langer, "Hiroshima Victim Lived to Tell his Story; Sunao Tsuboi 1925-2021; ‘Painful’ Memories," The Washington Post, November 10, 2021, https://www.proquest.com/docview/2595792276?parentSessionId=BVEXDoZ56pCpwFoM60CZ3%2Fja4c%2FlDscsq9KJmvmO25s%3D&pq-origsite=summon&accountid=14244