I’m going to begin this with a simple fact – I love the Jesus Christ Superstar musical. The music is terrific. The vocals are powerful, especially in the original album version. That said, the theology in Jesus Christ Superstar is…well, interesting at best and questionable at worst.
Let’s begin with the good. Jesus Christ Superstar does a great job of reminding us of a simple and important truth, Christ was fully man. Paul reminds us of this in Romans 1:2-4:
[W]hich He promised long ago through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures— concerning His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David[a] according to the flesh and who has been declared to be the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead according to the Spirit of holiness
Christ is both fully God and fully man. He experienced things we experienced. He was hungry. He mourned. He had Earthly family. He was thirsty. He was abused. He had friends. He had enemies. He felt pain. Christ felt the things we feel in life. Christ’s humanity is important theological point that we sometimes ignore as we focus on the divinity of Christ, his Messiahship, and His importance in the Godhead. He is our Great High Priest who understands our plight.
A second theological point which the musical got which I appreicated was their approach to Judas. Judas never fully understood who Christ was, according to the musical. In the Gospels, when Judas directly addresses Christ he uses the title “Rabbi” instead of “Lord” as the other apostles do. Despite being right next to Jesus, directly in His presence – Judas never fully understood who Christ was. This is obviously not the whole reason why Judas rejected Christ, why he turned his back on our Lord and betrayed Him. But, it is important to note and is seen most fully when you hear the number “Superstar.”
Then, we see the opposite end of the spectrum – we see incorrect theology.
First, we see a romantic role attempted to be thrust upon Jesus. We see the writers attempt to create romantic overtones between the relationship between Jesus and an amalgamation of various Mary’s in the Bible. It’s an odd scenario and one which does not hold up to Biblical muster. It also is all about subtext as the music itself does not imply romance, but love in a Biblical sense. Those who perform the stage production force it into the scene with implications.
The other theological problems all involve their depiction of Christ. First, in the musical we’re presented with an almost completely human Jesus. Sure He has “power” people speak of, but His actions and attitude throughout the musical display a complete separation from the Father, a division of purpose and character which is not present in the actual Godhead. While the Son and Father are different persons, they are all part of the same Godhead and all divine. The Christ of the musical is human. In the song, “I Only Want to Say (Gethsemane),” the musical version of Christ says the following:
But if I die see the saga through and do the things you ask of me; Let them hate me, hit me, hurt me nail me to their tree I’d want to know I’d want to know my God…Why I should die would I be more noticed than I ever was before? Would the things I’ve said and done matter any more? I’d have to know I’d have to know my Lord…If I die what will be my reward? … Why should I die?
Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die. You’re far too keen on where and how but not so hot on why
The musical iteration of Christ lacks an understanding of the purpose of His death on the cross. The Biblical Christ, the true Christ knew His purpose at the cross. He had predicted and spoken of His death and resurrection over and over again in the Gospels (Matthew 16:21, Matthew 26:1-2, Mark 8:31, Mark 10:32-34, etc). He knew His purpose. He knew it was in fulfillment of scripture. He knew it was for the atonement of the many. He knew the purpose and did not need the Father to tell Him. As He tells us in John 10:30, “The Father and I are one.”
The second point of Jesus is His ministry. The depiction we see of Jesus in the musical is one of love, hope, and embracing the poor. These are important aspects of Christ’s ministry, but they’re not the whole picture. Christ, more than any other figure in the Bible, spoke of Hell. He spoke of the reality of Hell, the incorrect lie the world likes to tell us about universalism. Christ continually speaks of the reality that there is a narrow path to Heaven and a wide path to Hell. Christ called out sin when He saw it. He said that He did not approve of divorce, except in the case of infidelity. He tells people if they’re unwilling to to consider giving up everything for Christ, then they’re not truly His follower. He refers to Peter as “Satan” when He tries to deny that Christ will have to die. He has righteous anger. He continued to actively call Himself God. These aspects of Christ’s ministry, aspect which the world does not always like, are absent from Jesus Christ Superstar. Since the world has been the creator of this musical, it’s not always surprising that the world would reject and ignore these important truths in Christ’s ministry.
The most important theological truth which is ignored by the musical is that there was no resurrection of Christ. The musical ends on the death of Christ with the apostles sorrowful as they take Christ off the cross in an instrumental piece. The music ends with a number entitled, “John Nineteen Forty One.” That passage reads:
There was a garden in the place where He was crucified. A new tomb was in the garden; no one had yet been placed in it.
This is not the end of the story, but the musical ends it there. They miss the amazing resurrection of Christ. They miss the beauty of Christ’s promised resurrection and later ascension. They miss an important part of the story and it’s disappointing.
If you are looking for theological purity, read the Bible. If you are looking for an interesting adaptation of the final week of the life of Christ with some amazingly well done music, enjoy Jesus Christ Superstar. I still do.