(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

With Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist initiated a series of novels that illustrate his personal doctrine of religious atheism, a profound nurture, through human love, of the divinity that lies within individuals.

The story has three geographical settings, each of which features a dramatic contrast of light and darkness and a graphically depicted crucifixion. In Jerusalem, Barabbas comes out of the darkness of prison into light to witness the crucifixion of Jesus; on the island of Cyprus, Barabbas and his fellow-prisoner Sahak come out of the darkness of a mine into sunlight, and Barabbas witnesses the crucifixion of Sahak; in Rome, Barabbas ascends from the darkness of the Catacombs into the firelight of Rome and is himself crucified.

Emerging from the darkness of prison, Barabbas sees Jesus in a blinding light. His eyes become accustomed to the light, and although he discerns a strangeness in Jesus, he sees him as only a man standing in the light: He will not come to see Jesus as the God who is the Light. Lagerkvist’s chiaroscuro plays on darkness as death and on light as both truth and falsity—the truth of love and the falsity, or delusion, of faith.

His life having been spared at the expense of the life of Jesus, Barabbas returns to his former habitat and to his coarse and rowdy companions, among them the fat woman, who, as his mistress, welcomes the heightened sensuality with which he tries to efface the memory of Jesus and to ignore the claims made by Jesus’ followers, including the big red-haired, blue-eyed man, that Jesus is the Son of God. His former mistress, the harelip girl, likewise claims that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah.

Uncertain and disturbed by their claims, Barabbas seeks from the disciples information about the nature of their faith, and they reluctantly attempt to instruct him. They send him to a man whom Jesus resurrected. The man, clearly the Lazarus of the Gospel according to John, assures Barabbas that Jesus has brought him back to life and explains that the realm of death exists but is, in fact, nothing. Barabbas had not believed that Jesus rose from the dead but instead assumed that Jesus’ followers had simply removed their master’s body from the tomb; he does not, however, dispute the reality of Lazarus’s resurrection. The reader is free to infer that Lazarus has been in a coma: The four days and four nights in the tomb are mentioned, but not the putrefaction (John 11:39). Barabbas accepts...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Barabbas is the criminal whose release was contingent upon the death sentence of Jesus. In Lagerkvist’s novel Barabbas witnesses the Crucifixion and senses that his life and newly gained freedom are defined by a world of darkness and an impulse toward death. He is puzzled by the faith of Jesus’ followers and disturbed by their certainty that Jesus is the son of God. He tries to embrace and experience their faith but he cannot.

He detects a curious distance in three persons who were close to Jesus. Jesus’ mother does not weep at her son’s execution and seems to reproach him for dying in innocence. Peter, a big, red-haired, blue-eyed disciple, has denied Christ and needs reassurance. Lazarus, whom Jesus resurrected, is not happy in his resumed life; his gaze is empty, and in answer to Barabbas’s question about what death is like he replies: “The kingdom of death is nothing. But for those who have been there, everything else is also nothing.” Many years later, Barabbas envisages Lazarus dead for the second time, his skull grinning in the eternal darkness.

Two persons who are close to Barabbas, a harelipped young woman and a man named Sahak, have faith that Christ is their savior, and both die as martyrs. The harelipped woman was the mistress of Barabbas. Sahak was his fellow prisoner and slave in the Cyprian copper mines. Both loved Barabbas, and both appear to fulfill their lives, not so much in the secure anticipation of eternal life as in realizing Jesus’ doctrine of mutual love. Peter also seems to find his great peace more in his love of Christ and of his fellow Christians than...

(The entire section is 662 words.)