“Turn your scars into stars and your cross into a stepping stone.” Trivializations such as these have now become a staple even in many evangelical churches at Easter.
A mainline Methodist tells the story of visiting a well-known evangelical church at Easter, hoping to hear the gospel. Waiting in anticipation, he says there was nothing in the service that pointed worshipers upward, to God and his saving deed in Christ. Perhaps it’s all in the sermon, he thought. However, his patience was not rewarded. The message was about how Jesus made it possible for us to come back from our losses even stronger than we were before.
Just a few hours ago a friend sent me this announcement from a local church in his area for the upcoming Easter 2012 service: “Join us for two special Sundays. The Living Lord’s Supper! A live re-enactment of Da Vinci’s Last Supper featuring drama and music.” The sermon: “How Easter Can Change Your Life!” “Pastor Jack Millwood will explain how the power of Easter can change you from the inside out!…This true story (i.e., Palm Sunday and Easter) has changed the world- it can help you make the changes you want to make in your life!”
On Saturday, March 26, atheists and skeptics gathered on the Washington Mall for the “Reason Rally,” where speakers and singers mocked religion. Richard Dawkins, the movement’s pop star, called on the 20,000 gathered there to “ridicule and show contempt…publicly” for the beliefs of religious people. The movement’s organizers take pride in being the “marines” for a new war on faith. War language was all over the place<—an "onward atheist soldiers" sort of theme. As USA Today reporter Cathy Lee Grossman reported, “Outrage was the parlance of the day, however, for many speakers, including David Silverman, Reason Rally organizer and American Atheists president. He reveled in the group’s reputation as the marines of atheism, as the people who storm the faith barricades and bring ‘unpopular but necessary’ lawsuits. Silverman may have gone a bit further in his rhetoric than he intended. In a thundering call for ‘zero tolerance’ for anyone who disagrees with or insults atheism, Silverman proclaimed, ‘Stand your ground!'”
“I’m an atheist, Mom” was one of the more popular signs. In fact, one speaker was Nate Phelps. He is the son of Fred Phelps who leads Westboro Baptist Church, whose website is named, “God Hates Fags” (evidently, among others, such as Jews “who killed the Messiah”). To be sure, this has to be about the most ridiculous aberration I’ve come across yet, but it would be interesting to have surveyed the crowd for the number of militant atheists who came from conservative or even fundamentalist homes. A YouTube clip captures the exchange between a Christian evangelist and a group of atheists at the Rally. In the clip at least, the evangelist’s message doesn’t mention Christ but simply asserts God’s existence and demand for repentance, while rally attendees demand, “Prove it.” The evangelist responds, “Keep the commandments for 30 days and see if God doesn’t reveal himself to you.”
So what do all these stories share in common?
At least one thing they share is a lack of reason on all sides. It’s striking that in Athens, the Apostle Paul was reasoning with Jews in the synagogue and Greeks in the marketplace about the resurrection of Christ (Acts 17:17). His arguments attracted the attention of the philosophers, who invited him to address their debating society. Quoting Greek poets and philosophers, his speech, reported in Acts 17, reached its climax with the announcement of Christ’s resurrection. Many scoffed, while others said “we will hear more on this later,” and a few became believers. Throughout Acts, that’s the way it goes: reasoning in synagogues and marketplaces, some mocking and others confessing Christ. Public claims were made concerning events that had changed the world fewer than 800 miles away, in Jerusalem, only a couple of decades previously. Paul uses martial language, too. He speaks of “pulling down strongholds” and being at war. However, the “strongholds” or fortresses he has in mind are not civil laws or secular humanist organizations. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ…” (2 Cor 10:4-5). Paul knew nothing about a struggle between faith and reason, but only one between faithful reasoning and unfaithful reasoning.
Of course, most evangelicals believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection. No doubt, that conviction will be asserted in many churches this Easter. However, will it be the message that Paul and the other apostles proclaimed?
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not simply a historical claim that secures whatever we may wish to use as an advertisement for Christianity. Jesus Christ “was delivered up for our transgressions and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). The effects are myriad, but the good news itself is that in the life, death, and resurrection of his incarnate Son, God has rescued us from his own just wrath and has made us co-heirs with Christ of every heavenly blessing. The horizon of this redemption is not simply the inner life (a “peaceful, easy feeling”), but objective peace with God because of something that Christ has accomplished outside of us in history (Rom 5:1). And it guarantees not only our present justification and renewal, but our own bodily resurrection to everlasting life when Christ returns.
Furthermore, the horizon is not only our individual salvation, but the restoration of the wider creation (Rom 8:18-25). Wherever Paul preached this good news, he appealed to the common knowledge of recent events surrounding the resurrection. Of course, the message was suited to the audience. To the Jews, the plot-line was already somewhat in place, so that he could announce Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. To the Greeks, he sought to expose the foolishness of idolatry and to show them that they are not even living consistently with what they know by nature. Yet in both cases, Paul’s aim was to get to the resurrection of Jesus as quickly as possible.
Wherever this gospel has spread, it has provoked controversy, mockery as well as faith. After all, it is a genuine historical claim. One can treat private assertions as interesting or irrelevant, but public truth claims, especially of eternal consequence for all people, evoke reaction and response.
What do people in our society today have to say in response to our claims when they are either merely dogmatic assertions or expressions of private therapy?
In reading Mr. Dawkins and other “new atheists,” I do not find any engagement with the central claim of Christ’s resurrection. Instead, they make light work for themselves by saying that faith is the opposite of reason. As Dawkins has written, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” And yet, they have the example of myriad Christian testimonies to undergird this assumption. This Easter many will sing, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” There is a widespread assumption that faith is merely a decision, a sheer act of the will, safely hidden away on the inner island of the self where criticism, history, and reason cannot disturb. And this is as widely assumed perhaps in Christian as in secularist circles.
This is not just about apologetics; it’s about the gospel itself. Do we really believe that there was a turning point not only in our individual hearts at some point in our life, but in world history around 33 AD? Did God really assume our humanity as a zygote in the womb of a Jewish virgin? Did he really fulfill the law, perform signs as harbingers of the new age, bear our judgment, and rise again as the beginning of the new creation? Did he really take our dreary history of sin and death into his grave and walk out of that grave as the mediator, guarantor, and first-fruits of the age to come? Is it really true that even though we suffer now, our bodies will be raised in glory, like Christ’s, to share in the wonders of a restored cosmos without the threat, much less the reality, of evil, pain, injustice, sin, and violence? And does everything in this gospel turn on the testimony of eye-witnesses?
To all these questions the apostles answer in the affirmative. More than anyone, their “personal testimony” could have been to the difference it had made in their lives<—morally, therapeutically, and experientially. While those effects are mentioned, though, their testimony was to public events:
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and that he was seen by Cephas [Peter], then by the twelve. After that he was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have died. After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all he was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am… (1 Cor 15:3-10).
Jesus does indeed make a difference in our lives, but only because he rose again in history and his resurrection secured something much wider, deeper, and richer than our own personal experience. He changed the face of history, not merely by his example or by inspiring others to great accomplishments in history. It is not because there are happier people, hospitals, and greater liberties, but because God himself accomplished in his Son what no one but God could have achieved, once and for all. Only because the horizon of this redemption is so all-encompassing does it have such a transforming impact for our own lives. But by reducing this vast, public, and all-encompassing announcement to the narrow confines of our personal decision, morality, and experience, we not only perpetuate the faith-reason split in apologetics but trivialize the gospel itself.
In my next post, I’ll explore some of the arguments that make Easter good news to atheists, skeptics, and believers alike.