[This post is part of a series: How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]
Uncomfortable confession time: although I attempt to help myself and others continue to progress in Christianity–part of my track record is that people I have taught continue to turn away from it. Several years ago, one of the young people I used to work with turned from Christianity to atheism. That's not the kind of thing I mentioned in subsequent job interviews with churches. Even if I would have mentioned him, I'd still probably find a way to avoid mentioning that he wasn't the only one–as recently as this week, I had the chance to catch up with another friend, a young man I used to teach, who has turned from mainstream Christianity to something that he called "a Christian agnosticism"(1). I nodded along, even though I have no idea what that means.
Through my conversations with these young people and others, and the things I have read, watched, and listened to as a result of them, I have noticed that their changes-of-course and the thoughts of the most popular critics of Christianity often stem from legitimate questions: Hasn't science made the Christian faith obsolete? How could a good and powerful God allow so much human suffering? What about all of the appalling things that Christians have done to others (and even to each other) through the centuries?
These kinds of questions are highly important, and Christians who feel that it is in our best interest to sweep them under the rug for the sake of maintaining our faith in God have misunderstood the nature of faith. If any faith is trustworthy, it can handle the tough questions and is therefore either strengthened by exploring them or debilitated by avoidance.
Before coming to any of those questions in this devotional series, though, I thought that it was very important to start the conversation by focusing on Jesus. Did he live? Did he die? Did he rise from the dead? What best explains the rise of Christianity after his life? My friends who have changed their beliefs have focused more on the other questions than on those. But if it is plausible to believe that Jesus actually lived, died, and lived again, those questions have to be seen in a different light than they would if they were the starting point.
The approach we've been taking is like we've been using a pair of powerful binoculars to take a good look at this ancient Jewish carpenter-turned-rabbi. Once we see him up close, we can then put the binoculars down and see everything else around differently because of what there is to know about his life. If Jesus' resurrection is a historical reality, the rest of our world is a very different kind of place than it would be if the stories about his rising from the dead are nothing more than old fallacies. The two friends I mentioned have settled into the latter conclusion, largely because–rather than starting with the binocular view of Jesus–they have looked around at everything else first, then when the binoculars are picked up to take a look at Jesus (if they ever are), he only matters to them as he fits into what they have perceived everywhere else. If I am honest with myself, I have also tried looking at the world both ways, but even after doing so, I am convinced that I see everything–including myself, those around me, and the joys and sorrows of life–more clearly when I have recently been looking intently through those binoculars at this matchless rabbi.
Now, having started this series with our focus zoomed-in on Jesus, it's important for us to pan out and take a look at some of the wider-angle questions. Obviously, in the context of this single post, I'm not trying to address the questions as thoroughly as they deserve, but good resources are available by people who have done so, and I will only make a couple of points about them which have remained as the most important for me.(2)
One of the reasons I think it's valuable to view the wide-angle questions in light of Jesus is that the story about his life addresses many of the broader questions that often surface. If the story of Jesus is historically reliable, the wide-angle "How could a good and powerful God allow so much human suffering?" needs to be seen in light of "Why would a good and powerful God become human and suffer so much?" Or, the question about all of the appalling things Christians have done throughout history will be examined differently when viewed through the story of Jesus, since the story says he knew better than anyone the costly consequences of crookedly zealous religious leaders.
It's a beneficial thing that some of the most important wide-angle questions are reflected in Jesus' story, but there's still one broad category of questions left out, which keeps a multitude of well-meaning people from ever seriously considering devotion to Jesus as a viable option for their lives, and those are the questions that deal with the immense amount of knowledge given to us from the various fields of science. The huge majority of people I know make efforts to be responsible, intelligent, thinking persons, and it is difficult for many to reconcile those efforts with the claims of the ancient stories that God created the universe, interacted with people like Abraham and Moses, then would become human, perform miracles, and eventually be resurrected following his own death. There is a widespread sense among us that belief in these ancient stories will sooner or later be ended among educated people, just as science brought us out of our ancestors' belief that the world was flat and the sun rotated around it.
But again–already having had our binoculars focused in on the life of our Jewish rabbi–we cannot dismiss him and the course of history since his life. So what does science say to us about him, particularly about his resurrection? Science is very capable of explaining to us why dead people stay dead, so, really, the question comes down to:
- God does not exist, therefore Jesus could not have risen from the dead.
- God exists, therefore Jesus could have risen from the dead.
So, can it be a sensible, rational thing to believe that God exists–and therefore Jesus' resurrection is possible–even with all that every field of science has taught us over the past centuries? Next week, we'll dig into this consequential question.
Scripture Readings for the Week*:
- Amos 8:1-12
- Psalm 52
- Colossians 1:15-28
- Luke 10:38-42
A Prayer for the Week*:
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) From my perspective, there could be no stronger contradiction in terms, since agnosticism claims that if God exists, we really can't know much about him, while Christianity is based on the claim that a historical person revealed what God is like to the rest of humanity. This could certainly be explored further, but needn't be in this post. (2) Three recommendations, in order from heaviest to least heavy: Knowing Christ Today by Dallas Willard, The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, Avoiding Jesus by Michael Green
[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]