Christ’s resurrection provides a cure for what ails us
By Pierre Gilbert
It is unfortunate that we don’t talk more these days about Christian apologetics. In some circles, the very word causes the sort of embarrassment we would feel wearing bell-bottom jeans. It just isn’t in keeping with the spirit of the times.
The notion of Christian “apologetics” derives from 1 Peter 3:15 and properly refers to a coherent presentation of the Christian faith: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Beyond the negative connotations the word “apologetics” may have, Christians should always be ready to explain why they are filled with hope even in the face of suffering and death. Followers of Christ too often forget that they have the only cure for the terminal illness that afflicts us all. Christians should indeed be the most joyful people on earth.
Apologizing for faith
But many who identify with the Christian faith increasingly apologize for that very same faith. Less than a year ago, Reverend Gretta Vosper, an emerging leader in the United Church of Canada, published With or Without God, a book in which she argues that all references to Jesus and the resurrection should be excised from the Christian faith and replaced with what she considers to really be at the center of Christianity, i.e, a renewed sense of optimism and belief in the human spirit.
This is how an article entitled “Taking Christ Out of Christianity,” published in the Canadian national paper Globe and Mail, puts it. “That triumphal barnburner of an Easter hymn, Jesus Christ Has Risen Today – Hallelujah, this morning will rock the walls of Toronto's West Hill United Church as it will in most Christian churches across the country.
“But at West Hill on the faith's holiest day, it will be done with a huge difference. The words ‘Jesus Christ’ will be excised from what the congregation sings and replaced with ‘Glorious hope.’
“…Generally speaking, no divine anybody makes an appearance in West Hill's Sunday service liturgy…. No petitionary prayers (‘Dear God, step into the world and do good things about global warming and the poor’). No miracles-performing magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life. No references to salvation, Christianity's teaching of the final victory over death through belief in Jesus’s death as an atonement for sin and the omnipotent love of God. For that matter, no omnipotent God, or god.”
For those who make theology their business, there is nothing new here. Vosper is simply stating a little more loudly what many other church leaders in the United States, Canada and Europe have been saying for years. That there is a fundamental problem with the Christian faith and that problem is the biblical understanding of the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is embarrassing
But let me be candid. The Jesus of the New Testament is a tad embarrassing. He demands exclusive allegiance from his followers. He speaks a great deal about sin and judgment. He has much to say about truth. Not just your truth or my truth, as we so often do these days, but absolute and overwhelming truth. Truth that shines in your face and burns your eyeballs.
The Jesus of the Bible makes us cringe. He makes us feel uncomfortable the way a badly behaved child embarrasses his mother at the grocery store. And so we apologize.
Sadly, but not unexpectedly, many reproduce today what has been done in every generation since Jesus came to earth: We either try to change who Jesus claims to be, or we attempt to make him disappear altogether. Who Christ is has always been the major battlefield of the Christian faith. In comparison, everything else is small potatoes.
Those who are offended by the Jesus of the Gospels but still wish to retain some trace of Jesus increasingly present him as a beautiful composite painting: He is peaceful and gentle like Gandhi, green like Al Gore, friendly and cuddly like Barney. A Jesus fit for our times. I call him Teddy Bear Jesus.
Teddy Bear Jesus
You’d think Teddy Bear Jesus would be a good seller. That people would rush to churches where they preach him. Right? Wrong! Churches that preach Teddy Bear Jesus die, and their communities die with them. Overall and globally, churches that preach Jesus the redeemer thrive.
Who is Jesus? Is he the redeemer of the world before whom all knees will one day bow, or is he a cuddly and lovable version of Barney? Let me be blunt. There are two reasons why Teddy Bear Jesus, just like Barney, is and will always remain a fictitious character. The first is logical. The second is historical.
As for the logical objection, C. S. Lewis said it best: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher but a lunatic, on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg” (Mere Christianity). “Either he (Jesus) was a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else he was, and is, precisely what he said. There is no middle way” (The Problem of Pain).
The claims of Jesus
How can there be no middle way? Very simple. It has to do with what the historical records tell us about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. If the New Testament records are accurate and trustworthy, as they have been shown to be, it is impossible to reduce Jesus to a gentle teacher. Not because he was not in some sense just that, but because of the kind of claims he repeatedly makes about himself, claims that would sound utterly outrageous and preposterous in anybody else’s mouth.
John 14:6 says, “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
John 5:24-25 (NLT) says, “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life. And I assure you that the time is coming, indeed it's here now, when the dead will hear my voice—the voice of the Son of God. And those who listen will live.”
As Lewis says: “There is no middle way. If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, you must submit to the second.”
Hoax or historical event
Ultimately, Teddy Bear Jesus must remain but a figment of an overactive postmodern imagination on account of a particular historical claim that points to the single most important event ever to occur in human history: the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately not everyone fully recognizes the earth-shaking significance of this claim. I was about 10 years old, and I was listening to a radio talk show on Saturday morning just before Easter. The question was straightforward: Would it change anything to your faith if it could be proven that Jesus did not rise from the dead?
Most callers were adamant. The discovery that the whole thing was just an elaborate hoax would have no impact on their faith. Most people just could not see why anyone would hold such a minor thing against such a good man.
Frankly, this notion that the resurrection makes no difference to the Christian faith is as goofy as a Doberman sporting a ballerina outfit.
While Christianity boasts a wonderful set of inspiring teachings, the resurrection of Christ has and will continue to be the absolute foundation of the Christian faith. Whether it actually occurred or not makes all the difference in the world. As Paul writes, if Christ did not rise from the dead, then we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world (1 Cor. 15:19).
If Christ did not rise from the dead, everything we are and do as Christians is meaningless! Every church is just a huge and pointless waste of money. If Christ did not rise from the dead, it is the end of all things. It is the ultimate proof that this world is without purpose. A cruel joke perpetrated on humanity. A world without certainty, coherence and without rational explanation. A cosmic accident of infinite proportions.
If Christ did not rise from the dead, the universe is just one humongous tepid soup that inexplicably managed to grant us life, consciousness, love, friendship and beauty for what really amounts to one fraction of a second, only to let us fall back into the primordial stew never again to rise.
The ultimate promise
In spite of what secular ecologists might believe, death is not natural. We resent it, because deep down we know we were meant to live forever. But there is a way out. Jesus Christ is the first of a great company of men and women who will also rise from the dead and who will live forever in a new world and with a body that will never be sick or grow old.
For those of us who are followers of Christ, this promise must motivate us to live each day in the service of our Lord as best we can. Until the kingdom is ushered in, we are dying anyway. We might as well live and die for something worthwhile, even if one day at a time.
Over 30 years ago, on a cold Wednesday evening in a church basement, I decided to enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ. It was the most important decision I ever made. A decision I have never ever regretted. It changed my life in ways I can barely describe, and it will forever affect me in ways I can’t even imagine yet. He is risen indeed!
“But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life” (1 Cor. 15:20-22, NLT).
Pierre Gilbert, originally from Quebec City, is associate professor of Bible and theology at Canadian Mennonite University and MB Biblical Seminary. He and his wife, Monika, live in Winnipeg, Man., where they are members of Fort Garry MB Church. His academic interests focus on biblical theology, spiritual warfare and the problem of evil and Gilbert regularly contributes articles to various journals and magazines, including the CL. He is the author of Demons, Lies & Shadows: A Plea for a Return to Text and Reason.