“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29 and par.)
Yesterday churches across the world experienced the highest attendance levels that they will experience all year. Attendance next Sunday, at least in the West, however, will confirm the trends indicated in the surveys about religion and the statistics concerning denominational decline. For many reasons, some clearly identifiable and others
ephemerally ambiguous, people increasingly do not find faith in Jesus Christ compelling or membership in Christ’s church attractive. Rather than analyze these reasons, Easter Monday 2016 offers an opportunity to confess why faith in Jesus Christ continues to be central and necessary for me and for others like me.
To begin, it is important to be clear concerning the nature of “believing” and of its near relative “hoping.” The words in the biblical languages often translated “faith/belief/to believe” have more to do with confidence and trust than with intellectual assent or absolute certainty. Thus, on the other hand, they also do not refer to blind assertion contrary to evidence. I believe that my wife will come home to me today because evidence suggests that she loves me. Similarly, biblical “hope” is an expectation for the future rooted in something in the past or present. I hope that my children, or some of them, will be home for Father’s Day this year because, in years past, they have made Father’s Day a priority. To place faith and hope in God through Jesus Christ is not a stubborn insistence contrary to fact. It is to commit one’s life to a worldview suggested by aspects of reality that point toward God as incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. As such, its antonym is not doubt, but apathy.
What are these aspects of reality? A number of very capable “apologists” have written whole books in response to this question. I can only sketch the most significant.
First, the universe exists, either because God created it or because it simply is. Modern scientific cosmology debates whether the evidence points to a universe that will continue to expand forever, so that the so-called “Big Bang” would be a unique event, or to an eventual collapse of the universe under the pull of its own gravity, so that the “Big Bang” could someday recur. In the latter case, a new, perhaps somewhat different, universe could result; it, too, would someday collapse. Indeed, in the latter case, the cycle has probably been continuing since eternity and our universe may be but one iteration in an infinite series. Significantly, however, both of these possibilities are also subject to a common objection against the notion that God created. The search for an explanation for the existence of the universe ultimately leads to an “uncaused cause.” Either the universe is its own cause or God created it. Arguments for pure material causation and for divine purpose stand on equal footing, if one focuses on the beginning of the universe.
Second, however, our corner of the universe (and I doubt that our corner is unique in this regard) includes life. Moreover, the history of the evolution of this life demonstrates an “urge” toward sentience, self-awareness, and personhood. Why should a purely material sequence of developments push toward beings that can conceive of justice, that long for meaning and to be meaningful, that yearn to be known and loved, that create music and art, and that contemplate truth? How does a chain of material causation give rise to free will? If the character of human life on earth as the culmination of this drive toward personhood reflects something of the design of the universe, does it point toward a personal God? In biblical terms, do human beings image God’s personhood?
Third, if human personhood bears testimony to the personhood of the God who guides ongoing creation, the best avenue for worshipful relationship with this God will be a “religion” that recognizes a personal deity. No one who reads this blog will be surprised that we have now arrived at the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, the idea that the best image of God is Jesus, the Word present at creation, the Word who speaks to all human beings.
Fourth, it is important to acknowledge, however, that everything we know about Jesus of Nazareth, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday comes to us as second- or even third-hand testimony recorded in the New Testament and transmitted to us over centuries. Is it trustworthy? May it not have been that members of the early Church found Jesus’ personality so powerful that they could not face the reality of his death and imagined a resurrected Jesus? The important data in this regard, it seems to me, involve the attitudes of the disciples toward Jesus’ statements concerning his impending crucifixion, their expectations for his ministry, and the fates many of them faced later because of their faith in the Risen Lord. As recorded in Mark 8, after first confessing Jesus as Messiah, Peter rebuked him for talking about suffering. All save one of the disciples abandoned Jesus to the cross. They were hiding Easter morning. They had no expectation of a Resurrection. Something significant happened on the first Easter Sunday and for days afterward. Hundreds of people do not independently imagine the same thing, especially not when it is contrary to their expectation. They certainly would not have been willing to die martyrs’ deaths for an invention.
Finally, like Paul who absolutely reversed the course of his life after encountering the Risen Lord years beyond the first Easter, my subjective experience of encounter, which has been consistently subtle unlike Paul’s, corresponds to the Bible’s account of a God who comes as Word to all human beings enlightening them and seeking relationship with them.
I believe. Help my unbelief.