An increasing number of people find Christianity implausible these days. They need a reason to believe. They remind me of the 20th Century philosopher Bertrand Russell. He famously wrote an essay called “Why I Am Not A Christian.”
Somebody once challenged him about his skepticism. They said to him, “What will you say to God if, when you die, it turns out that you’ve been wrong?”
Russell replied that he would tell God something like this: “Well, you can’t blame me. You didn’t give me enough evidence.”
Strictly speaking, being a Christian involves a lot more than believing in the existence of God. We believe some awfully specific things about God. Chief among them is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
In what follows, I’m inviting you to reflect with me about why anybody would believe that God could raise a grievously tortured, brutally executed person from the dead. A person who had lain in the tomb for three days.
The first task, it seems to me, is to get clear about what sort of reason could move a person toward belief in the resurrection. Scientific? Historical? Logical? Others might insist on these. But I’m going to suggest something different.
Some Christians will understandably point to the the Bible. After all, Scripture is the collection of our community’s stories. We hear them in worship and take them to heart in our personal devotions. Our identity as Jesus-followers is bound up with them.
These Christians might insist that the Bible proves both the existence of God and the truth of the resurrection. But, actually, it doesn’t. That’s not how the Bible works.
You see, the Bible means something to me—shapes my actions, challenges my assumptions, changes my perspective about other people, draws me closer to the divine—because I already believe in Jesus.
My belief is sort of like the lens I need in order to read in the first place. Absent belief, the important stuff of the Bible—the life-transforming stuff—would never come into clear focus for me.
There are Christians who would quickly agree with me on this. But they assume that we get to our belief by taking a leap of faith. The 19th Century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard coined that phrase. And although he initially meant something quite different by it, people these days have taken up his words to mean believing in the absence of any evidence.
Well, I don’t buy that, either. In part that’s because I’m confident that God gave me a mind so that I would use it.
After all, great Christian theologians down through the centuries have offered proofs for the existence of God. Thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, and much more recently John Polkinghorne argued logically that there must be a God.
Back in the day, I was a philosophy professor and taught many of these arguments. Some are more forceful than others. All have met with strong and reasonable criticism. None will convince everybody.
And besides, even if these proofs were perfectly valid, they would only demonstrate that there is some divine being or other. This is a long way from providing a reason to believe in the resurrection of Christ.
Actually, I’m looking for a plausible reason to believe in the resurrection because Jesus told us to offer one to the world. And the sort of reason he counseled us to give could be characterized as existential.
My dear old Church History Professor put it like this: “People are going to come looking for Jesus. And all they’re going to get is you.”
Speaking intimately to God on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus put it like this:
“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23; emphasis added)
In a nutshell Jesus is saying that how we live our lives as individuals and as a community will offer the most plausible kind of reason to believe in the resurrection. Let’s unpack this passage a bit so we can see more clearly what Jesus is getting at.
In John’s Gospel, we learn that the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit are a continuous, differentiated process. In Jesus, God is accomplishing intimate connection with his beloved children. The movement of the resurrection culminates in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
To paraphrase the Bible Scholar Raymond Brown, the Holy Spirit is the presence within us and among us of the risen Christ after he has ascended to the Father. Or, to put it another way, the resurrection is at work in you and me right at this very moment.
That’s why the most plausible reason for anyone to believe in the resurrection is the love that we show and that we share. That love is the risen Christ at work right here, right now in the earthy likes of you and me.
Just in case this sounds a bit too warm and fuzzy to you, let me point out how realistic Jesus is. After his resurrection, he appears to his disciples and tells them plainly what love will look like: imperfect, messy, and sometimes painful.
Here’s what he said: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23) In this life love will always be about forgiveness and reconciliation, about mending the tender human things we’ve shattered.
People will find reason to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if and when they see that we trust the mending power of the risen Jesus working in us.
When we open ourselves to receive forgiveness. When we forgive. When we humbly offer ourselves to Jesus to be transformed. And when we make space for others—especially very unlikely others—to be a new creation in Christ.
To repeat my old professor, “People are going to come looking for Jesus. And all they’re going to get is you.” It’s up to us to give people a reason to believe. It’s up to us to love like Jesus teaches us to.
Learn more about the resurrection and hope in my latest books: Looking for God in Messy Places and A Resurrection Shaped Life.
I’m writing a flash fiction that begins with the sentence, “I once met a god whose power lay in making everything make sense,” and ends with these sentences, “He wasn’t a god, after all, but a man. That’s what makes this so beautiful and so tragic.” Anyway, I think this story connects with your thoughts on believing anyway.
Have you posted it yet? I’m on the road (well, in a hotel room for the moment) and haven’t had a chance to look for it. I would really like to see it.
I’m preparing to submit it for publication. I’ll let you know if it gets accepted! (I probably won’t be notified by the editors until August or Sept, as it’s a July 12 submission deadline.)
Splendid, Jake. I’ve just put this up on facebook. ASCENSIONTIDE BLESSINGS
Thanks, Ron! And blessings to you as well
“humbly offer” jogged me to search ‘contrite’, one result was “.. I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” ~Isaiah 57:15 The possibility of relationship in the face of such contrast, well, it just seems breathtaking!
ps ~found an old Rohr ‘meditation’ tonight, “Paradoxically, immense humility, not arrogance, characterizes the True Self.” Yikes.. your “humbly offer” triggered some intense spiritual revision! TY.
Ah yes. BTW, just in case you hadn’t made the connection, I’m pretty sure Rohr got the True Self language from Merton.
Fantastic thanks, I wouldn’t have known! I so want to read Merton.
Thank you for your deep and meaning-filled study and reflection. As I prepare to return to the pulpit in a new church, this was very timely for me.
Blessings and prayers in that new pulpit. You’ll be a gift!