Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Does it matter if Jesus stayed dead? Judging from the New York Times’ editorial interview with Serene Jones, a Protestant minister, president of Union Theological Seminary, and author of a new memoir, “Call It Grace,” apparently not.
During the interview, Jones makes a number of startling admissions, “When you look in the Gospels,” she says, “the stories are all over the place. There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb. Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves. But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”
What is she trying to say? Are we to believe, Mark (or the Church of his day) was in any doubt about the significance of the empty tomb? If so, why did he specifically record Jesus’ prescience regarding this great event (Mark 8:31;9:31; 10:33-34; 16:6-7)? Was Mark saying, hands in the air, “I dunno what happened to the body, but Jesus expected to be raised, and the tomb was empty: You decide?” Are we to believe the early disciples together with Saul of Tarsus invented the idea of a risen Christ?—the disciples who clearly weren’t expecting the resurrection in the first place?—Saul who for several years did his best to wipe out this new teaching and those teaching it? The problem with such thinking, of course, is the historical record: Go as far back in the tradition as you like, and you will always find the Church proclaiming the gospel of a risen Christ. There was never a time when this teaching began to emerge. Despite the fanciful claims of theologians like Serene Jones, this is no late addition to the historical record: The empty tomb and the Lord of glory are there from the very beginning. Facts are stubborn things.
Another one of Christianity’s crown jewels with which Jones is willing to dispense is the saving significance of the cross. “Crucifixion is not something that God is orchestrating from upstairs,” she says, “The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts. For me, the cross is an enactment of our human hatred. But what happens on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t that reason for hope?“
Nothing new here, I'll grant you. This is vintage liberalism—they speak derisively of the “Lamb Chop” theory of the atonement (where the Lamb gets the chop) mixed with a little bit of radical feminism. For the feminist, God the Father is the original misogynist, the beginning of #ToxicMasculinity, and the essence of all that's wrong with the patriarchal male psyche—abusive, violent, and oppressive.
But is John 3:16 abusive and unkind? Really? And if God didn't mean the cross to happen, how could he stand idly by and do nothing while His Son was butchered on a pole outside the city by a brutal soldiery? To explain away the darkness and immolation of Golgotha as simply God's purposeless “I love you" to the world beggars belief. If wasting His Son’s life needlessly is the kind of thing God does in love, can we even use the same word to describe our love and the Almighty’s? But if the cross really is the ground upon which justice and mercy kiss, the consequent, absolute necessity of redemption as John Murray so memorably said (consequent to God’s saving decree, the cross had to happen, there was no other way for a just God to forgive sin), now that’s a doctrine over which we can exclaim with the Apostle, “Oh the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”
Given this wholesale retelling of the Christian message, we might also wonder: Where do the other miracles in the New Testament, like the incarnation, fit into Jones’ system? She is brutally honest here: They don’t: “I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim,” Jones almost laments, “It has nothing to do with Jesus’ message. The virgin birth only becomes important if you have a theology in which sexuality is considered sinful. It also promotes this notion that the pure, untouched female body is the best body, and that idea has led to centuries of oppressing women.” Really, is that the only significance of the Virgin Birth—an expression of Christianity’s victorian, prudish sexual repression? Reading statements like that leaves me wondering whether she has she ever read any orthodox theology? The Virgin Birth matters on a host of levels—Not the least of which is humanity’s need for a new beginning—a person born from above: a second Adam, born outside Adam’s fallen family tree, and born without a taint of sin to corrupt his nature.
This all begs the question: if there was no resurrection for Jesus, what about us? What happens when we die?
“I don’t know! There may be something, there may be nothing,“ she continues, “My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife. People who behave well in this life only to achieve an afterlife, that’s a faith driven by a selfish motive: “I’m going to be good so God would reward me with a stick of candy called heaven?” For me, living a life of love is driven by the simple fact that love is true. And I’m absolutely certain that when we die, there is not a group of designated bad people sent to burn in hell. That does not exist. But hell has a symbolic reality: When we reject love, we create hell, and hell is what we see around us in this world today in so many forms.”
How pious of Serene, do you see what she is suggesting? Laying up for yourself treasures in heaven is an ignoble quest, unworthy of a real Christian. We should do good simply for the love of God. It doesn’t matter what Jesus said (Matt 6:19-20), Jones clearly knows better. Was Paul willing to say, “I don’t know, there may be something, there may be nothing” about the significance of Christ’s resurrection and its connection with our own hope of eternal life? Absolutely not. As we said last week: Lose the resurrection and you lose Christianity (1Cor 15:12-17).
After Serene’s wrecking ball has finished smashing its way through the traditional credal formulations of our faith, I find myself wondering, what’s left? Are there any theological non-negotiables left in her Christian faith? Is it all up for grabs?
And I am not the only one to have that thought. Near the end of the interview, Nicolas Kristof asks, “For someone like myself who is drawn to Jesus’ teaching but doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection, what am I? Am I a Christian?” Jones’ response represents her final capitulation: Congratulating him for his unbelief, she says, “Well, you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.” In her world, what really matters, it seems, is not so much what you are willing to believe, but you are willing to doubt. For Liberal theology, you see, there is no dogma to believe, just the tired, old, rootless idea of being nice for niceness sake.
In the end, we are left with the rather uncomfortable question of what are we to do with the Christ of Scripture? How are we to explain his emergence and His significance on the world stage?
The New Testament Scholar, John Wenham summed up the emergence of Christ with these memorable words: “To regard the great mass of Gospel teaching as the creation of the Christian Community seems to posit a marvelous effect without a plausible cause. Here is what may fairly be claimed as the greatest literature of all time, yet supposedly created by the imagination of an undistinguished community. It seems far easier to supposed that the Jesus of the Gospels created the community than that the community created the Jesus of the Gospels.”
When it comes to determining Jesus’ significance: it really is an all or nothing affair. We either accept Him as Lord or reject Him out of hand. There can be no middle ground. No one argues this point better than C.S. Lewis: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him. ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for good, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
In the final analysis, if we are not prepared to accept the New Testament’s testimony about Jesus in toto, by whose authority are we to sift truth from fiction and reality from myth? Why, the Liberal would say, by the authority of the experts—you know the same class of people who can’t decide whether eggs are good for your heart or bad, the ones who bravely tell us that boys can be girls and girls can be boys. These are the ones who know the “real” Jesus.
Listening to these “scholars,” at times I wonder if their real expertise lies in believing impossible things. They remind me of that scene in Alice Through the Looking Glass, when Alice tells the White Queen, “One can’t believe in impossible things!” To which the queen replies, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”