Updated: Jul 2, 2020
Up until now, we have discussed the major doctrines of the Christian faith. These doctrines are essential to the Christian faith in the sense that, if any one of them is false, then the Christian worldview is false. For this post, we're going to discuss something quite different. For the last couple of years, I've led a study group for apologetics with the campus ministry in which I'm involved. During one of our meetings, I asked, "What's the most important thing about the gospel?" The answers that I got-it shows us that God loves us and died for us; it offers us salvation; etc.-were good but incorrect. I answered that the most important thing about the gospel is that it is true.
Let me explain. I love the cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. I watched and fell in love with the show as a child, and, now that it's been added on Netflix, I can't wait to watch the entire show again. But Avatar, as great as it is, doesn't inform my worldview one iota. Why is that? It's because, as great a story as is contained in the show, it's still fiction. We have no ability in the real world to bend the elements, and the philosophy of the show, while compelling in some ways, is incompatible with the Christian worldview. That doesn't mean that I don't find themes of the show deeply compelling or individually true. I just understand the difference between truth and fiction.
The same would be true of the gospel if it were fiction. The gospel is an extremely compelling story, the story of a God who so loved the world as to send His Son to sacrifice Himself for His enemies, so that His enemies could be forgiven and given life in Him. But if the gospel is fiction, then it is just that, compelling. In other words, a fictional gospel is no more important to me than Avatar: The Last Airbender. I might find it compelling, but it doesn't guide my view of the world and how I live.
In the survey, two of the statements concern the objective truth of the gospel. Here they are, with their results:
#5: Biblical accounts of the physical (bodily) resurrection of Jesus are completely accurate. This event actually occurred. (A: 68%; D: 19%)
#30: Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion; it is not about objective truth. (A: 61%; D: 19%)
These results are fascinating to me. First, notice that the percentage of responses for "Disagree" is the same for both statements. For both statements, a lot of people answered "Not Sure," which I never count when I cover the results in these posts. Second, notice the severe inconsistency in the respondents' answers. The broad majority of respondents believe that the physical resurrection of Jesus actually occurred, yet the broad majority of respondents also believe that religious belief is a matter of personal opinion as opposed to objective truth. This amounts to someone saying, "I believe that Jesus really rose from the dead in history, but that's just my opinion. You can believe whatever." To agree with both statements means that you've misunderstood something about one of them.
Third, and perhaps most interestingly, evangelicals prove themselves to be more consistent in their responses. For #5, 95% agreed. For #30, 56% of the respondents, a pretty solid majority, disagreed, meaning that they believe that religious belief is a matter of objective truth and not mere personal opinion. Though it's not as clear-cut as one might hope, this shows what I'm saying, that logical consistency requires that if we agree that Jesus' resurrection actually occurred, we must disagree that religious belief is a matter of mere opinion.
This, in my mind, entails that the Church needs some clarity, which, because of the culture, has been lost. Let me be clear. In this post, I will not make an historical case for the resurrection of Jesus. My goal is not to show that the resurrection actually happened but to show why it is essential that it did actually happen. What's at stake here? To do this, I will focus on three main points:
The Confusion of the Culture About Truth
The Difference Between Objective and Subjective Truth
What's at Stake in Jesus' Resurrection?
The Confusion of the Culture About Truth
One of the most difficult tasks of the Christian apologist (or anyone, for that matter) is, in my opinion, learning how to critically think about the beliefs prevalent in one's culture. We tend to think of culture in terms of peoples, customs, accepted practices, etc., and all of these things are involved. But we don't tend to think of culture in terms of the various presuppositions that inform our view of the world. In this sense, culture can be seen as a very useful tool of Satan to pass down lies that we, even Christians, never question. One of my favorite passages for Christian apologetics is 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 (NASB; emphasis is mine):
"For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ."
Remember the audience to whom Paul is writing. The Christians in Corinth were surrounded by all kinds of ungodly practices (in which, as we read the first letter, some of these babies in Christ were still participating) and ungodly worldviews. In Corinth, which was a Greek or gentile city, contrary philosophies such as stoicism or Platonism would have been present, and these other worldviews threaten to shake the faith of these new followers of Christ. Paul is making clear that, as an apostle, he is acting as a warrior, storming these fortresses of contrary ideas and tearing them down. In doing this, we see that the result is both external and internal. Externally, paganism in the Roman Empire is dead within the first five centuries or so after Jesus' resurrection. Internally, we learn as Christians to replace beliefs that are false with beliefs that are true.
Taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ means looking at our beliefs in light of the gospel and the truth of the Christian worldview and weighing those beliefs with the Christian worldview. If the Christian worldview entails that that belief is false, then we give up the belief. Notice here that, given the environment in which these Corinthian Christians grew up, Paul is commanding them to do something radically counter-cultural. We are to look at our own culture and live and believe, not primarily as Americans or Brits or Chinese people or whatever, but as followers of Christ. This means that, in some ways, we need to disagree with the culture at large on some issues.
One of these issues is the nature of truth. In our culture, people generally tend to be modernists, yet recently, I think that there has been a greater lean toward postmodernism. Modernism came into prominence as a result of the Enlightenment, when the methods of modern science were developed and led to revolutionary scientific discoveries by some of the greatest minds in the West, such as Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler. Though these hugely influential scientific minds were also Christians, the development of modern science, as well as other cultural, political, religious, and sociological factors, led to a massive shift in western culture. Broadly speaking, this shift took shape from the 17th to the 19th century. Philosophers began to doubt the methods of the old metaphysicians of the medieval period and replace it with a new epistemology (or philosophy of knowledge) called empiricism. Empiricism radically diminished our capacity to know by reducing knowledge to that which could be observed empirically in the world. Since God is not physically observable in this way, what might this say about God? Most people at this time still believed in a deity of some kind, but religion came under scrutiny. The deists, theists who believed that God had created the world but denied any kind of special revelation, arose as a result of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment eventually led western culture at large to accept modernism. As a philosophy concerning the nature of truth, modernism involves the claim that only empirically verifiable claims and intuitively true or self-evident claims, such as those found in math, are objectively true. Religious, aesthetic, or literary claims are merely subjective, that is, their truth depends on the person.
Have you ever heard someone say of religion, "What's true for you is true for you, and what's true for me is true for me"? Have you ever heard the oft-repeated cliche, "Live your truth"? People will often say of religion, "It's just a matter of opinion," as if being a Christian or not is no more important than liking rap or country music. Atheists friends of mind have said to me, "I'm glad that you believe in God." That statement has always puzzled me. You're glad that I have false hope in a God that doesn't exist and desire to make His name and the fiction of His existence known? Really? You have no problem with that?
These sorts of statements owe their existence to modernism, which has now "trickled down" from philosophers into our modern vernacular and has, for a long time, been part of it in the United States. Postmodernism, however, is altogether different. Its origin is much more recent, a product of European, generally, and more specifically French philosophy in the 20th century. The French postmodernists, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, tended to interpret truth claims not as claims about an objective aspect of the world "out there," but rather as attempts to achieve some other end, such as, in Foucault's case, bids for power. Because of this, claims about objective reality are distrusted in postmodernism, and postmodernists reject what are called meta-narratives, or all-encompassing narratives about the "human story," which are almost necessarily religious. Because of this rejection of meta-narratives, smaller narratives are embraced, and combating truth claims become combating bids for power in societies in which one's entire existence is constructed for one through arbitrary, invented social rules. Taken to its logical end, postmodernists don't believe that there is any substantive truth in language at all; in other words, language itself is meaningless. (For this reason, postmodernism is truly unlivable and self-defeating, but I digress).
Postmodernism has a sort of modern expression in critical theory, a worldview in which claims about gender, race, and sexuality are often understood in this way. Even scientific claims are sometimes under scrutiny for their contribution to power structures, for some critical theorists. For a postmodernist, the claim that a particular religion is true isn't even interpreted in such a way as could be taken seriously. Often, such a claim is not rejected as false, but bigoted (or meaningless). If you've ever heard moralistic outcries such as, "It is so arrogant to impose your values onto someone else like that," then you have seen a taste of postmodernism at work. In our culture, we are implored to be "tolerant" of others, where this term has now come to mean not to dare express a disagreement, unless, of course, the person with whom you disagree is conservative politically or believes that Christianity is true.
This are the two dominant perspectives on truth in our culture. Hopefully, this brief overview will help you to see how your friends and family and the media often think and discuss important issues. Why do these perspectives conflict with the Christian worldview? To understand why, we need to grasp the difference between objective truth and subjective truth.
The Difference Between Objective and Subjective Truth
Imagine that someone asks you if the claims of Islam are true. How could you understand this question? I'd suggest that you interpret the question in terms of particular truth claims. For instance, Muslims claim that Muhammad was the last prophet of Allah and wrote the Qur'an as it was dictated by Allah for him to write. The Qur'an itself makes particular claims, such as the claim that Jesus was never crucified and didn't die. What we'll see is that these claims, however difficult they may be to prove or disprove, are not the types of claims that we'd classify as mere opinions. In other words, their truth doesn't depend on the person. If major claims of Islam are false, then they're false, whether or not Muslims believe them to be true. If they are true, then they're true, whether or not Christians believe them to be false.
What philosophers call propositions, which make up the content and meaning of statements, have a particular truth value; either they are true or false. The truth or falsity of a proposition is objective if its truth or falsity is so independently of persons. For instance, the truth of the proposition "2+2=4" is not based at all on persons. Even if no one at all existed, this proposition would still be true. A proposition is subjectively true if its truth is based on persons. In other words, a proposition that is subjectively true or false is person-relative. For example, I could ask Bob, "Does broccoli taste good?" It would be right for Bob to respond, "It depends on who you ask." Therefore, the truth of the proposition, "Broccoli tastes good," depends on the person.
Religious claims can fall into either category, but let's focus for now on the claims of the Christian worldview. The Christian worldview is unique in that, more so than any other religious worldview, it depends on the truth of historical claims. These claims include propositions such as:
Jesus of Nazareth preached throughout Israel that He was the Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man.
Jesus died by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.'
God raised Jesus from the dead.
Historical claims, of course, are true or false independently of persons. Whether or not George Washington was the first president of the United States is not person-relative. It is not, in other words, a mere matter of opinion. It looks like certain religious claims, then, are objective truth claims. Religious belief, as it turns out, is not a matter of personal opinion; it is about objective truth.
What's at Stake in Jesus' Resurrection?
In high school, as I struggled through these issues of doubt, the realization that the claims concerning the Christian worldview are objective truth claims completely changed how I thought about my Christian faith. If my salvation and eternal destiny were conditioned on my response to Jesus, then the claims about Jesus must be true. If they are false, then it makes no sense to say that my salvation is conditioned on my response to them. This realization gave me direction in which to go to address my doubts. If I'm doubting the truth of theism (i.e., the claim that God exists), then it's time to investigate theism. If I doubt the claims of the Christian worldview, then it's time to investigate those claims.
Let me emphasize the extent to which this fact, that the truth of the resurrection of Jesus is objective, conflicts with the narrative in our culture that claims that religion is just "whatever makes you happy." My well-meaning atheist friends who are happy that I believe in God fail to take seriously that I don't believe in God because it makes me happy. Any follower of Christ can tell you that not every meeting with the God of all creation is joyful. I am a theist because I believe that theism is the truth of the matter. My well-meaning atheist friends are nice to commend my theistic belief, but, in this manner, they are mistaken. To fail to recognize the existence of God is like failing to recognize the dog standing beside me as I write. I may not want the dog to be there. I may not want to acknowledge the dog. But whether I like it or recognize it or not, the dog is there.
So what's at stake in the resurrection of Jesus? In order to grasp this, we have to know something of the context in which Jesus was crucified. His resurrection is, almost inevitably, a response to His crucifixion. In the Roman empire at this time, crucifixion was the most terrifying punishment at Rome's disposal. Normally reserved only for the worst of the worst criminals, crucifixion was typically a painful and long process. One would be laid onto the cross, nailed to it through the hands and feet, and raised to an upright position. As bad as that trauma was, however, that typically wasn't what killed the one being crucified. In that upright hanging position, one would have to raise oneself up in order to breathe. For someone in intense pain and losing blood due to the nails drive through his hands and feet, the act of breathing itself was exhausting, but one could keep oneself alive for days on end, as long as one didn't become too exhausted. If the Romans executioners became impatient, however, they would just break the legs, preventing the crucified person from lifting himself up to breathe. Thus, most people who were crucified died by asphyxiation, either because of exhaustion or due to their broken legs. An unimaginably horrific way to die.
Along with the horror of crucifixion, we can speak of the shame of crucifixion. There are general elements of the shamefulness of this death and also particular elements that apply specifically to Jesus. In general, this kind of punishment for one's crime was public. One's crime could be displayed for all to see. It was also very demeaning, since it was associated with the worst crimes in the empire, such as rebelling against the empire. Thus, it was a great show of force of the empire against the criminal.
In the case of Jesus, however, the shame of crucifixion takes on a whole new reality. First, to outside observers, the crucifixion of Jesus was powerful evidence that He was a fraud. Messiahs were a dime a dozen in Israel at this time, and they all died. No Jew at this time would have thought of the Messiah being shamefully executed by the state that he was supposed to overthrow in order to establish his rule over the world. Over Jesus' head on the cross were the words "King of the Jews," a way for Pilate to sum up His supposed crimes against the Jewish people. For those same Jewish people, His crucifixion was proof that He was a charlatan. Second, on top of this, Jesus was mocked from the first moment that He was in custody until His death. The Romans hated any person claiming to be a king or lord, since Caesar was their lord. So the Romans guards beat and mocked Jesus, throwing a purple robe over Him and twisting a crown of thorns onto His head. The Jews mocked Him as he hung on the cross, telling Him to save Himself, if He is the Messiah.
Third, since Jews were the primary witnesses of the crucifixion (it being in Judea), Jews would have understood Jesus' crucifixion as decisive proof of His being cursed before God. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 shows us why this is (NET):
"If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance."
Thus, to the Jews, Jesus' crucifixion itself is evidence of His being cursed by God. Finally, fourth, Jesus' nakedness before a Jewish crowd is deeply shameful. While art portraying the crucifixion always shows Jesus in a loincloth, He was most likely naked when He was crucified. This would have been in line with Roman practices. Nakedness was associated with shame in Jewish culture because of Genesis 3, which portrays the putting on of clothes as covering one's shame because of sin. So, if Jesus was naked at His crucifixion, then His nakedness alone is the revealing of his shame as a fraud in the minds of the Jewish crowd, yet another layer to the shamefulness of His death.
Finally, there is the context of Jesus' claims. He claimed to be the Son of Man (Daniel 10) the unique Son of God, and Messiah. He claimed, in many ways, to be equal with God, not only through His claim to be the Son of God but also through His signs and wonders and teaching. His claims were scandalous to the Jews because, if false, they amounted to blasphemy. Jesus was crucified because of those blasphemous claims. Blasphemous, of course, only if they are false. Jesus' crucifixion, then, was taken as decisive proof that He had blasphemed and was now being punished by God for having done so.
If Jesus' body is still in that tomb, then there's no reason to think that He is who He claimed to be, and every reason to think that He isn't. The Jews and Romans understood this and mocked Jesus because of it. The claim that God raised Jesus from the dead is objectively either true or false. It's an historical claim, which entails that there should be no body in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb. If there is a body there, Jesus' body, then Jesus was nothing but a fraud. If the body isn't there, and the claim that Jesus was raised true, then Jesus truly is Lord and God, and salvation is found in Him.
So, it's not quite right to say that religion is merely a matter of opinion or personal taste. Though modernism or postmodernism would tend to support this claim, it is nonetheless false. Either Jesus rose from the dead, vindicating His claims, or He didn't and is therefore a fraud. Again, I'm not actually supporting the resurrection historically in saying this; I'm merely establishing the objective nature of the claim being made.
What are the implications, then, of what we've discussed for Christians? First, if Jesus was raised from the dead, then His resurrection is true, no matter how I feel in any given moment. As we walk through life with Christ, we will not always feel confident about our faith. Emotions ebb and flow with time, but the truth doesn't change. This was profound for me in high school because it helped me to see that, no matter how much the nagging doubt seemed to eat at my soul, the Christian faith is true. This is the firm foundation that Jesus talked about, which could weather any storm (Matthew 7:24). Second, if Jesus was raised from the dead, then my assurance in Him is as sure as the fact of His resurrection. Again, doubts come and go like emotions, but nothing changes the fact that, for those who have placed their faith in Christ Jesus, they trust in what He says is true as vindicated by His resurrection. Thus, it gives us a more stable and steadfast faith, no based on us but on the Lord.
Finally, third, if we understand that Jesus' resurrection is an objective fact, then it makes us more confident Christians and apologists. People clearly deny that Jesus was raised from the dead. As ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), we ultimately defend what's true and invite people into the objective truth, to align their beliefs with reality. Therefore, we present Christ not as merely fulfilling and satisfying (which He is) but also as the true God. We present Him as the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). And, if we think about it, that makes sense. What else were the apostles willing to die for? A good story? I like Avatar: The Last Airbender, but I won't die for a cartoon. It takes an insane person to die for what he knows is false. No, the apostles died on their conviction that Jesus' resurrection had actually taken place. There was no body left in that tomb.
This is one of the most important things for a Christian to know if he or she wants to do apologetics. We are defending the Christian faith first and foremost as true. Hopefully, this will help you to think about the Christian faith in a way that might be new for you. Next week, we will discuss a similar topic, that of religious pluralism. Many people in our culture believe that all religions are fundamentally the same and lead people to God. Because of this, many people that it really doesn't matter which religion you subscribe to, since all roads lead to God. This is the problem of what's called Christian particularism. If that interests you, come back next week!
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If you want to check out the content of the survey in detail, see The State of Theology. "Key Findings." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018. https://thestateoftheology.com/. and The State of Theology. "Data Explorer." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018. https://thestateoftheology.com/data-explorer?AGE=30&MF=14®ION=30&EDUCATION=62&INCOME=254&MARITAL=126ÐNICITY=62&RELTRAD=62&ATTENDANCE=254.