“But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23 ESV).”
I haven’t seen Al Gore’s Magnum Opus, “An Inconvenient Truth”, but I must say, I just love the title. Whether we’re talking about problems with the ecology and other political issues, or if we’re talking about God, truth can be—and often is—very inconvenient. There are other adjectives that come to mind, as well. These would include words like “uncomfortable, bothersome, annoying” and yes, “embarrassing”.
Now, I’m not talking about the kind of truth that comes out of a five year old girl's mouth when she sees an overweight man at the ice-cream parlor. I’m talking about truth that you wished were not true. It’s the kind of truth that gets you up in the morning and makes you want to go straight back to bed, because you know it’s just there waiting for you, demanding your unconditional obedience. This kind of truth is so difficult, inconvenient and embarrassing that it makes you want to abandon it altogether. That’s the intensity of embarrassment many feel when confronted with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes I hate being a Christian. I have the same problems as non-Christians, but added to those I have a deep and annoying conviction that the God I worship became a man who rose from the dead. Not only do I have bills to pay, a wife and child to feed, sickness, heartache and the general disappointments of life to contend with, but I have to do it all with the belief that my eternal destiny rests in the hands of a Jewish man who lived two millennia ago. This is not fun stuff, but if I’m going to be a Christian, than I’m going to have to embrace this truth, no matter how damaged my ego becomes in the process. After all, if I’m going to follow Jesus Christ, I must do so within the parameters that He established. If I’m to be His disciple, I must submit to His teaching about Himself, and not try to impose any definition on Him that He does not sanction. To wit, I can be a Christian only if I truly believe that an obscure first century Rabbi really is the Son of God and that He really did rise from the grave on the third day. I must believe this horrible truth if I am to adhere to Christ’s teaching, because that was the prerequisite that Jesus set for those who would call themselves “Christian”.
This evokes powerful and disturbing emotions in a skeptic such as myself. If you, oh, gentle reader, are not equally provoked on some level by the truth claim of the death and miraculous resurrection from the dead of Jesus of Nazareth you may want to think about taking your pulse. Consider for a moment what the Gospels suggest about the truth that Jesus claimed about Himself. We’re not just talking about “Sermon on the Mount” truth—everyone can appreciate that. We’re talking about a “dead man who didn’t stay dead” truth. You’d be hard pressed to find a truth claim that provokes such extreme reactions as much as that one. You’d think that writing things like “love your enemies” and “do good to them that harm you” would be radical enough. Even a casual reading of the Gospels demonstrates that those statements, as drastic as they are, don’t even approach the seriousness of Jesus’ claim that He would raise Himself from the dead.
I wish the “Sermon on the Mount” was the basis of Christianity, but it’s not. I wish “Love your neighbor as yourself” was the maxim that defines Christianity, but it doesn’t. I’ll even settle for “love your enemies”. That’s hardcore, but at least it’s not embarrassing. But no, I have to follow a man that claimed to be God, and said he would prove it by predicting and accomplishing His own death and resurrection.
Perhaps this is why Jesus warned His prospective disciples, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13+14 ESV).” He knew that following Him would be difficult in the extreme. I suppose many believe that Jesus gave His disciples this warning, and others like it, to prepare them for a life dedicated to following His ethical teaching. A closer examination of the New Testament would show that Jesus’ ethical teaching was merely the beginning of a life spent enduring massive hardship.
Anyone can follow a bunch of rules. If we tally up our successes and failures most common folks like us would come up pretty good. However, following a list of dos and don’ts is the least of our worries if the Christian life revolves around believing that a two-thousand year old Jewish man is still alive—“and by the way”, we’re expected to explain to our neighbors, “if you don’t believe that He’s still alive, you’ll die in your sins”.
It’s no wonder that the Apostle Paul exhorted the churches he ministered to saying, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22 ESV)”. I don’t think the primary concern that Paul had was in reference to the pursuit of good behavior. I think that Paul’s concern for his congregants was that they should prepare to be treated as second-class citizens at best and as lion food at worst, that is if they continued in their obstinate profession of Christ’s rising from the grave.
I don’t want to belittle the necessity of living an ethically astute lifestyle. Personal holiness is, after all, the endgame of the atonement, insofar as it concerns those who receive it. Christ died to make us holy. Our theology, however, must center around God first and should then proceed to our pursuit of a righteous lifestyle. Our theology must be theocentric. That sounds like an absurdly redundant statement, but is nevertheless vital to understanding what Christianity is all about. The Bible is not a “How to Influence Friends and Win People” self-help book. Its purpose is not to promote “12 steps to a Better You”. The Bible’s one and only purpose is to glorify God and promote His righteousness.
Jesus is the fullest revelation of God’s character and nature, and His sinless life and death on the cross is the fullest revelation of God’s righteousness, and of course His mercy. Paul wrote that God’s act of mercy displayed through the cross could only be effective because Jesus took the punishment that we deserved. Thus God reveals Himself as being “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26b ESV)”. The cross is indispensable to our salvation because without it there could be no legal grounds upon which God could commute our sentence. If He just said, “Aw, shucks! That’s alright kids, at least you tried to obey”, He would be condoning our wickedness, and would thereby be wicked Himself. In Christ, however, His wrath is satisfied, and we can be forgiven. Having said all that, we must add an important disclaimer. All of this grand and glorious theology means absolutely zilch if Christ is still dead!
So the great hardship of our lives as Christians becomes abundantly clear. We suffer when we try living godly lives, but our suffering is a colossal waste of time if Jesus is still in the grave. One of my favorite passages from the Bible is 1 Corinthians 15:12-33. I’ll abridge the passage for you. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (verses 12, 16, 17+19 ESV).”
There are some who pick and choose which passages from the Bible they consider to be legitimate, often rejecting those passages that oppose their own anti-supernatural proclivities. These anti-supernatrualists commit the same error that some of the Corinthians were committing when they deny the supernatural in Scripture. This is fatal to faith in Christ. If a miracle can’t happen then neither can the resurrection. If the resurrection can’t happen then Jesus was just a normal human being who died and stayed dead. If He died and stayed dead then not only was He a mere human, but He was a liar and a complete mental case, because He assured His followers that He would rise again. Thus, anyone who claims to follow Jesus but believes that He didn’t rise from the dead is guilty of the most profound stupidity that I’ve ever known.
There’s absolutely no reason to do or believe anything that Jesus said if He’s still dead. Why should I? Every other truth claim of the Bible means nothing to me if Jesus is dead. Jesus claimed the Old Testament was the unbreakable Word of God (see John 10:35), that the Holy Spirit would lead His Apostles—who wrote the New Testament, either directly or through an assistant (ie. Mark and Luke)—into “all truth (see John 16:13)”, and that these claims, as well as everything He claimed, would be proven when He raised Himself from the dead (see John 2:13-22). If Jesus is still dead, then everything that I have come to know and believe about the existence, attributes and character of God, everything that I’ve read about Him in the Bible, is total dung. It matters not one iota.
I’ve staked my entire belief system on Jesus’ sinlessness, atoning death on the cross and resurrection. Every other truth claim in the Bible can be explained away as being merely the opinion of the author, or at best a misapplied supernatural or theological interpretation of an historical event. The primary reason I believe that every word of the Old Testament from Genesis 1:1 to Malachi 4:6 is the inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word of God is because of Matthew 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. The New Testament demonstrates unapologetically and undeniably that Jesus Christ has risen. That fact, above all others, gives credence to the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of the rest of Scripture, and is the anchor of the believer’s soul into heaven. Without it we are all damned.
This was the very point Paul was laboring in 1 Corinthians Fifteen. He writes in verses Thirty through Thirty-two, “Why am I in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if…I fought wild beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’”. These sufferings are Paul’s great boast. Paul seems to consider his suffering as a kind of resume’. Paul recognizes, however, that if Jesus’ body is rotting away in a grave somewhere, then he should resign his apostleship and live the good life! To put his argument in the modern vernacular, if Christ is not raised we might as well pack it in and go home.
I can identify somewhat with Paul’s protest. I struggle every waking minute of every day with a particular sin habit that is sadly all too common among males. Every morning, by the grace of God, I wake up early and spend at least a half-hour in prayer and Bible study. My primary motivation for this is to become more familiar and intimate with God. My secondary motivation is to seek God’s will and favor for my family and myself. My tertiary motivation is to seek God’s grace to resist the temptation to pursue this particular habit. I beg for God’s mercy unashamedly every single day, and just barely keep afloat, but if Jesus is still dead, and I’ve been following a man who is like any other man, I think I’ll sleep in tomorrow morning.
The theme passage for this article explains that there are basically two types of people in this world who represent two negative reactions to Jesus. The first type of people value proper morality and strive to live upright and decent lives. They avoid vice and pursue virtue. To the second group of people, vice and virtue are matters of preference. They may care deeply about living intellectually stimulating lives and pursuing political and philosophical correctness, but morality and truth are both clearly defined by them as being undefined. They do what they like, and they like what they do. The cross of Jesus—and by extension the empty tomb—are a “stumbling block”, a great embarrassment, to both types of people. The first group trusts in their own righteousness, so they feel no need of being forgiven. They’re offended by the idea that a good man like Jesus would surrender Himself to punishment, shame and becoming a curse. The second group cares only for what pleases their minds and bodies, and scoff at anyone who would endure such great suffering to rescue someone else’s soul. There is a third group not mentioned by the above passage that represents the only positive reaction to Jesus.
By the mercies of God, this group of people recognizes that they can never be holy enough to please an infinitely Holy God. They understand that the pursuit of intellectual and physical pleasures ultimately will end in death, since all that is temporal ends in death. So, by God’s grace, they fling themselves upon His mercy. They cling to the bloody cross whilst they gaze in amazement at the empty tomb, disregarding the taunting of their neighbors and their own foolish hearts. Despite their profound embarrassment at times, they endure the shame with their Lord because they have been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that, as the early Church sang, “Christ has risen! Christ has risen indeed!”
Maybe you disbelieve all this. As the Apologist and teacher Gary Habermas suggested, maybe you can fool yourself into thinking that a man who hanged on a cross for some six hours could pass out and then regain consciousness in the coolness of the cave in which He was buried. Maybe you can picture in the perversity of your imagination this bloody and emaciated Jesus hobbling to His disciples in broad daylight to say to them, “See guys! I told you I could do it!”
However, if you’re like me, maybe this article finds you in a state that you return to often. Perhaps you’re hanging on a thread of faith by your fingernails that have been half-chewed away because of some dark anxiety. Perhaps you think, “this can’t possibly be true”, when you read about the miracles in the Bible. Or maybe you’re just so sick of struggling against the tide.
Don’t give up, my Christian friend! Jesus’ death and resurrection are undeniable. His apostles’ testimony is unimpeachable. After all, they didn’t suffer shame, the confiscation of property, social ostracism and torturous death just to proclaim, “Love your neighbor as yourself!” They would’ve been the greatest of fools, instead of the greatest of men. They didn’t die for a cause, but for a Man who they loved because He first loved them, and who gave Himself a propitiation for their sins(1 John 4:10 ESV).
If you still refuse, however, to accept Jesus Christ as crucified, dead, buried and raised, that’s fine. I understand. If you refuse to accept that your eternal destiny lies in the hands of the Risen Christ, and you see Him merely as a good example of righteousness and sacrifice, than that’s your right. However, I implore you to consider just one thing. If you like, you can say that you try to follow the Bible’s moral teaching. Feel free to call yourself an ethicist, or a moralist or whatever you want. That’s all fine. But whatever you call yourself, if you don’t accept the Bible’s testimony about Jesus, please don’t call yourself a Christian. It’s just embarrassing.
“Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.” —William Gaither.