Home » Ravi Zacharias
Category Archives: Ravi Zacharias
When it comes to exercise many of us ask: “How long will it take?” or “How much do I have to do?” The shorter the duration the better, we hope. Scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario have researched the benefits of shorter-duration, high-intensity workouts. They found that the aerobic benefits were just as high as those who had worked out for much longer periods of time.(1) As one professor noted, “If you are someone, like me, who just wants to boost health and fitness and you don’t have 45 minutes or an hour to work out, our data show that you can get big benefits from even a single minute of intense exercise.”(2) This is good news for all who feel there are not enough hours in a day.
Yet, as good as this news may be for some, I am increasingly nervous about all the schemes and strategies to make one’s life more efficient. From the One Minute Manager to the One Minute Workout the short-cutting of our lives appears endemic. If one needs a quicker, faster, shorter version, there is an app for that. But I worry about what happens to our aptitude for endurance in the elevation of the efficient?
By contrast, author Malcolm Gladwell argued in his book Outliers that ten thousand hours of deliberate practice are needed before one can become good at some things. He cites Mozart, Bill Gates, and the Beatles as examples of brilliant artists and inventors whose patient practice and discipline began at an early age.(3) In fact, many artists suggest that their creative expression is something that must be practiced—exercised, as it were, just like any muscle. Significant achievement—in any area—is realized when bounded by discipline, and a tireless commitment to practice, routine, and structure. The painter, Wayne Thiebaud, once said that “an artist has to train his responses more than other people do. He has to be as disciplined as a mathematician. Discipline is not a restriction but an aid to freedom.”(4) Sadly, Thiebaud’s and Gladwell’s views are often the minority report in our hurried age.
There is a line in the story of the prodigal son that is easy to miss. It comes as the transition in the story, but it also seems to mark the transition in the son. The story itself, also known as the Two Brothers, Lost Son, Loving Father, or Lovesick Father, is among the most familiar stories of Jesus. Not long after the younger son demands the right to live as he pleases, after he leaves with his father’s money and gets as far away as possible, and after he loses everything and is forced to hire himself out in the fields, the story reads that the prodigal “came to himself” and, at this, he decides to turn back to the father.
Today it is often translated that the son “came to his senses,” as we might describe a man or woman who, on the precipice of a bad decision or impulsive act, decides to turn around. But the phrase in the Greek literally describes the prodigal as coming to himself, and points at something far more than good decision-making. In a sermon titled “Bread Enough and to Spare,” popular English preacher Charles Spurgeon notes that this Greek expression can be applied to one who comes out of a deep swoon, someone who has lost consciousness and comes back to himself again. The expression can also be applied to one who is recovering from insanity, someone who has been lost somewhere within her own mind and body, only to come back to herself once again.
With both of these metaphors, the son is one who wakes to health and life again, having been unconscious of his true condition. Standing in a foreign field hungry and alone, the son comes to something more than a good decision. He is waking to an identity he knew in part but never fully realized. He is remembering life in his father’s house again, though for the first time.
Wherever one might be in declarations of belief or disbelief, God is so often not the God these declarations expect, and often it is shocking to discover it. God comes near and offends our sense of understanding; God affronts ategories and overturns our sense of familiarity. Jesus of Nazareth does the same—indeed, quite particularly so in the language of the parables. With his stories, he offends both the believing and unbelieving, his disciples, the scribes, and crowds alike. With the same stories, he continues to jar hearers awake and move followers near.
The Greek word for parable literally means “a placing beside.” It is a comparison of one thing beside another, an association of pictures that teaches. In a wider sense, the parable is a figurative discourse, a riddle full of light and shadows. In his parabolic language, Jesus vividly lays a full and layered picture beside us: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed; it is like yeast, or a mustard seed, or a master who prepared a great banquet. His comparisons often offer simple scenes or everyday images, and yet they are bafflingly difficult. How on earth is the kingdom of heaven like a seed?
We are pulled into a parable on multiple levels. At the narrative level, there are countless nuances and peculiarities that compel us to listen and question. We react to the characters before us—to the foolish prodigal son and what seems a foolishly loving father, to the master of a great banquet and the guests that cruelly shun him. But we also react to the character of God on some level, his kingdom and its economy. Just what kind of a kingdom is this? How is this forgiving, welcoming father like God? How am I like this wasteful son or this frustrated older brother? And how, then, does this image call me to live? We are jarred awake by a story; but so, we are moved to reckon with its implications.
“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” This thought is often given as rationale for casting any type of public moralizing aside. Evidently, we cannot completely shake off our bequest from a Christian worldview. Ironically, this moral conviction is often given with the reminder that all morality is a private matter and not for public enforcement. But if all moral convictions are a private matter, why is this very conviction itself not kept private too? Why is it publicly enjoined?
When I ask citers of this verse if they are aware of the context in which these words were uttered, it is often unknown. One said it had to do with the woman in adultery. I asked if he was aware of what prompted that imperative and to whom Jesus aimed those words. There was silence. Significantly, the entire confrontation came about because the Pharisees were seeking to trap Jesus into either explicitly defending the Law of Moses or implicitly overruling it. The whole scenario was a ploy, not to seek out the truth of a moral law, but to trap Jesus.
Fascinatingly, Jesus exposed their own spiritual bankruptcy by showing them that at the heart of law is God’s very character. There is a spiritual essence that precedes moral injunctions. So when we vociferously demand that only the one without sin may cast the first stone we also need to grant credence to God’s character in numerous other pronouncements. But for some, sin is not even a viable category. This selective use of Scripture is the very game the questioners of Jesus were playing. When the law is quoted while the reality of sin is denied, self-aggrandizing motives can override character. Thus, in our spiritually amputated world, the art of obscuring truth has become a science in courtroom and political theatrics.
Huckleberry Finn first heard about prayer from Miss Watson, who told him that prayer was something you did everyday and that you’d get what you asked for. So he tried three or four times praying for hooks to complete his fishing line, but when he still didn’t get what he asked for decided that “No, there ain’t nothing in it.”
Prayer is a curious activity. Regardless of belief or creed, prayer is an activity we seem at times almost naturally inclined toward, while other times, like Huck, we might almost as naturally conclude we either can’t make it work or there ain’t nothing in it.
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’”(1)
The Lord’s Prayer, which Christian’s around the world still hold and practice today, comes out of this context—that is, out of a plea for help with prayer and out of the praying of Jesus himself. It is not just the good advice Jesus had to offer about praying; it is his praying. In fact, giving his followers this prayer, Jesus, like John, was following a common rabbinic pattern. When a rabbi taught a prayer, he would use it to teach his disciples the most distinctive, concise, essential elements of his own theological teachings. Thus, disciples of a particular rabbi would learn to pray as their teacher prayed, and from then on, when a disciple’s prayer was heard, it would sound like that of his teacher’s prayers, bearing his own mark and posture before God.
Dr. John Ratey is a fan of walking with no purpose. A professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Ratey has done extensive research on exercise, creativity and depression. His research suggests that when we walk without any goal or agenda—when we wander in other words—our brains are able to pick up more information.(1) In fact, walking aimlessly allows the free flow of thoughts and ideas that don’t occur when we focus on something specific. In addition to inspiring creative thought, Ratey has found that exercise can be therapeutic for depression and ADHD. When patients would walk for even ten minutes a day, these ailments would lift. Dr. Ratey notes, “A bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin.”(2) Who knew that wandering aimlessly could be so good for well-being and creativity?
In a fast-paced and efficiency driven world, these ideas are counter-intuitive. For many, walking without any purpose sounds like a complete waste of time. After all, there is so much to do! Days overflow with so many demands on time and attention. Flooded by obligations, it is no wonder that hypertension, depression, and other stress-related diseases are so prevalent. Living life becomes all about doing, without much thought for being. Exercise, when it is undertaken, is for most just one part of a day’s hoped-for accomplishments. “Bucket lists” are created so that even the living of one’s life is marked by checking off one event or experience after another. As we move at hyper-speed, wandering for the sake of wandering sounds ridiculous.
While it would be unlikely to characterize the earthly ministry of Jesus as time spent wandering aimlessly, our efficiency-driven, goal-oriented world might wonder at his unusual pace and priorities during those short, three years. Some might wonder, for example, at the seemingly wasted hours eating and drinking with a sundry and often sordid cast of characters. Luke’s gospel alone mentions meals around the table (or implies them) ten times, with guests and hosts as diverse as religious leaders and tax collectors, lawyers and well-known sinners. When a highly regarded official begged Jesus to come and heal his daughter, Jesus is willing to be delayed by an unnamed, unknown woman grabbing the hem of his garment in spite of the throngs of people pressing around. In other words, Jesus willingly allows himself to be interrupted by a seemingly unimportant individual, on his way to the synagogue official’s home. Other times, the gospel writers tell of Jesus going off to “lonely places” to pray. Even the way Jesus taught spiritual truths—the telling of parables and stories—suggests a whimsy, a wandering from a style of teaching that was purely didactic. And of course, while one could argue that the tremendous amount of time he spent walking the countryside was simply utilitarian, his willingness toward these disruptions, stories, and ministry along the way demonstrate otherwise.
I am not sure what it is as children that makes us readily picture God as seated high above us. But from childhood, we seem to nurture pictures of heaven and all its wonderment as that which spatially exists “above,” while we and all of our joys and worries exist on earth “below.” While this may simply illustrate our need for metaphors as we learn to relate to the world around us, there is also biblical imagery that seems to authenticate the portrayal. Depicting the God who exists beyond all we know, the Scripture writers describe the divine throne as “high and lofty,” the name of the LORD as existing above all names. Yet even metaphors can be misleading when they cease to point beyond themselves. Though the Bible uses the language and imagery of loftiness, it also pronounces that God’s existence is far more than something “above” us. The startling image of the Incarnation, for instance, radically erases the likeness of a distant God. The message that comes again and again from the mouth of God on earth is equally startling: The kingdom of God is among us!
Of the many objections to Christianity, there is one in particular that stands out in my mind as troubling. That is, the argument that to be Christian is to withdraw from the world, to follow fairy tales with wishful hearts and myths that insist you stop thinking and believe that all will be right in the end because God says so. It was in such a vein that Karl Marx depicted Christianity as a kind of drug that anesthetizes its consumers to the suffering in the world and the wretchedness of life. Sigmund Freud argued similarly that belief in God functions as an infantile dream that helps us evade the pain and helplessness we both feel and see around us. I don’t find these critiques and others like them troubling because I find them an accurate picture of the kingdom Jesus described. Rather, I find them troubling because so many Christians, myself included, find it easy to live as if Freud and Marx are quite right in their analyses.
In impervious boxes and minimalist depictions of the Christian story, we can live comfortably as if in our own worlds, intent to tell our feel-good stories while withdrawing from the harder scenes of life, content to view the kingdom of God as a world far away from the present, and the rooms of heaven as mere futuristic promises. The kingdom is seen as the place we are journeying toward, the better country the writer of Hebrews describes. In contrast, our place on earth is viewed as temporary, and therefore somehow less vital; like Abraham, we are merely passing through. And as a result, we build chasms that stand between kingdom and earth, today and tomorrow, the physical and the spiritual, the believing world and its world of neighbors. Whether articulated or subconscious, the earth itself even becomes something fleeting and irrelevant—one more commodity here for our use, like shampoo bottles in hotel bathrooms—while Christ is away preparing our permanent, more luxurious rooms.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.
They were words that controlled us, like an electric fence to wandering minds and quaking bodies. The pastor repeated them to us frequently—at each hospital visit and in every triumphant prayer for healing within an oncology ward that seemed only to delve out the certainty of loss and the overthrow of control. His confident battle cry was so certain, so instructive: We will not fathom defeat; we will not even think about death. In the name of Jesus, we will see the evidence of healing though it is yet unseen. Despite a theology that under normal circumstances would have been bold enough to voice some very serious objections, I so badly wanted my dad to be well… So badly that we never spoke of his wishes for the funeral we would plan only weeks later.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. They are the words of the ancient writer of Hebrews, though the way we used them during those short weeks with an aggressive cancer never actually considered this. It was a verse we treated as if it pertained only to us, jarred loose from its story and author and community. Once loose, we used it as a tool to jar my dad from his own flesh, from his pained and embodied life as a creature in his final days. We were after a miracle that would erase life as it had become, a healing that would restore us back to life before cancer. We used the verse, distorted into an individualized half-truth, to keep ourselves from considering anything more.
Sadly, the God many of these prayers envisioned was more like a slot machine than a sovereign, each prayer a spin that tried to muster hope against all odds, fearfully, as if dad’s life depended on the very quality of our mustering. While I don’t doubt the charitable intentions of those prayers—or the firm belief in a God who heals—I am saddened by the selfishness I didn’t want to see as I uttered them. The words we clung to were far more about the survivors than the dying one we loved or the abundant life we professed together in the crucified Christ—even in our own deaths. We clung to this creature-denying posture at the expense of a Christ-embodying posture, a posture that could have been both a sharing of my dad’s pain and a sharing of life and death with the one who holds both our lives and our deaths.
There is something deeply unsettling about biological threats. The very idea of unseen but deadly toxins or viruses is a modern nightmare. The sad thing is that we have too many actual examples to fuel our fears. For multitudes in the industrial town of Bhopal, India, a normal working day turned into a catastrophe of biblical proportions as people were poisoned and killed by gas leaking from a local factory. Similarly catastrophic, the events surrounding the reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine combined the worst of leftover Soviet era paranoia and secrecy with a calamity of truly mind-boggling proportions. Hundreds of young men were ushered in to fight a fire, knowing nothing of the deadly radiation saturating the area, and as a result, thousands died. And of course, the recent chemical attacks in Syria were heartrending.
The weight and power of these deadly issues grips us. We feel it acutely. There are things in our universe that are invisible, but real and sometimes deadly. And there are few guaranteed fail-safe mechanisms to protect us, in all circumstances, from harm. This feeling of vulnerability, this sense that there are things beyond our control, this notion of powerlessness is something the modern mind finds repulsive. We want security, we demand certainty, and we feel entitled to assurance. But what is this assurance, and where is it to be found?
Several decades ago, Ernest Becker wrote a very challenging book called The Denial of Death. He showed how society works to create hero-systems and elaborate ways of suppressing or altogether avoiding the reality of death. Woody Allen adds degree of humor to the problem: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Here the Christian story speaks clearly to the human dilemma. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, “As in Adam, all die.” There are no exceptions, no escape routes, and no exits. It is as inclusive as it gets. Death is the great leveler. It respects everyone.
Noah Webster was a crusading editor, essayist, and orator well-acquainted with the soapboxes of the early 1800s. He was deeply troubled at the state of language in America and certain that the current system of instruction would eventually arrest the spread of literacy. Rules for spelling, punctuation, and pronunciation—if at all present in the classroom—were incongruous with everyday spoken language. Many words were spelled in different ways, utilized with different meanings, and pronounced with great disparity—all of which were considered acceptable. “[W]hile this is the case,” Webster warned, “every person will claim a right to pronounce most agreeably to his own fancy, and the language will be exposed to perpetual fluctuation.”(1)
In this mess of word and meaning, Noah Webster set out to write an expanded and comprehensive dictionary of the English language, hoping to standardize American speech, spelling, and comprehension. In order to document the etymology of each word, he learned twenty-six languages and studied in various countries. His dictionary contained seventy thousand words, twelve thousand of which had never appeared in any earlier published dictionary. The project took twenty-six years to complete.
Though he never lived to see even a fraction of the impact, Webster’s influence on the study and reform of language in America was profound. For a nation in want of grammatical consistency, Webster illumined the great substance of words and the import of preserving their meaning and heritage. It is perhaps a light we should more often fear to lose: the meaning of words can be darkened in obscurity even to the point of being lost, though still uttered.
In his work, Simply Christian, N.T. Wright traces the etymology of the name of God and describes a confusion not unlike the muddle that troubled Webster. Wright explains, “[A]ncient Israelite scruples, medieval mistranslation, and fuzzy eighteenth century thinking have combined to make it hard for us today to recapture the vital sense of what a first-century Jew would understand when thinking of YHWH, what an early Christian would be saying when speaking of Jesus or ‘the Lord,’ and how we might now properly reappropriate this whole tradition.”(2)
A wordsmith, according to Merriam-Webster, is a person who works with words; especially a skillful writer. As a part of my quest to become a wordsmith, I have subscribed to what has become one of my favorite online sites, Wordsmith.org. Each day the site sends a word of the day to my inbox. For example, the word bumbledom came into my inbox today. A bumbledom is a behavior characteristic of a pompous and self-important petty official. While I love the sound of bumbledom rolling off of my tongue, I am not sure how often I will find a use for it in my writing and speaking. But it sure is fun to drop it into conversation!
Words are the lifeblood for writers. Indeed, words are to writers what food is for chefs. Writers spend their days imagining just the right combination of words put together in such a way that a beautiful sentence or idea emerges. When this happens, what is written can actually take the reader beyond the page creating images, pictures, colors, sounds, and smells that transport the reader to another world. Just as a chef combines the right ingredients to create a delicious dish, a skilled writer mingles words and carves out sentences to offer an experience of transcendence beyond the everyday realities of life.
Words are powerful. But there are times when words are not enough. There are mysteries that lie beyond their reach, such as when a joy experienced is too great, or sorrows are too deep as to be inexpressible. In such encounters, words seem rudimentary and inadequate. Nothing written can adequately capture the depth of what is being experienced or contemplated.
A group of early Christian teachers understood that there was a relationship between “the things that are spoken and the things that are ineffable, the things that are known and the things that are unknowable.”(1) They understood that there was a limitation of language in the face of mystery. In the contemplation of the Divine, for example, God’s essence, or ousia in the Greek, is something that could not be captured by words since God is beyond human understanding. God must do the extraordinary—divine revelation—for anything of God to be known.
Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan describes this early Christian theology as apophatic: “Theology was, at one and the same time, sublime and ‘apophatic,’ that is, based on negation. As the evangelist John had said, ‘no one has ever seen God,’ which means one could see the glory of God, but not God himself.”(2) God’s being or essence was beyond human beings. All that could be known or even spoken of was what God had chosen to reveal.
English author Samuel Johnson once wrote, “There lurks, perhaps, in every human heart, a desire of distinction, which inclines every man to hope, and then to believe, that nature has given himself something peculiar to himself.”
I was startled by the clairvoyance of an editorialist who once connected these sentiments with America’s escalating fascination with book writing. His comments put flesh on the motive often hidden behind the guise of individuality. “The search for personal significance,” he explained, “was once nicely taken care of by the drama that religion supplied. This drama, which lived in every human breast, no matter what one’s social class, was that of salvation: would one achieve heaven or not? Now that it is gone from so many lives, in place of salvation we have the search for significance, a much trickier business.”(1)
Though the author does not necessarily articulate a sense of loss in regards to the replacement of one pursuit for the other, his thought process is helpful. As religion continues to be eclipsed, particularly in the West, as a provider of significance, humankind is left searching for other sources. From the increased interest in book writing, to social networking, to extreme sports and hobbies, it is a quest clearly observed. Nonetheless, the quest to find significance apart from God is hardly a modern phenomenon. The desire to make a name for oneself is as old as the hills upon which we have built our grand towers and conquered great cities. The drive to define significance on our own is as ancient as the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel. The aspiration is nothing new; book writing is just one more outlet.
But what is interesting, in terms of understanding human history and behavior, is that we should have this longing for significance in the first place. If we are merely products of a wholly indifferent materialist universe, why are we not more at home with our own insignificance? Why should we seek a transcendent sense of meaning at all? What purpose would it serve to leave behind a meaningful legacy? Unless, indeed: there is something about us that is neither temporal nor insignificant.
I cannot begin to estimate how many times I have attempted to encourage someone with the assurance of God’s nearness to their situation: God is with you. God is near. God is among us. As a Christian, it is an astonishing attribute of the God I profess, a comforting attribute that voices long before my own confessed: “God is our refuge and strength,” writes the psalmist, “an ever-present help in trouble.”(1) “The Lord is near,” the apostle tells the Philippians, “Do not be anxious.”(2) That there is one who draws near is a vital part of the story of Christianity, one in which Christians understandably draw hope. But it is not automatically hopeful to everyone. I was reminded of this when my assurance of God’s presence in the life of a struggling friend was met with her honest rejoinder: “Is that supposed to encourage me?”
Nearness in and of itself is not assuring. I had forgotten this in my well-meaning, though knee-jerk truism. An essential ingredient in the assurance that comes from nearness is the person who is drawing near. The degree of comfort and assurance (or wisdom and conviction) we draw from those near us is wholly contingent on who it is that has drawn near. For some, that God is near resembles more a threat than a promise. My friend’s perception of God in that moment was closer to Julian Huxley’s than King David’s. For Huxley, God resembled “not a ruler, but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat.” For David, God’s nearness was clearly thought his good.(3)
Who is it that Christians believe is near? And what does this even mean?
In Christian theology, the attributes of God are qualities that attempt to describe the God who has come near enough to reveal who God is. These self-revealed attributes cannot be taken individually, removed from one another like garments in a great wardrobe, or chosen preferentially like items in a buffet. They are not traits that exist independently but simultaneously, at times in paradoxical mystery to us. God is both near us and “among us” as the prophet Isaiah writes; God is also far from us and beyond us—in knowledge, in grandeur, in immensity, in position. “Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?”
Recently, a colleague sought an explanation regarding the untimely death of a friend. It was one of those questions that exposes the vulnerability of a confident apologist. How one wishes that the dots could be connected, the blanks filled, and a satisfying response proffered. But lo and behold, that is not to be. In some questions, an agnostic stance appears more honest and reasonable. It’s no wonder Job’s friends made more sense in their silence than in their speeches. In that ancient story of a life whose struggles are articulated exhaustively, Job’s pain is something we still grapple with millennia later.
In her book When Life Takes What Matters, author Susan Lenzkes suggests that this posture of grappling with uncertainty, even angered grappling, can be kindly held by the Christian God: “It’s all right—question, pain, and stabbing anger can be poured out to the Infinite One and God will not be damaged….For we beat on his chest from within the circle of his arms.”(1)
For Job, something similar is true. Somehow his own questioning appears to lose its sting when he sees how wide this circle really is. In the glimpse God offers him from the very foundations of the world, Job’s despair is somehow quieted within a story so much bigger than his pain can comprehend.
In the story of Job, questions of theodicy, as valid as they are, are shown to be premature. While God does open a new chapter in Job’s life, the recompense to Job during his later years is not to be mistaken with the final package. God’s complete solution would be unpacked on the other side of time. In an atheistic framework, by contrast, where there is no possibility of life after death, the question of suffering and injustice is hard and strong, for any hope dies at death.
Thankfully and mercifully, for Job’s sake and ours, the gospel further counters this framework in flesh and blood. The New Testament boldly tells the story of Jesus Christ as one of passion, crucifixion, and resurrection. For those who want to dismiss the Old Testament as imaging a violent God, there is death and gore in the heart of the gospel as well. But here, the question coming forth from a hurting soul like Job’s is, in fact, the cry of Jesus himself on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image journal, tells a story about telling stories for his kids. He describes the memorable bedtimes when he attempts to concoct a series of original tales. “My kids are polite enough to raise their hands when they have some penetrating question to ask about plot, character, or setting,” he writes. “If I leave something out of the story, or commit the sin of inconsistency, these fierce critics won’t let me proceed until I’ve revised the narrative. Oddly enough, they never attempt to take over the storytelling. They are convinced that I have the authority to tell the tale, but they insist that I live up to the complete story that they know exists somewhere inside me.”(1) Children seem to detest a deficient story.
There is no doubt that our sense of the guiding authority of story and storyteller often dramatically lessens as we move from childhood to adulthood. And yet, regardless of age, there remains something deeply troubling about a story without a point, or an author not to be trusted.
In an interview with Skeptic magazine, Richard Dawkins was asked if his view of the world was not similar to that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, namely, that life is but “a tale told by an idiot, filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing.”(2)
“Yes,” Dawkins replied, “at a sort of cosmic level, it is. But what I want to guard against is people therefore getting nihilistic in their personal lives. I don’t see any reason for that at all. You can have a very happy and fulfilled personal life even if you think that the universe at large is a tale told by an idiot.”(3)
As it happens every Easter season, various scholars and skeptics weigh in on whether or not Jesus was actually raised from the dead. Bart Ehrman’s latest book, How Jesus Became God, is a case in point. Writing as a historian, he questions many of the gospel remembrances of the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. His conclusion is that the gospels are not reliable, historical witnesses. But is this really the case?
A careful reading of the four evangelists’ remembrances of the resurrection does indeed reveal many different emphases and details. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, tells us that a great earthquake occurred as an angel of the Lord descended and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. The Gospel of Mark, on the other hand, tells us that a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe was inside the tomb to announce Jesus’s resurrection. The Gospel of Luke tells us that two men suddenly stood near the women in dazzling apparel and John’s Gospel reports the discovery of the linen wrappings abandoned in the empty tomb.(1)
There are many other differences in the retelling of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, and this should be expected from different testimony. No two people report exactly the same details about any event or happening! But there is one feature that is the same in all four gospel testimonies: the resurrection announcement is made first to the women who followed Jesus (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 23:55-24:5; John 20:1). Many reasons have been offered as to why women serve as the immediate witnesses to the resurrection: the women stayed with him through the crucifixion, so he appeared first to those who stuck with him to the last; women traditionally carried out the burial rituals in first century Judaism, so they were witnesses by default. Others suggest that the first women witnesses represent Jesus’s elevation of the status for women of the first century and for women in general.
Seventy-five years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt comforted a frightened nation in the depths of the Great Depression with an inaugural speech that began with a call to endure. He then added, “[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”(1) His words sought to address the very spirit of depression, the fear exuding from great uncertainty, the diminishing morale of a country racked with hunger and unemployment.
A very different speech from a very different character makes a similar observation about fearing fear itself. But adding to FDR’s admonition, Master Yoda from Stars Wars encourages his audience to answer this fear of fear itself with a philosophy of detachment. “Fear is the path to the Dark Side,” says Yoda to young Anakin. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”(2)
Among the many voices encouraging us to fear and act on our fears, these two voices of dissent are interesting. Roosevelt essentially asked a fearful nation to take account of the ways in which fear and pessimism can paralyze us. Fear is to be feared for this quality, he firmly believed. Yoda called for a far more defensive approach. The Jedi way encouraged the achievement of fearlessness by way of the refuge of detachment. Both thoughts bid us to ask questions about the nature of fear and its place in our lives.
What of a Christian alternative to the culture of fear around us? Is fearlessness the answer? What about detachment? Do we really do well to fear fear itself?
Perhaps in the midst of our own economic discomfort and sense of worldwide anxieties, it is not an unhelpful suggestion to live aware of fear’s confining grip upon our lives. Our fears can perhaps rightfully be included among the thoughts Paul tells people to take captive, particularly those fears that set themselves up against the love and knowledge of God. (One cannot live in constant fear of death where there is a vision of Christ’s resurrection; nor can one be held captive by the imagination of future evil whose future is in the hands of a faithful God.) Yet while fear can indeed paralyze us from life itself, fearlessness can be a similar vice. As Yoda observes, true fearlessness would be attainable only through complete detachment to everything and everyone around us. If we loved nothing at all, we would have nothing to fear, but so we would be paralyzed from life in an entirely different way.
The recognition of one’s humanity can be an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Life’s fragility, life’s impermanence, life’s intertwinement with imperfection and disappointment—bitter medicines are easier to accept. The Romantic poets called it “the burden of full consciousness.” To look closely at humanity can indeed be a realization of dread and despair.
For the poet Philip Larkin, to look closely at humanity was to peer into the absurdity of the human existence. Whatever frenetic, cosmic accident that brought about a species so endowed with consciousness, the sting of mortality, incessant fears of failure, and sieges of shame, doubt, and selfishness was, for Larkin, a bitter irony. In a striking poem titled “The Building,” he describes the human condition as it is revealed in the rooms of a hospital. In this vast building of illness and waiting, one finds “Humans, caught/On ground curiously neutral, homes and names/Suddenly in abeyance; some are young,/ Some old, but most at that vague age that claims/The end of choice, the last of hope; and all/ Here to confess that something has gone wrong./ It must be error of a serious sort,/ For see how many floors it needs, how tall…”(1)
With or without Larkin’s sense of dread, this confession that “something has gone wrong” is often synonymous with the acknowledgment of humanity. “I’m only human,” is a plea for leniency with regards shortcoming. In Webster’s dictionary, “human” itself is an adjective for imperfection, weakness, and fragility. There are, nonetheless, many outlooks and religions that stand diametrically opposed to this idea, seeing humanity with limitless potential, humans as pure, the human spirit as divine. In a vein not unlike the agnostic Larkin, the new atheists see the cruel realities of time and chance as reason in and of itself to dismiss the rose-colored lenses of God and religion. Yet quite unlike Larkin’s concluding outlook of meaninglessness and despair, they often (inexplicably) suggest a rose-colored view of humanity.(2) In the other side of this extreme, still other belief-systems emphasize the depravity of humanity to such a leveling degree that no person can stand up under the burden of guilt and disgust.
Among my toughest audiences in apologetics are undoubtedly my two boys. From the time words started forming on their lips, questions of various kinds have been a staple around our home—the most formidable one being, “Why, daddy?” More than any other of our appetites, I strongly suspect that thirst for knowledge and the occasional thrill of discovery have played the greatest role in shaping history. From the vast machinery of the news media to the intricate systems of the educational enterprise, from specialized research institutions to the multifaceted world of religious devotion, human hunger for knowledge is the oil that greases the mill of civilization.
So pervasive is this drive for knowledge that it can become an end in itself, opening up a rudderless detour along even the journey to God. This is true in religious systems that claim knowledge for a select few, with secretly guarded rituals forever hidden from the uninitiated. Gnosticism, from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge, was built upon the premise that there exists a category of knowledge privileged to a select few. Most Eastern religions insist that the problem with humanity is not sin but ignorance; hence, their solution to the human predicament is enlightenment, not forgiveness. Similarly, scientific naturalism stakes its fortunes on the bare, cold facts of particles and quarks; to know them is to know ultimate reality—never mind the minor detail that, logically, there is a gaping missing link between knowing how something works and the conclusion that it was not made.
But according to the Bible, at the end of our incessant pursuit of knowledge lies a Person, not an ideology or impersonal reality. God is not only the beginner of all that is; God has also revealed Himself in the earthliest of terms. Jesus was born in circumstances accessible to the lowliest of the shepherds as well as to the most majestic of kings. He spoke to large crowds in public places and was crucified outside the city walls, thereby silencing forever the voices of self-appointed guardians of alleged esoteric knowledge. In biblical terms, no pursuit of knowledge is ever complete without the discovery of him who is the truth; to know him is to know not only ultimate reality but also ourselves.
When I imagine the women who came to the tomb to see the body of Jesus the day after he was crucified, I understand their sickened panic. The body had been taken somewhere unbeknownst and unknown to them. It was out of their sight, out of their care. He was out of their sight—not an empty shell, not “just” a body, but the one they loved. Mary Magdalene was devastated. She ran to Peter in horror: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
There is something about the human spirit that inherently seems to understand the importance of caring for the dead, of moving them carefully from the place of death to a place of rest, finality, and farewell. What we have come to know commonly as the funeral is based on this fundamentally human behavior. It is understood that the dead cannot remain among the living, and yet their removal from society is never a task met with levity. Evidences of tender ceremony are noted in the oldest human burial sites ever found.(1) This movement of the dead from the place of the living to a place of parting is full of tremendous symbolic meaning.
For British statesman and avowed atheist Roy Hattersley, this meaning and symbolism has been a complicated part of the imagination with which he views the world. For years he has disapproved of the funeral service, finding it a paradoxical attempt to soften the blow of utter darkness, with clergy fulsome about the dead man’s virtues and discreet about his vices, and congregations gathered more as a matter of form than feeling. In the mind (or at the funeral) of one who remains committed to the unpleasant truth that life simply ends as haphazardly as it began, there is no room or reason for the promise of resurrection and the pomp of certain comfort.
And yet, Hattersley writes in The Guardian of an experience that almost converted him to the belief that funerals ought to be encouraged nonetheless. His conclusion was forged as he sang the hymns and studied the proclamations of a crowd that seemed sincere: “[T]he church is so much better at staging farewells than non-believers could ever be,” he writes. “‘Death where is thy sting, grave where is they victory?‘ are stupid questions. But even those of us who do not expect salvation find a note of triumph in the burial service. There could be a godless thanksgiving for and celebration of the life of [whomever]. The music might be much the same. But it would not have the uplifting effect without the magnificent, meaningless words.”(2)