There is a growing movement in our denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), toward what is often called “progressive Christianity.” Among other things, progressive Christians believe “… that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience ‘God,’ the Sacredness, Oneness and Unity of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom, including Earth, in our spiritual journey.” (https://progressivechristianity.org).
And so over the past year, in various conversations with leaders and members of our regional church (the Christian Church in Arizona), I have raised the question of who we say Jesus is. On more than one occasion, I have especially brought up the issue and importance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I did so at first circumstantially – I was responding in a stumbling way to an unexpected comment from a colleague; and later, more intentionally, as I’m doing in this piece.
There are a number of elements of a traditional, orthodox Christian faith that are Christ-centered, as opposed to being “one of many ways.” But this particular element of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is of personal significance. Many years ago, when I was steeped in the ideas of progressive Christianity myself (though I didn’t call it that at the time, because I didn’t even know that phrase), and didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection, I overheard a pastor I knew tell someone else, “If you don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, you can’t call yourself a Christian.” For me, that statement was “sharper than any double-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12), and left a mark that penetrated my mind and my heart for many years. Over time, the Holy Spirit used that statement, and other occasions, to get me to the point that I myself could confidently and joyfully proclaim, “Yes, Jesus rose from the grave bodily, and showed Himself to hundreds of people, before ascending into heaven.” Once that happened – once I truly accepted that Jesus actually rose from the grave – the Christian faith that I now hold began to fall quickly into place.
In case you are wondering, that pastor’s statement didn’t simply come from his own opinion. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “… if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14) The bodily resurrection is FOUNDATIONAL to our Christian faith. And yet, in conversations in which I’ve been involved over the last year, a variety of leaders and members of our region have made a number of comments dismissing it. One leader, when I brought it up, referred to it as a “theological litmus test” that was unimportant to the conversation at hand. Another leader made clear to me that there are many opinions about it, and that his faith certainly was not based on it. If it’s true, it’s true, and if not, that’s OK. Another person said it was “immaterial to my faith.” To say the least, these kinds of comments are severe departures from Paul’s statement to the Corinthians.
It’s hard to imagine how it is that so many Christians have gotten so far away from such a basic Christian concept, a concept that is:
- historical. The Bible nowhere suggests that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was anything but an historical event. In fact, quite the opposite, it goes into detail about an empty tomb, post-resurrection appearances, and a sighting of Jesus ascending into heaven.
- logical. What inspired Peter, James, John, and hundreds of others to begin proclaiming the risen Lord, and be martyred as a result of this proclamation? There are various explanations I’ve read, but none of them come even close to the logic that Jesus actually did rise from the dead.
- atypical. Nothing like it occurred before (yes, Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus, but he died again), and nothing like it has happened since. We share values in common with other religious groups, such as love and compassion. But no other faith besides Christianity proclaims that God came to earth in the flesh: that He humbled Himself, died an actual death, and was then raised from the dead. It’s an astounding, atypical claim, that sets Christians apart from others (not in a superior way, but nevertheless a special way).
If we don’t hold to this claim, what is the difference between us and, say, Unitarian Universalists? That question is not intended to “down” the U-U’s. I have known and been friends with people who hold to the U-U faith, and they typically are kind, compassionate people. The question, somewhat rhetorical, has more to do not with friendship formation, but with faith foundation. Once we as Christians move away from as basic a belief as the bodily resurrection of Jesus, we also move away from the specialness of our faith.
In addition, we also move away from the truthfulness of our faith. Indeed, no matter what you believe about the bodily resurrection, in the end, it is either true or false, just as any purported event. It either happened, or it didn’t. My Christian brothers and sisters, if it didn’t happen, then we ought to close up shop and be done with this 2,000-year-old charade, because it is, at best, useless. But if it did happen, then that changes everything. Indeed, it has changed everything.