Is Jesus Relevant?

Strange as it may sound, I think many Western Christians today are no longer willing to genuinely believe in the Jesus-story – assuming they did earlier. Some have simply lost confidence in the gospel. The problem is not simply a matter of whether or not one accepts as historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed; there is little doubt that he did. Nor is it really a question of the veracity of Jesus’ teaching, or the church’s views on the significance of his deeds, death, and resurrection. Rather, it concerns the relevance of those matters for today. “Relevance” has a purely utilitarian tone; what practical difference does it make? As an academic who values knowledge and wisdom for their own sake, I find this a sad reflection on our times. Perhaps this is only to be expected in a technological age. After all, most of us are only concerned with the functionality of our laptops and phones, and have no real interest in the software and hardware – let alone the underlying principles of semiconductor physics. The issue of relevance is a fixed feature of our consumer world, and this frustrates practitioners of education as well as pastors. Add to that the sense of entitlement and immediacy – wanting it all and wanting it now – means that the notions of patience and discipline are inevitably going to be unpopular.

This matter of relevance (“Why do we need God?”) is also closely connected to the comfortable lifestyles of the Western middle classes. Most of us have some sort of social safety net (healthcare, benefits, pensions, savings, and insurances of various kinds) that was unheard of in previous centuries, let alone in biblical times. And anesthetics and pain-killers protect us from harsh reality of suffering, at least to a degree. It is only when our routines are invaded by uncertainty and insecurity, to the point that we are no longer feel “in control” of our personal choices and destiny, that the relevance question is revisited. Religious faith is, for some, the last insurance policy – a desperate hope when all else fails. But grasping for relevance in a crisis is hardly ideal, not to mention somewhat hypocritical! Even so, I believe how the Christian faith addresses the troubling problem of suffering does provide one valid response to the question of relevance.[1] But this reply is not simplistic cure-all, or a definitive “answer,” or even “proof” of Christianity. For, as dedicated followers of Jesus know from personal experience, “faith seeks understanding” even in the complex issue of evil and suffering. And that faith provides a firm hope for the journey, one that – when all is said and done along the way – ultimately trusts in resurrection beyond death. That being the case, perhaps it is not surprising most seek for hedonistic alternatives for the here and now.

Nevertheless, we all die eventually, however comfortable our lifestyles. It is fair to say that death remains the taboo subject of Western culture; we even avoid using that word. Death comes too soon or too late. And, if we are honest, the fear of the process of dying lies – often hidden, but still present – in the darkest recesses of our minds. The reality of suffering and death provides us with the opportunity to address the question of the relevance of life itself.

So are our lives parts of a bigger story, one that involves life after death? Instead of exploring that possibility, many quickly shut down the enquiry. If there is a bigger story it might have implications for our sense of freedom, and that is troubling for some. A prior belief in our personal autonomy and moral independence would be brought into question if there were an overarching metanarrative to history. This, then, is a key feature in the matter of relevance. If there is a bigger story, we would be forced to acknowledge there is something Newbigin calls “public truth.”[2] In this context it is that the Christian view of history, from creation to the eschaton (and beyond), has universal intent. In other words, it is a narrative that is true or valid for everyone. This narrative should not be understood purely in terms of a sequence of historical incidents, but includes the meaning or significance of those events. This means incorporating a theological layer of understanding to history. Consequently, while a scientific account of origins (big bang, evolution, chance and necessity)[3] provides a materialistic description of creation, it must be incorporated into a broader theology of nature. (A great deal of thought and debate has already been given to that task.) Of equal importance, however, is the question of history’s ultimate destiny. Astronomers tell us that in a few billion years, the sun will become a “red giant” and expand to engulf our planet. This will occur once all the sun’s hydrogen has been converted to helium through nuclear fusion. However, life on Earth will become unviable long before then because the sun will become hot enough to boil our oceans in about a billion years’ time! In light of that fate, one can see why there is a fascination with science fiction; interstellar travel is our only salvation – should pollution, war, or a giant meteor not finish us off first! We have evolved to a point where we recognize that humankind, as individuals and as a species, is finite.

The Christian brings a crucial dimension to that bleak outlook, however ingenious and creative we may become, namely God and God’s engagement with history. The study of “end matters” – eschatology – is of necessity a matter of faith. But it is not a privatized faith; it has universal intent and hence is public truth, even if we do not really know all the details of what the eschaton entails. Sadly, some churches spend far too much time speculating on what is largely unknowable, and seem to promote their views with absolute certainty. Some of those eschatological pronouncements are akin to conspiracy theories; ignore them! Nevertheless, it would be a serious miscalculation to dismiss the matter altogether. Clearly a person’s view of end matters informs their response to the question of relevance. If you don’t believe in life after death, or in a linear storyline to history, it is not that you believe in nothing. It means you are already committed – consciously or subconsciously – to a different narrative.

There is another important feature of relevance and eschatology, namely a deep desire for ultimate justice.[4] It is obvious that we all want justice for ourselves! A crucial theme within Christianity, however, is that in the end God will being about justice for all. What that “heaven” will actually look like is beyond our imagination, but that should not cause us to belittle that vision. Too often we imagine an afterlife that is serene and beautiful. But that is surely not enough, especially for those whose life experience has been as part of a downtrodden and disadvantaged people. Heaven must (at least) entail peace with justice; the latter cannot be left undone. A feature of the Old Testament prophets was their cry for social justice;[5] they spoke “truth to power” – often at a dire personal cost. Jesus followed in that mold. Christians believe that “God’s righteous activity is setting to right what is wrong.”[6] Given the current state of the world, we may have serious doubts about that claim! Nevertheless, that is a fixed feature of the Christian hope, founded on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – where the Trinitarian God decisively dealt with evil, personally. The resurrection demonstrates that evil will not have the last word. It is God’s emphatic NO to evil and injustice and YES to life. Consequently, those who downplay the reality of the resurrection diminish the Christian hope that evil will ultimately be overcome. There is much more to the cross’s theological significance, of course, but it is foundational to the issue of relevance of ultimate justice for all.

I have stated that I think part of the mainline church’s present problems is that it has lost confidence in the overall Christian narrative, and especially of its eschatology. Some, understandably, ignore end time matters altogether out of for fear of being tainted by fanciful forms of eschatology (and thereby ruining one’s intellectual credibility). And those who confidently peddle such “hell-fire” scenarios, endeavoring to scare people into “heaven,” paint a very poor picture of the Trinity and can do lasting damage to those seeking forgiveness and wholeness. The Bible strongly discourages speculation concerning the details of the eschaton; we are told it is a mystery that not even Jesus knows![7] But those churches that are too embarrassed to mention eschatology are presenting only half of the biblical narrative; it has lost the hope of the gospel.[8] Moreover, it is a capitulation to modernity. Both extremes are unhealthy for the church and the world. And both are not being faithful to the fullness of God’s mission, which is our calling and priority for right now.

Returning to the question of relevance, if we scratch at the surface of our lives we will find that we harbor stress, anxiety, fear, regret, bitterness, resentment, angst, and a range of other negative emotions and attitudes that hold us in captivity. We are not always as free as we wish we were on the treadmill of life. It is perhaps no surprise then that our society is the most medicated in the world for depression, mental illness, and the like. Part of the problem is broken relationships and a fractured community and/or family life. We were created for wholesome relationships; a sense of interconnectedness rather than isolated individualism. As the English poet and cleric John Donne (1572-1631) famously said:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.[9]

Part of the remedy is to be in “community,” a network of life-giving, loving relationships of mutual support and encouragement. But that is evidently not enough, because in addition to social brokenness there is a spiritual malaise. While Genesis 2:18 tells us, “The Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner,” the intention for both was to be in an intimate relationship with their Maker. The emptiness we sometimes feel when we slow down from our frenetic pace of life long enough to listen in the silence to our deepest longings is really a spiritual void. It is evidence of a deep, latent desire to be loved unconditionally – as we are by God. In Augustine’s words, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We have a profound need for acceptance and forgiveness, not just to be a part of community – important though that is, but to know we are each a beloved child of God. Those whose lives have experienced brokenness, sadness, and powerlessness are more open to this message than are society’s “winners.” Mark tells us that Jesus said:Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”[10] To those in bondage to all that distorts right relationships, Jesus said: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”[11] Jesus’ message of forgiveness, freedom, and acceptance lives on. John’s conclusion to his gospel includes both a blessing on his followers and their Spirit-filled commissioning:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”[12]

Jesus passes on his authority to forgive sins to his church. While the church has – at times – abused that authority in the past, nevertheless, our being sent into the world is not only to teach and baptize (Matt 28:18-20) but to bring forgiveness.[13] That is a key element of being in community with the Trinity as we live out the reign of God together.

These responses to the question of relevance, then, address suffering, death, justice, hope, and forgiveness, and provide relational meaning to life in the context of God’s narrative, not one of our own making. Those who are confident that Jesus is irrelevant must – presumably – already be assured of the alternatives, whether they are political, sociological, or philosophical![14] While the skeptic may have legitimate doubts as to the reality of the reign of God, I find confidence in the alternatives to be baffling.

[1] See Reddish, Does God Always Get What God Wants?

[2] See Newbigin, Truth to Tell.

[3] See Reddish, Science and Christianity.

[4] See Rutledge, Crucifixion, 128-132.

[5] See, for example, Isa 10:1-2.

[6] Rutledge, Crucifixion, 132. She – citing C. F. D. Moule – states that God’s “wrath” is not an emotion but God’s action against all that evil.

[7] Mark 13; Matt 24; Luke 21. These chapters are certainly pertinent to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, but to restrict their interpretation just to that event is misleading in terms of the overall biblical narrative.

[8] See Wright, Surprised by Hope.

[9] Meditation XVII, in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, published in 1624. Donne wrote this meditation on death when he was seriously ill in 1623.

[10] Mark 2:17. See also Luke 5:32; 19:10; Matt 9:13.

[11] John 8:36.

[12] John 20: 21-23.

[13] While we are right to be critical of the church, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

[14] This is not a neutral choice between religious and philosophical options. There is a cultural propensity to have a negative association with Christianity, which is one of the effects of secularization.