David Bentley Hart, in his usual engaging writing style offers an excellent critique of what he calls, the sanctimonious tirades against religion, or (more narrowly) monotheism, or (more specifically) Christianity, or (more precisely) Roman Catholicism. These sanctimonious tirades can be found in books such as Daniel Dennett’s, Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’, God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’, God is Not Great, Sam Harris’, The End of Faith, and Philip Pullman’s fantasy literature for children, His Dark Materials.Now, Hart is not critical of Atheist’s arguments against Christianity per se. He admits that there are many forms of atheism that are far more admirable than some forms of Christianity. What he argues against are those atheist criticisms of Christianity that are vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness …..
An example of such a vacuous argument can be found in Peter Watson’s book on the history of invention, who when asked by the New York Times to name humanity’s worse invention, blandly replied, “Without question, ethical monotheism …. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.”But such blanket statements are just plain false. Yes, defenders of monotheism (including Christians), have certainly had their share of blood on their hands. But, the vast majority of history’s wars have been fought in the service of many gods and driven by the pursuit of profits, conquest for power, territory, the empire or the ‘greater good’. Furthermore, atheist countries such as Nazi Germany and communist countries such as the former Soviet Union and China have contributed more than their fair share of hate, violence and death in the world.
This persistent bombardment of criticism towards religion, and especially monotheistic religions such as Christianity, has come from within as well as without. Let’s face it, that Jesus actually rose from the dead is an embarrassment to many modern, sophisticated church people. It doesn’t help when a group of seventy-odd New Testament scholars called the ‘Jesus Seminar’ gives us reasons for not believing what the bible says. They argue there was no Resurrection. Jesus was not buried in a tomb and his body was probably disposed of by the Roman authorities, perhaps even thrown out to be eaten by scavenging animals. Others Christian scholars argue that Jesus only ‘appeared’ to have died on the cross. Instead, he was unconscious when he was taken down from the Cross, only to be resuscitated days later. Therefore, it’s no wonder clergy, wanting to show their sophisticated parishioners that they are just as sophisticated rather than an unthinking simpleton, have quickly adopted what the academy has taught them. That’s why in their Easter sermons, clergy will use words such as renewal, revival,and rebirthand do whatever they can to avoid the word, resurrection. We will hear this Easter in many churches of a new season, new growth, new life. We will hear of sap rising in trees, the singing of birds, the warmth of the lengthening days. We will hear of a new season in the earth and in the heart of humanity. We will hear that the early Christians came to understand that love is stronger than death.
So, is this all there is to Easter? Consider this. Is it possible that ideas like this would have taken hold of a tiny band of utterly demoralized, beleaguered, disgraced, scattered disciples and transformed them into a mighty power that within a few years was shaking the foundation of the Roman Empire? Put yourself in the place of the women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning to anoint the body of Jesus. Maybe the flowers were blooming, and the birds were singing while they were walking along? Do you think they took comfort in that? It is likely they were looking out over the fields and said to each other, ‘Maybe the Master is going to come again like wheat that springs up green?” I doubt it. Jesus, their lord was dead, and such niceties could not help them.
Like all clergy I’ve been present with people at the moment of death. The look of a dead body imposes itself on me. The finality of death always gets to me and makes me think, “her loved ones will no longer hear, speak to and touch her. Everything that we know and experience of someone while he is alive completely ends when that person dies.” O yes, we can say things like, “we’ll continue to know mom in our memories,” and try to make ourselves feel good for a short time by retelling these memories at her funeral. But none of that can replace the person we experienced while she was alive. My own memories of my father’s sense of humour and gentleness does not replace when I actually experienced him laughing and being a teddy bear. My memories can’t replace giving him a hug and being hugged back as I once experienced.
The New Testament refers to death as an enemy (1Cor. 15:26). Even in the case of what we call a merciful death, there is still a horrible indignity, a fearsome intrusiveness about death that causes us to feel its presence as a hostile, invading power that robs us of what we cherish the most, each other. Nebulous messages about religious hope for an afterlife simple do not have the power to change the stark ugliness of death. I heard on the radio recently the story of a Dad who lost his daughter in a shooting in the US. He said, there will always, always be a hole in my heart and soul now that she is gone.Telling this Dad, well, at least you have your memorieswould be demeaning and hurtful to say the least. He doesn’t need our platitudes. He needs a resurrection.
Likewise, we owe it to the first disciples of Jesus to recognize the sheer hopelessness of the situation they were in. They had invested their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honour in what appeared to be a mockery. They had seen their hopes and dreams ridiculed, scorned, and spat upon by the population of the entire city. Once they had basked in the celebrity of their crowd-pleasing Master; now he had been judged a disgrace, a menace to society, a blasphemer, a pretender, fraud and no better than two small-time thieves. He was discredited and his once loyal followers had broken ranks and deserted him. All was lost! Yet, these same people pulled themselves together, formed themselves into a mighty band and galvanized the whole Mediterranean world together. Surely, just an empty tomb and warms feelings about bunny rabbits and springtime didn’t make this happen? Even the skeptics who wanted to make the Resurrection into something completely bloodless will agree something happened? But what was it?
Something of great power must have happened. It says in Matt. 28.1-6,
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. He appearance was like lightening, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.”
I can’t prove to you that Jesus did rise from the dead. But if you don’t believe please do not do the injustice of saying that Easter is about springtime and bunny rabbits. For these women and the first disciples Easter was about death that miraculously and in a powerful way turned into life. They would not have been ‘afraid’ if something did not really happen. I for one do believe Jesus did rise from the dead, so that death no longer has power over us. Only His, Jesus Christ’s resurrection, can give me any hope when someone dies. Only the same power of God that caused this resurrection can help me face the suffering, evil and death of this world.
So, if you don’t believe that’s your prerogative. But don’t turn Easter into a set of platitudes. The story of the first Easter does not allow it. You really only have two choices when dealing with this upcoming Easter. You can either reject it altogether and come up with some other excuse for celebrating spring, or join with me, Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other disciples and believe that Jesus has truly risen.
He is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and It’s Fashionable Enemies(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 4.
New York Times, December 11, 2005.