In a recent Newsweek article Andrew Sullivan attempts to ‘save’ Jesus and Christianity from the excesses and errors of the modern church by directing believers back to the simplicity of the teachings of Christ to embrace nonviolence, shun material wealth and renounce worldly power. And in many ways Sullivan is right – the modern church has often lost its way by kowtowing to a desire for secular power, chasing wealth and employing politics as a means to advance the gospel. But Sullivan’s remedy is certainly worse than disease as he would have the church excise all the miraculous acts of Christ in order to advance a message of social justice which he assumes is more palatable to modern sensibilities.
The primary problem with Sullivan’s solution to the diminishing influence of Christianity is that he makes the central figure of the faith irrelevant. What distinguishes Jesus after all are not His teachings on social justice and non-violence. As many secularists are quick to point out such teachings can be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Old Testament. The command to “Treat others as one wants to be treated” may be one of the most widely taught principles amongst the world religions. So to reduce Jesus down to these teachings is to make Him merely one figure in a long line of social reformers whose goals, while laudable, hardly rise to the worshipful veneration historically given to the central figure of the Christian faith.
What Sullivan misses is that what makes the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the example of his life significant isn’t simply the moral power it conveys, but the fact that it is singularly punctuated by the events of the first Easter weekend – His sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. Unlike other would be moral teachers, Jesus demonstrated the authority of His teachings with utter finality through an empty tomb. Without the resurrection His teachings could be easily dismissed as fanciful idealism instead of the impetus for 2000 years of personal and societal transformation.
So great was the impact of the events of that weekend that they literally mark the beginning of Western calendar. It marked the end of the rule of pagan gods, the fading of the brutality of the Roman Empire and the beginning series of societal transformations that would fundamentally transform culture, knowledge and the very organization of society. It empowers martyrs, encourages reformers, and inspires artists and musicians.
As I have noted elsewhere, there is a transcendent foundation for concepts like freedom, human rights, equality, and universality that derives from faith in Christ. In Easter is rooted the ultimate measure of our worth to God. We all have a value ascribed to us by the blood of Christ, a freedom bought for us at the cross, and the love of God for all of humanity is made undeniable by the power of the resurrection. Equality is best understood when we realize we are all equally in need of a Savior. The sins of greatest king and lowest pauper are all paid for by the same great sacrifice, imbuing all persons with intrinsic worth. None of this can be derived apart from the events of Easter weekend.
On the morning of the third day the angel asked the women at the tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” We might well ask Andrew Sullivan and others who deny or diminish the empty tomb a similar question – why do you look for a living faith among lifeless platitudes?
The Apostle Paul stated that if Jesus didn’t rise then Christians are amongst all men the most to be pitied; if Jesus didn’t rise then all our notions of equality, inalienable rights and the fundamental value of a human life are fatally flawed and we are all to be pitied.
The inevitable conclusion is nothing makes sense except in the light of Easter.