In 1837 Hans Christian Anderson published his short tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. It tells the story of two crafty weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes. They boast the suit will be so splendid that it will appear invisible to all who are common, stupid or incompetent. In truth they made him nothing at all, which is exactly what he agrees to wear on the day of the big reveal. As he parades naked through the streets, none of his subjects dare admit that they cannot see his new suit for fear that they will be seen as stupid. The ridiculousness only comes to an end when a child declares the obvious: “But the Emperor has nothing on at all”
This past Easter weekend the New York Times published an interview with Union Theological Seminary President, Serene Jones. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” came to mind as I read it. At every point this would-be representative of Christianity was stripping the Easter message of all resemblance to the gospel of Jesus as presented in the Bible and affirmed by the Christian church for nearly 2000 years.
Here are the “new clothes” of the Easter message that she brought out on parade as if glaringly obvious to all except the common, stupid or incompetent.
- The resurrection didn’t actually happen.
- It’s wasn’t real “…it’s a symbol that “ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”
- The resurrection doesn’t matter.
- Rather, Christians who believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead have a “pretty wobbly faith.”
- Jesus wasn’t crucified for people’s sins.
- Rather, the cross is a mere “enactment of human hatred” meant to juxtapose the “triumph of love in the midst of suffering.”
- God is unknowable and unnecessary.
- …”God is beyond our knowing…” (Logically were that true she wouldn’t be able to know that either, but anyway…) “[God is not] an all-powerful, all-controlling omnipotent, omniscient being…or an essence or an object.”
- Love, not God, is the ultimate power of the universe.
- “…the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death.”
- Jesus’ virgin birth is nonsense.
- “…It has nothing to do with Jesus’ message.”
- God does not answer prayer, nor would we want him to.
- …Because that would require God being a personal God who we can “manipulate.”
- Easter (and Christianity) has nothing to do with life after death.
- “…faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife.”
- Heaven and Hell are symbolic, not real.
- “…hell has a symbolic reality: When we reject love, we create hell, and hell is what we see around us in this world today in so many forms.”
“Amazing, every word of what you just said was wrong.” – Luke Skywalker, The Last Jedi
As I finished reading the article one of Luke Skywalker’s final lines from The Last Jedi came to mind: “Amazing, every word of what you just said was wrong.” Jones presents herself (and Union Theological Seminary) as faithfully representing the “Christian tradition”. Yet through the entire interview she fails to hold even a single belief in common with the first Christians whose tradition she claims to represent.
One wonders how a seminary president can present a version of Easter and the gospel so devoid of anything remotely Christian. In Jones’ case she does using the method used by almost everyone today who wants to express something with a voice of authority. They use the language of personal belief.
Jones uses this approach consistently. In an interview with only 8 question she responds with an air of authority by appealing to her personal beliefs 11 times.
- “For me it’s impossible…”
- “For me, the cross is…”
- “But I don’t worship a [God like that]…”
- “For me, the message of Easter is…”
- “I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim.”
- “I don’t believe in a God who…”
- “My faith is not tied to some divine promise about the afterlife.”
- “For me, living a life of love is driven by the fact that love is true. (Not sure what that even means)”
- “I often feel like…”
- “For me, this moment feels apocalyptic, as if something new is struggling to be born.”
- “Today I feel that spiritual ground about us shaking again.”
Of course Jones has the right to believe or feel whatever she wants. But that’s not the point. What she feels or believes does not establish any of the facts pertaining to Easter. It’s unfortunate that the interviewer didn’t follow anything Jones claimed with the simple question: “How do you know that?”
How do we know about the facts of Easter? Well, since none of us alive today was actually there we need to rely upon the witness of those who were, and there were lots of them. And what do those witnesses tell us? Well, among other things they tell us exactly the opposite of everything Jones just said she “feels” is true.
- The resurrection happened.
- Jesus died. He was dead, like dead, dead. They buried him because he was dead. On Easter morning he came back to life. This was the Christian’s message. They proclaimed it on pain of death because they had witnessed the event and it changed everything. (Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:30-32; 10:39-40; 13:30-31)
- The resurrection totally mattered.
- The resurrection of Jesus was both the substance and the power of the gospel message. Their message was that Jesus rose from the dead. What their message meant was that in rising from the dead Jesus could raise us from the dead too. (1 Cor. 15:14-17)
- Jesus was crucified for people’s sins.
- The purpose of Christ’s death was to take God’s punishment for our sin upon himself so by placing our trust in him we wouldn’t have to. (Colossians 1:19-20; 2:13-14)
- God is knowable.
- That was the whole point of Jesus coming in the first place. (John 1:14; 17:3) His name, Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23) literally means “God with us.”
- Jesus has ultimate rule and power.
- Jesus resurrection proved to his followers that he was proved by God and given absolute rule by God over every other power or authority. (Ephesians 1:15-23; Colossians 1:15)
- Jesus’ virgin birth makes total sense.
- Jesus first followers were Jews, and identity for the Jews was tied 100% to paternal lineage. (John 8:39) The virgin birth was absolutely essential to who Jesus was. (Luke 1:34-35)
- God absolutely answers prayer.
- Doing so demonstrates our reliance on his power and rightfully brings all glory to him. The first Christians counted on it. John 14:13-14
- Easter is all about the hope of life after death.
- That’s the whole point! (John 3:16)
- Precisely because Heaven and Hell are real and not symbolic.
- (Matthew 10:28)
You might not believe any of these things. Like Jones, you may believe very differently about God and Easter, heaven and hell, life and death. That is your right and no one can take that away. But what’s more important? Having the right to believe what you want, or wanting to believe what is right? What good, after all, is your belief about Easter or Jesus or God if they are not based on true facts?
What sets Christianity apart from all other faiths is that it rests upon events in history. As Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised…your faith is useless” (1 Cor. 15:14) In other words, faith follows facts. Those first Christians proclaimed that Jesus rose from the dead (often on pain of death) because he had. It wasn’t true because they believed it, they believed it because it was true. And because it was true they lovingly passed it on to each successive generation in the written New Testament record and centuries of teaching tradition based upon it.
Conclusion: This distinction between faith and facts is an important one to maintain. Yes faith is more than just believing facts, but it is certainly not less. The tendency of our culture is to put great stock in the “personal” nature of faith. But no matter how personally satisfying that may seem, what good is our faith if what we have faith in is false?
Every person is worthy of respect, but not every belief is. Christians need to graciously yet boldly respond to our culture’s tendency to parade faith as if it consists of nothing more than sincere personal belief. When it is so presented we need to be brave enough to call it like it is: “But the Emperor has nothing on at all.”