From Creation to Cross (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 28)
NOTE: This is part 28 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.
Years ago Francis Schaeffer wrote a book and called it The God Who Is There. It was an argument against many modern philosophies and worldviews that claim God is absent or cut off from us. Taking the argument further, he wrote a second book called He Is There, and He Is Not Silent.
The idea is this: It would be perfectly reasonable to assume that “God” who caused this universe simply stepped away from it and decided to stay uninvolved. It would be just as reasonable to assume he is not a being we could ever possibly access or understand anyway. Reasonable — but lots of things are reasonable that turn out not to be true. It would be perfectly reasonable to assume that I don’t write — I don’t have to, do I? But as it turns out, I do write. A reasonable thesis that I do not write falls apart as soon as someone provides you with evidence that I do.
And this is what the stories in the Bible are: they are evidence. They are a claim, from history, that God is not uninvolved, and he is not unknowable. He has not stayed at a distance. He is there, and he is not silent. The stories of the Bible (and the many, many, many stories of Christians since then) claim that God can be known, heard, seen, and related to by human beings.
They claim in fact that God wants relationship; that he has, at various points in history, formed formal relationships called covenants with human beings and with nations and that he has given people many reasons to believe in him and to trust his word and his nature. They also claim that the God of the Bible, revealed in Jesus Christ, is the God, and that he has revealed his nature in such a way that most of the claims of the “spiritual but not believing” crowd are seen to be bankrupt.
And here our own journeys crop back up, maybe carrying with them anger or fear or abandonment — But he hasn’t given me reasons. But I don’t trust him, and he doesn’t keep his word. And I don’t know how to deal with what I am feeling because of it.
Those are big feelings. Let’s sit with them for a moment. Allow them to be here. Bring them along on the journey, and not cut them off or try to answer them prematurely. Let’s just keep going with this conversation.
So according to the claims of Christianity, God has shown up in history, and his actions and words have been recorded by people, and that is what the Bible is. Some other religions also make claims about God doing things in history, although usually not in a way that is much at all like the claims of the Bible in terms of historicity and geography and that kind of thing — in other words, what most religions say about the actions of God or gods are more like fables, intended to teach something but not really located in this world or in history as we know it. The closest I can think to a historical claim is the claim of Islam that Allah gave the Quran to Mohammed through an angel, on a mountain outside of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, from about 609 to 632 AD. Real place, real time.
Claims like this are qualitatively different from the claims of the world’s other major religions: Hinduism, which is a decentralized and founderless collection of traditional practices and rituals, philosophies, and spiritual beliefs; or Buddhism, which is based on the philosophical teachings of a man who said he had achieved a profound inner experience of enlightenment. Most (not all) of the miracle claims, and the personal-encounter-with-a-personal-God claims, and the life-transformation claims, come from Christianity — and there is good reason for that. It points to what’s unique about Christianity as a whole.
As we saw extensively in the first half of this book, in the long history of Israel before John the Baptist, God promised over and over to act in a climactic, world-changing way in history. He promised what N.T. Wright calls “the Return of Yahweh.” He promised to redeem his people, forgive their sins, and set them free; and he promised to bless the nations, to bring peace to the world, and to rule over all peoples on the face of the earth through his Anointed One.
Then silence, more than four hundred years of it.
Then John was killed.
And then so was Jesus.
Here we have to pause. Some academics have tried to argue that Jesus was not a historical person, or that he didn’t die on a cross. Most of those arguments have, by now, been long abandoned. The life of Jesus is incredibly well attested, and that he was executed by the Romans and died on a cross can be taken as fact without any particular faith required.
But those are just facts. We can prove them, and they may not mean much to us. Why does it matter if a Jewish man, even a particularly wise, kind, and inspiring Jewish man, was killed on a cross two thousand years ago? The more important claim is the next one — three days after the death of Jesus, Christians by the dozens began to claim that he had been spontaneously resurrected. That he was alive, fully human, fully back in the flesh, and walking around in their midst, while also displaying capabilities that were more than human — walking through walls, appearing and disappearing, knowing the secret thoughts of people’s hearts.
Believe it or not, this can also be proven to the same degree that any other fact of ancient history can be proven. Not only that, but the dominos are still falling. Something started the phenomenon we call Christianity. The earliest witnesses say that something was the resurrection of Jesus. No other explanation has ever come forward as sufficiently convincing.
The Road from Resurrection
The fact of creation raises the issue of whether God is someone we can know — someone with a personality, a will, and an existence independent from ours — or just an impersonal force of some kind. The Bible, with its stories of the Creator God interacting with human beings, answers that question with a yes, he is knowable and yes, he has revealed himself to us. But the resurrection is where it all comes together. Nothing else in history has ever occurred that was like it, and it gives meaning to all that came before it and to all that comes after it.
The resurrection is what John the Baptist wanted to see but didn’t. It is the demonstration that Jesus was who he said he was and that the crucifixion was something far more than it appeared to be on the surface. And this means everything to us. It means everything to our questions, our doubts.
To be continued …
This is Part 186 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.