Sometimes I think about a response I received after telling someone about heaven.
We had been discussing how we talk to our kids about death (which sounds morbid, but as all parents know, children are remarkably candid about these matters), and I mentioned that the story I share with my children is entirely shaped by my Christian faith. I expected the conversation to end there, but she pressed for details: “What is this story you speak of?”
So I launched into a description of how according to the scriptures, there will be a new heaven and a new earth; how our bodies will be made new, and we will live in a physical place similar to our present world, except liberated from death and decay; how all wrongs will be made right and there will be no more pain or tears or tragedy anymore; how we’ll live with God and each other, and work on amazing new things.
“Doesn’t that make you not care about the world as it is now?” she said.
No, I replied—though that is a common misconception. Jesus left us with a job to do. It’s time to spread the good news, prepare the way for his return, and care for the world, not abandon it as a lost cause.
Her next reply bewildered me. “See, that’s where I get scared. I feel like my kids would want to commit suicide to get to heaven faster.”
Now, I have heard plenty of critiques of the Christian afterlife. And while I am aware of certain brands of Christians who, with a sort of misplaced Gnostic fervor, disdain the material world as hopelessly corrupt, I do not personally know any committed Christians who are strongly inclined to slit their wrists, overdose on pills, or [insert method of suicide here] to accelerate their journey to paradise. I was almost at a loss for words. “The whole point,” I eventually stammered out, “is that you have a new identity, a new purpose, a new life. Suicide would negate that. You would be disregarding God and taking violent action on your own terms.” Jesus invites us into his project of healing and renewal in the present, in joyful anticipation of the future restoration. To receive this gift and then commit suicide would be … a drastic rejection of the gift. Following Jesus doesn’t work that way. Christianity doesn’t work that way.
Oddly, not long after this conversation, I encountered yet another strange idea about Christian belief. This encounter, however, was quite different: it came from a sci-fi novel. See this passage from chapter 26 (pages 200-201 in my edition) of Neal Stephenson’s popular cyber punk story Snow Crash:
“Do you believe in God or not?” Hiro says. First things first.
[Reply from Juanita, his love interest] “Definitely.”
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
“Yes. But not in the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus.”
“How can you be a Christian without believing in that?”
“I would say,” Juanita says, “how can you be a Christian with it? Anyone who takes the trouble to study the gospels can see that the bodily resurrection is a myth that was tacked onto the real story several years after the real histories were written. It’s so National Enquirer-esque, don’t you think?”
No. No, I don’t think that. There is in fact solid evidence that the gospel accounts are historically reliable. Scholarly books like Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Richard Baucham), The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (F.F. Bruce), Can We Trust the Gospels? (Peter Williams), and The Resurrection of the Son of God (N.T. Wright) all go to great lengths to make this case. Just a few highlights:
- All four of the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written within the lifetimes of people who witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was entirely possible to question the living eyewitnesses and verify their accounts—which is precisely what Luke says he did in Luke 1:1-4. In fact, the names of key eyewitnesses are recorded in the gospels for this very reason. (As one example, Mark mentions Simon of Cyrene, the “father of Alexander and Rufus”, as the man who helped Jesus carry his cross.) The ancients were not strangers to the importance of verification.
- The gospels contain details that are utterly counterintuitive if you want to promote a new religion which in actuality is based on lies. The disciples are portrayed as dumb and cowardly. (Peter, the supposed leader of the Jesus movement post Jesus’ death, denies Jesus in his greatest hour of need.) Women are described as being the first to bear witness to the resurrection at a time in history when female testimony was not seen as reliable as men’s. These are hallmarks of sincere reporting of facts, not the trumped-up pitches of propaganda.
- The gospel writers displayed intimate familiarity with the names and places about which they wrote. That is, their descriptions of events faithfully reflect the geography, customs, and culture of the time of Jesus. (See in particular Peter Williams’ Can We Trust the Gospels? for an extensive and accessible treatment of this point.) Of course, this doesn’t prove that Jesus rose from the dead, but it undermines arguments about the National Enquirer-esque nature of the accounts and bolsters the overall case for the gospels’ authenticity and historical accuracy.
My point in this all-too-brief summary is simply this: Juanita’s silence on the scholarship is what is so National Enquirer-esque. Not only does Hiro’s first question hold up, but difficult questions arise for anyone who would take Juanita’s position. Exactly what type of Christian does a resurrection denier consider themselves to be? Dispense with the resurrection, and you dispense with Jesus’ divinity. What you have left is not a prophet or a good moral teacher but a man who was insane.
Of course, you could argue that Juanita was merely implying that the real Jesus simply isn’t knowable, or that some other historical record describes him quite differently than the canonical gospels. But in the former case, that would make it even more difficult to describe what it means to be Christian, and would make the certainty with which Juanita professes her faith impossible. In the latter case, even if Juanita were to mention some alternative record in the course of the novel (she does not), she would have to establish a pretty damn compelling case that it is somehow more reliable than the canon.
For centuries the church has taught that the resurrection of Jesus was a real, historical event that certifies Jesus’ divine identity and fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. It is the reason the disciples went about spreading the gospel in the first place, at great cost to themselves. If the resurrection never happened, it is much more likely that the disciples, like the good Jews they were, would have lamented and moved on—just as the Jewish people had done with other would-be Messiahs in those times (a point that biblical scholar and historian NT Wright often makes). Better to shut up about it and not get crucified. Even the teachings of Jesus which they may have subjectively believed to be authoritative (a questionable conclusion—on what basis do you accept Jesus’ teachings as authoritative if you reject his divine identity from which his authority flows?) would be hollow and dismiss-able as the mad ravings of an ascetic.
It is consistent to give up everything to follow a living, loving Lord who threw down everything, including his life, for your sake—who in the end proved he is the true Lord by defeating death itself. The same cannot be said for giving up everything to follow a mere mortal whose campaign to save humanity ended in death and whose identity remains an enigma. A dead enigma cannot love you, let alone offer you new life or demand your total allegiance. Following Jesus doesn’t work that way.
Christianity doesn’t work that way.