Should People be Free to Pick and Choose what to Believe about Jesus by Lee Strobel?
All the passages below are taken from Lee Strobel’s book, “The Case for the Real Jesus,” published in 2007.
Designer God: In a Mix-and-Match World, Why Not Create Your Own Religion?
Headline of cover story in Utne Reader1
Americans write their own Bible. They fashion their own God, then talk incessantly about him.
Hanna Rosin, Washington Post2
Wendi was forced to go to Sunday school as a youngster, but she never believed what she heard. Years later, after a miscarriage, she wanted to know what happened to the unborn baby’s soul. “I explored Christianity, but I didn’t get any answers that satisfied me,” she said. So she took a class in metaphysics, where she learned about life after death, intuition, and other intriguing topics.
Now the motivational speaker and life coach has created her own belief system, patching together bits and pieces from Christianity, Buddhism, paganism, metaphysics, and a lot from the Tao-te Ching, which teaches that everything is made of energy. “I take what resonates with me from each religion,” she said. Her criterion for picking and choosing elements is based on “what works.”
Moral codes? “Just religion’s excuse to judge other people.” Ethical behavior? “I don’t believe in right or wrong. It just is. If it feels like something that I should do, then I’ll do it.” The afterlife? “There isn’t some man in the sky waiting to send you to hell every time you do something wrong. And there is no Santa Claus sitting, waiting to reward you for doing good things, either.”
Tolerance is an overriding virtue. “I believe everybody’s belief system is right for them,” she said. “Mine is right for me, yours is right for you, my mom’s is right for her, and so on. I don’t believe in judging each other the way that I see happening in Christianity and other religions.” Rather than trying to convert anyone to her beliefs, she helps others find their own personal god or goddess.3
For Ed and Joanne, years of Catholic education only made them more neurotic rather than teaching them how to cope. So like Wendi, they’ve cobbled together their own religion. They decided to keep Jesus, because he’s “big on love,” and then they mixed in elements from popular Zen and New Age authors. The concept of hell was quickly jettisoned. “That’s just something they say to scare you,” according to Ed. Said a Washington Post article on their self-fashioned spirituality:
Now they commune with a new God, a gentle twin of the one they grew up with. He is wise but soft-spoken, cheers them up when they’re sad, laughs at their quirks. He is, most essentially, validating, like the greatest of friends. And best of all, he had been there all along. “We discovered the God within,” said Joanne. “That’s why we need God. Because we are God. God gives me the ability to create my own godliness.”4
For many seekers, the quest for spiritual answers doesn’t take them down the path toward a high-tech suburban mega-church or the liturgy of a mainline denomination. They’re not interested in what a black-robed clergyman tells them they should believe—after all, why should his opinions trump anyone else’s?
“People have shifted religious authority away from creeds, traditions, and churches and assumed it themselves,” said James R. Edwards of Whitworth College. “People are less inclined today to defer to established religious authorities, and more inclined to express their own religious preferences.”5
Increasingly, people seeking religious input draw more from the Internet than from church history, more from their own intuition than formal study. They stress sincerity over doctrinal specifics. They feel untethered to their religious upbringing and are more than willing to interpret Jesus in a fresh light for a new generation. According to a 2005 survey by CBS, 38 percent of Americans say the search for spirituality—no matter where that takes them—is more important than sticking to the traditions of their church.6
“This tendency to mix elements of different traditions into new hybrid forms will continue in the new millennium, as seekers separated from their religious heritage search out new expressions of faith,” Richard Cimino and Don Lattin wrote in their examination of American spirituality called Shopping for Faith. “Brand name religion is on the wane. The wide range of spiritual texts and self-help books comprise an endless menu of spiritual teachings that can be selected and combined to suit individual needs.”7
When you wed the American independent streak with a postmodern skepticism toward institutions, you set the stage for what theologians call “syncretism,” which is the blending of elements from various faiths into a new form of spirituality. Like grazing at the buffet table at a sumptuous banquet, syncretists adopt doctrines that seem appropriate to them and leave behind others that they regard as offensive or outdated. Orthodoxy becomes “flexidoxy.”
The CBS survey disclosed that 36 percent of Americans combine the teachings of more than one religion into their own faith.8 Thus, Los Angeles Lakers basketball coach Phil Jackson calls himself “a Zen Christian,” while a well-known actress once identified herself as a Christian who is “into goddess worship.” One Presbyterian minister described how he was taken aback when a woman introduced herself to him by saying, “I’m a Presbyterian Buddhist.”9
“It’s an eclectic approach,” said Lynn Garrett, who tracks religious trends in the book industry. “People borrow ideas from different traditions, then add them to whatever religion they’re used to. But they don’t want anything to do with organized religion.”10
Indeed, the attitude of many Americans is that they like Jesus but not the church, which they see as exclusivistic, condemning, intolerant, and intent on strapping people into a straitjacket of rigid dogma. But the Jesus they like may look very different from the historical Jesus. If the traditional church imagines Jesus as a finely painted portrait, then syncretists often render him as abstract art—many times to the point where he’s unrecognizable from the Jesus of ancient creeds.
For syncretists, that’s okay. Many of them find their Jesus more satisfying than the judgmental Jesus they learned about in Sunday school. Besides, they assert, who’s to say which Jesus is more “real” than the other? If history is all based on someone’s interpretation, then nobody can be certain who Jesus was and what he taught anyway. In this age when “you have your truth and I have mine,” the important issue becomes what “works” for each individual life.
“What seems to have happened is that the concept of a personal God or of a historical Jesus has been replaced by an idea of God or of Jesus,” said Edwards. “And like any idea—that of freedom of speech, for example—ideas of God and Jesus can be interpreted differently.”11
When looking through the kaleidoscope of syncretism, the image of Jesus is broken up into all sorts of new and exciting colors and shapes. Freed from belief in an absolute truth, syncretists graft elements of Native American religion, Eastern philosophies, Jewish mysticism, or pre-Christian paganism onto his identity. What emerges is a Jesus customized for their worldview—a designer Jesus.
Thomas Jefferson is a good example. A skeptic toward the supernatural, he used a razor blade to excise references in the Gospels about Jesus’ miracles, deity, and resurrection, leaving behind only his moral teachings. This radically altered view of Jesus matched Jefferson’s philosophy perfectly. “I’m a sect myself,” he said—a church of one.
Today, Oprah Winfrey is the queen of syncretism. She grew up in Faith United Mississippi Baptist Church, where she garnered the nickname “Miss Jesus,” and attended Chicago’s progressive Trinity United Church of Christ for a while as an adult. But she has embraced and endorsed so many religious trends through the years that one journalist said, “It’s almost impossible to answer this simple question: What does Oprah believe?”12 Marcia Nelson, who wrote a book on Winfrey’s spirituality, observed, “The gospel according to Oprah doesn’t appear to require some kind of doctrinal commitment.”13
Said journalist David Ian Miller:
America has a long history of do-it-yourself spirituality going back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists. And that desire to “roll your own religion” shows no sign of fading away. A September 2005 Newsweek poll found eight in ten Americans do not believe any one faith is the sole path to salvation. So it’s no surprise that some are weaving together strands from a variety of faiths to create their own personal religions. 14
All of this sounds appealing to many people. What could be wrong with Wendi’s nonjudgmental approach and her willingness to grant everyone the freedom to personally fashion a faith to fit themselves? Why shouldn’t Ed and Joanne be able to accept the love of Jesus while overlooking his teachings about hell? Why can’t people follow what’s in their heart without condemning others who believe differently? Certainly that would seem to be helpful in calming tensions between world religions.
In the end, isn’t a person’s sincerity more important than whether he or she adheres to every clause in a denominational statement of faith? As Winfrey asked, “Does God care about your heart or whether you called his Son Jesus?”15
My wife and I were chatting about these sorts of issues in my office one Saturday afternoon. The particularly apt title of a book, crowded among many others on my shelves, caught her eye: True for You, but Not for Me.
She pulled it out and perused it. “Maybe you ought to talk to the person who wrote this,” she suggested as she closed the book and handed it to me.
I was familiar with the author, Paul Copan, chair of philosophy and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Now that Leslie had mentioned him, I recalled that he’s among the leading experts in this area. “That’s a good idea,” I said—and within days I had made arrangements to fly to Florida and meet with him in his offices in West Palm Beach.
INTERVIEW #5: PAUL COPAN, PH.D.
Tall and slender, his light brown hair neatly parted on the side, Paul Copan looks considerably younger than his forty-four years. A father of five, with a low-key and self-effacing manner, Copan is engaging, easy-going, and erudite in conversation. He’s equally at home speaking with college students or interacting with the intellectual elite in philosophy of religion, having edited books with contributions by conservative scholars Craig Evans, Ben Witherington III, and Alister McGrath; liberals John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Roy Hoover; Jewish intellectuals Jacob Neusner and Herb Basser; and skeptic Gerd Ludemann.
After graduating cum laude with a master’s degree in philosophy of religion from Trinity International University (thesis topic: “The Impossibility of an Infinite Temporal Regress of Events”), Copan earned his doctorate in philosophy from Marquette University. He has taught at Trinity and Bethel seminaries, worked alongside well-known Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, and is a member of half a dozen professional philosophy societies. He has authored scores of articles and reviews for philosophical journals and lectured at a number of notable institutions, including Harvard, Boston College, State University of New York, and Moscow State University.
Copan has written and edited nearly a dozen books. True for You, but Not for Me isn’t the only one relevant to the topic I wanted to discuss with him. He has also authored That’s Just Your Interpretation, How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? and Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion. He co-edited The Rationality of Theism, Who Was Jesus? A Jewish-Christian Discussion, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment, Philosophy: Christian Approaches in the New Millennium, and Science: Christian Approaches in the New Millennium.
Though his five children consume much of his free time, Copan also has been involved with an all-volunteer organization that raises funds for micro-enterprise development loans in such countries as Nigeria, Peru, India, Mexico, Thailand, and Haiti.
We sat down at a round wooden table in the corner of his office, flanked by floor-to-ceiling shelves teeming with books. Random traffic noises from a downtown street, including the occasional moan of a delivery truck, leaked into the room. I started with a broad question to lay the foundation for our discussion. As I did so, I thought of Pontius Pilate’s question two millennia ago: “What is truth?”16
IT’S ALL RELATIVE
“We’re living in a postmodern era in which concepts like `truth’ and `morality’ are more elastic than in the past,” I said to Copan. “How do you define postmodernism?”
Immediately, I noticed something about Copan: he’s an intense listener. He concentrates with laser-beam focus on whatever topic is being raised. After mulling over my question for a few moments, he offered a brief historical perspective on the issue.
“First, it’s helpful to know what modernism involves,” Copan said. “Modernism can be traced back to Rene Descartes, the seventeenth century French philosopher who is famous for his pursuit of certainty. Even though he was a committed Roman Catholic, he displaced God as the starting point for knowledge, replacing him with the individual knower who can find certainty on his own.
“Descartes said that one thing he couldn’t doubt was that he was thinking, so his starting point for knowledge became, `I think, therefore, I am.’ There was a sense in which you had to have a hundred percent certainty or you can’t know something,” Copan continued. “Later, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel offered huge explanatory systems that attempted to put everything into neat packages.
“So postmodernism is a reaction to Descartes’s quest for certainty and to the creation of systems like rationalism, romanticism, Marxism, Nazism, or scientism. These systems tend to oppress people who disagree with those in power—the Jews under Nazism and the capitalists under Marxism, for example. French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard said that, simplifying to the extreme, postmodernism is suspicion toward a meta-narrative, which is a `world story’ that’s taken to be true for all people in all cultures and which ends up oppressing people.”
I was thinking through the implications as he was talking. “The idea, then, is that certainty leads to oppression?” I asked.
“When people are so certain that they’ve got the truth and believe their system explains everything, then people who disagree with them are on the outside. They end up in Auschwitz or the Soviet gulags,” he said. “So instead of meta-narratives, postmodernism emphasizes mini-narratives. In other words, each person has his or her own viewpoint or story.”
“And each viewpoint is as valid as any other,” I said, more of an observation than a question.
“That’s the postmodern view, yes. Each person has his own narrative, and who’s to say anyone is wrong? Postmodernism celebrates diversity. Postmoderns approach certainty and objectivity by pointing out that we’re finite and limited. We’re limited by our cultural and family background, our place in history, and our personal biases. We’re not totally objective or neutral. There’s a suspicion toward sweeping truth claims, which are seen as power-grabbing: whoever is in charge can say `this is true’ and then back it up by oppressing those who disagree.”
“And suspicion of truth contributes to relativism,” I commented.
“Right. To the relativist, no fact is true in all times and all places. Objective relativism says that the beliefs of a person are `true’ for him but not necessarily for anyone else. No truth is objectively true or false. This means that one person’s `truth,’ which really amounts to his opinion, can directly conflict with another person’s `truth’ and still be valid.
“Religious relativism says one religion can be true for one person or culture but not for another. No religion provides a meta-narrative or `big picture’ for everyone. No religion is universally or exclusively true. You can have your kind of Jesus and I can have mine; it doesn’t matter if our views contradict each other. Moral relativism says there’s no universal right and wrong. Moral values are true—or ‘genuine’—for some but not for others. Since there are different expressions of morality in the world, there’s no reason to think that one viewpoint is any more true than any other.”
I searched my mind for an example. “So adultery can be okay for some people but not for others?” I asked.
“In the view of the moral relativist, yes,” he replied. “Something is wrong only if you feel it’s wrong. Now, relativists may not approve of adultery and may even have strong reservations about it. But they’ll say, `Who am I to say someone else is wrong?’
“Then there’s historical relativism, which says we can’t know for sure what happened in the past, so we’re merely left with differing opinions or interpretations of these events. As the saying goes, `You’ve got your truth, I’ve got mine.”‘
Even his cursory survey of relativism was enough to surface a host of obvious problems. “What are the greatest shortcomings of relativism?” I asked.
“Relativism falls apart logically when you examine it. As a worldview, it simply doesn’t work,” he said.
I was looking for specifics. “Tell me why,” I said.
“For instance, the relativist believes that relativism is true not just for him but for every person. He believes that relativism applies to the nonrelativist (‘true for you’), not just to himself (‘true for me’). The relativist finds himself in a bind if we ask him, `Is relativism absolutely true for everyone?’ If he says yes, then he contradicts himself by holding to an absolute relativism, which would be an oxymoron. To be consistent, the relativist must say, `Nothing is objectively true, including my own relativistic position, so you’re free to accept my view or reject it.’
“There’s no reason to take seriously the claim that every belief is as good as every other belief, since this belief itself would be no better than any other. If we do take it seriously, it becomes self-refuting, because it claims to be the one belief everyone should hold to. The claims of the relativist are like saying, `I can’t speak a word of English,’ or, `A11 generalizations are false.’ His statements are self-contradictory. They self-destruct under examination.”
Even so, I knew that there must be reasons why postmodernism has taken root. “Are there aspects of postmodernism that make sense to you?” I asked.
“Despite some of its own incoherencies, yes, there are some lessons we can learn from it,” he said. “For example, we do have our limitations, biases, and perspectives. We should admit that. Also, the culturally or politically powerful—even the religious—many times do try to spin the truth to suit their own agenda. And meta-narratives often do alienate and marginalize outsiders -although I should note that Christianity teaches the intrinsic value of every individual, including the disfranchised. Finally, the quest for absolute certainty in every area of life is impossible—but I have to add that it’s also unnecessary.”
“What do you mean by that last statement?”
“We can know many things—like the expansion of the universe or that various planets orbit the sun—even if we don’t have a hundred percent certainty. Between absolute, mathematical certainty and utter skepticism are degrees of knowledge—the highly plausible, the probable, and the reasonable, for instance. We rely on these standards every day. Certain beliefs are more plausible or likely than others. We can know truly, even if we don’t know exhaustively or with absolute certainty.”
THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUTH
I went back to the infamous question posed by Pilate two thousand years ago. “What is truth?” I asked.
I was expecting a complex answer laden with philosophical jargon. Instead, Copan’s definition was surprisingly straightforward: “I think people instinctively understand that truth is a belief, story, ideal, or statement that matches up with reality or corresponds to the way things really are.”
When I asked him for an example, he said, “If I say the moon is made of cheese, that’s false because there isn’t a correspondence, or a match-up, with the way things really are. Or consider an event in history: Martin Luther wrote out his ninety-five theses in 1517. That’s factually true, and to disagree with that would mean that you believe something that’s false.
“Something is true—or corresponds to reality—even if people don’t believe it. I often use the example of the earth being round even when people thought it was flat. Some people have said to me, `Well, wasn’t the earth flat for them at that time?’ I say, `No, the earth was still round. It wasn’t as though people could fall over the edge of the earth and be swallowed by dragons back then. The earth was round, even if people didn’t believe it.”‘
“So truth is true even if people don’t acknowledge it,” I said, cementing his point in my mind.
“That’s right. In fact, truth is true even if no one knows it, admits it, agrees with it, follows it, or even fully grasps it.”
“Some people,” I observed, “believe that whatever works for them is true.”
“Yes, that’s the pragmatic view,” he said, nodding in acknowledgment. “The problem is that people can have beliefs that are `useful,’ maybe temporarily and for certain ends, but they may be completely false. And some things can be true—like the temperature at the North Pole—even though they don’t help us in any way. So truth isn’t merely what works.
“On the other hand, the pragmatist does have a point when he asks, `Can my beliefs be lived out practically?’ If not, then it’s highly likely that the view isn’t true. What is true can be lived out consistently—there doesn’t have to be a mismatch between `theory’ and `practice.’
“Another view of truth is called coherence,” he continued. “This means that our beliefs must have internal consistency. In other words, our beliefs cohere in a kind of web or fit together like a puzzle. Now, coherence is important. If something is incoherent, it can’t be true. But coherence, by itself, isn’t enough to determine if something is true.”
“Look individually at Buddhism and Christianity,” he said. “They both have an internal coherence, right?”
“That’s right,” I replied.
“Yet both of them can’t be true,” he said. “The Buddhist rejects the existence of God, while the Christian embraces the existence of God. So by itself, internal coherence isn’t enough: we have to ask whether either of these views matches up with reality. Coherence is an important component of truth, but it doesn’t constitute truth. It’s not all that there is to truth.
“Ultimately, any theory of truth is going to correspond with reality. Something true is like a socket wrench that matches up to a bolt—there’s a fit. And truth isn’t merely propositional. Look at the person of Jesus. When he said he’s the’ truth in John 14:6, there was a correspondence with reality. There was a match-up: He was faithfully and authentically representing to us who God is. He was the revelation of God, and he genuinely lived out what human beings are supposed to be before God.”
I was reminded of a quote I had come across in my research. I searched through my notes until I found the words of New Testament scholar Andreas J. Kostenberger and read them to Copan:
The very notion of truth has largely become a casualty of postmodern thought and discourse. Truth is no longer “the” truth, in Jesus’ terms who claimed to be “the truth.” Rather it is conceived of as “your” truth or “my” truth—that is, different yet equally legitimate ways of perceiving reality. Hence truth is simply one’s preferred, culturally conditioned, socially constructed version of reality.17
Copan was listening carefully as I read. “I agree with his analysis,” he said. “Ultimately, it comes down to a theological question: Can there be an authoritative viewpoint? To put it in Christian terms, is there the possibility of a special revelation in which God speaks authoritatively for all times and all cultures? Can God break onto the scene and offer a way to know truth with confidence?”
He allowed the question to hang in the air for a moment, then added: “Not only do I believe he can, but I believe he has.”
THE “YUCK FACTOR”
While intrigued with the direction our conversation was taking, there were other topics I wanted to be sure we covered. Shifting the emphasis of my questions, I told Copan about Wendi and read her quote: “I don’t believe in right or wrong. It just is. If it feels like something that I should do, then I’ll do it.” Turning to Copan, I asked, “What’s the role of feelings in terms of what’s true or false, right or wrong?”
“Feelings can be tricky,” Copan began. “A person may say, `I need to be true to myself by following my feelings’—and then run off with his secretary. Such people use their feelings to rationalize immoral behavior. The problem, of course, is that feelings are only one aspect of who we are. The capacity to feel is a God-given gift—but so is the capacity to think, to act in a morally responsible way, to discipline ourselves, and, by God’s grace, to shape our character into something better than it presently is. If we follow only our feelings, then we’re being false to all of who we are and what we were designed to be.”
“Still,” I countered, “there is a role for feelings.”
“Absolutely. Feelings and intuition have their place. For instance, there’s the `yuck factor.”‘
“The `yuck factor’ is when we don’t even have to think through certain issues. We have a strong visceral revulsion against, say, rape or child abuse. We don’t hem and haw by saying, `Oh, well, maybe rape is right in some contexts.’ We know immediately, on a gut level, that rape is wrong. This is evidence that there are objective moral values that aren’t the product of sociobiological evolution. They are valid and binding for everyone, not just for some cultures. And we should take intuitions about these moral values—the `yuck factor’—seriously.
“In Romans 2, Paul says that even though Gentiles weren’t given the law of Moses, their conscience bears witness, alternately accusing or else defending them, because the law has been placed in their hearts.18 There is this moral law, and people with a well-functioning conscience can get a lot of things right.
“As one author put it, there are things we can’t not know. We’d have to suppress our conscience not to know those things—and that’s exactly what Romans 1 is talking about, that people may suppress the truth in unrighteousness.19 They may even use `reason’ to avoid certain moral implications for their own lives, but they themselves recognize that there’s a degree of self-deception going on for them to weasel out from those moral commitments.”
“So we can use our feelings to justify virtually any behavior, even though deep down we often have a sense that we’re doing something wrong,” I said.
“Yes, that can certainly happen,” he said. “We have to remember as well that our feelings can’t change objective reality. Following our feelings wherever they go doesn’t change who we are as human beings or how we were designed to function, and it doesn’t make certain things true or right.
“For example, what happens when feelings conflict? If you have a Jew in Nazi Germany who has certain feelings and you’ve got Hitler who has feelings the other way, then the person with the greater power wins out. But that doesn’t make his actions right.”
A MIX-AND-MATCH JESUS
I told Copan how the stories of Wendi, Ed, and Joanne were good examples of the way many people today feel comfortable in customizing their own religious beliefs. “It seems like a lot of people are trying to free themselves from the straitjacket of religious dogma and create their own Jesus by picking and choosing what they want from Christianity and other faiths,” I said. “What’s wrong with creating our own Jesus to suit our own needs?”
“We should clarify that Christianity isn’t primarily about subscribing to a set of doctrines. Christianity is focused on the person of Christ. We’re called into a relationship, not simply to believe a set of doctrines,” he noted.
“The scriptures are basically a narrative of God’s interaction with humankind. If we lose this notion of God’s desire for relationship with human beings, we’re in danger of losing the heart of the Christian faith. Doctrines, of course, will flow from that, but when the scriptures call us to believe, we’re being called to put our trust in someone, not just agree with a bunch of doctrine. Demons could do that. We are to commit ourselves to Christ.
“I’d also like to know what people mean by `dogma.’ When a person rejects dogma, does this mean that he has no convictions about reality, about God, about salvation? I’d ask those who reject dogma or doctrine—what do you live by? Is there anything you think is worth dying for? If there’s nothing worth dying for, is there anything worth living for? Often, people reject Christian dogma or doctrines because they disagree with them—and then they end up adopting their own set of dogmatic beliefs. So why choose one set of dogmas over another?
“But I want to bring it back to the personal,” Copan continued. “The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:3 commends a pure and simple devotion to Christ. The Corinthians had lofty aspirations of a sophisticated faith, but that can result in pride and arrogance that diminishes devotion to Jesus. Paul was trying to get them back to the basics. Jesus put it very simply: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbors as yourself.”20 Everything hangs on that. Yes, there will be dogma attached to those things—true doctrines that we ought to believe in light of God’s existence and his relationship to human beings. But Jesus simplified it for us: Love God and love your neighbor.”
“What about this tendency to pick and choose aspects of oilier faiths and incorporate them into Christianity?” I asked.
“Well, if we do love God, then we want to follow his teachings. If Jesus is God’s unique revelation to us, then we want to follow what he said and did. So certain doctrines flow naturally from that: Jesus’ divinity, his death for our salvation, his resurrection, his command that we live righteous lives, and so forth. We shouldn’t be trying to create our own Jesus or our own set of doctrines, because then we are denying reality. Jesus reflects reality, so we need to align ourselves with him.”
“If Jesus defines reality,” I pressed, “then are you saying there’s no truth in any other religion?”
“I believe there are some truths in other religions,” he quickly replied. “As Scottish writer George MacDonald said, `Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.’21 We need to affirm truth where we see it, but we need to remember there are entailments that come with certain beliefs. If you believe God exists, then you’re going to have to reject certain aspects of, say, Buddhism—mainly, God’s nonexistence. If you accept the existence of God, then large portions of Eastern philosophy are going to be wrong at that point. That doesn’t mean they’re a hundred percent wrong, but they’re wrong when they conflict with a view that is correct. You can’t say, `Well, I believe in Jesus’ resurrection, but I also believe in reincarnation.’ If it’s true that Jesus really did rise from the dead, then reincarnation is not true. Human beings have one earthly opportunity and then face judgment.”
“So we ought to let Jesus speak for himself?” I asked.
“Yes. A lot of times, people will put words into his mouth. This kind of an approach to the Christian faith is both misguided and superficial—oh, yeah, sure, I’m a Christian, but I believe in reincarnation. Well, you haven’t really taken a serious look at the Christian worldview. It’s like the person who says all religions are basically the same. Apart from their view of whether God exists, what the human problem is, what the solution to the human problem is, or the nature of the afterlife—yeah, sure, apart from those massive things, they’re pretty much the same,” he said, a chuckle in his voice.
“If God has broken into the world and spoken through Christ, then there are going to be certain beliefs that we’re going to have to accept. It’s not up to us to say, `I like this, I don’t like that.’ C. S. Lewis said he’d gladly get rid of the doctrine of hell, but he concluded he can’t, because there are certain things that flow from the claims of Christ and the teachings of the New Testament that precluded him from doing that. I think there needs to be that kind of honesty.
“We can say we find certain doctrines troubling—fine. But to try to pick and choose which doctrines we accept is denying the teachings of Jesus, who through his resurrection has demonstrated the reliability of his claims about being the Son of God and thus knowing what’s true and what isn’t.
“Look at it this way: we may have subjective preferences about what doctrines we like and don’t like. But our subjective preferences can’t change the objective reality that Jesus is God’s unique revelation to humankind. If we want to sync up with reality, we need to sync up with him. We can’t change reality just by refusing to believe certain doctrines that Jesus affirms. We may not like the doctrine of hell, but that can’t change the objective reality of whether hell exists. We can’t wish it out of existence. It either exists, as Jesus affirms, or it doesn’t.“22
I pondered his point for a minute as I tried to crystallize a response. “In a way,” I said finally, “everything goes back to the resurrection.”
“That’s true,” he replied. “If Jesus really was resurrected from the dead, then this vindicates his claims that he really is the unique Son of God. And if he’s the unique Son of God, then we can rely on his teachings being true. And so when we add things or subtract things from his teaching, we’re in error, because we’d be believing something that doesn’t correspond with reality.”
Copan’s mention of reincarnation turned my thoughts to a related line of inquiry. “So often, people who want to create their own religion will include the idea of reincarnation,” I said. “Why is that?”
“Some people in the West see reincarnation as another crack at life in order to get things right, sort of like the movie Groundhog Day. There’s an attraction to saying we have many opportunities and not just one lifetime. Actually, the reality is quite different.” He gestured toward me. “You’ve been to India, right?”
“I’ve spent some time there, yes,” I said.
“I have too. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that reincarnation is a very oppressive burden in that Hindu culture, as it is in the Buddhist world,” he said. “For example, if you’re a low caste or no caste Hindu, then you’re stuck at that low level because that’s what you deserve from your previous life. And people shouldn’t reach out to help you, because they might jeopardize their own karma by interfering with you living out the miserable existence that you deserve.”
I knew he was right. What sounds on the surface like a magnanimous belief that gives people multiple opportunities to live a better life turns out to create a devastating situation for millions upon millions of people who are mired in hopeless poverty day to day.
Another belief that people frequently add to their customized faith is the idea that we’re all divine. “What about this tendency to make ourselves God?” I asked. “Shirley MacLaine said, `The tragedy of the human race was that we had forgotten that we were each Divine.”23 Why do people tend to gravitate toward that conclusion?”
Copan smiled. “I would rewrite her statement by saying the tragedy of the human race is that we’ve forgotten we’re God’s creatures! That’s the problem,” he said, his tone lighthearted but emphatic at the same time. “Given a choice, we tend to select beliefs that elevate who we are, that diminish personal responsibility, that give us greater freedom to call `good’ what the scriptures call `sin,’ and that put ourselves in charge of our own destiny, rather than saying to God, as the psalmist did, `My times are in your hands.’24 We want to create our own guidelines that don’t put any demands on us.
“We all know deep down that we’re flawed and imperfect. What kind of god would that make us? We flatter ourselves when we try to put ourselves in the place of God rather than acknowledge that we are God’s creation and that we need to give God his rightful place. We don’t need to be more self-centered than we are; we need to be more God-centered. We can’t find the real Jesus by thinking that we’re his equal.”
His comment about the “real Jesus” sparked a thought. “These days if someone says he believes in Jesus, you almost have to say, `Which Jesus?”‘ I observed.
“Unfortunately, that’s true,” he replied. “We’re living in an age of biblical illiteracy, where a lot of people have cobbled together beliefs of Jesus. If we ask which Jesus a person believes in, we may be surprised to find that it’s a Jesus who said and did things that no serious scholar believes the historical Jesus did. Or he may be a Gnostic Jesus, sort of an abstract teacher of amorphous sayings who’s divorced from history. But I can’t stress this enough: What we believe about Jesus doesn’t really affect who he is,” he said, his voice emphasizing each word.
That statement seemed pivotal. “Please, elaborate on that,” I urged.
“Our beliefs can’t change reality,” he said. “Whether we choose to believe it or not, Jesus is the unique Son of God. How do we know? Because he convincingly demonstrated the trustworthiness of his remarkable claims through his resurrection. He is who he is, regardless of what we think. So we have a choice: we can live in a fantasyland of our own making by believing whatever we want about him; or we can seek to discover who he really is—and then bring ourselves into alignment with the real Jesus and his teachings.”
THE JESUS OF HISTORY
Copan’s conclusions about Jesus, of course, depend on whether he has an accurate assessment of what occurred in ancient history. Postmoderns, however, contend that history is—above all else—interpretive, and thus we can’t be absolutely sure what happened in the past. The implication is clear, I said to Copan: if we lack certainty about history, then one person’s version of Jesus would be just as valid as anyone else’s—or the church’s.
Copan furrowed his brow as I made my point. “The Australian historian Keith Windschuttle says in his book The Killing of History that for 2,300 years we have taken history seriously and believed we can know certain things about the past,” he began.25 “Now, in our day, there’s skepticism about whether we can come to any solid conclusions about history. The study of history is seen as nothing more than one set of interpretations that come to be replaced by another. We’re left without any confidence about how to approach history.”
“Precisely,” I said.
Copan thought for a moment, then grinned. “It’s interesting that when people say we have to be historical skeptics, they speak with great confidence about skepticism!” he said, amused by the irony. “They’re making remarkably strong assertions about the uncertainty of the study of history. The question needs to be asked, `Why should we take their interpretation of history instead of anybody else’s?’ It’s amazing how many people will trash history as being purely interpretive—but they expect us to take their word for it!
“At the same time, we have to remember that when we’re dealing with history, we’re dealing with probabilities—what are the likely and reasonable conclusions that can be drawn? And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that we can’t be confident about certain historical events. We can know with great confidence, for example, that Hitler didn’t overthrow the Roman Empire or that Stalin wasn’t the first American president. We can know about the Reformation—Martin Luther posting his ninety-five theses in 1517, the church’s sale of indulgences, Erasmus’s influence on Luther in the translation of the New Testament, and so forth.
“The question comes at an interpretive level. Given the facts of history—which we can conclude from historical records, archaeology, and so forth—how do we put the historical picture together? Yes, there are going to be some differing interpretations, but it’s not all a matter of interpretation. We can differentiate between more plausible interpretations and ones that are off-the-wall. Certainly you can’t say one interpretation is as good as any other. Some explanations do a much better job of accounting for the historical facts—they’re more comprehensive, they’re less ad hoc, they’re better supported. So I simply reject the idea that we have to embrace interpretive skepticism.”
I brought the discussion back to Christ. “How much can we confidently know about Jesus?” I asked. “Is there enough historical data for us to have a sufficient understanding of who he is so we can reject interpretations that simply don’t reflect reality?”
“We have excellent historical data concerning Jesus,” was his quick response. “He is mentioned in extra-biblical writings, and we have lots of details in the New Testament, which withstands scrutiny very well. The transmission of the New Testament through time has been remarkable. And we have internal evidence of its reliability. The criterion of embarrassment offers strong support for the Gospels and Acts. In other words, we have sayings and acts by Jesus—including his ignorance about the time of his return, his cursing of the fig tree, and even his crucifixion itself—that would not have been included if the authors were fabricating the record.
“When we look at Acts, we see that Luke’s account can be corroborated through archaeology in numerous ways. So we have to ask the question: `If Luke is right about these details that can be verified, can’t we trust him when it comes to events that can’t be verified, such as miracles and the identity claims of Jesus?’ Luke specifically states that he is taking objective evidence seriously by investigating the truth of what took place.26 Plus, we know from the `we’ passages in Acts that Luke was a traveling companion of Paul’s, so he was an eyewitness himself to some of the events that transpired.
“Then look at the transformation that takes place in the disciples and the very elevated view of Jesus in the earliest church. Paul cites early creeds and hymns that center on the death, resurrection, and deity of Jesus. Here is a monotheistic Jew, claiming to be following in the footsteps of his fathers before him, saying that, yes, there is one Lord as we’ve always affirmed, but then identifying Jesus with him in a remarkable way. As Larry Hurtado, professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, wrote in his recent book Lord Jesus Christ, this high view of Jesus is rooted very early in the Jerusalem church.”27
“Then it’s not a later fabrication?” I asked.
“No, it’s not—and the evidence Hurtado and other scholars have presented is very compelling. Plus, even before the four Gospels, we have the early epistles—1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, and so forth—that have a very elevated view of Jesus within twenty years of his crucifixion. How did that emerge in a strictly monotheistic Jewish setting? The resurrection of Jesus does a: much better job of explaining this than secular counterparts.”
“But we can’t have a hundred-percent confidence, can we?” I asked.
“Maybe not, but we have a very convincing picture that does a better job of explaining the facts than the competing theories. We can talk about the real Jesus of history as being a unique individual who claims to stand in the place of God, who does remarkable things, who claims that in him the Kingdom of God has come, who says that in him a new creation is dawning, and whose claims are vindicated by his resurrection and then corroborated by the lofty beliefs about him in the early church.”
Copan’s points were well taken, but there was still a problem.
“Aren’t many of Jesus’ teachings open to differing interpretations?”
“The golden rule of interpretation is that you treat someone’s teachings as you would want your own to be interpreted,” he replied.
“We can’t read whatever we want into what Jesus said; we have to seek to accurately understand what he was communicating. This involves a certain amount of study to comprehend what he was saying. But picking and choosing verses out of context, spinning them to say what we want them to say—that’s not responsible scholarship.
“The question is: Are we willing to take Jesus seriously—even if his teachings may not sit comfortably with us? They may challenge us, they may force us to overturn a lot of our cherished beliefs about ourselves, but are we willing to confront what he taught without distorting it?”
“Still, some people are very sincere in interpreting Jesus differently than the church traditionally has,” I pointed out.
“I’ll grant that they’re sincere,” Copan conceded. “As I said earlier, Paul talks about the importance of sincerity and simplicity in urging a pure devotion to Christ. Sincerity is important, but, Lee, we can’t overlook this: sincerity is not sufficient.
“Weren’t Hitler and Stalin sincerely committed to their beliefs? I’m sure they were. The idea that God would applaud their sincerity is absurd. Sometimes people can be very committed and seemingly sincere, but it’s at the expense of suppressing their conscience. They’ve rejected and resisted the truth or suppressed their moral impulses.”
“In other words, a person can be sincere but sincerely wrong.”
“Exactly. Sincerity doesn’t make a person right. Sincerity doesn’t make something true. I could believe with all the sincerity in the world that the earth is flat, but that doesn’t make it so. I can sincerely believe that I’m every bit as divine as Jesus, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m a creature, not the Creator.”
THE NEW TOLERANCE
Few things are as politically incorrect these days as saying that another person is wrong about his or her religious beliefs. Such a claim smacks of judgmentalism, which is to be studiously avoided at all costs. “Aren’t you judging other people when you say they’re wrong—and didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 7:1, `Do not judge, or you too will be judged’?” I said to Copan.
The mention of that verse brought a smile to his face. “That passage has replaced John 3:16 as the favorite verse that people like to quote,” he said. “Unfortunately, though, many of them misinterpret what Jesus was saying. Jesus wasn’t implying that we should never make judgments about people.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because in John 7:24, Jesus says, `Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.’ So he’s clarifying that it’s all right—in fact, it’s a good thing—to make proper judgments about people. What Jesus condemns is a critical and judgmental attitude or unholy sense of moral superiority.
“The Bible says in Galatians 6:1 that if a fellow Christian is caught in a sin, then those who are spiritual should seek to restore him or her ‘in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted.’28 God wants us to examine ourselves first for the problems we so readily detect in other people. Only then should we seek to remove the speck in the other person’s eye.29 So judgmentalism is the ugly refusal to acknowledge that `there but for the grace of God go I.”‘
“So the key issue is our attitude?”
“Yes, that’s right. We can hold our convictions firmly and yet treat people with dignity and respect even though they disagree with us. We can have a spirit of humility while at the same time explaining why we believe someone is wrong. Ephesians 4:15 talks about `speaking the truth in love.’ That should be our goal.”
“It seems like tolerance has become the buzzword of the postmodern world,” I remarked.
“Tolerance is a wonderful virtue—when it’s properly defined. Its meaning, however, has become distorted in recent years.”
“In what way?”
“Traditionally, to be tolerant meant putting up with what we find disagreeable or false. For example, some people will tolerate green beans when they’re served them at a person’s house. They’ll eat them even though it’s not their favorite food. In the same way, tolerance historically has meant that we put up with people even though we disagree with their viewpoint.
“These days, though, tolerance means that you accept the other person’s views as being true or legitimate. If you claim that someone is wrong, you can get accused of being intolerant—even though, ironically, the person making the charge of intolerance isn’t being accepting of your beliefs.”
I thought of a Muslim acquaintance of mine who has come over to my house to grill steaks and discuss theology and history. We disagree on fundamental spiritual issues, but neither of us has drawn a knife on the other. We’ve found a way to be civil and respectful without pretending we agree on everything.
I shared that anecdote with Copan. “That’s exactly what true tolerance is about,” he said. “Dialogue shouldn’t begin by assuming the equality of all truth claims, which is a ridiculous position. Instead, dialogue should begin with assuming the equality of all persons.
“Each of us is made in the image of God and therefore has dignity and value as an individual. You can say, `I accept you as a person but that doesn’t mean I embrace the beliefs that you hold.’ You can have a discussion with your Muslim friend and thoroughly respect him even though you believe on rational grounds that he’s mistaken.
“The very fact that both of your views can’t be right is an impetus to engage in a meaningful dialogue. This becomes a chance for both sides to argue their positions. True tolerance grants people the right to dissent.”
ARROGANCE AND EXCLUSIVITY
Nevertheless, many people accuse Christians of being arrogant when they insist that their religious beliefs are right while others are wrong. Theologian John Hick says all the world’s religions are `different culturally conditioned responses to the ultimately Real.’30 In other words, religion is the imperfect attempts by human beings to understand the Ultimate Reality.
“That would mean that while all world religions express themselves differently, they all should be respected and none should claim superiority,” I said to Copan.
Copan was well-versed in Hick’s philosophy. “Religious pluralists like Hick believe that all religions are capable of bringing salvation or liberation, and that this is evidenced by the moral fruits produced by those religions-people like Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, for example,” he explained. “But I think the pluralist is displaying the same arrogance that he accuses Christians of having when Christians claim Jesus is the only way to God.”
That statement intrigued me. “In what way?” I asked.
“The pluralist is saying if you disagree with his viewpoint, then at that juncture you would be in error. He’s saying that the Christian is wrong and that he’s right. The pluralist believes that his view ought to be accepted and the Christian’s view rejected. So he’s being as `arrogant’ as he accuses Christians of being. The pluralist is just as much of an exclusivist as the Christian.”
Copan waited for a moment while I digested his logical jujitsu. “Are you familiar with the parable of the blind men before the king of Benares, India, who are each touching an elephant?” he asked as he continued.
I told him I knew the tale about the one blind man who touches the elephant’s tail and concludes it’s a rope; another who touches the elephant’s leg and thinks it’s a pillar; a third who touches its side and thinks it’s a wall; and the fourth who touches the trunk and thinks it’s a snake. The parable is often used to explain how various world religions are reaching out to God but only seeing part of the picture.
“Well, where’s the pluralist in all of this?” asked Copan. “Is he another blind man, touching his own part of the elephant—in which case, why should we believe him any more than anybody else? Or is he sitting back like the king and saying, `They don’t see the big picture like I do.’ Now, there’s nothing wrong with that—after all, Christians say Jesus broke into history and has given us the big picture. So how can it be arrogant for Christians to make that claim if the pluralist is basically claiming the same thing?
“Think about it: if Hick is right and the world religions are culturally conditioned attempts to reach out to the ultimate Reality, then what about Hick himself? Isn’t his belief about the Real and the nature of religions culturally conditioned—and, if so, why should his viewpoint be preferred when he’s just as culturally conditioned as everyone else?”
I couldn’t help but interrupt. “Yet aren’t we culturally conditioned to some degree?” I asked. “Isn’t it true that if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’d probably be a Muslim, or if you were born in India, you’d probably be a Hindu?”
“Statistically speaking, that could be true,” he said. “And if the pluralist had grown up in medieval France or modern Somalia, he probably wouldn’t be a pluralist. So the geography argument doesn’t carry much weight. Besides, I could make the claim that if you lived in Nazi Germany, the chances are you would have been part of the Hitler Youth. Or if you lived in Stalin’s Russia, you would have been a Communist. But does that mean Nazism or Communism is as good
a political system as democracy?
“No—just because there has been a diversity of political systems through history doesn’t prevent us from concluding that one political system is superior to its rivals. Presumably, there are good reasons for preferring one political system over another. There are good reasons for rejecting a system like Nazism or Communism in favor of democracies. So why can’t it be the same with regard to religious beliefs?
“The point is: are there good reasons for believing one religious viewpoint over another? I conclude, based on the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, that he has been vindicated as the true Son of God. And if Jesus is who he says he is, then Hick would acknowledge that pluralism is done for. Pluralism cannot survive if Jesus Christ is the unique way to God. So the pluralist has to try to explain away the evidence for the incarnation and the resurrection. The pluralist has to reject the Trinity and salvation only coming through Jesus. He simply cannot allow the Christian faith to be what it claims to be.
“Now, isn’t that being exclusive—and `arrogant’?”
JESUS AND THE MARGINALIZED
Even so, I still saw problems. “When one religion, like Christianity, claims a unique path to salvation, doesn’t that inevitably lead to marginalizing and persecuting people who believe otherwise?” I asked. “Is common ground for discussion even possible when one group claims a monopoly on truth?”
“Again, it’s important to affirm that all truth is God’s truth. It’s not as though Christians have a monopoly on truth and that if you don’t believe the Bible, then you’re a hundred percent in the dark,” Copan said. “God has made himself generally known to people, and there are things we can hold in common, like reason, experience, and moral understanding. We can cooperate with one another on certain important moral and social issues, even if we don’t share the same theological outlook.
“But let’s be clear about something: Jesus is not seeking to marginalize anyone. We read 2 Peter 3:9 that God isn’t willing that any should perish, but that all would come to repentance. It’s not God who marginalizes people; actually, it’s people who marginalize God. What prevents universal salvation is human freedom—a rejection of God’s salvation. It’s human beings who push God away and who want to keep him at arm’s length. God makes his salvation available to all people, but not all choose to embrace it.
“Furthermore,” he said, “the question of oppression is a separate issue from that of truth. Does truth necessarily oppress? Truth-claimants can, but it doesn’t have to. Religious people can oppress, but so can nonreligious people—look at Marxism and Stalinism. But is oppression consistent with what Jesus taught—the Jesus who sat down with the hated tax-collectors, prostitutes, and the forgotten of society? Jesus actually came to the marginalized. He taught his followers to love all people. Christians may not always fully live out those principles, but this is the ideal Jesus tells us to strive for.”
“But can we, as a world, avoid the violence that can come when a religion, like Christianity, says it’s the only way to God?” I pressed.
“When we talk about religion and the potential for violence, it’s instructive to look at the origins of Christianity versus Islam,” Copan said. “It’s quite a contrast. For the first several centuries, the Christian faith was spread through people being radical in their love for Christ and others. The church didn’t grow as a result of a military campaign, as you see taking place within Islam, which grew by the sword. So when you ask whether religion oppresses—well, it depends on which religion we’re talking about. With Christianity, unfortunately, there are periods of oppression that did come later. But we need to ask whether this was the sort of thing that Jesus espoused, or whether these were people giving Jesus a bad name.
“Truth doesn’t necessarily marginalize people. You can still respect someone who disagrees with you. Sometimes religion gets the blame, but we just saw in the twentieth century how secular systems—like Communism, for example—oppressed and murdered millions and millions of people. So it’s not necessarily religion that does the oppressing; it can be any viewpoint that takes an intolerant stance, does not allow for any sort of disagreement, and has political and military power to enforce the official position.
“As for Christianity, Paul says in Romans 12:18, `If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ He rules out revenge and says we should overcome evil with good, just as Jesus taught.31 And Acts portrays Christians as honorable, respectable citizens, who aren’t creating chaos and turmoil, but on the contrary are the ones who take the law seriously.”
“I think what upsets some people is that there are certain Christians who sound morally superior when they talk about their faith,” I observed.
“Yes, unfortunately that happens. But as Martin Luther said, when Christians are evangelizing, they’re like one beggar simply telling another beggar where to find bread. It’s not as though we are sharing the Christian faith from a position of moral superiority—like saying, `I’m better than you because I’m a Christian and you’re not.’
“Let me give you an example. My wife and I like a restaurant called the Macaroni Grill. When we tell people about it, we’re not saying, `I’m better than you because I know about the Macaroni Grill and you don’t.’ No—we’re merely happy to pass on the news about the place. And that’s how it should be with the Christian faith. Our attitude shouldn’t be, `I’m better than you,’ but, `I found something really good; I urge you to check it out.”‘
WHATEVER BECAME OF SIN?
One thing I’ve noticed among people who customize their own religion is that one of the first doctrines to go is sin. We may see ourselves as making mistakes, committing errors, or having a lapse of judgment, but few people envision themselves as sinners. Said journalist Bryan Appleyard: “Sin doesn’t really exist as a serious idea in modern life.”32
In fact, we live in a blame-shifting culture, where we tend to evade responsibility for our actions and point the finger at everyone else—especially society or our early childhood trauma—for our behavior. As one scholar noted, therapists “make it a point of professional honor never to express moral judgments, so the word ‘fault’—let alone the word ‘sin’—will never pass their lips.”33 British theological consultant Alan Mann said the phrase, “It’s not your fault,” has become a major theme in the way we tell the contemporary story of human responsibility.’34
I raised the issue with Copan. “If there is no such thing as sin anymore,” I said, “then people wouldn’t need a savior like the Jesus of the Bible, would they?”
“One of the problems of relativism is that it denies there’s any moral standard to shoot for,” he replied. “Consequently, there’s no failure in meeting that standard—so then why, as you’ve asked, would you need a savior? Why do you need to be rescued? Why do you need redemption?
`But despite a lot of our therapeutic attempts to deal with human nature, the problem of evil in the human heart is something that keeps making realists of us. G. K. Chesterton talked about sin as being a fact as practical as potatoes. He said the doctrine of original sin is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically verified—just look at the evening news on any given day. The Christian faith talks about human sinfulness and rebellion against God, which we readily see demonstrated throughout the world.
“If you take the therapeutic approach, then you’re going to treat the killings at Columbine or the 9/11 terror attacks as being perpetrated by those who are aberrations. The killers failed to reach their full potential, which is why they were prompted to commit these atrocities. Some Eastern philosophies might say the problem is ignorance.”
Copan shook his head. “Well, those are such hollow explanations for the depths of evil that exists around us,” he said. “To simply gloss over these evil acts by using psychological categories is utterly inadequate to account for them. A better explanation is sin, which is being preoccupied with ourselves and doing things the way we want rather than as God wants, which produces destructive results.
“Until we bring sin back into our vocabulary, we’re not going to take the depths of evil or our moral responsibilities—or God—seriously. We don’t simply need more therapy to resolve our issues in this fallen world. We need to acknowledge our own guilt and humble ourselves in asking for forgiveness. Otherwise, the therapeutic mindset relieves us from making any sort of moral judgments about ourselves or others. It relieves us of taking responsibility for our actions.
“There is a moral gap—an ideal we have fallen short of—and we need outside assistance to bridge it. We don’t merely need therapy; we need someone to break into our human situation who can bring forgiveness, who can bring healing, and who can assist us in living the lives we ought to but can’t on our own. So we need to recover this idea of sin in order to make better sense out of the evil we see in the world, rather than just papering it over.”
To make sure we were both on the same page with our terminology, I asked, “What’s the biblical definition of sin?”
“The Westminster Confession talks about sin being the lack of conformity to, or any kind of transgression of, the law of God. Basically, it’s a violation of the character of God. It’s something that falls short of what God desires for us. I guess if you want to put it in contemporary jargon, sin is doing what you want. Sin is having attitudes that are self-absorbed and self-centered, rather than being God-centered.”
“It certainly is a word that has dropped out of our culture.”
“It has. The title of psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s popular book thirty years ago asked Whatever Became of Sin?‘35 The doctrine of original sin has a lot of explanatory power, but the fact that we are born with a self-centered tendency is not the whole story. There’s also the story of redemption—that Christ has come to bring relief and resolution to a problem that, when left to ourselves, we simply aren’t able to address.”
COSMIC CHILD ABUSE?
That brought me to my next topic. “Christians say Jesus died on the cross to pay for their sins, but is this concept of the substitutionary atonement outmoded?” I asked. “Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong said, ‘A human father who would nail his son to a cross for any purpose would be arrested for child abuse.’”36
“We have to be careful about this notion being outmoded,” came Copan’s reply. “C. S. Lewis rightly warns us against chronological snobbery—saying, `Oh, they used to do things that way, but we know better now because we’re more enlightened.’ Sometimes there is a mind-set that if no one believes something anymore, surely it has got to be false. G. K. Chesterton said if you take that view, you may as well say that on certain days of the week something is true and on others it’s not. The question should be: Is there anything to this notion of substitutionary atonement?”
“Well, is there?” I asked. “Why can’t God just say he forgives the sins of the world?”
Copan’s answer came swiftly. “Why can’t judges just forgive criminals? Why can’t they let rapists and thieves back on the street and just say, `It’s okay, I forgive you’? For God to do something like this would be an insult to his holiness. It would look like he was simply endorsing rebellion against himself and his character. He is a righteous judge, and therefore he must find us guilty of sin because the truth of the matter is that we are guilty. We have fallen short of how God wants us to live. We violate even our own moral standards, so certainly we violate God’s higher standard. To pretend otherwise would be a lie and God is not a liar.
“Also, if God simply forgives, then he hasn’t taken human responsibility with much seriousness at all. To simply let people go does not hold them accountable to the standards that people know they’ve transgressed. And he would be denying the gravity of sin, which we take far too lightly but which God takes very, very seriously.”
That last remark made me think of a comment in a book I had been reading on the plane to Florida for the interview. As James R. Edwards, a professor of biblical languages and literature as well as a Presbyterian minister, said in Is Jesus the Only Savior?:
The doctrine of atonement obviously hangs on the doctrine of sin. A physician who removes a leg because of a splinter is a monster. A physician who removes a leg because of cancer or gangrene, on the other hand, is a hero who saves his or her patient’s life. It all depends on the nature and seriousness of the problem. Spong and others see sin as a splinter; the New Testament sees it as a cancer that is fatal if left untreated. And that accounts for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on a cross of cruelty and shame. The cross is indeed an outrage—an outrage of grace. If this is the kind of world in which we live—and I believe it is—then the death of God’s Son for the sins of the world is the only way the world can be reunited with its Maker and Redeemer.37
Nevertheless, I continued to press the issue about why God simply couldn’t magnanimously forgive people without having to sacrifice his Son. “What about the story in Matthew 18 about the king who forgave an enormous debt that was owed to him by his servant?” I asked Copan. “He seemed capable of forgiveness without sacrificing anyone on a cross.”38
Copan’s eyebrows went up. “Ah, but notice what happens in that parable: the king doesn’t just forgive; he also absorbs the debt,” he said. “The king basically says he’s going to bear the burden of the loss even though the servant owes the money. Similarly, Jesus pays the cost of our sin on the cross. It’s sort of like a child who breaks a neighbor’s window. He may be too young to pay the price himself, so his parents pay it for him. Or when a small corporation is bought out by a larger one, the new corporation has to assume its debts.
“There’s a cost to sin: Romans 6:23 says it’s death, or eternal separation from God.39 That’s the penalty we owe. That’s the cost we incur when our sins separate us from God. But Jesus willingly paid the price in our place, as our substitute—and offers forgiveness as a free gift. There’s nothing illegitimate about that kind of representation. If we aren’t able to handle our situation, what’s wrong with someone who’s willing to assume our indebtedness?
“From one perspective, Jesus’ death was the very low point of God’s career—he is crucified as if he were a criminal, exposed naked to the world, cursed on this tree, and tortured though he was innocent. But despite this ultimate degradation, John talks about the Son of God being `lifted up,’40 which is a double entendre. Yes, Jesus was physically lifted up on the cross, but this is also the point of God’s exaltation. The crucifixion turns out to be a high point of God’s career. The point is, Jesus was willing to go this low for our salvation—to be humiliated, to be degraded, to be insulted, that through this selfless act he was able to rescue us, bring an end to the powers of darkness, and bring about the restoration of a fallen world into a new creation.
“God isn’t guilty of cosmic child abuse. It’s not as though the Father consigns the Son to this humiliating death on the cross; it’s something Jesus does voluntarily. Jesus says in John 10 that he lays down his life of his own accord.41 It’s important to see the Trinity being involved in this whole process. As 2 Corinthians 5 says, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.42 God the Father and God the Spirit suffer along with the Son as he hangs on the cross. The Father isn’t pitted against his Son; this is something the Son willingly takes upon himself in order to pay the debt that humankind could not pay on its own.”
“Some people say this seems utterly drastic,” I observed.
“Well, yeah, if this were to happen to you or me, we would be terribly embittered and completely overwhelmed. But Christ bears the punishment perfectly. As British theologian John Stott said, `For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.”‘43
“The atonement, then, is not illogical or unfair,” I suggested.
“That’s right,” Copan agreed. “Remember, the scriptures have a number of different pictures or metaphors for what was accomplished on the cross. But the substitutionary aspect of the atonement is deeply significant in that Christ our representative accomplishes for us what we can’t do for ourselves.44
“So what should our response be? Gratitude—the Christian faith is a religion of gratitude. Why would we be reluctant to humble ourselves and receive the free gift of forgiveness that Christ purchased through his death—and also receive the gift-giver himself as the leader of our life?”
Copan’s description of Jesus’ sacrifice was moving. Yet this love and grace isn’t always the message that people hear from Christians. Often, they get a far different sermon. Along those lines, I quoted to Copan the words of emergent church leader Dan Kimball: “Today, Christians are known as scary, angry, judgmental, right-wing finger-pointers with political agendas.”45
I asked Copan, “In light of that, isn’t it understandable that people wouldn’t want to hear about their Jesus?”
“Absolutely,” Copan said. “Jesus said in John 13:35, `All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ Well, frankly, we can look around and see a lot of people who are not acting like Jesus’ disciples. Instead of being able to say, `Yes, look at us Christians and how we’re living exemplary lives,’ many times we have to say, `Sorry, look at Jesus, not at us.’ At the same time, though, some people can use this as an excuse not to take Jesus himself seriously.”
I noted to Copan that the title of Kimball’s book sums up the attitude of many people today: They Like Jesus, but Not the Church. As the rock star Bono said: “I’m not often comfortable in church. It feels pious and so unlike the Christ that I read about in the Scriptures.”46
“Consequently,” I said, “spirituality is very individualistic for a lot of people. They say they can worship God better while walking alone in the woods than in church. Can a Christian be divorced from Christian community?”
“I’m not sure Bono’s concern about the church is a totally new phenomenon,” Copan replied. “Even in the early Christian communities, you would probably have felt some discomfort.”
“In what way?”
“If you were to visit the church in first-century Corinth, for example, you’d find division, spiritual arrogance, putting up with immorality in their midst, and a class-conscious mind-set. The apostle Paul wrote them to point out all these problems—but does he give up on them? No, Paul was writing to say, `Get back on track.’ He deals with them as a loving father would.
“Frankly, you can’t live out the Christian life—with all of its commands about dealing with `one another’—without being part of the church. As the author of Hebrews says, we need to stimulate one another to love and good works. He says we shouldn’t abandon the gathering together as believers.47 The church isn’t perfect, but then neither are we as individuals.”
“So solo spirituality is not something you’d recommend?” I asked.
“No, certainly not. Despite all of our failures, we cannot live the Christian life apart from one another. In fact, the fruit of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—requires community living.48 These are community virtues that need to be cultivated in a way that can’t be accomplished in isolation.”
THE RADICAL JESUS
The postmodern mind-set that has set the stage for so much syncretism has come under fierce attack in recent years. Critics have not only pointed out its philosophical inconsistencies, but also have deplored its effect on morality and ethics. One of its most vocal opponents has been Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland, who called postmodernism “an immoral and cowardly viewpoint that people who love truth and knowledge … should do everything they can do to heal.”49
I read Moreland’s critique to Copan. “`Immoral and cowardly’—those are strong words,” I said. “Is he being too harsh?”
Copan thought deeply before answering. “I love J. P., because he speaks forthrightly,” he said, himself sounding a bit diplomatic. “Postmodernism is a nuanced movement, and I don’t think either of us would want to paint it with a broad brushstroke. And as I said earlier, I do think postmodernism can remind us of some important things.”
But Copan didn’t stop there. “On the other hand, I can understand J. P’s reaction. When a worldview declines to make moral judgments, when it sees all beliefs as being contextual, when it says we can’t talk about absolute truth or what is right, when it claims we cannot know things for sure, well, that can be a dangerous—yes, cowardly—philosophy,” he said.
“And, of course, the claim that we can’t know is itself a claim to knowledge! There are some things we definitely canknow—in fact, it’s incredibly important that we do know them. God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ so that we can know the Father through the Son. We can know of his love, because Jesus laid down his life for us. First John says we can have confidence about certain matters: `I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”50 Galatians and Romans say we can have confidence that we’re the adopted sons and daughters of God if we receive forgiveness through Christ—and this confidence goes against the spirit of postmodernism.
“So can we learn some lessons from postmodernism? Yes—we have a certain historical context, we don’t always see things clearly, and so forth. But even though we may not know everything, we can know some things—indeed, some very important and life-changing things. We can know enough to encounter and experience the real Jesus.”
“Then who is he?” I asked. “If the authentic Jesus can’t be found in the cobbled-together beliefs of syncretism, then who is he, really?”
“We cannot separate the Jesus of history from what some people call the Christ of faith. They are one and the same,”Copan answered. “We need to put Jesus back into his first-century context. If we disconnect him from history or come up with some sort of New Age Jesus who is detached from the cross or the resurrection, we’ve lost his real identity. The same goes with anti-Semitism in the name of a Jesus whose first-century Jewishness has been ignored or suppressed. How are we going to sort out the real Jesus from the fake, unless we have Jesus anchored in the historical Gospels?”
As he spoke, my mind flashed to the countless people who have disconnected Jesus from reality and then manufactured their own version of him—a Jesus who teaches them what they want to hear rather than what they desperately need to know. This Jesus is anemic—powerless and pale, because he exists only in their imaginations. All the while, the authentic Jesus—with his love and strength, his miraculous power and saving grace—stands patiently by.
I began to feel a sense of sadness. “Isn’t it a shame,” I said to Copan, “that so many people are creating a Jesus who matches their preconceptions about what they think he should be like, but in the process they’re missing the real Jesus?”
Copan nodded in agreement. “Ironically, they’re often talking about a `radical new Jesus’ they’ve discovered. Radical?” he repeated, incredulous. “No, these are silly or watered-down portrayals of Jesus. He’s more than a good buddy, more than a social revolutionary, more than a Gnostic teacher. The real Jesus is the Jesus of orthodox Christianity: He’s no less than God incarnate. God breaks into the world scene with Jesus. He conquers sin, Satan, and death through Jesus. He’s bringing history to a climax through Jesus. This is what human kind has been waiting for.
“If you want a spectacular Jesus, or a hero for the ages, or a Jesus who shatters all expectations and pours out love beyond comprehension—there he is,” he declared, thumping the table with his hand.
“How in the world can you get more radical than that?” [227-260]
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
More Resources on This Topic
Beckwith, Francis J. and Gregory Koukl. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998.
Carson, D. A., gen. ed. Telling the Truth. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2000.
Copan, Paul. How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2005.
Copan, Paul. Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion. St. Louis: Chalice, 2007.
Copan, Paul. That’s Just Your Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2005.
Copan, Paul. True for You, but Not for Me. Minneapolis: Bethany, 1998.
Edwards, James R. Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005.
Kimball, Dan. They Like Jesus, but Not the Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007.
Kostenberger, Andreas, gen. ed. Whatever Happened to Truth? Wheaton: Crossway, 2005.
1. Utne Reader (Aug. 1998).
2. Hanna Rosin, “Believers in God, If Not Church,” Washington Post(Jan. 18, 2000).
3. David Ian Miller, “Finding My Religion,” www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article .cgi?file=/g/a/2006/07/24/findrelig.DTL (Jan. 12, 2007).
4. Rosin, “Believers in God, If Not Church.”
5. James R. Edwards, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005), 3.
6. “Mixing Religious Teachings,” CBS Poll (June 29, 2005),www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/06/29/opinion/polls/main705181.shtml (Jan. 4, 2007).
7. Cimino and Lattin, Shopping for Faith, 26.
8. “Mixing Religious Teachings,” CBS Poll.
9. Edwards, Is Jesus the Only Savior? 5.
10. Rosin, “Believers in God, If Not Church.”
11. Edwards, Is Jesus the Only Savior? 5.
12. Terry Mattingly, “Oprah and Her American Faith,” www.kitsapsun.com/bsun/fe_religion/article/0,2403,BSliN_19075_5269707,OO.htm1 (Jan. 11, 2007).
13. Ibid. Also see Marcia Nelson, The Gospel According to Oprah (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005).
14. Miller, “Finding My Religion.”
15. “The Gospel According to Oprah,” www.wfial.org/index.cfm?fuseaction =artNewAge.article_1 (Jan. 5, 2007).
16. See John 18:38.
17. Andreas Kostenberger, gen. ed., Whatever Happened to Truth? (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2005), 9.
18. See Romans 2:14-15.
19. See Romans 1:18-19.
20. See Luke 10:27, as well as Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30.
21. Cited in C. S. Lewis, ed., George MacDonald: An Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 7.
22. For a discussion of the topic, “A Loving God Would Never Torture People in Hell,” see Strobel, Case for Faith, 169-94.
23. Shirley MacLaine, Out on a Limb (New York: Bantam, 1983), 347.
24. See Psalm 31:15.
25. See Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History (San Francisco: Encounter, 2000).
26. Luke 1:3-4: “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
27. See Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003).
28. Revised Standard Version.
29. See Matthew 7:1-5.
30. “Straightening the Record: Some Response to Critics,” Modern Theology 6 (Jan. 1990), 187.
31. See Romans 12:19-21 and Matthew 5:43-48.
32. Bryan Appleyard, “Is Sin Good?” The Sunday Times Magazine (April 11, 2004).
33. J. Fletcher, “Sin in Contemporary Literature,” Theology Today 50.2 (1993), 254.
34. Alan Mann, Atonement for a “Sinless” Society (Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster, 2005), 26.
35. See Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn, 1973).
36. John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 95.
37. Edwards, Is Jesus the Only Savior? 151.
38. See Matthew 18:21-35.
39. Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
40. John 3:14-15: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
41. See John 10:11-18.
42. See 2 Corinthians 5:18-19.
43. John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1986), 160.
44. See Romans 8:3-4.
45. Dan Kimball, They Like Jesus, but Not the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007), 30.
46. Cathleen Falsani, The God Factor (New York: Sarah Crichton, 2006), 9.
47. See Hebrews 10:24-25.
48. See Galatians 5:22-23.
49. Kostenberger, Whatever Happened to Truth? 76.
50. 1 John 5:13 (emphasis added).