Who believes in Resurrection?

A fascinating study was published by ComRes last week. Commissioned by the BBC Religion and Ethics people, the survey of over 2,000 British adults focussed on the resurrection of Jesus and so-called ‘life after death’. My colleague David Robertson has written on the survey here. I want to look at bit more deeply at the figures, and also to bring out the shocking ignorance it reveals amongst active/practicing Christians about the biblical doctrine of resurrection. More on that in a later post – for now, let’s have a look at the numbers (you can get the ComRes data tables here).
In terms of self-identified religious affiliation, the sample worked out at 51% Christian, 9% Non-Christian, and 37% no religious affiliation (with 3% presumably not responding). That’s a little higher for religious affiliation across the board that in the 2015 British Election Survey.
The first question is about Jesus’s resurrection. The top line is that 44% of the sample believe in the biblical story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in some way. That’s staggering, especially when just 16% of the sample identified as ‘Active Christians’. The proportion is an aggregation of two answers:

1. it happened word-for-word as described in the Bible;
2. the Bible account has elements which are not to be taken literally.

When you look at the numbers between these, 1. gets 17%, and 2. gets 26% of the sample. Again, that is somewhat amazing – around 1 in 6 people accept the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection! Really!? I mean, maybe it’s true, but it seems high.
I think that there are probably two things to say. First, how many UK adults would have a good idea of the detail of the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, word-for-word? Second, the respondents were given the possible options for replies. Methodology has an impact on surveys and any method skews results. When the options were read out, how much wiggle room was 2 giving, in the minds of the respondents? A fair bit, I’d say – and so 2. might seem like an attractive answer for those who were fairly ignorant of the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection (which I’d guess would be a fairly large proportion). I wonder how the results would look if the respondents had answered unprompted and these replies codified. Anyway, I agree with David Robertson that the numbers are kind of encouraging (more on that later), but I think there needs to be caution. That said, when you see that only 50% answered ‘I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead’, that is a surprise to me, even with the caveats above.
Another thing that caught my eye is the gender split. Of those accepting the gospels’ accounts word-for-word (17%), amongst women that was 22%, compared with 13% amongst men. Significant. The sample is split down by age and region, but I think then more caution is needed. Of interest (with caution) are the figures showing that Wales stands out as the region where belief in the gospel account is highest (26%), whereas in Scotland the figure is 18% (fourth highest out of the eleven regions).
When it comes to age, there’s a decline as you go from the elderly to the young, as you’d expect. Almost 60% of the elderly believe in the resurrection of Jesus in some way. Amongst those under 35, the proportion is still over 35%.
But it’s the second and third questions that fascinate me. The second: ‘which of the following statements, if any, best reflect your views on life after death?’ The possible responses were (apart from Don’t Know):

1. I believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)
2. I do not believe that there is life after death (e.g. reincarnation, heaven, hell)

The results were evenly split. So, 46% of the sample believe in ‘life after death’. The gender split is again interesting: 36% of males, 56% of females. Pretty informative of the self-identified Active Christians group is the fact that only 85% of them believe in ‘life after death’. The orthodoxy of Active Christians cannot be assumed. When you get down to what kind of ‘life after death’ people believe in, well that’s when it gets really interesting for me. But that’s the next post…
For now, let me throw out some thoughts from the numbers above. First, although David R rightly sees the survey results as encouraging, I see in them a bit of an indictment of the church. In the church we tend to comfort ourselves over our lack of impact in our society with the thought that our message is rejected by ‘the world’. The numbers indicate, at the very least, an openness to resurrection as an idea, and the commonplace view that this life isn’t all there is. We are simply not engaging people with our ways of doing church. We are simply not equipping Christians to engage with people who are probably ready to discuss. If we keep filling our people with fear about the ‘opposition of the world’, then we are failing. Yes, of course, I believe in the opposition of the world, but I also see that these figures are showing opportunity and openness in our culture to the gospel message. If the church could get its act together, and get its message straight on the biblical doctrine of resurrection (rather than itself getting all pagan with its views of ‘life after death’), then I think we would find more of a receptive ear than we imagine.
Second, if you’re a Christian reading this, then you need to realise that people are incredibly interested in what happens after this life. But, if you’re a Christian, I’d guess you don’t feel that confident about explaining your views. That’s because you’ve probably been taught all your life that ‘we don’t really know what heaven’s like’. And you probably feel a bit weird about the whole idea of heaven anyway. Don’t worry, that’s ok (feeling weird about it). Because talk about ‘heaven’ and ‘life after death’ is missing the point of the resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is not about going to heaven. No, really. And the church is too often missing the point. Who believes in Resurrection? Actually, a lot of orthodox Christians don’t really believe in it – as the third question of the survey shows. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that if the church is ignorant about the Christian hope, folk in our communities are too.
Next post soon…

Non-religious Christianity

Bonhoeffer2Several days ago, I read one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters written from Tegel Prison, Berlin. The whole letter is striking to read, and it contains the following, which I’ve been returning to and turning over in my mind ever since.

Is there any concern in the Old Testament about saving one’s soul at all? Is not righteousness and the kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and is not Romans 3.14ff., too, the culmination of the view that in God alone is righteousness, and not in an individualistic doctrine of salvation? It is not with the next world that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved and set subject to laws and atoned for and made new. What is above the world is, in the Gospel, intended to exist for this world—I mean that not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the Bible sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Letters to a Friend, May 5th 1944 (emphasis original).

The context is Bonhoeffer’s search for a way of proclaiming Christianity in a ‘non-religious’ sense. The same letter contains the remarkable assertion that Bultmann’s demythologising of the New Testament ‘did not go far enough’. However, Bonhoeffer is not aligning himself to liberalism, but aiming to think theologically in seeking to interpret and proclaim both God and miracles in a ‘non-religious’ sense. A religious approach, according to Bonhoeffer, focusses on the metaphysical (by which I take him to mean the ‘other-worldly’ or ‘spiritual’) and the individualistic. Bonhoeffer characterises ‘religion’ according to these two features, and ‘[n]either,’ he writes, ‘is relevant to the Bible message or to the man of today (my emphasis).’ Bonhoeffer’s concern is clearly about speaking the truth of Christianity into a society where the Christian religion has lost its ground, its footing. But he sees this as an opportunity to return to the truth of Scripture, since the Christian religion which is declining is not actually biblically-aligned, not actually focussed on the concerns of God’s revelation. Bonhoeffer describes a war-torn society as one where ‘individualistic concern for personal salvation has almost completely left us all’. People believe that there are more important things than bothering about that. It sounds monstrous to acknowledge that, he concedes, but it is an attitude that is perhaps even biblical. That is the context for the quote above.

I struggle to understand Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’. I don’t think of it as an attack on the Church per se. Bonhoeffer writes in the same letter of the place of religion being taken by the Church (that is, he writes ‘as the Bible teaches it should be’). I need to read more on Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionlessness’, but it strikes me that somewhere near its heart is a desire to free Christianity from conceptual frameworks that have more to do with religious culture and tradition than with the revelation of the Bible. Bonhoeffer wants to bring Christ from the religious ghetto of the Church (where the Church has become this)  into all the world, into all of life, into all of culture. As a Reformed Christian, that chimes with my own outlook. It is true that we are, as Christians, erroneously in thrall to the idea of some other-worldly world as our hope. However, what is above the world does indeed, in the Gospel, exist for this world. If we can understand and proclaim that then, as Bonhoeffer writes in his letter of April 30th 1944, ‘Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, indeed and in truth the Lord of the world.’

More Defending Religion

salem_largeLast time, I posted on what seems to me to be a common evangelical meme that goes something like this:

  • religion is about doing good works so that we get saved
  • Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved
  • ergo Christianity is not a religion
  • ergo religion is evil

The apostle James is clear that Christianity is a religion and that good works are important. And so the meme begins to unravel…. Whilst some religions might be about doing good works so that people will be saved, Christianity proclaims that faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah-God brings salvation. And genuine faith in Jesus is intimately linked with the good works that flow from it.

So, if the meme is demonstrably untrue, why does it persist? It’s an evangelical meme, the target of which is often legalistic or ‘nominal’ religion. That is, the problem of a faithless Christianity, or mere churchgoing. Doubtless, ‘nominal’ Christianity is a big problem in Britain in 2014. The ritual of mere churchgoing can empty Christianity of its power. It’s seen just as a cultural expression, or a social activity (as an aside, it’s not as big a problem as non-churchgoing!). Anyway, it’s the use of this meme in attacking the church that is, for me, the most worrying aspect. Last year, in an evangelical church outside Scotland, I heard this meme used in a prelude to describing (from the pulpit) other denominations’ religion as ‘poison’. This kind of attack dishonours the Head of the Church and hands a plateful of reasons to non-Christians for ignoring the church, and to other Christians for leaving the church. It’s an example of what Herman Bavinck wrote about (something I’ve quoted before):

Instead of making a broad and inclusive survey of all churches, carefully distinguishing between true and false, not throwing out the wheat with the chaff, they simply with one fell swoop condemn all churches as false, call all believers to secession and frequently elevate separation itself to an article of faith.… What is the fruit of all this? Not a reformation of churches but an increase in their number and a perpetuation of division. The Catholicity of Christianity and Church

It’s not that I don’t think nominalism is a problem, but nominalism exists in every church, and we need to be careful to distinguish an ignorant nominalism from what the divines called ‘hypocrisy’. ‘Hypocrisy’ is the phenomenon of people who profess faith and who belong to a church where they hear the true and sincere proclamation of the apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ, but who actually do not truly follow Jesus (often exhibited in an extremely selective following of Jesus’s and the apostles’ teachings). This is ‘nominal’ religion despite and in the face of the truth being proclaimed. It’s the kind of ‘nominal’ religion that is criticised by the apostle James. And it’s closer to home than we often want to admit – Herman Bavinck (assuming a James-like mode) also wrote of the hypocrisy of the Protestant emphasis on truth at the expense of any real emphasis on works, calling it an effective belief in ‘justification by good doctrine’.

That kind of thing is very different to ‘nominal religion’ in congregations where the gospel has been neutered by liberal theology, or  reduced to a kind of social theory. The regular folk (not the leaders, but those in the pews) who are nominally Christians in these churches are like sheep without a shepherd. How does the anti-religion meme attack benefit them? It’s a bit like a home carer who mechanically undertakes their designated tasks without showing any love for the person they’re caring for. What would you do? Tell them that what they’re doing is worthless, poisonous, evil? Or, teach them the importance of loving the person they’re caring for, so that their tasks take on a new quality and significance and so that their relationship with the cared-for person is transformed? The larger point is that a church where there is hypocrisy or nominalism is still a church – thank the Lord for his mercy to us all! Even where the Christian religion expressed by a church is full of faults and errors, it does not mean de facto that its religion ceases to be Christianity. In such churches, an informed critique ought to be directed at those who in such situations have neglected to teach the orthodoxy of the gospel.

It’s wrong to simply write off the rituals of religion, the ‘habits’ of our faith. What about all those times when we ourselves have been carried by the rituals and duties of the Christian religion through rocky and difficult patches in our lives? Sometimes, during periods of doubt, or struggle (whether with stressful circumstances, depression, or sin) we don’t feel like going to church; we don’t feel like praying; we don’t feel like reading our Bibles. But, our sense of duty – the ‘habit’ of attending the ritual – takes us out of the door to the prayer meeting or the Sunday service. And, often, we are blessed. Is that wrong? No. What about all of those people for whom ritual observance is merely the beginning of the journey to faith? In these rituals, Jesus is present and meets with us. Ritual plays an important role in forming our Christian characters and communities, and in giving stability to lives that are not immune to the trials of living in a fallen world. When we meet for worship, the ritual of singing together expresses our corporate worship of God in Christ and binds us together. The ritual of reading together from God’s Word unites us in a corporate hearing and affirmation of God’s truth. The rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not mere symbols, but signify deep spiritual truths and carry real spiritual blessings. The rituals and disciplines of gathering for public and family worship, private prayer and Bible reading are at the heart of our faith. These rituals are part of our religion. For other brothers and sisters, the creeds, the Book of Common Prayer – these would be included too. The repeated ‘doing’ of them is important. Our religion and its rituals are important in inviting, nurturing and maintaining faith.

Defending Religion

DSC_0296I’ve been busy writing and taking a holiday (two important activities) and the blog has been quiet. But, I’m taking up my keyboard again to defend religion. It’s not the first time. The blanket attack on religion seems to be a well-established evangelical meme – I come across it with alarming regularity. It’s dangerous and I want to resist it.

The meme usually goes something like this:

  • religion is about doing good works so that we get saved
  • Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved
  • ergo Christianity is not a religion
  • ergo religion is evil

There are several fundamental problems with this. The definition of religion is wrong for a start – wrong definitions usual spell disaster. But, far more significantly, one serious objection to this meme comes straight from the pen of one of the apostles:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27

The apostle James knows that religion (that’s θρησκεία in Greek)  is important. And he knows that Christians are ‘doing’ religion. The outward rituals of inward faith are important. Living a holy life, whether in caring for the afflicted or avoiding sinful behaviour, really matters. That’s James whole point throughout his letter. Religion is not just about believing, it is about doing. To be even clearer: Christianity is not just about believing, it’s about doing. Christianity is a religion. The Church has always rightly understood itself as an entity practising a religion. In my own tradition, Christianity-as-religion is the language of the Westminster Standards. For example:

What is the visible church? The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children. Longer Catechism 62

The apostle James’s concern is whether people’s religion is true or false (1:26,27). He’s not writing about people of other religions, but about people who profess to be Christians. People who profess to be Christians, but who can’t control their tongues, for example (1:26), have a worthless religion.  People who care for others and seek holiness (a different set of values from God’s word, not from the world around), have a religion that is pure and good (1:27). The irony is that James is actually stressing the importance of good works. True religion involves good works as well as faith. Of course, it’s true that Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved. But, we won’t be saved without good works, because faith without works is dead (2:17). If you say you’re a Christian, but your life does not display the good works that come from following Jesus, then is your faith real? This particular evangelical meme illustrates a larger problem: an incorrect separation of works and faith.

We can’t be put right before God on the basis of the good things we do, or try to do. That’s the only part of the four-part meme that’s actually correct! We are put right with God, entering into a new relationship with our Creator, through faith in Jesus Christ – thank God for that! But that faith is not merely mental assent. It entails an all-embracing change of priorities called repentance, and that leads to a very different way of life. It’s not fundamentally fired by our desire for self-improvement. It is fundamentally fired by our desire to love Jesus Christ in obedience, which in turn is fired by Jesus’ own presence with us through the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a religion. A religion with Jesus the Messiah at the centre. Christianity is about doing good works. Good works for Jesus the Messiah. And the meme begins to unravel…

Jesus and Religion

Why is it important to point out that Christianity is a religion, and that religion doesn’t equal self-righteousness? Jeff Bethke’s video has had so many ‘likes’, from all shades of Christians, including those from evangelical and Reformed churches, surely it can’t be that much out of kilter? Is a critique of Bethke splitting hairs?

Well, among other things, Jeff Bethke’s view:

  • denigrates the Church, the institution inaugurated by the apostles of Christ – which is the body of Christ. The mistaken view that religion is bad leads to ambivalence towards church leadership, church discipline, and the sacraments. And it devalues the place of obedience and attendance. I sometimes hear the view that: ‘you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.’ That kind of thing comes from this kind of thing.
  • falls hook, line and sinker for the post-modern suspicion of institutions and authority. Critiques of the church by the church are valid, but ought to be far more nuanced and balanced than this is. The authority of God over our lives is bound up with the authority of the church.
  • drives a wedge between Jesus Christ and the Apostles, or put another way, between the gospels and the letters. People have enough difficulty understanding who Jesus is without this inadvertent throwing of weight behind the claims of liberal theology. More and more people from a Christian background want a Jesus divorced from the church, obedience and ritual – a portable Jesus who they can carry around with their iPhone to pretty much wherever they want to be in life. The idea that Jesus wasn’t into the authoritarian stance of Paul is music to the ears of people like this. It’s not many steps from there to embracing the view that the church is really not what Jesus had in mind at all.

Why I Love Jesus And True Religion

bethkeA poet named Jeff Bethke has posted a performance poem to Youtube which seems to have won a lot of fans. It’s entitled ‘Why I hate religion but love Jesus.’ Is he talking sense?

Bethke asks why religion has started so many wars. Why has it built huge churches but not fed the poor? It’s clear that the target of Bethke’s criticism is the church. Well, the church has built great cathedrals. It has sponsored great works of art (Bethke’s question belies an outlook that denigrates art and aesthetics). And it has fed the poor too in plenty of places across its history. As the video progresses, we see Bethke unwittingly using the same technique as Dawkins, picking out practices that few Christians would defend and tarring the whole Church with whatever’s on his brush.

As for Bethke’s denouncement of religion per se, it is simply mistaken. The poem begins with the question: ‘what if I told you that Jesus came to abolish religion?’ If you told me that, you’d be wrong. The people of God in the Old Testament related to Him through a religion instituted by revelation to Moses. Jesus upheld the true practice of that covenant religion before his death and resurrection inaugurated a new covenant. The people of God in the New Testament relate to him through that new covenant religion which is revealed by, and centred on, Jesus the Christ. Christianity is a religion (although Bethke specifically contrasts Christianity with religion). It has sacraments, discipline, rituals and doctrine. The important distinction is not between Jesus and Religion, but between True and False Religion. False Religion can be found both inside and outside the Church – and False Religion is the problem. For example, it’s self-made religion that’s the problem in Colossians 2:23, not religion per se.

Bethke goes wrong because he equates religion with self-righteousness and he defines it as a man-made invention. Words are important, and Bethke has got his definition wrong. In the OED you find that religion is ‘a particular system of faith and worship’. More importantly, when the apostle James writes about ‘true religion’, he’s using a word which is used for Jewish worship, and pagan worship too. The apostle James clearly doesn’t believe that Jesus came to abolish religion. James believes that being religious is good, as long as it is pure or true religion (1:27) and not worthless religion (1:26).