In college our religious conversations centered on, “Is Christianity true?” My answers evolved from “Of course not” to “Maybe” to “Oh my gosh, yes.” (That “gosh” is a direct quotation—I’m a Midwesterner.) Over the years I have grown suspicious of our reliance on truth as our guiding principle, since it is too often used as a one-sided sword that is not allowed to do its work on its wielder. (If Christianity is equated with a commitment to truth, then why are there so many Ivy League-trained Ph.D.’s teaching at Christian schools where they have to sign statements affirming a historical Adam and Eve or that there are no historical errors in the Bible? That’s mental gymnastics, not a commitment to truth—and probably another column altogether.)
Today I am haunted by a different question: Has Jesus failed?
Recently the renowned Bible scholar and Anglican bishop N. T. Wright published The Day the Revolution Began, his helpful and paradigm-shifting summary of how the Bible explains what happened when Jesus died on the cross. Arguing against the popular conception that Jesus’s death was the means for appeasing God’s wrath so that we can enter heaven when we die (which, conveniently, leaves us with little to do on earth today and so we might as well get on with our lives), Tom reveals the Bible’s grand narrative of the cross as a world-changing event in which Jesus defeated the powers arrayed against us, including death, and inaugurated his direct rule so that we are restored to our vocation of ministering to the world so that we can one day say “on earth as it is in heaven.” As one would expect, the implications lead to a much different perspective on the role of Christians in the world today.
And that is the problem. If Jesus came to start a revolution and it has been running for two thousand years, where do we see the signs of its advance? When we look at the church today, do we see budding manifestations of heaven on earth?
One possible answer would be to point to the work of people like Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he demonstrates convincingly that history has a more positive direction than we imagined. He marshals evidence to prove a dramatic, centuries-long decline in human violence and discrimination. Never before in history has such a small number of human beings died violently.
Of course, Pinker does not point to Jesus as the cause, though one could easily argue that Christians were involved in many of the advances (abolition, health care, peace efforts, etc.) that made this a reality. But whatever the explanation, it is clear that there is evidence that humankind is advancing.
Here is why I am haunted. When I ask my adult daughters to point to the movements today that clearly show the triumph of goodness, they name: the recognition of the full humanity and full participation of women in the world; the extension of the belief in the equality and dignity of all people to include all races, creeds, and nations; and the end of discrimination against the LGBT community and the legalization of gay marriage. For them there is no moral relativism at work on these issues. This is goodness with a capital G.
But when I ask them how they see the church’s role in these examples, they say, “mostly on the wrong side.” Not good. They are not young, idealistic radicals, mind you. They are saying it sadly about many of the friends and adults with whom they grew up. And learning how 81 percent of evangelicals voted in the last election has not helped matters.
Has Jesus failed?
This question should haunt us. Because the best answer to the question is the communities we create and the world we are helping to build. Are we working to make earth more like heaven?
There are some signs of hope. Adam Hamilton pastors the largest Methodist church in the United States, and his book Making Sense of the Bible (just out in paperback) shows that a vibrant and holistic faith does not require a wooden and tone-deaf reading of Scripture in order to hear God’s inspired Word afresh for today. Shane Claiborne’s tireless efforts to convince Christians that God does not require executing criminals, as outlined in his wonderful book Executing Grace, puts flesh on the idea that God cares for the least of these. These are the kinds of efforts we need to undertake in order to make known the gospel and the God we believe in.
Has Jesus failed? Here is the haunting truth: We are the answer to the question.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor