The first few things I would want to affirm will be fairly straightforward, as I hold pretty orthodox views on the basics of Christianity. These are things that, for the most part, are not really contested within Christianity, and I would go so far as to say that these cannot be laid aside without abandoning Christianity. As such, I’m just going to toss all of these into one post and then focus on more secondary and/or controversial topics for the remainder of the series.
The Christian faith stands or falls on the resurrection of Christ, and this is where I started when I began my deconstruction phase. I did not consider anything short of a literal, physical resurrection from the dead to be acceptable; if Christ was dead, or never existed, then I was prepared to throw the whole religion out as baseless and false. If Christ did not exist, then all of Christianity is built on a lie; if He died and stayed dead, He failed to prove Himself to be God in flesh, and therefore Christianity is built on a lie. A symbolic or metaphysical resurrection is not even worth considering, as it cannot be verified and means essentially nothing. I recently saw a tweet where someone asked, “if it was absolutely, undeniably, 100% demonstrated tomorrow that Christ was still dead in a grave, how would that affect your faith?” and I read through response after response of people saying it wouldn’t do anything to their faith.
I don’t know what their faith is, but it isn’t the one Paul declared would be in vain if Christ had not been raised.
I looked at the gospels as historical documents, because that’s fundamentally what they claim to be. I could go into detail in another post, but I was convinced that they were faithful recollections of real events, with Luke and John having the most convincing lines of argument for me. Luke because of his research; the number of details that Luke includes that support his claim to be operating from eyewitness interviews was staggering. Luke stated outright that his goal was to ensure his reader(s) could have confidence in the teachings they’ve received, and he makes sure to name sources, include stories that other gospels didn’t include that show Christ interacting with people beyond the disciples, provide geographic and cultural details that improve clarity, and (as he continues into Acts) distinguish between the things he personally witnessed and the things he didn’t. John stood out to me for his honesty and intimate familiarity with the story, how he really turns his focus to who Christ is and lets the person of Jesus stand out on the page even more than the specific things Jesus did or what order exactly He did them. The bit where John and Peter run to the tomb and John is the only writer who records that, well actually, he won that race, but that’s an aside; details like that drove home that this was a real person telling real stories about his own real experiences, show a bit of the character of a man who wants to note that he ran faster than his friend, but is willing to admit hesitance to actually enter the tomb.
Incidentally, and this isn’t a core doctrine, it’s just a side note here, but John is also why I believe in a very early dating of the gospels, which was important to my acceptance of their claims. There is no dispute among scholars, Christian or secular, that John was written after the synoptic gospels, and almost certainly after Acts. Everyone agrees that John wrote last. A great many people, however, put John after 70 ad, and I don’t. My reason isn’t historical or based on any specific papyrus or anything — so take it how you will — but rather it’s literary. As a writer, I am struck by the fact that John has no apparent sense of dramatic tension. He shows throughout his writings that he is a writer who cannot allude to something and then wait to reveal what he’s alluded to. Consider this segment of John 2:
The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
John 2:18–22 (NASB)
I want to note two things about this passage. The first is that John, at the very beginning of his gospel, gives away the ending because this is the type of writer he is. Jesus has alluded to His resurrection and John, writing about it later, simply cannot contain the urge to tell us exactly what this is a reference to and exactly how you, dear reader, should respond to that. The second is that the writer who cannot hold onto spoilers, who cannot help but point to the fulfillment of anything hinted at in his text, does not connect a conversation that predicts the destruction of the temple to the actual destruction of the temple. Even when he points out that Jesus’ primary point here was to talk about Himself rather than the temple, he doesn’t contrast that with the natural post-70 reading of the passage that would remind people of the temple’s destruction. It gets no mention, not even as a thing to be corrected. If John is the kind of writer that I have claimed he is, if he’s the kind of writer I see when I read him, the only explanation for this oversight is that John did not yet know about the literal destruction of the temple when he wrote it. This, in my mind, dates his gospel to before 70, which means all the other gospels are even earlier, and this serves to help the case of gospel validity. That Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wrote and distributed their accounts, with names and sources and identifying details, during the lifetime of eyewitnesses and people who knew where Jesus had been buried, and no one trotted out His body or wrote any damning contradiction or managed to show any evidence to the contrary, is a fact that I cannot ignore. If Jesus was a fictional character, or still dead, then the opponents of the church would have held all the cards and could shut these claims down just as quickly as they shut down the claims of other contemporary false messiahs. That they didn’t means that the story of Jesus Christ was different in a way that ensured they couldn’t. And that way must be that the accounts were true. Jesus Christ really walked the earth, really taught crowds, really performed miracles, really died, and really rose from the dead, and those closest to Him really had their entire lives changed to such a degree that they couldn’t help but tell the world what they’d experienced in His presence.
Everything else is built on this.
The Living Word
In the most recent sermon I’ve delivered, I claimed that everything we know of God the Father we know through Christ. This is because I was specifically talking about knowing God the Father at that time; it would be more accurate, as a general statement, to say that everything we know of the Godhead, the supernatural, and even our own fundamental natures, we know through Christ. When God the Father speaks, it is Jesus’ voice we hear. When God the Spirit makes us aware of truth, it is God the Son He is delivering. When human writers sat down to put the scriptures into writing, it was the Eternal Living Word that filled their minds and found translation in the act of recording. This is, I maintain, the fundamental nature of God the Son’s function in the Godhead: He reveals and realizes. His death and resurrection are revelatory at their core, displaying the weight of our sin and the love of God for us and the grace that He has available to cover that sin; and in doing that work, He realizes (that is, makes into reality) the salvation of God’s people. As the means by which all things are created, He reveals the creative purposes of God and realizes them, and as the One for whom all things are made, He reveals the God-centered order of creation and realizes the God-directed purpose of creation. He is both the light that shows us what God intends us to see and the means by which the revealed is made concrete. The credibility of God the Son, then, is paramount. If there was any deceit or falsehood in Him (and, therefore, in His words), if anything we know of Him is false, then we can know nothing He speaks on with certainty. The resurrection of Christ proves that He is who He says He is and will do what He says He will do. By proving Himself to us, He assures us that He is the credible source of all His other claims. Now, having come to understand that credibility, we can look at what He has revealed.
First, that God is three eternal persons. He is not three separate beings, and He is not one person presenting in three ways. Christ affirms God the Father as the creator of all things, prays to Him as the Eternal Source, follows His leading as the Great High King, speaks His words as the Author of all things, and points to Him as the Ultimate Glory. It is the Father who holds the ultimate right to determine and deliver judgment, who welcomes us as His children, who we come to know in salvation, and who we will ultimately glorify for all eternity. Christ declares Himself to be God the Son, the speaker of the Father’s words, the enacter of the Father’s will, and the one true means of access to the Father. Christ promises the arrival of God the Spirit, the One who delivers truth, the catalyst that unites the body of Christ, and the source that empowers the work of salvation in the life of the Christian and the church.
Second, that mankind is severed from our proper relationship with the Father, enslaved to sin and unable to reunite ourselves to Him. Mankind, created to serve as image-bearers of God, instead serve from the womb as image-bearers of fallen Adam. God is making all things new, and our only hope to be reunited with Him is to be made new as well. This new creation is only available through the work of Christ on our behalf, which begins immediately when we are adopted as sons and will be fully realized when Christ returns to deliver final judgment on the world and completes the great work of redemption.
Aside: God as Judge
Abraham calls God “the Judge of all the world,” and rightly so. But which person of the Godhead sits as judge? In John 5:22, Christ declares that the Father is not the Judge, but has given that function to Christ. But in John 8:15, Jesus says He judges no one, and 1 John 2:1–2 describes Christ as our advocate standing before the Father, who is presumably (given the nature of an advocate) sitting in judgment. Within parables, the role of judgment is carried out variably by characters who represent either the Father or the Son.
Consider what Jesus says later in John 5. In verse 30, Jesus says that He does nothing without direction from the Father, including judgment. I present this, and my statement above about the function of the Son, as the unifying theme; God the Son reveals the just will of the Father (the declaration of the Judge’s ruling) and realizes the material truth of that just will by bearing the full weight of the Father’s judgment on the cross and standing before the Father to plead the application of His work to our case as Advocate. That is, all ultimate judgment finds its origin in the Father and its expression in the Son.
Third, that a proper relationship with the Father is characterized by allegiance* to Him alone, through Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. God will not split our affections, and will be second to nothing. Submission to Him is submission of all that we are, and we become all we were designed to be in the process. I tell people that I’m evangelizing to that I’m not just giving them a chance to escape Hell someday, but rather, I’m asking them to lay absolutely everything at the feet of Christ; our lives, our histories, our skills, our goods, our relationships, our bodies, our identities, our views and habits and desires and goals, everything that defines our sense of self, absolutely everything is given over and nothing is held back. All that we can rightly have when He sends us into the world as a redeemed soul is that which He gives back to us, which always includes a body to stand with and a Father to love and a King to bow before and an eternity to enjoy all of it. I am asking them to consider the person they have been so far utterly dead, and to start a brand new life, whatever that may mean in God’s plans for us. Everything else, everything but Him, falls in line behind this overarching drive to be who He has called us to be and live as He has called us to live and do as He has called us to do; and anything that contrasts with that purpose, regardless of how comfortable or important it has been to us so far, must be dropped aside. In salvation, we are not merely recipients of a transaction, we are adopted, and while I will go into this more in the next post, the basic idea here is that we are brought into a new family and held to the expectations and identity of that family.
These, I believe, are the basics of the Christian faith. Everything else stems from them or explains them in more detail. All our models, all our atonement theories, all our theological frameworks and terminology find their soul here. Here we have creation, fall, and redemption; here we have God and man and our need for Him and His love for us. Here we have the Bible, in which God the Son reveals God and ourselves and what God has done and how we respond to that work, which can have no falsehood without sacrificing its essential purpose. In these things we must have unity and unwavering adherence; any deviation from this, any different Christ, any other gospel, any allegiance placed equal or higher than God, any ultimate source of truth other than the Father revealed through the Son through the lens provided by the Holy Spirit, is not Christianity. It may share many things with us, but it is not of us.
*- I use this word on purpose, and it has caused some of my more controversial stances of the last decade or so. My refusal to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the National Anthem on the grounds that such displays strike me as idolatrous, in that they mean to declare that we are fundamentally Americans first or owe to the United States a level of affection and service that only God deserves. I recognize that this is a matter of how one views these actions, and as such, don’t credit it as an essential stance; but I do strongly urge people to seriously consider what they are pushing to second place by calling for “America First,” what they mean when they describe anything of our government as sacred, how much allegiance they can really pledge to a nation that will fall at or before the return of Christ. I, for one, cannot look long at these issues without seeing a dangerously religious view of our nation deeply entrenched in and continuously fostered by both major parties and most, if not all, minor ones; I cannot help but look at how we describe our wars as holy endeavors and our soldiers and police as a priesthood. I have been known to refer to the United States as a heretical movement disguised as a nation, and I stand by that statement. This idea, used here as the word ‘allegiance’ to highlight the means by which we allow either God or some earthly thing to define our identity and morality and practice, is the source of that view.