Can Christians Question?

Catherine M Wallace

Evangelical pastor Timothy Keller told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that he's probably damned for questioning the literal historicity of the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the miracles, and so forth. That's nonsense. Here's why.

In the New York Times on Christmas weekend, evangelical Pastor Timothy Keller politely but firmly explained to Nicholas Kristof that he is probably damned. And why? Because salvation come only believing in the literal historicity of Jesus' virgin birth, his Resurrection, his miracles, and so forth. By analogy, Mr. Keller explains, someone who thinks climate change is a hoax might be excluded from membership in Greenpeace.

         Those are false alternatives. The virgin birth narratives are neither a hoax nor a literally historical event—an episode of magical gynecology or perhaps extraterrestrial sperm. By restoring this and other Gospel stories to their full literary, cultural, and historical contexts, Christian humanism reconstructs allusions, metaphors, and complex symbolism of far greater moral significance that the belief that once upon a time an omnipotent God reached down to fiddle with human reproductive biology.

          As for the virgin birth: as L. Michael White explains in Scripting Jesus, everybody who was anybody in the ancient world had a god for a male parent: Socrates, Alexander the Great, Asclepius, and—above all—Caesar Augustus, whose imperial coins proclaimed him "Son of God." Divine parenthood on the male side was a convention of heroic biography in the ancient world. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke—the only Gospels describing a virgin birth—offer a witty riff on these conventions because they intend to redefine what their age understood as "heroic." How can Jesus, brutally murdered by the Romans, count as a hero? The virgin birth stories are one aspect of a complex literary strategy that I examine in detail in The Confrontational Wit of Jesus: Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination.

         At the time, and as John Dominic Crossan explains in God and Empire: Jesus against Rome Then and Now, the unbelievable aspect of the virgin birth stories was not that Jesus' father was divine. It's that his mother was a peasant, and worse yet a woman guilty of adultery. (As an historical matter, she might have been raped by Roman soldiers. They had recently rampaged through Nazareth in retribution for a local rebellion against Rome.) Whatever the biology of her pregnancy, the virgin birth narrative asserts God's revolutionary, subversive solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast. Then and now, a God who identifies with the downtrodden is a God who calls into question the shenanigans whereby brutal socioeconomic exploitation gains cultural legitimacy. Like other "miracle stories" in the Gospels, and as Ched Myers explains in Binding the Strong Man, the virgin birth narrative subverts the political and cultural status quo—not the facts of human physiology. Fussing over physiology is being literal-minded. It's an exercise in missing the point—a point that is no less relevant today than it was two thousand years ago.

         What about the Resurrection? That's Mr. Kristof's second skeptical question. Once again, the Resurrection can count as what Mr. Keller calls "a genuine reality" without referring to the literal resuscitation of a dead body. But we need to restore the text to context to understand what the Gospel authors are trying to tell us.

         In various places in the Gospels, Jesus predicts his own resurrection "on the third day." That's a phrase that appears in forty-some different places in Hebrew scripture. It's a literary expression meaning something like "in God's own time" or "at an appropriate point." It's not a prediction of what will happen in seventy-two hours. As a righteous Jew, Jesus expected to be raised from the dead when God finally steps into human history to establish the social justice that God had been demanding ever since the Jewish exodus from Egypt. As John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed explain in Excavating Jesus, and as both N. T. Wright and Marcus Borg explain in The Meaning of Jesus, the resurrection of the righteous dead was the premier signal that the world as we know it is changing in this definitive way—changing for the better.

         The biblical literalism that Mr. Keller demands portrays the Resurrection as a simple physical event—the resuscitation of a dead body. That would have been a feat of cell biology and nothing more. And whatever exactly the risen Jesus is, the Gospels do not portray him as merely a resuscitated body. Resuscitated bodies do not appear and disappear in locked rooms, shape-shift inexplicably, and so forth.

         Within the narrative logic of the Gospels, as a visionary event within a literary tradition replete with densely allusive symbolic visions, the Resurrection appearances make a far more powerful and morally serious set of claims. In narrative terms—within the literary conventions surrounding the Gospels—Jesus' resurrection is God's thunderous affirmation of what Jesus taught about God, which is that God is nonviolent and God's love is radically inclusive. In Jesus' teaching, God seeks compassion, generosity to immigrants, and distributive socioeconomic justice within human society. Jewish prophets had been saying that for centuries. Jesus puts a new spin on this heritage: he claims that a compassionate God does not and will not smite God's enemies—not even Rome.

         And neither should we. Why not? Because violence leads only to more violence, and so we are called to renounce it. That's the difficult truth here, not God's ability to restart the Krebs cycle in each of Jesus' cells, or to repair the damage to his brains or his heart from lack of oxygenation. As Walter Wink explains in Jesus and Nonviolence and other brilliant, deeply-researched books, Jesus taught a daring, physically courageous confrontation with evil-doers. He taught the strategic nonviolence resistance that was later used so successfully by Gandhi, by MLK, and by the successful "velvet" and "color" revolutions. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan analyze strategic nonviolence in some detail in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. We may need their strategic insight if we are to defend democracy and resist the depredations of a Trump administration.   

         To "believe in the Resurrection," then, is to credit the Gospel teaching that compassion, generosity, and inclusive community are more realistic, more generative, and more powerful than greed, violence, and exploitation. Christians are called to question the blood-spattered testimony of the daily news that violence is inevitable. We are called to question the reflexive movement to reciprocal violence. Believing in a little one-off divine magic with cell biology is much easier than recognizing what the Gospels actually say.

         Mr. Kristof admires those who refrain from vengeance in difficult circumstances. He admires compassion, generosity, socioeconomic justice, and inclusive community. He has often reported on the transforming power of people giving their lives to the practice of such virtues. If Mr. Kristof wishes to regard himself as a Christian, these are the mainstream Christian humanists he wants to join. Our congregations can be found within any denomination—including evangelical ones. We welcome his skeptical journalistic questions, because we have solid answers—answers a bit more welcoming than the threat of damnation.         

         And unlike Mr. Keller, we are also the Christians who think that Jesus' teachings are central to what "being Christian" actually means. Mr. Keller claims dismissively that "Jesus' teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection." The proper theological label for that claim is "substitutionary atonement." Such theology portrays Christianity as the only global religion organized around human sacrifice: Jesus dies to mollify God's rage over human sin. Jesus dies to assuage God's need to inflict horrific physical pain upon sinful humanity for all of eternity. That deity is plainly not the non-violent, all-loving God proclaimed by Jesus. It's Christianity corrupted by the Roman empire and its heirs.

         Such corruption is dangerous stuff. If an all-good, all-wise, all-knowing God has no alternative than the brutal murder of an innocent man, then surely our violence can be morally justified as well—if not morally requisite.

         Atonement theology comes into the tradition about a thousand years after Jesus himself. It did so following changes to Christian worship imposed by the emperor Charlemagne in the 800s, changes he needed to secure theological cover for his savage campaign against the Saxons. In Saving Paradise, Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock trace the details of that development. They explain how atonement theology laid the cultural foundation necessary for the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and Europe's devastating religious wars 1521-1660.

         If, like Mr. Kristof, you wonder whether a critical thinker can be a Christian in the twenty-first century, let me welcome you to Christian humanism and the moral imagination. We are mainstream Christians, heirs of both the ancient Jewish prophetic tradition and the best of modern scholarship.