The other day I visited a church where the pastor gave a brief promo for the course “Christianity Explored“. He described the course as “a non-judgmental place” to explore the “big questions”. The description caught my attention for the implicit (and presumably unintentional) admission that once you get beyond the narrow confines of “Christianity Explored”, asking questions and sharing doubts about big questions is no longer free of the judgment of others.
Today churches around the world celebrate Easter. And on this day thousands of officiating ministers will call out “He is risen!,” to which congregations the world over will reply with vigor: “He is risen, indeed!”
But not every Christian is apt to reply without qualification. I remember one particular individual, a leader within a Christian parachurch organization whom I’ll call Steve. Some years ago Steve sat in my office sharing his doubts about the resurrection. We discussed the historical evidence for some time, noting in some detail the important work of scholars like N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, Gary Habermas, Edwin Yamauchi and Michael Licona. Despite the good historical evidence for the resurrection, he went away from our meeting with doubts remaining.
Why? Two simplistic replies suggest themselves.
One person might be inclined to conclude that the historical evidence isn’t sufficient to sustain belief, in which case those Christians who do accept the resurrection without qualification are irrational, at least insofar as they purport to believe based on the evidence for a historical reconstruction.
Another person might be inclined to conclude the opposite, namely that the historical evidence is sufficient to compel belief, in which case Steve was the irrational one for failing to accept the doctrine.
These are two extreme options and it seems to me that a third option is far more plausible. It is the option that recognizes evidence, particularly in matters of history (and ancient history especially), can often be sufficient to warrant belief without being sufficient to compel it. Thus, one person can find themselves sustained by their own experience of the risen Christ and reassured by their study of history. And another person can find their spiritual well has run dry and their examination of the history fails to overcome those lingering doubts. Needless to say, neither of these individuals is deserving of any stigma.
And yet the stigmas remain. As we saw with the pastor’s revealing words with which I opened this article, those who find themselves in the hinterland of doubt and questioning often face a choice. Fearful of stigma and social ostracization, they might be lucky enough to find a non-judgmental forum like “Christianity Explored,” or perhaps the sympathetic ear of a seminary professor.
And if not? Then perhaps they may just have to live quietly with their doubts, however painful it may be and however dizzying the cognitive dissonance that results.
This is a sorry state of affairs for a community predicated on openness, vulnerability, and truth-seeking. So this Easter as congregations around the world call out “He is risen, indeed!” remember those who reply in their hearts “He is risen, isn’t he?”