This article is an excerpt from my 2011 book You’re not as Crazy as I Think. The book includes four chapters dedicated to understanding various groups that are commonly misunderstood by evangelicals and this excerpt is drawn from the chapter titled “Not all liberal Christians are heretics.”
In the passage, I attempt to understand the individual who seeks to retain Christian identity whilst rejecting the central Christian miracle: the resurrection of Jesus. And in the spirit of the book, I try to place myself into their position of radical doubt in order to see whether I too, would seek to remain a Christian under those circumstances.
When I submitted the manuscript back in 2010, the editor typed this comment into the margin: “Is this for real? This is very confusing to me on this particular issue, because God has specifically said there would be no Christian faith left w/o the resurrection.” I assume he was referring to 1 Corinthians 15:14-15:
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.
I confess that I share this editor’s incredulity toward the professing Christian who rejects the resurrection. Or at least, part of me does. But as a result of this exercise in sympathetic reasoning, part of me has come to see that matters are far more complicated.
A few years ago, I was speaking at a convention for evangelical Christian school teachers. During the talk I noted that the doctrine of the Trinity is an essential Christian belief. Afterward, a kindly elderly lady came up to me and, after graciously thanking me for my talk, lodged just one note of disagreement: “Not all Christians are Trinitarians,” she said with a smile. After asking her a few questions I discovered that she was a Oneness Pentecostal, a group that divided from the orthodox Assemblies of God denomination in 1917 due to its conviction that Father, Son, and Spirit are not three persons but rather three manifestations of the one person God.
While speaking with this lady did not change my conviction that assent to the triunity of God is an essential mark of Christian identity, it did remind me of the difference between abstract judgments and concrete conversations. That is, it is one thing to offer a general discussion of heresy and heretics, and it is another thing entirely to speak of heresy when a little old lady is smiling back at you. As I look back, that conversation made two things clear. First, that lady had thought about the concept of God’s triunity more carefully than most orthodox Christians. And second, she evinced no noticeable signs of moral corruption. So much for tarring her with the brush of Simon Magus. Indeed, in speaking with her I was reminded of the words of that great nineteenth-century Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing (who also rejected the Trinity) when he observed: “In following this course we are not conscious of having contracted, in the least degree, the guilt of insincerity.” It certainly seemed that this elderly lady, like Channing, had rejected the doctrine of the Trinity not out of hostility toward the truth but rather in a sincere pursuit of it.
Once we develop relationships with liberals and other heretics, it can be disconcerting to discover how often their beliefs appear to be held in full sincerity. For another example, we can turn to the story of New Testament scholar Marcus Borg as relayed in his intriguing book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Though he was raised in a conservative Christian home, in his teen years Borg began to have doubts about the existence of God: “At the end of childhood there began a period, lasting over twenty years, in which, like many, I struggled with doubt and disbelief. All through this period I continued to think that believing was what the Christian life was all about. Yet no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to ‘do’ that, and I wondered how others could.”
It certainly seems that Borg wanted to believe. Consequently, it does not seem plausible to dismiss his doubts as rationalizations to justify rebellion against God. On the contrary, reading his words I am reminded of the man who, desperate for Jesus to heal his son, cried out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Like that man, Borg seemed to be anxious to believe even as he was beset by doubts. Growing up, Borg had always believed that the Bible’s testimony was perfectly reliable. Things got worse when Borg learned in his university and seminary that New Testament scholars distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Christ of the church’s faith: in other words, Jesus the man who walked on the dusty paths of Judea two thousand years ago was different from what the church claimed. Unfortunately, that discovery deepened Borg’s crisis of faith. Increasingly he came to see the church’s creedal confessions as veils obscuring the Jesus of history rather than windows revealing him. As a result, that historical Jesus, once so familiar, began to disappear into the mists of antiquity.
The discovery that the Christ of faith was doubted by many scholars left Borg with more questions than answers and ultimately forced him to consider whether to leave the faith. After all, how could he revere a Christ that he doubted could be known? But there was another possibility: expand his conception of what it means to be a Christian in a way that would be consistent with his doubts. To opt for the latter course would mean embracing a conception of Christianity that was not so heavily dependent on the beliefs Borg found himself doubting.
For a number of years, Borg wrestled with these two possibilities until in his thirties he underwent a series of mystical encounters that confirmed for him the abiding presence of God. As a result, these experiences provided a modest foundation for his still shaky faith. In light of his continuing doubts over belief, the faith that emerged was rooted not in doctrine so much as experience and ethics. Looking back a couple decades after those experiences, Borg reflected: “Now I no longer see the Christian life as being primarily about believing. The experiences of my mid-thirties led me to realize that God is and that the central issue of the Christian life is not believing in God or believing in the Bible or believing in the Christian tradition. Rather, the Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit.
Ask Borg whether he affirms the great creeds of the faith—the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, for instance—and I suspect that at best you will get a shrug of the shoulders. But rather than abandon the faith, Borg answered his doubts by expanding (or changing) the meaning of Christian so as to find a place in the church for his own praxis and experientially based faith. For Borg, the heart of Christian faith is found not in doctrinal assent but rather in a life modeled on the perfect life of Christ.
Those of us who do not struggle with Borg’s doubts and who are able to affirm a much fuller set of doctrines may be thankful for our greater confidence. But does that mean that there is no room in the church for Marcus Borg or the many similar souls that fill the pews of a St Joseph’s on a Sunday morning? If we are to take Borg’s own account seriously, we can no more doubt his sincerity than that of the elderly Oneness Pentecostal lady. Borg too seems to be nothing like the mythical Simon Magus who was maniacally opposed to the truth of the gospel. So far as I can see, he appears to want to believe even as he struggles with more doubts than most. As a result, it seems to me simply unfair to attempt to construe his struggles of faith as less than genuine. But then what is the origin of his doubts?
One possibility is to think of his doubts as a special thorn in the flesh. We all know about Paul’s thorn in the flesh, an unknown affliction that he prayed to be withdrawn. When Paul prayed to Christ that this thorn might be relieved, the reply came that Paul should instead rely on Christ’s strength (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Many other great Christian leaders of history have suffered their own thorns in the flesh. For instance, Martin Luther struggled all his life with doubts about his salvation. In my view, Luther’s sincere struggles evince not a fault in character but rather a burden he was given to draw him back to Christ. Is it at least possible that Borg’s struggles over doctrines could likewise be his thorn in the flesh? And if this is possible, then wouldn’t the proper response to Borg’s struggles over doctrine be not anger and censure but rather sympathy and encouragement (without condescension, of course)?
Although I do not know Marcus Borg personally, I have two good reasons to think he is the genuine article. The first is the quality and integrity that comes through his writings. The second is the testimony of that towering intellectual pillar of Anglican orthodoxy, N. T. Wright. While Wright is widely lauded as one of the premier New Testament scholars in the world, he is also good friends with Borg. In the eye of many evangelicals, the problem arises not with the friendship per se but rather with the fact that Wright believes his resurrection-denying friend is also a Christian. This is how he put it in a 2006 interview: “Marcus Borg really does not believe Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead. But I know Marcus well: he loves Jesus and believes in him passionately.” So then why does Borg not believe? Wright suggested that “the philosophical and cultural world he has lived in has made it very, very difficult for him to believe in the bodily resurrection.” Is it possible as Wright said, that a person could be a Christian and yet reject the resurrection of Christ?
Let’s begin to address this question by turning to the Easter season. Just like clockwork, every Easter popular magazines like Time and Newsweek find a way to squeeze Jesus onto the cover, typically with a heading that carries a whiff of scandal like “How the Jesus of History Became the Christ of Faith” or “Did Jesus Really Rise?” Without fail, these articles are weighted more to hype than substance. But what if a story broke in the media about Jesus that actually had some substance to it? What if some real evidence arose questioning the resurrection of Jesus?
That scenario is addressed in Paul Maier’s novel A Skeleton in God’s Closet. In the story, well-respected archaeologist and devout Christian Jonathan Weber is working on a dig for the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea when the remains of Jesus Christ are discovered. As you might guess, with this discovery Weber finds his faith coming under severe testing. After all, if Jesus’ bones remained in the tomb then Jesus did not, in fact, rise from the dead, and this means that a doctrine that has stood at the center of Christian faith for two thousand years is false. As news of the discovery sweeps the globe, it leaves in its wake a sea of deeply confused Christians. However, Weber observes that not all Christians find their faith upended by the discovery: “A Methodist professor said he’d have to do a lot of rethinking. But an Episcopal rector said that finding Christ’s remains ‘would not affect me in the slightest.’ I recall being totally disgusted at that response. The one I easily agreed with was a Catholic New Testament professor at St. Louis University who said that he ‘would totally despair.’ Now, that was honest!”
The scenario leaves each reader to ask the same question for himself or herself. Would I be left to do a lot of rethinking like the Methodist professor? Or would I despair like the Catholic professor? And what about the Episcopalian rector whose faith never depended on the resurrection? What sort of faith is that anyway?
Let’s think about this question more carefully. If Jesus’ body were discovered we would suddenly find ourselves in Borg’s shoes (or a pair much like them), needing to decide whether to leave the faith or reinterpret it. There would be good grounds for the first move, given Paul’s declaration that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). So if Christian faith without Christ’s resurrection is useless, we might as well find something else to believe in. But what? Islam? Deism? Atheism? Amway? (Or perhaps a combination thereof?) The more I think about the radically, sweeping implications of walking away from faith altogether, of rejecting everything in Christianity lock, stock, and barrel, the more game I am to consider the second option. The point can be made by considering G. K. Chesterton’s commentary on the complex reasons why people hold Christian belief:
[I]f one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.
According to Chesterton, in much the same way that our commitment to civilization depends on a multiplicity of factors rather than a single point, so Christian faith also rests on a multiplicity of factors. A person is typically not a Christian for one single reason but because of a whole variety of factors. For instance, they have experienced God’s providential hand guiding their life, they have found inspiration and guidance in the Scriptures, they have had great Christian mentors and models, their nephew was healed of cancer after an all night prayer meeting, and God saved their marriage. In short, they are a Christian because it provides the most complete, satisfying and plausible understanding of the human condition, where we came from and where we are going. For these reasons and many others, they could indeed resist the attempt to throw all this away on the condition that one doctrine should come up false, even if it is a doctrine as central as the bodily resurrection of Christ.
And so, when the alternative of rejecting faith is considered, it might seem preferable to retain our Christian faith, even given the discovery of Jesus’ body. But is this really a serious possibility? Or would keeping faith under these conditions be like keeping the marriage going after you discover your spouse is a bigamist? That is, as great as all these other things may be, without a resurrection of Christ is there really anything left to save? While I appreciate the reservation here, I think we need to understand the real force of the civilization parallel. To push things further, consider a specific example. I know a missionary who was home on furlough raising ministry support and had come up short $300 a month. Just when he was about to give up, having exhausted every possible avenue of support, he received a call from somebody who felt God laying on his heart the need to support him . . . at $300 a month. (At this time nobody except the missionary’s wife knew of their specific financial need.) I refer to an event like this as a “LAMP” which is an acronym for “little amazing moments of providence.” Many Christians have experienced LAMPs like this in their life. Is it so obvious that the discovery of the body of Jesus would persuade people to dismiss all these LAMPs as mere happenstance? Would they really be forced to reject Christianity, kit and kaboodle, as plain false?
As A Skeleton in God’s Closet unfolds, Jonathan Weber wrestles with this question: should he surrender his Christian faith altogether, or could he instead adopt a faith like that of the Episcopalian rector?
[M]aybe Mark Twain was right, Jon finally had to admit to himself. And not only Twain, but all of liberal theology, which had been denying a physical resurrection of Jesus ever since David Strauss and Ernst Renan did so in nineteenth-century Germany and France. Yes, maybe all the higher critics, particularly Rudolf Bultmann, were right all along. The Resurrection never happened, but it was the faith and belief that it did that was important. And all his conservative, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Sunday school and Bible classes, and all the endless sermons . . . wrong!
As unsettling as the thought is, we ought to reflect on Weber’s questions. So I ask myself, if Jesus’ body were discovered would I leave the Christian faith altogether, or would I instead adopt a more liberal interpretation of that faith?
Try as I might I cannot be sure which of these options I would follow. The dilemma recalls the crisis that lies at the center of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice where we meet sweet and brooding young Sophie, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. As the novel unfolds we discover that Sophie was forced by a cruel Nazi to choose which one of her two children would live and which would die. How could any parent be asked to make such an unthinkable choice? The popularity of the book and subsequent film (starring Meryl Streep) led to the popularization of the term “Sophie’s choice” as a way to refer to any impossible or unthinkable decision. It seems to me that where the Christian faith is concerned, the discovery of Jesus’ remains would pose just such a crisis of decision. Do I reject the faith altogether or do I set aside the centrality of the historic resurrection? It strikes me that this is by no means a straightforward or easy choice. And if it seems presumptuous to judge Sophie for making such a forced decision, it seems also presumptuous to judge a liberal Christian for having made a theological judgment under equally impossible circumstances.
 For a discussion of this oneness view of the Trinity, often called modalism, see my Finding God in the Shack (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster, 2009), 51-53.
 Cited in Gary J. Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 25.
 Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 17.
 Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 17.
 The fact that some liberal Christians would repudiate this analysis is not especially relevant, for it would still remain possible that others might suffer from a thorn of doctrinal doubt.
 Heresy undoubtedly has served a valuable function in the church, and we wonder how often God might have allowed a heretic’s mistake as a foil to spur the wider church on to greater doctrinal clarity and fidelity. For a suggestive discussion see Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009).
 Borg and Wright explored their differences in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2007).
 See the interview with Jill Rowbotham: “Resurrecting Faith,” The Australian (April 13, 2006), available at http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=3903.
 Paul Maier, A Skeleton in God’s Closet (Nashville, TN: Westbow, 1994), 258.
 Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; Reprint: London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996), 119.
 Maier, A Skeleton in God’s Closet, 200.