Winston Churchill, not unlike many who have a Bible on their nightstands, found Christianity implausible. According to biographers William Manchester and Paul Reid,
”[Churchill] found no reward in theological exercises. He subscribed to the Christian values of mercy and forgiveness, but his beliefs were not dictated by doctrine, and certainly not by clerics. …he rejected the carrot and stick of heaven and hell. The idea of an afterlife was not much more than an afterthought for Churchill, and one he considered equivalent to a belief in ghosts and goblins.” (The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm, page 18)
There are times and senses in which I find his casual dismissal of the supernatural attractive. It seems so easy. So defensible in a modern world.
Illusionist Penn Jillette is no mild agnostic like Churchill, but an aggressive atheist, snarkily and proudly evangelizing for unbelief. When asked what book on religion he would have every college freshman read, he responds,
”The Bible — cover to cover, without someone alibiing it. Just read it. Nothing will turn you into an atheist faster.”
Though he’s trying to be surprising and shocking, I’ve read the Bible enough times to know where he’s coming from. There are parts that are troubling and without clarification hard to understand and to fit into an agreeable picture of the world and of God.
French Philosopher Luc Ferry unlike the two above finds Christianity wonderfully attractive, and would love to believe. But he finds that he can’t.
”I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity – provided, that is, if you are a believer… were it to be true, I would certainly be a taker.” (A Brief History of Thought, pages 261, 263)
Why have I, in contrast to even a willing would be believer, like Luc Ferry, come to believe, when there are plausible and at times attractive alternatives? What’s wrong (or right!) with me? The question drives me in two directions.
The first is the humbling conclusion that if I believe I do so because, in fact, God has enabled me to believe. The description of the conversion of the Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of scales falling from his eyes. What was true but could not be seen was made visible.
That faith is a gift comes with its own barrel full of philosophical questions, but it is clear that this is what the Bible teaches. I can’t answer why faith is granted to me and not to Luc Ferry. But to be where one says ‘Why me?’ is to be in a place where pride has a harder time growing.
With the scales removed, though, what do I see? I see Jesus – a person so attractive in person, teaching, and work that I want to be with him and to be what he wants me to be. I fail, of course, but I can’t deny the attraction. I am drawn not to doctrine, but to a person I want to follow.
But perhaps the stories of Jesus are largely fabrications? The evidence against this suggestion is quite strong and the central feature of Jesus’ life and work is impregnable: Jesus was not only a powerful and attractive person, he is one who was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven.
When the waves of doubt lap at my feet and when questions arise for which I don’t have the answers, I’m reminded again and again that Jesus was raised from the dead. As Steve Brown put it to me last Easter,
“A dead man got out of a grave and said we could too. That changes everything.”
Apart from the empty tomb, I am lost. I don’t merely BELIEVE in the resurrection; I cling to it as a drowning man might to the last thing floating.
And I am not alone in this. Paul clung to this as well:
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:17)
The man who first told me about a church that would become my first pastorate said that it had “one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave”. It was not meant as a compliment.
With a small variation, however, it nails me. Though I always seem to have one foot in slippery places, the other, thankfully, is anchored solidly in the empty grave of Jesus.