“I need you to talk with an ordination candidate for moment. He has a question for you.”
The voice on the phone was the pastor whose independent Atlanta-based church had ordained me just over a decade ago.
“Sure,” I said, not at all sure that I had the energy to argue over theology in that moment.
A young man’s voice came over the line, explaining to me that he believed that Jesus literally rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion.
“He was able to reanimate his flesh and live again,” the man told me.
I internally sighed. I didn’t really have the strength for this argument, because to me it feels like all those proof-texting wars about homosexuality, which are pretty pointless and usually end up being bitterly divisive.
“I don’t agree,” I told him flatly, getting ready for the volley of questions he surely had.
“So, do you believe the resurrection was literal or was Jesus a phantom?” he asked, clearly ready to duke it out.
“It’s a story,” I said.
Silence. For a minute I thought the phone had gone dead, or he had hung up in disgust.
Finally, I heard a voice. “Please explain,” was apparently all he could squeak out.
With that invitation I launched into a five-minute sermon about why I think the resurrection story is the point where the fledgling movement of Christianity truly lost its way — and its real connection to Jesus.
The resurrection story
The resurrection is the story that Jesus’ followers absolutely had to tell however, if they were to survive after Jesus’ death and grow the church into the institution it would become. The story became its greatest marketing tool throughout the ages.
“It’s the central tenet of the faith,” the young student asserted, and he was right — that is, when you’re talking about the beliefs of Christianity — but I don’t think Jesus would define the resurrection story as “central” or even “essential.”
Save for the directive in John, Jesus never asked any of his followers to actually believe anything about him. Even in his declaration of everlasting life for those who believe, it’s a belief in him that matters, not beliefs about him.
Did Jesus’ followers see him after his death? I have no reason to believe that they did not. Was that proof of a bodily resurrection? Not necessarily. There are plenty of people even today who report seeing their loved ones after they have died, and no one claims it as proof that grandma has overcome death and been bodily resurrected.
The story of the resurrection was, however, a necessity if the early followers of Jesus were to legitimate their continued claim that Jesus was the Messiah they were all waiting for. As Reza Aslan points out in his latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, messiahs were actually a dime a dozen back in Jesus’ time — and even before he showed up on the scene. Many groups of landless peasants, called “bandits” by the Romans, would coalesce around a charismatic figure who claimed to be the Messiah. One of those leaders, a bandit chief named Hezekiah, “openly declared himself to be the messiah, the promised one who would restore Jews to glory,” Aslan writes.
Which brings up the fact that there were also competing ideas of what a messiah would do. Some believed he would take the Jews back to their former glory before they became subject to repeated invasions by foreign armies and rulers. Others had an apocalyptic view of a messiah who would destroy this world order and install a new Kingdom of God. Others believed the messiah would be a king or a priest.
The resurrection story is Jesus’ followers way of proving that their idea of the Messiah as someone who can overcome even death — thereby granting eternal life to anyone who believes this “central tenet” of the faith — trumps all other ideas of what messiahship means.
Resurrection as doctrine
For most of those in the Middle East at that time, life was short and brutish, filled with suffering and struggle. If Jesus, through his death and resurrection, can offer a life without suffering for all eternity, who in their right mind would turn that down? Who needs to defeat the Romans, who have proven their skill at brutally killing anyone who opposes them, when you can follow Jesus and be assured an eternal reward and a life in heaven?
Why this idea of resurrection — and a belief in a bodily one at that — ultimately ruins Christianity is because from this moment forward the religion becomes about belief and about justifying those beliefs against all objections (and often martyring the objectors, to boot). This is the moment that the Jesus movement becomes less about actually caring about the poor and needy, or about defending the widow or the oppressed (y’know, the stuff Jesus actually did during his ministry), and more about building a “church” — i.e., based more on what you believe than what you do — because that caring part, after all, is conveniently later deemed “works righteousness,” which makes all good acts suspect.
With this doctrine of resurrection, Christianity became very individualized. It became — and it remains — about your personal salvation (based on beliefs), about building churches and collecting money to establish and maintain that institution. The apostle Paul is the greatest example of how Christianity began and grew into the multi-million dollar business it has become today. His main goal was to found churches in as many places as possible, then collect tithes from those house churches to send back to the hierarchy in Jerusalem.
Oh sure, there were some instructions given to those new members about how to take care of those within their community and how they should not abuse the poor among them. But there were not big “feed the hungry, visit the prisoner or the ill who are not in your community” crusades. No, the church saved those crusades to enforce right belief.
From there, later church fathers would inhabit their ivory towers and argue endlessly over Jesus’ divinity, humanity and meaning. In those arguments, they transformed Jesus from an action-oriented leader into a mystical human-divine superhero, giving them a whole host of excuses about why believing things about Jesus is far more important than emulating his actions.
Jesus becomes a miracle worker, walking on water, feeding thousands with meager supplies, healing the sick, even raising the dead. We can’t do any of those things. Jesus is God incarnate, but we’re not, so modeling Jesus’ actions is pretty futile.
Never mind that the gospels record Jesus saying that we would one day do greater things than he did. But that was an idea left untried by those who were busy exalting Jesus as the Christ and building an intricately layered theology about who he was and what kind of beliefs we must hold about him to be considered “true” Christians.
The missed opportunity
What kind of miracles would humanity have worked if those earlier followers of Jesus had focused on banding together to help those among them, friend and foe alike, who were in need, who were suffering, who were starving, who had been pushed out to the margins of society? Instead of concocting a resurrection sales pitch, what kind of world would we live in now if they had dedicated their efforts to telling the story of Jesus’ power to transform the lives of those on the margin when they came together to care for one another?
Actually acting on Jesus’ words, actually carrying out his direction to feed the sheep and care for the poor and needy, I believe, would have created those “greater things” that would have made walking on the water, even raising the dead, look like child’s play. Jesus advocated for a world of equity, if not equality. He advocated for a world where everyone’s needs are cared for, where the hierarchy of “power over” was usurped by “power with.”
In our modern-day world, we shy away from those kind of ideas because we don’t want to be accused of being a “communist” or a “pacifist” or a “peacenik,” because we think those things are signs of weakness. But what made Jesus unique among the other messiahs running around Palestine at the time was not that he could conquer his own death, but that he could conquer all of our deaths — because he had no enemies. When we have no enemies, there is no need to fear death. When we have no enemies, we live in peace. When we have no enemies, we see no need to kill and oppose one another. When we have no enemies, we understand what it means to love others just as much as we love ourselves.
A utopian vision? A pipe dream? Given the inherent selfishness of human nature, probably. But the Roman leaders saw something so genuinely subversive in this line of thought that they felt threatened enough to kill Jesus before he could make it a reality. Jesus, however, was a true believer. He truly believed human beings could overcome their inherent selfishness and come together in true community to ultimately create that New Jerusalem.
Sadly, his followers were not true believers in Jesus’ vision of the realm of God here on earth. Instead, they took the easy way out and concocted other things — things about Jesus — to hang their hats on, and we’ve been saddled ever since with a religion that emphasizes belief over action. In our modern day, we see the fruits of that labor in the forms of millions of dollars invested in mega-church buildings, multi-media empires, television and print outlets and denominational structures and hierarchies.
Moneychangers in the temple
The moneychangers have commandeered the temple again and they’re rolling in the dough, enriching themselves and creating spiritual gated communities for the faithful. Behind these spiritual gates they don’t have to see, let alone even acknowledge, the existence of poor and homeless people, even as one in six Americans lives below the poverty line. Prosperity preaching that goes on behind these gates makes matters worse, casting the poor as spiritually suspicious. If they had enough faith, or more importantly, believed correctly, they too would be safely ensconced within the spiritual gated community.
That suspicion of the poor is even being borne out within nonprofits specifically designed to help them. As Congress mulls cutting the federal food stamp programs, these nonprofits are doing little to fight for those who would likely starve without the assistance.
“Instead, many followed the lead of Independent Sector and the National Council on Nonprofits, which put all of their energies into fighting to preserve charitable deductions,” writes Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
Note what nonprofits are now focusing on — helping the wealthy get tax breaks for giving to charity, instead of helping the poor to eat. Certainly, the church has taken the lead in this kind of cynical “social action,” encouraging people to give to “missions” in other countries while those at our own doorstep starve.
Are there churches doing good things? Most certainly. There are many churches around this country and in other countries who get it. They understand that Jesus called us to action, not to any specific belief. There are churches feeding the hungry, helping the oppressed, visiting the prisoner and defending the orphans and widows — but sadly they are most likely small, independent churches, struggling to pay for their programs.
There are large churches doing good works as well, giving money to charity, opening soup kitchens and shelters and helping the poor and needy. But by and large, those are ancillary projects, an effort to toss the poor a bone from time to time, and not the bulk or even the overall aim of their mission. Instead, churches are defenders of the faith, the keepers of orthodoxy, the doctrinal pit bulls who ensure that right belief is maintained and apostates are ejected, unless of course they have money or have recently contributed to a building project or other pet financial cause.
Given the overall state of the church as a multi-million-dollar business, mainly concerned with maintaining its hierarchy, its bank accounts and its orthodoxy, who can blame the millennials for rushing for the exits? As was found back in 2007, young people find the church to be judgmental and hypocritical. Of course it is. If you don’t believe rightly, expect to be judged. Hypocritical? Well, of course. Jesus said “feed my sheep,” not “believe doctrines about me.” If you look at what Jesus instructs and what the church actually does, the hypocrisy is crystal-clear.
In the end, Jesus would not recognize the institution that has sprung up in his name — a gargantuan money machine that is more concerned about its doctrine, policies and purse than helping the poor, oppressed or widowed. The church has missed the point, and it all began when those earlier followers invented their resurrection story to explain why Jesus qualified as the only “true” messiah. In that single doctrine Christianity as a belief system was born, and Jesus’ commandment to “go and do likewise” died.
And Jesus wept. Again.
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Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.