By Dan Schaeffer
One of the things that we treasure as Americans is our freedom of belief—that we can believe anything we want to believe—and practice it openly. And so we see so many different beliefs across the religious and non-religious spectrum. They pop up on social media, on television, in movies, books, magazines, Facebook, Twitter. But I want to get you thinking about something we don’t often consider—whatever we believe about life, God, what comes next—is it worth believing in? We have the freedom to believe in anything we want, but are all beliefs equally worth believing in?
I recently saw an eminently forgettable movie called Jupiter Ascending. A woman on earth discovers she’s really royalty in outer space and among a race of humans who purportedly began on other planets. She discovers that there is this huge intergalactic conglomerate that owns earth. They seeded life on earth—for a purpose. To her amazement she finds out this race of humans are thousands and thousands of years old—kept alive by this amazing product that literally revitalizes your body. But you have to keep taking it. Problem? It takes about 100 human beings being harvested of their bodies to create this revitalizing age defying product. It’s an incredibly depressing world view. That’s what life is all about—and we on earth are just trying to keep from being harvested. Yes, advanced civilizations exist out there, we are told, but only to harvest us to stay young. And big business is in charge of the entire universe!
So many of the modern young adult books and movies that are so successful reveal a world without any real hope. The sci-fi and fantasy futures are bleak and the scenario depressing. Hunger Games, Divergent, among others. Why is this so? Because when you get rid of God, and especially the resurrection to a new and better life—there is nothing else really worth believing in that can give you any hope when stuff in your life turns bad.
Oh, we can get temporary relief through a great story, or a trip to the ocean, or beautiful poetry or art or a nice vacation. But it doesn’t last—and it is no answer to the suffering in your life, is it? It’s a temporary salve on a bleeding wound. And we live in a modern industrialized society. What if you don’t? Then the problems get far more real and pronounced.
By now most of us have heard of Boko-Haram, the terrorists who abducted 200 Nigerian school girls. In Nigeria, a man named Habila Adamu was at home with his family. Suddenly men showed up with their robes and AK-47 rifles who broke into his home and said they were there to do the work of Allah. With his wife, Vivian, and his seven year old son David looking on they asked him whether he would convert to Islam. When he refused, they asked whether he was prepared to die as a Christian. His wife is crying in the background, but he felt he could not deny Christ. He said he felt unafraid and powerful, he didn’t know why. Then they shot him in the neck and he fell to the ground. They stomped on him twice, yelling Allahu Akbar “God is Great” and then left. Before he slipped out of consciousness he told his wife, “that to live in this world was to live for Christ. I told her to look after our son and herself.” Amazingly, he survived this attack to tell about it. “They asked whether I was prepared to die as a Christian…My wife was crying but I could not deny Christ.”
He had found something so worth believing in, that he was even willing to die for it. At this time of the year when Christians celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, some agnostics and atheists (some, not all) will begin decrying the Christian’s pie-in-the-sky faith and beliefs in resurrection from the dead—and a belief in another life beyond this one. It is an impossible and unrealistic belief we are told. It is just holding out some kind of false hope—pie in the sky by and by. But this Easter we need to be reminded of something:
Pie in the sky works both ways
A false hope is one that isn’t real and can’t really help you. So let me ask you this, and I hope you start thinking about it—what is your hope for this world in? What is your hope for your life in? Is it real and possible? We are told by the humanists that our hope should be placed in something more realistic and attainable.
We are told that if we can just learn to all get along—universal peace—we won’t need things like religion, faith, or God. And modern medicine will eventually learn to cure all our diseases, and modern technology will solve all our problems, and modern science will answer all our questions about life, and modern education will rid us of all our wrong ideas. Unfortunately, history is not on their side.
The greatest barbarism of the last century came from a German society that was one of the best educated in all Europe, one of the greatest cultural leaders in art, music, the sciences, and technology, not from some Barbaric primitive tribal people. They had modern medicine, technology, science and education—and they were trying to create a universal peace—albeit under the iron thumb of the 3rd Reich.
Pie in the sky works both ways. While universal peace and the brotherhood of all mankind and technology, science, education and philosophy are all laudable goals, what do you think the chances are of attaining universal peace in your lifetime? Or for that matter--any lifetime? What do you think are the chances of a brotherhood of all mankind in your lifetime? What do you think are the chances of science and medicine and technology curing all diseases in your lifetime? Sorry folks, that’s just pie in the sky from another direction. Is this belief any crazier than a Christian’s belief in the resurrection? Is it any less a pie in the sky approach? More importantly, is it worth believing in?
Philip Yancey, author of the best-selling book Where is God When it Hurts was asked to address that question dozens of times over the years when catastrophe hits. When a tsunami slammed into an island in Japan, he was asked to come and speak. He also spoke in Sarajevo in Bosnia which endured the longest siege in modern warfare. 10,000 residents died from daily sniper fire and grenades and mortars. But once he was asked to accept the hardest assignment of all—addressing the Newton Sandy Hook elementary school massacre of 20 school children and six teachers and staff just days after it happened.
Yancey writes that as he thought of what to say to the sorrow-drenched community he felt his faith strangely affirmed, not shattered, and he knew well the nagging questions about a good and powerful God that emerge when bad things happen. Yancey had been reading the New Atheists and evolutionary biologists’ writings that the universe has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” We are told that we are nothing more than complex organisms compelled by selfish genes to act out of self-interest.
“Is that what you’ve seen here?” he asked those gathered. “I don’t think that’s what you’ve seen,” he said, “I have felt an outpouring of grief, compassion, generosity—not blind, pitiless indifference. I’ve seen acts of selflessness, not selfishness, in the school staff who sacrificed their lives to save children, in a sympathetic response of a community and a nation. I’ve seen a deep belief that the people who died mattered, that something of inestimable worth was snuffed out on December 14. Yancey wrote that the question often asked is “Where is God when it hurts?” But as he said, “In Newton I asked the familiar question with a slight change: Where is no-God when it hurts? The answer: as Cosmic accidents, we live meaningless lives in a universe of random events and detached indifference. The parents who lost a child at Sandy Hook recoil from such a conclusion. Following the apostle Paul, most of them hold tightly to the hope that the existence of their son or daughter did not end on December 14, 2012, rather, a loving ‘God will fulfill the promise to make all things new.” (National Tragedy and the Empty Tomb, C.T. April 16, 2013, Phillip Yancey).
A great Evangelical preacher, Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones once said, “You can be so interested in great theological and intellectual and philosophical problems that you tend to forget that you are going to die.” This is a reminder that ideas and issues and even controversies are only truly relevant as they relate to real people’s real issues and life situations. The greatest enemy each person faces is not poverty, or disease, or ignorance, or ISIS or Boko-Haram, or corporate greed, or anything else…it is death. We spend most of our time ignoring it until it intrudes unexpectedly and unwanted into our lives, reminding us of its power. We don’t want to talk about it because we don’t have a good answer for it. Oh, we have answers, philosophical ones, and theological ones, and medical and scientific ones—but they don’t fix anything. They don’t make death any better or any less final or bring our loved ones back from the grave, do they?
Jesus did not shy away from the hard subjects, the real suffering of real people. In fact, in John 11 we read of Jesus going to visit the sisters of a recently deceased and very good friend of Jesus, named Lazarus. Martha, the older sister chided Jesus, the miracle worker, for being too late to save a good friend and her beloved brother. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21) “Jesus, where were you when my life hurt?”
Jesus then replied a few moments later, “Your brother will rise again.” (John 11:23). Then Martha replied very predictably, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11:24). Yes, Jesus, I get it. Pie in the sky, by and by. Then Jesus said something startling, “Jesus said to her, ‘I AM the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies,, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26).
Mary, like so many do after experiencing tragedies, thought Jesus was just talking about pie in the sky by and by. But her problem was right here and now. Her heart was broken and her mind was confused. Jesus was basically telling Martha, “Martha, I am worth believing in.” Then he went on to raise Lazarus who had been dead 4 days to life.
In our world that has rejected the idea of God and the afterlife all we can do really is hope that intelligent minds can solve some of the great issues facing us. The problem is that they would all need to work in perfect concert. If we find the cure for cancer, but not peace—millions could die in a nuclear war. A cure for cancer won’t stop people dying from hunger, nor will it stop evil people from starving their enemies to death as we see around the world today. And technology and science are two edged swords. Yes, they give us great advantages that help us, but they also gave us nuclear and biological weapons. It all depends on the moral fiber of the people in control of these things—and frankly, that scenario doesn’t fill me with much hope these days. How much hope does it give you?
Imperfect people will always apply themselves imperfectly to imperfect ends. Until we can fix the human race, and the human heart—all attempts at the godless utopian world are just nothing but pie in the sky. Which pie in the sky is even worth believing in? Which can give you hope for the future here and now as well as the hereafter? No, the pie in the sky argument works both ways. And we also need to be reminded in our world that:
“Just make the best of it” isn’t a good answer
Today we are told that there is no other life than this one. Just make the best of it! We need to just admit that life is really just meaningless busywork in the grand scheme of the universe and leave it at that. Just try to enjoy yourself while you are alive as much as you can, and when you are dead, you won’t be around to worry about it anymore. Why even bother with the question of the meaning of life?
The French philosopher Luc Ferry (who, by the way, is not a Christian) wrote in his book A Brief History of Thought, that such ideas are “just too brutal to be honest.” He means that no one really believes that deep down. People can’t live without hope or meaning or without a conviction that some things are more worth doing than others. And so we really do need to have answers to these kinds of questions. (Keller, Encounters with Jesus, p. Xiii-Xiv).
Something that we in the modern industrialized nations of the west often forget is that “this life is all there is, just make the best of it” gains far less traction in places where many people short, miserable lives. “Just make the best of it” is definitely a western industrial idea that doesn’t sell well outside those privileged boundaries. It will never have a world-wide appeal—nor should it.
What can you hope in if your life is horrible, dismal, and dangerous and the chances of it getting better in your lifetime are slim to none? Our western philosophies have grandiose ideas about the true meaning of life which don’t sit that well with people who know brutal suffering up close and personal. If this life is all there is—there is nothing good about life for them. They have no real hope. For an idea, a hope, to be truly meaningful and universal, it needs to apply equally to every situation, from the hallowed halls of academia to the Dutch brothels trafficking in human flesh and misery.
So we ask the question: will your hope in life work for…A young girl sold into prostitution in Asia…a young woman coerced into prostitution in Holland…a family living within reach of Boko-Haram…a person who will be born, live, and die in North Korea…a person living within the reach of ISIS…a child born to a drug addicted mother…a person born in India to the wrong and disadvantaged caste…a person born with a terminal disease…a child who lost their family to a tsunami…will your hope work and apply to them as well as to you? Is your hope big enough to encompass all people’s needs? “This life is all there is, just make the best of it,” is at best a sad cliché, it’s not the answer to anything…nor is it a hope for anything. It holds out hope only for the privileged—and not even really for them.
The suicide rates are much higher in developed countries. We are told today that you don’t need to believe in anything. We can survive just fine without believing in any kind of afterlife or God. But how true is that? Seriously. People need to believe in something. They want to believe in something bigger than themselves—they just want the thing they believe in to be true; truly great, truly relevant, truly life altering. So what are our options?
Many of you probably remember when the movie Avatar came out, by James Cameron. What you may not remember as well, was the after effect of many people watching that movie. The story revolves around a utopian planet inhabited by blue noble aliens, and it seemed so real and alluring that a number of people after watching the movie were plagued by depression and suicidal thoughts. On Avatar internet forums, “Ways to Cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible” had thousands of posts. One user wrote, “When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed grey. It just seems so meaningless. I still don’t see any reason to keep doing things at all. I live in a dying world.” Another fan even more effected wrote, “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora.” (The Avatar Effect: Movie-goers feel depressed and even suicidal at not being able to visit the Utopian planet, Liz Thomas, January 12, 2010).
And before we write the Avatar movie crowd off as a bunch of moody sci-fi geeks, what about the 27 club? It is so called because every celebrity on the list was 27 when they died, mostly from suicide, or the dangerous lifestyle of drugs and alcohol they were abusing. Most of them are musicians and celebrities living the life everyone thinks is so great. Here is the thing: you don’t drink and drug yourself to oblivion if you’ve got something really meaningful in your life to hold on to and most of all…to look forward to. Because whether your life was charmed or brutally miserable…you’re going to die. And science and technology and education and politics and philosophy and medicine aren’t going to change that reality. And all the sci-fi theories of other civilizations aren’t going to change that reality.
Paul the apostle writes in 1st Corinthians 15: 52-57, “…in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death where is your victory? O death where is your sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” “Just make the best of it” isn’t a good answer to the big questions we face in life. And this leads us to ask the question:
How unreasonable is resurrection?
We hear from our agnostic and atheist friends, “It’s just crazy to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. People don’t really rise from the dead. They just can’t do that—not if they’re really dead—and have been for 3 days! And…I actually agree with that reasoning. But the New Testament teaches that God the Father raised God the son from the grave. So, follow the logic: if there is a God (and by the way, consistently on every survey and poll done for many, many years in America, over 80% of all Americans believe in God)—so if there is a God, he created all life. He started it. He should certainly then be able to recreate or regenerate life, especially as he originally created life out of nothing. To recreate or regenerate a life that has stopped should not be even a little difficult for the Creator of all things.
Now to resurrect just anyone could be a divine parlor trick for God, not a big problem. But Jesus wasn’t just anyone. He claimed to be God’s own Son. For God to resurrect the One who claimed to be His own Son would be to make a cosmic statement to the universe. By the way this is real physical life in real physical bodies. As Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 15:20 “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.”
In fact, if you study the New Testament and the words of Jesus, you will see that he was fixated on resurrection. In Matthew 16:21 Jesus began to show His disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.” In Matt 17:23 Jesus said again to the disciples gathered in Galilee, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and He will be raised up on the third day.” In Matt 20:19, as Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, He again took his 12 disciples aside and said, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up.” Jesus was preoccupied with resurrection during his time with us…and especially as he knew his earthly life was drawing to a close.
Is it really that unreasonable for a God to raise someone from the dead? Is it really unfathomable that life in a completely different dimension exists outside this one? If that’s so, someone better tell NASA, because they’re still looking for ET out there!
Resurrection really isn’t that unreasonable an idea, and it is much more worth believing than whatever else is around. But before we leave, we need to touch on one more thing:
Hope in a person is better than hope in an ideal
You see, universal peace and the brotherhood of all mankind can’t care for you now, or help you in your suffering. Technology and science, while wonderful in what they can provide to us, offer no solution to the emptiness and despair we can feel about life. Being medicated for depression is a great resource—but it’s not a solution, is it? It’s not a real hope—it’s a band aid. Philosophy and education can be very meaningful pursuits, but they don’t love you, or know you. And none of these can solve the problem Dr. Lloyd Jones brought up—you’re going to die one day.
What then? It’s not that Christianity has the best fantasy out there, and you should choose it over the alternate fantasies, it’s that Jesus demonstrated his power over death. Talk is cheap, anyone can say they have power over life and death, so Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and several others. Then, when Jesus offered his life to the Father as an atonement for the sins of all mankind, and was crucified on the cross, the Father showed that he accepted that payment and that Jesus was truly his Son by raising him from the dead 3 days later, just as he had promised. He solved the problem Dr. Lloyd Jones brought up—the death problem. His resurrection means that he has resurrection life and is the sole supplier of it. He can offer to any who believe in him the same resurrection life he is enjoying right now.
From the young girl trafficked in sex to the Corporate CEO and everyone in between. Resurrection from the dead is an offer God makes to all people anywhere—through faith in what Jesus did for us. And people today in primitive tribes are hearing and believing, and people tripped up in sin and sentenced to prison are hearing and believing, and people in Communist countries are hearing and believing, and people in industrialized societies are hearing and believing. Why? (1) Because they are convinced it’s true and (2) it’s something worth believing in. All of us are either going to ultimately place our faith in mankind to solve the problems of life, or God. But we are going to be exercising faith and hope whatever we do.
You need to ask if mankind has earned your faith to solve the ultimate problems of our world, or even your personal life. What is your hope in? It’s not a minor issue, is it? Dr. Dallas Willard, the eminent chair of Philosophy at the University of Southern California for many years, and a Christian, was once asked to give a talk at Ohio State University on the subject, “The University and the Brilliance of Jesus.” Present were professors and graduate students. After his talk a humanities professor said, “I’m confused. You are one of the world’s prominent philosophers, and you believe in Jesus Christ as the hope of the world?” To which Dallas gently responded: “Who else did you have in mind?” The professor was silent.” (Finding God Beyond Harvard, Kelly Kullberg, p. 145).
Do you have something worth believing in? I propose to you that there is something worth believing in, not just for this life—but for after death as well. The beautiful thing is that what we have hope in isn’t a thing—it’s a Person. A Person sent by his heavenly Father to be the answer to the sadness and hopelessness that plagues us. Hope in programs, or education or science and technology, or even philosophies can seem noble and intelligent—but they don’t care about you—they are things/ideas. You might place your hope in them for the long term good of society, but they won’t bring you much hope on a personal level.
Technology is a great gift, but when your life is broken and hope is gone—your smart phone, your Tablet, is just a piece of metal. Medical science is a great gift, but perfectly healthy people have chosen to end their lives because they couldn’t think of a reason to keep living. We need a deeper and more accessible hope. We need something that not only has a solution for societies long term needs—but also our broken and empty hearts.
God sent Jesus.
And ironically, in Jesus and Christianity we find a plan for true universal peace, a brotherhood of all people’s, the answer to physical sickness and death, the answer to the purpose and meaning to life, and a future for not only the world, but each one of us individually. He’s not a program, or a product, or an invention, or a philosophy, he’s a person. He can care about you, he can hear you, he can listen to you, he can answer you. What product offers you that? What philosophy offers you that? What technology offers you that? What scientific discovery offers you that? What new entertainment or diversion offers you that?
Which is why the hope of the Christian, the hope that Jesus offers to you, is the hope of the resurrection. As Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 15:19-20, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of all who are asleep.”
Nothing is worth believing in, no matter how good it sounds, unless it is true. The apostles who saw the risen Christ were willing to die before they recanted their conviction that they had seen the risen Jesus. Do you have an Easter worth believing in?