Tuesday, 26 April 2011


The Easter story, as most people know, centers around the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth - also known as the Messiah or "Christ".

This story is absolutely central to the Christian faith - to the extent that the apostle Paul famously wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14 that, "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith"!  Every now and again, another liberal-minded theologian seems to come out of the woodwork to suggest that Jesus' resurrection was not a literal, bodily resurrection, or was meant to be some kind of metaphor, but this is very clearly not what the early disciples and writers of scripture had in mind.

The resurrection - if true - is a mind-boggling event.  Everyone knows that people don't rise from the dead. We know it now, in the 21st century, but everyone knew it just as well back then.  When people die, they stay dead - especially if they've been crucified for several hours, skewered and then sealed up in a tomb!  What they don't do is get up, break the seal, roll the stone away and go for a walk.  It doesn't happen.  It doesn't require modern science or an enlightened 21st century mindset to work this out!  But nevertheless, according to the early disciples, this is exactly what Jesus did do and this remains the foundation stone of what has gone on to be the world's largest religion.  So either it was or has become an extremely convincing fraud, or it is - probably - the most monumentally groundbreaking event the world has ever known!

There have been many arguments - understandably - for and against the resurrection, and I'm not going to try and get into them all now (as if I knew them all anyway!), but to me the most convincing objective evidence seems to be the disciples themselves:

The 12 apostles all lived and travelled with Jesus for a period of more or less 3 years.  They had come to believe that he was the Messiah - the one who had come to save and deliver God's people from oppression.  What they thought this meant at this point is not exactly clear.  To begin with they presumably expected Jesus to lead the Jews to victory against the Romans but as time went on and they listened to Jesus' teaching it should have slowly become clear to them that his Kingdom was not going to work like that.  Whatever they expected though, all their hopes and dreams were invested in this man - who then went and got himself crucified!  They should have been devastated - indeed, according to the gospel accounts they were, at least to begin with - but then things changed rather dramatically.  Instead of just going back to their old lives, finding another saviour to follow, or perhaps even just trying to preserve his legacy - the disciples started preaching that Jesus had been raised from the dead!

Unless they truly believed it, this was a barefaced lie of enormous proportions!  Who was going to believe such nonsense - and what drove them to preach about it so powerfully?  Not only did they preach it though, with vigour and conviction, they were also able to convince thousands of others that it was true.  The New Testament book of Acts explains this unlikely set of events with reference to the Holy Spirit - the Spirit of God himself who empowered the early disciples to preach this message with such power that many seemed to find it irresistible, and to confirm its truth with all kinds of miraculous signs and wonders.  This is not an unreasonable explanation given how explosively the message seemed to spread in the face of all the odds and massive persecution and resistance.

Not only did the disciples devote their lives to preaching this message however, they were also willing to give up their lives for it - and many of them did so, dying gruesome and/or painful deaths as a result of anti-Christian persecution.

Could all of this really have happened off the back of a deluded fantasy, imagined or invented by a bunch of disillusioned followers of a dead Messiah?  Or is it just possible that what they say happened really did happen - that Jesus really was something special, and that he really did rise from the dead?  If it's true, then the rest of what they said is certainly worth listening to, and the rest of the world may turn out to be a very different place as a result!

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Do we need religion?

To many non-believers, faith/religion can seem a bit of a crutch - a fantasy to make people feel good or a story that helps the mentally or emotionally weak to cope better with their lives.  Of course it has other benefits - there is the social/communal side of religion and the moral structures which often contribute positively to the fabric of a society.

Do we really need religion though, to provide us with these things, or have we outgrown it now?  Surely we can appreciate the positive legacy that religion has left us (as well as some of the not so positive things!), learn from this and move on?  We don't need these superstitions any more do we?  We've become enlightened - why continue to live in the dark ages?

Well, as a "religious" person myself, I'm obviously not going to see it this way!  I've put that word in quotes though, because to me it's where a lot of the misunderstandings seem to start.

To many "non-religious" people, a "religion" is a system of beliefs and behaviours which its adherents have either found beneficial for some reason, or else have been scared or brainwashed into going along with.  An inclusive secular society tolerates religion - whilst also perhaps regarding it with a certain amount of suspicion - primarily in the interests of personal freedom, but perhaps also because of the personal and social benefits it often provides.

My own experience as a "religious" person though, has been quite different from this.  There is certainly a "systematic" side to the Christian faith.  Beliefs are passed down through sacred texts, discussed and debated by scholars, taught in churches and ideally, lived out in community with each other and in our daily lives.  Much personal and social energy is devoted to the propagation and application of these beliefs and an outsider could be forgiven for thinking the whole thing was some kind of corporate brain-washing exercise, or perhaps some sort of semi-delusional (or even completely delusional) self-help therapy on a grand scale!

All of this misses out on one vital element though, which can only really be seen clearly from the inside, and that is that  religion is all about God.  If there is no God, then the above paragraph pretty much sums up religion in its entirety, but once you encounter God for yourself, the whole picture changes.  Yes the systems and beliefs are there and contain much that is of benefit - developed as they often have been by others who have had similar encounters - but they are not the main point.  The main point is God: the one around whom these belief systems and practices have grown up, sometimes to the extent, unfortunately, that God actually becomes obscured by, rather than revealed through them.

So the real question then is not, "do we need religion?", but, "do we need God?"

Yes, "religion" can have many positive benefits and can also be a major source of oppression and conflict (which is a side of "religion" we could certainly do without) but the real issue is the deeper reality to which it points.

If God is there, and he made our world, then ultimately, life makes no sense without him.  We can enjoy his creation, benefit from everything he has made and even display many Godly qualities (although sadly we often don't) in our lives, characters and our treatment of one another, but if we're emotionally and spiritually disconnected from the one who is at the heart of it all then something fundamental is missing and our lives and societies will always be the poorer for it.