Been reading a lot of philosophy lately – of both the secular and theological kind. So a new question struck me recently, maybe not a new question for you, but it has raised a series of related questions in my mind. I always seem to be better at asking questions than providing answers. Anyway, if you have any profound insights, please feel free to comment.
My observation which led to a question is this: I wonder if the reason the church is losing members, and is having the related issue of paralysis of evangelism, is because we are asking the wrong question. What I mean is, if we confront people with the wrong existential question, no matter how correctly they answer any other question, in the long run it really will not matter. This takes some unpacking, but stay with me for a little while and let me at least try.
Unless I am just flat out crazy, it seems to me that the Bible is totally unconcerned with proving that God exists. It simply takes for granted that God exists, that He is a personal God, that He is vitally interested in the creation He created, redeemed, and will at some point in time, completely renew. In fact, I will venture that until the time of the Enlightenment, it was assumed by virtually every culture that there was a god. Whether that god could be considered the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob might be debated, but with the exception of some far-Eastern religions, the existence of a god was never even questioned. So, if I am correct, all the ink that is spilled and the breath that is expelled trying to “prove” God exists is utterly a waste of time. For one, it cannot be done (otherwise, faith would be replaced by some laboratory test or other) and two, even if you could “prove” God exists, all you have done is expend a tremendous amount of energy to arrive where the Bible begins, “In the beginning God. . .”
A far more vital question relates to the historical existence and truthfulness of the claims of Jesus: that Jesus is the Son of God and that he lived, was crucified, was resurrected, and will return. Here again, however, at least for those of us living in the 21st century, these questions must be answered by faith. We cannot interview those who stood by the tomb of Lazarus, those who tasted the water turned into wine, those who stuck their heads in the empty tomb. “Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?” is therefore a legitimate and probing question. Sadly, however, “belief” in Jesus as the Son of God has been so watered down in our culture that quite literally any belief can qualify as belief in Jesus as God’s messiah. You can be a white supremacist, devoted follower of cultists such as Joseph Smith, or card-carrying member of the LGBTQ cohort and still proclaim to be a believer in Jesus as the Christ. Logically, and not just theologically, that is just impossible, but the use of logic went out the window decades ago.
So, it seems to me, that the question that is the ultimate question is this: “Will there be a supreme and final judgment that will separate the righteous from the evil, the right from the wrong, the blessed from the cursed.” I offer as evidence the fact that when both John the Baptist and Jesus started their ministries, their primary message was, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” They did not say, “believe in God,” or “yo, dudes, Jesus is da man.” They said “repent.” As in, judgment is coming, you better get right with God.
My second piece of evidence is what might arguably be called Paul’s first letter to any of his fledgling congregations, 1 Thessalonians. He wrote in 1:10, “. . . and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” While Paul is at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ to come (1 Cor. 15!), the existential question Paul seeks to answer is this – what does it matter? If there is no judgment to come, then what does it matter if Jesus is God’s messiah or not? Jesus could just as easily be God’s messiah (the Christ) if there is no judgment forthcoming. Clearly, the coming judgment was a primary, if not the primary, question.
Stated somewhat differently, if there is no coming judgment, it really does not matter what we believe! We can believe in God, or a god, or no god. We can be a racist or promote racial equality. We can follow Joseph Smith or Jim Jones or David Koresh or Joel Osteen – or nobody. We can be straight or gay or male or female or change what we think we are with the change in weather. It simply does not matter – we will all just vaporize at the moment of death, or all go to heaven, or something in between. God then simply becomes another deism, Jesus as the Christ becomes another prophet or guru, and our life on earth is utterly, totally, and completely meaningless.
On the other hand, if there is a coming judgment, then biblical truth really does matter. Then it really does matter what we believe God to be. It really does matter if we submit to the Lordship of Jesus. It really does matter whether we reject religious imposters. And it really does matter how we express our love for all races, how we express our solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized, and yes, even how we express our sexual natures. It really does matter if we accept the biblical teaching regarding morality and ethics, and yes, it really does matter that we obey both the weightier matters of God’s law as well as the lighter matters – so long as we correctly differentiate those distinctions (Matthew 23:23-24, Romans 14).
In short, the impending judgment is what will ultimately give our present life meaning. As far as the kingdom of God has been revealed, our life has meaning here and now. The ultimate revelation of what our life on this earth means will be made clear when we see the new heaven and the new earth.
This is not to suggest that we begin with the question of the judgment. Every person and every situation is different. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to evangelism and sharing the gospel of Christ. Some people need to see the reality of God. Some need to be confronted with the lordship of Jesus. Some need to even understand the authority of Scripture. But if we never get around to pressing the issue of the judgment, if we never get around to “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” we will never be successful in leading people into that kingdom.
I could be soaking wet, mostly wet, or maybe just a little damp. But the question has caused me to re-orient my own preaching and teaching. I hope it helps you focus as well.