Gullibility, Rebellion, or ...?
Mar 01, 2012 by Craig Blomberg | 7 Comments
“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.” (Acts 17:11-12)
I admit to being puzzled. It’s not that I haven’t had countless conversations over my lifetime with people who rejected Christianity for some other worldview. I began doing so in the hippie generation, in the era of drugs, free sex and war protests. I’ve listened to people give very well thought out reasons for opting for something other than Christian faith. I’ve listened to (chemically induced?) rants that were virtually incoherent. I’ve heard people defend perspectives and have realized that they simply had never learned about alternatives to those perspectives. When presented politely and lovingly, they were usually willing to listen, weigh the options and, over time, decide if they wanted to change their views or not. I’ve met lots and lots of people who were very obviously hurt by things and people in their past and consciously or unconsciously were in short- or long-term rebellion against them. Sometimes Christians were among the offenders, and the victims were (wrongly but understandably) throwing out Jesus as well as (rightly) distancing themselves from their abusers.
But it seems I keep encountering a rather new phenomenon these days. Is it internet induced, where we’ve become people who simply don’t know how to separate fact from fiction—i.e., gullibility? Is it just a new manifestation of the age-old problem of rebellion, as G. K. Chesterton put it a century ago in England: when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything? Or is it something else?
The most recent example involves a young couple, active in our church for awhile, who have clearly heard the gospel in many creative and powerful ways from our team of excellent preachers, professed faith in Christ, appeared to grow in the Lord, and have now announced they are giving it all up because the husband read a book in which the resurrection was explained as pure metaphor. The author, a prolific writer and well-known radical Anglican bishop (need I say any more?), argues that it is simply impossible in a modern, scientific age to believe in a bodily resurrection.
Of course, the argument isn’t new. Most people didn’t believe the story in Jesus’ world either. Had it been understood as a metaphor back then, Jesus’ followers would have faced little opposition and their ranks could easily have been flooded with as many followers as joined any one of the panoply of Greco-Roman sects competing with them. When I was a young adult, philosophers of science pronounced far more confidently than most of them do today that the supernatural was simply impossible. Rudolf Bultmann was the darling child of the radical theologians with his program of demythologizing—aka, treating the resurrection as a metaphor. And a lot of people followed him. Never mind that there are no known ancient Jewish uses of the concept of resurrection metaphorically—the idea always meant bodily reanimation. Never mind that there are modern, credible eyewitness testimonies to resurrections of individuals after several hours of showing no vital signs but concerted Christian prayer. So what’s the difference?
Maybe it’s just my faulty memory. But what I don’t remember are people reading a new, radical option to the Christian faith, discussing it with no one, being unwilling to discuss it with friends who came to them and said, “you know other people have responded to that kind of perspective with some important arguments you might want to consider,” not doing any searching themselves for other perspectives (and this in an era when research actually meant hunting for an hour or two in libraries for things, not just typing a few words and clicking a mouse a few times), in fact not even being curious as to how someone who disagreed with them might explain themselves. What I remember are lots of lively conversations that discussed precisely such disagreements.
In other words, as far as I can see there’s no process at work in what I watch happen today. It’s more like turning off a light switch. One day people are participating in Christian activity, happily talking about their faith without any hint of angst. The next day someone reads a website, finishes a book or article and they are gone. Granted, undisclosed mental questionings may well have been going on for some time. But the fact that the people don’t talk to their Christian friends about their questions, including those with a track record of listening empathetically, not reacting badly, and calmly being willing to respond, and then after their announcement, when someone comes to them in that spirit, are equally closed even to a calm discussion—all this is something new in my experience. And this is scarcely the first time in recent years I’ve watched it happen. It tends to be most prevalent among the millennial generation but I’ve seen it afflict baby boomers as well!
It’s interesting to read about the Berean residents in first-century Greece, who were Jews challenged by a new perspective—Paul’s—and neither immediately accepted nor rejected it, but did the best research they knew how to do in their world. They reread their own Scriptures, the Hebrew Bible or what Christians call the Old Testament, to see if these new interpretations of old texts (which included taking passages on Israel’s restoration as typological precedent for bodily resurrection!) could at all be true. Indeed, Luke uses a fourth-class conditional clause in verse 11, an archaic grammatical form in first-century Greek, to stress their doubts—a woodenly literal rendering of the clause the NIV fluently translates as “to see if what Paul said was true” could read, “if these things might just possibly hold thusly.” In other words, they were quite skeptical. They were neither gullible nor rebellious but certainly very curious.
As a result, some came to believe and others didn’t--but only after a process of investigation, weighing the alternatives, and discussion and debate. Surely that is a model for what rational, intelligent human beings should do with respect to any important questions of life, whatever they may conclude. Does anybody reading this have other assessments that I haven’t considered?