Christianity offers us everything during this time of crisis – atheism offers us nothing:
While I was out for a walk this morning, I prayed about what I might next write on, and various ideas converged. The weather itself was ideal: blue skies, sunshine, slight pleasant breeze, 23 degrees. Just the most perfect weather to take a walk in. Normally one could say that such conditions would lead you to not having a care in the world.
But of course we are not living with normal conditions. Coronavirus is all around us, and so many have already died from it (31,000 thus far). How many families, friends and loved ones are now grieving over the death of someone because of COVID-19? Right now this absolutely ideal weather (in Melbourne at least) brings little comfort to them.
But death of course is a reality for us all, and every day people die for all sorts of reasons. Whether because of old age, or accidents, or murder, or various diseases, death is an absolutely certain condition that we all must face. This contrast between a beautiful day and the grief of so many led my mind in various directions.
What came to mind right away was the title of a famous work by John Owen (1616-1683), the English Puritan theologian, church leader, and Oxford academic. I refer to his classic 1647 work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. J. I. Packer’s much more recent 20-page introduction to it is itself a classic exposition.
But then I thought of simply running with one well-known passage of Scripture, and offering a bit of commentary on it. In 1 Corinthians 15 we find the important discussion by the Apostle Paul on the resurrection of Christ. The last five verses (1 Cor. 15:54-58) are these:
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass 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. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
Incredible words – and words that all Christians cling to and adore. But they are the words that we all need – especially at a time like this. However, not all want them. Indeed, I still keep getting angry atheists coming to my site, mocking me and my posts. Many are serial pests – trolls who keep coming back to attack me and hate on me.
I have to laugh. The fact that they keep coming back to my site means they keep exposing themselves to a very good virus – the truth virus. Truth is contagious, and if they keep exposing themselves to truth, you never know what might happen.
One such troll – who has long ago been banned from my pages as per my commenting rules – just sent in another comment today. It said in part: “In your innermost thoughts I am sure you have doubts about the supernatural and the silence from the same for the last 2000 years. It must be distressing for you.”
Um, tell her she’s dreaming! The exact opposite is of course the case. I have tremendous peace and joy. However, the simple fact that she keeps returning here on a regular basis and keeps lashing out shows that she is the one who in her innermost thoughts is having doubts about the supernatural.
Good! Such people often cannot be reasoned with, because of their bizarre and irrational hatred of God. But we can pray for them. And prayer – along with truth – is something that has resulted in plenty of atheists finally laying down their arms and surrendering to the love of Christ.
As former atheist C. S. Lewis put it in his 1955 biographical volume, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life: “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,’ as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems.’ God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
So I always rejoice when these ornery atheists keep coming to my site and keep sending in angry and embittered commentary. They keep exposing themselves to truth, which will do them a whole lot of good if they stop their fixation on self and admit that the world might be a bit bigger than their very little reductionist, materialist universe.
All they have in the face of this crisis is the understanding that crap just happens. That’s it! Or as Richard Dawkins can only say about such things:
If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies… are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it: ‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature. Will neither care nor know.’ DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
Yeah, that’s really going to be a great comfort to folks as the corona crisis sweeps over the planet. But back to 1 Corinthians 15. Thomas Schreiner offers some theological observations on these closing verses:
The victory over sin and death is not a human accomplishment: thanks go to God for the triumph (Rom. 7:25; 2 Cor. 2:14). The victory over sin and death comes through the Lord Jesus Christ. As readers we must connect what Paul says here with the beginning of the chapter. Forgiveness of sins, and therefore victory over death, comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (15:1-4). Thanks are given to God because of the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And Craig Blomberg says this:
The ultimate vanquishing of death, with which 1 Corinthians 15 culminates, surely speaks volumes to those who continue to live in fear of death today. It is not just Sartre who has raised the specter of suicide as the only serious question for humans to debate. Existential and ecological fears pervade much of the non-Christian world. Christians ought to fear less. They may grieve the loss of loved ones and have a certain anxiety related to the unknown factors surrounding their own death, but neither reaction ought to be “like the rest of men who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Funerals for Christians ought to be first of all celebrations of their “homegoing.” While preserving a culturally appropriate solemnity, a spirit of joy and a message of hope should nevertheless pervade such ceremonies, which may even include a tasteful evangelistic address to unbelievers present. And the hope of resurrection should encourage those of us who remain alive to persevere in a “long obedience in the same direction” (v. 58).
Finally, Gordon Fee offers this commentary on the passage:
There is little doubt as to why it is read regularly at Christian funerals. Read without comment, it has its own power. Here the Word has its own regenerative power because it expresses the truth of Christ himself. But here, too, it is a word for all seasons. Our present existence in Christ, and our present labors, are not in vain. Standing between them is the sure word of Christ’s own triumph over death, which guarantees that we shall likewise conquer. Victory in the present begins when one can, with Paul, sing the taunt of death even now, in light of Christ’s resurrection, knowing that death’s doom is “already/not yet.” Because “death could not hold its prey, Jesus our Savior,” neither will it be able to hold its further prey when the final eschatological trumpet is blown that summons the Christian dead unto the resurrection and immortality. What a hope is this. No wonder Paul concluded on a note of exhortation that we may confidently continue on our way in the Lord.
No atheist can offer us anything like this. But God certainly can. As we read in Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Hallelujah!