I. What Matter of Man Is This?
Consider Socrates. We know of his existence 2nd and 3rd hand, because he did not write down his own teachings. We can feel confident that he existed, because various independent sources confirmed him even though they disagree in other respects. But we cannot, for example, but sure that Plato’s Apology, which is written as though it is an exact reproduction of Socrates’ words, is actually a word-for-word quotation. Yet, few philosophers or historians are bothered by this uncertainty, because the gift which Socrates left us–the Socratic method–retains its power regardless of how accurately we know the man himself. Indeed, the Socratic method would remain just as relevant even if the man known as Socrates were revealed to be a fictional character.
The same is patently untrue of Jesus Christ. The relevance of Christianity depends upon Christ’s historical reality. ‘If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain,’ (1 Corinthians 15:14) summarized Paul. Jesus’ resurrection–history’s one and only instance of death itself being defeated–is the proof of his teachings. Without the resurrection, Jesus would at best be rendered a mere Buddha-lite on the philosophical scale, since he would have claimed the power to defeat sin and the wages of sin (death) for us vicariously without actually demonstrating that ability. C.S. Lewis rendered this matter definitively in Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Thus ‘belief in Christ’ is inextricable from belief in the historical reality of his resurrection. Anything else puts one in the category of Thomas Jefferson–taking a razor to the Bible to excise the miraculous passages, leaving only some tatters of ethical advice that, frankly, can be got from other, earlier sources.
I mention all of this to pose the following question. Why, if the historicity of Christ’s resurrection is crucial, do today’s theologians neglect to consider his historicity in general? By ‘in general’ I mean this. There was something about Jesus that struck a chord with many of the pagan Romans that he encountered. First, a centurion at Capernaum (Matthew 8) asked for his servant to be healed, and the way he asked it was with such decorum that Jesus ‘marveled’ that his was a greater faith than he had seen in all of Israel. Then, Pontius Pilate interviewed Christ and thereafter declined to have him executed, even though ego, peer pressure, and mere convenience said to do otherwise. Finally, a centurion at the site of the crucifixion (likely someone who had seen many a Jew hung upon a cross) was overheard to say ‘Truly this Man was the Son of God!’ I would like to pose that very few Christians today, especially in the developed world, and especially again in the United States, could even attempt to provide a historical explanation for this phenomenon, because Jesus is so rarely considered in a general, historical context by pastors or the endless churn of modern Biblical commentary books.
Here is how I would briefly attempt to answer the question. The vast majority of pre-Christian and/or non-Christian classical literature is tragic in nature and genre. Be it Mesopotamia’s Marduk and Gilgamesh, Egypt’s Isis-Osiris-Horus-Set, Greece’s Zeus and Heracles and Achilles, Hinduism’s Arjuna and Krishna, India & China & Japan’s buddhas, etc., all of them basically have the same formula (even more basic than Joseph Campbell’s summary).
- The world is extremely hostile and painful.
- Only a rare few (heroes) can excel in such an environment.
- Even those rare few lose everything in the end.
To take this a step further–these stories are a summary or starting point for the philosophy of the ‘Mystery Schools,’ or the inner workings of the ancient religions themselves. This could perhaps be cursorily re-rendered as:
- Accept the hostility, pain, and transience of the world.
- Become a hero (aka, the exception to mediocrity/normalcy).
- Those who do so reap a reward for doing so outside of the world/after death.
The latter step is often lampooned by atheism as both unprovable and immoral, since to the untrained ear it sounds as though one is being told: ‘be moral in return for cash and prizes.’ However, anyone who studies the Mystery Schools for long, and in particular the people they were known to produce, comes to suspect that this cause and effect are inseparable. In other words, there is no room here for disingenuously doing good, because the ‘reward’ for doing this good involves, or is primarily about, becoming good. Summarized in a phrase, the reward sought by the Mystery School is a ‘spiritual evolution.’
From this one can determine that most every culture before a certain date thought:
- The world is inherently tragic
- And there is something very wrong with us that needs to be fixed/improved.
(Those fringe groups that disagreed with these points and instead, looking at man’s existential situation, concluded ‘I see nothing wrong here,’ were considered devil-worshippers and deviants.)
Their solution to the world’s tragedy and man’s flaws?
- Try very hard to fix yourself.
This was, to say the least, found wanting, although the Mystery Schools and their broader religions saw no present alternative. Thus even Judaism’s King Solomon–blessed (?) by God to be the Wisest Man in the World–penned Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most depressing book in the world, whose recurring refrain is:
Everything is meaningless!
Now consider the three Magi whom followed the Star of Bethlehem and (eventually) found the young Jesus. They were, though lesser than Solomon, arguably in the same philosophical boat. They had trained all of their lives to transcend the tragedy of existence and attain the awaited ‘spiritual evolution.’ Yet one strongly suspects that none of them felt they had actually succeeded in doing so. Then one day, the stars told them something that had never been told before. How to render what they ‘read’ in the sky likely requires a better mastery of astrology and Zoroastrianism than I have, but I imagine it was roughly this:
- An exception to the tragedy of the world, and the imperfection of men, has arrived.
And this, I would argue, is precisely Christ’s general historicity. He is The Exception in Mankind’s Story. Note: Mankind’s Story is accurate, and he is an Exception to it. An exception does not invalidate a rule, unless the rule states that it cannot be excepted. Indeed, if Christ were not the Exception to a verifiable status quo, he would not be significant. To recognize The Savior is to recognize that the world needs saving.
To be fair, current Christian theology often skirts this theme with the idea of Faith versus Works salvation, and it is possible that some pastors take care to note that every spiritual-religious tactic before Jesus Christ was Works-based. But on the whole, I feel that the developed/American church has so frail of a grasp upon the classical world (both the world before and during Christ’s lifetime) that this fine point is rather easy to miss. And my evidence for this missed point is unfortunately far more than mere conjecture.
II. Who Do We Think We Are?
The legacy of Christ’s disciples and the 1st century church is of faith during persecution. Of Christ’s 12 disciples, only one did not die tragically as a direct result of association with him: John, the author of Revelation (we’ll get back to him). Other, regular believers met their end at the Roman coliseum in its now unimaginably gory games. The three Apostolic Fathers, men who were ordained by Christ’s apostles to great effect, were:
- Polycarp…burned at the stake
- Clement I…drowned at sea
- Ignatius of Antioch…fed to lions
This legacy continues unabated to this day in the undeveloped and developing worlds. Christ predicted numerous times that this would be the case, even summarizing his call to salvation fatally as “Pick up your cross and follow me.” So, if anything were capable of surprising Christ about his own church, it would arguably be that some portion of it would enjoy a period in the absence of persecution.
If the world is tragic, and man is imperfect, and Christ is The Exception to the status quo of mankind’s world, then it stands to reason that Christ’s followers will be persecuted as an aberration. One might even say that a Christian’s mundane existence ought to be more tragic than that of nonbelievers, in the same way that a Christian’s transcendent existence is far richer, since they have already been granted the ‘spiritual evolution’ through faith in Christ rather than paganism’s works.
Thus, a lack of persecution is actually a troubling sign. It signals that a portion of the Church has come back into alignment with the world to the extent that the world no longer finds it overtly abhorrent. This concern reaches a fever pitch when we consider that the Bible calls Satan ‘the god of this world’ (2 Corinthians 4:4) and does not appear to contradict the validity of this offer (Matthew 4):
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Yet, American Christianity has become downright notorious for:
- its insulation from persecution
- the great expense of its campuses (indeed, the conflation of physical buildings with the metaphysical Church)
- the hefty salaries of its staff, sometimes comparable to or exceeding the private sector
- cramming donuts and coffee down one’s throat before worshipping, then rushing out to lunch after worshipping
- Irreverence during worship such as gossiping with fellow believers
- Displays of monetary or sexual status upon the guise of ‘dressing up for church’
- Nationalism (flags upon the dais as though God is on America’s side, rather than the other way around)
- selective legalism, wherein homosexuality is wrong but divorce is fine, etc
- the extremity of the ‘Health & Weath’ gospel, as though our homeless carpenter-messiah wants you to have two vacation homes and a luxury sedan
- the insidious subtlety of ‘Optimism with a side of Jesus’ theology, wherein believers are taught to always look on the temporal bright side…while living in the world ruled by Satan
Thus I am forced to conclude that the American church has perfected the art of having Too Much of a Good Thing. We have managed to reduce the sacredness of John 3:16 to a trite meme, wherein–because we have “fire insurance”–everything is rendered fine and dandy, and we’re free to frolic like puppies through fields of wheat and StAcK tHaT cAsH mOnEy. We then have the audacity to wonder why young Americans are no longer interested in going to church. It’s because our churches aren’t particularly different from anywhere else in the country–excepting that their entertainment factor isn’t really up to snuff, and the wifi’s a bit slower.
This leads me to ponder what would happen if the Mark of the Beast came on the scene tomorrow. The excuses for taking it are obviously going to be colossal. If none may buy or sell without it, then refusing it will initially result in becoming socially marooned, with the tools and calories at one’s immediate disposal constituting one’s only options. For Americans, this will likely be the first time they’ve experienced such a thing. In this existential paralysis, the fear of death will onset. Suddenly people who suspect to varying degrees that God wants them to be happy here on earth will realize that their faith is about to get them killed. Not just they but their family members may starve or be murdered if they do not take it. All of their neighbors are taking it. Everyone on social media is taking it. Some of their church friends are taking it. Maybe even their pastor is telling them to take it. The Rapture hasn’t happened yet, so this can’t be It? God wants the best for you–‘plans to prosper and not to harm’? Etc.
Of course, some theologians attempt to write off John’s eschatological prophecies as symbolic of his own time…but that does nothing to eliminate all of the other Biblical portions, including the Red Letters themselves (Matthew 24), that deal with the massive persecution of believers during the End Times. To say that the American church is in danger of getting caught with its pants down (‘like a thief in the night’) seems an audacious understatement. In fact–how many American Christians even know Revelation well enough to recognize its signs if they were to occur? How many pastors have been crystal-clear that:
- An Antichrist will take Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and declare himself to be God
- He will compel all to take his ‘Mark of the Beast’
- Those who do not take it will die or be killed as a consequence
- Jesus has not returned unless it is in the heavens with an angel-army and reality-rending terror upon earth (anything else is an impersonation)
…much less the other relevant details of John’s visions?
Brothers, sisters…The entire world was just ‘shut down’ for the first time in history. ‘Smart tattoos‘ or ‘drawn-on-skin technology‘ are about to be the new Must Have accessory. There is talk that a gene-editing (mRNA) C*VID19 vaccine should be a mark so as to easily attest to immunity. Microsoft has patented ‘060606‘ for cryptocurrency payments based on body activity. Elon Musk thinks we have just five years until Artificial Intelligence begins warping reality beyond human control. His solution is Neuralink–inserting a chip into the brain to become symbiotic with A.I. None of these things definitively spell ‘Mark of the Beast’ yet, but they sure do rhyme. I recommend making your decision now before necessity forces it upon you. It is not unreasonable to plan for the eventuality that you are the Last-Century Church.
If you are not a believer and instinctively recognize what is being said here, please follow these tried and true instructions (Romans 10), then share them with those who will listen:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.