I’m scrolling through the timeline on sunny afternoon. After an excursion to the library in the morning and a luxurious luncheon in the Botanics my mind was mulling matters of religion. We can circle around other topics, but it always seems to come back to this – why do people believe and what do people actually believe in?
Before we roll away the stone, it may be worth mentioning what has rekindled my interest in Christian theology recently. Firstly, I set myself the task of becoming more generally knowledgeable about stuff during lockdown, starting from the start – the world of Ancient Rome and historical Jesus, and then jumping ahead to the various reformations of the early modern period. Secondly, at the end of last year, I read the utterly astounding Dominion by Tom Holland, which is a history of Christian ideas through time, which I wrote about in December.
I want to start this post with a bold claim but one which is not novel: Christianity is the atheist religion.
Christianity is about how to live in a world without God, at least as an active interlocutor. The Son has ascended to heaven, the Father no longer intervenes with the drama of the old testament and we are left only with the Spirit. The interventionist God is gone, and we must decide how to live in the interregnum between the departure and the return, which may as well be perpetual.
What then, is the point in believing anything at all? Well, to understand that you have to understand that Christianity is not about the present, it is, rather, eschatological. In other words, it’s concerned with what happened and what will happen. Where things get confusing is that what happened is continually happening, as is what will happen, according to most denominations.
Doubt about precisely what happened is baked into Christianity. Even Christ himself, in the agony of dying, cried out, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”
The resurrection is not part of a worldview that believes such things are generally possible. Christ’s return to life is the one exception proving the rule, that death is not conquerable, but in the life to come.
Christianity is a fundamentally materialist religion. Christians are not encouraged to heap scorn on Thomas, the doubter, but to doubt with him – to become an unbeliever, a rational sceptic, until we have seen, and we have touched the wounds of Christ. You can imagine then to the incredibly cloth-eared tweet of Prof Alice Roberts, which she posted on Good Friday this year:
Just a little reminder today. Dead people – don’t come back to life.Prof Alice Roberts, 2nd April 2021
Inadvertently, Prof Roberts hit upon a theological point rather close to the Christian message and strikingly in tune with the church’s cyclical calendar.
On Good Friday, Christians do just that – remember that dead people don’t come back to life, that for three days the son of God was beaten by human mortality in the cruellest way imaginable. Light had gone from the world and there was no hope or expectation that it would ever return. On this day, Christians are encouraged to put from their minds any redemption to be gleaned from suffering and to focus solely on the torture and unmeaningness of violence as a brute fact of being incarnate creatures. It is on Good Friday that Christians are their most atheist, and this is absolutely necessary if what follows is to have any earth-shattering, life-changing significance.
I am not a Christian. I identify with all the steadfast non-believers throughout history who ridiculed the church, whether openly or privately, and just got on with life without the need for religion or approval from the man upstairs. However, if you are going to attack Christianity, I’m sure we can all agree you can do better than to affirm the very thing that makes it so: Dead people die…AND YET!