My fellow columnist Erick Erickson once again used this space last week to deliver a lecture on theology. If you read his column regularly you know it’s something he does quite a bit, and this time around he delivered a verbal smack-down to folks who call themselves Christians but don’t believe that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead.
I thought he started off pretty well, citing Scripture and 2,000 years of church history as evidence that belief in the Resurrection is a core belief for the vast majority of people who have referred to themselves as Christians over the centuries.
But then he got seriously off track when he tried to simplify the argument with a specious analogy. I imagine it was his way of trying to get his point across to his less-educated readers, but it was a definite swing-and-a-miss in this case.
The analogy went like this - since belief in Jesus’ resurrection is widely agreed upon as a necessary part of the Christian belief system, labeling yourself a Christian while not holding that belief is akin to calling yourself a vegetarian when you regularly eat meat. If we are going to be that loose with using words, he argued, then they have no meaning and anyone can call themselves anything regardless of how appropriate the term is in a given situation.
If you have some experience with words and their use in expressing ideas you probably spotted the problem with this line of reasoning.
The word “vegetarian” is a straightforward, one-dimensional term that describes something very specific — a person who does not eat meat. To use the term about yourself while chowing down on a steak, as Erick suggests, would plainly contradict the singular, universally agreed-upon idea that the word was created to describe.
The problem with equating the steak-eating “vegetarian” with a person who doesn’t believe in the resurrection calling themselves Christian is that the word “Christian” denotes something much more complex and multifaceted. The analogy is sloppy and misleading.
The dictionary defines “Christian” as “a follower of Christ.” And what exactly it means to be a follower of Christ has been hotly debated by interested parties for centuries, and the plethora of beliefs held by various Christian denominations bears witness to the fact that there is not a simple answer to the question.
But leaving aside the poor analogy, Erick is correct in asserting that belief in the Resurrection has long been considered an indispensable part of Christian theology by most professing Christians. And it’s fair to ask what exactly being a Christian means to people who don’t believe that it happened.
Most often I find that the answer is closely tied to whether or not someone believes that all the events related in the Bible are literally true, including all the supernatural signs and wonders related in the Old Testament and the tales of Jesus doing things like walking on water, healing the sick with a touch and, of course, appearing to people after his crucifixion.
Those who are not Biblical literalists may believe that the Bible is a mix of history and creative storytelling, much like the mythology of the Greeks and Romans. Their mythology often related historical events with fictional flourishes, livening up the proceedings by adding in the intervention of gods and the awe-inspiring things they were able to do here on our mortal plane.
Some people believe the Bible is a similar work of mythology, and some of them find the more down-to-Earth parts of the four Gospels (the teachings of Jesus and the moral example he set) to be credible, relatable and inspiring. As such they may consider themselves to be “followers of Jesus,” and may refer to themselves as Christians.
Many Christians consider that way of thinking to be heresy, but it is not an offense to the English language that causes all descriptive words to lose their meaning as was suggested on this page last week.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at email@example.com.