Who’s in Charge Here? What Easter Means for America Today
Rapid-fire publication of William Bennett’s Index of Cultural Indicators, James Q. Wilson’s The Family Values Debate (Commentary), and Barbara Whitehead’s Dan Quayle Was Right (Atlantic) only confirm what we already know: Since the 1960’s America has suffered, in Bennett’s words, “substantial social regression.” Family disintegration, illegitimacy, abortion, drug abuse, violent crime, teen suicide, poverty, illiteracy and more have seriously and demonstrably increased.
The question is: Why?
At the risk of oversimplification, I would answer by saying that these problems are traceable to a cultural crisis of authority. Assuming for the moment that most people want to do what’s right–whether for themselves, their families, or their communities–our current problem seems to be finding out what is right, so that we can get about doing it.
Unfortunately, the prevailing assumption among the American intelligentsia–especially on our campuses and in the media–is that moral absolutes do not exist or cannot be known. In this “postmodern” and relativistic environment, there is therefore no single locus of truth and moral authority for men, nations, or institutions. Each person, we are told, must do what is right in his own eyes.
Most of us, however, do not find much comfort in that philosophy, especially when we see it slowly destroying the people and the land we love. We long for a clear, trustworthy, authoritative word to show us the way of life. In short, we ache to know who, if anyone, is in charge here.
Hope Comes to Athens
To this crucial question I find a stunning answer in the apostle Paul’s sermon to the philosophers of Athens (Acts 17:l-22-3l). Deeply moved by the religious confusion he saw around him, the evangelist proclaimed to his audience that in Jesus of Nazareth God has at last revealed to all nations not only their Savior from sin, but the rightful Head of their culture, the One who can lead all cultures out of religious and moral confusion into the healing light of God’s truth and loving watch-care.
Paul’s words are charged with hope. In former times, he says, God permitted the nations to go about in their own idolatrous ways, even as he was meticulously preparing little Israel to give the world its rightful King. But now “the truth is out.” Now the rightful Ruler of all nations has arrived on the scene. Accordingly, the time for God’s “winking” at idolatry is over. Henceforth, he is commanding people everywhere to repent, for by Christ he soon will judge the world in righteousness.
Though challenging, such a message obviously offers hope to people struggling with religious and philosophical confusion. But why should anyone–whether Athenian or American–believe it? Understanding perfectly our need of a rational basis for faith, Paul answers in words that would ever after ring down the corridors of time: “Because,” said the apostle, “God has furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
Since Easter is again upon us, let us consider this amazing proclamation afresh. Moreover, as we do so, let us fervently hope that we, as a nation, do better than certain Athenians in his audience who could only sneer at the idea of a bodily resurrection. For Christ’s resurrection is arguably the most thoroughly–and most wonderfully–attested miracle of all time.
The witnesses are many. Old Testament history mystically anticipated it in various historical events (e.g., the “resurrection” of Isaac from the sacrificial pyre, and the “resurrection” of Jonah who was spewed onto the shore after three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish). Old Testament prophets spoke of it often (e.g., Psalm 16; Isaiah 53; Hosea 6). Jesus himself predicted it on several different occasions (Matthew. 20; Mark 9; John 2, 11). The empty tomb confirms it, as does the complete silence of history on what “really” happened to the body. Most impressively, hundreds of disciples–both men and women–were personal eyewitnesses of the risen Christ, many of whom bravely went to a martyr’s death strengthened by that very faith (1 Corinthians 15).
For all these reasons, Christ’s resurrection is the single brightest supernatural light shining in the darkness of our time or any time. Indeed, it appears to be God’s very own lighthouse, pitched on the high cliff of history so as to guide all persons and all nations to the one voice–the one authority–that alone can give safe harbor.
Unknown No More
Paul’s message of hope was delivered in a marketplace full of idols. Noticing that one of them was dedicated to “The Unknown God,” he shrewdly seized upon it to make known to the Athenians the one true God; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Israel; the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; the God who had lovingly created them; the God who alone could teach them how to live and prosper; the God who gave proof of all this by raising his own Son–the world’s appointed Savior, Teacher, and King–from the dead.
The situation is no different today. Once again the spiritual marketplace is filled with religious, philosophical, and “scientific” idols. And once again–especially at Easter–God commands us to abandon them all and turn to his Christ, who is the divine repository of all spiritual authority and truth. In short, Christ alone has the authoritative words of life. Yet in speaking them to us, he is ever gentle and humble in heart. He understands our confusion, and is always compassionate towards those who need time to consider his claims carefully. In every age, he is a patient friend to seekers of truth.
It should not be supposed, however, that God’s command to repent is optional. To spurn Christ’s lordship–as many in America have done–is to invite precisely the disaster that engulfed Greece and Rome, and that we now see looming over us. The Creator has a right to rule over his creatures, and desires to do so in love and blessing. But he can, must, and will judge those who rebel–those who, for selfish ends, prefer to reign over themselves.
So then, Paul’s visit to Athens sets two roads before us. As ever, when he finished his message, some sneered. But others–yearning for a trustworthy spiritual authority and a sound foundation upon which to build their lives–boldly replied, “We shall hear you again concerning this.”
This Easter, let us choose the second road. Let us be like those who sought: willing to keep listening till we clearly hear the voice of the one true King, whose loving reign is the one true hope for the resurrection of our land.