The NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently interviewed Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, in an op-ed entitled “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?” The responses, like the one referenced in his op-ed’s title, can only be described as bizarre to hear coming from someone claiming to be a Christian. But this is what is being held up as Christianity to a watching world in the pages of a major media outlet, so it warrants a response. I encourage you to click the link above to read the whole article for yourself. Then let’s work through some of the more glaring issues and see how this stacks up against actual Christianity.
Kristof: “Happy Easter, Reverend Jones! To start, do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection? I have problems with that.”
Jones: “When you look in the Gospels, the stories are all over the place. There’s no resurrection story in Mark, just an empty tomb. Those who claim to know whether or not it happened are kidding themselves. But that empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”
This was a yes or no question that every Christian should know the answer to. The apostle Paul makes it pretty plain when he says that if you “confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” [Rom 10:9]. Moreover, Mark’s isn’t the only gospel. Matthew, Luke, and John are undeniably clear that Jesus was resurrected in bodily form, even noting that the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost until Jesus proved otherwise [Mt 28:9, Lk 24:30,37,39-43, Jn 20:17,27, Jn 21:13-14, Ac 2:32]. But what’s interesting is that the non-Christian interviewer sees the weakness of her answer better than the supposedly Christian minister/seminary president.
Kristof: “Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome?”
Jones: “For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.”
While “love is stronger than life or death” sounds very profound, I have to ask how exactly love is “stronger than death” unless death is not the end? I’m afraid she has missed the significance of the Resurrection. If Jesus did what no other person in all of human history has done or could do, and lived after death, never to die again, that is a jaw-droppingly awesome claim. And the claim isn’t merely that Jesus “wasn’t there” three days later; He walked and talked and ate meals with people. The Resurrection isn’t about a missing body, but rather a present Lord. But beyond that, let’s examine her concern about a “wobbly faith” based on the resurrection, and her two follow-up questions, “What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie?” Where could a Christian minister and seminary president go for an answer to such a perplexing question? I wonder…. Once again, the apostle Paul answers, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” [1Co 15:14]. He continues, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” [1Co 15:17]. And in case some didn’t grasp the significance of what he was saying, Paul lays out the dire implications for us: “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” [1Co 15:19]. Now, did Paul have a “wobbly faith”? Only according to Ms. Jones’ line of reasoning. Meanwhile the train wreck continues.
Kristof: “What about other miracles of the New Testament? Say, the virgin birth?”
Jones: “I find the virgin birth a bizarre claim. It has nothing to do with Jesus’ message. The virgin birth only becomes important if you have a theology in which sexuality is considered sinful. It also promotes this notion that the pure, untouched female body is the best body, and that idea has led to centuries of oppressing women.”
This has to be some of the weirdest, out-in-left-field answers in the whole interview. First, Christianity does not consider sexuality sinful. Sex is encouraged, just within the bounds God has set for it. Why would He set bounds for it? Maybe for the same reason fire is great in the woodstove warming up your house, but not so great when an ember gets out and burns down your house. Likewise, God has established boundaries for sex, but inside those boundaries, we are encouraged to enjoy it fully! [Pr 5:18-19] Second, Christianity has done more to liberate women throughout history than anything else out there. You can find more about that here. Third, the virgin birth is all about Jesus a) fulfilling a sign given several hundred years earlier by the prophet Isaiah [Is 7:14], and b) breaking the chain of original sin that has cursed every human since Adam and Eve. So yes, the virgin birth is a critical part of historical Christianity. But let’s see how she fares answering the “big question” for many people.
Kristof: “What happens when we die?”
Jones: “I don’t know! There may be something, there may be nothing.”
I could understand someone saying they don’t know all the details, but there is a pretty wide spread between “there may be something” and “there may be nothing.” That agnostic answer basically covers the entire spectrum from almost any religious view all the way to atheistic materialism. This is reminiscent of Paul’s analogy to those “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” [Ep 4:14]. That a seminary president is saying things like this is a bad sign for the training being given to future preachers attending that seminary. Those who teach bear great responsibility, and greater condemnation when they lead others astray like this [Jm 3:1]. But while she doesn’t know any of the most clearly defined Christian doctrines, she is surprisingly certain of one thing:
Jones: “And I’m absolutely certain that when we die, there is not a group of designated bad people sent to burn in hell. That does not exist. But hell has a symbolic reality: When we reject love, we create hell, and hell is what we see around us in this world today in so many forms.”
I’ve written at length about the justification of eternal conscious torment in Hell before (here, and here), but let me just note that I have yet to find anything in the Bible to insinuate that Hell is symbolic or a state that we create in this life. Perhaps the most tragic response was the following.
Kristof: “I’ve asked this of other interviewees in this religion series: For someone like myself who is drawn to Jesus’ teaching but doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection, what am I? Am I a Christian?”
Jones: “Well, you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.”
Perhaps this was meant to comfort the non-Christian interviewer in some way (a false comfort, I would argue), but all it shows is that you can be a “Christian minister” without actually being a Christian. Some might think that too harsh and ask who I am to judge whether she is saved or not. I can’t claim to be able to judge the human heart, but I think it is a fair assessment of her own statements. By her own admission, she can’t say she believes in the resurrection of Jesus, which is one of the few requirements God places on salvation. God makes salvation so accessible to people; it’s not about your money or power or talents or social class or ethnicity or any of the ways we categorize people. The invitation is open to all – “whosoever will” [Rev 22:17]. But acknowledgement of the resurrection, the proof God has given to show that Jesus is the Savior, is required. Jesus Himself warned us that there would be many who come before Him on Judgement Day saying, “Lord, Lord, did we not do…,” only to be told, “I never knew you. Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity” [Mt 7:23]. Even rising to the rank of seminary president won’t matter if that’s Jesus’ answer to you on the last day. Her interview was both shocking and heartbreaking to me; shocking for the level of biblical illiteracy (or unbelief) from someone in her position, and heartbreaking for the state of her own soul, for that of those she influences in her current position of leadership, for this reporter literally asking Christians for answers, and for his readers waiting to hear a Christian response and not getting one.
Folks, there’s a lot of false teachers out there. Be careful who you listen to. Be like the Bereans who are famous for fact-checking the apostle Paul against the Scriptures to verify that what he was telling them was in line with what God had already revealed [Ac 17:11-12]. Follow Paul’s advice to “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” [1Th 5:21]. And if you’re in the same boat as her, adrift in a sea of uncertainty, don’t be too proud to ask for help. I’d rather be an embarrassed seminary president asking the nearest Sunday School kid “What must I do to be saved?” [Ac 16:30-31] than to never admit my need and proudly take a bunch of impressive credentials to Hell with me. Instead, seek God while He may be found, whatever it takes.