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O.C. RELIGION | ON FAITH

Christianity Stands On a Promise

October 07, 2000|JIM CARNETT | Jim Carnett is community relations director at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa

It hit me like a bucket of cold water in the face.

A former pastor of mine said that Christianity is the only major world religion that has as its central focus the humiliation of its own God. I'd never thought of it that way before.

It was love for his creation that caused the omnipotent author of a billion galaxies to allow himself to be abased on this tiny fly-speck of a planet. I refer to the world's scandalous treatment of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

The essence of Christianity is bound up in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of that 1st-century teacher whom orthodox Christians regard as more than just a human being. Generations ago, the Creator announced a severe standard: "The soul that sins shall die." But every human heart harbors sin; not one is clean. Where is our hope? God the Father sent his son to redeem a world incapable of redeeming itself.

Followers of virtually every other religion on Earth are compelled to climb a ladder of self-actualization and achievement to reach the transcendent. In Christianity, God himself climbs down that ladder and, on his back, carries his followers to the top. His is a scarred back, bruised and torn by a lead-laced whip and cruelly gashed by the beams of a roughly hewn cross.

The remedy for humankind is not a ladder or prayer wheel, pilgrimage, burnt offering or reincarnation. Rather, it is the Savior, Jesus Christ. In him, the Almighty steps into time and space and acts decisively on humanity's behalf.

While many believe in Christ's divinity and accept him as Lord and Savior, countless multitudes consider him only a man, albeit a remarkable one. They even date their calendars by his life. Others dismiss him completely.

I'd guess that those who view Jesus as a commendable role model but nothing more would deny his resurrection. They would have to; otherwise, they would have no choice but to drop to their knees in worship. Mortals don't die and three days later rise from the grave.

The Resurrection, Christianity's linchpin, is what catapulted the faith from Palestine's backwater onto the world's stage. After crossing the Mediterranean on the lips and pen of the Apostle Paul and many others, the story of Christ jumped oceans and swept continents. There were abuses in its spread, to be sure, but they were of human origin, not divine.

No culture anywhere views resurrection as normative. Its description stuns first-time listeners. But resurrection brings hope. Christ conquered death; perhaps I too might live.

Without the Resurrection, Jesus would today be nothing more than a footnote in history. The Buddha and Muhammad never made a claim for resurrection and were free of its awesome burden. But Jesus spoke often of his impending death and resurrection. His ultimate credibility hinged on nothing less than a physical return from the grave.

The bar for Christianity was set extraordinarily high. The faith system stands or falls on its founder's bold promise.

"If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith," Paul wrote bluntly to the Corinthians two decades after Jesus' death.

Near the middle of the first century, Rome wanted to crush this growing sect. That could have been accomplished easily by producing a body. The Romans, who invented crucifixion, weren't too fainthearted to make their point by exhuming a rotting corpse. But there were people in Jerusalem who had known Jesus. Multitudes had heard him preach. Still others had seen him after his resurrection. Most importantly, the tomb was empty, and that word was out on the streets.

We need not climb a ladder to encounter the transcendent. He has already reached down to us.

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion writer William Lobdell.

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