Unravelling the timing of truth


This is the sixth post in Peter Bolt’s series on the New Atheists. (Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.)

Once upon a time, way back at the beginning, the Christian movement was charged with novelty. Nowadays, it is charged with antiquity. In both cases, its ‘timing’ apparently shows it is wrong.

The message of Jesus’ resurrection was launched into the Graeco-Roman world, in which the antiquity of classical culture was paraded as a demonstration of its truth and a guarantee of the future of the Empire. The Christian message was criticized for being ‘novel’, and so a troublesome threat for the stability of that world. One of the charges levelled at Jesus before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate was that he had misled the Jewish nation by claiming to be a king (Luke 23:2). When Jesus rose from the dead, he was proclaimed far and wide as ‘Lord and Christ’. When this new message about a king other than Caesar came to Thessalonica on its way to Athens, the crowds rioted, saying its preachers had “turned the world upside down” by this novelty (Acts 17:6).

The complaint of the riotous mob was strangely prophetic. A notion such as “the inner person” (Rom 7:22; Eph 3:16) was certainly novel to classical society, with its negative analysis of the human heart, going back to Jesus (Mark 7:1-23), and the promise that Jesus’ Spirit brings inner renewal. The notion of Christ dying for all to make ‘one new humanity’ (i.e. incorporating both Jew and Gentile; Eph 2:15) was just as novel. The resurrection of Jesus, the king other than Caesar, had its novelty—and even if these had been the only notions that smelled fresh, these two alone were sufficient to “turn the world upside down”. And, in time, they did; ‘antiquity’ was overturned by ‘novelty’.

So much so that some in the present version of the western world that arose from the impact of these two notions (the inner man and the one humanity) now wonder if anything ancient is useful at all. Take ‘New Atheist’ Sam Harris, for example:

If we ever do transcend our religious bewilderment, we will look back upon this period in human history with horror and amazement. How could it have been possible for people to believe such things in the twenty-first century? How could it be that they allowed their societies to become so dangerously fragmented by empty notions about God and Paradise?1

Furthermore, it is not just ancient ‘theology’ that worries him. When it comes to ethical discussions, Harris also simplifies the choice: we can have a 21st-century conversation about morality and human wellbeing, or we can have a first-century conversation: “Why would anyone want to take the latter approach?”2

This is powerful rhetoric in a world that still remembers the 19th-century philosophy of inevitable progress and that still reels under the 1960s destabilization, in which change became the only constant. But what is its logic? Surely good logic tells us that the classical assumption is wrong: how can the chronologically prior always be better than the chronologically more recent? But the same logic should also tell us that the opposite claim is equally false: how is the chronologically more recent always better than the chronologically prior? Surely truth is truth, no matter how dusty or how shiny it is.

The resurrection of Jesus in the first century brought a new order of life into the world that is still available to the 21st century. The New Testament language of ‘new’ versus ‘old’ speaks not of chronology, but of a whole new mode of existence: “ Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17). With one resurrection already behind us, we look forward to that new event reaching its consummation in a future day of resurrection for many others: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

In our contemporary world, which is still looking for significant change, the now-ancient event of Jesus’ resurrection still speaks its novel message loud and strong.

1 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, Vintage, New York, 2008 (2006), pp. 88.

2 ibid., p. 50.

One thought on “Unravelling the timing of truth

  1. Good words.

    People will look back at Sam Harris’s books with horror and amazement. At least the old atheists were honest about their worldview necessarily jettisoning everything Christianity gave us.

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