April 2009

Easter and ‘God is Dead’ claims

April 9 2009 by Gene Scarborough

It was 1967. I was president of the Emory University BSU and a senior contemplating a call to ministry vs. a PhD in psychology. What a surprise when I read Time Magazine to see on the cover: GOD IS DEAD. It was even more shocking to see that Dr. Thomas J.J. Altizer of Emory University’s religion department was one of two cited as espousing the statement which was birthed by Frederick Nietche. “God Is Dead” — what did they mean?

The Methodists of the south breathed a little sigh of relief in that Altizer was not a professor at Candler School of Theology “corrupting” student preachers of that fine institution, rather a part of the college where I was attending. Candler had and still has an outstanding faculty equivalent to the rest of my world-reputed alma mata.

Quickly a colloquium was called for Friday night in Glenn Memorial Auditorium, the beautiful and large chapel on the corner of the campus. The room was packed to overflowing and all were abuzz with excitement. Two speakers were to address the issue — Altizer with a rebuttal by the Methodist chaplain. All the media was present and here I was on the front row of an eye-popping headline. The preachers of Atlanta, especially Baptists, were falling in line to declare, “My God isn’t dead — sorry about yours. I talked with Him this morning and He was alive then. Altizer and his like will surely go to Hell! See how ‘liberal’ colleges are becoming. They are corrupting all our youth.”

Altizer took the podium first. He spent some 40 minutes trying to explain and communicate. It was a total clown act of the Richard Nixon variety. After saying, “Let me make this perfectly clear,” he rambled, used 25 cent words, and said about as much as I said when trying to “bull” my way through a hated history exam. My professor would have given him a “D” for lack of clarity.

The Methodist chaplain did much better. He explained that the concept of Nietzsche had to do with the idea of a “transcendent” God vs. an “immanent” God revealed in Christ. In other words, the God of “out there in the universe” became the God “in here on earth in flesh and blood” through his total presence in Christ Jesus. Another way of saying it is that God poured Himself so totally into Christ that He transitioned (as if through death) from one form into another. Totally divine became totally human.

WOW — that sounded more like the Baptist Faith and Message than some crazy theory about God being ended through death. God can’t DIE! We Baptists knew better. Had the controversy occurred in the 1890’s it would have proven the theory then voiced that Baptists were the only ones going to heaven and the Presbyterians, Methodists, and certainly the Catholics were going to hell. We had the corner on the market of “right” religion!

Now let’s look at why the headline got so much undeserved attention in 1967 and still into today. How many TV preachers have you heard in the last year say “My God Is NOT dead!” as if there was a report every week threatening to end all religious belief?

What the word “dead” said to the average frightened believer is the same thing we fear most when told, “Your loved one just died.” The instant reaction of human thinking is “I will never see them again and what will I do without them?” It is in all our human hearts and minds during the initial hours of grief and loss.

After the initial shock and grief subsides our faith begins to offset our earliest thoughts. With the love of friends, faith verses read in the memorial service, songs of faith sung, and ministers of faith reminding us that death is just a transition to the “life above,” our heads begin to function and control hearts still full of loss. The true believer knows in his heart there is more to life than death. If we believe Jesus rose again, then it is simple to believe we will too. If God raised Him from death even though He was a man, then this proves God can do a miracle for any of us today. Praise be to God! That is the central message of Easter Sunday coming.

Wait a minute! We have such glorious Easter services and relish the affirmation of a risen Lord, but people went ape when Altizer et al said, “God Is Dead.” Do we really believe in our hearts death is just a beginning? If we did, then such a statement would not really bother us at all. I fear we get so involved in choirs, orchestras, organs and the Easter bunny we put on a good show but miss the core of faith that God really died horribly in Christ and was raised again.

Easter is much more than an adaptation of pagan rites of spring, with Jesus replacing nymphs and fairies. Where pagans had orgies of feasting in celebration, Christians had the Lord’s Supper and sunrise services. For a true Christian to get mad and fight over someone’s claim that “God Is Dead” is about like a pagan going to an orgy, waking up in time for the sunrise service, and going to it smelling of booze and hangover!

Too many mix the ways of the world with just enough Jesus to keep the smell of booze from going further than the perfume splashed on to hide it. Be careful that we not play a game rather than live a faith that will see us through hard times.

 (EDITOR’S NOTE — Scarborough is a former pastor and financial counselor who is now a tree surgeon living on the Pamlico Sound in Bath.)

4/9/2009 8:09:00 AM by Gene Scarborough | with 0 comments