All my life in the Church, I’ve been taught that a) one of my primary jobs on this earth is to testify, or bear witness, and b) that I should expect persecution when I do this. We look to Acts to see how those who testify about Jesus are thrown in prison, or stoned to death, as proof that the world just doesn’t want to hear about Jesus. This is most certainly true.
Even so, it never made sense to me when I was a kid. It certainly didn’t match my experience: making proclamations about the existence of God in the schoolyard, or lecturing my peers about their cuss words, certainly led to arguments! But I was never really sure if that was comparable to being jailed or stoned to death. The “offense of the gospel” didn’t really seem that offensive, I guess. Being a witness wasn’t very fruitful: I didn’t win any converts, and I didn’t get thrown in prison either!
This morning, my Sunday School group started working through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together, three chapters at a time. In the first three chapters, the most important thing that happens is that Lucy finds Narnia in the wardrobe, but when she returns, nobody believes her. Edmund even mocks her for her belief in this other world. We talked about how this is somewhat similar to our experience of “bearing witness” to the kingdom of God.
But let’s think about this carefully. Lucy is arguing for the true existence of Narnia, which is something that nobody else can see or touch or experience, yet is fully outside the boundaries of the natural world; of course nobody believes her! In our society today, arguing for the existence of God is like arguing for the existence of an invisible world in the back of your wardrobe. People respond with disbelief, because they have very little reason to do otherwise. They may mock us, but more often they’ll simply try not to encourage our belief (as Peter did for Lucy) or, increasingly, they’ll be quite happy to let us indulge in our delusion so long as we don’t force it on them. Honestly, given the content of our witnessing, I can’t really blame them.
Why is it that our experience of witnessing to the world is so different than the experiences of Jesus, Peter, and Stephen, to name a few prominent persecuted witnesses from the New Testament? Why were they executed, when we’re only scorned or ignored? Is it because we live in a different society, which really doesn’t care about religious beliefs at all? Or is it because we’re actually bearing witness to different things?
Lucy argued for the existence of the unbelievable, and even though it was true, her siblings had no reason to believe her. But they had no real reason to disbelieve her either, so her belief in Narnia was little more than an annoyance. But when Stephen made a long and careful argument in favour of Jesus in Acts 7, his audience wasn’t just annoyed, they beat him to death with big rocks.
Stephen’s message was not just about the existence of God – his audience already believed in God. And it wasn’t just about the deity or messiahship of Jesus – though that would be blasphemy, Stephen doesn’t actually talk about Jesus’ deity at all (and for all we know, he didn’t actually believe that Jesus was God the way that we do!), and he portrays Jesus as a prophet rather than as a king or messiah. His audience didn’t even get too upset when he called them names and compared them to their ancestors who killed the prophets. What was in his message that brought about his own death?
Stephen’s audience had plenty of reasons to disbelieve his testimony, and to try to prevent it from spreading. When he said “behold, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” the implication was that Jesus was approved by God. Jesus was critical of the religious Jews that Stephen was talking to – critical of their theology, but much more than that, critical of their practices, and specifically the way that they used religious practice as a way to gain authority and praise from the masses. Their entire religious system was corrupt, and Jesus pointed this out – and this is why they killed him. So when Stephen comes along and says, basically, “you can’t kill Jesus, because God has raised him to life; you can’t silence Jesus, because I will continue to speak his truth; you can’t carry on the way you are, because God approves of Jesus and not of you” – well, they have a big problem.
This is not an issue of simple belief, it’s an issue of judgment. Agreeing or disagreeing with the existence of God is a part of it, but it’s not particularly the point of Stephen’s proclamation. Lucy’s witness is all about the existence of the supernatural, and there are no consequences to belief or disbelief; Stephen’s proclamation assumes the existence of God, and instead focuses on the social and ethical implications of God’s approval of Jesus, meaning that there are dramatic and profound consequences to his message, just as there were for Jesus’ teachings.
Simply believing in God doesn’t require life change. As James points out, “even the demons believe, and shudder!” Sure, people usually need to believe that God exists before any of Jesus’ actual message makes sense (though there are many atheistic messages that catch most of the life-changing aspects of Jesus’ message, they lack most of their power if God isn’t a part of them). But as long as we leave it at that – the question of the existence of God – we’re like Lucy, telling people about Narnia. Even if it does exist, who really cares?
We usually try to argue for God’s existence in order to get to the “gospel” – the message that we can have forgiveness for our sins through Jesus. So the argument about the existence of God usually leads into the argument about the sinful nature of humanity, which is also a sticky point for a lot of people. And again, while this is a part of the foundation of Jesus’ message, it wasn’t actually what he was talking about; his audience already believed that human beings sin. But even if people believe that there are such things as ‘sins’, they recognize it as preaching morality, and usually personal morality at that. Because most of our audience today already believes that we should be nice to other people, not take unfair advantage of them, or hurt them, etc. Christian preaching about sins, then, are usually about the sins that people don’t want to acknowledge: the personal sins, such as hate, lust, extramarital sex, etc. And in the eyes of society, if it isn’t harming someone else, then it’s not a problem. Our “witness” often shifts to how our pers0nal sins really can affect other people, but more often, it focuses on how sin offends God.
This wasn’t a focus of Jesus’ teachings either. It was there, but the context was different: Jesus was telling religious Jews that their religious observance doesn’t please God; he was telling them that their practices were not having the intended effect, and were in fact having the opposite effect, keeping people away from God rather than bringing them to Him. In our context, we say that our sins offend God in the way that breaking the law in feudal Europe was an “offense against the King” – that somehow it offended the King’s dignity, and since the King’s dignity was worth more than yours, then you could be killed for doing so. This was not part of Jesus’ message.
If our “gospel” is just about getting let off the hook when we offend God’s dignity, it really only matters if someone believes in God. We’re actually creating a disincentive for people to believe in God. They may or may not believe that God exists; but if they do believe, then they’re on the hook for offending him; but if they don’t believe, they don’t need to worry about it, because like Narnia we don’t need to interact with God so long as we stay out of the wardrobe (or so it seems). Pascal’s Wager is still in effect (if you’re wrong, you’ll burn for it!) but that’s not exactly enticing: live an ascetic life on the off chance that the seemingly absurd statement that God exists is actually true? It’s not surprising that people reject the concept outright, because existential what-ifs don’t usually come across as being directly relevant to one’s life.
The part of Jesus’ message that was directly relevant to his audience is usually the part that our witnessing doesn’t even get to. Jesus’ message was a direct challenge to the Powers. He overturned social norms, religious systems, and political authority. When the Powers are threatened, they respond with violence: Jesus was crucified, Peter jailed, Stephen beaten to death with rocks. The Powers are there to create order, and often to do so they exert control over human beings, even if in so doing they end up defeating the purpose of that order (i.e. a just human society). Jesus preached freedom from unjust powers, and that true order in society comes from being willing to give up one’s place rather than relying on the rules in order to insist on one’s place. The Powers exist to keep order in a fallen world; Jesus urges us instead to rise up, to be not-fallen. The Powers are a bandaid; Jesus heals us. This is the part of Jesus’ message that was directly relevant (and threatening) to his audience, and it’s just as relevant, and just as threatening, to our audience today.
But we’re not bearing witness to this anymore. Indeed, we rarely understand it. We’re caught up in the context of Jesus’ message, and we never get to the point. We’re Lucy, not Stephen, and we’ll always get the same results as Lucy; eventually, someone else will corroborate our story, and believe in Narnia. But believing in Narnia wasn’t the point of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The point of the story was that Aslan breaks the power of the White Witch over the peoples of Narnia, and does it by revealing her corruption and evil through his own self-sacrificial love. Relationship with Aslan is restored, and the White Witch no longer holds the land in perpetual winter with no Christmas. We need to stop talking about the wardrobe, and walk through it to find Aslan and see the world being turned upside down. Then, when we talk about that, we’ll finally be like Stephen, or Peter, or Jesus himself – and the world will notice.