German Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed by Nazis shortly before the liberation of his concentration camp, wrote these words in what he considered to be his most precious work, his “Ethics,”
If it turns out, however, that these realities, myself and the world, are themselves embedded in a wholly other ultimate reality, namely, the reality of God the Creator, Reconciler, Redeemer, then the ethical problem takes on a whole new aspect. Of ultimate importance, then, is not that I become good, or that the condition of the world be improved by my efforts, but that the reality of God shows itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality.
What Bonhoeffer is communicating here is something I’ve called “the continuing significance of Easter.” For all our talk about chocolate eggs and rabbits, there is indeed a crisis in the American church, namely the preponderance of “Christmas and Easter only” Christians—those who attend church services twice a year, at most.
While reactionaries have decried the rise of the “nones” as a demographic, what’s more concerning to me is that the increasing tide of secularization in the United States has not, as of yet, brought much-needed reform to our churches. In other words, secularization hasn’t cleansed the temple of cultural Christianity.
The continuing significance of Easter, for us and for the world, is that Jesus Christ actually did rise from the dead and that the Christian life involves a transcendent communion with the Triune God on a daily basis. Many theologians have called this special relationship our “Union with Christ.”
What does not occur to many people is that the imperatives, or rules, of the Gospel, are not actually guidelines, but descriptions of what the behavior of someone who has already professed Christ should look like, at least generally. The de-spiritualization of Christianity has turned the message of deliverance from Death into another Law, and a really burdensome one at that.
It’s not easy being “religious,” and God doesn’t expect us to be. God does expect us, however, to begin to see real, meaningful change in our lives when we have professed belief in Jesus Christ. As Bonhoeffer said, “[The most important thing] is not that I become good, or that the condition of the world be improved by my efforts, but that the reality of God shows itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality.” It’s important that we clarify what he’s not saying. Bonhoeffer isn’t critiquing Christian charity or the incredible good that Christian mission organizations are doing for underserved communities. What he is saying, however, is that the most important aspect of our ethical system as Christians is that we should, unsurprisingly, realize that the ultimate reality of God does indeed show itself everywhere to be the ultimate reality that gives meaning and coherence to our lives.
The American social custom of going to a church on Easter isn’t an ugly one in and of itself, but it quickly becomes what some have called “hell insurance.”
We think of the words of Christ in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus has overcome the world, and in him is the victory of life. Hell has been beaten and he has risen from the grave. We shouldn’t be looking for hell insurance, we should be looking for a relationship with the one who has counted and numbered the hairs on our heads.