Encountering the Risen King
It was the ‘Roaring 20s’ (1920s, that is) and everyone assumed things were going to get better and better and ultimately conclude in man’s version of utopia. That is, until World War I came, hailed as ‘the war to end all wars,’ only to have World War II follow closely on its heels. People were left reeling, dazed, and confused. What does this mean?
In his new book on Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter, Tim Keller offers a critique of secular hope. He begins by noting that the secular hope in progress (especially during early the early part of the 20th century) failed due to two design flaws: “The problem of human nature” and “the problem of ultimate oblivion.”
Concerning the flaw of human nature all we need do is look at the horrors of Auschwitz and ask, ‘Why did this happen? Why did the Nazis do what they did?’ Some theorized that ‘the Nazis failed to follow the scientific method and the dictates of human reason.’ While others presumed that the ‘Nazis were simply more evil people than others.’ They were inferior to us. However, ‘as soon as we say that the perpetrators of Auschwitz are morally inferior to us, we begin the same process of dehumanization that led them to exclude, marginalize, and destroy the Jews.’
The only viable answer to the question is this: ‘Auschwitz happened because of something profoundly wrong with human nature. There is something warped and wrong within us,’ writes Keller. He then quotes Lord David Cecil who summed up the tragic flaw when he said after WWII: ‘The jargon of the philosophy of progress taught us to think that the savage and primitive state of man is behind us…. But barbarism is not behind us, it is [within] us.’
The notion of secular hope in progress has a second major problem. The original Christian idea of historical progress was that history was moving not just to an ending, but to something good beyond history. God’s renewed world will be the culmination and fulfillment of all the best of humanity’s aspirations and hopes throughout history. Noting the contrast to Christian teaching, Keller states,
“But the secular idea of progress believes in nothing at all beyond this material world. This means not only that when we die as individuals we go to nothing, but also that human civilization itself will eventually disappear without a trace. In other words, the secular hope is only for a progress that is very temporary. It assumes that the actual destiny of human history is complete oblivion.’
Drawing on an essay by C. S. Lewis, Keller emphasizes the ultimate despair of secularism:
C. S. Lewis penned a brief essay, “On living in an Atomic Age,” in 1948, when the possibility of a nuclear war loomed. He wrote that many people were frightened that the atomic bomb could “totally destroy civilization itself.” He responded: ‘What were your views about the ultimate future of civilization before the atomic bomb…? What did you think all this effort of humanity was to come to in the end? The real answer is known to almost everyone who has even a smattering of science…. The whole story is going to end in NOTHING.’ He added: ‘If Nature is all that exists – that is, if there is no God and no life of some quite different sort somewhere outside Nature,’ then all of human civilization will eventually die with the death of the sun, and so humanity will turn out to have been ‘an accidental flicker… infinitesimally short in relation to the oceans of dead time which precede and follow it… and there will be no one even to remember it.’
Lewis is making the point that, if this material world is all that exists, ultimately all our loves, our persons, and accomplishments will come to nothing. Lewis, of course, is pushing us to this conclusion so that we might begin to question it. Lewis writes:
‘You can’t go on getting any very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion, that you like it only because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it. You may still, in the lowest sense, have a ‘good time’… [but] you will be forced to feel the hopeless disharmony between your emotions and the universe in which you really live.’
‘When Lewis speaks of the disharmony between our emotions and our view of the universe,’ writes Keller, ‘he is pushing us to see that the secular worldview is not actually something that, deep down, anyone can truly hold.’ He reminds us that, if everything within us has a material cause, then love and even our moral convictions are really just the product of biological forces that helped us survive. He then asks, ‘But does anyone really believe that? Indeed, can anyone believe that?’ Simply stated, ‘Lewis is arguing that, at the practical level, no one can live consistently with the belief that we are only matter and that our ultimate end is oblivion. So we have no hope.’
‘Unless there is a God who has promised to guide history not to an end but to a new beginning, to a world in which finally death and evil are completely destroyed and justice and peace reign supreme, the sign of which is the resurrection.’ Join us this Easter Sunday as we consider the historical and personal aspects of Christ’s resurrection from the Gospel of John chapter twenty (John 20:1-18).
He is risen indeed,