He lives!

Have you ever heard of Rudolf Bultmann?

Bultmann was a liberal theologian who lived in Germany during World War II and Nazism. His biggest contribution was a belief that the Gospels needed to be “demythologized,” meaning that the stories of Jesus were filled with myths and it was our job to separate the myths from the truth and split history from faith. For example, one of the biggest myths Bultmann saw in the Gospels was the resurrection of Christ, simply because people do not come back from the dead. He would say something like the following: even though I might not believe in the literal resurrection of Christ, Christ is raised in my faith, in the preaching, and in my heart. (Bultmann is much more complex than this, but I have to summarize here.)

So maybe you never heard of Bultmann until now but maybe now you can recognize his impact on the academy, church and believers. Let me focus on one example of how, if not careful with our words, we can fall into Bultmann’s trap.

There are two Christian songs you probably have heard and even sing. Although these songs can help us worship, the choruses are worrisome to me in light of what I have told you about Bultmann above.

One is an older hymn called, “I Serve a Risen Savior,” and the other is a recent song by the Newsboys called, “God’s Not Dead.”

“I Serve a Risen Savior.” Chorus: “He lives; He lives; Christ Jesus lives today. He walks with me; He talks with me, along life’s narrow ways. He lives; He lives, salvation to impart. You ask me how I know He lives. He lives within my heart.”

“God’s Not Dead.” Chorus: “My God’s not dead. He’s surely alive. He’s living on the inside. Roaring like a lion.”

  • Problem #1: The question put forth in the hymn is, “How do you know He (Jesus Christ) lives?” The answer the song gives is, “Because He lives in my heart.” The Newsboys’ song is very similar. The way we know God is alive is because “He is living on the inside.” The first problem, then, with these answers is that they are not biblical. When the apostles were asked how they knew Christ is God and is alive they said, because He was resurrected from the dead! Peter, in the sermon at Pentecost, said, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. … This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” (Acts 2:23-24, 32) When Paul preached Jesus he said, “But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the father, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus… .” (Acts 13:30-33) Nowhere do you find the apostles saying we know Jesus is alive because He lives in our hearts. How is it that the Spirit of God, of Jesus, lives with us? Because Jesus was raised from the dead! One of the purposes of the Spirit is to testify to the resurrection of Christ. In Acts 1:8, Jesus said the Holy Spirit will come and enable His disciples to be His witnesses. Witness of who, of what? Of Christ resurrected from the dead! In John 13 and 16, Jesus tells His disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit, who will, yes dwell with them, but will be their Helper and testify to Truth.
  • Problem #2: The theology found in both these songs makes it all about ME! The reason I know God is alive is because “He walks with ME. He talks with ME. He lives within MY heart.” “I am lost in your freedom. And this world I’ll overcome. I need a resurrection somehow.” These songs are meant to testify to the world that the God we serve is alive and has conquered death. But instead they promote a self-centered view of worship and of God. According to the choruses of these songs, this God is a God for my purposes and I will testify only what He has done for me. It is not a bad thing to testify to God’s faithfulness in your life; it’s biblical. But if it is done apart from the witness of Scripture, apart from a historical Jesus who was raised from the dead, then your testimony won’t stand. It will crumble.
  • Problem #3: The theology of these songs sounds more like modern day spirituality or mysticism than they do about faith in a risen Christ. I think Bultmann would have gladly sung these songs because he would not have had to claim that Christ was literally raised from the dead. Instead, he would sing these songs gladly because it is about a faith that you make it to be; it’s internal. What does it mean that, “Christ lives within my heart?” What does it mean that, “He’s living on the inside?” Think about it. I could take the hymn to mean that Christ only is alive in my heart, in my faith. He’s not necessarily alive anywhere else in a literal way or in a literal place. Or, I could take the Newsboys song to say that God and I are one. There is a spirituality belief that says each one of us is part of the “divine” and we each have the “divine” living within us. In fact, if I held this belief, I could sing, “God’s not dead,” gladly with no understanding that the song is meant to refer to the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of Jesus or the Trinity.

I have sung these songs with a joyful heart before, and I encourage you to do the same. I also encourage you to proclaim the literal resurrection of Christ in your preaching, teaching and singing. If your only answer is that Christ is alive in your heart then someone could take that to mean He lives in your wishes, your dreams, your hopes and your aspirations.

Ask me how I know He lives and I’ll tell you because there were disciples of this Jesus who left Jesus when He was taken to be crucified and hid in an upper room scared that they too would be put to death. Only after seeing Jesus three days after being crucified, after touching His wounds, watching Him eat and drink, and after watching Him ascend to the heavens, did they come out of hiding and risk imprisonment, exile and death. Because there was a man who was leading in the imprisoning and execution of Jesus’ disciples and followers only to become a follower and preacher of Christ because He encountered Jesus, resurrected from the dead. It is because of the testimony of these and many others who saw Jesus in the flesh after death that I say with faith, “He lives.”

One thought on “He lives!

  1. Trey Medley says:

    I don’t think you’ve oversimplifies Bultmann at all. Bultmann took Martin Kähler’s claim that “The true Christ is the Christ preached” and added that it was also “the Christ of faith” and took it to an extreme. On one level Bultmann is one natural conclusion to Karl Barth’s theological project. Barth de-emphasized the public nature of God’s revelation (because it was direct, which cannot be public). Bultmann, correspondingly re-emphasized the personal nature of this revelation. When he coupled this thinking with the philosophy of his colleague Martin Heidegger, the existentialist, he ended up (intentionally) removing history from the Christian faith. On more than one occasion he said that the historian has nothing to say about the Christian faith because it is entirely focused on the present and the future. He argued that Christ lives because (as you noted) Christ lives in faith and is preached in our message. There is no historical correspondence.

    The reason I start to get worked up with this is because the first opponent to Bultmann was the guy I’m doing my dissertation on, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg re-emphasized the historical necessity of the Christian gospel. While Pannenberg also had an emphasis on the present and the future, he believed that without history we have no basis for a future hope or to believe a present relationship. For Pannenberg, God necessarily acts in history because, especially in the incarnation, he occupies the same space and time that we do. The Resurrection of Jesus is the eschaton of God breaking into the midst of history, giving us a glimpse of the future glory to which we are moving. For Pannenberg, the veracity of the Christian faith rises or falls with the Resurrection. If it did not historically occur, then our faith is empty and meaningless and certainly not capable of giving us a future hope beyond our own death and mortality. Positively, though, he argues that the Resurrection is, once the presuppositions against miracles are removed, the single most historically verifiable event in history. I’ll leave it at that, but Pannenberg is a great opponent to Bultmann, especially in his earlier stuff (Revelation as History, in particular).

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