Religious Tradition or Resurrection Truth? Understanding the Difference in a Pandemic

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
April 10, 2020

A sign of the times is often found in a headline. Kate Cohen wrote an article for The Washington Post with the headline, “Even Those of Us Who Don’t Believe Need What Religion Can Provide Right Now.”

Such a headline points to a functionalist understanding of religion—faith and religious devotion meet a variety of human needs, whether psychiatric, psychological, sociological, relational, or offering a sense of identity. Basically, functionalists view religion as a human invention.

Cohen writes, “The first virtual gathering that anyone in my family thought to organize was Shabbat. My dad organized it. I jumped on the idea, my big sister offered to host the meeting. The thing is we are not a religious family, although we used to have a Shabbat or Sabbath dinner when I was a kid. Only one of us still does and only sometimes, but there we were on Friday across six Zoom windows from four states, nine adults, six teenagers, one four-year-old and three sets of candles.” Then, Cohen asks a very interesting question: “Did the global pandemic suddenly make believers out of us? Now would indeed be the perfect time to pledge fealty to a capricious, plague-wielding, Old Testament God, but I can’t make myself believe.”

Cohen clearly has a Jewish background though she is not religious—she does not believe in God. Yet she does see a potentially functional use for her Jewish faith tradition—a tradition that she believes can ground and guide her during these strange and uncertain times. That being said, religion for her only bears a practical utility. As she says, she cannot bring herself to actually believe in God.

Cohen continues her article, stating, “We don’t need religion, but as the crisis reminds us, we still need certain things that religion can provide. We need community and ritual and dates that can’t easily be deleted. I may hide the Jewish calendar so that it does not show up on my app or in my life, but I cannot change or cancel it. It will always be there.” For Cohen, Judaism functions not as a truth claim but a source of comfort during a perilous time.

At the end of the article, she makes a theological point, even though she is an atheist. She writes, “As an atheist, I believe we can get all we need without God and I have tried to make that true for my kids.” But now, in the midst of the pandemic, she says yes to a virtual religious celebration with her larger family. In effect, she argues that she is sure that she (and all the rest of us) can get along fine without God, but maybe not with religion?

There is deliberate irony in Cohen’s words. Even as an atheist, she yearns for a certain comfort that she hopes to find in the traditional religious celebrations and rituals of Shabbat and the Passover—even if they commemorate, in her mind, the acts of a murderous, plague-instigating God who is a figment of people’s imaginations.

This leads to another interesting story from The Washington Post by Jennifer Rubin, with the headline, “The Bidens’ Powerful Passover Message.” The Bidens are Jill and Joe Biden, the former Vice President of the United States and the presumptive Democratic Nominee for the 2020 Presidential election. Rubin writes, “The Bidens plainly understand the religious underpinnings of the [Passover] occasion.” The Bidens said in their message, “If Passover teaches us anything, it’s that a united and openhearted people can come through any challenge and emerge stronger on the other side. The American people and the people of all nations are facing down a new challenge today, a treacherous journey across unfamiliar terrain; and like the heroes of the Passover story, we will survive that journey by calling upon the values that define us: our caring for strangers, our strength and unity, our faith in better days.”

Jennifer Rubin, before quoting the Bidens’ statement, said, “The Bidens plainly understand the religious underpinnings of the occasion.” What the Bidens said, however, has nothing to do with any religious underpinnings. The meaning of the Passover, as it turns out, cannot be found from the Bidens, nor from The Washington Post, but in the book of Exodus—especially chapters 11 and 12.

The important point in bringing up the Bidens’ Passover message is not a political one, but rather an observation about the state of religion in modern America. We can see in the Bidens’ statement the culmination of a long process of secularization—a process that has transformed virtually all religious or theistic truth claims, reducing them to merely functionalist tools.

Religion, in other words, has morphed into something that isn’t religious at all.

Indeed, when the Bidens extol the heroes of the Passover story as models for our present global crisis, they completely miss the fact the only hero is the God of Israel—the only hero is Yahweh who made a covenant with his people, preserved them through a horrifying set of plagues, and rescued them out of slavery in Egypt.

Those plagues culminated in the death of the firstborn son throughout all Egypt, save for those homes of God’s people with the blood of a sacrificed lamb painted over their doors. When the angel of death came to those houses, it passed over them. The Lord, speaking to Moses in Exodus 12:13, said, “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are and when I see the blood, I will pass over you and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” Then, the Lord said to Moses, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord throughout your generations as a statute forever. You shall keep it as a feast. Seven days, you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day, you shall remove leaven out of your houses for if anyone eats what is leaven from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day, you shall hold a holy assembly and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days. But what everyone needs to eat that alone may be prepared by you and you shall observe the feast of the unleavened bread for on this very day, I brought your host out of the land of Egypt. Therefore, you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a statute forever.”

The children of Israel did exactly what God commanded them to do through Moses. Then, in Exodus 12:29, we read, “At midnight, the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon and all the firstborn of the livestock. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where someone was not dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, ‘Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel and go serve the Lord as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds as you have said and be gone and bless me also.’” After this momentous event in redemptive history, Moses said to Israel in Exodus 13:3, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place. No leaven bread shall be eaten.”

This story of the Passover found in Exodus is nothing less than the authoritative, infallible, Word of God. To be clear, the story in no way resembles the functionalist understanding of religion. Indeed, what you find in the Bible is the opposite of a functionalist religion. The Bible presents the one, true, living God in all his glory making objective truth claims with eternal significance.

The functionalist revision of this story is better understood as a fantasy reading of the narrative. True, the Bidens accurately described the Exodus as a “treacherous journey across unfamiliar terrain.” The hero of the biblical account, however, is God and God alone. The Bidens did not, as Rubin argued in The New York Times, grasp the religions underpinnings of this story at all because there was nothing religious in what they described.

Christians, on this Good Friday, find themselves looking at the Passover as an event in redemptive history—an event anticipating the coming of the Messiah and Savior of the world. This story is so much more than a functional fable to make us feel better about our circumstances.

For Christians, we do not hold loosely to a myth nor a collection of stories to give us a sense of traditional solidarity. When we talk about the Passover, when we proclaim the events of Good Friday, and when we declare the resurrection of Christ, we make truth claims about historical events. What Christians believe and announce to the world is the reality of the incarnate Son who died on the cross to bring about salvation from sin. We believe that everything promised and foretold in the Old Testament, including the events of the Exodus, culminated and were fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

God appointed Moses to lead Israel, his covenant people, out from captivity in Egypt. In an even greater Exodus, the Lord Jesus Christ rescued his people from captivity and slavery to sin. He delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to his glorious kingdom (Col 1:3).

During this time of year, especially in the midst of a pandemic, Christians must proclaim and hold fast to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ form the dead. This must be our central concern. We have received an inheritance purchased for us by Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement. His death on the cross paid the price of our sins, and his resurrection on Sunday was God’s declaration that through his Son, death is defeated. Those who are in Christ and place their faith in him are heirs of God’s promise to his people—the promise of eternal life and our own bodily resurrection from the dead in the new creation.

Christians celebrate these glorious events every year—and we do so congregationally, gathering together as the body of Christ to worship God for all that he has done. The year 2020, however, is quite different.

COVID-19 and this global pandemic raises a host of questions for Christians who cannot meet together on Resurrection Sunday. Perhaps the most fundamental question is this: Will there be something missing from our experience as Christians this Sunday?

Every single Lord’s Day is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We do not depend upon one specific Sunday a year to worship God for our salvation in Christ. Indeed, the mere fact that Christians meet every week on Sunday’s is a testament to the day of the week that Christ was raised form the dead.

In John 20:1, we read that Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week. In Revelation 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 16:2, Christians met together for worship on the first day of the week.

But, as we look to the Old Testament, we see that the Sabbath command was part of the creation ordinances given by God to his image bearers. This day, however, was held on the seventh day of the week. After God created the heavens and the earth, he rested on the seventh day. In the Ten Commandments, the Israelites were instructed to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy—which was also on the seventh day of the week.

Why then do Christians gather on the first day of the week? We do so because of the transference from the Sabbath of the Old Testament to the Lord’s Day of the New Testament. Indeed, the Sabbath of the Old Testament anticipated its fulfillment in Christ as seen in Hebrews 4:10. Moreover, the earliest Christian churches began to meet on the first day of the week as a continual, weekly reminder of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Christians also understand a shift from the Old Testament Sabbath to the New Testament Lord’s Day—a shift that is represented in Christ’s declaration on the cross: “It is finished.” Every Sunday, Christians meet precisely to celebrate the finished work of Christ that he accomplished on the cross. Our salvation is secure. Our debt is paid. We are united to Christ forever.

To be clear, we will miss something this Resurrection Sunday by not gathering together. It is the same as what we have missed since this crisis began. It is, however, necessary during this time of urgency to not meet face to face.

Here’s what we will not miss: We will not miss the celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. We will not miss any opportunity for sacramental grace. We will not miss out on the riches of our inheritance in Christ.

We will miss the assembling of ourselves together, but wherever we are, we will be filled with the light of the resurrection of Christ. Whether together or apart, every day is a joyous celebration and commemoration of the truth that Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.

May the Lord bless your homes and your hearts this Good Friday and this coming Resurrection Sunday. Let us hold fast to the truth of what God has done for us in Christ—to the certain hope we have in his death for us, and in the truth that Christ has been raised from the dead. Christ is risen, indeed.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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