On Religion

It’s a challenge, but every Easter, preachers around the world strive to find something different to say about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

This applies to the pope, as well, in his Holy Week and Easter sermons. Journalists always sift through these papal texts searching for references to the Middle East, global warming, social justice or other “newsy” topics worthy of headlines.

But Pope Francis did something different this year, abandoning his prepared sermon to speak from the heart about a recent telephone conversation with a young engineer who is facing a serious illness, as well as life-and-death questions.

Christians insist that Easter is the ultimate answer, said Francis.

“Today the church continues to say: Jesus has risen from the dead. ... This is not a fantasy. It’s not a celebration with many flowers,” he said, surrounded by Easter pageantry.

Flowers are nice, but the resurrection is more, he added. “It is the mystery of the rejected stone that ends up being the cornerstone of our existence. Christ has risen from the dead. In this throwaway culture, where that which is not useful ... is discarded, that stone -- Jesus -- is discarded, yet is the source of life.”

So the pope has to defend Easter? As it turns out, anyone seeking other motives for the pope’s blunt words could point to headlines triggered by a new BBC survey claiming that many self-identified British Christians have rejected, or perhaps watered down, biblical claims that Jesus rose from the dead.

The BBC.com headline proclaimed: “Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians.” Among the survey’s claims:

-- Only 17 percent of the participants said they believe biblical accounts of the resurrection are “word-for-word” true.

-- In all, 31 percent of “Christians” believe the Bible accounts word-for-word, with that total rising to 57 percent among active Christians -- defined as those who attend worship services at least once a month.

-- Half of the survey participants said they don’t believe in the resurrection at all.

-- On a related topic, 46 percent of those surveyed said they believe in life after death, in one form or another, with 46 percent disagreeing.

For those seeking an American frame of reference, a 2014 “Theological Awareness Benchmark Study” conducted by LifeWay Research asked: “Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?”

In all, 45 percent of those polled embraced this doctrine and 23 percent agreed “somewhat.” Broken down by denominations, 91 percent of evangelical Protestants affirmed belief in the resurrection, to one degree or another, along with 84 percent of black Protestants, 73 percent of “mainline” Protestants and 73 percent of Catholics.

Reactions to the new BBC survey were strong, with critics challenging the wisdom of drawing bold conclusions based on the views of those who merely self-identify as “Christians.” One Anglican theologian, who is also a mathematician, stressed that it’s crucial to note different patterns of belief among very active Christians (attending church once a week or thereabouts), as opposed to “inactive” Christians and people who did not believe at all.

Writing at Psephizo, his website -- Greek for “calculate,” “work out” or “reckon” -- the Rev. Ian Paul of the University of Nottingham wrote: “Let’s look at the first question: Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus? 301 active Christians said they did (93.2 percent), 433 non-active Christians did (62.3 percent) and 496 of those who said they weren’t Christian did (14 percent). The non-Christians are comprised of all those who gave another religious identity or none at all.”

When analyzing the “confidence intervals” included in the survey data, Paul noted that “non-active Christians don’t believe the same thing as active Christians. ... When the BBC report that ‘Christians’ do or don’t believe a certain thing, they are throwing together a whole group of people ranging from those who are active members of a worshipping community (taking their faith seriously) and those who might call themselves Christian but don’t ever do anything ‘Christian’ with anyone else who is a Christian. ... Indeed, when it comes to the core belief of Easter, the inactive Christians are very different from active Christians.”

In fact, he concluded, on question after question linked to Easter, “inactive Christians look far more like the non-Christians than the active Christians.”

(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)

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