I was a green and callow undergraduate in 1992 – present at a debate between A N Wilson (who’d recently produced his iconoclastic hatchet job, Jesus) and Anthony Harvey, who’d given the Bampton Lectures and subsequently written Jesus & The Constraints of History. It’s etched on my memory, not least because it was so frustrating to listen to Wilson rip into the historical record of Jesus; but mainly because it was the first time I’d ever spoken out in a public event. Wilson’s main contention (as I remember), in common with countless theologians, was that Paul was the one who forged what we would recognise today as Christianity. So i put my hand in the air, and found myself asking why Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the message of the Cross and Resurrection as something that he himself had received before passing them onto others (1 Cor 15:3-8). Well, it received the scorn it didn’t deserve, although I seem to remember Harvey saying something in its defence.
So I nearly fell of my breakfast chair on Saturday when my mother passed her copy of the Daily Mail (I don’t read it myself, note), that Wilson has changed. Quite radically in fact. Al Mohler noted something of his honesty and openness 2 years ago. But now, Wilson’s gone even further. He opened his article, provocatively entitled Religion of Hatred, (to which my immedate assumption was, “oh no, here we go again”), by describing a Palm Sunday procession that he took part in last week, in London. He’s not unaware of the shock this would be to many:
For much of my life, I, too, have been one of those who did not believe. It was in my young manhood that I began to wonder how much of the Easter story I accepted, and in my 30s I lost any religious belief whatsoever. Like many people who lost faith, I felt anger with myself for having been ‘conned’ by such a story. I began to rail against Christianity, and wrote a book, entitled Jesus, which endeavoured to establish that he had been no more than a messianic prophet who had well and truly failed, and died.
But he’s changed now. And he has turned his gaze against ‘irrational’ haters of religion, like Hitchens, Dawkins and Polly Toynbee. These, with countless others, are now the preachers of a Religion of Hatred.
For ten or 15 of my middle years, I, too, was one of the mockers. But, as time passed, I found myself going back to church, although at first only as a fellow traveller with the believers, not as one who shared the faith that Jesus had truly risen from the grave. Some time over the past five or six years – I could not tell you exactly when – I found that I had changed. When I took part in the procession last Sunday and heard the Gospel being chanted, I assented to it with complete simplicity.
The change was brought about by a number of factors. But one was that he refused to be cowed by the heat and vitriol of the new atheists. Then there’s this:
But there is more to it than that. My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known – not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die. The Easter story answers their questions about the spiritual aspects of humanity. It changes people’s lives because it helps us understand that we, like Jesus, are born as spiritual beings. Every inner prompting of conscience, every glimmering sense of beauty, every response we make to music, every experience we have of love – whether of physical love, sexual love, family love or the love of friends – and every experience of bereavement, reminds us of this fact about ourselves.
The historicity of the resurrection lies at the heart of his confidence:
Easter does not answer such questions by clever-clever logic. Nor is it irrational. On the contrary, it meets our reason and our hearts together, for it addresses the whole person. In the past, I have questioned its veracity and suggested that it should not be taken literally. But the more I read the Easter story, the better it seems to fit and apply to the human condition. That, too, is why I now believe in it. Easter confronts us with a historical event set in time. We are faced with a story of an empty tomb, of a small group of men and women who were at one stage hiding for their lives and at the next were brave enough to face the full judicial persecution of the Roman Empire and proclaim their belief in a risen Christ. Historians of Roman and Jewish law have argued at length about the details of Jesus’s trial – and just how historical the Gospel accounts are. Anyone who believes in the truth must heed the fine points that such scholars unearth. But at this distance of time, there is never going to be historical evidence one way or the other that could dissolve or sustain faith.
Read the whole article – it’s fascinating. Amazing to read it in a national newspaper. And it indicates that, in common with so many, he’d before been protesting just that little bit too much.