Whilst I rarely agree with Giles Fraser, I have some sympathy with his view that bemoans, what he perceives to be, a certain form of Evangelicalism. He comments:
Jesus morphs into Cheesus – the es getting steadily elongated. Those who talk about Cheesus do so with a creepy sort of chummyiness. This is what evangelicals call “a personal relationship”, by which they mean that Cheesus has become their boyfriend or best mate.
And when such people speak of Cheesus they have to wear that sickly smile too. It’s that I-know-something-you-don’t smile. Patronising, superior and faux caring all at the same time. And if you disagree with them they will pray for you. It makes you want to bang your head against a brick wall.
Certainly, there can be a tendency to over-emphasise Jesus, friend of sinners – with the emphasis on ‘friend’ – to the detriment of Jesus, the Son, God himself. Such a position can lead to an over-familiar mateyness and cause us to forget entirely that Jesus Christ is Almighty God and should be approached and revered as such.
However, let’s not overlook two other possibilities explaining the existence, amongst Evangelicals, of those characterised by Fraser’s description. It is entirely possible that such people were sickly, patronising, superior and faux-caring before they had any conversion experience. That they exhibit these character traits, only now expressing them through the words and phrases associated with theology and religious experience, does nothing to suggest Evangelicalism ‘creates’ such people. Alternatively, these people may simply misunderstand the New Testament writings or, whilst understanding, apply them in a blunt manner. Any sense in which a believer acts ‘superior’ is clearly antithetical to the New Testament writings and suggests the individual has not really understood the gospel itself, which makes clear none of us have any right to superiority.
However, Fraser is entirely wrong to equate, what he interprets as, ‘a creepy sort of chumminess’ with the Evangelical claim to ‘a personal relationship’. Evangelicalism at no point proclaims that Jesus will become your “boyfriend or best mate”. Indeed, the relationship into which one is brought – or, more accurately, bought – isn’t entirely comparable to friends (who calls their best mate ‘Lord’?!). Yes, we are reconciled to God through the cross – simply stated we are ‘friends again’ with Him – but the relationship between man and God is one of Father-Son rather than co-equal mates. We are adopted into the Son’s sonship, thus inheriting that which is the Son’s because we are in the Son. That is a far cry from gaining fringe benefits because, when the Son comes into his inheritance, we’re his mates so we benefit by association. In fact, the relationship between Christ and the believer is rarely, if ever, cast as the relationship between mates in the New Testament.
Fraser again touches on a grain of truth whilst simultaneously missing the point when he states:
Cheesus cannot deal with tragedy. Which is why, for the worst sort of Cheesus-loving evangelicals, the cross of Good Friday is actually celebrated as a moment of triumph. This is theologically illiterate. Next week, in the run up to Easter, Christianity goes into existential crisis. It fails.
The fact that this is not the end of the story does not take away from the fact that tragedy will always be folded into the experience of faith. Even the resurrected Jesus bears the scars of his suffering. A man who has been through something like that will never smile that cheesy smile or think of faith as some sunny suburban upspeak.
Certainly, a fact often overlooked in Evangelical circles, the cross was a complete disaster for Jesus’ disciples. As William Lane Craig comments:
Even the most skeptical scholars admit that the earliest disciples at least believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Indeed, they pinned nearly everything on it. Without belief in Jesus’ resurrection, Christianity could never have come into being. The crucifixion would have remained the final tragedy in the hapless life of Jesus.
There was nothing in Jewish writing or culture that would have expected the resurrection of the Messiah. Although the concept of resurrection did exist, the Jewish view differs in two fundamental ways compared to Jesus’ resurrection: ‘In Jewish thought the resurrection always (1) occurred after the end of the world, not within history, and (2) concerned all the people, not just an isolated individual. In contradistinction to this, Jesus’ resurrection was both within history and of one individual person’. Craig goes on:
Confronted with Jesus’ crucifixion and death, [the disciples] would only have looked forward to the resurrection at the final day and would probably have carefully kept their master’s tomb as a shrine, where his bones could reside until the resurrection. They would not have come up with the idea that he was already raised.
As for the second point, the Jewish idea of resurrection was always of a general resurrection of the dead, not an isolated individual. It was the people, or mankind as a whole, that God raised up in the resurrection. But in Jesus’ resurrection, God raised just a single man. Moreover, there was no concept of the people’s resurrection in some way hinging on the Messiah’s resurrection. That was just totally unknown. Yet that is precisely what is said to have occurred in Jesus’ case. Ulrich Wilckens, another prominent German New Testament critic, explains: “For nowhere do the Jewish texts speak of the resurrection of an individual which already occurs before the resurrection of the righteous in the end time and is differentiated and separate from it; nowhere does the participation of the righteous in the salvation at the end time depend on their belonging to the Messiah, who was raised in advance as the ‘First of those raised by God.’ (1 Corinthians 15:20)”
It is therefore evident that the disciples would not as a result of Jewish influences or background have come up with the idea that Jesus alone had been raised from the dead. They would wait with longing for that day when He and all the righteous of Israel would be raised by God to glory.
Fraser would be correct if he were merely talking about the disciples’ view of the cross prior to the resurrection event. To them, at that time, this was disastrous. However, Fraser is entirely wrong to suggest that the cross, ‘celebrated as a moment of triumph’, is ‘theologically illiterate’. He claims the end of the story does nothing to change this fact. However, the cross is a moment of triumph specifically because it is not the end of the story. Indeed, this is why Paul and the other apostles pinned their entire claim of Christian faith on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is why Fraser is so wrong about the Evangelical view of loss and disaster. Evangelicals are not convinced that a sickly smile or patronising platitude does anything to resolve a tragedy. It is specifically because of the cross that the Evangelical view of tragedy is wider than that proposed by Fraser. Evangelicals see life beyond the here and now, in the presence of God, because of the work of Jesus on the cross. This doesn’t mean ‘sunny suburban upspeak’ solves all the world’s ills; Evangelicals are perfectly aware of Rom 12:14-15. What it means is life and hope beyond the problems of here and now. Such problems are not solved by that knowledge but we are given hope beyond them rather than an existence ending with them.
Fraser’s ‘Evangelical Cheesus’ is not the Jesus of Evangelicals. His scornful view of a relationship with God cannot contend with 1 John 1 (esp. 1 Jn 1:3). His defeatist, pessimistic view of the cross is equally problematic when faced with these same verses (especially 1 Jn 1:7). John seems convinced that the cross was no disaster and through it we can have a relationship with Christ. Evangelicals tend to agree with John.