If you don’t believe in the crucifixion, but you do believe that Jesus is one with God, are you still a Christian?
The word Christian shows up only three times in the Bible, once in 1 Peter and twice in the Acts of the Apostles. Acts 11:26 tells us that the word “Christian” was first used by the Church in Antioch when Paul and Barnabas came to preach the Gospel there. The word means literally a “little Christ,” a person in whom Christ shines forth. Acts indicates that the disciples of Jesus were called Christian because they believed the Gospel that Paul and Barnabas preached to them, the Gospel that centers on the dying of Jesus Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and His rising from the dead, trampling down death with death. A Christian is a person who believes that Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins and that He rose from the dead. And since this Gospel becomes ours through both Word and Sacrament, a Christian is a person who has been united with Jesus in His death by being baptized.
What would it mean to be a Christian who does not believe that Jesus died and rose? Certainly, there are examples of people who call themselves Christians but do not believe this. Those examples exist both historically and in the present age. And, sadly, some of the more famous people to espouse this view in the present age call themselves not only Christians but Anglicans as well. Generally, folks in this category today hold a view of Christianity in which the distinction between what it means to be Christian and what it means to be any other kind of religious person is pretty minimal. Christianity is just a matter of following Jesus’ moral teaching, at least in so far as that teaching does not veer off into the miraculous. The purpose of being a Christian is to be a good person and to honor God by showing Him how incredibly good we can be.
There are multiple problems with this approach. First of all, it requires us to jettison most of what Jesus actually said and did. Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in the Resurrection, famously put together his own version of the New Testament in which anything that he deemed to be implausible was scrubbed from its pages. All that was left were Jesus’ moral teachings, things like the Beatitudes and the parables. The majority of the New Testament and the overwhelming majority of the Gospels is about the passion of Christ, His death for us and His resurrection. Cut that stuff out and you’re left with a very small Bible indeed. And the question has to be asked, why should we listen to this Jesus? What makes His moral teaching so great? Is it because we like what He says? What happens when we come across something He says that isn’t miraculous but that we don’t like? On what grounds should we follow it or toss it aside?
Second, when you follow Jefferson in saying that all you really need to be a Christian is Christ’s moral teaching, you tie a giant millstone around your neck. The reason why the Gospel is freeing is because it releases us from the burden of the sin that we carry, sin that is ours not just because of what we consciously choose to do but also because we have been born into a fallen world which corrupts us right from the start so that we desire anything but God. Sin is what separates us from God, which means that a Christianity that does not deal with sin can never bring us to God. Moreover, a Christianity that does not talk about the cross but does insist on strenuous moral teachings actually makes people’s lives worse instead of better. The moral teaching that Jesus imparts is impossible for any sinful human being to live up to without the absolute grace of God changing our sinful hearts. Take away the cross and Christianity becomes an albatross. Rather than setting you free, it piles on more and more burdens until you finally sink under their weight.
Finally, if you don’t believe in the Gospel, that Christ died to take away your sins and rose to defeat death, then eventually you won’t believe in anything else about the Christian story either. It’s interesting to notice how Simon frames the question, asking about the person who doesn’t believe in the cross but does believe that “Jesus is one with God.” What does it mean to say that? Is Jesus uniquely the Son of God as Scripture reveals, or is He just a child of God in the way we all are? Is He really both God and man, in a unique and unrepeatable way, or is He merely an enlightened man who has come close to God and therefore shows us how we might become God-like ourselves? See, as soon as you start to pull away pieces of the Gospel, you start to make the whole thing unravel. Suddenly, Christianity is not about Jesus, but about us. Jesus is not God in a literal sense, but just the guy who shows us how each of us can become God if we put our minds to it. Jesus and Nietzsche are basically saying the same thing.
Of course, when it comes down to it, “Christian” is simply a label. And people are able to call themselves whatever they want these days. There is no way I can stop someone from calling himself or herself a Christian and believing in any number of things that are contrary to the Gospel. But what matters is not what people call themselves. What matters is the Gospel. What will save you on the last day is not your own self understanding. What will save you is Jesus Christ who lived and died for you. Jesus Christ died so that you could be freed from sin and death. And because He is both God and man, He was able to make that sacrifice to rescue you from that which you could not free yourself from. Trust in that promise. It is the only thing that matters.