Would you introduce yourself to your neighbors as a “born again” Christian? Why or why not? Many associate “born again” Christians with an intolerant, fundamentalist religious-political agenda. The millennial generation—young people born after 1980—are especially turned off. Consequently many of us we find it increasingly awkward to admit we’re Christians and, when we do, we emphatically say that we’re not that kind of Christian.
Another problem with the phrase “born again” is that it’s usually linked with a severe theology that emphasizes human sinfulness and God’s anger with sin. Consequently, all of us are condemned to hell. The answer to this predicament is that God offered Jesus to die on the cross in our place. We’re saved by believing in Jesus who is the perfect sacrifice for our sin. Again, young millennials are especially turned off.
Our reaction to this kind of Christianity pushes us toward the equally problematic persuasion that it doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we find happiness and try to be nice. This week a Facebook friend posted a phrase from H. Richard Niebuhr, a twentieth century American theologian, “A God without wrath brought men (sic) without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Following the quote, he wrote, “This analysis of certain trends within American Christianity remains spot-on.” I wrote back that it’s a terrible quote but others agreed that it was “spot-on” and we got into a big Facebook argument. A theology professor liked it because his said, “It aptly describes the theology of many of his first-year college students who think Jesus is Barney and that we should all be happy and try to be nice to each other.”
If we reverse that Niebuhr quote we get something like this, “An angry God condemns sinful people to hell but then offered up his only Son to die in our place.” It may be a perverse kind of good news but it’s seriously deficient. It cannot inspire and undergird a community of faith that seeks to live in Jesus’ way of peace and reconciliation. I fired back that if I had to choose between such theology and the Barney version of being happy and nice, I’d go with Barney.
Thankfully, we have more life-giving options. To paraphrase Norman Kraus, one of my favorite theologians, God sending Jesus was an act of love. To enter into the qualitatively new life which God offers in Jesus, one must put complete confidence in Jesus who is the paradigm of God’s love” (Jesus Christ Our Lord, 142).
When Jesus used “born again” language in his conversation with Nicodemus he was attempting to pierce through Nicodemus’ spiritual obliviousness (John 3-21). Nicodemus didn’t get it and took Jesus literally. Jesus explained that it’s like the blowing wind; it has a hidden, mysterious quality.
Jesus further explains in what may be the best known verses in the Bible, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). The core premise is God’s love. God loves me, God loves you, God loves my town, and God loves the neighbor I despise. Jesus’ life and ministry demonstrated the nature of God as suffering love.
Furthermore, there’s a great mystery of evil in our world. By giving himself on the cross, Jesus won a decisive victory over those forces of evil that seek to hold our world captive to their designs. Ironically, they include the God and country, socially intolerant, religious-political agendas that many so-called “born again” Christians support. When we give our hearts and minds to Jesus, we share in his victory over these forces.
Norman Kraus says it like this, “Christ did not come to condemn but to give eternal life. He did not disassociate himself from us and point an accusing finger, but he identified with us and saved us from perishing. His only judgment was that like the entrance of light he exposed the true nature of human evil and forced a decision” (Jesus Christ Our Lord, 226).
A common belief is that it’s about spending eternity with God after we die. Of course it is but we need to reel that back a bit. When we make a decision for Jesus we join in his victory over the forces of evil right here, right now. It can still be a long and difficult road but we have entered into a new and different world. We’re empowered to live lives that reflect God’s love and the healing power of God’s Spirit working in and through us. In other words, we’re “born again.”