When it comes to apologetics questions, some questions are more important than others. I often find that theological debates can get tied up in trivial and inconsequential questions that produce more heat than light. However, the title of this article is, in my opinion, one of the most important questions anyone can ask.
I have spilled much digital “ink” and dedicated the vast majority of this blog thus far to providing empirical evidence for the truth of Christianity (Evidence for the Existence of God, Archaeology: Digging for Christmas) and reliability of the bible (Can We Trust the Gospels?). However, this still leaves a huge question unanswered: even if Christianity is true, why is it relevant to my life? This is the question I’m going to be attempting to answer in this article.
I am not going to look at the evidence in favour of God and Christianity in this article (there’s plenty of that above). Instead, I’ll be looking at what happens if the truth-claims of Christianity are accepted, and what, if any, relevance it has on life in 2015.
Clearly, there are almost an infinite number of ways to approach this colossal question, including philosophically, sociologically, psychologically, and theologically. I’m not even going to attempt to cover all these disciplines in one article- I know I won’t even come close to doing it satisfactorily . Rather, I’m going to try lay down my view as succinctly as possible, by digging into a speech given by, in my opinion, the greatest thinker, philosopher and religious commentator who has ever walked the Earth.
In the gospel of John chapter 4, we read of an account in which Jesus, after a long journey on foot, enters a town called Sychar. What happens next quickly becomes quite bizarre!
5So he (Jesus) came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
[John 4:5-26, NIV] (superscript numbers denote verses)
There has been much ink spilt attempting to unpack the words of Jesus over the centuries. And there is a huge amount in this little story that I won’t be able to cover. However, I think that this passage could hold the key to answering the question “Is Christianity Relevant Today?”
Message of Life
Jesus’ message to the Samaritan woman centres around this little metaphor He says in verse 10: God can give her “living water”. The woman responds: “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?” Her response is similar to that which most of us would give- effectively saying “what on Earth are you talking about?”
Then Jesus begins to unpack what He’s on about. He answers her “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.”
Scholars have wrestled with the meaning of the metaphor “living water” for the past two centuries, and there still exists a bit of debate. It is possible that Jesus is using “living water” as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit (as in John 7:38-39), or for reborn Christian life (as in John 3:5), or (and in my opinion, probably) both.
However, the important point is that Jesus is telling the woman that God can give her what her life needs. C.S. Lewis unpacks this in a great modern metaphor:
God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. (1)
If you pumped diesel into a petrol car, it may stagger around for a bit. However, it will eventually pack in and die, even if you try to add in more or different diesel.
Jesus is saying that life was meant and designed to be lived “on” God, and attempting to replace God with other things to “run life on” will be at best deficient, and at worst, destructive. In contrast, a life feeding and relying on God is one which becomes invigorated by the fuel it was designed for, and with that comes three things everyone is searching for: meaning, purpose and hope. When I became a Christian my life totally transformed. Suddenly, I gained a fullness and satisfaction I had never experienced before, as the love of God gave my life meaning, the promises of God gave my life purpose, and the resurrection of Jesus gave my life hope. When I wasn’t a Christian- I was missing out big time!
Now, don’t hear me wrongly; I am not saying that a life in relationship with God will be painless and trouble-free. In fact, the bible promises the exact opposite- that Christians will face suffering for their faith (2). However, put simply: it is beyond worth it! The great journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge summarised it better than I ever could:
“I may, I suppose, regard myself, or pass for being, as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets–that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue–that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions– that’s pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time–that’s fulfilment. Yet I say to you — and I beg you to believe me–multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing–less than nothing, a positive impediment–measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.” (3)
Message of Hope
In verse 13, Jesus continues to unpack the meaning of “living water” with an astonishing comment: “Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
There are very few things certain in life, but one of those is death. Yet death seems to be the most feared thing in every society in every era of human history. Woody Allen famously said “I do not fear death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
The renowned theologian and founder of Christianity Explored Rico Tice often tells audiences that the reason why he went searching of God was because an older beloved relative past away, and he discovered that his atheistic worldview had nothing to say about the reality of death.
I’ve done almost half of my medical school training, and studying medicine certainly brings you face-to-face with the reality of human death. From dissecting human cadavers to meeting dying patients, I don’t know about other medics, but I have definitely found myself in need of a worldview that has an answer to death.
So what does Jesus offer? He offers no less than an eternal life itself. In verse 13 Jesus is saying that He can bring us through our inevitable human deaths, and into eternity in Heaven. The bible explains our fear and repulsion towards death by explaining that human beings were not meant to be mortal; rather, we are meant to have life in eternity in paradise, and thus the mortality goes against the very essence of our being. (4)
And so a relationship with God is not only one of purpose, meaning and hope, but one of salvation. If we want to make it past death- we need to enter relationship with the eternal one! One chapter earlier, John states this about as clearly as it can be stated: “For God so loved the world that he gave is one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall no perish but have eternal life” (5)
I am often asked “wasn’t Jesus just a great moral teacher?” Not at all! Moral teachers try to make bad people good. Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good; He came to make dead people live!
Message of Humanity
What happens next is very strange indeed. In verse 16 Jesus asks the Samaritan woman “Go, call your husband and come back”, to which she replies “I have no husband.”
Then Jesus utters the astonishing words: “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
Jesus somehow manages to recount the detailed and complex relationship status of a woman he’s only just met (with no Facebook to help Him), which the woman would have certainly found rather disconcerting!
Why does Jesus do this? I think He does it partly to show His power and wisdom that is pretty clearly supernatural. However, I think the main reason why he comes out with this weird personal exposition is to show the woman that Jesus knows His message is relevant to her.
This story is one of great humanity- this woman was very low down the social ladder of the day due to her race, sex and personal deeds. She was as rooted in the toils of this life as anyone could be. Jesus recognises this, and powerfully explains that His message of the offer of fulfilled life on Earth and eternal life in Heaven is, is a message directly for her.
I know that sometimes Christian evangelists can sound like they are preaching some fantastical, paradise-in-the-clouds type message which seems worlds away from life in the real world. However, in this passage Jesus shows that he understands the real world, and knows that what he offers in as relevant as a message can be. He knows that people long for purpose, meaning and hope, and that people fear their mortality. And He speaks right into our human situation and offers us life, hope and salvation.
Message of Urgency
But Jesus does not quite finish there; He has one more epic claim to make. In verse 25-26, the Samaritan woman tells Jesus that her life still has hope:
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
The abruptness and bluntness of Jesus’ response is quite starling, and juxtaposed with the long and detailed monologues earlier in the conversation. After Jesus spells out the message of Christianity, and reveals its relevance to life, the Samaritan woman (perhaps surprisingly) admits that her life does needs what Jesus is offering, but she is waiting for God’s promised Messiah, without realising that Jesus was He. Jesus’ reply is powerful and uncompromising; and he effectively says to the woman “I am here. Now, what are you going to do?”
I know many people who have read the history, studied the bible and heard the teaching of Jesus, but want more. Many people want and even pray for what the Samaritan woman got: Jesus standing in front of them saying “I am here. Now, what are you going to do?”
However, such people have missed something of cosmic importance: it has already happened!
C. 2000 years ago, Jesus made the incomprehensibly long journey from Heaven to Earth to take on human form and live a human life. He was killed by arguably the most painful, humiliating and public execution means ever invented, but then three days later, rose from the dead, leaving the tomb empty and appeared to hundreds of people including friends, followers, sceptics and enemies, and including an appearance to a group of over 500 people (6, 7).
In Jesus’ public crucifixion and unmistakable resurrection, Jesus effectively stood in front of the whole of humanity, and declared: “I am here. Now, what are you going to do?”
Message of Relevance
And so as I wrap up this very different blog article to stuff I’m used to doing, I want to go right back to the question: “is Jesus relevant today?”
I know many people won’t be happy about the fact that I’ve not touched on any other religions, or endorsed how much a diversity of faiths enriches society. The thing is, this question is not one which must assume religious universalism. I firmly believe that there is strong evidence that Christianity is true. And if this is the case, Christianity isn’t something to enhance your reality, but rather it can become your reality.
Jesus offers us a life on Earth with purpose, meaning and hope, and a life in eternity in paradise. He explains that He understands our human situations, and through his death and resurrection, now stands before humanity, and therefore before me and you, offering a relationship with God, and saying “I am here. Now what are you going to do?”
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity(William Collins, 2012), 50
- 2 Timothy 3:12
- Malcolm Muggeridge, Seeing Through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith (Ignatius Press, 2005), 97
- e.g. Philippians 1:21-23
- John 3:16
- 1 Corinthians 15:6
- For evidence for the resurrection, see: Historical Evidence Part 2