The young Churchill wrote:
“One of these days, perhaps, the cold bright light of science and reason will shine through the cathedral windows and we shall go out into the fields to seek God for ourselves. The great laws of nature will be understood—our destiny and our past will be clear. We shall then be able to dispense with the religious toys that have agreeably fostered the development of mankind. Until then, anyone who deprives us of our illusions—our pleasant, hopeful illusions—is a wicked man and should (I quote my Plato) ‘be refused a chorus’.”
The view of Churchill, and others, was that Christianity is nothing more than a pleasant but illusory tool for social control. Karl Marx said that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Churchill seemed willing to wait for Christianity to die when it was no longer needed; but others were, and are, keener to kill the illusion before it does greater damage.
In the first session of a recent Alpha course, I said that with the recent rise of new atheism, the claims that Christianity is untrue have certainly been heard by a very wide audience. We are living with a generation in society that has not been brought up within the culture of the church, which has a deep mistrust of authority and institutions. The scepticism with which the church is viewed is not limited though to the church alone. People don’t trust anything; not families, not employers, not governments.
What the New Atheists are against is very clear: God, religion and the supernatural. What is conspicuously absent is what they actually are for. Once you get beyond the furious barrage of attacks on any form of religion all you find are some rather sad statements to the effect that ‘we are alone in the universe’, ‘because there is no ultimate meaning we better make one up’ and when we die ‘all that happens is eternal darkness and silence’. These are not inspiring words and they are matched by a lack of inspiring deeds. There are no grand visionary atheist projects that I know of: no schools for the poor dedicated to unbelief, no humanistic hospitals, no atheistic cathedrals, no campaigns in the name of evolution to put social wrongs right.
I guess my response to the above is one tinged with sadness. Sadness because, whether it was Churchill or the new atheists, none of them seem to have had a personal encounter with our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ. None of them seem to have a heart and head knowledge of that personal relationship with Christ.
In our first reading, Peter goes to great lengths to emphasise the point that their faith in and relationship with Jesus was not a ‘flight of fancy’. They “did not follow cleverly invented stories”…for they were “eye-witnesses of his majesty.” Let’s be clear; people in that society and culture were not known to be superstitious – in fact they were pragmatic and somewhat sceptical. That is one of the many reasons why people were so astonished by the miracles of Jesus and subsequently the miracles of the apostles themselves. We must understand that context and if this were evidence we were considering in a court of law this context and the fact that the apostles were eye-witnesses would “hold water”.
As a nation and as a community the Jewish people had seen prophets come and ago over centuries. They had had chance to learn of prophecies fulfilled, see prophecies being fulfilled and to hold hope that prophecies would be fulfilled.
The disciples Peter, James and John saw prophecy being fulfilled when they were eye-witnesses to the transfiguration of Christ. There are many views about the transfiguration, but in my view the more plausible ones are that
- the transfiguration is a prophetic view of both the future glory and the true nature of Jesus’ Messiahship
- here Jesus’ glory is revealed not just through his deeds, but in a more personal way. The glory denotes the royal presence, for the kingdom of God is in the midst of his people
This alone would have been in incredible sight and experience for those 3 disciples. But then we are told that Moses and Elijah appeared before them too, and we must recognise that Matthew is not prone to hyperbole in his gospel narrative. It is as if he is simply reporting facts or making a factual statement – Moses and Elijah appeared before them – not two people LIKE Moses and Elijah appeared before them. There must have been something about these two people that made them recognisable.
Many authors concur that the significance of Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus is that they represented the Law and the Prophets respectively. It is also important to bear in mind that both Moses and Elijah “had unusual departures from this world, and were both expected to reappear at the end of time.” Their appearance with Jesus was a significant moment of proclamation that Jesus’ life and ministry was about to come into sharp focus and climax leading to his crucifixion and resurrection.
In all of this, we are drawn into the event. We are invited to make this journey with the disciples. We too are invited to be eye witnesses. We are invited to journey through Lent with one eye on the transfiguration and one eye on the cross. We too are invited to fall face down on the ground in adoration. We too are invited to hear Jesus’ voice…“Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”
 Lucas, R. C., & Green, C. (1995). The message of 2 Peter & Jude: the promise of His coming (p. 73). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.