Christians celebrate Easter on Sunday. But wait – do we really think Jesus literally rose from the dead?
I asked questions like that in a Christmas Day column, interviewing the Rev. Tim Keller, a prominent evangelical pastor. In this, the second of an occasional series, I decided to quiz former President Jimmy Carter. He’s a longtime Sunday school teacher and born-again evangelical but of a more liberal bent than Keller. Here’s our email conversation, edited for clarity.
ME: How literally do you take the Bible, including miracles like the Resurrection?
CARTER: Having a scientific background, I do not believe in a six-day creation of the world that occurred in 4004 B.C., stars falling on the earth, that kind of thing. I accept the overall message of the Bible as true, and also accept miracles described in the New Testament, including the virgin birth and the Resurrection.
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Q: With Easter approaching, let me push you on the Resurrection. If you heard a report today from the Middle East of a man brought back to life after an execution, I doubt you’d believe it even if there were eyewitnesses. So why believe ancient accounts written years after the events?
A: I would be skeptical of a report like you describe. My belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes from my Christian faith, and not from any need for scientific proof. I derive a great personal benefit from the totality of this belief, which comes naturally to me.
Q:What about someone like me whose faith is in the Sermon on the Mount, who aspires to follow Jesus’ teachings, but is skeptical that he was born of a virgin, walked on water, multiplied loaves and fishes or had a physical resurrection? Am I a Christian, President Carter?
A: I do not judge whether someone else is a Christian. Jesus said, “Judge not …” I try to apply the teachings of Jesus in my own life, often without success.
Q: How can I reconcile my admiration for the message of Jesus, all about inclusion, with a church history that is often about exclusion?
A: As St. Paul said to the Galatians in 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” In His day, Jesus broke down walls of separation and superiority among people. Those (mostly men) who practice superiority and exclusion contradict my interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus, which exemplified peace, love, compassion, humility, forgiveness and sacrificial love.
Q: Do you sometimes struggle with doubts about faith?
A: Yes, but eventually I decide what I believe, as an integral part of my existence and a guide for my life. This is based on what I consider to be the perfect life and example of Jesus.
Q: I think of you as an evangelical, but evangelicalism implies belief in inerrancy of Scripture. Do you share that, and if so, how do you account for contradictions within the Gospels?
A: I look on the contradictions among the Gospel writers as a sign of authenticity, based on their different life experiences, contacts with Jesus and each other. If the earlier authors of the Bible had been creating an artificial document, they would have eliminated disparities. I try to absorb the essence and meaning of the teachings of Jesus Christ, primarily as explained in the letters written by Paul to the early churches. When there are apparent discrepancies, I make a decision on what to believe, respecting the equal status and rights of all people.
Q: One of my problems with evangelicalism is that it normally argues that one can be saved only through a personal relationship with Jesus, which seems to consign Gandhi to hell. Do you believe that?
A: I do not feel qualified to make a judgment. I am inclined to give him (or others) the benefit of any doubt.
Q: Do you pray daily, and if so, do you believe in the efficacy of prayer in a miracle kind of way, or in a psychologically-this-helps-me-deal-with-the-world kind of way?
A: I pray often during each day, and believe in the efficacy of prayer in both ways. In my weekly Bible lessons, I teach that our Creator God is available at any moment to any of us, for guidance, solace, forgiveness or to meet our other needs. My general attitude is of thanksgiving and joy.
Q: Skeptics have noted that when prayers are “answered,” there is usually an alternative explanation. But an amputee can pray for a new leg, and a new leg never grows back. Isn’t that a reason to believe that prayer helps internally, but doesn’t access miracles?
A: It is usually impossible to convince skeptics. For me, prayer helps internally, as a private conversation with my creator, who knows everything and can do anything. If I were an amputee, my prayer would be to help me make the best of my condition, to be a good follower of the perfect example set by Jesus Christ and to be thankful for life, freedom and opportunities to be a blessing to others. We are monitoring the status of cancer in my liver and brain, and my prayers are similar to this.