Funeral on the Campus or “The Phantom in the Casket”

Amusement is usually the best way to react to to the gags and the pranks that are pulled off on a college campus. They can really be quite funny, often with a good measure of imaginativeness. The blend of industry, genius and mock-heroics that goes into many of these campus jinks can be highly amusing.

This attitude of amusement just won’t come off, however, toward an event that took place on several college and university campuses this past year. I refer to the mock funerals for “God” that were held in several places throughout the country. The affront to religious sensitivity is too great and too basic to permit a reaction of amusement on the part of the Christian onlooker.

And yet, there is a weirdly humorous element in these abominations on the campus. That twisted piece of humor is simply this: the “God” who is the subject of these funerals never existed. These elaborate mock affairs are a particularly striking illustration of much ado about nothing. Tn these caskets there is only a phantom, a creation of human delusion. Like the fancy new clothes that the emperor was supposed to be wearing in the celebrated story, so here there really is nothing.

What do we mean? We do not mean to say at this point that since God has no body, a casket for holding a body is nonsense. We mean rather that the symbolism in this instance is all wrong because the being whose death is symbolized by the casket is nothing. He never existed.



God at Work

The God of the Bible, the God who has been worshipped and served by believers throughout the centuries, has always demonstrated his reality by his works. The God whom men are called on to love with heart, soul, mind and strength has never been just a philosopher’s concept or life’s highest concern or “ground of being,” as some put it. The God whom men have been called to honor and serve in the totality of their energies is that God who has done things, actual things, in the house of history. He has demonstrated his reality in historical actualities, in historical concretions, that is, real, concrete facts or events in actual history.

For illustration we turn to a phrase that occurs again and again in the Old Testament. The God of the chosen people of old was he who had revealed himself by “mighty signs and wonders” in the rescue of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. Many times we read that it was by “mighty signs and wonders” that God brought his people forth. This was the God the people were called to serve, the God who has done things, actual things, in the concrete, real world of human history. The appeal was always to his works, his visible works, his signs and wonders, just as it was in the days when the Son of God came in human flesh. His signs or miracles were appealed to to attest bis divine character.

The point is clear, it would seem. God is real, compellingly real, inescapably real by the works he has done. the works done in living history. The works of God are the convincing demonstration of the reality of God and his claim on the lives of men. Hence, if one does not see the works of God, his “God” must mean less and less to him. For a “God” that does nothing is nothing.

It is precisely at this point that the farce of the funeral of “God” appears. When God becomes only the supreme human concern, the loftiest notion of the mind of man, the vague “ground of being,” and be is no more than that, he must soon pass away from any place of importance in the minds of men. He is not the great and mighty God hailed by Moses in his celebrated song:

“Who is like unto thee, O Jehovah, among the gods? Who is like unto thee. glorious in holiness, Fearful in praises, doing wonders” (Exodus 15:11, italics EH).

It was and is the doing by God of his wonderful works that compels man’s amazed adoration. It is God’s works that authenticate his reality and his claim on our total love and devotion. The believing soul testifies, “Our God is in the heavens: he hath clone whatsoever he pleased” (Psalm 115:3, italics EH). Indeed, the Psalmist makes plain that it is precisely the inability of idols to do anything that marks them as idols. They can’t speak or see or hear or smell or handle or walk. With anthropomorphism and literary craftmanship the psalmist drives home the point that the great difference between God and idols is just exactly this, thai idols are incapable of doing anything whereas the true God can do whatever he pleases to do. A “God” that does nothing is nothing.

Cutting Down the Works of God

The “God” being buried by some deluded students today is not the God of the Bible, the God of historic Christianity, the God of revelation. This we can confidently assert without being guilty of over-statement or sentimental prejudice. The “God” whose funeral has been held on several college or university campuses never existed. If in that sense we are to say that “God” is dead, let it be said. But then let men know what they are saying.

Slowly and steadily modem man has been whittling away the works of God. A cursory look at some of the main works of God that man bas sought to rob from God soon reveals what actually has taken place in these campus funerals. We examine briefly seven of the outstanding works of God.

1. Creation. Since the eighteenth century and especially since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 the grandeur of the creation as a special, actual work of God has been fading from human view. Instead the universe has increasingly been thought of in terms of natural evolutionary development. It is the weakening of devotion to this great and primary work of God that bas no doubt led to the weakening of regard for an the works of God. For this work of God is basic to all of God’s works in history. Formation of all things by God’s special creative action, so foundational to biblical religion, establishes the world and its history as God’s domain where he. being Creator and Sustainer, can act as he deems best for his creation and for his glory. But when men explain aU things in terms of purely natural process, the place of God in the world must inevitably be reduced to the point of extinction in the minds of men. Nothing is more fundamental in and pervasively expressive of biblical religion than the teaching that God created all things by the word of his power, and therefore knowledge of anything in God’s creation must begin with understanding it in terms of God and his glory. A “God” who did not truly and meaningfully create is dead. He is dead because he never existed.

2. Providence. The joy and undergirding support of the believer is that all things that happen in the world happen under the government and direction of God “according to his wise and gracious plan.” A bird falls, a hair drops from one’s head, a star ..sparkles in the crystalline night, a child is born, a man dies—all under the government and control of the Creator-God. This belief has been the life· breath of vital religion, of biblical religion. This belief has given to human life the character of rationality and meaningfulness, and has spared human life from becoming a pilgrimage in vanity. But as men have lost regard for God as Creator, they have said more and more and in various ways that all events can be explained without reference to God. In former years men taught that every event can be explained as an item in a tight, closed system of natural law. In later years men have taught that all events can be explained as occurrences in an open universe where most anything can happen, but where things generally happen according to rules of statistical probability. But God is not needed to account for happenings in history; things just happen. Here again we must assert that a “God” who does not govern this world in his holy providence is indeed dead. Such a “God” never existed.

3. Miracles. The attack on God’s special providences, his miracles, is fairly familiar to most thinking Christians. It is at this point that the assault on the works of God has been particularly sharp. At the same time it has always seemed a matter of simple logic to the believer that the God who created the world and maintains it in his providence can adjust his usual procedures In nature to suit special needs and occasions as he sees fit in his perfect wisdom. The attack on miracles as revealed in the Bible, therefore, has been a frontal attack on God himself. A “God” who cannot do what the biblical miracles accomplish is a “God” not worth talking about. But a “God” who cannot act as he sovereignly wills for good reason within the framework of his own creation is not the God of Christianity. Such a “God” is dead. He never existed.

4. The Bible. No more present and actual work of God exists in man’s world than the Bible itself. Here within the covers of something as commonplace as a book is the Word of God. In a visible, wieldy, legible book that has existed for centuries is concrete evidence of the work of God by the Holy Spirit of God. It is not surprising then that at this point the attack on the works of God has become the fiercest in modern times. In any number of ways, academic and otherwise, men have sought to discredit belief in the Bible as the very Word of God. Men have said that really this is but the word of men—religious literature at its finest, the loftiest expression of the religious mind. They have said that this book contains the Word of God but it is itself not the very Word of God. With advanced astuteness men have lately said that the Bible is not itself the truth, hut is witness to the truth, the best such witness. Over against all this the believer has maintained, after his Saviour and Lord. that “Thy Word is truth,” meaning thereby the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God written. A “God” who could not place into actual history a written Word conveying his imperishable truth is not the God of Christianity. A “God” who could not embody in an enduring record certain special exercises of the supreme gift he gave to men created in His image, namely speech, is not the great God of biblical revelation. A “God” who could not and cannot thus convey his Word and will to men in actual history is dead. Yes, he never existed.

5. The Moral Law. Anyone who has done any reading at all or has attended classes in almost any secular (or religiously based) college or university knows what has been done with God’s moral law, the Ten Commandments. It has been demonstrated numerous times that hosts of college and university students do not even know this moral code that has played such a significant role in the development of western civilization. The main reason for this appalling ignorance is probably that the idea of moral law as divine law has been poor-poohed or rejected for many decades now. In 1948 Princeton philosopher Stace wrote that modern man has rejected the religious basis of morals, but this noted thinker agreed that historically religion has been the basis of most moral systems that have guided men. Moral laws have become instruments of social convenience that man has slowly developed in his evolutionary progress. There is no longer an absolute and authoritative divine ‘“Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” to govern the actions of men. The so-called “new morality” has gone all the way down this path with the flat declaration that there are no set, objective moral standards. Each person must do what his socially enlightened judgment tells him to do. This moral nihilism is the logical consequence of denying a divine basis for morals. Again we say that a “God” who cannot speak to men in history with actual and binding moral directives is not the God of Christianity. Such a “God” is dead; he never existed.

6. Jesus Christ. The greatest, most glorious and most challenging divine concretion in history is Jesus Christ himself. He is Immanuel, God with us. He called himself the Son of God and his hostile contemporaries well knew what he meant. They charged him with “making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). His believing contemporaries came to a confession with respect to him which the Christian church has confessed ever since, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But the attack on the incarnate deity ha…. been pressed most persistently. Men have rejected the divine Christ so plainly presented in the Bible and have sought what they would think of as the true historical Jesus. This search has led some to find a great teacher, or a noble example, a dedicated religious leader, a symbol of divine love, or even a figure spoken of with less complimentary language like religious fanatic or moron. But believing men have always declared that the true historical Jesus is the divine Jesus, the Son of God sent by the Father into human flesh to redeem by his own blood a people for God’s own possession. This Jesus was born of Mary in Bethlehem, lived among men, died on the cross for sinners, rose again the third day, and after forty days returned to the glorious heavens whence he came. A “God” who could not thus send forth his Son into the human flesh he himself created on such a mission for the redeeming of sinful men is not the God the church of all ages has worshipped and adored. The “God” whose Son is just another man is dead; he never existed.

7. Regeneration. Every Christian is a living embodiment of the work of God, a historical concretion of God’s action. Does God exist? The Christian replies in joyful gratitude, “Of course he lives; he lives in me. I am alive in Christ by his grace. I am his workmanship, praise his name.” In the last half century or more men have plumbed the depths of the inner workings of human thinking and feeling. As a result all aspects of man’s inner life have come to be explained psychologically. As to man’s religious life and character, no mysterious activity by a divine Spirit is necessary to explain the religious personality. Human affection finds security in a great Father-over-all patterned after our human fathers. Men achieve personal identity by identifying themselves with some great and good person, and so many identify themselves with the great religious leader Jesus Christ. No appeal to any trans-human agency is needed to explain a Christian as a special work of God, a recreation of God in Jesus Christ by his Spirit. Regeneration is simply a psychological process at the deepest level and no more. Thus also in this sensitive personal area men seek to negate the works of God. But a “God” who cannot recreate men unto being living members of his church is not the God of Christianity. Such a non-working God is dead, for he never existed.

Glorifying God in All His Works

Many years ago Hendrik Van Loon prefaced his book Story of Mankind with a scrawny pen-and-ink sketch that always haunts me. It depicts uncivilized man walking fearful, unclad and lone amid mountains of superstition and dread. This is a picture of man walking without God, man civilized or uncivilized. God is truth, righteousness, love and peace. Apart from God man’s pilgrimage is one of vanity and emptiness. For when truth, righteousness, love and peace are only words and not living possessions of the human spirit by the grace of God, human history becomes but a wasteland of great meaninglessness and vanity and existential despair.

How shall man avoid this stark wasteland? The answer is plain. God must be truly God in his life. And this means thai man must rightly know God, and sanctify, glorify and praise him in .all his works in which his power, wisdom, goodness, justice, mercy, and truth shine forth. (See Heidelberg Catechism on Hallowed By Thy Name, Lord’s Day 47.) The matter of highest priority in life must be to glorify God in all his works. It is to be noted again that it is the works of God that fix the point of his glory.

Therefore any attitude or notion or affection that tends to take away any of the glory of God’s works must be strongly and resolutely resisted. Above we have referred to seven particular works of God, historical concretions of God’s activity. These and other such expressions of divine action must be jealously guarded against attack or erosion. Such jealous concern for God’s glory in these facts of history does not call for a disregard of the human and natural elements in these historical events or beings. But the fascination of human and natural elements can be such that the all-important factor of the glory of God is largely forgotten or ignored. This applies to all of God’s works. In today’s theological climate it is much in point to warn especially against any attitude or notion that would reduce the glory of the Bible as the very Word of Cod, the infallible Word of truth. Failure to do this must result in the decay of truth as an absolute governing factor in human life and history, and in the place of it will be Lessing’s on Dewey’s quest for truth, or Tillich’s vague symbols of or pointers to an ever elusive truth that man can never really know or love.

The Importance of Creation

It seems evident that the biblical teaching of creation is especially significant in this discussion. It is this teaching that establishes the ruling principle that this is God’s world with everything in it, and therefore above all else his glory is reflected by every bird or leaf or atom or mountain vista. Any lessening of regard for the teaching of an actual creation by God must result in a weakening of regard for the works of God at every point. It seems to be the plain teaching of God’s Word that creation took place by processes now unobservable and indescribable by men. Therefore in the very nature of the case God’s work of creation cannot be explained in terms of natural processes that men now observe in God’s providential government of his universe.

An observation is in order with respect to what is called theistic evolution. I refer to that way of thinking that holds that God used evolution as the process of creation. The disturbing thing about this understanding of creation is that it tends to represent God as being no more than a spectator of the creation activity going on as a natural process. Implied is therefore a weakening of the teaching of creation as a distinct work of God, a work not explainable in terms of describable natural process but rather a work known only by faith (Hebrews 11:3). Any notion that tends to regard God as a spectator rather than the “worker” is bound to lead to a position that increasingly views God as being quite non-essential to his universe. This hardly seems like a way in which to glorify God in all his works.

A “God” who does nothing is nothing. Such a “God” is dead. He never existed.

On several college and university campuses mock funerals for “God” were held. In this article the Rev. Edward Heerema, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church at Bradenton, Fla., shows that the “God” whom students claimed to be burying never existed at all!