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Autobiography: Agnostics and a "Jesus People"

Here is another short story from my autobiography, Grace Upon Grace, which will be in print this spring.

In the winter of 1971-1972, I was invited to take part in a panel responding to Gordon Lathrop, who was speaking in the CUB ballroom at Washington State University. Gordon was a Lutheran theologian and the chaplain of Pacific Lutheran College in Tacoma. I think I was selected because of my effectiveness in reaching high school kids in God’s Garage. The other panel members were Mr. Bowman, the United Church of Christ pastor, King Rockhill, the Methodist pastor, and professor Paul Brians, founder of the WSU Society for the Propagation of Militant Atheism. The panel members were not allowed to debate with each other, and were only to speak about Gordon Lathrup’s comments.

The ballroom was packed. Gordon started by making fun of Jesus people. After doing that for a while, he said, “Let’s talk about Jesus.” He said that there was not much known about Jesus. Only two things were certain: he was baptized by a man named John, and he had fellowship with the “down-and-outers.”

I took notes on everything Gordon said. When he finished, the panel members were allowed to speak. The United Church of Christ pastor said he wished he could differ with Gordon, but he had to concur with everything he had said. King Rockhill said the same thing.

After that, the atheist said, “I came here to fight with Christians, and I agree with everything Mr. Lathrop said. Why doesn’t he be honest and admit he’s an atheist?”

Then it was my turn. I started by admitting that I was a “Jesus People.” Then I commented that if Gordon was a Lutheran clergyman, he must serve communion on Sunday morning. How could he do that if Jesus hadn’t died for the sins of the people? I continued by giving the Gospel.

When I stopped, there was a standing ovation. I was new in town. I thought, “Either this place is filled with Christians, or these people are sick and tired of their pastors not believing anything.”

The next day, the pastor of the United Church of Christ called me. He seemed angry. He had heard that I’d said that Gordon Lathrop was not a Christian. I assured him that I had not said that. (I hadn’t.) He calmed down.

Once he was calm, I said, “I did not say it, but I could have.”

He got excited again and wanted to know why.

“He told everyone himself,” I said. “He told us all that he did not believe in the deity of Jesus or His death and resurrection. If there is a minimum of truth that defines a Christian, that is it. Gordon does not hold to the minimum. He is not a Christian.”

A similar event had happened in Annapolis in the mid-sixties. The president of the YWCA called me on the carpet in her office on State Circle. She had heard that I had said that Bill Hudnut, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Annapolis, was not a Christian.

I had not said that, but I assured her that I could have. I had told Bill that I held to the Gospel as presented in 1 Corinthians 15 and asked him where he stood on the same text.

"Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve" (1 Cor. 15:1-5 NASB).

Bill avoided the deity, death, and burial of Jesus and said that that was just one view of Christianity. On the resurrection, he said, “I could tell you I believe it, I could tell you that I do not believe, or I could tell you I don’t know. I will tell you I don’t know if the resurrection happened, and what’s more I don’t think it is important.”

I passed this information on to the YWCA president. I was not bothered that Bill Hudnut was agnostic about the resurrection. But if he did not believe in it, he was certainly in no position to determine its importance. If he did not know if Jesus had been raised from the dead, then he did not know that he was saved. “Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised” (1 Cor. 15:15 NASB). If Bill himself did not know that he was saved, then I certainly did not know that he was saved.


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