WASHINGTON (BP) -- President Obama told religious leaders at a White House prayer breakfast that Easter is a time to "remember the tremendous sacrifice that led up to that day and all that Christ endured," but he also said Jesus experienced doubt and fear.
The president's assertion that Jesus "knew doubt" and "knew fear" like other human beings is not biblical and "diminishes Christ's achievement," a Southern Baptist academic said.
During his six-minute speech to about 150 people Wednesday (April 4) in the East Room, Obama referred to the suffering Jesus endured.
"For like us, Jesus knew doubt. Like us, Jesus knew fear," he said.
Describing Christ's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the president said, "He fell to His knees, pleading with His Father, saying, 'If it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me.' And yet, in the end, He confronted His fear with words of humble surrender, saying, 'If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done.'"
Obama added, "We all have experiences that shake our faith. There are times where we have questions for God's plan relative to us, but that's precisely when we should remember Christ's own doubts and eventually His own triumph."
Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky., said he appreciates the president's effort to "highlight the courage of Jesus," but that Obama's description of Christ experiencing doubt and fear in ways other human beings do is foreign to Scripture.
Using numerous New Testament passages to explain his position, Burk said, "In the Bible, doubt and fear are sins.
"To say that Jesus had doubts and fears is to make Him into a transgressor," Burk wrote in a commentary on his blog. "But that is not at all the biblical depiction of Jesus. Yes, Jesus can sympathize with all of our weaknesses and, yes, [He] was tempted in all things as we are. But He did it without sin!"
Despite His suffering, Jesus "never doubted His Father, and [He] never feared man," Burk said.
Christ knew in advance the physical pain He would undergo, the forsakenness by friends He would experience and the wrath of God He would bear by dying on a cross in the place of sinners, Burk said. Yet, He "was motivated by joy to endure the cross," Burk wrote, citing Hebrews 12:2.
"Jesus saw right through the cross to the resurrection on the other side," he said. "You and I may fear death, but Jesus never did. You and I may doubt God's purposes in suffering, but Jesus never did. Ever! What was definitive for Jesus was the joy set before Him, not death."
Burk wrote, "The model that Jesus gives us is not that [He] had doubts and fears like we do. The model that He gives us is perfection."
During his speech, Obama also said Jesus suffered "not just as a Son of God, but as a human being."
Obama told the audience Easter is "an opportunity for us to reflect on the triumph of the resurrection and to give thanks for the all-important gift of grace."
"We are here today to celebrate that glorious overcoming, the sacrifice of a risen Savior who died so that we might live," he said. "And I hope that our time together this morning will strengthen us individually, as believers, and as a nation."
Obama expressed gratitude to the attendees for their work and prayers.
"Every time I travel around the country, somebody is going around saying, 'We're praying for you. We got a prayer circle going. Don't worry; keep the faith. We're praying,'" the president said. "Michelle gets the same stuff. And that means a lot to us. It especially means a lot to us when we hear from folks who we know probably didn't vote for me and, yet, [are] expressing extraordinary sincerity about their prayers."
It is the third consecutive year the White House has hosted an Easter prayer breakfast.
Vice President Joseph Biden also spoke at the breakfast.
Among those attending was Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
Also in the audience, according to a White House pool reporter, were Roman Catholic Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C.; activist Al Sharpton, and Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
Attending were "heads of major denominations, non-profit leaders and prominent mainline, evangelical, Orthodox and Catholic leaders from across the spectrum," a White House aide told the pool reporter.
Invited guests, the White House reported, were Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Louie Giglio, pastor of Atlanta's Passion City Church and founder of the Passion conferences; Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, Fla.; Julius Scruggs, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA; Sharon Watkins, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.
Christian recording artist Sara Groves sang at the event.
Boyce College is the undergraduate arm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Burk's full commentary is available online at www.dennyburk.com/president-obama-on-jesus-doubts-and-fears/#comments
. Obama's full remarks are available online at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/04/04/remarks-president-easter-prayer-breakfast
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).