(This is part 1 of a 3 part series delivered at Beacon Communities on September 14, 21, and 28, 2014. The series was titled, “Q4D: Questions 4 Doubters”.)
When we think about Jesus Christ, in spite of all our doubts, there is one thing we know for sure: The entire Christian religion is nothing without him. Get rid of him, and Christianity falls. Without him, I’m the biggest fool in James Bay (the community I live in), since I’ve publicly committed myself to plant a Jesus-worshipping, Bible-believing, authentically Christian church in this part of our city where there is no other such church. I am amazed by Jesus:
Jesus of Nazareth, without money and arms, conquered more millions than Alexander, Ceasar, Mohammed and Napoleon; without science and learning, He shed more light on things human and divine, than all the philosophers and scholars combined; without the eloquence of the school, He spoke words of life such as were never spoken before, nor since, and produced effects which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; without writing a single line, He has set more pens in motion and furnished themes for more sermons, orations, discussions, works of art, learned volumes, and sweet songs of praise than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times. Born in a manger and crucified as a malefactor, He now controls the destinies of the civilized world, and rules a spiritual empire which embraces one-third of the inhabitants of the globe. (Philip Schaff, The Person of Christ, 1913)
If you’ll allow me to draw this connection with the theme of an essay Conrad Black wrote last week, the influence of Jesus in world history stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok in both directions and across 2 millennia with no end in sight– think about His impact directly: through the spread of Christianity, the foundation it provided for modern science, hospitals, literacy and education. Now also consider His impact indirectly: through his teaching which elevated the dignity of each person, the sanctity of life, human rights, and equality of all people that has fuelled Western democracy and its spread around the globe. The influence of Jesus cannot be denied. Jesus cannot–should not– be ignored, but He can be doubted–was he real, or does he belong in fairy tales with Santa & the Bunny?
Questions doubters ask
There are some fringe writers who have raised questions about whether Jesus ever really existed. A professor at the University of Manchester wrote,
“Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth’, but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories” (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?).
One famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, suggested in his book The God Delusion, that it might be possible to make a case that Jesus never lived (2008, p. 122; quoted in Kumar and Sarfati, p. 97). Now I have a Master of Arts degree in Christian Studies, but I’m a pretty amateur carpenter, a worse mechanic, and don’t come to me for fitness advice! The thing is, Dawkins is not a historian, he’s a biologist! And he was citing the work of another scholar, GA Wells–but he’s not an historian either: he teaches German (Kumar, p. 97).
German & biology experts aren’t historians. Dawkins has big doubts, but though he knows a lot about biology, his doubts about Jesus’ existence are ignorant and narrow-minded. There is so much evidence that Jesus existed, even outside of the Bible and other Christian writings, that I only need mention some of it:
- The governor of Bithynia in the Roman Empire in AD 112 talked about Christ in his letter to Caesar;
- A letter from a Syrian man to his son, around 70-150 AD, mentioned that the Jews had killed Jesus–that letter is in the British Museum.
- Another Roman governor of Asia Minor, and a secular historian, Cornelius Tacitus, mentioned Jesus in AD 112, talking about Christ who had been executed by order of Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was Emperor;
- another Roman historian, Suetonius, in AD 120, also talked about the Christians who followed Christ;
- Josephus, another ancient historian mentions Jesus a couple of times: as a great teacher and “doer of marvelous deeds”, and again as the “so-called Christ,” and brother of James;
- a Jewish Rabbi in AD 95 suggested that Jesus’ miracles were “magic arts” (see Kumar, pp 98-100).
But rather than argue Jesus didn’t exist, more serious, informed and thoughtful doubters have raised questions about whether Jesus really was who the New Testament writers claimed He was. The real challenges to the Christian idea of Jesus fall into two categories: doubts about whether Jesus was who he himself claimed to be, and doubts about whether Jesus was who his followers claimed he was. The things Jesus said about himself are a really hard pill to swallow–people who talk like that today often wind up in a secure hospital ward with lots of padding. Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh. No other religious leader has claimed such a thing. Not Confucius, not Zoroaster, not Buddha, not Mohammed (see Kumar, p. 100).
What did Jesus claim? Drs. Steve Kumar and Jonathan Sarfati showed that Jesus claimed to have the rights, authority and prerogatives of God Almighty, :
To forgive sin, and His enemies got the point: “Only God can forgive sins”–Matthew 9:1-8.
To judge the world–John 5:25, 29.
To give eternal life–John 3:16.
To be sinless–John 8:46.
To be the object of faith–John 8:24.
To answer prayer–John 14:13.
To be worthy of worship–Matthew 14:33.
To be the Truth–John 14:6.
To have all authority–Matthew 28:18.
To be one in essence with God–John 10:30 (Kumar, p. 102).
Again, Drs. Kumar & Sarfati observed, “when ‘doubting Thomas’ confessed to Jesus, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:28), Jesus did not rebuke or contradict him; rather Jesus blessed Thomas” (p. 100). It’s normal to doubt like Thomas; most people won’t get the chance to put a finger in the holes in Jesus’ hands and be convinced like Thomas was. So what do we do with Jesus’ claims to be God? Is he on par with Snow White & the 7 Dwarves, or can he be believed?
Questions for doubters
The well-known English scholar, CS Lewis argued that there are three possible ways to respond to Jesus’ claims of divinity like in the above list. I’m grateful here for the work of Tom Gilson, who introduced to me another possibility and an intriguing answer. So the options are, Jesus was lying, a lunatic, a legend, or, as Lewis said, He was Lord. Here are the first two possibilities adapted from Lewis:
He was lying. – If Jesus claimed to be God but knew that he wasn’t God, he was a liar.
He was a lunatic. – If Jesus thought He was God but wasn’t God, he was crazy.
Lewis pointed out that it’s pretty far-fetched to think that his followers all persisted in their faith in Jesus in the face of incredible suffering and even death to see the message about Jesus spread, knowing all along that he was really a) a liar, or b) a lunatic. If he was a liar or lunatic, it’s most likely the Christian Faith would have died before the year 40AD.
But there is another possibility: that Jesus never actually claimed those things about Himself and his followers made it all up–they made up the legend. In what follows, I’m going to borrow heavily from Gilson, who followed this legend-possibility to its logical conclusion:
Who are the most powerful characters you can think of in all of human history and imagination, apart from those in the Bible?
Who in all of human history and imagination, outside of the Bible, are the most self-sacrificial, other-oriented, giving, and caring persons you can think of?
Can you think of any single person—again, outside of the Bible—who genuinely belongs on both lists at the same time? Is there any person in all of human history and imagination who is at the same time supremely powerful and supremely good?
One can invent a story character who is both supremely powerful and supremely good, but no one has made such a character really believable, 3-dimensional, and life-like. Not Shakespeare, or Homer, or Tolstoy, not Dumas or Dickens, or Azimov or Andersen, or Tolkien or, need I say JK Rowling, or any of the great poets or writers of literature. No one has invented a believable character who is that powerful and that good. So if the Jewish fishermen from Galilee weren’t just recording the facts, but if they invented the Jesus we know in the gospels, they then must rank at the top of the list of the greatest literary geniuses of all time. Because if we don’t rule the Bible out, when we ask both these questions, Jesus Christ immediately comes to mind as someone who belongs on both lists: supremely powerful and supremely self-sacrificing and good.
Consider his power: Superman can fly through space; Jesus created space. Gandalf can command certain effects with a word; Jesus created everything and upholds it by his word. Lincoln saved his country’s unity; Jesus saved all mankind.
Maybe it’s time to doubt your doubts?
No great character willingly chose to live in order to sacrifice himself for the world–not baby Kalel on Krypton, not Gandalf with the Balrog, not Lincoln on the way to Ford’s Theatre. But Jesus chose the ultimate sacrifice for all people from before he was born, according to Phil 2. When did Jesus ever use his power to benefit himself? He did it all for others. Have a look at Mark 10:45!– few who know what the New Testament says about Jesus would argue: in Jesus’ self-sacrificial love, there is perfection. There is no flaw or inconsistency in the story of this character, Jesus. Colossians 1:15-20 sets down how the early church responded to what they knew of Jesus. Not only is his love and power unsurpassed in history as well as fiction, it is absolute.
“If there is truth in [the] dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely, the one possessor of absolute power in all literature, is also the one person who has turned the dictum absolutely upside-down…In short, the man portrayed in the Gospels as the eternal Savior of the whole world must necessarily be a towering figure, as much among literary characters as among historical figures. Jesus Christ is that extraordinary.”
One last doubt has begun to gain a following, that it wasn’t really Jesus’ personal disciples, but a whole community of followers that invented the Jesus-Legend. But the same problem remains: is it reasonable to imagine that a diverse group of people over many decades, hundreds of kilometres, in several languages, invented such a remarkable literary character as Jesus Christ? The theory is that it happened like the telephone game: whispers about “what if he didn’t die after all?” came out the other end of the line as the legend of his resurrection, and so on. But the original message in the telephone game always deteriorates—e.g., “Simple, clear clauses make excellent prose,” becomes, “Santa Claus’ face has an egg-shaped nose.” As Gilson concluded about this latest doubt, “It lacks, if I may say so, the ring of plausibility.”
It’s normal for us to still have some doubts. But when you take all those doubts and stack them up against the person we know of as Jesus Christ, it’s the doubts that seem wobbly, don’t you think?
History shows that of those original 12 disciples Jesus sent to spread His message, 11 of them died for what they believed. Poor, mostly alone, sometimes in prison, helpless. But confident in their message about Jesus to the end. Their joy and hope in Jesus gave them strength. They don’t seem deluded to me. They don’t sound like liars. It’s normal for us to still have some doubts. But when you take all those doubts and stack them up against the person we know of as Jesus Christ, it’s the doubts that seem wobbly, don’t you think? Some of this might be hard to believe. But it’s harder to deny. I have come to see that the reasons to hope in Jesus Christ are far stronger than the reasons to doubt him.
There is so much more I want to say about Jesus, but I don’t have the time. I hope you will keep coming back [to our church, Beacon Communities] so that I can share with you over time why I have put my hope in Jesus. Like so many of the original apostles, the apostle Paul also died for his faith in Jesus. But before his execution, writing from prison, he said,
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection… (Phil 3:7-10a).
Schaff, P., The Person of Christ, American Tract Society, NY, pp 33-34, 1913. Quoted in Christianity for Skeptics, Steve Kumar and Jonathan Sarfati (Creation Book Publishers, 2013), p 95.
FF Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?. Quoted in Christianity for Skeptics, Steve Kumar and Jonathan Sarfati (Creation Book Publishers, 2013), p 97.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Mariner Books, 2008). p. 122.
Steve Kumar and Jonathan Sarfati, Christianity for Skeptics, (Creation Book Publishers, 2013).
Tom Gilson, “The Gospel Truth of Jesus: What Happens to Apologetics If We Add ‘Legend’ to the Trilemma ‘Liar, Lunatic, or Lord’?”. [http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=27-03-035-f#ixzz3GuihZrw1]. Accessed September 9, 2014.