IT’S ALL ABOUT JESUS
Believe what you will about him, nobody else has created more controversy, changed more lives, shaped more of culture, or shifted more of history than Jesus. No one has taught more provocatively about life’s meaning, nor walked the talk more authentically. Surely such a defining figure deserves a closer look – by skeptics, cynics and believers alike. You might discover – as millions have – that Jesus is not only as real as the Bible says he is, but that he loves you as much as the Bible says he does. That is the good news of Jesus.
How Do I Put My Faith In Christ?
The Bible is clear that no one is a Christian merely because they are quite moral, or are born one, or because they give mere intellectual assent to the facts of Christianity. The New Testament shows that a person needs to hear the Gospel, and to believe and to repent in order to become a Christian (see Mark 1:14,15; Acts 26:20; Ephesians 2:8,9). But what do these terms – Gospel, believe and repent – mean anyway? And what can we expect to experience if we were to say yes to God?
People experience coming to faith in Christ differently
What happens when you wake up in the morning?
For some people, waking up is a rude and shocking experience. Off goes the alarm, and they jump in fright, dragged out of a deep sleep to face the cold, cruel light of day.
For others, it’s a quiet, slow process. They can be half-asleep and half-awake, not even sure which is which, until gradually, eventually, without any shock or resentment, they are happy to know that another day has begun.
Most of us know something of both, and a lot in between.
Waking up offers one of the most basic pictures of what can happen when God takes a hand in someone’s life.
There are classic alarm-clock stories. Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, blinded by a sudden light, stunned and speechless, discovered that the God he had worshipped had revealed himself in the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. John Wesley found his heart becoming strangely warm, and he never looked back. They and a few others are the famous ones, but there are millions more.
And there are many stories, though they don’t hit the headlines in the same way, of the half-awake and half-asleep variety. Some people take months, years, maybe even decades, during which they aren’t sure whether they’re on the outside of Christian faith looking in, or on the inside looking around to see if it’s real.
As with ordinary waking up, there are many people who are somewhere in between. But the point is that there’s such a thing as being asleep, and there’s such a thing as being awake. And it’s important to tell the difference, and to be sure you’re awake by the time you have to be up and ready for action, whatever that action may be.
God wants to give us the gift of new life
Waking up is, in fact, one of the regular early Christian images for what happens when the gospel of Jesus – the good news that the creator God has acted decisively to put the world to rights – impinges on someone’s consciousness. There’s a good reason for this. ‘Sleep’ was a regular way of talking about death in the ancient Jewish world. With the resurrection of Jesus, the world was being invited to wake up. “Wake up, sleeper!” writes St. Paul. “Rise from the dead! Christ will give you light!” (Ephesians 5:14).
The earliest Christians believed, in fact, that resurrection was what every human being really needed—not just in the end, in the new world that God will eventually make, but in the present life as well. God intends, in the end, to give us a new life, in comparison with which the present one is a mere thing of shadows. He intends to give us new life within his ultimate new creation. But the new creation has already begun with the resurrection of Jesus, and God wants us to wake up now, in the present time, to the new reality. We are to come through death and out the other side into a new sort of life; to become daytime people, even though the rest of the world isn’t yet awake. We are to live in the present darkness by the light of Christ, so that when the sun comes up at last we will be ready for it. Or, to change the image, we are already to be pencilling the sketches for the masterpiece that God will one day call us to help him paint. That’s what it means to respond to the call of the Christian gospel.
It isn’t, in other words, a matter of ‘having a new religious experience’. It may feel like that, or it may not. For some people, becoming a Christian is a deeply emotional experience; for others, it’s a calm, clear-eyed resolution of matters long pondered. Our personalities are gloriously different, and God treats us all gloriously differently. In any case, some religious experiences are profoundly un- or anti-Christian. The ancient world was full of all kinds of religions, many of them deeply dehumanizing. Though we don’t always recognize it, the modern world is like that, too.
The gospel is the message about Jesus
So what is involved in hearing and responding to the Christian gospel? What does it mean to wake up to God’s new world? What does it mean, in other words, to become a member of God’s people, of Jesus’ people – of the church?
The gospel – the ‘good news’ of what the creator God has done in Jesus – is first and foremost news about something that has happened. And the first and most appropriate response to that news is to believe it. God has raised Jesus from the dead, and has thereby declared in a single powerful action that Jesus has launched the long-awaited kingdom of God, and that (by means of Jesus’ death) the evil of all the world has been defeated at last. When the alarm clock goes off, this is what it says: ‘Here’s the good news. Wake up and believe it!’
What it means to believe
This message, though, is so utterly unlikely and extraordinary that you can’t expect people simply to believe it in the same way they might believe you if you said it was raining outside. And yet, as people hear the message, at least some find that they do believe it. It makes sense to them. I don’t mean the kind of ‘sense’ you get within the flatland world of secular imagination. There the only things that matter are what you can put into a test tube or a bank account. I mean the kind of sense that exists within the strange new world which – we glimpse, even if only for a moment, in the way we glimpse a whole new world when we stand in awe in front of a great painting, or are swept off our feet by a song or a symphony. That kind of ‘making sense’ is much more like falling in love than like calculating a bank balance. Ultimately, believing that God raised Jesus from the dead is a matter of believing and trusting in the God who would, and did, do such a thing.
This is where our word ‘belief’ can be inadequate or even misleading. What the early Christians meant by ‘belief’ included both believing that God had done certain things and believing in the God who had done them. This is not belief that God exists, though clearly that is involved, too, but loving, grateful trust.
When things ‘make sense’ in that way, you are left knowing that it isn’t so much a matter of you figuring it all out and deciding to take a step, or a stand. It’s a matter of someone calling you, calling with a voice you dimly recognize, calling with a message that is simultaneously an invitation of love and a summons to obedience. The call to faith is both of these. It is the call to believe that the true God, the world’s creator, has loved the whole world so much, you and me included, that he has come himself in the person of his Son and has died and risen again to exhaust the power of evil and create a new world in which everything will be put to rights and joy will replace sorrow.
Christian faith isn’t a general religious awareness. Nor is it the ability to believe several unlikely propositions. It is certainly not a kind of gullibility that would put us out of touch with any genuine reality. It is the faith which hears the story of Jesus, including the announcement that he is the world’s true Lord, and responds from the heart with a surge of grateful love that says: ‘Yes. Jesus is Lord. He died for my sins. God raised him from the dead. This is the centre of everything.’ Whether you come to this faith in a blinding flash or by a long, slow, winding route, once you get to this point you are a real Christian.
Receiving undeserved forgiveness
The more conscious we are of our own inability to get it right, perhaps even our own flagrant disloyalty to the call to live as genuine human beings, the more we will hear this call as what it most deeply is. It is the offer of forgiveness. It is the summons to receive God’s gift of a slate wiped clean, a totally new start. Even to glimpse that is to catch your breath with awe and gratitude, and to find an answering, thankful love welling up inside. As we saw earlier, just as you can’t set up a staircase of human logic and climb up it to get to some kind of ‘proof’ of God, so you can’t set up a staircase of human moral or cultural achievement and climb up it to earn God’s favour. From time to time some Christians have imagined that they were supposed to do just that, and in their efforts they’ve made a nonsense of everything.
Seeing the connection between trust and obedience
But the fact that we can’t ever earn God’s favour by our own moral effort shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the call to faith is also a call to obedience. It must be, because it declares that Jesus is the world’s rightful Lord and Master. (The language Paul used of Jesus would have reminded his hearers at once of the language they were accustomed to hearing about Caesar.) That’s why Paul can speak about “the obedience of faith”. Indeed, the word the early Christians used for ‘faith’ can also mean ‘loyalty’ or ‘allegiance’. It’s what emperors ancient and modern have always demanded of their subjects. The message of the gospel is the good news that Jesus is the one true ‘emperor’, ruling the world with his own brand of self-giving love. This, of course, cheerfully and deliberately deconstructs the word ‘emperor’ itself. When the early Christians used ‘imperial’ language in relation to Jesus, they were always conscious of irony. Whoever heard of a crucified emperor?
What it means to repent
When we see ourselves in the light of Jesus’ type of kingdom, and realise the extent to which we have been living by a different code altogether, we realise, perhaps for the first time, how far we have fallen short of what we were made to be. This realisation is what we call ‘repentance’, a serious turning away from patterns of life that deface and distort our genuine humanness. It isn’t just a matter of feeling sorry for particular failings, though that will often be true as well. It is the recognition that the living God has made us humans to reflect his image into his world, and that we haven’t done so. (The technical term for that is ‘sin’, whose primary meaning is not ‘breaking the rules’ but ‘missing the mark’, failing to hit the target of complete, genuine, glorious humanness.) Once again, the gospel itself, the very message which announces that Jesus is Lord and calls us to obedience, contains the remedy: forgiveness, unearned and freely given, because of his cross. All we can say is, “Thank you.” To believe, to love, to obey (and to repent of our failure to do those things): faith of this kind is the mark of the Christian, the one and only badge we wear.
The analogy of birth
What’s more, you are giving clear evidence that a new life has begun. Somewhere in the depths of your being something has stirred into life that was previously not there. It is because of this that many early Christians reached for the language of birth. Jesus himself, in a famous discussion with a Jewish teacher, spoke of being born ‘from above’: a new event similar to, though distinguished from, ordinary human birth (John 3). Many early Christians picked up and developed this idea. As a newborn baby breathes and cries, so the signs of life in a new born Christian are faith and repentance, inhaling the love of God and exhaling an initial cry of distress. And at that point what God provides, exactly as for a new born infant, is the comfort, protection, and nurturing.
Author: Tom Wright, commongroundchurch.co.za
Can We Trust The Bible’s Claims About Christ?
Thousands of highly educated people have become convinced of the claims about Christ once they open-mindedly explored the facts for themselves. One such person is Lee Strobel.
Strobel was a highly successful investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribunal. He was trained to approach any claim in a highly rational way, always surveying carefully the evidence before coming to a conclusion on any matter.
When his wife became a Christian and he observed the positive impact it made on her life, he was persuaded by her to at least explore the facts about Christ for himself. After years of exploration, he became convinced that the facts of Christ held up under the most penetrating scrutiny.
He wrote a book, The Case for Christ, which retracted and expanded upon his several-year journey from atheism to Christianity. In it he interviewed thirteen leading experts on the historical evidence for Jesus Christ. This is his own summary of that book.
Can the biographies of Jesus be trusted?
I once thought the gospels (of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were merely religious propaganda, hopelessly tainted by overactive imagination and evangelistic zeal. But Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the biographies of Jesus, built a convincing case that they reflect eyewitness testimony and bear the unmistakable earmarks of accuracy. So early are these accounts of Jesus’ life that they cannot be explained away as legendary invention. “Within the first two years after his death,” Blomberg said, “significant numbers of Jesus’ followers seem to have formulated a doctrine of the atonement, were convinced that he had been raised from the dead in bodily form, associated Jesus with God, and believed they found support for all these convictions in the Old Testament.” A study indicates that there was nowhere near enough time for the legend to have developed and to have wiped out a sold core of historical truth.
Do the biographies of Jesus stand up to scrutiny?
Blomberg argued persuasively that the gospel writers intended to preserve reliable history, were able to do so, were honest and willing to include difficult-to-explain material, and didn’t allow bias to unduly colour their reporting. The harmony of the gospels on essential facts, coupled with divergence on some incidental details, lends historical credibility to the accounts. What’s more, the early church could not have taken root and have flourished right there in Jerusalem if it had been teaching facts about Jesus that his own contemporaries could have exposed as exaggerated or false. In short, the gospels were able to pass all eight evidential tests, demonstrating their basic trustworthiness as historical records.
Were Jesus’ biographies reliably preserved for us?
World-class scholar Bruce Metzger, professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary, said that compared with other ancient documents, there is an unprecedented number of New Testament manuscripts and that they can be dated extremely close to the original writings. The modern New Testament is 99.5 percent free of textual discrepancies, with no major Christian doctrines in doubt. The criteria used by the early church to determine which books should be considered authoritative have ensured that we possess the best records about Jesus.
Is there credible evidence for Jesus outside his biographies?
“We have better historical documentation for Jesus than for the founder of any other ancient religion,” said Edwin Yamauchi of Miami University, a leading expert on ancient history. Sources from outside the Bible corroborate that many people believed Jesus performed healings and was the Messiah, that he was crucified, and that despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed he was still alive, worshiped him as God. One expert documented thirty-nine extra-biblical ancient sources that corroborate more than one hundred facts concerning Jesus’ life, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection. Seven secular sources and several early Christian creeds concern the deity of Jesus, a doctrine “definitely present in the earliest church,” according to Dr. Gary Habermas, the scholar who wrote The historical Jesus.
Does archaeology confirm or contradict Jesus’ biographies?
John McRay, a professor of archaeology for more than fifteen years and author of Archaeology and the New Testament, said there’s no question that archaeological findings have enhanced the New Testament’s credibility. No discovery has ever disproved a biblical reference. Further, archaeology has established that Luke, who wrote about one-quarter of the New Testament, was an especially careful historian. Concluded one expert: “If Luke was so painstakingly accurate in his historical reporting (of even minor details), on what logical basis may we assume he was credulous or inaccurate in his reporting of matters that were far more important, not only to him but to others as well?” Like, for instance, the resurrection of Jesus – the event that authenticated his claim to being the unique Son of God.
Is the Jesus of history the same as the Jesus of faith?
Gregory Boyd, a Yale – and Princeton – educated scholar who wrote the award-winning Cynic Sage or Son of God, offered a devastating critique of the Jesus Seminar, a group that questions whether Jesus said or did most of what’s attributed to him. He identified the Seminar as “an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking.” The Seminar ruled out the possibility of miracles at the outset, employed questionable criteria, and some participants have touted myth-riddled documents of extremely dubious quality. Further, the idea that stories about Jesus emerged from mythology fails to withstand scrutiny. Said Boyd: “The evidence for Jesus being who the disciples said he was… is just light years beyond my reasons for thinking that the left-wing scholarship of the Jesus Seminar is correct.” In sum, the Jesus of faith is the same as the Jesus of history.
(At the time of the writing of The Case for Christ, the Jesus Seminar was the most popular pseudo-academic attack on the deity of Jesus. Subsequently, the Dan Brown novel, The Da Vinci Code has delivered an even more popular attack on belief in the deity of Christ. But again, the attack is pseudo-academic.)
Was Jesus really convinced he was the son of god?
By going back to the very earliest traditions, which we’ve seen to be unquestionably safe from the legendary development, Ben Witherington III, author of The Christology of Jesus, was able to show that Jesus had a supreme and transcendent self-understanding. Based on the evidence, Witherington said: “Did Jesus believe he was the Son of God, the anointed one of God? The answer is yes. Did he see himself as the final Messiah? Yes, that’s the way he viewed himself. Did he believe that anybody less than God could save the world? No, I don’t believe he did.” Scholars said that Jesus’ repeated reference to himself as the Son of Man was not a claim of humanity, but a reference to Daniel 7:13-14, in which the Son of Man is seen as having universal authority and everlasting dominion and who receives the worship of all nations. Said one scholar: “Thus, the claim to be the Son of Man would be in effect a claim to divinity.”
Was Jesus crazy when he claimed to be the Son of God?
Gary Collins, a professor of psychology for twenty years and author of forty-five books on psychology-related topics, said Jesus exhibited no inappropriate emotions, was in contact with reality, was brilliant and had amazing insights into human nature, and enjoyed deep and abiding relationships. “I just don’t see signs that Jesus was suffering from any known mental illness,” he concluded. In addition, Jesus backed up his claim to being God visiting this planet through his sinless character, miraculous feats of healing, astounding demonstrations of power over nature, unrivalled teaching, divine understanding of people, and with his own resurrection, which was the ultimate evidence of his deity. While the incarnation – the fact that God became man, the infinite became finite – stretches our imaginations, prominent theologian D.A. Carson pointed out that there’s lots of evidence that Jesus exhibited the characteristics of deity. Based on Philippians 2, many theologians believe Jesus voluntarily emptied himself of the independent use of his divine attributes as he pursued his mission of human redemption. Even so, the New Testament specifically confirms that Jesus ultimately possessed every qualification of deity, including omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, eternality, and immutability.
Did Jesus – and Jesus alone – match the identity of the Messiah?
Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah, or the Anointed One, who would redeem God’s people. In effect, dozens of these Old Testament prophecies created a fingerprint that only the true Messiah could fit. This gave Israel a way to rule out imposters and validate the credentials of the authentic Messiah. Against astronomical odds – one chance in a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion – Jesus, and only Jesus throughout history, matched this prophetic fingerprint. This confirms Jesus’ identity to an incredible degree of certainty. The expert I interviewed on this topic, Louis Lapides, is an example of someone raised in a conservative Jewish home and who came to believe Jesus is the Messiah after a systematic study of the prophecies. Today, he’s the pastor of a church in California and former president of a national network of fifteen messianic congregations.
Was Jesus’ death a sham and his resurrection a hoax?
By analysing the medical and historical data, Dr. Alexander Metherell, a physician who also holds a doctorate in engineering, concluded Jesus could not have survived the gruesome rigors of crucifixion, much less the gaping wound that pierced his lung and heart. In fact, even before the crucifixion he was in serious to critical condition and suffering from hypovolemic shock as the result of horrific flogging. The idea that he somehow swooned on the cross and pretended to be dead lacks any evidential basis. Roman executioners were grimly efficient, knowing that they themselves would face death if any of their victims were to come down from the cross alive. Even if Jesus had somehow lived through the torture, his ghastly condition could never have inspired a worldwide movement based on the premise that he had gloriously triumphed over the grave.
Was Jesus’ body really absent from his tomb?
William Lane Craig, who has earned two doctorates and written several books on the Resurrection, presented striking evidence that the enduring symbol of Easter – the vacant tomb of Jesus – was a historical reality. The empty grave is reported or implied in extremely early sources – Mark’s gospel and a creed in First Corinthians 15 – which date so close to the event that they could not possibly have been products of legend. The fact that the gospel reports that woman discovered the empty tomb bolsters the story’s authenticity, because a woman’s testimony lacked credibility in the first century and thus there would have been no motive to report they found the empty tomb if it weren’t true. This site of Jesus’ tomb was known to Christians, Jews, and Romans, so it could have been checked by skeptics. In fact, nobody – not even the Roman authorities or Jewish leaders – ever claimed that the tomb still contained Jesus’ body. Instead, they were forced to invent the absurd story that the disciples, despite having no motive or opportunity, had stolen the body – a theory that not even the most skeptical critics believe today.
Was Jesus seen alive after his death on the cross?
The evidence for the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus didn’t develop gradually over the years as mythology distorted memories of his life. Rather, said renowned Resurrection expert Gary Habermas, his resurrection was “the central proclamation of the early church from the very beginning.” The ancient creed from 1 Corinthians 15 mentions specific individuals who encountered the risen Christ, and Paul even challenged first-century doubters to talk to these individuals personally to determine the truth of the matter for themselves. The book of Acts is littered with extremely early affirmations of Jesus’ resurrection, while the gospels describe numerous encounters in detail. Concluded British theologian Michael Green: “The appearances of Jesus after his death are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity…. There can be no rational doubt that they occurred.”
Are there any supporting facts that point toward the resurrection?
Professor J.P. Moreland presented circumstantial evidence that provided some strong documentation for the Resurrection. First, the disciples were in a unique position to know whether the Resurrection happened, and they went to their deaths proclaiming it was true. Nobody knowing and willingly dies for a lie. Second, apart from the Resurrection, there’s no good reason why such skeptics as Paul and James would have been converted and would have died for their faith. Third, within weeks of the Crucifixion, thousands of Jews became convinced Jesus was the Son of God and began following him, abandoning key social practices that had critical sociological and religious importance for centuries. They believed they risked damnation if they were wrong. Fourth, the early sacraments of Communion and Baptism affirmed Jesus’ resurrection and deity. And fifth, the miraculous emergence of the church in the face of brutal Roman persecution “rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of Resurrection,” as C.F.D. Moule put it.
Taken together, I concluded that this expert testimony constitutes compelling evidence that Jesus Christ was who he claimed to be – the one and only Son of God. The atheism that I had embraced for so long buckled under the weight of historical truth.
For the details that support this summary, please refer to Lee Strobel’s ‘The Case for Christ’ (2000. Publisher: Zondervan).
If you want to explore another source for answers to questions about Jesus see www.y-Jesus.com.
Author: Lee Strobel, commongroundchurch.co.za
Is Jesus the only way to God?
Introducing the world of religion
By far, most of the world is religious. Look at the statistics:
Christianity 2 billion
Islam 1.2 billion
Hinduism 786 million
Buddhism 362 million
Tribal religions 225 million
Sikhism 23 million
Judaism 14 million
(Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2002)
In my travels, and living in a religiously diverse city, I have had the privilege of befriending people of many of these faiths. So the question we are dealing with is one that I have spent much energy and time grappling with.
Who’s to judge?
Many of my spiritually curious friends sincerely battle with the apparent exclusivity of Christianity. They express their concern with words to this effect:
Christians seem to greatly over-play the differences between their faith and all the other ones. Though millions of people in other religions say they have encountered God, have built marvellous civilizations and cultures, and have had their lives and characters changed by their experience of faith, Christians often say that only they go to heaven – that their religion is the only one that is ‘right’ and true. The exclusivity of this is breathtaking. It also appears to be a threat to international peace.
Many spiritual seekers cannot bring themselves to commit to Christ because they find its exclusive claim that ‘Jesus is the only way to God’ close-minded, judgmental, intolerable and arrogant.
Growing numbers of people are drawn more to a syncretistic view which says: “All religions lead to God – just find the one that suits you – and let others find the one that suits them. Surely this is the only peaceful way forward. How sincerely you believe something is more important than how true it is. Besides, can we really know what the truth is?”
It is the claims of the Bible itself that create the controversy: “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ ” (John 14:6). “There is no name given from heaven by which we can be saved – except the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:12).
The Bible certainly affirms that God reveals himself partially to all people of all faiths (or no faith). After all, wherever you find love, joy, peace, truth, honour and respect you encounter signs of God’s existence, whether people perceive that God is the source of such things or not. But the Bible affirms that God wants to be known more fully, and more specifically, he wants to give people the gift of salvation.
The claim of the Christian whose faith is informed by the Bible is this: Christ, it turns out, is the way to a fuller revelation of God as he really is, and the way to salvation.
Here are six perspectives that make it plausible to believe this claim that Christ alone is the way to the fullest revelation of God as he really is, and to salvation:
1) Let’s own up to the fact that all truth claims are essentially exclusivist
Christianity is often attacked on the basis of it being exclusivist. However, whenever anyone says: “This is true”, they essentially are saying that the opposite is false. Any truth claim is by nature exclusivist.
When Buddha said, “The Veda Scriptures are wrong” he was saying that the belief that the Veda Scriptures are right is a wrong belief. When Mohammed said, “Jesus was no more than a prophet” he was saying that the belief in Jesus as a Divine Saviour is wrong. When the person who embraces the trendy perspective that ‘all religions lead to God’ they are saying that the belief that all religions don’t lead to God is a wrong belief. When the atheist says there is no God, they are saying that the belief in God is a wrong belief.
So it turns out that every religion and belief system, not just Christianity, is based on truth claims and could be labelled ‘exclusivist’. Although some truth claims are more culturally palatable, every one still excludes every belief that is opposite to it. If you believe something about ultimate reality (and everyone believes something about this), then you’re an exclusivist.
2) We should not measure whether something is true by whether it suits us
Generally it suits us to believe something that is popular to believe. Said another way, we tend to believe what we prefer to believe.
Historically, in the Western parts of the world many people believed in Christianity because it was popular to do so. Now, its popularity has dropped in these areas. So should Christianity be rejected now? We should not judge something by whether it is popular, but by whether it is true.
Rather than evaluating a truth claim by whether it suits us or not, we should explore the source of religious claims. Most religions have begun when someone had a ‘revelation’ about who God is and what he wants from us. Typically, they (or their followers) then wrote their revelation down. Over time their belief system gained more followers and momentum. For example, in France a cult of over 10,000 people follow a man who claims to have encountered God while jogging. His revelation? ‘God is an alien.’ Perhaps in a thousand years time this will grow to be the world’s largest religion! We should be discerning in the face of the explosion of religions. We should ask questions such as, “Is it true? Is there a chance that the founder(s) were deceived? Does the founder’s life back up the revelation?”
Although Christianity is currently the world’s biggest religion, it started with just twelve people. It is no more true now than it was then. The best way to evaluate Christianity is by evaluating its source: Jesus Christ.
3) An objective exploration reveals that Jesus is utterly unique when compared with other religion founders
People will often list the world religion founders (e.g. Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus) as though they are on an equal level with one another. Yet, as we consider the claims of these ‘religious founders’ we would do well to compare their credentials? What makes Jesus unique?
A) Jesus alone claimed to be God
Our church has a friend who does spiritual work in Indonesia, a Muslim country. He told us of an approach he takes when communicating with Muslims there: “Firstly, I ask them who of you want to go to heaven? They all put their hands up. Then I ask them if they would like to know the way to heaven. Again, they put their hands up. Then I give them this advice: If you want to get to heaven, then follow someone who has been there before.” He then goes on to explain that Jesus alone claimed to come from heaven, and is therefore worthy to be trusted on eternal matters.
Not only that. Christ alone claimed to be sinless. He alone claimed to be God. He even claimed to come back one day as the Judge of the world – and that his main criteria for judging the world would be whether they embraced his teaching or not. That makes him pretty unique.
B) Jesus alone centred the whole faith on himself
If you were to take Mohammed out of Islam, and Buddha out of Buddhism, and Confucius out of Confucianism you would still have a faith system that was relatively in tact. However, taking Christ out of Christianity sinks the whole faith completely. This is because Jesus centred the faith on himself. He said, “This is what it means to have eternal life: to know God the Father and Jesus Christ whom the Father sent” (John 17:3). “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Buddha, before dying, said in effect, “I am still seeking for the truth.” Mohammed said in effect, “I point you to the truth.” Jesus said, “I am the truth.” Jesus claimed to not only give the truth, but to be the very personal embodiment of it.
This is one reason that I don’t like the term ‘religion’ as a description of what I have found in Christ. Religion is essentially about rules, dogma and ritual, whereas what I have found in Christ is better described as ‘a relationship’ with Christ. Jesus himself is the truth that I personally experience.
C) Jesus alone based the whole faith on grace
Decades ago, a conference of Christian leaders were discussing: ‘What makes Christianity unique?’ CS Lewis suggested their main answer: “It’s grace.” Grace is undeserved. However, all religions (that believe in God or gods) have a system of works that earn divine approval. Hindus have the law of karma. If you have sinned, then you must pay for that sin through suffering. Buddhism has the eightfold noble path. Judaism has the Torah and the 10 Commandments. Islam has the five pillars. Each has a way of earning God’s acceptance through religious and moral effort. Only Christ tells us that there is nothing we can do that can make God love us more – and there is nothing we can do that will make God love us less. Only Christianity says ‘you don’t and can’t deserve salvation and you will never deserve it. There is nothing you can do to earn it. It is a gift of grace.’
Said another way, all religions are essentially about humans pursuing God (or gods), whereas Christianity is about God pursuing us.
The essence of the religious paradigm is, ‘Obey and then you will be accepted by God.’ This inevitably leads to a religious experience marked by self-condemnation (when one feels that they are failing in their obedience) or self-righteousness (when one feels that they are succeeding in their obedience). But the way of Christ is very different: ‘Accept God’s acceptance of you in Jesus, and then, and only then, you will be empowered to deeply change.’ In this paradigm, one’s acceptance before God is not based on their earning it, but on God graciously giving it. This is why the Christian alone can be totally free from both self-condemnation and self-righteousness.
Listen to how Bono of the rock band, U2 articulates this point in his book, Bono on Bono:
You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an equal or opposite reaction. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the Universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to bring an end to all that ‘as you reap, so will you sow’ stuff. Grace defies logic and reason. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going finally to be my judge. I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the cross, because I know what I have done and who I am – and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity or moral performance to get to God.
D) Jesus alone claimed to be the saviour of our sins
Buddha called himself a teacher. Mohammed called himself a teacher and a prophet. Jesus called himself a teacher, a prophet and a saviour. In other words, he came to rescue us from something that we could not rescue ourselves from. Only Jesus diagnosed the human race as “enslaved to the guilt and power of sin, in desperate need of a Saviour.” The other religions in effect say: “Pull your life together.” Only Christ says: “Grab the life-rope of the cross.” Other religions say, “Do this. Do that.” Christ says, “Done.”
The New Testament asserts that there is only one mediator between God and humans: Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). Passage after passage in the New Testament presents Christ as coming to earth, dying on a cross, rising from the dead, and through this, offering blood-bought grace and salvation to all who would want to be restored to their heavenly Father. If there were other ways to God, then Christ’s sacrifice would have been in vain. To believe that forgiveness from sin can come through means other than Christ’s life and death is to trivialise Christ’s so-called ‘sacrifice for the sins of the world’.
This may surface another question: why could God not just forgive? Why did Jesus have to die for us to be forgiven? Here’s one answer. All forgiveness of any deep wrong and injustice entails suffering on the forgiver’s part. If someone truly wrongs you, because of our deep sense of justice, we can’t just shrug it off. We sense there’s a ‘debt.’ We can then either a) make the perpetrator pay down the debt you feel (as you take it out on his hide in vengeance!) in which case evil spreads into us and hardens us or b) you can forgive – but that is costly and enormously difficult. But that is the only way to stop the evil from hardening us as well. Similarly, if we can’t forgive without suffering (because of our sense of justice) it’s not surprising to learn that God couldn’t forgive us without suffering – coming in the person of Christ and dying on the cross.
E) Jesus alone started and sealed his life with the supernatural
Only of Christ can it be said that hundreds of years of multiple prophecies (recorded for our perusal in the Old Testament) predicted his coming, and that he fulfilled them down to the most remarkable details. This certainly makes him unique.
His resurrection from the dead also makes him unique. All other religious leaders have a time and place where they died. Only Christ has an empty grave. That is why the Bible says we can personally know Christ now.
More than that, Jesus promised that after he would return to heaven, he would give the Holy Spirit to those who trusted in him, so that we could actually experience the presence and reality of Christ now. True Christianity is not just celebrating and revisiting the memory of Jesus. It is an invitation to an experiential relationship with him now.
4) Even if we believe that Jesus is the way, we still must affirm what is good and true wherever we find it
When we say that Jesus is the truth, we do not mean that we alone have all the truth. The Bible claims that God has revealed himself to everyone through creation and through their conscience. These two faculties alone explain why over 95% of people have believed in a Creator God and have lived by a moral system of some kind.
This is why we should affirm truth and beauty wherever it is found, regardless of whether people believe in Jesus or not. This explains why many people of other faiths, or even some atheists live far superior moral lives – lives marked by kindness, sacrifice, courage and humility – than many Christians.
Every person we meet has something to teach us if we’ll humbly observe and listen to them. Just because one trusts in Jesus does not mean they now understand everything, and that those who don’t trust in Christ understand nothing.
So it is possible to be convinced about Christ, without being close-minded to everyone and everything else. To the contrary, faith in Christ should lead one to be both more curious about and more discerning of the views of others.
5) It is logically absurd that all religions are all true at the same time
A popular view is to say that all religions are true at the same time, and that we must let everyone find their own way to God, since ultimately all ways get to God.
This view was espoused by John Hicks in the form an analogy about an elephant and three blind men. He said that if these men were trying to figure out what an elephant was by touch they would only pick up on some of it. The one touching the leg would say it is a tree. The one touching the ear would say it is a fan. The one touching the tail would say it is a rope. In the same way, he claimed, all religions are glimpses into one Supreme Reality.
The problem with the analogy is that all three men were wrong! It was not a fan, a rope or a tree that they were touching. It was an elephant. The problem with Hick’s theory is that it contradicts the law of non-contradiction, which says that something cannot be A and non-A at the same time.
Just consider some of the contradictions that arise if we believe that all religions are right in all their claims. For example, what happens when we die? Atheists say that we non-exist. Hindus say we re-incarnate. Christianity says we face God and are judged. They can’t all happen. Either one or none are right.
Another example, what is God like? Hindus say God is an impersonal force that is really everything. Classical Buddhism does not even believe there is a God. Islam says that he is exalted but not relationally approachable. Christianity says he is separate from creation, and both exalted and relationally approachable.
They can’t all be true. Only a person who is clueless about the world religions will say: “They all basically teach the same thing.” They do not. A better approach is to compare the claims of each religion with one another, and then make your choice.
History is full of intellectual giants who took it upon themselves to thoroughly explore the different religions with the singular question, ‘Is this claim true?’ And many have concluded that the way of Christ is the way of truth. Three such well-known giants are CS Lewis (author of Mere Christianity, Scott Peck (author of The Road Less Travelled) and Francis Collins (head scientist of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God).
6) Regardless of what we believe we should avoid two dangers: loveless truth and truthless love
There is a double-pronged saying: “Love without truth is sentimental. But truth without love is brutal.” Current western culture is largely guilty of the first one. Sadly, many Christians throughout history have been guilty of the second one.
Love without truth is sentimental. Western culture believes: “All you need is love.” But surely questions like, “Where do I come from? Who is God? What happens when I die? And what does God expect from me?” deserve to be answered. Our culture’s attempts to be tolerant by esteeming sincerity over truthfulness basically trivialises the pursuit of truth. And if it is true that “The truth shall set you free” then truth should be highly and honourably sought after – not trivialised.
Conversely, truth without love is brutal. There is nothing uglier than a loveless commitment to the truth. Think of self-righteousness in religious people (where they look down on those who they perceive to be less ‘enlightened’ and ‘morally righteous’.) Worse yet, think of religiously motivated oppression and violence – such as the Crusades, the Al-Qaeda network, the enforcing of faith on a nation, and the outlawing of other faiths in a nation. (For example, in this century, multitudes of Christians have been killed in countries like India, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Indonesia and more – where only Islam is legal.)
We need both love and truth. If we become convinced that Jesus is the only way, we should also live out that conviction in the spirit of Christ, which is a spirit of grace, love and humility. Any arrogance and superiority will fail to reflect Christ adequately. Christians who seek to imitate Christ should radically protect everyone’s right to think and believe differently to themselves, and should sincerely love, like and befriend such people.
One more comment on this point. A common objection to Christianity is the bad record of many Christians (and so-called Christian nations) who are judgmental, corrupt, hypocritical, violent and/or loveless. What a tragedy! But the problem with these people is not that they believed in Jesus, but that, though they claimed to believe in Jesus, they failed to reflect his character and teachings. Either they didn’t believe correctly or they didn’t believe deeply enough. I am convinced from experience that a more informed and deeper faith in Jesus creates in a person ever-deepening humility, love, forgiveness, curiosity, courage, hope and all the things this world so desperately needs. That’s why Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement of America did not tell white Christians to turn away from their faith in Christ (which they used to justify racism) but rather to embrace a deeper, truer and firmer faith in him.
It is true that God reveals himself partially to all people of all faiths (or no faith). After all, wherever you find love, joy, peace, truth, honour and respect you have just encountered signs of God’s existence, whether people perceive that God is the source of such things or not.
But the Bible affirms that God wants to be known more fully. He does care what we think about him, and how we relate to him. He wants to give us the gift of salvation. And, amazingly, he has sent Jesus, his unique Son who lived, died, rose again and ascended to heaven where he co-rules the universe with his Father, to be for the human race the way to a fuller revelation of himself, and the way of salvation.
To believe this is not to be close-minded, uninformed, judgmental, a danger to world peace or anything like that. Rather in the light of the six perspectives mentioned, a decision to trust in Christ – despite the existence of however many other religions and belief systems – has great intellectual credibility.
Author: Terran Williams, commongroundchurch.co.za
Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
Atheist Bertrand Russell wrote in 1925, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my own ego will survive.”1 Well, that’s cheerful. Russell clearly bordered on the morose, but we’ve all wondered, with perhaps more optimism, what will happen to us when we die.
If life after death is not an option, then Russell is right: our bodies will rot and nothing else of us will survive. No consciousness. No happiness. No hope. And, several decades of existentialist window dressing aside, what that really means is an accidental world with no ultimate meaning.
What makes Jesus unique among religious leaders and among great leaders in general, is his relationship with death. Leaders have met with all manner of untimely deaths – assassination, self-inflicted death, accidental death before the world was ready for them to go. But death sought and found them nonetheless. What is not unique about Jesus is that his enemies killed him; what is unprecedented, if the Gospels are to be believed, is that he foretold how and when it would happen and resigned himself to it (actually chose it), stating that death had no power over him.
Theologian R. C. Sproul has stated, “The claim of resurrection is vital to Christianity. If Christ has been raised from the dead by God, then he has the credentials and certification that no other religious leader possesses. Buddha is dead. Mohammad is dead. Moses is dead. Confucius is dead. But, according to … Christianity, Christ is alive.”2
So different and so abnormal is all this that a part of us would like to dismiss it as myth. But is the resurrection to be relegated to a Sunday school story – or is there evidence?
Researcher Josh McDowell said, “After more than seven hundred hours of studying this subject and thoroughly investigating its foundation, I have come to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men, OR it is the most fantastic fact of history.”3 Right. So which is it?
Let’s keep our minds open.
Cynics and skeptics
Not everyone is willing to fairly examine the evidence. Bertrand Russell admits his take on Jesus was “not concerned” with historical facts.4 Historian Joseph Campbell, without citing evidence, calmly told his PBS television audience that the resurrection of Jesus is not a factual event.5 Other scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar, agree with him.6 None of these skeptics present any evidence for their views.
True skeptics, as opposed to cynics, are interested in evidence. In a Skeptic magazine editorial entitled “What is a skeptic?” the following definition is given: “Skepticism is… the application of reason to any and all ideas – sacred cows allowed. In other words… skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are ‘skeptical’, we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.”7
Unlike Russell and Crossan, many true skeptics have investigated the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. In this article we will hear from some of them and see how they analysed the evidence for what is perhaps the most important question in the history of the human race: Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
In advance of his death, Jesus told his disciples that he would be betrayed, arrested, and crucified and that he would come back to life three days later. That’s a strange plan! What was behind it? Jesus was no entertainer willing to perform for others on demand; instead, he promised that his death and resurrection would prove to people (if their minds and hearts were open) that he was indeed the Messiah.
Bible scholar Wilbur Smith remarked about Jesus,
When he said that he himself would rise again from the dead, the third day after he was crucified, he said something that only a fool would dare say, if he expected longer the devotion of any disciples – unless He was sure he was going to rise. No founder of any world religion known to men ever dared say a thing like that.8
In other words, since Jesus had clearly told his disciples that he would rise again after his death, failure to keep that promise would expose him as a fraud. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How did Jesus die before he (if he did) rose again?
What should have been the end of the story?
You know what Jesus’ last hours of earthly life were like if you watched the movie by road warrior/braveheart Mel Gibson. If you missed parts of The Passion of the Christ because you were shielding your eyes (it would have been easier to simply shoot the movie with a red filter on the camera), just flip to the back pages of any Gospel in your New Testament to find out what you missed.
As Jesus predicted, he was betrayed by one of his own disciples, Judas Iscariot, and was arrested. In a mock trial under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, he was convicted of treason and condemned to die on a wooden cross. Prior to being nailed to the cross, Jesus was brutally beaten with a Roman cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip with bits of bone and metal that would rip flesh. He was punched repeatedly, kicked, and spat upon.
Then, using mallets, the Roman executioners pounded the heavy wrought-iron nails into Jesus’ wrists and feet. Finally they dropped the cross in a hole in the ground between two other crosses bearing convicted thieves.
Jesus hung there for approximately six hours. Then, at three in the afternoon – that is, at exactly the same time the Passover lamb was being sacrificed as a sin offering (a little symbolism there, you think?) – Jesus cried out, “It is finished” (in Aramaic), and died.
Suddenly the sky went dark and an earthquake shook the land.9
Pilate wanted verification that Jesus was dead before allowing his crucified body to be buried. So a Roman guard thrust a spear into Jesus’ side. The mixture of blood and water that flowed out was a clear indication that Jesus was dead. Jesus’ body was then taken down from the cross and buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Roman guards next sealed the tomb and secured it with a 24-hour watch.
Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples were in shock. Dr. J. P. Moreland writes of their mental state. “They no longer had confidence that Jesus had been sent by God. They also had been taught that God would not let his Messiah suffer death. So they dispersed. The Jesus movement was all but stopped in its tracks.”10
All hope was vanquished. Rome and the Jewish leaders had prevailed – or so it seemed.
But it wasn’t the end. The Jesus movement did not disappear (obviously), and in fact Christianity exists today as the world’s largest religion. Therefore, we’ve got to know what happened after Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb.
In a New York Times article, Peter Steinfels cites the startling events that occurred three days after Jesus’ death: “Shortly after Jesus was executed, his followers were suddenly galvanised from a baffled and cowering group into people whose message about a living Jesus and a coming kingdom, preached at the risk of their lives, eventually changed an empire. Something happened. … But exactly what?”11 That’s the question we have to answer with an investigation into the facts.
There are only five plausible explanations for Jesus’ alleged resurrection, as portrayed in the New Testament:
1. Jesus didn’t really die on the cross.
2. The ‘resurrection’ was a conspiracy.
3. The disciples were hallucinating.
4. The account is legendary.
5. It really happened.
Let’s work our way through these options and see which one best fits the facts.
Was Jesus dead?
“Marley was deader than a doornail, of that there was no doubt.” So begins Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the author not wanting anyone to be mistaken as to the supernatural character of what is soon to take place. In the same way, before we take on the role of CSI and piece together evidence for a resurrection, we must first establish that there was, in fact, a corpse. After all, occasionally the newspapers will report on some ‘corpse’ in a morgue who was found stirring and recovered. Could something like that have happened with Jesus?
Some have proposed that Jesus lived through the crucifixion and was revived by the cool, damp air in the tomb – “Whoa, how long was I out for?” But that theory doesn’t seem to square with the medical evidence. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association explains why this so-called ‘swoon theory’ is untenable: “Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicated that Jesus was dead. The spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death.”12 But skepticism of this verdict may be in order, as this case has been cold for 2,000 years. At the very least, we need a second opinion.
One place to find that is in the reports of non-Christian historians from around the time when Jesus lived. Three of these historians mentioned the death of Jesus.
• Lucian (c.120–after 180 a.d.) referred to Jesus as a crucified sophist (philosopher).13
• Josephus (c.37–c.100 a.d.) wrote, “At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of amazing deeds. When Pilate condemned him to the cross, the leading men among us, having accused him, those who loved him did not cease to do so.”14
• Tacitus (c. 56–c.120 a.d.) wrote, “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty… at the hands of our procurator Pontius Pilate.”15
This is a bit like going into the archives and finding that on one spring day in the first century The Jerusalem Post ran a front-page story saying that Jesus was crucified and dead. Not bad detective work, and fairly conclusive.
In fact, there is no historical account from Christians, Romans, or Jews that disputes either Jesus’ death or his burial. Even Crossan, a skeptic of the resurrection, agrees that Jesus really lived and died: “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”16 In light of such evidence, we seem to be on good grounds for dismissing the first of our five options. Jesus was clearly dead, “of that there was no doubt.”
The matter of an empty tomb
No serious historian really doubts Jesus was dead when he was taken down from the cross. However, many have questioned how Jesus’ body disappeared from the tomb. English journalist Dr. Frank Morison initially thought the resurrection was either a myth or a hoax, and he began research to write a book refuting it.17 The book became famous but for reasons other than its original intent, as we’ll see.
Morison began by attempting to solve the case of the empty tomb. The tomb belonged to a member of the Sanhedrin Council, Joseph of Arimathea. In Israel at that time, to be on the council was to be a rock star. Everyone knew who was on the council. Joseph must have been a real person, otherwise, the Jewish leaders would have exposed the story as a fraud in their attempt to disprove the resurrection. Also, Joseph’s tomb would have been at a well-known location and easily identifiable, so any thoughts of Jesus being “lost in the graveyard” would need to be dismissed.
Morison wondered why Jesus’ enemies would have allowed the “empty tomb myth” to persist if it wasn’t true. The discovery of Jesus’ body would have instantly killed the entire plot.
And what is known historically of Jesus’ enemies is that they accused Jesus’ disciples of stealing the body, an accusation clearly predicated on a shared belief that the tomb was empty.
Dr. Paul L. Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, similarly stated, “If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable… to conclude that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter. And no shred of evidence has yet been discovered… that would disprove this statement.”18
The Jewish leaders were stunned and accused the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body. But the Romans had assigned a 24-hour watch at the tomb with a trained guard unit (from 4 to 12 soldiers). Morison asked, “How could these professionals have let Jesus’ body be vandalised?” It would have been impossible for anyone to have slipped by the Roman guards and to have moved a two-ton stone. Yet the stone was moved away and the body of Jesus was missing.
If Jesus’ body was anywhere to be found, his enemies would have quickly exposed the resurrection as a fraud. Tom Anderson, former president of the California Trial Lawyers Association, summarises the strength of this argument:
With an event so well publicised, don’t you think that it’s reasonable that one historian, one eye witness, one antagonist would record for all time that he had seen Christ’s body? …The silence of history is deafening when it comes to the testimony against the resurrection.19
So, with no body of evidence, and with a known tomb clearly empty, Morison accepted the evidence as solid that Jesus’ body had somehow disappeared from the tomb.
As Morison continued his investigation, he began to examine the motives of Jesus’ followers. Maybe the supposed resurrection was actually a stolen body. But if so, how does one account for all the reported appearances of a resurrected Jesus? Historian Paul Johnson, in History of the Jews, wrote, “What mattered was not the circumstances of his death but the fact that he was widely and obstinately believed, by an expanding circle of people, to have risen again.”20 The tomb was indeed empty. But it wasn’t the mere absence of a body that could have galvanised Jesus’ followers (especially if they had been the ones who had stolen it). Something extraordinary must have happened, for the followers of Jesus ceased mourning, ceased hiding, and began fearlessly proclaiming that they had seen Jesus alive.
Each eyewitness account reports that Jesus suddenly appeared bodily to his followers, the women first. Morison wondered why conspirators would make women central to its plot. In the first century, women had virtually no rights, personhood, or status. If the plot was to succeed, Morison reasoned, the conspirators would have portrayed men, not women, as the first to see Jesus alive. And yet we hear that women touched him, spoke with him, and were the first to find the empty tomb.
Later, according to the eyewitness accounts, all the disciples saw Jesus on more than ten separate occasions. They wrote that he showed them his hands and feet and told them to touch him. And he reportedly ate with them and later appeared alive to more than 500 followers on one occasion.
Legal scholar John Warwick Montgomery stated, “In 56 A.D. [the apostle] Paul wrote that over 500 people had seen the risen Jesus and that most of them were still alive (1 Corinthians 15:6ff.). It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who might easily have refuted it simply by producing the body of Jesus.”21
Bible scholars Geisler and Turek agree. “If the Resurrection had not occurred, why would the apostle Paul give such a list of supposed eyewitnesses? He would immediately lose all credibility with his Corinthian readers by lying so blatantly.”22
Peter told a crowd in Caesarea why he and the other disciples were so convinced Jesus was alive.
We apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Israel and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by crucifying him, but God raised him to life three days later….We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. (Acts 10:39-41)
British Bible scholar Michael Green remarked, “The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity. …There can be no rational doubt that they occurred.”23
Consistent to the end
As if the eyewitness reports were not enough to challenge Morison’s skepticism, he was also baffled by the disciples’ behavior. A fact of history that has stumped historians, psychologists, and skeptics alike is that these 11 former cowards were suddenly willing to suffer humiliation, torture, and death. All but one of Jesus’ disciples were slain as martyrs. Would they have done so much for a lie, knowing they had taken the body?
The Islamic martyrs on September 11 proved that some will die for a false cause they believe in. Yet to be a willing martyr for a known lie is insanity. As Paul Little wrote, “Men will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie.”24 Jesus’ disciples behaved in a manner consistent with a genuine belief that their leader was alive.
No one has adequately explained why the disciples would have been willing to die for a known lie. But even if they all conspired to lie about Jesus’ resurrection, how could they have kept the conspiracy going for decades without at least one of them selling out for money or position? Moreland wrote, “Those who lie for personal gain do not stick together very long, especially when hardship decreases the benefits.”25
Former ‘hatchet man’ of the Nixon administration, Chuck Colson, implicated in the Watergate scandal, pointed out the difficulty of several people maintaining a lie for an extended period of time.
I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world – and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.26
Something happened that changed everything for these men and women. Morison acknowledged, “Whoever comes to this problem has sooner or later to confront a fact that cannot be explained away. …This fact is that… a profound conviction came to the little group of people – a change that attests to the fact that Jesus had risen from the grave.”27
A bad trip?
People still think they see a fat, gray-haired Elvis darting into Dunkin Donuts. And then there are those who believe they spent last night with aliens in the mother ship being subjected to unspeakable testing. Sometimes certain people can ‘see’ things they want to, things that aren’t really there. And that’s why some have claimed that the disciples were so distraught over the crucifixion that their desire to see Jesus alive caused mass hallucination. Plausible?
Psychologist Gary Collins, former president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, was asked about the possibility that hallucinations were behind the disciples’ radically changed behavior. Collins remarked, “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people.”28
Hallucination is not even a remote possibility, according to psychologist Thomas J. Thorburn. “It is absolutely inconceivable that… five hundred persons, of average soundness of mind… should experience all kinds of sensuous impressions – visual, auditory, tactual – and that all these… experiences should rest entirely upon… hallucination.”29
Furthermore, in the psychology of hallucinations, the person would need to be in a frame of mind where they so wished to see that person that their mind contrives it. Two major leaders of the early church, James and Paul, both encountered a resurrected Jesus, neither expecting, or hoping for the pleasure. The apostle Paul in fact led the earliest persecutions of Christians, and his conversion remains inexplicable except for his own testimony that Jesus appeared to him, resurrected.
From lie to legend
Some unconvinced skeptics attribute the resurrection story to a legend that began with one or more persons lying or thinking they saw the resurrected Jesus. Over time, the legend would have grown and been embellished as it was passed around. In this theory, Jesus’ resurrection is on a par with King Arthur’s round table, little Georgie Washington’s inability to tell a lie, and the promise that Social Security will be solvent when we need it.
But there are three major problems with that theory.
1. Legends rarely develop while multiple eyewitnesses are alive to refute them. One historian of ancient Rome and Greece, A. N. Sherwin-White, argued that the resurrection news spread too soon and too quickly for it to have been a legend. 30
2. Legends develop by oral tradition and don’t come with contemporary historical documents that can be verified. Yet the Gospels were written within three decades of the resurrection.31
3. The legend theory doesn’t adequately explain either the fact of the empty tomb or the historically verified conviction of the apostles that Jesus was alive.32
Why did Christianity win?
Morison was bewildered by the fact that “a tiny insignificant movement was able to prevail over the cunning grip of the Jewish establishment, as well as the might of Rome.” Why did it win, in the face of all those odds against it?
He wrote, “Within twenty years the claim of these Galilean peasants had disrupted the Jewish church. …In less than fifty years it had begun to threaten the peace of the Roman Empire. When we have said everything that can be said… we stand confronted with the greatest mystery of all. Why did it win?”33
By all rights, Christianity should have died out at the cross when the disciples fled for their lives. But the apostles went on to establish a growing Christian movement.
J. N. D. Anderson wrote, “Think of the psychological absurdity of picturing a little band of defeated cowards cowering in an upper room one day and a few days later transformed into a company that no persecution could silence – and then attempting to attribute this dramatic change to nothing more convincing than a miserable fabrication. …That simply wouldn’t make sense.”34
Many scholars believe (in the words of an ancient commentator) that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.” Historian Will Durant observed, “Caesar and Christ had met in the arena and Christ had won.”35
A surprise conclusion
With myth, hallucination, and a flawed autopsy ruled out, with incontrovertible evidence for an empty tomb, with a substantial body of eyewitnesses to his reappearance, and with the inexplicable transformation and impact upon the world of those who claimed to have seen him, Morison became convinced that his preconceived bias against Jesus Christ’s resurrection had been wrong. He began writing a different book – entitled Who Moved the Stone? – to detail his new conclusions. Morison simply followed the trail of evidence, clue by clue, until the truth of the case seemed clear to him. His surprise was that the evidence led to a belief in the resurrection.
In his first chapter, The Book That Refused to Be Written, this former skeptic explained how the evidence convinced him that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual historical event. “It was as though a man set out to cross a forest by a familiar and well-beaten track and came out suddenly where he did not expect to come out.”36
1 Paul Edwards, “Great Minds: Bertrand Russell,” Free Inquiry, December 2004/January 2005, 46.
2 R. C. Sproul, Reason to Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Lamplighter, 1982), 44.
3 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life, 1999), 203.
4 Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 16.
5 Joseph Campbell, an interview with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, PBS TV special, 1988.
6 Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds, Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 2.
7 “What Is a Skeptic?” editorial in Skeptic, vol 11, no. 2), 5.
8 McDowell, New Evidence, 209.
9 Historian Will Durant reported, “About the middle of this first century a pagan named Thallus… argued that the abnormal darkness alleged to have accompanied the death of Christ was a purely natural phenomenon and coincidence; the argument took the existence of Christ for granted. The denial of that existence never seems to have occurred even to the bitterest gentile or Jewish opponents of nascent Christianity.” Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, vol. 3 of The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 555.
10 Quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 246.
11 Peter Steinfels, “Jesus Died—And Then What Happened?” New York Times, April 3, 1988, E9.
12 Quoted in McDowell, New Evidence, 224.
13 Quoted in McDowell, New Evidence, 82.
14 McDowell, 82.
15 McDowell, 81, 82.
16 Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus(Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004), 49.
17 Morison, 9.
18 Quoted in Josh McDowell, The Resurrection Factor (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life, 1981), 10.
19 Quoted in McDowell, The Resurrection Factor, 66.
20 Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 130.
21 Quoted in McDowell, New Evidence, 249.
22 Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 243.
23 Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984), 97, quoted in John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection (Eugene, OR: Harvest House), 22.
24 Paul Little, Know Why You Believe (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1967), 44.
25 J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), 172.
26 Charles Colson, “The Paradox of Power,” Power to Change, www.powertochange.ie/changed/index_Leaders.
27 Morison, 104.
28 Quoted in Strobel, 238.
29 Quoted in McDowell, New Evidence, 274.
30 Quoted in Jesus Under Fire, 154.
31 Habermas, 85.
32 Habermas, 87.
33 Morison, 115.
34 Quoted in McDowell, 249.
35 Durant, 652.
36 Quoted in McDowell, 9.
Author: Terran Williams, commongroundchurch.co.za
What About Those Who Never Hear About Jesus?
Sooner or later, everybody exploring Christianity wrestles with this issue. It can be especially difficult for someone who is a spiritual seeker because it raises suspicions about the very character of God. The question goes like this: If Jesus is the only way to God, what about all the innocent people who have never heard about Christ? Would God really punish them for something that wasn’t their fault?
Sometimes people raise this question as an avoidance manoeuvre; they look for difficult theological questions to validate their unwillingness to believe. But many people have genuine concerns about worshiping a God who, from their perspective, is so unjust. Thus, we should not take the issue lightly, but seek to better understand how the Bible addresses it.
It’s important to recognise that the Bible offers little direct or sustained instruction on this matter. Related topics are discussed, which are helpful for constructing some valuable inferences, but the lack of direct attention suggests we should hold our conclusions lightly. In addition, it’s misleading to use the word ‘innocent’ when describing people who have never heard about Christ. Like all other humans, they are sinful (Romans 3:10-12) and in need of forgiveness for their sins. So what is the plight of those who are so isolated (geographically or culturally) that they have not heard the gospel message or been given any opportunity to respond?
Jesus did categorically say: “I am the way the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except through me.” What is certain is that no other way, no alternative belief system or actions, exists for us to escape judgment – our situation was so dire it took God himself coming to rescue us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet, this doesn’t say that people who have never heard of Jesus cannot be saved.
God is fair
At the heart of this concern is the question of whether or not we can know that God is fair and just. If we can know for sure that he will act completely justly and fairly on judgement day, without some being unfairly prejudiced because they never heard, then our question will be largely settled even though we don’t know the detailed mechanics of how he will work it all out.
Here is some biblical evidence that God is fair:
1. God (as revealed in the Bible) has revealed as one of his dominant attributes his perfect justice, and perfect fairness. It is a theme that is clearly demonstrated again and again in stories of people’s lives captured in the Bible.
The Bible even asks rhetorically, “Will not the judge of all the earth do what is right?”
2. God can be completely fair because he knows all the facts, seeing every intent and motive of every human heart (1 Corinthians 4:5).
3. God is fair because he only requires people to respond based upon what they know (Romans 2:11-12). God bases his judgment on the light that has been given a person and the response that a person makes to this revelation.
Ultimately, we trust that God is good, loving, just, and fair. The Bible says that, “the LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” (Psalm 145:8). We have to settle the fact that God is absolutely fair, because the alternative is absurd – why would God himself come and die for us if he was devious and unfair? No, if he went beyond justice to mercy in sending Jesus, we can believe he is absolutely fair.
This leads to another question:
What light have all people been given?
Firstly, we all have the light of creation. In Romans 1:19-20, Paul explains that people possess the light of creation because the invisible attributes of God are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. God’s creation is a powerful revelation of our Creator. God has clearly proven his existence by what he has made. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech, and night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard” (Psalms 19:1-3). No one can say they have not been exposed to a glimpse of God through his creation.
Secondly, we all have the light of conscience. In Romans 2:11-15, Paul, a leader of the early church, explains that God will judge everyone on the basis of what they know. He explains that the Jew who knew the Jewish Law in the Scriptures will be judged by that Law. But for the Gentiles who didn’t have the Scriptures, God deals with him on the basis of his conscience. Since God knows the heart of man He knows if a man has obeyed his conscience or rejected its accusations. The conscience of man is the proof that the law of God is written on every man’s heart. Even tribesman in the depth of the jungles of Borneo have been given a conscience.
God promises to respond to those who reach out to him
The Bible says, “Anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he responds to those who earnestly seek him”. He would not have us believe something that is false, so it follows that, if someone through the light of creation and the light of conscience believes that God exists and diligently begins to search for him, God will move heaven and earth to reveal himself and Jesus to them. Said another way, if people respond to the light they have been given, God will give them more light, the light of the gospel. Church history has thousands upon thousands of stories to attest to this reality. Let’s look at two such stories.
The example of Cornelius
Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is the best biblical example of this fact (Acts 10). This man believed and feared God but he didn’t know who God was or that the Messiah had come. Therefore, an angel was sent by God to tell Peter to go tell this man about Jesus. Cornelius heard the message and responded with faith, and had a powerful experience of Jesus himself. Similarly, there are countless stories of people in Muslim and Buddhist and Communist countries who have had dreams, visions and other encounters where Jesus is revealed to them apart from any human intervention. (However, the Bible tells us that this is not God’s normal way of revealing himself to people. He is committed to human instrumentality as his main way of getting the message of his grace to us. He desires for Christians to be willing to take his message to those who have not heard.)
The example of China
General Mao kicked all missionaries out of China, and made illegal all forms of Christianity except his own puppet church, enforcing this law with the most unjust persecution and punishment. But as China has opened up to the West increasingly in the last decade or two, it is remarkable to see what God has been doing in that nation: there has been amazing growth in the underground church of China. Against all odds, over 120 million people have put their faith in Christ in the last 50 years.
A good window into what God has been doing there is the book, The Heavenly Man which is an autobiography by Brother Yun (available at most Christian bookshops). His story is one of Christ supernaturally revealing himself to him and to thousands of people around him, and confirming the truth of Jesus with countless miracles, visions and amazing answers to prayer.
Venturing into the realm of theological speculation
The Bible is a practical book not a philosophical one. But for the sake of this question, let’s venture into the realm of theological speculation. Firstly, we should understand that Christ’s life, death and resurrection is the basis for salvation. Scripture affirms that people receive this gift of grace when they accept Christ and his gift of salvation by faith. But (and many Christian scholars have suggested this answer) perhaps there are special circumstances where God applies Christ’s atoning work to individuals who were, for various reasons outside their control, prevented from knowing about Christ. For example, theologians generally agree that people who lived before Christ and yet trusted in the mercy of God, experienced the mercy of Jesus before the event of Christ’s coming, much like we experience the mercy of Jesus after the event of Christ’s coming. They agree that God is probably gracious to infants who die at an early age or to those who are mentally incapable of hearing and understanding the gospel message. In this sense, they are reconciled to God ‘through’ Christ, but not in conjunction with an explicit affirmation of faith. Could it be the same for individuals who have not heard simply because of when and where they were born, and that God has the ability to discern who would respond positively if they did have the opportunity?
Answering our question with a question
Finally, this question has a flipside to it that we would do well to consider: What about those people who have heard? The Bible is very clear: If we have heard the message of Jesus, then we are responsible before God for what we do with what we know. So we must be very careful of the danger of excusing our lack of faith in Christ on the basis of a philosophical question.
Jesus, in the Gospels, often answered philosophical questions with personal ones. He knew the human tendency to delay decisions on the basis of hiding behind questions. Jesus once asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Perhaps in response to our philosophical question, “What about those who haven’t heard about you?” he answers with a personal question, “Based on what you have heard, who do you say I am? Will you trust in me?”
Author: Steve Binos, commongroundchurch.co.za
Hear more about Jesus and Christianity
Questioning Christianity is a six part video series, for seekers, skeptics and those exploring Christianity led by Tim Keller, Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. This series provides a safe and open space to explore the toughest claims of the Christian faith through 6 videos of Tim speaking and then answering questions.
We all need Jesus is a short sermon from a Redeemer service where Chris explains why every human being needs Jesus.