by David Johnson, Class of ‘20
I remember it like it was yesterday. Several years ago, much of my extended family was gathered in Phoenix, Arizona, having a lovely Thanksgiving dinner. Grandma really outdid herself with the turkey and stuffing this time, and the room was beautifully decorated. Everything was just right.
I’ll have to be honest, though: Thanksgiving gatherings are quite a paradox for me. On the one hand, we engage in them to spend time with family and bond with those close to us and far away, and I’ve certainly greatly enjoyed most of the Thanksgiving meals with my family. But sometimes, I’ve found these gatherings to reveal tensions and odd family dynamics that we never knew existed. This was especially the case on that day.
Despite all the fun conversations and delicious food, none of us could really mask the elephant in the room. For almost a month now, something odd in my extended family was brewing. No, it wasn’t the rich coffee sitting in the far corner on the kitchen counter. It was this growing sense of doubt in several of my family members about the faith we all held to. It culminated in the most prominent way through my older cousin, who told my whole family not too long before that he had become an atheist. He made no mistake about making sure we knew this.
But what I found most intriguing was the reason why my older cousin had done so. He believed that Jesus was far overhyped by Christians, that he was merely a scapegoat; His death on the cross really didn’t mean anything. Why, he doubted that Jesus even existed to begin with. He asked us, “Why should I care about some random guy who lived thousands of years ago? What impact does he have on me, or anyone else?”
The common perception
In many ways, my cousin’s question is a legitimate one. After all, millions of events happen thousands of miles away at any given moment that have virtually no affect on what we are currently doing. If someone dropped and broke a glass plate 2400 miles away from where I’m standing, that would not affect my ability to finish my computer science homework tonight. Why then should someone care about a person who lived in a completely different era of world history more than 10,000 miles away? It would seem quite easy to simply shrug Jesus off like we do other people from history. We study about them during finals week so we can get that bare minimum grade to pass the class, and then forget about them two hours after the exam. Jesus just doesn’t seem relevant to our society anymore, and he couldn’t possibly be relevant to you or me.
Or is he?
Whether you are a curious person eager to learn about Christianity, or the most adamant of atheists, like my older cousin, I think we all could use a fresh historical look at this interesting person, Jesus Christ. Not only does He hold relevance to the flow of the rest of history, but there are inescapable truths regarding this historical figure that affect our everyday lives. Ultimately, they provide convincing evidence of Jesus’ own claims to deity.
According to best-selling Christian author Tim LaHaye, “Almost everyone who has heard of Jesus has developed an opinion about Him. That is to be expected, for He is not only the most famous person in world history, but also the most controversial” (1996). As a Christian, I firmly believe that Jesus is more than just a historical person we read about in textbooks: not only did he claim to be God, but there are very good reasons to believe that his claims are valid. But even if Jesus were not God, Jesus still deserves our attention because his presence in history is inescapably relevant to our culture and understanding of history.
And since there’s no grade at stake for reading this article, I’m hopeful you’ll remember what I have to say for longer than two hours.
Jesus: a real man of history
The more that historians have researched and studied archeology and historical documents, the more apparent the reality of Jesus becomes. Time has only increased our understanding of who Jesus was, and further solidifies our certainty in his existence.
We know this, first of all, because of external historical record (i.e. historical documents outside of the Bible). Throughout the four Gospels, we are told how Jesus preached the Gospel to thousands of people and gathered hundreds of followers. He taught from the Scriptures, and people were amazed at his teaching (Matthew 13:54-55). His teachings offended the religious leaders of his day, and they even sought to put him to death.
A great number of events of Jesus’ life are well-attested to in historical documents, some even written by individuals not sympathetic to the cause of Christianity. For example, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who is considered a reputable primary source among modern historians, indicates the following in his famous work on Jewish history, the Antiquities. He lived from about A.D. 37 to A.D. 101, not long after the life of Christ:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one ought to call him a man.] For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. [He was the Christ.] When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. [On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.] And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared” (Edwin, 1995).
He documents not only that Jesus existed, but that He 1) was wise, respected man, 2) was a great teacher, 3) had many followers, 4) was condemned to die by Pilate, a Roman governor, 5) had followers committed to his cause even after his death.
Furthermore, the Roman historian Tacitus (circa A.D. 55 to circa A.D. 117) reported interesting facts about the continuing movement of Christianity after the life of Jesus, as well as Jesus himself, in his work The Annals:
“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus [Jesus], from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”
Just like Josephus’ account, this one attests to the Biblical claims that Christians were hated for their beliefs about Jesus, and that Jesus was prosecuted by Pilate because of his claim to be God.
An archaeological perspective
Furthermore, if you examine what archeology has to offer, you cannot help but reach the same conclusion: Jesus indeed existed. For example, in Matthew chapter 27, we are told that Jesus was not only arrested for claiming to be Jesus, but he was interrogated publicly by a Roman ruler named Pilate (Matthew 27:11). For a long time, many prominent atheists argued that Pilate wasn’t real, since many official Roman records mentioning Pilate were lost over time. However, not only did historians like Flavius Josephus document Pilate’s existence, as we saw earlier, but in 1961, “a piece of limestone was discovered bearing an inscription with Pilate’s name. The inscription was discovered in Caesarea, a provincial capital during Pilate’s term (AD 26-36), and it describes a building dedication from Pilate to Tiberius Caesar” (Wallace, 2013). And this is only the beginning of all the artifacts that support the historicity of events surrounding the life of Christ. When the Bible describes who Jesus was and what he did, we can know with great certainty that it is true. The Bible isn’t giving its own version of Jesus; it’s accurately reporting what we know to be true historically!
Now, you might be wondering at this point, “Ok, so now we know that Jesus existed. But that still doesn’t mean that we can trust what his disciples said about him. They probably stretched the truth or something to make their stories look better, and besides, their stories don’t really match each other.” But if you actually look at the nature of evidence and the circumstances under which the four Gospels were written, I think you’ll find that their stories are more accurate than you might have thought originally. The four Gospels are accurate eyewitness testimony about the life of Christ.
The nature of eyewitness testimony
Some individuals have argued, as evidence against Jesus, that his disciples emphasized different stories that conflict on certain details in their testimonies. I don’t have time to go through all the supposed Bible contradictions and such. I imagine that I or one of my colleagues will cover that in a future article. But I can tell you this: not only are the stories in the Gospels supported by historical record, as I mentioned earlier, but the fact that the disciples’ stories sometimes cover different events is actually good evidence for the reliability of their testimony. It would be bad if their testimonies were exactly the same. That would suggest that they were faulty witnesses: people who collaborate to try to come to a common story at the expense of the truth of what really happened. We don’t trust those kinds of witnesses in courts.
Nonetheless, it is also important to note that, while the disciples do not provide exactly the same stories in their respective Gospel books, their overall message and overall story do not contradict each other. It would be a problem if their stories blatantly contained false or contradictory information, but there is currently very little evidence to suggest that they were telling radically different narratives. What we have before us in the Scriptures is well-attested from a historical standpoint.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that none of the original twelve disciples of Jesus ever changed their message during their evangelism efforts, nor did they ever give up their faith, even in the midst of horrendous persecution. Eleven of them died painful, horrific deaths by execution for their faith (Wallace, 2013). If they really had been living a lie, propagating a myth about Jesus that wasn’t real, all they had to do was admit this to the executioner, and they would have been immediately spared. But not a single one did so. Now, it is true that we’ve seen many people in history die for things that weren’t true. But nobody in their right mind dies for something that they know is false. Normal people don’t give up their lives for a false, irrelevant cause.
Cold case detective and former atheist J. Warner Wallace, who has investigated evidence for actual criminal trials and is familiar with the nature of eyewitness testimony, said the following about this issue:
“I can’t imagine a less favorable set of circumstances for a successful conspiracy than those that the twelve apostles faced. Multiply the problem by ten to account for the 120 disciples in the upper room (Acts 1:15), or by forty to account for the five hundred eyewitnesses described by Paul (1 Cor. 15:6), and the odds seem even more prohibitive. None of these eyewitnesses ever recanted, none was ever trotted out by the enemies of Christianity in an effort to expose the Christian ‘lie.’ Don’t get me wrong, successful conspiracies occur every day. But they typically involve a small number of incredibly close-knit participants who are in constant contact with one another for a very short period of time without any outside pressure. That wasn’t the case for the disciples. These men and women either were involved in the greatest conspiracy of all time or were simply eyewitnesses who were telling the truth.”
Conspirators don’t do well under pressure
Wallace even recounts stories of homicide cases he investigated in which just two witnesses could not keep their conspiracy together for more than a couple days (Wallace, 2013). Eventually, while interviewing the two witnesses separately, one of conspirators would throw the other under the bus when push came to shove. It’s very common today for people to provide a false alibi in a homicide case, and then ditch their conspiracy when under pressure by police. It’s ASTRONOMICALLY uncommon for 120 or more witnesses, who are lying about their religious leader, to never once give up their story, even after enduring horrific persecution. I’ve studied statistics. The likelihood of such a conspiracy succeeding is next to nothing.
What do you think might have given the disciples that much motivation to preach what they did about Jesus, even though they were constantly under pressure to say the opposite? What was it about Jesus that caused them to give up their very lives for a cause they deemed was true? Wouldn’t it be fair to say that there’s a lot of good evidence that Jesus at least existed? Isn’t it at least possible that his disciples were telling the truth about him? It doesn’t take the mind of a rocket scientist to come to the right conclusion here. It would have been nearly impossible to keep such a conspiracy under wraps. The most reasonable conclusion we can draw is that the disciples were telling the truth about Christ, and that Jesus did indeed exist.
I think the next step in understanding more about Jesus (and his disciples’ devotion to him) is to understand what Jesus claimed about himself, and why that was a key motivation in his disciples’ devotion to him.
Who, then, did Jesus claim to be?
Josh McDowell once humorously noted that if Jesus was not God, then he at least deserves an Oscar (McDowell, 1999). He says this because Jesus’ impact on history is unprecedented. During a time where it was often acceptable in Roman culture to maintain one’s honor through revenge, Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies, and even pray for those who opposed them (Matthew 5:44). He taught that disputes should be settled peacefully, and set a precedent for good moral behavior that is reflected in many of our own modern laws here in America (“The Impact of Christianity – Faith Facts”, 2008). During a time where it was culturally acceptable to own slaves and oppress those who were deemed inferior to you, Jesus declared that all people are made in his image and deserve to be treated respectfully, laying the foundation for our modern concept of human rights (Genesis 1:27, 9:6, and James 3:9).
Followers of Christ in early history were among the first to create hospitals for the poor, and stand up against the injustices of gladiatorial fights, infanticide, and mistreatment of women. Furthermore, 100 out of the first 110 universities in America were created out of reverence for the life and teachings of Jesus Christ (Williams, 2000). In fact, the original seal of UCLA even has a verse from the book of Genesis: “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3).
But despite this amazing impact Jesus has had on history, there’s a more important reason why Jesus is unique: Jesus claimed numerous times that he was God. Not that he was merely like God, or merely enjoyed spending time with God, but that he was the actual God that the Jews had worshipped for thousands of years. He told the religious leaders of his day, much to their chagrin and anger, that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
Think about that for a second. If you take nothing else away from this article, just think about this. We know from history that Jesus claimed to be God: the most powerful, amazing being in the universe. If Jesus really wasn’t God, then what should we conclude about Jesus’ character (or even his sanity)? After all, people who falsely claim they are God are classified as either straight-out liars or obvious lunatics. A liar is the kind of person who would send you an email pretending to be a relative in need of money, even though he is actually a scammer trying to steal your money. A lunatic is the kind of person who would run around yelling that he is a toaster, believing himself to be true, but actually losing touch with reality. If Jesus is not God, then he’s either the biggest liar in all of history, or the biggest lunatic.
But if you’re honest with yourself, you’d find that neither of these conclusions fit with what we just saw about Jesus previously. I like how C. S. Lewis explains the problem in his book, Mere Christianity:
“[P]eople often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. […L]et us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Lewis, 1960).
The inescapable conclusion
There really is no other option under this scenario. Either Jesus was God, or he wasn’t. If he wasn’t, then he must of either been lying about it or out of his mind. There is no way you can preserve the integrity and wisdom of Jesus while simultaneously throwing out his deity; a false claim to deity is perhaps one of the greatest lies of all time. Honest, wise people don’t go about claiming that they are God when they are really just ordinary people like you and me. And most reasonable people evaluating the evidence I mentioned earlier would never conclude that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic.
If you don’t believe that Jesus is Lord, and if you’re not willing to accept that Jesus is a liar or a lunatic, then who do you believe he is?
Interestingly enough, Jesus asked a very similar question of his own followers. In Matthew 16:13-16, we read that Jesus “asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. I like how Jesus already knew that people were saying he was a prophet, without really thinking through the implications. Simon Peter, however, saw that Jesus was more than just a smart person. He saw that Jesus was more than just a prophet. He knew that Jesus was God Himself.
When History becomes His story
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not mentioning all this to shame you or make you feel guilty about not thinking this through. I’m mentioning this because it really does matter how we all think about Him.
Once we really start to comprehend the idea that Jesus is God, it changes everything. It’s one thing to say that God might possibly exist out there somewhere in the universe; it’s another thing entirely to say that that God cares enough about us to reach out to us in the form of a human being. You don’t really hear that kind of narrative from other worldviews and belief systems. As I have mentioned in another article, virtually every other religion requires that you prove yourself worthy of God’s grace before he can give it to you. But if Jesus Christ is more than just a man, but God himself, and if this person wants to make it possible for us to know him better, then it completely flips the stereotype on its head.
In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a pretty terrible world. If you’re not convinced, open any newspaper or any news website and read for five minutes. Wars rage every day, politicians make bad decisions, people suffer from terrible disasters, innocents die in bombings, and people long for something greater and grander than what we’re currently experiencing.
But when we really understand that history is more than just about us, and realize that God actually came to earth to visit us for our own benefit through the person of Christ, we begin to realize that history is more than just the brutal history of human beings trying to find meaning in a meaningless world. It becomes His story: the beautiful tale of a God who loved us enough to visit our world and pull something he considered precious out of the mud: us. No longer is it our task to reach out to something greater than us for hope; God has already reached out to us, offering hope to us when we had nothing. Jesus even told his followers that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). That’s the kind of God worth worshipping.
And you know what? That is exactly why you see the disciples in the New Testament fearlessly preaching the Gospel, and willing to die for what they believed in. With their hope secure in something greater than themselves and the earthly governments that persecuted them, what else was there to fear? The apostle Paul famously declared that “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). The hope that Jesus gave them was so powerful and so obvious to them, they couldn’t help but risk everything for the cause of that which was much greater and meaningful than anything they had ever experienced.
Even if you’re like my older cousin, and you don’t think Jesus is worthy of your attention, I still think you should take a second look into the person and work of Jesus Christ. There is much more to His story than meets the eye. He offers a perspective on reality that is radically different, providing hope that fulfills our longing like no one else can and conquering all our earthly fears.
And unlike a boring final exam, I think you’ll be amazed at what you find.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 40-41.
Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Dallas, TX: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 136.
J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 204
Tim LaHaye, Jesus: Who Is He? Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books, 1996.
The Impact of Christianity – Faith Facts. (2008). Faithfacts.org. Retrieved 10 April 2017, from http://www.faithfacts.org/christ-and-the-culture/the-impact-of-christianity
Williams, J., & Williams, J. (2000). The Social and Historical Impact of Christianity. Probe Ministries. Retrieved 10 April 2017, from https://www.probe.org/the-social-and-historical-impact-of-christianity/
Yamauchi, Edwin, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, edited by Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, Zondervan, 1995, 212-14