Newsweek Special Issues recently published “100 People Who Shaped Our World,” featuring individuals who changed our world, for better or worse, through their actions, inventions, and (at times) their mistakes. With insight from historians in the fields of science, religion and pop culture, the 100-page issue explores the impact of the world’s most iconic leaders—from Jesus Christ to Mark Zuckerberg, Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln to Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, the article did not show Jesus Christ in a good light. Interestingly, we are expected to be respectful in what we say about any other religion or revered religious leader—except Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, people feel free to malign, disfigure, and re-imagine Him as they choose.
The impact of Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant preacher whose teachings became the basis of one of the world’s most practiced religions, is irrefutable. Today there are approximately 2.2 billion Christians in the world—this is nearly 31% of the total population. The nature of Christ has been debated time and time again as we view Him through the lenses of scholars. From a Christian perspective, the central contention set forth is that the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith. The Christian faith goes beyond simply declaring God exists—it claims that God became man in Christ Jesus, lived among us, and ultimately sacrificed His life in order to atone for our sins. Three days after His death, He would rise again, proving that He was the Son of God, the promised Messiah, and the Savior of the world.
Christianity is the only religion that places the entire weight of its credibility on a singular event, the resurrection. If Christ had not been raised, then Christianity would be completely discredited and unworthy of even a moment’s consideration. As the apostle Paul stated, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17, NIV). Conviction about the reality of the resurrection is the only foundation that can withstand the onslaught of skepticism and unbelief. It is this fact that points to other critical truths, such as the authority of Scripture and the unique role of Jesus as Messiah and Savior.
No one’s life or death in the history of the world has been studied, analyzed, debated, and heralded to the world as much as Jesus. It’s definitely a daunting task to respond to all the theories and claims made by critics. During my research and writing, I felt a great sense of drama and significance regarding what’s at stake when studying whether the story of Jesus is true—or, as skeptics assert, merely a collection of tales attempting to propagate the Christian faith.
Answering the Great Question
The collective task of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ has been called the Great Commission, a term coined by Christian theologians to describe the charge that Jesus gave His disciples to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). In addition, the Great Commandment describes the premier commandment Jesus gave us to love one another (John 13:35). Jesus asked His disciples the Great Question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)—without a doubt, history’s greatest question, the answer to which affects everything. If we focus so heavily on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, shouldn’t we be giving equal attention to the Great Question?
Preparing believers to give the reasons for their faith—this is the very essence of apologetics—should be the highest priority of all the efforts of those engaged in Christian ministry (1 Peter 3:15). If the truth of the message is in doubt, the whole doctrine of Christianity is in jeopardy. Of all the human rights we should be fighting for, foremost should be the right of every living person to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to know Jesus. While there is amazing work being done around the world by people of faith to help the needy and heal the hurting, we are falling dramatically short in preparing people to have faith that thrives in the media-saturated, anti-faith twenty-first century. People are flooded with messages suggesting faith in God is at best irrelevant.
The end result is a large number of Christians being dazed and confused about how crazy the world has become, and how their values and beliefs are not just out of touch with mainstream society but to some are framed as bigoted and ignorant. This helps explain why only 3 percent of churches in America are growing through evangelism.
Faith or History?
When it comes to Jesus Christ, there has definitely been a higher standard, unreasonably high at times, for establishing the facts surrounding His life, works, and words. The specific criteria used by many of today’s leading scholars to verify the authenticity of Jesus have been so demanding that if applied to ancient history most of what is currently accepted would dissolve into oblivion. Imagine asserting, as skeptics do for the biblical records, that we could only know about ancient Rome from what we learn from non-Roman sources. In contrast, scholars who use trusted approaches fairly and consistently recognize that Christian beliefs about Jesus are solidly grounded in historical fact.
Historians use reliable criteria to establish the probability that an event happened in the past. For instance, claims are more likely true if they are reported by multiple, independent sources. By this standard, our knowledge about Jesus is superior to that of virtually every other ancient historical figure. Scholars have discovered more literary sources for the historical Jesus within the first hundred years after His life than all of the primary literary sources for Socrates, which, incidentally, are in far less agreement with each other than the Gospels.
When the historical process is arbitrary and inconsistent, the past becomes something people with a hidden agenda or bias can manipulate. This type of mindset leads to disregarding the miraculous accounts given by Jesus’ followers in the Gospels. Those accounts are replaced with historical profiles of what someone living at the time of Jesus would have probably been like. Others go so far as claiming that the followers of Jesus merely borrowed from the mythology of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians. As for the miracles? Scoffers simply say they didn’t happen because everyone knows there’s no such thing as miracles.
The roots of this culture of skepticism can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This period—known as the “Enlightenment”—could better be described as the age of skepticism. The mindset of this era is best summed up by René Descartes. He said, “In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life, to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” For Descartes, the foundation of reality is our own thoughts (albeit doubts) about the fact of our existence. The seeds that Descartes planted grew over the next century into the Enlightenment era, which promoted the concept that “reason replaced revelation” in terms of the source of the culture’s epistemology.
The Resurrection Changes Everything
The claim that Jesus was resurrected three days after His death is not just an article of faith, but a statement that can be examined historically. Of course, if Jesus was not really raised from the dead, then the resurrection of Jesus has no meaning. Christianity is based on this central claim and is thus open to critical historical inquiry. In the same way that Charles Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection sought to establish the past history of living things through what he called inference to the best explanation, we can look at this event using the same process. In fact, the apostle Paul wrote that if Christ was not raised from the dead then the Christian faith would be false (1 Corinthians 15:14). Critics have long maintained that religious claims are simply statements of faith that have no basis in fact. Claims of science, they say, are more credible because they can be proven false. Yet this is exactly what Christianity declares. No other religion bases the entire weight of its credibility on a single event or miracle.
It was the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead that prompted the dedication and sacrifice of His followers. At the top of the list was Jesus’ command to love our enemies. It is highly unlikely that His followers would have remained faithful had Jesus’ life ended permanently at the cross with no resurrection. In fact, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out that none of the many self-proclaimed messiahs of the ancient world continued to have a following or influence once they died. It begs the question, What happened to make Jesus’ followers, from the very start, articulate such a claim and work out its implications? For us today, the desperate need is to recover the same conviction of the truth of the resurrection that the early disciples possessed.
When it comes to the central issues of the Christian faith, the biggest dispute is not with the facts of history but with the presuppositions and worldviews of those who interpret those facts. As you hear and weigh the evidence, you will be able to know with confidence that He is the Son of God. There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus was truly a man of history, who was crucified, died, and was buried, and then rose from the dead. The Gospels are reliable historical accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching.
Up until the last few years, the verdict of historians has been virtually unanimous that Jesus was a person of history. The rise of atheism in the last decade has seen the upsurge of prominent skeptics who simply assert their “doubts” that Jesus really existed without providing any credible evidence. For example, Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist and author of The God Delusion, is noted for saying, “Jesus, if He even existed…” It’s important to note that these men are not historians and simply assert this contention in apparent hopes that no one will challenge them because they are scientists. Dawkins, for example, is an evolutionary biologist. Incidentally, Dawkins has recanted and admits Jesus existed.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ gives authenticity to the Christian faith. Jesus remains the only figure in history who died and rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a revolutionary event in human history. It is what sets humanity free from sin; it is what gives humanity daily victory over Satan to live above struggles of life and achieve their destinies and goals; it is what will finally usher humanity into heaven to live forever with Jesus in that glorious kingdom awaiting those who believe, despite “critics” of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen, then is our preaching in vain, and your faith is also in vain. And if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain, ye are yet in your sins. If in this life only, we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” 1 Cor. 15:13-19.