Jesus: God’s Tangible Sign
Posted by John Dickson on November 23, 2010Topic: Atheism and SkepticismTopic: BlogTopic: Cultural IssuesTopic: DebatesTopic: EventsTopic: FaithTopic: Human ConditionTopic: Jesus ChristTopic: Just Thinking MagazineTopic: MeaningTopic: New Testament StudiesTopic: OriginTopic: Reliability of ScriptureTopic: Science and GodTopic: Theology and PhilosophyTopic: World ReligionsTopic: Worldview
Topic: Apologetics Training
No one embraces faith in Jesus Christ based solely on factual evidence. Equally, no one rejects Christianity or loses their faith solely because of a lack of facts. A combination of intellectual, personal and social factors is at work. I would ask readers, whether Christian or not, to explore the life of Jesus fully aware that we form our views on the big questions (and the small ones) through a range of factors. After all, if there is a God, surely we should expect his truth not only to be factually verifiable but also personally satisfying and socially relevant. Taken from Life of Jesus: Who He Is and Why He Matters by John Dickson (Zondervan, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by John Dickson. Used by permission of Zondervan.
Three hundred years before Christ the Greek philosopher Aristotle made an observation about you and me that I think has stood the test of time. In his book On Rhetoric he laid out a theory about how people form their beliefs, that is, how they come to be persuaded by political, religious, ethical and cultural argument. His work, incidentally, was literally the textbook on persuasion for the next two thousand years, right up until the 18th century. Long before our postmodern love of deconstructing viewpoints and seeing through media spin readers of Aristotle delighted in learning from one of history’s greatest minds about why some messages seem compelling to us and others do not.
The Way We Believe
Aristotle said that people form their beliefs on the basis of a combination of three factors: what he called logos, pathos and ethos. Logos is the intellectual dimension. It is the part in us (or in the argument we are listening to) that corresponds to logic and commonsense. As rational beings we like to know that our beliefs are generally factual, reasonable and grounded in something other than wishful thinking. I’m sure most of us would agree so far with the great Athenian philosopher. But it is a foolish person, Aristotle argued, who thinks we form our beliefs only on the basis of intellect. In addition to logos there is pathos. This is the personal or emotional dimension of belief and it is just as real as the rational part. An argument with pathos is one with a beauty and poignancy that resonates with our deepest self. A message of this kind meets our passions and longings. Don’t misunderstand me. Aristotle was not talking about mere frivolous artistry. He hated what he called mere “sophistry”—a message that was all style and no substance. Part of the reason he wrote his book was to criticize this form of persuasion. Nevertheless, Aristotle was adamant that there was a good pathos, in which a well-made argument also corresponds to our perfectly reasonable expectation that what is true should also be attractive and personally satisfying. This is another way of saying that people rarely change their minds on big issues based only on information. Finally, there is ethos. This is the social dimension of persuasion. What we believe is hugely influenced by our upbringing, our education and the circle of friends we find ourselves in. It is part of our human nature to accept more readily the views of people we know, admire, trust and love. In Aristotle’s own words: “we believe fair-minded people to a greater extent and more quickly than we do others on all subjects in general and completely so in cases where there is not exact knowledge but room for doubt.” (1) Since the 1960s this has been known as the “sociology of knowledge”—the way our social context informs and frames our perspective—but Aristotle put his finger on it millennia ago. Take climate change. How do we form our views on this fraught topic? It would be unrealistic to assume that you and I hold our respective views based on facts alone (logos). Professional climate scientists aside, most of us do not have firsthand knowledge of the data. We become climate change believers or deniers not just because of formal evidence but also because of personal (pathos) and social factors (ethos). On the one hand, those of us with slightly activist temperaments or “apocalyptic” personalities will find ourselves drawn toward dramatic climate change scenarios. On the other hand, those who like a good conspiracy theory will easily suspect that the guild of climate change scientists have some ulterior motive in presenting their case. This is pathos at work. More simply, chances are we all find ourselves influenced by social factors on this question (ethos). Our political bias, the university we attended, the friends we talk to about the topic: each of these will have had some impact on our thinking. What’s this got to do with the life of Jesus—the man and why he matters? Put simply, on a topic as complex and far-reaching as this we ought to acknowledge that our current beliefs—whether positive or negative—will have developed partly through logos, partly through pathos and partly through ethos. No one embraces faith in Jesus Christ based solely on factual evidence. Equally, no one rejects Christianity or loses their faith solely because of (a lack of) facts. A combination of intellectual, personal and social factors is at work. What I find so interesting as I ponder Aristotle’s insight is the way contemporary believers readily admit the multifaceted nature of their faith. When Christians talk about how they “became Christians,” they will often mention an intellectual component, a personal component and a social component. They will talk about some book they read or sermon they heard that laid out the facts about God and Christ. Their intellect was nourished and impressed. But they will also happily tell you, for example, how one day while pondering the significance of Jesus they felt a deep resonance with the Christian gospel. The message somehow became attractive and personally satisfying. It answered deep longings and clarified certain confusions. And very often such people will admit to having been drawn into a community of Christians, at school, church or wherever, whose lives had an authenticity and goodness that was hard to argue with. But what I find especially fascinating is the way many skeptics of religion today will not admit that they are skeptics for the same combination of reasons. Instead, they claim to resist Christianity for logical reasons only. There is not enough proof for the reality of God, they say. Books and documentaries on Jesus have undermined his uniqueness or even existence. “I would believe,” I have heard my skeptical friends say, “if only you gave me some proof.” I don’t doubt that evidence is important to many people. So it should be. (Personally, I’d give up Christianity tomorrow if I thought the facts stacked against it.) But I do doubt that this is the only factor in people’s unbelief—or even that it is always the main factor. I have had too many conversations over the years with avowed “atheists” who, after some deeper discussion and growing friendship, admit that their reasons for resisting Christ are more complex than first acknowledged. An event in the past called into question the fairness or existence of the Almighty. A Christian they once knew turned out to be an ugly hypocrite and it spoiled their appreciation of anything coming out of the mouth of believers. Personal and social factors prove important for unbelief, after all. The point of all this is to ask readers, whether Christian or not, to explore the life of Jesus fully aware that we form our views on the big questions (and the small ones) through a range of factors. We are complex people. We are intellectual, emotional and social beings, and each of these components plays some part in how we respond to material like this. I will definitely be laying out what seem to me quite robust arguments for the life and significance of Jesus, but I have no intention of hiding the fact that some of what follows appeals to the personal and social dimensions of our lives. After all, if there is a God, surely we should expect his truth not only to be factually verifiable but also personally satisfying and socially relevant.
The world is a very religious place, and the much-heralded renaissance of skepticism dubbed the “new atheism” is unlikely to change things. An important minority of Westerners identifies as atheists but it is much smaller than the publicity suggests. The last World Values Survey (2005-06), the most reliable data set available, found that 10.4% of Britons, 9.9% of Australians, 7% of New Zealanders and 3.6% of Americans accept the tag “atheist.” And even these numbers may be inflated. Olivera Petrovich is an expert in the psychology of religion from the University of Oxford in the UK. In 2008 she caused a stir by presenting empirical evidence that infants naturally incline toward belief in some kind of Creator: atheism, in other words, is not the default position. More relevantly, in a recent interview for the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) she outlined research revealing that respondents describing themselves as “atheist” 2 in surveys do not necessarily deny the existence of God. A significant proportion of them admit in post-survey analysis that the tag “atheist” functions more as a protest against formal religion than a description of their disbelief in any kind of god.(3) Openness to the divine is more dogged and widespread than we sometimes realize. Even in my own country of Australia, which has often been described as the first post- Christian society in the world, surveys continue to reveal very high levels of spiritual, and specifically Christian, belief. Sixty-eight percent of Australians believe in a God or a Universal Spirit, and 63% believe in the possibility of miracles today.(4) Slightly more than that (75.9%) believe that Jesus himself performed miracles (while only 6% think he never existed).(5) Most surprising for those of us who live in this supposedly godless country, when asked to rate out of 10 “How important is God in your life? ” (1 being “not important at all;” 10 being “very impor tant”) 57.4% of Australians selected 6 and above; 28% selected 10.(6) Despite the fact that atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are on the bestseller lists worldwide, the larger point remains: the world remains a very religious place. For most people throughout most of human history the stunningly rational universe we see out there and the uncannily rational mind we experience within suggest the existence of some kind of Divinity or Deus responsible for this reality. (I’ll discuss in a moment whether this Deus is an impersonal Mind or a personal God involved in the affairs of the world.)
I am not trying to prove the existence of the Deus or God. This is not that sort of book, and nor do I think it is really possible. Frankly, I am trying to get the God-question out of the way, so I can focus on the history and relevance of Jesus. I offer these comments simply to point to the near-universal human belief in some kind of divinity. Put simply, most of us perceive in the physical world and in ourselves a larger intention. The whole thing seems arranged not accidental, created not a product of chance. And so we imagine there must be a Creator. The ancient Hebrew poet describes the sentiment well: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (7)The same point was made by St Paul in his hugely influential Epistle to the Romans: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (8) Belief in God, in other words, is not a deduction people make only after analyzing evidence and weighing arguments. It is far more basic, more instinctive. It is something most of us perceive directly by living in a world that seems strangely rational in the way it is put together. This is not to deny that countless professional philosophers go beyond this intuition to provide sophisticated arguments for belief in God. (9) All I am saying here is that the perception seems to be a fundamental thing for most of us, which is probably why infants, whether in Britain or Japan (where Dr Petrovich did her comparative research), work out themselves that the world was made by “someone.” I realize that some people do not “perceive” these things. I am not sure I have an adequate explanation for this, other than to point out that some of humanity’s other grand ideas also sometimes go unacknowledged. Some people dislike music, for instance, and others hate art. I cannot explain this. Plenty of people are anarchists too. They honestly believe that cultural mores, ethical standards and systems of government are bad things, mere inventions which hinder human flourishing. I puzzle over why they do not perceive the truth and beauty found in some form of “rule.” I am not suggesting a connection here between atheism and anarchism or between atheism and disdain of the arts. I am just observing that some ideas can be fabulously compelling to most thinking people and not at all obvious to a minority of equally thoughtful people. Intellectually, I puzzle over atheism just as I puzzle over anarchism and a-artism. At this point, my atheist friends like to throw in a favorite rhetorical flourish: “You Christians reject all the gods of history except one— we atheists just deny one god more.” The suggestion here is that when Christians reflect on why they reject Zeus, Ra, Isis, Vishnu, et al., they will come to see the good sense of the atheist who simply adds one more deity to the rubbish bin. (10) This is cute and repeated surprisingly often, but a moment’s thought shows it to be rather silly. For one thing, believers in any particular religion do not reject other gods in toto. They deny only the particular manifestations and stories of the other deities. A Christian, for instance, can happily acknowledge the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians or Indians in positing the existence of a powerful Intelligence which orders the universe, whether Ra or Vishnu, and then beg to differ with these ancient cultures when it comes to the elaborations and add-on characteristics of these particular gods. There is an irreducible conviction shared by all worshipers: the rational order of the universe is best explained by the existence of an almighty Mind (or Minds) behind it all. Atheists, then, are simply wrong to liken their rejection of all divinity to a Christian’s rejection of particular versions of divinity. The analogy of marriage might help. True, I have rejected all other potential spouses in favor of my darling Buff, but this does not mean I have rejected the idea at the core of everyone else’s marriage. It would be a rather zealous celibate who ventured to say, “When you consider why you reject Amelia, Michelle and Heather (the wives of some of my colleagues at CPX), then you will see the good sense of rejecting marriage altogether; we celibates just go one partner further.” As if the difference between committed monogamy and deliberate celibacy is one of degree! There is a huge difference between my rejection of particular marriage partners and the celibate’s rejection of marriage itself. There is an equally large difference between a Christian’s denial of particular manifestations of the divine and an atheist’s rejection of divinity itself. It will take more than neat rhetorical flourishes to undermine the tenacious, near-universal conviction that there must be some kind of Deus behind our world.
Where believers of the various faiths part ways is in the particularization of the Deus. While I can happily endorse the logic behind a deity like Vishnu— that a powerful, intelligent being preserves the universe—I cannot see a good reason to believe, for example, that Vishnu appeared (as the avatar Krishna) to Prince Arjuna on the eve of his great battle with the Kauravas to strengthen him and disclose the paths of salvation. This story comes from the Bhagavad-Gita and, unless I already accept the authority of this sacred Hindu text, I fail to see how I can accept its claims as true. The story doesn’t provide a unique answer to any outstanding philosophical question, so its explanatory power is limited. Nor is there any historical data confirming Arjuna’s visitation or his battle or even his existence. I am left with no reason to accept this particular manifestation of divinity, even though I concur with my Hindu friends that there must be some mighty, preserving Being behind the universe. On the reality of a Deus we agree, but as we start telling stories about this Being we go our separate ways.This is probably the place to flag the philosophical distinction between deism and theism. Deism accepts that there is a powerful Mind behind the universe, but it stops short of saying anything descriptive about that Deus. A soft deist would simply plead ignorance about the personal qualities of the Deus; a hard deist would insist the Deus has no personal qualities as such: people who say they believe in a “universal spirit” probably fall into this latter category. Theism, on the other hand, from the Greek word “god” (theos), is deism plus. It accepts the core conviction of deism that behind the rational world lies a rational Mind, but it goes further, insisting that some things can be said about the Deus. In a sense, religions begin with the assumption of deism and then move beyond it to theism as they start talking about the Deus as benevolent, righteous or angry, or that it has spoken in some sacred text, or that it has revealed itself in history, or that it can hear our prayers, and so on.(11) Here, the Deus is thought of not in impersonal terms but as a thinking, personal Theos. With all due respect to committed atheists, it seems to me that deism is the only responsible conclusion one can draw from simply pondering the uncannily rational nature of the universe. Whether the Deus cares for us, what its moral views are, whether it hears our prayers, whether it guides human history—i.e., whether the Deus is a Theos—are second order questions that lie beyond simple rational observation of the physical world. Please don’t misunderstand me: personally, I am a theist not just a deist. But I will happily acknowledge that my theism rests not on rational observation of the physical world but on other factors I will discuss in a moment. What I am saying is that thoughtful reflection on the origin and nature of existence will lead you only as far as deism, i.e., to the conviction that behind the orderliness of nature and the corresponding rationality of the human mind must lie some immense Mind. Albert Einstein was a deist, so far as we can tell from his own statements and from those who knew him. He rejected both theism and atheism, preferring to acknowledge some kind of eternal spirit whose rational nature was imprinted on the physical universe (he frequently used the word “God” but only in this nebulous, deistic sense).(12) Other famous physicists like Professor Paul Davies of Arizona State University (formerly of Australia) also admit to something like deistic views. Davies even wrote a book called The Mind of God in which he openly discussed his conviction that the order of the world and, in particular, the emergence of our own rational minds cannot have been an accident but were in some meaningful way intended. (13) I sometimes wonder if even the avowed atheist Richard Dawkins is sympathetic to some form of deism. “My title, The God Delusion,” he writes, “does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists of the previous section … In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods” (original emphasis). (14) Einstein was critical of atheism just as he was critical of personal theism, so I am left wondering what exactly Dawkins is approving and disapproving of here. (15) Whatever the case, recently an even more influential skeptic than Dawkins moved from atheism to overt deism. Antony Flew was professor of philosophy at the University of Keele (and Reading) in the UK and author of a number of important textbooks on philosophical atheism, including God and Philosophy and The Presumption of Atheism. (16) Flew has been as influential among professional philosophers as Dawkins has in the general public. But in 2007 he surprised many by publishing There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. (17) Actually, Flew stops short of saying he believes in “God” in the personal sense, but he is clear that “the three items of evidence we have considered in this volume— the laws of nature, life with its teleological organization, and the existence of the universe—can only be explained in light of an Intelligence that explains both its own existence and that of the world.” (18) Christians were jubilant, almost claiming him as a convert; atheists were outraged, suggesting Professor Flew’s old age had got the better of him. Neither is appropriate. Flew had just joined the commonsense ranks of the vast majority of people throughout history in perceiving that the rationality of the universe and of our own minds can only be explained by the existence of some sort of divinity. Deism is common sense.
The Obvious Next Question
If deism is the commonsense position, why bother going further and speculating about the nature and involvement of the Deus? Why not just feel the occasional moment of awe and reverence toward “it” and get on with life? Do we really have to enquire into whether the Deus is a Theos? Part of the answer is: it’s the obvious next question. If there is a great Mind behind the universe, common sense compels me to ask whether (and what) that Mind thinks and, in particular, thinks of us. Sure, I may reject all the answers currently on offer, whether concerning Krishna or Jesus or whatever; I may even decide the question is beyond human knowing. But it is still a sensible question. And most cultures have had a go at answering it. The question of whether the Deus is actually a personal Theos cannot be answered by mere rational observation of the universe. This is not like looking at the orderliness of nature and the rationality of the human mind and concluding that Intelligence is a better explanation of our existence than coincidence. It is not a scientific problem at all; it is a personal and historical question. It is more like asking Does my wife truly love me? or Did Alexander the Great really reach India? Science contributes little to such discussions. But does this mean I cannot still arrive at confident answers to both questions (in the affirmative)? No. In the first case I rely on personal experience of my wife. While this will not be probative for those who do not share my experience, it is nonetheless utterly compelling to me. In the second case I rely on multiple ancient sources which tell me about Alexander’s exploits in India. These two ways of knowing—personal experience and historical testimony—are perfectly adequate paths to drawing firm conclusions. Neither is “scientific” in the normal sense. What has this got to do with God? Many people “sense” God personally. They find themselves getting to know him in a way analogous to befriending someone. Here, things like meditation, personal prayer, reading Scripture and the transformation of their moral and emotional life convince many that God is truly present in their lives. They have personal knowledge. Of course, talk like this will not convince those who have not experienced such things; skeptics often scoff at claims of “religious experience.” But for people who have actually felt the divine in this way, it provides a very compelling reason to think that the Deus is a Theos. The great Mind they intellectually know to exist is encountered in daily experience personally. Whole books have been written on this personal dimension of knowing God (only some of which I would recommend(19) ). This is not one of them. But what about the historical dimension of the God-question? Beyond personal experience, we might also look for some indication on the world stage that the Deus has touched the Earth in a public, tangible way. Evidence of such a divine-human encounter would provide grounds for thinking that God was interested in us. It would give us a reason for moving from deism to theism, from a rational intuition that the universe was intended to a warranted belief in a personal God. This involves historical questions more than scientific ones. Science can only really test what is observable and/or repeatable: chemical reactions, fossil records, cosmic background radiation and so on. But, almost by definition, historical events are unobservable and unrepeatable: Alexander’s march to India, Pontius Pilate’s execution of Jesus, the mugging of a certain Dionysius son Zoilus at the bath-house of Aristodemus.(20) The vast knowledge of Einstein, Davies, Dawkins and Flew combined could not adjudicate on evidence of God’s involvement in history, since such evidence would have little to do with universal constants; it would involve historical particulars. The brilliance of an Einstein or a Davies might confirm our suspicion that atheism is very probably false and that the universe was in fact “arranged,” but scientific expertise cannot help us assess whether Krishna appeared to Arjuna on the plains of Kurukshetra or whether Jesus lived, taught, healed, died and rose again in first century Palestine. Such things are said to have happened at particular times and particular places. That means we are looking not for a verifiable principle of mathematics or a theory testable in a lab but for a “dent” in the historical record matching the claims. We are looking for independent sources written close in time to the purported events by people sufficiently free of impure motives. This is exactly how we know that Alexander reached India. It is an important part of assessing claims about God acting on the stage of human history.
The Odd Thing about Jesus
This book explores the daring claim made by the world’s two billion Christians. Uniquely among the great faiths, Christianity goes out on a limb by making claims which can, to a significant degree, be investigated historically. All religions claim some sort of “revelation.” Buddhism depends on the profound insights gained by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) during his moment of enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree. Hinduism looks to the Vedas passed on to the first man at the dawn of time. Islam says that the angel Gabriel dictated to the Prophet Muhammad the very words of God. (21) But Christianity claims something very different. At the heart of the world’s largest faith is not a lone spiritual insight, a mystical story from the dawn of time or a dictation of divine words in a holy book, but a series of events which are said to have taken place in public, in datable time, recorded by a variety of witnesses. For better or worse, Christian Scripture is fundamentally different from other holy books. In the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection believers claim to observe a tangible, testable sign directing us to the “kingdom of God.” Christians are therefore claiming to possess not just a “dogma” – a set of divine truths – but a verifiable history. As a result, the beliefs and texts of Christianity become uniquely open to public scrutiny. It is as if Christianity places its neck on the chopping block of academic scrutiny and invites anyone who wishes to come and take a swing. Which is why historians and biblical scholars of all religious (or non-religious) persuasions in universities around the world feel at liberty to view the Christians’ holy book, the New Testament, as a simple historical text. Let me illustrate the difference this makes to our search for evidence of God’s involvement in the affairs of the world. Imagine that the rest of Life of Jesus were an exposition of a revelation I received in a dream in which my great, great grandfather spoke to me about the true nature of divinity, the mysteries of the afterlife and the proper way to conduct my life. How would you judge (a) whether I really did experience the dream and (b) whether the content of the dream was true? Par t (a) you could only take on trust. By definition, a dream is imperceptible to all but the one who experienced it; independent corroboration is impossible. How would you assess part (b), the content of the dream? You could take the subjective path and just see if what my great, great grandfather taught “resonates” with you, whether it feels right. But what if my divine disclosure did not immediately resonate with you: could you still make an assessment of the truth or falsehood of its content? It is difficult to see how. Without some “this-worldly” sign suppor ting the truthfulness of the dream’s content, it cannot be verified. And so you are left with the subjective assessment: Does it seem true? Many religious conversions operate at this instinctive level. People hear a message (or are brought up hearing it) and they find that it fits with their personal situation or meets some felt need. So they accept it as truth. (People reject faith or drift away from it for equally subjective reasons.) Many religious claims are as immune to external testing as my hypothetical dream concerning the Dickson patriarch. Did Prince Arjuna see Lord Krishna and learn from him the highest path of Bhakti or devotional religion? We cannot rule it out. But nor can we apply any objective assessment. As I said, this story comes to us in the Bhagavad-Gita and has no historical corroboration. We may read the Hindu scriptures and find them “speaking” to us of eternal truths, but we cannot point to any near contemporary Indian text or archaeological evidence confirming the battle on the plains of Kurukshetra or the existence of Arjuna, let alone the appearance of Krishna. The Bhagavad-Gita itself is not even written in historical prose. It is a poem. All hope of identifying historical sources within the text—a normal part of the scholarly analysis of Tacitus or the Gospels—must be abandoned. Please don’t misunderstand my point. I am not criticizing my Hindu friends or even saying that their stories are false. Indeed, they cannot be proved false. I am making the broader philosophical point that the claim at the heart of the Bhagavad-Gita cannot be tested in any external way. The appearance of Krishna to Arjuna turns out to be an a-historical claim that can be believed only by taking it on faith. Isn’t Christianity in the same position? Yes and no. Much of the Bible is as untestable as the Krishna story. Millions of people believe it and feel that God speaks to them through it, but if they are asked “What is the evidence that God revealed himself to Abraham?” or “How do you know the book of Revelation reveals the future?” Christians usually reply, “I just do” or “It makes sense to me” or “I know it in my heart.” I do not dismiss the validity of this approach. If God has revealed himself in a book, you would expect it to “resonate” in this manner. The problem is: that doesn’t help those looking for a reason external to faith to accept the Bible as true. That said, there is one portion of the Bible that is historically verifiable to a high degree, and it happens to be the central part of the story. The life of Jesus is completely unlike Abraham’s epiphany or the visions of Revelation. It is in a category altogether different from Krishna’s appearance to Arjuna. Jesus has left a “dent” in the historical record, and a significant one. The central claims about him belong to the same category as the claims about Alexander reaching India. We can test them. We have data and methods, external to personal faith, for demonstrating the events of Jesus’ life.
What We Can Know Confidently
As we will see throughout this book, the vast majority of scholars investigating Jesus—whether they are Christian, Jewish or atheist—are confident about the following historical details: Jesus was born during the reign of emperor Augustus, grew up to be a famous teacher and healer in Galilee, called a small group of disciples, scandalized the religious leadership by closely associating with “sinners,” clashed with the Jerusalem elite over his sharp criticisms of the Temple, was arrested, tried and crucified by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate and, shortly afterwards, was declared by his first followers to be the Messiah risen from the dead. All of this we can affirm without recourse to religious faith. We have enough sources close in time to the events themselves to declare at least these things to be historical fact, and only someone employing avoidance strategies would dispute them. Many of the great public universities of the world, such as Oxford and Cambridge in the UK or Harvard and Yale in the US, offer undergraduate and postgraduate units on New Testament and early Christianity. Such courses are not “theology” in the confessional sense found in seminaries and theological colleges. They are what is called “biblical studies,” the historical analysis of Christian Scripture free from dogmatic constraints. Sometimes you even find courses in Classics or Ancient History departments on things like “New Testament History” and “The Historical Jesus.” Australia’s largest department of ancient history is at Macquarie University. It offers no fewer than eight units on Jesus, Paul, the New Testament and early Christianity. My earlier analogy of a dreamlike revelation does not apply to the story of Jesus. A more appropriate illustration might run like this. Imagine I came to you claiming that my late great, great grandfather revealed himself not in a dream but in Times Square, New York, last Monday during the morning rush hour. His appearance stopped the traffic and left witnesses dumbfounded as he explained to them the truth about the spiritual realm. Leaving aside the comical nature of the analogy, the claim itself is one you could test to some degree. You could watch the news services, read eyewitness accounts, check the New York traffic reports and so on. You might not be able to prove it beyond all doubt, since there is always room for skepticism about things you have not personally experienced, but a fair-minded person would be able to arrive at a reasonable judgment about its truth or falsehood. You would be able to decide whether the claim is supported by the kind of evidence you would expect if such an event had taken place. If you found no evidence at all, you would be well within your rights to dismiss it. If you found good evidence, or at least more evidence than you would expect if the story were a fiction, then you could quite rationally accept it as true. This is what I mean by a testable claim. The central claims of Christianity are to a degree testable. You can apply the normal tests of history—the same ones applied to Alexander’s campaign in India—and find that we do in fact possess exactly the sor t of evidence you would expect if the core of the Jesus story is true and decidedly more evidence than you would expect if the story were fabricated. The evidence is not probative, so skeptics still have plenty of wiggle room. But the “dent” in the historical record is significant enough for any fair-minded person to accept that, whatever its explanation and significance, the life of Jesus really looks as though it took place in much the way the Gospels say it did. The reason for pointing all of this out is to underline that in the claims about Jesus we have a reasonable indication that the God of our hunches has touched the ear th in a tangible way. His story is the kind of thing you would expect to find if God really were interested in us. It is a story that not only resonates at the personal and cultural level—which is why so many think of Jesus as the most influential figure of history—but one that, objectively speaking, looks as though it is true. I remain a devoted theist rather than a common sense deist because I am convinced that the great Mind standing behind the rational order of the universe has entered into human affairs in a concrete way in the life of Jesus. (I also freely admit to experiencing God personally through my reading of the Bible, answered prayer and the slow but real transformation of my life under the influence of his presence.) Of all the religious claims in the world, I believe that Jesus’ life provides interested observers with the most plausible, externally testable reason for moving beyond intellectually respectful deism to a heartfelt (but no less intellectual) theism. I call Professor Antony Flew as witness again. In the main part of There Is a God Flew simply outlines how an avowed philosophical atheist came to join the vast majority of men and women in believing in “a self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient Being” (22) —in other words, a Deus. But at the back of the book (Appendix B) there is an extraordinary little essay by the British biblical scholar and Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright. Flew invited Wright to pen something on the historical nature of Jesus. Flew explains, “If you’re wanting omnipotence to set up a religion, it seems to me that this is the one to beat!” (23) He says he still has doubts about the resurrection of Jesus, but he admits that if such a thing as a tangible revelation from God exists, Jesus is the best candidate. I hope I am not misrepresenting Antony Flew’s position when I say that these opening chapters and his closing one share a similar line of reasoning. There is a Deus: the strikingly rational laws of nature and the uncannily rational capacity of human minds to comprehend those laws are best explained by the existence of an immense Intelligence behind the universe. Whether or not that Deus has revealed itself to the world is the next obvious question, and the claims about Jesus of Nazareth provide the most compelling affirmative answer available. Flew admits to a certain excitement about this possibility (24) but he remains undecided about the reality. Of course, I go further. I am not just excited but confident that Jesus is God’s tangible disclosure. He is exactly what interested observers need in order to confidently move from a vague acknowledgement of the divine to a sincere trust in a personal God. What follows in Life of Jesus, then, carries somewhat more significance than if this were a Life of Alexander (as interesting as that would be). In the events of Jesus we find God himself publicly at work in the world. That is the basic claim of Christianity. Once we get going in our historical analysis, the God-question will fade into the background a little. But this cannot obscure the fact that whenever one investigates the figure of Jesus, life’s most profound questions sit invitingly in the corner.
John Dickson is Senior Research Fellow of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Australia, and an adjunct apologist with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
1 Aristotle, On Rhetoric 1.2.4.
7 Psalm 19:1-4.
8 Romans 1:20.
9 Two respected contemporary philosophers of religion are Professor Keith Ward of the University of Oxford, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God (Lion, 2009), an entry level book; and Professor Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God (CornellUniversity Press, 1990), an advanced book. Interviews with both scholars canbe found at www.publicchristianity.org.
10 Richard Dawkins repeats the argument, complete with, “I just go one god further,” in The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2005), 53.
11 I am aware that not all religions accept the existence of a Deus. The ravada Buddhism is traditionally atheistic. Itis curious, however, that Mahayana Buddhism, the largest form of Buddhism today, reintroduced the notion of gods.
12 Probably the most reliable account of Einstein’s religious views (and there aresome unreliable ones) comes from Max Jammer, Professor of Physics at Bar-IlanUniversity in Israel: Einstein and Religion (Princeton University Press, 1999).
13 Paul Davies, The Mind of God: Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning (Simon & Schuster, 1992).40 Just Thinking
15 Dawkins seems to think that the classical philosophical arguments for the existence of the divine, such as Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Ways,” are attempts toprove a “supernatural god” complete with personal qualities, moral opinions, revelations and miraculous involvements. They are not. They are simply an articulation of the reasonableness of believing the universe was caused by an immense Intelligence. Perhaps thisis why Dawkins finds the arguments for God’s existence so fatuous, when professional philosophers—even the atheist ones—find them quite compelling.
16 Antony Flew, God and Philosophy (Hutchison, 1966); The Presumption of Atheism and Other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom, and Immortality (Barnes & Noble, 1976).
17 Antony Flew, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (HarperOne, 2007).
19 One such book I would recommend is Ravi Zacharias, The Grand Weaver: How God Shapes Us through the Events in Our Lives (Zondervan, 2007).
20 We know of this through a chance discovery of Dionysius’ letter to the cityguard. See New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity vol.9, edited by S. R.Llewelyn (Eerdmans, 2002), 42-44.
21 For a brief account of the major faiths see my A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five(Lion, 2008). Previously published by Blue Bottle Books in 2005.