Fun as it would be to argue over various perennial questions in the long, long debate over the intellectual credibility of Christianity, we’re all busy people. So let’s proceed to the core question of this religion that, after all, takes its name from an actual claim about Jesus of Nazareth, namely, that he was (and is) the Christos or “Messiah” (Anointed One) of God: the Lord and Saviour of the world.
How would a reasonable person begin to make up her mind about such a stupendous claim?
Helpfully, the earliest Christian preaching stands ready to assist.
The apostle Peter, in what the New Testament depicts as the first public address of the Christian church, stood up in the midst of a Jewish festival in Jerusalem, scant weeks after the execution of Jesus in that city, and boldly cried out,
“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:22-24 NRSV).
Peter links Jesus with the ancient hero King David, claiming that David himself prophesied the resurrection of the Messiah (or “Christ”). Peter bangs his point home:
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord [God] said to my Lord [Messiah], “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”‘ Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (2:32-36 NRSV)
Peter says (and he should know) that the earliest Christian argument/evidence/warrant/ground for belief that Jesus is God incarnate is his resurrection. This Jesus, this crucified rabble-rouser, this threat to the Jewish leaders and annoyance to the Roman rulers, God has vindicated by raising from the dead in fulfillment of prophetic Scripture. The early Christians thus believed Jesus to be both Lord (a title ascribed only to God by Jews) and Messiah (the Saviour of Israel and thus of the world).
So the early church points us in the right direction: What do you make of Jesus?
More pointedly still, what do you make of (the claim of) his resurrection?
It seems rather an odd focus for a serious, public discussion of the truth of Christianity, perhaps. Why aren’t we arguing about what we can observe in nature, or about what first principles of logic would tell us, or about comparative religions? Why are we arguing about history, and about an event long, long ago? Wouldn’t a good Dawkinsian ask for something more scientific?
Well, he shouldn’t, because Christianity isn’t about “timeless metaphysical and moral truths” or “scientific conclusions” that are encoded in the various world religions, philosophies, or natural sciences. Some people might say that’s what Christianity is about, but they’re wrong. The Bible is very clear about this point, so you can claim otherwise only to audiences that don’t know the Bible very well or who do but have devised sophisticated ways of filtering out most of what it says.
The Bible, and therefore the Christian religion, is not about eternal verities, but about particular things that happened, things that God did and said, that have affected human history once for all. And the most important thing God has ever done is to become Jesus so we could see him and hear him more clearly and so that he could do for us what we cannot do for ourselves–namely, save us from evil, our own and others’. And what is the historical proof of this historical claim that particular things happened? A claim about a particular thing that happened–so amazing and yet so clearly significant that it justifies believing in all the rest: God raised Jesus from the dead.
We cannot intelligently retreat from the force of this claim. Let’s start with one possible escape route:
“It doesn’t matter whether Jesus rose from the dead or not. Lots of weird, currently inexplicable things happen in the world. They don’t justify starting a new religion, much less proclaiming the centre of that religion to be the one and only God of the universe.” This strange event, however, is not “inexplicable.” It is deeply and broadly explained in the early Christian preaching and tied in with numerous teachings of the Jewish Scriptures. It is not a freak, but instead an event that perfectly coheres with a complex web of Christian explanation of the way the world is, the way God is, the way we are, and the way God is working among and in us for our good.
Yes, these explanations emerge “after the fact.” But they are explanations that have been accepted as true by a lot of people, including some pretty smart people, and some pretty smart skeptical people, over the centuries. (And by “a lot” I mean billions, and by “pretty smart” I mean Ph.D.’s in every relevant discipline.) So if the resurrection happened and it does not mean what Christians think it means, it surely is odd that so many people were, and are, persuaded not only that it happened but that it meant what Christianity says it meant. What, then, is a better explanation for this very large phenomenon of Christian belief in this event and its significance?
But maybe it didn’t happen at all. The New Testament is our only source of historical detail about this so-called event. Its authors are, in the nature of the case, hopelessly biased and therefore untrustworthy. So maybe the best thing to do is withhold judgment or, better still, not believe in it at all until much better sources can be found.
I’ll talk about that “escape route” in my next post.