In almost 60 years as a believer, I have had times of faith and confidence, and times of doubt and uncertainty. Most times it is a little of each.
To doubt is human. Thoughtful people question opinions and beliefs. Our brains are made that way. So whether we are a believer or unbeliever, we will sometimes wonder if we’ve got it right.
So why do I keep on believing in Jesus and trying to follow his teachings?
Where do I start?
Most of what we know about Jesus comes from the 4 gospels. Scholars have identified several sources that contributed to these biographies. These, together with references to Jesus in other documents from the first and early second centuries, give us about a dozen early and generally independent sources for the life of Jesus.
So historians, whether christian, other religion or no religion, all generally agree that Jesus was a real person, and the gospels tell us some real facts about him. This raises (for me) three questions:
- Should I care? Is this relevant to me?
- How much of the gospels are real facts?
- Can and should I believe in Jesus from the evidence they offer?
Here is my personal answer to those questions.
1. Is Jesus relevant today?
There is no contesting that Jesus is an influential person in world history. Christianity is the most followed religion in the world. Christians have had a big impact on the world, for good and evil. It can be plausibly argued that we wouldn’t have our modern western culture, ethics and values, without christianity. Modern science grew in a christian environment.
That doesn’t make christian belief true of course, but it does mean it can’t be ignored.
Christianity makes enormous claims. It says there is a God, and he offers eternal life to humans and a purposeful life here and now. Many people say following him has given great meaning and comfort in their lives.
And christianity is a religion built around forgiveness. God is willing to forgive us our foolishness, mistakes and selfishness, and he expects us to be forgiving of others. Imagine a world where that happened!
In risk management terms, the positive consequences of belief are so great that it is a great risk not to at least investigate the truth of Jesus.
So I conclude that if he told the truth, Jesus is indeed relevant today. But do we know what he said? And did he tell the truth?
2. How much of the gospels are real facts?
I can’t help feeling that we have to reject both extremes on this question.
The scholars tell us that the gospels are written as historical biographies, a genre which aimed to tell the story of a person’s life based on historical facts. A writer in this genre was permitted to be creative with minor details in the story, but the main facts had to be true.
The bare bones, at least, of the gospel outline of the life of Jesus, are confirmed by other sources. So there is no good reason to reject that outline as basically factual, as for example, New Testament scholar and non-believer Bart Ehrman makes clear.
So the gospels contain at least some historical facts, maybe a lot.
But there are anomalies and inconsistencies in the gospels. Some think they can all be satisfactorily explained, others think there are real doubts about the facts. But as it stands, these problems make it difficult to accept that the gospels are without error.
Do the problems prove the gospels are false?
I don’t think the apparent problems with the gospels are as big a deal as often made out. Even if we take out those parts historians find doubtful, there is still a good historical basis for these broad facts, as almost all historians agree:
- Jesus was a travelling rabbi or teacher, who lived in the early first century,
- his teaching that God was invading history through him, in order to began a new movement he called the kingdom or God, was radical, hopeful and life-changing,
- he was known as a healer and miracle worker, whose apparent miracles were unprecedented in the ancient world,
- he had followers (disciples) who lived closely with him and (with one exception) believed in him and his teachings and his divine authority, and continued to do so for the rest of their lives,
- he was executed by the occupying Roman authorities, but his followers believed they had seen him alive after he died.
But can we believe in the miracles? It is possible to fool people into believing what they want to believe. Or to write miracles into a story long afterwards. Could either of these have happened?
The sheer number and variety of Jesus’ apparent miracles make it harder to think he could have fooled people into believing them. Too many people saw too many different amazing things. The disciples saw them up close, again and again. And too many people experienced remarkable healings and undoubtedly re-told the story over and over again.
And while we can see development in understanding from the earliest gospel (Mark) to the latest (John), and the inclusion of some apparently non-historical material, the gospels were written too close to the events for so many legendary stories of this nature to have been added. Historians are satisfied that the miracle stories were part of the accounts of Jesus’ life right from the beginning.
The resurrection is the hardest part of all, of course. Dead men don’t come back to life, do they?
Well not normally, but the whole point of the gospels is that Jesus wasn’t a “normal” man. It is hard to accept the resurrection, but it is hard to believe any of the alternatives too. Like the miracles, the resurrection was part of the Jesus story from the very beginning, so it wasn’t a later legend.
The most commonly suggested alternative is that Jesus’ followers were so distraught by his death, they suffered cognitive dissonance and experienced hallucinations, or had emotionally based visions of him. Some find this plausible, but I don’t. All of them?
In the end, I can’t rule out the supernatural in a story where God is said to be acting in human history. I come to the Jesus story with good reasons to believe that there is a God, whose creation explains the origin of this world and the design of the cosmic laws that against all natural probability provide the conditions for life to evolve. A God whose creation of the human race explains our consciousness, our ability to exercise free choice, and to express ourselves rationally, and the universal belief in an objectively true moral code.
So for me, unlikely as it is, the resurrection is believable, more believable than the alternatives of hallucination or fraud. And it’s appropriate too. For if Jesus really was acting on divine authority, then it seems quite right that God would raise him. it’s the right ending for the story of his life.
So how much can we rely on the writers?
So I don’t see any reason to distrust the writers. I can see no motive for them to falsify the story. Certainly, their lives would have been easier if they weren’t Jesus-followers.
And they were concerned to tell their story truthfully. Luke in particular seems meticulous in his gathering of facts – Maurice Casey (another historian who was not a believer) described Luke as “an outstanding historian by ancient standards”.
So I conclude that the gospel writers really believed that what they wrote was true. Jesus was a remarkable man who did remarkable things and made a strong impression on those who heard him. They or the people who shared their stories with the writers had spent large slabs of time with him, and his life rang true to his teachings.
They spoke the truth as they knew it. But did he tell the truth? Did he know the truth?
Did Jesus tell the truth about him and God?
I find it impossible to believe that Jesus was a charlatan.
Just as I can’t see how the gospel writers could have been writing what they didn’t believe, so I can’t see how Jesus didn’t believe in the truth of what he said. I read his sayings, I watch him relating to powerful people and social nobodies and I am impressed:
- He spoke against powerful people who abused their positions and treated the common people with disdain.
- He spoke up for the ostracised, the downtrodden and the poor.
- He treated women with far more respect and inclusion than was common in his day.
- His moral judgment often took truths already known and taught by the rabbis and sharpened them and applied them with insight and compassion.
- He freely offered forgiveness and acceptance to social outcasts and those whose choices had put them offside with the religious establishment.
- He kept this up even when he knew it would lead to his death.
Whatever else may be true, that man wasn’t being deceptive.
Only two alternatives seem feasible
All of this leads me to believe only two alternatives are possible.
Either he was sincere but mistaken …..
Some scholars see Jesus as another in a long line of apocalyptic teachers and prophets who saw the sorry state of captive Israel and believed it was his role to lead a peaceful revolution culminating in God’s decisive intervention into Jewish affairs, to free them from Roman rule.
His ethical teachings called Israel to a new standard in preparation for that coming age, when God would rule Israel and as his chosen people, they would rule the world to the benefit of all.
But, despite his sincerity, his force of character and his noble agenda, on this view he was mistaken. He was executed and it all came to nothing. But the disciples, led by the hyperactive Paul, reinvented Jesus’ teachings and began the christian religion.
That’s one alternative.
….. or he knew the truth and spoke it
He was this type of apocalyptic teacher and prophet, but he was more. He was son of God, the divine king coming to earth to establish God’s kingdom on earth. He was beginning a revolution of love and peace. He called his followers to live out those values and so demonstrate and participate in that kingdom.
He was executed, but that somehow wasn’t a setback, but the doorway to the new kingdom. God raised him to life to demonstrate that one day all would be raised.
He calls people to this day to join in the peaceful revolution, receive forgiveness and healing, and then offer the same to others. One day, everything will be put right.
That’s the other alternative.
My choice …..
So for me, despite doubts and uncertainties, it all adds up.
Believing in Jesus makes more sense of the facts than any other choice.
Following Jesus makes more sense of my life than any other choice.
The Jesus of much modern christianity (conservative, judgmental on unbelievers, uninterested in justice for the poor, supporting the status quo) isn’t believable to me. That Jesus doesn’t seem to be true to history. But the Jesus described by the gospels is eminently believable (to me) and worth following.
….. and yours
I hope these musings assist you in thinking through your own response. Please leave a comment or send an email if you have anything to say.
Graphic: Free Bible Images.