By Paul E. Little
It is impossible for us to know conclusively whether God exists and what he is like unless he takes the initiative and reveals himself.
We must scan the horizon of history to see if there is any clue to God's revelation. There is one clear clue. In an obscure village in Palestine, 2,000 years ago, a Child was born in a stable. Today the entire world is still celebrating the birth of Jesus, and for good reason. His life changed the course of history.
We're told that "the common people heard him gladly." And, "He taught as One who had authority, and not as their teachers of the Law."1
It soon became apparent, however, that he was making shocking and startling statements about himself. He began to identify himself as far more than a remarkable teacher or prophet. He began to say clearly that he was Deity. He made his identity the focal point of his teaching.
The all-important question he put to those who followed him was, "Who do you say I am?" When Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,"2 Jesus was not shocked, nor did he rebuke Peter. On the contrary, he commended him!
Jesus frequently referred to "My Father," and his hearers got the full impact of his words. We are told, "The Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God."3 On another occasion he said, "I and My Father are One." Immediately the religious authorities wanted to stone him. Jesus asked them which of his miracles caused them to want to kill him. They replied, "We are not stoning you for any of these but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God."4
Jesus clearly claimed powers which only God has. One time Jesus said to a man who was paralyzed, "Son, your sins are forgiven you." The religious leaders immediately reacted. "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" So Jesus said to them, “Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Get up and walk’?”
Jesus continued, “But that you might know that I have authority on earth to forgive sins, he said to the man, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And the man was instantly healed to all of their amazement.
Jesus also made statements like this one: “I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”5 And “I am the light of the world.”6 And he said numerous times that if anyone would believe in him, Jesus would give them eternal life. “He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”7 “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”8
At the critical moment when Jesus’ life was at stake for making claims such as these, the high priest put the question to him directly: "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?"
"I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."
The high priest rendered the verdict. "Why do we need any more witnesses?" he asked. "You have heard his blasphemy."9
So close was Jesus' connection with God that he equated a person's attitude to himself with the person's attitude toward God. Thus, to know him was to know God.10 To see him was to see God.11 To believe in him was to believe in God.12 To receive him was to receive God.13 To hate him was to hate God.14 And to honor him was to honor God.15
The question is, was he telling the truth?
Maybe Jesus lied when he said he was God. Perhaps he knew he was not God, but deliberately deceived his hearers to give authority to his teaching. But there is a problem with this reasoning. Even those who deny his deity will say that they think Jesus was a great moral teacher. They fail to realize that Jesus could hardly be a great moral teacher if, on the most crucial point of his teaching -- his identity -- he was a deliberate liar.
Another possibility is that Jesus was sincere but self-deceived. We have a name for a person today who thinks he is God. Mentally disabled. But as we look at the life of Christ, we see no evidence of the abnormality and imbalance we find in a mentally ill person. Rather, we find the greatest composure under pressure.
A third alternative is that in the third and fourth centuries hisenthusiastic followers put words into his mouth he would have been shocked to hear. Were he to return, he would immediately repudiate them.
However, this does not hold up. Modern archeology verifies that four biographies of Christ were written within the lifetime of people who saw, heard and followed Jesus. These gospel accounts contained specific facts and descriptions confirmed by those who were eyewitnesses of Jesus.
The late William F. Albright, a world-famous archaeologist with Johns Hopkins University, said there is no reason to believe that any of the Gospels were written later than A.D. 70. The early writing of the Gospels by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is why they gained such circulation and impact.
Jesus was not a liar, or mentally disabled, or manufactured apart from historical reality. The only other alternative is that Jesus was being consciously truthful when he said he was God.
Anyone can make claims. There have been others who have claimed to be God. I could claim to be God, and you could claim to be God, but the question all of us must answer is, "What credentials do we bring to prove our claim?" In my case, it wouldn't take you five minutes to debunk my claim. It probably wouldn't take too much more to dispose of yours.
But when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, it's not so simple. He had the credentials to back up his claim. He said, "Even though you do not believe me, believe the evidence of the miracles, that you may learn and understand that the Father is in Me, and I am in the Father."16
His moral character aligned with his claims. The quality of his life was such that he was able to challenge his enemies with the question, "Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?"17 He was met by silence, even though he addressed those who would have liked to point out a flaw in his character.
We read of Jesus being tempted by Satan, but we never hear of a confession of sin on his part. He never asked for forgiveness, though he told his followers to do so.
This lack of any sense of moral failure on Jesus' part is astonishing since it is completely contrary to the experience of the saints and mystics throughout the ages. The closer men and women draw to God, the more overwhelmed they are with their own failure, corruption, and shortcomings. The closer one is to a shining light, the more he realizes his need for a bath.
It is also striking that John, Paul, and Peter, all of whom were trained from earliest childhood to believe in the universality of sin, all spoke of the sinlessness of Christ: "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth."18
Even Pilate, who sentenced Jesus to death, asked, "What evil has he done?" After listening to the crowd, Pilate concluded, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." The crowd relentlessly demanded Jesus be crucified (for blasphemy, claiming to be God). The Roman centurion who assisted in the crucifixion of Christ said, "Surely he was the Son of God."19
Jesus constantly demonstrated both his power and compassion. He made the lame to walk, the blind to see, and healed those with diseases.
For example, a man who had been blind from birth was known by everyone as the familiar beggar who sat outside the temple. After Jesus healed him, the religious authorities interrogated the beggar about Jesus. The man replied, "One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" He couldn’t understand how these religious authorities didn't recognize this Healer as the Son of God. "Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind," he said.20 To him the evidence was obvious.
Jesus also demonstrated a supernatural power over nature itself. He commanded a raging storm of high wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee to be calm. Those in the boat were awestruck, asking, "Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!"21 He turned water into wine, at a wedding. He fed a massive crowd of 5,000 people, starting with five loaves of bread and two fish. He gave a grieving widow back her only son by raising him from the dead.
Lazarus, a friend of Jesus' died and had been buried in a tomb for four days already. Yet Jesus said, "Lazarus, come forth!" and dramatically raised him from the dead, witnessed by many. It is most significant that his enemies did not deny this miracle. Rather, they decided to kill Jesus. "If we let him go on like this," they said, "everyone will believe in him."22
Jesus' supreme evidence of deity was his own resurrection from the dead. Five times in the course of his life, Jesus clearly predicted he would die, and in what specific way he would be killed, and that three days later, after being buried, he would rise from the dead.
Surely this was the great test. It was a claim that was easy to verify. It would either happen or not. It would either confirm his stated identity or destroy it. And significant for you and me, Jesus' rising from the dead would verify or make laughable statements such as these:
"I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me."23 "I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not live in darkness, but will have the light of life."24 For those who believe in him, "I give them eternal life..."25
So by his own words, he offers this proof, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise."26
If Christ rose, then all that he offers us, he can fulfill. It means he really can forgive sin, give us eternal life, and guide us now in this life. As God, we now know what God is like and can respond to his invitation to know him and his love for us in a personal way.
On the other hand, if Christ did not rise from the dead, Christianity has no objective validity or reality. It is all false. Jesus was merely a man who is dead. The martyrs who went singing to the lions, and contemporary missionaries who have given their lives while taking this message to others, have been poor deluded fools.
Let's look at the evidence for Jesus' resurrection.
Given all the miracles he had performed, Jesus easily could have avoided the cross, but he chose not to.
Before his arrest, Jesus said, "I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord...and I have authority to take it up again."27
During his arrest, Jesus' friend Peter tried to defend him. But Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its place...Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?"28 He had that kind of power in heaven and on earth. Jesus went willingly to his death.
Jesus' death was by public execution on a cross, a common form of torture and death, used by the Roman government for many centuries. The accusation against Jesus was for blasphemy (for claiming to be God). Jesus said it was to pay for our sin.
Jesus was lashed with a multi-cord whip having metal or bone fragmented ends. A mock crown of long thorns was beaten into his skull. They forced him to walk to an execution hill outside of Jerusalem. They put him on a wooden cross, nailing his wrists and feet to it. He hung there, eventually dying. A sword was thrust into his side to confirm his death.
The body of Jesus was taken from the cross, wrapped in mummy-like linens covered with gummy-wet spices. His body was placed in a solid rock tomb, where a very large boulder was rolled down to it, to secure the entrance.
Everyone knew that Jesus said he would rise from the dead in three days. So they stationed a guard of trained Roman soldiers at the tomb. They also affixed an official Roman seal to the outside of the tomb declaring it government property.
Despite all this, three days later the boulder formerly sealing the tomb was found up a slope, some distance away from the tomb. The body was gone. Only the grave linens were found in the tomb, empty of the body.
It is important to note that both critics and followers of Jesus agree that the tomb was empty and the body missing.
The earliest explanation circulated was that the disciples stole the body while the guards were sleeping. This makes little sense. This was an entire guard of highly trained Roman soldiers and falling asleep on duty was punishable by death.
Further, each of the disciples was tortured and put to death (individually and in different geographic locations) for proclaiming that Jesus was alive, risen from the dead. Men and women will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie. If ever a man tells the truth, it is on his deathbed.
Maybe the authorities moved the body? This also is a weak possibility. They crucified Jesus to stop people from believing in him. If they had Christ's body, they could have paraded it through the streets of Jerusalem. In one fell swoop, they would have successfully smothered Christianity in its cradle. That they did not do this bears eloquent testimony to the fact that they did not have the body.
Another theory is that the women (the first to see Jesus’ empty tomb) were distraught and overcome by grief, missed their way in the dimness of the morning and went to the wrong tomb. In their distress, they imagined Christ had risen because the tomb was empty. But again, if the women went to the wrong tomb, why did the high priests and other enemies of the faith not go to the right tomb and produce the body?
One other possibility is what some call "the swoon theory." In this view, Christ did not actually die. He was mistakenly reported to be dead, but had swooned from exhaustion, pain, and loss of blood, and in the coolness of the tomb, he revived. (One would have to overlook the fact that they put a spear in his side to medically confirm his death.)
But let us assume for a moment that Christ was buried alive and swooned. Is it possible to believe that he would have survived three days in a damp tomb without food or water or attention of any kind? Would he have had the strength to extricate himself from the grave clothes, push the heavy stone away from the mouth of the grave, overcome the Roman guards, and walk miles on feet that had been pierced with spikes? It too makes little sense.
However, it wasn't the empty tomb that convinced Jesus' followers of his deity.
That alone did not convince them that Jesus actually rose from the dead, was alive, and was God. What convinced them were the number of times that Jesus showed up, in person, in the flesh, and ate with them, and talked with them. Different locations, different times, to a variety of different people. Luke, one of the gospel writers, says of Jesus, "he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God."29
To write these off as hallucinations doesn’t fit. One reason is the variety of locations, times, people. But also, for hallucinations to occur, one must so intensely want to believe that a person projects something that really isn’t there.
For instance, a mother who lost her son remembers he used to come home from school at 3:30 every day. Every afternoon she sits waiting at the door, until finally sees him and has a conversation with him. She has lost contact with reality.
One might think that this is what happened to the disciples regarding Jesus’ resurrection. However, the opposite took place. They were persuaded against their will that Jesus had risen from the dead.
All four of the gospel writers give accounts of Jesus physically being alive again. On one occasion when Jesus joined the disciples, Thomas was not there. When they told Thomas about it, he simply wouldn't believe it. He flatly stated, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."
One week later, Jesus came to them again with Thomas now present. Jesus said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." Thomas replied, "My Lord and my God!"
Jesus told him "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."30
Christ gives purpose and direction to life. “I am the light of the world,” he says. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”31
Many are in the dark about the purpose of life in general and about their own lives in particular. They are groping around the room of life looking for the light switch. Anyone who has ever been in a dark, unfamiliar room knows this feeling of insecurity. When the light goes on, however, a feeling of security results. And so it is when one steps from darkness to the light of life in Christ.
The late Carl Gustav Jung said, “The central neurosis of our time is emptiness.” We think that experiences, relationships, money, success, fame will finally provide the happiness we seek. But there is always a gap left. They don’t fully satisfy. We have been made for God and find fulfillment only in him.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”32
You can begin an intimate relationship with him right now. You can begin to personally know God in this life on earth, and after death into eternity. Here is God's promise to us:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."33
Jesus took our sin on himself, on the cross. He chose to receive punishment for our sin, so that our sin would no longer be a barrier between us and him. Because he fully paid for your sin, he offers you complete forgiveness and a relationship with him.
Here is how you can begin that relationship.
Jesus said, "Behold, I stand at the door [of your heart] and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him."34
Right now you can invite Jesus Christ into your life. The words are not important. What matters is that you respond to him, in light of what he has done for you, and is now offering you. You could say to him something like, "Jesus, I believe in you. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. I ask you to forgive me and to come into my life right now. I want to know you and follow you. Thank you for coming into my life and giving me a relationship with you, right now. Thank you."
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Adapted from Know Why You Believe by Paul E. Little, published by Victor Books, copyright (c) 1988, SP Publications, Inc., Wheaton, IL 60187. Used by permission.
Footnotes: (1) Matthew 7:29 (2) Matthew 16:15-16 (3) John 5:18 (4) John 10:33 (5) John 10:10 (6) John 8:12 (7) John 5:24 (8) John 10:28 (9) Mark 14:61-64 (10) John 8:19; 14:7 (11) 12:45; 14:9 (12) 12:44; 14:1 (13) Mark 9:37 (14) John 15:23 (15) John 5:23 (16) John 10:38 (17) John 8:46 (18) 1 Peter 2:22 (19) Matthew 27:54 (20) John 9:25, 32 (21) Mark 4:41 (22) John 11:48 (23) John 14:6 (24) John 8:12 (25) John 10:28 (26) Mark 9:31 (27) John 10:18 (28) Matthew 26:52,53 (29) Acts 1:3 (30) John 20:24-29 (31) John 8:12 (32) John 6:35 (33) John 3:16 (34) Revelation 3:20