Chapter One: Did Jesus Really Live?

Did Jesus Really Live? Did We Invent God, or Did God Invent Us?

Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” [Mark 4:41]

“What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!” [Luke 4:36]

Who is this who even forgives sins?” [Luke 7:59]

After reading a particularly moving book, or perhaps seeing a movie, we often hear the remark, “did that really happen?”  We want to know if it was a “true” story, or based on a true story.

The blockbuster movie “Saving Private Ryan” made by Steven Spielberg and released in 1998 is a good point in case. After being shocked by the brutality of battle surrounding D-Day, one wanted to know, “was it true?” Somehow, if it wasn’t we would leave the theater entertained, maybe shocked by the gruesome scenes of war’s carnage, but, deep down, not entirely touched. It was, after all, nothing but a writer’s invention.

However, knowing there HAD been a Private Ryan endowed the story with a meaning that transcends the movie. We too could have been there. We sense the pain, reel with the shock of battle, tremble and shake with the fear, wonder about our courage, and fate. Why did some survive? Why did some die? Why this awful butchery of thousands of young men–our fathers and grandfathers–on the bullet, rain-swept sands of Normandy? This HAPPENED. It is undeniable TRUTH. We still have many living witnesses.

Turn the clock back 2000 years or so. Did Jesus Christ REALLY do the things–healings and miracles for example–so stated in the Gospels?

“Did that really happen?” The apostles were agog when Jesus calmed the wind and waves one stormy night. “Who is this?” they asked in wonder. And they were probably thinking, “did that really happen?” as they rubbed their eyes in disbelief.

Indeed it did. Jesus was real. The Gospels are not just nice stories, filled with parables and riddles and good moral advice invented by first century Jewish zealots to fulfill Messianic prophecies from the Old Testament. The Gospels are a “true” rendition of the life of a man named Jesus. Scholars may and do quibble over the details of which exact words were from Jesus and which may have been added or embellished by the men who recorded the events, but NO SERIOUS SCHOLAR DISPUTES THE FACT THAT JESUS WAS AN HISTORICAL BEING.

Historians with impeccable credentials, such as Michael Grant of Great Britain, have produced scores of volumes, such as Grant’s own Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York: Scribner’s, 1977) which prove beyond any doubt that Jesus lived and taught and preached and healed before being crucified in the first century. He was an historic man, not a figment of anyone’s overheated Jewish imagination of twenty centuries ago. He was just as real as Augustus Caesar or Alexander the Great. To call the story of Jesus’ life on earth a myth or invention carries as much weight as denying that D-Day took place. It happened. He lived.

Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Prize winner, physician, musician, scholar, and Christian, himself produced the modern definitive study of the historical Jesus, The Quest of the Historical  Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1968 [1906]), an erudite and totally successful search for and discovery of Jesus in history. The fascination with the historical Jesus continues. Each new generation produces a new wave of literature, one of the latest in this genre being E. P. Sanders study, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993)

Christianity is rooted in historical facts.

“Christianity thinking does not begin with general religious ideas or universal principles,” wrote Robert L. Wilken [Remembering the Christian Past (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995), p. 180] “but with a particular history that began in a tiny part of the world called Judea and extends across the generations and centuries in a stately procession of those who look to that light that ‘once seen, alone and always kindles love.’” [from Dante, The Divine Comedy].

Jesus is no more an imaginary figure than your own father. Indeed, the metaphor of the father is frequently used by Jesus to describe his mission on earth. What distinguishes the historical Jesus from your father is, of course, the fact that Jesus was both man AND God, one in the same. Then the question all Christians invariably ask at one point or another in their walk in faith comes up. How do we know this? How do we know Jesus was God’s Son on earth, sent to forgive our sins, to redeem our lives, to give us life everlasting?

Like the disciple Thomas who did not believe that Jesus had truly risen from the tomb, we doubt. We ask questions, like Michael Grant does: “did these ‘impossible’ acts (impossible from any purely naturalistic standpoint) really take place?” And when Jesus walks on water, or calms the storm, or raises the dead, Grant again frames the question for us: “But what on these occasions did Jesus really do?”[1]

Here we move to the bigger issue. Was Jesus really both man AND God? Theologians have a fancy word for it: the hypostatic union. One can easily get immersed in the detail of this phenomenon, but, for our sake, the question is: was Jesus Christ God? We know he lived. We know he was a man. He claimed also to be the Son of God. The Jews who crucified him clamored that he wasn’t; in fact, they persuaded the Romans to nail Jesus to a cross for making such a blasphemous claim.

Jesus’ believers, such as the prolific and immensely consequential Apostle Paul, on the other hand, held that the FOUNDATION stone of Christianity was Jesus’ divinity, proven by his resurrection from the dead. Let’s assume for the moment that Jesus WAS God and move on to the next question. I promise, we’ll return shortly below to the divinity of Jesus because it is CENTRAL to our faith.

Does God really exist?

The central question of humanity is–indeed–whether God exists. Everything else pales in comparison. If God does exist, then we better get on board. If he doesn’t, then we are solely dependent on ourselves, and that, ultimately, leads to a pitiful and despondent dead end.

Thinkers large and small have tried to “prove” the existence of God. A philosopher at Oxford, after a detailed and apparently convincing dispassionate disquisition on the existence of God, pronounced–rather tentatively–that “on significant balance of probability, there is a God.” [Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?, New York: Oxford U Press, 1996, p. 141] Others have with vehemence denied the existence of God. There is no empirical evidence they claim to substantiate anything in the realm of the supernatural. Others pronounced in the mid-twentieth century that “God is Dead,” perhaps the ultimate expression of nihilism, or a belief in the futility of man’s existence.

One of the greatest philosophers of Christianity, St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question directly in the thirteenth century, asking in his Summa Theologica, “Whether God exists?”[2] It is not a simple proof that St. Thomas offers. In fact, he gives us multiple proofs, based on motion, first causes, and design for example. Reduced to something comprehensible and that I can understand, these proofs are totally convincing. [3]

For example, they argue that everything in nature is in motion. What set them in motion? God. Or, for all effects, we have to have causes. What is the primary or efficient cause? God. Or, everything in nature acts toward an end, to achieve the best results. Some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; this, St. Thomas concludes, “being we call God.”[4] Or, as William Paley observed, “if we find a watch, it is reasonable to conclude there is a watchmaker.”[5]

Ultimately, we cannot grasp the concept of God completely, anymore than we can imagine the universe in its totality, or something as simple, and beyond our reach, as infinity. Remember the first time you saw the symbol µ for infinity? It was the symbol for numbers extended to infinity.

“What’s the last number?” my eight-year old Carlton asked me awhile back, contemplating something that had crossed his horizon earlier that day.

How does one answer this? “Simply” I have learned from similar questions from other children now grown. Where do babies come from? “God” is a nice answer. And, ultimately, the correct one. Kids don’t want anatomical details. That comes later when they hit the teenage years. Then they want it in minute details! See Chapter Eleven for my musings on how we deal with teenage challenges.

So what did I tell Carlton? I forget. Probably something like “there is no end to numbers son. Hey, we gonna shoot some baskets when we get home?”

“Yeah dad, one on one!” So much for numbers and infinity.

One can do that with children. But as one grows up and assumes the responsibility of taking care of oneself, and searching for answers, the simple ones of childhood proffered by wise and well meaning parents no longer suffice.

Does God exist? I had taken a course earlier in my collegiate career–not, incidentally, marked by excellence in grades, but a wonderful expedition for me into the unknown–on religion, then a requirement where I was an undergraduate.[6] I took a fascinating trip into the religions of the world. Too bad the requirement has been dropped.

Anyhow, as we neared the final examination, rumors jumped like fleas on a dog as to what the professor would ask. I have no idea now–years later–what he actually asked us. I do recall, however, that we all were very aware that another professor had once walked into the examination room, picked up chalk, and scribbled “GOD?” on the blackboard and walked out. In all my years of teaching, I have yet to devise such an effective final examination!

Well, in my course we discovered that people worshipped God, or multiple gods, in many ways around the world. I learned about the search by the Hindus for ultimate perfection– nirvana–, the concept of reincarnation, of multiple deities, African forms of worship that predated the arrival of Islam or Christianity, and I found myself immersed in questions of the spirit and the supernatural.

The next year I signed up for a history of science course. At the end of the course, I approached my professor with a question that I simply could not answer.

“What exists at the boundary of the universe?” I put it to him. He was a gentle scholar, trained in both physics and history, so he brought together elements of the humanist with the scientist.

He looked back at me for a moment, not perplexed, but I think trying to formulate a simple answer for a question ultimately unanswerable.

“A straight line,” he said, as he packed up his notes.

A “straight line” I thought? What the heck does he mean?

“A straight line is one dimension, into infinity,” he said as we marched out of the classroom.

“No one knows, right?” I ventured.

“Right,” he smiled, going his way down the hallway as I took a turn in a different direction.

I had reached the end of the road. My imagination could not comprehend what lay on the other side of the Universe. I have subsequently read lightly over dense subjects such as the Big Bang Theory, dark holes in space, and of other theories and sightings by astronomers and physicists that shade into the world of science fiction. I have never received a more eloquent answer to my question. “No one knows.”

St. Thomas, of course, gives us the answer. SOMEONE had to put the whole thing into motion. SOMEONE had to be the “efficient” or prime cause. SOMEONE had to put into order what otherwise would be random and disorder. That someone is God.

Finally, at the very epicenter of the question, “Does God exist?,” is faith. No one can prove empirically, after all is said and done, that God does not exist, or God does exist. That is, no one could until Jesus Christ came on earth.

But Jesus did not ask his followers to believe in him solely on the basis of faith.

He didn’t say, “I am God’s Son, trust me.”

He PROVED to his followers–those who walked along side him then, and those of us today who he fills with the spirit of God. [see Chapter Five for more on the Holy Spirit]–that he was both man and God. He healed the sick, he worked miracles, he raised the dead, and, most important for our faith, he was crucified, dead, and buried, and then he rose from the dead. He was resurrected. This is based, as they say in any blockbuster Hollywood movie commercial that can claim it, on a “true story.”

Some skeptics may still say, “well, perhaps, but how do we REALLY know this?” Owen Chadwick summarized it best when he wrote, “the arguments they found strongest [for the validity and truth of Jesus and his life] were

  • the old Christian-Jewish conviction that the Messiah has fulfilled the hopes and prophesies of the centuries;
  • the power of their faith in changing men and women so quickly;
  • the way in which their faith fitted the natural religion of mankind;
  • and the freedom it brought from demonic power.”[7]

There was no need felt to confirm the fact that Jesus in fact lived and taught as a man, preached and healed as a prophet, and worked miracles as God’s son. There were many in the first century who testified easily to this fact. They witnessed it, they were transformed by the actions of Christ, they were sometimes left dumbstruck by the acts unfolding before them. “Who is this?” they asked. “Even the wind and the waves obey him!” [Mark 4:41]

Simple folk–fishermen and the lot–were transformed by the presence of Christ in their lives. In his name they healed, they too worked miracles, they preached with an eloquence totally at odds with their simple education and background, they founded a movement–the Church–that continues today to profoundly alter the lives of men and women who believe.

So, to summarize, God exists and Jesus Christ acted on earth. The proof was offered by Christ’s acts in life, and resurrection in death. It happened.

Now, the next big question we all face comes up in different formats, but basically is a version of “Ok, so where do I go from here? God exists. Jesus lived. I believe this. What difference is this going to make in my life? HOW do I make this work for me?”

Depending on the view of the pastor/preacher/evangelist/priest, the changes you undergo will be described in different ways. Fundamentally, however, you will need to ACT on your faith to refashion your life. To do this you need to search in several areas, and none perhaps are so obvious as the “wisdom” literature of the Bible. There you will find revealed some of the basic principles of our faith. And none seems to me more important than determining what is the truth, especially in an age when the determination of truth seems to be a tricky business. It isn’t, if you know where to look.

[1] Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York: Charles Scribner, 1977), pp. 38, 40.

[2] Peter Kreeft, A Summa of the Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Edited and Explained for Beginners (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 53.

[3] My thanks to Joseph Michael Magee, email, 28 Jan., 1999, from Magee to author, for a much deeper and profound insight into St. Thomas Aquinas’s thinking that could not be incorporated except in a very suggestive way in this chapter.

[4] Kreeft, Summa, p. 69.

[5] Kreeft, Summa, p. 69.

[6] Duke University, 1960-1964 for those curious.

[7] Owen Chadwick, A History of Christianity (New York: St. Martin’s Press,1995), p. 54.

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