Believing in God is a nice idea; it solves serious philosophical problems. But it doesn’t necessarily solve the personal problem of getting right with the universe. We are told that “the devils also believe” in God, but they remain devils (James 2:19).
The apologetic task must then focus not on abstract arguments for God’s existence but on the case for Jesus Christ, who claimed to be God-in-the-flesh come to earth to provide a way of salvation for a fallen race.
Jesus presented Himself not as a simple moral teacher—a Jewish boy scout helping little old ladies across the Sea of Galilee—but as the unique Son of God and the sole Savior of the world. He claimed preexistence (“before Abraham was, I am,” John 8:58); forgave sin (Mark 2:5–7); stated in unequivocal terms, as we noted above, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:8–9); and predicted His return at the end of time to wrap up human history (Mark 14:61–64). His religious opponents had no trouble recognizing that these were divine claims, and, in denying those claims, they condemned Him for blasphemy. Therefore, the key issue then and now is if Jesus was the person He claimed to be—God incarnate—or an imposter?
The key issue then and now is if Jesus was the person He claimed to be—God incarnate—or an imposter?
Our entire knowledge of the life and ministry of Jesus derives from the documents known as the New Testament. Thus the big question is whether these documents, and the witness statements contained within, can be relied on to present a reliable picture of the central figure of Christianity.
Here, we can set out a series of propositions that—if the evidence sustains them—lead directly to a confirmation of the Christian position.
1. The New Testament documents are solid.
2. The New Testament witnesses to Jesus are extremely reliable.
3. In these documents, Jesus predicts his resurrection from the dead and the witnesses declare that He in fact conquered death.
If these assertions are sustainable, the only proper conclusion is that Jesus should be regarded as the One He claimed to be—God almighty offering the only true way of salvation.
The New Testament documents are solid:
The documents of the New Testament, when compared with the entire gamut of classical authors, turn out to be incomparably better, both in accurate transmission and in solidity of primary-source authorship. Sir Frederick Kenyon, one of the greatest twentieth century authorities in the textual criticism of the New Testament, asserted that “the New Testament text...is far better attested than that of any other work of ancient literature.” This means that if you wish to discard the New Testament witness to Jesus, you can certainly do so—but then you must also discard virtually all knowledge of classical, Greco-Roman civilization!
The authorship of the major New Testament documents is supported by external evidence that is lacking in the case of almost all secular writings of antiquity. Thus we have the claims of students of the Apostle John (Papias and Polycarp) backing up the authorship of the Gospels as deriving from either the apostles themselves (Matthew, John) or close associates of the apostles (Mark, Luke). Early dating of the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’s life and ministry follows from the fact, as argued by the nineteenth-century German historian Adolf von Harnack, that Luke must have written the Book of Acts before the death of St. Paul (A.D. 64–65), and, therefore, that Luke’s Gospel, written prior to Acts and together with Mark’s Gospel, which was used by Luke, had to be written within a generation of the death of our Lord (between A.D. 30 and 65, a mere 35-year period).
This means that the Gospel writers’ divine claims concerning Jesus were in circulation when hostile witnesses of Jesus’s life and ministry were still alive—hostile witnesses who had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to refute what the Evangelists wrote had they been able to do so. That they did not can only be explained because they could not—there were no facts to support refutation.
This means that the Gospel writers’ divine claims concerning Jesus were in circulation when hostile witnesses of Jesus’s life and ministry were still alive.
What we have, then, in the New Testament are primary-source records—accounts of Jesus from those who knew Him or from those in immediate contact with those who knew Him. Witnesses, like defendants in a court of law, are to be considered innocent until and unless proven guilty. And there is no ground for discounting the testimonies of these witnesses: they were average people who certainly knew the difference between truth and falsehood; they had no history of prevarication or psychological aberration; and they make such unadorned claims as, “We have not followed cunningly devised fables [Greek, mythoi, ‘myths,’ as in classical mythology] when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16).
The New Testament witnesses to Jesus are extremely reliable:
If one applies fraud analysis to the Gospel accounts, the apostles come out smelling like a proverbial rose. They (except Judas) possessed high personal integrity, had no motivation to fabricate a divine picture of Jesus and, most important, had no opportunity to get away with a skewed picture of Jesus when hostile witnesses of the same events were alive and more than willing to destroy the Christian claims had they been in a position to do so.
To be sure, if all we had in these excellent historical documents and fine testimonies were claims to divine status, the case for Christianity would fall far short of plausibility. Claims are cheap, anyone can sue in a court of law, and success depends not on claims but on proof of claims. Thus the critical factor—the factor unavailable in any other philosophical or religious context—is the evidence for the truth of Jesus’s divine claims based on fulfilled prophecy and the miracles He performed. We shall deal with prophecy later; here we are concerned with the principal attestation of Jesus’s divine claims—namely, His resurrection from the dead.
The accounts of the resurrection occupy a central place in the Gospel records of Jesus’s earthly life, and they are presented by the same writers who provided us with all we know of His ministry. Thus, unless we are prepared to jettison our knowledge of Jesus in general, we must view the resurrection narratives with the same respect we give to all the other information presented by those who had immediate contact with Him.
Those records make patently clear that Jesus was crucified publicly and that, during a forty-day period, He appeared physically alive to those who had known Him well—including doubters such as the Apostle Thomas. St. Paul, writing in A.D. 56, asserted that the risen Christ had appeared to a list of named witnesses—and to some five hundred others, “most of whom remain alive to the present” (1 Cor. 15:1–8).
The only counter possible to these claims is not historical (for there is no countervailing historical evidence) but philosophical—that miracles simply do not occur or cannot be validated. David Hume’s classic argument against miracles—that there is “uniform experience against the miraculous”—turns out to be perfectly circular, since (obviously) if no one has ever seen a miracle, miracles can’t be asserted. Ours is a vast, mysterious universe in which no human being has the knowledge or perspective to pontificate on what events are impossible. The only way to find out if a miracle has occurred is to get off one’s derrière and go out and check the value of the historical testimony of its occurrence.
Only historical investigation can determine whether Jesus rose. And the witness of history is decisive. If one ignores it, one can never, for example, explain the success of the Christian faith in a pagan Roman Empire replete with other religious and philosophical options, all of which fell by the wayside as Christianity, solidly based in Jesus’s conquest of death, triumphed.
Only historical investigation can determine whether Jesus rose. And the witness of history is decisive.
In these documents, Jesus predicts his resurrection from the dead and the witnesses declare that He in fact conquered death.
But why accept Jesus’ explanation of His resurrection—that God raised Him from the dead? Because the one who accomplishes something, particularly if no one else can do it, is in the ideal position to explain how it happens. We prefer the successful artist’s explanation of his or her work to the explanations given by critics who can’t draw a satisfactory stick figure.
But why accept Jesus’s divinity just because he rose from the dead? Because death is our overarching, unsolved problem. Death can and does ruin one’s whole day. If anyone can indeed conquer it, He—above all others—deserves our worship. And this, beyond all question, is through His infinite love toward us. He offers that conquest of death and eternal life to us as an unmerited gift, and that is precisely what He has done: “Because I live, you shall live also” (John 14:19).
If Jesus did in fact conquer death, He is worth listening to. Presumably, as God Almighty, He has forgotten more about cosmic truth than any of us will ever know. Therefore, if He declares that salvation entails x and not y, the matter is settled. Speculation ceases. And His message is that, owing to our endemic selfishness, we cannot save ourselves whatever we do (intellectually, socially, politically, morally, or psychologically). Salvation, He says, is available as a free gift to those who will admit their absolute need for it and who come to Him to receive His love and grace offered through His death for our sins on the Cross.