Why should we believe that Christianity is true?This is the manuscript of a talk that I gave at an event entitled 'Why Should We Believe? Christianity and atheism in dialogue,' co-sponsored by Duke InterVarsity and the Duke Secular Alliance. The audio for the entire event, including Q&A can be found here and the slides for my opening statement can be found here.
I'd first like to thank to the DSA and Intervarsity for hosting this event and my friend Vlad for agreeing to participate with me. The title of this dialogue is "Why should we believe?" So let me address that question from the perspective of Christianity: why should we believe that Christianity is true? In a discussion like this one, Christians often begin by providing arguments for God's existence, like the cosmological argument or the moral argument. I think that many of these arguments do substantiate the claim that God exists. But given only fifteen minutes, I want to focus on one simple, concrete argument that speaks to us personally and also addresses the question at the very heart of the Christian faith: who is Jesus?
I think that most people have positive views of Jesus himself, no matter how negative their views are of his followers. As Americans, I think we can take for granted how deeply embedded Jesus' teaching is in our moral intuition and even in our language. We talk about "loving our neighbor", "being a Good Samaritan", "not casting the first stone", "going the extra mile", "turning the other cheek" as paradigms of goodness and compassion. Yet all of those phrases have entered our lexicon from Jesus' teaching. So I don't think it's unreasonable to maintain that the majority of people here in the US think that Jesus was a good moral teacher.
But my argument tonight is that this widely-held belief is completely untenable. Jesus was not a good moral teacher. He could not have been. Why do I say that?
Imagine that when you left this auditorium, you were accosted by a man who said to you: "You need to sell everything you have and then come, follow me. You need to love me more than your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even your own life. I am the only way to God. At the end of time, I will judge all of humanity" If you actually met a person like that tonight, you would not think 'Oh, what a good, inspiring moral teacher.' You would call the campus police. This man is criminally insane and dangerous. The only person who can legitimately make claims like these is God. But Jesus said all of these things, multiple times, throughout his ministry. Therefore, the question 'Who is Jesus?' has only two possible answers: he is either God or an evil megalomaniac. And that is not an easy decision for most people to make when it comes to Jesus.
This dilemma causes many to suggest a third option. Perhaps Jesus never actually said the things that are recorded in the Bible because the Bible is not a historically reliable. I want to spend the bulk of my time tonight showing that this option is not historically plausible. Note that I am not trying to prove that the Bible is inerrant or even that it is divinely inspired. I believe both of those things. But you don't need to prove either of those for this argument to work; all you have to do is to show that the gospels are generally historical reliable. So how do we know that they are?
First, let's look at the manuscript evidence. I'm sure you've heard people say that we can't trust the gospels because we don't have the originals; we only have copies of copies of copies of copies. What people are not always aware of is the fact that the NT is far better attested than any other ancient document. For comparison, the second-best attested ancient document is Homer's Iliad, for which we have only 1,700 manuscripts. In contrast, we have over 5,000 manuscripts and fragments of the NT, almost three times as many. The NT fares just as well using other metrics like the time between the original writing of the documents and the oldest extant fragment or complete manuscript. If we apply the same standard to the NT that we apply to any other ancient writing, we would have to conclude that the NT accurately preserves the contents of the original documents. But even if the original content has been preserved, what reason do we have to believe that original documents were accurate in the first place?
To answer that question, we first turn to non-Christian documentary evidence. From writings like those of Jewish historian Josephus or Roman historian Tacitus and a few others, we would know that there was a Jewish man named Jesus who lived in 1st century Judea who was called the Christ or Messiah by his followers who did some kind of miraculous deeds and was accused of leading the Jewish people astray, who was brought to the authorities and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. The movement he founded was first checked by his execution, but later returned and spread as far as Rome. The early Christians chanted to Jesus 'as if to a God' but refused to worship other gods, even on pain of death. So we have a complete outline of Jesus' life entirely from non-Christian authors.
Let's next examine archaeology. What does archaeology tell us about the historicity of the New Testament? There is no question that the New Testament takes place in the real historical world of the 1st century Roman empire. Major cities like Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Athens, and Corinth have been thoroughly excavated. But archaeology also confirms extremely small details mentioned in the NT. For instance, we've found the pool at Bethesda mentioned in John 5:1-15, the pool of Siloam mentioned in John 9:1-7, the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus preached (Luke 4:31-36), the ossuary of the high priest Caiaphas (Matt. 26:57-67), a 1st century house from the village of Nazareth where Jesus grew up, inscriptions naming Pontius Pilate prefect of Judea (Luke 3:1-2), Gallio proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-17), and proconsul Serguis Paulus of Cyprus (Acts 13:6-13). The list goes on and on. So archaeology confirms not only the general setting of the gospels, but very incidental details all of which serves to substantiate the reliability of the biblical authors.
Finally, let me add one more piece of evidence that has only been discovered recently and which I consider extremely powerful in demonstrating that the authors were recording eyewitness testimony of Jesus' life. Archaeologists have compiled a database of hundreds of proper names drawn from ossuaries, or bone-boxes, of Jews born between 300B.C. and 200 A.D. in Palestine. From this dataset, we can determine the relative frequencies of the names. We can then look at Jewish names mentioned in the New Testament and compare the two. Not only do we find that the most popular New Testament names match the most popular names found on ossuaries, we even find that the percentages roughly agree. Imagine that I asked you to write a novel set in Mexico during the Vietnam war. How likely is it that you would be able to generate 100 names with the correct frequencies? Similarly, how likely is it that the gospel writers would be able to reproduce the historical frequencies of proper names in 1st century Palestine? Extremely unlikely. Unless they were reporting actual historical events and the people associated with them.
So the best explanation of these facts is that the gospels do indeed present a generally historically reliable portrait of the person of Jesus. We can read them and find out what he actually said. And therein lies the dilemma. We have to make a choice. Lord and Savior or evil megalomaniac. The Christian is someone who looks at the person of Jesus as recorded in Scripture and says: 'I know it sounds crazy. But Jesus must be who he says He is. Following him will require a radical reorientation of my worldview, of my lifestyle, of my priorities. But if He is who He claimed to be, then He is worth it.'
But let's say you're an atheist or an agnostic. Why would you even consider the idea that Jesus is God? If you are convinced that God doesn't exist or aren't sure, why even bother to look into the claims of Jesus? Let me briefly give four reasons that you should allow Jesus to challenge your worldview.
First, his impact. Let's say I had to make a list of people who had the greatest impact on human history: Buddha, Muhammad, Karl Marx, Adolph Hitler. But Jesus would clearly be on the list. Now let's say I had to make a list of people who claimed to be God incarnate: Juanita Peraza, Jim Jones, Sathya Sai Baba. I'm guessing you've never heard of most of those people. Because there is only one person on both of those lists. How is it that a poor carpenter born in a obscure province of the Roman Empire, who spends three years as a homeless preacher, who never writes anything himself, and who suffers a humiliating execution in his thirties utterly transforms human history for the next two millenia? Isn't that at least puzzling?
But second, his teaching. The Roman soldiers sent to arrest Jesus said: "No man ever spoke like this." Jesus said things like: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Or this: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." Can any of you listen to those words and not wish you lived like this? That we all lived like this? Why do the ethics of Jesus speak with such authority and originality even after 2000 years?
Third, his Resurrection. Christians claim that three days after Jesus died on the cross, he rose physically from the dead. This might come as a surprise to you, but there is a 'strong historical case' that can be made for the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. Those aren't my words. Those are the words of atheist Jeff Lowder, the founder of infidels.org. Let me quote from another famous atheist Antony Flew, who became a deist later in life, although he never became a Christian. He said: "The evidence for the Resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It's outstandingly different in quality and quantity..." If you've never looked into the evidence for the Resurrection, you should. But for now, the important point is this: the one religious miracle that -according to Flew- is the best attested in any religion in all of history happens to be associated with a figure who also had the moral character and impact of Jesus. How do we explain that?
But finally, I want to close with a very personal reason: Jesus' message. I think if you asked the average person today, most would say that all religions have the same message: Be a good, loving, kind, compassionate person and God will accept you. But that is not the message of Christianity. The message of Christianity is not that God accepts good people but that God rescues bad people. Jesus comes to you and says: You are a moral wreck. It doesn't matter whether you are a church-going, Bible-reading Duke graduate or a drug dealer. You are a sinner under the wrath of a good and just God. But I've come to rescue you, to take the punishment that you deserve by dying on the cross and to rise to life to offer you forgiveness and transformation. That is the message of the gospel, the good news that Jesus rescues bad people. Jesus rescues broken people, hurt people, depraved people. And when some of you hear that, you will recognize immediately that you need it. You'll know that you're a bad person who needs forgiveness and a new life. And Jesus' message to you is: "come to me, all you are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest."
But to others of us, this will be a very offensive and even incoherent message. We don't think we are all that bad. We may not be perfect, but we're better than most people. Here, we need to be more suspicious of our skepticism. Christianity can be wish-fullfilment. Absolutely. But so can atheism. Think about all our moral failings: our jealousy, our pride, our arrogance, our lofty indifference towards the poor and suffering, the hours spent downloading Internet pornography, the girlfriend or boyfriend whose trust and love we violated for the sake of our own enjoyment. Do you think there is really no comfort in believing that there is no God who sees all of the filth and rottenness and hatred in our hearts? Do you really think that there is no comfort in denying that there is a God who hates our sin and before whom we will one day stand in judgment? In closing, I want to impress on all of you the importance of this question. If you are an atheist tonight, it might be unthinkable to you that Jesus could actually be God or even that God could actually exist. I understand. But I want to plead with you not to be flippant about this. You need to actually engage with the person of Jesus found in the Bible. Do not write him off. Do not brush him aside and distract yourself with sex or beer or Duke basketball. This is more important than any of those things. This question is life or death and you need to approach it with the seriousness it deserves.
And for Christians, I hope I've shown you that the center of our faith is the person of Jesus. The best reason to be a Christian is that you have heard the call of Jesus on your life and have answered it.
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.