At least once every couple of years, some new challenge arises that calls into question the belief that Jesus was the divine Son who died and rise again. With Reza Aslan’s recent publication, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, questions about the historical foundations for faith in Jesus Christ have resurfaced yet again. (For a helpful review of Zealot, click here.)
So, why not simply ignore these “Christ conspiracies”? I mean, as long as I’ve had a personal experience of faith in Jesus, isn’t that all that matters? If I feel deep inside that Jesus is alive, why be concerned with what Dan Brown or Reza Aslan or Bart Ehrman has to say?
Here’s why: The strongest faith is a faith that knows not only what we believe but also why.
Over the past decade, I’ve spoken with thousands of people—most of them firm believers in the biblical perspective on Jesus—about the historical foundations of their faith. In the process, I’ve heard multitudes of well-meaning Christians provide the same two reasons for their faith in Jesus.
The first reason runs something like this: “I just know Jesus is alive because I’ve felt his presence—that’s the only proof I need!” The other one is usually stated in these terms: “The Bible is God’s Word; so, if the Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it.”
I respect these believers’ sincerity—I really do. But … well, may I be blunt for just a moment? These are rotten reasons to believe in Jesus.
ROTTEN REASON #1: THE BIBLE CLAIMS TO BE TRUE
How do you know that the Bible is God’s Word? Is it simply because the Bible claims to be inspired by God? Unless there’s a firmer foundation for the truth of Scripture than the Bible’s own claims about itself, the fact that “the Bible says it” doesn’t settle anything. Sure, the apostle Paul referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as “God-breathed,” and a letter penned by Simon Peter placed New Testament writings in the same inspired category as the Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 3:16-17).
So why couldn’t a devout Muslim make a similar statement about the Qur’an? “The Qur’an says it, I believe it, and that settles it”? Yet, if both the Christian Scriptures and the Qur’an are divinely-inspired, God must suffer from a serious multiple-personality disorder, because the claims of the two books cannot be reconciled with each other. According to the Qur’an, for example, Jesus was a human prophet who may not have died at all. Yet, according to the New Testament, Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead three days later (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 2 Corinthians 13:4). Accepting a book as sacred truth because it claims to be God’s Word simply doesn’t work.
ROTTEN REASON #2: I’VE EXPERIENCED JESUS FOR MYSELF
But what about the inward, personal awareness that Jesus is present and alive? Doesn’t that prove the truth of the Christian gospel? “You ask me how I know he lives,” the classic hymn “He Lives” inquires before attempting to silence the skeptic with the triumphant reply: “He lives within my heart!” What could possibly be wrong with faith of this sort—a faith that’s based on an individual’s personal experience with Jesus?
In truth, this foundation for faith is even flimsier than the first one. Why? Think about it this way: Based on supposed personal experiences with God, cult leader Jim Jones claimed that Jesus Christ and the Buddha both lived within his heart, Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda declared himself to be the second coming of Christ as well as the Anti-Christ, and forty-one Heaven’s Gate cult-members committed suicide in 1997 so that their souls could catch a ride on an outbound UFO.
If the foundation for my faith is my own personal experience with the divine, what’s the difference between my claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and De Jesus Miranda’s claim that he is both Christ and Anti-Christ? Or between my trust in Jesus and someone else’s belief that an Internet utility known as the Mystical Smoking Head of Bob can answer life’s most perplexing questions, for that matter? (And no, the Mystical Smoking Head of Bob is not simply one more by-product of my hyperactive imagination. It’s really out there, it has three eyes, and it can deliver prophetic oracles in Pig Latin). In the final analysis, our experiences are inadequate foundations for our faith because, even if our experiences are indeed real, we don’t always interpret the meaning of our experiences correctly.
Now, this isn’t to say that you aren’t justified in holding your belief in Jesus on the basis of your experience (this belief is, in philosophical terms, “properly basic”). But Christianity is not merely meant to be a faith that you know individually; it’s also a faith that you’re called to show globally. To show our faith in the world, it’s necessary to know how God has revealed himself in history and why we can trust this revelation to be true.
For more on this topic, see my book Conspiracies and the Cross.