Sunday, December 12, 2004

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 4

In the first three posts of this series, I've enumerated the first three reasons I have for believing that the Christian faith represents the one true pathway to an eternal relationship with God. Those first three reasons are:

The Judeo-Christian faith tradition of which the Christian proclamation is a part is utterly unique among the religions and belief systems of the world. Rather than calling on devotees to prove their devotion to achieve holiness or a relationship with God, the God of the Bible reaches out to us, accepts us as we are, does the work necessary for us to have new life, and then commits Himself to patiently helping us become all we were made to be. This unique heart of the Judeo-Christian faith is something called grace, an English word that translates a word from the Greek New Testament, charitas. It's from this word charitas that we derive our word, charity, an unearned gift given out of the goodness of a benefactor's heart. This central reality of the faith in the Bible--grace--was summarized by Martin Luther in the last sermon he preached before his death: "We are all beggars." In other religions, people may be seekers or climbers or strugglers. But Christians are beggars, recipients of God's charity.

The deity of Jesus Christ. In some mysterious way, Jesus was both God and human. These attributes co-mingled in Him. He was clearly a man who thirsted, grew hungry, suffered, and died. He was also clearly God, forgiving sin, performing miracles, taking control of the elements, raising people from death, and numerous other miracles of mercy and power.

Jesus' giving of Himself on the cross. Such an act of self-sacrifice on behalf of a rebel human race that wanted Him dead is the perfect picture of love.

Now we come to the fourth reason I believe the proclamation of the Christian faith is true: Jesus rose from the dead. This is the absolutely pivotal distinction of Christian faith.

I'm aware of how difficult this is to accept. It was for me at one time. After all, while we may know people who have been resuscitated after their life signs have gone flat, but I'll wager that no one reading this has ever met a real-life resurrected person.

But consider a few facts:

(1) Jesus predicted that He would rise from the dead. For example, this is what the Gospel writer, Matthew records:
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’ (Matthew 20:17-19)
And in another of the Gospel accounts, that written by Luke:
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near Him, He asked them, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" They answered, "John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered, "The Messiah of God."

He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, "The Son of Man [one of Jesus' characteristic ways of referring to Himself] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third raised." (Luke 9:18-22]
Now one thing in particular interests me about these two predictions (two of several such predictions recounted in the four books of the New Testament called gospels). It's that they don't convey some sugar-coated triumphalism. Death would come for Jesus before His predicted resurrection. So would suffering.

There is evidence to suggest that among the reasons that the crowds who once so relished Jesus turned against Him was that He did not lead a military rebellion against His country's Roman occupiers. So certain were some that Jesus was going to establish a new political order in Judea that some of His closest followers asked Him for spots close to His throne. They wanted Jesus to be triumphal. They wanted an Easter without a Good Friday. Everybody loves a winner. We're not so keen on suffering servants, which is exactly what Old Testament prophecy indicated the Messiah-Savior would be.

Jesus makes it clear that, unlike the expectant crowds as well as His closest followers, His ends are not political. One gets the impression from reading His words closely that He regards what happens in the political arena as so much window dressing. He, on the other hand, is about the total transformation of human beings. That transformation will inevitably be expressed in how a believer approaches politics, of course, just as it will impact every other element of a believer's life. But Jesus refused earthly kingship precisely because He knew it wouldn't ultimately meet our deepest need.

That need, quite simply, is reconciliation with God. As I explained in my last post, we are born alienated from God. That means that we are separated from the universe's only source of life. Through His death, Jesus was saying in His predictions, He would offer Himself to pay the penalty for our sin.

Then, Jesus would rise from the dead, the sign and seal that He had conquered death for all who believe in Him.

(2) The tomb in which the lifeless Jesus was lain was empty. That was the discovery made on the first Easter Sunday morning.

(3) Hundreds of followers of Jesus risked death in order to tell the world that they had seen the risen Jesus. In the wake of Jesus' execution on the cross, it would have been risky business to be associated with Him or His movement in any way. Jesus' followers would have had every reason to believe that Jesus' enemies would like to kill them off, just as they had Jesus. But these once-frightened followers, who had abandoned Jesus on the night of His arrest, seemed to feel no hesitation about telling people that Jesus had risen from the dead.

There was nothing to be gained by them in taking this risk.

The notion that hundreds of people were all suffering from delusions that lasted for the rest of their lives is absurd.

So, too is the theory often advanced that the hundreds who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus were all part of an elaborate conspiracy. Name any conspiracy involving hundreds of people that didn't eventually break down.

In about 55 A.D., the preacher and evangelist Paul, himself once an enemy of Christian faith, wrote to Christians in the city of Corinth:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve [apostles]. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me. [First Corinthians 15:3-8]
When one considers the ways in which rational people like Peter, Paul, James, John, and others acted and how they risked their lives to proclaim the message that Jesus rose from the dead, one must at the very least concede that they believed it to be true. To me, it's inconceivable that all the witnesses of Jesus' resurrection were deluded, demented, or lying.

In my next post for this series, a brief excursus on the meaning of Jesus' resurrection.

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