The christian faith depends on the reality of Jesus. Why should non-believers think the stories about him are true and that he is truly the son of God? Some people will just believe, but others will want to question why they should believe. How should we answer them?
There are several different approaches we may take:
- We may just “know in our hearts”, by the Spirit, that the Gospel accounts are true.
- We may have had an experience we have had of Jesus that cannot be denied, or pray that they will have a similar experience.
- We may believe in faith that the writers can be trusted and Jesus is the son of God.
- We may accept that the church from the beginning has always taught that the Gospels tell the truth, and there is an unbroken chain of witnesses to that truth.
- We may trust a christian scholar who tells us that the New Testament is true.
- We may base our conclusions on the historical evidence as assessed by secular scholars.
I think there is truth in each statement, and each person has to decide for themselves what approach is meaningful to them. But I feel I must start with the historical evidence, and many non-believers will want to start there too. So let’s see how it works.
Starting with the evidence
Historians try to determine what people at the time saw, reported and understood, as a guide to determining what actually happened. In the case of the life of Jesus, they try to separate out what Jesus actually said from what his followers said about him and how they understood him.
But if we are deciding whether to believe in Jesus or not, we will be interested in the truth about him, which may include both what he actually said and what his followers said about him. So we will be interested in more than what the historians try to uncover. But what they say is an important start.
But even with this somewhat limited scope, the conclusions of secular historians (summed up in Jesus and the historians) are significant. The gospels tell us about a real person, and even if many of the stories are from the perspective of a believer, they provide factual evidence which believers and sceptics alike should be able to accept. (And many unbelievers, both historians and non-historians alike, do accept this much, although many of the more extreme non-believers do not.)
But historical evidence can only take us so far (secular historical research cannot demonstrate that Jesus was the son of God – that remains a personal assessment). We will need to trust the Spirit, our own faith, the church or christian scholars for the rest, but faith must be based on facts.
The important question then becomes: does the historical evidence justify trusting the Spirit, our own faith, or the church? I think it does. The reasoning goes like this ….
- Secular scholars treat the New Testament the same as any other documents of the time. On this basis, they find the Gospels are good historical sources – see The Gospels as history
- They are almost unanimous that Jesus was a real person who lived a life more or less as described in the Gospels – see The Jesus myth theory
- Scholars who do not treat the Bible as a holy book nevertheless generally conclude that we can know a significant amount about Jesus from the Gospels, more or less a ‘lowest common denominator’ – see Jesus and the historians
- Christian scholars can make a persuasive case that much more than this lowest common denominator has a sound historical basis, whereas the sceptical view has many questions but few believable hypotheses.
- Many people find the character of Jesus very compelling – the gospels show him to be someone who is compassionate, honest, sticks up for the down-trodden, believable and worthy of being followed, and many people who read the gospels agree.
- On the basis of this information, it seems reasonable to believe Jesus was indeed sent by God and therefore to be trusted. In fact a good argument can be made, using only the conclusions of the majority of scholars, that Jesus was indeed the Son of God (see Jesus – son of God?). Therefore we can put our faith in him.
- We therefore trust the New Testament to be reliable, though not without it’s difficulties, in faith that the God who sent Jesus would not lead us astray about him. We can therefore reasonably believe those things which the historians are unable to determine – e.g. the miraculous, Jesus’ claims about himself and his followers claims that he was divine.
- Thus our belief about Jesus starts from historical evidence and ends in faith.
This seems to me to be a sound and rational basis for our choice to follow Jesus. And therefore a sound basis for recommending the faith to non-believers. It is well-based on the conclusions of the mainstream of secular historians and on trust in Jesus. If we have experienced God’s healing, or a revelation of Jesus or the Spirit, they ‘fit’ well within these reasonable and evidential conclusions.