For some time now skeptics have been asking me in the comments of the Sunday religious posts to explain why I am a Christian and not (say) a Muslim or a Jew, or for that matter a follower of Zeus. I have been putting off the question since the full answer would literally require a book. However, I still post arguments in defense of the free market on this blog all the time, even though there are some critics who would never be convinced by my piecemeal remarks. In that light then–knowing full well a staunch atheist will not be converted after one reading–I’ll try to shed some light on this issue.
In the first place, the character of Jesus as portrayed in the gospel accounts is a far better man than I am. In contrast, I am not impressed by the gods of Greek/Roman mythology. By the same token, if it weren’t for Jesus, I would in haste have rejected the God depicted in the Old Testament as petty and unjust.
So for me, everything starts with the character of Jesus. I use the word “character” in two ways, meaning a literary figure but also Jesus’ moral fiber.
To put it succinctly: The older I get, the more I am convinced that if there were a God who decided to become a human being and walk the earth, then His time here would look a lot like the gospel stories. These are not the stories I would have designed from scratch. The accounts of miracles are easy enough; sure God would have gone around healing people. But in terms of His wise teachings, His interactions with the Pharisees, the way He formed His church, and so forth…it would not have occurred to me to do it that way. And for a long time, I thought the gospel stories were pedestrian, and that Greek mythology was much more interesting fiction.
But as I said, the older I get the more I realize that the gospel accounts are magnificent precisely because they are authentic. To repeat, I’m not talking about the miracles, except insofar as the disciples can observe a bunch of miracles, and yet continuously doubt the power of Jesus. I do believe that in this universe, it’s possible for a man to walk on water, cure the blind, etc., but what I’m really sure of, is that if a man went around doing such things, his followers would still doubt him after three years. That’s just the way people are. Yet if I had set out to write a story about a miraculous guy, I might not have added such realistic flourishes.
Another example is the fact that the religious authorities try to nab Jesus for working on the Sabbath (as He heals people). That seems like such a ridiculous thing, that it wouldn’t have been plausible enough for fiction. And yet, of course that is exactly the sort of thing humans would do, if God Himself came to earth and did nothing but help us.
Following Jesus literally provides me with strength in my day to day to life. For example, if I get frustrated that certain people aren’t doing enough (like for a project at work), and that people aren’t appreciating all my contributions, I can quickly nip that self-pity in the bud by reflecting on the life of Jesus. In other words, I don’t have the right to bellyache because Jesus was a lot more “carrying the team” and “unappreciated” than me. And what did He do in His circumstances? Did He mope around and heal people, but with a chip on His shoulder? Hardly.
Another aspect of all this is that Jesus’ teachings seem wiser to me, the older I get. When I was younger, for example, I didn’t interpret His commands about turning the other cheek, or being able to cast a mountain into the sea, literally. But now I am a full-blown pacifist, and I really do think that if someone had the faith of Jesus, he could heal people and perform other miracles. Again, that is just what you would expect if Jesus really were the Son of God: At first His teachings would seem obviously wrong, yet right “in spirit,” but as you gained more knowledge of the world and people, you would come to realize that actually His teachings were exactly correct.
One thing I’ve noticed lately when reading the gospels is that Jesus was like an alien walking among men in these stories, in the sense that He was qualitatively superior to everyone else. Someone with Jesus’ demonstrated wit and wisdom would of course perceive that Judas was going to betray Him; He would see that coming a mile away. Jesus’ superiority to mere mortals is beautifully illustrated when He is arrested:
47 And while He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, with a great multitude with swords and clubs, came from the chief priests and elders of the people.
48 Now His betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “Whomever I kiss, He is the One; seize Him.” 49 Immediately he went up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed Him.
50 But Jesus said to him, “Friend, why have you come?”
Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and took Him. 51 And suddenly, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, struck the servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear.
52 But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish[a] by the sword. 53 Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels? 54 How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?”
Every time I read these passages, I am astounded by the character (in both the literary and moral senses) of Jesus. It literally takes my breath away. I actually had to get up from the computer and walk around the hotel room for a few minutes to process it. So if you “don’t get it” then I really think you aren’t appreciating how significant this story is. (I’m deliberately saying “literary character” and “story” to convey that even if you don’t think these things really happened, you should still be able to appreciate why these myths have such a powerful grip on some people. That was actually the first step in my own conversion to Christianity; there was a point at which I scientifically could understand the success of the historical Jesus, even though I didn’t think he was actually divine.)
So in the passages above, Jesus doesn’t simply decry the use of violence; anybody could have done that. No, He goes further and demonstrates that His supposed follower obviously doesn’t think much of Jesus. Why would the Man who fed 5,000 people need His follower to bring out a sword to defend Him?
Note too that Jesus doesn’t say, “I know kung fu.” No, when Jesus wants to explain the actual power at His disposal, He refers to “twelve legions of angels.” When I read about this episode, I try to imagine the poor guys with clubs who are out there at night trying to arrest this guy. They’ve heard stories about Him healing people, and now when they are about to take Him–in a situation where they have presumably seen other men cower in fear, or look at them with defiance and rage–here’s Jesus turning to lecture His followers about His ability to call down twelve legions of angels on His persecutors. And He would have said it with more confidence than these guys had ever heard any other man possess when uttering a sentence. They may have brushed it off afterward, but I imagine the armed mob was intimidated at that moment. Even in this situation, Jesus is clearly in charge, running the show.
Last thing: How does Jesus the man keep from blowing up into a narcissistic monster? I mean, psychologically we know what happens when people have tremendous power: Lord Acton correctly reports that it corrupts them. So if Jesus is walking around, thinking He is God’s gift to the world, why doesn’t He become a jerk, just like the guys for whom we have invented the saying, “He thinks he’s God’s gift to women”?
The answer is that in addition to all His other attributes, Jesus exhibits the most perfect subservience to the will of His Father. Once again–in retrospect–that is exactly what you would expect God to do, if He turned Himself into a man to better identify with us and provide an example for how we should live.