Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

The Divinity of Jesus of Nazareth

Some time ago I was asked in a comment to respond to the question, "Where would you say the evidence is that compels you to believe that [Jesus] was a god?" In response to that question, I've written on the historicity and facticity of Jesus of Nazareth, and on the reality and knowability of God. Along the way, some basic Thomistic ontology and some epistemology has worked its way into my writing. In short, the one thing that hasn't entered into my writing is a direct answer to a very direct question. The groundwork is sufficiently laid, I believe, to give a cogent answer to the question asked.

As previously noted, evidence can only take us so far in things. The Church does not teach that the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth is provable as the existence of a Creator is. That said, there are serious reasons and evidences in favor of the divinity of that particular itinerant rabbi. The present treatment will treat the data recorded in the four gospels and in Acts of the Apostles as basically historical in nature though each account is not entirely reconcilable with the others. Contradictions between them on immaterial points aren't themselves troubling because they are to be expected. Even something as trivial as a traffic accident will give rise to several testimonies contradicting each other here and there, but their existence and rough congruence is enough to establish the fact of the accident and some basic details. While presupposition of the historicity of the gospels is questioned by some scholars, it is essentially respected by the majority of historians and biblicists. When accounts of miracles are excluded, the accounts in the gospels are almost uniformly accepted. Miracles can only be excluded on philosophical grounds, rather than historical. In short, one can say a particular miracle didn't happen because miracles in general are impossible and witnesses to them are either deliberate or sincere fabrications, but not because there is no historical witness to them. But having admitted the existence of a transcendent God who interacts with the universe at least as far as creating it requires, it becomes difficult to see why a miracle would be flat out impossible. Of course, to say a miracle is possible does not mean that they are common, or scientifically explainable (they wouldn't be miracles then, but natural occurences). Of course, a miracle is quite likely very rare, even very unlikely. Otherwise, they are not noteworthy. Simply by recording them as miracles, the witnesses acknowledge their unlikeliness. While the gospels witness to a number of miracles, we will only consider one - the most important one, namely the bodily Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from death. This miracle is the most important, and therefore the most questioned and denied. But we will come back to this miracle in a moment.

The first reason to believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth is because he did not leave us any alternative. It is frequently said that he was a good and holy man, or a prophet. He himself put the kabosh on such sayings though by openly claiming divinity. One of his most dramatic claims to divinity occurs in John 8:58-59, Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple. His claim to have existed before Abraham, who was certainly born more than a millennium before Jesus, is hard to explain as anything other than a claim to divinity. Moreover to describe himself Jesus uses the Holy Name of God revealed to Moses in the wilderness, the Sacred Tetragrammaton, YHWH, which is literally "I am," in Hebrew, and which Jews never even pronounced aloud. The claim struck them as blasphemous, and so they prepared to stone him. Rather than save himself by repudiating his words, Jesus slips away. Later, after apprehending him and dragging him to the Roman governor, the charge laid against him by the Jewish elders is this:
The Jews answered him, "We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God," John 19:7. The passage notes that the governor, Pilate, became anxious as a result of their anger and his claim. The thousands of followers Jesus had gathered might very well have been stirred to rebellion if they believed him to be a deity. It seems that Jesus' enemies and the local authorities took Jesus' claim very seriously, although they clearly did not believe it.

Even if we cannot believe the claim, we must take it equally seriously. Good moral teachers, like Gandhi and the Buddha, like Confucius, do not claim to be God. For that matter, they really even claim to be good. Goodness is recognized in them and their teachings by contemporaries and subsequent generations, but everyone recognizes that to go beyond that, to claim to be God, would not be good at all. It would be lunacy (if sincerely) or deceit (if spoken in bad faith). But nobody supposes Gandhi to have been God, and Gandhi least of all.

Jesus seems several times to have made precisely this claim, both explicitly and implicitly (in the passages, for instance, in which he forgives sins, raising the question, "Who can forgive sins but God only?" Lk 5:21, cf. Mt 9:1-9). He refused to repudiate the claim when doing so would have kept followers looking for a good moral teacher from abandoning him (Jn 6:53-66). He refused to repudiate it when it would have perhaps saved his life. The claim then leaves us with two possibilities: that he was insane, or a charlatan. C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald have said that given his claim he was either a lunatic or a liar. Nonsense about him having been a nice teacher like the Buddha cannot be taken seriously in the light of such claims by anybody who believes that there is actually a God; and for that matter, it cannot be taken seriously by anyone who believes there is no God. It can only be taken seriously by someone who does not care.

But there is a third possibility, other than Jesus having been deranged or deceptive. He may, logically speaking, actually have been Divine, precisely as he seems to have claimed. The convincing proof of his divinity for his followers was his Resurrection from the dead: this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it, Acts 2:23-24. The ambiguity of the text in presenting the identity of God and Jesus is not the salient point of the passage. The key point is "it was not possible for him to be held by [death]," which asserts Jesus' divinity and takes the Resurrection as its evidence. The earliest disciples after the Resurrection believed in Jesus' divinity because of the bodily Resurrection - a miracle they certainly considered weird, even unique. Paul makes a big deal out of the importance of the Resurrection and of the large number of witnesses to it. He writes about fifteen years later to the Christians living in Corinth:

"Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast -- unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep," (1 Cor 15:1-20).

And those first Christians took their claim seriously enough. Some foolish, really foolish bigmouths will say that those first Christians, the Apostles and their disciples, didn't really believe in the Resurrection, or Jesus' claim to divinity if he did make such a claim, or even that he was really a prophet, but that those first Christians were charlatans who merely smelled a profit. They are foolish for overlooking the fact that profiteers bail when their profits slow down, and they certainly bail out or 'fess up before they are executed for their crimes. But executed those first Christians were, and before long, by the dozens and hundreds - right from the very first days after the Resurrection (cf. Acts 7 for an account of Stephen's martyrdom).

Even if we cannot believe a claim ourselves, it behooves us to give the benefit of the doubt in matters of sincerity to people who are willing to die for a claim. I take very seriously the nationalist beliefs of Japanese Kamikaze pilots for that reason. But here we have an interesting difference. The Japanese Kamikaze pilots stopped. In fact, even while they were going, they had to be given hard alcohol to keep going. But they stopped because they realized that the Emperor was scamming them. They may have loved Japan, but they realized that Japan did not love them. But for two thousand years Christians in every century have been shedding their blood rather than shed blood, and rather than deny the Lordship of Jesus, the real sovereignty of Him over them, the great love He has for them and demonstrated Himself on the Cross. Also striking is the love Christians so often show for their killers. In the account of Stephen, he makes a request to God for mercy upon his killers, even as they kill him - modelling his own dying act on Jesus'. Fanatics who die "for a cause," usually go down killing others; Christians martyrs forgive the ones killing them. There is a noteworthy difference.

This testimony is the essential duty and function of the Church. I take seriously the testimony of the Church because, while composed of human beings, and not even especially good or clever human beings, she has persisted for two thousand years, shedding her blood and testifying to the Lordship of the man Jesus of Nazareth, who while a real human being was also the transcendent creator of the universe, who died and rose from the dead, and who still lives and desires a life together with us. If she were merely wicked - launching crusades and inquisitions, burning witches and putting down peasants - it makes it all the more unlikely that such a thing would be tolerated for very long. Priestcraft isn't a compelling answer to this problem of why the peasants and kings of Europe tolerated such horrors for so long, because it takes a real idiot to endure someone making your life and the life of everyone you know intolerably miserable when you can just as easily pop him in the nose or hang him from a rope - if the Church was just so wicked, and nothing more.

Despite the great deal of wickedness in many of her members, despite the idiocy of most of her members, despite the sluggishness of nearly all her members, still she trudges on in all four corners of the world proclaiming the same central fact proclaimed on the first Christian Pentecost: "Let all... know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified," (Acts 2:36). And what's more, she has grown steadily in the midst of vicious persecutions, and where she is persecuted she has grown the most, defying all odds and expectations. I cannot think of another explanation for this literally unparalleled phenomenon except that she has an unparalleled source of power. In a weird way, the wickedness of many Christians convinces me of the lordship of their lord, because otherwise I cannot see how they could have managed from then til now. No other group has made such claims, and no other group has got such a mass of testimony.

Now, these are all reasons that the Christian faith is reasonable, but they are not proof, as I said at the start. They are reasons to believe that Jesus made such a claim, that his disciples sincerely claimed to witnessed his Resurrection, and that the Church of which they were the beginning has since continued the same message. They are not proof, but they are reasons to believe, or at leasts reasons that belief is reasonable. However reasonable, before I would believe that the man Jesus was also God, and before taking on all the consequences for how I live my life, I would want more than reasons that belief is reasonable. I would want to meet the man that I was supposed to worship, around whom I was supposed to reorganize my entire life.

And meet Him I have. In the next installment I will briefly outline the five principle kinds of encounter I have had with the Risen Lord Jesus in my own life. I may go into more detail about each one; we'll have to see. Thank you for your patience, and if I've left anything out, or made some blunder in logic, please point it out to me so that I can address the point.

1 comment:

mark said...

Thanks again, Ryan. I agree with you when you say, "before I would believe that the man Jesus was also God, and before taking on all the consequences for how I live my life, I would want more than reasons that belief is reasonable. I would want to meet the man that I was supposed to worship, around whom I was supposed to reorganize my entire life." I look forward to reading that outline. No rush tho, and no need to write more than an outline. I'll reply in more detail after I've read that. Once again, I appreciate how much time and thoughtfulness you have given to me in your replies.