The Existence of Jesus Christ

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There is one thing I have discovered–that those who do not wish to accept Jesus as the Christ will go as far as to deny even atheist scholars’ claims that He lived from around 4 B.C.E.-29 C.E. in ancient Palestine. One recently claimed that only a branch of scholars influenced by Christian apologetics accept the existence of Jesus. My sense is that someone who is ready to deny the vast majority of scholarship, not only Christian, but also atheist, agnostic, and Jewish scholarship, is unlikely to be persuaded by a blog post. I will summarize the evidence–first apart from the gospels:

Both Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger (in his letter to the Roman emperor Trajan, 112 C.E.) mention Jesus as the founder of Christianity and that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. These are the sure references to Jesus in extrabiblical literature of the second century. There is a reference, though later edited by Christians, to Jesus in Josephus, a first century Jewish historian.

St. Paul, writing around 54 A.D. in I Corinthians, mentions the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. His letters all presume the existence of the historical Jesus only 25 years after his crucifixion. In addition, the four gospels, which may or may not have been written by the traditional authors–and that does not matter–give detailed descriptions of Jesus’ life–and all were written in the first century A.D. Despite differences in detail (which we also find in descriptions of Socrates, whose existence no one doubts, by Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes), which are to be expected in multiple accounts of any person’s life, most historical details fit the situation in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime. Matthew and Luke made use of Mark and possibly a hypothetical document called Q (for Quelle, the German word for “source’), they also made use of oral tradition dating back to those who knew Jesus. The amount of time from Jesus’ life to the New Testament writings is incredibly short by standards for most religious figures such as Gautama Buddha or Confucius. Jesus’ existence is as well attested as the existence of most of the historical figures studied from the ancient world.

There is a great deal of pseudo-scholarship out there that denies Jesus’ existence, usually by means of assertion rather than argument. Mainstream scholarship of all creeds or lack thereof accepts Jesus existence–if we denied it on the critics’ grounds, we would have to deny the existence of Plato, Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, and other ancient historical people. The similarity of the Jesus story to dying and rising god stories proves nothing about Jesus existence. The critics are inconsistent–they demand absolute, quasi-mathematical proof for Jesus’ existence, but not for other historical figures they accept as having existing.

Why fly in the face of so much evidence? Probably denial of the obvious is an act of the will rather than an act of the intellect. People who want no part of Jesus find it easier to push him out of their world if they accept the view that he never existed. They are not interested in evidence, but in sophistry that may work with many people who are unaware of the evidence. I remember C. S. Lewis’ scene in The Last Battle, when Aslan throws Jewels at the dwarfs who reject him–they claim that the jewels are straw. Some individuals are so hardened that they refuse to listen to any evidence regarding Jesus, even for a position accepted by all serious Biblical scholars in the academy.

Our “Shadow Side”

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English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Ch...

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian on Ash Wednesday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was in high school, I did something that deeply shames me even today, thirty-three years later. A classmate and someone I knew from church asked me to take his tray since I was going to put mine up. The proper thing to do would be to say, “Sure, I’ll be happy to,” and put the tray up–it is a small thing, but as Jesus said, a cup of cold water given in His name is of eternal importance. Out of nowhere I said, “Why should I help you?” and walked away. I had no excuses. To this day I cannot explain my actions. I suppose that I was on the low end of the social totem pole and this individual perhaps was a bit lower–so I did a cruel, mean, and hateful thing to make myself feel better. I do not know if the person remembers it–in any case I have no idea where that person lives and that person may not remember what happened so long ago. I wish I had apologized at the time–too late now.  Psychologists have referred to a person’s “shadow side” that seems to come out of nowhere. Superficially that sounds profound–that at a subconscious level we have a cruel side that can break through into consciousness unexpectedly. I suspect, however, from the standpoint of Christian theology there is a simpler explanation–we are fallen, sinful beings. A natural love of self, which is good, turns into selfish pride, which is evil. The tendency to pump up one’s own pride by demeaning another person is part of that tendency. We have free will to resist, but we do not. We all sin, we all fall short of God’s glory. Thus, we all need God’s grace. If we have a shadow side, it is on the very edge of our consciousness rather than being far from it–we are responsible for our evil thoughts and evil deeds. Even a shadow side is a side, not separate from the self but part of the self.

I know that I cannot–and neither can any of you reading this post–overcome the temptation to pride on our own. It requires God’s help to do so. Even then, we will often fail. I suppose that is why the Catholic Church in all its branches affirms some kind of intermediate state between death and resurrection even if it is not called “Purgatory.” That prideful tendency to cut down others that reveals itself in cruelty when one’s guard is down must be, with God’s help, drawn out of our system. In my own tradition (Anglican Catholic) the Eucharist is the way to improve while in this life so that the next time an opportunity to help someone arises, I will help gladly and without complaint.

This is Ash Wednesday–“Remember, O man, that dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” Keeping that mortality in mind focuses us to be motivated to seek something beyond ourselves, our Creator God, to help us live a life in love and service to others and live with God and our loved ones (and, I believe, plants and animals too) in eternity. Hopefully all of us can put on that armor of light during this Lenten season.

On Christmas

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Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1

Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think my favorite Christmas special is the Charlie Brown Special, in which Linus reads from the Gospel of Luke–the story of “what Christmas is all about,” and at the end the children sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The theme of the show was against the commercialization of Christmas. That trend has continued to the point that for retailers, “Christmas” begins in September. That is a shame. For Western Catholic Christians, Christmas begins December 25 and continues until January 5, and then there is the Feast of the Epiphany (the coming of the Wise Men) on January 6. The time before Christmas is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, with the focus being on the Second Coming more than the first.

For orthodox Christians of whatever stripe, Christmas is about the coming of God into man, in which God Himself, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was born as a baby in a manger over 2000 years ago. The notion of a being who is fully God, fully man is an offense to many in the intellectual classes–Kierkegaard recognized this in his writings. The belief seems absurd. Yet the Christian faith teaches the coming of the eternal into time, the infinite into the finite, the God-man. Because of that, sin and death are overcome and human beings have not only the hope of salvation from sin, but of salvation from death. Salvation is far more valuable than anything than Santa Claus can bring! I have no problem with children believing in Santa Claus as long as they are taught the true meaning of Christmas–God, born like the rest of us, as a newborn baby who grew up, struggled as we do with temptation, taught a “more excellent way,” was crucified, died, and was buried, and was raised from the dead. Now God the Son remains incarnate, fully God, fully man, for all time. It is an incredible message, that is for sure. I believe it to be true. For those readers who also believe it to be true, consider the wonder of it and thank God for the gift of Himself for us.

As a Traditional Anglican Catholic Christian, What do I Believe?

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The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most ven...

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of the Virgin Mary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The American philosopher William James, in his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience,  pointed out that a belief has to be a “live option” for a person in order for that person to seriously consider that belief. Other beliefs are closed options–and everyone, whether or not they are willing to admit it, have closed some options to serious consideration. As a traditional Anglican Christian, a member of the Anglican Catholic Church, there are certain beliefs I have about the nature of reality that close off other beliefs:

I believe in one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons in one substances. He is a personal God, both transcendent of the universe and immanent in it, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, all-loving. He is the personal ground of all existence and the source of all value.

I believe that God created the universe and thus that the universe is contingent.These two beliefs rule out pantheism. I will not consider it as a live option–period. I am open to versions of panentheism that preserve Christian orthodoxy if such could be found.

I believe that Jesus Christ is fully God, fully man, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made, being of one substances (homoousias) with the Father.” Jesus is qualitative different from the Buddha and the great Hindu teachers. Although non-Christian religions can and do contain truth and Christians can learn from them, ultimately Christianity has the fullness of the truth. Although non-Christians can be saved, everyone who is saved is saved through Jesus Christ.

I believe that Jesus came to earth as “very God of very God,” yet fully human as well. I believe that he taught in Palestine in the 30s of the so-called “Common Era,” that he was crucified, died, and was buried, and “on the third day rose again.” That is, I believe Jesus’ body was really dead, cold, dead by any standard, and had been dead for three days–then he was raised from the dead–literally. No Bultmann or Tillich or Crosson game playing allowed. I believe the literal bodily resurrection of Christ.

I believe that Jesus “ascended into Heaven,” though I do not fully understand what that means. I accept it through faith. He remains fully man and fully God, and is literally present in the Eucharist (the Mass or the Lord’s Supper) in both His human and divine natures. This takes place in a church in the apostolic succession that holds to catholic and orthodox teachings. What God does with other churches’ Eucharists is up to God, but His real presence is guaranteed in the Catholic Church (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, some Old Catholic groups, and the Anglican Catholic Church and some continuing Anglican groups).

I believe that we are born with the capacity to sin, a capacity that will inevitably be actualized once someone is of the age of accountability (which will vary from person to person). “Original sin,” the capacity to sin, is a reasonable concept. “Original Guilt,” Augustine, Luther, and Calvin’s idea, is not.

I belief in salvation through Christ that is normally given at the point of baptism.

I believe that one day we will be raised in physical, bodily form, from the dead–but with glorified bodies, physical bodies under the complete control of the spirit.

I believe in Purgatory as a place of continued sanctification after death, in Heaven as an actual place of eternal life in the presence of God, and in Hell as a possibility, praying that if possible God might save everyone, but realizing this may not happen.

I believe in the traditional moral teachings of the Catholic Church, including:

The duty to perform corporeal works of mercy.

The sinfulness of hatred, wrath, jealousy, and envy.

The sinfulness of adultery and of premarital sex.

The sinfulness of abortion at any stage of pregnancy.

The sinfulness of practicing homosexual activity.

The sinfulness of most wars.

The sinfulness of ALL torture.

The need to hate sin for its destructive power but still loving the sinner.

I am a Christian, certainly not a good one, whatever that means. Lord knows I have violated some of the Ten Commandments, but that is where God’s grace comes in. Grace is not a totally private matter but is mediated through the Catholic Church; Protestants may receive grace as well because their church is imperfectly in fellowship with the Catholic Church and retains the sacrament of baptism. If anyone asks why I try to put other systems of belief in a Christian framework, it is because I think there is something to those beliefs, and I am trying to find a niche for them in Christian orthodoxy. Any belief that is not able to be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church is a false belief, period. Am I closed-minded to some options? You betcha. So is any reader of this blog.

Mixed Feelings about “The Exorcist Files”

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A woodcut from 1598 shows an exorcism performe...

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The Discovery Channel will be premiering a series, The Exorcist Files, which will consist of dramatizations of actual exorcisms conducted by the Roman Catholic Church as well as commentaries from both exorcists and theologians. Depending on how the program is presented, such a series can have both good and bad aspects. On the good side, the series may convince some people that a spiritual world exists. Open-minded agnostics may read further about the phenomenon of exorcism and come to believe in God, a necessary preamble to the Christian faith. This is probably the motivation the Vatican had in cooperating with the series producers. In a radically secular society, it is sometimes necessary to convince people that the world is more than a space time matter-energy framework.  Also, if the exorcists are shown to be successful, this will reveal the Roman Catholic Church’s ability through those in Holy Orders to expel demons in the name of Jesus Christ.  People curious about the ancient churches’ (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican) use of exorcism may be converted to those bodies–and others may find conservative Protestant groups more amenable. Another positive effect could be that people believe in the reality of evil and will take its threat more seriously.

Overall I believe that the positives outweigh the negatives, but there are negatives. Some people who watch the series may falsely believe that Satan‘s influence or demonic influence in temptation lessens one’s responsibility for sin. This is false; even if one source of temptation is demonic influence, an individual always has free will to resist the temptation and is responsible for the sin if he doesn’t resist. Another danger is that individuals will become so fascinated by demonology that they will make it an idol that dominates their lives and interferes with their relationship with God. Others may be so attracted to demonology that they are drawn into the darker aspects of the occult. However, these dangers pale in light of the massive secularization, first of Europe from the 1789 French Revolution onward, and the United States today, where regular church attendance has dropped into the high 30% range and where there is a growing movement toward agnosticism and toward outright atheism. If The Exorcist Files can do anything to reverse such secularization, then more power to it.

Christ without Christianity? The Case of Anne Rice

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Anne Rice

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Anne Rice says she is tired of the hypocrisy of the church and has decided to leave Christianity, but keep Christ. This attitude is so typically American since it reflects the influence of radical individualism on American religion. With the end of the hegemony of the Anglican Church after the American Revolution the Second Great Awakening began in the last decade of the eighteenth century; it continued through the first decade of the nineteenth century. It was this movement that made the United States a national characterized by individualistic Evangelical Protestantism. The religion of the frontier emphasized individual salvation and an individual decision for Christ. It is a short step to invite people, as Southern Baptists often do, to “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.” It is an even shorter step from this position to claim that a relationship with Jesus is wholly personal and that institutional Christianity is, at best, optional.

There are a number of difficulties with an overly individualistic religion. First, it ignores the fact that human beings are intrinsically social creatures–as Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a political [i.e., social, M.P.] animal.” To separate Christ from a Christian community is to separate Christ from the social aspect of human nature. Second, individualism encourages doctrinal chaos. If each individual accepts Christ on his own terms, then each individual can mold Christ into his own image. Often, this image is of a Jesus who tells us to “love each other and be nice to each other.” But as Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas has noted, if all Jesus said was for us to be nice to each other, “then why the h..l did they crucify him!?” In part, Jesus was crucified because of claims like he made in the Gospel of John, where He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” This statement would have been clear to a first century Jew–Jesus was claiming to be God. It was that claim that helped get Jesus crucified, not some general message about love.

Anne Rice has made no secret that she does not agree with all the statements of the Roman Catholic Church regarding sexual ethics. Rice believes that homosexual behavior is morally acceptable, a position opposite to that of the Roman Catholic Church. If she really believes that the church’s moral teaching is wrong, then the only way for her to have integrity and follow her conscience would be to leave the church. But that does not imply that the church’s teaching is incorrect; a good natural law argument can be made against the moral acceptability of homosexual practice, and it is clear that the Biblical witness as well as church tradition opposes homosexual practices. As far as Rice’s claim that church leaders are hypocritical–this is no different than any other organization, secular or religious. It is not a good reason to leave the church.

Sometimes I believe that the increasing secularization of American society might be a blessing in disguise for the Christian Church. Many Americans go to church only because it is socially good for them. If it becomes less socially obligatory to go to church, those such as Rice, who do not wish to abide by the church’s precepts, can leave. Then the church will be like it was in the era before Constantine in the fourth century, when those claiming to be Christian were serious about their faith.

Although not everyone accepts Biblical authority, the New Testament is the earliest written witness to Jesus’ teaching and the beliefs of His earliest followers. From a Biblical point of view, it makes no sense to say “Jesus yes, the church no.” St. Paul says that Christ purchased the church with His own blood; so if one rejects the church, one rejects Christ’s blood, a key part of the Christian doctrine of redemption. In addition, St. Paul calls the church “the bride of Christ,” so to reject the church is to reject the church’s husband, Christ Himself. One cannot separate a head from the body anymore than one can separate Christ, the Head, from the Church, His body.

Anne Rice may say she is a follower of Jesus–and in some ways, she may be if she loves her neighbor as herself and focuses on loving God with all her heart, soul, strength, and mind. However, part of the experience of loving others, including loving difficult people, is in the context of community. What better place to exercise such love than the community of sometimes flawed, sometimes exacerbating, yet often loving, Christians.