Every Christmas and Easter without fail, Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report (not to mention a PBS special and a Mysteries of the Bible episode or two) will go looking for Jesus again. For secularist reporters, he has an amazing way of turning up missing. And, of course, it never occurs to our intrepid reporters to go to the Church to see if he’s there. That would be too simple. So instead they interview various academics, ideologues, visionaries and sundry theorists who are quite certain they have found the “real Jesus” hiding in some out of the way manuscript, theory or hallucinogenic mushroom. Indeed, the media find consolation in the fact that, though Jesus keeps vanishing he still can be found hundreds and hundreds of times. This year, it turns out he “really” fits the description the Jesus Seminar gives him as a wandering itinerant preacher who made murky postmodern wisecracks and never claimed to be God. Last year, he was “really” the first Marxist. The year before that, he was “really” a figment of the imagination, cobbled together from pagan myths. A few years before that, he was a manifestation of the divine principle within all men and women, no different from us but merely “enlightened.” Next year for all I know, he’ll be a Reform Party candidate with Jesse Ventura and challenge opponents to Celebrity Death Matches.
Yep, there are all sorts of explanations of who Jesus “really” is. Even in the time of the apostles, every Tom, Dick and Harry was ready to offer his personal theory about the Galilean. And that was not news to Jesus, who was perfectly aware of the various theories about him and asked his disciples to do a little sifting of wheat from chaff in the rumor mill:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:13-14)
Jesus knew there would never be a shortage of opinion about his identity. He also knew that his disciples were being entrusted with a higher office than President of the United States and therefore insisted that they not merely waffle around forever listening to the latest opinion polls. And so, he didn’t rest content with their recitation of the rumors. He asked them point blank: “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15).
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:16-17)
Jesus’ answer to Peter is about as unambiguous as it gets. He does not say, “Your fevered imagination is running away with you, Simon. Take a chill pill and stop making such a fuss over me. I’m just an ironic postmodern rabbi who is trying to immanentize the eschaton by means of various theologoumena (not to mention impress people with long words I learned from current scholarship).” Rather, he gives Simon the grand prize for the correct answer. He replies, in effect, “Yes. You’re right. I am the Messiah and the Son of the Living God and God himself has shown you that.” In short, Jesus clearly claimed these titles for himself in his own lifetime. They were not thrust upon him later by clueless buffoons who had no comprehension of his true mission. And by his life, miracles, death and resurrection, he convinced his followers of the truth of this claim. But, of course, we still hear “alternative explanations.” How do they stack up with the record? Here are some of the more popular alternative explanations:
This theory holds that Jesus was not really God, but was just a sage and moral exemplar from whom we could learn the life-transforming message that Niceness is Nice.
The difficulty with this explanation is the little matter of his claim to deity. Wise men don’t claim to be God, for they are quite aware of their own human weakness. That’s why they are wise. As the wise man Socrates said in Plato’s Apology, his wisdom lay in the fact that whereas some pretend to be wise, he knew that he wasn’t. In contrast, Jesus of Nazareth claims for himself, not only the laurels of wisdom (Matthew 11:19), but the name “I AM” which is the very name of God in the Hebrew language (John 8:58). He proclaims himself “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). He forgives sins committed against other people (just as though he were the Judge of the human race) (Mark 2:1-12; Matthew 25:31-46). He declares himself “the Son” who alone knows the Father and who alone can make the Father known (Luke 10:22; John 5:19-24). And he reasserts these claims when he is on trial for his life (Mark 14:61-62). Merely human sages, from Buddha to Plato to Maimonides to Confucius, don’t act this way. God Incarnate does.
Guru to the Jews
Lately it is popular to say Jesus’ claims to deity were intended “in an Eastern sense.” That is, Jesus was allegedly a Hindu or Shirley MacLaine devotee asserting his “God consciousness” and trying to get his dumb bourgeois contemporaries to do likewise. The theory goes that Jesus did not mean that he alone is God of Israel and Transcendent Creator of Heaven and Earth but rather that we are all parts of God if we but realize it. However, his disciples were allegedly too stupid to understand him. In fact, everybody (including dummies like Augustine, Aquinas, Edith Stein, and John Henry Newman) was too stupid to understand him until [insert fave rave New Age Prophet] finally figured it all out and told us what he really meant.
The problems with this theory are numerous, the main one being there is not a scrap of evidence to support the contention that Jesus was anything other than a Jew immersed in the Scripture and Tradition of Israel. There simply is no evidence whatsoever that he was a New Age wannabe, nor that he was a pantheist, nor that he was a Hindu. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. So far from repudiating Judaism’s faith in God the transcendent Creator, Jesus endlessly affirms that God is Lord of heaven and earth, not that he is heaven and earth as this theory asserts (Luke 10:21).He does not speak from a pantheist belief that sees God as identical with Creation; but in the utterly Jewish faith that God is Transcendent Creator, Judge and Father (Matthew 19:4; 6:14-15). Similarly, he does not say sin is unreal or that his disciples are really the same sort of being as he is if they would just overcome their false consciousness and realize it. Rather, he constantly reminds his disciples they are sinners incapable of accomplishing salvation or anything else apart from him (John 15:5). He draws constant distinctions between himself and us, with frequent reminders that we are sinful, but he is without sin; we are from below, but he is from above (John 8:1-11; 8:23). He insists that the way to life is not via self-affirmation or consciousness-raising-till-we-achieve-awareness-of-our-own-intrinsic-divinity. Rather, he insists on self-denial for his sake, who alone is one with the Father (Matthew 16:24-26; John 10:30). In short, he is not calling us to realize our own deity, but to recognize his. This again makes sense if he is God Incarnate, but not if he is a Guru.
Once the harsh reality sinks in that Jesus really does insist on our sinfulness and contrast it with his sinlessness, the modern egalitarian soul can often have what highly trained professional theologians call “a cow”. That is, some offended moderns can immediately drop the patronizing views of him as Swell Guy and Guru and seize on yet another explanation of who Jesus really is: an arrogant religious charlatan who succeeded in starting a local cult of worship round himself in the hopes of gaining gold, guns and girls under a cloak of charismatic leadership.
The problem here is that the fiercest opponents of this view are themselves anti-Christians such as Marx and Nietzsche. And their gripe against Christ was not against his alleged arrogant will to power but against his meekness, “slave morality” and “weak” counsels to turn the other cheek; counsels he clearly kept himself.
The mystery for proponents of the Arrogant Swindler View is just what earthly treasure Jesus was supposed to be after. Political glory? Riches? Having “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) and running off into the desert when people try to make him king is a funny way to get it (John 6:15). Similarly, making speeches like the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:25-60) guaranteed to repulse and offend all but the most die-hard supporters is generally not recommended to would-be demagogues. Nor is doing everything possible to conceal one’s miracles (Mark 5:43; 7:36; Luke 5:14). And above all, Arrogant Swindlers do not publicly keep the most disreputable company at the very worst of times. Surrounding oneself with men who smell like Eau du Fishbait Cologne, or with women with questionable psychological histories like Mary Magdalene, or with radicals like Simon the Zealot, or with reviled scum like Zacchaeus the Tax Collector, or with a whole raft of prostitutes, pimps, mentally ill, demon-possessed and otherwise unsavory people-this is not the way to impress constituents, gain support from Big Money or overwhelm the Big Cheeses in Jerusalem with one’s promise as a Great Man. Arrogant Swindlers are extraordinarily cautious about the impression they make with Top People.
Jesus, however, was remarkably incautious, if Swindler he was. Indeed, he seemed particularly bent on making sure that those who thought the least of him-and had the power to do something about it-would kill him. Those craving earthly power, on trial for their lives, usually haggle about what the meaning of “is” is. Jesus, however, is breathtakingly direct in a way singularly threatening to his own life:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. (Mark 14:61-62)
“Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. (Mark 15:2)
Such action points, for most people of common sense, not to a lusty brew of power, domination and lies which seeks to scale the heavens for the love of self, but to a queer and frightening honesty and otherworldliness willing to endure the depths of hell for the love of God. Once again, the evidence squares, not with the nouveau theory but with Christ’s own claim to be the “Son of the living God” who came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)
Which leaves one alternative to the Catholic explanation open:
This theory, in a nutshell, is that Jesus was a mad man who thought he was God and had some sort of strange death wish. It was, by the way, something like this theory that was adopted by his contemporaries and even by some of his family members (Mark 3:21-22). But this theory, like all the others, runs aground on certain problematic facts.
The first fact is the words and deeds of Jesus himself. For instance, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is not a compilation of insane ravings like the strange writings the Unabomber. Nor do any of Jesus’ other recorded sayings exhibit the sort of feverish monomania one associates with a lunatic. The sharp and canny jab at the elite in Matthew 23 is not reflective of madness. Nor is his quick-witted reply in the debate over paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17). Nor is the snappiness of his answer to those who wanted to stone the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). All this shows an extraordinarily balanced, lucid, fresh, ironic and even humorous mind, not a morbidly self-absorbed and psychotic one.
Indeed, even the appointment with death which runs like an undercurrent through all his words does not come off as a weird Romantic obsession. For though Jesus aims for death with unbreakable resolve he never comes off as desiring it. He weeps at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35), sweats blood on the eve of his own death and begs God to be spared (Luke 22:41-44). In short, he both hates death and submits to it, not like a nut, but like a soldier under orders. And this again squares not with the picture of a candidate for the goofy booth, but with the orthodox Catholic picture of Jesus as the Son of God who came into the world to destroy death in obedience to the Father.
This is why C.S. Lewis wrote in his excellent little book Miracles that
The historical difficulty of giving for the life, sayings and influence of Jesus any explanation that is not harder than the Christian explanation is very great. The discrepancy between the depth and sanity and (let me add) shrewdness of his moral teaching and the rampant megalomania which must lie behind his theological teaching unless he is indeed God, has never been satisfactorily got over.
That difficulty gets even knottier when we pass from examining Jesus’ claim to deity to the great miracle that established that claim: his resurrection. For the problem of explaining this colossal miracle is even more overwhelming than the problem of finding alternative explanations for his claims of deity. It is upon this miracle the apostles hung all their hopes, their good news, and ultimately their lives. As St. Paul said,
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. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
Quite literally everything in Christianity depends on the resurrection of Christ. If it did not happen, then the whole of the Christian faith is a complete waste of time. But, of course, the resurrection of Christ is a huge claim, demanding considerable reasons for believing it. So it is well to ask, “If the announcement of the resurrection is allegedly bogus, how do we account for the disciples who make the claim?”
The cheapest way to account for them is to declare them fanatics who hysterically hallucinated the whole thing. This, in either nice or nasty ways is the most common “explanation”. Nasty ways of saying it can be found on almost any atheist web site, written by people who are refreshingly candid in their hatred of the Faith. Nice ways of saying it are generally promulgated by guys like John Dominic Crossan, who sweetly and kindly informs us with the greatest simulation of reverence that the body of Jesus was eaten by wild dogs and the hysterical apostles ran off into the world inspired by the impulse to tell us “The Christ Event Likes You.”
Personally, if forced to choose, I’ll take the refreshing candor of the embittered atheist over the puling doubletalk of the “Catholic” scholar who couches his apostasy in nice language so as to not lose a comfy position at the trough of Catholic academe. But happily, I am not forced to choose because as with most cheap things, these “explanations” give you what you pay for. And the evidence to back up this claim of apostolic hysteria and delusion is mighty skimpy.
Consider: The apostles actually appear in the record as a group of people who, so far from being wild-eyed fanatics, are pretty slow on the uptake. Again and again, Jesus groans in frustration at them, “Do you still not understand?” (Mark 8:21). He continually rebukes them, not for their fanatical faith in him, but for their oxen dullness and cloddish failure to trust him even a little bit. So far from leaping into wild dervishes of faith, the disciples often fail to grasp even the simplest teaching and show a positive resistance to some of the harder ones (Mark 8:16; Matthew 16:22). They are ambitious in clumsy and crude ways (Mark 9:33-34). They are chauvinists toward foreigners, women and children (John 4:27; Matthew 19:13). And they are chickens who abandon the one they love at the moment of his supreme crisis (Mark 14:50). There is not enough imagination or mental instability in the little finger of even one of them, let alone all Twelve, to work themselves into a lifelong delusion about the Risen Christ.
It is this unflattering picture of the disciples which also makes it difficult to believe yet another theory: that the apostles were ingenious liars who faked the resurrection and circulated the lie of the gospel thereafter in order to found a cult with Jesus as the ostensible object but themselves as the real Honchos. Just compare them with real liars and cult leaders like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, or Jim Jones. None of these carefully incorporated into their official preaching and literature a vivid record of their own failures. Yet through the apostles’ own preaching we have a carefully preserved record of their tremendous and glaring faults. That is why the betrayal of Christ by Peter, the ambitious squabbles, the chicken-hearted cowardice and the brainless incomprehension of the apostles was canonized as the very word of God by the people they converted.
Ingenious liars would also dab correction fluid on Christ’s last words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). If you are out to deceive, it looks bad when your God figure says this sort of thing. Nor is it likely a liar trying to whip up a fictional deity would have Jesus say “Why do you call me good? No one is good-except God alone” (Mark 10:18) or “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”(Matthew 24:36) or “Who touched me?” (Luke 8:45). Nor would a clever liar say of his fake God figure “He could not do many miracles there, except lay hands on a few sick people and heal them” (Mark 6:5). If you are in the bogus cult founding biz, you want to steer clear of apparent confessions of imperfection, weakness and ignorance. Only if you are an honest witness do you record such apparently embarrassing details.
And these honest witnesses say they saw Christ Risen, not a hallucination nor a ghost nor a survivor of torture. Moreover, these honest witnesses not only died for this claim, they lived long lifetimes of separation, hardship and suffering for it.
“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks us, as he asked those first witnesses. If these people are the honest, healthy people they so obviously show themselves to be and they say-in fact over 500 of them say (1 Corinthians 15:6)-“We saw the Risen Christ”, how do we answer? The sanest answer was given by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says He is a poached egg-or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Nothing has really improved on that insight since the most skeptical disciple of them all-St. Thomas-got over his doubts and exclaimed in wonder and belief to his Risen Master: “My Lord and my God!” Nor has God’s word changed for us, who live still in the afterglow of that second morning of Creation-Easter morning-when Jesus said to Thomas and to every one of us, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:28-29).