A sixty-seven year old proud atheist friend of mine recently interjected the sweeping statement “all religion is irrational” into one of our conversations. I replied, not with a direct rebuttal but, instead, with the unexpected question, “who is Jesus Christ?” He replied, “I don’t know.” If I were to ask some of you why I pulled that question out of left field you might also reply with a bewildered “I don’t know.” So keep reading. Please.
If you have never really pondered the question “who is Jesus Christ?” then you simply cannot consider yourself to be a committed intellectual – at least not yet. Let me say that in a different way: if you have never given serious thought to the true identity of the most important individual ever to walk the face of the earth then you are either a) suffering from severe intellectual hernia, or b) possessed of an intellect impaired by a fear of knowing the true answer to the question.
Let me begin by defending the assertion that Jesus Christ was the most important individual ever to walk the face of the earth. 1) We divide time using the date of Jesus’ birth. 2) More books have been written about Jesus than anyone else in recorded history. Case closed. Now we can move on to the issue of fear and intellectual curiosity.
The options we are given for understanding the identity of Jesus are so limited that no one who is truly intelligent can be behaving rationally if he just avoids the question altogether. Take, for example, my friend who has lived 2/3 of a century on this planet without so much as attempting to work through the options. I don’t want you to be one of those irrational people so let’s get to work.
When addressing the question of Jesus’ identity, there are only four available options. Anyone who has ever read C.S. Lewis or Josh McDowell knows that Jesus was either: 1) A legend, 2) a lunatic, 3) a liar, or 4) the Lord.
The idea that Jesus was merely a legend, as opposed to someone who actually lived, is simply not an option we can take seriously (at least not for long). Independent historical accounts, by that I mean accounts written by non-Christians, are enough to put this option to rest. Jesus is cited by 42 sources within 150 years of his life, and nine of those sources are non-Christian. By contrast, the Roman Emperor Tiberius is only mentioned by 10 sources. If you believe Tiberius existed, how can you not believe in a man who is cited by four times as many people and has had an immeasurably greater impact on history? You can believe that if you wish. But then you risk forfeiting any claim to be considered rational.
Nor is it rational to consider Jesus to have been a lunatic. Perhaps you could maintain that belief if you’ve never read the Bible. But how can a person claim to be educated if he’s never read the Bible?
World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky once entertained the notion that Jesus was a mere lunatic. But, then, in the early 1970s, as an atheist and a communist graduate student, he examined the words of Jesus for the first time. He was traveling to Russia on a ship and wanted to brush up on his Russian. But all he had with him to read (that just happened to be written in Russian) was a copy of the New Testament. And so he read. And he was transformed.
Marvin recognized immediately that the words of Jesus represent a profound level of moral understanding that rises above anything else that has ever been written. Read for yourself the words of Jesus. Then read the words of Charles Manson. Try to convince me that they are one in the same – merely two lunatics who mistakenly thought they were the Messiah. You have a right to that opinion. But you don’t have a right to be considered rational if you cannot detect a glaring difference between the teachings of Christ and Manson.
So, now only two options remain. And this is where the real trouble begins. If we call Jesus a liar (who falsely claimed to be God) then we cannot also call him a great moral teacher. One cannot be both. But many look at the final option of calling him Lord and panic. To go there means to accept belief in the supernatural. And surely that couldn’t be rational. Or could it?
Science has taught us a lot since the Bible was written. For one thing, we know that the universe had a beginning. It is expanding, it is finite, and it was not always here. Put simply, Carl Sagan was wrong. In fact, he was dead wrong. The cosmos is not all that is or was or that ever will be. It had a beginning. It is irrational to dismiss the obvious implications of this: that the universe was caused by a supernatural force existing outside of space and time.
People have to let go of the idea that the natural world is all there is because that is not where the science leads us. It instead leads us away from the philosophical commitment to only considering naturalistic explanations for the things we observe in the physical universe. This also leads us to one very important question: if a supernatural force was great enough to create the universe could the force or being not also reenter creation? And another related question: is the force or being responsible for creating life not also able to conquer death?
Arguably, the resurrection is a pretty small accomplishment in comparison with the creation of the universe. But that doesn’t mean it happened. The evidence must be judged on its own merits. I recommend that serious intellectuals start here.
Of course, you could just keep avoiding the question while judging others to be irrational. But there’s no avoiding the plank in your own eye.