Get ready for the annual Christmas assaults on Jesus. Last year, an atheist group sponsored a billboard in New York City's Times Square proclaiming "Dump the Myth!" beneath a statue of Jesus on the cross. We will undoubtedly see more of the same again this holiday season. To prepare, let's discuss these readers' questions: Did Jesus really exist? How do we know he really performed miracles? How do we know he rose from the dead? How can his physical death and resurrection atone for our sins?
Did he exist? Roman historian Thallus the Samaritan (AD 52) thought so and attempted to explain the darkness of his crucifixion as a solar eclipse. So did Mara bar Serapion (after AD 70), who criticized the Jews for "executing their wise King." So did Tacitus (AD 120), who described Jesus' death in detail. So did Pliny the Younger (AD 112), a Roman administrator who described early Christian worship of Christ as God. So did the Talmud (an early compendium of Jewish theology), which describes his death. There is no doubt that Jesus Christ was a figure of history.
Did he really perform miracles? Critics in the Jewish Talmud thought he did, and described him as a "sorcerer." The Gospels detailing his ministry were written at a time when many eyewitnesses were still alive and able to refute their descriptions.
Did he really rise from the dead? His corpse, the single greatest evidence enemies of the faith could claim, has never been found. Those who announced the resurrection did not go to the wrong tomb: the Romans guarded his tomb, which was owned by Joseph and seen by women who witnessed his burial. His disciples did not overpower the Roman guards, make 500 people think his corpse was alive (1 Corinthians 15:6), keep their secret without a single defection, and then die for a lie.
He did not fake his death (the spear which pierced to his pericardium alone would have caused his death), appear through locked doors (John 20:19), then high jump into heaven at the ascension. The authorities did not steal the body — they had no motive for doing so, and would have produced it as soon as Christians began proclaiming the resurrection. The empty tomb still proclaims the resurrection, 20 centuries later.
How can his death and resurrection atone for our sins? Sin separates us from our holy God, leading to physical and spiritual death: "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 3:23), for "the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:20). God could forgive our sin and remain just only if someone else paid the "wages" or debt we owed.
None of us could do this for each other, since we have each sinned (Romans 3:23) and owe this debt ourselves. Only a sinless person could die in our place. This is precisely what Jesus did for us: God "made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). On the cross, God transferred our guilt to his guiltless Son (Hebrews 4:15), so that his death could pay our debt and make possible our salvation.
I hope these very brief answers are helpful this morning. (For more, please see my essay "Why Jesus?") Let's close with this fact: what we know about Jesus doesn't matter nearly as much as knowing him. John Paul II was right: "It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you." Knowing Christ and making him known is the purpose of life. Are you doing both today?
Jim Denison, Ph.D., is a subject matter expert on cultural and contemporary issues. He founded the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, a nonsectarian "think tank" designed to engage contemporary issues with biblical truth in 2009 and is the author of seven books, including Radical Islam: What You Need to Know. For more information on the Denison Forum, visit www.denisonforum.org. To connect with Dr. Denison in social media, visit www.twitter.com/jimdenison or www.facebook.com/denisonforum.
Publication date: November 1, 2013