Final chapter!! In the previous chapter, Keller outlined a case for the existence of a transcendent but somewhat abstract God. But in this final chapter, he makes a case for the validity of the Christian story and view of God by examining Christianity’s central figure, Jesus. If you’ve missed any of my posts from the rest of this book study, click HERE to catch up!
- Christians believe that the clearest representation of God’s existence and revelation is centrally located in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. Therefore, examining the validity of this figure, his character, and his claims is the best way to outline a case for Christianity.
- Evidences for the historical record of Jesus
- “There is virtual unanimity among historical scholars that Jesus himself was a historical figure.” (230)
- The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke John) were written just 30-50 years after Jesus’s death. This fact lends credibility to the argument that these accounts are eyewitness histories, not ancient legend. Eyewitnesses were still alive when these accounts were written and it’s unlikely that these stories would have endured if numerous people who were actually there refuted the facts contained in these gospel accounts.
- The gospels “do not show signs of having been shaped to fit the needs and sensibilities of the cultures and communities of the time.” (231) The gospel writers don’t downplay or whitewash embarrassing or culturally aberrant details, so either the gospel writers are doing a terrible job of “selling” their story to the audiences of their day, or those details are actually true.
- The striking character of Jesus
- “In him we see qualities and virtues we would ordinarily consider incompatible in the same person.” (233)
- majesty and humility; justice and mercy; self-sufficiency and utmost reliance on his heavenly Father; “tenderness without any weakness; boldness without harshness…unbending convictions but complete approachability,” truth and grace. (233)
- “He welcomed and befriended the impure and called them to follow him. He did not fear that they would contaminate him; rather, he expected that his wholesome love would infect and change them.” (234)
- “In him we see qualities and virtues we would ordinarily consider incompatible in the same person.” (233)
- “The Wisdom and Freedom of Jesus” (234)
- “We see in him perfect flexibility and consummate wisdom in his relationships. He never treats people other than in the way they need, and he always knows perfectly what that is.” (235) At times he is “blunt and confrontational,” and other times “patient and gentle.” (235)
- Jesus was free from prejudice and the racial and gender barriers of his day. He associated with the outcasts and the nobodies, but also with the rich and powerful. He “exhibited great freedom in reinterpreting the meaning of many of the Hebrew Scripture’s laws and precepts.” (235) And he was free from fear, constantly telling people to “fear not.” (235)
- The Claims of Jesus – Jesus is the only founder of a world religion who was both a brilliant teacher and who claimed to be God himself. Neither Buddha, Muhammad, nor Confucious claimed to be gods themselves, but Jesus does. There are five ways to deal with this conundrum: (237)
- 1. Say, “who cares” and move on. Even if you are skeptical, it seems unwise to ignore such an important historical and religious figure that has endured for centuries. (237-238)
- 2. He was just a great teacher of wisdom and that’s it. “Great teachers” don’t claim to be God, that they alone should receive worship, or that they are sinless. So Jesus was either deranged, a false prophet, or who he said he was, but his claims are too radical for him to merely be “a good teacher.” (238-239)
- 3. He wasn’t really divine, his followers inserted that stuff after the fact. Again, the accounts of his life were written shortly after, and eyewitnesses could refute the claims if that wasn’t what actually happened or what Jesus actually claimed. Also, for Jews of the day, their theology strongly resisted any kind of idea that God would become human, yet as far as we can tell, the early Christians/former Jews “immediately began to worship him as the resurrected Son of God.” (241) It’s unlikely that so many just radically changed such deeply rooted beliefs in such a short period of time without some genuine catalyst.
- 4. He was mentally ill or a fraud. It would be difficult to read the brilliance of Jesus’s teachings and interactions and conclude that he was not mentally sane. It’s also unlikely that a movement built on a fraud would endure with such potency over centuries of time.
- 5. Accept that perhaps he was who he said he was.
- One of the most extraordinary aspects of Jesus’s life was his resurrection. Keller provides a few evidences for this and says, “as long as you do not begin with an imposed philosophical bias against the possibility of miracles, the Resurrection has as much attestation as any other ancient historical event.” (242)
- The problem of the empty tomb – There seems to be little doubt the tomb was actually empty, so the question is more about what happened to the body. It could’ve been hidden, but that would mean his disciples suffered and died for something they knew to be a hoax.
- Eyewitness accounts – “Paul is able to say in a public document about twenty years after the event that there were hundreds of eyewitnesses who saw Christ raised from the dead,” (243) and that most of these eyewitnesses were still alive. Again, the fact that such public proclamations went generally unrefuted gives credibility to the claims. Also, the Gospel accounts all say that the first eyewitnesses of the risen Christ were women. In a culture in which a woman’s testimony was worthless and inadmissable in court, the Gospel writers had every incentive to exclude this fact to give their stories more credibility, but they didn’t. In fact, “early pagan critics of Christianity latched onto this and dismissed their testimony as being that of ‘hysterical females.’ Therefore, there was no reason that women would have been reported as the first witnesses unless they were.” (243)
- Impact of the Resurrection on Jesus’s followers – “Despite the fact that they were poor, few, and marginal, they developed a confidence and fearlessness that enabled them to spread the Gospel gladly, even at the cost of their own lives. Some have thought that the disciples stole the body, but people do not die for a hoax…We must come up with a historically plausible alternative explanation for why thousands of Jews would overnight come to believe that a human being was the risen Son of God and then go out and die for their faith.” (243-244)
- Keller acknowledges that this chapter “does not make the full case for believing the Christian faith. A good number of very powerful objections to the Christian faith have been posed over the years, and they require thoughtful, extensive, and well-worked-out responses.” (244-245) Some of these include the presence of evil and suffering in the world despite a supposedly loving and all-powerful God, the record of God commanding holy war in the Bible and the violence promoted in the name of Christianity throughout history, the teachings on judgment and hell, and the Bible’s relationship to science. Keller covers all of these topics in his more extensive work, The Reason for God, but there are also many other resources available if you would like to explore any of these objections.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Keller sketched some great lines of reasoning in this chapter for how we should evaluate the claims and character of Christ. Again, if Jesus was a real historical figure (which there doesn’t seem to be any doubt about), then we must decide what to do with him. Do I believe he was who he said he was, or not? And why?
But it may be good to take one step back and ask, do I even know who he was or what he said?
This is an important question for both non-Christians and Christians to deeply consider, and one starting point is to just pick up a Bible and start reading.
If you’re not a Christian, I’d encourage you to find a Bible, look at the table of contents, and read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Or if you don’t have a Bible you can read online at https://www.esv.org/Matthew+1/. The four gospels are the first four books/sections of the “New Testament” of the Bible. They were written by four different people and present four shades and perspectives of Jesus’s life story and teachings. But taken together, they will provide a good (if sometimes confounding) picture of who Jesus was and what he said.
A few notes on that encouragement…first, know that the four gospels do not exist in a vacuum, and they are very much connected to and in harmony with the rest of the Bible. So without an understanding of that harmony, don’t expect everything you read in the gospels to make perfect sense to you. But take one step at a time, and these four books are a good place to start. Second, the Bible cannot be fully understood in a vacuum, so find a Christian friend who knows and loves the Bible to help you process what you’re reading, or you can contact me and I’ll do my best to walk you through it.
Christians, my advice is really the same to us. From my own limited experiences with the American Church, I’d say that most professing American Christians haven’t read through the gospels in their entirety more than a few times in their lives, let alone the whole Bible. Perhaps this is part of the reason why our lives often look nothing like Jesus’s, or at least why they don’t look any different than any of our non-believing friends and neighbors. Do we really know the teachings of Jesus? Do we really understand them, not as isolated, pithy sayings but in the context of the rest of his teachings, and in the context of God’s whole story from creation to new creation? Do we seek to have these truths and words sink deeply into our minds and hearts, allowing God to transform us through them? Are we connected with other Christians who will mutually encourage and sharpen us in this journey? Yes, this process of knowing and living Jesus’s words and examples is a slow and lifelong marathon, but sadly, it seems like many of us aren’t even in the race.
This certainly applies to me at times, so I pray that God would make Jesus and what he’s done so beautiful and so precious to us that we would desire to study and love his words.
Next week, I’ll close out this book study with the epilogue and closing thoughts! Thanks for journeying along with me!
- If you’ve read the chapter, were there any quotes or sections that were particularly thought-provoking to you? Any questions, comments, or rebuttal on what’s been covered in this post?
- Have you ever taken the time to read the four gospel accounts in the Bible? Why or why not?
- If you’ve read the gospels, what are the most compelling and striking aspects of who Jesus was or what he said? What are the most difficult?