To doubt is human. Thoughtful people question their opinions and beliefs. Our brains are made that way. So whether we are believers or unbelievers, we will sometimes wonder if we’ve got it right.
Learning to live with uncertainty is part of being human. And especially these days, having doubts seems to be part of being a young christian. So many find the need to deconstruct, and maybe reconstruct, their faith.
So how should we work through doubts about Jesus?
Where do we start?
Whenever we feel doubt about our faith, I think it is helpful to run over our beliefs in our minds. We can check each aspect, each step, to see if we think it all still stands up, or if it needs to be reviewed. It helps to get input through books, podcasts and videos, to keep our understanding refreshed.
In this way, our beliefs can constantly adjust to new information and ideas. If our belief in Jesus is based on truth (as I believe it is) our core belief should be reinforced by this process and not destroyed.
Reviewing belief in Jesus
Most of what we know about Jesus comes from the 4 gospels. Scholars have identified a number of sources that contributed to these biographies. These, together with references to Jesus in other documents from the first and early second century, give us about a dozen early and generally independent sources that provide facts about Jesus.
So historians, whether christian, other religion or no religion, all generally agree that Jesus was a real person, and the gospels tell us some real facts about him. This raises three questions:
- Should we care? Is this relevant to us?
- How much of the gospels are real facts?
- Can and should we believe in Jesus from the evidence they offer?
1. Is Jesus relevant today?
There is no contesting that Jesus is an influential person in world history. Christianity is the most followed religion in the world. Christians have had a big impact on the world, for good and evil. It can be plausibly argued that we wouldn’t have our modern western culture, ethics and values, without christianity. Modern science grew in a christian environment.
That doesn’t make christian belief true of course, but it does mean it can’t be ignored.
Christianity makes enormous claims. It says there is a God, and he offers eternal life to humans and a purposeful life here and now. Many people say following him has given great meaning and comfort in their lives.
And christianity is a religion built around forgiveness. God is willing to forgive us our foolishness, mistakes and selfishness, and he expects us to be forgiving of others. Imagine a world where that happened!
In risk management terms, the positive consequences of belief are so great that it is a great risk not to at least investigate the truth of Jesus.
So if he told the truth, Jesus is indeed relevant today. But did he tell the truth?
2. How much of the gospels are real facts?
I feel we have to reject both extremes on this question.
On the one hand we can reject ultra-scepticism about the gospels as history. The scholars tell us that the gospels are written as historical biographies, a genre which aimed to tell the story of a person’s life based on historical facts. A writer in this genre was permitted to be creative with minor details in the story, but the main facts had to be true.
The bare bones, at least, of the gospel outline of the life of Jesus, are confirmed by other sources. So there is no good reason to reject that outline as basically factual, as for example, New Testament scholar and non-believer Bart Ehrman makes clear.
So the gospels contain at least some important historical facts, maybe a lot.
But on the other hand, we can reject ultra-fundamentalism. There are anomalies and inconsistencies in the gospels. Some think they can all be satisfactorily explained, others think there are real doubts about the facts. But as it stands, these problems make it difficult to accept that the gospels are without error.
Do the problems prove the gospels are false?
The apparent problems with the gospels aren’t as big a deal as often made out. Even if we take out those parts historians find doubtful, there is still a good historical basis for these broad facts, as almost all historians agree:
- Jesus was a travelling rabbi or teacher, who lived in the early first century,
- his teaching that God was invading history through him, in order to began a new movement he called the kingdom or God, was radical, hopeful and life-changing,
- he was known as a healer and miracle worker, whose apparent miracles were unprecedented in the ancient world,
- he had followers (disciples) who lived closely with him and (with one exception) believed in him and his teachings and his divine authority, and continued to do so for the rest of their lives.
- he was executed by the occupying Roman authorities, but his followers believed they had seen him alive after he died.
But can we believe in the miracles? It is possible to fool people into believing what they want to believe. Or to write miracles into a story long afterwards. Could either of these have happened?
The sheer number and variety of Jesus’ apparent miracles make it harder to think he could have fooled people into believing them. Too many people saw too many different amazing things. The disciples saw them up close, again and again. And too many people experienced remarkable healings and undoubtedly re-told the story over and over again.
And while we can see development in understanding from the earliest gospel (Mark) to the latest (John), and the inclusion of some apparently non-historical material, the gospels were written too close to the events for so many legendary stories of this nature to have been added. Historians are satisfied that the miracle stories were part of the accounts of Jesus’ life right from the beginning, however we might explain them.
The resurrection is the hardest to believe of all, of course. Dead men don’t come back to life, do they?
Well not normally, but the whole point of the gospels is that Jesus wasn’t a “normal” man. It is hard to accept the resurrection, but it is hard to believe any of the alternatives too. Like the miracles, the resurrection was part of the Jesus story from the very beginning, so it wasn’t a later legend as some claim.
The most commonly suggested alternative is that Jesus’ followers were so distraught by his death they suffered cognitive dissonance and experienced hallucinations, or had emotionally based visions of him. Some find this plausible, but I don’t. All of them?
In the end, I don’t think we can rule out the supernatural in a story where God is said to be acting in human history. We come to the Jesus story with good reasons to believe that there is a God, whose creation explains the origin of this world and the design of the cosmic laws that against all natural probability provide the conditions for life to evolve. A God whose creation of the human race explains our consciousness, our ability to exercise free choice, and to express ourselves rationally, and the universal belief in an objectively true moral code.
So, unlikely as it is, the resurrection is believable if we believe he was God’s agent on earth, more believable than the alternatives of hallucination or fraud. And it’s appropriate too. For if Jesus really was acting on divine authority, then it seems quite right that God would raise him. It’s the “right” ending for the story of his life.
So how much can we rely on the writers?
There doesn’t seem to be sufficient reason to distrust the writers. They had no motive to falsify the story. Certainly, their lives would have been easier if they weren’t Jesus-followers.
And they were concerned to tell their story truthfully. Luke in particular seems meticulous in his gathering of facts – Maurice Casey (another historian who was not a believer) described Luke as “an outstanding historian by ancient standards”.
So we can reasonably conclude, I believe, that the gospel writers really believed that what they wrote was true. Jesus was a remarkable man who did remarkable things and made a strong impression on those who heard him. The gospel writers, or the people who shared their stories with them, had spent large slabs of time with him, and his life rang true to his teachings..
They spoke the truth as they knew it. But did he tell the truth? Did he know the truth?
3. Did Jesus tell the truth about him and God?
Do you find it possible to believe that Jesus was a charlatan?
Just as the gospel writers must have been writing what they truly believed, so it seems Jesus really believed in the truth of what he said. We can read his sayings, we can watch him relating to powerful people and social nobodies and be impressed:
- He spoke against powerful people who abused their positions and treated the common people with disdain.
- He spoke up for the ostracised, the downtrodden and the poor.
- He treated women with far more respect and inclusion than was common in his day.
- His moral judgment often took truths already known and taught by the rabbis and sharpened them and applied them with insight and compassion.
- He freely offered forgiveness and acceptance to social outcasts and those whose choices had put them offside with the religious establishment.
- He kept this up even when he knew it would lead to his death.
Whatever else may be true, surely that man wasn’t being deceptive.
Only two alternatives seem feasible
All of this leads to one of two possible alternatives.
Either he was sincere but mistaken …..
Some scholars see Jesus as another in a long line of apocalyptic teachers and prophets. He saw the sorry state of captive Israel and believed it was his role to lead a peaceful revolution culminating in God’s decisive intervention into Jewish affairs, to free them from Roman rule.
His ethical teachings called Israel to a new standard in preparation for that coming age, when God would rule Israel, and as his chosen people, they would rule the world to the benefit of all.
But, despite his sincerity, his force of character and his noble agenda, on this view he was mistaken. He was executed and it all came to nothing. But the disciples, led by the hyperactive Paul, reinvented Jesus’ teachings and began the christian religion.
That’s one alternative.
….. or he knew the truth and spoke it
He was this type of apocalyptic teacher and prophet, but he was more. He was son of God, the divine king coming to earth to establish God’s kingdom on earth. He was beginning a revolution of love and peace. He called his followers to live out those values and so demonstrate and participate in that kingdom.
He was executed, but that somehow wasn’t a setback, but the doorway to the new kingdom. God raised him to life to demonstrate that one day all would be raised.
He calls people to this day to join in the peaceful revolution, receive forgiveness and healing, and then offer the same to others. One day, everything will be put right.
That’s the other alternative.
Making a choice
So, despite our doubts and uncertainties, it seems to me it all adds up.
Believing in Jesus makes more sense of the facts than any other choice.
Following Jesus makes more sense of our lives than any other choice.
The Jesus of much modern christianity (conservative, judgmental on unbelievers, uninterested in justice for the poor, supporting the status quo) isn’t believable to me. That Jesus doesn’t seem to be true to history. But the Jesus described by the gospels is eminently believable (to me) and worth following.
I hope these musings assist you in thinking through your own response. Please leave a comment or send an email if you have anything to say.
- Jesus – links to a series of pages on what historians tell us about Jesus.
- Impossible things for many christians to believe any longer – but maybe we don’t have to.
- Living the way of Jesus – what if we tried to live up to his exacting teachings?
Graphic: Free Bible Images.
“The sheer number and variety of Jesus’ apparent miracles make it harder to think he could have fooled people into believing them. Too many people saw too many different amazing things. The disciples saw them up close, again and again. And too many people experienced remarkable healings and undoubtedly re-told the story over and over again.”
Can you provide any more documentation for this apart from the Bible ?
We know how rumours can get distorted and embellished the more they are told. The lack of written evidence apart from the works of Jesus disciples doesn’t make the accounts wrong but they don’t confirm that these acts actually happened either. The disciples may have wanted to exaggerate Jesus’s acts to create more authority for themselves. If the accounts are true, then Jesus was no ordinary man
This doesn’t detract from the bulk of Jesus’s teachings in regards to how people should treat each other, but I think it’s possible that he was an ordinary man with extraordinary ideas for his time.
I guess it depends on what we want to believe.
Hi, here’s how I see it.
1. Historians don’t generally disallow the gospels. Most ancient literature (probably most literature of any age) had a viewpoint, religious, political, or whatever. Of course historians don’t just believe what any source says, they try to extract the historical information from the exaggerations, legends, etc. So to them there are sources both within the NT and external, and they look to see whether the sources support each other. Of course each historian has a bias, in this case opposed or accepting of miracles, but they generally try to reduce that bias.
2. Most historians I have read accept that Jesus was known in his day as a miracle worker, and that the accounts we have are exceptional, or tell of a greater number of miracles than for other people of the day. Here are a couple of quotes (I will link to more):
Bart Ehrman (agnostic atheist): “Whatever you think about the philosophical possibility of miracles, it’s clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them.” and “Jesus …. probably did have some pretty amazing encounters with people believed to be demon-possessed … his ability to cast out demons was seen as a characteristic of his ministry. …. On numerous layers of our traditions Jesus is said to have healed those with various ailments”
Maurice Casey (agnostic): “Jesus himself was the most successful exorcist and healer of his time”.
Geza Vermes (secular Jew): “A powerful healer of the physically and mentally sick …”
Gerd Thiessen and Annette Merz (christian): “Nowhere else are so many miracles reported of a single person as they are in the Gospels of Jesus.”
3. The only reasonable contemporary reference I know of comes from Jewish historian Josephus, who was born about the time Jesus died. He wrote that Jesus “worked startling deeds”. Now most scholars believe that this passage of Josephus was added to when the original was copied by later christians, but most also believe this phrase is authentic and refers to miracles.
4. So what we are left with is a bunch of unique claims that pass historical tests, but won’t pass philosophical or believablity tests for many modern people. Like you say, it may be that “it depends on what we want to believe”.
I have written about this topic on my other website. This page may be the most comprehensive: Did Jesus really perform miracles?