The Shortcut – by Dr Desmond Ford

Mar 19, 2013 1250

Is there a shortcut for solving the riddle of life? Is there some sure way of testing such pessimistic assertions about human life as Bertrand Russell’s when he declared, “Man is nought but an eddying speck of dust, a harassed driven leaf?” or Sir Arthur Keith’s pronouncement in answer to the question, “What follows this life?” ― “Nothing. Life goes out like a guttering candle.”

There is a shortcut. There is a simple way of solving all of life’s profundities, those enigmas that must needs be settled before effectual living can begin. If Christianity is the truth of God on belief of which the salvation of his creatures depends, we would expect that God would have prepared evidence sufficiently simple and conclusive to convince the sincere seeker of average intelligence.

The most direct route through the labyrinth of religious and philosophical controversy is to answer aright the question, What was the real nature of the man who appeared two thousand years ago in Palestine claiming to be a ransom for the sins of the world?

The New Testament makes the startling claim that our relationship to Jesus Christ is a matter of life and death. “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that bath not the Son of God bath not life” (1 John 5:12). The same book offers Christ as the Great Physician for the ailing human race, the One who alone can cure all maladies. And interestingly enough, the testimony of the ages has been that he has been a physician without peer, as far above all other men as the sun is above the earth.

It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world ideal character which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue, but the strongest incentive to its practice The simple record of these three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists.[ref]William Lecky, cited by Vernon C. Grounds, The Reason for Our Hope (Chicago, 1945), p. 34.[/ref]

He represents within the religious sphere the highest point, beyond which posterity cannot go; yea, whom it cannot even equal, inasmuch as everyone who hereafter should climb the same height, could only do it with the help of Jesus, who first attained it. As little as humanity will ever be without religion, as little will it be without Christ; for to have religion without Christ would be as absurd as to enjoy poetry without regard to Homer or Shakespeare. He remains the highest model of religion within the reach of our thought; and no perfect piety is possible without His presence in the heart.[ref]David Strauss, quoted in Ibid., p. 32.[/ref]

Let us inquire as to whether this impact by Christ has been mere chance or the inevitable result of his being just what he claimed to be. Christ is the only person known to history who has claimed divinity and yet who has been accounted sane by the human race. The founders of other religious systems such as Mohammedanism, Buddhism and Hinduism did not claim to be God incarnate. Here Christianity differs from all other religions. Christ spoke and lived as a Being whose dwelling place was eternity, and he alone of all mankind has convinced multitudes of all ages, races and walks of life that his claims to divinity were genuine.

Seekers for truth should not begin with secondary questions, such as difficulties in the Old Testament, or the origin of evil, or the problem of pain. The truth of Christianity stands or falls with the person of its Founder.

At this point we must stop to inquire regarding the historicity of the New Testament documents and then about him Who is at the center. Did Jesus Christ live? Do we have the substance of what he said? How reliable are the New Testament documents? These questions must be answered for all who consider the claims of Christianity seriously. Are we to side with Bultmann who claimed we do not know a single sentence that Christ ever spoke, and with those rare unbelievers of earlier centuries who denied that Christ was a historical figure? If not, why not?

Did Christ Live?

The battle over the historicity of Christ has been fought and won. No historian of note today denies it. The evidence from ancient documents has been marshalled by F. F. Bruce in his Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament. Sir J. G. Frazer, no friend of evangelical Christianity, declared “The doubts which have been cast upon the historical reality of Jesus are, in my judgment, unworthy of serious attention.” He cites the hostile evidence of Tacitus (Ann. xv. 44), and the younger Pliny (Epist. x. 96) as confirmatory of the Gospel record. In the fifteenth edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, the many independent secular references to Christ are referred to and then this conclusion is drawn:

These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds by several authors at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.[ref]Encyclopedia Britannica, 3:145.[/ref]

In addition to the twenty-seven documents of the New Testament, we have comments from Tacitus (Roman historian of the first century), Josephus (Jewish contemporary), Lucian of Samosata (second-century satirist), Suetonius (early second-century Roman historian), Pliny the Younger (governor of Bithynia early in second‑   century), the Jewish Talmud, and the Church Fathers, Polycarp, Eusebius, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin, Origen, Tertullian.

The Authenticity of the New Testament Documents

The manuscript evidence for the authenticity of the N. T. is far in excess of that which can be marshalled for any other document of antiquity. Over 5,300 Greek manuscripts of the N. T. , 10,000 Latin Vulgate and more than 9,300 manuscripts of other early versions are in our hands in contrast to the next most authenticated work which is Homer’s Iliad and which has but 643 manuscripts surviving. Furthermore, in no other case is the time interval between the original work and the earliest extant manuscripts so brief as in that of the N. T. For example, the famous John Ryland’s papyrus containing verses from John’s gospel is dated at approximately 120 A. D. Says Hort “in the variety and fullness of the evidence on which it rests, the text of the N. T. stands absolutely and unapproachably alone among ancient prose writings.”

As for the original N. T. text, the words of Westcott and Hort sum up that situation:

If comparative trivialities such as change of order, the insertion or omission of the article with proper names, and the like are set aside, the words in our opinion still subject to doubt can hardly amount to more than a thousandth part of the N. T.[ref]The New Testament in the Original Greek (New York, 1811), 1:2.[/ref]

The Reliability (Historicity) of the Gospel Records

But what shall we say about the reliability of these ancient records about Christ? How historical are the Gospels? In answer to Bultmann and those sympathetic with him we would mention the dictum of Dodd that genius never comes out of a committee. Those who wish to repudiate Jesus as the author of the words put in his mouth in the Gospels have to settle for a group as unique as the central figure they reject. Not only are we challenged by the Gospels to consider this story of a miracle, but there is also the miracle of the story. It would take a Christ to invent a Christ. His words come to the unprejudiced heart today as the genuine expressions of One who was equal with God. And those words match the majesty of the events associated with Christ, and both together harmonize with the Old Testament prophecies and types. To quote the reformers of the sixteenth century, the words of Jesus are self-authenticating, they are attended by the witness of the Spirit to every humble listener.

The Honesty of the Gospel Writers

There are grave psychological problems for those who accuse the Gospel writers of being liars. The evidence is that they ran the risk of martyrdom for their “lies,” and while men often lie to get out of trouble, few men lie in order to get into it. Consider the many evidences of the frankness of these men who chronicled the life of Jesus. Paley summarized some of these centuries ago in his Evidences of Christianity. He cites, for example, the comments of Lardner, Beattie and Duchal as follows:

Christians are induced to believe the writers of the Gospel, by observing the evidences of piety and probity that appear in their writings, in which there is no deceit, or artifice, or cunning, or design. “No remarks,” as Dr Beattie hath properly said, “are thrown in, to anticipate objections; nothing of that caution, which never fails to distinguish the testimony of those who are conscious of imposture; no endeavour to reconcile the reader’s mind to what may be extraordinary in the narrative.”[ref]The Work of William Paley (London, 1852), pp. 378-379.[/ref]

For examples of the candor of the N. T. writers consider the following:

  1. There is no collusion among them, for they appear to differ in many details. This applies not only to the ministry, but the death and resurrection of Christ.
  2. The account of the cross is staggeringly unadorned. There is no attempt to underline the cruelty of the death of Christ, or to lay blame on specific contemporaries. There are no exclamations of horror or contempt. We are just given the plain, unvarnished facts about the most significant event in all history.
  3. The same is true of the resurrection. Christ is never presented as appearing to any but those who believed in him. What an impressive story it could have made to have had Christ visit Pilate or Caiaphas in the dead of night! While we are told he spent six weeks on earth after his leaving the tomb, we are only given an account of a tiny percentage of his deeds and words in that time.
  4. Again, of similar ilk is the fact that Christ is always presented as speaking on practical matters effecting conduct rather than esoteric matters of interest such as the nature of heaven.
  5. Many of the “hard sayings” of Christ almost defy invention. Those anxious about audience reaction would have omitted them. Such sayings as moving mountains by faith, and eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of God abound and are never fenced about by elaborate explanation.
  6. Again and again we read of failures among his own followers. At his resurrection he is met by unbelief repeatedly, and even the closing verses of Matthew refer to that fact. John the Baptist is said to have had his doubts and sent inquirers to Jesus. His own relatives thought he was mad (see Mark 3:21).
  7. While John the Baptist is said to be the greatest of the prophets, no miracles are ascribed to him, yet many are credited to Christ.

Will Durant in his The Story of Civilization says of the Gospel writers:

They record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed―the competition of the apostles for high places in the kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity …. No one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them.[ref]Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, (NY, 1944), 3:357.[/ref]

The Gospels Written by Christ’s Contemporaries

The skepticism now associated with the name of Bultmann was common last century when many suggested that the N. T. accounts of Christ may have been written at least 100 years after his death, enshrining the imaginary sayings of some dead Messiah. But more recent scholarship discounts all such theories. Observe the words of W. F. Albright:

…In my opinion, every book of the N. T. was written … between the forties and the eighties of the first century A.D. . .[ref]”Towards a More Conservative View,” Christianity Today, 18th January, 1963, p. 3.[/ref]

And Bishop John A. T. Robinson has recently exploded his literary bombshell entitled Redating the New Testament, even more conservative in its dating than Albright. These men thus provide us with an answer to a question which has long plagued some scholars: “Why does not book after book of the N. T. refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70?” Yes, Jesus Christ lived, and the N.T. records are authentic documents.

Consider now the words of Christ as though we, too, had lived two millenniums ago in the ancient city of Jerusalem. In imagination let us join the crowd that listened to the melodious yet earnest voice of the former Carpenter of Nazareth. His words are breathtaking: Pointing to the orb blazing in the heavens, he says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). In thus comparing himself to the sun of the natural world, Jesus claims to be the Author and Preserver of all life and of all truth, the Fountain of energy, strength and knowledge, of all things good. On other occasions he claimed―

  1. That “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to him (Matthew 28:18 RSV).
  2. That he had complete control over nature (Mark 4:39,41).
  3. That the angels of heaven belonged to him (Matthew 16:27).
  4. That people should love him above their own family or their own life (Matthew 10:37,38; Luke 14:26).
  5. That he was the Savior of mankind (Luke 19:10).
  6. That he could forgive sins (Matthew 9:2).
  7. That he will be the final Judge of all men (Matthew 25:31-46).
  8. That he existed before Abraham, and, that he enjoyed glory with God before the world was (John 8:58; 17:5).

Here, then, are some of the claims of Jesus, claims believed in so implicitly that he was prepared to risk not only his own life, but the lives of his friends as they, too, advocated his gospel. He foretold that his followers would be persecuted and put to death, and yet he intimated also that such a fate was a light thing in comparison with the importance of establishing his sovereignty over the world.

Christ’s claims even survived the test of apparent failure. On the cross, after being rejected by his own nation and religious leaders, he could still behave as King of eternity, promising heaven to a penitent criminal and interceding as calmly for his enemies as though he were walking the pavements of a country town on a sunny day.

Furthermore, it would appear that this Man’s deeds matched his words. No man ever acted as this Man acted. Could one flaw be found in the fourfold narrative, the whole picture would be blemished and Christ’s claims dissipated. No such flaw exists. Had Christ never lived, it would have required his equal to invent the unique story of his life. Despite his insight into the nature of man and his understanding regarding truth and morality, he himself seemed never conscious of personal guilt. Here Jesus of Nazareth differed from all other good men. Thus it has been said of Christ that if he was good, then he was God, for good men do not lie regarding themselves.

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