The second issue: Did Jesus claim to be God?
Another hypothesis for the origin of Christianity is that Jesus did exist, but that he never claimed to be anything more than a rabbi or a guru. This view claims that the belief that He was divine was a later development added to the historical Jesus at a later date. At the very least, as Dr. Yamauchi already pointed out (see Part 1), even without considering a single New Testament writing, we can be sure that Jesus was worshipped as God by the beginning of the 2nd Century.
It requires time for legends to develop. As stories get passed from generation to generation, the details change over subsequent tellings, and after several generations even the mundane can become something miraculous. And not just with fishing stories ("the fish was this big!").
But, was there enough time for the historical Jesus to develop into the proposed legendary Jesus? The extra-biblical testimony demonstrates that Jesus was being worshipped as a God by the early 2nd century… less than 100 years after his death. It would be difficult for a legend (especially of this magnitude) to develop this quickly, however given the right circumstances it is not impossible. But is there any other evidence that suggests that Jesus was being worshipped as God any earlier than this?
Look at 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.
Please remember that 1 Corinthians was undisputedly written by the historical figure that we know as the Apostle Paul. This letter to the Corinthian church was written sometime between AD 54-55; that is, no more than 25 years after the supposed Resurrection event. In this passage, we have what is widely recognized as the earliest Christian creed. Linguists point out that the presentation of this material is formulaic, and it starts by saying in verse 3: “what I received I passed on to you….” This material does not originate with Paul, but is “pre-Pauline” or before Paul.
What follows are four “that” statements, where the content of what Paul received is recounted with the same formula: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.” This creed, which professes belief in the historical Jesus and His physical resurrection from the dead, can be dated within less than 10 years from the supposed events… perhaps being circulated as early as the same year of the events.
Even 25 years would be insufficient time for legendary development of the magnitude that Jesus was God in the flesh and that He was raised from the dead to occur. Think about it: Ray Kroc, the man responsible for the explosion of McDonalds into a worldwide phenomenon died in 1984, just less than 30 years ago. You think we could start a movement that claimed he was resurrected from the dead and that he appeared, in the flesh, to hundreds of people? You think anyone would believe us?
What about Marvin Gaye? Ansel Adams? Muddy Waters? Jack Barry? What about Andy Kauffman… think we could convince the world that he rose from the dead after his death a few years ago? Even if we could convince a few people… there are too many people alive today who were alive then that could refute our ridiculous claims. Yet somehow this Resurrection story of Jesus convinced a great multitude to believe it, and not only to believe, but to be so convinced that by AD 64 (34 years after the supposed event), there were what the greatest historian of Rome, Cornelius Tacitus, referred to as a multitude of Christians in Rome.
Tacitus states in The Annals, book XV, 44:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
These converts were so convinced of the resurrection, within 34 years of the supposed event, that they were willing to admit their faith even when such admission was met with the “most exquisite tortures.” And as the persecution continued and increased, the belief exploded. How could they be so sure?
Romans 1:3-4, also undisputedly a Pauline epistle, written between AD 57-58 contains another “pre-pauline” creed, which was in circulation prior to being written by Paul 28 years after the supposed resurrection event. Romans 1:3-4 says this: regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.
For Paul and the earliest believers, Jesus was declared the son of God with power through the Resurrection. They were so sure that he was rightly worshipped as divine because he did what no mortal could do: he came back from the dead. Paul adds to the creed that he received in 1 Corinthians 15:8, saying of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances: and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Paul was so convinced that Jesus was God - that Jesus actually rose from the dead - because Jesus appeared to Paul after he was crucified, died, and was buried. In a later letter to the same church at Corinth, our 2nd Corinthians, Paul describes the lifestyle that he has endured for the gospel. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul is using harsh words for those in the church at Corinth who are accepting false apostles. These false apostles come to the church with boasting of their own personal goodness, and then expect to benefit from the generosity of the Christians in Corinth. So, Paul “boasts” to the Corinthians about himself.
Read 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. Paul gained nothing but hardship for his belief that he personally witnessed the Resurrected Christ. I don’t have enough faith to believe that Paul did all this for a lie that he was perpetuating himself. It is unreasonable to believe that Paul and all of the other Apostles, who were martyred for their faith that Jesus was God in the flesh, proven by His miraculous Resurrection from the dead, were all dying for something that they were not sure of. It is simply unreasonable to believe that multitudes of individuals, this close to the supposed events themselves, would be so sure that the Resurrection occurred — sure enough to admit their belief even when such admission would result in imprisonment, torture, and death — unless they were certain that this Jesus was who he claimed to be: the promised Messiah and God in the flesh.
After examining the evidence, it seems that it is unreasonable to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. It is also unreasonable to conclude that Jesus never claimed to be divine, or that the resurrection was nothing more than legendary development when we see that belief in these things can be traced to the very beginning of the Christian movement.
The best explanation of the phenomenon of Christianity is also the simplest explanation: the Resurrection actually happened. There is no denying that this conclusion may sound far-fetched at first since people do not come back from the dead, but it is precisely the occurrence of such a unique historical event that best explains how so many people, so quickly after the shameful execution of a Jewish rabbi as a criminal and a blasphemer, could so willingly lay down their lives in order to make sure that the news spread as far as they could take it.
Many try and cast doubt on the Resurrection because of its implications. If Jesus was just a man, then his philosophy and teachings hold no more weight than anybody else’s. But if He was God incarnate? That’s another story.
Scoffers at the resurrection are nothing new. They’ve been around since the beginning. Luke records a sermon made by the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts. Acts 17:30-32 says this: In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject."
Scripture tells us that God has given humans proof that Jesus speaks for God by raising Him from the dead. But the message of coming judgment and the need for all men everywhere to repent and turn to God for salvation is not a popular one. And like those who heard the Apostle Paul preach, people today still scoff at the Resurrection.
Others, like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg simply relegate the Resurrection to a matter of faith. They say it doesn’t matter if it was an historical event or not. But that’s not what Scripture says. Scripture doesn’t relegate the Resurrection to a matter of faith. On the contrary, it uses it as proof of our faith.
I can stand before the entire world and say that I fully trust everything that Jesus and the Bible say about faith, morals, and how to live my life - even when it doesn’t make sense to me - because I can trust Jesus, because He is the only Man to come back from the grave.
I can trust the Bible, because Jesus said Scripture cannot be broken, and He proved that His word is true through the Resurrection.
I can believe that Jesus is the sole means of salvation, and that whosoever trusts in Him will never be forsaken, but will have everlasting life because Jesus said so, and He proved that His word is trustworthy by coming back from the dead.
How about you? Do you see it? The Resurrection is not an article of faith, but the foundation of our faith. If Jesus died and stayed dead, he was just another guy with a philosophy, and as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19: And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
Instead, we praise God because Christ has been raised. Instead, we praise God because His word is true. Instead we praise God because even when we didn’t deserve it, God sent His Son to take the penalty for our sins, our violations of His commandments, in order to bestow upon us His overwhelming and wonderful grace, and the promise of eternal life with Him. Hallelujah.
Friends, Christianity is not a religion of blind faith, but of sure faith in the One who demonstrated His divinity by triumphing over the grave. It was this same Jesus of Nazareth when asked, “What shall we do to do the works of God?” who answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
What do you believe about Jesus? Do you believe against reason that He is nothing more than a myth? Do you believe that He was a smart guy with a decent philosophy that was elevated to divine status after his death, even though such beliefs arose instantaneously by historical standards? Or do you believe that He was the Savior, come down to earth, in order to reconcile sinners with God? The Bible promises that no impure person will enter heaven. That means that one lie, one impure thought, one careless cuss word is enough to disqualify you from entrance to heaven. But the Bible also says that Jesus will wash away every sin for those who recognize their need of a Savior, and who trust in Him alone for their salvation. So what about you? What are you trusting in?