Why I believe in God (4): Jesus, God among us
First of all, a word of recapitulation. None of us argues her way to faith, but after we’ve come to faith we may well find that we have to justify it to ourselves. But how?
- Because we recognise that the Apostle Paul was absolutely right when he spoke of a sense of deity being indelibly inscribed on every human heart.
- Because of the bankruptcy of the alternatives to belief in God. It is hard to believe that before there was a world there was absolutely nothing; and equally hard to believe that before there was a world there was some eternal, inanimate, self-existent ‘matter’ which exploded to produce the beautiful and ordered universe science explores today.
- Because God has left his footprints not only in the physical creation but in human history, and particularly in the story of his people, Israel. The Exodus and the other great moments of Old Testament history remind us that God not only made the world, but remains engaged with it. People actually met him and spoke with him.
But one moment in this engagement towers above all others. In Jesus Christ, God took our nature, personally entered the history of fallen humanity, and lived a life which, while fully and authentically human, shone with the glory of the divine. For the present we can take his human-ness for granted. Jesus knew hunger, thirst and weariness; he wept; he washed his students’ feet, and from his wounded side there flowed human blood and human fluids. All this the Apostle John, a Jew who would have recoiled with horror from ascribing divinity to any human being, had seen at first hand. Yet that is precisely what he saw in Christ: the glory of the divine (Jn. 1:14). This ‘man’ was the Eternal Word who in the Beginning was already with God, and who was God, and by whom everything that was, and everything that lived, had been made (Jn. 1:1 – 3). In him, God had not merely formed a creature in his own image. He had united himself to human nature in such a way that in him God dwelt among us, to be seen and heard and conversed with and travelled with and eaten with. Yet, even as he went about doing all these ordinary human things there shone through his life a glory that was ‘matchless, God-like and divine.’
But can such a faith explain itself? Yes, and the explanation begins by homing in on the one most obvious fact about Jesus Christ. He was utterly unique, and that doesn’t mean merely that the portrait handed down to us by his followers is unique, but that the portrait could never have been drawn had not the man himself been unique. Mere evolution could never have produced him, nor could the human gene-pool; and it is hard to imagine him as no more than a speck from the fall-out of the Big Bang. He joins us and becomes one of us, but he is not ‘from here’. He is ‘from away,’ from the outside, and he comes surrounded by the aura of the supernatural. He has powers and qualities and characteristics that transcend human potential, and by possessing and exercising them he is living proof that behind time and space there is another order of reality, invisible, eternal and all-powerful. We look at him and see One than who, in the language of Anselm, a greater cannot be conceived. No other man can compare with him; and no god could excel him. Our hearts say that less could not satisfy, nor could more be desired, and we gladly adopt the adoring words of the Apostle Thomas, the erstwhile doubter, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (Jn. 20:28)
What are those qualities of the historical Christ which are at the same moment so reassuring and so compelling?
First, his extraordinary power. He was not, of course, either the first or the last to work miracles. Moses, by the mere touch of his staff, divided the Red Sea. Elijah brought a widow’s son back to life. Elisha cleansed the Syrian general, Naaman, of his leprosy. The apostles Peter, John and Paul performed multiple signs and wonders. But the fact that prophets and apostles possessed such powers poses no threat to the uniqueness of Jesus. At one level, indeed, they serve the same purpose as his, underlining the same fundamental truth that beyond and above ‘nature’ there is another order which can command obedience from every force in the natural world. From this point of view, Moses, Elijah, Jesus and the apostles have a common ministry. Just as there is continuity between the prophetic message of Jesus and the message of God’s Old Testament spokesmen, so his miracles were in complete harmony with those of men like Moses and Elijah; and, taken together, they were in complete harmony with the fundamental premise, ‘In the beginning, God.’ The power that created the universe would have no problem turning water into wine (Jn. 2:5 – 11).
Yet, just as Jesus’ message sheds new and even revolutionary light on the nature and purposes of God, so his miracles have a glory all their own. The difference appears most clearly when we compare them with those performed by his apostles. They, too, healed the sick and even raised the dead, but they did so in his name; and whereas Moses, for example, acts only on God’s instructions, Jesus acts on his own initiative. He speaks, and it is done, just as in Genesis God spoke ‘and it was so’. The storm on the Sea of Tiberias is calmed, the dead Lazarus comes forth, the lame walk, the deaf hear and the blind see; and these are not isolated or occasional instances. They are daily occurrences, spontaneous, effortless and imperious, and they are never mere wonders designed, like the tricks of the magician, only to impress. They are acts of benevolence, as befits the character of one who is the incarnation of the love and compassion of God. But at the same time, they are reflections of an invisible order capable of modifying the natural world at its will.
Yet, having said that, ‘order’ is maybe not the right word, because it suggests an impersonal regime, whereas the truth here is supremely personal. The invisible ‘order’ is none other than God, the eternal living and loving Intelligence who gave the universe birth, but never surrendered control of it; and Jesus acts not merely as one who represents God but as one who is God, though in servant-form. It is not his actions alone that evoke wonder. He himself evokes wonder: ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’ (Mt. 8:27). We are taken back to the memorable account of a storm at sea in Psalm 107:23 – 30. The mariners, disoriented and scared out of their wits, cry to God, he hears them, and he calms the storm and hushes the waves of the sea:
The storm is changed into a calm
at his command and will;
So that the waves which raged before,
now quiet are and still. (Psalm 107:29, Scottish Metrical Version).
It is this same person, this same God, we meet in Jesus Christ. Disease, death, demons, the very deep, do his bidding; and their compliance, recorded in the pages of history, is a standing reminder that ‘nature’ is neither self-originated nor self-controlling. Just as it is history, not philosophy, that establishes my existence, so it is history, not philosophy, that is God’s great witness; and it follows from this that the way to establish the faith of our children is not by introducing them to so-called theistic proofs but, as the Psalmist reminds us, by telling them what we ourselves have heard from our fathers about the glorious deeds of the Lord and the wonders that he has done. (Ps. 78:3 – 4). The proof that ‘there is a god’ lies in in these glorious deeds, not in recondite arguments accessible only to the philosophically literate.
Holiness and purity
But Jesus was not only unique in power: he was also unique in the holiness and purity of his life. Pilate could find no fault in him (Jn. 18:38), and later critics have fared no better. In fact, it is by the standard that he himself set that he is judged and, even then, no one has yet been able to suggest any way in which he could have been better. What makes this all the more remarkable is that he lived in the full glare of publicity, and amid all the hustle and bustle of human life. John the Baptist chose the life of a desert solitary, and some of Jesus’ later followers have likewise sought refuge from pollution and temptation in the seclusion of monastic life. But Jesus grew up in the despised town of Nazareth and spent the decisive years of his life under the scrutiny of his fellow Galileans and amid the sins, sighs and sorrows of Jerusalem. He saw the magnificence and ruthlessness of power, he knew the pressures of poverty, he endured the head-turning dangers of adulation and fame, he faced torture and death. Yet he takes no short-cuts, makes no compromises, seeks no revenge and never pleads that he is too busy to help. He fears no man, he sides up to no man, and to this day the challenge he himself laid down remains unanswered: ‘Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?’ (Jn. 8:46)
History has seen nothing like it. He breaks the continuum of human selfishness, ambition and earth-bound obsession. He is tested by friend and foe, beset by threats and traps, endures provocation and treachery, encounters humbug and hypocrisy and yet, while no sin is condoned, no sinner is crushed, and no need is ever ignored.
All this can be summed up in ‘the sinlessness of Christ’, and the phrase is correct as far as it goes. But it is a negative, serving only to tell us what is not there. But what of the positive? What are the outstanding features of Jesus’ moral and spiritual life?
First, his love of God. It is important to be specific here. Love, vague, ill-defined and autonomous, is the great mantra of our age: worshipped almost as a deity in its own right. But it wasn’t simply the fact that he loved that made Jesus unique. Fallen humanity is perfectly capable of love. A man can love a woman or love his family or love his country or love his co-religionists or love those who share his ideology and his political programme. But how much evil has been perpetrated in the name of such love! It has served as a cloak for infatuation and lust, bred corruption and murderous jealousy, destroyed families, fostered genocide, condoned flagrant evil, and lit the torch of religious persecution. In the case of Jesus, however, love was first and foremost the love of God; and he loved him uniquely and unfailingly, with both the profoundest reverence and the easiest familiarity. He saw God as his Father and himself as his only Son, but he saw him, too, as his righteous Father and as his holy Father; and love therefore meant obedience. He loved doing God’s will, he gave him the glory for all the mighty acts of his own ministry, he spoke as God told him to speak, and he accepted lovingly the ‘cup’ the Father gave him to drink, even though he knew that that cup meant all the horrors, physical and spiritual, of the cross. Here there is utter consecration, a life given over entirely to pleasing God; or, more boldly, to giving God pleasure.
Of course, Jesus is not the only one who has loved God. The saints of the Old Testament loved him (Ps. 116:1); the apostles loved him; all Christians love him. But in all these cases love stutters and falters. There are periods of disobedience and calamitous disloyalty, and moments of lament and protest. The lives of Moses, David and Peter make this clear, and the biographies of later Christian saints make it clearer still. There are moments of disgrace in the lives of Augustine, Luther and Calvin, but there are none in the life of Jesus, and the only explanation for this is that though he dwelt among us in flesh and blood his roots lay elsewhere. His character, no less than his miracles, is supernatural, and proof in itself that the world we see and touch and hear, the world of rigid physical and biological law, is not all. There is another Order or Person from which the divine may come to us in human form and dwell among us holy, harmless and undefiled.
The second outstanding feature of Jesus’ character was charity. He loved his neighbours in all their shapes and forms: family, friend and foe; Jew, Gentile and Samaritan; religious leaders and religious outcasts; resistance-fighters, collaborators and the soldiers of an occupying army; beggars, lepers and the mentally ill; politicians and academics; the immoral and the self-righteous. He is never at a loss. No sin is condoned, and no need is ignored. When tempted to use his extraordinary powers to relieve his own distress, he refuses, but he uses them freely to relieve the distress of others. He heals the sick, he feeds the hungry, he gives the bereft back their dead, and at the same time he engages in a ceaseless preaching ministry which boldly challenges the priorities of the culture he lives in, and turns its values upside down. He warns of the dangers of wealth, and pronounces the poor blessed; he demands that we love those who hate us as well as those who love us; he extols meekness, and condemns aspirations to pre-eminence; he disregards the social conventions which governed relations between men and women; he champions the ostracised and rebukes the hypocrisy of those who rush to judge the fallen; he denounces those who exploit widows and orphans, those who defend their inhumanity on the grounds of prior religious commitments, those who take the joy out of religion by adding hundreds of taboos to God’s mere ten commandments, and those who destabilise marriage and family life by promoting easy divorce.
All this clearly involved enormous personal cost. Day after day, Jesus had to engage in long hours of public teaching, striving to make himself heard (without amplification!) to what were often huge congregations. The crowds pressed upon him, there were incessant requests for help, and powerful opponents derided his message and constantly sought to trap him. He was dogged by both embarrassing adulation and contemptuous rejection. Giving himself unreservedly, there was little opportunity for privacy or rest: no time or place which he could call his own. When he seeks to withdraw, the crowds find him and follow him. He has come to serve and to be available whenever he is needed; and the motives which drive him are themselves unique. He is not like Ghandi, placing himself at the disposal of a cause backed by millions, or like a campaigning politician doing whatever it takes to secure election and influence. The lepers and cripples and beggars he helped were in no position to repay him, and least of all to promote his cause. Apart from one or two exceptions (most notably Mary Magdalene) every one he helped disappears from the story having given nothing in return. He helps, simply for the sake of helping, driven only by compassion, expecting no favours in return; and when he is executed there will be no surge of outraged sympathy.
Paul’s great hymn on love is now acclaimed by every ideology on the planet, and even those who deplore his theology would fain profess that they steer by its compass. In reality, only one man has ever lived it, Jesus Christ; and the fact that he did live it, is yet another indication that he was no mere man: no mere fragment of soiled humanity. He alone was untainted by envy and boastfulness, arrogance and rudeness, irritability and resentfulness. He alone did not insist on his own way but always prioritised the interests of others. Of him alone could it be said that he bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things and endured all things.
The significance of this must not be lost on us. It means that the uniqueness of Christ does not lie only in his divine identity, fundamental though that is. He is unique as a man. He is free from all the defects which we take to be part of the very meaning of being human; and, conversely, he shows a level of philanthropy unparalleled in the history of the human race: a philanthropy which sets him apart and which must be described as simultaneously human and superhuman. He is of us, and yet not of us. He is other than we are, even in the highest reaches of our achievements. He is uncanny; and he is all of these things not only because of the wonders he performed and the flashes of deity which shone through the veil of his humanity, but because of the way he performed being human. No other human biography approaches his. Indeed, every attempt to treat him as the subject of a normal biography has been a conspicuous failure. Nor has fiction been any more successful. None of its creations rivals or even approaches Jesus Christ. At the highest level of its genius it has been successful in portraying credible and even compelling malevolences such as Iago, Shylock, Lady Macbeth, the Satan of Milton’s 'Paradise Lost' and Bill Sikes in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. It has succeeded, too, in portraying dark, volcanic figures such as the Heathcliffe of Wuthering Heights and psychotics such as Robert Winram in James Hog’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner; flawed heroes such as Othello, Coriolanus and Hamlet; and the trapped, destructive heroin-addicts of Irvine Welsh’s dark, yet illuminating novel, Trainspotting.
But where is the unflawed hero who is at the same time authentically human? Hagiography may attempt it, but only at the cost of telling the camera to lie. The greatest saints of Christianity (or any other religion) have all been deeply flawed. Only in the case of Jesus Christ would anyone ever think of proposing a PhD thesis on his sinlessness. In every other instance from St. Francis to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the fact of the subject’s being human would instantly deprive the thesis of all academic plausibility. Yet in this one instance it is entirely coherent, and not simply for a priori theological reasons, but because a perfectly sinless life is precisely what the records of his life point to; and we can refuse to accept the evidential value of these records only by dismissing them as pious fictions.
But this, too, would come at a price: the price of crediting a random collection of Galilean fishermen with a level of genius far beyond that of the world’s greatest dramatists and novelists. The gospel-writers avail themselves of none of the arts which connect readers to works of fiction. They make no use of the fortunes of romance or the conquests of war or the machinations of court. Their subject has no endearing weaknesses or charming flaws. How can such writings, and such a subject, be remotely interesting? And yet he is, to the extent that millions who never saw him have fallen in love with him. That he was, and is, a man, there can be no doubt. He hungers and thirsts and gets exhausted. He is tempted. He has friends and enemies. Born in a stable, he becomes the target of plots at the highest level. He rejoices and he weeps. Yet there is never a lapse. He loves unfailingly, but not wimpishly. A man of strong courage, it almost fails him in Gethsemane as he faces the real horror of the Cup, but he conquers his fear and moves resolutely forward. He warms to sinners, yet never condones sin. He is tender to the fallen, scathing to the censorious. He works wonders, yet never descends to the level of the magician. He preaches long sermons, but peppers them with unforgettable aphorisms. He makes up memorable stories and tells them brilliantly. He outwits those trying to entrap him. He stands human values on their head. He speaks to God with extraordinary familiarity, and yet with unfailing reverence.
The portrait is unique, and it is unique because there stands behind it a historical figure who was himself utterly unique. Nature cannot explain him. His human genome, I suspect, would reveal nothing extraordinary. The idea of a continuous chain-of-being from primate to man could find no appropriate link for him. Secularism can deny him only by applauding ‘The Early Church’ as an author of unprecedented genius (though the very existence of this church then becomes a most frustrating puzzle).
Faith, on the other hand, finds its explanation in the most obvious place: ‘In the Beginning, God ….’ In such a context, Christ is a perfect fit. Without it, neither he (nor anything else) makes any sense.