Q: You wrote in a recent column that to be a Christian, you have to get to the belief that Jesus is God and that God appeared on Earth to die for your sins and be resurrected. My question is: how does one “get there?”
— J from Wilmington, N.C., via e-mail
A: The question you have asked is what constitutes proof for faith, or proof for organized faith, which is religion. We must begin by understanding that not all proofs are the same.
The proof of logical truths (a bachelor is an unmarried man) is human reason alone. The proof for scientific theories (oxygen causes combustion) is empirical evidence, evidence of the senses. The proofs for religious beliefs are also different depending on the nature of those particular beliefs. If they are beliefs about the world then they are proved or disproved by the world. The Bible taught that rain and flooding happened because God opened up gates in the sky that let some of the water above the vault of heaven pour down on the earth. This belief is false because that is not why it rains.
However, the Bible also includes moral beliefs that we should not, for example, murder or steal. There are rational reasons why these commandments are true. It is called Natural Law and even though they are confirmed by revelation, they are also confirmed by reason. No rational morality can justify killing the innocent or taking what one does not own. These moral beliefs are true because human history, human reason and God’s word in the Bible all come to the same conclusion about how we ought to live.
And finally there are religious beliefs that make historical claims. The Jewish belief that the Jews were slaves in Egypt and left in a great exodus is a claim about something that supposedly happened roughly 3,200 years ago. If the Jews were never slaves in Egypt and if they never were emancipated, that belief is not true.
By far the most audacious and powerful historical belief in any world religion is the Christian belief that God became a person named Jesus who came to Earth to be killed and then resurrected in order to atone for the sins of humanity. The proof for these beliefs is found only in the New Testament Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. If any of these things did not actually happen, then those core Christian beliefs are not true. But if they did happen, then Christianity is true. Unfortunately, because the proof for the claims about Jesus as God, and particularly his resurrection, come solely from a Christian document, the historical debate over the truth of Christianity will never be settled.
Since this historical dispute is going nowhere anytime soon, what are you to do? The Christian answer I would suggest for your religious turmoil actually comes from Judaism. In the Passover Haggadah, the readings and prayers that accompany the Passover meal, there is a passage from Exodus 13:8, “And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the LORD did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt.” It means that certain historical events are so monumental in their historical and spiritual importance that they actually reach out from history and pull us in as participants. Similarly (and it is not the same) the story of how Jesus died and was resurrected to atone for the sins of the world could become a story of how Jesus came and died for you.
I don’t know how you can get there, but I do know what it feels like to say that something happened in history that history cannot fully explain and that changes everything. I know what that feels like and I pray that someday you will know it, too.