#5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God? If so, what did he mean? Did he offer any proof? How is that even possible?
#6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as most of his followers have claimed for two thousand years? What proof is there? If so, what does that mean?
#7. How believable is this whole story? And what does it mean now?
In episode #55, we concluded that Jesus indeed claimed the unthinkable – to have been (a) the Son of God and (b) God Himself, clothed in human flesh. We did not resolve how this is even possible. If God is indeed infinite and eternal, with all the “All” attributes (Almighty, etc), it is in fact, humanly speaking, insoluble. It is a true mystery, in the classic sense of “mystery”- a hidden thing beyond our understanding. As such, it rankles with us Westerners of the 21st Century who pride and preen ourselves on our science, determined to solve all the riddles of being and the universe by the collective superpower of our minds enhanced by our technology.
As to what Jesus meant when he accepted worship as God, and the title “Son of God”, we are helped by putting him and these ideas in their proper historical and cultural context. The idea of “Son of God” was already current in the Roman Empire, and had already been in use for three millennia in Egypt. Although the position of Emperor was still rather new in Rome, it had been quickly, if at first only unofficially, associated with divine status. In Rome itself, deceased emperors, beginning with Augustus, the first Emperor, were posthumously accorded divine status by the Senate. However, in Asian provinces the Emperors were being acclaimed as gods while still alive, and temples were built and cults initiated for their worship even during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE).
But the concept “Son of God” in relation to Jesus was far different in nature and degree from this honorific sort of deification already known from Egypt’s Pharaohs and Alexander the Great’s hubris. Jews totally rejected such pretensions from a human as blasphemous and abhorrent. They successfully revolted (the Maccabees) when the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes attempted to impose this on them in the 160s BCE. They revolted against Roman attempts to bring idols into the Temple, including the mad Emperor Caligula’s statue (as Jupiter with his face on it) in 42 CE and paid dearly in lives, but eventually won their point.
In Jesus’ time and not long before, some Jews thought that the Messiah might bear the title Son of God, meaning Son of Yahweh, but it was unclear if this would involve actual sharing the divine nature in some way, or would be an angelic incarnation of some sort. Angels had been called “sons of God” in the Tanakh (what non-Jews call The Old Testament), as had descendants of Adam and Eve’s third named son, Seth, in the Book of Genesis. But, as we saw previously, it became clear that Yeshua ben-Yosef of Nazareth in Galilee was claiming actual identity and equality with Yahweh Himself as well as Messiahship. This was a step too far even for most Jews hoping for the Messiah to come in their time.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ amazing healing ministry, his down-to-earth association with the humble and downtrodden, and his challenging teaching “with authority, not like the Scribes and Pharisees”, as the Gospels put it, made him very popular with regular folks. He was also terribly clever and knowledgeable for a supposedly uninstructed country bumpkin, even setting down the best challengers of the Sadducees, Scribes, and Pharisees.
But most outrageous of all was his claim of authority to forgive sins, authority he claimed to have directly from “my Father in heaven” – the God of Abraham and Moses. He added to this the authority to reinterpret the Torah itself, such as how to observe Sabbath and tithing, two of the pillars of the religious observance of Judaism. He suggested that his presence boded the coming of something even greater than the Temple itself and, by implication, that superseded the whole Temple system. He hinted broadly that his authority came from Yahweh Himself, but when the leaders’ agents plainly asked him, he told them he would tell them if they answered a question of his first – whether John the Baptist’s baptism was from God or from men. They said they did not know, and he said therefore he wouldn’t tell them where his authority came from.
On another occasion he repeated that he had been very plain with them about his identity, but no matter what he said to them or how he explained it, they would not believe. He then challenged them, “If you will not believe what I tell you, then you should believe because of the works (deeds) that I do.” But even these they stubbornly rejected, outrageously stating that he did then by demonic power. Jesus asked them how he could cast out demons using the authority of a demon. Satan’s kingdom must surely fall if it is so divided; but if he was casting out demons by the power of God’s spirit, “Then the Kingdom of Yahweh is among you.” He warned them that every sin but one can be forgiven – blasphemy of the Holy Spirit – attributing God’s work to the devil.
In other words, Jesus offered “many proofs” of his Messiahship and special relationship to Yahweh as His Son during his earthly life, but the final and ultimate proof came after he died – the resurrection! Without the resurrection, we could assign Jesus to a well-known sort of category—the well-meaning prophetic voice preaching God’s coming judgment on the oppressors and abusers of humanity and creation and his coming reign when all will be set right. But in the end, like all the others, he is eliminated by the powers he denounces, and ends up as another footnote in history.
But, as we have said now repeatedly, Jesus won’t stay in that box. No such category fits him. He is not a Buddha, “showing us the way”; he says “I am the Way”. He is not another prophet in a list of twenty-eight (as Islam categorizes him) who preach Islam (“submission” to Allah) or eternal hellfire and earthly annihilation for the infidel. In contrast, he boldly declares “Before Abraham was, I AM.” “I AM” is a direct claim to the name of God Himself as applying to him. So did his hearers at that time understand what he had said. They took up stones to stone him then and there, “but he hid himself from them.” At last, having been put to death for his frontal assault on what the establishment and, in the end, even regular folks were prepared to possibly accept about him, he simply did not stay dead!
Perhaps he was just a madman? In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis masterfully dismantles the typical categorizations people over the millennia have concocted to dispose of this so-disturbing historical anomaly. He says there are only three options: Jesus was a Liar, a Lunatic, or Lord. If he persistently claimed things he didn’t mean and even knew not to be true for some nefarious purpose of deceiving people, or even for a good purpose of getting people to live better and be nicer to one another, he was a liar, not just a kind but misguided religious teacher teaching “love is the answer”. Why do we continue to take him seriously if that is what we are reducing him to? If, on the other hand, he really believed what he said about himself, but was deceived about himself, suffering from hysterical delusions of grandeur, then he was a pure madman, and we should certainly shun everything about him. But if what he did and all we see of his character and teaching totally line up with what he said about himself then we have only one option left: He is who he said he is – Lord of life and God-in-the-flesh. No other options are possible.
So what proof is there for his actual, real, physical resurrection? We are not talking about some sort of ethereal continuation of his presence and legacy in a mystical sense, although many would attest to that. Many liberal theologians say that is all that really happened. Jesus himself promised that his Father would send his followers the Holy Spirit to empower them to continue his work and bring his life and message to the whole world. BUT!! he was very clear that he would rise physically from the grave, just as the prophets had said: “The only sign that will be given to this generation is the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will lie in the belly of the earth and be raised again.”
All the “proof” of the resurrection is circumstantial, unless Jesus himself pays a personal visit in his resurrected form, as we see described in the Four Gospels. There is millennia-old Christian tradition associated with two empty tombs in Jerusalem. One of the two is extremely likely the actual tomb in which Jesus’ corpse was laid on a late Friday afternoon in April 29 or 30 CE (or perhaps 33 CE). There were multiple eye-witness encounters with the risen Jesus, both in the Gospels, then in Acts, when Saul of Tarsus encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Outside the New Testament, there are personal testimonies of such encounters of many with the risen Jesus since then, including in the recent past. (Personally, I tremble at the thought but I still long to see him in person, in the flesh.) But of course, none of this will qualify as scientific or “definitive”.
Historically and socially, there is the enduring Christian Church and religion, which both stand on the declaration that Jesus Christ is the risen Messiah and Son of God. Millions across two millennia have claimed and continue to claim to have had personal encounters with Jesus, rarely in his “glorified” physical body, but unmistakably with his presence through the Spirit. (This I can claim too.)
Millions have been ready and willing to die as witnesses to his reality and his resurrection, and millions continue to be ready and willing. In the last decade alone, close to 100 000 Christians have actually done so in many countries (Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Syria, to name a few), and now including even churches in the United States where Christ- and Christian-hating terrorists have several times rampaged on Sunday mornings in the last few years.
Attested and verified healings and miracles continue to happen regularly under the authority of the name of Jesus as risen Lord and God’s Son. The media ignore these things and skeptics mock, but there are incontrovertible occurrences of such things.
Works of love, compassion, charity, and justice continue to be done daily by thousands around the world inspired by this living Lord’s presence and Spirit in those who do them. In fact, a very large proportion of such work on behalf of the most oppressed and most downtrodden is done by compassionate souls acting because of their commitment to Jesus’ mission to bring God’s love and compassion – essential elements of the coming of His Kingdom – to those who are most despised, afflicted, and defenceless. Scratch below the surface of almost any such work, and Christians will be found intimately involved. (Jesus: “If you give even so much as a cup of cold water in my name to the least of these brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”)
It is easy to point the finger of fault and accusation at the human failings of those who have followed Jesus in the past and who follow him today. At some point, this becomes empty and tired refusnikism. There are mountains of evidence about the actual reality of Jesus and his claim to be humanity’s one true Saviour and Lord. Writing it all off with facile mockery and disdain because of the wrongs committed by some who have claimed to have acted in his name but done horrific things he would never countenance will not excuse refusing to actually look at him and daring to see if he will encounter anyone who comes seeking.
His words about seeking him out were simple, generous, and crystal clear:“Ask, and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened to you.” And, “The one who seeks me I will certainly not reject.”
While none of this evidence (see above and below) “proves” that Jesus is the Son of God and God-Man, little of most of the enormous works now in progress for the betterment of our human condition would be happening if it were not for those who are passionately inspired by their faith in and personal experience with Jesus as a living Saviour today. If Christ were not truly risen, his followers would long ago have abandoned his teaching, for it was centred on his own mission and identity as God’s final answer to humanity’s estrangement from the Creator, from one another, from our own true selves, and from the Creation we were made to care for and watch over as its intended caretakers. And if those followers had not been doing his works and were to cease now from doing them, however inadequately they have been done and are being done now, the human condition would be immeasurably worse and more hopeless.
Those who wish that Jesus would just go away, or that his followers would just shut up or disappear, thinking this would make the world a better place, are incredibly naive and deceived. They have adopted a wilful blindness and incalculably impoverished themselves and the world they think they know how to save.
There is a great deal more that could be said regarding areas such as education, social justice, and healthcare and their Christ-inspired roots in the West and, via the West’s world-reach, all over the world, but we will conclude with what Jesus said:“No one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friend…. Do not believe only what I have told you [and shown you]; believe because of the works that I do [and that my followers now do as my bodily presence in the world].”