Does God exist? Was Jesus not only a historical figure, but also Immanuel–“God with us?” Did He rise from the dead after His crucifixion as the Bible describes? Is He now physically in what we call “heaven” with God the Father, “upholding all things by the word of His power,” as Hebrews says, and interceding on our behalf? Or is it all nonsense, created by con artists and bought into by the weak-willed who want to believe in Someone or something that doesn’t exist?
“When we told you about the power and the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not telling clever stories someone had made up. But with our own eyes we saw his true greatness. God, our great and wonderful Father, truly honored him by saying, “This is my own dear Son, and I am pleased with him.” We were there with Jesus on the holy mountain and heard this voice speak from heaven.” (2 Peter 1:16-18 CEV)
Maybe you went to public school and heard Christianity called a a cult? Because not everyone who goes to public school does so because it’s free; atheists and others who no longer believe in, or even hate, God for whatever reason also send their children there. Maybe you had to study evolution in biology class or watched some really cool programming on PBS or BBC, and figured out that it doesn’t look as if evolution can coexist in the same worldview as Christianity–and since most of the media and academia seem to accept the former, you’ve personally concluded the biblical account has to be the wrong one? Maybe none of your friends happen to believe, or are willing to admit they do–or maybe you’ve intentional self-segregated by gravitating toward those who are also skeptical and cynical toward, or have even outrightly rejected, religion? Maybe you missed out on growing up in a Christian environment, and coming into this from the outside, the Bible and it’s account just looks like humanly fabricated myths?
So, let’s discuss the credibility of the biblical account, apart from any bias or hostility toward Christianity you may or may not already personally have. Because every discussion of truthfulness–of any assertion in life–rests on an objective assessment of fact, and that rests on the 1) character and 2) motivation of the individuals attesting to the account.
Let’s ignore the Old Testament for now, because whether you like it or not, the witnesses to Jesus Christ’s resurrection who wrote the New Testament accepted that as factual and foundational. The entire New Testament is, actually, predicated upon the Old Testament–the New Testament cannot exist apart from the Old. In terms of pure logic, Judaism (the Old Testament) can exist without Christianity (the New Testament), but the New Testament (Christianity) cannot exist without the Old Testament (Judaism), because Christianity is not a new religion; it is the fulfillment of God’s promise in the Old Testament. Thus, if the claims of the New Testament can be shown to be correct, we have no choice but to also accept the truth of the Old Testament.
So, on to the witnesses.
In any formal or informal legal proceeding–even when you decide whether to believe something a friend whispered in your ear–whether you believe what you’re hearing hinges on two factors: the 1) character and 2) motivation of the witnesses.
The account of a known addict, who’s been offered a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony against a doctor accused of illegally dispensing drugs, is less credible than the testimony of his nurse, who stands to lose her job. Why?
Because 1) the addict isn’t as credible as the nurse–addicts have been known to be more inclined to lie; and because 2) the addict has a personal motivation to lie–a reduced sentence for himself. The nurse, on the other hand, is more trustworthy. 1) Nurses aren’t typically inclined to be less honest than the rest of society, and 2) she has no personal motivation to lie; if anything, she would be more motivated to say he doesn’t dispense drugs illegally because then she wouldn’t jeopardize her job.
You mentally perform a similar assessment when you get two conflicting reports about someone in your school. Say a girl tells you that a boy in your class tried to do something really bad to her. You’re going to take the 1) character and 2) motivation of the girl telling you this into account when mentally evaluating whether what she’s saying is true or not. Who’s telling you this? And does she have a motive besides just saying what really happened? Is she, for example, a girl already known for her own bad behavior (questionable character) whom this boy rejected and who now clearly just wants to get back at him by lying to ruin his reputation (ulterior motive)? Or is she a decent girl (good character) who has no personal interest in smearing the boy’s name (no ulterior motive) whom he really acted badly towards and who just wants other people to know? Obviously, you’d accept as more credible the girl with the 1) good character who has 2) no reason to lie.
It’s the same with the New Testament, which is an eye-witness account of something that happened two thousand years ago.
We need to take into account the credibility of the witnesses; the individuals who penned the accounts and letters that make up what we call the New Testament of the Bible–their 1) character, and 2) motivation. So what was their character? Who were the people who wrote the New Testament?
Jesus Christ was a rabbi–an itinerant Jewish religious teacher (there were many of these in the first century in what is now Israel)–and He, like the other rabbis, had talmidim, men specifically invited by Him to be His inner circle of students. Jesus chose twelve talmidim–Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thaddeus, Bartholomew, Thomas, James (the Lesser), Matthew, Simon (the Zealot), Judas.
So who were these men? What was their character like–why should we trust what they said?
Of these, Judas did not contribute to the New Testament. He was the only one of Jesus’ followers who killed himself before he had a chance to fully recognize who Jesus was and what the purpose of His life really was. Judas was a revolutionary; he accepted the invitation to follow Jesus because he expected Him to eventually incite an insurrection against the occupying Roman forces; he later betrayed Him when it became obvious He wasn’t positioning Himself for personal or political power. Judas committed suicide when he realized Jesus was going to be executed as a result of his betrayal.
Paul (formerly known as Saul), who wrote many of the letters to the new followers of Jesus in the New Testament, converted after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension; some believe God called him to replace Judas. All of the disciples except John died for what they attested to; none of them recanted, even though they clearly could have.
The New Testament is their account of the events of Jesus’ life (some of it written down by the original disciples themselves, some by another disciple taught by the original disciples–all written down within a very short time after these things happened and well within the lifetime of those who were alive at the time and could have contested the facts presented)–but all recorded His teaching, death, resurrection, short time on earth after His resurrection, and ascension, as well as the initial growth of the church–His followers.
So why should we believe what they said? Because of the 1) character of the writers.
If you read the New Testament, whether the four separate accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (what we call the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the prophecy God gave John about the future of our world in the last book of the New Testament, called the Revelation of John, or the many letters in between, written to teach and encourage the growing church, those who believed in Jesus–if you actually read these, the character, the honesty, the genuineness of these men clearly shines through. Yes, people can lie, but a liar and fabricator simply sounds disingenuous; the integrity of these men and their testimonies, on the other hand, becomes more obvious as you continue reading.
Which leads us to their 2) motivation for insisting on the truth of what they witnessed. Why did they insist these events happened? Did they have an ulterior motive for misrepresenting or even fabricating these events? What did they stand to gain by doing so? The answer is “because it really happened,” “no,” and “nothing.”
Consider what they were up against. They were Jewish; their leadership had just orchestrated the brutal execution of Jesus, their rabbi, their leader and teacher. During the several days before they saw the risen Jesus, they were so terrified for their own lives, in fact, that they locked themselves up together in a room, hoping that somehow this would die down and the persecution not spread to them, His followers.
Fifty days later, they’re out in public in front of everyone, witnessing openly and without a hint of fear for their own safety! What happened to cause this huge shift? Listen to what happened just on that one day:
“On the day of Pentecost all the Lord’s followers were together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind! It filled the house where they were meeting. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak.
Many religious Jews from every country in the world were living in Jerusalem. And when they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages. They were excited and amazed, and said: ‘Don’t all these who are speaking come from Galilee?’
Peter stood with the eleven apostles and spoke in a loud and clear voice to the crowd:
‘Friends and everyone else living in Jerusalem…Now, listen to what I have to say about Jesus from Nazareth. God proved he sent Jesus to you by having him work miracles, wonders, and signs. All of you know this. God had already planned and decided that Jesus would be handed over to you. So you took him and had evil men put him to death on a cross. But God set him free from death and raised him to life. Death could not hold him in its power. Jesus was taken up to sit at the right side of God, and he was given the Holy Spirit, just as the Father had promised. Jesus is also the one who has given the Spirit to us, and this is what you are now seeing and hearing.’
On that day about 3,000 believed his message and were baptized.” (Acts 2:1-2, 4-7, 14, 22-24, 33 , 41 CEV)
All except John (who was exiled), paid the ultimate price–their lives–for insisting on the veracity of these facts. For what? What was their motivation? What did they gain? Most importantly, if they were lying, why not just recant and stay alive?
They gained nothing, except death and deprivation. Paul recorded what he gained by insisting on these truths:
“Five times the Jews have given me their punishment of thirty-nine lashes with a whip. Three different times I was beaten with rods. One time I was almost stoned to death. Three times I was in ships that wrecked, and one of those times I spent a night and a day in the sea. I have gone on many travels and have been in danger from rivers, thieves, my own people, the Jews, and those who are not Jews. I have been in danger in cities, in places where no one lives, and on the sea. And I have been in danger with false Christians. I have done hard and tiring work, and many times I did not sleep. I have been hungry and thirsty, and many times I have been without food. I have been cold and without clothes. Besides all this, there is on me every day the load of my concern for all the churches. I feel weak every time someone is weak, and I feel upset every time someone is led into sin. If I must brag, I will brag about the things that show I am weak. God knows I am not lying. He is the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he is to be praised forever.”
(2 Corinthians 11:24-31 NCV)
In the end, when you evaluate the credibility of a witness, you examine their 1) character and 2) motivation. What we see in the writers of the individual books of the book we call the Bible is personal integrity of character, and no reason to lie or misrepresent the truth. As a result, we have no choice but to deem their witness credible and believe they did indeed see what they say they did and what they say happened really happened. There is no other possible conclusion.
Thank you that we can believe the testimony of the people who saw and witnessed Your time on earth, and believe their accounts! Amen.