For generations, books like David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined and A.N. Wilson’s Jesus: A Biography have assaulted the Gospels and convinced the public they are legendary—fabrications engineered by the church. In the age of CSI and murder trials broadcast on TV, the world has ceded its mind to these claims. We have developed a cultural unwillingness to trust eyewitnesses without a hair, a hard drive, or a half-eaten ham sandwich to support them.
While it may be true that people lie (for whatever purpose) and that we don’t have the nails from Jesus’s cross, the Gospels provide their own defense. The truth is in the text.
Only a terrible writer would think that the narrative of Jesus’s death and resurrection would make good propaganda. If the aim of the early church’s leaders was to gain power, they wouldn’t have spread the story that the Messiah had been hung on a wooden cross—a form of execution reserved for terrible criminals “accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23 NKJV), not the foretold king of scripture.
Likewise, no one would easily accept a savior whose followers “forsook Him and fled” at the moment of his capture (Mark 14:15). The man appointed to lead the early church, Simon Peter, is recorded as denying three times that he is a follower of Jesus (Luke 22:55-62), after which he recalls Jesus’s prediction of this betrayal (v. 34) and weeps with guilt. Why would the church devise a forgery that tarnishes its first leader? The earliest Gospel, Mark, was composed by a scribe loyal to Peter, under the direction of the apostle himself. Peter had no motive to carve a terrible lie about himself into the record; if anything, being a weaker man, he might have tried to conceal his failure. The only reason he would have insisted on that incident’s inclusion is if it was true.
Jesus’s resurrection produced another conflict for the first Christians. There were two camps in the Jewish establishment in Jesus’s day: the conservative Sadducees, who believed “there is no resurrection” (Mark 12:18), and the Pharisees, a group that in the last two centuries had formed a tentative belief in a future resurrection. Until Jesus came, however, no religion admitted that a man could be raised from the dead in the present day. That’s why the disciples “did not understand what He was saying, and were afraid to ask Him” when Jesus taught them that he would be killed and rise the third day following (Mark 9:31-32). Beyond Judaism, the Romans who ruled the Jews in the first century found the idea of a resurrection offensive because they considered the material world evil and the body a prison. The first Christians’ radical new theology endangered their lives by offending every major authority of their day. Nobody hoping to preserve his life, much less gather followers, would write the story this way.
These facts have persuaded some of the Gospels’ former critics. A.N. Wilson, the biographer mentioned before, converted to Christianity after decades of atheism. He writes a wonderful essay here about the doubts that led him to faith. The power of the Gospel to enact such a change in the human heart is a great testimony. But perhaps the greatest witness to the Gospel is the lives of the apostles. Peter, according to tradition, was executed by the Emperor Nero. The apostle Thomas, famous for his doubt, was killed while preaching in India. Paul was imprisoned in Rome for two years and executed. John, author of Revelation, was exiled to the island of Patmos. None of them received wealth or glory for their missionary work; indeed, their commitment cost them. That kind of testimony is unanswerable—because nobody is willing to die for a lie. We can either ignore that challenge, as millions do, or we can yield to the truth.
On November 23, I joined a new family—the body of Christ. For two years, God had pressed me to seek membership in a church, and after settling into a congregation this summer, I felt compelled to fulfill the public witness of salvation that Jesus modeled at the beginning of His ministry (Mark 1:9-11 NKJV). But like a groom in the weeks leading up to his nervous moment of committal, I questioned exactly what the meaning of this ritual was. Can water save you?
My church, as part of the Southern Baptist convention, teaches that baptism and the other biblical sacrament, communion, do not have a salvific purpose that results in someone going to heaven. Despite assurances about baptism being the aftermath of grace, not a channel for it, I still felt a twinge of guilt as the day neared. If I was going to make this commitment public, I would have to clean up my thought-life. As in: Stop cursing when you bump your head getting out of the car. Or: Help me to stop complaining, God. A week from now, I’m getting dunked, and I can’t live or think this way after that. Or: Only a few more days and then I have to be really serious about my faith.
This pattern only worsened when the baptism was delayed a week. The baptismal was discovered to be leaking, and needed repairs. “Satan is afoot!” I texted to the minister who was going to baptize me.
The devil, though, isn’t worried about thwarting people; he has a good track record in doing that. His mission is to defeat God’s purpose by anchoring worry or doubt to a believer’s relationship with God, tempting them to indulge uncertainty—like the kind that used to arise when I read John 3:5. In this passage, Jesus says that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” I used to think that this meant baptism in water was necessary to a person’s salvation, until a theology teacher told me that the “water” mentioned here means physical birth, leaving the womb and meeting the doctor’s waiting grasp. We are, in other words, subject to two births, one from physical darkness into the light of the world and one from spiritual darkness into the light of God. This teaching is corroborated by other texts saying that Jesus is one who baptizes with “fire” (Matthew 3:11) and with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).
By baptism day, the truth had helped to clear this pattern of guilt from my mind. The work of baptism is not to bathe the soul in salvation, but to celebrate what God has already accomplished in someone’s life, to challenge the world to recognize His offer. So when my head, with its load of imperfect thoughts and car-roof bruises, dipped below the warm water, I knew that this day was not mine, but His. There is no better grace than a realization like that.
In June, I wrote on five kinds of preachers who don’t bring love and truth to a church, whether by incessant talk of damnation, political pandering, soft commitment to Scripture’s teachings, or preoccupation with family anecdotes. Now I want to share three ways that one Baptist church I met had a tangible difference in its message and culture.
1) The church believes missions should happen everywhere. The pastor encourages missionaries to travel to Africa, to Haiti, to Native American reservations. But he declares it no less honorable to evangelize Philadelphia, or Cincinnati (ten minutes away from us), or down the block at a liquor store, or on your neighbor’s porch. Churches often fail to reach people on their doorsteps because the Gospel seems more available to Americans. But Christians are to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19 NIV), and that includes college students, sales clerks, and newspaper boys in our hometown as much as it does tribesmen in distant wilds.
Have any of you ever hunted for a church? I wasn’t raised going to one, so in the summer after high school, I went seeking for a place in the body of Christ. During this salvation safari, I encountered many species of pastor and learned how a leader is often the decisive factor in the life of a church. I won’t reveal the identities of these churches, but I wonder whether any of you met these types in your search for a home.
1) The Revival Reverend: Becomes a fierce, bristly creature while preaching, who exhorts listeners to keep a passport handy and prepare to be called into a “dark, dark place” where the Gospel has never been heard. Has an appreciable passion for evangelism, but never explores more than one theme: You’re going to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus. If you don’t want to get baptized, you’re probably not saved. Somebody needs to get up here and get baptized. Often seems hostile toward his listeners: “If you want to be a pew sitter, then there’s the door!”
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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