Awhile back BrianJ asked me these two questions. I thought I’d answer them here.
How do you know that Jesus is real?
First off, I think the historical evidence is solid that Jesus was a real man living in present-day Israel 2,000 years ago. Further I think the evidence is solid that he was crucified by the Romans and that his followers immediately began boldly preaching that He rose from the grave. He’s not a mythical figure. He was a real, flesh and blood man who walked the earth. We can know that he existed with as much certainty as we can know any other historical fact.
I’m aware that Brian is asking me something more metaphyscial than my opinion of ancient historical evidences but I think it’s important to start there. Based on that same historical evidence I think we can safely assume that Jesus equated himself with the Jewish god and that by his own power he defeated death. The claims of those beliefs are much more controversial and carry much greater consequence, but I rest my own interactions with the resurrected Jesus on those historical claims.
I experience Jesus in my life today through reading his words and the words of his early followers. Based on the experiences and practices of other believers I try different methods of communicating with Jesus. I compare my experiences with other believers and look for points of connection and agreement.
In particular, I’m interested in the radical life change I see in new believers and I see how my own life continues to be transformed as I practice greater dependence on His teachings. I feel inner promptings that sound different than my own inner-dialogue and more often than not, when I listen and obey those promptings other people are encouraged. I’ve also audibly heard the voice of God on one occasion.
How do you know that you have a “personal relationship” with him? (Apologies if that phrase is not used in your church.)
The phrase “personal relationship” is rather new in the history of Christianity. I believe he got its start in an effort to encourage people to make the Christian faith one of their own choosing. It’s not intended to be a cultural system that one accepts as part of a larger community. It’s meant to be an individual pursuit that’s lived out in a larger community of faith. In places where Christianity is the predominant cultural language it’s important to encourage people to be self-reflective and intentional about their faith. Far more people check the box on the survey that says “Christian” than people who actually seek to make their lives emulate Jesus’. To have a personal relationship with Jesus is to personally choose to follow him. To make a direct individual choice.
In addition, as a real, living person, Jesus can be known. His invitation is not just to be like him but to know him. Jesus works through his (universal) church, but he also works through individuals. He actually speaks, empowers and motivates individuals. His calling for every believer is individual and “personal.” To have a “personal relationship with Jesus” is to know what that calling is for yourself. I know I have a relationship with Jesus because I can hear, feel and see him speaking directly to me and using me for his kingdom.
Many times when people are investigating Christianity, Christians will advise that the investigator just give themselves over to a personal relationship. The advice seems to be that individuals should not be concerned with the particulars of the faith but should just experience this “personal Jesus.” I totally understand why Christians promote this. Many of them have had powerful metaphysical experiences upon saying “yes” to a life in pursuit of Jesus. Today we call it a “born again experience.” I would disagree, but some would say that you aren’t a true Christian unless you’ve had such an experience.
The reason Evangelicals promote this idea is because it’s a short-cut to understanding. If a person has an experience like this, the particulars of the faith immediately make much more sense. It’s like if I tried to tell you all about my wife. I could probably write a book about my wife, but if you actually met her the time you would need to understand who she is would be cut short.
Would you say your understanding of a personal relationship with Jesus is the same?
I’d say yes it is similar, if not the same.
However, my concern with the focus on “personal Jesus” is how the people emphasizing it often tend to have a distinctly anti-social flavor to their religious practice and belief.
For me, I believe Jesus is real because He has created faith in me where it did not exist, and in spite of my continual tendency to want to remain an unbeliever.
I have a relationship with Him based on faith, trust. Trust that He has given me and continues to give to me.
When I listen to His Word (His law and His promises), He exposes my sin, and need for His grace and mercy…and then He gives it to me, with NO strings attached. And to make it even more comcrete in my life, He gives me Himself, His very body and blood in His Supper. He crams Himself down my throat, so to speak, so that I will not have to look inward to my feelings (or lack thereof) of being saved. I can have real assurance that He is for me…and not against me.
I find it very difficult to live by faith in Him, alone…but I wouldn’t know any other way.
Thanks for the post Tim.
“Based on that same historical evidence I think we can safely assume that…by his own power he defeated death.”
Hmm. There’s a lot to that claim, and contrary to your view I don’t think history or archeology can support it. But I wonder what you have in mind. The reason I raise this concern is that, as you point out, there is an important transition from the historical claim that a man named Jesus was crucified circa 30 AD to the metaphysical claims that are the foundation of Christian faith. The crux of the matter is: If he didn’t really accomplish the actions that are “unprovable” (e.g., the resurrection) then we wouldn’t care at all about the “provable” ones. (“Provable” is not the right word, but you know how I mean it.)
To be clear: my concern is not about your threshold for belief, but rather in finding where you expect others to draw the line. As you say, there is only so much certainty we can have of anything historical, but we reasonably expect our friends and neighbors to accept that there was a George Washington, a Caesar, a battle in Waterloo, etc. If they do not believe these “facts,” then we think them either nutty or daft. But do we think them nutty or daft if they do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead? If not—i.e., if we think it is perfectly reasonable for others to not accept the resurrection as historical fact—then why do allow them a different threshold? If our threshold is rational, then shouldn’t every rational mind meet it?
Note: I’ve focused on the resurrection, but the same questions could also be directed toward the claim that Jesus presented himself as God (or healed the sick, walked on water, etc.).
(I’m going to split my reply up so it’s not one long comment; rather, it will likely be several long comments.)
“I experience Jesus in my life today through… I compare my experiences with other believers… I’m interested in the radical life change I see… I feel inner promptings… I’ve also audibly heard the voice of God….”
Thank you for sharing that. Forgive me for comparing my own experiences to yours—although, that is exactly what you say you do! 🙂 Still, I recognize the sacredness of personal experience and do not wish to belittle it through trite comparison.
I myself could have written those two paragraphs. Word for word. That is not intended to trump or make routine your (or my!) testimony. Rather, it is an expression of surprise—elated, but also confused, surprise. How can the seeking and experiencing of God be so similar from two very different people? Moreover, how can it be so similar when those two people believe very different, even contradictory/offensive-to-the-other-person things about the God they seek and experience?
“The phrase “personal relationship” is rather new in the history of Christianity. I believe he got its start in an effort to encourage people to make the Christian faith one of their own choosing.”
“His calling for every believer is individual and “personal.” To have a “personal relationship with Jesus” is to know what that calling is for yourself. I know I have a relationship with Jesus because I can hear, feel and see him speaking directly to me and using me for his kingdom.”
That’s a good way of putting it. Thank you also for tying into what you wrote above about your personal experiences. This where I believe we can answer the “So what?” of historical Christianity. Even if we had video of Jesus’ resurrection, it wouldn’t really mean much if it didn’t mean something to us. It’d be like news reports of some guy winning the mega-millions lottery: “Wow, that’s crazy-amazing for him, but what’s it got to do with anyone else?”
“Many times when people are investigating Christianity, Christians will advise that the investigator just give themselves over to a personal relationship. The advice seems to be that individuals should not be concerned with the particulars of the faith but should just experience this “personal Jesus.” I totally understand why Christians promote this. Many of them have had powerful metaphysical experiences upon saying “yes” to a life in pursuit of Jesus. Today we call it a “born again experience.””
Is the “born again experience” always something metaphysical? i.e., you mention the process in your life of seeking/following Jesus that over time yields fruit—perhaps even much fruit, but over much time. That process can’t be reduced to a single moment and often includes many pieces that simply make rational sense and therefore do not have the same “miracle polish” as a born again moment; an atheist might recognize that a life lived honestly, in service to others, promoting peace, etc., is likely to be a life filled with happiness in spite of its stresses—and in fact, many an atheist lives just such a life! (continuing this thought below…)
“…I would disagree, but some would say that you aren’t a true Christian unless you’ve had such an experience.”
If all it takes is a born again experience, then Matthew 21:29-31 comes to mind, but I don’t think that’s the argument from others that you are presenting. Rather, they want the born again experience as the very minimum. Without the Spirit’s seal of approval, who’s to say that one has come to know Jesus as opposed to just been a good guy?
“The reason Evangelicals promote this idea is because it’s a short-cut to understanding. If a person has an experience like this, the particulars of the faith immediately make much more sense. It’s like if I tried to tell you all about my wife. I could probably write a book about my wife, but if you actually met her the time you would need to understand who she is would be cut short.”
I might explain this differently. Rather than saying that it is a “short-cut to understanding,” I might say that it is a “short-cut to seeing value.” Regarding the historical Jesus: “Okay, so there was this guy who did some amazing things—but you know what? there were lots of guys throughout history who did amazing things. What makes this one guy so special?” (Arguing that his feats were the most amazing misses the point.) The personal experience is a motivator to find out more, to experiment on the word, to invest, to hope.
To illustrate further, consider your example about your wife. Without ever meeting her, I might have no motivation to read your book. Upon meeting her, however, I might be intrigued to learn more about who she is. The meeting itself does not answer many questions and may in fact tell me very little.
(As a parallel example, I have lots of friends who are Mac zealots; all of them are reading the biography on Steve Jobs and telling me I “just have to read it.” But I’m like, whatever, not interested. They must. read. the. book. because they have been so madly in love with Jobs’ products over the years; I’m not interested because I never had any such “relationship” with the man.)
“Would you say your understanding of a personal relationship with Jesus is the same?”
If not identical, then very close to identical.
Bottom line for mental competence is a recognition that Jesus really lived. I roll my eyes and move on when someone posits that Jesus never existed. I’d say it’s more ridiculous than questioning the moon landing but not as ridiculous as denying the Jewish Holocaust.
A belief in the resurrection has consequences. You won’t find an ancient believer in the resurrection who wasn’t also a Christian. That’s not just a way of saying that the witnesses were biased, it’s also a way of saying that the evidence created a bias.
I acknowledge that for a number of reasons people don’t want to become Christians. The evidence isn’t overwhelming and I’m not claiming it is. But I think the evidence is reasonable and strong enough to establish belief. I also think the Resurrection has better explanatory powers than any alternative. (You’ll never hear me say I can PROVE the Resurrection, or any historical event, happened.)
If I can think of a comparable historical controversy where both sides can be respected, I’ll let you know. I’m sure dozens exists. Some aspects of JFK conspiracy theories might fit the bill (i.e. one shooter or multiple shooters). I’m sure I could do better than that though.
I’d expect you’d see things differently, but I find the evidence similarly strong (although I don’t see proof) that the Book of Mormon came about through supernatural means.
The experience of taste might be similar for many kinds of food. The experience of ecstasy might be very similar for sex and some drug highs.
Our bodies have limits and the ways they experience things may be similar. I can do ten minutes of short breathing exercises and feel something similar to a spiritual experience. That doesn’t mean I think blowing out a candle is the same thing as studying the Bible.
In addition to providing a spiritual experience I also think the Christian life best matches the data points of the world around me. Spiritual experiences are GREAT. You should have them, but don’t hang your religious hat on them alone.
I heard about a guy who did a lot of acid and about 3/4 through his trip he was sitting in a tree and had an experience with Jesus. After that experience he dropped his drug habit cold turkey and became a life-long follower of Jesus. I have no way of judging the quality of that experience. On the face of it, it’s sounds like he was hallucinating and he shouldn’t be trusted. But I accept his commitment following his drug trip. The fruits of his life seem to bear something different than a regular hit of acid.
I accept that Mormons may be having similar spiritual experiences to my own. I think it’s reasonable to suggest that it is the Holy Spirit they are encountering. I believe the same Spirit that is calling me to lay down sin and falsehood is calling Mormons (and Muslims and Buddhists) to do the same.
I don’t think the Christian life can be fully and deeply experienced with hallucinogenic drugs. I don’t think the Christian life can be fully and deeply experienced with irregular use of pornography. I don’t think the Christian life can be fully and deeply experienced while listening to a false prophet. The Holy Spirit may be heard in sin, but He always calls us to something more. He calls us to throw off every obstacle.
Right, often the Christians who say you must have a born again experience are also the same Christians who are most concerned with the shape of the Christian life (orthopraxy). As you said, it’s the Spirit’s stamp of approval. Some Pentecostals would go so far as to say this stamp of approval is seen in the gift of tongues.
I’d say that there are some aspects of transformation that can’t just be knocked up to an effective self-help book. And that’s why I reject “being nice” as a valid marker of authentic Christian faith. I think it’s reasonable to expect Christians to experience things only explained by the supernatural, but I don’t think Christians must have supernatural conversion experiences.
and that’s why the Resurrection being a real or imagined event is important.
Tim — I agree with almost everything you say (except that obviously I don’t believe the LDS church is led by false prophets). And I have no reason to believe that non-LDS Christians aren’t being led by the same Holy Spirit that I am. (Of course, that raises all sorts of questions, but it is what I believe.) And while I can (and sometimes do) allegorize all sorts of things, I agree that without a historical Resurrection there isn’t much to be said in favor of the validity of Christianity (including Mormonism).
I do have one question for you: When you say above that “I know I have a relationship with Jesus,” do you think that “know” has the same meaning as it does for those Mormons who say that “I know this church is true”? Just wondering.
Do you agree with me that an authentic Christian life would lead a person to reject a false prophet?
You mean like this?
Okay, I’ll cop to it. That was a cheap shot.
I hesitate to answer the question because it forces me to generalize what “Mormons” mean when they say they “know” something. The minute I posit what that means, everyone and their mother will say that’s not what they mean.
I’m inclined to say “no” because Mormons authorities teach that knowledge can be found in stating that you have knowledge. But I’m sure that some Mormons mean the same thing I might mean. (in which case I have to ask a follow up question; what do they mean by “true”?) Based on the evidence I would say they “know” something falsely.
Roll Jesus Camp video. Then we can really get somewhere.
Tim asked me:
Sure. But not necessarily in this lifetime.
Yes it was. But it is a practice that happens in real life, although I find it creepy.
Its totally creepy and trite – essentially diminishing the genuine, sincere and hard fought “testimonies” – which is why the Church publicly condemned the practice some time ago.
Tim, my own experience with *knowing* Jesus has mostly come through the process of giving my sin and guilt over to him – and seeing a miraculous change of heart in myself. This, I believe is a life long pursuit (the knowing). So even though I did indeed have a powerful “born-again” experience (in a Mormon setting no less), I can’t say that I really knew the person Jesus at that time. Its more like we were introduced. The knowing came with a great amount of *effort* on my part and has been at least partially dependent on my initiation. This has always seemed intuitive to me – consistent with my earthly relationships. When I tell this to Evangelicals however, I get mixed reviews. How does it square with your experience?
Also, FWIW – Although I agree that the *evidence* surrounding the Resurrection and especially the validity of a historical Jesus figure is pretty impressive, its the post Jesus/Apostles Christian history that really challenges my faith – even causing me to doubt my past supernatural experiences. So, looking for evidence to validate faith can sometimes backfire.
Interesting. Do you think knowingly following a false prophet is a sin?
I’m not one to judge spiritual experiences or individual hearts. A cop out, I know. All I have is the fruit of your life. Would you say a true Christian can follow a false prophet?
Tim asked me, although I’m not sure what he’s getting at:
And do you think God is calling believers to give up their sin now, in this life?
Of course, although the process of sanctification is one that continues throughout life.
How does one distinguish false prophets from true? The easy answer is that false ones make predictions that don’t come true. (Like so many easy answers, this one turns up in Deuteronomy.) But what about those who guess right? Do they really know something that your average lucky astrologer (or pit trader) doesn’t? I don’t think that they do. Every method that shows that they do boils down to predicting something after it occurred (e.g. quoting the OT prophets liberally in your account of a contemporary prophet so that it will seem obvious, in hindsight, that Isaiah was interested in Roman Palestine rather than the old kingdoms of Israel and Judah). We can all be pretty good and predicting things that already happened. But the future makes fools of us all. In plain terms, I don’t really believe in true prophets: in real life all we have are prophets who are obviously false, and prophets who will be false at some point if they dare to prophesy long enough (more than once, assuming they don’t blow their credibility the first time out). All prophets can be right some of the time. We humans like to guess. We guess right sometimes, just like we guess wrong, but there is no magic way to know certainly which guesses are right and which are wrong before we see God roll the dice.
… “good at predicting things that already happened”
Prophets don’t just predict the future
That video Tim posted just made me realize something.
I haven’t seen a parent whispering the words of a testimony into a child’s ear at the pulpit in at least the last five years. In fact, I can’t even remember seeing it since I got married 12 years ago.
strangely I haven’t seen anyone encourage children to venerate a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush in that time either.
Tim, I think all prophets really are predicting the future. The way I see it, asking people to “do the right thing” (in the manner of Amos et al) presupposes a prediction that doing the right thing will result in something desirable (in a future that may be immediate or far off). The problem is that it is not always clear what the right thing is: all of us misjudge it at some point (becoming false prophets).
Our universal failure as Deuteronomic prophets demands a kind of humility that historically has proven very hard to cultivate. It is easy to point out where others are (or have been) mistaken, but hard to see where we ourselves go wrong. It is even easier to get caught in ridiculous rhetorical traps, in which we point to the past (sometimes an imaginary past) to justify actions in the present for which we have no really solid justification (other than that we, as prophets, feel them to be right in our prophetic gut). Our guts are not always wrong, and they are not to be ignored, but they cannot be the ultimate arbiters of truth: they were not made for this (whether by God or Nature or whatever you want to call the web of causes that puts us where we are).
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