One of the better books that I’ve read recently is Robert J. Hutcheson’s Searching For Jesus. It’s a look at the more recent turns in scholarship in regards to the life, death, and resurrection of Yeshua of Nazareth. It was published in 2015, so the information is pretty up-to-date, so for that reason alone it would be a good addition to every believer’s library.
The good news is that mainline scholarship, even skeptical scholarship, has continued to support belief in Yeshua, as well as supporting the New Testament as being the work of Yeshua’s first-generation of followers. The “Christ-myth” theory that Jesus never existed at all, but was instead cobbled together from pagan myths is not taken seriously by even skeptics who work in this field. In fact, Hutcheson notes,
[O]ne of the differences between the historians and scholars of today and those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is that even many secular, agnostic, and atheist scholars now accept that something extraordinary happened to Jesus’ earliest followers–something that led them to believe Jesus had come back to life after death. Some of the world’s most skeptical New Testament scholars now affirm this, including agnostics such as Bart Ehrman, Jesus Seminar skeptics such as Robert Funk, and secular historians such as Marcus Borg and E.P. Sanders. “There can be no doubt, historically, that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe he was raised from the dead–no doubt whatsoever,” Bart Ehrman concludes. “Jesus’ followers–or at least some of them–came to believe that God had done a great miracle and restored Jesus to life.” (p. 263)
That’s not to say that all of these skeptics have suddenly become believers in Yeshua’s physical, bodily resurrection. Rather, they have simply been forced by the weight of evidence to acknowledge that at least many of Yeshua’s disciples had some experience that convinced them that Yeshua had indeed been raised from the dead: Not simply “a life changing ‘insight’ that they should champion Jesus’ cause, even after his death,” which theologian Hans Kung (who is a moderate, not a fundamentalist) considers “an inadequate explanation for the rise of Christianity” (p. 262). Rather,
Kung holds out for something more like a mystical encounter with the risen Christ, some “proof” that Jesus did not die and “stay dead,” but he admits that, from our vantage point two thousand years later and given the paucity of our evidence, we can never really know what that proof was. (ibid.)
In other words, we cannot recreate the resurrection in the lab to obtain 100% proof that it was the physical, bodily resurrection that Scripture claims. For many, a physical resurrection is so far outside of the context of their everyday lives that they simply cannot bring themselves to believe that it happened. “Christians, at least, have to live with this ambiguity, this lack of certainty,” Hutchinson writes. “That is why Christian faith is faith and not scientific knowledge” (ibid.).
Nevertheless, those who spend their lives studying Yeshua and his earliest followers, even those disinclined to believe in the resurrection, recognize that something extraordinary, even “mystical,” had to have happened. Nothing else adequately explains what would impel those followers who saw Yeshua die to proclaim him the Lord of Life who had triumphed over the grave despite the persecution and even death that they experienced as a result. Therefore, while our faith in the resurrection cannot be 100% proved, it is not irrational for us to believe.
But Why Did Yeshua Have to Die?
“Wait,” you say, “What kind of question is that? Jesus himself said that he came to give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45).” Yes he did, and I’m not taking away from that when I ask if there was more to the plan than providing a substitutionary atonement sacrifice. That sacrifice wipes clean the sins of those who believe, but what of those who do not? If it has no benefit to them, then why does John write, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1Jn. 2:2)? The implication is that what Yeshua accomplished was not simply salvation for individuals–not even on the scale of billions of individuals–but extends even beyond us.
But as Hutcheson points out, there’s another problem with the idea that Yeshua’s sacrifice was necessary to appease a God so angry with humanity that only the voluntary self-sacrifice of his Son would be sufficient to appease it: It’s utterly alien to Yeshua’s own approach to sinners. Yeshua does not put off those seeking forgiveness and redemption. He does not say, “I will die in your place and then you will be forgiven.” He forgives them on the spot! Now, if Yeshua is indeed the incarnate Word of God, the Emanu-El (“God With Us”), the perfect representation of the Divine personality, then doesn’t he hate what God hates and love what God loves? Should he not be angry with those whom God is angry and gentle towards those whom God is gentle? Of course!
And yet, we don’t see him angry with those who had fallen so far that they knew no way out. He never rebukes the demonized for opening up whatever doorway–e.g., occultic practices–that allowed the demons in. He set them free on the moment at their request or that of their families. He speaks with incredible gentleness to a Samaritan woman who had been divorced many times. He called out to tax-collectors–men turned traitors to the nation of Judea in return for money–as his followers. He ate with prostitutes. He touched lepers. He found a legal loophole to prevent the stoning of an adulteress. Yes, he said to her, “Go and sin no more,” but far more often he simply told people, “Your sins are forgiven.”
What was the one thing that made him angry? When he saw religious authorities standing in the way of the repentant.
He trashed the merchants’ tables in the Court of the Gentiles of the temple because they interfered with the Gentiles knowing the truth of God’s love. He reamed the Pharisees who criticized him reaching out to and associating freely with sinners. He had as little to do as possible with the Sadducees, who mis-taught the Scriptures, denied the hope of the resurrection, and filled their personal coffers with the taxes and offerings of pilgrims.
In the next few posts, I’m going to dig deeper into this radical forgiveness, its implications on our understanding of just what the Cross was all about, how it overturned all of human society in every nation in which it has taken hold, and why it is vitally necessary for true human freedom–and why those who wish to control other human beings have always sought to stamp out the Gospel.