Liar, Lunatic, Lord?
That’s the title of a sermon that my friend and former pastor, Jonathan Hoskin gave on Aug. 9, 2009 (http://www.holytrinitycalgary.org/downloads/aug0909.mp3).
I don’t normally remember the names of sermons (I did have to look up the date, I confess), but this one stuck with me – and not in an entirely good way.
I don’t mean it wasn’t a good sermon; it was. It cited C.S. Lewis’s common-sense assertions in Mere Christianity that Jesus can’t be viewed as merely a very astute teacher or a wise sage. Given what He said about Himself, there are only three possibilities: He was lying, He was delusional or He was exactly what He said He was – nothing less than God in the Flesh.
It’s a great, pithy pee-or-get-off-the-pot piece of wisdom, and I thank God for inspiring C.S. Lewis to write it in his incredible book, and for inspiring Jonathan to preach a similar sentiment in his excellent sermon.
But what troubles me about this neat-and-tidy hunk of logic is that it doesn’t address the fourth, very real, possibility – that the Gospels are fiction, not fact.
“Archeology is the search for fact … not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”
– Indiana Jones
“But what is truth? Not easy to define. We both have truths. Are yours the same as mine?”
– Pilate to Christ in Jesus Christ Superstar
Alexander (regarding Klingon mythology): “Are these stories true?”
Worf: “I find new truths in them every day.”
(Possibly paraphrased, from Star Trek: The Next Generation)
Generally speaking, I’m a just-the-facts kind of guy – or I try to be, at least.
Although I don’t have the right sort of intelligence (or perhaps the right amount) to be a scientist, I’m a firm believer in making decisions and judgments based on empirical evidence, like scientists do.
Similarly, I’m a big fan of science’s approach to understanding the nature of things: you come up with the best possible theory to fit the facts as you understand them, and then do your absolute best to try to disprove that theory. Science, in its pure form, is cold, emotionless and dispassionate – purely logical. Therefore, I ran into some trouble when I first started to really believe in this Christianity thing.
Prior to that, I’d taken a Worfian approach to Scripture along these lines: The historical accuracy of Bible stories (or lack thereof) isn’t the point; they contain wisdom, so embrace them and soak up as many of the lessons as you can.
Even today, I think this is a pretty healthy way to look at the Old Testament. Arguing about whether God really created the universe in 144 hours – or if Noah, Adam and all those guys really lived for 900 years; or if Goliath was actually 10 feet tall – doesn’t get you anywhere. The question of whether these stories are mythology or history doesn’t affect how much we can learn from them about God and ourselves.
But it’s tougher for me to look at the New Testament that way – particularly the Gospels. If these events didn’t actually happen – if Jesus wasn’t God-made-Flesh, who died for our sins to be resurrected two days later, after conquering Sin and Death – are we actually redeemed? Do we even need to be?
For the first few years after I started attending church as an adult, I sort of tabled those questions for a later date, worshipped in a somewhat half-hearted way and viewed the Gospels in the same Worfian way as the Old Testament – little more than extremely profound and useful literature.
But after a while, the Gospels started to stir my soul in a way that Aesop’s Fables never could, and that didn’t make sense. ‘How and why could this happen?’ I wondered (and still wonder). ‘From a dispassionate, fact-based perspective, the absolute absence of scientific documentation, or even journalistic integrity, in the writing of the Gospels, means that the books simply cannot be viewed as non-fiction.’
‘Absolutely correct,’ I acknowledged to myself. ‘There’s no empirical reason this book should touch you any more deeply than a well-written Hallmark card. But maybe it doesn’t merely contain truths, but Truth. Whether the stories are entirely factual or not, maybe God is in there.’
This concept was revolutionary for me. There’s reason to believe that the Gospel writers took a bit of poetic licence to make sure the story of Jesus agrees with Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, but so what! Could the power of God be limited by the probability that the Gospels were written after the Romans levelled Jerusalem, which makes Jesus’ ‘predictions’ about the destruction of the Temple somewhat less amazing? Even the fact that the content of the Christian Bible as we know it today – not to mention the central, pivotal Trinitarian view – were standardized in the centuries following Jesus’ life by imperfect men, through the imperfect processes of politicking, negotiating and debate, as much as through prayer and reflection, doesn’t really matter. These flaws are earthly; the stuff of humans, which is quite a trivial (or non-existent) limitation for the Creator of the Universe.
Even if the Bible and even Christianity itself – created by imperfect Man – are therefore equally imperfect, I believe God has chosen to be in there. He has redeemed the woefully dubious process that led to the creation if the Bible, thereby fully redeeming the Bible itself, and delivering Himself to us in its pages.
And if He can redeem a book, surely He can redeem me, too.
For my money, the kind of God who goes to those lengths – right under our noses and yet without our noticing it – just to make it possible for each of us to connect with Him is no less awesome as the one we read about in the Bible.
Therefore, the question ‘What if the Gospel is pure fiction?’ doesn’t bother me at all anymore.
But the other day, God threw another question at me: ‘What if the Gospel is pure fact?’
Hmm. That’s interesting: If the Gospels were proven to be 100% historically accurate, would my faith look or feel any different?
And if the answer to that question is Yes, what does that say about the authenticity of my faith as it stands today?
Just when I thought I had it all figured out.
Peace be with you.