Why Jesus is God: Debunking skeptics Print
Word on Fire
Thursday, Apr. 24, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

It's Easter time, and that means that the mainstream media and publishing houses can be counted upon to issue debunking attacks on orthodox Christianity.

The best-publicized of these is Bart Ehrman's book, How Jesus Became God. Once a devout Bible-believing evangelical Christian, trained at Wheaton College, the alma mater of Billy Graham, Ehrman "saw the light" and became an agnostic scholar and is on a mission to undermine the fundamental assumptions of Christianity.

Jesus just an 'itinerant preacher'

In this most recent tome, Ehrman lays out what is actually a very old thesis, going back at least to the 18th century and repeated ad nauseam in skeptical circles ever since, namely, that Jesus was a simple itinerant preacher who never claimed to be divine and whose "resurrection" was in fact an invention of his disciples who experienced hallucinations of their master after his death.

Ehrman, like so many of his skeptical colleagues across the centuries, presents this thesis as though he has made a brilliant discovery. But basically, it's the same old story.

Ehrman's major argument for the thesis that Jesus did not consider himself divine is that explicit statements of Jesus' divine identity can be found only in the later fourth Gospel of John, whereas the three Synoptic Gospels, earlier and thus presumably more historically reliable, do not feature such statements from Jesus or the Gospel writers.

Affirmations of divinity in Gospels

This is so much nonsense. It is indeed the case that the most direct affirmations of divinity are found in John -- "I and the Father are one"; "before Abraham was, I am"; "He who sees me sees the Father," etc. But equally clear statements of divinity are on display in the Synoptics, provided we know how to decipher a different semiotic system.

For example, in Mark's Gospel, we hear that as the apostolic band is making its way toward Jerusalem with Jesus, "they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid" (Mk. 10:32). Awe and terror are typical reactions to the presence of Yahweh in the Old Testament.

Similarly, when Matthew reports that Jesus, at the beginning of the last week of his earthly life, approached Jerusalem from the east, by way of Bethany and the Mount of Olives, he is implicitly affirming Ezekiel's prophecy that the glory of the Lord, which had departed from his temple, would return from the east, by way of the Mount of Olives.

And affirmations of divinity on the lips of Jesus himself abound in the Synoptics. When he says, in Matthew's Gospel, "He who does not love me more than his mother or father is not worthy of me," he is implying that he himself is the greatest possible good.

When in Luke's Gospel, he says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away," he is identifying himself with the very Word of God.

Believing in miracles

And now to the "hallucinations." Most of the skeptical critics of Christianity subscribe to some version of David Hume's account of the miraculous. Hume said that since no reasonable person could possibly believe in miracles, those who claimed to have experienced a miracle must be unreasonable. They must, then, be delusional or naïve or superstitious.

Hume's logic was unconvincing in the 18th century, and it hasn’t improved with age. Yes, if we assume that miracles are impossible, then those who report them are, to some degree, insane.

But what if we keep an open mind and assume that miracles are, though rare, possible? Then we can look at their reports with unjaundiced eyes.

Resurrection appearance accounts

When we turn to the resurrection appearance accounts in the New Testament, we find reports of many people who experienced Jesus alive after his death and burial: Peter, John, Mary Magdalene, the twelve, "500 brothers at once," and Paul. Does it strike you as reasonable that all these people were having hallucinations of the same person?

The case of Paul is especially instructive. Ehrman argued that the visions of the risen Jesus were created in the anxious brains of his grief-stricken disciples. But Paul wasn’t grieving for Jesus at all; in fact, he was actively persecuting Jesus' followers.

He didn't crave communion with a dead master; he was trying to stamp out the memory of someone he took to be a pernicious betrayer of Judaism. And yet, his experience of the risen Jesus was so powerful that it utterly transformed his life and he went to his death defending the objectivity of it.

In some ways, it is testimony to the enduring power of the Christian faith that the nay-sayers feel obliged to repeat their tired arguments over and over. Faithful believers simply have to declare their Christianity with confidence and, patiently but firmly, tell the critics that they’re wrong.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at www.WordOnFire.org