This is in response (is it really in response if nobody reads it?) to a post an old friend wrote last week. We’ve lost touch for a number of silly reasons too dumb to mention. I think one of those reasons is Jesus. You see, my friend is an atheist and though Jesus bothers me very much, my friend’s post claims that Christ never bothered him. I feel like he must be speaking in terms of his time as an atheist because when you are following him, Jesus has a tendency to make you quite uncomfortable. In fact, if he doesn’t bother you, I don’t think you’re grasping what Jesus is saying at all.
The people who wrote the gospels were all believers. That is, they believed that Jesus was something very special. In one way or another they believed Jesus was Emmanuel – God with us. Whether or not they had developed what’s called a High Christology (Jesus as second person in The Trinity, equal with God…etc) is questionable. The first century church was not at all harmonized in their beliefs about Jesus and there were debates about what it meant to be “saved” from the get go.
The first piece of Christian literature, Galatians, is about one of these arguments. In it Paul comes out swinging against some Jewish believers who have been recommending that the churches in Galatia (there were 4 of them) start practicing circumcision. Paul’s frustration with the legalist believers culminates in expressing his desire that those men go and cut off, not just part, but the entirety of their genitalia. Thirteen years before he wrote this letter, Paul would not only have sympathized with these men, but concluded that they had not gone far enough because they were not killing the believers. As he wrote Galatians he was defending the freedom that Christ had given him and the churches of Galatia against all challengers. Something changed this man. Jesus had bothered Paul very much.
Around 33 A.D. Pontius Pilate had Jesus of Nazareth crucified. It was a very insignificant event. More than anything else it seems that Jesus was bothering the Jews and the Jews were bothering Pilate and Pilate didn’t like to be bothered. In the grand scheme of things, Pilate’s primary reason for sentencing Jesus to death may have been so he could get back to sleep. It was another boring day for the governor of the armpit of the Roman Empire. Later that same year the disciples who had followed Jesus started preaching that he was alive. This is significant because the Jews produced messiahs by the dozens and many of them were crucified by the romans. For some reason the Jesus movement had come back to life and was quickly gaining followers amongst the Jewish population.
What strikes me is this: there are a lot of good reasons for this not to have happened. Jesus was the movement. The disciples abandoned him when he was taken away. The chief among them, Peter, when faced with the same fate, denied ever knowing Jesus. After they saw first hand what happened to Jesus, these same men proclaimed his name fearlessly until nearly all of them were tortured and killed for it.
The Jews who converted had very little reason to follow Jesus. The Book of Acts says, during Pentecost, they laughed at the disciples, who seemed to be drunk, but after hearing Peter’s words they decided to sell whatever they could so they could stay near the disciples and one another. To be Jewish in the first century under the Roman Empire was not just to be part of a religion. To give it up was to give up one’s entire cultural identity. Before long they would be forbidden to even enter the Synagog. Their entire way of knowing God was quickly cut off from them, their families shunned them and yet they clung to Jesus. Something changed these people. Jesus bothered them very much.
But none of this matters.
Because none of it is absolute proof of anything. If you want you can find compelling arguments for why none of this can possibly have been due to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. If you look for it you will find compelling arguments that prove the bible is entirely fabricated and untrustworthy. If you look for them you will find compelling arguments that Jesus never existed or, if he did exist, he was just a man and he became Christ because that’s what people wanted him to be. You can also find compelling arguments that compellingly argue that these arguments are not all that compelling. None of this matters. But you can’t say that Jesus doesn’t bother the people making these arguments.
C.S. Lewis once proposed something people now call “Lewis’ Trilemma.” It is an argument for Jesus as The Christ and as God with us. My friend calls it foolishness because the trilemma (derived from things Jesus said about himself and what it might mean about a person who said them) is taken from the scripture and he considers scripture unreliable. My friend contends that if Lewis had thought a little harder he would not have said something so “embarrassing.” (Note: Lewis taught mythology for a living and after reading the gospels in their original languages concluded that they lacked the halmarks of mythology. Also, his conversion to deism and then Christian Theism is known to have been a begrudging one.) Yet the embarrassment my friend piles on Professor Lewis’ head is derived from his own belief in someone else’s argument on the reliability of the Christian Gospels. It becomes a matter of “who do you trust” or, put more simply, a matter of faith. I place some faith Lewis’ intellect and credentials, but again, none of this matters. Jesus bothered Clive a whole lot.
I think Jesus still bothers my friend quite a bit. Peter Hitchens (Christian brother of the infamous Atheist Christopher Hitchens) says in his book The Rage Against God “A polemicist writes first and foremost to convince himself.” In other words, myself and others make arguments like the ones you’re reading to convince ourselves as much as others. Taken a little further it means that we argue that we are right about the things we have doubts we are right about. (We are funny creatures aren’t we?) I think I write posts like this one (on a blog nobody reads) in order to wrestle with my fears that there is nothing out there; no God; no purpose; no reason why this world has so much pain; fear that my life is about as meaningful as a turnip. If these things didn’t bother me I wouldn’t write at all. I would stay silent and peaceful in my forgone conclusions about God and have no need to write about them.
So what do I think about Jesus? He bothers me so much that I can’t keep myself from trying to figure him out. The things he says debase the foundations of my self-image as a “good man.” They are indeed like a sword that threatens to cut me away from everything comfortable and send me out on a fantastic journey to fight a battle that I know can’t be won. They give me hope that this world is not just one big joke that we must try and laugh at while it tears us apart. Jesus bothers me so much that, like the ones he called, I have been compelled to walk with him awhile; to see if HE is worth believing in, regardless of the frustration and disillusionment I feel toward those who claim his name. Because if I find He’s alive…then none of this matters.
I hope Jesus always bothers me.