The Case for the Real Jesus: Student Edition
Students today are bombarded with opinions and research about Jesus that goes against everything you’ve been trying to teach them. They don’t know if they can trust what the Bible says about Jesus because they don’t know they can trust the Bible. They wonder if he really rose from the dead, or if he was even God. Let Lee Strobe’s investigations into the real Jesus help your students see the truth about the Son of God.
At first glance, there was nothing unusual about Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California. There were the expected rows upon rows of grave markers, some decorated with flowers, others with small American flags. I meandered through the property and soon came upon a gently sloping hillside. Standing sentry over a wide expanse of grass was a solitary three-foot-tall headstone: IN MEMORY OF THE VICTIMS OF THE JONESTOWN TRAGEDY.
Beneath the ground are the remains of more than 400 Californians who followed the call of self-proclaimed messiah Jim Jones to move to the jungles of South America and build a paradise of racial harmony. Believing his creed of love and equal opportunity, beguiled by his charisma, they put their complete faith in Jones.
His boldest claim: He was the reincarnation of Christ—the real Jesus.
Jones’ followers, intent on living out his doctrine of peace and tolerance, arrived in a remote rainforest of Guyana, only to realize over time that he was building a hellish community of repression and violence. When a visiting U.S. congressman and a group of journalists threatened him with exposure, Jones ordered them ambushed and killed before they could leave on a private plane.
Then Jones issued his now-infamous command: All his followers must drink cyanide-laced punch, and those who refused were shot. Disciples even used syringes to squirt the poison into the mouths of infants. Soon, more than 900 men, women, and children were in the contorted spasms of death under the scorching sun, and Jones ended his own life with a bullet to the head.
The bodies of 409 victims, more than half of them babies and children, were shipped back to California in wooden caskets and buried at Evergreen Cemetery. The Jonestown tragedy happened on November 18, 1978, and since then, few people have visited this section of the cemetery.
On this day, I stood in silence and reverence. As I shook my head at this senseless loss, one thought coursed through my mind: Beliefs have very real consequences.
These victims believed in Jones. They subscribed to his utopian vision. His belief became theirs. But the ultimate truth is this: Faith is only as good as the one you believe in.
WHO IS JESUS?
Search for Jesus at Amazon.com and you’ll find 175,986 books—and, yes, now there’s one more (which you’re holding). Google Jesus’ name and in the blink of an eye, you’ll get 165 million references. Invite people to tell you who they think the real Jesus is—as Jon Meacham and
Sally Quinn did at On Faith (a Web site produced by Newsweek and The Washington Post) just before Christmas in 2006—and you’ll soon be buried in an avalanche of wildly differing opinions, as these excerpts demonstrate:
- “Jesus is real, in the sense that he exists for those who want him to exist.”
- “By today’s standards, Jesus was a liberal.”
- “Jesus was Everyman. His name could have as well been Morris. Too bad he was in male form this time around.
Better luck next time.”
• “I believe Jesus is the Son of God. I believe I am a son of God.”
• “Jesus was an enlightened being.”
• “It’s not even obvious that Jesus was a historical figure.
If he was, the legends around him—a Son of God who was born of a virgin, worked miracles, and rose from the dead—were common stories in the ancient Near East. The myths about Jesus are not even original.”
- “Jesus is about as ‘real’ as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or King Arthur.”
- “There is no separation or distinction between where God leaves off and where we begin. We are all One, all Divine, just like Jesus.”
- “Jesus was a man we should pity more than revile or worship. He suffered from what contemporary psychologists now know to be delusions of grandeur, bipolar disorder, and probably acute schizophrenia.”
- “Jesus is a fairy tale for grown-ups. Unfortunately, he’s a fairy tale that leads people to bomb clinics, despise women, denigrate reason, and embrace greed.”
- “Who was Jesus? He was an apocalyptic prophet who bet wrong and died as a result. He should be ignored, not celebrated.”
As you can see, after two thousand years there’s not exactly consensus about the founder of Christianity.
In spite of all this disagreement about Jesus, he’s everywhere.
I’m not talking about the theological idea of Jesus being spiritually present in all places. I’m talking about pop culture.
Here are just a few of the prominent places where Jesus has “appeared” recently:
• The Da Vinci Code (novel, 2003; movie, 2006): Jesus as a mortal prophet. This fictional mystery claims that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children whose descendants are still living today.
• College and university classrooms: Jesus as a legendary character. According to a 2006 study by professors from Harvard and George Mason universities, more than half of college professors believe the Bible is “an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts.” Less than one-fifth of the general population believes the same.
• South Park (airing on Comedy Central since 1992): Jesus as a call-in talk-show host.
All this buzz about Jesus might make you wonder if it’s possible to find the real Jesus. That depends on how you answer a more foundational question: Are you willing to set aside your preconceptions to let the evidence take you wherever it will?
This book was published in 1998. Since then the Jesus of historic Christianity has come under increasingly fierce attacks. From college classrooms to best-selling books to the Internet, scholars and popular writers are seeking to debunk the traditional Christ. They’re capturing the public’s imagination with radical new portraits of Jesus that look very different from the time-honored picture embraced by the Church.
Six specific challenges currently circulating in popular culture are among the most powerful and prevalent objections to Christianity. They’ve left many Christians scratching their heads and feeling unsure how to respond, and they’ve confused countless spiritual seekers about who Jesus is—or whether they can come to any solid conclusions about him. Even Christians like me, people who’ve been convinced for years, have found ourselves troubled by these challenges that threaten to undermine everything we think we know about Jesus Christ.
Challenge #1: Scholars are uncovering a radically different Jesus through ancient documents just as credible as the four Gospels.
Challenge #2: The Bible’s portrait of Jesus can’t be trusted because the church tampered with the text.
Challenge #3: New explanations have disproved Jesus’ resurrection.
Challenge #4: Christianity’s beliefs about Jesus were copied from pagan religions.
Challenge #5: Jesus was an impostor who failed to fulfill the prophecies about the Messiah.
Challenge #6: People should be free to pick and choose what to believe about Jesus.
I started hearing these kinds of challenges a few years ago.
As someone whose road to faith was paved with painstakingly researched facts and logic, I simply couldn’t gloss over these issues. They’re too central to the identity of Jesus. I had no choice but to open myself to the possibility they could legitimately unravel the traditional understanding of Christ. For the sake of my own intellectual integrity, I needed answers. And to get them, I needed to hit the road.
My itinerary was already taking shape in my mind: For starters,
I was determined to let the hard evidence of history and the cool demands of reason lead me to a verdict—no matter what it turned out to be.
This book is your invitation to join with me as I retrace the steps of my investigative adventure. We won’t need our duffle bags, just open minds and a willingness to follow the facts wherever they take us—even if it’s to a conclusion that challenges us on the very deepest levels.