Monday, 30 November 2009


We are faced, then, with the question, are Christians running away from history? Before beginning to examine it, we must be clear that this is an absolutely crucial matter. Confucianism could survive even if it were proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Confucius never lived. It is his teaching that is important, not himself. The same is true, more or less, of all the great world religions apart from Judaism and Christianity: history is not important to them.

But with Christianity it is vital. For Christianity is not an ethical system which could be maintained regardless of whether Christ ever lived or not. No, it is basically good news about a unique historical person; someone who was born a mere generation before the evangelists wrote and was executed under the Roman procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. He claimed to embody God's final self-disclosure to men. He backed up that claim by his matchless teaching, the moral miracle of his sinless life, and his well-substantiated resurrection from the grave.

Such, in brief, is the Christian story. There is nothing like it in the religions of the world. It has indeed, features in common with the nature worship which underlay so many of the Eastern religions, based as this was on the annual cycle of the birth, maturity, death and resurrection of the year in its four seasons. The ancient Orient had many variations on this theme in the cults of Dionysus, Attis, Isis and Osiris, Cybele and Mithras; but with Christianity there was one fundamental difference. The Christian claim was attached, as none of these others was, to a recent historical figure, one known personally to some of the writers of the New Testament documents. This is what makes the Christian claim so stark and so challenging. It is all about the Jesus of history. Remove him from Christianity and nothing distinctive is left. Once disprove the historicity of Jesus Christ, and Christianity will collapse like a pack of cards. For it all depends on this fundamental conviction, that God was made manifest in human flesh. And that is a matter not of ideology or mythology but history. How well founded is this Christian claim?

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