The earliest answers to that question came from the people who witnessed the resurrection in the 30s and 40s AD. They tended to say three overlapping things about what the resurrection meant, and they got into big trouble with the authorities for all of them.
First, they said it meant that Jesus was the Messiah (or ‘Christ’), the Jewish king they had been waiting for who would bring his rule of justice and peace to the whole earth, and cause the nations to worship Israel’s God. Secondly, they said it meant he was the ‘Lord’, which was the word the Romans used to describe the emperor (and this effectively amounted to the dangerous announcement that the world’s true ruler was Jesus, and not Caesar). And most radically, they said it meant that Yahweh, the God of Israel, had actually become a human in Jesus of Nazareth, so that the artisan-turned-prophet from Galilee, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and who left an empty tomb behind him two days later, was the one through whom the world had been created in the first place.
At the time, the first two of those claims were the ones that made the most waves. Both of them were highly political, and they infuriated just about everybody. The Jews hated the idea that this crucified prophet was their true king, and the Romans often tortured and killed people who thought they could challenge Caesar’s authority. As a result, the early Christians spent the first few centuries regularly being persecuted from pillar to post for political troublemaking.
To me, though, the really shocking claim they made was the third one: that the Creator of the world had become human in Jesus. It took me a long time to grasp how bizarre this statement was, because it had become so familiar; but think about it. The early Christians were not just saying that this man was divine in some mysterious way, because of his inspired work of teaching and healing people. They were saying that there was only one God, and that he had revealed himself in this man, so if you wanted to know what God was like, you needed to look at Jesus. They were saying that the universe’s Creator was best understood through a human being who loved people and made friends, who ate meals and went to parties, who told jokes and cried when sad things happened, who built community, told stories, hated arrogance, welcomed losers and criminals and children, got betrayed, confronted hypocrites, healed sick people, forgave sins, died on behalf of his enemies, and conquered death.
No other monotheists, either then or today, had ever said anything even remotely like this. They were saying that Jesus was, among other things, repainting God for us. He was showing humans, with all our muddled conceptions of deity, what the true God was really like.
The uniqueness of that claim is matched only by its impact.
Writing this book has been something of a journey for me, literally as well as metaphorically. I first got the idea of doing something like this in the depths of winter in Atlantic Canada, when someone asked me how I had come to believe what I believed. I sketched out the chapter ideas in the Dordogne valley in France, sitting by a pool in the early evening while the rest of the family drifted around on inflatables, played cards or made dinner. I came face to face with religious fundamentalism in Kano, and saw some of its consequences at Ground Zero in New York, though I also saw some of its secular equivalents on my travels. I met with pastors in eastern Ukraine who had been forced underground by the militant atheists who ran the Soviet Union, and saw the industrial wasteland that their secular utopia had produced. I wandered around the streets of Paris before anyone was awake one autumn morning, and stared up at Notre Dame, remembering how the atheist revolutionaries had worshipped their new world order by naming it the Temple of Reason, and how Madame Roland had marvelled at the crimes committed in the name of the goddess Liberty, right before they chopped her head off. I peered into glass cases in Dublin, read academic tomes on first-century history in Oxford and Cambridge, reflected on what was wrong with the world in Zimbabwe, and daydreamed about what a redeemed earth might look like in Samoa, Tuscany and New Zealand. And in between times, I sat in coffee shops in Brighton and London, and wondered aloud about truth, origins and redemption.
Wherever I went, though, I couldn’t get away from the impact of Jesus. I discovered it was very difficult to find places on earth where he was irrelevant. Wherever I travelled, there were people who had heard of him, people who laughed at him, people who loved him, people who wanted to destroy anyone who followed him, people who swore by him, people who built exquisite buildings in which to worship him, people who said he was alive, and (pretty much everywhere) people who divided human history into the bits before and after him. It seemed strange that this man, who wrote nothing down, rejected violence and had just 120 disciples when he died – disciples who, for the first several centuries, were widely regarded as blasphemous, politically subversive oddballs – should have had such a global impact. Especially when you consider he told people that, if they wanted to be his followers, they had to give up their rights to money, sex, power, idol-worship and everything else they had. It doesn’t sound like a winning sales pitch to me.
Yet Jesus was successful in repainting God. He completely changed theology. I mean, you can travel to pretty much any country on earth, and you’ll find people there who use the word ‘God’ in the singular, to refer to a being who is loving, a kind of father, someone to whom people pray in expectation of an answer, who cares about creation and wants to fix it, who is high and exalted and yet can be known by human beings. You even find this use of the word ‘God’ shared by people who don’t believe in one. And it’s highly unlikely that, without Jesus, anybody other than Jewish people would think the word ‘God’ meant anything like that. Were it not for Jesus, we might all still be worshipping the gods of the sun and the moon, dancing around phallic symbols and offering sacrifices, like those disturbing islanders from The Wicker Man.
This is an extract from Andrew’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption. It is out now, published by IVP who are offering a generous discount for readers of this blog.