By Will Deatherage, Executive Director
“You can’t prove Jesus Christ existed!” This statement is partially correct. After all, I cannot definitively prove that Shakespeare existed, let alone that this article was written by me, Will Deatherage, and not by some artificial intelligence program. For every working hypothesis, there are potentially infinite alternative hypotheses that can interpret the same data in very different ways. How else are we stuck “proving” the world is not flat or that the lunar landings really happened? Having faith is not just a matter of religion. We have faith that the universe is reasonable, that gravity, not invisible micro-pixies, holds us down to the ground, and that several Roman emperors lived, despite an absence of evidence. This faith should not be confused with its Christian virtue, but my point is that all judgments require a leap of assent to uncertain or unprovable conclusions. Said leap is not baseless, though; it is grounded in observations about the real world, and I will argue that our leap to accepting the existence of a historical Jesus is justified by plenty of evidence.
We know of something’s existence because of its effects. For example, if a soccer ball soars through the air, we know that there most likely was a foot that existed and caused its motion. So, to find the root cause of anything, one must always start with its effects and work backwards. The greatest evidence of any person’s existence is the mark they left on the world. Take a figure like George Washington. His incredible courage, resolve, and leadership almost singlehandedly led a group of ill-equipped, untrained men to victory against the dominant empire of their age. Afterwards, he relinquished the presidency when Americans were ready to crown him king. George Washington is an excellent example of a person who almost certainly had to have existed for an effect, the United States, to come about. Likewise, I will argue that if Christianity is the effect that Christ must have been the cause of it.
To estimate the probability that Christianity’s Founder existed as He was portrayed, one must understand the radical teachings Christianity professed, as well as the immeasurable obstacles it had to overcome to flourish. Early Christian doctrine was, in many ways, incredibly different than those of its Jewish predecessor and pagan contemporaries. The multiple attestations of Christ’s ministry and message from the Gospels and Epistles, each written in very different styles by very different people, somehow reflected the same essential teachings. The significance of multiple attestation is often lost in a digital age when original content of authors can be accessed in seconds. Early Christian writers were spread across the Roman empire; many had little contact with each other, and yet the consistency among each of their testimonies is remarkable. The fact that a coherent religious movement with radical values emerged from a diverse group of sources with a similar message and spread like wildfire in a hostile environment lends credence to the existence of one grand event: the death and resurrection of Christ. Speaking of which, this death, so painful, humiliating, and downright embarrassing provides my favorite proof of a historical Jesus.
Come to me heedfully,Isaiah 55:5-6
listen, that you may have life.
I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,
the benefits assured to David.
As I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of nations,
so shall you summon a nation you knew not,
and nations that knew you not shall run to you,
because of the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.
Preceding Christ’s birth, Judaism was in shambles. Having been subjugated and humiliated by many empires, from the Babylon to Rome, God’s chosen people longed for restoration to their mighty kingdom led by Kings David and Solomon. While the religion was severely splintered by the various diasporas spurred by each empire, most Jews expected the fulfilment of God’s promises by means of a messianic warrior king like David. This military commander would have lead conquests greater than those of Joshua, accumulated wealth greater than that of the Egyptians, restored Jewish customs and laws that were perverted by the Greeks, and built a temple more dazzling than Solomon’s.
Imagine the Jews’ surprise when a lower-middle class carpenter, whose controversial teachings disrupted traditional customs, not only claimed to be their messiah but God incarnate. This man dined with the lowest-class, impure, disease-ridden (cleanliness was of utmost importance to Jewish society) sinners, commanded His followers to eat His flesh and drink His blood (a practice despised both by Jews and pagans), and criticized leading scholars of Jewish law despite being hardly literate. To say that Jesus was a scandalous figure in Judaism would be severe understatement. His actions and teachings were not simply revolutionary; they were downright embarrassing. In fact, several teachings of Christ and events in His life were so embarrassing and radical that many scholars (myself included) believe that they could not have possibly materialized out of thin air.
Obviously, Christ’s death was utterly humiliating. Christ’s death was the Pharisees’ “definitive proof” that He could not have possibly been their messiah. The notion of a salvific figure suffering humiliation and death at the hands of His enemies was a massive countercultural narrative that the Romans also would not have likely invented. Essentially, the story of Christ’s death is so utterly humiliating and laughably crazy that it is highly unlikely a religion could have made it up and quickly gained such a dedicated group of followers who died for this seemingly pathetic man, unless something truly extraordinary occurred.
Scattered throughout the Gospels are several other humiliating moments of Jesus’s life that would not have likely been made up. From Christ’s failure to cure a blind man on His first attempt, to His admission that not even He knows when the apocalypse will come, to His immense fear in the Garden of Gethsemane, Mark’s portrayal of Christ suggests a less-than omnipotent and omniscient Jesus. Such details might seem minor to us today, but their inclusion in the canon, despite the scandal they caused, is significant. These issues are explained by Christ’s human nature (a topic for another day), but the point remains that no culture would have portrayed their God as poor, weak, feeble, vulnerable, and limited when the Jewish and Roman expectations for messiahs and godlike figures were so different. In a pantheon of gods, David and Zeus would have armwrestled while Jesus offered His back as a table. He was not your typical god. Fittingly, one of Christ’s most humiliating moments came at the beginning of His adult life, perhaps setting the tone for His ministry.
It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of GalileeMark 1:9-11
and was baptized in the Jordan by John.
On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open
and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens,
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Today, Christ’s humble request for a blessing from John the Baptist, a rival and inferior preacher, is taken for granted. The notion that God incarnate would be blessed by a lowly survivalist dressed in our equivalent of rags was incredibly scandalous. In fact, later Gospels, such as John, recognized this controversy and likely amended it to downplay this element. In the eyes of other religions, God the Father may as well have said “My Son is a total embarrassment, and I am proud of Him.” The existence of a God who suffered, professed scandalous commandments, and died in a humiliating fashion would have been an embarrassment to Himself and all early Christians. The survivability of the Christian faith in these conditions, to me, seems quite low, unless, of course, it was supported by some extraordinary figure and events.
Let us put the controversial Christ into perspective. Imagine a poor, uneducated, homosexual man emerging from a conservative, rural, Evangelical community in the 1950s, professing radically liberal values and claiming to be God incarnate. This man travels to cities, preaches on street corners about the apocalypse, and dies of a drug overdose, naked in an alleyway dumpster. The odds that this kind of person would have inspired thousands to give their lives to him in martyrdom seems highly implausible without some sort of extraordinary activity accompanying his life. Forgive the crude comparison, but to appreciate the radical nature of early Christianity, we must analogize it with an equally lowly, shameful, and scandalous figure in a more familiar setting.
Beloved:1 John 5:1-5
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who indeed is the victor over the world
but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
Evidence does not imply certainty. Even the so-called immovable laws of physics are subject to scrutiny and shift every few hundred years. Today, quantum physics are slowly replacing Newtonian models that were considered absolute one hundred years ago. We can never definitively prove the existence of anyone or anything. But we can and should base our faith on evidence. Considering the insurmountable odds of survival His followers faced, I conclude that there must have been something special about Jesus Christ if such an embarrassing figure could have started a revolution that we know today as Christianity.
Credit to John Meier’s A Marginal Jew series for providing most of the information in this article.
 See Mark 8.
 See Matthew 24.