I’m sometimes surprised to see how quickly young Christians are shaken when they first encounter a well-articulated objection (or opposing claim) from someone denying the truth of the Christian worldview. When we first started taking missions trips to the University of California at Berkeley, I watched my Christian students to see how they would react when confronted by impassioned atheists. Some were genuinely disturbed by what they heard. Protected by their parents for most of their young Christian lives, it was as if they weren’t even aware of alternative explanations. Now, as juniors and seniors in high school, they were hearing the “other side” for the first time, and the atheist ambassadors we placed before them were eloquent, passionate and thorough. Many of these students wondered how these atheists could be wrong, given the length and earnest (even zealous) nature of their presentations. But after sitting in hundreds of criminal trials of one nature or another, I’ve learned something important: The fact the opposition can make a case (even an articulate, robust and earnest case), doesn’t mean it’s true.
Last Friday, I attended the sentencing hearing for my latest cold-case murder investigation. Douglas Bradford killed Lynne Knight in 1979 and we convicted him of this murder in August of 2014, nearly 35 years (to the day) after the murder. The investigation and trial appeared on Dateline (in an episode entitled, “The Wire”). I arrested Bradford in 2009 and he retained Robert Shapiro (famed attorney from the O.J. Simpson case). Shapiro and his co-counsel, Sara Caplan, presented a robust defense of Bradford, and he thanked both of them during the sentencing hearing. Along the way, Shapiro and Caplan articulated the opposing case thoroughly and with conviction. In addition, Bradford made a short, emphatic statement of his own at his sentencing, saying: ““The murder of Lynne Knight is a terrible tragedy. I want you to hear me very clearly now. I did not murder Lynn Knight. I am an innocent man, wrongly convicted. I’m mad as hell. I’m paying for somebody else’s crime. This is a horrendous, horrendous miscarriage of justice.” That’s a pretty direct (and perhaps convincing) denial, and these were the first words any of us heard from Bradford during the entire investigation, arrest, and trial (Bradford refused to talk to us and did not take the stand in his own defense). His attorneys were even more passionate and direct in their statements to the jury during the criminal trial and the sentencing hearing. They spent hours articulating the many reasons why the case against Bradford was deficient and inadequate as they continued to proclaim his innocence.
My cold-cases are incredibly difficult to investigate and communicate to a jury. Remember, these cases were originally unsolved, and for good reason. There were no eyewitnesses to any of my murders and none of my cases benefit from definitive forensic evidence like DNA (or even fingerprints). My cases are entirely circumstantial. Defense attorneys love to argue against these kinds of cases, and I have seen many attorneys present compelling alternative explanations over the years. Jurors have sometimes been moved by these defense presentations. But none of them have been fooled. I never lost a single case in my career as a cold-case detective, in spite of the robust arguments of the defense attorneys involved.
A few years ago I investigated another cold-case (this time from the early 1980’s). Michael Lubahn killed his wife, Carol, and disposed of her body, telling her family she left him. This case also went unsolved for over 30 years. Lubahn’s attorney whole-heartedly believed Lubahn was innocent and passionately defended him in front of the jury. Unlike Bradford, Lubahn actually took the stand during his defense and repeatedly denied he was involved in any way. Lubahn and his attorney articulated their case ardently and earnestly, and Lubahn’s attorney presented a lengthy closing argument in support of his position. But, like Bradford, none of it was true. At his sentencing hearing, Lubahn eventually confessed to killing Carol. His attorney was dumbfounded. He truly believed Lubahn was innocent and had crafted a through defense. But Michael Lubahn was a killer all along (this case was also covered by Dateline in an episode entitled “Secrets in the Mist”).
I’ve come to expect the opposing defense team will present a well-crafted, earnest, engaging, and seemingly true argument. But an argument isn’t evidence. Since that first trip to Berkeley, I’ve been teaching this to my students. Don’t be shaken just because the other side can articulate a defense. This happens all the time in criminal trials, even when our defendants are obviously (and even admittedly) guilty. Be ready in advance for passionate, robust, articulate, alternative explanations. But remember, the fact the other side can make a case doesn’t mean it’s true.
Just before leaving the disciples, Jesus gathered them together and commissioned them with an important task. He told them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus understood the importance of discipleship (the process of making disciples). In fact, it was so important, He made sure it was His last directive to those who followed Him. What precisely is discipleship and why is it so important? Is it simply a matter of making converts? No, it’s much more. The process of making disciples is often misunderstood and neglected in the Church today, and as a result, we are in danger of losing our identity as Christians. Christian discipleship is critical to Christian survival.
Even secular dictionaries recognize discipleship as something more than simply creating “members” or “converts”. Dictionary.com describes a disciple as “a person who is a pupil or an adherent of the doctrines of another.” Webster’s online dictionary defines a disciple as “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another.” At least one aspect of discipleship involves learning the doctrines of a particular system or teacher. This intellectual aspect of being a disciple is affirmed in the Bible. The Greek word used for “disciple” in the New Testament is “mathētḗs” and its root, “math-“, means the "mental effort needed to think something through". Disciples are “learners”, “scholars” and followers of Christ who “learn the doctrines of Scripture and the lifestyle they require”. There is an important connection between doctrine and behavior. It’s not enough to simply follow Jesus’ moral teaching related to behavior, true disciples must understand the doctrines of Christianity. What does our worldview teach, theologically or philosophically? How are we to make a defense (1 Peter 3:15), hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with this teaching (Titus 1:9), recognize a heresy when we see one (Titus 3:10), and guard the treasure which has been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14)? Becoming a disciple means becoming a learner.
Sadly, many in the Church have neglected this important aspect of discipleship, and their hesitancy to celebrate the life of the mind continues to put the Church in great peril. History demonstrates the importance of discipleship and the life of the mind. In the early 19th Century, the lack of discipleship resulted in the rise of several heretical religious worldviews. From the 1790’s to the 1840’s the movement known as the “Second Great Awakening” spread through the young American nation. This Protestant movement was wildly successful in gaining converts, but not nearly as successful in discipling new believers. The Second Great Awakening was facilitated by a number of charismatic preachers (Charles Finney was perhaps the most famous). These preachers were excellent communicators and their camp-style revivals were designed to solicit responses from the people who heard them. These same preachers, however, were less than effective in establishing a discipleship process for the new Christian converts. In the wake of the revival meetings, new converts were left largely on their own; local churches were not ready to teach and mentor those who were now interested in learning the truth about Jesus. As a result, a number of groups emerged simultaneously: The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), The Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Seventh-day Adventist Church (from which Jehovah’s Witnesses eventually appeared), and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church were all the result of rapid growth followed by inadequate discipleship.
It’s not enough to embrace the name of Jesus. There are lots of groups (including Muslims) who include Jesus’ name in their scripture. We must understand, acknowledge and embrace the true Jesus. It’s not enough to live morally as Jesus might have lived. There are lots of well-behaved people in every religious (and non-religious) worldview. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we must learn the true doctrines of Christianity, be ready to make a defense, hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with this true Christian teaching, recognize a heresy when we see one, and guard the treasure which has been entrusted to us. Becoming a disciple requires each of us to become a learner.
The intellectual aspect of Christian discipleship is just as important today as it has ever been. Mormons, for example continue to convert people to their worldview, distorting the nature of Jesus, God the Father, salvation, scripture and heaven as they present a clear heresy to those they convert. Who, statistically, are converted to Mormonism at the greatest rate? Undiscipled Christians. Many young Christians walk away from the Church in their college years after sitting in University classes taught by outspoken atheists. Who, once again, leaves the Church at the highest rate? Undiscipled young Christians. Discipleship produces Christ-followers who look more and more like Jesus. That’s a good, important goal. But beyond this, discipleship, protects believers from error and heresy. When we know the truth well enough to defend it in our own mind, we’ll actually defend it in our own mind when presented with a lie. True discipleship celebrates the role of the mind in the Christian life and prepares Christian disciples to live the Christian life, even as they are defending the Christian truth. That’s why Christian discipleship is critical to Christian survival.
What would we know about Jesus if we lost every Biblical manuscript on the planet? Could we have any certainty Jesus actually lived, and would we be able to re-capture any of the details of his life or nature? As it turns out, there are several ancient sources of information about Jesus. Some of these are from pagan, non-Christian authors (I’ve written about these sources here at Cold-Case Christianity). But there are even more compelling early non-Biblical accounts we can reference in an effort to understand who Jesus is (and was). We can still read the accounts of those early Christians who learned directly from the Biblical authors. Ignatius and Polycarp were direct students of the Apostle John; Clement was a direct student of the Apostle Paul. These students later became leaders in the early Christian Church and wrote their own letters to local congregations. Seven letters from Ignatius still survive, along with one letter from Polycarp and Clement. These are the earliest non-Biblical accounts we have describing the life and nature of Jesus. They are not in your Bible, but the information provided by these students of the Biblical authors is compelling. It provides us with the earliest snapshot of Jesus, and demonstrates the story of Jesus was not distorted or modified in the centuries between Jesus’ ministry and the first Church Councils. Here is a brief summary of what we can know about Jesus from the earliest Non-Biblical authors:
The Old Testament Prophets Predicted Jesus as the Messiah
Ignatius said the prophets predicted and waited for Jesus who was in the line of King David. Clement also said the prophets predicted the life and ministry of Jesus.
Jesus Was Born Miraculously
Ignatius said Jesus was (and is) the “Son of God.” He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and a star announced His birth. Jesus came forth from God the Father and was born of the Virgin Mary.
Jesus Had a Powerful Earthly Ministry
Ignatius said Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. He was the “perfect” man and manifested the will and knowledge of God the Father. He taught and had a “ministry” on earth. He was the source of wisdom and taught many commandments, speaking the words of God. Ointment was poured on Jesus’s head. Polycarp also said Jesus was sinless. According to Polycarp, Jesus taught commandments and preached the Sermon on the Mount. Clement also said Jesus provided His disciples with important instruction. According to Clement, Jesus taught principles as described by Mark and Luke. He was humble and unassuming.
Jesus Suffered and Died on a Cross
Ignatius said Jesus was unjustly treated and condemned by men. He suffered and was crucified, dying on the cross. Jesus allowed this to happen as a sacrifice and offering to God the Father. This all took place under the government of Pontius Pilate, when Herod the Tetrarch was king. Polycarp also said Jesus suffered and died on a cross and Jesus died for our sins. In addition, Clement said Jesus was whipped and suffered and died for our salvation. According to Clement, Jesus died as a payment for our sin.
Jesus Rose from the Grave
Ignatius said Jesus was resurrected and had a physical resurrection body. He appeared to Peter and the others after the resurrection. He encouraged the disciples to touch Him after the resurrection and ate with the disciples as well. The disciples were convinced by the resurrection appearances. The disciples were fearless after seeing the risen Christ. Polycarp also said Jesus was raised from the dead, and His resurrection assures we will also be raised.
Jesus Demonstrated His Deity in the Resurrection
Ignatius said Jesus returned to God the Father. Jesus was (and is) the manifestation of God the Father and is united to Him. Jesus is our only Master and the Son of God. He is the “Door,” the “Bread of Life,” and the “Eternal Word.” Jesus is our High Priest, “Lord” and “God.” He is “our Savior” and the way to “true life.” Polycarp also said Jesus ascended to heaven and is seated at God’s right hand. According to Polycarp, all things are subject to Jesus and He will judge the living and the dead. Jesus is our “Savior” and “Lord.” In addition, Clement said Jesus was resurrected from the dead and is alive and reigning with God. His resurrection makes our resurrection certain. According to Clement, Jesus is “Lord” and the Son of God. He possesses eternal glory and majesty. All creation belongs to Him. Jesus is our “refuge” and our “High Priest.” He is our “defender” and “helper.”
Jesus Has the Power to Save Us
Ignatius said Jesus now lives in us and we live forever as a result of our faith in Christ. He has the power to transform us and His sacrifice glorifies us. Faith in Christ’s work on the cross saves us, and this salvation and forgiveness are gifts of grace from God. Polycarp also said Jesus’ death on the cross and our faith in Jesus’s work on the cross saves us. According to Polycarp, we are saved by grace. In addition, Clement said we are saved by the “grace” of God through faith in Jesus.
The earliest non-Biblical accounts of Jesus match the record we presently have in the New Testament. The story of Jesus was not distorted over the years, and even if we lost every Biblical manuscript on the planet we could still re-assemble the ancient details of Jesus’ life, ministry and nature. The Old Testament prophets predicted Jesus as the Messiah, He was born miraculously, had a powerful earthly ministry, suffered and died on a cross, rose from the grave, and demonstrated His Deity in the Resurrection. Jesus alone has the power to save us. The earliest non-Biblical authors have a lot to say about Jesus, and their words confirm and verify the eyewitness Gospel accounts we have in the New Testament. Visit the ColdCaseChristianity.com homepage to download this month’s free Bible Insert so you can easily recall what the earliest non-Biblical authors say about Jesus.
All of us need a little help at one time or another. When times get tough and we need some wise advice, we can turn to our friends, our parents, our mentors or the wise philosophers and thinkers of the past. I’ve known people who have gleaned comfort and wisdom from historic thinkers or writers like Mahatma Ghandi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or even John Lennon. Wise sources from the past seem every bit as reasonable as more current ones, especially when the wisdom of these thinkers has been vetted and embraced by individuals and cultures across the ages. By contrast, few people would consider Barney the Dinosaur or Yoda to be reasonable sources for such wisdom. Why not? After all, Barney and Yoda have actually offered many wise statements, and some of these statements may even apply to whatever hardship you’re experiencing at this time in your life. Given the wise advice offered by Barney and Yoda, why don’t we embrace them as reliable sources of wisdom? You know why: Barney and Yoda are fictional characters. While we may find some truth in the words of such characters, we typically reject them as consistent, reliable sages. So, to which category does Jesus belong? Is he a wise teacher from who we can gain wisdom, or a fictional character we ought to reject?
Some believe Jesus falls in the latter category. Earlier this year, a story broke in Memphis, Tennessee when a teacher rejected Jesus as a reasonable source of wisdom and comfort. 10 year old Erin Shead was attending Lucy Elementary in Memphis. Her teacher assigned a simple project: write about someone you idolize. Erin chose God. “I look up to God,” she wrote. “I love him and Jesus, and Jesus is His earthly son. I also love Jesus.” Erin’s teacher objected to her choice and told her Jesus could not be the subject of her short project. She told Erin to start over again, and allowed her to pick Michael Jackson as the subject of her report. Erin’s mom brought the case before the School Board. The Board eventually agreed with the Shead’s and permitted Erin to write about Jesus. Why would anyone consider Michael Jackson but reject Jesus as a credible source of wisdom and admiration? While it is most likely due to a growing bias against theism in general, it may also be due to disbelief in Jesus as a true person from history.
Over the past ten years or so, a number of popular works have challenged the historicity of Jesus in significant ways. Films like The God Who Wasn’t There and Zeitgeist: The Movie have garnered millions of views on the Internet. Both films challenge the historicity of Jesus and argue Jesus is nothing more than a borrowed mythological character, crafted from prior similar mythologies. Popular writers and authors such as David Fitzgerald, Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price have advanced this notion in their own publications. As our culture becomes increasingly hostile to the Christian Worldview, authors and filmmakers who depict Jesus as a fictional character will be ever more popular. If Jesus is like Barney or Yoda, there’s really no reason to listen to His teaching or embrace His message.
But Jesus is not like Barney or Yoda. The evidence for the historicity of Jesus is significant and compelling. Jesus is not a re-creation of early mythologies. His existence was confirmed by non-Biblical ancient historical sources and was accurately preserved over the centuries. Even the non-canonical authors affirm the true existence of Jesus. The historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is so compelling and overwhelming, even an ardent agnostic skeptic like Bart Ehrman has written publicly about the topic (in an e-book entitled, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth). Ehrman may not be a Christian, but he know Jesus was a real historical character. The historicity of Jesus has been established by credible historians and critics, even if denied by popular authors and filmmakers.
You and I, as Christians, need to master the case for the historicity of Jesus. It matters. If Jesus really lived, he is a candidate for our attention, just like Ghandi, Emerson or Lennon. His words are more than clever fiction invented by an anonymous playwright or author. They are Jesus’ words of wisdom, captured for eternity. The historicity of Jesus matters because it allows us to talk about Jesus in a culture which only accepts real people as wise sages worthy of consideration. If we are allowed to talk about the way Ghandi’s wisdom impacted us on a personal level, we ought to be allowed to talk about how Jesus’ wisdom changed our lives. Jesus is a viable candidate because Jesus was a real person. That’s why the historicity of Jesus matters.