Tom Gilson

The Beauty of Jesus Christ

God is good, and his goodness is shown more clearly in Jesus Christ than in any other way. This is a strong beauty in Jesus Christ.

“Beauty” is not a word we generally apply to men, but this post (redated and reposted here) was originally an introduction to a series I did some time ago on the beauty of the entire Christian faith, and the Christian way of thinking. Mathematicians speak of and see beauty in their demonstrations. Scientists consider beauty (elegance, simplicity, fit, etc.) to be a sign of a theory’s truth, an indicator of accuracy. There is beauty in Christianity.When I first put my faith in Jesus Christ, I had seen and was persuaded by strong evidences that the Bible’s historical record could be trusted. Those evidences are as strong as ever, but they are not absolute proof. I’ve read at length about various philosophical arguments for God, and some of them are very convincing to me. Still, there is no complete proof that God exists or that Jesus Christ is his Son.

There is enough there, though, that I am perfectly willing to stake all that I am on what I believe. Recently I’ve come to realize there’s a unifying theme to all that seems convincing to me in Christianity, and that is its beauty.

It’s a truism that no one in history matches Jesus Christ and his influence. More remarkable is the fact that nowhere in myth or fiction is anything like the life of Christ. There are characters who resemble one piece of him or another: spiritual teachers, miracle workers, gadflies to the established order, and so on. But no other person has even been imagined in whom it all fits together so beautifully. Has another character ever been conceived who combines such genuine, human, almost earthy reality with such transcendent spirituality? Jesus walked, ate, worked, prayed, got tired, got hungry, just as we do. Bill Cosby said in a comedy routine years ago, “I started out as a child.” Cosby’s line was comical because we don’t usually point out something so ordinary. But Jesus didn’t have to do that–he didn’t have to do the ordinary–yet, as God come to dwell with us, he started out (on earth) as a child. He grew up just as needy and dependent as any of us. He celebrated at celebrations; he wept at a funeral. He learned by practice what it means to be obedient. He learned by practice what it means to be challenged, to be opposed, to suffer.

So there was a distinct humanness to him, which never disappears from his picture on the pages of the New Testament. There was also, unmistakably, the divine. He claimed to be one with the Father (the Greek there means sharing the essence and not just the thoughts or the purposes); he forgave sin as only God can; he claimed to have been around before Abraham, and he used the unique, unutterable name of God for himself when he said it. Somehow he did all this without it ringing megalomaniacal.

He healed, he freed people from demons, he raised the dead, he walked on water, he fed the multitudes. Think of others who have been portrayed in myth or fiction as having powers like that. Do they display the same groundedness, the same reality of humanity that he did? He brought the human and divine together in a way that no storyteller has matched; possibly because it’s a life beyond human imagining. It could never have been thought up if it had not been observed.

He loved; he taught love, grace, compassion, and forgiveness, even toward one’s enemies. He taught it by consistent example and not just by words. He was gentle with those who needed gentleness. He stood terribly strong against the smug religionists, the hypocrites, those who used religion to put heavy burdens on others and to exalt themselves. The power he used, though, more often than not, was the power of their own words against themselves. It was the power of a mirror reflecting truly on them. He was unremitting in his insistence on truth, truth lived out in love.

There is a literary analogue to the trial and death of Christ in the execution of Socrates, who died willingly for the sake of the truth. I love the Socrates story too. Both stood against injustice with a stance of powerful humility: they each proved their case by their deaths. Yet the death of Christ is different even from that of Socrates; for Socrates met his end quite peacefully, surrounded by sympathetic friends. Jesus Christ forgave his literal torturers, while hanging from what has often been described as humanity’s cruelest-ever instrument of execution.

Thus even before we come to the most significant, and most contested, claim about the life of Christ, we see something unique, beautiful, unmatched. It’s been claimed that early believers made this up, under pressure of persecution. I’m highly skeptical they could have done it. I’m even more highly skeptical that a group of Jews would have entertained a moment’s thought of a divine-human person like this. Under the historical circumstances in which they lived, to think that they would have invented and clung tenaciously to a tale of bodily resurrection–that crowning act of an unparalleled life, which in Jewish thought was never anticipated for anyone before the end of all the ages–takes more faith to believe than that the resurrection actually happened.

This is (some of) the beauty of the life of Christ. We his followers have not always reflected it well, but nevertheless his picture stands in glory in the pages of the Bible, and has inspired many to seek, even if not to fully realize, a life like it. This beauty is not proof; no worldview has such a thing in any final, incontestable terms. Nevertheless, there’s something mightily compelling here, so that among the choices of worldviews, this one stands out as one we can believe is right: partly because of its beauty.

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