From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference
We Christians need to be realistic about the way our religion looks to others. Our message is that a wandering teller of tales and miracle worker who lived 2,000 years ago makes all the difference to everyone throughout history. If you don’t sense a touch of unlikeliness attached to that, then you don’t understand your friends and neighbors well enough. They think it’s most improbable on the face of it. And why not? Doesn’t it seem odd that one man’s life spanning just thirty-three years or so, one relatively brief set of teachings, one movement with such small beginnings, or even (assuming it happened) one man’s rising from the dead could change everything?
This is not the usual apologetics question concerning the life of Christ. It’s not whether the New Testament accounts can be trusted as history, and it’s not about whether he actually rose from the dead. It’s a question of plausibility: Why should I as a 21st century American (Briton, Australian, Canadian, …) think that one person’s life so long ago could have anything to do with me?
Part of the problem is that it was indeed so long ago. The other part (as I see it) is that it was over so quickly. Thirty-three years, and that was it. Couldn’t God have done better than that? Couldn’t he have staged some repeat performances, maybe updating the style and presentation as the centuries went by, maybe moving it around the world from place to place? I do not mean to be flippant with that question. When you or I want to make a point, after all, we usually make it more than once. When we want to persuade a whole population, we don’t just give it one shot, and we don’t just say it one way. And if we want that persuasion to stick, we don’t let years pass by without saying it again, much less centuries or millennia.
So if God wanted us to believe in Jesus, couldn’t he have done a better job of it? Why, in particular, was there only one life of Christ, and why was it so stuck in one place and time, so remote from all the rest of humanity?
That’s the question. There is an answer. As I proceed, let me remind you that my purpose in this brief article is not to show that the message of Jesus Christ is true, so I will not cover those kinds of arguments. (I’m convinced that it is true, of course, but that’s not the question today.) Rather my plan is to show that if it’s true, then it really does make sense, in spite of its surface-level implausibility. Unbelievers and skeptics in particular need to realize that this is the kind of question (Does it make sense, if it’s true?) for which it’s appropriate to assume that it’s true, and then to explore how its truth make sense, if it does.
I offer four points in explanation.
1. The Incarnation affirms humanity
When God came as a human, he came with a human’s limitations of space and time; otherwise he would have been something other than human.
God came to earth as a baby who would grow up to be a man. Think of it: this was a tremendous affirmation of humanity—not the first, but certainly the deepest. Some unbelievers accuse Christianity of being anti-human, but nothing could be further from the truth. He came in fully human form, meaning that he was as tied to one location in space and time as you and I are. For him to be who he was in a particular place, at a particular point in history, is part of what made his humanness real.
2. The Incarnation was planned and prepared
2. Jesus came among a people and to a place that had been specifically prepared for him.
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the Law” (Galatians 4:4). In more contemporary language, when the time was ripe, God sent his Son to be born and to live as one of his people. I’ve already written about the people of God in this series, so I will just refer you back to that now. To come as a human, Jesus had to come somewhere, after all, and he had to come sometime. I don’t know what other time or place would have been better. God did as he had planned.
3. The Incarnation once was sufficient
3. He came for a purpose that only needed doing once.
Jesus came to redeem us from sin by his sacrificial death on the cross. In the book of Hebrews we read of how the Old Testament sacrifices were a forward-looking picture of Christ’s sacrifice. Because they were not the real thing, but were intended to tell some of the story in advance, they needed to be repeated day by day (Hebrews 10:1-3). When Christ came in fulfillment of that picture, “by a single offering” he “perfected for all time those who are being sanctified [set apart for God]” (Hebrews 10:11-14). For him to have come more than once would have been redundant.
4. Once incarnated: not the whole story
It didn’t end there.
Jesus didn’t just go away at the end of the Gospels. He sent his Holy Spirit as his living presence among believers on earth. Believers themselves are his body on earth today (Eph. 1:22,23; . The Holy Spirit also works with unbelievers for conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-16). He is not as absent as one might think; in a sense he is more present now than ever. And he is coming back, in the body, not to offer another sacrifice but to bring history to its consummation.
There is much more to be said about the Holy Spirit and the return of Christ. I won’t be surprised if some readers accuse me of solving one mystery (the single appearance of Christ on earth) by introducing two more that are even less plausible. I have plans to discuss these two topics at length later in this series—and it will require a long discussion, not a short one—so for now I’m going to ask you to give me the benefit of a few weeks’ time until I do that.
It had to be this way.
Since Jesus came as a real human being, and for a purpose that only needed doing once, it would have been less sensible, not more so, for him to show up on earth more than one time. Why he chose Israel at that point in history may be beyond our understanding—but who among us has a better suggestion? To be genuinely human, he had to live in a particular place and time. By doing so he affirmed humanness in ways he never could have had he come multiple times as some kind of unreal avatar. Still his story and his work did not end when he ascended into heaven; they continue around the globe today, and will one day reach their final fulfillment when he returns.
So if your question is, “How could one man’s life 2,000 years ago plausibly be the thing that made all the difference for everyone in all of history,” the answer is this: for God to do what he did through Christ, loving us, affirming us, and giving his life for us, it had to happen like this. It’s the only way that makes sense.