The story of Jesus is unimaginably great; therefore it’s true.
That’s a new way I’ve just thought of to summarize my recent Touchstone article, : “What Happens to Apologetics If We Add ‘Legend’ to the Trilemma “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord”?. (Updated: see below.)
For those who know the terminology (and others need not worry, since I won’t spend more than a moment on it), this is not some new kind of ontological argument, even though in that one-sentence form it sure sounds like it. Here’s the short form of what it is instead.
Unmatched Ethical Perfection
It begins with Jesus’ ethical perfection, unmatched in all of Western literature, and I believe also in all world literature besides. He is the one character portrayed as possessing perfect power while being perfectly other-oriented, without flaw or exception.
This combination is rare beyond rare. The degree to which he displays this dual perfection seriously stretches the meaning of “unique.” Lord Acton said it well: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely;” but according to the accounts we have, Jesus had absolute power, yet he was absolutely uncorrupted. (To understand that rightly with respect to Jesus, you must take “absolute” in its most absolute possible sense.)
That means that if his story as portrayed in the Gospels really were invented, then those who thought him up concocted a character far greater than any other in all the history of human imagination. No one else has demonstrated the ability to compose a character anything like that. Maybe someone could have, but the fact is, no one has. That’s a hint—not proof, but a pretty good hint—that his greatness surpasses the reach of human imagination: that he is unimaginably great, in the most literal sense of the word.
Where Did Such a Character Come From?
Still we have his story. The skeptics suppose that it really was the product of human imagination. I can’t tell you that’s impossible, since we have only a strong hint that it might be; but I think I can safely say it’s exceedingly unlikely to have happened the way they say it did.
For what they tell us is that Jesus’ character was concocted through a disjointed, error-riddled process of corporate cognitive dissonance reduction. It originated in a culture where even a hint of human deification would get a person stoned to death. That’s where they think this character’s unmatched, divine ethical perfection came from.
And it happened not just once but four times. The number of Gospel accounts we have in the Bible is significant here, not because of how they might or might not confirm one another, but because the authors had four distinct opportunities to get it wrong—to introduce some flaw into Christ’s self-sacrificial, other-centered character—but none of them did. Therefore skeptics must suppose that this decidedly imperfect community not only introduced his ethical perfection but maintained it perfectly over multiple tellings of the story.
The Evidence is Against Its Being Merely Imagined
I think what they’re imagining could best be described as a miracle of a different sort.
You can choose which explanation to believe. Take Jesus’ life as true, and you’ll find it fits into a long history, a back-story, as it were. More than that, it’s the central piece in a coherent world picture.
Meanwhile there’s no reason to think that the skeptics’ proposed “community of faith”—actually, non-community of cognitive dysfunction, as I explain in the article—could or would have concocted a character of Jesus’ overwhelming ethical magnificence.
The skeptical version has no coherent back-story. It fits nowhere in what we know of human nature, of literature, or the context of the times. That is, it fits nowhere except by power of shoehorn and sledge hammer (and never mind the bits and pieces flying everywhere!) wielded for the purpose of keeping God out of the story.
If the story of Jesus is unimaginably great, but the story exists anyway, then it’s unlikely it came about by means of the imagination. It’s far more likely that it’s true.
I urge you to read the article. This is just a quick summary.
Update January 2019: Find it here instead.
Image Credit(s): Pixabay/Myriams-Fotos.