There are several religions with historical founders. What is distinct about Christianity that makes it true, as opposed to other religions?

There are several religions with historical founders. What is distinct about Christianity that makes it true, as opposed to other religions?

I must be honest and say that I do not feel this was dealt with adequately when asked on the evening. Many religions, though they may have evolved significantly, were founded by historical figures. Buddhism generally claims to follow the teachings of Siddharta Gautama, Islam claims to follow the teachings of Muhammad and Mormonism claims to follow the teachings of Joseph Smith Jr[1]. It seems to me a fairly sound historical judgement that these figures existed and advocated some particular teaching which then developed into a religion. Likewise, it is certain by all historical standards that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified, and we can be reasonably sure that, minimally, he understood himself as a prophet with a particular vocation to preach a message about the coming Kingdom of God. We have here several historical founders of religions who all had a particular message promoting a particular worldview (and there are many more). Some claimed divine revelation, others were not theistic in the Western sense of the word- Eastern approaches to religion (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism) have had quite different conceptions of the divine, if they believed in such a thing at all. So far, so good.

We really need a brief discussion of what this question might mean. A polarisation of true or untrue with respect to a particular religion is clearly deficient. Christians must believe that there is some truth in most religions, and often quite profound truth. They generally agree with theistic religions insofar as there is a God. They agree with Islam that Jesus was a prophet of God (though obviously they believe he was much more than that as well). They agree substantially with Judaism, their own religion being a Judaic derivative, and so on. Hence, we can clearly see that if the question is to mean, “What makes Christianity correct and every other religion wrong?” then we will not get very far at all.

Beyond this, there could be a whole range of different meanings. Presumably it is something along the lines of, “What reasons are there to think that God was in some sense embodied in Jesus, and that Jesus died, was buried and was raised from the dead by God as an inauguration of God’s Kingdom?” Even then, we must not immediately suppose that these claims are to the detriment of other religions. Though, for example, Islam denies some of the central concepts in Christianity such as the death and resurrection of Jesus, there may still be a significant coherence between Christianity and other faiths. The obvious example is Judaism- Jews and Christians tend to follow the same scriptural meta-narrative (overarching story of their holy scriptures) until the end of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and this is a huge dimension of both faiths. Though the majority of Jews reject some of the central claims in Christianity (e.g. that Jesus is the Messiah), many Jews who do accept Christianity still hold on to their Judaism, seeing Christianity as the fulfilment of it. Lest that be a trivial example, it is interesting that the same idea is often transferred to other faiths, usually those that antedate Christianity. There is a significant movement in Hinduism that has converted to Christianity, and I may even go so far as to suggest that a rejection of Hinduism in these contexts might be relatively rare. Many Christian converts from Hinduism see their Hindu scriptures as (roughly) equivalent to the Old Testament[2]. These scriptures offer a model of thinking about and living through God which they see as perfectly consistent with the message of Christianity and which, in retrospect from their conversion, can be seen as leading to and being fulfilled in Christ.

I appreciate that the majority of my response is highlighting the insufficiency of a right/wrong polarisation, but I think it massively important. So why might a Christian believe that God revealed himself in Jesus, as opposed to being simply a distant, universal architect? I do not intend to expound any arguments here, but rather offer a starting point.

Christianity is based firmly on the person of Jesus Christ. He is the primary reason for holding Christianity to be true. There are certain historical points which are agreed on by the majority of New Testament historians, Christian and non-Christian alike. These would include the crucifixion and burial of Christ, and the discovery of his empty tomb on the third day after. Further, the unanimous scholarly consensus is that his disciples experienced appearances of him afterwards, and that some people particularly hostile to the early Christian message were consequently converted to become passionate advocates of Christianity (e.g. Paul and James). It is also relatively uncontroversial that Jesus understood himself as proclaiming the approaching Kingdom of God. I would personally (along with a significant backing in New Testament scholarship) argue further that Jesus believed himself to the Messiah of Israel, that he believed his actions were not only proclaiming but inaugurating the Kingdom of God, and that he would go through some extreme suffering, perhaps even death. Further, he held that despite this, his message would be vindicated by the God of Israel, and it seems very reasonable historically to believe that he believed he would be raised from the dead.

Though I do not have space or time to give a detailed response as to why I believe the following, I would propose that the best explanation of all these well supported historical facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead. This would explain the prior facts of his self understanding, actions, words and miracles, and it would explain the posterior facts of his empty tomb, appearances and the origins of Christianity. Not only that, but it would explain them well. I would also contend that there are no plausible naturalistic, alternative hypotheses that adequately account for these facts. Although this is only a very concise exposition of a defence of Christian revelation, I would contend that it ought to be explored further and, when considered in detail, is highly plausible and a very reasonable justification for Christian belief.

Please do get in contact if you would like to discuss this further.

Calum Miller

Footnotes

1. I deliberately left out Judaism since, although there are particular characters with unique roles (e.g. Abraham with whom God originally made his covenant), there is no one human whose teaching could be said to be constitutive of Judaism. Many characters in the Hebrew Bible are, of course, historical, but the origins are much more complex than simply attributing a body of teaching to a particular individual.
2. Clearly there are differences, e.g. in that Jesus understood his vocation within the context of Judaism and not Hinduism, but this is not hugely relevant to the point.

Further Reading

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian
Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate

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