What evidence is there for our faith by Revd Amanda Denniss – Evening 1 of our My Faith Course

This is the talk that Amanda gave on the first evening of our recent discipleship course on the question of whether there is any real evidence for the Christian Faith.

When I was preparing for this talk and thinking about what it means to believe in God, it reminded me of a joke about an atheist who was sitting in a boat doing some fishing.  The day was going really well and everything was quiet, until suddenly the boat was attacked by the Loch Ness monster.  In one flip, the beast flung the atheist and the boat high in the air.  Then it opened its mouth to swallow them both.

As the man sailed head over heals, he cried out, ‘Oh my God!  Help me!’  At once the whole scene froze.  The atheist hung in mid air and a booming voice came down from the clouds, ‘I thought you didn’t believe in me!’  The atheist cried out, ‘Come on God, give me a break!  Two minutes ago I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness monster either.’

Tonight we are going to be looking at the question: Is there any solid evidence for our faith?

The Christian faith is no longer at the centre of our culture.  Many people realise that the secular materialist dream is either a fantasy or deeply unsatisfying.   We live in an age where many people are aware of spiritual longings.  We can take a bit of this and a bit of that in a spiritual supermarket to satisfy our many needs.  I can do a bit of meditation rooted in Buddhism to relieve my stress, I can check my horoscope to see how my week is going to pan out, I can go to an alternative healer who uses crystals to diagnose my health problems.  But the question is: does this pick and mix spirituality satisfy the deep longing of the human heart to encounter a God who loves me?  John Pritchard writes this, ‘Ultimately pick ‘n’ mix spirituality wont satisfy because it places the individual at the centre, and any faith where the highest being is oneself is clearly limited.  If we try to do God on our own terms the spiritual life is about what ‘God’ can do for us and how we can mould him to our own needs.  Christianity is saying the opposite.’

Some years ago, I read a letter in The Times from the headmistress of a church school called Lady Margaret’s in Fulham.  To get a place at the school, children have an interview and as part of the interview they are asked questions about Christianity.  In her letter, the headmistress writes about one particular interview that her deputy head conducted.    She writes this, ‘He was struggling to elicit any information from a child whose acquaintance with the church of England was to say the least obviously slim.  In desperation he said to her, ‘Well you tell me what you do know about Jesus.’  A look of relief swept over her face, ‘Oh Jesus’ she said, ‘We haven’t done Jesus yet!’

Tonight we are going to look at Jesus.  But is it a bit odd to start with Jesus when we are looking at the question of whether there is any solid evidence for our faith?  Wouldn’t it be better to sort out first whether God exists?  Say look at the arguments about design in the creation which point to there being God as the designer.  The reason we are starting with Jesus is that Christians believe that Jesus is the unique Son of God.  We believe that when you come to know Jesus you come to know God.  So that’s why we’re starting with Jesus.

Some people say that becoming a Christian is a blind leap of faith.  When we become a Christian we do take a step of faith.  But it’s not blind.  Christianity is based on firm evidence and we’re looking at some of the evidence about Jesus tonight.

My brother in law John is a Judge in Isleworth Crown Court.  Last year on Easter Sunday he had a conversation with his vicar Richard.  Richard gave John the task of investigating from a judicial point of view whether there was enough evidence for the resurrection.  This year on Easter Sunday John spoke at his church in Chiswick about the results of this investigation.

John explained that when he is instructing a jury on how to approach evidence he encourages them to avoid stereotypes and coming to the evidence with a fixed idea or theory which you then try to fit the facts to.  He encourages the jury to keep an open mind.  He spoke of the challenges of looking down through 2000 years of history.  He began to list some of the evidence for the resurrection:

  • Circumstantial evidence like the tearing of the curtain of the temple in two
  • Hearsay evidence that people who wrote the gospels had gleaned from others
  • Direct eye witness evidence

John spoke of how he found an enormous amount of evidence which he found convincing.  He also spoke of his approach to weighing the evidence and it’s one that he recommends to his juries.  He calls it the laminate theory.  Imagine a piece of plywood.  To begin with you have one piece of ply that is easily bent, easily broken.  Then you take the single layer and glue to it another piece of wood, then a third, then a fourth.  By the end you have a piece of plywood that is robust and strong.

John said that when he was assessing the different bits of evidence, on their own they didn’t carry much weight, but together to him they seemed conclusive.

Let’s now turn to the evidence about Jesus.

  1. He existed The first thing is we can be absolutely sure that Jesus existed.  He is a man of history.  There was a time, particularly at the end of the 19c and beginning of the 20c when some scholars were really sceptical.  Now there would be very few scholars who would try to claim that Jesus didn’t live.
  • Jesus is written about by the Roman historian Tacitus
  • He is referred to indirectly by another Roman writer Suetonius
  • He is also referred to in the writings of Josephus who was a Jewish author who live just after Jesus and was no friend of the Christians.
  • Then we have the evidence of the New Testament itself, the gospels that are the biographies of Jesus. Most of what we know about Jesus comes from these four accounts of he life.

Gospels   They were written by four of Jesus’ most committed followers.  They were either eyewitnesses themselves-like Matthew and John-or they got it straight from those who saw Jesus first hand- like Mark and Luke.

One of the things we need to do is assess the weight of the evidence they give.  Can we trust their accounts?  Are they committed to accuracy?  What is interesting is that they didn’t leave out things that might have shown the followers of Jesus in a bad light or didn’t suit their argument.

  • They told of how the disciples abandoned Jesus in his hour of greatest need and of one of them who swore blind he’d never met him
  • They admitted to the disciples bumbling attempts to understand what Jesus was about and of the arguments amongst themselves about who was the greatest
  • They even include Jesus’ family saying he was out of his mind
  • They told of women being the first witnesses of Jesus resurrection-when women were dismissed as second class citizens and not allowed to give evidence in court.

We need to weigh the trustworthiness of the gospels.  What do they tell us about Jesus?

  1. He was fully human. He experienced all the tendencies we have.
  • He became tired and got hungry.
  • He experienced family life and worked for a living.
  • He was tempted, just as we are.
  • He became angry. He suffered grief.  He wept.
  1. But the crucial question for us is: Was Jesus more than human?

There is lots of evidence to suggest that he was.  I’m going to suggest that it builds like layers of laminate.

I’m going to start by looking at what Jesus said about himself and then I’m going to see what evidence there is to support his claims.

  1. What did Jesus say about himself?

One of the most extraordinary things about Jesus is that his teaching centres on himself.

Just imagine if I looked around the room and saw someone who was hungry for relationship with God and I said, ‘I am the bread of life…I am the way to relationship with God.

Or if I looked around the room and saw someone who was wrestling with depression and despair and I said, ‘I am the light of the world.’

Or if there was someone here who was terrified of death and I said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life…whoever believes in me will never die.’

Just imagine that I said to you that I could forgive your sins, even the wrong you’ve done to other people.  And then you knelt down in front of me and said, ‘My Lord and my God.’  And then I told you off for being rather slow about recognising me and worshipping me.

Jesus made all of these claims.  He pointed to himself again and again and said our whole eternal destiny depends on how we respond to him.  Jesus said when we have seen him, we have seen God.

Many people think that Jesus was just a great moral teacher.  But Jesus is claiming to be a whole lot more than a great moral teacher or a wonderful man.  He is claiming to be the Son of God.

Many people make extraordinary claims and they are just not true.

Robert Ponsonby Staples  I had a great grandfather (actually he’s my step great grandfather) who had the glorious name of Robert Ponsonby Staples.  He was an artist and like many artists he was usually short of money and very eccentric.  He lived in Ireland and used to go around barefoot most of the time, so that he would absorb what he called the ‘life forces’ direct from the soil.  His nickname was ‘The Barefoot Baronet.’  Really he was making an extraordinary claim and there was nothing to indicate it was true.

Just because someone makes an extraordinary claim it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.  Sometimes extraordinary claims are true.

  1. The evidence to support Jesus’ claims Is there anything more to support what Jesus is saying about himself.   Actually there is a great deal of evidence.  They are layers for our laminate.
  1. Firstly his teaching

Jesus’ teaching is widely acknowledged to be the greatest teaching ever to have been spoken, even by people who wouldn’t dream of calling themselves Christains.  Take the Sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7.  Jesus taught we should not only love our neighbours as ourselves, but love our enemies and we should do to others what we would have them do to us.  Surely only God could teach so clearly and with such authority.  Tolstoy said it would be a greater miracle for someone other than God to invent the teaching of Jesus.

  1. His miracles

The second thing that supports Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God are the miracles.  Can you imagine what it would be like to be with Jesus?  He once went to a wedding party and the wine ran out.  Jesus turned the water being stored in some stone jars into wine.  On another occasion he was teaching thousands of people that came to listen to him without enough food for lunch.  Jesus just multiplied one man’s picnic and used it to feed thousands.  Jesus miracles always show his compassion, whether it’s to feed tired hungry people or to heal someone who’s been sick for many years.

  1. The character of Jesus

Jesus’ disciples lived with Jesus for the three years of his public ministry.  They were far closer to him and spent more time with him than we tend to spend with our friends.  I like to think that my friends think I’m pretty special, but if you ask them for an honest assessment of my character, then I think they might possibly come up with a few of my faults!  But the disciples of Jesus, who lived with Jesus so closely were forced to the conclusion that he was more than human.

  • Peter said, ‘Depart from me, I’m a sinful man.’
  • Thomas exclaimed, ‘My Lord and my God.
  • John, who was closer to Jesus than all the other disciples, said Jesus was without sin.

For me, when I was thinking about becoming a Christian, this is one of the things that struck me most strongly.  Only God can be perfect.  Only God can be without sin.  Jesus’ character backs up his claim to be the Son of God.

Even his enemies could find no fault with him.

  • Pontius Pilate said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.’
  • The Roman soldier who stood at the foot of the cross is recorded as saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’
  1. His fulfilment of Old Testament prophesy

So we have Jesus teaching, his miracles and his character to back up his claims.  The next thing is his fulfilment of Old Testament prophesy.  The Old Testament was written over a period of hundreds of years, many, many years before Jesus was born.  In fact the Old Testament scriptures ceased to be written four hundred years before Jesus was born.  The scriptures contain many prophecies of a Messiah who is yet to come. He would be someone who would do amazing things, including die for sinners.  All of these prophecies, as far as his first   coming were concerned, were fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  It’s true that it would have been possible for Jesus to deliberately set out to fulfil some of the prophecies.  But he couldn’t had fixed the place of his birth or the exact manner of his death and both of these are written about in the Old Testament.

  1. His conquest of death: the Resurrection

The absolutely crucial piece of evidence that Jesus is who he claims to be is the resurrection.  The bible tells us and Christians believe that three days after Jesus’ dead body was laid in a tomb, God raised Jesus from the dead and he is alive today.  It that’s true, then everything else begins to fall into place.

The first place to look for evidence are the accounts of the resurrection in the biographies of Jesus-the gospels.  I’d really encourage you to get hold of a modern translation of the Bible and look at the end of each gospel at the resurrection accounts.  You can’t help but be struck that they are written by real people who believed the story they were telling was true.  They include wonderful detail and a real earthy quality.  But they are not exactly the same.  Some of the details differ.  I want to read you something that the New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright has written:

Turning to the gospels, we find all the puzzles of which readers have been aware for centuries…The stories of Easter morning in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20 are notoriously difficult to harmonise.  We shall never be sure how many women went in and in what order to the tomb, at what point two or more male disciples went in as well, how many angels they all saw, where or in what order the appearances of Jesus took place.  But as many have pointed out, it is precisely this impression, coupled with the breathless quality of the narratives that gives them not only their unique flavour but also their particular value.  Despite the scorn of some, lawyers and judges have regularly declared that this is precisely the state of evidence they find in a great many cases: this is what eye witness evidence looks and sounds like.  And in such cases the surface discrepancies do not mean that nothing happened: rather they mean that the witnesses have not been in collusion.

It was fascinating for me to listen to my brother in law John give his assessment of the evidence for the resurrection.  Commenting on the slight discrepancies in the accounts he says it shows the writers were not, ‘parroting from the same hymn sheet.’  He said he found some of the details exquisite, like the account of the angels looking as if dressed in lightening and the way one sat on the stone at the entrance of the tomb.

Over the centuries, people have come up with all sorts of ingenious explanations about how Jesus tomb came to be empty.

  • Maybe Jesus didn’t really die. Maybe a Roman flogging and being hung on a cross for 6 hours and having his body pierced with a spear wasn’t enough to kill him off.  Yet in Luke’s gospel, the centurion who is told to take the body down puts his spear into Jesus’ chest and water and blood come out.  This is exactly what one would expect physiologically if Jesus was dead.
  • Maybe Jesus just rolled aside a one and a half ton boulder that was across the entrance to the tomb and slipped past the Roman soldiers
  • Maybe the disciples went to the wrong tomb and that’s why they thought the tomb was empty. But surely then the Roman or Jewish authorities would have just produced the body.
  • Maybe someone stole the body, but they would have had to get past the Roman soldiers.

What do the gospel accounts tell us?  They tell us that Jesus appeared to over 500 people on at least 10 different occasions over a period of about six weeks.

Is the most convincing explanation that Jesus really was raised from the dead by God?

This is the explanation that fits best with the changed live of the disciples.  When Jesus was arrested and was taken to be crucified, the disciples were not exactly examples of great bravery.  They denied they even knew Jesus and hid behind locked doors.  But after Jesus rose from the dead, it was these same disciples who went out and preached the gospels.  They were even prepared to die and suffer persecution as they went out and told people about Jesus.  Surely they wouldn’t have done this if they knew that the resurrection was a lie.

Not only were the lives of those original disciples changed by the risen Jesus.  Lives have been changed as people have encountered the risen Jesus down the centuries.

Graham Tomlin the Bishop of Kensington wrote this in an email this Easter

The Resurrection is not an illustration of something else, it is the event of which everything else is an illustration. The Resurrection is not a metaphor for spring and the renewal of life at this time of the year – it is the other way round. Spring, and the new life we see bursting all around us is an annual reminder and metaphor for the Resurrection of Christ which is the first-fruits of the resurrection of all things in the new creation. The Resurrection turns everything on its head for a tired and predictable world. And that is why Easter Day comes as an explosion of joy.

How then are we to demonstrate the power and truth of the Resurrection to our sceptical culture? Athanasius, writing in the fourth century, gives a surprising answer. The evidence for the Resurrection is not established primarily through historical analysis or even pointing to the empty tomb, but in the lives of those touched by it. He writes: 

“The Saviour is working mightily among men. Every day He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world… to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching. Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life? Does a dead man prick the consciences of men, so that they throw all the traditions of their fathers to the winds and bow down before the teaching of Christ? If He is no longer active in the world, as He must needs be if He is dead, how is it that He makes… the adulterer cease from his adultery, the murderer from murdering, the unjust from avarice, while the profane and godless man becomes religious?”

The best evidence for the Resurrection does not primarily emerge from historical enquiry & investigation, but is found in the lives of people who believe it, who meet the risen Jesus Christ and are changed by that encounter.

My life has been totally changed by an encounter with the risen Jesus.  So has my husband Oliver’s.  I have seen so many lives changed by him.

  • I could tell you of a lady called in our church in Coventry who came to faith in Jesus. She was suffering from such bad agoraphobia that she was a prisoner in her house.  We had the joy of seeing that fear melt away as her faith grew and the excitement of taking the simple step of catching the train to Birmingham.
  • I could tell you of a young woman who was in her early twenties, who was diagnosed with skin cancer. As she underwent aggressive treatment for the cancer, we saw her faith in Jesus grow and she was full of joy and peace.  She died two days before her wedding day to young man in our church.  Obviously there was great sorrow and rightly so.  But also joy in seeing a life full of love and one in which there was no fear of death.
  • I’ve also known so many followers of Jesus who don’t have dramatic stories but live lives that are full of faith and hope and love. Lives like this are attractive.

It’s good for us to get to grips with the evidence that is the foundation of the Christian faith and we are going to have the chance to discuss that in small groups after coffee.

The question we are all faced with is this: was Jesus more than a historical figure?  Is he the Son of God?  If he really is the Son of God then he is alive today.  That’s why Christians down the ages have claimed they have met with him and know him.

Actually lots of people believe he exists.  But there is all the difference in the world between believing he exists and knowing him as a person.  Christianity is about having a relationship with Jesus and actually experiencing getting to know him.

Evidence for our faith – a judge’s perspective

Faith flyer A4


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