Magazine article The Spectator

If Jesus Did Not Exist, the Church Would Not Invent Him

Magazine article The Spectator

If Jesus Did Not Exist, the Church Would Not Invent Him

Article excerpt

Many readers will have read The Spectator Easter survey - 'Did Jesus really rise from the dead?' - with intense interest. I did. The results of a survey posing the simple question, 'Do you believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead?' were sharply different from what I expected. Just one avowed atheist was interviewed, plus 22 believers. Yet between almost all of them, including the atheist, a most arresting consensus arose: one which only Charles Moore and perhaps Fergal Keane seemed reluctant to join.

The atheist, Richard Dawkins, put it like this: 'If the Resurrection is not true, Christianity becomes null and void and [Christians'] life, [Christians think], meaningless.' St Paul (quoted by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor) put it like this: 'If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.'

Three cheers, then, for both Dawkins and Paul. For, given how difficult it is for most people today to believe that though all other humans die, there is one, Jesus, who rose from the dead, you would expect modern Christians to duck or fudge this extraordinary claim. You would expect them to seek ways of maintaining their faith in the absence of certainty about the literal truth of the Resurrection. But with a rigour which I found admirable, The Spectator's believers were not ducking or fudging.

One by one, Christian respondents followed the Dawkinian/Pauline line. 'If it's not true, what's the point?' remarked Edward Stourton. 'There is no other way I can make sense of what has been written in the New Testament, ' was the response of Father Michael Holman, SJ. 'Remove the Resurrection and you remove the heart of Christianity, ' said the Reverend Nicky Gumbel. Christopher Howse thinks that 'otherwise, we are all sunk'. Cliff Richard is sure that 'the validity of the Christian faith stands or falls by the Resurrection'. Stuart Reid believes that without it 'Christianity is nonsense'; and Fraser Nelson agrees: 'If the verifiable bones of Christ were discovered, you'd have to admit that the Muslims were right, Jesus was a prophet and Christianity was a 2,006-year hoax.'

It does not in fact follow from a denial of the Resurrection that one must believe Christianity has been a hoax. It never struck me as remotely likely that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead, but I have certainly not concluded that Christians were hoaxers or the disciples were making anything up. More likely they were under a misapprehension.

In my experience misapprehensions do occur, sometimes on a major scale. I also think Muslims are under a misapprehension.

Muslims presumably think Christians are under a misapprehension; Christians must think Muslims are under a misapprehension.

Both must think Jews are under a misapprehension. I think that they are all under a misapprehension.

So what Christians, Jews, Muslims and I have in common is in finding no difficulty with the belief that a major world religion attracting billions of adherents over many centuries can be founded on a tremendous misapprehension. We differ only on a secondary question: which of them is thus founded?

My Easter thoughts moved to a different alleged literal truth: did Jesus of Nazareth ever really exist?

Few would doubt that the figure of Jesus Christ familiar to modern Christians is at least loosely based on some individual who probably did live somewhere in Palestine roughly 2,000 years ago. What I ask, however, is whether the picture we have today of that individual is close enough to the man who inspired it for us to say we know who he was, and that he was; to say that - in the broadest sense - we can know him. …

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