My wife and I often invite Mormon missionaries into our home. Invariably these clean-shaven young men will show up knocking at our door immaculately adorned in a white dress shirt and tie, a black name tag reading “Elder So-And-So,” and a book bag over their shoulder. They are always genuinely kind and well-mannered. Sometimes they will stay for an hour − sometimes more − and sometimes we will even have them stay for dinner. These encounters consistently prove themselves to be gratifying evangelization experiences – and often it is the missionaries’ first time hearing about Catholicism from a Catholic.
A first-time home encounter with Mormon missionaries is quite predictable. From the moment they introduce themselves, you will find them both polite and kind. They will also be bold and intentional. They have been trained to be meticulous in their approach. Once the inevitable “small talk” is out of the way they will pull a brand-new, shimmering blue Book of Mormon from their book bag, hand it to you, and inform you that it is yours to keep. They may even ask you to read a passage from it. They may also say things like, “We know we have the truth.” Before departing they will request that you begin making time in your personal life to read and pray with their sacred book, right before inquiring about your next available date to meet again. They often have a confidence that is almost envious.
Ultimately they have but one underlying reason for speaking with you, which is to convince you that the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are true − and that you ought to join up. Amanda and I know their routine well, which is methodical and effective. This is why the Mormon faith is one of the fasting growing religions in the world.
The problem with Mormonism is that it is an emotion-powered faith that lacks the integrity of good supporting evidence for its claims, which contradict basic facts of archaeology, history and Scripture. Worst of all, it denies the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus is “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” This is truly the dividing line. Mormons believe in a Jesus who is not an eternally divine person by Christian theological standards — a Jesus who became a god. They deny the Trinitarian God of Christianity by splitting one God into three separate gods, rendering the Mormon faith polytheistic (although it has been suggested that perhaps a more accurate term is heinotheistic).
But recall that the Jesus of the Gospels identified himself with the God named “I Am,” not “We Are.” Nonetheless these missionaries will often speak about Jesus and things like his atoning death on the cross, perhaps as a disarming technique, which sounds cozy and familiar to the Christian ear. In fact, the way the missionaries speak about Christ often makes the Mormon religion sound like it is just a short hop from whatever Christian denomination one might belong to. But as Amanda and I point out to every Mormon missionary who enters our home, “We are not talking about the same Christ.” This is our starting point with them, and it presupposes that we have already asked ourselves the big question, “Who was Jesus Christ?” and found the answer − and indeed we have.
The first question we might ask ourselves when giving Christianity an honest examination is, “Did Jesus really exist?” If he did exist, we are obliged to inquire further due to the sheer gravity of his claims. If he did not exist, then we ought to give him about as much attention as any other mythical god worshipped by man in history − which is not much. The fact is, however, that the question of whether or not Jesus of Nazareth really existed is no longer much of a question according to a large majority of today’s New Testament experts − including non-Christian scholars. Mainstream scholarship is nearly unanimous in saying “yes” to the historical existence of Jesus. University of North Carolina scholar, Bart Ehrman, writes, “The view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet.” He writes that Jesus “certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees, based on clear and certain evidence.” Prominent New Testament expert, John Dominic Crossan, also writes, “That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” These are extraordinary statements coming from both of these men considering Crossan is a high profile skeptic and Ehrman is a professed agnostic. Nonetheless they emphatically conclude that the facts leave no room for questioning the real and historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He certainly existed.
Compelled To Make a Choice
The facts tell us conclusively that Jesus really existed. But who exactly was he? Or perhaps we should ask what was he? In the grand scheme of things the big question is not whether Jesus was a man in history, but whether the Jesus of history was both man and God. Surely no question could have greater implications hanging in the balance than the question of Jesus’ true identity.
What was Jesus then? Some non-Christians teach that Jesus was merely a great prophet. Many hold that he was merely a great teacher. The problem is, he didn’t claim to be merely either. He claimed to be the Christ, the Son of the living God; and not a son − the Son. Now a clever skeptic may object that by claiming he is “the Son of God,” Jesus is not necessarily claiming eternal divinity equal in essence with God the Father. But indeed if there was ever any doubt about what Jesus meant by “the Son of God,” he left no room for speculation when he asserted to his Jewish hecklers in John’s gospel, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” A Jew in the first century would have only understood these words in one way. Here in the form of a solemn oath, Jesus was claiming equality with God the Father, leaving no room for alternate interpretations. That is why the unbelieving Jews responded to his words by picking up stones.
Those that want to deny Jesus’ divinity but applaud his teachings must take a closer look at what this “watered-down” approach to the identity of Jesus necessarily implies. If Jesus is not really the divine Son of God, then he deserves to go down in history as the greatest deceiver of all time. The acclaimed evangelist, Father Robert Barron, in his Catholicism series, says that if Jesus is not who he says he is then “he is not a good man; he is a ‘dangerous, misguided fanatic.’ Jesus…more than any other religious figure compels us to make a choice.”
But it is highly unlikely that Jesus was a liar. He most certainly did not fit the typical psychological profile of a liar. Most deceivers are not kind, loving, compassionate, courageous and merciful; and not only was Jesus a man of otherworldly virtue but he was also “a man of his Word.” Dr. Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ron Tacelli from Boston College point out in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics that “no [biblical] prophecy has ever been disproved, and many have been proved by history.” This includes Jesus’ prophecies of future events like his Resurrection and the fall of Jerusalem. Kreeft and Tacelli also point out that archaeology has never found anything to disprove the claims of the Bible which includes, of course, Jesus’ own claims. This lack of anti-Christian historical and archaeological evidence is important evidence for the reliability of the Bible, both historically and spiritually; and it also points definitively towards Jesus’ authenticity in word and action. Not only did he do what he said he would do − but he also did what the prophets said he would do.
The Great Preparation
If God intended for His eternally begotten Son to enter into the world of time, space and matter in order to reconcile the world to Himself, then it seems reasonable to expect Him to prepare man for such an event of universal magnitude. In his epic Life of Christ, Archbishop Fulton Sheen writes, “Reason dictates that if [Jesus]…actually came from God, the least thing that God could do to support His claim would be to pre-announce His coming.” And this indeed God did.
One thing we know for certain is that the first century Jews expected a Messiah – but not a divine one. The Jews (and the rest of the world) were in for a big surprise; and although they could not deduce exactly what lay ahead of them via the prophetic words of the Old Testament (like Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53), they had at least a smidgeon of foreshadowing to prepare themselves for their encounter with the Word Made Flesh.
Surely no major figure of any other major religion had the pre-announcement that Jesus had; not Confucius, not Buddha, not Mohammed or any other. And if the Old Testament prophecies were not enough to convict an honest skeptic to seriously consider the true identity of Jesus Christ, surely the non-Jewish predictions of Jesus would. Take the words of the pagan Suetonius in The Life of Vespasian who recalls ancient Roman tradition in this way: “It was an old and constant belief throughout the East, that by indubitably certain prophecies, the Jews were to attain the highest powers.” Even six centuries before Christ, Aeschylus wrote in his Prometheus, “Look not for any end, moreover, to this curse until God appears, to accept upon His Head the pangs of thy own sins…” These non-Jewish messianic allusions which pointed towards the saving mission of Jesus Christ stretched throughout the Roman Empire and beyond its borders to the other side of the world, as far east as China. Surely the entire world, Jew and Gentile, was being prepared for the grand entrance of their Creator.
Truly the supporting evidence for Jesus’ divine claims is striking. First, Jesus fulfilled prophecies. This fact, as we have seen, is rather conclusive.
Second, Jesus—a Jew—publicly (and scandalously) forgave sins. But it’s not so much what he did but the effect of what he did that points to his divinity. Any hooligan could claim to be God by forgiving sins in first century Judaism, but Jesus’ forgiveness often resulted in the radical conversion of great sinners. Consider St. Matthew, the former tax collector who became no just an apostle, but also a Holy Spirit-inspired Gospel writer and martyr. Consider also St. Mary Magdalene. To a first century witness, this would be like Lady Gaga becoming a devout religious sister.
Third, Jesus performed public exorcisms on the mute. This is significant and here’s why: for a Jewish exorcist to perform an exorcism it was necessary that he obtain the demon’s name through the voice of the possessed individual. No mute could be delivered from possession until Jesus came around who acted by the sheer power of his divinity. This greatly scandalized the Pharisees who looked on and grumbled.
Fourth, he worked great miracles in the presence of eyewitnesses. The New Testament scriptures, when considered as mere historical records, give great validity to these supernatural events. Consider also the non-Christian source, the Babylonian Talmud, which also records Jesus as a miracle worker. Jewish tradition, of course, attributes his powers to the devil and not the Divine. But if Jesus’ supernatural powers came from the devil why would he empower Jesus to perform exorcisms? It is clearly not in the evil’s best interests to perform exorcisms on himself, as Jesus points out in Matthew’s Gospel.
The Fifth Proof
The fifth and final proof I would like to suggest for Jesus’ divinity in this post is the Catholic Church − the Church he founded. How do we know this? Well, around A.D 110, Ignatius of Antioch directly referenced the Church in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans. He writes “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” He also writes this with the apparent assumption that the Smyrnaeans were already familiar with the term “Catholic”; he provides no explanation of the term. Ignatius’ writings along with those of other early century Christian writers such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna, Irenaeus of Lyons and Justin Martyr, reveal a primitive Christian Church built upon the apostolic succession of bishops and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, and which centers itself on the real presence of the risen Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Only one Church in modern times continues to stand by the same description − the Catholic Church.
Even despite periods of tremendous internal corruption and external persecution, the Catholic Church still stands strong. This, I believe, is as good of proof as any that Jesus was God; and St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas agree. In City Of God, St. Augustine recognized the supernatural integrity of the visible and hierarchical Catholic Church of the early 5th century when he called the universal Church a “miracle” because of its persistent failure to self-destruct despite the monumental challenges it had faced in its first few centuries. Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas also marveled at the miraculous nature of the seemingly indestructible Church in his great apologetic work, Summa contra gentiles.
To Be Continued
There is one miracle of Jesus that trumps all the rest. It is the miracle that scholar Richard Swinburne calls “God’s signature on history.” This is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Due to the short space I have left in this post, I will save an in-depth commentary on the evidence for the resurrection for a future post. Nonetheless I could not go without drawing you to contemplate the greatest miracle in history, in closing.
In the meantime, the question of Jesus’ divinity still hovers before you and I and as Fr. Barron rightly says, it compels us all to make a choice.
Have you made yours?
***For a well-written and practical book on making the case for the resurrection, start with The Case For The Resurrection of Jesus by New Testament scholars Gary Habermas and Michael Licona