CHRISTIANITY’S QUESTION: “What did the eyewitnesses claim to see and hear?”
We can define orthodox Christians simply as those who adhere to what the eyewitnesses claimed to see and hear. They do not blindly presuppose the authority of particular teachers, but instead base every doctrine on testimony.
One of Jesus’ apostles, Peter, told the churches to hold to the gospel, as given by eyewitnesses, and to nothing else. “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16) He also warned the churches that there always have been and will continue to be false teachers: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies.”
As another one of Jesus’ apostles, Paul, put it: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8) He chastised one of the churches for being gullible on this matter: “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.” (2 Corinthians 11:14)
So the basis for the early church creeds and for all Christian belief lays in asking: “What did the eyewitnesses claim to see and hear?” As one fisherman put it, “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands…what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you.” (1 John 1:1-3)
According to the New Testament writers, they saw God manifested in the flesh. Indeed, throughout the entire Bible, although angels and prophets at times give mystical revelations about the future, when it comes to what God has said and done in the past he always only reveals himself directly, through action in history, testified to by eyewitnesses. Thus he is Immanuel, God with us. No other religion even tries to make such an audacious claim. They are all entirely dependent upon esoteric, mystical revelations.
From the very beginning there were similar claims of mystical revelations and visions about Christ, which eventually developed into the religion we call Gnosticism or Gnostic Christianity. But the Church leaders rejected these out of hand and relied solely upon eyewitness testimony. And so, for example, when a physician named Luke went to write an account for a friend of his concerning the news of Jesus, he began by stating his sources:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4).
Together with the other three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and John—the church saw these as four different views of the same events, perhaps very comparable to how a director will use several cameras to shoot the same scene for a movie. Although they have variations in style and differ in what details they present and what they emphasize, they weave together into a singular historical record (especially when read in light of the Old Testament). In fact, as historian Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez explains, the early church highlighted and was encouraged by the differences.
The early Christians were well aware of these differences and that was precisely the reason why they insisted in using more than one book. They did this as a direct response to the challenge of Marcion [a Gnostic teacher] and Gnosticism. Many Gnostic teachers claimed that the heavenly messenger had trusted his secret knowledge to a particular disciple, who alone was the true interpreter of the message. (The Story of Christianity. Justo L. Gonzalez. Prince Press. 1984. pp. 62-63.)
Of course, once again none of the events can be proved, and faith is still required. But it is not blind faith in a mystical revelation about history. We might compare it to a history professor teaching his students about the Holocaust of World War II (which millions of people around the world fervently deny, persuaded that it is a myth). On the one hand, he could simply tell them what happened and they could believe him. On the other hand, he could also show them photographs and eyewitness testimonies from victims and soldiers. Similarly, God can reveal things about himself abstractly, but he can also give us testimonies and historical evidence for it.
The difference is between God doing something and God telling us what he did. The uniqueness of the early Christian stance is simply that we have faith that God has revealed himself in history, walking with us. “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:23)
The first man to believe in Jesus was named John the Baptist. He said that he heard God speak to him from heaven and saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus like a dove. He could not have been more loud and clear in pointing to Jesus. Several months later, however, John struggled with so much doubt that from prison he sent friends to asked Jesus whether he was the Christ or not. Did Jesus respond by simply saying, “Have more faith!” No. What did he say?
And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:22-23)
Yet many today still continue to listen not to what was seen and heard, but instead to listen to mystical revelations from angels and visions—which demand 100 percent blind faith. For today many continue to lift up lofty ideas and offer contradictory interpretations of the life of Jesus Christ.
No one, however, can effectively ignore the one who claimed to be King of the Jews. In both our private and public struggles to reconcile freedom and justice, one way or the other we will all have to take a position on the gospel, which reads not like entertaining fiction but like a good news story.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-11)
This event was the climax of a much larger narrative based on eyewitness accounts. This narrative can be understood in several ways, so I will offer you four of them:
I present these as God’s revelation of himself through the Bible in four different ways—rationally, politically, morally, and emotionally. There will be considerable overlap in these accounts, but they weave together to form a single news story of astonishing depth and complexity.