For me, it ends up coming down to whether or not Jesus and his original followers were hopelessly deluded, or charlatans. John quotes Jesus claiming that before Abraham was, “I AM.” They picked up stones to stone him because they recognized he was making claims of divinity. Either Jesus was deluded, a religious snake oil salesman, or he is who he claimed he is.
I realize that this is a rehashing of C. S. Lewis argument, but it makes perfect sense to me. You cannot just accept Jesus as a great teacher, or wonderful human moralist who laid out the golden rule for us to live by so we could all get along. It is to totally misunderstand him and his message. His ethics were the ethics of his kingdom…the kingdom of God. This is what he came preaching, this is what he died for, and it was to establish this that he rose from the grave.
It is also to totally subvert his view of man. Any naturalistic view of our origins and nature must assume that we are inherently good and moral, or lean in that direction, if we are to survive and thrive. Without man’s inherent goodness, then all we are logically left with is the rule of the jungle, the survival of the strong, a world of ungrace, the rule that we see this world largely running by.
Jesus, however, painted a totally different picture. So did Paul. We are people in need of redemption. We are sold under slavery to the power of sin. This is a world view that is met with increasing scoffing and skepticism today because it assails our increasing sense of self sufficiency in a highly technological age. It assails our notion that we can truly be good people without grace. Whether Ryan or anyone else will admit it or not, anything truly good, proceeds from God, as Jesus said. In fact, he went as far as to say, “There is no one good, but God.”
Paul’s world view was that in God we live and move and have our being. For him, that ultimate expression of God became the Lord Jesus Christ. Explain this away as myth, as ancient tribalism, as the expressions of a religious zealot or fanatic…or accept it as truth. He and the other apostles, as well as many other of Jesus’ followers died for this belief, and their sharing of this faith. And they attempted to spread it not by flying planes into buildings, but through words and acts of virtue, principle, and self giving love.
All of this was either the legacy of hopelessly ignorant or deceived tribal people, or it is the legacy of those who were touched by the grace of God that miraculously transformed their lives for time and eternity, as they stated again and again. An atheistic viewpoint would lean towards assuming the former.
While a living out of the Christian ethic in social justice is admirable, it is being done while truncating the reasoning and worldview behind it, and that serves as its motivation. The disciples were as beggars who had found bread, that they felt compelled to share with anyone who was willing to listen. And, they were willing to share of themselves, and their goods, in order to not only improve lives in the here and now, but to give others the same hope and assurance that they knew for the world to come.
In the end, I know what this grace did for me years ago. The change in my life was marked, and real. Grace saved my life. It continues to draw me back when I stray. As John Newton once said, I’m not what I should be, I’m not what I want to be…but I’m not what I used to be." I’m either hopelessly deluded, or the grace of God in Jesus Christ reached down to me, and continues to reach down to me, touching and transforming my life.