A personal reflection
Two different sources form the origin of this blog. One is a recent conversation with someone who expressed an interest to hear my answer to the question, “Why do you believe Jesus is real?” I find this a fascinating question to explore, because even the choice of wording is interesting. I appreciate that the question focuses on the plausibility of Christ’s existence, but the use of the word “real” tends to suggest that there’s a fair amount of opinion “out there” which would say belief in Jesus is “unreal”: unreasonable, incredible or just plain crazy. As if one must take leave of one’s senses in order to profess Christian faith.
The second source is an on-going email debate I am involved in with a skeptic of Christianity. Recently my interlocutor challenged me to answer the question, “What makes you think there’s a God?”
The response I offer in this article to these questions is deliberately not a set of philosophical or scientific arguments for the existence of God. Such arguments do exist and there are others who are far better at putting them than me. I am particularly impressed by the work of those scientists who also profess Christian faith. They see no contradiction between science and their faith. Some people are skeptical of Christian scientists arguing for God's existence, because they are considered to operate with confirmation bias. No one comes to any issue neutrally and all of us can suffer from confirmation bias. But this does not imply that every argument offered by a Christian scientist is invalidated by bias. Each argument should be carefully critiqued on its own merits. To automatically dismiss the argument of a Christian when they are writing in favour of their faith, purely because they are a Christian, is a form of confirmation bias in itself. So do take time to read and evaluate the work of others who offer scientific or philosophical arguments for God's existence. I'm going to do something different here. This is a decidedly personal reflection, drawing much more on my own experiences. In that way it is much more of a personal testimony.
For anyone even to begin to answer questions about the reality of God, there is a pre-question which needs addressing. And that question is: What kind of a God are you asking me about? People have all kinds of concepts of God and we are not all talking about the same entity. When people say to me, "I don't believe in God," the first thing I say is, "What kind of God don't you believe in?" And when they describe their concept of God, I tend to say, "Well, I don't believe in that kind of God either!" People's concept of God is always the starting point for a discussion about His existence.
My interlocutor wished to consider the concept of a God who could have been the Creator of the world, but had no interaction at all with creation. (This would be an example of what is called deism.) Personally I see little point in considering this kind of a concept of God, even though it is certainly a concept. If an uninvolved God did not exist, then this would be of no relevance to humanity. Conversely, if an uninvolved God did exist, there would still be no relevance to humanity, since this God does not interact with the world in any way. So there seems little point in exploring the answer to this question, since neither of the possible options have any relevance for our lives.
It seems much more sensible to invest our energies in considering the plausibility of a God who, if He existed, would have relevance for the human race. I consider that the concept of God offered by the Christian faith is the starting point, because it is the Christian concept of God which declares a deity who is the most involved in creation of all ideas of God.
In writing primarily of my personal experience, I believe I am linking closely with the origins of Christian faith itself. For Christianity did not begin as the result of clever philosophical arguments, or some kind of blind leap of faith. (1) Christian faith began with a world-changing event that had flesh-and-blood substance to it. The primary reason why Christianity began to spread and become a major world faith is because a group of people who knew Jesus and saw Him die, then believed they had met Him again risen from the dead. Far from Christian faith being based on a flimsy “stab in the dark” belief, the first Christians’ faith was founded on what they said was their concrete experience of encountering a dead man who was alive again. And the kind of resurrection they believed had taken place was not a resuscitated Jesus who would one day die again, but someone who had conquered death itself and by so doing was declared to be the Lord of all. This literal “hands-on” experience of the first disciples cannot be summed up better than in the opening words of 1 John in the Bible:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1:1-2).
In a similar way, the surety of the experience of those first disciples is reflected in these words from John’s Gospel, concerning the witness of the beloved disciple:
“This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24).
Christian faith has from its origin been grounded in the claims of people who say they have met a risen Christ. When you look at the witness of the Apostle Paul, we see him give testimony time and again of his personal encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19, Act 22:1-21, Acts 26:9-18, 1 Corinthians 9:1, Galatians 1:12).
One of the most important descriptive words in the New Testament for those early Christians is the word “witness” (martus in the Greek, from which we get the word “martyr”). The word occurs over 30 times across the New Testament, principally in the books of Acts and Revelation. It is particularly used of the first Christians being eyewitnesses of the resurrection. When the Apostle Paul detailed one of the attested appearances of the risen Christ, he worded it this way: “After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living” (1 Corinthians 15:6, emphasis mine.) Implication: if you doubt the story, go and speak to some of the people who witnessed this; they are still alive to tell you about it.
So the simplest answer I can give to the questions, “Why do you believe Jesus is real?” or “What makes you think there’s a God?” would be no different to the claims of those first Christ-followers. I believe Jesus is real because I believe I have met Him as the risen Lord. But let me put some more detail on that summary statement. What I offer is a set of contributing factors to my personal belief in the reality of Jesus. They are mostly subjective experiences which of course I cannot “prove”, but I hope to demonstrate they are grounded within a wider coherent framework.
A changed life
My childhood was spent in a local Anglican church on the outskirts of London where I learned all the good Bible stories. By the time I was 14 I was quite knowledgeable about Jesus as a result of hearing stories from the gospels. When at that age I made a personal commitment to follow Jesus, there was an immediate internal feeling that something significant had changed for me. I really did feel new and I felt a genuine excitement about realising I could know Jesus personally and not just as a distant character in an old book.
Now of course all kinds of people can feel a sense of newness in their lives for all kinds of reasons. On its own, this early experience of mine can never “prove” anything, but as I look back I simply note that my feeling of newness did not come about because I prayed holding a bunch of crystals in my hands or because I had gone to a séance, or some other spiritual experience. A rushing sense of joy came into my life because of putting my trust in Jesus and seeing Him at work in the picture of my life. It was a first piece of the jigsaw.
An on-going experience of relationship with Jesus
My years as a Christian can be described as a relationship with Jesus, using terminology which we use for relationships with people. I can say that I have grown to know Him better, to understand more about how He works, what’s on His heart. One major part of this relationship is learning to recognise His voice. Jesus claimed that those who follow Him will get to know His voice. This has been my experience. The Bible describes people hearing from God in a wide variety of ways. I know that some people believe God has spoken to them with an audible voice. That has never been my experience. But I do believe Jesus has spoken to me through thoughts and pictures placed directly into my mind. Sometimes when I am praying and openly listening, I will “see” something in my mind’s eye. Sometimes it will be a still image, like a photograph; other times it will be a moving image like a movie.
The coherence of the book which speaks about Jesus
The witness of the New Testament is a core reason for my belief that Jesus is real. This is because no one can ever really know if there's a God unless God chooses to make Himself known to us. And that of course is the central claim of Christianity – that God has personally visited the earth in the person of Jesus. Because I find the witness of the New Testament to be credible, this is a core basis for my belief there is a God. For me, God is the one who is revealed in Jesus. Jesus not only shows there is a God, but we get to learn what He is like. For me, the evidence of the New Testament is coherent and credible and there are scholars who set out this evidence more eloquently that I ever could.
But more than the New Testament having credibility as a set of historical documents, this book which speaks about Jesus carries a coherence with my own experience of Him. The character of the Jesus I claim to know is the Jesus I encounter in the pages of the Gospels and wider New Testament.
Personal experiences which tie up with the Bible
I have had a series of experiences where I believe something supernatural was going on – they cannot be adequately explained by recourse to rational/natural causes. And these experiences are the kind of thing described in the Bible. A number of them relate to something I mentioned earlier in this blog: namely hearing God speak. Here is one example. Some years ago, when we were in the UK, I was due to be a guest speaker at a midweek gathering at a different church to my own. I was praying about going to the meeting and I particularly asked God to tell me if there were any special messages He wanted to give to anyone who was going to be at the meeting. Into my mind came a moving picture of a kite caught up into the air into full flight. Along with the picture came a clear impression that someone at the meeting was about to step into a new ministry of some kind and God wanted to encourage them that he would make them soar like a kite as they stepped into that new role. I cannot explain to you how or why that interpretation came to my mind, but it did. And I have come to trust over the years that these thoughts are actually God speaking to me.
So I went to the meeting and got so involved in the meeting that I forgot the picture of the kite. Until shortly near the end of the meeting, when it suddenly crossed my mind. As the recollection of the kite flashed in my mind, I looked out at the audience I was speaking to (there were about 40 people there) and felt drawn to a middle-aged man with a moustache who I did not know at all. I felt that the message about the kite was for him. Again, I cannot explain to you how I felt this. It was simply an internal impression. A sense of “knowing”. So, before I finished speaking, I said this to the man, in front of everyone else, "Before I came tonight, I believe God gave me a picture with a message of encouragement for someone here. And I sense this message is for you. I saw in my mind a kite being taken high into the air. I believe God is taking you into a new area of service and ministry and God wants you to know this is the right step for you and he is going to really use you in this new ministry. It's going to feel like you are soaring like a kite. Does that mean anything to you?" The man looked positive (which is always a good sign at these times!) but there was a bunch of excited murmurings in the group as a whole, as if they were also responding well.
The man replied to me, "Well, yes, that's a very encouraging message and it's certainly spot on for my circumstances. I have just qualified as a lay preacher and I've been very nervous about stepping into this role, so that's a real encouragement for me. But do you know why I really know this is God’s message for me? And I suspect this is why the others in the group are chattering away as they are. You see, you don't me, like everyone else does here. You don't know my name. My surname is Kight (pronounced Kite)!"
On its own, this story can be dismissed as a purely bizarre set of coincidences. The thing for me is that this is not an isolated incident. Across my 30+ years of being a Christian, this kind of thing has happened multiple times. It is not just the close connection between what I sense God was saying to me and the reality on the ground that fascinates me about these experiences. What’s also important for me is the fact that what has happened for me is echoed in the pages of the Bible. With reference to the above story, God sometimes spoke to the Old Testament prophets using word plays (just as happened for me with that man's name and the kite picture. See Jeremiah 1:10-12 for a word play related to the Hebrew word for “almond”.) So what is happening for me here is the tying up of truth and experience. Something written in the Bible (a prophet who hears God speak in a word play) is now being played out in my very own experience (I see a picture and it gets connected with a man who was a stranger to me, via an accurate word play on their name).
Why should God choose to communicate to people in these kind of ways? I don't know and that's where our concept of God is so important. If your idea of God is defined by you then that's one thing. But as far as I'm concerned, God cannot be neatly boxed or pinned down and if He chooses to speak, I will accept the ways in which He chooses to speak. That's up to Him.
You can't build any case on a single incident, but I keep having these experiences which I can only explain by reference to the prompting of the Holy Spirit – the supernatural activity of God and the way that my own experiences echo those in the Bible. When you have these experiences repeated over and over, you end up realising that something is going on that demands an explanation.
So it is these personal experiences, which are for me the most deeply convicting reasons why I believe Jesus is real. I do not expect such personal stories to persuade anyone else, because only when you have had such an experience can you reflect on its significance for you. But as each one of us knows, when something has happened for you, then you are left with a deep impression that your experience was real. I cannot prove through scientific means that I am right with my interpretation and conversely, no one can prove I am wrong. The stories simply stand as happenings which invite reflection. But it is these personal stories which carry the most power in my experience to make me convinced there is a God. And as I said right at the beginning of this blog, that’s how the earliest Christians also chose to answer the question, “Why do you think Jesus is real?”
Let me, therefore, leave the final words of this blog to Peter, who told the crowd at Pentecost: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it” (Acts 2:32).
1. This is not to say that the early Christians did not employ other arguments for God’s existence. A good example is when the Apostle Paul argues that creation points to the existence of a Creator (see Romans 1:20).