Let’s face it. The heart of Christianity really does sound rather absurd to well-educated minds. When a person steeped in the world’s wisdom steps back and takes an objective look at what we believe about Jesus Christ, Christianity comes out looking pretty foolish. Think about it. The eternal God becoming a human being? That makes as much sense as a man becoming a gnat . . . or a blade of grass . . . or a popsicle stick. Or what reasonable person would believe that the divine Source of all creation—of life itself—could die? And what modern person would ever believe that a dead man could come to life after three days?
The absurdity mounts to such a degree that one marvels that anybody believes at all . . . yet you and I stake our whole existence on such seemingly ridiculous claims! Why?
If you think the incarnation of the Son of God sounds absurd in 2006, try to imagine what it would have sounded like nearly 2000 years ago. Believe it or not, the situation was far worse in the early days of the faith. Imagine how you’d feel about your own flesh if we had access to only herbal remedies to treat diseases. Think about how you’d feel about your body if you had no deodorant, poor dental care, no eye glasses, no corrective surgery, and no way to treat mental illness or depression. Consider how you might view your body if you had no running water, no sewage system, and no toilet paper. If a loved one came down with a debilitating disease, you personally cared for him or her as that frail body and mind wasted away before your eyes. And when people died of accidents, injuries, or illnesses, you dealt with it up front and personal.
Today, we sanitize and sterilize almost all aspects of life . . . and death. But for most people living two thousand years ago, flesh was not their friend. That’s the same world in which the early Christians tried to convince everyday Jews and Gentiles that the holy and pure God took on grubby humanity—flesh, bones, blood, sweat, bodily functions, odors, accidents, and illnesses. You can almost hear the response: “You’re telling us God did what?”
It’s no wonder that over the centuries embarrassed “Christians” have tried to make the incarnational core of Christianity sound less offensive and more reasonable. Some early deviations from the norm sought to down-play Christ’s humanity or deny it altogether. Others rejected His true divinity to prevent God from mixing too intimately with the imperfect creation. Others separated the human Jesus from the heavenly Christ—two separate persons sharing space, like a spirit might possess a man.
More recently in historical critical studies, some have said Jesus didn’t literally rise from the dead on the third day, but “lived on” in the religious experience of the believing community—that the New Testament stories of the resurrection are just myths. In this way the “truth” of Christianity supposedly becomes more acceptable to modern minds. In response, we try to present the truth of the incarnation in language that makes more sense—adapting the message to human notions about what’s reasonable and what’s absurd. We sometimes believe that if we just make the gospel sound more reasonable, reasonable people will believe.
But perhaps we need to come to terms with the fact that the gospel message is absurd by the standard of the world’s wisdom.
Let me turn the tables on this. Unlike the ancient and modern skeptics who find Christianity too absurd to accept, couldn’t we just as easily believe the truth of Christianity not in spite of its absurdity, but because of it? If Jesus Christ was not God incarnate, and if He did not really rise from dead, this would mean the early disciples made up all these stories about Jesus. But why would anybody make up stories that would be difficult for both Jews and Greeks to accept? Why not fabricate more “user friendly” and less “kooky” tales? Tertullian, a Christian of the early third century, put it this way: “The Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible” (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ 5.4).
Is the incarnation absurd? Yes! Is it impossible? Yes! But only a fool would fabricate philosophically-incorrect doctrines like the incarnation and the resurrection if the goal was to convert the world. Yet Paul said, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:25, NIV).
Tertullian was right. Nobody would make this stuff up.
Therefore, I believe.