This post first appeared on 23 December 2021 at the Australian Church Record.
By Lionel and Bronwyn Windsor.
Are you feeling a bit apprehensive about your conversations with family and friends this Christmas? The restrictions and lockdowns of the last few years have helped to keep us safe physically, but they’ve also played a role in dividing us socially. The combination of physical isolation, fears for safety, and the overwhelming stream of digital information at our fingertips have opened us up to all sorts of problems: increasingly polarised social media bubbles, judgmentalism, contempt, misinformation, disinformation, and even conspiracy theories. So as we to come together in Christmas 2021, we can find our friends and family both passionately committed to and deeply divided on issues of health and politics.
In view of this potential Christmas social disaster, we have a suggestion for an alternative topic of conversation you might like to raise. There’s another conspiracy theory that’s doing the rounds right now. It’s a conspiracy theory born out of misinformation about Jesus. Crazily enough, right now the topic of Jesus is less fraught and heated than health and politics. This conspiracy theory is also really easy to debunk. God willing, it might even lead to more fruitful topics and eternally significant topics of conversation.
The conspiracy theory is this: Jesus Christ wasn’t a real historical person. Sounds crazy? Well, it seems this misinformation is surprisingly widespread in our community.1 According to the initial results from the 2021 Australian Community Survey conducted by NCLS research only about half (49%) of Australians believe that “Jesus was a real person who actually lived.” About a quarter (22%) actually believe that “Jesus is a mythical or fictional character,” and about a quarter (29%) “don’t know” whether he was real or not.
Just to be clear, this issue is not directly about the long-debated questions of whether Jesus rose from the dead, or whether Jesus is the saviour of the world. We’re convinced there’s excellent evidence that Jesus rose from the dead and that he’s the saviour of the world. But that’s not the point here. It’s a much more basic question. People in our community aren’t just doubting who Jesus is, or whether we should believe in him. They’re doubting his very historical existence. In the words of the survey, they’re doubting whether he “was a real person who actually lived.”
In case you’re unaware, the historical evidence that Jesus was a real person who actually lived is about as good as it could be for a historical figure in his time and place. That’s why Jesus’ historical existence is a virtual consensus of serious historians of all stripes, believer and unbeliever alike.2 That means doubting the historical existence of Jesus is on the same level as believing the earth is flat. Sure, if you search hard enough, you’ll find crackpot conspiracy theorists who deny Jesus’ existence, just as you’ll find crackpot conspiracy theorists who deny the earth is round (and so, e.g., deny the existence of Australia). But just because you’ll find somebody who says something with capital letters and diagrams on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s a serious position to hold.
So why do so many Australians doubt Jesus’ existence? It’s unlikely that for most Aussies, doubting Jesus’ existence is a passionate commitment based on serious investigation of the evidence. It’s probably just something they assume because they’ve unthinkingly absorbed misinformation, and have never felt the need to check it out. So for most Aussies, it probably just needs somebody to set the record straight.
The evidence for Jesus’ existence can be found in many sources—inside and outside the Bible. But it doesn’t require a degree in history to show it. It’s simpler than that. Here’s a suggestion: if somebody isn’t sure that Jesus existed, you could grab a paper Bible (use paper to help them see you’re referring to a proper document, not a fake news website or some random blogger) and turn up 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. This is part of a letter written by the apostle Paul, reliably dated to not much more than 20 years after Jesus died. In this passage, Paul refers to various witnesses to the events of Jesus’ life. He even names some of them. He writes about Jesus as a real person, who was known to real people. Some of those real people were known personally to the real people Paul was writing to. They all took what Paul said seriously, and the letter was preserved. That is excellent evidence that Jesus was actually a real person. If Jesus were just a fictional character, nobody would have taken Paul’s appeals to witnesses seriously—and nobody would have preserved his letter at all. And this is just one early document; there are plenty more if you’d like to find them (if you’d like to follow this up, you might like to check out some of the resources at Matthias Media).
Of course, proving that Jesus really existed is only a start. That’s why in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul asks bigger questions: Did Jesus die for our sins? Did he rise from the dead? It’s worth praying for a chance to talk about these bigger questions with your family and friends. But since so many people today seem to be doubting even the basic historical question—i.e., Did Jesus actually exist?—you might as well start by raising this issue. It’s a pretty easy conversation, and it might lead to further questions. At the very least, it will probably be a welcome distraction from some of the more fraught conversations you could be having at the end of this crazy year.
- With thanks to Ben George, Moore College External Engagement Manager, for drawing our attention to this. ↩
- Even a scholar such Bart Ehrman, who has spent much of his life seeking to oppose the reliability of various claims in the New Testament, won’t have a bar of the idea that Jesus didn’t actually exist. See his Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne: 2012). ↩