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The Claim of Christianity: Did Jesus Really Exist?

July 20, 2021


Christians believe that God acts—and has acted—in the world. In the present tense, we acknowledge that God here and now is the metaphysical first cause and sustainer of all things; in him “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). In the past tense, we refer to Christianity’s unique claim that two thousand years ago, this same God took on human nature to enter the very world of which he is creator. In this awesome divine act of the incarnation—what C.S. Lewis calls “the Grand Miracle”—God entered history.

Christianity is an irrevocably historical religion. It tells us who we are, where we come from, our purpose, and our destiny. So Christianity would be completely undermined if, in the end, it was not rooted in the reality of a historical redeemer.

What is history? History deals with things that have already happened. More than that, it is concerned with persons as causes. Historian Robert Webb sums it all up by saying that history “concerns events in the past involving humans as agents.” And as Michael Licona wisely indicates, if we replace “humans” here with the more general term “persons,” we are suddenly well within our rights to apply the historical method to the acts of God himself in history. There is no good reason to exclude divine effects in time (e.g., miracles) from states of affairs which historians should concern themselves with as historians. 

Christianity stands or crumbles upon whether or not Jesus of Nazareth existed. If Jesus did not exist, then he was not God, he did not work miracles, he did not die for our sins, and he did not rise from the dead. If Jesus did not exist, then we are still in our sins and our faith is futile.

So, did Jesus exist? The most popular argument against the historicity of Christ is the mythicist argument. In short, this is to argue that the parallels between the New Testament and the gods of ancient mythology betray the workings of a “copycat.” Due to uncanny parallels with ancient pagan “dying and rising gods,” supporters of this view claim that Jesus is a pagan-inspired fabrication. Among serious New Testament historians—including the non-Christian ones—this is an abandoned hypothesis. At the end of the day, there is just too much evidence—pagan parallels or not—that Jesus did exist. For as Pope Benedict XVI writes, “If we believe that Christ is real history, and not myth, then the testimony concerning him has to be historically accessible as well. In this sense, the historical method has also given us many gifts.” It certainly has. Here now I give you just a taste of a larger field of historical evidence for the existence and life of Christ. 

One essential component of the historical method is to determine whether there are eyewitness accounts in support of the person or event of interest. We have these for Jesus. One example is when St. John the apostle, at the beginning of his first epistle, refers to Christ as “what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). Even more explicit an example is the prologue of St. Luke’s gospel:  

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses . . . I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. 

Now, this is not the sort of thing an author is going to write if he intends to write mythology. Luke has given us every right to think his intention is to record real history. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsey, for instance, has pledged that “Luke is a historian of the first rank.” New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson offers a more balanced analysis of Luke’s historical chops: “Luke’s account is selected and shaped to suit his apologetic interests, not in defiance of but in conformity to ancient standards of historiography.” 

To be sure, not everyone agrees. Certainly at the popular level, many do not recognize Luke’s historical merits because many modern people are ruled by biases against the divine and miraculous and—given their naturalistic presuppositions—presume him to be unworthy of serious attention as historians. In our largely disenchanted culture, the New Testament is at best treated as a book of mythology. Or psychology. Or both. But not as history.

When we open the Bible’s pages to the Gospels, what then are we looking at? Through his critically acclaimed book What Are the Gospels: A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography, Richard Burridge has convinced a wide swathe of scholars that the Gospels are historical biography. He has demonstrated that they possess all the hallmark qualities of ancient Greco-Roman biography. Burridge’s research effected a major shift in consensus among New Testament scholars. Thus, the majority of experts today recognize the Gospels as historical testaments to the life of Christ.

Reliable Christian testimony is manifold. But what about non-Christian sources? The two best are probably Josephus and Tacitus, both reputable historians in their own rights. Both write about Jesus and affirm other aspects of his life as recorded in the Bible. They give absolutely no indication of understanding him to be a mythological figure, nor do they give any evidence that the “mythicist” charge was postulated by contemporaneous anti-Christian critics. We have every reason to believe that the assumption of all who knew about Christianity—whether for or against it—assumed that Christ really existed and, more than that, that he died by crucifixion and founded a persistent movement of disciples.

But what counts as an early source? A definite line here cannot necessarily be drawn. But one important consideration is precedent. What has been considered “early enough” in other contexts?

All of the contents of the New Testament were written well within one hundred years of Christ (some were written only a couple decades after Christ, well within the range of eyewitnesses themselves to corroborate or critique). Compare this with the best sources historians possess for, say, Alexander the Great. The earliest reliable sources for him were written around four centuries after his death. Yet no one seriously argues that Alexander didn’t exist.

“We have got almost as much good evidence for Jesus as for anyone in the ancient world,” observes the respected New Testament historian N.T. Wright. And if this is true, then we are left with a question that urges us to think beyond the mere existence of Christ. If Jesus existed but is not the divine person he declares himself to be in the Bible, how has Christianity survived as it has to today? Indeed, how did it get off the ground in the first place? How is it that millions, if not billions, of people two thousand years later continue to worship Jesus as the divine and resurrected Christ? Christianity today is sheer madness! Or—it’s the pinnacle of sanity.

The religion of Christians makes no sense unless the existence of Jesus is but the first of many historical facts about his life and death and Resurrection. Reflecting on a similar point, Wright once stated, “[As] a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.” Only a real Resurrection adequately explains the radical change of course and purpose of the earliest Christians. And to my mind, it seems equally true that without a real Resurrection, the existence of modern-day Christianity remains equally as inexplicable.