Q: I greatly appreciated your recent columns about passing on faith to children. My question is, how do adults without a strong commitment to one faith deal with this issue? For example, how does an adult determine whether belief in Jesus is necessary for salvation, or that Jesus was not the Messiah? – J., North Carolina
A: Belief in Jesus as the Christ (Messiah) is the defining belief for all branches of Christianity. The question of whether you can accept that belief begins with the question of whether that belief is grounded in history or faith.
If Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection were indeed historical events, then Jesus was the Messiah. Period. If, on the other hand, the events described in the New Testament have no proof outside of the New Testament, then Jesus still could be the Messiah for you, but you’d need to come to that belief through faith, not through history.
An event claiming to be historically true is either true or false. It happened or it did not happen. Those are the only alternatives. However, a belief is not true or false in the same way because it can’t be empirically proven. A belief is either trusted or not trusted.
The difference between history and faith is like the difference between facts and hope. Which are you looking for? The reason many people want to transform a faith decision into a simple recounting of historical events is that they want to make the decision easier. History is clean and clear. Faith is messy but uplifting.
Many Christians who want to make this decision easier make the claims for Jesus a matter of simple historical fact. The problem with this approach is that the New Testament is the source of those claims, and the New Testament is not a work of history, but a record of a world-changing faith.
This doesn’t mean that the New Testament is historically false. It only means that it’s a work of belief, inspiration and hope, not a textbook recording verifiable historical events.
The same thing is true about the Hebrew Bible. There’s no historical evidence for the Exodus or the life of Moses. And, of course, both Testaments include as historical events miracles that violate the laws of nature and thus can’t be historically confirmed. The New Testament is about life-changing teachings from a life that changed the world through faith. That ought to be enough for any believing Christian.
I’ve had many readers try to insert historical truth into faith claims. They might say something like, “Look, if Jesus was not the Messiah, then he was either insane or a liar, but since Jesus was not insane and not a liar, he must have been the Messiah.”
I think this claim makes two serious mistakes. The first is that it uses the New Testament stories to prove New Testament stories, rather than using outside historical validations of those stories. This is circular reasoning. The second and greater mistake is that it demeans and diminishes faith by assuming that faith needs history to prove its truth.
History is true, and faith is true, but they are true in very different ways. History is about what happened. Faith is about what ought to happen. History is a dry pile of facts. Faith is a living, breathing, hopeful force that can give us reasons to believe that the good in us will win out, and that we’re not alone in a cold, unfeeling universe.
Making faith into history undermines the true power of faith to transform the human heart through the teachings of moral virtue, compassion, love and hope. Wanting historical proof for faith makes faith just implausible history rather than a necessary guide and support through a life filled with sin, doubt and death.
So, dear J., the best and only reason for you to believe in Jesus as the Messiah is that, after prayerful reflection, you come to the conclusion that belief in the story of Christ’s atoning death and Resurrection helps you more than any other story or belief to face your own sin and your own death, and thus gives meaning and hope to your life.