Professor explains how his study of the historical Jesus made him leave atheism

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s investigate Jesus!

Dr. Michael F. Bird has a great article in Christianity Today. I’ve featured his debates with atheist historian James Crossley on this blog before, and I have the book they co-wrote.

In the article, Dr. Bird writes:

I grew up in a secular home in suburban Australia, where religion was categorically rejected—it was seen as a crutch, and people of faith were derided as morally deviant hypocrites. Rates for church attendance in Australia are some of the lowest in the Western world, and the country’s political leaders feel no need to feign religious devotion. In fact, they think it’s better to avoid religion altogether.

As a teenager, I wrote poetry mocking belief in God. My mother threw enough profanity at religious door knockers to make even a sailor blush.

Many years later, however, I read the New Testament for myself. The Jesus I encountered was far different from the deluded radical, even mythical character described to me. This Jesus—the Jesus of history—was real. He touched upon things that cut close to my heart, especially as I pondered the meaning of human existence. I was struck by the early church’s testimony to Jesus: In Christ’s death God has vanquished evil, and by his resurrection he has brought life and hope to all.

When I crossed from unbelief to belief, all the pieces suddenly began to fit together. I had always felt a strange unease about my disbelief. I had an acute suspicion that there might be something more, something transcendent, but I also knew that I was told not to think that. I “knew” that ethics were nothing more than aesthetics, a mere word game for things I liked and disliked. I felt conflicted when my heart ached over the injustice and cruelty in the world.

Faith grew from seeds of doubt, and I came upon a whole new world that, for the first time, actually made sense to me. To this day, I do not find faith stifling or constricting. Rather, faith has been liberating and transformative for me. It has opened a constellation of meaning, beauty, hope, and life that I had been indoctrinated to deny. And so began a lifelong quest to know, study, and teach about the one whom Christians called Lord.

And now specifics:

For many secularists, Ehrman is a godsend who propagates common misconceptions about Jesus and the early church. He believes there was a spectrum of divinity between gods and humans in the ancient world. Therefore, he asserts that the early church’s beliefs about Jesus evolved: from a man exalted to heaven to an angel who became human to a pre-existent “divine” person who became incarnate to a subordinated or lesser god to being declared one with God.

My faith and studies have led me to believe otherwise. First-century Jews and early Christians clearly demarcated God from all other reality, thus leading them to hold to a very strict monotheism. That said, Jesus was not seen as a Greek god like Zeus who trotted about earth or a human being who morphed into an angel at death. Rather, the first Christians redefined the concept of “one God” around the person and work of Jesus Christ. Not to mention the New Testament writers, especially Luke and Paul, consistently identify Jesus with the God of Israel.

Many people get the idea that Jesus was just a prophet and never claimed to be divine. But a careful look at the Gospels shows that the historical Jesus explicitly claimed to exercise divine prerogatives. He identified himself with God’s activity in the world. He believed that in his own person, Israel’s God was returning to Zion, just as the prophets had promised. And he claimed he would sit on God’s throne. These claims, when studied up close, are de facto claims to divine personhood, the reasons religious leaders of the day were so outraged.

Evidence shows that Jesus claimed to be God incarnate, and within 20-some years after his death and resurrection, Christians were identifying him with the God of Israel, using the language and grammar of the Old Testament to do so.

Sure, some sects in the first few centuries held heretical beliefs about Jesus. But the mainstream, orthodox view of Christ’s identity was always consistent with and rooted in the New Testament, though orthodox Christology became more refined in the following centuries.

It’s definitely true that you can recover a high Christology (a view of Jesus as divine) from the earliest gospel, Mark. I wrote about it in a previous post. But the earliest evidence for Jesus is that creed in 1 Corinthians 15, that I blogged about recently.

Here is his conclusion:

Some have great confidence in skeptical scholarship, and I once did, perhaps more than anyone else. If anyone thinks they are assured in their unbelief, I was more committed: born of unbelieving parents, never baptized or dedicated; on scholarly credentials, a PhD from a secular university; as to zeal, mocking the church; as to ideological righteousness, totally radicalized. But whatever intellectual superiority I thought I had over Christians, I now count it as sheer ignorance. Indeed, I count everything in my former life as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing the historical Jesus who is also the risen Lord. For his sake, I have given up trying to be a hipster atheist. I consider that old chestnut pure filth, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a CV that will gain me tenure at an Ivy League school, but knowing that I’ve bound myself to Jesus—and where he is, there I shall also be.

I recently led a Bible study on the passage he is paralleling there – it comes from my favorite book of the Bible, Philippians.

What I like about Bird’s story is that he was a skeptic, and his study of history is what changed his mind. This contradicts a narrative that young people are sold at the university, which is that the more education you have, the more you turn away from theism in general, and Christianity in particular. I wouldn’t even classify him as a super conservative scholar, by any means – he’s just a good scholar who believes whatever he thinks is historically sound. It just turns out that you can recover enough historically to ground a commitment to Jesus Christ. You can’t get everything as a historian, but you get enough to cause a change of mind about who Jesus was.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

3 thoughts on “Professor explains how his study of the historical Jesus made him leave atheism”

  1. The advancement of education should never be in opposition to spirituality. This is the dualism of all of us as humans. Only because of the Lucifer rebellion, do we as humans believe that increased education somehow liberates us from the knowledge of the spirit within us. This is the irony of atheism. The rebellion is more than the knowledge of good and evil. It also generated a veil of ignorance regarding the reason for our earthly existence and our continued advancement in the spiritual realm.

  2. Bird was not a historian nor studying Christianity at a university level when he converted. He knew little about Christianity when he converted. He was just out of high school, an army paratrooper, read a tract and the Bible for the first time, given him by some Evangelicals and began attending a Baptist church and became an army chaplain’s assistant. No stunning conversion of a well educated atheist In his case.

    Below is from an interview with Michael Bird that can be read on facebook, just google Michale Bird paratrooper

    Michael: I grew up in Brisbane (Australia) in a fairly standard suburban family on the west side of Brisbane. I grew up in a non-Christian home, which was in no way religious – not anti-religious, for the most part. It wasn’t until I joined the Australian Army that I had serious encounters with Christians. While I was with the army I visited a church and became a follower of Jesus and my interest grew gradually until I ended up where I am now.
    Richard: I read your profile on the Ridley College website and it said you were a paratrooper with the Army. Does that mean you did parachute training or were you with the SAS (special forces)?
    Michael: No, I wasn’t in the special forces, I was in the Parachute Regiment. I did that for about two and half years, but eventually went from that to Military Intelligence, which is a far more dignified lifestyle if you ask me. I finished up my military career as a chaplain’s assistant.
    Richard: Now you came to faith during your time with the Australian Army. Did that happen before that job as an assistant to the chaplain or did that job follow that?
    Michael: The job followed that. I mean, I loved the Regular Army. I stayed with that on a part-time basis. working one day a week. I did a few things in Intelligence, but because I was in theological college by that time they allowed me to work as the chaplain’s assistant, basically as his administrative assistant and driver, doing his admin and running a few errands. It was a good way to finish up my career.
    Richard: Who was most influential in your journey to faith?
    Michael: A number of people. They guy who invited me to church. The people I met at a Baptist Church in Holdsworthy (Sydney, Australia) which is now called Southwestern Baptist Church. A number of pastors who spoke to me. A chap called Steve Grose who gave me a little gospel tract. There were a number of people and a number of things that led to that. For which I am very grateful.
    Richard: Was the Army your first job, or did you do other work before that?
    Michael: In high school, I was basically a B student. I didn’t get into any top degree courses at university. So the next best thing for me was to join the Army. So that’s what I did. And I also had a dysfunctional home life and I was very keen to get out of home. Joining the Army made me able to do that.
    Richard: Where did you do your theological studies and what was it that made you start?
    Michael: When I was in the Army, I felt a call to serve the church, to be involved in mission and ministry. I was initially thinking of maybe being an Army chaplain. But as I went through college, it became clear that I was more gifted on the academic side. I did very well. I was very good at coaching other students in theology and Bible. I was able to get into different programs. I was able to get a scholarship for a PhD. I’m very grateful for the early training I did at a place that is now called Malyon College, which is a Baptist College in Brisbane and I did my PhD at the University of Queensland, both of which were very good and very good experiences.

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