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

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

Dr. Michael F. Bird has a great article in Christianity Today. I’ve featured his debates with atheist historican 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

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

  1. I am little confused. Dr. Bird didn’t state specifically what led him to start reading the NT ‘for himself.’ He only states: ‘Many years later…..’ What specifically happened (directly or indirectly to him) that led him to not only become a Christian, but a young, up and coming, leader in Christian Apologetics?

    1. Coming to faith in Jesus Christ is usually part of a process of God drawing a person to himself. Jesus said that no-one comes to him unless the Father first draws him, i.e. by his Spirit, for it is the work of the Holy Spirit,who also brings revelation, conviction, repentance, faith, surrender and then sanctification, etc. For some 3 to 4 years the Lord drew me, a liberal agnostic. I didn’t consciously realise that I was seeking God until after the Lord in his timing broke through and brought me to my knees in repentance and surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over my life. With hindsight I can look back and see certain points along the way, but it was a process and would turn this comment into a long story!

      1. This is exactly what I wanted to hear from Dr. Bird! Some Christians do have a ‘Damascus Road’ experience (not literally, but figuratively), as well, and I was wondering if Dr. Bird had your experience or a ‘Damascus Road’ experience? I had a ‘Damascus Road’ experience, after ignoring the ‘drawing process of the Lord.’

  2. While dealing with many online atheists, the usual comment about only those who are educated except atheism.

    Posts like this are refreshing and prove that intelligence is not mutually exclusive from Christianity.

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