If the Gospel description of the Passion of Jesus Christ
is not the record of something real, then there was concealed
somewhere in the provinces ruled by Tiberius a supremely
powerful novelist who was also, among many other things,
a highly modern realist.
To millions of persons,
Jesus is more than a man.
But a historian must disregard this fact.
He must adhere to the evidence
that would pass unchallenged if his book
were to be read in every nation under the sun.
Yet more than 1900 years later a historian
like myself who doesn’t even call himself a Christian
finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life
and character of this most significant man.
We sense the magnetism that induced men who had
seen him only once to leave their business and follow him.
He filled them with love and courage.
Weak and ailing people were heartened by his presence.
He spoke with a knowledge and authority
that baffled the wise.
But other teachers have done all this.
These talents alone would not have given him
the permanent place of power by virtue of the new
and profound ideas which he released.
His is one of the most revolutionary doctrines that
has ever been stirred and changed human thought.
No age has even yet understood fully
the tremendous challenge it carries . . .
But the world began to be a different world
from the day that doctrine was preached . . .
The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is,
“Did he start men to think along fresh lines
with a vigor that persisted after him?”
That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of life, character, and teaching of Christ remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.
THE HIGH PRIEST Caiaphas was essentially a mathematician. When the Jews started worrying that they might all get into hot water with the Romans because of the way Jesus was carrying on, Caiaphas said that in that case they should dump him like a hot potato. His argument ran that it is better for one man to get it in the neck for the sake of many than for many to get it in the neck for the sake of one man. His grim arithmetic proved unassailable.
The arithmetic of Jesus, on the other hand, was atrocious. He said that Heaven gets a bigger kick out of one sinner who repents than out of ninety-nine saints who don’t need to. He said that God pays as much for one hour’s work as for one day’s. He said that the more you give away, the more you have.
It is curious that in the matter of deciding his own fate, he reached the same conclusion as Caiaphas and took it in the neck for the sake of many, Caiaphas included. It was not, however, the laws of mathematics that he was following.
We should be grateful to Freud for pointing out ways in which we humans deceive ourselves about our real motives. He suggested that many of our actions arise from very dark sources which we hide from ourselves . . . But the essence of what Freud said was suggested two and half thousand years before him when Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful about all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” . . .
Whenever I hear a man arguing against the existence of God, or simply brushing aside the very possibility, I want to say to him, “What are your feelings on the subject? Are you arguing to justify a conclusion your heart has already reached?” I want to probe further and ask why he has certain attitudes to God… I say to myself, “you are running away; you are making excuses to avoid the truth; you have a deceitful heart, so be honest.”
When people are brought face to face with Jesus, they either hide from him behind a hedge of rationalizations, or they come into the open and admit the truth. Caiaphas was a beautiful example. Pushed into a corner by Jesus’ behavior at his trial, faced with all that Jesus had said and done, he says “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” “I am”, said Jesus. “There you are”, said Caiaphas, in so many words, “the man must be a fraud. I have an excuse for all my hostility to the man. I disliked him all along because I knew he was a fraud and a madman. I was beginning to think I disliked him because he was right and I was wrong. But now I have a beautiful rationalization for all my opposition. I am really a very holy man who detests blasphemy and my righteous soul is revolted by such wickedness. What a relief to be a good man after all.” God does try the deceitfulness of men’s hearts by bringing them in front of Jesus. That is what the day of judgment will amount to: just being face to face with Jesus. When we see Him we shall find that all our excuses will vanish away and we shall find ourselves revealed for what we really are . . .
We discover that men actually hate God, particularly the ones who have most eagerly tired to explain Him away. That is why Jesus calls himself the Truth. He brings all our hidden attitudes into the open. He exposes the shams, the false support . . . There is no hiding from Him. He reveals the true reasons for our behavior — not our glib rationalizations.