“What’s a bad guy like Pilate doing in the creed anyway?” asked a student in last semester’s study group on the Apostles’ Creed. As we talked, the students themselves realized the phrase “He suffered under Pontius Pilate” was fixing the trial of Jesus to a real time and place: the rule of the prefect of Roman Judea, A.D. 25-36. It’s a non-negotiable for Christianity that Jesus really existed. But for some other religions, historical details about their founders don’t really matter. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” speaks a Zen Buddhist maxim. In other words, whether the Buddha really lived is irrelevant because it’s only his teaching that matters. Christians could never say this about Jesus. A true comfort in “body and soul, in life and in death” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1) requires a Savior with a real body and soul who experienced real life and death for us and for our salvation.
But can we know for sure that Jesus existed?
There’s a lot of evidence for the existence of Jesus—far more, in fact, than for any other ancient figure of that day. Ancient Roman (Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny) and Jewish historians (Josephus) from the late first and early second centuries make reference to him. New Testament books such as Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, 1 Peter, James, and Hebrews were providing details of Jesus’ life and death only few decades after the fact. Some might protest that the New Testament is “biased” evidence—and, of course, it is.
But the most likely explanation for the existence of Christ followers in the first century is the fact that there was a Christ to follow. Why would the early church invent a gospel of a crucified Messiah that was both absurdly counterintuitive to their audience (1 Cor. 1:23) and extremely dangerous to themselves? And what sense would it make for Peter to remind his readers that Jesus was “leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21) unless they knew Jesus had actually lived and died? The ancient non-Christian and Christian evidence for the existence of Jesus is so compelling that even scholars unconvinced by the claims made about Jesus in the New Testament regarding who he is as God’s Son don’t doubt that he existed. It’s significant that the most impressive recent argument for Jesus’ existence, Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Really Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperCollins, 2012), was written by an agnostic.
But these days it’s typically not in campus classrooms or scholarly books where Jesus’ existence is being denied. It’s in popular films like Bill Maher’s 2008 mockumentary Religulous that claim there’s no historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth, or in the large number of websites devoted to proving that the early church fabricated Jesus on the basis of Greco-Roman myths. These arguments have a whiff of conspiracy about them, as if we’ve all been duped for 2,000 years into believing a make-believe Jesus.
My impression, though, is that these critics are less intellectually skeptical than they are cynical. It’s not just that they resist the clear pull of the evidence toward affirming the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth; it’s clear to me that for all their talk about evidence, they don’t want to believe in a Jesus they don’t think they need.
“The heart has its order, the mind has its own, which uses principles and demonstrations,” wrote Pascal. “The heart has a different one” (Pensées, 298). It probably won’t work to try to overwhelm the these doubters’ minds with more historical evidence for Jesus’ existence. What if we were to inquire instead about the reasons of their hearts for not wanting to believe in him?