Imagine the writers’ room as someone commissions the authors of the Gospels:
Okay, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I have a job for you. I know you’ve had no training or prior experience, but we need you to write the most influential works in literature. As for the timing, we’ll have to move on this, unfortunately. It would have been better to wait a couple of centuries before inventing our legends; that way none of Christ’s contemporaries could contradict our story. But we are where we are: the apostle Paul has forced the pace, writing his letters to churches around the Mediterranean. He’s been preaching Jesus as the promised Messiah and, heaven knows why, all these people have believed in “God on a cross.” The story seems to be working, so now we need you to fill in the details. Please can you write the origin story for our Hero? Paul’s letters gave the bare bones; we want you to put warm flesh on them. Are you up to it?
It won’t be easy. We need this to be the life and times of the greatest figure in human history—God but also man, sinless but fully alive, pure but with profound depths, the Judge of the world but with bottomless compassion, the fulfillment of all Jewish hopes but with a global appeal, a man in time but a man for all times. We need a Hero with heart-melting kindness yet steely determination. We need him blasting the self-righteous and befriending sinners. We need sublime ethical teaching to fall from his lips—the kind that builds civilizations. We need extraordinary miracles from him—the kind that would have been noticed (and could therefore be contradicted) by the generation to which you’re writing. We need a credible narrative arc whereby he remains impeccably righteous but is nonetheless condemned as a blasphemer. And we need it all to stand up to scrutiny: scriptural, theological, geographic, linguistic, literary, and historical. It needs to be believable both near and far, now and later, for those who’ve lived through these times and for all generations to come. Got it? Now get to work!
This is why Jordan Peterson finds it so difficult to believe that “human beings invented this unbelievably preposterous story.” It is, in his words, an “impossible” task. When you read the Gospels for yourself, you begin to ask, along with Bible scholar Peter Williams, “Which genius comes up with this?” There is genius here. There is enough genius in the Jesus story to remake the world.
But we need to ask: does the genius reside in the authors, or have the authors basically reported the genius of their Hero, Jesus? Both options are somewhat “miraculous,” but one of them involves a Miracle Maker who can explain the feat.
Life from the Dead
Whatever your views about miracles, everyone must grapple with an extraordinary “life from the dead” occurrence in the first century. No one who had seen Jesus’s followers on the day after his death—dejected, scared, leaderless, hiding from authorities—would have expected their movement to shape history in the way it has. Something was unleashed on the world 20 centuries ago such that, from an ignominious death, life has burst out.
Something was unleashed on the world 20 centuries ago such that, from an ignominious death, life has burst out.
A scientific analogy may help. Physicists first theorized about a Big Bang because they observed an expanding universe. It made them wonder about the origins of the expansion, and they reckoned that, at some point in the past, there was cosmic inflation, a force unleashed, a “Big Bang.”
My new book, The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality, observes a different kind of expansion—the expansion of the Jesus revolution that has “stretched into every atom of culture.” Tracing it back to its origins, we come to the first century. Something happened. An incredible power was unleashed: a primal force. And Christians put a name to this “Big Bang.” They claim it was the resurrection of Jesus that birthed the expansion we’ve witnessed. The Victim has been victorious over the course of history because the Victim was victorious in history: three days after his crucifixion, Jesus rose from the dead. The tomb was empty, his followers reported encounters with him, and a new perspective on reality was set in motion.
The resurrection of Jesus is undeniably a miracle. But it’s not a miracle that adds to the absurdity of your world; it explains what would otherwise be even more absurd. It says, “There’s expansion because there was an explosion”—the explosion of Christ bursting the bonds of death and inviting the world into his triumph. To embrace the miracle isn’t to embrace nonsense. It’s a way to make sense of life.
Resurrection explains why the Jesus movement didn’t die when he did. Resurrection explains why the Jesus movement continued its unlikely growth through many deadly trials. Resurrection explains why the Victim has come to be Victor. Resurrection explains why, far from being a tragedy, the cross has represented healing and hope. Resurrection explains why the pattern of all great stories—and the pattern of the meaningful life—is triumph through sacrifice. Most of all, resurrection explains Jesus. It explains why the one famous for his death has been encountered by billions as the one most fully alive.
Resurrection explains why the Jesus movement didn’t die when he did.
Choose Your Miracle
Everyone is confronted with an absurdly improbable event: Christianity rose to life to have dominion over the world. Christians say, “We have an explanation: Christianity rose to life because Christ rose to life.” And if you start leaning toward the Jesus explanation, then you can embrace the most wonderful truths:
- that the world is loved, and loved to death;
- that such love is the very essence of who God is;
- that behind the history you witness is a History-Maker who can be trusted;
- that above the values you prize is a person who embodies them;
- that beneath the values you violate is the mercy to forgive you;
- that beyond the death you must die is the life he has pioneered: resurrection.
Unquestionably these are extraordinary ideas to embrace. But then, all ordinary ideas are off the table. We live in an utterly extraordinary world. We are the heirs of a wholly improbable history. It’s a case of “choose your miracle.”
This is an adapted excerpt from Glen Scrivener’s forthcoming book The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality (The Good Book Company, 2022). You can preorder it now.