Is Jesus just a legend?

Jesus must be either who He said He was–the Son of God–or He must have been a liar or a lunatic.  So goes the “trilemma” as developed in the apologetics of  C. S. Lewis.  But now lots of people are claiming another option, that He was simply a legend.  But was he?  And how can we persuade someone who thinks he was?

Tom Gilson, in Touchstone, offers a quite brilliant line of thought refuting that notion, in what is, in effect, a literary apologetic.  Read it all, but I give a sample after the break.

From Tom Gilson, Touchstone Archives: The Gospel Truth of Jesus:

Three or four questions concerning human nature have so caught my attention lately that I’ve taken to asking them of my friends and conference attendees. The first is this: Who are the most powerful characters you can think of in all of human history and imagination, apart from those in the Bible?

The scope of the question is intentionally broad. I exclude biblical personages for reasons that will become clear later, but include everyone else: both historical and quasi-historical figures, as well as characters that are purely the products of human imagination, whether from literature, mythology, film, TV, or even comic books. And I define power in this context as the ability to do and/or obtain whatever one wants without constraint.

The answers I’ve received range from Andrew Carnegie to Zeus, and include both genuine and doubtful luminaries, such as Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Stalin, Mao, and, occasionally, United States presidents. Superman is often mentioned.

My second question is of similar scope, but has a completely different set of characters in mind: Who in all of human history and imagination, outside of the Bible, are the most self-sacrificial, other-oriented, giving, and caring persons you can think of?

The most common answers are Mother Teresa and “my mom.” Sir Galahad and Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot have also been suggested, but the set of answers I receive to this question is smaller than to the previous one.

My next question is this: Can you think of any single person—again, outside of the Bible—who genuinely belongs on both lists at the same time? Is there any person in all of human history and imagination who is at the same time supremely powerful and supremely good?

If the second set of answers was small, this one is minuscule. Some of the best suggestions have been Abraham Lincoln, Superman, and Gandalf. Yet none of these characters really measures up as both supremely powerful and supremely other-oriented. Lincoln commanded an army, yes, but his army very nearly lost the Civil War. Gandalf, my own preferred candidate, was entirely dependent on a pair of hobbits, far beyond the reach of his power, for his mission’s success. And so far no one has included him among the most self-sacrificial; his small, weak friends Frodo and Samwise Gamgee claim that honor above him. Superman remains an interesting case, for reasons I’ll specify in a moment.

So, thus far in all my searching, I have not found anyone who’s been able to come up with a really satisfying answer to question three. As to why this is, perhaps Abraham Lincoln explained it as succinctly as anyone has: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Of course, anyone can just invent a character who is both supremely powerful and supremely self-sacrificial; I can do it in two sentences: Marvin was able to do anything he wanted by his own powers. Marvin did everything for the good of others. But—need I say it?—there’s nothing there beyond bald assertion. The challenge is not simply to invent a character and impute to him massive power and towering goodness, but to flesh that character out, to make him interesting and compelling—in short, to make him believable.

Shakespeare never created such a character. Homer didn’t either. Dostoevsky never dreamed of such a person. In fact, none of the great poets and writers of any age created a figure who would satisfy question three. I don’t know whether that’s because they were unable to do so, or because they simply chose not to. But it seems safe to say that, if anyone ever did create such a character and make him believable, that author would have to be counted among the greats, if not as the greatest moral and literary genius of all time.

And if that is true, and if the character of Christ were created and not rather recorded in the Gospels, then those who created it were those very geniuses. For when we open up the scope of my third question to include biblical characters, the answer comes instantly. Jesus Christ is the one character we can name who is both supremely powerful and supremely self-sacrificial.

[Keep reading. . . ]

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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