The Significance of History

Probably one of the most respected books on man’s diverse spiritual longings is The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. Written in 1958, it is still regularly used in many college curriculums. Commentator Bill Moyers suggests it is one of the best books on comparative religion because of its objectivity and its sensitivity to all religious beliefs and practices. Smith, who was very well-educated, didn’t have any particular religious leaning. He was unbiased. And in the book, in the section on Christianity, he begins with these words;

“Christianity is basically a historical religion. That is to say, it is founded not on abstract principles but in concrete events, actual historical happenings.”

Out of all the religions that Smith covers, he doesn’t say this about any of the other world religions. The Bible, he suggests, unlike most of the world’s great religious literature and traditions, is not centered on a series of moral, spiritual, and liturgical teachings, but rather on what God did in history and what he revealed in history.

The historical record does not seem to be of as much importance in other world religions. For instance, a number of years ago, theologian Paul Tillich, hosted a conference in Asia with various Buddhist thinkers. During the conference he asked a simple question: What if by some fluke Siddartha Guatama, the Buddha, had never lived and turned out to be some sort of fabrication? What would be the implications for Buddhism? The scholars all agreed that if Buddha had not existed, it would not matter. The reason, they concluded, is because Buddhism should be judged as an abstract philosophy, a system for living. They said it did not matter where the teaching originated.

Christianity, on the other hand, requires an origination, a set of hard facts on which to stand. To make the point more explicitly, Peter Moore, the founder of Trinity Seminary, emphasizes that Christianity is the only world religion to make spiritual truth depend on historical events. And English historian and author Paul Johnson bolsters this truth by stating, “Christianity is essentially a historical religion. It bases its claims on the historical facts it asserts. If these are demolished it is nothing.”

When you read the Gospels, Jesus is often challenged by the religious leaders to give them a sign, telling him, “We’ve heard all these great things about you. We’ve heard about these miracles you seem to have been performing. Well, we want to see one too. We want to see something spectacular.”

Jesus refuses to give them a sign. However, he promises throughout his ministry to give them a sign in the future . . . that he would die and rise again after three days.

And we should note that the translation of the word “sign” in Greek literally means “an attesting miracle.” They want an attesting miracle. They want Jesus to perform for them. Yet, Jesus refuses to perform on their terms and likewise we know that God will not perform on our terms today.

But what Jesus does say is remarkable in its impact for man. He says I am going to give you a sign, an attesting miracle. It won’t be a scientific discovery, it won’t be a philosophical argument, but, he says, it will be a single event that will take place during my lifetime. It will occur at the end of my life here on earth, and it will be a historical event. In fact, the Bible says, at the proper time he came into the world and he died. And he predicted he would rise again. That will be the attesting miracle. That is why the historical record is of such critical importance, and, why the attesting miracle that Jesus said he would provide would have to be proven historically.

The prominent philosopher Dallas Willard said that the historical evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is quite compelling. However, most modern people are totally ignorant of the facts. He noticed over the years however, that many a skeptic has set out to disprove the claims of the Christian Faith, only to change their minds and eventually become Christians. Willard points out that in their quest they are forced to examine the historical record and historical facts. They are forced to think clearly and to look reality in the eye. This is why C.S. Lewis once humorously said “a young atheist can’t be too careful about what he reads and must steadfastly protect his ignorance.”

If you want to learn more about the historical record and the Bible, you can find it in Richard’s book: Reliable Truth: The Validity of the Bible in an Age of Skepticism.


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