[The finality of the Gospels]
VIRGINIA BEACH, VA — Jesus was far from being an old man when his
earthly life ended. He was probably well under 40, roughly the age
of Mozart, who died at 35, as his genius was still approaching its
By contrast, nobody thinks of Jesus as having died prematurely, as
if he had been killed before his teaching had been fully developed,
and as if it might have ripened into something more profound and interesting
had his life span been longer. There is about his life a sense of completeness;
he had done what he had come to achieve. At the very end, he said, “It
is consummated.” He had foretold his own death and resurrection.
The Jesus Seminar, a liberal group that includes theologians as well
as the director of Robocop, has tried to distinguish between authentic
and inauthentic sayings of Jesus in the four Gospels; but nobody has
ventured to suggest what he might have said if only he had survived
another 10 years or so. Those Gospels do seem to indicate the fulfillment
of a mission, don’t they?
It is, of course, impossible for anyone to invent a single saying
worthy of Jesus. Much easier to coin a phrase worthy of a human genius
like Shakespeare! “Heaven and earth shall pass away,” Jesus
said, “but my words shall not pass away.” Once we have
heard those words, they become part of us. They seem so familiar that
we may think they are trite, but they are not. They are eternally new,
even when we have heard them all our lives, and they always reward
meditation on them.
Some day when you have nothing better to do, try improving on the
Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive
those who trespass against us.” Don’t all religions agree
on that? No. In most religions — see the Iliad, the Koran, and
Psalms, for example — it is normal to pray for revenge. Forgiving
and praying for one’s enemies are among the hardest duties of
a Christian. Being “nice” is far from the same thing as
being a Christian; after all, Jesus was not tortured to death for urging
good manners on his disciples.
But he did recommend good manners. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, the
assertion that the meek shall inherit the earth is not at all a meek
statement. “Meek” does not mean cowardly or timid; it means
polite and unassuming.
If you want to contend that the Gospels are packs of lies and that
Jesus never said all those things or performed all those wonders, you
should at least admit that Christianity is the most brilliant hoax
of all time. Everything fits so well. How could a few unlearned and
provincial Jews invent such a supremely memorable character, endow
him with the ability to speak immortal words on all occasions, then
make virtually all the details of his story cohere so well, tallying
even with Old Testament prophecy?
A cliche of literary criticism tell us that evil characters are more
interesting than good ones. If so, why is this best of all characters
— indeed, he is sinless — so fascinating? And how could four unpracticed
amateur writers create the most vividly virtuous personality in all
literature? And why does he sound like the same utterly unique man
in all of their accounts of him?
In Jesus, goodness is not at all bland; it normally inspires, but
it can also be disturbing, challenging, even frightening. He is incomparable;
he never reminds us of anyone else. He spiritually dwarfs even the
charismatic John the Baptist.
It has been said (again, by Chesterton) that whereas the death of
Socrates seems to come as a rather arbitrary interruption of a conversation
that might have gone on forever, Jesus’ death is the center of
his story. Even during his infancy, his mother received intimations
of his agonizing destiny. And he knew when his fatal hour had come.
Unbelievers have made it their never-ending task to explain Jesus
away. Some have even suggested that he never existed at all! That degree
of unbelief is itself unbelievable. Such daft doubts remind us that
atheism is the extreme form of wishful thinking.
But there will be no wishful thinking in hell, where all comforting
fantasies end forever.
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