The season of Advent prompts us to ponder anew the question Jesus put to his disciples two thousand years ago: “Who do you say that I am?” It is a haunting question because the possible answers are few.
During Jesus’s life, he was accused of being a deluded babbler, knowing fraud, or demon-possessed lackey; acknowledged as a great moral teacher; and rarely—very rarely—accepted as the Lord he claimed to be.
However, in the centuries hence, another answer has bubbled out of the sophistic caldron: Jesus of the Bible never existed. Although the “Jesus Myth” has charmed armchair skeptics since it was trotted out in the nineteenth century, no reputable scholar supports it. There are several reasons:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
First, there are the extra-biblical references to Jesus by Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, and Suetonious—men who weren’t particularly inclined toward this messianic figure or his fringe following.
Next, we have the emergence of a Christian community within the living memory of people who knew Jesus and the events of his life—a community, myth proponents would have us believe, that suffered persecution for a tale members knew to be false or had failed to verify with any of the number of surviving eyewitnesses.
Finally, there is the historical record of the Bible itself: Namely, that Jesus was a Jew who was born, lived, and died in a specified historical setting (i.e., Palestine in the days of Caesar Augustus).
Consequently, even some not-so-sympathetic authorities dismiss the myth theory. For instance, atheist and historian Michael Grant cedes, “Modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory… It has again and again been answered and annihilated by first-rank scholars.”
Considering the remaining options, the one that best fit the facts is the one voiced by the apostle Thomas: “My Lord and my God!”
Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish zealot and Christian persecutor, came to the same conclusion on a dusty trail to Damascus, eventually describing Jesus as “the image of the invisible God,” in whom “all the fullness of the Godhead resides in bodily form.”
The earthly visitation of God in bodily form was the culminating event of all of history.
The Incarnate Word
In the period prior to the Incarnation, mankind was aware of three things: a spiritual realm that was pure and unchanging; a material world that was corrupt and fleeting; and the infinite gulf between them. Therein lay the problem.
For pre-Christian people, God was a distant and impersonal deity whose true identity and desires were largely unknowable. Anxious about relying on personal guesswork to forge the divine divide, people looked to enlightened go-betweens. The proliferation of temples, priests, and priestesses over the ages was a response to man’s need for mediation.
When the Incarnate Word broke into history, he was unlike all the mediators that had gone before. They were human; he was human and divine. He was the perfect bridge over the gaping chasm between the earthly and the heavenly—a priest who not only intercedes for man, but who reveals God to man. As the apostle John wrote, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:18).
Of all places, it was in a cave that the “One and Only” first made him known.
Cut Into a Hillside
Caves were shelters for animals, lepers, and refugees. Darkness, and the threats of disease and physical danger, made them undesirable habitats for all but those on the margins.
The cave was also a metaphor for the material world—the impermanent, corrupted “shadow” of reality, a thing to be despised. If man was to learn the true nature of things, he would need to turn his attention from the cave to the heavens—the pure and unchanging realm of Being.
In time, a Persian coterie left that cave and followed the heavens until they landed on the outskirts of Bethlehem. In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton notes that they came upon a cave cut into the side of a hill, where a young mother was caring for her newborn.
Never could they have imagined what lay at their journey’s end: a refuge for outcasts, where an impoverished couple was attending a suckling infant, wrapped in strips of cloth and resting in a feeding trough.
Neither could they have understood the reality before their eyes. Yet, in some inexplicable way, they sensed that, in this humble scene, Truth was not outside the cave but inside it. For those who had been studying the matter, the time for “God with us” had come and, with it, a divine statement about the world had been made.
Although spoiled by the effects of sin, the material world is not a loathsome object corrupted beyond repair. It is a creation loved by its Creator who entered it, by way of a cave, in the flesh and form of a human infant to restore it and make himself known.
Out of the Cave
Through his healing touch, comforting words, and heart-piercing stories, Jesus revealed God to people restless for transcendence. Teaching moments were reinforced by example:
He, who taught the greatness of servanthood, left the head of the table to take up the towel and basin.
He, who taught his disciples to pray, withdrew to a mountainside, a garden, and quiet places to talk with the Father.
He, who taught his followers to take up their cross, took up his on the Golgothan hill.
He, who, on another hill, taught the crowd to love their enemies, pleaded for his: “Father, forgive them.”
From the cave to the cross, Jesus modeled his greatest commandment: “As I have loved you, so you must love” (John 13:34-35). Enduring the panorama of our misery, Jesus experienced temptation, pain, and rejection beyond human comprehension before laying down his life that we might enjoy eternal fellowship with him.
The Incarnate Word is evidence that God not only exists and loves us, but identifies with us. When asked, “When did we see you, Lord,” he will reply, “When I was hungry, naked, sick…” Jesus is evidence that God identifies with cave dwellers.
A cave also marks the end of his life. It was the site of something so startling it shook a group of seasoned soldiers to their core.
The Other Cave
After Jesus’s body was removed from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea laid it in a tomb cut out of rock. As an infant, Mary had swathed his wriggling body in strips of linen. Now Joseph wrapped his lifeless corpse in a cloth loaded with spices.
The next morning when the women visited the tomb, they found a highly disciplined Roman detachment rattled to the point of paralysis. Maybe it was the effect of the earthquake, or the spectral figure that rolled back the stone sealing the entrance. Or maybe it was what Peter and John saw after they stooped to peer inside—the empty tomb, or something even more staggering?
An empty tomb could be dismissed as the result of theft. But this tomb was not empty. On the slab were burial wrappings that no longer contained a body—not scattered about willy-nilly, but of a piece, conformed to the shape of a human body, but collapsed like a cocoon whose contents had vaporized and oozed out through its fibers.
To men who had not understood that their leader must die, much less rise from the dead, the sight of the crumpled “chrysalis” was a faith-galvanizing moment. It prompted reflection on all they had been taught, including the ultimate revelation of their Master, “Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:19-20).
The apprehension of Emmanuel (God with us) transformed a group of cowards who had fled Gethsemane to avoid persecution into intrepid evangelists, racing to Jerusalem with a message guaranteeing their persecution—namely the Gospel, a message that made them the stench of death to audiences and authorities, but the aroma of Christ to God.
This season, and throughout the year, no less a transformational power is available to those who live in the Emmanuel reality of “he in us, we in him, as he is in the Father.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Madonna and Child” painted by William Dyce in 1827-30.