How We Got Where We are Today

My wife and I lived in Guatemala for a couple of years. It was a fantastic experience for us, and one of the most memorable trademarks of life in Central America is the "chicken bus," which the online Urban Dictionary aptly defines as,

A schoolbus that has been retired from its academic duties in the U.S. to go face a long, slow death in Latin America. Often painted garish colors and includes numerous religious icons, including the Virgin Mary, displayed prominently within the bus in an effort to reassure passengers. The emissions from one chicken bus equal that of four tractor trailers. Chicken buses often carry chickens in addition to other small livestock.(1)

By Greg Willis from Denver, CO, usa (Santiago - Chicken Bus Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Greg Willis from Denver, CO, usa (Santiago - Chicken Bus Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Though I rarely rode on one of these buses in our time there, I had plenty of opportunity to study them while being stuck in traffic. Whoever wrote that entry in the Urban Dictionary noticed one of the same things I did, though I saw the the vast amount of Christian artwork that was displayed on these vehicles from a different perspective. To use the dictionary's example, if a bus was painted with an image of the Virgin Mary: what are the chances that an image of my mom will be painted on any means of transportation two millennia after my lifetime? Or, if the likeness was of Jesus himself: what kind of genius PR plan would someone have to follow to have their face be the most common thing painted on chicken buses in Guatemala two thousand years later? None of the Roman emperors from closer to Jesus' time accomplished this, nor is it likely for any of today's world leaders to be painted on the future's equivalent of the chicken bus somewhere around the year 4000. So, how did we get here? What are the possible courses history could have taken to get Jesus' face on the chicken buses that surrounded me in Guatemala?

I have never heard anyone try to make the case that the depiction of Jesus on those buses proves his resurrection, because that would be foolish. (Jesus' face wasn't the only thing that got painted on the buses, but he was in a different category since none of the other things that appeared frequently, like cartoon characters or silhouettes of nude women, were ever asserted to have any the claim on my life's complete allegiance such as Christianity gives to Jesus.) Even so, in light of questions we have looked at previously about Jesus, I think it's also a mistake to think the chicken buses do nothing to inform us about the intelligibility of thinking of Jesus' resurrection as a historical reality. As I've tried to point out, it is perfectly logical to think that Jesus lived and died, so his likeness on the buses is quickly of a different type from those of Mickey Mouse. And, if he really did live and die, some chain of events has happened between his lifetime and now which makes people think of painting his face on buses and a myriad of other things. That chain of events–including its good, bad, and ugly parts–has to have some kind of explanation. What could it be?

If we were to leave the explanation of that chain of events to those with a strong bias against Christianity, some entertaining theories would undoubtedly surface. But–again–if Jesus was a real historical person, and real historical events have happened relating to him in all of the years since his death, what is most reasonable to believe could have occurred to give history the shape it has taken? Or, as Dallas Willard puts it, "The basic issue here is whether events subsequent to what is claimed as the resurrection of Christ could have been what they are if it hadn't actually happened."(2)

In the context of this question, the most fascinating and most crucial segment of the course that history has taken is within those first few generations following Jesus' death and supposed resurrection. Michael Green notes the following points among those that need to be considered(3):

  1. Jesus, the prisoner of Pilate, really was dead. Though some people have tried to propose that Jesus must not have actually died, but only been beaten into unconsciousness, that explanation fails to take into account one really important thing: Roman soldiers were really, really good at killing people. It takes an immense degree of unsubstantiated "faith" to believe that they failed to kill Jesus.
  2. The tomb was empty. It doesn't make sense to dismiss the stories of Jesus' resurrection by believing the accounts of his life up until the point of his burial, but then concluding that his body must have stayed in a tomb. The claims about his resurrection caused enough of a stir that if his body had never left the tomb where it was buried (either alive or still dead), Jewish and Roman authorities easily could have provided the evidence to stop the stories circulating about him.
  3. The church was born. This point doesn't get enough attention in the way we often talk about whether or not the resurrection could have happened, but is as important as anything else. Willard notes: "The evidence in favor of [Jesus' resurrection] is mainly the transformation of his followers from a small group of highly unqualified and socially marginalized individuals, disgraced and hunted by the authorities, into a force for moral and social regeneration that, within a few generations, was present throughout the Roman Empire and, within a few centuries, had become the dominant form of religion within it. All of this came about without any special advantage other than the words they spoke and the life they lived, without any use of force and even against strong and often deadly opposition."(4)

It is possible to look back and suggest any number of possibilities about how someone/some group of people might have deceived others into believing that Jesus was physically alive again after he had been physically dead. But can any of those theories explain, in an intelligent and honest way, why Christianity began and took the shape it did? I am open to any other explanation, but aware of none, that fits as well as this one: it actually happened.

I am well aware that what I am saying here proves nothing. But the lack of proof doesn't negate the legitimacy of these points: It is perfectly intelligent to believe that he lived, he died, and his rag-tag group of followers started a movement that has resulted in him being the most influential person in world history. If there is any explanation for how that happened superior to the belief that he rose from the dead, every responsible person should pay attention to it. If there is not, every responsible person should re-evaluate the entirety of their lives in light of the likelihood that this crucified messiah actually walked out of his own grave.

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Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • Amos 7:7-17
  • Psalm 82
  • Colossians 1:1-14
  • Luke 10:25-37

A Prayer for the Week*:

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=chicken%20bus(2) Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today, 133(3) See Michael Green, Avoiding Jesus: Answers for Skeptics, Cynics, and the Curious (4) Willard, Knowing Christ Today, 134NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 126

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]