Some religions are impossible to imagine apart from their founders. Can anyone picture Islam without Muhammed, or the Latter Day Saints without Joseph Smith, or Scientology without L. Ron Hubbard?
In other religions the human founder is historically important but not indispensable. Taoism, Confucianism and even Judaism fit this description. In still other religions, there is no founder, or the founder is unknown. Hinduism, with its million gods, comes readily to mind.
Christianity clearly falls into the first category and is, in this sense, like Islam. One cannot conceive of a Christianity without a Christ. But Christianity is also different in this: a Muslim believes that the world and the principles by which it operates would have remained generally the same whether Muhammed ever taught about them or not. But a Christian believes that Jesus changed the world and the very principles by which it operates.
Like every spiritual leader, Jesus taught about God, about how the world operates and about how people can thrive in it. In that regard, he was like other great teachers, like the Buddha or the gurus of Sikhism. Jesus taught these things and taught them brilliantly.
But unlike Buddhism or Sikhism – or for that matter, Judaism or Taoism or many other religious constructs – Christianity stands or falls with its founder. If historians could prove that Gautama never existed, Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths” and “Eightfold Path” would continue on. But if historians could prove that Jesus never existed, Christianity would immediately collapse. Buddhists believe that the Gautama Buddha saw and taught about the eternal reality behind the visible world. Christians believe that Jesus transformed that reality.
To argue that Christian denominations and churches would continue on doing good works and holding religious services even without a real Jesus, is to make the accusation that denominations and churches are not really Christian. Christianity is not a state of mind (though it influences one’s state of mind). It is not a belief system (though it requires belief). Christianity is a relationship to the Christ: a relationship of the led to the leader, of the saved to the savior. Apart from this shared relationship, Christianity ceases to be Christian.
So what makes Jesus so different? Where does one start? His first hearers repeatedly noted the difference between Jesus and other religious teachers. They said that he taught like someone with inside information; like someone with authority.
As is true with many charismatic religious leaders, miracles were attributed to Jesus. But Jesus’s miracles were revelatory. They were “signs,” as the Apostle John insists on calling them. They pointed to God and related important information about him.
Jesus didn’t merely point people to God; he took them to God. This is how he put it: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This claim has been tried and attested by Jesus’s followers since the beginning. St. Peter writes that Christ died to “bring you to God” and St. Paul says that people have access to God through him.
Christianity is more than a way to live; it is a life. The biblical writers, the Church Fathers, and leaders and saints through the ages have claimed that through Jesus, God gives people a kind of life they could not otherwise experience. This life – referred to as “the life” and “eternal life” – is made available through the extraordinary gift of “the Spirit of life.”
People have found Jesus to be both down to earth (common folks have always loved him) and out of this world (he himself said, “I have come down from heaven”). His followers have labored to explain this in long and complicated, sometimes helpful and sometimes unhelpful, theological expositions, but no one can satisfactorily explain Jesus. They can, however, encounter him. And that, perhaps more than anything, is what sets him apart.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/31/2015