Forget Dawkins and Hitchens. Listen to Josephus and Tacitus.
Easter approaches and that means, of course chocolate bunnies, cream eggs and the usual new atheists explaining why it's all nonsense. The new atheists are, however, actually just like the old atheists but not as intelligent or persuasive. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris (1) and the rest have nothing new to say but say it in nicely packaged books that receive fawning reviews from people who seem more interested in agendas than truth.
Problem is, what should be dismissed as derisory makes many Christians panic; they simply do not know how to give the basic arguments for the faith when they're challenged. How sad. The most basic and common claim is that Jesus never existed in the first place. Which would be quite an issue but for the fact that He quite clearly did.
Jewish records refer to Jesus of Nazareth and did so even before Christ's own followers had written about Him. Obviously as non-Christian Jews they didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah but they refer to him quite clearly as the son of Mary.
Josephus was a Jewish general who betrayed his people and became a friend of the Romans and his writings are vital for any understanding of first century Jewish history. He mentions Jesus and although it's almost certain that later writers revised his words to make them seem more pro-Christian, we know that his original statements refer to Jesus, His ministry and followers.
The Roman historian Tacitus also writes of Jesus when discussing the great fire in Rome and how Nero was thought responsible but that the emperor blamed the Christians, named after Christus, who was crucified by "one of our governors, Pontius Pilate."
The Roman biographer Seutonius also refers to Jesus and a riot across the Tiber by supporters and foes of Christianity. Pliny the younger, Governor of Asia Minor, also speaks of Christ and Christians. Then there is the Gospel evidence. Obviously these were written by followers but it's vital to understand that the more we learn about the Gospels the earlier we can place them and the more authentic they are shown to be.
The secular assumption was always that the more we discovered about the past and about science and the less we would believe. (2) Not so. The remarkable Ryland Papyrus on the Nile, for example, includes parts of John's Gospel and serious scholars, certainly not Dan Brown, now agree that the Gospels were completed well before 100AD. That is, while some who were present during Christ's life still lived and could comment and criticize as well as testify and confirm.
In fact no Biblical expert worth the name doubts that Jesus lived, that He claimed to be The Messiah and that many who knew Him believed that claim. The idea that He was just a great moral teacher or that we can believe some but not all what He taught is, frankly, intellectually flabby. He claimed to be the Son of God. If He wasn't, He was lying or insane. Liars are not to be believed and madmen are not to be followed even in part.
This doesn't, of course, signify that we have to believe. Yet logic demands that if we don't we at least ask why those who knew Him were so willing to be martyred. People die for the wrong reasons, but they assume them to be the right ones. Important this. Men and women who knew Jesus, lived with Him, saw Him die and saw Him rise again, went to their deaths smiling.
Christ's followers were in chaos when they saw Him crucified. It was the resurrection, an event He had promised, which soothed them into belief and often the ultimate sacrifice. The cloud of knowing descended. There is no explanation for the documented martyrdom of those who knew Christ other than that they believed, without doubt, that He was the Messiah and that He had been raised from the dead.
These were intelligent, worldly people. Fisherman, former terrorists and prostitutes, bureaucrats and teachers. It just won't do to mock all this with hand-me-down atheism and sound bite PBS commentary. There is nothing foolish and everything wise and wonderful about believing in Jesus Christ. As for believing in the new or the old atheists, that's another matter entirely.
Michael Coren is a broadcaster and writer living in Toronto, Canada.
(1) Hitchens - "God is Not Great", Dawkins - "The God Delusion", Harris - "The End of Faith"