Why it matters whether Jesus actually lived and died.
I spent some time discussing with another person whether it was necessary to believe in Jesus in order to be saved, to gain eternal life. In the New Testament this is clear. In a previous blog we mentioned the Apostle Peter who on the day of Pentecost declared, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” Acts 2:38. On another occasion Peter said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
These statements and others in the New Testament show that unless a person receives Christ as savior, calls on Jesus to be his or her savior, there is no salvation, no payment for sin and no new birth. This sounds extremely harsh to people today. We are “tolerant.” We don’t like religious bigots or exclusivists, those who believe that their religion alone offers salvation.
The problem with our view is that we use our own reason or emotion to decide what is true. We don’t like the truth and so we argue against it. These days a person who says that their savior is the only savior is not viewed as misguided or mistaken, but rather as morally evil. “How dare you say you alone have salvation!”
However, what we feel is not necessarily a criterion of what is true. In court it is not enough to say, “I feel strongly that Jerod is innocent.” The court needs proof to decide whether Jerod is guilty or innocent.
The Gospels are meant to give us historical records of what Jesus did and said. We are meant to believe because belief is reasonable. Belief is not “believing what you know ain’t so,” but putting your trust in the one true Savior, Jesus.
There are a lot of attempts to soften this teaching. Some have looked for “redemptive analogies,” for instance, Don Richardson’s books, Peace Child and Eternity in their hearts. While there are some things in other religions which may help us to explain the Gospel to others in other cultures, those stories or analogies do not save us. Only Jesus’ death saves us.
One example of a “redemptive analogy” is the story of Princess Kaguya. This is a story from Japanese folklore. In the story a poor woodcutter finds a beautiful baby inside a lotus flower. The woodcutter and his wife have been childless. So, this child is a gift from heaven. The little girl grows incredibly fast, faster than a normal child, and her intelligence keeps pace with her unbelievable physical growth. She becomes a beauty. The emperor hears of her beauty and wishes to marry her. The girl’s father, the woodcutter, is tempted by the riches the emperor offers and the position of importance he would have as the emperor’s father-in-law.
However, the girl, Kaguya, has already fallen in love with a boy from the village. Her father, though, will hear none of this and sends Kaguya to the emperor. In her despair Kaguya calls out to Lord Amida, a Buddha. Amida (the Japanese name for Amitabha, a Mahayana Buddha or boddhisatva) comes for her with his heavenly orchestra, choir and attendants, and takes her away to the Land of Forgetfulness. Kaguya’s father calls out as she is leaving and begs her to return. He is sorry and he will not force her to marry the emperor, but it is too late. She has called out to Lord Amida and he has come for her.
Some have seen a redemptive analogy for the Gospel in this story. If one calls out to Lord Amida, he will come and take you to “heaven.” One should call out ten times or more (thousands of times a day) to be saved, not once, but Kaguya was a supernatural being and pious and in great need. So, some say, “See! Calling out to Amida saves, just as calling on Jesus saves.”
There is a similarity: you must call out to the Savior to be saved. There is no need to do anything: penance, good works whatever.
However, there is one really stark incongruity: there is no evidence that Lord Amida ever existed. Pure Land Buddhism is the result of the teaching of two Buddhist monks: Honen and Shinran. There is no historical evidence for their beliefs or teachings. Win Corduan in his book, Neighboring Faiths, says,
The Christian gospel addresses different issues than the Buddhist dharma does. Instead of karma and reincarnation, it speaks of sin and redemption; instead of various Buddhist deities, it focuses on a personal God who has revealed himself in history. This difference is not easy to communicate. However, the Christian message also provides a level of assurance for both this life and eternity, and Buddhism cannot provide such confidence. The focus shifts from denying the meaning of life to finding meaning in a life with Jesus Christ.
Let me mention a few examples of this contrast. Jodo Shinshu, the Japanese school of Pure Land, seems to have a doctrine of grace. Amida Buddha grants entry into the western paradise to anyone seeking refuge in him. But note how this differs from the Christian understanding of God's grace. First of all, although legends have accrued in regard to Amitabha’s previous incarnations, the fact remains that he is not a historical person in any meaningful sense of the term. Thus this promise of salvation is based on nothing more than empty speculation. Monks such as Honen and Shinran believe this teaching, but it has no basis in any data that can be investigated. In contrast, the Christian gospel is based on the historical person of Christ. His death on the cross assured our eternal life because he provided proof of it with his physical resurrection from the dead.
Win Corduan, Neighboring Faith 2nd ed, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013, 413 [PAG highlights]
Corduan is clear, “[Amida] is not a historical person in any meaningful sense of the term.” The Apostles, the Gospel writers, on the other hand, made very clear that Jesus was a historical person. It matters that he lived, died and rose again. His physical presence on the earth at a certain point in space and time matter eternally.
We might wish that other beliefs were true. We might like others to be saved apart from Christ. However, the Apostles and their Gospels teach that it is only through Jesus and his sacrificial death for our sins are we saved. Accepting Christ, “calling on the name of the Lord,” of itself is not saving. It is Jesus’ death which saves and our trust in his sacrifice for us that saves us. We can affirm these things because they are event which have been testified to by eyewitnesses. This is not “believin’ what you know ain’t so.” This is faith invested in a person who lived and died for us. Not only lived and died, but rose again.