Jesus, You, and Experiential Evidence
From the series Jesus Skeptic
If someone asked you: “how do you know Jesus actually lived?” or “can we really trust the Bible?”... what would you say? In this message, we begin a new series called “Jesus Skeptic” from guest teacher John Dickerson. He’s gonna unpack the compelling evidence for Christianity, and explain how personal experiences can dramatically change our thoughts about God.
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About this series
A Journalist Explores the Credibility and Impact of Christianity
If someone were to ask you: “how do you know Jesus actually lived?” or “can we really trust the Bible?”... what would you say? In this new series, pastor and journalist John Dickerson answers those questions. Using evidence from multiple, reliable sources, and the well-documented impact of Jesus’ followers throughout history, John builds a credible case for the Christian faith. Our hope is that this series will help you confidently say: “Jesus is real, the Bible is true… and I can prove it!”.More from this series
I want to start off with something that I can guarantee you and I have in common. And it is this. You want to be happy. I want to be happy. We all want to be happy. And here's what I mean. I don't just mean that fleeting moment when your team wins the big game, when you have that moment of happiness but I'm talking about something more significant. I'm talking about lasting internal fulfillment. I mean that deep inner piece, we all want it. And we all chase it in different ways.
Now, when I was a kid, I was absolutely certain how to achieve fulfillment. It was a very simple path. It was very clear in my mind, it was anything with four wheels, a car, a truck, a tractor - I'm a car guy to an extreme. And when I was a kid, every birthday, every Christmas, all I wanted was die-cast metal car models, or tractors, or trucks. And then as I got older, I added on subscriptions to Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Road and Track, Hot Rod magazine, Hot Rodder magazine. I am not exaggerating. I don't think I would know how to read today. If it wasn't for fine automotive journalism.
And I just knew my whole childhood. If I can work with cars, when I grow up, that's it like that's heaven. What else does a person need in life? I graduated with my journalism degree at age 20. And by age 23, I was the editor of a newspaper in Scottsdale, Arizona. And being the creative person that I am, I figured out a way to be in charge of the press fleet. What is the press fleet you might ask? It is the motor pool that all the manufacturers, Jaguar, Porsche, Range Rover BMW, Audi, whenever they have a new model, they pick a certain number of those for journalists to drive and write about.
So, I was in charge of the press fleet for the newspaper that I worked for. What this meant was that as a 23-year-old, I could not go and rent an economy car because I wasn't 25, but all I had to do was send an email and a brand, new Audi RS4, or whatever else I was in the mood for, would come and be delivered at my door, I kid you not, with a full tank of gas. I could drive it for one week or two or three. Then I would write my column about it. And then I would say, what I want next, let's go with a supercharged Range Rover. Let's try that. And that was literally my life for a number of years. And there's a picture of me at the wheel of one of those Audis. Here's what I learned during that time.
One, cars are awesome. Two, I also learned that if I was having a really bad day, let's say my girlfriend just broke up with me. And I slid into the leather seat of an AMG Mercedes with a sticker price of 146,000 and dollars. It was still a really bad day. And I learned that if I had an entry level economy car that I was testing that week, one where you closed the door and it sounds like a tin can and the windows roll up.
In fact, when the first hybrids came out, I remember the first Honda hybrid. It was Phoenix, Arizona. I stopped at a stoplight. It was 115 degrees out and the air conditioning turned off because they hadn't yet figured out how to have a hybrid where the AC stayed on. Anyhow, I'm getting a little detailed here. Point is I learned this even if it was a really terrible car, but I was having a good day and I was fulfilled in purpose and significance, then I was still just as happy.
You know, I got what I had always wanted and I found that I was thirsty for something more. I wonder, have you ever felt that way? Where you give everything you can to get a relationship, or a promotion, or a home, or some achievement, or some possession. And it's not that the thing is necessarily a bad thing, but you finally get what you wanted and you find that you're still unfulfilled. I wonder if you can relate to that.
Maybe you thought having a baby would make you happy. And instead, all it did is make you sleep deprived. Maybe you thought the promotion at work would make you happy. And instead it's just made you more stressed because now you're always thinking about work and there's so much responsibility with it. Maybe you thought, oh, the bigger house that'll be the thing. And you got the bigger house. And now it's like, oh man, maintaining and cleaning and paying the bills on the bigger house. This wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Maybe you thought if I could marry that amazing person that will be happily ever after and, and you get married and it's beautiful, but it turns out to be a lot of work and a lot of hurt feelings along the way. If we live long enough, we all experience this feeling of this lack of fulfillment. Even after chasing fulfillment with all that we have.
Well, I wonder would you like to discover today how you can find fulfillment that lasts? Would you like to discover today how you can find that kind of inner peace, that whether you're getting into an economy car, or the relationship didn't work out, or the promotion didn't go through -you're okay?
And that even when those things do go through and they're good, but not as good as you thought they'd be, you have something else inside. Would you want that, today? Well, I want to take you, today, into the definitive feature of Jesus’ teaching. You see, Jesus claims over and over again, that He can give you life to the full. And this is one of the unique things about Jesus, of all the people in human history. He did not claim to just be a good teacher, or a profound spiritual guru, or someone who could help you improve your life. He claimed that He is almighty God. He claimed that He's the one who spoke the universe into existence and that He designed you and that He alone can fulfill you. And that He freely offers that to you. These are radical claims from a real person who actually lived.
And I found as a skeptical journalist, I started at the very beginning, did this guy even live? And once I decided, okay, He lived, then I looked, can we know what He said? And once I, okay, these words are reliable. This is what He said. Then I started to look at these words and I thought this guy's either crazy, or He is actually God, there's not really a lot of room in the middle, because look what He says here in John, chapter 10 to you, He says, “I've come that you might have life and have it to the full.” I mean, who else talks like that?
You know, think about this. This is a real person. Can you imagine being at like a, a party with some friends and you sit down with a drink and some guy sits down next to you and He turns to you and says, “Hey, I've come that you might have life. And that you might have life to the full. You'd be like, what are you talking about?
Jesus talked as if He's the Creator of the universe. He claims that He's a source of fulfillment that never runs out. Listen to this in John 4, He put it this way: “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst again.” He's talking about this very thing that I was talking about with the press cars, where it's like, man, it's fun to drive a new car every week and not have to pay anything for it, but there's something deeper. And we've all been there where you get the car or the house or whatever else. And then after a few months or a few years, it's like, Well, what's next? And Jesus makes this claim. He says, if you will receive Me into your life as God and experience Me, you'll find the one source of water that you never thirst again, radical claims, but are they actually true? And that's what I want to encourage you to genuinely ask yourself today. Could Jesus give you a lasting fulfillment that nothing else, and no one else, can give to you? What if He could?
I spent probably, if you count my college years, all the way through my journalism career, more than 10 years researching the existence of Jesus and then the ancient manuscripts. I'm such a nerd that I went and learned ancient Greek, because I wanted to know like: Can we trust this thing that's called the Bible? Have they fiddled with the original language? And I'm such a nerd. I compiled so much evidence. And I found that it all falls into really three basic categories. There's ancient evidence. Ancient evidence would be things like Josephus, and Suetonius, and Tacitus, non-Christian writers of Jesus’ era who described this Jesus of Nazareth who claimed to be God.
And when I found those ancient writings and ancient artifacts, it affirmed to me the Church didn't make up this Jesus guy. He clearly lived and there's all sorts of ancient evidence, but then there's external evidence. External evidence is really the human record from the time Jesus was born until now that we can measure objectively how He has impacted humanity. For example, every time you're filling out something online and you have to put in your birthday and it asks you year that you were born, why does that year start with a 1900 or a 2000?
When we know that humanity goes back far longer than that, because the year zero on our calendar is the year when Jesus was born. That's how profound His impact is on our world. That every time an atheist writes their date, they're actually referencing Jesus. And there's all sorts of external evidence. And we'll get into that throughout this series. But today I want to talk with you about something that I call internal evidence. Now first internal might sound subjective and in a sense, internal is subjective, but here is the thing. You're the subject. There are claims that Jesus makes that you'll never know if they're true or false, unless you try them. For example, in the Word of God, God tells us this, you will seek Me and you will find Me if you with all your heart. And I reached a point in my quest for fulfillment in my research of Jesus, where I realized that, yes, it is intellectually valid.
Some of the most brilliant people who've ever lived have been followers of Jesus. For example, Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis. You don't have to be dumb to believe in Jesus. It's intellectually valid. However, there comes a point we're asked to move from the head to the heart.
And I realized as I read these claims of Jesus, that I'm never going to know for sure if they work or not, unless I try them. Hey, here's what I mean. As a news reporter, I learned early on, right? When I finished my undergrad, my first newspaper editor assigned me to write a story about skydiving in Arizona. He said, “John, I don't want it to just be a human-interest story. I want the statistics. What percentage of people die? How high do they bounce off the ground if their parachute doesn't open. That's how twisted my newspaper editor was - okay? Arizona's a skydiving Mecca. And that's where I live. There are no clouds and the weather's good.
And so I did all this research and he said, “Okay, John, now that you've done everything about, you know, the statistics, the facts, I want you to go and go skydiving yourself. And I want you to weave that into the story and describe what is it like? And I learned that as an investigative reporter, that there was the intellectual side to a story, but then there was the experiential side to every story. For example, whenever I was covering crime, no, I would not go and do the crime if that's what you're thinking. Okay. But I would have sources who would get me into the drug house, where the heroin was sold. So, I could see it.
I would ride along with the police officers who covered those beats. Why? Because there's part of any story that is fact. And there's part of any story that you've got to just be there to really know the truth of what's going on. And I reached this point in my investigation of Jesus, where I needed to do a ride along. I needed to test for myself to see if these claims were actually true.
So, I grew up in Michigan and we would often go camping up in Canada. And when we did, there was this massive lake up there called Lake Matinenda. And there's a waterfall, a stream that runs into the lake. It's probably considered a river here and it would vary in width depending on what year and how full the river was. This picture's a year where the river was a little bit lower and it wasn't as wide.
But on one particular year I was about nine years old and my three older brothers, they're all incredibly athletic, they're jocks. And I know what you're thinking. I did not get the gene. Okay. I didn't get that gene. I, I got the nerd gene instead, okay?
But we were at this waterfall and as you can see in the picture about halfway down, this waterfall goes down these stairs and they're probably each, I don't know, six to 10 feet high. If you're up close to the waterfall there and in the middle, there's this pool. And then the waterfall begins again. Well, we were kind of fishing and setting up for a picnic. And one of my older brothers, incredibly athletic guy, decided at the top of the river where the water looks very smooth that he was going to inch his way across and just kind of demonstrate that he was stronger than the waterfall. I'll never forget because I saw him out of the corner of my eye. One minute I see him, and the next, I just hear this whishing noise. And I look back and he's gone.
I mean like that, the waterfall had taken him down a number of those steps and, in the middle where there's this big pool, the water's just, you know, going straight down it's burying. And my other brothers, we run there and we're waiting like is David's head going to pop up out of the water? And we keep waiting and his head's not popping up. And now if any of you are a youngest and you grew up in a small home and you always had to share a bedroom, you probably know what I was thinking at that moment.
It's true. I'm a terrible person. I was thinking if he doesn't pop up, I'm going to get his bedroom room. He did pop up and he lived and everything was fine, but here's the thing. My brothers and I, we will never again, underestimate the power of moving water. We've learned that no matter how strong you are, if you step into a powerful current, the current is going to take you where the current is going.
And it's a great picture because in life we all get carried along by different currents. Sometimes we step into the current of popularity, or the current of achievement, or the current of material possessions, or the current of relationship. And we think it's going to take us one place, but we don't realize it's taking us somewhere else. We all seek to be happy. We all seek to be at peace. But so often we find ourselves in these currents that are taking us out of happiness. They're taking us into anxiety and it's like we can't even get out.
You know, every drug addict who has ruined their life and their relationships and their career, they don't start off by saying, “Hey, I really want to ruin my life and family and career.” They start off thinking, This feels good. This helps. And I know some other people can't control it, but I can. And the current's not going to take me where it takes everyone else. None of us, you know, plan to ruin our lives or plan to be unfulfilled. But there are all these raging currents.
We step into the current of our dream career, or our dream car, or our dream partner. And a lot of those things are not bad things. They just don't take us where we thought they would take us. In my life, I spent a lot of years, really my college years, all through my twenties, looking at the different currents of life.
I'm an analytical person. And I know it sounds nerdy and weird, but I kind of launched out at age 17 from my home of origin to just study like where - what path actually leads to fulfillment? What path am I going to choose for my life? And I figured, instead of just trying them all, I could look at other people, let them get tossed around in the white water and decide what current leads where and then be intentional about what to step into. I know that's kind of analytical and nerdy, but that's part of my journey.
Here's something I realized along the way. I'll never know for sure. If the current of Jesus can carry me to fulfillment, I'll never know that for sure unless I get into it. There's so much that I can observe from the river banks. And I did a lot of observing from the river banks. Did this guy live?
Have his followers been good, wherever they've gone around the world? Has it been generally a good thing for humanity? And then as I got to know followers of Jesus today, there was this fulfillment. There was this peace, but I got to a point where I realized I'm never going to know for sure, unless I step in for myself. And here's what I want to ask you today. Could Jesus give you the fulfillment that nobody else and nothing else can?
The answer is you'll never know unless you try it.
Could Jesus give you a peace? A peace that is with you in your young years when you're looking for a spouse or those early fulfillment things, a peace that's with you in your retirement years, when you're searching for identity and purpose, a peace that's with you, even when you face the end of your life? You'll never know unless you try it.
I want to tell you two stories, true stories of people who gave everything they had in the pursuit of fulfillment. And as a reporter and a journalist, I had a front row seat to both of these stories.
But I found these two different guys who were both seeking fulfillment as much as you ever could.
The first is a man named Scott Coles. Scott is a man who built a fortune of nearly $1 billion. Anything that a person would ever think that might make me happy. That could make me happy. He did it. He tried it. He amassed it.
And at age 42, in the prime of his life with beautiful, healthy kids, having everything that so many people think brings joy. Scott Coles ended his own life intentionally. He just couldn't go on living. And as I interviewed his kids, and his ex-wife, and his high school friends and they said, “He was a nice guy. He was a caring guy. He was a generous guy.” It led me to this conclusion, many roads marked fulfillment, turn out to be life devouring, dead-ends or worse drop-offs.
And that's why my heart for you in this series, even if you don't believe in God yet, is this be intentional about the currents that you place yourself in, in life. Don't be random about it. Don't just step into the currents that are closest to you. Look at where the current leads other people. And I remember I was still driving the press cars at that time and thinking, Oh my goodness, if that guy got all those things and felt like life wasn't worth living, then I probably shouldn't get in the current of thinking that material things will bring me ultimate fulfillment, because I'll never get a fraction of what that guy had. And if that didn't work for him, it's clearly not going to work for me. I've never been the same since seeing, first-hand, a man who had everything that people would think brings happiness, or at least some sense of peace, but he was so hopeless that he ended his own life. What a tragedy. It led me to ask about my life: What am I really hoping will carry me to fulfillment?
Maybe this will be a life-defining moment for you wherever you are in your journey to just kind of zoom out from social media and family drama and workplace drama and everything else in the news. And just think about your life. Like, what are you, what current are you in? What do you think will bring fulfillment? Because we all think something will, but we rarely sit down to actually write it out. And if you were to write it out, you might be surprised.
Well, as I was wrestling with this for my own life, having seen the intellectual evidence of Jesus and having seen followers of Jesus, changing the world, I profiled another person who had given everything in the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment.
This guy had a totally different life. Grammy winning musician. I spent about three months interviewing him and his daughter. During that time, his videos, music videos were still playing on MTV. He had millions of dollars in the, a bank. He had had investments all around California, but he described to me that his life had been completely miserable. In fact, while I was profiling him and spending that time with him, he described to me in detail, different times where he and his wife were both high on meth and they would get into these violent, physical altercations while they were under the influence of that drug.
He described to me a time where he looked down at his knuckles and he saw his wife's blood on his own knuckles because they had been fighting so aggressively. He described another time where a number of famous musicians and artists had come over to his house for a huge party.
And there were a lot of drugs and a lot of pleasure. And he woke up in the morning and he went out to the pool and his two-year-old daughter was curled up on a towel, right by the edge of the pool. And she had slept there all night. And even through the drug-brokenness of his mind, he just realized my life is a mess, but he had got gotten there by going after fame - getting it, fortune - getting it, achievement - getting it, possessions - got it, experiences. He tried it all and it just let him lower and lower into this darkness.
There was a key moment in Brian's life story where on an Easter Sunday morning, he walked into a church a lot like this near Bakersfield, California, his brain's still half-functioning from drug addiction, broken in life from the pursuit of fulfillment currents that had beaten him up.
And he doesn't remember everything from that Easter message, but he remembers these words of Jesus, where Jesus says to you and me: “Come to Me all of you who are weary, all of you who are burdened, and I will give you rest.” What a claim from the guy who claims to be God, the guy who claimed to knit you together in your mother's womb.
And here's why Brian's story has such a different ending than Scott Cole's story. See, Scott Coles never gave Jesus a try from all the people I talked to. He just never considered it. He ridiculed it from the river banks like I used to do, but he never tried it for himself. Brian said, Hey, I've tried everything else. I might as well try this Jesus thing. And on that Easter Sunday, he chose to give it a try. And he called out a prayer.
God, if You're there, I believe. Jesus, if You're there, I need this. You say, You give rest to the weary. You help burdened. If You're there, I need that. And all he did, with a childlike mentality, through that brain confused by drugs, said, “God, if You're there, I want Your help. Jesus, if this is true, I need You in my life. And part of Brian's story is that then within about two months after having been a drug addict, really since high school. He had started with marijuana in high school and it had just kept leading him deeper and deeper all the way to heroin and meth.
He'd been a drug addict for more than 10 years. And within three months he was sober. And that's the part as a journalist. When I heard that, I thought, no, no, that does not happen. I'm going to spend three months with this guy and I'm going to find out the truth.
And the truth, as I hung out with Brian and his daughter who was in late elementary at that time was that he had totally transformed that he had changed from the inside out. He had intentionally given away a lot of the wealth. He didn't need that stuff anymore. Brian Welch found in Jesus something that he couldn't find anywhere else. And I saw, first-hand with my own eyes, what a contrast from the billionaire who didn't have Jesus and ended up taking his own life.
One day, Brian and I were at a PF Changs in Scottsdale, Arizona. And he looked across the table at me. And this is what he said. I had my tape recorder rolling. He said this, “I had $3 million in cash sitting in the bank, all the cars I wanted, a $200,000 pool. I don't know how that's even possible, but apparently it is. Nannies, the nicest house, real estate in California.
And I was miserable. Now, just think about that for a moment, there’s nothing wrong with a $200,000 pool. If you have the money and you want to spend it that way, but if you think it's going to bring you fulfillment, be smart enough to look at other people who've gone down that current. What a shame it would be to work your entire life and get into your sixties or seventies or eighties and look back and be like, I gave everything. I only got a fraction of what these other guys got. And I could have known from the beginning that isn't going to fulfill me. But I love what Brian said after that. He says, “Then I found God and was like, this is all I've ever wanted. I didn't find what I was looking for in all that stuff.” You know, if you're seeking fulfillment and inner rest, you're the kind of person who Jesus invites and helps.
And I want to be clear. There's nothing wrong with these other things that can fulfill to a level. God wants you to have a rich and full life, but the deepest fulfillment isn't found in getting outside things and bringing them in. It’s found in connecting to the Creator of the universe internally, and then having a source of joy and fulfillment that kind of bubbles up from within, through all the different seasons of life, through all the economic ups and downs, and relational ups and downs.
And I just wonder, where have you been exhausted in your hunt for fulfillment? Where have you maybe been let down in your quest or your search for fulfillment? Where has your soul been full of anxiety rather than rest? You can come to Jesus today in the same simple way that Brian Welch did on that Easter Sunday.
Well, I want to tell you about just one other person, this is a skeptic and it's a totally different personality profile, because you might be listening and thinking, Okay, John, interesting stories, helpful to know, but I really don't expect millions of dollars or worldwide fame to make me happy.
And maybe you're more like me. Those things have never been options for me, okay? But you know, I'm a pretty good guy. Part of my story, before I became a fully devoted follower of Jesus, I didn't go on some drug binge. I graduated from college early and I worked hard and I did all the right things, but I found that still I was lacking something.
And so wherever you find yourself on that spectrum of what you're pursuing for fulfillment, I've found the same thing to be true that I've found in Jesus, something that's not available anywhere else. And this next guy I want to talk to you about is a person who maybe you can relate to because he was a good guy.
He kept most of the rules. He wasn't addicted into anything. He even believed that Jesus existed. In fact, he'd seen Jesus with his own eyes, but this whole thing that Jesus is God and could meet his deepest needs, he was not buying that. He was a skeptic in that sense. In fact, this guy got so annoyed with Jesus claiming to be God, that he would make fun of Christians. He would even harm Christians. He would go around and mess with the Christians.
This guy, his name was Saul, but eventually he would have an encounter with Jesus where Jesus showed Himself to be God. And it so transformed him that he then became a follower of Jesus. And he then went around telling even when he would get imprisoned for it, or whipped for it, or beaten for it, “Jesus is God, Jesus is the fulfillment that you seek.”
And here's how he put it in one of his letters, which is recorded in the new Testament. He says in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” What's the gospel? Very simply, it is the good news that the God who made you loves you, that He came into this world as the person of Jesus. And He willingly died on the cross to pay the penalty for your mistakes and mine. And that you can be made right with God, not by doing a bunch of good things, but by simply believing and admitting your need - that you need Jesus help. And if you believe in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, you will be saved. That's the gospel.
And this guy who was a skeptic, a hardened skeptic, and who hated Christians would become so transformed that he wrote, “I'm not ashamed of the gospel.” Why not? Because it's the power of God. And that's what I've found in my life. The good news of Jesus connects you to the actual power of God. You can have the power of God in your life. And it's a power that leads to salvation so that when your body dies, you're going to spend eternity in heaven with God. But not only that, it leads to freedom in this life and fulfillment.
And this path, this current it's available to everyone: “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will be saved.” It's available to you today. But the question for you is this: Will you try it? Will you get in the current? Because it brings salvation to everyone who believes. From my own experience, I would say, and I think from Saul, the skeptic’s experience, your belief does not have to start out as a perfectly mature, fully-formed belief.
That's not how we're born, right? Wouldn't that be the weirdest thing? Like you're looking on Instagram and some mom has a baby and she's holding this like 48-year-old dude with a beard, right? Like we, we start as babies and we grow and we mature. You don't have to have every question about the history of the universe and every book of the Bible, you don't have to have all that stuff answered, to say, “God, I believe that You love me and You made me and I want this fulfillment. I want this relationship with You.”
You start there. And then He feeds you and He grows you. That's been my experience anyway. Jesus invites you to find fulfillment and rest in Him. He invites you to find something that you can't find anywhere else. And that's why I love that verse in Jeremiah 29, “You will seek Me and you will find Me when you seek Me with all your heart.” So, if you're here and you're considering what do I believe or what am I looking to fulfill me in life?
Have you maybe just been sampling the things that are around you rather than being intentional to say, Where will this path take me? Have you forgotten Jesus in your search for fulfillment?
Maybe you were raised as a Christian. You even been coming to church and you're like, “Yeah, I'm a Christian.” But have you ever actually really said, This is what I'm putting my faith into fulfill me. Have you ever really tried it for your fulfillment? And more importantly for your eternal life?
Maybe you're here and you're a believer and you just needed this reminder today that all those other things, and they might not be bad things, but they're not going to fulfill you the way that Jesus can.
I've noticed that most of the people who are the most critical of Jesus have never tried it. And I was there for a while on those river banks, making fun of the people in the current.
But once I actually tried it, this claim of Jesus, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest,” it turns out to be true. But you've got to come to Him. You've got to give Him a try.
The fulfillment of Jesus is found in the space between religion and relationship. That really was my journey. I grew up with a religious teaching about Jesus and then I went full circle away from it and I studied just Jesus Himself. And I came all the way back and I want to encourage you.
If you've cast off Jesus because of His followers to look at Him Himself, look at His words for yourself, and by simply praying to Him, “God, I want to find my fulfillment in You. Show me what to do with my life. Show me which path to take, catch me up in Your current.