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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
In my own doubtful study of Jesus, my logical approach was first, this: Did Jesus actually live? And in that book, Jesus Skeptic, you'll see a number of chapters about that. I've chosen in this series, not to do a whole message on it because the evidence is overwhelming. There are not serious qualified historians who even doubt it, but if you doubt it, that's okay. I did for a while. That's how skeptical I am. And I did. I mean, the evidence for that is just clear. If you believe Plato or Socrates or any other historic figure lived, there's way more evidence that this Jesus of Nazareth lived.
But the second question in my logical approach was this: Do we know what He actually said? I mean, Christians have this book called the Bible. They say it's God's Word. They say, “We have Jesus words.” How do we know?
I mean, I remember thinking - this is how skeptical I am. What if one guy woke up one day and said, I'm going to write this book and I'm going to say it's from God and tell all these people to follow it. That's not that crazy because Mormonism and Islam, there are religions that essentially, that's what it is. One guy said, “Hey, God, talked to me. Here it all is, you guys go do it.”
When I looked into: Where does the Bible come from? I was surprised. One, it wasn't just one person. But the thing that most surprised me, when I dug into the study of ancient manuscripts, was this reality that there are more ancient manuscripts of the books of the Bible than any other ancient literature in the world. So, for example, if you read Socrates or Plato or Aristotle today, you're reading an English translation of one of about 12 to 30 documents that purport to be from them, and usually there's about a six or seven-hundred-year gap, from when Plato lived to the oldest copy that we have. But that's normal with all historical documents because most of them were parchment and it doesn't do well in the weather.
The New Testament is radically different. For books of the Bible and the new Testament, like the gospel of John, we don't just have 12 or 20. We have like 2,000 or 5,000 or 6,000 ancient copies. And what's fascinating about these ancient copies. Here's a picture of one. This is a papyrus of Acts. This was dug out of the desert sands in Egypt is that researchers have for hundreds of years now at the best universities in the world, gathered all these and put them side by side, tons of Europe’s libraries have these and now many in the U.S. as well. And here's what the researchers started to find.
They could take a gospel of John that was dated from within a hundred years of when Jesus lived, found in the desert sands in Egypt, they could find another gospel of John that was written on leather and buried in a cave in Italy, put them side by side and they 98% agree with the 2% being things like spelling, punctuation, stylistic things. And this has been researched by, I mean, thousands of the smartest people over hundreds of years. And if you really look into it, you can't help but come to the conclusion: Well, if I believe that what I'm reading as Plato’s is Plato’s. Then I have to believe that what these words of Jesus are Jesus’.
Now, if you want to reject that: No, those aren't possibly the words of Jesus, that's okay. But to be logical, you'd have to say: Then I never believe anything that I didn't see the person write it down myself. And if you want to live that way, you're free to.
So, He lived, we know what He said, next is: What did He say? And that’s my biggest encouragement to you is to start reading the words of Jesus for yourself. Because we all want to influence people, right? How many people right now want to be an influencer and have as many followers as possible? Jesus won at that game. He has one out of three people in the world today, following Him. He has two point some billion followers, more than the number of all the people on Facebook. How did He do it? If nothing else, just an honest curiosity says: What did this man say?
Well, here's one of the things He said in Acts 1, verse 8. He said to His first followers, there were about 120 at the time, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you'll be My witnesses in Jerusalem,” that's where they lived, “Judea,” that's like central Indiana, “Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” What a radical prediction. I mean, who says, “My followers are going to spread to the ends of the earth”? This is before airplanes. This is before steam locomotives. I mean, His followers don't even know that North America exists.
This is a radical prediction. When I came across this, as a journalist, I loved it because I can measure this. I know the guy lived, I know He said this 1900 years ago, at least probably 2000 years ago, let's measure this thing. Because I know Napoleon claimed he would take over the world and he didn't, Alexander claimed he would and he didn't, the Soviet Union claimed it would. I mean, no one has actually done this. And what are the chances with 120 followers for a peasant prophet to say, “You're going to spread My message to the ends of the earth.”
Here's a visual of where Christianity was in the world. At that time. If you look for the blue, as you can see, there were only 120 people, world-wide, who were Christians. That's it. Keep in mind, this is before Gutenberg's printing press - another follower of Jesus. This is before so many technological advances that can spread things around the world. This is so long ago. This is before the flip phone, even. This is before dial-up modem, is how old this is.
As a researcher, I didn't want to ask Christians how many Christians there are. I wanted to ask an objective secular group. So, I went to the Pew Research Center, which is the gold-standard in sociology today. Here's their map of Christianity worldwide, today. Just look for the blue, the darker, the blue, the more Christians there are. The white areas, if you look at the bottom there, it says no data. That's because the white areas are areas where it is illegal to be a Christian.
We know for a fact, there are Christians in those countries. In fact, we have missionaries who help the Christians in some of those countries, but there are countries where Christians get beheaded and physically stoned. So, you can't actually send a, a demographer or researcher in there to be like, “Hey, let's take a survey. Are you a Christian?” So, even those ones that are white. And then of course you've got Antarctica at the bottom. I always have one skeptic who's like, “Oh, what about that giant one at the bottom?” That is penguin land, okay?
Now the point is this, just be objective. Who else in history has done this? I mean, no one else, no one else has done this. And so, if for no other reason, the words of Jesus deserve your attention because He said that hell exists in heaven exists. He said that He eternal life exists. He claimed that He’s God. He claimed that He made you and can fix things in you that no one else can fix. So, if He's right, the stakes are way too high to just brush it off. The stakes are way too high.
Well, why does this movement keep growing? Because another thing, as I looked into the growth of Christianity, it's not like some franchise where they're like, oh, let's, let's do a location here, here. It's this organic thing. People like me place their faith in Jesus, when He said, “Come to Me, you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest for your soul,” and it so changes us. It so transforms us that we can't help but just go tell other people and say, “You've got to give this a try.”
And that keeps happening every year. And it happens in countries where people go to jail or lose their lives for being a Christian. But they still say like, “This is worth it.” And it just keeps spreading. I want you to think back to that story of my daughters and their little doll village being ransacked by their older brother and his dragons, you know, Jesus said that there is an enemy of your soul.
There is an unseen realm. There's more to you than your body. And in that unseen realm, this enemy of your soul, he came into this world to kill and steal and destroy. And he started with our ancestors long, long ago. And we're now born into a world that has been destroyed, just like my daughter's little doll village. That's why we have cancer. That's why we have racism and inequality and injustice. That's why we have genocide and war and death.
If just really smart people fix it, it would be fixed by now because there's plenty of smart people in the world. Jesus came into this world to rebuild the village with a different kind of claim. That we need someone who can change human nature from the inside out. We need someone who can transform our hearts. We need someone who can reconnect us to God and that's who He claimed to be, the hero of the universe.
So, maybe you're thinking, Okay, John, you know, what does this look like? Someone believes in Jesus and they follow Jesus. Then what is this big difference in the world that you're talking about?
Well, I want to start right at the beginning. Very soon after Jesus ascended into heaven, His followers started living out what He said. Now keep in mind that most global cultures at this time, if a child was born with special needs, they would just discard it. They would throw it in the trash heap or they would throw it in the river. In many cultures at that time, and this all well documented, girls were often discarded because many dads wanted boys because they could do more physical labor. And it was not uncommon at that time in history for girls to be discarded and the Christians, starting to live out what Jesus said, became this radical group.
It was also a very racially divided world. And they became this group where there was people of different ethnicities and languages loving each other. And then when this group would come across an orphan, they would help the orphan. Or a widow, there was no social security, they would take care of the widow. There are stories, from secular historians, of when pagans would throw their babies into the river of the Christians wading into the water and rescuing those babies out.
The Romans around the year 200 had this practice that when some kind of plague or sickness would hit their city, the rich people would just leave. They didn't understand immunology, but they knew if we stick around, we'll probably die. And they would just abandon the people who were sick and the Christians would stay and they'd provide the care that they could, with their very rudimentary understanding of science. Over time, this continued all the way up to stories like Mary Moes, who you heard about.
And I want to tell you just one other story like that. You know, as recently as 150 years ago, if someone was born with what today we would call special needs or atypical learning the way of the world and forgive me that this sounds brash. I'm just reporting on history here. I'm not saying this. The common language was to call those people idiots. They were called idiots or lunatics and poor families would often discard them. Sometimes wealthy families would lock them away in an asylum. They would hide them because they were embarrassed of them.
And in that world, there was a young follower of Jesus. John Langdon Down. He was raised going to Sunday school and church every Sunday. And in his teen years, he had an interaction with a girl that today we would call special needs. And God just ignited in his heart this compassion for her. From his understanding of a God who makes all people in His image, who so loved the world that He laid down His life for every single person. He thought, What if we could have a place where people who have this condition are treated with dignity and respect?
So, he went to medical school and in medical college, he actually won a prize for an essay he wrote. You know the title of that essay? The Wisdom and Benevolence of the Creator - that is God, that was his whole view - God has made humanity. And there, as a student, one time proof-reading one of his profound essays, he met a young woman who would become his wife. They got married and together they decided that instead of him pursuing a career to make as much money as he could, as a doctor, that they wanted to create something that had never before existed, a special home for people with special needs, where they could wear nice clothes, eat healthy food, be treated with dignity and respect at a time when corporal punishment - that is beatings - was still the norm, where that would be disallowed, where there would be art and literature.
And they spent their lives creating this environment that had never before existed, where really the things that today we call occupational therapy where a person who is atypical or has some disabilities is taught as much as they can. Dr. Down and his wife really laid the foundation for that. And in the process, Dr. Down identified this syndrome. And that's actually where we get the term today, Down's syndrome.
I loved it. He called each one, a patient and where other places would kind of lock them away. He would dress them in the nicest clothes, make sure they were bathed and cleaned, feed them a healthy diet. And most people special needs at that time were never photographed, but he would photograph them. And as you can see, photograph them in the nicest clothes of that era.
So here we are 150 years later and we're born into a world where if anyone called someone who's different an idiot, we would all look at them like, what is wrong with you? And that change has come about not by accident. And the fact that if you get sick today, there's a hospital you can go to, that change has come about, not by accident.
If you remember Kevin Byron, he's a firefighter here in the Brownsburg area, I want to introduce you to his son, Aidenhere's a picture of Aiden. If you've never met Aiden Aiden, as a bright light, he will bring a lot of joy to your life. Aiden's 19 years old, he was born with a syndrome called Vater, V A T E R, syndrome. It means that he was born missing a number of organs, missing some vertebrae in his spine, missing a lot of things. And as a result, Aiden's a little different. He's really special. Something I didn't know about Aiden until a week ago today when I was hanging out with him and Kevin is this.
Starting at age three, there's a woman in our church named Stacy Hickit, who said to Kevin and his wife, you need to be able to come to church and enjoy being in church and Aiden, you know, kind of blurt out things. And she said, any Sunday that you guys show up at church, I will walk the halls with Aiden during the entire service. I'll sing with him. I'll talk with him. I'll keep him entertained from age 3 to age 19 that's 16 years, times 52 weeks, a year. That's more than 800 Sundays that Stacy has said, I'm going to serve a family. I'm going to love Aiden, who's made in the image of God.
Now, the point is this, this man, Jesus lived, His words have inspired people to do good in the world that we can empirically measure. Good that, I would argue based on the whole of my research, that if we were to withdraw the universities they founded, and the hospitals they started, we'd be living like we're camping in the dark ages. But it continues today.
You see God uses ordinary people who truly believe the words of Jesus to do extraordinary things. And I want to encourage you church, that where sadly, there are some “Christians,” and sometimes they even meet in a building that has a steeple on the roof and says church on it, but they don't actually live this out, I want to encourage you that you are a movement of people who are doing this. And I want to say to you, let's keep doing this. Let's follow Jesus so that our sons and daughters and our neighbors can see a light shining in the darkness.