Present Truth? That’s Jesus
by Joni Bell | 10 March 2022 |
“Present truth” is a uniquely valued Adventist phrase.
When first used, some 150+ years ago, it meant a set of unique beliefs: the Sabbath, an understanding of the sanctuary, and the second advent.
But though we still believe in those things, I do not often hear the phrase among young adults in the Adventist community today. Has “present truth” changed? I guess it may be unchanged for us older members, but I don’t sense that present truth is the same for those who are presently young.
Time-honored sacred truths remain, but they aren’t the issues our current generation places front and center. If the church is to be relevant in the 21st century—specifically in developed secular societies—we must address the issues this generation views with overwhelming anxiety.
A reality that changes everything for the church is that the answer to that question is now interpreted by more than just biblical teaching. For the young it involves history, reason, and how we relate to human issues in public life. We must address questions that define the identity of being Christian for them: climate change, racism, health care, quality education for all—these are among their core issues.
The primary question
Yet I believe one primary question still shapes our quest for present truth: God. Is there such a Supreme Being? If so, what is the nature and character of such a being?
This is the question that invites the response I make here. Present truth? Here it is.
God is known in the incarnate Christ.
The challenge? Simply proclaiming God exists because “the Bible says so” is inadequate. Biblical inspiration is no longer taken for granted. Was Jesus God incarnate? If we can’t make that case, we have no present truth. Apart from that truth, engagement in the social issues of life rings hollow. Apart from that truth, the church and its institutions are simply human endeavors. Only Jesus can answer the questions about God.
Jesus is present truth.
Psychologically defensible faith
C.S. Lewis made a statement that seems to me profound: “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”
Having spent a career in psychiatric nursing, I’m pretty good at spotting mental illness. So, I have wondered: if I could have followed Jesus around for a while, would there have been some tell-tale signs that would have been a “red flag”? Was He really the Son of God, or was He delusional?
The idea that Christianity is a psychological crutch for needy people is prevalent. This theory would argue that He only exists in the minds of His followers, a savior figure created out of our own need. Security and protection from the cold, cruel world. This was Freud’s argument.
On the other hand, maybe that desire is there precisely because we were created to desire Him. It’s like floating at sea with an unbearable thirst. You won’t get water simply by being thirsty, but the existence of your thirst does indicate there is a way to quench that thirst. As C.S. Lewis put it: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.”
God does not ask us to believe without reason. Jesus appealed to reason when He performed miracles and pointed to the connection His life and actions had with Old Testament prophecy. There are reasons to believe.
And yet, there are also reasons to doubt. We can never lay all our doubts to rest through “proof.” If I say I love you, there is no way I can prove it; I can only demonstrate that I do.
Again: was He really the Son of God, or was He delusional?
I spent most of my adult working life locked in a psychiatric unit 8–12 hours a day, as a registered nurse serving the mentally ill. Yes, I’ve seen it all, so to speak. I can’t tell you all the details (HIPAA) but rest assured, I’ve seen it! In that time, I’ve met “Jesus” three times. (Please note the quote marks!)
Let me offer two observations.
First, we are all a little bit crazy.
Second, don’t judge. You have no idea what another person may have experienced in life that has led to their behavior.
Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. Was this man mentally healthy? I see all kinds of evidence to assure me that He was. Jesus loved people and desired their good. He lived a life of service. Jesus was “moved with compassion” when He saw people hurting physically and emotionally. To “suffer together” is the literal meaning of compassion.
He was humble. “The Son of man came not to be served, but to serve.” He put aside His desires, needs and feelings to help others. Though He experienced emotions such as fear, anger, or anxiety, He wasn’t overwhelmed by them. He maintained good relationships with His disciples for three-and-a-half years. And He was able to forgive. In fact He often spoke about forgiveness in His parables: the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:23-35), the lost sheep (Lk 15:4-7), and, of course, the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32).
True, individuals with certain mental disorders can have strange beliefs and claim special powers. People 2,000 years ago, even though they didn’t have the same diagnostic categories as we do, still had the ability to identify bizarre or outlandish behavior. Then, as now, spiritual gurus came and went.
But Jesus’ sayings endured and have permeated culture to the point of underlying our democracy, affirming man’s God-given rational nature guiding his free will as self-ruling. Bart Ehrman, in his book The Triumph of Christianity, says
Christianity not only took over an empire, it radically altered the lives of those living in it . . .It was a revolution that affected government practices, legislation, art, literature, music, philosophy . . . and on the even more fundamental level the very understanding billions of people had about what it means to be human (page 286).
Why is it that the church has been active in the defense and promotion of human rights? It is because of Jesus’ teachings. The whole law is summed up in a single commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Freedom, equality, and dignity are bestowed on all by virtue of being human, made in God’s image.
This man’s teachings and sayings continue to guide us. That is not the legacy of one suffering from mental illness.
Also, consider the absence of accompanying symptoms. For example, He was not devoid of emotion. He presented a joyful spirit and admonished us to “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” He experienced sadness, weeping at the death of Lazarus and over Jerusalem. He gets angry with the religious leaders. He shows compassion and empathy. He forms healthy relationships. Throughout the gospels, we read of His love for not only His disciples but many others, such as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
And He was motivated! Motivated to be popular, make money, exercise power? No! His motivation was to please God the Father. “I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30). These are not the characteristics of a mentally ill person.
Jesus skillfully directed our attention to our shared responsibility to address the issues of human suffering. The overwhelming social problems of our day are not unique. Jesus came into a world that was overwhelmed with serious social problems. He encountered beggars in every city and village. The gulf between rich and poor was vast. Romans held others in bondage. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, involving a lone traveler and thieves, must have been taken from real happenings. The disciples were armed when they went out at night (e.g., Peter in Gethsemane). God sent Jesus into a real mess! He responded to real issues. Again, that doesn’t describe someone who was mentally ill!
Present truth affirmations
We believe, of course, that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, and Peter do provide accurate accounts! Luke did his research: he listened to the stories of Mark and others, likely including some of the women who had gone to the tomb after Sabbath, on Sunday morning. These weren’t just mystical experiences or the mere musings of storytellers! Luke begins:
Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write an accurate account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught (Luke 1:1-4 NLT).
The resurrection of Jesus anchors Christian faith. Paul, a devout scholar of the Hebrew faith, appealed to others to acknowledge the resurrection:
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles…. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless” (1 Corinthians 15:1-3, 14 NLT).
Yet the documentation of Jesus, His life, and His behaviors is not limited to what we find in inspired scripture. Present truth is affirmed by respected non-Christian historical writers. Writers such as Cornelius Tacitus, the Roman historian and senator; Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian who details the lives of John and James; and Lucian of Samosata, the Roman philosopher, corroborate the historical reality of Jesus, His crucifixion, and the movement of people launched by eyewitnesses of the resurrection event.
Christian apologists cited hundreds of believing eyewitnesses in the first century of the Christian movement. Many of these eyewitnesses willfully and resolutely endured torture and death rather than repudiate their testimony regarding the nature and character of the risen Christ.
Granted, martyrdom is not by itself compelling. It does not validate a belief so much as it authenticates the belief of a believer. What makes so many early Christian martyrs different is they knew whether or not what they were professing was true based on an event they were eyewitnesses to, not just on what they had been taught.
So it is time to recover Jesus Christ as present truth. He is the answer to today’s questions. There is a beneficent Supreme Being and Designer of all life. Do you want to know God? Then embrace the historical Christ. He has the answers to the issues of our generation. All my questions about purpose, meaning, and destiny are answered with profound hope.
God incarnate! Jesus! He is present truth.
Joni Bell is a contented wife and homemaker with a dodgy past as a psychiatric nurse. She divides her time between Maine and Tennessee.