'Hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ.' These words describe large numbers of people, especially young people, today.
They are opposed to anything which savours of institutionalism. They detest the establishment and its entrenched privileges. And they reject the church — not without some justification — because they regard it as impossibly corrupted by such evils.
Yet what they have rejected is the contemporary church, not Jesus Christ himself. It is precisely because they see a contradiction between the founder of Christianity and the current state of the church he founded that they are so critical and aloof. The person and teaching of Jesus have not lost their appeal, however. For one thing, he was himself an antiestablishment figure, and some of his words had revolutionary overtones. His ideals appear to have been incorruptible. He breathed love and peace wherever he went. And, for another thing, he invariably practised what he preached.
But was he true?
An appreciable number of people throughout the world are still brought up in Christian homes in which the truth of Christ and of Christianity is assumed. But when their critical faculties develop and they begin to think for themselves, they find it easier to discard the religion of their childhood than make the effort to investigate its credentials.
Very many others do not grow up in a Christian environment. Instead they absorb the teaching of Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam, or the ethos of secular humanism, communism or existentialism.
Yet both groups, if and when they read about Jesus, find that he holds for them a fascination they cannot easily escape.
So our starting-point is the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He certainly existed. There is no reasonable doubt about that. His historicity is vouched for by pagan as well as Christian writers.
He was also very much a human being, whatever else may be said about him. He was born, he grew, he worked and sweated, rested and slept, he ate and drank, suffered and died like other men. He had a real human body and real human emotions.
But can we really believe that he was also in some sense 'God'? Is not the deity of Jesus a rather picturesque Christian superstition? Is there any evidence for the amazing Christian assertion that the carpenter of Nazareth was the unique Son of God?
This question is fundamental. We cannot dodge it. We must be honest. If Jesus was not God in human flesh, Christianity is exploded. We are left with just another religion with some beautiful ideas and noble ethics; its unique distinction has gone.
But there is evidence for the deity of Jesus — good, strong, historical, cumulative evidence; evidence to which an honest person can subscribe without committing intellectual suicide. There are the extravagant claims which Jesus made for himself, so bold and yet so unassuming. Then there is his incomparable character. His strength and gentleness, his uncompromising righteousness and tender compassion, his care for children and his love for outcasts, his self-mastery and self-sacrifice have won the admiration of the world. What is more, his cruel death was not the end of him. It is claimed that he rose again from death, and the circumstantial evidence for his resurrection is most compelling.
Supposing Jesus was the Son of God, is basic Christianity merely an acceptance of this fact? No. Once persuaded of the deity of his person, we must examine the nature of his work. What did he come to do? The biblical answer is, he 'came into the world to save sinners'. Jesus of Nazareth is the heaven-sent Saviour we sinners need. We need to be forgiven and restored to fellowship with the all-holy God, from whom our sins have separated us. We need to be set free from our selfishness and given strength to live up to our ideals. We need to learn to love one another, friend and foe alike. This is the meaning of 'salvation'. This is what Christ came to win for us by his death and resurrection.
Then is basic Christianity the belief that Jesus is the Son of God who came to be the Saviour of the world? No, it is not even that. To assent to his divine person, to acknowledge man's need of salvation, and to believe in Christ's saving work are not enough. Christianity is not just a creed; it involves action. Our intellectual belief may be beyond criticism; but we have to translate our beliefs into deeds.
What must we do, then? We must commit ourselves, heart and mind, soul and will, home and life, personally and unreservedly to Jesus Christ. We must humble ourselves before him. We must trust in him as our Saviour and submit to him as our Lord; and then go on to take our place as loyal members of the church and responsible citizens in the community.
Such is basic Christianity, and the theme of this book. But before we come to the evidence for Jesus Christ's deity, an introductory chapter on the right approach is necessary. The Christian claim is that we can find God in Jesus Christ. It should be a help to us in examining this claim if we realize both that God is himself seeking us and that we must ourselves seek God.