There can be no doubt that Jesus Christ is either the most glorious person in human history, or his story is the most dreadful perpetration of a lie. C.S. Lewis famously claimed that only three explanations of Jesus are possible. He was a madman, a liar, or God. However, that overlooks the possibility that the Jesus we meet in the Bible might also be the invention of others. If that were the case, it would amount to an ancient conspiracy by more than a few of its first leaders.
Furthermore, it would be an immeasurably stupid one when its inventors positively invited people to test it by examining the veracity of the greatest ‘lie’ of them all – the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-17). Of course, people have ‘lied and died’ for many causes and leaders, but on the basis that the lie would serve the cause, not undermine it! Paul, however, preached the resurrection as a fact and at the same time frankly admitted that ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (1 Cor.15:17).
The first sceptics
In view of all this, it is remarkable that Christianity has held the attention of some very clever unbelievers because it was not as easy as one might think for them to walk away. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre held that life was meaningless, absurd, and cruel. He also admitted that if it were true, Christianity would make the whole of life bearable. Bertrand Russell, a leading sceptic a century ago, felt it necessary to write a whole book to justify his rejection of Christianity, entitled ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’.
One could find many more examples but in Matthew 2:1-12 we encounter perhaps the first sceptics about Jesus: people who struggled simultaneously with fascination and unbelief. The so-called ‘Magi’ were followers of a Persian religion, who nevertheless wanted to ‘worship’ Jesus – but that may mean no more than to ‘honour’ him as a king. Herod, on the other hand, wanted to destroy Jesus but to do so found himself believing in miracles and studying the Bible with scholars! Between them, they illustrate two sceptical approaches to Jesus that still exist today: religious speculation and spiritual enmity.
The first kind of scepticism may be sincere but it is misguided. In the passage it is displayed by religious leaders who come from ‘the east’ (probably Persia). They believe in some form of astrology and follow a moving ‘star’ which they interpret as a special sign that a great king is about to be born. According to some scholars, these ‘wise men’ may have obtained their view of this sign from the religious tradition described in the book of Daniel, and over which Daniel was placed in charge (Dan. 5:11). It is suggested that Daniel’s prophecy of a coming Messiah thus became known to the Babylonian astrologers and was preserved in their records for the six centuries that passed between then and the birth of Jesus.
Another explanation is suggested from a widespread belief (mentioned in several ancient Roman sources) that a new world-ruler was about to emerge from the lands east of the Mediterranean. Several astronomical events between 7BC and 4BC might explain the star from the east. Were the Magi simply devoted to their own mysteries and thought to salute Jesus Christ as one of those rather than as God’s Son and their Saviour? I suspect it.
What is certain is that this kind of ‘knowing’ has never gone away. I don’t doubt that someone can genuinely bow the knee to Christ without possessing an adequate theological understanding of him, but there are certainly many more who try to reduce him to their own preconceived ideas or religious beliefs. Even astrology has a very wide audience, including film stars and (according to the press) some members of the British royal family. ‘Spirituality’ has thus changed its meaning in modern life. The Christian explanation of a life shared with God has been replaced by seeking to be in touch with an unseen dimension of reality.
I once had a student in one of my ‘secular’ classes who panicked because she thought she had lost some stones she carried for psychic energy. I couldn’t help smiling when she stood in front of the class and asked, ‘Who moved my stones?’ It coincidentally mimicked the title of a once-popular book arguing for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus: Who Moved the Stone? Those two questions perfectly express the religious change in the UK from a Christian to a post-Christian culture. A part of this is the difficulty many people have in accepting total atheism. They believe there is ‘something’ and they call it spirituality. That enables people to avoid both a spiritually void universe and inconvenient truths about the personal and living God who loves us with an everlasting love and yet holds his created ones to account.
The other searcher in this story is Herod. He also wants to find Jesus, but his search is motivated by his suspicion of a rival power. Yet he makes serious enquiries about Jesus. He witnessed for himself the remarkable star and would very probably have interpreted that as a supernatural sign. He closely questioned the Magi. He brought experts to court to explain prophecy to him. He was no bit-part player in the story. He even sent the Magi to Bethlehem in search of the Messiah (v.8). What Herod wants, however, is to learn the truth in order to suppress it. He was foiled in his original intention to find Jesus through the Magi but after that he went to extraordinary lengths by killing the whole population of male infants in the hope of destroying the Messiah (vv.16-18).
Why this hatred? Well, it must be admitted that Herod was notoriously paranoid, even killing rival members of his own family. However, I have no doubt there was something at work even darker than his paranoia. Jesus identified it as a natural hatred of God and especially of himself as the incarnate Son of God (John 15:18-25). The fact is that this soul darkness possesses every human being who rejects Jesus Christ. The myth of a ‘natural’ spiritual realm we can freely enter, and even control, is shown for the nonsense it is by Herod’s evil heart. You aren’t that bad? Are you sure? We can disguise this hatred of God under a veneer of ‘intellectual honesty’ or dislike of religious talk, or that special kind of boredom you can achieve by thinking about something with sufficient shallowness to rob it of its actual substance.
How will you approach Christ?
This passage is about two misguided approaches to Christ. We can take them still. One is to reduce him to our preconceived ideas and thus to covert rejection of a personal Saviour. The other is to slaughter every vestige of his reality in our lives, be it necessary to kill a multitude of memories like that infant male population of Bethlehem: memories of childlike trust in God; early lessons of faith; moments of transcendent joy at beauty, or music, or nature itself; occasions when we knew that God was there; and perhaps most of all, pangs of guilty knowledge that we have offended a higher righteousness than our own. I suggest a different man altogether for those who want a good example of searching for Christ. Simeon (Luke 2:25-32) gave himself to waiting for Jesus until he came and when that happened he was able to ‘depart in peace’. So may we!