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God Our Contemporary by J.B. Phillips


Born in London in 1906, J.B. Phillips was ordained in 1930. In 1940 he became Vicar of the Church of the Good Shepherd, London. He is noted for his work in the field of Biblical translation, and in particular for two books: Letters to Young Churches and Your God is Too Small. Published by The Macmillan Company, New York. Copyright by J.B. Phillips, 1960. Fifth printing 1966. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 10: The Question of Probability


I have sometimes heard people speak of the "inherent improbability" of the Christian Faith, and I must confess that I am never quite sure what they mean. We are not in any real position to assess the "probability" of anything which happens within the framework of the laws of the universe, and we deceive ourselves if we think we possess an exhaustive knowledge of even these. Many commonplaces of today are the improbabilities of yesterday, and in any branch of science "improbabilities" occur from time to time which are apparently arbitrary exceptions to previously observed rules. The scientist does not conclude that his observation must therefore be faulty; he notes that the apparent exception is part of the total of observed phenomena. Sometimes he will later discover another law which accounts for what appear to be the exceptions, or he may have to be content for the present to register phenomena as "exceptional."

Now we are not living in a lunatic world, but in part of a law-abiding universe, and we are quite right to reject on rational grounds that which outrages reason. We may be perfectly certain, for example, that the Greek goddess Pallas Athene was not born as a fully developed, and fully armed, woman out of the head of her father Zeus! We rightly call that sort of thing myth, and it could never be considered as sober history. But we cannot so dismiss the historic accounts of the birth of Jesus. If we will admit for a moment that God did enter into the human historical process, we may reasonably expect something unusual, something analogous to the "exceptions" of science. We may have to accept the operation of a law higher than the normal law, but we are not expected to accept an irrational myth. But, of course, the critics of Christianity may mean that the "improbability" of the faith lies in another direction. We have only to consider how human planning would have arranged such an event, and compare it with what actually happened, to see this kind of improbability! If human planners had been at work no doubt the entry of the Creator into his creation would have been arranged with the maximum of publicity. The family into which he was born would have been the noblest in a nation whose culture represented the peak of human achievement. For his human adventure the Creator would have been provided with the finest clothes, the best books, and surrounded by the most influential friends. The most detailed observation of his life, of all that he said and did, would have been most meticulously kept. No stone would have been left unturned to ensure that everybody knew who this unique person really was. Compared with such a fantasy, the recorded facts are, of course, lamentably "improbable." Jesus was born into a family of humble station. His actual birth was in lowly and improvised conditions. His upbringing and education took place in an obscure village with none too good a reputation. His whole career as a preacher and teacher was very limited and sadly cut short, and it all happened in a small, rather despised country occupied by the Roman powers. Of course this appears "improbable," but may I say in passing that this is the kind of improbability to which we have to become accustomed if we are to have any dealings with the contemporary God. We have to learn to work with a wisdom which follows a pattern quite foreign to much human thinking.

But there is yet another sense in which the Christian story may be thought to be improbable, and that is because it appears to be arbitrarily and even monstrously unjust. If God chooses to reveal himself on this planet in the person of a man, why must whole nations rise and fall before he is even born? Why must millions be doomed for hundreds of years to live and die without the slightest possibility of knowing anything about him? The plain answer to this is naturally that nobody knows; we are not in on the secret. We do not know why there should be millions of years of life upon this planet before ever Homo sapiens appeared. We do not know why one man is so brilliantly endowed and another is of rather low intelligence. We do not know why some menís skins should be darkly- pigmented, or why some menís faces are yellow and others pink. We do not know why there should be races of men who are pygmies and races of men who are tall in stature. Life as we know it is full of inequalities and apparent injustices, and to claim that one particular piece of history is improbable because it appears to be unjust does not seem to me to be reasonable at all. It is like saying that electricity is improbable because men were obliged for so long to live without its benefits and facilities! The "timing" of events, discoveries, developments and revelations is not subject to any law of probability of which we have knowledge. If we can believe that there is a Divine Wisdom working out a total pattern extending far beyond our own short-sighted view, we shall not be quick to say that a unique event is untrue because it is "improbable."

I am not here concerned to argue about the historicity of the person of Jesus. (For those who want to study the subject I would recommend a book Did Jesus Really Live? by H. G. Wood, published by S. C. M. Press.) For even if the records were scantier than they are, it seems to me quite inconceivable that a movement as vigorous and revolutionary as early Christianity could have sprung out of a myth. No one in his right senses denies the authenticity of most of the letters, or epistles, included in the New Testament, and several of these are considerably earlier documents than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is obvious from even a superficial reading of these human unself-conscious letters that people were being transformed in outlook and character, despite the general collapse of moral values in the pagan world. We may very properly ask the critic of the Christian story by what power were such transformations effected in such places as Corinth and Ephesus. Paul of Tarsus was undoubtedly a man of strong personality, but it certainly does not make sense to suggest that such radical changes in human character were made by the personal impact of one man. It is even more unthinkable that the weapons of such persuasion should be drawn from wishful thinking or a piece of calculated deceit. Can anyone seriously suggest that a man of Paulís not inconsiderable intellectual powers should lose his "prospects" and wreck his career for the sake of something which never really happened? Is it reasonable to assume that such a man would write to the Christians at Corinth and quote as witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus several hundred people who were still living at the time? (Does that surprise you? I suggest that you read the fifteenth chapter of the first letter to Corinth in modern English, remembering that it was written in about A.D. 56.) Can anyone really account for the audacity, assurance and endurance exhibited by the young Church without admitting that these early Christians were convinced that Jesus really rose from the dead? No one could honestly read the letters of the New Testament without becoming aware that not only the writers themselves but scores of other people were looking at life and death in a way in which they had never been looked at before, and were experiencing a contact with the living God unprecedented in human history. No one could fairly deny that in the first century A.D. something unique and remarkable had happened and that the letters spontaneously record its repercussions on human personality.

I find that people frequently forget the great value of these early pieces of evidence. They will quite readily suggest that the gospels were written-up stories of a departed hero, composed some time after his death. But they forget that the letters, which are real letters written to real people, reflect a phenomenon which has somehow got to be explained. What had any of the early Christians to gain by subscribing to an acted falsehood? Yet we find them willing to endanger their livelihood and their lives, prepared to undergo hardship, humiliation, persecution, torture and agonizing death, simply because they were convinced that Jesus had really risen from the dead. Naturally all turns upon whether this "resurrection" really and objectively occurred. The claims of Jesus to represent the character of God, his claim to be the master of men and of their ultimate destiny, and his claim to be sent by God to effect the reconciliation between man and God would remain as the lunatic arrogance of a disordered mind if everything ended in the judicial murder of a field-preacher on a Roman Cross.

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