Michael Licona is associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University and
Approach. He has publically debated many leading agnostic and Muslim scholars and spoken at
There are times when each of us must make a decision that reveals our character and
determines the course our life will take. This is called a “defining moment.” Caesar decided to
cross the Rubicon, knowing his action would result in a civil war with Rome. Dietrich
Bonhoeffer decided to involve himself with a plot to kill Hitler, knowing his actions were
morally justified but also that the plan could cost him his life.
In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus wrestled with His impending torture and brutal
execution. He had to decide whether to retreat or face the ordeal. Anyone in similar
circumstances would want to leave, and Jesus indicated that was His desire. But He also
recognized that His very purpose in this world was to endure such an ordeal. So He decided to
face the ordeal (Mark 14:32–15:39; John 18:1–19:30). This was a defining moment in Jesus’ life,
and it altered the cosmic order.
When I first met Nabeel, neither he nor I realized each of us would soon experience
defining moments in our lives. The journeys on which each of us were about to embark were
religious beliefs. From a very early age, both of us had possessed a desire to know God and
please Him. Both of us were committed to following truth, no matter where it led. Both of us
sincerely believed we were already following the truth and the other was not.
My journey started in 2003 when I began my doctoral research. I began with the
objective of proving Jesus’ resurrection from a different angle: to show Jesus had risen from the
dead, using the standard tools of historical investigation. I began by reading literature on the
philosophy of history and the historical method. It wasn’t long before I was confronted with the
challenge of my personal biases. I wanted Jesus’ resurrection to be proven fact. But the literature
was informing me that my objective could severely hinder the integrity of my investigation. Of
course, skeptics are faced with a similar challenge: they want Jesus’ resurrection to be disproved.
If left unchecked, our biases will so guide our historical investigations that we will almost always
arrive at the conclusion we seek.
After about a year of study, the motivation behind my doctoral research changed. Instead
of seeking to prove Jesus’ resurrection, I was now consumed with discovering what an
investigation of the matter would reveal if I were to place my bias on the shelf as best as I could.
I engaged in numerous public debates with prominent skeptical scholars on the question, “Did
Jesus rise from the dead?” Prior to each debate, I asked God to reveal truth to me. “If I’m on the
wrong track, please show me my error. Humiliate me if needed. Just break through any part of
my conditioning that’s prohibiting me from seeing truth. I just want to follow You, Lord, even if
You’re not who I think You are.”
Because most of my debate opponents were prominent scholars who are well-informed, I
knew there was no room for laziness on my part. I was forced to become well-acquainted with
their arguments did not convince me. I had to provide reasons—good reasons—for why their
arguments were ineffective. Therefore, debates forced me to think through virtually every
element of the matter of Jesus’ resurrection. My journey was a difficult one, in which I often
agonized over keeping a check on my bias. After five and a half years, my journey ended with
my concluding that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead accounts for the historical data in a manner
far superior to any competing hypothesis.
My decision to seek and follow truth no matter where
it led and my decision to engage in persistent efforts to manage my biases as best as I possibly
could during my investigation were defining moments in my life. I remain a follower of Jesus
not because I was raised that way but because the historical evidence strongly suggests that His
resurrection from the dead was an event that occurred in history.
Nabeel entered his journey with confidence that the evidence would confirm his Islamic
faith. His journey was intense and, as far as I could tell, was honest and open-minded. Nabeel
unreservedly wanted Islam to be true. It was the way he had been raised, and he was proud to be
a Muslim. He also deeply loved his parents and did not want to cause them grief or bring them
disgrace from their Islamic community, difficulties that would surely follow if Nabeel left the
faith they had taught him and become a follower of Jesus. This is a matter that non-Muslim
Westerners rarely consider, since this type of disgrace is not common in our culture. However,
Interested readers may view a number of my debates at http://www.vimeo.com/licona. A
slightly revised version of my doctoral dissertation is available as a book: Michael R. Licona,
The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL:
lead to undesirable consequences. But when we consider that there is a very good chance that our
decision about Jesus will determine our eternal destiny, should anything other than a serious
pursuit of truth satisfy us? Nabeel’s journey may have taken less time than my own, but it was no
less agonizing for him. When Nabeel discovered that the strong evidence for Jesus’ divinity—
His personal claims to being God’s heavenly Son, His death by crucifixion, and His resurrection
from the dead—was able to withstand the toughest critical scrutiny by Islamic and skeptical
scholars alike, he decided to be led by the truth and became a follower of Jesus. This was,
indeed, a defining moment for Nabeel.
J. Ed Komoszewski
J. Ed Komoszewski has served as a professor of biblical and theological studies at
Tensions rise when the name Jesus is dropped. It has always been this way. In Jesus’ own
day, the Jewish authorities were just as suspicious of His divine claims as Nabeel had been as a
pious Muslim struggling to come to terms with the provocative rabbi from Galilee in modern
times. “Who do you think you are?” they demanded upon realizing that Jesus claimed to be
greater than Abraham (John 8:53). The scribes and Pharisees were repeatedly confronted with
Jesus’ claims straight from His mouth, so they couldn’t simply dismiss those claims as later
corruptions (as Islam had taught Nabeel to do). Quite tellingly, their own explanation—reported
in all four gospels—was that Jesus was controlled by a demon (Matt. 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22;
Luke 11:15; John 7:20; 8:48).
Islam does not stoop so low. In fact, it honors Jesus as highly as its theology allows it to
honor any human being. Islam regards Him as a great prophet, second in importance only to
Muhammad. It agrees with the New Testament that Jesus (unlike Muhammad) was conceived
and born of a virgin. It also teaches that Jesus ascended bodily to paradise or heaven without
Testament, it expresses a noble view of Jesus from a Muslim perspective.
Of course, Christians agree that Jesus was both a human being and a great prophet, but
we understand Him to be far more than that. Regrettably, we sometimes give the impression that
belief in Jesus as God incarnate derives solely from the gospel of John. And this opens the door
to the “John doesn’t count” argument that Nabeel used to get around the testimony of the fourth
gospel. In actuality, as Nabeel soon discovered, other parts of the New Testament tout an equally
high view of Jesus Christ. The following examples only scratch the surface.
The apostle Paul wrote his epistles or letters between the years 49 and 65. Since Jesus
died in 30 or 33, this means his epistles were all written within about twenty to thirty-five years
after Jesus’ death. They are generally recognized as the earliest Christian writings. Remarkably
enough, Paul twice called Jesus “God” (Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13). But his favorite title for Jesus was
to the Hebrew divine name YHWH (“Yahweh” or “Jehovah”). For example, where the Old
Testament referred to “the day of the L
“the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; etc.). Where the Old Testament spoke of
“calling on the name of the L
“on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2; see also Rom. 10:12–14). Where the Old
Testament made the foundation of Israel’s faith the confession that there is “one L
alone is God (Deut. 6:4), Paul affirms that Jesus is the “one Lord” through whom all things were
made (1 Cor. 8:6; see also Eph. 4:5). Where the Old Testament states that every knee will bow
and every tongue swear allegiance to the L
(Isa. 45:23), Paul says that every knee will bow
that Paul—just like John—viewed Jesus as far more than a prophet.
But if John “doesn’t count,” then perhaps Paul doesn’t count either. Nabeel describes
some of the polemical arguments he was taught as a Muslim to call Paul’s teaching into question.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that soon no early Christian source will count. Yet
Jesus is called God not only in John (1:1, 18; 20:28) and Paul (Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13) but also in
Acts (20:28), Hebrews (1:8), and 2 Peter (1:1). He is revered as the L
Paul but also in Acts (1:24; 2:21, 36) and 1 Peter (2:3; 3:13–16). Both Hebrews (1:6) and
Revelation (5:12–13) teach that the angels in heaven worship Jesus Christ. The belief that Jesus
is infinitely exalted permeates New Testament writings.
Consider the gospel of Mark, which most scholars think was the first gospel to be written.
Mark begins his gospel by quoting Isaiah 40:3: “Make ready the way of the Lord, make His
paths straight” (Mark 1:3 NASB). Yet “the Lord” whose way is made ready is the Lord Jesus,
whom John the Baptist said was so far above him that John was not even worthy to perform the
menial slave’s task of loosening his sandal (Mark 1:7–8). Throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus
speaks and acts in ways that are simply far too exalted even if He were a great prophet. When
Jesus healed people, cast out demons, or performed other miracles, He did so not by asking God
in prayer to do these things; rather, He spoke the word, and it happened (1:25–27, 41, etc.). He
forgave a man’s sins, which the scribes recognized was the sole prerogative of God (2:5–7). He
claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath, transcending the laws of its observance (2:28). When He
was on the Sea of Galilee with His disciples and a violent storm threatened to pull their ship
down, Jesus told the storm to “be still,” and it did (4:39). When He was questioned by the high
words, He was going to rule from the throne of God alongside the Father.
What about Matthew, usually considered the most Jewish of the four gospels? Matthew’s
gospel has all of the same elements we have seen in Mark’s and includes additional testimonies
to the deity of Christ. Matthew’s narrative begins by describing Jesus as “God with us” (Matt.
1:23) and climaxes with the resurrected Jesus promising His disciples, “I am with you always,
even to the end of the age” (28:20 NASB). In other words, Jesus embodies the divine presence;
He is God in the flesh. Another statement along the same lines appears about halfway through
the gospel, when Jesus tells His disciples, “Where two or three have gathered together in My
name, I am there in their midst” (18:20 NASB). No mere prophet, no matter how great, would or
could make such a claim. When the disciples saw the risen Jesus, they worshiped Him, and He
claimed to have all authority in both heaven and earth (28:17–18). Clearly, Matthew also viewed
Jesus as nothing less than full deity.
All of the principal authors of the New Testament writings—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John,
Paul, Peter, and the unnamed author of Hebrews—attest to the divine claims, nature, and
prerogatives of Jesus. These men wrote from thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ death; all of them
except Luke were Jewish men who spent part of their lives in Judea and Galilee. They all either
knew Jesus personally or knew people who had known Jesus personally. By contrast,
Muhammad did not know Jesus and did not know anyone who had ever seen Jesus. He lived five
hundred years later in a different culture and in a different country (Arabia), and it is on the basis
of his teaching alone that Islam regards Jesus as a great prophet but not divine. From a strictly
historical perspective, the multiple testimonies of the first-century New Testament authors must
take precedence with regard to understanding who and what Jesus claimed to be. Nabeel
rightful place, as God, on the throne of Nabeel’s heart.
Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
Robert M. Bowman Jr. is the director of research for the Institute for Religious Research
Nabeel was a Muslim when he struggled with and even fought against the Christian
doctrines of the Trinity and of salvation by the death of Jesus Christ. But it isn’t just Muslims
and people of other non-Christian backgrounds who have difficulty coming to terms with these
beliefs. I myself, though coming from a Christian background, went through a period of intense
doubt and searching during my college years regarding these and other Christian teachings. Like
many others, I was especially troubled by the doctrine of the Trinity. Not only was it difficult to
understand but it was unclear whether the Bible even supported it. I once had discussions with a
Sunday school teacher who tried to defend the Trinity by insisting that Jesus is God the Father. I
knew that wasn’t what the Trinity means.
As I studied the Bible and wrestled with these issues, I came to understand that in a real
sense the doctrine was not a human creation, even though its verbal formulations in the creeds
were composed by fallible men. Frankly, the Trinity is not the sort of doctrine people invent.
others can get behind. In doing so, they typically come up with an idea that you can find in a
variety of religions throughout history. On the one hand, that is why there are various religions
teaching that everything is divine or has divinity in it, why quite a few teach that there are many
gods with some greater than others, and why several assert that God is a solitary person who
stays outside the universe looking in at us. On the other hand, a God who exists eternally in three
distinct persons, one who assumed human nature while still remaining God—this complex,
challenging set of ideas is unique among all the religions of the world. You cannot find it outside
of historic Christianity.
So where did this doctrine originate? Christians believe that God is triune—that He exists
as one God in three persons—because Jesus revealed God in that way. Jesus taught us, foremost,
about our heavenly Father. The Lord’s Prayer, the most famous of all prayers, begins, “Our
Father, who art in heaven.” Christians think of God as their Father because Jesus taught us to
think of Him that way. At the same time, we see in the gospels that Jesus claimed to be God’s
“Son” in a way that showed Him to be absolutely unique. For example, when Jewish teachers
challenged Jesus for working on the Sabbath (by healing a paralyzed man), Jesus explained that
the Father worked on the Sabbath, and as His Son, so did He (John 5:17). In some way, then,
Jesus is uniquely the Son of God, but He graciously invites us to “share” in His close, familial
relationship with the Father, to become God’s “children.” Jesus also promised that after His
return to heaven, He would send someone else in His place to be with His disciples forever (John
14:16–17; 15:26–27). This someone else was the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit is
identified in the Bible as God (Acts 5:3–4) but is someone distinct from the Father and the Son,
as these and many other texts of the Bible reveal. So Jesus reveals the Trinity to us by revealing
as the unique Son of the Father, and (3) the Holy Spirit as a divine person sent from the Father
and the Son after Jesus returned to heaven.
The key to understanding this, for me, was to answer the question, Who is Jesus? If Jesus
really is the Son who came from the Father, died and rose again for our salvation, ascended into
heaven, and then sent the Holy Spirit to live within His people, then something along the lines of
the doctrine of the Trinity is true. The more I studied the Bible, the more ways it revealed Jesus
to be the eternal, divine Son of God come in the flesh (what Christians call the incarnation).
Once I got past crude caricatures of the Trinity and weak objections to its possible existence, I
began recognizing its truth throughout Scripture.
I also came to appreciate how closely the doctrine of the Trinity is linked to the gospel of
salvation. The gospel or “good news” is the message of God’s victory over the devil and over
human rebellion, corruption, and death. It isn’t about what I do for God; it’s about what He has
done and is doing for me. Jesus isn’t a character sent by the Creator to tell us to straighten up and
fly right; Jesus is the Creator who walked among us in humility to experience our fragility and to
rescue us from our hopeless human condition.
His paying the debt for our sins is just one part of how He saves us. Jesus did not pay the
penalty for our misdeeds so we can continue disobeying God with abandon; rather, in dying on
the cross, Jesus not only canceled our spiritual debt but also cured our spiritual disease. When we
put our trust in Christ, He forgives our sins and also begins the work of changing us from the
inside to become holy and loving like Him, and like God our Father. Jesus does this through the
Holy Spirit, whom He sent. Salvation by grace does not mean we stay impure sinners forever.
Rather, it means that God forgives all our sins and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves
two stages: while we are mortal, the Holy Spirit changes our hearts so that we begin to live in a
way that is more pleasing to God, even though we still commit sin; and then in the resurrection at
the end of history, we will be made morally and spiritually perfect beings.
Thus, all three persons of the Trinity are involved in our salvation. The Father calls us
into a relationship with Him through the Son, whom He sent; the Son creates that relationship by
dying to break down the barrier of rebellion that has separated us from the Father; and the Holy
Spirit works within us to trust in the Son and to worship the Father according to the truth of the
gospel. When we are brought into the Christian faith, this is why we are baptized “in the name of
the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19 NIV). It means that we are
acknowledging the three persons as the one God who has mercifully rescued us from our sin and
given us the gift of eternal life.