By Edward Mellott
In 1977, Mr. I. Howard Marshall published a book entitled I Believe in the Historical Jesus. In his book, Mr. Marshall very capably addressed the problems which have arisen due to efforts of authors who had denied the historical existence of Jesus or the integrity of the accounts which describe His life and person. In the course of presenting his subject, the author stressed the importance and validity of actually establishing Jesus’ historicity. Without argument, Christians everywhere will agree that without a historical Jesus, our faith would amount to nothing.
The issue of historicity is not unique to the 20th Century. Indeed, the issue even arose for writers of scripture. One very striking example of this occurs in the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. The Corinthians were not, of course, doubting Jesus’ existence, for the effects of His life and ministry were having direct impact on the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The issue with which Paul was concerned was the denial of a very important part of Jesus’ experience, that is, His resurrection. Due to their philosophical beliefs, there were those who could not accept the reality of such an event. They wished to believe part of what they heard, but chose to reject the teaching that one could physically be raised from the dead.
In his response to this crisis, Paul very forcefully asserted the importance of the reality of the resurrection. He included it as an integral part of the Gospel (15:4), and cited those who, still living, could testify to its occurrence (15:5-8). He then demonstrated the seriousness of denying the resurrection. With it, not only are Christians reduced to foolishness (15:19), but those who uphold such a teaching become false witnesses (15:15).
To Paul, the verifiable historicity of the resurrection was vital. Today our faith in the resurrection is in the historical witness to its occurrence and in God’s faithfulness to raise us as well. Christ having been the firstfruits (15:23).
To some, however, the importance of historicity is considerably reduced. Their religious foundation is based on subjective experience. Truth is established by feeling. If a challenge is made concerning a teaching, it is regarded as personal, and offense is taken.
This is the condition one encounters when he challenges a Mormon on the integrity of the Book of Mormon. Though grand claims are made for this book, nothing has been verified by archaeology. The story is supposed to be that of the inhabitants of the American continents until the year A.D. 421. As a historical account, though, it is unsubstantiated. In fact, archaeological finds have contradicted the picture drawn by the Book of Mormon. Civilizations which we are told worshipped Christ are actually proven to be pagan. The thesis of the Book of Mormon, and subsequently its integrity, completely fails when brought under scrutiny. The archaeological failure is only one of many.
Mormon response to this challenge has taken on two forms. On one hand, there are those Mormons who have tried to respond to the scientific phenomena. Some of them appear to honestly grapple with the data, but in the end they must either be vague or even manipulate the facts available.
A more standard Mormon response is to resort to the subjective. He insists that he knows the Book of Mormon is true because he has the “burning in the bosom.” God, so he says, has proved it to him in his heart, so it can’t be untrue. He may also claim that to challenge him in this way only makes him stronger in this faith.
Such a response is not an answer to the challenge at all. Instead it is a stubborn retreat. The appeal to personal experience misses (or avoids) the point. It is not personal faith which is at issue, but instead historic fact.
The question of historicity in this matter in unavoidable. The Book of Mormon, which is supposed to be the keystone of the Mormon faith, contains accounts of persons and civilizations which allegedly lived in time. We are learning more and more about ancient pre-Columbian civilizations, but not one thing has been brought forth to validate the Book of Mormon. Civilizations of the Bible have been attested to time and again by archaeological research, but not one shred of evidence has surfaced to vindicate the Book of Mormon.
A “burning in the bosom,” no matter how sincere, is no proof of historicity. If evidence goes against the Book of Mormon to prove it false, then to ignore or avoid that is not sincere faith but rather dishonesty and deceitfulness. Such is not becoming to a follower of the God of truth.
“Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor …” Ephesians 4:25a.