I’m always told that I have a great “testimony.”
A “testimony,” of course, being the account of a Christian’s conversion – how we “came to know the Lord.”
And, not to brag, but as “testimonies” go, mine is a pretty good one. With all sincerity and gratitude, I experienced what I genuinely believe – and empirically witnessed – to have been signs from God and (to me) clear indications of His direct attention and intervention to bring me to the point of committing my life to Jesus Christ.
The “sharing of one’s testimony,” of course, is a common ritual among modern Christians, and it’s widely regarded as a vital tool in evangelism/proselytizing. To this end, many churches even offer training on the construction and presentation of one’s “testimony.” This is apparently modeled after the apostles, who are shown in the New Testament to have spread the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world and so created that first generation of the Church by presenting their testimonies of Jesus. So, to continue their work of spreading the gospel, modern Christians are encouraged to likewise share our own “testimonies” with outsiders.
As much as I value and am grateful to God for my “testimony,” though, I regard it not only as utterly worthless, but counterproductive to the purpose of advancing Christianity, because this modern mindset of “sharing our testimony” is actually a complete reversal and negation of what we find modeled in the Bible.
I struggled over how to word this, because it sounds far more mean-spirited than I intend, but in the interest of erring on the side of clarity about a monumentally important point, at the potential cost of offending many …
Like a great many other components of contemporary church culture, modern Christians’ collective notion of the “testimony” is like a child’s drawing/cargo cult-version of what we see in the Bible.
The Allegory Made Real
A “cargo cult,” for those unfamiliar, is the term for an indigenous religion created in the aftermath of a primitive people’s encounter with members of an advanced civilization. A chief example would be when, during World War II, isolated Pacific islanders one day witnessed the sudden arrival of Western soldiers descending from the sky by parachute and airplane. Something as mundane (to us) as a rank insignia, or even a ballpoint pen in the breast pocket of a soldier’s uniform – with its shiny, silvery finish gleaming blindingly in the sun – takes on an instant religious significance in the eyes of a people who have never seen anything made of metal before; to say nothing of these strange, alien beings’ ability to ride the sky and to summon resources from that same sky by speaking into a crackling, talking box. These were people who had not invented the wheel and knew only Stone-Age technology who suddenly encountered complex machines and electricity and beings with the power to shoot deadly thunderbolts from handheld rods and to conjure food and unimaginable wealth from the heavens.
Today, a modern observer can watch a cargo cult still in operation, performing ritualistic prayers using bamboo prop “radios” to petition “the gods” for an airdrop of food, and perform drills in makeshift “uniforms” with wooden “rifles” in imitation of the god-like beings encountered by their great grandfathers. And we, as members of that advanced civilization, can immediately recognize the practical realities they are attempting to recreate and the vast, gaping chasm between those realities and their superstitiously motivated ritual imitation.
This same pattern characterizes much of what constitutes modern Christianity, compared to the ancient practices we attempt to emulate. There is the same disconnect between modern form and original function, resulting from the same error of processing.
We might be inclined to attribute the cargo cultists’ error to a simple lack of intelligence – their primitive minds being unable to grasp the complexities of an advanced civilization’s technology and culture.
That isn’t it at all. It’s not a question of relative IQ. Any modern Westerner would find himself equally at a loss of comprehension if he had to adjust to their way of life, and would struggle to survive using the same resources by which they comfortably thrive.
No, the disconnect is because the cargo cultists retained the same worldview and assumptions about reality that they had before they encountered the Westerners. What should have happened was that they realized their worldview was wrong – that reality is not as they believed it to be, and so they should have abandoned those preconceptions and grown into the larger world of which the Westerners were a part. Had they done this, they would have raised themselves up to the same level as their visitors and dealt with them as equals. Instead, they kept their benighted view of reality and processed the new information within that ill-fitting philosophical fabric, according to which, they were mere creatures and supplicants before the supposed “gods” of their strange visitors. Their descendants today continue to attempt to raise themselves to their level by ritualistic imitation, but it only degrades them, because they do not elevate their understanding and their consciousness according to the new information, but instead process it within their old understanding – putting “new wine into old wineskins,” so to speak. They are like prisoners in Plato’s allegorical cave who refuse to leave upon having their chains removed and hearing reports from the outside world, but instead incorporate those reports into their myopic, cave-confined, darkness-cloaked view of reality.
This is a common human failing, as it turns out, because such growth is daunting for anyone. Abandoning long-held beliefs is a sort of psychic/philosophical death. But, such is the price of enlightenment, and the alternative is its own kind of death. “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it.”
The gospel, we read, is supposed to elevate us by enabling us to expand our consciousness and grow into the higher reality of God’s kingdom and truth.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” Paul wrote.
By default, though, we conform to the pattern of this world – that exemplified by the cargo cults – by interpreting what we read in the Bible according to the assumptions native to the ignorant worldview we have quite apart from the Bible, and so we are not transformed by the renewing of our minds. Our basic understanding of reality remains exactly as it was before we ever picked up the Bible or knew about the gospel, because we don’t grow into the new reality by outgrowing our old worldview. We just wedge the new information into all of our old assumptions, trying to pull it down to our level instead of allowing ourselves to be elevated by it.
The result is a “Christianity” that bears as much resemblance to the actual beliefs and teachings of the apostles as a cargo cult bears to an actual World War II-era paratrooper unit – it’s a crudely-fashioned costume worn in imitation of the real thing, with little conception of the actual substance and purpose behind that original model.
An entire book could be written on “Cargo Cult Christianity” (and maybe it will be?), with lengthy chapters dedicated to individual examples of the impassable gulf between the modern practices we call “Christianity” and their original, legitimate function. But, our erroneous concept of the “testimony” is something of a key log in the logjam of these misapprehended concepts, hence my attention to it here.
The Testimony of ‘Martyrs’
Terms like “testimony” and its close cousin “witness” immediately take on religious connotations in the mouths of Christians, but as we find them in the Bible – spoken within their original ancient context – they had no such connotations. These were not distinctly “Christian” terms at the time, nor even commonly associated with Christianity, and especially not with religion in general, but had the same meaning then to the original Christians that they do today when we hear them outside of a religious or church context.
Both terms are derived or translated directly from “martyr” in Greek, meaning, “one who brings testimony, provides evidence/proof, especially in a court of law,” etc. At the time, as well as today, these were legal and historiographical terms in wide use – for what we would call “secular” purposes – and popularized by Greek historians like Herodotus and Thucydides and Polybius and others. As the “fathers of history,” they established the value of eyewitness testimony for documenting events, which remains the gold standard of historiography and (theoretically speaking) of modern journalism.
As in, when the New Testament writers spoke of “bearing witness” and “giving their testimony” about Jesus, it had the same meaning as today when TV stations market themselves as “eyewitness news” and interview people who personally saw the events reported: the standard is to give objective coverage of actual events witnessed empirically, relying on those witnesses’ reports of what they saw and heard.
According to the book of Acts, when the disciples gathered to fill the vacancy among the Twelve left by Judas, Peter said, “It is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”
That, of course, was the definitive role of an apostle: to be an eyewitness to the historical events of Jesus’ life, death and new life.
When Jesus first chose the Twelve and designated them “apostles,” that term held only its straightforward, literal meaning of “one who is sent” – as in, they were to be representatives of Jesus himself, bearing his teachings and authority. As the Christian movement spread, that term very soon took on a narrower meaning, but an expanded membership: the title of “apostle” came to apply to anyone and everyone who had witnessed the risen Jesus, not just the Twelve.
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” wrote Paul – who was an apostle, but not among the Twelve.
As in, an apostle’s role was to bring knowledge of Jesus to their listeners. The Twelve in particular did that with a unique, unparalleled authority and credibility, because they had been Jesus’ direct disciples, handpicked to represent him. But all apostles, by definition, brought that knowledge of Jesus to the world, and they did so by means of their historical testimony as eyewitnesses. Each of the Twelve bore firsthand the entire narrative of Jesus’ ministry and teachings, while a mere apostle may have been witness only to a single event or miracle, such as his resurrection, but all were eyewitnesses.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard,” wrote the apostle John.
And, when we consider the historiographical nature of their proclamations about Jesus, one of the (seemingly) weirder, most oft-misinterpreted passages from 1 John suddenly makes more sense:
“This is the One who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son.”
Here, John is using shorthand that was presumably more immediately familiar to his original audience than to us, but it isn’t difficult to unpack when we consider it in context. He is speaking against the nascent Gnostic heresy, which had it that spirit alone is good and flesh/material is intrinsically corrupt and evil, and so they had various ways of misconstruing Jesus’ identity and nature within this outlook, which typically included denying his death on the cross and, in turn, his resurrection from the dead: if he wasn’t a physical, material being, he can’t die, and if he can’t die, he can’t have risen from the dead, they argued. Another common feature of Gnosticism was the notion of a distinction between Jesus the man and Christ the spirit, according to which, Jesus was “adopted” as God’s Son at his baptism when “Christ” descended upon him in spirit-form.
So, this was written as an emphatic denial of Gnosticism by affirming in contrast the same basic formulation we saw in the passage from Acts, according to which, the apostles were to bear witness to the historical events of Jesus’ life, beginning with his baptism (the water), through to his crucifixion (the blood) and most importantly, his resurrection from the dead in fulfillment of prophecy (the Spirit), all of which constituted God’s endorsement of Jesus as the Messiah foretold in the scriptures.
John emphasized the “testimony of God” here, but it is the testimony of God through these historical events, of which the apostles were eyewitnesses.
The Gnostics valued only the event of Jesus’ baptism as relevant to their beliefs, denying the rest, and John refuted them by appealing – not merely to established Christian doctrine – but to the historical facts related to Jesus’ death and resurrection as well. Jesus was not some mystical “spiritual” phantom who merely appeared human, but a flesh-and-blood person of history. While the Gnostics embraced “spirit” to the exclusion of flesh, John’s point here was that it was the very Spirit they claimed to seek who testified to the flesh that they denied.
As in, this was not a dispute rooted in mere doctrinal dissent, but over historical reality, and it was those historical facts that lay at the foundation of the gospel itself and to which John appealed to refute heresy. As in, the gospel – as “the good news” – is not, primarily, a religious proclamation. It is a historical proclamation, and its religious meaning is contingent upon and valid only on the basis of its historicity.
It is that historical testimony of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection through which God reveals Himself to the world and through which He offers new life. As Paul told the Athenians at Mars’ Hill, “God has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
And so, their testimony to those events, collected in the writings of the New Testament and in the traditions and teachings of the original Church, stands as a monument for all generations of humanity, available to be accessed and evaluated on the same terms as any other events of history. And, upon doing so – objectively and without the blindfold of our philosophical presuppositions – we discover that God lives and has made Himself knowable to everyone through Jesus Christ.
The Broad and Narrow Paths of ‘Testimony’
In light of all this, the idea of modern Christians supposedly following the apostles’ example and continuing their work by “sharing our testimony” and “witnessing” is, frankly, beyond absurd.
And, it’s dizzyingly ironic on multiple levels.
Critical biblical scholars of the past 200 years or so, as well as more recent proponents of the so-called “Christ myth theory” assert that the early Christians either did not regard Jesus to be an actual historical person or they were simply unconcerned about any legitimate historical information about him, but cared only for the “mystical Christ” with whom they imagined themselves to be interacting in their prayers and church gatherings and ecstatic experiences. And so, according to these skeptics and scholars, early Christians played fast and loose with the memory of Jesus, making no distinction between their own imaginings and what early, reliable reports they had about him, and so the legendary embellishments and invented teachings attributed to Jesus that met their “spiritual needs” of the moment were those that were retained and recorded for posterity in the written Gospels.
This is, of course, completely devoid of any basis in actual recorded evidence. Its enduring appeal lies solely in its accommodation of their prejudices. But more than that, it flies in the face of all of the aforementioned evidence, which is that the early Christians were indeed quite intensely concerned about historical legitimacy, which is why there is such a recurring emphasis upon “eyewitness testimony” and the empirical experiences of the apostles, to the extent that apostles ranked higher in authority within the early Church than even prophets and miracle-workers.
But, like the aforementioned cargo cultists, those scholars and skeptics bring their theological beliefs to their “research” and try to wedge the data into their preconceptions, rather than changing their beliefs according to the evidence. Because they start out already “knowing” there is no God, and so no messiahs or prophets or miracles or resurrections, therefore there cannot have actually existed this person – this “Jesus Christ” – as he is described, because no such person can ever exist, according to their theological presuppositions. And so they have to somehow make sense of the evidence of history within their prejudices, and their solution is to invent a distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith,” along with their revisionist fictional narrative about the early Christians caring nothing for the former in favor of the latter.
Naturally, faithful Christians, by definition, reject this, since it’s hostile to the faith we profess.
Yet, our own practice of our faith is exactly as the skeptics slanderously describe for the early Christians, and bears little meaningful difference from the practices of the Gnostic heretics condemned by those early Christians.
When we speak of “sharing our testimony” and “witnessing,” nobody who gives it a moment’s consideration can think we’re really doing what the apostles did.
To state the obvious … we weren’t there. None of us are in any position whatsoever to testify or bear witness about the Jesus of history. Our “testimonies” can only ever be about the “mystical Christ” – the “Christ” of our own personal, private faith.
As in, our personal “testimony” can only ever be about the Christ of our own imaginations – our own subjective experiences and feelings about Jesus and Christianity.
Just like those cargo cultists, we have our own set of assumptions and preconceptions we bring with us from our native worldview.
Our culture insists that religion and faith are matters of subjective feelings and ineffable internal leadings, and not a matter of objective reality that can be known by reason and evidence and verified by rational processes. We passively absorb these attitudes and adapt Christianity to them, and so in a lot of ways, we prefer the “Christ” of our imaginations to the real person of history.
A belief system rooted in objective reality and historical evidence can be investigated and verified. And, that is exactly what the New Testament and other early writings by and about those first Christians invite us and the world to do.
But, a religion that can be investigated in such a manner can also be disproven if it’s false. A religion rooted in subjective experience and private feelings, on the other hand, can never be falsified. No one can ever tell us our own experiences and feelings are invalid, because these are unfalsifiable by nature.
And so, like those cargo cultists, we pull Christianity down to our level, adapting it within our native worldview, and that way, we can never be disabused of it. We feel safe, hiding beneath the security blanket of our subjective religion, where no one can touch us with rational challenges or evidence to the contrary.
But we’re also impotent to pass it on, because on those terms, we cannot possibly do what the apostles and early Christians did, because no one else can believe on the basis of our subjective faith and feelings. They can be pressured and indoctrinated to manufacture their own subjective feelings, but that’s not actual faith — at least, it’s not faith in God Himself, based on His actual revelation of Himself in history, but faith in our own more recent imaginings about Him. And, in so doing, we create obstacles to genuine faith, because we are tacitly denying the objective and verifiable historical reality of Jesus by reducing him to the level of a gnostic phantom or an imaginary friend.
So, in our insecurity and weakness of faith, we make a sort of “deal with the Devil”: he doesn’t bother us by challenging our religion, but we don’t bother him either by becoming sufficiently empowered or enlightened to ever pass it on and thereby encroach upon his territory. We stay in our ever-shrinking enclave while he runs roughshod over our civilization, safe from any challenge from us.
Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say our imaginations are accurate, or that it really is the actual risen Jesus with whom we are interacting in these personal stories of our conversions, and not just a figment of our subjective imaginations.
As I said in the introduction – I genuinely believe that about my own experience.
Regardless, it still does more harm than good to “share my testimony” as a method of evangelism.
At best, I’m asking someone to take my word for it and accept my story on faith that I’m not crazy, not lying or embellishing, or not suffering from an overactive imagination. And let’s say I manage to convince them. Then what? What can they do with that?
It’s not a hypothetical situation. My experience has often been that they concluded, “God must be real, because He revealed Himself in this person’s life through signs. Now where’s my sign?”
So, if they believe me at all, they’ll think I’m somehow special because I benefited from God’s special attention (and I may well be, but not the flattering and admirable kind of “special”), and until they experience such signs of their own, they’ll consider themselves rejected, outside of His grace.
Or, if they’re already or ever become a believer, they’ll feel pressured to embellish their own “testimony” by punching up the drama and exaggerating whatever “signs” their story includes.
But, I can’t promise them that God will ever give them a sign. He certainly hasn’t made that promise. Quite the contrary.
“No sign will be given, except the sign of Jonah,” Jesus said, which of course, is a reference to the sign given for all time for all of humanity: his resurrection.
That isn’t to say that there is anything inherently wrong with mature Christians sharing the stories of our own conversions with each other, and glorifying God by those stories. I still do that all the time.
But the idea that this practice should have any value or effectiveness in persuading unbelievers or could ever be remotely comparable to what the apostles did by testifying to their empirical experiences of Jesus …
It is at least as foolish, misguided and preposterous as those cargo cultists calling for an airdrop of supplies with a toy wooden “radio.”
So, I would rather have 10 minutes to make the historical case for the resurrection than 10,000 hours to tell them my own “testimony.”
If we want to follow the apostles’ example (and we should), we cannot do that by sharing our “testimonies,” but by sharing theirs. As in, our efforts should be devoted to presenting the historical evidence and arguing the case for the resurrection of Jesus, not relying on our own stories about our own feelings and subjective experiences.
For more information about that historical case for the risen Jesus, I recommend Richard Bauckham’s book, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” or the free documentary “The Jesus of Testimony.” Or, for an introductory course in Christian evidential apologetics, I recommend Josh McDowell’s “More Than a Carpenter.”