04/06/2007 11:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Mystery of the Real Jesus (Part 3)

It's surprising that our own times should see such an intense search for the real Jesus. Long ago Christianity settled upon the mystical Jesus, who rose from the dead and will reappear on Judgment Day, as the focus of belief. The flesh-and-blood Jesus became secondary to the spiritual supremacy of the risen Christ. The current craving to establish hard physical evidence for Jesus' existence speaks to the crumbling of old dogmas but also the weakening of faith. Scholars have put the cart before the horse, wanting a flesh-and-blood man to validate faith rather than the reverse, relying on faith without the need for materialistic validation. Many Christians, however, still cling to their faith. This leads directly to a new argument.

Argument #3: Historical evidence is irrelevant. The real Jesus exists in disembodied form.

Pro: To any Christian who strongly values theological tradition, there is no need to use history to support the existence of Jesus. Spirituality isn't meant to be materialistic, and in fact is about truths that cannot be understood from a strictly rational perspective. Christ is timeless, beyond history. The Second Coming will bring history to an end, and Christ will reveal the supreme truth of his mission on earth. With the resurrection of Jesus the flesh-and-blood man was transformed into completely divine substance--the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit is transcendent, Jesus must be found not on earth but in the kingdom of God. He is a fact of the soul, not of archaeology.

Con: Faith can be neither proved nor disproved. Once you take a completely mystical or ideal view of Jesus, the rules of historical research are irrelevant. This is an argument that offers no compromise with skeptics and scholars who try to unearth evidence of the real Jesus. Of course, to take such a position means that the mind of the believer becomes divided. On one side is Jesus's miraculous world, where God can do anything and physical laws of nature obey his will. On the other side exists the material world, where God doesn't intrude and the physical laws of nature dominate.

In the past, believers were much more comfortable with such a divided reality. Today the two poles have pulled even farther apart, and the internal politics of the church--especially the conflict between fundamentalism and more liberal interpretations of the bible--have forced Christians to ask, Is Jesus part of a miraculous world or not?

If the answer is yes, then Jesus becomes a unique person--as the New Testament claims he is--the one figure in history who defeated death and can legitimately claim a relationship to God that no one else enjoys. If the answer is no, then Jesus is demoted to a position much less unique; he becomes one of the world's great spiritual teachers. Today the latter position has a strong following, especially among nominal Christians who don't want to be trapped by rigid articles of faith. Even the most sympathetic and willing believers tend to waver. They love the mystical Christ, they have no intention of denying him. But they retain a lingering desire to see him as a real human being and not just as disembodied spirit