At our church, last Sunday’s sermon — which was on a few verses in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:17-24) — made the point that we should not think ourselves unworthy of salvation because of shame for our past sinful behavior. It was noted in this context that it is unlikely that many of us could point to past sins as bad as those of St. Paul himself, who, after all, persecuted and even helped kill early Christians.
That point was further discussed at our small group meeting this week, and so was another point made in the sermon, namely that, while nonbelievers can dispute the existence of God and veracity of the Bible, for example, it is much harder for them to dispute the fact that acceptance of Christ can turn someone’s life around.
And it occurred to me that these two thoughts can be combined: What a powerful witness Paul was, and should still be, because of his own personal history. This post will elaborate on that.
Indeed, Paul’s life presents us with an apologetics possibility along the lines of C.S. Lewis’s well-known “trilemma” argument for the divinity of Christ. Lewis famously argued that, when Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, He must have been either a liar, a lunatic, or truly the Lord. Lewis then explained that the first two are not really plausible, and so we are left with last. Now consider Paul’s conversion. He said that Jesus appeared dramatically to him while he was traveling to Damascus to continue his persecution of Christians — and, of course, after this experience he certainly did stop persecuting Christians and instead became probably their most committed and energetic missionary.
A vision like the one Paul had is not one that could have been just a mistake, thinking you saw something out of the corner of your eye when, it turns out, you didn’t. What’s more, it is generally very hard for people to admit that they have been completely wrong about something that has been an important project in one’s life. As Tolstoy said, ““I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.” And I’ll add that a God-fearing Jew would not lightly start saying things that, if false, were positively blasphemous.
Now, back to the trilemma. Why would Paul lie about having had this experience? He gained no riches, no life of ease — rather, as a result of his conversion, he worked hard, endured privations, suffered mightily, and was ultimately beheaded. So did he simply lose his mind? Well, like them or not, his letters are not the ravings of a madman. And his many followers and colleagues, who included other intelligent people like James, Peter, Luke, and Barnabas, suggest that he was not perceived as a lunatic either.
We are left, again, with just one choice to consider: That on the road to Damascus this fellow Paul really experienced was he said he did.
Note that, though it is most dramatic and pronounced in Paul’s case, much of something like this is true for other early Christians as well. That is, the other apostles also seemed to have had little reason to lie (indeed most of them, too, suffered and died for their belief and, as Jews, would not not lightly blaspheme), nor did they seem crazy or delusional. We are left with the likelihood that they indeed witnessed a profoundly wise, miracle-working Son of God, and then the risen Christ.
And let me just ask in passing whether it is nearly so difficult to conceive of Mohammed as a liar or lunatic or combination of the two. As I say, just asking.
In other ways, too, Paul brought unique assets to his ministry. Elsewhere on this blogsite, in discussing a biography of him, I noted “my own tongue-in-cheek observation about Paul, namely that he was the world’s first neoconservative: brilliant in speech and text, an outspoken intellectual, not one to suffer fools gladly, a good fundraiser and organizer, and of course a Jew who switched sides — not for personal gain, but because he saw the truth.” Besides his energy and intelligence, and an educational background that taught him how to argue effectively, Paul’s knowledge of Judaism and familiarity with anti-Christian arguments must have been invaluable when he spoke at synagogues to make converts, as well as when he defended himself from Jewish attacks.
We often see in the Bible that God chooses to work through very unlikely people. At first blush, Paul would seem to be another one of them. But in another way Jesus’ appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus can be readily understood instead as simply a brilliant stroke. His conversion achieved at once two important ends. First, it removed a serious threat to the early church. There were of course other Jews in Palestine eager to attack the church, but one senses that Paul was among the foremost. Second, it brought into the church a man with talents that in retrospect were, if not indispensable, certainly invaluable to the spread of its Gospel.
Smart guy, that Jesus! It’s as if the Catholic Church had, before the Reformation really got going, succeeded in hiring Martin Luther to be the new pope. Or something like that.
God might also have reasoned that Christianity would need more Scripture to supplement the old Hebrew Bible. Some of it would simply recount the ministry and teachings of Jesus, but there would also need to be exposition of how the Messiah’s coming had changed what people were to believe and do and not do. That exposition would logically need to be written by a Jew who had become a Christian — and, what do you know, that describes Paul and he provided precisely that in his letters. Those letters make up about a quarter of the New Testament; another quarter, as it happens, was written by Paul’s traveling companion Luke; so half the New Testament was written by Paul and a protege.
Finally, to return to the thought that began this post: People then and now might look to Paul’s conversion and say to themselves, “Well, if that guy of all people could become a Christian, then I can, too.”
When we read about the life of St. Paul, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the messenger is the message (or at least part of it).