When his atheist friends asked W. H. Auden why he jettisoned his atheism for Christianity, he said: “I believe in Jesus because he fulfills none of my dreams.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
Enter most any church today and you’ll be told the exact opposite. At the very least, the message given is that Christ will remove the hardships you have in life, and in some cases, the line delivered is that Jesus wants you rich and in perfect health from top to bottom.
Sounds pretty dreamy to me.
After all, didn’t Christ say: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest … For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28,30). And didn’t John write, “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health” (3 John 1:2)?
Yes, they did. But maybe what Jesus meant was relief from the Law plus all the extra weight the religious leaders added to it, plus freedom from sin and its consequences. And maybe John’s words reflect a common greeting of the day for things generally going well, which is what the Greek term used for “prosper” literally means.
That being the case, let’s return to Auden’s statement about believing in Jesus because He isn’t a dreamboat. What’s that about?
Luckily, he gives us a little more clarity with his follow up statement: “He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.” What Auden means is simply this: Jesus is the God you can’t make up.
Not a copycat
There was a time when historically illiterate people asserted that Jesus was an invention of the ancient world. For example, in their book The Jesus Mysteries, authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy wrote, “Why should we consider the stories of Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, Mithras, and the other pagan mystery saviors as fables, yet come across essentially the same story told in a Jewish context and believe it to be the biography of a carpenter from Bethlehem?”
Well, let’s first start with a statement from one of the best 20th century scholars on the subject, Dr. Bruce Metzger: “Today no competent scholar denies the historicity of Jesus.”
Next, it’s good to remember that Freke and Gandy’s inspiration came from now discredited writers such as the controversial figure Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) who put forward a series of widely-disputed works nearly 200 years ago arguing that Jesus never lived. His work was picked up by Albert Kalthoff (1850-1906) who followed Bauer’s extreme skepticism about the historical Jesus and went so far as to claim that Jesus never existed and was not the founder of Christianity. After Bauer and Katlhoff came James Frazer who wrote a work entitled “The Golden Bough” where he argued the theory of widespread worship of dying and rising fertility gods in various places.
However, as always happens when questionable theories meet a brutal gang of facts, their assertions have been thoroughly rejected by modern historical scholarship.
Finally, the New Testament also puts such false claims to rest with its narratives. The Bible tells us that the people of Jesus’ day didn’t think He was the same-old-same-old type of false Greek and Roman gods.
Instead we read: “‘He [Paul] seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’— because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean’”(Acts 17:18-20, emphasis mine).
This is why C. S. Lewis, who was a literature professor at Oxford and Cambridge, said: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [Gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage … or else, some unknown writer … without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative two thousand years ahead of when it happened. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.”
No, Jesus was something entirely new. And that “newness” is more than most people can bear, both back then and today.
A Jesus with hard edges
When asked how Jesus differed from Buddha, Confucius, and Muhammad Auden said, “None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry ‘Crucify Him’.”
What Auden is articulating is the same thing spoken of by Aristotle. Hundreds of years before Christ, Aristotle was asked what would happen if a perfect man was introduced to a society. He responded by saying the man would be killed because his beauty and goodness would painfully highlight the imperfections of everyone else.
This is the Jesus of the Bible — One with hard edges. His sinlessness eventually evoked explicit hatred or silent disgust with the vast majority of those around Him, which is why He warned, “Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me” (Matt. 11:6).
Moreover, He doesn’t seem as welcoming as some would have you believe, at least not in the extreme liberal sense. He calls us evil (Matt. 7:11), says we aren’t worthy of Him if we don’t hate everyone else by comparison (Luke 14:26), and tells those opposing Him they’re headed for Hell (Matt. 23:33).
No wonder Scripture states, “He was despised, and we did not esteem Him” (Is. 53:3) and why Auden says that our fallen hearts cry out for His crucifixion.
So, I ask you — does this sound like a God you’d make up? Hardly. As R. C. Sproul said, no one invents a God like this because He’s far too traumatizing: “For there is nothing in the universe more terrifying, more threatening to a person’s sense of security and well-being than the holiness of God … Left to ourselves, none of us would invent the God of the Bible, the being who is a threat to our sense of security more primal and more fundamental than any act of nature.”
This is why W. H. Auden believed in Jesus and said He is the opposite of what his fallen dreams could conjure up. Instead, He’s the God who is so contrary to what we’d want on our own, He has to be real.
Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.