It’s late one night in the Louvre art gallery in Paris. The curator, Jacques Sauniere, is suddenly held up at gunpoint. His attacker believes he’s part of a group hiding a secret that, if published, could destroy Christianity. The secret is that Jesus was not the Son of God., but that the church invented that belief hundreds of years later. The secret is that Jesus was in fact a mere mortal, that he was married, and that he had a child whose family line survives to this day. But Jacques Sauniere refuses to tell his attacker anything, so he’s shot and left for dead. But before he dies, he leaves a set of clues to enable his grand daughter Sophie to find out what he knows. And to cut a 593 page book short – or a 2½ hour film – The Da Vinci Code is the story of how Sophie discovers the secret. She’s helped by two other characters, both academica, who lend the whole story the air of expert credibility. And one of whom tells her: ‘Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false… [It’s] the greatest cover-up in human history.’ And in case you hadn’t noticed, the book’s sold over 30 million copies and the film has just opened.
Well, from time to time we have services like this when we make a special effort to invite folk to come and give Christianity a first or second thought. And if you saw an invitation, you’ll know it posed the question, ‘Holy Bible or Dan Brown – who do you believe?’ Or to put it another way: Is Christianity fact or fabrication?
Now let me say that I don’t pretend to know what Dan Brown himself believes - except that his website makes it clear he’s not a Christian. So I’m going to talk about ‘what The Da Vinci Code claims’. Because what Dan Brown has done – whether or not he believes it himself - is to take a radical, anti-Christian theory and weave it into a novel. But he’s done so in a way that implies that it’s factual at many points where it’s not. That’s because in his preface he writes:
All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.
But as we’ll see, that’s far from true.
Now if this was a conversation, I guess many people today would stop me at this point and say, ‘But does it matter whether or not you can know what really happened back then? Can’t you just believe the Christian faith anyway, if you find it helps you?’ To which the answer is: no - because the Christian faith rests on facts. Eg, if you ask me why my faith is that there is a God, my answer rests on the fact that 2000 years ago, his Son came into the world as a man - Jesus. Or, if you ask me why my faith is that there’s life after death, my answer rests on the fact that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. So if those facts were shown to be false, I’d have to abandon the Christian faith that rests on them. Or be living a lie. (I could of course believe that there was a God and that there was life after death for purely subjective reasons - because that’s what I wanted to believe, because I felt it ‘must be true’, because it helped me cope with life – but that’s not Christian faith. Christian faith believes those things for objective, factual reasons.)
Actually, in the story, once Sophie’s discovered that Christianity is a lie, she asks one of the other characters why he’s happy to keep it secret. After all, she says, people believe the Bible to be reality. But he says, ‘Living in that reality helps millions… [to] cope and be better people.’ Which is very 21st century, very postmodern: ‘If it helps you, if it ‘works for you’, then believe it - even if it’s a lie.’ But you can’t build your life on what you either know is a lie, or strongly doubt. And that may be where you are this morning. It may be you’d like to believe in the God of the Bible, but you doubt it – or hear so much doubt cast on it – that you can’t.
So is Christianity fact or fabrication? I’ve got one main thing to say and then three questions to ask. So first, the main thing to say is this:
WE MUST CHOOSE WHO TO BELIEVE AND WHY
My concern is not that people will read the book or see the film, but that they won’t think about it critically. But we must be critical and choose who to believe and why. That applies to everything we hear or read – including this sermon. And it applies to every area of life. Eg, in the childhood running battle between my brother Niall and I, my parents were constantly having to choose who to believe and why. Eg, I remember smashing a window during a stone-throwing fight, and then telling them, ‘Niall did it’. That was my bit of history-telling and pure fabrication. But they had the sense to know you shouldn’t believe every piece of history-telling - and they got to the truth behind it.
Now, The Da Vinci Code isn’t denying that Jesus existed. But it is implying that the Bible’s history-telling is fabrication. And that the truth behind it is very different. So let me sketch what The Da Vinci Code claims. It claims that Jesus was just a man – he wasn’t the Son of God and never claimed to be – and that he was married to Mary Magdalene. Next, the earliest Christian writings about Jesus were not the ones in the Bible but some things called the Gnostic Gospels (eg, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary – both quoted in the book and the film). Then, 300 years after Jesus, the church changed its story. It created the writings we’ve now got in the Bible, to put across its new belief that Jesus was the Son of God. And it tried to suppress those early writings so that we’d never know the truth. But unluckily for the church, a secret society kept some of them, and has passed them down the centuries. That’s the theory that Dan Brown has woven into The Da Vinci Code. But it’s far from the truth.
So let me now sketch the truth of the matter. The earliest Christian writings about Jesus are in fact the ones we have in the Bible – in the New Testament (NT) part of it. And they were written between the years AD50 and 95 (possibly earlier but I don’t want to claim too much.). Eg, John’s Gospel, which we’ll look at later, was probably written about the year AD85. And from the very earliest NT writings – just 20 years after Jesus – Jesus is believed to be the Son of God.
So The Da Vinci Code is totally wrong about the Bible. It was not created 300 years after Jesus as a result of the church changing its story. And it’s totally wrong about those Gnostic Gospels on which this anti-Christian theory is built. For a start, they were in fact written between the year 150 and 400 - way after the NT. For another thing, they don’t portray Jesus as a mere mortal – they talk about him being divine. And nowhere do they say he was married. That theory is built on two bits which talk about Mary Magdalene’s close relationship to Jesus. But they’re unlikely to be historical, written so long after the events - and even if they are, you have to twist them to imply anything sexual, or about marriage.
Now that’s just a sketch of how the theory woven into The Da Vinci Code is false. (If you want to read more on that, I recommend the booklet on our bookstall: The Da Vinci Code: a response by Nicky Gumbel.) But if you do rule out The Da Vinci Code theory as unbelievable, where do you go from there to work out what you should believe? Particularly, how do you work out whether you should rule in the Bible’s version of things?
Well, common sense says: if you want to find out what really happened, start with the witnesses who were closest to the events. That doesn’t necessarily make them truthful (remember my stone-throwing fabrication). But it does mean there’s less chance that the truth has been lost - in Tom passing it on to Dick, who passes it onto Harry, who then writes it down 150 years plus after the events. So common sense says: start with the earliest witnesses – in this case, the people who wrote the Bible.
But then there are three different approaches we can take to any witnesses. At one end, we can be totally gullible – ie, believe everything. At the other end, we can be totally sceptical – ie, disbelieve everything. And I think The Da Vinci Code may well breed that kind of atmosphere of total, or near-total, scepticism. But the wise thing is to be in the middle – to be critical – open to the possibility that something’s true, but thinking carefully before either believing or disbelieving. So for the rest of the time, I’m going to invite us to take that approach to part of the Bible. So would you turn in the Bibles to John’s Gospel and chapter 20.
What’s in your hands is an English translation of something originally written in Greek about the year AD85 (possibly earlier). It was written by one of the Twelve apostles – ie, one of the eye-witnesses who was with Jesus – almost certainly, the apostle John. Jesus has been crucified, died and been buried. And John 20 is the account of how three days later, his tomb was found empty and he was seen alive again from the dead. Have a look at 20.19:
19On the evening of that first day of the week [ie that first Easter Sunday], when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" [This is 48 hours after his death by crucifixion.] 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. [Ie, the marks of that crucifixion.] The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. (vv19-20)
But one of them was missing. So skip to v24:
24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve [apostles], was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!"
But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it." (vv24-25)
So he’s certainly not gullible. But nor is he totally sceptical. He’s open to believe but demanding the strongest possible evidence. Which is understandable, because over the past three years, he’d trusted Jesus an awful long way, and it had just ended - so he thought – with the trauma of Jesus being crucified on the charge of being a deceiver. So he wasn’t easily going to trust what he was now hearing. And maybe you’re quite like him. Maybe some experience has seriously damaged your capacity to trust anything or anyone. Or maybe you feel you tried Christianity once, but whatever Christians promised didn’t seem to happen for you. Or maybe you know religious people with apparently blind, unthinking faith and you fear that Christianity is like that – and certainly don’t want to become like that yourself. Well, look onto v26 where Jesus provides the evidence Thomas needs:
26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." (vv26-27)
We’re not told whether or not he did actually touch Jesus’ resurrected body. But he is finally convinced that it’s real, and that this man whom they’d seen crucified and killed has come out the other side of death. And since, in Thomas’s thinking, only God has that sort of indestructible life, v28:
28Thomas said to him [Jesus], "My Lord and my God!"
29Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (vv28-29)
So how is it possible to believe without having seen with your own eyes? Read onto v30:
30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you [ie, you who didn’t see it with your own eyes] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (vv30-31)
So Thomas believed because he saw the evidence with his own eyes. We can believe because we have the same evidence on paper in the Bible. And that’s why The Da Vinci Code claim is so serious. Because if the Bible is fabrication, then Jesus is not our rightful Lord and God, he can’t forgive us through his death on the cross, he can’t put us right with God and he can’t give us any assurance through his resurrection that there is a heaven and that we’re going there.
So that’s the main thing to say: we must choose who to believe and why. Then briefly, here are my three questions.
QUESTION 1: WILL YOU READ THE BIBLE?
If you think there’s even a chance that the Christian message could be true, will you read the Bible so you can decide for yourself?
Now what a lot of people say to me at this point is, ‘But the trouble is: the writers were biased. Eg, John was biased. He was a committed Christian. So how can you trust him to tell the truth?’ The assumption behind that is virtually that biased people can’t tell the truth. But that’s not true. Eg, I am obviously biased. I believe the Christian message is true for everyone, and that everyone needs to hear it. Because when Jesus said, ‘I am the way the truth and the life; no-one comes to [God] the Father except through me,’ (John 14.6) I believe him. Now I agree that bias could lead me to twist the truth to make what I’m saying more believable. Eg, I could have said John’s Gospel was written much earlier than the year AD85 - to make it sound more credible. But I didn’t, because it may not be true. I could have said the apostle John was certainly the author of this Gospel, but we don’t know that for certain, so I didn’t, because it may not be true. The point is: if you’re biased, you can still tell the truth. And to say, ‘John was biased so I won’t read him’ is an attitude we wouldn’t apply to anything else. After all the BBC is biased but we still watch and listen. The Times, Telegraph, Guardian and so-called Independent are all biased, but we still read them. But we do so critically.
So that’s my first question: will you read the Bible? On the Welcome Desk near the main door, and on the piano at this door, you’ll find free copies of Mark’s Gospel – the shortest one, a mere 53 small pages after the 593 of The Da Vinci Code. You could read it through two or three times in the time it would take you to see the film. And one thing I often suggest to people is to take one of the Gospels, read it through and underline everything you find unbelievable. And then take those things to a Christian you know and ask them why they believe it. In fact, we run a short course here that helps people do that. It’s called Christianity Explored, it meets in small groups and it’s based on Mark’s Gospel. And the idea, over seven weeks, is to read through a bit of Mark’s Gospel each time, to come with questions, to watch a brief video and then to talk about anything and everything you’d like to. There are details in our Christianity Explored leaflet (or go to our website, www.church.org.uk and click on Christianity Explored).
So will you read the Bible? Some people are reluctant because they already strongly suspect it’s untrue. And that might be you. And I fear The Da Vinci Code may add to the number like that. But others are reluctant for the opposite reason: they suspect it is true and that, if they looked into it, it could lead them to believe in Jesus with all the change in their lives that would bring. And that might be you. And if so, you’re right to think that’s where reading the Bible could lead. Look down again to John 20.31, where John is refreshingly open about his bias and his agenda:
31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, [but it doesn’t stop there – just reaching a conclusion about certain facts; read on:] and that by believing you may have life in his name [ie, may make a new start in life in relationship with God]. (v31)
Ie, John is writing with the aim that people will become Christians through what he writes. So imagine that becoming a Christian is like crossing a bridge from one side of a river to another. We all start out on the far bank, saying, ‘Jesus is not my Lord and my God. I want to live my own way. And I can’t possibly make that ‘leap of faith’ onto the other bank (where people, like Thomas, say, ‘Jesus is my Lord and my God’).’
And then some Christian friend or family member or colleague or book or local church makes you think. And you discover that faith is not a ‘leap’. It rests on facts – on evidence for your mind. And you begin to move part-way across the bridge to the point of saying, ‘I believe it’s true.’ But that doesn’t make someone a Christian, yet. Reading and listening and talking may have changed their mind. But then there’s the second part of the bridge to cross – the will. So my second question is:
QUESTION 2: WILL YOU TRUST IN JESUS?
If you do take up the challenge to look into the Bible, that’s the question that will face you sometime down the tracks. And for some of us here, that may be where you’ve got to now. You believe the Christian message is true, but you’ve not yet taken that step of the will - of coming to Christ and trusting in him yourself. That may be because you’re not sure how to – in which case, can I encourage you to take away the booklet Why Jesus? from the Welcome Desk, which explains that step. And again, if that’s the stage you’re at, Christianity Explored would be a great thing to join.
But the point is: becoming a Christian isn’t just reaching a conclusion in your mind. It’s going on from there to putting your trust in Jesus and like v31 says, to ‘have life in his name’. We talk about someone being ‘the life and soul of the party’ – ie, they’re the person who really makes it go; it’s a disaster if they’re uninvited and not there. And the Bible takes the view that God is the life and soul of life, and that life doesn’t really ‘go’ without him. And our fundamental problem is that we’ve turned away from him. Which is why we have that sense that he’s distant and, worse still, that he’s not pleased with us - which he’s not. And the Bible says that only serious forgiveness for all we’ve done wrong can put us right with him. And that’s precisely why Jesus came to die on the cross and rise again – to pay off the judgement we deserve, to pay the price of our forgiveness.
So thinking again of that picture of crossing the bridge from being out of relationship with God to being in - there’s nothing on God’s side stopping us coming across. Thanks to the death of the Lord Jesus, he can forgive anyone anything. There are no road blocks saying, ‘No entry. You’re too bad. You’re unforgivable.’ What stops us is whether we’re willing to come across – willing to admit we’re in the wrong and need forgiving; and willing to accept Jesus as Lord of our lives. And that’s very hard for our proud and independent wills.
So will you read the Bible? If you do, down the tracks you’ll face the question: Will you trust in Jesus? But my last question is this:
QUESTION 3: CAN YOU TRUST YOURSELF?
We love to think that, like the characters in The Da Vinci Code, we’re spiritual detectives, ready to go wherever the evidence leads. But I want to ask gently: is that really true? A Christian friend of mine once tried to encourage someone who wasn’t a Christian to read one of the Gospels. And this person replied, ‘Look, I’ve never read the Bible, but I’ve made up my mind. So please don’t try to confuse me with the evidence.’ Which makes the point. We’re not as neutral and objective as we think, are we? In fact, until we’ve actually crossed that bridge to relationship with God, deep down we don’t want Jesus to be Lord, we don’t want to admit we’re in the wrong living without him, or to face the changes he’ll bring. So we all have a big vested interest in the Bible being false and things like The Da Vinci Code being true.
So while the Da Vinci Code is out there and questioning whether we can really trust the Bible, let me leave you with the question that hardly ever gets asked. Can you trust yourself? Can you really trust yourself - to look at the evidence honestly, and to go where it leads, when you know it might lead you to surrender your life to Jesus as your Lord and God?
The Da Vinci Code: a response, Nicky Gumble, Alpha. A short tract, a good summary of the issues and good to give to an inquirer.
Why Trust Them? My leaflet on ‘The four Gospels: who wrote? When? Can we trust them?’ JPC Welcome Desk.
David Holloway’s Coloured supplements October 2004 and May 2006 (available on this website)
Da Vinci: A Broken Code, Brian Edwards, Day One. A longer booklet which goes into more detail than Nicky Gumbel’s.
The Books the Church Suppressed, Michael Green, Monarch. On authorship, date, canon and manuscript transmission of the NT.
Is it Worth Believing? Greg Clarke, Matthias Media. Covers the basic issues plus more on why The Da Vinci Code is so plausible/attractive to people.
The NT Documents: Are They Reliable?, F.F.Bruce, IVP. The classic on dating, authorship, manuscript transmission and canon.
The Essence of Feminism, Kirten Birkett, Matthias Media. (Because The Da Vinci Code touches on feminism and alleges that the church has largely been negative in its stance towards women and sexuality.)