It is true that fictional stories have the power to awaken consciences and inspire action. Satires, like Animal Farm, can teach us about certain truths in a way that a textbook never could. However, when we make fiction the governing principle of our lives, we label it insanity at worst and quirky at best. Think of the person whose life revolves around playing video games or dressing up like movie characters. There is nothing inherently wrong with video games or movies, but they are certainly not worthy of our deepest loyalties. The power of fiction lies in its ability to creatively and, at times, subversively highlight truth which exists in the real world. That power is lost when we confuse fact from fiction.
In the nineteenth century, many biblical scholars began to toy with the idea that some of the Bible is simply fiction. They weren’t referring to the parts of the Bible that were intended to be read symbolically, such as parables, poetry and apocalyptic literature. These biblical scholars looked at a scriptural character like Abraham and said that he was “simply Israel’s projection of its ideal self into the unknown past” (B.W Bacon, 1860-1932). These sentiments were not so slowly transferred to the New Testament as well. Scholars of the twentieth century essentially said: If Jesus was a real person, the historical Jesus has been lost and replaced with the theological Jesus of the New Testament. Christianity, then, became nothing more than a fictional tale with kernels of profound truth, like any other good fiction. Is this a Christianity that ought to organize, inspire, and instruct our entire lives? B.B Warfield, reflecting on this fictional Jesus, once said, “How dreadful to have only an imaginary Savior and an imaginary salvation.”
Many evangelical Christians believe that they have avoided the kinds of problems described above. They go to Bible-believing churches, after all. They hold to the truthfulness of Scripture! Yet, many evangelicals, while paying lip service to the “literal approach to the Bible,” nonetheless live their lives as if Jesus were nothing more than an idealized version of themselves. The Jesus of evangelicalism has become indistinguishable from the fictional Jesus of the preceding paragraph. Evangelical Jesus is merely an idealized human who inspires us to “be all that we can be.” The evangelical Jesus motivates and spurs us on, but he doesn’t truly demand anything of us. The evangelical Jesus is worthy of our occasional reflections, but not of our entire lives.
The worship services of many evangelical churches portray this very reality. Churches may as well promote their services this way: Come and receive nuggets of ethical advice while being emotionally stirred and surprisingly entertained! If Jesus and his ministry is simply a fiction, then we can practice this kind of truncated Christianity and engage in this kind of self-serving worship. But if the Jesus of the New Testament is non-fiction, then we are dealing with a far more transformative kind of Christianity. We are dealing with a Christianity where God truly interacts with and exerts authority over our world.
This non-fictional Jesus entered into our world and lived a life of perfection, conforming to the standards of God’s character, so that we might know God. He died on a wooden cross, upon Golgotha, to rid us of our sins. His feet left this ground as he ascended to heaven and sat down in victory over death. This Jesus will return, in the flesh, to bring about a resolution of all things. This Jesus is the God-man who calls us to follow him by faith. Indeed, this Jesus demands our very lives!
*B.B Warfield (1851-1921) remains one of America's greatest theologians and defenders of "non-fictional Jesus." In his selected shorter writings, Warfield addresses some of the issues raised above in his article entitled "How to Get Rid of Christianity."