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July 20th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Reza Aslan: Why I write about Jesus

Opinion by Reza Aslan, special to CNN

(CNN) - When I was 15 years old, I found Jesus.

I spent the summer of my sophomore year at an evangelical youth camp in Northern California, a place of timbered fields and boundless blue skies, where, given enough time and stillness and soft-spoken encouragement, one could not help but hear the voice of God.

Amid the man-made lakes and majestic pines my friends and I sang songs, played games and swapped secrets, rollicking in our freedom from the pressures of home and school.

In the evenings, we gathered in a fire-lit assembly hall at the center of the camp. It was there that I heard a remarkable story that would change my life forever.


Two thousand years ago, I was told, in an ancient land called Galilee, the God of heaven and Earth was born in the form of a helpless child. The child grew into a blameless man. The man became the Christ, the savior of humanity.

Through his words and miraculous deeds, he challenged the Jews who thought they were the chosen of God, and in return he was nailed to a cross. Though Jesus could have saved himself from that gruesome death, he freely chose to die.

Indeed, his death was the point of it all, for his sacrifice freed us all from the burden of our sins.

But the story did not end there, because three days later, he rose again, exalted and divine, so that now, all who believe in him and accept him into their hearts will also never die, but have eternal life.

For a kid raised in a motley family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists, this was truly the greatest story ever told. Never before had I felt so intimately the pull of God.

In Iran, the place of my birth, I was Muslim in much the way I was Persian. My religion and my ethnicity were mutual and linked. Like most people born into a religious tradition, my faith was as familiar to me as my skin, and just as disregardable.

After the Iranian revolution forced my family to flee our home, religion in general, and Islam in particular, became taboo in our household. Islam was shorthand for everything we had lost to the mullahs who now ruled Iran.

My mother still prayed when no one was looking, and you could still find a stray Quran or two hidden in a closet or a drawer somewhere. But, for the most part, our lives were scrubbed of all trace of God.

That was just fine with me. After all, in the America of the 1980s, being Muslim was like being from Mars. My faith was a bruise, the most obvious symbol of my otherness; it needed to be concealed.

Jesus, on the other hand, was America. He was the central figure in America’s national drama. Accepting him into my heart was as close as I could get to feeling truly American.

I do not mean to say that mine was a conversion of convenience. On the contrary, I burned with absolute devotion to my newfound faith.

I was presented with a Jesus who was less “Lord and Savior” than he was a best friend, someone with whom I could have a deep and personal relationship. As a teenager trying to make sense of an indeterminate world I had only just become aware of, this was an invitation I could not refuse.

The moment I returned home from camp, I began eagerly to share the good news of Jesus Christ with my friends and family, my neighbors and classmates, with people I’d just met and with strangers on the street: those who heard it gladly, and those who threw it back in my face.

Yet something unexpected happened in my quest to save the souls of the world.

The more I probed the Bible to arm myself against the doubts of unbelievers, the more distance I discovered between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history – between Jesus the Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.

In college, where I began my formal study of the history of religions, that initial discomfort soon ballooned into full-blown doubts.

The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant.

The sudden realization that this belief is patently and irrefutably false, that the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions — just as one would expect from a document written by hundreds of different hands across thousands of years — left me confused and spiritually unmoored.

And so, like many people in my situation, I angrily discarded my faith as if it were a costly forgery I had been duped into buying.

I began to rethink the faith and culture of my forefathers, finding in them a deeper, more intimate familiarity than I ever had as a child, the kind that comes from reconnecting with an old friend after many years apart.

Meanwhile, I continued my academic work in religious studies, delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar. No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text.

Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him.

The Jewish peasant and revolutionary who challenged the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever known became so much more real to me than the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church.

Today, I can confidently say that two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity has made me a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than I ever was of Jesus Christ.

I have modeled my life not after the celestial spirit whom many Christians believe sacrificed himself for our sins, but rather after the illiterate, marginal Jew who gave his life fighting an unwinnable battle against the religious and political powers of his day on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed – those his society deemed unworthy of saving.

I wrote my newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" in order to spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that I once applied to spreading the story of the Christ.

Because I am convinced that one can be a devoted follower of Jesus without being a Christian, just as I know that one can be a Christian without being a follower of Jesus.

Reza Aslan is a bestselling author and a scholar of religion. This article was adapted from his newest book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." The views expressed in this column are Aslan's alone.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Church • Jesus • Opinion

soundoff (4,311 Responses)
  1. No one

    I await the day all the catholics or christians sit down together and figure out which jesus they follow, or believe in, or whatever they do with him. Alternatively, I wait for them to have a war amongst themselves to decide that, just leave the rest of us out of it.

    July 22, 2013 at 4:26 am |
    • lol??

      That's patient of you, thanks.

      July 22, 2013 at 4:50 am |
  2. C Murdock

    Shouldn't this Religion blog, which is part of a news site, be ABOUT religion and not be PROMOTING religion? I'm not a Christian OR a Muslim, and I don't care to see a religious point of view being promoted here.

    July 22, 2013 at 4:26 am |
    • myweightinwords

      Then maybe you shouldn't be visiting the "Belief Blog"?

      July 22, 2013 at 10:01 am |
  3. philwood1961

    A valuable article and interesting for all of us who follow Jesus, without necessarily accepting every pronouncement of a later creed or council. Whilst I'm mindful warnings of Arianism, orthodox commentators have their share of difficulties. What do we make of a Cosmic Christ, constricted to the service of Christendom? There is much to be said for that vision from early Acts, before the Jesus Movement became 'Christianity'. It has made me a literal follower of the 'The Way': http://radref.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/theogeography.html

    July 22, 2013 at 4:08 am |
  4. mark wood

    The work of Holy Spirit from the first century till today prove the Jesus is true and alive.
    Without Holy Spirit no one can understand the teachings in the Bible, and not able to live a Christian life.

    Jesus said :“If you love me, obey my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you."

    " When the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you."

    July 22, 2013 at 3:38 am |
    • Ernest T Bass

      @mark wood

      "The work of Holy Spirit from the first century till today prove the Jesus is true and alive."

      A ghost of your imagination proves absolutely nothing. You are confusing myth with reality.

      July 23, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  5. Harry

    Don't much care for gods or supernatural beings of any sort, not so much. The arrogance involved in believing in a soul is incomprehensible to our followers. Eternal life? Stupid is as stupid does. Your gods are pathetic in a very small way and your Jesus character is far removed from love incarnate.

    July 22, 2013 at 3:36 am |
  6. John

    The Catholic Faith is true. It is not a "book" religion. It was founded by Christ on Peter and the Apostles. The CHURCH is the pillar and ground of the Truth and it endures to this day just as promised by Christ in Matthew 16:18. This unfortunate fellow was right to reject "evangelical" "Christianity" as it is a sort of half-religion, bereft of the Eucharist and all the other realities established by Christ for his true followers. Be not deceived. It is all real, and there is one place to access it. Everything else is a half-truth, a distortion of the truth, or an outright lie.

    July 22, 2013 at 2:49 am |
    • Athanasius

      Word up.

      July 22, 2013 at 3:26 am |
    • Peter

      So are you saying that if we don't follow the teaching of the catholic church we shall not receive our salvation and will all burn in hell?

      July 22, 2013 at 5:09 am |
    • Ernest T Bass

      Bullcrap! "truth" requires evidence and you have none for god.

      July 23, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  7. John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt

    What is the difference between god and Santa Claus? One is a giant among all living beings, has a cheerful and sunny disposition, and brings joy and hope to all 7.1 billion persons on this planet.

    The other is god.

    July 22, 2013 at 2:37 am |
    • Ellie

      Not for Jewish kids 😦

      July 22, 2013 at 3:08 am |
      • fintastic

        There's Hanukkah Harry

        July 23, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  8. tara

    Reza,
    Jesus – any way you take Him – wasn't illiterate. Most Jewish boys were taught to read Hebrew at an early age, with rigorous training in the synogogues. He wasn't really marginal either, but rather a respected rabbi who had many thousands of followers. I understand that you are examining the faith tht was handed to you, but it doesn't help anybody when you just replace it with your own made-up version of truth.

    July 22, 2013 at 2:32 am |
    • miscreantsall

      Tara……not exactly.

      Thousands?…..that's debatable. Respected and revered? Not really. He was more dismissed at first and later feared (hate follows after fear).

      If anything, he was considered a cult leader and a trouble maker during his short life.

      July 22, 2013 at 2:47 am |
      • tara

        Actually many thousands. Look it up.

        July 22, 2013 at 2:48 am |
        • I wonder

          tara,

          Look it up? Where?... other than the unverified legends from a handful of late first century evangelists?

          July 22, 2013 at 3:21 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      "own made-up version of truth"

      Considering that nothing was written about jesus until 30-40 years after he supposedly died, it would be quite reasonable to say that the stories you believe to be true are nothing more than embellishments.

      July 22, 2013 at 5:53 am |
    • G to the T

      Tara – you are confusing the ability to read, with the ability to write (illiterate). They were taught as 2 different skills in those days. Many more poeople could read than could write (it was considered a specialist skill).

      July 24, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  9. Epidi

    "The bedrock of evangelical Christianity, at least as it was taught to me, is the unconditional belief that every word of the Bible is God-breathed and true, literal and inerrant."

    This is why all book religions turn me off and scare me somewhat. They have similar grains of truth in life running thru them but are surrounded by fundamentalist inspiring rot because they are to be taken so literally in the book's entirety which is full of metaphors & allegory taken out of context by the mentally ill.

    July 22, 2013 at 2:15 am |
  10. Athanasius

    Arianism isn't new. It is spiritually profitable to understand the human nature of Jesus. But to deny his divinity renders him a liar. He explicitly claims to be God, and that is why the Pharisees wanted him dead.

    Like I said this isn't new. Jehovah's Witness, Mormans, Muslims, and this author all deny the divinity of Jesus. But they are children of Arius of the 4th Century.

    Why does this get prominent coverage on CNN's belief blog? This is not news, this is a rehashing of an old idea. This author, like many others, is trying to domesticate Christ. He claimed to be God. Either he is a liar, a lunatic, or he is God. This mushy middle appeals to the modern mind because it is palatable. If Jesus is not God, then I don't have to change my life. If he isn't God, then frankly, why bother with a liar?

    July 22, 2013 at 2:09 am |
    • miscreantsall

      He does NOT claim to be God, ever! Your words are wrong and a direct result of poor translations of the Bible, errors in punctuation, omissions of words and replacement of other words.

      He claimed to be the SON OF GOD (Jehovah, Yaweh…….however you want to spell it).

      Does he insinuate that he is sent to be man's teacher and leader (Lord?)……yes. Does he insinuate that he is God's (Jehovah's) representative………..yes. But, he never claims to be GOD.

      It is further explained in the bible that his former existence in heaven, at his father's side, was Michael (his name in heaven).

      July 22, 2013 at 2:56 am |
  11. allenwoll

    .
    Beginning of Story : Some agency created the Universe : / . . . . / : End of Story.
    .
    The rest is rank speculation.
    .

    July 22, 2013 at 2:00 am |
  12. christy

    If non believers loved the Gospel of God becoming man and dying on the cross for our sins, then the authors of the New Testament would be liars. As it stands St. Paul said that the Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. So I plead, please don't choose to perish. 😦 Repent and believe so you can live.

    July 22, 2013 at 1:52 am |
    • TimK

      I really don't know what it is with CNN, but I check the webiste every day for news, and there's always some story about "irreligion". Why is CNN obsessed with the atheist and agnostic agenda? Who on their staff is trying so hard to prove a point? Annoying and far from objective.

      July 22, 2013 at 1:57 am |
      • Truth Prevails :-)

        In case you missed it, this is a belief blog. CNN has various parts to them. If you're looking for news, try the section that deals with it.

        July 22, 2013 at 5:56 am |
    • Athy

      How can I repent when I haven't yet pented?

      July 22, 2013 at 2:51 am |
      • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

        Now I'm tenting thinking of you penting!

        July 22, 2013 at 6:09 am |
  13. mark wood

    People can study the Bible in their whole life but never know God , because they don't know Jesus personally. They only have the information about Him.
    Jesus said : “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life." “Your approval means nothing to me, because I know you don’t have God’s love within you. For I have come to you in my Father’s name, and you have rejected me. Yet if others come in their own name, you gladly welcome them. No wonder you can’t believe! For you gladly honor each other, but you don’t care about the honor that comes from the one who alone is God."

    July 22, 2013 at 1:40 am |
    • Greg

      And all of you guys who are in a "relationship" with Jesus agree 100% on everything about him, I suppose? Give me a break!

      July 22, 2013 at 1:49 am |
      • Peter

        Tell me Greg, what is your belief in life? How happy and satisfied are you in your life?

        July 22, 2013 at 5:21 am |
    • fintastic

      Mark, you believe a myth to be reality... you have no evidence for the exsistence of god... only your imagination and delusions......wake up.

      July 23, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  14. arayik1991

    Very interesting article, while there is so much more to think about...

    July 22, 2013 at 1:38 am |
  15. relationships

    jesus teachings – gun ownership- stand your ground- provide no health care to the poor- republican agenda

    July 22, 2013 at 1:36 am |
  16. rangelw1

    Reza Aslan is an intellectual that has a lot of knowledge on religion. However, how does someone as bright as him thinks that our planet in 2,000 years old? It is absurd to think that a man died on a cross for the sins of humanity! And what is worst, this sacrifice occurred long before I was born, and according to Aslan, I have to take part in this sacrifice! If I don't take part in it I will be punished forever. The late Christopher Hitchens was on target when he said: "distrust any primate who claims to know the answers to the questions we have and cannot have answers for. Its an insult to our integrity as a species to believe in the absurd propositions Mr. Aslan brings up in this annoying article.

    July 22, 2013 at 1:15 am |
  17. Maani

    There is a critical error in Ms. Aslan's thinking. Christianity is composed of two separate but related parts, based on the belief that while our physical bodies live for a short while, our soul is eternal. In this regard, the first part is about how we live during the ~90 years our physical bodies exist. For this part, we are taught to live "Christ-like" lives, based on the 11 precepts of His ministry: love, peace, forgiveness, compassion, humility, patience, selflessness, service, charity, justice and truth. Thus, you have the first part right: it is about who Jesus of Nazareth was.

    However, the second part is about what happens to our souls once we die: i.e., salvation and redemption. And salvation is based on Paul's saying that, "If thou shalt profess Jesus with they lips, and believe in they heart that God raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." This is based on Jesus' own words that, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me," and His comment, "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it."

    Thus, with regard to salvation and redemption, living a Christ-like life in the temporal world is not enough. One must also accept Jesus as exactly who He said He was.

    For those believers who suspect Ms. Aslan's words, I offer the following:

    "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables."

    Peace.

    July 22, 2013 at 1:04 am |
    • Bippy the new lesser to medium level judging squirrel god

      How true. Paul cooked up the salvation paradigm, which had no part of the teaching of Jebus. in fact Hebrew did not even believe in immortality. Nether did Paul, except for the saved. The entire "immortal soul" business got cooked up a lot later.
      Jebus, as a good Jew would not have believed in immortality.

      salm 39 :
      "Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again,
      before I depart, and am no more"

      Psalm 115 :
      The dead do not praise the Lord,
      nor do any that go down into silence".

      Psalm 6 : "For in death there is no remembrance of you, in Sheol, who can give you praise ?"

      Yawheh lived in heaven. Humans did not go there. Sheol was not hell.

      July 22, 2013 at 1:26 am |
    • Athy

      C'mon, people. It's all a bunch of baloney. Get real.

      July 22, 2013 at 2:57 am |
  18. Alan

    Reza Aslan assaults Christianity, which is fine whoever wants to do it as we are a free society, but what are his views about speaking out in such depth against islam? He says nothing about the evils of Islam in present day. Says nothing about the Taliban, Boko Haram, the shooting of Malala Yousufzai etc etc.. Instead he goes after the peaceful religion. When one ignores the violent, and makes remarkable studies to destroy the peaceful.. what do you say to that?

    July 22, 2013 at 12:59 am |
    • Observer

      “Whoever does any work on a holy day: put to death”
      “anyone who blasphemes: stone him.”
      “worship other gods: stone the guilty ones to death”
      “stubborn and rebellious son: stone him to death.”
      “man is found lying with a married woman: both of them shall die”
      “virgin engaged to another man and he lies with her: stone them to death”
      “Whoever strikes his father or his mother: put to death”
      "Anyone who says cruel things to his father or mother: put to death.”
      “anyone who curses his father or his mother: put to death”
      “man who commits adultery with another man's wife: they shall be put to death.”
      "man or woman who is a medium or a fortune-teller: stone them to death"

      From the Quran? Nope. From the Bible

      July 22, 2013 at 1:02 am |
      • DaveLake

        But believers will simply ignore sections of the bible-or the entire Old Testament. Since god must have visited billions of new worlds I am surprised he was so violent at first with Earth. After a billion tries-you would think he would get it right at the start.

        July 22, 2013 at 1:31 am |
        • Observer

          DaveLake,

          Yep. It looks kind of bad when the first human baby killed the second human baby.

          July 22, 2013 at 1:40 am |
      • christy

        Ooh!! I can do this too 😀 😀

        1. Is she an inconvenience for you? Go to a clinic and have her skull smashed and her body vacuumed out of you.
        2. Is she in a 'vegetative' state (even though she laughs and cries)? Take her food away and starve her to death for a couple of weeks.
        3. Does he have Down Syndrome? Go to a clinic and have his skull smashed and his body vacuumed out.
        4. Are they Arabs in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time? Fly a drone over them and kill 'em!

        July 22, 2013 at 1:47 am |
      • seriously

        most of the mtv generation would be stoned to death then

        July 22, 2013 at 2:02 am |
    • SusanStoHelit

      "goes after"?

      He is looking for the truth, the reality. That is hardly "going after" a religion – it should be what your religion is about. If you have to hide from the truth, then what are you following?

      July 22, 2013 at 1:08 am |
  19. LFP2012

    “I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I - nor would I want to - conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egostim, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with a devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

    –Albert Einstein

    July 22, 2013 at 12:51 am |
    • DaveLake

      Albert Einstein was about twelve years old when he realized religion was a myth. This saddened him as he loved singing many of the songs he learned at Sunday School. However his intellect could not be denied-religion was struck from his mind as a viable explanation of reality- both seen and that which cannot be observed.

      July 22, 2013 at 1:06 am |
      • Larry Homes

        What "Sunday School" would the Jewish Einstein ever have gone to as a boy?

        July 22, 2013 at 1:40 am |
      • christy

        Lol. Jews don't have Sunday School. Nice try though.

        July 22, 2013 at 1:55 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.