You Do Not Have a Personal Relationship With Jesus Christ

Jesus sculpture

In evangelical Christian circles, it is common to hear the claim that one has a "personal relationship" with Jesus. And yet, anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of what "personal relationship" means recognizes that this cannot be the case. Of course, that is not to say that some evangelical Christians do not believe that they have such a relationship or that they would somehow less good Christians if they were to admit that they do not actually have such a relationship. I'm sure some do struggle with that. But nobody has such a relationship, so we're all equal in that regard.

How can I make such a bold claim when I don't even know you? You know, that's not a bad question. Here is a quick preview of the points I will make below:

  1. Even if it could be proven beyond doubt that the Jesus character described in the Christian bible was based on a real historical person, this person would have died over 2,000 years ago.
  2. There is only one way an individual can meaningfully be said to have a personal relationship with a deceased person.
  3. The "personal relationship" you have with a deceased person is fundamentally a relationship you have with yourself.

Let's get started.

The Historical Jesus

I admit that the existence of a historical Jesus is not particularly relevant in terms of evaluating your claim that you have a personal relationship with him. I've included this one only to remind you that there are a few problems with the claim that a historical Jesus existed. First, there is little evidence to suggest that any such person ever lived. Second, and this is far more important, much of the evidence that should be there if such a person lived when and where he is claimed to have lived in the Christian bible is not present. That is, if such an individual has lived and had done many of the things Jesus was described as doing, it would have been reflected in contemporaneous records like other important events; it was not. Third, and most important of all, any historical figure that may have existed and formed the basis of the Jesus character is long dead.

Wait a second! What leads me to say that the existence of a historical Jesus isn't relevant in evaluating your claim that you have a relationship with him? If we could all know with absolute certainty that a historical Jesus existed, how would that not be relevant? If there was a historical Jesus, that person has been dead for a very long time. And as we know, dead people do not come back to life. That's why I say that the existence of a historical Jesus has little relevance here.

One Cannot Have a Relationship With a Dead Person

Anyone who has lost someone close to them knows what it means to have a relationship with a deceased individual. It often feels like we do have such a relationship. And yet, I think most of us understand that the "relationship" is not a relationship at all but a remembering of the individual and our own feelings about them. This is the only way one can meaningfully claim to have a relationship with a dead person, and there is nothing supernatural about it. We are remembering them; they are not interacting with us.

It is not uncommon for someone who has lost a loved one to hear the person's voice or even see them from time-to-time. But once again, this is not a relationship. This is simply an example of what our minds can do. The person is not "out there" somewhere but in our own minds.

Jesus is no different. It is natural for believers to report feeling that they are interacting with Jesus, but those without schizophrenia generally recognize that the interaction is occurring in their own minds. This may be interpreted as a spiritual experience, but it isn't a personal relationship with another party.

Your Relationship With Jesus is a Relationship With Yourself

The relationship you think you have with Jesus may be important, and you may even derive some benefits from it. However, it is not Jesus that you have a relationship with but your idea of Jesus. You have synthesized everything you've been taught about Jesus from your family, your church, your bible, and your culture into a concept of Jesus that is similar to that of others but not quite identical. In this sense, religious worship is a form of self-love.

The good news is that this makes you part of an even larger whole than you may have previously recognized. What we have described here is something that all humans do, including persons of all religious faiths and even atheists. You may attach religious labels to this while we do not, but really, we're all in this together. We are all on the same journey, struggling to understand ourselves, our worlds, and the interface between the two.

So no, you do not have a personal relationship with Jesus. Nobody has relationships with long dead (or fictional) people. Instead, you are a human facing the same struggles we all face and coping the best you can. Do not fear this; celebrate it.

This post from 2010 was revised and expanded in 2021.