Tuesday, December 21, 2010

When the Transcendent Fills the Ordinary

I will soon write my post on the resurrection appearances of Jesus, but first I wanted to post something more appropriate for the season. The above video has been watched almost 25 million times on YouTube. Water Russell Mead wrote the following in his blog post, "The Kingdom of God in a Food Court":
To hear this music in that place, and to see this spontaneity breaking forth in the midst of life at its dullest, most routine is to see what the Gospel really is.  Just as the Hallelujah Chorus erupts into the food court, changing everything, Jesus was born into the dreary history of a defeated people while his parents were fighting the seasonal crowds in Bethlehem like shoppers hunting for a table in the food court of an overcrowded mall.
When the miracle happens, the ordinary life of ordinary people is transformed.  This solid and often dull world of work and worry suddenly moves onto a new plane: infinitely richer.  We look up — not in duty or obligation or in moral resolve — but in sheer, surprising joy.
The juxtaposition of the ordinary and the transcendent is a recurring theme in the Gospel. We have this heavenly treasure in jars of clay, says the Apostle Paul--just like the blessed Virgin Mary, a humble girl who was chosen to bear the Messiah. When the King of kings came to live among us, He was born in a stable among the animals, and the glory of the Lord lit up the night for a group of shepherds as a multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed the good news that a Savior had been born for them (Luke 2:11).

He was born for them--and for us--ordinary people who experience the prosaic drudgery of human existence, like shepherds working the night shift. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: "God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them." Like in a food court.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Skeptical Response to the Resurrection: The Empty Tomb

View ImageThe resurrection of Jesus is supported by three pillars: the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances, and the birth and growth of the church in the face of severe persecution. In order to undermine the historical support for the resurrection, a naturalistic theory has to explain all three in a way that is scientifically and psychologically viable and not excessively ad hoc.

A greater assortment of sledge hammers have been taken to the empty tomb than either of the other two pillars, but even so, most critical scholars accept its historicity. Jewish scholar Geza Vermez concludes: "But in the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike . . . are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb."

But some skeptics try to characterize the story of the empty tomb as legend, so I will start by addressing the historicity of the empty tomb.

Is the empty tomb a legend? Skeptics argue that, unlike 1 Corinthians, the Gospels were written by anonymous authors at least thirty years after the death of Jesus, so enough time passed for legendary embellishment to develop. But there are three major reasons why the empty tomb is not a legend:

First, according to the late historian of ancient Rome and fellow at Oxford, A. N. Sherwin-White, "even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition." And with respect to historical reconstruction, he says that "we are seldom in the happy position of dealing at only one remove with a contemporary source." But the first Gospel was written while many of the original eyewitnesses were probably still alive. So that is not enough time for legend to have replaced the historical core of the stories of which the Gospels are composed.

Sherwin-White is one of a number of historians who have confirmed the historicity of the book of Acts "even in matters of detail." And he concludes that the reason why the "degree of confirmation in Graeco-Roman terms is less for the Gospels than for Acts is due, as these lectures have tried to show, to the differences in their regional setting. As soon as Christ enters the Roman orbit at Jerusalem, the confirmation begins. For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming" (italics added). So because of the regional setting of most of the Gospel stories, we cannot directly confirm their basic historicity in the way that we can the book of Acts. But since Acts is by all appearances "no less of a propaganda narrative than the Gospels, liable to similar distortions," there is no reason to think that the Gospels are less historical.

Second, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul recites a creedal formula which most scholars, including skeptics like Gerd Lüdemann, date to within a couple of years of the death of Jesus, and in it he says, "and that [Jesus] was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:4). Paul's statement (and by extension, the statement of his predecessors shortly after the death of Jesus) that Jesus was raised on the third day implies that the tomb was empty because otherwise the creed could not have said that Jesus was raised on the third day. If a body remained in the tomb or rotted in a common grave, the day of his resurrection would have been unknown.

The words "according to the Scriptures" do not help here because Hosea 6:2, the Old Testament reference, would be too subtle unless Paul knew of the empty grave on the third day. Hosea 6:2 says "He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him." Unless the early church knew that the tomb was found empty on the third day, it would be too much of a stretch to say that this verse is a Scriptural reference to the day of the resurrection.

This further undermines the theory that the empty tomb was a legend, since the early Christians would have preached it from the very beginning.

Third, critical scholars employ historical criteria to determine whether parts of the Bible are true, and two of them are the criterion of multiple attestation and the criterion of embarrassment. The criterion of multiple attestation is met because the story of women finding the tomb empty is told in each of the four Gospels. (And of course they were not originally part of a compilation labeled the "New Testament." They were the earliest and most reliable documents about Jesus.)

The criterion of embarrassment is met because the male disciples fled in fear after Jesus was arrested, while women, who had virtually no status in first century Palestine, and were not considered reliable witnesses, stayed and went to pay their last respects to Jesus. They were the star witnesses to the empty tomb, something that the authors would be very unlikely to fabricate.

Someone suggested in a previous thread that Mark invented the empty tomb to fill in a gap in his story of what happened to Jesus, and that 16:8 was Mark's way of explaining why the story of the empty tomb had not been told earlier. ("They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.") That is, the "unreliable" women who said nothing were a later invention. However, the context indicates that the women were only silent temporarily because they were terrorized by their experience. In Mark 16:7 the angel tells them to go tell Peter and the other disciples, and in Matthew, Luke, and John they do exactly that. Most likely Mark just left that part out and instead focused on the women's state of mind immediately after their encounter with the angel.

Numerous theories have been put forth over the years of natural explanations for the empty tomb, and I will briefly mention the major ones:

Did the disciples steal the body? Matthew 28:11-15 says that a story of the disciples stealing the body of Jesus circulated among the Jews. Although we don't have independent corroboration that first century Jews made this arguments (but I'm aware of modern Jews who have been given that explanation growing up in Jewish schools), it is unlikely that Matthew invented this, since he brought it up for the purpose of refuting it. If another argument had been widespread among the Jews at the time, why did he not focus on that on instead?

This argument concedes the empty tomb because if there was some way of denying that the tomb was empty in the first place, the detractors of Christianity would have taken that approach. They could have produced a body, argued that the body was one of many in a common grave, or claimed that the story of the empty tomb was invented later. But instead of denying the empty grave, they chose to explain it away.

The stolen body hypothesis has been rejected by modern critics because the disciples would not have been willing to die for a known lie. Something changed the followers of Jesus from doubting cowards to courageous proclaimers of the Gospel who were willing to die for their faith.

Did Jesus not really die? This was a popular hypothesis around the beginning of the nineteenth century, but like the stolen body theory, it has been almost completely abandoned by modern scholars. It states that Jesus did not fully die on the cross and recovered in the tomb. This hypothesis has major problems. First, since Jesus was at least severely wounded from the crucifixion, there is no way He could have removed the stone covering the entrance to the tomb, so the apparent death theory has to be in part conspiracy theory. Second, as the very liberal scholar David Strauss argued, how did a half-dead Jesus stumble into a meeting of His doubting and fearful disciples and encourage them with the news that He had conquered death and someday they would have a body just like His? Third, numerous studies show that medically there is no way He could have survived the crucifixion. Skeptical Jesus Seminar co-founder John Dominic Crossan has stated that the fact that Jesus died by crucifixion is as sure as any fact could ever be.

Did the women visit the wrong tomb? This hypothesis, put forth in the early twentieth century, says that the women lost their way to the tomb and ended up at one that was unoccupied. A caretaker said to them, "You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here," and the women were so unnerved that they ran off without hearing the rest of the explanation. When the disciples started talking about appearances of the risen Christ, the women embellished the story into the account found in Mark.

This hypothesis never took off in large part because it cherry picks certain parts of the Gospel account and dismisses others without giving good justification. And it doesn't explain why nobody, including the Jewish leaders, ever set the record straight.

Did Joseph of Arimathea remove the body from his tomb? One hypothesis states that Joseph was not a follower of Jesus, but that Joseph placed Jesus in his rock-hewn tomb in observance of the Jewish laws that a body had to be buried within 24-hours and that burial was prohibited on the Sabbath. Since Jesus died shortly before the start of the Sabbath (from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday), there was no time to dig a grave. Joseph temporarily stored the body in his tomb, and then removed it after the Sabbath. The women later discovered the tomb empty.

There are several problems with this explanation: First, since Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin and a devout Jew, why did he not announce what he had done when the early Christians began proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead? He could have done much to nip the movement in the bud. Second, if Joseph had taken the body, there is no reason to think that the followers of Jesus would have concluded that He had risen. According to John 20:2, Mary Magdalene immediately assumed that someone had taken the body of Jesus. Third, Joseph must have removed the body after sundown on Saturday and before dawn on Sunday, which is when the Gospels tell us the women arrived. Why did he not wait until daylight before he removed the body? If he was not sympathetic to Jesus, it seems reasonable that he would remove the body, but it makes no sense that he did it after dark and that he failed to later announce what he had done.

Every naturalistic explanation of the empty tomb has serious problems, and even if they can be overcome, another major hurdle remains: the appearances of Jesus as the risen Christ in such a convincing way that his followers--including those who started out as skeptics--were willing to sacrifice their lives for their faith. The subject of my next post will be the skeptical response to the appearances of Jesus.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An Invincible Unbelief?

View ImageA few months ago, I spilled a glass of water on my daughter's book. I quickly wiped it off and put it down to go clean the area where I spilled. But when my daughter came to look for it later because she needed it for school, it was gone. We searched everywhere to no avail, so I just bought her a new book. It never reappeared, and at this point I would be surprised if it ever does. 

How could that book have completely disappeared? Did the water have magical properties? Do we have a gnome infestation? That thought has occurred to me a few times when socks go into the laundry chute and never, ever make it out. Maybe the book went the way of those socks, whose partners have taken up permanent residence at the bottom of the clean laundry basket in the hopes that they will someday return.

But enough about my laundry woes, the point here is that in spite of my speculation, I know that we don't have gnomes. I also know that the water did not make the book disappear. In fact, I know that even if the book never shows up there's a natural explanation for its disappearance. I have an invincible unbelief in gnomes and magic water and I believe that to be a rational position.

I used the words "invincible unbelief" because during a debate between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas on the resurrection of Jesus, they agreed on the relevant historical facts, but Flew said that he had an almost invincible unbelief in the resurrection because it was so wildly different from our experience of how the universe functions. Flew agreed with David Hume's argument against miracles in the article "Of Miracles," which states, in a nutshell, that no matter how improbable a naturalistic explanation, a miracle is even less probable. Hume defines a miracle as a violation of the laws of nature and argues that experience is proof against them.

There are several problems with Hume's argument. First, the definition he gives of a miracle is a poor one. A better definition is the one given by J. L. Mackie: "The laws of nature . . . describe the ways in which the world--including, of course, human beings--works when left to itself, when not interfered with. A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it." That definition is not theologically precise, but it works for the purposes of this discussion.

The example I gave about gnomes stealing my daugther's book or water causing it to disappear would be a violation of the laws of nature in that the universal laws would suddenly not apply. However, the resurrection would be a miracle according to Mackie's definition because God raised Jesus from the dead; this was not simply a violation of the laws of nature, but an intrusion from beyond nature.

This distinction is significant because it is reasonable to believe that the laws of nature are constant. If they were not, the universe would be incomprehensible to us and science would be impossible. We know from experience that the laws of nature are predictable. However, this does not mean that it is reasonable to have an invincible conviction that nothing exists beyond nature. That is a different question altogether.

Second, Hume's argument may be reasonably applied to the disappearing book, but it is not reasonable to apply it to the resurrection of Jesus, which, if true, would be an argument for a God who exists beyond nature. In other words, if God raised Jesus from the dead, then that is an argument for theism, like the fine-tuning argument, the cosmological argument, and the argument from moral law. The argument is not just that a violation of the laws of nature took place, but that God intervened from beyond nature to raise Jesus from the dead, and He would have to exist to do so. And not only is it an argument for theism in general, but it is an argument for the Christian God.

In fact, I have frequently heard non-believers say that they would believe if they witnessed a miracle. Of course, if God had to perform a major miracle in the presence of every person who ever lived, then miracles would be the rule rather than the exception and therefore not evidence for His existence. Instead, He entered His creation in the flesh and did one major miracle that is supported by historical evidence: He rose from the dead. And His resurrection from the dead is the lynchpin of the Christian faith.

So Hume commits the fallacy of begging the question by rejecting the central claim of Christian theism without even considering the evidence. He dismisses the possibility that we could ever have evidence that a God who exists outside of nature revealed Himself to us within nature by doing something that is normally impossible.

Third, Hume's argument is essentially probabilistic, and it has been refuted by Bayes' Theorem. William Lane Craig explained this in his debate with Bart Ehrman, who used a variation of Hume's argument. Craig sets it up as follows:

Calculating the Probability of the Resurrection:

B = Background knowledge
E = Specific evidence (empty tomb, postmortem appearances, etc.)
R = Resurrection of Jesus
Pr (R/B & E) = ?

As I said before, Hume ignores the specific evidence for the resurrection, and says that the probability of the resurrection is R/B, with B representing our background knowledge about the laws of nature and the likelihood of a violation. Of course the probability is very low, in part because of his definition of a miracle and in part because he does not take into consideration the evidence for the resurrection and the plausibility of naturalistic explanations. Agnostic philosopher of physics John Earman (not to be confused with Ehrman) did not mince words in calling Hume's argument fallacious in his book Hume's Abject Failure.

Since Hume's argument is about the probability of a miracle, Earman and Craig used Bayes' Theorem to refute it. Craig argued that the equation has to look like this:

                                                 Pr (R/B) x Pr (E/B&R)          
Pr (R/B & E) = ____________________________________________
                           Pr (R/B) x Pr (E/B&R) + Pr (not-R/B) x (E/B& not-R)

The numerator is the probability of the resurrection given our background knowledge and the specific evidence for the resurrection. The denominator reproduces the numerator and adds the probability and explanatory power of all the naturalistic explanations. So the lower the probability of those explanations, the higher the probability of the resurrection. But if the naturalistic explanations [Pr (not-R/B) x (E/B& not-R)] are plausible and have explanatory power, then the probability of the resurrection goes down.

If that is not clear, Craig spends more time (and does a much better job) explaining it here.

The point here is not to give a probabilistic value to the resurrection but to demonstrate that Hume's argument is fallacious because he oversimplifies the probability of the resurrection. Instead of dismissing the resurrection as always the least probable, we also have to take into consideration the specific evidence for the resurrection and the probability of the naturalistic explanations, like numerous people--including skeptics--having the same hallucination in different situations and at different times, and being willing to give their lives for the truth of what they perceived.

But even if we ignore the evidence for the resurrection and just go back to the original equation Pr = R/B, then Hume's argument still fails because the arguments for theism in general make the inherent probability of the resurrection greater. If the existence of a God who created ex nihilo is the best explanation for why the universe emerged out of nothing, and an Intelligent Designer is the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe, then the probability that God raised Jesus from the dead increases. So the background knowledge is not just the probability of a violation of the laws of nature--it is the probability that God raised His Son from the dead, and the probability of that increases if the evidence in cosmology points to a Creator. Pr = R/B is affected by the probability of the existence of a Creator.

In the introduction to "Of Miracles," Hume says, "I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument . . . which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures."

Although those of us in the throes of "superstitious delusions" are eternally grateful to Hume for his thoughtful gesture, the problem is that his argument is far too ambitious because it is only useful with respect to true superstition. For example, if I were tempted to plug in my gap of knowledge about the missing book with an explanation like gnomes, then his argument would be a "check" to that kind of a "superstitious delusion." But it tells us nothing about the probability that a God beyond nature would identify Himself to us within nature by superseding its laws, because for Him to be able to do that the laws of nature would have to be predictable in the first place. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus

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In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis wrote:
Early in 1926 [when Lewis was still an atheist] the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. "Rum thing," he went on. "All that stuff of Frazer's about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once."
What does it mean to say that there is historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? It means that historians agree on facts about Jesus that strongly point to His resurrection from the dead. It does not, however, mean that the majority of scholars conclude that Jesus was raised from the dead. They would be at least nominally Christian if they believed that. (And in spite of his off-hand comment, Lewis' friend never since showed any interest in Christianity.)

Over the years, critical scholars have not so much disputed the facts as sought naturalistic explanations, like the swoon theory, the stolen body theory, and the mass hallucination theory. But as we will see in the next post, none of these theories are medically or psychologically plausible, nor do they explain all the facts. Only the bodily resurrection of Jesus explains all the known facts.

These key facts are:

First, Jesus was buried in Jerusalem, in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin.

Second, the disciples lost hope when Jesus was arrested.

Third, the tomb was found empty by a group of Jesus's female followers on the morning of the third day after He was crucified.

Fourth, over a period of time a variety of people had experiences where Jesus appeared to them postmortem, including James, the skeptical brother of Jesus and Paul, the Pharisee who persecuted the church.

Fifth, the resurrection was the central message from the very beginning, and the disciples courageously preached it in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was crucified, willing to forfeit even their lives.

Why do most historians agree on these facts?

The "honorable burial" by Joseph of Arimathea in Jerusalem. Most historians agree that the Gospel accounts are correct about the honorable burial for the following reasons: First, the burial is independently attested in several early sources. Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman acknowledges that "the earliest accounts we have are unanimous in saying that Jesus was in fact buried by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it's relatively reliable that that's what happened."

Second, Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, which means that he was a celebrity at the time. The authors of the Gospels could not have made this up and not been called on it because many people would have known, at the time when the Gospels were written, whether or not it was true. And the Jewish leaders certainly would have set everyone straight if this had been fabricated.

Third, it seems unlikely that the Christians would have made this up. The Jewish leaders are the villains in the Gospel accounts, and the early Christians blamed them for Jesus's death (Acts 7). So how likely is it that the Gospel authors would all agree to fabricate this ironic twist--that a good and honorable Jewish leader would bury Jesus in his own tomb?

The historicity of this fact is significant because it tells us that Jesus was buried in Jerusalem, in the very city where the message of the resurrection was initially proclaimed. So if any body remained in the tomb, the authorities could have produced it and the message would have been disproved immediately. But there is no evidence of any body having been produced. Gary Habermas says, "We certainly would expect to have heard from Celsus, the second-century critic of Christianity, if Jesus' corpse had been produced. When he wrote against Jesus' resurrection, it would have been to his advantage to include this damaging information, had it been available." But neither he nor any of the Christian apologists of the second or third centuries mentioned it.

The disciples' initial doubt and fear. One of the criteria Bible historians use to determine whether an event in the life of Jesus really took place is the criterion of embarrassment. That is, if it is embarrassing and still included, it is most likely true because why would someone fabricate something to make a significant person in the early church look bad? Well, Peter's denial of Jesus makes him look really bad. First we have the initial bravado: "I'll never deny you, even if I have to die for you!" Then after Jesus was arrested, we have the cowardly denial to a servant girl who recognized him. And when they didn't accept his denials, the future St. Peter the great church leader started cursing and swearing: "I do not know the man!"

This story clearly qualifies under the criterion of embarrassment, and it tells us that the budding ministry started to collapse when their Leader died. As Peter demonstrates, the disciples were stricken with fear and began to doubt everything they had seen and experienced. And this incident is told in all four Gospels so it also qualifies under the criterion of multiple attestation.

The discovery of the empty tomb by female disciples. Was the tomb really empty? This is probably the most controversial fact of the five, and even so, William Lane Craig says: "According to Jacob Kremer, a New Testament critic who has specialized in the study of the resurrection: 'By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb.' In fact in a bibliographical survey of over 2,200 publications on the resurrection in English, French, and German since 1975, Habermas found that 75 percent of scholars accepted the historicity of the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb. The evidence is so compelling that even a number of Jewish scholars, such as Pinchas Lapide and Geza Vermes, have declared themselves convinced on the basis of the evidence that Jesus' tomb was found empty." And Bart Ehrman admits, "We also have solid traditions to indicate that women found this tomb empty three days later."

The main reason why most scholars accept the historicity of the empty tomb is because each Gospel account insists that women were the chief witnesses. It is not strictly true that they were not permitted to testify, but they were never called upon as witnesses in important matters. So if the story of the empty tomb was legendary, the male disciples would have almost certainly have been the ones to discover it. There is simply no reason to fabricate such a detail.

Some critical scholars, like Gerd Lüdemann, believe that the account of the empty tomb is a legend, but the canonical passion story is too unembellished to read like a legend. Contrast the understated passion story of the Gospel of Mark to the dramatic non-canonical Gospel of Peter, where a gigantic Jesus emerges from the tomb before a vast crowd of witnesses, including the villainous Roman soldiers and Jewish leaders. Two enormous shining men carry Jesus off in glory as a talking cross follows them. A voice from heaven proclaims: "Thou hast preached to them that sleep, and from the cross there was heard the answer, Yea" (10:41-42). Now that's a legend for you!

A variety of people had experiences, at different times and in different ways, in which Jesus appeared to them postmortem. Scholars are virtually unanimous in their acceptance of this fact. Gerd Lüdemann, an eminent atheistic scholar who has written a book seeking to prove that the resurrection did not take place, has said, "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus's death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ." As I will discuss in the next post, Lüdemann contends that everybody who thought they saw him actually hallucinated. However, for now it is significant that just about all scholars accept this fact, including those who are strongly biased against Christianity.

Why would an opponent of Christianity say that this is historically certain? In the first letter to the Corinthians, written by Paul around 55AD, he says: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also" (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

So at the time when Paul wrote this, there were hundreds of people still alive claiming to have seen the risen Christ and willing to testify as witnesses. Were they all friendly witnesses? No, James the brother of Jesus was a skeptic until He saw Jesus postmortem, and that is when he was converted and became one of the leaders of early church. And, according to Josephus, James and some companions were stoned to death by the Sanhedrin of judges in 62 BC (Antiquities of the Jews 20:200).

Paul himself was certainly no friendly witness. Until his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul was a Pharisee who violently persecuted the church, having been commissioned by the Sanhedrin. "For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions" (Galatians 1:13-14).

So Paul was well-respected among the very people who sought to destroy the Christian movement, but he gave that all up after Jesus appeared to him. Instead of prestige and money, he chose ridicule, imprisonment, and poverty for the sake of the Gospel. Why did he do that? If he had really seen Jesus, he did it for the hope of his own resurrection and the resurrection of others. But if the incident on the road to Damascus never happened, what then could possibly have motivated him?

The resurrection of Christ was the central message of Christianity from the very beginning, and the disciples courageously preached it in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was crucified. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul sets forth the creed that he received, "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." This is an early creedal formula that most critical scholars believe Paul received in 35 AD, during his visit to see Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion (Galatians 1:18). So within five years of the resurrection, the beliefs of the early church had been formulated into a creed and passed on to Paul. German historian Hans von Campenhausen says of the dating of the creedal formula: "This account meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text." However, this does not mean that the creed was formulated as late as 35 AD; it simply means that it already existed at that time.

It is well established that the early church flourished in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was crucified and buried. If the tomb had not been empty and the Sanhedrin had produced a body--any body--it would have significantly weakened the movement if not disproved the claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But the early Christians boldly proclaimed the resurrection in Jerusalem, willingly facing torture and death for their conviction.

Those historical facts have stood immutable as a rock in spite of many attempts to explain them away. Did Jesus not really die? Did the disciples steal the body and conspire to deceive? Did everybody who thought they saw the resurrected Christ hallucinate? Were people in first century Palestine so superstitious and ignorant of science that they readily believed that someone could be raised bodily from the dead?

The last point was raised in the comments to the prior post, so I'll reply to that here. In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N. T. Wright said that the idea of a bodily resurrection was considered impossible among the pagans. They might not have been very scientific (and they may have believed in ghosts), but they knew that dead people stayed dead. Wright says: "Not even in myth was it permitted. When Apollo tried to raise a child from the dead, Zeus punished them both with a thunderbolt." In 1 Corinthians 1:23, Paul says that the Gospel is foolishness to the Gentiles, and that is probably because they had no belief in the possibility of a bodily resurrection of the dead. In Acts 26:24, the Roman governor Festus accuses Paul of being out of his mind when he tells King Agrippa about the resurrection. The Jews, on the other hand, believed only in a resurrection at the end of time, and they had no concept of a dying and rising Messiah.

The skeptic who rejects the resurrection will have to propose an alternative explanation for the evidence, and I will elaborate on some of them  in the next post. Lüdemann has argued that those who believed they saw Jesus really hallucinated, a problematic hypothesis given the nature of hallucinations. Bart Ehrman relies on David Hume's argument that the supernatural is inherently the least probable explanation, but that argument has been refuted using Bayes' Theorem. And Anthony Flew admitted, in a debate with Gary Habermas in 1993, that he had an almost invincible unbelief in the resurrection because it seemed to him so "wildly inconsistent with everything else that happens in the universe."

Flew is right that the resurrection is wildly inconsistent with everything we know; people have always known that dead people stay dead. But that is precisely why it would be logical for the Creator of this ordered universe to reveal Himself to us in that way, as a miracle within His original miracle--creation itself.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Did Jesus Really Exist?

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No serious contemporary historian questions the historicity of Jesus, and that includes skeptical scholars like John Dominic Crossan, Gerd Lüdemann, and Bart Ehrman, so this may be a redundant post. But a few atheists--like Dan Barker and Christopher Hitchens--have publicly disputed His existence. So for the sake of completeness, I will briefly state some of the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus's existence.

First century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions Jesus twice in Jewish Antiquities:
At this time there was a wise man called Jesus. And his conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.
The original version had unfortunately been interpolated later to include questionable phrases like "if it would be lawful to call him a man," and "he was the Christ." However, the above translation is of the Arabic version, which was found without the interpolated parts. It has been translated by Schlomo Pines, professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The second mention of Jesus by Josephus is as follows:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. 
Jesus (Yeshu) also appears to be mentioned in the Jewish Talmud, in Sanhedrin 43a:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.
This tells us several things: First, this Yeshu was accused of practicing sorcery, which sounds like a derogatory characterization of the miraculous. It is also consistent with Luke 11:15, which says that some of the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.

Second, he "enticed Israel to apostasy." This indicates that he had a strong following among the Jews and that he taught something the Jewish leaders disapproved of and labeled "apostasy."

Third, he was hanged on the eve of the Passover, just like Jesus. The word "hanged" was also used for crucifixion, in the sense that someone was hanged on a cross.

Wikipedia adds the following: "In the Florence manuscript of the Talmud (1177 CE) an addition is made to Sanhedrin 43a saying that Yeshu was hanged on the eve of the Sabbath." So this Yeshu was hanged on the eve of the Sabbath and on the eve of the Passover, just like Jesus in the Bible. It is rare for the Passover and the Sabbath to fall on the same day; for example, in the twentieth century it only happened ten times.

Fourth, the herald that went out before the hanging said that Yeshu was to be stoned, which was the penalty for blasphemy. However, he was not stoned--he was hanged.

Although the Talmud does not mention Pontius Pilate, Cornelius Tacitus, one of Rome's greatest historians, does. He wrote in his Annals about the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, which had been blamed on the emperor Nero, and explained:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City [Rome], where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.
Some skeptics have claimed that this part of the Annals was a forgery added later by Christians. But most scholars have concluded that the passage was written by Tacitus, including the skeptical Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, who said, "Tacitus's report confirms what we know from other sources, that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sometime during Tiberius's reign."

Pliny the Younger described more persecution of the early Christians in his lettters to Trajan around 110 AD:
In the meantime, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved punishment. 
Lucian, a second century Greek satirist, wrote:
The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day--the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account . . . You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.
Second century philosopher Celcus, an opponent of Christianity, wrote a book about the Christians in which he said that Jesus was a sorcerer. In other words, in his effort to discredit Christianity, he unwittingly affirmed that Jesus did perform extraordinary works, because rather than denying them, he explained them away.

These and numerous other sources indicate that Jesus really existed. There is simply no dispute about that among historians. In fact, atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann has written a book in which he explicitly tries to disprove Christianity by arguing that the resurrection never happened, but not only does he concede that Jesus existed, he also says that there is no question that Jesus actually died on the cross, and that his disciples "had experiences after Jesus's death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ."

In the next post I will discuss the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. And in the following post, I will discuss the response of skeptical scholars.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Evidence for the Supernatural?

Wolfgang asked an interesting question: "Do you think that two intellectually honest people can arrive at contradictory conclusions?"

Of course it is possible to honestly reach different conclusions if the evidence is inconclusive, but the interesting question is whether it's possible when the evidence strongly supports a particular conclusion. I think it is possible when people start with presuppositions.

For example, Answers in Genesis (AIG) presupposes that the Bible clearly teaches a recent creation and they therefore interpret scientific evidence in a way that supports that conclusion. (However, many Christians, including St. Augustine who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, reject that presupposition and hold that the Bible says nothing about the age of the earth.) AIG maintains that everyone has presuppositions, and that there is nothing intellectually dishonest about them.

Is it intellectually honest to have presuppositions? Well, it is a form of question-begging because the presupposition itself determines our conclusion. So if the highest level of intellectual honesty is an honest search for truth, then any presuppositional bias undermines it. However, I would not say that presuppositions are necessarily a sign of intellectual dishonesty because they are so common. As Winston Churchill said, "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened." But although presuppositions are common, they keep us from engaging honestly with the evidence.

Skeptical Bible scholars tend to presuppose that the supernatural is impossible. And if a Bible scholar starts out with the presupposition that nature is all that exists, then of course it follows that it would be impossible for God to raise Jesus from the dead because that would be a supernatural act. Any natural explanation, no matter how tenuous, would then be preferable.

For example, atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann maintains a priori rejection of the supernatural and yet he says, "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus's death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ." Although he accepts the historical evidence he concludes that the best explanation for it is that everybody who thought they saw the resurrected Jesus actually hallucinated. Peter hallucinated because he was overcome by grief for denying Jesus, Paul hallucinated on the road to Damascus, James the skeptical brother of Jesus hallucinated, and all the five hundred who saw Jesus at one time hallucinated.

As I'll discuss in a future post, this hypothesis betrays a lack of understanding of hallucinations, but the question is whether, based on my limited mind-reading abilities, I think that conclusion is intellectually dishonest. Although I disagree with Lüdemann's presuppositional bias, I think that his inability to believe in the supernatural is sincere. He started out as a liberal theologian who didn't accept the supernatural, and he became an atheist when he concluded that it is not possible to be a Christian and not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think that decision was an honest one. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14, the resurrection of Christ is the bedrock of Christianity, and if it didn't happen, our faith is in vain.

But I think it would have been even more honest to question the presupposition that the supernatural is impossible, because there is no logical reason to conclude that. We only assume that a person cannot rise from the dead because we have never heard of a medically documented case. Dead people stay dead--at least if they've been dead for over two days.

However, that is an empirical conclusion, not a logical one. The fact that the laws of nature are predictable tells us nothing about whether anything exists beyond nature. We are like the primitive person from a tropical climate who doesn't believe that it is possible for a lake to be solid. And of course it is impossible in a tropical climate, but not in parts of the world where the temperature drops below freezing. The conclusion that water can never be solid is an empirical one that only holds true if the temperature never drops below freezing. Sub-zero weather adds a contingency that negates the conclusion that water is never solid.

In the same way, what is true within our space-time is not necessarily true beyond it. Lüdemann objects to miracles because they're unscientific, and since science depends on the predictability of nature, it is certainly true that miracles are unscientific. But since science cannot explain why the natural laws on which it depends exist in the first place, this doesn't mean that miracles are logically impossible--it means that the explanatory power of science is limited.

But if we left it at that, we could just as easily believe in pink unicorns; there is no reason to believe something just because it's logically possible. However, it is rational to believe something if it is the best explanation for the evidence given the context, particularly if there is no viable alternative explanation.

And what is the context? John 1:14 says, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The Greek word translated "Word" is "Logos," which means "reason," "rationality," "order," or "word." John tells us that Jesus is the transcendent, creative Mind that became flesh. He existed in the beginning, and everything came into being through Him.

The laws of physics break down at the Big Bang singularity, so speculation as to what caused it goes beyond the reach of science into metaphysics. The predictability on which the scientific method depends comes to an abrupt end at the beginning of time. We know nothing of a beyond, so a naturalistic cause is not inherently more parsimonious than a supernatural First Cause.

If anything, an eternal, immaterial, transcendent, and all powerful Mind is the simplest explanation that explains the scientific evidence without the need for further assumptions. If this universe consists of all nature, then the Creator would be supernatural; if the Big Bang marked the beginning of time, then the Creator would be eternal; and if the universe is all matter, then the Creator is immaterial. This fits what we know about the universe and explains what we don't know. Unless we assume as a premise that nothing exists beyond nature, it is the most parsimonious explanation.

So in the context of this Grand Miracle--an ordered universe emerging from nothing--we ask ourselves whether it is reasonable to conclude that the power behind this universe also has power over death. And if that power is a Mind, then He certainly does.

But we don't have to accept anything on blind faith; we just have to examine the historical evidence carefully and reach an honest conclusion. In the next posts, I will examine facts that have been widely accepted by historians, and I believe the best explanation for those facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How Independent Were the Four Gospels?

In the previous post, I said: "The four Gospels agree on the important details"

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John on the Isle of Patmos
And Clamflats replied:

There is a bank robbery. Four tellers are interviewed by investigators. At the trial, the investigators state, “The four witnesses agree that the bandit wore a red shirt and black pants.” The defense attorney asks the investigators if they interviewed the tellers independently or as a group. I think you'd agree that independent corroboration should be considered more potent and that a group interview brings in questions about groupthink errors, such as, one teller remembered the clothing and the other three agree with him. Don't biblical scholars agree that the Gospels show signs of having some common source? I believe it is known as Q. And given the time difference between the events and the documentation, should we at least suspect that a number of the “important details” had already been accepted?

The three synoptic Gospels--Mark, Luke, and Matthew--include the same stories, often in the same sequence, but the Gospel of John is different. Scholars believe that Mark is the earliest Gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke, and then John.

The reason why scholars have hypothesized a Q source is because Matthew and Luke contain material that doesn't exist in Mark, and the idea is that Q is a collection of sayings and quotations by Jesus. However, they are not entirely happy with that hypothesis because it seems unlikely that such an important document would have been entirely lost and never referenced. 

But for the purpose of answering your question about groupthink, I'm going to focus on Luke and John. Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles to "the excellent Theophilus." Luke 1:1-4 says: "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught."

So we know that he is writing to someone who is important enough to need his excellence affirmed in the salutation, and that he is purporting to give a detailed, consecutive account of the events of the life of Jesus. In other words, Luke probably held himself to a high standard in researching and writing the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

The question then becomes whether we have more than Luke's word for his factual accuracy. The world-famous archeologist, Sir William Ramsay, has said, "Luke is a historian of the first rank . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians." Do we have reason to accept his assessment of Luke? Yes we do, because the historical accuracy of the book of Acts is indisputable. For example, according to Professor A. N. Sherwin-White, author of Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, "For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd."

Also, Luke begins to use the first person plural starting with Acts 16:11, indicating that he joined Paul in an evangelistic tour of Mediterranean cities. This is consistent with his statement at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that he got his information from eyewitnesses and "servants of the word."

Whereas the Gospel of Luke purports to be a detailed, chronological history of Jesus, the Gospel of John is a deeply spiritual, reflective work with a high Christology, which means that it is more concerned with the nature of Jesus than with the details of His life. Rather than starting with the beginning of the life of Jesus, it starts with the beginning of time, and talks in a simple, mystical way of how the logos--the eternal transcendent Mind--became flesh and dwelt among us.

John is an entirely independent source, and scholars are split in terms of whether they think it was written by the apostle John himself or a follower. Although I see no reason to doubt the authorship of John (the work was attributed to John as early as the second century), even if one of his disciples wrote the Gospel the material would have originated from John himself, who was an eyewitness and very close to Jesus, calling himself "the disciple whom Jesus loved." In no way is he claiming that Jesus loved him more than the other disciples; he is basing his identity on his deep, personal awareness of God's love for him. In his epistles he emphasizes love as the essence of God's nature, so it is fitting that John's Gospel would focus on Christology.

So although the two Gospels cover the same events, Luke and John are very different in terms of their focus and style. Most likely they had little, if any, influence on each other.

Many people knew about the events (in Acts 26:26, Paul says that he's confident that King Agrippa knew about the events, because they did not take place in a corner), so it would have been very difficult for groupthink about important details to emerge so soon afterwards. And the fact that even the synoptic Gospels differ in the minor details indicates that there was no collusion. Even if Luke and Matthew based their account in part on Mark, they included details that were not found in Mark.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Most Important Fact in the Bible

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The resurrection of Jesus is the fact on which Christianity stands or falls. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14, "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is in vain." And in Romans 10:9 he says, "If you believe in your heart that God raised [Jesus] from the dead, you will be saved."

Without the resurrection as a factual, historical event, nothing else in the Bible matters. All the prophecies and typology in the Old Testament would be in vain--as Paul states, our faith would be entirely in vain. 

But the evidence supporting the resurrection looks like a carefully orchestrated litigation strategy by God Himself to make His case to those who honestly seek the truth. He does not call us to believe "what you know ain't so," in the manner of Mark Twain's definition of faith. Instead, He rewards the diligent seeker of truth. Proverbs 8:17 says, "I [wisdom] love those who love me; and those who diligently seek me will find me." 

Before I get into the evidence for the life, deity, and resurrection of Christ in future blog posts, I want to address the fact that each Gospel gives a slightly different account of what happened at the empty tomb. Why does Matthew only mention Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary," while Mark adds Salome to the two Marys, Luke omits Salome but mentions Joanna, and John mentions only Mary Magdalene? I have heard numerous attempts to reconcile these discrepancies and some of the explanations are persuasive. For example, in John 20, Mary Magdalene is the only woman mentioned but she says, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have laid Him," (John 20:2, italics added).  So the authors may have chosen to omit extraneous details and focus on some things and not others.

However, I'm not going to attempt to reconcile these facts, because this "problem" is no problem at all--in no way does it undermine the central question of whether Jesus rose from the dead. If anything, it provides additional evidence that the tomb was indeed empty because it makes it clear to us that there was no collusion between the authors of the four Gospels, nor did anyone edit the manuscripts afterwards to make them consistent. The rawness is a sign of authenticity.

And even if these are actual human errors, they do not undermine the Bible's claim to divine inspiration, because God can and does work through human weakness to accomplish His goals. These discrepancies assure the reader that no conspiracy or editing took place.

In spite of minor discrepancies, the four Gospels agree on the important details, including the fact that the chief witnesses to the empty grave were all women. Women had so little status in first century Palestine that such a detail would not have been fabricated. First century historian Josephus said that the prevailing attitude was, "From women let not evidence be accepted because of the levity and temerity of their sex." So the only reason to mention the women was that they really did discover the empty tomb. 

The Gospels also all agree that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. Joseph would have been very well known, so this detail could not have been fabricated. And the tomb was in Jerusalem, not in some obscure place where nobody would know it if the tomb was empty. 

So unlike the question of how many women were present at the tomb, these are important details, because they help us determine whether deception was likely, so an honest skeptic can weigh these and other factors in order to determine whether Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. This will be the subject of my next several blog posts. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Rick Acker's New Novel--And First Forty Pages

When the Devil Whistles

Coming soon – When the Devil Whistles 


Allie Whitman and Connor Norman loved making the devils of the corporate world pay. Now, it’s their turn. And the price could be their lives.
“I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t.” That’s what Allie Whitman tells herself every night as she lies awake. Sometimes she even believes it. But mostly she knows deep down that her inability to make a hard choice has put millions of lives at risk, including her own. Now the only one who can help her is her lawyer, Connor Norman. Unfortunately, Allie’s actions have destroyed Connor’s trust in her—and may destroy much, much more.

Praise of When the Devil Whistles

  • “Gripping, edge-of-your-seat fiction. When the Devil Whistles is a fast mix of suspense, compelling characters and legal intrigue as only Acker can write it. I dare you to try to put this book down.”- Tosca Lee, author of Demon: A Memoir
  • “More than once while reading When the Devil Whistles, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading John Grisham. Rick Acker’s pacing and plot are terrific, and I found myself rooting for Allie and Connor even when they made mistakes. A wonderful read from a writer I wish I’d discovered sooner.”  – Angela Hunt, author of Let Darkness Come
  • “High stakes intrigue that will keep you flipping pages long into the night.” – James Scott Bell
  • “Rick Acker has done it again!  He’s become one of my favorite suspense novelists by the simple expedient of delivering the goods . . . in every book.  This time, a federal whistle-blower may have blown her whistle one time too many.  Is she in too deep this time? This book kept screaming my name every time I tried to put it down.” – Randy Ingermanson, Christy award winning author of Oxygen
Check out the first forty pages or so below:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Crimes of Hate

I have recently talked with a few people who consider religion dangerous, and they point to 9/11 as an example. But was religion really the problem there, and would the absence of religion solve it?

No, religion has nothing to do with it. In the first five years of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks executed 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and over 1,200 priests. The Soviet Union considered religion harmful to the people and acted much like Islamic terrorists in an effort to eradicate it. This kind of evil can express itself through religion, but it thrives without it as well.

The problem is self-righteous hate, and it can be found among Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and true believers of any ideology. It is the sense that other people are morally inferior to us and it is therefore our right and duty to punish them. The 9/11 terrorists really believed that God would reward them in heaven for destroying "corrupt" Americans.

Self-righteousness blinds us to our own moral failings, so Jesus aptly called it a plank in our eye. It is like an insidious poison because it masquerades as moral superiority. Jesus treated the notorious sinners with love and gentleness, because they knew they needed forgiveness. But he gave it to the hypocrites right between the eyes.

And just like self-righteous atheists killed Christians in the Soviet Union, self-righteous Christians have killed Jews, and self-righteous Muslims have killed Americans. Religion or its absence is not the issue; hypocritical self-righteousness combined with a foothold of power caused the most notorious events of human destruction in history.

Hate and self-righteousness is the problem, and love and humility is the solution. It is the only true moral superiority.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Is Vicarious Redemption Immoral?

In this video, Christopher Hitchens argues that the doctrine of vicarious redemption--which he calls human sacrifice--is immoral. He concedes that a person can pay the debt of another, but he doesn't believe that one person can relieve another of his or her responsibilities. However, he appears to agree with C. S. Lewis that it is morally acceptable for us to forgive offenses against ourselves.

He frames the discussion in the context of Lewis' argument that if Jesus was just a man and not God, it would be preposterous of Him to claim to be able to take our sins upon Himself and forgive offenses against others. Lewis explains that Jesus cannot be just a good moral teacher--He has to either be a lunatic, a devil from hell, or the Son of God. Hitchens says: "Lewis, who had argued so well up until then can't complete a syllogism. Poor guy, he never quite could do that. He said, 'Since I don't think He was a devil from hell, I have to conclude that He was the Son of God.'"

I find it ironic that Hitchens accuses Lewis of failing to complete a syllogism, since Hitchens himself does exactly that--in several different ways.

Hitchens very correctly states that human sacrifice is "revolting." God calls it "detestable" in the Old Testament, so the two of them are on the same page so far. However, the sacrifice of Christ has about as much in common with human sacrifice as a heroic act of self-sacrifice has in common with premeditated murder. Both involve death, but that is about it.

First, the sacrifice of Jesus was voluntary--He could have chosen not to go through with it (Matthew 26:53), and He denounced all violence against His aggressors (Matthew 26:52). Human sacrifice, on the other hand, is an act of violence against an unwilling victim. Second, God never commanded anyone to kill His Son; His executioners simply acted according to their evil inclinations, and God permitted it and used it for good. Human sacrifice, on the other hand, is ostensibly at the command of the gods. Third, the redemption was an act of self-sacrifice by God, while human sacrifice is the selfish taking of someone else's life.

Hitchens also failed to complete his syllogism with respect to the Lewis quote by concluding that the redemption is immoral without even addressing the point Lewis made about Jesus being God. He simply assumes throughout the video that even if Jesus existed, He was only a man, and therefore what He did was immoral.

If Jesus had in fact been just a man, even the Bible admits that He would have had no power to redeem someone else. "No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him--the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough--that he should live on forever and not see decay" (Psalm 49:7-9). 

So Lewis and Hitchens are both in full agreement with the Bible up to this point. Then Hitchens claims that Lewis failed to complete his syllogism by concluding that Jesus was not a devil from hell and is therefore the Son of God. And Hitchens fails to complete his syllogism by never even addressing the issue of whether Jesus was the Son of God and simply concluding that Jesus was either evil or deluded. This is circular reasoning. "If Jesus was only a man, it would be immoral for Him to pay the penalty for someone else's sin. He was only a man. Therefore, His redemption was immoral."

If Hitchens wants to argue that Jesus never existed or that He was not God, that is one thing, but if he is going to argue that some aspect of Christian theology is immoral, he has to allow for the sake of argument that the claims of Christianity are true. Otherwise he cannot address the issue in a logical way.

Finally, Hitchens concedes too much upfront. He allows that one person can pay another's debt. He also concedes that we can forgive others for offenses against us. But he says that we all have to take responsibility for our own actions. However, if I forgive someone a wrong against me and also pay the person's debt, I have effectively absolved the person of responsibility. Hitchens has no problem with the first clause of that sentence, but he strongly objects to the second clause. Since the second clause follows logically from the first clause, Hitchens appears to have failed to think through his logic.

Still, he has a good point about taking responsibility, but the Bible never teaches that vicarious redemption absolves us of responsibility. Even though God has in Christ forgiven our sins, we still have to be reconciled to those we have wronged (Matthew 5:24). And even though we are saved by faith, good works are evidence of true faith (1 John 2:3).

So God has simply leveled the playing field by offering a fresh start and His enabling power to anyone, regardless of genetics, environment, or past sins. Only humility will give us an advantage. But ultimately He will judge us all impartially (1 Peter 1:17).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Dying God

View ImageThe aspect of the Moral Law that is most difficult to explain in naturalistic terms is the kind of altruism that makes a person willing to die for a stranger and even an enemy, or to suffer scorn and rejection for the well-being of others. In my previous post, we discussed possible natural explanations, like evolution or culture. Now we will discuss the possibility of a divine Lawgiver.

If there is such a thing as an objective Moral Law, this Lawgiver would have to epitomize it. The imprint of the Law on the human heart would have to match His nature in every way, like Cinderella's glass slipper fit her foot.

A few weeks ago, a non-Christian asked me why Jesus had to die on the cross. He couldn't see why an omnipotent God, who presumably had an unlimited number of options at His disposal, would choose such a barbaric method. There are a number of important reasons, but for the sake of this discussion I will focus on Jesus having to fulfill the Moral Law on our behalf.

Although God is certainly omnipotent, He cannot do that which is logically impossible. That is, He cannot be holy and not holy at the same time. And if He is holy, He cannot be capricious; He has to have integrity. Because God epitomizes moral perfection, there are certain things He cannot do and still be true to His nature. This does not diminish His omnipotence, because, as C. S. Lewis says, "omnipotence means the power to do all that is intrinsically possible." That does not include making 2 + 2 = 5 or being both holy and not holy. If something is logically impossible, then being able to do it is not omnipotence, it is nonsense.

The Bible says that God is holy, and in order to determine whether this is true, we should compare His nature to the Moral Law within us. But we do not look at the nature of God in the Old Testament, where He was the Head and Commander in Chief of a political system (a theocracy) that functioned in an Ancient Near East culture. Like any political system, this theocracy had to take into account practicality and culture. As Jesus explained, the Law of Moses made allowances for human nature and the hardness of unredeemed hearts (Matthew 19:8). Instead, we have to look to Christ, in whom "all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9). Christ is God, and as such He perfectly represents God's nature (John 1:1, Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus came to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15), so a look at His life, as manifested in the Gospels, will give us the Christian standard for righteousness. Jesus condemned religious hypocrisy more than any other type of sin (Matthew 23:27-28, Luke 11:44); and the religious hypocrites--His chief enemies--ultimately crucified Him. He befriended sinners, but transformed them rather than learning their ways (Matthew 11:19). He broke through social barriers by treating women and foreigners with respect (John 4:1-26). He valued marriage (Matthew 19:8) and sexual purity (Matthew 5:28). He taught peaceful resistance (Matthew 26:52) and respect for government authority (Matthew 17:27), but He also had the courage to speak truth to power (Luke 11:45-46). He combined justice (John 12:48) and mercy (Luke 18:13-14).

But most of all, His message was one of altruistic love, including love for our enemies (Luke 6:35). And the greatest act of love is to lay down our lives for our friends (John 15:13), so in order to fulfill all righteousness, Jesus had to do that. But He went beyond that--laying down His life for His enemies. When His enemies slapped, mocked, and scourged Him, pushing a crown of thorns into his head and nailing his hands and feet to a cross, his blood covered every sin that has ever been and will ever be committed.

He died on the Preparation Day of the Passover, when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered. And when He breathed His last, the heavy veil of the temple tore in two from top to bottom, granting sinners free access to the inner sanctuary of God.