Thursday, December 11, 2008

Predestined to holiness

When I first started studying theology in Bible college as a new Christian almost 20 years ago I was introduced to the Calvinist/Arminian debate over free will and predestination. I was attending a Free Methodist Bible College, so they were of course promoting the Arminian view of free will. That was a good thing as the Calvinist position made no sense to me. If God has already determined who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell in advance without any power to change that on the part of the individual, then what’s the point of all of this? Besides that, Scripture frequently calls people to repent and believe, which certainly seems to strongly imply that they can choose to do that. If they don’t, what’s the point of telling them to? You may as well command someone to swim the ocean.

In the years since then I’ve continued to study this debate. And I can report that the Calvinist position still makes no sense to me! But I do understand that Calvinists sincerely believe that their view is clearly taught in Scripture, and so they are obligated to believe it even if it doesn’t make sense to them. There’s a sense in which I agree with that – sometimes there are things that are difficult to understand that we believe on the basis of reliable authority. This is true not only in matters of theology, but in many areas of life. I don’t believe, however, that this is one of those areas.

Scripture does talk about predestination, or at least of people being predestined. In Ephesians 1:3-5 we read this:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

What does this passage actually mean? Does it say that we who are believers were chosen to be saved while the rest of the world goes to hell? Actually, no. It says nothing about heaven or hell at all or even salvation. What it says is that firstly, we were chosen “that we would be holy and blameless before Him,” and secondly that God predestined us “to adoption as sons”. The emphasis is important here. It does in fact say that we were predestined (more in a minute about who the “we” refers to), but not that we were predestined to be saved or even predestined to believe, which is the Calvinist position. Rather, it says what we were predestined to: namely to be holy and blameless and to adoption as sons. The predestination involved here is just what it means – that the destination or destiny was determined in advance. In other words, God determined that he wanted a people who would be holy and blameless, and who would be his children. But how to do that, especially when you’re starting with people who are naturally stubborn, rebellious, and sinful? So God also determined the process that would produce this result – namely the atoning sacrifice of Jesus that would cleanse and purify a people for himself (Titus 2:14) and the adoption of those who have faith in Christ as children of God (John 1:12). God predestined or predetermined the end result and the process needed to produce that result.

What it doesn’t say is that he predetermined which individuals would end up “buying in” to this process. It says nothing about him arbitrarily deciding before you were born whether or not you would believe. When Paul says “we” were predestined to this or that, who is he talking about? He’s talking about believers – about those who have placed their faith in Christ and repented of their sins. So God predestined that those who have believed in Christ would end up holy and blameless and as the children of God – quite an amazing concept!

But isn’t all of this just about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? Isn’t that what the Gospel is all about? Actually I don’t think so. Not that that’s not an important question of course, but it’s not the only question or maybe even the most important question. Heaven and hell are simply consequences of our decisions in this life. But salvation is much more than getting a “get out of jail free” card or “fire insurance”, or some other similar analogy. It’s about becoming the children of God – of the Holy One who created us, and who gives us “life, breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). We are predestined to holiness. For many of us it’s high time we started acting like it. But that’s another topic!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Who is Kris Kringle?

According to one internet source, the name Kris Kringle (which is of course another name for Santa Claus) is derived from the German "Christkindl" or Christ child. I don't know if that's true (and I don't know a lick of German), but I can well believe it. The tradition in Hungary is that Christmas gifts are brought not by Santa Claus but by Baby Jesus. The only connection that Hungarians have with Saint Nicholas is on Saint Nicholas Day, which is December 6. On the evening of December 5th, children put out their shoes and wake up in the morning to find them filled with chocolate (okay, not like literally filled - more like little chocolate Santas placed in their shoes. It's not as icky as it sounds!).

So I can imagine that Kris Kringle, who brings the presents on Dec. 24th, is actually the Americanized adapatation of the Christ Child who does the same thing in the old country. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia the name Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas. It's like a contest for how many messed up pronounciations you can find at Christmas or something. Also according to Wiki, the celebration of the Christ child on Dec. 24th was a Protestant development introduced by Martin Luther to replace the Saint Nicholas day that was a Catholic festival. If that's true, I think it was a bad move in some respects. In Hungary the whole "Baby Jesus" thing becomes like Santa Claus when you grow up - you stop believing in him. Or you believe in the "idea" but not the reality. And of course Santa Claus is one of the prime comparisons that skeptics use to deny the existence of the supernatural or the truth of Christianity. It makes you wonder how many skeptics are just disillusioned former believers in Santa Claus, not wanting to get duped again. But that's another topic.

That's one reason why we made the decision to tell our kids the truth about Santa early on. I don't think it's diminished their enjoyment of Christmas one bit, although Hannah did make another little girl cry when she told her that there was no Santa. Can't win 'em all. But we have adopted the tradition of giving the kids chocolate in their shoes on Dec.6th, so I think that makes up for it!

Friday, November 28, 2008

In Memoriam: Liam Iwig-O' Byrne (1967-2008)

Liam Iwig-O'Byrne passed away on November 13, 2008 in an automobile accident in Forth Worth, Texas where he lived with his wife Cara and his children, Cian and Warren. From his obituary: "He was a pastor, teacher, and a true servant."

Liam was one of the first guys I met at Aldersgate College. I was a new Christian at the time, and I headed off to the foreign land of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to attend Bible College. Liam was my senior by a year in age and two years ahead of me at Aldersgate, and he made an immediate impression on me. He was a budding young theologian at the time. He was also a spiritual leader on the campus. Those of us guys who were there will never forget the prayer meetings that sometimes lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning. Liam was a big part of that. He introduced me to the writings of Charles Finney, and constantly challenged me in my thinking as I developed my theology. It was a wild, wacky, formative period in my life.

I also attended seminary with Liam, starting a couple of years after he did. My first year I spent a lot of time at the trailer that he lived in, playing cards with his roommate and another friend of ours from Aldersgate. We had our share of theological differences, and had many long conversations. After seminary Liam moved away and I didn't keep up with him that much. Tricia and I did visit him and his wife, Cara, when they were living in Kansas many years ago and also last year when they were living in Texas.

Liam left a comment on this blog on the post from October 3, 2008 that can still be seen. He complimented me on my blog and gave me some encouraging words. It was the first time he had left a comment on my blog. Those are the last words I'll receive from Liam in this life. It's a sobering thought. Liam was forty-one years old when he died. Forty-one. That number really hits home for me. I just turned forty this year. Liam left behind a wife and two children.

It's times like these that remind me what are the really important things in life. The book of James speaks to this.

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit"; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that."
James 4:13-15

It's so important that we live our lives in light of eternity. It will be here before we know it. Are you seeking to do God's will for your life? That's the only thing that will really matter in the end. Whatever you do, pursue God's will. Treasure your loved ones - family, church, co-workers and so on. And be thankful for them. We are only given one life to live. May we honor God with what we have been given.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

More reasons to be skeptical of Global Warming

One of the reasons I've been skeptical of the idea that man-made global warming was leading the earth toward an ecological amageddon is that I remember reading books from the 70s and 80s that also predicted the coming ecological collapse for different reasons. We were going to run out oil, we were going to pollute ourselves into extinction, we were going to run out resources, etc., etc. Those dire predictions of catastophe did not come to pass. However, some of the groups that promoted those ideas with particular vigor (like the Club of Rome) also had a strongly humanistic agenda and an interest in things like one world government and a new world order. All of this was in our best interests, of course. Without the help of these super-smart people (so we are told), we would end up destroying ourselves. They would graciously offer to rule over us in order to prevent this unspeakable harm from befalling us. How generous of them.

The global warming hysteria appears to me to be the same sort of thing with the same sort of questionable premises. Recently data has been coming out that seriously calls into question the idea that the earth really is warming, let alone whether that warming is caused by human activity and the production of too much carbon dioxide. As this article in the Telegraph shows, a report issued last week by NASA which claimed that this October was the hottest October on record was completely wrong. Two skeptical bloggers discovered that they had used the data from September for two months in a row. Rather than the hottest October on record, October 2008 was actually the 70th warmest out of 114 years - putting it in the bottom half of warmest Octobers on record. Other mistakes by global warming proponents include reports that the 90s was the hottest decade of the 20th century when in fact the 30s were hotter. Other studies have shown that temperatures are not rising as predicted, and in fact have been dropping. Also, sea-ice in the Arctic has recovered from the widely-reported melting in the summer and the ice cover is now 30% more than this time last year. But you won't hear that in most of the media which only publishes pro-global warming pieces. Other recent reports have indicated that rather than warming, the earth is actually cooling, possibly due to solar activity including a sudden decrease in sunspots. Apparently sudden decreases in sunspots (which is a cyclical phenomenon) in the past have resulted in sudden cooling on the earth, including one "mini ice-age".

It's always amazing to me when Christians jump on the bandwangon of the latest over-hyped claims. I can understand why a secular person who doesn't actually believe in God's sovereignty might be concerned and think that it's up to us to save the planet. But I've heard Christians, when confronted with the fact that the science behind global warming is not conclusive, say things like "yeah, but by the time it IS conclusive it'll be too late." I still have a hard time believing that a Christian would say or think such a thing. If it were limited to ivory-tower seminary professors it wouldn't concern me so much. But such thinking tends to filter down to the average church-goers when it's parroted by respected Christian leaders. It then becomes accepted wisdom in some circles, without ever being challenged.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Atheists for Intelligent Design?

I recently listened to some interesting podcasts (see links below) in which an atheist philosopher of physics, Bradley Monton, shared that he thinks the basic arguments for Intelligent Design are sound from a scientific and philosophical standpoint and should be given more weight than they are. Intelligent Design is the theory that many features of the universe can only be explained as a result of the activity of an intelligent agent rather than as the product of non-intelligent forces and laws of nature. This includes many features of biological systems, which naturalists insist can be adequately explained by random mutation and natural selection working together.

Many critics of Intelligent Design view it as an attempt to sneak religion into the classroom and skirt the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They often attempt to have ID arguments dismissed from the outset by saying that it is not science. This assumes that there is some agreed-upon means of determining what is "science" and what is not "science." This is a philosophical question known as the demarcation problem. Many people (including many philosophically unsophisticated scientists) believe that there are agreed-upon criteria that can delineate scientific ideas from non-scientific ones. In fact, there is no such set of criteria agreed upon by philosophers of science, which Monton points out in his interview. I have written previously about a Christian philosopher of science, Jeffrey Koperski, who agrees. Koperski is critical of some ID arguments (as is Monton), but does show that the ideas are valid and should not simply be dismissed out of hand.

A recent debate about Intelligent Design featured this interesting twist: the two men arguing in favor of it were an agnostic, secular Jew (David Berlinski) and an atheist (Monton), while the two men arguing against it were an atheist and a Christian. So of the four participants only one was religious, and he was arguing against ID. What does this mean in terms of the ongoing discussion and debate about ID?

Well, it does call into question the idea that ID is just religion in the guise of science or that it's a way to sneak religion into the classroom in violation of the establishment clause. If atheist and agnostic scholars can see that ID raises valid concerns, then this argument loses a lot of its force. I recognize that most supporters of ID are religious and do so for religious reasons (it does provide support for their worldview after all), but a great many supporters of Darwinism are atheists and have an anti-religious agenda. Some, like Richard Dawkins, apparently would like to eliminate religion altogether. Ultimately, however, the motivations of the supporters of one theory or the other is not the main issue.

I have long believed that as ID concepts get more exposure they would get more traction among scientists and philosophers who are actually interested in seeking truth rather than perpetuating the dogma of metaphysical naturalism. That appears to be happening. It doesn't help the cause of Darwinism that some high-profile academics who are in favor of ID have recently been victims of what appears to be flagrant discrimination for pro-ID sympathies, and this is in spite of having outstanding academic credentials.

The podcasts with Bradley Monton can be heard here:
[part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [part 4]


Part five is now available as well and can be found here:
[part 5]

Interestingly enough, one of the things professor Monton (whose website can be found here) discussed in this most recent podcast is the attacks that he has received from biologists over his willingness to discuss Intelligent Design. He notes that his colleagues in philosophy, even if they disagree with him, are still willing to engage in reasonable discourse. He also mentioned his surprise that even though he thought some of his arguments would offend Christians (I suspect because of the general misrepresentation of ID and Christians in the academic world), in fact that hasn't been the case. It has been the dogmatic Darwinists who have been up in arms, in one case even making a bogus threat of taking legal action against Monton. These types of intimidation tactics are becoming increasingly common.

I mention this in part because I just knew that as soon as I put up this post I would start receiving derogatory comments from the Darwinist collective in cyberspace. And sure enough, I came home this evening to find two juicy comments from bobxxxx (don't you love people who don't even have enough courage to sign their real name?). Whether "Bob" is actually 15 years old or just writes like he is is anyone's guess. But here's a sample of Darwinist thinking courtesy of Bob: "Since everyone knows "intelligent design" means "god's magic tricks", it's very obvious your fake atheist is an idiot and a liar."

This sort of anti-religious bigotry and inability to engage in anything other than ad hominem attacks is unfortunately all too common these days. Bob wouldn't be able to articulate a single argument in favor of ID, but he's sure they're wrong because he has it on good authority that they are. Unfortunately for Bob the ideas behind ID are already public where intellectually honest people like Bradley Monton and David Berlinski (the secular agnostic Jew who also defends ID whom I mentioned above) can examine them. The Darwinian establishment has focused all of its energy on attacking the people who speak favorably of ID rather than the ideas (which most of them haven't taken the time to understand and couldn't articulate if they had to). By the way, according to Monton's blog he's currently working on a book entitled Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. Expect to see more attacks and threats against Bradley Monton.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What is missions, anyways?

In 2000 I returned to seminary four years after graduating with the Master of Divinity degree to prepare for the mission field. I was there to earn another master’s degree in missions and evangelism. In one of my first classes on "Christian Mission and Global Culture," we watched a video. On saving the whales. No, seriously, it was about how to prevent the extinction of a particular endangered species of whale. I looked around the room, thinking to myself, "is this a joke?" It was no joke, but it does represent a strong trend in contemporary missiology.

If I could summarize this perspective, it basically says that whatever we do to bring "shalom" (or "peace") to the created order is missions. In other words, saving a species of whale from extinction is just as much a part of the mission of the church in this mode of thinking as the more traditional idea of converting sinners. Now, I was aware of the controversy surrounding the so-called "social gospel,” which emphasizes caring for the physical and material needs of people less fortunate than ourselves with not so much emphasis on things like repentance from sin and faith in the redemptive work of Christ as the means to eternal life. Of this Bishop Stephen O’Neill astutely observed that those who start with social needs never seem to get to the Gospel message, whereas those who start with the Gospel end up addressing these other needs of people as well.

But this wasn’t social gospel, it was the gospel of environmentalism. Taken to its greatest extreme, it’s the gospel of fix-everything-ism. Apparently the mission of the church in the eyes of some people is to fix every problem on earth. Eliminate poverty and economic inequality? We’re on it. Get rid of discrimination? We can do that. Solve environmental problems like endangered species, global warming, and all the rest? We can do that, too. Excuse me for saying this, but I really think the biggest problem in the world is the alienation of people from their creator. Everything else, in my humble opinion, is just symptoms of the disease. Even the issue of the alienation of people from each other in all of its many iterations is a symptom of alienation from God. We can try to address some specific problem like, say, racism by means of education and legislation. But we still haven’t changed anyone’s heart. You just can’t force people to love others. Eventually the ugliness that is still lurking in the heart will show itself unless the heart itself is changed. I’m thinking of some well-publicized instances where celebrity figures who say they aren’t racist suddenly and inexplicably start uttering racial epithets under duress. I don’t believe that’s because there’s something called “racism” in their hearts that is revealed in those inopportune moments. Rather, it’s that there is contempt and spite towards others that is manifested as racial slurs. No amount of education or legislation can fix that.

So I don’t really see the proclamation of the Gospel message as one more thing on the church’s “to do” list after finding a solution for poverty and replacing the ozone layer. It’s the one thing that we can offer that nobody else can: reconciliation to God. All of the rest, quite honestly, pales in comparison to this one. To put it another way, even if we solved or greatly alleviated all the rest of these issues without offering eternal life to the world, what have we really accomplished? Jesus’ words come to mind, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” What does it profit the church if we fix all of these other problems but forfeit the souls of men and women who are perishing without the knowledge of the one True God? At the same time, I think another basic theological problem is the idea that the Gospel message is merely about what happens to you after you die. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the possibility of living an increasingly transformed life in the here-and-now, about biblical holiness. That’s an issue of Christian discipleship (as it’s often misleadingly called), of teaching Christians to obey everything that Jesus commanded. But this presupposes that someone is first a disciple.

Someone may tell me that it doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both/and. We can evangelize and solve global warming (or whatever). Weeell, maybe. (I won’t even bother to comment whether man-made global warming is as big a problem as many people seem to think but I will say I’m pretty skeptical of that claim). But maybe the latest “-ism” that we’re supposed to fix is just a passing fad that is actually a distraction from our real mission, which seems to me to be much more likely. I would point out that genuine conversion contributes towards addressing many, if not all, of these other problems. It’s noteworthy to me that the world is fixated on solving these other problems but doing so in a humanistic fashion. If we all just come together and work together, we’re told that we can make the world a better place. But supposedly this will happen only if we put aside our differences, like ideas about who God is (or whether God exists or not), and about whether or not there are real objective moral values that we are all obligated to live by. I’m not convinced that Christians jumping on the bandwagon to show how eager we are to do our part really helps matters.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Christian Intellectuals

A common stereotype of religious people among certain types of atheists is that they are all uneducated ignoramuses. That seems to be the view of one recent commenter on this blog who sent me this gem:

you pretend to know what you are talking about with enough rhetorical chum to bait in the ignoramuses. This tells a lot about your position: you go to uneducated and poor people to spread your “message.” If “the message” were worthy, you’d think you could go to any U.S. college campus and have converts. But no, it’s only for those who [have] no critical thought. Pat yourself on the back.

I'm not actually sure where this individual got his facts from on what my "position" is, but it's completely false. I can only presume he's just projecting his stereotype of what a missionary is or does. In fact, as readers of my blog should know, I've taught and ministered in Hungary. The Hungarian educational system is very rigorous, much more so than the increasingly dumbed-down American public education system. So I certainly can't be accused of going to "uneducated" people. It's true that Hungarians are not as wealthy as Americans, but it's not a third-world country, either. But it's hard to know what to say about someone who is so bigoted as to think that people who live in a poorer country than he does are all uneducated ignoramuses. It just shows the shocking bigotry of some anti-religious people. Apparently in his mind the only people dumb enough to believe in religion are poor and uneducated. That just doesn't fit the facts.

I was involved in campus ministry at Western Michigan University while I was doing graduate studies in philosophy there. And there I found a thriving campus ministry led by InterVarsity. I'm also currently involved in campus ministry at another U.S. college. Critical thinking is certainly a valuable skill. It prevents people from making false assumptions based on prejudice and stereotypes. I would encourage this atheist commenter to try developing some.

Normally I wouldn't bother even publishing comments like the one above seeing as it's an insult to every Christian reading this blog (and I happen to know that several of my Christian readers are college educated and some have done graduate and post-graduate studies), but it does serve to make a point. First, it points out the growing anti-religious bigotry that I fear is spreading in the U.S. and Europe, fueled by demagogues like Richard Dawkins and others. Second, it's an opportunity for me to point out that the Gospel message is alive and well on college campuses not only in the U.S. but also in Europe. Spiritually and intellectually vibrant faith movements are growing in these supposedly unlikely places. A good starting place for those who want to learn more about this is two books by Kelly Monroe Kullberg: Finding God at Harvard and Finding God Beyond Harvard.

Finding God at Harvard includes an essay by that poor, uneducated ignoramus Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1970 (please note my use of irony - Solzhenitsyn was a brilliant thinker and highly influential Christian intellectual). Solzhenitsyn brought the world's attention to the Soviet gulags. He diagnosed the cause of the inhuman and oppressive Soviet system as the "calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious human consciousness". He also criticized the West for being beholden to consumerism and commercialism. He decried the moral poverty of the West and saw the rising tide of humanism here and where it would lead. He said, "this carefree life cannot continue in your country or in ours. The fates of our two countries are going to be extremely difficult, and it is better to prepare for this beforehand." These words sound ominious. Rather than causing fear, however, they should serve as an exhortation to believers in the West. We have been guilty of spiritual laziness and worldliness. It's time to wake up to what has happened and is happening around us.

You can find out more about the Veritas Forum which was founded by Kullberg and their ministry on college campuses in the U.S. and Europe by visiting their website. One of the purposes of my blog is to discuss issues in Christian apologetics and expose my readers to the thought of some leading Christian intellectuals as well as more popular works. I'll continue to present readers with substantive apologetics along with updates on our ministry here in the States and abroad.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Eyewitness testimony

In history and law, eyewitness testimony is of great importance. Both of these fields are concerned with establishing whether or not some event actually happened. While indirect evidence can obviously be important, the testimony of eyewitnesses can often be of crucial importance.

With eyewitnesses, of course, there are important questions to be asked. Is it possible the eyewitness is mistaken, and is it possible the eyewitness is lying? These are obviously crucial concerns, as not all eyewitness testimony is credible. People can be mistaken, and people can be intentionally deceptive in their testimony.

When it comes to the Resurrection, we are confronted with claims of having eyewitness testimony of several events. First, there is the death of Jesus by crucifixion. Second, there is his burial in a tomb. Third, there is the finding of the same tomb empty on the third day. Fourth, there are reports of several different appearances of Jesus to his followers after his resurrection. There are no eyewitness reports in the New Testament of anyone actually observing the Resurrection itself. The question, however, is if we actually have credible eyewitness testimony of these events, and if so, is there some explanation of them other than that offered by the New Testament writers: that God raised Jesus from the dead.

One skeptic on another website argued that Luke never claimed to have met anyone who was an eyewitness to Jesus. Note that this wasn't simply a claim that Luke hadn't met an eyewitness to the risen Christ, but that Luke never claimed to have met anyone who saw Jesus when he was alive. I pointed out that Luke writes in Acts 21:18-19 about a meeting between Paul and his traveling companions (including Luke) and James, along with all the elders in Jerusalem. Keep in mind that this was not James the son of Zebedee, one of the original twelve apostles. That James was executed by Herod in Acts 12:2. This was James the brother of Jesus mentioned in Matthew 13:55 who became one of the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem. This is also the James whom Paul records in 1 Cor. 15:7 as one of the witnesses to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. So not only was James an eyewitness of Jesus's life (having been his brother), but was also a witness of the resurrection. But, this skeptic argued, Luke didn't specifically say that James was an eyewitness of Jesus. But this point is moot. Paul specifically identified James as the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19) and as an eyewitness to the Resurrection. Luke was present when Paul conferred with James and the elders in Jerusalem. It's impossible to believe that Luke wasn't aware of James's background just because he didn't write about it. What this does, however, is point to the importance of eyewitness testimony. The skeptic wants to exclude any possibility of the Gospels being actual eyewitness accounts.

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, 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 Cor. 15:3-8

Scholarly consensus, even among critics of the New Testament, is that 1 Cor. 15:3-8 is an early church creed. 1 Corinthians was written around AD 55-57. Paul says that he had previously passed this creed on to the Corinthians, which would have been at the latest during his previous visit to Corinth, which was around AD 51. This is already within 20 years of the crucifixion. But he also says that he had passed on "what he had received", which means he received this tradition even earlier. It's probable that he received it during meetings with the apostles in Jerusalem or Damascus around AD 32-38, within a few months to a few short years after the crucifixion. There is no question then that we have actual claims of eyewitness testimony to the post-resurrection appearances. These were not legends that developed over a long period of time.

Were the eyewitnesses mistaken? We're not talking about an "Elvis" sighting at a distance for a brief moment. The independent testimony of the Gospels (which corroborate most of the specific details of Paul's testimony) record several encounters with the risen Christ which included extended conversations. It's impossible to conceive that the witnesses were mistaken. If Jesus did not actually appear to them, they were in a position to know it.

Were the eyewitnesses lying? It has been often observed that the conviction of the disciples in the truth of their message was that they died for their belief. While it's true that tradition records that all of the apostles except for John were martyred, the independent evidence is not always that strong in every case. But, as philosophers Tim and Lydia McGrew point out in a chapter in the upcoming Blackwell's Companion to Natural Theology, there are several cases where we do have strong evidence for the martyrdom of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses. The earliest of these is in the book of Acts itself, James the son of Zebedee (see above). The rest of the apostles knew, then, that death was a highly probable outcome of continuing to proclaim the Resurrection. And yet they persisted in that proclamation in spite of that fact. Thus, not only did the disciples have no good reason to lie about their testimony, they had very good reason not to lie, namely to save their own skins.

Legal scholar Simon Greenleaf, whom many regard as one of the greatest experts on eyewitness testimony who ever lived, applied the rules used in courts of law to the testimony of the evangelists. He wrote, "The result, it is confidently believed, will be an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability, and truth."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Faith and evidence

Many skeptics make the claim that faith in the sense used by believers means “to believe with no evidence”, or even “to believe in the teeth of evidence.” This is the position espoused by Richard Dawkins and others. Many Christians have responded to this statement by citing theologians down through history. This view of faith is definitely not the view of most theologians in the history of the church. Nevertheless, it does seem to be the view of some Christians, perhaps even many Christians today.

Once I was teaching a class on apologetics in a church Sunday school class. I was presenting the idea that faith is actually belief that is based on adequate evidence. One gentleman made this comment: “I can see what you’re saying about faith and evidence. I mean, even if you have 95 percent evidence, you still have 5 percent faith.”

Unfortunately, this gentleman didn’t get the point at all. In his mind, faith was still the part of our belief that didn’t have evidence to support it. But in that case, the more evidence you have, the less faith you have. Thus, the best way to increase your faith is to reduce the amount of evidence you have to support your beliefs! In that case, apologetics is not only unhelpful, it’s absolutely destructive to faith. The more evidence you have, the less faith. But is this view correct?

Consider Luke’s introduction to his Gospel. He writes,

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

If anything is clear from Luke’s opening remarks here, it’s that he intended for his historical research to be a help to strengthen the faith of his reader. Many scholars note that the name Theophilus means “lover of God,” so it’s possible Luke was writing his books (Luke and Acts) as a generic treatise to believers. But whether Luke intended his books for one person or many, the fact is that for Luke the historical evidence handed down by eyewitnesses was of crucial importance in “knowing the certainty of the things” believers have been taught. This is not a blind faith at all, nor is it the case that more evidence equals less faith. On the contrary, stronger evidence gives stronger certainty of the truth of the Gospel message.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Why Eastern Europe needs the Gospel

Some years ago when we were living in Hungary I came across a study that surveyed people from every major region of the world to assess how happy or unhappy they were with life. Eastern Europe turned out to be the region with the unhappiest people in the entire world. That's not a surprise for those of us who have lived in that part of the world and are familiar with its history and culture. It wasn't that long ago that Hungary, for example, had the highest per capita rate of suicide in the world. While things have improved somewhat in that regard, Hungary still ranks 5th or 6th in the world for suicide these days.

Today, however, I came across this video by Reuters on a study of the unhappiest nations in Europe. Out of 19 European nations, only Russia and Bulgaria were ranked as being more unhappy than Hungarians.

But what makes Hungarians so unhappy? Is it their economy? While it's true that Hungary's economy has struggled in recent years, even drawing comparisons last week to Iceland (which was on the verge of bankruptcy until the IMF stepped in), I don't think that's the reason. After all, there are places which are much poorer than Hungary but where people are much happier. My first ever missions experience was in the Philippines. I visited many very poor people there, but in general I noticed that their level of happiness seemed to be higher than in North America. If suicide rates are any indicator Filipinos, with one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, are happier than North Americans. Why?

In my non-expert, unprofessional opinion, it's because relationships are so important to Filipinos. The family unit is still largely intact, and is of central importance to the Filipino culture and way of life. Latin Americans also have much lower rates of suicide than North Americans, yet these are generally nations which are much, much poorer than North America and Western Europe, and even poorer than the perennially depressed Eastern Europeans. But relationships in Hungary are fractured. The family unit is broken and fragmented. Even today the cultural decimation caused by decades of communist rule is still evident. The book by James Michener, The Bridge at Andau, gave a shocking portrait of life in Hungary under communism. People couldn't trust their next-door neighbor, and life was ruled by fear of the government. And while Hungary became a free country in 1991, the fragmented culture never fully healed. My own experience with Hungarian families is that the only healthy ones are ones where the whole family is committed to Christ. It's a rare thing in Hungary to be sure. Many Hungarians call themselves Christians (as do many Americans), but have not experienced the healing and reconciling power of the Gospel in their lives.

Eastern Europe doesn't need more religion, but it does need the Gospel.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Should Christians do apologetics?

Some Christians eschew evidence-based apologetics. They reason that if our faith is based on, say, historical evidence and other evidence turns up that casts our historical conclusions into question, then our faith may be weakened or destroyed. Indeed there are some anti-apologists who say they used to be Christians but lost their faith because of contrary evidence.

There are several reasons why I find this thinking problematic. First of all, if our faith is not based on evidence for the truth claims of Christianity then what is it based on? Our own subjective feelings? Certainly subjective considerations have a lot to do with belief (regardless of what one believes), but I don’t see how this makes a better foundation for faith than arguments based on evidence and sound application of logic and reason. Feelings can change. Likewise if our own experience is the basis for our faith, that can be outweighed by other experiences (or perhaps by arguments that call our experiences into question).

Second, in every case that I’m familiar with of Christians who have lost their faith, there were significant factors at play other than strictly evidence-based arguments against Christianity. Often it’s the case that Christians lose their faith because of some personal crisis where they doubt whether God is really watching out for them. It starts with a loss of trust in God and then proceeds to full-blown apostasy, perhaps aided by skeptical arguments. But the arguments themselves are not terribly persuasive based strictly on their merits.

Third, my own experience of studying historical apologetics has always had the result of strengthening rather than weakening my faith. In particular, my study of arguments for and against the Resurrection has shown the weakness of the skeptical position very clearly to me. The striking thing is the lack of any coherent explanation for the evidence from the skeptical side. The traditional skeptical arguments have been shown to be full of holes. The evidence is too early for it to have been the result of legendary accretion, even though that’s usually the leading theory these days. There’s also no evidence for any development of the belief in the Resurrection – it appeared very suddenly and very early, serving as the foundation of the beliefs of the early Christians. Other skeptical theories have been repudiated time and again, including theories such as that the disciples hallucinated Jesus’ appearances to them, that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross but revived in the tomb and managed to escape, that the women went to the wrong tomb, or that the disciples made the whole thing up and hoodwinked a gullible Jewish audience.

N.T. Wright says he sent the manuscript of his impressive tome, The Resurrection of the Son of God, to his former tutor at Oxford, an atheist. The tutor said, “you’ve made a very impressive argument. But I simply choose to believe that there is some natural explanation for this other than Jesus rising from the dead.” Ultimately the skeptic falls back on the argument that says, “there must be some natural explanation for it.” But that, of course, is simply an assumption on the part of the skeptic. If all options are on the table including the supernatural one, the superiority of it is clearly demonstrated.

Thus I see no reason for Christians not to engage in historical, evidential apologetics, and many good reasons to do so.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Apologetics and holiness

Apologetics, for those of you who don’t know this about me yet, is my favorite area of theology. Apologetics has to do with defending the truth of the Christian worldview. It’s an essential area for believers to study. What is true and what is not is of fundamental importance in answering the big questions of life.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible related to apologetics is this one from 1 Peter 3:15:

But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.

The word for apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, which is translated as "defense" in this verse. It's the word that was used for legal defenses in a court of law. So this verse calls us to be prepared to defend the Gospel by giving sound arguments or reasons for our hope. You don't have to be an apologetics expert to do this, but some basic training in this area definitely helps, especially given the skeptical world that we live in.

Often when I use this verse in teaching, I tend to gloss over the first part, "sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts." It means to make Christ the Lord of our lives in our own heart. In other words, it means to make sure that our heart is right with God, and that our spiritual walk is right with Him. This is the essential first part of apologetics. Our words are of little value if our lives do not reflect the lordship of Christ in our behavior and attitudes. This is not a one-time thing, but a daily surrender to Christ's lordship. If we fail at this step we will fail altogether, no matter how good our arguments are.

I've been hearing about some former evangelical Christian scholars and even former apologists who have fallen away from the faith and are now fighting against Christianity. When listening to their stories, I believe they all failed at the first step above. It wasn't that they encountered arguments for atheism that were so irrefutable that they were compelled to lose their faith by force of reason. In fact, the former apologists that I've heard don't have any better arguments against the Gospel than any run-of-the-mill skeptic. But in one case, a former Christian apologist who was the pastor of an evangelical church fell into an adulterous relationship with a woman in his church. When he finally confessed, the church was (understandably I think) quite upset by it. He became bitter because of their response to him and, to make a long story short, he eventually divorced his wife and became an anti-apologist against Christianity. He had failed to live a life that was surrendered to the lordship of Christ even though he may have been good at apologetics.

Good apologetics doesn't start with good arguments, but rather with a surrendered life that is lived under the lordship of Christ. We do need good arguments, and we do need to have some idea of how to respond to skeptics (though I often struggle with being both “gentle” and “respectful”, which is something that we also need to be careful to do). But first and foremost we need to be people of holiness, people who are living in constant, daily communion with Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Resurrection and good works

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.

1 Cor. 15:58

One of the easiest rules of Bible interpretation to remember is this one: whenever you see a “therefore” you have to ask what it’s there for. Whatever precedes the word “therefore” justifies whatever comes after it. In this case, Paul has given an extensive discussion of resurrection – first, of Christ’s resurrection, which is the foundation of our faith. He then talks about the future resurrection of believers. Because of this future hope of resurrection he says that we should “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” knowing that our work is not in vain.

The Resurrection is not simply a nice theoretical doctrine. It has an important practical application in motivating faith and good works. It’s not a “pie-in-the-sky by-and-by” theology, but a theology of a future life in which we will be transformed to be like Christ in his resurrected life. As one of my former seminary professors has said, we will be “bulletproof”. The historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of our own future resurrection. This is not an imaginary hope; it’s as real as it gets.

Theologian N.T. Wright calls this future hope “life AFTER life after death”. We often talk of “life after death”, by which we mean the immediate state that we enter after death. There is such a state (and I plan to do more blogging on the research into this through the study of “near-death experiences”), but this is not the final state for believers. It is a temporary one in which we await the final resurrected state that Paul talks about.

Some Christian theology is based on a future state of a disembodied existence in heaven. This is not the biblical view. The Resurrection of Jesus happened in the physical world. Our future resurrection will likewise be in the physical world, not in a spiritual world in which we float around on clouds strumming harps. The accusation of Christians as being “too spiritually minded to be of any earthly good” should never be true of us. Just as our future hope is a real hope, our good works should be real and visible to the world. God calls us to live lives characterized by good works, lives that stand out from the world by their quality. If that can’t be said of our lives, then something is wrong.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Give us a sign!

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Matt. 12:38-39

The Pharisees and teachers of the law wanted a sign from Jesus to prove to them that he was the Messiah. Many skeptics today want a miraculous sign for a different reason – to prove to them that God exists and that miracles actually happen. One skeptic I was arguing with said he would believe in God if God turned his grass blue. His reasoning was that it would be a simple enough thing for God to do. If his grass turned blue, he would consider that miraculous. He seemed to feel that God was obligated to meet his demand for proof.

The skeptic presumes that because God wants everyone to believe in him, God should satisfy everyone’s demand for direct, empirical evidence of his existence. But what skeptics don’t seem to understand is that there is more to faith than simply believing that God exists. Faith also involves trust – which is a question of our assessment of God’s character. It’s not enough to simply believe that God exists - faith means putting our trust in him and in his goodness, his love, and his mercy. Many people believe that God exists but do not trust him. Some believe God’s purpose in life is to keep us from having fun, so he gives us restrictive rules. They don’t understand that God’s commands are designed to help us and protect us, to increase our joy rather than decreasing it.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is interesting. He says no miraculous sign would be given to them except for the sign of the prophet Jonah. He explains what he means by that in the next verse: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus is speaking about the Resurrection as the sign they would receive. It’s still the sign that has been given to every generation since that time wherever the Gospel has been preached. It’s a sign that not only reveals that God exists, but also that he “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The Resurrection of the Son of God is our guarantee that we will one day share in the glory of his life if we trust in him.

There is already sufficient proof for the skeptic that God exists. Without God, there is no reason for anything to exist, and thus nothing should exist. The very existence of the cosmos speaks not only to God’s existence, but also to his incredible power, his vast intelligence (if we can even use that term for God), and his creativity. But there is also sufficient proof that Jesus really rose from the dead. There is no natural explanation for the evidence of the early testimony of the first Christians that Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them. It was not a legend, as the written records are much too early for that. All other naturalistic theories have failed – that the disciples made it up, that they were hallucinating, that Jesus didn’t really die but only fainted. None of these theories explain the evidence. The best explanation, the only explanation that really fits the evidence, is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

The question is not what evidence does the skeptic require before he or she will believe. The real question is what will he or she do with the evidence which has already been given.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Baby Jonathan's Dedication

On Sunday we drove up to Rochester to have baby Jonathan dedicated at Gates Wesleyan Church. It's the same church we were married in, so we have a special connection there, although we've never lived in Rochester since we were married. The highlight of the dedication ceremony was when Jonathan grabbed the pastor's nose immediately after being handed to him (unfortunately we have no photo of that)!

It's a good reminder of the responsibility of a Christian parent not only to care for the physical needs of our children, but their spiritual needs as well. When I became a Christian at the age of 19 and went off to Bible college, one of the things that struck me about many of my fellow students was the fact that they didn't seem to have a really clear understanding of their own faith. Most of them had grown up in the church. Unlike me, many of them had no clear before/after testimony of a conversion experience. I had gone from partying and doing drugs to being a Bible college student within a month. Some of the other students were still partying and doing drugs (though not the majority thankfully)!

My reaction was to conclude that it was better to not grow up in the church if you wanted a strong faith - not a comfortable conclusion in my mind. But then I immediately had another thought: one day I might end up having kids, and I certainly wanted my kids to grow up in the church. But I also wanted them to have a strong faith that was their own, and not just something they lamely inherited from their upbringing without much thought given to it. How could this be done?

Now that I have three kids of my own I'm still asking that question. Am I doing enough as a parent to give my kids a strong spiritual foundation? They are certainly getting plenty of exposure to other Christians. But what will happen to their faith when they leave the cocoon? My first answer, of course, is to give them lots of solid apologetics. But beyond that my prayer for my kids is that they will have their own vital experiences with God, such as the experiences I have had that have shaped my life and my faith in so many ways. Good theology is one thing, but encountering the presence of God firsthand is when lasting life change really takes place.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Resurrection and Missions

What does the Resurrection have to do with missions? Everything! As Paul proclaimed to the philosophers in Athens,

Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone-- an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.
Acts 17:29-31

The important message that Paul is driving home here is God's command, which is "to all people everywhere." That message is a fairly simple one: repent. It's the same message that Jesus preached himself, "repent, for the kindgom of heaven is near." The fundamental Gospel message has to do with repentance, with turning back to God and away from living according to our own desires. It means being reconciled to God through the forgiveness of sins. But how do we know this message is true out of all of the conflicting messages that claim to be from God?

The answer to that (if you haven't already guessed it) is the Resurrection itself. Paul says the Resurrection is the proof that God has given that this message is the truth. No other purported message from God comes with this kind of empirical test of its veracity. Nothing else even comes close.

But how does God intend to communicate this message of repentance to all people everywhere? The answer is, of course, through missions, and through the preaching of missionaries. In Romans 10:13-15 we read:

"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

We must be careful to guard against any idea of missions that takes away from this one fundamental task: to proclaim God's message of repentance and forgiveness through Christ to "all people everywhere." The task of proclaiming God's message to the world has been entrusted to the church. It is a task that we must fufill.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

How important is the Resurrection?

For the first several years of my Christian life, I'll admit that I didn’t understand the importance of the Resurrection in the Christian faith. I understood the importance of the crucifixion, and probably most Christians do. That Jesus died, and that he died for our sins is of course of paramount importance in Christian theology. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is the heart of the Gospel message, and yet it says nothing about the Resurrection.

Unlike almost all other revealed religions, however, Christianity bases the truth of its claims on objective historical events rather than on purely subjective truth claims. These amazing events – Jesus’ execution, his burial in a tomb, the finding of the tomb empty, and the subsequent appearances of the risen Christ to many individuals and groups of people over a period of 40 days afterward - are the foundation of the claims of the authors of the New Testament.

As N.T. Wright, author of the voluminous scholarly work “The Resurrection of the Son of God” observed, there were about a dozen or so other messianic movements in Judaism for the period of 200 years or so around the time of Christ. All of those movements, with the exception of Christianity, ended with the violent death of the leader. The Jewish messiah was to overthrow Roman rule and free the Jewish people from Roman oppression. Death at the hands of the Romans was thus a sure-fire indicator that this person was not the messiah.
The followers of these other would-be messiahs had the choice to either abandon the movement or find another messiah. The early Christians did neither, but instead began to proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth, who had been executed by Roman authorities, nevertheless was the awaited Jewish Messiah as well as Lord of all the earth. They insisted that this bizarre statement was true because God had raised Jesus from the dead, and they had seen the evidence with their own eyes: the tomb was empty, and Jesus himself had appeared to them, announcing his Resurrection in person.

So how important is the Resurrection? Well, Paul certainly considered it important when he wrote

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.

1 Cor. 15: 14-15

Furthermore, Paul proclaimed to the philosophers in Athens these words:

Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone-- an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.

Acts 17:29-31

The Resurrection is the proof of the pudding as far as the Gospel is concerned. If Jesus really rose from the dead, then everyone should be a Christian. If he did not rise from the dead, then no one should be.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Getting a fresh start . . .

For my few but discriminating readers who have been following my blog, I'm going to be starting it up again with new content in the next few days. I plan on continuing to address topics related to theology and philosophy, with more of an emphasis on missions. I've also decided to replace the previous front page format with a simplified one for easier maintenance. Hopefully this will facilitate greater participation. As always, please feel free to leave your comments on any of the topics under discussion.

So stay tuned, there's more on the way!

About me

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.