Monday, December 21, 2009

From Lowly Beginnings

Of all of the skeptical arguments marshaled against the historicity of the New Testament, few are as absurd as one promulgated by atheist Frank Zindler and propagated on the internet: that there was no town of Nazareth in the time of Jesus, and that the description of Jesus as having grown up there was a later fabrication, possibly based on a corruption of the Hebrew word for Nazarite. The basis for this argument was entirely an argument from ignorance, and not a very good one at that. Zindler’s points include the following:

• No "ancient historians or geographers mention [Nazareth] before the beginning of the fourth century.”
• Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, the Talmud, nor in the Apocrypha and it does not appear in any early rabbinic literature.
• Nazareth was not included in the list of settlements of the tribes of Zebulun (Joshua 19:10-16) which mentions twelve towns and six villages
• Nazareth is not included among the 45 cities of Galilee that were mentioned by Josephus (37AD-100AD).
• Nazareth is also missing from the 63 towns of Galilee mentioned in the Talmud.

Apparently someone forgot to tell him that arguments from ignorance don’t prove anything, and that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But what really makes this argument rather bizarre is that it has been known for a long time that the area around the modern city of Nazareth was inhabited in the periods before and after the time of Jesus. Some skeptics speculated that it was uninhabited for the period in which Jesus was a child, but not because of evidence that it wasn’t. It was based on the lack of solid evidence that it was, and apparently this was enough to try to throw more doubt on the historical details and setting of the New Testament, even though those details have been well confirmed by historians.

In any case, today the announcement was made of the discovery of a dwelling in ancient Nazareth from the time period of Jesus, in this article from the AP: “The humble dwelling is the first dating to the era of Jesus to be discovered in Nazareth, then a hamlet of around 50 impoverished Jewish families where Jesus spent his boyhood.” This points to the most obvious reason why Nazareth was left off of the lists of towns pointed out by Zindler - Nazareth was too small and insignificant. Even the response of Nathaniel to Philip in John 1:46 points to the lowly status of this little town: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

This is yet another victory for the Gospels in the long-standing war of skeptics who have tried to undermine it on various grounds. Recently I spoke in a Sunday School class on the historical evidence for the NT, and mentioned the story of Sir William Ramsay, the skeptical archaeologist who set out to prove that the book of Acts was a late second- or early third-century forgery, and ended up becoming a Christian instead because of the overwhelming historical evidence supporting Acts.

In the middle of the Christmas season, it’s also worth reflecting on the background of the One who was born in a lowly manger in Bethlehem and lived his childhood in a poor Jewish village with no status and no prestige, the One who came to redeem the world, to exalt the humble and to tear down the proud. In a world that still values the prestige and honor of the “elites” above all else, it’s a reminder that ultimately it will not be the elites who will inherit the earth, but the meek.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Reasonable Faith

Tonight I begin leading a small group here in Houghton, NY, called "Reasonable Faith". The name is taken from the book by William Lane Craig of the same title. Dr. Craig also has an apologetics website, I'm looking forward to a good discussion about many interesting topics related to apologetics, some of which I've already covered in previous blog entries. To kick things off, I wanted to bring an old post out from the archives titled, "What evidence were you expecting, anyways?" I'm hoping this will lead to some discussion here on the blog, but if not, at least I'll be talking about it tonight with my small group!

The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell was famously asked what he would say if after he died he found himself standing before the God in whose existence he did not believe, and God asked him, “why didn’t you believe in me?” Russell’s reply was, “not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!”

I was having a blog debate with an atheist not long ago. The atheist said, “after centuries of theism and all of the searching we’ve done without finding any evidence, I think we’re justified in discarding religion and moving on.”

In my response, I conceded that we can be justified in disbelieving the existence of some entity E if we expect certain kinds of evidence in the case of E’s existence, and after thorough investigation that evidence does not turn up. I then asked the atheist what evidence he was expecting to find in the case of God’s existence which had not turned up.

Being the good sport that I am, I offered a couple of suggestion for him to consider while formulating his answer. For starters, I said, if God existed we might expect to find that the universe had a beginning rather than finding that the universe had always existed. Hey, wait a minute. According to a considerable amount of evidence that cosmologists have discovered, the universe did have a beginning. That’s pretty interesting when you think about it, since according to the First Law of Thermodynamics (also known as the Law of Conservation), matter can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed into energy (and vice-versa). So if there is no God, we might well expect that the universe had always existed. In fact, that was the dominant view among cosmologists in the early part of the 20th century before the Big Bang theory became widely accepted.

Another bit of evidence that we might anticipate if God existed is evidence of design in the structure of the universe itself (as opposed to it being a haphazard jumble). Again, the evidence for design based on the fine-tuning of the universe for life is extremely well documented. The structure of the universe both in terms of the values of the fundamental constants of physics and the initial conditions at the very first moment of the universe’s existence had to be within a staggeringly small range in order for life to exist. Even the skeptic Fred Hoyle was so impressed by this cosmic fine-tuning that he remarked that it appeared that a superintellect had monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology. He further commented that the numbers were so overwhelming “as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” Since Hoyle wrote that statement, the list of “anthropic coincidences” (those values that are necessary for a life-sustaining universe) has continued to grow longer.

My atheist interlocutor never did answer the question as to what evidence he expected to find in the case of God’s existence that hadn’t turned up. That seemed a little odd to me. If you’re going to conclude that there is no evidence for something, I think you should have some idea of what evidence you might expect. I wonder what Bertrand Russell would have said in answer to that question. Maybe after he died he did say to God “not enough evidence!”, I don’t know. If so, I can imagine God saying in response, “what evidence were you expecting, anyways?”

Monday, July 6, 2009

Whom would you most like to meet?

It’s interesting that a recent poll conducted in the U.K. asked respondents which dead person they would most like to meet. Princess Diana was expected to be number one. But in fact, she came in at the number two spot behind Jesus. What this shows is that even in the heart of secular Europe, interest in the historical person of Jesus is as high as it has ever been. Even in America, Jesus remains a highly popular, enigmatic, and fascinating figure. As Dr. Ben Witherington III says, we live in a Jesus-haunted culture that is biblically illiterate. Unfortunately, because of that almost anything can pass for knowledge of Jesus. Thus have we seen a slough of popular and supposedly scholarly books on Jesus in the last decade that are based on flimsy foundations, weak theories, and pseudo-scholarship.

My introduction to Ben Witherington was when I took a class from him in my last year at Asbury Seminary, the year he started teaching there. This was back in 1995, and he had already written several excellent, scholarly books on the New Testament. Within a few classes I was thinking to myself, “why have I never heard of this guy before?” Before the end of that class, I thought to myself, “this guy is going somewhere.” While I hadn’t seen his name quoted or cited as an authority up until that time, I had a strong feeling that that would happen. Sure enough, in the 14 years since that class, I have seen Ben Witherington’s name come up repeatedly in different places. He has written many more books, including the best-selling title “The Gospel Code”, which was written in response to Dan Brown’s horrible and now thoroughly discredited book, “The Da Vinci Code.” He has been interviewed by every major TV network as well as appearing on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel, and is cited as an authority by many other scholars. One of my regrets from my time in seminary was that I didn’t have opportunity to take more classes from Witherington.

So I was excited to find out that he was teaching a one-week intensive class at Houghton College at the end of June on “The Jesus of Film, Fantasy, and Faith.” The purpose of the class was to cut through all of the pseudo-scholarship and popular level works about Jesus that have become so prominent in the last decade and show the evidence for the canonical Gospel portraits of Jesus, the books developed out of the collective memory of those who were closest to Jesus and knew him the best. I’ll be blogging about some of the insights I gained from that class. But as Dr. Witherington puts it, Witherington shared in the class how he has spoken to audiences across the country and has been amazed at the number of Christians who don’t realize, for example, that the New Testament doesn’t say that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, or in fact that he was married at all! In fact, there is no historical evidence for that claim at all even though many popular writers treat it as a serious hypothesis.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Another atheist comes back home

On another internet site I came across some posts by a former atheist from the U.K. who had actually served as the director of the Rationalist Press Association for almost 10 years, as well as a one-year stint as the president of the National Secular Society. He gives the following reasons for his return to Christianity after 20 years as a hardened atheist:

1. A realisation that the universe is not self-explanatory, and that - unless it is completely absurd - it needs a transcendent explanation.2. A realisation that science cannot - even in principle - even begin to explain why there is something and not nothing.3. A realisation that Hume's critique of theism is far from watertight; that Darwin's theory of evolution does not begin to explain either the emergence or the complexity of life, and that much 19th century criticism and modern scientism is founded on an untenable world-view.

My return to the Christian faith was facilitated by a recognition that much biblical criticism from the Enlightenment until quite recently was based on faulty premises, and by a recognition that - notwithstanding some legendary elements - the Gospel story of Jesus, his teaching, his death and resurrection were historically well-founded. Furthermore, the experience of worship and reconciliation was a source of inner conviction that has remained with me, and I hope always will.

There are a growing number of testimonies on the internet of atheists coming to Christ, or coming back to Christ. Some have come as a result of internet apologetics. This one appears to have come back to the fold through his own study on issues of theology and religion, and his recognition of the limitations of scientific explanations for the world as well as the ultimately incoherent worldview of scientific materialism.

Of course skeptics will point out that there are also testimonies of former Christians – even former ministers in some cases – becoming atheists. While this is true, the skeptical position is that atheism is strictly based on pure reason while religion is irrational. For a knowledgeable and highly educated atheist to turn to religion, then, should necessitate that a rational person has suddenly become irrational. However, these individuals do not give evidence of being irrational, and are able to give good rational arguments as to why they abandoned the atheistic worldview. Of course, these defectors are generally treated with the great contempt, mockery and abuse that are so typical of the atheist internet community.

Stay tuned, as there are surely more exciting conversion stories to come!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Resurrection Faith (part four)

And last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

The appearance to Paul is one of the most controversial ones listed. Many skeptics suggest that Paul’s claimed experience was not an experience of the risen Christ in person, but was rather a vision or a “spiritual” experience. In other words, Paul made no claim to having had an physical encounter with Christ in the real world. This, they say, also means that Paul thought of these other appearances to the apostles in the same way – merely as some sort of undefined vision. The stories in the Gospels arose later, and are of a different nature altogether than the claims made in this early church creed that Paul uses. The first question, then, is what was the nature of Paul’s experience? Is it true that Paul only reported a spiritual vision rather than a physical encounter with Christ? Let’s examine the evidence.

Paul’s encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus is recorded 3 times in the book of Acts: once when it is narrated, and twice when Paul is recorded as giving speeches about it to others. In addition, Paul alludes to his experience three times in his own letters: once in Galatians and twice in 1 Corinthians. So if critics want to make a case that Paul only reported having a vision of some kind, this is the primary data.

The three descriptions of Paul’s experience in Acts are found in 9:3-9; 22:6-11; and 26:12-16. There are several important features of all three descriptions. One of the first things to note is that in every case the men who were with Saul (Paul’s pre-Christian name) also experienced something. In none of these descriptions is this simply a private experience that only Paul was privy to. Something supposedly happened in the real world. But what exactly? Each of the descriptions include a bright light described as being “from heaven” and a voice. Unlike the light, it is not said where the voice came from. In the first account, we are told that the men heard the voice but saw no one. In the second account, Paul specifies that the men saw the light but did not hear the voice. In the third account it says the light shone around them all and they all fell to the ground.

So it’s clear that what is being described here is a real-world event and not a private vision that was only taking place in Paul’s mind. But the question is raised as to whether the men heard the voice or not. Luke wrote both accounts, so it’s unlikely he would have left them this way if it was an actual contradiction. As Ben Witherington points out, in classical Greek the verb akouo (“to hear”) can be used either to hear the sound of something or someone, or to hear and understand. In the former case it’s used with the gentive form of the noun, while in the latter it’s used with the accusative.[i] This is what we find in Acts: in 9:7 the genitive of the noun is used, while 22:9 it’s in the accusative. The men with Paul heard something, but it was not intelligible to them.

But another important clue to what happened is that it specifically says in Acts 9:7 that the men with Paul saw nobody. But why say this unless Paul himself DID see somebody? It seems to imply that Paul saw somebody but the men with him did not, though they did, apparently, see a bright light (perhaps obscuring their sight temporarily). But there are other clues as well. As N.T. Wright points out, Barnabas describes Paul’s experience to the other apostles in Acts 9:27 as him having “seen the Lord on the road.”[ii] But more importantly, in 1 Cor. 9:1 Paul says, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”

Perhaps the skeptics strongest argument comes from Acts 26:19, where Paul says “So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision”. This should settle it, right? Paul had a vision, not an objectively real experience. Actually, it turns out not to be the case. The word Paul uses here is the Greek word optasia, which is used four times in the NT. Besides this occurrence, it is found in Luke 1:22; Luke 24:23; and 2 Cor. 12:1. In the cases in Luke it appears to refer to appearances of angels which appear to be objectively real. This is especially clear in 24:23 where it refers to the angels at the tomb which appeared to the women. 2 Cor. 12:1 is ambiguous, although Paul himself says he doesn’t know if the experience described there was “in the body” or “apart from the body.” But the important thing is this is NOT the word used to describe visions which clearly were simply spiritual or private in nature, such as the vision of Ananais in Acts 9:10 (and the parallel vision of Paul in 9:12), the vision of Cornelius in Acts 10:3, and the vision of Peter in Acts 10:17. These all use the word opama. And actually in Acts 12:9, when Peter is miraculously released from prison, we read “And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision (opama).” So here it is clear that the word opama is a vision that is not objectively real. This is not the word that Paul used to describe his vision of Jesus, which would be better described as heavenly appearance.[iii]

Thus the idea that the appearance of Jesus to Paul was just a spiritual vision of some kind is just mistaken. All of the accounts make it clear that it was experienced by Paul’s companions as well, though their experience apparently differed from his in some ways. We also have the implication that Paul saw a person, and elsewhere he says specifically that he has seen Jesus. Yes, Paul’s experience was different in many ways from the experiences of the other apostles (and he describes it with the word ektroma – “untimely born”), but still at it’s core involved seeing Jesus physically.

More importantly was the effect of this experience in changing Paul from a violent persecutor of this new sect to one of its leading proponents. Even skeptics recognize that Paul had an experience of some kind that transformed him from a violent zealot bent on destroying the Christian faith to its most famous missionary, one who endured persecution, imprisonment, and ultimately martyrdom for his proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah who had risen from the dead. A change of this magnitude and with such suddenness can only be explained by a life-changing event. Paul testifies to what that life-changing event was: “He appeared to me also.”

[i] Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (312).
[ii] Wright, 389-390.
[iii] Witherington, (746).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Resurrection Faith (part three)

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;

Here Paul begins to list the eyewitnesses – not to the Resurrection itself, but to the risen Christ. Keep in mind that these reports were in circulation within 2-3 years after Jesus’ death. There can be no doubt that these people actually reported having seen Jesus after his death. Those reports were either true or false. One thing they were not were myths and legends that developed over a long period of time. Paul himself checked with the apostles to verify the contents of his preaching as he writes in Galatians 1:18-20. He says, “Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother. Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.”

Skeptics sometimes like to use the illustration of the game where you have a line of people and the person at the start of the line gives a message to the next person. They pass it to the next person and so on, until it gets to the other end. Then you see how the message got garbled in the process. This, they say, is how we got the stories about Jesus in the New Testament. The problems with this illustration are numerous. The biggest problem is this: all you need to do to find out what the original message was is to ask the person at the front of the line. In fact, that’s the only way you can tell that the message was changed is by comparing the last person’s story with the first person’s story. So in order for this to be the process by which we arrived at the stories of Jesus in the New Testament, you have to assume that nobody checked with those who were reported as eyewitnesses. However, we have specific claims that people DID check with the eyewitnesses, and not just by Paul. Luke also specifically claims to have checked with eyewitnesses, as does John. Paul even basically swears an oath here in Galatians that he’s telling the truth. But if those claims were false, then these men were lying. Is it possible Paul was lying? The early and consistent testimony of church history is that Paul died a martyr’s death in Rome around 64 AD under Nero after having risked his life countless times to proclaim the Gospel message throughout the Roman Empire. Of first importance in that proclamation was the eyewitness testimony of those who had seen Jesus after his Resurrection. This was not a game for Paul and for the other eyewitnesses – it was quite literally a matter of life and death.

He Appeared to Cephas

The first appearance Paul reports is one to Peter (Cephas is Peter’s name in Aramaic), and evidently to Peter by himself since it’s listed separately from the appearance to the Twelve. Some skeptics object that we have no report in the Gospels of such an appearance. But this is not entirely correct. It’s true that there’s no narrative of such an appearance, but in fact an appearance to Peter by himself is mentioned by Luke. This happens after the narrative of Jesus appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Luke writes, “And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them, saying, ‘The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon’” (Luke 24:33-34). Simon is Peter’s original name which Jesus changed to Cephas (or Peter), meaning rock. So here in Luke we have a clear reference to this first appearance to Peter mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians. We have no other details of this appearance, but Luke indicates that Peter, after going to the tomb himself to verify the incredible story of the women, returned to his home “marveling at what had happened” (Luke 24:12). This private appearance to Peter most likely occurred at his home.

Then to the Twelve

The next appearance listed by Paul is to the Twelve. Luke and John both record an appearance of Jesus to his disciples on the evening after his resurrection. In Luke it occurs immediately after the passage given above. The Emmaus disciples return to Jerusalem to find the eleven and others who are with them talking about Jesus’ appearance to Peter. The two from Emmaus then recount their own testimony. Jesus then appears to all of them. Interestingly, Luke records that they became frightened thinking that it was a spirit. Jesus says to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” He then asks them if they have something to eat, and eats a piece of broiled fish in front of them. This is an absolutely remarkable story given the completely unexpected nature of it. Luke does not portray Jesus here as a spirit-like being at all, but as having the properties of a normal human being. At the same time, he also can do things normal people can’t do, like appearing and disappearing at will. But the Gospel narratives give nothing else unusual about Jesus, except that he is sometimes recognized immediately and sometimes not recognized until later. If this was a legendary development, why does Jesus’s body not glow or something else to indicate its supernatural qualities? Luke indicates that the angels in the tomb were “dazzling” in appearance – why not Jesus? Even the disciples seem to have doubts and questions about their experiences. This is consistent with what we would expect from anyone who sees a person they’ve known after their death, but hardly as an apologetic for the Resurrection written afterwards to dupe a gullible populace.

The skeptic likes to raise the objection that at this point in the story the Twelve was no longer twelve, since Judas had reportedly committed suicide after betraying Jesus. In fact Luke says the disciples on the road to Emmaus returned to “the eleven.” So how can Paul say that Jesus appeared to the Twelve? One solution immediately presents itself in Luke’s account of the election of a replacement for Judas in Acts 1. We are told that Matthias was chosen for this role. But we are also told that Peter gave the necessary qualifications for this office in Acts 1:21-22: “Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us -- beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us -- one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” So the only candidates were apparently those who had accompanied the apostles from the beginning. Luke has already indicated that there were others gathered with the eleven when Jesus appeared, so it’s quite possible, even probable, that Matthais was one of those present at that appearance on the first evening. Of course, John reports that Thomas was NOT present for that first appearance, but that eight days later Jesus appeared to them again when all of the disciples were present.

Then to more than 500

Paul makes a remarkable report that Jesus also appeared to a group of more than five hundred people at one time. He also adds the note “most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” This obviously was not part of the original creed which Paul had received, but was added by him when he wrote the Corinthians. Skeptics will argue that this appearance must be fictitious, because there is no record of such an appearance in the Gospels. Some suggest that the appearance in Matthew 28 on the mountain in Galilee may have been this event, although Matthew only mentions the eleven. It’s conceivable that Matthew just omitted reference to a large crowd besides the disciples, although arguments from silence make for poor evidence. But the skeptic’s argument is itself an argument from silence: the Gospels do not specifically mention such an appearance, so there must not have been one. Of course, even when multiple accounts mention the same appearance (such as the one to Peter and to the Twelve), the skeptic says those ones didn’t happen, either for some other reason!

What is remarkable about the five hundred is Paul’s statement that most of these eyewitnesses are still alive. For one thing, it indicates that he must have known who these people were and had some sort of up-to-date information on their whereabouts in order to make such a claim. After all, he was writing to the Corinthians some 20 years after the events in question. How could he claim that most of these eyewitnesses were alive without having some reliable source of information on them? And of course it also raises the question of why he would add this to his letter. He’s clearly using this list as evidential support for the claim that Jesus had really risen from the dead. The information could be verified by his readers, and Paul is staking not only his own apostolic authority on the veracity of his claims, but also the entire truth of the Gospel message itself, a message which he had risked his life to proclaim and eventually gave his life for it. Would he have made a claim like this if such an event had not been reported by eyewitnesses? And again, since the event itself appears to have been part of the early creed and was thus in circulation within 2-3 years after Jesus’ death, how could such a story have originated? Skeptical theories such as hallucinations absolutely won’t work. For more than 500 people to have a hallucination of the same person at the same time would be at least as great a miracle as the Resurrection itself.

Then He Appeared to James

This James is not the same James as the member of the original apostles by that name, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. Paul is referring here to James, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3) who became a leader in the early church (Gal. 1:19) and wrote the book of James. This is in itself a remarkable fact. The portrait of Jesus’ siblings in John’s Gospel is that they did not believe in him and may in fact have been somewhat embarrassed by him. How is it, then, that one of Jesus’ brothers not only became one of his followers after his death but a leader in the early church? According to this early church creed, it was because Jesus himself appeared to James after his resurrection. Paul himself met personally with James to confirm this story. So there can be no doubt that James, the brother of Jesus, reported having seen his older brother after he had risen.

Then to All the Apostles

The penultimate appearance on Paul’s list is to “all the apostles,” apparently meaning a different group than the Twelve. The word “apostle” means one who is sent or commissioned and is used in the New Testament to refer to individuals other than the Twelve. A.T. Robertson believes this final appearance to be the one narrated in Acts 1 at Jesus’ ascension. While this is a plausible explanation, we don’t have enough information to be certain.

The list of eyewitnesses that Paul gives here is impressive. He says that all of these people claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection. As we have already learned, this creed was almost certainly in circulation among the churches within 2-3 years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Is it possible that these stories had developed as legends in such a short period of time? That’s out of the question. Legends take far longer than that to develop. As A.N. Sherwin-White notes, even two full generations is not sufficient to wipe out a core of historical facts. Besides that, Paul himself met with at least some of these eyewitnesses personally, and was also able to make the claim that most of the 500 were still alive at the time of the writing of his letter to the Corinthians 20 years after the crucifixion. They weren’t legends.

Could the reports have been mistaken in some way? Did people simply think they had seen Jesus but they actually didn’t? Natural explanations involving things like hallucinations are just not plausible. Hallucinations are subject-dependent, so it’s not possible for two people to have identical hallucinations at the same time, let alone 500 people! Even taking just the testimony of the apostles, it’s impossible that they could have all been deceived into thinking that they had seen Jesus when in fact they had not.

It’s also inconceivable that they could have fabricated the story. What would have been their motive? To achieve fame and glory? If that was there motive, they would have had plenty of opportunity to recant after it became clear that their “reward” for their deception was going to be persecution, imprisonment, and martyrdom. But tradition records that all of the apostles except for John were martyred for their faith without ever recanting of their testimony. Skeptics have challenged how good the evidence is for the martyrdom of all of the apostles. The accounts for some of the apostles are admittedly sketchy, but there are good early traditions for many of them, including James the brother of John who was put to death by Herod in Acts 12:2, Peter, and Paul among several others. As Tim and Lydia McGrew point out, even the fact that the apostles had seen others of their number put to death would have been enough to give strong motive to recant on their testimony. So how strong is this eyewitness testimony? Strong enough for the eyewitnesses themselves to have risked, and in many cases given their lives for it, to deliver their message to future generations.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Resurrection Faith (part two)

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

Paul begins here to lay out what exactly it was that was of “first importance.” Three historical events are given here: that Christ died, was buried, and was raised on the third day. Paul also uses the expression “according to the Scriptures” twice. Finally, he states that Jesus died “for our sins.” N.T. Wright points out that Paul probably doesn’t have any specific proof-texts in mind, but the Scriptural revelation as a whole. The themes of redemption and atonement are, of course, prominent themes in the Old Testament. Jesus’ death is shown in the New Testament as being prefigured in the Passover, and in the Old Testament sacrificial system. Paul may have meant that Jesus’ Resurrection was prefigured in the Scriptures (Jesus himself referred to it as the “sign of the prophet Jonah”), or perhaps even that the Resurrection on the third day was prefigured. Some have seen this in Hosea 6:1-2: “Come, let us return to the LORD. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him.” Some messianic passages in the Old Testament were originally predicated of the nation of Judah. This is the clearest passage in the OT that looks like a resurrection on the third day.

Christ Died For Our Sins

The death of Jesus by crucifixion is, of course, recorded in all four Gospels. Some critics have alleged that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, that he just fainted and then later revived. This is sometimes known as the “swoon” theory, and is an attempt to explain how the disciples came to believe that Jesus was alive after his death (or apparent death as the theory goes). However, this idea is utterly implausible for several reasons. First, Roman centurions were very experienced in executing people, and knew how to tell when someone was dead. We have testimony from John’s Gospel that indicates that the soldiers took Jesus to be dead. In order to hasten death for the two criminals executed beside Jesus, the soldiers broke their legs with a heavy mallet. This would result in death in short order, since crucifixion victims must push up on their legs in order to take a breath. Lacking the ability to do that, they would die of asphyxiation quite quickly. But when the soldiers came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead and didn’t break his legs. Furthermore, John records that one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear to double-check that he was dead.

According to John, “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe” (John 19:33-34). This is a remarkable statement. First, the fact that this is given not one but two attestations as to its veracity (“the man who saw it has given his testimony which is true and he knows it’s true”). This sounds almost like an oath in a court of law. Second, what the eyewitness saw was blood and water flowing out of Jesus’ side. Apparently this was unexpected and unusual which is why he commented on it and reinforced the comment with an oath as to its veracity. But it’s also consistent with the mode of death. According to Dr. Alexander Metherell (M.D.), “Even before he died . . . the hypovolemic shock would have caused a sustained rapid heart rate that would have contributed to heart failure, resulting in the collection of fluid in the membrane around the heart, called a pericardial effusion, as well as around the lungs, which is called a pleural effusion.” This unexpected event was noteworthy to John. It’s consistent with Jesus’ medical condition at the time of his death. It also proves that he was, in fact, dead.

He Was Buried

All four of the Gospels record the burial of Jesus in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea who was a member of the Sandhedrin, the ruling council that condemned Jesus to death. Matthew and John both indicate that Joseph was a follower of Jesus, with John adding that he was a “closet disciple” for fear of the other Jews. It seems highly unlikely that this was a legend or an invention of the early Christians. There would have been no reason to invent a member of the council that condemned Jesus to come forward and to be the person who gave Jesus an honorable burial in his own family tomb. And while the Gospels include different details in the post-Resurrection narratives, all four include Joseph’s involvement in the burial. For these reasons the late Cambridge University NT scholar John A.T. Robinson said, “the honorable burial of Jesus is one of the earliest and best-attested facts that we have about the historical Jesus” (Strobel, 210).

Skeptics object that there is no other historical record of such an individual, and no clear identification of a city called Arimathea. However, there are many other references to Joseph in non-canonical literature. Some of it is clearly legendary, but the city of Ramah, which was the birthplace of the prophet Samuel, is called Armathaim in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (1 Sam. 2:2). This may well have been the city where Joseph was from. For the early Christians to have invented and named a specific individual from a specific group if that person did not exist would be a curious move, given that the information could be checked out.

He Was Raised on the Third Day

Some skeptics argue that Paul did not believe in a physical resurrection, but a spiritual one. Thus Paul doesn’t specifically mention the fact that the tomb was discovered empty as the Gospels indicate. These skeptics sometimes point to 1 Cor. 15:42-44 as evidence for this contention: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”

Paul makes a number of contrasts between the present body and the resurrected body, including that the present body is “natural” while the resurrection body is “spiritual.” This is taken to mean “physical” and “ghost-like" by the skeptic. However, this is a mistake. Paul uses the exact same contrast with the exact same words (“natural” and “spiritual”) at the beginning of the letter. In 1 Cor. 2:14-15 Paul writes, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one.” When he speaks of the “natural” man and he who is “spiritual,” he doesn’t mean one with a physical body and one who is a ghost! Rather, he’s talking about the orientation of the person, whether towards the earthly (natural) realm or towards the heavenly (spiritual) realm. This skeptical theory is rather bizarre for another reason. Skeptics normally assert that the belief in the Resurrection was a process of accumulating myth. Yet according to the skeptics’ theory here, the earliest belief (in 1 Cor. 15) is more mythologized than the later versions which appear in the Gospels where Jesus is physically resurrected!

There is also the point that if Paul thought the Resurrection was spiritual and didn’t involved Jesus’ body coming back to life, what was significant about the third day? Why the delay? A spiritual resurrection wouldn’t require a waiting period of three days. Presumably Jesus would have gone to heaven spiritually immediately upon his death. But Paul says he was raised on the third day, the same day that the tomb was discovered empty by some of Jesus’ women followers according to all of the Gospel reports. This story is also a very unlikely invention, as women were not considered to be reliable witnesses in Jewish culture. In fact Paul’s list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15 fails to mention any of the appearances to the women reported in the Gospels. This can be explained in one of two ways. Either the story of the women was invented later and inserted into the Gospel accounts (highly unlikely), or the early church creed left out the appearances to the women in part due to the cultural stigma against having women as witnesses, and in part because creeds only record information which is deemed essential. This explanation makes much more sense of the evidence.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Resurrection Faith (part one)

In preparation for Easter, I'd like to walk through one of the key passages in all of Scripture that points to the faith of the earliest disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. I'll also be commenting on the implications of our Easter faith at the end of the week.

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 Corinthians 15:3-8

This passage is the earliest witness in the New Testament to the Resurrection. I'll be examining it one piece at a time. Skeptics, of course, regard the Resurrection as a myth or a legend, a story that simply developed over time as people told stories about a charismatic Jewish peasant preacher named Yeshua. But of course nobody today could believe such nonsense . . . could they?

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is universally recognized as an authentic letter of Paul, written to the church in Corinth around 55-57 AD. This passage from Paul is recognized as having the form of an early church creed. It’s stylized as a creed and uses some early expressions such as Peter’s Aramaic name (Cephas) and “the Twelve.” Paul tells his readers that he had delivered this creed to them that he had previously received, the contents of which consist of a number of historical claims. The words Paul uses are important – he uses two technical rabbinic terms for receiving and handing on of sacred tradition1. He wasn’t merely passing on gossip that he’d heard. The accepted date for Paul’s previous visit to Corinth was 51 AD. So when Paul says he had delivered this message to the Corinthians, he was referring to something he had done on his previous visit. But when did he receive it? Obviously prior to that. It’s also significant that he says this was “of first importance.” James D.G. Dunn notes that “he assuredly does not imply that the tradition became important to him only at some subsequent date. More likely he indicates the importance of the tradition to himself from the start; that was why he made sure to pass it on to the Corinthians when they first believed.”2

Thus it appears that this creed was received by Paul very early after his remarkable conversion, which occurred on his way to Damascus in about 33-34 AD, within just a couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s possible he received it in Damascus, or he may have received it on his visit with the apostles which he mentions in Gal. 1:18, which would have been no later than 37 AD. But this creed would have already been in circulation before that. Thus Dunn writes, “this tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death [emphasis original].”3 Even liberal New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann says, “We can assume that all the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus.”4 N.T. Wright agrees, saying this creed was likely formulated with 2-3 years of the crucifixion.5

If all of this is true, and there’s no good reason to doubt it, then these historical claims simply cannot be dismissed as myths and legends that developed over decades or even centuries as some skeptics claim. Many skeptics point to supposed late dates for the writing of the Gospels to bolster the myth argument, but those arguments are irrelevant (besides being generally mistaken). The historic core of the events surrounding the first Easter can be traced back to within months of the death of Jesus by crucifixion on that Good Friday almost 2000 years ago.

It’s interesting that the creed which Paul delivered so carefully to the Corinthians was not a statement of doctrine, dogma, moral teachings, or esoteric religious philosophy. It was rather a set of very specific historical claims. The only item in it that could be called doctrine is the phrase “for our sins.” This is significant. The foundational claims of Christianity do not have to do with doctrine, dogma, or a philosophical system. They have to do with specific claims of specific historic events. Why is this important? Historic truth claims are true or false. It’s not a question of whether they are true for some people but not for others. And if the historic truths of Christianity can be shown to be true, then Christianity is true, and it’s true for everybody.

It’s also worth mentioning that these claims were quite literally a matter of life and death. Paul had persecuted the church and had been present for the execution of believers, giving his approval. After his amazing conversion, he put his own life on the line repeatedly to proclaim this very message around the Roman Empire, ultimately giving his life for it in martyrdom in Rome. Skeptics may say there were lots of miracle stories, although you will not find any miracle story attested like this one. And you will not find another miracle story for which so many eyewitnesses were willing to give their lives in order to testify to the truth of what they had seen. This was not merely idle gossip or tall tales, but a life-transforming message that survived against all odds to continue to be preached today.

As Paul said in his sermon to the people of Athens in Acts 17,

Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.

Acts 17:30-31

Interesting that in the crowd that heard Paul that day, some scoffed, some said, “we’d like to hear more about this,” and some believed. These are the same responses that you still see today whenever this message is preached. In 2000 years, nothing has changed! One of my favorite things about that sermon of Paul’s is that one of those who believed on the same day was Dionysius the Areopagite. This was a member of the Athenian ruling judicial council, a leader of the city and probably a man learned in law, arguments, and evidence. That message changed his life that day, just like it continues to change lives the world over.

1N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 319n13.
2James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 855.
3Dunn, 855.
4Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. London:SCM, 1998. Cited in Dunn, 855n129.
5Wright, 319.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lies and Statistics (part 2)

I thought it might be helpful to illustrate the information I gave in my last post in chart form to help bring some clarity to the situation. The first chart is the religious trends in the U.S. based on the ARIS. Keep in mind that Kevin Slater cherry-picked that data by comparing only the numbers from 1990 and 2008 for everybody except atheists (for which there was no number in 1990), leaving out the important figures from 2001.

As you can see from this first chart, the trend for Catholics and generic Christian churches has reversed since 2001 against the total population. While neither group has reached the same percentage of the population as in 1990, they are both trending that direction. By simply taking the percentage from 1990 and 2008, however, this important trend is entirely overlooked. Mainline churches, by contrast, have plummeted and are trending sharply downwards. As we’ll see in the second chart, this is true not only as a percentage of the adult population, but also in terms of raw numbers. Baptists continue to decline as a percentage of the population, though their numbers are still growing and the rate of decline as percentage of the population has slowed significantly. Those reporting no religion increased slightly as a percentage of the population from 2001 to 2008, but not at nearly as sharp a rate as in the 90s. The number of atheists rose slightly, though it’s worth noting that the rate of growth of atheists as a percentage of the population is actually about the same as the poll’s margin of error.

Looking at the second chart is perhaps more revealing, since it gives actual number of adherents rather than just percentage of the population. Slater claimed at one point that “attendance is down almost across the board.” This is just factually incorrect. Actually the only group which has lost in terms of number of adherents since 1990 is mainline Protestants. Every other group has grown with the most notable growth coming among Catholics and generic Christians. Generic Christians actually recovered from a decline in the 90s and exploded with growth in the seven year period between 2001 and 2008. If you’re wondering what a generic Christian is, it seems to be basically non-denominational Christian or Bible churches.

Why is all of this important? Well, first I think it’s important for believers to understand the times that we live in. It can be discouraging to think that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, and reading articles like the one by Kevin Slater might give the impression that we’re fighting a losing battle. But a closer examination actually gives the impression that what has been happening since 2001 looks more like a religious revival than any kind of a decline. Why isn’t anyone talking about this?

Another reason I think it’s important is to call attention to the kind of gerrymandering of information that often goes on in the media. As we’ve often seen in recent years, narratives are very important in the media in terms of how things are presented. A big part of the liberal, secular narrative is that religion is going to become less and less important to people and will experience a steady decline. A lot of people are waiting expectantly for this to happen in the U.S. the way it has supposedly happened in Europe. As a result, anything that gives the appearance of it happening here is reason for celebration among the liberal elites. But as the ARIS shows, whatever happened in the 90s is no longer happening.

Now it’s entirely possible that Christianity will decline significantly in the U.S. at some point in the future. What’s interesting to me is that the Christian worldview doesn’t depend on the number of Christians increasing – it only depends on the message of the Gospel being spread around the world. I believe that as that happens the number of Christians will increase, but the Bible also predicts that many will fall away. Secularism, on the other hand, really depends on the number of secular people (ie. atheists and agnostics) increasing. In fact, most secular thinkers expected this to happen a long time ago. The fact that it hasn’t happened and isn’t showing any signs of happening in most of the world (where religion is actually growing) is what has caused most sociologists to decide that secularization theory has been disproven. I believe this in itself demonstrates the inadequacy of the secular worldview. However, in the popular thinking of most secular liberals, secularization theory is just a fact that will eventually be empirically demonstrated. While it’s difficult to overcome the blind faith of secular liberals, it will be interesting to see at what point they decide that their worldview is in tatters.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lies and Statistics

I was interested to find an article recently about the state of religious belief and denominations in the U.S. based on the recently released American Religious Identification Survey, done in 2008. I was even more interested when I compared what the aforementioned article said and what the report actually revealed. It’s amazing how someone can selectively report facts which bolster their preconceived ideas and ignore the ones that don’t. The thrust of the article (and the title as well) by Kevin Slater of the SW Iowa news is that religion is taking a “backseat” in the minds of Americans and that many Americans are “losing their religion.” Mr. Slater uses the ARIS report to bolster this contention. But let’s do some “fact-checking” here, shall we?

Says Mr. Slater, “One of the most telling findings was the number of Americans who now claim to have no religion. That number has doubled in the last 18 years to its current total of 15 percent of Americans.” This is almost true, but also very misleading. The ARIS includes numbers from 1990, 2001, and 2008. In 1990 8.2 percent of the U.S. adult population reported no religious affiliation (the other categories included Catholic, other Christian, other religions, and didn’t know/refused). In 2001 the number of “nones” (no religious affiliation, not to be confused with “nuns”!) jumped to 14.2 percent. In 2008, it was 15.0 percent. So Mr. Slater’s claim that the number of “nones” has doubled is technically wrong; 8.2 percent to 15 percent is not double. But the growth of this group dramatically slowed between 2001 and 2008, recording a 0.8 percent increase of total population, compared to the 6 percent increase of the population between 1990 and 2001. It would be interesting to ask why the growth of this group has slowed so dramatically if one were actually interested in asking questions rather than simply pushing an agenda.

In a similar vein, Mr. Slater continues, “The percentage of Americans who define themselves as Christian has dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008.” Again this is misleading because he omits the numbers from 2001. In 1990 the number of reported Christians was 86.2 percent of the population. In 2001 this had dramatically dropped to 76.7 percent. In 2008, the figure was 76.0 percent. Again it appears that what had been a marked downward trend of Christians slowed dramatically between 2001 and 2008. The decline of 9.5 percent of the population between 1990 and 2001 slowed to a drop of only 0.7 percent between 2001 and 2008. Something interesting is definitely happening here, but Slater seems oblivious to it.

Slater also says, “Attendance is down almost across the board, with Baptists falling from 19.3 to 15.8, and those of the Jewish faith down from 1.8 to 1.2 percent.” There is multiple weirdness in this statement. First, Slater says “attendance is down” giving the impression that he’s talking about sheer numbers (which is what “attendance” usually means). But then he refers again to percentages of the population, using Baptists and Jews as examples. Again, he’s missed some telling information and also done some more misleading. First, the percentage of Baptists among U.S. adults did drop from 19.3 percent to 15.8 percent between 1990 and 2008 as Slater says. But again, the bulk of that occurred between 1990 and 2001 when the percentages were 19.3 percent and 16.3 percent. From 2001 to 2008 the drop was only 0.5 percent compared to the 3 percent drop from 1990 to 2001. But the raw numbers increased between 2001 and 2008 from 33.8 million to 36.1 million (which was also higher than the figure of 33.9 million in 1990), so to say “attendance is down” seems rather like a false statement altogether. Slater puts a slight caveat at the end of his article, saying “Baptists, who constitute the largest non-Catholic Christian tradition, have increased their numbers by two million since 2001, but continue to decline as a proportion of the population.” This contradicts his statement that their “attendance” is down, and also fails to note that as a percentage of the population, they have declined but not at nearly such a rate as was seen between 1990-2001. Interestingly, the number of professing Jews showed more of a steady decline: 1.8 percent in 1990, 1.4 percent in 2001, and 1.2 percent in 2008.

Then Slater says, “meanwhile, the number of atheists, while still small, has nearly doubled from 900,000 to 1.6 million.” It’s interesting that rather than give the percentage of the population, Slater just gives the raw number of atheists when he’s only used percentages up until now. The percentages are 0.4 percent in 2001 and 0.7 percent in 2008, which Slater simply notes is “still small.” Well, yes. Less than three-quarters of one percent is indeed small. Perhaps “miniscule” would be a better term. But 1.6 million sounds much more impressive, doesn’t it? It’s also pretty generous to say that 900,000 to 1.6 million is “nearly double.” The ARIS combined the number of atheists and agnostics in a single category in 1990, so the number of atheists alone wasn’t measured that year.

In another caveat at the end of the article, Slater says “Only 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God).” This was a new question on the existence of God that ARIS included in 2008 that wasn’t asked in 1990 or 2001, so we can’t compare with previous years. Slater appears to have come up with his figure that 12 percent are atheist or agnostic by adding together these three answers to the question of whether God exists: “there is no such thing”: 2.3%, “there is no way to know”: 4.3%, and “I’m not sure”: 5.7%. It seems he wants to boost the number of atheists, though it is interesting that only 0.7 percent of people identified themselves as atheist while 2.3 percent said there’s no such thing as God. Possibly some atheists are shy about identifying themselves as such. Of course, Buddhists don’t believe in God, either, and neither do some other religious people who might not consider themselves atheists per se. It’s also interesting that at the end of his article he repeated the increase in the number of atheists, again claiming it had “almost doubled” from 900,000 to 1.6 million.

But more importantly, Slater left out two sizeable groups that have seen an increase since 2001, both in terms of raw numbers and in percentage of the total population: Catholics and “generic” Christians. The percentage of Catholics was 26.2 percent in 1990, declined to 24.5 percent in 2001, but then climbed back to 25.1 percent in 2008. The percentage is not back to 1990 levels, but it is growing, and in terms of numbers Catholics have grown from 46 million to 57.1 million between 1990 and 2008. Generic Christians, on the other hand, saw an even bigger spike between 2001 and 2008. In 1990 this group was 14.8 percent of the population, then dropped to 10.8 percent in 2001, and now has grown to 14.2 percent in 2008. In terms of numbers this is an increase from 25.9 million in 1990 to 32.4 million in 2008.

In one of the few things that Slater actually gets right with no misleading, he does note that most of the decline in Christian churches has been in mainline denominations. Mainline Protestants show a markedly different trend from the previous ones. There was a slight decline in percentage between 1990 and 2001 (from 18.7 percent to 17.2 percent) which still represented an increase in raw numbers. But between 2001 and 2008 mainlines churches dropped dramatically to 12.9 percent, losing over 6 million in raw numbers during that time from 35.7 million to 29.3 million. Observers of the contemporary religious scene will surmise that many of these former mainline Christians now attend generic Christian churches. This is undoubtedly the result of the increasing liberalism of mainline churches in the last decade, a trend which has been underway for some time and will no doubt continue even as their numbers dwindle.

There are several things that are interesting to me in all of this. It’s interesting to see the trends in religious belief in the U.S. It seems that there was a downward trend between 1990 and 2001 which has either leveled off or reversed itself. The total number of professing Christians in the U.S. now stands at about 76 percent of the adult population. Whatever else may be said, the U.S. is still a highly religious country and still stands as a stark exception to the supposed rule of secularization theory. It’s interesting that, while the number of atheists has grown slightly since 2001, the number of generic Christians and Catholics has grown more. Mainline Protestants meanwhile are dropping like a rock.

But the most interesting thing to me was the slant on all of these stats given by Kevin Slater. It’s plain that he had an agenda to push, namely that religion is on the decline and atheism is on the rise. A closer look, however, shows that this thesis is not supported by the data, at least not from the ARIS. If anything, the trend of the 90s which showed a marked decline has slowed and in some cases reversed itself in Christian churches with the exception of mainline Protestants. Likewise, the growth of people reporting no religious affiliation leveled off to only a slight uptick of less than one percent between 2001 and 2008. Anyone can cherry-pick a mountain of stats to support their pet theory. It appears that the theory Mr. Slater wants us to believe, however, is simply wrong.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Christian celebrities

I was quite disturbed recently to learn that the youth pastor of a certain high profile megachurch regularly charges a fee of $4500/day for speaking engagements. That includes travel days as well. So, for a single speaking engagement this unnamed youth pastor would charge $4500/day for three days (one day of travel each way plus the day of the engagement), as well as first-class airfare and two nights in a five-star hotel for him and his assistant. To say that I find this outrageous is a bit of an understatement. I didn't realize that things like this went on in the Christian world. But apparently this is the going rate for second-tier Christian celebrities like youth pastors. Some top-tier Christian speakers will charge $10,000/day.

I'm not saying that all big-name Christian ministers are like this, so I don't want to be the one to start any rumors about anybody in particular. There may well still be some big-name Christian speakers who still serve the Lord for a heavenly reward rather than an earthly one. I know there are a great many non-celebrity status pastors, missionaries, evangelists, and professors who simply want to serve the Lord often for very little in return.

What a contrast there is between our contemporary celebrity culture and the attitude of the apostle Paul. When Paul preached to the Corinthians he took pains to do it free of charge (1 Cor. 9:18). In his second letter to the Corinthians, he indicates that he received support from other churches so as not to be a burden to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 11:8). He also worked at his trade making tents during some of his time in Corinth (Acts 18:3). This is where the term “tentmaker”, referring to a bi-vocational Christian worker, comes from. To be sure, Paul said he had a right to receive financial compensation for his ministry, but that he deliberately gave up that right among the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:14 and following). But seriously. Is any Christian minister worth $10,000/day or even $4500? There just seems to be something profoundly wrong with an arrangement like this. What would Paul say to today’s celebrity pastors?

It’s encouraging in some ways that the Lord is raising up Christian workers from the two-thirds world in our day and age. We need it. American values are badly out of alignment. Gospel preachers from poverty-stricken areas of the world could do us a lot of good and teach us again about storing up treasures in heaven rather than on earth.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The unreasonableness of agnosticism

Albert Einstein famously said that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” This peculiar fact is taken for granted as a foundation for modern science, yet most people seem to be unaware of how peculiar a fact it is. Why is it that the universe we observe operates by rules which can be described, and often described very accurately, in the language of mathematics?

Physicist Eugene Wigner, not exactly a household name, wrote a highly influential paper in 1960 called, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the natural sciences.” How is it, asked Wigner, that mathematical truths are often so accurate in describing the physical universe? Mathematical truths, after all, can be derived entirely independently of scientific investigation. There’s no reason for there to be any correspondence between these two independent spheres.

Wigner went on to say that “It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions, or to the two miracles of laws of nature and of the human mind's capacity to divine them.” Einstein also recognized this when he wrote, “How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?” Wigner’s conclusion was that “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it.”

This mystery seems lost on modern-day skeptics who simply take it for granted that we can describe physical reality mathematically without ever asking “why?”. There’s certainly no reason to expect this correspondence between the abstract realm of mathematics and the concrete world of physics if our universe is the product of blind materialistic causes and nothing else. Some have suggested that the underlying reality of the universe just is mathematical. This would explain the correspondence between math and physics, but it raises a much deeper question. Mathematics consists of abstract truths that are ascertainable by minds independent of experience. If the underlying reality of the universe is mathematical, then how can the universe be anything but the product of a Mind?

This is just one more reason to think that the materialistic worldview is entirely inadequate as a description of reality. On the other hand, many of the earliest scientists believed that the universe operates according to laws that are rationally discernible because the universe is the product of a rational mind. That is a much more consistent explanation of what we actually observe than to think that it just happened to turn out this way for no reason at all, or by sheer coincidence. That is not an explanation at all, but rather a non-explanation to give comfort to materialists.

God is the elephant in the room for modern scientists who are the intellectual heirs of the mathematicians and philosophers of past centuries. It’s reminiscent of the words of astronomer and physicist Robert Jastrow when he was confronted with the origins of the universe and the realization that this was a mystery which science was unable to penetrate. He said, “for the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Antony Flew, the former atheistic philosopher, made religious headlines in recent years by abandoning atheism and becoming a theist (more specifically, he adopted a form of deism). Flew said it was a result of his commitment to “following the evidence wherever it leads.” He was compelled by the evidence of science to accept that the universe must have a mind behind it. Many atheists attacked Flew because of his age, even hinting that he was going senile. However, Flew continues to give public lectures on topics relating to science, philosophy, and religion as well as giving interviews. His mind appears to be as lucid as ever. As a Christian, I would of course hope that Flew would go one step further and consider the historical evidence for the truth of Christianity. But at least he’s moving in the right direction.

Robert Jastrow, on the other hand, remained agnostic. I have concluded that agnosticism is really a choice: the choice of eternal unbelief. Why do I say that? Consider the position of the agnostic. We have a perfectly good explanation for the features of the universe and for the very fact of the universe’s existence and its origins. That explanation is God. The agnostic, however, has determined to wait and see if another explanation will be forthcoming. But it’s not as though science is equipped to discover why the universe operates according to mathematical rules. All science can do is to say this is the way it is. But it can give no explanation for it. So what is the agnostic waiting for? There’s no hope in waiting for science on this one. The agnostic simply refuses to accept the one explanation that explains all else. Far from being a reasonable position, which is how it is often presented, agnosticism is inherently unreasonable.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Are missionaries really misallocated?

I have often heard it stated that foreign missionaries are a misallocated resource. It has been pointed out that most foreign missionaries are sent to areas of the world which are already evangelized or Christianized. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, foreign missionaries worldwide are currently allocated disproportionately to either predominantly Christian areas of the world or areas which are already evangelized but remain largely non-Christian. The unevangelized world makes up about 30% of the world’s population, but receives only 4% of the total foreign missionary force. This is in contrast to Christian areas of the world, which make up 33% of the world’s population while receiving 80% of the world’s missionaries. David Barrett and Todd Johnson contend that the only scenario which would be a worse strategic deployment of missionaries would be if missionaries were deployed in exact proportion to the number of Christians in any given area – thus an area with the most Christians would receive the most missionaries, and the area with the fewest Christians would receive the fewest missionaries.

While there does seem to be an appealing logic to this, I can’t help but wonder how correct it is. As a missionary to Hungary, this analysis leaves me somewhat cold, partly because Hungary is listed as being part of the Christian world because of its historic Catholic roots. And yet it seems to me that Hungary could easily be listed as an evangelized non-Christian area. While most Hungarians might call themselves Christians, that word means very little in terms of what they actually believe or how they actually live. It certainly doesn’t for the most part include a belief in any of the historic doctrines of the faith.

But beyond this, I also wonder if it’s necessarily the case that missionaries should be strategically deployed with the majority sent to the least evangelized areas of the world. Looking at the biblical pattern, I’m not so sure. Those who say this often take the apostle Paul as their role model, who made it his aim to preach Christ where he had never been preached as he said in Romans 15:20. It’s undeniable that this was Paul’s calling, to spend his life in “pioneer” missions. But there’s no indication that Paul thought that this should be the case with most missionaries. In fact, he seemed to revel in this as a somewhat unique and special calling. Someone will point out that when the Gospel began to be preached on the day of Pentecost, the entire world was essentially unevangelized. By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, however, the Gospel had already spread throughout the Empire. Many missionaries even in the New Testament were sent to teach and to strengthen existing churches. Timothy and Apollos are two examples. There’s no indication that Paul thought more missionaries should be sent to the unevangelized regions. Instead, his aim was to plant churches and teach those living in those places to do the work of the ministry themselves. It seems to me that the task of evangelism is more likely to progress rapidly by indigenous workers rather than by foreign missionaries who need the time to learn the language and culture and for a long time remain as outsiders even then.

The biblical picture could actually lead us to the conclusion that the kind of pioneering missions done by Paul is a special calling which is only given to a few, even to a small percentage of total missionaries. I had the privilege recently of listening to a young woman sharing about her calling to spread the Gospel in a country in central Asia which she couldn’t even name because evangelism there is illegal. It’s a dangerous work and a special calling, and this young woman exuded joy as she told of some of the Muslim women she had shared her faith with. But in such places sending large numbers of missionaries would be prohibitive, not the least because they would draw attention to themselves.

It’s interesting that perhaps the greatest church growth movement in history took place only after all the missionaries were kicked out! Those familiar with modern church history will know that I’m talking about China, and the underground house church movement which sprang up after the Maoist revolution and the expulsion of all foreign missionaries. After decades of little or no contact with Christians from the outside, Western Christians returned to find a church that had exploded numerically, albeit with many problems from the lack of trained leaders and teachers and scarcity of Bibles and teaching materials. Nevertheless, it underscores the point that more missionaries isn’t always a good thing and fewer missionaries isn’t always a bad thing (and I say this as a missionary myself!).

I’m not saying that there isn’t still a great need for missionaries in unreached areas of the world. Nor am I saying we should be satisfied with the status quo in missions. But I am saying that sometimes I think we kick ourselves a little too much over not doing enough. The task of missions was given to the church, but Jesus is head of the church! He is still in the business of calling and sending workers into his harvest field, and He knows best where those missionaries should be sent. Jesus was confident that the task would be completed. While I certainly think we should be wise in how we do our part, I think we also should realize that God’s strategy is not always the same as ours. In fact, if one examines the activities of God throughout biblical history, isn’t it safer to conclude that God’s strategy is never the same as ours? Who else would conquer a city by marching around the walls for seven days, conquer an invading army by whittling down the Israelites to a force of 300, or save the world through a baby born in a stable in Bethlehem?

Monday, February 2, 2009

The end of secularization theory

Much of the Western world, or at least the educational system of the West, has taken for granted the truth of secularization theory. Securalization theory is the belief that as socities become more educated and advanced economically they would also become more secular (and so less religious). This has been the dominant view of much of the educated Western world for at least 100 years. Many thinkers have predicted the coming end of religion at the hands of the triumphal march of reason. The German philosopher Nietzsche declared that God was dead, we had killed him, and the news would gradually spread to all mankind from those who were the first to hear about it.

But secularization theory has always had some problems. One of the biggest is the United States. The U.S. has been such a stark exception to the supposed rule of secularization theory that writers call it "American exceptionalism." That is, the U.S. has become very advanced economically and educationally and yet remains a very religious nation, much more religious than most European nations. This has always been something of a mystery to secularists. If secularization theory is true, why isn't the general population of the U.S. more secularized?

More and more sociologists have been calling into question the basic assumptions of secularization theory in recent years. Mary Eberstadt challenges the idea that secularization leads to people having fewer children. She suggests that it may be the other way around. It may be that fewer people getting married and having children (and the ones that do have children having fewer of them) may actually cause secularization rather than being a result of it. In other words, as the basic family structure weakens people become more secular. This idea, she says, would explain American exceptionalism quite easily. America is less secular because there are more families, and because the family unit is stronger here than in Europe.

Another corollary of secularization theory is that children will, on the whole, be less religious than their parents. In other words, each succeeding generation will be more secular than the previous. The Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think-tank, has done an extensive worldwide survey of religious views and attitudes that challenges this and other assumptions. According to Martin Rieger who heads the Bertelsmann project (called the Religion Monitor), "The notion that religion continuously declines from generation to generation can be clearly disproved, even in some of the industrialized nations." In Britain, for example, religious belief is stronger among young people than among their secularized parents.

It appears clear that secularization theory has run into some serious trouble. It's certainly not the case that religion is on the decline worldwide, and it may be that the secularizing trend even in Europe is showing signs of reversing. Secularization theory, however, is still quite a strongly held belief in the West. Ironically, belief in the theory itself may partly explain why some surveys have shown religion to still be on the decline in Europe. Most surveys track religious affiliation or generalized categories (such as theist, agnostic or atheist). But such labels don't reveal anything about a person's actual attitudes towards religion (though perhaps towards religious institutions) or towards God or the meaning of life. Matthias Jaeger from the Bertelsmann Foundation says, "Traditional churches clearly have a communication problem because people are more open to religious messages and practices than we thought." Secularization itself may be coming to an end sooner than people think. The declining native populations in Europe are being replaced by swarms of immigrants, primarily Muslims, who are very religious. The issue in the future will likely be not how religious Europeans are, but what religion will predominate.

Of course all of these surveys leave out one very important factor: God. It's quite easy for a Christian to explain why secularization theory has run aground. It's because it's not true. Human beings, created in the image of God, are inveterately religious. We have a God-sized hole in the very core of our beings that can only be filled by God himself. We may try to fill that hole with other things, but nothing else can do the trick. God is still overseeing human affairs. As the apostle Paul said to the philosophers in Athens so long ago, “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). God is still actively pursuing his rebellious creatures and still finding them.

While Europeans may have turned their backs on the traditional churches, they still have an inner longing for the one who created them. It’s both a challenge and a great opportunity. It may not be long before Europe becomes predominantly Muslim and very difficult to reach with the Gospel. But for now Europeans are more open to religion than most observers believe. The challenge is to present the Gospel to them in a way that breaks through the typical traditional stereotypes that many Europeans have about religion.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Skeptics and the paranormal

The paranormal is an interesting category. One dictionary definition says that paranormal is anything that is beyond scientific explanation. In this sense it’s a loaded term, and implicitly defines “normal” as those things which do have scientific explanations. It’s often defined as anything supernatural, or which appears to defy natural scientific laws. It often includes things like ESP, telekinesis, astrology, ghosts, and so forth. It also usually includes UFOs, which is interesting since UFOs are not really considered to be supernatural, but rather aliens from other planets.

A 2005 Gallup poll indicated that over 70 percent of Americans believe in one or more of a list of ten paranormal phenomena. Items which Gallup included in the evaluation were (along with the percentage of Americans who believed in each): ESP (41%), haunted houses (37%), spirits of the dead returning (32%), telepathy (31%), clairvoyance (26%), astrology (25%), communicating with the dead (21%), witches (21%), reincarnation (20%), channeling (9%). The survey indicated that Christians are somewhat more likely to believe in one or more of these things than non-Christians (75% to 66%), though not by a huge margin. It should be noted that the options for each item were: believe, not sure, don’t believe. Thus there was a group of people for each item who were agnostic with respect to that particular item.

There were some very interesting results when the data was analyzed. The poll showed no statistically significant difference in the percentage based on demographic categories. Thus, the percentage was about the same regardless of age, education, gender, race, or region of the country. Naturalists often insist that belief in “superstition” (which for them includes anything having to do with religion, the supernatural, or the paranormal) is something which education eliminates. It’s only ignorant and unlearned people that believe in such things. Well, at least according to Gallup that’s another skeptical myth. Level of education is not a factor in belief in the supernatural (readers may also want to refer to my post on Christian Intellectuals). This also presents a challenge to another persistent skeptical myth, namely that religion will eventually disappear to be replaced by human reason. Of course, this has been the skeptical belief for at least the last 200 years. The 19th century was probably the zenith of rationalism. The 20th century saw not a decline of religion, but a resurgence. As of yet the 21st century shows no sign of this trend reversing, and every indication that it will continue. But the skeptical utopia of a world without religion is such a compelling vision for some people that apparently facts don’t seem to matter.

Interestingly, three questions asked by Gallup were omitted from the final analysis because they were determined to not be paranormal. These were: psychic or spiritual healing (55%), possession by the devil (42%), and extra-terrestrials (24%). The reasoning for the omission of healing was that “The healing powers of the mind have been demonstrated empirically, reflected in the power of placebos, among other examples.” This is interesting reasoning. The reality of the placebo effect was one of the topics covered in The Spiritual Brain by Denyse O’ Leary and Mario Beauregard. The authors, however, take this as strong evidence that the mind is more than just a product of brain function, but actually has power to produce effects in the physical world. That Gallup omitted the question because in their opinion it has been demonstrated empirically to actually exist is somewhat startling, given that there is no naturalistic explanation for it. But it actually shows the bias of the pollsters – the paranormal isn’t supposed to include things which have been proven to be real! But this is simply begging the question (arguing in a circle).

Their reasoning for omitting possession by the devil was that they determined that it was impossible to know how many people took this literally or not. This is another rather strange conclusion, since the wording of their question was if people believed “that people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil.” It’s hard to see how someone could answer yes to that question but think of it only metaphorically.

Finally, they excluded extraterrestrials because, in their words, “although definitive scientific evidence of such visits is lacking, in principle the existence of extra-terrestrial beings and their ability to visit earth are subject to empirical verification.” Now, I do see the point of excluding extraterrestrials if "paranormal" is understood to mean "supernatural." But Gallup's reasoning is that paranormal should only include things which are not even verifiable in principle. But surely at least some items on the list may be subject to such verification, such as ESP, telepathy, and clairvoyance. Psychic or spiritual healing was removed from the list precisely because it has been verified! But it is also true that many of the items listed are really not verifiable. However, if the paranormal only includes things which can't be verified even in principle, then how should we categorize such beliefs as the multiverse (the belief in many universes outside of our own), or belief in dark matter and dark energy? These are normally considered to be in the realm of science even though it's questionable whether any of them can be verified empirically.

Friday, January 16, 2009

There's "probably" no God?

You may have heard of the atheist advertising campaign in the U.K. headed up by noted atheist author and science popularizer Richard Dawkins. A group of atheists headlined by Dawkins purchased advertisements for the sides of London city buses which say, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." This was supposedly a reaction against religious ads on buses which some atheists found objectionable.

The case raises many interesting issues. For one thing, it's interesting that a group of atheists says there's "probably" no God. The traditional definition of atheism was that it was the belief that there is no God, not that there is "probably" no God. In other words, an atheist under this definition wouldn't say there is "probably" no God, but that there is no God, period. It would be like defining a theist as someone who would say there "probably" is a God, rather than that there just IS a God. The fuzzy middle was occupied by what were called agnostics. These would be people who would say they don't know if there is a God, even though they would likely act in practice as if there were no God. Some would hold the position that you shouldn't believe in God unless there is indisputable proof that God exists.

Contemporary skeptics now frequently take the position that atheism is simply the absence of belief in God, rather than the presence of disbelief in God. Under this definition, anyone who lacks belief in God is an atheist. It's an interesting move, because it virtually eliminates the category of agnostic altogether. You don't have to hold the belief that there is no God to qualify as an atheist, you just have to not hold the belief that there is a God. Some who call themselves atheists actually argue passionately that this just is the definition of an atheist, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot (atheists, I've noticed, like to call other people idiots. In my experience they do this more than any other self-identified group. But that's another story).

The next issue is how Dawkins and his fellow atheists determined the probability of God's non-existence. One of the basic principles of probability theory is that you go from the known to the unknown. Say, for example, I want to determine the probability that I will be struck by lightning. I can start by finding out how many people get struck by lightning in a given population size, divide by the total population, and come up with a probability that any one person will be struck by lightning. But this really doesn't tell me if in fact I will be struck by lightning or not. Even though it's highly improbable that any one person will be struck by lightning, it still happens to some people.

So how does one calculate the probability of whether or not there is a God? After all, we know that some people will get struck by lightning. But when Dawkins and company say there "probably" is no God, they mean something different than if they were to say, "you probably won't be struck by lightning." They don't have a calculation to show that out of X number of possible universes there are Y number of gods, so therefore in our universe there probably is no God. What they really mean is "we don't think there is a God", or that the statement "there is a God" is likely false. This is a statement of opinion rather than of fact. If I say, "you probably won't be struck by lightning", that is a matter of fact that can be mathematically demonstrated. This makes the use of the word "probably" in the atheist ad somewhat misleading. This is especially so since Dawkins is a scientist and probability has a specific meaning in science and philosophy which is different than the meaning in the bus ad. It would be more accurate for the ad to say, "we don't think there is a God", but such an ad would doubtless be even less persuasive than the existing one. It's interesting to note that you may be struck by lightning anyways in spite of the low probability. It's likewise true that the statement, "there probably is no God" leaves open the possibility that, even from their standpoint, there might be a God. They just find it unlikely.

Going back to the question of why this group find the existence of God to be unlikely, we know for starters that Dawkins believes that there are good and complete naturalistic explanations for everything, and that therefore God is not necessary as an explanation for anything. Traditionally God has been appealed to as the explanation for various phenomena, but no longer. Science has made rapid and impressive progress in many areas over the last few centuries, so God is now out of a job, so to speak. It's still possible that there is a God, but there's no need to appeal to him as an explanation for anything in the observable universe.

But is that really true? Are there good and complete naturalistic explanations for everything in the universe? Dawkins (along with many others, of course) believes that Darwinian evolution fully accounts for the biological diversity on this planet. This is important to keep in mind, because some people mistakenly believe that evolution seeks to account for life in general. It does not. Darwin's theory (and its successors such as the neo-Darwinian synthesis and others) only seeks to explain the origin of species. It does not explain the origin of life itself. Nor does it explain the origin of the universe or the origin of consciousness (though some have made brave attempts at this latter). In fact there are no widely accepted naturalistic explanations for these phenomena, and there may be growing doubts about the adequacy of Darwinian evolution to even explain biological diversity. There are certainly many holes in Darwinian theory which have yet to be resolved in spite of the oft-heard pronouncement that "evolution is a fact."

But the belief that science will ultimately provide a naturalistic explanation for everything is nothing more than a statement of faith. Specifically, it's a statement of faith in two things: first, that nature really is all that there is, and second, that science will eventually explain it all. Both of these propositions are, in fact, highly implausible, and the second is almost certainly false. More importantly, neither of these statements are provable. It's impossible to prove that nature is all that there is unless one were to possess literally all knowledge. But no finite being could ever know that it possesses all knowledge. Only a being with infinite knowledge (such as God) could ever possess all knowledge and know that it possesses all knowledge. Thus naturalism can really never be proven. The second statement, that science will eventually explain everything, is almost certainly false. First, there are empirical limits on the ability of science to explain everything. These limits can be found in things like quantum theory and chaos theory just to give two examples. There's also Gödel's incompleteness theorem in mathematics which, when applied to physics, shows that science can't explain everything even in principle. So naturalism is every bit as much a statement of faith as theism or any other belief system. Moreover, it has the decided weakness of not being nearly as good an explanation for the observable properties of the universe as theism. The statement "there probably is no God" rests on highly dubious foundations.

But the final issue this ad raises is the conclusion: "Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." It's a strange conclusion in some ways. It would be as if I were to say, "when you die you're going to cease to exist and that will be the end of you, so don't worry about it!" That seems to be a probable cause to worry, rather than giving me cause not to. Presumably Dawkins and company mean to say that you shouldn't worry about things like judgment and life after death though their ad doesn't specify that. But again, this seems rather one-sided as it replaces one set of worries with another. A universe with no God is very different than a universe with a God, and I see no reason why a God-less universe is one in which there are fewer reasons to worry. On the contrary, belief in God also typically includes a belief that life is ultimately meaningful and purposeful, that injustices will ultimately be made right, and that goodness and truth will ultimately prevail. Not so with a God-less universe. If naturalism is true then justice or injustice (if those words have any real objective meaning at all) simply are, and that's the end of it. Ultimately it won't matter. People who have been treated unjustly in this life will die like dogs and cease to exist, with no hope of redress. It might be easy for an Oxford professor in a (relatively) free country like Great Britain to say "Now stop worrying and enjoy your life," but most of the world is not so privileged. Most of humanity has fared rather more poorly than that, and according to Dawkins's belief system, that's just too bad for them. Their lives were ultimately pointless anyhow. But to say to people like that "now stop worrying and enjoy your life" seems rather callous, not to mention nihilistic. It would be better to say, "now make the most of your ultimately meaningless and futile existence, you poor bugger!" But I suppose that wouldn't make for a very good bus advertisement, either!

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.