“Christianity was the ultimate product of religious syncretism in the ancient world. Its emergence owed nothing to a holy carpenter.” That is the claim made at www.jesusneverexisted.com where Jesus is called “The Imaginary Friend.”
If you do a google search of “Jesus not real,” quite a few websites will pop up. To answer claims that Jesus is not a real historical person, we can appeal to evidence.
In commenting on the Ham/Nye debate a few months ago, I said that evidence is not that helpful when persons from 2 opposing world-views are in a debate about the meaning of particular pieces of evidence. Each side has its own interpretation of the evidence. In that case, the debate needs to be about epistemology – or how we know – and about the framework for interpreting evidence.
But there are times for evidence.
I want to be clear that there is a robust evidential basis for the belief that Jesus Christ entered history as a real person, and that he is not an imaginary friend. For this week’s blog, I want to simply post some quotes (without commentary) from extra-Biblical ancient sources that corroborate the Biblical accounts of Jesus:
Cornelius Tacitus (55-120 AD), “the greatest historian” of ancient Rome:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillas, chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD):
“Because the Jews of Rome caused continous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from the city.”
“After the great fire at Rome [during Nero's reign] … Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.”
Flavius Josephus (37-97 AD), court historian for Emperor Vespasian:
“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” (Arabic translation)
Julius Africanus, writing around 221 AD, found a reference in the writings of Thallus, who wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean around 52 AD, which dealt with the darkness that covered the land during Jesus’s crucifixion:
“Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun–unreasonably, as it seems to me.” [A solar eclipse could not take place during a full moon, as was the case during Passover season.]
Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor around 112 AD:
“[The Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.” Pliny added that Christianity attracted persons of all societal ranks, all ages, both sexes, and from both the city and the country. Late in his letter to Emperor Trajan, Pliny refers to the teachings of Jesus and his followers as excessive and contagious superstition.
Emperor Trajan, in reply to Pliny:
“The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is extremely proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made for these people; when they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall give proof that he is not (that is, by adoring our gods) he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion. Informations without the accuser’s name subscribed must not be admitted in evidence against anyone, as it is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and by no means agreeable to the spirit of the age.”
Emporer Hadrian (117-138 AD), in a letter to Minucius Fundanus, the Asian proconsul:
“I do not wish, therefore, that the matter should be passed by without examination, so that these men may neither be harassed, nor opportunity of malicious proceedings be offered to informers. If, therefore, the provincials can clearly evince their charges against the Christians, so as to answer before the tribunal, let them pursue this course only, but not by mere petitions, and mere outcries against the Christians. For it is far more proper, if anyone would bring an accusation, that you should examine it.” Hadrian further explained that if Christians were found guilty they should be judged “according to the heinousness of the crime.” If the accusers were only slandering the believers, then those who inaccurately made the charges were to be punished.
The Jewish Talmud, compiled between 70 and 200 AD:
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Anyone who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.”
Lucian, a second century Greek satirist:
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. … You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.” Lucian also reported that the Christians had “sacred writings” which were frequently read. When something affected them, “they spare no trouble, no expense.”
Mara Bar-Serapion, of Syria, writing between 70 and 200 AD from prison to motivate his son to emulate wise teachers of the past:
“What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burying Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.”
Historian and archeologist Sir William Ramsay set out to disprove the historicity of the books of Luke and Acts, but contrary to his expectations, his archeological teams found that Luke was historically accurate, for example in correctly naming 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands. The corroborating evidence was so strong that Sir Ramsay converted to Christianity.
Who do you say Jesus is? Imaginary friend or historical figure?
~ Betsy McPeak
This past week I watched a 7-minute video clip done by the History channel about George W. Bush’s soon-to-be-released portrait paintings. Now before you tune me out or react, this blog has nothing to do with Bush’s policies or positions. I want to talk about him as a human being. What I saw in this short video clip about him was a true model of how we, as believers, should be interacting with others. Bush calls it “personal diplomacy.”
As you know, we are called to be ambassadors for Christ in II Corinthians 5:20:
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
You’ve heard it said that we should win the person, not the argument. That might be an overused phrase, so I want to put a fresh twist on it by saying that you should strive to know the people you are sharing with well enough to be able to paint them.
Bush painted Tony Blair as a man of conviction, because that’s how he saw him.
Bush painted Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as strong and capable, because that’s how he saw her.
Bush painted Juichiro Koizumi as a fun guy (an Elvis lover!), because that’s how he saw him.
Now I know we are not all painters, but think about really listening to someone, really studying them, seeing their face and expressions, coming to truly know them as a person, their likes and dislikes, their passions and pursuits – so that IF you were a painter, you could paint them. Know them that well. Study them that much. I imagine Jesus looked in this way at the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, the rich young ruler, and maybe even Pilate.
Professor Jerram Barrs, Professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture at Covenant Seminary says that we ought to look for the image of God in every person. Wherever a person is reflecting their creator who made them, we can connect and get to know them, whether it is through gardening or art or communication or travel or love for coffee. George W. Bush says “I spent a lot of time on personal diplomacy and I befriended leaders. I learned about their families and their likes and dislikes to the point where I felt comfortable painting them.”
Bush tells of a time when the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and he had a real difference of opinion. The Prince was threatening to leave the talks. Bush knew that he had a farm and loved his land. So Bush invited the Prince to his ranch where they could share their love for the land. Bush says he became very fond of the Crown Prince, soon to be King. A bridge was built, and the Prince stayed.
Of course you have to be genuine in your desire to know others as people. Don’t turn this into a technique just to get to share the gospel. Many times you will see others come into the kingdom. Jerram Barrs shares how he connected with his step-father through gardening, when he was having difficulty relating to him otherwise. Years later, his English step-father came to Christ when he visited Jerram’s garden in St. Louis. But we cannot always count on such results. We must speak truth clearly and in love, and that will yield unpredictable results. (See this blog.) Results are not up to you.
What is up to you is to be a faithful ambassador of Christ, to build bridges and make connections, to see others as people made in the image of God – to know them well enough to paint them.
~ Betsy McPeak
This is not a “Noah” movie review. This is a blog about how we should interact with art. Hopefully, you can take away some thoughts about how to relate to movies, including “Noah,” and art in general.
I used to only interact with art that I “liked” (and that was before Facebook). A friend helped me break out of my consumer attitude toward art, so that I could look past what I personally liked to trying to understand what the artist is saying.
Christian speaker, author, and apologist Ellis Potter, in his article, “Is Art a Commodity or a Relationship?” points out that our personal taste is not the best measure of whether art is worthy or not.
Ellis considers how we should interact with art and artists:
Christian parents often ask me: “What kind of films should I let my children
watch?” “What kind of music should I let my children listen to?” These
questions are asked in love and concern for the edification and protection of the
children. But, they are built on a disturbing underlying assumption: that art is a
commodity, which we consume. They are questions of diet: Which films,
paintings, or music should I consume because they will be nourishing to me, and
which should I avoid? Andy Warhol could see that the American people wanted
art to be product, so he painted a Campbell’s Tomato Soup Can. It was a great
insult to the American people, but they loved it. If art is only products to be
produced and consumed, then we can be self-centered and protective in our
approach to it. But art is really expressions in various languages of observations,
questions, complaints, admiration, challenges, encouragements made by human
beings as part of a great conversation with the cosmos, or god and other people.
If human expression is only products to be consumed, then we should never
have a conversation with an alcoholic, a drug addict, a homosexual or a
prostitute, because their conversation will probably not be edifying. But Jesus
spent much of his time with these sorts of people because he knew who they
really were – fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.
It actually made me mad when I read this article years ago. If it irritates you – just mull over it a bit. I have come to think that it is a wholesome, enriching way to interact with art. I feel freed from measuring art by how representational it is. I can now ask myself what the artist is saying, and interact with the thoughts and expressions of the artist. This approach opens up interesting conversations with others who interact with art.
If you choose to see “Noah,” instead of simply asking yourself how representational it is of the Biblical account, try asking yourself what the writer and director are saying through the movie. After all, the director made no attempt to be faithful to the Biblical account. As the Washington Times reported on March 24,2014:
Director Darren Aronofsky called his movie “the least biblical biblical film ever made,” The Telegraph reported. He also claimed his leading character, Noah, was the “first environmentalist,” something that suggests the movie storyline doesn’t exactly follow the Bible’s.
Some questions you might ask after watching “Noah”:
- How does the movie portray justice and mercy?
- Does Noah’s character change during the course of the movie? How?
- Does the movie take the Biblical account seriously?
- What is the movie saying about the nature of man? the nature of God?
What other questions can you come up with?
If you see “Noah,” try viewing it — and other art — as a relationship, rather than a commodity.
~ Betsy McPeak
“The doubleness or indecisive tornness of doubt can be described from the outside with high-noon clarity. But from the inside it is foggy, grey, and disorienting. The world of doubting feels like a world with no landmarks and no bearings.” ~ Os Guiness
If you have doubts about the Christian faith, you are not alone. A Christian audience was polled about their doubts with this result:
15% doubt that there is a God.
5% doubt that God is good.
5% doubt that the Bible is true.
7% doubt that Jesus is the son of God.
68% doubt that they are God’s child.
I’m going to summarize the thoughts of 3 apologists who have done considerable work in dealing with doubt.
Michael Wittner, Apologist and Professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary:
Doubt is uncertainty. You’re not sure. Doubt can be objective (Is there a God?) or subjective (Is my faith genuine?). If doubts really trouble you, it is a good sign that you truly care. Those who have rejected God do not struggle with their doubts in this way. Faith is like horseradish, a little goes a long way. The most important thing about faith is not how much you have, but how well-placed it is. Doubt is really a question. The answer should be sought out. Honest doubt will obey God if it is answered. Dishonest doubt won’t respond to God even if knowledge comes. Jesus doubted on the cross when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But afterwards he committed his spirit into God’s hands. Commit to what you do know, not to what you don’t know. Knowledge is not enough for faith (the demons know), but it is necessary. Seek knowledge, ask God for it, and then commit yourself to God as he gives you answers.
Allister McGrath, Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London:
“Doubt is not unbelief. But it can become unbelief…Doubt is natural within faith. It comes about because of our human weakness and frailty. We lack the confidence to trust fully in God and long for certainty in all matters of faith.” “Doubt is like an attention-seeking child.” We shouldn’t give it too much attention, or it will lock you into a vicious cycle of uncertainty. Rather we should seek answers without overplaying our doubt, since doubt arises in the context of faith. Doubt is faith wanting certainty. Avoid a morbid preoccupation with doubt, or it can cause you to turn inward, instead of outward. “Reinforce faith with understanding, in much the same way as you would reinforce concrete with steel. Together, they can withstand far greater stress than they could ever withstand on their own.” Doubt can only turn into unbelief if you let it. Don’t let it. Don’t be ashamed of your doubts, but seek understanding through the help of other older and wiser Christians.
Os Guiness, Author, Senior Fellow with the Trinity Forum:
We can be too easy on doubt, allowing uncertainty and ambiguity, or we can be too hard on doubt, leaving doubters feeling afraid to even admit that they have doubts, even to themselves. Doubt is very serious, but it is not terminal. “A bold Christian affirmation is that because faith in Christ is true and fears no question or challenge, doubt can be a stepping stone to a tougher, deeper faith.” To believe is to be of one mind in accepting something as true; to disbelieve is to be on one mind in rejecting something as true. Doubt is being of 2 minds – between faith and disbelief – but doubt is not the same as disbelief. It is more like the Chinese idea of having one foot in one boat, and the other foot in another boat. You can leave double-mindedness if you will not allow the confusion of doubt to overtake you, but fly as a pilot would in the fog with “a solid grasp of the instruments (God’s truth and promises) and a canny realism about the storm and stress of doubt.” Common confusions need to be cleared away, such as that doubt equals unbelief, and that you believe in uncertainty, rather than according to knowledge. The pain and confusion of doubting can be relieved by understanding the type of doubt, as most doubt falls into one of several common categories, though each doubt strikes each person uniquely. Doubt can actually be constructive when it is understood and resolved, leading to an even stronger faith than before the doubting.
All 3 apologists agree that doubt is common among believers and arises out of faith.
All 3 apologists agree that doubt is not unbelief.
All 3 apologists agree that the believer who doubts ought to seek out the answers to their doubts, with the help of wise Christian friends, so that the doubt does not become terminal fogginess, which is unbelief.
~ Betsy McPeak
The word “faith” conjures up various meanings in our minds. To some it might suggest the type of optimism that it would take for an elephant to jump to a monkey on a trapeze. A leap of faith contrary to reality. Many think that those who have faith in Jesus will end up like the optimistic elephant ~ let down.
Is faith in the Trinity just wishful thinking? Or is it based on the observation of reality?
Ellis Potter, a former Buddhist monk, says that the ideas of Zen Buddhism, though attractive to him in many ways, did not explain reality as well as Trinitarian Christianity, particularly in the area of relationships. “It took less faith to believe in Christianity, because its truth is so connecting to life and reality as we live it and know it.”
Apologist Tim Keller points out that Jesus tells his followers who have little faith to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Why? Because God’s care in feeding the birds and clothing the lilies is evidence and precedence that God will feed and clothe the disciples, as well. It isn’t mere optimism. It is considered trust in God, based on God’s prior actions.
Many atheists portray faith in God as unscientific and contrary to the evidence. The writer at the website Atheist Revolution first describes faith in God as having zero evidence ~ as unscientific. Secondly, the writer defines faith in God as “continuing to believe something for which insufficient evidence exists.” An irrational faith.
Oxford Professor John Lennox says that Christianity is not un-scientific or irrational, and he resists the idea that faith in God is in opposition to a scientific way of thinking:
What I am amazed at is that serious thinkers today continue to ask us to choose between God and science. That’s like asking people to choose between Henry Ford and engineering as an explanation of the motor car.
Dictionary.com defines “faith” in this way:
1. confidence or trust in a person or thing.
2. belief that is not based on proof.
When God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, Abraham did not have to exercise faith contrary to what he knew about God. Although Abraham did not have proof, in one sense, the writer of Hebrews says that “he reasoned that God could even raise the dead…” Abraham’s faith was not based on thin air. His faith fulfilled both aspects of the definition above: Abraham had confidence in God, and he stepped out into unchartered ground, not with absolute proof, but with considered trust that God would act faithfully, as he had in the past.
If a father asks his son to run and get in the car, the father may not have time to prove to the son why he needs to do it, but it doesn’t make it an irrational choice if it is based on a relationship of trust.
Faith in God is much more than an elephant’s mere optimism ~ it is grounded in reality and relationship.
Question from a reader:
Why does Luke mention Lysanias as the ruler of Abilene?
Luke opens his gospel with his purpose statement. He is writing an orderly record of what happened to give certainty to his account:
Luke 1 — Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Luke’s careful recording of accurate details was meant to affirm the reliability of the eye-witness accounts about Jesus. So in Chapter 3 of Luke’s gospel, he connects his account of John the Baptist to contemporary rulers:
Luke 3 — In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
At that point in history, references to the names and locations of rulers were used to establish time periods, since a calendar as we know it was not in use. If we didn’t have a calendar to mark the day and year of an event, today’s historian might say “in the 7th year of Obama’s presidency, when Xi Jinping was the President of China, and Vladimir Putin was the President of Russia.”
For years scholars were skeptical of Luke’s reference to Lysanias in Luke 3:1, casting doubt on the reliability of Luke’s gospel. “History makes no mention of a governor of Abilene of this name at this time…” ~ J. Davies said in his St. Luke’s Gospel. Josephus’ Antiquities record a Lysanius who was a ruler executed by Mark Anthony at Cleopatra’s request in 34 B.C.
Was Luke a sloppy historian? Did he make a 60-year mistake? Or was there actually another Lysanias during the ministry of John the Baptist?
Two archaeological discoveries would confirm that Luke was NOT mistaken about the Lysanias who lived during the reign of Tiberius. One of those discoveries is an inscription found in 1737 by the famous English traveler Dr. Richard Pocock. The inscription dates from the time of Tiberius (Roman emperor from 14 – 37 AD) which named Lysanias as the Tetrach of Abila near Damascus, just as Luke said. Be sure that the next time you are in London, you stop in to see this inscription, currently housed in the British Museum.
This evidence supports Luke in his reference to Lysanias as tetrarch during the time of John the Baptist.
If you want to read more about Luke’s incredible accuracy as a historian, go here.
Archaeological evidence confirms that Luke wrote about real people in real places in his reliable gospel account. Luke mentions Lysanias to locate the story of Jesus in real history.
~ Betsy McPeak
In my apologetics class this past week, we discussed the COEXIST bumper sticker. I was making the point that not all of the religions on the bumper sticker can be true at the same time without denying the law of non-contradiction. Then one lady said that she would almost put the sticker on her car, not because she believes that all of the views can be true at the same time, but because she believes that we all need to be more respectful in our discussion with people of opposite views.
This same lady sent me a link to the conversation that occurred on Tuesday evening of this week at OSU (Oklahoma State University). Clayton Flesher and Red McCall, two gentlemen from the Oklahoma Atheists, had a conversation with Stuart McAllister and Andy Bannister, two gentlemen from Ravi Zacharias International Ministries entitled:
An OSU Open Forum –Perspectives: Maintaining Civility in a Pluralistic Society
Andy Bannister gave the most organized speech describing civility with these 5 points:
1. Recognize the right to belief.
We each hold beliefs, what we think is true. The government can’t regulate our beliefs. And while the government may try to protect our life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it cannot do so absolutely. Our life, freedom, and pursuit of happiness can be taken away, but no one can force us to give up our beliefs. We can’t make someone believe something or disbelieve something, and shouldn’t try. God doesn’t force our beliefs. We should interact with others respecting their beliefs.
2. Show generosity.
Give your opponent the benefit of the doubt. Interact with the strongest form of their position, not the weakest. Recognize the contributions of other worldviews. Andy gave the example of atheist Matthew Parris who believes that Africa needs the belief in a personal God to crush tribal groupthink, and claims that
Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.
3. Be accountable for your words.
James 3:6 tells us how the tongue can set the whole course of our lives on fire. Be careful how you use words, especially in debate about truth. You can cause personal damage and close people off from the truth through reckless words.
4. Reflect on our shared humanity.
Andy said that the primary question of the evening might be “What does it mean to be a human being?” Clayton defined a human being as “an animal who can ask questions other animals can’t.” Andy said that being made in the image of God defines what it means to be human. So although there was no agreement, even at this basic level, Clayton said that both sides agree that most humans share basic moral values, a desire for meaning in life, a desire for community and a desire to make the world a better place, although Clayton admitted that the reasons for these shared values are not at all the same.
5. Pursue a commitment to truth.
Truth should be the goal, rather than winning a debate. If we pursue truth, we will be more apt to listen with the goal of understanding, rather than formulating ammunition in our minds as someone else speaks. Seeking truth means we demonstrate humility, but it also means that we show courage. Courage to speak the truth clearly and uncompromisingly, without losing the respect part.
The evening was set up as a conversation – not a formal debate. It was interesting to me that the views on both sides came out quite clearly, even without a debate structure. And it was also clear to me which side seemed to have the stronger position. But the first questioner of the Q&A time came to the microphone and in a rather disgruntled way said: “Well that was the lamest debate I’ve ever seen. So I want to ask the Christians – ‘What is your proof for God?’ and I want to ask the atheists – ‘What is your proof that there is no god?’ ” Both sides got to exercise civility toward this questioner who obviously misunderstood the entire evening.
Andy’s five points of civility remind me of how I Peter 3:15 tells us to defend the hope that is within us, yet with gentleness and respect. I think we all know this; we just have to remember it.
So even though all truths don’t COEXIST, our civility ought to.
~ Betsy McPeak
Two weeks ago I asked the question, “Is evidence enough?” I talked about the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, and showed how their worldviews determined how they viewed the evidence, in that case — fossils. When people are totally committed to a worldview, as both Ken Ham and Bill Nye are, showing evidence is not usually a game-changer.
So when should you offer evidence for the Christian faith?
When someone wants it.
I am not being curt or sassy. I truly mean that.
There are 2 times, in my experience, when it is helpful to offer evidence.
1. To believers:
Maybe they are young and have heard about the truths of the Bible their whole life, but now as a teen or college student, they are wondering if the Bible is really a reliable document. Or maybe they have been a Christian awhile, but are now facing opposition for the first time. This was my experience. When I was faced with the challenges of my philosophy professors that I couldn’t answer, I wanted evidence. I often meet young Christians who just want to know that Jericho was a real place, that Pilate really lived, that there are non-Biblical sources written during the time of the apostles who mention that Jesus Christ lived on the earth.
2. To seekers:
One of my pastors calls the people in our lives who are attracted to Christ in us or to the gospel — “persons of Peace.” Phillip Vander Elst was such a person. After graduating from Oxford with degrees in politics and philosophy, Phillip met a really smart lady who was a Christian. He was amazed that someone smart could also believe in Jesus. Up to that point Phillip says:
Religious faith seemed to me to involve the blind worship of a cosmic dictator, and the abandonment of reason in favour of ‘revelation’. Why, in any case, should I take religion seriously, I thought, when the existence of evil and suffering clearly discredited the Christian claim that our world owed its existence to a benevolent Creator?
Phillip’s lady-friend (who eventually became his wife) introduced him to C.S. Lewis. Through reading Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain, Phillip came to think that atheism didn’t even provide him a basis by which to form the question about the problem of evil:
As he [Lewis] rightly points out, we cannot complain about the existence of evil and suffering, and use that as an argument against the existence and goodness of God, unless we first believe that the standard of right and wrong by which we judge and condemn our world is an objective one. Our sense of justice and fairness has to be a true insight into reality, before we can we be justified in getting angry and indignant about all the pain and injustice we see around us. But if this is the case, what explains the existence within us of this inner moral code or compass?
Lewis’ writings convinced Phillip that Christian theism made a lot more sense in the search to understand evil in our world:
The presence within us of an objective moral law ‘written on our hearts’ points instead to the existence of an eternal Goodness and Intelligence which created us and our universe, enables us to think, and is the eternal source of our best and deepest values. In other words, Lewis argues, atheism cuts its own throat philosophically, because it discredits all human reasoning, including the arguments for atheism. “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.” (Mere Christianity).
Once Phillip saw the Biblical account as a viable worldview, he then turned to examine the evidence about the Bible. You can read his complete account and about all the evidence that further convinced him here. For now, let me just share one evidence that was important to Phillip in his journey from atheism to faith:
…the manuscript evidence for the authenticity and reliability of the Gospel texts is earlier and more plentiful than that for any other document of ancient times. In particular, the historical reliability of Luke’s Gospel and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, which is full of explicit political, legal, medical, cultural and topographical details, is confirmed by a lot of archaeological evidence as well as by plentiful documentary evidence from non-Christian sources. According, for instance, to classical scholar and historian, Colin Hemer, in his study,The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, 84 separate facts in the last sixteen chapters of the Acts of the Apostles have been confirmed by archaeological and historical research.
If you share evidence with someone like Bill Nye, you will probably get to hear an explanation of that evidence from a different perspective. If so, do listen and learn. But if you share evidence with a young believer or a person of Peace when they ask for it, it will likely be very helpful.
~ Betsy McPeak
Not too long ago I was having a discussion with a chemist who claimed that the only thing that is real is what he can put under his microscope. In other words, reality consists only of that which is material. This worldview is often called naturalism, which according to the Oxford Dictionary is “a philosophical viewpoint according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted.”
It’s not a very popular view on Valentine’s Day. If it were – you might find a Valentine card that says something like this:
Darling, my rise in serotonin level has triggered my infatuation with you. In light of this development, my blood chemistry compels me to love you. Will you be my valentine?
At the Center for Naturalism’s website in the Q & A section it states that: “Your thoughts, experiences, feelings, decisions, and behavior are all things your brain and body does.” They go on to claim that “Naturalism can help improve interpersonal relationships.”
Q. What are the implications of naturalism for my attitudes toward others and my relationships with them?
A. Many of the implications of naturalism that apply to yourself (see above) apply to others, and for the same reasons. Knowing that they are fully caused to be as they are, and couldn’t have done otherwise in the circumstances they were in, you’re going to be much less likely to assign them ultimate credit and blame. This means you’re less likely to hold onto feelings of resentment, anger, and contempt should they behave badly.
Is that a true basis for relationship – I forgive you because you weren’t at fault??? Wouldn’t that also make the converse true – anytime you did something good or kind, it wouldn’t be your choice either? In fact, naturalism, as I understand it, reduces love and relationships, because it reduces what it means to be human. On the same website a human being is described:
“What’s special about this naturalistic view ourselves, that’s quite different from the supernatural or common sense view, is that we don’t have free will, defined as the power to do something without yourself being fully caused to do it.”
Remember last week I said that Francis Collins, who mapped the human genome, said that he came to faith in God because of all that he could not explain with his naturalistic view of life. Love seems to be in that category to me. A naturalist explains love and relationships in a way that does not fit with reality, reducing it to a deterministic series of choices based on bio-chemical processes.
Biblical Christianity asserts that human beings are relational because they were created by a Trinitarian God who has always existed as three persons in relationship with each other. God’s essence is love. This is not just an ivory tower truth. Just like the naturalist sees the truths of their worldview expressed in the nature of relationships, so does the Christian. God’s nature is reflected in His creation, including man who is made in His own image.
Philosopher Peter Kreeft of Boston College says it this way:
If God is not a Trinity, God is not love. For love requires three things: a lover, a beloved, and a relationship between them.
So buy your Valentine some flowers and chocolate, because you are made in the image of a God who loves, and therefore, even if my chemist friend can’t see it under a microscope, your love is real.
~ Betsy McPeak
If you watched the debate Wednesday evening of this week between creation scientist Ken Ham and Bill Nye the Science Guy, you might wonder how two men can interpret the same fossils and other geological evidence in such opposite ways. The topic of the debate was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?” Ken Ham used evidence to say yes; Bill Nye used evidence to say no. When asked what it would take to change his mind, Bill Nye said that he would change his mind if he were presented with evidence for creationism. Ken Ham said he would not change his mind, because he would hold to the authority of God’s word. But it was clear that Bill Nye will interpret any evidence he encounters through the lens of his “Reasonable Man” glasses, without a change in his naturalism. Ken Ham admitted that he will continue to interpret any evidence in light of his Biblical worldview, without a change in his position.
As much as I think that we should present evidence for the veracity of the Christian faith, debates like the Ham-Nye encounter this week show us the limitations of evidence.
Ravi Zacharias tells the story of sharing the podium once at Johns Hopkins University with Dr. Francis Collins, the current Director of the National Institute of Health. Ravi says that Francis first put up a photo of York Minster’s Rose Window (above left) on the big screen for the audience, sharing that there were thousands of pieces of stained glass in this amazingly beautiful window. Then Francis put up a view of the DNA Double Helix (above right), with its 3.1 billion bits of data. And then Francis sang a worship song.
We might agree with Francis Collins that the evidence speaks for itself – that it shouts glory to our Creator God. But not everyone will see it that way. Bill Nye might look at the DNA cross-section and be in awe of the universe.
Francis Collins used to be an atheist. I have thought, until today, that it was primarily his work with DNA in mapping the human genome that triggered his change from atheist to believer. And surely that was part of it. But that is only part of the story. When Collins changed careers from being a scientist to being a medical doctor, he encountered questions from patients on their deathbeds that he couldn’t answer.
As a graduate student in physical chemistry in the 1970s, I was an atheist, finding no reason to postulate the existence of any truths outside of mathematics, physics and chemistry. But then I went to medical school, and encountered life and death issues at the bedsides of my patients. Challenged by one of those patients, who asked “What do you believe, doctor?”, I began searching for answers.
I had to admit that the science I loved so much was powerless to answer questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” “Why am I here?” “Why does mathematics work, anyway?” “If the universe had a beginning, who created it?” “Why are the physical constants in the universe so finely tuned to allow the possibility of complex life forms?” “Why do humans have a moral sense?” “What happens after we die?”
(From the CNN article “Collins: Why this scientist believes in God”)
Collins shares how he came to faith in God in a CNN interview that you can watch here. It was his growing understanding that his naturalistic worldview could not answer the big questions or explain reality as he experienced it, particularly man’s sense of right and wrong.
Collins now shows evidence of God’s creative work, like the intricate DNA Helix, and instinctively gives praise to God. He wrote a book to show that science and religion are not at odds. But in listening to him explain his journey from atheism to belief in God, it sounds like it had more to do with a worldview that lacked explaining power, than with evidence.
God gave evidence of His existence when He appeared to Moses in a burning bush that was not consumed, when He parted the Red Sea, when He lighted Elijah’s fire in a showdown with the prophets of Baal, when He saved Daniel’s friends from the fiery furnace. Jesus gave evidence of His deity by turning water into wine, walking on water, and showing Thomas His scars. So we should not hesitate in our apologetics to present evidence when it is appropriate, from fulfilled prophecies to archeological and historical support for the Bible. But we must also know that evidence alone is not always enough.
Apologist William Lane Craig says it like this:
So while the evidence is not enough to coerce you if your heart is closed, it is enough to ground faith rationally if you are willing to look at it with an open mind and an open heart.
~ Betsy McPeak
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