RESPONDblogs: Can the Human Heart Change for the Better?

RESPOND

I’m preparing to visit sub-Saharan Africa next week. Specifically, I’ll be spending time in both Malawi and Mozambique – two of the world’s poorest countries.

Each time I visit these people – I see an amazing power at work.

It’s a power that self-proclaimed atheist Matthew Parris, who himself grew up in Malawi, describes as the “hope” of Africa.

“Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it.”

                — Matthew Parris, The Times

Amazingly – this power is also detected by British Prime Minister David Cameron – and he sees it at work amongst Christians who live in the UK.

“From Somerset to Surrey, from Oxford to Devon, churches became refuges, offering shelter and food, congregations raised…

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RESPONDblogs: Can the Human Heart Change for the Better?

I’m preparing to visit sub-Saharan Africa next week. Specifically, I’ll be spending time in both Malawi and Mozambique – two of the world’s poorest countries.

 

Each time I visit these people – I see an amazing power at work.

 

It’s a power that self-proclaimed atheist Matthew Parris, who himself grew up in Malawi, describes as the “hope” of Africa.

“Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it.”

                — Matthew Parris, The Times

 

Amazingly – this power is also detected by British Prime Minister David Cameron – and he sees it at work amongst Christians who live in the UK.

“From Somerset to Surrey, from Oxford to Devon, churches became refuges, offering shelter and food, congregations raised funds and rallied together, parish priests even canoed through their villages to rescue residents. They proved, yet again, that people’s faith motivates them to do good deeds.”

                — David Cameron, British Prime Minister, Easter Message 2014

 

What is this deeply positive…society building…person valuing power that both of these men observe – one in Britain, the other in Africa?

What is it that I can see as I travel through Africa meeting with church leaders and people of various Christian church denominations?

What is it that is at work in the Christian church I am part of – Kingfisher Church Network in the UK, Africa and India?

An ancient New Testament writer puts it like this:

“let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works.”

                — Hebrews 10:22 – 23, NLT

 

In other words – it really doesn’t matter whether you live in Blantyre, Malawi or Birmingham, UK. When the love of God reaches us and cleanses us inside – big things happen. Why? Because he removes all the guilt that by rights we should labour under in our daily lives.

Guilt for my past mistakes…

Guilt for the deliberate hurtful actions that I have been unleashed on others and myself. …

 

When God does the outrageously unfair but incredibly generous job of washing us clean – for free – he also…

substitutes hope for our despair –

acceptance for endless competitiveness –

love for intense hatred –

…and the results are big!

 

Lives change.

Society changes.

 

This is not a mind change. It’s not an ideology shift.

 

 

It starts with the transformation of a human heart.

 

 

Matthew Parris again makes this point clearly.

“In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

                — Matthew Parris, The Times

 

When we discover that we are welcomed by God as we are – no pretense, no religiosity – just me in my barest, rawest form. And when I experience his cleansing and his healing in my life – God gives me the will and the desire to serve other people. My heart changes – selfishness gets softened…a drive to give rather than receive begins to flourish and grow.

 

Here’s the thing – this heart change doesn’t only work in Africa. It also works in Britain too. In fact – it works wherever people decide to reject dead religion.

Whether that religion is found amongst people gathering in a traditionally religious building;

or whether it is found in a rather tired yet shrill, private secular humanist mindset.

 

When a person lays these down and instead – opens their heart to the transformative love of Jesus Christ. When that happens – heart change isn’t far behind.

 

David Cameron has pledged himself to protecting and standing up for “Christians and other minorities”.  As I listen to his words – I am left with two feelings:

 

FIRST  – when I look at the influence of Christ’s love on human hearts – I am left wondering what hope our fragmented scary world would have WITHOUT true Jesus Christianity – its associated heart change – and its transformative impact on society?

SECOND – my heart goes out to those who mistakenly reject true Jesus Christianity…in spite of the good deeds that true Jesus inspired heart change brings. This Christian life is not intended for a minority. This is actually what humanity is searching for –

 

it’s what you have been longing for –

what we’ve been built for.

 

 

Why the WHY Question Matters

I once heard about a conversation between the brilliant evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins and Prince Philip (the Queen’s husband). The Prince approached Dawkins after a lecture and complemented him on his delivery. The Prince smiled, “I’ve always thought you science chaps are strong on explaining HOW the Universe works. But you are not so clear on the answer to the WHY question.” Dawkins – without drawing breath – shot back, “That, Your Highness, is simply because the WHY question does not matter.”

Really?

Why is there something, rather than nothing?
Why is there a Universe?
Why do I exist?
Why am I struggling with this stuff, right now?
Why is life so blasted hard!
Is there any real purpose to it all?

Ever found yourself asking those sorts of questions? If so – we are in good company. Mankind has wrestled with ’em for millennia! We can see it in the writings of the ancient Philosophers, thru the birth of Science in the 1600s, all the way up to the artists of the 21st Century today; Sir Ridley Scott – take a bow for the science fiction movie “Prometheus”.

Bad news – I cannot give you the answer to “Why?” in this blog (or explain all the story threads in Prometheus, for that matter) But I can tell you this. Human Beings are hard wired to ask the “Why?” question. It is in our makeup. We have an insatiable appetite for asking it. The movie Prometheus is a good example – it is a human origins story – and it took 50 Million US Dollars from the audience on its opening weekend. People have an appetite for anything asking “Why?” in a spectacular way.

Asking “Why?” has resulted in hundreds of years of Philosophical and Scientific discoveries…which seem in no hurry to slow down.

But there’s another reason the “Why?” question echoes through human history.

Think of it like a radar ping out into the unknown. Or like a hopeful cry into the darkness – “is there anybody there?” If we are sending the radar ping – He is the object our scanners detect. If we are calling into the darkness – He is the faint response we strain to hear.

“Why?” is part of the machinery that allows us to locate our creator, God.

We ask “Why?” because God’s built us to seek for him. Someone once put it like this. “You need not cry very loud; He is nearer to us than we think.” The Bible puts it like this. “Seek God while he’s here to be found, pray to him while he’s close at hand.” Isaiah 55:6, The Message

Sure – look around. Do your seeking where you must. But can I encourage you to also send out your radar pings in the direction of the Bible…the Church…and Jesus?

And finally a request to Professor Dawkins –
By sticking to your guns, propagating the tight lipped doctrine that says “Life is the result of the blind forces of nature – and nothing else”, I can see why you avoid the “Why?” question. It threatens to undermine your theory. Yet you are denying the cry of your own heart. Is that what makes you sound so uptight? And you are intimidating others into suppressing their own need to ask “Why?”! Not very public spirited of you, sir.

“Why?” matters. Don’t be afraid to ask the question, sir. Who knows where it may lead you.

RESPONDblogs: Biblical Jesus = Retelling of Pagan Myth?

Imagine someone looks at you earnestly and says the following.

I don’t believe Jesus existed, I don’t believe he was real. Why? Because there is this guy in blue tights and wearing a red cape with an S on his chest.  (On his planet the S means HOPE)  And this red and blue guy was sent to earth – his father’s only son – to save humanity. He had amazing powers – he brought people back from the dead…and he himself returned from the dead. You see? Many parallels there between Jesus and Superman. Because these parallels exist – Jesus can’t be a real person – the reports about Jesus’ life cannot be true.

 

How would you respond?

 

 

Well – there seems to be some faulty logic going on here.

  1. For a start – Superman is a fictional comic book character while Jesus is a person from ancient history whose life is documented more carefully than anyone else. Superman is sadly a work of fiction – Jesus is documented history.
  2. Next – Jesus lived two thousand years ago, whereas Superman first appeared in issue #1 of Action Comics in 1938. Superman came after Jesus. So if there is any influence going on here…surely it’s Jesus influencing the Superman character?

 

So why do I say all this? Because there’s a similar line of argument going on in the Bill Maher clip above. The Biblical Jesus isn’t a myth copied from Paganism – rather he is the fulfillment of humanity’s myths and our stories. Our fictional stories point to the real him.

 

Steve DiSebastian makes this point better than I could in his blog. You can check it out here:

http://godfromthemachineblog.wordpress.com/tag/paganism-and-christianity/

 

 

What I think Bill Maher is attempting to do in the video clip above is to discredit Jesus Christ by comparing him to many mythological characters from the ancient world.

If those were myths – so too is Jesus.

 

But the problem is that I think the logic is faulty.

 

 

 

Jesus and Mithras:

Bill mentions Mithras who was a mythical figure worshipped by Roman soldiers – and the archaeological evidence we have comes from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. In other words – Mithraism flourished over a hundred years following the birth of Christianity. If there is any influencing going on…then surely it was the historical Jesus influencing the story of the mythical Mithras. Do you see the Superman parallel now? Jesus influenced Superman…..and Jesus influenced Mithras. Not the other way round.

 

In the video clip – Bill Maher claims a number of parallels between Jesus and Mithras. Now – I for one am no expert on the ancient Mediterranean mystery religions. And call my cynical…but I don’t think Bill is either.  BUT – I can do some research by reading what the experts say.

 

Experts like Edwin M. Yamauchi, PH.D.

With a doctorate in Mediterranean studies, Edwin taught at Miami University of Ohio for more than 35 years. He’s worked on the archaeology, written and presented peer reviewed books and papers on Mithraic studies since the 1970s. And what does he say?

He dismisses every single one of Bill’s claims on Mithras and the wider Mediterranean mystery religions.

  • Mithras known as the way, the truth and the life?
  • Mithras resurrected on the 3rd day?

 

“[Those writing on the Mystery Religions drawing parallels with Christianity] don’t have the languages, they don’t study the original sources, they don’t pay attention to the dates, and they frequently quote ideas that were popular in the 19th century…but have already been refuted.”

– Edwin M. Yamauchi, The Case for the Real Jesus, ISBN-10: 0-310-24061-1

 

There’s no historical or literary evidence for any of it. Sorry Bill – I’m more inclined to go with Edwin’s opinion rather than yours.

 

Mithraism was based on a myth. But Bill is just heaping error and falsehood on top of it. He’s not alone in this. Dan Brown did a much more entertaining job in the Da Vinci Code. But entertaining or not, it is not history that they are repeating. It’s fiction.

 

 

Jesus and Horus:

Bill also makes many claims about the mythical Egyptian god Horus, son of the god Osiris. Again – this is a mythical story that Bill is comparing to the Bible’s historical account.

Who are Horus and Osiris? They are mythical characters mentioned in the Egyptian Books of the Dead; a variety of papyri and hieroglyph inscriptions left at burial sites of wealthy Egyptians thousands of years ago. Egyptologists have found many different versions of these books spanning a 5000 year period of Egypt’s history. These were not intended to be historical texts – rather they were stories inscribed and left with the dead in the hope that they would help the person enter the afterlife.

Osiris story tends to involve his death and dismemberment followed by his reanimation by members of his family as – in effect – a zombie! His reanimation  occurs so he can father a son – Horus.

Now – these hieroglyphs do  pre-date Christianity. Further – the Jews lived in Egypt for a long time before Moses came along and helped free them from Egyptian oppression. So maybe they picked this Horus stuff up while they were in Egypt and it informed the writing of the Bible?

 

I think the point Bill is making is – Horus was made up…and the Jesus of the New Testament is made up too. But there’s a problem. Actually Bill is repeating some of the conjecture made by Gerald Massey, who lived between 1828 and 1907. Egyptology was in its infancy back then – and Massey was no expert on the area. He was an English poet. But – he wrote some books, (e.g. Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World) that tried to draw parallels between the Gospels and the Horus myths.

Egyptologists today apparently view Massey’s work as wild speculation because it’s based on picking and choosing many different texts, many of which contradict each other. Massey apparently never provided any references supporting his theory that Christianity finds parallels in Egyptian writings. So he was speculating without evidence – yet many people (like Bill Maher) quote his speculation as if it is fact.

 

To claim Egyptology spawned Christianity is pure conjecture with no evidence.

Yet the life of Christ is passed on to us as well attested, historical accounts containing independent eye witness testimony. We’re back to the Superman vs Jesus comparison – myth vs history. I’ll go with history every time!

 

Others have written a more detailed response to the claims of Gerald Massey…and Bill Maher. They have looked at the Egyptian texts – and responded. At best – I think we can say that Massey and Maher are reading Christian Theology back into the Egyptian stories in order to identify parallels that aren’t actually there. You can find more information here:

http://pleaseconvinceme.com/2012/is-jesus-simply-a-retelling-of-the-horus-myth/

http://www.strangenotions.com/horus-manure/

 

 

 

In Conclusion:

What I am saying is – scholars think that it was the stories of the historical Jesus who influenced 2nd century Mithraism (not the other way around). And the Jesus – Horus connection is built on some wild speculation from the early 1900s by an earnest yet unqualified English poet.

 

As I watch that video clip again…it strikes me that Bill challenges his poor victims with real conviction, doesn’t he? However – conviction is not an accurate measure of truth. We can be convinced we are right…when we aren’t. Hey – I’m Scottish. I’m often convinced Scotland is going to win our next international football match. I know what it feels like to be genuinely wrong!

 

When it comes to Ancient mystery religions of the type Bill is referring to – I think he needs a better researcher. Because he is repeating a line of argument that was abandoned by respected ancient historians over a century ago.

 

But hey – his audience aren’t to know that. Right?

 

Mithraism and Egyptian mystery religions died out thousands of years ago. Jesus worship is alive and growing today – and there’s a good reason for that.

RESPOND blogs: Why I Believe in the Supernatural

RESPOND

It has been said – Miracles are simply the stuff of fiction.

Belief in Miracles – or the Supernatural – can be traced back to an ancient, pre-Scientifically enlightened world. A world where Vikings looked at the sky and believed a wolf chased the horses that dragged the chariot that contained the Sun across the sky. Great imagination there, guys!

Thanks to the work of David Hume in the 1800’s, many people today think everything that happens MUST be the result of natural processes. Because the Supernatural does not exist.

Someone who claims a Miracle is frowned upon in our culture today.  Because the claim is understood simply to be the result of us not understanding the natural processes involved in the event.

In other words – people who believe in Miracles are simply ignorant.

But here’s a thought – it IS possible to embrace and be inspired by the…

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Jesus Resurrection – As Unlikely as Alien Abduction Claims?

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i_want_to_believe

In 1961, the first big Alien Abduction claim hit the public consciousness. Barney and Betty Hills, from Portsmouth New Hampshire, reportedly had a Close Encounter with…something. It has cemented them and their claims firmly in pop culture.

And this raises a question for me. As I raise my eyebrow at the Hills’ outlandish claim, I wonder whether the New Testament’s report of Jesus physical return from the dead is any less outlandish and fanciful?

Let’s go back for a moment to the cold war tensions and paranoia of 1961. It wasn’t just a new decade marked by musical brilliance and Moon shots. Aliens were also reportedly doing medical procedures on unfortunate folks who were going about their daily business!

What exactly was Barney Hills claim?

Driving home one evening, they thought they saw something unusual in the night sky. Actually – many people including the US Military later agreed that something weird…

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Responding When Life Gets On Top of Me

peace

Once upon a time, I saw the land of peace

          from a mountaintop of my own making.

And it appeared to me that what I needed

to sustain me on this path was

          one more project,

          one more possession,

          one more accomplishment.

But these were detours that sent me

          deep into the land of discontent.

More projects led to too much stress.

More possessions turned into too much stuff.

More accomplishments turned into too much of me.

Then I heard that simple voice,

          still echoing in the distance:

“Follow Me.”

“Rest in my footprints.”

“Meander in my footsteps.”

“Keep me in sight as you walk the path

          to the land of peace.”

Swept up in the warm echo of that voice, I realized this:

One day, when I have learned to live as if

You are always with me,

I will move beyond

          all of my stress,

          all of my stuff,

          all of myself.

And I will taste this truth:

Each moment that I spent in Your shadow,

          I was living in the land of peace already.

— Timothy Paul Jones

And as one ancient writer put it…many centuries ago…

This is what the Lord says:

          “Stop at the crossroads and look around

          Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it.

          Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.

— Jeremiah 6:16, NLT

Jesus Resurrection – As Unlikely as Alien Abduction Claims?

i_want_to_believe

 

In 1961, the first big Alien Abduction claim hit the public consciousness. Barney and Betty Hills, from Portsmouth New Hampshire, reportedly had a Close Encounter with…something. It has cemented them and their claims firmly in pop culture.

 

And this raises a question for me. As I raise my eyebrow at the Hills’ outlandish claim, I wonder whether the New Testament’s report of Jesus physical return from the dead is any less outlandish and fanciful?

 

Let’s go back for a moment to the cold war tensions and paranoia of 1961. It wasn’t just a new decade marked by musical brilliance and Moon shots. Aliens were also reportedly doing medical procedures on unfortunate folks who were going about their daily business!

 

What exactly was Barney Hills claim?

 

Driving home one evening, they thought they saw something unusual in the night sky. Actually – many people including the US Military later agreed that something weird was happening that night. They reportedly stopped the car and took a good look. But the bright lights – and the erratic behavior of the object – began to freak them out. So they hurried back to their car and drove on. Before long – it became apparent they were 35 miles further down the road than they should have been. They appeared to have lost time!

Many weeks later, following a period of disrupted sleep and nightmares, they reportedly went thru regression hypnosis. And this brought out vivid details of little bald grey captors, operating tables and medical procedures.

Actually this is only the first well documented case of Alien Abduction – throughout the next 20 years, a number of similar claims were made by apparently ordinary people with no apparent reason to lie.

 

The New Testament contains 2000 year old eyewitness reports from apparently ordinary people too.

  • Reports of the death of Jesus of Nazareth, followed by the grief and shock of his friends.
  • Reports that these grieving people then subsequently encountered their friend back from the dead at various different times and places over a 40 day period.

 

Sounds pretty unlikely – right? Dead people don’t come back. Aliens don’t abduct people driving home in their cars.

 

Whatever historical event you are trying to verify – whether mundane or fantastical – historians apply 5 criteria to test the solidity of the report.

A solid Historical claim will:

1 – be supported by multiple, independent sources

2 – be attested to by enemies (hostile witnesses) as well as friends

3 – include embarrassing admissions which reflect honest reporting rather than creative storytelling

4 – be supported by direct eyewitness testimony

5 – be supported by early testimony making legendary development impossible

 

The problem with the Barney and Betty Hills Alien Abduction claim is – by the criteria laid out above – we do not have a solid Historical report.

The only witnesses were the alleged abductees. There are no independent sources or witnesses – either friendly or hostile – to the Hill’s claim.  While other people agreed something strange was seen in the night sky that evening in September 1961, no other witness to the alleged Close Encounter exists. We’re right to be skeptical – their case is historically unverified.

 

So – what about the Bible’s claim that God raised Jesus from the dead? (Acts 2:24) Well – a historical case based on a minimal set of data does exist. What is this data and how solid is the case?

 

DATA POINT 1 – The Death of Jesus By Crucifixion

This fact is attested by every Gospel, and many non-Christian sources too. For example – Roman historian Josephus, Tacitus, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata as well as the Jewish Talmud itself.

Jesus crucifixion meets the historical criteria of multiple independent eyewitnesses, early sources and enemy attestation.

Some have proposed that – maybe Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross. He merely swooned, was then buried and was then revived in the cold tomb.

But this doesn’t work.

  • Roman executioners were excellent torturers and executioners
  • Jesus faking his resurrection goes against his moral teachings
  • There are no early reports he was wounded and not killed
  • A half dead Messiah could not serve as the foundation for a belief in the Resurrection. If his friends had encountered him bloodied and bleeding…they would not have called him the Lord of Life. They would have called him a doctor!
  • Jewish thinking said, only once at the end of human history would the dead be raised. This means that – on encountering Jesus alive again after his crucifixion –his followers would naturally have just assumed he didn’t die. Yet this is not what they claimed. It is highly culturally unusual for the Jewish early Church to proclaim him as Christ crucified and raised from death.

 

DATA POINT 2 – The Empty Tomb

All naturalistic theories that attempt to explain away the Resurrection presuppose the empty tomb. The body was reportedly gone.

From the beginning, the hostile Jewish authorities claimed that Jesus’ followers had stolen his body to fake his resurrection. But this claim gives no reason WHY they would have done so.

Further – the claim that the disciples stole the body does not work within Jewish culture at that time. There was no expectation of a Messiah who would become the suffering servant; who was executed shamefully by the Gentiles, and then raised bodily before the general resurrection at the end of time. Rather – Messiah’s were ten a penny in ancient Jerusalem. If your Messiah got themselves killed – you either gave up and went home, or you hitched your wagon to a different one. But the idea that Jesus followers stole his corpse and faked his resurrection just wouldn’t have entered their minds at that point in Jewish history.

Finally – if the disciples stole the body – this doesn’t explain the conversion of Christianity’s 1st century enemy turned Apostle – Saul who became Paul.

Surely if someone had managed to produce his rotting corpse and deposit it in the middle of Jerusalem for all to see….that would have been an end to it. But they could not.

DATA POINT 3 – The Post-Resurrection Appearances

Scholars cite 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 as the earliest snapshot of Christian belief about Jesus. Paul claimed to receive this creed from the original Apostles many years before he wrote his letter. Scholars date the creed to within months or weeks of the crucifixion itself.

Three of our four minimal facts are recorded there as an early statement of belief – Christ died, his tomb was discovered empty and he was seen by his closest friends. And then more than five hundred people saw him at once.

The early date of this creed rules out legendary embellishment because there simply wasn’t time for legends to develop. And besides – the eye witnesses were still alive at the time this was passed on.

Yet over hundreds of years some legends did develop; they are referred to as the 3rd century Gnostic Gospels. In comparison to the New Testament’s stark and excited eyewitness reporting, the Gnostic Gospels are full of bizarre and fanciful imagery.

 

Some have suggested hallucination as an explanation for the appearances. People saw what they wanted to see. But Psychologists have ruled this out. Hallucinations are private experiences yet crowds of eyewitnesses reportedly witnessed the risen Jesus. Remember, Jews would not expect to see a raised Jesus anyway. And finally – hallucination does not explain the empty tomb itself or indeed Saul’s conversion to Christianity.

 

DATA POINT 4 – The Origin of the Christian Faith

Within one generation of Jesus crucifixion, “the Way” had spread to Europe, Asia and Africa. If Christianity is the effect – then what was the cause?

Well – surely the most obvious cause is the Apostles belief that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead. And this belief transformed people’s lives. The cultural worship practices of Jewish people changed. Church moved to a Sunday.

Could the Disciples have stolen the body and made it all up? No lie or shared conspiracy or mistaken observation has the explanatory power to ignite the Christian church in human history.

 

IN SUMMARY

Jesus resurrection is based on historically verifiable evidence – it meets the 5 requirements outlined earlier in this blog. However unusual the event, there is powerful evidence of the event’s historical reliability. Even though we don’t understand how it happened – this does not preclude us from historically accepting that it did happen.

 

Really?

You’ve got to be gullible to believe Alien abduction reports – right? In the same way, dead men do not rise!

Hold on a minute –

The historical basis of the resurrection is incredibly strong. And no one claims Jesus was raised from the dead by natural means. Christians simply repeat what the Bible eye witness accounts say – that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Besides – you don’t have to understand something to accept the truth of it. Ask any Scientist to explain human consciousness; where does it come from? Then ask them what energy really is. They don’t really know. If Scientists can accept these things even though they don’t understand how and why they work – can’t we accept Jesus’ Resurrection as true based on observable and historically verifiable evidence?