RESPONDblogs: Just how Strong is the Moral Argument for God?

homersimpson

Have we ever considered that – maybe – the moral fabric of our world points to a creator God? If people were simply the result of mindless, chance events that occurred over a prolonged period of time do you really think that human morality would have grown into the common code that it is now…shared by all people everywhere down through the ages? The moral code feels to me like a far reaching Act of Parliament…handed down from heaven…written on our hearts from birth…that we can run from but we cannot hide from.

I think that human morals provide a strong pointer to the just and loving God that the Bible describes. How do I support my conclusion? What are my premises?

1 – Maybe morality is just the result on an evolving society? I’ve explored reasons why this cannot be the case.

2 – But there isn’t a “one size fits all” morality – right? I’ve discussed why I think this misunderstands what morality is.

3 – I’ve gone on to explore what moral absolutes look like.

4 – And Science, while a useful tool, is not capable of making moral judgments on its own.

5 – All this only really makes sense if there is a God to provide the moral code in the first place.

 

Is there a strong moral argument for God? Yes – I think so.

 

But – so what?

If there’s a moral code imprinted onto each human heart that urges us to look after the poor and the helpless, to care for and respect our children and our elders, to seek justice in this world…so what?

 

 

Here are a couple of thoughts.

First – I think it’s easy to forget just how strong the force of the moral code really is in our lives. The stronger something is – the more important it is to explore its cause and its reason.

Just after the Christmas holiday, Janet and I watched the Netflix series that’s getting a lot of buzz right now. It’s called “Making a Murderer” and it’s a series that documents the life and misfortunes of Steven Avery who has spent most of his life in prison. And the series lays out – using a creative mix of interviews, news clips and recovered footage during the events – that Avery has been sent to prison twice for crimes that he did not commit. And as things stand today – he may never manage to gain his release.

What affect has this had on the people of have watched it? Well – those who I have spoken to, those who I have listened to – have been full of moral outrage on behalf of Steven and his nephew Brendan Dassey. That he would be misrepresented in such a crushing way twice, leading to decades behind bars, makes people angry…and it makes them call for change. Some people take it further…and seek to punish the poor prosecutor Ken Kratz for putting Steven in prison. Kratz seems to have done a good job of punishing himself, if the reports of his impropriety are to be believed!

Director Peter Jackson has written about his feelings on his public Facebook page:

“it’s only by watching the 10 hours of riveting documentary that you will really understand how faulty the U.S justice system currently is, and how badly it needs fixing. That will only happen if you are angry enough to demand it, and “Making a Murderer” does a pretty good job of achieving that!”

This TV show has made a massive impact. Netflix hasn’t released viewing figures…but its impact on social media has been enormous between December and January 2016. The first episode was uploaded to YouTube to encourage non-Netflix subscribers to get on board…and that episode has achieved 1.6 million views since 18th December when it was posted. The official @MakingAMurderer twitter account went from 4000 to 114000 followers over the same period. This show has made a big impact on an international viewing audience, and it highlights just how important the moral absolute of “justice in court” is to the average person.

Our shared call for legal justice in a corrupt justice system points to the creator God who makes sense of our moral outrage. That’s an important point to consider here.

 

 

Second – if God has given us a humane and protective moral code, then that tells us a lot about what his character is like. Because it’s going to reflect the caring protective heart laws we have explored.

Now some would reply – “Stuart, the Bible is the most immoral work of fiction I’ve ever read!” Really? You call the Bible a work of fiction? Are you sure you read it? But I do agree it is full of immoral acts. And I think there are some reasons for this:

1 – The Bible is not completely prescriptive. It does not spend all of its time telling us how we should behave. It doesn’t need to do that because the moral law is written elsewhere (on our hearts). What it does however spend a lot of time doing – is describing the human condition. The immoral problems that humanity wrestles with. The problem is the human heart – the problem is my heart. And the Bible spends a lot of time showing us why we need God’s help.

2 – The Bible was written at a different time in a different culture. For example, the ancient near east was nowhere near as humane a society as the western countries are today. Yet ISIS seems to be trying to take us back into those dark ages. The behaviour of God’s people seems very harsh to 21st century eyes. Yet when viewed alongside the evils of the time that were wrought by other nations…Israel was always progressive in its humanity. An example of this is the way it treated slaves – who were limited in their engagement to 7 years (Exodus 21:2).

3 – When we hear non-Bible scholars accusing God of heinous immoral acts in the Old Testament, you’ve got to ask:

  • where are you getting your sense of morality from in the first place?
  • why do you think you are properly understanding these ancient texts that come from a particular place and time – and are not prescriptive today.

 

 

Humanity is capable of incredible acts of selflessness, love and faithfulness. And I suggest that they reflect the character of the God who made us, who loves us and who has imprinted his goodness onto us.

“May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favour and give you his peace.” Numbers 6:24-26, NLT

 

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RESPONDblogs: God, Morals and Steven Avery

murderer

Over the past few posts, I’ve done my best to lay out the moral argument for God as I understand it.

While doing so…I’ve also been watching “Making a Murderer” on Netflix…which has been a fascinating experience…and resonates strongly with the argument I have been making. I’ll explain why I think that in a moment.

For now – here’s what I’ve been exploring on this blog: 

 

 

1 – The claim that human morality is simply just what society does as it evolves. I’ve explored reasons why this cannot be the case.

2 – The claim that each different human society has its own particular moral code. I’ve discussed why I think this misunderstands what morality is.

3 – I’ve gone on to explore what moral absolutes look like.

4 – And I’ve said that – this state of affairs only really makes any sense if there is a God to provide the code in the first place.

 

 

But – so what? If there’s a moral code imprinted onto each human heart that urges us to look after the poor and the helpless, to care for and respect our children and our elders, to seek justice in this world…so what?

 

 

Here are a couple of thoughts.

First – I think it’s easy to forget just how strong the force of the moral code really is in our lives. The stronger something is – the more important it is to explore its cause and its reason.

Just after the Christmas holiday, Janet and I watched the Netflix series that’s getting a lot of buzz right now. It’s called “Making a Murderer” and it’s a series that documents the life and misfortunes of Steven Avery who has spent most of his life in prison. And the series lays out – using a creative mix of interviews, news clips and recovered footage during the events – that Avery has been sent to prison twice for crimes that he did not commit. And as things stand today – he may never manage to gain his release.

What affect has this had on the people of have watched it? Well – those who I have spoken to, those who I have listened to – have been full of moral outrage on behalf of Steven and his nephew Brendan Dassey. That he would be misrepresented in such a crushing way twice, leading to decades behind bars, makes people angry…and it makes them call for change. Some people take it further…and seek to punish the poor prosecutor Ken Kratz for putting Steven in prison. Kratz seems to have done a good job of punishing himself, if the reports of his impropriety are to be believed!

Director Peter Jackson has written about his feelings on his public Facebook page:

“it’s only by watching the 10 hours of riveting documentary that you will really understand how faulty the U.S justice system currently is, and how badly it needs fixing. That will only happen if you are angry enough to demand it, and “Making a Murderer” does a pretty good job of achieving that!”

This TV show has made a massive impact. Netflix hasn’t released viewing figures…but its impact on social media has been enormous between December and January 2016. The first episode was uploaded to YouTube to encourage non-Netflix subscribers to get on board…and that episode has achieved 1.6 million views since 18th December when it was posted. The official @MakingAMurderer twitter account went from 4000 to 114000 followers over the same period. This show has made a big impact on an international viewing audience, and it highlights just how important the moral absolute of “justice in court” is to the average person.

Our shared call for legal justice in a corrupt justice system points to the creator God who makes sense of our moral outrage. That’s an important point to consider here.

 

 

Second – if God has given us a humane and protective moral code, then that tells us a lot about what his character is like. Because it’s going to reflect the caring protective heart laws we have explored.

Now some would reply – “Stuart, the Bible is the most immoral work of fiction I’ve ever read!” Really? You call the Bible a work of fiction? Are you sure you read it? But I do agree it is full of immoral acts. And I think there are some reasons for this:

1 – The Bible is not completely prescriptive. It does not spend all of its time telling us how we should behave. It doesn’t need to do that because the moral law is written elsewhere (on our hearts). What it does however spend a lot of time doing – is describing the human condition. The immoral problems that humanity wrestles with. The problem is the human heart – the problem is my heart. And the Bible spends a lot of time showing us why we need God’s help.

2 – The Bible was written at a different time in a different culture. For example, the ancient near east was nowhere near as humane a society as the western countries are today. Yet ISIS seems to be trying to take us back into those dark ages. The behaviour of God’s people seems very harsh to 21st century eyes. Yet when viewed alongside the evils of the time that were wrought by other nations…Israel was always progressive in its humanity. An example of this is the way it treated slaves – who were limited in their engagement to 7 years (Exodus 21:2).

3 – When we hear non-Bible scholars accusing God of heinous immoral acts in the Old Testament, you’ve got to ask:

  • where are you getting your sense of morality from in the first place?
  • why do you think you are properly understanding these ancient texts that come from a particular place and time – and are not prescriptive today.

 

 

Humanity is capable of incredible acts of selflessness, love and faithfulness. And I suggest that they reflect the character of the God who made us, who loves us and who has imprinted his goodness onto us.

“May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favour and give you his peace.” Numbers 6:24-26, NLT

RESPONDblogs: Was Jesus Dead When He Was Laid In the Tomb?

Nails

It is all very well presenting the historical evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection, as I did here. But if Jesus wasn’t actually dead before he was laid in that well known tomb…the conclusion is completely invalid. If Jesus of Nazareth survived his crucifixion, then there could be no miraculous resurrection…cos he wasn’t dead to begin with!
So I need to ask – is there any way of working out whether or not Jesus actually died as a result of his documented crucifixion by Roman Soldiers outside Jerusalem during the reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius?

 
Alex Metherell, M.D., Ph.D. is a forensic pathologist, a medical detective who has performed countless autopsies. He has a medical degree from the University of Miami and a doctorate in engineering from the University of Bristol. He has written for publications ranging from Aerospace Medicine to Scientific American.

Alex is also a Christian and, because he is a pathologist, he has studied the historical, archaeological and medical data concerning the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Alex Metherell has studied the available data and he believes there is no possibility that Jesus of Nazareth survived the agonising experience of crucifixion. Jesus was dead when he was laid in that well known tomb.

A rather graphic summary (apologies!) of Alex’s evidence is listed below:

 

 

Psychological Stress as Jesus Anticipated the Cross
The Gospels record that Jesus prayed all night in the garden of Gethsemane where he began to sweat blood.
Hematidrosis is a recognised condition where capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture, and sweat comes out of the skin tinged with blood.

 

 

floggingwhip
Roman Flogging of Jesus
The solider would use a whip of braided leather thongs with metal balls and pieces of sharp bone woven in. The whip would strike the flesh on the back, buttocks and back of the legs repeatedly…39 lashes was common. What effect did this have?

  • The balls would cause deep bruises that would burst open on repeated blows
  • The skin on the back would become shredded, sometimes exposing the victim’s spine. One physician and expert on Roman beatings says the underlying skeletal muscles would be torn into producing quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh
  • “The sufferer’s veins were laid bare, and the very muscles, sinews, and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.” Roman Historian Eusebius
  • If the victim survived this flogging they would often go into hypovolemic shock. In other words, the effects of losing a large volume of blood. This means a drop in blood pressure, heart racing to pump blood that’s not there, extreme thirst as the body craves fluids to replace lost blood volume.

 

 

Approach to the Crucifixion Site
Jesus was forced to carry the horizontal beam of the cross all the way.
He struggled, and a Roman Soldier ordered a bystander (Simon) to help him
He was thirsty as he made the journey, which points to the effects of hypovolemic shock

Jesus was clearly in a critical condition before the nails were driven thru his hands and feet.
The Excruciating Agony of Crucifixion
The word excruciating was invented to describe the unique experience of crucifixion – the word literally means “out of the cross”.

Some people were tied to the cross, but the account of Jesus points to him being nailed to the cross. This was not uncommon; archaeologists have found remains buried in Jerusalem with a spike still attached to the bones of the foot with wood from the upright beam still present.

  • Romans used spikes 5 to 7 inches long, tapered to a sharp point
  • The spikes were driven thru the wrists (considered part of the hand in the language of the day) to attach him to the crossbar
  • The crushing of the median nerves would be incredibly painful
  • Once hoisted, the crossbar was attached to the vertical stake and spikes were driven thru his feet to attach him there

 

The physiological effects on his body would have been brutal.

  • Both shoulders would dislocate (which fulfils the Old Testament prophecy in Psalm 22)
  • Once in this agonizing position, crucifixion is a slow death by asphyxiation. The stresses on the body put it into the inhale position. In order to exhale air from the lungs, the victim has to push themselves up on his feet. Doing so would cause further tearing of the flesh in his feet. This process of dropping down again and pushing up to breathe would have been incredibly painful, and would have scraped his shredded back against the wooden upright
  • Eventually exhaustion would cause the victim to cease pushing upwards and therefore cease breathing
  • A lack of oxygen leads to respiratory acidosis – carbon dioxide in the bloodstream – leading to an irregular heartbeat. Combined with the hypovolemic shock, Jesus would most probably have died of heart failure.

 

Ensuring Jesus was Dead
The Roman soldiers who executed their victims were by no means experts on human anatomy; but they were skilled and experienced at executions. They knew how to kill people efficiently.
Often to speed up the process of crucifixion, they would use their metal spears to break the leg bones of the victim so that they could no longer push up to breathe – causing death very quickly.

In Jesus case, it is recorded that the Roman executioner was certain he was already dead. But he stuck his spear into his right side, probably between his ribs, to be sure.

  • John’s Gospel records that blood and water ran out of this wound
  • Assuming that the spear penetrated thru the lung into the heart, the pericardial effusion surrounding the heart, which was caused by the hypovolemic shock, would have burst giving the appearance of water running from the spear wound

Could Jesus have survived his crucifixion? Doctor Metherell’s conclusion is – not a chance.

 

 

reflections on Christ - crucifixion

BUT – say he did? Imagine that having experienced all that has been described, that he is revived in the cool of his tomb, rolls the stone away, evades the Roman Guards posted there, staggers away on feet that have been crushed by metal spikes. How would he have looked? The trauma would have left in in a pitiful state. His followers would not have seen him as the Lord of life who had triumphed over the grave. They would not have called him Lord…they would have called him a Doctor!

“…it’s preposterous to think that if he had appeared to them in that awful state, his followers would have been prompted to start a worldwide movement based on the hope that someday they too would have a resurrection body like this. There’s just no way.”

Was Jesus dead when he was laid in the tomb? A reasonable examination of the evidence suggests – yes, of course he was.

 

 

Adapted from:

Strobel Lee. The Case for Christ. Chapter 11 The Medical Evidence. Zondervan.

RESPONDblogs: Neill Blomkamp’s “Chappie” – review

Light Spoilers below

 

Neill Blomkamp is a visionary director; his films look stunning…His worlds feature a gritty, current day aesthetic …with a futuristic twist. The brilliant designs look like they should work. Neill has learned his film making craft from the best and Chappie is “business as usual” for him…and that’s a good thing.

 

It’s a story about a multi-national corporation (Tetravaal) backing two contradictory approaches to robotic law enforcement. Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel, is developing an independent autonomous drone while Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) favours the non-intelligent, human controlled vehicle approach; Moore’s MOOSE is like a heavily armed, remotely controlled U.S. Drone. Conflict between these approaches escalates when Deon’s autonomous robotic police drone goes beyond its basic programming and becomes truly self aware…it becomes “intelligently designed” into a thinking, feeling artificial intelligence in its own right.

 

This is interesting timing for Chappie, given the increased buzz around driverless cars (even the Topgear guys are chatting about that one) and the cautionary note that Professor Stephen Hawking rang recently about the dangers that AI will pose to humankind in the future.

 

 

 

Three themes stuck out to me as i enjoyed this movie.

 

FIRST – Neill presents Jackman’s character Moore in an interesting way. Moore designed his MOOSE as an attack vehicle bristling with weapons – but his reasons seem to be philosophical ones…even religious ones. It seems that this guy is against all forms of artificial intelligence…presumably because…as he says to Deon’s Chappie…he is just a godless monster. In other words – God didn’t create this being…mankind did. And to Moore, that’s a bad thing.

 

Jackman portrays Moore as not only a religious extremist, but also as a violent war monger. He is not only frustrated at being sidelined with his out of date technology, but he is also a very dangerous individual. He is quite clearly comfortable with building machines to cause death and destruction on an industrial scale! Neill Blomkamp’s religious guy is the dangerous, violent hate filled brooding presence in his movie.

 

I often hear Christians being described in these terms. And I’ve always thought…where does Jesus ever teach anyone to embrace hate and violence? He doesn’t. Of course the well worn response to this is – stop selectively flicking thru the New Testament and look at the Old. God commands the Israelites to wipe out the Amalekites. Therefore God wants Christians to be hate filled and violent. So Christianity is dangerous for society. Yet this is SO far away from a balanced reading of the Bible, that it leaves the average Christian scratching their head in puzzlement.

 

Yes God used Israel to bring punishment to people at a single time in history, as described in the Old Testament. God encouraged Israel to enter the land promised to them, yet stolen by the occupying Caananite people. God had given the Caananites many opportunities to leave the land but they chose not to. So it was finally time to evict them. Despite the claims of Christianity’s critics…the people who were killed as Israel returned to Caanan were soldiers. Claims of Old Testament genocide misinterpret the meaning of the Old Testament text.

 

Further – to claim that this narrative should guide Christian behaviour today…is quite simply wrong. This argument would be like reading Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings all the way to the end when Sam and Frodo are ascending Mount Doom…about to finally throw the ring into the fire…and for Sam to suddenly stop them and saying…hang on! We need to go back to the Prancing Pony Pub right now cos we never managed to meet up with Gandalf there. What? No – that would be crazy. The story has moved on…we are past that now. in the same way…applying the Old Testament Amalekite passages to Christians today is just plain wrong.

 

Radicalised Christians aren’t like Blomkamp’s Vincent Moore; and they aren’t like Israelite soldiers who once fought Amalekite soldiers in Caanan. Radicalised Christians work towards increasing acts of love and kindness to all people. Thats how its supposed to work, anyway!

 

 

 

The SECOND theme I notice is around a complicated relationship between Chappie and his creator Deon. Unfortunately for Deon, his relationship with Chappie is disrupted by a group of gangsters, who become the family that Chappie attaches to. The sidelined Deon has got to work hard to visit with and teach Chappie the values he thinks are important. He manages to open Chappie up to the artistic and creative side of life (much to the gangster’s annoyance). He also sets moral guidelines for Chappie. And this escalates the tension in their relationship. Chappie’s gangster family want him to “do crimes”…but Chappie has promised his maker that he wont cross this line. Chappie has a moral center which is very highly tuned. His creator has so many hopes and dreams for him and Chappie finds the burden of this too much to bear sometimes…leading him to tell his creator that he hates him.

 

Chappie and Deon clearly misunderstand each other during much of the movie. Deon sees the danger that the gangsters are exposing Chappie to. He can see the risk of disaster and the loss of Chappie’s precious life. Yet the childlike robot does not have this perspective at all. He does not understand the risks…although he starts to learn fast.

 

It strikes me that perhaps this theme touches upon many people’s personal spiritual journey.  When it comes to God…things get complicated. It’s the stuff that fills our lives, the choices we have made, that get in the way. And if there is a God…then surely he wants to stop us having fun. Surely he wants to impose his dull will on us? We see Chappie kick against the attempts his creator makes to connect with him…and there is alot of truth in this portrayal. It resonates.

 

And I’m left wondering…what if we mistakenly project our own misunderstanding of God’s motives onto God himself? What if…like Chappie…we think the creator is trying to cramp our style…when in reality his goal is to rescue us from the danger we don’t understand. The risk we are blind to is very evident to our creator. What if instead of wasting our lives, he wants us to fulfil our potential? I think there’s an aspect to Deon’s character that reflects part of God’s nurturing character towards people.

 

 

 

The THIRD theme is a deep one, so I’ll keep it brief. Mind/soul and body duality. Groan! Philosophy! This movie is full of the sense that, our bodies…the material stuff and my physical parts…do not fully define who I am. There is an intangible-ness to me;  a consciousness. Actually this idea points to a Biblical understanding of personhood. We are composed of 3 parts; spirit, soul and body. And while one day our body will wear out…the essential center of us…our spirit and our soul…will live on in another place. Hopefully not in Blomkamp’s way (it does not look good!)

 

 

So if you enjoy science fiction, don’t mind a touch of violence (one scene is really quite bloody)…and like thinking about these themes…then I recommend Chappie.

RESPONDblogs: Stephen Fry and the God that Christians Don’t Recognize

Stephen Fry’s response to the question, “What would you say to God if you met him at the pearly gates?” has gone viral in the last few weeks. Almost 6 million views to date.

In a previous blog post, I applauded the fact that in the UK we are free to express our faith position without fear of persecution or imprisonment. I’m glad that the much loved, and usually softly spoken Stephen Fry has raised this topic in public consciousness right now.

 

 

But having listened to his response, the question that must be asked is this – which God is Stephen railing against? Because it sure isn’t the God of the Bible!

 

I don’t know any Christians who believe in a God who has decided to create children with bone cancer, or a God who inflicts torture and suffering on those least equipped to deal with it. I don’t know of any Christian who would feel that this world is just as God intended it to be. Rather…creation is CONFUSED (as Romans 8:20, CEV puts it)…our world is messed up right now. Further – it is also suffering from DECAY (as Romans 8:21 puts it). But the hope is that creation would be set FREE from that decay. This is the hope of the Christian; a new creation which is free from the tragedies and the sufferings of life that so incense Stephen.

 

I agree with Stephen that the suffering should end. But I disagree with him that God is the source of the human suffering. This insane, capricious God of Stephen’s who inflicts suffering on children is not the God we meet in the pages of the Bible. The God of the Bible is working out his plans to positively recreate both us, and the reality that we inhabit in our lives.

 

Having gone to some lengths to point out the pain of human suffering, I’ve got to ask Stephen this. If there is no God, if we are all just chemicals floating in a randomly generated Universe, why is human suffering so important to you anyway?

 

Well – the tyranny of atheism says – if life has been hard, if you’ve been unlucky with your genes or your birthplace or just the breaks you’ve had in life…then tough! You just need to get on with it. There is no grand plan, there is no purpose. There is no point in placing any importance on one human being who suffers because in the end…whether that person is me or anyone else. I will die and the Universe will also eventually experience heat death…and it’s all done.

Dawkins is an expert at articulating a life without God.

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” — Richard Dawkins

 

Yet as an atheist like Dawkins, Stephen cares about suffering children, even though without a God this seems like a strange philosophy.

So being a caring person like he is, what positive contribution does he make towards the problem of human suffering?

 

Nothing I can see (though I am absolutely sure he is privately generous to charities with his time and his money). And I do have a lot of empathy for him here…what positive response CAN Stephen give to suffering? None – because to the atheist, there is none. It just is. All Stephen seems to do is to blame God (if he’s there) and curse him for our predicament (if he’s to blame). As David Robertson says, the cry of atheism today is so often “God does not exist, and I HATE HIM!”.

 

And here lies the contradiction within Stephen’s position. If there is no overall purpose behind the universe, why does he speak as if there is? Why does he bother standing up for suffering children who are being robbed of their future? Here’s why – because he intuitively know it is ABSOLUTELY the RIGHT thing to do. His gut tells him its right even though his atheistic argument suggests it shouldn’t matter.

Why waste your time cursing the God you don’t believe in? If God doesn’t exist…why do so many people talk as if they hate him? Because our gut sense contradicts our irrational atheistic argument. We have a sense that he’s there, and we do all we can to drown it out in our lives.

 

Stephen is railing against a God that no Christian believes in. He is also incensed by the suffering that God doesn’t cause, and he has no answer to it. But the Bible clearly does.

“God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die.” John 3:16, CEV

 

God holds the answer for people who are suffering. The answer is – LIFE!

Kingfisher Church Network, where I serve, is supporting our suffering family in Malawi, Africa right now. Floods have washed away lives, crops and homes. And like Stephen, we know in our guts that we MUST do something to help. So help is exactly what we are doing. But unlike Stephen, we have a good reason to do so. Namely that we view people as more than just a sum of their randomly generated parts.

  • People are individually crafted by Jesus.
  • As the church, we are Jesus’ hands and his feet. We are actively serving suffering, valuable people who each have a great, God crafted plan for their future.
  • People will never really die…and so their lives matter right now.

 

The irony in all of this – is that like them, Stephen also really matters. Stephen is also valued by Jesus. All it would take is for him to receive it! I do wonder whether Stephen would give God the opportunity to get a word in, though.

 

I rather hope that, were Stephen Fry ever to meet God, he would wait for a reply from God.” – Rowan Williams

RESPONDblogs: First Christmas Tragedy

TheChristmasNativityCardv2

The picture perfect Nativity scene that we see on the front of Christmas cards (remember those old things?) is a long way from what originally happened when Jesus Christ was born two thousand years ago. Life in the ancient Middle East was hard. One of Matthew’s details hints strongly at this.

 

“Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews?…’ King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this…He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under…”

Matthew 2:1-16, NLT

 

It’s not a very “Christmassy” detail this … is it? Infanticide at Christmas.

Sometimes skeptics look at the Nativity accounts and shake their heads in disbelief at the slaughter of these poor innocent baby boys. There’s not one shred of evidence that this massacre ever happened…outside of Matthew’s account, of course. It’s a fantasy, put in there to make Jesus seem more important.

 

Well I disagree. We have lots of evidence about Herod the Great. We know that sort of man he was and why Matthew’s account of the death of the innocents is very reasonable given the setting and the people at the time. We can be sure that Matthew got the details right in his account of Jesus birth.

 

Rich History:

The Roman historian Josephus wrote two whole book scrolls on the life of Herod the Great. This is a rich primary source of history. Herod seems to have been a remarkable keeper of the peace between Rome and Judea between 40 BC and January 1 BC when he died (NOTE: the date of Herod’s death is indicated by the available Roman, Jewish and Astronomical documentary evidence)

His legacy included the building of theaters and stadiums; he rebuilt the great temple in Jerusalem. He is responsible for the construction of the Masada fortress on the south west corner of the Dead Sea.

 

Paranoid Herod:

Yet what we also learn from Josephus is that King Herod also had a decidedly paranoid streak. He had a habit of “getting rid” of people who threatened the peace, or were in danger of “rocking the boat” for him.

His family was notoriously power hungry and violent. Herod killed some of his sons, who were apparently too ambitious. And he even got rid of one of his many wives…along with his mother in law.

But possibly the biggest indicator of Herod’s character can be seen in the plans he tried to put in place for his funeral. He feared that few people in Israel would mourn his passing. And so he decided to give his subjects something to mourn about. His plan was to fill one of his stadiums full of Jewish leaders, and order them to be massacred as a “celebration” of Herod the Great’s demise. He wanted to make absolutely sure that there would be great mourning across Israel at the time of his death.

 

This then is the backdrop to the birth of Jesus, and the arrival of the mysterious pagan Magi who announced to Herod that they wished to worship the newborn king of the Jews. Can you see how Herod the Great might have responded to them? When Matthew says he was “deeply disturbed” at this news…this is probably putting things politely. After all – Herod WAS the king of the Jews. And he eliminated anyone who tried to replace him.

 

Suddenly the “spray and pray” shotgun approach that Matthew describes…kill all the newborn children of Jesus age in Bethlehem…seems right up King Herod’s gruesome street. It’s just the sort of reaction we can expect from him.

 

So the question then is – why is there no evidence outside of Matthew’s gospel to record it?

 

Herod’s Likely Reaction to Jesus’ Birth:

I’ve heard it described like this. The murder of these babies was the ancient equivalent of a mugging on a New York subway train. So much happens in New York each day – it’s unlikely that a mugger is going to hit the front of the NY Times.

 

Josephus had such a rich and interesting history of Herod to record – particularly his spectacularly brutal plans for the stadium and the Jewish leaders – it is unlikely that a small localized event in a little village would get a look in.

 

Bethlehem is understood to have been a very small village at this time. It has been estimated that only around 24 children of the relevant age would have suffered at Herod’s hand. At a time when infant mortality would have been high – this is hardly big news. Perhaps Josephus didn’t even know that it happened. But just because an event is small in scale, doesn’t mean it is not hugely significant.

 

So – did it happen…or didn’t it? Well just because Josephus doesn’t mention it does not mean it never happened. By the way – Luke the historian doesn’t mention it in his account either. Yet absence of evidence is NEVER evidence of absence.

And besides – we DO have evidence that these babies died. We read it in Matthew’s first century account.

 

Paul L Maier, Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, has said this:

“I see not one iota of evidence here it could NOT have happened…Luke hasn’t heard about it. Remember, Matthew and Luke don’t copy from one another when it comes to the Nativity…that way they can hit it from different angles. But yes, it really happened.”

 

It’s not a very festive Nativity detail. It’s a minor, horrible footnote to Herod the great’s reign. Yet it is a significant event surrounding the life of Jesus and his parents. And it points to the bittersweet future to come. Journalist Tony Reinke has insightfully suggested this:

“The 1st Christian martyr was not Stephen…or Jesus…the 1st martyr in the Christian Church was the first baby that was killed in Bethlehem. And we always overlook him.”

RESPONDblogs: The Curious Case of Quirinius

census

In Luke’s Gospel we read that…

“At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census.” Luke 2:1-3, NLT

Luke’s statement has caused problems for some people.

First of all – the historical evidence suggests that Quirinius did not begin to govern Syria until after the death of Herod in 4 BC. Now it is clear from the gospels that Herod was very much alive when Jesus was born. In that case – how can Quirinius be Governor BEFORE Jesus’ birth…if Herod was already dead when Quirinius was governor of Syria? That sounds like a circle that cannot be squared.

Second – there is internal and external Biblical evidence of a census called AFTER Quirinius took over Governorship… Luke records what might be this census that Quirinius conducted in the 6th century in Acts 5:37. But this census cannot be the same as the census mentioned in Luke chapter 2.

 

Does this confusion undermine the historical reliability of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth? Does this point to Luke being guilty of sloppy history?

Well – this would be strange given the high standing Luke enjoys as a 1st century historian, and the meticulous detail we find in his Gospel and his later work on the history of the early Christian Church – the Acts of the Apostles.

Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians. – William Mitchell Ramsay

 

Ancient Near Eastern historians have made the following responses to the Quirinius census problems.

 

FIRST – these censuses did happen in these cultures at that time.

Ancient census forms have been discovered by archaeologists. An order dated AD 104 says…

“Gaius Vibius Maximum, Prefect of Egypt: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to RETURN TO THEIR OWN HOMES, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census…”

This manner of counting people might seem odd to our advanced, IT enabled 21st century society. But the Biblical + extra-Biblical evidence points to the ancient practice of census calling.

 

SECOND – there is evidence that there may have been more than one Syrian Governor named Quirinius.

King Herod is believed to have died in 4 BC. So Luke’s claim in chapter 2 implies that a census was called by Ceasar Augustus well before 4 BC.  If Quirinius didn’t begin ruling until AD 6…this seems like a big discrepancy on the dates recorded by Luke.

HOWEVER – John McRay, PHD and professor of New Testament and archaeology at Wheton College, says , “a coin [has been found ] with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing. This [coin] places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod….apparently there were two Quiriniuses.”

Names in the ancient world tended to be common…often lots of people shared the same name…so it is reasonable to assume that perhaps two separate people are being referred to here as Quirinius.

In this case, perhaps two censuses occurred – a 14 year gap was apparently typical. This would suggest that an earlier census took place under the earlier Quirinius.  And this is the census that Luke refers to in his gospel.

 

Who cares?

Luke claims to have personally interviewed the eyewitnesses to the birth…and death of Jesus of Nazareth. He claimed to have carefully investigated everything so that he could produce an orderly account about the certainty of what occurred. Luke is claiming to record what actually happened – so the details count.

The details count – and the words of Jesus have the power to change our lives forever.

“…this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.” Luke 15:24, NLT