Responding to Confirmation Bias

Sometimes when I am discussing Christianity with internet atheists, the time will come when they kind of throw their hands up in frustration at me. “Oh – you are just blinded by your confirmation bias. I’ve done my best with you.” So – what is “confirmation bias”? Well – it involves cherry picking the best bits for ourselves. It’s about wanting something to be true, and so being unable to see any alternative viewpoint that could call your belief into question. Psychology Today defines it like this:

Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking.[1]

Now – whenever someone accuses me of confirmation bias, I want to scratch my chin in a skeptical way and say, “Hmmm!” Why do I want to do that?

It’s not because I think I am immune from confirmation bias. I know very well that I am not. The reason I become dubious at this point is because the other person has suddenly started talking like THEY are personally immune from the very thing they are accusing me of – confirmation bias!

Here is the thing – EVERYONE is vulnerable to confirmation bias. Whatever view we take, whether we believe God exists or are convinced he does not. The challenge for people when approaching problems and seeking solutions to them is – to minimize the effect of confirmation bias. And – I have worked hard to do this in my own life. I have not done this perfectly, but I want to do this, and I will continue to work at it.

Here are three good ways to reduce the risk of confirmation bias in life:

First – study multiple sides of an issue. This takes time and effort, but it is invaluable. I have spent the last five years studying for two Masters Degrees and – let me tell you – you don’t get far unless you are willing to listen to other people and be willing to respond to their claims. This builds an important skill, and crucially it helps us to reduce the risk that we will fall into confirmation bias again.

Second – think in terms of arguments. I don’t mean stand up rows with people. Rather, by an argument I mean form your position based on logical premises and conclusions that follow from the premises. I’m not saying you can deduce the truth of Christianity this way. But you can form many many cogent inductive arguments that support Christianity’s claims by appealing to every facet of life. From nature, history, science, etc. You can also form many arguments that call Christianity into question, and when you do that, you can form responses to them. This is what I try to do in my writing. Dr. Heshmat from Psychology Today thinks this is a very healthy way to live, because it develops, “the ability to look at the world without looking for instances that please your ego.”[2]

Third – be willing to have your mind changed on an issue. So, someone might say I simply want the Bible to be true, and so I look for things that confirm that desire in an intellectually plausible way. Well – I do think that so far in my life, my work in exploring the evidence for and against the truth of Christianity – makes my decision to BE a Christian the sensible one. I find excellent evidence across the disciplines to support it, and the arguments against the truth of Christianity tend to be much weaker to my mind, relying on a commitment to naturalistic thinking that is not itself justifiable.

So – yes, I stake my life on the truth of Christianity. BUT – I could change my mind on that if there were excellent reasons to do so. If better evidence came to light, for example, against the historical grounding of Christianity. I could overturn my thinking then. That would be the most honest thing to do. But – it would take VERY strong evidence to get me there, better than the evidence from antiquity we currently have. I am not someone who says, “You could never convince me otherwise.” Hey – I’m just little old me. I don’t know everything. I could be mistaken.

To the atheist, I ask the same. The average atheist I encounter is committed to the non-truth of Christianity and will look for anything to bolster their position, however weak the argument is revealed to be on further scrutiny. I would ask of the atheist the same thing I ask of myself. That some circumstance would exist where they could change their mind on the God issue.

Conclusion

In my blog and my podcast I work hard to present arguments rather than just asserting statements. For example, I am not interested in something like, “God exists. Change my mind.” Ok – it’s a popular meme. But its entirely unhelpful. Why? Because it’s about one person with confirmation bias – asking another person to unconvinced them!! This is not a helpful approach to discussing anything. We need to deal in the currency of arguments. And the stronger the argument, the healthier the opinion and the better the discussion. Good, cogent arguments are healthy, and when we think in this way, we resist the temptation of confirmation bias.

Back to internet atheists. The irony is that everyone of these people I have ever spoken to wants to convince me that Christian belief is wrong and God does not exist, or at least there’s not enough evidence to claim that he does. And so anyone who says he does (me) is automatically suspect. Well – my response to this is – enough with assertions. I have read enough internet atheist assertions (like – ‘there is not enough evidence that gods exist,’ or, ‘there’s no evidence the events in the gospels occurred.’) These are bare assertions. Let’s see your argument and let’s be willing together to examine the assumptions of your argument, weigh those assumptions, and have your claims challenged in a rational and respectful way. And when we do – lets recognize together that what we are doing is very good and healthy. Because it challenges the tendency toward confirmation bias in us both.


[1] Shahram Heshmat, What is Confirmation Bias?, Psychology Today, April 23, 2015, accessed 23rd October 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias.

[2] Ibid.

A Case for Miracles – What if Natural Laws Help Reveal the Miraculous?

In part 1, I looked at the skeptical position against miracle claims. This often says:

 

1 – Miracles violate the laws of nature, and our experience tells us these natural laws are fixed. Dead people stay dead.

2 – No testimony can establish a miracle happened unless the falsehood of that testimony would be more miraculous than the miracle claim.

3 – Only primitive people entertain the idea that miracles could ever occur.

I talked about how the skeptic erects a knowledge barrier against the idea of particular events because they don’t like the implications of them. But there are two more problems with the skeptical rejection of miracles.

2 – It is Mistaken to Think that Miracles Violate the Laws of Nature

Why is it mistaken? After all, we know people don’t come back from the dead after a few days like the Bible claims of Jesus.[1] What’s more, people can’t turn water into wine as Jesus is reported to have done. We’ve never seen anything like that before in a lab, never mind at a wedding. Surely that’s enough for us to say – miracles like these are impossible?

I can see three problems here:

2.1 Natural Laws are DESCRIPTIVE not PRESCRIPTIVE

The law of gravity, for example, is an approximate description of a natural phenomenon. It describes what we usually perceive, all things being equal. Apples fall from trees, and what goes up usually comes down again. But natural law does not demand or prescribe what MUST happen. Law is not a straight-jacket to nature. It is simply a description of our current understanding of nature. Humans did not create nature, we simply work to understand it and express our tentative understanding using laws. For example, if a rocket is designed to produce enough kinetic energy, it can break the gravitational pull of the earth and send its passengers into orbit around the planet.

If natural law prescribed what must always occur, then rockets can’t break gravitational pull, and certain types of miracle would also be impossible because they both would violate natural laws. But that’s NOT what natural law is. Natural law is not a straight-jacket. It is simply a description of what people usually observe.

But unlike the rocket, a miracle (like turning water into wine) is an unusual or unique event which does not occur by natural but by supernatural means. This does not violate natural law. God created matter in the universe and established the chemical properties of both water and wine. Were he to switch the chemical composition from one to the other on one occasion, then this would extend our understanding of what is possible when a divine agent is involved.

It seems to me there are at least two ways God could intervene in nature:

  1. God could simply use natural law to achieve his purposes in the world. But it would be the timing of the natural event that would make it miraculous, not the conditions of the event.
  2. God could reach into the natural world and redirect events so that something out of the ordinary happened. This would not break natural law, because law is descriptive of what usually occurs. In this situation, something different happens which we describe as miraculous because it is surprising and out of the ordinary.

C S Lewis said it this way. Imagine on two consecutive nights I place two British 5 pound notes in my bedside drawer. The laws of arithmetic tell me that by the second night, my drawer contains a total of 20 pounds. Now, if I wake up the next day and open the drawer and only find 5 pounds there, I do not conclude that the laws of arithmetic have been broken. Rather, I know that someone has come along and pinched my money. It would be ludicrous to suggest the laws of arithmetic prevent the existence or activity of thieves![2] In other words, agents act and laws exist. One does not contradict the other. Rather, the existence of the law of arithmetic reveals the activity of the thief. Miracles work like that when it comes to God.

2.2 It’s a mistake to judge the likelihood of a miracle by considering normal experience

A skeptic may claim that they have never seen a miracle.[3] But that’s irrelevant to whether or not other people have witnessed miracles, or whether miracles occur. The point is that miracles are unusual events, so their existence is out of the ordinary. It is pointless to judge miracle claims by our own personal experience.

People do not usually come back from the dead by way of normal natural causes. Yet Christians do not claim that Jesus somehow spontaneously came back from the dead by natural means. Rather, God chose to raise Jesus from the dead. And this was a unique event in history. And if God exists, he would be able to suspend the laws he himself created without contradicting them.

All of this is can be true whether or not our own personal experiences involve miracles or not.

2.3 We argue in a circle when we deny miracles based on what usually occurs

The skeptic says because natural laws are uniform and predictable, miracles cannot and do not occur. But they have a problem. Our experience of nature is only uniform and predictable if we already know that all reports of miracles are actually false.

The skeptic is saying:

“Miracles never occur, so miracles are impossible.”

They are therefore presupposing what they are attempting to prove, and circular arguments like these are logically fallacious. But its worse than that. There are many contemporary, well evidenced and credible miracle claims reported by both believers in God and skeptics alike. It is simply mistaken to suppose that no miracles have occurred, because this claim flies in the face of the documentary evidence.

3 – Primitive People Did Not First Believe the Miracle of Jesus’ Resurrection

It’s true that primitive people have attributed natural phenomena to the work of their gods. But Ancient Judaism was quite different, it was a sophisticated, humane and learned culture. Children were taught the Torah from a young age, and many could read and write. The Apostles were not primitives. Sure, they were ignorant of the modern scientific methods and discoveries we have today. But it’s wrong to accuse them of ignorance for that reason because that knowledge wasn’t available to them. They knew very well that dead people stay dead. To notice an event as miraculous, you have to have a solid appreciation for how the world works. And this is exactly what helped them realise Jesus had been raised from the dead.

They also understood the risks facing them for challenging the authorities and preaching the risen Christ in Jerusalem. And yet the risk was clearly worth it for them, and Christianity has been the result.

 

Conclusion

In this brief blog series, I’ve responded to the common claim is that miracles can’t happen, and we cannot know whether they can happen. What we’ve seen is that this amounts to nothing much more than a bare prejudice against the idea that God exists and he intervenes within the natural universe he created. Miracles don’t violate the laws of nature, they would extend them. We don’t need extraordinary evidence of miracles, just sufficient evidence. And while primitives may have attributed natural phenomena to the gods, the Bible’s view of miracles is a highly sophisticated one.

When you consider the many cumulative logical arguments for God existence (e.g. cosmological, moral, fine tuning, biological information, etc), the possibility that God exists becomes strong, and so the idea he would intervene in nature through miraculous means becomes highly likely.

 

 

[1] I know medical Doctors who HAVE witnessed this on a smaller scale, people returning to life a few hours later. And there are many documented examples of this sort of thing in Craig Keener’s book.

[2] C S Lewis, Miracles A Preliminary Study, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1947).

[3] For a vast archive of contemporary miracle claims, see Craig Keener, Miracles The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

A Case for Miracles – What If We Had Sufficient Evidence?

Forty years ago, Carl Sagan introduced the idea that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and this aphorism entered into public consciousness. But Sagan’s idea dates back much further. In the 18th century, Scottish philosopher David Hume helped lay a skeptical groundwork against the Bible’s claims that supernatural historical events have occurred. Speaking about the claimed resurrection of Jesus, Hume said:[1]

1 – Miracles violate the laws of nature, and our experience tells us these natural laws are fixed. Dead people stay dead.

2 – No testimony can establish a miracle happened unless the falsehood of that testimony would be more miraculous than the miracle claim.

3 – Only primitive people entertain the idea that miracles could ever occur.

Here’s how people tend to use these ideas today. When a Christian makes a case for Jesus’ resurrection, the skeptic will often respond with:

“Ha! Jesus’ resurrection is an extraordinary claim, so where’s your extraordinary evidence? All you’ve got is a bunch of old books!” When the Christian presses further, they will probably find that the skeptic has no idea what could actually qualify as extraordinary evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. But whatever the Christian can present as evidence, the skeptic replies, “Not extraordinary enough. Try again.” So – the skeptic remains justified in his position. Miracles don’t happen.

What is happening here? The skeptic is strongly committed to the non-existence of miracles like Jesus resurrection, so they have raised an unscalable epistemic wall. No-one can scale it and convince them that Jesus rose from the dead. This is just fine for them because they feel that means they don’t need to worry about God’s existence.

Now – personally, I think it is very wise to be initially skeptical about any miraculous claim we hear. But it sounds dangerous to me that the skeptic would refuse to accept something based on what they WANT to be true. It seems much safer to follow the evidence where it leads in these matters.

I’m going to point to three serious problems with the skeptic’s position.

1 – We Don’t Erect Knowledge Barriers Against Other Unique Events

Unique and surprising stuff happens in life all the time. But so what?

1.1 Surprising Events Happen

For example, in 1954, Roger Bannister achieved something that people thought impossible. He ran a mile in under four minutes. A small crowd was there to witness the achievement, but the reports spread quickly. How extraordinary! Yet the newspaper reporting on its occurrence was pretty mundane. Here’s another one. In 1969, the first humans stepped onto the surface of the moon, and all people had to witness this were expert commentary, news reports and grainy, poor quality video. Even though a tiny minority of people would later claim these moon landings were faked, this did not reflect the international outpouring of excitement and acceptance of this unique event at the time. Extraordinary! But all the evidence we had that it happened was very normal indeed.

And someone replies, “Hang on. Neither of these events are miraculous. They are natural events.” Yes. They are unique natural events at the time, never having happened before. If you want an example of a non-natural unique event that we treat in exactly the same way, think about the beginning of the universe. Cosmologists generally accept the Big Bang theory, but point to naturally observable evidence for this supernatural event. For example, the cosmic background radiation level, and the red-shift of receding galaxies.

My point is this. For these and countless other events, we do not have extraordinary evidence supporting them. Instead, we have SUFFICIENT evidence, and this is enough for us.

1.2 Sufficient Evidence Rules Out Other Explanations

What is sufficient evidence, and what does it do? The evidence must be sufficient to make the alternative explanations for these extraordinary events to be unreasonable. In other words, given the evidence we have that these extraordinary events occurred what’s the likelihood that the event did not actually occur? It’s highly unlikely the event did not occur. For example, skeptical theories about the US moon landings are incredibly outlandish and bizarre when compared with the very normal evidence supporting the events themselves.

I think we look for sufficient evidence and are satisfied by it all the time. Here’s another example. What happens more often? People being married, or political leaders being assassinated? Clearly, more people have been married than have been assassinated. Now, consider the case of the assassination of US President Abraham Lincon. It was a unique event that is reported to have occurred on 15th April, 1865. Are we more skeptical about this event compared to, say, a Royal wedding? No we aren’t. And the reason is that, even though the assassination of Lincon is a unique event in history, we have sufficient evidence that it happened. But more importantly, the evidence rules out the alternative possibilities. Namely, he was not assassinated that day, or he died of natural causes that day, or something else.

My point is that when unique events occur, we don’t seek some extraordinary level of evidence that is beyond reach. Not at all. We are satisfied with sufficient evidence that rules out other explanations.

When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, the documentary evidence is sufficient for many reasonable people because this evidence rules out alternative explanations of that historical event. The evidence of the empty tomb, the eyewitness appearances and the first century birth of the Christian church can only adequately be explained by the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth died and was raised from the dead unexpectedly and significantly. However extraordinary the claim, we don’t treat this event any differently from other unique events in history.

But – should we? After all, miracles like the resurrection Of Jesus are not natural occurrences. In the next part of this blog, I’ll talk about miracles and whether the laws of nature prevent them from happening in the real world.

[1] David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding Section X Of Miracles, https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/43811/hume-on-miracles.htm.

Why Start a New Christian Apologetics Podcast?

During the Coronavirus lockdown, I’ve launched a new 10 episode, weekly podcast. Please check me out!

 

Spotify

Apple Podcasts

 

What’s been the inspiration of my podcast?

Well – I used to do a sales job. I would travel around Europe with a colleague, and we would visit corporate customers in the hope that they would buy our (excellent) software products. I enjoy travel, and I enjoy talking to people. It was – in so many ways – a perfect job.

But there was a lot of downtime in that job. Airports to wait in, restaurants to eat in, hotels to use. When we weren’t towing our employer’s party line…there was lots of time to talk about other things. Usually, the subject of Christianity came up. Why? Because I’m a Christian and I like discussing the reasons why that makes sense.

The podcast – RESPOND – is inspired by those sorts of conversations that happened on my sales trips. Its all about a discussion for why Christianity makes sense! You can find it on Spotify and Apple podcasts…

 

Someone might ask – “Why do we need another podcast dedicated to the subject of Christian Apologetics?” Well – why do we need a new podcast about anything? If a topic is worth talking about – then it seems to me its worth sharing opinions on.

 

BUT – I think there are four particular reasons why this blog is important, and why another Apologetics podcast is useful. Here they are:

 

FIRST – Because the Bible Commands It

Now – I don’t mean that they predicted blogging or podcasting in the first century. Of course not. But what I DO mean…is that they encouraged Christians to put forward the claims of Christianity clearly, and be willing to discuss these claims with the unconvinced. Where does it say that?

Here are three examples:

“…I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” (Jude 3)

In the first century, they might have contended in the Synagogue, or the marketplace. Today we might contend in the comments section underneath the blog or the podcast. Is it really that different…?

“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:5-6)

How we talk about these matters…matters! Robust conversation and the challenging of bad ideas is important, but its got to be done in a respectful way. And when the other person replies with rude comments? Hey – it teaches you a sense of humour.

“In your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

There’s a sense that – Christianity always demands a defence, like in a court of law. People seem hardwired to attack the claims Christianity makes. And so – a response is required. This is what this blog, and the podcast is all about. But – again – notice that the heart behind this response is respectful. I’m sure I won’t always achieve that, and I may need to apologise if I get it wrong, but respect is my aim.

 

Here’s the bigger point tho. If Christians aren’t making a case for the truth of Christianity, they are disobeying the teaching of the Bible! So – it’s important that these blogs and podcasts exist. They make the case, and they help other Christians to make the case themselves. Which sounds like a win-win to me.

 

 

The second reason for another apologetics podcast? Because culture demands it

It seems to me that Western culture is steeped in three toxic ideologies.

Relativism, the idea that there is no absolute truth. The cry of the relativist is, “Who are you to enforce your morality on me?”

Pluralism, the idea there’s no exclusive truth. “So, how can Jesus be the only way?”

Naturalism, the idea that there’s no supernatural truth. “Hasn’t science proven that miracles are impossible?”

 

Christianity challenges culture on all three of these points. And frankly – our culture needs to be challenged this way. Christian apologetics is one route to doing so.

 

Third – the Christian Church needs it

The church is only a generation away from extinction. So, how do we help the next generation from drifting away? Well – an important way of doing that is through Christian apologetics. Showing the truth of Christianity in a clear and compelling way.

 

Fourth – the Results Confirm It

Many people have become Christians as a result of these sorts of discussions about the rational grounding to the Christian faith. One of the most famous Christians of the 20th century, C S Lewis, was a formidable intellect, earning multiple highest honours degrees from Oxford University. He lost his childhood Christian faith, but it was Christian apologetics which led him back to Christianity. Discussing these matters with his Christian friends, one of whom was J. R. R. Tolkien.

 

 

So – do we need another Christian apologetics podcast? Yep – we do. Give it a listen please, and give me some feedback. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

 

Could Jesus’ Resurrection Have Been a Cunning Lie?

Is it possible that the event which launched Christianity in the first century, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, was actually an elaborate lie staged by one man? A lie that influenced countless people down through the centuries? After Jesus’ crucifixion, did the disciple Peter simply invent a story about seeing the risen Christ? And did this lie result in the fabricated reports of the resurrection that appeared in the writings of Paul (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15) and the later gospels?

That’s the foundational claim of the book “The Christianity Myth,” which seeks to reframe first century Christian history in the light of a simple but highly influential fabrication. The author, Ken Thackery, assumes a fundamental difference exists between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Historically, Ken says Jesus existed, but the Christ preached by the church has always been a fabrication. Ken says “obviously this historical Jesus wasn’t resurrected in Jerusalem after his crucifixion,” and “…the New Testament evidence is therefore based entirely on Peter’s uncorroborated & unverified claims, the veracity of which has never been independently established.”[1]

This idea cuts to the heart of the matter for the Christian apologist. Often, when someone seeks to prove Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, one of the main lines of evidence are the New Testament writings themselves. Yet Ken says we must throw them all out, because they are clearly infected by this fabricated idea – the resurrection of Jesus.

 

1 – Some Questions

Clearly, Ken’s ideas raise lots of questions. For example, if the early Christian experiences reported in the New Testament are based on fabrications, why would people believe a lie that Peter allegedly told about Jesus’ resurrection in the first place? Particularly since this resurrection idea would have been alien to ancient Judaism, so why would it have been compelling to Jewish people if there was no evidence for it? Also, why were these lies about Jesus’ supposed resurrection so carefully documented anyway?

Here’s a bigger question.

If Jesus was not raised from the dead, why would Peter put himself in danger by claiming that he was? Jerusalem was not a safe place for the friends of Jesus after his crucifixion. If the authorities had executed their leader, they would pursue any Jesus follower who decided to continue Jesus’ mission. We actually have evidence from the historian Josephus that this happened to other Jewish Messiah candidates. How interesting though, that in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the executed Messiah’s mission continued and spread despite the danger facing anyone who publicly proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But if Ken is right that Christianity is built on a lie, why would anyone want to put themselves in harm’s way by doing that?

Of course Ken’s answer is, they didn’t. This is all just a story, fabricated to give later Christian converts a plausible grounding for their Christian faith. He says, “converts would eventually want to know more about Jesus’ life before his crucifixion, and it was this growing need to know more about Jesus, that eventually triggered the appearance of many gospels. These gospels, all appearing after the death of all concerned were just local attempts to provide Jesus’ missing biographical details for the benefit of their pagan converts.”[2] Perhaps Ken would go on to say no one in first century Jerusalem believed in Jesus’ resurrection, it was all made up many years later for an eager audience of later Christian believers?

Well – if that is the case, then I would ask, what do we do with the first and second century evidence that supports the claim that the disciple Peter did not just put himself in harm’s way after Jesus’ crucifixion, he was willing to suffer and die for his first-hand personal witness of the physically risen Jesus? And – what do we make of the evidence that he was actually martyred in Rome for doing so?

What I’m saying is this. You could understand other people giving their lives for something they only thought was true. But Ken says Peter knew Jesus resurrection was false. If Peter was the only one who genuinely knew that Jesus’ resurrection was a lie, then why would he personally put himself through danger, suffering, and death for his own lie?

Now – Ken doesn’t seem to think Peter was martyred. He says, “The actual facts of the apostles is unknown and Peter’s alleged death in Rome is not backed up by reliable evidence.”[3] If Peter wasn’t martyred, then we can’t point to his willingness to die as confirmation that Jesus was raised from the dead.

But hang on. Is Ken right? Let’s test his claim that we cannot know with certainty that Peter was martyred for his Christian beliefs.

 

2 – Evidence for the Martyrdom of the Apostle Peter

The traditional understanding of Peter’s fate is that he was martyred in Rome under Nero’s reign in AD 64 – 67. How strong is the evidence for this traditional understanding? It turns out that there are many sources that support this idea from the first and second century. This is important because these sources were written “in living memory” of Peter.

In his doctoral dissertation, Sean McDowell examines the literary evidence from antiquity that supports the martyrdom of Peter.[4]

First – the New Testament itself. In John 21:18-19, Jesus cryptically predicts Peter’s execution, though no details are given. 2 Peter 1:12-15 records Peter writing from Rome in the knowledge that his death is imminent.

Second – 1 Clement 5:1-4. Written in the first century, this is believed to come from the church leader in Rome and written to the church in Corinth. Clement assumes Peter’s martyrdom in Rome around AD60 as common knowledge. “This is Peter, who … bore up under hardships not just once or twice, but many times; and having thus borne his witness he went to the place of glory that he deserved.”[5] Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman says, “By the end of the first century and into the second it was widely known among Christians that Peter had suffered a martyr’s death. The tradition is alluded to in the book of 1 Clement.”[6] McDowell says, “at the very least, this passage provides evidence that Peter and Paul were considered examples of faithful endurance for the Gospel, even in the midst of suffering, until their deaths.”[7]

Third – the writings of Ignatius, a Christian leader from the second century who was also martyred. Two writings are important:

  • Letter to the Romans 4:3 – Ignatius faces his impending martyrdom, and he seems to assume both Peter and the apostle Paul were also martyred before him.
  • Letter to the Smyrneans 3:1-2 – this letter presupposes the martyrdom of many of the apostles, including Peter.

Fourth – The Apocalypse of Peter. This is a work attributed to Peter, but the real author is unknown (it is a pseudepigraphal work). Yet it is dated to the first half of the second century and is thought to be built around a historical core of data, providing “early attestation for the martyrdom of Peter in Rome under Nero.”[8]

Fifth – The Ascension of Isaiah. Like the Apocalypse of Peter, this is a pseudepigraphal work dated early in the second century. It refers to an apostle who fell into Nero’s hands and, since it was written in living memory of Peter, the readers would know who was being referred to here. While it doesn’t explicitly state Peter was martyred, it implies it happened in Rome.

Sixth – The Acts of Peter. Dated toward the end of the second century, this work contains legendary material, a historical novel. Yet scholars note that the authors did not just make material up. Rather, they were bound by received tradition and memory of events, including the martyrdom of Peter.

Seventh – The Apocryphon of James. This pseudonymous text is dated to before AD314, and it shows that “by the end of the second century at the earliest, the crucifixion of Peter was assumed by both Orthodox and Gnostic circles alike.” [9]

Eighth – Dionysius of Corinth. This was a pastoral letter written around AD170 to encourage the Corinthian church. He mentions the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul, and the historian Eusebius uses Dionysius’ work as confirmation that both apostles died under the reign of Nero.

Ninth – Irenaeus, Against Heresies. Written at the end of the second century to challenge Gnosticism, he references the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome. The tradition of their martyrdoms was strong, and so in this text, a reference is clearly being made to it.

Tenth – Tertullian, Scorpiace 15, written in AD208 (early third century). He is confident in Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, and encourages the reader to check the archives of the empire if they doubt this fact.

On top of the surviving texts attesting to Peter’s martyrdom, crucially there is no competing narrative from antiquity that presents a different explanation for Peter’s fate.

 

3 – Conclusion

There is therefore firm historical support for the Christian martyrdom of the apostle Peter from many different sources. And this makes Peter’s martyrdom as firm an event as any from antiquity. Unless we are to believe that not only is the New Testament fabricated, but all of this historical record as well. But this strains incredulity, I think.

So – the question remains. If Ken is right and Christianity is built on a lie, why would Peter choose to die for his own lie?

Here’s another possible interpretation of the historical record.

Jesus’ resurrection is not a lie. It is an event from history. God did raise Jesus supernaturally from the dead, and this event contributed to the changing of Peter and the other apostles from frightened defeated followers into brave and confident proclaimers of the resurrected Christ. This put them on a direct collision course with the same authorities who executed Jesus. Yet they were willing to put their lives on the line in spite of this danger. They were willing to “suffer and die for their first-hand witness of the risen Jesus – this is of foremost importance. The evidence shows that some really died as martyrs, and that none recanted.”[10]

[1] Ken Thackery, The Christianity Myth, https://keebostick.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/the-revised-christianity-myth/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, (London: Routledge, 2015), 55 – 92.

[5] 1 Clement 5:4.

[6] Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary, quoted in McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles.

[7] McDowell, 73.

[8] Ibid., 78.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Ibid., 259.

What Does Easter Offer to a Global Pandemic?

Tragedy touches a little family unit.[1]

Martha and Mary nurse their brother as best they can. But – the sickness worsens. They keep him home, in bed, safe. They sit, sleepy and anxious through his fever filled nights. Lazarus passes away as the sun rises one beautiful morning.

Martha dutifully makes the burial arrangements…pushing her grief and heartbreak to the side. But a sadness settles over them both, threatening to engulf them. Mary spends her days quietly now, sitting alone.

Friends visit offering condolences, but no help. One particular group of friends are returning home when they see a familiar face approaching on the road. His entourage walks with him. “Quick – someone needs to run back to Mary and Martha. Tell them Jesus is on his way.” The group walks past, and they nod politely. Yet at a safe distance, they shake their heads. “What a tragedy. He’s too late. If only he had come a few days ago, Lazarus might not have died.”

At the sound of his name, Martha puts her cooking utensils down, and slips on her sandals. “Mary – I’m going out. I hear Jesus is in the area. Do you want to come?” Silence. Martha leaves, her pace slow at first but the frustration and the questions building in her mind cause her walk to become a run. “Why couldn’t he have been here days ago? We sent word to him that Lazarus was ill. Don’t we matter to him? Is his public ministry that important?” Before long she is staring Jesus in the face, venting the frustration that had been building for days. Yet it wasn’t just frustration. Because at the sight of her friend, anything seemed possible.

“If only you had been here when we were nursing Lazarus. We buried him days ago now. What can you do Jesus? Can you help Mary and I? Mary just seems to have shut down…she’s not talking to me…”

Jesus speaks. “Your brother will rise again.” Martha stops – and her face grimaces in confusion.

 

Mary has joined Martha now. The grief and the heartbreak on her face, and in her voice, touches Jesus deeply. “Mary…Martha…show me where you laid him,” he asks.

As they approach the tomb, the waves of grief swell and finally, Mary and Martha began to weep openly. Through their tears they see the face of their friend Jesus. He too is weeping.

 

 

Is there Hope and Life in the Midst of Death?

Easter is about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and the subsequent reports of his resurrection from the dead. Yet this year, 2020, Easter is also about a global pandemic which is claiming the lives of thousands of people every day. Does Easter bring any words of hope in the midst of death?

I think it does. And we see the hope of Easter playing out in this very timely story of Mary and Martha’s tragedy. The untimely death of a loved one. An event happening countless times each day today around the world.

Incredibly – there is hope – and life – in the midst of death.

 

 

What is the Hope?

In this incident we see three things:

First – Jesus enters into his friends grief.

If you want to know where God is in the midst of a global pandemic, then the answer is – he is in the room with every family who are wailing at the loss of the family member they could not comfort, hug or even say goodbye to.

“God, if you’re real, why didn’t you save my mum, dad, brother, sister, friend?” We give voice to Martha’s frustrated words. “If you’re there, God, then why didn’t you do something?”

God shares in this grief and this pain. Jesus weeps.

 

Second – Jesus doesn’t explain or excuse their suffering.

In Mary and Martha’s case, he does not patronise his grieving friends by attempting to give trite or easy answers. He doesn’t say things to avoid coming close to their grief. Quite the opposite. He speaks little and shares deeply in its reality.

Ultimately – no answer is going to satisfy us when we are railing against the death of those we love so dearly. It just isn’t. But maybe it’s not actually intellectual ideas we are actually looking for. Perhaps, rather, it’s an answer to the question, “Do we go on? Will I see them again? Will everything be alright?”

 

Third – Jesus himself is their hope in their tragedy.

Before Mary had arrived to join Martha with Jesus, Martha had been wrestling with the idea that one day Lazarus would rise again from the dead. And Jesus spoke to her in very simple terms. He said:

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

It’s not fancy sounding arguments that win the day. Its ultimately not even soothing words of comfort. It’s Jesus himself. Here with us. This little family could find their hope and their future in him. Why? Because he embodies life – he is the creator and sustainer of all life. What a miracle it is that people exist, living, feeling, thinking, wilful people like us. We’re not just biological machines, we are so much more. Jesus’ creative purpose is seen in and through each of us.

But on that particular day – Jesus wasn’t just the life, he was actually giving life to the brother they had lost. And so as Jesus speaks the words to the empty tomb, “Lazarus, come out,” these aren’t the words of a madman or the raw guilt of a friend who missed the funeral. These are the words of the one who gives life to every breathing thing on this planet, who creates and sustains each human being. And as Lazarus tentatively emerges from the tomb, and his sisters unwrap and embrace their brother again…we see nothing more amazing than Jesus doing what Jesus does. He gives and sustains lives.

 

Time passes, and it is the Jewish Passover. But this day, it is Jesus who is breathing his last. Scourged to within an inch of his life, nailed and crucified by Roman soldiers to finish the job. His body removed from the cross and laid in a borrowed tomb. And yet it’s here we see the truth that the earlier Lazarus incident had only hinted at.

Jesus had said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Now he shows it again.

His tomb is empty. Jesus is alive, and we do go on. For everyone who chooses to go with him, we will be alright.

 

 

Poem By Sue McGee

The tragedy struck on Friday

So many were traumatised

The cross, he warned, was coming.

But they couldn’t believe their eyes.

 

The Lord full of compassion

Who fed their hungry hearts

Who healed their sick and raised their dead

Was now being torn apart.

 

Tortured and mocked before them

Then nailed to a wooden cross

He carried the burden of all sins

But for them… all was lost.

 

How could it ever be “normal” again?

Where do they even begin?

After heartbreaking trauma on such a huge scale…

Could Hope find a way back in?

 

But God…in His infinite Mercy

Amidst their doubts and pain

Provided the ultimate miracle

On the third day He rose again!

 

Up from the grave of suffering

Out of the tomb of despair

Jesus appeared and Hope was restored

He defeated death then and there!

 

Now here we are in 2020

Covid-19 banging down our door

A thief, a destroyer, a menacing threat

Can we return to “normal” once more???

 

The whole world going through the same trauma,

Our eyes all see the same pain.

Together we unite our hearts and cry out,

God show Your Mercy again!!!

 

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus

He walks through this trauma too

He promises never to leave us

He is intimately with me and you!

 

Listen to His still small voice whisper

Let Him love you through uncertainty

His friendship is an anchor

He knows your every need.

 

In Him we will find our “New Normal”

Trust Him to show us the Way

He lives and He is Victorious

Thank You Jesus for Easter Day!

 

[1] Adapted from John 11.

Is Easter a Pagan Festival, Stolen By the Church?

Is Easter a pagan festival that was repurposed by the early Christian church? After all – lots of pagan mythological gods were killed and then raised from the dead. Or so various sceptical people claim every year…at Easter!

Maybe Easter is rooted in the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, hung on a stake … subsequently, resurrected?[1] John Dickson observes … quite rightly that “Ishtar” kinda sounds like “Easter.” Right?

Actually – not really.

The word for “Easter” in languages other than English and German sounds very different. Dickson points out the reason for this is that the original word has a Hebrew root. The original word was “Pesach”, which means “Passover.”[2]

What is Passover about? It’s the central Jewish festival, remembering the event in ancient Egypt, where God’s judgement came on the Egyptian oppressors, but it passed over the Jewish nation. It is reported by the New Testament gospels that Jesus was crucified at Passover in 30 AD. And – there’s an amazing parallel going on as this happens in the first century.

At Passover, the Jewish people sacrifice a spotless Lamb to remember the blood that the Jews put on the doorposts in Egypt so that God’s judgement would pass over their houses. In the crucifixion, we have Jesus giving his life so that God’s judgement would pass over those who trust in Christ. This is the real parallel that is going on here. Do you see the parallel?

For much of Christian history, Easter has been referred to as “Pesach,” or Passover. It has only been since Christianity arrived at Germany and English lands that the word “Easter” has been adopted as a reference to spring in the northern hemisphere.

So – does the word “Easter” betray the Pagan roots of the Christian celebration? No. Not at all.

[1] Heather McDougall, The Pagan Roots of Easter, The Guardian, 3rd April, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/03/easter-pagan-symbolism.

[2] John Dickson, Easter Myths, Undeceptions Podcast, 5th April, 2020.

Does Human Suffering Suggest Randomness Not Order?

Two brave British nurses have died as a result of treating Covid-19 patients in British hospitals. Areema Nasreen and Aimee O’Rourke are both heroes. But this is a tragedy and my heart goes out to their families who are now facing appalling personal loss, probably without even having had a chance to say goodbye to their own loved ones. I struggle to wrap my mind around just how awful this situation is for them.

It made me wonder. Can we take tragedies like this – and the many more happening around the world right now – as evidence that the world is really just grounded on randomness rather than order and love? Maybe there is no point…no purpose…no grand plan. Just merciless, pitiless, nature and randomness?

Now – clearly I am not one of the people providing these families love and support at this time of grief. Others are doing this important work – I am at a distance. So, from my distant perspective, and having experienced my own appalling personal losses myself, I can say that the Christian message has a lot to say in response to this question about randomness rather than order.

It seems to me that the very question, “is the world random rather than ordered,“ presupposes something important. The fact that we would even ask this question hints toward a sense within us that we are much more than just physical beings.

Think of it like this.

If I am ONLY a physical being … a clump of cells which exist for a while, then what is the problem with that clump of cells going away and ceasing to exist? But we don’t approach the suffering of people in this way. Not at all. Our hearts go out to these suffering people. We intuitively know that these people are MORE than just the sum of their physical parts. In one sense, these families have lost a physical body that interacts with them, because a person in their family has died. But they have lost more than just a physical body. If we think about it, this loss experienced by these families is much much deeper than that.

So – here’ the question. If we also believe these brave and wonderful nurses are MORE than simply physical clumps of cells, then I would ask why we would believe that?

As Amy Orr-Ewing has asked recently, “Why does suffering hurt so much? Because there’s a metaphysical nature to your being…there’s a spiritual aspect to each person.”[1] Suffering is appalling and our hearts go out to individuals who suffer – even if we do not personally know them. Why? Because life is so precious and sacred to us, whether we are a religious person or not.

Christianity doesn’t want us to be religious. Rather, teaches that our currently reality has ultimately been broken and is not as it is supposed to be. Therefore, as a result, everyone dies. Whether by disease, accident or the passage of time…we all die one day. But what we find in the person of Jesus is both light and hope for a future life beyond suffering and beyond the grave.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and[b] is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:9, 14, 18, NIV)

The world is not based on randomness. It is broken. But – there is order, and love and a hope for the future.

[1] She Persuades, Undeceptions Podcast, 29th March 2020.

Responding to Extreme, Religious Covid-19 Reactions

I hope you are well, and this difficult period is allowing you some opportunities to rest. But if you are actually one of the workers during this partial lockdown period – thank you for your service! Stay well.

 

I’ve noticed over the past few days an increase in the volume of some quite extreme Christian groups. These groups seem to say things ranging from:

1 – true Christians will keep meeting in their churches despite the Covid-19 lockdown.

to

2 – this virus is a punishment from God

to

3 – true Christians will be immune to this virus

 

True Christians Will Keep Going To Church Despite Covid-19

An example of the first one is a quote I saw from Matthew Schmitz who said, “Unless religious leaders reopen the churches, they will appear to value earthly above eternal life.”[1] In his article, Matthew seems to rail against the way Christian churches have stopped holding public services. He views this response as basically stating that, “church is a non-essential service. We are capable of taking prudent measures to keep our supermarkets open, but not our sanctuaries.”[2] His opinion is that by doing so, the church views church as a non-essential service.

This reaction seems very strange to me. My own home church in Gloucester, and other churches I interact with in the UK and US, have adapted to the Coronavirus situation by conducting services online. They are working hard to grapple with the technology required to make this happen. If anything – I am seeing church leaders working much much harder to keep the heart of their church community moving forward, even if it is only virtual for now. I saw one hilarious tweet last week – “And just like that, we’ve all become tele-evangelists.” Well – yes, but rather in a positive and community affirming way.

I also know that churches are stepping up their services to folks in their local communities during this lockdown period. Churches in Gloucester (Kingfisher church included) are seeking to help the vulnerable by delivering food parcels to doorsteps. And, to provide increasing online support groups to the vulnerable – and I include everyone in that group. For myself, my Christian Apologetics group has moved online, and it is busier than ever.

So – I don’t share Matthew Schmitz’s opinion. Churches who value their members health – and also feel it important to set a Godly example by respecting the authority of national government – are right to move from in person to remote services. This shows the adaptability of Christian communities, a respect for authority, and consideration for believers and non-believers in our society. This does not devalue the Christian gospel. Rather, it applies the timeless principles to a new cultural moment.

 

The Virus is Punishment from God

I’ve also encountered Pastors who are calling this crisis out as an example of the wrath of God. Except doing so requires them to appeal to very time-specific events reported in the Old Testament that relate to periods of history unconnected to today. I’ve yet to hear any of them justify why any of those events have anything whatsoever to do with Covid-19.

So – my advice is – if you notice the book of Ezekiel talks about pestilence and what God thought about it, don’t assume that this has anything to say to events today.

 

True Christians Will Be Immune from the Virus

Margaret Court has reportedly claimed that “the blood of Jesus will protect the faithful in her church from the virus.”[3] The problem with this idea is it is completely foreign to historic Christianity. John Dickson observes this is actually root in the health and prosperity gospel. On the cross Jesus did not just take our sins upon himself, he also took our ailments too, so we don’t have to be physically unwell. This is a modern phenomenon and is not found either in the Bible or in church history.

The Bible

Ancient Israel was given specific promises in Deuteronomy about their wellbeing in the land if they hold to God’s promises. But there’s no evidence these specific promises would apply to other nations later in history, and the new covenant. In the New Testament, we are taught that everyone shares in human weakness and frailty. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:23, “And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering.” There is no evidence that Christians would be immune from this. So the Bible contradicts the health and prosperity gospel.

Church History

History contradicts it too. There have been many pandemics since the birth of Christianity, and these tend to show the church’s willingness to put itself in harm’s way to serve the needs of the suffering. For example, in 250AD, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, led the church through a 10 year empire wide pandemic. Yet he gave no hint that Christians would be immune from the disease in his writings. Like the pastors of today, moving to online services, he wrote hundreds of sermons down so that his suffering people could read and be encouraged in their suffering. In his work Mortality, he warned the Christians against expecting special protection in this fallen world:

“we should have no fear, no dread at the storms and whirlwinds of the world, since the Lord predicted that these things … It disturbs some that the power of this Disease attacks our people equally with the heathens, as if the Christian believed for this purpose, that he might have the enjoyment of the world and this life free from the contact of ills; and not as one who undergoes all adverse things here and is reserved for future joy…So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality, but are separated in spirit. Therefore until this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal receive immortality, and the Spirit lead us to God the Father, whatsoever are the disadvantages of the flesh are common to us with the human race.”[4]

Cyprian flatly contradicts the claims of the modern prosperity gospel. Christians are no more immune to this disease than anyone else. And – he encouraged those at his time who were discouraged that they were not immune. What Christians do have are two things:

First – the promise of eternal glory after death.

Second – a gratitude of spirit that motivates them to serve and support the suffering people in this world, whatever the physical outcome for themselves in the here and now.

It seems to me that the churches I am engaged with today are a lot closer to Cyprian’s ideas, then the modern prosperity gospel ideas that sadly pervades Christianity today. And – I’m happy and encouraged that is so.

 

[1] Matthew Schmitz, Church As a Non-Essential Service, First Things, Published 27th March 2020, accessed 30th March, 2020, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/church-as-a-non-essential-service.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Dickson, Pandemic Equality Single, Undeceptions Podcast.

[4] Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 7, Mortality, New Advent, accessed 30th March, 2020, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050707.htm.

Hope Still Flickers in Fearful Times

C S Lewis gave a talk entitled, “Learning in War-Time.” He was speaking to a group of undergraduates at Oxford University as they each faced the terrifying prospect of being called up to military service, and to fight in the war. He spoke words of encouragement and hope to those young lives. But his talk also speaks wisdom that applies to us today as everyone is facing the COVID-19 virus.

 

Here’s my own version of Lewis’s talk for us today:

This COVID-19 virus forces each of us to remember death. Is that grim? Well, this reminder would have been a great encouragement to the Christians of the past who always taught that we should be aware of our own mortality during our lives. They would have approved.

But this awareness brings a dawning realisation along with it. All our precious personal plans, hopes and dreams were always facing a final frustrating end. We just forgot about it. Yet we’ve been living in a universe all along that we must finally and personally come to terms with. If we used to think that human culture was unstoppable, then this crisis shows us how wrong we all were! If we thought we were building heaven on earth, a permanent place for us to experience ultimate satisfaction in our lives, we have finally had our illusions completely shattered. Culture is in tatters and in crisis now. But – these shattered illusions have come not a moment too soon! This shattering is good for us. We each need to reflect on our mortality. Urgently.

Yet for those of us who are beginning to realise that life is actually all about learning and humbly offering our lives to God, then there’s an important truth here. We are the ones who are pointing to the ultimate reality that faces all of us. There is true beauty to be  experienced in heaven after the end of our earthly lives. It’s not too late for everyone else to get on board with viewing life this way too, because doing so may just mean we lose this broken human culture, but finally gain God’s wonderful and everlasting joy in its place. And that – is a very worthwhile exchange.

 

That’s my feeble attempt to apply C S Lewis’s wisdom to each of us today.  You can read the original in – C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (San Francisco:Harper Collins, 1980), 62 – 63.

 

Finally, here are Jesus’ words on the matter:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27, NIV)