Nine Arguments for the Early Authorship of Luke-Acts

The Acts of the Apostles (Acts) is a New Testament book that helps us to understand early Christian beliefs and practices. But when was it written? Was it produced during the lifetime of the witnesses who engaged with Jesus of Nazareth and the Apostles? Or was it composed much later by an individual or individuals unconnected with the events? If it can be argued that Acts is an early text, then its closeness to the events and its eyewitness testimony both give credibility to the miracles that it documents. 

Also, did the Apostle Paul’s companion Luke write it? If so, that places its author within the circle of those who participated in the events being reported. Further, if Acts is early, then by extension the Gospel of Luke should also be dated within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses and given the same credibility as Acts. The gospel was composed first.

Historian Colin J. Hermer lists various reasons for accepting the traditional composition date for Acts.[1] This date is around AD 62, only 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This publication date would place the extensive research and writing of Acts well within the lifetime of many eyewitnesses of Jesus and the events in the early church and Paul’s missionary journeys. 

In this blog I will focus mainly on the nine arguments themselves, tho I do mention one skeptical response.

The nine arguments supporting the early authorship of Acts are:

  1. Omission of the fall of Jerusalem in Acts
  2. No Mention of the Jewish-Roman War in Acts
  3. No Mention of the Deteriorating Relations between Emperor Nero and the Christian church in Acts
  4. No Mention of the Martyrdom of James in Acts
  5. Lack of knowledge about Paul’s Letters in Acts
  6. The Abrupt Ending of Acts
  7. Sense of immediacy in Later Chapters of Acts
  8. Undesigned Coincidences Between Acts and Paul’s Letters
  9. Author’s Specialised Knowledge is Evident in Acts

Some of these arguments for the early dating of Acts rely on arguments from silence. I will assess this approach of argumentation next.

Assessing the Historical Argument from Silence

The argument from silence is a probabilistic type of argument and is used as a ground for inferring a conclusion. There is disagreement over the effectiveness of the argumentum ex silentio for assessing historical arguments. For example, while one historian describes this as “nothing more or less valid than the universally valid method of historical investigation,”[2] another claims the argument is weak at best.[3] It is important when using this approach to form a strong argument, as weak arguments of this type are common.

Tim McGrew observes three steps that must be present for a strong version of the historical argument from silence:[4]

  1. the event in question would almost certainly have come to the notice of the author in question.
  2. the author would have recorded or given evidence of the fact had they been aware of the event in question.
  3. the works in which this was recorded would have survived to the present era and come to the notice of contemporary scholars.

He gives the example of Bergen in Norway. Archaeological digs have uncovered evidence of a major fire there between 1225 and 1230 AD. Various Annals document the history of this region, but do not mention any fires between 1198 and 1248. Which evidence – the archaeology or the documentation – should take precedence? Archaeologists and historians working together agreed that the archaeological evidence takes precedence. Clearly, the writers of the Annals did not record the fire that has left physical evidence of its occurrence. This suggests the writers did not have “recording fires” as a goal in their writing. So, in our list of three steps above, step 1 is probably satisfied, but step 2 was probably not satisfied because it was not important for the writer to record the fire. 

This example from Bergen shows us that we must be very careful before drawing an argument from silence, and we must take all the data into consideration before making an inference. An argument can fall down on any of the three steps above. It seems that in the Bergen case, the argument from silence fails at step 2.

Next, we will discuss the arguments supporting a dating of Acts to around AD62.

Omission of the Fall of Jerusalem in Acts

In AD 70, the Roman army besieged the city of Jerusalem, centre of Jewish resistance in the Roman province of Judea. After a brutal five month siege, the Romans destroyed the city and the Jewish Temple. This was a major turning point in Jewish history because the Temple was central to 1st century Jewish and early Christian culture and life. Historian Josephus records the horror of the fall of Jerusalem. 

As the flames went upward, the Jews made a great clamour, such as so mighty an affliction required; and ran together to prevent it. And now they spared not their lives any longer, nor suffered any thing to restrain their force, since that holy house was perishing, for whose sake it was that they kept such a guard about it.[5]

Flavius Josephus, Of the War – Book VI

The stated purpose and content of Acts is that it is a work of history. Acts 1:1 continues the intentions of Luke’s Gospel to “draw up an account of the things fulfilled among us … handed down … by eyewitnesses.”[6]Authors in the late first century who know this area would have been painfully aware of the events Josephus describes.  

It is interesting to note that many other significant events in the life of the fledgling church are recorded in Acts. For example:

  • the Jewish authorities and their persecution of the Apostles Peter and John (Acts 4-5)
  • persecution of the church by Saul (Acts 8)
  • scattering of some people from the church in Jerusalem (Acts 8)

Given the effect the fall of Jerusalem would have had on the lives of the Jewish and Christian population there, it is hard to think of a reason why the author of Acts would not have mentioned this highly significant and unique event – the destruction of the Temple. Consequently, this is a very unlikely omission by the author. This would suggest the fall of Jerusalem had not happened while the book was being written.

Interestingly, Luke’s gospel does appear to refer to the fall of Jerusalem. During a discussion about the beauty of the Temple, Jesus says:

“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”[7]

Some skeptical scholars do not believe that Jesus could supernaturally know about the destruction of the temple. Consequently, they use this verse as evidence that Luke’s gospel was written after AD 70. However, if miracles do occur, there is no need to date Luke after AD 70. 

So – do miracles occur? While skeptics will quickly oppose the notion of the occurrence of miracles, I have yet to hear a convincing argument disproving the possibility of the supernatural. These arguments tend to cut the ground from under their own feet.

For example, David Hume’s attempt is mired in circular argumentation. He assumes miracles cannot happen to argue that they do not. Unfortunately, there are volumes of documented miracles from Hume’s time, as well as earlier and later in history. Further, Anthony Flew’s argument that one-off miracles are not permitted also disallows some important events that are recognised by believing and unbelieving scientists. For example, the origin of the universe and the origin of life on earth. Further, if one-off events (miracles) must always be overturned by the normal flow of events, no new scientific discoveries could ever be made. For these and many other reasons, the skeptical argument against miracles cannot disallow the occurrence of miracles. Skeptics therefore cannot reasonably require that Luke 21:6 points to a date of composition for Luke’s gospel beyond AD 70.

No Mention of the Jewish-Roman War in Acts

Tensions between the Jews and Romans were the precursor to the fall of Jerusalem. These tensions are dated to AD 66, and we would expect this to be mentioned in Acts if it had already occurred because again, it was significant and relevant to the church and the local community and would have been important to the author of Luke-Acts.

No Mention of Deterioration in Relations between Emperor Nero and the Christian Community in Acts

There are many facets to this highly significant period in the life of the early Christian Church. In his Annals, Roman historian Tacitus records Nero’s persecution of the Christians in various brutal ways. And he pinned the cause of the fire in Rome on the Christians.[8] This is dated to the mid to late AD 60s. It is not mentioned in Acts, suggesting it is yet to occur while Acts is being written.

If the author of Acts recorded earlier persecution by the Jewish authorities, and persecution by the Roman authorities, why not this Roman persecution that was happening close to home? Again, given the significance of these events, it is hard to see why the author of Acts would not have mentioned Nero’s persecution if it had already occurred. This suggests it had not yet occurred while Acts was being written.

No Mention of the Martyrdom of James in Acts

In his Antiquities, Josephus records the Sanhedrin’s killing of the Apostle James around AD 62. This would be an important event in the history of the Christian church as it involved the death of one of their first leaders. The omission of this event suggests it had not happened yet while the author was researching and writing.

The Author of Acts Does Not Appear to Know About the Apostle Paul’s Letters

If Acts was written later in the 1st century, surely the author’s research would have included reading the Apostle Paul’s letters and informing his account with the details recorded in there. However, there is no evidence this was the case from the Acts text.

Now, it is possible that the author simply didn’t have access to these letters. The 1st century was not an information-rich age like ours is today. Yet at a time when these documents were being copied and distributed amongst the earliest churches, it seems reasonable to assume he would have known about the existence of the letters from the people he was interviewing as part of his research. If Luke is the author, and he is a companion of Paul, you would think he would know about some of Paul’s letters. 

This is a weaker argument from silence compared to the previous two. But silence on the letters may suggest an early date for the research and writing of Acts, perhaps prior to the wide distribution of some of Paul’s letters. The fact he doesn’t mention them suggests the author’s research happened around the time Paul was writing his epistles.

The Abrupt Ending of Acts

There is a suddenness about the conclusion to Acts. The Apostle Paul makes his final journey to Rome and arrives after surviving a shipwreck. Paul is awaiting the outcome to his appeal to the Roman emperor. Through other writers of the time (1 Clement 5, Eusebius) it is recorded that Paul is released in AD 62 only to be reimprisoned and executed a few years later.[9] Acts reports none of this important detail. It seems the author writes up to his understanding of contemporary events, without knowing what the outcome for Paul would be.

Also, scholars have noted the parallels the writer of Luke-Acts seems to draw between the lives of Jesus and Paul. If the author had been aware of Paul’s martyrdom, they would have reported it in Acts to draw the parallel even closer.[10] Its omission suggests it had not happened yet, and the author recorded as much as he could based on prior known events.

A Sense of Immediacy in the Later Chapters of Acts

The early chapters report events in an indirect way, while the later chapters (e.g. Acts 27 – 28) report things more immediately. This suggests that the author relied on eyewitnesses testimony for the early parts of the book, and switched to his own memories for the events he was personally involved in.

Undesigned Coincidences Between Acts and Paul’s Letters

While Acts does not seem to use Paul’s letters as a source, nevertheless it reports events that are consistent with those letters. For example, Paul’s ministry in Macedonia is reported in Acts 16 and 19, and also in Romans 15 and 2 Corinthians 8 and 11. Multiple documents separately attesting to the same event is an undesigned coincidence and a mark of historicity.

Specialised Knowledge is Evident in Acts

The author comes across as someone who is well acquainted with the region. For example:

  • topography of Jerusalem is shown (Acts 1:12, 19 and 3:2,11)
  • knowledge of the Roman military guard and other Roman terms are clearly shown (Acts 12:4)
  • Cyprus is correctly described as a proconsular province
  • The part played by Troas in communication is acknowledged
  • Acts 13 – 28 show an intimate knowledge of local circumstances. There are many “we” passages in the later chapters of Acts

Implications of the Dating of Acts on Luke’s Gospel

These arguments for the early research and composition of Acts also by implication support an early date for Luke’s Gospel since the style of writing demonstrates the same author wrote both works. 

Placing both of these works at an early period in the first century, around AD 62, means the author researched and wrote within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. This, therefore, gives further support to the original Christian belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection, as these are prominent in both works. This was not a later idea imposed on 1st-century events.

Authorship of Luke-Acts

The church fathers Papias and Irenaeus lived at a time near the events reported in Luke-Acts. Given that Luke’s Gospel was essentially distributed anonymously, as it didn’t have the author reported on the front of the scroll, its authorship would have been part of the oral testimony that accompanied copies of the document. 

The traditional authorship of Luke, Mark, and Matthew’s gospels are affirmed by Papias and Irenaeus. Matthew was written by the disciple of that name, Mark was written by John Mark as a memoir of Peter, and Luke was a close companion of the apostle Paul. We do not know for certain that this traditional authorship is correct, but this tradition has a definite ring of truth about it; “Why would Christians as early as the second century ascribe these otherwise anonymous Gospels to three such unlikely candidates if they did not, in fact, write them?”[11]

Conclusion

I have presented nine arguments for the early authorship of Luke-Acts. Five of these are arguments from silence. How well do these arguments meet McGrew’s three steps? I would argue that it is highly likely that arguments 1 to 4 easily meet step 1. Argument 5 is less certain. Although I think it is likely Paul’s letters would have come to Luke’s attention. I would suggest all five arguments meet step 2 because the importance of the events, and the relevance of Paul’s letters, mean Luke would have very likely referred to them during his research and writing. Finally, all five arguments easily meet McGrew’s step 3. Acts is an important early work. At the time of writing, the earliest copy of Acts is found in P45. The Chester Beatty Papyri are dated to the third century and preserve much of the four gospels, and Acts itself.[12]

I have shown how nine arguments together argue for the early authorship of Acts at around AD 62. I think together these meet the criteria laid down by McGrew for a strong argument. Some of these events have a very major significance to everyone living in this 1st-century Jewish/Christian community. To suggest that the author would not record them because they were not relevant, seems unlikely. Given that there is an incremental quality to these arguments, taken together, this forms a strong argument suggesting research and authorship of Acts prior to the important events that are not mentioned, at around AD 62.


[1] Normal L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics, (Baker Books, 2012), 10-12.

[2] Reference 2 in The Argument from Silence, Timothy McGrew, DOI 10.1007/s12136-013-0205-5.

[3] Reference 4 in McGrew.

[4] McGrew.

[5] Flavius Josephus, Of the War – Book VI, accessed 24th May 2022, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/war-6.html.

[6] Luke 1:1, Acts 1:1, NIV.

[7] Luke 21:6, NIV

[8] Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals, accessed 24th May, 2022,  https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44.

[9] Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 14.

[10] Ibid., 16.

[11] Craig Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?”, mentioned in Kenneth Richard Samples, God Among Sages Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader, (Baker Books, 2017), 61.

[12] Papyrus 45, Wikipedia, accessed 25th May, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus_45.

How Did the First Christians Communicate Jesus’ Resurrection?

The New Testament reports the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth occurred and some scholars date this event to AD30, others to AD33.

But just how historical is the New Testament itself when it comes to the claims of Jesus’ resurrection? 

There’s a common, popular level caricature of the New Testament – that it was written much later than the events it describes, separated by a gap of time that exceeds living memory. Maybe even written centuries after the events in question. The truth is very different – these events were being communicated by the church from the earliest times of the first century.

If we are willing to consider historical evidence, and rational argumentation, there are good reasons to accept the truthfulness of the historical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. For example:

But how did the early Christian church share the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, and the Christian gospel?

There were three overlapping stages in the first century, apostolic age of Christianity:

  1. Oral Tradition Period
  2. Written Letters Period
  3. Written Gospels Period

Stage 1 – Oral Tradition Period

This period covered the time between the first Easter, and the composition of the first gospels. This is believed to be at the time of the persecution by Emperor Nero and the deaths of leading Christian apostles Peter and Paul. 

Learning in the ancient world involved passing stories between generations using poetic formations to aid memory. Jesus himself is believed to have repeated his teachings in poetic form to help his listeners remember them.

“Rabbis were encouraged to memorize the entire Hebrew Scriptures … plus a sizeable body of the oral laws that grew up around them…elementary education, mandatory for many Jewish boys from ages five to twelve…was entirely by rote memory; and only one topic was studied; the Bible.”[1]

Ken Samples observes various checks and balances that existed during this early oral era:[2]

  • The early apostles (Peter, James, and John) squashed misleading information about Jesus and replaced it with accurate information (e.g. Acts 8:14; 11:1-3)
  • Critics of the new Christian movement could serve as a corrective to false testimony.
  • Disciples in Ancient Judaism revered their teachers and worked hard not to miss a single detail of their instruction. It is reasonable to assume the apostles warded off widespread misrepresentation in this culture.

As first-hand eyewitnesses grew older and faced martyrdom, Samples observes it became essential to preserve the “apostolic witness through the permanence of writing.”[3]

Stage 2 – Written Letters Period

Twenty-one of the twenty-seven New Testament books are letters, and the largest collection was penned by the apostle Paul. Theologian Alister McGrath notes, “the New Testament letters…date mainly from the period AD49-69, and provide confirmation of the importance and interpretations of Jesus in this formative period.”[4]Galatians is believed to be the earliest of the letters, penned between 15 and 18 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and reported resurrection.

A high Christology is evident in these earliest writings. Jesus is clearly worshipped during this earliest period. This shows the doctrines of Christianity did not evolve later, though they were better expressed and understood in the later Christian creeds of the fourth century onwards. The earliest letters, “illustrate a line of continuity and integrity of message that runs through the entire period.”[5]

The earliest letters also contain evidence of the oral creeds used by the Christian church, some thought to date back to months following Jesus’ resurrection.

Stage 3 – Written Gospels Period

Samples explores the first written Gospels through four questions.

3.1 What kind of writing are they?

They are not a modern, chronological style of history. They reflect ancient practice of providing an interpreted history, informing the reader of theological importance of the events being described. The early Christians were, “convinced that Jesus was the Messiah … their Saviour, and naturally felt that these conclusions should be passed on.”[6]

3.2 Who Wrote the Gospels?

While anonymous, the early Church knew who the authors were, and understood they were in a strong place to report reliable history.

Matthew – various first and second-century church fathers attested to the authorship by Matthew the former tax collector. Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, and Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons. No other name has been connected to this gospel until modern times.

Mark – Papias and Irenaeus testified that John Mark, cousin of Barnabas the associate of the apostle Paul, recorded eyewitness testimony and preaching of the apostle Peter. The other synoptics often defer to Mark, and that makes sense if Peter was a major source.

Luke – quite apart from the testimony of church fathers, the authorship of Luke and Acts by a close companion of the apostle Paul is supported by the internal structure of the text. Luke would have had access to the original eyewitnesses and his gospel relies on these.

John – most likely authored by “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). Irenaeus supported John’s authorship.

Craig Bloomberg observes that the synoptic gospels do not carry the names of the central apostolic leaders. Why would second century Christians ascribe these Gospels to such unlikely candidates unless they did in fact write them?[7]

3.3 When Were they Written?

Because the synoptic gospels do not mention important events that occurred between AD60 and AD70, scholars believe they were likely composed in the early AD60s, if not earlier. These events are:

  • Nero’s persecution (mid-60s)
  • Martyrdom of James, Peter and Paul
  • Fall of Jerusalem to Roman military leader Tirus (AD70)

3.4 Given the Writers Mix Theology With History, Does this Negate their Objectivity?

First, there are no unbiased reporters of facts. All history is interpreted.

Blomberg notes, “In the ancient world, there was virtually no such thing as dispassionate history.”[8]

Second, holding convictions about the truth does not rule out our ability to report reliable history. We can see this today in the accounts of the Ukraine and Russian war; we do not automatically assume the Ukrainians are telling lies because they are committed to defending their country. Rather, people generally think they are more likely to be reporting the truth.

Samples says, “active participants [often] feel a deep obligation to be careful and even-handed. A source therefore can be committed and correct simultaneously.”[9] Further, theologian Richard Bauckham notes the testimony of eyewitnesses was valued by ancient historians, “people who could convey something of the reality of the events from the inside.”[10]

Conclusion

The Christian reports of Jesus’ resurrection were being reported from the earliest times, and their worship of him is evident from the start of the Christian church. The earliest reports are generally considered by scholars to be the most evidentially important and credible, and Christianity has this in spades.


[1] Kenneth Richard Samples, God Among Sages Why Jesus is Not Just Another Religious Leader, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 57.

[2] Samples, 57 – 58.

[3] Ibid., 58.

[4] Alister McGrath, Introduction to Christianity, 58, quoted in Samples.

[5] Samples, 59.

[6] Ibid., 60.

[7] Craig Bloomberg, Where Do We Start Studying Jesus, 28, quoted in Samples.

[8] Ibid., 37.

[9] Samples, 63.

[10] Richard Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, 15, quoted in Samples.

Dear Believer, It is Arrogant to Think You Have the Only True Religion

Christianity claims to be the only, ultimately true religion. Jesus is recorded as having said:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”[1]

The Father Jesus is talking about here is God, you can tell that from the context of these verses. So – Jesus is claiming to be the only way to get to God. If religion is defined as us getting connected with God, then that’s a pretty restrictive view of religion. Right? Jesus is saying – Christianity is the only correct one. The other religions might be helpful in various ways for people’s lives. But – in the end – they don’t get you to God like Jesus does.

In their video, Plumbline Pictures claim it is arrogant to think that any one religion is the only right one – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.[2]

“Isn’t it time to stop thinking that we are somehow the reason why this universe was made? That our culture is somehow better than other cultures? Its time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, and forces us to admit we do not have all the answers. You must confront these fundamental questions.”[3]

I think we need to make several important responses to this.

Initial Response

First – I agree with their statement that it is time to learn how the universe is. It is important to follow the data where it leads. We must hold lightly to our assumptions if we are going to honestly confront fundamental questions. Because inevitably, we will not understand everything. This is absolutely a helpful approach to take. And – notice – it cuts many ways. It is a call to everyone whatever their persuasion, whether they are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, secular humanist, or whatever.

Second – I can’t speak for other belief systems, but Christianity was not founded on the idea that Christians are better than anyone else. Jesus laid down the foundations very explicitly:

  • love your enemies[4] because…
  • you and they are made in the image of God[5] but…
  • your sin has broken your relationship with God, so believe in me and my death and resurrection will count for your sinfulness and make you right again with God.[6]

Christians don’t claim they are better than others. They claim that everyone is of the utmost value, because we are made in God’s image. John Dickson notes that, while the Christian church has a chequered history living this out, history shows that these foundations were a rationale for “caring for the poor, burying the dead, starting hospitals, and even freeing slaves.”[7]

It’s interesting to note that often online, it is the internet atheist who looks down their nose at professing Christians. Christianity and Jesus as its founder has no time for this common superior thinking.

Third – the Bible does not claim the universe was created for humans. Rather, it was created because God is God – he’s creative, powerful, and he made the universe for himself.

“For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”[8]

Deeper Response

But having said all of this – I think there is a deeper assumption being made here and it is that it is arrogant for the believer to think they have the only right religion.

Here’s two problems with that statement.

First – ideas are not arrogant. How can an idea possess an attitude all of its own? No – ideas are simply ideas. Following the evidence where it leads isn’t arrogant, it is accepting the unwavering uniqueness and exclusivity of the truth of a situation. In a murder case, there can be many suspects, but only one culprit or culprits. Truth by its very nature is exclusive. We know this. But a truth claim is not arrogance.

Do you know what is arrogant? People. People can be arrogant, because arrogance is a haughty, superior, and rude way of speaking to another person. Now – the Plumbline video voiceover is polite in its use of vocabulary, but I detect a lot of “talking down” to the religious believer in their video. It sounds from the video that the video narrator is privy to some privileged knowledge, and every religious believer on the planet is living in a version of the supposed Dark Ages. To me – that sounds very arrogant.

Second – truth claims are either true or false. Wesaw earlier that Jesus makes a truth claim, that he is the only way to God for people. That claim is either true, or its not. Maybe our culture doesn’t like the sound of this exclusive truth claim, preferring to think that everyone has a bit of the truth about God and no religion is necessarily the right or wrong one. Okay – but notice that this attitude doesn’t make Jesus’ words false. Also – it is itself an exclusive truth claim. The claim that all religions lead to God is an exclusive one, but where does the claim come from? It certainly doesn’t come from the lips of Jesus. Personally, I think we should prioritise what Jesus says on the matter and defer to that.

Also – claiming that all religions are false (as the video seems to do) is also an exclusive truth claim. It seems that on matters such as these, we cannot get away from making exclusive truth claims. And the reality is that these claims are either true or false.

Summary

Is Christianity arrogant? Not at all. It makes an exclusive truth claim like every other belief system on the planet – atheism included. Christian truth claims are not arrogant just like lawyers and scientists aren’t arrogant when they are seeking the truth about a state of affairs.

The question is – how are we going about talking to people about our truth claim? Are we acting in an arrogant way or are we valuing the people we speak to as Jesus said we must?


[1] John 14:6-7, NIV.

[2] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[3] Ibid., 08:48.

[4] Matthew 5:44.

[5] Genesis 1:27.

[6] Ephesians 2:1-5, Romans 5:10.

[7] John Dickson, Bullies and Saints An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, (Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 33.

[8] Romans 11:36, NIV.

Dear Believer, Your Christian Beliefs are Simply a Crutch

Why do religious believers believe? This question is asked by Plumbline Pictures in their video – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.[1]

In this blog series, I’ve been assessing their arguments against religion. I’ve responded to the following ideas:

  1. You’re only a religious devotee / believer because you were born into it.
  2. All devotees of their religion think their beliefs are the only correct ones. What are the odd that you, dear believer, are correct and everyone else is wrong?
  3. Religious believers are atheists too when it comes to other religions. They just believe in one more god than the atheist does.

Here’s another objection from them:

Objection 4 – Religion is a crutch to make people feel better

“I wonder if religions aren’t just ancient constructs … attempt[ing] to explain unexplained phenomenon. Though irrational in content, they are not irrational in their emergence. But we no longer live in the dark; science is ablaze in our world, we no longer live in the cave. We no longer require comforting stories that make us feel safe, comforted or valued. Isn’t it time our faith matches our discoveries? Our ideas, our new perspective? Greater awe in reality rather than fantasy?”[2]

1 – But’s Isn’t Atheism Also a Crutch?

I’ve always wondered why people claim that belief in God, and Christianity in particular, is some sort of emotional “crutch”? After all, crutches come in all shapes and sizes. If we define atheism as disbelief in a God (or lack of belief in a God), then can’t this also act as a crutch? If there’s no God, then I don’t have anyone who I am ultimately accountable to. I can live life as I please, and I won’t be answerable to anyone in an ultimate sense. This props up my own self reliance and belief that – my life is ultimately down to me and my choices alone.

Greg Reeves puts his finger on the main crutch of atheism when he says that if there is no God then when I die, no one is going to hold me accountable for my immoral actions.[3] I can live as I please and indulge whatever desires I happen to have. Yes – there are consequences in the here and now – but no God exists to answer to. So – who cares!

Yet perhaps, as C S Lewis said in Mere Christianity, we have a cause to feel uneasy in atheism. If objective standards of morality exist in the world, then that means there is a moral law. And there are very good reasons to understand this moral law as objective. So – there must be a moral law Giver. Don’t you think the one who sets objective moral laws that apply across every human society – might have something to say about those who break those laws? The atheist has reason to feel uneasy as he leans on the crutch atheism to justify his lifestyle.

2 – Christianity is Rarely Easy

People who decide to authentically live out their Christian beliefs rarely escape some sort of painful collision with their society. The evidence for this is overwhelming, and here’s a taste of it.

In the 3rd century AD, Perpetua became one of the first female Christian martyrs in Carthage, North Africa. Christianity was viewed with suspicion at the time as it denied the emperor’s divine character. Consequently, Christians were thrown into the arena to be torn apart by animals, or killed by the sword. Imagine a young mother who was unwilling to deny her Jesus, and so faced execution as her family begged her to recant. That’s the Perpetua story. Christianity was not easy for her.[4]

In 2019, the then British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt ordered a report on religious persecution around the world. This report found that Christian persecution in various areas around the world are at near genocide levels.

Christianity in Iraq is close to extinction. In the previous few years, Christians have been brutally killed in Iraq by Islamic State militants. The oldest Christian church in the world is in Iraq, and it is almost gone.[5] Christianity is not easy for Iraqis.

I have friends in Malawi and Mozambique in Africa today whose lives are under threat from Nigerian Islamic militants. They are not sure from day to day whether they will be safe. Its becoming less and less easy to be a Christian in some African countries.

Mao Zedong’s Chinese government are working to eradicate religious belief in China. The officially atheist nation only permits religious believers to attend nationally instituted churches which do not maintain Christian beliefs. Ironically, their attempts at stamping out Christianity has led to its growth. Estimates are that over 100 million Chinese Christians are active in the underground Chinese Christian church, and it is growing. Yet the Christians are also being persecuted. Church leaders are being taken from their families, interrogated, and jailed.[6] Christianity is not easy for the Chinese.

Clearly, Christianity is not easy for a lot of people.

3 – Christianity Removes A Person’s Autonomy

Perhaps the atheist misses this important point, but the life of the Christian is about following Christ and his will for your life. It is not about following your own autonomy. After around fifty years as a Christian, I have rarely found this to be an easy process.

I had a plan in my early twenties for what I wanted to do with my life. I was never going to give up my Christian beliefs, but I was going to invest and focus in my career. I remember where I was when I suddenly realised that I could not follow that plan, because Jesus had another plan for my life that I had to follow. And – I realised that following his plan was my only option.

I have not fully understood his plan, and so I have stumbled my way through things during my life. But I’ve always sought to follow what Jesus has been leading me to do. This has rarely been easy.

I have had to balance my working life with service in the church. This has involved many challenging roles, like taking groups of people to visit Malawi and Mozambique in Africa for periods of time and teaching there. These are not comfortable trips.

I have funded multiple theological degrees myself to better prepare myself for Christian ministry. This has cost in excess of 100 thousand pounds – and its not finished yet.

I have built and maintained relationships with people in the church over the years inspite of the difficulties that I have experienced with them. I have known various church leaders who have been quite controlling in their dealings with me. Inevitably, not everything I have followed them into has been a roaring success. The reality, is that I have only done this because I am following Jesus and want to build Jesus’ church. And I know that difficult people and challenging relationships are used by God to build my character. And people who are difficult to work with are sometimes those who are able to achieve great things. Has this been easy for me? Not at all!

4 – Whatever Christianity Is, the Reasons for Theism Must Be Considered

Finally, its actually irrelevant whether or not Christianity is viewed as a crutch or not!

If there are good reasons for becoming a Christian, as the countless persecuted Christians in the world today would attest to, then we must respond to those reasons. Maybe Christianity is a crutch to some, maybe it leads to painful hammer blows to others. It doesn’t change the fact that – the reasons for Christian belief are what must be considered.

Christian belief is rooted in historical events, not fictional claims. As I said in the previous blog in this series, the arguments for theism are incredibly robust. Christianity makes sense of the world, but it does so much more.

5 – Conclusion

C S Lewis once said –

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

I don’t think Christianity is a crutch. It is a challenging life, but it has incredibly helpful and positive aspects to it. Being a Christian is like having a light that illuminates our path forward in a dark and dangerous world.


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid., 07:58.

[3] Greg Reeves, A response to “Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe?” part 2 of 2, accessed 3rd January, 2022, https://twobooksapproach.blogspot.com/2013/06/a-response-to-dear-believer-why-do-you.html.

[4] Saint Perpetua, Encyclopedia.com, accessed 3rd January, 2022, https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/perpetua-saint.

[5] Iraq’s Christians close to Extinction, BBC News, published 23rd May, 2019, accessed 3rd January, 2022, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-48333923.

[6] In China, they’re Closing Churches, Jailing Pastors – and Even Rewriting Scripture, The Guardian, published 13th January, 2019, accessed 3rd January, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/13/china-christians-religious-persecution-translation-bible.

Dear Believer, You Know What It’s Like To Be an Atheist for All God’s Except Your Own

I’ve been thinking about the claims made by the video, “Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe?”[1], which is often beautiful in its depiction of human cultures. You can watch it here – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.

One of the points made in the video that I agree with is that religions are mutually exclusive. They teach different and incompatible doctrines, and so they cannot all be right. This is an important point that is often missed. Yet the video also proceeds to lump all religions together, stating that secular humanism is a better outlook. They don’t take religious claims on their own terms, preferring instead to reject them all.

It’s important to point out that not all religions believe there is a creator God, an author to all of time, space, reality and what they contain. Theistic religions (e.g. Judaism, Islam, Christianity) are distinct from non-theistic religions (like Buddhism), and very compelling arguments for the truth of theism have been proposed down through the centuries. Philosopher Alvin Plantiga gave a talk once called “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments,” and you can find a summary of some of the work that’s been done on these arguments here. There are many good reasons to be a theist.

Having said that – lets return to the Dear Believer video, and respond to their next objection:

Objection 3 – Religious believers are atheists too when it comes to other religions. They just believe in one more god than the atheist does.

“Truth is, you already know what it’s like to be an atheist for all gods but your own. The way you view them (other people) is the same way they view you. Every devout Hindu, for example, has embraced his faith for the exact same reasons you’ve embraced yours. Yet you do not find his reasons compelling, nor do you lose sleep at night wondering whether you’ll wake up in his hell. Given this, is it so hard to see why some of us just take our atheism one God further?”[2]

In other words, every religious person is like an atheist with regards the gods taught be other religions. The atheist just goes one god further – saying there are no gods.

This was first proposed by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion book and has been picked up and used as a supposed axiom and conversation stopper by many atheists since. Perhaps these atheists don’t realise that – this claim has been clearly shown to make absolutely no sense whatsoever! It is the equivalent of saying, “the bachelor is married.” How can an unmarried man be married? That makes no sense – it’s a contradiction. So is the video’s “one god more” claim.

First – the “one god more” claim is a contradiction.

The “one god more” claim says the experience of atheism is like religious belief (“you already know what it’s like to be an atheist”). But is it right to do so?

Let’s define atheism as belief there is no god. Let’s define Christianity as the belief in the God of the Bible to the exclusion of every other God presented by other non-Biblical religions (Judaism and Christianity are on the same page till it comes to Jesus). Can you see why atheism and Christianity are not in the same category of belief? How can you liken atheism (there are no gods) and Christian belief (there is a single God)? You are trying to claim apples and oranges are the same when they aren’t. This claim makes no sense.

Second – the objection forgets that there are very good reasons to be a theist. I pointed towards some of those reasons above. There’s the argument from human reason, the moral argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and so on. If there are arguments for theism, then surely you must show how all of these theistic arguments are flawed before atheism becomes a reasonable belief. And then you’ve got to explain what kind of atheism you have adopted. There are many different kinds. The objection seems oblivious…sounding like empty rhetoric.

Third – the “one god more” claim is like an acid that eats away at many important human disciplines beyond religion. Andy Bannister observes that the argument just goes too far. In any situation where we have a number of possible options, and we decide to choose X exclusively over Y or Z, the “one god more” skeptic could say “no – we must reject X, Y, and Z.” This would be devastating to the legal system, where evidence is sifted to arrive at a single judgement and just conviction of the guilty person. It would also devastate science, where evidence is assessed, and multiple models are suggested to explain the data. Eventually one scientific model becomes the winner, leaving failed hypotheses by the wayside. But not if the “one theory more” skeptic had his way![3] Nope – all options must be rejected.

Fourth – the “one god more” argument acts like an acid because it assumes all possibilities in religious terms are equally likely. It doesn’t care about the evidence at all. It has decided all options are as unlikely as each other, and so it rejects all of them without assessing the arguments for each. Can you see why that would be a devastating approach to take in the other disciplines I mentioned? If the argument doesn’t work in law or science, why should it be used in religious belief?

Fifth – the “one god more” argument makes a category mistake when it says, “Believers are atheists with regard Zeus, Thor, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.”

When you include God in a list like that, you are trying to make out that God is like an entity inside the universe. Yet the Christian view of God is not like that at all.

Imagine if I tried to claim J. R. R. Tolkien was in the same category as the Hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin? You would probably laugh, saying “You’re crazy. Tolkien is the author, and these Hobbits are his characters.” Exactly! That’s why the “one god more” argument makes a category mistake.

God is not like the entities we find in our universe. Rather, “all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite well-spring of all that is, in whom … all things live and move and have their being.”[4]

Summary:

The problem with the “one god more” argument is that it is contradictory and makes God out to be something he’s not. Further, it is very uncritical. It doesn’t care to look at the evidence for a claim, rather it just assumes all options are equally unlikely, and so decides to reject them all. This is a bad way to reason about everything in life. It is just a silly argument.

Also – consider this.

I engage with a lot of people who spend time arguing against the existence of God. I wonder whether they realise that when they do this, they tacitly admit that God exists.

  • To write books, tweets, blogs, or blog comments arguing against Christianity (for example) is to admit truth is important. If truth isn’t important, why does it matter what anyone believes?
  • Consequently, pursuing knowledge is a virtuous thing to do. It is beneficial to pursue a hard truth over a comfortable lie (as Carl Sagan said).
  • It is right to claim that justice matters, and morally bankrupt belief systems must be rejected on moral grounds.

Yet truth, the pursuit of knowledge, the existence of ultimate values like morality and justice cannot be grounded in atheism. They can only be grounded in a transcendent, personal God. They reflect his character, and they are therefore reflected in the universe he has created. A truly consistent atheist position would be to say:

nothing means anything because there is no ultimate meaning in the universe. So, it doesn’t matter what anyone believes and life is absurd. So my absurd beliefs can coexist with the Christian’s absurd beliefs. It doesn’t matter.

How interesting that – by seeking the truth of God’s supposed non-existence, the atheist often plays by God’s own rules![5]

In the next blog, I’ll address the next objection – “Religion is a crutch to make people feel better.”


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid., 06:43.

[3] Andy Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist Or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments, (Grand Rapids:Monarch Books, 2015), 52.

[4] David Bently Hart, “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss,” quoted in Bannister, 57.

[5] Bannister, 59.

Dear Believer, What are the Chances Your Beliefs are Correct and All the Other Religious Beliefs are Wrong?

How does one know their exclusive belief claims are true? “Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe?”[1], is made by Plumbline Pictures and it poses this question. You can watch it here – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.

It vividly portrays various religious beliefs and contrasts them with a narration that is grounded in secular humanism. It attempts to force us to confront the claimed irrationality of our religious beliefs. They quote Mark Twain, who apparently said, “the easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.”[2]

So – how compelling is the secular humanist argument against “religion” in this video? More importantly, how effective is it in challenging the exclusive truth claims made by Christianity?

In the previous post, we responded to their claim that religious belief is accidental based on our place of birth, and so therefore has no truth content. This post moves on to objection two:

Objection 2 – All religious devotees think their beliefs are the only correct ones. What are the odds that you, dear believer, are correct and everyone else is wrong?

“There are 2 dozen major religions … [and] more than 45,000 denominations of Christianity alone, each claiming to understand ultimate truth better than the rest. Each member of every faith is just as devoted and sincere and convicted as you. Did you know they also read infallible texts, have airtight apologetics, have experienced miracles…? Yet since every religion is mutually exclusive, they cannot all be right, right? If every member of every faith feels just as you do, what are the odds you are right?”[3]

I think the narrator is right when claiming the major religions are mutually exclusive. This is correct. They all have different beliefs around whether there is a God, who God is and what his nature and character is, the role of human effort in one’s religious observance, etc. He is also right to point out the sincerity of religious belief amongst the believers of different religions.

However – there are also some very major problems with the rest of this argument.

First – the veracity of religious belief is not determined by the number of people who hold to this belief.

Just because there are many people with religious beliefs that contradict Christianity, this does not mean that Christian belief is rendered false. Greg Reeves describes this idea as the “popularity contest” view of religion.[4] If the narrator is saying that the most popular belief system with the highest number of adherents is the correct one, then he has missed the point of religious belief in general and Christianity in particular.

Think of this another way. The sincerity of one’s religious belief has nothing to do with the truthfulness of that belief. I can honestly and sincerely believe that I will receive a Bugatti Chiron sports car for Christmas. The ultimate correctness of that belief is a different thing compared to the sincerity of my belief. Sincerity and truthfulness are two different things. And – as I already said – religion is not a popularity contest where someone’s belief must necessarily be false if someone else believes something different. Not at all.

Second – the narrator’s claim actually turns out to be self-refuting.

The religious popularity contest idea is a big problem for atheism. Now – atheists are sincere people. I know many sincere atheists. And I know any sincere religious believers as well. But studies consistently show that atheism is a much rarer belief system amongst human beings than religious belief is. Or, if you like, atheism is much LESS popular than Christianity.

In a recent Pew Research study, the largest single religious group was found to be the Christian group, measured at 31.2% of the world’s population. Muslims are measured at 24.1%, yet their group is also the fastest growing religion in the world today. Hindus, Buddhists and the others make up 28.7%. The unaffiliated are measured at only 16% and growing much more slowly than most other religious groups. Only a percentage of that unaffiliated group will qualify as atheists.[5]

This data is fascinating, and it reflects badly for atheism on the “belief as a popularity contest” idea. Atheists accounts for a very small percentage of the world’s population. If belief is a popularity contest, the atheist should trade up for Christianity, a much more popular belief system!

What the atheist will usually tell you is that – it is the content of atheistic belief that matters, not the size of their group. Well – its no surprise that the Christian understanding is the same. In other words, the size of the group, and even the rate of growth, are not actually related to the truthfulness of anyone’s belief. That this video claims it is, is simply incorrect, and misrepresents atheists as well as religious believers.

There’s also a complaint being made by the secular humanist narrator in this video. He laments, there are so many religions out there, there are too many to pick the correct one. I’m much more likely based on the odds to pick the WRONG one, he claims! Well – if you are playing a game of “pin the tail on the donkey”, shutting your eyes, and picking a religion at random, then yes. That’s right. But I know no one who actually does this. This suggestion is absurd. I think that on the whole people think deeply about spiritual matters, atheists and religious devotees alike. There’s no random choice being made here. I think the narrator’s complaint turns out to be rhetoric that is pretty dismissive of the very atheistic belief system that is being espoused by the video.

Rather than complaining about the number of religions in the world, what the atheist must do according to Reeves is to marshal evidence and show that atheism is a better choice. Please convince me that atheism does a better job of explaining the world than Christianity does.[6]

Third – this objection actually contradicts with other claims made in the same video.

Think about the first objection I identified in the video. Previously, we noted that the narrator complained that religious belief was linked to one’s place of birth, and this makes religious belief to be accidental and of no real value. But if the narrator is correct that religion is a popularity contest, as this second objection supposes, then you would expect religious beliefs to be passed on to your descendants, and so you would expect to find religious belief to be linked to your birth place. In other words, objection 1 objects to the very grounds being assumed by the narrator in objection 2! Are you confused yet? This is very bad reasoning on the part of the secular humanist narrator.

Further, towards the end of the video, we hear that the correct way to form beliefs is through logical deduction and reasoning and scientific methods and testing of hypotheses. So – belief systems are not the popularity contest assumed by the narrator in this objection after all. And these objections are turning out to be contradictory – this points to poor quality arguments.

Fourth – the claims made by the narrator are inconsistent in various ways.

First – he claims all belief systems have airtight apologetics. But this statement makes no sense. All belief systems cannot all have airtight apologetics. Only the one single correct belief system can have this. The others will lack the strong and reasoned arguments that the airtight belief system has. Having studied various world religions including Christianity, I think Christianity has the best reasoned defence compared to all the others.

Second – he talks about all belief systems having infallible texts. Well – does atheism have infallible texts? That seems highly unlikely to me. All religions may claim to have infallible texts. The challenge is for the adherent to that religion to present well reasoned arguments that support this claim. I think the notion of an “infallible text” assumes that one of the religions is correct above all the others.

Summary

This objection turns out to misunderstand the nature of belief, and the measure of a belief’s truthfulness. Sincerity and believer group size are irrelevant to truthfulness. It also suggests people choose a random approach when coming to a set of worldview beliefs. This is an unreasonable – and unkind – view of people that should be strongly. challenged.

Next time, we will turn to the third objection. Christians are atheists too, just for one more god than the atheist.


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 04:04.

[4] Greg Reeves, A response to “Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe?” part 1 of 2, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://twobooksapproach.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-response-to-dear-believer-why-do-you.html.

[5] The Changing Global Religious Landscape, Pew Research Centre, posted April 5th, 2017, accessed 24th December, 2021, https://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape/.

[6] Reeves.

Dear Believer, You’re Beliefs are Only Due to Your Place of Birth

The striking video, “Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe?”[1], is often beautiful in its depiction of human cultures. You can watch it here – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.

The vibrancy and colours we are shown are mesmerizing, and the differences between the people and their religious practices are striking. It is also interesting that, while visually showing evidence of many different worldviews, the audio voiceover comes from yet another different worldview. You could describe the narrator’s worldview as – secular humanist.

This secular humanist voice assures us that the world religions are many and varied and all teach something different. We must abandon these superstitions; we must grow up, and learn how the world truly is so we can move forward in a positive direction. As Carl Sagan said, it is “far better to embrace a hard truth, than a reassuring fable.”[2]

So – how compelling is the secular humanist argument against “religion” in this video? More importantly, how effective is it in challenging the exclusive truth claims made by Christianity?

I can see six important arguments in this video, and I intend to respond to them one at a time. I think these are important arguments to address because they are very common today. And – judging by the comments section under the video – they resonate strongly with many people.

Here are the arguments:

  1. You’re only a religious devotee / believer because you were born into it.
  2. All devotees of their religion think their beliefs are the only correct ones. What are the odd that you, dear believer, are correct and everyone else is wrong?
  3. Religious believers are atheists too when it comes to other religions. They just believe in one more god than the atheist does.
  4. Religion is a crutch to make people feel better.
  5. It is arrogant to think you have the only right religion.
  6. It is arrogant to think humanity lives in a privileged place in the universe.

Objection 1 – You’re only a religious devotee / believer because you were born into it.

“Aren’t you suspicious that most people adopt the religion of the society in which they were born? Yet remain convinced they’ve found the one true faith? Did you know that most people choose it not for reasons, but because they were born into it? Can it be just an accident of geography?”[3]

I think the narrator is telling us that religious belief is accidental, it occurs because of events outside of a person’s control. We don’t control where we were born – right? If I was born in the US or Europe, I might become a Christian. If I was born in Saudi Arabia, I might be a Muslim. And so on.

In other words – he is saying the religious believer has no reasons for their belief.

Well – I would ask the narrator, how does he know that? Has he asked the people that are shown in the video if they have rational reasons for adopting their religious outlook? Given the lack of evidence for this discussion in the video, I suspect not. And so, this argument that “belief is always accidental” starts to look rather suspect.

Actually – this argument is deeply fallacious. It lacks the logical grounding required of every good and sound argument. I can see two fallacies here and there may be more.

First – this argument is self-refuting.

The claim is that since the believer’s religious outlook is a result of cultural conditioning, the religious beliefs themselves cannot therefore be true.

Can’t the same observation be made of any sort of secular humanist or non-believer? Perhaps you are an atheist because your parents were atheists. They did not go to church or introduce you to spiritual things. So – your atheism is a cultural thing. If that is the case, then by the video’s logic, there are therefore NO good reasons for your atheism.

The atheist might respond, “not at all. I’m an atheist based on evidence and good reasons.” Well, if that sort of evidenced belief is possible for you, then why is it impossible for the religious believer to have an evidence-based belief too?

Think of it this way – why must it be the case that only Christianity is cultural, and not atheism? This idea is clearly false.

The video says that, because a person’s beliefs are culturally conditioned, that the beliefs themselves cannot therefore be true. This applies equally to atheism, and so the argument is self-refuting.

Second – this argument commits the genetic fallacy.

Because the religious devotee was born into a belief system, that system is necessarily false. So, because the narrator finds the origin of one’s religious belief to be suspect, that belief cannot be true. This is a clear example of the genetic fallacy.

Genetic Fallacy – the alleged mistake of arguing that something is to be rejected because of its suspicious origins. More widely, any mistake of inferring something about the nature of some topic from a proposition about its origins.[4]

Why is this argument fallacious? Because it claims that just because a belief stems from one’s upbringing, this belief must be false. But that claim is simply false. Greg Reeves points out that someone’s religious belief MIGHT turn out to be untrue. But you would need to bring a valid argument to bear on that religious belief to ascertain that fact, not a fallacious argument like this one.[5]

This argument is weak because it seeks to discredit belief based on its source rather than evaluating that belief based on its merits. If there were no grounds for belief apart from the belief of your parents, then this argument would have strength to it. But that is absolutely not the case. There are many reasons that support Christian belief. It would be absurd for me to claim that I was a Christian simply because my parents were. Rather – I must explain why I have chosen to become and remain a Christian believer by giving reasons for my beliefs. This is what this blog site does.

Third – this argument backfires

It is increasingly the case that Christian belief has little to do with the culture that one is born into, because becoming a Christian involves the rejection of one’s parent’s beliefs. Christianity is growing in Africa, Asia and South America because believers are rejecting the traditional beliefs of their parents. Atheism, on the other hand, is growing in more wealthy nations.[6]

Perhaps it is atheism that is the true accident of birth right now. When one is born into a secular humanist society, atheism may turn out to be the default worldview. Maybe the atheist has their beliefs only because they were born into it?

For those who state that “atheism is not a belief,” then I would reply, “Really? I thought you believed it?”

In the next instalment, I’ll respond to objection 2 – every religious believer thinks they are in the only correct one, so what is the likelihood they are right?


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid., 8:55.

[3] Ibid., 01:51.

[4] Overview Genetic Fallacy, Oxford Reference website, Oxford University Press, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095847621.

[5] Greg Reeves, A response to “Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe?” part 1 of 2, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://twobooksapproach.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-response-to-dear-believer-why-do-you.html.

[6] The Age Gap in Religion Around the World, Pew Research Centre, posted June 13th, 2018, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.pewforum.org/2018/06/13/how-religious-commitment-varies-by-country-among-people-of-all-ages/.

NDE Experiences Complement Biblical Teaching

What happens when we die?

So far in this series I have explored some interesting evidence from Near Death Experiences (NDEs) that seem to suggest we go on – we do not cease to exist. I have argued a naturalistic dying brain theory fails to account for the OBE element of NDEs. Yet those who experience NDEs (NDErs) are most struck by their visit with beings in an unearthly world. Following her NDE, Mary Neale wrote a creed reminding her of what she learned; the truth of God’s promises in scripture, heaven exists, God is loving, daily divine support, and God’s purposes for her life.[1] I think the response of NDErs like Mary suggest NDEs complement the teaching of the Bible in three ways.

1) NDEs Do Not Supersede Scripture and the Christian Gospel, they Apply It

First, NDErs almost always experience a being of brilliant light in an otherworldly place who communicates overwhelming love and acceptance to them. This reminds me of Daniel’s vision of God. “His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him.”[2] Yet as the Psalmist reminds us, he also cares deeply for us because He, “created [our] inmost being … knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb.”[3] God loves us. The scripture says, seek him and you will find him.[4]

The Christian NDE critic (NDEc) may object to NDErs claims of overflowing love and acceptance. Perhaps it sounds to the NDEc like universalism, the heretical idea that the Atonement is unlimited, applies to all people, and that all men will eventually be reconciled to God.[5] I think this worry is unwarranted. First, because Jesus exhibited deep love in his life; he said, “as I have loved you, so you must love one another,”[6] and Paul taught faith, hope, and love are vital for the Christian, but “the greatest of these is love.”[7] Perhaps the NDE experience is a divine gift to let some people experience the Bible’s idea of this love. Second, the love experienced by NDErs does not supersede the Christian gospel, it seems to illustrate it. Some NDErs like Ian McCormack find themselves in distressing darkness during the NDE and explicitly call to Jesus to save them. Ian describes being drawn out of darkness by the brilliant, loving light.[8] This aligns with the New Testament claim Jesus is the light of the world whose followers will not stay in darkness.[9] It is also illustrative that Jesus came to seek and save the lost.[10] Third, this love is reminiscent of the biblical God because, as J. P. Moreland observes, it challenges human cultural assumptions of highest goods being success, ancestor worship, honour or purity.[11] Rather, the Bible teaches love for God and people is the highest good.

But who or what does the mystical loving light represent? If it really is the God of the Bible, wouldn’t God reveal himself rather than leaving his identity vague and open to interpretation? On the contrary, scripture often reports times when God intervenes in human affairs while leaving his identity ambiguous. God’s angels visit Lot in Sodom but hide their identity,[12] Joshua encounters the mysterious commander of God’s army,[13] and Jesus comes to Israel as the divine Messiah yet many fail to recognise him.[14] An unidentified being of light is not at odds with God’s behaviour in scripture. Rather, it is consistent with it.

2) NDEs Seem Consistent With the God of Scripture Who Knows What I Need

The second alignment of NDEs with scripture comes in the apparently tailored nature of NDE experiences, designed to draw the NDErs toward God. Scripture shows this is the way Jesus engaged with friends and critics. For example, when the rich man asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, the text says Jesus loved him and sensed a love for his wealth, so he challenged him to give it away and live a life loving and honouring God instead.[15] Likewise, in his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus saw through their piety observing they honoured God with their lips, yet their hearts were far from him.[16] NDEs seem consistent with God knowing our hearts, engaging with us in the way that will draw us towards himself.

The NDEc might object to the extra-biblical nature of these NDE experiences. Why should only some people have a special divine encounter prior to their ultimate death? Scripture seems to say it is better not to have this, because “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[17] Yet there is nothing in these words precluding a pre-mortem encounter with God. The apostle Paul may have had one of these experiences himself.[18] Surely if God opts to allow such a thing, he is free to do so. The NDEc may also object that Hebrews says we all die once, and then face the judgement.[19] Yet NDErs have not actually died yet, though they were close to their ultimate death. Consequently, because the NDErs remained alive, their NDE experience does not contradict the teaching of Hebrews.

3) NDErs Return With a Biblical Sense of God’s Purpose for People

The third alignment of scripture with NDErs experience is found in the sense of God’s plan for them involving hope, purpose, and beauty.[20] Scripture says our days are ordained by God before our birth,[21] and our lives matter because God has placed eternity in our hearts.[22] Further, God has a plan for us to, “do good works, which [He] prepared in advance for us to do.”[23] The NDErs returning sense of divine purpose seems aligned with God’s promises. Yet scripture also teaches the gospel message, God’s plan to save humanity. Do NDErs return with a new appreciation of this? Ian McCormack reportedly did, being instructed by God to “see things in a new light.”[24] A specially arranged, direct encounter with the loving God, and a sense of God’s purpose in one’s life, has transformed NDErs like McCormack to love people and seek to serve them. The gospel is about God welcoming us home. NDErs who experience this “being of light describe a love … [running] towards them [to] embrace them, value them … simply want[ing] them home.”[25] Perhaps NDErs experience the gospel more vividly than most. Further, the minority of hellish NDE experiences reported in Long’s study suggests while God wants no one to be lost, the possibility remains that those rejecting God’s love will spend their afterlife separated from God. NDEs therefore remain consistent with scripture’s teaching.

Conclusion

In this series, we have found that:

  • we found here and here that dying brain hypotheses do not account for the NDErs evidence
  • NDEs seem to be somewhat objective because sometimes they are shared by the living
  • Neuroscience gives reason to think that the human mind is only correlated to the brain, and can function when the brain is virtually absent, so its no great leap to suppose mind can exist apart from brain

Further – NDEs are consistent with the Bible’s teaching. We haven’t had time to discuss the fact that those of other religious traditions return from an NDE with their interpretation of a solidly Christian picture of the afterlife, rather than any other religious outlook.[26]

NDEs are common, and as we assess an NDErs account, we must remain open to the possibility that they have engaged in a supernatural circumstance which complements the Bible’s teaching. Taking this willing perspective on NDEs may encourage Christian believers in their hope of heaven, and it may challenge unbelievers to finally choose to believe in Jesus and so orient themselves toward an eternity with Him.


[1] Mary Neale, “Seven Lessons from Heaven,” quoted in Moreland, 214.

[2] Daniel 7:9-10, NIV.

[3] Psalm 139:13, NIV.

[4] I Chronicles 28:9, NIV.

[5] J. R. Root, “Universalism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1232.

[6] John 13:34, NIV.

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV.

[8] John Burke, Imagine Heaven Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 138.

[9] John 8:12.

[10] Luke 19:10.

[11] J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 217.

[12] Genesis 19.

[13] Joshua 5:13-15.

[14] Moreland, 221.

[15] Matthew 10:17 – 22.

[16] Mark 7:7.

[17] John 20:29.

[18] 2 Corinthians 12:2.

[19] Hebrews 9:27.

[20] Moreland, 213.

[21] Psalm 139:16.

[22] Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[23] Ephesians 2:10.

[24] Burke, 263.

[25] Burke, 79.

[26] John Burke, Imagine Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 141.

Troubling Brain Scans and NDEs

What happens when we die?

We’ve been talking in this series about the evidence for Near Death Experiences (NDEs). This evidence suggests people have retained vivid conscious awareness following clinical death, and they have gone to another place.

For biological naturalists, this is a hard claim to take seriously. The naturalist will typically assert that we are our brains. “Conscious states are entirely caused by lower level neurobiological processes in the brain.”[1] Our minds are an emergent property that comes from the physical stuff of the brain, and so when the brain ceases functioning, we cease to exist.

This view of the brain is very common. But that does not mean it is correct. Many people can believe something that later turned out to be false. Right? For centuries, people thought life emerged spontaneously; dust created fleas, rotting meat made maggots, and wheat in a dark place led to mice. It took scientists like Louis Pasteur to show that spontaneous generation was a commonly held, but false belief. Is it possible that the naturalist belief that we are our brains is a contemporary common, false belief also?

The evidence from NDEs argues against the naturalist understanding of mind and brain. If I go somewhere else after death, I cannot be my brain, because my brain has ceased to function. In fact – if my mind is non-physical but related to my brain, and if my mind can exist without my brain, then the claims of NDEs are probably what we would expect. And in this blog series, we have looked at just a few examples from the volumes of NDE accounts that exist.

But how would we be able to tell if our minds were separate from our brains? In our normal experience, don’t we engage with conscious beings who have brains?

Yes – of course. But even if I have only engaged with conscious beings with brains, that does not mean consciousness is GENERATED BY those people’s brains. It could also be that their conscious mind is simply closely CORRELATED TO their brain at this time. Further, there are medical cases of Hydrocephalus and Hydranencephaly that may suggest people do engage with conscious human subjects who have severely degraded, and even absent brain hemispheres. This supports the idea that mind is not created by brain, rather it is correlated to it.

Evidence from Hydrocephalus

Doctors have encountered instances where conscious people lack a normal, functioning brain. Hydrocephalus is a condition where fluid builds up in the skull and puts pressure on the brain tissue, causing damage to it and hindering personal development. In half of the most severe cases, the patient was mentally challenged. Michael Jones notes this is what we would expect if biological naturalism was right and – we are our brains. However, the other 50% of the severest cases of Hydrocephalus had IQs over 100 and functioned properly.[2]

Brain Scan Showing Hydrocephalus

Neurologist John Lorber has studied hundreds of cases of Hydrocephalus. In one case, he talks about a university student with an IQ of 126, a first-class honours degree in mathematics, and an active social life. Yet he had virtually no brain, just a thin layer of mantle a millimetre or so thick. His skull was mainly filled with cerebrospinal fluid.[3] Early onset Hydrocephalus in children has also been studied and it does not lead to degraded development in every case because some patients develop above average intelligence despite drastically reduced brain mantle volume.[4] Lorber has systematically studied a remarkable set of accounts that litter the medical literature and go back a long way.[5] Jones observes that these cases are anomalies if materialist views of the brain are true. Yet if it is right that consciousness is only correlated to the brain, they would be somewhat expected.[6]

Evidence from Hydranencephaly

Hydranencephaly as an even more severe condition involving cases where brain hemispheres do not develop at all and are absent. These patients are assumed to exist in a vegetative state because they lack the brain areas that supposedly produce consciousness.

Brain Scan Showing Hydranencephaly

Yet studies have been done on children suffering from Hydranencephaly who exhibit traits of consciousness. In some cases, they express themselves, display evidence of the experience of feelings like pleasure and joy, and they smile and laugh.[7] They are awake and responsive, can distinguish voices, and do not appear in a vegetative state. The British Medical Journal observes Hydranencephaly usually presents with severely delayed milestones during early childhood.[8] What is fascinating however is that development is delayed, not precluded due to a lack of evident brain hemispheres. Children without brains are slower to develop, but they do develop. One boy lived for many years and was able to interact with his family and his environment even though medically speaking there was no brain present in his skull.[9] Again, this situation is anomalous if the brain generates the mind. But if mind and brain are merely correlated, we would probably expect cases like this to sometimes occur.

Conclusion

This blog series has assessed some of the evidence for NDE’s which suggest that people have left their bodies at certain times, often close to or in a state of flat line clinical death, before returning from that state afterwards. Skeptics will argue that because the human mind and the brain are essentially the same thing, this clearly is a physical phenomenon, the dying brain. Yet we have seen why that conclusion does not satisfy the available evidence.

In this blog, we have summarised medical cases of Hydrocephalus and Hydranencephaly that suggest that human consciousness is not necessarily dependent on a complete brain anyway. If we are resistant to NDEs because of a biological naturalist view of personhood and the brain, I would suggest in the light of these cases, we need to rethink our position. If people can be conscious without a complete brain, then surely it is at least possible that human consciousness can go on once the physical body has died.

What about the theological implications of this? Are NDE claims at odds with the Bible’s teaching about life after death? Do they sound more mystical than Christian? We will pick up that important subject in the next instalment.


[1] John R. Searle, Mind A Brief Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 79.

[2] Near Death Experiences: Irreducible Mind (Part 5), Inspiring Philosophy, accessed 4th December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnTVPCwPjhI.

[3] Lewin, R, “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?” Science, vol. 210, no. 4475, 19080, pp. 1232-1234.

[4] Berker, D. E., Goldstein, D. G., Larber, J. Priestly, D. B. and Smith, D. A. (1992), “Reciprocal neurological developments of twins discordant for hydrocephalus,” Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 34: 623-632, doi:10.1111/j.1469-8749.1992.tb11493x

[5] Lewin.

[6] Inspiring Philosophy.

[7] Aleman, Barb & Merker, Bjorn. (2014), “Consciousness without cortex: A hydranencephaly family survey,” Acta paediatrica (Oslo, Normway : 1992), 103. 10.1111/apa.12718.

[8] Hydranencephaly: a rare cause of delayed developmental milestones, BMJ Case Reports, published 2013,  accessed 4th December, 2021, https://casereports.bmj.com/content/2013/bcr-2013-009589.full.

[9] Bill Baskervill, Boy Born Without Brain Proves Doctors Wrong, AP News, 13th July, 1989, accessed 4th December, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/08099b98348a930469a232b9250f1509.

Shared Near-Death Experiences

People who experience near-death experiences (NDErs) describe a process where they apparently leave their body and observe their surroundings externally – an out-of-body experience (OBE). But is this an objectively real event? There have been many reports of this down through the ages. Some of them have even involved situations where the NDErs come back from their experience with information that they should not have.

I described two of these in my previous blog.

  • a patient understanding medical procedures.
  • a victim of attempted murder reporting details of her attacker’s escape while unconscious on the ground.

These are interesting because they are evidential. They go beyond just claims of an NDE. They allow us to argue that the event actually did happen because we have confirmatory evidence that it happened.

But surely If NDEs were real, it would be great if we could have evidential cases that involved multiple witnesses who could agree what happened. If we had multiple witnesses, then surely that would make a strong case that NDEs are objectively real events, rather than personal brain events or hallucinations. There are two types of NDE that make this strong case for us.

Shared NDEs

Here, a healthy person sees the NDErs transition out of their body and observes other aspects of the NDE experience. On return, the NDErs and the witness confirm what they both experienced. The experience therefore cannot be purely subjective because two people experienced it.

Jan Price was out walking with her husband in 1993 when she was bitten by a dog and began to feel very ill.[1] They called the paramedics when they returned home. Jan was placed on a gurney by the paramedics, and while on it she had a cardiac arrest that was described by the ambulance crew as almost fatal. It lasted 4 minutes.

While one paramedic was applying CPR and the other was preparing the paddles to shock Jan’s heart, her husband John saw her slowly rise out of her body. She did not look like an apparition, she was fully fleshed, wearing a beautiful green gown. Jan later reported that she had an OBE at that same moment. She was later able to describe the resuscitation procedure used on her by the medics.

John also recounts that during the NDE, their dog Maggi who had died three weeks before suddenly appeared beside the gurney and looked at him. John was shocked. Jan’s description matches. She talked about moving to another space where Maggi appeared before her. The dog appeared as she did when in physical form, only younger and more vital. She was as real to see and touch as she had been in the physical realm. Jan and Maggie walked for a while in these different surroundings and talked together mind to mind. “Without spoken words we shared memories and deep feelings…my heart overflowed with gratitude for the opportunity to have this reunion – and see my loved one so joyously, vibrantly alive in what can truly be called paradise.”[2]

On her return, Jan also discussed aspects of the paramedic’s activity that she could not have seen from her body’s prone position during resuscitation, but could see from an elevated OBE position. One paramedic concluded, “Jan had an out-of-body experience, because she gave us too much information that she could not give us. Where her husband was standing, what I was doing.”[3]

In a shared NDE like the one John and Jan experienced, a second person objectively observes the same things that NDErs experience, particularly the observation that the NDEr is a localized, nonmaterial entity separated from the physical body.

Apparitional NDEs

In this class of NDE, the NDErs visit and communicate with another living person while out of the body, and both accounts are subsequently verified as consistent.

Critical care physician Doctor Laurin Bellg describes one such case that occurred in one of her patients in 2011.[4] She shared this case with the audience of a professional seminar at The Monroe Institute (TMI) in 2014. You can watch the recording of her talk on Youtube.[5] She was treating a patient who was dying of cancer, gravely ill, yet still conscious and able to clearly engage with family members and hospital staff. This lady was tragically estranged from her son because of things he had done 25 years previously that had damaged the family. Even during her terminal illness, the woman felt great animosity to her son.

One particular day, the son was sitting in a bar which was near the hospital. He was drinking, sad about the imminent death of his mother, regretful at the mistakes he made. He desperately wanted to reconnect with his mom before she died.[6] He looks up to suddenly see his mother coming into the crowded bar. Immediately he feels confused. She’s sick in bed, so how can she be here? But he’s also elated at the prospect of meeting with her, so he stands up, intending to greet her. His vision is blocked for a moment by patrons of the bar, and when he can see the door again, his mother is gone.

Dr. Bellg reports the dying woman is asleep in her hospital bed at this time. She wakes up later that same afternoon. Her daughter is sitting with her at her bedside, and the women says to her daughter, “I had the strangest dream. I saw my son in a bar. He got up and started to come to me. I got scared and woke up.”[7] Later that evening, the daughter spoke separately to her brother who told her about sitting in the bar that afternoon and seeing his mother arrive, and then disappear. The daughter was the one who put the pieces of this surprising event together and recounted it to Dr Bellg, who later spoke separately to the dying woman and the son and confirmed these details. Sadly, the dying woman and her son did not reconcile before her death.

In her presentation, Bellg recounts the details and notes that the bar involved is across the road from the hospital. She says there’s no plausible way the dying women could get out of her bed. Yet it is so surprising that:

  • the dying woman described walking towards her son, seeing him crying, then seeing him stand up.
  • the son described actually seeing him mom, it seemed to him she was physically there. He describes getting up, and starting to walk towards her.

Like the shared NDE, the apparitional NDE shows that this is not merely a subjective experience perceived by a dying individual. It is also an event perceived objectively by a healthy person, and the two perceptions match. This is compelling evidence for the reality of NDEs.

But what if I simply cannot believe NDEs are real events?

Many people struggle with the idea of NDEs because they cannot get past the assumption that they are their body. Their mind and their brain is essentially the same thing, so there is no self or soul to leave one’s body. This naturalistic approach to understanding the mind-brain problem is an assumption. Surprisingly, it is challenged by medical science. And I will talk about that in my next blog.


[1] Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven, Rudolf H. Smit, The Self Does Not Die, (Durham: IANDS, 2016), kindle edition, loc 109 – 112.

[2] Ibid., 110.

[3] Ibid., 111.

[4] Ibid., 256.

[5] Patient NDEs in the ICU, Laurin Bellg, critical care physician, at TMI Professional Seminar 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdScjvc14xE, at 31:08.

[6] Ibid., 163.

[7] Ibid., 256.