Were there Lost Christianities?

It’s a bit of a long one, this time!

So, maybe the best thing is to just pick one or two headings that jump out at you? This book has had such a negative impact on the marketplace of ideas, I wanted to respond to it as thoroughly as I could. These ideas undercut Christianity and the authority of the New Testament (“authority? lol”, says the internet) in a fundamental way, because it stops us asking whether the Bible is true. It changes the question to, “Why are Christians so gullible to believe a book that is simply the result of ecclesiastical power-plays?”

Now – I enjoyed reading Bart Ehrman’s book, and his writing style appeals to me. Yet his central claims must be challenged. Bart says that Christianity is not the result of:

  • Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death and resurrection
  • the life and writings of his immediate circle (the apostles)
  • the formation of the church based on apostolic witness

Rather, Christianity is the result of the life of Jesus, followed by centuries of battles between equal and opposing groups, for a final set of Christian beliefs that were established long after the fact. I think there are good reasons to reject Ehrman’s claims.

 

1 – Ehrman’s “Text Battles”

Ehrman uses the term “proto-orthodox” to refer to the “winners” of his supposed first century battle for the Christian religion. He says, “we will consider how proto-orthodox Christians engaged in these internecine battles which eventually led to their victory.”[1] The proto-orthodox, to Ehrman, eventually became the Christianity of today.

In using this term, Ehrman neatly imposes an unevidenced assumption into his book. He sets up the idea of various Christian groups in the first century that were all on the same footing and equally valid. Yet they all believed different things. Now, only one of these groups could survive, so they duked it out in a kind of “theological, literary survival of the fittest” contest. Ehrman assumes this without adequately demonstrating the existence of multiple, equally footed first century Christian groups.

Ehrman is popularising an old idea from Bauer in the early 20th century which has since been discredited by the majority of scholars. Bauer assumed there were four centres of Christianity in Asia Minor, Egypt, Edessa and Rome and they were centres of various beliefs like Gnosticism, Docetism and Marcionism. There are many problems here.

  • like all good conspiracy theories, it is an argument from silence, imposing conjecture into the first century.
  • Bauer imported second-century data into the first-century to manufacture his data.
  • Bauer is viewed as having failed to consider the evidence that orthodoxy could have been widespread, while heresies could have existed in small pockets.
  • Bauer fails to consider the possibility that theological standard control could have existed in the first-century church.[2]

Besides, the power was found in the message of the Christian Gospel, not a particular people group. Yes, in Paul’s letters we read him challenging Judaizers (Christians need to follow Judaism) and Gnostic ideas (secret knowledge, material world bad). But these read like localized and fragmented people who were infiltrating the established churches. These don’t appear to be equally valid Christian sects in their own right. Yet some common ideas did exist among these heresies.[3]

In appealing to Bauer’s old thesis, Ehrman fundamentally misleads his audience.

 

2 – Forgery of Sacred Texts

Ehrman claims that some of the New Testament books were forged, written by other people posing as the Jesus’ apostles, so that people would accept their beliefs as true. He states, “forged documents in the names of the apostles … provide[d] authorization for their own point of view, falsified writings … The battle for converts was … the battle over texts, and the proto-orthodox party won the former battle by winning the latter.”[4]

First, this assumption ignores the evidence of the “4 S’s” the set the trajectory of Christian orthodoxy. Think of these as like an early guidance system for Christianity prior to the writing of any books that eventually comprised the New Testament. They challenge Ehrman’s idea that different groups and different beliefs battled for converts, showing there was a core of shared Christian belief before the texts were written down.

  • “Scripture” was the Christian baseline; assuming continuity with the original Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) meant they were rooted in Jewish monotheism.
  • The original Christian doctrines were “Summarised” and recited orally by the church, then passed on in written form.[5]
  • The church “Sang” theology, and the Old Covenant Yahweh themes were applied to Christ in these hymns.[6]
  • Fourthly, the “Sacrament” of communion, practiced regularly by the church, acted out core Christian theology.

Second, Christianity was literary and bookish from the start. These people don’t fit the caricature of dumb goat herders. Christianity was initially rooted in Judaism where all young boys learned to recite the Torah from an early age. As such, there would have been quality control. Yes, forgeries existed in the ancient world, but they were rejected when discovered. Forgeries did occur among early Christian writings, the Gospel of Peter is an example, but they were rejected when discovered. We have no good reasons to assume forgeries made it into the New Testament. Again, Ehrman is importing an idea into his book that serves his thesis, but does not reflect the evidence. Also, note that that authorship of the four Gospels was never in question by the earliest witnesses, although some discussion exists over which “John” wrote that gospel.[7]

 

3 – Is the Canon a Later Thing?

Ehrman suggests that the reason the New Testament canon had to be collected, was so that different second century heresies could be challenged, “prophetic movements such as Montanism from within proto-orthodox circles and opposition to heretical forces outside these circles.”[8] And the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century was the ultimate victory of proto-orthodoxy. They have won the battle of the texts!

While it is true the emerging canonical texts helped maintain orthodox belief, I think this idea misrepresents the culture that gave birth to Christianity. I would suggest the evidence shows that, rather than being imposed later as a final victory of proto-orthodoxy, the canon emerged gradually in the second half of the first century. The letters of Paul, and the later Gospels, were copied and circulated amongst the Christian church, respected as they were written by, or recording the views of an apostolic source. The canon emerged early and naturally, and Ehrman’s view starts from mistaken assumptions:

  • The beliefs of the first-century Christians was steeped in Judaism. They lived in the second temple period, and were waiting for God to finish the story we read in our Old Testament. They believed Jesus of Nazareth completed the story.
  • The first Christians believed Jesus had established a new covenant. Covenants were an ancient near eastern form of agreement that is reflected in the original Hebrew scriptures. The Jewish Christians expected a new covenant to be accompanied by texts from the beginning.
  • They believed the apostles were authorized to write the new covenant text.

Given this cultural, it was natural for the Christians to recognise an emerging canon from the start.[9]

 

4 – Was there Diversity and Disagreement Over Christianity?

Was there diversity in early Christianity? Of course there were different styles, and different ideas that some people had that were not in line with the established and early Christian core. Just because this diversity exists, this proves nothing. It certainly doesn’t prove Ehrman’s thesis that everyone had different ideas about what Christianity was. Just because people disagree on a question, this does not mean there is not one answer to that question.

Was there disagreement over what went into the New Testament canon? Yes. But to suggest there was fundamental disagreement over all the books is misleading. Some of the books were controversial, the core books and letters were not and had been used and respected by the church from the beginning.

 

5 – Can History Be Written By the Winners?

Ehrman has setup a non-evidenced “battle of the texts”, a fight for what Christianity would become. And so, having started there, it is natural for him to state that the final New Testament is an untrustworthy text from the winning, proto-orthodox group. “You can never rely on an enemy’s reports for a fair and disinterested presentation.”[10]

But Ehrman sets up an impossible demand on the New testament authors here. The writers were clearly passionate people, you can see that in the text. And this passion is what Ehrman uses to disqualify them. But aren’t Ehrman’s books and lectures and debates also undertaken with his passionate belief, and so personal bias? Why bother saying anything otherwise? Clearly, Ehrman believes he is able to communicate particular ideas in a passionate way. So what evidence does he have that the New Testament are unable to do the same? Or is Ehrman the only one we can trust to passionately tell the truth? No, clearly, “all writers are biased, including Ehrman!”[11] To require neutrality is an unreasonable standard to apply to everyone.

It is unfair of Ehrman, and others, to make the starting assumption that the New Testament writers hold strong convictions, and this necessarily means they are also dishonest. The earliest faith in Jesus comes from eyewitnesses with a “vantage point,” but this fact does not “necessarily impugn the credibility of the … writers.”[12] To assume that it does leads to a bottomless regress of suspicion on all written communication, including Ehrman’s.

[1] Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 7.

[2] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010),, 41-68, summarised.

[3] Kostenberger, 99.

[4] Ehrman, 180.

[5] 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is an example of an early Christian summary.

[6] Philippians 2:9-11.

[7] Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 76 – 91, summarised.

[8] Ehrman, 238.

[9] Morrow, 59 – 63, summarised.

[10] Ehrman, 103.

[11] Kostenberger, 73.

[12] Kostenberger, 74.

Replicants and Life Without God

Joi-Agent-K

It didn’t make much dollar at the box office. And neither did its predecessor. There are complaints that its too long. But then people complained the original was too slow.

Blade Runner 2049 is not short of critics…and plain old-fashioned apathy amongst the movie going public.

 

Full disclosure – I went to see this movie FOUR times at the cinema. Why? Because box office and buzz are not always good measures of an important movie. Sometimes the important movies come and go unnoticed…because their significance isn’t generally recognised. (e.g. Blade Runner…The Shawshank Redemption…etc)

 

So – why do I think the sequel to the original Blade Runner movie is significant? There are many reasons. I’m going to put my finger on one. And I will give some PLOT SPOILERS in the process.

 

Spoiler-Alert

 

 

Still here? Good.

 

The original Blade Runner focussed its narrative on REPLICANTS, artificial humans. Blade Runner 2049 continues this narrative. Only more so. In fact, the film’s protagonist – Agent K – is himself a replicant – there’s no mystery here…its revealed within the opening minutes of the movie. The story does this…partly because the healthy humans in this universe live in the off-world colonies…and this story is set on earth. But the deeper reason is because replicants help us – the viewing audience – understand ourselves.

What are replicants? They are sophisticated androids that are virtually indistinguishable from human beings. You’ve got to know what you’re looking for to spot a replicant. That’s why skilled Blade Runner units are required to track down the replicants of interest in society. It’s also why we in the audience can find ourselves empathising with these characters and their experiences.

I’ll go further than that. We don’t just empathise with the replicants. We recognize ourselves in them – not just in the choices they make, but in their ontology – what makes them “them”.

Replicants are material constructs…sophisticated biological mechanisms that serve a purpose amongst other sophisticated biological mechanisms. Yet they long to be more. Some long to live longer. Others long for their “lives” to be filled with deeper significance in fulfilling relationships.

Is this any different from the way so many people live their lives today?

People’s world view often has no place for God. Their naturalistic assumption is they are only physical, complex biological computers lacking an essence or soul. There were constructed in line with the physical laws laid down in our Universe. But they don’t transcend them in any way. This life is all there is. There’s no purpose or significance beyond it. Craig puts his finger on the inevitable consequences of such a world view:

“There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.”[1]

That’s why I find Blade Runner 2049 such a profoundly moving experience to watch. Because it shows “people” coming to terms with the reality of a meaningless, absurd life. And I think so many of us in the real world today are facing that same dark and hopeless discovery.

 

Longing for Meaningful Relationships:

Agent K’s treasures his girlfriend, Joi. She too is an artificial person. Yet she’s not physical – just a portable hologram that speaks encouraging and loving words to him. Perhaps there’s more to Joi because we see her devotion to K in her desire to experience a physical relationship with him. And also – to name K. There’s nothing so intimate with another person – than to share a special name. She names him Joe.

K tragically loses his precious Joi, that meaningful relationship comes to an abrupt end. In one truly heart-breaking moment, while reflecting on his loss, K watches an advert selling the Joi hologram product to prospective customers. And he suddenly realises that Joi’s special name for him – Joe – is just simply part of the standard package. All the Joi’s do it. There’s nothing special or unique after all about his Joi, and also his time with her because in reality he was simply using a mass produced product.

Here’s the reality for us today – if we view people as biological products – then I don’t think there’s any ultimate meaning to our existence. No ultimate meaning in relationships with other products. We just exist – interact. Anything that does occur – might seem important at the time. But because reality has no meaning – these experiences will therefore also have no ultimate meaning.

Yet there’s a drama in Blade Runner 2049…that mirrors the real world. K intuitively knows there’s more to it than that. K gives voice to the inner sense within us – the audience – that human beings are MORE than just biological products. We are people with potential – our lives have meaning – and that’s why we spend our lives looking for meaning. Outrage builds within us…no, there is more than this. I am more valuable than that!

 

Longing for a Purpose Greater than Ourselves:

The movie presents some grand and overarching concepts. Yet its final act suddenly narrows in and focusses down on a very personal mission.

Agent K tracks down Rick Deckard, who had been in exile since the events of the original movie. K finds an opportunity to achieve a bigger more important purpose with the rest of his “life”. Deckard has a child that he’s never met and known. Agent K decides he’s going to allow Deckard to finally meet and know his child…to build the real and meaningful relationship with them that he’s been longing for himself.

K essentially sacrifices his life – to allow Deckard to know his child. In a scene poignantly reminiscent of Rutger Hauer’s “Tears in Rain,” K saves and lifts Deckard to safety. But not just safety…to meaning and a future with the child he’s never met.

The significance of this task is unquestioned by K. That’s probably one reason why he’s willing to die to achieve it. In his last moments…do we see him praying in the snow? Or are his lips just moving as his system breaks down?

As an audience – we’re left reflecting on K’s selfless, heroic act. And we know that the outcome is worth the sacrifice. We intuitively know that there are some things in the world that are truly noble, some purposes that are greater than us. Reuniting families, restoring broken relationships is one of them.

 

Meaning and Purpose Because there’s a God:

In his press tour, I heard Harrison Ford describe the Blade Runner 2049 story as, “the triumph of the human spirit.” Personally, I’m more struck by its rage against the meaningless…the sense that ultimate value and meaning does exist in the universe, even though life seems to try and convince us otherwise.

And if that’s true – and I think it is – it’s only because there’s a transcendent person who is responsible for everything, who gives it meaning. A loving God who crafted us, who chooses to give the ultimate purpose and meaning that transcends our seemingly absurd lives.

I’d suggest that – if there are resonances within us that question, and rage against the seeming meaningless and absurdities of life…its because actually life isn’t absurd. There is a God with a purpose and plan for our own good. We aren’t biological products. We’re much loved children.

 

[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, (), 72.

Christianity Causes CONFLICT?

blood handsOften I hear people reject Christianity because of the violence that Christians have wrought throughout human history.

 

But what if conflict is not actually caused by “religion” at all? People start wars (hello President Trump and Kim Jong-un). Violence is a human problem that inflicts both the religious and the irreligious.

 

My focus in this blog…is specifically Christianity. Why? Because I’m a Christian. And because I view it as a unique faith system. Only Christianity reveals the God who is seeking people out personally to save them. I won’t speak for other religious belief systems…I will speak for Christianity.

 

At the outset, I’m convinced that no violence is acceptable for a Christian. I am NOT going to attempt to justify or defend past atrocities committed by Christians. I will say that I think Christian people suffer the same tendency TOWARDS violence as other human beings. We all have hearts that need changing. BUT – there is hope.

 

What’s my argument proposing that conflict is not particularly caused by Christianity?

First – Christianity’s Critics Exaggerate Past Christian Violence

Christianity’s critics exaggerate the past in order to misrepresent the behaviour of violent, misguided Christians from the past.

John Dickson has researched two sad but specific examples of Christian violence over the last 600 years.

1 The Spanish Inquisition (no one expects the Spanish Inquisition)

Setup to coerce people into Catholicism, it began in the 15th century and lasted for 350 years. It is commonly claimed that hundreds of thousands of heretics were killed during this period. The facts paint a different picture.

“in its 350-year history, the Spanish Inquisition probably killed around 6,000 people. That comes out at eighteen deaths a year.”[1]

That’s 18 deaths a year too many…I agree! But a lot less than the hundreds of thousands that are often claimed.

2 The Crusades

A popular notion blames the crusades during the Middle Ages on the Christian church. Someone who was alive around that time – Martin Luther – had this to say about that notion:

“there are scarcely five Christians in such an army, and perhaps there are worse people in the eyes of God in that army than are the Turks; and yet they all want to bear the name of Christ.”[2]

In other words, the exaggeration here is on the level of genuine, believing Christians who were actually involved in this violence.

3 The Northern Ireland Troubles

This thirty year conflict, beginning in 1968, was sectarian and claimed the lives of less than 4,000 people…though many more were injured physically and psychologically over this time. The BBC history website reports, “During the Troubles, the scale of the killings perpetrated by all sides – republican and loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces – eventually exceeded 3,600.”[3]

Having personally lived through this time, and known people caught up in it, it was terrible in so many senses. And 133 deaths a year were too many.

 

 

Second – Secular Conflict is Worse than Religious Violence Yet this Fact is Downplayed

Let’s bring a bit of perspective here.

1 The French Revolution

The secular French Revolution between September 1793 and July 1794 happened in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity.

“As many people were executed…in a single year of the Revolution…as were killed in the entire three decades of the [Northern Ireland] ‘troubles’”[4].

The French Revolution was a bloodbath.

 

2 Secular 20th Century Wars

World War 1 (the war to end all wars) caused an estimated 8,000,000 deaths.

World War 2 was much worse; 35,000,000 deaths.

Joseph Stalin’s openly atheistic regime killed at least 20,000,000 people. This means more people died under Stalin each and every week…than died as a result of the entire 350 year history of the Spanish Inquisition.

Atheist Paul Pot and his communist Khmer Rouge, “led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, about 1.5 million Cambodians out of a total population of 7 to 8 million died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork. Some estimates place the death toll even higher. One detention centre, S-21, was so notorious that only seven of the roughly 20,000 people imprisoned there are known to have survived.”[5]

 

I would suggest that the results of purely secular conflicts are downplayed because they are so much MORE bloodthirsty than the historical religious ones.

 

Third – Violence is Not Particular to Christianity. It is a common Human Problem

These figures are both tragic and mind boggling. But they paint an obvious picture.

BOTH religion and irreligion can inspire violence. Yet the irreligious violence tends to be MUCH MORE SEVERE than the violence from Christians.

Christian violence is a sad historical fact. So is secular violence – which is much worse than the Christian violence.

This points to my thesis that – I don’t think conflict is particularly caused by Christianity. Violence is a human problem; we all are affected.  The problem is the human heart….not Christianity or Christian belief.

 

 

 

YET – there is STILL HOPE for Humankind

The hope will not appear if mankind succeeds in stamping out Christianity (as some have suggested). The hope comes when we become more true to the life and teachings of Jesus. Why?

Imagine a committed atheist who is convinced that there’s no God and we live in a cold merciless universe… the product of the blind forces of physics..

If I [as a Christian] try to put myself in that position, then I make an interesting observation. As Bertrand Russell once pointed out, the atheist’s decision to love is nothing more than a personal preference. Surely because there is no God, and therefore no ultimate accountability for our actions, then ANY kind of life is logically compatible with the atheist worldview?

While the atheist can live how he pleases, no such free choice lies before the Christian. We are commanded to love like Jesus loves. “when Christians love, they do so in full accordance with their worldview that begins with the love of God and the inherent value of his much loved creatures.”[6] A hate filled Christian is indeed a historical fact…but it is also a clear logical DEFIANCE of the Christian worldview. A hate filled Christian makes no logical sense.

 

So where is the hope I referred to earlier?

Christianity doesn’t provoke war; it brings peace to all people. Eternal peace between us and God.

The solution for violent Christianity is REAL Christianity.

The solution for a violent world is not no religion…where love is logically nothing more than a lifestyle choice. The solution is REAL Christianity; loving and following Jesus Christ in a fuller and more devoted way.

 

“And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second is equally important: Love your neighbour as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” – Jesus Christ (Mark 12:30-31, NLT)

 

“The cure is not less religion, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more religion…The more Christian faith matters to its adherents as faith and the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and with clear cognitive and moral content, the better off we will be.”            – Miroslav Volf (Christian theologian)

 

“But why so many words when I can say it in one sentence, and in a sentence very appropriate for a Jew. Honour your master, Jesus Christ, not only in words and songs but, rather, foremost in your deeds.” – Albert Einstein (deist)

[1] John Dickson, Life of Jesus, Zondervan, 68.

[2] Martin Luther, On War Against the Turk, available from http://www.lutherdansk.dk/On%20war%20against%20Islamic%20reign%20of%20terror/On%20war%20against%20Islamic%20reign%20of%20terror1.htm, accessed 4th January 2018.

[3] BBC History, “The Troubles 1968 – 1998”, BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/troubles, accessed May 5th 2015.

[4] John Dickson, 69.

[5] History, Pol Pot, History, http://www.history.com/topics/pol-pot, accessed May 5th 2015.

[6] John Dickson, 70.

RESPONDblogs Is Jesus’ Resurrection Supported by the Accounts of Apostolic Martyrdom?

the fate of the apostles

Modern Christians often point to the martyrdom of the apostles to support the New Testament claim that Jesus rose from the dead. If he didn’t, and his resurrection was a hoax or an honest mistake, why did these men go to their deaths proclaiming the significance of this event? Who would die for a lie they themselves concocted? Further, why would this group of men die for an honest mistake, when recanting this belief would lead them home to their families? Surely the truth of Jesus’ resurrection is the answer?

Professor Candida Moss is sceptical of claims that the early Church was persecuted. She dismisses Tacitus’s account of Neronian persecution, doubting the “Christians were well known and disliked enough that Nero could single them out as scapegoats.”[1] Further, later Christian martyr stories read like fictions written to emulate Greek stories; she suggests that no surviving apostolic martyrdom accounts “can be dated any earlier than the second century,”[2] so are like these later Christian martyr fictions. Worse, there’s no evidence in these accounts the Apostles were given the opportunity to recant; “this is the key element that’s missing if we’re to argue that they died for Christ.”[3] How do we know that they weren’t just executed for social offences, like disturbing the peace?[4]

McDowell strongly challenges Moss’s hermeneutic of suspicion, observing:

1 – Not all apostolic martyrdom accounts are reported in legendary documents.

Josephus reports the martyrdom of James, and Clement of Rome accounts for Peter and Paul’s deaths;[5] both are dated from the first century and lack embellishment.

2 – The twelve apostles were eyewitnesses of Christ’s resurrection appearances.

The New Testament accounts define an apostle as someone who had been with Christ from his baptism to his ascension,[6] so personally witnessed a resurrection appearance. This is consistent with ancient Greco-Roman culture, where “best evidence was believed to come from eyewitnesses, and reports further removed from the events were considered weaker.”[7]

3 – There is a historical core supporting early Christian martyrdom.

McDowell observes much of the New Testament was written to encourage suffering Christians; 1 Thessalonians lays out Christian post-mortem hope for the grieving,[8] James encourages patience in suffering, Hebrews helps Christians undergoing trials, Revelation has Christians preparing to face death for Christ’s honor, and so on.[9]

Christians refused Roman pantheon worship, and instead paid homage to Christ himself; they were often known as unpatriotic atheists.[10] Worse, it was believed their atheism “alienate[d] the goodwill of the gods and disturb[ed] the pax deorum,”[11] and so Christians were blamed and punished for natural disasters. Further, both Christian and early Roman sources specifically report Christian persecution under Emperor Nero; Moss appears to ignore the preponderance of this evidence.[12] No wonder then, the New Testament encourages suffering Christians.

McDowell has evaluated the martyrdom accounts, and concluded with high probabilities that six apostles were martyred; it’s plausible that others joined them.[13]

If Christian martyrdom is well documented, and the apostles actively preached against the Roman pantheon, wouldn’t that place them directly in the firing line? Given the historical record, martyrdom for Christ seems more likely than a natural death, or execution for disturbing the peace; in positing this, Moss is arguing from silence.

4 – Just because some martyrdom stories appear to contain legendary and apologetic material, does not mean they do not contain historical core.

If Moss is right that Christians wrote legendary accounts from the fourth century, doesn’t that mean they engaged in historical reporting before then? Further, why isn’t it reasonable to assume that the historical core persisted? McDowell challenges Moss’s general suspicion, proposing “we must examine each account individually, not…sweep them aside collectively.”[14]

What of the observation that the writers had apologetic intentions? If they had a point, then they could equally intend to make that point truthfully. If truth was unimportant, then why don’t more legendary accounts of apostolic martyrdom exist?[15]

5 – Moss is right the apostles aren’t documented as choosing not to recant, but that aligns them with other Jewish martyrs.

McDowell reminds us first these men actively ministered in an environment hostile to their preaching, and second that earlier Biblical martyrs could equally have withdrawn their beliefs to avoid death; that no account describes this option does not harm the historical likelihood of their earlier martyrdom. The same can be said of the apostles.[16]

Conclusion

Given the general evidence of first century cultural hostility to Christianity, and specific early accounts of apostolic martyrdom, a more reasonable approach would be to assess the martyrdom accounts individually, rather than sweep them all aside. The claim that many apostles were martyred does not strain reason or the historical record. Therefore, the apostolic martyrdom claim, and its evidential support of Christ’s resurrection, stands.

[1] Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014), kindle edition, loc. 2166.

[2] Moss, loc. 2125.

[3] Moss, loc. 2139.

[4] Moss, loc. 2136.

[5] Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 11.

[6] Acts 1:22.

[7] McDowell, 29.

[8] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

[9] McDowell, 41-43, summarized.

[10] McDowell, 51.

[11] McDowell, 52.

[12] McDowell, 51.

[13] McDowell, 264.

[14] McDowell, 11.

[15] McDowell, 13.

[16] Sean McDowell, “Do the Apostles of Jesus Qualify as Martyrs?,” December 30, 2015, accessed November 07, 2017, http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/do-the-apostles-of-jesus-qualify-as-martyrs.

RESPONDblogs: The Missing Second Burial of Jesus

skull-color-teeth-46510

When considering the Christian claim that Jesus was raised from the dead, one historical point often overlooked is the lack of evidence that Jesus’ body received a second Jewish burial. The evidence supports his death by crucifixion, burial in an unused tomb that was then found empty and his subsequent appearances to his disciples.

What is this second Jewish burial?

In Western culture, graves are usually occupied by single people; only the rich and famous afford family tombs. But in first century Jerusalem, it was common for families to own shared tombs where deceased close friends and family members were laid on carved stone shelves. Modern western graves usually remain closed, but ancient Jewish tombs were periodically re-opened when family members died. Tomb reuse is one reason bodies were “wrapped in grave-cloths along with a significant amount of spices, to offset the smell of putrefaction, on the usual assumption that other shelves in the cave would be required soon.”[1] Within a year or so, a corpse would decompose to a skeleton, at which point the family would “collect the bones, fold them reverently and carefully according to a traditional pattern, and place them in an ossuary.”[2] This would count as the person’s normal, second burial and it cleared tomb space for subsequent family burials.

Interestingly, no Christian or pagan evidence exists recording Jesus’ second burial. Surely if his body remained in the tomb, a friend would have returned to pay respects in this way? But there’s no report of it. Wouldn’t Christianity’s enemies have appealed to this data if it existed?  Given Jesus’ public ministry and carefully documented life, death and first burial, surely a second burial would also have been documented if it happened?

While the historical record is silent on this, it’s full of information on a related matter. At the precise time when Jesus’ body should have received a second burial, his friends were instead “proclaiming him as Messiah…on the grounds that he had been raised from the dead.”[3] Further, the Christian church’s biggest persecutor, Saul of Tarsus, claimed to have encountered the risen Jesus and converted to Christian evangelist.

But was Jesus’ resurrection fabricated? Perhaps his disciples stole his body and the second burial was done privately to protect their new resurrection myth? This theory has many problems. First, why would the disciples do this? No-one in first century Judaism expected resurrection to work this way, so why would they attempt to manufacture something they weren’t expecting? [4] Second, the stolen body theory implicates the disciples in a coverup. This a problem because the historical record establishes high confidence in their martyrdom for preaching Christ’s resurrection from the dead. As Habermas observes, “Lying about something is a poor thesis for being a martyr.”[5] It makes no sense to propose the ones who stole the body as the ones who gave their lives for the belief he was raised. Further, if the disciples instituted a cover up, how did Saul go from enemy to evangelist?

Perhaps someone re-buried Jesus’ body privately? Lowder posits Joseph of Arimathea, owner of Jesus’ tomb, re-buried Jesus without the disciples’ knowledge; yet he lacks supporting evidence.[6] Also, he must account for Saul’s conversion, and the transformation of Jesus’ disciples from broken people into world changing Christian evangelists. If Jesus was still dead when Christianity erupted in the very city where he died and was buried, why wasn’t his body produced to stop it? Tacitus and Suetonius suggest Rome disliked Christianity, so was motivated to halt it.[7]

Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence; we cannot be certain beyond all doubt. But given Christian history, including Saul’s conversion, wouldn’t it be reasonable to posit Jesus’ second burial lacks evidence because no body remained; days after his public execution, the tomb was empty, and friends and enemies alike did encounter him alive again in a new way?[8]

While Jesus’ bones may have never been placed into an ossuary, his name has been found on other ancient Jewish ossuary’s dated to mid first century, [9]  alongside words that some think may constitute a prayer.[10] Also, the first century Nazareth inscription documents a Roman edict forbidding tomb tampering. This might have nothing to do with first century Christianity, but given Christianity’s active denunciation of Roman pantheon and culture in favour of Jesus, “it is quite feasible to imagine someone using the emperor’s authority to try to lock the door after the horse has bolted.”[11]

Second burial reports of Jesus don’t exist, yet history records the Christian claim Christ was raised. Don’t these facts justify the sceptic’s further investigation into the documented events of Christ’s death, his empty tomb and resurrection appearances?

[1] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (London:Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 707.

[2] Wright, 708.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wright, 372.

[5] Evidence for the Empty Tomb, The Resurrection of Jesus, Gary Habermas, in the Credo Courses, accessed May 6, 2017, http://www.credocourses.com/product/the-resurrection-of-jesus/.

[6] Jeffrey Jay Lowder, “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story A Reply to William Lane Craig”, The Secular Web, accessed 19th November, 2017, https://infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/empty.html.

[7] Clay Jones, “Lacks non-Biblical support,” Prepared Defence [CD-ROM], Austin, TX: WORDsearch, 2005 (v. 2.2, 2014).

[8] 1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Acts 2:32.

[9] E. L. Sukenik, The Earliest Records of Christianity, http://khazarzar.skeptik.net/books/sukenik.pdf, accessed November 14th, 2017.

[10] Mark Mittleberg, The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, (Colorado Springs: Tyndale House Publishers Inc., 2010), 77.

[11] Wright, 708.

 

Image courtesy of Pexels, http://www.pexels.com.

RESPONDblogs: The Case for a Personal First Cause

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I find myself scratching my head when someone asks, “What caused the universe to exist?” What confuses me is that – often people will lead with a scientific answer to that question. Why is this an odd thing to do? Science is about using natural law to explain effects in nature. Yet before the universe, there were no natural laws…they started at the beginning of the universe. Surely science isn’t the appropriate tool to answer this origin question?

 

Perhaps philosophy is a safer starting point when exploring these issues. And using philosophical argument, you can mount a case for a personal First Cause…

 

First – the First Cause is wholly other than the Universe.

We’ve got to try to understand what CAUSED the universe in terms that are unbound BY the universe. Why? Because a cause is always greater than an effect. For example, we may love the characters and the plot of a novel or a movie. But that first cause of that “world” is of another order than that fictional world. The story is fictional – but its cause is real and has thoughts, abilities and a history that goes far beyond the bounds of the fictional world they wrote about.

 

The First Cause of the universe has caused space and time to exist. So, it transcends both. What does this mean?

Changeless – if it is timeless, then it does not react to the passage of time. We change over time. Things change over time. The First Cause is outside of time, and so does not change.

Immaterial – the universe is composed of matter. The First Cause is of another order to that and is not bound by the constraints of matter. It is therefore immaterial. This might sound tricky to accept…but those story characters I mentioned earlier are also immaterial. So are the thoughts about the thoughts that led to the story! So is truth, beauty and Justice. We are quite used to dealing with immaterial realities in our lives.

Uncaused – everything in the universe is caused. The First Cause is other than the universe and so is uncaused. What does this mean? It means that, unlike our experience of nature, there is no antecedent cause for the First Cause. The buck stops with the First Cause. Otherwise, we find ourselves asking…so who caused the First Cause? And that question can go on back and back for ever. No – the First Cause is uncaused. Again – this is very reasonable.  Ocam’s razor isn’t a shaving implement – it’s a problem-solving principle that states something like, “Among competing hypotheses, the simplest one is best.” There’s only one First Cause. Simples.

Powerful – the First Cause is pretty powerful to create a universe that looks beautifully infinite out of nothing…right?

 

Second – the First Cause is a person.

This is where things get tricky for many people. Perhaps we don’t like the thought of natural laws being the result of some super intelligence like God. Certainly, if we are opposed to the idea of God, then I get why we wouldn’t like that. But, I think the proposition that the First Cause is a person…makes a lot of sense quite apart from religious views. Why? Here are two reasons why.

First – the Personal explanation type gives a fuller explanation.

William Lane Craig points out that there are typically two types of explanation of an event. A scientific explanation, talking about the laws and initial conditions for the event, and a personal explanation, dealing with agents and their wills and choices. Both of these are good explanations.

He asks us to imagine a boiling kettle on the stove in the kitchen. And he asks, why’s the kettle on the boil?

The scientific explanation would say, “The heat…increases the kinetic energy of the water molecules…and are thrown off…[as] steam.”[1]

The personal explanation would be something like, “My wife’s making a cup of tea. Would you like some?”

Which explanation do we turn to when explaining the origin of the universe? We cannot use the scientific explanation because the laws and initial conditions that science deals with were caused when the universe began. There was nothing before the universe. That only leaves the personal explanation – an agent willed it. And only persons have wills. So, the First Cause of the universe is a Person.

 

Second – the Personal explanation solves the Temporal Effect and Timeless Cause Dilemma.

This one was tricky for me to grasp. But the dilemma is this. If a timeless cause has caused the effect of the Universe, then why isn’t the universe timeless…or eternal as well as the cause?

Again, Craig invites you to consider two different ways that events are caused:

1 – a brick shattering a window – in this case, one event (a kid throwing a brick) causes another event (the shattering of a window). You can call this EVENT / EVENT causation because it involves related events.

2 – a log floating on the water – this case is different. Here, one state of affairs causes another. Because the water has a certain surface tension, the log floats on it. This could be called STATE / STATE causation. In this causal relation, the effect need not have a cause. The log could have been floating there eternally. If someone threw it into the lake…then that’s EVENT / EVENT causation instead.

 

So – what about the causation of the universe? Here we seem to have a confusing situation – STATE / EVENT causation. The cause of the universe is timeless, but the effect isn’t timeless because it occurred at a specific point in time (around 14 billion years ago). Usually, the state has the same type of effect. But not in this situation.

 

This is a philosophical dilemma. And the way out proposed by Craig is a personal First Cause who “freely chooses to create a universe in time.”[2] This isn’t EVENT / EVENT causation. And it’s not STATE/STATE causation. Philosophers call it agent causation. And we are very familiar with this concept. Whenever I raise my hand in class to ask a question, my hand goes up as the result of agent causation.

 

 

So – where does this leave me?

The First Cause of the universe cannot be described using scientific means (the laws of physics). And the First Cause isn’t bound by the same constraints we ourselves experience within the universe. The First Cause is an eternal, immaterial, powerful Person. And that…sounds a lot like most people’s description of GOD. And if He’s really there…maybe the Bible’s been right all along. We can get to know who He really is?

 

Image courtesy of Pexels.

[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith Christian Truth and Apologetics 3rd ed, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 152.

[2] Ibid.

RESPONDblogs: T2 and the Free Will Dilemma

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I sat in a packed cinema tonight to watch the newly restored 4K/3D release of Terminator 2. I know this movie so well – its over 25 years old now – yet it looks and sounds like it was just made last week. I genuinely appreciated the 3D conversion on the film – combined with the new sound mix – it really brought out details that I’d simply never seen and heard before.

The experience has never been better. And the various messages contained within it have never seemed more relevant!

It struck me tonight that – this story is about free will. Specifically, the struggle to regain the free will that’s been lost. It vividly illustrates how important it is that people are given the option to choose our future, rather than have it cruelly and inevitably determined for us.

 

The Importance of FREEDOM in the Terminator Universe

John Connor is destined to lead the fight against the machines in the year 2029. There appears to be no choice for him in this. The machines will inevitably trigger the nuclear fire that will exterminate the majority of the human race – leaving John to lead the human resistance against them. This is a future that mankind is hurtling toward with no seeming hope of rescue.

But the movie doesn’t dwell so much on this future struggle. Rather, it focusses on the inevitable and impending nuclear holocaust we face in the here and now (actually…in the 1990s. T2 is now a period piece…). The movie asks whether or not this awful fate can be averted? And if so…how?

 

This is a story about the battle of wills – the machines against the humans – and the battle ground is free will vs determinism. The freedom to live one’s life and to make choices…verses the tyranny of a determined existence. I hesitate to call spoiler alert on a 25 year old movie…but spoiler alert if you’ve not seen it yet:

The future machine army is trying to regain their future freedom by sending back Robert Patrick’s T1000 Terminator to kill John Connor in the past (makes perfect sense to me). Using the T1000, they plan to be free of John’s annoying resistance.

Meanwhile, the core family of John, his mother Sarah Connor and Arnie’s ageing T101 fight for the present freedom of humanity. They are fighting to somehow achieve freedom from the inevitable, horrifying nuclear fire that…if it occurs…will act as a prelude to the future man-machine war that John will lead. Yet perhaps freedom from this impending future is possible? And if so – this could mean that the holocaust is averted and the machine uprising is prevented?

 

Everyone is trying to regain their freedom in this film. Does the family succeed? Perhaps – with the awful cost of Arnie’s T101. Man – this scene tugs at one’s heart strings even more in 3D!

 

The Importance of Freedom to the Christian Worldview

James Cameron’s T2  has endured for many reasons. One of them – is the theme of human freedom that runs deeply through it. “There’s no fate,” Sarah Connor carves in a tabletop. There’s no fate but what we make. The future’s not set. At least it shouldn’t be set…

This is all a very Christian perspective on life. We are made with free will, the Bible tells us. We are urged to choose a life of obedience to God and his ways, going all the way back to Adam in the garden. You’re free to eat from any tree…except that one, because the results will be bad for you.[1] But the fact Adam…and we are urged to obey, tacitly assumes we have a choice in the matter. We don’t have to and we’re free to choose. God doesn’t set the future for us. We are not determined – we are free.

 

Whether or not God knows who WILL choose to obey him in the end or not (Molinism) we are free to choose now…and rightly so. We are built to exercise our free wills.

 

That’s why movies like T2 resonate so strongly. That’s why news reports where people have their human rights curtailed – and their freedom denied to them – provoke such outrage in people. Freedom is a core human value

 

The Problem of Human Free Will and the Consequences to Evil

What a shame then that this world contains so many examples where people exercise their freedom to curtail and remove the freedom of others. Nations threaten and intimidate other nations by firing missiles at them. Individuals find themselves being trafficked as a sexual commodity that is bought and sold to the highest bidder. Populations are wiped out in genocide.

 

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

If he’s there…and he cares…wouldn’t he intervene and rescue the suffering people now? Wouldn’t a loving God step in? Not necessarily. God created us with free will. He clearly wants us to exercise it. He wants people to have the freedom to live their lives…whether those people accept him or reject him. He’s not interested in coercing us. Rather, He’s looking for those who freely choose him and his ways.

 

Clay Jones makes the point that, when people ask why God doesn’t intervene in this world, they are not considering the outcome of that sort of intervention. If God somehow supernaturally intervenes every time someone begins to outwork acts of evil…causing others to lose their freedom….life would be very different for all of us. Actually, no one would be free any more.[2]

 

Yet as T2 reminds us…freedom is part of the core of who we are. We demand it – and rightly so.

What does this mean?

 

Imagine you are sitting at home with your partner and children, working on your laptop, and a pornographic image flashes up in your web browser…with a link urging you to explore further. What do you do? Your family are sitting there with you. At that moment – your freedom is curtailed. You might want to explore further – but you cannot. You aren’t free to do so because of the negative impact this would surely have on your partner and your children at that moment.

 

Now – perhaps in this instance, that’s a good thing. You’ve been given an easy way out to avoid the pornography. But if you lived every moment of your life with the gaze of a controlling deity…you would not ever be free in ANYTHING.

 

So it would be if God intervened miraculously every time someone began to cruelly remove someone else’s freedom. Everyone would be forced to acknowledge God whether they wanted to, or not. We would resent being coerced into worshipping him.

But that’s not what God wants. That’s not the way God works. He gives enough evidence for people to find him and engage with him if they wish to. But he doesn’t give himself away too much. One reason is, He wants to protect our free will.

 

That’s not to say there won’t be a final accounting for our use of our free will…because the Bible warns of a final judgement when everything concealed will be revealed…when justice will be seen to be done by every person. We’re accounted to live once…and then there’s the judgement.[3] Judgement Day is real…but it’s not Cameron’s proposed nuclear fire. It happens subsequently. (Aside: 4Ward’s VFX work showing the nuclear fire consuming LA really SHINES in the new T2 release. Chilling…yet you have to watch it.)

 

But in the here and now, in the same way we are free to exercise our wills, God’s also free to exercise his. He is free NOT to intervene…to ensure our freedom in the here and now. Yet whether we like it or not…it seems that our future is bound up with him. There are positive and negative consequences to the free will choices that we make in our lives now.

 

Image courtesy of Phil Cooden, https://flic.kr/p/Xa4KbR.

[1] Genesis 2:16-17.

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2017), 109-158.

[3] Hebrews 9:27.

RESPONDblogs: Human Beings are Unique

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What are we?

 

I listened to an interesting talk recently from Simon Conway Morris, who is Chair of Evolutionary Paleo biology at the Dept. of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University.

 

He asks the question – are we essentially just more “evolved” animals that belong on Darwin’s incremental tree of life? Or is there something unique about people compared to the animals? However much time has elapsed, perhaps we aren’t just naturally selected incremental improvement? Rather – we are something different altogether.

 

Evolutionary theory has drummed into us that we are essentially no different from other animal species. We’re related to other hominids. We are just matter – we are physical – we are all related. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this idea.

 

Or are we? As Morris says, “Maybe it’s not as simple as that.”[1]

 

 

First – we often misunderstand the animals we invest our lives in.

Morris thinks we have a habit of reading ourselves into the animals we relate to. Our relationship with dogs is a perfect example of this, he says. We humanize them…and they are happy to play along with our delusion. But crucially – as Morris points out – the evidence suggests that dogs have no idea what is going on inside our minds. They react to stimuli – they learn what actions and objects mean and sound like. Nothing more.

 

Dogs live happy and fulfilled lives as our pets. But we are of a different order to them.

 

We are not the only intelligent species on the planet – but it seems that our consciousness is of a completely different order to anything else. We live in an extended universe – the animals are confined to a monotonic universe. And they are happy that it is so.

 

What experimental evidence does Morris appeal to in making this claim?

 

Second – Morris offers the following evidence:

 

1 – Humans Uniquely Understand Cause and Effect

There’s evidence that crows are very intelligent. An experiment has been done where the bird has to perform a task – drop stones into a container – in order to raise the water level so it can have a drink. The fascinating thing is – often the crow will work this out. It will find and deposit the stones to raise the water level.

It is tempting to assume then – that it understands cause and effect, that it gets the implication of what it’s doing. Unfortunately – when the conditions of the experiment change – it becomes clear that the crow doesn’t understand this.

Yes, it has memory, yes its intelligent. But no, it’s not building up an understanding of nature. It can do one thing well – and that involves survival.

 

2 – Humans Live in an Out of the Box Culture

We can think in terms of “analogy”; we are meta-thinkers that can work outside of the box. We explore seemingly unrelated ideas and come up with ingenious solutions to problems.

A simple example of this is – humans use tools. We employ them in many tasks, and the evidence suggests we have done this for a long time. Chimpanzees also use tools.

Yet we go beyond them; we live outside the box. We are the only species we know today that creates tools to build tools. What’s more, we rely on the discoveries and processes laid down by previous tool builders as we do so. Human culture is cumulative, it builds on itself.

Animals like chimpanzees don’t exhibit this behaviour at all. They use tools, they have a culture. But they don’t appear to KNOW they have a culture, and they don’t build tools to make tools.

Morris opines, “This sounds like a trivial difference. But it might be larger than we realize.”[2]

 

3 – Human Culture Features Teaching and Learning

Humans have a sophisticated approach to teaching. We have a self-referential pedagogical approach – the teacher observes the pupil and knows where their mind is currently at. Through observation, the teacher works to move the student forward to where they need to be. We intuitively sense the student’s mind.

Do animals? Morris refers to various species of Ant, Meercat and chimp. And the scientific observation to date suggests that which the animals instinctively develop habits and abilities, they do so in a simple way. Animals don’t go to University like humans do. We are of a different order.

Do animals have false beliefs about the world? Do they have a theory of mind? Current understanding says no, it doesn’t look like it.

 

4 – Human Language is Very Peculiar Indeed

Morris refers to Vervet Monkeys who have been observed to make sounds that seem to relate to other animals in their habitat like a leopard, a snake and an eagle. This sounds like it could be a proto-language, like the foundations of our own language capabilities?

Well, clearly, we have words that also refer to objects and concepts. This blog post is full of them! But our language isn’t just a more evolved version of the Vervet Monkey’s sound. Why?

Morris points to two peculiar aspects of human language:

  • We can say things that go beyond a single meaning. Our communication can have an infinite number of meanings, depending on the context it is used in.
  • We have a bottomless depth of rich imagination in human discussion. We easily move between factual and fictional statements. And we have the ability to create fictional worlds – completely unrelated to our own – where the reader can enter through their imagination. And the fictional world resonates deeply with them.

 

5 – Humans Apply Mathematics in a Unique Way

Experiments suggest that Guppy fish exhibit numericity. They are able to judge relative numbers in terms of distance and size.

For example, if some were to say – “Imagine you have a stone and a feather. How much do I have to add or remove from each to perceive a difference in their weights?” It turns out that I have to add or remove quite a lot from the stone, but not very much at all to the feather to notice a weight change. This is numericity…and Guppy fish can do something similar to this.

Is this proto-maths? Well, it’s called a psycho-physical sensory effect by the scientists. But to suggest it is proto-maths is nonsense to Morris.

Mathematics is a rich conceptual language that bridges the abstract and the physical. Maths:

  • involves abstract entities that don’t exist; numbers, complex numbers.
  • requires that we can do sums like addition and subtraction. Animals can’t seem to do that.

 

 

Conclusion

Are we just advanced chimpanzees? Morris suggests this well-worn message fails to recognize the uniqueness of human beings. It underplays our conscious, thinking abilities that came up with that inadequate theory in the first place.

Humans are of a different order to animals. We have “dominion over the natural world” and uniquely exhibit the characteristics of our Creator.[3] This is not just the Bible’s opinion, it is born out in our relation to those animals we were supposed to care for.

But aren’t we just physical beings like the animals? Is brain simply a biological computing engine? Morris thinks otherwise. He’s a substance dualist. Mind and brain are different aspects of human existence.

The physical human brain seems to be more than a biological information processing organ. It’s a filter. Our intangible, human mind exists independently of our physical bodies. Our brain is part of the mechanism we use for intercepting, exploring and harnessing what goes on in our minds.

People aren’t just more advanced than the animals. We’re built specially; we’re of a different order altogether.

 

Image courtesy of New Old Stock.

[1] Simon Conway Morris, The Emergence of Life, James Gregory Lectures on Science and Christianity, https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/james-gregory-lectures-on-science-and-christianity/id917410241?mt=2&i=1000382210716.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Genesis 1:26 – 27.

 

RESPONDblogs: Isaac Newton – Scientific Revolutionary…and… Theologian?

Tim Peake is a British hero. He’s one of our most recent astronauts, spending about six months about the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016. Tim’s a passionate scientist, and he longs to inspire children to follow his lead.

When it came time to select a name for his mission, do you know what Tim called it?

“Principia”

Weird name, eh? Why choose that name? “To honour Isaac Newton’s ground-breaking text on physics, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which described the principle laws of motion and gravity on which all space travel depends.”[1]

Who was Isaac Newton? He lived in the 17th century, he started the scientific revolution, and his brilliance inspired later scientists such as Albert Einstein.

“He was intellectually daring…His achievements were so momentous that the term ‘scientific genius’ was invented to describe him” – Professor Robert IIiffe, Director, The Newton Project.[2]

Here’s the thing. When we look at Newton’s life, we find that he was not only a brilliant thinker and communicator of scientific principles that have changed how we look at the universe. He also believed in God.

Is it helpful to look at the Christian backdrop of Isaac Newton? Does this help make the case for belief in God today?

Some would suggest not. After all, “the Protestant faith of the Bible was a standard part of the upbringing of children at that time and Newton was no exception to this rule…. a certain amount of sincere religious piety…is to be expected…”[3]   There’s no guarantee Newton was a “Christian”. Isn’t it more likely that the brilliant Newton was canny enough to work out how to climb the ladder of academic achievement? In his day, this involved public agreement with Christianity. Maybe he didn’t want to suffer like Galileo did at the hands of the Catholic Pope? Maybe he was a brilliant thinker who played the religion game to get ahead.

Yet there’s a problem here. We can so easily view Newton thru the spectacles of our own atheism. A brilliant thinker, tip-toeing thru the powerful, irrational Western religious minefield of the 17th century. Newton was too smart to be a Christian. Surely Newton’s outward religious statements were simply a survival strategy. Newton was just as godless inside his head as so many are today! Right?

No – I suggest the evidence doesn’t leave this option open to us.

If we lay down our comfortable presuppositions and look at that evidence, we find a different picture of Isaac Newton that challenges atheistic worldview assumptions to the core.

1 – Newton wrote the most significant science book in human history.

I mentioned it in my introduction.

The head of the Royal Society library said of Principia Mathematica, “It’s not just the history and development of science; it’s one of the greatest books ever published…influential in terms of applying mathematics to basic physical problems.”[4]

2 – All editions of Principia combine BOTH scientific principles and theology together.

I’ve heard people say that you simply cannot bring God into science. Well, that’s evidentially false. Newton was way ahead of us and doing just that centuries ago.

His ground-breaking Principia opens with the statement:

“Behold the pattern of the heavens, and the balances of the divine structure. Behold Jove’s calculation and the laws That the creator of all things, while he was setting the beginnings of the world, would not violate; Behold the foundations he gave to his works.”[5]

Newton blends the discussion about God and physics together seamlessly.

“No being exists or can exist which is not related to space in some way. God is everywhere, created minds are somewhere, and body is in the space that it occupies…So the quantity of the existence of God is eternal in relation to duration, and infinite in relation to the space in which he is present”[6]

He added additional theological principles Principia in his second and third editions.

3 – He intended for Principia to help connect the dots between the natural world, and its Designer.

When a young clergyman named Richard Bentley once approached Newton and asked about ways his scientific arguments pointed towards God, Newton responded:

“When I wrote my treatise about our System, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose. But if I have done the public any service this way ’tis due to nothing but industry and a patient thought.”[7]

To someone called Halley, who verbally tore down Christianity in Newton’s presence, he was quick to respond. “Mun, you had better hold your tongue; you have never sufficiently considered the matter.”[8]

He fully intended his work to have application beyond the scientific disciplines, clearly pointing men to the Designer of this universe. And he was quick to challenge atheistic views that were clearly common in the 17th century.

4 – Newton wrote theology for longer than he wrote science.

Strange, given his scientific influence. But true.

He might be known for his scientific works, and he dabbled in alchemy too. But a lifetime of Bible study shows he was no reluctant church pew filler, or resentful, closet atheist. From his early thirties, Newton wrestled with complex theological issues writing works that deal with understanding Biblical prophecy, the Christian creeds, the Jewish religion and much more. He was no nominal religious observer. He was active and engaged. If we didn’t know that, it’s because his writings were not published until 2008 by Oxford University![9]

If it’s true that Newton was more than a scientific survivor, but a passionate believer in God, then we would expect to see, “sincere religious piety and Biblicism on the part of a Cambridge scholar like Newton living when he did…more…passionate than common piety…and when we look at the decade before the composition of the Principia this is precisely what we find.”[10]

Newton was a scientist and a passionate, God fearing theologian. But he was an interesting type of theologian. He was a Christian heretic, at odds with the Christian establishment.

Newton was so invested in scripture that he came to very different conclusions about the nature of God. Raised Anglican, he robustly rejected Roman Catholicism, but he also rejected a central part of Anglican Christianity as well; “[he broke] with almost all his contemporaries in condemning the concept of the Holy Trinity as the central doctrinal plank of that antichristian religion that came to dominate the Western world.”[11]

Christianity has traditional held that scripture teaches God is three persons, yet one in essence. One God, three separate coexisting persons. Newton rejected this teaching, and risked life and limb in the process. People were either hanged or imprisoned for rejecting the Trinity at that time.[12] Yet Newton held to his convictions.

Even though his religious writings remained unpublished until very recently, there is some evidence that towards the end of his life he was gearing up to more actively spreading his understanding of true Christianity; some observe this creeping into to the second and third editions of the Principia itself.[13]

Newton passionately believed that Christianity, “was a simple religion, preached to ordinary people, whose central feature was the principle of charity (or the Golden Rule) rather than any abstruse claim about the nature of Jesus Christ or about the precise manner in which he had redeemed humanity by his suffering.”[14]

What can we conclude from his religious writings and his unorthodox, risky spiritual convictions? It’s wrong to downplay Isaac Newton’s religious convictions as “simply expected and therefore meaningless.” Not at all. He stood apart from his contemporaries and he risked his life given his beliefs in God.

So…Newton was a scientific revolutionary and a passionate believer in God and the Bible. So what? So, he challenges how we approach and live our lives today.

How?

More in part2.

[1] Principia mission, UK Space Agency, https://principia.org.uk/the-mission/, accessed 20th July 2017.

[2] Isaac Newton: The man who discovered gravity, BBC iWonder, http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zwwgcdm, accessed 20th July 2017.

[3]Stephen D. Snobelen, The Theology of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica: A Preliminary Survey, https://isaacnewtonstheology.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/theology-of-the-principia.pdf, 13.

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/05/principia-sir-isaac-newton-first-edition-auction-christies-new-york.

[5] Snobelen, Theology of the Principia, 9.

[6] Ibid, 18.

[7] Ibid, 7.

[8] Stephen D. Snobelen, Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite, https://isaacnewtonstheology.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/heretic.pdf, 31.

[9] Introduction to the Texts, The Newton Project, http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/texts/introduction, accessed 20th July 2017.

[10] Snobelen, Theology of the Principia, 13.

[11] Introduction, Newton Project.

[12] Snobelen, heretic, 15.

[13] Snobelen, heretic, 26.

[14] Introduction, Newton Project.

RESPONDblog: The Cumulative Case…or God’s Crime Scene!

Gods-Crime-Scene-Review_feature

I recently met up with two friends who would (probably) describe themselves as committed sceptics when it comes to Christianity. We’ve spoken about these things many times. Yet they never feel able to come close to joining me in my Christian convictions.

 

At one point that day, they reminded me, “We are not saying there is no God. What we are saying is – there isn’t enough evidence to decide about God either way. We simply cannot say.”

 

I’ve heard this perspective before. And I suspect it’s a strategy that’s used to push the responsibility for wrestling with ultimate questions of life away from us and onto God (if he’s even there!). It’s a way of divulging myself of that responsibility. If God wanted me to believe in him, he would be able to convince me that he’s there. He hasn’t. So, I’m justified in dismissing the subject altogether.

In other words – it’s God’s problem, not mine.

 

This bothers me. Not because I think this line of reasoning is correct, but because I’m concerned that this way of thinking just avoids the obvious. I’m referring to the strong cumulative case for God.

 

Jim Wallace lays this case out clearly in his book, “God’s Crime Scene”. He proposes that the universe and all its wonders has a cause found either inside or outside of the universe. If the cause is inside, there’s some natural explanation for it all. If it’s an outside cause – it’s God.

When Jim (a cold-case detective) looks for evidence that a murder has been committed, he examines the crime scene where the body is found. If there is any evidence of outside activity or objects which have been imported into the room (a foreign footprint or evidence that a gun was positioned to give the appearance of a suicide) then it is reasonable to posit there has been an influence from outside the room, and so a murder case needs to be solved.

Turning this reasoning to the bigger crime scene of the universe, Jim observes eight evidences “inside the room” that point to an outside influence:

 

Our universe had a beginning

“The universe could not have caused itself, since something would have to exist to cause its own existence.”[1]

Our universe appears fine-tuned for life

It’s fine-tuned in the following ways:

Forces governing the atom

Forces governing the matter in the universe

Forces governing the creation of chemicals

Shape, Position and Size of the Milky Way Galaxy

Position and composition of our sun

The age and mass of our sun

Relationship of planets to our sun

Earth’s relationship to the sun

Earth’s atmospheric conditions

Earth’s terrestrial nature

Earth’s relationship to the moon

Often people will quip, “We’re only able to notice fine-tuning because we’re here to see it. So, we can’t draw solid conclusions for the cause of fine-tuning.” Yet this is to commit a logical error in our thinking. We are confusing an observation with its explanation.

Others will claim this is an argument from ignorance. Yet surely, it’s precisely because we are NOT ignorant of these facts, that we are exploring this natural evidence? This is an argument from a growing competence in our understanding of nature.

Others will assume an infinite number of universes; we were bound to come up lucky with one of them. Yet a multi-verse would require finely tuned conditions itself to cause it, and the question of fine-tuning returns.

Life appeared from non-life

“’…the problem of getting all of the compounds together in a living cell is much like the problem of making a cream puff. The filling needs to be made in a pan on a stove, then put in a refrigerator, while the shell is combined in a bowl, baked in an oven, then cooled, before the two parts are put together. All of the steps need to happen to the right amounts of the right components in the right sequence using the right tools in order to form a successful final product.’ To make matters worse, the ‘icing’ on each ‘cream puff’ must also be inscribed with a message (DNA) billions of letters in length.”[2]

Biological organisms appear designed

Randomness is unable to invent, and all the complexity of life must already exist before natural selection can modify it. Life looks designed, and there’s a good reason for that.

Evil and injustice persist

This is a complex subject and there’s no one reason that can come close to explaining all the possible causes for evil and suffering.

“Yet our recognition of the existence of evil is itself a pointer back to God, not away from him. Unless there is a transcendent, Divine standard of “straightness,” evil is simply a matter of opinion. If this is the case, we can eliminate evil tomorrow. All we have to do is change our opinion of it.”[3]

Transcendent moral truths exist

Some things are always wrong. It’s always been wrong to kill other people for the fun of it. And the “transcendent, objective virtue of selflessness and virtuous reciprocity finds representation in nearly every historic theological or philosophical system”[4]

If this is simply a product of culture, then which one is right and how big does the moral majority must be before we must agree with it?

Perhaps morality is all about promoting human flourishing? But the problem here is that this idea imports moral ideas in the term “human flourishing”. It proposes moral survival before explaining the source of the moral truth.

Humans are free agents

Human freedom is a right, and people are morally accountable for the free will choices they make. Some deny free will exists, pointing to the deterministic biological processes at work within us. Yet our ability to ponder these issues “presupposes we have the freedom to think independently from deterministic physical processes.”[5]

“Free will is difficult to deny (unless, of course, we have the freedom to deny it.”[6]

Consciousness emerged from unconscious matter

There’s a strong case to suppose that my physical brain is separate from my mind or consciousness. There are foundational differences between mind and brain. “Any reluctance to embrace a dualistic explanation for mind seems grounded not in the evidence but in a desire to resist answers found outside the room.”[7]

Human consciousness is so inexplicable that naturalist philosopher Thomas Nagel has reluctantly affirmed that, “On a purely materialist understanding of biology, consciousness would have to be regarded as a tremendous and inexplicable extra brute fact about the world.”[8]

 

Having laid out eight examples of crime scene tampering, Jim draws the following conclusion.

If we could identify just one of these evidences, that would be enough to point to a potential outside cause. But when you concede the strong cumulative case…there are at least eight lines of diverse evidence for outside tampering…then we have a strong reason to pursue this case.  A far stronger reason than would be necessary to trigger a police murder investigation.

 

There’s a lot of natural evidence pointing towards God. In a real sense, God’s left his fingerprints everywhere. So perhaps the real question is not “is there evidence for God,” it’s “will I choose to discover who this God is?”

 

 

 

[1] [1] J. Warner Wallace, God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe, (David Cook), 41.

[2] Wallace, 75.

[3] Wallace, 190.

[4] Wallace, 163.

[5] Wallace, 152.

[6] Wallace, 157.

[7] Wallace, 137.

[8] Wallace, 136.