Can We Blame God for a COVID-19 Pandemic?

If God exists, then why do people die from disease? There have been many pandemics in human history. The worst in recorded history may have been the Black Death in the 1300s. One estimate claims it killed around 60% of the population of Europe.

It is always a heartbreaking tragedy when people die as a result of disease. Covid-19 is at the top of our minds right now. But there are also other natural disasters going on, like tornadoes, earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis.

Here’s my point – I’m not convinced we can blame God for the death of people in these situations. There may be good reasons for all this.

 

We Can’t Blame God for COVID-19

I heard the biochemist Michael Behe talk about Corona Viruses this week. No one knows why viruses exist, but we do know that they are an important part of nature, and have a positive role to play. They keep bacteria at bay, and they break bacteria up into its constituent parts.

He then used a metaphor. He likened viruses and the cells that makeup life to water. Water is vital for our survival, we need to drink it, and our bodies are composed of it. There are large oceans on our planet that are necessary for life. Water is all good. But – if one day we find ourselves on a sailing boat in the middle of the ocean in a storm, it would be natural to ask why storms have to happen. We’re in danger! But if the laws of nature exist, and oceans are a necessary good, then from time to time storms will arise. It’s just a consequence of these good things.[1]

In the same way, viruses do a lot of good in nature. They coexist with organisms, and given their large number, the way they interact with life there will sometimes be a storm in the “virosphere.” The virus does something unintended like a storm in the ocean. So in the middle of an epidemic…it’s bad…but it’s simply part of how nature is built. It’s an unpleasant side effect of something that’s good.

But – things WILL calm down. We just need to hang on. Behe advises this is a good way of thinking about the Covid-19 crisis right now. Hang on in the storm – stay sensible, follow guidelines and wash your hands. This will pass. The sun will come out again.

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters Either

First – if God’s responsible for setting up the universe, the matter, energy and physical laws that comprise it, then there are going to be some parts of nature that are essential for our survival, yet also lethal if we get too close. For example, the cosmos if full of suns. Cosmologists estimate that important materials were cooked in suns during the early eras on our universe. Suns are where the essential elements of matter were prepared. Also, clearly, the energy given off by our particular sun is vital to our survival on this planet today. But what would happen if we got too close? Crispy! Not good for us.

Second – if we choose to walk around or live close to areas of natural risk, then we make a personal, conscious choice. I have many friends who live out in California in the US. They live close to the San Andreas fault. If there’s an earthquake, then they have chosen to live there and put themselves in harm’s way. You can’t blame God for the San Andreas fault line. Plate tectonics is just how nature operates. But if we choose to get too close – it’s possibly not going to be good for us.

Thirdclimate change is probably going to be the cause of many human deaths as time passes. That’s a tragic thought. But it seems that here, we are reaping the results of our own societal choices. You cannot blame God for that either. If he gave us a climate, we broke it. Not him.

Fourth – for one reason or another, one day you and I will die. We cannot stop it.

 

Why God Usually Does Not Always Save People from Disease and Natural Disaster

But if God loves people (as Christians claim) then why doesn’t he miraculously rescue people from disease and natural disaster?

Well – I think sometimes he does choose to rescue people. I’ll give you a personal experience that may point to this at the end of this blog. But – I’ll be honest. I think God rescuing people from these situations is unusual, it’s not the normal flow of events. It’s a miracle. It’s abnormal.

So why doesn’t God want to rescue us?

Well – the Bible tells us that the core problem of the human condition is that we have chosen to reject God’s sovereign role in our lives. God’s created us to relate to him as God. And we have chosen to make ourselves God instead. We worship people and ourselves instead of God. Think of that as cosmic rebellion.

If God was always to rescue people from every potentially harmful event in life, what would this do? If a divine hand prevented every avalanche, every disease and oncoming car…what might happen?[2]

First – it would take away the consequences of our rebellion towards God. We would be deceived about the consequences of our separation from God…which is not a good thing. It’s not good to live as if I am my own God. If the real God were to encase us in cotton wool – and prevent us from experiencing the consequences of our choices – then we would never experience the reality of these consequences. If we want to live apart from God then – fine. But, there’s a risk for us in doing so.

Second – it would FORCE people who DO NOT want to worship God, to worship God!! Cos there is a big hand in the sky. People who don’t want to bow the knee, suddenly find themselves thinking they better bow the knee to God. They have to…because of the sky hand…so resentfully, they do. No – that’s not how God works. He wants us to come to him willingly, not under coercion.

Third – as I understand the God of the Bible, I don’t think he wants us to stay comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to live separated from him by our rebellion against him. He doesn’t want us to think humans can live successfully in separation from him. So – the risk of natural disaster may be a possible event that encourages us to come to God to get right with him. Why? So that when we DO eventually die, we will spend forever with him afterwards as he intended. There’s a hint toward this in the New Testament. Check out Luke 13 for some hints there.

 

 

A Time God DID Save ME From a Natural Disaster

Here’s a final thought. Earlier I said that – sometimes, for his own reasons – God DOES rescue people from natural disasters. So – what’s my evidence for saying this?

It was 21st October, 1971. I was 3 years old. My mother intended to take my baby sister and I to Clarkston shops in Glasgow. My dad had taken the train into work that day, leaving our brand new car at home so we could use it for our shopping trip.

Around lunchtime, my mum got us ready and bundled us into the car, strapping us in for the short journey from East Kilbride to Clarkston. She climbed into the driver’s seat, and put the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing. She tried again. Nothing happened. What was going on? My Dad had used the car yesterday! It was – a new car!! They had never had troubles with it before. She pumped the gas pedal, she waited a while and tried again. The car was dead. Frustrated – she realised she wasn’t going to the shops that day. She bundled us OUT of the car again and went back into the house.

A few hours later on the radio, news of a devastating gas explosion in Clarkston broke on the radio. Twenty-two people were declared dead at the scene. It was later described as the worst peacetime explosion in Scotland’s history. And – with a deep sense of shock – my mother realised that if we had managed to get to the shops that day, we would have been in the middle of it.

My Dad came home from work, and my Mum told him the shocking news. They both felt great relief that we had not managed to go shopping that day, and we were safe. And then – a thought occurred to them. What about the car?

My dad took the car keys from my Mum, walked down the drive and opened the car door. He sat in the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. The engine burst into life on the first attempt.

 

I think – sometimes, and for his own reasons, God decides to save some people from the effects of natural disasters. I think on 21st October, 1971, that may have been what happened to me, Annie and my mum.

[1] Intelligent Design the Future Podcast, Michael Behe on COVID-19 and ‘Why Are There Viruses, Anyway?’, Monday 16th March, 2020.

[2] Peter van Inwagen, The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy, in Philosophy of Religion A Reader and Guide, General Editor: William Lane Craig, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 370 – 393.

Why Does God Let a Child Die?

When my wife miscarried our first child, we did not know why it happened. When I sat with my parents as my sister died of cancer, I saw in their eyes the same question, “Why?” We are rightfully concerned about our children and our families in light of Covid-19. But the loss of little ones at ANY time is a crushing experience.

The singer songwriter Gary Barlow put the devastating experience of the still birth of his daughter Poppy like this:

A head full of madness
And no where safe
When tears aren’t big enough,
And love turns into hate[1]

I don’t know why God allows particular children to die. I would not presume to give you an answer to that question. And in the rawness of this loss, there are no answers to give, only love and support. If that is where you are at right now – please know that my thoughts and prayers are with you, and my hope is that you have people around you that can grieve with you.

But as I’ve lived in the aftermath of my own loss, as the years have passed for me, I have come to make some important general observations that could help those who are further down the road with loss. I do not think the death of children somehow represents evidence that there is no God. Actually – quite the reverse is true. I think these losses speak of God’s good character.

What do I mean?

Well – I’m guessing that you, like me, value your free will? Ultimately, you don’t want to be forced into going along with anything, right? You make up your own mind, and you have a will that you intend to use. Also – presumably you, like me, put a lot of respect onto the observations of science. You notice how scientific methods have allowed us to work out how the physical laws work in our universe?

Here’s the thing. When children tragically die, it is usually the result of some form of natural event. Perhaps it is neglect. Maybe the result of natural law. For example, the law of gravity means that our planet orbits the sun. But it also means that if a child falls far enough, they will die. Disease is something we often cannot predict, but its relentlessly natural. It’s a destructive process that wreaks havoc on the child’s young body, and doctors can often observe the process unfolding. Natural law in motion.

Children do die in our world. Often it is preventable. But not always.

How are we going to change that? Well – let me ask the question another way. If children are not going to die for these reasons, then how long should they be indestructible for? Because that’s what we would be asking for. Right? If children must not die – they must necessarily be indestructible. Natural law is still law. Falling would still be a possibility, neglect and disease a risk. If children were not to die as a result, then none of these things would harm them. Perhaps because their bodies are impregnable, or because God miraculously intervenes every time to rescue them. So – the question is – how long should children stay indestructible? To what age?

It’s an absurd question, right? Here are some more significant problems with a world filled with indestructible children:[2]

1 – People would fail to learn that irresponsible actions towards children result in tragic consequences. We would not learn to act responsible towards children if they could not be harmed. The vulnerability of the young must be a constant reminder of our need to care for them properly.

2 – We would have unmistakable evidence that God absolutely does exist. Because kids would be supernaturally saved. And what would that do? It would be an onslaught on our own, personal free will. We would not be free to choose whether or not to believe in God because his reality would be staring us in the face. Yet that’s not how God wants it to be. He wants things so that we can choose whether or not to believe, and so that we are not coerced in any way.

3 – Tragedy like the death of a child teaches and moulds us as people. And while it can make some people very bitter indeed, if we respond to it in the right way, it can form courage and compassion for others within us. It can make us people who patiently support other people who are suffering the pain of loss.

 

You know, I love my children and my grandchildren deeply. I will do everything in my power to fight for their health, their safety, and I want to enable them to grow and flourish in their lives. But none of these kids can be my ultimate source of happiness. Because I do not know what the future holds. There must be a firmer place to locate my security and my happiness. And this is God’s call to me, I think. To find it primarily in relationship with him.

Barlow goes on in his song to say:

Fly high and let me go
That sky will save your soul
When you pass by then you’ll know
That this gonna take a bit of getting used to
But I know what’s right for you
Let me go[3]

In a sense, I agree with him. The time must come when we must let that lost little one go. But it’s not the sky that’ll save your soul. Rather, it’s the God who might not be answering your “why?” question, but offers security and happiness in the midst of this loss.

And what of the children that I, and my friends and family have lost? What of them? Well, Christians observe evidence from the Bible that suggests that young ones go straight to the wonder and safety of God’s presence if they die before they have had a chance to really live.[4] Whether they die inside or outside the womb…these little ones are safe in God’s hands. That’s the Christian’s hope for the child that has been lost. A firm hand under us as we grieve.

[1] Let Me Go (Gary Barlow Song), accessed 27th November, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_Me_Go_(Gary_Barlow_song).

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers to Life’s Toughest Questions, (Harvest House Publishers, 2017).

[3] Barlow.

[4] For example, 2 Samuel 12:22.

What Makes Christianity Unique?

Did you know that it’s estimated that 4200 distinct world religions exist, and they all teach something different? Yet amongst all the world religions, Christianity is unique. Here are five important reasons why I think that.

 

First – Christianity is based on evidence that is open to scrutiny. For example, the New Testament says this:

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.[1]

This evidence is of the historic variety. If Jesus’ resurrection can be shown to be historically false, if we can find a better explanation for the claims of the New Testament, then Christianity can be dismissed. Does it surprise you that Christianity could be so quickly disproven? With Christianity, if the historical basis can be dismissed, then the claims of Christianity can also be dismissed. So far – 2000 years in – no one has made a convincing attempt at doing this…the historical basis is simply very strong by ancient standards.

Notice that this is not the case with Islam, for example. There is nothing to the claims of Islam of a testable, historical nature. We must just embrace it as a worldview and hope for the best. We won’t know whether we backed the right horse until the other side of the grave. As Welch describes the life of a Muslim, “throughout life people are tested by their Maker, as the Qu’ran says in 21. 35/36: ‘And We try you with evil and good as a test; then unto Us you will be returned.’”[2] Islam is a long term experiment requiring all your eggs in its metaphorical basket and giving no option for a simple historical evidential test like Christianity does. It’s a similar story with Buddhism. Craig Hazen puts it this way, “you had better get yourself a Zen Master and you are going to be working at that thing for a long time until you ultimately experience enlightenment. You might want to put that on the back burner until you push Christianity out of the way.”[3] Christianity is an evidential belief system, so if you are shopping for a religion, it makes sense to start there first.

Secondly, Christianity is the only religion where God gives salvation to us as a free gift. Christians refer to this as grace. What is grace? Well, grace is sometimes described as “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense”. In other words, God generously gives us the richness of his love based not on anything we have done but based solely on what Jesus has done in his atoning death on the cross. Christianity offers a free gift of salvation and it’s the only religion to do this.

Islam doesn’t come close to this. Canon Andrew White, who has recently returned to the UK from leading the church in Iraq, is an expert on working with Muslims. He says this. “The trouble is a lack of forgiveness in Islam. I have looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any. If you find it, tell me.”[4] Further, some eastern religions place demands on us around meditation and walking over hot coals. Why put yourself through that first? Does it not make sense to check out something that is free first? Anyway, as Hazen suggests about salvation, “given that we are limited beings, it would make sense that God would have to give it to us.”[5] Christianity has a ring of truth about it.

Third, Christianity is a completely holistic life. In other words, Christian belief always holds in whichever sphere of life the Christian is currently in. We think the same way whether we are at Church, or our work or at home. We “get to live a non-compartmentalised life.”[6] Chan Buddhism, on the other hand, is about “cleansing of the mind from concepts and information by meditation and spontaneous action which can lead to natural illumination (tun-wu). This is sometimes provoked by riddles (koans) or questions such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”[7] The Buddhist may deny logic in his religious life, but in his financial dealings or even simply in caring for his family, logic is essential. Abandon logic in the real world, and the Buddhist risks going bankrupt or putting their family at risk. Yet a Christian can remain the same, whatever they are doing.

Fourth, Christianity just fits and makes sense of the world. The Buddhist claims that “Suffering exists, but there is no-one who suffers”[8]. But how can that be? Hinduism is just as confusing. Joseph Campbell recounts a visit to Indian teacher Sri Krishna Menon where he asks, “Since in Hindu thinking everything in the Universe is a manifestation of divinity itself, how should we say no to …brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness? And he answered, ‘For you and for me – the way is to say yes.’”[9] In other words, it is not for us to use judgement, the Hindu way is to accept everything however moral or immoral, reasonable or unreasonable, fair or unfair. This cuts across everything within us that cries out for reason and justice.

On the other hand, Christianity looks our broken world full in the face. Our world is full of suffering because mankind has rebelled against the God who created us, and so our world is, “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”[10] We look at the Universe around us, and study the exquisite complexity of nature. From our limbs to our organs to the cells of which they are composed, life looks designed. There’s a good reason for that. The God we see in the Bible claims responsibility for that job.

Fifth, Christianity has the person of Jesus right at the very centre. Strangely, other religions want Jesus in their boat too. There is something about this guy! The Qur’an mentions him in a way that puts him beyond even Mohammad when it says, “When God said, ‘Jesus I will take thee to Me and will raise thee to Me’”[11]. Further, Hazen reports that, “Hindus have him as an avatar incarnation of Vishnu, Buddhists call him the enlightened one.”[12] So it would be reasonable to ask if all the other religions mention Jesus respectfully in one form or another, does it not make sense to start with Christianity that has Jesus at the very centre of everything it believes?

 

 

Conclusion

Study the different world religions, and you will find that Christianity is unique in these five important ways. BUT – you don’t need to do all that hard studying. Instead, try and dismiss the compelling historical evidence of Jesus death and resurrection. Decide whether you want to reject God’s free offer of love and forgiveness in favour of a works-based religion instead. Consider the benefits of a life that is holistic and that fits with the world as it is observed today. And finally, consider the person of Jesus who is at the centre of the Christian message.

Makes sense – right?

 

 

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:4-6 NLT.

[2] John R. Hinnells, The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions Second Edition, (Penguin Books, 1997), 176.

[3] Craig J. Hazen, PH.D., Christianity and the Challenge of World Religions, CD, (Biola University, 2015), disc 2.

[4] The Vicar of Baghdad: ‘I’ve looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any’, The Spectator, accessed November 24th, 2015, http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/isis-bombs-have-exiled-the-vicar-of-baghdad-to-surrey-but-hes-itching-to-go-back-to-the-middle-east/.

[5] Hazen, disc 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Spurgeon’s College, Exploring Other Faiths, (Spurgeon’s College, 2003), 9.4.

[8] Spurgeon’s, 8.5.

[9] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, (Anchor Books, 1988), 83.

[10] Romans 8:22 NLT.

[11] Arthur J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, (Oxford University Press, 1991), 53.

[12] Hazen, disc 2.

Are Atheists More Intelligent?

Showing your Christian convictions online leads to some people assuming you are probably irrational and so unable to think critically and logically. Now, as someone with an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, and two post graduate degrees in other fields (and a career in the development and application of embedded software) I’ve always scratched my head at this state of affairs. Why would anyone I don’t know, automatically assume that I am not an analytical or critical thinker? That I’m stupid? This feels like … bias. And maybe even raw prejudice. But is it generally true? Are atheists just generally smarter people?

One helpful person on Twitter assured me that the majority of Christians today are “poor and ignorant” souls. Well, a very recent study was done by Zuckerman and Miron, and their conclusion may bear out this Twitter opinion. The study says that “our findings support the view that intelligent people are less religious because they are more rational.”[1] Atheists are more rational that believers.

This is a fascinating conclusion. I think it struggles to account for a broad range of contemporary evidence suggesting atheists are generally no smarter than believers.

Let me explain.

First – because recent history is full of influential critical, scientific thinkers who were professing Christians.

Did you know that in the twentieth century, over 65% of Nobel Prize winners in science believed in God? That’s between 1901 and 2000. The majority were Christians, receiving awards for advancements in physics and medicine. Surely these fields require analytical, critical and logical thinking, and these individuals were at the very top of this game?[2]

Throw the net further afield, and the most recent study that explored the relationship between scientists and religious faith shows that over 51% of currently active professional scientists in the last 10 years have a religious belief.[3]

Clearly this data makes a compelling case that it is not a disadvantage to have a religious belief when it comes to an analytical job like a field of science. Actually – as an aside – I would argue that ALL people have a faith position. Everyone. We just disagree on the identity of the real God.

In summary then, I feel the assumption that atheists are smarter than Christians is not borne out in the field of science. In fact, the data might suggest the opposite conclusion, as more religious believers are Nobel Laureates.

Second – because there is evidence that the conclusions of the Zuckerman study were driven by skewed data and (ironically) incorrect correlations between data and their conclusion.

The problems with this recent study are discussed in the video, “Are Atheists More Intelligent”[4] and they make a rational, analytical and critical case. They argue that there is evidence that:

  1. The higher our IQ, the more likely we are to have a blind spot on our personal biases.
  2. The Zuckerman study defines religiosity in a confusing way, focussing on extreme viewpoints rather than the mainstream and conflating different viewpoints. On mainstream religiosity the data does not suggest Christians are disadvantaged regarding intelligence.
  3. The study does not quantify how much more intelligent atheists are compared to religious believers.
  4. Believers outnumber atheists in this study by 9 to 1. The equations they use does not work on this sort of skew in the data, so it generates misleading results that suggests atheists IQ was significantly higher. Yet this is not seen in the data they used. This renders the study results meaningless.
  5. Their measure of intelligence was completely non-standard, and ignored the gold standard measurements – Wechslier Adult Scale of Intelligence (WAIS) and Stanford Binet Test. They didn’t properly correlate religiosity to these gold standards.
  6. When they included university GPA scores, the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers was virtually non-existent and too small to have any practical significance. Did they choose not to include this measure because it adversely affected their misleading conclusions to the study? I wonder.

The folks analysing this study suggest that what is happening here is that Zuckerman et al are actually shoe-horning their own anti-Christian biases into this data.

Third – because there is mounting evidence that Christians in post Christian cultures are smart people.

Inspiring Philosophy also cite another recent study which makes an interesting observation about Christians in post-Christian cultures. In countries like England (where I happen to live), the link between analytical thinking and religiosity reverses. Here, it’s the atheists who tend towards less analytical thought. Why? Because for most people, there is a desire to conform to the mainstream, which may be atheism. The deeper thinkers are the ones who choose a different view on religiosity.

“In cultures where institutional religion is waning and where acceptance of atheism arises from tendencies to conform, it is possible that cognitive reflection may predict the rejection of atheism, a matter for future investigation.”[5]

This seems to suggest that people with low analytic intelligence tend to confirm to the majority view, whatever that is. This study suggests that to be a Christian believer in post-Christian England clearly takes work and the application of intelligence.

Conclusion

Atheists aren’t smarter than Christians. Contrary to the bullying and intimidation that happens online, and the prejudice that is sometimes shown against Christian believers, there is no convincing reason to suggest that higher levels of analytical thinking lead to atheism. So Christians should not feel any need to feel intimidated by those who are simply going along with the crowd, and repeating old atheistic ideas. When you take a good look at them, these ideas really do not hold up to scrutiny.

 

[1] Zuckerman, Miron, et al, The Negative Intelligence-Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, October 2019, 10, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[2] John Lennox, How Many Nobel Prize Winners Believed in God, 23rd January 2019, accessed 26th January 2020, https://www.johnlennox.org/resources/145/how-many-nobel-prize-winners.

[3] Scientists and Belief, Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life, November 5th, 2009, accessed 26th January, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/.

[4] “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[5] Gervais, Will M. et al, Analytical Atheism: A Cross-Culturally Weak and Fickle Phenomenon?, 2017, 272, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

1917 as a Metaphor for Christian Commission

This hits me hard. The unwavering commitment shown by Schofield and Blake to get the truth thru to the right people in time. If you are a Christian who has ever felt inadequate in the face of the task of sharing the Christian good news…this story presents a useful analogy.

 

There is truth.

Truth is real. If we say, “There is no truth,” then we are contradicting ourselves because we are making a truth claim even as those words leave our mouths. No – truth is a daily human experience. These soldiers received the truth in the form of army intelligence and the consequences it has on the lives of others.

Christianity is about receiving truthful intel from the person who is responsible for putting people in this universe in the first place. The ultimate General. If we are people who deal in the currency of truth, then he made us that way. So truth exists and must be grounded in him. God.

 

They don’t doubt how vital the truth is.

When the soldiers hear the vital news, these guys buy it. Why? Because it’s their General that’s speaking to them. Their commanding officer’s commanding officer. There’s a look of utter resignation and horror in the officer’s face as he gives them their mission. And the stakes are high. They could not be higher. There’s an urgency in the truth. And these guys are the only ones tasked with acting on it.

What’s happening is – they are being trusted as carriers of the truth. And – if they don’t get the truth through – then a lot of people are going to suffer and die. The General trusts them with this truth – this causes them to grasp the message tightly. Whether or not the General actually believes they will succeed in the mission or not – is irrelevant for them.

That’s not to say Schofield and Blake have doubts. What’s the best way to embark on this mission? What happens if there are details we have been told aren’t quite right? Should we wait for more favourable conditions, or go now?

This is like a metaphor for the truth claims of Christianity. Truth is grounded in Jesus Christ. If the Jesus-message is true, then all people’s eternal lives are at risk. Whether the conditions are favourable or not, those of us commissioned to carry the truth need to get there to explain what is really going on, and what the truthful message is. When he was teaching, Jesus was like a General. Commissioning his friends with the vital truth.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV)

We’ve only got a narrow margin for error here, guys. We need to tell people to aim for the narrow safe gate. It’s the only safe way through for everyone! The stakes are high here.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, NIV)

 

They don’t allow the chaos of war to make them doubt the relevance of the truth for their audience.

As soon as Schofield and Blake leave the General’s bunker, they are faced with distractions. The film beautifully captures the chaos and horror of war. I use the word beautiful not to describe what it shows, but how it does it which looks and sounds exquisite to me. War is seen as moments of boredom punctuated with periods of utter terror, hope and despair. Periods where progress is made, and times when the pain is so raw that all one can do is weep.

But the machine of war is complex. All these different teams working hard on their assigned duties. Chains of command and reporting structures between people. Yet these two young guys are commanded to cut across all of it. They are told to ignore the machine of war and get to one person who is making the bad strategic decision. Because they accept that whatever is going on, their message is RELEVANT for the survival of many people. And this means they have to do two things.

First – ignore much of the activity around them. The voices that tell them to go a different way or even stay behind and do something else. No – as much as they do work to help other people, and do what they can, they cannot stop. They have a singular mission and they must achieve it or the results will be catastrophic.

Second – they must confidently engage the right people with the right questions. They need to ask the right questions to succeed on their mission. And they’ve got to be selective about who they speak to.

There is so much churn in life around about us today. We have jobs, mortgages, and the planet is in uproar about climate change, political upheavals and the impact of terrorism. It all matters. And yet – there’s a particular truthful message that has got to get through about Jesus. The narrow way. He is the only one that will ultimately get us through. So – we’ve got to avoid letting the complexity of life confuse or distract us. Maybe there is one person who really needs to hear this vital news in our life. Today. Yes we’ve got to be sensitive to the current needs of people in our lives, and we have tasks to perform now. But the ultimately important message about Jesus has to get through to that particular person. It just has. And maybe we are involved in getting the message to them.

 

They don’t allow the confusion of the people around about to cause them to lose a grasp on the truth for themselves.

One of the characters in this story has real skin in the game. His brother is bound to die unless this message gets through. So this message has relevance. Not just for people … but for family. And there are moments in their journey that could rightfully cause them to stop and to give up. To go back the way they came and stop carrying the message. But – they don’t stop. They keep going. Because this truth isn’t just about saving others. It is vital for their own lives and futures too.

Christianity is similar. Being a follower of Jesus is about being the carrier of vital news. Whatever happens around us – this remains true. However much life has tried to blow the stuffing out of us, we remain carriers of the good news. It is in us. God himself lives within us. And so yes, we may need to rest and heal, but then afterwards we must continue our mission. It is of utmost importance that we do this.

 

They keep going even though they feel inadequate to the task.

The whole point of this mission is that it is a launch out into the unknown. No one would feel adequate in these circumstances.

Jesus Christ commissioned his friends in a similar way to the General commissioning Schofield and Blake.

“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this …” (Matthew 28:18-20, The Msg)

No one would feel adequate for this task. But Jesus is better than a military General ever could be. Because he joins us on our perilous journey.

Jesus isn’t just a great teacher trying to add useful helpful ideas that people can benefit from. He has a lifesaving message that needs to get thru.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” (John 3:16-18, The Msg)

The “Faith” of Dracula

In their new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have said they continued to respect the Christian themes that run through the original novel. The Count still cringes at the sight of the cross, and the church is central.  By the way – if you are thinking of watching the new Dracula series – be warned that it is not for the feint hearted. There are some very gruesome scenes in there.

I am a fan of Gatiss and Moffat. But I must say, while I agree that they have included Christian characters and situations, I don’t think they really understand what Christianity is. They may claim they are building on Christian history in this story. I’m skeptical. Tho I agree they absolutely are building on the tradition of horror cinema from the past 40 years.

One of their most interesting characters is Sister Agatha, played by Dolly Wells. She appears to be a snarky and disillusioned Catholic Nun with an analytic mind. I enjoyed the way she worked to outwit the infamous Count. The story, particularly in the first episode, is masterfully crafted by Moffat and Gatiss. BUT- I was bemused by their understanding of the word “faith.”

At one point in the first episode, Sister Agatha rolls her eyes at the seeming naivety of the other sisters in her religious order. “Have faith,” they encouraged her. Agatha’s reply is piercing.

“Faith is a sleeping draft for children and simpletons. What we must have is a plan.”

The phrase “sleeping draught” comes from Stoker’s original novel, and I think it refers to the shot of whisky or strong spirit that people may take to help them fall sleep at night. What Agatha is saying is that faith is dangerous because it lulls us to sleep. Faith causes us to lose our creative edge, and that is dangerous for intelligent people who are true problem solvers. If we are wise, we will avoid religious faith.

I would suggest that this shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of Christian faith. While it’s dramatically powerful to show Sister Agatha as a disillusioned Nun, to hear her confusion about Christianity is – well – rather odd. It’s the current post-Christian cultural confusion about the roots of Western society … placed into a devout character in a historical setting. That’s weird and anachronistic to me.

 

What’s Faith?

Well – it’s not a complicated or even a particularly religious idea. Faith simply means – confidence, trust and reliance.

 

What’s the Misunderstanding Today?

The problem is, our culture has swallowed the idea that there is a disconnect between faith and evidence and reason. In fact, people today (including the writers of Dracula) think faith is the OPPOSITE of reason. We get that from Sister Agatha. When we learn about something, the need for faith vanishes. But more than that, our culture dismisses Christianity because it they don’t think it contains anything knowable…the need of faith betrays the pointlessness of religion. “One needs faith in religious or moral claims because there is no knowledge that these claims are true, no evidence either way for them.”[1] If that’s the sort of religion that Sister Agatha is embroiled in, then no wonder she is disillusioned and wants to run from it. It’s pointless and, in the face of a cunning enemy, highly dangerous. But you need to know – this is not – and never has been – what Christianity is about.

Quite the opposite. If “faith” is really about confidence, trust and reliance then in those terms, knowledge is absolutely crucial. Why? Because we cannot trust something or someone we do not know anything about. Knowledge is essential in the building of that trust! Do you see the misunderstanding about faith in the words of Sister Agatha?

 

Replying to Sister Agatha

Is faith about being simple, and not knowing?

Not at all. Faith is about knowledge. The Greek word “notitia” refers to the CONTENT of faith. This is learning about how to develop a Christian understanding of the world, and what the Bible teaches. I’ve spent many years on this task, and there is so MUCH to know and contend for. In fact, it inspired this blog. The Jude in the New Testament wrote:

“I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”[2]

Clearly there is much to KNOW and apply in life. And more than that, we must proactively stand up for this in culture around us.

Is faith about turning off our rational faculties?

In my experience, the opposite is involved when growing in faith. Why? Partly because of “notitia,” the knowing element. But it is also because of a second element.

Faith is about agreement, or “assensus.” Personal agreement to live this way. This means that its not enough to rationally grasp and know the contents of Christianity. We also have to ACCEPT this teaching as true.

There may be very good reasons why we may not want to do that. Maybe the teaching is hard! Why? Because it challenges some deeply held patterns of behaviour in my life that are wrong, but I do not want to give up. I know its right to change. I just don’t want to. Or, maybe my prior experience has left me struggling to accept what Christianity says. If I grew up in an abusive home environment, accepting God as father may be really hard for me!

Is faith is about becoming passive and not acting?

Again – absolutely not. The Greek word “fiducia” is used to describe this in faith terms. We have to wilfully choose to commit to, and partner with God in every aspect of our lives. Christianity isn’t a set of abstract terms. Its actually an engagement with a God who we can know. And its about actually having a life that reflects what Christianity is.

 

So – does faith involve an absence of rationality, engagement and action? Absolutely not – it requires the most from us in all three areas!

 

How would I reply to Sister Agatha? “We don’t need faith … we need a plan,” she said. Can you see now that a proper understanding of faith involves gathering all the resources for approaching life and its challenges? (I’m assuming this also applies to the undead but I’ve not tried it) And even more than that, it is about facing these challenges together with God, not on our own.

 

“To trust Him is not a leap in the dark, but it is a venture none the less. It is a venture of courage and not of despair, of insight and not of bewilderment.”

P. T. Forsyth, The Creative Theology of P. T. Forsyth

 

[1] J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2008), 18.

[2] Jude 3.

 

Best of 2019

Hope you had a great holiday period, and I warmly wish you all the best for 2020. May this be a decade that is full of exciting new opportunities for you.

 

This year, I continued submitting content and my readership grew. Thanks to everyone who helped me there! I also further refined the purpose of Respond blog.

 

The Purpose of Respond blog

My aim is to present compelling arguments that support the Christian worldview. In as much as people wish to discuss aspects of these arguments, I’m very happy and willing to do so. It is one of the reasons I invest my time in this blog, in fact.

For those who simply wish to “shout down” my blog, then my response is – “Okay. God bless you. Feel free to move along now.” My goal is absolutely not to shout louder than these folks. Quite the opposite. I am confident in the cogency of these arguments. I do not need to shout louder.

Please feel free to discuss the arguments and associated conclusions in a congenial manner … I wish to talk in this way, thank you.

 

The Top Four Blogs

Of the 67 blogs I published this year, my most popular posts are:

#1 DNA and an Argument for God

I’m arguing that biology isn’t simply like highly engineered artifacts of engineering, biology really is a highly engineered artefact in its own right.

 

#2 Couldn’t God Create a World Where Evil Doesn’t Exist?

I’m arguing that God cannot create a world of genuinely freely willed creatures, where there is no evil present in that world.

 

#3 Why Doesn’t God Save People From Natural Disasters?

Apart from the story of my own one time – seemingly miraculous rescue, here I’m arguing that it would not do us any good if God miraculously rescued everyone all the time.

 

#4 “Evolution” Doesn’t Get You to Human Morality

Despite what many people think, I’m furthering the argument that evolutionary arguments don’t get you to human morality. They don’t even get us to truth, because they are only about survival.

 

Most Influential Books

I’ve read lots this year. And I’ve grown as a Christian believer. Here’s are my top four. I heartily recommend all of them to you.

Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis

I used to view C S Lewis as a distant and brilliant academic. He is still both of these things. But, he’s also a man after my own heart. His journey from childhood belief to hardened and cynical atheism thru to full devotion to Christ and the life of the Christian mind…is truly breath taking to me. I am so grateful to Lewis for writing his autobiography. And I’m also grateful to Jerry Root for opening it up to me this year in a fresh and compelling way.

Pierced for Our Transgressions, Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach

Often, I find people’s understanding of how the Bible presents the crucifixion of Christ to be simplistic and one dimensional. I’m aware that often I treat it in simplistic ways myself. But in Pierced, I’ve seen a wonderful treatment of the issues and the implications of the death of the Son of God, his punishment in our place.

The Soul, J. P. Moreland

I have made further advances in understanding “substance dualism” this year. And I am indebted to the beautiful soul who is J. P. Moreland for teaching me. Both in the classroom at BIOLA University, and this glorious yet accessible treatment.

Scientism and Secularism, J. P. Moreland

It is – quite simply – a myth that Christianity is at war with 21st century science. It isn’t. They are complementary. My thumb and my forefinger might point in different directions. But used together, I can grasp things. Well, J. P. lays out the real enemy of the Christian faith today. It’s called scientism, the idea that only the application of the scientific method is capable of attaining real truth and truthful discovery. Apart from the fact that this statement is self-contradictory, it is also highly noxious and dangerous for people. Whether we realise this or not!

It is the Most Spiritual of All The Trek Movies

A vast cloud has been detected in outer space, and it’s heading toward Earth. Every being who has crossed its path has been lost. Admiral James Tiberius Kirk sees in this crisis an opportunity to escape a tedious desk job, and get back to his first love. Hopping galaxies in the star ship he used to call home.

So begins Star Trek the Motion Picture (TMP), which is – to my mind – the most spiritually aware of all the classic Trek movies. It’s also probably the most “Star Trek” of those films, because it touches on themes that affect us all. No, it doesn’t have “God” in it, or the famous line “What does God need with a star ship?” That’s left to the inferior Star Trek V. But the spiritual themes are more mature and deeply embedded in this first one.

During the torturous pre-production period for TMP, the Paramount Studio executives reportedly urged Gene Rodenberry to elevate the story to religious sorts of levels. They didn’t want a swash buckling Star Trek on the big screen. They wanted 2001 a Space Odyssey, a thoughtful and inspiring tale.[1] Right or wrong, I think that’s kind of what they produced.

It is forty years since TMP was released. I vividly remember going to see it in Glasgow during Christmas 1979. Of being amazed by how incredible it looked, but confused by the different feel to the TV Show I loved. Yet even as a youngster, I sensed the weighty themes at play in this movie.

So – what spiritual themes are found here? Someone might say – “It was just slow. It dragged. It was boring. Just like church is.” Well, that’s not quite what I was thinking of.

The Need to Know Who We Came From

It turns out that the cloud threat, V’Ger, is heading to Earth. But not to destroy it. Rather, V’Ger is travelling vast distances to meet with and to eventually join with its creator. Spoiler alert – V’Ger is actually NASA’s Voyager 6 probe, repurposed by a distant and advanced civilisation that made it sentient and sent it home again.

There’s a sense in which mankind’s religions have a similar aim. It is the attempt of the individual to somehow reach and to understand the greater reality, the one who is responsible for us being here in the first place or some state of ultimate spiritual fulfilment. So many people want to somehow relating to this bigger reality that has to do with where they came from. In the TV cut of TMP, Commander Decker actually says that V’Ger has done what people do, it has make God in their own image.[2]

The Need to Become, So That We Can Know

As the star ship Enterprise intercepts the cloud, V’Ger has to take the form of a member of the Enterprise bridge crew in order to engage and interact with Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest. They lose their bridge officer, Lieutenant Ilia, only for her to return again in a slightly different form. While taking a shower. Go figure!

By using Ilea, V’Ger trying to understand and engage with the crew of the Enterprise, to learn everything it can, becoming like them so that it can know and understand more. V’Ger has to change itself, and take on something knew so it can know more.

The Need to Live a Significant Life

Admiral Kirk has been on his own quest, to recover past glories, and get back to his hearts deepest desires. Being Captain of a star ship. Yet in doing so, he finds that the Enterprise has changed. She’s not the same vessel she used to be.

Kirk has a need for fulfilment in life, of feeling that he is able to contribute in a significant way. Surely this is a longing within each of us? And it has similarities to the longings within V’Ger. Is this all I am? Is there nothing more? Kirk intuitively knows what he’s good at, and he wants to reclaim this position at all costs. Even if he must sacrifice other people to achieve it. Perhaps he realises that life is short, and in the end you need to spend the years you’ve got doing what you love, and doing something that makes a difference somehow?

The Journey to the Next Level of Life

Probably my favourite character arc is that of Spock. Kirk’s friend has been on a quest of his own for 10 years since we last saw him. His aim has been to finally purge all emotion from his life thru Kolinahr. And yet tragically Spock has failed in this quest. In an attempt to understand why, he realises that he must discover just what V’Ger is and what it’s aims are. And he uses the Enterprise and her crew to do that. But are his aims noble? Or … like Kirk may be doing … would he put his needs above those of others on the ship? It’s a fascinating tension there in the second act of the story.

Spock’s overall journey is one of abject failure which results in a reconnection with the people who had previously been his adopted family on board the star ship Enterprise. Spock finds what he needs in his interactions with V’Ger, and experiences a break thru from the failures and disappointments of the past into a new place of purpose and significance and belonging in his own life.

What about Bones? Sadly – he’s just along for the ride in this picture! What a shame.

The Need to Know and Be Known

V’Ger, has been travelling the universe learning all that can be known. Who cannot relate to the sense that there is so much that we do not know? But we have the urge to learn more. And what about so many big questions? Who am I and what is my purpose in life? I long to understand. Yet there is more. More than knowing answers, is actually being known by another. Personal intimacy is more important and vital than all the learning one can do, particularly with the one who originally created us.

 

The Themes

It turns out, Star Trek the Motion Picture is a story about knowing:

  • Knowing that you have managed to make contact with the person who created you
  • Changing to become like someone else so you can know what they are like.
  • Knowing what you want, and doing everything you can to get it.
  • Knowing that you have failed, and needing to find out whether you can move to the next stage of your life or not.
  • Coming to the realisation that knowing everything that can be known is not enough. The more important thing – is being known by the one that made you.

 

Christianity

It is fascinating for me then that, while TMP reflects human spirituality in its thematic structure, it is a very human form of religion we find there. Yet Christianity turns the tables on this very human search for meaning and knowledge. We might not realise it, but Christianity shows that it is not possible for the creature to restlessly reach for the greater thing. In the end it’s not mankind’s role to be like V’Ger, and seek to join with its creator. Actually it is the opposite. God comes looking for us instead.

Are Christians making God in our image here? Well, who would have imagined that the transcendent creator would stoop so low as to come in search of little me. It’s an absurd suggestion, it’s wonderful, it’s Christianity.

God wants to be known by me, and is willing to find us to let that happen. We are the people who have gotten lost and are in deep need of being rescued. God’s the one looking for us, not the other way around. He has the resources to become like us to find us, and to help us know what our purpose is in life. He can help us connect with him, to achieve what V’Ger, Kirk and Spock were all trying to get to. A life of true meaning, being known and loved for ever.

 

 

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means “God with us”).” Matthew 1:23, NIV

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10, NIV

Though he was God,[a]
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges[b];
he took the humble position of a slave[c]
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,[d]
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:6-11, NLT

 

[1] They were also confused about whether they wanted a movie or a new TV series. Eventually, Star Trek Phase II was dropped in favour of a new movie in the wake of the success of Star Wars at the box office.

[2] “In Thy Image” is actually a title for a proposed episode for a new Star Trek series which never happened, and instead was used as an inspiration for TMP.

Is the Reported Birth Place of Jesus Fictional?

Bethlehem. Skeptics have sometimes rolled their eyes at the claim that Jesus was born there … in Bethlehem. “There’s no good evidence,” they say.

 

What’s their argument? Well, Dickson lays out a common skeptical argument that goes like this.[1]

 

The Argument Against Bethlehem

First – the gospels of Mark and John do not claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Second – one Old Testament prophecy declares that the Jewish Messiah will come from Bethlehem.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

    though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me

    one who will be ruler over Israel,

whose origins are from of old,

    from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2, NIV)

Surely the gospels that do mention Bethlehem as Jesus birthplace HAD to place him there to fit with the old prophecy in Micah?

Think of this like an example of first century “retcon.” Movies and books do this all the time, bringing in new information to impose a different interpretation on previously described events. If you’ve ever watched a prequel to an established movie, you’ve probably experienced retcon.

So the skeptic is claiming that gospel writers were just bringing in a new but false piece of evidence to retcon Jesus’ real birthplace so that his birth would seem to fit with Micah 5:2, he would appear more linked to the Davidic line, and therefore he would look more Messianic!

 

I don’t buy it. Why?

 

The Argument For Bethlehem

First – because just as important as the fact that Mark and John do not mention Bethlehem, Matthew and Luke absolutely do! The silence of two gospels cannot be louder than the clear statements of the other two. For example:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” (Matthew 2:1, NIV)

 

“So Joseph also went … to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David… While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” (Luke 2:4 – 6, NIV)

 

Second – if Mark and Luke didn’t feel it was important to retcon the story and “place” Jesus in Bethlehem, then what is the evidence that Matthew and Luke DID retcon the story of Jesus’ birth? There is no evidence. If this was a manufactured, rather than a true incidental detail in the gospel account, you would expect all of them to follow each other in the retcon. They don’t. So this tends to neutralize the sceptical argument.

Herod Killing the Male Children in Bethlehem

Here’s a bonus point.

Sometimes skeptics also roll their eyes at the claim in Matthew’s gospel that King Herod tried to kill the baby Jesus by slaughtering all the new born male children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16) “There’s no historical evidence,” they say.

Well – Matthew’s gospel is giving you historical evidence. But why do you expect this event to be recorded by anyone else, like the Roman historian Josephus? He doesn’t mention the killing of the male babies. But so what?

Bethlehem was a little hamlet in the first century. Why do you think any historian would have such a small, localized and minor atrocity on their radar? Particularly given the much bigger atrocities that King Herod is reported to have committed, like killing a group of dignitaries to make sure that people grieved at the time of his death, and did not give a sigh of relief![2] Surely you would only expect a writer who is particularly focussed on the birth of a single child – Jesus – to think it important to record this event? That’s what Matthew was doing.

Conclusion

It is very reasonable then just to take Matthew and Luke at face value, and accept that Jesus was born in the little town of Bethlehem.

 

[1] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

[2] Josephus, Antiquities, 17.6.174–175.

 

An Astrophysicist Talks About the First Christmas Star

Christmas is all about twinkling lights. It’s one of the special things that makes this season so magical for little ones. And – of course – every year, it means we adults need to untangle the Christmas lights again from our box of decorations. Hey – I put these away so carefully back in January. Why are they in such a tangle now?!

Matthew’s gospel describes a star … a particular aspect of Jesus’ birth that is recorded in a curious way. He records that Magi (wise men from a King’s court) arrived in Jerusalem from the East. “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2, NASB) Clearly they were putting 2 + 2 together here? Both an astronomical sign … and probably prophetic promises from the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament). For example, Numbers 24:17 says,

I see him, but not now;

I behold him, but not near.

A star will come out of Jacob;    

    a scepter will rise out of Israel.[1]

But as these Magi continue their journey, the star is said to guide them. “…they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.” (Matthew 2:9, NASB)

It seems like an odd way of describing what was going on. But, like the other details we read in the Christmas story, it is very specific. It’s described from the perspective of people on the ground, but  how could a star be seen to lead these Magi?

Astrophysicist Luke Barnes observes that the great thing about cosmology is that you can wind time back and predict what was going on in our night sky at a point in history. So, we should be able to determine what was going on at the time of Jesus’ birth (around 5 BC, described here.) Luke says there are three main theories about what the “star” recorded by Matthew could have been.[2]

 

First – it could have been a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. When this occurs, from our vantage point on earth, we see the two planets cross over each other and so they appear much brighter in the sky and can be mistaken for a star. A triple conjunction is named this way because the crossover happens 3 times over a period of a month, or so. Appearing at different points in the night sky.

But did this happen at that time? There was one that occurred around 7 BC. But that seems a little early for Jesus birth.

 

Second – it could have been a nova or supernova, a vast nuclear explosion in space which is visible to us on earth. Astrophysicists are able to examine the remains of the star to work out when it blew up, so they can date the nova. Historical record and astro-evidence agree that a nova was visible in the sky in 1054 AD. We are not aware of one dated 5 BC (when Jesus was born), though Barnes admits we may simply not have found it yet.

 

Third – it could also have been a comet. The word for “star” is understood to be used by the ancients to refer to comets. Roman historians Josephus and Pliney both refer to them as signalling good or bad omens.

The thing about a comet is that it is indeed moving, and we can observe that from our vantage point on earth. So, over a period of weeks and months, it could conceivably be seen by the Magi from their perspective in the East, then the West and the South.

Of course, the thing about a comet is that it also has a visible tail caused be dust and gas being given off by the object as it travels thru space. Perhaps if the tail was seen as pointing upwards, then it could look to people like a pointer pointing down at a particular point, and so “standing over” Bethlehem. Also, the star and sceptre in that prophecy from Numbers 24 sounds like it could describe how a comet might look to the naked eye.

But are there any good candidates for this comet in history?

Haley’s comet was visible around 12 BC, which would be too early. However, Chinese astronomers claim to have evidence of a visible comet around 5 BC. The record is not very complete tho. There’s no record of it moving across the sky, although it would be reasonable to assume that it could have done that from the perspective of our planet.

 

Summary

While this subject has been debated for a long time, there seem to be reasonable candidates for the astronomical event described in Matthew’s account for the birth of Christ. But does a natural account of the star empty the story of any supernatural quality? After all, Jesus birth is described as being very special indeed. This wasn’t just any birth, it was the event when God came to earth to live as a person. Well, it seems to me that miracles aren’t just about God stepping into the physical universe at a point in time. They are also about God giving particular and special meaning to natural occurrences in the normal course of events. Surely, that could describe what was going on then in the night sky?

[1] Numbers 24:17, NIV.

[2] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.