RESPONDblog: Christianity’s Not As Mysterious As You Think

I found myself at Vasquez Rocks National Park this weekend. Actually – this was completely intentional. I was hunting for a shooting location used by the makers of the Original Series of Star Trek from the 1960s. What can I tell you…? I’m nerdy like that.

The episode I was thinking of is called “Arena”; Captain Kirk finds himself facing the war like Gorn creature on the surface of an asteroid with a suspiciously “earth-like” atmosphere. Which is handy. A superior race, the Metrones, have decided that Kirk must fight his adversary to the death. Not so superior, eh? In reality – William Shatner was acting his socks off with a poor guy sweating in a green rubber suit.

I wanted to find the spot where their iconic battle happened. After all…I remember watching the episode as a child.

My strategy on arriving at Vasquez Rocks National Park was to launch myself “Kirk like” into the mysterious and rugged countryside…to explore various trails and various rock formations in the 35 degree heat. “That looks kinda familiar…maybe they filmed it there? Oh no – hang on – maybe it was here? Man…I’m hot.”

After an hour or so trudging around in the oven like heat…I returned to the visitors centre for a rest. I sensed that I hadn’t really found what I was looking for. Walking back to the car…I noticed a big sign that I had driven past an hour ago when I first entered the park. It read, “To the Rocks” – with a big arrow pointing up a well built road to my left.

Genius that I am – I asked myself – “Hang on. Why don’t I follow that arrow…and just drive up that road? I wonder what’s up there?” I jumped into the car…drove up the signposted road…and eventually arrived at a large visitors car park. Exiting the car…I looked around. I was already hot…but I was getting warmer. I recognised these rock formations.

I began chatting on Twitter with my friend Alan. I explained what I was doing and – very helpfully – he sent me an image of the Star Trek episode that showed the location I was looking for. I gulped at the image on my phone screen. Raising my head, I looked again at the entrance to the visitors car park I had just driven through.

Would you believe it?

Star Trek had filmed the iconic Gorn battle scene HERE – within the visitors car park at the end of the road!! Of course. With so much equipment…the lights and cameras transported by truck…the film crew needed a wide space to set things up. It made perfect sense to use the car park. It’s slightly disappointing to me though that the scene was captured…in a car park. This Star Trek episode has lost some of its mystique to me now…

On reflection – I made this trip much much harder for myself than it needed to be. I hadn’t actually rewatched the episode on Netflix before travelling to the location…I was working from memories and assumptions in my head about what the location looked like. Life would have been easier…if I’d just googled a picture first. Worse – when I arrived at the park…I didn’t follow the clear and obvious signage that was provided and staring me in the face! I decided to purposefully wander off into the countryside instead.

In the end…finding what I was looking for was really easy and straightforward. It just required me to look at the source material…and follow the obvious instructions that were available.

It occurred to me as I reflected on these hilarious mistakes, that this might not be too different from how many people approach Christianity. One friend…sceptical of Christianity… said to me recently, “Why don’t I get it like you, Stuart?”

Well – maybe its like me hunting for the iconic Kirk vs the Gorn location without watching the episode first? We’re relying on our half remembered ideas about what Christianity is about…but why don’t we just go back and look at what it actually IS all about? The life of Jesus as documented in the New Testament. How about we actually read what, say, the Gospel of Mark actually records that Jesus said and did?

Further, so many people I’ve spoken to assume that the claims of Christianity are unreliable today. Their starting assumption is that the history of Christianity is very complicated…and so one needs to dig really deeply to work out what actually happened to cause the Christian church 2000 years ago. And frankly – that is too much work for most people. Well – perhaps we are missing the clear and obvious signpost that is staring us right in the face? We’ve dived off into the countryside…and come up with nothing useful as a result. And we’ve probably given up. Instead – why don’t we come back to the starting point and follow the clear signage that has been provided to lead us to what we’re looking for? Stop assuming its hard and complicated – and just follow the road and see where it takes us?

You know, historians have identified that the oldest and so the earliest description of Christian belief is recorded in 1 Corinthians 15. There’s an ancient creed written there in this letter that predates all of the layer gospel biographies of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) by decades. The creed itself may date to just a few months after Jesus’ crucifixion…capturing what the first Christians stood for. This is the clear and obvious signage that I’m talking about. What does it say?

“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born”

1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NIV

It’s not complicated. Its laid out clearly. Just follow the signpost. Jesus was raised from the dead – this fact was widely accepted and assumed by both friends and enemies of Christianity during the 1st century. The first Jesus followers worked to help other people become friends and followers of this Jesus too. He was crucified on a cross, but he’s not a dead, ancient figure of history. He’s a vital and real person who is still alive today.

So why don’t we get this? Possibly because…we think we know better. Can I suggest to you…from experience…that we don’t know better. Christianity is worth “getting”. It really is. And it’s not hard to do. It just requires us to lay aside our wrong thinking…and follow the evidence provided.

As I drove away from Vasquez Rocks and pointed my car to home, I laughed out loud as I joined highway I-14. What did I find funny? You can actually plainly see the Star Trek shooting location as you drive up the highway! It’s SO obvious. It’s clearly laid out for all to see…it’s not mysterious..not hidden away in some obscure spot in the desert.

All you have to do to find what you need…is first not convince yourself that finding it is just too hard. And second, follow those signs that point to Jesus Christ.

RESPONDblog: Is it Rational to Believe in God when there is Evil?

Is it rational and coherent for the Christian to believe that God exists and he is good while staring into the face of so many distressing and disturbing things going on in our lives? The evils we face; the brutal illnesses that cut people down in their prime; the painful situations that leave us speechless with grief. Is it rational and responsible to believe in God while we are sobbing the question, “Why?”

Before his conversion to theism, Anthony Flew didn’t think so and he made a compellingly case against belief. Flew’s argument is summarised by Steve Grant as follows:

“We are told that God loves us, and the sceptic points to a child dying of inoperable throat cancer. The loving father is frantic with worry, but God does not intervene. Does God loves us? And the theist claims, ‘God’s love is not merely a human love.’…If allowing a child to die horribly when one has the power to prevent it does not conflict with the claim that God loves us, then it starts to become unclear as to whether or not the theist is really using the word ‘love’ in a way which is recognisable…’What would have to occur…to constitute for you a disproof of the love of God, or of the existence of God?’”[1]

I would agree that when investigating a hypothesis using the scientific method, that we need to agree on some way to test a theory, to establish a set of criteria such that if they were met they would ultimately falsify our theory. If we don’t allow any criteria to undermine our theory…then it’s not a good scientific theory and we are trying to conceal that.

But to apply this process to Christianity is to misunderstand the Christian’s faith in God; like so much we take for granted in life, relationships are not scientific theories; either is Christianity. Is belief in God a sound choice, even though the Christian struggles to understand the causes of evil and the answer to the question, “Why?” Doesn’t my confusion ultimately falsify my belief in God?

I think the answer is no. For a start, the test is not yet complete; all the results are not yet in.

But in a deeper way, I’ll explain why I think the answer’s no by referring to Basil Mitchell’s “Parable of the Resistance Fighter”.

The parable asks us to imagine we are fighting the Nazis in occupied France during the War. Os Guinness, a pupil of Basil Mitchell, describes the scene:

“Imagine I come to you in a bar and I say to you, ‘I hear you want to join the local resistance. Well, I’m the local resistance leader. So, let’s talk for a while; ask me anything you want to know. But if you decide to join the resistance tonight, then you must agree to obey me BLINDLY. We will never speak openly like this again because it’s just too dangerous to do so.”[2]

In a sense, the Christian has become convinced of two essential truths. First, that God is there and second that he is good.

For myself, it is the person of Jesus Christ who has led me to both of those conclusions.

  • If God is the Father of Jesus…
  • if Jesus promises God’s love to each one who believes…
  • and if God raises Jesus from the dead specifically to show that God has validated Jesus’ work…

…then I’m in. Sign me up. And having signed up – I then choose to take a crucial step. I choose to trust God in the dark; when I don’t understand what’s going on in life and why it is happening.

Think back to the resistance leader for a moment.

Let’s say that following our conversation with him in the bar, we agree to join the resistance. Well – we’ve agreed to trust the leader – even though we don’t understand everything that he will be doing during the fight. There will be times we get confused, when it looks like he is helping the Nazis…not opposing them. But we are part of the resistance…we’ve got to hold on and keep trusting both the leader and his motives blindly.

Eventually, the end of the war will come, everything that is hidden is made public. All the codes are released, the motives behind the resistance leader’s confusing actions are finally laid bare for all to see. Then…ah…of course…that’s what he was doing…it’s obvious! He was resisting all along. But while we are in the heart of enemy territory…it’s a different story[3].

In a sense – the Christian is in enemy territory right now. Awful things are happening in this world today, sceptics point Christians to unsettling passages in the Old Testament. Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice his own son? No honest follower of Jesus will claim to have all the answers to the question “Why?” She is in the dark on much of it.

Yet – the Christian is still rational to maintain trust that God is there and he is good.

Os Guinness explains why.

“We can say God – I trust you. Even though I don’t understand what is happening right now. Yet one day, perhaps we will know why. This is a faith that simply knows what it NEEDS to know right now; that God is there and he is good. So, we can trust him even though right now…in enemy territory…we are in the dark.”[4]

Is it rational and coherent for the Christian to say that they believe God exists and is good in the face of so much distress? Yes. The rationality of one’s trust in God is founded on the person of Christ, and is not undermined by everything we do not understand. We’ve got to hold on, to watch this world – and the evil within it – to play out and conclude. To do what we can to resist it.

But the war is not over.

Yet.

[1] Steve Grant, Talking about God, Richmond Journal of Philosophy 9, Spring 2005, accessed 15th March 2017, http://www.richmond-philosophy.net/rjp/back_issues/rjp9_grant.pdf.

[2] Os Guinness, The Journey: A Thinking Person’s Quest for Meaning, The Veritas Forum, accessed 15th March 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOXzgs7Tyys.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

RESPONDblogs: Do Any Natural Explanations for the RESURRECTION Work?

emptyWhen it comes to identifying the most plausible explanation for an event…we start by gathering the eyewitness evidence and testimony about this event. And once the evidence has been marshalled, we then begin the job of finding a theory that best fits all the evidence and gives an explanation FOR the event.

This process will throw up many different theories. But the better theories will be the ones with the widest explanatory scope. In other words, the theories which best fit with the most of the available data. We have a problem to deal with when we have theories that require us to throw some established data away. Any explanatory theory that requires us to throw data away is not a good theory.

 

In the 1st Century, over 500 people in and around Jerusalem claimed that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead. It sparked a movement that in 2016 has 2.5 billion followers – CHRISTIANITY. Why did it spark this movement? Because the resurrection of Jesus confirmed the claims of Jesus – that he was the Messiah, God himself, and he had come to begin setting up God’s Kingdom.

I’ve attached below the uncontested historical facts that Christian and non-Christian historians agree on surrounding the death of Jesus and the birth of the Christian Church.

I’ve also gathered the bulk of the natural and supernatural theories that have been proposed over the last 2000 years since the claims of Jesus’ Resurrection were first made. There are 13 theories which try to explain the Resurrection event. What you can see – is that all the naturalistic theories bar one have a big problem. The numbers under each theory indicate which elements of historical data we must throw away if we are to stick with this theory. These theories have poor explanatory scope. They require us to throw established facts away. They are not good theories.

There are only two theories that fit with all the established facts. One naturalistic theory – and one supernatural theory.

EITHER

Jesus was an alien. I don’t find this explanation convincing. Because “Jesus is an alien” in a Star Trek way basically just paints a bullseye around the facts…and fires the Starship Enterprise at it. This explanation ironically explains nothing at all. But personally I like this theory because I love space movies. And I think in a very real sense…that Jesus was alien…but he wasn’t from another Galaxy. He simply wasn’t originally from our Universe.

OR

Jesus was who he said He was and God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead at that point in history to confirm the ongoing narrative that had been running for millennia…and continues to run…about the establishment of the Kingdom of God. It fits with a Judeo-Christian understanding of the past and the Christian expectation for the future. It clarifies it, and it explains it in a powerful way.

 

It seems to me as I look at the data and the possible theories, that the one that best fits the data, is the explanation that the first Christians themselves proposed. That on the first Easter Sunday, God raised Jesus from the dead.

 

1 – HISTORICAL FACTS

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. He was buried.
  3. Jesus’ death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope, believing that his life was ended.
  4. The tomb was discovered to be empty just a few days later.
  5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.
  6. The disciples were transformed from doubters who were afraid to identify themselves with Jesus to bold proclaimers of his death and resurrection.
  7. This message was the centre of preaching in the early church.
  8. The message was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was buried shortly before.
  9. As a result of this preaching the church was born and grew.
  10. Sunday became the primary day of worship.
  11. James, brother of Jesus, who had been a sceptic was converted to the faith when he also believed he saw the resurrected Jesus.
  12. A few years later, Paul was also converted by an experience which he, likewise, believed to be an appearance of the risen Jesus.

[1]

 

2 – NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL THEORIES

naturalistic_theories

[2]

 

[1] Craig Hazen, Evidence for the Resurrection, Biola University.

[2] Ibid.

RESPONDblogs: Was Jesus Tomb LOST rather than EMPTY?

thelosttomb

Recently, there was a startling claim made by Israeli Geologist Doctor Aryeh Shimron – “the Son of God was buried with nine other people, including Judah, son of Jesus and his wife, named Mary.” In other words – Dr Shimron is claiming that scientific methods have been used to refute and dismiss the 2000 year old Christian claim that God raised Jesus of Nazareth physically from the dead following his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities during the AD 30s.

This is fascinating – but when one looks at what he is saying – the case he proposes is pretty weak to me.

The tomb in question is not a new discovery at all. The Talpiot tomb was unearthed during the 1980s. And the original case for identifying the Talpiot tomb as the permanent resting place of Jesus of Nazareth and his wife and children took quite a stretch of the imagination.

This case was made back in 2007 when movie director James Cameron (I’m a big fan of his movies) made a big media splash claiming that the final resting place of Jesus had been identified…his documentary entitled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” focussed on the Talpiot tomb. This became a great exercise in film making and marketing – but according to Doctor Gary Habermas…there wasn’t much solid history being done.

Cameron’s excitement was down to the discovery of Ossuaries bearing names. First century Jewish custom was to return to the grave a year after your loved one’s interment; at this point the burial clothes only contained their bones. The bones were retrieved from the tomb and placed in an Ossuary which then usually remained in the tomb. In the Talpiot tomb, various Ossuaries were discovered bearing familiar names, including Yeshua bar Yehosef (Jesus son of Joseph), Maria (Mary), Yose (Joseph/ Jose), Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah son of Jesus) and Mariamene e Mara (Miriam and Martha).

Could this represent evidence that Jesus of Nazareth died a normal human death? There is a box with his name on it containing bones, after all. What of the claim that Jesus of Nazareth married Mary Megdelene (Mariamene) and bore a son named Judah? Is this a reasonable inference based on the available evidence?

The majority of scholars who work in this field of history claim no it is not – many problems and unwarranted assumptions are being made by the filmmaker and his team. So what historical problems and assumptions exist with the 2007 case that James Cameron made?[1][2]

1 – Studies by scholar Richard Bauckham demonstrate that these names were VERY common in this region during the first century. There were lots of men named Jesus, women named Mary, Josephs, etc. In fact, the name Jesus has been found on 22 Ossuaries in 99 tombs. Joseph appears on 45 Ossuaries. And Mary is THE most common female name in the ancient Jewish world.

2 – The Jesus in the tomb was clearly known as “Son of Joseph”. But we know from the New Testament record that the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth didn’t call him that.

3 – The Talpiot tomb has been identified as an expensive one. Jesus of Nazareth and his family were not wealthy at all; they were the equivalent first century peasants.

4 – It is highly unlikely that the family tomb for Jesus of Nazareth would be found in Jerusalem as his family was not from Jerusalem originally.

5 – The ancient Jewish custom involved reuse of these bone boxes over time. An archaeologist who oversaw the original Talpiot tomb find estimated that ten Ossuaries contained the remains of seventeen people and that the surrounding tomb contained the remains of another thirty people. Of course, there is no way to tell if the bones in the box correspond to the name on the box. But it is very straightforward to tell that there are probably multiple remains, presumably of people bearing the same common name, in a single bone box.

6 – The introduction of DNA evidence in the case certainly brings an air of authority and “statement of fact” to the proceedings! Scientists are certainly considered the thought leaders of our day. Yet a valuable scientific method is being used here to produce data which must be reasonably and honestly interpreted. This interpretation is vulnerable to presuppositions. Such is the case in the Talpiot tomb.

The DNA evidence shows that there are no positive connections between anyone found in that tomb. This lack of a DNA match is used by Cameron’s team to infer a marriage relationship between Jesus and Mariamene. But this inference is unwarranted. No shred of evidence for this relationship exists. This lady could have been married to anyone in this tomb…or she could have been a daughter or lived decades after the Jesus named on the Ossuary. There is no way to be sure, particularly given the Jewish habit of burying extended families in shared tombs.

In summary – the scholarship of today is not impressed by Cameron’s “The Lost Tomb of Jesus”. So I propose that we should be wary of its conclusions too.

jesus_ossuary2_sm

Coming back to the new case being proposed by geologist Doctor Shimron, what about the case he is proposing? Is it stronger? Perhaps he has uncovered more data linking and identifying the remains in some way?

It appears not.

Doctor Shimron’s case relates to a separate Ossuary known as the James Ossuary; it has an inscription on it which reads “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus”. Doctor Shimron is attempting to prove that this Ossuary originated in the Talpiot tomb. This is significant to Shimron because, if he can do this, then he can bolster Cameron’s case. The New Testament documents record that Jesus of Nazareth had a brother named James. Given all the names found in the Talpiot tomb, if there was also a box labelled James there…then the evidence begins to stack up!

Doctor Shimron is trying to prove the link between the James Ossuary and the Talpiot tomb by comparing the muck and dust (patina) encrusting the Talpiot Ossuaries with the James one. If it is the same muck, then the Ossuaries must have originated in the same tomb. Right?

While scholars are interested by Shimron’s methods, it appears that his conclusions are again unwarranted and join Cameron’s claims as being unlikely at best.

1 – The James Ossuary had been in circulation during the 1970s, many years before the Talpiot had been excavated. How can an artefact originate in a location which is currently undiscovered and unopened?

2 – The dimensions of the James Ossuary are very different from the dimensions of the discovered Talpiot Ossuaries. It would not have fitted physically into the available space in that tomb.

3 – The James Ossuary is viewed with some suspicion by historians. Its origin is unknown. It was not excavated by an archaeologist; it appeared on the antiquities market during the 1970s. This means that the inscription on the Ossuary might be a forgery, added to increase the value of the item to potential buyers.

Has Doctor Ayreh Shimron finally made a convincing case that Jesus of Nazareth was married, had a child and died a natural death? Based on the evidence provided, no he has not.

But what is compelling (I would suggest) is the 2000 year old evidence that undergirds the Christian claim that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.

  • The original first century tomb wasn’t mysterious at all; it was well known and owned by Joseph of Arimathea who was a Jewish leader.
  • As soon as the Christian preaching of a resurrected Christ began, all it would have taken to stop this movement would have been to open the tomb and retrieve the body.
  • And the content of the early Christian preaching was surprising and unlikely in itself. They spoke of a crucified Messiah who had been raised from the dead right there at their time. This is so far outside the construct of ancient Judaism, that something incredible must have happened to provoke it within Jesus’
  • All the historical sources agree that very soon after Jesus’ internment, the tomb was empty.
  • The sources also agree that he appeared physically to up to five hundred people during a short period following his crucifixion at the hands of Roman executioners.

Are we ever going to find the tomb containing the bones of Jesus of Nazareth? I think not, because…

“He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen.” Matthew 28:6, NLT

[1] Gary Habermas, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus: A Response to the Discovery-Channel Documentary Directed by James Cameron,” Dr Gary R. Habermas Online Resources, Information, Media, accessed April 16th 2015, http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/The_Lost_Tomb_of_Jesus/losttombofjesus_response.htm.

[2] Gary Manning Jr, “New Claims Regarding the ‘Family of Jesus’ Tomb,” The Good Book blog, accessed April 16th 2015, http://www.thegoodbookblog.com/2015/apr/13/new-claims-regarding-the-family-of-jesus-tomb/.

RESPONDblogs: Is Theology Compatible With Computer Science?

SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-340
SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-340

A friend proposed recently to me that “the problem with doing theology in science…is that you end up looking for God in the things that you see.”

 

And this statement raises two questions for me

  • is it possible to be a genuine scientist and also be a Christian?
  • is it right to look for evidence of God in the things that you see?

 

 

Well, personally I became a Christian when I was 7 years old. I distinctly remember the experience – and I also am aware of the affect it has had on my life in the years…the decades since. When I was 21 I graduated with an Honours Degree in Computer Science…as a Christian…and have worked in this field for close to 25 years.

Initially I worked in the Broadcast Industry, developing the early automation systems that made complex TV broadcasting more doable for the army of people that it took to make broadcast telly work in the 1990s. I spent many happy days up at BBC TV Center……geeking out at where they used to make “Doctor Who” in my childhood. Latterly…I spent my working life helping other people who were themselves developing complex software systems. I used my experience to – hopefully – make their jobs easier.

Did I use the scientific method in my career? Absolutely I did. It is at the core of the software engineering principles I learned both at University and as I worked in Industry. Was I also a Christian? Yes – I distinctly remember being so. I still am, by the way.

 

Is it possible for a real scientist to also be a Christian? Some people say that Christianity is anti-reason. In my experience, the atheist position is just as welcoming to unreasonable, unthinking and obnoxious people as the Christian position is.

 

I’ve never found the need to separate Christianity from logic and reason. And I’m not alone. I listen to podcasts from “Reasons to Believe” – a scholarly organization employing cosmologists, biochemists and philosophers who develop testable computer models that work to follow the hard observable data, while also recognising and embracing the historic Judeo Christian claims.

 

 

So what? Well it seems to me to be head scratching-ly short sighted to accept therefore the New Atheist,  “Science is at War with God” narrative. Clearly – it’s not Science that’s at war with God. It’s only a subset of Scientists today who don’t subscribe to the claims of Christianity…and a small but vocal number who like to shout about it.

 

Coming back to where I started this blog, I think what my friend meant to say…was this. It is not possible to be a Scientist who is committed to NATURALISM…and be a Christian. By Naturalism – I mean the belief that all there is…is a Universe which is a closed system governed only be physical laws. I agree that one can’t be a committed Naturalist and a Christian. But my friend’s smuggling something controversial in here. He’s implying that only naturalistic Scientists are genuine scientists.

 

So – is that true?

 

Well naturalism views our Universe as a self-contained unit, a place where cause and effect reign. We don’t like thinking about what caused it…but the laws of physics and material process is king to the Naturalist. But here’s the thing. Those material processes are also king to Christians who do Science as well! When I was developing a software application to perform video field accurate control of a Broadcast A/V Mixing Desk using an RS-422 based serial protocol at 38k4 baud…I was applying principles of logic, of CPU architecture and my understanding of software engineering. I wasn’t praying that it would work – I would work to build the thing correctly SO THAT IT WOULD work. (OK – I’ll admit it…sometimes I was praying…please let this bug be fixed now)

 

I think one difference between a Naturalist and a Christian is actually found not in our understanding and respect of material processes. Rather it’s in our personal recognition that these material processes that operate in our Universe…are not just an end in themselves. There is a bigger narrative at play here. Our Universe is not the result of chance and necessity. We have become convinced that it is the result of intention, personality and design. There’s a God who is responsible for creation.

 

How did we become convinced of this? I will grant you – I didn’t become a Christian by learning the laws of Physics! I didn’t study the behaviour of electrons thru a transistor and therefore wind up in church the following Sunday. I don’t know anyone who did. But I do know people who look at our exquisitely ordered Universe and scratch their heads, “I wonder whether there is a God after all?”

 

So – I agree. You can’t be a Christian and a Naturalist…that’s true for Scientists, Authors and Shop Keepers. But clearly you don’t HAVE to be a Naturalist to be genuinely good at any of those professions. To claim otherwise…is just mistaken. Now there will always be one voice that claims – the Christian Scientists are the rubbish ones. Well – it takes hard work to be good at anything…whether we believe in God or not! Let them be measured by the quality of their work. I was always happy for that to be done to me as a software engineer.

 

 

What about the other question – is it right to look for evidence of God in the things that we see? Well – again – if we are a committed Naturalist…then this won’t be happening. But my argument is this. If we do open our eyes to this evidence…what we will find may challenge our Naturalistic presuppositions to the core.

I find the argument from “Information in Biology” to be particularly compelling (as a Computer Scientist myself, that’s predictable). The cells found in all living things contain mind bogglingly complex Nano machines for processing and replicating pre-existent information that is found in DNA and in the epigenetic systems that influence animal body plan construction. Life is rich in complex information. Information that a Naturalistic worldview does not have a reasonable explanation for IMHO.

I’m not saying – it is so complex that God must have done it. Rather, I’m saying that the most plausible explanation for this information rich biological complexity is that it was designed by a creator. And that creator sounds very much LIKE God.

I’m reminded of this quote from Stephen Meyer:

“Yet we know from our uniform and repeated experience that some types of phenomena – in particular, information-rich sequences and systems – do not arise from mindless, materialistic processes. For just this reason, no rational person would, for example, insist that the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone in the British museum must have been produced by purely materialistic causes such as wind and erosion.”[1]

I suggest that the argument from information points to a Designer. I’m not smuggling in the notion of a Designer – rather I’m saying that a Designer is the most plausible explanation for the complexity we see in nature. This argument doesn’t identify who that Designer is. There’s only so far that this evidence takes us. But coming back to my friends at RTB, something happened to convince them as scientists that the claims of Christianity were true. Something took them the next step – from simple intellectual assent – to belief in Jesus Christ.

For myself, that something was the discovery that God isn’t distant and unknowable. He comes close to us and speaks to us. He has done in recorded human history primarily through the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But he also does so now – I know He does cos he did so with me. He will make the first move. He will speak to our hearts and soften us towards him.

The real question is – will we let him?

[1] David Klinghoffer, Debating Darwin’s Doubt, Discovery Institute Press Seattle, 147.

RESPONDblogs: Why Christianity Can’t Just Be Based On Wishful Thinking

i_want_to_believeIn 1961, the first big Alien Abduction claim hit the public consciousness. Barney and Betty Hills, from Portsmouth New Hampshire, reportedly had a Close Encounter with…something.

What exactly did Barney and Betty claim? You can listen to an interview with Betty online[1]. It’s fascinating and familiar to those of us with the benefit of 10 seasons of Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” to draw from!

And this raises a question for me. As I raise my eyebrow at Betty Hills outlandish claim…which sounds very much like fiction to me…I wonder whether Christianity sounds just like it to many people today. Christianity’s claim that Jesus of Nazareth returned from the dead 2000 years ago  – is this any less outlandish? Does the New Testament’s report of Jesus’ resurrection belong in the fictional “X-Files” cabinet, or is there more substance to Christianity’s claim that points toward its historical credentials?

 

Let’s go back for a moment to the cold war tensions and paranoia of 1961. It wasn’t just a new decade marked by musical brilliance and Moon shots. Aliens were also reportedly doing medical procedures on unfortunate folks who were going about their daily business!

 

Driving home one evening, they thought they saw something unusual in the night sky. Actually – many people including the US Military later agreed that something weird was happening that night. They reportedly stopped the car and took a good look. But the bright lights – and the erratic behavior of the object – began to freak them out. So they hurried back to their car and drove on. Before long – it became apparent they were 35 miles further down the road than they should have been. They appeared to have lost time!

Many weeks later, following a period of disrupted sleep and nightmares, they reportedly went thru regression hypnosis. And this brought out vivid details of little bald grey captors, operating tables and medical procedures.

Actually this is only the first well documented case of Alien Abduction – throughout the next 20 years, a number of similar claims were made by apparently ordinary people with no apparent reason to lie.

 

The New Testament contains 2000 year old eyewitness reports from apparently ordinary people too.

  • Reports of the death of Jesus of Nazareth, followed by the grief and shock of his friends.
  • Reports that these grieving people then subsequently encountered their friend back from the dead at various different times and places over a 40 day period.

 

Sounds pretty unlikely – right? Dead people don’t come back. Aliens don’t abduct people driving home in their cars.

 

Whatever historical event you are trying to verify – whether mundane or fantastical – historians apply 5 criteria to test the solidity of the report.

A solid Historical claim will[2]:

1 – be supported by multiple, independent sources

2 – be attested to by enemies (hostile witnesses) as well as friends

3 – include embarrassing admissions which reflect honest reporting rather than creative storytelling

4 – be supported by direct eyewitness testimony

5 – be supported by early testimony making legendary development impossible

 

The problem with the Barney and Betty Hills Alien Abduction claim is – by the criteria laid out above – we do not have a solid Historical report.

The only witnesses were the alleged abductees. There are no independent sources or witnesses – either friendly or hostile – to the Hill’s claim.  While other people agreed something strange was seen in the night sky that evening in September 1961, no other witness to the alleged Close Encounter exists. We’re right to be skeptical – their case is historically unverified.

 

So – what about the Bible’s claim that God raised Jesus from the dead? (Acts 2:24) Well – a historical case based on a minimal set of data does exist. What is this data and how solid is the case?

 

DATA POINT 1 – The Death of Jesus By Crucifixion

This fact is attested by every Gospel, and many non-Christian sources too. For example – Roman historian Josephus, Tacitus, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata as well as the Jewish Talmud itself.

Jesus crucifixion meets the historical criteria of multiple independent eyewitnesses, early sources and enemy attestation.

Some have proposed that – maybe Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross. He merely swooned, was then buried and was then revived in the cold tomb.

But this doesn’t work.

  • Roman executioners were excellent torturers and executioners
  • Jesus faking his resurrection goes against his moral teachings
  • There are no early reports he was wounded and not killed
  • A half dead Messiah could not serve as the foundation for a belief in the Resurrection. If his friends had encountered him bloodied and bleeding…they would not have called him the Lord of Life. They would have called him a doctor!
  • Jewish thinking said, only once at the end of human history would the dead be raised. This means that – on encountering Jesus alive again after his crucifixion –his followers would naturally have just assumed he didn’t die. Yet this is not what they claimed. It is highly culturally unusual for the Jewish early Church to proclaim him as Christ crucified and raised from death.

 

DATA POINT 2 – The Empty Tomb

All naturalistic theories that attempt to explain away the Resurrection presuppose the empty tomb. The body was reportedly gone.

From the beginning, the hostile Jewish authorities claimed that Jesus’ followers had stolen his body to fake his resurrection. But this claim gives no reason WHY they would have done so.

Further – the claim that the disciples stole the body does not work within Jewish culture at that time. There was no expectation of a Messiah who would become the suffering servant; who was executed shamefully by the Gentiles, and then raised bodily before the general resurrection at the end of time. Rather – Messiah’s were ten a penny in ancient Jerusalem. If your Messiah got themselves killed – you either gave up and went home, or you hitched your wagon to a different one. But the idea that Jesus followers stole his corpse and faked his resurrection just wouldn’t have entered their minds at that point in Jewish history.

Finally – if the disciples stole the body – this doesn’t explain the conversion of Christianity’s 1st century enemy turned Apostle – Saul who became Paul.

Surely if someone had managed to produce his rotting corpse and deposit it in the middle of Jerusalem for all to see….that would have been an end to it. But they could not.

DATA POINT 3 – The Post-Resurrection Appearances

Scholars cite 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 as the earliest snapshot of Christian belief about Jesus. Paul claimed to receive this creed from the original Apostles many years before he wrote his letter. Scholars date the creed to within months or weeks of the crucifixion itself.

Three of our four minimal facts are recorded there as an early statement of belief – Christ died, his tomb was discovered empty and he was seen by his closest friends. And then more than five hundred people saw him at once.

The early date of this creed rules out legendary embellishment because there simply wasn’t time for legends to develop. And besides – the eye witnesses were still alive at the time this was passed on.

Yet over hundreds of years some legends did develop; they are referred to as the 3rd century Gnostic Gospels. In comparison to the New Testament’s stark and excited eyewitness reporting, the Gnostic Gospels are full of bizarre and fanciful imagery.

 

Some have suggested hallucination as an explanation for the appearances. People saw what they wanted to see. But Psychologists have ruled this out. Hallucinations are private experiences yet crowds of eyewitnesses reportedly witnessed the risen Jesus. Remember, Jews would not expect to see a raised Jesus anyway. And finally – hallucination does not explain the empty tomb itself or indeed Saul’s conversion to Christianity.

 

DATA POINT 4 – The Origin of the Christian Faith

Within one generation of Jesus crucifixion, “the Way” had spread to Europe, Asia and Africa. If Christianity is the effect – then what was the cause?

Well – surely the most obvious cause is the Apostles belief that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead. And this belief transformed people’s lives. The cultural worship practices of Jewish people changed. Church moved to a Sunday.

Could the Disciples have stolen the body and made it all up? No lie or shared conspiracy or mistaken observation has the explanatory power to ignite the Christian church in human history.

 

IN SUMMARY

Jesus resurrection is based on historically verifiable evidence – it meets the 5 requirements outlined earlier in this blog. However unusual the event, there is powerful evidence of the event’s historical reliability. Even though we don’t understand how it happened – this does not preclude us from historically accepting that it did happen.

 

Really?

You’ve got to be gullible to believe Alien abduction reports – right? In the same way, dead men do not rise!

Hold on a minute –

The historical basis of the resurrection is incredibly strong. And no one claims Jesus was raised from the dead by natural means. Christians simply repeat what the Bible eye witness accounts say – that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Besides – you don’t have to understand something to accept the truth of it. Ask any Scientist to explain human consciousness; where does it come from? Then ask them what energy really is. They don’t really know. If Scientists can accept these things even though they don’t understand how and why they work – can’t we accept Jesus’ Resurrection as true based on observable and historically verifiable evidence?

 

 

[1] Betty Hill UFO Encounter Interview, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FO6VIMPZhwA.

[2] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.

RESPONDblogs: Pulled Towards the Light

ren

What does it mean to be a moral person?

 

This question comes up a lot whenever I talk about morality. Now – I’m not bringing up this subject to put a heavy weight of judgement on anyone else’s shoulders. I’m way too aware of my own moral failings to want to do that! And I’m not some moral crusader arguing for change. Society does need to change. But I don’t think our morals need to change.

 

I talk about morality because it is part of the body of evidence suggesting human beings are more than just a collection of atoms and molecules. We are much more than just that.

 

Now often when this comes up, we get into a discussion about what people do in society today…and sometimes we will compare that with what people did in society in the past. And the point will be made to me that – society is different now in comparison to ages past. Therefore morality must be different too. It has evolved with us. Therefore morals must also have changed.

 

But I think this is to mistake what it means to be a moral person. You cannot understand morality in terms of what people do and why they might do it. To understand what morality is – we need to look at why people SHOULD do something. It’s a discussion about obligations that press in on human beings, not how human beings behave.

The law of gravity is actually very mysterious. Scientists still have a lot to learn about what it is. But we can very easily measure the force and the effect that it has on objects in our Universe. Human morality works a similar way on the human heart. It is a force that we might not like very much – but it is there all the same.

To suggest that a human being or human society is a source or an explanation of morality is to miss the mark. Morality isn’t how people behave…rather it is how people are required TO behave. It’s the moral force that pushes in on each of us.

 

And what is fascinating is…when you study a variety of ancient cultures (Chinese, Babylonian, Hindu, Egyptian and Jewish) and compare them to 21st century society, you find common expectations and obligations that press in on the people who have lived at these different times in these very different cultures[1]. This is a clue to the scope of the moral law that imposes itself on us.

  • It is generally always right for one human being to show kindness to another.
  • It is generally always right to help and provide for another human being who is suffering or in need.
  • It is especially important to love and respect members of your own family. Whether its your parents, or your siblings or your own children. These people deserve special respect and care from you.
  • Talking of children, it is always important to look after children.

By implication, anyone who does the reverse…is behaving in an immoral way. Notice something. We don’t need to have this explained to us. We just kind of know.

  • It’s always wrong to commit adultery with someone else’s partner.
  • It’s always wrong to steal, to benefit from stolen goods and to treat other people’s goods as my own.
  • You must render justice towards an individual in court.
  • It is always wrong to be a double minded person, to misrepresent oneself. It is better to be a person of integrity and good faith.
  • People who are poor or sick require mercy from us.
  • It is important to forgive people who have wronged us.

 

There is evidence of an absolute moral law that presses in on each of us…and it has done so down thru the ages past. What can we infer from this evidence? Well – the existence of a moral law allows us to infer the existence of a moral lawgiver.

 

If an archaeologist digs in the sand and finds the ruined foundations of a great city, then it is reasonable to infer a civilisation of people who built that city and lived there at some time.

 

If a philosopher or theologian digs into mankind’s nature and finds the traces of an ethical framework that is common to each person…then he is right to infer a source to that ethical framework that is located outside of these people and these different cultures. And that sounds very much like God.

 

But more than all that…look at people’s ability to talk in terms of good and evil, right and wrong. Stories and tales have been passed down thru the generations in the great myths. Here we talk in terms of what is good…and should be encouraged in people…and what is evil and should be resisted. And these great, ancient stories never go out of date! They might be updated for a modern audience and a different mindset (which is precisely what George Lucas did when he started the Star Wars saga in the 1970s…at what Lucasfilm continue to do to this day) but the core of what is good and what is evil has remained the same for millennia.

 

Moral values and obligations exist as a first principle of civilisation. You can’t deconstruct them…and like the force of gravity, it is always pressing upon us whether we like it or not.

“It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent…To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”[2]

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.

[2] Ibid.