NDE – Responding to the Dying Brain Hypothesis – Part 2

In my first blog post, I described the NDE phenomena and argued a physiological explanation does not adequately account for the testimony of NDErs. Lack of oxygen, and changing brain chemistry does not adequately explain NDEs. But what about the field of human psychology? Can we explain the supposed out of body experiences (OBE) in psychological terms?

I’m going to argue that psychology alone is insufficient to account for a few particular evidential examples of OBE. There are so many of these sorts of veridical accounts in the NDE literature. For example, check out the scholarly, peer reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies for much more. So, I think we can begin to draw the conclusion that human psychology cannot account for NDEs either. This blog explains why.

Responding to Blackmore’s Psychological Dying Brain OBE Hypothesis

Susan Blackmore’s naturalistic dying brain theory explores psychological causes of the OBEs that are very often described by NDErs.

As a matter of course, she says the brain constructs environmental models used by the subject to understand their world and place within it. Sensory input is interpreted in the construction of these models. Subjects hold multiple models simultaneously and intuitively select the most stable and appropriate model of reality. Consequently, an OBE does not involve the leaving of the self from the body. Rather, because the dying brain experiences failing sensory input, it copes by choosing an alternative model driven by memory and imagination instead.[1] Blackmore claims our memories occur from a birds-eye view, which explains why OBEs proceed from that vantage point.[2]

She justifies her brain model argument claiming that model switching occurs in cited instances of a subject’s sensory deprivation leading to hallucination experiences.[3] Yet for her theory to explain OBEs, it also must account for the subject’s birds-eye view. Her claim that memories proceed most often from a birds-eye view lacks justification. She cites a memory study by Nigro and Niesser (N&N). Serdaheley observes N&N distinguish two memory types. Field memories proceed through our personally observed experience, while observer memories proceed from an external vantage point. Field memory seemed more common than observer memory in the N&N memory study, and while observer memories were emotionally detached, field memories involved vivid emotional recall.[4] Consequently, Blackmore finds no support for her claim that observer memories are more common in the N&N study. She therefore has not accounted for the classical, birds-eye OBE viewpoint.

Blackmore tries to account for OBE observations during NDErs unconscious state by highlighting instances where apparently unconscious subjects retained residual sense experience. Senses combined with imagination may explain how the subject constructed an imagined memory of their situation. She cites an instance during resuscitation where the subject remembered a nurse giving him a procedure, he mistakenly interpretated as an injection. She suggests unconscious subjects retain touch or hearing awareness and build these into imaginary models.[5] This may explain why unconscious patients appear to remember their resuscitation by medical personnel. Yet Blackmore’s theory assumes residual touch and hearing are sufficient to construct a picture in every case. Dr. Miguel Quesada recounts an OBE patient who could describe the shape and colour of the medical instruments used while unconscious during her operation. She was unfamiliar with the instruments, and their colour was not mentioned during the procedure.[6] Neither residual touch nor hearing can account for this. Further, if OBEs are caused by residual sense stimulation, why are none reported from the prone position? OBEs are always described from a birds-eye view. Serdahaley opines that, if Blackmore is correct about residual sense experience, surely some NDEs would involve the subject looking up into the faces of their carers or relatives, rather than always looking down on them from above.[7]

When assessing the positive experiences NDErs have, Blackmore says it comes from realizing, “the self was only a mental construction … that can be let go. There never was any solid self and there is no one to die.”[8] Yet this claim conflicts with her idea that there is no self. If there is no self, then who is concluding there is no self during an NDE? It sounds self-refuting to claim a subject realises that their self does not exist. More generally, it is unclear to me how one can gather knowledge about an experience from a naturalistic worldview ontology. Blackmore’s naturalism is evident in her discussion about the brain modelling reality, and she rightly concludes on naturalism there is no self. But in this case, she has an epistemological problem. If people have thoughts and beliefs about NDE experiences, this means they have intentionality because there is an aboutness related to these thoughts. This intentionality requires one to have a mental state from which to consider beliefs. But Blackmore’s naturalism only allows sensory inputs to a brain that builds models. On this naturalistic ontology, there are no essences, no intentionality, just interpretation without the possibility of knowing.[9] Scott Smith concludes that on naturalism, knowledge becomes impossible, and so the NDErs knowledge of their experience cannot exist under Blackmore’s ontology. Yet NDErs do have knowledge of an experience that has enduring effects upon them, suggesting Blackmore’s naturalistic worldview is inadequate.

Consequently, Blackmore’s physiological and psychological dying brain hypotheses fail to account for NDEer experience. She also fails to account for many veridical NDE cases as well. For example, Serdaheley interviewed a subject who experienced an OBE while an assailant strangled her on the beach. She found herself observing the scene from above her body and watched as he fled the scene on a beach path she had never used. The path was identified, an individual was placed there at that time, and was subsequently convicted of her attack.[10] If Blackmore is right OBEs result from dying brains, how do we account for this woman’s ability to observe her attacker’s escape while lying unconscious on the ground? I would argue the dying brain theory generally fails to account for veridical NDEs like this one.

In the next blog post I will explore more veridical NDE evidence. I will discuss the phenomena of shared NDE.


[1] Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live Near-Death Experiences, (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1993), 173 – 175.

[2] Ibid., 177.

[3] Ibid., 70 – 71.

[4] William Serdahely, “Questions for the Dying Brain Hypothesis,” Journal of Near-Death Studies, 15(1), 1996, 43.

[5] Blackmore, 125.

[6] Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven and Rudolf H. Smit, The Self Does Not Die Verified Paranormal Phenomena from Near-Death Experiences, (Durham: IANDS, 2016), 24.

[7] Serdaheley, 45.

[8] Blackmore, 263.

[9] R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 152.

[10] Serdaheley, 46.

Thoughts on Dune and Messiahs

Denis Villeneuve and his team have finally begun to bring Dune to cinema in a way that is fitting. It is years since I read the book, but experiencing this film brings it back in a vivid and compelling way. I can smell it. This is a movie that you live through for its 155-minute running time. You can see, feel, and breath in the fabric of this story in a compelling and satisfying way. One of the real successes here is in taking a complex, politically woven novel, yet presenting the important themes in a clear and interesting way.

Frank Herbert wrote the original novel and it was published in 1965. He has brought together many ancient political, religious, and economic strands from the history of human civilization and woven his story through it giving his fictional world a real weight.

The Dune Wiki says that the religious themes of Dune are mainly derived from Islam, and the language inspired by Arabic.[1] The Middle Eastern influence is clear. But the life of Paul Atreides is a Messiah story that recalls the stories that are rooted in ancient Judaism and fulfilled by the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Set Islam aside for a moment. There is a lot of Christian symbolism in Dune.

Paul may be the Kwisatz Haderach, or Muad’Dib. These words identify the Dune universe Messiah figure who will lead people to true freedom and is expected by both the Fremen on Arrakis and the Bene Gessarit. In his blog, Scott Smith identifies links in Dune to the Hebrew Kabbalistic term Kefitzat Ha’derech.[2]

Paul is the son of a king (or Duke) and he comes to a people who are repeatedly abused and colonized. The Fremen of Arrakis are reminiscent of the Hebrew people, colonized by the Romans, and visited by the Messiah Jesus. Yet while the Jews expected a military Messiah, and the Fremen of Dune expected and got the same in Paul Atreides, Jesus of Nazareth is anything but a military figure. Like Jesus, Paul is expected and tested in the desert. Unlike Jesus, the people recognize him when he arrives on Arrakis. The film captures these themes really clearly.

Dune Reminds Me – We Are Looking for a Messiah

This reminds me that humanity has a history of expecting the divine. So many ancient mythologies and religions down through history have pointed to a coming deity – just like Dune does. J Warner Wallace has helpfully listed many of the characteristics of these religious deities:[3]

The deity is:

  • Predicted, like the birth of Zoroaster, and Paul Atreides.
  • Comes from royal heritage, like the Greek god Adonis, and Paul Atreides.
  • Comes from unnatural means, like the Hindu Tibetan deity, and possibly Paul Atreides.
  • Protected as a child, as the Buddah’s parents may have done.
  • Faces temptation, like Krishna the Hindu deity.
  • Is identified with shepherds, like the Egyptian god Osiris.
  • Possess supernatural power, like Quetzalcoati the Mesoamerican deity.
  • Active in engaging humans directly, like Tammuz the Mesopotamian god.
  • A teacher of  human followers, like Serapis the Graeco-Egyptian deity.
  • One who recognizes the need for a sacrifice, like Shangdi the Chinese deity.
  • One who faced a judicial death, like Dionysus the Greek and Roman god.
  • One who establishes a divine meal, like Mithras the Persian and Roman god.
  • One who has the power to defeat death, like Heracles the Greek god.
  • One who offers eternal life to their followers, like Zalmoxis the deity of Getae and Dacian.
  • One who will judge the living and the dead, like Thakur Jiu, the Santal deity.

I guess we can add Paul Atreides to this list.

Jesus is the Ultimate Messiah

There are similarities here in these deity figures between these ancient religious figures and Paul Atreides of Dune. Frank Herbert was inspired by human religious tradition, so this is expected. But even more, there are similarities between the attributes on this list and Jesus of Nazareth. Wallace observes that, rather than joining this list as yet another humanly invented deity, Jesus is different. He uniquely possesses all the characteristics found in so many ancient mythologies. He embodies and personifies mankind’s expectation of God.

This similarity with mythology was the thing that kept C S Lewis back from accepting Christianity for many years, until his friend J R R Tolkien helped him see that Christianity is not just another fictional mythology to add to the list. Rather – it is the mythology which is true, being rooted in history and real events.  Later in his life, Lewis wrote this:

“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous different that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are man’s myths … Christianity is God expressing himself through what we call “real things.”[4]

I loved Dune part 1, and I recognize the power of myth. And I think it – like the many compelling fictional myths that have come before it – point ultimately to the true myth of Jesus who meets all of mankind’s needs for a Messiah. The one who finally makes us free men and women, free from the weight of mankind’s rebellion against God, free from guilt and shame, free to experience life in the future as God intends..

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” Galatians 5:1


[1] Religion | Dune Wiki | Fandom

[2] Scott Smith, Theology of Dune, The Scott Smith Blog, The Theology of Dune (thescottsmithblog.com).

[3] J Warner Wallace, Person of Interest, (Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 33-35.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the Idea of the “True Myth” | Russell’s Inspiration Daybook (wordpress.com)

Book Review: A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles

J P Moreland’s new book is quite remarkable. I’m not a fan of the book’s title. It sounds a bit “off the wall” to me. The book content, however, is anything but.

JP has chosen to speak cogently to a couple of audiences. First, to an audience of Christians who may have lost the expectation that God would ever intervene in the natural world in a supernatural and measurable way. Maybe because they think bible kind of miracles ceased a long time ago. And at the same time, Moreland also challenges the natural presuppositions of atheists who roll their eyes at such a notion to begin with.

Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?

JP speaks to his audience by addressing fundamental matters of philosophy and worldview. What is epistemology, and what does it mean to know something? What should we make of the common atheist response to miracle claims – “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?” Spoiler alert – when you are talking about the activity of an agent (God) you cannot expect agents to always behave the same way. You need to judge their activity on a case-by-case basis. Appealing to natural law in an attempt to refute miracles is just wrong headed. So – the improbability of an event does not require extraordinary evidence to establish it. Further – the probability of the evidence for the event and the reports of the event occurring must also be factored in given the scenario that the event did NOT in fact occur. And in the miracle cases given in this book (and countless others) the likelihood of this is vanishingly small. You don’t need extraordinary evidence (whatever that is) to sustain belief that the miracle occurred.

Why Should People Pray?

JP addresses some common struggles believers and non-believers face when it comes to prayer. If God knows everything anyway, then what is the point of praying about something? This common conundrum misunderstands the issues of free will and the omniscience of God. Here, JP points to de ray and de dicto distinctions. The bible’s view of this problem is misrepresented if we assume we must take the de ray line – which leads to hard determinism. This is incorrect because our evidence suggests human beings have free will – we are not determined. If you need to try to convince me otherwise then – I am sorry – you tacitly assume I have the free will to choose to believe or reject your argument! Returning to the issue of God knowing everything, the de dicto distinction is the most adequate approach to understanding this. De dicto says it is not God’s knowledge that leads to the event. Rather, the event that occurs is the one God foreknows. Also, wouldn’t a perfect good God prevent evil occurrences whether we pray or not? This misunderstands God’s purposes – God is working toward a greater good in all circumstances. This will often be at odds with our limited view of the good outcome, and often involves our relationship with him.

Veridical Miracle Claims and the ID Principle

He also devotes a large chunk of the book to veridical claims of a supernatural nature. These stories are not just recycled from unknown or remote sources. Rather, before including them in the book, J P has done the work of tracking down the people involved, hearing their stories first-hand, and establishing confirmatory evidence where he can. Some of them are taken from his own life. Others are from the lives of others. For example, he recounts an instance experienced by the parents of his friend Ruth Henderson. Having spent many years as missionaries in Venezuela and Spain, they returned home to San Diego. Unfortunately, their low financial income meant they had no pension to draw from, and so they were broke. They lived in a small apartment and worked low paid teaching and pastoring jobs. Yet they dreamed of living in a proper house with a white picket fence. So – they prayed about this. They visited a nice property that had just lowered in price and found it to be perfect for their needs. While visiting the property, they had to admit to the real estate agent that they had minimal funds for a down payment. So, the agent phoned the sellers there and then to ask whether they would reduce the price again. While they were all standing in the property, there was an unexpected knock at the door. The agent opened the door. A man stood there from a cell phone tower company. He had been knocking on doors in the area because he needed to build a tower in this area and was willing to pay the house owners 10,000 dollars a year for thirty years for the privilege of using their back yard. A deal was done, and the bank agreed to give the couple a mortgage based on the commitment of the tower company. Miraculously, they got the house they asked God for.[1]

This example is like many of JP’s miracle stories. Its amazing and it sounds like God might be providing in response to a real need. But we have also to ask – how do we know this wasn’t just a coincidence? Here – JP applies a principle first put forward by Bill Dembski, and this ID principle is used today in many fields (not just biology) like insurance, law enforcement, and forensic science. The ID principle states that whenever two factors are present, investigators are rational to conclude that the event is the result of an intelligent agent.

  1. There was a small probability of the event happening
  2. The event is special, it is remarkable for reasons other than the fact that it actually happened.

Such an argument applies not only to human agents, but also divine ones. And – given the context of the events, it would point to the story with the cell tower guy paying the broke couple’s mortgage as an intentional, divine miracle. I have a similar story in my own life, and this ID principle suggests to me that I too experienced a miracle, not merely a coincidence. I wrote about that event here:

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2021/10/18/was-it-a-miracle-that-saved-our-lives/

Conclusion

JP focuses on many more examples of God’s supernatural intervention in people’s lives. He looks at instances of miraculous healing, guidance, evidence for the activity of angels and demons in the world, and the veracity of near-death experiences and what they may tell us about what comes next after we die. He also provides a reading list at the end of the book that points to many other sources like his own that can build our hope and expectation in the existence of divine miracles today.

Many Christian believers are embarrassed by miracle claims. And – many claims made by people can sounds pretty dumb or unlikely. But not all of them fall into this category. When one is armed with the resources JP brings, this mistaken embarrassment can be set aside. We can know – not merely believe – that God is real and still performs miracles today.


[1] J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids:Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 76 – 78.

Was It a Miracle That Saved Our Lives?

At 2:52pm on October 21st, 1971, a gas explosion destroyed Clarkston shops in Scotland, killing 22 people and injuring 100.[1] Eighty-two minutes prior to this event, at 1:30pm, my mother May Gray strapped my sister and I into our new car. She didn’t realise it, but that day she intended to visit the dress shop at the epicentre of the looming explosion. Unexpectedly, our car refused to start. For 30 minutes, May made multiple failed attempts to start the car. Finally, she gave up and abandoned her shopping trip.

Later that day, my Dad returned home from work. He checked the car, and it started first time. The following day, May started the car without any trouble. Prior to October 21st, and at all times until we sold the car three years later, it never failed to start that way again. The only known exception to its reliability record occurred between 1:30pm and 2:00pm on the day of the Clarkston explosion. If the car had started during that period of time, we would have probably died at the shopping centre. I attached a picture of me and my Dad with the car to this blog. It was a light blue, 1970 Vauxhall Viva.

Miracles and Natural Law

Was the car’s temporary failure a curious coincidence, or can I reasonably claim that God miraculously saved our lives that day? I will use Richard L. Purtill’s definition of “miracle”. Miracles are events caused by God’s power that are temporary exceptions to the ordinary course of nature to show God has acted in nature.[2] Did a miracle occur for us on 21st October 1971? Scottish philosopher David Hume would resist this conclusion, viewing miracles as violations of unalterably uniform natural laws.[3] Hume, and contemporary skeptics with him, may suppose the car’s failure to start prior to the explosion was merely a coincidence.

However, Hume’s skepticism is problematic. Hume had an empiricist approach to epistemology. He thought people only experience sense impressions, “a constancy in certain impressions [and so] … perception of the sun … returns … as at its first appearance.”[4] Natural laws don’t exist to Hume. Rather, human custom leads us to identify sense impressions as objects. He is therefore skeptical of inductive inference. Scott Smith summarises Hume’s position; we may see three black ravens, but to infer therefore all ravens are black, is knowledge we cannot justifiably hold on Hume’s empiricism.[5] Consequently, because he only experiences discrete sensory input, and rejects induction, he cannot know natural laws exist. Hume is therefore inconsistent to observe inviolable natural law when arguing against miracles.

Today, natural laws are believed to describe what nature does, they do not prescribe what nature must do. Craig Keener observes that, when I drop a pen with one hand and catch it with the other, I am not breaking the law of gravity. Rather, I am intervening in its operation.[6] Purtill defined a miracle as a temporary, divine exception to the normal flow of natural law. It seems reasonable to assume that, if God created nature, he could choose to intervene if necessary. C S Lewis builds on this idea noting that if God fed new information into a natural system, the system would simply react in predictable natural ways.[7] Perhaps our car’s failure to start was a natural response to an intentional exception to natural law.

Anti-Supernatural Bias

Hume’s second problem is that his argument against miracles appears to be circular. Because he defines natural law as inviolable, and miracles as violations of natural law, he rules out the possibility of miracles axiomatically. Consequently, no amount of evidence is sufficient to prove a miracle occurred; Keener says Hume rejects any evidence contradicting his thesis or his anti-supernatural bias.[8] He therefore assumes what he intends to prove; there are no miracles. Arguments like this are logically fallacious by begging the question. Also, Hume may disagree that eyewitness testimony from 1971 supports a miracle claim. He might also suggest my family are ignorant or false witnesses for positing the miraculous.[9] Hume possibly never experienced a miracle himself, but it does not follow my family are therefore ignorant fabricators for supposing occurrence of a divine miracle.

Scientific Proof of Miracles

Contemporary skeptics may follow Hume and challenge me to prove scientifically the miraculous nature of the events from 1971. If I cannot prove a miracle, I cannot claim a miracle; “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”[10] But their challenge fails to meet my definition of miracle. How can one scientifically prove a one off, temporary exception to the normal flow of events? Miracles are non-repeatable, so I cannot use scientific methods to investigate them. Miracles are also exceptions. Michael G. Strauss imagines aliens studying traffic lights to understand how humans control traffic, and they figure out what red, amber, and green mean. Suddenly, an ambulance appears blaring its siren as it zooms through the junction, breaking all the rules. This doesn’t make the traffic law void, rather it shows that rules can sometimes be broken in urgent circumstances, like when people’s lives are at stake.[11] Consequently, if I remain open to the possible occurrence of one-off exceptional events, and I do not trap myself in Hume’s circular anti-supernatural argument, then I can employ scientific tools to explore the evidence from 1971. Having gathered all the data about the motor car’s history, the people involved, and the timing of the events, one can use this data to draw an abductive inference. It is possible that an exceptional event overruled the normal operation of the car.

Is there a God Anyway?

Skeptics may claim we experienced a coincidence of events because no God exists to do miracles.  But it is not clear how the skeptic can prove God’s non-existence. I would suggest the Bible argues convincingly when it says God’s invisible qualities are not primarily seen through miracles, but through nature;[12] the heavens declare the glory of God.[13] If the natural universe we inhabit makes God likely, it seems possible that in certain circumstances, God could make exceptions to nature for his own reasons. Given the powerful, creative, and generous God revealed by nature, it seems reasonable to suppose that as our lives hung in the balance in October 1971, God was able and willing to influence the natural function of the car at the right time to save us.

I am Warranted to Claim God Miraculously Saved Our Lives

I think I am warranted to claim knowledge of God’s miraculous intervention on October 21st, 1971. I am rational, and there are good natural arguments for God’s existence. I cannot, however, prove the events were not a coincidence. This remains a possibility. Yet James L. Garlow and Keith Wall observe two helpful points. First, God’s intervention can occur through natural or supernatural events that fulfil his purpose. If the event is also improbable, and is spiritually significant, this suggests God’s possible involvement.[14] Our car’s behaviour seemed highly improbable, and our lives were at stake. Second, Garlow and Wall observe miracles show God’s involvement in nature, and demonstrate his character, resulting in increased faith in God.[15] Following the event in question, my family has experienced this increased faith. Consequently, given the improbability of the event, its spiritual significance, and the increase in faith that has resulted, this suggests our survival that day may have been a divine miracle.


[1] Magdalene Dalziel, Remembering the Clarkston Toll disaster of 1971 – a day Glasgow will never forget, Glasgow Live, 21st October, 2020, https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/history/remembering-clarkston-toll-disaster-1971-19143705.

[2] Lee Strobel, The Case for Miracles A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural, (Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 2018), 27.

[3] David Hume, “Of Miracles,” in R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R Habermas, In Defence of Miracles A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, (Leicester:Apollos, 1997), 33.

[4] David Hume, “A Treatise of Human Nature,” in R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 85.

[5] Smith, 87.

[6] Strobel, 88.

[7] C S Lewis, Miracles Do They Really Happen?, (London:William Collins, 1947), 93 – 95, summarized.

[8] Strobel, 88.

[9] Geivett and Habermas, 36.

[10] Geivett and Habermas, 30.

[11] Strobel, 167.

[12] Romans 1:20.

[13] Psalm 19:1.

[14] James L. Garlow and Keith Wall, Miracles are for Real What Happens When Heaven Touches Earth, (Grand Rapids:Bethany House Publishers, 2011), 119-121.

[15] Ibid., 64-65.

The Cost to Skepticism

“I simply need proof for God. But you have not adequately given it to me.”

This is a message I get from some folks when they learn I am a Christian. I will even hear it from some people when I’m not even speaking to them. Perhaps I’ve retweeted someone else online, and out of the blue I will suddenly be hit by anonymous demands for proof. Proof for what? Proof that Christianity is true, that God exists.

Skeptical people can sometimes (not always) be outspoken. And I usually appreciate the opportunity to hear where they are coming from. Personally, I think a healthy skepticism is a very positive thing in life. I think it helps us stay grounded, encouraging us to take a careful and thoughtful approach to important matters in life. As I seek to give people reasons for the truth of Christianity – engaging with the thoughtful skeptic is often helpful because it reminds me not to overstate the case that I am making to them. It’s a good counterbalance for me as a Christian case maker. So – I value the thoughtful skeptic.

However – I think there are some fundamental epistemological problems facing the hard line (sometimes called Cartesian) skeptic. What is a hard line skeptic? Well, I’ll define it as someone who demands absolute (or tautological) certainty about a subject. Here’s an example. Imagine I am wrestling with whether or not to make a career change in my life. Also, let’s say I take a hard line skeptical approach to this process. In that case, I am going to need to be absolutely certain of the correct course of action before deciding to take it. That means – 100% certainty. There must be no aspects of the issue – or my decision-making processes – that are unknown to me. And my understanding of the issues must be absolute. There must be no unknowns at all. Does that sound like a high bar to reach when changing jobs? Yup. Ever managed it? Nope.

Here’s the problem for the skeptic. We can only be tautologically certain about a very few minor things in life. Does a triangle have three sides? Is a divide by zero undefined in mathematics? Is there no upper limit to the set of prime numbers? These sorts of issues can be known with absolute certainty. The answer is yes in all three cases. They probably aren’t very important to my life right now though. Yet – the skeptic can find tautological certainty here. But what about elsewhere in their lives? I just don’t think certainty is possible. There’s no way to be absolutely certain about the ethical, aesthetic, political, business, religious, and relational issues we face. These are way too complicated. The hard line skeptic’s bar of absolute certainty can be met in the math textbook, but not in their daily life outside of the classroom.

That’s a problem. But, it’s not the skeptic’s biggest problem.

Let’s now think about the skeptical person who is demanding absolute proof of the truth of Christianity. The person who is constantly saying, “you have not given me enough. I want PROOF!” The biggest problem is – his position is completely self-refuting. It is a position that undermines itself. You see, because we cannot be 100% certain about very much in life (outside of math, for example) that means the skeptic cannot be 100% certain of his/her own skepticism. Yet their position dictates that – to have knowledge – they MUST know something absolutely, at 100%. Consequently, because they themselves cannot meet their own demand for knowledge, this means they cannot even be certain of their own skepticism! This is a fundamental epistemological problem that, if they are thinking rationally, would lead them to abandon their hard line skepticism and trade it in for a less hard line approach to take instead (more about that later).

When the skeptic fires demands (or sometimes even polite requests) for “proof of the existence of God,” I used to say to myself, “oh dear. I must try harder to give them proof.” Now I do not say that to myself. It’s not that I don’t care about the skeptic, because I do care. Rather – I have come to know two things. First – that they are using a standard on me that they cannot sustain for their own skepticism. So – I’m not impressed by their demand one bit. And second – they are asking me for something I simply do not need to do. The Christian is not required to give proof of the existence of God. Rather, they are to give “reasons for the hope they have.”[1]

In their book “How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology,” Dew and Foreman make some really helpful observations about the hard line skeptic’s dilemma.

1 – There are good reasons to think we do know things about the world, even though we do not know everything 100%. Sure, our senses can be fooled. But people have used their sense and mental faculties to perform open heart surgery, to fly to the moon, and to drive to the shops.[2] We can reasonably say we know, even though we don’t know everything. Right?

2 – The tautological, hard-line skeptic’s bar for knowledge is just too high for every subject in life, including whether or not God exists and whether Christianity is true. If we persist with this skepticism, we will find that the number of beliefs we can hold in our lives will be seriously undermined. How can we know something scientifically, historically, or morally if we require absolute proof?[3] That epistemological bar leaves us in a place where we don’t really know anything. It robs us. And that’s not helpful, and its actually wrong (as I pointed out above).

3 – The things we CAN know with absolute certainty are pretty unimportant (e.g. a triangle has 3 sides). The important stuff in life tends to be the stuff I lack absolute certainty for. The issues that really impact me (e.g. what is my destiny in life, what are human beings, is there a God) are issues that we will never fully understand. There will always be an element of doubt here somewhere.[4] But – as I’ve said already – having doubts about something does not disqualify me from claiming that I know something in that area.

4 – It is the nature of the subject in question that determines how we come to know it. If we are thinking about an apple, then our five senses are going to be sufficient to get to know an apple pretty well. However, if the subject is God, then there are many many factors in play here that make this subject different from an apple. So – we need to adjust our expectation about the level to which we can know God, compared to an apple.[5] If the angry skeptic demands, “give me proof,” then I would be tempted to reply, “God’s not an apple, you know.” There may be very good reasons why God does NOT make himself as obvious as an apple in your fruit bowl. Reasons that confer respect by God on the skeptic themselves. But those reasons will have to wait for another blog.

Conclusion

Hard-line skepticism of the kind I’ve described just isn’t tenable. It is harmful to us if we adopt it as a stance toward Christianity (and everything else in life). So – what stance could we adopt instead? Well – actually, it is not a different stance at all. It’s the stance we take on everything else in life (whether we realise it or not).

We could take an inductive approach to deciding whether we can claim to have come to know something about God and Christianity. It’s like this. “In a good inductive argument, the truth of the premises provides some degree of support for the truth of the conclusion.”[6] This is the most rational approach to take in our lives. And we probably do it in other areas without thinking about it. We don’t try to reach 100% certainty before taking a decision. We gather evidence, and then decide what level of support for the issue at hand is given by the evidence. If the evidence is good enough, we are likely to go with it.

So – my answer to the charge “give me proof of God,” is to say something like this. It’s not proof you need. What you are looking for is evidence, of rational arguments pointing towards Christian theism. You need to assess the evidence that is right in front of you in a careful way. And then – decide whether there is enough support for you to make a choice. It’s no good demanding absolute proof, when large amounts of evidence are right there in front of you.

Hey – I’ve been a Christian for 45 years. I cannot say that I am 100% convinced of the truth of Christianity. But – I am generally convinced based on my personal experience of God’s work in my life, and of my assessment of the historical evidence, and the wider evidence for God in the world. Is that proof? Not that would satisfy an irrational, persisting, cartesian skeptic. But it is a position that is considered, is rational, and is based on experience and argument. And those things seem to me to be a good foundation for saying – “I know God exists, and his name is Jesus.”


[1] 1 Peter 3:15.

[2] James K. Dew JR and Mark W. Foreman, How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2014), 158.

[3] Ibid., 159.

[4] Ibid, 161.

[5] Ibid., 162.

[6] Inductive Logic, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, revised March 19th, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-inductive/.

The Cost of the Multiverse

Marvel’s Loki series has built an interesting narrative on the idea of an infinite multiverse. Anything that could happen (including an alligator with a great Tom Hiddleston grin on its face), has happened. This makes for a rich story telling device. It is the way ahead for Marvel’s Multiverse of Madness phase 4 storyline. But there might be more going on here. Fiction is helping to cement the actual physical idea of a real multiverse into the public consciousness. The idea of a multiverse crops up in both science and science fiction.

The multiverse is how some scientists account for the fine tuning of the universe for life – without resorting to God as an explanation. Physicists Andrei Linde, Alan Guth, and Paul Steinhardt have proposed a scientific model called Inflationary Cosmology, while other physicists have proposed String Theory. You cash out the details in different ways, but you end up with:

1 – Our universe is finely setup for life to exist.

2 – There are an infinite number of different universes.

3 – There is a high likelihood of life sustaining universes coming into existence.

4 – We are just lucky to live in a life sustaining universe.

MIT physicist Max Tegmark has gone further to say that, “all structures that exist mathematically exist also physically.”[1] If you can think of a structure that is mathematically possible, then because there is an infinite multiverse, that structure isn’t just an idea. It actually must exist! So – hello Gator Loki.

However – there is a big epistemological cost to this idea. Stephen C. Meyer points out the cost in two ways.

The Cost of Our Rationality

The infinite multiverse means that any event- however unlikely – has actually occurred an infinite number of times. One such event is the sudden appearance (through quantum fluctuations of subatomic fields/particles) of a brain with preset memories and an ability to perceive a limited universe. These are called Boltzmann Brains after 19th century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. They pop into existence for a while – and then pop out of existence again.

If physicists posit a multiverse to explain the fine tuning of the universe for life, then this also must lead us to doubt the reliability of our own minds because it is more likely that we are Boltzmann Brains than individuals in a naturally complex and populated universe. And if that is the case – our scientific reasoning abilities, perceptions, and our basis for accepting the multiverse hypothesis are all undermined. The infinite multiverse is a self-refuting hypothesis.[2]

The Cost of Scientific Prediction

If we live in an infinite multiverse, then what can we say about our understanding of the laws of nature? Take the law of gravity for example? Well – we can say that so far – the behaviour of nature is such that the law of gravity leads us to expect certain behaviours. For example, the dropping of an apple from the branch of a tree to the ground. But because anything that could happen must happen in an infinite universe, we must also face the possibility that at some arbitrary point in the future, the natural laws will diverge and begin to behave in unexpected ways. Apple’s can start to fall up, for example. This is because for all we know, the mathematical laws describing the universe are not fully understood by us yet and are controlled by a wider and more general equation that will lead nature to behave differently in the future. We cannot rule out this possibility. But that means we can no longer confidently predict scientifically whether or not events will happen based on our experience of the past. Stephen Meyer puts it this way:

“Scientific explanation presupposes the uniformity and regularity of nature, including the uniformity of the fundamental laws of physics and the regularity of patterns of cause and effect [but] such uniformity and regularity may not characterize our universe, however much it might have seemed to do so up until this point.”[3] We might think we are experiencing cause and effect in nature. But what we don’t realise is that actually, we have been experiencing random fluctuations and nature will behave differently in the future compared to the past. Science as we know it – ceases to be helpful.

Summary

If we accept the thesis that we live in an infinite multiverse, then we must also accept two additional conclusions. We cannot be sure that we are rational, and we cannot rely on our ability to make scientific predictions.

Both of these conclusions undermine the multiverse hypothesis and the practice of science – so – I would suggest we cannot live with these conclusions. They are not logically sound. And so this is a strong reason to reject the multiverse in physics, look for another theory to explain the fine tuning of the universe.

Having said all of that – roll on season 2 of Marvel’s Loki!


[1] Stephen C. Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis, (HarperOne, 2020), 394.

[2] Ibid., 401 – 402.

[3] Ibid., 396.

What do Neanderthals Tell Us about Human Uniqueness?

Both archaeology and palaeontology give evidence for hominid creatures that lived before human beings. For example, the species called Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal) seems to have existed between 200,000 years and 30,000 years ago in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Almost thirty complete skeletons have been discovered.[1] Evidence of Homo sapien (Human) civilization dates back to about 80,000 years and so there is an overlap between Neanderthals and humans in ancient history and there may even be some evidence of interbreeding between these two species in our contemporary human genome.[2]

It is often said that there is an evolutionary connection between Neanderthals and humans. But what if there was a fight for dominance between Neanderthals and humans? Either could have survived. What if both species fought for survival and it just happened to be that the humans won? I think there is good evidence to suggest both these ideas are wrong.

A big reason for saying that is that there is a massive difference in the capability of the first humans in comparison to the Neanderthal. While Neanderthal capabilities were very basic and appear to remain consistent for 100,000 years or more, when humans suddenly appeared they had capacities that far exceeded everything that had come before. Human exceptionalism is evident, the human super-predator, the unique being who is made in God’s image.

 

Use of Fire

There is evidence of charcoal and primitive hearths in Neanderthal sites. But does this mean Neanderthals mastered pyrotechnology? Not to the various researchers who recently concluded that Neanderthals made opportunistic use of natural fire when it became available to them. They used it when it presented itself, rather than had mastery over it. But humans were uniquely able to create and curate fire in a sophisticated way.[3]

 

Creation of Tools

It appears that Neanderthals were able to produce and use tar as an adhesive when making spears. Does this suggest complex cognitive behaviour? The method they used is thought to be very basic and naturally occurring. They would not have to discover a precise method for distilling the tar. Also, when we compare the Neanderthal behaviour to current Chimpanzees and observe they too produce spears from tree branches using a six step process, make stone tools to open nuts, form insect repellent and exploit wildfires. So the Neanderthal behaviour isn’t so exceptional compared to Chimpanzees. [4]

Human behaviour is much more sophisticated, involving analysis of different tar production methods and choosing the most efficient production method for the maximum production yield. Human cognitive ability was superior to Neanderthals.

 

Cooking Food

Humans have always had the capacity to gather, but also to cook our food and to use implements. Based on some chemical residue at a Neanderthal site, Smithsonian paleoanthropologists concluded that the Neanderthals also cooked. But – age could have resulted in the sort of chemical residue. Worse, no grinding implements have been found to prepare matter for cooking, and there is evidence that they had not mastered fire. So – it seems we lack evidence that Neanderthals intentionally cooked their food.[5]

 

Use of Medicine

Humans do medicine. It appears that Neanderthals consumed plants that had no nutritional value, but had anti-inflammatory properties. So perhaps they did have a primitive type of medicine. But so do chimpanzees, who will eat certain leaves to cause vomiting to rid their digestive system of parasites.

 

Cave Paintings

There are many sites dated to between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. But Neanderthals were dying out by then. It seems more likely that humans were the cause of the case paintings. Painted shells have been found which are dated to around 45,000 years ago. Again – this is around the time Neanderthals were disappearing. “All claimed evidence for symbolic activities among Neanderthals is highly debatable. ..currently there is little compelling reason to conclude that Homo neanderthalensis was a symbolic creature in the same sense as modern Homo sapiens.”[6]

 

Symbolic Thought

Many studies have shown evidence suggesting Neanderthals lacked the cognitive sophistication of humans. For example, anthropologists notice human societies have the concept of division of labour, specialization based on sex and age. This promotes economy and allows human society to thrive in harsh environments.

The evidence suggests Neanderthals only hunted large game. By way of contrast, humans hunted a wide variety of creatures and developed many types of tools to assist them and clothing as well. This suggests a division of labour in human society that was lacking in the Neanderthals. It is thought that an inability to divide labour in this way led to small population groupings in fewer locations and the eventual demise of the Neanderthal species.[7]

 

The Use of Language

There is disagreement about whether Neanderthals could speak. Anatomical features remain inconclusive and while the Neanderthal genome appears to contain certain key genes, this doesn’t mean they used language. Animals communicate in many ways, but they don’t use syntactical language in a sophisticated way as humans do.[8]

The evolutionary paradigm doesn’t explain the appearance of language. Often it is linked to the ability of the species to vocalize and make sounds. But humans have a language capability that is independent of vocalization. Vocalization is necessary, but not a sufficient condition for language. The best way to study the appearance of language seems to be through evidence of symbolism and symbolic cognitive capabilities. And this is unique in the record to the human species, appearing around 80,000 years ago. While basic Neanderthal capabilities remained consistent for hundreds of thousands of years, humanity and its language capability appears suddenly.

 

Conclusion

There seems to be a good argument to suggest that humans are exceptional, of a different order from the start. So the idea that humans competed with Neanderthals for survival does not seem to be supported by the evidence. Neanderthals were very limited in their abilities, and when the human super-predator arrived, there was no comparison between them. This is consistent with the Biblical teaching that man alone is made in God’s image – the imago Dei.

Also, the evolutionary ideas of gradual improvement struggle to account for the large sudden appearance of human sophistication. Combining this with the related but different anatomy of human and Neanderthal species, it seems that we must make the data fit the evolution theory rather than the data suggesting an evolutionary connection between humans and Neanderthals. And this is not a good way to explain anything.

 

[1] Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Who Was Adam A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity, 2nd ed, (Covina: RTB Press, 2015),184

[2] Rana and Ross, 267

[3] Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “Timing of the Appearance of Habitual Fire Use,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (July 19, 2011), E298, doi:10.1073/pnas.1106759108Paul Goldberg et al., “New Evidence on Neandertal Use of Fire: Examples from Roc de Marsal and Pech de l’Azé IV,” Quaternary International 247 (2012), 325–40, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2010.11.015; Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “On the Role of Fire in Neanderthal Adaptations in Western Europe: Evidence from Pech de l’Azé IV and Roc de Marsal, France,” PaleoAnthropology (2011), 216–42, doi:10.4207/PA.2011.ART54.

[4] Fazale Rana, Did Neanderthals Make Glue?, Reasons to Believe, January 10, 2018, accessed July 22, 2020, https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/01/10/did-neanderthals-make-glue.

[5] Rana and Ross, 315

[6] Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey H Schwartz, “Evolution of the Genus Homo,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 81, quoted in Rana and Ross, 319

[7] Rana and Ross, 321

[8] Rana and Ross, 323

Why Start a New Christian Apologetics Podcast?

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

 

Spotify

Apple Podcasts

 

What’s been the inspiration of my podcast?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

FIRST – Because the Bible Commands It

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

Here are three examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Third – the Christian Church needs it

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

 

Fourth – the Results Confirm It

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

 

 

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

 

What Does Easter Offer to a Global Pandemic?

Tragedy touches a little family unit.[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

Is there Hope and Life in the Midst of Death?

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

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

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

 

 

What is the Hope?

In this incident we see three things:

First – Jesus enters into his friends grief.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Third – Jesus himself is their hope in their tragedy.

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

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

Poem By Sue McGee

The tragedy struck on Friday

So many were traumatised

The cross, he warned, was coming.

But they couldn’t believe their eyes.

 

The Lord full of compassion

Who fed their hungry hearts

Who healed their sick and raised their dead

Was now being torn apart.

 

Tortured and mocked before them

Then nailed to a wooden cross

He carried the burden of all sins

But for them… all was lost.

 

How could it ever be “normal” again?

Where do they even begin?

After heartbreaking trauma on such a huge scale…

Could Hope find a way back in?

 

But God…in His infinite Mercy

Amidst their doubts and pain

Provided the ultimate miracle

On the third day He rose again!

 

Up from the grave of suffering

Out of the tomb of despair

Jesus appeared and Hope was restored

He defeated death then and there!

 

Now here we are in 2020

Covid-19 banging down our door

A thief, a destroyer, a menacing threat

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

 

The whole world going through the same trauma,

Our eyes all see the same pain.

Together we unite our hearts and cry out,

God show Your Mercy again!!!

 

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus

He walks through this trauma too

He promises never to leave us

He is intimately with me and you!

 

Listen to His still small voice whisper

Let Him love you through uncertainty

His friendship is an anchor

He knows your every need.

 

In Him we will find our “New Normal”

Trust Him to show us the Way

He lives and He is Victorious

Thank You Jesus for Easter Day!

 

[1] Adapted from John 11.

Responding to Extreme, Religious Covid-19 Reactions

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

 

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

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

to

2 – this virus is a punishment from God

to

3 – true Christians will be immune to this virus

 

True Christians Will Keep Going To Church Despite Covid-19

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

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

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

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

 

The Virus is Punishment from God

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

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

 

True Christians Will Be Immune from the Virus

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

The Bible

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

Church History

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

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

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

First – the promise of eternal glory after death.

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

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

 

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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