RESPONDblog: Evidence for Bible Miracle Claims – an Unexpected Darkness

Capture

In my experience, one of the first questions that Biblical skeptics ask about the miracle claims in the Bible is this – “Is there any evidence for this event outside the Bible?” I think this is a very reasonable question.

My previous blog focused on extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus Resurrection and his claims to be God.  http://tinyurl.com/k7ltbp9

 

For this one, I’d like to focus on a very specific event that the Bible records as happening on the day Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

 

The Synoptic Gospel accounts (Matthew 27:45; 51-52, Mark 15:33 and Luke 23:44-45) all record an unexpected period of darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew goes further to give it duration – 3 hours – and also claims it was accompanied by something like an earthquake.

Are there any extra-Biblical references to this?

If it really happened then surely it would have been a source of shock and surprise to the wider population of Jerusalem that day? The gospel account does not give any clue as to how large an area was affected by the claimed darkness. Was it restricted to the areas surrounding Jerusalem in some way? Was it felt by people living elsewhere on the planet? The text does not tell us. Again – we can assume it…but we don’t know from the Gospel itself.

 

Well – a very ancient extra-Bibical account of the 3 hour long darkness and rock splitting earthquake – does in fact exist. To find it we need to read reports from one pagan Roman historian who was a contemporary of Jesus living in Palestine, one pagan Roman historian from the 1st century and another who lived two hundred years later in Jerusalem.

 

Thallus, est. AD50:

Roman historian Thallus, believed to be a Samaritan, recorded strange events during Tiberius Ceasar’s reign around Jerusalem. Thallus is mentioned by various historical sources including his colleague Josephus. Thallus describes an “eclipse of the sun”; he gives a naturalistic explanation of an event which is dated to the time period of the crucifixion.

Phlegon, est. AD137:

Phlegon was believed to have been born around the time of Jesus crucifixion, and wrote an account later in the 1st century. He too mentions the darkness and even records the time and duration of the event; and it lines up with Matthew’s report – between the 6th hour and the 9th hour. He also mentions the earthquake affecting Bythinia and part of Nicea (hundreds of miles north of Jerusalem). I will quote a surviving fragment of his “The Olympiads” below.

Neither Thallus or Phlegon appear to have made any attempt to link the events specifically to Jesus crucifixion. Why would they? Yet a later 3rd century historian – Julius Africanus – did just that.

Julius Africanus, est. AD230:

He researched the earlier Thallus and Phlegon reports…and he added some commentary of his own. I will quote Julius Africanus at the bottom of this blog…but let me pull out some threads of what he is saying – and what he is not saying – in his account.

 

1 – He points specifically to “This darkness” . It was a well-known historical event that is being discussed. The three hour darkness –  and its associated earthquake – clearly affected a large region because many people got caught up in the discussion about it afterwards. Just how large the region was, though, is hard to tell.

2 – He quotes Thallus’ historical mention of the darkness. But he challenges Thallus’ reasoning for its occurrence. How can this have been an eclipse of the sun when the dates and times were all wrong? There was a full moon at that point in the Jewish calendar, and an eclipse of the sun would have been impossible.

3 – It seems that there were many different conflicting explanations suggested for this darkness at the time.  This is to be expected; people are curious – and inquisitive. We aren’t talking a cloudy day or a sudden rain downpour. This was a significant event that was debated amongst learned people at the time. There must have been many theories for what had happened that day! Julius is not convinced by Thallus’ naturalistic explanation. This is not just any astronomical event that is being discussed here – this is a very specific one which occurred during the reign of Tiberius Ceasar – around the time when Jesus Christ was crucified.

4 – He also points out Phlegon’s precise timing of the darkness and rock splitting event. This lines the account up with the claims in Matthew’s Gospel. He goes further and mentions the “resurrection of the dead” – a claim that Matthew’s Gospel specifically makes as having occurred at the moment of Jesus’ death. (Matthew 27:52-53). Julius is writing a hundred years after these events. But his report seems to refer to events that were known from the time.

5 – Julius is not specifically arguing that a supernatural event occurred that day. I will sometimes hear skeptics talk down to those who lived in 1st century Palestine. “Oh, they would have believed anything back then!” But these people were not stupid – and not as naive as many folks assume. Julius’  focus here is on recording what happened that day and when. He is also very focused on arguing what did not happen – this event could NOT have simply been a natural eclipse.

6 – Julius is not writing a Christian apologetic on the crucifixion, here. This is written as a historical commentary underpinning the tradition that had been communicated by the canonical Gospels for over 100 years prior to Julius investigations.

 

 

In summary, we have independent, extra-Biblical witnesses of an unexpected and specific 3 hour period of darkness on the day Jesus was crucified.  And we have historical evidence of a debate for the cause of this unexpected astronomical event.  We also have the Phlegon account of the earthquake felt as far north from Jerusalem as Nicea. I am unsure whether Thallus or Phlegon mentioned the resurrections as well; but Julius certainly does (although Julius was not an eyewitness of those events himself).

So the answer to my question is – YES. I think we DO have corroborative evidence outside the Bible for another of its miracle claims.

 

 

On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth–manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. (The Extant Fragments of the five Books of Chronography of Julius Africanus XVIII.1)

 

In the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was a great eclipse of the sun, greater than had ever been known before, for at the sixth hour the day was changed into night, and the stars were seen in the heavens. An earthquake occured in Bythinia and overthrew a great part of the city of Nicea. (The Extant Fragments of The Olympiads of phlegon)

 

 

 

RESPONDblog: Jesus Christ, His Life and His Miracles Aren’t Legends Because…

arthur

You will sometimes hear Biblical skeptics referring to passages in the Bible as simply recounting myth or legend.

What do they mean when they use the word Legend? I think they mean a past event that cannot be explained purely thru natural processes; an event that has been added to over time. Jesus miracles are sometimes framed this way – particularly his biggest miracle – the Resurrection. Some people even point to Jesus of Nazareth Himself and cry – Myth.

Is it reasonable to refer to Jesus in this way? I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why I think that.

 

 

Let’s look at a very popular British Legend – King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

King Arthur is a legendary British leader of the 5th century AD who allegedly led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders. At the risk of going all “history book” on you…here’s an Arthur timeline…

8th century (300 years after he supposedly lived) – King Arthur of the Britons mentioned very briefly in a History of the Britons

12th century (700 years after he supposedly lived) – Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a pseudo history of Britain mentioning King Arthur and his magical advisor Merlin as living in 5th century

13th century – the Romance tradition of poetry and literature expands on the Arthur stories adding Lancelot and Guinevere

15th century (1000 years after Arthur was meant to have lived) – Thomas Malory brings all the stories together into a single work of literature. And all subsequent retellings of the Legend have been based to some degree on Malory’s work.

20th century – By now there have been many popular re-tellings thru literature and now movies. For example, Disney retold the legend in their classic The Sword and the Stone (1963), Monty Python’s Holy Grail (it counts in 1975), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (touched on the Arthurian Legends in 1989), etc, etc

 

Did King Arthur really live? Is he a character of history? Its hard for historians to tell. Most believe he probably did exist, but many say he is probably a composite of various individuals alive at that time in the 5th century in Britain.

The first brief mention comes 300 years after he lived. What about the additional stories of Merlin the Magician and the Knights of the Round Table? Over 1000 years passed from Arthur’s first mention in literature – till the time when these characters emerged and the accounts were properly written down. Is it not highly likely that these stories changed and evolved over the centuries? Merlin could be made alot more magical 1000 years after he lived.

This is how legends develop. It takes MANY GENERATIONS for legends to replace historical fact.

 

What about the stories of Jesus life found in the New Testament? How do they compare to the Arthur Legends?

Mark wrote his account of Jesus’ empty tomb, Mark chapter 16, only 30 years after the crucifixion. He also records that the enemies of Christianity tried to discredit the miracle but could not.

Further – the Apostle Paul’s creed mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 has been dated to between one and three years after the crucifixion – and this creed clearly teaches Christ’s resurrection.

 

The King Arthur Legends and the Gospel reports of Jesus Christ are in two entirely different classes of literature. Why? First because of the massive difference in time periods involved. Jesus greatest miracle – the resurrection – is reported a mere 3 years after the event itself in a creed used in the liturgy traditions of the fledgling Christian Church. In comparison – It took 700 years for the King Arthur stories to start to appear.

 

The Gospels can’t be classed as Legend secondly because of the clear and obvious intent of the Author. Luke, who also wrote a Gospel, says and interesting thing from the outset of his account. He says that many people have undertaken to draw up an account of Jesus life. He himself was a Doctor, so he was a learned individual. Its no surprise then to read that he carefully investigated everything and pulled together an orderly account himself. You can read his intent in Luke chapter 1. His Gospel can be dated by historians to around 60AD – less than 30 years after the events of Jesus life, death and resurrection.

The first time the Arthurian Legends emerge, they do so when Geoffrey of Monmouth writes a pseudo history of Britain. In other words – read this with a pinch of salt. The intent of the Gospel writers – and the Arthur Legend scribes – were very different.

 

Where does this discussion lead us? I believe it takes us to this. The Christian Gospels cannot be credibly and reasonably described as works of myth or legend.  Why? Because there was no time for any Legends to develop around the life of Jesus. The eye witnesses were still alive when the Gospel reports were being circulated – and would have discredited the miraculous reports completely. BUT – the reports of Jesus life, his death and his resurrection were not discredited or faded. They have endured for 2000 years.

Some will have difficulty with the Supernatural claims in the Gospels. Yet just because the New Testament Gospels report have a supernatural nature – and his miracles are recorded in a very matter of fact way – this does not automatically put the Gospels in the category of Legend. If we demand they must be legends, we are presuming it…we are enforcing the category of Legend onto the events…even though the conditions around the reports of Jesus life do not bear the hallmarks of Legend. This is unfair and unwarranted. No – the Gospels  bear the hallmarks of history.

 

 

 

FOOTNOTE: That’s not to say that Jesus Legends were never written. They were; the Gnostic Gospels are full of fantastical stories. Imagine a cross emerging from the empty tomb and preaching to the world! Completely different in tone to the matter of fact New Testament Gospels. These Gnostic writings are dated by historians to hundreds of years after the original Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) written by people with no physical connection to the events themselves. And so they reasonably fall into the Arthurian Legend category.

RESPONDblogs: Radical Thought – Let the Bible Decide What Christian Faith Is All About

bungie

Imagine for a moment that a journalist decides to write an article on the extreme sport that is –  Bungie Jumping. He wants to understand what makes those adrenaline junkies tick.

 

Now – he doesn’t actually sign up to perform a Bungie Jump himself. He doesn’t even explicitly interview the adrenaline junkies that regularly engage in it. Instead – he interviews a cross section of the public about what Bungie Jumping is like. He leaves it to chance whether he hits a true Bungie Jumper or not. And he writes his article based on that. Can I suggest – the article probably wouldn’t be something that would contribute much to the world’s understanding of adrenaline fuelled Bungie Jumpers?

 

Switch tracks for a moment with me.

 

Ben Holman is a Psychology graduate and he’s doing a post grad in Biology. Ben has published some interesting research on how our Society understands the meaning of the word – Faith. What his study does – is to gather data from a cross section of his University peers to explore their understanding of the definition of this word.

 

You can find it here:

http://benholman.net/

 

Why does he do this? Partly because – he observes that “there is a trend among Christian Apologists to define ‘faith’ as placing trust in a well evidenced proposition, which seemed at odds with popular usage.”

 

His study comes to the conclusion that the majority of people sampled view faith as “believing something is true even when there is insufficient evidence.” That’s one in the eye for the Christian Apologists, then! Hardly anyone in Ben’s study agrees that “faith is trust in a well evidenced proposition.”

 

Ben describes himself as the “president of the Wichita State Atheists and Agnostics” society.  So I’m suspecting that when it comes to the Christian faith – he does not currently have any personal investment or maybe even experience of genuine Christian belief (of course I don’t know Ben’s past here…this is an assumption). It seems to me that Ben wants his study to be used as ammunition against those so called “Christian Apologists” who understand faith to be “trust in a well evidenced proposition”. Christians are stupid and out of step with society – and I’m going to produce data to show just how stupid they are.

 

What does all this mean?

 

1 – Ben’s Research Seems to Underline Society’s Blind Spot

I have previously made a case for why I say that our society has a blind spot when it comes to the definition of faith.

https://respondblogs.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/respondblogs-faith-isnt-pretending-to-know-something-you-dont-know/

I think  that the meaning of the word faith has become selectively subverted in our culture.

Despite the fact that we all regularly put our faith in trustworthy Teachers, Airline Pilots, Doctors, etc…somehow our society has a twisted view of faith when it touches on issues of belief in God. This twisted view portrays faith as an irrational belief in the absence of concrete evidence.

Coming back to Ben’s study – I suspect that the vast majority of people sampled are not Christians…and therefore are persuaded by this subverted definition.

This is where my Bungie Jumping illustration kicks in. Ben probably didn’t spend time talking to the people who really know what a real Bungie Jump feels like. Pity.

 

 

2 – The Majority Don’t Get To Dictate what Biblical Faith Means

Ben’s study is very useful in that it shows that whatever Christian Apologists feel – there are lots of people today who subscribe to a subverted and broken understanding of faith.  Actually – I think Ben’s study underlines just how post-Christian our culture has become. I suspect there were very few Christians in his group. That’s not Bens fault.

 

However – there does appear to be an underlying assumption in Ben’s study that I must challenge. It mistakenly assumes that the majority’s understanding qualifies as truth. How do the majority define faith? Well – that’s what it means then! This is the classic position of the Humanist. Who is in charge of life the universe and everything? We are! So what WE say – must go.

 

Well – I would like to point out that – the majority do NOT  get to dictate the definition of Biblical faith. The Christian faith  is – quite frankly – under attack here. And I am standing up for it. Who and what gets to define Biblical faith? The Bible does. So what does the Bible say about the nature of faith?

 

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Mark 12:30

Notice that the essence of loving God – involves our faculties of reason and logic. Our minds. In other words – the Bible’s requirement on Christians – is that we be thinking people who exercise our minds. This is a Biblical and therefore positive challenge that I place before Christians in Churches everywhere.

 

“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” John 14:11

This is Jesus speaking – the man who’s life is recorded in the New Testament; the man who has shaped human history like no other. The one who claimed to be God – and who demonstrated it as such. Death could not hold him – his tomb is empty.

But notice what he says – look at the EVIDENCE. Jesus does not require his followers to believe anything in the absence of evidence. Miraculous his evidence may be – but that evidence was there for our analysis…and it still is today.

 

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1

 

Do you see a theme developing here? Biblical Faith is not belief in spite of evidence. Rather – the Bible’s understanding of faith involves us getting a growing confidence in that which we cannot yet directly observe.

 

 

3 – Maybe Western Culture Need a New Word to Explain Biblical Faith

So – where does all this leave us?

 

Society is out of step with God and the Bible. So – what else is new! The job of Scripture is to transform OUR thinking – not the other way around. But we’ve got to be willing to receive this transformation.

 

In the meantime, maybe we need to coin a new term for Biblical Faith altogether? How about – BAITH instead of Faith?  Biblical Faith – or BAITH – is not belief in spite of the clear evidence. Rather – it is trust in a well evidenced proposition. That’s the position the Bible takes. That’s the position Christians take. What our post Christian society understands as Faith is completely alien to the Bible and to Christianity.

 

FAITH – selective belief in the absence of evidence (according to society at large)

BAITH – the Biblical and Christian position of trust in a well evidenced proposition.

 

I am a man of BAITH in Jesus Christ.

 

And guess what – the irony is that – when it comes to our daily lives – everyone else has BAITH too. We have Baith in our Doctors, Dentists, in our Airline Pilots and our kids School Teachers.

 

Hey – here’s a radical thought. Why not also have some Baith in Jesus Christ? It’ll change your life.

RESPONDblog: Why the Bible Cannot Be Classed as Myth

 cornetto

Oliver:             You do know that “The Three Musketeers was a fiction, right? Written by Alexander Dumas?

Gary King:      A lot of people are saying that about the Bible these days.

Steve Prince:  What, that it was written by Alexander Dumas?

Gary King:      Don’t be daft, Steve! It was written by Jesus!

                — The World End, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, Nick Frost

 

 

I do have a soft spot for The Cornetto Trilogy of movies. And in the particular scene I’m quoting above, there’s a stray comment that resonates with me strongly. As I talk to different people – I do get the sense that many folks today are coming to the opinion that the Bible is simply a bundle of myths – and it has no place being taken seriously by any thinking person.

You don’t need to watch a movie to sense it either. Look at the Gallup Poll that was done recently. The view that the Bible is an ancient book of Fables has grown 9% in 30 years.

fable

And yet – when one actually takes a cursory glance at the evidence – the evidence for the Bible as Myth or Fable just isn’t there.

 

What do we mean by Mythology? Ancient mythologies have many forms.  For example:

  • From Rome, the Greek hero Hercules.
  • The Norse fertility goddess Freyja, the daughter of the sea god Njord.

Popular modern mythologies we could point to would be Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saga, or George Lucas’ ongoing Star Wars saga.

 

Mythology is there for a purpose; it has its own internal truth and logic, it tells an important fictional tale containing themes that people will naturally relate to.

 

Yet the evidence suggests that the Bible is a very different library of literature.

 

Unlike Mythology, the Bible has a solid, historical framework. People pop up who are mentioned outside of the Bible in surviving world history. Take the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (634 – 562 BCE); history documents the alliance he secured with the Medes, his defeat of the Egyptians and much more besides. Including his part in the Babylonian exile of the Jews that the Bible explores in the Books of Daniel and Jeremiah.  Yet we’ve hardly touched the tip of the iceberg. The Bible’s history coincides with Cyrus, Herod, Felix and Pilate. Its narrative calls out the Hittite, Egyptian and Persian nations and many more. And the action occurs in geographical areas such as Canaan, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc.

 

Unlike Mythology, the Bible has many confirmations amongst the sciences. Take Archaeology, for example. The Old Testament book of Exodus tells the tale of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and eventually entering and occupying the land of Canaan. In the Ancient near Eastern culture, these nations would create things called “Stelas” – effectively memorial stone inscriptions.  Similar to our monuments celebrating the end of the First World War (for example). Well – in 1896, the Merneptah Stela was discovered in Thebes. Dating from 1200 BCE it recounts Pharaoh Merneptah’s victories. But it also happens to recount the existence of a people group called Israel who had occupied Canaan by that point in history. The Merneptah Stela is one of the most ancient records of the nation of Israel.

 

Unlike Mythology, so much of the Bible is actually presented as documented history. Luke, for example, claims of his gospel that he had “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” and so wrote an “orderly account…so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (See Luke 1:1-4) The book of 2 Chronicles  makes a side reference to the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon apparently  to engage in trade negotiations. And – indeed – historians know from studying artifacts and inscriptions in ancient remains, that Israel was indeed trading with a number of countries – including Sheba – 900 BCE. The events of Solomon’s life and reign as king of Israel are set to the backdrop of history.

 

Unlike Mythology, the Bible contains many fulfilled prophecies. Predictions about how things will play out in the real world. It has been estimated that up to a third of the entire Bible deals with prophecy in some way, shape or form. The Old Testament, for example, contains more than 300 prophecies that are all fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ who lived hundreds of years after the original texts were written (we know that because of the internal evidence of the text itself, and the external evidence of history, ancient copies and archaeology).  This makes perfect sense – if God exists, as the Bible assumes from the beginning, then he is going to know how things will play out.

 

Of course not every book in the Bible is historical narrative. The Psalms contain songs; Proverbs recounts Solomon’s wise sayings. To understand the Bible, we must first understand the style of the text we have before us. But whatever the genre, it contains an honest expression of someone’s real and down to earth experience. One cannot dismiss it as a made up tale; human history does not permit it.

 

I’m as fond of stories as the next guy – probably more.  So was J.R.R Tolkein, who said this:

“Fantasy remains a human right; we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” – J.R.R Tolkein

 

I agree – our love of creating and exploring fictional world’s points to the similarity between us and our creator – who has expressed Himself to us thru the ancient, true stories of men and women in the Bible.

Does Human Reason Point Toward God’s Existence or God’s Absence?

thinker

Human anatomy is a mind bogglingly amazing thing.

 

For example…

 

The cardiovascular system threads through your body. Hundreds of miles of plumbing carry 5 litres of blood around our frame every minute. Oxygen is distributed, nutrients shared, and cellular waste products are disposed of.

 

The digestive system converts food into energy, absorbs that energy and excretes the waste.

 

The skeletal system is like scaffolding that supports and protects our soft tissues. Each bone is a living organ; some featuring mounting points for muscles, many containing red marrow for the production of new blood cells.

 

And on – and on it goes. Amazing.

 

Now some think that your body and its systems are simply the product of the blind and purposeless forces of nature. Others feel that it is the intentional product of a supernatural (i.e. outside of time + space) Designing Intelligence. But both groups agree – there is clear purpose inherent in each and every one of our body’s systems.

 

 

 

We also have another incredible system.

 

I’m referring to our faculties of REASON. This is our capacity to think, to consider, to explore, to theorise and to speculate about whatever takes our fancy! I believe (or I reason) that our ability to reason has as much purpose as any of the other biological systems we have mentioned.

 

We can reason for a good reason.

 

So what is the purpose of our ability to reason? Surely it is there so that we can begin to understand. So that our choices are carefully selected from the options open to us. And we use reason in the hope that it will lead us to an important destination. Discovery of the truth!

 

If the purpose of the digestive system is to keep me energised and healthy – then the purpose of my faculties of reason are to allow me to move towards discovering the truth – in which ever topic takes my fancy.

 

I reason that it’s a pretty cool system. But it leads me to a question.

 

Why do you trust your ability to reason?  And why do I?

 

 

 

Okay – we might not feel very clever, or quick to reason. Yet I can guarantee that we are sharper than we think we are. Think of the smartest person you know. Perhaps you’ve read one of their books or listened to them talk. And you have been captivated by their ideas and their discoveries around life’s big questions. Why are we here? What is our purpose in life? My question is not why do you like their ideas – my question is is why do you trust their ability to reason in the first place?

 

“The fact that we human beings – who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have come close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our Universe is a great triumph.” — Stephen Hawking

 

Yes okay Professor Hawking – but why do we choose to trust your understanding of the Universe? After all, we did not create the Universe. Did we? We were born into it. We have found ourselves here and some of us are compelled to study it and reach some understanding about the truth contained within it. But here is an important thing to consider. My ability to reason does not define that truth – it simply seeks to understand it. However clever the reasoning is – these are just ideas and theories about how life works. How do I know the theories are right?

 

Ah – by using our senses. That’s the answer. By gathering evidence! But wait – evidence is simply an input to my system of reason. I’ve still got to draw conclusions about the evidence I have found. This takes me back to my original question. Why does anyone trust the conclusions that we make?

 

Is human reason capable of reaching objective truth? Think of it like this. Someone who sits down at a piano with no training – will quickly master the ability to make the sound of musical notes. But as they randomly press down on the keys, the result will most likely sound horrible! It takes time and training to master the instrument – to play a tuneful melody (altho what is tuneful to my teenagers right now, ain’t so to me!). My question is – we do we believe that human reason is able to reach the truth, in the same way that a pianist can work reach that tuneful melody?

 

To most people – the intuitive rightness of human reason is just assumed. But I am asking – why is that…and is it right?

 

 

 

It is common amongst many people today to assume that life is a big cosmic accident. That human beings are the product of millions of years of biological mutation and natural selection of the most appropriate mutants. This counts AGAINST our assumption that human reason is right and trustworthy. Why? Because if all of life’s an accident – then there’s every chance that my reasoning faculties are just compounding the mistake!

 

“if the thoughts in my mind are just the motions of atoms in my brain – a mechanism that has arisen by mindless unguided processes, why should I believe anything it tells me?” — J.B.S Haldane

 

Why indeed.

 

It seems to me – as I exercise my questionable faculties of reason – that if people are solely the result of blind, unguided, Darwinian evolution, then we lose any solid ground for rationality. Chaos leads to chaos – randomness leads to randomness not exquisite structure and information.

 

Further – if we are the product of evolution – why do people intuitively care about truth anyway? Why do we spend so much of our lives seeking for our own truth that will bring us security and happiness? Or running from that same truth? Why do so many spend their lives seeking a true understanding of how our Universe works? Surely if we really were the product of evolution – we would simply be a machine that prioritises survival above everything else. Genes are apparently selfish, not truth seeking!

 

 

 

I suspect the irony of atheism is that it may undermine the very rationality needed to understand, to study and to explore the Universe.

 

“If Dawkins is right that we are the product of mindless unguided natural processes, then he has given us strong reason to doubt the reliability of human cognitive faculties and therefore inevitably to doubt the validity of any belief that they produce – including Dawkins own science and his atheism.” — Alvin Plantiga

 

 

I am not painting a rosy picture here. If evolution is right – then human reason is broken.

 

 

 

Unless, however, Christianity is true.

 

 

 

If Christianity is true then we have a coherent explanation for why our Universe is rationally intelligible. Because God lovingly created everything – including my mind – to be rational and intelligible. He made me in his image – in other words, he has passed his rationality on to me.  This is precisely why I can trust the capacity of human reason. Because I’m built to reason my way toward the truth.

 

“we are faced, not with the choice between God and science, as the New Atheists would have us to think, but with the choice either to put faith in God or to give up on understanding the universe. That is, if there is no God there can be no science.” — Robert Spaemann

 

 

If there is no God – there is no designing first cause mind – therefore there is no guarantee of a rationally understandable universe.

 

And yet a rationally understandable universe is precisely what we find. Surely a Designing Intelligence is sure to follow?

 

Personally I believe that Christianity is true; that it makes sense of human reason and points to God’s existence. And I agree with CS Lewis, when he said:

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

If you have reached this far – you will be reacting to the argument that I am laying out. Namely that human reason points to the existence of a creator God. At this point – let me mention that we have also been provided with free will in addition to human reason. This means I am well within my rights to acknowledge God – or not. Some today happily stand on the firm ground he has provided – and declare him absent. Or shake their fists at him in anger. Or exercise their reason and communicate in a way that tries to obscure his presence for other people. I can choose to use my God given reason to deny him.

 

At least I can for now. But our window of opportunity for ignoring him is closing. The clock is ticking.

 

And frankly what an unreasonable exercise anyway? Cos I reckon the human faculties of reason point to the true, loving, patient and hope giving God that we are working so hard to avoid!

 

 

“His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him–though he is not far from any one of us.” Acts 17:27, NLT

 

 

Jesus Resurrection – As Unlikely as Alien Abduction Claims?

i_want_to_believe

 

In 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. It has cemented them and their claims firmly in pop culture.

 

And this raises a question for me. As I raise my eyebrow at the Hills’ outlandish claim, I wonder whether the New Testament’s report of Jesus physical return from the dead is any less outlandish and fanciful?

 

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!

 

What exactly was Barney Hills claim?

 

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:

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?

 

Christianity Compared to Racism?

odowd

 

I’m wondering whether Chris O’Dowd was caught on an off day.

He was recently quoted by GQ magazine as saying he reckons following a religion will eventually become as offensive and unacceptable as racism is today. He says…

 “…religion is ruining the world… you need to stop! There’s going to be a turning point where it’s going to be like racism. You’re not allowed to say that weird sh*t! It’s mad! And you’re making everybody crazy!”

I’m guessing that by “religion”…Chris refers to people who believe in a higher purpose…and ultimately the existence of God (altho some religions don’t go that far). Whatever he means – his comments surely are leveled at Christians. Right? As a Christian, I believe in God…I believe in Jesus Christ. So I guess his comments apply to me.

The thing is… I’m completely baffled by Chris’s likening of Christianity to Racism. Christianity is not a threat. Quite the opposite – Christianity is the only life raft that’s available, folks.

And I’ll tell you why.

If we look back a few hundred years, we had a big problem in the British Empire (back when Britain was great – right?). Part of our African trade involved buying and selling African slaves. To Brits in the late 1700s, slavery was just part of everyday life.

Britain treated those of a certain colour as less important than everybody else.

Britain treated them as objects, as property.

Now – surely that describes racism applied on a national scale?

wilberforce

Enter one man – William Wilberforce – who challenged this appalling state of affairs. He stood against slavery – and therefore racism – in the strongest way. In fact – for 18 years he regularly proposed anti-slavery motions in British Parliament. And they were continually swept aside by the business people who profited from slaves. That is…until 29th July 1833 when the act to free slaves in the British Empire was finally passed in the Houses of Parliament.

The thing is – William Wilberforce was a very devout Christian. In fact – his Christian faith was one of the things that drove his anti-slavery activism.

You see – the Bible teaches that every person matters to God. There’s not one person we lock eyes with – that God does not care about. Now – groups of Christians will sometimes disagree on lots of things – it is not The Worldwide Church’s most attractive quality! But this particular fact is foundational to all followers of Jesus Christ. People are made in God’s image, they are precious, they are given a unique dignity by the Creator and God has gone incredible lengths to reach out towards each and every one of us.

People matter to God. William Wilberforce knew this. That’s why he gave his life to abolish the enforced slavery of people God loves.

So I would ask this. If Christianity can

  1. Propel William Wilberforce to dramatically reform the racist British Empire,
  2. Inspire him to work towards reclaiming and recognizing the inherent dignity of countless African people

…on what grounds can you claim that Christianity is a danger to society today? Christianity and racism are such polar opposites – that William Wilberforce devoted his life to eliminating institutionalized racism within the Great British Empire. What’s not to like?

I’m baffled that Christianity would be likened to such a hateful, segregating, controlling and evil period in Britain’s past. Jesus Christ came to bring freedom – not bondage. That’s the whole point.

shaftsbury

A contemporary of Wilberforce was Lord Shaftsbury who, in the 1800s, reformed appalling working practices that were springing up as a result of the new Industrial Revolution. The least important in society  – women and children – were abused in the name of business. Lord Shaftsbury transformed the lives of countless workers and is remembered as a reformer and friend of the poor. You know where I’m going with this…he was a committed Christian. There’s a direct line between his faith in Christ and his social action.

kingfisher

Thinking about the 21st century for a moment, the Christian Church that I serve in as a leader – Kingfisher Church – is also working towards reclaiming and recognizing the inherent dignity of marginalized people in British society. In our case – these people are adults with learning difficulties.  Without seeking to blow our own trumpet – there are Christian leaders at Kingfisher Church today who are moving in similar circles as William Wilberforce did so many centuries ago.

Why?

Because people matter to God. Every single one of us do. We always have done. We always will do. And anyone who has been a Christian for 5 minutes instinctively begins to long that society would reflect that.

What is so offensive about that? What is so abhorrent about valuing people so much that we choose to work towards making society a better place?

Jesus didn’t come to make everyone crazy.

He came as a Doctor to the sick,

As a Light in the darkness,

To bring Life to those facing death.

He brings Hope to the hopeless and

Sight to the blind.

And his intention is that Christians everywhere would join him on this path.

Christianity is not a threat – it’s the only life raft that’s available, folks.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” Luke 4:18-19, NLT