Could Jesus’ Resurrection Have Been a Cunning Lie?

Is it possible that the event which launched Christianity in the first century, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, was actually an elaborate lie staged by one man? A lie that influenced countless people down through the centuries? After Jesus’ crucifixion, did the disciple Peter simply invent a story about seeing the risen Christ? And did this lie result in the fabricated reports of the resurrection that appeared in the writings of Paul (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15) and the later gospels?

That’s the foundational claim of the book “The Christianity Myth,” which seeks to reframe first century Christian history in the light of a simple but highly influential fabrication. The author, Ken Thackery, assumes a fundamental difference exists between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Historically, Ken says Jesus existed, but the Christ preached by the church has always been a fabrication. Ken says “obviously this historical Jesus wasn’t resurrected in Jerusalem after his crucifixion,” and “…the New Testament evidence is therefore based entirely on Peter’s uncorroborated & unverified claims, the veracity of which has never been independently established.”[1]

This idea cuts to the heart of the matter for the Christian apologist. Often, when someone seeks to prove Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, one of the main lines of evidence are the New Testament writings themselves. Yet Ken says we must throw them all out, because they are clearly infected by this fabricated idea – the resurrection of Jesus.

 

1 – Some Questions

Clearly, Ken’s ideas raise lots of questions. For example, if the early Christian experiences reported in the New Testament are based on fabrications, why would people believe a lie that Peter allegedly told about Jesus’ resurrection in the first place? Particularly since this resurrection idea would have been alien to ancient Judaism, so why would it have been compelling to Jewish people if there was no evidence for it? Also, why were these lies about Jesus’ supposed resurrection so carefully documented anyway?

Here’s a bigger question.

If Jesus was not raised from the dead, why would Peter put himself in danger by claiming that he was? Jerusalem was not a safe place for the friends of Jesus after his crucifixion. If the authorities had executed their leader, they would pursue any Jesus follower who decided to continue Jesus’ mission. We actually have evidence from the historian Josephus that this happened to other Jewish Messiah candidates. How interesting though, that in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the executed Messiah’s mission continued and spread despite the danger facing anyone who publicly proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But if Ken is right that Christianity is built on a lie, why would anyone want to put themselves in harm’s way by doing that?

Of course Ken’s answer is, they didn’t. This is all just a story, fabricated to give later Christian converts a plausible grounding for their Christian faith. He says, “converts would eventually want to know more about Jesus’ life before his crucifixion, and it was this growing need to know more about Jesus, that eventually triggered the appearance of many gospels. These gospels, all appearing after the death of all concerned were just local attempts to provide Jesus’ missing biographical details for the benefit of their pagan converts.”[2] Perhaps Ken would go on to say no one in first century Jerusalem believed in Jesus’ resurrection, it was all made up many years later for an eager audience of later Christian believers?

Well – if that is the case, then I would ask, what do we do with the first and second century evidence that supports the claim that the disciple Peter did not just put himself in harm’s way after Jesus’ crucifixion, he was willing to suffer and die for his first-hand personal witness of the physically risen Jesus? And – what do we make of the evidence that he was actually martyred in Rome for doing so?

What I’m saying is this. You could understand other people giving their lives for something they only thought was true. But Ken says Peter knew Jesus resurrection was false. If Peter was the only one who genuinely knew that Jesus’ resurrection was a lie, then why would he personally put himself through danger, suffering, and death for his own lie?

Now – Ken doesn’t seem to think Peter was martyred. He says, “The actual facts of the apostles is unknown and Peter’s alleged death in Rome is not backed up by reliable evidence.”[3] If Peter wasn’t martyred, then we can’t point to his willingness to die as confirmation that Jesus was raised from the dead.

But hang on. Is Ken right? Let’s test his claim that we cannot know with certainty that Peter was martyred for his Christian beliefs.

 

2 – Evidence for the Martyrdom of the Apostle Peter

The traditional understanding of Peter’s fate is that he was martyred in Rome under Nero’s reign in AD 64 – 67. How strong is the evidence for this traditional understanding? It turns out that there are many sources that support this idea from the first and second century. This is important because these sources were written “in living memory” of Peter.

In his doctoral dissertation, Sean McDowell examines the literary evidence from antiquity that supports the martyrdom of Peter.[4]

First – the New Testament itself. In John 21:18-19, Jesus cryptically predicts Peter’s execution, though no details are given. 2 Peter 1:12-15 records Peter writing from Rome in the knowledge that his death is imminent.

Second – 1 Clement 5:1-4. Written in the first century, this is believed to come from the church leader in Rome and written to the church in Corinth. Clement assumes Peter’s martyrdom in Rome around AD60 as common knowledge. “This is Peter, who … bore up under hardships not just once or twice, but many times; and having thus borne his witness he went to the place of glory that he deserved.”[5] Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman says, “By the end of the first century and into the second it was widely known among Christians that Peter had suffered a martyr’s death. The tradition is alluded to in the book of 1 Clement.”[6] McDowell says, “at the very least, this passage provides evidence that Peter and Paul were considered examples of faithful endurance for the Gospel, even in the midst of suffering, until their deaths.”[7]

Third – the writings of Ignatius, a Christian leader from the second century who was also martyred. Two writings are important:

  • Letter to the Romans 4:3 – Ignatius faces his impending martyrdom, and he seems to assume both Peter and the apostle Paul were also martyred before him.
  • Letter to the Smyrneans 3:1-2 – this letter presupposes the martyrdom of many of the apostles, including Peter.

Fourth – The Apocalypse of Peter. This is a work attributed to Peter, but the real author is unknown (it is a pseudepigraphal work). Yet it is dated to the first half of the second century and is thought to be built around a historical core of data, providing “early attestation for the martyrdom of Peter in Rome under Nero.”[8]

Fifth – The Ascension of Isaiah. Like the Apocalypse of Peter, this is a pseudepigraphal work dated early in the second century. It refers to an apostle who fell into Nero’s hands and, since it was written in living memory of Peter, the readers would know who was being referred to here. While it doesn’t explicitly state Peter was martyred, it implies it happened in Rome.

Sixth – The Acts of Peter. Dated toward the end of the second century, this work contains legendary material, a historical novel. Yet scholars note that the authors did not just make material up. Rather, they were bound by received tradition and memory of events, including the martyrdom of Peter.

Seventh – The Apocryphon of James. This pseudonymous text is dated to before AD314, and it shows that “by the end of the second century at the earliest, the crucifixion of Peter was assumed by both Orthodox and Gnostic circles alike.” [9]

Eighth – Dionysius of Corinth. This was a pastoral letter written around AD170 to encourage the Corinthian church. He mentions the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul, and the historian Eusebius uses Dionysius’ work as confirmation that both apostles died under the reign of Nero.

Ninth – Irenaeus, Against Heresies. Written at the end of the second century to challenge Gnosticism, he references the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome. The tradition of their martyrdoms was strong, and so in this text, a reference is clearly being made to it.

Tenth – Tertullian, Scorpiace 15, written in AD208 (early third century). He is confident in Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, and encourages the reader to check the archives of the empire if they doubt this fact.

On top of the surviving texts attesting to Peter’s martyrdom, crucially there is no competing narrative from antiquity that presents a different explanation for Peter’s fate.

 

3 – Conclusion

There is therefore firm historical support for the Christian martyrdom of the apostle Peter from many different sources. And this makes Peter’s martyrdom as firm an event as any from antiquity. Unless we are to believe that not only is the New Testament fabricated, but all of this historical record as well. But this strains incredulity, I think.

So – the question remains. If Ken is right and Christianity is built on a lie, why would Peter choose to die for his own lie?

Here’s another possible interpretation of the historical record.

Jesus’ resurrection is not a lie. It is an event from history. God did raise Jesus supernaturally from the dead, and this event contributed to the changing of Peter and the other apostles from frightened defeated followers into brave and confident proclaimers of the resurrected Christ. This put them on a direct collision course with the same authorities who executed Jesus. Yet they were willing to put their lives on the line in spite of this danger. They were willing to “suffer and die for their first-hand witness of the risen Jesus – this is of foremost importance. The evidence shows that some really died as martyrs, and that none recanted.”[10]

[1] Ken Thackery, The Christianity Myth, https://keebostick.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/the-revised-christianity-myth/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, (London: Routledge, 2015), 55 – 92.

[5] 1 Clement 5:4.

[6] Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary, quoted in McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles.

[7] McDowell, 73.

[8] Ibid., 78.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Ibid., 259.

Are the Jesus Stories Originally from Egyptian Mythology?

Zeitgeist is a German word referring to both time (zeit) and spirit (geist). The spirit of the times are the popular and influential ideas that are going around. When the Zeitgeist movie was released online in 2007, it gives voice to renewed scepticism about religion in general and Christianity in particular.

It states that the Jesus story we find written in the New Testament is essentially a re-hash of earlier myths about dying and rising Gods. The Jesus of faith wasn’t a real person, rather he was an idea cooked up by people in the past. Here’s a taste of what it says:

 

“Horus … He is the Sun God of Egypt of around 3000 BC. He is the sun anthropomorphized… Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis-Meri. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east … three kings followed [this] to locate and adorn the new-born saviour. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher, and at the age of 30 he was baptized by a figure known as Anup and thus began his ministry…he was crucified … buried … and resurrected.”[1]

If this story sounds like the Jesus story, Zeitgeist says you are wrong. It is actually the story of the Egyptian Sun God Horus, who’s story was supposedly repurposed by the Christian church and attributed to the later Jesus of Nazareth.

This idea has a big problem.

Actually – this IS the Jesus story which has been mistakenly applied BACKWARDS onto the character of Egyptian mythology – Horus. This would be a bit like claiming the events from Charles Dicken’s life did not happen. Rather, they were actual events from the life of Ebenezer Scrooge (the character from the book A Christmas Carol) that were passed off as events from Dicken’s life. That’s a pretty absurd claim! Right?

If you think Zeitgeist summarises the Christian story, it’s because it does. But, it does NOT properly recount the Egyptian myth, and it anachronistically and incorrectly imposes historical reports about Jesus onto a mythological Egyptian character called Horus.

 

Chris Forbes is Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney. He’s an expert in ancient myths. And – he has a number of interesting things to say about the mistaken claims of the Zeitgeist movie. You can find a useful interview with Chris here.

 

First – Horus is not an Egyptian sun God. He was the God of the sky. The sun God was Raa. So Zeitgeist’s play on words (sun God vs son of God) is just pointless and irrelevant.

Second – The mother of Horus was Isis, but there’s no evidence in the Egyptian sources that she was a virgin.

Third – Egyptians would not date Horus’s birth as December 25th, because they used a completely different calendar. December is a Latin month, and so a foreign idea to ancient Egypt.

Fourth – Horus wasn’t crucified and raised from the dead. He wasn’t killed at all. Rather, in this particular myth, it was Osiris who was killed by his brother Set, who dismembered him and hid the pieces around ancient Egypt so they could not be reconstituted again. Isis gathers the pieces, binds them together again with bandages, and so Osiris becomes the first Egyptian mummy that all the rest relate to.

Fifth – the Horus, Isis and Osiris events are not recorded in historical time. Rather, Egyptian mythology is understood to have happened in a kind of dream time, or mythology. By contrast, the New Testament and the reports of Jesus are clearly presented as a historical account.

Sixth – no serious historian doubts that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified by the Romans in the first century. There is debate around whether the Bible’s description of him is correct. But – that he lived is beyond serious consideration. Horus, on the other hand, is a well understood myth.

Seventh – the sources used by the writers of the Zeitgeist movie are not qualified to make their assertions. For example, Gerald Massey is an English Poet and amateur Egyptologist. He’s not a professional historian. And this hurts the credibility of the film and its claims. When you actually check proper references and compare them with the claims that Zeitgeist makes, you can see that actually it is just talking nonsense.

[1] Zeitgeist: The Movie, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrHeg77LF4Y.

Is Easter a Pagan Festival, Stolen By the Church?

Is Easter a pagan festival that was repurposed by the early Christian church? After all – lots of pagan mythological gods were killed and then raised from the dead. Or so various sceptical people claim every year…at Easter!

Maybe Easter is rooted in the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, hung on a stake … subsequently, resurrected?[1] John Dickson observes … quite rightly that “Ishtar” kinda sounds like “Easter.” Right?

Actually – not really.

The word for “Easter” in languages other than English and German sounds very different. Dickson points out the reason for this is that the original word has a Hebrew root. The original word was “Pesach”, which means “Passover.”[2]

What is Passover about? It’s the central Jewish festival, remembering the event in ancient Egypt, where God’s judgement came on the Egyptian oppressors, but it passed over the Jewish nation. It is reported by the New Testament gospels that Jesus was crucified at Passover in 30 AD. And – there’s an amazing parallel going on as this happens in the first century.

At Passover, the Jewish people sacrifice a spotless Lamb to remember the blood that the Jews put on the doorposts in Egypt so that God’s judgement would pass over their houses. In the crucifixion, we have Jesus giving his life so that God’s judgement would pass over those who trust in Christ. This is the real parallel that is going on here. Do you see the parallel?

For much of Christian history, Easter has been referred to as “Pesach,” or Passover. It has only been since Christianity arrived at Germany and English lands that the word “Easter” has been adopted as a reference to spring in the northern hemisphere.

So – does the word “Easter” betray the Pagan roots of the Christian celebration? No. Not at all.

[1] Heather McDougall, The Pagan Roots of Easter, The Guardian, 3rd April, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/03/easter-pagan-symbolism.

[2] John Dickson, Easter Myths, Undeceptions Podcast, 5th April, 2020.

Why Might God Allow People to Suffer?

Over the last 10 years, I have spent time in Africa amongst rural peoples in Malawi and Mozambique. These folks do not have the comforts that we enjoy. Their lives are much more challenging as a result. The practicalities of gathering food and freshwater, and keeping people sufficiently fed is often a battle. Also, unfortunately, sickness is common. People are struck down by Malaria, and Aids remains a serious problem.

The reason I visited my friends in Africa was to encourage them in their Christian faith. These folks would often ask me tricky questions about many things. But – here’s one question I never got while in Africa:

“Why does God allow suffering?”

Isn’t that odd? The folks living in those regions probably suffered a lot more than I have in my entire life. I might wonder why I am going through a hard time. Yet they do not seem to think about this question to the same degree. What might that be about?

I wonder if it speaks to something that the Bible says. For example:

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15, NIV)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … no one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:19 + 24, NIV)

“And he himself has promised us this: eternal life.” (1 John 2:25, TLB)

1 – Don’t Get Too Comfortable

God’s message here seems to be this. Don’t get too comfortable. He’s warning us specifically not to get too attached to the world because our true home is where we will eventually live. Our true and lasting home is with God after death. It seems to me that the difficult daily lives of my African friends has firmly impressed this truth on them. They are aware that life here is short and hard. There’s not a lot to love about daily life, yet life is full of hints towards everything God has for them to look forward to. Therefore the suffering that is experienced here and now – is something to endure for a short time only. And it is part of the plan God is working out in their lives. So, asking why God allows suffering is actually pretty irrelevant. They expect this world to be hard. Suffering is as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow. There’s not much to love about the world. But the future is worth holding on for.

 

2 – Many People Have Made Themselves Comfortable

By contrast, we in the more developed countries have the opposite view on life. We have lots to love about our lives because they are full of lovely things. So – we’ve made ourselves comfortable. But we have a problem – our problem is that we’re not here to stay. We’ve forgotten that one day we’ve got to leave this world, we’ve got to give our seat to someone else. One day will die. Oh, we might admit that if we are pressed, but even so we’re hanging on to our seat and gripping tightly to it. We’re dearly hoping that we DON’T die for a long time. Also, while hanging on, our lives have become about maintaining our comfort level. So – when something comes along to challenge our comfort levels, it disturbs us greatly. What a contrast there is between us, and my African friends.

 

3 – Maybe We Need To Change Our Perspective on Life

There are many people who claim not to be interested in God, and who are sceptical about Christianity’s claims and God’s existence. Why would I have any expectation for life after death if I don’t think there’s a God, and it’s just all nature, matter and nothing else? Well – I would ask you to consider one thing that we can both agree on. One day, we will die. There’s nothing we can do about that. Sure, we can try to delay it by eating healthily and exercising. We can put it out of our minds by focussing on our careers, and doing really good and important work. Even buying things to make ourselves feel good. But in the end – none of those things changes the fact that – we will die whether we believe there’s a God or not.

From the perspective of the skeptic, I totally get why this question IS important. “If God is there and he’s good and powerful, why would he allow evil and suffering?” This is the cry of someone who is comfortable in the world!

If this life is all I’ve got. How dare I have my one and only life messed up! Well – can I suggest this complaint is less an argument against God’s existence, and it is more a consequence of our mistaken comfort in our lives. We don’t like the idea of our comfort being disturbed, but it MUST be disturbed to cause us to move. However much me try to hang on – we have another destination that we are heading to after we die. Perhaps we have to change our perspective, and live in the expectation that this new destination awaits us?

 

4 – Maybe God Has Purpose in Suffering

But if there is a God – who created us and is good and wise – wouldn’t he have a much higher perspective than we do? Think about this for a minute. How much do we actually know about the universe? Not a lot. So, why do we think that we might understand whether or not there are higher purposes at play in our suffering? If there is a God, wouldn’t he be able to permit suffering to happen for a greater good? Even if we don’t understand what these purposes are yet? After all, as parents, we do this with our kids all the time. We say something like, “you can play on the Xbox after you have finished your homework. You will thank me later.” Suffering – for a purpose. After all, if God exists then he made us, we didn’t make him. He’s our parent.

Maybe an important purpose in suffering is to disturb our comfortable lives, to get us to view life more like those in Africa do. I’m here for a while, I’m not here to stay. But – I’ve always got my eye on my ultimate destination.

Finally – wouldn’t it be reasonable to presume that when God says in the Bible that you will live forever, and then he sends the man Jesus to die and then be raised from the dead to demonstrate that fact, isn’t it at least possible that there actually is life beyond the grave? Isn’t it worth considering that as a possibility?

Can We Blame God for a COVID-19 Pandemic?

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

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

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

 

We Can’t Blame God for COVID-19

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

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

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

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

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters Either

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

So why doesn’t God want to rescue us?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Time God DID Save ME From a Natural Disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Might COVID-19 Disprove God’s Existence?

Hey there – I hope you are feeling well and you are not suffering the effects of the Corona virus. And – if you have done, I’m hoping and praying you have recovered quickly. I’ve not knowingly contracted the virus at this stage. I’m not worried about myself, I am more concerned about my elderly parents and parents in law who have other health conditions. I will do all I can to help them and support them at this time of uncertainty. And – I hope you can do the same for the vulnerable in your life.

But – you know – every day is a time of uncertainty. Today is really no different in that sense. That there’s a pandemic in progress doesn’t change that fact. If we think we can control what happens in our lives – we are sadly mistaken. The unexpected is always around the corner for us.

What the pandemic might do, however, is cause some people to pose the question, “where is God in the midst of a pandemic?” Do viruses disprove God’s existence? My response to that question is – no they don’t. Rather, viruses serve as evidence of a Designer of nature. Covid-19 points to the existence of God.

In what way?

First, viruses point to the exquisite complexity and beauty in nature. If you want an interesting look at how Covid-19 attacks human cells, have a look here. All life is composed of cells. Viruses are different from cells because a virus cannot reproduce by themselves. It must enter and transform a healthy cell to reproduce.

That means a virus depends on the incredible and beautiful complexity of the cell for its existence. All of the incredible molecular machines that process information, build new proteins and assemble them – all this staggering cellular complexity is required for the existence of a virus.

Fazale Rana is a biochemist who says, “the cell’s complexity, elegance, and sophistication coupled with the inadequacy of evolutionary scenarios to account for life’s origin compelled me to conclude that life must stem from a Creator.”[1] I would agree with him. The complexity of the cellular machinery, and the viruses that interact with them, point to a Creator of this highly complex and finely balanced biological system

 

Second – viruses are thought to have important roles in nature. Bacteria are complex, single celled organisms. Scientists are still learning many things about viruses. For example, we have bacteria living inside of our guts, and bacteria is actually critical to the existence of life. They harvest inorganic compounds, and make other compounds that serve other biological life.[2] Bacteria can reproduce very quickly indeed. Yet, some types of bacteria are harmful to life. If there was nothing keeping bacteria in check, then the world could simply be inhabited by bacteria and nothing else. How incredible then that there is delicately balanced system involving bacteria, and a system to keep that bacteria in check. What does that? The virus! An important role of the virus, is to stop bacteria from dominating life in destructive way. So, we have viruses to thank for breaking up bacteria and stopping us being overrun by them.

Also, when a virus infects a bacterial cell, it breaks that cell up producing raw materials that can be usefully consumed by other life forms. So – again – the virus is serving nature in a positive way by creating food for life to consume.

 

Third – Christianity predicts the breakdown of nature. A tiny fraction of known viruses are dangerous to humans. Covid-19 is one of those. There are vast numbers of different viruses in nature and only a tiny fraction of them can harm us. Of course – if my loved ones are at risk of even just one of those viruses…it’s a big deal. But how does Christianity predict something like this?

Well, the beginning of the Bible recounts humanity’s rebellion against their Creator, and this rebellion resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and God’s subsequent cursing of the ground. You and I were not involved in that rebellion directly. But – we have inherited the consequences of it, and we live our lives in the light of rebellion against God. There are consequences to all this. Nature is broken, and this has happened as a consequence of our rebellion against God.[3]

So, what? Why a diversion into theology? Well, there are a tiny number of viruses that threaten humanity. Of course there are. This fact is consistent with the idea that nature has become broken as a result of humanity’s Fall. It’s not a nice and comfortable truth, but it is there all the same.

 

Four – Christianity suggests that God may allow human suffering to draw us to think about eternal things. We are built to live for ever. That’s what the Bible says. Even when our current bodies die, our spirits will survive and we will receive new bodies beyond the grave. And – we will live there forever. Yet, few people actually live their lives considering their eternal destiny. We are so wrapped up in the issues and problems of our current lives here and now. Yet – if we have an eternal future beyond the grave, perhaps we would be wise to consider that future and how to orient ourselves towards it? Why? Because while this life is momentary, that future life will last forever. So why might God use suffering? As a way to wake us up to our destiny. As Sean McDowell says, “God may allow us to suffer so we move beyond our momentary pleasures and focus on what lasts forever.”[4]

Don’t get me wrong – I want to do all I can to protect the vulnerable and to help them. But – I do that in the knowledge that their ultimate destination – and mine – is actually beyond the grave. And so it is good to remind ourselves of that. When life is good and going along without any problems – its easy to forget this fact. Suffering isn’t caused BY God, but I wonder whether he permits it to waken us up to the eternal future awaiting us all.

 

 

Conclusion

This pandemic is not a good situation, and my prayer is that you and your loved ones come safely through it with minimal disruption and suffering. Yet – at the same time, I think this difficult time right now points to the amazing design of nature, the seriousness of the consequences of mankind’s rebellion against God, and our future destination in eternity. And for all of those things, I am thankful for Covid-19. As C S Lewis once said, ““Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[5]

[1] https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design

[2] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/august-web-only/why-zika-and-other-viruses-dont-disprove-gods-goodness.html

[3] Genesis 3:14-24.

[4] https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/why-does-god-allow-the-coronavirus-4-christian-insights

[5] C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

When the Pastor Lets Us Down

What do we do when the Pastor lets us down, maybe even wounds us? Where does that leave us as far as church is concerned? Do we decide to withdraw from church completely? Or is there a better way?

First – I have been a church pastor, and I am sure I have disappointed people in that role. And I’m sorry about that.

Second – I have known a number of church pastors during my life, and virtually all of them have let me down in one way or another. So – there is a pattern developing here. Church pastors are people, and people are imperfect. They let other people down, and they do things they are ashamed of.

Consequently, pastors just do not belong on the pedestal that so many in their congregations want to place them on. It’s tough when the pastor is a likeable, and gifted communicator. You want to hold them up there. But – it is never a good idea, and it does not reflect reality. It’s worse when the pastor seems to think they deserve to BE on a pedestal! Spoiler alert – church pastors get it wrong, just like the rest of us.

Perhaps you’ve been in a church setting and had a touch of this. Sometimes it can be more serious than that. Maybe you’ve experienced bullying, intimidation or manipulation. You’ve endured the pastor’s need to control and be the power person. Perhaps you’ve suffered gaslighting, being undermined and misrepresented in public and private, and this has been a horrible experience for you. Recently, various serious and heartbreaking stories have come to light about high profile church pastors and their unseemly behaviour. The latest report is of the late Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, who abused multiple women during his ministry.

So – what do we do with all that?

First – we recognise that Christianity is all about saving broken people. The church is there to rescue those who are lost. And the reality is that, when we respond to Christ and become a Christian, we are just at the start of a process of life change. We don’t become perfect right away. Rather, God starts the job of changing us from the inside out.

Pastors are also people who have been saved by Christ, and aren’t perfect. But crucially, they need to cooperate with Christ in the process of life change. Everyone is on that road, church pastors included.

Second – Christianity says clearly that the only perfect person that has lived – is Jesus. And so, he is the only one deserving of the pedestal that we may have mistakenly put the pastor on.[1]

Third – every person has weak spots. Maybe it’s how we use our tongue, or maybe it’s sexual temptation, or something else. What the pastor finds in the course of their job, that their weak spot is attacked when they are in their public position. Everyone has weaknesses – we might hide ours, but we might learn about the pastor’s weaknesses because they are a public figure.

Fourth – this does not minimise the seriousness of a leader’s sin. It was Jesus himself who encouraged little children to come to him, and warned that anyone who caused little vulnerable ones to fall, would be in serious trouble with God.[2] So, there is a warning here for leaders. We are given the responsibility to care for vulnerable people. We are heading into trouble if we abuse the very people we are supposed to care for.

 

If I’ve been wounded by a leader, does this undo all the good that leader did?

I like the way the Christian leader and Theologian N T Wright puts it. It doesn’t undo the good they have done but it casts a shadow on it.[3] The good messages they shared remain good, the positive arguments remain good arguments even if the person sharing them has a shadow in their life.

Actually, this leaves us as the wounded party to do some work to do in OUR lives.

First – we must remember that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”[4] So – we need to be looking at those words, accepting them and believing them and applying them to our situation as we pray them every day.

Second – our job is therefore to forgive the pastor who has hurt us. Why? Because if we are a Christian we enjoy God’s forgiveness, and so he expects us to share that with others who need it. Pastors included.

 

What do I do with feelings of betrayal?

Wright observes that our culture either wants people on pedestals, or it wants them crashing down to the ground, Harvey Weinstein style. There’s no “in-between” allowed. Yet the “in-between” is the reality because life and human beings are complex. Yet God’s big enough to deal with this complexity.

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.”[5]

We enjoy God’s free acceptance even though we let people down. We need to give our feelings to him and allow God to make us into people who share the undeserved love we have ourselves received. Even to our betrayer.

 

But what if the pastor doesn’t think they have done anything wrong, yet I am still feeling hurt?

Well, sometimes the pastor needs to feel they have the moral high ground at all times. We may be sceptical of the truth of that, seeing it just as another lever of control. Yet the truth is, it is not our responsibility to police them in this. That’s God’s job. Our responsibility is to keep our side of the street clean, to ask God to help us forgive them…and walk God’s road of forgiveness for us towards them. It’s probably not going to be a short road!

 

What do I say to people who point to this situation and say, “All Christians are hypocrites.”

Well – frankly, everyone is guilty of hypocrisy in some way shape or form. When we take a position of judgement on someone else, we are probably conveniently forgetting everything we would rather keep hidden in our own lives.

But even tho Christians are as broken as everyone else, Christianity has always from the beginning focussed on developing some particular areas of virtue. N T Wright observes that these 1st-century virtues were distinctly Christian:[6]

  • Patience
  • Chastity
  • Forgiveness
  • Kindness

Christians just admit their need to grow in these and other virtues. And as we grow in virtue, we become ever more conscious of our weaknesses. As the old hymn says:

And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
For none are wholly free from sin;
And they who fain would serve Thee best
Are conscious most of wrong within.[7]

I am not perfect. But – I’m painfully aware of my weak spots. And I’m pretty sure I’d be a whole lot worse if I was not a Christian.

Maybe you aren’t a Christian and you think that, “Well, I’m not a Christian and I’m doing just fine thanks.” Well – maybe you are doing better than me in your life. But what additional potential awaits you if you were to become a follower of Jesus? Lots!

 

But what if I’m wounded and I just don’t trust the church anymore?

Perhaps we need to heal, and to take the opportunity to do that.

But if we are a Christian who remains isolated from church family, we will lose a lot. And – we will struggle to hang on to our faith in Christ. As N T Wright says, find another good Christian church where you will receive kindness, affirmation and friendship.[8] That’s what the church is for, and it’s what all Christians need.

[1] Hebrews 2:10.

[2] Matthew 18:1-6.

[3] Ask N T Wright Anything Podcast, 33. #31 Jean Vanier and when leaders let us down, February 28th, 2020.

[4] Matthew 6:12.

[5] Romans 3:23-24, NLT.

[6] N T Wright, podcast.

[7] At Even When the Sun Was Set, hymnal.net, https://www.hymnal.net/en/hymn/h/757.

[8] N. T. Wright, podcast.