RESPONDblog: Were the New Testament Authors Biased?


Introduction

I often hear something like this from sceptics:

“Christians always appeal to the Bible. But I don’t trust the Bible because it was written by authors who were biased. If the text is untrustworthy, the foundation of Christianity is therefore suspect.” 

The sceptic claims a lack of objectivity in the New Testament record. Because the authors were Christians, the sceptic assumes they were therefore not objective in their assessment of the events. Because they weren’t objective, they must therefore make claims that are biased, suffering from “unreasoned judgement.” (1)  Let’s look at the 3 primary motives for personal bias to see whether any evidence for this exists for the apostolic authors. Is there evidence the New Testament authors were intentionally misleading their readers?


Relating the Primary Motives to the Apostles

What exactly is the cause of their supposed bias? What were the authors to gain from misleading their audience? This question can be approached by considering the three most common motives for human misdemeanour.

First, the driving force of financial greed commonly leads to wrong behaviour. Yet there is no historical evidence the apostles had financial wealth, or a motivation toward amassing it. We can appeal to both the New Testament books of Acts, the letter of James and non biblical history to support this claim.

In Acts, the apostle Peter responded to a lame man, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene – walk!” (2)  Clearly Peter’s life as an apostle did not allow him to engage in much paid work; his priority was spreading Christ’s message.

The apostle James goes further, stating not only were the followers of Christ financially poor, but that their perspective was such that they prioritised eternal matters over financial ones; “Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.” (3)

We must also appeal to other sources to demonstrate the trustworthiness of the biblical claim of apostolic poverty; “All the non biblical accounts related to the lives of the apostles, whether legitimate or legendary, affirm the poverty of the disciples.” (4)

Sexual or relational desire is a second driving force for immoral action. Helpfully, we know from the writings of the disciple Clement of Alexandria, that all the apostles were men who held, “sexual purity in high regard.” (5) The record shows they were all married and some had children. While Clement suggests that they chose to deny themselves sexual contact for a time, they were known as people who would, “live their sexual lives in a manner that was beyond reproach.” (6) And their attitude to these matters is clearly seen in the counterculture requirement that men had only a single wife. (7)

The third driver is the pursuit of personal power. Often, critics of Christianity point to this as a motivating factor behind much of what went wrong during church history. To an extent, church history documents the Roman Catholic Church’s power, and its corrupting influence on the lives of some popes. It is critical, however, to distinguish this later period of church history from the earlier apostolic period. One cannot criticise the apostles for the mistakes and sinful choices made by church leaders who lived hundreds of years after they died. Rather, the apostles must be measured by their own choices.

Looking at the historical record demonstrates that during the apostles’ time, “leadership within the Christian community was a liability rather than an asset.” (8)  The extra-biblical historical record from Roman historians like Tacitus and Josephus records that the first century Christians experienced uniform persecution.

Importantly, although their leadership role led to persecution rather than power, they did not change their message to lessen their persecution. Instead, they went to their deaths preaching Christ; most of them were martyred.

I have laid out important reasons why the apostles were free from the motivating factors of finances, relationships and power. Because the apostles were free from ulterior motives, the case for them as reliable witnesses is strengthened. This gives both a clear and a thoughtful response to the sceptic who dismisses the New Testament as the product of biased sources.

The burden of proof is on the sceptic to show evidence of bias.

  [1] J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity, (David Cook), 245.

  [2] Acts 3:6.

  [3] James 2:5.

  [4] Wallace, 242.

  [5] Wallace, 244.

  [6] Ibid.

  [7] 1 Timothy 3:2.

  [8] Wallace, 245.

RESPONDblogs: Do Any Natural Explanations for the RESURRECTION Work?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

EITHER

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

OR

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

 

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

 

1 – HISTORICAL FACTS

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

[1]

 

2 – NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL THEORIES

naturalistic_theories

[2]

 

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

[2] Ibid.

RESPONDblogs: Was Jesus Tomb LOST rather than EMPTY?

thelosttomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jesus_ossuary2_sm

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

It appears not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESPONDblogs: Is Theology Compatible With Computer Science?

SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-340
SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-340

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

 

And this statement raises two questions for me

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

So – is that true?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

I’m reminded of this quote from Stephen Meyer:

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

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

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

The real question is – will we let him?

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

RESPONDblogs: Just how Strong is the Moral Argument for God?

homersimpson

Have we ever considered that – maybe – the moral fabric of our world points to a creator God? If people were simply the result of mindless, chance events that occurred over a prolonged period of time do you really think that human morality would have grown into the common code that it is now…shared by all people everywhere down through the ages? The moral code feels to me like a far reaching Act of Parliament…handed down from heaven…written on our hearts from birth…that we can run from but we cannot hide from.

I think that human morals provide a strong pointer to the just and loving God that the Bible describes. How do I support my conclusion? What are my premises?

1 – Maybe morality is just the result on an evolving society? I’ve explored reasons why this cannot be the case.

2 – But there isn’t a “one size fits all” morality – right? I’ve discussed why I think this misunderstands what morality is.

3 – I’ve gone on to explore what moral absolutes look like.

4 – And Science, while a useful tool, is not capable of making moral judgments on its own.

5 – All this only really makes sense if there is a God to provide the moral code in the first place.

 

Is there a strong moral argument for God? Yes – I think so.

 

But – so what?

If there’s a moral code imprinted onto each human heart that urges us to look after the poor and the helpless, to care for and respect our children and our elders, to seek justice in this world…so what?

 

 

Here are a couple of thoughts.

First – I think it’s easy to forget just how strong the force of the moral code really is in our lives. The stronger something is – the more important it is to explore its cause and its reason.

Just after the Christmas holiday, Janet and I watched the Netflix series that’s getting a lot of buzz right now. It’s called “Making a Murderer” and it’s a series that documents the life and misfortunes of Steven Avery who has spent most of his life in prison. And the series lays out – using a creative mix of interviews, news clips and recovered footage during the events – that Avery has been sent to prison twice for crimes that he did not commit. And as things stand today – he may never manage to gain his release.

What affect has this had on the people of have watched it? Well – those who I have spoken to, those who I have listened to – have been full of moral outrage on behalf of Steven and his nephew Brendan Dassey. That he would be misrepresented in such a crushing way twice, leading to decades behind bars, makes people angry…and it makes them call for change. Some people take it further…and seek to punish the poor prosecutor Ken Kratz for putting Steven in prison. Kratz seems to have done a good job of punishing himself, if the reports of his impropriety are to be believed!

Director Peter Jackson has written about his feelings on his public Facebook page:

“it’s only by watching the 10 hours of riveting documentary that you will really understand how faulty the U.S justice system currently is, and how badly it needs fixing. That will only happen if you are angry enough to demand it, and “Making a Murderer” does a pretty good job of achieving that!”

This TV show has made a massive impact. Netflix hasn’t released viewing figures…but its impact on social media has been enormous between December and January 2016. The first episode was uploaded to YouTube to encourage non-Netflix subscribers to get on board…and that episode has achieved 1.6 million views since 18th December when it was posted. The official @MakingAMurderer twitter account went from 4000 to 114000 followers over the same period. This show has made a big impact on an international viewing audience, and it highlights just how important the moral absolute of “justice in court” is to the average person.

Our shared call for legal justice in a corrupt justice system points to the creator God who makes sense of our moral outrage. That’s an important point to consider here.

 

 

Second – if God has given us a humane and protective moral code, then that tells us a lot about what his character is like. Because it’s going to reflect the caring protective heart laws we have explored.

Now some would reply – “Stuart, the Bible is the most immoral work of fiction I’ve ever read!” Really? You call the Bible a work of fiction? Are you sure you read it? But I do agree it is full of immoral acts. And I think there are some reasons for this:

1 – The Bible is not completely prescriptive. It does not spend all of its time telling us how we should behave. It doesn’t need to do that because the moral law is written elsewhere (on our hearts). What it does however spend a lot of time doing – is describing the human condition. The immoral problems that humanity wrestles with. The problem is the human heart – the problem is my heart. And the Bible spends a lot of time showing us why we need God’s help.

2 – The Bible was written at a different time in a different culture. For example, the ancient near east was nowhere near as humane a society as the western countries are today. Yet ISIS seems to be trying to take us back into those dark ages. The behaviour of God’s people seems very harsh to 21st century eyes. Yet when viewed alongside the evils of the time that were wrought by other nations…Israel was always progressive in its humanity. An example of this is the way it treated slaves – who were limited in their engagement to 7 years (Exodus 21:2).

3 – When we hear non-Bible scholars accusing God of heinous immoral acts in the Old Testament, you’ve got to ask:

  • where are you getting your sense of morality from in the first place?
  • why do you think you are properly understanding these ancient texts that come from a particular place and time – and are not prescriptive today.

 

 

Humanity is capable of incredible acts of selflessness, love and faithfulness. And I suggest that they reflect the character of the God who made us, who loves us and who has imprinted his goodness onto us.

“May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favour and give you his peace.” Numbers 6:24-26, NLT

 

RESPONDblogs: Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

moral_landscape

I regularly watch TED Talks. As a regular public speaker myself, I love to learn from the best speakers. I recently watched a TED talk by Sam Harris which dealt with why Science and not Religion can answer the deepest questions about right, and wrong and human morality. In fact – Harris argues that science’s objectivity can give us better moral answers than religion can.

 

You can watch his talk here.

Science Can Answer Moral Questions | Sam Harris | TED Talks

I have a lot of sympathy for Harris’s arguments. And judging by the standing ovation he received at the end, so did his audience. I feel that Harris plugs in to our intuitive sense of right and wrong in this talk. He appeals to our inner call for justice in the face of injustice towards women and children. His condemnation of religious extremism? I wanted to stand up and applaud him for these points too!

 

But do I agree with him that science can give us any answers on the questions of right and wrong? No – I don’t follow his argument at all. It doesn’t make sense to me. And I’ll tell you why.

 

Harris uses the term “flourishing” as he builds his case. He claims that the scientific method can help us to work out what enables human beings and human society to flourish. Moral behavior, therefore, is simply that which causes the majority of people to flourish. I agree with him that human flourishing is important. And I am sure he’s right that scientific observation can assist in this process. But there’s a big question that is looming over his argument.

 

1 – Harris’s Argument Never Answers WHY?

WHY? Why is it right and good for the most number of people to flourish, and bad to frustrate this moral agenda?  Ah – a reply comes – it’s all about survival. We promote human flourishing to ensure the survival of the species in a Darwinian sense.

 

No – hang on a moment. Survival is not the “ought” that promotes human flourishing. Survival of the fittest is not going to work for you here. Because when it comes down to it, moral good isn’t actually defined as the best for the most people. History is full of examples of that sort of reasoning, where the majority benefit at the expense of the minority. A morality based on the principle, “might is right” is no morality at all. History shows us that it opens the door instead to all sorts of inhuman acts.

 

Why shouldn’t I flourish at your expense? Whether “I” is me personally or my community of my ethnicity or whatever? If I’m unfortunate enough to be in the minority who is not permitted to flourish…then that’s just tough luck to Sam Harris. Agreed – it is tough luck. But is that morally right? I think we would intuitively say – no it’s not morally right. So why is it allowed to happen? Harris’s argument has nothing to say beyond, that’s just the way things are.

 

The problem is, Harris measures morality purely on the basis of observation, watching how people behave. It is locked into human society. It has no way to appeal beyond human society to a higher ideal. Science cannot reach beyond “what is”. It cannot touch on “what should be”. The scientific method was never intended for this purpose. It is the wrong tool for the job.

 

 

2 – Harris’s Argument ASSUMES Moral Values Exist in Order to Work

This is the deeper issue for Sam Harris.

 

His Moral Landscape imports human morality in order to work. He assumes that it is morally good to encourage people, to promote value and purpose and all these things. And he is right – it is good! But the problem is – he is not deducing these things. He is just assuming them. His logical argument “begs the question” over morals and their existence.

“Concepts of sacrifice, nobility and honour must be assumed foundationally, but these are not morally neutral notions….He’s borrowing pre-existent, objective moral notions about worth, value and purpose, while holding a worldview that argues against any pre-existent moral notions.”[1]

 

Harris needs morality to exist in order for his moral landscape to make any sort of sense. But these morals are precisely the things he is trying to explain! Where do these notions come from? Ironically they come from the Christian foundation that he has benefitted from as a citizen of a Western nation. The humane, people valuing society that is promoted through the teaching of the Bible. A million miles from the religious extremist caricature he paints.

 

 

 

So…

 

I applaud Sam Harris as he calls for the protection and the flourishing of persecuted people groups. I’m with him on that. But we part company when it comes to his line of reasoning. Science cannot derive issues of ultimate value to human life. Because by definition it is locked into the human condition.

 

Rather, it seems to me that science needs to import and assume Christian moral values in order to become humane. And so do people. There’s a transcendent source for the moral values that Sam…and each one of us…appeal to. And whether we like it or not…we are ultimately answerable to that source. A Holy God.

[1] J Warner Wallace, Is “Right” and “Wrong” Simply a Matter of “Human Flourishing”, Cold Case Christianity, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2013/is-right-and-wrong-simply-a-matter-of-human-flourishing/.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

A solid Historical claim will[2]:

1 – be supported by multiple, independent sources

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

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

4 – be supported by direct eyewitness testimony

5 – be supported by early testimony making legendary development impossible

 

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

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

 

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

 

DATA POINT 1 – The Death of Jesus By Crucifixion

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

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

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

But this doesn’t work.

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

 

DATA POINT 2 – The Empty Tomb

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

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

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

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

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

DATA POINT 3 – The Post-Resurrection Appearances

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

DATA POINT 4 – The Origin of the Christian Faith

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

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

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

 

IN SUMMARY

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

 

Really?

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

Hold on a minute –

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

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

 

 

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

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