I was listening to J. Warner Wallace’s latest podcast and he mentioned this Cold Case Christianity post because it is getting a lot of attention.
Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to defend the reliability of the New Testament Gospels to the students of San Jose State University. Jane Pantig (the director of the local Ratio Christi chapter) invited me, and I was delighted to come. I’ve been working with Ratio Christi across the country to defend the Christian worldview on college campuses. If you aren’t acquainted with the work of this growing apologetics movement, you really ought to familiarize yourself with Ratio Christi and find a way to support their efforts. At the end of my presentation, during the question and answer period, a polite young skeptic asked why Jesus didn’t reveal scientific facts in an effort to demonstrate His Deity. Why didn’t Jesus describe something well beyond the scope and knowledge of His contemporaries as a prophetic proof? He could easily have described the role of DNA, the proper organization of the Solar System, or the biological complexity of cellular structures. The questioner believed this sort of knowledge would have been persuasive to him as a 21st Century skeptic, and without it, he remained unconvinced.
I thought this was a great question, and one I often receive but seldom talk about on the podcast or here on the blog. There are a number of problems with this expectation of superior anachronistic scientific wisdom…
Here’s one of the problems that he mentioned in the post (there are three):
The Nature of the Ancient Audience
The context of Jesus’ ministry and message were defined by the nature (and limitations) of this ancient audience. Sometimes it’s easy for us to approach the gospels from our 21st Century perspective (bringing our desires, needs and expectations to the text), rather than examining them from the perspective of the first hearers and readers. In order to illustrate this point, imagine yourself as Jesus. You’ve got three years to demonstrate your Divinity to those you live with in the 1st Century. Think about what approach you might take. You could reveal yet unknown scientific facts to your audience, but would this accomplish your goal? If you describe the role of DNA or the anatomy of the solar system, how would your 1st Century audience confirm your statements? Surely claims of this nature would be unimpressive to a world without the ability to assess their veracity. In fact, any combination of such claims with other demonstrations of Deity would only serve to dilute the power of your message. There are ways you could establish your Deity in front of such a 1st Century audience, but obscure, esoteric claims are perhaps the least effective approach.
What do you think? Do you think that Jesus should have explained scientific things? Would that work better than what he actually did?
One of the things that this post made me think of is the use of sledgehammer apologetics by Jesus. I know a lot of people who really resent the idea of apologetics, and want us to just read the Bible to people and hope they are magically convinced by just hearing Scripture. But Jesus was not willing to do that. He didn’t just express opinions or give moral teachings or recite poetry. He was in the business of making his case to people, and for evidence he used miracles.
The Sign of Jonah
Professor Clay Jones of Biola University makes the case that the use of evidence when preaching the gospel was standard operating procedure in the early church.
In 1993 I started working for Simon Greenleaf University (now Trinity Law School) which offered an M.A. in Christian apologetics (Craig Hazen was the director). Much of my job was to promote the school and although I had studied Christian apologetics since my sophomore year in high school, I decided I needed to see whether an apologetic witness had strong Biblical precedence.
As I poured through the Scripture I found that Jesus and the apostles preached the resurrection of Christ as the sign of the truth of Christianity.
What follows are some of the passages which support the resurrection witness.
Here is my favorite verse from his massive list list of verses in favor of the evidential approach to Christian apologetics:
Mat. 12:39-40: A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Jesus is saying that the resurrection was deliberately given as a sign to unbelievers to convince them. (“The Sign of Jonah” = the resurrection)
The healing of the paralytic
Consider this article from apologist Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason.
Koukl cites three Biblical examples to support the idea that faith is not blind leap-of-faith wishing, but is based on evidence.
Here’s number two:
[I]n Mark 2 you see Jesus preaching in a house, and you know the story where they take the roof off and let the paralytic down through the roof. Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And people get bugged because how can anyone forgive sins but God alone?Jesus understood what they were thinking and He said this: What’s harder to say, your sins are forgiven, or to rise, take up your pallet and go home?Now, I’ll tell you what would be harder for me to say : Arise, take up your pallet and go home. I can walk into any Bible study and say your sins are forgiven and nobody is going to know if I know what I am talking about or not. But if I lay hands on somebody in a wheelchair and I say, Take up your wheelchair and go home, and they sit there, I look pretty dumb because everyone knows nothing happened.But Jesus adds this. He says, “In order that you may know that the Son of Man has the power and authority to forgive sins, I say to you, arise, take up your pallet and go home.” And he got up and he got out. Notice the phrase “In order that you may know”.
So, I see that God uses nature and miracles to persuade, which can be assessed using scientific (e.g. – fine-tuning) and historical methods (minimal facts case for the resurrection). I think if Jesus had explained DNA and the Big Bang to the first century people, that would not have worked as well as the kinds of things he actually did.
I really want you guys to look through the Bible and see Jesus’ approach to convincing people. You should read the gospel of John to see how Jesus uses miracles to get people to believe that he was who he said he was. This is was his whole modus operandi. Today, none of us can do miracles on demand to convince people – at least I can’t. But that’s why we can use the evidence from science for miracles in nature, like the cosmic fine-tuning and the origin of biological information. And the resurrection is still a good historical argument to make, as well.
I’m going to be summarizing the podcast where Wallace mentioned this question in my 6 PM post, and I urge you to listen to it with my summary at hand. When he was talking about this question, his response made me laugh out loud at what people would think if Jesus had started explaining the fine-tuning argument or the Cambrian explosion. He’s very reserved in this post, but in the podcast he is pretty funny when he role-plays how the first-century people would respond.