Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Professor explains how his study of the historical Jesus made him leave atheism

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s investigate Jesus!

Dr. Michael F. Bird has a great article in Christianity Today. I’ve featured his debates with atheist historican James Crossley on this blog before, and I have the book they co-wrote.

In the article, Dr. Bird writes:

I grew up in a secular home in suburban Australia, where religion was categorically rejected—it was seen as a crutch, and people of faith were derided as morally deviant hypocrites. Rates for church attendance in Australia are some of the lowest in the Western world, and the country’s political leaders feel no need to feign religious devotion. In fact, they think it’s better to avoid religion altogether.

As a teenager, I wrote poetry mocking belief in God. My mother threw enough profanity at religious door knockers to make even a sailor blush.

Many years later, however, I read the New Testament for myself. The Jesus I encountered was far different from the deluded radical, even mythical character described to me. This Jesus—the Jesus of history—was real. He touched upon things that cut close to my heart, especially as I pondered the meaning of human existence. I was struck by the early church’s testimony to Jesus: In Christ’s death God has vanquished evil, and by his resurrection he has brought life and hope to all.

When I crossed from unbelief to belief, all the pieces suddenly began to fit together. I had always felt a strange unease about my disbelief. I had an acute suspicion that there might be something more, something transcendent, but I also knew that I was told not to think that. I “knew” that ethics were nothing more than aesthetics, a mere word game for things I liked and disliked. I felt conflicted when my heart ached over the injustice and cruelty in the world.

Faith grew from seeds of doubt, and I came upon a whole new world that, for the first time, actually made sense to me. To this day, I do not find faith stifling or constricting. Rather, faith has been liberating and transformative for me. It has opened a constellation of meaning, beauty, hope, and life that I had been indoctrinated to deny. And so began a lifelong quest to know, study, and teach about the one whom Christians called Lord.

And now specifics:

For many secularists, Ehrman is a godsend who propagates common misconceptions about Jesus and the early church. He believes there was a spectrum of divinity between gods and humans in the ancient world. Therefore, he asserts that the early church’s beliefs about Jesus evolved: from a man exalted to heaven to an angel who became human to a pre-existent “divine” person who became incarnate to a subordinated or lesser god to being declared one with God.

My faith and studies have led me to believe otherwise. First-century Jews and early Christians clearly demarcated God from all other reality, thus leading them to hold to a very strict monotheism. That said, Jesus was not seen as a Greek god like Zeus who trotted about earth or a human being who morphed into an angel at death. Rather, the first Christians redefined the concept of “one God” around the person and work of Jesus Christ. Not to mention the New Testament writers, especially Luke and Paul, consistently identify Jesus with the God of Israel.

Many people get the idea that Jesus was just a prophet and never claimed to be divine. But a careful look at the Gospels shows that the historical Jesus explicitly claimed to exercise divine prerogatives. He identified himself with God’s activity in the world. He believed that in his own person, Israel’s God was returning to Zion, just as the prophets had promised. And he claimed he would sit on God’s throne. These claims, when studied up close, are de facto claims to divine personhood, the reasons religious leaders of the day were so outraged.

Evidence shows that Jesus claimed to be God incarnate, and within 20-some years after his death and resurrection, Christians were identifying him with the God of Israel, using the language and grammar of the Old Testament to do so.

Sure, some sects in the first few centuries held heretical beliefs about Jesus. But the mainstream, orthodox view of Christ’s identity was always consistent with and rooted in the New Testament, though orthodox Christology became more refined in the following centuries.

It’s definitely true that you can recover a high Christology (a view of Jesus as divine) from the earliest gospel, Mark. I wrote about it in a previous post. But the earliest evidence for Jesus is that creed in 1 Corinthians 15, that I blogged about recently.

Here is his conclusion:

Some have great confidence in skeptical scholarship, and I once did, perhaps more than anyone else. If anyone thinks they are assured in their unbelief, I was more committed: born of unbelieving parents, never baptized or dedicated; on scholarly credentials, a PhD from a secular university; as to zeal, mocking the church; as to ideological righteousness, totally radicalized. But whatever intellectual superiority I thought I had over Christians, I now count it as sheer ignorance. Indeed, I count everything in my former life as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing the historical Jesus who is also the risen Lord. For his sake, I have given up trying to be a hipster atheist. I consider that old chestnut pure filth, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a CV that will gain me tenure at an Ivy League school, but knowing that I’ve bound myself to Jesus—and where he is, there I shall also be.

I recently led a Bible study on the passage he is paralleling there – it comes from my favorite book of the Bible, Philippians.

What I like about Bird’s story is that he was a skeptic, and his study of history is what changed his mind. This contradicts a narrative that young people are sold at the university, which is that the more education you have, the more you turn away from theism in general, and Christianity in particular. I wouldn’t even classify him as a super conservative scholar, by any means – he’s just a good scholar who believes whatever he thinks is historically sound. It just turns out that you can recover enough historically to ground a commitment to Jesus Christ. You can’t get everything as a historian, but you get enough to cause a change of mind about who Jesus was.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , ,

William Lane Craig presents the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus

It’s Resurrection Day, so that means it’s time for a William Lane Craig lecture:

And if you like the lecture, you can see these ideas defended in a formal academic debate right here.

And, if you would rather read an essay by Dr. Craig on the resurrection, you can read one right here.

Filed under: Videos, , , , ,

When speaking to non-Christians, do you use any of these Christianese terms?

I found this article by J. Warner Wallace and thought it was appropriate because it’s Easter, and there are always questions.

First, the list of Christianese: (not his term)

  • #1. “God has put you (or something) on my heart. / God told me.”
  • #2. “Be ‘born again.’ / Have a spiritual rebirth.”
  • #3. “You need to come to repentance. / Experience a conversion.”
  • #4. “Deal with your sin.”
  • #5. “Invite Jesus into your heart.”
  • #6. “Make Jesus the Lord of your life.”
  • #7. “Have faith.”
  • #8. “Be saved.”
  • #9. “Be washed by the blood of the Lamb.”
  • #10. “Be Sanctified.”
  • Bonus Expression #11. “Enjoy fellowship.”

This article is pretty funny, but it ought to be because I think we really need to shame church Christians when they talk like this.

Here’s the one I liked best:

#5. “Invite Jesus into your heart.”
You mean like a boyfriend? What exactly does that mean to have “Jesus in my heart?” I’m not an emotional kind of guy, so please don’t ask me to sing songs or hold hands with Jesus, especially in public. Do I have to emasculate myself to become a Christian? If so, thanks for reminding me why I’m not a Christian.

Try this instead: “When we admit our imperfections, believe Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our mistakes, and accept His sacrifice, we can start a new relationship with God.”

Indeed. It’s a wonder that any rough and tough men become Christians after what they find in church.

I think that a lot of Christians struggle with explaining “sin” to non-Christians, but I have an approach that works for me. I just ask them how much effort they have put into looking for the evidence for and against God. How much effort into cosmology, especially. How much into the origin of life. How much into the fine-tuning. Usually, the answer is “I watched every episode of Star Trek” or “I watched a documentary on the Pyramids on the Discovery Channel”. I try to show them that God has left fingerprints in the natural world, and by avoiding that evidence they are, in fact, avoiding God. Keeping him at arm’s length by dancing away from the evidence and focusing instead on having good feelings. Collecting stuff. Having thrills and adventures. Making people like them. Etc. I call this refusal to try to seek God and adjust to him “sin”. It’s rebellion against the obligation to know God. And to know God is to love God. And to love God is to make decisions that reflect his character, even when it’s difficult.

Wallace concludes:

I understand the importance of our theologically rich Christian language, and as a Christian I often use similar words when talking with Christians. But when I’m talking with unbelievers, I try to think about how I used to hear and interpret these words before I became a Christian. How do I share what I believe? I take the time to translate important Christian concepts for those who might be willing to entertain the ideas if only I was willing to speak their language.

I think that there is a real need for churches to train Christians in how to bring up topics that are of interest to Christians in public. The approach I’ve always taken is to have a broad worldview, including areas like economics and policy, so that I wouldn’t just sit there silent while other people are talking. I can ease into discussing spiritual things much more easily because I can start the conversation from politics, economics and current events. You have to show that you have knowledge in real-world areas before anyone will listen to you about other things. That’s my approach anyway. You really have to establish your credentials before you start to speak about spiritual things.

Filed under: Commentary, , , , , , , ,

Are Latter Day Saints (LDS) doctrines supported by philosophy, science and history?

This post presents evidence against Mormonism/LDS in three main areas. The first is in the area of science. The second is in the area of philosophy. And the third is in the area of history.

The scientific evidence

First, let’s take a look at what the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, believes about the origin of the universe:

“The elements are eternal. That which had a beggining will surely have an end; take a ring, it is without beggining or end – cut it for a beggining place and at the same time you have an ending place.” (“Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith”, p. 205)

“Now, the word create came from the word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos – chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existance from the time he had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beggining, and can have no end.”
(“Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith”, p. 395)

A Mormon scholar named Blake Ostler summarizes the Mormon view in a Mormon theological journal:

“In contrast to the self-sufficient and solitary absolute who creates ex nihilo (out of nothing), the Mormon God did not bring into being the ultimate constituents of the cosmos — neither its fundamental matter nor the space/time matrix which defines it. Hence, unlike the Necessary Being of classical theology who alone could not not exist and on which all else is contingent for existence, the personal God of Mormonism confronts uncreated realities which exist of metaphysical necessity. Such realities include inherently self-directing selves (intelligences), primordial elements (mass/energy), the natural laws which structure reality, and moral principles grounded in the intrinsic value of selves and the requirements for growth and happiness.” (Blake Ostler, “The Mormon Concept of God,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Summer 1984):65-93)

So, Mormons believe in an eternally existing universe, such that matter was never created out of nothing, and will never be destroyed. But this is at odds with modern cosmology.

The Big Bang cosmology is the most widely accepted cosmology of the day. It is based on several lines of evidence, and is broadly compatible with Genesis. It denies the past eternality of the universe. This peer-reviewed paper in an astrophysics journal explains. (full text here)

Excerpt:

The standard Big Bang model thus describes a universe which is not eternal in the past, but which came into being a finite time ago. Moreover,–and this deserves underscoring–the origin it posits is an absolute origin ex nihilo. For not only all matter and energy, but space and time themselves come into being at the initial cosmological singularity. As Barrow and Tipler emphasize, “At this singularity, space and time came into existence; literally nothing existed before the singularity, so, if the Universe originated at such a singularity, we would truly have a creation ex nihilo.

[…]On such a model the universe originates ex nihilo in the sense that at the initial singularity it is true that There is no earlier space-time point or it is false that Something existed prior to the singularity.

Christian cosmology requires such a creation out of nothing, but this is clearly incompatible with what Mormons believe about the universe. The claims about the universe made by the two religions are in disagreement, and we can test empirically to see who is right, using science.

Philosophical problems

Always Have a Reason contrasts two concepts of God in Mormonism: Monarchotheism and Polytheism. It turns out that although Mormonism is actually a polytheistic religion, like Hinduism. In Mormonism, humans can become God and then be God of their own planet. So there are many Gods in Mormonism, not just one.

Excerpt:

[T]he notion that there are innumerable contingent “primal intelligences” is central to this Mormon concept of god (P+M, 201; Beckwith and Parrish, 101). That there is more than one god is attested in the Pearl of Great Price, particularly Abraham 4-5. This Mormon concept has the gods positioned to move “primal intelligences along the path to godhood” (Beckwith and Parrish, 114). Among these gods are other gods which were once humans, including God the Father. Brigham Young wrote, “our Father in Heaven was begotten on a previous heavenly world by His Father, and again, He was begotten by a still more ancient Father, and so on…” (Brigham Young, The Seer, 132, quoted in Beckwith and Parrish, 106).

[…]The logic of the Mormon polytheistic concept of God entails that there is an infinite number of gods. To see this, it must be noted that each god him/herself was helped on the path to godhood by another god. There is, therefore, an infinite regress of gods, each aided on his/her path to godhood by a previous god. There is no termination in this series. Now because this entails an actually infinite collection of gods, the Mormon polytheistic concept of deity must deal with all the paradoxes which come with actually existing infinities…

The idea of counting up to an actual infinite number of things by addition (it doesn’t matter what kind of thing it is) is problematic. See here.

More:

Finally, it seems polytheistic Mormonism has a difficulty at its heart–namely the infinite regress of deity.

[…]Each god relies upon a former god, which itself relies upon a former god, forever. Certainly, this is an incoherence at the core of this concept of deity, for it provides no explanation for the existence of the gods, nor does it explain the existence of the universe.

Now let’s see the historical evidence against Mormonism.

The historical evidence

J. Warner Wallace explains how the “Book of Abraham”, a part of the Mormon Scriptures, faces historical difficulties.

The Book of Abraham papyri are not as old as claimed:

Mormon prophets and teachers have always maintained that the papyri that was purchased by Joseph Smith was the actual papyri that was created and written by Abraham. In fact, early believers were told that the papyri were the writings of Abraham.

[…]There is little doubt that the earliest of leaders and witnesses believed and maintained that these papyri were, in fact the very scrolls upon which Abraham and Joseph wrote. These papyri were considered to be the original scrolls until they were later recovered in 1966. After discovering the original papyri, scientists, linguists, archeologists and investigators (both Mormon and non-Mormon) examined them and came to agree that the papyri are far too young to have been written by Abraham. They are approximately 1500 to 2000 years too late, dating from anywhere between 500 B.C. (John A. Wilson, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, p. 70.) and 60 A.D. If they papyri had never been discovered, this truth would never have come to light. Today, however, we know the truth, and the truth contradicts the statements of the earliest Mormon leaders and witnesses.

The Book of Abraham papyri do not claim what Joseph Smith said:

In addition to this, the existing papyri simply don’t say anything that would place them in the era related to 2000BC in ancient Egypt. The content of the papyri would at least help verify the dating of the document, even if the content had been transcribed or copied from an earlier document. But the papyri simply tell us about an ancient burial ritual and prayers that are consistent with Egyptian culture in 500BC. Nothing in the papyri hints specifically or exclusively to a time in history in which Abraham would have lived.

So there is a clear difference hear between the Bible and Mormonism, when it comes to historical verification.

Further study

There is a very good podcast featuring J. Warner Wallace that summarizes some other theological problems with Mormonism that I blogged about before. And if you want a nice long PDF to print out and read at lunch (which is what I did with it) you can grab this PDF by Michael Licona, entitled “Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock“.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Does God have a morally-sufficient reason for permitting human suffering?

Blake Giunta operates a web site called TreeSearch, where he maps the arguments pro and con in the debate over Christian theism.

He has a new section up where he lists some reasons for answering that God’s permission of human suffering comes with a lot of good things.

Here is his list:

You can click through and drill down the “tree” to read them.

Here’s the one I liked best:

Solidarity with Christ in suffering is good

Intimately knowing Christ in suffering (as mutual empathizers) is good. This is relevant because one cannot have/enjoy this particular eternal relation with Christ if no suffering existed.

Laura Ekstrom (Philosophy professor at William & Mary): “suffering itself is an experience that one shares with the divine agent, and so it may serve as an avenue to knowledge of, and intimacy with, God. Viewed in this light, human suffering might be taken to be a kind of privilege in that it allows one to share in some of the experience of God, thus giving one a window into understanding his nature. For the Christian, in particular, occasions of enduring rejection, pain and loss can be opportunities for identification with the person of Jesus Christ. Intimacy with Christ gained through suffering provides deeper appreciation of his passion. I understand the notion of intimacy or identification with Christ in a sympathetic rather than a mystical sense.”[“A Christian Theodicy,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (Blackwell, 2013), 279.]

And another like it:

Forming our own character is good

The cultivating of our own morally significant character is good (especially in the context of eternity).This is relevant because some of the most important character-forming features we can develop are built through choices in our response to suffering (e.g. being compassionate, persevering) or which risk/result in suffering (e.g. choosing to steal without regard for others, and/or forming a character that is inclined to steal).1 So it both requires and risks/results in suffering.

James 1:2-4Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

[…]Hebrews 12:11All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

Romans 5:3-5And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, because I’ve been doing good things for other people who don’t acknowledge it, and it’s hard to keep serving and never be recognized. And it did occur to me as I was doing these good things, that I was following Jesus with my actions, and having the experience of loving people who don’t love me back. Yes, it does hurt, but there is a point to doing it.

First, Jesus is pretty clear that you can’t expect things from God, like forgiveness, unless you forgive others. Since I know perfectly well that I struggle with Bible study, church and other activities that are less action-oriented, I balance that by being more aggressive about showing God through my actions that I know his character and that I am interested in operating in a way that reflects his goals and priorities. When people don’t acknowledge what I am doing, I do feel like I am take being taken advantage of. If they don’t respond when I need something, then I feel disrespected – like what I did wasn’t important enough for them to care about me in return. That hurts. But I would rather have the suffering if it comes with letting God see through my actions that he is number one. I think I am a little suspicious of people who read devotions, pray and study the Bible, but who are not able to perform the actions to love others. (I know a person who is like this – great apologist, very mocking and disrespectful, no ability to appreciate the needs of others at all). I want to do the actions.

I don’t have to be happy if it means throwing away the rules and going against what God wants me to do. Because in the end, what God thinks of me matters more than me getting my needs met here and now. I’ve never thought that Christianity meant freedom from suffering, and I never dumped God when he didn’t show up to solve my problems and care for my needs.

The real joy of my life – the joy that connects up the events in my life story – is when God calls me to be faithful and I let him rule my decision-making. I don’t like looking stupid when I fail when trying hard things. I don’t like making sacrifices for other people who don’t acknowledge or respect me. I don’t like that my needs are not addressed by God when I keep putting myself second and putting him first. I don’t like when the people I’ve helped can’t see my needs and don’t want to do anything to help me. Doing the right thing is not an end to suffering, it makes the suffering worse. But that is the price you pay for being in a two-way relationship with God using your actions. This is beyond passive, pious activities. Actions open you up to hurt.

But even so, I love letting Jesus know through my actions that we are a team, and that he has done enough already to keep that commitment from me. I like giving him gifts and letting him know that when push comes to shove, he comes first. And I have been doing this for a long time, mostly without any fuel at all – except in the last few years, finally. It always makes me laugh when I hear people try to redefine the obligations of Christianity, especially around chastity and fidelity, because they express a feelings-based conviction that God wants them to be happy and fulfilled here and now. No, he does not. He wants you to enter into his mission, suffer alongside him and trust him to make it right in the end.

I always feel exasperated when people tell me that I need to be more spiritual and read more devotionals, pray more and sing more hyms in church. Why would I be interested in behaviors that seem less practical to me, when I can hit the gas pedal right now when God waves that checkered flag in front of me? Performing self-sacrificial actions is a daily thing – putting God first and feeling myself change to be more like him in the face of loss, suffering and not having my needs met. That’s more interesting to me – the chance to let him know through my actions that I am yielding, while others around me do not yield. The chance to smile and cry at the same time. My life is very much about wearing his colors and being on the field, and taking the bumps and scrapes that come with wearing the uniform. Maybe it’s just that I am a man, but I much prefer lots of action to a lot of reading, prayer, singing and feelings.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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