Fortune Cookies and Altars of Hewn Stone

I went to church this morning. It was the first time in a long time because, well…

Well, I don’t really want to get into that.

Or, I do, but getting into that is the broader purpose of this blog, and the “because” should be obvious enough soon enough if it’s not already from other entries.

Anyway, I’d made up my mind not to be critical or judgy, but to just go, take in what I could, benefit from what I could, see if I could find a place for myself there, and remember that none of these people should care what I think of their church service, because nobody needs to clear it with me before they play a worship song or preach a sermon. Clearly.

That, and being critical and disapproving is just plain exhausting.

I find that when I do it, it’s because—as a follower of Jesus Christ, I feel somewhat responsible for how he’s represented, for the work done in his Name, for the messages spoken in his Name, the causes undertaken in his Name, etc. As a Christian, the things said, done, condoned or condemned in his Name are, in a sense, being done in my name, and that of anyone and everyone else who identifies with Jesus Christ. I don’t have more claim on the name of Christ than anyone else, but to do have some claim, and I have an obligation to try to set the record straight when he’s being misrepresented.

And, there’s that whole “Great Commission”-thing: as a follower of Christ, I’m commanded to go out and tell people about him, to the effect of making disciples. So, you can’t be a Christian without taking some responsibility for how Christ is known and perceived in the world.

But, it’s not like God is my own personal intellectual property. I have no licensing rights, no authority to go from church-to-church as the Theological Police. Nor do I want to. Like I said—it’s exhausting, and it doesn’t make me very popular when I find myself doing it.

So, I went into this with the best of intentions. Or the laziest of intentions. Whatever. In either case, I didn’t want to be critical. I wanted to be nice and friendly and likeable and be able to sincerely tell the people I met there how much I enjoyed the service and how much I looked forward to coming back and how much I’d love to take them up on their offer for lunch, etc. I really just wanted to rejoin the human race by being a part of a community of like-minded people. I wanted to be part of a church again.

Anyone still reading this has probably gathered by now that my intentions didn’t quite play out…

My sense of alienation started with the worship service, but that’s pretty routine anyway. When I see lyrics projected on the screen about “giving my everything for Your kingdom cause” and about how we’re “set free through the blood of Christ” and how we’re supposed to be “people of selfless faith,” etc., I can’t help but wonder, “Are we all really singing about the same thing?” What does that mean to these people—that we’re set free through the blood of Christ? If you ask some Christians, it means we don’t have to eat kosher or be circumcised anymore… something that never would have applied to us or our predominantly European ancestors anyway. Some will say it means we’re “set free from sin,” but in what sense are we “free from sin”? Some think it just means we can do whatever we want and presume on God’s forgiveness and a trouble-free afterlife… “Is that what everybody’s so excited about this morning?”

But, that’s a tangent. Those are the considerations that come to mind in any worship service at any church I’m visiting for the first (or second, third, or hundredth) time, based on past experience and common observations about denominational differences and doctrinal divisions. The ambiguity makes it hard to take the collective emotion seriously, so I find myself fighting an increasing feeling of silliness about so much enthusiasm attached to so many vague abstractions and potentially misguided theology.

I fully realize how weird, and how cripplingly dysfunctional it is to let myself become so morbidly preoccupied with these considerations during worship service. I mean, the point of doing it together, in a group, is that we’re all on the same page—that it should be fellowship as well as worship, and that only really works if there is a common foundation to our collective enthusiasm, so we can feed off of and reinforce each other in our common faith.

But, there’s only so much I can control, and having some worship and fellowship is better than none at all, so I try to bury all these distractions and just go with it.

Then came the sermon.

The text was the Book of Esther, and the message was about how “God can take something ordinary and use it for something extraordinary” (never mind that Esther would have had to have been extraordinarily hot to get noticed in the first place, and never mind that the preacher apparently thought it was the Persians, not the Babylonians, who carried the Jews into captivity, but that’s just quibbling on my part).

The point to which the sermon led was that the congregation needs to give extraordinarily to pay for the ongoing church building project.

That wasn’t the only point, though. It was just an example to illustrate the general message that, even though you might just be an ordinary (insert occupation here… schoolteacher, construction worker, office drone, corporate manager, etc.), God can still use you for something extraordinary, because that’s what He did with Esther.

A couple of people shouted “Amen, brother!”

Then there was an altar-call, in case anyone had been so moved by the sermon that they wanted to publicly commit or recommit their lives to Jesus.

Now, I don’t dispute that God can use ordinary people or objects to extraordinary effect, or that that’s what He did with Esther.

I also don’t dispute that churches need money for building projects and payrolls and utility bills and other operating expenses, and so people need to tithe, and if there are legitimate but extraordinary expenses, they need to give extraordinarily… if they want those expenses met.

And my point isn’t just to criticize the sermon for not being very good or original.

Because, let’s face it—we’ve all heard this sermon a hundred times. Not exactly this one, but something along those lines: “Look what God did with this loser in biblical times! Even hookers and slaves got to be used by God. Think of what He can do in your life!”

But, again—the quality of the sermon, or lack thereof, is not my point.

As a journalist, I know what it’s like to put something out there for public consumption and criticism, and I know that every article I write isn’t a Pulitzer-prize winning work (to date, none of them have been). Heck, I know a lot of it isn’t even very good by my own meager standards, and so I’m wide-open to criticism.

But, if I didn’t know the difference between writing news and writing my own opinions or speculations, I’d get fired pretty quickly, and rightly so.

Likewise, a school teacher who doesn’t know the difference between educating children and indoctrinating them should not be employed as a teacher.

A police officer who doesn’t know the difference between using force to uphold the law and using force to get his own way should not be employed as a police officer, and should probably be in jail.

In the case of preachers…

As I was sitting in church this morning and wrestling with my reasons for being so put off by this sermon, a certain law from the Old Testament kept coming to mind: there were recurring prohibitions in the Law of Moses against idolatry, but along with them were some peculiar and seemingly arbitrary instructions about the construction of altars.

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites this: “You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside Me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.

Make an altar of earth for Me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause My Name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.’”

When they made an altar, it was to be made of, well… it was just supposed to be a pile of dirt, basically. Or, if they wanted something more substantial and sturdy, they could use a pile of rocks, but they weren’t supposed to be anything special—no fancy, hewn rocks, because any use of a tool on the stones would defile them.

That didn’t apply, of course, to the altars in the Temple—the Altar of Incense and the Altar of Burnt Offering. They had horns and were made of precisely-measured wood and decorated with bronze and gold, so they had to use tools for that.

But, they were made according to a strict, God-given pattern by specifically-chosen, Spirit-filled people.

The point was that God didn’t want any kind of human creativity to enter into the equation. He didn’t want to be worshiped on an altar fashioned through human skill or imagination.

Even if it was a particularly gifted human who was completely and genuinely devoted to God, who just wanted to please God by using his or her talents to His glory, it was nonetheless forbidden.

The reason for that, I believe, was that if they were going to worship God, He wanted them to worship God.

If an altar was adorned with man-made artistry, that pattern of artistry would have been associated with the worship of God, then eventually institutionalized as a part of that worship, and it would only be a matter of time before that pattern came to represent God—if only for the group of people who used that style of altar.

But, God can’t be represented by any image or pattern of human design: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air…do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.”

The destruction caused by idolatry is twofold: first, and worst of all, it confines “God” within human understanding. He is infinitely more than we can ever imagine Him to be, but we effectively cut ourselves off from Him when we cling to a man-made concept of God instead of God Himself.

Therefore, all theological systems should be merely provisional—they should always be open to revision and growth. A great many churchgoers cling dogmatically to certain doctrinal positions like security blankets, refusing to relinquish them, even in the face of clear, compelling evidence that they’re wrong. They think they’re being faithful to God by doing so, but they’re all too often only being faithful to a particular concept of God, because it’s the one in which they’ve invested their reputations and identity, and on which they’ve settled.

Secondly, it limits us by raising up natural forces and concepts as gods, setting them above ourselves.

For instance, most ancient people in the West and in the Near East worshipped the goddess Ishtar, or Easter (Ashtoreth or Asherah in the Old Testament),  or Aphrodite/Venus as she was known to the Greeks and Romans.

Ishtar was the personification of female sexuality. Worship of her was usually coupled with worship of her consort Baal, the storm god, through temple prostitution.

The thinking behind this system was that when it rained, that was supposedly Baal having sex with Ishtar, the earth-goddess. Baal was worshipped as a means to an end: to bring the rain to water the crops. So, in order to bring this about, Baal and Ishtar had to be aroused by ritual sex acts in their temple.

Now, contrary to a few long-standing Christian traditions, the Bible doesn’t teach that sex is in any way bad. It’s good. God invented it. Our sexuality is a part of our humanity—it’s an aspect of having been created in God’s Image, even.

However, it has to be controlled. Christian or not, for just plain old social and legal reasons, we all have to learn to control our sexual impulses, to some degree. Like all of our other appetites, once mastered, it becomes an indispensable servant. But, it must be mastered.

In fact, mastery of our appetites is an essential aspect of our salvation. Our salvation consists in our “participation in the divine nature” and “escaping the corruption of the world caused by human appetite,” or “epithumia,” as it reads in the original Greek. Salvation amounts to being given the New Nature, but to participate in our New Nature, we have to become greater than our appetites.

When our sexuality is exalted to the status of godhood, though, it becomes the master. The belief system arising out of idolatry tells us that our sexuality is a god to be worshiped and obeyed. Mastering it is out of the question, and appeasing it is a religious obligation, no matter the cost. Sacrifices must be made in service to it.

Archeologists have discovered innumerable artifacts from that religious system in Israel: mass infant graves where the aborted fetuses and murdered newborns of temple prostitutes were disposed of.

Ishtar/Aphrodite worship gave them an outlet to let their sexuality master them, and routine horrors followed.

Or, if a personification of female sexuality didn’t put them in a worshipful mood, there were male prostitutes at the temple of Apollo.

And then there was Mars, the god of war, to whom all sacrifices were justified, by virtue of his divinity.

But, there were also more domestic and mundane gods and goddesses: Hestia, goddess of the hearth and home; Minerva, goddess of learning and of commerce; etc.

All aspects of nature, civilization, and human experience were personified and deified and worshiped. According to this thinking, none of these forces were subject to man, but mankind was subject to them all. They weren’t just institutions that had been set in place by natural forces now understandable through psychology and sociology: they were gods and goddesses. Social structures were set in stone, so to speak, because they had been set in place by the gods. If you were born a slave, it was because the gods wanted it that way, and to oppose the institution of slavery was to oppose the divine order. The status quo was validated and protected as the will of the gods, and anyone who questioned it was likely to be tried and executed as a corrupting influence. And if you had impulses for sex and violence, those could be denied no more than an impulse for music and poetry and justice. These were all gods to be worshiped, and their whims were to be obeyed.

The sin in that was that it made man subject to what God had apportioned to all the nations under heaven. Contrary to a great many ideas entertained by fundamentalist religion, it has always been God’s plan that humanity learn to conquer and control nature. We were meant to walk on the moon, understand natural processes of meteorology and biology, and even split the atom. Idolatrous worship held us back from that, and it took the advent of Christianity put us on that track by inspiring the innovations of God-seeking men like Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel and others whose devotion to God and understanding of monotheistic cosmology taught them that the universe must be naturally-ordered and subject to intelligent observation and prediction.

It was also sin—again, because it equated natural forces and human appetites with Ultimate Reality, thereby exalting the status quo as the Divine Plan.

In contrast, the prophets and apostles taught that this world is fallen and corrupt, but God has promised to fix it—to redeem and transform it—through the Messiah. Following the Messiah, then, means joining his cause to redeem the world. We don’t just sit back and wait for it, though—we work to bring it about. That’s what the Great Commission is about. That’s what the Church is for. We are God’s instrument and agency for bringing about the Messianic Age.

I’ve written at length in other entries about how to do that, and how what we’re calling “evangelism” and “discipleship” aren’t really, so I won’t rehash all that here, except to say that, at the very least, it means we have to be willing to relinquish the safety of existing institutions and beliefs. “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” the Lord said.

So, when I hear a sermon about how “God can take something ordinary and use it for something extraordinary,” with no actual reference to how Esther fit into God’s larger redemptive plan, and no practical instruction for how that applies to us (other than to tithe more), I can’t help but be critical, despite intentions otherwise.

And I’m not being critical because it wasn’t a very good sermon. I’m being critical because it was idolatrous.

If that “extraordinariness” to which he called us was in any way related to the overall message of the gospel, or even a clumsy admonition to seek the face of God, I wouldn’t have been moved to write this. But, it wasn’t. It was nothing but a validation of the status quo: “You’re fine being an ordinary (insert occupation here), because God will use you for something extraordinary. It’s all a part of his plan. You don’t have to do anything differently. Just accept the warm, gooey, sugary sentiment we’re feeding you, and you’ll go to heaven. Oh, and give us money.”

Sure, he made reference to Scripture, but was that really the message of Scripture? Or was that just something he projected onto it to give an appearance of being “scriptural”?

Jesus called people to leave everything to follow him, and said that if we love our families more than we love him, we can’t really follow him.

With that in view… does anyone really think God’s purpose for the Book of Esther was to tell us to be content with our day jobs?

Maybe God wants us to be content in our day jobs, but you can’t really get that from the Book of Esther, and you can get the opposite message from plenty of other passages, if you want to.

The fact is, it didn’t really matter what the Book of Esther actually teaches, because that preacher just wanted to dial-in a sermon that told everyone they were Ok, and that they should feel good about themselves and where they are in life, because that’s where God wants them.

I get that he and the countless other preachers who routinely do the same thing are trying to be “relevant” and all that.  But, the Bible is already relevant, if they’d just let it speak for itself.

Instead, they’re projecting their own ideas onto it and feeding them back to themselves, repackaged in biblical rhetoric. And you can make the Bible say whatever you want when you do that.

But, that reduces the Bible to a fortune cookie, or a daily horoscope. It reduces the gospel to a gooey, sentimental affirmation of the status quo, and it offers a “word of God” completely devoid of God.

Using it that way is the equivalent of worshiping God on an altar of over-decorated stones, and then worshiping our own artistry as God, and then using that worship as a validation of whatever else we want to chisel upon the altar.

That’s why there are a million different little versions of “Christianity” out there who can’t agree on what the Bible actually teaches, apart from a few broad, toothless generalities.

And that, my friends, is why I always feel like such an alien in church, and why I hate going. I just don’t see the point. I feel like I’d be better off getting some fortune cookies, and hanging out in a bar.

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The Foundation, part 6: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

In my first entry of this series, I wrote about how our popular notion of “faith” is actually a negation of the true gospel that we’re “saved by grace through faith, not by the works of the law.”

By setting faith in contrast to reason instead of in contrast to law, we empty it of its power: many lifelong churchgoers don’t truly believe the resurrection; they suspend disbelief about it. Instead of a genuine faith in God rooted in the certainty of His existence and of His intervention in history, the mainstream institutional Church teaches an empty, impotent, and subjective fideism.

The result is a “gospel” that falsely offers salvation through law. It’s not a law of ceremony and personal conduct like the Old Testament law, but a law of belief: “if you believe X, Y, and Z about God and Jesus, God will give you salvation in exchange, and you can join our club.”

In fact, everything about Christianity is subverted by our mistaken notion of “faith”: our epistemology (how we believe and know things), our soteriology (how we’re saved), and our ecclesiology (our understanding of the Church and our own place within it) are each and all perverted and undermined.

In the second entry, Consumers in the Market for a Seeker-Friendly God, I wrote about how we got here.

The title was meant to juxtapose against Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The point was to contrast our collective perception of Christianity-as-we-know-it as something divinely-inspired and immutable, to which we are accountable before God, with what it actually is—a man-made adaptation of God’s revelation, shaped by the market force of consumer demand.

Christianity-as-we-know-it is not based, primarily, upon God’s revelation of Himself nor upon the teachings of the Bible, strictly speaking, nor is it shaped, even, by the ideas of popular preachers and teachers. Rather, it’s the product of the demands of religious consumers. It’s not the Christianity God wants, but the “Christianity” we want: collectively, we selectively emphasize some portions of scripture and downplay others according to what we actually want to believe, and shape our concept of God accordingly, and we favor those preachers, churches, and denominations that accommodate our preferences, while we avoid those that do not. The result is a wide selection of made-to-order versions of Christianity in the form of the various and sundry denominations out there to suit different patterns of individual taste.

In my third entry, I Am Not a Pessimist, I wrote about how our popular “gospel” tells us that we can safely put questions of God and the afterlife behind us so we can pursue our own ambitions if we believe the right things. This “gospel” doesn’t produce any meaningful change within us, and so we don’t live any differently than all of the “lost” and godless people around us. And while this sounds pretty bleak, I wouldn’t bother writing about all this if I didn’t think we could change—my message is actually much more optimistic and positive than it might initially seem. In order to do that, though, first we have to know for a fact that Christianity—real Christianity—is actually true, and then we have to generate sufficient consumer demand to transform our institutions so that it’s actually taught and practiced according to the model of the original, apostolic Church.

In the fourth entry, The Lynchpin of Existence, I explain in basic terms how we can know as an objective, verifiable historical fact that the resurrection, and therefore the gospel, is true. In the fifth entry, Defending the Lynchpin, I address and refute most of the popular arguments against the resurrection.

Everything I’ve written thus far, though, can be reviewed and summarized in the following:

I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”  

These were Jesus’ words to the crowds of enthusiasts who had just followed him across the sea after he’d fed five-thousand of them with a few loaves of bread.

Their collective response to this miracle was seemingly appropriate: they hailed him as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” and tried to make him king. And they were right, of course—Jesus was, in fact, the rightful King from the line of David and the Prophet foretold by Moses, i.e., the Messiah.

They were right, but they were so completely wrong.

They were right about who he was, but wrong because Who He Was was completely incidental to their interest in him. It didn’t really matter to them that he had been sent by God, or that his words and teachings were the key to immortality and to the salvation of their souls, their families, their country and their way of life.

After all, it was their eventual rejection of Jesus as the Messiah that led, ultimately, to the destruction of their nation at the hands of the Romans forty years later.

Historians might offer competing interpretations of that tragedy, but Jesus called it early on: “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you…”     

Also, Jewish tradition of the last two-thousand years corroborates that explanation. They don’t make quite the same connection by saying, “God destroyed the nation because we rejected our Messiah,” but they have a yearly day of mourning over their exile and the destruction of the temple, and the Talmud states that “every generation in which the temple is not rebuilt is just as guilty as the generation in which it was destroyed.” In other words, Orthodox Jewish belief has it that when they collectively repent of the sin that characterized that generation in 70 AD, God will reverse His punishment by sending the Messiah to rebuild the temple and usher in the Redemption. The fact that He has yet to do so signals that they remain unworthy and unprepared for the coming of the Messiah.

And before I get accused of racism or anti-Semitism, let me reiterate that that’s not my interpretation of the Fall of Jerusalem, nor even that of any particular Christian denomination, to my knowledge. That’s what Judaism teaches. And I don’t point any of this out to gloat over the suffering of the Jews, or even as an apologetic for Christianity (although it does work as an apologetic for Christianity). I mention it because there’s a lesson here that applies to us—to Christians.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill,” Jesus said. 

They could see plainly enough that he was the Messiah—that he had been sent by God, spoke for God, and was their rightful King.

And they were happy to proclaim him as such and to install him as their ruler, but it wasn’t because they were interested in God or Truth or spiritual enlightenment or even in Jesus himself.

They liked that free bread.

And Jesus didn’t begrudge them their free food. It was his idea in the first place. He knew they needed to eat and was happy to provide.

Feeding them mere bread wasn’t his ultimate purpose, though. He’d come to feed them new life. The bread was just to get their attention.

They lost interest, though, when he began to explain their real need: “Oh, yeah? If you’re the Messiah, prove it,” they said, despite having been convinced just the day before that they should overthrow the government to make Jesus king, precisely because they recognized him as the One foretold.

They didn’t like his terms, of course, because as far as they were concerned, they didn’t need any stinkin’ “new life.” They were already in good with God, so worldwide supremacy and a trouble-free afterlife were already in the bag. After all, didn’t they already have the right beliefs, the right religion, and the right pedigree? In fact, they’d even pegged Jesus as the right Messiah already.

Accepting Jesus on his own terms would have meant admitting their need, though, which would mean giving up their previously held sense of security and righteousness and cultural superiority. Their very identity as Jews was supposed to guarantee their security and good-standing before God. After all, hadn’t God promised them as much? Wasn’t that what it meant to be Jewish? Wasn’t that the essential difference between them and everybody else? The Messiah was supposed to affirm them in these things, not undermine them, they thought.

So they turned on him, and many of his disciples, even, abandoned him.  

As Christians, whenever we cover this passage in Bible studies or sermons, we typically identify with Peter and the rest of the Twelve who stuck around after the disgruntled crowds left. After all, we’re Christians, right? By definition, we’re the disciples who have stuck around to follow Jesus… aren’t we? And isn’t that the point of the passage? That there are these two camps of people: the camp for the good guys—the people who believe in Jesus, and the other camp for the bad guys—the Pharisees and Sadducees and other non-believers who eventually had Jesus arrested and crucified.

After all, it’s right there in the passage: “‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent.’”

That’s us, right? We’re the people who believe in Jesus, and then there’s everybody else who doesn’t.

Except… they believed in Jesus, too. They’d just followed him across the Sea of Galilee because they knew he was the Messiah and wanted him to be their king… Any one of them would have answered an altar call, based on what they believed about Jesus at that point.

That changed, though, after he said, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”

My last few entries have been about how “the signs” speak loudly and clearly to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, because his resurrection from the dead is a proven…or, at least, provable fact of history. Scripturally, it’s not offered as an article of faith or as a superstition to be blindly believed, but as something knowable and verifiable, by information available to anyone and everyone—especially now, in the Age of the Internet, when virtually all human knowledge is instantly accessible to any given person at any given time.

The relevant facts are readily available, yet they’re in short supply among rank-and-file churchgoers. Most Christians will proudly and adamantly declare their belief in Jesus, but when you ask them why they believe, most won’t be able to tell you. Or, if they do, they’ll appeal to their personal feelings or their preferences. Their answer will be almost anything but a rational appeal to evidence.

That’s not entirely their fault, though. Most local churches don’t bother to teach people why Christianity is actually true—it’s just assumed up front that everybody is already on board, because “faith” is a magical feeling God bestows upon the chosen, and it’s out of our hands… or so we’re taught.

A few years ago, I found my curiosity piqued when the pastor of the church I attended at the time announced during the morning service that a few people had asked him to teach them “how to share their faith,” so he would be teaching a brief class on how to do that later that afternoon. His instruction consisted solely of leading us through a tract—the kind sidewalk preachers hand out, on the “four spiritual laws,” so we’d be prepared to do the same, should an opportunity ever present itself to share the material with a non-believer. A few people spoke up at various points in the pastor’s presentation with questions of “What if the person asks such-and-such…?”—usually having to do with some common intellectual objection or another. His counsel for such an eventuality was to ignore or deflect the question and stick to the material in the tract, because the person who asks such questions “is just trying to distract you,” he said.

The assumption behind that approach is that if a person hears “the gospel” enough times, eventually the Holy Spirit will miracle them into believing—apart from, or even despite their faculties of reason, so you’ve just got to expose them to it as often as you can… which just so happens to be a basic method of brainwashing employed by any cult. There is no attempt at apologetics or appeals made to reason and evidence, because people are saved “by faith” (please see The Foundation, part 1 if you’re puzzled about why that’s in quotation marks).

It also assumes that there is no such thing as an honest intellectual objection to Christianity—that people who raise objections and ask difficult questions are just making excuses to justify their sin, so it’s a waste of attention and effort to answer them. It presumes that—whatever else they say—their questions are insincere and their unbelief is willful and deliberate. The assumption beneath that assumption (which no one would come out and say in so many words, because it would conflict with other deeply-held dogmas) is that those who do believe without asking difficult questions or vetting the belief through reason, do so out of some kind of virtue unique to those possessing “faith” and lacking in those without it. So, in essence, the pastor’s instruction was to answer such questions with a subtle implication of guilt… which also happens to be a basic component of any brainwashing program.

Now, the law of averages dictates that eventually, if we apply this method persistently to as many people as we can, as often as we can, somebody somewhere at some point will become a Christian as a result. That miniscule sample of positive outcomes will then be trumpeted to validate the method and the belief behind it—that God saves people by invisible and mysterious means beyond the purview of human reason and with no relation to our own competence or faithfulness to present the gospel in reasonable, convincing terms (call it an “evangelical rain dance”). The vast majority of the time, though—and as a former non-Christian, I speak from experience—the effect is not spiritual conversion, but to make the person on the receiving end feel something like a stormtrooper we’re trying to sneak some droids past, and something like Dorothy being told to “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!!”   

A few years earlier at another church, I was chatting with one of the high school kids who had just left his Sunday school class before the main service, and I was pleasantly surprised, momentarily, when I asked him what the class was about, and he answered “apologetics.”

“Oh, cool! What kind of apologetics did they teach?” I asked, wondering if it was about prophecy fulfillment, the historicity of the New Testament, evidence for the resurrection, or what…

My heart sank when he answered, “They just showed us how to find stuff in the Bible to support what we believe.”

There were so many different things I wanted to say to that, including the question of why they were putting the cart in front of the horse by telling them first what to believe, and then finding justification for it after the fact.

Instead, I opted for: “So… what if you’re talking to someone who doesn’t believe the Bible? What then?”  

“They have to already believe the Bible, I guess,” he answered.

“And what do you think the odds are that you’ll be in a conversation with somebody who believes the Bible but isn’t already a Christian?”

“Well, there are Catholics and other people who belong to the wrong denominations…” he shrugged.

In other words, you have to already be a Christian in some sense to benefit from this approach to “apologetics,” but there’s just no talking to you if you’re not already sold on the Bible.

I didn’t press him on it, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have been able to explain why he accepted the Bible as The Authority, as opposed to the Qur’an or the Iliad and the Odyssey, or any other literature revered elsewhere as holy writ.

I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down too hard on him or on others like him, though, because none of that was his fault, because he was never taught why it’s true. Like most Christians, he was socialized to accept it—“on faith,” and unqualified compliance would have been expected as a matter of course within his family, peer group, and community. The fact that it was the Bible instead of the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Book of Mormon is entirely an accident of birth, and had he been born elsewhere he would attach all the same feelings and reverence and authority to any one of those books instead of the Bible.

The truth of the Bible is entirely incidental to our preference for it.

And, as I’ve explained at length in previous entries, this is completely upside-down and backwards from how Christianity originally spread, when every institution and every social and religious convention in the world at the time stood opposed to it.

Of course, there is obviously a certain subjective quality to faith, but as the apostles explained, we’re not supposed to believe the resurrection because we have faith (or, as is commonly the case, because we have a series of preferences and opinions inculcated through lifelong cultural conditioning, which we mistake for “faith”). We’re supposed to have faith because we believe the resurrection. We don’t believe the resurrection by faith, because the resurrection is an objective fact. Faith is the appropriate response to that fact, once the fact is established. The apostles appealed to people’s faith when they exhorted them to live by the truth that they knew, but they spread that truth by appealing first to reason and evidence. The resurrection is not the subject of faith, but its source.

(And if you’re not on board with this, then I ask you to read The Foundation, part 4: The Lynchpin of Existence and read from there…)

We prefer Christianity and the Bible, then—not because we saw the signs that testify to its truth, but because we ate the loaves and had our fill, so to speak.

The Bible, Christianity, the Church, our concept of God, and the figure of Jesus Christ… they fulfill a wide gamut of social, cultural, and psychological functions, completely apart from and unrelated to any higher spiritual Reality.

Christianity functions as a tribal banner for us to rally under: it’s a cultural security blanket, basically, which tells us who we are and what kind of a group we belong to, and it tells us who else belongs or doesn’t belong in our group. It’s a context for socialization and enculturation. Most large churches, for instance, have singles’ groups, youth groups, married-couple groups, and other categories in which to file ourselves so that we can socialize with like-minded people with similar interests, and to develop social support networks among people who share our values, outlooks, and life experiences.

And, it offers a political banner to rally under: a collective voice to shape our larger society so that our national laws, customs, social standards, and ethical norms validate and accommodate us, but suppress, marginalize, or exclude any influences or interests that don’t conform to our way of life. Ostensibly, we don’t do this for ourselves, of course… we do it for God.

The Church also provides a ritual order to our lives in the form of baby dedications/infant baptisms, weddings, funerals, annual holidays, weekly services, etc. And, of course, non-Christians also get married, have babies, die and have funerals, and even celebrate all of the same holidays Christians do, but the same events take on a kind of sacred patina when we mark them within the context of our religion. But, even with that sacred patina to add that extra sparkle to the mile-markers of our lives, our marriages aren’t any stronger and our kids aren’t any less likely to meet with personal disaster than non-Christian children, as the observable facts demonstrate (see my About section and The Foundation, part 3: I Am Not a Pessimist).

Our concept of God, even, serves a completely natural, earthly function much of the time. For many people, “God” is little or nothing more than their imaginary friend. And I don’t say that to try to be funny or to belittle my fellow Christians’ spiritual lives (although, unfortunately, I recognize that someone will probably feel belittled and ridiculed, but that’s not my intention, for what it’s worth). I say it because it’s true: imaginary friends, as we know, are a very real psychological phenomenon, and they seem quite vivid and real to the people who have them, and are sometimes indistinguishable from actual people. But, they exist solely in the mind of the person, and solely for the purpose of helping that person manage their own perceptions and anxieties and to reconcile internal conflicts. Likewise, the “God” to whom many people pray is nothing more than a psychological construct that has no more connection to the God of Jesus Christ than an imaginary friend has with living, breathing people. The “God” to whom they pray is nothing but a deified projection of their own affections, fears, preferences, prejudices, and cultural conventions, and that’s why many apparently devout and sincere Christians are often able to say, do, and pray for horrible, indefensible things with the full, enthusiastic approval of their consciences. (By the way, my “‘God’-as-Imaginary Friend”-charge is nothing new or unique. The prophets called people on the same shenanigans centuries ago.)     

Finally, Jesus is rarely, if ever, our “Lord and Savior” in any practical sense when we gather for our potlucks, hiking trips, and Superbowl watch-parties. The term we use for such outings is “fellowship,” but our identification as fellow Christians is really incidental to that fellowship, for the most part. Rather, it’s our common interest in football, the outdoors, scrapbooking, or whatever else we’re into that makes us fellows; and other Christians with pious zeal equal to our own, but who don’t share those interests, would be completely out of place in our gatherings. In that regard, then, Jesus isn’t Lord and Savior—he’s just our mascot, and for our purposes, any other mascot would serve just as well… except that we want to imbue our socializing with that sacred patina which makes our culture so much better than others.  

For the most part, though, I think we’d all agree that there’s nothing wrong with having and meeting these needs. There is nothing inherently wrong with Christians watching the Superbowl together or sharing other common interests. We need our social support networks. We need culture and identity and social validation. It’s no more sinful to fulfill these needs than it was sinful for people to eat the free bread Jesus gave them.

But, like the people who hailed Jesus as the Messiah simply because he fed them, Christians will readily affirm the truth of Christianity because it effectively meets all of these needs—because, as far as they can tell, Christianity works.

Except, it hardly needs to be true for it to meet those needs, any more than Mormonism or Islam or Wicca need to be true to meet their devotees’ social, cultural, and psychological needs. And so it’s no wonder that we don’t bother to teach anybody why it’s true.

And, while having and meeting those needs isn’t inherently wrong, isn’t it the very definition of “sin” to put lesser needs ahead of greater needs? Sin, after all, is rarely overtly malevolent. More often, it’s a matter of misplaced priority.

Sex, for example, in and of itself, isn’t wrong. It’s moral and good. Our species would die out if we stopped doing it. But, sex at the expense of human dignity or marital fidelity or love is an abomination leading to exploitation, poverty, and suffering. Feasting and celebrating are, in themselves, right and good, but doing so in the midst of starving, needy people is evil. The scripture tells us that God gave alcohol to “gladden the heart of man,” but it’s a sinful abuse of His gift to drink to excess at the expense of our families, livelihoods, or ability to function. 

Likewise, the needs currently met by cultural Christianity are legitimate needs… except that we’re meeting them at the expense of what Jesus really came to give us.

“But that’s how we get people’s attention and bring them to the love of Jesus, just like he did when he fed the five-thousand,” someone will object.

Except we’re not.

You know that whole “city on a hill”/“light of the world”/“salt of the earth”-thing we find in scripture to describe Jesus’ followers?

What all that translates to mean is that we’re not supposed to be like the rest of humanity. The world is covered in darkness, we read, but we’re the light. We’re supposed to live by a better, higher standard. There is supposed to be a profound and conspicuous change for the better in our outward behavior when we become Christians. We’re not supposed to live like mere men.  

It’s not something we do in exchange for eternal life, though; and it doesn’t happen because we’re so profoundly grateful for eternal life that we’re suddenly willing to grit our teeth and muster the moral willpower to be better people.

No—the change in behavior is our eternal life. The “eternal life” we’re given is God’s own Life. The internal transformation works itself out in our external behavior because, as God’s children, our behavior no longer arises only from our fallen, sinful nature, but from His Nature as well (hence the “third helix” of the title of this blog).

That’s how the whole “Body of Christ”-thing is supposed to work. Paul summed up the “mystery of the gospel” as simply “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” because with Christ’s Life within us, we are, for all intents and purposes, the Messiah. We are God’s temple, His very Presence on earth, and as such, we are, collectively, His active Agent for saving the rest of humanity. Jesus’ ministry of saving the world by advancing God’s kingdom on earth didn’t end with his death, resurrection, and ascension, but continued with the apostles, then with the Church Fathers and their followers, and eventually with us.

That’s what Jesus meant when he said, instead of coming to him for “food that spoils” (i.e., the gratification of earthly needs), we are to “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood.” The same way we transform our food into the material of our flesh, we are to integrate his Life into ourselves, and that’s how we transform into the likeness of Christ.

By now, if you’re a regular churchgoer reading this, your eyes might be starting to glaze over, because you’ve already heard all this. All of this stuff gets plenty of honorable mention on Sunday mornings and on Christian radio, so it might sound like I’m affirming or regurgitating everything you’ve heard before.

We talk about all this stuff regularly enough, but there is no evidence whatsoever that any of it is actually happening. As I’ve discussed at length previously, all of the observable facts testify to the sad reality that we don’t actually live our lives any differently than non-Christians. Sure, there are plenty of cosmetic and cultural differences to suggest, at first glance, that there is a change, but in the ways that actually count—when it comes to the spiritual health of our families, the strength of our marriages, and the depth of our love for our fellow man, or any other measurement of our actual behavior—there is no discernible difference whatsoever. Our reasons for believing in our religion are no different than the rest of the world’s reasons for holding to their respective religions, and the outcome of our religion is also no different or better than theirs.  

If a tree is to be judged by its fruit, then our tree isn’t any better than our unbelieving neighbors,’ because the only fruit we bear differently is found in our excuses: “Christians Aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven…” reads a popular slogan merchandisers like to print on t-shirts and bumper stickers. Not that sinless perfection is a realistic goal (nor is that even the point), but we all know we’re not supposed to be “just forgiven.” Or we should all know. Everything we read about the Christian life in the New Testament tells us that our faith is supposed to make us better people, but it’s painfully obvious that we’re not.

The reason for that, if it isn’t obvious by now, is that the “gospel” we commonly preach has no real power to save or transform. Its only power is illusory and destructive. It’s nothing but a Jedi mind trick to justify and preserve the status quo in which our earthly psychological, social, and cultural needs are met while our real need—our spiritual need for rebirth and transformation—is not. The popular “gospel” is illusory because it’s simply not true, but it’s destructive because it doesn’t just not save: it stands in the way of salvation.  

The “gospel” we commonly preach has it that simply by believing (rendering intellectual assent to a doctrinal position), a person is justified and saved to eternal life… and that’s all there is to it. If you believe in Jesus, you are made right with God and need not concern yourself beyond that, because the transformation we read about in scripture will happen automatically, if you have the right beliefs. Our “gospel” has it that holding the correct doctrine of spiritual rebirth is one and the same thing as undergoing the reality of spiritual rebirth.

This “gospel” effectively reduces the entire teaching of scripture to the doctrine of the Atonement, to the practical exclusion of all else: because Jesus died for our sins, we’re thereby Justified, and there’s nothing more to it. All we need do is believe. If you believe in the Atonement—really, really believe, the rest will take care of itself.

This “gospel” is repeated over and over and over again in virtually every sermon and worship song we hear throughout our lives. It’s taken for granted in every popular Christian book and in all of our conversation and ministry efforts. All of our social pressure is directed to impressing this upon each other and upon the world.

Consequently, it’s all we’re capable of seeing, and we’re blind to anything else: Jesus died for you. Just believe that, because all else is extraneous detail. Don’t do anything else. All else is “works-based salvation” and therefore a denial of God’s grace.

So when we read the Bible on our own, we’re conditioned to project that “gospel” into it and then feed it back to ourselves, thereby reinforcing our conviction that we believe it because it’s what the Bible teaches.  

What the Scripture actually teaches, though, is that the Atonement—while absolute in importance—is not all-encompassing. The Atonement is but one facet of a larger economy of salvation, which means that simply believing Christ died for us, in and of itself, avails us nothing. We must identify with him in his death. In a sense, we have to die with Christ in order to join him in his resurrection, by integrating his Risen Life into ourselves. We must deny ourselves, take up our cross daily to be crucified with him and follow him in death, and only then can we follow him in resurrection.

The technical theological terms for these two aspects of salvation—our death and life in Christ—are kenosis and theosis, respectively.

The former comes from Philippians 2:7 and is the word used for Christ’s act of “self-emptying” when he set aside his divine prerogative and submitted to death. We identify with him in his death, Paul wrote, when we undertake our own self-emptying by “putting to death” the behaviors and attitudes of our sinful nature. This is the yin-aspect to the yang of theosis, which is the term used to describe our maturation in the Divine Nature (not to be confused with apotheosis, which is the term for the ancient belief that pharaohs, emperors, and heroes of renown ascended to godhood in death).  

Kenosis and theosis are the two different sides to the coin of salvation. They’re not optional to salvation—they’re not part of the “deluxe package” of salvation for super-saints and missionaries and other “professional Christians,” nor are they something we do in exchange for salvation, because they are salvation. If you’re not undergoing kenosis and theosis, then you don’t have “salvation” in any sense taught by Jesus and the apostles.

Our popular “gospel” has it that this process happens automatically, apart from any effort or initiative or attention on our part. It’s popularly taught that once a person is justified by belief, the outcome is guaranteed by God’s grace.

That’s the meaning we typically project upon passages like 2 Peter 1:3,4, which reads: “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness through our knowledge (Greek epignosis) of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence, and through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the Divine Nature and escape the corruption that is in the world because of human appetite.”

See? There it is! The “gospel,” as it’s commonly taught dovetails perfectly into the apostle’s teaching that God has already “given us everything needed.” All we need for that life and godliness is to believe, and once we have that belief, life and godliness take care of themselves, completely by God’s grace—by His “very great and precious promises”—so that we can neither add to nor take anything away from that. It’s all God. And if we think otherwise, then we’re just being self-righteous or trying to earn our salvation.

Except, that couldn’t possibly be what Peter actually meant by that passage, because his instruction in the verses immediately following it plainly and unambiguously teach the precise opposite (2 Peter 1:5-9): “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence, to excellence knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly-kindness, and to brotherly-kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.”  

For the very reason that God has given us everything needed through His promises so that we can participate in His very Nature, the apostle instructed us to make every effort to add to our faith those qualities consistent with His Nature.

So, yes—it’s absolutely correct that “it’s all God,” because it’s only by His grace in implanting His Nature within us that we can make the effort to which Peter exhorts us. We receive the Divine Nature at the point of Justification and Rebirth, and so we do receive “everything needed for life and godliness,” but we receive it in seed form, just as we do our mortal DNA, and it falls to us to cultivate it and to bring it to fruition just as we do with the genetic potential we inherit from our mortal parents, hence Peter’s counsel to make every effort to do so, and Paul’s innumerable exhortations to discipline and “the divine training.”

That, of course, is why the Church exists… or is supposed to exist: to pass on the Divine Nature through the carrying-out of the Great Commission, and then to cultivate it and bring it to maturity through the administration of the sacraments and by mentoring believers in the spiritual disciplines, training them also to pass it on and to mentor others.  

Yes, we’re saved by grace, through faith, but faith isn’t just belief. Faith is trust, and the extent to which we trust Him—the extent to which our confidence is truly in Him- is the extent to which we do what He says and heed the instructions of His spokesmen and representatives, the apostles and prophets.

In other words, faith means making every effort toward kenosis and theosis, as Peter instructed.

Faith is not a once-for-all, momentary transaction, but something that has to be protected and cultivated and preserved against destructive influences—having genuine faith one day is no guarantee of having it every day hence. It must be maintained. That, in fact, is the entire, essential message of the book of Hebrews.  

Tellingly, when we read the infamous “problem passage” of Hebrews 5:11-6:12, it isn’t any heinous crime of sexual immorality or idolatry that prompts the warning against “falling away” and the potential loss of salvation, but their lazy, superficial piety and their growing complacency. Their lack of interest indicated a deeper degradation of their faith, and so it was their neglect and failure to learn and mature which threatened to endanger them, not any overt sin.

But, virtually every institution of Christianity we know teaches and operates according to a “gospel” which insists that grace precludes effort, and that any such effort would be sinful, even.

It tells us that if we merely believe, we can safely put questions of God and the afterlife behind us while we put Christianity and the Bible to use as vehicles to serve our worldly interests and to meet our earthly needs, and we count ourselves “saved” if our social lives and political opinions have the church’s stamp of approval.

So when we come across passages in the Bible like Peter’s instruction to “make every effort,” we qualify it to the point that it’s utterly meaningless, then downplay it, or just ignore it entirely. We make that effort optional to salvation: we don’t actually have to make that effort, we tell ourselves and each other. That’s just if we want to be effective and productive in our knowledge of Jesus Christ. And being effective and productive are completely optional. Sure, we might wind up nearsighted and blind and forget that we’ve been cleansed from our past sins, but that’s still cool. As long as we really, really believed at some point, we’re still saved, right? The divine hand-stamp that gets us into heaven doesn’t wash-off, does it?

If we continue through Peter’s epistle to the next chapter, we’ll read about those who have “escaped the corruption of the world through their knowledge (again, from the Greek epignosis) of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome,” who are then “worse off at the end than they were at the beginning,” and that “it would have been better for them not to have known (epiginosko) the way of righteousness than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.”   

The meaning of this passage (and multiple other passages like it) is plain, unambiguous, and clear, especially when we consider it in light of the opening passage of Peter’s letter: he wrote that it is through knowledge of the One who called us by His own glory and excellence that we receive the promises through which we may participate in the Divine Nature and escape the corruption of the world (theosis and kenosis).

The word for “knowledge” in that first passage is epignosis from “epi-”, meaning “at” or “upon,” which intensifies the “gnosis,” meaning “knowledge.” Some translators render it “true knowledge,” and in virtually every appearance of the word in the New Testament, whenever it’s used with regard to a person’s knowledge of God or of Christ, it explicitly accompanies salvation.

The same word is used for the knowledge by which the people described in the later passage escaped the corruption of the world, only to be entangled in it again and overcome. Peter did not use the basic word gnosis, which could be interpreted as a general, merely academic knowledge of Jesus Christ. He used epignosis, which goes beyond general knowledge to intimate and personal experiential knowledge of God and Christ, which is the knowledge that is eternal life.

But we can’t accept the plain meaning of this passage within the model of salvation offered by our popular “gospel.” So, we lawyer it: we look for wiggle-room to qualify it somehow and to twist the meaning to say that they didn’t really, really know Him, and so “they were never really saved to begin with.” And so we feel safe in our complacency and passivity and in the assurance that we can live however we please and presume upon His forgiveness and look forward to a trouble-free afterlife, and it’s as if Peter and the others never wrote any warnings to Christians at all…  

If that’s the case, though, why would they be worse off than if they had never known (epiginosko) the way of righteousness to begin with? Why would they be worse off at the end than they were at the beginning? If they were never really saved to begin with, then what would they have actually lost? Wouldn’t the potential still remain for them to be saved for real one day?

It doesn’t really matter what arguments we bring to the discussion, though. The innumerable passages that explicitly refute our popular paradigm of salvation are already plain enough without me or anybody else having to spell out their meaning, and if people are willing to resort to the aforementioned cognitive dissonance and hermeneutic gymnastics in the first place, they’ll just keep right on tumbling and contorting when we press them on it…

Consequently, we don’t, collectively, heed the apostles’ exhortations toward discipline and effort. We don’t pursue holiness and participation in the Divine Nature as necessities. And so we don’t undertake the dual processes of kenosis and theosis, and so we don’t undergo the transformation described in scripture that characterized the early Church and should characterize us, and so we don’t actually live any differently than we would if we had never even heard of Jesus Christ, and so we don’t function as the “Body of Christ” to carry-out our God-given mission to save the world.

We have a hollow, dead, and withered husk of Christianity with none of the Life we were promised, because we refuse to accept the actual terms of that promise. Instead, we project our own promises in their place, and if they’re promises God actually made, we strip them of His conditions. As a result, our “evangelism” amounts to nothing but self-serving propaganda, our “discipleship” is nothing but pop-psychology self-help couched in pious rhetoric, and our outreach ministries are all-too-often just another pretense to serve our collective habit of playing “Christian.”

And when we’re confronted by the fruits of this caricature of Christianity that we practice, we take refuge in the security supposedly offered by our “gospel,” expressed in pithy slogans like, “Christians Aren’t Perfect; Just Forgiven…” And we continue to uphold the status quo of popular Christianity because it meets our needs and we don’t want to risk that by rocking the boat.

We are in the exact same state of denial and self-delusion as the people of Judah thousands of years ago. Upon being confronted by the prophet Jeremiah for the fact that they lived no differently than their godless, idol-worshipping neighbors, they resorted to the same hermeneutic gymnastics we do by taking refuge in the security they believed they had in their religion.

So the prophet stood at the gates of the temple and proclaimed, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your deeds, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’”

As we know, they rejected his warning, and God sent the Babylonians to destroy the very temple in which they sought their license to ignore Him.

The same pattern repeated itself in the days of Jesus when they rejected their Messiah in favor of their religion, and the temple and the nation were destroyed yet again, this time by the Romans.

For any Christians reading this, our cultural conditioning is likely to assert itself at this point and we’ll want to make ourselves feel safe by the objection, “But that was the old covenant…!” Under the new covenant (it is commonly taught), God never ever punishes us or gets angry, and we’re guaranteed a free pass: “The gospel of the Lord, the gospel of the Lord, the gospel of the Lord!” we’ll protest.

Yet, the apostle Paul referenced such episodes in his warnings to Christians, and he offered no qualification when he did so: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, upon whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” he wrote.

Regarding the people of Israel’s most recent estrangement from God, he wrote, “They were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either. Consider, therefore, the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided you continue in His kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”

Writing to Christianssincere Christians whose faith was renowned throughout the known world, no less—Paul told them to be afraid.

And so should we be afraid, because we are no different than the crowds of half-hearted enthusiasts who readily acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah… but only because their stomachs told them to, while they were completely oblivious to the needs of the spirit, because their institutions promised that those needs were already met.

Just like them, we stand in danger of losing our “temple,” so to speak.

I don’t know if God plans to send an invading army to raze our megachurches to the ground and scatter our population as He did with the Jews, though. That isn’t to say with any certainty that He won’t, but if that’s His plan, He hasn’t included me in that loop (maybe Pat Robertson knows something I don’t, though…).

But, Christianity has been in steep, steady decline in recent decades, and at the rate we’re going, it’s questionable if it will even exist on this continent within a generation or two.

I think that’s largely because people are catching on to the fact that in its current configuration, Christianity doesn’t offer anything that can’t be found just as easily by joining a bowling league or by looking to sci-fi and fantasy for “spirituality” and identity. People are catching on to the fact that all we’ve been offering, for the most part, is smoke and mirrors and man-made convention, and if that’s the case, any man-made convention will do.  

But—also just like the Israelites and the Jews—we don’t have to lose our place or have our temple destroyed. We can repent. We can be restored.

I hope it’s clear by now, though, that our restoration won’t come just through a few minor tweakages, like teaching better apologetics and chucking “Once Saved, Always Saved”…

Those two steps would bring certain improvements, but the errors that would correct in our present configuration are only symptoms of our deeper problem, which is that our “gospel” offers only “food that spoils,” with little to none of the “food that endures to eternal life.”

Individual tweakages won’t correct that. Instead of waiting for God’s judgment through the destruction of our “temple,” we need to tear it down ourselves so that we can rebuild it from the ground up.

In other words, our entire paradigm of “Christianity” and “religion” needs to be destroyed, overhauled, and reinvented.

And, on some level, we already know this. Or, at least, we know that there is something profoundly wrong with “Christianity” as we know it, as evidenced by the endless supply of new books competing for space on the shelves of the Religion-section of any given retail bookstore, all offering different and conflicting ideas on what’s wrong with American Christianity and how to fix it. The Emergent Church-movement, for all of its faults, is an encouraging testament to the fact that we at least acknowledge that there is a problem.

It seems that we’re constantly praying for, preaching, and writing about our need for revival, yet it never really comes.

And, I don’t expect that it will. At least, not the way we’re going about it. The fact that we expect it to, though, I think, is another symptom of our ailment.

We’re conditioned by our popular “gospel” to believe that whatever it is God intends for us, we should sit back and wait for it, and when it comes, it will come packaged in sermon-form so that we can passively accept it from the security of our pew with the safe assurance of our leaders’ and peers’ approval.

To be fair, though, it isn’t just our “gospel” to blame. It’s our entire way of life. As a nation, we wage war through a television screen, and we bear witness to social upheaval and to the bloody rise and fall of nations from the safety and comfort of our living rooms. Our political activism amounts to clicking on “Like” and “Share” buttons.

I don’t write this in the interest of fault-finding, though (I watch TV news and share FB posts, too). I only write it as a caution against merely agreeing with me (which I would assume you do, to some degree, if you’re still reading), but doing nothing about it.

The revolution for which we hope will not come to us. We can’t expect our pastors and leaders to just wake up and see the light one day as we sit idly in our pews, tacitly supporting them by our silent, compliant acceptance of whatever they happen to offer on Sunday morning.

As the man said, “The revolution will not be televised.” If we want change to happen, we’ll have to get off our asses. We can’t be spectators; we have to get in the game.

“So, how do we do that? What do we do?” would be the logical next set of questions.

To be honest… I wish I knew.

I actually started writing this blog entry weeks ago, and every time I’ve come back to this section, I’ve been at a loss. I’ve actually written, like, six different conclusions to this, but none of them seem adequate. The fact is, apart from spreading awareness about the problem, I don’t know what to do, so I don’t know what, specifically, to advise others to do…

I think I know what it would look like after the revolution happens, though. I couldn’t begin to paint a comprehensive picture of what a healthy and fully-functional 21st-century version of the Church would look like (and I wouldn’t expect anybody to read all of that at once, anyway), but I think I can provide a glimpse—appropriately enough—through the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Of course, we have this ritual we call “Communion” or “the Lord’s Supper,” by which we satisfy ourselves that we’ve heeded Jesus’ instruction to “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood.”

I think it bears more resemblance to a pagan ritual of sympathetic magic than it does to anything that would be recognizable to the Christians who originally observed the sacrament, though. 

Sympathetic magic operates on the belief that ceremonial objects bear a mystical correspondence to items, persons, or forces beyond the ritual itself, so that by manipulating the objects within the ritual, a magician thereby manipulates whatever it is the objects are believed to represent. A voodoo doll would be a classic example: if you poke the doll with a needle, it’s supposed to harm the person the doll represents. Another example would be the shrine prostitution practiced by ancient worshipers of Baal and Ashtoreth, but… well, you’ll just have to look that up yourself if you really want to know. Make sure there are no minors near your computer when you do, though.

The doctrine of transubstantiation is essentially a practice of sympathetic magic: by uttering an incantation over the wine and wafers, a priest is believed to be able to call the body and blood of Christ down from heaven to mystically transform the substance of the elements, so that consuming them is literally the same as to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.

Not every church subscribes to the doctrine of transubstantiation, but the ritual order of the Communion service is basically the same between those that do and those that don’t, and the significance is essentially the same either way: to undergo this ritual, Christians believe, is what it means to obey Christ’s instruction to “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood.”

Personally, I’m ambivalent and conflicted about this. At the moment, I’m straddling the fence between rejecting it outright as a legalistic falsehood that degrades the very concept of Communion, or continuing to practice it as something at least partially good, but just not fully what was intended. I haven’t decided yet. Maybe writing this out will help me crystallize my thoughts on it.  

A couple of months ago I went to lunch with a longtime friend after church, where, incidentally, they did a Communion service. I mean, the Communion service was incidental to our lunch; not that it was entirely incidental to what I’m writing…

While we were eating and we talked about the church service we’d just attended, I mentioned a particular practice of this church to which I take strong exception (it wasn’t their take on Communion, incidentally, but for our purposes, it doesn’t matter what it was).

Now, my friend and I see eye-to-eye on most things, but this wasn’t one of those things. He declared that he “liked” this practice, and believed it to be “good” and “biblical.”

This might be considered rude on my part if it hadn’t been with a longtime friend, but I disputed the practice in question because I thought it neither justifiable in scripture, nor anything less than destructive to the purpose of the correct practice that should be observed in its place.

To that, my friend merely shrugged and answered, “And you are welcome to think that…”

That was the end of our discussion on the matter. After a brief, uncomfortable pause, we went on to banter about girls or superhero movies or some other trivia, but the matter of our doctrinal difference was not revisited.

He’d made it clear that it wasn’t open for discussion, and that he cared neither for my thoughts on why it was wrong, nor for any questions I had about why he thought it right. He liked it, wanted to believe in it, and that was all there was to it. End of discussion.

Of course, we’ve all had conversations like that, so I’m sure none of that sounds like a big deal, so you might be wondering why I’d bother telling you about it.

Well, it wasn’t that my feelings were hurt… although I am a pretty sensitive, emotionally-attuned guy, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little put off by it (I’m the manly sensitive –type, though…). But, that’s not really the point.

The point is that we were two Christians who had just taken Communion service but, in that moment, couldn’t talk about Christianity with each other.

And, that’s problematic, especially when we consider the Communion ritual as it was originally observed.

As it was originally practiced, it was not a massive, impersonal ritual in which strangers lined up for a nibble of cracker and a thimble of grape juice to swallow after a few seconds of private contemplation.

No, it was a full-course fellowship meal. It was Christians sitting down to feast together.

Paul said that it was observed in an “unworthy manner” if there was disunity and selfishness among the people in attendance. A man was to “examine himself” and “recognize the body of the Lord” before partaking.

I don’t think that meant, necessarily, that you have make sure you feel sorry for your sins before you partake. It meant that you recognize the body of the Lord—in the bread and wine, and in the Christians sitting at the table with you. The “body of Christ,” after all, wasn’t only present in the bread, but in the people of the Church, and a person “eats his flesh” and “drinks his blood” by partaking of the fellowship of those who belong to Christ, more so, even, than by the bread and wine. The bread and wine are taken as part of the meal, as reminders that “this is who we are,” “this is why we are here.”

The bread and wine—his body and blood—are to remind us that we are not our own, but belong to each other. None of us has the right to believe what we want, because we are not our own, and if personal preference was our doorway into “Christianity,” then we’re not really practicing Christianity.

The word “heresy,” after all (from the Greek hairesis), literally translates as “that which is chosen” or “that which is preferred.” Heresy and opinion are synonymous. “Heresy” isn’t necessarily “false doctrine,” per se, but the muddling of truth with personal interpretation and opinion. That was what Peter condemned before his warning about falling prey to the entanglements of the world again… which is what happens when we forget that faith means conforming ourselves to God’s truth, not the other way around.

Before our fellow man, yes—we have a legal, social, and cultural right to our own beliefs, and nobody has any right to impose anything upon us. But before God? No, we only have a right to believe what is true—what we can honestly justify before Him, with the faculties He has given us. And, by extension, we have no right before our fellow Christians to believe anything but what is true, because He is present to us through one another.

The resurrection—as a rational, objective, and knowable fact—is the foundation, the touchstone, of everything it means to be “Christian.” It can be shared and communicated because it’s objective, because it happened within concrete reality. It can be justified by reason, in other words.

Faith, then, is what it means to “make every effort,” as Peter said, to integrate the truth of the resurrection into our lives, and that effort is so monumental and consuming that no individual person can undertake it alone. That’s why we have the Lord’s Supper as a way to do that: we come together in fellowship, recognized and reinforced through the bread and wine, to help one another to participate and grow in the New Life, largely by keeping each other honest and accountable.

So, when my friend declared simply that he believed what he believed because he liked it, it was a denial of that process.

And, to be fair, it’s entirely possible that I denied that process somehow by the way that I brought it up. I can be hard to get along with sometimes. I get that.

Whoever’s fault it was, though—there was a barrier between us because of it. Whatever “fellowship” we had after that exchange was not Christian fellowship, because our common belonging to Christ had nothing to do with what followed. Whatever food we ate in that moment wasn’t the Bread of Life offered by our Lord, but merely food that spoils.

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The Untold Story of the Resurrection Revealed! What REALLY happened 2,000 years ago… finally unearthed!

Ok, not really.

Well, kinda.’

Promises of shocking revelations and untold stories of well-known events get people to buy books and read gossip magazines, so if you’re reading this, the same trick got you to read my blog and feed my constant need for attention… So, mission accomplished.

But, it’s not entirely a trick… just a slight exaggeration.

Anyway, let me explain—

I didn’t have a home church to go to last year on Easter and I didn’t feel like trying out a new church amid the crowded influx of nominal Christians making their yearly check-in, so I stayed home to reflect on the resurrection on my own by reading through each of the Gospel accounts, flipping back-and-forth between them in an attempt to get the full picture.

I just so happened to have recently been reading John Shelby Spong’s abominable work of liberal theological propaganda Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, in which, among other lines of argument, he accounts for the supposedly irreconcilable differences and discrepancies between the four accounts (well… five, if we count Paul’s account from 1 Corinthians 15) by reiterating the standard position of modern biblical higher criticism, which is that that the New Testament accounts of Jesus, particularly of his resurrection, represent various stages of legendary tradition layered over a few small kernels of truth in the form of scant authentic memories of the actual Jesus of history.

My reasons for rejecting that argument and for accepting the New Testament accounts as reliable accounts of history were explained at length in my last three entries, but it still gave me a hankering (yes, I had a hankering) to see a single “official” version of events, without the apparent discrepancies between the four Gospels. I wanted to know what really happened—not just several witnesses’ separate versions of what happened.

Just to clarify—Spong and his fellows have a few valid points…

For instance, Matthew, Mark, and John all mention a trip to Galilee, where they saw the risen Jesus, yet Luke has Jesus explicitly telling them to stay in Jerusalem until the events of Pentecost. That at least seems to be a pretty major contradiction.

Also, one version has the women seeing a single angel outside the tomb after an earthquake, another has the angel inside the tomb with no mention of an earthquake, another has it as two angels, and another has no angels—just an empty, unguarded tomb discovered by Mary Magdalene before she runs to the disciples. That version has her encountering the risen Jesus later by herself, while another version has him appearing first to all of the women as a group. Paul said Peter alone was the first witness to the risen Jesus, yet the Gospel accounts seemingly have Peter seeing Jesus alive again for the first time with most of the other apostles with him.

And so on and so forth….

If we already know it’s all just legend and magical nonsense from the get-go, there’s no great mystery here: they just made up different stories about the resurrection. Case closed.

Except… (as discussed in my last few entries) that explanation just doesn’t account for the known and incontrovertible facts about the origins of Christianity.

There is every possible indication that the original Christians thought of the resurrection as an actual event of history. And not just an actual event in history, but an event they experienced.

They didn’t have our “progressive,” postmodern understanding of religion as a man-made convention made up of interchangeable, subjective narratives (at least, not as it related to their own religion). Deliberately making stuff up about God just wasn’t, well… kosher. We think of religion today almost as a form of art—as a form of collective, cultural self-expression. Whatever validity there may or may not be to that understanding, that isn’t how the apostles and early Christians, as Jews (or Gentile converts), understood their own religion. They saw it more as a rigid science, and its laws and traditions were immutable, authoritative, and non-negotiable—you just didn’t mess around with what God commanded. In fact, one of Jesus’ biggest problems with the religious leaders of his day was that they tended to mistake their own traditions for God’s. So, when the first Christians offered their different accounts of the resurrection, they weren’t offering “their own interpretation of an emerging tradition,” but their own remembered experiences, or in the case of Luke, other people’s remembered experiences:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Beloved of God, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

The fact that there are differences and, even, discrepancies between the four Gospels doesn’t in any way undermine their credibility as historical witnesses. If anything, that bolsters their credibility—it shows that they didn’t conspire together to get their stories straight. Remembering events differently just means they were remembering, not fabricating.

Obviously, there are nuances to this beyond what I’ve addressed here, and I don’t want to get too far into a critique of modern biblical higher criticism, rehash what I’ve written about it in previous entries, or get into another lengthy apologetic treatment of the resurrection. I only bring it up to say that I had some of these considerations in mind last Easter as I began to read the Gospel accounts, and it made me want to resolve them into a single, comprehensive account.

So, being the reclusive nerd that I am—and not knowing at the time that somebody else already beat me to the punch a couple thousand years ago, I commenced to spend the rest of the day combining the different resurrection accounts into a single narrative, arranged according to the general chronology provided by Paul.

And I have to say, despite unknowingly reinventing the wheel, it was a pretty worthwhile and edifying exercise.

For one thing, I resolved (to my own satisfaction, at least) most of the seeming contradictions… at least, those that could be resolved. The discrepancies that couldn’t be resolved, though, don’t really matter. Granted, they frustrate modern conventional ideas of “biblical inerrancy,” but apart from that consideration, they’re inconsequential, and from an historical standpoint, they actually strengthen the Gospels’ credibility as authentic memories.

More importantly, though, it cast the resurrection in a new light for me.

Not to say that the individual accounts are inadequate or lacking in themselves, but (to me, at least) that single combined narrative is of greater value than the mere sum of its parts. Each individual account is like a different number in a coordinate, and combining them offers a more textured and nuanced, multi-dimensional picture of what happened and of the people involved.

If you’ve seen the movie Contact, a good analogy (perhaps ironically) for what I’m getting at would be when they finally figured out to look at the blueprints for the alien construct as a single three-dimensional diagram instead of as individual two-dimensional images. Themes and conflicts emerged that I hadn’t seen before, and the reality of it sank-in in ways it hadn’t quite previously.

I don’t want to ruin it by getting into specifics, in case people want to read it for themselves. It’s just been sitting on my computer all year since then, and since Easter is coming up, and since I just finished explaining why I believe the resurrection to be a knowable, provable fact of history, it seemed appropriate to put this out there for anyone inclined to read it.

I would have just pasted it directly into a blog template, but I color-coded the text to show the seams between its constituent parts and their respective source. I thought it was important to preserve that, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that within the blog template, so I’ve just attached it as a Word document here.

Resurrection SINGLE NARRATIVE

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The Foundation, part 5.3: Extraordinary Claims

(Continued from The Lynchpin of Existence, Defending the Lynchpin, The Telephone Game, and The Forgotten Jesus…?)

“What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we’d like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence, rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” 

These are the words of the late Carl Sagan, from the classic documentary series Cosmos (episode 12: Encyclopaedia Galactica).

In that specific context, Sagan was talking about UFO sightings and reports of alien abductions, but the “Sagan Standard,” as it’s been dubbed, is commonly cited by skeptics with regard to any paranormal, supernatural, or otherwise extraordinary claim, and particularly to questions of God and religion.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, and despite his well-publicized rejection of Christianity, Sagan’s skepticism is a posture actually counseled repeatedly throughout scripture: extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence, and acceptance of such claims without commensurate evidence is not faith in the sense upheld by Jesus, Moses, and the prophets and apostles. As discussed at length previously, that isn’t faith at all, but credulity and superstition and the surest way to be taken in by con men, false prophets, and demons. If a person believes an extraordinary claim in the absence of such evidence, it isn’t because he has such strong faith in God, because he doesn’t actually really know that God is the Source of the claim—only that people cite God as the Source of their claims. And people make all kinds of different and contradictory claims in the name of God every day, and all too often with bad intentions and disastrous outcomes. Rather than faith, a belief without evidence is the product, normally, of emotional manipulation and cultural conditioning, which are obviously not reliable guides to truth. At their very best, these might provide a sense of comfort, security, belonging, cultural identity, and social validation, but they can never offer truth… or, at least, any truth to which they point is merely incidental, and likely to be buried or perverted by the methods used to reach it.

On the other hand, though… there is precious little any of us can believe without first having to take someone else’s word for it at some point along the way, because (as also discussed at length previously) human testimony is really the only evidence there ever really is, in the final analysis.

The equations on this chalkboard revolutionized our understanding of the universe, but how many people can actually decipher them? Without the testimony of the rest of the physics community, would humanity at-large have even heard of Einstein?

As Sagan himself pointed out in the aforementioned Cosmos episode, photographs can be faked and other forms of evidence are always subject to human analysis and interpretation, so all we’re ultimately left with for evidence of anything is what people say, and whatever “hard evidence” there is can only serve to corroborate or contradict the narratives provided by people. Without those narratives, physical evidence is meaningless.   

Those narratives have to be weighed against other narratives by seeing which best fits and accounts for the evidence at hand. As Carl Sagan put it, they have to be rigorously and skeptically examined…

After due examination, there is only ever one of three conclusions possible for any given narrative: it’s either a lie, a mistake, or the truth.

The extraordinary claim made by the original Christians was that God Himself had entered into the stream of human events in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, which they claimed to know by the fact of having encountered Jesus risen—alive and in the flesh and glorified—after he had been publicly executed and buried. They claimed to have seen him, spoken with him, touched him, and even shared meals with him before he ascended beyond this plane of existence, and that he instructed them to pass on his teachings and the news of his resurrection to the rest of humanity in preparation for his return at the end of history.

That was their claim, at least. That was the content of their message as they traveled from city to city throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, transforming the movement in Jesus’ name into a worldwide institution that has proliferated to this day.  

Seldom has a more extraordinary claim been made in human history, and seldom has such an extraordinary claim so profoundly shaped the flow of human events.

Is the evidence for that claim commensurately extraordinary for us to believe it, though?

As discussed previously, the manuscript evidence for the reliability of the New Testament is nothing short of extraordinary.

That alone, however, proves only that its content is well-preserved, not necessarily that its content accurately represents the teachings of the apostles, or of Jesus.

Modern biblical scholarship—or, the consensus among a great many biblical scholars, at least—has it that the four Gospels were written long after the apostles were dead, and are the product of generations of legends and folk stories layered upon scant few authentic memories of Jesus. Consequently, they assert, the “Christ of faith” depicted therein is but a mythological echo of the real Jesus of actual history. That being the case, they argue, what the New Testament seems to report as history with regard to the resurrection of Jesus was originally meant by the apostle as mere metaphor or parable (metaphor for what, exactly, they never quite say). 

As I explained at length in my previous entry, though, the academics in question freely acknowledge that they don’t believe in a distinction between the “Christ of faith” and the Jesus of history because the Gospel accounts are known to have been written later, nor because any other pertinent evidence lends itself to that conclusion. Their reasoning works the other way around, actually: they presume from the outset that the God depicted in the New Testament does not exist, therefore the “Christ of faith” also depicted therein can’t have been an accurate portrait of the historical Jesus, and so they sift the facts to fit their invented story—a story in which the original followers of Jesus simply could not have intended a literal resurrection, so the Gospel accounts had to have been written by later generations.

It’s not a conclusion “supported by hard evidence, rigorously and skeptically examined”; it’s an assumption they attempt to justify by rewriting history.

Their narrative withers and dies under scrutiny, though, because it just doesn’t fit the plain facts. For instance, whatever we believe about the four Gospels, it is beyond dispute that Paul’s epistles were still written well within the lifetimes of the other apostles, and they explicitly proclaim a literal, bodily, and physical resurrection of Jesus as the essential message of Christianity from the very beginning. Also (as explained at length previously), the internal evidence of the Gospels and Acts supports an earlier date of composition, within the lifetimes of the apostles and other original followers of Jesus.

There is also the testimony of the first generation of church leaders after the apostles (the Apostolic Fathers) and the early Church Fathers, who unanimously attributed the Gospel of Matthew to the apostle Matthew/Levi, the Gospel of Mark to the apostle Peter’s disciple, who compiled the apostle’s memoirs, the Gospel of Luke/Acts of the Apostles to Paul’s disciple and traveling companion, and the Gospel of John to John the apostle (if not as the direct author, at the very least as the source[1]).

Naturally, of course, modern academics dismiss these claims as mere “tradition.” They do raise various points of argument, some of which are more worthwhile than others, but none of them are particularly compelling, and what strength they do have depends greatly upon their theological assumption that the “Christ of faith” is the product of a long development of legendary tradition.

Their argument hinges on the notion that the Gospels were written anonymously, so the testimony of early church leaders represents only a tradition shaped by religious dogma, and so it isn’t credible as historical documentation, they argue. Just because the authors didn’t sign their names to them within the text itself doesn’t mean the four Gospels were anonymous to the people for whom they were first written, though. Papias, Polycarp, Clement, and other early church leaders knew the apostles personally. But, they weren’t just speaking from personal experience, but from the experience of entire communities of people they represented who also knew the apostles and their writings, and accepted their writings for that reason.

Modern scholars say “according to tradition” to mean “not according to historical research,” but that’s an erroneous distinction proceeding from a false premise. The origins of Christianity and the New Testament aren’t nearly so opaque as modern scholars insist. The only obscurity there is about the early Church comes from the fact that the theological biases of modern academics aren’t served by what was plainly documented at the time, so they dismiss it and rewrite history to fit their preconceptions. The plain and simple truth is that neither the four Gospels nor the rest of the writings of the New Testament emerged mysteriously out of a vacuum, but were written by authors known to the people who first received them and passed them on. The authorship of any other ancient writing with this much external attestation would never be disputed.

It is a matter of incontrovertible historical fact, then, that the people who knew Jesus claimed to have encountered him after his bodily resurrection from the dead, and the evidence for them having made that claim is nothing short of extraordinary.

What, then, do we make of that?

Did they make it all up as an elaborate deception?

Were they sincere, but somehow mistaken?

Or were they telling the truth?

Strict adherence to the Sagan Standard would require extraordinary physical evidence to corroborate their claim. Except, what kind of physical evidence could there be for such a claim? If this were a murder investigation, the victim’s body would be the central piece of evidence, but this is the precise opposite of a murder investigation. This is a resurrection investigation, so by definition, the body isn’t available for examination (except at the time, when Jesus appeared to the apostles and they inspected his wounds, but that doesn’t help for our purposes). There is, of course, the empty tomb, but the absence of a body from the tomb (assuming we could somehow positively identify the tomb as his) doesn’t necessarily prove that the body is alive again. Physical evidence of such a claim, then—even if the claim is true, is a pretty tall order, because there’s not much in the way of physical evidence that ever could corroborate such a claim.

The Shroud of Turin might be admissible as evidence if it were proven to be authentic, but it’s debatable if even that would qualify as decisive proof. So far, it seems to be what believers claim it to be: the image on the shroud was created through unknown means, incomprehensible to modern science, and the image wasn’t even visible until 1898 when the invention of photography made it detectable in a photographic negative; forensic analysis has verified the authenticity of the bloodstains and their consistency with injuries from crucifixion and scourging; the species of flax, the weave pattern of the shroud, as well as pollen and dirt samples found on it are all consistent with 1st century Jerusalem. The only substantial argument against its authenticity as the possible burial shroud of Jesus Christ is that carbon-14 dating places its origin in the 13th or 14th century. That conclusion has been heavily disputed, however, on the ground that the sample used for carbon dating wasn’t from the original shroud, but from a patch added in the 16th century to repair damage sustained after a fire. Every other feature of the shroud accords precisely with what would be expected if it were authentic.

The Shroud of Turin is an interesting and edifying curiosity, but nothing really hinges upon it, though. If it were eventually proven by carbon dating to have originated in or before the 1st century, there still would be no way to absolutely prove that the image upon it was created at the moment of Christ’s resurrection, or that it’s the same sheet of linen discovered in the empty tomb. It would support the apostles’ claim without necessarily proving it, and disproving the Shroud’s authenticity wouldn’t in any way disprove the apostles. 

So, there isn’t—nor could there be—extraordinary positive evidence to prove that the apostles were telling the truth.

There is, however, extraordinary evidence against the only two alternatives, which is no different than proof of the truth of their claim. We can know for certain that they did, in fact, claim that Jesus rose from the dead, and if there is extraordinary evidence against them having lied and against them having been mistaken, then that equates to extraordinary evidence for the only possible alternative. As I like to quote Sherlock Holmes, and Spock after him: “If we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth.

The Trial of the Ages

If the apostles were to be put on trial for the crime of lying about the resurrection, the burden would normally fall on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt by convincing the jury that they had motivation, means, and opportunity to do so.

Except, this is not a court of criminal law with a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven; this is the Court of Skepticism of Extraordinary Claims, and the Sagan Standard presumes guilt until innocence is proven. But that’s not a problem, because the evidence can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they had neither motive, nor means, nor opportunity to lie about the resurrection, and are therefore innocent.

Motive

So, what would motivate the original followers of Jesus to fabricate a story about having encountered him after he’d risen from the dead? What could they have expected to gain by it?

Well, why does anybody lie? Advertisers, politicians, and, yes—religious leaders show up in headlines all the time for perpetrating various deceptions, and their motivations aren’t terribly mysterious: they lie for money, power, sex, self-aggrandizement, or some combination thereof. They lie either to exploit people in pursuit of these interests, or they lie because they’re already guilty of indulging, despite reputations to the contrary. More than a few politicians and religious leaders have been exposed in the past few years for leading double lives: playing the pious, devoted family man in campaign commercials or sermons, all the while consorting with prostitutes or mistresses or having trysts with strangers in airport bathrooms. Examples abound also of people who have used their positions of trust or authority to enrich themselves with bribes or tithes, who are easily identifiable by their expensive suits, high-end cars, private jets, and palatial living accommodations

Of course, there are plenty of cult leaders who have eschewed riches or political power (or resigned themselves to the improbability of ever attaining them), but they still reap some payoff for their manipulations. It’s hard to find an example of a cult leader, for instance, who hasn’t had some “revelation from God” that it’s his divine right and destiny to have multiple high school-age girls as his “wives” as he enjoys the worship and admiration of his brainwashed followers.

What about the apostles, though? What benefits did they reap, or expect to reap, from their lifelong efforts to spread the news of the resurrection?

Just to be clear about the situation: their efforts began just a few weeks after their rabbi had been arrested and condemned by the Jewish religious elite, then humiliated, tortured, and crucified at their urging by the Roman imperial authorities.

And that was somewhat routine back then. As Luke explained, quoting the renowned rabbi Gamaliel, and as the 1st-century historian Flavius Josephus corroborated: aspiring messiahs were a denarius-a-dozen at the time, and they often gathered hundreds of people to their cause with lofty ambitions to restore the sovereignty of the Chosen People by forcibly driving the pagan invaders from the Holy Land. The Romans didn’t mess around, though, and wasted no time arresting and crucifying the leaders. Their followers would typically scatter and go into hiding, presumably heartbroken and traumatized, but undoubtedly relieved to have escaped the same fate.

In contrast, what did the apostles do in the same situation?

At first, they did the same thing: they made themselves scarce, lest they suffer the same fate as their leader.

Soon after, though—just as Jesus himself had done in the week leading up to his death—they showed up in a crowded, public place, in the very city in which Jesus had been tried and executed, right under the noses of the very people responsible, and proclaimed that the man whom they’d condemned and brutalized had been raised to life again by God… which, of course, was a dangerous thing to do: “You are the enemies of God because you murdered the Messiah,” they said, and to people who were more than capable of doing the same to them.

If one person did something like that, we’d assume he or she was just grief-stricken, mentally ill, and probably suicidal. Worldwide religious movements don’t normally launch from such isolated and maladroit beginnings, though, and Luke reported that there were about 120 people in Jerusalem who accompanied Peter and the other apostles when they first proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, who had witnessed Jesus’ final appearance before he ascended.

Now, if 120 people, or if even only twelve people, or just two people were deliberately lying about all that, then they would have talked about it first. They would have made sure they had their story straight, they were on the same page, and they would have come to some clear, calculated understanding about why they were doing it, and what benefits they could reasonably expect from it. They would have conspired, and their conspiracy would have had an agreed-upon purpose and motivation.    

If they were lying about it, after all, then they would have known for a fact—each and all of them—that the eternal rewards they promised for following Jesus were a sham. Their message, essentially, was that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and so those who trust and obey Jesus by following his teachings are promised the same. If that was a lie, then they certainly would not have expected to be resurrected themselves at the end of all their efforts, so there would have had to have been some other payoff.

What’s more, that payoff would have had to have been worth the risk of dying a slow, agonizing and humiliating death, and it would have had to have been something multiple people would have come to an agreement—before they began to carry out their plan—that it was worth that risk, because they had every reason to expect to meet with the same fate as Jesus before them.

And, as we know, that expectation was met, because they did all meet with the same or similar fates. After multiple imprisonments for them both through the course of their ministries, according to the early Church Fathers, Peter was crucified upside-down (chapter 1, vs. 2) and Paul was beheaded (chapters 4 and 5) during the Neronian Persecution. The apostle James was run-through with a sword. Philip is believed to have been either crucified or beheaded. Josephus reports that James, the brother of Christ, was stoned to death, having also been condemned by the Sanhedrin. And so on and so forth—all of the apostles were reported to have been similarly executed for their testimony about the resurrection of Jesus, with the exception of the apostle John, who survived to extreme old age, but only after he was boiled alive in oil and exiled to the island of Patmos (scroll down to chapter 36).

So if they didn’t really believe they’d be resurrected at the end of their efforts, what could have been so enticing that they’d persistently risk and incur persecution and death in order to spread a lie about the resurrection of Jesus?

All things considered, is it even remotely believable that the twelve apostles and their many followers conspired together to fabricate this story… because they thought it would be a smart way to get ahead in life?

First… I think we can safely rule out the possibility that they did it all to get girls. And if it’s not obvious enough just yet why that’s a no-brainer, it will be after we cover Means and Opportunity.

Did any of them get rich as apostles, or even (from a material standpoint) attain a higher quality of life? 

Prior to his conversion, Saul of Tarsus was an up-and-coming celebrity in Pharisaical Judaism, studying under the likes of the renowned rabbi Gamaliel and garnering considerable power and influence among his fellow Jews. By becoming, not only a Christian, but a Christian missionary who claimed to have been personally visited by the risen Jesus, Paul effectively committed career suicide in the world he knew.

If it was money and power and prestige he was after, he had far better opportunities available to him than joining the Nazarene sect he’d previously sought to eradicate. In fact, becoming a Christian cost him—not only his career, but his social standing and his freedom on numerous occasions, as well as his life.

The rest of the apostles weren’t exactly rich before they decided to follow Jesus, but they nonetheless left everything behind to do so. There is indication that they were beginning to return to their previous, familiar lives after the crucifixion, but then they suddenly returned to Jerusalem to publicly proclaim the resurrection of Jesus to the very people who’d had him crucified weeks earlier.

Is it even dimly realistic to think they did this because they thought there would be big monetary rewards in their future?

Now, Luke did report that believers would occasionally sell property and give the money to the apostles for redistribution to the poor, to the effect that “there was no needy person among them.”

When large sums of money change hands, there is always a natural suspicion of abuse on the part of the people controlling the money. But, it’s pretty difficult for such a scheme to be profitable when the money has to be divided between at least twelve different people, and even more difficult to maintain the appearance that there is no economic need whatsoever among the people you’re exploiting, if you’re spending the money on yourself (let’s see Benny Hinn or Creflo Dollar pull something like that off).

That particular passage from the Book of Acts is the only possible basis for suspicion of a financial motive for the apostles to lie about the resurrection. Even with this passage, though, it’s unreasonable to the extreme to believe that they concocted the story on the hope that maybe, just maybe… through the course of setting up a commune and eliminating poverty among their followers, they might be able to skim some cash off the top for themselves. This becomes even more untenable when we consider that confiscation of property, slavery, and imprisonment were common sentences under Roman law—for those fortunate enough to be spared crucifixion, decapitation, or stoning, that is—so they stood to lose far more than they could reasonably hope to gain by possibly running afoul of the Roman and Jewish authorities (and for all we know, that risk might have been part of the motivation for some of their followers to liquidate their assets).

So, I don’t think anyone apprised of the circumstances of the time could entertain any honest belief in a financial motive for the apostles to lie about the resurrection.

What about fame and self-aggrandizement, then?

Isn’t that an all-too-common motivation for cult leaders: to have people hanging on their every word, worshiping them, admiring them, submitting to their whims and feeding their hero complexes?

How do the apostles accord with that profile, though?

Or, to look at it from the other direction—do cult leaders usually team up and share the spotlight with eleven others, as equals?

No, they surround themselves with passive, weak-willed, easily-controlled people, and weed out and eliminate competition from any other potential “alpha males.” For instance, Warren Jeffs, convicted child rapist and leader of the polygamist FLDS cult, routinely exiled dissenting males from his compound and reassigned their wives and families to other men—men who submitted to his domination. Jim Jones forced his followers to spy on each other and report to him, then would berate and publicly humiliate people for deviating ever-so-slightly from his instructions. Charles Manson used to lure men into his fold by having his female followers entice them with sex, then he’d keep them compliant and open to suggestion with LSD and other psychotropic drugs.

Cult leaders also typically isolate their followers, lest their carefully-crafted spells of mind-control and delusion be undermined by outside, rational influences. They use sex, intimidation, violence, drugs, social pressure, sleep deprivation, isolation and other mind-control techniques to manipulate and exploit people as they bask in the reflected radiance of their own perceived power and importance, often making ridiculous and ostentatious claims of being the Messiah, God incarnate, or Jesus reincarnated, before they lead their followers to a spectacular and tragic demise.    

If the apostles were driven to lie about the resurrection of Jesus by any of the motivations common to cult masterminds, they managed to do so without conforming to any of the well-documented patterns also common to them.

For example—for people supposedly bent on an ego-trip of that magnitude, they were generous with the spotlight.

It’s true that Peter enjoyed a greater share of attention in the beginning than the rest, but when he told his followers about Jesus—if he was in it for the fame and admiration—he might have done better to leave out the part where he abandoned and disowned Jesus on the night he was arrested.  

And that really goes for all of the apostles: collectively, they might have left out that whole episode where they all abandoned Jesus at his arrest, or any of the numerous occasions in which Jesus rebuked them for their petty bickering, their weak faith, their decidedly un-Christian inclinations, for being “perverse and faithless,” or when he called their chief apostle “Satan.”

For a bunch of guys allegedly driven to such extreme lengths by a need to be admired and exalted by adoring followers, they didn’t paint very flattering portraits of themselves.

In fact, it appears that they did everything they could to deflect any and all attention away from themselves and to Jesus instead. The glory was his alone, they insisted, and the only distinction they could claim was as the bumbling, unworthy recipients of his grace, which was a distinction they all shared alike. Everything they said and did succeeded only in directing people to the person and teachings of Jesus—the Jesus they would have known was dead and gone if they were lying about his resurrection. So, maybe we could dismiss the original Christian movement as just another cult of personality… except the personality in question wasn’t even around to enjoy it, unlike every other cult that has ever emerged.

If exalting the name and reputation of Jesus was some indirect scheme to win attention and admiration for themselves, though, that scheme must have been a pretty tough sell for whoever came up with it in the days before their public debut. Let’s face it—on paper, Jesus wouldn’t have been a particularly flashy and appealing figure, much less a likely bearer of coattails bound for fame and fortune. If the apostles were willing to risk humiliation and death in the pursuit of fame and adulation, there were much more tried-and-true methods than the one under discussion. Armed rebellion against the Roman Empire would have been a much more assured path to glory than worshiping a peasant-class teacher who taught them to “turn the other cheek” before he was condemned as a common criminal. Jesus’ background and credentials didn’t make him the kind of figure to whom people generally rally, so if the apostles made it all up for personal glory, they picked an extremely high-risk plan with no guaranteed or realistic benefits. 

Also, if they just wanted a bunch of worshipers to control, then they probably would have at least tried to actually control them: they would have isolated and subdued them the way any self-respecting cult leader would. Instead, they enacted their alleged scheme by becoming itinerant preachers, which is precisely opposite of the methods employed by cult leaders. Instead of isolating people and controlling their access to information and outside influences, the apostles instead left their own comfort zones to meet people on their own turf, settled as foreigners for a few years to train and empower others to lead their local community of Christians, and then they left to do the same somewhere else while somebody else stayed behind to lead the group they’d just organized. It’s hard to cast them as narcissistic manipulators when they didn’t even stick around to enjoy the fruits of their supposed manipulations.

Whatever their motivation, then, it wasn’t for power or personal glory that they would have lied about the resurrection of Jesus.

A particularly glib, albeit common accusation is that they fabricated the story about the resurrection because they “just wanted something to believe in.” This is a frequent, almost kneejerk answer to the question under discussion. Some even offer up this explanation approvingly, as if it would be somehow admirable for the apostles to have made it all up for the purpose of “giving people faith,” even when they themselves knew none of it was true.

There are several reasons this couldn’t have been a motive, though.

First, their concept of faith wasn’t quite the pluralistic, postmodern notion we identity as “faith” today. They didn’t think blind faith—faith just for the sake of having faith, regardless of its object—was a virtue in itself like we do. However, they did attach some of the same baggage to it in that that many people in the ancient world—Jews and Romans alike—saw religious faith as a component of civic duty and cultural obligation: eating kosher and keeping the Sabbath, for instance, were as much social as religious obligations for Jews, and it was incumbent upon any good Roman or Greek to stay on the gods’ good side to keep natural disaster at bay and to prosper the community.  

In that regard, though, there simply was no religious vacuum to be filled. In fact, to spread their message, the apostles had to compete against the endless array of traditional gods to which people were already deeply committed throughout the Roman Empire. People didn’t “need something to believe in,” because the religious market was already overflowing with options for belief.

The apostles were Jews, though, of course, and so they had the religion of Moses and the prophets, and like any Jew at the time, they based much of their identity and sense of purpose in their ancestral religion. If they were driven by a need to retain their devotion to their departed rabbi within a Jewish framework, though, they could have simply cast Jesus in the role of a martyred prophet along the same lines as Joseph, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the others. They could have easily validated Jesus’ role as a spokesman for God that way without even having to exaggerate, much less concoct an extraordinary story about his resurrection and ascension after his death for the atonement of the sins of the world. In fact, if they’d done that instead of allegedly inventing a new theology and covenant around the story of the resurrection, they might well have mitigated some of their vulnerability to persecution and won a much wider following among their own people.  

Also, if they invented the story of the resurrection for the purpose of promoting their own and others’ faith in God, they would have defeated their own purposes by doing so. If the apostles conspired to deliberately lie about all that to perpetrate a hoax about God having dramatically intervened in the world when they knew full well that He actually didn’t, that would have amounted to a complete, unanimous, private rejection of the God of their ancestors.

People freely invent things about God only if they believe God is nothing but an invention; they only do that, in other words, if they don’t actually believe in God. They didn’t preach some vague, pious sentiment about Jesus, like “Yes, Virginia, Jesus is alive…” or Jesus is in a better place now” or “We feel that Jesus is still with us.” People say things like that all the time in the name of “faith” today, because we cling to religious doctrines on the basis of feelings, and it’s easy to lie to ourselves, or—to put it more diplomatically—it’s easy to suspend disbelief about such things, because they’re subjective, and it’s not really a “lie” when we think “God” is whatever our feelings tell us He should be.

The apostles’ message centered upon something much more concrete, much more vivid and explicit than that. Their message didn’t revolve around their subjective feelings about Jesus, but events that they claimed to have experienced objectively and empirically. They claimed to have collectively encountered Jesus after he rose from the dead: they saw him, spoke with him, touched his crucifixion wounds, ate with him, and they all heard him give them the same instructions, which they spent the rest of their lives carrying out. You can’t suspend disbelief about something like that, or convince yourself that you’re doing the will of God when you say He did those things when you know for a fact that He didn’t. To say He did things like that when He didn’t is to offer a fictitious God, which is an explicit rejection of God as a reality.

As the apostle Paul said: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead…” 

The apostles lived and died by their message that Jesus rose from the dead. The obvious question is “Why would someone do that if it was a lie?” After 2,000 years, I don’t know of any answer given yet to that question that fits with the known facts of the origins of the Church.

Means

Equally important to “Why would they…?” is the question of “How could they have lied?” If the first Christians were lying about having witnessed the risen Jesus Christ, could they have maintained the conspiracy for the remainder of their lives?

For the decades between their first public proclamation of the resurrection and their eventual deaths as martyrs to the cause of Christ, the apostles and other original disciples of Jesus consistently proclaimed the resurrection as the impetus and inspiration to lead lives of self-sacrificing integrity, holiness, and heroic moral quality:

“Surely you heard of (Christ) and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body… Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient… Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible.”

If the apostles were themselves lying about the resurrection, then they weren’t only lying about it, but about the moral quality to which they said it should impel all believers. Again—when people lie, they do it to manipulate and exploit their hearers, or to hide their own duplicity. If the apostles were lying about the resurrection, then they were doing it to get people—not only to be completely honest and morally upright in their own lives, but to reject and stand up against falsehood and dishonesty from others among them.

And, based on the testimony of even their enemies, they succeeded in setting that standard. Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, sent a letter (XCVII) to Emperor Trajan in the year 112 in which he discussed what policies he had enacted to curb the “contagious superstition” perpetuated by the followers of Jesus:

“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath—not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up…”

Pliny’s letter goes on to speak of the tortures he inflicted upon suspected Christians to get them to confess to what they were really up to, but found nothing unlawful or immoral for which he could charge them, so he asked the emperor for guidance on the extent to which he should actively seek to stamp out the new religion.

By spreading the news of the resurrection, the apostles created a network of communities throughout the Empire that would come to be renowned even among their enemies for their moral purity and absolute commitment to truth and honesty. 

Could they have done this consistently and convincingly if they themselves were lying, though? And even if they could somehow pull it off—again, why would they?

People who live lies like that, after all—such as the aforementioned cult leaders and two-faced religious leaders—tend to eventually get exposed and meet with some personal disaster or another. Stories get leaked to the media, and the double-dealing politician or preacher has his ignominious fall from grace through the usual routine of denials, story-modifications and qualifications, and then an eventual abject mea culpa before he

“Forgive me Lord, for I got caught…”

disappears from public view as he is stripped of leadership or carted off to jail. Or, the situation grows beyond the cult leader’s control and he’s either arrested for taking his power too far, he leads a mass-suicide, or he gets himself and all of his followers killed in an eschatological stand-off with the government.

The real question, then, is could the apostles have concocted the resurrection for selfish gain and still managed to maintain such a convincing charade for the remainder of their lives? Could the apostles have been motivated by greed, but still convinced their followers that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”? Could they have been driven by narcissism and a need for personal glory, yet convincingly preached that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”? Could they have done it to exploit people for sex (as cult leaders and corrupt preachers are wont to do), yet taught that “God will judge the sexually immoral”?

It goes without saying that they would have had to have modeled all of these teachings to be taken seriously in preaching them. Could they have done that convincingly, and in close, communal fellowship with their disciples, if they didn’t really believe those things themselves?

It’s pretty difficult to imagine a scenario in which all of the apostles and early followers of Jesus could have pulled all of this off without anyone ever getting a glimpse behind the curtain to unravel the whole scheme. We see news headlines every day in this country about religious leaders whose double lives are exposed, because it’s impossible to keep up such a deception indefinitely.

Is it conceivable that twelve men, among hundreds of others who also followed and testified about Jesus, could preach and seem to model such a lofty moral standard as we see in the early Church, but not really believe it themselves, and even secretly live in denial of it?

If they did, then they pulled something off that hasn’t been accomplished since, and they did it without using any of the tricks and mind-control techniques cult leaders typically use to brainwash their followers.

What’s more, the apostles’ claims about Jesus and his resurrection were hardly limited to their private, closed-door experiences: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Paul referenced more than five hundred people whom he said encountered the risen Christ. Notice that he did not say “more than five hundred of the brothers believe in the resurrection.” No—he said more than five hundred people saw the resurrected Jesus.

We might surmise that Paul just said that, perhaps, because he was bluffing and gambled that nobody would call him on it. He didn’t write that as an offer to get five hundred people to vouch for his story, though. He wrote that as an appeal to what his readers already knew—he was reminding them of what he’d already passed on to them previously, which they accepted, presumably on the collective testimony of those five hundred people. An occurrence witnessed by so many is a public event, after all, and a public event of that significance causes a big splash with far-reaching ripples. Those five hundred people weren’t sitting at home, waiting for Paul or the other apostles to call on them to corroborate their story. They were already talking about it, and the buzz had already been carried along trade routes and other avenues of news delivery to reach the people of Corinth, and that’s partly how Christianity grew from a small and eccentric sect of Judaism into a major world religion within a single generation of Jesus.  

How do you get hundreds of people to join you in a conspiracy of that magnitude, and without any kind of earthly enticement? After all, how could Paul and the other apostles have bribed or threatened so many to go along with them? What would the payoff have even been for the five hundred? And even if Paul could bribe or entice so many, would it have benefited him in any way if he had to part with such a fortune to do so? Even if he had the resources to somehow leverage so many people, what possible motivation could there have been to use those resources in such a manner? Wouldn’t it cost them far more than it could ever benefit them, if they’re recruiting hundreds of people as co-conspirators?

It strains credulity beyond the breaking point to think that the apostles had the means to successfully lie about the resurrection. We see what happens when one person—even an accomplished con man, attempts to live that kind of a double life indefinitely: he’s eventually exposed. The longer such a deception goes on, and the more people are involved, the more likely it is to fall apart. Yet, the apostles involved hundreds of people in their efforts, and maintained those efforts for the rest of their lives, and managed to maintain every appearance that they believed everything they were saying.  

Opportunity

The apostles didn’t just reference their allies and followers in their accounts of events. Along with claiming a very public audience for most of the events of the ministries of Jesus and themselves, the apostles also painted extremely unflattering portraits of various high-profile public figures, such as Pontius Pilate, the high priests Caiaphas and Annas, King Herod, governors Felix and Festus, King Agrippa and others. And other public figures, like Gamaliel, are mentioned as having been somewhat supportive of the apostles.

They claimed, for instance, that Pilate and the Jewish rulers all knew about the empty tomb, and that the Jewish leaders bribed the Roman guards to help them spread a phony cover story to account for it, and that this story was common knowledge at the time Matthew wrote his Gospel.

None of these were made up characters, but living, breathing, powerful public figures of the time who—like anyone else—would have been intensely interested in their own images and reputations. The New Testament writers wouldn’t have made such frequent mention of such well-known people—and often in an unfavorable light—if they had any credibility issues about which to be nervous, because these people and their associates were certainly capable of setting the record straight, had it been unfairly skewed.

If they were lying about the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus, or about him having performed miraculous feats in full view of the public and in full view of his enemies, it’s baffling that no one stood up to set the record straight, especially when they painted such unflattering portraits of so many high-profile public figures in the

“I know Bruce Lee is still alive because I spoke to him this morning…”

process. It would be like claiming today, for instance, that Bruce Lee isn’t really buried in Seattle, but that he miraculously rose from the grave shortly after his death in 1973. Not only that, but before his death, his superior kung fu skills enabled him to fly, bend steel with his bare hands, shoot fire from his eyes, and catch bullets in his teeth, andthat he did all this in full view of the public… right up until the Kennedys had him assassinated, that is!  

Today, four decades after his untimely death, Lee still has several disciples and countless admirers all over the world, many of whom might even enthusiastically embrace such tales. But those stories wouldn’t get very far before they’d be corrected and repudiated by those who actually knew and loved the real Bruce Lee, like his widow, daughter, and students, as well as by most of his admiring public who—while certainly impressed by his remarkable feats of athletic prowess, don’t recall him defying the laws of nature or proving to be an immortal wonder-worker. And, of course, the Kennedy family would probably use their considerable public platform to weigh-in on those stories, too.

Likewise, if the portrait we have of Jesus in the New Testament (and in the oral tradition it preserves) were a distortion or inflation of the real person, someone would have said something. If not his committed followers or his surviving family, any number of his powerful enemies would have set the record straight. But, his followers fearlessly proclaimed his resurrection from the dead, his family enthusiastically joined the cause, and his enemies kept silent and tried to pretend nothing of significance had happened.

It’s true that dishonesty and deception are par for the course in this world. It’s human nature. But, it’s also no less human nature to want to see liars and hypocrites exposed, especially those who most present themselves as being blameless and transparent. The apostles certainly had their enemies. There was no shortage of people who would have loved to see them exposed, if they were lying, and who would have relished the opportunity to point out any inconsistencies between their public personas and their private lives. Evidently, though, no such opportunity ever presented itself.

The Verdict

There was no conceivable motive for them to have lied about the resurrection that could even begin to outweigh the tremendous risk of persecution, poverty, and agonizing death they incurred by preaching about it.

To have consistently maintained such a deception would have demanded virtually superhuman means, considering the level of discipline and perseverance among dozens of leaders and hundreds of accomplices that would have been needed to pull off such a hoax—and that with no hope of earthly reward for their efforts.

Finally, the apostles eliminated any opportunity to misrepresent the circumstances surrounding the resurrection by making so many claims about events that were matters of public record involving powerful public figures.

If the apostles were to be put on trial for the crime of lying about the resurrection, and even if the presumption of the court were that they were guilty until proven innocent, it’s inconceivable that any jury of twelve reasonable people could consider the plain facts and find them guilty, because there is extraordinary evidence that they had neither motive nor means nor opportunity to lie about it.

The apostles gave every indication that they believed the things they taught and modeled, and that they were driven by their love for Jesus and their hope of being resurrected from the dead as he was. Whatever else we believe about God or Christianity, the facts themselves dictate that it was impossible that they were lying about what they claimed.

Living and Dying for a Straw Man…?

If they weren’t lying, then what? Could they have been mistaken somehow?  

There have been a handful of scenarios proposed along that premise but, in my view, they do more to strengthen the Christian position than undermine it.

Mass Hallucination

The scenario I hear most often, almost as another knee-jerk skeptical reaction, is the Mass-Hallucination Hypothesis:  

Out of their extreme grief and emotional distress over the crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples thought he appeared to them from beyond the grave, risen in glory, not having been abandoned by God after all. In their desperation to cope with the disaster of the sudden and shameful end of his rising stardom, Jesus’ disciples’ wounded psyches’ manufactured visions of his reanimated, crucified form to assure them that this was all part of the divine plan, and that they were to carry on his work.

Some variations of this hypothesis involve magic mushrooms or other mind-altering substances to make them susceptible to hallucination.

And this all sounds believable, if we’ve already made up our minds absolutely that there is no God, or that God does not or cannot intervene, and if we ignore the fact that it took the advanced chemical knowledge of the 20th-century to come up with a hallucinogen as potent as LSD (and even that doesn’t induce predictable or consistent effects from person to person). If we take any of those assumptions for granted, this might actually be the best explanation on the market.

Except, when was the last time five hundred people shared a hallucination? Or a dozen people? Or even two people? If a person sees or hears something that isn’t really there, it’s because his own mind manufactures the experience and fools his senses. Even if mind-altering substances affect everyone involved, they might all hallucinate, but they won’t have the same hallucination, because one person’s mind can’t manufacture a vision for someone else’s mind. Drug-induced or otherwise, hallucinations are strictly solitary experiences, and they are not contagious.

Even if there is precedent for shared hallucination, how detailed and specific was it? Could they touch the hallucination? Could they carry on a group conversation with it? Could they share a meal with it?

What’s more, would a hallucination give detailed instructions to follow for the rest of their lives, and at great personal cost, which they would consistently obey? Even if we accept the Mass-Hallucination Hypothesis as a possibility, could such an emotional response sustain itself among so many, and over the course of a lifetime? Wouldn’t the movement gradually slow down and taper off, instead of growing and increasing in momentum?

For hundreds, or dozens, or even a handful of people to share such a vivid, detailed, and identical “hallucination” and to have it set the course for the rest of their lives would be a miracle in itself, on par with the resurrection. Such a “hallucination” would more rightfully be called a “supernatural vision,” but that’s precisely the kind of miracle detractors are trying to deny. An extremely intense emotional trauma might explain such a scenario for one or maybe two impressionable people, but emotions like that do not sustain themselves over the period of a lifetime, and not among the hundreds who comprised the original Church.

Further, even if that were the case, the apostles’ delusion could have easily been put to rest by the Jewish or Roman authorities simply by producing the crucified corpse and saying, “See? Your messiah is still dead after all…”

Unless, of course, the body was missing, which it would have to have been if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Or, it would be missing if someone stole it. But, who would have cause to do so? The only people who would have any reason to steal the body would be the apostles, which would mean they weren’t delusional about Jesus rising from the dead, but dishonest. But, we’ve already eliminated that as a possibility.

Swoon Theory

Another attempted explanation is the Swoon Hypothesis. According to this scenario, when Jesus was taken down from the cross, he wasn’t really dead, just unconscious. Having been taken down from the cross and placed on the cool, stone slab inside the tomb, he revived, got up, left the tomb, and made his way to his disciples’ doorstep. Then they mistook his near-death resuscitation for a glorious, divine triumph over death.

Is this even worth refuting?

In the extremely unlikely event that he survived the flogging and crucifixion at the hands of professional Roman executioners, and then what would have been an indelicate removal from the cross (after being stabbed through the heart with a spear, if we accept the account in John’s Gospel), and in the even more unlikely event that, rather than dying later in the tomb, he woke up, somehow removed the massive stone from the tomb’s opening, snuck past or overpowered the guards, managed to make his way through the city and find his way to the disciples… could he then manage to convince them that he had conquered death and the Devil and could provide eternal life for all mankind? Wouldn’t they be more likely to pity him in this condition than worship him? And even if they did worship him initially, wouldn’t they rethink that after he passed out from blood loss or asked for medical attention and bed rest?

Twin Hypothesis

Another scenario even more absurd is the Twin Hypothesis. According to this scenario, it wasn’t Jesus who appeared to the disciples after the crucifixion, but his identical twin brother, who posed as Jesus to convince them of the resurrection. The sole basis for this bizarre fantasy is the fact that the apostle Thomas’ name means “twin.” So, some have proposed, if there was someone named “Twin” hanging around, it could have been none other than Jesus’ twin. 

Of course, if Thomas was Jesus’ twin, you would think the rest of the apostles would have had a few questions about the nativity story, as well as Jesus’ status as the “only begotten Son of God.”  If Jesus was believed to have been the Scion of David and the Son of God conceived by the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t Thomas have had equal claim to all that? If that were the case, wouldn’t he be just as good to have around? So why bother with a resurrection at all? And why would they think Thomas was Jesus if they were used to him hanging around in the first place?

There are probably more ideas out there for how the apostles could have honestly but mistakenly believed Jesus to have risen from the dead, but these are the most common I’ve encountered. To be honest, I feel a bit silly for having gone through the exercise of examining and refuting them, because they don’t really warrant the attention. It might look like I’m just setting up straw men to cut down, and, well… I am. Not by choice, mind you—it’s just that straw men are the only targets available for exploring this hypothesis.

There simply isn’t any reasonable way to imagine how any group of people could somehow be honestly mistaken about experiencing what the followers of Jesus said they experienced. Again—they not only claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, but to have seen him up close and spoken with him at length, shared meals with him, even touched his nail-scarred hands and the wound in his side. They were together when all of this happened, and when he gave them the instructions they followed for the rest of their lives.  

How do dozens, and in at least one instance, hundreds of people think they’re seeing a living, breathing, speaking and moving person when they’re really not? How do you think you’re having a conversation with someone who isn’t really there, when other people are also there, seeing the same person and having the same conversation?

What’s more, look at Christian culture of the past 2,000 years. There are fights and schisms and deadly conflicts among Christians all the time, and over matters as weighty as doctrine or church mission statements and as trivial as what kind of carpet to put in the sanctuary. Christians have slaughtered each other over the centuries because of these differences. Where there is religion, there are strong feelings, and where there are strong feelings, there are conflicts, and the stronger the feelings, the bloodier the conflicts.

And there were certainly heated arguments within the early Church over matters like circumcision and dietary laws and whether it’s kosher to eat with non-Jews. But, they were unanimous on several key points. In fact, it was only by agreeing on these key points that they had any framework within which to argue about the rest. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was the lynchpin for that framework, as were the final instructions Jesus gave to the disciples before he ascended, which was to bear witness to the world and to pass on his teachings until his return.

How could they have come to such unanimous agreement on something that didn’t even happen? How could they all be agreed on something about which they were all deluded and mistaken? How could they all be mistaken about such vivid experiences and such detailed instructions, must less agree about how to proceed?

Conclusion

Once again, applying the rules of logic, if we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth. Of all the options before us, which makes the most sense? Which best accounts for the known facts? Which requires the least leap of faith?

In summary, I have so far yet to hear any proposed scenario to explain how the disciples could have been mistaken about the resurrection which hasn’t actually strengthened my certainty about the Event, because none of them are easier to believe than that God really did raise Jesus from the dead. It is equally impossible to believe that the apostles were purposefully deceptive about it. The only explanation that accounts for all of the known facts is that when the apostles claimed to have seen and spoken with the resurrected Jesus, it was because they really did, literally and truly, experience God’s miraculous intervention in the world.

The central claim of Christianity is not a matter of personal, private conviction, religious socialization, or subjective feelings, but is a verifiable historical fact, and, of all the proposed explanations for the existence of the New Testament and the Church, it is by far the least fantastic.

When the actual facts about the origins of Christianity are considered, they line up with clear, mathematical certainty to point to a single objective and inescapable conclusion: Jesus rose from the dead and is therefore the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.

That’s not a statement of faith. It’s not a religious dogma. It’s not a superstition clung to because of circularly-reasoned childhood indoctrination. It is a knowable, proven, and immutable fact, and it is the central fact of human history.

Faith, however, is what we do with that fact. We can either put our trust in the One who raised Jesus from the dead, or we can go the other way by rejecting Him because we prefer instead to cling blindly to our faith in the false promises of our own appetites and culturally-conditioned preconceptions.

I realize, though, that the case presented here might not be instantly compelling for people disinclined to believe in God or in the possibility of miracles. Believe it or not, I share your disposition. Left to my own inclinations, none of it sounds particularly likely to me either.

But, the facts are the facts, and they don’t care what our expectations were before we found them.

If you’re not convinced, though—mull it over. Or, better yet, try to prove me wrong.

If you do, what will happen is that the more you stare at this and consider it from every possible angle—to prove either that they were lying, mistaken, or that they didn’t claim to witness the resurrection at all—the less you’ll be able to resist believing, and the more clearly you’ll see that it’s the truth. It’ll sink in that this can’t not be true, and you’ll wake up one day with the realization that God is real, and that He actually loves humanity so much that He would reveal Himself this way, and sacrifice His Son to give us eternal life…

It would be better, though, to come to that realization without the “kicking and screaming”-part, so here’s another crazy idea—pray about it. Ask Him to show you the truth. That’s what I did, and then I learned that a God who can raise the dead can easily change my inclinations…   

(Note to reader: In previous entries, I’d mentioned my plan to examine Islam alongside Christianity, asking the same questions and applying the same standards of evidence. I’m still doing that, but out of organizational concerns and consideration for your patience, I decided to do it as a separate entry. That’s coming up next. Stay tuned. And hopefully I won’t have a fatwa on my head afterward. If I do, though, I’m going to brag about it incessantly, and I’ll probably even get t-shirts made…)


[1] I’m just a layman and not a scholar, so take this with a grain of salt, but I don’t personally believe John the apostle directly wrote the Gospel bearing his name. He was certainly the source of its content, having committed his recollections to writing in some earlier form, but I suspect it was a disciple who was a native Greek-speaker and an adept in Platonic philosophy who, under John’s supervision, arranged them in the form we now have. The Book of Revelation is also attributed to John, and was written in somewhat crudely-rendered Greek—which is exactly what we might expect from a blue-collar native Aramaic-speaker exiled on an island whose original vocation was fishing. In contrast, the Greek of the Gospel is highly refined, and contains highly-developed Greek philosophical ideas seamlessly interwoven with Hebraic religious concepts. The two books also have in common, along with John’s first epistle, their use of the Platonic technical term “Logos” or “Word” in reference to Jesus, which is found in no other book of the New Testament. To me, this suggests a common source for the three books, while their differences in style and writing quality suggest different direct authorship. None of this makes it any less John’s Gospel, though, or any less credible as authentic memories of Jesus.

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The Foundation, part 5.2: The Forgotten Jesus…?

(Continued from Defending the Lynchpin and The Telephone Game)

There are still those who might acknowledge the complete reliability of extant copies of the New Testament in representing the originals, but still dispute the reliability of the originals in recording what was actually taught by Jesus and the apostles, and therefore also dispute that “Jesus has risen from the dead” was the original message of his first followers.

The assertion is that most of the New Testament was written long after the lifetimes of the apostles, and so its component documents are not reliable eyewitness accounts of the ministry and teachings of Jesus.

The folks at the “Jesus Seminar”are, once again, a handy example of this thinking:

“Jesus’ followers did not grasp the subtleties of his position… the gospel writers overlaid the tradition of sayings and parables with their own ‘memories’ of Jesus. They constructed their memories out of common lore, drawn in large part from the Greek Bible (I assume they mean the Septuagint), the message of John the Baptist, and their own emerging convictions about Jesus as the expected messiah—the Anointed. The Jesus of the gospels is an imaginative theological construct, into which has been woven traces of that enigmatic sage from Nazareth—traces that cry out for recognition and liberation from the firm grip of those whose faith overpowered their memories. The search for the authentic words of Jesus is a search for the forgotten Jesus.” (pg. 4 of the introduction to The Five Gospels; emphasized text added)

According to them, the “real” Jesus was forgotten by the early Christians, but today—two millennia later—modern liberal scholars have a much better vantage point than they from which to “grasp the subtleties of his position.”

“They just didn’t get him like we do,” they say, and without the barest hint of irony. That superior vantage point, of course, comes from not having their academic powers “overpowered by faith” as the early Christians were in their memories of Jesus.

We know today, they say, what they didn’t know in the ancient world, which is that the real Jesus of history could not have been the person described in the New Testament, for the most part, because such a Person could not exist. The “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith,” then, are two distinct persons—one real and historical, the other a fictional, legendary figure projected upon and mistaken for the real person.

The historical Jesus must nonetheless have been an extraordinary ethical and religious teacher and example to have inspired the movement and the legends that grew up in his name, but there was nothing supernatural about him, they insist. Rather, the writers of the New Testament compiled legends and exaggerations which had developed around Jesus and wrote them as actual accounts of his life, the argument goes. So, when we read about miraculous feats performed by Jesus—those were legends, or metaphors at best for “what Jesus meant to them,” which had grown out of popular folklore. When we read about events in the life of Jesus that fit perfectly with specific messianic predictions by the prophets centuries earlier—those didn’t actually happen that way, but were tall tales and fish stories, so to speak, projected upon him by later generations of followers. Furthermore, when we read about Jesus actually claiming to be the One foretold by the prophets—because such a claim would be completely out of character for such an unprecedented ethical genius, those must also have been projected upon him by later generations.

Of course, for this revisionist narrative to be true, much of the New Testament had to have been written much later than sooner. Legends such as those recorded therein take time to develop, and were less likely to do so in competition with actual firsthand memories of Jesus. So, the four Gospels must have been composed sometime long after Jesus’ life and ministry, after all or most of his original followers had passed.

The work of scholars in recovering the “historical Jesus,” then, consists of stripping away those “later layers of tradition”—those reflecting a “high Christology,” that is, along with other telltale qualities, in order to unearth the “authentic memories” of Jesus buried underneath. The more supernatural or messianic the saying or deed, the more likely it is to be deemed the product of a later development of tradition, so by process of elimination, they whittle the Gospel accounts down to find the actual history embedded therein.

“Eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him, according to the Jesus Seminar.” The Five Gospels (pg. 5)

So when I say that it’s “an undisputable historical fact” that the apostles claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead, a common objection is that the consensus among scholars precludes the reliability of the Gospels in establishing that fact, on account of their supposedly late composition and legendary character. Conventional skeptical wisdom has it that traditional Christianity has been “disproven” by the “assured results of modern biblical criticism,” so the claim that “Jesus has risen from the dead” can’t be offered as the first Christians’ original message, nor as an historical fact to be accounted for, since it’s been debunked by modern scholarship.

Except, traditional Christianity has hardly been “disproven” by “the assured results of critical scholarship.” Those results are most certainly assured, but only because they’re not actually the results of their scholarship. They’re the starting point. The game was rigged from the start.

“The question of the historical Jesus was stimulated by the prospect of viewing Jesus through the new lens of historical reason and research rather than through the perspective of theology and traditional creedal formulations,” reads The Five Gospels introduction (pg. 2).

Anybody who’s read my earlier entries knows that I’m all for people dumping their theological agendas so they can see what the biblical writers were really saying. But that’s a far cry from what the “Jesus Seminar” and others like them are doing, contrary to what they claim. They’re not “viewing Jesus (apart from) the perspective of theology” at all. They’re just viewing him through a different theological perspective than the traditional one. Their scholarly work is not undertaken to determine whether traditional Christian theology is true. As far as they’re concerned, it’s already a foregone conclusion that it can’t be true, but that’s not because they’re such courageous freethinkers and honest, objective students of truth and history. It’s because they’re already committed to another theological perspective.

And whatever anybody claims, everyone has a theological perspective of some kind. It might not be traditional western theism—it might be polytheism, pantheism, or some combination thereof, or it might be strong or weak agnosticism, or it might be the all-but-certain atheism of Richard Dawkins or the absolutely certain atheism of the late Christopher Hitchens. But everybody has some kind of theology; whether they’ve thought it out to define it or if it’s been passively absorbed through an array of culturally-ingrained assumptions, everybody has some kind of view on God.

The theology I’ve observed to be most common to liberal scholarship is a combination of vague deism and impersonal pantheism, which works itself out as a functional atheism: “We’re on our own down here, but ‘God’ is a nice idea to invoke for PMA toward social justice and self-improvement.” Many within the “Jesus” Seminar and other bastions of liberalism might speak of “God,” and even use Christian terminology so as to avoid scandalizing believers as they speak with scholarly authority on matters of Church history and Christian tradition, but the “God” in view is not the God of traditional Christianity or Judaism. For them, “God” is simply the natural order along with human conscience, and nothing more. Such a “God,” of course, does not and cannot intervene in human affairs, nor can it have any kind of revealed message to humanity, and so such a “God” precludes the possibility of supernatural prophecy and miracles and other elements comprising the biblical narrative.

So, what are they to make of the Bible, then, with its accounts of a God who speaks to humanity through prophets and messiahs? If their theology is true, the Bible can’t also be true… at least, not in the sense commonly understood.

They tacitly acknowledge the terms I’ve put forth regarding the apostles’ claim about the resurrection and its implications: if they said it happened, they had to have been either lying, mistaken, or telling the truth. Based on observations I’ll address in my next entry, they can’t have been deliberately lying and there’s no plausible scenario by which they could have been honestly mistaken, either. But, modern liberal theology precludes the possibility that they could have been telling the truth—a God who could or would literally raise someone bodily from the grave simply does not exist.

So, they have to invent a fourth option to fit their theology, which they do by reinterpreting the meaning and the origins of the Bible. In so doing, they create a new narrative about a progressive development of legendary tradition having been layered over early memories of the historical Jesus to create the “Christ of faith.” Unsurprisingly, the “Jesus of history” they “discover” beneath those layers of tradition then perfectly embodies the theology with which they began, and is then invoked to “disprove” and “correct” the “outdated” theology of traditional Christian faith.

The literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus, then, was not a claim made by the apostles, they argue, but a legend, or a metaphor to express the meaning of Jesus and his teachings, which was never intended to be taken as a literal-factual account of history.

There are a great many compelling reasons to reject that narrative, though, and not just because it happens to conflict with our own theological agenda. Remember—if Christianity really is true, we should be able to check our theological preconceptions at the door and let it speak for itself to tell us that. So, we shouldn’t have to assume from the outset that the scriptures are divinely inspired to arrive at that conclusion. We should be able to evaluate them by the same standards we would any other writings and artifacts of human history, and then discover that they’re divinely inspired without rigging the game or stacking the deck to ensure that outcome.

So, on those terms, even if we were to accept the “conclusions” of modern liberal scholarship about the late date of composition and legendary character of the Gospels, there is still ample other evidence to establish the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus as the original message of the apostles, which I intend to address shortly.

Except, there’s no good reason to accept those conclusions.

Clearly, the “Christ of Faith/Developing Tradition”-narrative is based entirely on circular reasoning grounded in a dubious theological assumption. It’s nothing but a faith-based tautology wrapped in argumentum verbosium: it’s the nonbeliever equivalent of “the Bible’s true because the Bible tells me so,” but expressed through a labyrinth of rhetorical complexity with a veneer of academic credibility created by enough obscure scholarly jargon to intimidate outsiders into thinking they’re talking about something more than just their own preconceptions. They offer “the assured results of higher criticism” as conclusions to validate their theology, but their theology was the very premise with which they began. They never derived that theology from any objective, unbiased scholarship; it’s what drove their scholarship from the get-go. They’re doing the same thing they sneer at fundamentalists for doing when they hide behind their superstitious fideism.

The circularity of their reasoning should be obvious enough, but it’s widely accepted nonetheless because their biases are shared by so many. Naturally, even though they work

“Science can tell us HOW this urine sample got here, but can it speak to WHY it’s here…?”

under the occupational title of “theologian,” they don’t think of their shared outlook as a distinctive “theology”; they just take it for granted that their outlook is plainly and unassailably “how the world is,” so they acknowledge no burden of evidence to establish their starting premise. They share a widespread sense that modern science and the Age of Enlightenment have rendered belief in the God of traditional Christianity obsolete. Even a great many regular churchgoers silently harbor this proclivity, and so they hide from science and biblical criticism alike for fear of being disabused of their cherished beliefs.

Contrary to what we’re told by the spirit of the age, though, if liberal biblical scholars do know with any certainty that such a God does not exist, then they somehow know something physicists, biologists, neurologists, astronomers, and scientists in every other field don’t know. It boggles the mind, really, how much they don’t actually know… at least, not on scientific grounds.

As my case in point, consider the Turing Test.

This will seem, at first, like an irrelevant tangent, but trust me for a few paragraphs—it’s relevant.

The test was created by British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing as a way to determine whether machines could think. He modeled the test after an old party game called the “Imitation Game.” In the game, a man and a woman each go into separate rooms, and players ask them questions, and the man and woman then type their answers and send them back to the players to read. The object is to try to tell them apart only by the answers they give. The players can’t see or hear the man and woman, and so they can’t distinguish them by voice, appearance, or handwriting, but have only the typewritten answers to go by.

The Turing Test is identical, except instead of a man and woman, it’s a human being and a computer, and the machine passes as “intelligent” if the judges cannot reliably tell the difference between the human and the machine. If it can carry on a conversation in a manner indistinguishable from a human being, it’s considered to be conscious, according to the test.

In the paper in which he proposed the test, Turing wanted to consider the question of whether machines could ever really think. Except, because the terms “thought” and “consciousness” lack precise, universally-accepted definitions, he had to change the

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that…”

question from Do machines think? to Can machines do what we, as entities that think, can do?

Turing readily acknowledged the limitations of the test. He wrote: “I do not wish to give the impression that I think there is no mystery about consciousness. There is, for instance, something of a paradox connected with any attempt to localize it. But I do not think these mysteries necessarily need to be solved before we can answer the question with which we are concerned in this paper.”

Those mysteries don’t need to be solved in order to accept his test, he argued, because they’re not solved as a requisite of acceptance of consciousness in one another, because we have no way of knowing (in non-subjective, scientific terms) that any individual other than ourselves experiences emotions as we ourselves do. We all experience ourselves to be conscious, and because others have brains and bodies and senses like ours, and respond to stimuli as we do, we assume them to be conscious just as we are, but if we didn’t already have that internal experience of being conscious, we’d have no reason to distinguish other human beings from programmed, lifeless automata. 

Turing published his paper more than 60 years ago, but advances in neuroscience and computer science in the decades since have done nothing to resolve this limitation. Ironically, the dilemma is expressed beautifully in the words of anti-religious author and neuroscientist Sam Harris. I hope you’ll forgive me the length of this quote, but it’s extremely worthwhile. In his 2005 book, The End of Faith, Harris wrote:

“While there is much to be said against a naïve conception of a soul that is independent of the brain, the place of consciousness in the natural world is very much an open question. The idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present, and there are many reasons to believe that the methods of science will be insufficient to either prove or disprove it.

“Inevitably, scientists treat consciousness as a mere attribute of certain large-brained animals. The problem, however, is that nothing about a brain, when surveyed as a physical system, declares it to be a bearer of that peculiar, interior dimension that each of us experiences as consciousness in his own case. Every paradigm that attempts to shed light upon the frontier between consciousness and unconsciousness, searching for the physical difference that makes the phenomenal one, relies upon subjective reports to signal that an experimental stimulus has been observed. The operational definition of consciousness, therefore, is reportability. But consciousness and reportability are not the same. Is a starfish conscious? No science that conflates consciousness with reportability will deliver an answer to this question. To look for consciousness in the world on the basis of its outward signs is all we can do. To define consciousness in terms of its outward signs, however, is a fallacy. Computers of the future, sufficiently advanced to pass the Turing test, will offer up a wealth of self-report—but will they be conscious? If we don’t already know, their eloquence on the matter will not decide the issue. Consciousness may be a far more rudimentary phenomenon than are living creatures and their brains. And there appears to be no way of ruling out such a thesis experimentally.

“And so, while we know many things about ourselves in anatomical, physiological, and evolutionary terms, we currently have no idea why it is ‘like something’ to be what we are. The fact that the universe is illuminated where you stand, the fact that your thoughts and moods and sensations have a qualitative character, is an absolute mystery—rivaled only by the mystery, famously articulated by the philosopher Schelling, that there should be anything at all in this universe rather than nothing. The problem is that our experience of brains, as objects in the world, leaves us perfectly insensible to the reality of consciousness, while our experience as brains, grants us knowledge of nothing else. Given this situation, it is reasonable to conclude that the domain of our subjectivity constitutes a proper (and essential) sphere of investigation into the nature of the universe: as some facts will be discovered only in consciousness, in first person terms, or not discovered at all. (pgs. 208,209; from chapter 7: Experiments in Consciousness; emphasized text is original to publication.)

In short, we don’t know in objective scientific terms what the hell “consciousness” even is. We only know about it because we are conscious. Even with ourselves—our brains—as a template, we can’t reverse-engineer consciousness, and we don’t even know how to identify it in scientific terms when we know where to look.

The only way to know if consciousness is present outside of our own experience as consciousness is if someone or something declares him/her/itself to be conscious, and then we can ultimately only take the supposed consciousness’s word for it. Hence the subjectivity inherent to the Turing Test.

And I want to reiterate that Sam Harris is an atheist. Not only is he an atheist, but he’s made a successful and celebrated career out his atheism alongside his study of neuroscience. Again, the volume quoted above is entitled The End of Faith, yet in the very book in which he calls for an end of faith, he makes a point to explain that the central, defining quality of our existence—our experience as consciousness and its phenomenological relationship to our brain is, in his very own words, “little more than an article of faith” itself.

I don’t bring this up just to point out the curious inconsistency in this brilliant atheist’s outlook. I mention it, along with the Turing test, because its object is the same as our attempt to determine, in scientific terms, whether God exists. Both have the same object of investigation: a consciousness that exists apart from the human brain. And they’re beset by the same problem: We don’t know what, exactly, we’re looking for.

The operational definition of consciousness is reportability, Harris explained. So, if God exists, the only possible way we could know about it is if God reported Himself to exist. That, of course, is precisely what Christianity claims Jesus to be: God’s Self-report.

Modern liberal scholarship rejects the notion that there could be any such Self-report from God, though, so Jesus’ identity as such is rejected as a foregone conclusion, and he is reinterpreted to be anything and everything but that Self-report, and then that reinterpretation is held out as a rebuttal to the traditional understanding of Jesus as God’s literal, supernatural revelation of Himself.

But how do they know that? If you ask them, they’ll point to the collective worldview shaped by 20th/21st-century science to justify their biases. But, according to an atheist neurologist, no less, scientists can’t find definitive proof of consciousness where consciousness is already known for a fact to exist. How, then, could science definitively answer the question of God’s existence? And how could they rule out the possibility of God’s existence with any confidence, especially when—on strictly objective, physical, scientific terms, we can’t even prove the existence of our own consciousness?

Even so, modern physicists and astronomers have a discovered a great deal about the universe that could be taken—not to conclusively prove, but to indicate a cosmic Designer. They don’t collectively conclude, of course, that such a Designer exists, yet the phrase “apparent design” shows up in much of their literature.

The popular view among many physicists, though, is that design is a quality we tend to project upon the universe as a consequence of our collective religious bias: the universe is a sort of Rorschach inkblot test, and because of our collective cultural bias, we tend to read

“How can you say it looks like Intelligent Design? I think it looks more like a butterfly…”

patterns of “God” into the universe when He isn’t really there (this is the premise of Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion).

From where we stand (by the subjective appearance of the cosmic Rorschach test, that is), our existence is so astronomically unlikely because so many random, seemingly unrelated cosmic factors had to line up so perfectly and precariously—from the initial rate of expansion after the Big Bang to the relationship of the strong and weak nuclear forces to the size and composition of our moon, etc., ad infinitum—that it’s so statistically improbable as to be practically impossible for intelligent life to have come about.

“Physicists have calculated that, if the laws and constants of physics had been even slightly different, the universe would have developed in such a way that life would have been impossible. Different physicists put it in different ways, but the conclusion is always the same… Each (fundamental constant) is finely tuned in the sense that, if it were slightly different, the universe would be comprehensively different and presumably unfriendly to life,” wrote Dawkins (pg. 141, 2).

Yet, here we are.

It’s an apparent miracle for life to exist at all—much more for intelligent life like us to exist. But the basic assumption—if not of science, but of most scientists, at least—is that “miracles” just don’t happen. The universe is a closed system and nothing from beyond it or above it can intervene, and if a reported phenomenon isn’t part of an observable, uniform, and predictable pattern, it absolutely cannot exist, and so if something can’t be demonstrated in verifiable and repeatable scientific terms, belief in it just isn’t valid (consciousness notwithstanding).

Yet, here we are—living, intelligent, and conscious.

Physicists have answered this monumental head-scratcher with an idea known as the anthropic principle. Simply put, it states that our accounting of the odds is just wrong. Our math tells us that the odds are long against us, but our math must be wrong, because long-shots don’t score goals, and here we are. The anthropic principle asserts that even though it looks like we live in the kind of universe in which we shouldn’t exist, since we’re obviously here, we must—despite all appearances to the contrary—live in the kind of universe in which intelligent life must inevitably emerge. So, there must be a better, more accurate way of understanding the universe—one that raises the odds of our existence from the astronomically unlikely to the statistically inevitable, and that without resorting to appeals to divine intervention. We shouldn’t be here, according to the cosmic pattern we can see, so there must be a larger pattern to consider which includes the pattern in view.

The anthropic principle in these basic, open-ended terms is known formally as the “weak anthropic principle” (WAP), but there are other forms of it that develop the concept more by hypothesizing positive models for the universe along those parameters. They are the strong anthropic principle, the participatory anthropic principle, and the final anthropic principle (this one’s really scary, but I can’t get into it just yet…).

I don’t want to get too much farther into this by explaining each one (and I’m doubtful that I’m qualified to do so anyway…), with the exception of the strong anthropic principle (SAP), because it will help to illuminate our main subject of discussion (which I promise to return to momentarily).

The SAP hypothesizes the existence of parallel universes alongside our own. It speculates that for every fork in the road of the space/time continuum, the universe sort of “bubbles” into another universe to accommodate both alternatives: if a particle is zipping this way and forces act upon it so that it can either zig this way or zag that way, the universe actually splits into two, like a cell in mitosis, to allow for both outcomes. So, there are universes in which the Nazis won and we’re all fair-skinned, blond-haired Hitler-loving German-speakers, there are universes in

“This could TOTALLY happen,” leading scientists say.

which the dinosaurs survived and evolved intelligence and are now colonizing the Milky Way, and still vast numbers of other universes in which life never came about, and we just happen to live in one of the relative few in which it did.

The rational motivation behind all this far-reaching speculation of the SAP is to raise the odds of our existence by hypothesizing a potentially infinite multiverse in which everything that can possibly happen does inevitably happen, with the goal of rendering the fact of our existence to be unremarkable and scientifically and statistically predictable.

So, when you’re watching those documentary shows on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel and they show those physicists talking—completely seriously, matter-of-factly, and with a straight face about the possible existence of parallel universes… this is

In the universe next door, everyone has an evil twin with a goatee. True story. It’s science, folks. Has to be true.

how they reasoned that out. The “apparent design” of the universe and the resultant WAP and SAP are the logical path they followed to reach that hypothesis. God is unlikely to exist, many believe, but Evil Spock and space-faring dinosaurs are inevitabilities…

All this talk about physics and the multiverse and artificial intelligence might seem like a bit of a tangent in my treatment of New Testament scholarship, but this is the broader context in which those scholars do their work. I don’t know (but I’m doubtful) that Robert Funk and Marcus Borg and the rest are thinking specifically about alternate universes and all that they imply when they craft their revisionist histories of early Christianity, but they appear to take the general consensus of physicists and other scientists for granted (or the popular sense of what that consensus is) in their attempts to reinterpret the “outdated” concepts of traditional Christianity to conform it to the findings of the modern world.

They make a series of philosophical and theological assumptions on the seeming basis of modern science, except they presume a level of certainty about those assumptions that the scientists themselves could never honestly make. The popular zeitgeist takes it for granted that physicists probably know what they’re talking about and so they have good reason to speculate the existence of parallel universes and other dimensions of existence, yet the modern secularist is likely to laugh when conservative Christians speak of those other dimensions in more traditional terms like “heaven” or “hell.”

But, scientists don’t really know any better than we do what happened prior to, or what actually caused the Big Bang. They don’t know what lies beyond the boundaries of this universe, or if the term “boundary” even applies. They don’t know why there’s something rather than nothing, and though speculation abounds, they’ll readily admit that they don’t quite know how something as unlikely as life first arose in the universe. They don’t know what “consciousness” even really is, much less that they can exclude the possibility that a Supreme Consciousness could be responsible for us being here. In scientific terms, all of these are completely open questions, and nobody has any expertise by which to answer them with any decisive authority.

That isn’t to say, though, that because we have more gaps than knowledge, then God must necessarily fill those gaps. But considerations of ultimate origin and purpose and transcendent meaning are open questions outside the purview of science, which original, traditional Christianity purports to answer.

Popular misconception has it that modern biblical scholarship has weighed the proposed answer and found it lacking. But that isn’t true at all. Instead, they’ve side-stepped these questions entirely and offered a series of revisionist histories of early Christianity to conform “the historical Jesus” to the answers they assume from the start—answers that preclude the “Christ of faith” from the outset.

They reject the Bible as “primitive” and “outdated,” and so dismiss it as having any ultimate relevance to the question at hand, but that rejection arises more from snobbery than any actual scholarship, as their reasons for rejecting it don’t hold up to any scrutiny.

“When the Bible was written, people did not understand what we understand today,” retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong said to me a few years ago.

Spong is a prolific author and advocate of liberal or “progressive” theology, and he wrote one of the back-cover endorsements of the aforementioned The Five Gospels. I interviewed him several years ago for a two-part series of articles I wrote about the growing influence of “progressive” theology on local and national Christian practice and social issues (to be honest, they weren’t very well written, I have to admit—in the interest of staying “objective” I had to lay out all the “dots” of the issue at hand without necessarily connecting them for the reader, and the result was a somewhat verbose and convoluted product… if you can actually believe I’d be verbose and convoluted).

Spong elaborated on his remark by explaining that in biblical times, people believed in a three-tiered universe with God in heaven above, hell beneath, and a flat earth in the middle, which is why the New Testament speaks of Jesus “ascending into heaven.”

“They didn’t know what we know about the universe,” he said, adding, “As Carl Sagan once said to me: if Jesus were traveling at the speed of light, he hasn’t even escaped our galaxy yet.”

Also, Spong said they “didn’t know anything about germs or viruses, and they didn’t know anything about reproduction,” in reference to the virgin birth and to biblical writers’ attribution of disease to supernatural forces.

His dismissal of the Ascension, of course, comes simply from his rejection of the supernatural, not from his more modern and enlightened view of the universe. The biblical writers clearly understood that Jesus’ ascension had more to do with an ascension in status—with us along with him, than with a change in physical location.

Also, Paul evidently understood the ascension to be dimensional rather than spatial: his ascension was not to “the highest elevation in the universe,” but “to fill the whole universe.”

If we don’t automatically reject the possibility of God’s existence and intervention outright, though, is it that much of a stretch to think that He might communicate that ascension in terms of their existing understanding of the universe?

Once again, though—how was their understanding of a three-tiered universe so much different than present-day speculations about parallel universes and other dimensions? Why is it that we so confidently reject the one but accept the other?

And no—they didn’t know about cellular biology or about germ theory, but they knew enough about reproduction that Mary had some explaining to do when Joseph found out she was pregnant… in other words, ancient people weren’t any more inclined to accept claims of virgin births at face-value than we are.

Also, they didn’t know about microscopic germs, but the Philistines (and presumably other ancient people) evidently knew enough to associate rats with disease, even when they ultimately attributed supernatural causes to the plague that had broken out among them.

Further, if we take the Bible on its own terms, there is actually far, far more within it that could be understood to anticipate the findings of modern science than to contradict them (something I look forward to covering more completely in a future entry).

Now that the physics and philosophy are out of the way…

Apart from an anti-supernatural theological bias, liberal scholars have no other reason for believing in a late composition of the Gospels—save one.

In scholarly discussions about New Testament dating, the year 70 AD is the universal line of demarcation, because that was when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.

Before we fully explore the significance of that date and event, though, a little background is in order. For those who might be unfamiliar with the general consensus of modern biblical higher criticism: scholars generally hold that Mark was the first of the three Synoptic Gospels written, and Matthew and Luke were composed later. This is partially because Mark is shorter and has what scholars deem to be a “less developed Christology” than the others, and so it’s believed to represent a more primitive tradition. Also, Matthew and Luke have material in common which is identical to the content of Mark, but they also have other material in common not found in Mark, which scholars believe came from at least one other source which has been lost to antiquity, referred to in academic circles as “Q,” so Mark and Q must have been written earlier than Matthew and Luke, they reason. This is known as the Two-Source hypothesis.

The earliest historical source to speak to the question of the Gospels’ order of composition, however, places Matthew first, followed in turn by Mark, Luke, and John. This was The History of the Church by Eusebius of Caesarea (mentioned also in my previous entry as Emperor Constantine’s biographer), which I highly recommend to every Christian who hasn’t read it. (The relevant portion is found in Book III, Chapter 24.)

Eusebius wrote in the early 4th century, though, so he wasn’t exactly a contemporary of the Gospel writers. However, even though his History is centuries removed from the time in question (and it isn’t without its other shortcomings), Eusebius had a wealth of information no longer available to us as his source material, which he quotes almost verbatim through much of his work. He had well known theological and political biases (he was known to favor the teachings of Arius, who was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Nicaea, over the teachings of Athanasius, who was the principal champion of orthodox Trinitarian theology… so it isn’t quite true the “the victors write the history”). There wasn’t any conceivable agenda he could have served by purposefully misrepresenting the order of the Gospels, though, and no reason to believe he did anything but pass along what he himself read from earlier sources when he wrote his account of the order of their composition. So to my best knowledge, there is no compelling reason to dismiss him outright on that point, other than to accommodate present-day biblical scholarship.

My position doesn’t really depend on Matthew having been written first, though, and I don’t know of any compelling reason to reject the Two-source hypothesis. So, for the sake of argument, I’m happy to concede to conventional scholarly wisdom on this point (although the Two-Source hypothesis isn’t without its critics and competing hypotheses within the world of biblical scholarship).

Along with the order of priority set forth in the Two-Source hypothesis, scholars also agree that the book of Acts was written after the three Synoptics and by the same author as Luke, as a sequel to that Gospel.

To summarize: the general consensus is that Mark and Q came first, then Matthew and Luke, and then Acts.

They say the earliest Mark could have been written was sometime after the year 70, since all three Gospels report that Jesus foretold the destruction of the temple: “As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ Jesus replied, ‘Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’”

Because that’s precisely what actually happened at the hands of the Romans in the year 70, and because it should be beyond obvious that supernatural predictive prophecy just doesn’t happen(so they reason), then this plainly must have been written after the fact.

“Doesn’t the reasoning behind that dating depend on knowing already that Jesus wasn’t a prophet, and so could not have foreseen the future?” I asked Spong in the aforementioned interview.

“Of course,” he answered.

Instead of an authentic, supernatural, prophetic prediction by the Son of God forty years earlier, it was merely a fabricated post-diction projected back into the mouth of Rabbi Jesus to bolster his legend as a prophet, according to the “assured results of higher criticism.”

And there you have it. That, coupled with their assumptions of a purely man-made Christianity, is the sole piece of evidence they have for dating the Synoptics after the year 70. Mark must have been written in or after the year 70, and then Matthew and Luke, since they were dependent on Mark for their content, and finally, the book of Acts was written still later after that. They generally conclude, therefore, that the three Synoptics and Acts were completed sometime between the early to mid-70s and the end of the 1st century.

Except, there are a couple of pretty serious problems with that line of reasoning.

The first is the ending of the book of Acts. The final passage depicts the apostle Paul imprisoned in Rome, which would have been sometime in the early 60s (probably in the year 60, but no later than 62).

In the interview for the aforementioned article, I asked Spong: If the three Synoptics were written after the year 70, and Acts was written even later as a sequel to the last of the Synoptics, then why did Acts conclude with an event that occurred, at the absolute latest, in the year 62 AD? Why would the author of Acts neglect to mention such pivotal moments in Christian history as the martyrdom of both Paul and Peter in Rome during Emperor Nero’s vicious persecution?  Why wouldn’t he mention the Neronian persecution at all, nor the Great Fire of Rome which preceded it, for which Christians were blamed? Why wouldn’t he mention the earth-shattering Jewish Revolt against the Romans? Lastly, why wouldn’t he also mention the fate of the Church in Jerusalem and the destruction of the city and the temple? When so much happened in those eight-to-ten years between Paul’s imprisonment and the year 70, why would he simply end it with Paul under house arrest in Rome?

Isn’t the most logical explanation that these events simply had not yet happened at the time Acts was completed and circulated?

“I don’t think that’s a very strong argument. Only a fundamentalist would argue for an early dating of Acts,” Spong answered.  He went on to explain that Paul’s imprisonment in Rome was a fitting ending because his goal of bringing the gospel to Rome was the main theme of Acts.

Of course, anyone who’s ever read the book of Acts can make up their own mind about how much weight to give Spong’s explanation, but I don’t think it holds any water for people who have, unless they’re just terrified of being called “fundamentalists.” Yes—Paul getting to Rome was certainly a theme of Acts… but not until 23 chapters into the 28-chapter narrative: it reports Paul’s vision during his imprisonment in Jerusalem in which Jesus appeared and told him his incarceration would eventually take him to the imperial capital. In the preceding material comprising the first 22 chapters of Acts—more than 80 percent of the content of the book—there isn’t even a single mention of any specific intention by Paul to go to Rome. For the majority of the time covered in Acts, getting to Rome was no more significant to Paul’s mission than preaching in Ephesus, Athens, Antioch, or any other major city.

And there were other themes in Acts that overshadowed Paul’s trip to Rome by leaps and bounds—those being martyrdom and persecution, the fulfillment of prophecy, tensions between Christians and Jews, among others—not least of which was the newly-accomplished obsolescence of the temple, of which its destruction in the year 70 could certainly be taken as divine confirmation (and has been in various corners of Christian tradition). The events that unfolded between the last event mentioned in Acts and the year 70 were of inestimable importance in consideration of those central themes, yet there is no mention of them whatsoever in Acts or in the New Testament record as a whole.

The most logical explanation is that the writer of Acts just didn’t know about them, and the only way he could have been ignorant of events of such monumental importance to his subject matter was that they hadn’t yet occurred. That being the case, Acts must have been written at least six years prior to the year 70, and Luke, Matthew, and Mark, therefore, even earlier.

And this has profound implications for the discussion at hand. The first and most obvious being that what the non-believing academics themselves acknowledge would be a definite example of a supernatural prophecy by Jesus if it was uttered prior to 70 AD, was actually uttered prior to 70 AD.

And this brings us to the second problem in dating the three Synoptics on the basis of that remark as a supposed “post-diction.” The problem is the context in which the prophecy was reportedly spoken. After Jesus’ remark that “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down,” the disciples asked, “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your advent and of the end of the age?” Jesus then commenced to teach about the End of the Age and the Second Coming.

While the temple and the city of Jerusalem have certainly been destroyed since then, Jesus has, however, not yet returned to the earth in glory. We’re obviously still waiting. And that would have been just as obvious after the year 70 when the temple and the city were destroyed. Yet, the writers of the three Synoptics lumped the predicted destruction of Jerusalem together with the End of the Age and the Second Coming—they wrote about them as if they were one and the same event. Christians have been perplexed by this riddle for the past two-thousand years.

Now I’m not saying, necessarily, that what was written was a mistake or that Jesus had it wrong himself, or even that the disciples heard or remembered or recorded his words incorrectly. There are a number of possibilities for resolving this apparent dilemma, and I’m not suggesting such a resolution to it here, as it is somewhat beyond the scope of the discussion at hand. My only point is this—it is, in fact, a dilemma, and one Christians have been scratching their heads about and taking heat from skeptics over for millennia.

That being the case, if the prediction was—as non-believing academics claim—written after the fact as a man-made “prophecy,” why would it have been written in such a way to create this problem? If the temple and the city were already in ruins when the Gospels were written, why would the writers so obviously equate the Fall of Jerusalem to the Second Coming and the End of the Age, if those longed-for events so obviously hadn’t happened alongside the destruction? Or why wouldn’t they at least have proposed in the text some explanation for why the one happened but not the other? If the academics are correct and the prophecy of the temple’s destruction was written after it had already happened, then the people who put it into the mouth of Jesus as a prediction also set up the expectation that its destruction would closely accompany his Glorious Return, when they would have known full well that that wasn’t the case, since it obviously didn’t happen that way.

It’s absurd to think the Gospel writers would deliberately invent failed prophecies in their efforts to cast Jesus as the greatest of prophets, so the most logical explanation is that, again—the Synoptic Gospels were, in fact, written prior to the year 70.

While this might carry implications unwelcome to many Christians about the nature of scripture and the true meaning of “divine inspiration,” it pretty solidly puts the composition of the Gospels well within the lifetimes of the apostles and others who personally witnessed the ministry, miracles, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If the Synoptic Gospels and most of the rest of the New Testament were written within the lifetimes of the original disciples, then their essential historical reliability is assured. Not only were many of the original followers of Jesus still alive, but most of the rest of the people who knew him—friends, family, followers and admirers, as well as enemies—were also still alive to set the record straight if the official “Church-version” of Jesus and his persecutors was somehow misrepresentative.

Of course, an early date of composition for the Gospels profoundly undermines the ideas of modern liberal scholarship about a gradually-developed tradition about Jesus as the Messiah. Legends and folklore take much longer to develop than authentic memories, and there is too short a gap between the life of Jesus and the compositions of the three Synoptic Gospels for them to have been compilations of legends.

Again, as it relates to my central argument, the idea among liberal scholars is that the story of the resurrection was a gradually-layered tradition of legendary accretions, with elements of it having been a physical, bodily, literal, and factual resurrection having been added over time.

Even apart from the early composition of the synoptic Gospels, though, there is plenty of other evidence to destroy that argument.

For instance, Paul’s letters contain multiple explicit references to the resurrection, and the consensus among most, if not all biblical scholars—even some of the more liberal specimens, is that he wrote most of them in the 50s.

Many of them, even, contain what most scholars regard to be early Christian hymns and creedal statements about the resurrection:

“Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that the Messiah died for our sins, according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose again on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles…” Paul wrote sometime in the early to mid-50s.

When he writes that this was something he “received,” it suggests a tradition that had already been well-established about the resurrection, which included the elements of events transpiring “…according to the scriptures,” as well as a formulaic ordering of appearances to the apostles.

He wrote to the Philippians, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” As support for his instruction, he then quoted the following:

“Who, being in very nature God,

Did not consider equality with God something to be exploited

But made himself nothing,

Taking the very nature of a servant,

Being made in human likeness.

And being in appearance as a man,

He humbled himself

And became obedient to death—

Even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

And gave him the name that is above every name,

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

In heaven and on earth and under the earth,

And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

To the glory of God the Father.”

The fact that these were well established, formulaic traditions as early as the 50s clearly indicates that “Jesus has risen from the dead” was the message proclaimed from early on.

However, Spong and other liberal theologians point out that the previous passage contains no specific mention of Jesus having been physically raised from death—only that “God exalted him.”

Liberal theologians like him also highlight another early hymn quoted by Paul to his disciple Timothy:

“He appeared in a body,

Was vindicated by the Spirit,

Was seen by angels,

Was preached among the nations,

Was believed on in the world,

Was taken up in glory.”

Christians traditionally interpret this to speak of a literal, bodily resurrection, but liberal theologians point out that it makes no explicit mention of a physical body being “taken up in glory”—only that Christ was “vindicated by the Spirit.”

Spong argues that Paul and the original disciples regarded Jesus to be an exalted “Spirit person” at this stage of theological development, and that they believed and taught that he had been raised only in spirit, directly from the grave to heaven, with no 40-day period in which he appeared in physical form to his disciples. (He makes the former claim in chapter 7 of his Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and the latter in Resurrection: Myth or Reality?. Marcus Borg, a prominent member of the “Jesus Seminar,” makes the same basic arguments in his Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, although he’s much more coy and soft-spoken about it than Spong is. I’m sure there are a number of others who make the same arguments in similar books, but these are some of the samples I’ve read.)

Spong frequently quotes a couple of Paul’s other remarks to corroborate his position that the resurrection of Jesus was regarded as a spiritual (i.e., “metaphorical”) occurrence, not a literal or physical event:

“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” the apostle wrote, which Spong frequently quotes.

Also, “Though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we do so no longer.”

It should be plain to anyone who’s read these verses in context, though, that—deliberately or otherwise, Spong is obviously perverting Paul’s clearly intended meaning.

The apostle’s first remark came after a discussion of what kind of body we’d have at the resurrection. True, he spoke of it as a “spiritual body,” but he was explicit that the spiritual body would correspond with, include, and continue the physical body—the body that was buried is also the body that was raised, albeit changed, improved, immortalized. Clearly, Paul didn’t mean that no flesh and blood could inherit the kingdom of God, but that mere flesh and blood could not.

And it took some audacity for Spong to construe the second quote way he did, to mean that Paul regarded Jesus “as a spirit person” divorced from his flesh. Spong had to have tried to misunderstand the passage. As if it’s not obvious already, Paul didn’t mean that he no longer saw Christ as a flesh and blood person, but that he no longer regarded Christ by the superficial and selfish standards of the flesh. He didn’t regard him by worldly standards, he plainly wrote.

Regarding the hymn quoted to the Philippians—if, as Spong claims, it was meant to convey the resurrection as a merely spiritual event, Paul certainly didn’t understand it that way, and he clearly didn’t expect the Christians in Philippi to interpret it that way, either. Later in the same epistle, Paul wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead… The Lord Jesus Christ…by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

He didn’t write that Jesus would “remove us from our lowly bodies” or even “replace our lowly bodies,” but that these very bodies, made of flesh and blood and physical matter, will be transformed into the new body.

There’s nothing in 1 Timothy that explicitly refutes Spong and other liberal theologians’ characterization of the creedal formula referenced in the letter, but there’s plenty in Paul’s other writings to overturn their notion of a non-literal, non-bodily tradition about the resurrection.

He wrote in his first epistle to the Thessalonians:

“Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

Paul didn’t offer comfort by assuring them that their loved ones’ “spirit bodies” had already ascended into heaven to be with the Lord’s “spirit body.” No, he spoke of them still being here, on earth—in the earth, because that which will be raised is still buried until the Lord comes back. When he returns, that which is buried will be raised—which is their physical body, because it was the physical body of Jesus in view when Paul spoke of him having died and risen again.

Further, Spong and others in his camp completely ignore perhaps the greatest blow to their argument, which is that a general resurrection from the dead was already a deeply established tenet of Jewish tradition, having been the subject of centuries’ old prophecy long before the ministry of Jesus, and it was clearly a literal, physical, and bodily resurrection in view: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt,” read a well-known prophecy.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, My people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put My Spirit in you and you will live…”

If Paul and the other apostles had intended anything other than the literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Jewish expectation when they spoke of the Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, they would have made that explicit by distinguishing themselves and their teachings from the accepted Jewish understanding of the concept of resurrection. Instead, Paul invoked that very understanding as the essential point of his teaching, and there isn’t a shred of evidence that the other apostles spoke of the resurrection of Jesus in any terms other than those already established in Jewish tradition. In fact, their essential message was that the resurrection of Jesus was the validation of that tradition.

So, the message about the literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus was a well-established tradition by the time Paul wrote his letters, beginning in the early 50s, which means that’s what constituted “Christianity” from the beginning. That’s what had been claimed from the first moments of the movement in Jesus’ name, and everything else we know as “Christianity” revolves around that central proclamation. In fact, the resurrection is at the center of everything Paul and the other apostles wrote in all of their letters, because their message and teachings would have had no meaning apart from it. It is impossible that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead could have been a later “addition” to the gospel, because there would have been no “gospel” to which to attach it. That is the gospel.

Before I summarize this and move on, there’s one last point I want to make…

Earlier, I mentioned another component of the narrative offered by liberal scholars about the evolution of the “Jesus of history” into the “Christ of faith,” which is the claim that specific elements were later projected onto his life for the purpose of making it appear that he fulfilled the prophecies made about the Messiah when he really didn’t.

This isn’t really necessary to establish my central premise, because I’m confident that I’ve done that by now, but it’s still useful in showing how flimsy and ridiculous their argument really is.

To clarify, their claim is that elements like the virgin birth, his betrayal for thirty pieces of silver, his birth in Bethlehem and his family taking refuge in Egypt, along with other odds and ends found in the Gospels—these didn’t actually happen, they say, but were legendary developments by later generations, inserted into the gospel narratives for the purpose of portraying Jesus as the expected Messiah.

Of course, it’s obvious by now why their biases would motivate that argument, but I’m not sure why they would strain out those gnats and still swallow the camel represented by the more central, undisputed elements of his life, which couldn’t have been legendary developments, yet fulfill the specific predictions by the prophets about the Messiah.

The prophets predicted that the Messiah’s given name would be Y’shua, or Joshua as we render it in English, or Jesus, as the anglicized form of the Greek version of the name, Iesous—all meaning “Yahweh is Savior.”

It was also foretold that the Messiah would arrive about 480 years after an event that occurred in 445 BC, and that he would be executed prior to the destruction of the second temple.

It was also written that the Servant of the Lord would be rejected and despised by the nation of Israel, pierced and punished for their sins, slaughtered like a sacrificial lamb, as a guilt offering, and “after the suffering of his soul” would “see the light of life and be satisfied.”

Another prophecy similarly depicts a figure forsaken by God, yet mocked and ridiculed for his devotion to God, surrounded by violent men who pierce his hands and feet as he’s abused and publicly humiliated. This was written about five centuries before crucifixion was seen in the world as an institutionalized form of execution, and even longer before the Romans brought it to Judea, yet the passage in question describes its procedure in graphic detail, then bursts into exuberant praise for God for then delivering the figure subjected to its horror.

Accordingly, another prophecy declares that God would not abandon His Holy One to the grave, nor let him see decay.

It was foretold that the Jews would one day look upon God—“the One they have pierced,” and that they would “mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”

Lastly, the prophet said the Chosen One would be God’s instrument, not just for restoring the people of Israel to Himself, but also for giving “light to the Gentiles” and making the God of Israel known and worshipped among all the nations of the world.

So, whatever we believe about modern biblical higher criticism or the dates of composition of the Gospels and the evolution of early Christian tradition, the indisputable fact is that centuries earlier, the prophets foretold a Messiah whose name would be Y’shua, or Iesous, who would be rejected by the nation, condemned and crucified in the year 30 AD in atonement for their sins, and for the sins of the world. God would then raise him from the dead, the prophets said, and then make him the instrument through whom He revealed Himself to the rest of the world beyond Israel. Finally, the prophet added, the temple would be destroyed again after these events.

I want to emphasize that this description of the Messiah is not dependent upon or even drawn from the New Testament or from Christian tradition at all. This description comes from a plain reading of literature that was written and institutionalized as holy writ, and even translated into Greek and circulated throughout the ancient world, several generations before Rome became an empire.

It is also a matter of indisputable fact that the original Jewish founders of the movement that came to be known as “Christianity” began traveling throughout the Roman Empire in the mid 30s, proclaiming that a man fitting that precise description had been raised by God from the dead, and that they had all personally encountered him on several occasions, and it is for that reason alone that the God worshiped by the Jews and their prophets is now worshiped by the majority of the people of the world.

That fact flies in the face of much of what we take for granted today, so many try to downplay it, bury it, ignore it, revise and reinterpret and deny it, but the fact remains, undiminished and unchanged.

Whatever else we believe about the universe and ourselves, Christianity exists today because a group of apparently reasonable and ordinary men suddenly decided to devote the rest of their lives to proclaiming their experience that “Jesus has risen from the dead.”

With that fact before us, again—one, and only one, of these three conclusions must absolutely necessarily follow from that:

Were they lying?

Were they mistaken?

Or, were they telling the truth?

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The Foundation, part 5.1: The Telephone Game

(Continued from Defending the Lynchpin)

“The Bible’s been copied and re-copied so many times, we can’t be sure what it originally said,” skeptics are fond of saying as they compare the transmission of the New Testament to the “Telephone Game.” For those unfamiliar, the Telephone Game is played by a number of people sitting in a circle (usually around a campfire), and the first person whispers something once into the second person’s ear, and that person in turn whispers it into the next person’s ear, and so on and so forth, and the rules of the game prohibit clarification—you hear it once and immediately have to pass it along to the next person, whether you heard it clearly or not. The message usually gets so garbled in transmission that it has only a vague, loosely-phonetic resemblance to the original message: something like “Jesus is risen from the dead” gets morphed into “cheese and biscuits in bed” or something equally silly and everyone laughs. Good times. Who’s up for s’mores?

At first blush, this seems a clever, plausible argument against Christianity and the New Testament. Because they didn’t have such innovations as the printing press or word-processing software back in olden times, for literature to make its way from the original writer into the hands of future generations, it had to be hand-copied, and that copy was only good for as long as the parchment or papyrus on which it was written didn’t decay and deteriorate from wear and tear and time, and a new copy would have to be made to take its place. So (the thinking goes) only a few, distant copies of what was originally written have survived the ravages of time and, in Telephone Game-fashion, ancient copyist errors have compounded over the centuries, so we can’t know with any certainty what the original message of Jesus Christ even was—only that what we have today in the New Testament isn’t likely to be it.

This only seems like a decent argument, though, until the actual facts about the New Testament and about our knowledge of history are taken into account. When they are, the Telephone Game no longer suffices as an adequate analogy. A better analogy would be, instead of the first person hurriedly whispering the message once into the next person’s ear, that person writes the message down and then looks over the next person’s shoulder as he makes his own copy. Also, instead of passing it along to just one person this way, he passes it to twenty-or-so people, and each of those twenty-or-so people pass it on through the same method to twenty-or-so more, and so on and so forth until eventually the last group of people to hand-copy the message number about 20,000. And then, instead of copying it by hand, they just start using Microsoft Word and send it out through mass-emails after they’ve spell-checked it.

Of course, the end result of that game wouldn’t be nearly as funny as the actual Telephone Game, since it would be impossible for any significant changes to be made to the message with such a painstaking process of transmission. If there are mistakes, it might be that a word or two gets misspelled or something equally trivial. Even in those cases, though, the mistake only gets passed on to descendents of that single copy in which it was originally made, and there are thousands of other copies against which to correct it.

That’s how it is with the New Testament.

In contrast, any important ancient manuscript we have today by which we have any knowledge of history at all is pretty far-removed in time from its original composition, and we only have a handful of the earliest copies. For instance, the writings of Herodotus, the famed “Father of History,” are our chief source of information about the 5th-century BC wars between the Greeks and Persians. All we have left of his writings come from fewer than ten manuscripts dating from around 900 AD—about 1,300 years after the fact. The Telephone Game might be a slightly more accurate analogy for our knowledge of the Spartans and other Greek city-states from that time, but no competent historian would reject Herodotus on that score. Likewise, Aristotle’s 4th-century BC writings survive in a scant five manuscripts dated around 1100 AD. Julius Caesar’s account of his conquest of Gaul remains in the form of only five manuscripts from around 1000 AD.

And these are typical of ancient historical sources—the earliest copies we have of various manuscripts are distant copies from copies of copies of the original, written centuries, or even millennia, before. And, we only have a handful of those copies. However, historians regard them to be basically reliable in providing accurate information about the past and about the origins of civilization.

The runner-up for the best manuscript authority is Homer’s Iliad, with 643 manuscripts written between the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

Want to know what the title-holder is—which ancient collection of documents has the most manuscript authority? As you can probably guess by now, it’s the New Testament, and by an astronomical margin. There are more than 20,000 ancient copies of the books comprising the New Testament in existence in the world today, many of which were written as early as the 2nd century—within a little more than a single century of their original composition. Some of those 20,000 were copied as late as the 5th century, but that’s still immensely closer in time to their original composition than any other ancient manuscript.

Even if we didn’t have those copies, though, we could still reproduce virtually the entire content of the New Testament s from secondary sources in the form of quotations by the early Church Fathers (1st-4th century), and a smaller but still significant portion from the earlier Apostolic Fathers, who were the first generation of Church leaders after the apostles.

Of course, with so many copies of the books of the New Testament changing hands from so many people, there are, admittedly, bound to be errors, as with any ancient document. Non-believers have made much of these errors, greatly exaggerating their significance to dismiss any notion of certainty about what the New Testament is supposed to read.

For example, the introduction to The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus reads:

“We do not have original copies of any of the gospels… and no two copies are precisely alike. And handmade copies have almost always been ‘corrected’ here and there, often by more than one hand. Further, this gap of almost two centuries means that the original Greek (or Aramaic?) text was copied more than once, by hand, before reaching the stage in which it has come down to us. Even careful copyists make some mistakes, as every proofreader knows. So we will never be able to claim certain knowledge of exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was.” (pg. 6, emphasis added)

The volume cited here is the “Scholars’ Version” translation of the four biblical Gospels (as opposed to the amateurs and hobbyists responsible for other translations, I guess), plus the forged Gospel of Thomas. The uniquely “scholarly” translators are members of the so-called “Jesus Seminar”– a collection of radical academics and other assorted characters that that include infamous Jesus Mythicist and self-acknowledged “crackpot” Robert Price and “Robocop” director Paul Verhoeven. The Seminar purports to be on a “quest for the historical Jesus” concealed beneath the supposedly legendary “Christ of faith” (much, much more on this in my next entry).

They didn’t make any specific mention of what those copyist errors are in their introduction, but the insinuation (and the typical inference) is that the New Testament is just riddled with them.

Want to know what some of those errors are, though? They’re not hard to find, because translators (comparative amateurs though they are) don’t make any effort to hide them, but usually point them out in the footnotes of their translations and make general mention of them in the prefaces to those translations.

For instance, in the New International Version a footnote to Matthew 21:44 reads, “Some manuscripts do not have verse 44.” The preceding verses read:

“Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’ Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

The dubious verse 44 then adds, “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”

The rest of the copyist errors in the earliest NT manuscripts—those not specifically mentioned in the footnotes—are misspellings of words, names, or places, duplicated lines, or the occasional omitted word or reversed word-order. Even in those instances in which a word might be missing or ordered incorrectly, though, errors of those kind don’t exist in every manuscript, so they are easily corrected by comparison against the thousands of other manuscripts that do not contain the error (or we can just read the aforementioned quotations by the early Church Fathers to get it from people closer to the source).

The most significant difference between manuscript copies would be the divergent endings of the Gospel of Mark. Some manuscripts end with verse 8 in chapter 16, after the account of the women discovering the empty tomb and hearing the angel announce Jesus’ resurrection. Others include an expanded account, including appearances by the risen Jesus. Copies with the latter account, however, are marked by the ancient scribes themselves as doubtful in authenticity (again—this is all explained, usually, in the footnotes of any given translation).

None of these differences or errors amount to even the slightest divergence in the different manuscripts’ portrayal of Jesus himself or of his teachings. Whether or not we accept Matthew 21:44, for example, makes absolutely no difference in our understanding of who Jesus Christ was, what he taught, or who he understood himself to be.

None of these differences in manuscripts could even remotely be taken to suggest a “Jesus” who did not offer himself as the promised Messiah, and none offer an alternative origin for the Church than that early proclamation that “Christ has risen from the dead.”

Whenever I hear that objection from skeptics—that “there are too many errors in NT manuscripts to be able know what was originally written”—I always ask them what specific errors those are, or what differences there are in the manuscripts. I’ve never personally met anyone who made that argument who could answer that question; all they know is that the “errors” are there, and that’s all they need to know to dismiss Christianity.

It is absolutely assured that what we have as the New Testament today is perfectly representative of what was originally written. So, if people want to use the Telephone Game-analogy as an excuse to dismiss the historical reliability of the New Testament, they also have to dismiss virtually everything they know about ancient history as well.

Now if a Muslim apologist were sitting-in on our discussion, he would probably, at this point, enthusiastically point out that if we were to examine early manuscripts of the Qur’an for errors, it would compare much more favorably against those ancient NT manuscripts. According to Islamic tradition, the content of the Qur’an today—having been miraculously preserved—is identical in every major and minute respect to the words originally uttered by Muhammed in the 7th century, and so there isn’t one error to be found in even a single early manuscript.

And to be honest, I know far less about quranic manuscript authority than I know about the New Testament, so out of ignorance, I’d be willing to concede that point: there are (for all I know) no errors in the earliest extant manuscripts of the Qur’an.

But if that’s true, that fact is neither miraculous nor surprising… nor even remarkable, if we look to Islamic tradition as it relates to the origin of the Qur’an.

According to that tradition, the Qur’an wasn’t written and compiled until after Muhammed’s death, except for small portions recorded on palm leaves and scraps of parchment. For the most part, it was memorized by his followers and passed on orally. Some Muslims committed their memories to writing shortly after his death, but it wasn’t until the time of Muhammed’s successor, Caliph Abu Bakr that the Qur’an was compiled into a single written volume, and then later “standardized” by his successor, Caliph Uthman.

And by “standardized,” Islamic tradition means that Uthman ordered all variant copies of the Qur’an to be burned so as not to conflict with his version (scroll down to Volume 6, Book 61, verse 510 for the specific text of the hadith recounting this episode). So, naturally—there are no early variant or “flawed” manuscripts in existence, because they were systematically destroyed.

So, we can’t cross-check extant manuscripts of the Qur’an against alternative copies, because the caliph saw to it that there would be no alternative copies. Unlike the Qur’an, though, the New Testament has thousands of alternative copies (along with secondary sources) which translators and scholars can cross-reference against one another, and so there is no mystery about what content the books of the New Testament really contained when they were first written. Anyone can find that out just by looking to the footnotes or reading the translators’ prefaces or by cross-checking them against other translations. There are differences, yes—but those differences are insubstantial and inconsequential.

There is, however, a widespread belief that such an effort of systematic standardization of the Bible occurred under the reign of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Such an effort never actually took place, though. The popular misconception is that the compilation, standardization and canonization of the New Testament was on the agenda for the Council of Nicaea (a myth furthered along by such fictionalized pseudo-history as that offered in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code), but that simply isn’t true. Rather, the two main items on the council’s agenda were to standardize the date of Easter, and to settle the Arian controversy. At that point in history, there had been no church-wide effort to officially canonize the 66 books of scripture, yet all parties to either debate at the council relied on the same scriptures as the basis for their arguments because—despite their caustic disagreement on other doctrinal points—there was a general consensus on that issue without any need for debate or clarification. In fact, their elementary agreement on scriptural authority provided the framework for the controversy in the first place—without that assumed common ground, there would have been no conflict. It was equivalent to lawyers arguing the constitutionality of a particular public policy today: if they don’t agree on the U.S. Constitution as the authority in the first place, there is no basis for argument.

Even if (for the sake of argument) Constantine had made an effort to impose his will on the Church by deciding which books were admissible as holy writ and which were not, he wouldn’t have been any more successful in that endeavor than his predecessor Emperor Diocletian, who tried to eradicate all traces of Christianity and its scriptures as he presided over the most severe empire-wide, systematic persecution of Christians in history. The Council of Nicaea comprised many of the very people tortured and imprisoned under Diocletian a few years earlier, and it’s preposterous to suppose that they would have persevered through the brutalities and privations of his predecessor only to fold under Constantine’s supposed attempts to reinvent their religion. And, in fact, even after the Council of Nicaea standardized the official date of Easter and declared Arius to be a heretic, Arianism still persisted (even in Constantine’s own court and household) and eastern churches still kept their own calendar for Easter, which they keep to this day, and they undoubtedly would have done the same had Constantine attempted to reinvent their Bible.

This myth about Constantine mandating the canon of scripture by imperial decree does have a very loose basis in actual fact, though. His biographer, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (who, significantly, sided with Arius), chronicled that the emperor commissioned the creation of fifty copies of the Bible for use by the churches of Constantinople. Eusebius preserves a copy of the letter of commission in his Life of Constantine (see chapters 36 and 37), but the letter makes no mention of the specific books of scripture to be included, undoubtedly because there was no need to clarify what was already understood.

I think this myth has persisted simply because people assume that because the Bible’s different versions are so uniform and consistent today, there must have been some kind of early, forced effort to standardize it (as Islamic tradition tells us happened in the case of the Qur’an). So in the interest of reverse-engineering history to fit that expectation, the Council of Nicaea serves as the best possible candidate for supporting evidence. Except, there isn’t even a shred of evidence from the period that could be taken to even dimly suggest that any such standardization took place at the Council, nor at any other point in Constantine’s reign.

In conclusion, the New Testament has the most prolific manuscript authority of any historical source from antiquity, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that any but the most trivial and easily-corrected changes have been introduced since its original composition. Not only is the New Testament reliable, but it’s the most reliable ancient writing in existence. What we have today as the New Testament is exactly what was written two millennia ago by the original apostolic Church.

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The Foundation, part 5: Defending the Lynchpin

To review: Christianity exists because the apostles claimed to have had multiple encounters with Jesus, alive and in-the-flesh, after he had been executed and buried. According to them, they conversed with him, ate with him, and even examined his crucifixion wounds through the course of his several post-resurrection appearances, during which he instructed them to pass on his teachings and the news of his resurrection to the rest of the world.

Whatever else we believe about God or Christ or religion in general, that’s a fact: the apostles made that claim, and that’s why Christianity exists, and it would not exist apart from that central proclamation.

Once that fact is established—as with any human testimony, there is only one of three possible conclusions we can draw from that information: They were either lying about it, mistaken, or telling the truth.

If we consider each hypothesis in light of the rest of the information we have about the 1st century and about the origins of Christianity, it will become increasingly untenable that they deliberately lied about it, and even more difficult to entertain the possibility of any scenario that could have led to them having been honestly mistaken about such an experience.

And to quote Sherlock Holmes (and Spock after him): once we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

As I’d mentioned in my previous entry, though, I don’t expect it to be that simple and easy. All things being equal, it would be that simple and easy, but there is a tremendous amount of widespread and deeply-entrenched misunderstanding and misinformation out there to complicate the question of Christianity’s truth or falsehood.

Also, there is a common impulse among non-Christians to relativize the evidence by lumping Christianity into the same category as any other religion: “Don’t they have their ‘proof’ as well?” they’ll say, the suggestion being that competing religions could be “proven” just as persuasively by an eager apologist.

So, we should put that to the test by evaluating, say… Islam by the same criteria. The central revelatory miracle claimed by Islam was Muhammed’s reported visitations by the angel Gabriel to dictate the content of the Qur’an. What conclusion does the evidence suggest for that claim, though? Was Muhammed telling the truth? Was he lying? Or was he somehow mistaken? And how well attested is that claim and the content of those purported revelations in the first place?

Regarding Christianity, a great many people have a much easier time believing that the apostles were either lying or mistaken than they do believing that God, as He’s described in the Bible, exists and would miraculously intervene. My assertion, though, is that people who honestly believe either of those two hypotheses simply lack information adequate to arrive at an educated conclusion. If their objections to Christianity are truly honest, once they take that information into account, they’ll arrive at a different conclusion.

In fact, when I argue this case in person—when people stay in the discussion until the end, that is—it always leads to one of two different outcomes. Typically, a discussion like this takes off when someone remarks upon the supposed foolishness or falsehood of the Christian religion, and (after clarifying that I agree with many of their criticisms of common Christian memes and practices, as discussed in previous blog entries) I generally answer as gently and respectfully as I know how by the seemingly audacious claim that “As a Christian, I’ll bet I have better reasons for believing what I believe than you do for what you believe…” That usually elicits a scoff at first, but by the end of the discussion, most people either acknowledge a need to seriously reconsider their appraisal of Christ and Christianity, or they acknowledge that it is true, but that they don’t want my God, even if He is real (at which point there’s nothing else to say… once people hear and acknowledge that it’s true, but reject it anyway, all we can do is leave them to their choice).

And that isn’t to boast about my debate skills or my apologetic know-how. It’s really easy to win a debate when you happen to be right. When you’re arguing against the truth—against God Himself—it doesn’t matter how smart, creative, or knowledgeable you are, because no amount of rhetorical conjuring or intellectual gymnastics can make two and two add up to five or make something true when it isn’t.

(“But it’s not about winning a debate… You can’t argue someone into the kingdom of heaven,” my fellow Christians might say at this point. And they’re partially correct, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll answer, with qualifications previously discussed, “Yes, it is most certainly about winning a debate.” At least, that’s what the apostle Paul thought it was about.)

But people still try to argue, and entire careers are made on such efforts to reconcile the plain, observable facts with what many prefer to believe instead. Consequently, there is endless misinformation out there about the origins of Christianity, which can make for an epic-length discussion when that misinformation has to be deconstructed, refuted and corrected, hence the length of this entry.

It’s actually turned out quite a bit longer than I’d previously anticipated, so in the interest of easing digestion, I’ve broken it into several bite-sized chunks, with a rough table of contents and links below.

Not that this is an exhaustive refutation of every single argument against traditional Christianity, but I believe I’ve addressed some of the most common and deeply-held misconceptions mustered against it.

There are those who would argue that “Jesus Christ has risen from the dead” isn’t necessarily what the first Christians taught and believed as a literal fact of history. It’s obviously what every copy of the New Testament in the world puts forth as the central claim of Christianity, but there are a couple of pretty widespread misconceptions that what we have as the New Testament today is either:

1) not what was originally written (which I discuss in The Telephone Game: How do we know this is the real New Testament?), or that

2) It is what was originally written but does not accurately represent what was originally taught by Jesus Christ or his immediate followers (which I address in The Forgotten Jesus…?: How do we know the New Testament represents the real Christ?).

3) Then there are those who might acknowledge that the original disciples claimed to have experienced the resurrection, but might still have been lying or mistaken (which I discuss in Extraordinary Claims).

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The Foundation, part 4: The Lynchpin of Existence

To boil everything I’ve written in this blog down to a single statement: the Church’s use of the term “faith” is completely wrong, and that error has corrupted every facet of Christianity as we know it. Or, to be accurate… we adapted the term to accommodate a pre-existing corruption, and now we use it to justify and reinforce that corruption. In either case… chicken or egg, all of our problems are wrapped up in our erroneous use of the word “faith.”

I suppose I should qualify that remark, though, by stating the obvious fact that words are not numbers: they aren’t fixed quantities with immutable, universal meaning in any and all settings, retaining the same, precise value in any equation in which they’re inserted. Unlike numbers, their meaning depends entirely upon usage and intent and interpretation. Any given word means whatever the user thinks it means and has a reasonable expectation of what his audience will interpret it to mean.

So in that regard, our collective use of the term “faith” is correct insofar as we all generally know what each other means when we use that word. But, our use of it is a complete reversal of the meaning we actually find for it in the New Testament.

Actually, to be accurate (and to state the obvious again), the word “faith” is an English word, so it doesn’t actually show up in the New Testament. It is, however, a frequent translation of the ubiquitous Greek word pistis. The word is also sometimes translated “belief,” “assurance,” “pledge,” and even “proof,” depending on usage and context.

As I discussed at length in The Foundation part 1, we typically interpret the word to mean mere belief alone, and apply that meaning across the board to questions of salvation and practical application and epistemology.

I’ve already discussed at length how our interpretation of “faith” and the biblical writers’ use of it differ with regard to practical application and to salvation (or “soteriology” if we want to be all high-falutin’ and technical), but I’ve only barely touched upon our epistemological misuse of it.

So, here goes the full treatment.

If you’ll forgive me rehashing a bit (assuming you’ve read my earlier posts…), we generally speak of “faith” as the basis for our acceptance of Christianity. In other words, if we’re asked why we hold Christianity to be true, a common answer might be “Because it’s what I’ve put my faith in.” We believe because we have faith.

That particular use of the term “faith” is known more formally as fideism, and it happens to be a complete reversal of the use of pistis in the New Testament.

“For God has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. He has given proof (translated from pistis) of this to all men by raising Him from the dead,” said Paul to the Athenians at Mars’ Hill.

“Therefore, let all Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah,” said the apostle Peter to conclude his first public address about the resurrection. That, he argued, was God’s vindication of Jesus after the people of Israel had rejected and condemned Him, and on the basis of that vindication, Peter argued for them to “know for certain” that Jesus was the Messiah.

He evidently got his point across, because the account reads that they were “cut to the heart” and asked the apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” In other words, they did “know for certain” that God had made Jesus both Lord and Messiah, and now they wanted to know what to do about it.

Peter then instructed them to “repent and be baptized” in order to be forgiven their sins and to receive the Spirit of God.

The word pistis doesn’t show up in this passage, but repentance and baptism are acts of faith, and we read elsewhere that we receive forgiveness and salvation by faith. So, Peter’s audience believed that Jesus was the Messiah at that point—they knew for certain, no less, but they had not yet responded in faith for salvation.

Peter later wrote to his followers, “Through Christ you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead, and so your faith and hope are in God.”

What all that boils down to is that we do not believe in the resurrection because we have faith. On those terms, “faith” is something we would bring to the equation, and we would believe, essentially—not because of any truth we’ve discovered about God, but because we want to for whatever the reason (usually cultural conditioning nowadays). And on those terms, God is not the Source and Arbiter of truth—we are, because we supply Christianity’s validity by bringing our faith to it.

The New Testament writers taught the precise opposite of that: we’re not supposed to believe in the resurrection because we have faith; we’re supposed to have faith because we believe in the resurrection.

Paul told the Athenians that the resurrection is itself the proof of the fact that God will one day judge the world by the teachings, standards, and person of Jesus Christ.

Peter pointed to the resurrection as God’s revelation of Himself and His affirmation of Jesus as the Messiah. He said that it is through the historical person of Christ and because of the fact of His resurrection that we believe and hope in God.

If I can get away with geeking-out again, since this is just too good an illustration not to use…  it’s like the ending of The Matrix (the first one) when Neo was in the phone booth, declaring war on the machines: “I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world… without you: a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world… where anything is possible…” Then he stepped out onto a crowded sidewalk and shattered everybody’s understanding of the world they lived in by launching himself into the sky and flying over the city.  Neo lived in a world beyond the Matrix—a world more substantial and  real than the artificial existence they knew and accepted as “real,” and he gave them a glimpse into that world by tearing back the veil of their own world and showing them something that couldn’t possibly be accounted for within its accepted limitations.

This speaks to a frequent challenge by atheists, which is the question “If God is real, then why hasn’t He ever shown up in Person and announced Himself to the world? Why is ‘faith’ even necessary to believe in Him?”

Well, that’s precisely what the gospel claims to announce: the good news of God having done just that. That’s what the resurrection is, according to the New Testament—it’s God showing up and announcing Himself to the entire world, so that blind faith isn’t part of the equation. Just like when Neo took off flying from a crowded public street corner so people would “see what the machines didn’t want them to see,” through Jesus Christ, God has torn back the veil and shown the world the greater reality beyond what we see by doing something in human experience which isn’t possible to account for within any other paradigm than His.

That’s the message of Christianity, at least. Those are the terms on which it offers itself—those are the terms the apostles and their immediate followers taught and wrote down.

So if it’s true—if the resurrection really happened, it’s the source of faith, not the object of faith.

If it really happened, then we don’t believe in Jesus Christ because we believe the Bible. Instead, we believe the Bible because we believe in Jesus Christ. And if we believe in Jesus Christ, it’s because evidence and reason point to the resurrection as a verifiable historical fact.

We don’t “believe the Bible because the Bible tells me so.” It doesn’t offer itself on those terms. If we believe the Bible is more than a merely human product like any other collection of ancient writings, it should be because reason dictates that the evidence establishes it as such: it should be a rationally justifiable conclusion, not a starting premise.

In other words, we don’t believe in Christianity because we want to. When people believe things simply because they want to believe them, their belief system is their starting premise, and then they misuse their powers of reason to cherry-pick the evidence to support their belief, and they eventually get into the habit of only exposing themselves to evidence that supports that premise and excluding any people or information that call it into question. And, typically, we don’t even realize we do this, and so we honestly see evidence everywhere to reinforce what we “know” to be true.

Starting Premise (belief) + Logic and Reason (induction, rationalization) = Conclusion (carefully selected facts, evidence and data)

Believing on those terms leads to insularity, because we have to be careful to only expose ourselves to people who think like us and to information that reinforces our starting premise.

Willful, deliberate ignorance becomes a way of life—regarded as a virtue, even—and leads to bigotry and tribalism, which in turn lead to oppression of dissenters and outsiders. This, of course, leaves us powerless to obey Christ’s command to spread His message to the rest of the world, because then we’re in the business of shutting out the world, not engaging it. Because that kind of belief is dishonest at its foundation, it leads to all of the character defects and sinful behaviors the Bible teaches us to surpass.

Believing on those terms is a phony faith, because it’s really, ultimately, a rejection of God. Instead of trusting Him, it really says, “I don’t believe God has revealed Himself in any way that could stand up to scrutiny, so I’m going to stack the deck and rig the game so that Christianity wins out.” It masquerades as piety, but it’s really about preserving our own culture and social investment, which turns tradition and cultural security into gods in their own right.

Instead—and according to the standards of the Bible itself (and of just plain old intellectual honesty), we should believe it because it’s true. That is, if it really is true.

The process by which a belief of this kind is obtained is by beginning with the facts at hand—which are potentially available to anyone and everyone because they’re part of the same reality in which we all exist, and then by way of logic and deductive reasoning, arriving at a conclusion, and that conclusion comprises our belief system in whole or in part. So, to summarize, the process goes:

Starting Information (evidence, facts, data, etc.) + Logic and Reason (deduction, hypothesizing, experimentation, etc.) = Conclusion (belief system).

Those are the terms on which Christianity offers itself. It claims to provide evidence that points to the conclusion that God has revealed Himself and His plan for humanity, and it stands or falls on that evidence.

And if it can’t meet those terms, according to the apostle Paul, Christianity is a farce with nothing worthwhile to say, and a tragic waste of life and resources and well-being. “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” he wrote, adding that Christians are the most pitiable people on the planet… if Christ wasn’t raised.

So those are the terms. Without the resurrection as a knowable and verifiable fact, Christianity implodes. It collapses in on itself, because it can’t really be the spiritual and moral light of the world and the genuine expression of God’s revealed truth without a rational basis for belief, and the resurrection is the lynchpin for that rational basis. Christianity stands or falls on that alone.

But if it stands… the resurrection isn’t just the lynchpin of Christianity. It is God—the Supreme Being who created all life, all matter and energy in the universe, all time and space and causality—entering into human affairs as One of us to remake everything from within. The resurrection—if it’s true—isn’t just the central ingredient of a particular human religion among a global buffet line of religions. It is the lynchpin of existence itself. It’s the axis of history, the turning point of… everything. It’s the proof—not just of God’s existence, but of His unfathomable love for humanity, and of our privileged place in the cosmic order.

If it’s true, its significance cannot be overstated.

If it’s not true, well… then western civilization is built on a lie. And that’s not to hold civilization hostage to the reputation of Christianity, as if to say that we have to believe the resurrection to avoid invalidating the past 2,000 years of history. If it’s not true, then invalidating everything built on the assumption of its truth is the most sensible and humane and moral thing to do. If it’s not true, pretending it is true just keeps us out of step with reality, and keeps billions of people living under a delusion.

I find that when I explain Christianity in these terms, I’m usually met with a great deal of surprise and skepticism: “You’re telling me you would abandon Christianity if it were disproven?” people often ask, typically with a raised eyebrow and a disbelieving scoff.

And I think that’s the right question to ask, and for Christians to consider, because it recognizes that this isn’t just a clear-cut question of truth vs. falsehood; it’s a relationship we’re calling into question—our relationship with God. Longtime churchgoers who have cultivated a lifelong relationship with God (or “God” in many cases, to be blunt and honest) are understandably sensitive and defensive about discussions like these.

That’s why I usually answer the question with another: “If you found out your wife was cheating on you, would you stay with her? Or, better yet—what if you found out she had lied about her past before you married her, and that she isn’t who she said she was? What then? What if your marriage was built on a lie, and you found out she only married you for your money? Would you end your marriage, or live a lie?”

If a person suspects his or her spouse of dishonesty or infidelity, he or she would probably get defensive if someone probed those doubts. They know their own vulnerability, the fragility of the life they’ve built, so they might fight a losing battle to maintain the illusion of a healthy and happy marriage, and insist that whatever the truth is, it’s nobody else’s business and that their marriage should be a private affair.

But, if they genuinely trust their spouse, they’ll have the opposite response if someone openly questions their partner’s fidelity. Instead of ducking for cover as rumors spread and take hold, they’ll protest their spouse’s innocence from the rooftops, because they’ll want the truth to be known and the lies to be refuted. They’ll invite scrutiny before they let their spouse’s reputation get dragged through the mud.

We live in a world in which God’s reputation and existence are constantly called into question, and so the Church’s relationship with Him is under perpetual assault and ridicule.

What are we to do about that? What would the apostles, or Jesus himself tell us we should do? Should we stay on the defensive—turning away and deflecting questions by insisting that “religion is a private matter,” and that our “faith” is too sacrosanct to be questioned? Or do we invite scrutiny, because we believe God’s character and glory will stand up to it?

I think we all know what Jesus and the apostles would instruct.

And that brings us to the question at hand.

How do we know if it’s all true?

What objective evidence, data, and facts are there at hand by which to begin our equation?

The most immediate data to consider are the innumerable churches dotting the land, the Bibles in virtually every home and hotel room, and the numerous other physical artifacts of the Christian religion.

Where did they all come from?

Putting it another way, how did Christianity come about?

It didn’t just emerge out of a vacuum one day. It didn’t fall out of the sky or spontaneously generate when a bunch of guys decided they just felt like starting a major world religion. A very specific set of circumstances gave rise to it by motivating people to work against existing tradition and religious convention to advance something else in its place.

Now, at this point in the discussion—whenever I have it in-person in a coffee shop or bar or somewhere, someone almost always jumps in to point out that there are also mosques and Qur’ans filling the land in other vast swaths of humanity, or synagogues and Talmuds, or temples and sutras, etc., and that these didn’t emerge out of nowhere, either.

And, of course, those people are getting ahead of the discussion. But, because people are usually so eager to rebut by pointing out Christianity’s vast and varied competition before I have a chance to make my case, I thought it might be helpful to consider the case for Christianity alongside the case for, say… Islam, so we can keep it all in perspective and context. Obviously, there are other religions we could also use as a basis for comparison, but I have to streamline this somehow, and since Islam is the most superficially similar religion to Christianity, and also happens to be the next largest religion in the world, it makes for the best comparison.

Besides that, Judaism is a different animal entirely from other religions, because the claim of Christianity is that it is, essentially, Judaism. I intend to address the inner workings of that relationship at some point in the future, but for now, I’ll simply point out that Judaism isn’t in competition with Christianity in quite the same way other religions are. Also, religions like Buddhism and Taoism aren’t even really “religions” in quite the same sense as Christianity, Judaism and Islam are, so the same comparisons can’t quite be made. But I intend to address Christianity’s relationship with those religions in the future as well.

So… all those churches and Bibles came from somewhere.

Christianity originated, as we all know, in the first century soon after Jesus was crucified, when his disciples appeared in public, claiming that he had risen from the dead.

That was the central message of Christianity from the very beginning: Jesus, who was crucified, has risen from the dead and appeared to us.

Everything else that we might categorize as “original Christianity” revolved around and grew out from that single claim about the resurrection.

To clarify, the followers of Jesus did not claim that they heard he’d risen from the dead. They didn’t claim that they hoped he’d risen from the dead. Their claim was that they saw him after he’d risen, they spoke with him, they ate with him, even touched the wounds on his body to verify that he wasn’t a ghost, and they claimed to have received explicit instructions to bring his teachings to the rest of the world. The claim was that he appeared to some individually at various points—such as Peter and James and Mary Magdalene and then Paul, but their collective mission and identity were rooted in him having appeared to all of them collectively and instructing them to bear witness to the fact and to carry his teachings to the rest of the world.

The religious movement that eventually came to be known as “Christianity” consisted of the claim of that shared experience. That’s what united them in fellowship, and that’s what defined their collective identity and mission. That was the essential core of their message as they advanced their movement from being a small, persecuted, local sect of Judaism in the mid 30s to a world religion, and that within a single generation.

And that’s an indisputable fact of history. Whatever else we believe about God or Christianity or the nature of reality, it is beyond dispute that that was how Christianity originated, and that that claim—their reported experience of the resurrection of Jesus—was what Christianity was from the beginning. Apart from that central claim, there would be no “Christianity” of which to speak: no Bibles in hotel nightstands, no megachurches dotting the land, no hospitals named after saints, no Red Cross, no Salvation Army, etc..

If past experience is any indication, at this point people might be shouting at the computer screen, “So what? People claim all kinds of crazy stuff all the time! Insane asylums and cults are full of people who believe things like that…”

Also, of course, the religion of Islam is based on something similar: Muhammed’s claim to having been visited numerous times by the angel Gabriel, who reportedly dictated the content of the Qur’an.

So, yeah. There is all that to consider.

But consider this as well: everything you know, you know because somebody else told you about it.

Yes, we have video and photography and computers and other generally dependable methods of recording and communicating information, and we have science, which provides the means to interpret physical evidence. However, we don’t actually believe anything primarily because of physical evidence or recorded data. Those only corroborate or supplement, or are the media of delivery for narratives provided through the testimony of people.

For instance, the number of people who have actually stepped foot on the surface of the moon is small enough that they could all fit into a single minivan (not comfortably, mind you, but they’d fit).

Right… LIke this wasn’t shot on a sound stage.

Yet, virtually every one of the 7 billion people on this planet believe that this miracle of human ingenuity took place, despite our lack of firsthand experience. There’s video footage of some of the landings, of course, but that alone isn’t why we believe they happened. There’s video footage of the starship Enterprise, too, and much more of it than the moon landings. Video footage can be faked and,

Looks pretty real to me…

in fact, we spend billions of dollars and millions of hours each year creating and watching video footage of fabricated events. No, it’s because people have provided a narrative we believe that we accept footage of the moon landings as genuine and footage of the Enterprise as fictitious.

Also, we have a system of justice in which innocence is presumed until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

But how is it proven?

Very often, people are convicted and put to death on the sole evidence of what other people have said. Yes, DNA evidence and other scientific advances have revolutionized criminal justice in recent decades, and people wrongfully convicted have been set free by it. But, DNA and other scientific evidence has to be provided by someone—attorneys don’t just show juries slideshows of genetic diagrams to argue their case; they put experts on the stand to testify to what they’ve observed and interpreted. And the truth or falsehood of any given legal argument still revolves around human testimony, because DNA and other forms of physical evidence prove very little in themselves: they can only corroborate or contradict narratives offered by the prosecution or defense and the witnesses they call.  Witnesses might provide a narrative of events in which that DNA was present at the crime scene for completely innocent reasons, or provide testimony of circumstances in which no excuse of innocence could be made. Everything depends entirely upon what people say about how that piece of physical evidence got there, why it’s there, and what it means.

Every single thing you know, or think you know, was told to you by someone else. You have your own experiences, yes, but you interpret them through a larger framework of concepts and paradigms that were provided to you by others. Most of the population of this planet understands existence in this world in terms of a handful of broad paradigms. In our part of the world, it’s usually some combination of Newtonian physics, relativity theory, quantum mechanics, evolutionary biology, psychology, democracy, Judeo-Christian theism, secular humanism, postmodernism, etc.—and all personal and shared experience is interpreted through a series of filters like these. So, we have our own experiences, our own sensory input, but we interpret them through a framework of assumptions inculcated in us by others, which are comprised mostly of facts and observations about the universe that we didn’t personally discover and most of us have never personally verified.

Ultimately, human communication is the only medium in existence for the transmission of

Is she laughing or crying? I can’t tell.

knowledge. Everything else is just a tool by which people render testimony, and nothing more. Conventional wisdom has it that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but the reality is that it’s only within the narrative in which it’s provided that the picture has any worth. A photograph or video of a bunch of Muslims burning an American flag can mean any number of things, really, and our interpretation depends entirely on the caption, or on what the guy with the $70 haircut behind the anchor desk says leading up to it. Is it a story about what happened in the hours after 9/11, or is it a story about civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes?

The photo or video itself has no meaning apart from the story it’s being used to tell, and stories are told by people, and the story those people tell will make the difference between us hating those people for celebrating the deaths of innocent Americans or hating ourselves for causing their innocent deaths.

So, someone might scoff at the idea of using human testimony as evidence and roll their eyes when they read in scripture, “this is written that you might believe.” Except, there is no other form of evidence in existence—neither for the central claims of Christianity, nor for anything else in ancient or recent history. Even if Jesus lived and died in an age of video cameras and genetic testing, and film footage of his resurrection surfaced (which, for all intents and purposes, may well be the case), that evidence would be no more decisive than the evidence of ink on parchment, or of an oral tradition begun by the apostles, because all of it has to be created, copied, transmitted, preserved, and interpreted by human beings. The only difference is the medium by which that information is preserved, but it all amounts only to human testimony, and nothing more.

The testimony of the original Church is no more and no less valid than any other form of evidence we might evaluate today, because it is, in essence, the same form of evidence. So, if we dismiss that out of hand because we don’t think human testimony is a legitimate form of evidence, then logical consistency demands that we throw out everything else we know about the world.

However, like any human testimony, the testimony of the Church has to be evaluated. We don’t just accept it at face value. We have to ask questions about it.

Whenever anybody says anything, there are three basic questions by which we always evaluate their testimony, either tacitly and passively, or deliberately and explicitly: Are they lying? Do they believe it but are mistaken? Or are they telling the truth?

And those are really our only three options—not just for evaluating the truth of Christianity, but the truth of anything.  Any example of human testimony can only fit into one of only those three categories—they are either lying, mistaken, or telling the truth.

To sum up and review: it is an obvious and indisputable fact, of course, that Christianity exists. It is also a concrete and well-established fact that it exists because the original Christians all claimed to have encountered Jesus after he rose from the dead. Those churches we see on every street corner and those Bibles collecting dust in homes and hotel rooms all over the world wouldn’t be there today, but for that single fact.

So, what do we do with that fact, with that claim? Were the first Christians lying about their encounters with the risen Jesus? Or, did they believe they experienced what they said they experienced, but were somehow mistaken about it? Or, were they actually telling the truth?

If we examine the rest of the evidence about the origins of Christianity, it becomes increasingly difficult to entertain the hypothesis that they lied about it. The conclusion that they invented and spread the story of the resurrection as a deliberate deception becomes increasingly untenable—ridiculous even, the more we consider the lengths to which they went to advance that claim and the lives and behaviors they modeled and taught in light of it.

Could they have been honestly mistaken about it then? I could understand one person coming under a psychotic delusion about such an experience, or one exceptionally gullible person being fooled into it (which would fall under the previous category of “deception,” actually), but how do hundreds, or dozens, or even two people come into a mistaken belief of having physically encountered someone after that person had been publicly executed? The more scenarios we consider for how something like this might have happened, the less believable it becomes.

The more we consider the evidence, the more inescapable it becomes that they were telling the truth. The truth of the resurrection actually turns out to be the least fantastic explanation for the existence of Christianity, once all of the available facts are considered.

I don’t actually expect it to be that easy, though.

Even though I use words like “indisputable” about the central, original claim of Christianity, I know that people do, in fact, dispute that characterization.

For instance, there are those who would dispute that the original Christians’ message involved a literal, bodily resurrection.

Also, a great many people have no trouble whatsoever in believing that the apostles lied about it, or that they were under some kind of powerful delusion.

And, a great many people would believe almost anything before they’d believe that Jesus literally and factually and physically rose from the dead.

I get that.

But those alternative beliefs aren’t based on the evidence. Or, they’re based on misinformation, which certainly abounds after 2,000 years of skepticism and controversy about the origins of Christianity.

As I intend to demonstrate in what follows, though, rejection of the resurrection is far more faith-based than informed acceptance of it is. And by “faith,” of course, I don’t mean “faith” as it’s presented in the New Testament. No, by “faith-based,” I mean “faith” in terms of the popular definition, according to which a person’s belief system is their beginning premise, which they maintain through rationalization and fallacious logic and by carefully sifting facts to support that initial premise, which is then offered as a carefully-guarded conclusion.

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The Foundation, part 3: I Am Not a Pessimist

My original intention for this entry was to explain, rationally and from the evidence, why Christianity is true. Not that there aren’t plenty of better-qualified people out there who have already done it and whose books are readily available at any library or book store, but after going on and on in previous entries about how most churches have dropped the ball by completely ignoring the need to teach people why Christianity is true and how to explain it to others, I thought explaining how I do it is the least I can do.

I feel like it would be premature without some (relatively) brief clarification, though. At this point, my concern is that it might still be taken to validate the very concept of “Christianity” I’m trying to expose and exorcise. Also, for reasons I’ve already touched upon, an argument for the objective truth of Christianity just isn’t relevant within “Christianity” as we know it, so there’s still a great deal to say against it before a positive case for the gospel would truly hit home.

Most significantly, it’s commonly assumed that if you’re in church at all, you already believe. Why else would you be there? (That’s a joke; albeit, not a very funny one. Read my previous entries if you don’t get it.) Why you believe is rarely if ever addressed, but if you’re there, it’s taken for granted that you’re on board and everybody’s on the same page and we all believe the same things in the same way.

So my insistence that it’s true and demonstrably so might seem like I’m just preaching to the choir.

All of these people have faith too.

For much of the choir, though, “faith” is a matter of emotion and intuition, so reason is left out of the equation. It’s not explained in ways apprehensible by reason, so it’s established on other grounds. “Faith” sort of gestates out of groupthink and is passively absorbed through socialization and indoctrination. Consequently, a great many people will declare that they believe in Jesus Christ, and they’re sincere in the declaration, because they believe that they believe, because they identify with a group purportedly defined by the truth of Christianity—just as any Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, or adherent of any other religion in the world identifies with the culture of his or her upbringing.

But theirs is only a secondhand “faith.” They don’t know for themselves why or if any of it’s true. We’re taught that belief is a virtue in itself, so no burden of evidence need be borne to justify it, and so we’re not equipped to explain it—neither to ourselves nor to others. We’re not equipped to do what Jesus commanded and the apostles modeled by passing on their faith to others, except through the same manipulation by social pressure through which most of us came to “believe.” We can’t evangelize through rational

God's absolute and universal truth, made to order!

discourse as the apostles did; we can only proselytize through advertising and marketing and appeals to emotion and self-interest. Again—we don’t hold Christianity out as true so much as we hold it out to be helpful and attractive and maybe morally obligatory.

On those terms, though, “faith” has nothing to do with any personal connection to God. It just means you’re rooted in your particular culture. It just means you conform to local religious convention and social mores.

And that’s not what Christianity is about. Paul wrote that “God our Savior…desires everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

The Greek word for “knowledge” here is epignosis, which refers not to a general kind of knowledge—a mere academic or theoretical knowledge about something, but an experiential, firsthand personal knowledge—an intimate knowledge of someone or something. It’s a compound word combining gnosis, the general word for “knowledge,” with the prefix epi-, which is an intensifier meaning “at” or “upon.” Some translators render it “true knowledge” to distinguish it from the general or hypothetical.

Jesus said eternal life consists in knowing God and Himself. A person can know about Jesus and God, though, and not have eternal life. To be saved to eternal life, one must epiginosko Him.

Paul spoke elsewhere about those whose devotion to their religious culture prevented them from recognizing and embracing the Object of their religion when He stood right in front of them: “I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on epignosis.”

Paul completed his aforementioned thought “For there is one mediator between God and man: the man Jesus Christ.”

That epignosis of the truth means a direct, unmediated relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It’s not a relationship that depends, ultimately, on anybody else. You don’t need your pastor, parents, peer group, or local church congregation as a go-between. Each of us, individually, is called to “approach the throne of grace with confidence” because Jesus has torn the temple curtain in two, thereby opening access to anyone to approach the Holy of Holies without dependence upon priests or religious authorities to broker our communion. In fact, we ourselves become priests through that communion.

That relationship begins with direct, personal knowledge of the truth of His identity. It’s not just a warm sentiment from long years of cooing over nativity scenes or from nostalgia over hymns and other trappings of tradition, nor from taking a preacher’s word for it, but from a reasoned, rational, personal understanding of the truth. It’s not from identification with a church community by way of subjective feelings, but identification with Jesus Christ through objective knowledge of Who He is.

If someone asked me if I believed in Jesus Christ before I actually did, I would have honestly answered that I did. And, insofar as I wanted to hedge my bets in case I got hit by falling airplane waste or mauled by a bear later on (you never know), I did believe… Or, at least, I suspended disbelief, not knowing that an actual, conscious and rational knowledge of the truth was possible. I thought that what I had was the most “belief” could mean (as popular Christianity had tacitly demonstrated).

But when I came to actually know, in very specific and objective (and communicable) terms, that the gospel of Jesus Christ is actually true… it was like I was awake for the first time. Everything was cast in a new light, and I saw that it all revolved around a previously unperceived Center. The realization shocked me into a completely new awareness of reality—it transformed my consciousness. I didn’t glow or levitate or start communing with animals or anything, and I couldn’t (to my best knowledge) stop a hail of bullets in mid-air with my mind, but I did see into things in a way similar to when Neo, in his

Can you guess Brian's favorite movie? Give up? Ok, it's Bridges of Madison County.

moment of enlightenment, saw the code running through everything in The Matrix. Mine was not a visual “sight,” of course, but I saw a new meaning to the human condition and to history, and existence itself took on a new dimension as my sense of value and morality suddenly resolved into a clear pattern of focus. The realization took Christianity out of the realm of cultural convention and into the realm of objective reality, which illuminated and reshaped reality as I understood it, so I came to understand myself and others and the world at-large in terms I’d never before considered or imagined.

That new consciousness is the same reaction we read about in scripture when Jesus revealed Himself to people, or when the apostles explained the gospel to a responsive audience. It is not yet the New Birth described by Jesus, but it’s a catalyst for it, a preparation. It’s what brings us to the threshold of Rebirth and Eternal Life.

It’s not faith, per se, but faith is a response to the new awareness: because we know—not just “believe” or “feel” or “think,” but know that God Is, and we know that He knows us and wants us to know Him, we put our trust in Him: because we believe about Him, in turn we believe in Him.

Faith is the appropriate response to what can be apprehended by reason; it is not a substitute for nor an excuse to bypass reason.

We read in scripture that God gives us a new nature through faith, and that living by that faith consists then of learning how to increasingly “participate in the Divine Nature.”

And while Jesus Christ is our only Mediator in this, there is a great deal to be said for the role of the local church, and for the larger Church as a whole, in communicating that Truth to catalyze the transformation, and in mentoring us in our participation in the Divine Nature. While our relationship with Him is our own, and our knowledge of Him is supposed to be firsthand, we need someone to initially teach us that information, and then to mentor us in the application of that knowledge. Discipleship is the practical outworking of faith, and we need teachers who are wiser than we are in order to become disciples.

But, this mentor-disciple relationship isn’t something that makes us ultimately dependent upon or enslaved to a church institution in order to know and commune with God. When it’s done according to the apostles’ model, it actually sets us free. It’s the job of church leaders to educate and empower us, to turn us into free agents, so that our own direct relationship with God means we have something to contribute in service to Him and to the Church, and to arm and protect ourselves against those who would use His Name as a pretext for exploitation and personal enrichment.

“So Christ himself gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ might be built up, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming,” wrote Paul.

But the Church isn’t doing that. Not really.

There might be small pockets of Christianity in which this is done, but I haven’t been able to find them (but if you have, throw me a bone, wouldja’?), and they haven’t done much to speak out against and correct the abuses and shortcomings of the mainstream Church.

If the Church were actually doing any of what it’s supposed to, this would be a very different blog (and a very different world). Instead of criticizing and condemning common church teachings and practices, I’d be going on and on about how awesome it is. Actually, no… come to think of it, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t have to. The Church’s reputation would speak for itself.

As it is, though, the Church’s reputation pretty loudly screams how completely off-message and off-mission it really is. News headlines about internationally-known religious leaders getting arrested for DUI or caught doing meth while they cheat on their wives with gay prostitutes… stuff like this doesn’t even shock us anymore.

Recent mug shot of Richard Roberts, deposed heir to the Oral Roberts religious dynasty

As Christians, by definition, because we’re actively participating in His Nature, our lives are supposed to reflect the will and character of God. Yet, it hardly even raises eyebrows when the lives of Christianity’s anointed exemplars turn out to be moral and spiritual train wrecks beneath the Sunday-morning façade of smiles, straight-laces, and sanitized conversation.

But I shouldn’t single out Richard Roberts and Ted Haggard and other fallen Christian luminaries. They just get more attention because they’re the public faces of Christianity. They might be more colorful and dramatic examples because of the lofty height from which they fall, but they’re not really the anomalies we’d prefer to think they are. The same story plays out when we look to the mundane facts of our own daily lives: as I’ve pointed out previously, being a Christian means you’re just as likely as a non-Christian to fail at marriage, have sexually-active teenaged kids, get an abortion, and you’re (arguably) more likely to be the victim and/or perpetrator of an act of domestic violence, or any number of other violent crimes. And you’re just as likely to be in debt and have as much debt, on-average, as a non-Christian. Also, the suicide rate is slightly higher in predominantly Christian countries than in, say, Hindu or Buddhist countries. Atheists are more likely to commit suicide than Christians, but Christians’ having a greater propensity for suicide than Hindus and Buddhists suggests that this has more to do with cultural convention than with any deep-seated spiritual influence.

In short—though our lives are supposed to reflect the will and character of God, being “Christian” doesn’t actually make any substantial difference in our behavior and character. According to all of the observable facts, being “Christian” means you’re just like everybody else—no better, no worse (or “not much worse,” I should say… more on that later), and no different underneath the cultural and cosmetic.

Jesus said that a tree should be judged by its fruit. Many of us might have a culturally-ingrained preference for Christian-flavored “fruit,” so we’re biased in its favor, but according to all of the observable facts, our tree doesn’t yield produce any more nutritious or less rotten than that of our non-Christian neighbors.

When I point these things out to my fellow Christians, a frequent reaction is an insistence that the people contributing to those statistics “aren’t real Christians.” But, even if we subscribe to the No True Scotsman fallacy in this regard, it doesn’t change the fact that we have an entire Church full of people who are “Christian” in name and culture only: the ugly but inescapable fact is that going to church and subjecting oneself to its leadership and teachings and rituals doesn’t make any real difference in how we live our lives.

That isn’t to say that every individual Christian out there is a phony and a fraud and a hypocrite. I personally believe that the majority of churchgoers are sincere and well-meaning and are earnestly searching for an authentic connection with God, but they lack the guidance to show the way. And there are some Christians—many of whom I’ve met—who are different, better, and even holier. You, the reader, might be among them. But if you are, you’re an exception. You’re like that despite the overall influence and example of the mainstream Church, not because of it. And your anticipated kneejerk urgency to defend the religion of your upbringing against my seeming attack, while admirable, is no different and no more justified by truth than the reaction of any Muslim or Mormon or Hindu to defend the sanctity and honor of his or her religious heritage.

My point isn’t to attack or undermine or discourage individual Christians, but to confront the fact that collectively, as an institution, we’ve lost the plot. As private, individual Christians a lot of us might “get it,” but as a group—as a cause or a movement or “a kingdom of priests to serve our God and Father”—we’re a farce. As we are now, we’re a man-made religion masquerading as the kingdom of God, because if our religion is uniquely of God to the exclusion of all competing religions, that certainly isn’t evident from any observable outcome. However we try to spin it, we’re just not accomplishing the purpose for which we were founded two-thousand years ago. We don’t even understand ourselves in those terms.

And when we look at our overall message, there’s no great mystery about that, because the differences between what we teach and what the Bible teaches are just as vast and wide as the disparity between our actual (collective) behavior and the behavior to which we’re called.

For instance, when we read the gospel as “For God so loved the world, He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life,” it’s commonly understood and taught to mean that we’ll go to heaven when we die instead of hell if we hold the correct doctrine about God and Jesus.

Yet, the gospel Jesus taught was that “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When He taught His disciples to pray, He spoke of “heaven” coming here to earth: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We were saved, we read, in order that we can “reign upon the earth.”

When Paul comforted the Thessalonians about their dead, he didn’t tell them not to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope because their loved ones were “in a better place” in heaven. No—they were dead, or “asleep,” Paul said. But, they would rise again at the coming of the Lord, he said, just as the Lord had risen bodily from the grave.

The new life that would reconstitute and reanimate them is the same Divine Nature we’re given now for our salvation.

We teach that the grace by which we are saved is unconditional. The scripture teaches that there is a condition: faith.

We read “faith” to mean mere belief (aka, fideism and so-called “Free Grace” theology), and the popular understanding of Christianity is such that it admits actual debate about whether having Jesus as Savior necessarily demands that we accept Him as Lord, or if a person can “accept Him as Savior” and be done with it.

But the scripture plainly and unambiguously teaches that faith means obedience and that only those who do the will of the Father are accepted, and that God’s commands aren’t unwanted burdens, but instructions to set us free, and that any “Christianity” outside of this understanding is a lie from the mouth of hell.

We teach that whatever “obedience” is necessary will come automatically—that God will pull our puppet-strings and move our feet for us, and that “if there were anything we could do to add to our salvation, we wouldn’t need grace.” But the scripture teaches that obedience means working out our salvation with fear and trembling and making every effort to add to our faith the qualities of the Divine Nature.

We often teach that the Christian life is all about passively “waiting for what God has for you” and relinquishing control by “being open to His will.” But the teaching and example of scripture is that God has already told us what His will is for us, and we are to strive for it—here, now, on earth, as the all-consuming, exclusive purpose and passion of our lives.

We teach that Christianity is all about “family values,” and many of our sermons consist solely of instruction on how be a better parent or spouse: the almost exclusive preoccupation of many churches is to assist in finding and keeping a spouse and in raising a family. In fact, one of the most powerful and influential Christian organizations on the planet contains no reference whatsoever to Christ or to God in its name, as its entire mission in the world is to “Focus on the Family.” Yet, Jesus said that if we do focus on our father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, or even our own lives more than on Him, we are thereby disqualified from following Him.

We teach that the Church is a “hospital for sinners,” suggesting an institution full of broken, helpless people crippled by sin. Insofar as this distinguishes us from a “hospice for sinners,” I would agree, but Jesus’ vision for the Church is much more striking by its contrast: He described us an army waging an aggressive, offensive war—we’re supposed to be on the attack, laying siege to the very gates of hell.

Our preoccupation is on individual salvation to an afterlife in heaven, of which we are passive beneficiaries with no role to contribute apart from being objects upon which God works; but the scripture clearly teaches that the Church, as the Body of the Messiah, is supposed to be God’s active agent in history for saving the entire world, for advancing His kingdom on earth.

The individual contrasts I’ve drawn here might seem trivial at first glance, even nit-picky, so it might look like I’m trying to pick a fight over minutiae like how many angels can fit on the head of a pin or something equally impractical and petty. After all, the positive elements I’ve pointed out from scripture usually show up in some capacity in most representations of Christianity: we all know what the Bible teaches about the Second Coming, the resurrection, the indwelling of the Spirit, and about discipleship. We know we’re supposed to evangelize and be holy and all that stuff…

My point, though, is not that there are all these particular doctrines and patterns of teaching and practice we need to individually correct. Individually, they might seem trivial (although I don’t think they do), but they’re all part of a broader pattern emerging from a false paradigm of Christianity.

That false paradigm certainly incorporates all of the positive elements I’ve held out for comparison, but it has them upside-down and backwards, so they take a back-seat to all the things we’re actually interested in.

True Christianity is active and aggressive in teaching and empowering people to be disciplined and sacrificial—it calls us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him so that we can transform and save the world. It holds out our participation in the Divine Nature as the single, all-important pursuit of our lives, and anything else we might otherwise undertake—marriage, family, career, recreation, etc.—is judged to be good or bad by how it fits into our central lifelong occupation of discipleship.

In contrast, the “Christianity” we know today holds out a “gospel” that says we can live however we want and sin with impunity, presuming upon God’s forgiveness along the way. It offers something called “discipleship,” but it’s entirely optional—something we may or may not fit in if it’s convenient, and it typically has little if anything to do with our actual calling to transformation into Christ-likeness through our participation in the Divine Nature. Instead, it’s full of instruction about better parenting and money-management or how to improve our marriages, because “God’s grace,” as we represent it, leaves no room for anything in the way of active spiritual discipline, so all that’s left for us to do is to tend to our personal earthly interests, but under the guise of “finding God’s will for our lives,” while “eternal life” consists of nothing but our quiet, passive conformity until we die.

Instead of a call to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him so we can transform and save this world, the Church offers “God” as a means to fulfill our personal ambition and the “gospel” as a way to find our lives in this world. It teaches us that “godliness” means passivity instead of initiative. It emasculates us instead of empowering us, indoctrinates instead of educating, and teaches us to give in to temptation and personal desire instead of seeking discipline and holiness at all costs. Genuine Christianity is all about surpassing our base humanity and overcoming the pattern of this world, but the “gospel” we teach is all about capitulating to them.

As I discussed at length in my previous entry, this is the version of “Christianity” that we prefer. As religious consumers, we want the most “bang” for the least “buck,” and so we approach religion with questions about what the least is we can get away with and still get by with God, and about how much we can still be of the world but still get into heaven—or “What’s your church going to offer me more than this other church down the street?” And this is what the free market has provided.

So it’s no wonder that the form of godliness popularly offered has no power to transform us, and there is little-to-no evidence of the Divine Nature in our lives and behavior, and so we’ve come to expect failure in ourselves and in our leadership as a matter of course.

And this might tempt us to despair because, I acknowledge, all of this might seem to be unbearably pessimistic. At least, that’s the feedback I get from most of my critics: I’m too negative and pessimistic, which alone is sufficient justification to dismiss and ignore my message, evidently.

But I absolutely deny that I’m a pessimist. I’d be a pessimist if I thought this was how things are supposed to be, or the best they could be. I won’t say I’m an “optimist,” though, because “optimism” might be taken to suggest an unrealistically positive outlook. My outlook is positive, but not unrealistically so, because my outlook is based on what God has promised.

No, the real pessimists are the people who claim to believe but see the teachings of the New Testament as unrealistic, out-of-reach ideals. Those people are usually heavily-invested in the status quo, though, so it’s understandable that they’d want to preserve it against reform and change. It’s understandable, but still indefensible (not to mention cowardly).

We can change. We need not despair, because if God is real and is faithful, everything I’ve described here is attainable in this life. That doesn’t mean sinless perfection, obviously, but it does mean a functional and authentic Church.

It is impossible from our own efforts and resources, which explains our present failure. But someone once told me, “If you’re not attempting the impossible, you’re not trusting in God.”

And that isn’t just a pious cliché. If we truly follow a God who raises the dead and who put His own Nature within us, then we’re not really living as Christians if we’re not doing what could only be done by exceeding our mortal limitations. If we’re living within those limitations, we’re only playing “Christian.” It’s not a good enough excuse to blame our failures on our fallen human nature, because the entire point of Christianity is that we are no longer constrained by that nature, because He’s given us a new Nature—His own.

I recognize, however, that this is easier said than done, as the present paradigm of Christianity still represents a considerable obstacle to awakening the Church and rising to our calling. And that paradigm isn’t without its defenses, which work as a self-reinforcing, “chicken-and-the-egg”-kind of fortification against correction.

First, no one is going to rise to that level of commitment without first knowing, beyond any reasonable doubt, that God really did give us a new, superhuman Nature by which to live. The price of commitment to that new Nature is too high to pay without that guarantee. God raised Jesus from the dead as His pledge to this promise, but we have to know that Jesus rose from the dead—not just “believe” it or assent to it as a doctrinal point.

And the Church at-large doesn’t really teach or demonstrate that, except as a pious sentiment to be accepted as a cultural obligation, which doesn’t inspire much in the way of discipline and commitment. In the interest of getting as many butts in seats as possible, we’ve made “Christianity” as inclusive as we can, and so the “gospel” is offered as a passive invitation instead of a mandate based on facts and reality with demands of intellectual and moral accountability.

Secondly, even if a person does discover that awesome Truth for him/herself and wants to commit, absolutely, to living fully according to it… what then? The Church offers no real outlet for that level of commitment and devotion. A person might have the aforementioned “zeal based on knowledge” of which Paul wrote, but there’s nothing to do with all that zeal within the context of the mainstream Church. If you look to popular Christianity for guidance in following that conviction, they might give you plenty to do in the way of serving its purposes, but you’ll soon begin to realize that genuine faith is incidental and irrelevant to those purposes, and your conviction might well fade over time as you settle into the comfortable apathy of “Christianity” as we know it.

So, I intend to devote my next entry to explaining how we can know, from the evidence, that Christianity is true.

For that to matter, though, we have to demolish our present paradigm of “Christianity.” Just as popular consumer demand shaped this farce we practice now, we should demand that the true gospel be taught and practiced, and we should abandon those churches that don’t. We should hold our leaders accountable by demanding that they teach us how to participate in the Divine Nature instead of using Christianity as a pretext to teach us how to go after the same things the world goes after (and feel free to direct them to my blog if you don’t know how to broach the subject more directly). To be honest, I’m skeptical that they would even know how to teach that, since it’s not exactly current knowledge, but if there’s enough demand, and enough intolerance of falsehood, we would, collectively, apply ourselves to learning, just as they did in the 1st century.

Not that there’s anything wrong, of course, with learning how to be better parents and spouses or learning how to handle our money and finding a suitable career, but we don’t need a Messiah to tell us how to do all that, and we trivialize His mission when we reduce Him to that. As the Lord said “Pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and these things will be added to you as well.”

If I haven’t driven this point home by now, the fact that we’re not doing any better than our pagan neighbors in attaining these things should be indication that we’re not really seeking His kingdom. When we are genuinely seeking His kingdom and His righteousness, though, we won’t need to devote so much attention to fixing our marriages and finances, because those concerns will take care of themselves.

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The Foundation, part 2: Consumers in the Market for a Seeker-Friendly God

In my last entry, I talked about how our popular notion of “faith” actually amounts to a negation, a reversal of the gospel taught by Jesus and the apostles.

Instead of salvation by grace through faith, with faith as the converse of law, we turn “faith” into a kind of law. Instead of educating people on why Christianity is actually true so that genuine faith will result, many churches merely indoctrinate people by holding out a series of subtle reinforcements, positive and negative, to manipulate conformity to a set of beliefs, thereby reducing “faith” to mere agreement with that belief system.

Consequently, many people don’t believe Christianity because it’s true, but because they’ve been pressured to suspend disbelief, or because they want it to be true—because their sense of belonging and identity are wrapped up in their religion. They’re invested in their church community and culture, and doctrinal affirmation is the coin by which they pay into that investment.

That isn’t to suggest that I think that the rest of the Church is completely ignorant about the literal, factual truth of Christianity. No, there are a lot of really good, really effective Christian apologists out there, and their books can be easily found in the Religion-section of any popular bookstore (which isn’t to say that “Here, read this Josh McDowell book…” should be the standard answer when someone asks why we believe all this stuff.  I also certainly don’t mean to endorse anyone and everyone out there claiming to uphold the factual truth of Christianity. It’s my intention to present my own case for the truth of Christianity shortly, though).

My point is that apologetics occupies but a small, barely-significant niche within the overall scheme of Christian thought and ministry, when it should be at the very center. In fact, our message should be apologetics more than anything else, and everything else that falls under the term “Christianity” should proceed from that foundation. That’s how the apostles initiated people into the Christian faith: by teaching people, rationally and reasonably, that it’s actually true. That’s how they generated authentic faith among their followers, and it was from this starting point that discipleship then proceeded, and Christianity grew into a world religion and transformed the ancient world.

For Paul, it was war. That isn’t to say that he compared it to a war—that “war” was a metaphor or a figure of speech he used to dramatize his mission. No, for him, it was an actual, offensive war of conquest to carry out the Great Commission. But, it wasn’t fought with swords or by physical violence. It was a war of ideas, a war of thought and reason. It wasn’t a war of one man-made philosophy against another, but a war of light against darkness, knowledge over ignorance, reality over illusion, of universal truth over falsehood, transparency over esoteric mysticism. It was a war to enlighten the world despite itself.

It was a war, but there was no coercion involved, because there was no violence, no leveraging by way of sticks and carrots. In fact, such an approach would have undermined and unraveled everything for which Jesus and the apostles fought and suffered. Rather, they fought and won by persuading and convincing people that the gospel actually is true, so that people could choose, of their own free will, to join the Church, and to fight in the war in which it was embroiled.  Think Morpheus offering Neo the choice between the blue pill and the red pill, but only after telling him all about the Matrix, so he’d know what he was getting into.

In contrast, when a rank-and-file churchgoer is questioned today about why he believes in Christianity, his answer is likely to be, “…because it’s what I’ve put my faith in.” And he might even say that proudly, having been taught all his life that such an orientation is a virtue in itself—that it’s praiseworthy to believe and uphold whatever a religious authority or a long-standing institution tells you is true, without any justification in evidence.

Of course, in our rank-and-file churchgoer’s defense, that attitude isn’t without its vague basis in scripture. Or, at least, it’s not without basis in our conventional interpretation of scripture. After He had risen and appeared to “Doubting Thomas” and passed his criterion for belief, Jesus told him, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen, yet believed.”

I think we tend to projectour assumptions of fideism onto this and other verses, though, instead of getting that idea from the scripture itself. If we read the text in its broader context, we’ll see that Jesus only expected Thomas’ supposedly “blind” belief after a few years of watching Jesus walk on water, give sight to blind people, raise the dead, and then hearing Him tell them outright on several occasions that He would rise from the dead. Anyone would normally be skeptical about such a claim, but given the circumstances, Jesus had a reasonable expectation to be taken seriously by the people who knew Him best.

So, Jesus isn’t holding out unreasoning credulity as God’s favorite virtue here. He isn’t saying, “Blessed are you if you believe every outlandish claim made in God’s name.” In fact, He explicitly told the disciples to maintain a posture of skepticism about such claims, and made a few remarks to imply that there would be more false teachers and prophets than true. Rather, He’s saying—once the fact of His identity and God’s nature and existence are established (as they were for Thomas), to trust Him. He was admonishing His friend for not believing in Him after He’d already passed every possible criteria for belief. And He wasn’t asking him to believe in Him as a point of doctrine, nor as the mascot of their local religious institution, but as his Friend and Mentor.

Most believers and skeptics today aren’t quite in the same position as Thomas, though.

And besides all that, there’s a world of difference between an honest and completely reasonable question of “Why should I believe Jesus rose from the dead?” and “I will not believe unless God does thus and thus to satisfy my requirements, because the burden is on Him to do things on my terms...” There is a sense in which we “see” the truth when we’re exposed to the evidence and take it under honest consideration, but that’s a far cry from the kind of seeing Thomas demanded and experienced. It’s one thing to ask for evidence for honest consideration of a seemingly incredible claim, it’s quite another to demand a personal Theophany on the road to Damascus, or to demand a sign from heaven because you disapprove of the miracles you just saw Someone perform.

The latter is a dishonest excuse to reject belief in the face of clear and compelling evidence; the former is reasonable and expected, and it’s for the purpose of answering such questions that the Church exists in the first place, which is why learning how to do that was an essential occupation of the original Christians, hence Peter’s instruction to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

“…because it’s what I’ve put my faith in” is obviously not such an answer, though. That’s just a restatement of the question, which implies that the question can’t be answered, because our faith has no justification in evidence, because it’s nothing but a culturally-ingrained superstition. The rank-and-file churchgoer hasn’t been equipped to give an answer, though, because the objective truth or falsehood of Christianity is really beside the point in today’s religious climate.

Whether or not Christianity is true is completely incidental to our paradigm of religion. Where most people are concerned, it doesn’t matter if any of it is actually real, it only matters if it’s emotionally useful—if it’s “uplifting” or “encouraging.” So, there isn’t much concerted effort to follow the apostles’ example by presenting Christianity as demonstrably true. Instead, we spend all our time and energy trying to make Christianity attractive.

But, I recognize that I’m just one guy with a blog, shaking my fist at the rest of Christendom and claiming that I’m right and they’re all wrong, so I imagine I might appear something of a raving lunatic by now… or, at least, a self-important narcissist with messianic delusions.

This isn’t actually me, but you get the idea…

“Lots of really smart church leaders would disagree with you, Brian,” said one of my critics in recent years after hearing a small sample of my case against the false gospel of mainstream Christianity. The implication was “If all of these learned professionals are saying one thing, and you’re saying another, who’s more likely to be in the right?”

So, yeah… I fully acknowledge the apparent audacity of my position so far, and I recognize that guys like me and blogs like this are a dime-a-dozen, and that any given church-reject isn’t likely to have too many answers worth listening to, and so I probably wouldn’t listen to me either…

Except… where has their leadership gotten us? This thing we’re calling “Christianity” right now—is this really what Jesus and the apostles envisioned? Does anyone out there really think it is? If you were to ask even the learned professionals at the helm of the Church, even they would tell you that it’s not. We’re almost constantly hearing calls for revival and repentance from the pulpit and over Christian airwaves, so it’s all but universally acknowledged that something is off-kilter about the Church, even by its leaders. (See my About page for a full explanation of what I’m talking about.)

And then there’s the explicit warning of Jesus against basing our security on how many people agree with us: the road to life is narrow, He said, and the way to destruction is broad, and many follow it. So, doing what everybody else is doing is never really a safe bet. In fact, according to Jesus, it just about guarantees that we’re off the rails.

So what does that mean, then? That any and all Christian gatherings with a big turnout are necessarily bad, and that we should bet on the crazed loner instead?

Well, no…  I don’t think it means quite that. I do think it means that all leaders—from crazed loners with blogs to world-renowned megachurch pastors—are suspect, so we shouldn’t follow any of them blindly, nor should we disqualify them out-of-hand, crazed loners included.

It means, instead of following crowds or trying to find safety in numbers, we each have to exercise our own judgment and discernment, first and foremost by finding out for ourselves why Christianity is true… if it is true. If we’re just looking to be safe by going with the crowd and only believing what’s “officially-approved,” then Jesus doesn’t have much to offer us: “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it,” He said. If we give up our security blanket and resolve to follow the truth wherever it leads, that truth will set us free, He promises. But, if we’re just trying to hide in a crowd and live by conventional wisdom, we’re missing the point.

Most importantly, we need to calibrate our BS-detectors by reckoning with the fact that much of what we encounter in the marketplace of ideas is shaped in large part by (what can best be termed) Religious Consumerism. And this is a pretty obvious phenomenon to outsiders, I think, but it isn’t always so plain to people on the inside. Fish don’t know they’re wet, after all.

Here’s what I mean: It is widely held (among regular churchgoers, at any rate) that the leaders of Christendom are there because God Himself approves of them and appointed them to the task of teaching and guiding us—they’re the shepherds, we’re the sheep, they know stuff we don’t, they’re closer to God than we are, etc., and that’s why they’re up there on stage and we’re not. This is a belief reinforced by liberal quotations of certain verses of scripture, but these verses simply could not have been intended in the absolute and unqualified sense in which they’re typically construed by church leaders, lest we take them as God’s endorsement of Pope Leo X against Martin Luther, Emperor Diocletian against Christianity itself, Emperor Nero against Paul and Peter and the rest of the Christians of Rome, the Sanhedrin against the apostles, and the Pharisees and teachers of the law against Jesus, or the priests and kings of Judah against the prophets. Clearly, simply having authority in some form is no real indication of God’s endorsement or approval, and therefore it isn’t sufficient basis for authority in spiritual matters.

The fact is that not only do we (theoretically) live in a free market economy, but we also live in a free religious market: people are free to believe whatever they want to believe and to worship however and wherever and whatever they please. And so, yes—it is a “market,” because the same principles apply in popular religion as they do in economics. That being the case—if he wants to draw the largest number of people into his church and be economically successful, a religious leader has to offer churchgoers as much of what they want while asking as little from them as he can. If a church-shopper can get what he wants and pay less for it in Church A than in Church B, he’s obviously going to attend Church A, especially if he goes to Church B and hears teachings, music, or theology that he doesn’t like or that makes demands on him he’s not willing to meet (and by “asking a church-shopper to pay,” I don’t mean payment in mere tithes, obviously).

Ergo, the preacher—in actual practice—doesn’t necessarily function as God’s servant to lead His people. Instead, he is—in actual practice—a purveyor of religious goods and services. Being the leader of a massive megachurch, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean a preacher enjoys God’s approval and anointing. It only necessarily means that he has the approval and support of a great many religious consumers. More than anything else, and regardless of whatever titles he accepts or proclaims for himself, he is very often more entertainer than prophet or apostle or God-inspired teacher.

And, the more patronage a preacher has from religious consumers, the greater share of the religious market he’ll enjoy. Having a greater share of the market, of course, means having more influence over what constitutes “Christianity” in the popular understanding. His brand of “church” sets the standard for the market, and all other brands will be measured by that standard. And because people tend to equate what is normative with what is true, a sort of auto-immune disease sets in whenever that normative version of Christianity is challenged or is not adhered to: if it conflicts with “God’s truth” as it is commonly understood, it must be heresy, the reasoning goes. Except, it isn’t God, necessarily, nor even the preacher himself who ultimately sets the standard. Again, it’s the consumer.

YOU’RE in charge, consumer!

The consumer is king in the Church, then, no less than in the marketplace. The preacher might bear the titles of “shepherd” and “leader” but, ultimately, he’s not actually in charge of the shape or direction of the Church, and neither are the elders or deacons, any more than a pop singer is in charge of whether his concerts sell out or how many downloads his music commands. The consumer is. If the consumer doesn’t like what’s being taught, he’ll go to a different church and he’ll take his tithes with him. This, obviously, means less income for the church, and most likely a smaller salary for the preacher and other staff, if they manage to “stay in business” at all. If they want to increase their income, then, the preacher will have to either change his message and his depiction of God to better appeal to the consumer, or he’ll have to find another livelihood.

I want to clarify, however, that I don’t believe most church leaders deliberately manipulate this to their advantage. I’m not saying pastors get together to conspire to intentionally present a watered-down, counterfeit gospel so they can get rich. I’m not even accusing them of insincerity, for the most part. I think they’re wrong in a great many respects, but I do think they’re preaching what they sincerely believe to be true, for the most part. Of course, there are those of whom (I think) it’s pretty obvious that they don’t really believe in God and Christ, but have found a tried-and-true method of parting people from their

“All ‘love gifts’ are non-refundable. Hallelujah! Can I get an ‘amen’!”

money. I’m pretty cynical, but I’m not so cynical that I believe this to be true of the majority, though. There is always the temptation to do what’s popular and profitable before what’s right—to succumb to the temptation for all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor—so it’s inevitable that some would knowingly give in to it, to some degree or another, but I don’t believe most church leaders have purposefully tailored their teachings to maximize their income. I think most of them believe in what they’re teaching and doing (shallow and ineffective though it is) and many of them are as alarmed as I am at the present state of the Church.

Naturally, though, most of them started out as religious consumers themselves before they became purveyors, and so they are as much products of normative Christianity as they are the medium through which it’s purveyed. Instead of guile and manipulation, I think most popular and “successful” church leaders got where they are simply because they preach what they believe—what they’ve been indoctrinated to believe by normative, mainstream Christianity—and do it with verve and eloquence and energy, and so the market responded favorably to them. If people hear what they want to hear and are entertained in the telling, they’ll come back for more of that preacher’s sermons and listen to his radio program, buy his books, adopt his theology and terminology and turns of phrases, etc. Also, I’m sure he’s

“Thank you, God, for making me the best rapper in the world and anointing me as the voice of my generation…”

completely sincere—at least as much as any secular pop star or actor giving an acceptance speech—when he inevitably credits his popularity to God and to His “blessing” or “anointing.” And in some rare cases, I even believe that to be true. For the most part, though, it’s plain that it isn’t really God reaching down from heaven and lifting them to the heights; it’s the market of religious consumers holding them up because they’ve cultivated a brand of “Christianity” that appeals to them, whatever the reason might be for that appeal.

And church leaders have shown that there’s little they won’t do to cultivate that appeal, from free gas to high-end electronics, or church-sanctioned gladiatorial contests—nothing that gets butts in seats is beneath us. Jesus was known on more than one occasion to deliberately offend people so He could weed out all but the most committed followers, yet we’re more than happy to pander shamelessly in His name today—anything to “bring people to the love of Jesus”… and to cut out a bigger piece of the pie that is our religious market.

Hopefully, though, it’s obvious that none of this is meant as a condemnation of our freedom of religion. We tried compulsory religion for about a thousand years and that didn’t turn out so well, and so we obviously shouldn’t go back to that. If the Old Covenant teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t compel people to be godly and righteous through legislation. The very best you can do with legal enforcement is to compel them to fake it.

But, the reason we have laws in other sectors of society is that human nature, left to itself—left to lawlessness—inevitably leads to savagery and injustice and suffering. Without law, people do what they want, and what they (we) tend to want isn’t always very nice: the

This is a paraphrase from one of St. Augustine’s lesser-known treatises on Original Sin.

strong take advantage of the weak, the clever take advantage of the gullible, and murder, theft, exploitation, and lies become the rule. When there’s no authority to compel us otherwise, our tendency is to act like selfish toddlers… toddlers with guns and cars and sex

drives and stockpiles of resources and means of production, that is.

Left to themselves, people tend to serve their appetites, and in matters of religion, people are generally left to themselves, which is why they tend toward the Broad Path to Destruction instead of the Narrow Road to Life.

Genuine Christianity is that narrow path, but the counterfeit version is so prevalent and so deeply ingrained that we’re not likely to find the real thing… unless we know to look for it and to distinguish it from cheap knock-offs (hence the effort of this blog entry).

Even recognizing the commercial and consumer-aspects of popular “Christianity,” though, Christians are still often reluctant to see it in those terms. After all, Christianity is of God, so it should be impervious to any deep or lasting corruption, right?

The message is of God and so, yes—it is pure and holy and powerful and everlasting. But, the medium through which it’s communicated and interpreted and embodied is us: frail, fallible, and vicious humanity, with all of our petty appetites and personal agendas. Christianity was God’s revolution when it started, but now it’s our institution, and so it’s subject to all the predictable sociological patterns of any other social movement or revolution.

Every cultural revolution, by definition, starts out as a challenge to the existing order. If it attracts any kind of following, it will eventually grow from a countercultural movement against established institutions and into a legitimized or semi-legitimized subculture. As it grows in popularity, it matures from subculture to mainstream culture, and then it is only a matter of time before it is institutionalized – as a set of axiomatic cultural assumptions, at least, if not a full-blown legal framework, and actually becomes the existing order in place of the previous order it opposed.

This pattern repeats itself in every successful political, social, or religious movement in history. We can see it plainly in the gay rights movement of the past 40 years, and it holds for the civil rights movement and for the sexual revolution, and it can be seen in the first four centuries of the Church, in the Protestant Reformation, and in any other enduring movement within Christendom since, and within civilization as a whole.

Of course, as the movement “matures” from Revolution into Institution, the conditions for belonging to it change dramatically over time. When it begins, it’s regarded as “heresy” or “treason” or “deviance” by those who support the existing order, largely because it threatens the traditions that have been enshrined into institution and now keep the existing order in power. Once it gains a following and outgrows some of its vulnerability to persecution, it might only be regarded as “underground” or  “eccentric”—still something distasteful and disagreeable in polite society, but something to be tolerated, if only barely, by society at-large. As it grows in popularity and eventually becomes a part of the mainstream culture, it then becomes normalized. Once it’s normalized, it’s only a matter of time before it’s considered abnormal not to be a part of it or, at least, not to be a nominal supporter, and so it becomes institutionalized and allegiance becomes compulsory—if not legally, then at the very least, socially (What politician could have any realistic expectation of getting elected if he openly denounced Christianity, for instance? At the same time, homosexuality has come to enjoy the same kind of protected status as well in recent decades—not quite the same degree, but the same quality. We wouldn’t elect a gay president quite yet, but a candidate who openly denounced homosexuality would damage his chances as well).

With the change in the conditions of membership, naturally, comes a change in the character of the members, and of the movement itself, consequently. Because of the high price of membership during the initial Revolution stage, the movement’s purposes and principles are clearly defined and understood, and a person only joins because he or she believes wholeheartedly in the cause, because the price of membership might well be self-sacrifice. When the movement grows into a Subculture, someone might join because he or she believes in the cause, or they might just be curious or in search of a cause for its own sake, and so the movement and its membership get to be a little fuzzier around the edges. When it becomes Mainstream Culture, it then becomes a means to social currency, and so people are less concerned with what they’re joining or why—only that they’re a part of it. Membership has less to do with conviction than with conformity at this point, and so the fundamental principles of the movement become obscured beneath popular perceptions of, and popular uses for the movement. The movement then becomes more malleable, more adaptable to the culture’s lowest common denominator. When it becomes an Institution, then it’s compulsory, and the leaders of the movement become the new social order in the place of the one they originally overturned.

At this point, because commitment to or identification with the original principles and purposes of the movement are no longer necessary, nor even really relevant to joining it, the basic assumptions of the institutionalized form of the movement bear only a loose resemblance to the principles that defined the movement at its revolutionary stage, and might even directly contradict those principles. But, the original movement is invoked as the justification for the institutionalized principles, and they are enshrined as dogma and held to be sacred.

In this way, every revolution carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. It begins with a small group of people who are absolutely committed to a specific, clearly-defined cause in defiance of the existing order, and they’re willing to sacrifice themselves in service to that cause because they believe it to be greater than themselves or anything they might lose in service to it. If they’re successful their movement will live on after them, but given enough time and success and complacency, it will eventually transform into the very institution they set out to oppose. Entropy is the natural state of civilization just as in the physical universe.

This is why many of Jesus’ supposed followers throughout the ages have borne such a striking resemblance to the very people who crucified Him. This is why the apostle Peter,

“Rack or strappado? What would Jesus do…?”

as leader of the Church of Rome, was murdered at the order of the Roman emperor, but Peter’s successors in later generations came to rule over the very same empire and preside over the torture and execution of “heretics.” This is why, for the first three centuries of its existence, belonging to the Church meant enduring persecution for their faith, but the same supposed “faith” has since become the rationale by which the Church has brutalized its enemies.

The fact is, whenever any movement or ideology or religion – be it of divine or human origin—transforms from revolution to institution, people will inevitably adapt it to their own purposes, and those purposes will rarely be consistent or compatible with the original aims of the movement, especially when a world hostile to God adapts God’s revelation for its own purposes. But, this bizarre hybrid of contradictory ideas and purposes and values will be the normative expression of the original movement. Because it’s normative, then, it becomes the standard by which all expressions of the original movement are evaluated by the general public. As a result, a sort of Institutional Auto-Immune Disease sets in, so that even if the original founder of the movement were to show up to make corrections, he’s more likely to be condemned and crucified than listened to.

And that’s what we’ve done with Christianity. That’s why we see such a striking difference between what we read in scripture and what we see with our own eyes on Sunday morning, and in national trends.

For some perspective, let’s consider what Christianity actually is, as it’s described in the New Testament:

Christianity is typically advertised today as the way to “go to heaven after we die,” but it’s actually even better than that. Heaven is “heaven” because He’s there, and hell is “hell” because He’s not. The earth is the hell that it is because of His (partial) absence, but the gospel is our invitation out of hell and into the paradise of His Presence.

Jesus offered Himself in atonement so that our sins—our sin nature, that is—would no longer separate us from God. But the gospel isn’t just God’s promise that we’ll get to be with Him, although that would be enough in itself. Not only can we know and be in the Presence of the One we worship, but we can actually become like Him: Christ’s resurrection and ascension mean that human nature, having been justified by the Atonement, has now been raised up into the Godhead, and the Godhead in turn descends to dwell within humanity, to remake each of us from within. Everything we admire, love, and worship in Jesus Christ, then, we can becomemust become. That is what He gave us. That’s what He died for.

The apostle Peter summed up the Christian life as our “participation in the Divine Nature.” Paul exemplified the “mystery of the gospel” as “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” explaining that, as the “fullness of the Deity” resides in Christ, so does the “fullness of Christ” reside in us. If we have the Divine Nature within, we have everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him. We have His Essence inside of us—His Life, His DNA, so to speak. Having His Nature means we have it within us to become like Him, to take on His character and godliness, His goodness and holiness.

That’s the gospel, the “good news” the apostles told their followers.

They also explained it as being really, really hard.

It’s not a hardship that really registers if you’re in love with Jesus Christ, though, because it’s worth far more than any amount of effort or sacrifice we could make. It’s like being in a really dysfunctional relationship with someone we’re madly in love with (actually, it’s not like that, it is that): it’s work, and it’s hard, but you wouldn’t want it any other way, because you can’t live without that person. Of course, in this relationship, all of the dysfunction is on our side, because our natural sinful tendencies are the source of the drama, and our relationship with Him puts us at odds with the rest of the world.

That’s why Peter said we have to make every effort to add to our faith the qualities of the Divine Nature. Paul said to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” He compared it to intense athletic training, while he and Peter repeatedly exhorted their followers to consistent, single-minded discipline.

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” wrote Peter.

As I understand it, again—it’s like DNA. We inherit God’s DNA, so to speak, so it’s as if He adds a third strand to the double-helix genetic structure we inherited from our parents. To elaborate, let’s say that both of our parents were Olympic gold medalists, which means we have it within us to become the same, because we’re made of the same material. Just like our salvation, we didn’t earn that. There’s nothing we could do to get that nature if we don’t already have it. We had nothing to do with our parents meeting and falling in love, yet we benefit freely from the outcome, by being alive and by inheriting their exceptional genetic qualities.

But, we’ll never become anything if we just sit around eating donuts and drinking beer and playing Xbox all day. We have to get out and train. We have to work to bring our nature to fruition. We have to want it. We have to believe in it. If we just do that, we’ll inevitably become what they were, because we’ll eventually find that the Higher Nature we’re tapping into actually lends itself to the pursuit– we’ll find our highest joy in becoming our best selves, so that we don’t even miss the self-indulgence and hedonism we had to give up to seek it.

But if we don’t, we’ll squander our inheritance and disgrace ourselves by wasting what we were given.

Our level of discipline is the measure of our belief in what we’ll become.

That’s how it is with our eternal inheritance. We didn’t earn it, but we still have to actively trust Him and His promises by being obedient—by following His instructions and those of His representatives.

According to the apostles, this demands our full, absolute commitment, and not just ours, but the commitment of others to aid our training. It’s actually far greater an undertaking than any individual person can accomplish alone, and so we need help, and we, in turn, are obligated to help others who join the Path after us.

That, we read, is why the Church exists. Paul explained that the entire purpose for apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers and others comprising the leadership of the Church was to facilitate the divine training—to mentor believers in their participation in the Nature of God. I read it to mean that if a church follows this model—if a church is faithful and functional, that is—you shouldn’t be able to walk in for the first time and be able to tell who the pastor is, because he’d be behind the scenes. It’s his and other leaders’ job to train others in the use of their divine gifts and in the operation of the Church, so that everybody does their part in preaching and teaching and ministering.

It’s their job to train people in the spiritual disciplines, and in ministry in its various forms. The local church should be a place of intellectual development, philosophical refinement, intense prayer and meditation, and physical training, even, where it’s necessary (I’ll explain that in a later blog). The church should also be a staging point for local outreach and ministry—for putting all that training to practical use. The local church should be a university, a dojo, a co-ed monastery, a fraternal organization, and a charitable foundation all wrapped up in one, through which we become more and more like Christ by doing what Christ did. In so doing, not only do we transform ourselves, but we transform the world around us—we outgrow the defects of our own character by growing into the qualities of the Divine Nature, and as a part of that process, we work for the betterment and perfection of the world around us. That’s how God’s kingdom advances on earth—how His will is done on earth as it is in heaven: we become the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The general picture I get from the New Testament for what the Church is supposed to be is something akin to the Jedi Order (if the Jedi had day jobs). Our calling

“Look what I made at Bible camp, Obi Wan!”

is to attune ourselves to the living reality of the Higher Power to Whom we are devoted, and in so doing, we are personally transformed and empowered to become the agents of that Higher Power in the world.

How does all of this factor into our present-day paradigm of “Christianity,” though? When we carry out this weekly exercise known as “going to church,” what is our understood purpose? Do we typically have this understanding of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it when we rise early on Sunday morning to herd our families into minivans and shuttle them off to Sunday school and church service? Is it “participation in the Divine Nature” that we’re all really after when we go to Sunday services and Bible studies and other church functions?

Or, would we even go to a church that advertised this as its purpose? Could we even take that offer seriously, in view of what we’ve come to expect from Christianity As Advertised?

Now, we do see glimpses of this today, but mostly only among “professional” Christians—the seminarians and preachers and pastors and charitable administrators and outreach volunteers. And, they do accomplish a lot of good, and I don’t at all mean to disparage that. But it’s not anything even remotely in the ballpark of the real good we’re promised and to which we’re called. Christian ministry and outreach today is not the outgrowth of that deeper, ongoing personal transformation into Christ-likeness that we see described in the New Testament, which is supposed to be the lifelong occupation of every single Christian. Most of what we do today is just patchwork on a leaky dam about to break, or propaganda to uphold our collective “Christian” tribalism (again, see my About section for the skinny on all that).

I acknowledge, however, that it’s incredibly extreme and oppressive to expect people to live this way: to put personal transformation into Christ-likeness before all else—career, family, recreation, etc. I get that. It’s a pretty tall order, and people have other things going on—things that are much more important to them.

It’s only extreme and oppressive, though, because we don’t really believe in the rewards we’re promised.  We don’t really believe it’s worthwhile… at least, not on the terms we read about in scripture.

And that’s really it, isn’t it? I mean, we’re willing to say we believe all this stuff if it means we get a congregation (theoretically) full of friends and free babysitters, a cultural identity and a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and, even, a sense of cultural superiority, along with a way to convince our kids not to have sex (which isn’t really working, by the way).

“Christianity” as we know it offers a lot of fringe benefits. But, when it comes to actually putting our faith in Him—not just affirming the party line and enjoying the support and approval of our fellows, but actually risking something of ourselves because we believe He’ll come through and that it’s worthwhile—that’s where we usually fold. Because we don’t actually believe He’ll come through. We don’t actually believe that putting Christ first and foremost and that “considering everything loss for the sake of Christ” would be a wise investment.

Now, all things being equal, correcting this should just be a simple matter of showing people the evidence and explaining that Christianity is actually true. That’s easy and simple enough to do (which I plan to devote my next entry to demonstrating), and so we should be able to just see that, understand that God is real and that He really did promise all this stuff, and then get with the program. After all, that’s how the apostles originally imparted faith and turned Christianity into an international movement in the first place.

Except, we have a couple of pretty daunting obstacles to that today.

First, we have the corrupting influence of Religious Consumerism: we approach religion as consumers, and the demands of the market have contorted Christianity into something that can be packaged and distributed for mass-consumption.

Again, our concept of “faith” is the most poignant and far-reaching example of this.

Our popular understanding of religion and spirituality tells us that “faith” is a matter of personal feelings and intuition—it’s subjective, that is, and its object and leadings vary from person to person. It tells us that God has a different plan for each and every person, and that plan is perceptible by this “faith.”

Such a “faith,” of course, is wonderfully self-serving. When we hear something we like from the pulpit, for example, we commonly attribute its influence to the very Spirit of God: “The Holy Spirit spoke to me through that sermon,” we often hear each other say, or, “The Holy Spirit spoke to me through this verse, and it means thus and thus for me…

Curiously, these individualized messages from God are often contradictory from person to person, from pastor to pastor, from denomination to denomination: I’ve often heard completely opposite and mutually-exclusive messages from any two given preachers, but each with the same verve and conviction and moral authority that come only from the certainty that one is speaking for God.

So, either God just can’t make up His mind about theology, social issues, morality, and the meaning of any given scripture verse… or, it’s not really Him speaking in most or all of these instances. It’s much more likely that when we hear something from the pulpit or read something in scripture that we can interpret favorably to our own circumstances (because we never interpret it unfavorably, do we?), it’s not really the Holy Spirit validating whatever spin we’re putting on it, but our own wishful thinking.

“Those aren’t my lips moving, sinner, that’s just your unbelief…”

What we’re really doing is creating a sort of psychic ventriloquist dummy to tell us what we want to hear, and we call it by His name—we turn it into an idol, and worship it in His place.

Because if “faith” is a matter of subjective feelings, “God” is whatever we want Him to be, and because we all have different desires for what we want God to be, the free market inevitably provides in the form of an endless selection of denominational variety, which gives almost all of us an altar of our choice to huddle around with people who think just like we do, who are happy to reinforce our preconceptions.

And then we attribute those preconceptions to God, and exalt our own wishful thinking and prejudices to His throne. Having done so, our Institutional Auto-Immune Disease sets in, and we defend our tribalism and cultural assumptions as mandates from on high, and condemn anything or anyone who challenges them as “heresy.”

And then a strange reversal takes place: Jesus said that if we try to save our lives we’ll lose them, but if we lose our lives we’ll find them. He said if we love our father and mother, brothers and sisters, wives and children more than we love Him, we’re not worthy of Him, and if we want to follow Him, we have to deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily.

Yet, when we huddle around our respective altars to hear teachings in His name and to hear about “God’s will for our lives,” it’s almost always concerned with bettering our marriages, finding a suitable career, managing our finances better, and a host of other earthly pursuits… because all that stuff about participating in God’s Nature and transforming into Christ-likeness will take care of itself, we figure. Our supposedly biblical instruction usually consists of going after the same things the people of the world go after; the only difference is that God is a means to those ends. So, it works out that Christ isn’t really at the center of our lives; He’s an accessory to our own ambitions.

But, if that’s what Christianity is really for, it’s not very useful. By and large, we’re no more successful at marriage than non-Christians, no better with money, and really no better at life.

So, our version of “faith” amounts to living our lives just as we would if we didn’t even believe in God. We’re just more pretentious about it, because we have loftier rhetoric by which to narrate our lives.

A faith grounded in reason, on the other hand, is far more useful and authentic, but it’s also far less marketable, because it’s far less malleable and adaptable. It’s objective and demonstrable and knowable. The basic assumptions of that kind of faith are those of intellectual honesty and personal accountability: it makes actual demands of us, and allows for none of our pious pretentions and ethnocentric prejudices, because it makes us answerable to something, to Someone outside of ourselves.

A Christianity that’s objectively and demonstrably true just doesn’t factor into our paradigm of religion, though. It’s Ok if it can be proven, but that’s really incidental to our purposes, because we don’t need it to be verifiably true. Our feelings have already validated the parts we like, and when we read passages we don’t like—so-called “problem passages,” the “Holy Spirit” validates our tendency to gloss over and ignore them.

As religious consumers, when we read the Bible or listen to (or preach) a sermon, we’re really looking to adapt whatever we read to our own purposes, and those are rarely God’s purposes, because our central consideration as consumers is to get the most bang for the least buck.

And that’s nothing new. We can see that tendency at work in Jesus’ interactions with His contemporaries, who would often approach him with questions that amounted, essentially, to “What can we get away with before God disqualifies us? What are the least requirements we have to keep to be saved, what’s a passable excuse to divorce our wives, etc.?”

“Just TELL me– what’s the flair minimum?”

The same minimalist, “good enough for government work”-mentality was common in Israel and Judah in the time before the exile: because they kept up with the sacrificial rituals of the temple, they thought they could sin with impunity and presume upon God’s protection and forgiveness, and so they beat and imprisoned the prophet Jeremiah for his supposed blasphemy when he told them otherwise. Centuries later, after Christendom had become an international empire in the form of the Roman Catholic Church, the same tendency of belief prevailed, and “faith” meant submission to Church authority in exchange for its sacramental ministrations, which God was purportedly ritually-bound to honor.

Today, five-hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, the “gospel” we preach is still essentially an answer to that same question: “What’s the least I can get away with? How can I placate God and get Him off my back, so I don’t have to worry about going to hell?” Our particular answer is to define “faith” to mean simply believing certain things about God, and if we believe those things, then everything else happens automatically, on spiritual autopilot, because God has supposedly ritually-bound Himself if we fulfill the doctrinal checklist (of our chosen denomination).

When people asked Jesus those kinds of questions, though, He never answered them on those terms. He answered instead in terms of the ideal—He pointed them to God’s best. That, after all, is what we’d actually want if we were seeking Him in genuine faith: not the bare minimum, but the absolute best. If we really love and trust Him, we’re not just trying to appease Him, like hired-hands trying to skate by, but to realize the full expression of His will in our lives and in the world around us: we don’t see His commandments as unwanted burdens to bear, or assignments to carry out, but as instructions to set us free.

Yet, whenever I point out the vision for the Christian life and the role of the Church outlined in the New Testament, there is almost always the protest of “Are you telling me I’m not saved because I don’t go to a church like that? Isn’t that works-based salvation? Isn’t it enough that I believe?

The protester invariably points out the Thief on the Cross-model of salvation, and bases his or her security on having demonstrated at least that basic, minimal level of faith.

To that, I usually answer that I’m not the one saying we have to “make every effort to add to our faith…” all of the aforementioned qualities of the Divine Nature. It’s the apostle Peter. Also, I’m not the one who outlined that model of the Church and the Christian life—it was the apostles. So, if you don’t like it, take it up with them.

And the thief on the cross had only moments left to live, so he didn’t have much opportunity for anything but the bare minimum.

Most of us are obviously not in that position, though.

And it’s clearly not my place to render judgments on who, specifically, is or isn’t saved. All I’m qualified to do is point out the plain teaching of the apostles that we’re saved by grace, through faith.

But if we’re just trying to placate God with the bare minimum instead of striving joyously and hopefully after God’s best, it’s ridiculous to think that we have that faith– that we actually trust and love Him. And until we do seek after the full expression of God’s will on earth, we’re just fooling ourselves by this farce we’re calling “Christianity.”

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