Our Delinquent Messiah (Part I)

When you think of the word “messiah,” what comes to mind?

Most people have a basic sense of the concept. Our culture provides plenty of examples, since messiahs are among the most oft-used character types in all of fiction, so there’s no shortage of literature and movies about them: “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “Avatar,” “Terminator,” almost any given Keanu Reeves movie, and countless others most of us could name off the top of our head.

A messiah is someone chosen, guided, anointed by a higher power to lead, to save, to be an agent of transformation and renewal, an avenger of evil and redeemer from oppression, the “Hero With a Thousand Faces” – the original superhero, actually – and a liminal figure to usher in a new age. He’s foretold in prophecy and destined to embody some legendary archetype. His own are apt to reject him, though the world itself hangs in the balance, desperate for him to rise to his preordained role.

But let’s put a pin in that for a minute and come back to it later.

*****

Switching gears for a moment, what comes to mind when you think of the word “church”?

If you’re like many you probably think of a building of some kind: a chapel or a cathedral or a modern, stadium-sized megachurch replete with a coffee shop and a bookstore. A one-stop shop for weddings, funerals, baby dedications, seasonal holiday observances – a piece of cultural furniture for believers and nonbelievers alike.

You might also think of early-morning rock concerts, or little old ladies singing hymns off-key. Restless kids fidgeting in pews. And sermons – some inspiring, some insipid, few with much lasting impact.

You might also think of schisms, sex scandals, swindling televangelists, celebrity preachers exposed and disgraced for some hypocrisy or another, and fanatical cultists foaming at the mouth as they picket military funerals or pass around the cyanide-laden Kool-Aid.

The word “church” likely conjures up a wide range of connotations, some good, some bad, but mostly in the middle, I suspect, because decades of repeating the weekly Sunday-morning routine have reduced the word to a synonym for the banal and the mundane, at least for many.

But what if I told you that all of those connotations we attach to the word “messiah” should apply just as much to the word “church”?

‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High’

The Church, we are told, is the “Body of Christ” – God’s temple, His presence on Earth.

According to the Bible, God is present in the world through the Messiah, and the Messiah is present in the world through his Church.

“Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them,” Jesus said (Matthew 18:20).

Paul understood the Church, the gathering of Jesus’ followers on Earth, to be Christ’s hands and feet – the vessel through whom he continues the work he began 2,000 years ago, exercising gifts and powers bestowed through the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:1-16).

In fact, Jesus – the One who walked on water, gave sight to the blind, and raised the dead back to life – told his disciples they would do greater things, even, than he did (John 14:12-14).

And we can see how the Church lived up to its messianic role in the early days of Christian history:

“And now the Lord says – He who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to Him and gather Israel to Himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength – He says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be My servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’”

This is an oracle by the prophet Isaiah (49:5-6) about the promised Anointed One: that the God of Jacob would, through the Messiah, become also the God of the Gentiles – the non-Jewish nations of the world, bringing salvation to the far-flung corners of the earth.

And now, in fact, “monotheism” is generally synonymous worldwide with worship of the God of Israel, precisely because Christianity – within a single generation – grew from a small sect from a backwater province of the Roman Empire into a major world religion, and is today the largest religion in the world.

Yet, Jesus never personally stepped foot outside of Israel during his earthly ministry. It was a prophecy about the Messiah, and the Messiah fulfilled it because the Church, as “the Body of Christ,” is in essence identical to Christ himself.

In short, we are the Messiah.

And that’s the entire point of the Christian plan of salvation:

“Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness – the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:24-27)

Being a “Christian” doesn’t just mean we believe in Christ or follow Christ – it means, in a very real sense, we become Christ. We mature into his likeness, because the Divine Life that was in him now animates and motivates and grows within us.

As the apostle Peter wrote:

“His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence (Greek arête). 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 of the world caused by appetite (Greek epithumia).” (2 Peter 1:3-4)

That, in a nutshell, is What Salvation Is: our participation in the very Nature of God. Throughout the New Testament (as well as the Old, albeit less explicitly), we read about God’s own Nature descending to dwell within the believer in the Person of the Holy Spirit, remaking him or her from within, and it is this indwelling and regeneration by the Spirit of God that constitutes “salvation.”

This was accomplished, we read, by the Second Person of the Godhead becoming incarnate as a human mortal in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, so that he could die for the sins of all humanity. Having made atonement, God raised him to life again. After appearing to his disciples over a period of 40 days to instruct and prepare them to continue his work, he ascended back to God, resuming his place within the Godhead “at the right hand of the Father.”

Paul understood the significance of the ascension to mean that, through the person of Jesus, the human race itself was now represented within the Godhead – man now dwells within God:

“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6-7)

It is because our sins no longer separate us from God that humanity is now represented within the Godhead and, in turn, a Member of the Godhead has also descended to dwell within humanity, and it is the Holy Spirit’s dwelling within us that renews us, transforming us from fallen, bestial creatures into the sons and daughters of God Himself.

By being “born again,” we actually participate in the Trinity as adopted members of the Godhead. As Ireneaus of Lyons and Athanasius of Alexandria after him wrote: “The Word became Man that men might become gods.”

We are not “gods” in the sense that we are worshiped or become infinite, eternal spirits ruling over our own universes one day (as the Mormons heretically teach) – we’re “gods” in the sense meant by Jesus when he quoted the Psalms, which referred to those to whom the revelation was given as “gods.” (John 10:34-36; Psalm 82:6)

That’s how God saves the world: not by sending a Messiah, but by sending a multitude of messiahs. Jesus is Messiah Prime, and we are proxy messiahs individually, but collectively are indistinguishable from and identical to Christ himself – he is the Head and we are the Body.

As Paul summarized:

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Godhead lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:10-12)

Messiahs In Training

We read also in the New Testament that merely receiving the New Nature isn’t the finish line. That’s just the starting pistol.

What we receive is the Christ-Nature in seed form (1 Peter 1:23; Luke 8:4-8; 11-15). It falls to us to cultivate it, and there is an ongoing process to doing so.

After Peter spoke of our “participation in the divine nature,” he went on to exhort Christians, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence/virtue (Greek arête); and to arête, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection (Greek philadelphia, “brotherly love”); and to philadelphia, love (Greek agape). 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.” (2 Peter 1:6-8, which should be considered alongside John 15:1-10)

Faith is the sole condition of all of God’s promises: trusting His promises is the requisite of claiming them, and it’s through His promises that we “participate in the divine nature,” which consists of “making every effort” to add to our faith all the qualities consistent with His nature, the ultimate of which is the quality rendered in Greek as agape, which is the definitive characteristic by which disciples of Jesus Christ are distinguished (John 13:35).

Agape is typically translated into English simply as “love,” which is unfortunate because we tend to oversimplify it to the point of being misleading when we take it as just “love” and look no further.

“Love” can mean a wide range of things in English: “I love hot dogs!” “I love God!” “I love The Who!” “I love ‘The Walking Dead’!” It’s the same word there, but it means different things in different contexts, which leaves it wide open to a range of different and contradictory interpretations when it comes to its definition as the ultimate goal of Christian spirituality.

In Greek, there are four words we typically translate as “love,” and knowing what they are makes a tremendous difference in what various passages of Scripture actually mean. Eros, of course, being sexual and romantic love; Storge is familial love; Philos is affection, as between friends; while Agape, in the sense often used in Scripture to describe the love between God and His people, is the ultimate and highest form of love.

It’s the word used in John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world…” – and elsewhere in the New Testament and the Septuagint where God’s love for humanity is in view. It’s different from the other loves in that it isn’t based on the object of love – on what he or she or it can do for the one bearing the love. It isn’t like eros and storge, which are loves experienced and expressed by animals and humans alike, which spring from natural instincts and appetites and psychosocial need. Rather, it’s based on the nature of the one bearing the love.

In other words, God doesn’t agapeo us because we’re so lovable and we fill a hole in His life or because He is biologically-programmed to affection toward us; God loves us because He is love – it’s a love that emanates from His own Nature rather than a love that responds to ours.

In John 21:15-19 – the passage that records Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter after his three denials on the night of his arrest – we miss the real conversation when we read only the English translation. As we read it, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, Peter answers in the affirmative three times, but for some reason, Peter is especially hurt by Jesus’ third inquiry, and that’s that.

In the original Greek, referencing Peter’s earlier insistence that he, and he alone, loved Jesus more than all the other disciples (John 13:36-38; Matthew 26:33; Luke 22:33), Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you truly agapeo me more than these?”

“Yes Lord, you know that I phileo you,” Peter answers, downgrading his previous declaration of absolute devotion to mere affection.

Jesus repeats the question. Peter repeats the answer.

Then Jesus asks him, “Simon, do you phileo me?” – questioning even his affection, hence Peter’s emotional injury.

This is important because Peter himself later distinguishes between the two in his epistle, where he lists philadelphia as a lesser quality on the way to agape. Philadelphia isn’t uniquely Christian, nor are the other loves of eros and storge – street gangs, fraternities, wolves, howler monkeys, fans of the same football team, and innumerable other subcultures and animal species all display eros, storge and philos, simply as a matter of being alive and needing others of their kind to survive and thrive. There isn’t anything necessarily spiritual or transcendent about those loves. They’re merely the product of glands, stomachs and loneliness, not enlightenment or spiritual quickening.

Agape requires a new nature, though, which entails an ongoing process of transformation into Christ-likeness, which is why there are several other passages in the New Testament with similar exhortations calling us to strive, to work (Philippians 2:12), to spare no effort, lest we “believe in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:2), because that transformation into the divine nature isn’t just important to salvation – it is salvation.

We are initiated into the process through faith, and our maturation continues from that starting point by making every effort to add to our faith other qualities consistent with the divine nature, beginning with arête, which was a quality attributed to God Himself (2 Peter 1:3), as well as a broadly-nuanced concept in Greek culture: the word means “excellence” and “moral virtue” and it was the ultimate goal of a classic Greek education and a recurring preoccupation within Greek philosophy.

As Christians, in our effort to cultivate the divine nature within ourselves, we are to spare no effort in the pursuit of arête, along with all of the other qualities mentioned, which lead toward the attainment of agape, which ultimately culminates in our resurrection from the dead when Jesus returns.

And this is the gist of much of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

The famous “love” passage is chapter 13, which follows chapter 11, where he began by speaking about “the Body of Christ” in a different, albeit related sense by instructing them about the Lord’s Supper, which led into instruction about the proper use of spiritual gifts within the Church (chapter 12), all of which culminated in Paul showing them the “still more excellent way” of agape, because that was the purpose of everything that came before. Having put everything into perspective, he offers some final instructions about speaking in tongues and engaging in orderly worship before instructing them about the ultimate goal of it all: resurrection from the dead.

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain,” he concluded (1 Corinthians 15:58).

As he wrote elsewhere:

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the         resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:10-14)

All of this, of course, is a difficult, demanding process, and it’s nothing anyone can undertake alone.

This is why the Church exists.

In fact, if it’s not facilitating this process by initiating and mentoring people in that personal transformation into Christ-likeness, there is no reason for the Church to exist.

Consider the following from Paul:

“The gifts (Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16)

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The False Gospel of the American Church

I don’t think most churchgoers actually know what the gospel is.

At the risk of sounding like an uppity, presumptuous layman blinded by the Dunning-Kruger effect (yes – I know how this looks), I’m pretty well convinced that the majority of preachers don’t actually know what it is, either.

And, of course, not knowing what the gospel is constitutes a major problem for American Christians and anyone we influence, hence my urgent contention that we have collectively strayed into apostasy.

The Mystery Kept Hidden

Of course, there’s no shortage of people who know the right words to say – everyone can quote the gospel, as Paul presented it in 1 Corinthians 15, in terms of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we insist that the saved and the unsaved are plainly identifiable as those who either affirm or deny those terms.

But that clearly wasn’t the gospel preached by Jesus himself at a time when he actively concealed his identity as the Christ (Luke 9:18-21), nor was it the gospel preached by his disciples (Luke 9:1-6), who couldn’t bring themselves to accept that he was going to die, much less announce it in a preaching tour (Luke 9:44-45).

And, we are told by the writer of Hebrews regarding the Israelites led by Moses: “We also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did.” (4:1, 2)

Yet, the particulars Paul laid out as “the gospel” were a “mystery kept hidden for ages and generations,” not revealed until the 1st century (Colossians 1:25-27; Ephesians 3:9; Romans 16:25-27). Prior to that time of revelation and fulfillment, they were mysteries the prophets themselves struggled to apprehend and into which “even angels longed to look” (1 Peter 1:10-12).

According to Paul and Peter, only God Himself knew about Christ’s death and resurrection and its implications and effects – neither the prophets and patriarchs, nor the angels and demons knew about it, until it actually happened.

Yet, we are told that “the gospel” was preached by Jesus and his disciples for years prior, and it was known also to Moses and the Israelites and, presumably, innumerable others who lived and died in the millennia leading up to the year 30 A.D.

Personally, I’ve rarely seen this apparent contradiction addressed from the pulpit, and when it is, it’s never a satisfactory explanation – one that didn’t introduce still greater contradictions and needless complications and hermeneutical gymnastics.

Typically, one of two preposterous scenarios are proposed to account for this: 1) Ancient people, going back to Adam and Eve, actually did believe and worship on much the same terms as modern evangelicals, but were somehow led astray by “legalism” in the time prior to Jesus – contrary to the plain teachings of the New Testament; or 2) the ancient Israelites were somehow saved to eternal life through some provision of the Law of Moses – those sacrifices of bulls and goats actually did save them, also contrary to the plain teachings of the New Testament.

And I don’t base my conviction that the American church has missed the gospel solely on its failure to address this apparent dilemma. I think this is only symptomatic of the fact that the church is working from the wrong paradigm of what the gospel actually is.

The dilemma resolves itself, however, when we read it within the right paradigm of what the gospel actually is:

Christ’s death and resurrection are the how of the gospel.

They’re not the what of it.

His death and resurrection are how the gospel was accomplished, but are not, in themselves, the gospel.

No, the what of the gospel is salvation by grace through faith.

Of course, that’s no big shock to anyone, and it might be a bit of a let-down after my big, audacious opening, because everyone already knows that.

The confusion comes when we start defining each of the operative terms in that phrase — we attach baggage to those terms never intended by the original biblical writers.

As I expound on that, though, consider replacing that exact phrasing with this baggage-free paraphrase: “Salvation by love, through persuasion, not coercion.”

Good News for Serial Killers, Bad News for Gandhi

As previously discussed, our definition of “faith” is often set in contrast to reason with regard to our epistemology, resulting in the self-lobotomizing error of Fideism, which masquerades as belief in Christ, all the while inoculating people against it.

Where our popular soteriology (our study of how we’re saved) is concerned, “faith” is typically set in opposition to works: in contrast to the notion of being justified by what we do, this concept of salvation says we’re justified by what we believe.

According to this understanding of the gospel, “faith” is defined as Doctrinal Correctness: if you believe X, Y and Z about God and Jesus, you’re “saved,” which is defined as “going to heaven when you die instead of hell.” You might get bonus points if you do good works, but God’s grace (as this “gospel” defines it) is such that you can safely live as you please and sin with impunity and presume upon His forgiveness, so long as you believe correctly. You might even live your entire life on earth as a serial murderer and child rapist, ignoring all appeals from your conscience and laughing from afar at the things of God, but then affirm the correct doctrines in the moments before your execution by “accepting Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior” and, according to this “gospel,” you’ll be assured a trouble-free afterlife, spared God’s punishment for all the evil you committed on earth.

On the other hand, if you never affirm X, Y and Z, it doesn’t matter how much good you do or what circumstances prevented you signing off on the required doctrinal checklist – you are going to hell, and no amount of good deeds or honorable character qualities will save you.

This is “the gospel” we celebrate and proclaim as the glorious expression of God’s grace and love for humanity.

Everyone doesn’t necessarily preach it precisely on those exact terms, and some offer various caveats, conditions and qualifiers to mitigate the galling vapidity of it all, and some might offer different values for what the X, Y and Z of minimal doctrinal affirmation are, but that’s the essence of “Christianity” as it is popularly understood, particularly among evangelicals: what you do doesn’t matter, only what you believe.

And this is why we have a church culture that admits actual debate over whether someone has to “accept Jesus as Lord” in order to be saved, or if it’s enough to just “accept Jesus as Savior” (take a minute and google “lordship debate” if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

The Killing Letter

Now, it’s true that Paul often set faith in contrast to works in his choice of wording, which has been used to support the phony “gospel” under discussion, as well as to suggest a contradiction between Paul and James’ respective teachings (“Just faith? Or faith and works?” –James 2:14-26).

Context is everything, though, and when we pay attention to it, there is no contradiction. When Paul spoke of “works,” clearly he just meant it as shorthand for “works of the law.” (See Ephesians 2, Romans 3 and Galatians 3, among a slew of other passages.)

And that makes a world of difference for our definition of “faith.”

“The law,” of course, refers to the Law of Moses – the requirements of the covenant God made with Israel. The Law of Moses was their national constitution: the basis for Israel’s government, with God Himself at its head.

A law, when you get right down to it, is nothing more than a threat to kill those who are subject to it for non-compliance.

Now, I tend to get a lot of resistance when I point this out to people. I find that many people, even conservative-leaning Christians, tend to have a relatively favorable view of government (not necessarily individual office holders, but “government” as a concept), and many even take it for granted that government programs are the answer to most problems in the world. When you see the government as a benevolent caretaker, the idea that everything about it revolves around its potential to kill can be grating to your sensibilities (especially when the people with the most favorable view of government also tend, ironically, to be most opposed to the death penalty).

But, everything in the New Testament – the entire Bible, actually (along with the study of civics, history, law, government, etc.) – hinges on this point, so it’s worth taking the time to drive home, even at the risk of belaboring what might, to some, be an obvious point in an already lengthy discourse.

The underlying principle all governments have in common in whatever form they take – the defining quality that makes it a “government,” be it a Bronze Age theocracy, an imperial autocracy, a liberal democracy or anything in-between – is violence, or the threat thereof, and nothing else.

Yes, governments generally do more than just execute people: they provide various services and infrastructure and administer less severe punishments, and they offer incentives for behaviors desired but not compulsory, like getting married or “going green.” But, none of those sticks and carrots would be possible without first establishing their monopoly on force – on violence. They have to levy taxes to be able to do all that (since governments produce nothing by themselves), and we don’t pay taxes because we want to – we do it because they’ve got all those people with guns. That’s why we pull over when the flashing lights appear in our rear-view mirror, and that’s why we obey court summons and pay fines or submit to detainment – because we know those people with guns will come after us if we don’t. No, they won’t shoot us on the spot if we don’t immediately comply (hopefully), but if we resist and keep resisting, the situation will escalate and our death is the inevitable result if we don’t comply at some point.

Government is the sword, and nothing else. Take the sword away and everything else we call “government” goes, too.

That’s why the apostle Paul said “the letter (of the law) kills” and called the Covenant of Moses “the ministry of death” (2 Corinthians 3:6-7).

And he wasn’t saying any of that as if it’s a bad thing – Paul was a fan of the law. He just understood what it is and what its limitations are.

Law isn’t bad, people are. That’s why we need laws. If it were something people could be counted on to do on our own, there’d be no need to threaten us into compliance: the fact that we need to be told, under pain of death, to obey things like “Don’t murder” and “Don’t steal” is a pretty good indication of our fallen nature.

And in the case of Israel’s national religious life, faithful worship of the God of Abraham wasn’t something they could be counted upon to do on their own. In order to create the society and culture within which the Messiah could emerge, within which his work and teachings could be understood, observance of God’s requirements had to be compulsory.

But, according to the Law and the Prophets themselves (Jeremiah 31:31-34), that was never intended to be the final state of affairs.

Because what good is compulsory worship? It means nothing to God if it doesn’t mean everything to us.

If it’s just because there’s a carrot in it for you if you do it and a stick at your back if you don’t, it’s not really worship. Genuine worship doesn’t need to be enticed or coerced. To know and trust God is to know He is worthy of worship and adoration, and rendering it is its own reward.

Likewise, obeying all of the other applicable aspects of the law is also its own reward, because those laws are a reflection of His character and values. If you have faith (in the genuine, biblical sense), you don’t do it because you’re afraid God will get you if you don’t. You do it because you love and trust Him and want to see His will done on earth as it is in heaven – you know He doesn’t give commandments just to ruin our good time or make life more difficult, but to benefit us and make our lives as fulfilling and dignified as possible.

And, in fact, genuine faith means doing it even when – especially when the situation is reversed: when the reward for faithfulness is a cross.

So, “salvation by grace through faith, not by the works of the law” doesn’t exclude works. There have to be works. The only question is why you’re performing them.

There’s obedience under law, which justifies and saves no one, and then there’s what Paul called “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5 and 16:26), which does.

The two resemble each other outwardly, because they both entail works, so it’s easy to mistake one for the other if you only look at the surface, but the differences between them are as great as the differences between marriage and prostitution.

The two resemble each other because they include the same acts, but one is the perversion and counterfeit of the other. The acts are done for their own sake within marriage, as an expression of mutual love. The wedding night isn’t a payment rendered in exchange for the courtship, it’s the consummation of the courtship. In prostitution, the rewards offered are unrelated to the act itself and the two parties are only exploiting each other for personal gratification, and treating something sacred as a mere commodity. So, we rightly condemn it as a perversion and mockery of everything beautiful and good about marriage.

The Life-Giving Word

Salvation by grace through faith – the eternal gospel – has always been implied, and there have always been people who have understood it.

That man is accountable to God for our wickedness, and that God is good and loves man and has the power and wisdom to provide a way to eternal life, despite our corruption has always been knowable to mankind, even though the specifics were not.

It was implied in the Old Testament writings, but it is also written into creation itself, we are told (Psalm 19; Romans 1:18-20; Romans 10:18), and in the human conscience (Romans 2:14-15).

Those who heed the message of creation and conscience, Paul said, can seek God and find Him, because He is not far from anyone (Acts 17:23-28).

Unfortunately, we are too often led astray by our own corruption and by the lies we tell each other, so the message goes unheeded, if we find it at all.

That’s why God had to reveal Himself in history by setting one nation apart from the rest and putting them under the supervision of His law – so that what could be inferred from creation, and what was implied in the Old Testament, would eventually be made explicit and clear through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Before, people always had reason to put their faith in God and to trust in His grace, and from that, to believe death wouldn’t have the final word over life – that God would, somehow, make a way.

The patriarchs and the people of Israel and Judah had even more reason to put their faith in Him, because of the way He intervened and revealed Himself to them through their prophets.

But now, because Christ’s death and resurrection are a matter of historical fact, the entire world has a much stronger basis by which to put our faith in Him.

“Through (Christ) you trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God,” wrote Peter (1 Peter 1:21).

“For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice through the man he has appointed; he has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead,” said Paul (Acts 17:31).

To reiterate my point from my last entry (because it can’t be overstated): that’s why apologetics is so all-important. Faith is a gift from God, provided through the historical fact of the resurrection. But it provides no faith if it isn’t made known (Romans 10:14-15), and the terms by which we present it make a world of difference.

According to previously referenced passages of Scripture, people don’t necessarily need to know about Christ’s death and resurrection in order to have faith and be saved, but they’re in an infinitely better position to respond in faith if they do know about it.

Mother of Prostitutes

By now, there are likely howls of outrage over my last statement.

“People don’t have to know about Jesus’ death and resurrection to be saved?! That’s heresy!”

No, they don’t, and no it’s not.

Unless we’re to believe everyone who lived and died prior to the year 30 A.D. was automatically doomed, they didn’t have to. There was no portion in the Law of Moses that even mentioned a provision for eternal life (it was about earthly rewards and punishments), and Paul made it clear that people have always been saved by grace through faith, long before anyone could have known about Christ’s death and resurrection.

We’re in an infinitely better position to have faith than they were because we do know about his death and resurrection, but “faith” isn’t the same as knowing about his death and resurrection. Faith is a response to the evidence of God’s grace, and Christ’s death and resurrection are the greatest demonstration of His grace, but they are not the only demonstration.

But we’re so wrapped up in this idea that “faith” amounts to “doctrinal orthodoxy” that not only do we miss a lot of these obvious implications in Scripture, but we’re openly hostile to them.

That’s because we’ve turned “faith” into just another law by which to justify ourselves; instead of a law of works and ritual like the Jewish law, ours is a law of doctrine: “If you meet the minimal requirements of believing X, Y and Z about God and Jesus, you’ll be given eternal life in exchange.”

And skeptics rightly object to the idea that God would care so much about what people believe over what they actually do. They recognize the quality of prostitution in that idea: an exchange of benefits with no relation to each other, with something sacred exchanged as a commodity.

Now, it’s true that Jesus often used the language of reward and punishment, but that was typically directed to people who thought they were justified under the law. More often, though, he spoke in terms of wise and foolish investment: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it,” he said (Matthew 13:44-46).

“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)

And there is no more clear expression of faith than investment. In fact, that’s the only real expression there is for faith: regardless of what you say you believe, where you invest your hope is where you believe you’ll reap the greatest benefit, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he said (Matthew 6:19-21).

So when Jesus said to believe in him for eternal life, he didn’t mean, “Affirm a doctrine about me in exchange for heaven.” He meant, “Invest in me – in my teachings, in my cause, and you’ll be a part of it when it comes to fruition. Invest elsewhere, and you’ll only benefit as far as that investment can offer a return.”

We can see by God’s raising him from the dead that Jesus is the best investment.

If you don’t invest yourself in Jesus, you’ve believed in vain (1 Corinthians 5:2). And, in fact, the Scripture has some dire warnings for people who know about Jesus, but invest elsewhere (Hebrews 10:26).

The Church exists for the sole purpose of guiding people in that investment. In fact, that investment consists of participating in the life of the Church.

Or, it would be, if the Church was preaching the true gospel and fulfilling its true purpose according to that gospel.

As it is, we have a broken, self-destructive epistemology, which leads to a false view of how salvation is accomplished, and so we have a Church with no sense of its true purpose and calling (ecclesiology), which I will address in what follows.

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The American Church is Apostate

I thought about entitling this “The Upside-Down Tripod of Faith,” but that just doesn’t have the same hook or punching power.

I didn’t pick this title just for its click-bait appeal, though. I sincerely believe we are apostate. “Christianity” as we commonly know it in the United States (and elsewhere in western society) is a perverse, hollow caricature of the Christianity taught by Jesus and the apostles.

I almost want to say it would be unrecognizable to them, but that isn’t quite true. They were all too familiar with the assumptions, attitudes and practices of which popular American religion is now comprised, because (as we’ll discuss in what follows) they’re the same forces they fought in their own time.

Of course, telling people they’re living a lie and are invested in a false version of Christianity is a pretty tough sell, and it’s not likely to make me very popular. I get that, and I’ve prepared myself for all the rocks that are about to be hurled my way (and I’ve developed pretty thick skin from all the rocks that have already been lobbed at me).

And it’s difficult for most people to see, I realize. By all appearances, our beliefs are “Scripture-based,” and there are a great many clever arguments (“But the church is a hospital for sinners!”) for why most of the statistics we could look at – divorce rates, teen pregnancy and STD-infection rates, abortions, domestic violence, debt, poverty, addiction, etc. – demonstrate that Christians, in general, don’t really live any differently or better or holier than our “lost” neighbors.

However, I think the nature and extent of our apostasy – as well as our path to repentance and restoration – can be clearly illuminated in terms of three main categories:

1) Epistemology (how we know things).

2) Soteriology (how we’re saved).

3) Ecclesiology (how we understand the role and function of the Church).

These three areas together encompass the entire life of the Christian religion, and each informs and is informed by the other two.

They’re a tripod, and our concept of “faith” is the hub at which the three legs intersect and support each other, and everything we call “Christianity” rests atop that hub, supported by the three legs.

If our concept of “faith” is faulty, the tripod collapses and our understanding and practice of Christianity falls with it.

And, in fact, that’s precisely how we’ve strayed into apostasy, and correcting it is how we turn back and become a functional, faithful and effective Church.

Stop Lobotomizing the Church

The Church has effectively lobotomized itself through Fideism.

Worse than that, even – through Fideism, the Church actively prevents people from placing their faith in Jesus Christ. Christians are sabotaging their own cause and working directly against the purposes of God through Fideism.

Fideism, for those unfamiliar, is an epistemological approach that contrasts faith with reason as a path to knowledge.

If we’re “saved by grace through faith,” reason doesn’t factor, according to Fideism.

This is in contrast to Evidentialism, which is an epistemological approach that says a belief or conclusion is only valid if it’s supported by sufficient reason and evidence.

Because Fideism holds sway in most of the Church, Evidentialism is often eschewed as something antagonistic to faith and loyalty to God. And, even, credulity about the miraculous and supernatural is often held up as a virtue where Fideism holds sway, because “blessed are those who believe without seeing.”

“Just believe,” says Fideism, because “faith is the evidence of things unseen.”

Ask a fideist Christian why he believes God exists, why he believes the Bible, why he believes Jesus is the Son of God and rose from the dead, he’s likely to say something like, “…because it’s what I’ve put my faith in.

But that’s not an answer, obviously. That’s just a restatement of the question.

But, he has plenty of scripture verses he can reference to reinforce his Fideism as the more biblical epistemology over Evidentialism.

He didn’t get his Fideism from the Bible, though. Like every other popular error presently rotting the Church from the inside, he got it somewhere else and projected it onto the Bible. To put it in seminary-speak: he did eisegesis, not exegesis.

The Bible actually knows nothing of Fideism. At least, not as a virtue to be taught and encouraged.

When we use the word “faith” in every other regard besides religion – when we tell another person, “I have faith in you,” it does not mean, “Here’s a blank check guaranteeing my credulity.” It doesn’t mean blind faith.

No, it means, “I trust you – I believe you’ll do what you promise, you can accomplish what you say you can, and you won’t disappoint or betray me.”

And, we tend not to trust strangers – not to the extent that we trust a best friend or a faithful spouse, because we base our faith in people on the evidence of our prior experience with them. Unless we’re fools, we put our faith in people who have proven themselves, who have shown themselves worthy of our faith.

And, in fact, that’s exactly how the Bible uses the word as well.

When it reads “Abram believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15), let’s not forget that Abram had seen God. God had spoken to him, appeared to him, and directly intervened to help Abraham on multiple occasions. Abraham had faith, but it wasn’t blind faith.

The same is true for Moses and the Israelites. When they were condemned to wander the wilderness for 40 years in punishment for their faithlessness, it wasn’t God’s existence they questioned. His existence and power were beyond dispute at that point. It was His character and intentions they distrusted. (Deuteronomy 1:26-36)

And that’s the pattern throughout both testaments of the Bible: when the Israelites were expected to trust God to uphold His side of the covenant, when they were expected to trust that He would fulfill His promise to send the Messiah, that faith was not a blind suspension of disbelief despite all evidence to the contrary; it was a faith based on the evidence of what God had done before.

And that’s the sense meant by the writer of Hebrews when he wrote “faith is the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11).

All of the “things unseen” referenced in the passage pertained to promises for the future (except for creation, which no one was around to witness or document). It wasn’t a blind faith – it was based on what God had done in the past, as reported by the “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1). That verse is often interpreted out of context to mean a cloud of departed spirits watching the individual believer, but that’s upside-down and backwards. The “great cloud of witnesses” to whom the writer referred were the litany of biblical heroes referenced in the “faith hall of fame” immediately preceding that verse, who were bearing witness to the reader about God’s faithfulness. They were “surrounded” by those witnesses because they were steeped in Jewish culture and raised on those stories.

The writer of Hebrews was not holding up what we would call a Fideist approach to belief in God. He described what we would call an Evidentialist approach to Israel’s history, which was the evidence on which their faith in God was based.

When Jesus told Thomas “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who believe without seeing” (John 20:29), that was only after Jesus explicitly told them he would rise from the dead, and that was only after Thomas had personally observed Jesus giving sight to the blind and raising the dead himself.

It wasn’t credulity and blind, unqualified acceptance of unsupported extraordinary claims that Jesus wanted from Thomas. He wanted him to trust him. And he’d proven himself worthy of that trust with what should have been overwhelming evidence.

In other words, faith is a relationship claim, not a knowledge claim. There might be some knowledge claims that are corollaries to the relationship claim – just as we have outside of religion when someone we trust tells us something we might not otherwise be inclined to believe. But, primarily, faith is not a knowledge claim, but a relationship claim.

….

And the apostles were perfectly consistent with that Evidentialist epistemology when they preached the gospel. They never asked for blind faith or suspension of disbelief. They argued, they proved, they persuaded:

“Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22)

“As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2, 3)

“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17)

“Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:4)

“(Paul) went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.” (Acts 18:19)

“He vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 18:28)

“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)

The central feature of their message – the lynchpin for all of it – was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

They never asked anyone to believe the resurrection because they had faith. They asked people to have faith because they believed the resurrection: the resurrection was never offered as an article of faith; the resurrection was the source of faith.

“For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice through the man he has appointed; he has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)

“Through (Christ) you trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:21)

…..

In contrast to the original Church, today’s Church sees apologetics as an add-on. Apologetics and evangelism were one and the same for the apostles and the early Church fathers, but for us, it’s entirely optional. And, within our Fideistic paradigm of belief, I’ve too often seen it discouraged as an unhealthy distraction: “You can’t argue people into the kingdom of heaven,” they say.

Except, nobody told the apostles that, and Paul insisted on argument (in the sense of debate, not quarreling) as central to the function of the Church: the Church is at war with the forces of darkness for the soul of humanity, and argument and ideas are the weapons we use to bring people from darkness to light (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

So, to say, “Christians shouldn’t argue with unbelievers” is to say, “Christians should lay down their arms and abandon the war.” Consequently, today’s Church has been asleep on the front lines of that war, and an enemy that encounters virtually no resistance has overrun our position, and now our temple lies in ruins.

….

The Christian life – the genuine Christian life – requires absolute, unreserved commitment. Theoretically, we all know that – we’ve all read the passages about the all-or-nothing nature of discipleship. But we don’t really see that in practice.

Largely, that’s because we have an entire nation of “believers” who don’t actually believe.

How could they?

They’re rarely if ever taught why Christianity is true. And however earnest and well intentioned a person is, nobody can actually believe something they don’t, well… believe. We have plenty of people who believe that they believe, but what they’re calling “belief” just isn’t. It’s wishful thinking. It’s suspension of disbelief. It’s superstition. But it’s not belief. And affirmation of belief is not the same thing as belief, because (as we’ll discuss in the next two installments) there are plenty of inducements within the Church to affirm beliefs other than being persuaded of the truth of those beliefs.

Without good reasons rooted in strong evidence, it’s simply impossible to believe something so far beyond our normal, natural experience as the resurrection. The reasons and evidence are there, but much of the Church neglects the learning and teaching of those reasons, and even inoculates many against learning them because we prefer the easy path of indoctrination to the hard work of education, which doesn’t lead to the absolute, unreserved commitment needed to follow Jesus.

We have to crucify our Fideism. We have to denounce it and condemn it and eradicate it wherever we find it and make Evidentialism the epistemology of Christianity again. In so doing, we’ll restore apologetics to its rightful central place in our message, and the Church will be filled with believers again.

….

That’s not to say I think I’m the lone believer in a sea of apostates and phonies. There are other believers out there, too, and there is a growing emphasis on apologetics within the Church today.

It’s not growing fast enough, though, and it still seems to be relegated to the status of an “edifying hobby” instead of an essential, central feature of our message.

Even those of us who embrace it are just as much apostates as anyone else, though, because… What are we to do with all of this unreserved commitment arising from true belief?

What outlet do we even have for it within today’s collectively apostate Church?

To answer that, we need the other two legs of the tripod restored, which we’ll discuss in the next two installments.

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Get ready to have your mind blown

I think I might have figured out UFOs.

I’m not offering this with any degree of dogmatism or certainty. It’s just a hypothesis. So if you like it, enjoy. If you don’t, ignore it.

My hypothesis is based on three main pillars of observation.

First pillar: You know all these stories going around about sightings of flying saucers and UFOs, and people getting abducted by aliens and probed and stuff…?  Of course you do. Well, I happen to think there are too many of them, with too many common details, and from too many isolated pockets of humanity to just dismiss them out of hand. I think there’s something happening. I think there’s something to those stories. Am I saying I believe all of them without reservation or qualification? No. But I think there’s something happening to give rise to them. I don’t know what, exactly, these people are experiencing, or if the experiences are exactly as they report them, but I think there’s something going on. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and there’s a helluva lot of smoke out there where these reportings are concerned…

Second pillar: most physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists agree that if intelligent life emerged here on planet Earth, there’s a high probability that it emerged somewhere else too, given the sheer vastness and complexity of the universe. However, given the vast distances between stars and the comparative rarity and isolation of the kinds of stars and planets that could support life, it’s so astronomically unlikely that one intelligent species could find a habitable world other than their own as to be practically impossible, to say nothing of actually traveling there. And, given Einstein’s maxim that nothing can travel faster than light, and considering that the nearest solar system to us is hundreds of light years away, it would take more time than the Earth has even been in existence for another intelligent life form to travel to us, even if they knew where to look for us in the first place. So, in short, I don’t think it’s remotely possible that extraterrestrial beings could ever visit our planet.

Third pillar: it’s been 66 million years since the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. In that time, one of the surviving species– a small, squirrely lemur-like rodent creature called a “pleisiadapis” evolved into other species of mammals, then primates, and then us– humans, the only confirmed species of intelligent life in the universe. More than twice that amount of time elapsed between the appearance of the first dinosaurs and their extinction 66 million years ago, though. There is no positive evidence for this, mind you, but for all we know, we are not the first intelligent life form to have emerged on Earth, because there was plenty of time for it to have happened in the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. For all we know, intelligence evolved alongside the dinosaurs, but not along mammalian or primate lines, but along some other taxonomical branch– maybe reptilian or insectoid or any number of other forms of animal life that existed then. And, for all we know, this intelligent life had a civilization as prolific and as technologically and culturally advanced as our own, but all traces of it were eradicated by the extinction event.

So, my hypothesis is that these little green men in flying saucers we keep hearing about aren’t aliens from outer space. They’re earthlings who survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. Maybe they saw the asteroid coming and evacuated the planet until the dust settled. Maybe they hid in the depths of the ocean, living within their flying saucer/submarines. Maybe they have subterranean lunar and/or Martian colonies. Who knows?

But, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that an advanced civilization existed on Earth prior to the end of the Cretaceous period, and this civilization would have the means to survive the extinction event that wiped out the vast majority of life on Earth. And, in my view, along with numerous more qualified commentators, it isn’t possible for extraterrestrial beings to visit us. It also strains credulity to believe hundreds of otherwise intelligent, rational people would simply fabricate identical stories of flying saucers and personal encounters with the strange, seemingly otherworldly beings inhabiting and operating them. So, my conclusion is that these beings are an ancient species of earthlings that have kept themselves mostly hidden from us, for purposes of their own.

Again, I’m not dogmatic about the conclusion. I’m pretty well convinced of the three points of observation on which the conclusion is based, but there are other rational conclusions that could also be drawn from them.I’m just throwing this out there, though, so that when the flying saucers land on the White House lawn and the little green men introduce themselves, I want people to know that I called it first.

Peace out, homies.

P.S. Nothing I’ve written here is in any conflict whatsoever with the Book of Genesis. See my last two posts for details.

UPDATE: It has since occurred to me that if they had the means to survive the extinction event, they would have likely had the means to prevent it in the first place, assuming it was an asteroid, as is commonly believed. But, that’s not necessarily the case, since our actual knowledge of how to avert asteroid strikes is limited to Michael Bay movies. For all we know, it’s a lot harder than Bruce Willis makes it look.

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This.

Ben Irwin

Fifteen years ago, I landed my dream job. Well, OK… my dream internship, anyway. I was working for a conservative Christian lobbying group in DC. We were located just eight blocks from the White House, and we were on the front lines of the culture war.

When I arrived in May of that year, I was assigned to work in what they called the Cultural Studies department. As I soon learned, there was only one culture we studied: the gay rights movement. And we didn’t “study” it so much as fight it tooth and nail.

A few weeks into the job, I attended a strategy summit of like-minded lobbying groups. On the agenda: figuring out how to discredit one particular one group we all despised. The stakeholders around the table took turns proposing various tactics, most of which involved some effort to publicly humiliate or otherwise embarrass an important official associated with this group.

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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 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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