Original Sin, Natural Selection, and How to Build our Very Own “Noah’s Ark” (Creation 2/3)

Picking up where I left off in my last entry: there are, admittedly, a number of problems with my effort to reconcile the book of Genesis with the findings of modern science.

I think the need for a perfect reconciliation lessens somewhat when we consider the poetic structure of the Creation narrative: in the first three days, God is pictured creating different spaces, then filling those spaces in the next three days.
He created the heavens and the earth on the First Day, then fills the heavens with stars on the Fourth Day; He created the sea and the sky on the Second Day, then fills them with fish and flying creatures on the Fifth Day; He created the field and the forests on the Third Day, then fills them with animal life on the Sixth Day.

So, it’s clearly not intended as a mere chronological account of the stages of creation. It’s meant as poetry.

But, there’s still enough of an at least symbolic (not “figurative” or “metaphorical,” but symbolic) correlation between the events of Genesis and what we know from actual science that it seems to beckon us to look deeper to find that reconciliation. Which, admittedly, comes with a few obstacles.

They’re not insurmountable obstacles, and some of them are problems they would have had at the time of writing, even without the new information provided by the scientific revolution.

The Second Day is pretty easy: that was the epoch when proto-earth resolved itself from an orb of fiery, molten rock into the elements of land, sea, and atmosphere. As the earth cooled, liquid water collected in the lower elevations and vapor collected in the atmosphere. I’ve heard skeptics ridicule this passage, but I don’t get why—the sky is blue because this passage is literally true. Granted it’s an archaic way of putting it (as we would expect something written more than 3,000 years ago to be), but it’s straightforward and literally true, because the atmosphere is, in fact, a literal “dome” or “vault of water.” It’s not liquid water, so maybe that’s the hang-up, but there’s nothing in the passage demanding it to have been liquid rather than vapor.

The Third Day is a little bit more tricky, because it has God creating plant life prior to the creation of the sun and the moon and the stars. As I understand, plants need sunlight to live. Also, the sun happens to be much older than the earth, in actual fact.

But, there are a couple of mitigating points to consider. On the Fourth Day, it doesn’t specifically read that God created the sun, moon, and stars. It reads that He said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky.” It’s possible, according to the terms of the passage, that they existed in their present form prior to the Fourth Day (as they would have to for the earth to exist, from what we know about the formation of the solar system), but God didn’t make them visible on earth yet, because the atmosphere was still too opaque to admit light.  So, the Fourth Day wasn’t necessarily when God created the sun, moon, and stars; it was the period in which He made them visible on earth, to separate day from night.

There remains, however, the question of how vegetation would be possible on the Third Day, prior to the time when sunlight would reach the surface of the earth.

It might be that what was created wasn’t plant life as we know it, but the microbial life, like cyanobacteria and fungi, which set the stage for the evolution of higher forms of plant life. Primitive microbial life could survive on chemical energy without photosynthesis. It also transformed the earth’s ecology by oxygenating the atmosphere and fertilizing the soil over hundreds of millions of years. Where the passage reads that “God said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it…,’” perhaps what was meant was that God created the conditions that later gave rise to plant life?

That might be a bit of a reach on my part, and I’m not sure I’m qualified to argue the point from a geological or biological standpoint. I honestly don’t know how to reconcile it definitively. But I do know that whatever the passage means and whatever better explanation there may or may not be, the problem before us is not because this passage is simply the product of a primitive, pre-scientific understanding, because the original Bronze Age readers (and writer) would have had the same problem with this passage that we do. They didn’t have terms like photosynthesis and chlorophyll to explain it, but they knew just as well as we do that plants need sunlight. They knew what happens in winter when the light fades, and many ancient cultures developed elaborate mythologies about the apparent winter death of their solar deities to correspond with the seasonal death of their crops and orchards, so the ancient Israelites would have had the same problem with this verse that we have: they knew plants can’t live in the absence of sunlight, so they were unlikely to invent a story about plants existing on the earth prior to the existence of the sun.

The Fifth Day is pretty spot-on, though. Modern biology has it that animal life began in the sea, and that’s what we read happened here.

Also, the English rendering, “…and let birds fly above the earth” is a mistranslation. The Hebrew for “bird” is sippor, but the word here is op, which is a much more general word meaning “winged creature,” which would include insects, which were among the earliest life forms to evolve.

Then, there’s the expanded explanation of what happened on the Sixth Day, found in Genesis chapter 2. Man was created, found that he was alone on all the earth, so God caused the man “to fall into a deep sleep,” and then formed the woman from what He had “taken out of the man.”

This could mean that in this single, isolated instance, God personally and directly intervened to affect the course of creation and evolution by literally taking an entire rib out of the first and only behaviorally modern homo sapiens sapiens man, from which to fashion Eve, the first behaviorally modern woman.

Or, this could be an approximation of what happened, using what few Bronze Age terms were available to explain it.

Ancient people, of course, knew about inherited traits and that a man’s “seed” is the vehicle by which those traits are delivered. But, a Bronze Age reader wouldn’t have known about inherited traits in terms of genes and phenotypes and DNA, much less about dominant genes versus recessive genes. As far as they were concerned, offspring simply bore the traits of parents, so being of a man’s “seed” is the same as bearing his image and inheriting his likeness. We know that not to be entirely the case today, though—we know that inheriting a person’s DNA isn’t the same as inheriting his or her traits, because recessive genes don’t express themselves in every generation. A person can carry the gene for a particular trait, but if it’s only a recessive gene, inherited from only one parent, the trait isn’t expressed—that person is just “holding it,” so to speak, for expression in later generations. If that person has children with another person carrying the same gene (or “allele,” to be technically accurate), the trait is 25-percent more likely to be expressed, and as their children have children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, it becomes more likely to be passed on to successive generations, because the trait has become more common in the gene pool.

So, the account in Genesis 2 could be a way to convey that Eve was, in fact, literally made from material taken out of the first behaviorally modern man (or the first man to carry the genetic instructions for a behaviorally modern man), but not from something as messy and inefficient as an entire rib after he took a long nap, but from his DNA after he “went to sleep” in a less literal sense—the sense used by later biblical writers.

Of course, the writer might have just written that she was born of Adam’s “seed,” but that would have conveyed an entirely different message about an entirely different kind of relationship.

Scholars have long debated whether Adam (Hebrew for “man”) should be read here as a proper name or according a more generalized, literal meaning. So, “the man” in view in this passage might have referred to an original man in particular, or to early man as a species, or some combination thereof.

So, the original, lone bearer of the mutation constituting the Great Leap Forward would have passed on his genetic material to his offspring, but perhaps they carried it only as a recessive allele as they, in turn, passed it on to their offspring, and so on and so forth. Eventually, generations later, it became fixed as a dominant trait in but two distant cousins, a man and a woman, who found a kind of paradise in finding each other after their lifelong isolation from being unable to relate to other apparent members of their species.

After all, humanity wasn’t truly “made in the image of God” until God’s image was borne by a man and a woman: “So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them.”

So, the “Adam” in view in the expanded narrative of chapter 2 might not have been the original bearer of the mutation that amounted to the Great Leap Forward, but inherited it from a kind of proto-Adam. Eve, however, was the first woman to bear it as a dominant trait, and so became the mother of our race—a race bearing the phenotype in question as a dominant trait, and the two of them became the standard-bearers for humanity in their relationship with our Creator, so that our collective relationship with God would eventually stand or fall on theirs.

The 20th-century discovery of DNA and the advent of the scientific study of genetics also provide an avenue to consider the story of Noah’s Ark anew.

I’m wide open to the possibility that the story is literally true in every respect, but I don’t know that a sincere faith in the God of Jesus Christ necessarily demands it. And, when I read it from a different angle of interpretation, my awe and wonder at God’s power and genius—both in His creation and in His revelation—are very often enriched for it.

When I read it—a story about one man preserving all life on the planet through a vessel designed by God, I can’t help but be reminded of the fact that a human being and an earthworm are 70-percent genetically identical. A human being and a chimpanzee—our nearest evolutionary relative—are about 98 percent identical. To varying degrees, we share common DNA with all life on this planet; the more recently we branched away on the evolutionary tree, the more genetic material we have in common.

As the most recently evolved and most advanced species on this planet, we carry the sum total of Earth’s evolutionary history within each and every cell in our bodies. In a very literal sense, a single human being is a living embodiment of all life on Earth. We don’t contain all of the branches of the evolutionary tree, of course, but we contain the main line of ancestors, at some primitive stage, for virtually all life in existence and in extinction. In that respect, we are apes and tigers and wolves and rodents and earthworms and slugs and amoebae and billions of other creatures besides. We are not just the Omega to the Alpha that emerged at the dawn of the Sixth Day, but the abbreviated total of everything in-between.

Once our mapping and comprehension of the human genome are complete, and if we develop sufficiently advanced biological technology in the future (and robots to operate it), if some kind of global catastrophe befalls us and eradicates all life on Earth, but only one human being survives (or just one human cell), it’s theoretically possible that the vast majority of animal life could be restored, in time, from the information contained within just one cell of that person’s body.

Noah had every single one of these animals on the ark with him. True story.

Noah had every single one of these animals on the ark with him. True story.

Every single one of us, then, is a sort of “Noah’s Ark” in our own right. In truth, we’re each made up of millions and millions of little Noah’s Arks.

Now, I don’t know that that was the author’s intent for the story of Noah’s Ark. I’m not offering any of this as anything but speculation on my part. Some, or most, or even all of what I’ve written here might be what these stories are really about, but I’m not dogmatic about any of it, because I just don’t know with any certainty. And despite claims to the contrary, I don’t believe anybody knows with any certainty.

What I do know is this: Jesus Christ rose from the dead. I can prove that, and I believe I have proven that, as much as anything can be proven. And that’s not because my debate skills are such that I have any unique ability to prove things like that; contrary to some of my critics, it’s not because I have any special Jedi mind tricks or extraordinary powers of persuasion up my sleeve. It’s because the nature of the Event itself is such that it lends itself to relatively simple confirmation for anyone willing to honestly look into it—to look into it without preconception, prejudice, or a pre-set agenda that depends upon it being either true or untrue. You don’t need “faith” or superstition or suspension of disbelief or any amount of childhood conditioning to believe the resurrection. These do more to obscure and confuse the truth than they ever do to illuminate it. All you need is a resolution to be honest and to follow the truth wherever it leads, and then God Himself will provide you with faith, once you’re confronted with the facts themselves and respond to them without reservation or qualification. It is through the facts, actually, that He provides faith—not the other way around.

I know the resurrection to be true. As a naked fact of history, I know it to be true. That’s my starting point.

Because of that, I trust that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he affirmed the truth of the Scripture.

I also know that the earth and the universe weren’t made in six literal 24-hour days, and that God didn’t personally and directly mold each and every individual species of animal life out of clay in its present form.

I also know that it isn’t the Bible that asks me to believe those things—just Christians. And Christians have been wrong en masse before.

Granted, believing the resurrection means believing in the miraculous—in a God who intervenes in history. And, believing in Jesus means believing what he believed, and he seemed to uphold the truth of the stories of Noah and Adam and the others we find in Scripture.

I can’t follow Jesus Christ, then, without also upholding the truth of those stories. But, in what way they’re true—and what way Jesus held them to be true—isn’t so clearly established. Unlike the resurrection, their truth doesn’t always depend on them being literal and historically factual in every respect. I’m completely open to the literal truth of Noah fitting at least two living specimens of every single form of animal life on earth into the ark, if someone can come up with a plausible explanation for how that happened, along with an explanation for there being absolutely no geological or sedimentary evidence for a worldwide flood. But—and, again, unlike the resurrection—I’m not sure any of that is the point.

There were more than a few early Church Fathers, for instance, who upheld the literal, factual, historical truth of the resurrection and miracles of Jesus, but who also taught that when the plain, ordinary meaning of a story can’t be accepted, for whatever reason, there must be some kind of allegorical truth God intends to be found. Origen, for instance, took the teachings of Jesus literally (probably inappropriately in this regard) and seriously enough to actually castrate himself, but was known for allegorizing many of the stories of the Old Testament.

My objection to Young Earth Creationism, though, is not that I have any trouble believing that God intervenes to do the miraculous, nor that I have any problems acknowledging the supernatural or the paranormal, per se. And, it wouldn’t be accurate to characterize my own interpretation of Genesis as allegory. For the most part, I find that when it’s read plainly and literally (but not superficially) on its own terms, yet recognizing the constraints of language—not just primitive, pre-scientific Bronze Age language, but all language—the general picture we get from Genesis, while not exactly identical, looks much, much, much more like what we can see through the lens of modern physics, cosmology, and evolutionary biology than it does the crude, cartoonish finger-painted picture given to us by six-day, Young Earth Creationism.

No, I believe God is more than capable of intervening at will, but—from what I read in Scripture—I don’t believe it’s His way to do that directly, except as the rarest of exceptions. Also, the strict distinction we often make between “natural” and “supernatural” isn’t entirely biblical. As I’d mentioned in my previous entry, that’s something that’s crept in from paganism and polytheism, not something indigenous to the Bible.

But, I’ll have to devote my next blog entry to explaining what I mean by that. For now, there remains one more glaring obstacle to reconciliation of the book of Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, with the scientific discoveries that have shaped the modern age.

In particular, one scientific discovery represents a significant dilemma to basic Christian teachings.

If the Theory of Evolution is true, then that means Adam, and every other form of life on earth, evolved through natural selection.

“Natural selection” is, of course, just a fancy, sciencey way of saying “death”—specifically, “death that precludes reproduction”: variation comes about by way of random genetic mutation, which cumulatively results in different traits emerging over successive generations, but if a new trait turns out to be a liability to survival rather than an advantage, its bearers tend to die before they can reproduce, so the trait doesn’t get passed on. By process of elimination through death, the mutations that turn out to be advantageous adaptations are naturally selected to survive and proliferate.

So, Adam’s existence would have come about only after uncounted millions of generations lived and died before him.

Yet, we read in Genesis, and in every commentary on it found in the New Testament, that death exists in the universe as a consequence of what Adam did.

Paul wrote, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…”

Not only that, but the Curse of the Fall brought about the persistence of entropy itself throughout the universe, because, we read, the Atonement and the Resurrection are God’s answer to and salvation from the Curse, not just for humanity, but for the entire universe:

“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

The New Testament teaches that Christ took upon himself the curse wrought by Adam, and by descending—first into flesh and blood as a Member of the human race, and then into the grave—he fulfilled the requirement of death incurred by Adam upon the entire universe. Then, by rising again from death—first in a bodily resurrection, and then to the right hand of God—he took all of creation with him, in a sense, thereby redeeming the entire universe: a redemption to be consummated and completed when he returns at the end of history:

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he ‘has put everything under his feet.’ Now when it says that ‘everything’ has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.”

But, if Adam evolved through natural selection, i.e., death, how then can Adam be culpable for the existence of death? How can death be a “curse” resulting from Adam’s sin if death was part of the process that brought about Adam’s existence in the first place? And if death isn’t, after all, a punishment upon Adam’s rebellion against God, then what meaning do Jesus’ death and resurrection have?

Again—I believe a person can accept the truth of the stories of Genesis without necessarily believing them in the literal and factual sense in every respect. But, I don’t see that the same option exists for the resurrection. Without the resurrection as a literal, historical fact, Christianity would be nothing but a hollow shell. If it didn’t really happen, all we’re left with is a nice story with no relevance to real life. It would still make for a great template for superhero movies and fantasy literature, but it would be utterly worthless as the basis for a philosophy of life.

For the resurrection to be real, the Atonement also has to have been real—Jesus’ death has to have held a transcendent, spiritual and cosmic meaning. That’s what the resurrection signifies: the One condemned by the powers of this fallen world has been vindicated by God and, through him, God has reversed the curse of death and redeemed humanity and the universe from its final and lasting grip. Without the Atonement, there might still be the social implications of the Son of God being condemned and crucified by the civil and religious elites of the day, but it doesn’t seem to me that God would go to such lengths or put His Son through so much for something as comparatively trivial as a political statement. Without the broader, cosmic meaning of the Atonement, Jesus’ crucifixion would be an absurd tragedy to be mourned, not a triumph to be celebrated and validated through the resurrection.

So, Young Earth Creationists and other Christians who reject the Theory of Evolution do have a point—there does at least seem to be a legitimate conflict between the Atonement and the idea of Natural Selection.

I happen to know for a fact that the resurrection actually happened, though. And, I happen to think that the science is pretty much conclusive on the Theory of Evolution.

And, for reasons to be explained more fully in my next entry, to not embrace the findings of modern science, and to choose willful ignorance over knowledge, to hide from new information, even out of—especially out of– commitment to the Bible is actually a betrayal of everything it teaches.

So, as unlikely as it might seem up front, there must some way to reconcile the two.

The Scripture doesn’t say in so many words what that way is, but there are clues.

First, Paul wrote, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

This thought came right after Paul established that all alike have sinned, and none are justified by their own merits, by their own good deeds or character or nature:

“No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now, apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter what group you fall into—Jew or Gentile, Greek or barbarian, male or female, free or slave—because everybody’s under the same curse, living by the same fallen, corrupt nature, and is saved through the same faith, by the grace of the same God.

Paul goes on to explain, as he does in his other writings, that the patriarch Abraham was a prototype and example of the faith in Christ through which we are justified and saved.

Abraham, of course, lived about 2,000 years before Christ. We learn from Paul and other teachers, including Jesus himself, that there is no true righteousness or salvation apart from Jesus Christ, yet we read that Abraham—who lived and died two-millennia before Christ—exemplified the faith to which we’re called for salvation.

We’ve already discussed how both modern physics and ancient scripture teach that time is not as rigid and absolute as we perceive it to be. It’s elastic, subjective to physical parameters of mass and velocity and gravity.

Evidently, it isn’t as linear or one-directional as we perceive it to be, either. At least, not from God’s perspective, it isn’t.

According to the Scripture, Christ’s atonement was applied backwards in time to people who lived and died before his death and resurrection.

It’s a little bit beyond the scope of this discussion, but still worth pointing out as a preview to a future blog entry, but it reads elsewhere that the gospel of salvation through Christ was “a mystery kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now (in the 1st century) revealed to the saints.” Paul said it’s “the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God.”

That means people in Abraham’s time didn’t know about it. Moses didn’t know about it. Adam and Eve, Enoch, Noah, Jethro of Midian, Naaman the Syrian, the widow of Zarephath, and countless others reckoned as “righteous” in the Scripture were in no position to know about the Messiah’s death and resurrection, nor about the resultant Atonement and Redemption.

Also, there are passages in the Old Testament in which the Second Person of the Trinity is seen acting in his High Priestly role on behalf of people who lived and died long before the Son of God was born on earth, yet we read that Jesus Christ was qualified for that role only because of what he did on earth.

So, all those people who lived and died before Christ was born still benefited from what Christ accomplished. It happened within time, at a certain point in history, but God applied the blessings accomplished by it throughout all time, and to people who were not and could not have been conscious of it, because God exists beyond space and time. When Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, he also ascended beyond space and time. So, there has never been a time in the history of the universe when the Man from Nazareth—the One with nail-scarred hands, born to the young bride of an impoverished Jewish carpenter in an obscure province of the Roman Empire—was not dwelling in the very heart of the Godhead, interceding with God on behalf of fallen humanity.

This raises questions and considerations long ignored—willfully, stubbornly, and disgracefully ignored by mainstream Christianity—about what it means to be “in Christ” and whether a person must be conscious of being “in Christ,” and on what terms. It raises questions about whether people like Socrates and Gandhi or that hypothetical pygmy in the deepest, darkest jungles of South America who’s never heard of Christianity could, in theory, be saved after all.

In other words, there is no question that Jesus is the Only Savior, the Only Way to be Saved. He is. However, in what way “Jesus is the only way” is another question entirely, and one that mainstream Christianity typically fails to explain in any biblically-thorough or morally-cognizant manner.

But, that might best be left to another blog entry.

The point I want to make in this entry is that if the blessings of the Atonement were applied across time, forward and backwards, future and past, then why wouldn’t the Curse have been applied on the same terms?

The Atonement, after all, is God’s answer to the Curse. The Atonement settles the karmic debt, so to speak, incurred in the Fall of Man. It balances mankind’s spiritual ledger before God, which was covered in red by the Curse, and as such, it’s the inverse and opposite of the Curse.

It is all but explicitly stated in Scripture that the blessings of the Atonement were applied across time in both directions. Implied in that is the suggestion that the Curse, as the karmic opposite of the Atonement, also applied equally to Adam’s future and his past.

As in, even though the Fall occurred at a specific point in time and (pre)history, the resultant Curse applied across time, all the way back to the beginning, when the process of cosmic entropy first began in the moments immediately following the Big Bang.

So, Natural Selection and the Atonement are not, as it turns out, mutually exclusive concepts. The Curse doesn’t have to have taken effect after the emergence of Man, any more than God had to wait until after the death and resurrection of the Messiah to apply the benefits of the Atonement. God exists outside of time, and so, therefore, do the consequences of our relationship to Him. Had Adam not rebelled, the Curse would not have introduced death into the universe, and natural selection would not have been the mechanism for the evolution of complex life. Something else would have been. Perhaps adaptation would not have been random, necessitating the elimination of unfit mutations? The universe would have functioned differently from the beginning, possibly without the Law of Entropy holding sway, and possibly with a completely different scheme for life on Earth.

And as unlikely as that might sound from the standpoint of practical, scientific reality—that the fundamental laws of the universe could have been influenced from the beginning by the choices made by a single specimen of animate dirt 13 billion-or-so years later, it’s not actually that far-fetched sounding when it’s considered alongside other ideas advanced by physicists themselves in their attempts to answer the Big Questions of existence.

The Participatory Anthropic Principle, for instance, proposes that the existence of the universe depends on observers—that it exists only because we’re here to experience it (that tree falling in the woods would not only not make a sound, but it wouldn’t be falling, wouldn’t be a tree, and there would be no woods within which to fall, without someone there to hear it…). The PAP is controversial, admittedly, but it doesn’t get people laughed out of academia for seriously discussing it, if some of Stephen Hawking’s writings and public addresses are any indication. It’s really just one variation of a more general “Anthropic Principle” to account for the existence of life in the universe, and it’s not even the craziest iteration. In trying to flesh out the Anthropic Principle, physicists have had to resort to serious discussion about the emergence of intelligent machines in the future, parallel universes, time-travel and other notions usually left to science fiction writers to explore.

The idea that the Fall of Man might have had practical effects on the fundamental laws of the universe isn’t actually that far out, then, and it isn’t, by comparison, so ridiculous to consider that if God exists and made Man as the privileged bearer of His Image, Natural Selection and Entropy might be the cosmic consequence of our rebellion against Him.

We read in Scripture that the Fall occurred after God “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden.” Whether this was an actual, geographic location, a spiritual plane, a psychological state, or what has long been the subject of scholarly debate. I’m completely open to it being an actual, literal place on earth, or any of the above, really, but I don’t know that it must be either of these in particular for the truth… no—for the reality of the story to apply. Whatever the true nature of the Garden of Eden, the truth of the relationship between God and Man is real, and so are the consequences.

We read, though, that the Garden of Eden was this other (…location? …condition? …plane?) to which God took him and the woman, presumably removing him from somewhere else within the normal scheme of what his life would have been had God not relocated him. The Garden was a paradise beyond what would have been his normal habitat, where Man freely enjoyed the presence of God and His gifts to Man without fear or suffering or want or death. But, it was also a place where his loyalty and love and trust in God would be tested, and his relationship with God and with His creation would be defined by the outcome of that test.

Then, we read that a talking snake—which even Young Earth Creationists interpret non-literally to mean the Devil, or Satan, or “the Accuser” in Hebrew, or the Great Red Dragon and the Prince of the Power of the Air, as he’s called in the New Testament—entered the Garden to cast doubt on God’s goodness and intentions, in order to get Adam and Eve to fail their test and fall from grace.

The serpent succeeded, and God cursed all three of them: the serpent was condemned, among other indignities, to slither in the dust for the rest of time (How did it get around before it slithered? Did it have legs and feet and a different body type?); the woman was cursed to painful childbirth and resultant dependence upon her husband; and the man (and all that belonged to him) was cursed with mortality and condemned to a constant struggle to make his living from the earth that would be cursed now because of him, and he was banished from God’s presence.

Whatever the Garden of Eden was, Adam didn’t get to stay for long. Or maybe he did. We actually have no idea how much time he spent there, nor even if it was something within space and time that could be measured in terms of temporal duration. At any rate, he disqualified himself and his descendents from it, and now humanity is barred from the immortality represented by the Tree of Life by a deadly, lightsaber-wielding angelic gatekeeper—or something that could only best be described as such according to available Bronze Age-terms.

As time went on and Adam’s offspring proliferated on the earth and they descended into greater and greater depths of depravity, we read that God wiped out nearly the entire human race, sparing only a handful to repopulate the earth.

That’s what we read in Scripture.

We’ve learned from other sources, like geology and paleontology and other sciences, that dragons once ruled the earth, long before the rise of Man. Then, something happened—we don’t know exactly what, but some massive extinction event wiped them all out and fundamentally altered the ecology of this planet.dinosaurs-extinction-150-dpi Or, at least, most of them were wiped out. Enough survived to evolve and adapt to the new environment following the asteroid strike and climate change and other alterations that wiped out most of them. Some evolved into snakes that slither on the ground. Some evolved into birds, which now dominate the skies above us.

Long after this, mankind evolved and began to proliferate on the earth. Then, another extinction event wiped out all but a few of us.

Now, I couldn’t begin to guess what the extinction of the dinosaurs has to do, in a spiritual or in a scientific sense, with the fact that Satan, or the “Great Red Dragon,” or “the Prince of the Power of the Air,” as he’s also called, was cursed in the Garden of Eden for being the snake that deceived Adam and Eve.

But, there seems to be some kind of loose correlation there, as there are between other broad features of both Scripture and scientific discoveries about the history of the Earth. And that tells me that the Scripture is actually far more true than we typically imagine—more true than our childhood Sunday school literature ever would have led us to believe, but also true in ways we never could have imagined. It’s true in ways we couldn’t even guess that it’s true.

And my concern here, obviously, is not to resolve every single apparent discrepancy between the Bible and the findings of modern science, nor is it to solve every mystery or answer every question.

I simply don’t know, with any real certainty, what the Scripture means when it tells of a global flood, or of plant life emerging before sunlight ever reached the earth, or of the first woman being the result of a divine rib transplant. I don’t believe the evidence supports a strictly literal Noah’s ark and a global deluge, or the special creation of Eve, or plant life emerging and thriving in the absence of sunlight.

I do know that the Scriptures are divinely inspired, and so they are the medium for a body of profound, life-giving truths revealed by the very same Power who raised Jesus from the dead. And I don’t know this, even, because the Bible demonstrates such an uncanny prescience with regard to what we’re continually discovering about the universe through the scientific method. I don’t point out the correlation as an apologetic for Christianity to non-believers (the resurrection and the fulfillment of prophecy accomplish that already), but as an apologetic for modern science to Christians, who continue to perpetrate a pointless and counterproductive war with interests who should not be our natural enemies.

Contrary to the narrative typically invoked in western culture, and reinforced by Christian efforts to deny and suppress the Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang Theory and the rest, the scientific revolution was not the consequence of civilization shuffling off the supposed irrationality of Christianity, but of Christians shuffling off the irrationality of paganism and polytheism.

More on that next time…

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Why I’m not a Young Earth Creationist… and Jesus isn’t either. (1/3)

This little tractate started out as a Facebook comment the other day by which I’d intended to explain why I so emphatically reject the notion that Jesus was a Six-Day, Young Earth Creationist. I got a little carried away, though, and the discussion moved on before I could finish this and post it. Since I find myself having this conversation so often anyway, though, and since I created this blog precisely so I could collect all of these mini-lectures I find myself inflicting upon people, I thought I may as well post it here, so when it comes up in conversation again I can just say, “I wrote a blog entry about that,” and spare the person a lengthy impromptu sermon, while still providing an option to read about it at their leisure at a later time.

Again, the discussion was about Christianity’s relationship to modern science, and why I’m so emphatic that Young Earth Creationism isn’t actually taught in the Bible, and that the Theory of Evolution is, not only a more-or-less indisputable and proven scientific fact, but the most biblically-correct model of biology on the market.

I should further qualify my use of the word “indisputable,” though. I use it, of course, as a relative term, because any and all scientific theories exist for the purpose of being disputed. That said, I know there are flaws, gaps, and as-yet unexplained inconsistencies within the Theory of Evolution, and the work of scientists is to either figure out how to reconcile those apparent discrepancies with the broader principle on which the theoretical model is built, or to come up with a better scientific (not philosopical, but scientific) model to account for them– a model that provides more consistent and accurate predictability with regard to the phenomena under study than the  current model.

It does no good, then, for YECs to point out apparent problems with the Theory of Evolution, any more than it would be worthwhile to point out that Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion don’t apply to questions of electromagnetism, or that the Theory of General Relativity doesn’t agree with Quantum Mechanics. The real scientists already know all that, and that’s why the search for a single, comprehensive model of the universe has dominated the study of physics for the past 100 or so years.

In the field of biology, there is no significant controversy over the Theory of Evolution, because there is no other theory on the market to compete with it. Intelligent Design, while true, does not qualify, because it’s not a scientific theory. There is no way to make a testable hypothesis on the basis of Intelligent Design, because it can’t be used to make any kind of predictions whatsoever about what it purports to explain. It can’t be used to develop better drugs or preserve endangered species or anything else for which a sound theory of biology is used.

But, that’s all beside the point where Young Earth Creationists are concerned. I’ve heard plenty of people quote Phillip Johnson books, Darwin’s Black Box and other works of evangelical propaganda packaged as shrewd and sober scientific challenges to the prevailing model of biology, but it’s specious (and a bit pretentious) for Christians to claim that they dispute the Theory of Evolution on its scientific merits. Never mind the fact that most evolutionary skeptics aren’t even remotely qualified (any more than I am) to step foot in that arena, because if it weren’t for our religious commitment to uphold the Bible, most of us would never have any reason to question or comment upon the Theory’s scientific validity.

But… here’s the main issue at work here: a great many churchgoers spend the first few years of their lives being told by others what the Bible teaches, long before they’re in any position to read it for themselves with any meaningful comprehension. Their understanding of God and the universe and the origin of man is absorbed in early childhood and shaped in large part by cartoon depictions found in coloring books and children’s Sunday school literature. Having been told so often by well-meaning but thoroughly indoctrinated Sunday school teachers what the Bible supposedly teaches, the typical churchgoer is conditioned to hold a certain collection of preconceptions long before he or she ever learns to read. In general, they learn that God is an elderly Caucasian man with a flowing white beard who, about six-thousand years ago, rolled up the sleeves on His white robe before He reached into the mud with His two five-fingered hands to sculpt each individual species of animal life, two-by-two, in the precise form in which they exist today, as an add-on to a brief, week-long project of constructing the universe by much the same hands-on method. jesus_dinosaur  This nursery-inculcated worldview is packed with colorful ideas about talking animals as commonplace features of the original state of creation, biblical figures coexisting with dinosaurs, and prehistoric man believing and worshiping on much the same terms as a modern American evangelical.

So, when they’re old enough to then read the Bible for themselves, they wind up projecting many of these notions onto the text and feeding them back to themselves, convinced that what they’re walking away with afterward is “biblical teaching,” when it’s not.  (That is, if they actually do wind up reading it for themselves, because, let’s face it: most people filling church pews today—or even teaching Sunday school classes, for that matter—couldn’t answer basic questions about the wanderings of the Patriarchs, the Babylonian exile, or even basics about messianic prophecy, along with a host of other key concepts that collectively comprise “Christianity,” much less be able to answer questions about where the Bible came from and why it’s this particular book they uphold rather than others. None of that would be so bad, though, if we weren’t so insistent that everyone else run our shared public institutions according to our poorly-explored understanding of what constitutes Christianity. But, I digress…)

If we take the Scriptures on their own terms, though, without projecting our own ideas in-between the lines, they’re actually much more supportive—and, even, suggestive—of the Big Bang Theory, the relativity of space/time, and, even, progressive biological evolution.

I find it simultaneously exasperating and amusing when I encounter Christians who turn their noses up at the Big Bang Theory because they understand it only as an attack on the biblical teaching they purport to uphold. The physics community initially turned their noses up at it as well when George Lemaitre first proposed it, and for precisely the opposite reason: the notion of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) was, at the time, regarded as a purely theological idea– a superstition, really– so when this Catholic priest/physics professor became the first to propose it as the logical consequence of Einstein’s new General Theory of Relativity, commonly-held anti-religious snobbery led them to  assume he must have been advancing a religious agenda under a flimsy guise of scientific respectability (given some our aforementioned tendencies to dress religious indoctrination up in a nice tuxedo, it’s easy to understand why they’d think that, though).

Lemaitre hypothesized the idea of an expanding universe suddenly appearing from an infinitely hot, dense singularity (or a “primeval atom,” as he termed it) one-third the size of a proton, which emerged inexplicably out of the darkness and void before it exploded in an immense flash of light that resolved itself into the matter and energy that comprise the universe in its entirety. The “Big Bang” Theory (a label originally meant as a pejorative before it stuck) has since been confirmed to be true several times over, but at the time, they dismissed it as nothing but a mathematical apologia for the scriptural passage reading, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”

At the time, conventional wisdom among physicists had it that the universe was eternal and static, and the idea of a cosmic beginning was regarded as a quaint religious myth. A curious reversal has occurred in the intervening century in that what was once regarded as a superstition to be derided by the intellectual elite is now axiomatic to scientists’ understanding of the universe, and so is often derided instead by the religious elite.

Of course, the final verse quoted is often taken to mean all of this happened within the span of a literal, 24-hour day… which would be a plain and obvious, albeit superficial and mistaken reading.

If light = “day” and darkness = “night,” and this was the first such occurrence of day and night, then of course it’s a literal 24-day, right?

Except, light and darkness on planet Earth are the consequence of rotating in and out of the illumination of the sun—something that wasn’t possible until the Fourth Day, when God set the sun, the moon, and the stars in the skyward view of the Earth. And, we read, He didn’t do it just to provide light, but to “serve as signs to mark times and days and years.” It reads that “God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.”

Yet, God had already separated light from darkness before, thereby creating the day and night that marked the First Day. Two more days then elapsed according to the standard of time established on the First Day. But, it wasn’t until the Fourth Day that He “separated light from darkness” on earth, thereby creating the night and day that mark a “day” as we experience them.

So, whatever else the passage means, that original, primeval scale of time established on the First Day could not have been a literal 24-hour day as we experience them, but a different measurement of time entirely. It was the broader, cosmic framework of time by which the general stages of creation progressed, but not a “day” as we know them, and the Creation account was written in such a manner as to make that distinction explicit.

Of course, when it’s read under a universally-held assumption that “a day” is just a day, and can only mean a day—because time is known to be static and linear and absolute and non-negotiable—the error is understandable. It ignores an explicit distinction within the text, but it’s still an understandable error, given the limits of our common perception of time. In the age after Einstein, though, we know better, and so, evidently, did the author of the Creation account. We know now that time is relative to the observer’s frame of reference, and that variables like mass and gravity and the curvature of space will affect the rate at which time flows, just like a boulder in a river will affect the flow of water around it. A person standing inside something as massive as the Great Pyramid of Giza will be subject to time at a slightly slower pace than a person standing in the open, but much faster than someone who might be standing on the surface of a planet the size of, say, Jupiter (I know, I know—Jupiter doesn’t have a surface, but use your imagination). If a person were unfortunate enough to be caught at the event horizon of a black hole, observers in the distance would see the cascade of events play out practically instantaneously, but to the person himself, the episode would take hundreds of years to play out, and it would appear to the person that he was frozen in place at the black hole’s edge, because time itself would slow to a crawl in the midst of its immense gravity.

What we needed Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking and others to teach us about time, other biblical writers were able to figure out on their own somehow: time is relative to the observer’s frame of reference, so an observer from, say, God’s frame of reference could experience a day to be as long as a thousand years, or a thousand years to go by as quickly as one day. God created time, and so He stands outside of it, beyond it, so millions of years to Him are as brief as the moments between the tick of a clock, and the moments between a clock tick are as long as the age of a universe. We don’t know exactly how long, from our frame of reference, the Six Days of Creation were (nor is that the point), but a plain comparison of Genesis 1:17,18  with vs. 3-5 should tell us that it’s not a literal 24-hour day in view when the six stages of creation are referred to as “days.”

The days of creation, then, couldn’t have been the brief, comparatively instantaneous episodes we understand them to have been from our childhood indoctrination, but would have been cosmic epochs in which the progress of creation gradually came into place.

And I say “came into place” because, we read (contrary to the depictions of our childhood), at no stage of creation did God ever directly intervene. Rather, He expressed His will, and creation carried it out. He said, “Let there be…” and then it was. He commanded, and creation obeyed. He issued the command, the law, the principle, the pattern, by which the universe would operate, and He issued it in a specific orderly, progressive manner.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than on the Sixth Day, when He created animal life; or, rather, when He commanded that the earth create animal life:

“And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.’ And it was so.”

According to the Scripture itself, God did not reach into the mud and shape each species with His own two five-fingered hands. Rather, He merely commanded, and the earth brought it forth, of itself, according to His will, according to natural laws dictated by God. The earth—which previously was not “alive” in any biological sense—produced life of itself, and it emerged from the planet “according to its kind.”

So, if life emerged from the earth according to the natural processes set in place by the Creator, it stands to reason (and fossil record observation) that it was more like the material already present in the earth when it started out, so it emerged in a simple, basic form, then reproduced with degrees of variation and complexity in successive generations “according to its kind,” i.e., its taxonomy, eventually separating into phyla, classes, orders, families, genii, species, subspecies, etc.

Eventually, near the conclusion of the epoch known as “the Sixth Day,” a completely unique and unprecedented species of life arose—a species unlike any previous “kind”—a species made uniquely “in the Image of God.” It was a species with a power like that of God: the power to speak—to think and communicate in symbolic terms, and to thereby create with that speech.

Clearly, Man could not create ex nihilo as could God, but he could create systems of symbols by which God’s creation could be organized, understood, and subdued: Man’s first work was to name the animals, and so he participated, in a fashion, in God’s process of creation (Genesis 2:19, 20).

Of course, an obvious objection to this line of reasoning is that the Scripture reads, “God formed man from the dust of the earth,” so (some reason), Man could not have evolved as “just another animal,” but was specially created by God.

Specially created we were, for sure, but there is no elaboration in Scripture of the specific process by which God made us. The only specific mention is of the material used: the dust of the earth, which is the same material of which the rest of the animal world is composed, having been “brought forth from the earth” on the Sixth Day. The Scripture says nothing about how many degrees of removal Adam was from the earth, nor the specific process by which his physical material was transformed from mere dust into the cells of his body.

There is a strong suggestion of the general process, though: Mankind emerged at the end of the Sixth Day, which began with God’s command that the earth bring forth living creatures. The creation of man began with the emergence of that first single-celled, self-replicating organism, which fed on the nutrients of the earth and reproduced itself over trillions of generations for millions of years, gradually transforming through mutation and natural selection, taking on new powers of movement and awareness and communication, and the ability to manipulate its environment to its advantage.

The eventual result was the vast complexity of life we see around us today—something the earth produced of itself,  according to natural laws of chemistry and physics decreed by God, as we read in scripture.

Of course, it doesn’t say that in so many words. It reads only that “God said, ‘Let there be…’ …and it was.” It isn’t much of a leap, though, to read it to mean that, implied in the command “Let there be…” were the instructions “Let the natural laws of chemistry and physics be such that this outcome occurs.” In fact, there is no material difference between these two wordings—they are different ways of saying the exact same thing.

Naturally, though, such an explicit description would have been lost on a Bronze Age readership, as would an explicit description of creatio ex nihilo.

After all, it never reads “creation out of nothing” in so many words either. In fact, the only explicit mention in scripture of God creating the universe “out of nothing” is found in the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 7:28), written centuries after the Genesis account.

That concept might have been a bit advanced and alien for its time as well—as alien as describing the development of life in terms of the laws of thermodynamics, genetic variation, and natural selection. The number zero wouldn’t be invented for another few centuries, and most cultures at the time believed that the gods had fashioned the world out of some pre-existent material (usually the carcass of a giant dragon or sea monster, or on the back of a giant tortoise, which stood on the back of another, larger giant tortoise standing on the back of a stiller larger tortoise, ad infinitum). The account in Genesis seems to play to that expectation, even as it undercuts it: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

All language is based on symbols, and symbols have to be recognizable– they have to be based on objects and experiences common enough to be easily referenced and recalled by the people who share the language; otherwise they’re just gibberish. And, Bronze Age Hebrews had a much less varied range of common experiences to reference than modern English speakers. Consequently, there are fewer than 9,000 unique words in the Old Testament, which speaks to an ancient Hebrew vocabulary that was much more limited than the more than one million words we have in the English language today.

Yet, the writer of Genesis had to somehow describe something that happened beyond and prior to any human experience– something for which no human being had ever had to come up with language to describe before, using only the limited range of shared experience represented in those 9,000 words. 

All things considered, one can only admire the unrivaled genius at work in the economy of language found in the book of Genesis, as well as the prescience in describing realities we take for granted today, yet were inconceivable to anyone living at the time.

They had no concept at the time, and therefore no words– no direct symbols for “zero” or “nothing” or for the vacuum of space. So, the sea—with its dark, unknowable depths and unpredictable, turbulent motions—was typically employed as a descriptor in pagan creation mythology for the primeval chaos of the universe prior to the formation of the earth. Genesis seems to use that expectation as its starting point, but qualifies it by describing the earth as being, in Hebrew, tohu—without form or shape, and bohu—without substance or content, and covered in darkness—the absence of light or appearance. In a culture with no number zero and no concept of “nothing,” this was as close as the writer, in near eastern Bronze Age terms, could get to saying, “there was nothing prior to creation.” But, the writer of 2 Maccabees and others at the time seemed to catch on, and creatio ex nihilo became the standard interpretation of Genesis 1:1-5, long before there was any scientific justification to believe the universe had a beginning in time, prior to which there was nothing.

Likewise, it doesn’t read in so many words that God created life by saying, “Let the laws of chemistry and physics and biology be such that complex animal life emerges from the planet,” but I think we can safely infer that from what is written. That reading, at least, depends far less upon our preconceptions than the cartoonish, anthropomorphized version offered by children’s Sunday school literature.

As life proliferated and adapted and struggled and took on new powers and forms, the evolutionary Great Leap Forward finally happened late in the epoch referred to in scripture as the Sixth Day: a single specimen of primate was born, which appeared in all respects to be like every other member of its species. It was mostly hairless, could walk erect, had opposable thumbs—just like all the others of its kind. But, it understood things in a way others couldn’t, and tried to communicate what it understood, but to no avail: it was isolated in its understanding, for it alone carried the mutation that made the crucial difference between anatomically modern humans and behaviorally modern humans. It had inherited its large cranium from its forebears, which they developed by having learned the magic of fire, which enabled them to cook and digest meat in order to fulfill the massive requirements of protein demanded by their larger brains. But, this new specimen could do much more than conjure fire with dry wood or with flint and brush. It could develop a vast array of symbols in the form of sounds, which it could use to try to communicate with others of his kind… if only there were any others of its kind.

This capacity for symbolic thought and communication amounted to the capacity to think in abstract terms, beyond just the grunts and gestures that meant “danger” or “food” or “let’s mate.” This capacity for abstract thought gave it the capacity—gave him the capacity, rather, to understand the existence of his Creator, and to worship Him.

Adam was made from the dust of the earth, but not directly—not by God’s direct contact with the dirt. He was made from the dust of the earth in the same way we all are: we’re conceived in our mothers’ wombs and then we grow from the material provided through the food they eat, which is made of nutrients from the earth, delivered by way of plants, or by the meat of animals that ate the plants. Adam was born of a mother and a father, but he was born with a particular mutation that made him unique in all the world: he was the first of his kind, made in the image of God.

This would explain, of course, where Cain got his wife, and it explains who all those people were of whom Cain was so terrified when God banished him to Nod: humanity—or, at least, proto-humanity—existed prior to the arrival of Adam. The writer of Genesis seemed to take it for granted that the human race existed in some capacity prior to God’s creation of Adam and Eve, and seemed to expect readers to understand that as well. No explanation was offered for who these people were who populated the city built by Cain, nor who it was that posed a threat to him in his banishment. Yet, every time a descendent of Adam was conceived and born, the writer was explicit about his origins: “Cain went in to his wife and she became pregnant…,” etc.

These earlier specimens of humanity were superficially and anatomically identical to Adam and his descendents, but they lacked the mutation gained in the Great Leap Forward—a mutation that gave them the power of abstract, symbolic thought by which they created systems of zoology and morality through which they were able to assign qualitative value to animals and objects and relationships and people. They were able to recognize beauty and truth and goodness beyond mere sensory input and gratification of appetite, which is how they, and they alone in all the world, were able to relate to their Creator, and to experience guilt and shame over immorality and betrayal.

The ancients understood the significance of this distinction. The relationship between speech and creation and it’s centrality in the condition of man as the unique bearer of God’s image was a major avenue of exploration in Jewish mysticism, long before evolutionary biologists and anthropologists came up with terms like “Great Leap Forward” and “behavioral modernity” to explain the same truth. Kabbalists expressed it through mantras like Abracadabra, which is Aramaic for “As I speak, I create.”

They, and the Greek philosophers with whom they exchanged ideas, understood humanity’s symbol-based rationality to be of the same quality as the Divine Mind that created the universe. The quality was the same, but the degree was but a miniscule fraction of the infinite Supreme Consciousness.

This basic understanding—that human rationality is of the same kind of Intelligence as the Divine Mind—laid the foundation for what would become the scientific revolution.

Of course, this cuts sharply against the narrative we typically invoke in Western society, which has it that the Age of Reason represented a shuffling off of the supernaturalism and superstition imposed on civilization by the forces of Christianity: we learned that bad weather and illness aren’t the result, necessarily, of witchcraft or demons or the wrath of God, but low-pressure fronts and germs. If someone falls prey to illness or natural disaster, we don’t consult an oracle or a priest to find out how to expiate their sin, we consult a medical doctor or a meteorologist.

But, that kind of supernaturalism and irrationality wasn’t actually indigenous to Judeo-Christian tradition. It was something that crept in from the paganism of our ancestors.

I might be getting ahead of myself, though. By now, I expect that there are some pretty loud objections to what I’ve written so far. There are, after all, more than a few problems with my effort to reconcile the teachings of Scripture with those of modern science.

They’re not insurmountable problems, but they do require the scope of another blog entry. So… to be continued.

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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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