The Foundation, part 5.2: The Forgotten Jesus…?

(Continued from Defending the Lynchpin and The Telephone Game)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As my case in point, consider the Turing Test.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, here we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This could TOTALLY happen,” leading scientists say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who, being in very nature God,

Did not consider equality with God something to be exploited

But made himself nothing,

Taking the very nature of a servant,

Being made in human likeness.

And being in appearance as a man,

He humbled himself

And became obedient to death—

Even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

And gave him the name that is above every name,

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

In heaven and on earth and under the earth,

And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

To the glory of God the Father.”

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

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

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

“He appeared in a body,

Was vindicated by the Spirit,

Was seen by angels,

Was preached among the nations,

Was believed on in the world,

Was taken up in glory.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wrote in his first epistle to the Thessalonians:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were they lying?

Were they mistaken?

Or, were they telling the truth?

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The Foundation, part 5.1: The Telephone Game

(Continued from Defending the Lynchpin)

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

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

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

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

That’s how it is with the New Testament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Foundation, part 5: Defending the Lynchpin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Foundation, part 4: The Lynchpin of Existence

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, here goes the full treatment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that brings us to the question at hand.

How do we know if it’s all true?

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

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

Where did they all come from?

Putting it another way, how did Christianity come about?

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

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

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

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

So… all those churches and Bibles came from somewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, yeah. There is all that to consider.

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

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

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

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

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

Looks pretty real to me…

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

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

But how is it proven?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I get that.

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

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

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The Foundation, part 3: I Am Not a Pessimist

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

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

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

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

All of these people have faith too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My point is that apologetics occupies but a small, barely-significant niche within the overall scheme of Christian thought and ministry, when it should be at the very center. In fact, our message should be apologetics more than anything else, and everything else that falls under the term “Christianity” should proceed from that foundation. That’s how the apostles initiated people into the Christian faith: by teaching people, rationally and reasonably, that it’s actually true. That’s how they generated authentic faith among their followers, and it was from this starting point that discipleship then proceeded, and Christianity grew into a world religion and transformed the ancient world.

For Paul, it was war. That isn’t to say that he compared it to a war—that “war” was a metaphor or a figure of speech he used to dramatize his mission. No, for him, it was an actual, offensive war of conquest to carry out the Great Commission. But, it wasn’t fought with swords or by physical violence. It was a war of ideas, a war of thought and reason. It wasn’t a war of one man-made philosophy against another, but a war of light against darkness, knowledge over ignorance, reality over illusion, of universal truth over falsehood, transparency over esoteric mysticism. It was a war to enlighten the world despite itself.

It was a war, but there was no coercion involved, because there was no violence, no leveraging by way of sticks and carrots. In fact, such an approach would have undermined and unraveled everything for which Jesus and the apostles fought and suffered. Rather, they fought and won by persuading and convincing people that the gospel actually is true, so that people could choose, of their own free will, to join the Church, and to fight in the war in which it was embroiled.  Think Morpheus offering Neo the choice between the blue pill and the red pill, but only after telling him all about the Matrix, so he’d know what he was getting into.

In contrast, when a rank-and-file churchgoer is questioned today about why he believes in Christianity, his answer is likely to be, “…because it’s what I’ve put my faith in.” And he might even say that proudly, having been taught all his life that such an orientation is a virtue in itself—that it’s praiseworthy to believe and uphold whatever a religious authority or a long-standing institution tells you is true, without any justification in evidence.

Of course, in our rank-and-file churchgoer’s defense, that attitude isn’t without its vague basis in scripture. Or, at least, it’s not without basis in our conventional interpretation of scripture. After He had risen and appeared to “Doubting Thomas” and passed his criterion for belief, Jesus told him, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen, yet believed.”

I think we tend to projectour assumptions of fideism onto this and other verses, though, instead of getting that idea from the scripture itself. If we read the text in its broader context, we’ll see that Jesus only expected Thomas’ supposedly “blind” belief after a few years of watching Jesus walk on water, give sight to blind people, raise the dead, and then hearing Him tell them outright on several occasions that He would rise from the dead. Anyone would normally be skeptical about such a claim, but given the circumstances, Jesus had a reasonable expectation to be taken seriously by the people who knew Him best.

So, Jesus isn’t holding out unreasoning credulity as God’s favorite virtue here. He isn’t saying, “Blessed are you if you believe every outlandish claim made in God’s name.” In fact, He explicitly told the disciples to maintain a posture of skepticism about such claims, and made a few remarks to imply that there would be more false teachers and prophets than true. Rather, He’s saying—once the fact of His identity and God’s nature and existence are established (as they were for Thomas), to trust Him. He was admonishing His friend for not believing in Him after He’d already passed every possible criteria for belief. And He wasn’t asking him to believe in Him as a point of doctrine, nor as the mascot of their local religious institution, but as his Friend and Mentor.

Most believers and skeptics today aren’t quite in the same position as Thomas, though.

And besides all that, there’s a world of difference between an honest and completely reasonable question of “Why should I believe Jesus rose from the dead?” and “I will not believe unless God does thus and thus to satisfy my requirements, because the burden is on Him to do things on my terms...” There is a sense in which we “see” the truth when we’re exposed to the evidence and take it under honest consideration, but that’s a far cry from the kind of seeing Thomas demanded and experienced. It’s one thing to ask for evidence for honest consideration of a seemingly incredible claim, it’s quite another to demand a personal Theophany on the road to Damascus, or to demand a sign from heaven because you disapprove of the miracles you just saw Someone perform.

The latter is a dishonest excuse to reject belief in the face of clear and compelling evidence; the former is reasonable and expected, and it’s for the purpose of answering such questions that the Church exists in the first place, which is why learning how to do that was an essential occupation of the original Christians, hence Peter’s instruction to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

“…because it’s what I’ve put my faith in” is obviously not such an answer, though. That’s just a restatement of the question, which implies that the question can’t be answered, because our faith has no justification in evidence, because it’s nothing but a culturally-ingrained superstition. The rank-and-file churchgoer hasn’t been equipped to give an answer, though, because the objective truth or falsehood of Christianity is really beside the point in today’s religious climate.

Whether or not Christianity is true is completely incidental to our paradigm of religion. Where most people are concerned, it doesn’t matter if any of it is actually real, it only matters if it’s emotionally useful—if it’s “uplifting” or “encouraging.” So, there isn’t much concerted effort to follow the apostles’ example by presenting Christianity as demonstrably true. Instead, we spend all our time and energy trying to make Christianity attractive.

But, I recognize that I’m just one guy with a blog, shaking my fist at the rest of Christendom and claiming that I’m right and they’re all wrong, so I imagine I might appear something of a raving lunatic by now… or, at least, a self-important narcissist with messianic delusions.

This isn’t actually me, but you get the idea…

“Lots of really smart church leaders would disagree with you, Brian,” said one of my critics in recent years after hearing a small sample of my case against the false gospel of mainstream Christianity. The implication was “If all of these learned professionals are saying one thing, and you’re saying another, who’s more likely to be in the right?”

So, yeah… I fully acknowledge the apparent audacity of my position so far, and I recognize that guys like me and blogs like this are a dime-a-dozen, and that any given church-reject isn’t likely to have too many answers worth listening to, and so I probably wouldn’t listen to me either…

Except… where has their leadership gotten us? This thing we’re calling “Christianity” right now—is this really what Jesus and the apostles envisioned? Does anyone out there really think it is? If you were to ask even the learned professionals at the helm of the Church, even they would tell you that it’s not. We’re almost constantly hearing calls for revival and repentance from the pulpit and over Christian airwaves, so it’s all but universally acknowledged that something is off-kilter about the Church, even by its leaders. (See my About page for a full explanation of what I’m talking about.)

And then there’s the explicit warning of Jesus against basing our security on how many people agree with us: the road to life is narrow, He said, and the way to destruction is broad, and many follow it. So, doing what everybody else is doing is never really a safe bet. In fact, according to Jesus, it just about guarantees that we’re off the rails.

So what does that mean, then? That any and all Christian gatherings with a big turnout are necessarily bad, and that we should bet on the crazed loner instead?

Well, no…  I don’t think it means quite that. I do think it means that all leaders—from crazed loners with blogs to world-renowned megachurch pastors—are suspect, so we shouldn’t follow any of them blindly, nor should we disqualify them out-of-hand, crazed loners included.

It means, instead of following crowds or trying to find safety in numbers, we each have to exercise our own judgment and discernment, first and foremost by finding out for ourselves why Christianity is true… if it is true. If we’re just looking to be safe by going with the crowd and only believing what’s “officially-approved,” then Jesus doesn’t have much to offer us: “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it,” He said. If we give up our security blanket and resolve to follow the truth wherever it leads, that truth will set us free, He promises. But, if we’re just trying to hide in a crowd and live by conventional wisdom, we’re missing the point.

Most importantly, we need to calibrate our BS-detectors by reckoning with the fact that much of what we encounter in the marketplace of ideas is shaped in large part by (what can best be termed) Religious Consumerism. And this is a pretty obvious phenomenon to outsiders, I think, but it isn’t always so plain to people on the inside. Fish don’t know they’re wet, after all.

Here’s what I mean: It is widely held (among regular churchgoers, at any rate) that the leaders of Christendom are there because God Himself approves of them and appointed them to the task of teaching and guiding us—they’re the shepherds, we’re the sheep, they know stuff we don’t, they’re closer to God than we are, etc., and that’s why they’re up there on stage and we’re not. This is a belief reinforced by liberal quotations of certain verses of scripture, but these verses simply could not have been intended in the absolute and unqualified sense in which they’re typically construed by church leaders, lest we take them as God’s endorsement of Pope Leo X against Martin Luther, Emperor Diocletian against Christianity itself, Emperor Nero against Paul and Peter and the rest of the Christians of Rome, the Sanhedrin against the apostles, and the Pharisees and teachers of the law against Jesus, or the priests and kings of Judah against the prophets. Clearly, simply having authority in some form is no real indication of God’s endorsement or approval, and therefore it isn’t sufficient basis for authority in spiritual matters.

The fact is that not only do we (theoretically) live in a free market economy, but we also live in a free religious market: people are free to believe whatever they want to believe and to worship however and wherever and whatever they please. And so, yes—it is a “market,” because the same principles apply in popular religion as they do in economics. That being the case—if he wants to draw the largest number of people into his church and be economically successful, a religious leader has to offer churchgoers as much of what they want while asking as little from them as he can. If a church-shopper can get what he wants and pay less for it in Church A than in Church B, he’s obviously going to attend Church A, especially if he goes to Church B and hears teachings, music, or theology that he doesn’t like or that makes demands on him he’s not willing to meet (and by “asking a church-shopper to pay,” I don’t mean payment in mere tithes, obviously).

Ergo, the preacher—in actual practice—doesn’t necessarily function as God’s servant to lead His people. Instead, he is—in actual practice—a purveyor of religious goods and services. Being the leader of a massive megachurch, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean a preacher enjoys God’s approval and anointing. It only necessarily means that he has the approval and support of a great many religious consumers. More than anything else, and regardless of whatever titles he accepts or proclaims for himself, he is very often more entertainer than prophet or apostle or God-inspired teacher.

And, the more patronage a preacher has from religious consumers, the greater share of the religious market he’ll enjoy. Having a greater share of the market, of course, means having more influence over what constitutes “Christianity” in the popular understanding. His brand of “church” sets the standard for the market, and all other brands will be measured by that standard. And because people tend to equate what is normative with what is true, a sort of auto-immune disease sets in whenever that normative version of Christianity is challenged or is not adhered to: if it conflicts with “God’s truth” as it is commonly understood, it must be heresy, the reasoning goes. Except, it isn’t God, necessarily, nor even the preacher himself who ultimately sets the standard. Again, it’s the consumer.

YOU’RE in charge, consumer!

The consumer is king in the Church, then, no less than in the marketplace. The preacher might bear the titles of “shepherd” and “leader” but, ultimately, he’s not actually in charge of the shape or direction of the Church, and neither are the elders or deacons, any more than a pop singer is in charge of whether his concerts sell out or how many downloads his music commands. The consumer is. If the consumer doesn’t like what’s being taught, he’ll go to a different church and he’ll take his tithes with him. This, obviously, means less income for the church, and most likely a smaller salary for the preacher and other staff, if they manage to “stay in business” at all. If they want to increase their income, then, the preacher will have to either change his message and his depiction of God to better appeal to the consumer, or he’ll have to find another livelihood.

I want to clarify, however, that I don’t believe most church leaders deliberately manipulate this to their advantage. I’m not saying pastors get together to conspire to intentionally present a watered-down, counterfeit gospel so they can get rich. I’m not even accusing them of insincerity, for the most part. I think they’re wrong in a great many respects, but I do think they’re preaching what they sincerely believe to be true, for the most part. Of course, there are those of whom (I think) it’s pretty obvious that they don’t really believe in God and Christ, but have found a tried-and-true method of parting people from their

“All ‘love gifts’ are non-refundable. Hallelujah! Can I get an ‘amen’!”

money. I’m pretty cynical, but I’m not so cynical that I believe this to be true of the majority, though. There is always the temptation to do what’s popular and profitable before what’s right—to succumb to the temptation for all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor—so it’s inevitable that some would knowingly give in to it, to some degree or another, but I don’t believe most church leaders have purposefully tailored their teachings to maximize their income. I think most of them believe in what they’re teaching and doing (shallow and ineffective though it is) and many of them are as alarmed as I am at the present state of the Church.

Naturally, though, most of them started out as religious consumers themselves before they became purveyors, and so they are as much products of normative Christianity as they are the medium through which it’s purveyed. Instead of guile and manipulation, I think most popular and “successful” church leaders got where they are simply because they preach what they believe—what they’ve been indoctrinated to believe by normative, mainstream Christianity—and do it with verve and eloquence and energy, and so the market responded favorably to them. If people hear what they want to hear and are entertained in the telling, they’ll come back for more of that preacher’s sermons and listen to his radio program, buy his books, adopt his theology and terminology and turns of phrases, etc. Also, I’m sure he’s

“Thank you, God, for making me the best rapper in the world and anointing me as the voice of my generation…”

completely sincere—at least as much as any secular pop star or actor giving an acceptance speech—when he inevitably credits his popularity to God and to His “blessing” or “anointing.” And in some rare cases, I even believe that to be true. For the most part, though, it’s plain that it isn’t really God reaching down from heaven and lifting them to the heights; it’s the market of religious consumers holding them up because they’ve cultivated a brand of “Christianity” that appeals to them, whatever the reason might be for that appeal.

And church leaders have shown that there’s little they won’t do to cultivate that appeal, from free gas to high-end electronics, or church-sanctioned gladiatorial contests—nothing that gets butts in seats is beneath us. Jesus was known on more than one occasion to deliberately offend people so He could weed out all but the most committed followers, yet we’re more than happy to pander shamelessly in His name today—anything to “bring people to the love of Jesus”… and to cut out a bigger piece of the pie that is our religious market.

Hopefully, though, it’s obvious that none of this is meant as a condemnation of our freedom of religion. We tried compulsory religion for about a thousand years and that didn’t turn out so well, and so we obviously shouldn’t go back to that. If the Old Covenant teaches us anything, it’s that you can’t compel people to be godly and righteous through legislation. The very best you can do with legal enforcement is to compel them to fake it.

But, the reason we have laws in other sectors of society is that human nature, left to itself—left to lawlessness—inevitably leads to savagery and injustice and suffering. Without law, people do what they want, and what they (we) tend to want isn’t always very nice: the

This is a paraphrase from one of St. Augustine’s lesser-known treatises on Original Sin.

strong take advantage of the weak, the clever take advantage of the gullible, and murder, theft, exploitation, and lies become the rule. When there’s no authority to compel us otherwise, our tendency is to act like selfish toddlers… toddlers with guns and cars and sex

drives and stockpiles of resources and means of production, that is.

Left to themselves, people tend to serve their appetites, and in matters of religion, people are generally left to themselves, which is why they tend toward the Broad Path to Destruction instead of the Narrow Road to Life.

Genuine Christianity is that narrow path, but the counterfeit version is so prevalent and so deeply ingrained that we’re not likely to find the real thing… unless we know to look for it and to distinguish it from cheap knock-offs (hence the effort of this blog entry).

Even recognizing the commercial and consumer-aspects of popular “Christianity,” though, Christians are still often reluctant to see it in those terms. After all, Christianity is of God, so it should be impervious to any deep or lasting corruption, right?

The message is of God and so, yes—it is pure and holy and powerful and everlasting. But, the medium through which it’s communicated and interpreted and embodied is us: frail, fallible, and vicious humanity, with all of our petty appetites and personal agendas. Christianity was God’s revolution when it started, but now it’s our institution, and so it’s subject to all the predictable sociological patterns of any other social movement or revolution.

Every cultural revolution, by definition, starts out as a challenge to the existing order. If it attracts any kind of following, it will eventually grow from a countercultural movement against established institutions and into a legitimized or semi-legitimized subculture. As it grows in popularity, it matures from subculture to mainstream culture, and then it is only a matter of time before it is institutionalized – as a set of axiomatic cultural assumptions, at least, if not a full-blown legal framework, and actually becomes the existing order in place of the previous order it opposed.

This pattern repeats itself in every successful political, social, or religious movement in history. We can see it plainly in the gay rights movement of the past 40 years, and it holds for the civil rights movement and for the sexual revolution, and it can be seen in the first four centuries of the Church, in the Protestant Reformation, and in any other enduring movement within Christendom since, and within civilization as a whole.

Of course, as the movement “matures” from Revolution into Institution, the conditions for belonging to it change dramatically over time. When it begins, it’s regarded as “heresy” or “treason” or “deviance” by those who support the existing order, largely because it threatens the traditions that have been enshrined into institution and now keep the existing order in power. Once it gains a following and outgrows some of its vulnerability to persecution, it might only be regarded as “underground” or  “eccentric”—still something distasteful and disagreeable in polite society, but something to be tolerated, if only barely, by society at-large. As it grows in popularity and eventually becomes a part of the mainstream culture, it then becomes normalized. Once it’s normalized, it’s only a matter of time before it’s considered abnormal not to be a part of it or, at least, not to be a nominal supporter, and so it becomes institutionalized and allegiance becomes compulsory—if not legally, then at the very least, socially (What politician could have any realistic expectation of getting elected if he openly denounced Christianity, for instance? At the same time, homosexuality has come to enjoy the same kind of protected status as well in recent decades—not quite the same degree, but the same quality. We wouldn’t elect a gay president quite yet, but a candidate who openly denounced homosexuality would damage his chances as well).

With the change in the conditions of membership, naturally, comes a change in the character of the members, and of the movement itself, consequently. Because of the high price of membership during the initial Revolution stage, the movement’s purposes and principles are clearly defined and understood, and a person only joins because he or she believes wholeheartedly in the cause, because the price of membership might well be self-sacrifice. When the movement grows into a Subculture, someone might join because he or she believes in the cause, or they might just be curious or in search of a cause for its own sake, and so the movement and its membership get to be a little fuzzier around the edges. When it becomes Mainstream Culture, it then becomes a means to social currency, and so people are less concerned with what they’re joining or why—only that they’re a part of it. Membership has less to do with conviction than with conformity at this point, and so the fundamental principles of the movement become obscured beneath popular perceptions of, and popular uses for the movement. The movement then becomes more malleable, more adaptable to the culture’s lowest common denominator. When it becomes an Institution, then it’s compulsory, and the leaders of the movement become the new social order in the place of the one they originally overturned.

At this point, because commitment to or identification with the original principles and purposes of the movement are no longer necessary, nor even really relevant to joining it, the basic assumptions of the institutionalized form of the movement bear only a loose resemblance to the principles that defined the movement at its revolutionary stage, and might even directly contradict those principles. But, the original movement is invoked as the justification for the institutionalized principles, and they are enshrined as dogma and held to be sacred.

In this way, every revolution carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. It begins with a small group of people who are absolutely committed to a specific, clearly-defined cause in defiance of the existing order, and they’re willing to sacrifice themselves in service to that cause because they believe it to be greater than themselves or anything they might lose in service to it. If they’re successful their movement will live on after them, but given enough time and success and complacency, it will eventually transform into the very institution they set out to oppose. Entropy is the natural state of civilization just as in the physical universe.

This is why many of Jesus’ supposed followers throughout the ages have borne such a striking resemblance to the very people who crucified Him. This is why the apostle Peter,

“Rack or strappado? What would Jesus do…?”

as leader of the Church of Rome, was murdered at the order of the Roman emperor, but Peter’s successors in later generations came to rule over the very same empire and preside over the torture and execution of “heretics.” This is why, for the first three centuries of its existence, belonging to the Church meant enduring persecution for their faith, but the same supposed “faith” has since become the rationale by which the Church has brutalized its enemies.

The fact is, whenever any movement or ideology or religion – be it of divine or human origin—transforms from revolution to institution, people will inevitably adapt it to their own purposes, and those purposes will rarely be consistent or compatible with the original aims of the movement, especially when a world hostile to God adapts God’s revelation for its own purposes. But, this bizarre hybrid of contradictory ideas and purposes and values will be the normative expression of the original movement. Because it’s normative, then, it becomes the standard by which all expressions of the original movement are evaluated by the general public. As a result, a sort of Institutional Auto-Immune Disease sets in, so that even if the original founder of the movement were to show up to make corrections, he’s more likely to be condemned and crucified than listened to.

And that’s what we’ve done with Christianity. That’s why we see such a striking difference between what we read in scripture and what we see with our own eyes on Sunday morning, and in national trends.

For some perspective, let’s consider what Christianity actually is, as it’s described in the New Testament:

Christianity is typically advertised today as the way to “go to heaven after we die,” but it’s actually even better than that. Heaven is “heaven” because He’s there, and hell is “hell” because He’s not. The earth is the hell that it is because of His (partial) absence, but the gospel is our invitation out of hell and into the paradise of His Presence.

Jesus offered Himself in atonement so that our sins—our sin nature, that is—would no longer separate us from God. But the gospel isn’t just God’s promise that we’ll get to be with Him, although that would be enough in itself. Not only can we know and be in the Presence of the One we worship, but we can actually become like Him: Christ’s resurrection and ascension mean that human nature, having been justified by the Atonement, has now been raised up into the Godhead, and the Godhead in turn descends to dwell within humanity, to remake each of us from within. Everything we admire, love, and worship in Jesus Christ, then, we can becomemust become. That is what He gave us. That’s what He died for.

The apostle Peter summed up the Christian life as our “participation in the Divine Nature.” Paul exemplified the “mystery of the gospel” as “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” explaining that, as the “fullness of the Deity” resides in Christ, so does the “fullness of Christ” reside in us. If we have the Divine Nature within, we have everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him. We have His Essence inside of us—His Life, His DNA, so to speak. Having His Nature means we have it within us to become like Him, to take on His character and godliness, His goodness and holiness.

That’s the gospel, the “good news” the apostles told their followers.

They also explained it as being really, really hard.

It’s not a hardship that really registers if you’re in love with Jesus Christ, though, because it’s worth far more than any amount of effort or sacrifice we could make. It’s like being in a really dysfunctional relationship with someone we’re madly in love with (actually, it’s not like that, it is that): it’s work, and it’s hard, but you wouldn’t want it any other way, because you can’t live without that person. Of course, in this relationship, all of the dysfunction is on our side, because our natural sinful tendencies are the source of the drama, and our relationship with Him puts us at odds with the rest of the world.

That’s why Peter said we have to make every effort to add to our faith the qualities of the Divine Nature. Paul said to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” He compared it to intense athletic training, while he and Peter repeatedly exhorted their followers to consistent, single-minded discipline.

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” wrote Peter.

As I understand it, again—it’s like DNA. We inherit God’s DNA, so to speak, so it’s as if He adds a third strand to the double-helix genetic structure we inherited from our parents. To elaborate, let’s say that both of our parents were Olympic gold medalists, which means we have it within us to become the same, because we’re made of the same material. Just like our salvation, we didn’t earn that. There’s nothing we could do to get that nature if we don’t already have it. We had nothing to do with our parents meeting and falling in love, yet we benefit freely from the outcome, by being alive and by inheriting their exceptional genetic qualities.

But, we’ll never become anything if we just sit around eating donuts and drinking beer and playing Xbox all day. We have to get out and train. We have to work to bring our nature to fruition. We have to want it. We have to believe in it. If we just do that, we’ll inevitably become what they were, because we’ll eventually find that the Higher Nature we’re tapping into actually lends itself to the pursuit– we’ll find our highest joy in becoming our best selves, so that we don’t even miss the self-indulgence and hedonism we had to give up to seek it.

But if we don’t, we’ll squander our inheritance and disgrace ourselves by wasting what we were given.

Our level of discipline is the measure of our belief in what we’ll become.

That’s how it is with our eternal inheritance. We didn’t earn it, but we still have to actively trust Him and His promises by being obedient—by following His instructions and those of His representatives.

According to the apostles, this demands our full, absolute commitment, and not just ours, but the commitment of others to aid our training. It’s actually far greater an undertaking than any individual person can accomplish alone, and so we need help, and we, in turn, are obligated to help others who join the Path after us.

That, we read, is why the Church exists. Paul explained that the entire purpose for apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers and others comprising the leadership of the Church was to facilitate the divine training—to mentor believers in their participation in the Nature of God. I read it to mean that if a church follows this model—if a church is faithful and functional, that is—you shouldn’t be able to walk in for the first time and be able to tell who the pastor is, because he’d be behind the scenes. It’s his and other leaders’ job to train others in the use of their divine gifts and in the operation of the Church, so that everybody does their part in preaching and teaching and ministering.

It’s their job to train people in the spiritual disciplines, and in ministry in its various forms. The local church should be a place of intellectual development, philosophical refinement, intense prayer and meditation, and physical training, even, where it’s necessary (I’ll explain that in a later blog). The church should also be a staging point for local outreach and ministry—for putting all that training to practical use. The local church should be a university, a dojo, a co-ed monastery, a fraternal organization, and a charitable foundation all wrapped up in one, through which we become more and more like Christ by doing what Christ did. In so doing, not only do we transform ourselves, but we transform the world around us—we outgrow the defects of our own character by growing into the qualities of the Divine Nature, and as a part of that process, we work for the betterment and perfection of the world around us. That’s how God’s kingdom advances on earth—how His will is done on earth as it is in heaven: we become the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The general picture I get from the New Testament for what the Church is supposed to be is something akin to the Jedi Order (if the Jedi had day jobs). Our calling

“Look what I made at Bible camp, Obi Wan!”

is to attune ourselves to the living reality of the Higher Power to Whom we are devoted, and in so doing, we are personally transformed and empowered to become the agents of that Higher Power in the world.

How does all of this factor into our present-day paradigm of “Christianity,” though? When we carry out this weekly exercise known as “going to church,” what is our understood purpose? Do we typically have this understanding of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it when we rise early on Sunday morning to herd our families into minivans and shuttle them off to Sunday school and church service? Is it “participation in the Divine Nature” that we’re all really after when we go to Sunday services and Bible studies and other church functions?

Or, would we even go to a church that advertised this as its purpose? Could we even take that offer seriously, in view of what we’ve come to expect from Christianity As Advertised?

Now, we do see glimpses of this today, but mostly only among “professional” Christians—the seminarians and preachers and pastors and charitable administrators and outreach volunteers. And, they do accomplish a lot of good, and I don’t at all mean to disparage that. But it’s not anything even remotely in the ballpark of the real good we’re promised and to which we’re called. Christian ministry and outreach today is not the outgrowth of that deeper, ongoing personal transformation into Christ-likeness that we see described in the New Testament, which is supposed to be the lifelong occupation of every single Christian. Most of what we do today is just patchwork on a leaky dam about to break, or propaganda to uphold our collective “Christian” tribalism (again, see my About section for the skinny on all that).

I acknowledge, however, that it’s incredibly extreme and oppressive to expect people to live this way: to put personal transformation into Christ-likeness before all else—career, family, recreation, etc. I get that. It’s a pretty tall order, and people have other things going on—things that are much more important to them.

It’s only extreme and oppressive, though, because we don’t really believe in the rewards we’re promised.  We don’t really believe it’s worthwhile… at least, not on the terms we read about in scripture.

And that’s really it, isn’t it? I mean, we’re willing to say we believe all this stuff if it means we get a congregation (theoretically) full of friends and free babysitters, a cultural identity and a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and, even, a sense of cultural superiority, along with a way to convince our kids not to have sex (which isn’t really working, by the way).

“Christianity” as we know it offers a lot of fringe benefits. But, when it comes to actually putting our faith in Him—not just affirming the party line and enjoying the support and approval of our fellows, but actually risking something of ourselves because we believe He’ll come through and that it’s worthwhile—that’s where we usually fold. Because we don’t actually believe He’ll come through. We don’t actually believe that putting Christ first and foremost and that “considering everything loss for the sake of Christ” would be a wise investment.

Now, all things being equal, correcting this should just be a simple matter of showing people the evidence and explaining that Christianity is actually true. That’s easy and simple enough to do (which I plan to devote my next entry to demonstrating), and so we should be able to just see that, understand that God is real and that He really did promise all this stuff, and then get with the program. After all, that’s how the apostles originally imparted faith and turned Christianity into an international movement in the first place.

Except, we have a couple of pretty daunting obstacles to that today.

First, we have the corrupting influence of Religious Consumerism: we approach religion as consumers, and the demands of the market have contorted Christianity into something that can be packaged and distributed for mass-consumption.

Again, our concept of “faith” is the most poignant and far-reaching example of this.

Our popular understanding of religion and spirituality tells us that “faith” is a matter of personal feelings and intuition—it’s subjective, that is, and its object and leadings vary from person to person. It tells us that God has a different plan for each and every person, and that plan is perceptible by this “faith.”

Such a “faith,” of course, is wonderfully self-serving. When we hear something we like from the pulpit, for example, we commonly attribute its influence to the very Spirit of God: “The Holy Spirit spoke to me through that sermon,” we often hear each other say, or, “The Holy Spirit spoke to me through this verse, and it means thus and thus for me…

Curiously, these individualized messages from God are often contradictory from person to person, from pastor to pastor, from denomination to denomination: I’ve often heard completely opposite and mutually-exclusive messages from any two given preachers, but each with the same verve and conviction and moral authority that come only from the certainty that one is speaking for God.

So, either God just can’t make up His mind about theology, social issues, morality, and the meaning of any given scripture verse… or, it’s not really Him speaking in most or all of these instances. It’s much more likely that when we hear something from the pulpit or read something in scripture that we can interpret favorably to our own circumstances (because we never interpret it unfavorably, do we?), it’s not really the Holy Spirit validating whatever spin we’re putting on it, but our own wishful thinking.

“Those aren’t my lips moving, sinner, that’s just your unbelief…”

What we’re really doing is creating a sort of psychic ventriloquist dummy to tell us what we want to hear, and we call it by His name—we turn it into an idol, and worship it in His place.

Because if “faith” is a matter of subjective feelings, “God” is whatever we want Him to be, and because we all have different desires for what we want God to be, the free market inevitably provides in the form of an endless selection of denominational variety, which gives almost all of us an altar of our choice to huddle around with people who think just like we do, who are happy to reinforce our preconceptions.

And then we attribute those preconceptions to God, and exalt our own wishful thinking and prejudices to His throne. Having done so, our Institutional Auto-Immune Disease sets in, and we defend our tribalism and cultural assumptions as mandates from on high, and condemn anything or anyone who challenges them as “heresy.”

And then a strange reversal takes place: Jesus said that if we try to save our lives we’ll lose them, but if we lose our lives we’ll find them. He said if we love our father and mother, brothers and sisters, wives and children more than we love Him, we’re not worthy of Him, and if we want to follow Him, we have to deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily.

Yet, when we huddle around our respective altars to hear teachings in His name and to hear about “God’s will for our lives,” it’s almost always concerned with bettering our marriages, finding a suitable career, managing our finances better, and a host of other earthly pursuits… because all that stuff about participating in God’s Nature and transforming into Christ-likeness will take care of itself, we figure. Our supposedly biblical instruction usually consists of going after the same things the people of the world go after; the only difference is that God is a means to those ends. So, it works out that Christ isn’t really at the center of our lives; He’s an accessory to our own ambitions.

But, if that’s what Christianity is really for, it’s not very useful. By and large, we’re no more successful at marriage than non-Christians, no better with money, and really no better at life.

So, our version of “faith” amounts to living our lives just as we would if we didn’t even believe in God. We’re just more pretentious about it, because we have loftier rhetoric by which to narrate our lives.

A faith grounded in reason, on the other hand, is far more useful and authentic, but it’s also far less marketable, because it’s far less malleable and adaptable. It’s objective and demonstrable and knowable. The basic assumptions of that kind of faith are those of intellectual honesty and personal accountability: it makes actual demands of us, and allows for none of our pious pretentions and ethnocentric prejudices, because it makes us answerable to something, to Someone outside of ourselves.

A Christianity that’s objectively and demonstrably true just doesn’t factor into our paradigm of religion, though. It’s Ok if it can be proven, but that’s really incidental to our purposes, because we don’t need it to be verifiably true. Our feelings have already validated the parts we like, and when we read passages we don’t like—so-called “problem passages,” the “Holy Spirit” validates our tendency to gloss over and ignore them.

As religious consumers, when we read the Bible or listen to (or preach) a sermon, we’re really looking to adapt whatever we read to our own purposes, and those are rarely God’s purposes, because our central consideration as consumers is to get the most bang for the least buck.

And that’s nothing new. We can see that tendency at work in Jesus’ interactions with His contemporaries, who would often approach him with questions that amounted, essentially, to “What can we get away with before God disqualifies us? What are the least requirements we have to keep to be saved, what’s a passable excuse to divorce our wives, etc.?”

“Just TELL me– what’s the flair minimum?”

The same minimalist, “good enough for government work”-mentality was common in Israel and Judah in the time before the exile: because they kept up with the sacrificial rituals of the temple, they thought they could sin with impunity and presume upon God’s protection and forgiveness, and so they beat and imprisoned the prophet Jeremiah for his supposed blasphemy when he told them otherwise. Centuries later, after Christendom had become an international empire in the form of the Roman Catholic Church, the same tendency of belief prevailed, and “faith” meant submission to Church authority in exchange for its sacramental ministrations, which God was purportedly ritually-bound to honor.

Today, five-hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, the “gospel” we preach is still essentially an answer to that same question: “What’s the least I can get away with? How can I placate God and get Him off my back, so I don’t have to worry about going to hell?” Our particular answer is to define “faith” to mean simply believing certain things about God, and if we believe those things, then everything else happens automatically, on spiritual autopilot, because God has supposedly ritually-bound Himself if we fulfill the doctrinal checklist (of our chosen denomination).

When people asked Jesus those kinds of questions, though, He never answered them on those terms. He answered instead in terms of the ideal—He pointed them to God’s best. That, after all, is what we’d actually want if we were seeking Him in genuine faith: not the bare minimum, but the absolute best. If we really love and trust Him, we’re not just trying to appease Him, like hired-hands trying to skate by, but to realize the full expression of His will in our lives and in the world around us: we don’t see His commandments as unwanted burdens to bear, or assignments to carry out, but as instructions to set us free.

Yet, whenever I point out the vision for the Christian life and the role of the Church outlined in the New Testament, there is almost always the protest of “Are you telling me I’m not saved because I don’t go to a church like that? Isn’t that works-based salvation? Isn’t it enough that I believe?

The protester invariably points out the Thief on the Cross-model of salvation, and bases his or her security on having demonstrated at least that basic, minimal level of faith.

To that, I usually answer that I’m not the one saying we have to “make every effort to add to our faith…” all of the aforementioned qualities of the Divine Nature. It’s the apostle Peter. Also, I’m not the one who outlined that model of the Church and the Christian life—it was the apostles. So, if you don’t like it, take it up with them.

And the thief on the cross had only moments left to live, so he didn’t have much opportunity for anything but the bare minimum.

Most of us are obviously not in that position, though.

And it’s clearly not my place to render judgments on who, specifically, is or isn’t saved. All I’m qualified to do is point out the plain teaching of the apostles that we’re saved by grace, through faith.

But if we’re just trying to placate God with the bare minimum instead of striving joyously and hopefully after God’s best, it’s ridiculous to think that we have that faith– that we actually trust and love Him. And until we do seek after the full expression of God’s will on earth, we’re just fooling ourselves by this farce we’re calling “Christianity.”

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The Foundation (Part 1 of 6)

As unlikely as this might seem, I actually agree with the New Atheism movement.

And no, I’m not just saying that for the shock value—because now you want to find out why in the world a Christian would agree with those guys: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, etc. (Although I’m not above saying it just for the shock value alone. Was there any shock value? I don’t know. I write this stuff pretty late at night, so my sense of what’s “shocking” might be a little off-kilter.)

Obviously, I don’t agree with their overall conclusion of atheism, but I agree with a great many of the observations they claim as support for their position.

Specifically, in his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris argues for what he calls a “conversational intolerance” of religion. In other words, when Christians (or adherents to other religions, for that matter) frame anything with “…according to the Bible,” or “This is what I believe…” or “…according to my faith…”, social convention and established etiquette dictate that it goes unchallenged, despite the hearer not sharing those beliefs. If we were to say that the earth is flat or that two and two make five, that would be challenged, but when we speak of God and miracles and answered prayer and angels and talking animals, Christians typically get a pass, Harris points out, and argues that we really shouldn’t, because faith isn’t really an answer. In the sense in which we typically invoke the concept, “faith” is only ever an evasion, or a restatement of the question at best.

And I think he’s dead-on about that, but not just for the obvious reasons he points out in his book, but because it would actually be better for us and for our cause, in the long run, if people did call us on what they think is our BS. I think that alone would, over time, correct a tremendous amount of the dysfunction and falsehood that characterizes Christianity as we know it (see my About page if you don’t know the “dysfunction and falsehood” to which I refer). It would strike at our very foundation, which is the only way we can know if we actually have one. If our foundation is secure, our belief-structure is invincible. The only reason we should be afraid of people like Harris and Dawkins attacking our religion is if we lack that foundation.

To clarify, let me explain that I think much of the dysfunction of our Christianity intersects at our use of the term “faith.” After all, faith is our foundation—“On this rock I will build My Church,” the Master said. If that’s off, everything else is off, and that’s where we’re off.

I think our concept of “faith” is profoundly mistaken, and that that mistake constitutes the nexus of all of our problems within the Church today. I’m not saying that a mere inaccuracy in the definition of terms lies at the root of all of our problems, mind you. Our problems have much deeper causes, and their effects go far beyond a misapprehension of the concept of “faith.” But, they all flow into and bottleneck and branch out again from that critical point.

To explain, let me begin by pointing out that there are two basic paths in life. And that’s not my observation—that’s what Jesus said.

If we apply this perspective to questions of belief, or epistemology, we’ll see that, whatever twists and turns we take along the way, there are only two basic paths to a belief of any kind, be it religious, scientific, political, relational or whatever: We either believe it because it’s true, or we believe it because we want it to be true. Of course, this doesn’t apply as much to the beliefs of children, who generally believe whatever their parents and other authority figures tell them, whether they like what they hear or not. But, after we’ve gone through teenage rebellion and resolved our philosophical/existential Oedipal and Elektra complexes (struggles against the constraints of authority figures and the belief systems they represent… that kinda’ fun stuff) and figured out who we are and what we believe about the world and our place in it, all of our beliefs can be accounted for by one of these two reasons.

If a belief is true, and we believe it because it’s true—that is to say, if a set of attitudes, propositions, and/or value judgments we hold with regard to reality, in whole or in part, is ontologically correct—then we should be able to point out specifically how reality itself corresponds to our belief. If we believe, for instance, that two plus two adds up to four, we should be able to demonstrate that in concrete terms with relative ease by finding any four objects and partitioning them into two groups of two, and vice-versa—perhaps by way of an abacus, or we could demonstrate it in conventional pre-established and agreed-upon symbolic terms (by way of Arabic numerals programmed into a calculator, most likely). If we correctly believe that the Eiffel Tower is located in Paris, we should be able to find the Eiffel Tower when we visit Paris, or find reports in the form of maps or written testimony from credible witnesses who have been to Paris and seen the Eiffel Tower there. If we believe that a certain public policy is effective in bringing about the specific benefit for which it was intended, we should be able to find quantifiable statistical data to demonstrate that effect, and then be able to weigh that against the known costs and detriments of the policy, etc. You get the idea.

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

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

This, of course, roughly approximates what is known as the Scientific Method, although it can be applied to disciplines of study which are not strictly “science.”Questions of history, for instance, are not, strictly speaking, “science,” because we can’t reproduce past events in a laboratory and experiment with different variables for different outcomes. But, we can still use historical data to arrive at basically reliable conclusions by way of this process.

And while this part of the discussion might seem a little dry and tedious at the moment, it might be helpful to remember just how amazingly cool this method of thought really is—it’s how western civilization eventually moved out of the Dark Ages and through to the scientific revolution, and it’s why we have modern medicine and space shuttles and the interwebs and Blue-Ray players and other neat stuff. It has the advantage of enabling our beliefs to be known and scrutinized and dissected by others who can check our math, so to speak, and to join us if we’re right or to correct us if we’re wrong, thereby enabling all of us to find and live by the truth of our reality.

On the other hand, the second kind of belief is made up of the same basic building blocks, except their order is reversed. When people believe things because they want to believe them, their belief system is their starting premise, and then they apply logic and reason to cherry-pick the evidence to support their belief, and they eventually get into the habit of only exposing themselves to evidence that supports their starting premise and excluding any information that undermines it. And, typically, we don’t even realize we do this, and so we honestly see evidence everywhere to reinforce what we “know” to be true.

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

The disadvantages of this method of thought are many, not least of which is that it prevents anyone else who does not share our starting premise from joining us. In the First Path to Belief, we can share evidence and data apprehensible to anyone willing to accept it, and then explain our reasoning so that they also can arrive at our conclusion, but with the Second Path to Belief, the ground floor is a bit more exclusive. When people believe things because they want to believe them, it’s usually because that belief has been inculcated through lifelong socialization and cultural conditioning, so that their sense of security and identity within their peer or tribal group is tied up in their belief system. If a person grows up in Salt Lake City, Utah, for instance, there’s a good chance he was raised in the Mormon belief system, and so the assumed truth of Mormonism is an integral aspect of his personal and social identity, and so the validity of his sense of self is directly tied to his religion, and all of the social and political values entailed by that religion.

And that’s true for most other people in the world: if you grew up in Saudi Arabia or Baghdad, you’re probably some variety of Muslim, and you’re going to get pissed off if someone denigrates Islam or the Qur’an or Muhammed, because the purported sanctity of all of that comprises Who You Are. If you’re Indian, you probably subscribe to some variation of Hinduism, and the same prediction applies with regard to its literature and rituals and key figures.

This, of course, is why it’s such a taboo to challenge a person’s religious beliefs. You’re not just challenging the factual validity of their claims about magic underwear or the Night Journey, you’re challenging the validity of their very person and of their family and of their entire civilization.

But, religious people don’t have a monopoly on this form of belief. It’s the same for political beliefs, or even some politically-charged scientific beliefs. For instance, whether or not you believe in global warming and what you believe about its causes can be somewhat reliably predicted by your voter ID card, along with the news channels you watch and the people with whom you socialize.

And so, for people who wonder how someone can be so misguided and deluded that they believe they’ll live for eternity with 70 beautiful virgins if they strap a vest of explosives to themselves and blow up a bus full of Israeli school children, or fly a plane into the side of a building—that’s your answer.

If you’re wondering how your neighbor or family member of a different political affiliation can honestly swear by that “news” channel or magazine that is so obviously (to you) nothing but one-sided propaganda—that’s your answer.

The Second Path to Belief that I’ve described is typically what we mean by the term “faith.”

So, when we read in Scripture that we are “saved by grace through faith,” and that eternal life is granted to “whosoever believes,” we usually take that to mean that salvation comes through Faith as opposed to Reason. So, we don’t have to do good deeds, or keep certain rituals, or even be a nice person, really—we just have to believe, and God will forgive all of our sins, and we can safely presume on His forgiveness when we inevitably sin again.

That being the case (as our thinking goes)—What, precisely, a person must believe in order to be saved is of paramount importance. Most churches have doctrinal statements outlining the specific, minimal requirements needed for salvation (and therefore membership in their church), which usually consists of a list of particulars related to God and to Jesus and to the Bible and to the afterlife to which a person must subscribe, and they’re usually arranged in order of priority, which varies from church-to-church. And they’re not negotiable, because if you can’t sign off on them without qualification, you don’t belong at that church and you’re better off finding somewhere else to go on Sunday morning, if you can. They might let you join in if you don’t believe everything, but you’ll never be a full member with full privileges, and you’ll be expected to keep your mouth shut when that particular doctrinal point you dispute comes up for discussion. For instance, belief in the Trinity is a must, normally, but if you’re a monophysite or some other variety of doctrinal mutant, that’s a deal-breaker and you may well go to hell for holding such a heresy, depending on which church leaders you ask. Because of the grave importance of holding the correct beliefs, and because of the far-reaching logical implications of those beliefs, churches have gone to war over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and various other highly-nuanced points of doctrine. So-called Jehovah’s Witnesses uphold that Christ was crucified—not on a cross, but on a vertical stake, and those who are mistaken on this point are very possibly outside the grace of God, hence the energy and attention JWs have devoted to correcting this grievous heresy.

In most churches, these beliefs are inculcated through childhood socialization and lifelong indoctrination, and holding them amounts to being rightly-related to God. And because these beliefs are held by faith and not by reason, evidence is really incidental to the whole system. Of course, the Bible is cited as evidence—but only if you read it with the correct emphases so that you know which verses trump others, and how to interpret those verses (and the doctrinal statements are there to tell you all that—or, at least, to correct you when you’re wrong). But, why it’s the Bible you’re reading instead of the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita or The Iliad or On the Origin of Species is very much a question of childhood conditioning.

So, if you believe and uphold these things, you’ll be accepted and validated and given influence and position, but if you don’t, and you openly question those beliefs and uphold something else instead, they’ll cast you out… to “protect God’s people from false doctrine,” of course.

Now, it’s Ok if you want to go to the trouble of proving these beliefs by evidence and reason—if you’re into that kind of thing. But it’s really not crucial, because that’s above and beyond the minimal requirements for salvation. And besides, “You can’t argue people into the kingdom of heaven, right?” as Christians are fond of saying. Because, it’s not our job to convince people. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. After all, we can’t make anyone accept our starting premise—only God can do that, so if He doesn’t miracle them into believing, then they must not be predestined for salvation as we are. We can share the Four Spiritual Laws with them and give them gospel tracts and show them diagrams of the Bridge Illustration as often as we can, but it’s up to God to make them believe.

At least, that’s what I hear from my fellow Christians whenever there’s a seminar on evangelization, or an impromptu discussion of apologetics.

But apart from a scant few scripture verses taken out of context and greatly misconstrued, I can’t find any evidence to support this approach in the Bible that we claim as our authority.

What I find instead is example after example of Jesus and the apostles imploring people along the First Path of Belief:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe you can’t “argue people into the kingdom of heaven,” but nobody told Paul that. Debate and argument and reasoned persuasion appear to have been his entire approach.

And yes, Paul argued from the Scriptures… sometimes—when his audience already accepted them as authoritative (as I’m doing now), but he didn’t expect non-Jews to blindly accept them on his say-so. When he made the case for Jesus Christ to Gentiles, he argued from other grounds of evidence that they would accept.

And nowhere in the Bible does it instruct us to believe the Bible “because the Bible tells us so.” The books of scripture were written by human prophets, and if Moses is to be trusted, then God Himself instructed the Israelites not to believe every prophet—only those whose prophecies stand the test of history (which, incidentally, disqualifies Pat Robertson several times over).

So, when Paul “argued from the scriptures,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that the authority of the scripture was his starting premise. Rather, his argument was the same as that of the apostle Peter, who pointed to the authority of scripture as a logical conclusion to draw from the evidence of what he witnessed in history.

Jesus and the apostles used reasoned persuasion (the First Path to Belief) to educate people into the truth, not emotional manipulation or appeals to superstition (the Second Path to Belief) to indoctrinate them into a belief system.

In fact, it was the very same kind of lifelong socialization and deeply-ingrained prejudice which passes for faith today that they had to work against in their time. The people to whom Jesus spoke were just as invested in Pharisaical Judaism as anyone today whose sense of self is tied up in the religion of their upbringing. Much of Paul’s audience identified just as fanatically with the gods of Olympus as any Muslim extremist does today with Islam.

This is why Jesus so often said that whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses it for His sake would find it, and that one must take up one’s cross daily to follow Him. He didn’t just mean that His followers should be ready for martyrdom (although He did mean that). He meant that they’d have to die to the sense of personal identity to which they’d been socialized. As long as they were just trying to preserve their tribal identity and the place within Jewish religious society they’d absorbed from their parents and rabbis and peers, they could never be open to learn anything new because—even though those things often pass for “godliness,” they’re really a counterfeit. If a person is truly devoted to God, then they know that honestyintellectual and moral honesty—is more important to Him than keeping rules or rituals, or even maintaining relationships. In scripture, we read that truth is the basis for morality and righteousness and spiritual freedom, so if we’re loyal to God, we follow the truth wherever it leads. So, if honesty demands that we cut ties with the religion of our upbringing, that’s what Jesus Christ calls us to do.

When the religious authorities of His day denounced Him to their followers, He said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether My teaching comes from God or whether I speak on My own.”

The original Christians held out the resurrection as the central validation of Jesus’ message—the proof that His teaching came from God. And, they held it out as a verifiable historical fact—as something that happened in time and space, within human history and experience. As such, whether or not it happened is not a question of faith. It’s a question of evidence and reason and logic, and its truth or falsehood should be determined by the First Path to Belief: it should be demonstrable by evidence and reason apprehensible to anyone inclined to attend to it.

And if the evidence isn’t sufficient for the conclusion that the resurrection actually happened, then Christianity is an utter waste of time and a source of destruction and false hope, and should be abandoned. And that’s not by my determination—that’s how the apostle Paul summed things up.

If it can be proven, though—then the things we claim about God and Christ aren’t questions of faith either. They are not the starting premises accepted on blind faith, and from which everything else proceeds, but conclusions we reach by reason and evidence.

And it’s only then that faith comes into play—when reason alone takes us as far as it can. It is then that—having come to understand that God is real and has intervened in history to reveal Himself, we come to trust Him—not as a point of doctrine, but as a personal, relational trust. As Paul explained to the Athenians, we don’t believe God raised Jesus from the dead because we have faith. Rather, we have faith because God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection is itself the proof of God’s existence and purpose, and it’s the down-payment on His promises to humanity.

“Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, and so your faith and hope are in God,” wrote Peter.

We can see this play out in the very first sermon ever preached about the resurrection: Peter, after pointing out recent events known to everybody in Israel at the time concerning Jesus, concluded, “Therefore, let all Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

His audience evidently did know that for certain, because it reads that they were “cut to the heart” and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

We read elsewhere in scripture that we receive salvation through the Holy Spirit when we respond in faith. But, despite the fact that they evidently believed the facts Peter had impressed upon them about the resurrection, and so were certain in their knowledge of who Jesus was, they did not yet have faith, for Peter went on answer their question by instructing, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

They were cut to the heart because they believed and understood who Jesus was and what they had done, but they had not received the Holy Spirit, and had not been forgiven their sins…

It continues to read that “with many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’”

So, contrary to popular versions of the gospel, when the Scripture reads that we’re “saved by grace through faith,” it’s not Faith as opposed to Reason, because it’s reason that leads us to faith. And when we read in scripture that our faith is “not of ourselves, it is the gift of God,” it doesn’t mean that He provides faith by way of mysterious and invisible, disembodied mystical forces, it means that He has given proof of Himself through the resurrection, so that we can apply reason and logic to the question of God’s existence. The resurrection is the “sign of Jonah” spoken by Jesus, by which everyone has opportunity to believe.

The truth isn’t actually as elusive as we make it out to be—He’s made it known and knowable to anyone so inclined. The problem is that people aren’t inclined, and that’s where we’re supposed to come in.

God does give faith through the Holy Spirit, but not invisibly and mysteriously. The entire point of Christianity and of the Church is that the Spirit of God and of Christ is present in the world through uswe are the Body of Christ, we are the temple in whom the Spirit of God dwells. So, it’s through people that the Holy Spirit works—through people like Paul and Peter and you and me. He’s given us the keys to the kingdom of heaven: what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. And if we don’t work to impart faith—and do it honestly and reasonably the way the apostles did it—then it won’t be imparted. People won’t believe.

And, in fact, people don’t believe—fewer and fewer every day. That’s not necessarily because the Church hasn’t been active in sharing the gospel. It’s because we’ve been sharing a false gospel.

The “gospel” is typically presented—explicitly or otherwise—as “salvation by grace through faith,” with Faith as the converse of Reason, but that’s obviously false. Rather, it’s Faith as opposed to Law by which we are saved.

And law, essentially, is a cudgel.

Or a sword. Or a gun.

Law says, “Comply, or else.”

And that’s the reason we don’t steal or cheat on our taxes or break the speed limit—because we know there are people with guns who will come after us if we do.

And that’s not a bad thing, because we need the law. As I discuss at length in my Christmas entry, we are a race dominated by our animal instincts and appetites. We need law to channel those appetites and instincts, to keep us from eating each other. The law keeps a stick at our backs to threaten us, and holds a carrot in front of us to entice us, so that doing the right thing is always in our personal best interest, and it protects us from others who might otherwise decide it’s in their best interest to kill us to get our stuff.

And that’s basically what the Old Covenant was about—God gave His law, and laid out a series of sticks and carrots to channel the Israelites’ appetites to make them righteous. When He applied the carrots and they were happy, they’d fall into complacency and wander away from Him, and then when He applied the sticks, it usually brought them back in line, but only for a generation or two. The problem was that the law couldn’t ever really make them righteous, because it wasn’t in their nature to ever be righteousness—nor in ours (it wasn’t just a Jewish thing, it’s a human thing). Of course, God knew that all along, so the real purpose of the law was to show them the truth of their (our) nature, so they’d understand what was on the table when He eventually offered them a New Nature through faith in the Messiah.

With the New Nature, what was impossible under the Law became possible by faith. Because now, those who belong to the Messiah have more than their animal nature to draw upon—they have the very Nature of Christ and God within.

Historically, there has been a great deal of confusion over this. Some understand the New Covenant to mean that the Law is abolished, while others insist that we must keep it in order to be saved. Some rally to what Paul said by upholding faith alone against works, while others invoke James’ insistence that we’re saved—not by faith alone, but by works.

My own position is that this confusion arises from a misunderstanding of the term “faith.” When “faith” just means believing the right doctrines in the absence of or in the face of reason and evidence, that confusion is understandable. But, when we understand “faith” to mean simply and plainly trusting God, then faith and law come out to the same outward expression. Both amount to doing what God wants: by faith we uphold the law, Paul said.

Except, if we’re doing it out of observance of the law, we’re doing it to avoid the stick and to get the carrot. In that regard, we’re God’s employees, at best, or His trained pets. Under the law, we’re really just using God to get what we want, but if there were another, easier way to get what we want, we’d drop God and go do that instead, because we don’t really care about God, we just care about that carrot.

Under the New Covenant, though, that economy is inverted. If we’re living by faith, we obey God because we love Him and trust Him, regardless of what we get or, even, when obeying Him guarantees that we’ll suffer and be persecuted. Even when doing what He wants guarantees us the stick and denies us the carrot, we do it anyway, because His will being done on earth as it is in heaven is what we’re ultimately after, because we trust His will and want to see it accomplished in the world.

A wise man once wrote, “Let us not seek to prop virtue by imagining hellish torture after death for vice and houris hereafter as a reward for virtue in this life. If virtue has no attraction in itself, it must be a poor thing…”

Under the New Covenant, obeying Him is reward in itself, because it’s as gratifying to our New Nature as sin was gratifying to our fallen nature.

And it’s not that the New Nature and salvation by grace through faith weren’t available before. In fact, one of Paul’s most emphatic points here, here, and here is that the righteousness by faith is older, and more fundamental than the Law of Moses. Everyone who’s ever been saved has always been saved the same way—that being by grace through faith, because there is no provision in the law related to eternal salvation, and if there were another way than the way Jesus and the apostles taught, then Christ died for nothing, he said.

The only difference now, then, is that we have a much greater basis for our faith than they had before—because of the aforementioned “sign of Jonah,” God’s goodness and glory are now verifiable facts of history.

Except, ironically, we don’t actually take advantage of that benefit, because we don’t preach the same gospel Jesus and the apostles did. We actually preach the Old Covenant, but package it as the New.

Instead of Faith as the converse of Law, we hold out Faith as a kind of law. We don’t teach people to tithe a tenth of their spices or dictate how wide their phylacteries and how long their payot have to be, but we make up other rules—rules of belief, which are just as ritualistic, and just as unrelated to actual righteousness before God. And, instead of the reasoned persuasion and logical appeal to evidence employed by the apostles, we use sticks and carrots to control people, to coerce them as best we can into believing what we want them to—reward them with popularity and influence and other goodies if they comply, and punish them if they don’t by ostracizing and vilifying them.

And it’s bad enough that we do this within our own walls. Despite Paul’s clear instruction that it’s simply none of our business what consenting non-Christians do with their genitals, we still try to use the government as a cudgel to enforce our standards for marriage and sexuality—standards we ourselves cannot keep.

And that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in. That’s why the Church is dying. That’s the reason 80 percent (!) of teenagers, upon graduating high school and moving out of their parents’ home and beyond their direct control, stop going to church—they haven’t been told why any of this stuff is true, and so they have no foundation. They’ve been socialized and indoctrinated and conditioned with sticks and carrots, but they haven’t been educated and empowered to understand why Christianity is true so that they can live it out by their own initiative, by their own genuine faith. And they see well enough how phony our own practice is, and so they don’t see anything worth emulating in Christianity as we know it.

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