Archive for the ‘Apologetics’ Category

Religulous!

February 24, 2009

I don’t see many recent movies, and I have not seen Bill Maher’s 2008 documentary, Religulous, in which he makes fun of religious people.  But I am aware of the kind of argument he is making.  He made it again briefly at the Academy Awards (which I also usually don’t watch, but I caught about 10 minutes of it this year).

The argument is basically this: religion is bad for the world.  It causes people to do bad things.  Therefore, the world would be better off without it. 

Obviously, Maher comes to this question from an atheistic perspective, or at the very least from an agnostic perspective.  And what is so ironic about that is that he has no basis within his own worldview to level that kind of charge against religious people.  Allow me to explain.

In order to make the kind of moral argument that Maher wants to make, one has to believe that there is a transcendent standard of right and wrong to which one can appeal.  Maher cannot charge religion with being “bad” unless he has a notion in his mind about what is “good” and how this something “bad” deviates from that standard.  But the key question is this: on whose authority has Maher determined that such-and-such scenario is “good” and such-and-such is “bad”?  Why is a world without religion morally superior to one with it?  Maher cannot make this argument without presupposing the very kind of transcendent standard that only a transcendent Lawgiver could establish.  Without God (or, to answer the agnostic’s objection, without some kind of knowledge of who God is and what he expects of us), there is no ground for any kind of moral standard.  Nothing can be truly “good” or “bad” in a world without God.  Everthing just “is.”  When Maher says, “Religion is bad,” what he really means is not, “There is an objective standard of good that religion transgresses,” but rather, “I happen not to like religion and its effects.”  Well, fine.  I happen not to like coffee, but I’m not going to go on a crusade to eliminate it! 

I assume that Maher holds to a Darwinian theory of origins, given that Darwinism is the only live option for atheists as a counter to the Christian story.  And that provokes me to wonder: how do Darwinists account for religion?  It must be part of the evolutionary development of the species.  The fact that it is widespread and persistent among human beings indicates that it must have some kind of value for survival and perpetuation.  If, on Darwinian grounds, evolution has given us religion, how can we turn around and say that religion represents a backwards and regressive movement for humanity?  How can an atheist argue, on the basis of his own worldview, that it matters that a religious person’s belief in God does not correspond to reality?  Correspondence to reality is irrelevant for Darwinism.  What matters is not what is or is not true, but rather what promotes survival.  And religion would not be an ingrained characteristic of humanity, on Darwinian grounds, if it did not somehow contribute to the evolutionary process.  Even if God does not exist, I am not obligated (on Darwinian grounds) to disbelieve in his existence.  It may, in fact, be better for me to believe that he does exist, if belief in God is one more step in the evolutionary process.

Not only does Maher have no transcendent standard to which to appeal to critique religion, he fails to understand that, even on the terms of his own atheistic worldview, religion is still a good thing.  That is utterly religulous!

Unreasonable Faith

January 22, 2009

I just stumbled across Daniel Florien’s blog, aptly titled “Unreasonable Faith.”  Florien is an apostate Christian who now seems bent on attacking evangelical Christianity constantly.  Reading his arguments on various issues, I am reminded of a passage from G. K. Chesterton:

As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity.  It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.  Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly the same unique sensation.  He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding.  His cosmos may be complete in every river and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.

Unbelief is a false religion.  It is built on the unproven (and self-contradictory) assumptions of anti-faith.  It cannot claim to stand in an unbiased, objective position from which to evaluate all other viewpoints, including Christianity.  In fact, as Van Til said, unbelievers are like the child who climbs up in her father’s lap in order to slap him in the face; they cannot even attack the Christian faith without standing on Christian assumptions about themselves, about rationality, about predication, about the external world.  Unbelief subsists only on borrowed capital.  Not only is it a false religion, it is also quite boring to boot.  Mr. Florien’s story is a sad one.

Why I Am a Christian, Part 4b: Because of the Bible

November 15, 2008

Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Because of Experience

Part 2: Because of Jesus

Part 3a: Because of the Resurrection

Part 3b: Because of the Resurrection

Part 3c: Because of the Resurrection

Part 4a: Because of the Bible

In the previous post on the Bible I set forth the primary reasons why I believe its claim to be the authoritative Word of God is a claim that warrants my belief.  Now I will address secondary reasons.  These secondary reasons are confirming evidences of the Bible’s divine origin.

(1) The unity of the Bible.  It is utterly remarkable that a collection of dozens of books, spanning thousands of years in composition, written by about forty or so authors from diverse backgrounds, in three different languages, addressing controversial matters of ultimate meaning, could have produced such a harmonious work.  I am not saying that the various biblical books speak with one voice on every issue.  There is a distinct theology of Paul, just as there is of Isaiah, of Moses, and of Luke.  Each author makes his own contribution in terms of style, content, and theology.  But when they are put together into a canon, these books cohere as one large narrative that begins with creation and ends with new creation, finding its center in the person of Jesus Christ.  The foreshadowings of the New Testament in the Old, and the echoes of the Old in the New, the multiciplicity of shadows and types that point forward to Christ, and the multiplicity of ways that Christ fulfills those shadows and types, all point to a single divine mind behind this book.  The Quran and other holy books come nowhere near the majesty of this harmonic unity.

(2) Predictive prophecy. Events foretold in the Bible have been fulfilled as they were foretold.  I think of the last two chapters of Daniel in particular, with its meticulously detailed prophecy of the wars between the Seleucids and the Ptolemies that post-dated the time of Daniel by several hundred years.  Of course, a number of scholars argue that the book of Daniel was actually written after these events, but one can’t help but think that a bit of viciously circular reasoning has gone into that conclusion.  If one rules out the possibility that the future can be foretold a priori, then of course one will have to conclude that whatever appears to be a genuine predictive prophecy would have had to have been delivered after the events it foretold.  The same is true for Isaiah 45:1, which mentions Cyrus by name as the future deliverer of Israel.  Cyrus was a Persian king who lived well over a century after the time of Isaiah, and just as Isaiah foretold, he delivered Israel from exile.  Other examples could be multiplied, particularly in regard to prophecies made about Jesus Christ.  The fact that a book that claims to come from God indicates an ability to predict the future with accuracy confirms its claim by showing that a divine mind that transcends time must stand behind it. 

(3) Historical evidence.  Most holy books have little connection to history, for most are not really about history but about what you might call “religious philosophy.”  Even the Book of Mormon, which does profess to relate history, is hopelessly disconnected from reality.  It is a fairy tale about a civilization in North America for which there is no shred of evidence, translated from mysterious golden plates that no one can access anymore, and occasionally showing traces of historical anachronism.  The Bible is in a completely different league.  There is no doubt that it is a genuine book from antiquity; we have thousands of manuscripts that date back through time, in a variety of languages.  It speaks of figures and civilizations that have been confirmed by the evidence of history.  The ruins of Jericho are available for anyone to go and see today, for example.  And on those historical questions where the Bible’s validity has not been confirmed by archaeology, I would say just give it time.  Historians used to believe that the Bible was simply wrong about the Hittites; they used to believe that the Hittites never existed.  Further archaeological evidence confirms that they did exist.  The same happened in recent decades with King Belteshazzar of the book of Daniel.  It was widely doubted that he ever existed until an inscription was discovered bearing his name.  We are dealing with a book that is rooted in history and that has been confirmed, time and time again, by the historical record. 

(4) The shocking honesty of the Bible.  If I were going to make up a religion, I certainly wouldn’t make up Christianity.  Why would anyone, out of their own imaginations, conjure up a religion that says we are all desperately wicked sinners who are destined for Hell unless we find hope in a redeemer?  Who would have made up something so complex and mysterious as the Trinity, the Incarnation, or substitutionary atonement?  Who would come up with a gospel that is at once a message of free grace and yet is at the same time the most costly thing imaginable, both to God and to us?  Who would have written a book that paints all of the great heroes of the faith with their warts in full view: Abraham, David, Moses, Paul, Peter?  Man-made religions have a tendency to romanticize and to reduce the demands made upon us by the deity.  Christianity does the opposite: it is penetratingly real, honest, utterly demanding, and even a bit complicated, all because it is built on a book that bears these characteristics.  The Bible does not bear the marks of mere human imagination. 

I do not bring these points up because I think I can, by the use of reason alone, certify the Bible’s authority.  I have already argued that the Bible’s authority is intrinsic and self-attesting; there simply cannot be any higher court of appeal.  Nevertheless, what we find when we appeal to reason and to experience is that the Bible’s divine origin is confirmed and that it clearly stands in a category by itself, thereby further strengthening our warrant to believe it is the holy Word of God.

Why I Am a Christian, Part 4a: Because of the Bible

November 10, 2008

Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Because of Experience

Part 2: Because of Jesus

Part 3a: Because of the Resurrection

Part 3b: Because of the Resurrection

Part 3c: Because of the Resurrection

Underneath the experiences that have led to my sustained adherence to the Christian faith, and closely connected to my knowledge of the crucified and risen Christ, is the written revelation of God, the Bible.  Holy Scripture is a treasure beyond human estimation, and its witness to Christ has sustained the faith of the church for two-thousand years. 

No one, whether believer or unbeliever, can deny that the Bible is an important and remarkable book, and everyone must decide how he or she will respond to it.  Personally, I have found that it warrants my faith; I believe that Scripture is divine communicative action, and as such it commands that I assent to its testimonies and teachings, obey its precepts, and trust in the Savior that it reveals.  In this post and in the following I will sketch in a brief justification for this warrant. 

I must say first that neither I nor anyone else can assume a neutral position with reference to the Bible in order to weigh its claims objectively and settle the question of its trustworthiness by reason alone.  If I could do that, then I would be denying the Bible’s own teaching, for Scripture says we are radically corrupted by sin, and that includes our reasoning capacity.  The testimony of Scripture is that no one seeks God on his or her own (Romans 3:9-20), and therefore no one is capable of coming to faith on rational principles alone.  There is no neutrality with Scripture, just as there is no neutrality with Christ.  We approach either in faith or in unbelief. 

For this reason, my argument will have some elements of circularity to it.  But I don’t see that as a problem.  Every worldview must stop at some point of ultimate authority beyond which there is no appeal, and in so doing, every worldview has at least some element of circularity.  Those who trust in reason alone cannot justify reason on its own principles, for example.  So long as we are not caught in a vicious circle, I think the charge of circularity does not necessarily undermine our claims.  If there is anything that postmodernism has taught us, it is that presuppositions are inescapable.  God did not make us with a capacity to escape our own situatedness in an attempt to transcend our limitations and weigh all truth claims from a neutral vantage point.  Try as we might, we simply cannot do that, for we are human, and to be human is to be involved in a matrix of experiences and preunderstandings.  To be human is to see from a particular, limited perspective.  So it is best to give up all attempts at neutrality and recognize that we either respond to God in faith or we turn from him in sin.   

So then, why do I believe the Bible is the word of God?  There are several interrelated reasons, none of which stand on their own; rather, all mutually support one another within one coherent framework.  There are three primary reasons and several secondary ones.  I will deal with the primary reasons in this post.

First, the Bible claims that it is the word of God (references are too many to list, but preeminent verses are 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 2:19-21).  At first, this may sound like an extremely weak argument.  But let’s think carefully about it.  At the very least we can say that, by believing that the Bible is the word of God, we are not attributing to it anything that it does not claim for itself.  That is an important point.  It may seem like this argument opens up the flood gates to all of the holy books of the world that make the same claim.  Surprisingly, however, very few books make this kind of claim.  In fact, the only books that claim to be the word of God are books that belong to religions that are spin-offs of Christianity.  Islam has its Koran, but, as a Christian heresy, Islam borrowed the idea of a written revelation from the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Mormonism did the same thing.  The other major religions of the world, which do not conceive of God as a transcendent, personal being, do not have books that claim to be his very words, and for good reason.  A pantheistic religion like Hinduism cannot conceive of divine communicative action in a verbal, personal form.  It is important to recognize that the very idea of a written divine revelation from a monotheistic, transcendent-personal God is an idea that would not exist if not for the Bible.  And though it may sound viciously circular to say that the Bible attests to its own authority, we must consider what the alternative would be.  If we appeal to some authority outside the Bible to ground its authority (reason, the church, tradition, etc.), then we have undermined our own claim by making the Bible’s own authority dependent on that of someone or something else.  If we claim that the Bible is the word of God but then elevate some other authority over it to give it credibility, then we have subordinated the word of God to something else and have contradicted ourselves.  Given the nature of the claim being made by Scripture for itself, we cannot expect that it will then derive its authority from somewhere else.  To be sure, other authorities can and do confirm the Bible’s credibility, but the ground of its authority is God.  Beyond his own words, there is no appeal.

The second reason I believe the Bible is the word of God is because Jesus affirmed it to be the word of God.  Why should I trust what Jesus says?  For that I would refer you to the arguments in part 2 and parts 3a, 3b, and 3c.  I won’t rehash that here.  Suffice it to say that we have warrant to believe that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, not only because of his radical claims but also because of his miracles, his fulfillment of the Old Testament expectation, and his resurrection from the dead.  The only alternatives are to call him a diabolical liar or a man who was completely out of his mind, and very few today are willing to make those claims, seeing how clearly a man like Jesus commands our respect.  This Jesus, whom I have every reason to take at his own word, repeatedly gave testimony to his understanding that Scripture is the very word of God.  In order to keep this post from getting two long, two passages will have to suffice for now to make this point.  In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [a shorthand reference to the Old Testament Scripture]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”  Jesus affirms the enduring and meticulous truthfulness of Scripture by saying that not even the least stroke of a pen will fail to be accomplished.  In other words, Scripture is completely true, and every part of Scripture is completely true.  Obviously, Jesus never said this about the New Testament, for the New Testament had not been written during his ministry.  Nevertheless, there is an expectation that the prophetic ministry that was reinaugurated with the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus would continue until God had finished speaking, giving written testimony to his Son.  And that is one reason why Jesus commissioned the Apostles, who became his authoritative witnesses.  Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth, speaking not his own words but the words of the exalted Christ to them (John 16:12-15).  And when I encounter the New Testament documents, I do not encounter the work of deceivers; I hear the testimony of those who have been with Jesus, and I have no reason to doubt the truthfulness of their testimony.  Jesus commands not only my respect but my worship, and if he says that Scripture is the word of God written, then I am obligated to believe it.

The third primary reason why I believe the Bible is the word of God is because I hear the voice of God in it.  Jesus said that his sheep know his voice (John 10:27).  This miracle of spiritual perception is the result of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit to the word of God.  John Calvin made this argument as a way of honoring the supreme authority of Scripture.  Against Rome, he argued that the church cannot stand above Scripture and certify its authority, for the word of God has greater authority than that of man, not vice versa.  Against the enthusiasts on the opposite side of the spectrum, who basically left Scripture behind and relied on their own subjective “revelations,” Calvin affirmed again that the word of God has greater authority than that of man.  For this reason, we must rely on the Holy Spirit’s internal testimony to open our sin-darkened eyes to the true beauty of Scripture so that we may see that its self-attestation is true and trustworthy.  This is the only way to honor the claim that Scripture is, indeed, the word of God.  Any other claim would subordinate it to another authority.  Because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, I hear God speaking in this amazing book.  And just as I know that honey is sweet because I have tasted it, so do I know that God has spoken because I have heard him. 

These are the primary reasons that I accept Scripture as the word of God.  There are other, secondary reasons as well, having to do with evidences that confirm (but do not ground) Scripture’s authority.  I will treat some of those in the next post.

Why I Am a Christian, Part 3c

September 5, 2008

[See parts 3a and 3b if you haven’t already; parts 1 and 2 might also be helpful].

All of the alternative explanations to the claim that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead have been found wanting.  As N. T. Wright argues in The Resurrection of the Son of God, the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances are individually necessary conditions for demonstrating the historical validity of the resurrection, but neither condition is sufficient on its own.  Together, however, they are jointly sufficient conditions for demonstrating that claim.  Take the empty tomb without the appearances, and grave robbery would be the most likely conclusion.  Take the appearances without the empty tomb, and hallucination seems plausible.  But taken together, the empty tomb combined with the appearances of Jesus to his disciples alive after his crucifixion makes a sufficient case for the historical event of the bodily resurrection of Christ.

This is one of the major reasons I am a Christian.  It is not just because I believe something supernatural happened.  The supernatural in and of itself does not establish a truth claim.  Satan can perform miracles too.  My point is not simply that a man being raised from the dead automatically qualifies him to be the Messiah.  My point is, rather, that this particular man, who made these particular claims, was raised at this particular time and place and in this particular way.  The resurrection of Jesus validates his personal claims about his own Messiahship and divinity.  It demonstrates that God is on his side, not the side of those who rejected him.  It fits right into the story of Israel like a hand in a glove, bringing the promises of a renewed people and a renewed world to a proleptic fulfillment.  It establishes that his sacrifice for the sins of his people has been accepted by God and that he no longer lies under the curse (nor, consequently, do those who find refuge from the curse in him).  The penalty for sin has been exhausted, for death no longer holds him in the grave. 

With the exception of Judaism (the parent of Christianity), no other religion in the world that I am aware of rests on the claim of a major, verifiable, historical event.  God has given us sufficient evidence to conclude that, in Jesus Christ, he has brought his saving plan to fulfillment, and that as a result everyone has an obligation to receive Christ as Messiah, Savior, and Lord.

Why I Am a Christian, Part 3b: Because of the Resurrection

August 22, 2008

[Read part 3a if you haven’t already.  Parts 1 and 2 would also be helpful.]

I have already argued that the early Christians proclaimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and by that they meant that he had been raised bodily, in space and time.  Their proclamation did not concern a mere spiritual or moral reality whereby Jesus “lives on” in spite of the fact that his body was rotting away. 

Given that, let’s consider two alternative explanations to the traditional Christian claim that the proclamation of Jesus’ disciples resulted from the historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.  One explanation is that Jesus’ followers knowingly lied and deceived the world.  They stole his body and proclaimed him as risen from the dead, but they were able to conceal the evidence of their conspiracy to such a remarkable degree that they were never found out.

This explanation is ridiculous.  It requires us to believe that Jesus’ disciples were evil geniuses, capable of all of the following:

– faking severe distress when their master was arrested and executed

– overcoming trained guards at Jesus’ tomb

– faking exuberant joy when they began proclaiming the message of the resurrection

– holding on to this knowingly fabricated message without wavering in spite of intense persecution, even death.

Think about it.  Many people die for lies, but that is because they believe the lies to be true.  Very, very, very few people will die for what they know is a lie.  And yet, on this theory we must assume that all of Jesus’ disciples who were in on the conspiracy, without exception, went to their deaths without ever spilling the beans.  And, in any case, what would be the motive?  If this theory is true, it requires us to believe, not that Jesus was an exceptional person, but that his disciples were exceptional: exceptionally clever, skilled, and evil.  The idea makes little sense.

Another alternative to the traditional view is that the disciples sincerely believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but they were simply mistaken.  The most common way to explain this is to argue that they hallucinated appearances of Jesus.  But while this theory has more plausibility than the former one we considered, it still suffers from serious deficiencies.

First, there is the problem of the actual body of Jesus.  Several New Testament documents testify that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.  All four Gospels make that claim.  Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, while it does not mention the tomb, explicitly says that Jesus was buried.  There is no rival story in the early Christian tradition.  The body of Jesus was laid in a tomb, according to the historical evidence.  Therefore, if the disciples hallucinated appearances of Jesus and began proclaiming that he had been raised, all that the enemies of the church had to do to squash the movement was to produce the body.  That would not have been hard to do; they knew where it was (they put guards there!).  The fact that the body of Jesus was never produced indicates that more than hallucination was going on in those early days of the church.

Second, the early Christians’ account of what actually happened does not match what we would expect in the case of a hallucination.  When people hallucinate, they do so in categories that are already in their heads.  But if the disicples hallucinated the resurrection of Jesus, then they created totally new categories of thought in the process.  The Jewish expectation was that all of the dead would be raised at once at the end of history.  The resurrection of Jesus, however, was that of a single individual in the middle of history.  In some sense the end had broken into time.  Nothing could have prepared the disciples of Jesus to begin to think in these categories.  Had they hallucinated, they probably would have seen Jesus in Heaven at Abraham’s bosom or something to that effect.  The fact that they claimed to see him, in the flesh, walking, talking, and eating, makes hallucination highly unlikely.  They simply would not have had the mental categories for those kinds of hallucinations. 

Therefore, I conclude that all the alternative explanations to the traditional claim that Jesus was, in fact, raised bodily from the dead, have no merit.  What this means as an apologetic for Christianity I will explain in part 3c.

Why I Am a Christian, Part 3a: Because of the Resurrection

August 2, 2008

Historically, whenever a claimant to the title of “Messiah” has rallied a movement around himself and then gotten killed, what has happened to the movement?  It has always dissipated.  To my knowledge, there are no contemporary followers of Simon Bar Kokhba (killed by the Romans in 135 AD) or of any of the other messianic claimants of that general period in history.

Except one.  Jesus of Nazareth, like Bar Kokhba after him, was killed by the Romans, put to death by the pagans, and yet the movement he had gathered only spread like wildfire afterwards.  This is something totally unexpected, and it can only be attributed to the fact that Jesus’ followers proclaimed him as risen from the dead.  That this was the early Christian message (and has been the central message of Christianity down to this day) is indisputable.  The question for us to consider here is how we explain that proclamation.  It seems to me that one of the following must be true:

(1) Jesus’ followers proclaimed his resurrection, but by that they did not refer to a bodily resurrection; they meant instead that Jesus’ inspiring influence continues, so that he still “lives” in his followers today.

(2) Jesus’ followers proclaimed his resurrection because they pulled a fast one on everybody; they stole his body and propagated a lie that took the world by storm.

(3) Jesus’ followers sincerely believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, but they were mistaken.  There are several possibilities about how this could have occurred, but hallucination seems to be the most likely one.

(4) Jesus’ followers proclaimed that he had risen from the dead because he really did rise from the dead bodily, and they saw him alive after he had died.   

If we approach this question without an anti-supernatural bias that posits a closed universe, unable to be affected miraculously by outside powers, then the only explanation that makes sense is number 4.  This is another reason why I find the claims of Christianity compelling.

Explanation number 1, sometimes propagated by liberal Protestants, simply will not do.  Jesus’ followers were first-century Jews, and while not all first-century Jews believed in a bodily resurrection (i.e., the Sadduccees), most of them certainly did.  But even the few that didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection didn’t use the word “resurrection” and related terminology to refer to something else.  There may not have been unanimous agreement on the doctrine itself, but there does seem to be something close to a unanimous agreement on the terminology among first-century Jews.  That Jesus’ followers would have started proclaiming a message of resurrection, by which they meant something totally different from the accepted usage of that terminology in their cultural milieu, without bothering to make it clear to everyone that they did, in fact, mean something totally different, is simply incredible.

If this is the case, it means either that Jesus’ followers proclaimed what they knew to be a lie (Jesus’ bodily resurrection) or they sincerely believed he had been raised from the dead.  We will consider these options in the next post.

Why I Am a Christian, Part 2: Because of Jesus

July 22, 2008

In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis spelled out the famous trilemma about Jesus: either he was who he claimed to be–the Messiah, Son of God, Lord of all–or he was completely deluded or deceitful to the core.  He was not merely a great moral teacher.  Great moral teachers don’t make the kinds of claims he made about himself unless they are true.  For a man to claim to be God in the flesh when he is not, in fact, God in the flesh, is to commit blasphemy.  So, if Jesus was not God in the flesh, then he either blasphemed from a diabolical motive to deceive or because he was not right in the head.  Take your pick.  But we must put aside the nonsensical idea that he was nothing more than a great teacher.  As Lewis wrote, “He has not left that option open to us.  He did not intend to.” 

One of the main reasons I am a Christian is because I find Jesus to be a person who warrants my trust in what he has claimed about himself.  Almost no one would be willing to call him a crazy man or a blaspheming liar.  I know I certainly won’t.  And if he is not these things, then there is only one option left: he is God Incarnate.  And if he is God Incarnate, then his claim to be the center of the universe, the center of God’s redemptive activity, along with his claim of absolute lordship over the lives of every single human being, comes with a weight of authority that I cannot ignore.

There is one way to get around the trilemma, and that is to claim that the Jesus of the Gospels is not the real, historical Jesus.  One could argue that the Jesus who claims to be God and puts himself in the place of God is an invention of the early church, but the real Jesus was much more like an itinerant rabbi who specialized in moral teachings.  Many scholars argue that the claims of Jesus in the Gospels that indicate a high Christology are sayings placed on his lips by the early church, not his own words.

This argument simply will not do.  First, it is based on faulty presuppositions.  One of the most important rules in determining the authentic sayings of Jesus in critical scholarship today is the so-called “criterion of dissimilarity.”  In other words, anything that is attributed to Jesus that is dissimilar from the prevailing thought world of his Jewish background and that of the early church is judged likely to be authentic.  And while I would certainly agree that such statements are authentic, should we necessarily conclude that sayings that do not measure up are less likely to be authentic?  Jesus was, after all, a first-century rabbi and the founder of Christianity.  Is it really fair to pretend that we can abstract him from his context and then attribute to him such a faulty teaching ability that the real heart of his teaching very quickly became corrupted by the overzealous (and yes, blasphemous!) admiration that his followers had for him?  To insist on dissimilarity is to insist on an ahistorical Jesus, not a historical one. 

Second, this view requires us to believe that the early church continually produced new Jesus-sayings without any regard to whether they were truly his words or not.  But from the evidence we have, it appears that the New Testament authors were very concerned about truth in their reporting of history.  Luke places great emphasis on his research into eyewitness accounts (Luke 1:1-4).  When Paul faces a pastoral situation not directly addressed by Jesus, he doesn’t invent a Jesus-saying to address it.  He carefully distinguishes between what the historical Jesus said and what Paul as an inspired Apostle now says in light of a new situation (1 Cor. 7:10, 12).  And if the church was regularly in the habit of placing sayings on the lips of Jesus, then why are so many important issues left without any direct comment from him?  For example, the most important debate that rocked the infant church was on what terms to accept Gentiles: circumcised or uncircumcised?  We have no record that Jesus ever said a thing about this directly (certainly, much of what he said has implications for this debate, but there is no decisive word from him).  If the early church could have invented a Jesus saying to address this problem, then why do we have no Jesus saying that addresses it?  The best explanation is that the church simply did not engage in the practice; Jesus probably never addressed the question directly. 

Third, even if we accept the critical presuppositions about what constitutes an authentic saying of Jesus (which I don’t, but will for the sake of argument), we still cannot get around the fact that he made some wildly extravagant claims about himself.  Take Matthew 24:36, for example: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”  This saying cannot be attributed to the early church, for the church would not have invented a saying in which Jesus confesses his own ignorance about something.  So it must be authentic, even by critical standards.  While we normally pay closest attention to the fact that Jesus plainly says he does not know something, we should not miss the extraordinarily high Christology of this verse.  When he lists off those who do not know the day of his coming, he lists the angels of heaven first, and then himself, as though his own ignorance is more significant than theirs.  He stands above even the angels of heaven, subordinate to the Father alone!  How this coheres with an orthodox Christology is not my purpose to explain right now (I believe it does cohere).  The point, rather, is that even in this indisputably authentic statement, Jesus makes a wildly extravagant claim about who he is.  The Jesus of history, if he was not far more than a mere human being, was at the very least an egotistical maniac, prone to placing himself above all created things.  Almost everything he said and did (whether judged authentic or not by critical standards) is stamped with this kind of exalted view of himself. 

I find it extremely hard to believe that the person I encounter in the Gospels was a blaspheming lunatic or a blaspheming liar.  I find it even harder to believe that, if he was one or the other, he managed to hide that fact from those who knew him best and then to inspire them to lay down their lives even as they changed the world with the message that focused directly on him.  Some cult leaders (who are indeed egotistical, blaspheming lunatics) have managed to inspire a short-lived following, but none have had anything close to the far-reaching, enduring impact of this man.  He could not have been a mere moral teacher.  He made too much of himself for that.  I don’t find it possible to view him as a crazy man or a deceiver.  My only option is to bow at his feet and say, “My Lord and my God.”

Why I Am a Christian, Part 1: Because of Experience

July 14, 2008

In this series of posts I intend to make a case for the truthfulness of Christianity, framing the subject in terms of various reasons why I myself am a Christian.  The first reason I should list as to why I am a Christian today is because of my life experiences. 

I was raised in a Christian family and had a conversion experience at around the age of nine or ten.  It was a few years later before I really began to see the implications of that experience working themselves out in my life.  I began to taste for myself the goodness and transforming power of Jesus Christ in a way I had never known before.  Several people stand out in my mind as those who played an important role during these formative years: my pastor Joe Srygley, my youth minister Curt Pool, Curt’s sidekick Rodney Bunch, a traveling youth evangelist named Todd Foster who visited the area several times, my friends Blake Edwards, Robert Butler, and others.  In spite of their faults (and mine), I saw something real in the lives of these people, a genuine love for the Lord, for the church, and for others.  

When I got to college it was much the same, only many of the names had changed: Allan Thompson (campus minister), Craig Nash (resident director), Bob Utley (professor), Steve Bowen (pastor), and several others.  And on through seminary the story has been much the same.  The bottom line is that I am a Christian today largely because Christ is someone I know by experience.  I have encountered him through the Scriptures, through prayer, through the ordinances of worship, through the corporate gathering of his people, through service to the poor and outcast.  He has left his fingerprints on every part of my life.

Some people say you can’t argue with experience.  I disagree.  I think you can argue with it.  If Freud were here, he would probably have an alternative explanation for my powerful experience of knowing Christ.  He would have some kind of naturalistic psychological explanation.  And there’s nothing in principle that says that he couldn’t make that argument.  If the shoe were on the other foot, and I were asked to interpret the spiritual experience of a Mormon or a Hindu, I would not likely speak of his experience in the same way that he does.  We always experience things with a pre-existing interpretive framework that enables us to make sense of that experience in the context of an overall worldview.  And I think it is completely legitimate for one person to use his or her interpretive framework to question or critique that of another while not denying that something meaningful has, in fact, been experienced.  So all of that is to say that I recognize that personal experience plays an important role in my Christian faith.  But while it may be a necessary condition for a compelling apologetic for the Christian faith, it is not a sufficient one.  In other words, given the kinds of truth claims that Christianity makes for itself, then we would surely question its credibility if it did not produce any life-changing experiences in the lives of its adherents.  Thus, a lack of evidence across the board in this arena could falsify the Christian faith.  But the presence of evidence for Christian experience does not validate the Christian faith, anymore than does the undeniable reality of Buddhist experience validate Buddhism.  Experience does, however, provide confirming evidence for the Christian faith.  And in the gracious providence of God, I have been blessed to live the life that I have lived, one that has led me into the arms of Christ and kept me there to this day.