Advent – Light Invades the Darkness

This being the first Sunday in Advent, I felt God leading me to keep the pause button on the “Beyond Belief” series on apologetics (defending and explaining our faith in a reasonable and logical way to those earnestly seeking Truth). Instead, I’m feeling called to spend the next few weeks reflecting on various aspects of this season as we pick up speed heading toward Christmas and the end of the year.

Having said that, though, I also feel called to suggest that we keep our apologetics thinking caps on. The Christmas season tends to be a sentimental and emotional time for many people, especially those of us who recognize Christmas Day as commemorating the birth of the Saviour of the world. There is, of course, nothing at all wrong with sentimental and nostalgic feelings, but as we have seen in the “Beyond Belief” series, God also encourages us to think about our faith and its foundations so we don’t get knocked off them when life doesn’t go our way. So let’s keep that in mind as we wander through this detour back to where and when it all began.

So here we are. Advent begins. Rewinding 2000+ years, we see that the world was steeped in darkness. To all appearances, the forces of evil seemed to have defeated God. Even Israel, his chosen people, hadn’t heard from him in 400 years. Where was he? Had he given up on humanity, walked away to leave us to wallow in the wickedness we generally seem to gravitate toward?

No, of course not. That’s not the kind of God he is.

He was waiting for just the right moment in time to launch his invasion.

He was not troubled by the darkness of the world, for it is not unusual for an invasion to begin under the cloak of darkness.

But, as with so many things God does, the invasion looked nothing like what I or anyone in the world would have expected. Not even Satan.

I guess I shouldn’t say it looked nothing like what I would have expected. I mean, God got the legions of angels part right. In spite of their cute and cuddly appearance in Christmas plays, they must actually be quite menacing–every time someone in the Bible encounters them, the first thing the angel does is tell them not to be afraid, not to mention the passage in 2 Kings 19:35 where an angel kills 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night! So yeah, if I were planning an invasion, I’d start with legions of angels.

Except–get this–they’re singing?!? (Luke 2:13-14)

And why are they singing? Because a baby was born.

Yay. OK, who cares? Babies are born all the time.

Oh, but this isn’t just any baby. This is the baby that starts the invasion.

Wait, what? Angels are singing while a baby is left to gain a foothold against the forces of darkness on Fortress Earth? This makes no sense!

It makes no sense to us, but it’s perfectly logical to God. Why? Because God chooses to work in and through us–yes, through broken people–to achieve his objectives. Throughout Scripture, it is far more common to see God working through people than through angels or miracles. And even then, oftentimes when miracles are recorded, there is at least one ordinary person who has to participate with God in order for the miracle to be worth recording. Who would care about the Red Sea parting unless Moses and the Israelites were there to run through it as they fled for their lives from Pharaoh and the Egyptians? And would water have come gushing out of the rock in the desert if Moses hadn’t struck it with his staff?

So instead of angels, God used a virgin teenage girl. She carried his baby. God used a humble carpenter (not a soldier) to protect and raise that baby. When that baby grew into a man and that man was ready to start his ministry, God used uneducated fishermen, a thieving tax collector, a political activist, and other misfits (not scholars) to study under him and carry his message into the darkness of the world. Instead of perfect, well-qualified people–those are in short supply–God uses you and me. Or maybe it would be better to say that in addition to the one perfect person, God uses you and me.

Nothing really seems to make sense from our perspective.

I certainly don’t claim to have it all figured out, nor do I feel appointed as a spokesperson for God, so let me say it this way: my observation is that God does this because he is working in us even while he is working through us. In other words, while we are serving him to change the world in great and small ways, we also find that he is changing us in great and small ways as well. For example, if you write a blog to try to encourage people you don’t know who may be very different from you, over time you may come to realize that God loves them just as much as he loves you, and if he doesn’t allow his love to be clouded by their political leanings or sexual preferences or country of origin or any other differentiator, then neither should you.

Here’s the thing: God has intended that each of us should be a light in the darkness of this world. This thought has pervaded my prayer life in recent years. For a few years, I traveled to New York City for my job. Each day that I was there, as I walked to the office in Manhattan’s Financial District, I would pray that I would be a light in the darkness there. Every time we have a baptism service at church, when dozens of people commit their lives to Christ, I thank God for each redeemed soul that they are another light in the darkness.

Since this is the Christmas season, let’s try this metaphor: every person on the planet is like a bulb connected to one really long string of lights. One of the newer strings that stays lit even when bulbs are out. God the power source runs through every bulb, even the ones that don’t light up. For some that don’t light up, if they get adjusted a bit, they are able to tap into the power source and become radiant. Others, however, are unable to tap into the power source for a variety of reasons. They may seek power from other sources because they don’t realize there is only one true power source. They may try to illuminate themselves, but no matter how hard they work at it, they can never quite make it happen–they don’t understand that they were made only to tap into a power source outside of and greater than themselves.

The power source is available to all and would prefer that each bulb receive his power and light up. If that were the case, there would be and could be no darkness. But until that happens, those of us who are illuminated are called to be a light in the darkness for those bulbs around us that are not lit up.

Let me close with some Biblical texts about light and darkness, among other things. These have inspired me in my thoughts about us being called to illuminate the darkness of the world. The first set of verses were written by Isaiah, a prophet who predicted Jesus’s birth over 700 years before that first Christmas.

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light
;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LordAlmighty
will accomplish this.

Isaiah 9:2,5-7 (NIV, emphasis added)

These passages were written by Jesus’s beloved apostle and friend, John.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 

John 1:4-9 (NIV)

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.

1 John 2:9-10 (NIV)

Unil next Sunday, may God bless your week. Come, Lord Jesus.

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Whom Will You Thank?

This being the Sunday leading into Thanksgiving week, I felt God leading me to pause our series on apologetics (“Beyond Belief“), at least for this week, to reflect on this upcoming holiday, particularly focusing on thankfulness and gratitude. Let’s start with the Psalmist’s view of what it means to be thankful:

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Psalms 100 (NIV), borrowed from YouVersion

This song makes it clear that we should enter this week with a posture of gratitude. But wait–does he actually say anything about this week, or a particular day this week? Hmm, I don’t see it. What are we to make of that?

Perhaps that we should have a posture of gratitude every day.

But shouldn’t we really do this only when things are going well?

That makes sense, but I don’t see anything about that either. This Psalm makes it seem like we should be joyful simply because we know that the Lord is God, because he made us, and because we are his people.

Now let’s reflect for a moment on thankfulness. A good friend of mine who does not believe in God told me last year at this time that he and his wife had adopted an attitude of thankfulness for the blessings in their lives. While I appreciate the sentiment, I wondered to myself (since I’m not an “in your face” kind of guy), To whom are you thankful? Whom do you think gave you those blessings?

Here’s the thing: “Thank” is what is known as a reciprocal verb, meaning it’s something one does to someone else. Here’s a definition of “reciprocal verb”:

Reciprocal verb: verb that describes something that two people do to or with each other, for example the verb ‘meet’ in the sentence ‘We always meet in the park’.

macmillon dictionary

So you have to thank someone. It doesn’t really make sense to thank yourself, nor does it make sense to thank nobody. Some secularists (like my friend) may say they are grateful to “the universe”. But the fact of the matter–actually, even the science (their cheap replacement for god)–is that the universe doesn’t have the capacity to care about any of us in the slightest way, let alone give us blessings.

By all means, we should be thankful this week, of course we should. But so should we be thankful next week, and every week after that. Every day.

But as we assume the appropriate posture of gratitude, I have to ask the question I chose not to challenge my friend with: Whom will you thank?

Also, I wanted to pass along my own reflection on thankfulness and how it led me to this same question:

Gratitude is foundational for joy, hope, peace, and fulfillment.

Miracles abound,

beauty hides in plain sight,

if you have eyes to see them.

There is much to be thankful for.

Lift your gaze above the fray and you will see.

And then, whom will you thank?

May God continue to bless you richly this Thanksgiving week and Thanksgiving day–which is every day!

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Beyond Belief – How Can You Possibly Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead?

In our little excursion through Christian apologetics (the ability to explain our faith in ways that make logical and philosophical sense, and easier to understand and digest for skeptics who are earnestly seeking to discover the truth), this week’s destination is even more interesting and challenging than usual: the death and resurrection of Jesus. I mean, how can this absurd story possibly be true? That isn’t the way death works. It’s a scientific fact that dead people generally stay that way.

And yet, the assertion that Jesus died and was raised by God back to life is central to our faith. The Apostle Paul put it this way in his first letter to the Corinthians, which is believed by most scholars to be one of the earliest preserved Christian writings, written within about 20 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection (~AD 54):

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:17 (NIV)

Or, said another way, here is how theologian Gerald O’Collins put it:

In a profound sense, Christianity without the resurrection is not simply Christianity without its final chapter. It is not Christianity at all.

Gerald O’Collins, The Easter Jesus (London: Darton, Long-man, & Todd, 1973), 134, cited in Craig, The Son Rises, 136, and in Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (p. 32). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Before I jump in, I should note that in preparation for this topic, I read Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Easter. Strobel is a journalist with a BA from the University of Missouri and also a Master of Studies in Law (MSL) from Yale Law School. This book provides a much deeper treatment of this topic than I will be able to achieve in a (hopefully!) brief blog post. If you’d like to dive deeper into this topic, I would invite you to check out his book here.

I’d also like to mention that the proof texts for this post are passages in the Bible. If you need help believing the historicity and truthfulness of the Bible, please refer to my previous post in this series on this topic.

How Can You Prove This Is True?

Most of the time in criminal court cases, the police do not see the events the defendant is accused of committing. There is usually no recording, either. So how do they decide whom to accuse? And how do the judge and/or jury determine whether the defendant is guilty or innocent? The answer to these questions is that investigators piece together the events in question based on the evidence they gather. Sometimes it’s forensic evidence, which is analyzed by specialists trained in the topic at hand, whether it’s blood spatter or the flow of money, or countless other areas. Other times, the evidence is circumstantial, or it might be the testimony of witnesses. Whatever the case, investigators take all the pieces of evidence and piece them together like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle in an attempt to figure out what really happened.

Historical events–especially those that happened thousands of years ago–require a similar approach, although the evidence tends to differ significantly. Eyewitnesses are no longer around and forensic evidence is sparse, if it even exists. Thus, to prove the validity (or historicity) of alleged historical events, one must lean heavily on circumstantial evidence. But just as investigators follow the clues to arrive at an honest and logical conclusion, no matter how unlikely it may seem, the same is true when considering the evidence for historical events. An honest and open-minded investigator should be willing to accept the only feasible explanation for the body of evidence, regardless of how unlikely it seems. Similarly, if other theories or explanations are offered, they should be subject to the same rigor you would apply to any of the other explanations. If this sort of consistent rigor is applied, the investigator should also be willing to discard implausible or impossible theories, no matter how much they might wish them to be true.

With this in mind, we should invite skeptics earnestly seeking the truth to follow the historical clues to their logical conclusion, and be willing to accept that conclusion no matter how crazy or far-fetched it may seem.

But Is It Really OK to Poke Around in These Topics?

There’s a false notion that some followers of Christ drag around with them: that it’s sacrilegious to question these most basic foundations of our faith. Actually, quite the opposite is true. God isn’t sitting there worried that we will turn over a rock that will prove the whole thing is a sham. Not at all. In fact, I believe he wants us to turn over those rocks so that, as a result of our investigation and consideration, when we see the truth, our faith will be ever more deeply embedded in the solid rock.

In other words, God gave us our brains and our ability to reason, and he wants us to use them to solidify what we believe in our hearts. So yes, poke away. Didn’t Paul say something like that? No? Well, he should have!

I’ve Heard That Maybe Jesus Didn’t Really Die from the Crucifixion–Was It a Hoax?

One theory that has been circulated to try to prove that the resurrection was a hoax is that Jesus didn’t really die as a result of the crucifixion. This is sometimes referred to as “the swoon theory.” After all, if Jesus didn’t really die, then he would not have needed to be resurrected, and his subsequent appearances would have been nothing more than a hoax to try to convince people that Jesus had divine powers.

Here is Strobel’s statement regarding this hypothesis:

While reputable scholars have repudiated this so-called swoon theory, it keeps recurring in popular literature.

Strobel, Lee; The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (p. 11). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

The short answer to this is that the Roman soldiers of Jesus’s time were experts at administering death by crucifixion. They may not have invented it, but they had perfected it. They did not make mistakes when it came to executing someone, nor did they when determining whether the condemned had died. And to make sure of that, there was a Roman military law that dictated that if a prisoner happened to escape death, the soldiers who allowed it to happen would themselves be executed. There were no mistakes.

When the soldiers were ordered to expedite Jesus’s death due to the coming Sabbath and Passover, they went around to break his legs, as was their normal practice. However, they concluded it was unnecessary since he was already dead. To confirm this, they thrust a spear into his side. The Apostle John could not have known the medical significance of the details he provided when he wrote:

Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.

John 19:34 (NIV)

This flow of blood and water would have indicated that fluid had collected in the membrane around Jesus’s heart–called a pericardial effusion in modern medical terms–and around his lungs–referred to as a pleural effusion. These would have resulted from the extreme stresses placed on his body by the brutal beating he suffered prior to the crucifixion, and then by the crucifixion itself. This situation leaves no doubt that Jesus was dead.

Strobel provides further medical evidence substantiating that there is no way Jesus could have survived the torturous execution, but in the interest of time and sparing you graphic details (which made me squirm), I’ll move on.

How Do You Know Jesus’s Body Was Really Missing from the Tomb?

Having established that Jesus died as a result of the crucifixion, we move on to address some theories that attempt to refute the assertion that Jesus must have been raised from the dead based on the fact of the empty tomb. Let’s try to move through the most prominent of these quickly.

It wasn’t customary for victims of crucifixion to be taken down and buried, so why would Jesus have been buried? All four gospels specifically mention that Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy Jewish leader. We can only speculate why Joseph participated in this or offered up his tomb for Jesus, but the fact that it is unanimously corroborated by all four gospels is compelling evidence that it happened. This includes Mark’s gospel, which he wrote and circulated ~57-59 AD. This was not long after the event took place. Since Joseph of Arimathea was mentioned specifically by name, he would have stepped forward and put an end to the rumor if it wasn’t true.

Jesus’s body was stolen. Matthew actually addresses this theory in his gospel (Matthew 28:12-15), saying that the Jewish leaders bribed the soldiers who had been guarding the tomb to say that they had fallen asleep, so the disciples must have broken into the tomb and stolen the body. This theory isn’t plausible because the guards would have been executed if the body had been stolen on their watch. Also, all of the disciples had abandoned Jesus because they were so afraid, so it seems unlikely they would suddenly be brave enough to take the chance of having to confront armed professional soldiers in the process of trying to steal Jesus’s body. Further, nearly all of the disciples were eventually executed for spreading the good news of Jesus’s resurrection–who can honestly believe that anyone would put themselves in a position to be executed for perpetuating a hoax?

Jesus’s followers went to the wrong tomb. Again, all four gospels specifically state that Jesus was buried in Joseph of Aramathea’s tomb. He would have been well known in Jerusalem, so if by some chance everyone who is reported to have seen the empty tomb had gone to the wrong place, Joseph or someone would have told them that they had gone to the wrong place, and they would have directed the group to the correct location, at which point the body would have been discovered.

There’s one other thing to mention in this section: the disciples did not rely only on the empty tomb to substantiate their claims that Christ had risen–they also leaned on subsequent sightings of the risen Christ, so let’s unpack that now.

Did People Really See a Living Jesus after He Was Crucified and Buried?

Throughout the gospels, the book of Acts, and some of Paul’s letters, there are numerous accounts of the resurrected Christ appearing to and interacting with named individuals and various groups of people. This includes people like James, Jesus’s brother, and Thomas–both disciples who doubted Jesus’s divinity until they saw him after his resurrection. Going back to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he mentions some of these encounters:

and that he appeared to Cephas <Peter>, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:5-6 (NIV, clarification of Cephas added)

Wait, 500 people? Yes, and by pointing out that most of them are still living, Paul is essentially inviting contemporary readers to check it out for themselves. If you don’t believe me, go ask any one of these 500 people!

Surely this is a number that grew over time, as the story reached mythic proportions. Well, as a reminder this letter was written only about 20 years after Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection, meaning that there isn’t enough time for mythology to take hold of this story. This same idea pertains to any claim that these sightings never really happened but must have grown out of myth. Not only Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, but Mark’s gospels and several other accounts were all written fairly soon after Jesus’s death and resurrection–too soon to have become distorted by legend.

Maybe everyone who claimed to see the resurrected Christ was hallucinating. Well, do you really think it’s possible that so many different people–500+– were having the same hallucination? It’s not.

There is further evidence to corroborate the sightings of the risen Christ, but again, to try to keep this as brief as possible, I’ll wrap up with this observation by theologian Michael Green:

The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity. . . . There can be no rational doubt that they occurred, and that the main reason why Christians became sure of the resurrection in the earliest days was just this. They could say with assurance, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ They knew it was he.

Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 97, emphasis in original. Cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (pp. 81-82). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Conclusion

So there it is. The evidence is clear. Jesus died. He was buried. God raised him back to life. He interacted with many people in meaningful ways after that. Jesus’s disciples concluded from this that he is Lord. These people who had previously been cowardly became empowered to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection at the cost of their own lives. Skeptics became believers. The church was born, and God’s strategy to save the world using ordinary people like you and me was launched.

No other event in history has made a bigger impact on the world and its citizens than the resurrection of Jesus.

After this cursory review of the extensive historical evidence, what is your conclusion?

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Beyond Belief – What the Heck is the Trinity? Is God Three or Is He One?

Last week in our journey through apologetics (our ability to defend our faith to those who doubt it or help it make sense to those earnestly trying to understand it), we addressed the divinity of Jesus. This naturally leads us to this ever-challenging topic: the trinity. God is one and God is three–which is it? Both.

Huh?

Right. Well, let me tell you, this confusing topic was originally something that repelled me from the faith as I was first setting out to understand it, but then it turned out to be the pivotal truth that, when I gained my first sliver of understanding of it, became a game-changer for me.

Having said that, though, I will quickly add that my understanding of the trinity is incomplete. But if anyone tells you that they fully understand the depths and intracacies of the trinity, you should approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism. This is one of those aspects of Christianity that is both foundational and, at the same time, just beyond our ability to fully comprehend.

Before we jump in, though, let me remind us all that God knew there would be aspects of the faith that would be difficult for us to understand. He presented himself to us through the Bible, which in turn is his revelation of himself to people over the course of several thousand years–so we are subject to those people’s ability to comprehend these things themselves, and then in their skill at trying to explain them to us without the benefit of a conversation in which we could ask clarifying questions. Add to that the cultural differences resulting from such a large span of time as well as our geographic diversity, and also the challenges of translating from multiple languages into English, and it’s no wonder there are passages and concepts that are hard for us to understand. God assured us, though, that it’s OK if we don’t fully grasp everything about the faith:

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:9 (NIV)

In the Beginning

As I’ve shared previously, what turned me from my agnostic life to one where I was investigating what God was all about was the Jehovah’s Witnesses (well, to be more specific, it was because a girl I liked in high school was a Jehovah’s Witness, and her dad said we couldn’t date if I wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness, too). As I dug into it a little bit, I learned that one of the ways the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ faith differed from mainstream Christianity was over the concept of the trinity. Basically, they do not believe that Jesus is God. Not having grown up in the church, I didn’t know what this meant or why it was important. I also didn’t know how you could prove it one way or the other.

But then (all great stories have a “but then”!), I went to my first service at a regular Christian church, and you’ll never guess what the topic of the sermon was–the trinity! What a God thing! (I don’t believe in coincidences.) The text the pastor taught from was the beginning of the Gospel according to John, who was one of Jesus’s apostles and closest friends. This is how John tells Jesus’s “origin story” (which isn’t an origin story at all, as I’ll clarify below):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:1-5 (NIV)

As you read on a bit, you realize that “the Word” he’s referring to is Jesus. This beautiful introduction culminates in this statement:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14 (NIV)

And there it was–a very direct and clear assertion that Jesus is God. And so began the journey I happily continue today, into the depths of God.

So What Does It Mean?

The idea of the trinity is that God (also sometimes referred to as the “Godhead” in discussions of this topic), while being one God, is at the same time comprised of three separate and distinct entities: God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son. Since God was not created but has always existed, so too have all three of these entities always coexisted. This means that even though Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born to a woman, he actually has always existed (this is why he has no “origin story”). That was just the moment in time when he stepped away from the intimacy of the relationship of the trinity to become a human and live among us for a while.

I should also mention that a terminology nuance which often causes confusion is that sometimes when people use the term “God”, they are really thinking of God the Father. This isn’t a big deal in terms of your relationship with God, but it can cause some challenges as you grapple with the trinity.

For example, one confusion people express sometimes is, “How could Jesus be God if he prayed to God?” This makes sense, though, if you realize that he, being God the Son, prayed to God the Father–two separate entities within the single triune God. I found this diagram which may help a bit:

Borrowed from UnderstandingChristianity.com

But There Is No Mention of “Trinity” In the Bible

There are some atheists and secularists who claim Christianity is false because the word “trinity” isn’t mentioned in the Bible, but this is a central truth of our faith. While it’s true that the word is not mentioned, the concept is most definitely woven throughout the entire Bible–yes, even the Old Testament. I want to provide reference texts as examples, but to try to keep this post from getting too long, I will just provide them in a list form, as I did in last week’s episode:

  • “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” – Deuteronomy 6:4 – establishes the idea that there is one God.
  • “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’” – Genesis 1:26 (emphasis added) – establishes that God is having an dialog within different components of himself.
  • “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” – Isaiah 6:8 – another example of God referring to himself in the plural.
  • “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6 – establishes that a son will be born who will be called Mighty God.
  • Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” – John 10:30 – brings together the ideas that God is one yet made up of separate entities.
  • John 6:27 – Jesus refers to “God the Father”, alluding to the different components within the triune God.
  • Titus 2:13 – “while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” refers to Jesus as God
  • John 20:28 – Thomas refers to Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” Jesus does not correct Thomas.

Why Is This Important?

One reason this is important is because, going back to last week’s post, it helps establish the divinity of Jesus. Another thing is that this is the way God has presented himself to us, so we need to try to engage with him as best we can, to the best of our understanding. At the end of the day, the essential thing out of this is that we have an appropriate high view of God, and that includes having the same high view of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit.

And even though we are given characteristics of each of the entitites within the triune God, it’s not important that we address the “right part” of God depending on what concern we bring before him. God will never respond to my prayers, “Well, Dave, that was a good prayer, and I’d love to help you, but you addressed it to Jesus when you should have addressed it to the Holy Spirit. Better luck next time.”

Some of us may have a preference in our prayers to address them to Jesus, Our Father, or the Holy Spirit, but it’s a safe assumption that it doesn’t matter which entity we address–what’s important is that we address him.

The triune God hears our prayers. He heard them when he stood among us, when he experienced our brokenness in person, and he hears them now. How great is our God!

When we pass from this life to the next, after we relax the grip of our mighty embrace of the Giver of Eternal Life, and after we stand up from bowing before His Majesty, we can ask Him to explain this mystery and a thousand others. We can discuss them with him until we understand. Or perhaps they will become abundantly clear when we meet Him face to face/face/face, and we’ll have nothing to ask, except maybe, Why me?

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Beyond Belief – Who Do You Say Jesus Is?

Continuing our series on apologetics (enabling Followers of Christ to explain their faith and helping those earnestly seeking answers to life’s big questions to understand how God has answered them), today I’m going to focus on Jesus himself. Since he’s the central figure of our faith, it’s important for us to understand who he is and who he is not.

As I mentioned in a post some time ago, Jesus was hanging out with his pals in Caeserea Philippi when he asked them who the people say he is. But it appears that this may have just been the warm-up question since he doesn’t comment on their response. Instead, he probes deeper:

“But what about you?”he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Jesus, in Matthew 16:15 (NIV)

Simon Peter, one of his best friends, answered quickly, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And apparently, he nailed it, based on Jesus’ reply:

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Jesus, in Matthew 16:17-19 (NIV)

So, this is the key question for us today and every day: who do you say Jesus is?

Why is this important? Because there are a lot of people with different views on things saying things that are not true about Jesus, so it’s important for us to know what’s true and what’s not, both so you can stay rooted in the truth and so you can help guide others to that same promised land of truth, which unfortunately is so elusive for many people today.

To begin with, let me quote from one of my favorite sources on apologetics–C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 52). HarperOne.

What I’d like to do is unpack the different possibilities that Lewis goes through for answers to the question, Who do you say Jesus is?

Jesus Was a Great Moral Teacher

To the extent that people in our secular society even acknowledge Jesus, this seems to be the most common viewpoint. I’ve heard people say things like, His teachings were great, and he seemed like a really good guy, but I just don’t see how he could be God. But, as Lewis pointed out, logic jumps off the tracks with this assessment. The most prominent assertion Jesus made was that he is part of the triune God. It was what got him tortured to death. How can anyone possibly set that aside and yet listen to anything else he said? Well, yes, that’s…inconvenient that he called himself God…but look at this cute little saying over here about turning the other cheek…”

Some new atheists have made it fashionable to say that Jesus never claimed to be a deity, that this was something added to the story by his followers after the fact, as his life took on mythic proportions he never intended. There are logical problems with this school of thought as well. First off, the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are filled with things Jesus said where he either claimed to be one with God explicitly or where the Jews of his day would have clearly understood him to be equating himself with God. Here are some examples from John’s gospel:

  • I and the father are one. John 10:30
  • I am the light of the world. John 9:5
  • I am the break of life. John 6:48
  • I am the good shepher. John 10:11
  • I am the way, the truth, and the life. John 14:6
  • I am the resurrection and the life. John 11:25

Here’s the other thing that makes this argument problematic: these gospels were all written and distributed during a time when numerous people who had heard Jesus speak would have still been alive. If any of the authors were trying to embellish anything in their writing of the gospel, other people would have called them out on that, and their account of Jesus’s life and teachings never would have gotten any traction with anyone.

So if you want to stick with logic and reason, this argument also makes no sense.

Jesus Was Delusional

At face value, this second option from Lewis’s list seems to make sense. I mean, if I met someone who told me they were God, this would be my first thought–they’re delusional. Although I’m not a mental health professional, it still seems like a reasonable diagnosis. This was, in fact, the diagnosis made by some of the Jews who heard him speak, as recorded in John 10:19-20:

The Jews who heard these words were again divided. Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?”

John 10:19-20 (NIV)

However, other Jews had a more sober assessment, in light of the miracles Jesus had performed:

But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

John 10:21 (NIV)

Similarly, Richard Dawkins, one of the foremost new atheists, in his book The God Delusion, attacks Lewis’s statement that I quote above, claiming there should have been another option offered–that Jesus was just honestly mistaken. Oops, I just called myself God again…

I’m not sure how you could make this distinction, though–if you don’t believe someone’s claims to be one with God, wouldn’t you consider that person delusional whether it was an honest mistake or not? This seems to be a distinction without a difference. In other words, meaningless.

Jesus Was an Evil Deceiver

In today’s language, we might more commonly refer to the third option Lewis mentioned as a “con artist” or “scammer”. In other words, he was someone pretending to be someone he’s not. In fact, some people from Jesus’s hometown wondered this very thing, as recorded in John 6:42:

They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

Jesus’s obnoxious neighbors, in John 6:42

The best thing to say here is, I wonder how much pain a scammer would endure before he or she would come clean and admit they were scamming me. Or said another way, Can you imagine any con artist being tortured to death for their scam and not confessing the truth to save themselves? I mean, don’t you think that if Jesus were a con artist, at some point well before the crucifixion, or even way before the beating that preceded it, he would have come clean to save himself?

Jesus Was and Is Who He Said He Is

The final option we are left with from Lewis’s list is that Jesus really is God in the flesh. He is both fully God and fully man.

This may be hard for us to understand–how God would become flesh, and how God could still run the universe while he was a man, and how Jesus could still pray to God, and a thousand other questions–but that’s OK. God told us that his ways are hard for us to understand. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make sense of them.

Even though this blog post and this series on apologetics are intended to help us make sense of our faith and to help those who are not yet Followers of Christ to make a logical, reasoned decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t still be a leap of faith involved. Also, nobody should wait until it all makes sense before they make a decision, because it never will. The more you get to know God, the more questions you will have.

But wouldn’t you expect that from a love story that has no beginning and no end?

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Beyond Belief – Wasn’t Christianity Made Up by Weak People to Deal with Life?

Continuing in this series on apologetics (being able to explain our faith and help it make sense to non-believers), today we come to this common theme in modern and post-modern thinking: Christianity (or religion in general) is a made-up idea created by primitive and/or weak people who would otherwise be unable to cope with the harshness of reality. Psychologist Sigmund Freud, for example, said, “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.” Science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote that “religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help.” Just for fun, I’ll add that self-proclaimed theologian and former pro wrestler turned governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, said, “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.”

Even the Apostle Paul seems to be supporting the case of Christianity being specifically for weak people when he says:

Borrowed from YouVersion: https://my.bible.com/verse-of-the-day/2CO.12.10/15576?version=111

So what’s going on here? I mean, with all these smart and/or famous people saying these things, it must be true, right? Isn’t that the way it works these days?

Well, maybe, if all we ever do is remain in the shallow waters of social media and other breeding grounds where theories become accepted as fact with little (if any) examination. But instead of doing that, let’s dive a little deeper.

“All Religions” or “Organized Religion”

To begin with, let me address the tendency that secular people have to group together all religions (a.k.a. “organized religion”)–note that none of the above quotes mentioned any religion specifically, but rather grouped them all together. Perhaps to someone who hasn’t tried to understand any of the world religions, they may all look the same. But sweeping generalizations like these are ignorant at best or, at their worst, very dangerous. For example, if I were to make a general statement about “all red states” or “all blue states”, people would throw rotten tomatoes at me and retort with all sorts of counter-examples. Or worse, if anyone makes a general accusation about all people from a particular racial or other protected group, they would rightly be called out as a racist or bigot. So I can’t help but wonder: Why is the same logic not applied to general statements about all religions? Each religion is unique in the same way each member of an ethnic group is unique.

Anyway, let me say now that I will pick Christianity out of this pile of “all religions” and focus on it for the remainder of this post as it pertains to this notion that it was invented and perpetuated by weak people in order to deal with the harshness of reality.

Who Is God?

When a secular person disputes the validity of Christianity, they are fundamentally questioning the validity of God. While I addressed the validity of God a few posts ago (Beyond Belief – How Do We Know God Is Real?), let me add to that by wondering aloud why secular people place the burden of proof on Believers to provide evidence of God’s existence. I mean, maybe they believe we cannot empirically prove God’s existence, but neither can they empirically prove that he doesn’t exist. Science can’t prove this one way or the other. Nor can psychology or philosophy, or any other discipline.

Other than that, let’s set aside the question of whether God exists, moving instead to the question of God’s character. The assertion that God is something made up by weak people is based on an incorrect understanding of who God is. The implication is that God is a sort of good-luck charm or genie in a bottle–something we can turn to when we’re afraid or anxious or otherwise having a bad day. By doing so, we get to feel better because somehow things will turn out alright.

This fundamental attribution error comes from a lack of understanding of the God of the Bible (in last week’s post, we established the veracity of the Bible). Let’s look at some of God’s characteristics as described in the Bible:

  • God created the world and everything in it
  • God loves us so much that he sent his Son to earth to rescue us from our sin
  • God is all powerful
  • God knows everything
  • God is perfectly just
  • God is the same yesterday, today, and forever–so all of these characteristics have been and will always be true

Does this sound like a good-luck charm to you?

Said another way, if we were going to invent a good-luck charm God, do you really think we’d dream up that he is powerful enough to squash us like a bug? How is that supposed to be comforting?

If you are a secular person and you’ve made it this far, I invite you to dig a little deeper to really understand this God we follow. The Bible can be overwhelming for someone new to it (and even to those who have been Followers of Christ for years!), so I’d suggest the Gospel of John as a good read to explore the depths of God’s character.

Who Is Mankind?

Another problem with the assertion that God was made up by weak people is with the understanding of the human nature we all share. More specifically, it is in the definition of who are the weak people.

Maybe a good place to start this section is with a story about this little dog we have called Piglet. She is a Chihuahua/wiener dog mix who weighs 10 pounds on her best days. When we walk her around our neighborhood, though, and we see a proper-sized dog (say around 50 pounds), she’ll lunge at it and bark her high-pitched bark. It’s really rather embarrassing; the other dog walker usually smiles and the other dog usually laughs.

What’s the point of this Piglet story, you may ask. It is this: mankind–that is, you and I and everyone in the world–has a tendency to think more of ourselves than we should. We think we’re a 75-pound dog, when in reality we only crack 10 pounds when we need to go on a diet.

Here’s how it applies: We tend to think we don’t need help, when in reality, we all do. In one way or another, we are all weak, regardless of whether you recognize or admit it. The amount of weakness varies for each of us, sometimes day-by-day, or even moment-by-moment. But we all carry around baggage of various flavors of weakness. Fear of the dark or spiders or open space. The inability to say no to cake or alcohol or drugs or your neighbor’s spouse. Delight in gossip. Lying. Darker rivers of the heart that I don’t even want to mention. We all are weak–who among us has the strength to admit it?

This is a good time to look back at Paul’s statement about strength and weakness from 2 Corinthians 12:10, which I quoted above. What he’s getting at here is that the only way to be strong is to recognize your weakness, for in doing so is the only way to move from strength to weakness.

There are some people I care deeply about who have a tendency to deflect their weakness with a “Nope, I’m good” mindset. For example, when it comes time for prayer requests in our small Bible study group, even though I know they have things that would benefit from being lifted up in prayer by their fellow prayer warriors, they will often say, “Nope, I’m good.” This show of “strength” actually causes them to remain in their weakness, carrying their burdens alone.

There’s another analogy I want to use here, but to do so, I have to admit that I’m a little bit of a chess nerd. When I was younger, I played in several tournaments. One thing I learned at some point in my development was that it’s considered bad form to lose a game by being check-mated. The easiest way to briefly explain why is to say that it means you weren’t clever enough to see that you were beaten before the final blow came. Thus, it is considered better to resign the game the moment you realize there is no hope of winning or even achieving a draw. And so it is that your final show of strength is to recognize and admit your weakness in the form of a lost game.

The Harshness of Reality: A Fallen, Broken World

There’s one last aspect of this that’s also worth addressing here. That is the term I’ve mentioned a couple times: “the harshness of reality.” What is it that causes the harshness of our reality?

The reason this is important is because your answer will inform how you deal with this harshness.

If you’re a Follower of Christ, your answer to the question of cause would boil down to something like this: sin. We are called to deal with this in a couple different ways. First, we take the long view that eventually, Christ will come again and defeat sin forever. We can ride that hope through our darkest days. Secondly, in the short term, we can turn to God in prayer, not only to deal with the situation at hand, but also to guide and comfort us as we move through it.

Aha!, you might say. See, there it is. Something you made up to help you escape reality!

To this I would reply that there is no escaping going on here. We are walking through it. How does this compare to worldly coping mechanisms, like alcohol, drugs, work, extra-marital affairs, and so many other addictions? This is not to say that Christians are immune from falling into these same traps, but the point is that everyone has various ways of dealing with the harshness of reality–we have to. There would just be no way to deal with all the badness in the world without some way of processing it. Why should one way be considered to be contrived by man yet the others considered as perfectly natural?

Only the Sick Need a Doctor

To close, I’ll mention this quote from Jesus:

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Mark 2:17 (NIV)

One atheist pointed to this verse and said, “I’m one of those who doesn’t need a doctor.”

But here’s the thing. Jesus is saying this ironically. As I alluded to earlier, we are all weak, we are all sick. We are all sinners. We all need a doctor. Paul says as much in his letter to the Romans:

Borrowed from YouVersion: https://my.bible.com/verse-of-the-day/ROM.3.23/62585?version=111

And so we come back to the idea that the only way to be strong is to admit this weakness. Paul describes this transformation in the next verse:

Borrowed from YouVersion: https://my.bible.com/verse-of-the-day/ROM.3.24/593?version=111

Those who refuse to admit their weakness, or who refuse the grace God so freely offers, are destined to remain in their weakness.

Which would you rather be–the weak who admit their weakness, thereby transforming to strength, or the weak who remain weak by refusing to admit their weakness? There is no other choice.

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Beyond Belief – How Can You Possibly Believe the Bible Is True?

OK, so here it is. Throughout this little series on apologetics (the ability to explain your faith, and also hopefully to make it more clear to those who are skeptical of Christianity), I have been referring to the Bible as my main proof text. And now it’s time to turn the magnifying glass toward this book that is foundational to our faith.

It’s a fair question, after all: How can we trust the veracity of a book written by 40 different authors over the course of 1600 years? A book seemingly overflowing with myths and impossible events. I mean, yeah, maybe it’s useful as a historical reference or slightly interesting in the way other mythologies get your attention.

The world is too smart, too scientific for this now, aren’t we?

Well, not so fast. In this post, I’m going to cover four key characteristics of the Bible that help explain why we can trust that the Bible is true and not a bunch of made-up nonsense.

Characteristic #1: The Bible’s Reliability

How Do We Know the Old Testament is Real?

The biggest jackpot discovery regarding ancient manuscripts of the Bible came in 1947 when a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammad (Ahmed el-Dhib) stumbled across a small opening of a cave while looking for his lost goat. In the cave, he discovered what has come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here are a few facts about the Scrolls relative to the Bible, thanks to Bible.org:

  • 11 caves were discovered, containing 1100 ancient documents, including many scrolls and more than 100,000 fragments
  • Fragments from every Old Testament book except the book of Esther were discovered
  • Using 3 different methods for determining the dates of the manuscripts, scholars determined that the scrolls dated from as early as the third century BC to the first century AD
  • Prior to this discovery, the oldest known version of the Old Testament was known as the Masoretic Text, which is where the Old Testament we use today was translated from. The Masoretes were Jewish scholars between AD 500 and 950. Scholars compared the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which had been created 1000 years earlier, to that of the Masoretic Text. They found no substantial difference.

OK, maybe that’s interesting, you may say, but who cares? What does that prove?

Well, one of the strongest arguments for the case of Christianity and the deity of Jesus is based on Old Testament prophecy, which only he can fulfill. I will talk more about the divinity of Christ in an upcoming post, but for this discussion, I’ll point out that there are over 100 prophecies regarding Christ in the Old Testament. These prophecies were made and written down centuries before Jesus was born. They are very specific in their details. Skeptics question the date of the prophecies, sometimes even claiming that they were written during or after Jesus’ earthly life. Among other proofs, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which includes all the Old Testament books that prophesy Christ’s arrival, life, and death, prove that these manuscripts were written centuries before Jesus’ birth.

But what about the New Testament?

There are several tests scholars use to determine the validity of ancient documents. One is known as the bibliographic test. This looks at a combination of the number of manuscripts that exist (higher is better) as well as the gap of time between when the document was written and the date of the earliest manuscript still in existence (lower is better). Thanks to the Evidence Unseen website, I have this chart, which compares several famous ancient documents to the New Testament:

Borrowed from Evidence Unseen: https://www.evidenceunseen.com/theology/scripture/historicity-of-the-nt/1-bibliographical-test/bibliographical-test-chart-2/

To help interpret the “so what?” for this, here’s a quote that summarizes this well from the website of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College:

Noted British manuscript scholar Sir Frederick Kenyon wrote, “The interval then – between the dates or original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed.” Thus both “the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the [NT] <New Testament> may be regarded as firmly established.” No other ancient book has as small a time gap between composition and earliest manuscript copies as the NT.

From the Article “Has the Bible Been Accurately Copied Down Through the Centuries?” by Dr. Norman Geisler (clarification of acronym added)

Are There Other Tests for the Validity of Ancient Documents?

Yes, there are at least two others. One is called the internal test, and the other is known as the external test.

For the internal test, you study the text searching for clues to determine whether the author is attempting to be fraudulent–to make up myths–or if she/he is attempting to provide a factual account of the events they are recording.

A great example of this is with Luke, who wrote (of course) the Gospel of Luke as well as the Acts of the Apostles (a.k.a. the book of Acts), and Sir William Ramsay (1851-1939), a Scottish archeologist. Skeptical of the Bible, Ramsay set out to disprove it by attacking Luke’s ability as a historian, claiming he had made a lot of mistakes in his references to place names and historical figures throughout his gospel and the book of Acts. Ramsay went to Asia minor to do archeological research to prove his point. However, what he found was that in dig after dig, all the evidence he found supported Luke’s references.

The website Evidences of the Bible put it this way:

Governors mentioned by Luke that many historians never believe existed were confirmed by the evidence excavated by Ramsay’s archaeological team. Without a single error, Luke was accurate in naming 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands. Ramsay became so overwhelmed with the evidence he eventually converted to Christianity.

Borrowed from Evidences of the Bible: https://bibleevidences.com/archaeological-evidence/

It goes on to add:

Ramsay finally had this to say:

I began with a mind unfavorable to it…but more recently I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth3.

Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians

Borrowed from Evidences of the Bible: https://bibleevidences.com/archaeological-evidence/, referring to William M. Ramsay’s book, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, 1892, pg 8

There are several other aspects of internal tests for the validity of ancient documents (enough to make another whole post), but in the interest of time/space, let’s move on to external tests. An external test, of course, uses sources outside the document to confirm its validity. When it comes to the Bible, one great source of validation is archeology (as noted with the story about William Ramsay above). There is also this quote from Dr. Nelson Glueck, one of the most outstanding Jewish archeologists of the 20th century:

“It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible.”

Dr. Nelson Glueck

In spite of being Jewish, it’s interesting that he doesn’t limit his observation to the Old Testament, but concedes this truth about the entire Bible. As an example of this, here’s a passage from the website of Dr. Brad Alles, Assistant Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin:

Another familiar event is Joshua and the battle of Jericho. The destruction of the city and its walls is listed in Joshua 6:20. “When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city.” As archaeologist John Garstang dug at Jericho during excavations between 1930-1936, he found to his amazement that the walls had fallen outward so attackers could climb over them and enter the city. Normally, attackers batter walls inward after laying siege to a city.

Dr. Brad Alles, from a post on his website entitled Does archaeology confirm the Bible?

Similar to the internal test, I could spend an entire post covering different external tests that substantiate claims in the Bible, but again in the interest of time, let’s move on. I promise the other characteristics are shorter!

Characteristic #2: The Bible’s Authority

I know this is somewhat of a circular reference, but here is how the Apostle Paul summarized the authority of Scriptures to Timothy, his son in the faith:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God, may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Paul, in 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV)

Here are some points that substantiate the claim that the Bible was written under God’s authority:

  1. As I alluded to earlier, the Bible was written by 40 authors from different regions and countries speaking different languages over the course of 1600 years, yet there is a unity to it. Imagine 66 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle all fitting together perfectly even though the 40 people creating the pieces lived across 16 centuries and most of whom never spoke with one another. The only way this could happen is if God inspired each of the authors to write their stories.
  2. There are many very specific prophecies in the Bible quite a few of which have already been fulfilled. Only God is able to know the future. Here are some statistics regarding the number of prophesies:
    1. Various books cite different figures, depending upon the manner in which one counts the prophecies. For example, one writer may count a single verse as a prophecy, while another may see three or four prophetic elements within the same passage.
    2. J. Barton Payne’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy lists 1,239 prophecies in the Old Testament and 578 prophecies in the New Testament, for a total of 1,817. These encompass 8,352 verses.
    3. The above information is from the Christian Courier website, in a post by Wayne Jackson entitled “How Many Prophecies Are in the Bible?”
  3. Jesus’ own endorsement of the Holy Scriptures–he quoted the Old Testament 78 times. He treated the Old Testament as inspired and authoritative. I guess we need to listen to him, since he said he was going to rise from the dead and then he did it. More on this in an upcoming post.

Characteristic #3: The Bible’s Popularity

The Bible is by far the most widely published book in the history of the world–more than 6 billion copies have been printed, according to Informory.com. The Bible is the most widely quoted, the most widely discussed, the most widely debated, and the most widely attacked book in all of human history.

Not that this makes the Bible true or trustworthy, but on the other hand, there must be something important and essentially different about it for it to have attracted this much attention throughout history.

Characteristic #4: The Bible’s Unique Applicability

This one is most striking to me. This book speaks into my heart, into my journey. It provides comfort when comfort is needed, strength when that’s what I require. How can this book be so alive when it was written thousands of years ago? Because God breathed his life into it, so his life could pass to us through these words.

I like to play games with words, and this one is striking to me: when you combine the words “God’s Word” together and break them apart again, you can get “God Sword.” Maybe I’m just stranger than I thought, but I’ve always seen power in this.

This is not a rule book, a book of historical facts, or even a religious handbook. This is a love letter from the One Who Made Us to us, his beloved. He knows us better than we know ourselves, so it’s no wonder it speaks to our hearts so effectively.

Is there any other book that can speak to so many different people in ways that are unique and meaningful to them?

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Beyond Belief – Do You Believe in Truth and Morality? Absolutely!

Author’s Note

As I sit down to write this, I began with a prayer that my words will not get in the way of the message God wants to convey. This post, like all others from this “Beyond Belief” series, is intended to focus on a particular topic that I have seen be sticking points in Christianity for people who are not yet followers of Christ. Today’s blog is intended to focus on the faith twin-topics of absolute truth and morality. But since the “freedom of religion” guaranteed in the U.S. Bill of Rights has devolved into something more like “freedom from religion”, these topics have unfortunately taken a decidedly political turn. It is not my intent for this to become a political rant, so that is part of my prayer–that I stay true to God’s admonishment not to let my political opinions rudely disrupt the words of grace and peace and encouragement that I am supposed to put forth. If you feel I have failed in this regard, please leave a comment to that effect and I will make whatever revisions are necessary to get myself out of the way.

The Big Question

To begin with, let me start with the big question that I’ll spend the rest of the time addressing: Is truth something that exists externally from each of us (“absolute truth”), or is it something we each create and define for ourselves (“relative truth”)?

Why Is This Important?

You might be wondering why I thought it was worth including this in a series intended to help Believers explain their faith and to help those seeking to learn more about Christianity gain a better understanding. The answer is straightforward. Jesus described himself in this way:

Borrowed from YouVersion: https://my.bible.com/verse-of-the-day/JHN.14.6/32933?version=111

I might be tempted to say to you something like “I am telling the truth,” but I would never tell you “I am the truth.” So Jesus must have meant something very specific when he said this to his disciples. More on this later. For now, it’s enough to say that since Jesus equated himself to the truth, we should spend some time understanding what he meant by that and unpacking why it’s important to our relationship with him.

The Twins: Truth and Morality

Why did I refer to these as twin topics of the faith? Simply because truth provides the measuring stick by which you determine the morality of something. The terms “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” have no meaning unless there is some set of laws that define them. If I’m driving 50 miles per hour in my car, is that the right speed or the wrong speed? Well, if the posted speed limit is 25 MPH, then it’s definitely the wrong speed!

When it comes to humanity, then, truth can be viewed as a set of guidelines or laws (in the more generic sense of the term, not the legal definition) that determine the morality of our behavior. This is, in its most basic sense, how truth and morality are linked. And the way we view truth guides and determines how we act.

Aha! So Christianity Is About the Rules After All!

I wanted to address this since you might be tempted to think you caught me in a contradiction regarding my previous assertions that being a follower of Christ is about being in relationship with him and not about following a bunch of rules. But this is not really a contradiction at all.

I’ve been blessed to have 3 kids, all of whom are grown now. But when they were little, we had rules for them that were intended to keep them safe. For example, “Look both ways before you cross the street.” In spite of these rules, I would hope that my children would describe me as a loving dad who wanted to teach them what’s best for them, not an overbearing tyrant who created rules just for the sake of having rules. The rules provided a healthy framework for their relationship with me, but it did not replace the relationship. I also hope that if you asked them to describe my characteristics in our relationship, they wouldn’t just list all the rules I had for them.

In the same way, God is a loving Father, more perfectly loving than I could ever be. So he provided rules for us to keep us safe and free from bondage, to provide a framework for our relationship with him, but that were not intended to replace our relationship with him. In fact, Jesus put it this way:

Borrowed from YouVersion: https://my.bible.com/verse-of-the-day/JHN.8.32/67128?version=111

Wait, So You Think Rules Set You Free?

I know it seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. We like to think that freedom means we can do whatever we like, but it really means we can do whatever we like within certain boundaries. Here’s a quote from Lord Acton that summarizes this well:

Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought. - Lord Acton
Borrowed from AZ Quotes: https://www.azquotes.com/quote/546447

To go back to the example of my kids, we had a rule forbidding them from hitting one another. Whenever one of them broke that rule, they faced punishment, not only to teach them that this behavior was unacceptable, but also because it infringed on the rights of their siblings not to get hit. Similarly, if I walked up to you on the street and punched you in the face, I could go to jail for aggravated assault, not only because this behavior is unacceptable, but also because it infringes on your right not to get punched in the face. And ironically, if I felt that I was free to punch you in the face, it would ultimately result in my losing my freedom altogether. So the law against aggravated assault (hopefully) sets you free from getting punched in the face.

Back to the Big Question

So which is it–absolute truth or relative truth? Is there a truth that exists outside of you and me, or are we free to define truth for ourselves? Is there a standard of morality–right and wrong–that exists outside of you and me, or are we free to define morality for ourselves? These are really all the same question.

Our culture today is heavily weighted toward relative truths. What’s true for me is true for me, and what’s true for you is true for you. As long as we don’t try to enforce our truths on each other, we should be fine, right?

Wrong.

One problem with this approach can be summarized with this question: what about when my truths are in direct opposition to your truths? For example, what if you and I sign a contract together, but one of my truths is that it’s OK to break that contract and cheat you if it benefits me to do so? That may run afoul of your truths if one them is to be treated fairly.

Herein lies the broader problem with relativism: if we have no common definition of truth, how do we determine what’s right and wrong?

We can’t.

Of course, we have laws that help with this to some extent, but even with many volumes of national, state, and local laws, the government can’t possibly regulate all nuances of human behavior. At some point, our sense of morality kicks in to guide us toward fair and ethical behavior. But that breaks down, and takes the foundation of our society with it, if we each have our own definition of truth.

Trying to avoid getting political but recognizing that this comes right up to that line, let me say that this is one of the areas in which we are destroying this great country from within–the notion that we each can define our own set of truths and our own sense of morality, our own definitions of right and wrong.

To emphasize this point, here are a few excerpts from an essay based on a speech given by Michael Novak when he was given the Templeton Prize in 1994:

This most perilous threat to the free society is neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism. Vulgar relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving.

During the next 100 years, the question for those who love liberty will be whether we can survive the most insidious and duplicitous attacks from within, from those who undermine the virtues of our people, doing in advance the work of the Father of Lies. “There is no such thing as truth,” they teach even the little ones. “Truth is bondage. Believe what seems right to you. There are as many truths as there are individuals. Get in touch with yourself. Do what feels comfortable.”

Those who undermine the idea of truth do the work of tyrants.

Michael Novak, “Awakening from Nihilism”, an essay is adapted from a speech he gave at Westminster Abbey upon receiving the Templeton Prize in 1994

There’s Got to Be a Better Way

On the other hand, our loving Father has provided a definition of truth that can and should be common to all of us. This common ground gives us a fair and consistent measuring stick by which we can all discern right from wrong.

To be fair, I should say that for the last 2000 years, people have perverted the Bible, twisting its words to justify their atrocious behavior. I am most certainly not condoning that. We must all take care to view the words in the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ behavior. One implication of this is that we can use God’s truths as a yardstick for our own behavior, but it’s not an open invitation to judge the behavior of others. That’s still only God’s job, not ours. The abuse of this is what has caused so many secular people to view the Bible as a weapon we will use to beat others over the head.

The Apostle Paul provides helpful guidance about this in his letter to the Galatians:

Borrowed from YouVersion: https://my.bible.com/verse-of-the-day/GAL.5.22/2618?version=111

On the other side of that same mirror, he lists some behaviors we can fall into if we are not living by the guidance of the Holy Spirit:

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God since this offers our world and our country the last best chance to get us off the slippery slope of moral relativism and back onto firm foundations.

Paul in Galatians 5:19-21 (NIV)

Coming in for the Landing

I’m running long, so let me try to wrap this up. One reason its important for us to understand absolute truth is because Jesus, in a discussion where he was emphasizing his equality with God, stated that he is the truth. We have to grapple with that, come to terms with what it means–that there is a single source of truth, which is external to all of us. God is this universal, external source of all truth.

Another reason this is important is because this is part of the culture war raging all around us–absolute truth is seen as bad and narrow-minded and judgmental, but the “enlightened” alternative of relativism is believed to be more friendly and inclusive and intellectual.

None of these beliefs could be further from, well, the truth (if you’ll pardon the pun).

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Beyond Belief – Do You Believe in Miracles? Yes!

On February 22, 1980, sportscaster Al Michaels uttered the greatest phrase in the history of sportscasting: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The occasion, of course, was at the end of one of the biggest upsets (if not the biggest) in all of sports–the US men’s hockey team defeated the heavily favored Soviet team 4-3. This was a group of amateur American hockey players–mostly teenagers–competing against probably the best professional team in the world at the time. You may have at least seen or heard of the movie they made about it.

I am a big hockey fan, and this was undoubtedly one of the brightest moments in USA Hockey history. It was certainly a significant and unexpected upset.

But it was not a miracle. Sorry.

To say something like that, though, I suppose I’d better make it clear what constitutes an actual miracle.

In my research for this “episode”, I hadn’t been able to find a satisfying definition of what a miracle really is. The closest definition I had found in a secular source was this:

An extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

That comes pretty close, but in timing that only God can orchestrate, the pastor at my church (Brady Boyd at New Life Church) spoke briefly while introducing a guest preacher on Sunday. In his comments, he gave this outstanding definition:

“A miracle is when the divine God comes into our natural world and changes something that only he can.”

Brady Boyd, October 3, 2021

Based on both of these definitions, then, it would seem that the “Miracle on Ice” was really just a remarkable, unexpected, and unusual occurrence, but not a miracle.

Miracles as Signposts

The Bible, of course, is full of descriptions of actual miracles. Here I will reiterate an acknowledgement that I am using the Bible as a source text to demonstrate that the claims of Christianity are true, which may seem to be circular logic. I will address the truth and veracity of the Bible in an upcoming post.

So what is the point of recording miracles in the Bible? In John 14, Jesus explains why it was important for the miracles he performed to be remembered:

“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.”

Jesus, as recorded in John 14:11 (NIV)

In other words, even if you don’t believe what I say, you should believe in the miracles I have performed, which you have seen with your own eyes (i.e., “evidence“).

Earlier in my faith journey, I asked an associate pastor friend of mine why Jesus didn’t do more miracles to remove all doubt from everyone alive in his time in his little corner of the world. Wouldn’t that have made Christianity spread faster, and make it easier for people to believe in him today? I don’t remember what his answer was, but I do remember that it was unsatisfying.

Here’s how I would answer my own question, many years further along in studying the Bible and growing deeper in relationship with its Author: For one thing, John said at the end of his Gospel that Jesus did quite a number of other things as well, but there simply wasn’t enough room to record them all (John 20:30 and 21:25). For another thing, there were people who witnessed Jesus’ miracles first-hand, yet their hearts remained hardened–so seeing miracles would not guarantee belief. Incidentally, the group of people whom this happened to the most were the religious people, who thought they already had God figured out, and Jesus didn’t fit into their neat little box.

I also believe there’s an element of faith involved here as well. Whether you observe a miracle or read about it in the Bible, you have to be willing to accept that the divine God will come into our natural world to change something that only he can. If you refuse to believe that, you will try to devise and/or accept other (supposedly) “scientific” explanations, no matter how implausible or how impossible it is to achieve the same outcome if you repeat the steps leading up to the event, which is a requirement to prove something using the scientific method (i.e., repeatability).

To summarize this section, the purpose of miracles is to point to Jesus/God by substantiating the power and the work of Jesus/God.

Wait a Minute–There Were People Who Saw Miracles But Didn’t Believe Them??

It’s true. An even better example of this than the ones I alluded to above is documented in Matthew 28, after Jesus’ resurrection:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

Matthew 28:16-17 (NIV, emphasis added)

It doesn’t say who it was that doubted, but at least one of Jesus’ 11 remaining disciples doubted that he had really risen from the dead! Granted, this would be a difficult thing to accept when you have no lens through which to view it (What do you mean he rose from the dead? Dead is dead!), but on the other hand, these people had traveled with Jesus for 3 years and had seen him perform all kinds of miracles, including raising Lazarus from the dead.

So what does this mean?

For one thing, it’s OK to doubt miracles. God can take it. He will find other ways to reach you.

For another thing, since each of these disciples went on to do great things to further God’s kingdom on earth, presumably they came around and realized that Jesus really had risen from the dead. Meaning, be patient with God and he will be patient with you. Again, he will find other ways to reach you if miracles are unconvincing to you at first.

Also, in the end, it would seem that miracles cannot create faith; they can only support and nourish a faith that already exists.

If God Can Perform Miracles, Why Don’t We See More of Them?

Usually the context of a question like this is something along the lines of, Why didn’t God answer my prayer? or, perhaps even more specifically and poignantly, Why didn’t God heal my loved one? I’m afraid there aren’t satisfying answers to these questions. I have some theories that I’ll cover some other time, but ultimately we will need to add them to the list of questions we want to ask God when we meet him face-to-face.

In terms of the frequency of miracles, the question might go something like this: If God performed so many miracles during Biblical times, why doesn’t he perform any (or as many) nowadays? To that I would say, He is performing miracles all the time–we just may not have eyes to see them. For example, our culture has a tendency to explain away something as coincidence that could just as easily be God’s intervention–orchestrating events in unlikely ways to achieve an outcome. Or answer a prayer.

This is why I say I don’t believe in coincidences.

Also, if we go back to the earlier definitions of a miracle, I would contend that God frequently comes into our natural world and changes things that only he can. There are great examples of this all around us: every time God breaks into the hardened heart of someone and turns that person toward him, that’s a miracle. A selfish person is made to care about others; an impatient, ill-tempered person becomes loving, patient, and kind; an entitled person is awakened to the reality of the blessings that rain down on us from heaven and adopts a posture of gratitude.

These are changes that God is making in me and so many others.

These are miracles, and they are still happening, every day and all around the world.


As a post script, I wanted to include a great quote I found from Tim Keller while I was doing my research for this post. It’s an excellent perspective on miracles, but it’s also a bit long, which is why I wanted to include it here at the end.

We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order. The Bible tells us that God did not originally make the world to have disease, hunger, and death in it. Jesus has come to redeem where it is wrong and heal the world where it is broken. His miracles are not just proofs that he has power but also wonderful foretastes of what he is going to do with that power. Jesus’s miracles are not just a challenge to our minds, but a promise to our hearts, that the world we all want is coming.

Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God (pp. 95-96). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

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Beyond Belief – How Do We Know God Is Real?

Continuing our way through this series of posts in an area of the faith known as apologetics (i.e., explaining your faith), we come to a topic that’s paramount for anyone just beginning their exploration into the veracity of the claims of Christianity: Is God real? If you believe He is, how do you know?

To the extent that people in our culture even pay attention to the topic, it seems to have become increasingly fashionable to write off the notion of God and the stories in the Bible as mythology, along the lines of the stories of the gods and goddesses of Greek or Roman mythology. Science reigns supreme, or perhaps more commonly, a pseudo-science in which average people take other people’s word for it without validating the theories and assertions for themselves. Someone said so on social media, and they read a book or article about it, so it must be true.

Isn’t that what you’re doing here, smart guy? Declaring something as true?

Well, yes, except I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Everything I am saying in these posts is verifiable, and if you question anything I’m saying, I invite you to research it. If I say anything incorrect, I welcome feedback in the comments to set me straight.

What Is Reality?

To begin with, I want to address the question of what constitutes reality. A popular view in our culture today is that reality consists of observable, scientific phenomenon. There is only the natural world, things that can be measured.

This view obviously leaves no room for the supernatural–also known as the spiritual–world. Secularists contend that this is all a figment in the imagination of religious people. Myths dreamed up to attempt to explain the unexplainable.

To people who believe this, I would ask: Are you able to measure hope or love or joy? How would you explain creativity and imagination? Do any of these things impact the way you interact with others? In spite of your inability to measure it, can you tell when someone possess one or more of these things? If so, how?

And so on. Unless someone is able to explain these things away, I will hold on to my assertion that reality consists both of the natural world and the supernatural world.

Since God is not part of the observable, natural world, we have to assign him to the supernatural world. But based on the assertion that reality consists of the natural and supernatural world, no one can contend that God is not real based only on the fact that he is not part of the observable, natural world.

Science vs. Religion – Which is Correct?

Here is another assertion I will make: science and religion are not mutually exclusive. As we discussed in the previous section, science is able to measure and observe the natural world, but it is worthless when it comes to the supernatural world. This is where religion comes in. If I had only a hammer, that would be fine if everything I encountered was a nail. However, if I come across a screw, a screwdriver would clearly be the better tool for engaging with it than my hammer.

Having said this, though, I want to make an important distinction: just because religion deals with the supernatural, that does not mean that we should accept its assertions without applying logic and reason. But as I’ve said before, it’s also important to keep in mind that not everything in the supernatural world will be within our grasp to understand, even with the help of religion, just like not everything in the natural world is in our grasp to understand. This is why science continues to evolve and advance, in the same way that our understanding of God continues to evolve and advance.

But anyway, there is nevertheless an element of taking a step of faith when your investigation of Christianity leads you to a place, as it has many others before you, where your logic and reason-based approach leaves you no choice but to accept it as truth.

Back to the question of science vs. religion, the other thing I’ll say is that I am a computer scientist by training and trade, yet I have no trouble maintaining both a scientific and religious view of the world at the same time without losing my mind. And there have been plenty of people a lot smarter than I am who have also mastered the peaceful coexistence of science and religion in their great minds. For example, Francis Collins is the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He is a physician-geneticist who has both an MD and a PhD. Prior to being appointed to head the NIH, he led the Human Genome Project, which effectively mapped out human DNA for the first time. This is how he described enabling religion and science to coexist in his mind:

So where, then, is the discordancy that causes so many people to see these views of science and of spirit as being incompatible? In me, they both exist. They both exist at the same moment in the day. They’re not compartmentalized. They are entirely compatible. And they’re part of who I am.”

Francis Collins, from a 2004 PBS WGBH Educational Foundation Interview

He also had this to say about the interaction between science and faith:

Francis Collins Quote: "By investigating God's majestic and awesome creation, science can ...
https://quotefancy.com/media/wallpaper/1600×900/2795690-Francis-Collins-Quote-By-investigating-God-s-majestic-and-awesome.jpg

Bottom line: you can and should use reason and logic and science when examining the validity of the claims of Christianity, including the assertion that God exists.

Philosophical and Science-Based Arguments for God’s Existence

I’m running a little long here, so I’ll try to go through these explanations for God’s existence quickly and include links in case you’d like to investigate further.

Teleological

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “teleological” is defined as “exhibiting or relating to design or purpose especially in nature”. Most commonly referred to as “intelligent design,” this argument contends that:

Some phenomena within nature exhibit such exquisiteness of structure, function or interconnectedness that many people have found it natural to see a deliberative and directive mind behind those phenomena. The mind in question is typically taken to be supernatural.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral

According to Got Questions?, the moral argument for the existence of God goes like this:

The moral argument begins with the fact that all people recognize some moral code (that some things are right, and some things are wrong). Every time we argue over right and wrong, we appeal to a higher law that we assume everyone is aware of, holds to, and is not free to arbitrarily change. Right and wrong imply a higher standard or law, and law requires a lawgiver. Because the Moral Law transcends humanity, this universal law requires a universal lawgiver. This, it is argued, is God.

From Got Questions?

Cosmological

The cosmological argument for the existence of God is also known as the “First Cause Argument.” The idea here, according to All About Philosophy, is that everything has a cause, so there must have been a first cause. This first cause, it explains, was itself uncaused.

This idea was first put forth by Plato and Aristotle in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. Thomas Aquinas later adopted the idea for his Christian world view in the 13th century, saying the First Cause is God. More recently, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig summarized this argument as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist, has a cause of its existence.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

This argument is actually supported by modern science since “most scientific models for the origin of the universe, such as the Big Bang model, support the view that the universe had a beginning.”

Conclusion

So that’s it for now. There are others as well, but in an attempt to avoid boring you any further, I’ll leave it at this.

What about you–do you believe that God is real? Why or why not?

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