The Resurrection: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Idea

Originally published in Reasons to Believe’s ezine, New Reasons to Believe, vol. 2, no. 3 (2010)

“Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”1

175683200This line—from my favorite book in C. S. Lewis’s remarkable children’s series—makes it clear that Aslan, the Christ figure of Narnia, is no tame lion. But his being dangerous does not rule out his profound benevolence.

Like Lewis’ ferocious feline, ideas, including those of belief systems, can also be dangerous. And if Christianity encompasses ideas that are “not safe,” then is it not therefore a risky and hazardous religion?

One of my longtime friends, an atheist, agrees that historic Christianity includes dangerous ideas. However, from his point of view, the Christian faith affirms irrational and superstitious ideas that are not just unsafe, but harmful. He believes these ideas are injurious both for those who believe them as well as for those who are affected by them.

Alternatively, I believe Christianity’s distinctive and essential ideas (or doctrinal truths) are rational and in fact do correspond to reality. Though these Christian truth-claims are “dangerous” in the sense that they often challenge accepted consensus (especially in modern and postmodern eras), I would argue that they’re still good.

“Dangerous ideas” in such disciplines as philosophy, theology, and science often challenge the standard paradigm (accepted model) of the day. These so-called unsafe ideas have radical implications for how people view reality, truth, rationality, goodness, value, and beauty, and can sometimes contravene what many people believe. Not only do such revolutionary ideas threaten accepted beliefs, but they also contain explosive world-and-life view implications for all humanity.

Historic Christianity contains numerous beliefs that are theologically and philosophically volatile (in the best sense of the term). The Christian faith contains powerful truth-claims that have transformed the church and even turned the world upside down.

I’ve written a book titled 7 Truths That Changed the World that explores seven of historic Christianity’s dangerous ideas, and this article briefly examines what I consider to be the Christian faith’s most dangerous idea.

Not All Dead Men Stay Dead—the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Naturalists (nature is the exclusive reality) believe that death is the final end of one’s life and existence and there is no escape from this inevitable consequence. In other words, the Grim Reaper doesn’t play favorites. Not only does everyone die but everyone also stays dead forever. There are no exceptions to this certain naturalistic fate.

From this perspective, any belief system that affirms life after death is sheer wishful thinking. Death is the great equalizer—it comes for everyone. This life is all there is so make the most of it. There is, then, no meaning to life other than what people can hope to create for themselves. Yet this bleak predicament fills men’s hearts with legitimate angst and dread. Everything that a person builds in this life is broken down completely and permanently by death.

In stark contrast to the naturalistic worldview’s melancholy and hopeless dilemma, historic Christianity’s most dangerous idea is that one man—Jesus Christ—died but didn’t remain dead. Following his public crucifixion, he rose from the dead on the first Easter morning. Therefore at the center of Christianity’s earliest preaching and teaching (kerygma) is the solemn proclamation that Jesus Christ lived on Earth, conquered death, and thus remains the living Savior and Lord.

Several strands of formidable evidence back Jesus’ historic bodily resurrection from the grave. These interwoven elements include the empty tomb, Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances, the transformation of the apostles, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, the change in the day of worship from the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, and finally the emergence of the historic Christian church itself.

The implications of this perilous proposition are staggering and life-changing. Jesus Christ has accomplished what the collective testimony of humanity says is not possible—he rose bodily from the dead!

Here are two promising consequences of the resurrection for those who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

First, Christ’s resurrection is the answer to mankind’s greatest existential predicament—death. The resurrection provides hope, purpose, meaning, and confidence in the presence of death (John 11:25–26; Romans 14:7–8).

Second, Christ’s resurrection is the pledge and paradigm for the future bodily resurrection of all believers (1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:20, 2 Corinthians 9:14; Philippians 3:21; Colossians 1:18; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). Because he rose, believers will also rise.

Unfortunately, many Christians do not genuinely appreciate just how shocking and dangerous the idea of Jesus’ resurrection really is. Christian philosopher Stephen T. Davis explains: “Christians today do not seem to be astonished at the idea of resurrection (after nearly two thousand Easters, we seem to have gotten used to the idea), but we ought to be.”2

If, as a Christian, this most dangerous of all ideas doesn’t rock your world-and-life view, then maybe your faith has become too safe. And if you’re not a Christian, welcome to Christianity’s dangerous ideas. Prepare for a venture into a historic faith that reveals even more incredibly explosive truths.

Our Bodies Compared

Earthly Body Resurrection Body
Mortal Immortal
Dishonorable Glorious
Weak Powerful
Natural Spiritual

Endnotes

  1. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 80.
  2. Stephen T. Davis, Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 168.

More Deaths in the Name of God—or No Gods?

Originally published in Reasons to Believe’s ezine, New Reasons to Believe, vol. 2, no. 1 (2010)

528767569Great evil has been done in the name of Christ. This charge, a frequent objection to historic Christianity raised especially by the new atheist authors,1 typifies discussions of such historical events as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials. While characterizing historic Christianity as harsh and violent, the new atheists also insist that atheism, by contrast, is a rational and peaceful belief system.

For example, in his bestselling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts that “individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.” However, “religious wars really are fought in the name of religion, and they have been horribly frequent in history.”2

In briefly responding to this provocative topic, I offer four points for consideration.

1. Exaggeration of Christian Evil

The new atheists exaggerate the amount of evil done in the name of Christ. For example, the Crusades (1095–1291), military campaigns carried out by Western Christian forces against invading Islamic armies, were for the most part defensive engagements (implementation of Christian just war theory). And though the Inquisition and Salem witch trials were morally regrettable events that involved unfortunate violence, the number of people killed during these episodes is much lower than one might think. Consider the estimate of Christian author Dinesh D’Souza:

Taken together, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch burnings killed approximately 200,000 people. Adjusting for the increase in population, that’s the equivalent of one million deaths today. Even so, these deaths caused by Christian rulers over a five-hundred year period amount to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Stalin, Hitler and Mao in the space of a few decades.3

2. Minimization of Atheistic Evil

The new atheists often sidestep or minimize the incredible amount of evil perpetrated by atheistic totalitarian regimes in the last century. Contrary to what Dawkins asserts, the tens of millions (some estimates are as high as 100 million) of people systematically murdered by Soviet and Chinese Communist forces in the twentieth century were killed not merely by a few private leaders who happened to be atheists. No. These mass murders were carried out in the name of a Marxist ideology that held atheism as one of its central components.

Communism (or dialectical materialism) is a naturalistic and atheistic ideology by its very nature. Atheists might claim these dictators were not representing true atheism, but, without God in the picture, objective human dignity, value, and purpose are morally arbitrary and unjustified. So, couldn’t Stalin and Mao reasonably argue that their regime’s murderous acts were consistent with their materialistic, atheistic philosophy?

3. Consideration of Underlying Christian Teachings

Christians should candidly acknowledge that some real evil was done in the name of Christ when Christian leaders enjoyed political ascendancy. These acts were morally reprehensible and damaging to people’s confidence in the faith’s message of truth. Yet Christians can persuasively argue that these evils were objectively wrong according to the principles of the Christian worldview. Unlike the atheists who are unable to justify objective morality, believers can contend that these crimes demonstrated the antithesis of Jesus Christ’s historical teaching found in the Gospels.

Further, Christians can also point out that evil things done in the name of Christ by genuinely misguided followers don’t logically invalidate the objective truth-claims of Christianity.4 The gross hypocrisy of some who identify with the name of Christ does not overturn the truth of Jesus’ historical resurrection from the grave.

4. Acknowledgment of Christianity’s Positive Impact

Those who blame historic Christianity for its so-called dark side should also appreciate the faith for its amazingly positive contributions to the world. The Christian worldview5 has been the catalyst behind most of the great advancements of Western civilization. Christianity’s view of human beings made in the image of God led to the founding of Europe’s great university system and hospitals and also stimulated the growth of the arts. The historic Christian faith motivated advancements in political liberty, economics, the sanctity of human life, and social justice. And Christianity’s view of creation supported the launch of modern science. When authentically embraced and lived out, the Christian world-and-life view produces practical, beneficial results for both citizens and civilizations.

Careful examination of the best arguments for, and the richest contributions of, both Christian theism and naturalistic atheism allow a person to not only evaluate the deaths question. It also places people in a stronger position to test and see which belief system is the most reasonable, viable, workable, and livable.

Endnotes

  1. The so-called four horsemen of the new atheism include such secular authors as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.
  2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 278.
  3. Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2007), 215.
  4. See chapter 15 in Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 201–10.
  5. See Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).

 

God as the Source of Knowledge

Originally published in RTB’s ezine, New Reasons to Believe, vol. 1, no. 1 (2009)

Does the Bible indicate where knowledge comes from? Since evolutionary processes can’t guarantee true beliefs naturalism as a worldview faces insurmountable problems. For its part, the historic Judeo-Christian worldview asserts that God is the author of truth, logic, and the laws of nature. They are part of the “invisible furniture” of the universe, finding their source in the Creator’s very being. God’s existence is the precondition to knowledge itself.

Since humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:28–29), we are uniquely gifted to discover and utilize these universal ideas. The mind of God provides a framework for rational human thought (whether believer or nonbeliever). So when we use our minds, we are “thinking thy [God’s] thoughts after thee.”1

The apostle John describes Jesus as “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9). Therefore, historic Christianity grounds human knowledge in Jesus as the logos of God. Logos in New Testament Greek means “word, message, report…As the logos, God himself (John 1:1–2) in his divine glory assumes the flesh of humanity in historical time and space (1:14–15). Jesus, the logos, signifies the presence of God in the flesh.”2

Christian philosopher Ronald Nash adds, “The Logos doctrine occupied a prominent place in the thought of several early Fathers of the church. On the basis of John 1:9, Justin Martyr argued that every apprehension of truth (whether by believer or unbeliever) is made possible because men are related to the Logos, the ground of truth.”3

Ironically, when the naturalist attempts to use the laws of logic and science to disprove the existence of God, he must first borrow certain key components from the Christian worldview.4 The entire scientific method rests on the foundational belief that there is a certain orderliness that permeates the entire universe, “and that universality corresponds to what would be expected when looking through the lens of the Christian theistic worldview.”

Simply asserting the reality of the universality of natural laws doesn’t account for their existence. Neither does it explain why they are universally perceived if the human mind is simply the product of random chance evolving from an ape-like ancestor (Darwin’s concern). The biblically derived presuppositions of the Christian worldview, however, provide a solid and coherent framework for the regularity of nature, the rationality of the human mind, and the progress of scientific discovery.

Endnotes

  1. This quote is commonly attributed to Johannes Kepler, such as by Charles Hummel in The Galileo Connection (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1986), 97.
  2. William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 803.
  3. Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man: The Crisis of Revealed Truth in Contemporary Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P and R Publishing, 1982), 67.
  4. This idea is adapted from the transcendental argument for the existence of God, promoted by Christian philosopher Greg Bahnsen, as well as his mentor Cornelius Van Til.
  5. Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 192.

Resource

Explore the agreement between God’s Word and the natural realm through Reasons Institute, Reasons to Believe’s online learning program. Sign up for accredited courses, such as Creation and the Bible (starting March 23), or choose from a selection of on-demand lectures to take learning on the go.

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By Krista Bontrager

Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.

 

World Religions: The Sage and the Savior

Among the world’s great religious leaders, two became far-reaching moral instructors of humanity. Confucius (the sage) laid down the ethical foundation for much of Asian civilization. Jesus of Nazareth (the Savior) taught moral lessons that distinctly shaped the ethical nature of Western civilization. Yet while both became great moral teachers, the identity, mission, and message of these two influential men stand in powerful contrast.

The Chinese Sage

GettyImages_153829355Born in China as K’ung Fu-tzu (551–479 BC), this philosopher became known in the West by his Latinized name “Confucius.” While the lives of other famous Chinese teachers are mixed with legend (such as Taoism’s Lao-tzu), historians have reliably documented Confucius’ life. This historical imprint is due to his significant influence on Chinese history and culture.

Though disadvantaged, Confucius received a robust liberal education that prepared him well for the civil service he entered at an early age. He eventually rose to the powerful position of minister of justice in the Chinese government. Later in life he left government and became an itinerant teacher with a significant following. Described as a “one-man university,” Master K’ung (as he was called) is said to have provided instruction in such fields as history, poetry, government, propriety, music, philosophy, and divination. Confucius’ collection of influential teachings was later compiled into a book called the Analects.

Confucius’ central teaching focused upon developing a system of ethics that would produce a morally superior human being (the “magnanimous man”). In light of China’s troubling cycle of anarchy and warfare, he strove for an efficient and benevolent form of government that would lead to a morally ideal state. He attempted to define a system of conduct that could be applied to all aspects of society:

  • Jen: Human-heartedness, benevolence, concern for humanity
  • Chun Tzu: “Magnanimous man,” superior person, humanity-at-its-best
  • Li: Good form, propriety, ceremony, decorum, correct order
  • Te: Integrity, moral influence, power of the good example
  • Wen: “The art of peace,” aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual influences

While his efforts failed to create a Chinese utopia, Confucius’ ideas became so influential that a couple of centuries after his death Confucianism had become the official imperial philosophy of China.1 World religions scholar Huston Smith has called Confucius “the most important figure in China’s history.”2

Confucianism is often viewed as more of a moral philosophy of life than as a traditional religion. For example, Confucius didn’t explicitly advocate the worship of God or gods, nor did he speculate about death and the afterlife. Confucianism has no priesthood, no divine revelation, and does not advocate such common Eastern practices as asceticism and monasticism. While some have suggested that Confucius was an atheist or agnostic, it is more likely that he did believe in the supernatural but simply viewed religious beliefs and rituals as secondary in importance to the need for social reform and order.3

The Sage and the Savior

GettyImages_162245121The title “sage” is granted to those who are revered for their wisdom and good judgment. Confucius stands as China’s greatest philosopher and religious teacher. The title “Savior” is a New Testament designation given to Jesus Christ (Luke 2:11) because his atoning death on the cross saved sinners from God’s just wrath (1 John 4:10). The sage and the Savior differ in five ways:

  • Nature: Though the sage was a great teacher and master communicator, he was merely a human being who lived and died. The Savior, on the other hand, revealed himself to be God in human flesh and conquered death by his historical bodily resurrection.
  • Character: While the sage believed in the basic moral goodness of human beings and in the perfectibility of human nature, he failed to achieve those lofty goals in his own life as he wrestled with moral weaknesses and a failed marriage. Conversely, the Savior lived a sinless life and was thus qualified to offer his life as a perfect sacrifice for sin.
  • Mission: The sage’s mission was to forge a universal system of ethics and to help build an ideal Chinese state. The Savior’s mission was to rescue sinners by providing a substitutionary sacrifice for sin.
  • Role: The sage himself isn’t essential to the essence of Confucian philosophy or religion except for providing the original ethical instruction. On the other hand, historic Christianity is all about Jesus Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection.
  • Focus: The sage was reserved in introducing people to God and to a spiritual life. In stark contrast, the Savior revealed himself as Immanuel (“God with us”) whose self-sacrificing love initiated salvation.

Confucianism offers a noble ethical system that shares much in common with that of historic Christianity. However, this reputable Chinese moral philosophy offers no ultimate solution to humankind’s grave problem of moral depravity. That hope is uniquely found in Christianity, which offers its own Sage who is, more importantly, a divine-human Savior.

Comparison of Religions

Chinese Popular Religion Historic Christianity
Moral philosophies (Confucianism, Taoism): Ethical focus, way of life, atheological Theistic, redemptive: Focus on God as Creator and Savior
Non-revelatory: No supernatural unveiling Revelatory: Divine unveiling, propositional disclosure (Scripture)
Syncretistic: Sharing and assimilating different religious beliefs Traditional: Distinct truths
Tolerant: Allowance of different beliefs and practices Uncompromising: Truth is narrow, discriminating
Pluralistic: Acceptance of many religious perspectives Exclusivistic: One ultimate religious perspective

Endnotes

  1. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 292–93.
  2. Huston Smith, The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 119.
  3. Lewis M. Hopfe and Mark R. Woodward, Religions of the World, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: 1998), 198.

 

How We Got the Bible, Part 3

This week we’ll be finishing up a series on the biblical canon, a topic that has been a source of discussion, debate, and controversy since the beginning of Christianity. We’ve covered the doctrine of divine inspiration and standards for recognizing canon, as well as apocryphal literature. To conclude, RTB editor Maureen Moser and I will tackle some challenges skeptics pose to the canon and how the relationship between Scripture and church tradition can help defend Christianity from these challenges.

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133830103Some of the most sensational challenges to biblical canon have come from Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code books and movies. These stories posit that the church (specifically the Catholics) decided the canon Christians have today. How would you respond to that?

Of course, Christianity gets attacked from the outside. The DaVinci Code, with the controversy surrounding that book and movie and their sequels, contends that the Catholic Church operated in a bad way, manipulating the canon and holding back certain books. A lot of people see the history of Christianity as just a power struggle. It just happens that the Catholics won the political war and the Gnostics lost it. So we get “these books” because the Catholics won, instead of “those books” because the Gnostics lost. This is similar to the perspective Hermann Göring espoused at the Nuremburg Trials, saying that the Allies were judging the Nazis only because they’d won the war, not because they were right.

I think the reality is that the Scriptures do go back to the apostles and prophets. Historic Christianity is rooted deeply in the apostolic issue.

What other challenges does the biblical canon face from skeptics today?

When you decide to include certain books in the canon, you want to know who wrote them. But, while Paul had a habit of signing his letters, other New Testament authors did not. Originally, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were anonymous; there were no names attached to them. Some skeptics make a big deal out of this. They say, “You mean you are trusting this testimony and you don’t even know who wrote it?”

This is where church tradition becomes important. Many of the early church fathers, such as Papias and Irenaeus, confirmed the gospel authorship. The church was never in doubt.

It sounds like there was an oral history passed down along with the books.

Yes, exactly. Church tradition or history can help a great deal in defending the positions we take.

The three branches of Christendom each view the relationship between Scripture and tradition differently. The Catholic Church places tradition above Scripture because, ultimately, it is the pope and the magisterium that have to interpret the Bible. Protestants reverse it, while the Orthodox put them side by side.

I’m a Protestant, so I believe in sola Scriptura (Latin: “Scripture alone”). This means that Scripture is the supreme authority; it’s the final court of appeals, to put it in American terms. However, I would caution my fellow Protestants who say, “I just go by Scripture. I don’t need any church tradition. I don’t need any church fathers.”

You don’t want to dismiss church tradition when you do apologetics. When the skeptics come along and they want to challenge our interpretation of historic Christianity, including the biblical canon, church tradition and history are essential to defending our positions. For example, I would say that Augustine is as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics. He’s a central figure; he is the last of the fathers; he’s by far the most sophisticated; he’s the one who brings the strongest defense of Christianity. He’s the one who says that salvation is by grace, not by works.

It seems Christian apologetics would be even more robust if we include both Scripture and church history. After all, the church fathers lived much closer to the apostolic era than we do.

Yes, Polycarp knew John personally. There are connections from John to Polycarp to Irenaeus and so on down the line as important traditions (such as our understanding of gospel authorship) are passed along. When the Bart Erhmans come along and say the four gospels have no names attached to them, that’s only true if we don’t listen to Papias and Irenaeus. The church fathers were there to guard and guide the recognition of inspired Scripture.

So, even though Protestants say Scripture is the supreme authority, we’ll be in a bad position if we disrespect how church history has unfolded. Perhaps our Catholic and Orthodox friends give the church too much credit, but Protestants need to avoid giving too little credit.

Any concluding thoughts to wrap up our discussion of biblical canon?

I think many people have questions about the Bible. Where’d we get this book? Who says that the books in there are superior to those that were left out? On whose authority did this all come about? Where do we find the authority of the Holy Spirit?

The advantage of the Catholic position is in the assertion that we can’t interpret the Bible just any old way. They insist on the necessity of teaching authority and tradition. I think that’s a strength. Still, I think the strength of the Protestant position is Jesus. The best evidence that Scripture trumps all other authority is that when Jesus appealed to the final standard, He always quoted Scripture.

So, Protestants would say if you want to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, you go to Scripture. Catholics would absolutely agree that Scripture contains the voice of the Spirit, but to understand it you need the teaching authority of the church. In the end, however, no believer would say either Scripture or tradition is unimportant. All of it is important.

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Resource: For more on the history and importance of Scripture, see my book A World of Difference.

How We Got the Bible, Part 2

Last week RTB editor Maureen Moser and I began a discussion of the biblical canon, including the doctrine of inspiration and the criteria for recognizing canon, particularly for the New Testament. But as we noted, the branches of Christendom view aspects of Scripture in different ways. This week we’ll look at the Old Testament and apocryphal literature.

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So, while the New Testament received challenges from the Gnostics, it seems the Old Testament faces a lot of debate within the church. Why do Catholics and Eastern Orthodox accept the Apocrypha, but Protestants don’t?

32232Yes, the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have a handful of Old Testament books that are not in the Protestant Old Testament. These apocryphal works include books like 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Esdras, and some additions to other canonical books.

However, the Protestants reject the Apocrypha. They point out that Jesus doesn’t quote from them and some of them teach doctrine that seems inconsistent with the broad scope of biblical teaching. For example, 2 Maccabees says it’s a helpful and wholesome thing to pray for the dead. Teachings like that trouble Protestants. What’s interesting is that, to my knowledge, the Catholic Church itself has said that the Apocrypha constitute a secondary canon (deuterocanonical).

What criteria do Protestants use for determining the Old Testament canon?

It would be something similar to what we outlined for the New Testament last week. We want to connect these books to authentic biblical authors, which for the Old Testament would be the prophets. We want to know if these books support overall biblical teaching. And we want to know if these are books that the Jews recognized early on.

Obviously, Jewish people wrote the Old Testament. How did they shape the canon?

Orthodox Jews believe that God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. These books are inspired and they reflect a historical narrative. Orthodox Jews usually consider the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) the most important part of the Old Testament.

The Jews affirmed their present canon in the first century around AD 90 at the Council of Jamnia. They divide their canon (what we call the Old Testament) into three sections: the Torah (first five books), the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), and the wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.).

What category would history books, such as 1 and 2 Kings or 1 and 2 Chronicles, fall under?

I think those books would fall under the prophets. In Hebrew the Old Testament has 24 books; in the Protestant canon it has 39. It’s the same content divided out differently. For example, the Jews consider 1 and 2 Chronicles one book and they collect the minor prophets, which constitute 12 books for Protestants, into one book as well.

So, even if the history books aren’t “prophetic” a prophet likely authored them?

Exactly. It’s important to remember that while prophets can be people who make predictions, they can also be every bit as much, if not more so, people who make proclamations. I think it’s in that secondary sense that a lot of what Christians call history books would fall under the prophet category.

How do the Jews view the Apocrypha?

The Jews agree with the Protestants and say the apocryphal books are not a part of their canon. At times Jews will agree more with Protestants than they will with Catholics and vice versa.

What’s the difficulty with the apocryphal books associated with the New Testament?

Those books include the Gnostic gospels. They were written a few centuries after the apostolic era and teach that Jesus did not have a physical body. So, these books fail the criteria laid down for recognizing inspired scripture.

Again, it’s helpful to think of canonicity as an implication of the basic view of inspiration. Martin Luther liked to say that when you hear Scripture, you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is the Holy Spirit’s book even while it preserves the voices, vocabularies, and writing styles of its various authors.

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Next week we’ll conclude with a look at challenges to the canon from outside the church and ponder how the relationship between Scripture and church tradition impacts Christian apologetics.

How We Got the Bible, Part 1

Earlier this year, scholars announced the discovery of what might be the oldest known copy of the Gospel of Mark (see here and here). A fragment of Mark’s book was found on ancient papyrus used to create a mummy mask. While more research is needed to date the fragment conclusively, the find is an exciting one. It also provides a good opportunity to talk about the book we call the Holy Bible. RTB editor Maureen Moser sat down with me to talk about the canonicity of Scripture. In this series of interviews, we’ll talk about divine inspiration, how the major branches of Christendom view Scripture, and what challenges the Bible faces from skeptics.

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The discovery of the Gospel of Mark fragment is thrilling, but it got me wondering about the canonicity of Scripture. How did the biblical canon that we use today come about?

Older Man Holding BibleIt’s a great question and, of course, it’s also a controversial one. The branches of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Catholicism, and Protestantism) debate this topic. And there are also challenges from the outside. For example, the Gnostics wanted to include four alternative gospels—the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Peter—in the canon. So the question is what rule or mark of authenticity includes some books and excludes others?

I think at the heart of these questions about Scripture—whether about the canonicity or biblical inerrancy—is our view of biblical inspiration. Within Christianity the basic idea is that the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture. Now we have to present this idea in measured tones. We should not picture the apostles or the prophets (for the Old Testament) going into a trance and writing out things like zombies. The Scriptures still reflect the humanness of the authors, their education level, their vocabulary, their knowledge. Rather, the Holy Spirit superintended the writing. He inspired the authors, caused them to write, and kept them within measure.

This is not unlike how I might write a piece and you might edit it. You might say, “Ken, you have to cut this part out or how about if we include this here?” That’s a rough analogy.

So that’s something we editors have in common with the Holy Spirit?

I knew the RTB editorial team would like that one, but it’s not a bad analogy. Inspiration is not dictation; the Spirit supervises the individual, but it’s that person’s vocabulary and writing style. Obviously, Paul’s vocabulary is much more advanced than Peter’s. So out of this view of inspiration come implications for canonicity.

What are some of the differences amongst the branches of Christendom regarding canonicity?

In the classical Roman Catholic view the Bible is essentially the church’s book. The church (meaning the apostles) wrote it and canonized it. The church put a stamp of approval on some books, but rejected others. Then Protestants, in Catholic thinking, came along and rejected the Catholic Church but wanted the canon.

But in the classical Protestant view the apostles wrote the Bible under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The church didn’t canonize it as though the text were uninspired until the church put its thumbprint on it. Rather, the church played a much more modest role of recognizing the canon. Inspiration is inherent in the books themselves; it’s not something the church adds to the books.

How did the church fathers recognize the canon?

New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce identified four major criteria for determining canonicity. I refer to them in chapter 7 of A World of Difference. The first one is apostolic authority. Did an apostle, or a close associate of the apostles, write the book? Second is antiquity—does it emerge from the apostolic era? All of the Gnostic gospels came out of the third or fourth century, long after the apostolic era. Third is orthodoxy—does the book have fidelity to apostolic doctrine? Does it teach what the apostles taught?

And then, fourth, is catholicity—did the book enjoy a universal acceptance by the church or, in the case of the Old Testament, by the Jewish people? However, with regard to catholicity, Protestants would insist that the church isn’t giving the Bible anything that it doesn’t already have. Rather, the church simply applied these principles and recognized the inspiration. So, again, inspiration stands behind canonicity and canonicity is an implication of inspiration. The books written by the apostles were assumed to be inspired.

Sometimes Catholics will assert that the councils affirmed this assumption. And it is true that the councils, particularly the Council of Hippo and the Council of Carthage near the end of the fourth century, were helpful in settling questions about certain New Testament books. For example, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation were all initially questioned (Greek: antilegomena, meaning “spoken against”) and had to undergo investigation before being recognized at these councils as canon.

I recently re-read 2 and 3 John and I did wonder at them being included. They’re just these short personal letters. What made the church decide to accept things like that?

Part of it, particularly at Carthage (AD 397), was that the church was still trying to make sure they could tie 2 and 3 John to the apostle John, same thing with 2 Peter and even James and Hebrews at one point. I think it’s pretty easy to see why Hebrews came under scrutiny. It certainly seems to bear all of the marks of an inspired work yet we don’t know who wrote it. Was it Barnabas or Apollos? Was it somebody else?

Again, the church didn’t grant inspiration to these books, rather it did investigative work and finally recognized that they were indeed inspired and, therefore, meant to be in the canon. I think in one sense we can say that the church played a role not in granting inspiration but in negating. It was really more of a negative role.

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Next week we’ll continue this series with a look at the Old Testament apocryphal literature (also called deuterocanonical books). The Catholics accept them as canon and the Orthodox expand on the Catholic canon, but Protestants reject additional books—how does that all play out?

World Religions: The Prince and the Lord

480506365Among the world’s great religious leaders, two came to be viewed as representing almighty God in human form. In traditional Hinduism, the god Vishnu appeared or descended into human form as Krishna. In historic Christianity, Jesus Christ entered human history as God Incarnate (the God-man: a single person with both a divine and human nature). Yet while both are recognized (in some sense) as the divine in human form, the identity, mission, and message––ultimately, the hope––of these two figures is quite dissimilar.

The Hindu Prince

Scholars debate whether Prince Krishna was an actual historical figure whose life is covered in deep Hindu mythology or whether his existence was totally mythological. Those Hindu scholars who argue for a historical Krishna say that he lived about 5,000 years ago.1 Yet modern-day Hindus show little interest in the “historical” Krishna, the way contemporary Christians inquire about the historicity of Jesus.2

Krishna’s life and identity in sacred Hindu literature passes through three basic stages. First, the writings of the Bhagavata Purana describe Krishna as a dancing infant and as a young boy who plays a flute. Thus, images of Krishna portray him in his youth with black or dark blue skin and holding or playing a flute. In the second stage, this same text presents him as an adolescent playboy associated with the cow maidens, where Krishna is seen as a divine herdsman (images often depict Krishna with cows, which are considered sacred in India). Third, in the Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of God”), Krishna appears as a prince who offers moral and spiritual guidance and reveals himself as the ultimate King Krishna. In summary, the Hindu sacred writings thus “portray him in various perspectives: a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero, and the Supreme Being.”3

Bhakti Hinduism

The religion of Hinduism is tolerant, inclusivistic, and eclectic. Hinduism offers a philosophical pantheism (all is god and god is all) along with an almost limitless (330 million) pantheon of popular gods (polytheism). But Hinduism also proposes the “path of devotion” or attachment to a single deity. Christian scholar of world religions Winfried Corduan explains,

This school of thought became known as Bhakti, which means “loving attachment.” The essence of its teaching is that the love of a god or goddess provides salvation to these who love him or her alone. The roots of Bhakti Hinduism go back at least as far as the Bhagavad-Gita, a poem that forms a part of the Mahabharata, a lengthy epic composed around 200 B.C.4

Krishna is arguably the most popular of the Bhakti gods. And in this form of Hinduism adherents believe that a person can have a relationship with Krishna that is characteristically similar to theism (an eternal relationship with a personal deity). The Hare Krishna movement (ISKCON: International Society for Krishna Consciousness), which became popular in America in the 1960s, is an expression of Bhakti Hinduism.5 Thus in ISKCON devotion to Krishna alone is necessary for Moksha (salvation, which entails breaking the cycle of rebirths or reincarnation).

Hinduism’s Three Ways to Moksha

  1. The Way of Works (Vedas, observing laws and rituals, priests)
  2. The Way of Knowledge (Upanishads, meditation, withdrawal)
  3. The Way of Devotion (Bhagavad-Gita, worship of a god)

ISKCON Essential Teachings6

  1. Krishna is the supreme form of a personal god (untraditional monotheism). Vishnu is considered an avatar of Krishna.
  2. Salvation is achieved by continually chanting the Krishna mantra “Hare Krishna” (1,000 times a day).
  3. The Bhagavad-Gita is sacred scripture.
  4. Devotees must observe a life of pure devotion to Krishna, which includes abstaining from meat, caffeine, sweets, and sex for pleasure.
  5. Devotees are expected to disseminate the literature of ISKCON.

Five Ways Krishna and Jesus Differ

jesus-hands-piercedKrishna holds the title “Prince” for his regal representation of a divine figure. Bhakti Hinduism now stands at the center of contemporary Hinduism, with Krishna as its most represented deity. Meanwhile, the New Testament title “Lord” (kyrios) is the Greek term used to translate the Hebrew name for YHWH (Israel’s personal God). Thus the historic Christian claim “Jesus is Lord” conveys the meaning “Jesus is God.”

  • History: While the actual existence of Krishna relies mostly or exclusively upon speculative Hindu mythology, Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection is attested to both in the historical documents of the New Testament and in certain secular works of history.
  • Nature: While Prince Krishna is considered an appearance or the descent of a deity (an avatar), Jesus Christ declared himself God in human flesh.
  • Character: Prince Krishna is said to be loving and compassionate, nonetheless the stories about him exhibit human-like flaws, thus showing he lack of moral perfection. The Lord Jesus Christ, on the other hand, was declared even by some of his enemies to be morally blameless.
  • Mission: Hindu literature describes Prince Krishna’s mission as one of an inspiring divine hero. The Lord Jesus Christ’s mission was to rescue sinners by providing a final atonement for sin through his death on the cross.
  • Role: While Krishna is said to be gracious and merciful in nature, he provides no means of redemption. In stark contrast, the Lord Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection all focus on redeeming lost sinners.
  • State: Prince Krishna either survives in legend only or is dead. Unlike all other religious leaders, the Lord Jesus Christ has been resurrected from the dead and reigns as eternal King.

Bhakti Hinduism offers a convoluted, uncertain hope of life after death but with the mythological Prince Krishna. Historic Christianity, on the other hand, offers real hope of salvation from sin through the historical person of Jesus Christ who demonstrated his Lordship by rising from the dead.

Comparison of Religions

Historic Christianity Bhakti Hinduism
Problem: Sin (rebellion) Problem: Karma
Need: Redemption Need: Moksha
Solution: Faith Solution: Devotion
Ultimate: Personal Redemption Ultimate: Attachment to god
Assurance: Yes Assurance: No
Deity: Trinitarian Monotheism Deity: Untraditional Monotheism

Endnotes

  1. S. Rajaram, “Search for the Historical Krishna,” Vedic Knowledge Online, last modified September 4, 1999, http://veda.harekrsna.cz/encyclopedia/historical-krsna.htm.
  2. Theodore M. Ludwig, The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 82.
  3. Wikipedia, s.v. “Krishna,” last modified January 27, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krishna.
  4. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 200.
  5. Ibid., 204.
  6. Ibid., 204–5.

 

From the Archives: Understanding Islam in the Twenty-First Century

453218359It’s one of the fastest growing religions in the world, it’s been around since the seventh century, and it is regularly in the news—often associated with atrocities committed by its most militant members (the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the Boko Haram kidnapping of 300 girls come to mind). How can we understand Islam in the twenty-first century?

I appreciate that people would like to know about Islam, but the common approach is to make it simple, to boil Islam down. But we’re talking about 1.6 billion people; we’re talking about many different countries; we’re talking about many different stripes and divisions within the religion (there are extremists, liberal moderates, and middle-of-road traditionalists). So, being able to sort it all out easily is difficult.

That being said, the articles and podcasts here are intended as jumping off points for coming to grips with Islam in the world today, particularly as it relates to America in these post-9/11 years.

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Understanding Muslims

World Religions: The Prophet and the Son of God” (article)

Islam and the Middle East Crisis” (article)

Muslims, Hindus, and Christians: An Interview with Christian Apologist Prashanth Daniel” (podcast)

From Muslim Apologist to Christian Scholar: An Interview with Abdu Murray, Part 1” (podcast)

From Muslim Apologist to Christian Scholar: An Interview with Abdu Murray, Part 2” (podcast)

America and Islam

Is America Really the ‘Great Satan’?” (article)

Reflective Thinking: The War on Terror” (podcast)

America and Islam: Is America Islamophobic?” (podcast)

America and Islam: Coming to Grips with Islam” (podcast)

America and Islam: The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy” (podcast)

Islamic Extremists

Jihadists and The Narrative: The Importance of Worldview Thinking” (podcast)

9/11 Truthers Steal Al Qaeda’s Thunder” (podcast)

Special Edition: Reflections on Obama’s Statement, ‘Today Is a Good Day for America’” (podcast)

An Elephant in the Resurrection Skeptic’s Room

Today, Reflections offers a guest article by Milt Chamberlain

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DSC_0250Skeptic Richard Carrier writes, “Many things could be said which cast doubt on the story of the Resurrection of Jesus by God…since I cannot rationally bring myself to believe this story, I cannot rationally bring myself to be a Christian.” His collection of essays, entitled “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection,” elaborates on the reasons for his rejection of Christianity’s central tenant.1 As a volunteer apologist for RTB, I recently responded to an email requesting a rebuttal of Carrier’s arguments. His arguments aren’t new, but as I read his essays and drafted a response I felt uneasy. Was I overlooking something important?

This feeling persisted until halfway through my first draft when it hit me. Resurrection skeptics like Carrier eagerly characterize New Testament (NT) authors as “unknown,” under-educated, and biased—what I’ll call “ugly-duckling” historians or witnesses—but these skeptics overlook an elephant in the room, namely the scriptural declaration that God intentionally chose ugly-duckling witnesses. Carrier, in his essay “The Rubicon Analogy,” presents seven points in the ugly-duckling strain against the NT writers.2

  1. Jesus never wrote anything: True, Jesus lived what He preached. His followers preached what He lived and then wrote it down. Jesus was not a publishing academic, but Truth alive, humanity’s ultimate object lesson, and so much more.
  2. New Testament writers were not reputable historians: True, all were common men and—excepting Paul, Luke, and possibly Matthew—under educated. But does education or high position guarantee honesty or accuracy? Surely, only elitists would propose this idea.
  3. New Testament writers wrote to persuade to belief in the risen Christ: True, they wrote as eyewitnesses for whom objectivity was unnatural and impossible. The Gospels and Acts are recalled accounts of passionate eyewitnesses (or reports from such), not dispassionate writings of uninvolved scholars. We should feel neither surprise nor disquiet about their persuasive bias. Instead, shouldn’t we expect it?
  4. Jesus’ first-century enemies published nothing to deny the resurrection: True, why would they? Their harshest critic was gone. Yes, His body was missing and there were disturbing resurrection rumors, but why would His enemies publish written accounts denying an event they claimed never happened? Surely, they followed an age-old strategy: do not “give legs” to a rumor by permitting, much less fostering, public discussion.
  5. There is no physical evidence for the resurrection: True, but what physical evidence should we expect? Religious and Roman authorities never produced Jesus’ body to quell growing resurrection rumors even though they had every motivation (and the manpower) to find Jesus’ body and put an end to these “messianic pretensions.” But they didn’t.
  6. Belief explains Christianity’s growth, but belief doesn’t have to be true: Not exactly; this idea fails to explain the eyewitness’ behavior. Yes, people willingly die for unsubstantiated beliefs they think true. But the ugly-duckling eyewitnesses had lived with Jesus and saw Him die and then live again. They suffered martyrdom or exile because they had seen and knew the living Truth. They alone had irrefutable, objective evidence of the resurrection. We don’t, but we have reasonable evidence provided in what they wrote.
  7. If the resurrection occurred everyone would have known it: By God’s design relatively few people (more than 500) saw the risen Savior. The resurrected Christ chose to reveal Himself through a handful of ugly-duckling witnesses.

In this last point we find the elephant unseen by skeptics. First Corinthians 1:20 (ESV) asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” In painting Jesus’ ugly-duckling eyewitnesses as unqualified historians, skeptics merely confirm God’s declared strategy for the Gospel. They describe the elephant but cannot see it. First Corinthians 1:28–29 (ESV) goes on:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

The elephant is in Scripture’s call to love God through faith in Jesus Christ; this faith first believes in the proposition that Jesus is the resurrected Son of God and then trusts Him as Lord of one’s life. Skeptics can’t trust Jesus because they demand irrefutable historical evidence to prove the resurrection; without it they refuse to believe.

The apostle Thomas also refused to believe, demanding irrefutable proof of the resurrection—but when he stood face-to-face with that proof, he professed belief and trust. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We might interpret this as blessed are those who believe on the basis of reasonable evidence (not blind faith), even though we lack irrefutable proof. That’s you and me (and the majority of post-resurrection history), for God provided irrefutable evidence only to Thomas and the other ugly-duckling eyewitnesses.

By ignoring the elephant, skeptics align themselves with the scribes and Pharisees who demanded an immediate sign in their time—an irrefutable proof—that Jesus was Messiah, but only one sign would be given—His death, burial, and resurrection (Matthew 12:38–42). Similarly, today’s skeptics demand irrefutable historical proof of the resurrection. By design, it doesn’t exist because, also by design, Christ’s entire ministry turned what was upside down “downside up.” Therefore, none should be surprised that God made worldly wisdom foolish by choosing ugly-duckling witnesses (instead of the “wise men” of His day) to communicate the Gospel of the Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 1:20).

Let’s not allow resurrection skeptics to restrict our apologetics to standards of “worldly wisdom” that make unreasonable demands for non-existent, irrefutable evidence. We must stand firm on the reasonable evidence for the resurrection that God has provided. Remember God’s expressed purpose to “shame the wisethrough the Gospel by communicating the Gospel through ugly-duckling witnesses.

Endnotes

  1. Richard Carrier, “Why I Don’t But the Resurrection,” 6th ed. (2006), Secular Web, http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/introduction.html.
  2. Carrier, “The Rubicon Analogy,” in “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection,” http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/rubicon.html.

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By Milt Chamberlain

Mr. Milton Chamberlain received his MBA from Samford University in 1974, and currently serves part-time as IT and accounting manager at Birmingham Rheumatology in Birmingham, Alabama.