Bart Ehrman’s bad arguments

April 22, 2014

I spent about fifteen minutes of my sermon on Sunday reviewing some evidence for believing in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While I could have said much more, for my purposes it’s enough to know that plenty of scholars have said much more, and that what I did say was backed up by good scholarship.

My purpose wasn’t to “prove” the resurrection—we can’t prove it any more than we can prove that Caesar crossed the Rubicon or other events of ancient history that we take for granted. Rather, I wanted to remind and encourage Christians that the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on solid historical evidence.

The best reason, I suppose, for not believing in the resurrection event to which the evidence points is that of course resurrections aren’t the kind of things that happen. And how do skeptics know that resurrections don’t happen? Because of the lack of evidence, they would say. Except in the case of Jesus we have evidence, right? And the resurrection has only happened once. So there’s some circularity to their argument.

Regardless, if we Christian pastors never engage in apologetics, who will? There are fine apologists out there, but these scholars don’t make the cover of Time or Newsweek, nor do they have columns in the Huffington Post, nor are they usually interviewed on cable or network talk shows.

Leave that sort of notoriety to skeptical scholars like Bart Ehrman. He has a new book out, How Jesus Became God. To the credit of his publisher (thank you, Rupert Murdoch?), HarperCollins has also simultaneously published a Christian response, How God Became Jesus, by a team of evangelical scholars.

You can get a sense of the Ehrman book from this Huffington Post column by Ehrman. Before I criticize it, let’s appreciate what Ehrman, a former fundamentalist Christian-turned-agnostic, is willing to concede. He says that as he was researching his book he was surprised that, contrary to what he previously believed, the disciples of Jesus believed that Jesus was God from the time they became convinced he was resurrected. In other words, he doesn’t think that the belief that Jesus was God emerged decades after Jesus’ death.

And by believing this, Ehrman rules out at least three competing theories: the “pious legend” theory—that the resurrection idea emerged long after Jesus’ death; the conspiracy theory—that the original disciples knew that Jesus hadn’t been resurrected, but they invented the story; and the “swoon theory”—that Jesus only appeared to die on the cross, regained consciousness after burial, and emerged from the tomb.

As a critique of what he does believe, there’s much to be said, and I’m sure that the evangelicals scholars who wrote their book-length response cover it nicely. Nevertheless, I’d like to respond to the last few paragraphs of his column, in which he writes the following:

The followers of Jesus came to think he had been raised because some of them (probably not all of them) had visions of him afterwards. Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them. Non-Christians would say that (several of ) the disciples had hallucinations. Hallucinations happen all the time. Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events). Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.

Once the disciples claimed Jesus was alive again but was (obviously) no longer here with them, they came to think that he had been taken up to heaven (where else could he be?). In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus. After that a set of evolutionary forces took over, in which the followers of Jesus began saying more and more exalted things about him – that he had been made the son of God at his resurrection; no, it was at his baptism; no, it was at his birth; no, it was before he came into the world; no – he had never been made the son of God, he had always been the Son of God; in fact, he had always been God; more than that, he had created the world; and yet more, he was an eternal being equal with God Almighty.

It’s a fascinating set of developments. It is highly important. And it matters not just for those who believe that the followers of Jesus got it right, but for anyone who cares about the factors that shaped the world we live in today.

Ehrman writes: “Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them.” (My responses are indented.)

Not quite: Christians would say that the disciples experienced not merely “visions,” but a fully embodied person. The Gospels go out of their way to portray that Jesus is a physical being, capable of eating and drinking, touching and being touched.

Why am I being picky? Because there are plenty of words to describe an immaterial “vision” of Jesus. These eyewitnesses didn’t use those words. They said that Jesus had been resurrected, which has a very specific, physical meaning within a Jewish context. And as I argued in my sermon on Sunday, nothing would tempt pious Jews such as the Twelve disciples, James the half-brother of Jesus, and the apostle Paul to apply the word “resurrection” to what they had experienced unless they were convinced that Jesus had appeared to them physically.

Also, as I said on Sunday, Jesus also appeared to groups of disciples, as one resurrection eyewitness, St. Paul, says in 1 Corinthians 15. People don’t experience hallucinations of the exact same thing at the same time. Paul could have been wrong, of course, but he does challenge skeptics to prove him wrong by saying that most of these “more than 500″ eyewitnesses are still alive. He was convinced that there were hundreds of people who, like him, could back up his story. Was Paul mistaken? Did these hundreds of people not exist? Or were they also completely wrong about experiencing the resurrected Lord?

“Hallucinations happen all the time,” Ehrman writes. “Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events).”

If hallucinations “happen all the time,” they probably happened “all the time” back in Jesus’ day, too. Yet people rarely claimed that these hallucinations meant their loved ones had returned from the dead. Isn’t it likely that before these apostles went around the Roman Empire suffering persecution, torture, and death, they would be convinced that Jesus’ resurrection was something very different from any old hallucination—which, as Ehrman says, happens all the time? They would also know the difference between a spiritual experience of the Lord versus the physical experience that they claimed.

Or think of it like this: When your deceased grandmother “turns up in your bedroom,” do you therefore believe that she’s no longer dead? Do you believe not that she’s a figment of you imagination or even a real ghost, but a living, breathing person who has risen from the dead? Does this “hallucination” convince you to drop whatever else you’re doing and tell everyone that your grandmother is no longer dead? Are you so convinced that she’s come back to life that you’re willing to die for that belief?

Do Catholics who believe they’ve seen the Blessed Virgin Mary believe that they’ve seen her as a fully embodied person, every bit as alive on this earth as any other living person? Based on what I know, they believe they’ve had a spiritual experience—through weeping or talking statues or paintings, etc.

“Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.”

As I said in my sermon, there were dozens of documented would-be messiahs in first-century Palestine. Why did none of these other “bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers” claim that their leader had been resurrected? Were they not also “prime candidates” for such “visionary experiences”?

“In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus.”

Well, no… Ancient Jews never claimed that Enoch or Elijah were God! Is Ehrman just being sloppy with words? The whole point of his book is to say that Christians believed something radically different about Jesus. Jesus’ disciples were ancient Jews. While they believed that Enoch and Elijah had been taken up into heaven before death, they clearly thought something very different happened to Jesus.

Greeks and Romans believed that some people had been “exalted to the heavenly realm,” but they never believed that they had first been resurrected! Again, resurrection has a very specific meaning: it implies that someone returns to life in a bodily form—not as a ghost or vision or anything else. Greeks and Romans in general found the idea of resurrection offensive: the body was a prison from which the soul longed to escape. Read Acts 17:22-33. In Paul’s presentation of the gospel, when do things go badly? When he mentions the resurrection! Being exalted to the heavenly realm was just fine in Greco-Roman thought. Resurrection, by contrast, was offensive.

Bart Ehrman has appeared on The Colbert Report at least a couple of times. Colbert’s responses to Ehrman’s skepticism are perfect.



Sermon 04-20-14: “For He Has Risen”

April 21, 2014
Here's an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee.

Here’s an actual tomb with a rolling stone next to the entrance. I took this photo on the side of a highway in Galilee.

Sermon Text: Matthew 28:1-20

As this sermon shows, the resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on a solid historical foundation. But what does it mean for for our lives and world? 

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

In the early morning hours of December 3, 1999—it was around 4:00 a.m.—I was awake, studying all night for a “radio frequency”engineering exam at Georgia Tech the next morning. I was downstairs in the living room. My wife, Lisa, who was eight months pregnant, was upstairs asleep, or so I thought. Then I heard her footsteps upstairs. I could tell she was moving around quickly. Something was up. She came down and told me that her water broke. “We have to go to the hospital,”she said.

I had been nervously anticipating this moment for months, and it was exciting, although one of my first thoughts upon hearing Lisa’s news was, “Why couldn’t you have told me this before I stayed up all night studying for this test?!”

Listen: I don’t remember a single thing about that engineering exam, which I took a few days later. But I’ll never forget many specific details related to the birth of my first-born child. The entire experience was pure joy for me. Lisa might disagree about the experience being pure joy—she was a little busier than me, after all. But it was also an event that changed my world; it was an event that loudly announced to me: “Brent, your life—your world—will never be the same.”

And so it is with the events associated with Easter morning that are described in today’s scripture. Because of Easter, our lives and our world would never be the same. Read the rest of this entry »

Good Friday 2014 sermon: “What’s So Good About Good Friday?”

April 21, 2014
Possible location of Golgotha, "the Place of the Skull," where Jesus was crucified.

Possible location of Golgotha, “the Place of the Skull,” where Jesus was crucified. The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem.

Sermon Text: Matthew 27:11-56

I delivered this sermon at Hampton United Methodist Church in Hampton, Georgia, on Good Friday evening, April 18, 2014. The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Some of you have watched the show How I Met Your Mother. The series just recently ended, but a regular guest star during this final season was an actor named William Zabka, who was playing himself on the show. You probably don’t know his name. But if you’re around my age or my generation, you have certainly seen him in the movies before—or at least you’ve seen him in one particular movie, The Karate Kid. The Karate Kid was a Rocky-like movie of an underdog weakling named Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio, who ends up winning a martial arts competition against the school bully, a karate champion named Johnny Lawrence, played by Zabka.

Johnny, played by William Zabka, threatens Ralph Macchio's character in The Karate Kid.

Johnny, played by William Zabka, threatens Ralph Macchio’s character in The Karate Kid.

Zabka’s character, of course, was the villain of The Karate Kid. Everyone knows that…Everyone except Barney, the character on How I Met Your Mother played by Neal Patrick Harris. To his friends’amazement and disbelief, Barney actually thought that Zabka’s character was the real hero of The Karate Kid. So Barney’s friends arranged to have Zabka the actor meet Barney, and that’s why he was on the show.

My point is, you have to really turn things upside down in order to see Johnny Lawrence as the “good guy”of The Karate Kid. You have to have the ability to see the good in the midst of something—or someonethat everyone sees as bad.

And in my mind, that’s the challenge we all face when it comes to this holiday we call Good Friday. I guess for some people—people who don’t even necessarily practice the Christian faith—Good Friday might be good because it means a day off work—or whatever. But, assuming the Church wasn’t being ironic when they named this day Good Friday, there must be something “good”at the heart of this holy day, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 04-13-14: “Your King Is Coming to You”

April 21, 2014
This church, the Sanctuary of Bethphage in Jerusalem, commemorates Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem

This church, the Sanctuary of Bethphage in Jerusalem, commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem

In his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem on the first day of Holy Week, Jesus announces that he is Israel’s true Messiah and the world’s Savior. The people were shouting for Jesus to save them, but the kind of salvation Jesus offered was profoundly different from what the people expected. How are we like the people in these crowds?

Sermon Text: Matthew 21:1-11

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

As you probably heard, Wilton Gregory, the Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta, has gotten some bad press recently—and not just locally but nationally. Recently he directed the church to spend $2.2 million to purchase and renovate a home—his parsonage—in Buckhead. In fairness, the archbishop’s cathedral is in Buckhead, where real estate is very expensive; and he would also be using the house to host church-related events. But his parishioners complained that it was too much—especially considering so many church members can’t make ends meet. And Pope Francis, who himself moved out of his lavish Vatican residence to live in the much more modest guest quarters, has made it clear to his clergy that he expects them to follow his example—and avoid showy, ostentatious displays like spending millions on a posh residence. Be humble and modest, the pope says.

Clergy ought to be humble—like Jesus. And Jesus was perfectly humble. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[1] And we see him humbly serving the poor, the sick, women—who were considered second-class citizens at the time—and social outcasts—like tax collectors and prostitutes. While his own disciples wanted to shoo children away, he welcomed them. Before the Last Supper, he washed his own disciples’feet, which was normally the duty of a slave. He didn’t worry about how doing these things made him look. He didn’t care what other people thought of him. He came not to be served but to serve. Jesus was the greatest leader the world has ever known—he had a forceful and compelling personality—but there was also a sweetness about his spirit—he was perfectly gentle and kind. He was humble. Read the rest of this entry »

Heaven is for real, but so is resurrection

April 21, 2014

I guess “Resurrection Is for Real” would have made a great sermon title yesterday! Missed opportunity!

In this short critique of the new movie adaptation of the book Heaven Is for Real, theologian Roger Olson puts his finger on the main problem that I had with the book. Even though its author is a Wesleyan pastor who has received theological training, he writes as if the “intermediate state”—where souls go immediately upon death—is identically equal with the New Testament’s vision of future resurrection.

“Heaven” is a two-stage process. As N.T. Wright has said many times, our Christian hope isn’t for life after death, but life after life after death. When I read the book, I was disappointed that Todd Burpo said nothing about the difference between these two stages.

So here comes my main critique of the book and movie. I believe in the “intermediate state”—the technical theological term for conscious life after death before resurrection. But I fear the book and movie will reinforce the popular idea that the intermediate state is actually the fullness of heaven (and therefore not an intermediate state!). It isn’t. In fact, we are told very little about it in Scripture. Jesus called it (for the saved) “Paradise.” Paul referred to it as the “third heaven.” But Jesus told his disciples he would go away and prepare a place for them, then return and take them there—to his “Father’s house” with many rooms. So the fullness of heaven is after Christ returns. The “blessed hope” of believers in Christ has always been not the intermediate state, a bodiless existence of being with Christ, but the resurrection and the new heaven and new earth—liberated from bondage to decay (Romans 8).

The book and movie force us to think about this issue. Do we have to choose between the Bible’s revelation of personal eschatology (intermediate state then resurrection and heaven) and personal experiences of life after death?

As fascinating, inspiring and emotionally titillating as Colton Burpo’s experience was, we must not allow it or any other such testimony to become the basis of Christian belief. Our belief is based on Christ and his resurrection and on the Scriptural witness to him and to God’s plan for us. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, “We should not want to know too much about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” The key is “too much.” We can only “know” (believe) what Scripture says about life after death before the resurrection and that’s not much.

The “good” in Good Friday isn’t only anything

April 19, 2014

I’ll post last night’s Good Friday sermon later. I still haven’t posted my Palm Sunday sermon, I know! But in the sermon I talked about a Facebook post by a fellow pastor who raved that he had just heard a great Holy Week sermon about the “good” in Good Friday:


The “good” of Good Friday is only that in the deepest, darkest hole, God is present. 

Really? The only good? I responded with the following (click on image to enlarge):


I can’t help but feel like a grumpy old man when I post things like this. I really want to just be cool and get along, but I can’t! There’s too much at stake in these types of questions.

Nevertheless, upon further reflection, I realize my response didn’t go far enough. It’s not that God isn’t with us when we suffer—by all means he is! But I wouldn’t use the Good Friday scriptures as my proof-text! In the case of Jesus’ crucifixion, they make nearly the opposite point! As I said in last night’s sermon:

“In the deepest, darkest hole, God is present.” That’s the “only” good in Good Friday? In the case of what happened on the cross, that’s almost exactly opposite of the truth.

Because notice: Jesus doesn’t cry, in verse 46, “My God, my God, I’m so glad that you’re with me, even right here on the cross.” No, he shouts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He’s quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22, by the way. And herein lies the third surprisingly good thing about Good Friday—in truth, it’s the best thing of all: God the Father abandons his Son Jesus on the cross. This is nothing less than hell for Jesus—literally—to be separated from God. But God the Son, Jesus Christ, willingly endures this. He’s the only one who’s ever endured this separation from God in this world. It doesn’t matter how big a sinner you are; you can’t do anything, in your life in this world, to separate yourself from God. In eternity you can; but not here. God will be with you. But notice: God wasn’t with Jesus.

That’s why, despite what Mel Gibson or anyone else might depict in a Hollywood movie, it’s not the physical pain that Christ endured that made the cross so unimaginably painful, it was this spiritual pain of separation from his heavenly Father.

Why did he endure this infinitely painful separation from his Father? I went on to quote Isaiah 53:4-6, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and Galatians 3:13. Through his suffering we are reconciled to God.

Near the end of my sermon, I said the following: “I don’t need the cross to show me that God is with me now when I suffer, but that God will be with me in eternity because God suffered now.”

A video for Holy Thursday

April 17, 2014
This mosaic of Jesus in the dungeon during the night of his arrest is found outside the Church of St. Peter in Galllicantu in Old Jerusalem. The church is located on the traditional site of the house of Caiaphas the high priest. Peter denied Jesus in the courtyard outside.

This mosaic of Jesus in the dungeon during the night of his arrest is found outside the Church of St. Peter in Galllicantu in Old Jerusalem.

I prepared the following movie from video footage and photos I took during my Holy Land trip in 2011. It features what was perhaps the most moving part of the trip: our visit to the House of Caiaphas (now the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu), where Jesus was tried before the high priest and spent his last fateful night before the crucifixion. Peter denied Jesus in the courtyard outside.

The cross is not incidental to Christ’s mission

April 17, 2014

Last December, in these two blog posts, here and here, I wrote a response to Jason Micheli, a popular fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, who argued in a series of posts that Christmas doesn’t need the cross: the purpose of the Incarnation was not in order to save us, and even if humanity had never fallen into sin, God would still have sent his Son into the world.

Needless to say, I vehemently disagreed, which you can read about above.

But at least my fellow pastor is consistent. Now that we’re nearing Good Friday, he’s recycling the same arguments again, arguing that the cross isn’t necessary for atonement; that the Father would never send his Son to die on the cross; that the cross is merely the world’s equal and opposite reaction against anyone’s faithfulness to God; and that the cross is therefore completely incidental to God’s saving purposes. Presumably, our Lord could have died of old age—had the world allowed him to—and that would have been no more or less salvific.

I don’t think I’m misrepresenting his viewpoint. I tried to engage him on the topic last December, and he wasn’t interested.

I understand the motivation to want to argue that the Father doesn’t send his Son to die on the cross. By this way of thinking, if suffering is always only a consequence of human sin or the accidental outworking of cause-and-effect—rather than something that God might also will—then God is off the hook for it, and all those moral objections to God are neutralized.

In some temple of pure thought, I can see the appeal of such a god. For one thing, such a hands-off god wouldn’t get so worked up over my sins and make so many demands on my life.

As always, however, we have the Bible to contend with. There are too many scriptures I could cite in my defense from both Testaments, and you probably know most of them yourself. But even if we restrict ourselves to Jesus: When he prays, “Not my will but thine be done,” we are right to infer that God willed Jesus to suffer death on the cross.

Does the cross also reflect the free will of civil, religious, and military authorities such as Pilate, Caiaphas, and the Roman soldiers, not to mention the bystanders in the crowd who cheered them on? Of course. They didn’t need God to “give them a push” to send Jesus to the cross. It was both the consequence of human free will and the chosen means by which God atones for our sins.

Also, as I’ve said a dozen times before on this blog, the Son isn’t an unwitting victim either of his Father’s or the world’s schemes: out of love for us, Jesus chooses to go to the cross. The Son wants what the Father wants.

All that to say, where the god of the philosophers conflicts with the God of the Bible, we side with the Bible. Fortunately, the God of the Bible is not only more interesting, he’s also much worthier of worship.

For one thing, the God of the Bible loves us so much that he lets us suffer, when that suffering will be for our good. And the suffering of his Son Jesus was for the greatest good of all: our salvation.

For another, with the God of the Bible, we get to believe, alongside C.S. Lewis, “What God sends us must be sent in love and will all be for the best if we have the grace to use it so.”[†]

“The Ultimate Law” in The C.S. Lewis Bible NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1106.

Lewis: “The diagram of Love Himself”

April 16, 2014

C.S. Lewis on the love revealed in Christ’s death on the cross:

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing… the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates His own parasites, causes us to be that we may exploit and “take advantage of” Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the invented of all loves.[†]

C.S. Lewis, “Herein Is Love” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1105.

A reflection about prayer

April 15, 2014

In the following homily, which I shared at our church’s Palm Sunday evening prayer service, I made reference to some profound worship experiences I had while I was in Kenya in 2012 and 2013. The video below demonstrates the style of prayer to which I referred in my homily. Around the 40-second mark, my fellow pastors begin praying out loud, all at once. This was a completely new way of praying for me!

Twice over the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of going to Kenya to teach indigenous United Methodist pastors classes on Wesleyan theology, church doctrine, and church history. While I was there I had some profound experiences of prayer and worship, and I’d like to share one of them with you.

You know how in our worship services I ask people to lift up the name of someone in prayer—someone says a name, I say, “Lord in your mercy,”and the people respond, “Hear our prayer”? The Kenyans I worked with do something kind of similar when they worship—it’s much more chaotic than what we do, but very beautiful. During worship, they sing hymns and praise and worship songs, and then—spontaneously, without being prompted by a pastor or anyone—they begin praying. And when they pray, each person in the group of dozens or hundreds of worshipers shouts out their praise and gratitude and supplications to God—individually, all at once. Out loud! It is this beautiful cacophony of voices.

I had never heard anything like it before. Some of the pastors were literally weeping as they prayed. They seemed to pray with such holy desperation. They were pleading that God would give them whatever they were asking for! Read the rest of this entry »


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