Archive for April, 2012

Why no “unbiased corroboration” for the resurrection?

April 30, 2012

Yesterday’s sermon—part 2 of my “Reason to Believe” series—was a dialogue between me and a lawyer friend who posed skeptical questions about the resurrection. The conversation was canned in the sense that we planned it out in advance (who do you think I am, William Lane Craig?), but I did take questions from the congregation.

One question was, “What did actual historians have to say about the resurrection at or near the time of Jesus’ resurrection?” The premise behind the question is that the opinion of a neutral, objective, unbiased historian about the evidence for the resurrection would carry more weight than someone writing about the event who is already convinced by the evidence, i.e., already Christian.

It seems reasonable at first blush. This is, after all, how we’re supposed to write history today. While I’m sure it’s impossible for any historian to be unbiased or neutral—”The winners write the history books,” etc—it’s a worthy goal.

As I said yesterday, No, we don’t have historians (whether the Evangelists who wrote the gospels or later Church Fathers) writing about the resurrection who weren’t already in the church.

To one prominent anti-Christian writer, Richard Carrier, this is a damning critique. After all, he says, one reason we can know that Caesar crossed Rubicon is because Caesar’s own enemies acknowledged as much. Where are the enemies, or even neutral observers, agreeing that Jesus was resurrected?

You see the problem, right?

Regardless, I’m relieved that there are very smart Christian thinkers like Dr. Glenn Peoples, who have the time and patience to trudge through the muck and overgrown weeds of contemporary atheist literature and respond. In this lengthy blog post, Dr. Peoples writes the following,

For an enemy of Caesar to believe that the Rubicon crossing took place, therefore, is not a case of a hostile witness, and has no particular significance one way or the other compared to a friend of Caesar believing in the Rubicon crossing. The issue of bias does not even arise here, and is a red herring…

Whereas being a friend or enemy of Caesar has no important bearing on believing in the Rubicon crossing or not believing in the Rubicon crossing (something overlooked by Carrier), by contrast, being persuaded that Jesus rose from the dead has everything to do with whether or not a source is going to be regarded as biased in favour of Jesus. While it is easy to imagine a miffed Italian thinking “That so-called emperor Caesar, whom I despise, crossed the Rubicon and invaded my country,” or “That Julius whom I would gladly murder and replace invaded Rome by force,” it is much more difficult to imagine a first century Palestinian saying “that false pretender, the mere man Jesus of Nazareth, was actually raised from the dead in a great act of God.” The mere acceptance that Jesus rose from the dead is itself a major step towards the Christian movement (if not an embracing of it), so the complaint that we have no written testimony in favour of the resurrection from a person who did not accept that it had happened (i.e. a non-Christian or an enemy) is not significant, and is in fact precisely what we should expect.

“Precisely what we should expect.” As I said yesterday, the evidence we have for the resurrection is exactly the evidence we should expect to have. Or, as Peoples says (emphasis mine):

The relevant question to ask is what type of evidence we should expect if Jesus did rise from the dead, and then to ask whether or not that evidence exists. In the context in which Christianity is believed to have arisen, we would expect that there be written accounts by people who did in fact believe that the resurrection had taken place and who were in a position to know that it had taken place, and we would expect an increase in the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, again, by people who were in a position to know, and who showed signs that their belief was genuine, coupled with an argument that this belief is best explained if in fact Jesus bodily rose from the dead (and argument I will come to later when assessing Carrier’s argument about a spiritual resurrection). From those who did not in fact believe in the resurrection of Jesus, we would expect evidence of the growth of the Christian movement, either with a stance of indifference or of animosity towards that movement.

Obviously, people indifferent to the miraculous claims of a tiny Jewish sect in a backwater province of the Roman Empire aren’t going to bother writing about it for the sake of history.

Nevertheless, as even the most hardened skeptic knows, the powers-that-be in Rome would start writing about the Christian movement soon enough.

Just tell me what they decide about the gay stuff

April 28, 2012

We are, as United Methodists, in the throes of the quadrennial battle royale known as General Conference. We have some important business to decide—drastically restructuring the church and putting an end to guaranteed appointments for clergy, both of which I strongly favor.

But as has been the case every year since 1972, the single issue that captures the public’s attention is, yes… homosexuality.

I don’t believe believe that anything will change on that front. When the dust has cleared in Tampa, the UMC will continue to support two-millennia of consensual biblical exegesis and tradition and prohibit non-celibate gays from being ordained and clergy from performing gay weddings.

While this position is in sync with the vast majority of the universal Church (our position is congruent with the Roman Catholic Church, for instance) it will continue to isolate us from our fellow mainline Protestant churches. The difference isn’t mostly that we’re being more faithful to scripture; it’s mostly a matter of church polity.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Selling Jesus cheap”

April 27, 2012

I don’t know who Kyle Idleman is, but I agree with this sentiment. I have a very strong people-pleasing impulse, which I constantly have to fight. I also have to fight the temptation to imagine that preachers who preach to the largest crowds get to do so because they “sell Jesus cheap” and water down the gospel.

In my experience of preaching nearly every week for the past eight years, I haven’t yet over-challenged my congregation. They want to be challenged by the gospel. They need us preachers to step up, be truthful, and have integrity. That’s what I’m working on.

Sermon for 04-22-12: “Reason to Believe, Part 1”

April 27, 2012

In this week’s week’s sermon, I begin looking at evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. My goal for this this two-part series is to show that the miracle at the center of the Christian faith rests on a solid historical foundation. Among other things, this week’s sermon challenges the idea that the resurrection was a legend that developed over time.

Please note: due to technical difficulties, the last minute of the video got cut off. Sorry! See the sermon manuscript for the ending!

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

It’s very appropriate that we’re beginning this sermon series, “Reason to Believe,” on Youth Sunday. When I was a youth myself, I had a hard time integrating what I was learning in church and reading in the Bible with what I was learning in school and the world outside of church. I remember, for example, world history class in tenth grade. Of course our teacher mentioned the birth of Jesus, and gave some basic facts about Christianity and the church. And she stressed that she wasn’t preaching, she was merely sharing historical facts. “So here are the historical facts,” she said. And when she finished her list, which emphasized Jesus’ teaching about love and compassion and self-sacrifice, she mentioned—oh, yeah—that Jesus was crucified by the Romans and that Christians believe on the third day he rose from the dead. The End.

The problem was that she was careful to distinguish the “facts” of Jesus from the resurrection of Jesus. Resurrection, she wanted us to know, is something that people have to take solely on faith—something we Christians have to believe regardless whether there’s any historical basis for such a belief. If there were an historical basis, she didn’t tell us what it was.

This confused me even because it seemed to me that if the resurrection really happened, then that would automatically make it the most important historical event of all time—far more important than, say, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Norman Conquest, the Magna Carta, or the Declaration of Independence. Yet we never considered for a moment that the resurrection was an historical event. Read the rest of this entry »

Personal incredulity is not an argument

April 26, 2012

A Facebook friend helpfully pointed me to a webpage that reminds us of eleven mistakes of logic that we often make when arguing. As I’m currently preaching a sermon series on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, I’m trying my best to avoid them. One fallacy, which I had never heard of before, is “personal incredulity.” Here’s the description:

I’m struck by the fact that he uses evolution as an example. I get his point, but I also note that this same mistake is often made by skeptics and atheists concerning God, theology, and resurrection.

Recently, my friend Mike was watching an online debate between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and the late Christopher Hitchens. I assume this debate was part of Hitchens’s God is Not Great book tour several years ago. (Click here to read about a debate I witnessed live between Hitchens and my Christian ethics prof, Timothy Jackson.)

Mike was impressed with Craig, and why wouldn’t he be? Craig knows all the arguments backwards and forwards, and is well-prepared to take on any comer. (Last year, Craig challenged Dawkins to debate him in England, but Dawkins turned him down. Smart man!) But my friend noticed that Hitchens had zero interest in engaging any of Craig’s arguments. And since Craig is such an earnest fellow, I can’t imagine that he fared well playing Hitchens’s game of scornful derision masked as witty repartee.

My point is, the fallacy of personal incredulity is a primary tactic of our celebrity atheists. Dawkins himself deflects criticism that he knows nothing about Christian theology by talking about fairies and flying spaghetti monsters. Why bother learning anything about theology? he would say. It’s such obvious nonsense.

And so it is with evidence for the resurrection. The attitude of many skeptics is, “It doesn’t matter what you tell me, I’m not going to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s beyond the realm of possibility.” Whatever else happened, we know in advance that that didn’t happen.

One thing I hope to get across in this “Reason to Believe” series is this: If the resurrection of Jesus did happen, then the evidence we have is the precisely the evidence that we should expect. 

My favorite ever children’s sermon

April 25, 2012

Here’s my children’s sermon from Easter. I was proud of it. It’s hard to tell from the video, but I am holding in my hand an empty, intact egg shell. I pierced both ends with a needle and blew on one end until all the contents came out the other. I nearly passed out, but it was totally worth it!

What we can know for sure… so far

April 24, 2012

My sermon on Sunday dealt mostly with the “Legend theory,” one of several alternate theories created to explain away the miracle at the center of the Christian faith. I used something Richard Dawkins said in an interview years ago as a springboard for the discussion.

He said that he’s not surprised that Christians claimed that Jesus was resurrected, “After all, these sorts of legends sprang up all the time in the ancient world when a powerful, charismatic leader died.” In other words, the resurrection of Jesus was just another legendary account of someone dying and coming back to life.

So the question is… “Was it?”

No. Not even close. As I argued on Sunday, there are legends of gods and mythic figures dying and coming to life in a spiritual form or heavenly realm. Outside of the Bible, however, there are no clear parallels in the ancient world about a dead person resuming a bodily existence after dying.[†] If Dawkins were right, shouldn’t there be dozens or hundreds of examples?

In fact, even though there were many would-be messiahs in first-century Palestine who had large followings and, like Jesus, died at the hands of their Roman oppressors, only Jesus’ followers ever claimed that their leader was resurrected. Why? One would think that in a Jewish context—from which the concept of “resurrection” emerged in the first place—the disciples of these other would-be messiahs would also claim that their leader was resurrected—if it were so commonplace in the ancient world.

Richard Dawkins really meant to say that ancient people were gullible in a way that we moderns are not. Of course this is nonsense. People in the ancient world knew as well as we do that when people died, they stayed dead.

Besides, legends take time to develop. As I demonstrated on Sunday, we can say with historical certainty that the disciples of Jesus proclaimed from the beginning that Jesus was bodily resurrected. Therefore, for whatever reason—and we’ll look at other possible reasons next week—the disciples began saying that Jesus was resurrected shortly after he died. Maybe they were mistaken, crazy, or lying (we’ll get to that next week), but we know for sure that they claimed resurrection from the beginning.

There is another spin on the “Legend” theory floating out there. It’s less interesting to me than the first, but it goes like this: When the disciples proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, and they (or their followers) wrote it down, they weren’t writing literal history, nor did they intend to be taken literally. They were instead copying their master, who himself used fictitious stories called parables to teach deeper spiritual truths.

If we try to make the resurrection a literal event, we miss the point—just as we would miss the point if we fretted over the location of the inn to which the Good Samaritan took his wounded neighbor.

Never mind that I’m not sure what that deeper point would be. Never mind that the gospels, Acts, and the epistles make the resurrection seem perfectly historical to me. This theory fails on many other levels. It doesn’t explain the passage we looked at on Sunday: 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. First, when Paul says in v. 4 that Jesus was raised, we can infer that the tomb was really empty. Otherwise, Jesus’ enemies could have stopped the young Christian movement in its tracks by simply producing Jesus’ rotting corpse.

Also, why were there hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord? If the disciples were creating a legend, why would they make women the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection—since women weren’t credible witnesses in the Greco-Roman world?

Why would the disciples have created a legend involving resurrection? Resurrection was something that Jews believed would happen to everyone at the end of history—when God would finally establish his kingdom on earth and peace and justice would reign. No Jew believed it would happen to one person in the middle of history, especially while the Roman Empire continued to occupy Palestine!

Would devout Jews like Paul and James, the brother of the Lord, risk the fate of their souls by abandoning orthodox Judaism for the sake of an invented story?

Finally, we know for sure that many of the apostles, including Peter, Paul, and James, were martyred for their faith. Would they have given up their lives if they knew the resurrection were merely a non-historical parable? It boggles the mind.

[†] Ancient historian and Bible scholar N.T. Wright treats this issue extensively in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 3-200. For a shorter treatment, see also Habermas and Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004), 89-92.

Why don’t they wonder?

April 23, 2012

According to this recent survey, fewer Americans these days wonder about their answer to the famous evangelistic question, “If I were to die tonight, do I know for sure that I would go to heaven?” This brief article implies that Americans are less interested in eternal things than they used to be.

That could be true for all I know. Maybe it’s a natural consequence of living in an increasingly secular culture.

But not so fast. I do a lot of funerals in my job—most of them, in fact, for unchurched families who need a clergy person to solemnize their loved one’s funeral service. (I’m on a funeral director’s speed-dial.) I’m happy to do it. It’s easy work (which helps pay seminary student debt!) but also a good ministry opportunity that I take seriously.

I don’t know whether members of these grieving families ever wonder whether they’ll go to heaven when they die. But I don’t think I’ve met a person yet who has any doubts about their departed loved ones! See what I mean? Regardless whether the recently deceased person had ever professed the Christian faith, darkened the door of a church, or prayed, the bereaved seem extremely confident that their loved one is in heaven.

As a matter of professional pride, their confidence bothers me a little. It’s my job, after all, to know about eternal questions. We can only know for sure that we have eternal life through faith in Christ and his atoning work on the cross. If someone didn’t possess this faith in life, how can we know that they’re safely with God in death?

The implication of the article might be wrong: Maybe an increasing number of Americans presume upon the grace of a God who couldn’t possibly send anyone to hell. In which case, the church needs to work harder to shake their confidence.

What Tim Keller said

April 20, 2012

As we look forward this Sunday to our new two-part series on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, “Reason to Believe,” I’d like to direct your attention to something that pastor Tim Keller said in his profoundly good apologetic work, Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism:

Sometimes people approach me and say, “I really struggle with this aspect of Christian teaching. I like this part of Christian belief, but I don’t think I can accept that part.” I usually respond: “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like this teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.” That is how the first hearers felt who heard reports of the resurrection. They knew that if it was true it meant we can’t live our lives any way we want. It also meant we don’t have to be afraid of anything, not Roman swords, not cancer, nothing. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything.[†]

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), 202.

Can’t we be overly skeptical about other people’s spiritual experiences?

April 19, 2012

My friend Tom keeps me on my toes in the comment section of my previous blog post. I totally agree that we should greet reports about near-death experiences—or any other unusual spiritual experience—with a healthy amount of skepticism. Isn’t this what the author of 1 John means when he talks about “testing the spirits” to see if they’re from God (1 John 4:1)?

But in the following reply, I worry that we can be overly skeptical.

Tom,

I hear you. Regarding the 4-year-old, the father goes to great lengths in the book to say that he didn’t coach his child, and mostly I believe him. Again, NDEs are commonplace, and what the child says isn’t so different from other reports I’ve heard—including one first-hand report. NDEs happen all the time. Whether there is anything to them or not, I would take on a case-by-case basis. Evidence suggests that in some cases, there is something to them.

If it were my child, and he experienced the NDE reported in that book, I would say that he had a meaningful encounter with God—and I’d probably leave it at that. Since I’m in the business of believing in the afterlife, I probably wouldn’t be as astonished as the father seems to be. And I certainly wouldn’t interpret the boy’s experience in the theologically shallow way that the father does.

But I wonder if you’re not overreacting because of a few outlandish reports you’ve heard. Of course, people misunderstand, misinterpret, or abuse these experiences. While I am hypersensitive, for example, to Pentecostals who tell me that I ought to have these kinds of experiences—like speaking in tongues—if I’m fully Christian, I don’t doubt in many cases that they have them or that they’re genuine.

There is a spiritual realm, and there is a lot of mystery in Creation. Our skepticism can be misplaced, I think, because we are victims of a post-Enlightenment milieu that tells us nothing beyond the physical universe is real.