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Thoughts on the Christmas Child: Myth or Miracle?

‘What Child is This?’ is a favourite Christmas hymn. It is based on the poem The Manger Throne by William C. Dix and sung to the tune of Greensleeves.[1] The combination of religious lyrics and a 16th Century folk tune result in a powerful song evoking a sense of expectancy and awe over the scene of a baby born in a stable in the Middle East more than two millennia ago.

The wonder, the questioning that must have dwelt in the hearts of those who were part of and involved in the birth story of Jesus is expressed well in the words of this song. This was an extraordinary event at the end of a line of extraordinary events that involved angelic visitations, a miraculous conception, prophecy, and a moving star from the east that guided three gift bearing visitors from far off lands.

What Child is This?

What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King!
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The cross he borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So, bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone him.

Raise, raise the song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby;
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

These words are sung with meaning by Christians during the Advent season – a season of expectant waiting. It is during this time we look forward to celebrating the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We also look forward to His promised second coming – the time when He will return to put all things in order including ridding the world of evil and suffering once and for all.

However, why believe any of this?  Unlike the Resurrection of Jesus, an event with an overwhelming number of historical evidences,[2] the nativity is a miracle story that at first looks to have none. Or does it?

By looking closely at the material, we do have and using Abductive Reasoning[3] to get a better perspective of this story, we can deduce if it is merely a myth or if it could possibly be true.                        

First, let’s look at the possibilities found in the stories. These are that either the nativity story is true, including the miracles and belief that Jesus is the Son of God. Or the nativity story is a myth found in a book of myths and that Jesus had a fully human father and grew into a man who was crazy enough to believe he was the Son of God.

Second, we can compare the possibilities against the information we have: The nativity narratives found in two independent sources, Matthew 1 and Luke 2; the likelihood that both Mary and Joseph lied about Mary being a virgin pregnant with a child conceived by a miracle through the Holy Spirit; and the influence Jesus has had on the world.

As a religious book, the New Testament is revered by Christians as much as it is disdained by sceptics. Sceptics have tried to convince us that it is a book of myths. But, is this true?

The New Testament is comprised of letters and accounts created to communicate and preserve eyewitness testimonies of the events surrounding the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the experiences of and encouragement and guidance for the early Church. We see this as Luke reveals his purpose in writing at the beginning of his Gospel account:

1Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. 3It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honourable Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1: 1-4 HSCB)

What is fascinating about the New Testament is that, apart from maybe the apocalyptic language found in Revelation, none of the manuscripts are written using the conventions found in typical mythology.  The literary forms used contain parables, creeds and poetry, however, these are grounded in the reality of time, place and people familiar to their audience. In addition, the accounts were written within decades of the events described, for example, where authors encourage readers to verify what is written with the living eyewitnesses to the resurrection appearances of Jesus.[4]

Another proof of the reliability of the New Testament is the huge number of available manuscripts – over 5800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, compared to, for example 600 for Homer’s Iliad[5] – that allow historians and scholars to examine and compare texts across the centuries. The result has been that most New Testament textual critics, including atheist and textural critic Bart Erhman, agree the accuracy of the New Testament we read today is around 99% of the original autographs.[6]

Next, we can observe Mary’s story. It is notable that Mary did not waiver in her convictions that this was a baby conceived through the Holy Spirit. She did not understand it, but it appears she knew it to be true and we see this in that she kept to her story. Mary did not claim (justifiably if it had been true) that some unknown man forced himself on her or even that she and Joseph had acted consensually outside of marriage. Surely, either of these two ideas would have been more plausible than the story that she was made pregnant by the Holy Spirit – a story less likely to be believed and which would result in a very precarious social position for her at that time. Despite the shame that went along with being pregnant with another man’s child, or simply being pregnant with no husband – Mary took the risk and kept to her story, insisting she was still a virgin and this child was conceived through the Holy Spirit.

And then we can look at Joseph who is described as a good man. He had the turmoil of finding out his betrothed was now pregnant by someone else.  But, something happened to him, that convinced him that this baby was special. He had an experience that meant his obedience to God overrode any feelings or fear he had. In Joseph’s culture men expected their betrothed to be virgins at the time of marriage. For Mary to turn up pregnant was a shameful thing for Joseph and going through with the marriage would adversely affect his standing in the community. It was a terrible predicament and yet again, the Scriptures say he was a good man who had already decided to send Mary away quietly and not publicly humiliate her to keep his own good name. BUT he then had an encounter with an Angel that was so convincing that he went ahead with the marriage knowing the negative effect this decision would have on his reputation for the rest of his life.

And now we turn our focus on who the baby grew into – Jesus, and who he claimed to be. In several places in the New Testament Jesus states that he is equal with God the Father (John 10: 25-33) or working with the Father (John 5: 17 & 18). Or simply when he stated that he was, I AM (John 8: 57 – 59). These claims so enraged the religious leaders at the time that they accused him of blasphemy and demanded he be put to death. These were Jewish men well-schooled in the nuances of the words Jesus spoke and the related prophecies contained in their Scriptures.[7] They understood Jesus was claiming to be God and had him crucified for it.  And that should have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Jesus rose again and his followers were so affected by their experiences with him, their lives were radically changed to the point that they were willing to give their lives to spread his message of hope. Most importantly, unlike followers of mythological gods, Christianity continues to this day.

As we can see, the probability that this story is true is high. This child grew up to have such an impact on humanity that we can never call him normal. His influence for good has surpassed any other. As the popular quote from CS Lewis[8] suggests, we can call him a liar, or a lunatic, but his life does not bear that out, and yet we can’t call him a prophet or merely a great teacher – he did far more than any of those two things.  So we are left with one choice – we must call him Lord, God incarnate. A God so loving and broken-hearted over his creation and the awful mess we make of things when left to our own devices, that instead of stepping  god-like into history, He was born as one of us. 

This, this is Christ the King!
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

 


[1] For more information on the hymn What Child is this? please see this Wikipedia page.

[2] For information on the evidences of the Resurrection I recommend the book  The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Garry Habermas and Michael Licona.

[3] Wallace, J Warner, Cold Case Christianity, 2013. Abductive Reasoning involves taking the most reasonable possibilities you have and comparing those to the information you have and logically working your way to the most likely explanation.  

[4] Example of verses where eyewitnesses are mentioned: 2 Peter 1:16; Acts 1:21-22; Mark 5:16; Luke 1:2

[5] Page 56 of Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life Changing Truth for a Sceptical World by Sean & Josh McDowell, has a table listing the number of surviving manuscripts of major classical works the majority of scholars believe are authentic to the original autographs of the works.

[6] Please see Dr William Lane Craig’s critique of Bart Ehrman’s approach in this video.

[7] McDowells, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Life Changing Truth for a Sceptical World. Pages 175-179 list examples of Jesus claiming equality with God, and where he received worship as God – also see Matt 14:33, John 9:38, Matthew 28:9.

[8] “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. . . . Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.” (C S Lewis – Mere Christianity, 55-56)

Approaching the Jesus Myth with Others

Given the Christmas cheer and the anti-Christian, anti-Jesus rhetoric one typically hears around this time, I thought I might do a simple defence of Jesus’ existence using some of my favourite sources. Out of interest, you might appreciate this small opinion piece in the New York Times involving an interview with Dr. William Lane Craig. It’s always nice to see the media occasionally stepping out to question a mainstream Christian representative and well-respected scholar, instead of promoting the vitriol coming from a community of 30 people in the state of Kansas.

In my experience, the sooner you can get people reading the gospels for themselves the better. I have encountered countless testimonies involving the powerful effects of reading the gospels with an open mind. However, getting people to read or do anything in our instant-gratification, sceptical society can be incredibly difficult. On top of this, how can we possibly get people interested in Jesus if people believe he was just a made-up story? Or if people think that the scriptures are riddled with fantastical exaggerations?

In this blog I will present an approach for helping people get past Jesus Mythicism, followed by several links for dealing with other sceptical beliefs that typically follow this extreme scepticism.

The General Approach

Before going on this journey of discovery with anyone, realise that to genuinely help someone change their mind, it is highly recommended that you converse in person. Any written exchange requires a high level of work and skill to communicate accurately without coming across as dismissive. Regardless of whether you decide to engage in written or face to face exchange, I highly recommend that the entire engagement is filled with questions on your side.  When desiring to get a point across, try to think of questions that might lead them to genuinely ask you to share what you know. Typically, this involves questions that portray your genuine interest in the justification or validity of what they know.

Remember, the best way to communicate is to genuinely treat the person you are talking with as if they know a lot of things that you don’t. Pretend you are learning from a tutor and must write an examination essay tomorrow on the truth of their position. Chances are they do know a lot of things you don’t. Recognising this will likely help you focus on the kinds of questions that help get to the core of the truth, instead of an infinite number of wild goose chases.

In my experience there are several stages sceptics typically go through when rejecting the Jesus narrative.

1 – Jesus was a Myth

2 – The scriptures are unreliable

3 – Jesus was just some dude, not God

4 –The resurrection is unreasonable

Now, not everyone is going to defend all 4 of these unjustified positions, but I typically get the impression that these are the most likely conclusions people will draw, each of which people will defend independently of one another. The first involving the highest scepticism, moving down to the fourth as being the least sceptical. This all being said; most people may present their position as being generally reasonable to accept without much evidence. This happens when people reject Christianity for some other reason more important to them. This means they won’t change their mind based on the evidence you present. Helping them to see that their position isn’t very robust may be where you need to stop, no evidence required, move on to the next doubt they may have.

We recently had a student from the University of Auckland spend an entire year discussing all the evidence for God with our student leaders. Each argument individually was easy to dismiss without justification. However, at the end of the year, when reviewing the broader summary of the Christian story with a street evangelist, the weight of all the evidence became overwhelming. He said it was because of his many conversations throughout the year that the arguments, which were easy to individually dismiss without evidence, became overwhelming evidence to the Christian story when put together with the message of Christ.

Agnostic biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who has written books like “Misquoting Jesus” and debated Dr. William Lane Craig on the resurrection of Jesus, openly admits that “It was really the problem of suffering that lead [him] to becoming an agnostic”. So just remember that having this conversation about Jesus being a Myth may just be an important part of a bigger picture for whoever you may be talking to. You cannot expect people to become Christian from this one conversation, so don’t continue shoving evidence in people’s faces in the hopes that they will convert to Christianity right there and then.

Was Jesus a Myth?

Before getting into some of the push-backs you might want to use in a conversation with a Jesus Mythicist, it is very helpful to ask a range of questions to establish where someone is coming from. Even someone who is equipped with their reasons to lecture you on how Jesus never existed should struggle with the following questions. Being a sceptic with a sceptic is the best approach.

  • What is an appropriate standard of determining the historical accuracy of anything?
  • How can we have any confidence in this standard as an appropriate standard for evaluating history?
  • Do you know of any historical scholars anywhere in the world who agree with or teaches this standard?
  • Where should mainstream scholarship be adopting this standard and why aren’t they currently?

These questions may not persuade the sceptic out of their position. However, it may open them up to hearing the following information.

In 2014, Bart Ehrman attended a conference called “Freedom From Religion” where he gave a lecture regarding “what it is like to be an agnostic who writes about religion”. At the end of this talk he was questioned by an audience member who said “I do not see evidence in archaeology or history for a historical Jesus”. Bart Ehrman’s response was scathing. Addressing the audience of sceptics and Atheists, Bart said, “There is so much evidence”, “In the crowds you all run around with it is commonly thought that Jesus did not exist. Let me tell you, once you get outside of your conclaves there is nobody who [thinks this]”. Now appealing to the authority of a single academic is not a good argument, but if someone raises this point, you must emphasise that this is not the point of quoting Bart Ehrman. What you want to get across to the sceptic is that even the most sceptical of any academic scholar will tell you that the Jesus Mythicism movement is a joke. You are using the quotes of Bart Ehrman as testimony and evidence to the reality that academic scholarship is entirely against Jesus Mythicism.

One could go into arguments demonstrating the evidence of why historians come to the conclusions that they do. However, the average person isn’t likely to trust your interpretation of Biblical scholarship let alone understand the significance of well-established principles that undergird the evidence for Jesus’ existence. Therefore, the questioning of the Mythicist’s assumptions and principles is so essential. So long as they think they are justified in their conclusions, it doesn’t matter what counter perspective you may have, most people are unlikely to listen, and it is unlikely to change their mind. What you want to demonstrate is that they have no grounds for asserting anything they currently believe to be true and then demonstrate that there is a vast majority consensus among historians going against their relatively uneducated perspective. Always remember, you have just as much right to play the sceptic of anything they say as they do to you. Make sure to use that as much as possible. Ask them how they came to their conclusions and why you should believe the claims they make, even about the sources of their claims and how you can independently verify their claims and sources. But do this with genuine curiosity, for all Truth is God’s and God has given us the tools and moral witness of the Holy Spirit to discover His Truth.

Bart Ehrman goes on to say in the Q&A “This is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity. There is no scholar in any college or university in the western world who teaches classics, ancient history, new testament, early Christianity, any related field, who doubts that Jesus existed… I think that Atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because, frankly, it makes you look foolish to the outside world.”

Now, with the understanding that the objective of quoting Bart Ehrman is to provide evidence of a consensus, what we want to do is help our sceptic friend understand that if we are to go against the entirety of a peer reviewed academic industry, we better have a very good piece of evidence ourselves before demanding people explain away our baseless assertions of what is and isn’t appropriate.

If the person you are speaking with then wants to dispute their arguments and evidence that exist for Jesus Mythicism, first ensure that they establish how their views are defended by people who are well educated and scrutinized by others devoting their lives to this study. Maybe encourage them to go into the field of study and prove to the world the accuracy of what they are saying if they are so certain they are correct. Be a loving encouragement throughout. Remember to love your enemies. And if all is lost, propose that you spend time together going through the evidence presented by agnostic and self-proclaimed Atheist scholar of ancient history, Bart Ehrman. He wrote a book just for this called “Did Jesus Exist?”

The Other Stages

When dealing with the other stages of scepticism you will encounter, many of the principles are much the same. Treat the person like they are a subject matter expert from whom you eagerly and innocently want to understand how they came to their conclusions. You should genuinely want to know what evidence they’ve found which lead them to believe what they say, and where you can personally find the sources for such evidence. Although these other stages of scepticism don’t have as much consensus on the subject, they still have very good arguments which have been refined and made easily accessible for the public. This is where having good resources to go through with the person you are discussing with will be very helpful. However, this is probably a series of blogs for another time. For now, I would just recommend watching any of the following to get a solid summary of the arguments. Particularly for guidance around what direction you might want to take a conversation through asking tactful questions.

For people who think ‘The scriptures are unreliable’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0OWYAf2TNA

“Jesus was just some dude, not God”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSQDov6NNp0&index=

“The resurrection is unreasonable”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvTNFrjPjC0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9k3CBwj-ut0&t=

How can Jesus be both God and man?

The Incarnation is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity. It is the belief that God became incarnate in the historical Jesus who was both truly God and truly Man. Any mixing or blurring of the two natures within Christ has traditionally resulted in heresy for going against the explicit teachings of scripture. This explains why such a vital Christian Doctrine has been under attack since the beginning. Christians are accused of believing in a logical contradiction. [1]

Some have argued that God possesses attributes like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and is described as timeless, spaceless and immaterial. God has these attributes necessarily and if He were to lose any of them, He would cease to be God. However, these properties are not typically observed in human beings. Thus the question is raised “How can Jesus be both truly God but truly Man at the same time”?[2]

Philosopher Thomas V. Morris, from the University of Notre Dame, summarizes the problem as follows:

“It is logically impossible for any being to exemplify at one and the same time both a property and its logical complement. Thus, recent critics have concluded, it is logically impossible for any one person to be both human and divine, to have all the attributes proper to deity and all those ingredients in human nature as well. The doctrine of the Incarnation on this view is an incoherent theological development of the early church which must be discarded by us in favour of some other way of conceptualizing the importance of Jesus for Christian faith. He could not possibly have been God Incarnate, a literally divine person in human nature.” [3]

This does look like a serious difficulty but Morris has produced one of the best responses to this sort of challenge in his book “The Logic of God incarnate”. Following his lead, Philosopher Ronald H. Nash has revisited the argument and laid it out for us in his book “Worldviews in Conflict”. Like Morris, Ronald presents three major distinctions that needs to be understood in order to work our way out of this apparent contradiction. They are as follows:

  1. The distinction between essential and nonessential properties
  2. The distinction between essential and common properties
  3. The distinction between being fully human and merely human. [4]

Essential and nonessential properties

The word ‘property’ simply refers to a feature or characteristic of something. Properties are of two types, essential and nonessential, which we can understand by looking at the example of a red ball. The colour of a ball is a nonessential property because even if we change the colour to yellow or blue, the object would still be a ball. But the property of ‘roundness’ is an essential property, because if we were to change that then the object would cease to be a ball. One cannot have a ball that isn’t round. Similarly there are certain properties which are essential to God such as necessary existence, omnipotence, omniscience, and so on. If there is a being that might lack any of these essential properties, then that being could not be God. When Christians affirm that Jesus is God, they also affirm that Jesus possesses all these essential properties of God. This is pretty obvious as well as easy to grasp, but the real problem arises when we try to identify the essential properties of human beings. Critics of incarnation go wrong when they believe that in order to be a human one has to be lacking in omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. In other words, it is incorrect to conclude that the lack of these properties is essential to being human. This could be explained further, but we first need to understand the distinction between essential and common properties. [5]

Essential and common properties

A common property is any property that human beings possess but it is not necessarily an essential property. In order to explain this common property, Ronald refers to Morris’ example of ten fingers. He explains that since all human beings have ten fingers, this is common property. But it is obvious that having ten fingers is not an essential property to being a human because a man can lose one or all of the fingers and still be a human being. [6] Let’s take a look at how Morris explains the importance and relevance of these points with regards to the doctrine of Incarnation:

“It is certainly quite common for human beings to lack omnipotence, omniscience, necessary existence, and so on. I think any orthodox Christian will agree that, apart from Jesus, these are even universal features of human existence. Further, in the case of any of us who do exemplify the logical complements of these distinctively divine attributes, it may well be most reasonable to hold that they are in our case essential attributes. I, for example, could not possibly become omnipotent. As a creature, I am essentially limited in power. But why think this is true on account of human nature? Why think that any attributes incompatible with deity are elements of human nature, properties without which one could not be truly or fully human?”[7]

In other words, even though you and I lack those essential properties of a divine being, where is the argument that proves these limitations are essential for being human? Morris argues that these properties are simply common human properties and not essential ones. [8]

Being Fully Human and Being Merely Human

An individual is ‘fully human’ if he has all the essential human properties, while an individual is merely human if he has all the properties of a human being but has some additional limitations like for example lacking omnipotence, lacking omniscience and so on. That being said, what Christians believe is that “Jesus was fully human without being merely human.” What it means is that, Jesus possessed all the properties essential to being a deity as well as all the properties to being a human being. Morris argues that critics are confused when they try to conclude that the lack of divine properties is essential to human nature.

Conclusion

The three major distinctions play a vital role in defeating the alleged contradiction that exists within the Doctrine of Incarnation and thus helps us in concluding that the orthodox Christology is not self-contradictory. 

 

References

[1] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., pp. 99-100

[2] Ibid., p.100

[3] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 17, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[4] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 101

[5] Ibid., pp. 102-103

[6] Ibid., pp. 103-104

[7] Morris, Thomas V. 1988. “Understanding God incarnate.” Accessed March 18, 2018. http://place.asburyseminary.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1431&context=asburyjournal

[8] Nash, Ronald H. 1992. WORLDVIEWS IN CONFLICT – CHOOSING CHRISTIANITY IN A WORLD OF IDEAS. Michigan, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse., p. 104

Thoughts on Christmas and one tough question

 

I love this time of year. We decorate our homes with tinsel, nativity scenes and snow globes. And of course, the tree!

Christmas is a time when most families come together to share gifts, stories, laughter and love. For others it is a bittersweet time, or even a painfully lonely time. Despite the rampant commercialism, encroaching secularism and yes – the stress – Christmas day still points to and commemorates one of the most important days on the Christian calendar, the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

As Christians it is a time we can unashamedly share the Good News of Jesus and have reason to invite people to Church. Despite the prevalence of gifts and delicious food and all those jolly men in red suits, the foundation of the Christmas celebration in western culture is still Jesus’s birth and because of this our conversations can more easily turn to God and the true meaning of Christmas. The conversations can be light and friendly or, because our current culture questions everything, we can find ourselves faced with some tough questions about our faith. One of the most asked questions and possibly the hardest to answer is:

“But if God is so loving, how could He send people to hell?”

I’ll be honest, the first time someone asked me this question, I fell silent. It was a question I personally struggled to find an answer for. The biblical concepts of an all-loving God and the terrifying descriptions of Hell were too incongruent. With a primary focus on our Loving God in current sermons and writings, I began to wonder if Hell did actually exist and if God really would send people there.

Yet, although Hell has largely disappeared from current Christian conversations, it has not disappeared from the Bible. There are many verses in the Scriptures that forewarn of it. Jesus warned of Hell more than He discussed heaven.1 Despite its awfulness, biblical authority won and I could not deny Hell’s existance.

To find some clarity on this tough doctrine we can look at three attributes of God. First, God is Holy – perfectly pure in a way we can barely imagine from our earthly perspective so marred by sin. Sin can be described as a corruption of good that affects both the natural realm and our internal selves – damaging our character and spirit by turning our focus inward, rather than outward in worship to God. It is as impossible for sin to exist in God’s Holy presence, as it is impossible that a tissue can survive a burning flame. God hates sin and all it does to humanity.2 Rebecca Manly Pippert put it well in her book Hope has its reasons,

Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it…Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.’3

Second, God is Just. There will be a time when He will set things right and complete justice will prevail. He is also just, in that He will never force us into a relationship with Him. If we spend our lives denying God, refuting Him and refusing Him, it would not be just for Him to force us to then live eternally in constant fellowship with Him.4

Third, God is Love. His love for humanity is all encompassing, and incredibly patient. Although we sometimes wish He’d quickly rid the world of evil, His love for us means He is waiting for as many people as possible to turn to Him.5 I’m personally grateful He waited for me! The evil in the world is a result of our having free will. We have the choice to love God and follow His ways and we have the choice to deny Him and follow our own ways. It follows then, that when we die, our choice to be in relationship with Him, or not, would also be honored. It would not be a loving or just act for God to force us to be with Him for all eternity. There has to be a hell, a place of complete separation from God, for those who don’t choose Heaven.6

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis wrote:

There are only two kinds of people – those who say, “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.’

God does not send us to Hell, we choose to go there and that is the greatest tragedy. God didn’t just reach out for us, He came down as one of us. Down into our messy reality to save us from our sins and give us a way up and out. Love came down in the form of a baby boy who would one day make the ultimate sacrifice to change the world and bring hope and the offer of life beyond all we could imagine. He still offers us the hope that there will one day be no more suffering, sickness, death and destruction and that one-day every tear will be wiped away.7 So in our response to the first question, we could also sincerely ask,

“Why would you not choose Heaven?”

References:


  1. There are many verses where Jesus explains about, warns against and describes Hell, for example, the sobering Matthew 25:31- 46. In Luke 16: 19-31 Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It is interesting to me that the Rich Man does not ask to be let out of Hell, he seems resigned, but he does want his family warned.

  2. R. C. Sproul makes this insightful observation from Isaiah 6: “The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.”R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985).

  3. Rebecca Manley Pippert, Hope Has It’s Reasons (Harper, 1990)

  4. Jo Vitale – apologist with Ravi Zacharias Ministries, quoted from Just Asking, during a podcast titled: How Can a Good God Send People to Hell?

  5. 2 Peter 3:9

  6. In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (Penguin Random House, 2009), Timothy Keller goes into more depth on this topic in Chapter 5 – How can a loving God send people to Hell?

  7. Revelation 21:3-4 “And behold I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Asking a difficult question

So you think I’m going to hell?

In our conversations with others about God – we will eventually encounter difficult questions like these:

“So you think I’m going to hell?”

“Do you think everyone who doesn’t believe like you are going to hell?”

“But why do I need Jesus?”

How do we answer such a pointed questions without sounding judgemental and bigoted?

Rather than being caught out – these questions are actually wonderful opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Check out this short clip where Greg Koukl outlines a tactical and gracious way you can answer these questions so you’re not caught out:

Jesus the Game Changer - digital download

Jesus the Game Changer 4 of 10: WOMEN & CHILDREN

This is the fourth post in a series of posts running parallel to weekly screening of the series Jesus the Game Changer on Shine TV.


Do you know what it is like to be treated as a second-class citizen? A valuable thought experiment is to delve into the life of a woman or child in the Greco-Roman world to experience what this was truly like. Women and children were viewed as inferior citizens regardless of which social strata they found themselves in. This sentiment is found in countless writings from that period and irks the modern progressive (despite modern treatment of women and children being no less unjust).

Both yesterday and today, we witness an urge to subdue the vulnerable that is endemic to mankind. As with all injustice, Jesus Christ comes to right these wrongs.

Jesus and women

Jesus was by no means afraid to get intimate with the lesser – with those the cultural elite  controlled. Through his interactions with the bleeding woman, the thirsty Samaritan and countless prostitutes, Jesus was declaring a massively important theological truth – we are all equal in that we all stand equally in need of mercy and grace for the rebellion in our hearts.

The resurrection accounts contained in the four Gospels report that women were the first to see the shattered stone and empty tomb. This is no passing detail for the authors – this is a punch to the face of ancient female relations. If you wanted to create your own religion in first century Palestine, one of the first steps you would take is to avoid having women play an integral part in the genesis. But they did. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John must have missed that lesson.

Jesus and children

All of Jesus’ gentle interactions with children (or little ones) was not to demonstrate how good of a Sunday School teacher he would have been. As with so many of Jesus’ words and actions, we have to dig deep for the gold beneath the surface:

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30)

Did you catch that? We are the children. We are the helpless, vulnerable, dependants who require constant adult supervision to avoid getting lost or cracking our skulls on the coffee table. God’s gracious will was to reveal his plan of salvation to us – foolish and misunderstanding children – to give something infinite to those infinitely undeserving

Yet again we see Jesus, the great Leveler – he definitively levels the playing field by not only teaching with his words and actions that all men are equal, but by focusing every eye and shutting every mouth via the truth of sin and judgement. No matter your gender or age every person stands empty-handed before a holy God who justly demands perfection.

With unparalleled gentleness and meekness, this carpenter from Nazareth stoops down to the prostitute and the little ones, opens his arms and says, “Come to me all who labour and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

We, the prostitutes and fools of this world, are adopted as his children. Game changing.

Jesus The Game Changer

Jesus the Game Changer 1 of 10: JESUS

This is the first post in a series of posts running parallel to weekly screening of the series Jesus the Game Changer on Shine TV.


Who has had the greatest impact on history? Who is the most important person who ever lived? Who is the most unexpected person to ever be remembered?

Jesus.

The Romans built Bath in AD 70, 2000 kms from Rome itself. At the same time in Palestine, a small group of people existed who had no power and authority, claiming that a person who had died in obscurity was the Messiah. If you had to guess which would last the longest, what would you say? 2000 years later Christianity is still here and Rome is long gone. How did this happen?

The Impact of Jesus

In the episode this week, Karl interviewed a computer scientist, Steven Skiena, who undertook a study to analyze Wikipedia with the goal of finding the relevance of people in history. He looked for things like how long an article is, how many times it is read, how many links to it, and how many times it was edited. Jesus came out number one. This is significant, it shows that Jesus is, today, the person around whom there is the most discussion and controversy. Who would have ever thought that Jesus would still be so popular? A man who lived and died 2000 years ago? It is strange because Jesus died in obscurity, having written nothing and in a state of utter and complete humiliation, was crucified on a cross. For everyone, surely, this was a clear sign that Jesus was nothing. Yet today, people are still talking about him. According to a 2005 study, Jesus is followed by approximately 2 billion people, around 33% of the world’s population[1]. For a person who never led an army, never held government office, never had children, never wrote anything but who died on a cross in obscurity 2000 years ago, this is remarkable. Jesus is the most controversial figure today.

So, what is the evidence that Jesus existed?

Evidence for Jesus

Nothing in history is certain, however, we do have some pieces of evidence, and what we have is better explained by the existence of Jesus of Nazareth than his non-existence. Some of the best pieces of evidence, are writings by hostile historians who mention Jesus, people like Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus. These sources are pieces of external evidence, yet we also have a great deal of internal evidence coming from the gospel accounts themselves, four different accounts that have differences but yet a striking similarity. People in history didn’t record things in the same way that we record things, we want perfection, but such a thing is not a realistic perspective for ancient history. Rather, when dealing with history, we want independent accounts from as many different perspectives as possible. A great example is the video ref in rugby. The more cameras that have a perspective on the play, the better the picture is of what happened, and the better the judgement is of the ref. Thus, it is possible that what skeptics call contradictions may in fact be merely a difference in perspective, a different angle on the same event.

So, if we accept that the gospel accounts are all relatively reliable perspectives on the same event, how do we know we have what was written?

It may seem strange to you, but the New Testament is the most well attested document in history. If you have 200 manuscripts of a particular document, that is significant. However, for the New Testament we have over 5800 manuscripts in Greek, and 8000 Latin manuscripts. This is simply incredible; the wealth of manuscripts we have today means we can be almost certain that the documents we have today are actually what was written. But what about the authors, what do we know about them? Well, for one thing, they had no incentives to lie. Think about it. Your messiah has been killed, and you are hunted by the authorities. If you knew the whole deal was a lie, would you really write a book that might get you killed? No, you must believe what you are writing is the truth, and is truly important. The gospel accounts are four biographies, claiming that Jesus did some things that were seen, and that those things were recorded so that the readers might have eternal life.

However, some may object by saying that many of the events recorded in the gospels are miracles, and miracles can’t happen because the laws of nature cannot be broken. This objection only works if we live in a closed universe without a creator who created the universe. Yet, this is not what Christians claim. We agree, people cannot naturally turn water into wine, walk on water, create bread, and rise from the dead. However, the universe is an open universe, created by a being who can step in and alter the natural course of events.

Even so, miracles aside, why is Jesus unique, how is he different?

All the other teachers drew men to themselves and have others do things for them. However, Jesus came and did something for us, rising from the dead and by that, opening the door to eternity. He gave himself away in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, doing that which we never could have done, reconciling us to God, and giving us life everlasting.

So, what is Faith? What does it mean to have Faith in Jesus?

Faith in Jesus

The Christian faith is 3 things:

  1. Information
  2. Agreement with the Information
  3. Trust in the Information

How does this apply to Jesus?

  1. Jesus died and rose from the dead
  2. It may seem impossible, but it is hard to explain the facts any other way so we accept them
  3. We act on the Information and trust Christ for our salvation

Jesus the Game Changer

Jesus was and is a game changer, not just for people alive today, but also for the apostle Paul. Paul was a man who hated Christians, who made a living seeking out Christians and throwing them in jail. Yet when Christ entered Paul’s life, everything changed for Paul. This is still true today. Maybe you feel that because you can’t believe in God or Jesus as the Son of God, then you are out of luck. However even today, Jesus is a game changer. He comes the way he did 2000 years ago, telling stories that haunt us, and bringing us to the realization that we need him. Give Jesus a go, step into his story, there is more there than is on the surface. Only in Christ do we have hope. Life is very brief.

In this week’s episode, Mary Jo Sharp commented that reading the Bible got along the path, but didn’t get her to Jesus. She only realized she needed Christ when she heard the truth of the Gospel which says that we are sinful, separated from God by our sin, and that only through Christ is the path unto salvation.

Do you know Christ? Have you accepted His offer of forgiveness? Have you repented of your sin and now rejoice in newness of life?

Jesus is a game changer, He has changed my life, and I know that He can change yours.


References

[1] http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

Five reasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead

Five Reasons to Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead Pt. 6: Why It Matters – Adam4d.com

Over the last 5 days we have been examining 5 reasons for the resurrection as presented by Adam Ford of adam4d.com.

If you have missed any of the last 5 posts, don’t worry, take a look at Adam’s original piece.

To summarize, Adam pointed out that there are 5 good reasons to think Jesus rose from the dead namely:

  1. The Empty Tomb
  2. The Post-Mortem Appearances of Jesus
  3. The Conversion of Saul of Tarsus
  4. The Boldness of the Disciples
  5. The Explosion of Christianity

Taken in isolation, any one of these events can be explained without having to revert to non-naturalistic explanations. For example, the empty tomb could be explained by the disciples stealing the body; or the Boldness of the Disciples could be attributed to an “experience/vision” of the risen Christ.

However, taken in concert, it is hard to see how any naturalistic explanation accounts for all of these facts. Such an explanation, is a veritable “Frankenstein’s Monster” of an explanation, being neither simple, nor plausible, but rather a monstrous and freakish mishmash of doubtful and tenuous theories. In fact, such an attempt to explain the previously mentioned facts seems to betray the strongly biased presuppositions of the proposer; namely an unwillingness to entertain the thought of a non-naturalistic explanation. Without justification, such a presupposition seems arbitrary and even irrational, why not be open to the possibility of a supernatural intervention?

However, that is not the question for today. Rather, in light of the evidence we have examined together, what are the implications for us today in the 21st century. What if Jesus rose from the dead? What if he didn’t? Let us turn again to Adam, and see what He says.

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Five reasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead

Five Reasons to Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead Pt. 5: The Explosion of Christianity – Adam4d.com

Welcome back, If you missed part 1, part 2, part 3 and or part 4 check them out.

Today we are looking at a 4th piece of evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as expressed by Adam Ford from adam4d.com, the spread of Christianity after the crucifixion.

If you like this comic, please check out adam4d.com, and even consider supporting Adam in what he is doing.

Tomorrow, we will conclude with why all of this matters.

Enjoy!

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Five reasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead

Five Reasons to Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead Pt. 4: The Boldness of the Disciples – Adam4d.com

Welcome back, If you missed part 1, part 2 and or part 3 please check them out.

Today we are looking at a 4th piece of evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as expressed by Adam Ford from adam4d.com, the boldness of the disciples who proclaimed the gospel message.

If you like this comic, please check out adam4d.com, and even consider supporting Adam in what he is doing.

Enjoy!

Read more

Five reasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead

Five Reasons to Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead Pt. 3: The Conversion of Saul of Tarsus – Adam4d.com

Welcome back, If you missed part 1 and or part 2 please check them out.

Today we are looking at a third piece of evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as expressed by Adam Ford from adam4d.com, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, an early persecutor of the church who became the apostle to the Gentiles.

If you like this comic, please check out adam4d.com, and even consider supporting Adam in what he is doing.

Enjoy!

Read more

Five reasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead

Five Reasons to Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead Pt. 2: The Post-Mortem Appearances – Adam4d.com

Welcome back, If you missed part 1, please check it out.

Today we are looking at a second piece of evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as expressed by Adam Ford from adam4d.com, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus after his death.

If you like this comic, please check out adam4d.com, and even consider supporting Adam in what he is doing.

Enjoy!

Read more