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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

Things Which Ought to Be Better Known about the Resurrection of Jesus

Dr Peter Williams discusses the evidence for the resurrection at the Lanier Theological Library (Houston, Texas) on April 7th. Dr Williams is Warden of Tyndale House and a member of the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge.

HT: Justin Taylor

Why don’t skeptics apply their standards of evidence to themselves?

We had a spirited debate on miracles in a previous thread. And during that debate, I noted how even in cases where all the evidence is against naturalistic explanations, skeptics simply cannot entertain a supernatural explanation instead. They just have to hold that there is a naturalistic one, despite the evidence.

The very definition of blind faith.

In reply, “Tom Joad” said:

To that, I would just say that you would expect there to be a natural explanation for unexpected events, or ‘miracles.’ In the absence of an obvious explanation, it would be a fantastically interesting process to find out what the actual cause was.

Since the comments in the previous thread have now closed automatically, let me pick up the conversation here.

Why is Tom applying such a different standard to himself as he’d apply to religious people? And why does this seem to happen so frequently with skeptics?

For example, skeptics often take issue with phenomena like “speaking in tongues” and “faith healings” and the like—which you’ll find in many happy-clappy churches, particularly in America.

They point out that these phenomena can be reproduced in non-religious settings, as well as in competing religious settings (Hinduism for example). Moreover, they can be thoroughly explained by neurology, and therefore a supernatural explanation is at best superfluous.

So they criticize Christians who believe that these events are “works of the Spirit” on two grounds: firstly, all the evidence points to a naturalistic explanation; secondly, the Christian’s supernaturalistic explanation is too exclusive to account for all the instances of this phenomenon.

Thus skeptics hold that it is irrational to favor a supernatural explanation over a natural one here.

But now compare this to Tom’s comments about miracles, and notice the double standard.

When it comes to a situation where the roles are reversed and all the evidence points to a supernatural explanation, while a naturalistic one is untenable, he seems to think that it is not only rational, but entirely reasonable to believe there still is a naturalistic explanation.

And he goes on to make some comments about the supposedly unreasonable nature of faith, inasmuch as if some particular miracle is discredited, “for 99% of Christians, this disproof of a supposed miracle would do nothing to dissuade their faith.” The implication, of course, being that a discredited miracle ought to give Christians occasion to reevaluate their faith.

But why? Notice again the double standard. Imagine if some element of evolution were discredited—indeed, this happens all the time as part of the scientific process. Does Tom think these occasions should cause him to reevaluate his belief in evolution? Are they likely to dissuade him from from that belief?

Of course not.

So why expect that of Christians? Since the faith of 99% of Christians doesn’t rest on some random miracle, but on a wide variety of evidences, it would be quite unreasonable to think that discrediting a random miracle would have any effect whatsoever on their faith.

Why do skeptics have such a hard time applying the same standards of evidence to themselves as they think are reasonable for Christians? I don’t know. Perhaps some skeptics could enlighten me in the comments.

The Jesus of History: An Introduction (Part 1)

An Introduction

The scandal of Christianity is that it is a religion grounded in historical events, which if they can be demonstrated to be false, would empty it of meaning and all power. Chief among those historical events is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The apostle Paul declares, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”[1] Michael Green was right when he wrote, “Once disprove the historicity of Jesus Christ, and Christianity will collapse like a pack of cards.”[2] If Christians are to maintain that faith is reasonable, it will be crucial to establish that not only the events of history in general can be known, but also specific events of the past are true.

Most people when they come to Christ do not do historical research or consider things like the problem of historical knowledge. Rather, they come to know the great truths of the gospel, such as Christ’s atoning life and death, and his resurrection from the dead on the basis of their experience of the Spirit of God. This experience I take as veridical, and a fully legitimate grounding of knowledge.[3] So although the Christian is warranted in believing what happened 2000 years ago without studying history or philosophy, the following entries in this series will concern themselves with exactly that. I will be summarizing the search for the historical Jesus, then assess some of the search’s surrounding dilemmas. It will not be a thorough treatment. Whole books have been written, and still could be, on any one of these issues. I seek only to summarize, explain and briefly offer what refutation can be given. Included will be an assessment of Historical Relativism, the Problem of Miracles, imposing Methodological Naturalism in the study of history, and three methods for establishing historical descriptions.

I begin this journey with a goal in mind: to establish the description of the person of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospel narratives as truly historical. The pen of John Stuart Mill eloquently expresses the same conviction.

“It is of no use to say that Christ as exhibited in the gospels is not historical . . . Who among his disciples or among their proselytes was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus, or of imagining the life and character revealed in the gospels? Certainly not the fishermen of Galilee, still less the early Christian writers.”[4]


[1] 1 Cor 15:17 (NASB)

[2] Michael Green, Runaway World (London: Inter-Varsity, 1968), p. 2.

[3] Philosophers call these beliefs properly basic. They need not have arguments to support them, for they are bedrock beliefs that are wholly sensible in and of themselves, from which we argue to other things.

[4] John Stuart Mill, Essays on Nature, the Utility of Religion and Theism (London: Longmans, 1874).

Miracles in Apologetics Part 2

I have long thought that a miracle can be an apologetic. It was one of the chief ways that God authenticated His word and His revelation. Today, with the resurgence of our awareness of miracles, it is important we think about how the testimony of miracles sounds to unbelievers, particularly those who are sceptical and philosophically opposed to Christianity and belief in God.

In order to develop an apologetic for God’s existence that reduces the opportunity for scepticism, based upon the testimony of miracles, I suggest that a miracle X meets the following criteria.

(1) Does X have a natural explanation?
If the answer is “Yes,” then X is merely a case for either God’s providence or second-order causation. What we will be focusing on here is first-order causation where a miracle is any event such that the natural conditions for said event were not present. 

(2) Is the miracle radical enough to assume that there is no yet to be discovered natural explanation to defeat it.

For example, the Egyptian magicians of Pharaoh could duplicate the miracles performed by Moses, but a point was reached when the magicians ability to duplicate the miracle was surpassed due to the large scale and spectacular nature. An ache in the belly with the tendency to come and go, when prayed for may disappear, but such an occurrence, though it may be a genuine miracle, would hardly be convincing. On the other-hand a regenerative miracle, where a blind man sees, a lame man walks, or deaf man hears, or a limb suddenly re-grows is more difficult to wave away as having a natural explanation.

(3) Did X happen within the context answered prayer.

The objection this counters is the chance hypothesis. The skeptic will claim that with six billion people in the world it is not unexpected that some people will be particularly lucky or experience miraculous-like events. However the plausibility of this hypothesis is reduced when it occurs in the context of prayer.

(4) Is X an isolated occurrence, or is there a high frequency of similar occurrences in the same context?

For instances explaining Jesus’ miracles away with natural explanations become increasingly contrived the more miracles there are that have to be explained.

(5) Did X happen instantly, or did it take a while?

This is not to say that miracles that take some time are less miraculous, but to say that miracles that happen instantly are the better spectacle.

(6) Was X permanent?

(7) Is X verified by experts in the field, ie. medical doctors and supporting evidence (x-rays, test results).

It will take skill to weigh and balance the above criteria – though they are not really criteria as a genuine miracle may not necessarily conform to every point. This is only a suggested checklist for use in an argument for divine causation, specifically to refute both Deism and Atheism. It is only a guideline to assessing the convincing power of a testimony, and to reduce the opportunity for scepticism and rejection.

Bayesian Probability Theorem

Often heard in response to the arguments of historical apologetics, such as the claim that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, is the axiom ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ People who use this line must be unaware this has been soundly refuted in current philosophical thought, or else persuaded to use irrational principles to satisfy the requirements of their ideological allegiances. After all, there are hundreds of extraordinary claims you come across each day, and yet have no trouble believing.

Consider the lottery reported last night on television as one such event. The chances of winning, or indeed any random sequence of numbers, is extraordinarily improbable, yet if it is true that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, you should never believe it happened. Weighing the probability of the extraordinary event will swamp the reliability of the witnesses every time so that you should never believe it. Even if the programs reporting is 99.9% accurate.

This kind of thinking is really a popular hang-over of Hume’s problem with miracles, which has been thoroughly refuted. John Earman, the agnostic philosopher wrote the book called Hume’s Abject Failure, in which he argues as commonsensical as this principle sounds, it is demonstrably false. The problem that probability theorists have worked on is how one can establish highly improbable events. They realised that you also have to consider the probability that if the reported event would not have occurred that the event would have been reported as it is. 

For instance, what is the probability that the sequence of numbers reported as the lottery result, would have been reported had those numbers not been the correct result. In the case of the resurrection, what is the probability that if Jesus of Nazareth did not rise from the dead we would have the evidences of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances and the origin of the disciples belief, et cetera?

Thus an elegant way to assess highly improbable events was developed. The probability for hypothesis (H) on the given evidence (E) with respect to the general background knowledge (B), called Bayes’s theorem. 

bayes

How this works is you plug in values of >.5 for positive probability or <.5 for some negative probability. As the result moves towards 1 it is more likely and towards 0 it is less. In the numerator we have the intrinsic probability of H multiplied by H’s explanatory power, Pr(E/H). The intrinsic probability of H is the conditional probability of H relative to the background knowledge (B). The Pr(E/H) is the rational expectation of E given H is the case, again relative to the background knowledge (B). The background knowledge in both cases is tactically assumed. In the denominator the above product is added to the product of the intrinsic probability and explanatory power of the denial of H. If this latter product is 0 then the numerator and denominator are the same and yield a ratio equal to 1, meaning 100% probability.

Hume failed to appreciate the probability calculus which entails not only the general background knowledge of the way the world is, but also the probability that we should expect the given evidence had the proposed event not occurred. So it turns out that it could very well be the case that an extraordinary event would not require extraordinary evidence, if the evidence is highly unlikely to occur had the event not taken place. He confuses miraculousness with probability and infrequency with implausibility. That’s one reason why Hume’s argument against miracles is entirely fallacious. 

Richard Swinburne, the philosopher of science from Oxford University, after plugging in the values, gives the probability of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as 97%. Now I’m not sure how he arrived at the values he plugged in, so I wouldn’t necessarily use Bayes’s Theorem for an analysis of philosophical hypotheses such as God raised Jesus from the dead. But I think enough has been said to show that extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence.