Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why Believe in Jesus?

Reprinted from an article by Jim Barranger in Extant Magazine.

How do you know that the whole Jesus event actually happened? Historical criticism of the events in the Bible is a field thousands of years old, and so far even the most skeptical of scholars have come up with no reason – short of an unfounded presuppositional rejection of the supernatural – to doubt what it says. The more people study the history of the Bible, the more they find that the things written by the Bible actually happened when the Bible said they happened. In short, the Bible has established (and continues to establish) a pattern of credibility. It is a historically credible source.

You shouldn’t follow Horus or Osiris because they were invented by people. They are myths in the purest sense of the world: beliefs held with no support whatsoever. There is no empirical evidence suggesting that they are, or were ever, real. I would not, and God would not, ask you to believe in anything that was not supported by empirical evidence.

Jesus, on the other hand, appeared at a time in history to a people (Jews) very fond of historical records, when they were ruled by people speaking a language (Greek) spoken by virtually the entire known world at the time. The life and deeds of Jesus were recorded at length by numerous people, in accordance with prophecies given hundreds of years beforehand. We know these prophecies were not invented after the fact by Christians because they still exist in the Hebrew Bible today.

Christ’s miracles were witnessed by tens of thousands of people during his lifetime; his crucifixion by dozens (a lot fewer people, to be sure, but I wouldn’t have wanted to see it either), his dead body by several, and his resurrection by more than 500. There is no lack of evidence to suggest that Christ is who he said he is, did what he said he did, and should be worshiped just as he claims he deserves worship.

This is why you should not follow, for example, Egyptian polytheism. It is also why you should not follow Islam or Hinduism, as they are simply philosophies created by men, not proven historical facts. If Christianity were merely the moral teachings of a man named Jesus, I would have no reason why you should listen. Because it is truth based in fact, behind which is a gigantic amount of evidence, belief is the only logical conclusion to anyone who has done a rudimentary amount of research into the matter. The apostle Paul appealed to this himself in one of his letters to the Corinthian church: “You doubt that he raised from the dead? More than 500 people saw him after his resurrection – go ask one of them!” He expected that people would subject the beliefs of Christianity to scientific rigor and be satisfied.

“But wait,” you object, “I have never seen evidence of God.” However, you believe in a great many things that you have never seen. You’ve never seen DNA, or Pluto, or the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy, or love (only its effects), or, say, Mount Everest. Yet you believe in these things anyway because there are people whose job it was to verify them, and those people did verify them, and you take it on those people’s authority. I take Christianity for the same reason: the people whose job it was to verify it, who (as 11 of Jesus’ 12 apostles) were put to terrible deaths for refusing to deny it, have verified it to my satisfaction.

Admittedly, I came to Christ (as most people do) primarily for emotional reasons, and this is what Jesus intended. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavily-burdened, and I will give you rest.” All this knowledge about historical truth came after the fact. Yet even my emotional reasons are based in fact. The Bible says that a person who is living on his own, without God’s guidance, will have a life that looks a certain way – and my life did. The Bible further says that once a person accepts Christ, his life will change – and mine did, exactly as the Bible (although I had not read it at the time) said it would. My own life experience further validates the truth of the Bible; I have tested its hypotheses about life and human nature, and found them to be in accordance with the reality of things.

We live in a very curious age, a world in which people believe that if something cannot be proven then it cannot be true. That idea itself is false, and I explained why in a recent blog. But as long as people hold to it, then we should be ready with our answers, showing that Christianity can (to a reasonable man’s satisfaction) be proven. I say a reasonable man because there are and always will be people who illogically reject the idea of the supernatural, or simply do not want to experience the total change in worldview that would result if an almighty God did exist and did want a relationship with them. No matter; the evidence is out there, and it will by rejected or accepted by whom it will and by whom God gives understanding to perceive it.

Reprinted from an article by Jim Barranger in Extant Magazine.

Friday, April 02, 2010

God Vs. Evil

This is DAY 7, the final day of a seven-day discussion of issues raised on my Facebook wall by some non-theist friends.

Before I jump into my final topic, let me first say that I’ve appreciated the opportunity to interact on matters of faith. I'm not sure what I’ve had to say was exactly what everyone else who was responding wanted me to address (though if I could figure out what that was, I might give it a shot … so be sure to leave your thoughts/questions/comments below, please); but I have enjoyed the exercise.

Thanks is due to Elizabeth and David, who seem to have read closely and shared generously their thoughts to interact with this discussion. I appreciate the effort they put into it.

I don’t know whether or not this discussion has been helpful or clarifying to anyone else, but examining the reasons for what I believe has been a healthy exercise for me. One of my friends has accused me of being “brainwashed” when I was 8, and it’s true that that was when I made my first confession of faith. I know there are folks (like C.S. Lewis) who become believers later in life, as the result largely of an intellectual quest; and I’m sure there are lots of folks (like me) who become believers early in life, but who nonetheless go through times of doubt and questioning and seeking to understand whether what we really believe makes sense or not. It's easy to get handed "faith" by our parents, but the reality is in order for it to be meaningful it has to be made your own. Ultimately your parents' faith means little when you are confronted with the challenges of life.

For me, as I have gone through that process of making faith my own, I have been rewarded with progressive revelation of the reality of a God who loves me and is present in my life. I have seen him at work in many people around me. I have benefitted from compelling philosophical arguments for the existence of God. I have been convinced by the veracity and consistency and power of scriptural testimony. And I have experienced God's personal interaction in my life, in thousands of small ways and in lots of larger ways as well. All of these things, working together, have for me made the case for a God who is there.

I realize I am not going to convince anyone else to become a believer through such arguments. I confess that I’m not a good enough arguer (it's not my gift) … and I don’t really think that’s how it happens, at any rate. All I can really do is share what he has done in my life and hope that this contributes to their own tipping point.

The Problem of Evil

One of the things I think faith stakes a claim on is Paul’s statement in Romans: “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” (And yes, Elizabeth, I realize this is “begging the question” … but, given the assumptions that I have laid out, and the evidence that convinces me personally that God is there and seeking to make himself known to us through His Word, it makes good sense to pay attention to statements like that.) The problem of pain, the existence of evil in a universe created by a sovereign God, is a significant intellectual challenge to many people. C. S. Lewis devoted a book to the subject, The Problem of Pain, which I would invite you to read.

I think it’s clear from the historical account that God didn’t actually create evil – he created beings who chose evil. (And in choosing evil, beings with reasoning brains apparently have an amazing capacity to rationalize that choice by simply dismissing God’s standards as “antiquated mores.”)

But did an omniscient God know, when He created beings with a free will to choose him or reject him, that we would reject him, would choose a path of evil, and as a result pain and injustice would occur in his creation? Of course he did, that goes to the very definition of omniscience. Did he choose to create anyway (for a reason that I don’t understand)? Yes, obviously. We’re here, aren’t we?

Scripture states these things very clearly: that God is not the author of evil, he is not evil, he hates evil, he does no evil. He did not create it. He created angels, he created us, in His own image, and we chose evil. Only God alone knows whatever else he created in heaven and earth, which may have chosen evil, or maybe not; we don’t know. He created a lot of innocent stuff (our planet, for example) that has been tainted or corrupted by the evil we or the angels have chosen to do. Does that mean God is the author of evil? Scripture says no. Let God be true, and every man a liar. My choice: to trust the truth, or to say the truth is a lie and to trust the lie.

It always breaks down to freedom, and my choice. I am free to trust or not, to accept or reject. No one (not even God, without violating the principles that are true to his nature as God) can force his will on me and force me to choose.

Well, I guess God could force his will and turn me into a robot. But then we wouldn’t have free will, and the capacity to truly love him, would we? And that seems to be what he is after in all this.

Why? I don’t know. That’s just the way it is. Maybe I’m an idiot for believing he is there, for trusting him, for loving him. But I don’t think so. I realize there are smart people on both sides of this particular fence. I take comfort that smart people like Aristotle and Plato, Galileo and Kepler, Newton and Copernicus, Bacon and Descartes, Kierkegaard and C. S. Lewis, and many others as well, are, as far as I can tell, on my side of the fence. And I am troubled by the fact that smart people like Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Sagan are, as far as I can tell, on the other.

And of course there are lots of smart deists somewhere in the middle ground between theists and non-theists, Albert Einstein being one example.

But, honestly, I am more troubled when I learn that people I know, like and respect, people who are obviously and admirably intelligent and well-spoken, are apparently planting themselves on the other side. My hope and prayer would be that my own testimony might somehow contribute to an honest reassessment of that choice.

However: Believing what I believe to be true about the universe and free will, I can’t see how it could possibly be any other way. Everyone is free to choose, God made us that way. Smarts have very little to do with it, apparently.