Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Real Jesus by Kristin Romey

National Geographic just published an article entitled “The Real Jesus” by Kristin Romey (National Geographic, December 2017, 40-68). Here are some random thoughts.

First, I was pleased to see that the author quotes even highly skeptical scholars who acknowledge Jesus’ existence. For example, Romey quotes Duke University’s Eric Myers (who in my view qualifies as a somewhat radical skeptic), as saying, “I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus” (42).

Second, not only does the article debunk those who deny Jesus’ existence, the article demonstrates that critics were wrong about Jesus being a “cosmopolitan Hellenist” (or Cynic sage) rather than an “observant Jew.” Critics were wrong in their skepticism about the existence of synagogues in first century Galilee. Critics were also wrong in their “once fashionable notion that Galileans were impious hillbillies detached from Israel’s religious center” (65). To the contrary, Romey provides numerous examples of archaeological evidence that tends to support the general reliability of the Gospels (though I’m not sure that was her intent).

Third, Romey mentions that not all scholars are convinced that Jesus was born in Bethlehem since the story is only told in Matthew and Luke, and those stories are different—e.g. “the traditional manger and shepherds in Luke; the wise men, massacre of children, and flight to Egypt in Matthew” (46). That is true, but it is a poor reason to reject the birth stories. The two accounts are not mutually exclusive. No biographer could possibly record every detail of a person’s life (and even if they could, no one would want to read it!). Biographers have to be selective. 

The Gospel writers select their material to emphasize the points they want to make (See John 20:30-31). The fact that one account leaves something out does not mean it didn’t happen. Besides, when two independent accounts differ in some respects, that only makes their agreements more significant—and both sources independently (assuming the “Two-source” synoptic theory) agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. There are no sources—none!—that say Jesus was born in Nazareth, which is what some critics assert.

Romey goes on to point out that “Some suspect that the Gospel writers located Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem to tie the Galilean peasant to the Judean city prophesied in the Old Testament as the birthplace of the Messiah” (46). Her statement is true—that is what some scholars propose. So if these scholars are correct, the writers of Matthew and Luke (or earlier Christians) made up the story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem in order to falsely say that Jesus had fulfilled this messianic prophecy. In that case, it would appear that even in the face of persecution these early Christians continued to believe and teach that Jesus was the Messiah even though they knew they had fabricated the Bethlehem story! I find this option unlikely, to say the least.

Another option is that Jesus really was born in Bethlehem where the prophet Micah says the Messiah would be born (there were, after all, babies born in Bethlehem!)—and this is one of several reasons early Christians thought Jesus was the Messiah. I think the second option better helps to explain the very early Christian belief in Jesus as Messiah.

Finally, the conclusion of the article is very disappointing:

At this moment I realize that to sincere believers, the scholar’s quest for the historical, non-supernatural Jesus is of little consequence. That quest will be endless, full of shifting theories, unanswerable questions, irreconcilable facts. But for true believers, their faith in the life, death, and Resurrection of the Son of God will be evidence enough (68).

The author hits the nail on the head when she implies that the quest for the historical Jesus has been a quest for a non-supernatural Jesus. That has often been the guiding presupposition of the entire quest! Regardless of what the evidence might be, nothing can be allowed to overturn what has been the assumption of predominantly western, white, male, academic elites regarding a non-supernatural Jesus!

Most people in the world, however, do not buy into this elitist assumption, and that fact is that there is much evidence in support of the essential reliability of the New Testament portrayal of Jesus. See, for example, Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus edited by Darrell Bock and Robert Web (931 pages); The Historical Reliability of the New Testament by Craig Blomberg and Robert Stewart (816 pages); The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright ( 817 pages) or The Resurrection of Jesus by Michael Licona (718 pages). Skeptics may counter that books like these don’t prove every detail of the Gospels to be true, but these books certainly show that, contrary to Romey, true Christianity is not just a blind leap of faith.


If you want a more thorough overview of the topic of Jesus and archaeology, I would suggest Jesus and his World; The Archaeological Evidence by Craig Evans.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Faith and allegiance

In Luke 10:25-28 a Jewish legal authority asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what the Law (of Moses) says and the man responds saying that people must Love God with all their heart, soul strength and mind; and their neighbor as themselves. Jesus told him he had answered correctly. But what does this have to do with salvation? Don’t we have to “believe” or have “faith” to be saved? Darrell Bock’s interpretation of this passage hits the nail on the head: “This answer does not defend righteousness by works. Jesus’ approval of the answer in the next verse comes because at its heart the answer is an expression of total allegiance and devotion that in other contexts could be called faith. At the heart of entering the future life is a relationship of devotion, a devotion that places God at the center of one’s spiritual life and responds to others in love” (Bock, Darrell, Luke 9:51-24:53. Grand Rapids : Baker, 1024-1025).

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Intelligent Design, science and truth

It is important to understand that the debate about Intelligent Design is not about science, reality or truth. Don’t misunderstand—Intelligent Design is all about science, reality and truth, but the debate itself is about one side (Intelligent Design) simply being ruled out of bounds by those in power. Law professor, Stanley Fish who is presumably no friend Intelligent Design explains:

“…it is easy to see why creation science or intelligent design doesn’t have a chance. Any attempt to present it in a state-funded classroom as a legitimate alternative to evolution will be blocked by the state’s unwillingness (given the establishment clause) to give its stamp of approval to a religious position. Any attempt to remove the label ‘religious’  and replace it with ‘scientific’ will be resisted by the arbiters of what science is, who have already made up their collective mind in advance. And any attempt to establish the truth of intelligent design by the usual academic routes of argument and experiment will not get off the ground because the academy, like the liberal state of which it is a mirror and an extension, defines itself by it difference from religion” (Stanley Fish, Winning Arguments. New York : Harper, 2016, 185).


In other words, Intelligent Design doesn’t fail for lack of better scientific arguments. It fails simply because the secular elites in science, education, law and politics simply refuse to give an honest hearing to anything that challenges their secular assumptions and presuppositions.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Gun control and the Sutherland Springs shooting


After the mass murder of 26 innocent people in a Texas church, the knee-jerk reaction of Progressives is as predictable as the morning sunrise—push for more gun control legislation! I’m trying to understand their reasoning in this case.

The perpetrator was the military equivalent of a convicted felon who was not legally entitled to own a firearm. Contrary to USAF regulations, someone in the Air Force failed to enter his conviction into a federal database which would have kept the perpetrator from purchasing his guns legally. Whether that would have kept him from obtaining firearms by other means is anyone’s guess. The point is that the problem was not the absence of adequate gun control laws, the problem was a bureaucratic mess-up. Better training or discipline may have prevented this murder, but stricter gun control laws would not prevent a bureaucratic error.

On the other hand, a former NRA instructor who, fortunately, did own a gun legally was able to use his gun to stop the perpetrator before even more people were murdered.


So how can we stop such murders in the future? Progressives’ solution: Stricter gun control! But not only would stricter gun control laws have failed to prevent this slaughter, such laws may have actually resulted in more lives lost if those laws had kept the hero from owning a gun. A man with a gun saved numerous lives, and yet the Progressives’ only solution is to call for stricter gun control. 

Progressives are not brain dead, and most are presumably not stupid so I can only conclude that they are pushing a hidden agenda.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Ethnic and cultural diversity

People need to make a distinction between ethnic diversity and cultural diversity. Ethnic diversity is a good thing. It is a core Christian value. Jesus commanded us to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. The Book of Revelation says that there will be people from “every tribe, language, people and nation” worshiping before the throne of God. Ethnic diversity is a Christian value. By contrast, racism is fundamentally anti-Christian.

Cultural diversity, on the other hand, can also be good. We can learn a lot from other cultures and they can learn from us. But contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, cultural diversity is not always necessarily a good thing. Many cultures affirm values that are fundamentally irreconcilable with other cultures. Some cultures are fundamentally evil or destructive (e.g. Nazism or Islamic radicalism).

So what happens when two fundamentally opposite and irreconcilable cultures clash? The result is often persecution of the weaker group at best, and ethnic cleansing or genocide at worst. Ethnic diversity should be encouraged and promoted. Significant cultural diversity, however, can be a powder keg. Proceed with caution.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"Why Christians Don't Need to 'Take a Stand Against Evil"?

I just read a blog post by someone named Jared. Jared argued that Christians need to show more love and compassion, but that by taking a stand against evil we often become "the voice of the accuser, while those who are not connected to God function as the voice of love."  

I tried to respond to Jared's post on his blog but was unable to log in so I sent the following response to him via the contact form on his blog:

Good article, Jared. Well written and thought provoking. I agree with you that we need to focus more on showing love to others—even to our enemies. I agree with you that Lady Gaga’s visit to homeless LGBT teens was commendable. I would add, however, that I suspect that all the aid Gaga and her like-minded multi-millionaire friends give to the needy does not even compare to what relatively poor Christians give through organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, WorldVision, Compassion International, Feed My Starving Children, Operation Blessing, etc. Nevertheless, we do need to do more to reach out and show the love of Christ in tangible ways to others.

On the other hand, we will have to agree to disagree on Christians as the “voice of the accuser.” If I really thought that it was wrong to “Take a stand against evil” I would have to take a stand against the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul. Jesus fully affirmed what we Christians call the Old Testament (Mt 5:17-20), and the Old Testament prophets powerfully took a stand against the evils of their society. For example, Isaiah calls the people of Judah “offspring of evildoers,” a “sinful nation” who are “laden with iniquity” (Isa 1:4). Jeremiah condemns those who have killed the “innocent poor” (Jer 2:34) and “…have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness” (Jer 3:2). Hosea writes that the land was full of “swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery…”(Hos 4:1-2). Ezekiel condemns the people of Jerusalem for immorality, bribery, unjust gain and extortion (Ezek 22:9-12). Zephaniah condemns Jerusalem as a city of rebellious, defiled oppressors (Zeph 3:1). Joel attacks the drunkenness of his society and calls them to repentance (Joel 1:5). Micah pronounces woe on those who oppress others and “devise wickedness and work evil on their beds” (Micah 2:1-2). Malachi tells the people that God will “come to you for judgment” and “will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice…”(Mal 3:5). These quotes barely scrape the surface of the prophets’ stand against evil.

That stand against evil continues in the New Testament when John the Baptist comes preaching baptism for repentance saying, “…You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:7-8). He then warned of fiery judgment for those who do not repent (Matt 3:12). According to Luke, John the Baptist tells people to share what they have with those who don’t have. He tells tax collectors not to collect more than what is required, and he tells soldiers not to use extortion or false accusations (Lk 3:11-14). John was preaching to people from all over Judea and his preaching included a stand against evil.

Jesus also took a stand against evil. In fact, the very first words Matthew and Mark record Jesus saying at the beginning of his public ministry is a call to repentance (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15)! It is a call to get one’s heart right with God and it applies to everyone. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus did not just publicly criticize religious leaders—he criticized his whole society calling them an adulterous and sinful generation” (Mk 8:38), a “faithless and perverse generation” (Mk 9:19/Mt 17:17//Lk 9:41) and an “evil generation” (Lk 11:29//Mt:12:39; 16:4).

In John’s gospel Jesus proclaims that it is the world, not just religious leaders, that hates him because he testifies “that what it does is evil” (John 7:7; 15:18, cf. 17:14). More specifically, Jesus publicly calls out sins of hatefulness, adultery, easy divorce, judgmentalism, and evil-doing (cf. Matthew 5-7). He made clear to his disciples that such sins as “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” began in the heart (Mark 7:21-23). When Mark begins discussion of Jesus’ ministry with his public call to repentance, these sins were undoubtedly among those he had in mind.

Then right after the resurrection, Peter preaches to an enormous crowd in Jerusalem. His message is not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good sermon designed to win friends and influence people. He says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:38). Peter then calls them to repentance! The result is that many got saved and they “gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44).

Similarly, when Stephen preaches, he does not announce God’s understanding and tolerance, or a new social program by the newly formed church. Stephen calls them“…stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears!” (Acts 7:51). He tells them they have always resisted the Holy Spirit and that they have not obeyed the Law (Acts 7:51-53).

When Paul preaches in Lystra, he does not talk about their culture’s great religions—he confronts their idolatrous culture publicly, saying, “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God…” (Acts 14:15).  When Paul was on trial before King Agrippa, he pretty much summarized his whole ministry starting with his conversion on the way to Damascus saying, “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached the they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20). Proclaiming Jesus without calling people to repent and turn from their sins is not really proclaiming Jesus at all!

Jared, you are absolutely right that “we never hear of them protesting or boycotting,” but then again, they didn’t live in a democratic society with freedom of speech, and that makes a huge difference. When I was in Russia, one of the believers told me that they have absolutely no say in their government—all they can do is try to be faithful to God regardless of what the country throws at them. That is not unlike the plight of first century Christians. We in the United States, on the other hand, are fortunate enough to live in a nation where “we the people” have a say in the future direction of our country. I reject the notion that because we are Christians we should just shut up, sit on the sidelines, and let secularists determine the direction of the country our children will inherit. I’m quite sure our founding fathers (and mothers) would have rejected such a notion. As I understand Jesus’ affirmation of the prophets and his command to be salt in the world, I suspect he may have rejected it too. We have the privilege of calling out our society’s evils and attempting to affect change—especially though calls to repentance, but also by influencing voters.

Anyway, my point is NOT that we should immediately walk next door and tell our neighbor what a sinner he or she is. I’m NOT saying we should stand up on a desk at work and preach against office sins. And all this certainly doesn’t mean we should self-righteously look down our noses at others as if we ourselves are not worthy of God’s judgment! But it does mean that proclaiming Christ is not JUST about showing love and compassion (as important as that is). People cannot be saved unless they are confronted with the seriousness and horribleness of their own sin, respond in genuine heart-felt repentance and turn in loving devotion to Jesus as the only one who can save them from the penalty of their rebellion. If ALL we preach is love and compassion, we are not preaching Jesus. I suspect you would agree with this.

So, Jared, you make some very good points in your article but I don’t think it tells the whole story. And without the rest of the story, it may give fuel to some of your professing Christian readers who really just seek to avoid being hated by the world at all costs (but see John 12:25; 15:18, 19; 17:14; 1 John 3:13) and seem to imagine God to be an all-tolerant, non-judgmental, cosmic Santa Claus who accepts our sin and exists to makes us healthy, wealthy and prosperous. Such a god is merely an idol, a figment of self-centered imagination.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Mind and matter

I just finished reading Mind & Cosmos; Why the materialist New-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, by Thomas Nagel who is a world-class philosopher. I need to preface my remarks by saying that my field is not philosophy. That, combined with the fact that I read the book rather quickly (which is not usually the best way to read philosophy) means that my understanding of the book may be quite limited and even wrong at points.

Nevertheless, as I understand it, Nagel argues that it is virtually impossible for mind, consciousness, reasoning and values to emerge spontaneously from matter in a Neo-Darwinian system. Consistent with his atheism, Nagel rejects theism and intelligent design but, in my opinion, without adequate reason (other than the fact that he just doesn’t like it).

If I understand Nagel correctly, his very tentative solution seems to be that purpose is somehow just built into the fabric of the universe. Nagel’s reasoning seems to be:

1) It is pretty much impossible that mind could evolve from matter under a Neo-Darwinian system [I agree]

2) Theism is not worth serious consideration [Nagel mentioned but did not seriously engage with arguments for intelligent design other than to agree that proponents have raised serious questions about the origin of life under a Neo-Darwinian system].

3) The only alternative seems to be the idea that purpose is built into the very fabric of the universe [but if it is impossible for matter to spontaneously evolve into consciousness and mind, how is it possible—without a Designer—that dead matter is somehow endued with purpose from the start?]


Deep, thought provoking read from an honest, non-militant atheist perspective.