Investigating Jesus: Not Jumping to Conclusions.

Some people see the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus as a matter of faith, and by faith they mean “belief despite the lack of evidence.” However, is this really how we define faith? Consider the things we trust, like a chair when we sit, or a car when we depend on it to get us somewhere. We don’t give much thought to whether the chair or car will let us down because we have evidence; they don’t normally let us down. When they begin to show some wear and tear, then our trust may wane, but here again this distrust is due to evidence. Consider the people you trust and those you do not trust. They have have likely earned your trust or distrust and you can probably point to evidence as to why your trust or lack thereof is reasonable. So too, trust in Jesus is a reasonable step to take based on evidence. Back to Easter, is there any evidence that the resurrection of Jesus happened? Can we put our trust in Jesus, not despite the evidence, but rather based of it?

J. Warner Wallace was an atheist when he became a cold-case detective, so we can rely on him to be very capable in handling evidence and eyewitness testimony. Follow his works in print and online and you will discover that he came to trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, not despite the evidence, but based on it. In our current series we are going to lean upon Wallace as we investigate the evidence for Jesus. I encourage you to read his books for yourself, Cold Case Christianity, and God’s Crime Scene and visit his website. For local readers, his books are available at Searchlight Bookstore. For readers from our church family, our Sunday School children will be working their way through Cold-Case Christianity for Kids.

The first thing we learn from Wallace about conducting an investigation, is to never jump to conclusions. Let me give an example. Suppose you are a detective and you are called to the scene of a death. On the way you learn that it is me. Your first thought is “who would want to murder the pastor?” Knowing me well you think you know what happened. You arrive at my house, and, sure enough there I am at a table with all kinds of Easter chocolate wrappings. That confirms what you were thinking; Clarke has died from chocolate poisoning.  Additionally, there are no signs of the windows being tampered with. You conclude that this is not a murder scene and that your work here is done. You think you can explain the evidence by staying inside the room, there is no need to look outside for a murderer. Case closed.

This is what happens when people try to explain “who Jesus really was” or try to “get back to the historical Jesus” from a  purely naturalistic viewpoint. There are many books, documentaries and other media that do this. They evaluate the evidence but only allow for explanations that don’t include the possibility of any kind of supernatural occurrence or “Anyone out there”. Evaluating the evidence for Jesus without allowing a supernatural explanation  is to begin the investigation with a conclusion. Beginning with a conclusion is not a good way to discover truth.

The policewoman who was first on the scene asks you what you think about the gunshot wound. Oops, you missed some evidence. She also points out that no gun was found and the front door was unlocked. When I said you were a detective, I didn’t say you were a very good one! The evidence is pointing “outside the room” for an explanation. This is now a murder scene and someone out there is responsible.

Is there “Someone out there” when it comes to Jesus? Should the truth seeking person consider all the explanations for the resurrection of Jesus including the supernatural one? But we all know dead people don’t rise from the dead, you say. Yes, that is true, but when you understand the story of God as related in the documents that make up the Bible, then you will know that we should not expect to see people raised from the dead to a new kind of life in past history except for this one time. Can we rule out the supernatural? Can we rule out God’s involvement? Can we rule out God’s existence?

J. Warner Wallace has written a second book where he writes about the evidence for the supernatural, and indeed not just for the supernatural, but for the existence of a personal God. I encourage you to read the book for yourself, as I cannot explain adequately here the eight lines of evidence pointing to the existence of God. All I can do is whet your appetite:

  1. Science and philosophy point to a beginning and if there is a beginning – then something or Someone caused it.
  2. The universe gives the appearance of being “fine-tuned” for life. So many different circumstances are “just right” for life to be possible on earth.
  3. Life had a beginning, and a lot of information is involved with proteins and DNA. The existence of God as creator is the best explanation for the beginning of life.
  4. There are signs of design in biology with living creatures and even the smallest of cells demonstrating complexity, intricacy, and purpose. This points to a Designer.
  5. We have an experience of consciousness. How do we get from brain matter to mental states? No one has been able to figure out the relationship between the two, however this is not a quandary for God.
  6. We experience free will. Purely naturalistic explanations do not allow for free will. This does not fit with our experience, or our legal system.
  7. We appeal to moral absolutes. Moral truth is grounded in the reflection of the nature of a perfect Being.
  8. We experience evil. Evil can only exist if there is a Divine Being who is Good.

All this evidence found within the universe points to a Being outside the universe. And what’s more, each of these add to our understanding of that Being as Wallace relates:

The evidence we’ve identified in the universe is best explained by an external suspect, and given the nature of this evidence, our suspect is clearly nonspatial, atemporal, nonmaterial, and uncaused. Our suspect is also powerful enough to create everything we see in the universe and purposeful enough to produce a universe fine-tuned for life. Our suspect is intelligent and communicative, creative and resourceful. As a conscious Mind, our suspect is there personal source of moral truth and obligation and the standard of goodness. (J. Warner Wallace God’s Crime Scene)

This is what we understand from looking at the universe. Please note that we have not even cracked open a Bible yet! That being said, does the description fit with Someone you may have heard about?

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.Genesis 1:1-3 (NRSV)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools . . .Romans 1:19-22 (NRSV)

Since studying what we find in the universe points us to the supernatural, we should not be ruling out the possibility of a supernatural explanation for Jesus, his teaching, his miracles, and his resurrection. Even more precisely, what we see by looking the evidence in the universe points us not just to the “supernatural” but to a Supreme Being that fits the description of God in the Bible. Therefore, when that grand story of the Bible includes the resurrection of one man from the dead, we will want to pay particular attention to the possibility of the supernatural in his case. You might acquiesce with “I suppose anything is possible, but it is still not probable.” Hold onto that thought for now and allow the possibility. Next week we will begin looking at the proposed explanations of the resurrection of Jesus and start thinking about what we may consider to be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Please don’t assume that the only way I could die would be by chocolate poisoning. And please do not assume that nothing supernatural ever happens and Jesus is not risen. Let’s not jump to conclusions too quickly!

How Easter Cures Our Religion Addiction

We can become addicted to religion. Behind this there can be a sense of “if I do the right things, and say the wright words, God will have to love me and be good to me.” Religion has “me” as its focus. What I do. What I say. What I think I deserve. When we are addicted to religion we put ourselves, rather than God, at the centre.

The Christians in Colossae were being pressured into becoming more religious. Some scholars think that the pressure was coming from Jews who thought you needed to practice the Jewish religion to be a Christian. Other scholars think that it was an early form of the religious philosophy “gnosticism” that was the source of the pressure. Either way, in his letter to the Colossians the apostle Paul wants to set the record straight. In chapter two Paul lays out clearly our part in being Christian, but also what we cannot accomplish. Let’s take a look.

First out part:

Colossians 2:6-19 (NRSV) As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Notice, first off, that Paul’s encouragement is not “since you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, now get very religious, doing the right religious looking observances, saying the right religious sounding words.” That would actually be too easy, for you can do that kind of thing on your spare time. What is called for is something far more profound; “live your lives in him.” The requirement is not in doing religion, but living life. It is an every moment thing. The focus is not the religion, but the Person of Jesus. It is a relationship thing.

Sceptics like to say that religion is a man made thing. Paul would agree:

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

Paul is not speaking against philosophy as an academic endeavour here. Philosophy, like all the arts and sciences are worthy pursuits. Paul is warning against, more literally “the philosophy”, that is, a particular way of thinking being foisted on the Christians at Colossae. He is arguing against becoming too religious “according to human tradition.” Rather than pursuing man-made religion, we are to pursue Christ himself.

We could sum up Paul’s line of thought here with “live your lives in him rather than practice religion.” That is our part. Next Paul points us to God’s part. Religion highlights the things we do. In the following passage I have highlighted in bold the things God has done.

9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

The focus is on God’s activity. As Paul warns the Christians at Colossae against false religion, he puts the focus on what God has done in Christ. While religion points us to our activity, relationship with God as revealed in the Bible has always been first about what God has done. He created. He Made a covenant with Noah. He called Abraham with his promise of blessing that would touch the world. He rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He gave His chosen people the law at Sinai. He gave them the promised land. He called the prophets and gave them the words to speak. He came to us incarnate in Jesus. He, God the Father, raised Jesus, God the Son, from the dead. While religion has what we can do as its focus, Christianity has as its focus, something we could never do, that is, raise the dead.

Because Jesus is risen, we do not practice Christianity as a religion, we relate to Jesus as a living Person. We serve Him, we worship Him, we adore Him, we learn from Him. This may give the appearance of being religious as prayer, the Bible, and church become expressions of that. These religious looking things are not the practice of religion, but rather part of how we live our lives in Christ. Living our lives in Christ goes way deeper than doing “religious duties,” it goes to walking with the Spirit and being transformed from the inside out: “. . .the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Compared to character transformation, being merely religious would be far too easy!

Paul continues his argument against being religious:

16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Religion fills us with pride as we point to what we have done. The events of Easter fill us with humility as they point to what we have done. We committed a reprehensible crime when we crucified Jesus. We fell short of the glory of God. The events of Easter also point to what God has done. He has reconciled us to Himself. Our part is to live in Christ, “holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.” Are you addicted to religion? God has done for you through the events at Easter what religion never could. Why dedicate yourself to religion, when you can dedicate yourself to the One Who loves you?

(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

The Reality Check of the Cross

“This teaching of the cross is nuts, pure and simple.” Such is how you could translate Paul’s words in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth in chapter 1, verse 18. Later, in verse 23 he calls it a “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” We can imagine how a conversation would go between a Christ follower and a Jew in New Testament times:

Christian: Good News! The Messiah has come. God has put into place His great rescue!

Jew: Oh? Tell me more!

Christian: His name is Jesus. He was born in Bethlehem, taught with great authority, worked miracles, and was crucified . .

Jew: Hold up! Crucified, as in executed by the Romans? As in dead at the hands of our enemies? Umm, you need a reality check – your so called Messiah is a failure!

In days when the Jewish people were looking for a rescue from the Romans, being executed by them was a sure way to be deleted from the list of potential rescuers.

We can also imagine how a conversations would go between a Christ follower and a non-Jewish person in New Testament times:

Christian: Good News! God, the creator of everything has revealed Himself to us!

Gentile: Oh? Tell me more!

Christian: His name is Jesus. He was born a Jew in Bethlehem, taught with great authority, worked miracles, and was crucified . . .

Gentile: Hold up! Crucified? As in the God of the universe was executed by the Romans? I knew our Roman soldiers were good, but I didn’t know they were that good! You need a reality check. Your so-called God is a failure.

Two millennia later and reactions are often much the same. Consider these lyrics from the metal band Metallica:

Trust you gave

A child to save

Left you cold and him in grave . . .

Broken is the promise, betrayal

The healing hand held back by deepened nail

Follow the god that failed . . .

There is a clear message to Christians here. You need a reality check – a God that dies is a God that fails, and that just doesn’t make sense.

On Good Friday Christians around the world gather to commemorate the death of Jesus. On Good Friday many more people don’t bother, thinking that doing such would be a waste of time. “A good and influential teacher? Sure. Inspirational even. But God Himself dying a death that has anything to do with anything? Nah, that doesn’t make sense.” Many people would say that Christians need a reality check. Christ crucified is nonsense and Christians are deluded.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing . . . 1st Corinthians 1:18

Christ crucified is indeed a reality check, but not in the way that many people assume. Christ crucified is a reality check in the way that a blood test ordered by the doctor is a reality check. When the results come in the doctor never asks “what would you like the results to be?” or “what do you think the results should be?” The doctor says “here is what the results are.” Truth in such things as our health is not a matter of our imagination, but a process of discovery.

People often think that when it comes to spirituality truth is a matter of our imagination, what we like, or what we think it should be. Spirituality is seen as something you can make up or change. However truth itself is not something you can tamper with. We may decide how we express spirituality, but we do not get to decide matters of truth. What people fail to understand is that when it comes to God and our relationship with God, we are talking about matters of truth and not personal preference.

In matters of truth we can do a reality check. Like the doctor, we can check the blood. So let us do that.

Check the blood. The blood spilled through racism. The blood spilled through violence. The blood spilled through war, whether gang wars, drug wars, or world wars. The blood spilled between enemies. The blood spilled between brothers. The blood spilled when an innocent man was nailed to a cross on bogus charges. Check the blood, sin is real and a real problem.

People don’t like the idea of sin being a reality. But not liking it does not mean you can wish it away. For example, being here in Cobourg today you might want to say, “how I hate mosquitoes, snow, and road construction, so I am never going to step foot in Canada!” Umm, how is that working for you? You are here in Canada. You do not get to decide that kind of reality. The cross of Jesus Christ is a big arrow on the map pointing to sin saying “you are here.”

Check the blood spilled at the cross. At the cross we sank to our lowest low in our rebellion against God. We were there, at the cross. Would we have done any different than Pilate, or Herod, or the chief priests, or the disciples, or Peter? As the Bible says “There is no one righteous, no not one.” Think of it; it is really bad when an innocent person suffers. But when God Himself comes to us, and though being innocent, we condemn him to death. Can we sink any lower? If there was ever a moment, that God would lash out and destroy humanity, this is it, at the cross where collectively we sunk to our lowest low. He would have been perfectly just in sending 10,000 angels to destroy the world and not endure the shame and suffering of the cross.

The Jews thought that in being crucified, Jesus failed at being the Messiah, the Greeks thought that in being crucified, Jesus failed at being God, people today think that in being crucified Jesus failed at doing anything relevant – but if God can be spoken of as failing at anything when Jesus was crucified – God failed to treat us as our sins deserve. (Psalm 103:10)

Check the blood spilled at the cross. It is a reality check: God’s love is real. Let the Scriptures speak for themselves:

For in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:19-20

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10

If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Romans 8:31-34

Crucifixion was not a failure for Jesus. Rather, as Paul puts it, “Christ the power and wisdom of God.” (1st Corinthians 1:24)

  • In Christ crucified God’s perfect justice was expressed with judgement against sin. Yet humanity was not wiped out. God’s perfect mercy was also expressed. That is the power and wisdom of God.
  • In Christ crucified, we were at our lowest low in our rebellion against God. Yet Jesus at the cross made possible God’s invitation to be reconciled. That is the power and wisdom of God.
  • In Christ crucified, the powers of evil were working overtime to destroy and bury the work of God, and as Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb, it certainly seems like they’ve won. But Sunday’s coming! That is the power and wisdom of God.
  • In Christ crucified the curtain of the temple separating out the most holy place was torn in two from top to bottom. This was symbolic of God in effect saying, you can not and will not come to me through religion. I am coming to you by the cross. That is the power and wisdom of God.

Check the blood for a reality check.  Crucifixion is not a sign of failure, it is a sign of God’s success in expressing His perfect love, in all His holiness, justice, grace, and mercy. In that way, Jesus is the only way. Every other possibility put forward as a means of dealing with our sin problem is a failure.

We are no strangers to checking blood. Having a Type 1 diabetic in our family, we are used to a reality check with every finger poke. The glucose meter does not care what we want the blood sugar to be, nor what we think it should be. It tells us what it is. And based on what it is, we need to make a decision. Give insulin, sugar, or do nothing. The cross is the ultimate reality check. Check the blood. Sin is real, and a real problem for our relationship with God. God’s love is real, and a real solution to our sin problem. What decision do you need to make? Perhaps your walk with the Lord is solid and flourishing. Then your decision may be to rejoice in your salvation today. Perhaps you know the Lord, but have not been walking close. Your decision may be to reaffirm your commitment to walking in Christ, walking according to God’s Spirit.

But perhaps you are not a believer at this time? Then Christ crucified is a reality check in one more way: Check the blood spilled at the cross. This is an event in history. Christianity is not a religious philosophy or a set of rules for life. Christianity is about God revealing Himself to humanity over many occasions, but supremely though Jesus. His death was an event in history, as was his resurrection. Christianity did not have its beginnings, as many religions do, in a man teaching certain things about God and then trying to persuade people his ideas are correct. Christianity had its beginnings in the historical event of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Check the blood. Yes, this really happened. Look into it, and investigate it. Look into like journalist Lee Strobel who as an atheist came to trust Jesus as Lord and Saviour having investigated it with all his journalistic skills. Look into it, like J. Warner Wallace, who as an atheist came to trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour having investigated it with his skills as a cold case detective. Look into it, like C.S. Lewis who described himself as the most reluctant convert in all of England, but who came to trust in Jesus as Saviour and Lord having investigated it with all his intellectual skills. And there are many stories like these. I hope your story will be similar. Do not become a Christian because you think it might be a good religion to practice. Trust in Jesus because Jesus died and rose again. Reality check. The events of Easter really did happen. Check the blood. You have a decision to make.

(All Scripture references are taken from NRSV)