Investigating Jesus. Untampered Evidence.

In objecting to Christianity many people cite a lack of trust that the evidence has been handled well and has not been tampered with. The “telephone game” is raised as an example of how things get changed when passed from one person to another so that you cannot trust the final message to be the same as the original. So how do we know that the Christian message has not changed over time from the original? How can we trust anything we hear about Jesus from the New Testament?

J. Warner Wallace points out that with policing there is a “chain of custody” which exists to ensure evidence is properly documented and protected. There is a paper trail documenting all the people who have ever handled it, with policies and procedures in place, all to ensure that jurors can trust they are indeed presented with the facts. The evidence cannot be tampered with. So can we identify a “chain of custody” with respect to the New Testament and the Christian message? Wallace has done the hard work for us in identifying at least three different “chains” which link the New Testament as we now have it to the original apostles. I will refer you to Wallace’s book, “Cold-Case Christianity” where he treats these with much greater detail, but to summarize:

  • John’s students confirm the accuracy of the Gospels: John taught Ignatius and Polycarp who taught Irenaeus who taught Hippolytus who lived 170-236 AD.
  • Paul’s students confirm the accuracy of the Gospels: Paul taught Linus and Clement of Rome and then we have Evaristus, Alexander 1, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Hyginus,Pius, Justin Martyr and then Tatian.
  • Peter’s students confirmed the accuracy of the Gospels: Peter communicated through Mark who taught Anianus, and then we have Avilius, Kedron, Primus, Justus, Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Pamphilus of Caesarea and then Eusebius who lived 263-339 AD.

These “chains” represent three different parts of the Mediterranean world, with John’s chain running through Asian Minor, modern-day Turkey, Paul’s running through Rome, and Peter’s running through Northern Africa. In each of these locations and through time we find the same message consistently communicated with the New Testament works quoted or referred to often. Wallace points out that if we did not even have a New Testament, we could piece together the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in quite a lot of detail just from what these “Church Fathers” tell us.

As I had done a joint-major in Classical Studies I was intrigued by Wallace’s mention in this chapter of Herodotus and Thucydides. These two authors from antiquity, and many others like them, are used by classical historians in piecing together ancient history. Now the historians may or may not agree that Herodotus and Thucydides are accurate in their respective telling of history, but it is important for us to note that historians do not cast much doubt at all upon the fact that they are reading the works of Herodotus and Thucydides. Remarkably, there is no chain of custody to which we can turn to verify that these sources have not been tampered with. We can not refer to the the writings of the students or of the students of the students and so on of either Herodotus or Thucydides. And yet, no one ever brings up the “telephone game” as a reason we should suspect these books as we have them now to be fabrications or distortions of the originals. It seems obvious that many people develop a hyper-scepticism when it comes to the New Testament.

Scepticism is a very good thing. It keeps us from being naive, from believing things we ought not to. Scepticism can keep us from believing false witnesses who are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. However, hyper-scepticism is a bad thing. If all judges and jurors fell into hyper-scepticism, justice would be obstructed and many a guilty person would go free. Evidence would never be trusted as authentic. So why is it that a healthy scepticism with regard to ancient works turns to hyper-scepticism with regard to the ancient works that make up the New Testament? It goes back to Genesis 3 when Satan used his first and best tactic, saying to Eve: “Did God really say?” He continues to inspire a God denying hyper-scepticism in our day.

The apostles knew that God really was speaking into the world through Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. They, and all their students knew the great importance of handing truth on correctly:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand,  through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (NRSV emphasis mine)

From a historical perspective, there is a wonderful “chain of custody” which gives us confidence that the New Testament and all that is said in it has been preserved well and untampered for us. From a theological perspective, of course there is a chain of evidence. God, having gone to such lengths to love us, would not allow his love to be hidden by layers of deceit. Do you need to read the New Testament with a new appreciation that it is genuine and untampered evidence?

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Believe It Or Not, Mary and Joseph, a Baby Is On the Way.

Christmas is an unbelievable time. It’s time for God to intervene in a special way. All along God has been preparing His people for something special, and this something special is on the way in the birth of Someone special. It’s time for God Himself to be incarnate. It’s time for Jesus to be born.

But before this birth something else needs to happen first. Mary and Joseph need to know about it. And this is where things can get tricky. What if they don’t believe it? A virgin conception does not happen everyday after all. What if they don’t want it? Being in on God’s plans. What if they don’t want Him? Jesus, their son, or rather, her son, and you are not going to believe who is really responsible for this preganancy! I imagine the majority of Mary and Joseph’s neighbours and friends didn’t. Joseph himself didn’t believe at first either:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, . . . Matthew 1:18-20

Though the writer of the Gospel of Matthew states rather matter of factly that this child is from the Holy Spirit, clearly Joseph initially does not think so. He already knows about the pregnancy before an angel explains it to him. If Mary told him about the angel’s explanation, he is not buying it. Mary must be lying. Being a good man he resolves to do, not the right thing, which would be to expose her obvious lack of fidelity publicly, but to do a good thing, breaking the relationship off, letting Mary carry on quietly with her life. An angel intervenes to help Joseph move from disbelief to trust, both trust in Mary, and more importantly, in what God has in store for them.

Mary quickly comes to a place of trust:

(NRSV) Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Luke 1:38

It takes Joseph longer, but he eventually also comes around to a place of trust:

Matthew 1:24-25 (NRSV) When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

If Jesus were born today into our Western civilization, I wonder if a Mary or Joseph would be harder to find. If we were Mary or Joseph, we scientifically informed Westerners might try to explain away the experience. Joseph in the Bible evidently entertained the possibility that Mary was lying. A man today might conclude likewise, but also that the angel appearing to him in a dream was, in reality, more dream than angel. As for Mary, a woman today might entertain the possibility she was drugged and raped with the whole angel thing being an emptionally charged episode. That Joseph’s encounter with an angel mirrored that of Mary’s could be chalked up to the power of suggestion. There is, in our culture, a tendency in matters of faith to go with any possible explanation rather than a supernatural one. Any explanation without God, no matter how ridiculous it might be, is preferred to every explanation that includes God, no matter how good it is. In contrast to our society’s assertion that “nothing supernatural is possible,” Mary believed the angel’s assertion that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37)

What if you were Mary or Joseph? Would you trust the supernatural explanation, or would you go with the other possibilities? When it comes to finding truth, do you go with the most reasonable explanation, even if it involves the supernatural, or do you default to the possibilities that discount the supernatural?

The reality and existence of God as revealed in the Bible has great explanatory power for so many questions. Such as:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Why does the evidence point to the universe having a beginning?
  • Why does the universe seem to be fine tuned for life in many ways?
  • Why does our solar system and planet seem to be placed “just so” for life?
  • Why do the ecosystems of the world work so well together?
  • Why is there life at all and not just dead matter?
  • How did life come about when even a simple cell is so complex?
  • Why is there mind and intelligence?
  • Why do human beings seem to be set apart from the rest of the animal world in so many ways?
  • Why are there objective moral values?
  • Why do we appreciate beauty?
  • Why is there is a unity and unified story across the Bible when the documents of the Bible were written over hundreds of years by many different writers?
  • Why are the NT documents the way they are?
  • Why was the tomb of Jesus empty?
  • Why were the early disciples changed people ready to die for their claims?
  • Why did Jewish theology develop the way it did into Christian theology, not changing direction, yet going down an unexpected road?

The supernatural explanation, that God the Creator exists, and that Jesus rose from the dead, is able to explain these questions and so many more. But there are those who would never allow for such an explanation. “It is possible that . . . ” becomes the mantra. It is thought that even if we have not found them, there must be other explanations rather than the “God explanation” that explains so much so well.

There are two difficulties to living with such a mantra. First, one’s mind would never be open to the possibility of God. A closed mind is not the best starting place for finding truth. Second, we don’t live that way. It is possible that my chair might fall apart at any moment. Yet here I sit. The possibility of chair failure does not dissuade me from my apparent trust in this chair. Does my wife truly love me, or did she marry me for my money? The latter is possible, the former is more likely and explains so much more besides. And so I trust. Is it possible I exist due to aliens swapping me out for the real Clarke Dixon. Possible, but not a possibility that I am concerned with. You can invoke aliens to cast doubt on anything and everything, especially God. But we don’t live that way. We don’t live with incredulous doubt, we live with sensible trust. As cold case detective, J. Warner Wallace points out, juries make incredibly important decisions based on what is beyond a reasonable doubt, not on what is beyond every possible doubt. If you approach matters of faith the way you approach life, a case can be made that the reality of God and His love is beyond reasonable doubt and can be trusted even in the face of other possible explanations. But if you are not open to a supernatural explanation, or you do not want it to be true, you will always default to other possible explanations. But will they be true? Though Joseph and Mary may have been able to come up with other possible explanations for what they experienced, they knew that this baby was Someone special. Do you?

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

What’s Up With the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

You may be wondering “what’s up with a sermon called ‘What’s Up With the Flying Spaghetti Monster?’” You can blame this one on one of my sons who over the summer said “hey Dad, you should preach a sermon on the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” If you have never heard of such a thing, be assured many others have, including, of course, my sons.

So what even is it? The Flying Spaghetti Monster is the god of a new religion called “Pastafarianism.” Now to be clear, most “Pastafarians” do not actually believe this religion per se, rather it is practiced as a parody of religion. When you hear that some Pastafarians get their ID pictures taken with colanders on their heads, you may think that it is a big joke. It kind of is, but at the heart of it are some important issues that the atheist community want people to think about. “Belief” in the Flying Spaghetti Monster all began in the United States with one man challenging a school board to reconsider whether Creationism should be taught alongside Evolution. He was reasoning that if time was given to the story of God creating the universe as found in Genesis, then equal time should be given to his god, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster.” His letter was put on the Internet and it has since become “a thing.”

There are two questions that the The Flying Spaghetti Monster should cause a Christian to grapple with:

  1. Should Creationism be taught alongside Evolution in schools?
  2. Is Christianity just a made-up fable like the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

1. Should Creationism be taught alongside Evolution in schools?

My answer to this may be tainted by the fact that I am Canadian. If a school system is publicly funded, and is made available to all the public, then one particular religious viewpoint should not be privileged over the rest. Many a good Christian will be very disappointed with me right now, but if we Christians were in the minority, and Muslims in the majority, would we want Islamic precepts being taught in our public schools?

However, are we too quick to roll over and play dead? I fear we Canadian Christians often are. There is a field of study that looks at the origins of the universe from no particular religious viewpoint. It is commonly referred to as Intelligent Design (ID for short) and begins not with a religious text, like “In the beginning, God . . . ,” but with the study of our world and the universe. It looks at the apparent elements of design in the universe and infers that behind the design is a Designer. The illustration is sometimes used of flying an airplane over an island and finding the letters “SOS” written in sand. You know someone is, or has been, there based on three letters. Then go on to consider the amazing amount of information stored in DNA. Or how amazing it is that so many things have to be “just so” for life to be possible. Such evidence of design begs for a Designer.

Some think that the more we learn about the universe from science, the less we need any notion of a god to explain things. God has been moved to the margins it has been said. However, this would be like someone taking apart an iPhone and in figuring out how the parts and software work together, saying “there is and never has been a Steve Jobs or Johnny Ive. We don’t see them present with us making this thing work.” You see the misstep. As John Lennox has pointed out, God is not a “God-of-the-gaps” God, that is, the explanation of the things we cannot understand, but rather is the “God of the whole show.” If an iPhone is an incredible achievement in design and engineering, the universe is infinitely more so. As the Psalmist writes:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)

Should ID be taught in schools alongside Evolution? After all, some would point out, perhaps correctly, that it is not science strictly speaking. It wanders into the realm of philosophy. Whatever it is, it is good, clear thinking. Schools should be places of good, clear thinking.

But does ID get you to Jesus? Or to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for that matter? This brings us to our second question.

2. Is Christianity just a made-up fable like the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

This is an insinuation of those who practice Pastafarianism, namely that belief in Jesus, or in any god for that matter, is as ridiculous as believing in something like the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So is it?

Here we look to the where the evidence leads, particularly with respect to the origins of each religion. For example, if you were to investigate the origins of “belief” in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the evidence would lead to knowing exactly when, where, and even why the whole thing started. You can easily account for the birth and development of Pastafarianism without needing the actual existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to account for it. It is clearly a people made religion. You can go on to apply this same inquiry of all religions, asking “how did they begin and develop, and can you account for such things without the existence of the god they point to?” This all works very well until you come to Christianity. I am only scratching the surface here, but birth and development of Christianity falls nicely into place if Jesus rose from the dead. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then it is hard to account for why the first Christians believed what they believed, did what they did, and wrote what they wrote. N.T. Wright is one of the best scholars to look up to learn more about this.

If you are looking for a more accessible read you could look up the writings of an expert in evidence by the name of J. Warner Wallace. He was a cold-case detective and an atheist, who upon reading the Gospels came to realize that what he was reading bore the marks of genuine eyewitness testimony. I am only scratching the surface, but he gives us pointers on handling the evidence, some of which are paraphrased poorly by me below, but told in better detail himself. Consider:

  • The variations between the Gospels are evidence of genuine witnesses being behind them. Detectives get suspicious of collusion when witnesses all end up saying the exact same things in the exact same way.
  • The case for the reality of Jesus and the truth for Christianity is a cumulative case, built upon many bits of evidence.
  • While there is no direct evidence for Jesus available to us today, circumstantial evidence is enough to establish truth. All convictions of cold cases are built on circumstantial evidence.
  • Evidence does not need to get you beyond every possible doubt for a conviction, but beyond every reasonable doubt. Some people hold the bar far too high when it comes to Jesus so that no amount of evidence would ever be enough.
  • Not every question that is raised in a case needs to be answered. Belief in Jesus as Lord is reasonable, even when questions linger.
  • Unbiased jurors make the best jurors. That is why there is a process of jury selection, to weed out those who would begin with prejudice and bias. Some people will never believe Jesus rose from the dead because they start with a bias against the possibility of any miracle.

The evidence points to the unreality of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the reality of Jesus. Evidence is spoken of in the Bible:

This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
5 For
there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
6 who gave himself a ransom for all
this was attested at the right time. 1 Timothy 2:3-6 (emphasis mine)

The word for “attested” is a word meaning “evidence, proof, testimony.” That there is one God, and that Jesus is how we can know God has been “attested to,” or “evidenced.” Jesus is the greatest proof of Who the Designer is, and the greatest evidence of His love for us. Which brings us to our conclusion.

The evidence points to what seems too good to be true. If the evidence pointed to atheism being true, that would be a depressing thing. If the evidence pointed to Islam being true, that could be a scary thing. If the evidence pointed to Eastern religions being true with their focus on karma, that would be an unfortunate thing. But the evidence points to the resurrection of Jesus, the reality of God, and the reality of God’s grace and love for the sinner. That is the best possible place for the evidence to lead. It seems too good to be true! Yet that is where the evidence points. So instead of asking “what’s up with the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” we should instead be asking “what’s up with God loving us so much?”

(All scripture references are taken from the NRSV)