Why Choose Christianity and Not Something Else? Or Nothing Else?

2295355354_e65354babd_nWhy would we choose to be a Christian and not something else? Why follow Jesus when there are so many other options including an attempt at following no one? With so many religions, how can we settle on one, or should we even settle on one? One answer appeals to the tension that exists between naturalistic explanations and supernatural explanations.

There are perfectly good explanations for how the vast majority of religions arose, explanations which make no appeal to the supernatural. For example, it is not hard to see how ancient myths involving a pantheon of gods arose out of need to understand things beyond understanding. Bad things happen because the gods are angry, sometimes at humans, sometimes at each other. As understanding increased, the gods were pushed out as being not a very good explantation of the facts. The naturalistic explanation, saying “men came up with myths about Zeus and others” fits all the data we have available much better than an appeal to a supernatural explanation; “men spoke about Zeus and the rest because those gods were real.” Similarly, to say “Islam arose because Muhammad was impressed with neither the people nor theology of Jews and Christians and so founded his own religion” fits all the data available better than “Islam exists because Allah revealed himself to Muhammad.”  We can follow similar lines of reasoning for 99% of all the world’s religions. In this sense, atheism is a powerful ally to Christianity for the atheists help us make the case for why we reject the vast majority of religions. We should note that in fact the early Christians were accused of spreading atheism! They were going around saying that all idols and myths were human invention.

However, for Christianity, the supernatural explanation provides a better explanation of all the available facts than the naturalist explanation. To give some examples:

  • The supernatural explanation accounts for the amazing consistency of the Biblical message despite the many authors writing over many, many years, from different contexts, writing for different purposes. There is a simple explanation of this: the scriptures are “God breathed.” (2 Timothy 3:16)
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for why people in the days following the death of Jesus were going around saying “Jesus is risen, I have seen him” and were willing to die for that claim. Appeals to hallucinations and/or fabrications do not account for the facts very well.
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for sudden birth and rise of an unexpected Christianity theology. The theology of Christianity is not what you would expect from Jewish scriptures and expectations, but it is what you would expect from Jewish scriptures and expectations plus the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for the staying power of Christianity and why so many people over so many years have some claim of a personal relationship with God through Jesus. The Christian message was not popular to either Jews or non-Jews from the get go. And yet it caught fire and continues to do so today despite still being unpopular to the point of persecution throughout the world. Yes, other religions have had staying power also, but you can come up with naturalistic explanations for this. Christianity would have died out ages ago if God were not in it.
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for the big questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there life when the odds are against there being such? How did the universe get started? Why is there something startlingly different about humans compared with other animals? Why is there such a strong yearning for purpose among humans? Why do humans reflect on morality so much? Why is there evil and what can be done about it?” Naturalism struggles to explain what Christianity simply and  profoundly answers.

Within the Bible itself we find an example of this tension between a natural and supernatural explanation. In Acts 26 Paul shares with King Agrippa, the local governor Festus, and many others how he came to be a Christ follower including his experience of the risen Jesus. But at some point Festus has had enough: “And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.’” (Acts 26:24) With that Paul says “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.” (Acts 26:25) Here we have a tension between a naturalistic explanation given by Festus; ”Paul, you are mad, no gods here,” and a supernatural explanation from Paul: ”Jesus appeared to and spoke with me.” Paul could have gone for a naturalistic explanation himself “perhaps the stress is getting to me and so I had some sort of hallucination.” However any naturalistic explanation could not fit all the facts, including the fact that his companions experienced something also, “we had all fallen to the ground,” (Acts 26:14) not to mention Paul’s further experience of regaining sight through the ministry of a Christian (Acts 9:10-19). No naturalistic view could account for these things.

So why Christianity and not another religion, or no religion? Why follow Jesus and not someone else, or no one else? Because Jesus rose from the dead, because Christianity is true. That Jesus rose from the dead and that Christianity is true makes the best sense of the all the facts we have. Yes there are naturalistic explanations offered for the rise and spread of Christianity and they are many, diverse, and complicated. But there is a simple explanation that covers all the facts, the supernatural one; Jesus rose from the dead. How should we respond when people say we are crazy for believing in the supernatural? Just like Paul did with Festus: “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.” (Acts 26:25)

There is one more thing we should mention about all this. There is no religious perspective that if found to be true could offer more hope, both for this life and the next, for more people, than Christianity. That Jesus rose from the dead and Christianity is true is not just a rational conclusion, it provides for an amazing hope in God’s amazing grace.

All Bible references are taken from the ESV.
photo credit: Interfaith Banner via photopin (license)

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Jesus: Ordinary or Extraordinary?

15684608376_791ca50f0c_nJesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NRSV)

Many people believe Jesus to have been an extraordinary person. However, the emphasis is often on the ordinary part of extraordinary. In other words, though a profound figure of history, he is just like you and me in most respects.

When Jesus says “I am the truth” he is pointing to his identity with a  focus on the extra part of extraordinary. This includes the following:

  • Jesus is the Messiah
  • Jesus is Lord
  • Jesus is the Saviour
  • Jesus is the Son of Man, described in Daniel 7
  • Jesus is the Son of God, but moreover is  God the Son

We are none of these things.

Each of these affirmations and more we learn from the life and teaching of Jesus himself in the Gospels. These are also affirmed in the letters and other writings of the New Testament. There are those who like to cast doubt on such a high view of Jesus. They do this in the following ways:

People cast doubt on the truth of Jesus by saying his divinity is a fabrication of the Church. Very few historians insist that Jesus never existed, but there are those who say Jesus existed, but the extra-extraordinary account of Jesus we find in the New Testament was made up by Jesus’ disciples. The biggest weakness of this view is that the disciples and other early Christians had no motivation to make Jesus more extraordinary that ordinary. They did not get rich by their teaching about Jesus, or even popular. If anything they got themselves persecuted and killed. There simply was no motivation to make Jesus up.

People cast doubt on Jesus by saying that Jesus was a legend that developed over time. They say there was a historical figure named Jesus, but over time his legend grew so that eventually he was thought of as being more extraordinary than ordinary. The weakness of this view is that there was not enough time between the life and teaching of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament documents. Legends require time, and the writers of the New Testament documents were writing so close to the events they could point to the existence of eye witnesses. In some cases they are the eyewitnesses. In all cases they are close companions to eyewitnesses.

People cast doubt on Jesus by saying that the events of Jesus’ life are to be understood metaphorically. On this view Jesus is more ordinary than extraordinary in that he did not really rise from the dead or do miracles, but the accounts of these things point in a poetic fashion to some religious truth. However this fails to take into proper account the various genres that scripture is written in. For example, there is poetry in the Bible that ought to be taken metaphorically, such as “The Lord is my rock” (Psalm 18:2 NRSV). But there are passages that clearly are meant to be taken as historically true. The accounts of the life and events of Jesus’ life including his death and resurrection are clearly in this category. The early Christians of the New Testament believed all this to be historically true rather than mere metaphor.

There are also those who have rejected Christianity without giving much thought at all as to what is true about Jesus. Though I cannot remember the who, where, or when, I can remember being shocked when reading a blog post about Christian music. I was not shocked by anything the author said about Christian music and even agreed on certain points. What shocked me was how the post ended with “that is why I no longer call myself a Christian.” I remember wondering to myself what Christian music really had to do with the acceptance or rejection of Christianity. And many people will give many reasons as to why they accept or reject Christianity. But there should really be only one reason to do either, and that is our response to Jesus as the truth. Do we believe him to be Messiah, Lord, Saviour, Son of God and God the Son, or not? Is he extraordinary, with the emphasis on the “extra” part and so not at all like us because we are not Messiah, Lord, Saviour, Son of God and God the Son? Or is he extraordinary with the emphasis on the ordinary part, so just like you and me in all the important ways?

When we say “Jesus is the truth” we recognize certain things to be true about Jesus’ identity, but we also recognize certain things to be true about our own identities: If Jesus is the truth, then we are sinful people in need of salvation. 

8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:8-10 NRSV)

If we are not sinful and in need of God’s rescue, then there was no need for Jesus to come and do what he did. Believing Jesus is the Saviour goes hand in hand with believing we are sinners in need of a Saviour. There are many people who would say that Jesus was an extraordinary figure in history with the emphasis on the ordinary because it is just too hard for an intellectual person to believe otherwise. However, methinks often it is the corresponding belief about ourselves, that we are sinful, that is the less palatable belief. For if we are sinful, then we must be very ordinary indeed.

Jesus said “I am the truth.” An extraordinary claim by an extraordinary man.

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Trusting Thomas (John 20:24-29)

 

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There are two questions that arise from the story of Jesus and “Doubting Thomas.”

First, where is your head at?

The story is often taken to indicate that while Thomas believed on the evidence he saw, people are much better to believe in Jesus without any evidence.

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe
(John 20:29 NRSV)

However, the lesson for us actually goes the other way. When Thomas asks for evidence, Jesus provides it. In fact the verse above refers to those who have believed on the testimony of eyewitnesses, which is evidence! When people ask us for evidence for the truth of Christianity today, we should be ready to provide it. And there is much evidence, all of which comes together to create a strong cumulative case. We do well then to learn what the evidence is through what we call apologetics.

but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15-16 NRSV)

So we learn from Thomas that the intellectual side of faith is important and that our minds ought to be engaged.

Second, where is your heart at?

“Doubting Thomas” is  a terrible name for Thomas. Though he begins with doubt, as most of us do, he breaks through to belief, so he ought to be called “believing Thomas.” But then even that name would not capture it because belief in our time and place often has the connotation of a dry intellectual assent. When Thomas does express faith it is not done so in a detached rational statement of religious dogma. It is done with passion: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28 NRSV). He has not just made a creedal statement and so joined a religion, he has made a statement about his relationship with Jesus, and so entered into a new depth of relationship. A better title for Thomas would be “Trusting Thomas.”

Which brings us to a valuable insight. While sometimes we consider faith and religion from a purely intellectual perspective, God is speaking to our hearts. While people often ask for, look for, or expect God to provide some big “sign in the sky” to prove His existence, God is doing a far greater work over a much greater period. While we look for evidence that God exists, God provides evidence that He loves.

Suppose, being Mother’s Day, that you discover you are about to become a mother for the first time. This might come as shocking news, especially to us guys! Now suppose too, that you really don’t know anything about motherhood. That part will come more easily to us males. Will you ask the question: “how can I prove to my child that I exist? When my child gets old enough shall I hire a skywriter to write my child a note in the sky?” Of course you will not ask such questions. But you might ask “how can I express love to my child over the long term so that she knows that I love her?” A good answer to that can be found in the writings of Gary Chapman in the “Love Language” series of books where Gary speaks of five basic ways we all express and receive love. They are; acts of service, words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, and gifts. Engage in these over the long haul and your child will know that she is loved.

Now consider that while people sometimes look for a grandiose sign from God, God is ready to provide rich evidence, not just of His existence, but of His love:

  1. Acts of Service. We say grace at meals to thank God for the provision of food. While we are at it we could thank the Lord for gravity, families, air, . . . the list could go on and on.
  2. Words of Affirmation. I could choose a few verses from the Bible, but in fact the whole storyline of the Bible, from beginning to end speaks of God’s love for us.
  3. Quality Time. We can think of God’s presence with us through the Holy Spirit. We can think of worship, and prayer. God is willing to spend time with us.
  4. Physical Touch. Yes, there can be moments when we feel the presence of God in a physical way. If you have never felt this, perhaps you have not asked, or been open to, or needed this.
  5. Gifts. The gift of Jesus, the gift of reconciliation, the gift of eternal life, the gift of forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit. We could keep going. Yes, God expresses His love for us through gifts.

Thomas was not looking for some grandiose sign of God’s existence. He was looking, and appropriately so, for evidence that, yes, Jesus did rise from the dead. But Thomas went far beyond some sort of intellectual statement of belief, to an expression of relationship. While the intellectual evidence of God’s existence is great, let us remember that the evidence goes way beyond what can be considered intellectually. The evidence is the kind of evidence we find in relationships, the kind of evidence that goes beyond saying “I exist, I wish you would believe that I do,” to “I love you, I want you to trust me.” Are you looking for evidence for God as if He is something to behold in a test tube? Why not try on the evidence of Christ as the Lord and God who loves you?

photo credit: Robin Hutton via photopin cc

thinking credit: my sermons and blogs would not exist were it not for others. In particular I can thank author and cold case detective J. Warner Wallace for steering my thoughts on how Doubting Thomas supports the evidential approach to faith. His website pleaseconvinceme.com is a great place to learn some apologetics.