Tag Archives: evidence

Of Blood & Water

Golgota - Mihaly Munkacsy 1884Over the course of the last several posts, we’ve looked at the consistent appeal to evidence in the apostle John’s eyewitness account of the ministry of Jesus. Today, we come to the climactic scene of the crucifixion in John 19. Jesus had been arrested and tried in a kangaroo court during the dead of night in chapter 18. He had been brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to ensure the death penalty can be carried out. Despite his finding Jesus innocent and offering to release Him, the chief priests, in an attempt to manipulate Pilate and curry favor with Rome, had called out Pilate as “no friend to Caesar” if he released Jesus. And so Pilate gave in to their demands, and played a part in Jesus’ plan of atonement for all mankind in the process. So Jesus was crucified Friday morning. The Jewish Sabbath started at sundown, however, and the priests wanted to make sure the bodies of Christ and two robbers didn’t remain on the crosses past sundown. But that meant accelerating the asphyxiation process that typically killed crucifixion victims. So they asked Pilate to have the victim’s legs broken so they couldn’t push up with their legs to take a breath. Asphyxiation would follow quickly instead of dragging on for hours or even days as intended with crucifixion. But John recorded a little earlier that prior to this, Jesus had cried out, “It is finished!”, bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. Therefore, when the Roman soldiers came up to Him, they found Him already dead, hence breaking the legs would be unnecessary. Nevertheless, Roman soldiers were responsible for being sure that those sentenced to death really did die (or face death themselves), so one of the soldiers took a spear and thrust it up into the side of Jesus. And here John records an interesting statement: “immediately there came out blood and water. And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.”

Now, anybody who has ever had or even seen a bleeding injury, knows that it’s normal for blood to come out of a wound, but not water. What is John to do with this oddity? As Matthew Henry says in his commentary on this verse, “What a competent witness he was of the matters of fact. What he bore record of he saw; he was an eyewitness of it. What he saw he faithfully bore record of; he told not only the truth, but the whole truth.” [1] It would’ve been easy to tell most of what he saw, and leave out that puzzling detail. Indeed, down through church history, we see believers looking for how to interpret this observation. As Origen wrote in the 3rd century, “Now, in other dead bodies the blood congeals, and pure water does not flow forth.”[2]  Hippolytus also noted that “streams which flow not from dead bodies flowed forth from Him.”[3] John Chrysostom, Theodoretus, Cyril of Jerusalem,  and other Church fathers all noted the same basic observation, and theorized as to what “mystical”, symbolic intent John must have had.  maybe it was symbolic of Jesus being the source of eternal life like a spring of water. In the 4th century, Rufinus offered that the water might symbolize the washing of saints and the blood the condemnation of unbelievers, or that they symbolized baptism by water and by martyrdom. He also guessed that the wound in the side might symbolize a connection with how Eve was made by removing Adam’s rib. [4] Cyril of Jerusalem supposed that “Jesus, who came to bestow the grace of pardon on men and women alike, was pierced in the side for women”. [5]Jerome, writing in the 4th and 5th centuries, described the blood and water as the “twin emblems of baptism and martyrdom.” [6] While there may be symbolism that can be attached to this, John seems to be insisting that this is first and foremost true, literal, witness testimony. So which is it?

Now, with the advancements in medical knowledge of the last 1900 years, we know about the condition of pericardial and pleural  effusion, the collection of fluid around the heart and lungs, respectively. [7] Now, we don’t need to try to determine some purely symbolic meaning from this text. We can see that, indeed, John was simply recording accurately exactly what he saw, even if the physical phenomenon  wouldn’t be understood for centuries. But now, we are also left with a bigger question. If he would dutifully record what he couldn’t explain, emphasizing so carefully that he was speaking the truth about this evidence – and we now know it to be a legitimate and plausible explanation – doesn’t it stand to reason that he would be equally honest in the rest of his account? Perhaps we would do well to pay heed to all that John has recorded for us of the incredible life of Christ… and all that implies.

Unless noted otherwise, references to early church fathers are taken from The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene & Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection, edited by Philip Schaff, (Kindle E-Book, eISBN-13:978-1-78379-372-3, by Catholic Way Publishing, 2014).

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible in One Volume, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p. 1622.
[2] Location 78414 (Origen, “Against Celsus”, Chapter 36).
[3] Location 94724 (The Extant Works and Fragments of Hippolytus, “Fragments of Discourse and Homilies”).
[4] Location 488643 (Life & Works of Rufinus, “A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed”).
[5] Location 545344 (The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Lecture 13, “On the words, Crucified and Buried”).
[6] Location 530455 (The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 69, “To Oceanus”)
[7] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p.199.

“That You May Believe”

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles smallWorking our way through the apostle John’s testimony of the life of Christ the last few weeks, we’ve been seeing example after example of Jesus calling on people to believe in Him based on the evidence presented. He didn’t ask people to blindly accept this incredible story of God lovingly, mercifully reaching out to mankind in spite of our rejection of Him. Unlike the ravings of a lunatic claiming to be someone he’s clearly not, Jesus’ claims to be God were backed up with demonstrations of supernatural power.

Looking at the 13th through 15th chapters of John today, we read 3 more examples of Jesus appealing to evidence. John records Jesus telling His disciples that one of them would betray Him, and saying, “I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He.” [John 13:19] In the next chapter, He tells them of His eventual ascension and return to God the Father. Again he says, “now I have told you before it comes to pass, that when it comes to pass, you may believe.” [14:29] In both instances, He is telling them what will happen, and calling their attention to it, so that when it does come to pass, they will understand the significance of it. Another aspect here is that the Old Testament law had 2 tests regarding prophecy. If a prophet made specific prophecies that did not occur, then he was to be considered a false prophet and be put to death. [Deuteronomy 18:20-22] And if a prophet performed some sign or wonder to accompany his words, but his teaching was such as to lead the Israelites away from God to chase after other gods, then they were to not follow his teaching, even with the evidence of supernatural power accompanying it. In fact, they were to put him to death as well. [Deut. 13:1-4] False prophets were not taken lightly. Yet Jesus is effectively telling them, “Don’t believe me if I don’t pass the test. But when I do, believe.”

In chapter 15, Jesus is telling His disciples that the world will hate and persecute them because of Him, for the world hated Him first. Then He tells them, “If I had not done among them the works which no one did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” [John 15:24] Clearly, He is appealing to the nature of His miracles as condemning evidence against those who saw His works and rejected Him. These were not some parlor tricks or the cunning work of some traveling charlatan. These were genuine miracles – alterations of our material reality that are impossible without God, the author of this reality. But perhaps you might question the originality of His miracles. Doesn’t the Old Testament describe people like Moses and Elijah and other prophets also performing great signs? Didn’t Elijah even raise the dead?[1 Kings 17:17-24] How could Jesus say that no one else had done the works He did? Here’s the difference. The prophets were performing those miracles as agents of God, in His name, and only by His power. Jesus performed His miracles directly, not as appeals to God to act on His behalf, for He is God.

John wrote down for us another insight into the evidential nature of biblical faith when he recorded Jesus telling them, “you will bear witness also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” [John 15:27] Why did Jesus want the disciples to be His witnesses to the world? Was it their eloquence? Their charisma? Their political connections? Their respected positions in society? Their education? These might all be attractive and useful qualities for someone wanting to start a worldwide movement. What mattered to Jesus was the same thing that matters in court: that an eyewitness actually be at the scene that he testifies about. And this is why it was these men – these dirty, poor, “unlearned” men – that were to be His witnesses. They had been eyewitnesses from the beginning, and could truthfully report what had happened.

In the end, we believe Christ’s story, not because it is comforting (though Jesus is our comfort), but because it is true. This has always been the emphasis in Christianity, and with good reason. If it’s not true, then why believe it? If it’s not true, then, as the apostle Paul himself would say, “we are of all men most to be pitied.” [1 Cor. 15:19]

The Case of Lazarus

Raising of Lazarus - Bonnat 1857Let’s continue last month’s series looking at the evidential nature of faith presented in the Bible. What evidence did Jesus present to people to recognize the truth of His claims to be God? In the 11th and 12th chapters of John’s eyewitness testimony, we read of one Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, two sisters who had been following Jesus. The sisters sent word to Jesus that this close friend was sick [11:3], yet Jesus says that “this sickness is not unto death, … but that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” John then makes an interesting sequence of statements in the next few verses. He tells us specifically that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in verse 5, but that when Jesus heard Lazarus was sick, “He stayed then 2 days longer in the place where He was.” [11:6] That doesn’t seem very loving at first glance. Indeed, when He finally does arrive, Lazarus has already been dead and in the tomb for 4 days. Others have been there consoling the sisters, but not Jesus. Martha and Mary, in separate conversations with Jesus on His arrival, both tell Him that “if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” [11:21, 32] There was probably some frustration on their part, having seen what Jesus had done for others, and wondering what could possibly have kept Him from arriving in time to heal their dear brother. Others, too, were asking why this man who had healed the blind couldn’t also have healed Lazarus. Valid question. John records the reason Jesus gave to His disciples on the journey there: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” [11:15]

Healing Lazarus so he didn’t die at that time would’ve been a good result by human standards. But Jesus had in mind a far better result – raising Lazarus from the dead. He waited until there was no question about it. In fact, when he orders the stone to be removed from the entrance of the cave where Lazarus had been buried, Martha, ever the down-to-earth sister, points out that “there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” [11:39] Yet, when Jesus called Lazarus, he came out of the tomb, still bound in burial cloths. [11:45] Now, we need to stop and remember that this wasn’t an age of coroners and hospitals and funeral homes, and a whole chain of people that took care of the nitty-gritty reality of death for you. The family and friends gathered with Mary and Martha had likely helped prepare the body for burial, move the dead body to the tomb, and close up the tomb with this large stone. If you personally place a dead body in a tomb, or you watch it being placed in the tomb while there grieving with the family graveside, and then someone comes and  somehow makes that same, very dead man live again, you can’t deny that something incredible has just happened, and that He who brought your friend back to life is worth your undivided attention! John tells us that’s exactly what happened. “Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him.” [11:46] Those present saw the evidence, recognized the validity of the evidence, and hence, the validity of Jesus’ claim to be God, and accepted that claim to be true.

John chapter 12 then tells how Jesus came back to Bethany, where Lazarus was, and John mentions that “Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Jesus.” Interestingly, he records that “the great multitude therefore of the Jews learned that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus whom He raised from the dead. But the chief priests took counsel that they might put Lazarus to death also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away, and were believing in Jesus.” [12:9-11] Here again, we see the clear role of evidence. A living man that people saw die is tough to explain away. People had heard about Jesus healing people of different sicknesses, but this was a whole other level of miracle. And so they came to see for themselves this dead man now living. And now, people who hadn’t seen the actual event, but had talked to the once dead man, and the family members who had buried him, and the witnesses who had seen him raised up again – now these people were believing in Jesus as well. Hence, the chief priests’ idea to dispose of the evidence (i.e. Lazarus)  before this Jesus thing got out of hand. Yet trying to squash this or hush it up was like trying to unring a bell. As President John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”[1] The resurrection of Lazarus was an especially stubborn fact that unfortunately proved to be a stumbling block for the chief priests who despised Jesus. Don’t let it be a stumbling block for you.

[1] John Adams, “Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,” December 1770, from The Works of John Adams, Vol 1, (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1856).

“Now I See”

Christ healing the blind man - Eustache le SuerThe last month, I’ve been looking at the evidential nature of faith shown in the Bible. Contrary to popular claims of Christianity being a “blind faith” Jesus routinely backed up his claims with proof. Let’s look at one person’s journey to belief as recorded in the Bible.

The apostle John describes a time that Jesus and his disciples passed a man begging who had been born blind. The Jews thought this must be punishment because of something his parents had done, or some sin he had somehow committed in the womb. So they asked Jesus which explanation for the man being born blind was correct. Jesus responded that it was neither, but rather “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” [John 9:3] He then healed the man, and John records that the neighbors who had previously seen this man begging debated whether this was the same beggar who had been blind, or someone who simply looked like him. John notes that the man had to keep insisting that it really was him. This always strikes me as a somewhat comical situation, though probably frustrating for the man. The people very reasonably asked him how he can see now, and he told them the man called Jesus healed him. They brought him to the Pharisees, the religious scholars of the time, and some of them decided that because Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath (the day of rest under the law), He must not be from God. And yet some of them appealed to the evidence at hand, saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” [9:16] When they asked the formerly blind man who he thought Jesus was, he said “a prophet.” They didn’t like this answer, so they called the man’s parents to testify whether this was really their son who had been born blind, and how he was able to see now. [9:19] His parents confirmed that the formerly blind man was indeed their son, and that he was born blind, but they didn’t know how he could see now. Out of fear of opposing the chief priests, they deferred to their son, saying “He is of age, ask him.” So the priests interrogated him again, saying, “Give glory to God, we know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” While it may have been a bit of a leading question, the beggar took it in stride and replied, “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” [9:25]

I encourage everyone to read the full passage, as the rest of the beggar’s exchange with the priests is actually pretty comical, but I want to focus here on the importance placed on evidence and reasoning throughout this story and many other biblical accounts. This whole proceeding is being conducted like a trial, with a panel of judges, witnesses being called, and testimony given and examined (if a bit hostilely). People on both sides of the issue are looking to determine the facts of what actually happened before they decide who to believe. And the beggar admits what he doesn’t know while being confident in what he does know. Moreover, as the interrogation of the beggar proceeds, he tells the priests, “Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.” [9:32-33] Although the priests didn’t take being lectured by a beggar very well (they threw him out of the synagogue), he rightly recognized the significance of the miracle Jesus performed on him. Afterwards, John tells us that Jesus heard they had thrown him out. He sought him out, and asked him if he believed in the Son of Man (the title Jesus most commonly used of Himself, referring back to the vision of the prophet Daniel). [Daniel 7:13-14] The beggar asked who this was, that he might believe in Him. When Jesus told him that “you have both seen Him, and He is the one talking with you,” the beggar’s response is both honest and reasonable. He said, “Lord, I believe,” and worshiped Jesus. [John 9:38] When John tells us that the beggar worshiped Jesus, that’s not spoken lightly. Even the lowliest Jewish beggar would grasp the serious consequences of worshiping anyone other than God. Yet, he did just that, because Jesus’ answer explained the evidence.  Jesus had done for him what no human could do, and when Jesus explained that He was no ordinary human, but none other than God Incarnate, the pieces fell into place, and the man believed. Like the beggar, we are all born spiritually blind. And like him, only Jesus can open our eyes. The question is, how will you respond to Him?

“See For Yourself”

Jesus & the Samaritan Woman – Gustav Dore

Last week, we looked at several passages in the gospel of John that deal with the evidential nature of biblical faith. Let’s look at a couple more instances today, along with a potential objection. The 4th chapter of John’s gospel tells the stories of Jesus meeting first a Samaritan woman at their local water well,[1] and then a Jewish nobleman on His return to Galilee.[2] Although the Samaritans were normally despised by the Jews, and it was frowned upon to talk to a woman (Samaritan or otherwise) in public in that culture (see v. 27), Jesus had a lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman, and we see several interesting statements made. The woman left her water pot at the well and went back into the city and told the people there, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ (i.e. the Messiah), is it?” She invited them to come see for themselves whether this man might be the promised Savior. Rather than simply dismissing her, they went out of the city to where Jesus was to investigate for themselves. Later in the passage, John says that “from that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things that I have done.'” They then asked Jesus to stay with them 2 more days, and John notes that “many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.'” This was not like a cursory glance or half-hearted listening. The Samaritans invested enough of their time in listening to Jesus for many of them to weigh His words and become convinced that Jesus was who He said He was.

After this encounter, Jesus left Samaria, and, coming to the region of Galilee, he went to Cana, where He had performed His first public miracle. Here, He met the desperate father of a deathly sick child. The man had traveled roughly 25 miles from Capernaum to ask Jesus to come to his home and cure his boy. Jesus seems to reprimand the people here for wanting evidence when He says, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” And yet, John records Jesus later telling the Jews in Jerusalem, “If I do not the works of My Father, believe Me not.”[3]

How do we reconcile these 2 different responses regarding belief based on evidence provided? It’s important to note at the beginning of this account (v. 46), that this was in Cana, where He had already demonstrated His power. It seems that His scolding here is due to their desire for continual demonstrations – for proof beyond proof. As John Gill says in his commentary on this passage, “they required signs and miracles to be wrought, in confirmation of Christ’s being the Messiah, and which indeed was but right; and Christ did perform them for that purpose: but their sin of unbelief lay in this, that they wanted still more and more signs; they could not be contented with what they had seen, but required more….”[4] Like a jury in court, at some point we have to recognize that we’ve seen and heard enough evidence to reach a reasonable decision even if we didn’t get every question answered exhaustively. Despite that rebuke, though, the man pleaded again for Jesus to come and heal his son. Jesus, not needing to travel to heal the son, told the father, “Go; your son lives.” It used to be said that “a man’s word is his bond”, and the father took Jesus at His word, trusting that the deed was done, though he might not understand how. Then he acted on that trust and left for his day-long journey home. When he was partway home, his servants met him to say the son had recovered. John then tells us that the father asked them for the time of the recovery, and they told him the fever left the boy “at the 7th hour”. John continues, “So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, ‘Your son lives’; and he himself believed and his whole household.”  As Matthew Henry commented on this verse, “The diligent comparison of the works of Christ with His word will be of great use to us for the confirming of our faith…. He had before believed the word of Christ; but now he believed in Christ.”[5]

In John 4, we see two different cases of people deciding to believe in the deity of Jesus. The Samaritans were convinced by His words, while the Jewish nobleman was convinced by His miraculous actions, but neither accepted Jesus’s claims blindly. The Samaritans came  to hear and decide for themselves based on what Jesus said and what they knew of the promised Christ, while the nobleman verified the boy’s recovery wasn’t natural by comparing the time of recovery with the time of Jesus’s pronouncement. As Paul later wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[6] But you must examine what you’re presented with before you can hold on to the good and discard the bad. Don’t bypass that critical step and throw out the evidence Jesus confronts you with before examining it and “seeing for yourself” the truth of it.

[1] John 4:39,41-42, in particular, NASB.
[2] John 4:45-53, NASB.
[3] John 10:37, NASB.
[4] John Gill D.D., Exposition of the Old and New Testaments – OSNOVA Kindle Edition, 2012 (1763 original), Location 276230 (John 4:48).
[5] Matthew Henry’s Commentary in One Volume, (Zondervan, 1961) pp. 1528-9.
[6] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.

“Look and See”

Sherlock HolmesOne thing I love about Christianity is the evidential nature of our faith. That may surprise some people to hear those terms used together, but Jesus didn’t ask people to believe on “blind faith” as some would like to assume. I’ve written before on how the very word translated from the Greek as “faith” in our Bibles speaks of being persuaded by evidence or proof. You can find that article here. Today, I want to look at a few more Scripture passages that deal with that evidential nature of faith for some of the first people to follow Jesus.

In the 1st and 2nd chapters of John’s gospel account, we see several instances of people deciding to believe that Jesus was the Messiah (or Anointed One). When Philip had decided to follow Jesus, he told his friend Nathanael that he had found the One foretold by Moses and the prophets, and that it was Jesus of Nazareth. When Nathanael asked skeptically (and maybe a bit sarcastically) if any good thing could come from the poor village of Nazareth, Philip’s  reply was “come and see.” When Jesus greeted Nathanael with “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”, this surprised him – “How do you know me?” Jesus answered that “before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Maybe this reference to the fig tree held some special significance to Nathanael to warrant the following response, for he replied with “Rabbi, You are the Son of God, You are the King of Israel.” Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t congratulate him for this quick assessment, but rather seemed to question his sudden jump: “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”[1] It seems that Jesus wasn’t looking for disciples who would follow just anybody that came along.

After that, Jesus performed His first miracle when He turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. Immediately after that account, John writes that “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.”[2] Their belief followed a sign. John tells about Jesus being in Jerusalem at the Passover, and says that “many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing.”[3] For those people also, belief followed a reason to believe. And again, in the same chapter, John talks about Jesus prophesying that He would die and rise from the dead, although they didn’t understand what He was saying at the time. But then John writes that “When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken.”[4] This was the ultimate proof.

After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples, but one of them wasn’t there – Thomas. Although the others told him that Jesus was alive and appeared to them, he was skeptical. His famous response that he wouldn’t believe until he could put his fingers in the nail holes in Jesus’s hands, and put his hand into the gaping spear wound in Jesus’s side, has earned him the nickname “Doubting Thomas”. But what was Jesus’s response when He came back and Thomas was present? Did He strike Thomas dead for his skepticism? Or for his wanting proof? On the contrary, He told Thomas “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.”[5] And what are the words used for believing and unbelieving? They are the words πιστός (pistos) and ἄπιστος (apistos), respectively. Pistos is the Greek word typically translated as “faith” and comes from the root πείθω (peitho), meaning “to be persuaded”. Apistos is the negation of that, and means one who is unconvinced. Jesus offered Thomas the chance to verify for himself that it really was Jesus, and then told him to let the evidence persuade him and not remain unpersuaded in spite of the evidence.

So did it persuade him? Yes! What was Thomas’s immediate response? He cried out, “My Lord and my God!” Though the rest of his story isn’t recorded in the Bible, church tradition records that “Doubting Thomas” took the gospel to Nineveh (near the modern day city of Mosul, Iraq), and then went on to India, where he was eventually run through with a stake after a confrontation with local Brahmin (Hindu priest caste) who were angry about his preaching and refusal to worship Kali.[6] And yet there are still Christians in India today that trace there spiritual heritage back to Thomas, just as there were in Mosul until ISIS ravaged the city 2014. From skeptic to martyr, Thomas’s journey speaks of a life-transforming persuasion just as strongly as Paul’s change from zealous persecutor of Christians to the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (i.e. non-Jews). But such a transformed life is the natural result of fully understanding how firmly grounded your trust in Christ really is. Borrowing from Philip and Jesus, “Come and see” the evidence for yourself, but then don’t stop there. Believe.

[1] John 1:45-51, NASB.
[2] John 2:11, NASB.
[3] John 2:23, NASB.
[4] John 2:22, NASB.
[5] John 20:24-28, NASB.
[6] Riley K Smith, Restricted Nations: India, Tales of Glory, (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Book Co, 2009), pp. 14-15.

Digging up Fairy Tales

Ruins in Ephesus, by Valeria RestucciaI’ve heard the Bible referred to as a collection of fairy tales, superstitions, myths, legends – fiction by whatever name you want to call it. But this got me thinking. Nobody goes looking for the ruins of Prince Charming’s castle or Captain Hook’s pirate ship. Nobody does this because they’re fairy tales. But, if someone did find the ruins of the lost city of Atlantis, or some other fairy tale/myth/legend, what would we decide? That it wasn’t just a story. Physical remains of the events of a story point to the story being actual history rather than make-believe. How then does the Bible compare? Is there actual evidence for the events recorded in it? Actually, there’s quite a bit, and the list is growing all the time. Let’s look at just a few examples.

At one time, people didn’t believe that Pontius Pilate really existed as the Bible was the earliest and most descriptive  source telling of him.[1] That was before archaeologists found the “Pilate Stone” in Caesarea Maritima in 1961. This stone’s inscription tells that “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea”, had dedicated a stadium to the Emperor. This is actual physical evidence from his lifetime corroborating the Bible narrative.[2]

Skeptics since the 1800’s have doubted the authenticity of Luke’s writings in the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts in the Bible. For example, skeptics doubted Luke’s use of different official titles when describing the different encounters with tetrarchs[3], politarchs[4], asiarchs[5], proconsuls[6], and other positions in different cities. In the case of the politarchs of Thessalonica, Luke’s was the only account to use that term, and so it was seen as a historical discrepancy. Now, we have found over 32 inscriptions bearing the name “politarch”, 19 from Thessalonica, and 3 of those 19 from the first century. This has led John McRay to say that it is now “incontrovertible” that politarchs existed before and during the time of Luke’s writing.[7] In fact, 84 different historical facts in the last 16 chapters of the book of Acts have been confirmed through various archaeological finds or historical literature corroborations.[8] For the skeptic who honestly investigates the subject, it is difficult to not arrive at the same conclusion that Sir William Ramsay, the British archaeologist of the 1800’s did: “I began with a mind unfavorable to it [Acts]…. It did not lie then in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself often brought into contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.”[9] His research led him from skepticism to placing Luke “among the historians of the first rank.”[10]

Looking further back, King David of Israel was believed to be a myth until the Tel Dan inscription was uncovered in 1993 that told of another king’s victory over a “son of Jehoram king of the House of David”. This was the first archaeological evidence found for King David.[11]

Christianity has always been unique in its appeal to evidence, both by Jesus and his first followers.[12] But that support has increased dramatically over the last century, and shows no signs of changing. Not only that, but the evidence that has been found consistently affirms the Biblical account. We aren’t being asked to believe in fairy tales, but rather in a reasonable account of God’s interaction with humanity as recorded through eyewitness testimony of actual historical events.

[1] John 18-19, among other references.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilate_Stone, accessed 8/30/2015.
[3] Luke 3:1, NASB.
[4] Acts 17:6, Greek-English Interlinear translation (πολιτάρχας = politarchus). Sometimes translated as “leaders of the city” in English.
[5] Acts 19:31, Greek-English Interlinear translation (Ἀσιαρχῶν = Asiarchon). Sometimes translated as “officials of the province in English.
[6] Acts 18:12, NASB.
[7] John McRay, Paul:His Life & Teaching, 2007, p. 152.
[8] Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, 1990, as quoted in chapter 10 of Geisler and Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, 2004, p. 256-9. The list is also reproduced online at  http://truthbomb.blogspot.com/2012/01/84-confirmed-facts-in-last-16-chapters.html, accessed 8/29/2015.
[9] Sir William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, 1896, Kindle Edition, Location 309.
[10] ibid, Location 254.
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tel_Dan_Stele, accessed 9/1/2015.
[12] Luke 7:18-23 (Jesus), 2 Peter 1:16-18 (Peter), 1 John 1:1-3 (John), NASB.

Get the Ump! (The Axiological Argument)

AP Photo by Butch Dill
AP Photo by Butch Dill

We’ve looked at several lines of reasoning justifying a warranted belief in God this last month. Today, we turn to what can be called the Moral Argument, or the Axiological Argument (axia = “value” in Greek).

Here is a common formulation of the argument[1]:
Premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

That first premise may seem like a big jump, so let’s dig into that  deeper by first defining our terms clearly.

  • “Values” are the moral worth of something; its goodness or badness. For example, helping the sick or the poor is generally recognized as “good”, while murdering them is generally recognized as “bad”.[2]
  • “Duties” are moral obligations or prohibitions; the rightness or wrongness of something. Something may be morally good without being an obligation. Moving to India to care for lepers may be a morally good action, but it’s not an obligation anyone has to do.
  • “Objective” means independent of opinion or perception of the subject, and is intrinsic to the object discussed. It’s the same for all subjects observing that object. Contrast this with subjective, which is based on a subject’s opinion or perception of an object and can vary between different subjects.
  • “Moral” refers to standards of right conduct.[3]

And therein lies the rub; standards are enforceable, while opinions aren’t. Morality is defined as a standard, but standards come from independent authorities. When two teams think the other one cheated, what do they do? They call for a decision from the umpire, the referee, the judge – whatever that sport calls their independent rule-enforcer. But the umpire has to be independent of either team, and he can’t make up the rules as he goes. He applies a defined standard impartially (we hope). What if each of the 2 teams comprised half the world? Who would be left to be an independent judge? The Axiological Argument highlights this need for a “third party”to define the standards we as humans abide by. Now, to clarify, this premise does not say that those who don’t believe in God can’t live ethical lives, understanding moral duties and making morally good decisions each day. Premise 1 is an ontological statement – a statement of existence; namely, that if God doesn’t exist, there would be no objective moral standards for us (atheist or theist) to recognize and live by. They would not exist without God, because He is the only one in the position to be truly independent and objective. Anything we come up with is just one person’s idea versus another’s.

Are there any reasons to accept premise 2’s claim that objective values and duties really do exist? J. Budziszewski has noted that “There is no land where murder is virtue and gratitude vice.”[4] Even in Nazi Germany, the Nazis dehumanized their victims (so it wasn’t murder) in an attempt to justify what they did. While extenuating circumstances can seem to relativize morality, the “fun test” confirms morality’s objectivity. “What’s that?”, you say? It’s a simple way to eliminate the effect of extenuating circumstances in justifying decisions. To see if circumstances would change the moral value of something, add “for fun” to the end of it. Lying to protect Jews from Nazis may be morally better than being an accomplice to their murder, but lying “for fun” is never considered morally good. Murdering Hitler to save millions may be justified, but murdering even Hitler “for fun” is not. Justifiable circumstances can be found for other deeds like stealing, arson, lying, etc, where the bad deed is the lesser of two evils. In dilemmas where the only options are all bad, a person may be justified in choosing the “least worst” choice. But murdering for fun, stealing for fun, etc, are never condoned or viewed as “good”. In an extreme example, the unacceptability of torturing innocent babies “for fun” would reveal that we really do consider there to be objective standards that shouldn’t be violated in any situation.

Therefore, God exists. Too simple? True premises and valid logic leave no other alternative but a true conclusion. We have defined our terms to avoid ambiguity and have provided support for the premises, and the syllogism that makes up this argument is logically valid (i.e. no logical fallacies present).  What characteristics about God can be inferred from this? First, His nature is intrinsic perfect goodness that is the standard for moral values. Second, His will establishes the standard for moral duties. What are some consequences of this conclusion? Simply this: we are accountable for our actions, but thankfully, it is a level playing field and we can know the game rules if we choose to learn them. We have an infallible Umpire who, unlike humans, will never make a bad call.

[1] See William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, (Colorado Springs, David C Cook, 2010), Ch. 6 for a much more detailed study of this argument.
[2] Evolutionary bioethicists like Peter Singer would disagree as this disrupts “survival of the fittest” by not killing off weak members of society. It’s more than a little disturbing that the New Yorker called Singer the planet’s “most influential living philosopher”. See why here.
[2] “Morality”, American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Ed., 2014.
[4]J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 208-20, as quoted in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, by Frank Turek, p. 171.

Divine Design (The Teleological Argument)

London Museum Roof SmallWe’ve been looking at different explanations for the existence of God, and this week we have one that resonates with me as an engineer: the teleological argument, or argument from design comes from the Greek word “telos” meaning end purpose or goal. The argument is as follows:
Premise 1: Every design has a designer.
Premise 2: The universe was designed.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe had a Designer.

Now let’s unpack those tidy little premises. Does every design have to have a designer? Design can be defined as: “a specification of an object (or process), manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.” Though a bit dry, this actually describes my daily tasks as an engineer pretty well. But notice that design is defined as being “manifested by an agent”. It appears that designs have designers by definition. But even without the word “agent” in there, we can see that design requires intent – an end purpose, a goal. But goals require consciousness to make choices between alternatives. Processes like natural selection, unguided by conscious agents, can only “choose” alternatives that confer immediate advantage. For example, chess moves that sacrifice an immediate advantage for a long-term gain are not possible without the foresight of design. Chance and physical necessity also can’t explain evidence of design such as intent. Therefore, the indication of long-range intent is confirmation of a designer.

The second premise is perhaps more controversial. But let’s follow the evidence along 3 lines: terrestrial, cosmic, and biological design. First, many parameters on earth appear to be fine-tuned for life to exist, and not just any life, but large, complex life. Things like atmospheric transparency, oxygen content, the polarity of the water molecule, and the temperature of max density of water, among a variety of other dispersed parameters, appear to all be set to values in very narrow ranges that allow for our level of life to exist (and flourish). Second, although these values all fall in narrow ranges, we find in the universe parameters that are even more precisely balanced in favor of life. But these parameters are fine-tuned not just for life anywhere in the universe, but specifically for life on earth. Properties such as the speed of light, the ratio of proton to electron mass, the mass density, expansion rate, homogeneity, and entropy level of the universe, the  uniformity of radiation, the values of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), and the location of earth both in our galaxy and the Milky Way’s location in the universe, are some of the roughly 100 interdependent parameters that have to be what they are for us to exist.[1] Interestingly, we also happen to be in a unique position in the universe to even be able to see the evidence of this design.

Third, the structure and information content of DNA points to extremely information-centric design. Four DNA bases are the optimum number for speed of replication.[2] From a data storage standpoint, the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” used by DNA for synthesizing proteins are the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking.[3] DNA exhibits nested encoding where the same stored data is used to convey meaningful information when read one way, and different meaningful information when read a different way.[4] To understand the significance of this coding accomplishment, try writing a book that tells one story when read in order, and a different, but still intelligible, story when reading only every third word. This increases the storage capacity of DNA immensely. Even so, DNA does not have all of the information needed to assemble an organism in it.[5] Some of the information is stored outside the DNA, which leads to a chicken-and-egg problem of how the cell is built by plans stored in the DNA, but with instructions stored in the cell that’s being built using the DNA plans. Our planet, our universe, and even our own bodies appear to all show signs of design, making the second premise true.

If these 2 premises are true, then the conclusion is true that the universe had to have a designer. What characteristics could we infer about this designer from the conclusion?

  • Intelligence – far beyond that of any human designer to understand complex and interdependent “systems of systems” comprising the universe.
  • Foreknowledge – far beyond any human ability to anticipate highly complex interactions and plan for those contingencies.
  • Power – far beyond any human capacity to alter our surroundings (we celebrate when we figure out how to copy something in nature successfully; making all of nature from scratch is in a whole other league of accomplishment).
  • Intemporality and immateriality – no design precedes it’s designer. If the universe (and therefore all of space and time) had a designer, then that designer had to precede the universe. Therefore the designer would have to exist outside of space and time.
  • Benevolence – It’s relatively easy to imagine many ways our universe could be organized that would result in life being a much harder, more miserable, existence for us. Also, the fact of our unique position in the universe to be able to see so much of it could be an example of a deliberately placed trail leading us back to this designer.

These correspond well with the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal, loving God of the Christian Bible. So then, how do we respond to this? We could a) accept the evidence left for us by this God, and seek after Him, b) deny the evidence having honest doubts, but attempt to offer an alternative that explains the evidence as well, or c) simply refuse to consider the evidence. Please, don’t be content with this last option.

[1] Hugh Ross, “Fine Tuning for Life in the Universe”, http://www.reasons.org/articles/fine-tuning-for-life-in-the-universe, accessed 2014/08/03.
[2] “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
[3] Werner Gitt, Without Excuse (Atlanta: Creation Book Publishers, 2011), p. 162-166.
[4] Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p. 466.
[5]  ibid., p. 473-474.

The Cosmological Argument

Spiral Galaxy NGC 1566, courtesy www.nasa.govThe Cosmological Argument is not one argument, but rather a group of several arguments for the existence of God proposed by different thinkers over the centuries. Here is one relatively simple form of it –  just 2 premises and the conclusion – but with a lot packed in those 2 premises, and a serious implication inferred by the seemingly modest conclusion. Whole books can be written on each point[1], but in a nutshell, it goes like this:

Premise 1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
Premise 2) The universe began to exist.
Conclusion) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Premise 1 is simply the law of causality, (i.e. cause and effect): the effect (beginning to exist) has a cause. This law is not only fundamental to science, but also verifiable by anyone through our everyday observations. Nobody walks into a room and, seeing a ball rolling across the room, assumes the ball has always been in motion. We instinctively look in the direction the ball rolled from to see who or what caused it to roll. Notice that this premise does not say that whatever exists has a cause, but that whatever begins to exist does. If either the theist’s God or the atheist’s universe is eternal, then neither would require a cause. Hence the atheist’s question of “Who made God?” is as irrelevant as asking them who made the universe in their view. No one needed to. That’s the nature of anything being eternal.

But Premise 2 then eliminates the option of an eternal universe through three independent lines of reasoning: one scientific and two philosophical. First, a host of scientific evidence points to the universe having a definite beginning. The Standard Cosmological Model (the “Big Bang”), whether you agree with the specifics of it or not, has withstood decades of attempted refutation and points to a unique beginning to all space and time at a single point in history, a singularity where space and time cease to exist prior to that point. Another insurmountable obstacle is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This is the most universally accepted physical law, so much so that it forms the basis of the US Patent Office refusing to grant patents for perpetual motion machines without a working model. As Sir Arthur Eddington said, “if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”[2] The universe is only winding down. But if it is only winding down, that means it had be wound up.

Attacking the possibility of an eternal universe philosophically, we have two more abstract, but nevertheless valid, approaches. First, an eternal universe would require an infinite regress, but there can be no actual infinite regress because an actually infinite number of things cannot exist. A beginningless series of events in time entails an actually infinite number of things (events in this case). Therefore, a beginningless series of events in time cannot actually exist.

The second philosophical rationale is that one cannot traverse an infinite series. The series of events in time is a collection formed by adding one member (or event) after another. A collection formed by adding one member after another cannot be actually infinite.  So then, the series of events in time cannot be actually infinite.

Therefore, the universe has a cause. If this argument seemed fairly noncontroversial to you right from the beginning, then you might be surprised at the resistance to it. That’s because of the implications the conclusion leads us to. This cause cannot be material or temporal as space and time both had a beginning, and this first uncaused cause would necessarily have to exist before the effect it caused (the universe). This cause must be extremely powerful to cause everything observable (and probably more that we haven’t observed). The incredibly detailed precision observed in the universe would require an intellect far beyond the greatest human minds to orchestrate the intimately interrelated web of cause and effect detected so far. For comparison, we routinely fail to predict the consequences of even simple actions over periods of days or weeks (i.e. weather prediction). This cause is necessarily a free agent capable of making choices. An impersonal force like gravity cannot choose to act at a particular time on an object. A ball does not simply float in the air until gravity decides to act on it and make it fall to the ground. If this cause were simply a force like gravity, acting from all eternity, then the effect (the universe) would be eternal as well, which contradicts the observed evidence and our reasoning. This cause is therefore a person, in the general sense of a being possessing rationality. This first cause, or uncaused cause, then appears to be, for all practical purposes: eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and personal. As with the Ontological Argument from last week, this correlates well with the description of God in the Bible and forces us to face the possibility of a sovereign Maker who might very well hold us accountable for our actions. Hence, the determined resistance to this line of reasoning.

[1] See “Reasonable Faith”, 3rd Ed., chapters 3 & 4, by William Lane Craig for a much more detailed treatment of this and other arguments for the existence of God.
[2] Sir Arthur Eddington, “The Nature of the Physical World”, 1927.