The NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently interviewed Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, in an op-ed entitled “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?” The responses, like the one referenced in his op-ed’s title, can only be described as bizarre to hear coming from someone claiming to be a Christian. But this is what is being held up as Christianity to a watching world in the pages of a major media outlet, so it warrants a response. I encourage you to click the link above to read the whole article for yourself. Then let’s work through some of the more glaring issues and see how this stacks up against actual Christianity.
I attended the funeral last week of a fellow engineer and longtime member of our state structural engineers association. I had known he was sick, and had meant to visit him, but somehow was always too distracted at the office to ever remember to visit him and follow through on those good intentions. Although I hadn’t known him personally, he had always been friendly at our monthly association meetings, and encouraging to me during my tenure as President. In the course of conversations at the funeral and the visitation the night before, I learned a lot I never knew about him. But something that surprised me was the dramatic contrast in my reaction to two pieces of information in the email that he had passed away over the weekend. There was initial shock at this unexpected reminder of the ever-present specter of death. Though it wasn’t a surprise for him, given his age and his diagnosis, it was like a bolt out of the blue for me amidst my flurry of workday activity. There was also regret as I realized the worthlessness of those good intentions to visit him in his illness. And yet, I suddenly experienced relief, and even joy, upon reading the last line of the email, which described him as “an exemplary Christian.” What difference does that make? Let’s work through that this week.
The apostle Paul wrote to his Christian readers at the church in Thessalonica that he didn’t want them to be uninformed about those who were “asleep” (i.e. had died), so that they “would not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” [1Th 4:13-18]. Of course, there is still grief at the loss of a person’s physical life, and the ensuing separation from the one who died, for those of us who remain here. But for Christians, that separation is only temporary, with an eternal reunion to follow. And that is something to rejoice in!
But what about those “who have no hope”? Paul expands on what he mentioned in the Thessalonian letter in his first letter to the Corinthian church. He notes that “if the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'”[1Co 15:32]. If this life is all we have, and it can end with our very next breath, in spite of all our best efforts to prolong it, then why not live to maximize the pleasure we can scrape out of it in the little time we might have? Why bother laboring and working your life away if you might die without ever getting to enjoy the fruits of your labors? And even if death doesn’t come “early”, the longer we live, the more inescapable our impending death becomes. If there is nothing after physical death but the cessation of existence and the permanent extinguishing of the flame that was “me”, then hedonism and nihilism seem the most reasonable result.
However, Paul prefaced his summary of hedonistic reasoning with “if the dead are not raised….” Thankfully, we can know that the dead are, in fact, raised; that this physical life is only a drop in the proverbial bucket of a life that will continue on eternally, and that our soul does continue to exist after our body dies. For, as Paul explains, Jesus’ resurrection was like the first fruits of a harvest – a signal of what what to come 1Co 15:20]. He goes on to describe the triumph of Jesus over death, and what that signifies for us:
For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1Co 15:53-57]
That said, we are also told that this victory is only through Christ [Jn 14:6]. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” [Heb 9:27], but through His atoning death for us, and our trust in Him alone, we are saved from the perfect justice of God. So you see, when I read that my colleague was a Christian, I could grieve his departure, while still having hope and joy. For I could know that he was with Jesus even now, and that I would see him again someday. What about you, friend? Do you know that, if you died right now, you would be spending eternity in the presence of God?
Was Jesus resurrected simply to die again a few weeks later? That’s what one former minister-turned-atheist tries telling people the Gospels are actually indicating. Yes, some atheist delusions are further out there than others. But, this particular author has made the claim, and atheist reviewers on Amazon keep commending his book, so let’s work through some of this silliness today.
As an introduction, David Madison claims to be a former minister of two churches before coming out as an atheist. In his book “Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch Your Faith”, he details at length his superficial “Christian” childhood in a very theologically-liberal family and his rejection of the vast majority of Christian doctrine in high school and college, jettisoning the last of it in seminary. You might it think it odd, as I did, that he should continue pursuing his degree, and most especially ordination, and the solemn responsibility of pastoring a congregation, if he did not believe the tenets of Christianity at this point. But then he proceeds to demonstrate an abysmal knowledge of what Christianity teaches so that one can only pity his former congregations. But what does he actually say about the resurrection? Let’s hear from the man himself:
“My belief in the grand centerpiece of Christian theology, the Resurrection of Jesus, eroded as well during my seminary experience…. From a secular, scientific point of view, resurrection is silly and indefensible. A dead body walking around? Why not call it the Halloween Faith instead of the Easter Faith?”
This, like many of his snarky objections, can be traced back to simple ignorance. The resurrection is not some dead body walking around like a zombie. Jesus was alive after the resurrection, talking with people [Mt 28:9-10], eating with them [Lk24:41-43, Jn 21:12-14], teaching [Lk 24:27], proving that He was not a ghost or hallucination but a real, live person [Lk 24:39-40, Jn 20:20,27, Ac 1:3]. Moreover, Jesus’ resurrection was more than just a temporary restoration of physical life like with Lazarus [Jn 11:43-45]. Instead, Jesus is the “firstfruits” of a resurrection to undying life, to life everlasting [1Co 15:20-22].
“But to die-hard Christians, Jesus’ resurrection is one of those articles of faith that must be taken on faith. It is a miracle in defiance of science, we were always told, which enhanced its value.”
Madison may have been sadly misinformed that miracles are in “defiance of science”, and that faith was somehow enhanced by being contrary to reason, but he certainly doesn’t speak for Christians. Our God is God of logic and reason. And if there had been a scientist at the Wedding Feast in Cana [Jn 2:1-11], he could’ve confirmed the occurrence of the miracle of turning water into wine, even if unable to explain it. A water sample from the water jugs would have tested as water beforehand, and a sample afterward would’ve had water + alcohol + the various organic compounds present in a fine wine. Likewise, checking Jesus’ body for pulse, respiration, and brainwave activity when He was placed in the tomb would’ve confirmed a state of death. Three days later, those hallmarks of life would be present. No defying science there, just naturalistic presuppositions.
“The New Testament reports that the resurrected body of Jesus ascended into heaven, literally, up through the clouds. According to the Book of Acts, this happened forty days after the resurrection. Now we know that heaven is not ‘up there,’ a few miles or even thousands of miles above the clouds. So there is no way that the resurrected body of Jesus left planet earth. In other words, he died again. And this most obvious of conclusions prompted one of my Bible professors to ask, ‘So what is the value of a forty-day resurrection?’ That comment wiped out resurrection as an article of faith worth believing, let alone defending.“[1, emphasis mine]
I’m not sure which is sadder: that a Bible professor would lead students astray like that, or that seminary students could be led astray by that. Jesus merely disappears from view of the disciples, and Madison (and his professor, apparently) concludes that He died again? Like far too many atheists, Madison has let one simple question derail him that never should have.
“It became crystal clear to me– again, acknowledging the obvious– that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection preserve a rumor that got out of hand, a cover-up, a lie, or– more innocently– simply a fantasy, a product of imagination. This meant, furthermore, that resurrection says nothing at all about the power of a god or the “triumph of Jesus over the grave.” From either the scientific or theological standpoint, resurrection was worthless. It became even more tempting for me to push the idea of God itself into the realm of fable.”
The only fantastical product of imagination here is Madison’s book. It’s been pointed out repeatedly, but apparently still needs to be pointed out: people normally don’t go through extended, torturous deaths to preserve what they know to be a runaway rumor or a lie, and certainly not an innocent fantasy. The apostles were in a position to know what really happened, and they all paid dearly for holding on to their belief in the resurrected Jesus. And Paul was in the business of killing this supposed rumor/lie/fantasy when he gave up everything to be a part of it [Ga 1:23-24] and eventually die for it. And as for saying nothing about the triumph of Jesus over the grave, that is because Mr. Madison apparently thinks Jesus was still dead! If you deny what the Bible clearly says about the nature of the resurrection, and then try to shoehorn it into a box it never came out of, it’s not going to make much sense. But that’s not the fault of the message, but rather the fault of the one desperately trying to misread the message so he can dismiss it as nonsense instead of the convicting truth it is.
Did Jesus rise only to die again a few weeks later? No. That’s not what Christians believe, and there’s no way to get that from the Bible, or any other historical document. It is pure fantasy; and while Mr. Madison may deceive himself with these flights of fancy, my hope for you, dear reader, is that you won’t follow him off that cliff.
 David Madison. Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), Kindle Edition p. 15.
As the Christmas celebrations wrapped up, a friend shared the following quote yesterday from atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman:
“The God of Christmas is not a God of wrath, judgment, sin, punishment, or vengeance. He is a God of love, who wants the best for people and gives of himself to bring peace, joy, and redemption. That’s a great image of a divine being. This is not a God who is waiting for you to die so he can send you into eternal torment. It is a God who is concerned for you and your world, who wants to solve your problems, heal your wounds, remove your pain, bring you joy, peace, happiness, healing, and wholeness. Can’t we keep that image with us all the time? Can’t we affirm that view of ultimate reality 52 weeks of the year instead of just a few? I myself do not believe in God. But if I did, that would be the God I would defend, promote, and proclaim. Enough of war! Enough of starvation! Enough of epidemics! Enough of pain! Enough of misery! Enough of abject loneliness! Enough of violence, hatred, narcissism, self-aggrandizement, and suffering of every kind! Give me the God of Christmas, the God of love, the God of an innocent child in a manger, who comes to bring salvation and wholeness to the world, the way it was always meant to be.”[1, emphasis mine]
I get it. We tend to like the “God of Christmas”: the God who sends Jesus to be born as one of us, the God who so loved the world that He sent His Son for us, the God who is “pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel!” Unless you have some psychosis where you resent being loved, who wouldn’t want “that God”? But here’s the thing. God isn’t one-dimensional. We often complain about books and movies where the character development is shallow, and each character has one personality trait that is exaggerated to the exclusion of all others. Then, why do we want God to be equally one-dimensional? Can He not be loving and just? But justice requires the judgement that Bart resents. Can He not love us, and punish evildoers? It’s hard to complain of the “problem of evil” if you specifically reject a God who judges and punishes evil.
What I think Bart is missing is that the “God of Christmas” is necessarily the same “God of the Cross”. You can’t have the manger without the cross, or the cross without the manger; they are twin pillars in God’s plan of redemption. We must not forget that the birth of Christ is not really functional without the other pillar: Easter. These two events, separated by about 33 years, mark the beginning and completion of a critical phase of God’s redemption plan established before the world was even formed. If Jesus had simply materialized at the cross to be a sacrifice for our sin, he wouldn’t have lived a sinless life [2Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15] to be an unblemished sacrifice [Heb 9:14]. If Jesus had been born and lived His perfect life, only to die the familiar and final death of men, then He would’ve been a great teacher and role model, but not our redeemer bringing eternal life, and we would be no better off than before He came. We can’t have one without the other. While we may feel more comfortable with the lowly child Jesus, the incarnation through a virgin birth was the necessary beginning that must end in the crucifixion and resurrection. The purpose of Jesus becoming that “innocent child in a manger” that would satisfy Bart, was to become the sacrifice that would satisfy the wrath of God that Bart resents.
Does wrath make you uncomfortable? It should. Left to face the perfectly fair justice of God on our own, wrath is rightly ours to bear. But that doesn’t have to be our fate. For God so loved the world, that He sent His Son [Jn 3:16], not to stay a sweet lowly baby, not to merely be a good teacher, and not to be an interesting story to ponder centuries later, but to be the mediator between us and God [1Tim 2:5], to be our great High Priest [Heb 2:17-18, 7:25], to pay the price for sin that we might receive the free gift of God [Rom 3:23-24, 5:8, 6:23]! There is no dichotomy here – the God of Christmas and the God of the Cross are one and the same. For that sweet baby came to be our ransom and take the wrath of God; and the cross and subsequent resurrection were the culmination of God’s love for us in sending Jesus to redeem us, and Jesus’s love for us in sacrificing His life for us. Christmas and Easter are both necessary pillars supporting God’s plan for our salvation. So give me that God, that is big enough to orchestrate a plan so much grander and better than anything Bart Ehrman, or me, or anyone else could ever come up with. Give me that God, who is loving and just, whose wrath is righteous, who is the only one who can be trusted with vengeance, who judges fairly and consistently, yet whose mercy and grace are unfathomable. Give me that God, who loved me while I was His enemy, with a costly, sacrificial love, but also loves me enough to not let me stay wallowing in my sin. Rather He disciplines me, convicts me, molds me, even though it’s uncomfortable, but it’s for my own good, even when I can’t see that far.
In short, give me… the God of the Bible.
 Bart Ehrman’s blog, from Christmas Eve, 2017, https://ehrmanblog.org/christmas-reflection-2017, accessed 2017-12-26.
 Charles Wesley, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, verse 2.
My wife and I went to see the movie Risen this past weekend, about a (fictional) skeptical Roman Tribune investigating the claims of Jesus being risen from the dead. So this seems like an appropriate time to finish up our look at the evidential nature of the apostle John’s gospel with a look at some of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances recorded there.
First off, we start John chapter 20 with Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s followers, reporting to John and Peter that the tomb is open and Jesus’s body has been taken. Peter and John ran to investigate for themselves. John got there first and looked in the tomb and could see the linen wrappings lying there. Peter rushed in and saw the wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth lying separately, rolled up in a place by itself. I like John’s attention to details in things like this. John then records that he entered the tomb, “and he saw and believed.” But he goes on to say that they “did not yet understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” And so they went back to their homes, perhaps to try to make sense of what was happening, while Mary lingered at the garden tomb, weeping. And so it is that she becomes the first witness of Jesus after the resurrection. She came back to the disciples, telling them “I have seen the Lord,” and gave them a message from Him. That evening, Jesus suddenly appears before them, in the locked room they were gathered in, where He showed them both His hands and His side. This miraculous entrance and presentation of His mortal wounds left no question as to whether this was Jesus or not. Yet Thomas was not with them, so they joyfully proclaimed to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he didn’t believe them.
Whether “Doubting Thomas” deserves all of the bad reputation he has or not, he nevertheless famously responded that unless he personally saw the nail imprints and put his finger in the nail holes and his hand into the spear wound, he would not believe. He had Mary, John, and Peter’s testimony of the empty tomb. Granted, that could simply mean grave-robbing, or relocation, as Mary had first assumed. But then he had Mary’s testimony of seeing and talking with Jesus. Perhaps she was hysterical in her grief. But then the rest of the disciples had now seen the evidence Thomas specifically wanted, and reported it to him, and it still wasn’t enough.
I sympathize with Thomas in his desire for personal verification, but we all have to understand that we can’t verify everything directly. In fact, most things in life are such that we can’t directly verify them and have to accept the testimony of others, whether they be historians, or scientists, or eyewitnesses and subject matter experts in court, or simply friends that have been places and seen things we haven’t. Therefore, when Jesus reappeared in the locked room a week later, when Thomas was there, He reprimanded him for his unbelief. But first, He offered Thomas the evidence he had asked for: “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.” John doesn’t record for us whether Thomas followed through on his earlier statement, but I suspect he didn’t feel the need to once he was face to face with Jesus. What John does record is Thomas’s quite sensible response to Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”
At this point John records a verse that often gets taken out of context to try to say that Jesus prefers a “blind faith” to an evidential faith. Let’s look at verse 29 now: “Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.'” Is that what Jesus means here? I don’t think so. Note that Mary thought the body had been taken until she saw Jesus herself. Note that John says he believed when he saw the scene in the empty tomb. Note that Jesus was now showing Thomas what He had shown the other disciples the week before that caused them to tell Thomas that they had unequivocally seen the Lord. I don’t think He was talking about the other disciples believing without seeing.
While the disciples were able to see the truth of Jesus’ claims directly, there are two groups of people prevented from believing on the basis of direct sight: those separated by space and time from the events. Everyone to whom the disciples were sent to testify, all over the world, could not directly see these things. All of us that have lived both before and after that time can not directly see them either. Yet the letter to the Hebrews, in the famous “faith chapter”, tells of saints like Abraham, living prior to Jesus, who trusted in God’s promises, “having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance.” [Heb. 11:13] And in Jesus’s “high priestly prayer” recorded in John 17, He prays to God the Father both for His disciples and “for those also who believe in Me through their word.” [John 17:20]
We use our minds every day to reason through competing possible explanations for events that we weren’t able to witness directly based on what we do know about them. We still have an evidential basis for our conclusions, just not complete enough to draw a conclusion without some reasoning. Just as a jury can become rationally convinced of the details of a crime without having seen it firsthand because of applying reason to the partial evidence they have, God can and does convince us through our minds as well as our senses. And here in John 20:29, I would suggest that Jesus is simply stating the value of using the minds He has created us with to recognize His truth even when we don’t have all the answers yet.