Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Gifts That Can Cut

My daughter shares my fondness for knives, so occasionally she gets a gift that can cut her if she's not careful.

Lots of gifts are like that. Good things can go bad, especially if they are abused. But they're still gifts, and we should be grateful for them, even as we smart from our self-inflicted wounds.

The Bible frequently treats wine as a gift from God
Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops;
then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. (Prov 3:9-10)
even as it treats it as something dangerous.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. (Prov 23:31-32)

The internet is a gift like that. Almost the whole of human knowledge can be at your fingertips. You can hold in your hands a little device that can give you access to almost every book ever written. Or you can look at naughty pictures and cyber-bully teenagers.

The internet has broadened our reach. Even my little site has been visited by someone from almost every country on earth. People from Andorra, Antigua, Burundi, Bhutan, and a bunch of other places I couldn't even find on a map have stopped here however briefly. Hopefully at least a few have found something that pointed them to Christ or helped them know and serve him better. Many countries try to suppress the gospel in their borders, but they can't stop their people from looking out. I've had visitors from Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, and just about every other Muslim majority country. And this is just people who've stumbled across one little blog.

People anywhere in the world can access the writings and sermons of some of the best preachers ever, both living and dead. You may live in one of the places where you can't legally own a Bible, but you can read it on your phone. The power of the internet has given people access to the gospel and believers access to a biblical education in a way that was completely unimaginable just a generation ago.

So this year, as we thank God for all the blessings he was given us, take a moment to be grateful for the double-edged gift of the internet. Before you order way too much on Amazon's black Friday sale.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Evidence for the Resurrection

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared ...” (1Cor 15:3-5).

Christianity alone, out of all the religions in the world, tells you how to prove that it’s false: produce the body. OK, two thousand years later, that would be impossible. But to the modern world we can offer a similar challenge: give us a better explanation for the facts.

What facts? Gary Habermas offers a list of 12 facts that, with one exception, are “accepted as historical by virtually all [90%+] scholars who research this area”,1 be they evangelicals, liberals, or even non-Christians. He also says that you don’t even need all 12 to prove the resurrection happened. I would use these five:
  1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
  2. The disciples had experiences they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus.
  3. The apostles began teaching the resurrection of Christ very soon afterwards in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was executed and buried.
  4. James, the brother of Jesus and a former skeptic, and Saul (Paul), the church persecutor, became Christians due to experiences they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus.
  5. Christ’s tomb was empty. (This is the exception. Habermas says only about 75% accept this as fact.)
Because liberals and skeptics accept these facts, it is not necessary to argue from an inerrant or even inspired Bible. They don’t even think the gospels are all that historically reliable. This is why we can say that even if the gospels are simply ancient religious literature, Christ was raised from the dead and Christianity is true.

Anyone wishing to disprove Christianity simply needs to come up with a better explanation for the above facts than the resurrection. And people have tried. We will look at several alternative theories.

Legendary development: Skeptics often claim that the resurrection only became part of Christian teachings decades after the crucifixion, after the “witnesses” were dead and long after Christ’s body would have decayed beyond recognition. But today there are several noteworthy skeptical NT scholars who agree that the teaching of the resurrection happened within a few months to a few years of the crucifixion. For instance, Bart Ehrman believes that the creed reproduced in 1Cor 15:3-7 would have been established within 3-5 years of Christ’s death2, meaning that the teaching would have begun even earlier. Scholars generally agree that the resurrection was preached at most a few months after the crucifixion. This means those who claimed to see him after his death were the ones teaching the resurrection. So legendary development is not a plausible alternative.

Swoon theory: The idea that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross comes into fashion every once in a while. It’s interesting that no one suggested this until long after crucifixions were no longer carried out. Experts believe Jesus actually died on the cross because Roman soldiers were very good at killing people. If Jesus had somehow fooled everyone into merely thinking he was dead, the spear in his side would have ended the charade. If by some odd chance he survived the crucifixion and the time in the tomb without medical care, he would then have to get himself out of the tomb (the stone would have weighed tons) and avoid the guards. And after all he had endured (the flogging, the crucifixion, the spear, the time in the tomb), it’s unlikely he would convince his followers he had “conquered death.”

Stolen body: The idea that the disciples stole Christ’s body is the first alternative theory we know about. But the idea that the same men who fled and hid during his arrest would then find the nerve to steal his body from a guarded, sealed tomb and then insist on proclaiming his resurrection even after the deaths of Stephen and James is too ridiculous to imagine. This theory also fails to explain the conversion of skeptics.

Hallucination: What if the disciples only thought Jesus appeared to them? What if they wanted him to live so badly they convinced themselves that he had returned from the dead? As much trouble as they caused with their preaching, the Jewish leaders or the Romans would have simply trotted out the body. But the tomb was empty; how did that happen? And even though people can have such hallucinations, people cannot share hallucinations. One disciple might think he saw the risen Christ, but not a dozen, much less 500 of them. Additionally, skeptics like James and Paul would not be susceptible to those hallucinations.

Copy of pagan myths: Some claim that the Christian resurrection story was copied from pagan myths of dying and rising gods. When the similarities are closely examined, though, they quickly fall apart, and the more similar the mythic element is, the more likely it is to have appeared after Christianity. And, ultimately, no amount of similarities to these myths explains the historical data.

History has shown that skeptics are endlessly creative when it comes to alternative theories to explain away the resurrection, but in the end they all fail to adequately explain the historical facts. “But no theory is as implausible as the idea that someone rose from the dead.” In a naturalistic world, that would be true. But if God can create a universe out of nothing, he can certainly reanimate a corpse. And as long as miracles are possible, a resurrection is a much better explanation for the historical facts.

We need to be confident that Christ was raised from the dead. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Cor 15:17-20).

For more on this topic, including more skeptical alternative theories, I recommend The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona.

1 Gary Habermas, The Risen Jesus & Future Hope
2 Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?

This is based on Habermas' "minimal facts" approach to the evidence for the resurrection. I have taken different approaches here and here.

image credit: JeffJacobs1990 via pixabay

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Facets of the Atonement

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

What happened at the cross? Over the centuries theologians have proposed numerous ways of understanding what Christ accomplished on the cross. People have argued vehemently in support of various “theories of the atonement.” In recent years, though, most theologians are realizing that there is an element of truth in many of these theories and that we should consider them together to get a complete understanding of the atonement.

“Not all theories of the atonement can be justified biblically. Some are incompatible with others, and many, while having an element of truth, are not adequate explanations of how salvation is accomplished. All of them, however, are illuminating and in some way widen our knowledge of this profound subject.”1

The atonement is like a fine diamond; it has many sides, many facets that gleam differently as we turn to look at it first from this angle, then from another. So we’ll look at a few of the prominent theories and see how the different facets reflect God’s glory and grace to us.

The death of Christ as an example. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1Pet 2:21). Jesus taught that we should turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. He said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (Matt 5:10). He showed us just how far we should be willing to take that by going to the cross where “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pet 2:23).

The cross as demonstration of God’s love. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The cross shows us just how far God’s love for us goes. Once we understand the depths of our sin, the love shown at the cross should leave us speechless. And it should fill us with confidence. “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:31-32).

The cross as Christ’s victory over evil. When the forces of evil coaxed Man to sin, they gained a foothold on the earth and authority over humanity. “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). At the cross, Christ took all of that back. “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Then God “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:20-21). Though for now sin and death and the dark powers that are loose in the world can still harm us in their death throes, the war is over, and we have victory in Christ Jesus.

The cross as payment of our debt to God. Substitutionary atonement, the idea that Christ died to satisfy the wrath of God, to pay the penalty for our sin, is frequently attacked today as not only bloody and petty but also as new. Though the modern formulation has its roots in Anselm’s satisfaction theory, it really only became what we know today in the time of the Reformation. But that doesn’t mean the idea of Christ paying for our sin hasn’t been part of Christian teaching since the beginning.

Jesus was introduced as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In Hebrews, the death of Christ is likened to the Day of Atonement (9:1-15). Peter said of Jesus, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1Pet 2:24). And one of the earliest statements of faith of the fledgling church was “Christ died for our sins” (1Cor 15:3). Christ and the apostles pointed to Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant in relation to Christ’s death: 

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed (Is 53:5).

“... [S]ubstitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement.’ Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside the others. It is rather the message of each image and the heart of the atonement itself.”2

Together, these facets give us a fuller understanding of the atonement than any one theory can. Erickson sums up the picture created:

In his death Christ (1) gave us a perfect example of the type of dedication God desires of us, (2) demonstrated the great extent of God’s love, (3) underscored the seriousness of sin and the severity of God’s righteousness, (4) triumphed over the forces of sin and death, liberating us from their power, and (5) rendered satisfaction to the Father for our sins. All of these things we as humans needed done for us, and Christ did them all.3

This brief article can barely scratch the surface. I recommend John Stott’s The Cross of Christ to everyone.

1 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology
2 John Stott, The Cross of Christ
3 Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine

image credit: OpenClipart-Vectors

Part of Christianity 101

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Work of Christ in His Death and Resurrection

crosses & empty tomb

He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

The death and resurrection of Christ was the central act of human history. It’s also the foundation of Christian theology, so we’ll be spending some time digging into this topic.

Why did Christ have to die? Human rebellion had to be paid for, and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). Rebellion against God is a capital offense, but God, in Christ, was willing to take that punishment upon himself.

So Christ went to the cross. Many today want to dismiss the notion that God sent Jesus to die. They say that he came here to teach and inspire, but we killed him. The apostles disagree: “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23).

Some today object that this constitutes “divine child abuse.” They have a weak understanding of the Trinity. The Father and the Son are separate persons, but there is one God and there was one plan whereby God would take the penalty on himself. The Son was not forced into a role by the Father; this was their plan. “We must not, then, speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other. We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners.”1 Jesus said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18).

Which brings us to the resurrection. In the epistles, the authors will often speak of Christ’s death or of his resurrection, but in most cases they have both in mind. His death and resurrection are two parts of the same event. “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25).

It’s common for skeptics to claim that this belief developed later, long after everyone who knew Jesus was dead. Today, though, even non-Christian NT scholars (yes, that’s a thing) find themselves agreeing that this belief is very early. 1Cor 15:3-7 is held by many scholars to be an early creedal statement that Paul quotes in his letter. It says, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, ... he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures....” According to Jesus Seminar founder Robert Funk, this creed was probably set within three years after Christ’s death.2 Note that both his death “for our sins” and his resurrection are included in this formula.

Today “progressive Christians”* often teach that the resurrection of Jesus was a “spiritual resurrection,” that is, that he “rose” in his followers’ hearts or perhaps that he continued in a spiritual existence after his death. In his massive The Resurrection of the Son of God, NT Wright has shown in exhaustive detail that a non-physical resurrection would never have even entered into the minds of either Jews or Greeks of that time period. Resurrection meant the body getting back up and walking off. That is part of what made the Christian message so hard for the Jews and Greeks to believe. “The resurrection is particularly significant, for inflicting death was the worst thing that sin and the powers of sin could do to Christ. In the inability of death to hold him is symbolized the totality of his victory. What more can the forces of evil do if someone whom they have killed does not stay dead?”3

The teaching of the apostles was that Christ physically rose from the dead and so will we. Christ was “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Cor 15:20). Because he had victory over death, we will have victory over death. Not only will we live again, we will live better than we ever have — we will have a resurrection body (eg, 1Cor 15:51-54) like his.

But the victory of the resurrection isn’t just for after we die. Through Christ’s resurrection, we have victory over sin’s power right now. “When you accepted Christ you were identified completely with Him, both in His death and in His resurrection. So when Christ was raised from the dead, you also were raised to a new way of life.”4 Through Christ’s death, the chains of sin were broken. Through his life, we have the power to not sin. It’s a power we don’t use well or often enough, but we can get better with practice.

The death and resurrection of Christ are not just an event to commemorate. It’s supposed to transform us. We should live differently because of the price paid for our sins and because of Christ’s victory over death. Let us commit to living, through the power of the Holy Spirit, lives worthy of the risen Savior.

For more on this topic, I recommend “The Uniqueness of Christ in His Resurrection” in Theology You Can Count On by Tony Evans.

1 John RW Stott, The Cross of Christ
2 Robert Funk and The Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus
3 Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine
4 Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On

* The term here refers to a religious perspective rather than a political movement. I put the term in quotes because the extent to which these people teach Christianity is in serious question.

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Part of Christianity 101