Christ is risen!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

There are two historical facts that need explaining. The first is that the tomb of Jesus was empty. The second is that the disciples were convinced that they had seen him alive after discovering that the tomb was empty. By alive, we mean with a physical body; they did not believe they had seen a ghost.

N.T. Wright writes about the resurrection of Christ in Surprised by Hope:

Equally, an empty tomb by itself proves almost nothing. It might (as many have suggested) have been the wrong tomb, though a quick check would have sorted that one out. Someone—the soldiers, the gardeners, the chief priests, other disciples, or someone else—might have taken away the body for some reason or other. Grave robbery was well known. That was the conclusion Mary drew in John’s gospel: they’ve taken him away—and perhaps it was the gardener that did it. That was the conclusion the Jewish leaders broadcast, according to Matthew: the disciples took him away. All sorts of similar explanations could have been offered, and would have been, had not the empty tomb been accompanied by sightings of, and meetings with, Jesus himself. No: in order to explain historically how all the early Christians came to the belief they held, that Jesus had been raised, we have to say at least this: that the tomb was empty, except for some graveclothes, and that they really did see and talk with someone who gave every appearance of being a solidly physical Jesus, though a Jesus who was strangely changed, more strangely than they were able fully to describe.

Both the meetings and the empty tomb are therefore necessary if we are to explain the rise of the belief and the writing of the stories as we have them. Neither by itself was sufficient; put them together, though, and they provide a complete and coherent explanation for the rise of the early Christian belief.

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Many smaller arguments might be brought in at this point that we can only summarize. To begin with, here are other proposals regularly advanced as rival explanations to the early Christian one:

  1. Jesus didn’t really die; someone gave him a drug that made him look like dead, and he revived in the tomb. Answer: Roman soldiers knew how to kill people, and no disciple would have been fooled by a half-drugged, beat-up Jesus into thinking he’d defeated death and inaugurated the kingdom.
  2. When the women went to the tomb they met someone else (perhaps James, Jesus’s brother, who looked like him), and in the half light they thought it was Jesus himself. Answer: they would have noticed soon enough.
  3. Jesus only appeared to people who believed in him. Answer: the accounts make it clear that Thomas and Paul do not belong to this category; and actually none of Jesus’s followers believed, after his death, that he really was the Messiah, let alone that he was in any sense divine.
  4. The accounts we have are too biased. Answer: so is all history, all journalism. Every photo is taken by somebody from some angle.
  5. They began by saying, “He will be raised,” as people had done of the martyrs, and this quickly passed into saying, “He has been raised,” which was functionally equivalent. Answer: no, it wasn’t.
  6. Lots of people have visions of someone they love who has just died; this was what happened to the disciples. Answer: they knew perfectly well about things like that, and they had language for it; they would say, “It’s his angel” or “It’s his spirit” or “his ghost.” They wouldn’t say, “He’s been raised from the dead.”
  7. Perhaps the most popular: what actually happened was that they had some kind of rich “spiritual” experience, which they interpreted through Jewish categories. Jesus after all really was alive, spiritually, and they were still in touch with him. Answer: that is simply a description of a noble death followed by a Platonic immortality. Resurrection was and is the defeat of death, not simply a nicer description of it; and it’s something that happens some while after the moment of death, not immediately.

Equally, we may just notice three of the many small-scale arguments that are often, and quite rightly, advanced to support the belief that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead:

  1. Jewish tombs, especially those of martyrs, were venerated and often became shrines. There is no sign whatever of that having happened with Jesus’s grave.
  2. The early church’s emphasis on the first day of the week as their special day is very hard to explain unless something striking really did happen then. A gradual or even sudden dawning of faith is hardly sufficient to explain it.
  3. The disciples were hardly likely to go out and suffer and die for a belief that wasn’t firmly anchored in fact. This is an important point though subject to the weakness that they might have been genuinely mistaken: they believed the resurrection of Jesus to be a fact, and they acted on that belief, but we know (so it would be said) that they were wrong.

(pp. 59, 61-63)

We cannot “prove” that Christ indeed rose from the dead through historical arguments like these, but we can demonstrate that it is a reasonable—and we would say the most reasonable—explanation. If one starts with the presupposition that there is no God, then one would have to find some other explanation than the resurrection. But that would be a conclusion forced on the evidence, rather than something derived from the evidence. On the other hand, if we allow that God could (or even must) exist, then the Christian explanation—that Christ is risen indeed!—becomes the best explanation for the evidence.

Grace and Peace

Merry Christmas from The GeoChristian

From Knowing God by J.I. Packer, Chapter 5 (God Incarnate):

It is no wonder that thoughtful people find the gospel of Jesus Christ hard to believe, for the realities with which it deals pass man’s understanding. But it is sad that so many make faith harder than it need be, by finding difficulties in the wrong places.

Take the atonement, for instance. Many feel difficulty there. How, they ask, can we believe that the death of Jesus of Nazareth—one man, expiring on a Roman gibbet—put away a world’s sins? How can that death have any bearing on God’s forgiveness of our sins today? Or take the resurrection, which seems to many a stumbling-block. How, they ask, can we believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead? Granted, it is hard to deny that the tomb was empty—but surely the difficulty of believing that Jesus emerged from it into unending bodily life is even greater.

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But in fact the real difficulty, because the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us, does not lie here at all. It lies, not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of resurrection, but in the Christmas message of incarnation. The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man.

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It is from misbelief, or at least inadequate belief, about the incarnation that difficulties at other points in the gospel story usually spring. But once the incarnation is grasped as a reality, these other difficulties dissolve.

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If He was truly God the Son, it is much more startling that He should die than that He should rise again.

Merry Christmas to all who read The GeoChristian,

Kevin

Around the web 12/23/2012

NewsweekCoverEhrmanUN-MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM NEWSWEEK — The print edition of Newsweek is being discontinued, but they had to take one last swipe at Biblical Christianity. One of the final cover stories was What Do We Really Know About Jesus? by the non-Christian Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman. Most of Ehrman’s attacks on the Biblical record have been answered by Christian scholars numerous times, and others fall into the “so what?” category.

In response, Melinda Penner of Stand to Reason writes, “Many times, questions about the Bible can be resolved simply by reading what the text actually says, rather than believing what we think it says.” As I’ve pointed out before, doing this in itself takes care of a great number of apparent “contradictions” that authors such as Ehrman are concerned about.

UN-MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM THE ATHEISTS — Dr. Ehrman is wrong, but the organization American Atheists goes beyond being wrong with their “Keep the Merry! Dump the Myth!” advertising campaign, complete with a billboard in New York City’s Times Square, which can be seen at cnn.com: Christmas exposes atheist divide on dealing with religion.

Jesus a myth? I’m quite skeptical.

From the CNN article:

“Christianity stole Christmas in the first place and they don’t own the season, they don’t own the Christmas season,” [American Atheists’ president] Silverman said, pointing to pagan winter solstice celebrations that predated Jesus Christ. “When they say keep Christ in Christmas, they are actually saying put Christ back in Christmas.”

Isn’t that sort of like saying Canada Day (July 1st) doesn’t really have anything to do with Canada because it was predated by the Fourth of July?

NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES — I tend to be skeptical whenever someone comes out with a “I went to heaven and saw a glorious light” story, while acknowledging that such things could happen. Most of my cynicism comes from the lack of the centrality of Christ in most of these stories.

Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, puts these near-death (or near-heaven) experiences in perspective in his article Incredible Journeys: What to Make of Visits to Heaven.

In this vein, the silliest claim made in the current wave of books is that because of such experiences, we now know, as some of the titles suggest, that Heaven Is for Real or that there is Proof of Heaven. Christians believe that “heaven is for real” not because of the testimony of a 4-year-old boy or even of a neurosurgeon, but because Jesus Christ testified to such and rose from the grave to vindicate his testimony. He tells the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43, ESV). His teachings not only assumed a tangible, bodily existence known as the kingdom of heaven, but also an intermediate glorious state of bodiless existence.

A MODEST PROPOSAL — From the Parchment & Pen Blog: Should William & Kate Get an Abortion? You know, they haven’t been married very long, its only a zygote, and so forth.

Grace and Peace

I do have an advocate before the Father

I was visiting with a young-Earth creationist (a dear brother in Christ whom I did not know) during a break at the Nathaniel Jeanson presentation earlier this month. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned that there are a good number of prominent, conservative Evangelical scholars and pastors who advocate acceptance of an old Earth, and who view this as perfectly compatible with Genesis. I don’t remember exactly who I listed, but probably men like J.I. Packer, Charles Spurgeon, Francis Schaeffer, and John Piper. These Bible teachers—all of whom hold to the inerrancy of the Scriptures—did not come to an old-Earth interpretation because they were compromisers or friends of the world, but because they looked closely at what the Word actually says and doesn’t say on the topic, and came to the conclusion that a 6000-year old Earth is simply not required.

This brother in Christ told me that I will not have any of these men standing next to me when I stand before God in the judgement; that I would have to give an account to God for my false teaching on the age of the Earth. My response was that if I am wrong on this topic, I have someone even better that Packer, Spurgeon, Schaeffer, or Piper who will stand next to me before the Father, and that is Jesus Christ.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2 NIV84)

I have no doubt that I don’t have all of my doctrines correct. I feel rather strongly about some doctrines—the Trinity, substitutionary atonement, the solas of the Reformation—but probably misunderstand some of the nuances of these core teachings of Christianity. There are a number of secondary doctrinal issues that I could be wrong on as well, such as in the areas of eschatology, ecclesiology, and pneumatology. But, praise be to God, Jesus died for my sin of false doctrine as well as for my sins of lust, greed, selfishness, indifference, and so forth. If not, I’m sunk. And so, most likely, are you.

Does this mean I think it doesn’t matter whether I get my doctrine correct? Not at all.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Tim 2:15 ESV)

Could I be wrong about what the Bible says about the age of the Earth? I really do believe the Bible is ambiguous on the topic, but I acknowledge that I could be mistaken.

Could young-Earth creationists be wrong about what the Bible says about the age of the Earth? I think they are guilty of hyper-literalism (e.g. thinking Genesis 3 is a story of how snakes lost their legs rather than being a story about Satan grovelling in the dust). I think they are guilty of reading things into the text that are not there, such as there being no animal death before Adam’s sin, or that Noah’s flood was global and created most of the geological record. Those things are not in the Bible. So the answer is “yes,” they certainly could be mistaken.

If I am wrong about the age of the Earth, some would say I will lose a reward in eternity. This is one of those doctrinal areas that I don’t understand; there are plenty of passages that seem to teach rewards for the good works of believers, but can we really claim any credit for our good works when whatever good we do is by the grace of God just as much our justification? In either case—rewards or equality—I will watch my life and doctrine closely as best as I can. I won’t get either of these perfect, but I will press ahead.

But the main point is that I will be with God forever—in a state of eternal joy—because of the finished and complete work of Christ.

Of course some YECs would say I won’t be in heaven at all, but those YECs have a much bigger problem with their understanding of the Gospel than whatever they think my age of the Earth problem is.

Grace and Peace

Earthquakes and the year of Jesus’ crucifixion — still an unsolved issue

When Jesus died on the cross, according to Matthew 27, an earthquake shook the ground: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.” (NIV 1984).

The exact date of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is unknown, but most Biblical scholars have argued for a crucifixion on 14 Nisan (the Friday of Passover week) of either AD 30 or 33. The ESV Study Bible concludes its article on “The Date of Jesus’ Crucifixion” with

Given the arguments above, the evidence for a date of AD 33 for Jesus’ crucifixion seems much stronger. However, because the date of A.D. 30 is held by a number of respected NT scholars, both dates are included in the various chronologies herein. (ESVSB p. 1810).

There have recently been a number of articles on internet news sites stating that new geological evidence points to the AD 33 date. For example, Discovery News states that

“Geologists say Jesus, as described in the New Testament, was most likely crucified on Friday, April 3, in the year 33.” (from Quake reveals day of Jesus’ crucifixion, researchers believe).

The article goes on to explain

To analyze earthquake activity in the region, geologist Jefferson Williams of Supersonic Geophysical and colleagues Markus Schwab and Achim Brauer of the German Research Center for Geosciences studied three cores from the beach of the Ein Gedi Spa adjacent to the Dead Sea.

Varves, which are annual layers of deposition in the sediments, reveal that at least two major earthquakes affected the core: a widespread earthquake in 31 B.C. and a seismic event that happened sometime between the years 26 and 36.

The research paper, by Jefferson Williams, Markus Schwab, and A. Brauer,  that these stories are based on was published this month (May 2012) in International Geology Review. The paper is “An early first-century earthquake in the Dead Sea,” and the abstract (summary) reads as follows:

This article examines a report in the 27th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament that an earthquake was felt in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. We have tabulated a varved chronology from a core from Ein Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea between deformed sediments due to a widespread earthquake in 31 BC and deformed sediments due to an early first-century earthquake. The early first-century seismic event has been tentatively assigned a date of 31 AD with an accuracy of ±5 years. Plausible candidates include the earthquake reported in the Gospel of Matthew, an earthquake that occurred sometime before or after the crucifixion and was in effect ‘borrowed’ by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, and a local earthquake between 26 and 36 AD that was sufficiently energetic to deform the sediments at Ein Gedi but not energetic enough to produce a still extant and extra-biblical historical record. If the last possibility is true, this would mean that the report of an earthquake in the Gospel of Matthew is a type of allegory.

Perhaps there is more to it than what is written in the abstract, but I think it clearly states that the earthquake that disturbed the sedimentary record occurred in AD 31±5, that is, between AD 26 and 36. Being that the two years most likely for Jesus’ crucifixion—AD 30 and 33—fall in this range, the research doesn’t really nail down the year. In this case, I can see Biblical scholarship helping the geologists out more than geologists helping the Biblical scholars. The Bible provides a historical record of a powerful earthquake in either 30 or 33, which could eliminate the years 26-29, 31-32, and 34-36. On the other hand, the earthquake recorded in these Dead Sea varves could be one completely unrelated to the crucifixion of Christ, as the abstract points out.

There are other problems with the news articles (as usual), such as the statement that there is a contradiction concerning the timing of the death of Christ when one compares the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and the gospel of John.

In the end, it doesn’t matter to me much whether Jesus was crucified in AD 30 or 33 (or 29 as I’ve seen defended by some). None of this affects the historical nature of the gospel accounts and the radical transformation that his resurrection had on the apostles and the first Christians, who clearly believed that he had risen from the grave.

Christ was crucified, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Grace and Peace

Also:

The Gospel Coalition

A Christ-centered message

The preaching at the church we have been attending in Denver, Red Rocks Fellowship, has been consistently good. Here are two excerpts from today’s sermon preached by Pastor Jack McCullough, which was on the birth of Jesus from Matthew 1:18-25.

Someone has said this: “If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent us an educator. If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist. If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent us an economist. If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer. But our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a savior.”

But what does it mean that he will save his people from their sins? Well it means first of all that we must become his people by personally trusting Jesus as savior, believing in the Jesus who was crucified on the cross and raised, trusting in his finished work and that alone, receiving the free gift of grace by faith, salvation by grace through faith. In him it means we are judicially forgiven, we are aquitted of guilt. That’s what it means to be justified. In him we are delivered from the wrath of God, the wrath of God to come upon the world for sin. In him his righteousness is imputed to us, the righteousness of God by faith in him. Because of his power in us as believers when the Holy Spirit comes to indwell, we have that power as we trust and obey him, as we put off those garments of the old man, and put on the righteousness of the new. All this and more is bound up in that simple phrase in the future tense, which asserts with all certainty, “he will save his people from their sins.”

Here are a few things I appreciated about this message (and other messages I have heard at Red Rocks):

  1. It was relevant. Not because the pastor tried to make it hip or modern, but because it was about every human’s predicament and God’s solution for that predicament. Our problem is sin, and God’s solution is Jesus. Relevance is not about having a rock band (we had stringed instruments for accompaniment this morning) or plasma TV screens. The gospel itself is relevant to all.
  2. It had something for everyone. For the non-Christian it had the message of salvation. For the Christian it had the reminder that it is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who has saved us. For the mature Christian, it had depth. For the new Christian, or one who doesn’t have much Biblical or theological background, the meaty words, such as justification and imputation, were defined.
  3. It was about Jesus. Some preachers are able to take a passage that is clearly about Jesus and make it into a message that is clearly about us. The Bible is about Jesus, from beginning to end (Luke 24:27), and the preaching at Red Rocks has reflected this so far.

Grace and peace