The Existence of Jesus Christ

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There is one thing I have discovered–that those who do not wish to accept Jesus as the Christ will go as far as to deny even atheist scholars’ claims that He lived from around 4 B.C.E.-29 C.E. in ancient Palestine. One recently claimed that only a branch of scholars influenced by Christian apologetics accept the existence of Jesus. My sense is that someone who is ready to deny the vast majority of scholarship, not only Christian, but also atheist, agnostic, and Jewish scholarship, is unlikely to be persuaded by a blog post. I will summarize the evidence–first apart from the gospels:

Both Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger (in his letter to the Roman emperor Trajan, 112 C.E.) mention Jesus as the founder of Christianity and that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. These are the sure references to Jesus in extrabiblical literature of the second century. There is a reference, though later edited by Christians, to Jesus in Josephus, a first century Jewish historian.

St. Paul, writing around 54 A.D. in I Corinthians, mentions the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. His letters all presume the existence of the historical Jesus only 25 years after his crucifixion. In addition, the four gospels, which may or may not have been written by the traditional authors–and that does not matter–give detailed descriptions of Jesus’ life–and all were written in the first century A.D. Despite differences in detail (which we also find in descriptions of Socrates, whose existence no one doubts, by Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes), which are to be expected in multiple accounts of any person’s life, most historical details fit the situation in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime. Matthew and Luke made use of Mark and possibly a hypothetical document called Q (for Quelle, the German word for “source’), they also made use of oral tradition dating back to those who knew Jesus. The amount of time from Jesus’ life to the New Testament writings is incredibly short by standards for most religious figures such as Gautama Buddha or Confucius. Jesus’ existence is as well attested as the existence of most of the historical figures studied from the ancient world.

There is a great deal of pseudo-scholarship out there that denies Jesus’ existence, usually by means of assertion rather than argument. Mainstream scholarship of all creeds or lack thereof accepts Jesus existence–if we denied it on the critics’ grounds, we would have to deny the existence of Plato, Julius Caesar, Herod the Great, and other ancient historical people. The similarity of the Jesus story to dying and rising god stories proves nothing about Jesus existence. The critics are inconsistent–they demand absolute, quasi-mathematical proof for Jesus’ existence, but not for other historical figures they accept as having existing.

Why fly in the face of so much evidence? Probably denial of the obvious is an act of the will rather than an act of the intellect. People who want no part of Jesus find it easier to push him out of their world if they accept the view that he never existed. They are not interested in evidence, but in sophistry that may work with many people who are unaware of the evidence. I remember C. S. Lewis’ scene in The Last Battle, when Aslan throws Jewels at the dwarfs who reject him–they claim that the jewels are straw. Some individuals are so hardened that they refuse to listen to any evidence regarding Jesus, even for a position accepted by all serious Biblical scholars in the academy.

On Christmas

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Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1

Birth of Jesus Matthew 2:1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think my favorite Christmas special is the Charlie Brown Special, in which Linus reads from the Gospel of Luke–the story of “what Christmas is all about,” and at the end the children sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The theme of the show was against the commercialization of Christmas. That trend has continued to the point that for retailers, “Christmas” begins in September. That is a shame. For Western Catholic Christians, Christmas begins December 25 and continues until January 5, and then there is the Feast of the Epiphany (the coming of the Wise Men) on January 6. The time before Christmas is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, with the focus being on the Second Coming more than the first.

For orthodox Christians of whatever stripe, Christmas is about the coming of God into man, in which God Himself, the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, was born as a baby in a manger over 2000 years ago. The notion of a being who is fully God, fully man is an offense to many in the intellectual classes–Kierkegaard recognized this in his writings. The belief seems absurd. Yet the Christian faith teaches the coming of the eternal into time, the infinite into the finite, the God-man. Because of that, sin and death are overcome and human beings have not only the hope of salvation from sin, but of salvation from death. Salvation is far more valuable than anything than Santa Claus can bring! I have no problem with children believing in Santa Claus as long as they are taught the true meaning of Christmas–God, born like the rest of us, as a newborn baby who grew up, struggled as we do with temptation, taught a “more excellent way,” was crucified, died, and was buried, and was raised from the dead. Now God the Son remains incarnate, fully God, fully man, for all time. It is an incredible message, that is for sure. I believe it to be true. For those readers who also believe it to be true, consider the wonder of it and thank God for the gift of Himself for us.

“Our Lord and Savior Barack Obama….”

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Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Cropped version of File:Official port...

English: Cropped version of File:Official portrait of Barack Obama.jpg. The image was cropped at a 3:4 portrait ratio, it was slightly sharpened and the contrast and colors were auto-adjusted in photoshop. This crop, in contrast to the original image, centers the image on Obama’s face and also removes the flag that takes away the focus from the portrait subject. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I would hope that actor Jamie Foxx was kidding when he referred to “Our lord and savior Barack Obama” in a speech that was greeted by loud cheers in his audience. It seems, unfortunately, that he was serious. Mr. Foxx is merely a symptom of what has been wrong with Western Culture since its rejection of Christianity, a move, at least in the United States, that is most evidence in Academia, Hollywood, and the news media.

G. K. Chesterton said that a person who believes nothing is willing to believe anything. American society, like Europe, has tried to relegate religion to the private sphere, a move that historically makes no sense given the traditional truth claims of religion as well as its worship practices. Once that move took place, beginning at the Protestant Reformation and continuing through Westphalia and on to the Enlightenment, it was only a matter of time that two of the great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity, would be rejected–first by the intellectual elites and later by the common people. Intellectual elites have already rejected Christianity, and a significant number of academics are atheists or agnostics. Many Hollywood actors are atheists or agnostics–among major actors, atheists and agnostics form the largest percentage of actors compared to those from various religions.

The human being requires the transcendent. Thus, stripped of traditional religion, people sought for transcendence in the secular world. Some people, such as the Romantics and the American Transcendentalists, sought transcendence in nature, sometimes deifying nature itself in a form of pantheism. Others, such as Karl Marx, secularized Jewish (in Marx’s case) eschatology, offering a secular salvation through the rebellion of the proletariat over the bourgeois on the way to a “classless society.” Most African American leaders remain religious and believe in God and hold so a theologically conservative version of Christianity. However, their churches have, in general, become so politicized that the political becomes confused with the transcendent, and salvation becomes secular and economic rather than a redeemed community living forever in Christ. Hollywood and academia generally search for salvation in the political and economic order. Mr. Obama becomes the “New Christ,” a secular savior who shall deliver the groups academics and Hollywood types consider as deserving special privileges due to past discrimination–African Americans, Hispanics, and women, at least those women who accept Hollywood’s chosen version of feminism. The adulation of Mr. Obama by people of every race bordered on idolatry in 2008; now Mr. Foxx makes it official–Obama is Christ, Obama is God and the savior of the specially privileged groups the left sets aside for special treatment.

Such blasphemy dishonors God, dishonors Jesus Christ, the true Lord and Savior of all, through whom all things were created and are sustained–as St. Paul said, “in Him all things consist.” In Christ the infinite entered the finite; God became man. To worship an ordinary man as the new Christ, as “Our lord and savior” will inevitably disappoint. No socio-economic order can bring human salvation. Much human misery results from sin, and that is a matter of the human will. Mr Foxx is at least honest enough to admit he worships Mr. Obama–would that some of his other adulating fans admit that they worship Mr. Obama as well. The claim of Mr. Obama as lord and savior should be sickening to anyone with an ounce of wisdom, but wisdom is sadly lacking in our degenerate culture. Mr. Foxx helps conservatives who feel such a sense of anomie at Mr. Obama’s re-election to understand why they have this feeling. Even John F. Kennedy was not so worshipped. Now Mr. Obama should be reluctant to take on the burden of being God. Perhaps he should gently tell his followers that “I am only a man; worship God.” Yet I wonder if he believes in a deity given that such does not seem to be a precondition of being a member of the United Church of Christ. Even if he does not believe in a transcendent deity, Mr. Obama could disabuse his followers of deifying him–unless, of course, he agrees with them. In that case, the United States is in more trouble than the worst nightmares of conservatives.

True, There Never Was a Golden Age, but….

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Small town Arizona

I enjoy looking through the books other faculty require as reading at the university where I teach–it gives me a sense of the focus of their classes and the gist of the material taught in a particular class. One day I found a book on the 1950s, arguing that it was not a “golden age” for family life, and that families had severe problems then as they do now. My first response was to say to myself, “No kidding.” Only a fool would think that the 1950s or any other decade was some kind of “Golden Age” that bypassed human frailties. Marriages had problems in the 1950s, some spouses were abused as well as some children, and some families were dysfunctional. However, apart from these obvious facts, and apart from useful advances in technology and medicine since the 1950s, it does appear that, despite its flaws, that decade was the last true “Era of Good Feeling” in the United States. It was also the last decade in which a generally Protestant Judeo-Christian ethic was dominant in American thought, even among most Roman Catholics and Jews. Although divorce was sometimes necessary in extreme circumstances of physical and/or emotional abuse or serial adultery, in most cases divorce was frowned upon. Although the Hollywood set would get abortions as well as others, abortion was recognized as a grave moral evil. Only a small minority disagreed. Premarital sex occurred, of course, and the hypocritical aspects of 1950s sexual mores are well known, but at least there was an ideal that the wedding night would be a special beginning of  a new life between two people that is sealed by their first act of sexual intercourse. More extended families existed, especially in the South, the Midwest, and (as is still the case today) in the Italian-American community. Although people moved, outside of the military or of upper business management, extensive moving was rare. The new suburbs, for a time, retained the notion of a “neighorhood” with cookouts and regular visits between neighbors. Small town life, though declining, still flourished in many parts of the country. Alcoholism was a problem, as was always the case, but extensive use of hard drugs such as heroin was rare outside some inner city neighborhoods. There was a growing problem with juvenile crime, but most teenaged social life was tame by today’s “standards.” Although conformity was sometimes taken to an extreme, there was a strong sense that the older generation felt a responsibility to rear a virtuous younger generation. Perhaps the “greatest generation” did not understand the degree to which easy access to material things would create the spoiled and self-serving whiners of the mid-1960s onward, but most tried to rear their children with high moral values. My parents told me that at least in the 1950s a person knew whom he could trust. Today, they said, it is difficult to trust anyone.

The “Great Society” and the destruction of underclass society which arose through their dependency on federal aid, was in the future. The vast majority of children, white and black, were born in stable two-parent homes. A strong work ethic permeated most of American society.

This is not to say that the 1950s did not have deep flaws–struggles over race and the threat of nuclear war, for example. However, I would have rather lived in that kind of culture rather than the upside down world of 2012, in which people “call evil good and good evil” and Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” took place, though not in the direction of the Homeric virtues as Nietzsche desired. Christian culture is rapidly declining in influence, with a new breed of young secularists coming into view who, as Rush Limbaugh (who is right on this point) notes are both desirous of a government “nanny state” to take care of their physical needs while at the same time desiring that the government let them “do their thing” regarding gay marriage, abortion, and other “choices” they deem “personal.” The rapidity of the decline in American character since the 1950s has been astounding. In my own lifetime the world has turned upside down, to the delight of the anti-Christian left and to the chagrin of the few traditionalists standing against the plague of barbarism overwhelming the country.

No generation is unfallen. Yet most members of the 1950s generation would admit when they did wrong. They might do bad things anyway, but they understood them to be morally wrong. Today people strut immoral activity without believing it to be immoral. Academia has been part of the fuel for the fire of relativism, but it is, ironically, an absolutist relativism that denies traditionalists their right to express their views. The universities have become cesspools of relativism, Marxism, and a stifling politically correct orthodoxy. At least in the 1950s, faculty had academic freedom to express their views. Traditional conservatives may have been a small minority, but they were not censored. The university was generally a place of open discussion of ideas rather than the cesspool of radical orthodoxy it has become now.

It is too late to go back–the United States as I knew it as a child is dying. The sense of anomie I and other traditionalists feel has driven some to emigrate from the country and others to retreat to enclaves of like-minded people. In the 1950s I would have felt at home. Even in the 1980s there seemed to be hope for the future. Now I feel like a stranger in a strange land, and I am sure many other people do as well. There are times I want to go back to my grandparents’ house where my parents lived with my sister and I from 1965-1969 and enjoy the simplicity of it all before the madness of the 1960s froze into place in the 1970s. It may be a good thing for Christians, for it forces us to focus on God as the only One who is eternal, the only One who does not change. Going back to the past is pointless–traditionalists have lost the culture. We can trust in God, try to live good moral lives and be good examples to others, be active in church, and enjoy visits with like-minded people without isolating ourselves from the larger society. We know that God will triumph in the end, but until then, we wait “with earnest expectation” for Christ to come.

 

I Pray for a Better 2011

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New year - which direction?

Image by randihausken via Flickr

Another year has passed, and the older I get, the faster time seems to pass. I pray that the world will be a better place in 2011 than it was in 2010. As a Christian, I am thrilled by the rapid spread of Christianity in Africa–and African Christians, unlike American Christians, can pay a steep price for their faith. Their dedication in facing persecution, in walking twenty or more miles in the mud to get to church, is a model for all of us to follow.

I pray that there will be fewer wars and that the American people will wake up to the power of what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.”

I pray for the unborn, that God would protect them from the scourge of abortion. I pray for marriage–that it will continue as a permanent union between one man and one woman. I pray for parents to be good fathers and mothers, to be affectionate for their children, to praise them when they do well, and discipline them when they do wrong. I pray that the trend toward physician-assisted suicide and toward active euthanasia will be reversed. I pray that Americans realize that older people have just as much intrinsic value as young people–and they often have more wisdom.

I pray that colleges and universities will recover some of the sanity that they once have. I pray that young people will learn the great classics of literature, philosophy, and religion. I pray that more traditional Christians strive for teaching and research careers in higher education.

I pray that the American people will take more responsibility for their actions and not blame others for all their misfortunes. I pray for greater courtesy between people. I pray that mediating institutions that stand between the person and the state–churches, civic organizations, and clubs–will grow and prosper. I pray that Americans realize that there is a life beyond both big government and big business.

I pray that we all stop and enjoy the beauty of nature, that we realize that environmentalism is not contrary to Christianity, but recognizes the goodness of the earth and the plants and animals God created. I pray for less cruelty toward animals, that people realize that humans are not the only animals with intrinsic value, that even if humans have more value than other animals, that does not imply that animals be mistreated. I pray for more free range animals and fewer factory farms. I pray that people treasure their pets, and I pray that God in His mercy will raise them from the dead when He reconstitutes the world in a perfect form.

I pray for the salvation of all people, recognizing that there is a possibility of eternal damnation–I pray, though, that Hell will be empty. I pray that we will forgive without excusing, mete justice but balance it with mercy when mercy is warranted. I pray that Americans will realize that people are more important than material possessions, that the accumulation of riches alone will never make a person happy. I pray that all people will strive to have virtuous characters, and that God will reach down and touch the most damaged of souls, all those with intractable vices or mental illness, all those who suffer from the sin of narcissism, those who suffer from borderline personality disorder, even those who are psychopaths.

I pray that the New Atheism will show forth its shallowness and not convince people that God does not exist.

I pray for the success of Sam Parnia’s study of Near-Death Experiences, that his findings will suggest that a spiritual realm truly does exist.

I pray for my family, my friends, for every person that they will cooperate with God’s grace to become all they are meant to be. And to the readers of this blog, may God’s richest blessings descend on you in 2011.

Christmas and God Made Man

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c. 1490

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In the Peanuts Christmas Special Charlie Brown asked, “What is Christmas all about?” Linus replied by reading the account of Jesus’ birth and the visitation of the shepherds in Luke 2. This was a proper and good response to Charlie Brown’s question. Christmas was set aside by the Church to celebrate God‘s coming into the world as a baby. God did not despise the world, but became incarnate as man, conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, developed just as any human being would in the womb, from zygote to embryo to fetus, and was born just as any human child. But this child was Yahweh, the God of Israel and of the entire universe, Creator of all things–Christ, fully God, fully man, a complete divine nature and complete human nature in one person. This was a unique moment in history, the culmination of all history, the “scandal of particularity” that is offensive to modern man–yet the only means to our salvation. This newborn baby, born in a manger, is the one God, the one source of eternal salvation. This is such an incredible event that sometimes I wonder with Kierkegaard whether it is true because it is absurd–that eternity entered into the realm of space and time, of matter and flesh, and redeemed it–matter is good, not evil, and we should not try to, as Gnostics, both ancient and modern, try to do, escape the body. Because God came into history as a human being with a human body, so God in His mercy will raise us, body and soul, forgiven, flawless flesh totally under the control of our spirits. Thanks be to God for His coming into the world as a tiny baby in a manger!

Christian Nonbelievers

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When I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I believed that I would fit in well. At Harding University Graduate School of Religion, an excellent Churches of Christ seminary in Memphis, I had shed my Fundamentalist belief in Biblical inerrancy and had accepted a historical-critical approach to studying the Bible. I had come close to losing my faith–although I claimed to be agnostic, I was more of a doubting believer.

I quickly discovered that I did not fit in at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Many professors (though all all) denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, something I have always believed essential to Christian faith. In fact, to insist on the reality of the bodily resurrection would not have been good for my future there. And forget about the Virgin Birth–to most professors, that was not even an option to be considered (again, I’m sure there were exceptions). The school promoted a radical political agenda–to even question it was to invite censure. VDS was where I discovered that liberal Protestants and liberal Roman Catholics could be every bit as dogmatic and bigoted as Christian Fundamentalists.

I asked Professor Clement Dore, who taught in the philosophy department, what he thought about the Divinity School and its professors. He said I could quote him, and so I will–“Most of them are atheists, but they read the Sermon on the Mount and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if society would be this way’. So they try to change society.” Thankfully, I took most of my courses in the philosophy department which was more open to genuine discussion of ideas. There, an atheist was an atheist, a theist a theist, and I could tell the difference between the two.

Why are seminaries which are devoted to training Christian ministers filled with teachers who do not believe even one of the doctrines of traditional Christianity? Ultimately, this situation is the effect of the eighteenth century Enlightenment combined with the rise of modern science. Although Newton was a theist (though not an orthodox Christian–he tended toward Unitarianism), the world view of his science seemed more consistent with naturalism. According to naturalism, the world is a closed continuum of cause and effect with no room for supernatural intervention–all that exists is matter and energy. Even if there were a God, He would not interfere in the causal chain.

It is this view that led the New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann to propose “demythologizing” the Bible so that the really important message is one of gaining authentic existence. His project was a continuation of the project of liberal Protestantism to find subjective value in Christianity since the objective truth value of its traditional claims was considered to be “false.” So Friedrich Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century said that religion is a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Contemporary liberal Protestants have moved to a more political agenda with such movements as liberation theology, which interprets Christianity according to a Marxist framework.

I have no problem with denying inerrancy or with a historical-critical approach to the Bible. But alleged Christians who deny the existence of a transcendent-immanent God, who deny the Incarnation of Christ, who deny His bodily resurrection, are hypocrites in calling themselves “Christians.” I have infinitely more respect for a crusading atheist like Kai Nielsen than I do for a liberal Protestant who does not believe in God, even though he may hide his lack of faith in the complex language of Continental philosophy.

The good news for traditional Christians is that many younger theologians are more theologically conservative than their older counterparts. Hopefully this trend will continue. As Christianity begins a slow decline in the United States that parallels the radical secularism in Europe, hopefully those Christians who remain, including Christian scholars, will support the fullness of the faith and not some shallow, shadowy substitute.

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