When Was Jesus Born?

It is Christmas, one of the most beloved holidays of all, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The incarnation, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), is a stunning historical event. It is amazing to think that God would become man, that he would be conceived in a virgin’s womb, born in the humblest of circumstances, all to rescue sinful human beings and join them to himself. Without Christmas, there would be no Good Friday and no Easter. Without Christmas, we wouldn’t have the hope of Jesus’ return in glory, to make all things new.

Yet for all we know about the importance of what happened at Christmas, we don’t actually know when Jesus was born. Now, if you assumed that Jesus was born exactly 2017 years ago, on the morning of December 25, that is understandable. We do celebrate Christmas every year on the same day, and the calendar says it is 2014 A.D., or Anno Domini, “the year of the Lord,” which means that even the way we reckon time reflects the reality of Jesus’ birth. The problem is that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, 1 B.C., or in the year A.D. 1 (there is no “year zero”). In fact, Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25 of any year.

Before I explain more about what we do and do not know about Jesus’ birth, let me explain why I’m writing about this issue. It has become somewhat popular to cast doubt on the Bible. A recent series on the History Channel, “Bible Secrets Revealed,” seems intended to make people doubt the historical reliability of the Bible. On another network, the Smithsonian Channel, an episode, titled “Mystery Files: Birth of Christ,” casts doubt on the birth of Jesus by focusing on chronological issues in Luke’s Gospel. The show mentions that Luke has “conflicting versions of events.”

What are we to make of all this? Is Luke’s Gospel historically reliable? When was Jesus born?

To help us understand these issues, it is worth quoting theologian Gerald Bray at length:

The fact that Jesus was born so many years before the supposedly “correct” date of A.D. 1 has nothing to do with the Bible. It is the result of a series of chronological errors made by Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century Roman monk, who tried to calculate the birth of Jesus by counting back through the Roman emperors, but who managed to miss some in the process. He therefore came up short and was never corrected. As for the date, December 25 was chosen as a date for celebrating Christ’s birth in order to replace the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was held at the that time of the year. Christmas Day is the first time that it is possible to measure the return of daylight in the northern hemisphere following the winter solstice, and so it was thought to be an appropriate symbol of Christ, the light of the world. He cannot have been born on that day, however, because the shepherds who were watching their flocks would not have been out in the fields in mid-winter. Jesus must have been born sometime between March and November, but we can say no more than that. The important thing is that he was born on a particular day, and as December 25 is now the universally accepted date, there seems to be little point in trying to change it for the sake of an unattainable “accuracy.”[1]

There are two things worth noting in that passage. It explains why our calendar says 2017 even though Jesus was likely born 2020–2022 years ago (more on that later). It also explains why we celebrate Christmas on December 25, even though Jesus was likely not born on that date. Additionally, Bray correctly observes that what matters is not the date, but the fact that Jesus was born. Since we’re not certain of exactly when he was born, and since his birth is worth celebrating, we must select some date.

Bray says that December 25 was chosen because it coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god, who was also identified as Cronus, father of Zeus. The feast, which began on December 17, featured sacrifices at the temple of Saturn and a public banquet.[2] Another feast, that of Sol Invictus, the “unconquerable sun,” was held on December 25. By the fourth century, worship of this sun god was combined with the worship of Mithra, a god born out of a rock who “battled first with the sun and then with a primeval bull, thought to be the first act of creation.”[3] According to Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, “Christians took advantage of this ‘day off’ to protest against Mithraism by worshiping the birth of Jesus instead. After the Roman empire became officially Christian in the fourth century, this date turned into the legal holiday we know as Christmas.”[4] One Roman Calendar (the “Philocalian Calendar”), compiled in 354, states that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in Rome in the year 336. This is the earliest record we have of a December 25 Christmas. In later years, Christmas was celebrated on this date throughout the Roman empire.

It is important to note that pagan cults like Mithraism emerged in the second century, well after the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament. The fact that Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the day of a pagan festival had nothing to do with exactly when Jesus was born. Rather, they had the day off, and they decided that instead of participating in pagan rituals, they would worship the true God instead. This seems to have been a bit of a counter-cultural protest.

Christians also appropriated certain pagan symbols in their celebration of Christmas, giving them a new meaning. Consider the following explanation:

The church thereby offered the people a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities and eventually reinterpreted many of their symbols and actions in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice. For example, Jesus Christ was presented as the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2), replacing the sun god, Sol Invictus. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, it assimilated into its observances many customs of the pagan winter festivals such as holly, mistletoe, the Christmas tree, and log fires. At the same time new Christmas customs such as the nativity crib and the singing of carols were introduced by Christians.[5]

In reality, Jesus was born in a part of the year when shepherds would be abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) reported that some believed Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth day of Pachon, a month in the Egyptian calendar.[6] This date would correspond to May 20. This date is possible, but we can’t say with certainty that Jesus was born on that day.

What about the year of Jesus’ birth? Jesus must have been born, at the latest, in early 4 B.C. We know this because Herod the Great was alive at the time, and he died in that year. Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Herod died after an eclipse and before the Passover. The mention of the eclipse allows us to date Herod’s death quite accurately: he must have died between March 4 and April 11 of that year.[7] It is likely that Jesus was born sometime earlier, perhaps as early as 6 B.C., because Herod ordered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be killed.

None of this is problematic. If Jesus was born in 5 B.C., it would mean that in the year 28, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1; he started his reign in A.D. 14), he would be about 32 years old, which harmonizes well with Luke’s statement that Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23). Only one problem remains: Luke also says that right before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus decreed that a census should be made. Most translations state that this census was conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). As far as we know, Quirinius was the governor of Syria in A.D. 6–7 and Josephus tells us there was a census in A.D.6. (Acts 5:37 states that this census was the reason that Judas the Galilean revolted against the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. Remember this fact, because it shows that Luke was aware of this census and the impact it had on the Jewish people.) Some have used this information to claim that Luke’s Gospel is wrong. I have heard such claims on the History Channel and National Public Radio.

There are a few possible answers to the questions surrounding the census. One, we do know that there were several censuses held in the Roman empire. As far we know, Augustus decreed three censuses around this time. Some areas had periodic censuses; Egypt had one every 14 years. It is possible that an earlier census in Palestine could have been conducted, in addition to the one in A.D. 6. It is possible that the Roman census was carried out according to Jewish customs, which would require males to return to their ancestral homes. Since Joseph was betrothed to Mary and she was pregnant, perhaps he took her with him so that they could be together for the birth of Jesus. Nothing that we know from history excludes the possibility of a census ordered by Augustus for the whole Roman empire and carried out in Palestine around 6–4 B.C.

The real question concerns Quirinius. Luke 2:2 states, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Quirinius was the governor of Syria when the census of A.D. 6 was conducted, but this was about ten years after Jesus was born. We don’t have a record of him being the governor of Syria around 6–4 B.C. So, the question of Quirinius involves a second answer.

We must begin by stating that our knowledge of ancient history is not complete. We also must note that Luke says the census at the time of Jesus’ birth was the first census, which suggests it was followed by at least one more. It is possible that Quirinius had something to do with an earlier census, even if he were not technically the governor of Syria at that time. It is possible that Quirinius was an administrator who was responsible for overseeing the census. Luke could be using “governor” in an anachronistic sense, so that while Quirinius wasn’t governor at the time of the census, he became governor later. The Greek of Luke 2:2 literally reads, “This was [the] first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Just as we might talk about what President Obama did in the US Senate—“This was the voting record of Obama, President of America”—Luke may be referring to the past actions of Quirinius, who was best known, from Luke’s historical vantage point, for being governor of Syria.

It is also possible that the census took many years to carry out, that it started around the time Jesus was born, and it finished under the watch of Quirinius when he was governor of Syria, in A.D. 6. If this were the case, he would have been responsible for collecting the taxes (the ones based on the census). His name would be somewhat infamous, and therefore it would be one attached to the whole multi-year process of census and taxation that began at the time of Jesus’ birth.[8]

Whatever the case, it’s clear that Luke didn’t get his history wrong. As stated earlier, Luke was aware of the A.D. 6 census, for he alludes to it in Acts 5:37. That census instigated a rebellion led by Judas the Galilean. The census he mentions in Luke 2 did not produce a rebellion, so he is clearly aware of at least two censuses. And, quite obviously, Luke knew that Herod was still alive during this time, as Luke 1:5 shows. He didn’t get the chronology of events wrong.

Another possible solution is that Josephus was wrong and Luke was right. After all, Luke proves himself to be an accurate historian elsewhere in his Gospel as well as in the book of Acts. According to Darrell Bock, “That no other source mentions such a census is not a significant problem, since many ancient sources refer to events that are not corroborated elsewhere and since Luke is found to be trustworthy in his handling of facts that one can check. Since the details of this census fit into general Roman tax policy, there is no need to question that it could have occurred in the time of Herod.”[9] Additionally, the number and quality of manuscripts of the New Testament far surpasses those of other ancient documents, including the writings of Josephus and Roman historians. We don’t know everything that happened in the ancient world, but we have no reason to doubt what the New Testament tells us.

There is yet another possible solution to this problem, one that is simpler. Luke 2:2 could be translated, “This registration was before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[10] This is because the Greek word usually translated as “first” (πρῶτος) could be translated as “before,” as it is in John 1:15, 30; 15:18. If this is the right reading, then this census was sometime prior to Quirinius’s infamous census. It would be as if Luke were saying, “Caesar August decreed that there should be an Empire-wide census—no, not that census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This was an earlier one.”[11]

In the end, we may never know exactly when Jesus was born. But what we do know of history does not contradict what Luke has reported in his “orderly account” of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:3). There is no reason to doubt the historical reliability of Luke’s Gospel. So go, tell it on the mountain, “Jesus Christ is born!”

Notes

  1. Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 564.
  2. S. E. Porter, “Festivals and Holy Days: Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 370.
  3. Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and Greeks, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 134.
  4. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 36.
  5. O. G. Oliver, Jr., “Christmas,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 238–239.
  6. Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 2:333.
  7. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 904.
  8. Darrell L. Bock, “Precision and Accuracy: Making Distinctions in the Cultural Context That Give Us Pause in Pitting the Gospels against Each Other,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 378.
  9. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 906.
  10. The English Standard Version’s footnote says, “Or This was the registration before.”
  11. This reading is mentioned by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 137. See also David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 118.

 

How Can We Know the Historical Jesus?

How Can We Know the Historical Jesus?[1]
Brian Watson
December 3, 2017

People believe many different things about Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God who became a man. (Jesus has always existed as God, and at one point in human history he added a second nature, of a human being, when he was miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin.) Muslims believe that Jesus was only a prophet and not the Son of God. Other people, like those drawn to New Age spirituality, believe that Jesus was a wise man or a spiritual teacher. Some have imagined that Jesus was a political revolutionary. And still others believe the whole story of Jesus is fictional, no more than a legend or myth. How can we know the truth about Jesus?

Examining History

The Christian claim about Jesus is that he was born in roughly 5 B.C. and that he died in either A.D. 30 or 33.[2] How can we know what happened two thousand years ago? To state an obvious truth, we don’t have audio or video recordings of what happened then, so we can’t hear or see what happened at that time. Obviously, we weren’t there.

In order to discover what happened the past, we have to operate like police detectives, examining the scene of a crime. Detectives look for evidence, which may include physical evidence and personal testimony.

Many historians turn to physical artifacts, ones that archaeologists discover. These can range from structures that have inscriptions (buildings, columns, etc.) to coins or any other objects that might give us information about the past. Often, these objects are rare. With Jesus, we wouldn’t expect to find much, if anything, along those lines. He was not a political ruler or a wealthy man.

More often, historians look for written testimony. That’s what we’ll have to look at to know the truth about Jesus. And we do have various writings that mention Jesus.

Before we look at those, keep some other truths in mind: Two thousand years ago, there was no printing press. Everything was handwritten, and writing materials were relatively expensive and scarce. Also, literacy rates were lower, so fewer people knew how to write (and read). Furthermore, most materials decay or can be destroyed. We can assume that many documents have been lost or destroyed, or have simply decayed. That explains why we have few historical documents about anyone who lived in the ancient world. For example, Tiberias, the emperor who reigned A.D. 14–37, was the most powerful man in his day and yet there are only four written sources about him from the first two hundred years after his death that exist today.[3] (Another thing to keep in mind: There was often a significant gap of time between historical events and written histories. Often, decades elapsed between an event and when that event was chronicled.) Fortunately, we have many documents that detail the life of Jesus.

Non-Christian Histories

Let’s first examine histories of Jesus that were written by non-Christians. I don’t think that these sources are more trustworthy than Christian sources. The only reason to think so is an anti-Christian bias. But I begin here because the non-biblical evidence for Jesus’ life is not well known.

One source is the Jewish historian Josephus (c. A.D. 37–c. 100), who lived in Palestine and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in 66. After he was captured by the Romans, he became a Roman citizen, and he began to write. Josephus mentions Jesus twice. One short reference to Jesus is in his Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jewish people. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[4]4 The Christ is the Messiah, the long-awaited anointed Jewish King who would usher in a reign of peace and righteousness. Josephus didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but he observed that other people thought he was.

Josephus refers to Jesus elsewhere in the Jewish Antiquities (18.63–64). There is some evidence that Christians added words to this text to create a stronger witness to Jesus. Yet it’s likely that in the original quote, Josephus acknowledged that Jesus was known for his virtue, that he had followers, that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate, that his followers reported that he rose from the grave, and they did not abandon the way of Jesus.

Roman historians also wrote about Jesus. Suetonius (c. A.D. 70–c. 160) wrote a history of the lives of many of the Roman emperors, the Caesars. He wrote about how Emperor Claudius (reigned A.D. 41–54) expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49., an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. “He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.”[5] “Chrestus” is most likely a misspelling of “Christ.” It seems that Suetonius thought he was a person living in Rome and causing unrest. (Christians began preaching about Christ in Rome, and this caused controversy among some Jewish people who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah.) Suetonius also referred to Christians during the time of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54–68). He writes, “He [Nero] likewise inflicted punishments on the Christians, a sort of people who held a new and impious superstition.”[6]

Another Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56–117), also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports that Nero blamed the fire on Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[7]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” a Latinized version of “Christ.” Notice that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible. After Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples weren’t active until they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Within three decades, Christianity had spread to Rome.

Yet another Roman wrote about Jesus. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61–c.112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. He says that the prayed to Jesus “as to a divinity.”[8]

Christian Histories

Not surprisingly, there are more Christian documents that mention Jesus, and these documents are far more detailed. The New Testament of the Bible consists of twenty-seven documents written by eight or nine authors. (We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews.) Four of these documents are Gospels, theological biographies of Jesus. (“Gospel” means “good news.”) One of those documents is a history of the early church (the book of Acts), which includes more information about Jesus. Twenty-one of those documents are letters that provide theological commentary on Jesus’ identity and works. Though they are not stricly histories, they include historical information.

The Gospel writers clearly saw themselves as writing history. Luke is the best example. He begins his Gospel by acknowledging that other accounts of Jesus existed. He decided to write “an orderly account” based on the testimony of “eyewitness and servants of the word” (Luke 1:1–4). In his Gospel and in its sequel, the book of Acts, Luke is careful to provide a historical context for his writing. He begins by recounting events that occurred in “the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5). Jesus was born during the time when Caesar Augustus required citizens to be registered, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). Jesus began his public ministry in “the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. Many more historical details are provided in the book of Acts.

The historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet. He couldn’t have invented the historical details he includes in his writings. New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13–28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[9]

Much more can be said about the historical reliability of the New Testament, though space allows me only to provide three reasons why we should trust the historicity of the New Testament.[10]

One other reason to trust the New Testament is that its writing is not like myths. The Gospels read like other ancient histories or biographies. They are more restrained than later documents that were not based on eyewitness testimony and that are rather fanciful. (Compare this to fanciful events in The Gospel of Peter, which comes from the second century and is not written by Peter. The Gospel of Peter features a resurrected Jesus whose head extends to heaven, not to mention a talking cross!)

Another reason to trust the New Testament is that the documents were written within a lifetime of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some think these documents were written later, perhaps in the early second century, but those arguments are based on speculation and they lack supporting evidence. Take the example of Luke as an example: He claims to have used eyewitness reports. This means he must have written his Gospel within a few decades of Jesus, while those eyewitnesses were still alive. It’s unlikely that he wrote after the 60s because he doesn’t write about significant events that took place after the year 62, such as Peter’s and Paul’s deaths as martyrs in the mid-60s or the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Luke and Acts couldn’t have been written as late as the end of the first century because passages from both books are alluded to in 1 Clement and 2 Clement, non-biblical Christian documents that were written at the end of the first century.[11] There is no good reason to assume that any of the New Testament documents were written after the first century.

A third reason to trust the New Testament is that we have more and earlier manuscripts of the New Testament than other ancient literature. For example, Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates around nine hundred years later.[12] Yet, when it comes to the New Testament, we have a wealth of manuscripts. Here’s a general rule regarding ancient documents: The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, in part or in whole. We have more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.

The point is that, based on what we know, the New Testament are historical documents that reflect what truly happened about two thousand years ago. They testify that Jesus is the God-man, the eternal Son of God and Jesus of Nazareth, who performed miracles, taught with unmatched authority, lived a sinless life, died an atoning death for the sins of his people, and rose from the grave. The question is, will we trust the message about Jesus and put our faith in him?

Notes

  1. For more details, see https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus.
  2. Some people imagine that Jesus was born in the year 0. There is no year 0. The year after 1 B.C. is A.D. 1. For details, see https://wbcommunity.org/when-was-jesus-born. It might seem strange that we don’t know the exact dates of his birth or death. However, this is not strange when compared to other figures in ancient history. The modern calendar didn’t exist at that time, so events were often dated with respect to other events. Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. and we know that Jesus was born prior to his death. We also know that Jesus died at that time of the Passover sometime during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberias and when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. That could be A.D. 30 or 33.
  3. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 215.
  4. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  5. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Claudius 25, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  6. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 16, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
  7. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, edited by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44
  8. Pliny the Younger, Letter 97: To the Emperor Trajan, http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html.
  9. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990).
  10. For more on the reliability of the New Testament, see https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament.
  11. 1 Clem. 2.1; 5.6–7; 13.2; 48.4; 2 Clem. 13.4.
  12. Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.

 

Jesus Was Born of a Virgin

This sermon was preached on December 21, 2014 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).
Additional thoughts related to the virgin birth.

Matthew 1:18–25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.[1]

You know the story: in a quiet, unassuming, small town, an amazing event happens: a visitor from far away arrives in the form of a baby. He was sent by his father from a distant place on a mission. And though the world did not take notice of this baby, his human parents raised him, and he grew in strength and wisdom. One day, though, the world would know the identity of this incredible man. He would confront evil and protect the weak. He would stand for truth, justice, . . . and the American way. That’s right, I’m talking about Superman.

It’s interesting how many parallels there are between Superman and Jesus. Superman was sent by his father, Jor-El, to Earth from the planet Krypton, just as God the Father sent Jesus, his Son. Superman’s birth name is Kal-El, which is very close to what in Hebrew means “voice of God,” while Jesus is referred to as the Word of God (John 1:1). Kal-El, or Clark Kent, grows up in a small town in Kansas. Superman grew up in a small town in Galilee. The last Superman movie, Man of Steel, has many other allusions to the Jesus story, such as Superman being 33 when he starts his ministry—I mean, mission.[2] It’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s surprising, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence. I think there’s something in the human heart that realizes that things aren’t right. The world is not right. We’re not right. We need someone to help us. It’s no wonder superhero stories have been created. Superheroes are like us, but they’re much more. They’re more powerful, more heroic, more noble. We long for a hero like Superman who will come and make things right.

And we long for deliverance from the predicament that we’re in. A few weeks ago, we watched the movie, Interstellar. I don’t want to spoil the movie in case you plan on watching it, but it’s set in the not-too-distant future. Something bad is happening to the Earth: a blight is preventing crops from growing and the food supply is growing short. So a plan is hatched: a select group of astronauts and scientists will try to find another planet where humans can live. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say this: the makers of the movie put their hope in science and humans. In this movie, there is no God; there are no superheroes. There are only humans, humans who have science, humans who are brave and risk everything for family, humans who evolve in ways that are impossible for any species to evolve. And it is this evolution that transcends the dimensions of time and space, helping humanity survive. We are our own saviors.

Granted, superheroes and sci-fi movies are fiction. But this hope for deliverance from the human condition and even death is found in the real world. Some people think that if only we get the right medicine or the right technology, or perhaps the right political leaders or public policies, we will make real progress. Consider the example of Ray Kurzweil. I first heard his name because he invented a high-end synthesizer, a musical keyboard. But he has also invented the flatbed scanner, among other things. He’s been likened to a modern-day Thomas Edison. He believes that immortality is possible, that by 2028, we will be able to add one year to our lives per year, effectively keeping death at arm’s length forever.[3] He also believes that by 2045, artificial intelligence and human intelligence will merge, so that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and computers. We’ll have little robots—nanobots—in our bodies, fighting infections, and in our brains, connecting our minds to cloud computing. And some people think the concept of God is far-fetched!

All of this shows that we know we need help, and we all put our hope in something, whether it’s a hero, or science, or God. I would say that this hope is religious, whether the object of faith is humanity, science, or a divine being. The makers of Interstellar and Ray Kurzweil cross the line from science to scientism, more of a philosophical position. We all put our trust in something. However, the human experience has been remarkably consistent for thousands of years: We live, we love, we fight, we die. In order to transcend our situation, we need something brand new—a brand new start, a brand new creation.

That is what the virgin birth of Jesus is all about. The Christian claim is a bold one: the human condition is in such bad shape that nothing short of God becoming man to rescue us will work. So, in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, to become man. He didn’t cease being God, but he added a human nature, so he could identify with us in every way. Yet, unlike us, he remained morally perfect, never disobeying God. He lived life the way that we should. And here’s the crazy thing: the only perfect person died on the cross, to bear the penalty for our disobedience. He did this so that everyone who is united to him by faith will be spared the penalty for sin: eternal death in hell. That’s the Christian claim.

Recently, I read this wonderful quote from a theologian, Don Carson:

If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.[4]

And that is exactly what we see in the passage that was just read. In Matthew 1:18, we see that the Holy Spirit—the third Person of the Trinity—causes Mary, a virgin, to become pregnant. Joseph, who was in the process of becoming her husband, assumed that she had an affair with another man. He was ready to divorce Mary. But an angel told him that what had happened: this was no normal pregnancy, but a supernatural one. What was the purpose of this miraculous conception? That Jesus would save his people from sin. That’s what his name means. In Hebrew, his name would be Yeshua, which means “Yahweh is salvation,” or, “The Lord saves.” Matthew also tells us (in verses 22-23) that this pregnancy fulfills something that was predicted roughly seven hundred years earlier (in Isaiah 7:14), that a virgin would conceive, and the child would be called “Immanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” In other words, Jesus is God in the flesh.

The other biblical account of Jesus’ birth is found in Luke 1. In that passage, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus, who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” He will be the Son of God (v. 32, also v. 35). Then Gabriel continues, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (vv. 32-33). Jesus is God the Father’s Son, which means he perfectly represents and obeys God. And he is the heir of David’s throne. That means he is the promised King who will reign over his people forever. This was something God promised to David a thousand years earlier.

So Jesus is a new type of man, a man completely unlike any other. Because he is God, he can be perfect in every way, and he is eternal and consistent: there never was a time, nor will there ever be a time, when Jesus didn’t or will not exist. And he will remain perfect and faithful in every way, for God does not change. But because he’s man, he can be our substitute. In a sense, he’s the one who comes in to the world and cleans up the mess that we’ve made. He fills in for us. Imagine you’ve committed a horrible crime and are going to go to jail for the rest of our life. Then picture the most successful person you can imagine—whoever that is for you— taking on that sentence for you, going to jail so you can remain free. But not only that, he gives you all his success: his money, his fame, his social standing, his family—everything. That’s what Jesus does for his people, those who have a relationship with him marked by trust, love, and obedience.

We see in this episode with Mary that God takes the initiative. Just as God takes the initiative in creating the universe, he does the same in saving his people. Mary wasn’t looking for this special role that God gave her. No one was expecting that God would become a man to save his people. But God did it all. This is how he works.

Now, there is quite a bit of confusion about the virgin birth and there are many objections. Let me deal with the confusion first. Let’s clear up a couple of obvious things first. The Gospel writers—Matthew and Luke—knew that this was not how people normally became pregnant. They knew this was a miracle. Luke was a doctor. He may not have known, with great specificity, how women became pregnant, but he knew that a human father was needed. The other obvious thing in this passage is that, as opposed various legends concerning mythical gods, God did not have sex with Mary. We don’t know exactly, scientifically speaking, Mary became pregnant. The Bible doesn’t speak in scientific language, because it was written roughly two thousand to thirty-five hundred years ago. But it’s clear that any sexual intercourse was not involved.

There are other confusions, however. The Catholic Church has taught at least two errors regarding Mary that are related to the conception of Jesus. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was sinless. Catholic theologians thought that because she was the “Mother of God,” she would need to be without sin, for how else could Jesus be sinless? So they taught that she was sinless and that her own conception was “immaculate.” But this is not a teaching found in the Bible or in the earliest years of the church. It only became official Catholic doctrine fairly recently, in 1854.[5] The clear teaching of the Bible is that every human being—everyone outside of Jesus—has sinned (Rom. 3:23). What makes Jesus so unique is that he alone is sinless (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Even Mary realized that she needed a Savior, as she says in her famous song:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47).

Put quite simply, the Bible does not teach that Mary was sinless. Rather, it teaches that all humans are sinful and in need of a Savior. If Mary was sinless, she wouldn’t need salvation and she wouldn’t call God her Savior.

The Catholic Church also teaches that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life.[6] Yet this claim is also unbiblical. First, Matthew 1:25 says, “But he [Joseph] had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.” That means they had normal sexual relations after Jesus was born. That’s important because the Bible does not teach that sex, within the context of marriage, is sinful. Sex is a good gift to be enjoyed. Second, the Bible refers to Jesus’ brothers (Matt. 6:3; 13:55; John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19). The Catholic Church tries to say that the term “brothers” can mean something besides literal, biological brothers.[7] That’s really a stretch, and against the clear meaning of the text. Furthermore, Luke 2:7 says Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn” son, not “only” son.

Nothing in the Bible elevates Mary to a status above the rest of humanity. She is special because God chose her for a special, unique role. And she is a great example of faith and submission to God’s will. But if we elevate Mary to a higher status, we take away from Jesus’ unique standing as the only sinless human being.

Those are the confusions. Next, let’s consider the objections. Some people say that the accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth in Matthew and Luke can’t be trusted. They say there are contradictions or inconsistencies between these accounts. I have written about some of these issues, and you can find those articles on our website. (If you missed last week’s sermon, I would encourage you to go back and listen to that message, too.) The two accounts are not contradictory. Rather, they’re complementary: together, they give us a fuller picture of what happened at Jesus’ birth.[8]

Some people think that because the rest of the New Testament is silent about Jesus’ conception and birth, these accounts must have been made up. Well, the only two birth narratives of Jesus are in Matthew and Luke, and nothing in the rest of the New Testament contradicts these accounts. Mark doesn’t deal with Jesus’ birth at all, and John starts off with something greater: Jesus is the preexistent “Word” of God who is God (John 1:1). So, this is a very weak objection.

Another objection, one that is far more common, is the claim that the story of Jesus is based on myths. This claim is becoming more popular, particularly on the Internet, but it’s been around for a while. Consider what Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1823 about Jesus’ birth:

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.[9]

Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom who was born out of her father Jupiter’s head. So, Jefferson considered the virgin birth of Jesus just as mythical. By the way, Jefferson, when he was president, created his own version of the Gospels. He stripped away all the supernatural elements of the Jesus story, so there were no miracles and no resurrection. That’s the kind of Jesus he wanted: a moral reformer, not God.

Bertrand Russell, an atheist, wrote this: “I do not think the evidence for the Virgin Birth is such as would convince any impartial inquirer if it were presented outside the circle of theological beliefs he was accustomed to. There are innumerable such stories in pagan mythology, but no one dreams of taking them seriously.”[10] More recently, the argument that the story of Jesus’ birth is based on myths was advanced in a 2007 “documentary” that has been popular on Netflix, called Zeitgeist: The Movie. This film has includes a lot of false information.[11] Just to give you an idea of what I mean: one part of the film states that 9/11 was an “inside job,” orchestrated by the U.S. government. But this is the kind of stuff that circulates in the world.

It’s true that there are many stories of gods and goddesses who were conceived in odd ways. But these stories don’t really parallel the story of Jesus being conceived by a virgin through the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. These other stories are very different. Consider Mithra, a Persian god. (The Greek name is Mithras.) He was supposedly born out of a rock. That’s hardly like the story of Jesus. If you actually look at the stories of gods and their births, you see that usually, a god (often Zeus) impregnates a woman who had been, up to that point, a virgin. But this is not the story of Jesus. I already said that the Bible does not depict God as having sex with Mary. That’s what Zeus does, but it’s not what God does.[12]

These stories are also clearly myths, not rooted in history the way the Gospels are. This part of one of those stories, found in Hesiod’s Theogony:

Now Zeus, king of the gods, made Metis his wife first, and she was wisest among gods and mortal men. But when she was about to bring forth the goddess bright-eyed Athene, Zeus craftily deceived her with cunning words and put her in his own belly, as Earth and starry Heaven advised. For they advised him so, to the end that no other should hold royal sway over the eternal gods in place of Zeus; for very wise children were destined to be born of her, first the maiden bright-eyed Tritogeneia, equal to her father in strength and in wise understanding; but afterwards she was to bear a son of overbearing spirit, king of gods and men. But Zeus put her into his own belly first, that the goddess might devise for him both good and evil.[13]

This is clearly not an historical account. Mary Jo Sharp observes, “In Hesiod’s story, there are no clues as to whether these events took place in a physical location that could be found on a map, or somewhere otherworldly. There aren’t any recognizable landmarks or historical names that might be cross-referenced with historical records of the time period.”[14] But Matthew and Luke do provide physical locations, as well as the names of political rulers and events, so that we have some knowledge of where and when Jesus was born.

So, the argument that the Jesus story is based on myths is false. There are no true parallels to Jesus’ miraculous conception in Mary’s womb. And the Gospels are historical documents, corroborated by other historians and archaeology.

Perhaps the biggest objection to this story is simply that it’s so miraculous. Anyone who believes that God doesn’t exist, or that miracles are impossible, simply can’t believe this story, regardless of the evidence. But what if there’s good reason to believe that God exists, and that he can do amazing things? Then what?

There are several arguments for the existence of God. One of them is called the cosmological argument. You can read all about it online at the church website: wbcommunity.org. Go to the “Media” tab and then click on “Articles” and you can read it there. The cosmological argument is about the universe, the cosmos. The basic argument is this:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The first point is simple. You and I came into existence at one point, and we had causes: our parents. And they had causes: their parents. And so on. In other words, nothing comes from nothing. If something had a beginning, another person or thing caused that something to come into being.

The second point has been proven by science. The universe, at one point in time, came into existence. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many scientists assumed that the universe was eternal, that it had no beginning. But a few discoveries quickly challenged that assumption. In 1916, Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity. This theory was mostly concerned with gravity. Einstein was actually trying to prove that the universe was static, not expanding or contracting, but his equations actually showed that the universe was expanding. He didn’t like that finding, because it suggested that at some point, the universe had a beginning, so he fudged the numbers. (A few years later, a Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedmann, and a Belgian astronomer, George Lemaitre, both recognized that Einstein had made a mistake.)

Meanwhile, another astronomer, Edwin Hubble, was using the most powerful telescope of his day, and he noticed that galaxies were receding farther away. The farther away the galaxy, the faster it moved. All of this suggested that the universe was expanding. From this knowledge, scientists were able to create a model of the expansion of the universe. They suggested that at one point, long ago, the universe was extremely dense, and that a cosmic explosion resulted in the universe that is expanding today. In fact, at one point in time, all the mass, energy, and space of the universe came into existence.

Some physicists suggested that if this cosmic explosion actually happened, we would find some cosmic radiation on the edge of the universe. In 1965, a couple of physicists named Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered this cosmic background radiation. They later won the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Penzias said, “The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”[15]

This is what Robert Jastrow, an astronomer and an agnostic, writes about this theory of the origin of the world:

It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.[16]

So, the universe came into existence at some point. Therefore, it had a cause. Yet some scientists believe the universe created itself. But that’s not a scientific position. It’s a faith position. Personally, I think it takes a lot more faith to believe the universe created itself than to believe that God created.

The only cause that could create a universe like ours is God: an omnipotent, omniscient, intelligent being who is eternal.[17] God never came into existence. He has always been. That’s part of what makes him so unique. And if God can create a universe out of nothing—no matter or energy or anything else—why can’t he create a baby out of a virgin’s womb? The creation of the universe out of nothing, and the creation of a baby out of a virgin are unique acts, done for special purposes: to create the world, and to save the world.

I think the connection between the creation of the universe and the creation of baby Jesus is very important. In Matthew and Luke, there is a strong suggestion that when Jesus came into the world, he was a new creation. In the Genesis account of creation, the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of the earth. The Holy Spirit “hovered” over Mary, coming upon her to create a baby. And when the baby grew up, he was baptized, to identify with sinful humans even though he never sinned. When he was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon him, too, and God called him good, just as he called the universe he made good.[18]

The reason why Jesus became a baby was because that initial creation became spoiled through sin. Sin is disobedience, lawlessness. It’s a rejection of God. But it’s not just breaking individual laws and commands. Sin is a power. It’s a force. It’s what twists our desires and perverts our thoughts. And part of God’s punishment for sin is death and disease and everything else that’s wrong with the world.

So when Jesus became a baby, it was the start of a new creation. God was starting something brand new. Salvation couldn’t come from us. Fixing the world couldn’t happen just by improving our education, or our government, or our technology, or anything else. The solution had to come from God. He had to create something brand new. He had to create a man completely unlike any other man—or woman—who had ever been born. That’s who Jesus is—the new man, the perfect man.

When he entered into the universe, the creator entered into his own creation. That’s like William Shakespeare entering into one of his own plays so that he could die in place of, say, Hamlet. It’s an amazing thought. That shows the extent that God will go to rescue his people.

There’s much more to say about all of this. If you want to learn more about who Jesus is, keep coming. Keep listening to these sermons and reading some of the resources I’ve put on our website.

But I want you to think about this: If God can create the universe out of nothing, and if he can create a baby out of a virgin’s womb, he can do anything. There is nothing he can’t fix, and there’s no one he can’t save. That’s why the Bible uses the language of creation when it talks about salvation. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” The God who can make the universe out of nothing can take spiritually dead people—which is how all of us start out—and make them into new creations. He can do that with anyone.

No matter what issue you are facing today, it is not too big for God. No problem is too big for him to solve. That doesn’t mean that he will solve everything in this life. Unless Jesus returns, we will all die. But that’s not the end of the story. The Bible ends with a recreation of the universe. The new creation won’t have death, disease, decay, pain, hunger, thirst, or any other bad thing. It will just be God and his people in a perfect world.

This universe is broken. Sometimes, it feels cracked, distorted, without hope and without sense. But God didn’t give up on his creation. God came down to us. He came into filth of this world, in the midst of animals. He lowered himself in order to lift us up. With such a God, there is always hope. That’s what Christmas is about: the promised hope of rescue came to earth in the form of a special baby.

If you don’t know God, call on him today. Ask him to make you into something new, a new creation. Ask him to transform your life. Ask him to give you faith so you can trust him.

If you’re already a Christian, what are some of the impossible issues you’re facing today? Bring them to God. Ask him to solve your problems. Ask him for strength. Ask him for wisdom. Ask him to create something new in your life.

Consider what the angel Gabriel said to Mary: “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quoted herein is taken from the New International Version (1984).
  2. Jordan Hoffman, “‘Man of Steel’ No Longer Man of Shtetl?” Times of Israel, June 13, 2013, http://www.timesofisrael.com/man-of-steel-no-longer-man-of-shtetl/ (accessed December 20, 2014). For other parallels between Superman and Jesus, see Austin Gentry, “Superman Parallels Jesus in 11 Ways,” Gospel Focus 289, https://gospelfocus289.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/superman-parallels-jesus-in-11-ways/ (accessed December 20, 2014).
  3. Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., “Will Google’s Ray Kurzweil Live Forever?” The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2013, http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510.html (accessed December 19, 2014).
  4. D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1992), 109.
  5. Pope Pius IX taught this doctrine in his encyclical, Ineffabilis Deus, dated December 8, 1854. In part, it says, “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” The entire encyclical can be read at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm (accessed December 18, 2014). See also Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., §491-93 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 123–124.
  6. This doctrine can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church §499-500, 126. Even stranger, they claim that the birth of Jesus was supernatural. So Ludwig Ott, a Catholic theologian, claims, “Mary gave birth in miraculous fashion without opening of the womb and injury to her hymen, and consequently without pain” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, ed. James Canon Bastible, trans. Patrick Lynch [Rockford, IL: Tan, 1960], 205, quoted in Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014], 133 n. 52).
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church §500, 126.
  8. Regarding the historical reliability of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, many biblical scholars have noted the Semitic character of Luke 1:5-2:52. Luke was a Gentile who wrote elegant Greek. After beginning his Gospel account, the language reflects a Hebraic background. Many scholars think that this reflects Luke’s sources. According to I. Howard Marshall (The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978], 46), “the narratives [of Luke 1-2] betray a Semitic background to a degree unparalleled elsewhere in Lk.-Acts. The whole atmosphere of the story is Palestinian. The language too is strongly Semitic.” Regarding the poems, or songs, he writes, “the case for postulating Hebrew originals for the canticles is very strong” (47). He concludes, “It appears most probable that Luke had sources at his disposal, and that these came from Palestinian Jewish Christian circles which had links with the family of Jesus” (48-49). Therefore, it would appear that Luke used early, original, eyewitness sources in constructing his history of Jesus’ birth.
  9. Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/53/Letter_from_Thomas_Jefferson_to_John_Adams_1.html (accessed December 18, 2014).
  10. Bertrand Russell, “ Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 200.
  11. For a thorough refutation of the claims of Zeitgeist, see Mark W. Foreman, “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids,” in Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics, edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012). By presenting false information about Horus, an Egyptian god, and other mythological gods such as Mithra(s), the movie tries to show that Jesus is but a myth. Here’s an example of the poor reasoning of the film: other gods were son gods. They were associated with the son. Jesus is known as the Son of God. Now, that sun/son wordplay works nicely in English, but in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the term for sun is helios and the term for son is huios. These don’t sound the same. Jesus is referred to as light in the Bible (most prominently in John 8:12), but his being Son has nothing to do with the sun. His sonship represents the perfect relationship he has with the Father: he perfectly represents God, and obeys him. The fact that Jesus is light metaphorically refers to the way he exposes and drives away darkness. It has to do with the revelation of truth and righteousness. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, but they are not identical either.
  12. Mary Jo Sharp, “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed from Pagan Myths?” in In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture, edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013) 193-94: “Here are the so-called virgin births of five of the gods who are frequently compared to Christ: Mithras is born out of a rock on the banks of a river under a sacred fig tree. Adonis is born out of a myrrh tree. Dionysius is produced from an incestuous relationship between the god Zeus and his daughter Persephone. Osiris is the product of an affair between an earth god and a sky goddess. And while Osiris and Isis are fetuses within the womb of the sky goddess, they have intercourse and produce Horus.”
  13. Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm (accessed December 17, 2014).
  14. Sharp, “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed,” 188.
  15. This was reported in The New York Times, March 12, 1978; quoted in Edgar Andrews, Who Made God? (Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2009), 94.
  16. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton & Company, 1992), 106-107.
  17. It should be noted that many atheistic scientists and philosophers deny that God exists. They try to find other ways of explaining the universe. The Oxford-educated atheistic philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett writes, “What does need its origin explained is the concrete Universe itself. . . . It . . . does perform a version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo [out of nothing]. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.” (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon [New York: Viking, 2006], 244, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008], 151.) This claim is not scientific, and it expresses a faith position, one that excludes the existence of God.
  18. There are also connections between Jesus and Adam, who was formed out of dust through the “breath of life” (most likely the Holy Spirit). See Genesis 2:7. It is no accident that Jesus is called the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45).

 

How Long, O Lord?

Brian Watson preached this sermon on October 1, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF typescript of the sermon written in advance. 

One of the biggest questions that people have about God, and one of the main reasons why people have a hard time trusting God or believing that he exists, is the presence of evil in the world. A few weeks ago, we collected questions that people would like to ask God, and many of them involved pain and suffering. Here were some of the questions:

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” [This was asked twice.]

“Why is there so much suffering in foreign countries?”

“Why are you letting so many people suffer in this world?”

“Why are young children diagnosed with cancer?”

“Why do the people we love die when they are not old?

“Why do bad things continue to happen to me in my life?”

These questions often cause people to doubt God. In fact, the so-called problem of evil has been called “the rock of atheism,”[1] because the very existence of bad things in the world is supposed to challenge the existence of God.

There are various problems of evil. One is called the logical problem of evil. This states that the very existence of evil is incompatible with a God who is omnipotent and good. Those who believe God and evil can’t coexist assume that God would never allow evil to exist in the first place, or that he would remove as quickly as possible. David Hume (1711–1776) captured this problem of evil rather famously: “Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.”[2] In other words, if God is good and loving, he would not allow misery, and if he is all-powerful, he would be able to end misery.[3] So, either he is one or the other, but not both.

However, if a good and all-powerful God has good reasons for allowing evil to occur, there is no reason why this God and evil cannot coexist. Perhaps God allows evil in order to realize some greater good. Even if we don’t know what exactly this greater good is, this idea shows that there is no logical contradiction involved in God’s existence and evil’s existence.

A second problem of evil is called the evidential problem of evil. In this argument, people accept that God may very well have a good reason for allowing evil to occur, but they believe that a good, all-powerful God wouldn’t allow so much evil to occur in the world. In other words, some people say there simply is too much evil in the world for there to be a God, particularly the God of the Bible. But how could we possibly know how much evil there should be? What is the right amount of evil necessary to produce greater goods?

Then there is a third problem of evil, which we might call the existential problem of evil. This isn’t a philosophical argument regarding the existence of God. This is a problem that we all face, whether we’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists. This is the question of how we cope in a world full of pain, misery, suffering, heartbreak, and, yes, evil.

Today, I want to begin to explore this issue of evil. Because it’s such a big question, I’ll continue thinking about it next week. Here’s what I want to claim today: any system of belief or worldview that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of evil is false; but Christianity does acknowledge that evil is real; the existence of evil is evidence that God exists, because to acknowledge evil is to acknowledge that a standard of good and evil exists; and while the Bible doesn’t tell us everything about why evil exists, it tells us that God will fix the problem of evil forever.

Before we get into this discussion, I want to define evil. Today when I use the word “evil,” I don’t just mean evil people like Hitler, or evil acts like murder or rape. I’m using the word in a very broad sense. When I say “evil,” I mean everything that isn’t the way things out to be. We all sense the world isn’t the way it ought to be. We feel out of sorts. We witness natural evils, like hurricanes and earthquakes, and also diseases and death. We witness human evils, like theft, rape, and murder. And then there are all kinds of smaller-scale suffering that we endure, like loneliness and depression. So, what is evil? Evil is anything that keeps us from being truly happy. We all want to be happy. Augustine once wrote, “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains that all men desire to be happy.”[4] Anything that disrupts true happiness is evil. I would define “true happiness” as “the way God intended the world to be,” or “the way things ought to be.” I’ll come back to that idea.

Obviously, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s evil in the world. A lot of people aren’t happy. There are many times when we aren’t happy. What worldview, religion, or system of thought can make sense of this state of affairs?

There are some religions or beliefs that maintain that evil is just an illusion, or that suffering can be eliminated through eliminating our desires. These concepts are found in eastern religions and in New Age spirituality. My understanding of Buddhism is that Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, taught that life is an illusion. Our problem is getting wrapped up in this illusion. Or, as one writer puts it, “The problem with existence, Gautama decided, lies in becoming attached to physical life, which is by nature impermanent. The key to salvation is to let go of everything. . . . It is sometimes said that self-extinction is the goal of Buddha’s philosophy; it would be better to put it as realizing one’s self-extinctedness. Nonexistence is the reality; one simply has to become aware of it.”[5] All our suffering comes from thinking that we actually exist as persons, and through cravings that come with such thinking. The key to removing suffering is to realize that all is an illusion. If that is true, then evil itself is an illusion. It’s not real. Can we really say that life is an illusion? That death isn’t real?

Some forms of Hinduism are pantheistic. They hold that the individual soul (Atman) is equal to the soul of the world (Brahman). In other words, all things are one. Enlightenment consists of realizing this truth. New Age spirituality is very similar. Several years ago, a New Age teacher named Eckhard Tolle was very popular, in large part because he was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. His two famous books are The Power of Now and A New Earth.[6] In the first book, he writes, “[Y]ou are one with all that is.”[7] Tolle believes we are all connected to the Source. For him, the only evil is not to realize this.[8] So, you and death are one. You and a malignant tumor are one. Why fear anything then? All is one. You and Hitler and HIV are one. Does anyone really buy this? Does anyone really live that way?

Buddhists, pantheists, and New Age gurus aren’t the only ones to deny the reality of evil. Some atheists do, too. I’ve recently mentioned that Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist and neo-Darwinist, has said that in a world that is the product of chance, where there is no god, there is no such thing as good and evil.[9] Michael Ruse, another atheist and Darwinist, says,

Unlike Christians, Darwinians do not see that natural evil is a problem. Obviously they do not like it and may feel one has a moral obligation to reduce it, but it is just something that happens. No one causes it, no one is to blame. Moral evil is something fairly readily explicable given Darwinism. We have a natural inclination to selfishness. That is to be expected given that selection works for the individual.[10]

If the world isn’t guided by God, why should we expect it would be good? How can we say it’s good or bad? It just is. And what we call evil, such as death, is part of the way large-scale, Darwinian evolution works. A rather unorthodox Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who advocated the theory of evolution, said, “Evil appears necessarily . . . not by accident (which would not much matter) but through the very structure of the system.”[11] Without the winnowing fork of death and extinction, natural selection wouldn’t work. Species with new and superior traits wouldn’t emerge from old ones.[12] So, given what these atheists believe, what we call evil really isn’t evil. It’s just the way things are. We may not like it, but that’s life.

These religions and worldviews want us to believe that evil is an illusion, or doesn’t exist, or isn’t so bad. But we know better. Evil is real and it’s really evil. Death is an outrage. So is murder and rape, and theft. Hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis that kill thousands of people aren’t the way things ought to be. So, if a religion or philosophy says evil isn’t evil, they’re asking you to deny reality. Really, they’re asking you not to take them seriously. So, don’t.

But Christianity is different. It affirms that evil is a reality. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to deliver us from evil (Matt. 6:13), not from an illusion or something that we simply don’t like. Evil is something that intruded into God’s good creation when the power of sin entered into the world. That is, when human beings started to ignore and reject God and disobey him, evil came into the world. In fact, we might say the presence of evil started with the existence of the devil, Satan. This is somewhat mysterious, but it’s very much a part of reality. It is not an illusion.

And the Bible not only describes the reality of evil, it even has many protests against evil. Throughout the Bible, God’s people cry out to God and say, “This isn’t right! This isn’t fair! How long before you remove evil from this world?” Consider some of these verses:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps. 13:1–2)

O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult? (Ps. 94:3)

They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10)

These are but a few of the many passages in the Bible that show how evil is something to be mourned, something to be outraged by. In fact, there are whole books of the Bible that take up the theme of evil and injustice. And that is quite interesting because we believe that the Bible is the word of God. Yes, human beings wrote the Bible, but it was God working through these human authors to write what he wanted. So, God himself acknowledges the problem of evil and suffering, and he gives voice to our protests against evil.

This alone, I believe, is actually evidence that Christianity is true. These complaints against evil and injustice match our experience of life. They resonate in our soul in a way that the claims that evil is an illusion don’t.

And, strangely, though evil is a problem for Christians, it is also proof that God exists. To know that something is evil, we must have some kind of standard to indicate what is good and what is evil. According to Christian thought, God is the standard of goodness. He is completely and truly good. And everything contrary to God is evil. Atheists have to cope with evil, but they not only have the problem of evil; they also have the problem of good. Why should an atheist expect goodness in a world of chance and chaos? How can an atheist say something is evil? How can they say genocide is evil? Isn’t that just evolution at work, the fit competing against the unfit, the strong preying on the weak? I don’t think we can discover good and evil. I believe the reality of good and evil need to be revealed to us. The first human beings got into trouble by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They wanted to determine what was good and evil on their own, instead of letting God interpret that reality for them. To know what is good and evil, we need a trustworthy, objective, transcendent standard to measure such realities. In other words, we need God.

With the rest of the time we have this morning, I want us to consider two stories from the Bible that shows how God’s people complain about evil, and how God responds. The first is in the Old Testament.[13] It is the story of a prophet named Habakkuk. We don’t know much about this prophet other than he was in Judah shortly before the Babylonians came in and attack Jerusalem. If you don’t know much about the Bible, this is what is important to know: In the Old Testament, God called a people to himself, Israel. He rescued them out of slavery and Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land. He had given them his law and told them how to worship him and how to live. But they often rebelled against God and worshiped the false gods of the surrounding nations. Because of their sin, God judged them in various ways, eventually bringing in foreign armies to conquer them.

Habakkuk begins with this complaint. This is Habakkuk 1:1–4:

1  The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.

Habakkuk, like the Psalmists and like Job, ask God, “How long?” He was complaining against the injustice of the Jews in his day. The law, God’s commands, had no power to restrain their evil. They were doing wicked things, and Habakkuk thought that justice would never come. He was wondering why God didn’t respond to his cries.

Then God spoke. Look at verses 5–11:

“Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
10  At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
11  Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

God tells Habakkuk that he was going to do something that would astound him. In fact, he was already at work doing thing. God was raising up the Chaldeans, better known as the Babylonians, to punish the idolatrous and rebellious Jews, the very people God had called to himself. Babylon was becoming the superpower of the world and their warriors were fierce. God was telling Habakkuk that justice was coming soon.

But this news caused Habakkuk to complain about something else. We see that in the next section, Habakkuk 1:12–2:1:

12  Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13  You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14  You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15  He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16  Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17  Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?

1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,|
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Habbakuk’s complaint is found in verse 13. He basically says to God, “You are too pure to even look upon evil. How can you then use the wicked Babylonians to judge those who are less wicked? This isn’t fair! These Babylonians capture people like a fisherman captures fish. They continue to kill and kill your people! Where’s the justice in that?”

God answers again. We’ll just look at the first three verses of his response, verses 2–4 of chapter 2:

And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,so he may run who reads it.

For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.

Then God delivers a series of “woes” to the Babylonians, saying that they will be put to shame, made to drink the cup of God’s wrath, and put to destruction (verses 15–17). He also says,

For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea (verse 14).

The point is that though God was using wicked people to judge Israel, he would judge those wicked people, too. Justice would be done. And, in the end, the whole earth will be filled with God’s glory. Everyone will one day know the true God and one day all things will be made right.

In the meantime, God’s people must trust that God will make things right. That is why God says, “the righteous will live by his faith.” The one who is in a right relationship with God must trust that God will make all things right, even when everything now seems wrong. For Habakkuk, things seemed very wrong. Most of the world didn’t acknowledge the true God. Even the people who were supposed to be God’s people, the Israelites, weren’t acknowledging God. They were doing what was wrong. And Habakkuk complained to God. But God told him, “Son, just wait. I have this under control. I know what I’m doing. Trust me. I will judge everyone and all things will be well. Just trust me and you will live.”

In the third chapter of Habakkuk, the prophet responds with a psalm, a song or prayer. He says that he will wait for that day. He trusts God. He ends with these words, in verses 17–19:

17  Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18  yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19  God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

Habakkuk says, “Even though things look bleak now, even if there’s famine now, I will rejoice in God. I look forward to the day of salvation. I will take joy in God, for he is my strength, and he will take care of me.” That is faith.

You see, Christianity is not really an explanation of every single thing that happens in the world. The Bible isn’t an encyclopedia that gives us all the answers. What it is a story about God and his world, and about his people. While it doesn’t give us all the answers, it tells us a very important story. God made a good world, and sin corrupted it. Somehow, all the evil in the world is related to the power of sin at work in the world. When the first human beings disobeyed God, the relationship between God and people was fractured. Sin separates us from God. Sin separates us from one another. Sin separates us from the creation, in the sense that there are now natural disasters and life is difficult. And sin even separates us from the people we ought to be. All the bad things in this life are a result of sin. That doesn’t mean all the bad things that happen to us are a result of our sins. Christianity is not karma. Sometimes, we suffer for reasons we don’t understand. Sometimes, other things are happening, things that we couldn’t possibly understand. I think the book of Job illustrates that quite well.

But God doesn’t leave us with the story of a broken world. If that were the end of the story—things are bad because people sinned instead of trusting God, and then you die—it would be a bad, bad story. But that’s not the end of the story.

No, God had a plan to make things right, to remove the evil in the world. And that story centers on Jesus. As I said last week, God himself entered into the world. The author of life entered into his own creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God became a human being. He did this in order to live the perfect life that we don’t live. God’s design for humanity was for people to represent him, rule the world under his authority, reflect his character, worship him, and love him. But we don’t do those things. We tend to act as if we are the center of reality. We try to be our own little gods. This is rebellion. But Jesus always represented and reflected God the Father perfectly. He always came under the Father’s authority and worshiped and loved him. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity. But Jesus did something else. Jesus also took the punishment that we deserve for that rebellion. Jesus took the penalty for our crimes against God. To put it more precisely, Jesus took the sins of everyone who trusts him, so that they can have their evil removed and their sins forgiven.

During Jesus’ life, he experienced pain, suffering, loss, and evil. The very people who should have known who he was rejected him and mocked him. They called him names. Then they arrested him on false charges, they tortured him, and they killed him. Jesus, the Son of God, very God and very man, knows evil firsthand. And he suffered willingly, even though he was innocent, in order to rescue us from pain, suffering, and evil.

And when Jesus was approaching the time when he would voluntarily take on God’s wrath against sin—as he was approaching the time when he would experience hell on earth—he protested. The night before his death, he told his disciples that his soul was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Then he cried out to God the Father, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus’ “sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Then, after being arrested and beaten, Jesus was crucified, which was an agonizing way to die. His suffering was beyond the physical pain of being nailed to a cross and left to suffer until he could no longer breathe. His true pain came from feeling as though he were separated and abandoned by God the Father. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Yet though Jesus protested his suffering, he trusted God. When he asked whether it were possible for the cup of God’s wrath to pass him, he said, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:38). And when he died on the cross, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). He trusted God, though his pain was great.

Jesus was able to trust God because he knew that all things would be well. He knew his story didn’t end in death. He knew he would rise from the grave victorious, to show that he paid the penalty for sin and to show that one day God will restore his creation. All who trust in Jesus, though they may die, will rise from the grave in bodies that can never die again, and they will live in a renewed world, one without sin and suffering, one without murder and war, one without death. And then, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. There will no longer be evil, but only peace and love.

I’m going to say more about Jesus next week, because I think the story of Jesus lets us peer into the mystery of evil. If we can say why God would allow evil to emerge in this world, we are only able to do so because of Jesus. But for now, I want us to understand the following truths.

First, the Bible says that God is good. He is the very definition of goodness and love. And he made a good world.

Second, though the origin of evil is a bit of a mystery, evil in the world is connected to the presence of sin in the world. But evil is not eternal. If the world were always evil, then I think that would pose a significant and possibly insurmountable challenge to Christianity. But evil is not the perfect match to God’s goodness. In the end, evil has a limited lifespan. And evil has limited power.

Third, Christianity views evil as an outrage. Death is described as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), one that will be destroyed. Injustice of all kinds is an outrage. The cries against evil in the Bible resonate with the cries against evil that rise up in our own throats and that pour out in our own tears.

Fourth, though the Bible doesn’t answer every question about Evil, it says that God is not aloof. He’s not distant and uncaring. He does care about evil. He cares so much that he sent his own Son to experience evil. And the Son, the co-creator of the universe, entered into his own creation and subjected himself to human evil. The Bible also says that God is all-powerful and good. He is able to remove evil from the world and desires to do so. In fact, we’re promised that he will do that in the end. But the way that God removes evil from his people is by experiencing that evil himself. We may not understand everything about evil—in fact, that’s what makes evil so evil, because it’s irrational and confusing—but we can understand that Jesus experienced evil to save us. This is a God you can trust, even if we can’t understand everything about him.

Fifth, the Bible also says that one day God will finally and conclusively remove all evil from the world. For those who trust Jesus, who are united to him by faith, their evil has already been paid for. When Jesus returns, he will utterly transform us so that we won’t sin anymore. And we will live forever. Indeed, those who have faith in Jesus will live because they have been declared righteous and they will be righteous. But those who don’t trust Jesus will be removed from God’s good creation. Those who don’t trust God and his Son, who complain without faith, who claim that, if God exists, he’s evil, or who don’t claim that he exists at all, will be condemned. So, evil has an expiration date, but love, goodness, and justice don’t. God invites us to trust his promises and have eternal life. He asks us to trust his Son and his work on our behalf.

In the end, Jesus is the answer to the problem of evil. He is the only answer. And we must put our trust in him, even when things look bleak. We trust that things will not always be that way.

I can affirm that there simply is no other satisfying response to the problem of evil. If God doesn’t exist, there’s no evil—and there’s no good! If everything is an illusion, or if death is simply part of the engine of evolution, there’s no hope. This is how things are and this is how things will always be. But if goodness triumphs over evil, and Goodness himself took the worst evil, absorbed it, and then rose from the grave, and if he’ll come again to crush evil finally and ultimately, then there’s hope. If you’re not a Christian, I would love to tell you more about Jesus.[14] He is the only key that will unlock the riddle of evil. Put your faith in him and live.

Notes

  1. The German playwright Georg Büchner (1813–1837) so described the problem of evil, according to Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, trans. David G. Preston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 9.
  2. David Hume, “Evil Makes a Strong Case against God’s Existence,” from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions, Part X, in Philosophy or Religion: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 262.”
  3. We might add that if God is perfectly wise, he would know how to end all misery, pain, suffering, and evil.
  4. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1993), 10.1, quoted in Stewart Goetz, “The Argument from Evil,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 467.
  5. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 223.
  6. Eckhard Tolle, The Power of Now (Novata, CA New World Library, 1999); Idem., A New Earth (New York: Plume, 2006).
  7. Tolle, The Power of Now, 15, quoted in Richard Abanes, A New Earth, an Old Deception (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2008), 51.
  8. “If evil has any reality—and it has a relative, not an absolute, reality—this is also its definition: a complete identification with form—physical forms, thought forms, emotional forms. This results in a total unawareness of my connectedness with the whole, my intrinsic oneness with every ‘other’ as well as with the Source.” Tolle, A New Earth, 22, quoted in Abanes, A New Earth, an Old Deception, 146.
  9. “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  10. Michael Ruse, Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us about Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 192–193.
  11. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (London: Collins, 1959), 313, quoted in Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 23.
  12. “Evil becomes a kind of auxiliary motor of the progress that has given rise to it. It acts as a goad to prevent us from getting stuck at the present stage of Evolution, to detach us from a world that is still imperfect, and to project us and throw us out of our own centre into God.” Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 24.
  13. If we had more time, I would discuss the story of Job. To understand that powerful story from the Old Testament, visit https://wbcommunity.org/job.
  14. To learn much more about Jesus, visit https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.

 

How Long, O Lord?

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the so-called problem of evil. He examines the issue of how there can be pain, suffering, and evil if God is good and is omnipotent. Some people think this is an argument against the existence of God. But perhaps evil is actually evidence for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible. After all, some religions and worldviews tell us that evil isn’t real or so evil. However, all experience tells us that evil is real and is an outrage. Christianity says evil is real, it’s a problem, and that Jesus is the solution.

God, Are You Real?

Brian Watson preached this sermon on September 24, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF typescript of the prepared sermon.


Today, we’re starting something new. I’m going to give a series of messages answering people’s questions. I titled the sermon series, “If You Could Ask God One Question, What Would It Be?” The idea is to see what people would ask God if they could speak to him directly. But I’m also taking questions about God, or even handling people’s questions about the Bible or the Christian faith.

When I ask, “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” I’m presupposing that there is a God. I’m assuming that God exists. Most of us here are Christians, and we may never doubt the existence of God. But some of us may have doubts, and we all know people who are skeptics. They may wonder if indeed God exists. Their question may be, “God, are you real?” Or, “God, are you there?” We all know people who outright reject the existence of God. Simply quoting the Bible to these people likely won’t work, since they don’t yet trust that the Bible is the written word of God. Before they can believe the word of God, they need to know that there is a God.

So, how do we know that God exists? I’m going to answer that question as well as I can in about forty-five minutes. Of course, I can’t give a full answer in one message. But I want to give us some good reasons to believe that God—and specifically the God of the Bible—indeed exists. I’m going to work through this very carefully and logically, so please follow closely.

To begin to answer this question, we need to have some idea of who God is. Monotheistic religions—religions that believe in one God—believe that God is a perfect being.[1] The standard monotheistic vision of God is that he is personal, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, benevolent, and immaterial. That last part is very important. God isn’t matter. The Bible says that God “dwells in unapproachable light” and that “no one has ever seen or can see” him (1 Tim. 6:16).[2] And Jesus said that God is spirit (John 4:24). That means that we can’t see God.

The Bible also says that there is a separation between us God and us due to our sin, which is our rebellion against God, our disobedience of his commands, and our general way of living life without reference to him. Isaiah 59:1–2 says this:

1 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
2   but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear.

This explains why we don’t always sense God, why we don’t see him or hear his voice directly. We are estranged from God.

How would you get to know a stranger? There are two ways. The first way is you could get to know about the stranger. You could learn facts about him or her. You could dig up information online, see if any news stories are written about this person, see if they have a website or blog, or discover their social media profiles. You could even stalk this person or hire a private investigator to do that for you.

Yet we can’t see God. We can’t learn about him, at least directly, through observation or experimentation. Though we can’t see God, the Bible tells us that there are clues to his existence which are available to all people. In Christian theology, we call these clues general revelation.

One passage that tells us this is found in the New Testament book of Romans. Romans is a letter written by the apostle Paul, who was commissioned by Jesus to spread the message of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. This is what he writes in Romans 1:18–20:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Paul’s point toward the beginning of this letter is that all human beings are in quite a predicament. We all know God exists, but we ignore him. We suppress the truth about him and don’t live for him. Instead, we worship false gods. And, therefore, we stand condemned by God. Now, if true, that’s bad news. Paul does get to good news later. I will, too. But I want to focus on what he says about our knowledge of God. He says that that “what can be known about God is plain,” because “God has shown it.” More specifically, two of God’s attributes, “his eternal power and divine nature,” are evident from “the things that have been made.”[3]

Is this true? Can we know something of God from the created order?

Well, yes, I believe we can. This doesn’t mean we can know everything about God from studying the universe, but we can know that he exists, and that he is eternal and powerful and intelligent.

Some people don’t realize that there are many arguments for the existence of God. When I say, “argument,” I don’t mean a fight or a quarrel. I mean a philosophical argument, a case presented to show that God exists. Each argument is not definitive “proof” that God exists. Someone can always doubt any of the premises of these arguments, or simply refuse to believe. But they show that the idea that God exists is rational. And when multiple arguments for God are presented, they accumulate a certain weight. In short, together, these arguments make the case that the God hypothesis, that God exists, makes far better sense of life than the atheistic hypothesis, that there is no God. You can’t simply write these arguments off.

When it comes to arguing for the existence of God from the existence of the universe and the complexity of life, there are at two major arguments. The first argument for the existence of God that we’ll consider today is called the cosmological argument. I know, “cosmological” is a big word. It simply refers to the “cosmos,” or the universe. The idea is that the very existence of the universe needs explaining. Why, after all, is there something rather than nothing? This argument states that the best argument for the existence of the universe is that God created it.

Put more formally, this is the argument:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Let me explain each point. The first premise is that everything that begins to exist has a cause. That’s an important qualification. Because there is one thing that didn’t begin to exist. And that thing is the ultimate bedrock, the thing that needs no other explanation. We believe that thing, or being, is God. Christianity has always believed that God is eternal, uncreated. He doesn’t require an explanation. The Bible presupposes his existence and begins with these words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God sometimes calls himself “I am” (Exod. 3:14; Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 11, 13; 44:6; 48:12; John 8:24). The idea is that God exists, period. He doesn’t need any other explanation. He is the one necessary being. Everything else is contingent. That means that everything else might not have come into existence. The universe doesn’t need to exist. But God does.

Now, if you reject God, you have to state that universe exists, period. It’s just a brute fact. And many scientists used to believe that the universe itself was eternal, that it had no beginning. But in the twentieth century, significant scientific discoveries called that belief into question. And that leads us to the second premise of this argument, which is that the universe began to exist.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, many scientists believed that the universe was eternal and static. However, some American astronomers, including Edwin Hubble, observed that distant heavenly bodies were moving away from the Earth, leading them to conclude that the universe was expanding. Judging from the current rate of expansion and extrapolating this data backwards would suggest that at one point the universe was very small and very dense. Scientists believe that all matter, energy, and space were in this dense ball, which expanded into the universe as we know it. Though scientists can’t get “behind” a certain point using models, this suggests that the universe had a definite beginning. This is the so-called “Big Bang.”

Some Christians are afraid of the “Big Bang,” because they think accepting it is the same thing as accepting some form of Darwinian evolution. But the two really don’t go together. In fact, the term “Big Bang” was created by an atheist, Fred Hoyle, in 1949, and it was intended as a pejorative term. He rejected the Big Bang theory because it suggested that God created the universe.

In the 1940s, scientists predicted that if this hypothesis were true, then cosmic background radiation would be found on the edges of the universe. In other words, residual energy of the initial and incredibly hot explosion would be found at the edge of the universe in a cool, harmless form, and the temperature of this radiation would be uniform all around the edges of the universe. This prediction was confirmed in 1965, when two physicists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at the Bell Telephone Labs, found this cosmic background radiation. They were working on a satellite designed to detect microwave radiation and they found that such radiation was coming to earth from all directions of space. Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize in 1978. When he won that prize, Arno Penzias said, “The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”[4]

Penzias said that because if everything that begins to exist has a cause, and the universe began to exist, then it has a cause. What else could cause the universe to exist except God? Not only would an incredibly powerful force need to create the universe, but, as we’ll see, an intelligent agent would have to plan and carry out this creation.

More of the details of this argument are available online at our website, wbcommunity.org. If you search for the “Articles” section under the “Media” tab, you can find an article about this cosmological argument with far more details than I have time to present this morning.[5]

Before we move on to the second argument we’ll look at this morning, I want us to consider this: If God can create a universe out of nothing, can he not perform miracles? Some people have a hard time believing miracles are possible. Yet miracles are reported throughout the world on a somewhat regular basis, even if they are relatively rare. And miracles are certainly part of the Christian faith. If God could make a universe out of nothing, could he not cause a virgin to become pregnant? Could he not raise Jesus from the dead? Can he not, some day in the future, restore the universe to be a perfect place? If God has the power to cause a universe to come of nothing, he has the power to change us and fix this broken world.

Since time is short this morning, I’ll move on to the second argument. The big fancy name for this argument is the teleological argument, but I’ll simply call it the design argument. In fact, there are many different design arguments that can be made. All of these arguments state that life is designed, and therefore there must have been a Designer who created life. And, of course, that designer is God.

Put more formally, here is the design argument:

1. Every design has a designer.

2. The universe has highly complex design.

3. Therefore, the universe has a Designer.

The first premise of the argument is obvious. Of course, every design has a designer. If I found a machine of some kind, even if I didn’t know what it did and even if it were broken, I would still recognize that someone designed and made that machine. We recognize design when we see it.

That leads to the second, and more controversial premise, which is that we find evidence of highly complex design in the universe. As expected, atheists challenge this premise. Francis Crick, who co-discovered the structure of the DNA, says that “biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”[6] He said that because biologists continually see what evidently looks like design. But, according to Crick, this intuition that life is designed must be beat back by our firm belief in unguided evolution, which is the atheistic explanation of how life emerged. Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist and evolutionary biologist, says, “One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbably appearance of design in the universe arises.”[7] So, both Crick and Dawkins acknowledge that there certainly appears to be design in the universe. But their atheism won’t allow a Designer in the door. Yet since they can’t ignore the idea that complex forms of life somehow emerged out of non-living things, they have both posited that aliens somehow “seeded” life on Earth.[8]

As I stated before, we recognize design when we see it. Design requires information, not law-like patterns or random chaos. Here’s an illustration of what I mean. This week we had some powerful winds. On Thursday, a number of branches and even one larger limb fell from the big tree outside these windows to my right. The branches happened to fall in a random pattern that didn’t mean anything. But suppose I went outside on Thursday and found that the branches were arranged in such a way as to form letters, which spelled out the words, “I love you.” Would I suppose that somehow the winds had just happened to cause the branches to fall into that pattern? Or would I suppose that somehow had taken the fallen branches and then arranged them into that meaningful pattern? Of course, that would be the best hypothesis.

The point is that we recognize design, because design results in complex patterns that appear in specific arrangements. (This concept is called specified complexity.) Intelligence is required to generate information, to arrange branches or letters or, as we’ll see, nucleotides (the chemical bases that make up our DNA) into particular, meaningful arrangements. Random, unguided events degrade information, they don’t create it. Imagine if I took all the letters of all the words of this sermon I have written, and I put each letter on a little slip of paper. Imagine I had all of those slips of paper stacked on top of each other, so that all the letters appeared in their proper order. Then imagine I took those slips of paper and threw them into the air, confetti style, so that they landed on the floor. Then imagine I randomly grabbed the slips of paper and put them into a new, reordered stack. What are the chances of that new ordering of letters producing meaningful words and sentences? Sure, I might have some new words, and perhaps even a few words strung together. But most of it would be gibberish.

Here’s why this matters. We find evidence of design in cellular biology. In other words, we find design at the microscopic level in even the simplest life forms. Charles Darwin knew nothing of the complexity of life since it was only in the twentieth century that we could even begin to observe such complexity. DNA is our genetic material. It is quite literally encoded information that is found in each of our cells. It is very much like a language. The information contained in DNA is so complex that Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, said, “DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.”[9] The information in our DNA determines our physical traits. The information in our DNA is like a set of instructions that are used to build proteins, the building blocks of our bodies.

It turns out that the code of DNA must be rather precise to build new proteins in our bodies. It appears almost impossible that random, or unguided, changes to our DNA would produce new proteins. This is significant because those who believe that large-scale evolution is responsible for the emergence of all of life believe that new traits and, ultimately, new species emerged through random mutations in DNA. The idea is that small changes in DNA led to new traits in species. The members of species that had beneficial new traits were able to out-survive and out-procreate other members of their species. Thus, the new trait was passed on to more members of that species so that, in time, all members of that species would have that trait. And with each successful trait added through random mutations, a species would eventually evolve into a new species. A nearly countless series of small changes to species accounts for all the diversity of life.

The problem is that the chances of producing new, functional proteins through random mutations is unimaginably small. Proteins consist of amino acids, linked together in chains. Recent studies have shown that the probability of a mutation producing a sequence of 150 amino acids that could fold to produce a stable protein is 1 in 1074. That’s one followed by seventy-four zeros. But a stable protein isn’t necessarily a functional one. The probability of producing a stable protein old of that size is 1 in 1077. That’s “one chance in one hundred thousand, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion.”[10] Keep in mind that there are about 1080 atoms in the universe, and that longer proteins can consist of 400 amino acids. The chances of producing a functional medium-size protein by way of random mutations is about the same chances that a blind astronaut has of finding one particular atom in the whole universe. Now, someone can always say, “Well, it’s incredibly improbable, but that’s just how things have worked out.” But I find that it would take much more faith to believe that idea than to believe in God.

Another way that we can see design in biological is in the complexity of molecular machines. Michael Behe, a science professor at Lehigh University, wrote a book about complex biological systems called Darwin’s Black Box.[11] He noted that some biological systems are irreducibly complex. That means that if you take one part away, the system doesn’t work anymore. In other words, it would seem impossible for small evolutionary changes to produce these complex systems, because any advantage that an organism would have comes only by having the whole system. His famous example is the bacterial flagellum. The flagellum helps a bacterial cell swim by acting like a rotary propeller, similar to the way an outboard motor propels a boat. The propeller of the flagellum is a hair-like structure called the filament, which fits into a universal joint called the hook. The hook attaches the filament to the cell’s outer membrane. On the inside of that outer membrane, connecting to the opposite end of the hook, is the rod, which acts as a drive shaft. The rod is connected to the stator, which is embedded in the inner membrane of the cell. Within the stator is the rotor, which rotates the rod, spinning the hook and filament so that the bacteria can “swim.” Several O-rings and other parts hold the structure together, and the motor of the flagellum is powered by a flow of acid through the membrane of the cell. The flagellum can move at up to 100,000 RPM. This system is amazing complex and incredibly small (a flagellum is about 10 micrometers, or 10 millionths of a meter), and this is found in simple, single-cell organisms. Are we supposed to believe that these molecular machines are the result of blind, purposeless, undirected processes? From everything that we know, such complexity is the result of an intelligent agent. Who else but God could come up with DNA and the complex, fully-integrated systems that we find in cellular biology?

If you want to know more about this story, I would encourage you to watch a documentary about Michael Behe called “Revolutionary.” You can watch it on YouTube or at www.revoltionarybehe.com.[12] You can also read about this design argument in far greater detail on our website.[13]

Before moving on to the final argument, let us consider what it means for God to be the designer of life. If God designed life, isn’t there a purpose? If he has designed the laws of physics and the complexity of biology, hasn’t he designed all of life? Doesn’t he dictate our purpose and how we should live? Shouldn’t we want to know what God’s design for our lives is?

There’s one more clue to God’s existence, something that is available to all of us. The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, says that all people have information to know that there is a God. The Israelites had special revelation from God. God performed miracles in their midst and spoke to them and gave them his law. So, they certainly have no excuse for ignoring God and violating his commands. But Gentiles (non-Jews) are also without excuse because, as we’ve seen, they have the witness of God’s creation to tell them there’s a God. But Paul also says they have a conscience which indicates to them that there is a moral law.

To see this, let’s read Romans 2:12–16:

12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

The meaning of some of this is debated, but I think that when Paul says that Gentiles, though they don’t have the law, sometimes do what the law requires, he means that all human beings have a general sense of morality.[14] A moral law is part of the fabric of God’s design, and we all sense this law. Everyone knows murder, rape, and theft are always wrong. We may not agree on the particulars, but civilizations have largely agreed on basic morality. When we do follow the dictates of that moral law, our conscience is clear. Yet we so often do what we know to be wrong, so that our conscience accuses us.

This leads us to the moral argument for the existence of God. Put formally, it goes like this:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties don’t exist.

2. But objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

The basic idea is that if there is an objective moral law, something real that we can appeal to when injustice occurs, it has to be rooted in something real. It can’t be manmade law, because then we can always change it. Moral values or facts, such as murder is wrong, must be grounded in something (or someone) that is unchanging, and even transcendent and eternal. Moral obligations or duties, such as “you shall not murder,” are personal. They are laws, and laws are written by moral agents. Any unchanging, universal, transcendent moral law must be rooted in the existence of God.

Many atheists have been aware of this. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “It [is] very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him.”[15] Friedrich Nietszche said, “There are altogether no moral facts,” and that morality “has truth only if God is the truth.”[16] And then there’s Richard Dawkins, who writes, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”[17] In other words, according to these atheists, if there is no God, there’s no transcendent moral law.

But we all know better. Every time we make a universal moral claim, such as racism is always wrong, or that rape is always wrong, we’re not just stating an opinion. We’re appealing to something greater than a personal preference, or even a temporary, manmade code. We’re appealing to a transcendent moral law.

Almost forty years ago a professor at Yale Law School named Arthur Leff wrote an article about ethics in a law journal. He begins his article with these words:

I want to believe—and so do you—in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe—and so do you—in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.[18]

In other words, he says we need a transcendent moral law that come from a final, perfect authority. But he also doesn’t want to be ruled by that authority. What he’s saying is that all moral controversies can be boiled down to what he calls “the grand sez who.”[19] When one person says, “Such-and-such is wrong,” the other person can say, “Says who?” Moral evaluations require an evaluator. According to Leff, “the evaluator must be the unjudged judge, the unruled legislator, the premise maker who rests on no premises, the uncreated creator of values. Now, what would you call such a thing if it existed? You could call it Him.”[20] Leff says, “Either God exists or He does not, but if He does not, nothing and no one else can take His place.”[21]

Then, he adds:

We are never going to get anywhere (assuming for the moment that there is somewhere to get) in ethical or legal theory unless we finally face the fact that, in the Psalmist’s words, there is no one like unto the Lord. If He does not exist, there is no metaphoric equivalent. No person, no combination of people, no document however hallowed by time, no process, no premise, nothing is equivalent to an actual God in this central function as the unexaminable examiner of good and evil. The so-called death of God turns out not to have been just His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative extrasystemic premises.[22]

To put it more simply, he’s saying that if God doesn’t exist, then who makes the ethical rules? Who makes the final moral judgments? What is the answer to “says who”?

Leff isn’t a believer. He gives no reason for rejecting the God hypothesis other than the fact that he doesn’t want to have an ultimate authority rule over him. But he ends with these words:

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.

Nevertheless:

Napalming babies is bad.

Starving the poor is wicked.

Buying and selling each other is depraved.

Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation.

Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.

There is in the world such a thing as evil.

[All together now:] Sez who?

God help us.[23]

The death of God is the death of an objective moral law and an ultimate moral evaluator. And that is, ultimately, a very bad thing, because it would mean there is no justice, no final court of appeals, no one to say definitively that this is right and this is wrong. Everything would be up for grabs.

We can learn a bit about God through these arguments. They establish that believing in God’s existence is rational. I think they establish that theism (that God exists) is far more probable than atheism. I think the God hypothesis is far better than an atheistic one. But these arguments only take us so far. They are limited.

Earlier I said we can learn about a stranger by observing them and by digging up facts about them. But if we want to know a stranger, we need to listen to that person. We need to let him or her speak. We have no other way of truly knowing that person’s personality, desires, thoughts, hopes, dreams, regrets, secrets, and so forth. And so it is with God.

One of my favorite authors is a pastor named Tim Keller. He has written two great books that give us reasons for believing in the existence of God. The more recent one is Making Sense of God, which shows that without God we wouldn’t have reasons to believe that our lives have meaning, that there are rights and wrongs, or that we could ever have justice and hope.[24] His earlier book, which I view as something of a modern classic, is called The Reason for God. I highly recommend both of them to anyone who doubts that God exists. In The Reason for God, Keller writes:

When a Russian cosmonaut returned from space and reported that he had not found God, C. S. Lewis responded that this was like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle looking for Shakespeare. If there is a God, he wouldn’t be another object in the universe that could be put in a lab and analyzed with empirical methods. He would relate to us the way a playwright relates to the characters in his play. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree the author chooses to put information about himself in the play.[25]

And here’s the thing: the author of life has put information about himself in this play. In fact, the author of life has entered into the play.

We Christians believe that Jesus is God. As the Son of God, he has existed forever. We believe God the Father created the universe through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. And yet, over two thousand years ago, the Son of God also became a man. This is what it says at the beginning of another book in the New Testament, the book of Hebrews:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Heb. 1:1–4).

Notice that it says that God has spoken. He has revealed himself. Prior to Jesus’ birth, God had primarily revealed himself through the prophets. We call Scripture “special revelation,” because it gives more specific information about who God is and what he expects of us. The most special and specific revelation of God is his Son, who came in the flesh. Jesus taught us most clearly about the ways of God. He, the one who created the world and now sustains it by his powerful word, also died in place of sinners. It’s as if Shakespeare wrote himself into Hamlet to die in place of the melancholy Dane. Or, to put a contemporary twist on it, it’s as if J. K. Rowling wrote herself into the Harry Potter books—and actually, physically entered into the world of those books—to die in place of Harry and his friends.

The best way to know God is to know Jesus. And there is evidence that Jesus lived, died, and then rose from the grave.[26] The best evidence we have about Jesus is the Bible, but there are sources outside the Bible that also confirm his life, death, and resurrection.

We have all broken God’s moral law. We have failed to live according to God’s design. We fail to love and live for the Creator of the universe. But Jesus came and lived the perfect life, fulfilling God’s design for humanity. And though we have broken God’s moral law and deserve punishment, Jesus took that punishment for his people when he died on the cross. And he rose from the grave as the first installment of a new creation, one that won’t be contaminated by sin and death. Everyone who trusts in Jesus has their sins paid for and will live with him forever in that new creation.

So, the question is, “God, are you real?” And the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” What is the greatest proof? God sent his Son. To know Jesus is to know God. If you’re here today and you want to know more about Jesus, I would love to help you. But for now, let’s pray.

Notes

  1. Anselm (1033–1109), a medieval Christian theologian, said to God: “You are something than which nothing greater can be thought.” In other words, God is the greatest conceivable being. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, trans. M. J. Charlesworth, in The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 87.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. See also Psalm 19:1–6.
  4. This was reported in The New York Times, March 12, 1978, quoted in Edgar Andrews, Who Made God? (Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2009), 94.
  5. See https://wbcommunity.org/cosmological-argument.
  6. Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 138, quoted in Douglas Axe, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 3–4.
  7. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 157.
  8. Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981). Dawkins makes that claim in the film, Expelled
  9. Bill Gates, The Road Ahead, rev. ed. (New York: Viking, 1996), 228; quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 316.
  10. Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 200.
  11. Michael J. Behe (New York: Free Press, 1996).
  12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ToSEAj2V0s; http://revolutionarybehe.com.
  13. https://wbcommunity.org/the-design-argument.
  14. My understanding of this passage is informed by Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 116–125.
  15. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957), 22, quoted in Paul Copan, “Ethics Needs God,” in Debating Christian Theism, ed. J. P. Moreland, Chad Meister, and Khaldoun A. Sweis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 86.
  16. Friedrich Nietszche, Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ (New York: Penguin Books, 1068), 55, 70, quoted in Copan, “Ethics Needs God,” 86.
  17. Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  18. Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal 1979, no. 6 (1979): 1229. The whole article can be found at http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3810&context=fss_papers.
  19. Ibid.: 1230.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.: 1231.
  22. Ibid.: 1232.
  23. Ibid.: 1249.
  24. Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016).
  25. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 126–127.
  26. For more information, see https://wbcommunity.org/jesus, particularly the first sermon, “How Can We Know Jesus?” (December 14, 2014). See also https://wbcommunity.org/evidence-resurrection-jesus-christ and the resources linked to that page.

God, Are You Real?

Brian Watson begins a new sermon series, “If You Could Ask God One Question, What Would It Be?” Does God really exist? How do we know? There are some compelling existence of God (the existence of the universe, the appearance of design in biology, and the existence of a universal and transcendent moral law). But the best argument for God is Jesus.

Evidence for God: The Moral Argument

I wrote this article over five years ago. If I were to write it anew today, I would probably change the argument slightly so that it would read as follows:

1. If God doesn’t exist, there are no objective moral facts or duties.

2. Yet there are objective moral facts and duties.

3. Therefore, God exists. 

Still, the argument below is compelling in its own right. Since it’s long, you may wish to save and/or print out the PDF version: The Moral Argument.

Two other arguments for the existence of God—the cosmological argument and the design (or teleological) argument—are powerful ways of demonstrating the existence of God. For those who are scientifically minded or for those who demand scientific evidence, they may be quite effective. However, they do require some knowledge of science or, at the very least, the ability to learn scientific concepts. For that reason, these arguments can be difficult to master. A third argument, one that has greater emotional resonance, is the moral argument. The basic argument states that if “objective moral values exist, then God exists; objective moral values do exist; therefore, God exists.”[1]

The experience of moral obligations is universal, because each one of us has a conscience. The fact that we make certain choices but know that we should have made other choices seems to haunt us. We cannot shake this sense of moral duty, even if we try. Not only does this sense of morality haunt us, but it also creates a sense of mystery. What could account for this sense of morality?

Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher of the eighteenth century, once claimed, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”[2] Interestingly, Kant compared creation (“the starry heavens above me”) with his conscience (“the moral law within me”). Both point to a Creator and Lawgiver. Everyone has this experience, though many people choose to suppress this knowledge of God (see Rom. 1:18–25). To reawaken this knowledge of God, we must show people that there are moral standards, a moral “law,” and that this law was given to us by God.

A more formal expression of the moral argument can be presented in this way:

1. Every law has a law giver.

2. There is a Moral Law.

3. Therefore, there is a Moral Law Giver.[3]

To which we should add:

4. And that Moral Law Giver is God.

As with the other arguments, we will have to spend much of our time and energy proving the second premise. However, if we are ready and willing, we can awaken within people their inherent sense of this moral law. From there, we must show that only God could implant this sense of morality within us.

Every Law Has a Law Giver

This first premise is a tautology, a necessarily true statement. Of course, every law has a law giver. Laws do not exist on their own, as if they were brute facts of nature. (Some may state that laws of nature are brute facts; however, I would challenge such an assertion. Why do laws remain the same, and universally so? It seems to me the best explanation for such law-like regularities in nature is the existence of God, who has ordered and arranged the universe and who continually sustains it.) If there is such a thing as a law, it must come from somewhere. It must have an intelligent origin. Because the moral law is immaterial (it’s not based on physical properties of the universe, and there is no gene for morality, despite what evolutionary psychologists wish to believe), it must have an intelligent and immaterial origin. We will come back to this idea later.

There Is a Moral Law

This second premise seems obvious to most people, or so it would seem. According to John Frame, “Moral values, after all, are rather strange. We cannot see them, hear them, or feel them, but we cannot doubt that they exist.”[4] Yet many people in our society would ascribe the existence of moral values not to God, but to our culture. They believe moral values are manmade. Therefore, they do not accept the idea of an objective moral standard. People who hold such beliefs are called moral relativists.

Though moral relativism is prominent among younger generations, I doubt that many people who hold this view have thought about the implications of such a moral philosophy. They simply accept the idea without challenging it. Our job is to get people to think about morality, to awaken the conscience that God gave them.

Before we think of ways of awakening the moral conscience, it would benefit us to think about different moral philosophies.

Christian morality

This moral philosophy should be very familiar to us. It is derived from the Christian worldview, which holds that God is the prime reality and that an absolute, objective moral standard comes from God. This objective moral standard is based on the character of God. It is not some arbitrary standard adopted by God, or some eternal moral standard that exists outside of God.

Plato, in his dialogue called Euthyphro, raised a supposed dilemma. This dilemma held that either something is good because God (or the gods, as he would have it) wills it, or God wills something because it is good. William Lane Craig explains:

If it is good just because God wills it, then what is good becomes arbitrary. God could have willed that hatred and jealousy be good, and then we should have been obligated to hate and envy one another. But that seems implausible; at least some moral goods seem to be necessary. But if we say instead that God wills something because it is good, then whether something is good or bad is independent of God. In that case, it seems that moral value exists independently of God.[5]

Of course, if moral values existed independently of God, that would undermine our argument. However, Plato failed to recognize the possibility that God wills a command because it reflects his character. We must remember that God says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16).

Humanistic morality

This type of morality is the kind that deists possess. They believe that we can determine right and wrong through reason and intuition. However, what is our basis for morality when we reason? In other words, how do we reason our way to an objective moral standard? This task is impossible if there is not an actual objective moral standard. And if an actual objective moral standard, a moral law, exists, then we must ask what the source of this standard is. Alternatively, if we rely on intuition to determine what is right and wrong, we must ask how we can sense morality. An intuitive sense of morality would require an actual moral standard. God is the one who gives this moral standard, and he is the one who put a moral conscience within us (Rom. 2:14–16).

“Might makes right”

If we abandon any sense of a divinely given, objective moral standard, then we would be left with some rather unattractive alternatives. The morality of power, or “might makes right,” is something quite scary. Some philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche, realized that if God does not exist, then the powerful decide what is “right.”

Of course, we have seen this played out in world history, particularly in Nazi Germany. The Nazis came to power and decided that it was “right” to kill Jews and others. No sane person finds such “morality” acceptable. Just because certain people (governing authorities, the rich, media moguls) are in power does not give them the right to decide what is right and what is wrong.

Ethics of the polls

This moral philosophy is closely related to the previous one. It says that the majority determines what is right. But who would approve of the majority oppressing the minority? If that were right, we would believe that genocide or the violation of human rights is morally acceptable.

The Christian worldview holds that all human beings have value, because they are made in the image of God. Therefore, all people, whether they belong to the majority or the minority, should be treated with respect. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”[6] If the laws of the land do not square with the law of God, they are unjust. King knew that racist laws created by the white majority were unjust, and he fought against them by appealing to the moral law of God.

“Whatever feels right”

The ethics of pleasure says, “If it feels good, do it!” This is otherwise known as Epicureanism (named after Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who lived 341–270 BC), hedonistic ethics, or the ethics of pleasure. The original form of this moral philosophy was not hedonism in the sense that we might think of it (pursuing greater and greater amounts of pleasure at all costs), but rather it sought an absence of pain. However, when pleasure (or the avoidance of pain) is the ultimate good, there can be problems. What if what is right is painful? What happens when someone else’s pleasure gets in the way of your pleasure? We cannot simply both be right. This moral philosophy is built on the shifting sands of our feelings, is therefore not reliable, and cannot be used to judge or to mediate disputes.

Utilitarianism

This moral philosophy maintains that what is right is what benefits the most people. In other words, whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is right. But this, like the ethics of the polls, has the potential to oppress the minority. It is also contingent upon the definition of happiness. What is happiness? And should happiness be the ultimate good and the ultimate goal?

Moral relativism

According to this philosophy, all morals are relative. Generally, it states that all moral standards are manmade, the products of societies and cultures. The relativist’s argument is that people disagree on morality, evidenced by the fact that different cultures have had different morals. We can look at, for instance, the morals of today’s Western culture and compare them with the Western culture of two or three hundred years ago, or compare them with ancient societies or third-world countries. Surely, we will see different moral standards. Therefore, morality is relative to each culture.

This type of morality is typical of the postmodern worldview. Postmodernism rejects absolute truth and absolute morality. Instead, postmodernists believe that truth and morality are the products of stories or language, which themselves are the product of cultures. Postmodernism is a philosophical dead-end, because it defeats itself. If there is no absolute truth, the claim that there is no absolute truth isn’t absolutely true. If this is true, how we can make absolute, universal claims about morality?

While it is true that different societies have disagreed about morality, it does not mean that there is no absolute and objective moral standard. Imagine a remote tribe in which the culture indeed creates a morality, one that is offensive to us. Perhaps this tribe practices human sacrifice. If morality is simply relative, we should have no problem with their behavior. After all, they live in a society where that is simply the norm. If you say there is no absolute and objective moral law, then what this tribe does is simply what they do. It is neither moral nor immoral. Of course, we know better than this. We recognize that their practices are immoral. The fact that we recognize this as immoral, and not just part of their culture, shows us that an objective moral standard exists. People may disagree about the solution to a math problem, but that doesn’t mean there are several right answers.

Similarly, it would be unthinkable for people to say that genocide in a foreign country is simply the morality of another culture. If a person were presented with news that such a genocide took place and said, “Well, that’s morally acceptable in their culture,” he or she would be considered crazy.

Talk about vastly different moral standards in different cultures has been exaggerated. This is what Dinesh D’Souza writes:

Over the last several decades anthropologists have been comparing the norms and practices of the various cultures of the world. Two of their findings are relevant for our purpose. First, morality is universal. Scholars know of no culture, past or present, that does not have a system of morality. Even though moral standards may vary from one culture to another, or even within a particular culture, every culture distinguishes “what is” from “what ought to be.” It is impossible for a culture either to rise above morality or to get out from under it.

Second, the moral diversity we have all heard so much about is in fact vastly exaggerated. In particular, the major religions of the world, which represent the vast majority of humans on the planet, disagree quite a bit about God but agree quite a bit about morality. All the major religions have some form of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.[7]

Cultures often agree on more than the Golden Rule. C. S. Lewis famously compiled a list of ethical commands from various religions and compared them in the appendix to his book, The Abolition of Man. Usually, cultures that do go astray from the moral law are ones that are actively rebelling against God, or ones where Christianity is simply not influential.

No one is truly a moral relativist. When we react to true evil—Hitler and the holocaust or 9/11—it shows that we know a true moral law has been violated. This reaction has been called the “argument from damnation,” because people say of villains such as Hitler, “Damn them!” But if there is no absolute and objective morality—no God, no heaven, and no hell—then such a sentiment is meaningless. Perhaps that is why one writer, reacting to the evil of 9/11, said, “This destruction seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective.”[8]

We all go around saying, “He should do this,” or, “She shouldn’t do that.” Every time a should, ought, or must (or their negations, such as should not) is uttered, the moral law is proved.

The fact that no one is truly a moral relativist will be seen clearly should you ever transgress another person’s sense of what is right and wrong. D’Souza offers some advice for revealing the moral law to relativists:

If you are confronted by a relativist who insists that all morality is relative, go ahead and punch him in the face. If he does not respond, punch him again. At some point he will protest, “That’s not right. You shouldn’t have done that.” Then you can explain to him that your actions were purely educational. You were simply demonstrating to him that even he does not believe his relativist doctrine. His objection was not “I don’t like being punched” but rather “you should not have done it.” He was appealing to an unwavering standard, which he expected you to share, that what you did was wrong.[9]

I’m quite sure that he doesn’t actually advise that course of action, but it’s funny to imagine. He offers another way to reach a relativist. “So the way to call their bluff and expose their relativism as purely tactical is to insult the moral values they cherish. For example, you could say, ‘I don’t know why we have laws outlawing racial discrimination and gay-bashing. How can people presume to legislate morality?’”[10] Of course, he doesn’t mean that Christians believe it is morally acceptable to be racist or to hate gay people or to punch others in the face. He is proving a point: everyone has moral standards and everyone assumes, even if they don’t realize it, that these standards should not be violated. The only reason they shouldn’t be violated is because they are absolute and objective, not relative.

Moral relativism is an impossible philosophy to maintain with any integrity. It is like the postmodern view of truth: it destroys itself. Whenever a relativist makes any absolute comment on morality—“No one should impose their religious morals on me”—they are assuming that it would be immoral to do so. This double standard reveals that everyone has a sense of morality.

We could not escape this sense of moral obligation or duty even if we tried. God made us to know that certain things are right and other things are wrong. Regardless of what we believe, our conscience will not go away. Tim Keller observes this fact. “Why is it impossible (in practice) for anyone to be a consistent moral relativist even when they claim that they are? The answer is that we all have a pervasive, powerful, and unavoidable belief not only in moral values but also in moral obligation.”[11] He then defines moral obligation. “Moral obligation is a belief that some things ought not to be done regardless of how a person feels about them within herself, regardless of what the rest of her community and culture says, and regardless of whether it is in her self-interest or not.”[12] Everyone, with the possible exception of the insane, knows there are oughts and shoulds and should nots.

Not only can we not escape an absolute and objective morality, but if we looked at the issue more carefully, we would soon realize that we would not want to escape such a thing.

Without the moral law, there can be no moral progress or reform

One of the great problems of moral relativism—or the lack of an absolute and objective morality—is that it makes the idea of moral progress impossible. Think about it: if there is no objective measure of moral goodness or wickedness, then everything is morally equal. If we accept that moral relativity is true, then right and wrong are nothing but cultural constructs, things that people decide for a time and a place. If a society decides that slavery or racism is moral, then it is. Douglas Groothuis writes, “According to cultural relativism, [Martin Luther] King and all other laudatory moral reformers should be condemned as cultural and moral deviants who must be deemed immoral when judged by the extant standards of their societies.”[13] The idea of moral progress implies an objective moral standard. If a society is progressing morally, it is approaching that moral standard. But without an objective moral standard, a moral yardstick, so to speak, then there is nothing by which to measure “reform.” It is simply change.

Without the moral law, there would be no human rights

People of varying convictions often appeal to the idea of human rights. The appeal to human rights has brought us real moral progress. It helped end slavery and racist laws. People often appeal to human rights to advocate immorality, such as the current LGBTQ rights movement. When people demand certain liberties or privileges because of human rights, we should ask, “Why do we have human rights?” This question may get people to think about the ultimate standard of morality.

When people appeal to human rights, they are essentially claiming that it is morally right to treat each individual human being with respect and dignity. Furthermore, it is morally right to grant each person certain liberties. This is a moral philosophy, not one derived from science. Therefore, it does not belong to naturalism, but to the Christian worldview. The Founding Fathers claimed that human rights were self-evident, but they also acknowledged a Creator who endowed people with certain rights. Apart from an objective moral standard that says it is immoral to deny human rights—and, ultimately, apart from the existence of God—there is no reason to have human rights.

Furthermore, the concept of human rights is best explained by the Christian worldview, which states that God made us in his image. This means that we are inherently valuable, and that we should treat each other with dignity.[14]

Without the moral law, it is impossible to have ultimate justice

If all morals are relative, there is no real sense of justice. Any justice we would have is the punishment of someone who transgressed manmade ethical norms. However, we all know that there are people who do evil things and seem to “escape” without facing justice. One example is Hitler, who was responsible for the deaths of millions and who committed suicide, thereby escaping justice in this life. If you are a moral relativist, you cannot claim that Hitler was terribly evil. He just did what was permissible in his society. And when he committed suicide, there was no judgment awaiting him. Not only is such a thought foreign to the Christian worldview, but is unsatisfying, because we know that justice should be done.

Without the moral law, we cannot judge between conflicting moralities

The only way moral relativism could ever work is if countries or cultures with different moral rules never encountered each other. In this age of global travel and communications, however, we no longer have isolated societies. In fact, we could argue that we have never had completely isolated societies. Wars have been waged from the beginning of humanity.

When two countries are at war, it is because of some moral issue. If all morals are manmade and relative, there is no way of determining which country is right and which one is wrong. They are both right, in a sense, because they are both acting according to their own morals.

Similarly, if all morals are manmade and relative, who are we to declare another government’s actions immoral? Who are we to say a society halfway across the world is wicked? We could not say such things. To declare one society or government morally inferior (or superior), we would have to appeal to some objective standard.

Conclusion

It seems that moral relativism is impossible. Furthermore, it is undesirable. There must be an objective moral standard. The second premise of our argument, there is a moral law, must be true.

There Is a Moral Law Giver

The first two premises would seem to be true. However, some people acknowledge an objective moral standard but still reject a giver of that law. Two things challenge the idea of a moral law giver: atheistic moral realism and evolution.

Atheistic moral realism

This moral philosophy maintains that there is no God, yet there are objective moral facts that exist necessarily. The idea is parallel to the atheist’s view of the laws of nature: they simply exist, there is no law giver. There are morally despicable actions like rape or child abuse, and there are morally admirable things like love, yet there is no accounting for these things are so.

There are many problems with this theory. One problem is that moral facts are immaterial. They cannot be reduced to part of the material world. Morals cannot be measured, in the way that the force of gravity can. So, moral facts (objective morals, or the moral law) are immaterial. They must exist as propositions, true statements. A proposition requires one who proposes; a statement requires one who speaks. A stated moral fact requires an intelligent agent who can speak it into existence.

The truth is that you cannot have both an objective moral standard and no God. Yet people try. They want to have human rights and the freedom to live as if there is no God.

Arthur Allen Leff wrote an interesting article in the Duke Law Journal nearly four decades ago.[15] He begins the article with the following paragraph:

I want to believe—and so do you—in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe—and so do you—in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.[16]

Notice what he is saying: we all want transcendent and authoritative rules, yet we want to be free to choose how we ought to live. This is quite a conundrum. We want there to be a God and we also want to be free to live as if he didn’t exist.

Leff acknowledges that if God establishes those authoritative moral propositions, then they cannot be challenged, because there is no one greater than God. “Either God exists or He does not, but if He does not, nothing and no one else can take His place.”[17] However if God exists, we cannot have the individual freedom that we desire. We cannot choose our own moral standard, and so be free to do whatever we want. Yet, if God does not exist, we have problems:

We are never going to get anywhere (assuming for the moment that there is somewhere to get) in ethical or legal theory unless we finally face the fact that, in the Psalmist’s words, there is no one like unto the Lord. If He does not exist, there is no metaphoric equivalent. No person, no combination of people, no document however hallowed by time, no process, no premise, nothing is equivalent to an actual God in this central function as the unexaminable examiner of good and evil. The so-called death of God turns out not to have been just His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative extrasystemic premises.[18]

If God doesn’t exist, there is no coherent and authoritative ethical or legal system. Such a system may be proposed, but if God is not behind this system, we can always ask, “Says who?” (Or, as Leff writes, “Sez who?”) For instance, we may be told that something is ethically wrong. We can then respond with the question, “Says who?” If there is a God, we can say, “God,” and there is no more debate, because there is no greater authority. But if there isn’t a God, then we can always challenge any moral claim.

Leff explores this idea for about twenty pages. Obviously, he does not believe in God, yet he realizes this creates great problems. He ends the article with these words:

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.

Nevertheless:

Napalming babies is bad.

Starving the poor is wicked.

Buying and selling each other is depraved.

Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation.

Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.

There is in the world such a thing as evil.

[All together now:] Sez who?

God help us.[19]

If there is no God, everything is up for grabs. Yet we know things aren’t up for grabs. There are moral evils (such as napalming babies) and certain people deserve damnation. Sez who? God.

Evolutionary Theories

Evolutionists believe that we can ascribe morality to the genetic desire to survive. In other words, our sense of morality is not real, aligning with a transcendent objective moral standard. Rather, our sense of morality helps us to survive. Darwinists (or, perhaps to be more precise, neo-Darwinists) believe in kin selection, the idea that we desire to have our descendants survive and would therefore act in altruistic, noble, self-sacrificing ways in order for our genes to be passed on. Accordingly, if you saw your children in a burning building, you would rush in to save them, even though it could possibly spell your doom. Putting oneself into a dangerous situation would seem to be contrary to the survival of the fittest, but the desire to have your genes survive another generation would override your desire for safety.

It is an interesting idea, though I doubt that this could ever be proven scientifically. For this to be true, one’s DNA would have to possess intelligence. One’s DNA would have to know that it is desirable for one’s descendants to survive, and would have to know that one’s descendants were imperiled. That is a lot to ask of our DNA. Of course, the Darwinist could claim that having one’s children survive helps a parent survive because children bring a sense of emotional welfare that positively affects our physical welfare.

However, altruistic behavior is not limited towards one’s family. Why do people risk their lives to help strangers? Darwinists explain such sacrifice by talking about reciprocal altruism, the idea that we do good things for strangers because we expect them to act that way toward us. Again, there is no evidence for such a theory, and it seems far-fetched to think that our genes act in such a manner.

In fact, some scientists are willing to admit that there is no evidence for this concept. Ernst Mayr, an evolutionary biologist, admits that “altruism toward strangers is a behavior not supported by natural selection.”[20] Of course, this doesn’t prevent scientists from claiming that there is such a thing as an altruism gene.

However, let’s think about that for a moment. If altruism, the unselfish concern for the welfare of others, is simply the result of having an altruism gene, then why do we praise altruistic behavior? You don’t necessarily praise someone who is tall (or has blue eyes) and condemn someone who is short (or has brown eyes). Those traits are the products of our genes. But moral behavior is a choice, not something that that is predetermined by our DNA.

Darwinists confuse what is with what ought to be. According to evolutionary theory, everything is the result of natural selection. We simply are the way we are, according to Darwin and his disciples, because of time, chance, and natural selection. Morality, however, is not simply the way things are. It concerns the way things should be.

Perhaps no one wrote more powerfully in favor of the moral argument than C. S. Lewis. He realized that the moral law is different from the natural law. “Each man is at every moment subjected to several different sets of law but there is only one of these which he is free to disobey.”[21] We are not free to disobey the law of gravity, but we are free to disobey the moral law. He realized that morality cannot be explained by evolution. This passage shows why:

Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.[22]

Each of us have two instincts (which could be possibly be explained by evolution): the desire to help the group and the desire to save ourselves. Those instincts are like two different keys on the piano—we could play either of them. But there is something else, a third thing, which tells us what we ought to do. It tells us which key we should play. This ought, something immaterial, which cannot be reduced to brain chemistry or DNA, must come from somewhere. Actually, it must come from Someone who gave us a conscience, a sense of what is right and what is wrong.

The Moral Law Giver Is God

The moral law is immaterial, like the physical laws that govern our universe and the laws of logic that govern reason. Immaterial laws must be the product of an intelligent mind. They do not come from the physical universe itself. In the cosmological argument, we showed that the universe must have been created by God, for he alone exists outside of space and time.

Moral absolutes also imply that they are created by a person. All our moral obligations are interpersonal. For example, I know that it is wrong to hit someone else in the face because it hurts another person. I know it is wrong not to pay someone for services that I have contracted, because it hurts that other person. Yet there are immoral things that we do (such as have lustful, greedy, or angry thoughts) that seem to harm no other person. Yet they do harm a person. They harm us and harm our relationships with others. But they also offend God. (Once again, we must clarify that God is a person, or, actually, three persons in one God. The word “person” does not mean human being.)

If we have a sense of moral obligation that we cannot shake (as Keller says), then that sense of moral obligation must come from a person. And if there is an absolute moral obligation, there must be an absolute person behind it. According to John Frame, “If obligations arise from personal relationships, then absolute obligations must raise from our relationship with an absolute person.”[23]

Before we conclude, one final point must be made. People do not have to believe in God to be moral. That is not the argument we are making. Many agnostics and atheists are very moral people, sometimes more moral than those who claim to be Christians. You don’t have to be aware of absolute morality, much less the God who created that absolute morality, to be moral. After all, you don’t have to be aware of a Creator to be part of the creation, and you don’t have to be aware of a Designer to have incredible design in your body. Christianity is not a tool to become a moral person. (I’m amazed by how often people argue that they don’t need religion to be moral, as if that were the point of Christianity.)

No, the point is not that you need to be a Christian to be moral. The point is that without God, there is no objective morality. Without God, there would be no universe, no design or goal to life, and no standard of morality to judge what is good and what is evil.

Notes:

  1. Paul Copan, “The Moral Argument,” in Evidence for God ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010), 20. There are other ways of framing this argument. A similar argument is: 1. If God doesn’t exist, there are no objective moral values and duties. 2. But there are objective moral values and duties; 3. Therefore, God exists.
  2. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason; quoted in C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 39.
  3. Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 171. As stated above (in note 1), there are other ways of framing this argument. If I were to rewrite this article (which would take time and energy that I do not currently have), I would begin with the idea that only God can account for moral values and obligations. An objective moral law to which we are all accountable requires a grounding that is eternal, unchanging, and good. All moral obligations are personal in nature, and therefore there must be a personal agent behind this law. Who or what else besides God can account for such a law and for such moral obligations?
  4. John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 93.
  5. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 181.
  6. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in The Book of Virtues, ed. William Bennett (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 260, quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 337.
  7. Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2007), 234.
  8. Edward Rothstein, “Attacks on U.S. Challenge Postmodern True Believers,” New York Times, September 22, 2001.
  9. D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity?, 235.
  10. Ibid., 236.
  11. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 151.
  12. Ibid., 152.
  13. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 337.
  14. For more on this concept, see https://wbcommunity.org/the-image-of-god.
  15. Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal 1979, no. 6 (1979):1229–1249. This article was brought to my attention by Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 350–56.
  16. Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics,” 1229.
  17. Ibid., 1231.
  18. Ibid., 1232.
  19. Ibid., 1249.
  20. Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 259, quoted in D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity?, 239.
  21. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, rev. ed. (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 18.
  22. Ibid., 22-23.
  23. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 99.

Who Is God?

The following presentation was given by Pastor Brian Watson to students involved with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Bridgwater State University on October 4, 2016.

Who Is God?

I saw something interesting this past week. 25 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation. Among 18–29-year-olds, that number is 39 percent.[1] That means that about four out of ten people in your age range don’t claim any particular religion. Some people see that a dismaying figure. I see that as an opportunity. I think it’s an opportunity to reintroduce people to who God is.

Here’s what I’m convinced of: despite all the churches in America, despite the billions of Bibles we have in this country, and despite all the God-talk in our society, we don’t really understand who God is. That’s because the vast majority of those Bibles collect dust. And a lot of churches don’t even bother much with the Bible these days. When they do, it’s not uncommon for churches to misinterpret the Bible. And despite all the references to God in America, most of it is vague. Our money says, “In God We Trust.” The Pledge of Allegiance mentions “one nation under God.” But who is that God? People talk vaguely about prayer or faith, but they usually don’t talk with any specificity. If we’re going to know who God is, we have to move past sound bites, clichés, and memes.

Tonight, I’m going to try to lay some groundwork for us to understand who God is. That’s really hard to do, because there is so much to say about God. Often, when people are talking about theology (which simply means “God words”), they focus on his attributes. That is, they talk about how God is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, holy, righteous, wise, good, loving, and so forth. We could talk about God that way. Or we could look at a particular story in the Bible that shows something of God’s character. Both would be good places to start.

But tonight, I want to take a little bit of a different tactic.

To understand who God is, I want to compare the story that the Bible tells with two or three other stories about God. And I’ll say this up front: I think all stories outside of the Bible that concern God tend to reduce him to something less than he actually is. The word for this is reductionism. And the problem with all other God-stories is that they end up ignoring very real and important things that we all care about.

The Story of Atheism

So let’s start with one very prominent story. This is the story of atheism, which says there is no God. This worldview is sometimes called naturalism, which means that nothing supernatural exists. Sometimes it’s called materialistic naturalism, which means the only reality is matter. In this story, the universe is either eternal and has been continually expanding and contracting (each “Big Bang” is followed by a “Big Crunch”) or it somehow emerged out of nowhere. And everything in the universe has evolved with no overarching plan behind it. It isn’t designed; it only appears that way. It’s not the product of a superintelligence such as God. And everything in the universe, including us, is the result of a blind, unintelligent, purposeless process of evolution. In essence, we’re a cosmic accident. Our lives have no inherent meaning. We’re simply here right now. Many people who believe in this story say that we don’t even have free will. No, all our thoughts are simply the byproducts of chemical reactions in our brains. We don’t actually choose anything; it just appears as if we do so. And after we die, that’s it. There is no God and no afterlife.

That story reduces reality to one in which God doesn’t exist. And if we take God away, we end up taking away any objective meaning to life, any objective moral law, and any hope for an afterlife. Without God, there is no purpose to life. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and atheist says: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of life, has no purpose in mind.”[2] If there is no creation of the universe for a certain purpose, there simply is no purpose. And, worse than that, there’s no justice in such a universe. This is what Dawkins says elsewhere:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.[3]

I hope you see that such a view of reality is problematic. We are conscious, intelligent beings who act with purpose. How can we arise from an unconscious, unintelligent, and purposeless process? We long for justice, yet in a world without a moral law and a judge who will make sure that all crimes are paid for, there is none. We think that certain things are good and other things are evil, but according to Dawkins, that really isn’t the case.[4] There are many philosophical and scientific problems with this view.[5]

The Story of Pantheism

So, that’s one view of the world, where the only thing that exists is “not God.” Another view of the world is pantheism, where everything is God, or God is in everything. This is the view of the world that some eastern religions possess. It’s also the view held by New Age spirituality. In this view of reality, God is reduced to a spiritual force or energy. At its worst, it says that we are gods. I didn’t think that many people believe in this sort of thing, until I met a young man on an airplane earlier this year. He and I sat next to each other and he started a conversation that lasted nearly four hours. He asked me what I was reading, which was a book that dealt with God. We then talked about God, the meaning of life, and other things. He said he thought he was God. About a month ago, I met up with him again and had lunch. Again, he wondered if maybe he is God. I don’t think he was joking, either. He had been exposed to a long strange, New Age views.

People who hold this view think that they can create their own reality. They think that if they think something and really believe it will come true, it will happen.

There are a number of problems with this view. The most basic problem is that it doesn’t line up with reality. We can’t create reality. It exists. Period. We can work hard and do good things, of course, but there are limits to what we can do. And we’re not in control of life. Any one of us could die tonight in an accident. Any one of us who contract a disease and die at a young age. What is certain is that all of us will die. It’s foolish for finite, mortal creatures to believe they are God.

A Third Story

We’ve briefly considered the story in which everything is “not God” and also the story in which everything is God. Here’s a third story: there is a God who made the universe. God is not the universe and the universe is not God. God has always existed. He has no beginning and no end. The universe, however, came into existence at a certain point in time. It is a created thing. And the universe is sustained at every moment by God. He is the reason for why the universe is well-ordered. He is the reason for why there is beauty. He is the reason why there is an objective, transcendent moral law, one that we can discover but not one that we can create. He is the reason why we love and value relationships. He is the reason why we are intelligent beings who can make choices. He is the reason why we long for justice and why we long for a better world.

This is the story of God that is told in the Bible. But before I continue, I want to say this: our tendency is to think that God must be like us, or that God must always agree with us. In other words, our tendency is to make God in our image and likeness. But that’s not reality. The truth is that God has made us. We have no right to tell God how his universe should go. What we can do, however, is learn about God, have a relationship with him, and live according to his design. When we do that, we have meaning in our lives. We have peace. We can have real freedom. And we can have hope.

In order to know God, we need to let him speak. After all, I couldn’t really know any one of you just by looking at you. I could know some things about you by observing you or digging up information on you. But if I were to really know any of you, I would need for you to talk to me. You would need to reveal yourself to me. How much more is this true of God? After all, God is immaterial. He doesn’t have a body. He is the not the proper study of science. Science can’t observe or experiment on God. And even if it could, we would still need to have God speak to us to tell us what he’s really like. So, we must let God speak. And God speaks to us through his word, the Bible.

It may seem odd that God speaks to us through a book. Why doesn’t he just speak to us individually? Well, think about the advantages of a book. It’s objective. We can study it together. I didn’t make it up and neither did you. Now imagine if God spoke to us individually. What if we thought that God was telling us different things? Imagine that one of the men here said to one of the women here, “God told me that I should ask you out.” Now imagine the woman saying, “That’s funny, because God told me to reject you, because you’re creepy.” Who would be right? We need something objective, something outside of me and you, to tell us.

God Is “I AM”

I want to touch on just a few passages in the Bible to show what God is like. The first passage is from the book of Exodus. About four thousand years ago, God had spoken to a man named Abraham, and he promised to make a great nation out of Abraham’s descendants. Fast forward a few hundred years later and Israel had become a large nation. But there was a problem: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. When they were oppressed, they cried out to God and God responded with a plan to rescue the Israelites. He did that through a man named Moses.

When God first appeared to Moses, he told him that he would send him to the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, and say, “Let my people go.” Then Moses says, “Who am I that I should be able to do such a thing?” And God says, “I will be with you” (this is a paraphrase of Exod. 3:10–12).

Then Moses asks this question, which is followed by God’s response. I’ll read Exodus 3:13–15:

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

I want to focus on what God says about his name. He says it is, “I am who I am.” What does that mean? This could be translated, “I cause to be because I cause to be.”[6] What God seems to be saying is, “I exist. Period. I don’t need any explanation. I have always existed. And I cause everything else to exist.” No one made God. He didn’t make himself. He has always existed. And he is the Creator of everything else. So, there’s God and there’s “not God.” Unlike the story of atheism, where everything is “not God,” and the story of pantheism, where everything is God, the story of the Bible says that there are two basic types of things that exist: God and everything else.[7] Those two things shouldn’t be confused.

In all of this, we see that God is personal. He is a God who speaks and who reveals himself. He is powerful. He is ultimately the Creator of everything else that exists. And he’s one of a kind. Only God exists without any other cause.

There’s No One Like Him

The reason I draw that out is because we need to know this if we’re going to know who God is. God created us in his image. That means that we reflect something of what he is like. In fact, God made us to reflect him and represent him in this world that he has made. But that doesn’t mean that God is entirely like us. The fact is, God is incomparable. There is simply no one like him (Isa. 40:18; 46:5). One of our major problems is to confuse God with something in creation. We end up making a false god who is like us or who is the way we think he should be.

Some of the clearest expressions of God’s incomparable nature come in another Old Testament book, the book of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who lived roughly seven hundred years before Jesus. His job was to call Israel back to God. Israel had been worshiping false gods, or idols. This is what is said of Israel right at the beginning of the book:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:2–3).

Israel, like all human beings, rebelled against God. They were worse than animals, because they forget their owner. And when they did, they started doing some very unjust things. This is what God says about the city of Jerusalem later in Isaiah 1:

21  How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,
but now murderers.
22  Your silver has become dross,
your best wine mixed with water.
23  Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them (Isa. 1:21–23).

If you find that language a bit shocking, you should read the other prophetic books in the Bible. Generally, they say things like, “Stop your whoring, you whores!” They say that because worshiping idols is like cheating on God. The relationship between God and his people is often likened to a marriage. It’s a relationship that is supposed to be exclusive. And when you ignore God and live life on your terms, you’re being a whore.[8]

God cannot tolerate this situation. Later in the book of Isaiah, God makes it clear that he won’t share his praise with false gods. In Isaiah 42:8, he says,

I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.

There simply is no other God. We were made to worship God, but we give our time, our attention, our money, and our emotions to other things instead of God. We fall short of God’s standard for right living.

God’s standard for righteousness is rather high. And that is because God himself is the standard of righteousness. The reason that certain things are right and certain things are wrong is because God is the measure of what is right, and what is contrary to God’s character and God’s commandments is wrong. We cry out for justice because we realize that a lot of things in this world are not the way that God had originally designed them to be. A lot of things in this world are out of step with God.

The “I Am” Is a Savior

Notice that in Isaiah, God uses the “I am” language often. For example, here’s Isaiah 43:11–13:

11  I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
12  I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.
13  Also henceforth I am he;
there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work, and who can turn it back?”

And a few verses later, God says,

“I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins” (v. 25).[9]

Here, we see that there is only one God, but we also get a hint that he is a savior. He is the one who can reconcile us to himself. He is the one who can make all things right. We live in a broken world because from the beginning, human beings have rebelled against God. That’s when evil entered into the world. It is like a cancer that metastasizes, working its way through all the world and through our bodies and through our hearts and minds. But God promises to fix this broken world one day.

The story of Christianity is that God does that through Jesus. Jesus is God, yet he also becomes man without ceasing to be God. He entered into human history when Mary miraculously conceived him. But he has always existed as the Son of God. Jesus came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. He perfectly images God the Father and represents him. He always does what the Father wants. He is the ultimate human being.

God Is Triune

Now, at this point I’ve introduced something that may seem strange and mysterious. The God of the Bible is one God, yet he exists in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is a Trinity. How can one God be three Persons? It’s hard to understand this, and I don’t think we can understand it completely. That’s because there is no proper analogy for the Trinity. We can’t really compare God to something in creation. As I said, God is incomparable.

Even though it’s hard to understand the Trinity, here’s what is great about it: God has always existed as a community of Persons who love each other. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and they love the Spirit, and so on. The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4: 8, 16) because God has always been both lover and beloved. If God were one God who has always existed as one Person—and that’s what Islam says about Allah—then before creating the universe and before creating human beings, he would have nothing and no one to love. That would mean that God has not always been love. But the God of the Bible has always been love, and that is why we long for love. That is why we want deep relationships. We are reflecting the image of God when we search for love.

Jesus Is “I Am”

Here’s one more thing specifically about Jesus. Jesus, too, is the “I am” God of the Bible. In the Gospel of John, which is one of the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible, Jesus has seven “I am” statements. He is the bread of life (6:35, 48, 51), which means he sustains our lives in a way that literal bread cannot. He is the light of the world (8:12; 9:5), revealing truth. He is the good shepherd (10:11, 14), who cares for his sheep. He is the resurrection and the life (11:25), because after he died on the cross, bearing the punishment that we deserve for our rebellion against God, he rose from the grave in a body that can never die. That’s the end of the story of the Bible, by the way. When God makes all things new, he will restore the world and all his people will become alive again in bodies that can never die. And Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), the only way to be reconciled to God, and the only hope for having life beyond this life.

Jesus even says challenging things like this: “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). He means that unless you believe that he is God—and trust him, not just accept this as a fact—you will not have eternal life in a perfect world. Jesus makes it clear that he will evaluate everyone’s life. He is a savior, but he’s also a judge (John 5:25–29; 12:48).

Now, I realize that last bit may not sit well with a lot of you. The worst sin in the world, our culture tells us, is to be judgmental. Let me say this: first of all, everyone is judgmental. Look at social media. Look at the comments section of any article online or underneath just about every YouTube video. Think about all the times you have said, “He should do this,” or “She shouldn’t have done that.” Now, ask yourself, what would happen if you were judged by your own standards? How would you come out?

I think the reason we’re judgmental is because we are reflecting the image of God. He is the true Judge, and we are little judges. But our judgments tend to be off. They need to be corrected.

God Corrects Us

It seems like a lot of people want a God who won’t correct them. They want a God who says, “You’re amazing just the way you are.” That might make a nice pop song, but it’s not reality. Which one of you would bother to go to school here if every professor said, “You guys don’t need to learn anything. I won’t give you any exams, because you don’t have to prove anything to me. You’re amazing just the way you are.” If that’s how each class went, you wouldn’t spend four years of your time and thousands of dollars on tuition and fees.

And, honestly, any real relationship can’t work that way. Earlier, I said that the relationship between God and his people is like a marriage. If you honestly think your future spouse is never going to correct you, you don’t understand marriage. Just last night, my wife corrected me. She brought something to my attention that I need to work on. If my wife does that, how much more does God do that? My wife is an equal partner, another human being, but we’re not equal to God. So, if the human beings who love us correct us, the God who is love should correct us, too.

Now, there’s a lot more to say about God, but I think that is a start. God is the I am. He exists. Period. Without him, there would be nothing. He is the reason why we exist. I would encourage you to learn all you can about him.

Notes

  1. Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, Betsy Cooper, and Rachel Lienesch, “Exodus: Why Americans Are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back,” a survey conducted by the Pubic Religion Research Institute, September 22, 2016, http://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/PRRI-RNS-Unaffiliated-Report.pdf, accessed October 3, 2016.
  2. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: North, 1987), 5, quoted in Richard Weikart, The Death of Humanity and the Case for Life (Washington, D.C., Regnery, 2016), 68–69.
  3. Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  4. Interestingly, Dawkins knows that there are evils, even if he is wrong about what is evil. Elsewhere, he writes, “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006], 308). This shows that his worldview is false. Any worldview that excludes something that we know to be real is false. The person who must “cheat” on his own worldview by borrowing from another possesses a false worldview.
  5. There are many books that address the problems of any form of Darwinism. I can personally recommend Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: Harper One, 2013); Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: Five Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015); Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2002).
  6. Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 121.
  7. This is called “Two-ism” by the theologian Peter Jones, who calls other worldviews “One-ism.” See Peter Jones, One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference (Escondido, CA: Main Entry Editions, 2010).
  8. I realize this is shocking, and perhaps offensive, language. But it’s the language of the Bible: Jer. 2:20; 3:1–3, 6, 8, 9; Ezek. 16:15–17, 26, 28, 34, 41; 23:3, 5, 19, 30, 43; Hos. 1:2; 2:4–5; 3:3; 4:10–15; 5:3–4; 6:10; 9:1.
  9. The “I am” sayings in Isaiah include Isa. 41:4; 43:10–11, 13, 25; 44:6; 48:12.

 

The Testimony of God (1 John 5:6-12)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 5:6-12. What is the content of the Christian faith? How do we know it’s true? Why should we believe it? Christianity says that God became man and has spoken to us. This grand claim should cause us to, at the least, examine the evidence.

Oh, That I Knew Where I Might Find Him (Job 22-27)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the book of Job, chapters 22-27. He focuses on the question, “Where is God?” Why does God seem hidden? Why does God seem absent when we’re hurting?

The Design Argument

One of the arguments for the existence of God is called the teleological argument, or the design argument. The article below is a relatively thorough look at such an argument for the existence of God. It contains a good deal of scientific information. If you’re not interested in science, you may wish to skip to page 22 to read the last few pages.

Evidence for the Existence of God: The Design Argument

True and Rational Words (Acts 25-26)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 25-26 titled, “True and Rational Words.” In this passage, Paul is on trial before the governor, Festus, and he presents the case for Christianity to Herod Agrippa II. When Christianity is on trial, we see that it is true because it is the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament and the resurrection of Jesus is supported by eyewitness testimony.

The City Was Full of Idols (Acts 17:16-21)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 17:16-21 titled, “The City Was Full of Idols.” We see the apostle Paul identifying false gods and false beliefs, something we need to do in our own time and place.

When Was Jesus Born?

It is Christmas, one of the most beloved holidays of all, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The incarnation, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), is a stunning historical event. It is amazing to think that God would become man, that he would be conceived in a virgin’s womb, born in the humblest of circumstances, all to rescue sinful human beings and join them to himself. Without Christmas, there would be no Good Friday and no Easter. Without Christmas, we wouldn’t have the hope of Jesus’ return in glory, to make all things new.

Yet for all we know about the importance of what happened at Christmas, we don’t actually know when Jesus was born. Now, if you assumed that Jesus was born exactly 2017 years ago, on the morning of December 25, that is understandable. We do celebrate Christmas every year on the same day, and the calendar says it is 2014 A.D., or Anno Domini, “the year of the Lord,” which means that even the way we reckon time reflects the reality of Jesus’ birth. The problem is that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, 1 B.C., or in the year A.D. 1 (there is no “year zero”). In fact, Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25 of any year.

Before I explain more about what we do and do not know about Jesus’ birth, let me explain why I’m writing about this issue. It has become somewhat popular to cast doubt on the Bible. A recent series on the History Channel, “Bible Secrets Revealed,” seems intended to make people doubt the historical reliability of the Bible. On another network, the Smithsonian Channel, an episode, titled “Mystery Files: Birth of Christ,” casts doubt on the birth of Jesus by focusing on chronological issues in Luke’s Gospel. The show mentions that Luke has “conflicting versions of events.”

What are we to make of all this? Is Luke’s Gospel historically reliable? When was Jesus born?

To help us understand these issues, it is worth quoting theologian Gerald Bray at length:

The fact that Jesus was born so many years before the supposedly “correct” date of A.D. 1 has nothing to do with the Bible. It is the result of a series of chronological errors made by Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century Roman monk, who tried to calculate the birth of Jesus by counting back through the Roman emperors, but who managed to miss some in the process. He therefore came up short and was never corrected. As for the date, December 25 was chosen as a date for celebrating Christ’s birth in order to replace the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was held at the that time of the year. Christmas Day is the first time that it is possible to measure the return of daylight in the northern hemisphere following the winter solstice, and so it was thought to be an appropriate symbol of Christ, the light of the world. He cannot have been born on that day, however, because the shepherds who were watching their flocks would not have been out in the fields in mid-winter. Jesus must have been born sometime between March and November, but we can say no more than that. The important thing is that he was born on a particular day, and as December 25 is now the universally accepted date, there seems to be little point in trying to change it for the sake of an unattainable “accuracy.”[1]

There are two things worth noting in that passage. It explains why our calendar says 2017 even though Jesus was likely born 2020–2022 years ago (more on that later). It also explains why we celebrate Christmas on December 25, even though Jesus was likely not born on that date. Additionally, Bray correctly observes that what matters is not the date, but the fact that Jesus was born. Since we’re not certain of exactly when he was born, and since his birth is worth celebrating, we must select some date.

Bray says that December 25 was chosen because it coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god, who was also identified as Cronus, father of Zeus. The feast, which began on December 17, featured sacrifices at the temple of Saturn and a public banquet.[2] Another feast, that of Sol Invictus, the “unconquerable sun,” was held on December 25. By the fourth century, worship of this sun god was combined with the worship of Mithra, a god born out of a rock who “battled first with the sun and then with a primeval bull, thought to be the first act of creation.”[3] According to Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, “Christians took advantage of this ‘day off’ to protest against Mithraism by worshiping the birth of Jesus instead. After the Roman empire became officially Christian in the fourth century, this date turned into the legal holiday we know as Christmas.”[4] One Roman Calendar (the “Philocalian Calendar”), compiled in 354, states that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in Rome in the year 336. This is the earliest record we have of a December 25 Christmas. In later years, Christmas was celebrated on this date throughout the Roman empire.

It is important to note that pagan cults like Mithraism emerged in the second century, well after the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament. The fact that Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the day of a pagan festival had nothing to do with exactly when Jesus was born. Rather, they had the day off, and they decided that instead of participating in pagan rituals, they would worship the true God instead. This seems to have been a bit of a counter-cultural protest.

Christians also appropriated certain pagan symbols in their celebration of Christmas, giving them a new meaning. Consider the following explanation:

The church thereby offered the people a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities and eventually reinterpreted many of their symbols and actions in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice. For example, Jesus Christ was presented as the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2), replacing the sun god, Sol Invictus. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, it assimilated into its observances many customs of the pagan winter festivals such as holly, mistletoe, the Christmas tree, and log fires. At the same time new Christmas customs such as the nativity crib and the singing of carols were introduced by Christians.[5]

In reality, Jesus was born in a part of the year when shepherds would be abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) reported that some believed Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth day of Pachon, a month in the Egyptian calendar.[6] This date would correspond to May 20. This date is possible, but we can’t say with certainty that Jesus was born on that day.

What about the year of Jesus’ birth? Jesus must have been born, at the latest, in early 4 B.C. We know this because Herod the Great was alive at the time, and he died in that year. Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Herod died after an eclipse and before the Passover. The mention of the eclipse allows us to date Herod’s death quite accurately: he must have died between March 4 and April 11 of that year.[7] It is likely that Jesus was born sometime earlier, perhaps as early as 6 B.C., because Herod ordered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be killed.

None of this is problematic. If Jesus was born in 5 B.C., it would mean that in the year 28, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1; he started his reign in A.D. 14), he would be about 32 years old, which harmonizes well with Luke’s statement that Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23). Only one problem remains: Luke also says that right before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus decreed that a census should be made. Most translations state that this census was conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). As far as we know, Quirinius was the governor of Syria in A.D. 6–7 and Josephus tells us there was a census in A.D.6. (Acts 5:37 states that this census was the reason that Judas the Galilean revolted against the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. Remember this fact, because it shows that Luke was aware of this census and the impact it had on the Jewish people.) Some have used this information to claim that Luke’s Gospel is wrong. I have heard such claims on the History Channel and National Public Radio.

There are a few possible answers to the questions surrounding the census. One, we do know that there were several censuses held in the Roman empire. As far we know, Augustus decreed three censuses around this time. Some areas had periodic censuses; Egypt had one every 14 years. It is possible that an earlier census in Palestine could have been conducted, in addition to the one in A.D. 6. It is possible that the Roman census was carried out according to Jewish customs, which would require males to return to their ancestral homes. Since Joseph was betrothed to Mary and she was pregnant, perhaps he took her with him so that they could be together for the birth of Jesus. Nothing that we know from history excludes the possibility of a census ordered by Augustus for the whole Roman empire and carried out in Palestine around 6–4 B.C.

The real question concerns Quirinius. Luke 2:2 states, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Quirinius was the governor of Syria when the census of A.D. 6 was conducted, but this was about ten years after Jesus was born. We don’t have a record of him being the governor of Syria around 6–4 B.C. So, the question of Quirinius involves a second answer.

We must begin by stating that our knowledge of ancient history is not complete. We also must note that Luke says the census at the time of Jesus’ birth was the first census, which suggests it was followed by at least one more. It is possible that Quirinius had something to do with an earlier census, even if he were not technically the governor of Syria at that time. It is possible that Quirinius was an administrator who was responsible for overseeing the census. Luke could be using “governor” in an anachronistic sense, so that while Quirinius wasn’t governor at the time of the census, he became governor later. The Greek of Luke 2:2 literally reads, “This was [the] first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Just as we might talk about what President Obama did in the US Senate—“This was the voting record of Obama, President of America”—Luke may be referring to the past actions of Quirinius, who was best known, from Luke’s historical vantage point, for being governor of Syria.

It is also possible that the census took many years to carry out, that it started around the time Jesus was born, and it finished under the watch of Quirinius when he was governor of Syria, in A.D. 6. If this were the case, he would have been responsible for collecting the taxes (the ones based on the census). His name would be somewhat infamous, and therefore it would be one attached to the whole multi-year process of census and taxation that began at the time of Jesus’ birth.[8]

Whatever the case, it’s clear that Luke didn’t get his history wrong. As stated earlier, Luke was aware of the A.D. 6 census, for he alludes to it in Acts 5:37. That census instigated a rebellion led by Judas the Galilean. The census he mentions in Luke 2 did not produce a rebellion, so he is clearly aware of at least two censuses. And, quite obviously, Luke knew that Herod was still alive during this time, as Luke 1:5 shows. He didn’t get the chronology of events wrong.

Another possible solution is that Josephus was wrong and Luke was right. After all, Luke proves himself to be an accurate historian elsewhere in his Gospel as well as in the book of Acts. According to Darrell Bock, “That no other source mentions such a census is not a significant problem, since many ancient sources refer to events that are not corroborated elsewhere and since Luke is found to be trustworthy in his handling of facts that one can check. Since the details of this census fit into general Roman tax policy, there is no need to question that it could have occurred in the time of Herod.”[9] Additionally, the number and quality of manuscripts of the New Testament far surpasses those of other ancient documents, including the writings of Josephus and Roman historians. We don’t know everything that happened in the ancient world, but we have no reason to doubt what the New Testament tells us.

There is yet another possible solution to this problem, one that is simpler. Luke 2:2 could be translated, “This registration was before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[10] This is because the Greek word usually translated as “first” (πρῶτος) could be translated as “before,” as it is in John 1:15, 30; 15:18. If this is the right reading, then this census was sometime prior to Quirinius’s infamous census. It would be as if Luke were saying, “Caesar August decreed that there should be an Empire-wide census—no, not that census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This was an earlier one.”[11]

In the end, we may never know exactly when Jesus was born. But what we do know of history does not contradict what Luke has reported in his “orderly account” of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:3). There is no reason to doubt the historical reliability of Luke’s Gospel. So go, tell it on the mountain, “Jesus Christ is born!”

Notes

  1. Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 564. 
  2. S. E. Porter, “Festivals and Holy Days: Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 370. 
  3. Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and Greeks, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 134. 
  4. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 36. 
  5. O. G. Oliver, Jr., “Christmas,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 238–239. 
  6. Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 2:333. 
  7. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 904. 
  8. Darrell L. Bock, “Precision and Accuracy: Making Distinctions in the Cultural Context That Give Us Pause in Pitting the Gospels against Each Other,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 378. 
  9. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 906. 
  10. The English Standard Version’s footnote says, “Or This was the registration before.” 
  11. This reading is mentioned by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 137. See also David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 118. 

 

Are There Contradictions in the Bible?

It is often alleged that there are many errors and contradictions in the Bible. In a previous piece (“When Was Jesus Born?”), I addressed the issue of an alleged error in the Bible: the time of Jesus’ birth, particularly with respect to the census conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria. Here, I will deal with a supposed contradiction: the different genealogies of Jesus, found in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38, respectively.

The Nature of Contradictions

Before looking at the text, we should take time to think about what a contradiction actually is. According to philosopher Simon Blackburn, a contradiction is, “The conjunction of a proposition and its negation. The law of non-contradiction provides that no such conjunction can be true: not (p & not-p).”[1] In other words, a contradiction is when one says that something is and is not. It is impossible to be a bachelor and a married man (a not-bachelor, if you will). However, philosophers often allow more nuance into what is called the law of non-contradiction. As Aristotle famously writes, “It is impossible for the same attribute at once to belong and not to belong to the same thing and in the same relation”[2] So, turning our attention to the two genealogies of Jesus found in the Bible, we can say that Joseph is Jesus’ father and not Jesus’ father, and this is not a logical contradiction. How is that possible? The ways that Joseph is father to Jesus and is not-father to Jesus differ in relation, or sense. Joseph, Mary’s husband, is Jesus’ father in the sense that he raised Jesus and served as his human father. We would say he adopted Jesus. Joseph is not Jesus’ father in the sense that he is not his biological father. He is not Jesus’ true father: the Father, the first person of the Trinity.

Differences in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38

With all of that in mind, let’s turn our attention to Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. When looking at the two, there are clearly differences: Matthew starts from Abraham and, going in chronological order, ends with Jesus. There appear to be forty-one different names (if we don’t county any names twice, and if we don’t include Mary). David tells us, in verse 17, that these names represent a total of 42 generations: fourteen from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from that exile to Jesus.

Luke, on the other hand, gives his genealogy in reverse chronological order, starting with Jesus and going all the way back to Adam. His list contains seventy-seven names, with no discernible set of groupings.

A closer look yields something else: there are different names in these two genealogies. Both lists have some commonalities (such as the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Judah-Perez-Hezron and Boaz-Obed-Jesse-David sections). But between David and Jesus, there are thirty-eight names that differ. It should be obvious that, if both of these genealogies are intended to be true in the same sense, we have a logical contradiction. However, if they are different in sense (or relation, to use Aristotle’s term), then there is no logical contradiction.

The Different Purposes of Matthew’s and Luke’s Genealogies

Before we look at a very likely solution to this problem, we must acknowledge that these genealogies serve slightly different functions in these two Gospels. Though there are four Gospels in the Bible, all telling the same general story of Jesus, they differ in details, structure, and themes. These differences do not mean they contradict each other; rather, the four Gospels complement one another. This fourfold depiction of Jesus enriches our understanding of who he is and what he did for us.

Matthew starts his Gospel with this sentence: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Interestingly, the second word in the original Greek is geneseōs, which might intentionally evoke the beginning of the Bible, the book of Genesis, along with its tôledôt formula: “These are the generations…” (Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1; 37:2). The Gospels of Mark and John also recall the beginning of Genesis.

More clearly, Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is the son of Abraham and the son of David. In other words, he wants us to know that Jesus is the long-awaited offspring promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; cf. Gal. 3:16) and the long-awaited son of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16). Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham, and he is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with David. This is part of Matthew’s emphasis on fulfillment (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9). Matthew is highlighting the fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.

Matthew’s arrangement of this genealogy is clearly intentional, for he eliminates some names. In verse 8, he moves from Joram to Uzziah, though we know from 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles that Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah reigned in between Joram and Uzziah. Matthew is clearly doing this for a purpose. (We should note that “was the father of” [egennēsen] can be used of forefathers, such as grandfathers and great-grandfathers.) Perhaps it is to accommodate his three groups of fourteen generations. As Craig Blomberg explains, “Even though the Old Testament mentions several additional ancestors, Matthew arranges his names into three groups of fourteen, with David as the fourteenth. In Hebrew the gematria (the sum of the numerical equivalents of the consonants in a word) for David was 14 (D+V+D = 4+6+4). Given the popularity of various creative uses of gematria in ancient Judaism, Matthew may well have employed this device to stylize his genealogy and stress Jesus as Son of David.”[3]

Vern Poythress observes something else in Matthew’s genealogy: there are some alternate spellings of the names of kings. This is not an error, as it preserves the same referents (the same individuals) and, as anyone who has read the Bible knows, often people have different names by which they are known. But Matthew might have had deeper theological purposes for these spellings:

By spelling “Asa” as “Asaph,” Matthew refers to king Asa, the son of Abijah; at the same time, on top of this main connection, it creates a literary allusion to or reminiscence of Asaph, of the tribe of Levi, the head of the Levitical singers (1 Chron. 25:1). This allusion subtly suggests that Jesus is not only literally the heir to the kingly line of David, through king Asa, but figuratively and spiritually heir to the Levitical line of priestly activity. By spelling “Amon” as “Amos,” Matthew refers to king Amon, the son of Manasseh and at the same time creates a literary allusion to Amos the prophet. It suggests that Jesus is spiritually the heir to the Old Testament prophets.[4]

This may seem odd to us, but we have no right to demand that Matthew or the other biblical authors write history the way that we would. Any written history is shaped by an author for a particular purpose. This is true of modern biographies as well as ancient ones. The writers of the Gospels shaped their stories according to theological purposes. This does not make their writing any less true or historical.

Luke, on the other hand, does not begin his Gospel with a genealogy. He places his genealogy between two important events in Jesus’ life: his baptism and his temptations in the wilderness. Jesus was baptized to identify himself with sinful humanity, which originated with Adam and Eve and their original sin. This event may also recall the beginning of Jesus: the three persons of the Trinity are present (the Father, the Word [=Jesus], the Spirit). Jesus is, in various ways, depicted in the New Testament as the inauguration of a new creation, one without sin. So, just as the Spirit hovered over the waters at creation (Gen. 1:2), he descends on Jesus while he is in the water of baptism. Just as God declares his creation to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31), the Father says of Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

After his genealogy, Luke writes of how Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Adam and Eve succumbed to Satan’s temptation in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-6). Israel gave into temptation many times in their wilderness wanderings, between the time of the exodus out of Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land (see the book of Numbers, in particular). Jesus, however, as the true Son of God, did not sin when tempted. It seems that Luke is showing that Jesus is not only the hope of Israel, but the hope of the world. Jesus is the one who will crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15; cr. Rom. 16:20).

According to I. Howard Marshall, “the point of the genealogy is rather to show that Jesus has his place in the human race created by God. The fact that the genealogy is carried back to Adam, as the son of God, may perhaps point a contrast between this disobedient son of God and the obedient Son of God, Jesus.”[5]

A Solution to an Alleged Contradiction

Some theologians have claimed that Matthew presents Joseph’s genealogy, whereas Luke presents Mary’s. This explanation is unconvincing, however, since both genealogies lead to Joseph. The more likely explanation, one that suits both the Gospel writers’ respective purposes, is that Matthew is presenting a genealogy of the royal heritage of Jesus and Luke is presenting Jesus’ biological genealogy. (Actually, it’s Joseph’s biological genealogy. As Darrell Bock observes, “In the first century, legal status depended on the father, so the most natural way to take the reference to Joseph is as a genealogical reference.”[6]) If Jesus is the true Son of David, the true King, he would be the rightful heir to the throne. So, Matthew indicates this with his genealogy. If Jesus is the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) and the offspring of Abraham, he must be a legal descendant. So, Luke indicates that.

How can these genealogies diverge? Shouldn’t these genealogies be one and the same?

Gerald Bray, a British theologian, demonstrates how genealogies can diverge by using an example from his homeland:

To understand just how complex genealogies can be, we need look no further than that of the British royal family. Queen Elizabeth II can trace her ancestry back more or less directly to the accession of George I in 1714, but there is not a straightforward succession from father to son. When we go back to the Tudors (1485-1603) and Stuarts (1603-1714), we find that of the twelve rulers they produced between them, the present queen is descended from only two—Henry VII (1485-1509) and James I (1603-1625). Ironically, although she cannot claim the first Elizabeth as her ancestor, she can include Elizabeth’s great rival, Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth I executed for her pretensions to the throne of England! Legal and physical descent are very different, and if we do not know the details, we might easily think that one (or both) of the competing genealogies had been made up. We do not have the background information we need to decide what the different genealogies of Jesus mean, but the British example is a warning that we must be careful not to draw conclusions that may seem obvious on the surface but that are actually quite mistaken.[7]

Bray includes a footnote to that passage: “Of the eleven monarchs since 1714, George II was succeeded by his grandson (1760), George IV by his brother (1830), William IV by his niece (1837), and Edward VIII by his brother (1936).”[8] The point Bray is making is that biological and royal ancestry are not always one and the same. This historical example demonstrates that the suggestion that Matthew and Luke are using two different genealogies—both true in their own senses—is possible.

If this solution is true, then the royal and biological genealogies converge upon Joseph because the one with the royal heritage (Jacob, listed as Joseph’s father in Matt. 1:16) died childless, and his next of kin would be Joseph. It is possible that Jacob and Heli (Joseph’s actual father, according to Luke 3:23) were related or otherwise very close. Perhaps if Heli had died, Joseph would have become Jacob’s heir. An alternate view here is that Matthan, the father of Jacob, father of Joseph (Matt. 1:15-16) is the same person as Matthat, father of Heli, father of Joseph (Luke 3:23-24). Perhaps Matthan/Matthat have two different fathers listed (Eleazar in Matthew; Levi in Luke) because of a levirate marriage,[9] in which case Eleazar, heir to the royal throne, died with child. Eleazar’s brother Levi then married his widow, and they had Matthan/Matthat as a son, who was the biological child of Levi and the royal heir of Eleazar. Given that scenario, then if Jacob, son of Matthan/Matthat, died without child, his nephew, Joseph, son of Heli, would become his heir. These are but two possible (albeit complicated) ways that these genealogies could converge.[10]

We may ever know exactly why Matthew and Luke use differing genealogies. There may be another proposal that makes better sense of the evidence, or more evidence may come to light in the future. However, there is no reason to assume that we have found a real contradiction here. As is so often the case, the Gospels present different pieces of information that complement, not contradict, each other.

Notes

  1. Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. rev. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 78.
  2. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1005b 19-20, in Aristotle in 23 Volumes, vols.17, 18, trans. Hugh Tredennick (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1933, 1989).
  3. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 233.
  4. Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 70-71.
  5. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 161.
  6. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 352. I. Howard Marshall adds, “From the legal point of view, Joseph was the earthly father of Jesus, and there was no other way of reckoning his descent” (The Gospel of Luke, 157).
  7. Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 565.
  8. Ibid., 565 n. 26.
  9. Details of a levirate marriage are found in Deut. 25:5-10. Vv. 6-7 state, “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.” This way, the inheritance and legacy of the man who died without a son could continue.
  10. For more information, see D. A. Carson, Matthew, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 9:88-94.

Why We Can Trust the New Testament

The best sources for knowing Jesus are the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. It would be a mistake to say that the New Testament is one witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Rather, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven separate documents, written by nine different authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, the unknown author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude). These authors did not sit down together and decide what they were going to write about. In other words, they didn’t conspire to write a myth or a legend, something they knew to be false. Rather, each one wrote, independently of the others, about what they had seen and heard, and what God revealed to them. We know that they didn’t write together because sometimes they had significant disagreements, as can be seen in Galatians 2:11.

The amazing thing is that these authors produced a very cohesive, unified document. And they did this while writing at different times, from different places, to different locations. This is what James White calls “multifocality.”[1] If the authors of these books were not inspired by God to write these books, they would not be so unified in thought. To understand the importance of having multiple witnesses writing in multiple locations, to multiple destinations, at various times, we can compare the origin of the New Testament to the origin of the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon and other works that Joseph Smith wrote. The story of the Qur’an is that the angel Gabriel supposedly appeared to Muhammad and revealed certain teachings, which he recited to his community. These teachings were memorized and written down after Muhammad’s death. Similarly, Joseph Smith claimed to receive a message from an angel, who revealed to him golden plates that only he could read, through the assistance of “seer stones.” He then translated the “Reformed Egyptian” of those plates into English. These stories are rather suspicious because they both involve one man and an angel. By contrast, the New Testament was written by several men, who saw God in the flesh. Jesus had a public ministry, died in public, and appeared to many individuals after his resurrection.

I should also add that we are quite certain that all of the books of the New Testament were written in the first century AD.[2] Most of the New Testament was likely written before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.[3] It is also important to know that various other “gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas come from the second century or later. Additionally, we should observe that the authors of the New Testament were some of the original twelve disciples (Matthew, John, Peter), two of Jesus’ brothers (James, Jude), an apostle to whom the risen Jesus appeared (Paul), and those closely related to the apostles. Mark was closely related to Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and tradition states that his Gospel is based on Peter’s recollections. Mark also travelled with Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5). Luke was another of Paul’s travel companions (see the “we” passages in Acts, which was written by Luke, beginning with Acts 16:10). Both Mark and Luke are mentioned by name in Colossians 4 (verses 10 and 14, respectively) and 2 Timothy 4:11. We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is, but he surely had access to the apostles, for he mentions Timothy, who was the disciple of Paul (Hebrews 13:23).

In addition to the above observations, we can test the historical reliability of the New Testament using three criteria.[4] The first is bibliographical test, which seeks to confirm whether the text we now have is an accurate representation of the original New Testament books. (Bear in mind that these books were written by hand, and copied by hand, until the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. We don’t have the original copies—the autographs—of these books, but that is no cause for concern, since we don’t have the original copy of any book from the ancient world.) The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament, more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.[5]

Now, that may not seem very impressive, but let us compare these figures to other historical works of the same era. The Roman historian Tacitus’s two major works, the Histories and the Annals were written around AD 100, and they exist in incomplete form in only two manuscripts from the ninth and the eleventh centuries. We have only eight manuscripts of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the fifth century BC, and the oldest manuscript is dated around AD 900, some thirteen hundred years later. Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 BC, and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates around nine hundred years later.[6] The New Testament is the best-attested collection of documents from antiquity. This fact doesn’t prove that the content of these books is historically accurate, but it does give us confidence that we have access to the content of the original New Testament documents. These thousands of manuscripts assist those in textual criticism, the practice of removing transcription errors from manuscripts until the original content is restored.

The second test is the internal test: do the documents claim to be history? Luke claims that his Gospel was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4), and the sequel to this book, Acts, picks up where the first book left off. Peter and John also claim to report what they have personally witnessed (2 Peter 1:16-18; 1 John 1:1-3) and Paul states that the gospel he taught was received through a revelation by Jesus and confirmed by visiting Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:11-19).

The third test is external: are the contents of the New Testament verified through other writings and through archaeological evidence? The writings of the early Church Fathers, as well as non-Christian historians such as Josephus and Tacitus, confirm some of the details of the New Testament. While we do not have archaeological evidence for every event in the New Testament, there is no such evidence that refutes what we read in its pages. Many of the historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet.[7] New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13-28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[8] Additionally, precise locations in Jerusalem mentioned in John’s Gospel, such as the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) and the pool of Siloam (John 9:7) have been discovered, revealing that John had a very accurate knowledge of Jerusalem.

Two more observations about Scripture: The Bible stands up to the criterion of embarrassment, a test that is used to determine whether a document is reliable. If a text has potentially embarrassing details, it is assumed that they are reported because the author is committed to telling the truth and is not concerned with how the truth might appear. Many of the great figures in the Bible, from Moses to David to disciples like Peter, are depicted as very flawed individuals. This is particularly true of the disciples, who are shown to be dim-witted (Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16), not concerned about Jesus (they fall asleep while he is praying to God the Father—Mark 14:32-41), wrong in their theology (Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan”—Mark 8:33), and cowardly, fleeing from Jesus when he is arrested (Matt. 26:56) and denying knowing him (Matt. 26:69-75). The way Jesus is depicted could be construed as embarrassing, for he is called “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21), a “drunkard” (Matt. 11:19), demon-possessed (John 7:20; 8:48), and “insane” (John 10:20). (To be clear, Jesus was none of these things, but he was—and is—often misunderstood.) Add to these potentially embarrassing some very difficult teachings of Jesus, and it is very hard to imagine anyone fabricating this story.

The second additional observation about Scripture is that the Gospels and Acts seem to be historical reporting. It is true that these books contain amazing details, such as Jesus supernaturally multiplying food, raising people from the dead, casting out demons, and so forth. Yet the Gospels and Acts show amazing restraint, even as they report such details. One only need compare these books to later works like the Gospel of Peter to see the difference between historical reporting and fantastical legend. Those who have studied the Gospels and Greco-Roman biographies (bioi) have recognized similarities between the two.[9] C. S. Lewis put it this way: “All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.”[10]

So, the New Testament claims to be history, has external evidence to support its claims, is the best-attested collection of documents in ancient history, has details no one would make up, and appears to be historical reporting.

Notes

  1. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 307.
  2. For information on the dates of the books of the New Testament, see D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).
  3. It is difficult to date most of the books with precision, but analysis of internal and external evidence assists those who try to determine when they were written. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Paul’s letter, Peter’s letters, and Hebrews were surely written before this time. James seems to have been written as early as the middle or late 40s. Jude was probably written around the 50s or 60s. All of John’s writings (John, 1-3 John, Revelation) were likely written in the 80s and 90s.
  4. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 134.
  5. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 33.
  6. Ibid., 34; Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 135; Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.
  7. On the historical accuracy of Luke, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1981), 80-93.
  8. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990). These facts are listed in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256-59.
  9. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 202-04.
  10. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967, 209, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 311.

Evidence for God: Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument concerns the cosmos, or universe. And what an amazing thing this the universe is, filled with galaxies, stars, and planets, including our own. Earth itself is an amazing thing, teeming with complex life. When we consider the universe, we are filled with a sense of awe. The philosopher C. Stephen Evans calls this “cosmic wonder.” He writes, “For different people it is engendered in different ways. For some it comes from contemplating the wonders of nature, gazing into a vast, starry sky or pondering a soft, dreamy sunset. For others, it comes at a birth or at the death of a friend or relative. But I am convinced that this experience is genuine and almost universal.”[1]

This cosmic wonder may cause us to wonder why we exist, or why anything exists. Those of us given to philosophical reflection might ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The existence of the universe is the subject of the cosmological argument.

Before we look at the cosmological argument, we should consider something very important. We are trying to present evidence for a God who is not bound by space, time, physics, chemistry, or biology. He is spirit, not a man of flesh and bones. We cannot see God, or conduct an empirical test that proves he exists. Therefore, all our evidences of God are somewhat indirect. Tim Keller calls them the “clues of God.”[2]

By trying to find the clues of God, we are like detectives. We look for evidence. We cannot recreate the beginning of the universe in a lab. It is a one-time historical event. Some atheists require that we present airtight proofs for God. However, this is unreasonable, and something that they don’t ask of themselves. (They cannot provide airtight proof for evolution, and they certainly cannot empirically disprove the existence of God.)

Consider the following discussion of searching for the evidence of God.

When a Russian cosmonaut returned from space and reported that he had not found God, C. S. Lewis responded that this was like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle looking for Shakespeare. If there is a God, he wouldn’t be another object in the universe that could be put in a lab and analyzed with empirical methods. He would relate to us the way a playwright relates to the characters in his play. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree the author chooses to put information about himself in the play. Therefore, in no case could we “prove” God’s existence as if he were an object wholly within our universe like oxygen and hydrogen or an island in the Pacific.[3]

Similarly, in an essay, C. S. Lewis writes, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[4] We cannot look directly at the sun (well, not for long, and we shouldn’t do it if we value our eyesight), but we can learn much about the sun by seeing how it illuminates the world and helps vegetation grow. In much the same way, we can learn about God.

At the risk of overkill, I will add one more quote that makes a similar point. It is one worth stressing, because atheists and agnostics must realize that our knowledge of God cannot be acquired through scientific testing. This is what Winfried Corduan advises:

Don’t bother trying to invent some kind of a spiritual magnifying glass to try to see God. God’s own nature keeps this from becoming a possibility; after all, if he exists he must be an infinite, invisible spirit, just the kind of being who is impossible to detect directly. But what you can do is to look at the actual world to see if it is put together in such a way that it must have been created by God. In fact, someone who believes in God is very likely to say:

Unless there were a God, there could not be any world.

Someone who expresses this sentiment is not just looking for one specific attribute of the world. It is the very existence of the world that leads a person to realize there must be a God who created it.[5]

This is what the cosmological argument addresses. The universe exists; therefore, God exists.

The Argument

Prominent Christian theologians, philosophers, and apologists have used various forms of the cosmological argument over the years. The Dominican priest, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1724), used it as one of his five proofs for the existence of God in his magisterial Summa Theologica. German mathematician and philosopher G. W. F. Leibniz (1646-1716) used a different form of the cosmological argument. Going back further in history, a Muslim theologian, Al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), formulated the kalām cosmological argument.[6] His argument: “Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning; now the world is a being which begins; therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning.”[7] We will use a modified version of this argument. While it may seem strange to borrow a theistic argument from a Muslim, we must remember that all truth is God’s truth. “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22), and Daniel was instructed in the literature, language, and wisdom of the Chaldeans (Dan. 1:4, 17). We, too, can learn some things from people of other faiths, even if their faith is wrong. Sometimes it is necessary to plunder the Egyptians.

The following is a formal statement of this argument:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

To which we can add:

4. The cause of the universe is God.[8]

The first part of argument (the first two premises and the conclusion) is valid. We will examine the first two premises to see if they are true. If they are true, the argument is sound, the conclusion inevitable. And the conclusion (the universe has a cause) should lead us toward God, who is the only being capable of creating the universe out of nothing.

Whatever Begins to Exist Has a Cause

This premise should be self-evident. As Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli wryly state, “Most people—outside of asylums and graduate schools—would consider it not only true, but certainly and obviously true.”[9]

It is important to know that this premise says, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause.” It does not say, “Whatever exists has a cause.” Many atheists try to twist this argument into that shape. Bertrand Russell once wrote, “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.”[10] Richard Dawkins likes to say, “Who did God?” or “Who designed the Designer?” (This latter question is supposed to be a refutation of Intelligent Design.) These are classic straw man arguments. They build up a false or weak argument (the straw man), only to knock it down.

The real argument says that everything that begins to exist has a cause. This means everything that is not eternal, that is not infinite, has a cause. We can call these things finite or contingent things. What constitutes such a thing or being? Corduan provides a list of conditions regarding a contingent/finite thing:

1. It is restricted by time and space.

2. It can be changed by something other than itself.

3. It has a beginning in time.

4. It needs things other than itself to continue existing.

5. Its attributes, whether essential or accidental, are to some extent influenced by other things.[11]

The only thing or being that does not meet these conditions is God. He is not bound by time and space; he cannot be changed by others and he is unchanging; he has no beginning (and no end); he needs nothing from anyone else; and his attributes are not influenced by others (though we can debate how much his actions and plans are influenced by prayer).

It is also important to remember that in Christian theology, there is a distinction between the Creator and the creation. God, by his very nature, is eternal and uncaused. He simply exists. As he told Moses, “I am who I am” (Exod. 3:14). In different eastern religions and New Age thought, there is no distinction between God and creation. In atheism, there is only creation. (Of course, they would simply talk about the universe or the cosmos, not “creation.”) But in Christianity, there has always been a clear distinction. This doctrine is not one created to support the cosmological argument; rather, it is as old as the Bible.

Not only does this first premise support the message of Christianity, it is obvious from experience. Everything we see and experience has had a cause. You and I have causes (our parents), and they had causes, and those causes had causes, and so on. As we move backwards in time, through the great chain of causes, we realize that everything must have a cause, and at the end of that regress, there must be one uncaused cause.

Still, as we will see, some atheists try to deny this first premise. According to Quentin Smith, “the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing.”[12] To such a comment, William Craig Lane responds, “To suggest that things could just pop into being uncaused out of nothing is to quit doing serious metaphysics and to resort to magic.”[13] He observes that this claim is not scientific, but metaphysical, or philosophical. However, if something could truly come from nothing, how could this be? The question Craig asks is, “if prior to the existence of the universe, there was absolutely nothing—no God, no space, no time—how could the universe possibly have come to exist?”[14] Clearly, for something to come from nothing would be against all known laws of physics, in addition to being contrary to common sense.

Though some atheists may disagree with this first premise, it would seem the burden of proof rests on their shoulders. As Douglas Groothuis points out, “All we need for a legitimate and successful argument form is that the premise be more likely than its denial.”[15] Certainly, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause” is more likely than, “Whatever begins to exist does not have a cause.”

The Universe Began to Exist

We will have to spend more time defending this second premise. Of course, Christianity has always claimed that the universe had a beginning, because the Bible tells us so. However, various ideas concerning the universe have existed over the years. Certain Greek philosophers, such as the Stoics, believed that the world went through cycles of destruction and regeneration. So, even before the rise of science, some people thought the universe was eternal.

Scientific evidence

At the beginning of the twentieth century, most scientists thought that the universe was eternal, with no beginning and no end. According to such a thought, the universe was in a fixed state. Scientifically, this created some problems, as people wondered how the force of gravity did not compel the universe to contract and collapse upon itself. However, no alternative hypotheses presented themselves.

However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, scientific evidence began to reveal that the universe did have, in fact, a beginning. In 1913, Vesto Melvin Slipher, an American astronomer, discovered that several galaxies within the range of his telescope appeared to be traveling away from the earth at incredible speeds—sometimes up to two million miles an hour.[16] Slipher presented his findings at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in 1914. In the audience was Edwin Hubble, who would later be an instrumental figure in observing the expansion of the universe.

A few years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity in 1916. This theory chiefly concerns gravity. Einstein was trying to provide a mathematical model for a static universe, one that was not expanding. Privately, a Dutch astronomer named William de Sitter realized that these equations predicting an expanding universe, one in which galaxies were moving farther away from one another. However, it was World War I and communications were interrupted.

It turns out that Einstein had made a mathematical error in his equation—at one point he divided by zero, something you cannot do. This error was observed by Alexander Friedmann, a Russian mathematician. (George Lemaitre, a Belgian astronomer, independently made the same observation later.) By 1923, Einstein admitted his mistake. He would later call it the greatest mistake of his life.[17] Apparently, he made this mistake because he didn’t want there to be a universe with a beginning. “He was disturbed by the idea of a Universe that blows up, because it implied that the world had a beginning.”[18] Surely, this was because such a beginning implied a Creator.

By 1925, Slipher had recorded the velocities of 42 galaxies that were moving away from the earth. “These accomplishments placed Slipher in the ranks of the small group of men who have, by accident or design, uncovered some element of the Great Plan.”[19]

At this time, Hubble was working at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, the home of a 100-inch telescope, the most powerful instrument of its kind at that time. (Slipher only had a 24-inch telescope at his disposal.) Hubble and his assistant, Milton Humason, were able to see galaxies that were up to 100 million light years away. (A light year is the distance light can travel in one year, moving at the speed of 186,000 miles per second. This calculates to roughly six trillion miles.) This powerful telescope showed that these galaxies were very large, though they appear small because they are at a great distance from earth. He started to judge their distance by the brightness of the stars: a brighter star meant the galaxy was closer; the more dim the star, the farther away the galaxy was.

After calculating the distance of the galaxies, he was able to figure out how fast they moved. He discovered something amazing, known as Hubble’s law: the farther a galaxy is, the faster it moves. This revealed that all of space was expanding, not just the stars. This is hard for us to imagine, but this same law is at work in expanding balloons. Imagine taking a balloon and putting stickers on it, each sticker one inch apart from the other. Now you blow up the balloon. Even though all the stickers begin one inch apart, as the balloon expands, the stickers that are farther away actually move faster. That way, they retain their relative position on the expanding balloon.

Robert Jastrow explains this same phenomenon using the example of a lecture hall. Imagine the seats are spaced apart evenly by a distance of three feet. Now imagine the lecture hall rapidly doubles its size. If you are in the middle of the hall, some neighbors are now six feet. “However, a person on the other side of the hall, who was originally at a distance from you of, say, 300 feet, is now 600 feet away. In the interval of time in which your close neighbors moved three feet farther away, the person on the other side of the hall increased his distance from you by 300 feet. Clearly, he is receding at a faster speed.”[20]

The way that Slipher, Hubble, and Humason were able to measure the speeds of the galaxies is quite fascinating. They noticed that as a galaxy moved away from the earth, its color became redder. This is called the red shift. Jastrow explains:

The effect occurs because light is a train of waves in space. When the source of the light moves away from the observer, the waves are stretched or lengthened by the receding motion. The length of a light wave is perceived by the eye as its color; short waves create the sensation that we call “blue,” while long waves create the sensation of “red.” Thus, the increase in the length of the light waves coming from a receding object is perceived as a reddening effect.[21]

This red shift was measured by attaching a prism-like device to the telescope. This would show the light from the moving galaxy in a band of colors, a spectrum. This spectrum was recorded on a photographic plate, which was then compared to a nonmoving source of light. Essentially, the inherent brightness of the star was measured against the apparent distance of the star. The distance between the two revealed the distance of the star. (A more precise way of measuring the distance was provided by Enjar Hertzsprung, who used a method of triangulation to compare stars in our galaxy with more distant stars.[22])

All of this revealed an important fact: the universe is rapidly expanding. It is not static. Judging from the current rate of expansion and extrapolating this data backwards would suggest that at one point the universe was very small and very dense. It would also suggest that the universe expanded from a single point roughly 15 billion years ago.

Of course, we don’t have astronomical records that date back that far. But astronomers do have something very old to look at: the light generated by stars. Consider this: the light emitted from the sun takes a little over eight minutes to reach the earth. (The sun is about 93 million miles away from the earth and light travels at 186,000 miles per second, which means it takes eight minutes and 19 seconds for the light of the sun to reach us.) If we dare to look briefly at the sun, we are not seeing the sun as it currently is. We are seeing the sun as it was a little over eight minutes ago. When we look at more distant stars, we see them not as they are now, but as they were thousands or even millions of years ago. “The farther out we look in space, the farther back we see in time.”[23]

Hubble was able to plot the distance and speeds of many galaxies on a graph. Once again, the farther away the galaxy, the faster it moved. The galaxies and speeds charted on the graph were plotted along a straight line. Follow that line back a theoretical 20 billion years and you get to the Big Bang. In addition to this measurement, Allan Sandage and Gustav Tammann, who built on Hubble’s work, have also measured the age of the universe by testing the age of globular clusters in our galaxy. “Globular clusters are large clusters of stars that were formed when the Universe was about one billion years old, shortly after the Galaxy itself had condensed out of the primordial gases. The age of these clusters is approximately 14 billion years old.”[24] That means the universe is 15 billion years old. The difference between these two figures shows that the expansion of the universe has slowed down a bit over time.

The evidence of an expanding evidence lead to an inevitable conclusion: the universe had a beginning. But many scientists did not like that conclusion, for nonscientific and philosophical reasons. That is, they didn’t want there to be a beginning of space (and time, which functions as a fourth dimension), because that would suggest evidence for God. Three British astronomers, Thomas Gold, Hermann Bondi, and Fred Hoyle, developed the steady state theory in 1948. They conceded that the universe is expanding, but they argued that the universe is still eternal. They claimed that new material could be created continuously out of nothing in the empty spaces of the universe. It is a far-fetched theory based on philosophy, not science. As Edgar Andrews writes, “For entirely philosophical reasons, they were allergic to the idea of a ‘big bang’ origin.”[25]

Other evidence that pointed to a Big Bang also shot down the steady state theory. (It should be noted that Hoyle coined that term, “Big Bang,” around 1950. In his view, it was a derogatory term.) At the end of World War II, physicists Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, working with George Gamow, predicted that a cosmic explosion would “have been filled with an intense radiation in the first moments following the explosion.”[26] This radiation would be similar to that of a hydrogen bomb. If the universe “banged” into existence, this radiation should be found on the edge of space, in a cooled and harmless form. In other words, there should be evidence of this hot, dense explosion.

In 1965, two physicists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at the Bell Telephone Labs, found this cosmic background radiation. They were working on a satellite designed to detect microwave radiation and they found that such radiation was coming to earth from all directions of space. They found the very thing one would expect to find if the Big Bang actually happened.

There are further lines of evidence that support a Big Bang. These include the elements found in the universe. A Big Bang theory predicts that 30 minutes after the explosion, 25 percent of the matter in the universe would have been helium. (The initial explosion featured only hydrogen, the lightest and simplest element. When hydrogen molecules combine, they can form heavier elements.) By measuring the helium found in the oldest stars, scientists find that they consist of approximately 25 percent helium. The Big Bang model also shows how the hydrogen could lead to all of the other elements in the universe. (Burning hydrogen produces other elements like carbon, oxygen, and aluminum. Supernovae—exploding stars—spray material into space that combines with fresh hydrogen to form the other elements.)

In 1992, the Cosmic Background explorer, a satellite, discovered more ripples of cosmic radiation. George Smoot, leader of this project, said, “What we found is evidence for the birth of the universe. . . . It’s like looking at God.”[27] This discovery confirmed what Penzias and Wilson discovered in 1965. It also confirmed evidence reported in 1990 that showed that the temperature of this background radiation was very cold, about three degrees above absolute zero (or 3° Kelvin or -270° Celsius). This temperature was also very uniform throughout the universe. This shows that the entropy of the universe is very large. Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system. In this case, it describes the amount of heat that has dissipated. A low entropy system is a very hot, very ordered system (the hot and dense matter that exploded in the Big Bang). A high entropy system is increasingly disordered and increasingly cooler. Only a cosmic explosion could account for the massive amount of entropy found in our universe.

The entropy found in our universe also supports the idea that the universe is not eternal. The dissipation of heat throughout the universe from the time of the cosmic explosion until now shows that the universe is not eternal. If the universe were eternal, all the energy of the universe would have dissipated and the universe would reach “heat death” by now. This is the way Douglas Groothuis summarizes this argument:

1. If the universe were eternal and its amount of energy finite, it would have reached heat death by now.

2. The universe has not reached heat death (since there is still energy available for use).

3. Therefore, (a) the universe is not eternal.

4. Therefore, (b) the universe had a beginning.

5. Therefore, (c) the universe was created by a first cause (God).[28]

Let’s summarize the evidence:

1. Astronomers such as Silpher and Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding.

2. The equations of Einsteins’s theory of general relativity, when solved properly, suggest that the universe had a beginning (“t=0, a first moment of time, when everything was compressed into a point with no dimensions”[29]).

3. The cosmic background radiation found in the later twentieth century confirms the Big Bang hypothesis.

4. Entropy supports the idea of a finite universe.

All this evidence certainly points to God. Hugh Ross explains:

The big bang together with the equations of general relativity tell us there must be a simultaneous beginning for all the matter, energy, and even the space-time dimensions of the universe. This beginning occurred only a few billion years ago and places the cause of the universe outside, that is, independent of, matter, energy, space, and time. Theologically this means that the Cause of the universe is independent of and transcendent to the universe. The Christian faith is the only religion among the belief systems of humankind that teaches such a doctrine about the Creator.[30]

When Penzias won the Nobel Prize in 1978 (along with Wilson), he said, “The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”[31]

Stephen Hawking, a British physicist who essentially holds atheistic views, realized what the Big Bang meant. “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end; it would simply be. What place then for a creator?”[32]

Hawking, realizing what a universe with a beginning entailed (the presence of a creator) came up with a different idea of how the universe (one without beginning or boundaries). It is too complicated to recount here, but the key element was an evasion of a singularity, a moment of creation or beginning of the universe. But the only way to make this work was to insert imaginary numbers into Einstein’s equation to yield a universe that has no boundaries. An imaginary number is the square root of a negative number. However, this number cannot exist in reality. (The square root of 4 is 2 or -2. But you cannot have a square root of -4, not with real numbers, anyway.)

Atheistic scientists have tried to dodge the beginning of the universe in other ways.[33] The oscillating model suggests that the universe has been in an infinite Big Bang-Big Crunch cycle. In other words, the universe continually expands and contracts. This would require the universe to stop expanding at a certain point and then start contracting upon itself, reversing the Big Bang until the universe was once again incredibly dense. But there is no evidence that the universe will stop expanding.

There are many different theories that suggest that there are other universes out there and that ours is one of many (the multiverse theory) or that our universe is the product of an infinite regress of universes. For example, the “baby universe” theory can be explained this way: “It has been conjectured that black holes may be portals of wormholes through which bubbles of false vacuum energy can tunnel to spawn expanding baby universes, whose umbilical cords to our universe may eventually snap as the wormholes close up, leaving the baby universe an independently existing spacetime.”[34] That is science fiction, not science, and no data support such a view.

If there were such a thing as a multiverse, a collection of potentially infinite universes, we would have no way of knowing they exist. And even if they did, we would still have to account for their origins. As Andrews observes, “There is not the slightest scientific evidence—or any other kind of evidence if you rule out UFOs—to support the multiverse concept. It can never be more than an inference from scientific data. It might or might not be true, but that is something we shall never know.”[35]

Because other hypotheses are not rooted in science or reality, we can safely assume the Big Bang hypothesis is the most accurate scientific account for the beginning of the universe. However, it doesn’t really tell us how or why the universe was started. We need God to tell us that. Let us consider the words of Jastrow, an agnostic:

A sound explanation may exist for the explosive birth of our Universe; but if it does, science cannot find out what the explanation is. The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation.

This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. To which St. Augustine added, “Who can understand this mystery or explain it to others?” The development is unexpected because science has had such extraordinary success in tracing the chain of cause and effect backward in time. We have been able to connect the appearance of man on this planet to the crossing of the threshold of life on the earth, the manufacture of the chemical ingredients of life within stars that have long since expired, the formation of those stars out of the primal mists, and the expansion and cooling of the parent cloud of gases out of the cosmic fireball.

Now we would like to pursue that inquiry farther back in time, but the barrier to further progress seems insurmountable. It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.[36]

A philosophical argument

In addition to the scientific evidence that supports a beginning to the universe, there is one philosophical argument that comports with the beginning of the universe. This argument is hard to grasp, but it essentially questions the possibility of an infinite universe. If there were no beginning to the universe, then the universe would be an actual infinite number of years (or months or days, etc.) old. However, an actual infinite does not actually exist in reality. (We can say the same thing about the number of causes and effects in the universe. There must be an actual number, not an actual inifinity.

We must differentiate a potential infinite from an actual infinite. A potential infinite is a series of numbers that has a beginning and keeps increasing but never reaches an upper limit. You can simply keep adding one to this number. This verse from “Amazing Grace” proves that point:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise,
Than when we’ve first begun.[37]

Why will we have no less days? Because we can simply add one more to our number as our potentially infinite number of days increases.

An actual infinite, however, consists of an actual number. It belongs to theoretical mathematics and set theory, not to real life. Imagine you had this actual infinite number. Then you divided it in half. What would you have? Would you still have an infinite number, or half of infinity? Of course, you cannot divide infinity by half. If time were actually infinite (with no beginning and no end), we would never arrive at “now.” Perhaps it is easier to think of this in distance. As Groothuis writes, “We can neither count from one to infinity nor count down from infinity to one. There is always an infinite distance to travel, so we never arrive.”[38]

Similarly, we could never have an infinite series of causes, because there needs to be a first cause that set the series in motion. There cannot be a chain of cause and effects (imagine them in a circle, so each cause has a previous cause and a subsequent effect, with no discernible beginning or end). The reason for this is because some cause would ultimately have to cause itself, or the chain would never exist in the first place.

Therefore, the universe cannot actually be infinite or eternal. Only God can be eternal, without beginning or ending, because he is beyond time and space. It is important to note that existence can be potentially infinite, because it has a beginning. Christians had a time when they came into existence, but they will never cease to exist.

Can God be eternal, then? Of course. When God created the universe, he created time in a physical sense. It would seem that at that time he created the laws of physics and mathematics and all other natural laws. Before that moment, God existed (he always has), but not in a way that is differentiated into moments, hours, days, or years. We must remember that God is not bound by his creation, including time.

Therefore, The Universe Has a Cause

It seems that the two premises of the argument are true. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause, and the universe began to exist at one point. Therefore, the universe must have had a cause. But does this mean that cause is necessarily God?

The Cause of the Universe is God

Let us consider the nature of this cause. This entity must transcend space and time. The cause must be beginningless and uncaused. Ockham’s Razor dictates the simplest answer, which means we should not have two or more uncaused causes (such as multiple gods). This entity must be extremely powerful, able to create something out of nothing. There would be no way of detecting this first cause through science, because it stands outside of space and time, and therefore must be immaterial. We will learn from the design argument that the universe is full of information, seemingly the product of intelligence, which must come from a mind, which means this entity must be personal. If the cause is not personal, then it is impersonal, and it seems incredible to think that an impersonal force could create persons.

Of course, these attributes belong to the true, living God we read about in the Bible. Judaism and Islam could also use this argument, as could deists. We have already seen problems in the deist’s worldview, and we will address other religions such as Judaism and Islam at a later time. For now, we must content ourselves with the knowledge that the cosmological argument shows that there must be a God. Other arguments, particularly from Scripture, reveal the character and nature of the true God.

Possible Objection from Christians

At this point, I want to address a very real issue. Some Christians might feel uncomfortable using this argument, because it relies on scientific evidence that shows that the universe is billions of years old. Some people think that such a position is not compatible with the Bible. I understand this concern and appreciate it. Much can be said about how Genesis 1 relates to the age of the universe, but for now, I will say that I don’t think the Big Bang theory contradicts what the Bible actually says. Many evangelical Christians would agree with me. However, to understand how science and the Bible interact will require an in-depth study of what the Bible says about the age of God’s creation.

It should be enough to say right now that the Big Bang does not necessarily support macro-evolution, or what we might now call neo-Darwinism. It does not support a universe that has come into existence through material or natural causes. After all, the Big Bang theory suggests that at the beginning of the universe, some infinitely dense ball of hydrogen came, well, out of nowhere. Only God could account for that.

Scientific truth will never contradict the truth of the Bible, because both the Bible and the universe declare the glory of God to us. Remember that Psalm 19:1 states, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Day and night “speak” of God (Ps. 19:2-6). Romans 1:18-20 also says that nature reveals some of God’s attributes. The revelation found in nature is assumed to be true, because the ungodly and unrighteous men suppress the truth and exchange it for a lie (Rom. 1:18, 25). So if scientists, using actual data, acquired and honestly and interpreted rightly, will never come up with information that contradicts that which is in the Bible.

Notes

  1. C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 34.
  2. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008). See chapter 8, “The Clues of God.”
  3. Ibid., 126-27.
  4. C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 140.
  5. Winfried Corduan, “The Cosmological Argument,” in Reasons for Faith, edited by Norman L. Geisler and Chad V. Meister (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 202.
  6. Kalām is an Arabic word for “speech.”
  7. Al-Ghazālī, Kitab al-Igtisad fi’l-I’tiqad, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 96.
  8. This is the way Douglas Groothuis frames the argument in Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 214. He is borrowing from the work of Craig in Reasonable Faith, 111-56.
  9. Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 58.
  10. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, edited by Paul Edwards (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 6-7. Similarly, Daniel Dennett asks, “What caused God?” in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 242, quoted in Craig, Reasonable Faith, 114.
  11. Corduan, “The Cosmological Argument,” 204.
  12. Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 135, quoted in Craig, Reasonable Faith, 112.
  13. Craig, Reasonable Faith, 111.
  14. Ibid., 113.
  15. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 217.
  16. The information relies heavily on Robert Jastrow’s God and the Astronomers, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton & Company, 1992).
  17. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 63.
  18. Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 20.
  19. Ibid., 21. I should point out that Jastrow calls himself an agnostic.
  20. Ibid., 53-54.
  21. Ibid., 55.
  22. Edgar Andrews, Who Made God? (Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2009), 102.
  23. Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 61.
  24. Ibid., 64.
  25. Andrews, Who Made God?, 99.
  26. Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 69.
  27. Associated Press, “U.S. Scientists Find a ‘Holy Grail’: Ripples at Edge of the Universe,” London International Herald Tribune, April 24, 1992, page 1; quoted in Hugh Ross, Creation and Time (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1994), 129.
  28. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 226.
  29. C. John Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 233.
  30. Ross, Creation and Time, 129.
  31. This was reported in The New York Times, March 12, 1978, quoted in Andrews, Who Made God?, 94.
  32. Stephen J. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), 140-41.
  33. Craig reviews many of these alternative theories in Reasonable Faith, 128-50.
  34. Ibid., 145.
  35. Andrews, Who Made God?, 209.
  36. Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 106-107.
  37. John Newton, “Amazing Grace” (1772). Groothuis uses this example in Christian Apologetics, 217.
  38. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 219.

Evidence for the Resurrection

The following is a longer version of a case for the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. You can read a shorter version here. You can learn more about Jesus’ death and resurrection by visiting https://wbcommunity.org/crucifixion and https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection-resources.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The easiest way to grasp the importance of the resurrection is to imagine what would have resulted had Jesus not risen from the grave. If he had been crucified and sealed in a tomb, never to be seen again, how would we know that he was the Son of God, the Messiah, truly God and truly man? If he had remained in the grave, how would we know that his death on the cross accomplished anything? If he didn’t rise in an immortal body, how could we have any hope for life after death?

Fortunately, Jesus did rise from the grave. He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4; notice also the presence of all three Persons in the Trinity in that verse).[1] In that way, the resurrection proves who Jesus is and demonstrates that he reigns in power.

Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). According to theologian Wayne Grudem, “By raising Christ from the dead, God the Father was in effect saying that he approved of Christ’s work of suffering and dying for our sins, that his work was completed, and that Christ no longer had any need to remain dead. There was no penalty left to pay for sin, no more wrath of God to bear, no more guilt of liability to punishment—all had been completely paid for, and no guilt remained.”[2] Similarly, Tim Keller writes, “Jesus had risen, just as he told them he would. After a criminal does his time in jail and satisfies the sentence, the law has no more claim on him and he walks out free. Jesus Christ came to pay the penalty for our sins. That was an infinite sentence, but he must have satisfied it fully, because on Easter Sunday he walked out free. The resurrection was God’s way of stamping paid in full right across history so that nobody could miss it.”[3]

When Jesus rose from the grave, he rose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). That means that his resurrection insures ours. Though Jesus is the only one to be resurrected so far in history (as opposed to revivified, which is what happened to Lazarus and a handful of others who were brought back to life, only to die again), all who are united to Christ by faith will be raised in the future when Jesus returns. Like Jesus, we will have an immortal, glorified body, one that cannot get sick and die. This is the great hope for Christians everywhere. The resurrection shos that God is making a new creation, one that began with Jesus, continues with our spiritual rebirth, and will culminate in resurrected bodies in a new heaven and earth.

That is the meaning of the resurrection in a nutshell.

But how do we know it’s true? If someone could somehow prove that Jesus never rose from the grave, Christianity would be refuted. For as Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep [i.e., died] in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17-19). Certainly, if the resurrection were false, then Christianity would be, too.

Unfortunately for us, we can’t go back and time and see what happened. Like any historical event, we don’t have access to it. And like all historical events before the advent of photography and video, we can’t see it. Sometimes we have physical, archaeological evidence; sometimes we do not. Often, we must rely solely on the reporting of eyewitnesses and ancient historians. Fortunately for us, there is excellent evidence that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an historical event. In order to understand this evidence, we’ll look at various sources, and then conclude what historical facts can be known about the death and literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. There are three broad categories of sources: the New Testament, extra-biblical Christian writings, and non-Christian historical documents.

Why We Can Trust the New Testament

The best sources for knowing Jesus are the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. It would be a mistake to say that the New Testament is one witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Rather, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven separate documents, written by nine different authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, the unknown author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude). These authors did not sit down together and decide what they were going to write about. In other words, they didn’t conspire to write a myth or a legend, something they knew to be false. Rather, each one wrote, independently of the others, about what they had seen and heard, and what God revealed to them. We know that they didn’t write together because sometimes they had significant disagreements, as can be seen in Galatians 2:11.

The amazing thing is that these authors produced a very cohesive, unified document. And they did this while writing at different times, from different places, to different locations. This is what James White calls “multifocality.”[4] If the authors of these books were not inspired by God to write these books, they would not be so unified in thought. To understand the importance of having multiple witnesses writing in multiple locations, to multiple destinations, at various times, we can compare the origin of the New Testament to the origin of the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon and other works that Joseph Smith wrote. The story of the Qur’an is that the angel Gabriel supposedly appeared to Muhammad and revealed certain teachings, which he recited to his community. These teachings were memorized and written down after Muhammad’s death. Similarly, Joseph Smith claimed to receive a message from an angel, who revealed to him golden plates that only he could read, through the assistance of “seer stones.” He then translated the “Reformed Egyptian” of those plates into English. These stories are rather suspicious because they both involve one man and an angel. By contrast, the New Testament was written by several men, who saw God in the flesh. Jesus had a public ministry, died in public, and appeared to many individuals after his resurrection.

I should also add that we are quite certain that all of the books of the New Testament were written in the first century A.D.[5] Most of the New Testament was likely written before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.[6] It is also important to know that various other “gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas come from the second century or later. Additionally, we should observe that the authors of the New Testament were some of the original twelve disciples (Matthew, John, Peter), two of Jesus’ brothers (James, Jude), an apostle to whom the risen Jesus appeared (Paul), and those closely related to the apostles. Mark was closely related to Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and tradition states that his Gospel is based on Peter’s recollections. Mark also travelled with Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5). Luke was another of Paul’s travel companions (see the “we” passages in Acts, which was written by Luke, beginning with Acts 16:10). Both Mark and Luke are mentioned by name in Colossians 4 (verses 10 and 14, respectively) and 2 Timothy 4:11. We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is, but he surely had access to the apostles, for he mentions Timothy, who was the disciple of Paul (Hebrews 13:23).

In addition to the above observations, we can test the historical reliability of the New Testament using three criteria.[7] The first is bibliographical test, which seeks to confirm whether the text we now have is an accurate representation of the original New Testament books. (Bear in mind that these books were written by hand, and copied by hand, until the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. We don’t have the original copies—the autographs—of these books, but that is no cause for concern, since we don’t have the original copy of any book from the ancient world.) The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament, more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.[8]

Now, that may not seem very impressive, but let us compare these figures to other historical works of the same era The Roman historian Tacitus’s two major works, the Histories and the Annals were written around A.D. 100, and they exist in incomplete form in only two manuscripts from the ninth and the eleventh centuries. We have only eight manuscripts of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the fifth century B.C., and the oldest manuscript is dated around A.D. 900, some thirteen hundred years later. Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates to around nine hundred years later.[9] The New Testament is the best-attested collection of documents from antiquity. This fact doesn’t prove that the content of these books is historically accurate, but it does give us confidence that we have access to the content of the original New Testament documents. These thousands of manuscripts assist those in textual criticism, the practice of removing transcription errors from manuscripts until the original content is restored.

The second test is the internal test: do the documents claim to be history? Luke claims that his Gospel was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4), and the sequel to this book, Acts, picks up where the first book left off. Peter and John also claim to report what they have personally witnessed (2 Peter 1:16-18; 1 John 1:1-3) and Paul states that the gospel he taught was received through a revelation by Jesus and confirmed by visiting Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:11-19).

The third test is external: are the contents of the New Testament verified through other writings and through archaeological evidence? The writings of the early Church Fathers, as well as non-Christian historians such as Josephus and Tacitus, confirm some of the details of the New Testament. While we do not have archaeological evidence for every event in the New Testament, there is no such evidence that refutes what we read in its pages. Many of the historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet.[10] New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13-28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[11] Additionally, precise locations in Jerusalem mentioned in John’s Gospel, such as the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) and the pool of Siloam (John 9:7) have been discovered, revealing that John had a very accurate knowledge of Jerusalem.

Two more observations about Scripture: The Bible stands up to the criterion of embarrassment, a test that is used to determine whether a document is reliable. If a text has potentially embarrassing details, it is assumed that they are reported because the author is committed to telling the truth and is not concerned with how the truth might appear. Many of the great figures in the Bible, from Moses to David to disciples like Peter, are depicted as very flawed individuals. This is particularly true of the disciples, who are shown to be dim-witted (Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16), not concerned about Jesus (they fall asleep while he is praying to God the Father—Mark 14:32-41), wrong in their theology (Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan”—Mark 8:33), and cowardly, fleeing from Jesus when he is arrested (Matt. 26:56) and denying knowing him (Matt. 26:69-75). The way Jesus is depicted could be construed as embarrassing, for he is called “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21), a “drunkard” (Matt. 11:19), demon-possessed (John 7:20; 8:48), and “insane” (John 10:20). (To be clear, Jesus was none of these things, but he was—and is—often misunderstood.) Add to these potentially embarrassing some very difficult teachings of Jesus, and it is very hard to imagine anyone fabricating this story.

The second additional observation about Scripture is that the Gospels and Acts seem to be historical reporting. It is true that these books contain amazing details, such as Jesus supernaturally multiplying food, raising people from the dead, casting out demons, and so forth. Yet the Gospels and Acts show amazing restraint, even as they report such details. One only need compare these books to later works like the Gospel of Peter to see the difference between historical reporting and fantastical legend. Those who have studied the Gospels and Greco-Roman biographies (bioi) have recognized similarities between the two.[12] C. S. Lewis put it this way: “All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.”[13]

So, the New Testament claims to be history, has external evidence to support its claims, is the best-attested collection of documents in ancient history, has details no one would make up, and appears to be historical reporting. What does it say about Jesus’ resurrection?

Evidence from the New Testament

All four Gospels show that Jesus was raised from the dead. First, they claim that after being beaten, flogged, and made to wear a crown of thorns, Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19).The practice of crucifixion is well attested in various Roman histories.[14] Death on a cross was reserved for the worst criminals, and it was carried out by Roman soldiers who knew how to kill. The four Gospels leave no doubt that Jesus died.

The Gospels also report that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, and that some women witnessed the location of this tomb (Matt. 27:67-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). This tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers (Matt. 27:62-66). Some women returned to the tomb on the third day and found that it was empty, a fact corroborated by John and Peter (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10). The risen Jesus was then seen by various groups of people. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” saw him and touched his feet (Matt. 28:9). He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and he ate with them (Luke 24:13-30). Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples (Judas, the twelfth, had betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide) multiple times, showing that he had risen in a glorified body (Luke 24:36-40; John 20:19-20, 26-27). His body bore the wounds of crucifixion (Luke 24:40; John 20:20, 27). He even ate with them and prepared breakfast for them (Luke 24:41-43; John 21:12-14). Ghosts or hallucinations can’t be touched and they can’t eat, let alone cook breakfast. Jesus died, and then he was alive again, able to appear and disappear at will. His resurrected body later ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9).

A summary of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances is as follows:

1. Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18)

2. Mary and the other women (Matt. 28:1-10)

3. Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5)

4. two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-15)

5. ten apostles (Luke 24:36-39)

6. eleven apostles (John 20:24-31)

7. seven apostles (John 21)

8. all of the apostles (Matt. 28:16-20)

9. five hundred disciples (1 Cor. 15:6)

10. James (1 Cor. 15:7)

11. again to all the apostles (Acts 1:4-8)

12. the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1-9; 1 Cor. 15:8; 9:1).[15]

The last person on that list is the apostle Paul. He had a very unique encounter with Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (Acts 9). Additionally, Paul witnesses to the resurrection several times in his letters. What is interesting is that many of Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, and various New Testament scholars believe that even within these letters, Paul uses teachings that date to the first few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

For example, Paul wrote the letter to the Romans around A.D. 55-58. Jesus most likely died in A.D. 30, though many believe the year was 33. (Given the data we have, either year is possible.) Within twenty-five years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul wrote this letter. At the beginning of the letter, he writes:

who was born from the seed of David according to the flesh;
who was declared the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead. (Romans 1:3b-4a)

Because of the language used here (in the original Greek), many scholars believe Paul is quoting an early creed or hymn regarding Jesus, one that goes back to the earliest years of Christianity. The parallel structure of the lines (there are two parallel relative clauses; “who was born/who was declared” are both aorist participles in the genitive case in Greek; both lines have “according to”) as well as other details in the language indicate that this was an early hymn from the church in Jerusalem and was approved by the apostles Peter, James, and John.[16]

In a similar way, Paul passes on to the Corinthians an early teaching regarding the resurrection that he most likely received from the Jerusalem apostles. This passage is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time,
(most of whom are still alive, although some have fallen asleep).
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

I have arranged the text in such a way as to bring out its parallel structure. Notice there are four “that” phrases and four “then” phrases (ὅτι and εἶτα/ἔπειτα, respectively, in the Greek). Paul also uses technical terms (“delivered” and “received”) to indicate that this teaching was a tradition that he received from others. This letter was written in A.D. 54 or 55, but this particular teaching is even closer to the resurrection. Given that Paul converted to Christianity within a few short years after Jesus’ death,[17] and that he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem three years later (Gal. 1:18), it seems quite possible that Paul received this early teaching regarding the resurrection from eyewitnesses, four to six years after the event took place.[18]

It is important to observe the early dates of these teachings because there have been many skeptics who claim that the teachings of Christianity are myths that developed over time. They may grant that Jesus was a real person who died by crucifixion. But these skeptics claim that Jesus’ followers invented many elements of the Gospels, including his resurrection. However, these early teachings show that the resurrection of Jesus was taught from the beginning, and that it was not a legend created by subsequent generations.

We should also note that both Romans and 1 Corinthians were public letters, meant to be read aloud to a broad audience (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). Paul mentions several resurrection witnesses in 1 Corinthians including Peter (or Cephas, the Aramaic rendering of his name), “the twelve” (the corporate title of the original disciples of Jesus, though the actual number was eleven, since Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus), James, and five hundred others, many of whom are still alive some twenty-five years later. Paul is indicating that if people have questions about whether the resurrection actually happened, they can go talk to these witnesses. (There are several individuals, some of whom served as minor figures in the Gospels, who are named quite specifically in those books. It is believed that the naming of so many people was one way that the Gospel writers sought to authenticate their biographies of Jesus.)

Paul’s writings, his sermons in Acts, and claims of the Gospels all attest to some basic facts regarding Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. William Lane Craig provides the following table to help us see that fact.[19]

1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Acts 13:28-31 Mark 15:37-16:7
Christ died . . . Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.
he was buried . . . they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tom And he [Joseph] bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb.
he was raised . . . But God raised him from the dead . . . “He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.”
he appeared . . . . . . and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

The New Testament is well-attested, its contents are verified by external sources, it contains teachings that come from years right after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it circulated quickly throughout the Roman Empire. Additionally, there are no contemporary non-Christian writings that state that this Jesus did not exist, or that he did not die, or that he did not rise again. If there were evidence contradicting the claims of Christianity, it could have been brought to the light, and Christianity never would have survived. If there was a tomb that contained Jesus’ remains, this evidence could have easily refuted the preaching of the apostles. However, no such evidence exists. However, we do have some evidence from non-Christians that tells us about Jesus.

Extra-biblical Christian Evidence

Many of the early Church Fathers, leading figures in Christianity in the two or three centuries after Jesus’ death, bear witness to the resurrection. One such witness is Clement of Rome. We do not know the exact time when Clement lived, but he was bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. It is possible that he is the Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3 (written by Paul around A.D. 60) and it is also possible that he knew Peter. In 1 Clement, he writes of the resurrection: “Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead.”[20] Later, he writes, “The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand.”[21] This letter was written perhaps before A.D. 70, though the traditional date is A.D. 95-97. Either way, we have another witness to the resurrection from within seventy years of Jesus’ death.

Another early Christian witness to the resurrection is Polycarp (c. A.D. 69-c. 155, according to traditional dates). He died for the Christian faith at the age of 86. In his Epistle to the Philippians, written around A.D. 110, he writes these strong words: “‘For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;’ and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.”[22] Clearly, Polycarp thought the resurrection was of first importance. Irenaeus, a Church Father of the second century, claimed that Polycarp was taught by the apostles, particularly John.[23] Therefore, his testimony is based on eyewitnesses such as John.

Non-Christian Evidence

There are several non-Christian historians who mention Jesus and the early Church. We should consider this evidence, too. The Jewish historian Josephus (c. A.D. 37-c. 100) lived in Palestine, was a Pharisee, and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in A.D. 66. After being captured by the Romans, he joined their side and became a Roman citizen. It was after this time that he wrote his histories of the war and of the Jewish people. Josephus twice mentions Jesus. One short reference to Jesus comes in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[24] We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some.

There is a longer reference to Jesus in the Antiquities that provides us more information. However, there have been some interpolations added to the text by Christians who desired to possess a stronger historical witness to Jesus. One attempt to recreate Josephus’s actual words is as follows:

At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.[25]

At a minimum, it seems that Josephus was aware that Jesus was regarded as a virtuous wisdom teacher who had disciples, who was crucified, whose disciples did not abandon him, and who was reported to have appeared to his followers. If Jesus had been a false Messiah (and there were several of them) and he had been put to death without rising from the grave, his followers would have abandoned the cause.

The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56-117) also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports of Nero’s blaming the fire on Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[26]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” an obvious reference to Jesus Christ, who lived during the time of the Roman emperor, Tiberius, and who suffered death (“the extreme penalty”) under Pontius Pilate. Notice also that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible: after Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples didn’t make much noise in Judea or beyond until after Jesus ascended to heaven and after they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Christian proclamation began with Peter’s speech in Acts 2, after which three thousand people came to faith in Jesus. In the final chapter of Acts (Acts 28) Paul is preaching in Rome. The Christian message spread quite quickly in the thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

One more Roman witness will suffice. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61 – c. 112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98-117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. At one point, he describes their Christian worship: “They met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.”[27] While this passage, written around A.D. 111, does not speak directly to the historicity of the resurrection, it does show that Christians worshiped Jesus “as to a divinity.” There would be no Christian faith without the resurrection, and Jesus would not be considered divine if he had remained in the tomb.

There are further mentions of Christ or Christianity by other non-Christian writers such as Suetonius, who reports that Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49 because of disturbances caused by a certain “Chrestus,” again, another reference to Jesus.[28] Apparently tensions between Jews and Christians led to the emperor’s decision to remove Jews from the city, an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. Mara bar Serapion, a Syrian Stoic philosopher writing shortly after A.D. 73, makes a reference to the Jews murdering their “wise king.”[29]

Summary of the Evidence

If we were to take only the non-biblical, non-Christian evidence regarding Jesus, we could still establish certain facts. Jesus lived. He was a teacher, a wise man, and a virtuous man. He had followers. He was crucified during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, under the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. The disciples later had claimed that after three days they saw a resurrected Jesus. The Church grew quickly and spread to Rome. And Christianity continues to thrive today.

Of course, if we add to this account what we know from the New Testament, we can say much more about Jesus. The only reason to refuse using the New Testament as an accurate collection of historical documents is an anti-Christian or atheistic bias, or perhaps an anti-supernatural bias (a refusal to believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection). However, if we consider that Jesus was God in the flesh, why should we suppose that God could not perform miracles? The incarnation (when the Son of God became the God-man, Jesus) is itself a miracle, and a one-time event in history. Why assume that Jesus’ life would not be accompanied by miraculous actions, such as healing the blind, bringing the dead back to life (temporarily, not permanently, as in the resurrection), and rising from the grave, never to die again? It seems more reasonable to assume that if Jesus is God, the one through whom the Father created the universe out of nothing, he would be able to do whatever he wanted to do. If Jesus is God, then we should expect some that historical reporting about his life would be full of amazing and fascinating details. We wouldn’t expect a boring story of highly ordinary events.

Once we allow the Bible to speak for itself, we learn so much more about Jesus. We learn about his identity as the Son of God, the Son of David (through his human lineage), the Messiah, and as God himself. When we allow the Bible to speak, we start to understand so much more about Jesus. We begin to understand that Jesus became man so he could die for our sins. He had to do this because only one who is truly God and truly man could serve as the perfect, eternal sacrifice. He took the penalty for sin that we deserve and in return we are counted righteous because of his moral perfection.

It is interesting to note twelve facts that the vast majority of biblical scholars,who range from conservative Christians to atheists, agree upon. These facts are listed by Gary Habermas, a philosopher and an expert on the resurrection.

1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.

2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.

3. Soon afterwards, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost hope.

4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his interment.

5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.

6. Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed. They were even willing to die for their belief.

7. The proclamation of the Resurrection took place very early, from the beginning of church history.

8. The disciples’ public testimony and preaching of the Resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.

9. The gospel message centered on the preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

10. Sunday was the primary day for gathering and worshiping.

11. James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic before this time, was converted when he believed he also saw the risen Jesus.

12. Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) became a Christian believer, due to an experience that he also believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.[30]

Arguments for the Resurrection

In addition to observing the facts above, we can offer a few supporting arguments in favor of the resurrection of Jesus.

It should be obvious by this point that if the above facts are true, then only a supernatural cause can account for the resurrection, because dead men don’t come back to life through natural causes. Jesus actually died, and was raised back to life by God. As Peter said, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. . . . This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:24, 32). According to Habermas, “That Jesus died and that afterward his early followers thought they saw him again are both held by virtually all critical scholars, including agnostics. Most critical scholars also concede that natural alternative hypotheses are unable to explain these data.”[31] If natural hypotheses fail, then a supernatural hypothesis should be accepted.

Another reason to trust the historicity of the resurrection concerns the Jewish expectation of resurrection. A general resurrection was prophesied in Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” However, no one was expecting the resurrection of an individual in the middle of human history. We can see this in John 11, when Jesus is speaking to Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who has recently died. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:24-25).

Though the resurrection of the “Suffering Servant” is hinted at in Isaiah 53:10-11, and though Jesus told his disciples that he would die and be raised on the third day, it seems that even they did not expect a resurrection. Several of the disciples had doubts (see Matthew 28:16-17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-25). My point is that the Jewish people were not anticipating the resurrection of the Messiah, and even the disciples were not expecting it. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone would make up this event.

We can even add that Jews did not expect God to become a man. Their conception of the Messiah was a human, political deliverer. Though they expected God to vindicate them, they could hardly have imagined that God would become a man, and that this God-man would be put to death.

Even though the whole story of Jesus, from the incarnation to his death to his resurrection, seems unexpected, it was prophesied many times in Scripture. The prophecies of Jesus’ death and resurrection are particularly subtle. Two examples are Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.[32] These passages were written roughly one thousand and seven hundred years, respectively, before Jesus’ death and resurrection. If you read these passages, you will see that they point forward to Jesus, but they do so in subtle—not blatant and fictitious—ways.

If the resurrection of Jesus were a tale that someone created, then the first witnesses of the empty tomb and of Jesus would not be women. The Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland observes: “In first-century Judaism, a woman’s testimony was virtually worthless. A woman was not allowed to give testimony in a court of law except on rare occasions. No one would have invented a story and made women the first witnesses to the empty tomb. . . . The fact is included in the Gospels because the Gospels are attempting to describe what actually happened.”[33] If someone made this story up, he or she would have had respected men be the first witnesses, not a group of women.

Another argument is the transformation of the disciples. Reading through the Gospels, one gets the sense that they are sincere but rather thick-headed. When Jesus was arrested, they all fled (Matthew 26:56). Jesus had selected a bunch of “nobodies.” In the eyes of the Sanhedrin, the court of Jewish leaders, the disciples were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). Yet these men were transformed into bold witnesses to Jesus, willing to die for their faith. (In fact, many of them did die for their faith.) What could account for this transformation, other than the resurrection of Jesus (and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit)?

In a similar fashion, there is the conversion of Saul/Paul from a Pharisee who helped persecute the Church (Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 9:1-2) to a bold witness for Christ who established churches throughout the Roman Empire and died as a martyr in Rome. Paul’s witnessing of the risen Jesus and his dramatic conversion are told in Acts 9 and alluded to in his letters. In 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Paul called his former self a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” and the foremost of sinners. What could account for this transformation other than an encounter with the living Christ?

Jesus’ own brothers were also converted to Christianity. During his ministry, they did not believe that he was the Son of God and the Messiah. It is unclear why this is so. Perhaps Mary and Joseph decided not to tell their younger children that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (making Jesus, technically speaking, their half brother). Perhaps they were told that story and still didn’t believe. Their unbelief is reported in Mark 3:20-35; 6:2-6; and John 7:1-5. The Gospels do not lead us to believe that they were among Jesus’ followers or present at his death. Yet in Acts 1:14, after Jesus’ ascension, Mary and Jesus’ brothers are with the disciples. James became the leader of the Jerusalem church and authored the letter bearing his name. Jude also wrote a letter found in the New Testament. Paul tells us that the resurrected Jesus appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7), and it was perhaps this appearance that was instrumental in his conversion.

Finally, there is the dramatic outgrowth of Christianity from its Jewish roots. Christianity grew out of a religion that had a non-Trinitarian, monotheistic view of God; a heavy emphasis on worship at the temple and on the Sabbath; animal sacrifice; circumcision; strict dietary laws; and many other laws regarding physical purity. Christianity, on the other hand, while still monotheistic, says that the one God exists eternally in three Persons. Christianity taught that Jesus himself was the temple (the dwelling place of God with human beings, the “place” of worship, and the “place” of atonement) and that now the Church is the temple. Christians shifted their day of worship from the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, Sunday, in honor of the day Jesus rose from the grave. Christianity acknowledges that Jesus was the final and ultimate sacrifice for sin, that circumcision is no longer necessary, that all foods are clean, and that other laws regarding what is clean or unclean are no longer in effect. This dramatic change in religion can only be accounted for by something as dramatic as the resurrection.

Objections

There have been a number of objections offered to the resurrection. Those who do not believe in Jesus have offered up alternative explanations for what happened.

One hypothesis is that Jesus’ followers were hallucinating when they had experiences of seeing Jesus after his death. Given the fact that Jesus appeared to several different groups of people several times over a period of forty days, this explanation is hard to believe. When people hallucinate, it is a personal and subjective experience. How could many people have the same hallucination repeatedly? According to Michael Licona, “Since hallucinations are mental events with no external referent, one cannot share in the hallucinations of another.”[34] Additionally, when people hallucinate, they often see what they had previously believed. As we have shown, the disciples were not expecting Jesus to rise from the grave. Furthermore, hallucinations can’t be touched and they usually don’t eat food and cook breakfast!

Some people believe that the witnesses went to the wrong tomb and found it empty. This is not possible because the women saw exactly where Jesus was buried and they returned to the same tomb on the third day. It was also the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin. If a claim that his tomb, which once contained the corpse of Jesus, was empty, it could easily be disproved. A tomb with Jesus’ remains was all that was needed to refute the apostles’ preaching on the resurrection. But no such tomb, and no corpse, was ever found. Habermas states, “The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had the power, motive, and location to investigate thoroughly the proclamation of the resurrection appearances. They knew of Jesus’s [sic] death and his burial. Though they were ideally situated to expose the error, they did not refute the evidence.”[35]

Others have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually die, but only appeared to die on the cross. This explanation is known as the swoon theory. The Qur’an claims as much when it says, “That they [the Jews] said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle of Allah’—but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not— Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.”[36] The Qur’an was written six hundred years after Jesus’ death, and is not, therefore, a reliable witness. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the Qur’an doth protest too much, methinks.

As with the previous explanations, this is extremely unlikely, runs counter to the evidence (even the non-Christian ancient historians believed Jesus died), and is not held by serious scholars today. We must remember that Jesus was severely beaten and scourged before the crucifixion. Scourging was known to tear flesh off a body. Josephus reports a man being whipped until his bones were laid bare.[37] Jesus likely suffered a significant loss of blood on the way to the cross. He was also probably extremely tired and weak from not sleeping all night and not eating since the Last Supper. After he died, it is reported that the Roman soldiers pierced his side to verify his death (John 19:34). In all of ancient history, there is only one report of a person surviving crucifixion. This came when Josephus remembered three of his friends who were crucified. He asked Titus, the Roman commander, to release them. Even after receiving the greatest medical care, two of the three died.[38] By contrast, Jesus was not rescued prior to his death, which was verified by the Roman soldiers (who certainly knew how to kill someone). Even if he were released from the cross prior to dying, he would probably not receive the greatest medical care, and the fact that he already was tired and was scourged would make his survival highly unlikely.

Consider what three medical doctors wrote in an article on the crucifixion in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right rib, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.[39]

If Jesus did not actually die, he would have been sealed in a tomb for roughly thirty-six hours without medical attention, food, or water. Are we to believe he survived over that span of time? Could he have opened the tomb and found the strength to walk to his disciples? To believe such a thing is absurd in light of the evidence.

Some people believe the disciples may have stolen the body. In fact, the Pharisees and the chief priests were worried about this, so they asked Pilate for a guard of soldiers to secure the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). After Jesus rose, the chief priests bribed the soldiers to spread this lie (Matthew 28:11-15). Interestingly, the Church Fathers Justin Martyr and Tertullian reported that this was still what Jewish leaders were claiming, even into the third century.[40] The idea that the cowardly disciples could get past a contingent of Roman soldiers and open a sealed tomb is rather unbelievable. Equally unbelievable is the idea that they would propagate something they knew to be a lie without anyone one of them confessing the truth under threat of torture or death. Would all of the disciples be willing to die for their faith? Liars make poor martyrs.

Regarding the idea that the resurrection was a myth created by the disciples, consider the words of Blaise Pascal:

The hypothesis that the apostles were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny this story under these circumstances, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost.[41]

It is hard to believe that the disciples could have conspired to create a story about a resurrection and not yielded to confessing the truth under pressure, persecution, and threats of death. It is harder to believe that many of them, such as Peter, James, and Paul, would have died for a lie.

Other theories have been advanced, such as a substitute (perhaps a secret twin brother?) died on the cross and not Jesus. These theories are equally unbelievable, and no serious scholars—whether atheists or agnostics—maintain them. Lately, it has become popular to say that Jesus didn’t even exist, and that the whole story of Jesus is based on other myths. Given the evidence that we have already examined, it should suffice to say that some people would rather imagine elaborate conspiracies instead of embracing the truth. Many people will not believe the truth regardless of how much evidence has been offered, because they do not want to believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is impressive. It is one of the best-attested facts in ancient history. The only question left is, Will you believe it?

Notes

  1. All Scripture quoted herein, unless otherwise noted, is taken from the English Standard Version.
  2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 615.
  3. Timothy Keller, King’s Cross (New York: Dutton, 2011), 219.
  4. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 307.
  5. For information on the dates of the books of the New Testament, see D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).
  6. It is difficult to date most of the books with precision, but analysis of internal and external evidence assists those who try to determine when they were written. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Paul’s letter, Peter’s letters, and Hebrews were surely written before this time. James seems to have been written as early as the middle or late 40s. Jude was probably written around the 50s or 60s. All of John’s writings (John, 1-3 John, Revelation) were likely written in the 80s and 90s.
  7. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 134.
  8. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 33.
  9. Ibid., 34; Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 135; Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.
  10. On the historical accuracy of Luke, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1981), 80-93.
  11. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990). These facts are listed in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256-59.
  12. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 202-04.
  13. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967, 209, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 311.
  14. For more information on crucifixion, see Martin, Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, translated by John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
  15. This list is found in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 546. Groothuis says he owes the list to Kenneth Samples, Without a Doubt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 137.
  16. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 220-21.
  17. Paul saw the risen Jesus and converted to Christianity possibly in 32 A.D. or 34 A.D. ), within two years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, according to John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1999), 80.
  18. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 231.
  19. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 363.
  20. Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 24, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 11.
  21. Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 42, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts et al., 16.
  22. Polycarp of Smryna, The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians 7, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts et al., 34.
  23. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 254.
  24. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  25. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64, quoted in Paul L. Maier, “Did Jesus Really Exist?” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 145.
  26. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, eds. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, < http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44>.
  27. Pliny the Younger, To the Emperor Trajan, < http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html>.
  28. Suetonius, Claudius 25, <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Suet.+Cl.+25&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0132#>.
  29. “A Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion”, trans. B. P. Pratten, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume VIII: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 737.
  30. Gary R. Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, 9-10, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 299-300.
  31. Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection and Agnosticism,” in Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith, ed. Norman L. Geisler and Chad V. Meister (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 292.
  32. There are many websites where you can read the Bible. Good websites include www.biblia.com, www.biblegateway.com, and www.youversion.com.
  33. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 168.
  34. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 484.
  35. Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus,” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 175.
  36. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, Surah 4.157-58, Electronic version. (2004).
  37. Josephus, Jewish Wars 6.304.
  38. Josephus, Life 420-21.
  39. William D. Edwards, Welsey J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 255, no. 11 (March 21, 1986): 1463, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 305.
  40. Gary R. Habermas, “The Empty Tomb of Jesus,” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 170.
  41. Blaise Pascal, Pensées 310/801, ed. and trans. Alban Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 125, quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 558.

The Problem of Evil

By Brian Watson

Introduction

Evil is a problem for everyone. No matter which religion one believes or which worldview one holds, the presence of evil in the world creates a logical and existential quandary for all. For Christians, the very existence of evil can produce doubt and, in the realm of apologetics, can be something of an embarrassment. When Christians share and defend their faith, it is quite common for non-Christians to raise the so-called “problem of evil,” either as a real hindrance to belief in God, or as a smoke-screen employed to avoid a conversation concerning matters of faith. As John Feinberg has observed, “Probe an atheist or agnostic deeply enough about why they doubt God’s existence, and he or she will likely recount for you the problem of evil.”[1] Atheists often allege that the existence of evil in the world disproves the existence of God, which is why the problem of evil is sometimes known as the “rock of atheism.”[2]

David Hume (1711-1776) captured the problem of evil rather famously: “Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.”[3] Hume’s clear implication is an almighty and benevolent God and evil cannot coexist. There are many different versions of the problem of evil, including the logical problem of evil, the evidential problem of evil, and the existential or religious problem of evil. These versions of the problem of evil state, respectively, that the existence of any evil, the existence of a great amount of evil, or the existence of seemingly gratuitous evils are not compatible with the existence of the God of the Bible, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. The problem of evil, in all its iterations, presents a significant intellectual and existential problem to the Christian theist. But it also presents an opportunity to share one’s faith, and to show that the problem of evil, instead of defeating the Christian worldview, actually supports it.

The problem of evil is an extensive topic that cannot be examined in full in this paper, given its limited space. While others have probed, for example, J. L. Mackie’s logical problem and William Rowe’s evidential problem of evil,[4] my goal is more modest. I intend to show that (1) the problem of evil is a greater problem for atheists and agnostics than it is for Christians, and (2) the Christian faith, while it does not answer all of our questions regarding evil, provides the solution to the problem of evil, a reason to trust God, and a hope that makes life worth living.

A Problem for Everyone—Particularly for Atheists

As stated above, the presence of evil in the world is a problem for everyone. Death awaits us all and claims our loved ones. Some die through natural evils, such as earthquakes and floods. Others are murdered, their lives claimed by human evil. Each one of us experiences evil on some level, and this experience produces within us a sense of indignation. According to Henri Blocher, evil is “an unjustifiable reality,” a “disorder” that “oppresses and is oppressive.”[5] Though it is difficult to define evil, we all know it when we see it. We might say that evil is a distortion of the way things ought to be.

This last statement brings us to a very significant thought, one often ignored by atheists. In order to call something evil, we must first have a sense of how things ought to be. Evil has been called a parasite on an antecedent good, much like rust on a car, rot in a tree, or a hole in a garment.[6] To know that an earthquake is evil, or that murder is evil, would require living in a world where no earthquakes or murder exist. Yet none of us have lived in such a world. There must, then, be some other way of detecting evil. Of course, the Bible tells us that God has implanted within each of us a conscience that can detect such things (Rom. 2:15). As “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes writes, God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl. 3:11). Christians can state confidently that God has given everyone a sense of how things ought to be, and things such as earthquakes and murder run contrary to that sense. Furthermore, the Bible stands as a witness to the evil in the world. Protests against evil are found throughout Scripture, particularly in the Psalms, Job, Lamentations, and Habakkuk.

While the Christian can easily justify his or her knowledge of evil, the atheist has a much harder time, for to detect evil, one has to have a sense of the antecedent good that evil has distorted.[7] Those who use the problem of evil in an attempt to disprove Christianity often possess a naturalistic worldview, which denies God. Yet those who deny God have trouble establishing the basis for an objective moral standard, one which is necessary to determine what is good and what is evil. As James Sire observes, “Naturalists who deny the existence of any transcendent, personal God cannot successfully solve the problem of good. They cannot explain why there is a difference between right and wrong.”[8]

One of the key features of naturalism is evolution, which supposedly explains the development of all life forms, which have descended from a common ancestor. One of the key things for a Christian to recognize is that the theory of evolution requires evil, specifically death and even violence. Consider the following summary of evolution:

Nature is extremely prolific. It produces many more offspring of any given species than can possibly survive. Because of a shortage of the necessities of life, there is competition. The best, the strongest, the most adaptive survive; the others do not. As a result, there is a gradual upgrading of the species. In addition, mutations occur. These are sudden variations, novel features that did not appear in the earlier generations of a species. Of the many mutations that occur, most are useless, even detrimental, but a few are truly helpful in the competitive struggle. At the end of a long process of natural selection and useful mutations humans arrived on the scene. They are organisms of great complexity and superior abilities, not because someone planned and made them that way, but because these features enabled them to survive.[9]

Notice the emphasis placed on competition. According to Charles Darwin, the evolutionary mechanism requires the reality of death, of predation. Without such things, there would be no need for adaption and the survival of the fittest. In fact, if there were no such thing as death or violence, evolution would not have generated human beings, and we would not be here to debate the issue of evil.

Tim Keller makes a similar observation. First, he acknowledges the problem of evil. “Horrendous, inexplicable suffering, though it cannot disprove God, is nonetheless a problem for the believer in the Bible. However, it is perhaps an even greater problem for nonbelievers.”[10] So evil is a problem for everyone, because all of us realize evil is not the way things should be, but this is a problem for all worldviews, particularly naturalism. Then Keller arrives at this observation: “But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak—these things are all perfectly natural. On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust?”[11]

The atheist may respond by saying that our survival instincts produce a negative reaction to an evil such as death. However, this response is inadequate. Natural selection would require us to view only our death as evil, not the deaths of others. And, as Keller suggests, the naturalist has no grounds to protest the oppression of the weak by the strong. The atheist might claim that knowledge of good and evil is simply a brute fact, but that is like saying knowledge of the length of a foot or the weight of a pound is innate. One needs a ruler or a scale, some type of standard, to measure things. So, too, the measurement of good and evil requires some type of standard.[12] C. S. Lewis, when reflecting on his previous rejection of Christianity, stated, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”[13]

When evil befalls a person, whether Christian or atheist, a common question emerges upon the lips or, at least, in the mind: “Why me?” If, to quote Carl Sagan, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,”[14] why ask such a question? It would make no sense to ask the impersonal universe why such evil has occurred. Such a question requires the existence of a personal Being who has the power to stop such evil and the loving character to desire to stop it. In other words, such a question demand God. As Blocher writes, “Without this God who is sovereign and good, what is the rationale of our complaints? Can we even tell what is evil? Perhaps the late John Lennon understood: ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain,’ he sang. Might we be coming to the point where the sense of evil is a proof of the existence of God?”[15]

The Christian may use the atheist’s “problem of good and evil” defensively to defuse unbelievers’ attacks or positively to share his or her faith. Defensively, one might answer in this way: “When an unbeliever questions the consistency of God’s sovereignty with his goodness in the face of evil, the apologist replies that the unbeliever has no right even to raise the question, for he cannot, on his basis, even distinguish good from evil.”[16] Positively, one might first show that the atheist has a greater problem regarding evil than the Christian.[17] Then one could present the moral argument for the existence of God and proceed to share the Christian worldview and the gospel in their entirety.[18] The problem of evil also gives the Christian an opportunity to show how other worldviews do not adequately address this issue.[19]

Humility

When the atheist tries to adduce evil as a proof against God, he or she is assuming that there could be no reason why an all-powerful and all-loving God would ordain or allow such evil. The atheist is therefore not realizing the limits of human knowledge. It is rather absurd that someone who has a limited lifespan, a limited capacity to learn, and a limited perspective on life could assume to know everything about evil. Stephen Evans boldly writes, “The skeptic’s challenge is really presumptuous and arrogant. It is a claim by a finite creature to know how the world should have been created. How could a skeptic know such a thing?”[20] Science cannot measure evil, tell us that God does not exist, or tell us the purpose of life. Without divine revelation, we would be groping the in the dark, searching for an answer to the question of evil and a solution for how to defeat it.

The Christian, however, realizes that the Bible is God’s inerrant and authoritative word, one that tells us things that science, logic, and observation could never reveal. Yet the Christian must also be humble. The Bible tells us certain things about evil. For example, the Bible makes it quite clear that evil exists, that it is not merely an illusion, and that it is a problem to be overcome. However, the Bible does not tell us the exact origin of evil. Scripture tells us that God does not sin, that he is perfect, that he made human beings to be good, and that he does not tempt people to sin.[21] We also know that the responsibility for sin falls upon the shoulders of God’s creatures, whether they be fallen angels such as Satan or human beings, and not on God.[22] Beyond that, the Christian should be careful not to speculate.[23]

Part of what makes evil so frustrating is that it makes little sense. According to Gerald Bray, “There is something about the nature of evil that flies in the face of the facts and that refuses to yield to rational argument.”[24] If we could understand evil, it would still be painful, but it would be something less than evil.[25] The mysteries of evil cannot be unlocked, no matter how much speculating and philosophizing humans do.

We would do well to remember, at this point, the book of Job. Job, a righteous man, suffered terrible loss because God allowed Satan to test him (Job 1-2). Of course, neither Job nor his friends had access to this information. (For the reader who, unlike Job, has access to that information, many unanswered questions are raised, such as why God would allow Satan to test Job, why Satan was in heaven, and why Satan exists in the first place.) Job bemoans his condition, wishing he had never been born (chapter 3). He even demands an audience with God (13:3). After over thirty chapters of speculation, God himself arrives on the scene, appearing in a whirlwind (chapter 38). Instead of answering Job’s questions, God asks a series of rhetorical questions designed to put Job in his place. God asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (38:4). God even employs sarcasm: “You know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!” (38:21). Duly humbled, Job is silenced (40:4-5), he admits that he spoke out of ignorance (42:3) and he repents (42:6). In his suffering, Job did not need answers. God did not owe Job answers then and he does not owe us answers today.[26] Instead of answers, Job needed God’s presence. He needed to see God (42:5). The same is true of all people, and for those of us who believe in Jesus, we also will behold his face (1 John 3:2; Rev. 22:4).

Many of us struggle with evil because we falsely assume that we are the center of the universe. We falsely assume that the purpose of life is human happiness apart from God. We falsely assume that the kindness that would prevent all suffering is superior to a tough love that would rather us suffer than remain selfish and immature. As C. S. Lewis put it, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”[27]

However, the true God, the God of the Bible, is not a “senile benevolence,” nor is he one desperate to please us. He is far greater than that. He does all that he pleases and everything—including all humans—exists by him and for him. [28] Lewis was right to claim, “Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake.”[29] Rather, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[30]

Our Problem and the Solution to Evil

If the purpose of life is to glorify God, we must all admit that we have failed. When the problem of evil is discussed, a significant omission is often made. The real problem of evil is that we are evil, and we have rejected a God who is completely good. Even those who do not believe in God must admit that human beings are the source of most of the evil in the world.[31] But the Bible tells us that we have rejected God, who is love and the only one who is good.[32] The greatest evil is to reject this God, and at the heart of sin is a desire to be God, a promise that Satan makes but cannot deliver (see Gen. 3:5).

Our sin puts us in quite a predicament. The wages of our sin is death (Rom. 6:23), and God would be just to condemn us all. In fact, because God is a perfect and holy judge, he must punish sin. How can God be, as Exodus 34:6-7 says, “merciful and gracious . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” while also being one who “by no means clear[s] the guilty”?

The answer, of course, is that in the fullness of time, God sent his only Son to take on flesh, becoming a perfectly obedient human being, thereby fulfilling the Law.[33] Jesus was the only human being who did not commit evil. Paradoxically, the only righteous person who ever lived was put to death in the manner of a criminal by dying a shameful death on a Roman cross. Somehow, in ways that are hard to grasp, this was the result of Satan’s actions, evil men’s plotting, and God’s eternal plan.[34] The one who did not sin bore our sins on the cross so that “we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:22-24). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

This is the paradox of the cross, something both profoundly mysterious and also beautifully logical: crimes demand punishment and forgiveness incurs great cost. The only way for God to make us right with him, to deliver us from evil, was to become a human being, to suffer what we deserve. “Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin.”[35] Though evil has continued after the cross, Jesus’ death and resurrection announced the certain future defeat of Satan and evil. This defeat will be brought to a triumphant, cosmic conclusion when Jesus returns, as the book of Revelation proclaims.

The cross of Christ is a fitting way for God to solve the problem of evil. If Satan and sinful men are the truly evil things in the universe, then one way for God to solve the problem would be to destroy us all. However, God is loving and gracious to his creatures, so he devised a way that would destroy evil but not us. As Keller writes, “The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us.”[36] The Creator God also came that he might recreate us through his Spirit and make us into the kind of people who are not evil, the kind of people we were meant to be. All of this was done for our good and his glory.[37] Whatever suffering Christians may now face is a temporary affliction that prepares them for eternal glory (2 Cor. 4:17).

The Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the atonement teach us some important things about evil. While we may not understand evil, we know that God is not indifferent to our suffering. He is not a distant, dictatorial God. Rather, he is one willing to subject himself to pain and suffering. The atonement is something completely unique among religions and worldviews; no other religion says that God became man and endured evil for us.[38] This news gives us a greater reason to trust the Christian God in the face of the evil that we see and experience. It gives us confidence that evil will be destroyed. The testimony of the Bible also tells us that while we do not understand the significance of every evil act, we can trust that nothing is an accident, but that all things work together for our good (Rom. 8:28).[39]

In the end, all evil will be destroyed and all wrongs will be righted. It is nearly impossible to imagine a world that never contained any evil, for such a world is so foreign to our experience. Yet we can suppose that God could have made such a world initially. But in his infinite wisdom, he made a world into which sin mysteriously crept in, a world that needed to be saved in such a way that only God could do it. Eternity will somehow be better with the memory of God’s victory over evil, with a reigning Lord who is also the Lamb slain for our sins. God’s salvation of his people makes them eternally grateful for their rescue, which brings God more glory and which makes his people happier than if they had never known sin and evil. Indeed, man’s chief end is to glorify God, and in the new heavens and earth, they will enjoy him forever in a world purged of all evil.

Notes

  1. John S. Feinberg, “Why I Still Believe in Christ, in Spite of Evil and Suffering,” in Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe, ed. Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 237.
  2. The German playwright Georg Büchner coined this phrase, according to Henri Blocher, in Evil and the Cross, trans. David G. Preston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 9.
  3. David Hume, “Evil Makes a Strong Case against God’s Existence,” from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions, Part X, in Philosophy or Religion: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 262.
  4. See Ronald N. Nash’s discussion of both in Reason and Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 177-221.
  5. Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 11.
  6. Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 220.
  7. Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 618.
  8. James W. Sire, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 181.
  9. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 502. Here, Erickson is summarizing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as set forth in The Origin of the Species, 6th London ed. (Chicago: Thompson & Thomas, n.d.), 473.
  10. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 25-26.
  11. Ibid., 26.
  12. Keller states that the naturalist, when declaring the reality of evil, assumes “the reality of some extra-natural (or supernatural) standard” in order to make such a judgment, in The Reason for God, 26.
  13. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, rev. ed. (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 45.
  14. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.
  15. Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 102-03. The John Lennon song he references is “God”.
  16. John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 168.
  17. “If the believer faces the problem of how there can be evil in a theistic world, the unbeliever faces the problem of how there can be either good or evil in a nontheistic world.” Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 169.
  18. Many apologists have presented this theistic proof quite well, including Douglas Groothuis in Christian Apologetics, 330-63. Lewis rather famously makes much of this argument in Mere Christianity.
  19. For a brief examination of what other worldviews have to say about evil, see Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 617-625.
  20. C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 101.
  21. 1 John 1:5; Matt. 5:48; Gen. 1:31; Eccl. 7:29; James 1:13.
  22. Sire, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? 182; Gerald Bray, God Is Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 345.
  23. I reject such speculation as the Free Will Defense because the Bible does not teach that we have libertarian free will or that this free will would be of such a great value as to make moral evil permissible. Ronald Nash says that, philosophically, one need only prove that the Free Will Defense is logically possible, not necessarily true, in order to defeat the atheist’s problem of evil argument. See Nash, Faith and Reason, 188. The rules of philosophy might allow such a maneuver, but Christians are called to speak truth. Therefore, advancing a speculative argument that is not biblical and could very well be wrong is not in the Christian’s best interests.
  24. Bray, God Is Love, 358.
  25. Blocher writes, “To understand evil would be to understand that evil is not ultimately evil,” in Evil and the Cross, 103.
  26. Similarly, Paul writes, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom. 9:20).
  27. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35-36.
  28. Ps. 115:3; Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16.
  29. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 43.
  30. This is the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. See also Rev. 4:11.
  31. “It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs; it is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork.” Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 79.
  32. 1 John 4:8; Mark 10:18.
  33. Gal. 4:4; John 1:14; Rom. 5:18; Matt. 5:17.
  34. Luke 22:3; John 13:2, 27; Matt. 26:14-16; John 11:47-53; Acts 2:23; 3:13-15.
  35. Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 132.
  36. Keller, The Reason for God, 30.
  37. Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:3-14; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 2:13-15. Notice how our redemption, God’s sovereignty, Jesus’ sacrifice, and God’s own glory mingle in these verses.
  38. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 644.
  39. When speaking of the cross, the Christian would be wise to adduce all the historical evidence for the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. The historical evidence greatly bolsters the argument being made here, though we cannot examine it as this time.

The New Testament Versus the Book of Mormon

Is the Bible the Word of God or the Word of Man?

The Bible claims that it is not the word of man, but the Word of God. Peter, after speaking of the Transfiguration, writes the following words about Scripture:

19And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:19-21).[1]

Peter claims that “the prophetic word” of Scripture is more fully confirmed than the Transfiguration. That is quite a claim. Furthermore, this prophecy of Scripture (Peter means that all of Scripture is prophetic, in the sense that prophets spoke the words of God) does not come from human interpretation or will. It is the result of the Holy Spirit, carrying men along.

Throughout the Bible, it is clear that the prophets and apostles are not delivering their own message. They never claim to be writing one of many religious documents. The prophets stated, time and again, “Thus says the Lord . . .” God told Jeremiah, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth” (Jer. 1:8). He told Ezekiel, “You shall speak my words to them” (Ezek. 2:7). This is the pattern of the Old Testament prophets.

Jesus himself certainly affirmed that God authored the Old Testament. In Matthew 19:4-5, Jesus said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,  and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” Jesus is quoting Genesis 2:24. Notice, Jesus says, “Have you not read that he who created them . . . said . . .” Though Moses wrote this passage in Genesis, it is ultimately God speaking. (Compare also Rom. 9:17 with Exod. 9:16—the same point is made in reverse). Paul said that all Scripture (meaning the Old Testament) is authored by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Paul elsewhere puts the Old Testament and the New Testament on the same level calling them both Scripture (he quotes Deut. 25:4 and Luke 10:7 in 1 Tim. 5:18, referring to both passages as “Scripture”). Furthermore, Peter calls Paul’s letters “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3:15-16. Acts 1:16 states that “the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David” and then quotes Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. (The same is true in Acts 4:25 and Heb. 3:7; 4:7.) So, the Holy Spirit spoke through a human author, David, just as 2 Peter 1:19-21 claims. Additionally, it should be noted that the author of Hebrews claims that Jesus spoke Psalm 40:6-8 (Heb. 10:5-7) and the Holy Spirit spoke Jeremiah 31:33-34 (Heb. 10:15-17). The implication is clear: the entirety of the Bible is God’s Word.

The New Testament apostles show an awareness of sharing God’s Word, not just their own. Peter, of course, acknowledges that in the passage we just looked at. To the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). To the Thessalonians, he wrote, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). Paul knew he was delivering God’s Word.

In 2 Peter 1:19-21, quoted above, Peter is affirming verbal plenary inspiration, to use theological terms. That means that all (plenary) words of the Bible (verbal) are inspired (inspiration), or breathed out by God, through the agency of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that God dictated the words of the Bible to the prophets and apostles. Rather, the Holy Spirit worked through these men (who were “carried along”) to produce the exact result he desired. God used the personalities and experiences of the biblical authors to produce his perfect Word. This method of writing God’s Word might seem odd to us, but it is perfectly characteristic of God’s actions throughout history. It testifies to God’s sovereignty in using imperfect human beings as his instruments to achieve his perfect ends.

In order to understand how credible the Bible’s claims are, we should contrast the origin of the Bible with two other sacred books, The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an. When viewed in this light, the strength of the Bible stands out.

Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was founded by Joseph Smith (1805-1844). The Book of Mormon, one of the chief spiritual books of Mormonism, was published in 1830. Smith purportedly received a visit from the angel Moroni in upstate New York in 1823. The angel told him the location of some buried golden plates. Between 1827 and 1829, Smith “translated” the “reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics on the plates by using a “seer stone.”[2] Smith would look at the seer stone, placed at the bottom of a stovepipe hat (in order to block out any light), to “translate” the contents of the golden plates. He dictated what he saw to his disciple, Oliver Cowdery, who sat on the opposite side of a curtain from Smith. Shortly before The Book of Mormon was completed, Smith claims that John the Baptist appeared in person. Smith wrote of this event in The Pearl of Great Price:

 68 We still continued the work of translation, when, in the ensuing month (May, 1829), we on a certain day went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that we found mentioned in the translation of the plates. While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:

 69 Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.

 70 He said this Aaronic Priesthood had not the power of laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter; and he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and that afterwards he should baptize me.

 71 Accordingly we went and were baptized. I baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me—after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood, and afterwards he laid his hands on me and ordained me to the same Priesthood—for so we were commanded.

 72 The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second. It was on the fifteenth day of May, 1829, that we were ordained under the hand of this messenger, and baptized.

 73 Immediately on our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized, we experienced great and glorious blessings from our Heavenly Father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church, and many other things connected with the Church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation.[3]

This story is extraordinary for many reasons, of course. I will point out only a few problems with Smith’s story, though there are many, many more. The first problem is that in the 1851 edition of The Pearl of Great Price, Smith said that it was Nephi, not Moroni, who appeared to him. This “error” was “corrected” in subsequent editions. However, handwritten manuscripts from 1842 also state that it was Nephi, not Moroni, who appeared to Smith.[4] This, I suppose, could be written off as a copyist’s error—a slip of the mind or a slip of the pen.

The second problem is far more serious. Just a few verses before the above-quoted passage from The Pearl of Great Price, Smith writes:

 63 Sometime in this month of February, the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:

 64 “I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.

 65 “He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”

Smith reports that Martin Harris took a sample of the “reformed Egyptian” writing on the golden plates and brought it to Charles Anthon, a professor at Columbia University, who then affirmed the authenticity of the writing and the translation Smith had made. The only dispute came when Anthon denied that angels could have brought such a document to Smith.

All of the above sounds possible, except for one problem. Anthon never approved of the writings and the translation that were shown to him. E. D. Howe learned of Smith’s claim and wrote a letter to Anthon about it. Anthon wrote a letter back to Howe, dated February 17, 1834. In the letter, Anthon stated that the story was “perfectly false.” He wrote, “Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax.” He then described the writing on the paper as a jumble of Greek and Hebrew, as well as Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, arranged in columns. He wrote, “[I] well remember that the paper contained anything else but ‘Egyptian Hieroglyphics’.”[5]

As if that were not enough, The Book of Mormon has other problems. It has long passages copied out of the King James Bible and though it claims to recall the history of people living in the Americas between 600 BC and AD 421, archaeologists have not located any of these places and have no evidence of these peoples. Other details in The Book of Mormon do not agree with archaeological evidence. Thomas Stuart Ferguson, a professor at Brigham Young University, was given the task of finding archaeological evidence for The Book of Mormon. “After twenty-five years of dedicated archaeological research, Ferguson found nothing to back up the book and, in fact, he called the geography of The Book of Mormon ‘fictional.’”[6]

The historical problems of Mormonism go from bad to worse. Joseph Smith claimed that he acquired the Book of Abraham in 1835. In that year, Smith’s church purchased several papyrus scrolls purportedly written by Abraham and Joseph, patriarchs who appear in biblical book of Genesis. (These men would have lived well over three thousand years earlier.) Smith translated these scrolls, which contained important information regarding Mormon doctrines such as pre-existence. However, the truth of the matter is that the scrolls Smith acquired were copies of common Egyptian funeral texts. In 1912, several Egyptologists examined Smith’s “translations” and found them to be “fraud,” “absurd,” “a fabrication,” and “undoubtedly the work of pure imagination.” These judgments were based on Smith’s drawings of the scrolls. However, the actual scrolls themselves were destroyed in a fire in Chicago in 1876. Therefore, Mormons could claim that Smith’s translation, based on the scrolls, not the drawings, was accurate. However, papyri fragments of these scrolls reappeared in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. These fragments showed that Smith’s critics were right all along. We have proof that Smith was a fraud.[7]

Let us compare that story to the story of the prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an. Muhammad was born in Mecca about a.d. 570. In 610, he supposedly began to receive a series of revelations from the angel Gabriel. Winfried Corduan describes this revelation:

The unique twists of Muhammad’s spiritual experience began in a.d. 610, while he was meditating in a cave located on what is now called the Mount of Light, overlooking the plain of Arafat outside Mecca. As Muhammad fell into a trance, trembling and sweating, the angel of Gabriel spoke to him. “Recite!” the angel proclaimed to him. At this moment the brooding, introspective merchant turned into the stern prophet who refused to compromise his convictions and suffered for his steadfastness.[8]

The Qur’an consists of a number of revelations allegedly given to Muhammad from Gabriel between 610 and 632, the year Muhammad died. There are 114 revelations in the Qur’an, each written down in a sura, or chapter. Muhammad did not write down his revelations, but after his death, they were collected into one book. He would recite these revelations to those present in the community (Qur’an means “reading” or “reciting”). His followers memorized these portions of the Qur’an, and some of them wrote the revelations down.

The second Caliph (successor to Muhammad), Umar ibn Kattab, ordered Zayd ibn Thabit, one of Muhammad’s secretaries, to compile these writings into the Qur’an. Later, in 651, the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, noticed something problematic for the early Muslim community. Several Muslim communities were using versions of the Qur’an that varied in their readings. He was concerned that this might lead to doctrinal confusion. Therefore, he requested that an official copy of the Qur’an be made and that all other copies be burned.[9]

The creation of the Qur’an is radically different from the origin of the Bible. Corduan explains: “The Qur’an is essentially the product of one man. Its content spans a little more than twenty years within a single cultural context. By contrast, the Bible spans about fifteen hundred years in several different languages and highly divergent cultures.”[10] The approximately forty human authors of the Bible wrote its books in different places at different times. The New Testament, in particular, has multiple authors, writing from multiple locations, to multiple locations, at multiple times. James White calls this “multifocality.”[11]

Obviously, the origin of the Bible is quite different from the origin of The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an. It was not delivered to one man. No group of conspiratorial men edited the Bible and burned all previous copies. The early Christian church was too busy growing rapidly and avoiding persecution to have the means to create a document in a centralized manner. According to James White,

[M]any people believe the ancient church somehow “controlled” the text of Scripture, so that if an ancient leader or group wanted to “delete” a belief they no longer held, they could do so. This is manifestly not the case. Never was there a time when any man, group of men, or church “controlled” the scriptural text. Even if a group had decided to alter it, they could never gather up all the copies already in existence; the means of travel would preclude such an attempt even if one was launched, for distribution of the copies would far exceed anyone’s ability to recover them all.[12]

The composition of the Bible was divinely superintended, not fabricated by one man or group of men, the way the facts suggest The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an were created.

Notes

  1. The Scripture passages quoted here are taken from the English Standard Version.
  2. It should be noted that Smith used seer stones to attempt to locate treasure. He had a reputation for being involved in magic and treasure hunting. See Richard Abanes, One Nation under Gods (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), particularly chapter 2, “Moroni, Magic, and Masonry.”
  3. “Joseph Smith—History 1:68-73” in The Pearl of Great Price.
  4. Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, gen. ed. Ravi Zacharias, managing ed. Jill Martin Rische and Kevin Rische (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 200-201.
  5. E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unveiled (Painsville, OH: n.p., 1834), 270-72; quoted in Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 212-13.
  6. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 216.
  7. The information in this paragraph was taken from Abanes, One Nation under Gods, 449-55.
  8. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1998), 79.
  9. Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 93.
  10. Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, 108.
  11. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd. ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 82.
  12. James R. White, Scripture Alone: Exploring the Bible’s Accuracy, Authority and Authenticity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2004), 144 (original emphasis). He makes a similar point in The King James Only Controversy, 77: “You see, because the New Testament books were written at various times and were quickly copied and distributed as soon as they were written, there was never a time when anyone or any group could gather up all the manuscripts and make extensive changes in the text itself, like cutting out Christ’s deity or inserting some foreign doctrine or concept. Neither could someone gather up the texts and try to make them all say the same thing by harmonizing them. If someone had indeed done this, we could never be certain what the apostles had written, and what the truth actually is.”

Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

What follows is a very brief defense of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you want to read a longer version, which has much more detail, specific references, and citations, visit https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection. [1] Also, you can learn more about Jesus’ death and resurrection by visiting https://wbcommunity.org/crucifixion and https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection-resources.

The Meaning of the Resurrection

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The easiest way to grasp the importance of the resurrection is to imagine what would have resulted had Jesus not risen from the grave. If he had been crucified and sealed in a tomb, never to be seen again, how would we know that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, truly God and truly man? If he had remained in the grave, how would we know his death on the cross accomplished anything? If he didn’t rise in an immortal body, how could we have any hope for life after death?

Fortunately, Jesus did rise from the grave. He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). The resurrection proves who Jesus is and demonstrates that he reigns in power.

Additionally, Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). This shows that he paid the sentence for our sins in full and walked out of the prison of the tomb a free man. His death paid the penalty for all the sins of those who are united to him by faith.

When Jesus rose from the grave, he rose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). That means that his resurrection insures the future resurrection of all Christians. Though Jesus is the only one to be resurrected so far in history, all who are united to Christ by faith will be raised in the future when Jesus returns.[2] Like Jesus, each Christian will have an immortal, glorified body, one that cannot get sick and die. This is the great hope for Christians everywhere. The resurrection shows that God is making a new creation, one that began with Jesus, continues with our spiritual rebirth, and will culminate in resurrected bodies in a new heaven and earth.

That is the meaning of the resurrection in a nutshell.

But how do we know it’s true? If someone could somehow prove that Jesus never rose from the grave, Christianity would be refuted. For as Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep [i.e., died] in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17–19). Certainly, if the resurrection were false, then Christianity would be, too. Fortunately, we have several lines of evidence that show that the resurrection is an historical event.

Miracles?

Before we consider the evidence, we should first address one major objection. Many people don’t believe Jesus’ resurrection is a real, historical event simply because they think such things are impossible. In other words, they don’t believe in miracles. Since I don’t have a great deal of space to defend the existence of miracles, I’ll make three relatively brief points.

One, some people think miracles never occur. But it would be nearly impossible to prove such a statement. Such a statement is not based on evidence, for two reasons. One, we have evidence for miracles. For thousands of years, in different times and in different places, different people have claimed to have witnessed miracles.[3]

Two, in order to disprove the existence of miracles, scientists would have to have observed, measured, and accounted for every event in history.[4] To say that no dead person in all of history has ever come back to life, scientists would have to have information regarding every dead body in all of history. But scientists simply don’t have access to such information. To say that miracles are impossible is an assertion that needs to be proved. That statement (“miracles are impossible”) is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific conclusion.

Two, some people, such as the philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), think that the low probability of miracles indicates that they are unlikely, if not impossible. Yet the probability of a resurrection is about the same as the probability of a universe arising out of nothing, which is what the Big Bang theory implies. The origin of life is also highly improbable. Just because something is improbable doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred.

Three, there are some events that are frankly impossible without an outside agent coming in to help. For example, I think it’s impossible for my son to bench press 225 pounds—unless I step in and help him lift that weight. Similarly, the origin of the universe and the origin of life are impossible—unless God does the work. So it goes with the resurrection. Usually, dead bodies stay dead. Everyone knows that. The earliest Christians knew that. That’s why they were so shocked when they saw Jesus alive again. Jesus’ resurrection shows that God is real and acts within the world he has made.

The Bible

The best witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the New Testament. This is not one witness to the resurrection, but many. After all, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven different books written by nine different authors, at different times, in different locations, and to different destinations. What is amazing is the fact that these many different witnesses proclaim a single, unified message regarding Jesus. It is important to note that these books were all written in the first century A.D., within seventy years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that they were written by eyewitnesses or those who gathered information from eyewitnesses. The New Testament is the best-attested book (or collection of books, really) from ancient history, in the sense that we have much greater manuscript evidence for these writings than we have for any other ancient text.[5]

All four Gospels show that Jesus was raised from the dead. First, they claim that after being beaten, flogged, and made to wear a crown of thorns, Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19).

The Gospels then report that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, and that some women witnessed the location of this tomb (Matt. 27:67–61; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56; John 19:38–42). This tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers (Matt. 27:62–66). Some women returned to the tomb on the third day and found that it was empty, a fact corroborated by John and Peter (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10). The risen Jesus was then seen by various groups of people. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” saw him and touched his feet (Matt. 28:9). He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and he ate with them (Luke 24:13–30). Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples (Judas, the twelfth, had betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide) multiple times, showing that he had risen in a glorified body (Luke 24:36–40; John 20:19–20, 26–27). He even ate with them and prepared breakfast for them (Luke 24:41–43; John 21:12–14). Jesus died, and then he was alive again, able to appear and disappear at will. His resurrected body later ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:9).

The apostle Paul was also a witness to the risen Jesus. He had a very unique encounter with Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (Acts 9). Additionally, Paul testifies to the resurrection several times in his letters. In some of his letters, written roughly twenty to thirty-five years after Jesus’ death, Paul seems to quote early creeds or hymns that date back to the earliest years of Christianity. These include Romans 1:3–4, 1 Corinthians 15:3–8, and Philippians 2:5–11. The first two passages clearly speak of the resurrection, while in the third passage, the resurrection is implied.

Extra-Biblical Christian Evidence

Many of the early Church Fathers, leading figures in Christianity in the two or three centuries after Jesus’ death, bear witness to the resurrection. One such witness is Clement of Rome. He was the first bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. In 1 Clement, he writes of the resurrection: “Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead.” This letter was written perhaps before A.D. 70, though the traditional date is 95–97.

Another early Christian witness to the resurrection is Polycarp (c. 69–c. 155). In his Epistle to the Philippians, written around A.D. 110, he writes these strong words: “For whosoever . . . says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.” Clearly, Polycarp thought the resurrection was of first importance.

Non-Christian Evidence

There are several non-Christian historians who mention Jesus and the early Church. We should consider this evidence, too. The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37–c. 100) mentions Jesus twice in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the fate of James, he states that this apostle is “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but here he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some.

In another, longer passage in the Antiquities, Josephus states Jesus was a wise man known by his virtue, that he had followers, that he was condemned by Pilate to die, that his disciples reported that they had seen him alive after three days, and that they continued to follow him.

Another witness is Pliny the Younger (61–c. 112), who was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. He observes that Christians worshiped Jesus as one who is divine.

There are other references to Jesus from Roman writers such as Suetonius, and the Syrian Stoic philosopher, Mara bar Serapion.

Summary of the Evidence

If we were to take only the non-biblical, non-Christian evidence regarding Jesus, we could still establish certain facts. Jesus lived. He was a teacher, a wise man, and a virtuous man. He had followers. He was crucified during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, under the Roman prefect (governor) of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The disciples later claimed that after three days they saw a resurrected Jesus. Christianity grew quickly, spread to Rome, and changed the course of history.

Of course, if we add to this account what we know from the New Testament, we can say much more about Jesus. The only reason to refuse using the New Testament as an accurate collection of historical documents is an anti-Christian bias, or perhaps an anti-supernatural bias (refusing to believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection). However, if Jesus is God, the one who created the universe from nothing, no miracle is impossible for him.

Arguments for the Resurrection

In addition to observing the facts above, we can offer a few supporting arguments in favor of the resurrection of Jesus.

One is the Jewish expectation of resurrection. Jews believed in a resurrection at the end of history (Daniel 12:2; John 11:24), not the resurrection of an individual in the middle of human history. The disciples didn’t expect that Jesus would be resurrected, though he had told them he would. It seems that several of the disciples had doubts (see Matthew 28:16–17; Luke 24:36–43; John 20:24–25). Since this resurrection was not anticipated, it is highly unlikely that anyone would make this story up. (Also, if the Gospels weren’t true, why would they report the disciples’ doubts and flaws?)

Another argument is the transformation of the disciples. Reading through the Gospels, one gets the sense that they were sincere but rather thick-headed. They were also cowardly, fleeing when Jesus was arrested. Yet when we read Acts, we read of a group of bold witnesses to Jesus, willing to die for their faith. Only the resurrection (and the power of the Holy Spirit) could transform them in such a way. It should be added that these were not influential men; they didn’t have political power or riches.

Paul had a similar, though perhaps even more dramatic, transformation. He was changed from a persecutor of the Church to its greatest evangelist and missionary. Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude, also were converted from unbelievers to pillars of the church and writers of New Testament letters.

Finally, there is the dramatic outgrowth of Christianity from its Jewish roots. Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism, yet several Christian worship practices are dramatically different from Jewish ones. This dramatic change in religion can only be accounted for by something as dramatic as the resurrection. In fact, Christianity threatened Judaism and the Roman Empire. If someone invented this new faith, there would be no money or fame to gain. Instead, that person might very well be killed. The only reason someone would risk proclaiming the message of Jesus is if he believed it was true.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is impressive. The question is, will we believe it?

Notes

  1. Another online resource concerning the resurrection can be found here: https://credohouse.org/blog/evidence-for-the-resurrection-in-a-nutshell.
  2. It’s true that others, like Lazarus, were revivified: they were made alive, but they died again later.
  3. Craig S. Keener has written a large, two-volume work, much of which details miracle reports from different parts of the world. See Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). For a more popular treatment, see Eric Metaxas, Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life (New York: Dutton, 2014).
  4. “One cannot inductively prove a negative without examining every possible instance” (Ibid., 1:105).
  5. For more on why we can trust the New Testament, visit https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament.