Monthly Archives: December 2014

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,600 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

In 2015, I plan to continue the theme I’ve been working on since August: “Is Christianity True?” I want to continue my positive case for the reasonableness of belief for a few more posts. Afterward, I plan to deal with some objections to belief in God and Jesus Christ.

May God give you good gifts in 2015!

Ron Highfield

Click here to see the complete report.

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The Resurrection of Jesus: The Event that Changed Everything for the First Christians

In this 20th installment of our series “Is Christianity True” we finally get to the decisive event in Christian history, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If this event really happened as the first Christians believed, everything changes. If they were wrong and it did not happen, Christianity as it originally came to exist and developed through the centuries is false. In the next few essays, we will pursue the question of whether or not we can reasonably hold to the resurrection faith.

We hear the Christian message from within our wider and narrower context. We bring our own beliefs, thoughts, experiences, and expectations to this encounter. In this series we are asking how a contemporary person can make a rational judgment and responsible decision to believe the Christian message. I think a good place to begin is to reflect on how the very first Christians made their transition into Christian faith. Surely, our coming to responsible faith cannot be wholly different from theirs.

Our knowledge of the careers of the first Christians comes from the documents of the New Testament, especially from the gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul. Let’s delay the question of the historical reliability of these sources and concentrate on the story. The first Christians were Jews and came from among the original disciples of Jesus. They believed in the God of Israel and looked to the Law and the Prophets for guidance in their religion and life. After Jesus began to preach about the coming kingdom of God, these people and many others flocked to hear his message and witness his actions. Because of his radical teaching, his bold actions, and the miracles he performed, people speculated about who he was and how to fit him into their categories. Was he a prophet? Was he the Messiah-King? Was he an apocalyptic fanatic? They speculated about his aims. Did he aim to liberate the Jews from Roman rule? Did he aim to bring the age to an end with divine judgment and renewal? Jesus did not seem into fit any preconceived category.

Jesus called twelve of his disciples into his inner circle, but there was also a larger circle of above a hundred close disciples. Apparently, even these inner circles of disciples were not much clearer than others about who Jesus was and what his intentions were. But they were loyal to Jesus and were certain that the God of Israel was doing something new in the person and ministry of Jesus. According to the Gospel of Mark, Peter believed Jesus was “the Messiah” (8:29). But it’s hard to tell exactly what Peter meant by the title.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, debated with the Pharisees, entered the Temple and drove out the money changers, the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem were alarmed. They captured Jesus, tried him in at night, and convinced the Roman governor Pilate to crucify him. Jesus was crucified in public in the presence of solders, enemies, the curious crowd, and friends. His disciples saw him die. Some of them were able to secure his body and bury it in a nearby tomb.

What must his disciples have thought about this end to the story? Did God abandon Jesus? Was Jesus self-deceived? Or did Jesus simply suffer a martyr’s death as did many of the ancient prophets? According the gospel accounts, the disciples were stunned, afraid, and disappointed. But then something happened they had not expected. Less than 48 hours after they had seen Jesus die and be buried, on Sunday morning some women visited the tomb where Jesus had been buried and found it open and empty. Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself, and seeing the empty tomb, he wondered what had happened (Luke 24:12). Shortly thereafter, Jesus appeared to Peter and the other disciples and spoke with them. Jesus, contrary to all expectations, had been raised from the dead. This experience of the risen Jesus changed everything. Everything had to be rethought and reoriented.

The writings of Paul are the earliest preserved witness by someone who experienced a resurrection appearance. According to his own words Paul persecuted the first Christians but was confronted by Jesus himself and called to preach the gospel—a most unlikely convert! (In Acts, we have three extensive accounts of the conversion of Saul. But I am concentrating here on Paul’s words from his own pen.) In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues for the general, end-time resurrection of the dead from the complete consensus of the first Christians that Jesus was raised from the dead: to deny the general resurrection is to deny the resurrection of Christ. But the resurrection of Christ was a foundational belief in Corinth and all other churches. Paul lists, apparently in order, those to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection: Peter, the Twelve, James, the 500 (many of who were still alive), all the apostles, and finally Jesus appeared to Paul himself. According to Galatians 1:18-20, Paul spent two weeks with Peter in Jerusalem and while there visited with James the Lord’s brother. Hence we have in the words of Paul a direct witness from one who experienced an appearance of the resurrected Lord. Not only so, Paul was personally acquainted with many others who also independently experienced the risen Jesus.

Two conclusions follow from these considerations: (1) there can be no doubt that the event that caused the disciples to believe that God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead marks the decisive beginning of Christianity. Without it, Christianity would not exist. Christian faith is more than belief in the resurrection, but belief in the resurrection is essential and it changes dramatically how the teachings, miracles, and the death of Jesus must be understood. (2) There can be no doubt that Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, the twelve, and many others experienced an appearance of Jesus, which for them unambiguously demonstrated that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Many questions remain for us to address, but I think these conclusions are sound historical judgments.

 

Moving into Faith: Rational and Responsible or Gullible and Rash?

In the last two posts I clarified the idea of history, located the source of information decisive to the transition from nonbelief into Christian faith, and clarified the distinction between an outsider and an insider view of this source. Today I want to move us closer imagining an outsider’s actual encounter with the core Christian message and clarifying the status of the judgment demanded in this situation.

Moving from nonbelief into Christian belief requires us to believe reports of events to which we have no direct access on the word of those who claim to have had direct access. This encounter is exceedingly complex, way beyond our ability to describe fully. The following are some general categories that affect the outcome of this encounter: (1) the background beliefs, experiences, questions, and interests of the nonbeliever; (2) the relationship between the witnesses reporting the events and the nonbeliever listening to the story; (3) the nature of the events reported; and (4) the perceived advantages or disadvantages of accepting the report. Obviously, we cannot create a description of the event of hearing and believing the gospel that anticipates the details of every encounter.

Perhaps some analogies will help. Suppose I am visiting an unfamiliar city and need a prescription filled. I ask the hotel concierge for directions to the local Walgreens. I listen to the directions carefully, accept them fully without consciously examining them critically, and follow them trustingly. Or, in another analogy, when I was a child my father told me that he served in United States Navy in the Pacific during World War II. I believed him immediately and without reservation. Or again, suppose that shortly after I return home from work my neighbor rings my door bell and warns me that in my absence today she saw an unfamiliar man step into my yard and peer into my dining room window. Will I believe her or not? Will I take appropriate measures in response to my belief that these events happened? In one final analogy, suppose a stranger approaches me on a street corner as I wait for the “Walk” sign to illuminate. He tells the story of how a few years ago on a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains he spotted a group of men burying piles of cash. Sadly, they placed a huge rock over the spot so big that he could not move it. After returning from his hike the stranger drew a map to the hidden treasure, which he will happily sell to me for $100. The sign across the street flashes “Walk”. I continue on my way without any reservations about having walked away from the buried treasure and a secure retirement.

In each of these four analogies we can see at work the four general factors mentioned above. I bring to each of these encounters the whole package of my beliefs and expectations, I have some kind of relationship to the witness, the events presented for belief possess a certain character, and I have a feel for the cost of believing or not believing the reports. Each of these factors plays a part in my decision. Most of the time, we are not even aware of the processes by which we perceive and weigh these factors and come to believe.

At this point I want to return to an idea I discussed in the first few posts of this series, applying it in the present context. I believe there is more to the belief-forming process than perceiving and weighing evidences. In much modern thought about belief formation, it is presumed that being a responsible and rational person requires us to consider doubt as the initial attitude toward testimony. Only the measurable weight of testimony, the demonstrable credibility of the witnesses, and other articulable evidences can propel the mind from its initial doubt into belief. I object to this account of the transition from not believing to believing for two reasons. (1) As my analogies show, in many cases we are able to evaluate the complex factors in a rational decision to belief very rapidly. We need not and cannot articulate a detailed assessment of our processing of these factors. And attempting to do so would be as foolish as impossible. Only neurotics spend enormous time and energy attempting to articulate and weigh every factor in their decisions. To live we must take risks. (2) I think it is more descriptive of what we actually do to assume that we possess a natural tendency to believe unless there is a reason not to believe. In other words, our first inclination is to believe what other people tell us rather than doubt them. We do not have an obligation as rational persons to doubt what others say unless there is a reason to doubt.

Getting clear that we do not have an obligation to begin with doubt will help us clear our minds of unreasonable rules that bias us against the testimony of the apostles before we even hear it. It will allow us simply to listen to the witnesses’ stories with openness to being persuaded. All the four factors for belief formation will still play their part but without the extra burden of a false description of what it means to be a rational person. Of course, as my example of the treasure map shows, we can sometimes have good reasons to doubt what people say. But simply that we are being asked to trust the word of another person is not good reason to doubt.

In future posts we need to examine the reports of how the first Christians came to believe and how their testimony was received.

Programing Note: For the next month I may need to post less than once a week. My publisher InterVarsity Press wants the final edition of my book on creation and providence by January 15, 2015. That effort will require my full energies. We just settled on the title: The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence For An Age of Anxiety.

Christian Faith: An Outsider versus An Insider View

As we concluded last week, we cannot move from mere theism into Christian faith by reasoning from the phenomena of nature to their metaphysical cause or from the inner world of our minds and their ideas to necessary truths about God. At best, these routes can take us to theism as a reasonable—and for some people even compelling—explanation for our experience. Though Christianity shares many background beliefs in common with theism, it appeals to specific events within human history as the basis for its identifying truth claims. In an interesting and controversial move that I will need to defend in future posts, Christianity sees revealed in these unique and non-repeating historical events truths of universal significance and application: truths about the identity and purposes of God, truths about the human condition in relation to God, and truths about ultimate human destiny. Today, however, we will address a question preliminary to this issue.

Where do we learn about these historical events and truth claims? I am not asking the question of how we know these events really happened and these claims are true. It’s too early to talk about this issue. I am asking a prior question: how do we get into the position of needing to evaluate and decide about the reports of the events and the truth claims derived from them? The simple answer is that we read about them in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. True. However, we are not looking for the simplest answer but for the most accurate and persuasive description of the move from not believing to believing Christianity. And this means that we must distinguish between insider and outsider views of these reports.

For Christian believers, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are authoritative for their faith and practice of Christianity. The scriptures contain extensive teaching beyond the basic and decisive gospel message. When people come to believe the foundational message about Jesus Christ and decide to follow the Christian way, they commit themselves to listen to the scriptures’ detailed instructions about how to believe and live as a Christian. In other words, in their decision to become Christians they place themselves under the authority of the scriptures. The authority of the Holy Scripture is a doctrine of faith and makes sense only from an insider perspective.

But things look different from an outsider’s perspective. If you have not yet come to believe the basic gospel of Jesus Christ, you have not yet placed yourself under the authority of the scriptures. In other words, as an outsider you don’t feel an obligation to conform to Scripture simply because of its authority. It is important to keep the two perspectives distinct. In my view, we should not urge non-believers to accept the Christian faith simply because of the authority of Scripture. In so doing we are asking them to view the scriptures from an insider angle before they come to faith. Additionally, this strategy would require the apologist to offer evidence for the authority and inspiration of the scriptures and defend them from attacks—all apart from a decision about the basic gospel message of Jesus Christ. Such an approach would lead to interminable debates and would delay the decision about Jesus indefinitely. The proper order is to confront the basic message about Jesus Christ as witnessed to by the reports recorded in the New Testament writings, examine them as one would examine other historical claims, and make a decision to believe or not. If we come to faith in Jesus Christ through the testimony of the apostles, then we will acknowledge the unique placement of those who witnessed these events and gladly put ourselves under their authority as our teachers to whom we look for detailed instruction in Christian faith and life.

What is the gospel? What is the fundamental and decisive message about which one must decide in order to transition from not possessing Christian faith to possessing it? For the Apostles, the core of the Christian message is that Jesus is Lord and Christ, and they offer as evidence for that assertion their witness to resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In future posts I hope to clarify the meaning of this claim and present evidence that puts us in a position to make a rational and responsible decision to embrace this faith.