Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Greatest Piece of Evidence

I am not an intellectual. I realise that there are many well-reasoned atheists who could tare strips off me in a debate about the reasons for God. Nevertheless, I believe that there is good evidence to support the Christian faith, and there are some excellent proponents on the Christian side. For example, you could look up the debate between the William Lane Craig and the atheist Christopher Hitchens. Similarly, there is a DVD circling around our church of the debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. I find it interesting that it is the Christians who are keen to get people watching these intellectual contests.

Some of our friends will be surprised that there is a case to be presented for Christianity. Therefore you will already have scored points if you can articulate some of the evidence and direct them to some of the leading Christian thinkers. Many of our friends have bought the lie which says that religion is just superstition, or fairy-tales on a par with Santa and the Tooth-fairy. Many people think that faith is synonymous with blind faith—that it has no relationship to either reason or evidence.

We could point to the mysterious origin of life; and the fact that scientists have no proven explanation as to how life begun (in fact even if they can come up with an explanation for life that will not rule God out of the equation for it will merely reveal the process of life coming into existence and not rule out there being a creator behind this process). We could point to the fine-tuning of the universe and amazing mathematical odds that are needed for a planet which could sustain life (interestingly, in his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins repeatedly speaks of the ‘luck’ that was needed in creation). We could point to the moral argument for God, which asks where our sense of right and wrong comes from. We could show how the Christian message explains the dignity and fallen-ness we see in humanity (we are special, created in the image of God, and yet we all are guilty of breaking even our own standards of morality). We could point to the search for transcendence that is evidence in every ethnic grouping (as a friend used to say, ‘if a new tribe was found anywhere in the world you can be sure that they will have a god or gods’). We could point the human search for the meaning of life (as Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias points out, our canine friends don’t sit around pondering the essence of doggy-ness). We could highlight the great many early copies of the New Testament documents, which come various geographical locations, and point to how we can be sure what was written in the originals. We could point out that Jesus fulfils all prophesies in the Old Testament concerning the promised Messiah (for example, there are descriptions of his death that are consistent with crucifixion even though the Romans hadn’t invented crucifixion when these prophesies were written). We could point to non-Christian historical sources that mention Jesus and the existence of those who followed him. We could point to the dramatic emergence of the Christian church and the amazing change that occurred in the lives of Jesus’ first disciples. We could even point to the existence of modern miracles (I have a section in my blog entitled ‘amazing things that God does’ that I believe demonstrate the existence of miracles today).

However, Christian apologists, professors William Lane Craig and John Lennox both point to the resurrection of Christ as the greatest piece of evidence for the Christian faith. This is what we are going to think about as we look at this evening’s passage. In fact we are going to focus on just one aspect of Jesus’ resurrection—the empty tomb! We will begin by thinking about some of the apparent discrepancies between various accounts of the resurrection; we will then look at some of the reasons for why this story seems athematic; and finally we will think about what are the implications of a risen Christ.

The apparent discrepancies concerning the empty tomb
A careful reading of the resurrection accounts contained in the four gospels reveals apparent discrepancies. For example, John tells us that it was early morning when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. However, Mark tells us that it was sunrise. This isn’t really a big problem. It was dawn, twilight, when darkness turns to light.

Similarly, John only names Mary Magdalene, whereas the other gospels mention other women. Again, this is easy to reconcile; the fact that Mary Magdalene is mentioned does not preclude the possibility that she was not on her own. In fact, look at verse two; she implies a group of people when she declares ‘we don’t know where they have laid him.’

A more difficult objection surrounds the fact that in John’s Gospel the women rush to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved (who is the apostle John), whereas in Mark’s account the women didn’t tell anyone. There must have been some delay and hesitation before they went to tell the disciples.

Some sceptics have raised the objection that it was illogical that the women would have gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus, given that a large stone blocked the entrance. These large circular stones fitted into a groove, so while they were easy to roll into place it would take several strong men to remove it from the entrance. The women couldn’t have opened the tomb. However, such cold reasoning does not engage with the reality of grief. It is natural for these women to want to be close to their friend. The visiting of tombs to pour oil over a loved one is a historical Jewish practice, and the custom of the time dictated a responsibility to mourn at the tomb during the first three days (as the soul of the deceased was thought to be still present). Matthew tells us hoped that someone would help them (they asked, ‘who will help us remove the stone?’).

Doctor Kenneth Kantzer tells the true story about a friend’s mother. The first heard of the death through a trusted mutual friend, who reported that the woman had been standing waiting for a bus, and had been hit by a another bus passing by. She was fatally injured and died a few minutes later. Soon they heard further news. The woman’s grandson said that she had been involved in a collision, thrown out of the car in which she was a passenger, and killed instantly. It looked like there were discrepancies between the stories, but they were both actually true. The woman had been waiting for the bus, was hit by another bus, and was critically injured. She was then picked up by a passing car who attempted to rush her to the hospital. But in their haste this car collided with another vehicle and she was killed. Selected information about the event conveyed the most important details but did result in accounts of the event that looked different. The gospel accounts of the resurrection do not give us an exhaustive account. The writers select the information they include. Therefore, they will sound different. However, there are ways that they can be harmonised with each other.
Marks of authenticity
Ironically, the differences in the accounts of the resurrection point to the authenticity of these records. Even though the four gospels circulated together from an early date, the church never tried to harmonise them to make them sound more authentic. An Australian policeman, who examined this evidence, was convinced because gospel accounts read like reliable testimony—if the accounts had read word for word he would have suspected collusion. Historian Michael Grant, of the University of Edinburgh, said, ‘True, the discovery of the empty tomb is differently described by the various Gospels, but if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was, indeed, found empty.’

One sign of the authenticity of the gospels’ account of the resurrection is the fact that they each show women to be the first witnesses of the empty tomb. In that culture women were looked down upon. A woman’s testimony was not admissible in court. If you were making this story up you would have never placed women at the scene.

The description of the disciples’ actions rings true. There is some debate as to the significance of the fact that John ran faster than Peter; it may simply be due to the fact that he was the younger of the two men. Then John stops at the entrance but Peter rushes straight in. A more reflective John, and an impulsive Peter, is a fit for what we know of these two from all four gospels.

But did they really find the tomb to be empty? They must have. The church could never have taken off in Jerusalem if Jesus remained in the tomb; all the authorities would have had to do was present the body. Indeed, the earliest denial of the resurrection assumed the tomb was empty. Matthew tells us that the Jewish authorities spread the rumour that the disciples had stolen the body. It is very significant that Matthew adds that, this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day (Matthew 28:15b). Matthew’s readers can see for themselves that this rumour was spread to explain the empty tomb.

However, the idea that the disciples stole the body is absurd. Were the guards who were commissioned to watch the tomb the sort of men who would fall asleep on the job? Would if we possible to move the large stone from the entrance without waking the guards? Why would the disciples have stolen the body? If they stole the body then they would have known that the religion they would live the rest of their lives for was a sham. Would they really have been willing to die for a lie? Why would anyone else have stolen the body? Jesus’ enemies wouldn’t have stolen the body because the last thing they wanted was anyone to think that he had risen from the dead.

Interestingly, in the nineteenth century an inscription was found which has been entitled, ‘Edict of Nazareth’; this dates from ad 30-40. This edict warns that robbery from, or desecration of tombs was an offense carrying the death penalty. Historians think that something very unusual must have happened around that time to cause such a severe edict to be issued. Professor John Lennox suggests that the most likely background to this edict is the events surrounding the empty tomb. Sir Norman Anderson, who served as the dean of the Faculty of Laws at the University of London, summed up his thoughts on the resurrection declaring: ‘the empty tomb, then, forms a veritable rock on which all rationalistic theories of the resurrection dash themselves.’

Seeing is believing!
William Lane Craig writes, ‘Against the dark background of modern man’s despair, the Christian proclamation of the resurrection is a bright light of hope.’ What’s so important about the resurrection? It Jesus has been raised from the dead then he is who he claimed to be and his people can trust his promise that we too will be raised from the dead. If Jesus has not been raised from the dead then Jesus’ people are a pitiful joke.

The disciple whom Jesus loved saw and believed—what did he see? He saw the grave clothes folded up. There was a lot of grave robbery at that time—thieves targeted the expensive linen grave clothes. But robbers would not have taken the body and left the cloth; they would have left the body and taken the cloth. Robbers wouldn’t have left the tomb in such an orderly condition. Yet again we have another mark of the accounts authenticity; the gospel writers never hide their failings, in verse ten we read, they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead. Those ignorant disciples now believe that Jesus has been raised but they fail to see that this was inevitable given that the Old Testament spoke of both the suffering, and the eternal reign, of the promised Messiah.

John saw and believed. He writes this gospel that we might do the same. He doesn’t encourage blind faith, but records the evidence and challenges us to respond to it. Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:30-31).

The evidence is presented to us and everything depends on how we respond to that evidence. If you want to become better at sharing the evidence and answering people’s questions then why not sign up for one of the small groups that will be focusing on faith sharing.


Paul said...

Paul, it is not a question of Christians and Atheists trying to tear strips off each other. I do not doubt you sincerity and how true you think your faith is. But when you mention somebody like William Lane-Craig, you then have to justify his explanation for God ordering the killing of so many men, women and children, Craig says
" So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing."

What an awful mindset to have! I am sure if more Christians realised what Craig thinks they would not want to to be passing round his DVDs and books. I cannot beleive Paul that you could possibly support such sick reasoning as that, I do not care what qualifications William Lane-Craig has, this quote shows the logical conclusion of Christian faith, this is what I was trying to explain to you in an earlier post. Can you agree with the above quote? if not ( and I certainly hoope not ), then Christians still have all their work ahead of them. If Christians want to support Craig, it would not be hard to tear strips off them, I simply would like to show Christians and those of other faiths that they are wrong in their beliefs.

John Lennox often says that while he may disagree with other people of faith, the important and vital issue is the resurection, he says anybody who believes in the resurection is his brother. But Lennox immediately has a problem, and I suspect you also, given the fact that the Mormons also believe in the ressurrection, suddenly then belief in the resurrection is not enough to be a "true Christian", this shows just how man made all faiths are.

To whom it may concern said...

Paul, great for you to keep an eye on the blog; many people who comment just fly by the bog, leaving unfinshed dialogue. I find it interesting that you say, 'I simply would like to show Christians and those of other faiths that they are wrong in their beleifs', are you simply someone who points to the weaknesses of other beleif systems or do you put forward a beleif-sytstem of your own.

A couple of comments on the Craig quote (and I must admit I was tempted to simply ignore it). (1) If we concede that Craig was wrong in this quote that does not necessarily mena that he is wrong in every other arguement that he presents, other arguements that he presents have great strength (2) judgement is a concept that Christians have to come to terms with; C S Lewis wrote that there is no other doctrine, that the doctrine of hell, that he would like to get rid of but that Scripture and reason demand it, (3) I think that Graig sound crass in declaring sympathy for the Israeli soldiers, it sounds like an insensitive bit of reasoning.

Again, with regards to lennox's quote (1) he is trying to be charitable and open-minded in what he is saying (2) even if you feel that this quote is poorly thought through that does not nmean that all his arguments are to be discarded.

I think that it would be a fairly shallow debate if we only every cited those in which we were in one hundred percent argrement? Afterall, is there any person who we will always agree with?

Anyway, I would be interested in hearimg about your personal experience with Christianity and the church, and what belief-system you now hold to.

Thanks for your comments, Paul

Paul said...

I honestly fail to understand how you could have been tempted to ignore Craig's quote. And I don't see how you can isolate it as "an insensitive bit of reasoning", it demonstrates his mindset, and therefore it is impossible for it not to colour his whole argument in defense of Christianity.

While you demonstrate the default Christian position i.e.-that if anybody does not agree with Christianity then there has to be something wrong with them. But my plea to you Paul, is for you to examine the claims of your belief. Indeed after reading your account of moving from the Methodists to the Baptists, you mention that at least now when you speak of the cross, your (Baptist) friends and you mean the same thing. Can you not see how man made faith is, when you and some of your former colleagues could not have the same understanding about the cross?

As for me, I do not believe in the supernatural, the paranormal, divine intervention (nor divine punishment), or indeed divine revelation. As I am sure realized by now that I only have a normal (to below) intelligence, but I can assure you I have a genuine passion.

I repeat from an earlier comment, I do not doubt that you are very sincere in your faith, and a very decent person (doubtless much than I), but this does not make it wrong for me to try and show you the the problems regarding your faith.
You have a problem with Mormonism, does this make you a person with a problem? emphatically I would say no! So why are people who dispute the claims of Christianity be written off as suspect?

I would be very happy to have a dialogue with you, on the basis that I deeply feel that all faiths are mistaken, I would suppose you think all other faiths are wrong but yours, I simply go one step more than you, by thinking Christianity is also wrong.

To whom it may concern said...

I totally disagree with you, that I need to ignore all of Craig's arguements because I fear he was foolish in one point that he made.
I also disagree with your stance of materialist naturalism. I think that it takes a step of faith to believe that there is no supernatural, as you are still left with questions regarding origins, design and such events as the spread of the early church (not to say 'modern miracles'). As many people have said, 'I don't have enough faith to be an athiest.'
As regards you intelligence - I sincerely doubt that you are below average.
Thanks for your comments.

To whom it may concern said...

Dear Paul
Just a further thought.
Your argument where you say, ‘I would suppose you think all other faiths are wrong but yours, I simply go one step more than you, by thinking Christianity is also wrong,’ is similar to one put forward by Richard Dawkins and articulated by the atheist, Stephen Roberts, who said, in a debate, “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
I think that there is a weakness in this argument. This argument assumes that scientific materialism (the belief that nothing exists other than what can be observed by the natural senses) is the logical default position. But scientific materialism (or atheism) is not an adequate default position. You see, you can’t simply argue against things, you must argue for something. A case for atheism built on the implausibility of various religions doesn’t go far enough. It is like someone sitting on a jury and hearing the evidence presented by the defence; they may not be convinced by accused’s alibies but that is not enough to reach a verdict of guilt—the prosecution still needs to make a convincing case. I don’t think it is a case of belief verses atheism, but rather that of atheism being one of the belief-systems on offer. Atheism is a belief system that leaves some major questions unanswered. For example, how can something come from nothing or how can we have creation without a creator? As many people have said, ‘I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.’