Is the same message in all the world’s religions?

My seven “Conspiracy Theories about Christianity” posts provided an opportunity for an interesting conversation which included the question above. Are all the religions of the world essentially saying the same thing, or is there a difference among them?

I suppose to answer that question, one must first define religion. Is religion worship of a God or gods? Is religion a collection of moral guidelines? Is religion an attempt to understand the surrounding world and its history? Is religion a way of life?

If the core of religion is morality, then most of the world’s religions have almost the same message. Indeed, many secular philosophies agree on a moral code. Nearly every religion has some version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others the way you would have them do unto you”). With the exception of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, people all over the world believe that kindness to others is essential for a moral life. This includes respecting the lives, families, property, and reputations of others. Caring for the world in general is often a religious principle. Not being obsessed with worldly things such as wealth and political power is generally recommended by religions and by philosophies. Most religions would also add reverence toward holy things, including God or the gods.

How do people explain a common moral code throughout humanity? A secular thinker might claim that this moral sense evolved to protect the survival of the human species. A religious thinker might respond that the Creator embedded these morals in all people, giving us a conscience to guide us, to condemn us when we do wrong, and to defend us when we do right and are accused of doing wrong.

Religious practices are very diverse, but they can be diverse within religions as well as between religions. The four services of an Eastern Orthodox congregation, a high-church Anglican congregation, a rural Baptist congregation, and an inner-city Pentecostal congregation might each seem foreign to visitors from the other three congregations, even as they honor the same God and proclaim the same faith in Jesus Christ while reading from the same Bible. One truth can be stated and celebrated in a variety of ways.

For Christians, however, the core truth of their religion is neither moral codes nor worship practices. The core truth is Jesus Christ, crucified to atone for sin and risen to proclaim victory over evil. The core truth is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. True, some Christian groups veer from the core truth into distractions: works righteousness, political activity (whether right-wing or left-wing), help for the poor and afflicted, or making the worship experience just right. These distractions—some from bad things and others from good things—may make people inside the Church and people outside the Church confused about the purpose of the Church. The Church does one thing that no one else in the world can do. That one thing is not to teach morality or to help the poor or to provide an inspiring and uplifting experience. The one thing that happens only among Christians is forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.

Other religions offer ways to become connected to God or to the gods. These ways generally include various human acts: prayers, incantations, sacrifices, self-harm, and others. Christianity teaches that reconciliation with God is accomplished by God as he enters the world as Jesus of Nazareth, keeping God’s promise of a Savior, living a sinless life in the place of every sinful life, paying a ransom on the cross—giving his own life to purchase sinners for the kingdom of God, and defeating every form of evil—including death—by his death and resurrection.

Imagine a group of people gathered from the various religions of the world. Imagine each of them being asked to list what is wrong in the world. Compare the lists. They would probably be very similar. They would include such problems as war, crimes, violence, hatred, disrespect for authority, pollution of the environment, loss of awe toward the holy, and the like. Now ask them what should be done to improve the world. One Hindu might say, “Accept it and learn from it—it’s karma.” Another Hindu might say, “But my karma is to be a good person and make the world better.” A Buddhist might say, “Do the right things—the Eight-Fold Path—without becoming attached to the things of the world.” A Daoist might say, “Just go with the flow.” A Confucianist might say, “Learn the rules and do what is right.” A Shintoist might say, “Be in harmony with all the spirits and living things that surround you.” A Jew might say, “Obey the commandments and honor the Holy One.” A Muslim might say, “Praise Allah and live according to his instruction.” But a Christian would say, “All those things are well and good, but we cannot fix the world. Evil is too big for us to fight it alone. Jesus has already come to fix what is broken. He has forgiven sinners. He has rescued victims. He will make the world new. He is waiting now for more to learn what he has done and come to faith in him before he reappears to make everything new.”

That Christian is not going to despise obedience to the moral code. That Christian is going to try his or her best to honor God, help his or her neighbors, improve the world, and fight evil. But that Christian does not count his or her works as the real answer to evil. The real answer is that the good and holy God has already defeated evil, not as a warrior, but as a victim. His love and his forgiveness are for all people. God does not want to punish any sinners; he wants the entire world to be reconciled to him.

When evil first entered the world, God promised our ancestors a rescue mission. The serpent’s head would be crushed. God would prevail over evil. This promise was for all people. C.S. Lewis has proposed that the theme of a hero who dies and returns to life, found in so many cultures all over the world, is a dim memory of that promise. I suggested last week that the same theme might come from the natural cycle of planting and harvesting, but that God placed that cycle into our world as a picture of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Again, God does not want to judge and condemn sinners. He wants to rescue sinners. He promises that the citizens of his kingdom will come from all the nations and tribes and languages of the world. But they cannot come from all the religions of the world. All those in the new creation will be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Those who say, “There is no God” or “there are many gods” cannot be reconciled until they learn the truth. Those who say “God has no Son” or “I am my own savior” cannot be reconciled until they learn the truth. Jesus wants all people to know the truth. He sent his apostles to preach the Gospel to the entire world. The Church continues today to reach out to the entire world. We do not say “only Christians will be saved” because we want to close heaven to others. We say “only Christians will be saved” because we want others to come to know Jesus and to trust in him. We look forward to the beautiful harmonious diversity of the new creation, in which people from every culture gather together, united by our Savior, Jesus Christ. J.

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Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #7: Did the Council of Nicaea invent the Trinity in the year 325?”

A great amount of information about the Council of Nicaea (325) is easily available on the Internet and in many books. Given that fact, it is surprising that conspiracy theories about the Council continue to be shared and believed. Dan Brown’s character Teabing manages to make more false statements in one page of The Da Vinci Code than I have included in entire true-false quizzes used in my college history classes.

The Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision which led him to become a Christian. He delayed his baptism until the day of his death, not because he was insincere in his faith, but because he wrongly thought that Baptism would remove only past sins and was therefore best delayed to the end of life. Constantine made many public confessions of his Christian faith. He was well-informed about the doctrines of Christianity, and he supported all the teachings of the Church.

Constantine was appalled to learn of a controversy among Christians in Egypt over the divinity of Christ. Arius held that Jesus was created by God the Father and therefore a lesser being to the Father. Athanasius held that the Father and the Son were equally God with the Holy Spirit, all three eternal and unchanging and divine, equal in power and authority and glory. Arius had a pleasant personality and good rapport with other Christians; Athanasius was a bit more unlikeable, but he happened to be right. To clear the air of this controversy, Constantine summoned a council to meet in the town of Nicaea. He invited all the bishops of Christianity to attend. At least 250 arrived. (The traditional number is 318, but 250 is the lowest estimate.) The Emperor, the bishops, and their assistants prayed, studied the Bible, and discussed what it says about the Father and the Son. The Council wrote a document, the Nicene Creed, which was approved by all but two of the bishops in attendance.

The Council did coin new words to summarize what the Bible says about God, but it was determined to stick to what the Bible teaches and not to create new doctrine. The most controversial word at the time was not Trinity (meaning three in one), but homoousios, translated into English as “being of one substance.” The entire phrase that contains that word identifies Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

Was this idea new? Even the Torah identifies the Trinity, consisting of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. In passages such as Genesis 22 and Exodus 3, the Angel of the Lord speaks of God in both the third person (he, him) and the first person (I, me). In the creation account at the beginning of Genesis, God speaks to himself in the plural (“Let us make man in our image”). Many messianic passages in the Hebrew Bible identify the Messiah as God or as the Son of God. (Psalm 2 is a good example of this.)

The New Testament is not shy about declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Paul uses that phrase about Jesus many times (Romans 1:4, for example). John beings his Gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Later he quotes Jesus as saying, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” (John 14:9-10) Much of the letter to the Hebrews was written to assert the equality of Jesus with his Father.

Why, then, does Jesus say, “the Father is greater than I”?(John 14:28)? The most succinct explanation comes from another document, written well after the Council of Nicaea. Jesus is equal to the Father in regard to his divinity and less than the Father in regard to his humanity. It took several Church Councils to sort through the language needed to talk about Jesus. He is one Person but has two natures—a divine nature and a human nature. The human nature is part of creation and subject to the will of the Father, but the divine nature is equal to the Father in every way. Because Jesus is without sin, his two natures are in complete agreement with each other.

“God is love” (I John 4:16). A Unitarian God can only possess love; He/She/It could never be love. But the Trinitarian God has love as the very basis of his being. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. This God who is love created the universe as a gift of love. Into this universe he placed individuals whom he could love; individuals who could love him and could love each other. True love makes one vulnerable. By giving humans the freedom to love, God also allowed the freedom not to love. Humans have taken that path. But the love of God has not failed. God the Son entered creation to be a Ransom; to pay the price that frees humans from their failure to love. The Son became human—the Father and the Spirit did not. The Son was required to obey the commands of his Father, and he did so. The Son exchanged places with each human, clothing sinful humans in his perfection while taking the punishment sinful humans deserve on himself. The Son died on a Roman cross—the Father and the Spirit did not die. Human death separates the spirit from the body. The body of Jesus was buried; his spirit was in the hands of his Father in Paradise. But that spirit returned to his body on Easter, promising a resurrection to eternal life for all who trust in him.

The Council of Nicaea invented none of these teachings. They found all of them in the Bible and they summarized them in the Nicene Creed. Eighteen centuries later, Christians still use that Creed to summarize what we believe. We believe it because God said it through his prophets and apostles. The message has never changed. It will never change. The Word of God stands forever. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #6: Has the Church changed the Bible since it was first written?

Around the end of 1946, three Bedouin shepherds discovered a cave near the Dead Sea. In the cave they found jars, and in the jars they found ancient scrolls. During the following years more caves with more scrolls were discovered nearby. Although most of the scrolls have crumbled into fragments, it has been possible to piece together nearly one thousand scrolls. They were written between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D., and they are a library used by a Jewish community that had left the cities to live in the remote desert. About forty percent of the scrolls were portions of the Hebrew Bible, known among Christians as the Old Testament.

At that time, the oldest complete copy of the Old Testament (in the original Hebrew) known to exist was one thousand years old. Now scholars had access to versions of the Bible twice as old. Close comparisons have been made, and—aside from a stray letter here or there—no differences were found between the two sets of documents. None of the differences represents a change in teachings among God’s people. The Bible has been preserved through the centuries without human interference.

This should have come as no surprise. The Jewish scribes who make hand-written copies of the Scriptures are meticulous in their work. After one scribe has copied a text, another inspects it. If more than one mistake is found, the faulty copy is destroyed. To assure accuracy of the inspection, these scribes count letters, knowing what the thousandth letter should be and what the two thousandth letter should be and which letter is at the exact center of the Torah.

The history of the written New Testament is more complex. Generally one leader would read from a New Testament text to a room of scholars, and each scholar would write a copy. More errors were likely in this method—skipped phrases, repeated phrases, misheard words, and the like. But thousands of copies of the New Testament, or parts thereof, have been found by archaeologists, dating to the early centuries of Christianity. Using a science called textual criticism, experts can compare divergent texts and determine what the apostle had originally written.

Anyone capable of reading the common Greek of the first century can pick up a New Testament and be reasonably certain that he or she will read the same words, sentences, and books first written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude. Of course everyone else has to depend upon translations. A translator—especially a paraphraser—may have a theological bias which leads to misrepresentations in the translation, whether intended or not. But the most common English translations are reliable, and a person concerned about bias can check several different translations to get a surer sense of the original message.

Contrary to rumor, the Church has not changed the Bible over the years. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #5: did the Church hide other Gospels to bury the truth about Jesus?

 

In Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, a character named Sir Leigh Teabing makes a number of assertions about the history of Christianity, nearly all of which are completely wrong. At one point he says that “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion.” A bit later he adds, “any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life had to be omitted from the Bible.”

A large number of Gospels from the early centuries of Christianity have been found, in whole or in part. Only four Gospels are in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When and how were these four selected, and why were the other ones omitted?

Conspiracy theories aside, the Church in those centuries had a simple process of selecting the books of the New Testament. It was not done quickly, nor was it done by a small secret group. The criteria for books of the New Testament were threefold. Each had to come from an apostle. Each had to agree with the doctrines that were being taught in the churches. And each had to be known in most of the churches, rather than just a few of them, or only one.

Matthew and John were apostles of Jesus. Mark was not, but he wrote what Peter taught, and so his Gospel was accepted. Luke also was not an apostle, but his badge of authority came through the apostle Paul, along with the likelihood that—as he researched for his writing—Luke spoke with other apostles.

Doubts were not expressed in the early Church about these four Gospels. Around the year 185, a Christian named Ireneaeus wrote, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principle winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars….” We can question his reasoning, but historically we see that the Church had settled upon Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the four authentic Gospels long before Constantine and the Council of Nicea.

Other books in the New Testament required greater discussion. Christians had doubts about the unsigned Letter to the Hebrews. II Peter and Revelation were also questioned. Additional books were considered: a letter from Clement, one of the first pastors in Rome was highly regarded, as were the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache. In the end, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were selected because they passed the tests of apostolic authority, agreement with the proper doctrine, and familiarity to all Christians.

The apostles received their authority directly from Jesus. They were messengers, not like mail carriers, but like corporate vice presidents authorized to negotiate and sign documents for the company. They recognized the authority of each other, as Peter wrote, “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (II Peter 3:15-16). So, when they were first received, the four Gospels and the other books of the New Testament were already regarded as the Word of God.

The many other Gospels failed the Church’s test. They did not agree with the teachings accepted throughout the Christian congregations of that time. But Teabing was wrong when he said that the rejected Gospels described a more earthly Jesus. Quite the opposite: they described a more spiritual Jesus, a Jesus who was not at all human but who took on the appearance of humanity to bring a spiritual message to spiritual people.

The people who wrote those other Gospels and the people who read and believed them are now collectively called Gnostics. Only a few of them used that label in their own time, but it implies possession of a secret knowledge. Modern discoveries have uncovered various versions of the secret knowledge that was hidden in their extra Gospels. For the most part, they were trying to change the Christian message into something that matches Greek philosophy. That change requires rejecting the physical world, including the human body, and preferring the world of mind and spirit.

Douglas Adams wrote, “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” The Gnostics would have agreed. They taught that the physical world was made by an inferior god. They further taught that specks of divinity, pure spirit, had fallen into the world and had become trapped as human beings. They said that Jesus was a messenger from the higher gods to rescue those specks of divinity and to tell them how to return to pure spirit. For the Gnostics, Jesus never became flesh and dwelt among us. He could not be killed; and if he did die, he certainly would not choose to raise his body back to life again.

One Gnostic Gospel depicts the body of Jesus hanging on the cross, and his disciples stand at the cross, mourning at his suffering. But then they look above the cross and see the true Christ, unharmed, laughing at his enemies for the thought that they could harm him.

Missing from the Gnostics is the goodness of creation, the Incarnation of the Word, forgiveness through his sacrifice, and a resurrection to life in a new and perfect creation. Instead of those key teachings, Gnostics were to deny the body—most by living ascetic lives, although a few said you could do anything you want in the body, since it doesn’t matter. They were spiritual without being religious. They looked forward to leaving the body, not to be in Paradise with Jesus awaiting the resurrection, but to be free from contamination from the physical world.

No conspiracy led to the selection of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for the New Testament. Those books are the clear Gospel which conforms to Moses and the prophets and to the other apostolic writings. The Church did not hide the other Gospels; it merely set them aside as valueless. Now that they have been rediscovered, they are easily available to researchers. And anyone who troubles to read the Gospel of Thomas, or any of the other Gnostic writings, will see clear difference between their sayings and Christian truth. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #4: are the four Gospels unreliable since they are based on oral tradition and were written long after the events they describe?

When I was in elementary school, the teachers would sometimes have the class play this game: the teacher would whisper a short message to one student, that student would whisper it to another student, and the message would pass through a classroom of thirty students, one by one. When the last student heard the message, he or she was supposed to repeat it for the entire class. Invariably, the message had changed along the course of thirty transmissions.

One time a classroom wag added a dirty word to the message. He or she must have been thrilled to witness the vulgarity being repeated by all the rest of the students in the class. That was the last time we were ever invited to play that game.

Oral traditions are not highly respected in our society. They are treated as very unreliable. However, anthropologists have found that civilizations which do not depend on printed or digital sources for memory are highly successful in preserving narratives unchanged from generation to generation. These scientists have had enough decades to study oral traditions in Africa, the south Pacific, Siberia, and other nonliterate societies to be convinced that their professional storytellers learn the accounts delivered from previous generations and pass them unaltered to the next generation.

No doubt much of the Bible was oral tradition before it was written. The accounts in Genesis must have been passed from generation to generation before Moses put them into writing. Likewise, the four Gospels bear signs of being derived from oral tradition. Their brief narratives of events, their pithy teachings attributed to Jesus, and their use of keywords to build a framework for the entire account all show that these writings were originally designed to be spoken and to be heard.

Indeed, the custom among Jews of the first century was to have rabbis teach their disciples to repeat the rabbi’s messages. Committed disciples stayed with the same rabbi, hearing the same teachings repeatedly until they could speak them to others; then they were sent out to share the rabbi’s message. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is an example of teaching via oral tradition. The verses recorded by Matthew probably were memorized by Matthew through repeated hearings. Even before the death and resurrection of Jesus, Matthew and the other apostles had learned these lessons well enough to be sent to share them with others (Matthew 10:1-42). After his death and resurrection, Jesus again authorized his apostles to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). Clearly, they met together and devised a common framework so that, as they shared the message, the entire world—first the Jews and then the Gentiles—heard the same message from the twelve apostles and from those who learned from those apostles.

Therefore, Peter writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (II Peter 1:16). John also writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—the life that was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard, we proclaim also to you” (I John 1:1-3).

The New Testament is based upon eyewitness accounts! Why, then, do the skeptics insist that the four Gospels could not have been written within forty years of the events they describe? One basic presupposition of the skeptics is that Jesus could not have known the future. His prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem, found in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 and Luke 21, was fulfilled around the year 70. The words of Jesus match the history of the Roman siege and capture of Jerusalem so accurately that skeptics insist that those words must have been written after the events they describe. Without this presupposition, there is little reason to doubt that the Gospels were written a mere twenty to thirty years after the events they describe, rather than the more than forty years required by the skeptics.

Fourth century Church historians were far closer in time to the writing of the Gospels than we are. Moreover, they had access to full documents which we have now only in fragments. Those historians say that Matthew wrote the earliest Gospel in the Hebrew language or idiom. Indeed, Matthew’s intended audience clearly consisted of Jewish Christians, familiar with Moses and the prophets, and not needing any explanation of Jewish customs. Mark and Luke wrote for Gentile Christians. Both were indeed second-generation Christians, but Luke tells us that he researched his subject before he wrote. (Since he frequently mentions, in the first two chapters of his Gospel, the thoughts and feelings of Mary the mother of Jesus, it seems likely that she was one of his sources. He probably also interviewed several of the apostles, as well as other eyewitnesses to the work and teaching of Jesus.) Mark is said by the fourth century historians to have written the lessons that Peter taught about Jesus, so Mark’s Gospel is indeed based on an eyewitness account.

John’s Gospel differs significantly from the other three, which may indicate that he was aware of the circulation of those three Gospels and wanted to supplement them rather than repeating them. He includes some of the benchmarks of the oral tradition: the baptism of Jesus by John, the feeding of the five thousand, the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, and his resurrection. But John recalls longer discourses from the Lord. He departs from the oral tradition, not to deny its accuracy, but to share additional information. And even if John wrote fifty years after he saw and heard and touched Jesus, he was repeating lessons he had taught repeatedly over those fifty years. His position as an eyewitness is solid.

Many Christians feel no need to question the accuracy of the Gospels because they hold to the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture: “All scripture is breathed out by God” (II Timothy 3:16); “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21). But one does not have to accept the doctrine of inspiration to consider the New Testament accounts about Jesus to be reliable. During the time of oral tradition, the spoken accounts of the apostles could easily have been challenged and corrected by other eyewitnesses to Jesus. Even as the first written accounts appeared, people were alive who could have set the record straight. The Bible is trustworthy, not only because of inspiration, but also because of its historic track record. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #3: Did Jesus claim to be God?

C.S. Lewis observed that a person has only three choices when it comes to identifying Jesus: he is a liar, he is a lunatic, or he is the Lord. There’s no room for calling Jesus a great teacher, a prophet, a good man, when one must add, “but he has one small problem—he thinks that he’s God.” Consideration must be given to the identity of Jesus before one evaluates his teachings. Either he is God, or he is not God—in which case, he must be either a liar or a lunatic.

The easiest escape from this challenge is to say that Jesus never claimed to be God. Most Muslims, and even some people who call themselves Christian, use this argument. They say that Jesus was a great teacher, even a prophet, but that the Church later added to his resume the statement that he is God. Their go-to verse for this argument is Mark 10:18. When a man said to Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

Notice that Jesus does not say in this verse, “I am not God.” Instead, he asks the other man why he calls Jesus good. Jesus knew what was in the mind of that man. He was not approaching Jesus with the belief that Jesus is God; he was flattering Jesus in order to get a favorable answer—to be assured that he was good enough to inherit eternal life. The words of Jesus were a challenge to that man’s beliefs, not evidence that Jesus did not consider himself God.

How do we know this? We see throughout the Gospels that Jesus regarded himself as God. When tempted by the devil, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Yet on several occasions Jesus allowed himself to be worshiped. In Revelation, when John began to worship an angel, the angel said, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God” (Revelation 22:9). We do not hear Jesus speak such words to those who bowed down to worship him.

When Jesus challenged his disciples with the question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus did not correct Peter, but he affirmed the truth of Peter’s words. In the Greek and Roman culture, people believed in many gods, and those gods had many sons. But the Jews believed in only one God. Calling someone the Son of God was the equivalent of saying that person was God. The leaders of the Jews said as much themselves when they told Governor Pontius Pilate, “We have a law, and according that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7).

In fact, the entire question of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin hinges upon his identity. They accused him of blasphemy, of insulting God. If Jesus never said (or thought) that he was God, this would have been the time to set the record straight. Instead, when Caiaphas put Jesus under oath and asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62). Jesus was convicted by the Sanhedrin and condemned to die on the basis of these words.

“I am” is the meaning of the name Yahweh (or Jehovah) that is used of God in the Old Testament. In Exodus 3 God stresses to Moses that his name does in fact mean “I am.” By the time of Jesus, observant Jews were so concerned about not misusing the name of the Lord that they refused even to pronounce it, substituting “Adonai” (meaning the Lord) whenever they encountered it. Jesus firmly associated himself with that name of God. Not only did he say “I am” at his trial; he also said “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35), and “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12), and “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). These statements firmly associate Jesus with the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Skeptics question the reliability of these quotes in the four Gospels. They suggest that these words were invented by the Church long after Jesus died. In the coming days I will address conspiracy theories about the four Gospels and their message. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #2: are accounts of the miracles of Jesus (especially his own resurrection) only retelling older myths and legends?

Many cultures and religions have produced stories than contain elements like those which skeptics regard as unbelievable in the Bible. There are talking animals, miraculous healings, control of the weather, even the death and resurrection of the hero. Why do Christians regard the Bible’s accounts as reliable and true when we do not accept similar stories from other sources? How is the story of Jesus different from that of King Arthur or of Robin Hood?

These questions are not new. Skeptics noticed such similarities already in the 1600s, a time period they called the Enlightenment. Thinkers in Europe were willing to accept the moral code of the Bible even while they discounted all the miracles it describes. Out of this approach came a philosophy called Deism. Deists say that God is responsible for creating a world, for giving it natural laws and moral laws, but they insist that God is no longer involved in his creation. Like a watchmaker, he assembled the pieces and started the machinery, and he has since stepped away. From Deism only a single step was needed in the nineteenth century to advocate the idea of evolution, that living things gradually change over time, adjusting to the environment, and that no belief in God is required to explain everything that exists.

The study of biology includes the idea of evolution, and so does the study of religion. Since the Enlightenment, a few scholars have suggested that religion began in primitive humanity out of awe toward the natural world and a desire to explain things that happened. Beginning with a sense of spirits in every tree and river and mountain, humanity began to develop stories about gods. The first monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, were further steps away from primitive thought, only to be further enhanced by Christianity and Islam. Deism and atheism are viewed as the final steps on that road of progress.

Far more people believe that the earliest people knew the true God and that the many religions of the world grew out of distortions and devilish manipulations of that one true religion. Conservative Christians and observing Muslims share that belief in a primal true religion and in many paths of de-evolution. Neither approach is more scientific or more reasonable; each of them has many loyal adherents.

One of the most famous works describing the evolution of religion and the similar accounts found in various religions is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. First published in 1890, Frazer’s book describes many stories and ceremonies from all over the world. He presents numerous examples of human sacrifice, either done in reality or feigned to act out a story. Many Christians, Including C.S. Lewis, have responded to Frazer’s suggestion that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of many versions of the same ancient story.

First, to say that the earlier versions of a hero who dies and returns to life cancels the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection is equivalent to saying that ancient accounts of travelers such as Jason and the Argonauts and Odysseus disprove the accounts of Columbus’ four trips across the Atlantic Ocean. The existence of the earlier stories does not speak against the truth of a similar historic event. In fact, the many versions of the story of death and resurrection of a god or a hero might confirm the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, since it appears that people all over the world expected such an event to occur at some time.

Second, we see Old Testament accounts of what Jesus would do being shared since the day of the first sin, when Adam and Eve were told that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head. It comes as no surprise that distorted versions of that promise would appear all over the world as religion de-evolved among various cultures. C.S. Lewis presented this thought—that the promise of a killed and risen Savior was hidden in the hearts of people everywhere and appeared in various forms and appearances all over the world. One could go further and suggest that when Abraham and Isaac acted out the sacrifice of a son by his father (Genesis 22), they were preparing their own family to believe in the coming Savior. Their Canaanite neighbors, however, got the wrong idea from this event and began sacrificing their own children to gods.

Third, the death and burial and resurrection them is often associated with agriculture. Persephone disappeared into the underworld, prompting autumn and winter; when she returned, she brought spring, and summer followed. The common religious themes of a hero who dies but then returns to life could be drawn from the life of the land, planting and tending and harvesting the crop each year. One could argue that the image of Jesus dying on a cross and rising to life again echoes these ancient agricultural stories. One could also argue that the natural and agricultural pattern was set by a God who already knew what he must do to redeem sinners and to reconcile them to himself. He planned the death and resurrection of his Son to happen in the springtime precisely so nature would be telling the story in its own way while the center truth of the story—the sacrifice of Jesus and his return to life—were happening in Jerusalem. (And the annual celebration of this sacrifice and resurrection likewise correspond to the change in seasons, not by coincidence, but by divine plan.)

As I wrote yesterday, the career of Jesus is linked in its earliest descriptions to historical times and figures. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians some twenty years after Jesus died on a cross and rose again from the dead, Paul gave a list of witnesses to that resurrection, most of whom were still alive. (For cultural reasons, Paul omitted the women who first saw Jesus but included the men.) His assertions could have been disproved at that time, and Christianity would have been stomped out before it had started. If Christianity had arisen in the British Isles or in Persia, describing events in Jerusalem, we would have much reason for doubt. But the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus was killed. If the account of his resurrection was false, the evidence would have been easy to produce. The inability of enemies of the Christian faith to counter its key event with proof of the lie proclaims the truth that Christ indeed has risen from the dead.

Later this week, I will discuss the historical documents that describe this resurrection. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #1: Did Jesus exist in history?

When we speak or write about Jesus, Christians frequently are confronted by statements intended to disprove Christianity. Often these statements come from sincere unbelievers, although sometimes they are deliberate distortions of the truth. While we are unlikely to convert anyone to Christianity by reason alone—faith is a gift of God that dwells in the heart, not a set of propositions that dwell in the head—it is helpful to have an answer to those who question what we believe. It is particularly helpful for believers to be assured that many of the challenges to our faith come from misunderstandings and distortions. Therefore, this week I plan to address seven objections to Christianity that could be described as conspiracy theories about the Church and its teachings.

Today’s conspiracy theory is the challenge that Jesus of Nazareth never existed—that he is an invention of the Church. Few people actually believe that Jesus never existed, and almost none of the people who make that claim are professional historians. But rather than argue from the basis of majority opinion, it helps to have additional proof of the historical existence of Jesus.

The few who say that Jesus never existed support their belief by saying that there is no written account of Jesus from the first century other than those written by Christians. The idea that the written accounts of Christians cannot be trusted to tell the truth about Jesus is unsound—it would be as if citizens of the United States were disqualified to write biographies of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. The collection of writings by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude is in fact very strong evidence of the existence of the man they describe, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call the Christ.

A Jewish historian who lived and wrote in the first century knew about Christians and was not a Christian. Flavius Josephus mentions Jesus in his history of Judaism. Some people believe that the surviving copies of Josephus’ work were edited by Christians to include favorable mention of Jesus. Such forgery cannot be disproved, but the demonstration becomes a circular argument: there are no nonChristian references to Jesus from the first century; Josephus wrote in the first century and mentioned Jesus; therefore Josephus’ book must have been altered by Christians. Roman historian Tacitus also makes a passing reference to the Christ worshiped by Christians, and the Mishnah—part of the Jewish Talmud, definitely not a Christian writing—also speaks of Jesus as a historical figure, one it seeks to undermine rather than support, but one that certainly is considered to have existed. Pliny, another Roman historian of the early second century, briefly describes Christians and Christ in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, asking what he should do about them. Trajan’s response was essentially, “Don’t ask; don’t tell”—in other words, don’t go looking for Christians, but if they make their presence known they must be punished for denying the other gods.

The strongest evidence of the existence of Jesus is not written evidence per se but is instead the very existence of the Church. True, the Romans were fascinated by exotic religions, and Christ could be compared to the Persian god Mithra or the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris in being adopted by the Romans. But there are important differences. First, Christianity emerged out of Judaism, a religion most Romans ignored or mocked because of its firm monotheism. Second, Romans added Mithra and the others to the pantheon of gods without denying any of the other gods, something Christians refused to do. Third, Christ Jesus is firmly tied to historical figures such as Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate, and the high priest Caiaphas, rather than being pictured as part of the distant and shadowy past. Fourth, the details of what happened to Jesus should have been highly embarrassing to Christians—that he was rejected by the religious leaders of his own people and was crucified by the Roman authorities. Likewise, his first followers are far from heroic, as in the legends of most religions. Peter, Paul, and the others are fallible humans who often fall short and are not to be imitated as paragons of virtue.

The willingness of the first generation of Christians to face martyrdom for their teachings is unthinkable if Jesus never existed. The willingness of thousands of people to join his movement in such a short time could have been countered if the authorities were able to demonstrate that no Jesus of Nazareth was ever sentenced to be crucified in Jerusalem. The dramatic change that the teachings about Christ produced in first century people from Spain to India strongly supports a historic Jesus rather than a legend. And the fact that hundreds of millions of people still know him today, while unconvincing to a skeptic, must surely reassure believers that the Jesus they know must be the historic Jesus of Nazareth. J.

Where the grass is greener

I know that many of you are still looking out your windows and seeing snow on the ground, but today I began my outdoor spring cleaning, which consists largely of raking and bagging leaves. I raked and bagged a few leaves back in October and November, but I allowed others to remain through the winter, giving the lawn a natural blanket of protection and fertilization.

It was a pleasant afternoon to be outside. Other people in the neighborhood were not working outdoors with their loud power tools, so I was able to enjoy the songs of the birds and the shush of the leaves being pulled by my rake. In addition, I got a good hour and twenty minutes of exercise, good for the heart and the muscles, although my lower back will be sore for the rest of the day. Raking in the spring requires more effort than raking in the fall. The leaves have settled into the grass, and it takes some work to dislodge them. But springtime raking gives the lawn a nice combing, which is healthy for the grass.

My neighbor, Mrs. Dim, has a horror of fallen leaves. Scarcely a day has passed that she has not been moving leaves away with her loud leaf blower. She also is horrified by wildflowers, which she calls weeds. Her lawn has been treated to destroy dandelions, clover, violets, and other native flora. I, on the other hand, delight in the spots of color that nature and its Creator provide. In a week or two we will have thousands of tiny pinkish purple flowers springing up in the lawn. They will provide a colorful spectacle for two or three weeks before disappearing again into the grass. After them will come the daisy fleabane.

About half the lawns in the neighborhood have the earlier flowers. But I seem to be the only homeowner who permits the daisy fleabane. I find it to be a beautiful wildflower, but Mrs. Dim does not agree. A few years ago, she even called a city official to take a look at my patch of wildflowers. He said that they are cool.

When Mrs. Dim removes leaves, she makes a lot of noise. She also puts them into plastic bags for the city to haul away. When her grandchildren have reached her current age, her leaves will still be sitting in a dump, encased in plastic, doing nobody any good. My leaves go into paper bags, designed to join the leaves in decomposing and enriching the soil. After benefiting my lawn over the winter, they will be of use elsewhere in the near future.

Ironically, Mrs. Dim’s tended lawn of one hundred percent grass is still dormant, a bland shade of tan or pale yellow. But where my grass has been protected, it is already green. For the next few days, the grass will actually be greener on my side of the fence. Take that, Mrs. Dim! J.

Why I write

If I wrote to make money, I would be badly disappointed. The tax documents that I am preparing to file remind me that what I earned through writing last year was a tiny sum, nowhere near enough to support the year’s mortgage or groceries.

If I wrote to become famous, I would be badly disappointed. Some of my writing has been read by others and even quoted by others, but I have probably been noticed more for my public speaking than for anything I have written.

If I wrote to change the world, I would be badly disappointed. A few people have told me that they were helped by something I have written, but for the most part the world has gone its own way without paying any attention to the things I have written.

Why, then, do I write? Largely I write because I must write. I have thoughts that must be expressed. People sometimes ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas swirl around in my mind like flies in a stable. When I am showering, or when I am mowing, or when I am driving, my mind is composing sentences and paragraphs on various topics. For me, writer’s block is not a question of nothing to say; writer’s block for me is too many things to say, crowded together like too many people trying to get through a doorway at the same time.

I earned good grades in school. I scored highly on standardized tests. I could easily have been a scientist, a mathematician, a businessman, or an engineer. I would probably have earned far more money in any of those careers. But my primary fascination has always been language. I read about science, and I understand what I read and find it interesting, but I do not regret refusing to pursue a career in that field. I read about economics, and I understand what I read and find it interesting, but I do not regret failing to work in the world of business.

A few years ago, I was invited into a classroom to talk to seventh- and eighth-graders about writing. I encouraged the students to do three things. Read a lot: being exposed every day to samples of good writing will always improve one’s writing. Write a lot: even when one writes something that goes unread, the exercise sharpens skills. Rewrite a lot: no one but God gets it right the first time. Good writing can always be improved. At the end of the session, one of the students heading out the door asked, “Are you famous?” I smiled and said, “Not yet.”

I wouldn’t mind earning more money for my writing. I wouldn’t mind becoming famous for my writing. I wouldn’t mind making the world a better place by my writing. If none of those things happen, I still must write. It’s who I am; it’s what I do. If I did not write, I would not be who I am. J.