Forgiveness

Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult for Christians to grasp? On the cross Jesus paid in full for sin. The debt is covered. Christians are called to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is unlimited, so forgiveness from Christians is unlimited. We do not stop at seven times, or at seventy-seven times, or at seventy-times-seven times. We forgive to the seventy-eleventh time, a number that does not exist, so we can never stop forgiving.

Confusion comes when we use the word “forgive” to cover two distinct actions. One is to forgive silently, “from the heart.” This the Christian is always required to do. There is no revenge from the Christian, no “getting even,” no holding grudges. The other is to absolve, to announce forgiveness. This the Christian does for repentant sinners, but not for unrepentant sinners. Christians do not withhold God’s forgiveness, but they withhold absolution from any sinner who does not want to be forgiven.

To approach an unrepentant sinner with the news, “I still forgive you,” or, “God still forgives you,” is a mistake. It might seem loving and Christian to speak those words; but in those circumstances, those words could be viewed as microaggression. The unrepentant sinner does not want forgiveness, not from the Christian and not from God. The unrepentant sinner loves his or her sin more than he or she loves his or her Savior. Offering unwanted forgiveness cheapens God’s grace; it makes a mockery of the love of God and of the cross of Christ.

When Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not cast your pearls before swine,” he was speaking about the announcement of forgiveness. Before we can tell a sinner that his or her debt is paid, we must first inform that sinner of his or her debt. Only when sinners understand the cost of their sin can they also understand the glory of Christ to pay that cost in full. Handing out forgiveness like candy does not glorify the Lord.

But if absolving an unrepentant sinner is bad, casting doubt on the forgiveness of a repentant sinner is far worse. As soon as sinners realize the wickedness of what they have done, they should also be assured that their debt is paid in full. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient payment to cover any debt; it is more than enough to compensate for all the sins of history. Staying angry, seeking revenge, holding a grudge, or making the sinner pay for the sin is not an option for the Christian. When we cast doubt on the ability of any sin or any sinner to be forgiven, we cast doubt on God’s gift of forgiveness to us as well. God’s forgiveness does not simply flow into the life of a Christian; it flows through that life and into the lives of others.

Jesus said to Peter, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven.” The night after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on all the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; it you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.” Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just pastors, but every Christian holds those keys and has that power. Being remade in the image of Christ, we always want to forgive. But as Jesus did not speak words of forgiveness to the stubborn scribes and Pharisees, so we do not absolve unrepentant sinners.

Christians forgive. Forgiveness is found in the Church. The government has no obligation to forgive criminals, not even if they repent of their sins. Indeed, the government must punish criminals for the good of all citizens. The government must restrict chronic abusers and protect vulnerable citizens, even if the abuser has repented and has received Christ’s forgiveness. The ability of the President and governors to pardon criminals should never be mistaken for forgiveness. A pardon ends punishment and sets a criminal free, but forgiveness removes guilt and changes a sinner into a saint. Paradoxically, in this world the Christian remains both sinner and saint, but in God’s eyes the sin has already been removed; the life of a Christian is already pure and blameless and holy in the sight of God.

Forgiveness should be easy to understand and to discuss. Because of the sinner-saint paradox, our eyes and minds are dimmed, and sometimes even forgiveness seems confusing. Each of us can take that confusion to the cross, where we see the price of our sins paid in full, and we know that Christ’s forgiveness belongs to us—and to whoever has sinned against us. J.

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Sons of David

The New Testament stresses that Jesus Christ is “the son of David.” This label refers to a conversation between King David and the prophet Nathan, recorded in II Samuel 7 and I Chronicles 17. David wanted to build a Temple for the Lord, but God responded that David would not build him a house; he would build David a house. The message continued that one of David’s sons would rule an eternal kingdom. David had several wives and at least nineteen sons, but four of those sons particularly stand out as predecessors to Jesus, the ultimate son of David.

A son was born as a result of David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Nathan challenged David with a story about a rich man who stole a poor man’s only sheep, and David said, “That man deserves to die!” “You are that man,” Nathan replied, but then he said, “You will not die, but the child will die” (II Samuel 12:13-14).When the child was born and became sick, David wept and pled for the infant’s life, but the baby still died. David ended his mourning after the death of the child. “I shall go to him,” David said, “but he will not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23).

David sinned and deserved to die. David did not die. God was gracious and forgave the sin of David. But the son of David died as a consequence of David’s sin. The son of David was just a baby. He had done nothing wrong. Even so, his death followed David’s sin and, in a way, rescued David from the death he deserved. Later, the Son of David would be born in Bethlehem—David’s hometown—so he also could die in payment for David’s sin. He also was without sin and did not deserve to die. His life was threatened by King Herod when he was very young, but God protected him at that time, sending him to Egypt to escape Herod’s plot.

Trouble and strife entered David’s family following his sin. Amnon, the son of David and heir to David’s throne, attempted to seduce his half-sister Tamar and instead raped her. As a result, Tamar’s brother Absalom murdered Amnon when he had the opportunity. Amnon was guilty of sin, of course, but instead of being put on trial, condemned, and sentenced, he was struck down by his own brother and died. Another son of David had died, this time rejected by his own family. Later, the Son of David would also be rejected by his own people, first in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. The people of Nazareth, who had known Jesus since he was a child, rejected his teaching and tried to throw him off a cliff and stone him to death. At that time, Jesus walked safely through the crowd, because his time to die had not yet come.

Absalom was punished with exile from Jerusalem, but later he was allowed to return. When he returned, he began to plot against his father. He tried to steal the kingdom from his father, and he nearly succeeded. David had to flee Jerusalem, but his faithful soldiers stayed with him. Israel fought a civil war between the forces of David and the forces of Absalom. David begged his soldiers to be gentle with his son, but when the leader of David’s forces found Absalom caught in a tree, he thought that the opportunity for victory was too good to miss. Joab killed the son of David while Absalom was hanging on a tree. David wanted to mourn over the death of his son, but Joab persuaded David to thank the soldiers who had fought for him and to celebrate their victory.

 The ultimate Son of David, who is also the Son of God, also died hanging on a tree. He was arrested in Jerusalem, turned over to the Roman authorities, and crucified. Jesus was guilty of no rebellion against his Father, but while hanging on the cross he was treated as guilty for all the sins of the world. Though he might mourn the death of his only-begotten Son, God the Father still accepts the sinners whose wrongdoing brought about the death of Jesus. As Absalom’s death meant victory for David, so the death of Jesus means eternal victory for all those who trust in him. Their sins are forgiven, and they are welcomed by God into an eternal Kingdom, an eternal celebration of the victory Jesus won.

Solomon replaced his father David on the throne of Israel and built the Temple David had wanted to build. Solomon was a son of David, but he was not the promised Son of David. Solomon ruled Israel for forty years and then died; his kingdom was not eternal. Jesus, the Son of David and Son of God, rules an eternal kingdom. His death means forgiveness and life for all God’s people. Those who trust in Jesus are not merely servants of God and citizens of his Kingdom; we are royalty, for the King has adopted us into his family. His victory is our victory, and because of his death we will live forever. J.

(adapted from a post first published August 2, 2015)

 

Messing with time

I wasn’t going to write about the Daylight Saving Time change this month—I’ve said all that I need to say about it in the past. But Julie at cookiecrumbstoliveby has written an excellent post which inspires me to share something that happened yesterday in Bible class. Be sure to read Julie’s post. And if you want to know what I have said in the past about Daylight Saving Time, I know WordPress will provide links at the bottom of this post.

Our class has been working through the book of Isaiah the past few weeks—sometimes one chapter a week, sometimes two, occasionally three. This month we hit the historical chapters in the middle of the book. So yesterday we were studying Isaiah 38, in which Hezekiah is sick and is told that he will die of his illness. He turns his face to the wall and prays, and God hears the king’s prayer and responds with grace, granting him fifteen more years to live and to rule God’s people. As a sign that God will keep this promise, he has the shadow on the stairs of the Temple move backwards, indicating that the sun has shifted miraculously in the sky.

Not one of us could resist linking that miracle to Daylight Saving Time.

We had other important themes to discuss, including the Old Testament view of Death and Sheol, which is much darker than the New Testament’s promise of Paradise, and including the entire idea of prayer. God announces Hezekiah’s death, then appears to change his mind because of the king’s prayer. Does a completely wise and all-knowing God change his mind because of our prayers? Isn’t God unchanging? C.S. Lewis was quoted as saying that, through prayer, God invites us to become his partners, just as he invites farmers to be his partners in providing daily bread through their planting and harvesting. We talked about the love of God, that he is always with us and always wants to hear from us. Thinking how often we ignore his gracious presence and don’t say a word to him, we wandered into considering the times that we are with people we love and we act as if they aren’t there. For many of us, the issue was driving. If we are focused on driving, we might not be ready to carry on a conversation in the car, even if the other person in the car is a husband or wife or son or daughter. (When I pick up my daughter from her fast food job at the mall, she has a lot to say, and sometimes I’m not so ready to listen—I’m driving, and especially if it’s dark and raining, I need to focus on my driving.) But God is never so busy running the universe that he cannot listen to our prayers. And Isaiah 38 shows that he is able to “change his mind”—which is not really a change in the Lord who is the same yesterday and today and forever, but which is a living part of the relationship he has with us, in which he delights to receive our prayers and to respond to them as a loving Father.

Even when we have the temerity to mess with time, which is God’s invention. J.

Science, religion, and children

Children are exposed to science far too early. Long before they have the discernment to separate good science from bad science, or true science from fake science, they are already being indoctrinated into the world of science.

Science is not always good. In the last century science led to the Holocaust and to the atomic bomb. Science has caused us to pollute our world and to change our climate for the worse. Science has exterminated dozens if not hundreds of species, sometimes through hunting, but more often through environmental destruction.

Science cannot keep its promises. It offers longer lives, but the mortality rate is still one hundred percent. It speaks of fuller and happier lives, but anxiety and depression are increasing, suicide is increasing, and violent outbreaks without warning seem to be increasing, all during our age of science. Science provides medicines to counter illnesses, but the medicines have side effects, sometimes worse than the illnesses. And medicines are frequently misused, leading to addiction, poor quality life, and early death.

Because of all these problems, we should keep science away from our children until they have the maturity to think for themselves about science. Science should be removed from our schools, and parents should be discouraged from telling their children about science. Far too many people are entwined in science and unhappy because of what science has done to them. If science was not imposed on children during their impressionable years, science would not be such a problem in the world today.

Of course, I don’t mean any of what you just read. But Richard Dawkins does mean it when he talks about protecting children from religion. He carries to an extreme the adage that children should be allowed to mature into adults before being asked to choose a religion, including whether to be religious. Dawkins clearly believes that science holds the answers for all humanity’s problems. He also clearly believes that religion and science are at war with each other. He is determined to win that war, and he expresses the thought that withholding religion from children will preserve those children to make them full-fledged acolytes in the temple of science.

Last Friday, a few miles from the village where I spent my childhood, a man brought a gun to work and murdered five of his coworkers, injuring others, before finally being shot and killed by police. I have seen the names of his victims in the newspaper, and I did not recognize any of these names. But it is strongly possible that I have shopped with one or more of them in the same store, or sat near one of them in the same traffic, or had a conversation with one of them in a public place. Some of these five men had children, and I wonder how science could help these children deal with the loss of their father.

What if these children had been protected from knowing that evil exists in the world, but that evil has been overcome? What if no one was ever allowed to tell these children how Jesus, the Son of God, willingly became a victim of evil to rescue the victims of evil? What if these children never celebrated Easter, at least never in a Christian fashion, with the assurance that Jesus has risen from the dead and promises a resurrection like that to all who believe his promises? Would they be barred from their father’s funeral so that they would not hear these assurances that death has been swallowed up in victory, that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and that they will see their father again in a new and perfect creation?

What can science tell these children about the difference between their loving father and the bad man who shot him, now that both men are equally dead? How can science give them any hope and comfort in the midst of their current sorrow? What will science say to them when they express a wish to see their father again someday?

Religion is not by nature an enemy to science. Some religious people have attacked science, just as some scientists attack religion. But, because they ask and answer different questions, religion and science do not need to be at odds with each other. And religion is for children. Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to children (Matthew 19:14). “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never inherit the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4). J.

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.

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.