The Historicity of the New Testament

The next step in the series on the evidences for the existence of a God will finally bring us to the arguments for a Judeo-Christian God. If you look at my previous post you will see an argument for the existence of a being who is outside of space and time who can begin material existence. Then the argument in the next post claims that from the complex and amazingly functional nature of the universe in general and life specifically it seems that we need an Intelligent Designer. The last post argues that without a God we are left with no adequate support for morality. This post will attempt to briefly address some of the chief evidences for the historicity of the New Testament.

First, when we are discussing historicity, we are merely trying to establish that the New Testament was written by first century Jewish individuals who believed that what they wrote actually happpened and that what we have today is extremely close to the texts that were originally written. So then, if we find that the writers were faithfully communicating their experiences and that our texts today match what was communicated originally we can move towards the questions of whether we should trust the testimony of these writers.

So, is the New Testament historically reliable? For this question, I will attempt to outline some of the main arguments without getting bogged down in citations and specific studies. I will humbly refer the reader to books like Evidence That Demands a Verdict and Evidence Revisited by Josh McDowell which are extensive works of historical investigation that engage this topic comprehensively. There are many questions that can help a historian determine whether a text is reliable. How many original manuscripts are there? If there are copies of these manuscripts, how similar are they to each other and how close are they to the original? Are the sources bridging to other sources or are they eyewitnesses? Are the events recorded independently corroborated? Is the setting accurate (the timeframe, who was in political power, reflective of the culture at that time)? What was the purpose of the text? Was it meant to be a historical document, a report to a governing body, or propaganda for a political figure? Would the author have gained from the distortion of truth?

All of these questions and more can be taken to our study of the Biblical texts. Beginning with the question of manuscripts, the New Testament has over 27,000 partial manuscripts to compare and study. While none of them are the original penned manuscripts, their remarkable similarity and consistency is a huge mark in favor of the NT’s reliability. To put these numbers in perspective, the closest other text from the ancient world is the Illiad which has around 500 surviving partial manuscripts. The New Testament, particularly the Gospels, are also written based largely on eyewitness testimony. This is not a story that has grown in the telling, the writers are writing about their own personal experiences. They are also writing to an audience of fellow eyewitnesses. When most of the texts in the NT began to be circulated, the people who lived and experienced the events recorded were still living. If these texts were deceiptful, the hundreds of people who were present at the sermon on the mount or the feeding of the 5000 or the crucifixion could have denounced the writings as false. Now maybe there were dissenting voices that have not survived 2000 years because they were not part of a text that quickly obtained sacred status in the original Christian community, but the movement grew in the midst of people who could have easily denounced many of its claims and would have had no reason to join if they thought the disciples were teaching falsehoods.

The events in the NT are also extremely consistent with other sources of that time and what we know of the timeframe politically, culturally, and historically. We have sources from the ancient world that confirm Jesus’ crucifixion, the census at the time of Jesus’ birth, all of the political figures and the timing of their reign/influence, and that confirm the growth of a small sect of Judaism in the midst of persecution from their fellow Jews and eventually the Romans as well. The Gospel of Luke is extremely helpful in this regard as Luke is careful to note the historical and political context and timing of his texts. Luke is helpful for another reason as he states the purpose of his texts at the beginning of his Gospel: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Here we see a classic introduction to a historical text that were often addressed to an individual in ancient times. We see that the purpose of the writer here and the writers throughout the NT were attempting to tell true stories that reflected their experiences.

If we look at these evidences and are able to accept that the NT was communicating what the authors believed to be the historical truth and was faithfully communicating their experiences, then we have to ask if we should trust these sources. I am fully aware that I am not addressing many of the nuances and fullnesses of the arguments summarized above, but this is merely a brief sketch of the main arguments. So why should we trust these people? First of all, none of the Gospels would have benefitted the authors. In fact, the authors and disciples of Jesus are often portrayed as stubborn and dense. If these authors were looking to invent a religion with themselves at the head, then why would they portray themselves as slow to understand, stubborn, and even deniers of Jesus throughout the stories? Also, and I believe this is the most powerful argument for the reliability of their testimonies, the disciples were imprisoned, beaten, and killed for what they preached. Unless you truly believe what you are saying, it does not seem possible that a man would die for a lie. What is gained if a man is killed for something that he knows never even happened? We have to remember here that the disciples were eyewitnesses to the events they spoke of. They were not convinced of the truth of these things second-hand. I think that we must accept that the disciples believed that what they were saying was true.

In following posts I will address the question of miracles and whether we can take the Bible seriously even though it makes claims that may seem impossible.

The Moral Argument for the Existence of God

This week, I am giving a summary of the Moral Argument. This is a difficult thing to do because the permutations and forms of this argument are vast and varied. I will attempt to stick to the core and address the most popular objections. The basic structure of the moral argument is as follows:

1. There is an objective moral law

2. There cannot be an objective moral law without an objective moral standard

3. The Judeo-Christian God is the best explanation for the objective moral law

Each of these points can be debated at length. The first and most hotly contested premise can be argued mainly from our experience and the way that we live in the world. Subjective or relative morality can sound convincing and, in an atheistic or materialist worldview, it is the only option available. However, when applied to how we actually live, we find that this view is untenable. If there is no objective standard, then there is no basis for condemning behavior. Anyone can commit atrocious crimes with impunity. We may have laws or rules that govern behavior and consequences for the dissenters, but something in us cries injustice when these dissenters are able to get away with their actions. The sex trade shows this. In some places, the sex trade is perfectly legal, but we all know there is something deeply wrong with the practice of selling human beings for sexual use. Someone will argue that the problem with the sex trade is that it causes others harm. Relative morality is the key as long as you don’t hurt anybody else. To that I say, what objective standard are you using to judge that hurting someone else is wrong?  They may argue for a cultural understanding of morality. In this view, the morality of a culture should govern all behavior within that culture and is generally developed in order that that culture may flourish. This is problematic because who decides what a cultural morality is and what a flourishing culture is? Also, who is contained within your culture and how do you condemn the practices of other cultures? These are particularly relevant questions in our current day and age. According to one particular society today, the destruction of the Western world and the submission of all people to Sharia Law is the ultimate goal. Terrorist attacks and economic sabotage and everything perpetuated by Isis is fueled by a cultural understanding of morality. According to a relative understanding of morality, there is no basis for condemning Isis.

Something in us, from the earliest age, knows that somethings are wrong and some things are right. This does not deny that there is a moral grey area, nor does it mean that anybody knows the full extent of the objective moral standard. In no way am I arguing that everything that has been justified by using the Judeo-Christian God has been good. The argument is only that there is an objective moral standard and that we all live and judge assuming that there is such a standard. Any cry for justice is an assertion of a moral standard. Why do Black Lives Matter? Because there is an objective moral standard that maintains the moral value of all humans.

If you have ever had a conversation with a child, you have probably experienced some of the difficulty that arises when we cannot ground our objective morality in anything. “James, you shouldn’t hit your sister.” “Why not?” “Because that hurts her.” “Why is that bad?” “Because the atoms in the universe colliding randomly have created humans by the power of random mutations guided by natural selection and we humans have somehow developed a conscious mind and cultures that have determined over time that hurting people is contrary to the flourishing of our communities.” The holes in this explanation are myriad. Matter and energy have no moral value, if all we are is matter and energy driven by random dance and chemical firings in our brain, then nothing we are and nothing we do can have moral weight. The alternate story is much more compelling and has the greater explanatory  power when we observe and experience the world: “You should not hurt your sister because there is a God who is love and created all people to be a reflection of that love. You should love your sister because she is valuable and hitting her does not honor her objective value.” Now, that may be a little difficult to explain to a four year old, so we instead say things like, “Because it is wrong to hurt people, and it is especially wrong to hurt those who are smaller than you.”

So if we have come to the point where we believe there is an objective moral standard that takes us from a “can or cannot” to a “should or should not,” then the question follows about where this moral standard comes from? I have been arguing that it is found in the Judeo-Christian God and the following story explains some part of why I think this is the best answer: Plato writes of a dialogue between Socrates and a man named Euthyphro. Socrates asked the man whether the moral law was given by the gods or whether it was above the gods. On the one hand, the moral law is subjective because the gods did not exemplify the laws they gave and there were many gods who gave different laws or commands that were contrary. One the other hand, if the law is above the gods, then the gods are not ultimate beings and we now need to figure out what this objective law is and where it comes from. The Judeo-Christian answer escapes both of these problems as it grounds objective moral law in the character of God. God is the standard against which we judge all of our actions. His commands come directly from His character. God is love and the standard for morality is God’s love.

One objection may be called the problem of evil. While I will address that objection in a future post, one basic element of this objection should be explored here. The basic idea is that if God is all-good and all-powerful then the world He created should be all-good. The list of terrible atrocities in the world lend power to this argument and it is the magnitude of the issues addressed that compels me to save a full engagement for a separate post. The one thing I will say is that the problem of evil assumes an objective standard of good and evil which is best explained by the Judeo-Christian God. Our cries of injustice find their fullest voice when they are fueled by an understanding of the immense value God has placed upon human life and human flourishing.

So why not an ephemeral standard that is apart from God and just exists in the universe? Because there is nothing to ground that standard. There is no reason we should know it and there is no support for following it. And what precisely would that standard be? A profound rightness and wrongness that is an abstract concept has very little weight in objective reality, but a standard that is grounded in the Creator of the universe is much more compelling. The narrative, “Love created the world and everything that is wrong in the world is a rejection of Love,” explains the world in a compelling and powerful way. Now, are all compelling narratives true? Not necessarily. The argument here is merely that a Judeo-Christian God is the “best” explanation for morality. This is one piece of the puzzle and, hopefully, combined with my previous posts on the beginning of the universe and the appearance of design in the universe add further depth to this image. We begin to see a God that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian God. In the next posts, I will be addressing the specifically “Judeo-Christian” elements of this God.

The Teleological Argument for God’s Existence

The next step in evidences that seem to support the existence of a God is the Teleological (try saying that five times fast) Argument. Most famously argued by Thomas Aquinas, this argument has become vast and the Intelligent Design movement puts a lot of focus on this argument. The name of the argument comes from the Greek “Telos” which means “reason” or “purpose.” The basic idea is that the universe appears to have a purposeful design that would be highly unlikely and even mathematically impossible to have come about by random chance. To illustrate the principals behind this arguement I will give an example that is my own telling of an story that has seen countless permutations in other apologetic works.

Imagine that an astronaut was stranded on Mars, but instead of the incredible journey depicted in the recent film, The Martian, the astronaut walks over one of the hills to find a space-house. He walks to this house and finds it fully stocked with his favorite foods and a special garden outback with apple trees, tomato plants, and all sorts of vegetables. He finds that in this building the O2 levels are exactly what is needed to sustain human life. He finds a bed that is tailor-made for a person of his height and a copy of his favorite novel, David Copperfield, on the nightstand. On the home stereo system he finds the entire U2 catalog and several other of his favorite bands. He then lives in great comfort until he is rescued by NASA.

One would never argue that this space house was built on Mars by random chance. One could argue from the evidence that somehow this space house was made for our astronaut. Another example comes from the real world work of archeologists. Archeologists are constantly looking for evidence of human intelligent design. There are rocks that are found to have been shaped very crudely and archeologists can find that the rocks were shaped for a purpose, that the shape of the rocks were intelligently designed. All of this is merely to show the persuasive power of such evidence. When we look at the teleological argument, we are looking for clues that the universe may have been “made for us.” None of the following evidences prove the existence of an Intelligent Designer, but it does make the argument that somehow random forces in nature caused the existence of the Universe, the Earth, and Life seem pretty far-fetched.

First, the fine-tuning argument takes an expansive look at the balance of forces and constants in the universe that make life possible. Everything from the strength of gravity (too little and no solar systems form, too great and the universe would collapse in on itself) to the specific combination of factors that create the conditions found on Earth are seen as combining to reduce the likelihood of a natural explanation. The mathematics of the fine-tuning argument are astonishing. It is simply amazing how many factors had to line up in order to create the stable universe and the fertile hot-bed of life that is Earth. You may understand some of what is meant by considering the work of some scientists that focuses on finding planets that meet the minimum requirements for life. There are no planets that come anywhere near the minimum requirements for any ecology that we have seen on earth. There are certain theorists who have considered non-carbon based life forms that may have an entirely different set of prerequisites for life and there are so many planets we have not gathered enough information on (including planets not known about at all) that there is still plenty of room for the possibility of another life-filled planet.

All told, when one takes the mathematical likelihood that all of these conditions come about by chance (and I have met a brilliant mathematician who has written books that center on this math) we find that the odds are mathematically impossible. One number showed that the odds were such that they were 1 in 10^10^123 (Penrose, 2005) That number is so vast that it greatly surpasses the number of atoms in the universe. The argument basically concludes that the universe is less likely to have occurred by random chance then by an intelligent designer.

The other most persuasive evidence comes from the amazing miracle of life, specifically DNA. The information contained within DNA is unbelievably complex and is effectively the blueprints of all life. The idea that the remarkable consistency and complexity expressed within a strand of DNA could have developed in absence of any design or intent seems extremely unlikely. The current scientific theory of evolution claims that all of this develops over a great amount of time by random chance acted upon by natural selection. There are a few issues that I feel have never been fully answered in anything I have read or heard.

First, how did life begin? This is an extremely difficult point because there is no way to “study” this beginning. Scientists have been able to synthesize protein in a lab, but they had to intelligently design the conditions and materials in order to make that happen. And even then, it has not created a living organism. There is no mechanism or system for the generation of life in nature aside from other life.

Second, when I have heard scientists defend evolution’s ability to create the marvelous, functioning diversity seen today they laud Natural Selection as the answer to all questions. It’s not random, it’s natural selection. Natural Selection is a contradiction in terms. Nature is not an entity that can select anything. Random mutations (even over billions of years) cannot make “progress” in any of the ways that word is traditionally used. Natural selection claims that the most successful mutations will succeed in procreating and those mutations will be passed on to an even more successful generation. The famous example that seems to defeat this theory asks us to imagine monkeys with a type writer. How long would it take for them to write Shakespeare? For the sake of the illustration, let us assume that they are actually pressing the keys (when tested in real life, this experiment seldom resulted in keys being pressed unless the monkey was taught to do so). Then let us assume that they are using a computer which will take the full words they type and lift it out of the endless stream of random letters. Even were these conditions met (two conditions that required intelligent intervention) the monkeys or a random letter generator would not type more than a single line of Shakespeare in the entire time the universe has existed. Again, I will say that there are books written on this subject that defend these claims mathematically. One such work is Understanding Intelligent Design and I would highly recommend it as a good entry point for all of the ideas in this post.

As an alternate proposal that may make sense of some of the problems raised in this post, let us imagine that there were a powerful force or being that intelligently designed the universe to match the criteria necessary for stability and life. Then that being or force also manufactured organisms with DNA that was programmed to mutate and develop successfully into greater and greater viable diversity. This seems a much more reasonable postulation than solely relying on random chance to develop the universe we see today. Mathematically, it seems improbable or even impossible for a purely physical “closed” (without the influence of any external force or being) universe to have developed to the place we live in today.

One other response to these arguments is the multi-world hypothesis that I addressed last post. Depending on which model of the multi-world hypothesis that is being used, this would undercut the argument by saying there are an infinite (or near infinite) number of universes in all variations and ours would have to be one of them because of the necessity of infinity. The problems I have with these hypotheses are two-fold: first, it seems to fail the test of Occam’s Razor. We have an infinitely complex answer that has limited explanatory power and raises more questions than it answers. The questions of the origin of the universe become multiplied in these models. It also seems to have no evidence beyond theoretical mathematics. Even in that realm, multi-world hypotheses only have limited success in mathematical models of the universe. Secondly, the logical problem with the idea of an actual infinite verses a theoretical infinite looms again. Even if you had a multi-world generator constantly generating an infinite number of universes, how would we have arrived at this point in history in this universe. Also, there would have to be a universe generated which encroached upon all other universes and we would have to see evidence of these infinite encroaching universes. Infinity cannot exist, but only be theorized (which is why we can have any success with infinite universes in “theoretical” mathematics).

These evidences seems to take us from a force that had the ability to generate the universe to an intelligent force that could design functioning systems and complexity and even create life. This does not necessarily lead to a Judeo-Christian God and these arguments do no necessitate such a force or being; the arguments exist solely as issues that seem to be most adequately explained by a force as I just described. Thanks for reading.

The Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

This post marks the beginning of a new series of posts about some of the more convincing evidences for the existence of God. Not all of the arguments lead directly to a Judeo-Christian God, but they will each support each other and paint a picture of what a “God” might be like. The principle of Occam’s Razor claims that the simplest explanation that has the most explanatory power is the best explanation. These posts will show that the Judeo-Christian God seems to have the most explanatory power for what we know of reality. These posts point to God, they do not prove God. I do not cover the breadth of philosophical thought about these arguments, but hope to give an introduction to the basic tenets of these arguments.

The cosmological argument has been articulated many ways for many years. My articulation in this post is meant to be an accessible summary of the argument as I understand it. None of these thoughts are wholly original, but I want to present this argument to you as it has encouraged my faith in a God who is the Logos, the grounding of logic and existence.

In the cosmological argument, you have a series of simple premises that lead you to some of the characteristics that may be attributed to a God. Aristotle’s “Immovable Mover” is a direct result of the cosmological argument in one of its earlier shapes. The first premise is that the physical universe (everything that physically exists) had a beginning. Scientists and philosophers have believed for a long time that the universe had a beginning. There are many, many reasons to believe that this is true. Below I will explore a few of these reasons very briefly.

First, if the universe is eternal, then we would never have arrived at what we call the “present.” If time did not have a finite beginning, then it would take an infinite amount of time to get to this point. The problem with an infinite universe is that you cannot have a real infinite in the time-matter-space bound universe. There is no possible way to traverse an infinite number of days. However, we can have a potential infinite. In the Christian worldview, the soul will continue to exist for eternity. That means that the soul has the potential to live from the point of its creation until infinity days. It will never “arrive” at infinity, because the very concept of infinity is endless. All of this suggests that time must have had a beginning. Now, in standard models of physics, you cannot have space without time, matter without space, or time without matter. There cannot be a material existence without the presence of these three things. Therefore, if time had a beginning, it seems to follow that space and matter also had a beginning.

Second, because the universe is expanding in all directions and there is only ever a fixed amount of matter and energy in the material universe, the universe had to have a beginning where time, matter, and space began to exist. This is a little more difficult to explain, but the basic ideas (as I understand them) are that there is only so much matter and energy in the universe. If the physical universe were eternal, then at some point in the infinite past we would have run out of energy. Because matter is neither created nor destroyed, there is no possibility of an ever-expanding or an ever-expanding and contracting universe. If you were to rewind time and watch the entire universe, it would all begin to shrink back into a single point where all the matter and energy in the universe began and exploded outward. This is the Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang is an unexplainable (scientifically speaking) event where all matter and energy began as a single point and exploded into existence. There are many ways of describing how this may have happened and theoretical physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene have a myriad of fascinating explanations, but none of them account for the necessity of a beginning. Each theory attempting to account for the beginning of our universe merely pushes the problem back to an early point at which their theoretical “mutli-world generators” must have begun. I will address that again later. So, while there may be objections to this first premise, “the universe had a beginning,” I cannot address them all here.

The next premise is, “Everything that had a beginning had a cause outside of itself.” This is more of a simple logical argument, if a thing had a time where it did not exist, it could not cause anything during its state of non-existence. If a thing came into existence, it could not have caused its own existence due to the fact that it did not exist before. This does not say that something that exist can cause itself to change into a new thing. So if matter, time, space, and physical energy had a beginning, then before that beginning (excuse the time-bound language here) there must have been a Beginner that was outside of matter, time, space, and physical energy. Here is where we find our Immovable Mover. This thing has to have certain characteristics. It is possible that numbers exist outside of matter, time, space, and energy (henceforth referred to as MTSE), but numbers cannot cause anything. I know that the existence of numbers as a thing outside of our social constructs is challenged, but that is unimportant to this point. The point that is being made is that a Thing outside of MTSE must have existed and that Thing must also be a causal force. This Thing must have the ability to cause something to exist, and it must also have the power (some non spacial-temporal energy) to generate MTSE. So if we are accepting the steps so far, there must be a Thing, an Immovable Mover, that can cause MTSE to exist while being separate from MTSE.

The Universe began.

Everything that has begun had a cause outside of itself.

The Universe was begun by something outside of itself.

This is the basic formula for the Cosmological argument. As you can see, we have not gone very far in describing this “Immovable Mover,” but we can draw some indirect descriptions from what we have so far. Whatever caused everything to exist is timeless, creative (having the ability to create something different from itself), powerful, and willful (having the ability to act as opposed to numbers or raw energy). Here I exclude raw energy, because impersonal energy would have no ability to create unless directed into creation.

The multi-world hypotheses presented by theoretical physicists as a way to explain the energy in this world and complex quantum phenomena can seem to explain away the beginning of the universe, but, in fact, they just push the beginning of the universe back to a point beyond our physical reality’s Big Bang. There are explanations for physical generators of the Big Bang,  but they are subjected to the same dilemmas listed above. They still cannot have existed for infinity and they still cannot have an infinite amount of energy. The multiplicity of dimensions does not seem to solve any of these issues, but just continue to push back the problem to some origin of everything.

Overall, this is just the first evidence for a “God” and it is really a very small step, but it should at least get us from a materialist worldview to a worldview that accepts some thing that exists outside of MTSE. This is not to say that these arguments are fool-proof, but that they are evidence for certain worldviews and against other worldviews. That is a crucial first step in the journey.

Children of the Promise

More than any other thing, the past 5 years since I left home for college has been a journey of learning about the promises of God. Our whole faith is based on the promises of God. The Bible is framed in the context of covenant (can be read as promise). God’s interaction with His people in the Bible is always framed in promises. If you look at our world, you will see that in our very nature is a need to worship. Bob Dylan sings, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody…” What is the basis for our worship? Our subservience? The basis is in promise. Money promises security, power, and freedom. Religion promises redemption, self-worth, and community. Sensuality promises escape, connection, or significance. Self-help gurus promise impact, effective change, a banishment of insecurity. Really, anything that we worship finds, at its root, a promise to fulfill something we seek. This is because we were made to be a people who live by promises. The ultimate promise, of course, is love. All of these things we seek are rooted in our desire to be known and loved by our Father.  This desire can often be twisted and is linked to our desire for significance, impact, security, etc. The problem comes when we are “looking for love in all the wrong places…”

In the first part of the Bible, which is titled “the Old Testament” (also translated Old Covenant), we see Israel attempting to obtain God’s promises through the Law. This leads to a truth that we are all very aware of: none of us are perfect. The promise is unattainable through the law. Throughout this Old Covenant, God is constantly promising a Messiah who will fulfill His promises towards the people of Israel. We see the out working of this in the life of Jesus and the theological out working in the writings of Paul. Paul begins with the story of Abraham, the original father of promise. He uses the story of Israel’s journey from Abraham to Jesus to show that all along God’s focus was on clinging to the promise and not on the power of the Law. “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” Galatians 3:18, 22 Paul has shifted the focus from the Law to the promise and shows that our inheritance is by faith in the promise of Jesus.  “This means that it is not the children of the flesh (or children of the Law) who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” ‭‭Romans‬ ‭9:8‬ ‭ “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.”‭‭Galatians‬ ‭4:28‬ ‭So we see that we are called to be children of the promise; the promise of God to Abraham, the promise of God through Jesus. In fact, when we face opposition or tribulation in our life, we are to come running to the promises of God. It is by the promise that mankind receives salvation.

To bring this concept to bear on our own life, the question arises, “How then shall we live?” How do we live as children of the promise? First, ask yourself, “What has God promised me?” If nothing comes to mind, then think on these promises made to all of His people. He has promised abundant life, adoption as His sons and daughters, eternal life, all the fruits of the spirit, power to fulfill every good work, power to perform miracles in His name, a provision for every need in your life. If any of these promises seem to big for you or too impossible for God, then there is room for growth. They are all found as promises in Scripture. How do we begin to believe these promises? First, knowing the promises of God is important and we have a whole book based on the promises of God and the story of His fulfillment of those promises: the Bible. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17 Further, God has specific promises for us. Ask him. Take a pen and some paper and write, “Father, what promises do you have for me?” Then write, “[Your name] I have promised you _______” and just let God speak to your life. Do not be afraid of Him not speaking, because we see throughout Scripture His longing to communicate with His sons and daughters. And do not be afraid of hearing Him wrong; if what you write comes from a place of love and encouragement and aligns with God’s heart in Scriptures, then it is probably God.

Next, have faith that the promise will be fulfilled. “And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.” Hebrews 6:15 God’s promises in Scripture are doubly guaranteed by the fact that anything God speaks is true and He swears by Himself (the greatest thing on which to swear). This is found in the following Scripture although Paul’s wording can be difficult to understand on the first reading, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain…” The key to holding on in the midst of difficulties in our life is to “hold fast to the hope set before us,” which is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” This is the key to Christian living. This is how the great saints and martyrs who have gone before us faced their trials and were “more than conquerors.” They held onto the promise and, as Jesus, “for the joy that was set before [them]  endured the cross despising shame…” And so we pray,  “Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise.” ‭‭Psalm‬ ‭119:41‬ ‭And, “Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” Psalm‬ ‭119:49-50‬ ‭

So, whoever you are, wherever you are at, remember that our faith is a faith of promise. It is not by our works (thank God) that we receive the salvation and joy of the Lord but by holding fast to the effective promise of God. This extends even to our identity as perfected coheirs with Christ. Read the word, journal with God and get the promises inside of you. Then let them change you as you cling to them in spite of all that you see and experience. By the power of God’s promise, we can participate in the redemption of the world as His kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven (the realm of the promise fulfilled).

“And all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well when the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire and the fire and the rose are one.” T.S. Eliot

Freedom

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about freedom. Freedom is the promise of America. The land of the free. Freedom is the promise of money. If only I had enough money, I would be free to do whatever I want. There is some truth to these promises: America has radically changed the world by offering freedom of religion, speech, etc. in a time where that freedom was not guaranteed and we often take this for granted today. Money will allow you to be free to give to charities, spend less time working, have more choices of where to live or what to do with your life. Ultimately, freedom is not about these things and the promise rings hollow for many who should be the most free. Ancient Greek philosophy will help us understand this.

Aristotle taught that the truly free were the self-disciplined. True freedom lay not in the multitude of choices, but the mastery of one’s desires. A man who can do or have anything he wants, but cannot control his desires for money, power, or physcal pleasure is enslaved by those very desires. In fact, the more choices one has, the harder it might be to restrain those desires and achieve freedom. Many philosophers have followed this line of thinking and the stoics and ascetics focus there energy on mastering oneself by self denial. We can all see the truth of this in our own lives, but we can also see that simple self discipline can become it’s own enslavement as one begins to idolize one’s own control. This can lead to pride and an inflexibility that is equally binding.

So where does true freedom come from? Materialists argue that freedom is an illsuion, existentialists argue that “carpe diem” and a rejection of delusions regarding the semblance of meaning is the answer, Neitsche argues that the will to power is the path to freedom. The answer lies in a seeming paradox. True freedom comes when a life is wholly submitted to the God of the universe. We have already seen that freedom as a multitude of choices does not satisfy. In an essay by C.S. Lewis, he likens that version of freedom as trying to play a board game while disregarding any rules. It would be ultimately unsatisfying and pointless to play a game without any structure. In contrast, as we submit to God’s will, we learn self-control and self-denial, but neither become our obsessions. Neither self-control nor self-denial are a goal in themselves, but the path to Love, to serving God.

In my own life, I have seen a particular struggle play out as I have gotten married and become a restaurant manager in the same year. I have less free time than ever and I often find myself desperate to be “free” during my time off. The mistake I make is to think of freedom as the ability to choose to do whatever I desire at that time. I find myself trying to follow every whim to read or watch tv or eat or buy something. Each of these things are then feeding the idol of false freedom. I have found that when, instead, I ask God what He wants me to do with my time or I spend that time serving my wife (by cleaning or spending quality time with her, etc.) I feel truly free. In submission, in serving, in giving up my time, I find life. That hour I spend in devotions, or cleaning the apartment, or loving my wife multiplies my energy and releases me from my fears of not having “enough time.” God has freedom for us all. In our time, in our self-control, in our decision-making, God knows what we need and He pursues men and women who will say yes to Him and fully give up their freedom only to find it resurrected. Whoever seeks to save his freedom will lose it, but he who gives up his freedom for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.

Story and Just do It.

I live my life as a story. This is not a unique way to live. In fact, I would guess that every human being does too. We all are born with an inherent desire for meaning and connection. This is reinforced by human society which always points us towards the imposition of meaning onto any event. There is a logical fallacy that arises directly from this impulse, “Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” In plain English, “This came after that, therefore this caused that.” We immediately draw conclusions based on the sensory data with which we are presented. We write stories in our minds about what must have happened to cause the events that we experience. When we talk about our lives, we have an order to events and a commentary (internal or external) that connects us from where we have been to where we are. One of the most terrifying experiences is losing that connection, wondering, “How did I get here?” Movies like the Breakfast Club emphasise this aspect of defining our identity. The characters spend their Saturday in detention attempting to discover who they are through the stories they tell about their lives.

This is the power of being human. The power to tell a story so well that it becomes true, the power to engage another person and transmit a piece of your cognitive reality into the mental consciousness of the other, the power to transform events into comedy or tragedy by the context of interlocking ideas drawing real or imaginary connections. There is an immense responsibility as human persons to bestow meaning onto a world that can so often appear random and purposeless or even cruel and depraved. In our own lives we constantly play a narrative the contextualize our actions. One person gets up early in the morning and goes to the gym and thinks, “I love pushing myself to the limits of my physical potential and I love the way working out makes me feel more energized and positive about my day” Another person goes to the gym thinking, “If I work out hard enough and often enough, I will be able to stand in front of the mirror without being disgusted,” or “If I don’t go the gym, I will feel ugly and unproductive for the rest of the day.”
These two examples are over-simplified, but they come from the story each person tells about their lives.
Too often in the “digital” age we are experiencing others through the stories they attempt to tell about themselves. We don’t encounter people, but their images and words meant to portray a certain idea and provoke a specific reaction. Even worse, we only encounter a character in the TV show we binge watch for three days. We are immersed in stories that are shadows of reality. We watch friends playing a board game and making fun of each other or people dating and attempting to connect romantically or applying themselves and beginning businesses or pursuing their dreams. These stories are powerful images because they are echoes of the lives we could, or even should be leading. We live the lives of others from a couch instead of experiencing our lives and creating our stories. Of course our stories about ourselves tend to get confused or mired down in a war of comparisons! We are constantly engaged by other people’s make-believe.
Stories have the power to change the world. Books, movies, TV, theater, images, music, and art are all mediums for the most important and human work being done on the planet. We should be plugged in to the excellent stories that are being told around us, but we should also unplug and live our own stories. Content saturation produces a false feeling of accomplishment, but take a walk in the woods on a brisk winter day and you will immediately begin to quiet your soul and reconnect with your agency. In fact, “agency” is the key to this concept. When you begin to lose your ability to act on the world and affect your story, or when you become too complacent with the half-worlds of portrayed in media to seek change in your own reality, that is when we lose our ability to be the story makers we are meant to be.
There is nothing more insidious than the 9 to 5 job that you escape from by coming home, sitting on the couch with your wine and watching Netflix. This is often accepted as the appropriate way of living our lives. We become the secondary characters in the story of our company or our city or America. We are meant to be focal points of meaning and beauty. This can be done in simple ways. Get together with some friends to have coffee and talk and laugh. Write that blog post that you started and ditched out of fear or busyness or slothfulness or apathy. Go to church on Sunday instead of catching the satelite stream from your home or listening to the podcast in your car. Join a charity or small group or community sport league. Nike has a brilliant slogan that never ceases to engage my theological cogs: Just do it.
Maybe I am ringing an old bell that has been sounded in alarm for years in movies like Fight Club or Office Space or The Matrix, but then why are there still so many people living in a shadowy existence of escapism and apathy or fear and facebook stalking? There is a story out there. There is a story just for you. God is inviting you to co-author it. And your story, it will be apart of the redemption of all-creation. Step one is to get out there and just do it.

How to Respond to Profound Evil

There are some things that we encounter in the world that are profoundly evil. Friday night, the world witnessed that evil in the attack on locations in Paris that resulted in 129 dead, 352 injured, and heartbreak beyond count. The slaughter of innocents in the name of fear is profoundly evil. Events like this leave us reeling, no response seems good enough and, for those who attempt to comfort the mourning, words ring hollow. How then do we respond to these acts of depravity and brokenness? How do we shine the light of Christ into such immense darkness?

Silence.

First, we are silent. Words ring hollow and there is a reason we observe moments of silence in the wake of tragedy. There is a power in shared silence, in a space created for the chasm of grief. It is not an inactive or passive silence, this is an empathetic connection that speaks loudly, “we are here for you.” This silence is modeled with Job’s friends after he has lost his sons and daughters. These friends lose their power of comfort as soon as they begin to speak. The power of silence cannot be overestimated. We use words to calm our own hearts, to ease our conscience, to quantify the unquantifiable, but there is an engagement with reality in silence that goes farther than any verbal formulation. That is why we are told to, “Be still and know that I am God.”

After silence, we should weep with those who weep. The Biblical practice of lamentation is an all too unfamiliar spiritual expression among Western Christians. “How long O Lord!” is the chief refrain of the lament. How long will you be silent, how long will you allow the wicked to flourish, how long until we are saved out the depths of the pit? We should cry out against injustice, we should join our voices to the mourning in our cries for healing and restoration. The Psalms are full of prayers prayed from the depth of despair and anger. We should not shy away from our feelings and we should not throw our feelings into accusation. Encounter God in those places through lament. There are probably many people who feel forsaken in the wake of tragedy: Jesus’s own lament began, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” The miracle of lament is found in the power of putting our everything before God; through that process we often find the strength to praise Him in the midst of our doubt and suffering.

As we lament and call out against the wickedness of these acts, we are called to a place that can only be reached by God’s grace. We are called to pray for those who persecute us. In the midst of the lament against injustice, we call out for the redemption of the attackers and not just the victims. We call out blessings on those who would curse us. Martin Luther King phrases it beautifully, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We must love our enemies, we must pray for them. This is not an abstract love with the support of forced prayers through gritted teeth. This is a love that would, and did, die for those who persecuted Him. This is not an easy thing (the praying for our enemies often precedes the loving of them), but through the power of the Holy Spirit we can change our vengeful hearts. The journey to Christ is long, but it ends in love’s embrace of us and our loving embrace of all men.

Finally, the love that is shown through the sharing of suffering in silence, the lamentation against injustice, and the prayers for our enemies and brethren alike will cast out fear. The attack on Paris was a “terror” attack and the purpose was to sew fear. The true enemy (i.e. the principalities and powers of this world) strives daily to cause fear and fear causes the most evil in our world. Fear of “other,” fear of insignificance, fear of weakness, fear of pain are all apart of the motivation for terrible evil. My uncle, Fr. Kenneth Tanner, writes, “The Christian is one who embraces suffering and is at war with fear.” Through our silence, lamentation, and prayer we embrace suffering and wage war with fear. The power of the image above is that people came together and in their love for their city, countrymen, fellow man, they rose up to defy terror in unity. It should never be easy to respond to profound evil, but we must respond. I hope these thoughts above can help you to respond to this terrible tragedy.

Moment of Surrender


There once was a man who flew to Rome to meet Jesus. He had been told my a close friend that Jesus wanted to meet him there. When he got there he skipped the tourist sites and went to a basement chapel in one of those storied cathedrals. As he walked towards the altar he saw a man kneeling in the dust in unremarkable clothing. Jesus knelt before him and despite his promises not to ask anything stupid, the man asked, “What are you doing?” “Praying,” Jesus replied. “For what?” the man asked. “I gave man free will and I will never take that away, but I pray always that the hearts of man would be surrendered to my will.”

The most powerful moments in the Bible are characterized by the weakness of surrender. Abraham who surrendered his comfortable life to become a nomad with a promise. Moses who left his dessert home to return to certain death in Egypt as a prophet declaring freedom without hope of success. David who was so surrendered to God’s will that he would not kill Saul even as Saul hunted him. Mary who said let it be, disregarding the scandal and death that might await her if she was found to be pregnant. The ultimate moment of surrender as Jesus prayed, “Father not my will but thine,” in a garden; the very opposite of the first sin in the Garden.

The first sin of man was to reject God’s will, not to surrender. Ever since then, the battle for men’s hearts has been fought with the goal of surrender. The mystery of Christianity is that our surrender does not lead to the abolishment of identity or efficacy, in fact it leads to the very opposite. We surrender to God and become more truly ourselves. We surrender to God’s will and find ourselves more in control of ourselves than ever before.

Nevertheless, we continue to seek control in our lives. We are an anxious and striving people. We find the illusion of control in many ways. We try to get money which symbolizes the power to control our lives. We buy shiny things to distract ourselves from the lie. We build ourselves little kingdoms which are characterized by addictions, escapes from reality, self-loathing, or a false sense of holiness. The call of Jesus denies all these things. Our plans for our lives, our guarantees of success, our dependence on substance abuse, our media-insulated isolation… all of these things are obstacles in the way of surrender. Bonhoeffer writes that the call of Jesus can be summarized, “Come and die.” Everything in our fallen outlook screams at us to run from this invitation and clean to our false sense of control.

The lie is shown in the reaction that follows excess, the emptiness that succeeds our attempts at self-fulfillment. “There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every man.” That moment of emptiness is when the call can be heard. “Pain is God’s megaphone to an unhearing world.” That is why Jesus says, “It is harder for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven…” When we fill ourselves with the shadows of God’s goodness, the earthly things that fade, we cause ourselves to believe in our own control, our own sufficiency apart from God. When that rug is torn out from under us we have two responses before us: we can proclaim all is meaningless and eventually cycle back into the illusion of control (whether through suicide or less extreme sedative) or we can embrace the moment of surrender. The invitation is always there, He stands at the door and knocks. It is an invitation into a “condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.”

The most powerful moments in history are when humans give back the gift of free will and find themselves truly free. God is always calling us to give up that thing that we need to be happy, that thing that you cannot live without. That is why it is a call to die, a call to die and experience resurrection. The result is love, joy, and peace if we will only let go. We need the moments of surrender, because it is only in our weakness that Christ can be strong in us.

Halloween aka All Hallows’ Eve aka Samhain

seasons

In our secular age, there is no battleground as hotly contested as the argument for or against the sacred. Churches opt to meet in gyms or community halls instead of a “sacred space.” A man photographs a crucifix placed in urine as a statement of art. The idea of the supernatural is categorized as an antiquated concept from a backwards era.On a more disturbing level, couples are refusing to get married because they don’t see the use in a piece of paper or a meaningless ritual. The power of the sacred spaces, times, celebrations, and relationships (parental, marital, communal, priestly) was an enriching part of everyday life. Every people from the beginning of history revered these relationships and highlighted their significance in the mythos of that culture. The pathways of ideas that have led to Western society’s secularism can be traced all the way back to Classical Greece, but the most powerful evidence of our current dichotomy between faith and reason (with an emphasis on ditching faith altogether) is the way people live their lives as a result of these insidious ideas. Halloween especially, but other religious holidays as well, is an important cultural bastion against the materialistic ideology.

Originally, the 31st of October marked the Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced: sah-win) which was characterized by a celebration of what was termed a liminal time (a time when the otherworld was in closest proximity to our own, a time when the veil was thin). The holiday is about halfway between the autumn and winter equinox and was a time of slaughtering cattle to store up for the winter. The symbolism of the provision of saving life through death is rich in this tradition and many others. Every culture since the beginning of history has celebrated liminal times and they have all had holidays based on the movement of the seasons marked by phases of the moon. There seems to be something real here to the marking of the seasonal changes of life. God gave the Jewish calendar to move along similar lines and the early Christians had no problem with the sharing of holidays with their pagan neighbors. In fact, and this is the important point, the early Christians regularly reclaimed pagan holidays as shadows of the true times that God had given to men to draw near to Him. All truth is God’s truth, all time is God’s time, and if the myth of Christianity were true, it would make sense that it contained elements of all the other religions in the world of men who are programmed seekers of meaning.

If one looks at the various elements of early religions, you see that in the broadest sense they have a lot of similarities. There is the myth of the dying and the rising God, often symbolized by the transition from autumn to winter and winter to spring. There is the fertility of summer, the celebration of life’s transition in the fall. There is an idea of the nearness of divinity and the sacred nature of the life we live and the earth we inhabit. There is the idea of fire and light representing life and joy and salvation. There is the glory of a man and a woman together in the physical, communal, and ritual union as the king and queen of creation (this is seen in many marriage traditions to this day). All of these things and more are themes throughout the religions of the ages and Christianity contains the echoes of them all in the fullness of a true myth. We need not be scandalized by this, Paul wrote about how God has made Himself known through all of Creation and these ideas were used for the Christianization of many cultures and tribes. Halloween itself went from Samhain to All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day on November 1st due to the Christian acknowledgement of the natural rhythm and truths represented by pagan holiday. The chief lie of the our age, “what you see is what you get,” rejects all of these themes in a hubris that leads to an empty life.

We are told now that the longings we have for transcendence, for a relationship to a supernatural being or God-figure is merely an evolutionary bi-product or a social construct. We know this is not true. There are times, liminal times, holidays or memories of holidays, pangs of longing, the beauty of a seascape reached around a bend unexpectedly, of a waterfall when the light reflects the full spectrum of color, an old friend seen for the first time in years, the completion of a project that turned out better than expected and took your all… these moments take our breath away and are gone in an instant. There is something that calls to the deepest parts of our being and we know that secularist is wrong. Halloween reminds us of these things. Christmas reminds us of these things. We need holidays lest the dreariness of this life–so often devoid of the sacred symbols, times, relationships and spaces–smothers the flame inside us. As the church we need to be the beacon of the ultimate sacred light that is Jesus, the true Myth Himself. We live the sacred story of Creation and redemption through the practice of the church calendar, of holidays, of the liturgy of last rites, baptism and marriage. We live it individually and corporately.

God constantly exalts and sanctifies, only humans profane and devalue.