Archive for August, 2011

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Sally the Skeptic and Chris the Christian: The Resurrection Debate…

August 31, 2011

Sally the skeptic– Ha. I’ve been thinking about the Resurrection of Jesus and I’ve got an alternate explanation.

Chris the Christian– Really?

Sally – Yup, and best of all it doesn’t require a miracle.

Chris – Let’s hear it.

Sally– Okay. That rich guy Joseph of Arim…whatever, asked for Jesus’ body. He then hires helpers to lift the corpse onto a cart (or something) to remove it from the tomb to another location. A man is cleaning the tomb when the women disciples arrive and he informs them that Jesus has been ‘lifted up’ and taken elsewhere.

Now, I read the Gospel of Mark last night and it says something like ‘the women didn’t know what happened. They were afraid and startled and didn’t tell anyone about it (at least at first)’. My hunch is shortly thereafter, rumors of the empty tomb spread and are transformed into Jesus being raised up, or resurrected.

Than disciples start claiming to have appearances of Jesus. Maybe there are even a few hallucinations of Jesus that add to the religious fervor that begins to grow. The next thing you know, you have a resurrection and the birth of Christianity.

Chris – Wow. I kind of feel like a chubby kid in a free candy store. I don’t know where to begin. Your theory is, of course, possible. There seems, however, to be some significant problems. Your story relies on some sort of hallucination, or visionary appearances of Jesus and we’ve already shown how problematic those theories are. In fact, that is the fatal blow to your theory but…

Sally– No, the potential ‘visions’ are just gravy. You have to deal with the ‘potatoes’ of my theory, involving Joseph moving the body and a rumor starting.

Chris– I disagree. After the tomb is found empty, your theory relies heavily on the disciples having ‘visions’ or hallucinations about Jesus. We’ve already agreed those theories don’t really work.

But here are a few more problems off the top of my head. You say Joseph had helpers move the body. Fine, but what happened to Joseph after that fact? Did he leave town? Wouldn’t he be there to correct any false understandings about what happened to the body? Wouldn’t the Jewish leadership know that the body had been moved, find it and produce it to quench the Christian movement. Not a hint of this story leaked to the first disciples, or the enemies of Christianity?

Did everyone involved collectively forget were the body of Jesus was buried, or moved to? Also, this theory doesn’t explain the conversion of the apostle Paul.

Sally– Hmmm, right it doesn’t explain Paul at all and I can’t answer those other questions. Okay, well I got that idea from a similar solution proposed by some scholar guy, Bart Ehr…something or other. He claimed that he didn’t believe his proposed scenario either but he thought it more probable than a resurrection.

Chris– So we’re back to probability which is relative to background information like ‘does a God who can do miracles exist’?

Sally – I guess so. Remember I don’t think I’m an atheist I’m just skeptical about the whole God thing.

Chris– Right. I want to show you why the existence of God better accounts for what we observe in the world than atheism.

Sally– Alright. I’ve got a bit of time.

Chris– I saw a chart in an essay by philosopher Paul Copan that considers various phenomena in the world, then compares the answers that atheism gives and the answers that Christianity gives. Here are some of the facts that I’ve added to and put in my own words (so any mistakes are mine):

(1) Humans are self-conscious. That’s how we know we’re having this conversation.

(2) Moral Values exist. Objective moral values. Some things like child abuse are really wrong for all people in all places.

(3) Humans beings have value, dignity and rights. All human beings have value whether they are black, white, gay, straight, conservative or liberal, blond haired and blue eyed, or brown hair and black eyed. .

(4) Beauty exists.

(5) The universe is finely tuned for human life.

(6) We trust our senses and reason to produce reliable, true beliefs about reality. All of science rests on this foundation.

(7) We believe in freedom of will. We make free personal decisions and choices and as a result we are, (most often) responsible for our actions. If we didn’t have this type of freedom and responsibility we would have to chuck out the whole court system.

(8) Lastly, we are alive.

Do you agree with those facts?

Sally– Yes. I think we are in absolute agreement about the above statements.

Chris– Okay. Well here is how an atheistic worldview accounts for these facts.

(1) Self consciousness exists- The universe was produced by mindless, non-conscious events and processes.

(2) Moral Values exist- The world was produced by non-moral forces.

(3) Human value- Human beings are the result of valueless processes.

(4) Beauty exists- Beauty exists but there is no biological reason for it. Our experience of beauty is not linked to our survival so natural selection cannot plausibly account for it.

(5) The Universe is finely tuned- Lucky us. Of course the Universe is fine-tuned otherwise we wouldn’t be here to notice it. Given enough time, or given an infinite number of universes that we can never prove exist, a finely tuned universe fit for life would inevitably show up.

People occasionally win the lottery, we just happened to win the cosmic one.

(6) We trust our reason to discover truth about the world- our reason is produced by irrational forces. Evolution worries about survival not truth so many of our ideas could be false and our senses can’t be fully trusted; the same senses we use to prove the ‘truth’ of evolution.

(7) Freedom of the will- this is an illusion. We have appeared on this planet as the product of deterministic forces beyond our control. We are not truly free. We are determined by our bio-chemistry and environment.

(8) We are alive- Life emerged somehow, somewhere from non-living matter.

Okay. Those are extraordinary claims and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence as support. I’ve read and listened to the proponents of this worldview like Richard Dawkin’s, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, Victor Stenger, Carl Sagan, Michael Ruse, Anthony Flew, and Francis Ayala and I’m still waiting for the extraordinary evidence to support the above claims.

Sally– Okay, but it’s not that simple. What about the problem of evil? You don’t mention the best argument against the existence of the Christian God.

And surely evolution could have bred morality into all of us. Certain actions were more conducive to our survival so natural selection ingrained that morality into us and gave us the concepts of right and wrong.

Also, isn’t it possible that once our brains reached a certain level of complexity, this thing we know as reason and self-consciousness emerged naturally? And not all atheists believe our choices are determined in the manner you outline above. It’s not as simple as your chart makes it out to be.

Chris– Yes, that is true but I think your explanation of reason, consciousness and morality are deeply flawed. And there are many compassionate and intellectual responses to the problem of evil. Can I suggest, ‘If God, Why Evil’ by Norman Geisler? I can’t get into all of it now but you have to admit that, for the most part, many of those explanations are the only ones available to a consistent atheist.

Sally– Yes, but that chart doesn’t make atheists seem as smart as they really are. Plus, it almost seems like you’re attacking evolution. Are you a science denying fundamentalist?

Chris– Look, I know they’re smart but that is their view. And it’s irrelevant to the current discussion whether I believe in evolution or not. My point is that, for an atheist, evolution is the only option on the market and they are forced into the types of explanation offered above (albeit, given with more sophistication). Now, here is the Christian understanding:

(1) Self-Consciousness exists- Our creator God is self-aware and self-conscious.

(2) Objective moral values exist- God’s character is the source, or anchor, of all morals and values. Some things are really wrong for all people, in all places, whether they agree or not. As one philosopher put it, ‘If God doesn’t exist, objective moral values don’t exist. Objective moral values do exist; therefore, God exists.

(3) Human value- God is the most valuable being in the universe. He imparts value to us as bearers of his image.

(4) Beauty- God is beautiful (Psalm 27:4). God is an artist who is capable of creating beautiful things for his good pleasure.

(5) The Universe is Fine tuned- God is a wise, intelligent designer. When we see fine tuning we assume a fine tuner. The universe is fine tuned; therefore, the universe has a fine tuner.

(6) Our reason- A God of truth and rationality exists. Mind did not emerge from matter, matter emerged from the mind of God. Our reason; therefore, is anchored in the transcendent rationality of our creator and we are able to discover truth about our world.

(7) Freedom of the will- God is a free being who can freely choose to act. We are made in his image with the capability to choose. This freedom makes love and virtue possible.

(8) Life exists- God is the author of all life. God is a living and active being.

Now if you compare the two perspectives (granting that both could be explained with more sophistication) it becomes clear to me that the Christian perspective is far better at making sense of what we observe. And I haven’t even developed arguments for the existence of God, like the Moral argument, the Cosmological argument, the Ontological argument, the Teleological argument, and the argument from religious experience etc, etc.

Sally– Don’t bully me with big words. You’ve made God’s existence seem plausible (kind of) but you haven’t proved God exists. Your statements about objective morality definitely need a rigorous defense that you don’t give.

Plus, is God really an explanation for the above facts. Isn’t saying ‘God did it’ the same as saying ‘we don’t know’, or ‘science hasn’t figured it out yet?

Chris– No, definitely not but I don’t want to get too far afield. God is a real explanation for the facts listed above. God is just not a scientific explanation of the facts but scientific explanations are not the only ones available. In fact, philosophers of science aren’t even agreed as to what constitutes scientific knowledge, or the scientific method.

Sally– That’s the philosophers problem. The guy in the lab doesn’t care. Come on, practically speaking, can’t science explain everything?

Chris- Aaargh, we’re getting off topic but, no , science can’t explain everything. For example, science can’t explain logic and mathematics, beauty, morality, and what philosophers call metaphysical truths, like the external world exists. Science by it’s very nature will never be able to comment legitimately on these things. In fact, science has to presuppose the truth of an external world being real and logic and mathematics being valid. I sooo didn’t want to talk about that and more should be said but….

Sally- I also could have done without that intellectual excursion.

Chris- Anyways, we have been talking about a historical event. You can’t fit history into a lab. We were discussing the resurrection of Jesus. If it is likely that God exists than the probability of the resurrection increases by leaps and bounds. It means that there is a God who is able to do a miracle, which opens up the possibility of the resurrection being a valid explanation of the facts surrounding the birth of Christianity.

Alice– Yes, well you’ve given me a lot to think about once again. We’ll talk tomorrow.

Chris– Okay.

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Sally the Skeptic and Chris the Christian: Resurrection Part 2

August 27, 2011

I offer this blog series as the chief reason why my wife doesn’t read my blog posts.

Chris: Honey, did you like my blog post?

Diandra: Umm yeah…

Chris: Umm yeah but…?

Diandra: I just think you use too many big words. It loses its general appeal after the first paragraph.

Chris: But I wrote it in a dialogue format.

Diandra: In a dialogue format with big words and high touting phrases. You have to put yourself in the position of the average blog readers. Words like empirical, methodological and naturalistic are not used in everyday conversations. Write about our son.

Chris: But I wrote it in dialogue format…you’re probably right.

Diandra: Of course.

And our marriage stays healthy.

You decide.
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Part 2 of the Resurrection Blog Series

Sally the skeptic– Fine. It seems like the Hallucination Hypothesis is not an adequate explanation for the alleged appearances of Jesus. Big deal. Isn’t it possible the disciples conspired together to create a story about Jesus’ resurrection.

Chris the Christian – Why would the disciples do that?

Sally – Well, I’m not totally sure. It’s perilous to psychoanalyze people who have been dead almost 2000 years. Perhaps it was to gain power and influence over gullible people. Maybe they wanted the cushy life of a preacher. Isn’t any explanation more probable than a dead person coming to life?

Chris– I agree it is problematic to psychoanalyze people who have been dead for awhile. It’s difficult enough when the person is right in front of you. But I have to say that the lying hypothesis has been virtually abandoned by scholars who study this issue.

Sally – An appeal to authority is the weakest type of argument.

Chris– Hold your horses. I agree and I was about to explain why the conspiracy theory has been completely rejected by scholars. Simply stated, what would be the disciples motivation to lie? Did it get them power, prestige or a comfy life? No. Telling the story of the resurrection got them beaten, ridiculed and eventually killed.

Don’t forget many of the disciples died for their belief in the resurrection. Ah, ah, I know that you want to say that there are many religious martyrs. That is true. People die for things they sincerely believe to be true. But find me a group of people who have willingly died for something that they knew to be false. The first disciples were in a position to know whether or not Jesus rose.

You’re telling me that under torture and the threat of death none of the disciples let the cat out of the bag? None of them confessed, ‘hey, we made it all up’? That goes against everything we know about human psychology, and the character of the first disciples.

Also, how does the conspiracy theory account for Paul’s conversion. He hated Christians. He wouldn’t have joined a Christian conspiracy, he would have exposed it. Don’t forget Paul claimed to have seen the risen Christ. He would have no reason to lie? He gave up power and prestige to follow Jesus.

Do I have to go on?

Sally– Okay. I concede that the lying hypothesis also has significant difficulties. Maybe even more than the ‘Hallucination Hypothesis’. But isn’t any natural explanation better than a resurrection. I’ve seen people lie but I’ve never seen someone rise from the dead. What’s more likely, ‘the disciples were deceivers or deceived’ or, ‘Jesus rose from the dead’?

Chris – I’ve seen people lie too, but I’ve never seen, or heard, of people dying for something they knew to be false. Have you? The student who hung himself in protest, sparking the student riots in Paris during ’68, the muslim martyrs on September 11th, Christians martyrs through the ages; all died for something they believed to be truth.

The first disciples were in a different position. They didn’t die for a theoretical idea but for an empirical fact; an empty tomb and physical, bodily appearances of Jesus. So my point is whether there was a resurrection, or a conspiracy were seemingly honest people lied, lived difficult lives as a result and then willingly died horrible deaths for a story they knowingly made up- both would be improbable and completely outside of our somewhat limited experience.

Sally– Yes but…Look, Elvis died. So did Tupac. Some Ardent fans claim to have seen both Elvis and Tupac alive. I’m sure people will eventually claim the same thing about Michael Jackson. Let’s say we went to Elvis’ grave, or to Michael’s grave and dug it up and the bodies of the King of Rock and the King of Pop were both missing. Would you believe that they had been raised from the dead?

Chris- No.

Sally– This is what I’m talking about. You would look for another explanation; a natural one. Why would you believe in Jesus’ resurrection and disbelieve in Elvis’? That seems inconsistent. You’re perfectly reasonable in most areas of your life but when it comes to Jesus you’re willing to believe absurdities. Why Jesus and not Elvis?

Chris– That is a good question. I agree with the underlying principle that when there is an alleged ‘miracle’ claim it is first best to look for a naturalistic explanation without resorting to a supernatural event. That methodological procedure safeguards against all types of crazy superstition. Your concern also highlights the need to clearly define when it is appropriate to conclude that a miracle is the most likely explanation for an event.

Sally- Well, what’s the criteria for that?

Chris- Firstly, all naturalistic explanations must fail to plausibly account for the data. Secondly, the event must take place in a religiously charged environment where a supernatural event makes sense and likely has moral or instructive significance. It must be well attested to by reliable witnesses (For example, people who don’t like Elvis would be a bit more credible).

This is why Elvis is completely different than Jesus. Jesus performed what many friends and enemies took to be miraculous deeds. These mighty acts are attested to in all the Gospels, as well as the non-christian writings of Josephus and the Jewish Talmud.

Jesus predicted that he would rise from the dead and that his resurrection would be a vindication of his teaching. He also acted and spoke in a manner that would have been only appropriate for God given the religious beliefs of 1st century Jews.

So given the context of Jesus’ life and teachings if he died, his tomb was empty and he appeared bodily to his disciples, as well as skeptics (James) and enemies (Paul) we are more than warranted in making the inference to a miraculous resurrection as the best explanation for the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus, the transformation of the disciples and the birth of Christianity.

All of the above doesn’t apply to Elvis or Michael (talented as they were).

Sally- I can see you’ve thought this through. You’re not an idiot. But I still think any scenario is more probable than Jesus coming back to life. So how can I be unreasonable for withholding belief in the resurrection?

Chris– I’m not saying your unreasonable but I do want to point out you haven’t refuted the resurrection and so far all naturalistic explanations have failed. But you bring up an important point about probability.

Sally- Why does it need a refutation? I don’t have to refute a flying spaghetti monster either.

Chris- It’s hard for me to tell if you’re serious. Surely..

Sally- Sorry, I was kidding. Clearly the resurrection and a flying spaghetti monster are not the same thing. I’ll admit that you’ve presented interesting evidence for the resurrection and I’ve yet to hear any presented for the existence of said monster.

But I just think it’s so improbable that any other explanation is better. And don’t call me Shirley..

Chris – Okay so we’re back to improbability. Whether any given event is probable or not, is always relative to background information. If God doesn’t exist than any explanation is more probable than the resurrection. Any explanation, no matter how outlandish or unsuccessful in explaining the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus, or the transformation of the disciples lives, is more probable because there is no God to do a miracle.

(I think we both agree a resurrection would be miraculous and require some type of God).

Sally– Right. I’m not sure I believe in God so I think that is part of the issue I’m having with your belief in a resurrection. I’m agnostic on the God question which makes me doubly agnostic, bordering on atheistic, in regard to the resurrection issue.

Chris– I know, and not believing in God could keep you from fairly assessing the evidence for the resurrection. So why don’t I end this conversation by pointing out briefly why I think belief in God is far more probable than atheism. If that is the case then the probability of the resurrection is increased dramatically and you will be able to fairly assess the evidence.

Sally– Let’s hear it..tomorrow. My mind is reeling from today.

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The Hallucination Hypothesis…

August 24, 2011

Setting: The Intro of an Easter Sermon

Chris the Christian- Good morning everyone! Happy Easter! Nice to see you. If you have your Bibles, or Ipods, please turn to 1st Corinthians 15.

In 1st Corinthians chapter 15 the Apostle Paul communicates to the Corinthian church a tradition that he himself received.

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1st Corinthians 15:3-7).

Here we know Paul is passing on a received tradition because he introduces it with a technical rabbinic phrase ‘what I received I passed on to you’. We also know Paul did not originate this material himself because of the grammatical structure and phrasing of these particular verses.

Where did Paul get this information? Paul gives us the most plausible answer in the book of Galatians,

“After three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18).

The Greek word translated as ‘visit’ conveys the idea of a formal inquiry. As one scholar quipped, ‘they certainly weren’t discussing the weather’. Paul almost certainly picked up the above information about the appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem while visiting Peter (Cephas) and James (both were eye witnesses to Jesus’ ministry). This meeting took place three years after Paul’s conversion to Christianity around 35 AD.

It is extremely likely that the information Paul passes on to the Corinthians dates even earlier than 35 AD to within several years, or months, of Jesus’ crucifixion. So in 1st Corinthians 15 we have Paul passing on early, authentic eye witness material to the church in Corinth.

Paul is advocating that the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples, his brother James, 500 people at one time, and Paul himself. The entirety of Christianity rests on the truthfulness of this claim (1st Corinthians 15:14-18).

So did Jesus rise from the dead? Or did the disciples have a collective hallucination?

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The sermon drones on, and on and on….The preacher begins to sound like the teacher from Peanuts. After the third finally the preacher finally finishes. Afterwards Sally the Skeptic approaches Chris the Christian.

Sally- Can I speak with you about the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus? I have a lot of questions.

Chris- Sure, I would love to have a conversation about Christ.

Sally- Great. I thought you raised an interesting question in your message. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Is that true? Not is it nice, is it metaphorical, but is it actually true? Did it happen?

I always wonder about Christians. I have friends who are believers and they seem like imminently reasonable people. Than they walk into church and check their brain at the door. Next thing you know, you have to remind them that when people die they stay dead. How can you say Jesus rose from the dead?

Why not just ascribe to a collective hallucination? That explanation is far more reasonable.

Chris- That’s a good question. I always think it is humorous when the skeptic asks the Christian ‘hey, don’t you know that dead people don’t come back to life’? We know. That’s why it was a big deal when Jesus did.

Sally- But people don’t naturally rise from the dead. Science has proved that.

Chris- We needed science to prove that dead people stay dead? We didn’t already know that people naturally stay dead when they die? If the resurrection happened I’m pretty sure it was a supernatural act of God.

Sally- But what is wrong with believing the disciples simple had a hallucination of Jesus after he died. Perhaps, the Jesus apparitions were the result of grief, fear, stress, or whatever else is conducive to those types of experiences.

Chris- Well, let me give some background. Philosopher Gary Habermas has read nearly everything written about the resurrection over the last 30 years in a multitude of languages (English, French and German I believe). This includes over 3000 books on the resurrection written by Atheists, Agnostics and Christians. Based on this extensive research he has documented that virtually all scholars believe that the disciples saw, or experienced something that they thought were appearances of the risen Christ.

According to Habermas if the scholar denies a bodily resurrection as an explanation for the appearances of Jesus they usually take refuge in some sort of hallucination hypothesis. It is important, therefore, to assess whether or not a hallucination theory is a viable alternative to the Christian belief that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Sally- Ha. Well I agree with those scholars who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I doubt there is enough evidence in the world to overturn my disbelief in Jesus being raised on the third day.

Chris- Well, we’ll get into the evidence but first lets talk about some significant problems with the Hallucination Hypothesis.

Sally- Fire away.

Chris- Okay. (1) It doesn’t explain why the tomb of Jesus was empty. A tomb with the decaying remains of Jesus would quickly quench any enthusiasm that resulted from a hallucination or a visionary experience.

(2) It doesn’t explain why the disciples used the word ‘resurrection’ to describe what happened to Jesus. In 1st century Judaism resurrection meant a transformed physical body. The first believers had other language at their disposal to explain visions, ghosts, or religious trances. If they had a vision (which the skeptic would call a hallucination) than why didn’t they use visionary language (See Acts 10:9-18, 12:12-18). Why did the disciples say that God had raised Jesus from the dead? Why not say they had a vision of Jesus ascending to God or something like that?

(3) It doesn’t explain the conversion of James, who was a skeptic, and Paul who was an enemy of Christianity. They were not predisposed to have visionary experiences, or hallucinations of Jesus.

(4) Jesus appeared to groups of people. Group hallucinations do not occur. Hallucinations are private events. The research on these events clearly bears this out. For example, Navy Seals during hell week are prone to experience hallucinations due to lack of food and sleep. One Soldier reported that an Octopus waved at him; another grabbed an oar and swung it dangerously overhead to hit the jumping porpoises. Lastly, one soldier jumped into the water because he was certain a train was coming straight for him.

What is significant about these hallucinations is that they were private events accessible only to the individual having the hallucination. No other navy Seal saw the waving Octopus.

Can you climb inside my dream and share it with me?

Sally- No. I guess not.

Chris- Well, you can’t do that with hallucinations either.

Sally- Right, well are you done?

Chris- No I have three more points to make. (5) The appearances of Jesus happened at different times amongst different people with different psychological makeups (this is another reason why group hallucinations do not occur).

(6) The disciples preached the resurrection in Jerusalem, which was a short, simple walk away from the tomb of Jesus. The enemies of Christianity could have produced the body and the movement would have been over regardless of how powerful the hallucinations were. The whereabouts of Jesus’ tomb was common knowledge because it belonged to a prominent man, Joseph of Arimathea.

(7) Hallucinations do not often (at all?) radically transform people’s lives in a positive manner. In the above example of the Navy Seals none of the soldiers hallucinations drastically changed their lives. In fact they came to disbelieve their experience based on two factors a) Those things don’t happen. b) Their fellow soldiers didn’t see the hallucinations.

Why weren’t the disciples talked out of their hallucinations for the same reasons?

Sally- I’m not sure.

Chris- Also, think about this: The resurrection appearances of Jesus radically transformed the disciples lives and they were willing to die for their belief that God raised Jesus physically from the dead.

Sally- wait a minute. I’ve heard there is no good evidence to suggest the disciples died for their faith.

Chris- Untrue. There is multiple, early historical sources indicating that James (the disciple), James (Jesus’ brother), Peter (the leader of the disciples), and the Apostle Paul all died for their faith. We not only have the New Testament but the writings of Josephus and the writings of Clement of Alexandria. Josephus talks about the death of James (the Lord’s brother) and Clement talks about the martyrdom of Peter and Paul (I’ll send you the quotes via email).

Sally- Okay.

Chris- More reasons could be offered as to why the hallucination theory doesn’t adequately explain the appearances of Jesus and the birth of Christianity but the above (when taken together) is sufficient to sink the Hallucination Hypothesis.

It would take a miracle to resurrect it.

Sally- I thought you invited me to dialogue about the ‘resurrection’. That was a monologue. Look, if this is what our ‘conversation’ is going to look like, I’ll bow out now. I can get talked at in school and at home. I’d prefer to do something else with my free time.

Chris- You’re right I’m sorry. Meet with me tomorrow and I promise that I won’t bull doze you with my over zealous pontificating.

Sally- Okay, fine. But no monologue! Or it will take a miracle to resurrect this conversation.

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Top Ten things I did on Vacation

August 12, 2011

I just had two weeks vacation. I thought I would blog about the top ten things I did on vacation, though not in order of importance, or level of enjoyment. If you’re curious keep reading below.

Top Ten Things I did on Vacation:

(1) I thought about work. I stressed about work. How will things be without me? Apparently better than fine. Right, I’m not the one sustaining the universe…

(2) I created a garden out of a tangle of weeds in our backyard (for pictures see my last blog post).

(3) We built a deck in our backyard. Correction. My sister-in-law, Nadine, built a deck. But I got her drinks and said encouraging things like, “Wow, that looks good.” I build sermons and blogs which decreases the danger of getting a splinter or smashing my thumb with the hammer.

(4) I took my wife to ‘Theater Under the Stars’ in Stanley Park. We watched ‘Bye, Bye Birdie’. Apparently I’m too young to have heard of it. The show was entertaining and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Though I did get bug spray on my hands and every time I put popcorn in my mouth I was reminded of that fact (nasty tasting stuff. I’m not surprised bugs hate it).

(5) I read a 650 page book by Michael Licona on the ‘Resurrection of Jesus’. In the book, he interacts with historians and mainstream scholars, including agnostics, atheists and committed Christians. In surveying the relevant scholarly material Licona concludes that there are 3 historical facts agreed on by almost all scholars.

A. Jesus died. B. Followers of Jesus claimed to see Jesus risen from the dead. C. Saul of Tarsus, who was an enemy of Christianity, claimed to see the risen Jesus and was converted to be a follower of Christ.

There are other relevant facts but Licona’ wants to build his case for the resurrection only on those facts that are almost universally agreed to by the somewhat skeptical scholarly community. The author then weighs the various hypothesis that scholars have put forward to explain these facts according to the criteria of explanatory scope, explanatory power, less Ad Hoc than rival hypothesis, Plausibility and illumination (theories such as mass hallucination, or the body was stolen).

After a thorough examination Licona concludes that the best explanation of the data is that ‘Jesus rose from the dead’. He also contends that a naturalistic explanation is always preferable as a safeguard against superstition. In regard to the resurrection, however, all natural explanations fail and the claims of Jesus and the well attested miracle workings of Jesus provide a religiously charge environment were a miracle could be the best explanation of the events surrounding his death and the birth of Christianity.

However, he points out that if a person, or scholar, does not believe in God they will prefer any explanation other than the one given by Christians, which requires a supernatural event.

The author shows that the skeptics conclusion that Jesus did not rise from the dead is not based on the facts alone but is unduly influenced by a faith commitment to a godless worldview. When the evidence is fairly assessed the resurrection hypothesis meets the above criteria far better than any other suggestion proposed by scholars.

Unfortunately, it’s probably impossible to be objective about an issue like Jesus’ resurrection. The implications for our lives are too great. I also read, ‘Irresistible Church’, ‘Erasing Hell’,’Walk with God’ and ‘The Great Adventure’.

(6) I bored my wife by talking about the books I was reading. And now I’ve bored you. But may I point out, it’s your fault for still reading. Isn’t ‘So you Think you Can Dance’ on right now?

I also spent one Saturday night watching a Christian debate an Atheist on DVD with some guy friends. My wife stayed home and watched ‘The Switch’ with her friends. No souls were saved, but a good time was had by all.

(7) I played with my son a lot. We took him to the park and he experienced the joy of the playground swing set.

(8) I started to pray with my wife again. Why is that so difficult? I always pray for my wife but good prayer together, pressing into the heart of God, over issues that mutually concern us does not come easily. To be painfully honest, I haven’t always liked it in the past. More than once something has shut down inside of me while we’ve been praying. I assume it is spiritual warfare. The enemy doesn’t like it when spouses pray together. I’ve really enjoyed praying with my wife this past week. I pray we don’t stop.

(9) I contemplated what it would be like to be Justin Bieber’s brother. I think I would be proud of him. He keeps telling people on national television that Jesus loves them. He also said that abortion is bad in Rolling Stone Magazine. That takes guts.

(10) We wife and I bought the music book, ‘The Best of Coldplay’. She is playing the piano parts on the organ. I am accompanying her on guitar and electric drums. So far we’ve learned ‘Fix you’ and ‘The Scientist’ all to the Glory of God. Kaeden sings. The neighbours have only banged on the wall once.

I’ve run out of space and though that hasn’t stopped me in the past I think it will stop me today. After all my vacation is not over yet. The vacation was also sprinkled through with good friends, good laughs and a good God who is sovereign over all of our days.

*Most blogs are written on my own time*

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God the Gardner

August 8, 2011

I’ve never gardened in my life until this past week. My wife and I inherited a small back yard with a planter’s box overflowing with weeds from the previous owners. It was a gardener’s worst nightmare.

But with the help of family, we rolled up our sleeves and tackled the chaotic mass of weeds, plants, and floundering flowers. It wasn’t an easy job, but it was worth it. The end result was a beautiful garden.

Theological Reflections:

God is a gardner in Scripture. Think of the Genesis Creation account. Day 1 and 3 correspond to the creative activity that takes place in days 4 to 6. God creates a space and than He fills that space with His handy work. God is bringing order out of chaos.

Isn’t that what a gardner does?

Our lives are often a jumbled assortment of intertwined fears, worries and anxieties (not to mention pride, bitterness and resentment.) These ‘weeds’ choke out the abundant life that Jesus wants us to experience and cause our lives to be unfruitful. God plants good things in us through his Word but when these good things try to grow and bear fruit, these unruly ‘weeds’ choke the life out of them.

Often, we are aware of these ‘weeds’ (and if we’re not, our friends or spouses remind us of what they are) and we try to deal with them by mowing them over only to have them grow back a few short days later.

Thankfully, God is a good Gardener who wants to pull the weeds out by the roots. God’s not after behavioral modification, He is into internal transformation. God goes after the root of the problem, our rebellious, selfish hearts; the inward curvature of the sinful will, which feeds incessantly on self, needs to be resurrected and reoriented towards our Creator God. This is the redeeming work of Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

God’s fashioning a space within every believer that he wants to fill with his glorious presence. The Spirit of God is hovering over our lives right now wanting to bring order out of chaos, beauty out of brokenness, and harmony out of the discordant, discombobulated jumble of emotions and sinful behaviors that sometimes seem to dominate our lives.

What are the ‘weeds’ that are choking our joy, peace and abundant life in Christ?

Maybe these ‘weeds’ are masquerading as inner commitments that we’ve made unknowingly with the enemy of our souls. The Holy Spirit can reveal what these inner commitments, or inner vows, are:

I will never be loved.

I can’t be forgiven for this.

I’m a failure.

I’m worthless.

I will never succeed.

There is no point to my life.

All the above are common agreements, or inner vows, we make unwittingly with the enemy of our souls that bear bad fruit in our lives and need to be renounced.

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I realized long ago that there is a lot of need in the world; an overwhelming amount. Darfur, Haiti, Somalia, the environment, the girl in youth group who is cutting herself (the list goes on and on). I started erecting barriers around my heart to protect it from all the need because I didn’t want to feel all the hurt in the world. I made an inner vow that I would only care up to a certain point.

I was protecting my heart from hurt, which means I was protecting my heart from love, which means I was protecting my heart from God. I need God to knock down the walls, or uproot the ‘weed’s that keep me from feeling things deeply.

I need God to heal my heart by breaking it for the things that make His heart break.

I need God to do some gardening in my soul. Invite God the Gardner to begin His pruning work. Freedom Session is a good place to encounter God the Gardener.

He’s been working on me.

John 15:1-7

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Pain and Parenting

August 4, 2011

Twice in his young career as a human being my son, Kaeden, has dipped his fingers into his Daddy’s piping hot Coffee. On both occasions, pain filled cries erupted from his mouth. I would like to think that he’s learned a valuable lesson about the World of Coffee, but I doubt it because if he had the chance, he would do it again.

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A few days ago, Kaeden was standing in his crib with two hands placed firmly on the railing to keep his balance. First, he removed one hand with a triumphant smile. He was still vertical. Emboldened by his initial success he removed the second hand.

For a wild moment, victory was at hand. He had done it. Days of toil and struggle had finally paid dividends. He stood on his own two feet without anything holding him up.

It lasted two seconds.

Then he did a face plant into the railing of the crib. Once again, he experienced this thing called pain. Eventually, he will learn to fear it.

Is pain a gift?

I once saw a book entitled, ‘The Gift of Pain’. The book looked like a pain to read so I didn’t bother and now I’m suffering without the answer.

If pain is a gift, it’s one that I’m disinclined to unwrap. Pain is often treated as a foe but seldom welcomed as a friend. I understand why; the annoying thing about pain is that it hurts.

In a North American culture enamored with comfort, to suggest pain is anything other than an enemy is an open invitation for ridicule. If pain is a gift, why do we medicate it? Why do I (the author of this blog) have a medicine cabinet filled with Tylenol and Advil? Why do I pop pills like pez from a pez dispenser whenever I’ve got a headache? Why do people drink away emotional distress?

More seriously, how is the pain experienced by a person dying of a terminal illness a gift?

C.S Lewis once famously wrote in his book, ‘The Problem of Pain’, that “God whispers in our pleasures but he shouts in our pain. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”.

Okay. Fine. But once God’s woken us up can’t the pain subside? Sometimes it intensifies long after God has already gotten our attention.

What would you say to a friend who continued to dump buckets of water on you long after you had awoken with a start from your slumber? Would you respond with some form of hostility? I doubt you would be very happy with the first bucket, even if you were in danger of sleeping through an exam, or an important appointment.

‘Dude, wasn’t there another way to get my attention, or wake me up? After all, you’re a pretty resourceful guy.’

(You might think the above analogy is a caricature of Lewis’ thought expressed in the quotation. You’d be right).

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If I wanted to argue that pain is a gift, here are some things that I would say:

(1) Pain is a warning sign that something is wrong with us. Many people have been spared a heart attack because of the warning signs of chest pain. Lepers are often hideously disfigured because the disease doesn’t allow them to feel pain. As a result, a leper patient can burn themselves without realizing it, walk on a broken foot without noticing, or have a serious infection without seeking treatment, leading to horrendous disfiguration.

(2) Pain can push us to discover the inestimable worth of Christ. Pain strips away all earthly comfort. Pain causes us to long for God’s Kingdom to be fully present and suffering and sorrow to be done away with. Pain reminds us that the world, in its present state, isn’t our forever home and we need not get too comfortable here.

(3) Nerve endings are a gift. Without pain, pleasure would be impossible. As a result, the same sun that warms my face can burn my skin.

(4) We live in a physical world where pain seems like an unavoidable necessity. If I can hug, I can hurt.

(5) Much of our pain is the result of free will. Many diseases we suffer are the result of poor health choices that we’ve made. Much of our emotional pain is the result of someone sinning against us. Free will is a good thing but buried within the gift is the potential of evil. Without free will; however, love and virtue would be impossible. I can’t imagine living in a loveless world and love requires a uncoerced choice and, unfortunately, so does evil.

(6) Pain can mold our character in a positive way. Affliction is a harsh school master but its lessons are often ingrained deeply into our character. It can deepen us and teach us compassion, empathy and humility in ways that pleasure cannot, if we’re willing to bow our hearts under its rod. Have you ever met a child who was given everything and shielded from all hardship? Do you want that baby sitting job? I rest my case.

(The above points have been made in more detail by many different authors (See Norman Geisler ‘If God, why Evil’?, C.S Lewis ‘The Problem of Pain’, or Phillip Yancey, ‘The Gift of Pain’).

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There is also the issue of animal pain to deal with. Author Michael Murrey in his book, ‘Nature Red in Tooth and Claw’, distinguishes between 3 different levels of pain:

(1) The first level is ‘Information bearing neural states produced by noxious stimuli resulting in aversive behavior’. This level of pain is experienced by insects like Spiders, or Praying Mantis’. Basically it means that insects don’t have a subjective (or conscious) experience of pain they are simply reacting instinctively to their environment (at this point you may think I’ve tricked you into reading this blog with cute pictures of my son. You may feel how he looks… sorry).

(2) The second level of pain is ‘a first order, subjective experience of pain. This is pain that higher animals, like dogs, bears, or Liger’s experience.

(3) The third level of pain is ‘a second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing pain’. This type of subjective awareness is connected to the pre-frontal cortex in the brain. The pre-frontal cortex is not shared by an other animal (other than ‘humanoid primates’).

Therefore, a conscious awareness of pain in the uniquely human sense of ‘I am the one enduring this gut rending sensation’ is only experienced by human beings. Lucky us. That pre-frontal cortex in the brain is a real pain. But it does make you feel better if you’ve ever witnessed a pet suffer because their experience is of a different quality than ours.

To attribute to an animal, or an inanimate object, the same experience of pain that a person suffers is to commit the logical fallacy of Anthropopathism which is ‘ascribing human feelings to non-human entities’.

Our family has shed tears over the death of animals. Kaeden may one day cry for a pet that has gone to be with Jesus. It’s nice to know that animals don’t experience agony in the same way that we do because they lack the pre-frontal cortex in their brain.

But let’s be honest, we are most concerned with our own hurt and the hurt of those we love.

It grieved my heart as a Dad, to watch my son shed tears because he burnt his hand in my coffee, especially considering that I created the context in which he experienced pain. If I hadn’t been holding him, he wouldn’t have gotten burnt. Curiously, he also wouldn’t have experienced the closeness with his Daddy that he wanted.

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Back to C.S Lewis. In a book published years after ‘The Problem of Pain’ called ‘Grief Observed’, written after the heartbreaking death of his wife, Lewis wrote,

“What do people mean when they say, “I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist”?

A good dentist might hurt to heal and a good God might do the same. Here’s the bottom line:

God allows us to experience pain. Either there is a purpose for the pain or there isn’t. If there isn’t a purpose for the pain, I don’t see how God can be good. Since we have independent reasons, in spite of pain, to believe that God is good (namely the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the witness of the Holy Spirit in our lives) I choose to believe that pain has a purpose in the hands of a sovereign benevolent God.

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Because of the 6 reasons listed above I think, with proper perspective, pain can be a gift but beyond a certain point it is hard to receive it as such. Perhaps it would be better to say, ‘pain in itself is not a gift but the conditions that allow us to experience pain are.’ Or ‘Pain is not good in and of itself but it can produce good in our lives’.

It seems, however, some suffering is the unfortunate result of living in a fallen world and to call it a gift would do a great disservice to the person bowed under it’s agonizing, oppressive load. With certain chronic pain, or terminal pain, there comes a level of intensity or longevity that causes pain to transition from a potential blessing to a distressing burden. I believe fervently that God can use even this type of pain for good but it’s sometimes difficult to see how in the moment.

In those times our great comfort is that the glories of heaven will far outweigh our trials on earth. The Apostle Paul suffered from chronic pain and he wrote,

“Our troubles are small. They only last for a short time. But they are earning for us a glory that will last forever. It is greater than all our troubles” (2nd Corinthians 4:17 NIRV).

If we’re tempted to think Paul doesn’t understand pain, read 2nd Corinthians 11 and 12 and we’ll be quickly robbed of that illusion. Paul chose to place his earthly suffering on a scale with the eternal glory waiting for him and found that God’s promise outweighs the pain.

I pray Kaeden grows to believe this. But when all my philosophizing and theologizing ceases, all my boy knows is that it hurts to burn his fingers in Coffee.

My son isn’t old enough to understand.

I’m not sure that his Daddy is either.

But I trust my God who died for me.

I pray Kaeden still trusts me, even though I allowed him to burn his fingers, because I really love him and would die for him if it came to that.