Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, includes on his website a great essay called Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ. It's somewhat inappropriately named, however, since most of the essay (it's actually a chapter from one of his books) actually focuses on refuting alternate theories about what happened at/after Jesus' crucifixion. Here's an excerpt from his introduction:
The question is this: Which theory about what really happened in Jerusalem on that first Easter Sunday can account for the data? There are five possible theories: Christianity, hallucination, myth, conspiracy and swoon.
Thus either (1) the resurrection really happened, (2) the apostles were deceived by a hallucination, (3) the apostles created a myth, not meaning it literally, (4) the apostles were deceivers who conspired to foist on the world the most famous and successful lie in history, or (5) Jesus only swooned and was resuscitated, not resurrected. All five theories are logically possible, and therefore must be fairly investigated—even (1) ! They are also the only possibilities, unless we include really far-out ideas that responsible historians have never taken seriously, such as that Jesus was really a Martian who came in a flying saucer. Or that he never even existed; that the whole story was the world's greatest fantasy novel, written by some simple fisherman; that he was a literary character whom everyone in history mistook for a real person, including all Christians and their enemies, until some scholar many centuries later got the real scoop from sources unnamed.
Read on for more. Highly recommended.
- Facts Concerning the Resurrection – Resurrection expert Gary Habermas examines the facts that historians (including skeptics) agree upon and what we can conclude from them.
Please indulge me as I proceed to conduct a bit of a thought experiment. Note that if I quote the Bible, I am not doing so in an attempt to prove that the Bible is true (that would be a circular argument) but rather to allow it to speak for itself as to what it really claims.
The question to ponder is: How can Christians claim that all human beings are "sinners"? Isn't that just being unnecessary pessimistic? Aren't people essentially good?
Yes, people are, in a sense, "essentially good". But Christians use those words in a slightly different way. To say a person is essentially good means that since people are made in God's image (that is, resemblance, likeness) we never are able to fully erase that essential quality, regardless of how much we may deface it.1 Essential goodness in this sense means that we cannot entirely remove or escape our divine worth; since God has given us this worth, it is not within our power to expunge it.
However, a more widespread expression of "essentially good" has a different meaning. What does it mean to be good, in this context? That is, what is the most important thing? It seems that in this popular worldview, the most important thing is that you should be nice to people. In our society (and most churches, for that matter) this is the most important thing. I mean, of course it is … right? What else could be more important … ?
As it happens, Jesus was once asked this very same question by the religious leaders of His time: What is the most important thing?
… but before we consider Jesus' answer, consider this short parable:
A man was walking by a river, when suddenly he heard a splash, and saw a woman flailing her arms in the water. The man recognized that she could not swim. He knew that she would surely drown in the fast moving water. Throwing off his coat, he dove in the river, grabbed her arm, and dragged her to safety.
For saving her life, the man was lauded as a hero, and the tale of his act of valor began to spread. Observers called for the man to be awarded a medal of honor, and a reporter even interviewed the man for the local paper.
However, the next day's newspaper told the rest of the story. When asked why he saved the woman, the man answered "I don't care about the woman herself. I only saved her because she owed me a hundred dollars. I'm an expert swimmer, and I knew that if she drowned she would never be able to repay my money. Frankly I couldn't care less if she drowned." The townspeople were aghast, and no one ever spoke again of awarding him a medal of honor.
Now, why do we react differently to the story after hearing the man's intentions? The act itself does not change, and although the act is not entirely negated, it seems in a sense tainted by the man's motivations. The man could no longer be considered a hero. It seems as though if a person does a right act for a wrong reason, we are innately (and rightly) repulsed by it. Motivation matters. For example, a person who commits manslaughter receives a lesser sentence than one who commits first degree murder; what differs is their motivation. So we can agree that motivation for an act can change the worthiness (or unworthiness) of the act. Let's keep this fact in mind.
Back to Jesus. When Jesus was asked what was most important, He answered by twice quoting the Old Testament:
Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:37-39)
Notice what is first: Loving God. This is what Jesus said is the most important thing. Loving God = #1. Loving your neighbors (by which Jesus means all people, even your enemies) is #2. Still important, you understand, but secondary. And according to Jesus, our #2 flows from our #1: our acts made in love for God will likewise be manifest in love for others, but the reverse is not necessarily true. John explains further: "This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome." (1 John 5:2-3)
If Jesus is right (this is how Jesus argued, not me) how can we be "good" if our motivation for acting ignores what Jesus claimed is most important? How can a person be "good" if their motivation is all wrong? How can a person be "good" if they ignore God?
Some will say, "But I believe that God exists. Just not in the Christian God."
Notice how Jesus responded to temptation, by quoting the Old Testament: "Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only." (Matthew 4:10, Luke 4:8) He didn't say to worship any 'ol god, but to worship the Lord. There are many false "gods" in the world, but only one God. I am reminded of James' admonishment: "You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror." (James 2:19, NLT)
Back to our original query: Are we basically good? Generally nice guys/gals? Mostly free from sin? That's like asking if a glass of water that's been repeatedly spit in is still "mostly good to drink". As Paul said, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) Sorry to be blunt, but sometimes doctors have to be blunt in order to begin a process of healing. Jesus Himself noted "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:17)
Trying to 'save ourselves' (by our own effort) won't work, either. I know that's counterintuitive in our culture, because we're always told to do it ourselves. But how can someone drowning in quicksand pull themselves out? The good news (that is, the "gospel") is that we don't have to save ourselves. In Jesus Christ, God Himself came into our world in the flesh in order to save us from ourselves and certain death, and show us the way. Paul explains:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
Maybe you've never been inside a church and your life (I know I avoided churches like the plague before I started following Jesus) and have never considered this before. Or maybe you grew up in a church but never heard any of this before. There are a lot of terrible churches out there, but that doesn't affect one bit the truthfulness of what Jesus said and did.
No matter where you're coming from, what you've just read is something worth thinking about. Anyone who says all the religions are basically the same has never really grasped what Jesus was offering: Good people don't go to heaven. Forgiven people do.
All that remains is to accept God's offer of grace.
Thanks for listening. Please feel free to read my story or contact me.
1 Thanks goes to Rev Victor Shepherd for his way of stating things so eloquently.
Note: Bible quotations are from the NIV or TNIV unless otherwise noted.
This post seeks to answer two questions regarding the documents that comprise the New Testament:
- When were the New Testament documents written?
- Who wrote the documents? Were they really eyewitnesses?
1. When were the New Testament documents written?
Although we cannot pinpoint exact dates for the New Testament books, we can use both internal evidence and external evidence to determine their approximate dating. (Most of the information in this section is adapted from Dr Paul Barnett's excellent book Is the New Testament Reliable?)
First, the external evidence. In the early church fathers we find many quotations of the New Testament. Three authors who wrote at the turn of the century (Clement in about 96AD, Ignatius in about 108AD, and Polycarp in about 110AD) all quote heavily from the New Testament. In summary, the only two books not quoted by these writers is 2 John and Jude. This of course does not mean that these two books were definitely not written by 100AD, but only that they were not specifically quoted by these three early writers. So on this basis, we can conclude that all (or nearly all) of the New Testament books were written before the end of the first century.
However, we can in many cases be more exact. In the case of Paul's letters, I'll quote Dr Barnett rather than try to reinterpret his already concise prose:
When Paul arrived in Corinth, he met Aquila and Priscilla who had recently "come from Italy … because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome" (Acts 18:2) This dovetails with the Roman historian Suetonius, who wrote that Claudius banished from Rome all Jews because they were continually making disturbances about Christ and Christianity (Claudius 25). Scholars of Roman history date this expulsion to c. AD 49. We conclude that Paul arrived in Corinth some time during AD 50. An inscription that fixes the beginning of Gallio's one-year appointment as proconsul in Achaia at July AD 51 confirms this, a detail that corresponds with the reference in Acts that "when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack upon Paul and brought him before the tribunal" (Acts 18:12) Since 1 Thessalonians, by common consent, was written from Corinth soon after Paul's arrival there (1 Thes 3:6 and Acts 18:5), we conclude that this letter was written in AD 50. This represents the earliest generally accepted extremity of the time frame. Few scholars dispute this date, although some may place Paul's letter to the Galatians earlier, about AD 48. (Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable?, 37-38)
So the earliest of Paul's letters was written approximately 20 years after Jesus' death. This fact is not generally disputed among scholars (Christian or not). The earliest of Paul's letters are in fact the earliest books of the New Testament. Barnett goes on to explain that the latest of Paul's letters would have been written at the end of the sixties (before AD 68 when Nero died).
While 20 years may seem like a long time, this is much, much sooner than other historical documents we have that are considered reliable by all historians. However, we have even earlier material than this. In 1 Corinthians (written by Paul in about 54AD) chapter 15, verses 3-8 comprise an early church creed which is much earlier than 1 Corinthians itself. There are many reasons why scholars conclude this is an early creed (See Gary Habermas in Lee Strobel's book Case for Christ, 229):
- Paul introduces it by using the words received and passed on. The original Greek words were rabbinic terms for passing on tradition.
- The stylized structure of the passage indicates it's a creed. (It is similar to other known creeds.)
- The creed uses words and phrases that Paul rarely or never uses himself.
- It uses certain words that are similar to Hebrew ways of narration.
- There is no copy of 1 Corinthians that lacks the creed.
The creed itself has been dated to within only a few years after Jesus' death! For comparison, this creed is at least 100 years earlier than the so-called "Gospel of Judas" which was recently made famous. This is the equivalent of a newsflash in ancient times. Here is what the creed, the earliest Christian testimony we have, affirms: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles …"
This of course does not prove the claim is true, merely that the Christian gospel claim was not made up many years later, but was in fact preached from the very beginning. For an analysis of this passage and the significance of its contents, see The Significance Of 1 Corinthians 15.
2. Who wrote the documents? Were they really eyewitnesses?
Given that the New Testament documents were written within the timeframe that the eyewitnesses to Jesus were still alive (as per above) it is certainly possible that the documents were indeed written by eyewitnesses, as the authors themselves claim to be (ex. Luke 1:2, John 21:24, 1 John 1:3, 2 Peter 1:16). I have already written a brief post on Dr Richard Bauckham's excellent book (published just this year) Jesus and the Eyewitnesses which argues persuasively from (again) both internal and external evidence that the New Testament was indeed written by eyewitnesses.
If you are interested in this topic, here's a link to Bauckham's brief interview with Christianity Today magazine: They Really Saw Him: Richard Bauckham argues that the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony, not "anonymous community traditions." The key, he says, is in the names.
So in summary, we do have very good reasons to believe that the New Testament documents were both written extremely early (especially compared to all other ancient historical documents) and also were written by eyewitnesses as claimed by the authors themselves.
"At this gathering [the Council of Nicaea]," Teabing said, "many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon – the date of Easter, the role of the bishops – and, of course, the divinity of Jesus – until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet – a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal." (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Chapter 55)
The Da Vinci Code repeats a common claim: That Jesus never claimed to be God, and this belief was made up by much later followers. Let's take a look at just one way that Jesus claimed divinity: He accepted worship.
First, Jesus (quoting the Old Testament) claimed that God is the only legitimate object of worship: "Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only." (Matthew 4:10; Deut 6:13).
Second, Jesus accepted worship many times, including just a short time later when the disciples all worship Him (Matthew 14:33). Additionally:
Jesus accepted worship from Thomas (John 20:28); all the angels are told to worship Jesus (Heb. 1:6); wise men worshiped Jesus (Matt. 2:11); a ruler bowed before Him in worship (Matt. 9:18); a blind man worshiped Him (John 9:38); Mary Magdalene worshiped Him (Matt. 28:9); and the disciples worshiped Him (Matt. 28:17). [source]
Note carefully what we never find Jesus saying. He never corrected anyone by saying something like "Woah guys, you've got it all wrong, I may be a good teacher but don't worship me!"
Third, in Acts we find the early Christians doing exactly what Jesus didn't do, objecting strongly when people try to worship them. In Acts 10, Peter goes to visit a man named Cornelius, where we read: "As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. "Stand up," he said, "I am only a man myself." (Acts 10:25-26) This is exactly what we don't find Jesus saying! A similar example occurs to Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:11-15.
To state this briefly:
- Jesus claimed only God should be worshiped.
- Jesus accepted worship.
- Therefore, the earliest Christians considered Jesus divine and Jesus affirmed their belief.
All of this accords with what was preached in the early Christian church. In fact, the usual tenancy that often needed to be corrected was to emphasize Jesus' divinity at the expense of His humanity!
The only way to attempt escape from this conclusion is to argue that the New Testament is not an accurate historical record. Now, besides the fact that the earliest records we have of what Christians believe are the New Testament documents, there are also many other good reasons to believe the New Testament is an accurate historical record.