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Answering Tough Questions

One of the great challenges facing church leaders currently is equipping their fellow-believers to give solid reasons for the hope they have, and to answer the challenging questions they get asked.  In this section you’ll find an apologetics course with accompanying resources, ready for you to adapt for your own situation and reuse.

Session 4 - Notes afterwards

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

We’re a pluralistic society. Our world has many sincerely-held beliefs.  How can there be only one true faith, how can Jesus be the only way?  Aren’t all religions true?

  • Sincerity’s not the issue: we can all be     sincerely mistaken.  If you were afraid you had cancer you might go     to the doctor, and you might tell them, `But a year ago I asked one of the     nicest, sincerest people I know, and they told me not to worry… `      The doctor may say: Your friend may be sincere, but you are in danger of     dying of cancer.  Some diagnoses are either true or false; some cures     will save you and others won’t; you need to know which are which.
  • In the end, some things are either true or     false.  Either God is personal (as in Islam and Christian faith) or he isn’t (as     in Buddhism).  Either Christ’s death is the centre of everything, because it has paid for our sins     and saved us from hell - or it hasn’t (and our Muslim friends will tell us     something very different about how we must seek to avoid hell).      Either the resurrection was the most triumphant moment in history (Christian faith),     or (as for Hinduism) it would have been pointless; or (Islam) it didn’t     happen at all.   And Jesus     himself either was or was not what he claimed to     be – the unique I AM, the Creator, the only way to God (John 14:6).      No other major religious teacher has ever made this incredible claim – and     it matters enormously!  (To Muslims, for example, it would be the     most terrible blasphemy.)  Was Jesus right or wrong?
  • If Christ’s claims are true, all other     religions must ultimately be incomplete.  All religions     cannot be 100% true, because they disagree vitally with each other.      There may be many good insights in each, but the most vital question is     how we can be right with God, eternally.  (So if Islam is right and     we’re wrong, we’re in trouble!)  And if human efforts or ceremonies     can make us right with God, Christ’s agonizing death was     unnecessary.  So we cannot have Christ’s cross and other religions     too; we have, unavoidably, to choose.
  • Practically, it’s either true or false that we     can’t please God by anything at all that we do – meaning, our sins can     only be taken away if God himself rescues us by paying for them, and we     then reach out to him and receive that unearned forgiveness for     ourselves.  Jesus’ gospel stands alone in daring to say this.
  • It comes down to facts; and as we’ve been     saying, this is where Christian faith is so strong. No other religious     teacher has risen from the dead!  If God did that, if Christ’s     resurrection is a historical fact, then we’re dealing with something unique     in history; only Jesus frees us from sin and death.

(Note: We can of course decide that the differences between the religions doesn’t matter - but that’s not saying all religions are same, it’s saying all religions are wrong as they stand, and my personal selection of their teachings is more truthful than any of them.  That’s a huge gamble of faith in my own judgment!  Tim Keller, in The Reason for God p.8, tells of a student who argued that the doctrines that divide the faiths aren’t what matter, because (he said) all religions believe in the same God, an all-loving Spirit in the universe. Keller observes that in that case Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all, in different ways, mistaken!  So the student himself actually had quite a definite doctrine about God, but one different from all these religions; that is, he was saying he was right where Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were all wrong – quite a step of faith.) 

We need to be ready for two further questions about this:

 Isn’t this arrogant?

  • No, it isn’t.  We didn’t figure it out by     our own brilliance; God showed it to us.  If you seek him, he’ll show     it to you as well.  (And a doctor’s not being arrogant if he tells     you you’ve got cancer, or are pregnant, or both.  He’s simply stating     facts.) 
  • It’s politically correct to say that everyone     has their own truth – and actually it’s that which is arrogant. Keller     again quotes the comparison people make between the world religions and a     group of blind men with an elephant: one feels the trunk and says it’s     like a snake, another feels the leg and says it’s like a treetrunk,     another feels the elephant’s large flat side, and all are partly right and     this is how it is with the world religions.  Keller observes that the     heart of that whole story is that one person is more right than all the     blind men, and  that is because they can see the whole picture and     none of the blind men can.  The person saying this is assuming they     can see better and more maturely than Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Moses,     Confucius….  If I heard myself saying that, I’d start to wonder who’s     arrogant.

But doesn’t your attitude of Christian conviction cause wars?

  • It’s true that dogmatic certainty will cause     conflict unless it’s coupled with a commitment to loving your enemy;     witness the massacres carried out last century in Russia, China and     Cambodia, by atheistic communist governments,  of anybody who     disagreed with them. 
  • It’s essential in a pluralistic society like     ours that we really see that respect doesn’t depend on agreement.  If     we are to live together, we must be able to hold strong convictions and     yet respect each other without violence.
  • And yes, religion-gone-wrong can cause     wars.  The first murder in human history was over religion, when Cain     found his approach to God was the wrong one, his deep human yearning for     relationship with God was frustrated, and he murdered Abel whose approach     to God (by sacrifice) had been fruitful. But following Jesus and the new     testament cannot cause wars and hatred, and no true Christian could attack     Muslims or burn down a local mosque; why? …….. Because Jesus and the new     testament call us to love our enemies.  Indeed, people of other     faiths are not even our enemies, but people Jesus loved so much he died in     agony for them.
  • Not only that; followers of Jesus know we are     not saved by our goodness and so expect that in other religions there are     people better than us; we’ve come to Jesus to be mended. 
  • Finally, for followers of Jesus the most vital     thing in life is a free heart-choice of faith.  No one can force that     on anybody; which is why belief in the Christian faith leads, and     historically has led, to freedom of religion.  We’re longing for our     neighbours of other faiths to meet Jesus; and therefore any religious     violence or religious compulsion is not only unChristlike but unbelievably     stupid.

But what about those who have never heard your gospel?  Are all those who haven’t heard of Jesus consigned to hell?

  • The most important thing to say about this is     that we trust God.  He is utterly just and also utterly loving; we trust them to his care
  • But there are many things we aren’t sure about     (as is the case in science too);  and we aren’t embarrassed     about that!  Some Christians say that those who haven’t heard the gospel are without     salvation.  Others believe that Christ’s death can cover them too, if they have turned to what they’ve been shown of     God for mercy, in repentance and faith. (Just as     Abraham was saved, though he never knew Christ by     name.)

Let’s expand this. Bible Christians disagree about this matter and that’s okay!  Dick Dowsett’s book God That’s Not Fair! sets out concisely the position that those who have not responded to the gospel of the cross are all heading for a lost eternity; for an in-depth presentation of the same position see ch6 of D A Carson, The Gagging of God. And maybe they are right.

But there is an alternative position.  Abraham never knew Jesus’ name, nor had he heard of the cross.  Nor did Job – indeed he wasn’t even part of Israel; nor was Melchizedek or Jethro.  But Scripture presents them as righteous people of God: because of their repentance and faith in what God had revealed to them, the cross covered them too.  It seems at least possible that people today who have never heard the new testament gospel could be in the same situation (isn’t this the point of Acts 17:30?): God judges them by how they responded in repentance and faith to the light he’s given them thus far.  (The glory of God demands that they be brought the whole story, of course.  But that isn’t a matter of whether they go to heaven or hell; our motivation here is God’s glory - Christ has died for us and everyone must hear about that and worship him!)

So does this destroy missionary vision?  Certainly not. To repeat, our primary motivation for world mission is the glory of God.  Christ died on the cross for us and yet in so many places he is not yet worshipped; and if we love Jesus we must ask how we can tell everybody in farflung parts of China, in Teheran and Mecca, among the Siberian tribes, in Paris and Brussels.  Nor in taking this position are we being `interfaith`; the new testament is clear that there’s only one true gospel in this world, the gospel of the cross; and while in God’s grace the cross may possibly cover people who have never heard about it, still if they are in heaven, they are in heaven only because of the cross.  We can’t believe what the Bible says about the cross and still believe in any other religion, or that anyone will be saved simply by being a good Muslim or a good Hindu.  Nevertheless, the possibility does exist that if they respond in repentance and faith to as much as they have seen from God, the cross covers them, and they go to heaven just as Abraham did and just as we do.

We can’t be sure of this, and therefore we may well be best to live as if Dowsett and Carson are right, and the unevangelized are all headed for a lost eternity.  But if friends ask what we think about this, it is by no means certain from the Bible that those who have never heard the gospel all go to hell. Ultimately the God we know is utterly just and utterly loving, and we can trust them to his care. 

But the real issue for our friend is what happens to those who have heard, to you and me!  

Some short comments about three key questions often raised by our Muslim friends.

Whole books have been written about these questions; an excellent one is E M Hicham, Your Questions Answered. (Hicham himself grew up a Muslim and has written an excellent introduction to Islam, How Shall They Hear?  See also www.word-of-hope.net, which contains much more thorough resources than we can attempt here.  Another good, brief guide is Sharing Christ with Muslims, published by Frontiers, www.frontiers.org.uk.)  But of the many things our Muslim friends may ask, three questions deserve a brief comment as they seem especially common:   

 `God has no partner; how could God be born as a man?`  For us too, the idea is abhorrent that God, or Allah (for this was the Arabic Christian word for God first!), might have a sexual `partner`.  But in the Injil, the new testament, Colossians 1:19 tells us that Allah chose that all his divine fullness should be embodied in one human body, that of Jesus Christ. Surely our Muslim friends do not dare to say that Allah the Almighty cannot do that?  And, surely they do not dare to say that they know the mind of Allah so well that they can say with certainty that he would not do that?

The same issue arise when our Muslim friends say `God doesn’t sleep, or eat or drink… God cannot die, it would be against his nature`. Who are we to dare to say what Allah cannot do?  Who are we to say what Allah would not do?

(It is astonishing, when one of the greatest things about Islam is its high respect for Allah, that sometimes our Muslim friends seem to claim to understand fully what he is and does. Even quantum physics completely transcends human understanding; and faced with the nature of God we are like a dog trying to understand complex mathematics!  What we should reasonably do is trust the pictures he gives us.  It is the same with science.  Is light made up of waves or particles, it surely cannot be both?  But in fact both pictures help us grow in grasping something deeply complex. It is the same with the trinity - it will help us if we think of God as in some way three, as the Bible says, and also if we think of him as one, as it also says.   Likewise, it will help us to see Jesus the Word (or expression) of God as equal to the Creator (just as the Injil explains in John 1:1,18, 5:16-18, 10:30,20:28), yet it will also help us if we listen when Jesus says that the Father who sent him is greater than he is (see John 14:28, in the light of John 13:16).  Equality is too wooden a concept to suffice alone for understanding the full nature of God himself. Each of the word-pictures God gives us help us grow in understanding something glorious beyond our reach.) 

(And while it is true that `The word Trinity doesn’t appear in the Bible` - and we could certainly do without it if we had to - the concept is clearly present in, for example, 2 Corinthians 13:14, or in the phrase Jesus commanded for the central Christian ceremony of baptism in Matthew 28:19.)

 What is surprising is that our Muslim friends often say, `Jesus never said “I am God” or “Worship me”`.  Among Jesus’ clear claims of deity is John 8:58, where he  takes to himself I AM, the old testament name that belonged to God alone. (The Jews understood this full well and immediately picked up stones to stone him for blasphemy, v59.)  But indeed the whole narrative of John’s gospel comes to its culmination in the moment at the end of John 20 where Thomas finally passes beyond his doubts and worships Jesus (and of course Jesus does not rebuke him!) with the explicit words `My Lord and my God!` (John 20:28).  Another example of the disciples worshipping Jesus is Matthew 14:33.

But, our Muslim friends may say, `Your Scriptures have been changed.`  The question we must respond with is, When did this happen?  Any believer in the Quran must take seriously Sura 10:94-97, where Allah tells Muhammad, if he is in doubt, to turn to the earlier Scriptures and those who read them (the old and new testament). (See also Sura 5:46-47.)  It is inconceivable that Allah would command this if those Scriptures were already ruined by alteration before that time.   But if our friends say that the alterations happened after Muhammad, we can invite them to join us in visiting the British Library to see the Codex Sinaiticus, which predates Muhammad by 200 years. With full manuscripts like this we are able to get beyond any alterations after Muhammad’s time, and to see the Scriptures as they were when Sura 10 declared their importance. 

We in our turn have questions for our Muslim friends.  The main one must surely be, how can you be safe on judgment day? How can you be sure of acceptance by God? Because Islam offers no certainty of forgiveness such as Christians know.  And that is in part because it offers no real relationship with God before death. (One thing we may want to talk together about is what prayer means for us - not a ritual repetition, but a conversation with our Father.) 

Since our gospel is ultimately `Christ crucified` (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2), we should seek to share all we can of the wonder of Jesus as God reveals him to us more and more through reading the new testament, the Injil.  And likewise the wonder of the cross; one of Islam’s two great annual feasts is Eid, remembering Abraham’s sacrifice of his son.  But that event needs the context of the Bible to receive its full significance; as part of the line of sacrifices of Abel, of Passover, and the Tabernacle and Temple ceremonies, it points towards the cross where finally the ultimate sacrifice was made that enables our sure salvation. 

SO: AT THE END OF ALL THIS THE BIGGEST QUESTION STILL IS: WHO WAS – AND IS - JESUS?

 This is the vital question.  If Jesus is God, it makes all the difference.

We can’t `prove` that, here, now, collectively.  In the end each of us must meet with Jesus for ourselves.  The aim here is to give us enough material to go away and read the gospels - on our own or, better, with somebody else; and pray, whether or not we believe; and decide.

Again we need to master the facts. Why should we trust what the gospels say about Jesus?  As we said last week, it doesn’t matter at this point whether we share the belief that they are 100% reliable.  We can decide where we stand on that once we’ve decided to follow Jesus. (If we become Christ's disciples ourselves, we may indeed conclude that that involves adopting his attitude that the Scriptures are totally reliable, as we saw last session; but this comes later.)  What matters for us at this point is that they are generally reliable accounts of what Jesus and was like.  And that seems clear.

It’s not just that there are no proven contradictions or errors. It’s not just the vast number of documents – as we noted last session, much more than we have for any comparable historian such as Tacitus - the absence of radical divergences between them, and the many quotations from the gospels elsewhere that assure us we have a fairly reliable text. (An excellent survey is Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History?)  It’s also that they were written so close to the events, in a culture marked by retentive memory, and when many witnesses of the events would still be alive to challenge falsifications; and written by people, and in a community, whose moral integrity seems a historically accepted fact, even among their enemies.

It’s also the repeated appeal to eye-witness testimony that we find in, say, John 19:35 and 21:24, 1 John 1:1-3, 2 Peter 1:16 or Acts 1:21-22 or 10:39-41.  It’s the careful historical approach displayed by the author of Luke (`Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught'.  That’s Luke 1:1-4; Luke had ample motivation to check the historical facts with care; he travelled with Paul, and saw first-hand the price ‑ and pain ‑ of serious discipleship to Christ.). It’s Papias telling us that this characterised Mark's gospel-writing too ('He paid attention to this one thing, not to omit anything that he had heard, nor to include any false statement among them').   

And other types of evidence converge on the same conclusion.  Anderson cites J S Mill, no friend of Christianity, who asked the crucial question about the gospel material: if Jesus was not the source of the teaching attributed to him, who was?  The 'community', some critics have answered.  But Mill had more sense than that and saw in the Gospel sayings a grandeur that was the mark of a most unusual mind: `Who among his disciples or among their proselytes was capable of inventing the sayings of Jesus or imagining the life and character revealed in the Gospels? Certainly not the fishermen of Galilee; as certainly not St Paul, whose character and idiosyncrasies were of a totally different sort; still less the early Christian writers, in whom nothing is more evident than that the good which was in them was all derived, as they always professed that it was derived, from the higher source.`  Most of that teaching, Mill is saying, must go right back to Christ himself.  

And more modern secular literary criticism provides a further insight: it is incredibly hard to produce a convincing saint-figure in fiction.  (Consider Dickens, for instance; his evil characters are full of convincing energy, but the good ones are such pale shadows that it is hard to believe in their triumph.  To Dostoevski, there was `nothing more difficult' than `to portray a positively good man' in a novel; `All writers who have tried it have always failed.')  Yet one generation after another has found the Christ of the Gospels an utterly compelling portrayal of goodness in all its robustness and complexity: striking in his teaching, devastating in debate, while at the same time earthy, gentle, totally at ease with the women he knew; and (for example) so sensitive in his meeting with Peter after the betrayal (John 21).  Where in the world's fiction do we find anything comparable? 

But then: if our best novelists have proved unable to invent such a figure, must we not conclude that the Gospel writers weren’t either, but were copying theirs from a real original?  To make matters worse, fictional prose marked by such realistic detail and seriousness of purpose simply didn't exist at that time (the novel as we know it is a genre that arose largely in the eighteenth century).  So either we must say that the Gospels, with their striking realism of style, are basically factual, depictions copied closely from the real events they describe - or else believe that not one but four great novelists arose, and that these four writers (who were not artists but missionaries) somehow came up with a totally new type of prose writing that would then disappear for centuries; and, bizarrely, each of them also succeeded in constructing a fictional saint-figure no later novelist has been able to match!  The thing seems absurd.  Clearly, as Lewis concludes, the picture they present of Jesus must have been copied from reality, and be at least 'pretty close up to the facts'.

But most of all there is a final issue, which is often ignored to a quite astounding degree: people died for the reliability of these documents.  The early Christians were not new age spiritual tourists; they would most certainly have wanted as accurate as possible a record of what their Master did and taught.  Many of them knew they might come to very unpleasant ends for their beliefs, and so had every reason to want to be certain of their authenticity. They and their families could be beheaded, crucified upside down, whipped, tortured.  One of the early Roman emperors took to using burning Christians as human torches for his garden. If we imagine ourselves in the position of someone who remains a Christian knowing this is how it might end, we can see that those early believers would want to be very sure of the historical basis for their horrendous gamble.  People who were dying for the gospel story would surely want to be as certain as they could be that their gospels were telling the truth.  For all these reasons, then, we can be confident that these colourful, earthy accounts are at least very close to what Jesus actually said and did.

And as we read them, they are enormously impressive.  What touches us most says a lot about who we are.  Some of us may well be captivated most by the shrewdness and sublimity of Christ's words and stories.  For others it is the glory of what he does: his identifying with the poor and broken and untouchable; the way he loves joyous celebrations, yet stands unflinchingly in the way of entrenched evil; his generosity in caring, healing, and forgiving; the astonishingly moving events when he washes the disciples feet, including Judas, or the restoration of Peter after his betrayal.  And so very much more.  If there was ever someone who lived life as it should be lived, we so often feel, this is it. 

We can’t prove this in these notes, and we shouldn’t try.  What’s vital is for us to expose ourselves again, before God, to the experience of encountering Jesus in the gospels.  And if we do that with an open mind – we know this, don’t we - what we see is enormously impressive and enormously attractive. Gandhi, not a Christian, said, `He expressed, as no other could, the spirit and will of God.`  McDowell quotes the words of Napoleon: `I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man… Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and his will confounds me.  Between him and whoever else in the world, there is no possible term of comparison…   The nearer I approach, the more carefully I examine, everything is above me…`  His experience is almost universal…

But then comes a very serious problem. This Jesus is enormously impressive – yet he also makes astonishing claims.  He gives us enormously perceptive guidance on one moral issue after another, and yet he takes an extraordinary line on his own goodness; he cannot see that he himself has any moral flaw, he has no awareness at all of any wrong in his own heart. (His followers Peter and Paul are very different in this respect (Luke 5:8, 1 Timothy 1:15).)  And when he makes these claims of sinlessness, it’s interesting that John the Gospel writer, who knew Christ so well, reports it without flinching (he apparently has no debate to record in which Jesus fends off accusations of sin); indeed, he says (John 8:29-30, 46) that that is when other people started to follow him.

This is disturbing enough, but it gets worse.  He makes massive claims about himself, and consequently massive demands of his disciples (to the point of their self-destruction, if he were not who he claimed to be).  No other major religious teacher - Buddha, Muhammad, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Socrates, Paul - ever made such claims.  And the more we read the gospels, the more we see Jesus’ teaching centres absolutely, over and over again, on his hearers’ response to himself, and his demand for absolute discipleship. 

I must take absolute priority over your parents, your wife and children and everything else in your life, he insists in Luke (14:26); you must renounce everything for me (14:33); you must deny yourself, you must give up your life for me (note, not for the truths in my teaching, but for me; 9:23-24).  I am in an utterly different class from all God's preceding messengers (20:9-14); greater than the greatest of Israel's kings (20:41-44); wiser than the wisest of the ancients (11:31); greater than God's own law (6:1-5; imagine someone saying that!).  Everything has been given to me by God, and only I know what God is like (10:22); your public response to me (again, not to the truths I teach, but to me) will decide your eternal fate (12:8).  And there is more; we can try to imagine our reaction to a contemporary making such claims.  It is fascinating - considering the uniqueness of these claims among the world religions - that the Gospel writers can cope.  Indeed, Luke centres his book's entire structure on Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ of God (9:20).

John's Gospel takes matters still further.  Jesus states that he embodies the life of the resurrection, and anyone who believes in him will never die (11:25-26); he alone gives life to the dead, depending on whether or not they believed on him (5:25-26, 6:40).  He, personally, is (not shows) the way, and the truth, and no one comes to God except through him (14:6); he always does what pleases God (8;29,46).  Staggeringly, `Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father' (God) (again, we should try to visualize a contemporary saying that; 14:9); `I and the Father are one' (for that the Jews tried to stone him, 10:30-31, 38-39).  He, not the Father, will judge the world (5:22), `that all may honour the Son' (himself) `just as they honour the Father'.  He is God's equal (5:18), the eternal `I AM', the very Creator who hung the stars in space (8:58-59).  Perhaps most striking is 5:23: anyone who does not honour Jesus does not honour God; worship of God only has meaning if it is worship of Jesus.  More could be cited.  For Christ, the whole universe centres on a Person, and he is that Person.  We find such claims in every stratum of the Gospel traditions; and in sections too (e.g. throughout John 13‑17) where the unbiased reader is compelled to sense teaching of a depth and stature that must surely come from Jesus himself.  There are so many of these remarkable passages that, even if a couple had been invented by his disciples, the overall shape of Christ's message would be unmistakable.

So here is the point.  The other reasons for faith we’ve talked about in these weeks are very significant.  But for this writer at least the biggest question is this: what on earth shall I believe about Jesus?  Shall I hide from the question?  No, that’s pathetic.  But then there are only three alternatives.

When he talks like that and says he’s God, did he know it was false?-  was he a liar, a deliberate, conscious deceiver, lying knowing his closest friends were successfully enough deceived that they would die in agony for this?  Or was he unaware, did he not know it was false?  Was he the kind of lunatic who walks around a mental hospital thinking he is the Creator?  Or – were they true, and he was, and is, God?    

At the end of the day we do have to look Jesus in the face, consciously, and put our whole being as the stake of what we’re saying behind one of these alternatives: Jesus you were a trickster – misleading and deceiving and leading your e closest friends to torture and death for your lies. Or Jesus, you were a lunatic and should have been given drugs and sorted out.

But then we think of the facts.  Jesus the conscious trickster, setting up his own bogus personality cult?  Can I stake my life on that?  Can we fit that with our experience of the profundity of the gospels, the glory of the sermon on the mount?  For three years he travelled around an often-hostile Palestine with a handful of his closest friends; and they did not notice his deceptive nature?  If it was all a lie, what was he doing in Gethsemane?  Why didn’t he just run away?  And what on earth was he doing on the cross?  Reread the horror of that story. The idea that he was a trickster just doesn’t work.

Well then, we may feel, that’s impossible; so I will look Jesus in the eye and stake my life that he was a lunatic.  But that’s even worse; as I encounter the shrewdness, the simplicity, the calmness, the sanity of what he does, the calm relational skills he demonstrates in so many varied situations.  A lunatic who thinks they are the creator of the universe is seriously crazy, yet this man is so evidently, calmly, wise.  Claiming to be the very Creator (how could one imagine that?): how could he be so sublimely sensible, yet so enormously out of touch with his own nature?  (And above all in Judaea, a culture shaped through and through by a sense of the utter uniqueness of God?)   How could he be so totally out of touch with his own nature?  Can I stake my life on that?

In the presence of the Gospels, the choice seems stark. I cannot – can you? - look Jesus in the face and say, You were totally lunatic when it came to any perceptions about yourself, needing the medication of powerful drugs; deliberately or not, Jesus was an utter megalomaniac.  But nor can I say, You were an egoistic liar, a trickster, consciously misleading (and so destroying) your closest friends.  But then if neither of these options makes any sense, the only other way is to commit myself to him as the Lord; God in a human body, coming as was prophesied for centuries beforehand, that he always claimed to be.  For Christians throughout the ages, that has seemed the only reasonable alternative.

Chinese-American writer Ada Lum says, `His penetrating humour, his iconoclastic challenge to the establishment, his devastating calmness in the midst of personal danger, his compassion and respect for prostitutes as sisters, his warm magnetism for children, his redemptive view of crooked politicians, his unorthodox social habits, his deep integrity in the face of full-blown dilemmas - all these characteristics should inspire us to ask, "Who then is this?"  The deity of Jesus Christ awes me.' That’s how I feel too. 

We can’t `prove` it here.  We can only decide these things as we read the data for ourselves.  But if Christian faith is true at all, then we can only decide these things through placing ourselves in a position of humble (which does not mean believing) openness for encounter with God; by taking our Gospels and saying to God- even if we’re praying to a God you’re not sure is there, God is pleased when we do that – 'If you are there, if in your mercy you show me from these pages the truth about my life and about who Christ was, I will follow you wherever you lead.'  To Christian belief, each of us stands in the presence of God with the possibility of choice; to take the whole issue off the periphery and expose ourselves to it realistically; to draw, and then live by, our conclusions.  And if I were talking to a friend, then in love and fairness I might also want to plead with them, This is unimaginably important; heaven and hell and our future for millions of years depend on what we do with this.

And finally for ourselves as Christians: there are probably lots of other reasons why we individually are believers.  But just from what you yourself have seen of Jesus, could you now be willing to stake your life that he was a liar after all? Or, that he was a maniac?  And if neither, then you know that he’s God.  You don’t just hope.  You don’t just believe. You know.

And then you know that there is a Jesus present in our world.  He loves you enormously; he’s going to be there for you this month; he’s going to see you safe from hell & safe to heaven.  It’s glorious.  And as Studd wrote, if that Jesus be God and died for me, then no sacrifice is too great for me to make for him. 

He is God: he is for us.  And nothing else in life compares to him!

(Books worth reading on this include: Josh McDowell, More than a Carpenter; Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ; or J N D Anderson, Jesus Christ: the Witness of History.)

Pete Lowman.

 © Pete Lowman.

 

Session 4 - Leader's notes

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

Open in prayer. 

Who had the opportunity to share some of last week’s material with someone who’s not yet a Christian? 

How did it go?  What snags came up? 

So we’re launching this session with discussion in groups of three:  What we do we say when an unbelieving friend asks us `We’re a pluralistic society. Our world has many sincerely-held beliefs.  How can there be only one true faith, how can Jesus be the only way?  Aren’t all religions true?`

These are very relevant questions when we face pressure from the authorities nationally or where we work, or even from our friends, to be more politically correct, `open-minded and tolerant`!

So again, let’s tell each other the responses we would make to our friends – because we need to hear ourselves do it! – and then, after about eight minutes, share what we said with the wider group…..

When that happens, responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include…  

  • Sincerity’s not the issue: we can all be     sincerely mistaken.  If you were afraid you had cancer you might go     to the doctor, and you might tell them, `But a year ago I asked one of the     nicest, sincerest people I know, and they told me not to worry… `      The doctor may say: Your friend may be sincere, but you are in danger of     dying of cancer.  Some diagnoses are either true or false; some cures     will save you and others won’t; you need to know which are which. 
  • In the end, some things are either true or     false.  Either God is personal (as in Islam and Christian     faith) or he isn’t (as in Buddhism).  Either Christ’s death is     the centre of everything, because it has paid for our sins and saved us     from hell - or it hasn’t (and our Muslim friends will tell us something     very different about how we must seek to avoid hell).  Either the     resurrection was the most triumphant moment in history (Christian     faith), or (as for Hinduism) it would have been pointless; or (Islam) it     didn’t happen at all.   And Jesus himself either     was or was not what he claimed to be – the unique I AM, the Creator, the     only way to God (John 14:6).  No other major religious teacher has     ever made this incredible claim – and it matters enormously!  (To     Muslims, for example, it would be the most terrible blasphemy.)  Was     Jesus right or wrong?
  • If Christ’s claims are true, all other     religions must ultimately be incomplete.  All religions     cannot be 100% true, because they disagree vitally with each other.      There may be many good insights in each, but the most vital question is     how we can be right with God, eternally.  (So if Islam is right and     we’re wrong, we’re in trouble!)  And if human efforts or ceremonies     can make us right with God, Christ’s agonizing death was     unnecessary.  So we cannot have Christ’s cross and other religions     too; we have, unavoidably, to choose. 
  • Practically, it’s either true or false that we     can’t please God by anything at all that we do – meaning, our sins can     only be taken away if God himself rescues us by paying for them, and we     then reach out to him and receive that unearned forgiveness for     ourselves.  Jesus’ gospel stands alone in daring to say this.  
  • It comes down to facts; and as we’ve been     saying, this is where Christian faith is so strong. No other religious     teacher has risen from the dead!  If God did that, if Christ’s     resurrection is a historical fact, then we’re dealing with something     unique in history; only Jesus frees us from sin and death.

 (Note: We can of course decide that the differences between the religions doesn’t matter - but that’s not saying all religions are same, it’s saying all religions are wrong as they stand, and my personal selection of their teachings is more truthful than any of them.  That’s a huge gamble of faith in my own judgment!  Tim Keller, in The Reason for God p.8, tells of a student who argued that the doctrines that divide the faiths aren’t what matter, because (he said) all religions believe in the same God, an all-loving Spirit in the universe. Keller observes that in that case Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all, in different ways, mistaken!  So the student himself actually had quite a definite doctrine about God, but one different from all these religions; that is, he was saying he was right where Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were all wrong – quite a step of faith.) 

QUESTIONS?

 We need to be ready for two further questions about this:

Isn’t this arrogant?

  • No, it isn’t.  We didn’t figure it out by     our own brilliance; God showed it to us.  If you seek him, he’ll show     it to you as well.  (And a doctor’s not being arrogant if he tells     you you’ve got cancer, or are pregnant, or both.  He’s simply stating     facts.) 
  • It’s politically correct to say that everyone     has their own truth – and actually it’s that which is arrogant. Keller     again quotes the comparison people make between the world religions and a     group of blind men with an elephant: one feels the trunk and says it’s     like a snake, another feels the leg and says it’s like a treetrunk,     another feels the elephant’s large flat side, and all are partly right and     this is how it is with the world religions.  Keller observes that the     heart of that whole story is that one person is more right than all the     blind men, and  that is because they can see the whole picture and     none of the blind men can.  Person saying this is assuming they can     see better and more maturely than Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Moses, Confucius….      If I heard myself saying that, I’d start to wonder who’s arrogant.

But doesn’t your attitude of Christian conviction cause wars?  

  • It’s true that dogmatic certainty will cause     conflict unless it’s coupled with a commitment to loving your enemy;     witness the massacres carried out last century in Russia, China and     Cambodia, by atheistic communist governments, of anybody who disagreed     with them. 
  • It’s essential in a pluralistic society like     ours that we really see that respect doesn’t depend on agreement.  If     we are to live together, we must be able to hold strong convictions and     yet respect each other without violence.
  • And yes, religion-gone-wrong can cause     wars.  The first murder in human history was over religion, when Cain     found his approach to God was the wrong one, his deep human yearning for     relationship with God was frustrated, and he murdered Abel whose approach     to God (by sacrifice) had been fruitful. But following Jesus and the new     testament cannot cause wars and hatred, and no true Christian could attack     Muslims or burn down a local mosque; why? …….. Because Jesus and the new     testament call us to love our enemies.  Indeed, people of other     faiths are not even our enemies, but people Jesus loved so much he died in     agony for them.
  • Not only that; followers of Jesus know we are     not saved by our goodness and so expect that in other religions there are     people better than us; we’ve come to Jesus to be mended. 
  • Finally, for followers of Jesus the most vital     thing in life is a free heart-choice of faith.  No one can force that     on anybody; which is why belief in the Christian faith leads, and     historically has led, to freedom of religion.  We’re longing for our     neighbours of other faiths to meet Jesus; and therefore any religious     violence or religious compulsion is not only unChristlike but unbelievably     stupid.

 If we’ve been considering the previous two questions in the whole group, let’s break back into threes for this one…  `But what about those who have never heard your gospel?  Are all those who haven’t heard of Jesus consigned to hell?`
 
Responses you might be looking for as leader could include…

  • The most important thing to say about     this is that we trust God.  He is utterly just and also utterly     loving; we trust them to his care
  • But there are many things we aren’t sure about     (as is the case in science too);  and we aren’t embarrassed about     that!  Some Christians say that those who haven’t heard the gospel     are without salvation. Others believe that Christ’s death can cover     them too, if they have turned to what they’ve been shown of God for mercy,     in repentance and faith. (Just as Abraham was saved, though he never knew     Christ by name.)

Let’s expand this. Bible Christians disagree about this matter and that’s okay!  Dick Dowsett’s book God That’s Not Fair! sets out concisely the position that those who have not responded to the gospel of the cross are all heading for a lost eternity; for an in-depth presentation of the same position see ch6 of D A Carson, The Gagging of God. And maybe they are right.

But there is an alternative position.  Abraham never knew Jesus’ name, nor had he heard of the cross.  Nor did Job – indeed he wasn’t even part of Israel; nor was Melchizedek or Jethro.  But Scripture presents them as righteous people of God: because of their repentance and faith in what God had revealed to them, the cross covered them too.  It seems at least possible that people today who have never heard the new testament gospel could be in the same situation (isn’t this the point of Acts 17:30?): God judges them by how they responded in repentance and faith to the light he’s given them thus far.  (The glory of God demands that they be brought the whole story, of course.  But that isn’t a matter of whether they go to heaven or hell; our motivation here is God’s glory - Christ has died for us and everyone must hear about that and worship him!)

So does this destroy missionary vision?  Certainly not. To repeat, our primary motivation for world mission is the glory of God.  Christ died on the cross for us and yet in so many places he is not yet worshipped; and if we love Jesus we must ask how we can tell everybody in farflung parts of China, in Teheran and Mecca, among the Siberian tribes, in Paris and Brussels.  Nor in taking this position are we being  `interfaith`; the new testament is clear that there’s only one true gospel in this world, the gospel of the cross; and while in God’s grace the cross may possibly cover people who have never heard about it, still if they are in heaven, they are in heaven only because of the cross.  We can’t believe what the Bible says about the cross and still believe in any other religion, or that anyone will be saved simply by being a good Muslim or a good Hindu.  Nevertheless, the possibility does exist that if they respond in repentance and faith to as much as they have seen from God, the cross covers them, and they go to heaven just as Abraham did and just as we do.

We can’t be sure of this, and therefore we may well be best to live as if Dowsett and  Carson are right, and the unevangelized are all headed for a lost eternity.  But if friends ask what we think about this, it is by no means certain from the Bible that those who have never heard the gospel all go to hell. Ultimately the God we know is utterly just and utterly loving, and we can trust them to his care. 

But the real issue for our friend is what happens to those who have heard, to you and me!  

Perhaps before we break for coffee, some short comments about three questions often raised by our Muslim friends:

 Whole books have been written about these questions; an excellent one is E M Hicham, Your Questions Answered. (Hicham himself grew up a Muslim and has written an excellent introduction to Islam, How Shall They Hear?  See also www.word-of-hope.net, which contains much more thorough resources than we can attempt here.  Another good, brief guide is Sharing Christ with Muslims, published by Frontiers, www.frontiers.org.uk.)  But of the many things our Muslim friends may ask, three questions deserve a brief comment as they seem especially common:    

 `God has no partner; how could God be born as a man?`  For us too, the idea is abhorrent that God, or Allah (for this was the Arabic Christian word for God first!), might have a sexual `partner`.  But in the Injil, the new testament, Colossians 1:19 tells us that Allah chose that all his divine fullness should be embodied in one human body, that of Jesus Christ. Surely our Muslim friends do not dare to say that Allah the Almighty cannot do that?  And, surely they do not dare to say that they know the mind of Allah so well that they can say with certainty that he would not do that?

The same issue arise when our Muslim friends say `God doesn’t sleep, or eat or drink… God cannot die, it would be against his nature`. Who are we to dare to say what Allah cannot do?  Who are we to say what Allah would not do?

(It is astonishing, when one of the greatest things about Islam is its high respect for Allah, that sometimes our Muslim friends seem to claim to understand fully what he is and does. Even quantum physics completely transcends human understanding; and faced with the nature of God we are like a dog trying to understand complex mathematics!  What we should reasonably do is trust the pictures he gives us.  It is the same with science.  Is light made up of waves or particles, it surely cannot be both?  But in fact both pictures help us grow in grasping something deeply complex. It is the same with the trinity - it will help us if we think of God as in some way three, as the Bible says, and also if we think of him as one, as it also says.   Likewise, it will help us to see Jesus the Word (or expression) of God as equal to the Creator (just as the Injil explains in John 1:1,18, 5:16-18, 10:30,20:28), yet it will also help us if we listen when Jesus says that the Father who sent him is greater than he is (see John 14:28, in the light of John 13:16).  Equality is too wooden a concept to suffice alone for understanding the full nature of God himself. Each of the word-pictures God gives us help us grow in understanding something glorious beyond our reach.) 

(And while it is true that `The word Trinity doesn’t appear in the Bible` - and we could certainly do without it if we had to - the concept is clearly present in, for example, 2 Corinthians 13:14, or in the phrase Jesus commanded for the central Christian ceremony of baptism in Matthew 28:19.)

 What is surprising is that our Muslim friends often say, `Jesus never said “I am God” or “Worship me”`.  Among Jesus’ clear claims of deity is John 8:58, where he takes to himself I AM, the old testament name that belonged to God alone. (The Jews understood this full well and immediately picked up stones to stone him for blasphemy, v59.)  But indeed the whole narrative of John’s gospel comes to its culmination in the moment at the end of John 20 where Thomas finally passes beyond his doubts and worships Jesus (and of course Jesus does not rebuke him!) with the explicit words `My Lord and my God!` (John 20:28).  Another example of the disciples worshipping Jesus is Matthew 14:33.

But, our Muslim friends may say, `Your Scriptures have been changed.`  The question we must respond with is, When did this happen?  Any believer in the Quran must take seriously Sura 10:94-97, where Allah tells Muhammad, if he is in doubt, to turn to the earlier Scriptures and those who read them (the old and new testament). (See also Sura 5:46-47.)  It is inconceivable that Allah would command this if those Scriptures were already ruined by alteration before that time.   But if our friends say that the alterations happened after Muhammad, we can invite them to join us in visiting the British Library to see the Codex Sinaiticus, which predates Muhammad by 200 years. With full manuscripts like this we are able to get beyond any alterations after Muhammad’s time, and to see the Scriptures as they were when Sura 10 declared their importance. 

We in our turn have questions for our Muslim friends.  The main one must surely be,  How can you be safe on judgment day? How can you be sure of acceptance by God? Because Islam offers no certainty of forgiveness such as Christians know.  And that is in part because it offers no real relationship with God before death. (One thing we may want to talk together about is what prayer means for us - not a ritual repetition, but a conversation with our Father.) 

Since our gospel is ultimately `Christ crucified` (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2), we should seek to share all we can of the wonder of Jesus as God reveals him to us more and more through reading the new testament, the Injil.  And likewise the wonder of the cross; one of Islam’s two great annual feasts is Eid, remembering Abraham’s sacrifice of his son.  But that event needs the context of the Bible to receive its full significance; as part of the line of sacrifices of Abel, of Passover, and the Tabernacle and Temple ceremonies, it points towards the cross where finally the ultimate sacrifice was made that enables our sure salvation.  

IT’S ABOUT TIME WE TOOK A BREAK FOR COFFEE…….

SO: AT THE END OF ALL THIS THE BIGGEST QUESTION STILL IS: WHO WAS – AND IS - JESUS?

 This is the vital question.  If Jesus is God, it makes all the difference.

We can’t `prove` that, here, now, collectively.  In the end each of us must meet with Jesus for ourselves.  The aim here is to give us enough material to go away and read the gospels - on our own or, better, with somebody else; and pray, whether or not we believe; and decide.

Again we need to master the facts. Why should we trust what the gospels say about Jesus?  As we said last session, it doesn’t matter at this point whether we share the belief that they are 100% reliable.  We can decide where we stand on that once we’ve decided to follow Jesus.  What matters now is that they are generally reliable accounts of what Jesus and was like.  And that seems clear.

It’s not just that there are no proven contradictions or errors. It’s not just the vast number of documents – as we noted last session, much more than we have for any comparable historian such as Tacitus - the absence of radical divergences between them, and the many quotations from the gospels elsewhere that assure us we have a fairly reliable text.  It’s also that they were written so close to the events, in a culture marked by retentive memory, and when many witnesses of the events would still be alive to challenge falsifications; and written by people, and in a community, whose moral integrity seems a historically accepted fact, even among their enemies.

But most of all: people died for the reliability of these documents.  The early Christians were not new age spiritual tourists; they would most certainly have wanted as accurate as possible a record of what their Master did and taught. Many of them knew they might come to very unpleasant ends for their beliefs. They and their families could be beheaded, crucified upside down, whipped, tortured.  One of the early Roman emperors took to using burning Christians as human torches for his garden. If we imagine ourselves in the position of someone who remains a Christian knowing this is how it might end, we can see that those early believers would surely want to be as certain as they could be that their gospels were telling the truth.  For all these reasons, then, we can be confident that these colourful, earthy accounts are at least very close to what Jesus actually said and did.

And as we read them, they are enormously impressive.  What touches us most says a lot about who we are.  Some of us may well be captivated most by the shrewdness and sublimity of Christ's words and stories.  For others it is the glory of what he does: his identifying with the poor and broken and untouchable; the way he loves joyous celebrations, yet stands unflinchingly in the way of entrenched evil; his generosity in caring, healing, and forgiving; the astonishingly moving events when he washes the disciples feet, including Judas, or the restoration of Peter after his betrayal.  And so very much more.  If there was ever someone who lived life as it should be lived, we so often feel, this is it. 

We can’t prove this in these notes, and we shouldn’t try.  What’s vital is for us to expose ourselves again, before God, to the experience of encountering Jesus in the gospels.  And if we do that with an open mind – we know this, don’t we - what we see is enormously impressive and enormously attractive. Gandhi, not a Christian, said, `He expressed, as no other could, the spirit and will of God.` Napoleon said, `I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man… Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and his will confounds me.  Between him and whoever else in the world, there is no possible term of comparison…   The nearer I approach, the more carefully I examine, everything is above me…`  His experience is almost universal…

But then comes a very serious problem. This Jesus is enormously impressive – yet he also makes astonishing claims.  He gives us enormously perceptive guidance on one moral issue after another, and yet he takes an extraordinary line on his own goodness; he cannot see that he himself has any moral flaw, he has no awareness at all of any wrong in his own heart. (His followers Peter and Paul are very different in this respect (Luke 5:8, 1 Timothy 1:15).)  And when he makes these claims of sinlessness, it’s interesting that John the Gospel writer, who knew Christ so well, reports it without flinching (he apparently has no debate to record in which Jesus fends off accusations of sin); indeed, he says (John 8:29-30, 46) that that is when other people started to follow him.

This is disturbing enough, but it gets worse.  He makes massive claims about himself, and consequently massive demands of his disciples (to the point of their self-destruction, if he were not who he claimed to be).  No other major religious teacher - Buddha, Muhammad, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Socrates, Paul - ever made such claims.  And the more we read the gospels, the more we see Jesus’ teaching centres absolutely, over and over again, on his hearers’ response to himself, and his demand for absolute discipleship. 

He is, he says, in an utterly different class from all God's preceding messengers; greater even than God's own law.  Only he knows what God is like, and our response to him will decide our eternal fate.  He alone gives life to the dead, depending on whether or not they believed on him.  He, personally, is the way, and the truth, and no one comes to God except through him.

Staggeringly, `Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father' (God).  He, not the Father, will judge the world, `that all may honour the Son' (himself) `just as they honour the Father'.  He is God's equal, the eternal `I AM', the very Creator who hung the stars in space.  And anyone who does not honour Jesus does not honour God, he says; worship of God only has meaning if it is worship of Jesus.  And there are many, many more such verses, some of them listed in the notes.

So here is the point.  The other reasons for faith we’ve talked about in these weeks are very significant.  But for this writer at least the biggest question is this: what on earth shall I believe about Jesus?  Shall I hide from the question?  No, that’s pathetic.  But then there are only three alternatives.

When he talks like that and says he’s God, did he know it was false?-  was he a liar, a deliberate, conscious deceiver, lying knowing his closest friends were successfully enough deceived that they would die in agony for this?  Or was he unaware, did he not know it was false?  Was he the kind of lunatic who walks around a mental hospital thinking he is the Creator?  Or – were they true, and he was, and is, God?    

At the end of the day we do have to look Jesus in the face, consciously, and put our whole being as the stake of what we’re saying behind one of these alternatives: Jesus you were a trickster – misleading and deceiving and leading your e closest friends to torture and death for your lies. Or Jesus, you were a lunatic and should have been given drugs and sorted out.

But then we think of the facts.  Jesus the conscious trickster, setting up his own bogus personality cult?  Can I stake my life on that?  Can we fit that with our experience of the profundity of the gospels, the glory of the sermon on the mount?  For three years he travelled around an often-hostile Palestine with a handful of his closest friends; and they did not notice his deceptive nature?  If it was all a lie, what was he doing in Gethsemane?  Why didn’t he just run away?  And what on earth was he doing on the cross?  Reread the horror of that story. The idea that he was a trickster just doesn’t work.

Well then, we may feel, that’s impossible; so I will look Jesus in the eye and stake my life that he was a lunatic.  But that’s even worse; as I encounter the shrewdness, the simplicity, the calmness, the sanity of what he does, the calm relational skills he demonstrates in so many varied situations.  A lunatic who thinks they are the creator of the universe is seriously crazy, yet this man is so evidently, calmly, wise.  Claiming to be the very Creator (how could one imagine that?): how could he be so sublimely sensible, yet so enormously out of touch with his own nature?  (And above all in Judaea, a culture shaped through and through by a sense of the utter uniqueness of God?)   How could he be so totally out of touch with his own nature?  Can I stake my life on that?

In the presence of the Gospels, the choice seems stark. I cannot – can you? - look Jesus in the face and say, You were totally lunatic when it came to any perceptions about yourself, needing the medication of powerful drugs; deliberately or not, Jesus was an utter megalomaniac.  But nor can I say, You were an egoistic liar, a trickster, consciously misleading (and so destroying) your closest friends.  But then if neither of these options makes any sense, the only other way is to commit myself to him as the Lord; God in a human body, coming as was prophesied for centuries beforehand, that he always claimed to be.  For Christians throughout the ages, that has seemed the only reasonable alternative.

Chinese-American writer Ada Lum says, `His penetrating humour, his iconoclastic challenge to the establishment, his devastating calmness in the midst of personal danger, his compassion and respect for prostitutes as sisters, his warm magnetism for children, his redemptive view of crooked politicians, his unorthodox social habits, his deep integrity in the face of full-blown dilemmas - all these characteristics should inspire us to ask, "Who then is this?"  The deity of Jesus Christ awes me.' That’s how I feel too. 

We can’t `prove` it here.  We can only decide these things as we read the data for ourselves.  But if Christian faith is true at all, then we can only decide these things through placing ourselves in a position of humble (which does not mean believing) openness for encounter with God; by taking our Gospels and saying to God- even if we’re praying to a God you’re not sure is there, God is pleased when we do that – 'If you are there, if in your mercy you show me from these pages the truth about my life and about who Christ was, I will follow you wherever you lead.'  To Christian belief, each of us stands in the presence of God with the possibility of choice; to take the whole issue off the periphery and expose ourselves to it realistically; to draw, and then live by, our conclusions.  And if I were talking to a friend, then in love and fairness I might also want to plead with them, This is unimaginably important; heaven and hell and our future for millions of years depend on what we do with this.

And finally for ourselves as Christians: there are probably lots of other reasons why we individually are believers.  But just from what you yourself have seen of Jesus, could you now be willing to stake your life that he was a liar after all? Or, that he was a maniac?  And if neither, then you know that he’s God.  You don’t just hope.  You don’t just believe. You know.

And then you know that there is a Jesus present in our world.  He loves you enormously; he’s going to be there for you this month; he’s going to see you safe from hell & safe to heaven.  It’s glorious.  And as Studd wrote, if that Jesus be God and died for me, then no sacrifice is too great for me to make for him. 

He is God: he is for us.  And nothing else in life compares to him!

(Books worth reading further on this include: Josh McDowell, More than a Carpenter; Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ; and J N D Anderson, Jesus Christ: the Witness of History.)

Pete Lowman.

 © Pete Lowman 2012.

 

Session 3 - Notes afterwards

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

 Isn’t the church evil?

  • When people ask this question we have a great      chance to explain the difference between `religion` – trying to earn our      way to God by what we do, which never finally feels as if      it has `worked`  – and Christian faith, trusting Jesus for salvation      only by what he has done for us.
  • That sort of `religion` never satisfies.       We never know if we’ve done enough.   But this, in turn, leads      to guilt, and anger.   
  • That’s why the Bible tells us that religion      can lead to violence: the first murder recorded by the Bible, Cain killing      Abel, is about religion that doesn’t work.     
  • Also, because of its great      importance to our hearts, religion will always be at risk of being      hijacked by evil people for their own ends.  It’s happened throughout      history, and it happens today.
  • Not surprisingly, Jesus uses much of the      sermon on the mount to reveal just how religion goes wrong. 
  • But where do we find the standards to critique      religion when it goes wrong?  Most people who criticise organized      religion need to see that they’re doing so on the basis of values based      firmly in Christianity.
  • Our prayer is for our friends to reach the      point where they may say, `I don’t like organized religion but my      Christian friend is ok and their church is surprisingly alright`- when      they sense the presence of the Spirit in our diverse community. 

 But doesn’t God hate homosexuals?   

  • God certainly does not hate homosexuals!       He loves and values them so much – including practising gays – that he      died in colossal agony for them, just the same as for straight people. We      love gay people too; we don’t believe homosexual orientation is a sin,      unless it turns into practice in thought or action; we rejoice when there      are non-practising gay people active in our churches, including in upfront      and leadership roles, and (given the percentage of the population that are      homosexual in orientation) we pray that there will be many more.
  • We also look forward to God bringing more gay      people, including practising gay people, into our activities, and look      forward to them turning to Christ, growing in holiness, and seeking God’s      healing, just as we each and all need to do.  Each of us in different      ways has tendencies towards thoughts, feelings or actions that are against      God’s will and result from the Fall, and this is no worse than any other      such tendency. 
  • God does say clearly in the Bible that      homosexual practice, equally with any other kind of sex outside      marriage of a man and a woman, is wrong. Again, that doesn’t make it      a worse sin than many others we do. But following Jesus is      ultimately about trusting (and obeying) him; and in this case that means      faith that he knows best about our sexuality. 
  • We are very aware that the Bible’s teachings      about sexual issues raise very difficult and painful issues for many gay      people, as indeed for many heterosexual singles; and we pray that any gay      person will feel welcome in our services as they wrestle with them,      whether they agree with us or not. 
  • But in the end we all need the humility to      allow God’s will to be surprising to us;  that’s how we know he’s a      real, personal God, not one we’ve made up to say what we want him to.

A helpful short booklet is Nicky Gumbel, What is the Christian Attitude Towards Homosexuality? (in the Alpha `Searching Issues` series). For in-depth study of the relevant Bible passages such as Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-13, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Leviticus 18 and 20, see Holiness and Sexuality, ed. David Peterson, and Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (non-evangelical in its overall view of Scripture).  Also Alan Chambers, Leaving Homosexuality, and Alex Tylee, Walking with Gay Friends.

But doesn’t the Bible accept slavery?    

Slavery is evil; look at what the Bible says in 1 Timothy 1:10.

It’s good to be aware, though, that the old testament word translated `slave` doesn’t mean what we might expect.  When God called Israel they were all a nation of runaway slaves escaping from serious slavery; and so it’s not surprising that, although   they inherited the near-eastern system of labour, it became transformed.  In the old testament a slave can appeal to court against his boss, and the boss can even be executed if he maltreats the slave.  Kidnapping and slave-trafficking are crimes punishable by death (Ex 21:16), and Deuteronomy 23:15-16 has the command, unparalleled in any surrounding culture, that a runaway slave should not be handed over – which would have undermined the entire system if that were equivalent to what we call slavery. In fact Exodus arranges a ceremony for the slave who prefers the arrangement he has and doesn’t want to be free.  This was not what we call slavery.

Neither was the Roman system, although it was worse than the Hebrew system for which the same English word is used in the Bible.  But Roman `slavery` was not permanent; there was not a big separation between slave and free; it might even be entered into voluntarily as a means to a special job or to climbing the social ladder.  It was a system that could certainly go wrong (just like marriage!); but again, it was not what we call slavery.

Nevertheless the Roman system was seriously flawed, and therefore we find Paul telling Philemon to treat his fellow-Christian Onesimus `no longer as a slave but … as a dear brother… both as a man and as a brother in the Lord` (Philemon 16).   This must have transformed the whole system within the Bible-obeying church. 

Tragically, however, the institutional church then allowed itself to lose the Bible, until the Reformation.  But we still need to ask, who eventually broke slavery?

Melvyn Bragg, author of The Book of Books (not apparently a Christian as we understand it), writes, `In every recorded civilisation we have the acceptance of slavery. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, African kings, Indian princes, Chinese war lords… for millennia it seemed a natural and inevitable part of the human condition. But here it was abolished: perhaps the greatest humanising act in history.` Why?  (It was immensely costly: compensating the planters for the freed slaves cost a sum up to half the British government’s annual budget!)  Bragg says: `The abolition of slavery was driven by the King James Bible… People like William Wilberforce, who had a revelation after reading the Bible and saw it was his mission to have the slave trade abolished, and embarked on a passionate Christian mission fuelled by a daily reading of the King James Bible.  He finally succeeded, at the cost of his health and his fortune.`  Once the church rediscovered the Bible, slavery was doomed.

Bragg notes also the massive influence of the Bible on the slaves themselves. Black slaves in their millions in America educated themselves through the King James Bible (taken to them first by English preachers like George Whitefield). Many preached it and became leaders. They read it, read Exodus, saw Moses had said to the king about the enslaved Jews “Let my people go,” and this became their rallying cry.  Bragg notes that this pattern reaches all the way through to Martin Luther King: the people who really moved the non-violent civil rights movement forward in America were the black, Protestant Bible-lovers saying 'Set my people free’ and quoting from Isaiah. `When Martin Luther King was shot he was alluding to the King James Bible.`

 (See also ch.4 of Tim Keller’s brilliant The Reason for God.)

But why should we trust the books we have in the Bible?

Jesus was crucified in the mid-30s AD. By then the gospels were already being committed to memory, because rabbis like Jesus taught their disciples that way. (Middle eastern cultures that are not flooded by data in the way we are have retentive memories that may amaze us: many students leave Al Azhar University in Cairo today having memorized the entire Quran, which is 600+ pages in English translation.)

Anyway the four gospels were all in their final form, probably by AD 70, certainly by 95. And the intense persecution of the early Christians would have ensured that people who knew they might die unpleasantly (their families too) for what the gospels contained would be very sure to check their accuracy!

The four gospels were certainly not selected by Roman imperial power at the Council of Nicaea 300 years after Christ, as the nonsensical Da Vinci Code suggests.  Quite apart from anything else, that council did not represent either the Christians outside the Roman empire, eg in Parthia (who would have had no reason to take any notice of decisions engineered by the emperor of a rival state), or the Christians within the Roman Empire already being persecuted as the church authorities became institutionalized.  Yet these farflung churches affirmed the same four gospels.  Much earlier, as early as about AD 180, Irenaeus could write that the four-ness of the gospels was an established and recognized fact as obvious as the four points of the compass or the four winds (see F F Bruce, The New Testament Documents, p.24).

Eventually heretical sects did emerge, and wrote their own gospels (compare today’s Mormons and their Book of Mormon), but these are mostly obviously fictional.  Read them yourself and see (eg in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by J M Robinson, adapted from the standard scholarly facsimile five-volume edition, The Coptic Gnostic Library, also edited by Robinson).  Interestingly, their Jesus is more superhuman and less human than the real one – eg he doesn’t leave footprints. The most plausible of these productions is the Gospel of Thomas; but unlike the biblical gospels (where the first resurrection witnesses are women) this is very anti-female (among other problems); anyway it is clearly far later than the biblical gospels.  Tom Wright argues that it was produced around 175AD.  But the important point is that nobody is discussing this or any of the Nag Hammadi gospels in the first half of the second 2nd century; clearly they had not yet appeared.

As for the new testament books after the gospels, the only ones about which there was any uncertainty after the middle of the second century were a few at the end of the new testament - Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude, and (in the east – the west were fine with it) Revelation: the other books (including Revelation) were accepted by all, says Origen. Eusebius about a hundred years later lists the same books as accepted by everybody, except that he now includes Hebrews and Revelation.

The non-biblical ones that may still have been possible candidates for inclusion were the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Gospel to the Hebrews (apparently a version of our Matthew), and the Apocalypse of Peter. Also 1 and 2 Clement and the second-century Acts of Paul are included in some very early manuscripts alongside the Bible books, so it is possible they were respected highly as well, although we don’t know. Most of these still exist and we can read them for ourselves. But about the four gospels – which is what matters for evangelism - we have clarity.

(See Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History?; F F Bruce, The New Testament Documents; and C E Hill’s brilliant Who Chose the Gospels?)

 But the Bible is full of mistakes! 

  • Have you really read it as an      adult?  What mistakes are you thinking of?
  • Of course the Bible contains things hard for      us to grasp.  And so does science.  (Is light made up of waves      or particles? You could put it either way, says science. Is that a      contradiction?  No, but our understanding, and our verbal      pictures, are limited.)
  • For centuries people have attacked the      Bible. Yet what contradiction or error is categorically proven? In so old      and diverse a book, that is most remarkable.
  • It’s superficial to attack the Bible without      reading it. Why not join an exploratory Bible study with a listening      heart, and see how God can speak to you through his Word?

For help on specific difficult passages see for example the Encyclopaedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer.  But if we really want to understand the details of these issues we will need to grasp what we mean when we say, as many of our churches do, that the Bible is inspired by God, and `completely reliable as originally given`, as well as being our `supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.`

First, we’re saying that we trust it in the details.   With any great literature, it is only when we understand the book as a whole that all the individual sections reveal their full significance. If the writer is good enough, we dig into all the odd corners to find their place in the whole: not unless we are convinced that we have mastered all a book has to offer do we dismiss any of it as dispensable or merely circumstantial. So with Scripture: the more we (prayerfully) study its obscurer sections, the more we find they all fit in and matter (2 Tim 3:16).  So we find that the new testament writers often base their arguments on the details of old testament history: in Galatians 4, Paul demonstrates crucial matters from the minor points of the story of Sarah and Hagar; in Galatians 3:16 the use of the singular ‘offspring’ rather than the plural ‘offsprings’ is crucial to his case. Again, in Hebrews 7:1-9, the writer bases his argument about Christ's priesthood on the details of Genesis. These items are incidental to the main thrust of their old testament contexts, yet the new testament writers treat them as reliable, proving the nature of God's ways. To them, as to Christ, the old testament is a trustworthy whole. (And look at how Jesus himself assumes the reliability of the old testament in detail as he debates in Matthew 22:43.) 

But let’s note too that we affirm that the Bible is completely reliable `as originally given`.  Obviously it has occasionally been mis-copied or mis-translated in minor ways over the years, and scholars are sorting these issues out as increasingly reliable translations are produced over the years.  Jesus had this issue too: `The Scripture cannot be broken`, he says (John 10:35), but the copies of the Scriptures he had, like ours, must have been ones where occasionally miscopying had occurred.  Sometimes we can see this has happened where tiny numerical differences have crept in early on.  But Jesus affirms that what God gave was totally reliable, and he chooses to have faith that this same God has protected his Word in everything that matters; and as his disciples, we exercise the same faith.

Secondly, we need to understand the conventions used by the biblical writers.  We must treat biblical history as history, poetry as poetry; remembering, too, that the historical sections were written in the ancient middle east, not the contemporary west! Different cultures have their own ways of writing history; in England today, for example, if we begin a sentence “He said that....”, we can abridge or paraphrase without appearing inaccurate, more than if we use "He said" followed by quotation marks.  Such conventions vary from culture to culture: if we ignore them we shall create unreal problems with non-existent ‘biblical contradictions’.  The same is true of other conventions: biblical writers (like us) sometimes arrange their material by topic, rather than by chronological order; sometimes they paraphrase or quote another writer more approximately than an academic might do (although so do we, even in very serious conversations); they may report what was said even if (as with the words of Satan) it’s false, but they may not pause to say so; or they may (Iike us) use observational descriptions of nature (`The sun rose`).  And different biblical writers from different centuries may have different ways of using round numbers; a different meaning for eg the measurement `cubit`; or a different method of dating royal reigns.  Again, if we ignore these issues we shall create unreal problems with non-existent `biblical mistakes` and ‘biblical contradictions’.  It is what Scripture says in its own way that God says.

 (For further information read the two symposia edited by D A Carson and John Woodbridge, Scripture and Truth and Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon; also Inerrancy edited by Norman Geisler.)

But why in the end do we trust the Bible as `completely reliable`?

This is a big issue.  Not all churches do.  Most growing churches do: that is to say, they’re `evangelical`, rather than `liberal`; the ground of what they teach is that the Bible is completely reliable, and our supreme authority. 

We need this confidence: it makes a huge difference to our lives. In the end, if we want to grow, we must be committed to this certainty that in the Bible God speaks, and therefore we listen.

But why?

We’re not going to cover the biblical manuscripts here.  David Instone Brewer wrote in Christianity magazine that `The exact text of the new testament is known with much more reliability than any other document of comparable age.  Very few manuscripts of other ancient texts have survived, and the earliest is usually a copy made hundreds of years after the original.  For example, only one manuscript has been preserved of Annals 1-6 by Tacitus (the most reliable Roman historian covering Jesus’ day), and this was written 750 years after the original. The new testament, by contrast, has survived in thousands of manuscripts or fragments, and the earliest was penned only a few decades after the original.`  

There is a limit to how much archaeology can do to confirm the Bible.  http://biblicalarchaeology.org.uk/index.php has many helpful links, eg to Professor Bruce’s  paper `Archaeological Confirmation of the New Testament`, http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/rev-henry/20_nt-archaeology_bruce.pdf .  Another particularly respected scholar is Kenneth Kitchen; his books include On the Reliability of the Old Testament, and The Bible in its World which is online at http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/book_bibleinitsworld.html. A fascinating book, arising from a Channel 4 series, is A Test of Time by the non-Christian archaeologist David Rohl.  Rohl proposes some new datings by which archaeology directly confirms much more of the Bible than most evangelical scholars are happy to assert.  See also Edwin Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures.   

Also impressive is the remarkable ability of the Bible to foretell the future; on this see for example ch.11 of Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

But in the end our reason for trusting in the Bible comes back to Jesus. 

Before we believe in him, we may or may not believe that the Bible is 100% reliable; as we said in our first session, God reveals his truth to different ones of us in different ways.  But let’s take it we have come to the conclusion that Jesus is God, and a God who loves us, wants relationship with us, and speaks.  (We’ll be looking at the reasons for that next session.)  Because of that we give our lives to following him.  Then part of that involves following his teaching; and a central part of this is taking on board his view of the Bible.

It may go something like this. We read the gospels; we hear God speaking to us through them.  We sense the wisdom, profundity, the sheer glory of what Jesus says – so much that is true, so much that is sublime.  And we think: if ever a life was lived right, it was this life.  Now, we needn’t be affirming that the gospels are 100% true, yet.  But they have to be basically true (as we’ll see next session): written so very close to Jesus’ time, often by eyewitnesses, anyway for people who died for their faith in unpleasant ways and would have wanted to ensure that the gospels were true or at least very close to what Jesus really taught.  But as we do that, something starts to nag away at us: he’s unlike any other religious leader, he claims to be sinless, and God, and the only way to God, over and over again.   And as the Holy Spirit speaks to us we come to the point where we realise the Jesus who claims to be God and sinless and the only way to God either is a maniac, or a colossal liar, or is what he says; and we find that we cannot stake our lives on Jesus being a liar, or a lunatic; and we take a deep breath and say, So he is God; so You are God; so what now?   This is next session’s main theme.

But for this session: please notice that this doesn’t depend on our believing in the historical reliability of Genesis, say, or Joshua.  It doesn’t even depend on our trusting the gospels absolutely 100% - yet.  But: once we do give ourselves to be Jesus’ disciples: what does following God mean for my Lord Christ? Where does my Lord Christ say God speaks?  And we start to read the gospels and see Jesus saying that the scriptures cannot be broken, they’re 100% reliable. Messiah, God come to earth, he is unafraid to challenge anything in human religion, even things that might seem unchallengeable (throughout the sermon on the mount, for example; or rewriting the sabbath regulations; or blasting the Jewish religious authorities).  But there is one thing he never challenges: he endorses the Scriptures unreservedly.

Over and over again, faced with Pharisaic traditionalism, or Sadducee anti-supernaturalism, we find his response is continually, ‘Have you not read…?’ (Matt 12:3,5, 19:4, 21:16,42; Mk 12:26). He sets God's Word authoritatively against human religious tradition, even that of the chosen people (Mk 7:6-13). He challenges the rebellious Jewish theologians, ‘Are you not in error because you do not know the scriptures?’ (Mk 12:24).  (As John Stott has observed, Jesus was clearly unafraid to be a controversialist!)  Even if we are still at the point of thinking that one or two of these verses could be non-historical, his overall approach is very clear: Jesus challenges everything else, but not the Scriptures.  They are his authority; to him they are 100% reliable.  Watch our Master; they must hold the same place for us too.

Dig a bit deeper.  Ethics: the old testament law contains, for Jesus, no mistakes. `Until the heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter… will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished', he says in the sermon on the mount; `Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven' (Matt 5:18-19).

Then, Christ has a very robust commitment to the reliability of old testament history, and his teaching frequently - deliberately?!- builds on those very sections that would make later, theologically liberal, academics squirm with embarrassment!  ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of man’, he says (Matt 24:37); the one is as historical as the other.  Sodom, which might conceivably have ‘remained until this day’, will be judged alongside first-century Capernaum, and it ‘will be` more bearable for Sodom (Matt 11:23-34).  Jonah's audience `will stand up` with the current religious gurus of the Pharisees and condemn them (Matt 12:41).  Clearly these statements can’t be equated with something mythical like `Father Christmas will stand up at the judgment', or ‘As were the days of Frodo the hobbit, so will be the coming of the Son of Man'!- Christ is treating them as real history.  In Matthew 23:35 Christ speaks of a series of deeds that will bring retribution on ‘this generation’ (which surely implies historical reality!), and they begin with Abel, from Genesis 4.  Matthew 19:4ff  is particularly interesting because there Christ cites a comment by the narrator of Genesis as an utterance of God Himself. Our Lord clearly views biblical history as real history.

Biblical prophecy is likewise, for Christ, God's utterly trustworthy Word, the fulfilment of which governed the future, even his own - evidently with no capacity for error.  Continually he shows how his life, death and resurrection are in total conformity with old testament prophecy. (For example: Matthew 26:24; Mark 12:9-12; Luke 4:18-21; 18:31-34; 22:37; 24:25-27, 44-47.)  For him, Bible prophecies are not part of some bygone culture that might be mistaken; rather, the dependability of the old testament is basic to his whole self-understanding. In Gethsemane he reminds Peter that twelve legions of angels were available for his deliverance, ‘but how then would the scriptures be fulfilled?’ (Matt 26:54). The biblical prophecy has no capacity for error; he is God come to earth, and it determines what he does.  It’s 100% reliable.

So why then do we rely on the Bible?  Not because we have videos of the Fall or the Flood, or because we have instant solutions for every apparent biblical difficulty.  (We don’t have ‘instant solutions’ for the problem of suffering either, but we still trust in the love of God.)  Nor just because this week BBC2 or Channel 4 showed a documentary that was in our favour.  Scholarly fashions rise and fall; moral fashions do too.  We’ve got to get beyond all that.  It’s because of Jesus, on his authority, that we say, What Scripture says, God says, and as his radical disciples we believe and obey it.  Our faith in Scripture is a part of following Christ; if we are his followers, our submission to its authority and reliability must be as unqualified as his.

And it’s as Jesus' followers likewise that we make the crucial refusal to correct God’s Word by current opinion, preferring rather to let our own decade's limited conclusions be corrected by the eternal Word.  Ultimately, this choice - what finally shall we base upon, God's Word or this decade's opinions?- is probably the fundamental difference between the `evangelical' and the `liberal'; and this is why we are `evangelicals`.  For which is to be the final judge, Scripture or our contemporary opinions? Are we to correct scripture by what we (at this moment) consider reasonable, as `liberals` do? Or do we, as `evangelicals`, allow the limited thinking of our decade and culture to be corrected by the eternal Word?

This is probably the central divide in Christianity, and nearly all fast-growing churches are on the evangelical side of it.  For both scholarly fashions and moral attitudes (eg on divorce, or sexual ethics) change and waver, so that what seems obvious to one generation seems bizarre to another. And if the Bible's reliability is made subject to the approval of our latest opinions, then we cannot speak with confidence as mouthpieces of the God who sees from beyond our uncertainties: we’ll be blown around by every breeze of intellectual style. 

When Paul reminds the Corinthians of what is ‘of first importance’, he stresses that the gospel occurred ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15:1-4).  Only if God has clearly spoken can we speak our gospel with certainty as ‘Thus says the Lord’; opinions are not enough when salvation is at stake!  If we don’t have a trustworthy Word from heaven, our liberating gospel proclamation will dwindle, in time, into a mere exchange of religious views that never comes close to `conversion' (and we certainly see that happen).  Likewise, it is only if our teaching and ethics are founded on a trustworthy Word from God that we can be certain they are more than our own bright ideas, and so be able to march with confidence against the fashion of our particular decade. Prophetic critique and radical holiness build on the certainty that ‘this is the word of the Lord’!

Of course this doesn’t mean we understand everything in the Bible, nor that we are interpreting it correctly. It isn’t always easy to hear what the Word, rather than our decade or background, is saying; but it’s what Scripture actually says, not what we misunderstand it to say, that God says.  So we’ve got to dig in and learn.  We need to be uncompromising (see Galatians 1:8, Jude 3) where it’s clear, but humble where it isn’t. 

Above all this is a practical matter. If we really believe that this book, and nothing else in the world, is the living word of God, then we will soak ourselves in it, reading the whole of it, reading it in quantity: we read no other book in fragments as we do Scripture! (If we read less of it than of the newspaper, then assuredly we believe the newspaper to be more indispensable than the Bible; and the newspaper rather than the Bible will shape our attitudes. Ideally we’ll be prayerful readers of both!)  We’ll prioritize our time with God’s Word, picking a good time daily to read it, and then protecting that time.  And we’ll note down our discoveries, and turn them into worship and prayer, and share them, and obey them (even when we encounter something we don’t want to hear); we know that God wants to lovingly reshape our life through them!  And our feet will be on solid rock; we have the word of God, we have truth, we have certainty. 

And most important, when we set our hearts on such a vibrant spirituality we are following Jesus.  ‘What Scripture says, God says’: that was Christ's teaching, and his life was shaped by total faith in and unqualified obedience to God's flawless Word. As his followers, we cannot do otherwise.   

Pete Lowman.

 (For further reading see for example John Wenham, Christ and the Bible, or The Foundation of Biblical Authority, edited by James Montgomery Boice.)

 © Pete Lowman 2012.

 

Session 3 - Leader's notes

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

Open in prayer. 

Who had the opportunity to share some of last week’s material with someone who’s not yet a Christian? 

How did it go?  What snags came up? 

So we’re launching this session with discussion in groups of three:  What we do we say when an unbelieving friend asks us  Isn’t the church evil?

Let’s tell each other the responses we would make to our friends; and then, after about eight minutes, share what we said with the wider group…..

When that happens, responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include… 

  • When people ask this question we have a great     chance to explain the difference between `religion` – trying to earn our     way to God by what we do, which never finally feels as if     it has `worked`  – and Christian faith, trusting Jesus for salvation     only by what he has done for us.
  • That sort of `religion` never satisfies.      We never know if we’ve done enough.   But this, in turn, leads     to guilt, and anger.   
  • That’s why the Bible tells us that religion     can lead to violence: the first murder recorded by the Bible, Cain killing     Abel, is about religion that doesn’t work.
  • Also, because of its great     importance to our hearts, religion will always be at risk of being     hijacked by evil people for their own ends.  It’s happened throughout     history, and it happens today.
  • Not surprisingly, Jesus uses much of the     sermon on the mount to reveal just how religion goes wrong. 
  • But where do we find the standards to critique     religion when it goes wrong?  Most people who criticise organized     religion need to see that they’re doing so on the basis of values based     firmly in Christianity.
  • Our prayer is for our friends to reach the     point where they may say, `I don’t like organized religion but my Christian     friend is ok and their church is surprisingly alright`- when they sense     the presence of the Spirit in our diverse community.

Let’s break back now into threes for this one… But doesn’t God hate homosexuals?   
 

Responses you might be looking for as leader could include…

  • God certainly does not hate homosexuals!      He loves and values them so much – including practising gays – that he     died in colossal agony for them, just the same as for straight people. We     love gay people too; we don’t believe homosexual orientation is a sin,     unless it turns into practice in thought or action; we rejoice when there     are non-practising gay people active in our churches, including in upfront     and leadership roles, and (given the percentage of the population that are     homosexual in orientation) we pray that there will be many more.
  • We also look forward to God bringing more gay     people, including practising gay people, into our activities, and look     forward to them turning to Christ, growing in holiness, and seeking God’s     healing, just as we each and all need to do.  Each of us in different     ways has tendencies towards thoughts, feelings or actions that are against     God’s will and result from the Fall, and this is no worse than any other     such tendency. 
  • God does say clearly in the Bible that     homosexual practice, equally with any other kind of sex outside marriage     of a man and a woman, is wrong.  Again, that doesn’t make it a worse     sin than many others we do.  But following Jesus is ultimately about     trusting (and obeying) him; and in this case that means faith that he     knows best about our sexuality.
  • We are very aware that the Bible’s teachings     about sexual issues raise very difficult and painful issues for many gay     people, as indeed for many heterosexual singles; and we pray that any gay     person will feel welcome in our services as they wrestle with them,     whether they agree with us or not.
  • But in the end we all need the humility to     allow God’s will to be surprising to us;  that’s how we know he’s a     real, personal God, not one we’ve made up to say what we want him to.

A helpful short booklet is Nicky Gumbel, What is the Christian Attitude Towards Homosexuality? (in the Alpha `Searching Issues` series). For in-depth study of the relevant Bible passages such as Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-13, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Leviticus 18 and 20, see Holiness and Sexuality, ed. David Peterson, and Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (non-evangelical in its overall view of Scripture).  Also Alan Chambers, Leaving Homosexuality, and Alex Tylee, Walking with Gay Friends.

 Any questions?
 
Probably it’s simplest if you teach the next section yourself: But doesn’t the Bible accept slavery?    

Slavery is evil; look at what the Bible says in 1 Timothy 1:10.

It’s good to be aware, though, that the old testament word translated `slave` doesn’t mean what we might expect.  When God called Israel they were all a nation of runaway slaves escaping from serious slavery; and so it’s not surprising that, although   they inherited the near-eastern system of labour, it became transformed.  In the old testament a slave can appeal to court against his boss, and the boss can even be executed if he maltreats the slave.  Kidnapping and slave-trafficking are crimes punishable by death (Ex 21:16), and Deuteronomy 23:15-16 has the command, unparalleled in any surrounding culture, that a runaway slave should not be handed over – which would have undermined the entire system if that were equivalent to what we call slavery. In fact Exodus arranges a ceremony for the slave who prefers the arrangement he has and doesn’t want to be free.  This was not what we call slavery.

Neither was the Roman system, although it was worse than the Hebrew system for which the same English word is used in the Bible.  But Roman `slavery` was not permanent; there was not a big separation between slave and free; it might even be entered into voluntarily as a means to a special job or to climbing the social ladder.  It was a system that could certainly go wrong (just like marriage!); but again, it was not what we call slavery.

Nevertheless the Roman system was seriously flawed, and therefore we find Paul telling Philemon to treat his fellow-Christian Onesimus `no longer as a slave but … as a dear brother… both as a man and as a brother in the Lord` (Philemon 16).   This must have transformed the whole system within the Bible-obeying church. 

Tragically, however, the institutional church then allowed itself to lose the Bible, until the Reformation.  But we still need to ask, who eventually broke slavery?

Melvyn Bragg, author of The Book of Books (not apparently a Christian as we understand it), writes, `In every recorded civilisation we have the acceptance of slavery. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, African kings, Indian princes, Chinese war lords… for millennia it seemed a natural and inevitable part of the human condition. But here it was abolished: perhaps the greatest humanising act in history.` Why?  (It was immensely costly: compensating the planters for the freed slaves cost a sum up to half the British government’s annual budget!)  Bragg says: `The abolition of slavery was driven by the King James Bible… People like William Wilberforce, who had a revelation after reading the Bible and saw it was his mission to have the slave trade abolished, and embarked on a passionate Christian mission fuelled by a daily reading of the King James Bible.  He finally succeeded, at the cost of his health and his fortune.`  Once the church rediscovered the Bible, slavery was doomed.

Bragg notes also the massive influence of the Bible on the slaves themselves. Black slaves in their millions in America educated themselves through the King James Bible (taken to them first by English preachers like George Whitefield). Many preached it and became leaders. They read it, read Exodus, saw Moses had said to the king about the enslaved Jews “Let my people go,” and this became their rallying cry.  Bragg notes that this pattern reaches all the way through to Martin Luther King: the people who really moved the non-violent civil rights movement forward in America were the black, Protestant Bible-lovers saying 'Set my people free’ and quoting from Isaiah. `When Martin Luther King was shot he was alluding to the King James Bible.`

(See also ch.4 of Tim Keller’s brilliant The Reason for God.)

IT’S ABOUT TIME WE TOOK A BREAK FOR COFFEE…….

And then probably it’s simplest if you teach the next section yourself: But why should we trust the books we have in the Bible?

Jesus was crucified in the mid-30s AD. By then the gospels were already being committed to memory, because rabbis like Jesus taught their disciples that way. (Middle eastern cultures that are not flooded by data in the way we are have retentive memories that may amaze us: many students leave Al Azhar University in Cairo today having memorized the entire Quran, which is 600+ pages in English translation.)

Anyway the four gospels were all in their final form, probably by AD 70, certainly by 95. And the intense persecution of the early Christians would have ensured that people who knew they might die unpleasantly (their families too) for what the gospels contained would be very sure to check their accuracy!

The four gospels were certainly not selected by Roman imperial power at the Council of Nicaea 300 years after Christ, as the nonsensical Da Vinci Code suggests.  Quite apart from anything else, that council did not represent either the Christians outside the Roman empire, eg in Parthia (who would have had no reason to take any notice of decisions engineered by the emperor of a rival state), or the Christians within the Roman Empire already being persecuted as the church authorities became institutionalized. Yet these farflung churches affirmed the same four gospels.  Much earlier, as early as about AD 180, Irenaeus could write that the four-ness of the gospels was an established and recognized fact as obvious as the four points of the compass or the four winds (see F F Bruce, The New Testament Documents, p.24).

Eventually heretical sects did emerge, and wrote their own gospels (compare today’s Mormons and their Book of Mormon), but these are mostly obviously fictional.  Read them yourself and see (eg in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by J M Robinson, adapted from the standard scholarly facsimile five-volume edition, The Coptic Gnostic Library, also edited by Robinson).  Interestingly, their Jesus is more superhuman and less human than the real one – eg he doesn’t leave footprints. The most plausible of these productions is the Gospel of Thomas; but unlike the biblical gospels (where the first resurrection witnesses are women) this is very anti-female (among other problems); anyway it is clearly far later than the biblical gospels.  Tom Wright argues that it was produced around 175AD.  But the important point is that nobody is discussing this or any of the Nag Hammadi gospels in the first half of the second 2nd century; clearly they had not yet appeared.

As for the new testament books after the gospels, the only ones about which there was any uncertainty after the middle of the second century were a few at the end of the new testament - Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude, and (in the east – the west were fine with it) Revelation: the other books (including Revelation) were accepted by all, says Origen. Eusebius about a hundred years later lists the same books as accepted by everybody, except that he now includes Hebrews and Revelation.

The non-biblical ones that may still have been possible candidates for inclusion were the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Gospel to the Hebrews (apparently a version of our Matthew), and the Apocalypse of Peter. Also 1 and 2 Clement and the second-century Acts of Paul are included in some very early manuscripts alongside the Bible books, so it is possible they were respected highly as well, although we don’t know. Most of these still exist and we can read them for ourselves. But about the four gospels – which is what matters for evangelism - we have clarity.

(See Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament History?; F F Bruce, The New Testament Documents; and C E Hill’s brilliant Who Chose the Gospels?)

Let’s break back now into threes for this one… But the Bible is full of mistakes!

Responses you might be looking for as leader could include…

  • Have you really read it as an     adult?  What mistakes are you thinking of?
  • Of course the Bible contains things hard     for us to grasp.  And so does science.  (Is light made up of     waves or particles?  You could put it either way, says science. Is     that a contradiction? No, but our understanding, and our verbal pictures,     are limited.)
  • For centuries people have attacked the     Bible. Yet what contradiction or error is categorically proven? In so old     and diverse a book, that is most remarkable.
  • It’s superficial to attack the Bible without     reading it. Why not join an exploratory Bible study with a listening     heart, and see how God can speak to you through his Word?

For help on specific difficult passages see for example the Encyclopaedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer.  But if we really want to understand the details of these issues we will need to grasp what we mean when we say, as many of our churches do, that the Bible is inspired by God, and `completely reliable as originally given`, as well as being our `supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.`

First, we’re saying that we trust it in the details.   With any great literature, it is only when we understand the book as a whole that all the individual sections reveal their full significance. If the writer is good enough, we dig into all the odd corners to find their place in the whole: not unless we are convinced that we have mastered all a book has to offer do we dismiss any of it as dispensable or merely circumstantial. So with Scripture: the more we (prayerfully) study its obscurer sections, the more we find they all fit in and matter (2 Tim 3:16).  So we find that the new testament writers often base their arguments on the details of old testament history: in Galatians 4, Paul demonstrates crucial matters from the minor points of the story of Sarah and Hagar; in Galatians 3:16 the use of the singular ‘offspring’ rather than the plural ‘offsprings’ is crucial to his case. Again, in Hebrews 7:1-9, the writer bases his argument about Christ's priesthood on the details of Genesis. These items are incidental to the main thrust of their old testament contexts, yet the new testament writers treat them as reliable, proving the nature of God's ways. To them, as to Christ, the old testament is a trustworthy whole. (And look at how Jesus himself assumes the reliability of the old testament in detail as he debates in Matthew 22:43.) 

 But let’s note too that we affirm that the Bible is completely reliable `as originally given`.  Obviously it has occasionally been mis-copied or mis-translated in minor ways over the years, and scholars are sorting these issues out as increasingly reliable translations are produced over the years.  Jesus had this issue too: `The Scripture cannot be broken`, he says (John 10:35), but the copies of the Scriptures he had, like ours, must have been ones where occasionally miscopying had occurred.  Sometimes we can see this has happened where tiny numerical differences have crept in early on.  But Jesus affirms that what God gave was totally reliable, and he chooses to have faith that this same God has protected his Word in everything that matters; and as his disciples, we exercise the same faith.

Secondly, we need to understand the conventions used by the biblical writers.  We must treat biblical history as history, poetry as poetry; remembering, too, that the historical sections were written in the ancient middle east, not the contemporary west! Different cultures have their own ways of writing history; in England today, for example, if we begin a sentence “He said that....”, we can abridge or paraphrase without appearing inaccurate, more than if we use "He said" followed by quotation marks.  Such conventions vary from culture to culture: if we ignore them we shall create unreal problems with non-existent ‘biblical contradictions’.  The same is true of other conventions: biblical writers (like us) sometimes arrange their material by topic, rather than by chronological order; sometimes they paraphrase or quote another writer more approximately than an academic might do (although so do we, even in very serious conversations); they may report what was said even if (as with the words of Satan) it’s false, but they may not pause to say so; or they may (Iike us) use observational descriptions of nature (`The sun rose`).  And different biblical writers from different centuries may have different ways of using round numbers; a different meaning for eg the measurement `cubit`; or a different method of dating royal reigns.  Again, if we ignore these issues we shall create unreal problems with non-existent `biblical mistakes` and ‘biblical contradictions’.  It is what Scripture says in its own way that God says.

 (For further information read the two symposia edited by D A Carson and John Woodbridge, Scripture and Truth and Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon; also Inerrancy edited by Norman Geisler.)

Last teaching section tonight: Why in the end do we trust the Bible as `completely reliable`?

This is a big issue.  Not all churches do.  Most growing churches do: that is to say, they’re `evangelical`, rather than `liberal`; the ground of what they teach is that the Bible is completely reliable, and our supreme authority. 

We need this confidence: it makes a huge difference to our lives. In the end, if we want to grow, we must be committed to this certainty that in the Bible God speaks, and therefore we listen.

But why?

We’re not going to cover the biblical manuscripts now.  David Instone Brewer wrote in Christianity magazine that `The exact text of the new testament is known with much more reliability than any other document of comparable age.  Very few manuscripts of other ancient texts have survived, and the earliest is usually a copy made hundreds of years after the original.  For example, only one manuscript has been preserved of Annals 1-6 by Tacitus (the most reliable Roman historian covering Jesus’ day), and this was written 750 years after the original. The new testament, by contrast, has survived in thousands of manuscripts or fragments, and the earliest was penned only a few decades after the original.`  

There is also a limit to how much archaeology can do to confirm the Bible; we’ll include some helpful web-links in the notes you’ll be sent afterwards.  You may also want to explore further the Bible’s remarkable ability to foretell the future; on this see for example ch.11 of Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

But in the end our reason for trusting in the Bible comes back to Jesus. 

Before we believe in him, we may or may not believe that the Bible is 100% reliable; as we said in our first session, God reveals his truth to different ones of us in different ways.  But let’s take it we have come to the conclusion that Jesus is God, and a God who loves us, wants relationship with us, and speaks.  (We’ll be looking at the reasons for that next session.)  Because of that we give our lives to following him.  Then part of that involves following his teaching; and a central part of this is taking on board his view of the Bible.

It may go something like this. We read the gospels; we hear God speaking to us through them.  We sense the wisdom, profundity, the sheer glory of what Jesus says – so much that is true, so much that is sublime.  And we think: if ever a life was lived right, it was this life.  Now, we needn’t be affirming that the gospels are 100% true, yet.  But they have to be basically true (as we’ll see next session): written so very close to Jesus’ time, often by eyewitnesses, anyway for people who died for their faith in unpleasant ways and would have wanted to ensure that the gospels were true or at least very close to what Jesus really taught.  But as we do that, something starts to nag away at us: he’s unlike any other religious leader, he claims to be sinless, and God, and the only way to God, over and over again.   And as the Holy Spirit speaks to us we come to the point where we realise the Jesus who claims to be God and sinless and the only way to God either is a maniac, or a colossal liar, or is what he says; and we find that we cannot stake our lives on Jesus being a liar, or a lunatic; and we take a deep breath and say, So he is God; so You are God; so what now?   This is next session’s main theme.

But for this session: please notice that this doesn’t depend on our believing in the historical reliability of Genesis, say, or Joshua.  It doesn’t even depend on our trusting the gospels absolutely 100% - yet.  But: once we do give ourselves to be Jesus’ disciples: what does following God mean for my Lord Christ? Where does my Lord Christ say God speaks?  And we start to read the gospels and see Jesus saying that the scriptures cannot be broken, they’re 100% reliable. Messiah, God come to earth, he is unafraid to challenge anything in human religion, even things that might seem unchallengeable (throughout the sermon on the mount, for example; or rewriting the sabbath regulations; or blasting the Jewish religious authorities).  But there is one thing he never challenges: he endorses the Scriptures unreservedly.

Over and over again, faced with Pharisaic traditionalism, or Sadducee anti-supernaturalism, we find his response is continually, ‘Have you not read…?’ [we could cite Matt 12:3,5, 19:4, 21:16,42; Mk 12:26]. He sets God's Word authoritatively against human religious tradition, even that of the chosen people (Mk 7:6-13). He challenges the rebellious Jewish theologians, ‘Are you not in error because you do not know the scriptures?’ (Mk 12:24).  (As John Stott has observed, Jesus was clearly unafraid to be a controversialist!)  Even if we are still at the point of thinking that one or two of these verses could be non-historical, his overall approach is very clear: Jesus challenges everything else, but not the Scriptures.  They are his authority; to him they are 100% reliable.  Watch our Master; they must hold the same place for us too.

Dig a bit deeper.  Ethics: the old testament law contains, for Jesus, no mistakes. `Until the heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter… will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished', he says in the sermon on the mount; `Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven' (Matt 5:18-19).

Then, Christ has a very robust commitment to the reliability of old testament history, and his teaching frequently - deliberately?!- builds on those very sections that would make later, theologically liberal, academics squirm with embarrassment!  ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of man’, he says (Matt 24:37); the one is as historical as the other.  Sodom, which might conceivably have ‘remained until this day’, will be judged alongside first-century Capernaum, and it ‘will be` more bearable for Sodom (Matt 11:23-34).  Jonah's audience `will stand up` with the current religious gurus of the Pharisees and condemn them (Matt 12:41).  Clearly these statements can’t be equated with something mythical like `Father Christmas will stand up at the judgment', or ‘As were the days of Frodo the hobbit, so will be the coming of the Son of Man'!- Christ is treating them as real history.  In Matthew 23:35 Christ speaks of a series of deeds that will bring retribution on ‘this generation’ (which surely implies historical reality!), and they begin with Abel, from Genesis 4.  Matthew 19:4ff  is particularly interesting because there Christ cites a comment by the narrator of Genesis as an utterance of God Himself. Our Lord clearly views biblical history as real history.

Biblical prophecy is likewise, for Christ, God's utterly trustworthy Word, the fulfilment of which governed the future, even his own - evidently with no capacity for error.  Continually he shows how his life, death and resurrection are in total conformity with old testament prophecy. [We could cite Matthew 26:24; Mark 12:9-12; Luke 4:18-21; 18:31-34; 22:37; 24:25-27, 44-47.]  For him, Bible prophecies are not part of some bygone culture that might be mistaken; rather, the dependability of the old testament is basic to his whole self-understanding. In Gethsemane he reminds Peter that twelve legions of angels were available for his deliverance, ‘but how then would the scriptures be fulfilled?’ (Matt 26:54). The biblical prophecy has no capacity for error; he is God come to earth, and it determines what he does.  It’s 100% reliable.

So why then do we rely on the Bible?  Not because we have videos of the Fall or the Flood, or because we have instant solutions for every apparent biblical difficulty.  (We don’t have ‘instant solutions’ for the problem of suffering either, but we still trust in the love of God.)  Nor just because this week BBC2 or Channel 4 showed a documentary that was in our favour.  Scholarly fashions rise and fall; moral fashions do too.  We’ve got to get beyond all that.  It’s because of Jesus, on his authority, that we say, What Scripture says, God says, and as his radical disciples we believe and obey it.  Our faith in Scripture is a part of following Christ; if we are his followers, our submission to its authority and reliability must be as unqualified as his.

And it’s as Jesus' followers likewise that we make the crucial refusal to correct God’s Word by current opinion, preferring rather to let our own decade's limited conclusions be corrected by the eternal Word.  Ultimately, this choice - what finally shall we base upon, God's Word or this decade's opinions?- is probably the fundamental difference between the `evangelical' and the `liberal'; and this is why we are `evangelicals`.  For which is to be the final judge, Scripture or our contemporary opinions? Are we to correct scripture by what we (at this moment) consider reasonable, as `liberals` do? Or do we, as `evangelicals`, allow the limited thinking of our decade and culture to be corrected by the eternal Word?

This is probably the central divide in Christianity, and nearly all fast-growing churches are on the evangelical side of it.  For both scholarly fashions and moral attitudes (eg on divorce, or sexual ethics) change and waver, so that what seems obvious to one generation seems bizarre to another. And if the Bible's reliability is made subject to the approval of our latest opinions, then we cannot speak with confidence as mouthpieces of the God who sees from beyond our uncertainties: we’ll be blown around by every breeze of intellectual style. 

When Paul reminds the Corinthians of what is ‘of first importance’, he stresses that the gospel occurred ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15:1-4).  Only if God has clearly spoken can we speak our gospel with certainty as ‘Thus says the Lord’; opinions are not enough when salvation is at stake!  If we don’t have a trustworthy Word from heaven, our liberating gospel proclamation will dwindle, in time, into a mere exchange of religious views that never comes close to `conversion' (and we certainly see that happen).  Likewise, it is only if our teaching and ethics are founded on a trustworthy Word from God that we can be certain they are more than our own bright ideas, and so be able to march with confidence against the fashion of our particular decade. Prophetic critique and radical holiness build on the certainty that ‘this is the word of the Lord’!

Of course this doesn’t mean we understand everything in the Bible, nor that we are interpreting it correctly. It isn’t always easy to hear what the Word, rather than our decade or background, is saying; but it’s what Scripture actually says, not what we misunderstand it to say, that God says.  So we’ve got to dig in and learn.  We need to be uncompromising (see Galatians 1:8, Jude 3) where it’s clear, but humble where it isn’t. 

Above all this is a practical matter. If we really believe that this book, and nothing else in the world, is the living word of God, then we will soak ourselves in it, reading the whole of it, reading it in quantity: we read no other book in fragments as we do Scripture! (If we read less of it than of the newspaper, then assuredly we believe the newspaper to be more indispensable than the Bible; and the newspaper rather than the Bible will shape our attitudes. Ideally we’ll be prayerful readers of both!)  We’ll prioritize our time with God’s Word, picking a good time daily to read it, and then protecting that time.  And we’ll note down our discoveries, and turn them into worship and prayer, and share them, and obey them (even when we encounter something we don’t want to hear); we know that God wants to lovingly reshape our life through them!  And our feet will be on solid rock; we have the word of God, we have truth, we have certainty. 

And most important, when we set our hearts on such a vibrant spirituality we are following Jesus.  ‘What Scripture says, God says’: that was Christ's teaching, and his life was shaped by total faith in and unqualified obedience to God's flawless Word. As his followers, we cannot do otherwise.   

 Pete Lowman.

 © Pete Lowman.

 

Session 2 - Notes afterwards

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

How could a good God allow so much suffering? 

  • The Bible teaches no easy answers to this     question.  At the heart of Christian faith is a man on a Cross     shouting, ‘My God, my God, why?’ 
  • There are some partial answers.  At the     start of history, humankind insisted on running our own world, rather than     submitting to God’s reign.  Our world has been wrecked as a result,     and we haven’t the power to put it right.  Yet each of us still     repeats that mistake, demanding to do things our way.
  • Christ’s death was God’s loving response: he     got involved in our suffering, removed the guilt and power of sin,     disarmed the demonic powers, and opened up the way through death.
  • But if God stamped out all the evil in the     world right now, we’d each be dead too!  So instead he calls us to     work with him; learning in difficult times (even atheists often recognize     that these have been the key times of growth in their own lives); building     a new community marked by his love and peace and  healing; and slowly     spreading his transforming power.
  • But one day he will come back. If we are his,     we will then be in a new heaven and earth where at last there will be ‘no     more death or crying or pain’ (Rev 21:4).

In Revelation we read of the ‘sealed book’ of war, famine, imperialism, economic injustice, disease and religious persecution: and we find it’s something only Christ can comprehend, ‘because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God’ (5:9).  On the cross, Christ alone went to the utter heart of the darkness; he took human pain seriously, and he alone sees and understands all our suffering.

 (Books worth reading include: Edith Schaeffer, Affliction; Joni Eareckson, Joni; C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain; John Wenham, The Enigma of Evil)

DID JESUS RISE FROM THE DEAD?

We need to think hard about what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago.

First, it's worth thinking about the body of the dead Christ.  Everybody involved in the original events ‑ friends or foes of Jesus ‑ agreed that Christ was crucified, died, and was buried. We have the arguments of some of Christ's opponents, and know what they said about it all - because they would have been sure to have checked what happened; certainly someone as intelligent and active in opposition as Saul of Tarsus would have wanted to know  – and no one said anything different: Christ died.

(What’s more, John 19:34 tells us about the blood and water coming from Jesus’ side, and we now know (since the discovery of the circulation of the blood) that this is medical proof of death.)

That the body then vanished, and that this was not his enemies' doing, also seems definite.  Then and later, Jews and Romans wanted to remove this threat to peace and orthodoxy.  Jesus was regarded as a highly dangerous radical, and soon after his death it’s clear that Jerusalem was in great turmoil as the disciples preached that he had risen from the dead. Religious factors aside, the Jerusalem authorities had good reason for fear, with thousands of Jews turning to Christ, either that they would be called to fatal account for `this man's blood' (Acts 5:28), or that the social instability would provoke a Roman takeover and the end of the Jewish nation (compare John 11:48, or the parallel problem when the new faith reached Ephesus in Acts 19:40).   As regards the Romans, it’s clear that for example Felix was very keen to do the Jews a favour when they were trying to put an end to Paul’s ministry (Acts 24:27); and if he could have produced either the body or the Romans who had disposed of it that would have been an ideal favour to grant.  He never tried.

If there was any way his enemies could have produced the body (or those who removed it) in the early days of the infant church's rapid growth, they would surely have silenced the teaching of the resurrection; but it never happened.  It is also striking that the Roman opponents of Christianity never blamed the Jews for having removed the body, nor did the Jews blame the Romans.  Clearly neither the Jews nor Romans had removed the body.

There’s another thing that they didn’t say, a daft idea that only emerged centuries later.  This was that Jesus swooned on the cross, apparently died, and then, without any medical care or food, revived in the tomb, emerged triumphant and convinced his followers that he had conquered death.  This isn’t a theory we seem to hear today.  Why has it been forgotten? 

Probably because on reflection no one can believe that a person close enough to the edge of death to deceive his executioners, with no food or medical care, should be able to shift the massive stone at the mouth of the tomb, evade the guards if they were there, walk on his horribly damaged feet to Emmaus and on other occasions too, and yet persuade his followers that death itself has been transcended forever.  It is striking too that there is no hint of any record anywhere in ancient history as to where Jesus’ body eventually rested.  And, of course, all this makes Jesus himself a liar. It is not surprising that this bizarre explanation has vanished off the scene; and none of his early enemies suggested it.

Rather, the early church's enemies explained the body's absence by accusing the Christians of stealing it. This is the only hostile explanation the gospels seem aware of (cf Matthew 28:11-15), and is the one Justin Martyr has to face in his encounter with the sceptic Trypho a century later; Tertullian, in his apologetics a few decades later; and Origen in his debate with Celsus later still in the third century.  It is also the explanation repeated in the medieval Jewish Toledoth Jesu.  But it is noticeable, and remarkable, that the accusation never resulted in a trial.  Jesus’ disciples were indeed executed, but never on this charge. 

And one wonders what they could possibly have had to gain by doing such a thing.  And then, with no motivation, they proceed to centre their whole lives around their affirmation of the resurrection, building a new religion which had baptism commemorating Jesus’ resurrection as one of its two central rituals, and changing the sabbath that was central (for Jews) for salvation, to Sunday in commemoration of the resurrection – and all this time they know it’s a lie.  Equally bizarre - as we expose ourselves to the ethical teaching of these earliest Christian leaders - is the notion that the people who were doing a great job of  spreading as powerful and gripping a religious vision as the world has ever seen, in the teeth of huge opposition, right across the Roman empire, and for no financial gain, were themselves aware it was entirely false; underneath, they were some of the world's most effective con‑men.  Strangest of all is that as many of them (and their families) were beheaded, crucified upside down, whipped and otherwise tortured or executed, no-one ever admits the truth, that they had stolen the body.  All this seems impossible to imagine. 

Down the ages so many people have faced these facts and then built their lives around the conclusion that Jesus really did rise from the dead.  It’s very interesting that a man as brilliant as Saul of Tarsus could find no explanation. An obvious modern example is Frank Morrison, author of Who Moved the Stone?, who set out to write a book giving the real story of the resurrection and was forced as he examined the evidence to conclude that Jesus did rise from the dead.  The resurrection has been called one of the best attested facts in ancient human history. We are talking solid historical, that is to say scientific, evidence here. We should be asking our friends each Easter: So what do you think happened to Jesus’ body?

We can go further, however.  Christ was seen after the resurrection. The careful historian Luke describes these appearances as 'many convincing proofs' (Acts 1:3) (and as Paul’s travel companion who watched Paul suffer enormously, he had reason to want to be sure that that was what they were).  In the mid-50s AD, twenty years after the resurrection, Paul writes to the people of the merchant port of Corinth from where people might easily travel to Palestine, giving them a long list of living witnesses in Israel who had seen the risen Christ and who could still be contacted (1 Corinthians 15:1-8.  J.N.D. Anderson, Christianity: the Witness of History, gives an excellent treatment of these issues.  See also ch13 of Tim Keller, The Reason for God.)  This is very solid historical data.  (And as N T Wright observes, it’s particularly interesting that Paul omits the women altogether, presumably because the evidence of women counted for so little in that culture.  But then the only reason why the gospels included their encounters with the risen Christ would be that they actually happened.)  Then we should consider James, Jesus' brother, a man not easily convinced, indeed a sceptic throughout Christ's lifetime, yet also a man of sufficient moral stature to be accepted later as leader by the thousands of believers in Jerusalem; he encountered Christ after the resurrection, and became a frontline Christian, finally being beheaded in AD 62. He, we must affirm, lied or was deceived, if Christ did not rise. We should consider the meeting between the disciples and the risen Christ, recorded as the finale of both Luke's and John's gospels (these documents for the contents of which so many Christians would soon die), and again at the beginning of Acts.  And what changed Paul from persecutor to missionary? He says: I saw the risen Christ.

What are we to make of these appearances and these witnesses?  We cannot think of legends arising in so short a time.  Besides, as C.S. Lewis points out, they would be exceedingly odd legends by the standards of classical culture.  There is no account of the resurrection itself (the later apocryphal gospels certainly make up for that), no appearance to his enemies, appearances first to women.  Indeed, many people find the vivid realism of passages like John 20 and 21 and Luke 24 enough to authenticate them as definitive eye-witness accounts. 

Are we to see the appearances as deliberate lies? When these men were engaged in giving the world some of its highest ethical teaching? Again, we are left with the spectacle of the disciples doing a superb job of  spreading a powerful, gripping religious vision, spending their lives building a new religion whose central practices focused on the resurrection (why?), knowing the accounts that climax the gospels are all lies.  Why did they bother?   Many watch their families seized and hurt by the persecutors.   No one says: We made it up.  And finally, one after another, they die unpleasantly; knowing it's all a lie.  That seems utterly improbable.  The resurrection appearances aren’t lies.

It is equally hard to believe these encounters were mere `visions'.  The difference between the Gospel appearances and Revelation 1, when John really does have a vision of the risen Christ, will be obvious to any reader of the two. And we note the authors' repeated emphasis on the disciples touching the risen Christ (Luke 24:38-39, Matthew 28:9, John 20:24-28), going for extended walks with him (Luke 24:13-32, 50, John 21:20), and especially 'eating and drinking' with him (Luke 24:30,43, John 21:9-14, Acts 1:4, and especially Acts 10:41).  Hallucinations don't eat fish, and they don't go with groups of people on long country walks.

So what transformed the twelve from a group of dispirited disciples who abandoned or betrayed their Lord (an account so detrimental to the church leadership that it's unlikely to have been fabricated), into men who turned the world upside down?  What transformed Paul from persecutor to missionary?  What, after Jesus' death, suddenly turned his own sceptical brother James into his follower, so that he too became a martyr?  How much evidence, what kind of appearances, would we ourselves demand before staking our lives and deaths, and our families’, in that way?  The disciples asserted that the key factor was their unmistakable encounter with the risen Christ.  Is there really any plausible alternative?

Following Christ is OK for you but I’m happy without it.

  • If there really is a God, to try and make our     life work without him is like attempting a jigsaw puzzle after throwing     the central piece away!  Some bits will work, but as a whole it won’t     make sense. 
  • This life on earth is just the tiniest     fraction of our total existence.  Since God is our Maker, to ignore     his purposes is to miss the whole point of the millions of years we will     exist.
  • One day we must face God, and account to him     for how we used the life he gave us, and how we responded to the salvation     he died to offer us.
  • Jesus told us there is a heaven (being totally     with God, the source of all love, joy, and peace), and a hell (being     without God, experiencing none of these).  In this life we can still     know joy even while moving away from God: we’re like an electric fire     that’s been disconnected from the power source, but hasn’t yet gone dark     and cold.  But if we live without God now, then, logically, we’ll be     separated from him in eternity.  To be separate from God then will     mean total separation from all love, joy, and peace; drifting into the     darkness forever.  That is what Jesus calls hell.

 (On hell see especially C S Lewis, The Great Divorce, and ch5 of Tim Keller, The Reason for God.)

But surely if I’m a basically good person, that will be enough for God?

  • If it were so easy, why did Christ die?      Watch him go through the agony of Gethsemane, and then the desolation when     he cried out on Calvary.  Why, if we could be acceptable to God without     all that?
  • Hadn’t we better face up to God’s infinite,     majestic holiness?  His purity is unimaginable; before him ‘all our     good deeds are like filthy rags’.  Even our best deeds are flawed by     pride, by self-righteousness. Some of us may be better than others – but     none are good enough to stand before the majesty of God.
  • Only Jesus’ gospel dares face this radical     truth.  Because only Jesus offers us the solution: God himself has     come down, become human, and died for our sins; and now he offers to     forgive us and put his own nature within us, when we are ‘born again’ in     repentance and faith...
  • And this question gives us the chance to spell     out to our friends – and for just two minutes we should have their     attention! – why we aren’t religious.  We don’t try to be     good or obey God so that we’ll perhaps be accepted and forgiven by him; that’s religion and     it doesn’t work!  Rather we seek to please him because first he’s loved, accepted and forgiven us…

 Pete Lowman.

 © Pete Lowman.

 

Session 2 - Handout

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

JESUS, TRIUMPHANT OVER DEATH…CAN WE BELIEVE IT?

What everyone agreed: Jesus died and was buried….

 But what happened to the body?  Could Jesus' enemies have stolen it?

 

Could Jesus' friends have stolen it?

 

Has he risen triumphantly from the dead?

 `We who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead` (Acts 10:41)...

 Were these appearances legends?

 

Or lies?

 

 Or hallucinations?

 

What happened?

 

Session 2 - Leader's notes

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

Open in prayer. 

Who had the opportunity to share some of last week’s material with someone who’s not yet a Christian? 

How did it go?  What snags came up? 

So we’re launching this session with discussion in groups of three:  What we do we say when an unbelieving friend asks us `How could a good God allow so much suffering?`?   Again, let’s tell each other our responses – because we need to hear ourselves do it! – and then, after about eight minutes, share what we said with the wider group.

When that happens, responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include… 

  • The Bible teaches no easy answers to this     question.  At the heart of Christian faith is a man on a Cross     shouting, ‘My God, my God, why?’ 
  • There are some partial answers.  At the     start of history, humankind insisted on running our own world, rather than     submitting to God’s reign.  Our world has been wrecked as a result,     and we haven’t the power to put it right.  Yet each of us still     repeats that mistake, demanding to do things our way.
  • Christ’s death was God’s loving response: he     got involved in our suffering, removed the guilt and power of sin,     disarmed the demonic powers, and opened up the way through death.
  • But if God stamped out all the evil in the     world right now, we’d each be dead too!  So instead he calls us to     work with him; learning in difficult times (even atheists often recognize     that these have been the key times of growth in their own lives); building     a new community marked by his love and peace and  healing; and slowly     spreading his transforming power.
  • But one day he will come back. If we are his,     we will then be in a new heaven and earth where at last there will be ‘no     more death or crying or pain’ (Rev 21:4).

In Revelation we read of the ‘sealed book’ of war, famine, imperialism, economic injustice, disease and religious persecution: and we find it’s something only Christ can comprehend, ‘because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God’ (5:9).  On the cross, Christ alone went to the utter heart of the darkness; he took human pain seriously, and he alone sees and understands all our suffering.

 (Books worth reading include: Edith Schaeffer, Affliction; Joni Eareckson, Joni; C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain; John Wenham, The Enigma of Evil)

In the next section we’re going to try to set out the evidence straightforwardly on another huge question:

Did Jesus rise from the dead?

If we’re Christians, this is solid rock for our souls. God shows his reality to different people in different ways but this is one of the central paths. 

What do we know happened at Easter? Everyone at the time agreed Christ was crucified, died, and was buried.  We know what Christ’s opponents said about it all – because they would have been sure to have checked what happened; certainly someone as intelligent and active in opposition as Saul of Tarsus would have wanted to know  – and no one said anything different: Christ died.

(What’s more, John 19:34 tells us about the blood and water coming from Jesus’ side, and we now know - since the discovery of the circulation of the blood - that this is medical proof of death.)

So Jesus died.  And then a strange thing occurred: his body vanished.  What happened?

In fact there are not many possibilities.  Jesus was regarded as a highly dangerous radical, and soon after his death it’s clear that Jerusalem was in great turmoil as the disciples preached that he had risen from the dead.  So we can conclude that, if anybody had taken his body and hidden it, it would not have been his enemies, because they badly needed that body. 

Then and later, Jews and Romans wanted to get rid of this threat to peace and orthodoxy.  Religious factors aside, the Jerusalem authorities had good reason for fear, with thousands of Jews turning to Christ, either that they would be called to fatal account for `this man's blood' (Acts 5:28), or else that the social instability would provoke a Roman takeover and the end of the Jewish nation (see John 11:48).  As regards the Romans, it’s clear that for example Felix was very keen to do the Jews a favour when they were trying to put an end to Paul’s ministry (Acts 24:27), and if he could have produced either the body or the Romans who had disposed of it that would have been an ideal favour to grant.  He never tried.

If there was any way his enemies could have produced the body (or those who removed it) in the early days of the infant church's rapid growth, they would surely have silenced the teaching of the resurrection; but it never happened.  It is also striking that the Roman opponents of Christianity never blamed the Jews for having removed the body, nor did the Jews blame the Romans.  Clearly neither the Jews nor Romans had removed the body.

There’s another thing that they didn’t say, a daft idea that only emerged centuries later.  This was that Jesus swooned on the cross, apparently died, and then, without any medical care or food, revived in the tomb, emerged triumphant and convinced his followers that he had conquered death.  This isn’t a theory we seem to hear today.  Why has it been forgotten? 

Probably because on reflection no one can believe that a person close enough to the edge of death to deceive his executioners, with no food or medical care, should be able to shift the massive stone at the mouth of the tomb, evade the guards if they were there, walk on his horribly damaged feet to Emmaus and on other occasions too, and yet persuade his followers that death itself has been transcended forever.  It is striking too that there is no hint of any record anywhere in ancient history as to where Jesus’ body eventually rested.  And, of course, all this makes Jesus himself a liar. It is not surprising that this bizarre explanation has vanished off the scene; and none of his early enemies suggested it.

So what then?  There is – significantly - only one hostile explanation the gospels seem aware of (cf Matthew 28:11-15), which is also the one Justin Martyr has to face in his encounter with the sceptic Trypho a century later; Tertullian, in his apologetics a few decades later; Origen in his debate with Celsus later still in the third century; and also the explanation repeated in the medieval Jewish Toledoth Jesu.  This is that the disciples themselves stole the body.  What is noticeable, and remarkable, here is that no trial ever took place for this.  Jesus’ disciples were indeed executed, but never on this charge. 

The disciples would have had nothing to gain by such an action.  Yet with no motivation, they proceeded to centre their whole lives around their affirmation of the resurrection. Equally bizarre - as we expose ourselves to the ethical teaching of these earliest Christian leaders - is the notion that, underneath, they were some of the world's most effective con‑men.  Strangest of all is that as many of them (and their families) were beheaded, crucified upside down, whipped and otherwise tortured or executed, no-one ever admitted the truth, that they had stolen the body. 

And one wonders what they could possibly have had to gain by doing such a thing.  And then, with no motivation, they proceed to centre their whole lives around their affirmation of the resurrection, building a new religion which had baptism commemorating Jesus’ resurrection as one of its two central rituals, and changing the sabbath that was central (for Jews) for salvation, to Sunday in commemoration of the resurrection – and all this time they know it’s a lie. 

Equally bizarre - as we expose ourselves to the ethical teaching of these earliest Christian leaders - is the notion that the people who were doing a great job of spreading as powerful and gripping a religious vision as the world has ever seen, in the teeth of huge opposition, right across the Roman empire, and for no financial gain, were themselves aware it was entirely false; underneath, they were some of the world's most effective con‑men. Strangest of all is that as many of them (and their families) were beheaded, crucified upside down, whipped and otherwise tortured or executed, no-one ever squeals or admits the truth, that they had stolen the body.  All this seems impossible to imagine. 

Down the ages so many people have faced these facts and then built their lives around the conclusion that Jesus really did rise from the dead.  It’s very interesting that a man as brilliant as Saul of Tarsus could find no explanation. An obvious modern example is Frank Morison, author of Who Moved the Stone?, who set out to write a book giving the real story of the resurrection and was forced as he examined the evidence to conclude that Jesus did rise from the dead.  The resurrection has been called one of the best attested facts in ancient human history. We are talking solid historical, that is to say scientific, evidence here. We should be asking our friends each Easter: So what do you think happened to Jesus’ body?

We can go further, however.  Christ was seen after the resurrection. The careful historian Luke describes these appearances as 'many convincing proofs' (Acts 1:3) (and as Paul’s travel companion who watched Paul suffer enormously, he had reason to want to be sure that that was what they were).   In the mid-50s AD, twenty years after the resurrection, Paul writes to the people of the merchant port of Corinth from where people might easily travel to Palestine, giving them a long list of living witnesses in Israel who had seen the risen Christ and who could still be contacted (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).    This is very solid historical data.  (And as N T Wright observes, it’s particularly interesting that Paul omits the women altogether, presumably because the evidence of women counted for so little in that culture.  But then the only reason why the gospels included their encounters with the risen Christ would be that they actually happened.)  Then we should consider James, Jesus' brother, a man not easily convinced, indeed a sceptic throughout Christ's lifetime, yet also a man of sufficient moral stature to be accepted later as leader by the thousands of believers in Jerusalem; he encountered Christ after the resurrection, and became a frontline Christian, finally being beheaded in AD 62. He, we must affirm, lied or was deceived, if Christ did not rise. We should consider the meeting between the disciples and the risen Christ, recorded as the finale of both Luke's and John's gospels (these documents for the contents of which so many Christians would soon die), and again at the beginning of Acts.  And what changed Paul from persecutor to missionary? He says: I saw the risen Christ.

What are we to make of these appearances and these witnesses?  We cannot think of legends arising in so short a time.  Besides, as C S Lewis points out, they would be exceedingly odd legends by the standards of classical culture.  There is no account of the resurrection itself (the later apocryphal gospels certainly make up for that), no appearance to his enemies, appearances first to women.  Indeed, many people find the vivid realism of passages like John 20 and 21 and Luke 24 enough to authenticate them as definitive eye-witness accounts.

Are we to see the appearances as deliberate lies? When these men were engaged in giving the world some of its highest ethical teaching? Again, we are left with the spectacle of the disciples doing a superb job of  spreading a powerful, gripping religious vision, spending their lives building a new religion whose central practices focused on the resurrection (why?), knowing the accounts that climax the gospels are all lies.  Why did they bother?   Many watch their families seized and hurt by the persecutors.   No one says: We made it up.  And finally, one after another, they die unpleasantly; knowing it's all a lie.  That seems utterly improbable.  The resurrection appearances aren’t lies.

OK; so maybe they believed it but it still wasn’t true.  What then?

It is equally hard to believe these encounters were mere `visions'.  The difference between the gospel appearances and Revelation 1, when John really does have a vision of the risen Christ, will be obvious to any reader of the two. And we note the authors' repeated emphasis on the disciples touching the risen Christ (Luke 24:38-39, Matthew 28:9, John 20:24-28), going for extended walks with him (Luke 24:13-32, 50, John 21:20), and especially 'eating and drinking' with him (Luke 24:30,43, John 21:9-14, Acts 1:4, and especially Acts 10:41).  Hallucinations don't eat fish, and they don't go with groups of people on long country walks.

So what transformed the twelve from a group of dispirited disciples who abandoned or betrayed their Lord (an account so detrimental to the church leadership that it's unlikely to have been fabricated), into men who turned the world upside down?  What transformed Paul from persecutor to missionary?  What, after Jesus' death, suddenly turned his own sceptical brother James into his follower, so that he too became a martyr?  How much evidence, what kind of appearances, would we ourselves demand before staking our lives and deaths, and our families’, in that way?  The disciples asserted that the key factor was their unmistakable encounter with the risen Christ.  Is there really any plausible alternative?

And if this is true, it has consequences: death is broken; the gospel is true; I need to be forgiven and receive this Jesus; eternal heaven exists, and is come here, and is for us.  We have solid rock to build our lives upon.

 TIME FOR QUESTIONS. THEN HALFTIME BREAK FOR COFFEE.]

 BACK FOR DISCUSSION AGAIN IN GROUPS OF THREE: What do we say when an unbelieving friend tells us `Following Christ is OK for you but I’m happy without it`?

Responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include… 

  • If there really is a God, to try and make our     life work without him is like attempting a jigsaw puzzle  after     throwing the central piece away!  Some bits will work, but as a whole     it won’t make sense. 
  • This life on earth is just the tiniest     fraction of our total existence.  Since God is our Maker, to ignore     his purposes is to miss the whole point of the millions of years we will     exist.
  • One day we must face God, and account to him     for how we used the life he gave us, and how we responded to the salvation     he died to offer us.
  • Jesus told us there is a heaven (being totally     with God, the source of all love, joy, and peace), and a hell (being     without God, experiencing none of these).  In this life we can still     know joy even while moving away from God: we’re like an electric fire     that’s been disconnected from the power source, but hasn’t yet gone dark     and cold.  But if we live without God now, then, logically, we’ll be     separated from him in eternity.  To be separate from God then will     mean total separation from all love, joy, and peace; drifting into the     darkness forever.  That is what Jesus calls hell.

 (Chapter 5 of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God is especially good on the questions to do with hell, as is C S Lewis’ The Great Divorce.)

 BACK FOR DISCUSSION ONE LAST TIME IN GROUPS OF THREE: What we do we say when an unbelieving friend tells us `But surely if I’m a basically good person, that will be enough for God`?

 Responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include… 

  • If it were so easy, why did Christ die?      Watch him go through the agony of Gethsemane, and then the desolation when     he cried out on Calvary.  Why, if we could be acceptable to God     without all that?
  • Hadn’t we better face up to God’s infinite,     majestic holiness?  His purity is unimaginable; before him ‘all our     good deeds are like filthy rags’.  Even our best deeds are flawed by     pride, by self-righteousness. Some of us may be better than others – but     none are good enough to stand before the majesty of God.
  • Only Jesus’ gospel dares face this radical     truth.  Because only Jesus offers us the solution: God himself has     come down, become human, and died for our sins; and now he offers to     forgive us and put his own nature within us, when we are ‘born again’ in repentance     and faith...
  • And this question gives us the chance to spell     out to our friends – and for just two minutes we should have their     attention! – why we aren’t     religious.  We don’t try to be good or obey God so that we’ll perhaps be accepted and forgiven by him;     that’s religion and it doesn’t work!  Rather we seek to please him because first he’s loved, accepted and forgiven us…

 (Assignment before next session: Ask God for the opportunity to share some of this with someone who’s not yet a Christian, this week…)

 Pete Lowman.    

 © Pete Lowman.

 

Session 1 - Notes afterwards

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

Why are we doing this?

We’re doing it because God never told us `just believe`.  1 Peter 3 says `Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for your hope!’ (1 Peter 3:15)

One of the tragedies of our postmodern world is it doubts increasingly whether we can ever know truth; and this is having disastrous results – in teaching and parenting for example.

But we have a God who speaks; we can know the truth because he shows us it; and the more we think with him about what he shows us, the more we’ll find it’s true.

So when our friends ask us questions -- honest questions deserve honest answers, and the answers exist.

This confidence means our lives are built on solid rock: `You will know the truth & the truth will set you free`, said Jesus. When the storms come we know who we’ve trusted & why.  The glory of the gospel is that it’s true, historically, factually.  We don’t believe because we were brought up that way, but because it’s true; not because it gives us nice feelings, but because it’s true. 

That’s why Paul `reasoned ... explaining and proving... trying to persuade... reasoned... argued persuasively... had discussions daily’ (Acts 17:3,18:4,19, 19:8,9); because it’s true!

Three things to start with:

What we want to share above all with our friends isn’t answers to arguments.  Many of us enjoy the intellectual interplay of debating the reasons for faith.  It may often be necessary. But the heart of the gospel is something else - 'Christ crucified' (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2). This is what we all need to know to be saved from hell, and this is what we should be talking about, as soon as is possible and meaningful. 'Christ crucified' is the central issue, not the weaknesses of postmodernism or the complexities of evolutionary theory!  The aim of apologetics is to make a way for us to get to the central truths of the gospel: who Christ was and what He did; where we are and what we must do.  (Indeed we should always seek to answer the questions we are asked in a way that will point, if possible, to Christ and the cross.) However, many of our friends have honest questions about our faith, and they deserve honest answers. But what we really want to do is clear any obstacles out of the way so as to talk about the things that matter most.

Secondly, we can never argue anyone into the kingdom of God. If the Bible is right, our human mind cannot reason its way to God. Paul tells us quite clearly that, normally, our minds are blinded, prejudiced, and we simply cannot see the truth of God (2 Cor 4:4, 1 Cor 2:14). Something is fundamentally wrong with the human mind; it cannot independently find its way to ultimate truth. It can only respond when God shows us that truth, reacting in faith to God's grace (Eph 2:8).

This has two implications. Firstly, it takes a great pressure off us: we aren't called to win intellectual wrestling bouts with all our friends! Nor is evangelism a task that can really only be done by the expert; in fact God has actually chosen to use the weaker things of the world as his partners (1 Cor 1:27). Secondly, we're dealing with supernatural blockages where we need supernatural weapons with 'divine power' (2 Cor 10:4), and Ephesians 6 tells us what these are - prayer and the 'sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God'. So we come with our weak, faltering human words, crying to God to turn them into his penetrating word of grace which the Spirit will use to reveal himself to our friends.

This, incidentally, is the value of Watchman Nee's suggestion that, before discussing the reasons for faith, we challenge our friends to pray that God will reveal himself and his will (whether they actually believe there is a God to hear that prayer or not) - on the basis that, if he does, our friend will then be willing to follow him wherever he leads.  (Logically, they cannot hope just to perform casual experiments on the Almighty.)  Something like this: `God, I don’t know if you’re there [in fact I’m fairly sure you’re not];  BUT, if you help me know you’re real, then I will give my whole life to you, as my Maker who knows how my life should be, my true Father, my Lord.`   Often we find that challenging friends to such a prayer can bring to the surface the real reasons for unbelief - moral problems, perhaps, or a determination to preserve personal independence. There is no point in spending hours arguing over the reasons for faith if something fundamental is keeping the doors closed: better get the root of the issue out into the open. It’s surprising (or perhaps not) how many people there are who finally say, 'Well, even if God exists, I won't obey him.'

And thirdly, all this is about God revealing himself to us as individuals, and therefore very personal.  Evangelism is like holding a set of keys any one of which may open someone’s heart to the most important things in the world.

Why do we believe in God?  Multiple reasons for our hope...

For Christian belief the knowledge of God is something deeply personal.  There are many different areas which God may select to make us, as individuals, aware of his reality: the `keys' to our particular `lock'.

For some it may be personal experience of God's presence and God’s actions today – miracles, answered prayer, healings such as the ones we’ve seen – happening to ourselves or to someone we know well enough to trust. 

For others, it may be something very different – watching experience of God enabling someone we know to endure and even grow despite immersion in horrendous suffering; seeing that, somehow, their feet are set on solid rock. 

For many it may be the Bible: our experience of being `spoken to' as we read it or hear it preached or study it in a small  group;  our sense of its profundity, relevance, and coherence (despite being written by so many different people over so many centuries);  our sense, as Peter said to Jesus, that these are `the words of eternal life'.

Or it may be its unique ability to foretell the future some centuries ahead - particularly the details of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  (See, for example, the prophetic passages listed in ch.9 of Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict.)

For yet others, what we love most may begin to `turn the key'.  The first `intuition of God' may come through experiencing childbirth (`Searching for a little bit of God's mercy/ I found living proof', wrote Bruce Springsteen after the birth of his first child).  Jewish novelist Saul Bellow, writing about Mozart, said that `At the heart of my confession, therefore, is the hunch that with beings such as Mozart we are forced to speculate about transcendence, and this makes us very uncomfortable.'  George Steiner argues at length in Real Presences that the experience of great art only makes sense if it is underpinned by the reality of a God. Television naturalist David Bellamy wrote that his `road to Damascus was the wonder of the natural world.'  To the Christian, such intuitions are actually the revelation of God, to be stewarded with care:  `Take heed how you hear', said Jesus - the intuition of grace may not return, and we are responsible for what we do with it. 

The universe we inhabit poses further questions.  If there is no God, we must somehow conceive the cosmos as just `sitting there', as it were, expanding and contracting perhaps, but in existence for no imaginable reason.  Sartre's comment about the oddity of there being something rather than nothing has some force.  And that `something' includes the physical laws; the universe we live in is in many ways a stable place - we might say a curiously reasonable place.  The pattern of laws and constants that enables its existence in so rational and unchanging a manner might seem suggestive of a Law-maker. (See the fascinating book There Is A God by the former standard-bearer of atheistic philosophical thinking, Antony Flew .)  `The mind refuses to look at this universe being what it is without being designed', said Darwin late in his life; Einstein remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe was that it was comprehensible, and that he was glimpsing the handiwork of an `illimitable superior spirit' in what he perceived of the universe.

More recently, scientists have realised that the ratios and constants of the fundamental forces in the universe - from the subatomic to the astronomical - are incredibly finely balanced.  Indeed they seem balanced far too precisely to be the result of anything but intelligent design, since the margin of error was minimal (one part in a million in some cases) if a universe was to emerge that could contain intelligent life. `It is hard to resist the impression that the present structure of the universe, apparently so sensitive to minor alterations in the numbers, has been rather carefully thought out', summarizes theoretical physicist Professor Paul Davies in God and the New Physics (see especially ch13).  `…The seemingly miraculous concurrence of numerical values that nature has assigned to her fundamental constants must remain the most compelling evidence for an element of cosmic design.'  (The only alternative seems to be a cosmos developing endlessly into multiple new universes - that is, everything that can happen does, along with every possible combination of physical laws, until the `lottery' turns up a workable set  - an astonishingly prolific and unexplained generation of universes in a supposedly `empty' cosmos that seems harder to believe in than a God - and anyway can only ever be a matter of faith, but without any evidence.)  Cosmologist Fred Hoyle concurs: `I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed.'  Do we not sense a Maker behind these astonishingly productive principles that have brought such complexities out of almost nothing in this strange, pulsating cosmos? 

Alongside this sense stand our intuitions of wonder: whether at the majesty of the galaxies, the glory and multitudinous living complexity of the natural world that has exploded out from the Big Bang, or the beauty of a sunset, a mountain-range, a stallion, a human baby.  Are those intuitions sentimentality, or apprehensions of a real Designer at work?  As we gaze thankfully at our world, from the sparrow to the panther to the human eye, it can be hard to avoid seeing it as the work of a personal Creator.

Or it may be other considerations; our intuitions of the reality of good and evil, the truth of love and beauty, the reality and value of the individual, the trustworthiness of reason.  Yet these intuitions have become groundless in postmodernity as they have lost their grounding in God (see Pete Lowman, A Long Way East of Eden, which you can also find on the excellent reasons-for-faith website www.bethinking.org).  Tim Keller, in The Reason for God (probably the best book to read on all this at present), tells his reader `You already know that God exists`: we cannot live without a sense of right and wrong that only makes sense if there is a God (read Keller ch.9).   Is there indeed no intrinsic value for the individual, no intrinsic reality in love beyond lust and tactical alliance, and ultimately no ethics beyond our personal preferences?  Or maybe there is a God?  `Although man may say that he is no more than a machine, his whole life denies it', writes Francis Schaeffer.  In our profound experiences of love, beauty or justice we touch, not God indeed, but objective realities that only make sense in terms of God.  The truth of the Triune God makes sense of our profoundest hopes and intuitions - that people do matter, that egoism and cruelty are wrong, that love is real. Maybe we should listen; maybe our hearts were trustworthy all along.

And yet it is hard to `take God seriously' when the media don't.  But where does the majority opinion really lie?  Don't our European fashions of materialistic thought seem short-sighted when set in a wider context of history or geography?  The vast majority of the human race has always believed in a supernatural universe including a supreme God, so far as we can tell; and the majority certainly still does.  `The main issue is agreed among all men of all nations', said the Roman writer Cicero, `inasmuch as all have engraved in their minds an innate belief that the gods exist.'  In the next generation, Seneca argued similarly that no race had departed so far from the laws and customs that it did not believe in some kind of gods.  Calvin concurred, fourteen hundred years later: `There is, as the eminent pagan says, no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God.'    And without doubt, the Christian church in particular has grown faster across the continents in this last century than in any previous one.  Of course we westerners tend to think of ourselves as `humanity come of age', and assume that because we control the world's media and educational systems our de-supernaturalised worldview must be the whole truth.  But humility might urge us to note the near-universality of belief elsewhere, and to wonder if the majority of humankind isn't sensing something we have grown deaf to. So shall I stake my life on the probability that they are right, or that they are wrong?

And above all there is the evidence for Jesus, and for His resurrection, which we’ll be looking at in future weeks.  But God shows His reality to most of us through a combination of these things.  Make a list of the ones that are most meaningful to you.  And we also need to be alert to the combination of keys He will use to open the hearts of our various friends…   

? But I don’t believe in all those miracles! 

  • Maybe your science is out of date.  In     the world of quantum physics, it’s impossible to rule out extraordinary     events like miracles.                                                     
  • If there’s a God who created the     scientific laws, that same God can suspend or supersede     them.  
  • Historical fact: since the resurrection     happened, then not only is our own bondage to death broken, but our     bondage to all the world’s other `laws` is subject to God’s loving and     healing intervention!

? But science has disproved Christianity!

  • In that case it’s surprising that so many     leading scientists are Christians!
  • Science continually grows and learns.  If     history continues, our science will seem as limited to the 23rd century as     the 18th century's science does to us.  All we can have are     provisional understandings.                                           

In fact the famous science/faith clash is a myth.  As a historical fact, it’s no coincidence that the rise of science in Britain was driven by keen Christians like Newton and Boyle; and when the Royal Society arose in 1660, the majority of its members were Christians.  They thought of God having given two books, Bible and nature; science for them was a sacred attempt to "think God's thoughts after Him" - if there is a Lawgiver, it makes sense to try to understand his laws in the physical world as well as the moral one (see Psalm 19!), and they did!    Philosopher of science Stanley Jaki points out that science was "stillborn" in other great civilizations outside Europe, not because they didn’t have the ideas, but because of worldviews that stifled scientific development.  Historically, both the Arabs and the Chinese were more inventive than eg the English: but the insights of both cultures never built up into a structure that could have led to modern science. Why?  In Islam God is fundamentally unknowable; his ways cannot be explored in the way that the Bible encourages , and also the Quran doesn’t teach us to think in extended rational argument like both the old and new testaments do.  Ancient Chinese religion taught the ultimacy of the Tao: things just are the way they are; there is little point in investigating beyond that.  Neither worldview seems to have fostered scientific enquiry; historically, faith in the Bible did.  (See R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, and Melvyn Bragg (not a Christian as we understand the term!), The Book of Books.)

In our time, however, conflicts over science and faith are usually about origins, evolution and Genesis. 

Evolution is an issue over which biblical Christians feel free to differ. There are three key positions and a great deal of debate which we wouldn’t dream of trying to solve in one session (once again Keller ch6 is well worth reading, though it’s a position a lot of us won’t share):

Theistic evolution: the position that God used macro-evolution as he created the world.  See the websites of the main bodies for Christians who are professional scientists in Britain and America, Christians in Science  www.cis.org.uk, and the American Scientific Affiliation www.asa3.org;  also the Faraday Institute  http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/index.php.  A key book is Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose?

At the opposite end of the spectrum is young-earth creationism, which is strongly anti-evolution but also opposes itself to the generally-accepted scientific view of the age of the earth; see Biblical Creation Society  http://www.biblicalcreation.org.uk/;  Answers in Genesis http://www.answersingenesis.org/; Institute for Creation Research  www.icr.org.  Key figures are Ken Ham, John Peet.

A third position is old-earth creationism, also sceptical about evolution but not about the age of the earth: see Reasons to Believe www.reasons.org, Answers in Creation www.answersincreation.org, and the work of eg Hugh Ross.

Then also the highly significant `intelligent design` movement does not commit to any of these positions! It is systematically misunderstood in the media, but explores the possibility that the universe’s origins etc point towards an intelligent designer. Several branches of science now have well-defined procedures for distinguishing designed activity from chance phenomena; for example, the study of artificial intelligence; forensic science; archaeology; and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.  All these fields need criteria for separating chance activity from what is intelligently designed.  By the criteria of these sciences, ID theorists argue, various factors, particularly the issue of information-origin and the high level of `irreducible complexity' in the universe, reveal clear signs of design.  See Access Research Network www.arn.org, Discovery Institute www.discovery.org, and the books of William Dembski or John Lennox. (Lennox’s Seven Days that Divide the World may well be the key book on Genesis and origins for the next few years.)

See http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Evolution/commission_on_creation.html#Commission%20on%20Creation for a detailed description of each position, and http://www.cis.org.uk/resources/articles-talks-and-links/creation/creationism-links/ for a helpful collection of links to each of them and their mutual debates.

Some simple points to make in conversation about all this:

  • Evolution is an issue over which Christians     feel free to differ.  Many have no difficulties believing both     evolution and the Bible; so it certainly hasn’t been proven that the two are     irreconcilable.
  • Others rightly observe that evolutionary     theory is far from finally ‘proven’ (scientific theories never are).      Some huge and fascinating problems do remain unsettled; see particularly     Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial (also see Stephen Jay     Gould's extended review in the July 1992 Scientific American, and     Johnson's response in subsequent editions); also John Lennox’s God’s     Undertaker.   It's evident that a number of theorists affirm     Darwinian orthodoxy quite consciously because they are determined not to     believe in God; but if you don't have a problem with God, then the turmoil     generated by these challenges becomes intriguing. 
  • A particularly interesting issue is the     possibility that evolutionary theory, to work, may even necessitate     intelligent design underlying it.  Some secular cosmologists have     described the evolutionary process as so problematic that a higher     intelligence from space must have watched over it to make it work (cf Evolution     from Space by the non-Christian Fred Hoyle, in recent decades     Britain’s most respected cosmologist) – ie, if there’s evolution, there     must be some sort of Creator!

Three hot potatoes

Genesis isn't a scientific textbook, so although what it does tell us is absolutely reliable, it doesn't speak conclusively to questions we might find intriguing: like, To what extent did God make use of evolution in creation?  And Adam (which means 'the Man') and Eve (which means `the Mother'): did other humanoids exist before their creation, similar yet lacking God's gift of that invisible 'spirit' which marks truly human life?  Genesis may perhaps give us hints , but it simply doesn't tell us clearly about these things.

 `But doesn't Genesis say the world was made 6000 years ago?'  No, it certainly doesn't.  That infamous 4004BC date was worked out by a 17th century archbishop who didn’t understand how biblical genealogies work (though he wouldn’t have made the same mistake if he’d studied the one in Matthew 1).   (It’s for the same reason that we can’t date the flood from what Genesis tells us; let’s note too that the Bible doesn’t say unambiguously how local or regional it was [compare the way Luke 2:1 speaks of the whole world when Luke knows full well he’s referring only to the Roman world].  The flood may have been very early indeed.  A recent BBC2 programme described how current genetic science suggests that at one very early point in its history much of our human race was nearly wiped out, reduced down to a very small number of individuals, and it’s possible that this was the same event as Genesis 7 describes.)

  `But doesn't Genesis insist that the world was made in a week?'  No, it certainly doesn't.  It structures its story around six 'days' of creation, but it isn't concerned to spell out what it means by `day` either.  There are plenty of biblical Christians who see Genesis 1 as essentially poetic (Keller’s book compares it to, say, the way Judges 5 is written; see also Roger Forster’s excellent Reason, Science and Faith).  And even if (like the author of these notes) you don’t go with the `poetry` theory, we can’t deny that Genesis puts a question-mark over its meaning for `days`; for the `great light' of the sun, marking day and night, isn't part of the story till halfway through the process (the fourth `day', 1:14-18).  So we may read these `days', if we choose, as 24-hour periods; or, as elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:2 or 2 Peter 3:8), far longer ones (which may also overlap).  (Just as we speak of `living in the day of the mobile phone and the television.`)  But in fact the Hebrew original, unlike our English Bibles, describes these days as `day one', `day two', etc; or, 'a first day', 'a second day'.  So if this issue is getting in our way, we may recall that the text offers the option of five enormous gaps of millions of years of process, each of which follows and precedes `a day' of God's intervening initiative, God's special creative action.

 `Well, surely you don't believe in Adam and Eve?'  But how does one go about `believing in Adam and Eve'?  The word `Adam' is simply the Hebrew for 'Man', and 'Eve', as Genesis states, comes from 'Mother of all the living' (3:20). So 'believing in Adam and Eve' simply means believing that at some point in history there came a first‑ever couple who could be described as truly human; which is obviously true.  Logically, they're called `The Man' and `The Mother of All the Living'.  What Genesis then offers is the information that God placed them in a `garden`, a perfect environment (it doesn’t state whether the whole world was perfect or already corrupted by Satan, and the military `subdue` in 1:28 may suggest the latter); but that our race’s history was shaped by our losing this perfection in a fundamental crisis caused by the disobedience of this couple demanding to run their lives their own way and `be like God` themselves, a basic gospel issue (3:5).  Science can have nothing to say either for or against either piece of information.

So nothing in contemporary science can be proven to contradict what Genesis actually says about origins (actually something quite remarkable in so ancient a book). The problems are illusory…

 So: can we talk about Jesus?

Pete Lowman.    

© Pete Lowman.

 

Session 1 - Handout

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of the resource here. 

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for your hope!’ (1 Peter 3:15)

Why do we believe in God?  Multiple reasons for our hope...

Our central reasons for hope are the reality of Christ, and the fact that he rose from the dead.  But God may well use some of the following to point us or our friends towards himself…

God’s actions today – miracles, answered prayer – happening to you or someone you trust 

 

Something very different: God enabling endurance through deep suffering

 

The Bible – so profound, so relevant, so coherent

 

Remarkably accurate biblical prophecy 

 

What we love most: in childbirth, artistic beauty, nature

 

The laws of the universe; and, it’s so ‘well-made’

 

The sparrow, the panther, a mountain-range, a stallion......

 

What we sense deeply in our hearts: people have absolute value, love is a reality, there is a right and wrong (see Tim Keller The Reason for God ch9)

 

Universal intuitions of God throughout humankind

 

And above all, Jesus, and his resurrection…

 

Science and faith in Genesis: there are three Christian positions:   

 Theistic evolution:  Christians in Science  www.cis.org.uk, American Scientific Affiliation www.asa3.org, Faraday Institute  http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/index.php; Denis Alexander (eg Creation or Evolution)

At the opposite end of the spectrum,  young-earth creationism (anti-evolution):  Biblical Creation Society  http://www.biblicalcreation.org.uk/;  Answers in Genesis http://www.answersingenesis.org/;  Institute for Creation Research  www.icr.org ; Ken Ham, John Peet

Old-earth creationism (also sceptical about evolution):   Reasons to Believe www.reasons.org, Answers in Creation www.answersincreation.org; Hugh Ross

Then also the highly significant   `intelligent design` movement does not commit to any of these positions!- it explores the possibility that the universe’s origins etc point towards an intelligent designer.  Access Research Network www.arn.org, Discovery Institute www.discovery.org. William Dembski , John Lennox (eg Seven Days that Divide the World)

See http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Evolution/commission_on_creation.html#Commission%20on%20Creation for a detailed description of each position, and http://www.cis.org.uk/resources/articles-talks-and-links/creation/creationism-links/ for a helpful collection of links to each of them and their mutual debates.

 

Handling the questions - three simple conversation points: 

  • Evolution is an issue over which Christians     feel free to think and free to differ.  Many career scientists have     no difficulties believing both evolution and the Bible; so it certainly     hasn’t been proven that the two are irreconcilable, nor that learning from     one prevents us learning from the other. 
  •  Others rightly observe that evolutionary     theory is far from finally ‘proven’ (scientific theories never are). Some     huge and fascinating problems remain unsettled; see eg Phillip Johnson, Darwin     on Trial, and John Lennox, God’s Undertaker.       (It's evident that a number of theorists affirm Darwinian orthodoxy     consciously because they are determined not to believe in God; but if you     don't have a problem with God, the turmoil of these challenges becomes     intriguing.) 
  • Yet others notice the possibility that     evolutionary theory, to work, may even necessitate intelligent design     underlying it!  Some secular cosmologists have described the     evolutionary process as so problematic that a higher intelligence from     space must have watched over it to make it work (cf Fred Hoyle, Evolution     from Space) – ie, if there’s evolution, there must be some sort of     Creator!

 

 Three hot potatoes:

`But doesn't Genesis say the world was made 6000 years ago?'

 

 `But doesn't Genesis insist that the world was made in a week?'

 

 `But surely you don't believe in Adam and Eve?'

 

 

Session 1 - Leader's notes

Katy Kennedy

Written by Pete Lowman

You can download the PDF of this resource here. 

Always open in prayer to God who cares about what we’re doing!

INTRODUCTION BY GROUP LEADER:

This course is called ‘Answering Tough Questions’.  That means two kinds of tough questions – the ones inside own head, and the ones our friends ask.

Why are we doing this?

We’re holding this course because we’re convinced the Christian faith is true.  That means we should never say `just believe`.  Rather, we should `always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for your hope!’ (1 Peter 3:15)

One of the tragedies of our postmodern world is it doubts increasingly whether we can ever know truth; and this is having disastrous results – in teaching and parenting for example.

But we have a God who speaks; we can know the truth because he shows us it; and the more we think with him about what he shows us, the more we’ll find it’s true.

So when our friends ask us questions -- honest questions deserve honest answers, and the answers exist.

This confidence means our lives are built on solid rock: `You will know the truth & the truth will set you free`, said Jesus. When the storms come we know who we’ve trusted & why.  The glory of the gospel is that it’s true, historically, factually.  We don’t believe just because we were brought up that way (or if we do, it won’t last), but because it’s true; not because it gives us nice feelings, but because it’s true. 

That’s why Paul `reasoned ... explaining and proving... trying to persuade... reasoned... argued persuasively... had discussions daily’ (Acts 17:3,18:4,19, 19:8,9); because it’s true!

Three things to start with:

 What we want to share above all with our friends isn’t answers to arguments.  Many of us enjoy the intellectual interplay of debating the reasons for faith.  It may often be necessary. But the heart of the gospel is something else - 'Christ crucified' (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2). This is what we all need to know to be saved from hell, and this is what we should be talking about, as soon as is possible and meaningful. 'Christ crucified' is the central issue, not the weaknesses of postmodernism or the complexities of evolutionary theory!  The aim of apologetics is to make a way for us to get to the central truths of the gospel: who Christ was and what he did; where we are and what we must do.  (Indeed we should always seek to answer the questions we are asked in a way that will point, if possible, to Christ and the cross.)  However, many of our friends have honest questions about our faith, and they deserve honest answers. But what we really want to do is clear any obstacles out of the way so as to talk about the things that matter most.

Secondly, we can never argue anyone into the kingdom of God. If the Bible is right, our human mind cannot reason its way to God. Paul tells us quite clearly that, normally, our minds are blinded, prejudiced, and we simply cannot see the truth of God (2 Cor 4:4, 1 Cor 2:14). Something is fundamentally wrong with the human mind; it cannot independently find its way to ultimate truth. It can only respond when God shows us that truth, reacting in faith to God's grace (Eph 2:8).

This has two implications. Firstly, it takes a great pressure off us: we aren't called to win intellectual wrestling bouts with all our friends! Nor is evangelism a task that can really only be done by the expert; in fact God has actually chosen to use the weaker things of the world as his partners (1 Cor 1:27). Secondly, we're dealing with supernatural blockages where we need supernatural weapons with 'divine power' (2 Cor 10:4), and Ephesians 6 tells us what these are - prayer and the 'sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God'. So we come with our weak, faltering human words, crying to God to turn them into his penetrating word of grace which the Spirit will use to reveal himself to our friends.

This, incidentally, is the value of Watchman Nee's suggestion that, before discussing the reasons for faith, we challenge our friends to pray that God will reveal himself and his will (whether they actually believe there is a God to hear that prayer or not) - on the basis that, if he does, our friend will then be willing to follow him wherever he leads.  (Logically, they cannot hope just to perform casual experiments on the Almighty.)  Something like this: `God, I don’t know if you’re there [in fact I’m fairly sure you’re not];  BUT, if you help me know you’re real, then I will give my whole life to you, as my Maker who knows how my life should be, my true Father, my Lord.`   Often we find that challenging friends to such a prayer can bring to the surface the real reasons for unbelief - moral problems, perhaps, or a determination to preserve personal independence. There is no point in spending hours arguing over the reasons for faith if something fundamental is keeping the doors closed: better get the root of the issue out into the open. It’s surprising (or perhaps not) how many people there are who finally say, 'Well, even if God exists, I won't obey him.'

And thirdly, all this is about God revealing himself to us as individuals, and therefore very personal.  Evangelism is like holding a set of keys any one of which may open someone’s heart to the most important things in the world.

So why do we believe in God?  Multiple reasons for our hope...

For Christian belief the knowledge of God is something deeply personal.  There are many different areas which God may select to make us, as individuals, aware of his reality: the `keys' to our particular `lock'.

For some it may be personal experience of God's presence and God’s actions today – miracles, answered prayer, healings such as the ones we’ve seen……………….  – happening to ourselves or to someone we know well enough to trust. 

For others, it may be something very different – watching experience of God enabling someone we know to endure and even grow despite immersion in horrendous suffering; seeing that, somehow, their feet are set on solid rock.

For many it may be the Bible: our experience of being `spoken to' as we read it or hear it preached or study it in a small  group;  our sense of its profundity, relevance, and coherence (despite being written by so many different people over so many centuries);  our sense, as Peter said to Jesus, that these are `the words of eternal life'.

Or it may be its unique ability to foretell the future some centuries ahead - particularly the details of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  (See, for example, the prophetic passages listed in ch.9 of Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict.)

For yet others, what we love most may begin to `turn the key'.  The first `intuition of God' may come through experiencing childbirth (`Searching for a little bit of God's mercy/ I found living proof', wrote Bruce Springsteen after the birth of his first child).  Jewish novelist Saul Bellow, writing about Mozart, said that `At the heart of my confession, therefore, is the hunch that with beings such as Mozart we are forced to speculate about transcendence, and this makes us very uncomfortable.'  George Steiner argues at length in Real Presences that the experience of great art only makes sense if it is underpinned by the reality of a God. Television naturalist David Bellamy wrote that his `road to Damascus was the wonder of the natural world.'  To the Christian, such intuitions are actually the revelation of God, to be stewarded with care:  `Take heed how you hear', said Jesus - the intuition of grace may not return, and we are responsible for what we do with it. 

The universe we inhabit poses further questions.  If there is no God, we must somehow conceive the cosmos as just `sitting there', as it were, expanding and contracting perhaps, but in existence for no imaginable reason.  Sartre's comment about the oddity of there being something rather than nothing has some force.  And that `something' includes the physical laws; the universe we live in is in many ways a stable place - we might say a curiously reasonable place.  The pattern of laws and constants that enables its existence in so rational and unchanging a manner might seem suggestive of a Law-maker.  `The mind refuses to look at this universe being what it is without being designed', said Darwin late in his life; Einstein remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe was that it was comprehensible, and that he was glimpsing the handiwork of an `illimitable superior spirit' in what he perceived of the universe.

More recently, scientists have realised that the ratios and constants of the fundamental forces in the universe - from the subatomic to the astronomical - are incredibly finely balanced.  Indeed they seem balanced far too precisely to be the result of anything but intelligent design, since the margin of error was minimal (one part in a million in some cases) if a universe was to emerge that could contain intelligent life. `It is hard to resist the impression that the present structure of the universe, apparently so sensitive to minor alterations in the numbers, has been rather carefully thought out', summarizes theoretical physicist Professor Paul Davies in God and the New Physics (see especially ch13).  `…The seemingly miraculous concurrence of numerical values that nature has assigned to her fundamental constants must remain the most compelling evidence for an element of cosmic design.'  (The only alternative seems to be a cosmos developing endlessly into multiple new universes - that is, everything that can happen does, along with every possible combination of physical laws, until the `lottery' turns up a workable set  - an astonishingly prolific and unexplained generation of universes in a supposedly `empty' cosmos that seems harder to believe in than a God - and anyway can only ever be a matter of faith, but without any evidence.)  Cosmologist Fred Hoyle concurs: `I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed.'  Do we not sense a Maker behind these astonishingly productive principles that have brought such complexities out of almost nothing in this strange, pulsating cosmos? 

[Note: Tim Keller’s The Reason for God pp.134-35 has some great illustrations of this.]

Alongside this sense stand our intuitions of wonder: whether at the majesty of the galaxies, the glory and multitudinous living complexity of the natural world that has exploded out from the Big Bang, or the beauty of a sunset, a mountain-range, a stallion, a human baby.  Are those intuitions sentimentality, or apprehensions of a real Designer at work?  As we gaze thankfully at our world, from the sparrow to the panther to the human eye, it can be hard to avoid seeing it as the work of a personal Creator.

Or it may be other considerations; our sense of the reality of good and evil, the truth of love and beauty, the reality and value of the individual.  Yet these intuitions have become groundless in postmodernity as they have lost their grounding in God.  Tim Keller, in The Reason for God (probably the best book to read on all this at present), tells his reader `You already know that God exists`: we cannot live without a sense of right and wrong that only makes sense if there is a God (read Keller ch.9).   Is there indeed no intrinsic value for the individual, no intrinsic reality in love beyond lust and tactical alliance, and ultimately no ethics beyond our personal preferences?  Or maybe there is a God?  `Although man may say that he is no more than a machine, his whole life denies it', writes Francis Schaeffer.  In our profound experiences of love, beauty or justice we touch, not God indeed, but objective realities that only make sense in terms of God.  The truth of the Triune God makes sense of our profoundest hopes and intuitions - that people do matter, that egoism and cruelty are wrong, that love is real. Maybe we should listen; maybe our hearts were trustworthy all along.

And yet it is hard to `take God seriously' when the media don't.  But where does the majority opinion really lie?  Don't our European fashions of materialistic thought seem short-sighted when set in a wider context of history or geography?  The vast majority of the human race has always believed in a supernatural universe including a supreme God, so far as we can tell; and the majority certainly still does.  `The main issue is agreed among all men of all nations', said the Roman writer Cicero, `inasmuch as all have engraved in their minds an innate belief that the gods exist.'  In the next generation, Seneca argued similarly that no race had departed so far from the laws and customs that it did not believe in some kind of gods.  Calvin concurred, fourteen hundred years later: `There is, as the eminent pagan says, no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God.'    And without doubt, the Christian church in particular has grown faster across the continents in this last century than in any previous one.  Of course we westerners tend to think of ourselves as `humanity come of age', and assume that because we control the world's media and educational systems our de-supernaturalised worldview must be the whole truth.  But humility might urge us to note the near-universality of belief in a supreme God elsewhere in the world, and to wonder if the majority of humankind isn't sensing something we have grown deaf to. So shall I stake my life on the probability that they are right, or that they are wrong?

And above all there is the evidence for Jesus, and for His resurrection, which we’ll be looking at in future weeks.  But God shows His reality to most of us through a combination of these things.  Make a list of the ones that are most meaningful to you.  And we also need to be alert to the combination of keys He will use to open the hearts of our various friends…   

[TIME FOR QUESTIONS.  THEN HALFTIME BREAK FOR COFFEE.]

DISCUSSION IN GROUPS OF THREE – what we do we say when a sympathetic unbeliever tells us `I don’t believe in all those miracles!`?   Let’s tell each other our responses – because we need to hear ourselves do it! – and then, after about eight minutes, share what we said with the wider group.

When that happens, responses you’ll be looking for as leader could include…

  • Maybe your science is out of date! In      the world of quantum physics, it’s impossible to rule out extraordinary      events like miracles.                                                                      
  • If there’s a God who created the      scientific laws, that same God can suspend or supersede them.  
  • Historical fact: since the resurrection      happened, then not only is our own bondage to      death      broken, but our bondage to all the world’s other `laws` is subject to      God’s loving and healing intervention!

DISCUSSION AGAIN: `Science has disproved Christianity!`

Responses you’ll be looking for as leader this time could include…

  • In that case it’s surprising that so many      leading scientists are Christian. (See Keller again, pp.94-95.)
  • Science continually grows and learns. If      history continues, our science will seem as limited to the 23rd century as      the 18th century's science does to us.  All we can have are      provisional understandings.                                

In fact the famous science/faith clash is a myth.  As a historical fact, it’s no coincidence that the rise of science in Britain was driven by keen Christians like Newton and Boyle; and when the Royal Society arose in 1660, the majority of its members were Christians.  They thought of God having given two books, Bible and nature; science for them was a sacred attempt to "think God's thoughts after Him" - if there is a Lawgiver, it makes sense to try to understand his laws in the physical world as well as the moral one, and they did!    Philosopher of science Stanley Jaki points out that science was "stillborn" in other great civilizations outside Europe, not because they didn’t have the ideas, but because of worldviews that stifled scientific development.  Historically, both the Arabs and the Chinese were more inventive than eg the English: but the insights of both cultures never built up into a structure that could have led to modern science. Why?  In Islam God is fundamentally unknowable; his ways cannot be explored in the way that the Bible encourages, and also the Quran doesn’t teach us to think in extended rational argument like both the old and new testaments do.  Ancient Chinese religion taught the ultimacy of the Tao: things just are the way they are; there is little point in investigating beyond that.  Neither worldview seems to have fostered scientific enquiry; historically, faith in the Bible did.  (See R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, and Melvyn Bragg (not a Christian as we understand the term!), The Book of Books.)

In our time, however, conflicts over science and faith are usually about origins, evolution and Genesis. 

Evolution is an issue over which biblical Christians feel free to differ. There are three key positions and a great deal of debate which we wouldn’t dream of trying to solve in one session. (Once again Keller ch6 is well worth reading, though it’s a position a lot of us won’t share.) The notes you’ll get after tonight contain links to websites that are good examples of all these:

 Theistic evolution: the position that God used macro-evolution as he created the world.  See the websites of the main bodies for Christians who are professional scientists in Britain and America, Christians in Science  and the American Scientific Affiliation.  A key book is Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose? 

At the opposite end of the spectrum is young-earth creationism, which is strongly anti-evolution but also opposes itself to the generally-accepted scientific view of the age of the earth; see the websites of the Biblical Creation Society, Answers in Genesis, or the Institute for Creation Research.

A third position is old-earth creationism, also sceptical about evolution but not about the age of the earth: see the websites of Reasons to Believe or Answers in Creation.

Then also the highly significant ‘intelligent design’ movement does not commit to any of these positions! It is systematically misunderstood in the media, but explores the possibility that the universe’s origins etc point towards an intelligent designer. Several branches of science now have well-defined procedures for distinguishing designed activity from chance phenomena; for example, the study of artificial intelligence; forensic science; archaeology; and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.  All these fields need criteria for separating chance activity from what is intelligently designed.  By the criteria of these sciences, ID theorists argue, various factors, particularly the issue of information-origin and the high level of `irreducible complexity' in the universe, reveal clear signs of design.  See the websites of the Access Research Network or the Discovery Institute, and the books of William Dembski or John Lennox. (Lennox’s Seven Days that Divide the World may well be the key book on Genesis and origins for the next few years.)

Some simple points to make in conversation about all this:

  • Evolution is an issue over which Christians      feel free to differ.  Many have no difficulties believing both      evolution and the Bible; so it certainly hasn’t been proven that the two      are irreconcilable.
  • Others rightly observe that evolutionary      theory is far from finally ‘proven’ (scientific theories never are).       Some huge and fascinating problems do remain unsettled; see particularly      Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial (also see Stephen Jay      Gould's extended review in the July 1992 Scientific American, and      Johnson's response in subsequent editions); also John Lennox’s God’s      Undertaker.   It's evident that a number of theorists affirm      Darwinian orthodoxy quite consciously because they are determined not to      believe in God; but if you don't have a problem with God, then the turmoil      generated by these challenges becomes intriguing. 
  • A particularly interesting issue is the      possibility that evolutionary theory, to work, may even necessitate      intelligent design underlying it.  Some secular cosmologists have      described the evolutionary process as so problematic that a higher      intelligence from space must have watched over it to make it work (cf Evolution      from Space by the non-Christian Fred Hoyle, in recent decades      Britain’s most respected cosmologist) – ie, if there’s evolution, there      must be some sort of Creator!

Three hot potatoes

Genesis isn't a scientific textbook, so although what it does tell us is absolutely reliable, it doesn't speak conclusively to questions we might find intriguing: like, To what extent did God make use of evolution in creation?  And Adam (which means 'the Man') and Eve (which means `the Mother'): did other humanoids exist before their creation, similar yet lacking God's gift of that invisible 'spirit' which marks truly human life?  Genesis may give us hints, but it simply doesn't tell us clearly about these things.

 `But doesn't Genesis say the world was made 6000 years ago?'  No, it certainly doesn't.  That infamous 4004BC date was worked out by a 17th century archbishop who didn’t understand how biblical genealogies work (though he wouldn’t have made the same mistake if he’d studied the one in Matthew 1).   (It’s for the same reason that we can’t date the flood from what Genesis tells us; let’s note too that the Bible doesn’t say unambiguously how local or regional it was [compare the way Luke 2:1 speaks of the whole world when Luke knows full well he’s referring only to the Roman world].  The flood may have been very early indeed.  A recent BBC2 programme described how current genetic science suggests that at one very early point in its history much of our human race was nearly wiped out, reduced down to a very small number of individuals, and it’s possible that this was the same event as Genesis 7 describes.)

  `But doesn't Genesis insist that the world was made in a week?'  No, it certainly doesn't.  It structures its story around six 'days' of creation, but it isn't concerned to spell out what it means by `day` either.  There are plenty of biblical Christians who see Genesis 1 as essentially poetic (Keller’s book compares it to, say, the way Judges 5 is written; see also Roger Forster’s excellent Reason, Science and Faith).  And even if (like the author of these notes) you don’t go with the `poetry` theory, we can’t deny that Genesis puts a question-mark over its meaning for `days`; for the `great light' of the sun, marking day and night, isn't part of the story till halfway through the process (the fourth `day', 1:14-18).  So we may read these `days', if we choose, as 24-hour periods; or, as elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. 2 Corinthians 6:2 or 2 Peter 3:8), far longer ones (which may also overlap).  (Just as we speak of `living in the day of the mobile phone and the television.`)  But in fact the Hebrew original, unlike our English Bibles, describes these days as `day one', `day two', etc; or, 'a first day', 'a second day'.  So if this issue is getting in our way, we may recall that the text offers the option of five enormous gaps of millions of years of process, each of which follows and precedes `a day' of God's intervening initiative, God's special creative action.

 `Well, surely you don't believe in Adam and Eve?'  But how does one go about `believing in Adam and Eve'?  The word `Adam' is simply the Hebrew for 'Man', and 'Eve', as Genesis states, comes from 'Mother of all the living' (3:20). So 'believing in Adam and Eve' simply means believing that at some point in history there came a first‑ever couple who could be described as truly human; which is obviously true.  Logically, they're called `The Man' and `The Mother of All the Living'.  What Genesis then offers is the information that God placed them in a `garden`, a perfect environment (it doesn’t state whether the whole world was perfect or already corrupted by Satan, and the military `subdue` in 1:28 may suggest the latter); but that our race’s history was shaped by our losing this perfection in a fundamental crisis caused by the disobedience of this couple demanding to run their lives their own way and `be like God` themselves, a basic gospel issue (3:5).  Science can have nothing to say either for or against either piece of information.

So nothing in contemporary science can be proven to contradict what Genesis actually says about origins (actually something quite remarkable in so ancient a book). The problems are illusory…

 So: can we talk about Jesus?

(Assignment before next session: Ask God for the opportunity to share some of this with someone who’s not yet a Christian, this week…)

 Pete Lowman.    

 © Pete Lowman.