When Exile Doesn’t End

“Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”
says your God
“Speak comfort to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her
that warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
for she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.”

A voice of one crying out:
“Prepare, in the dessert, the road of the LORD;
make straight a highway for our God.
Every valley will be raised.
every mountain and hill will be made low;
the rough will become smooth and the rugged become plain.
And the LORD’s Glory will be revealed,
and all will see it together
for the mouth of the LORD has declared it.”

Isaiah 40:1-5

man wearing face mask in a dark room
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

The season leading up to Easter is known, in liturgical traditions, as Lent. During these forty days Christians fast from something. Usually you hear people saying they’ll give up one item or habit, such as chocolate, or sleeping in rather than an outright fast, but still a noticeable shift. It’s meant to recall other significant periods of forty. Forty days of fasting that Jesus experienced between his baptism and temptation, forty days of rain upon Noah’s ark, forty years of wandering and waiting in the untamed lands between Egypt and Canaan. It is also meant to recall the period of exile in Babylon. Here, it was not forty, but seventy years of exile. Exile to pay back the land its Sabbath that had been neglected and forgotten.

When Easter ends, the fasting should stop, there is great celebration. In more liturgical traditions (such as Roman Catholic or Anglican churches) they might not use the word “hallelujah” from Ash Wednesday until Easter. So when it reappears in the church, it’s a big deal. Celebration, rejoicing. Christ has come back from the dead, laying death down in its grave! The time for fasting is over! It’s time for celebration and feasting, a fore-echo of the wedding supper of the lamb.

This year, many hundreds of millions, if not billions, experienced a taste of some form of fasting or exile, if not necessarily voluntarily, due to the now ubiquitous term “social distancing.” Still, it may have been made more bearable for some as it seemed appropriate for Christians to be more secluded, to spend time struggling, and to have more isolation during the period of Lent, even while we wish and pray the circumstances were more voluntary and less dire. But now, Easter has come. Shouldn’t this fasting and exile be over? Shouldn’t we be coming out of homes, seeing and touching, interacting, and playing and dancing? Shouldn’t the exile of businesses be over and done? Shouldn’t I be able to go to a restaurant, or to a movie theater, or to a coffee shop, or library, or classroom? Why isn’t the exile over?

The bible has a lot to say about exile. During graduation season, which this year will be more than a little different, many seniors receive cards quoting the prophet Jeremiah “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not harm you, plans for bright hope and a future.” The greater context for this passage is, of course, that this message of hope and good will is delivered on the eve of exile. None that could hear and understand it would return back to that land. They would die in exile. Many of their children would be born, grow old, and die in exile. Knowing this, Jeremiah goes out and buys a parcel of land. “I’ll be back for this” he declares; but Jeremiah is never seen again once exile comes.

In the New Testament, after the resurrection, the early Church waited for the soon return of Jesus. They heard his words that “I go to prepare a place for you. If I go, I will come back” and waited…and waited…and waited. The delay in Christ’s return, it seems, caused something of a crisis. This is likely behind Paul’s admonishment to the Thessalonians to continue working as they wait for the return. It may even be a large part of the reason John wrote his letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The people were stuck between Easter and the end of exile (and exile under Roman Emperors renown for their persecution like Nero and later Diocletian, no less). The Resurrection had come, Jesus had ascended, but still they waited. This period, where the tension between the already present and still coming Kingdom of God is felt strongest, continues on today. As citizens of another country, we Christians live in exile, one that has not yet ended. The message for those in exile is one of hope.

The book of Isaiah spends roughly 39 chapters hammering at the people to turn from their sin to avoid exile. In chapter 40, Isaiah changes his tone and audience. The prophet begins to speak not to those who lived prior to exile, but to those who have come through the other side. His opening words are “comfort.”

Opening words are often important, especially in ancient literature. The Iliad begins with “Rage, rage of Achilles” signifying a major theme that would be that hero’s undoing. At this critical shift, the prophet’s words to the people are “Comfort.”

It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that Isaiah wrote this prior to the end of exile (prior, even, to the beginning of exile). All throughout the years of laboring and waiting and wondering when or if it would ever end, the people of God could look to God’s words of “Comfort” to “my people.”

And so, as this exile feels a bit more acute with the onset of isolation, quarantine, social distancing, shuttered businesses, lost jobs, financial strain, and so much death and mourning all due to a virus most of us scarcely understand, we can still look to these words: “Comfort, Comfort.” God, though not seen as expressly, closely and intimately as before, is still active. He is still working. God is preparing a straight, level, even and therefore swift path in the dessert. All will see it the Glory of God because God Himself has declared it will be so. And on that glorious day, God will bring comfort.

“In this world you will have trouble” Jesus assured his disciples as his death drew near, “but take heart, I have overcome the world.” So in your own exile, take heart, and hear the words of comfort. This is not the end. This is the tension and sorry that comes with anticipation!


Easter 2019: Mark 16:1-8

Mark 16:1-8


He is Risen!

In Mark’s account, we have only the women going to the tomb. They bore witness to his death, they alone bore witness to his burial, so it stands to reason that they alone go to attend to the body and act as first witnesses to his resurrection. As they were walking along they wondered how they will possibly be able to get into the tomb. Perhaps a Roman soldier would help them. Perhaps a disciple would be there to greet them. Perhaps they could work together to move the large stone. Perhaps they could find someone else there to render aid. And so they went on their journey, walking and wondering.

The sight that greeted them was not one they had expected. “Jesus…has risen!” the messenger’s of God declared! He is not here.

Mark concludes his gospel with the words “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

Textual Criticism

If you are reading the King James Version, the text continues on without note. If you are reading any other modern translation, you will encounter a note about what follows. Let’s talk about that a minute (the remainder of this paragraph will discuss textual criticism). First things, first. Jesus did not speak in King James English. Nor did he speak in Greek. Jesus spoke in either Aramaic or Hebrew or (more likely) a combination of the two. The gospels are written in Greek in large part because that was the most widely read and spoken language (moreso than Latin) in present day Palestine and Northern Africa at the time. The other thing to note is that we do not possess the original writing of any part of the bible. This does not mean you cannot have confidence in the bible. In fact you can have a high degree of confidence in it. Higher than any other ancient text. Instead, a series of copies happened. The gospel message was so wonderful that, early on, several people decided to make copies of it so that others could read it. In fact we have more copies of the gospel than any other text from antiquity. Over time, individuals may have felt the need to insert explanatory bits. Sometimes these were notes, other times they may have been traditions, at times they may have even been imagined pieces that were missing or confusion brought on by awareness of other gospel accounts. Whatever the case, eventually extra bits made their way (often by mistake) into some of these copies. Once they entered a copy, they were likely to be copied by others again and again. So when you have a copy of a copy of a copy, all done by hand, this is the result. This is why textual criticism tends to heavily favor earlier copies over later ones. This is also why the integrity of a source (because some copies were clearly made more carefully than others) also matters. That is what lies behind the note in most modern translations. It also means, that with almost certainty, the Gospel of Mark ends at verse 8. Abruptly. So why?

The Markan Secret

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is constantly telling people not to say anything. Don’t tell anyone who I am, he seems to say to people, to demons, to everyone. He’s holding it in secret. This ending is a continuation of that. The women, the only witnesses Mark records, said nothing. So what’s really going on here. Well Mark himself was not a direct witness to these events. He’s telling them because someone told him. That’s kind of the point. Clearly, at some point, someone said something to someone else. The women didn’t keep the secret forever. The angels absolve anyone of ever keeping their secret with their command to “go and tell.” So someone said something. And that’s kind of the point.

By demonstrating the opposite, the author is calling us to engage more actively with the text. Clearly it can’t be the case that the secret was kept, that the women never spoke again. I’ve heard this story. Here I am reading it. Exactly! You can’t leave it up to someone else. The word must get out. He is alive! Go tell someone.

marketing man person communication
Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

The King has Come

Today we celebrate that the King has come.

Today we remember that his death was not the end.

Today we acknowledge that in his death we ourselves died, so that in his resurrection we ourselves will find life.

Today we reflect on the power and glory of his name.

Today we see the emptiness of the tomb.

Today we are commanded to “Make disciples” “through going, teaching, and baptizing.”

Today we marvel that God has become human.

Today we look forward to his arrival again.

Today, Yesterday, and Forever, the King is here and we praise his name.

Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

Confusion, Nearness, and beginning to look at the text of Revelation


So over the past few weeks, I’ve done a lot of background for studying the book of Revelation as part of my Difficult Passages series. Below I’ll briefly list out what I’ve covered before looking at the actual text this week.

First, I gave a brief introductory note, where I described the overarching views of the book.

Then, I looked at different views of history, most of which fit in the “futurist” view, which led to

Different views on the Millennial reign of Christ.

Next I noted that the book of Revelation fits in the style of literature known as Apocalyptic, which…

I noted is the style of the book of Daniel.

Finally, last week, I talked about how John, and other Christian Apocalyptic writers, use language like some rappers, including Jay-Z.

A word of warning

Revelation, even with all this background, can get confusing. What I am going to offer over the next few weeks is my particular interpretation. It is by no means undisputed. It is, however, one that does justice to the book of Revelation within its own particular genre, something which many interpretations fail to fully consider. I happen to think it is correct, but I am not so arrogant as to believe that it must be correct, and agree that, within certain limits, it is something we can (and possibly should) debate (respectfully) about.

With that said there is a helpful graph, done by someone else, for understanding Revelation, available here.

Into the text: Soon is not soon

Today, I’m going to be very brief (as it is something of a re-introduction) with my examination. In chapter 1, John says, in verse 1, that the things he describes “must soon take place,” and, in verse 3, that “the time is near.” What? I though this was about the future. Well, there is the option to take a preterist, or partial preterist view, which I describe in this post, but that isn’t particularly satisfactory, particularly when you look at the last few chapters which can only be describing the end of the world, which would not be close to John’s time. So what does he mean?

I think we need to understand how time worked for the early church. We tend to think of time as a straight linear progression, and I can already hear the Dr Who references coming in, but resist the urge.

I’m apparently failing to take my own advice

Instead, the early church saw time in two distinct ways: chronos, which is how we tend to think of time, and kairos, which is usually interpreted as “opportune time.” However even “opportune time” misses the point a bit. To be sure kairos is the word used in verse 3. Really, it has less to do with “time” as a set of cause and effect events, and more to do with a period characterized by some aspect.

So, for instance, when I am recalling the time I started dating my wife, I could say “oh, back in 2002…” but even then, my timing isn’t precise. I mean I met her in 2001, I did go on an awkward non-date date in September of 2002, we actually started dating shortly thereafter, but I didn’t really date her as my future spouse until 2003 (I mean I was intentional in dating before, but really intentional then). And we were engaged the following year, so she really was externally my future spouse, and we kept dating after we were married the following year. Now at which point could I say I started dating my wife? In chronos time I would need to make some decision was to what counted as “Dating as my wife” and what didn’t. Then I could pin point it. However, all of that occurred when I was in college. So, I usually just say “back when we started dating, when I was at OBU….” Now, precision isn’t as strong here, but accuracy is. Even then, though, I don’t use that language for accuracy’s sake. I just don’t think of the years as much as I do the period of time I was there. That was my “in college” time. We do this frequently, such as referring to when we lived at “that” house, or dating time “BC” and “AC” (Before Children, After Children). Our time was characterized in a specific way, by certain overarching events.

That is how to understand kairos. John is saying these eschatological (that word means “end of time”, and I’ll be using it a lot), things are near, and Christ’s reign is near. He’s not confused or mistaken about the intervening (almost) 2000 years. He’s talking about a different time that is running counter to the time of this world. The kingdom of God is near and will soon occur, and, because it is characterized by Jesus’ resurrection, it is an end of the world (eschatological) sort of Kingdom. Thus Christ’s reign and the end of the world are always “near” in that sense. In many ways, then, Revelation is a call to shift your kairos from “this present evil age” to “the Kingdom of God.” It is near, and not far from you. For you to overcome, these things must soon take place.


Side note: Not every week will be so focused (here only on 3 verses), but I will try to hit the highlights and the overarching trajectory of the book, as well as address most of the more troubling or difficult bits.

What is Faith (pt 1): Foundational Doctrines

So I finally finished the first of the six foundations mentioned in Hebrews 6:1-3 last week (Repentance) after 5 posts (seven if you count the two posts on sin beforehand). This week I start in on the next one: faith. I’m currently doing a study of the book of James for Lent Readings in the morning (they post around midnight U.S. Central Standard Time) and it has a lot to say about faith. I’m going to overlap, but hopefully this series will present it more systematically.

Faith as Belief

Let’s start with the most basic understanding of faith that most people have. Faith is, in this context, another word for belief. That’s just how it’s commonly used. But clearly it can’t just be any belief. My belief in my own existence, for instance, may be incredibly useful for me personally now, but it doesn’t really seem to be a foundational doctrine in the sense that the author of Hebrews uses it. True it is foundational in different ways, and I would like other people to also believe that I exist (no I’m not a figment of your mind, but you might be one of mine), but that seems immaterial.

What about, also, the idea that faith requires a level of uncertainty? It’s not faith if we know for sure, some say. I don’t know where this idea came from (actually I have an idea and I think it has something to do with Kierkegaard), but I don’t think it is biblical. On the one hand, yes technically we can’t ever know for sure anything if by knowing we mean providing an absolute proof and account. In fact knowing something means we need to have believed it, so the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

So what criteria are we going to use to talk about this? As some people put it, what (or who) is the object of our faith? Clearly many things just won’t do. It can’t be belief that Five Guys Burgers and Fries is the most delicious, greasy mess you’ve ever had, or that Houston is the best city in America (I’ve got statistics to back it up). Instead we need to be talking about something more “religiousy” or “spiritual.”

Belief in God

Hey now this sounds like a winner. So is faith foundational because I believe in God and someone like Richard Dawkins doesn’t? Well, there are lots of potential gods to believe in. If all it takes is belief I could, conceivably, create my own god who acts how I want him to act and believe in that god. Clearly we don’t mean any god. So we mean a particular God. Alright, let’s say it’s the Christian God (I’d get there eventually, let’s just skip the other rhetoric). What is it about belief in this God that is so important?

Do we need to believe just that this God exists? Are there certain attributes we have to affirm? What about the Trinity? Is that required? While some would want to say yes, I’m not so sure it’s a requirement. Now, let me be clear, I believe that belief in the Trinity is vitally important, and it is, in a different way, foundational. However, I want to focus on the moment on saving faith for the moment. Is Trinitarian faith a requirement for salvation? I’m inclined to say no. In part because nowhere does the bible say that this is what faith is, and it is clear that pre-New Testament people were saved because of faith, yet had no concept yet of a Trinity. The bible says that for New Testament Christians, one needs to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. Alright, but is Romans 10:9 giving the totality of what saving faith is? The confession of Jesus as LORD seems to entail other beliefs as well, right?

Maybe it’s not just belief

To be sure, this entails other beliefs, but that’s not my point. Whether Jesus did or did not die is a fact. Whether he was raised from the dead is also a fact. You can believe it or not. Why should believing in one set of facts somehow make you better. My belief in the physical existence of this chair or that 2+2=4 doesn’t affect my salvation, so why should believing that Jesus was raised from the dead suddenly make me saved? Well, according to James belief by itself is pretty useless, faith has to mean something more.

Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

Belief in and of itself is not enough. That’s not the kind of foundation the writer of Hebrews is talking about. If it were just belief, says James, we’d be in trouble. The demons know more theology than you ever will. Yet there is something fundamentally different about their disposition and ours. Their knowledge is a source of fear. If we are honest, our knowledge about God should likewise cause some fear, after all we openly war against him. As Ephesians states it, we are “children of wrath.” So belief on its own can’t be the only element of faith. It seems we need something else. Next week I’m going to talk about that something else. For now, let’s call it Trust.

Side note:

If you are not a Christian and want to know more about this faith, and how it can be saving please contact me at whytheology@gmail.com (or, if you’re feeling brave, in the comments). I’ll gladly mess up the series for that kind of discussion.

Suggestions for a Lent study?

Last year, during the Lenten season, I developed something of a mini-bible study for weekdays on the book of Galatians (this despite the fact that I’m a Baptist and therefore don’t technically celebrate Lent). Anyway, many people told me they found it helpful or enjoyable or whatnot. While I am certainly praying about whether to do one this year, and what to do it on, I would like to open it up to suggestions. Galatians worked really well last year because it was small enough that it could be broken into manageable or bite-sized chunks, yet long enough that it could extend throughout the entire Lent season. So, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to do an entire study on Philemon (as that might be a bit thin), nor should we try to work through all of Isaiah (maybe part, or selections from Isaiah?). I’m open to possibly doing literature outside the bible, but am leaning toward another biblical study. These would likely just be added to what my regular posts are, and would likely appear in the morning, with the other posts showing up in the afternoon/evening.

So, with that in mind, do you have any ideas (or things you’d like to see) for a Lent time study (if you’re non-liturgical, just call it a Resurrection Sunday preparation study)? If so, please leave them in the comments.

Does the Resurrection provide an objective criteria for Christianity?

Let’s step right in with some heavy Science and Religion.

If you were following this blog before I left, you may recall a post (with a promised follow up that never happened until now) on the Resurrection. Specifically, I contest the claim offered by so many of the so-called “New Atheists” (and others like them) that Christianity has no clear objective criteria. The fact of the matter is that it does. What is more, the criteria is falsifiable: namely, the Resurrection of Jesus. The argument is simply this. If the Resurrection did not occur, I will–well not gladly– admit that Christianity is a lie, or a fool’s hope, or some combination of the two. If, however, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ did in fact occur as historical event, then the truth of Christianity, at least at its core message that Jesus was God who came to save us, cannot honestly be disputed. The question then becomes, is the Resurrection a satisfactory objective criteria?

Let’s look, briefly, at the history of science (which entails some philosophy of science) to possible help us out. In the early history of modern science (beginning, with Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton), scientists set about trying to prove that something was or wasn’t true with their own method. They would amass data and from that data put forth a theory that made sense of the data. If enough data was collected which conformed to the theory, then the theory was considered proven, and in some cases referred to as a physical law.

Karl Popper

This method was adopted until the beginning of the twentieth century. The first major problem was the failure of the positivist project, which I talked about here. The second major problem was a category mistake. If you’ve taken logic, you may recognize the scientific method as being primarily a form of inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning can never lead (validly) to universal claims, one needs deductive reasoning for that. Thus Karl Popper introduced (or re-introduced, depending on whom you ask) the concept of falsifiability. Deductively the observation of a number of white swans cannot move to the proposition that “All swans are white,” only that the number of white swans observed are, in fact, white. However, the statement “All swans are white” may be likely, and have a certain falsifiability to it. Indeed, when black swans were discovered in Australia (where else?), that hypothesis/theory proved wrong.

Later, the new criteria of reproducibility and the practice of verification were introduced to aid in other issues with different methodologies. However, it is a mistake to believe these other methodologies are universally applicable. There are certain historical events, which nevertheless are scientific or objective in the claims made about them, that are by their very nature non-reproducible and not subject to verification in laboratory experiment. One of the most discussed of these is the nature of the beginning of the universe. Evidence of it may be analyzed and even, with Super-Colliders (such as CERN) be reproduced. But the majority of what occurred is not subject to reproducibility. There are still other events, such as massive geological shifts, the history within evolutionary biology, and other such things that are not reproducible. Yet, they are not called “unscientific.” Instead, it is understood that they are objectively observable events that, due to their massive and historical nature, can only be analyzed today from the effects of them, whenever they occurred (or are presumed to have occurred).

Since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a cosmic event upon which all of history turns (or rather, if it occurred it is of this sort), and it is necessarily historical in nature, it does not need to be reproducible to be objective (indeed such a claim is ridiculous). Instead it must meet two criteria to be objective. It must have effects and historical markers which can be analyzed, and it must be falsifiable. The historical markers are numerous, and there are many witnesses and writings which record the event, as well as the impact it has clearly made upon the world via the Church, an organization which the Resurrection established. It is also clearly falsifiable. Namely this: produce the body, or evidence that there was a body of Jesus that was not brought back to life and all of Christianity falls (well except that which follows in the line of Tillich or Bultmann, but that might scarcely be called Christianity). It was an historical event in the sense that anyone could have witnessed it, and it involved material things.

Note, though, that this is a different claim than one that says I can prove the Resurrection is true. Granted, I do believe the Resurrection is true, and even believe it can be shown to have likely occurred, but, as is the case with most historical events, I do not believe it can be absolutely proven until history ends (and Christ returns). That does not, however, change the fact that the Resurrection is itself either objectively true or false, and with it all of Christianity.

Also, this is not a claim, from the objective scientific/historical point of view, of whether God did or did not do it. That is a philosophical and theological claim (which does not mean it is not a description of reality, only that it is of a different sort). I am merely claiming that the objective claim of Christianity is that the historical person Jesus really existed, genuinely died on a Friday, and was genuinely brought back to life on a Sunday.

However, of all the possible interpretations of the resurrection event, if it occurred, the most likely is that God is the one who raised Jesus, and if so then the claims of Jesus could only be true. Rather than say that this aspect is unscientific, though, I would like to merely point out that the objective claims of science are often followed (usually immediately) by decidedly philosophical interpretations of those objective claims. If they did not, then nothing meaningful about the world could ever be made. For example, it doesn’t matter that 1 + 1 = 2 for the purpose of the world if it doesn’t have some correspondence to reality (i.e. that if you have one item and another item, putting them together yields two items). However, applying the mathematical concept of ‘1 + 1 =2’ to reality universally (and not just in this or that instance, but in all future instances yet to be encountered) is a philosophical, not objective, claim. However, because it is based on objective events, we consider it valid. My argument here is that the Resurrection functions in the same way as other scientific claims for the foundation of Christianity as a valid paradigm.

Science and Religion Friday: Christianity does have objective criteria

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time running through some of the critiques of religion generally, but Christianity more specifically, that are offered by atheists today, especially those who would fall into the category of the New Atheists.
I first examined the primary historical evidence they use to say that Christianity and Science, which they claim always leads to truth, are diametrically opposed: the Galileo Affair. I demonstrated that while religion was used as a tool against Galileo, the actual source of the conflict was something else entirely and theology had been co-opted in a way that violates its purpose (you can read parts 1, 2, and 3).

Then I explored one of the other primary critiques, namely that religion isn’t even intelligible and so should be ridiculed at worst, or excluded from public discourse at least. This position, actually, is not new. I traced it back to logical positivism and demonstrated how that movement, ultimately, failed (here are parts 1 and 2 of that).
Now I’d like to revisit that critique and take it in a new direction. The argument is that Christianity can’t approach truth in the same way that empirical investigations, like science or history, can. They claim that since belief in God is necessarily the belief in something outside of nature and natural occurrence, then we can’t really know about God, because we have no way of knowing, and so we should be either atheist or agnostic because “God hasn’t provided the evidence.” Setting aside the bias for empiricism as a the sole source of authoritative knowledge (keep in mind logical positivism tried to make that claim and failed), it’s also simply not true.

Seeking Objective Criteria

For the sake of argument, let’s take this claim at face value: all human knowledge must be verifiable through objective means and is attainable through natural phenomena and interpretations of them that seem to be the simplest and, therefore, most likely. Very well then. History fits this criteria very well. The thing about Christianity that one needs to keep in mind, provided one does fall into the liberal theology of the kerygmatic theologians that dominated most of the 20th century, is that it is fundamentally historical. The bible is not a collection of things that God dictated to writers or that fell out of the sky (the Koran makes that claim, the bible does not). The bible is, rather, a record of the historical actions of God mixed with interpretations of those actions.

Let’s take the interpretations presented in the bible out of the equation, because the critic may argue that these interpretations are fundamentally biased by a priori beliefs (beliefs assumed not proven). Alright, let’s just focus on the history. Now, if we do that, it may very well be true that many of the events, perhaps even most of the events in the bible that are interpreted as miraculous could be interpreted by appeals to coincidental natural phenomena (incredibly unlikely, but not impossible). So let’s, for the sake of argument, take those off the table as well. Even if we apply this liberally and remove most of the miraculous events, there is still one event for which a purely natural interpretation is not possible: the resurrection.

Here’s the thing about the resurrection of Jesus. According to the biblical witness, prior to his death Jesus a) predicted that he would die b) claimed to be God c) stated that the primary proof of this would be his resurrection. This is certainly how John’s Gospel interprets it. The seventh, and most important sign, for John is the resurrection. Let’s also look at the things specific to the resurrection that are historical in nature (beyond what Jesus said) as the bible tells them. The bible states that a) Jesus really did live b) Jesus was genuinely dead and c) More than 24 hours later (actually 3 Jewish days later) Jesus was suddenly not dead again, but alive in his physical body. The physicality of the claim is important. If it had been merely a “spiritual resurrection” then it would not be an objectively observable event. Jesus had to physically die and physically come alive a long period later in order to meet the criteria.

If this second set (that Jesus was a person who died and then much later was alive again) is true, then the only plausible interpretation is that there is a supernatural force. If it is the person of Jesus to whom this happened, and given the claims he made (predicting his death and resurrection while also claiming to be God), then we don’t just have good reason to accept the existence of a God somewhere, but specifically the Christian message of God as recorded in the gospels.

In sum, the resurrection provides an objective historical event that can be analyzed through historical methodology. If the non-supernatural causes of the event are true, they are objectively so. If they are objectively true then the supernatural interpretation and presumed causes are the simplest way to make sense of them and thus it is true. So there you have it: the resurrection event occurred in history involving the physical person of Jesus and as such provides an objective criteria by which to judge it. As Wolfhart Pannenberg puts it “the truth of the Christian faith rises or falls with the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus.” As I’ve heard many times in various settings, but I don’t know where the origin is from “we put all our eggs in the Easter basket.”

Next week, I’ll talk about why not only the resurrection is an objective historical event, but why we have good reason to believe it is true rather than not.

A Different Kind of…Everything

He is Risen!

This holy week I’ve been talking about how the events marked during this week change everything. Jesus instituted a different kind of revolution, a different kind of covenant relationship, and revealed himself as a different kind of king. The resurrection confirmed all of these things, and so much more. The resurrection, it turns out, changes everything.

I’m not going to take the time to argue about the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus. Those arguments have been made and will continue to be made. I will say a brief word about it, though (apologies if I get too technical, I’ll try to resist). Personally, I like the arguments for the historicity of the resurrection made by Wolfhart Pannenberg, but considering I’m doing my thesis work on him I’m probably not impartial. Nevertheless, Pannenberg seems to really understand the historical impact that the resurrection makes, and he makes two statements about it. First, the veracity of the Christian faith rises or falls with genuineness of the historical event of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Second, the resurrection of Jesus is the most historically verifiable event in all of history. Why is it thrown into question, then? Pannenberg astutely notes that the problem is not the evidence for the resurrection. Where the actual point of disagreement lies, whether acknowledged or not, is in the presuppositions. Simply put, there is a built in bias against the resurrection because it is assumed a priori (prior to any evidence) that people simply do not rise from the dead. If you have that as your starting point, then no amount of evidence will convince of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. This, it seems, may have been the primary problem with the Jewish leaders and the resurrection.

To be clear, it is not that, aside from the relatively small group of Sadducees, the Jewish leaders denied that a resurrection would ever take place. Instead most Jews in the first century fully expected a resurrection of the dead to occur. They simply expected it to be an eschatological resurrection, one that Jesus himself preached. In fact, this may have been behind the early church’s anticipation that the end of the world was about to occur. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, along with certain other people, then the early church seemed to draw the conclusion that they were in the last days. This is also why it came as something of a shock when members of the congregation started to die and not immediately come back to life. What Pannenberg argues, though, is that the resurrection of Jesus is actually an eschatological event., despite the continuation of history long after it. In short, he says that at the resurrection, God interrupted the flow of time and brought the end of the world into the midst of our history. At the resurrection we see a glimpse of the world’s end, and it is overwhelming. The resurrection, then, means a number of things a few of which we can immediately identify and I will discuss, from this and from the gospel accounts.

He is Risen Indeed!

1) The resurrection changes death. While it is still appropriate to mourn for those who have died and to long to see them again, for the Christian, this mourning takes on a different meaning. In some ways mourning for a deceased loved one is more powerful and meaningful for the Christian, and in other ways it less brudensome for the Christian than the non-Christian. For the committed atheistic materialist, they may mourn for a loss, but their sorrow can only be selfish in nature (if they deny this, then they are not committed to materialism). In materialism there is no value in the person objectively, only in the value that the mourner perceives them to have selfishly. For the Christian, however, because a person’s death is not the end, it is appropriate and can be unselfish to mourn their death. Why? Because they are not temporary, but eternal, and they are valued by an eternal God. This can only mean that every person has objective value. Thus we can mourn out of a sense of longing, but in an appropriate manner (such as someone may long for justice or some other objectively valuable thing). And this longing will one day be fulfilled and so the sorrow felt at death is also somehow less burdensome.

On the flip side, our mourning isn’t as burdensome as the non-Christian because death does not have the same finality that it does for those outside the faith. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15, we do not mourn as those without hope. Instead death is “swallowed up in victory” and has lost its sting. This is very powerfully put, I think, in the final line of John Donne’s poem “Death be not Proud.”  Donne has said that despite the fact that death has many weapons in its arsenal and all people succumb to it, death is temporary. He concludes his meditation with the line: “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” There will come a day when death is no more and all will be life.

2) The resurrection changes life. Jesus said he came that we would have life and have it abundantly. This is a life that begins in the here and now. This isn’t for “someday” yet to come, but now. The truth is, until you meet Christ you are already dead. The majority of the world is walking around not living. They have not yet grasped the life that is truly life. They are still dead in the trespasses and sins, without freedom and without hope. But in Christ, who allows us to truly love, we are able to move from death to life. This is only possible because our deaths are somehow thrown on to his death. By uniting ourselves to Christ in his death, so we are united with him in his rising again. And that resurrected life begins now. We put to death our sinful nature, that binds and traps us, and put on the holiness that only comes from a resurrected and living God. The resurrection changes life here and now.

3) The resurrection changes the world. If the resurrection is the entrance of God’s future into the midst of human history, then the very nature of time is turned all around. That means that God’s future, is not only assured already, but is in some way already here. The kingdom of God has already been established. The time of us meeting God and having him as the light of our city is now. God in Christ has risen victorious over the grave not only to assure us of a final victory, but to actually win that final victory. As Jesus said multiple times “a time is coming and is now here.” The reign of Satan, death, and all kinds of evil is over. The reign of God has begun, and with it his transforming power. The resurrection is a call to take part in that transformation of the world and to tell others about its impact.

While the death of Christ may be met with somberness and quietness appropriate a personal encounter, the resurrection is too public to be ignored. The gospel account of Matthew leads directly into a commissioning. King Jesus is sending out his ambassadors into the uttermost parts of the world. There are given a single task: make disciples. It is an interesting juxtaposition to put the language of a royal commissioning up against the term “disciples.” Jesus does not say “make subjects” on one extreme or “make believers” on the other. He declares that true resurrection power is found only for the disciple, the one who follows, not merely agrees with a statement of facts, but one who does so willingly, not because they are somehow forced into it. This is the way that King Jesus will change the world, through his disciples. And it is a different kind of war, not one that tries to subjugate others, but seeks them as a friend to journey and learn alongside us as we follow Jesus. This is how the world is changed: through the church, through you and me, through the resurrection, and finally by the return of the resurrected Jesus. This is because Jesus, through the resurrection, changes everything. This post has only begun to scratch the surface of the lasting impact because Jesus’ resurrection is the point on which all history turns and on the other side of it we can see a different kind of everything.

What do you think? What other things does the resurrection change? Has the power of the resurrection been present in your life?