Wednesday, September 10, 2008

5 things budding atheists need to know.

One of the coolest things about Jesus and the religion based on His life and His teaching, is that Christianity is anchored in history.
. The lives of its main characters are grounded in history.
. The centrepiece of our faith split history into “before” and “after” His arrival on earth.
. The facts of our faith are so historical in context that even enemies of Christianity agree with the known facts of Jesus’ birth, life, death and burial.

In fact, the most informed enemies or detractors of Christianity agree that Jesus' closest followers actually believe they saw Him alive again after He was tortured to death. Only those who live on the fringes of reality, like Holocaust deniers and Tabloid readers try something as foolish as saying that Jesus is not a historical figure.

Out of dozens of examples of Jesus life that are verifiable and open to historical examination there are a minimum of five essential facts of Jesus’ life that are essential to consider when making a decision about your relationship with Jesus. The evidence for these facts is so strong that the vast majority of today’s scholars, including sceptics accept that these facts are historically accurate. These facts are:

Jesus was killed by His torture and crucifixion
As stated above, even Christianity’s critics, those knowledgeable in historical scholarship admit that Jesus’ death on the cross is an indisputable fact of history. For example, John Dominic Crossan one of the most liberal scholars going admits, “That He was crucified is as sure as anything historical ever can be.” Newly proclaimed atheist Bart Ehrman calls the crucifixion an “indisputable fact.” Skeptic J. Tabor says, “I think we need have no doubt that given Jesus’ execution by Roman crucifixion he was truly dead.” And atheist New Testament critic Gerd Ludemann also states that Jesus death on the cross and subsequent burial are indisputable facts of history.

To have that kind of attestation from Christianity’s detractors is the kind of confirming evidence that even a sceptic can trust. However, we also have ancient writers, non-Christians of the time, who wrote about Jesus' death on the cross. For example, the historian Tacitus said “Jesus suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius.” Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time wrote that, “Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified.” Mara Bar-Serapion, a pagan of the time confirms the crucifixion of Jesus, and Greek satirist, Lucian of Samosata writes about the crucifixion of Jesus. As well, we have four ancient documents, called the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John whose testimonies regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, accounts so abounding in historical detail that they are practically inviting themselves to be historically examined.

Another fact of history that a person needs to consider carefully when making a decision about whether to follow Jesus or to reject Him is -

Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose and appeared to them.
That the disciples of Jesus believed that Jesus rose from the dead is attested to on multiple levels. The most convincing of course is that they had nothing to gain and everything to lose in making this claim. In 1st Corinthians 15:11 Paul, who was the last person to see Jesus after He had risen from the dead testifies, “Whether it was they [the disciples] or I this is what we preach,” in referring to the resurrection of Jesus. While Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus took place years before he ever met Jesus’ disciples, he eventually knew the disciples personally and he came to know of their reports. What is amazing is that what Jesus had taught Paul, and what Paul wrote about Jesus’ resurrection, predates what was written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John AND what’s more, what Paul wrote agrees with what Jesus’ disciples had learned at the feet of Jesus. Jesus had taught all of them the same things about Himself even though they came from strikingly dissimilar situations.

Another strong corroboration of the evidence presented is that there are several places in the New Testament where very early oral traditions regarding the resurrection of Jesus have been copied into the New Testament. These traditions, which have very strong historical confirming value are presented in the form of hymns, creeds and sermon summations. What is significant about this is that in order to be included in the New Testament writing, oral traditions had to be dated earlier than those writings. One of the most important writings is found in 1st Corinthians 15:3-7. It says,

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: “That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”

This evidence is extremely early and was given to Paul by eyewitnesses.
Paul says to the people who might wonder if he is telling the truth, ‘Go and ask the eyewitness. Most of them are still alive. Check it out. You’ll see that I’m not lying about this.’ Besides the writings of Paul, we have four “Gospels” that even liberal scholars agree were written within thirty years of Jesus’ death.

. Multiple sources of attestation,
. Early eyewitness reports, and
. Oral tradition and declarations coming from the core of the disciples’ being, whose proclamations of Jesus’ resurrection were unfazed by torture and death, make very compelling evidence that what the disciples say they saw and experienced is in fact true.

There are more than 2,000 solid scholarly sources documenting the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Even atheist Ludemann concedes: “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” Paula Fredriksen, a very liberal scholar and professor at Boston University states: “The disciples’ conviction that they had seen the risen Christ is part of historical bedrock facts that are known past doubting.”

Paul was first a persecutor of the Church and later, after declaring an encounter with the risen Christ became the early Church’s leading missionary
Numerous extra Biblical sources testify that Paul, then known as Saul was a serious enemy of the early Church. He alone was responsible for the torture and death of many early Christians. Paul was an enemy of Jesus until Jesus, the risen Jesus jerked Paul’s chain big-time. This was not some delusion or hallucination. Paul was no friend of Jesus nor was he on a ridiculous spiritual quest to seek a vision of Jesus in a rock or on a piece of toast. Paul’s dramatic change can only be accounted for by the truth of his story; that he had a face to face encounter with the risen Lord.

After this encounter, and in the same manner as the other disciples of Jesus, Paul was willing to be tortured, jailed and ultimately die for proclaiming that Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified and buried, was indeed alive again. More than that, Paul maintained until he was executed that Jesus was the Son of God and Himself, Lord of all. This type of dramatic transformation cannot go unexplained. Dionysius of Corinth, Polycarp, Tertullian, Origen, Clement of Rome and Luke all report that Paul was willing to suffer and die for his belief that Jesus is the risen Lord. We can know with confidence that this was no lie, especially since Paul had nothing of earthly value to gain and everything to lose by holding to his proclamation.

A lot of atheists with whom I’ve spoken lament that they have to base their decision about Jesus on second hand information, regarding the events of Jesus’ life. This was not the case for Paul. He wasn’t convinced by some missionary. He wasn’t convinced by reading the Bible. Paul had primary source information about Jesus from Jesus Himself.

Paul was a religious Jew who had risen to the top of his profession. He believed to his core that Jesus was a false Messiah and that the disciples were organising a dangerous and heretical group. There was absolutely no reason for Paul to change direction except that what he said happened to him is the truth. I’ve heard some people say that Paul was crazy or overcome by guilt. While I disagree, let’s concede that point - for now. That still doesn’t account for what the disciples claim to have experienced, it doesn’t account for the empty tomb, it doesn’t account for Jesus’ family coming around to believe that He was the Messiah, it doesn’t account for these people being willing to be tortured to death for saying that Jesus was alive. All of those facts go to confirm what Paul himself proclaimed, he became a follower of Jesus because he had a first hand encounter with the risen Jesus.

Jesus half-brother and sceptic James became a believer after claiming to having had an encounter with the risen Jesus
Out of the five things a person should come to terms with when deciding about Jesus, to me, this is the most important. If you are a sceptic, think about this. What would it take for you to believe the claims of one of your siblings, that he was the awaited Christ, the Messiah who had been prophesied about in Hebrew Scriptures? Ya. That’s what I thought. Jesus’ brothers and sisters thought He was nuts. He was an embarrassment to the family. At one point they tried to hide Him from the public. Another time they tried to goad him into performing for the crowds. This was probably in an attempt to shame Him into giving up His stupid claims about being God.

And yet, again, historically indisputable facts show that not only did Jesus’ family come to believe that He was the Messiah, two of Jesus' brothers, James and Jude became leaders in the Jerusalem Church. And again, they paid for their belief in Jesus being God incarnate with their lives. If you are a sceptic, put yourself in their shoes and think about it. What in the world must have happened to James and Jude that they turned 180 degrees from mocking their brother to worshipping Him and encouraging others to do the same?

Like Paul, extra Biblical historical evidence tells us that James was a pious Jew, involved in the Synagogue. Josephus refers to James as the brother of Jesus. Hegesippus reports that James strictly abided by the Jewish law AND most importantly, that James was not a follower of Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime.
One of the things that makes the reports of James’ transformation, as recorded in the Bible, believable from a historical scholar’s point of view is that anyone who was trying to invent or make up a story to bolster a false religion would not have added these embarrassing accounts of Jesus’ family's struggles with His ministry. If anything, they would have embellished His relationship with His family. For a rabbi (Jesus) in the first century to not have the support of His family would have been a huge embarrassment. Besides the stories of Jesus’ family coming to get Him out of a house where He was teaching and His brothers taunting Him to go and show off His “tricks,” we have the account of Jesus, from the cross, transferring the care of His mother Mary to His best friend John. Jesus did not want her being taken care us by His non believing family.

And then we have the crux of James’ transformation. The impetus for James’ change of mind is the only thing that COULD have changed his mind, as would be the case for you the sceptic. The risen Jesus appeared to James. In fact, it is extremely likely that the creed that Paul distributes in 1st Corinthians 15, was passed on to him by Jesus’ brother, James. This makes it a first hand, eyewitness report. And remember, James doesn’t just become a believer. He becomes a leader in the Christian Church, right there in Jerusalem, where Jesus had been killed.

Was James lying for some personal gain? Hardly! He died as a martyr, proclaiming till his death Jesus as the risen Lord. Liars simply do not make martyrs. There is simply no other explanation for this kind of change in James, again attested to by both Christian and non Christian sources, except that Jesus of Nazareth appeared to Him as a risen Lord and King.

As a sceptic, you know beyond any doubt that only the appearance of a sibling, who had been dead beyond doubt, alive again, and now confirming beyond doubt that all the things that you formerly believed were tricks were indeed miraculous would make you change your mind. That is what happened to Jesus’ family, including two brothers who became well known leaders in the Christian Church.

Jesus’ tomb was empty.
This final point is one for which there is simply no good explanation except that Jesus rose from the dead. Again, a strong point for its historical accuracy is that we have enemy confirmation that the tomb was empty. As well we have the testimony of women, which in that culture was worth less than nothing. My point? Someone inventing a religion would not have included the testimony of women nor would they have thought to include the testimony of enemies. And finally, we have the fact that all this took place right there in Jerusalem, the scene of the murder. If Jesus body was still in the tomb, right there in a place so easy to check, that would have been the end of the Christian Church. Instead we have Jesus’ enemies accusing His disciples of stealing the body. Again we have extra Biblical confirmation that the powers that be accused the disciples of stealing the body. And why would they say such a thing if the body was still in the tomb? For historical scholars, enemy confirmation is strong, strong evidence that the story is true.

Now most everyone knows, if they give it even thirty seconds of thought that the disciples stealing the body is a really stupid idea. They had neither the opportunity nor the ability nor the will. They had scattered like frightened children. They were hiding behind locked doors. These men were not about to go up against a group of Roman soldiers, break the seal of the Roman Governor and steal what was not rightly theirs to take. And again, are we to believe that the disciples stole Jesus’ body, hid it away somewhere and then were tortured to death for proclaiming what they all knew was a lie? That’s preposterous!

Now, while an empty tomb does not lead to a resurrection as the logical conclusion, an empty tomb in concert with the other four facts just mentioned makes for a pretty strong case. Let me remind:
. Jesus died
. Shortly after His death His disciples were told by women that His tomb was empty.
. Soon after, Jesus appears to them in ways that precluded disbelief.
. Jesus also appeared to groups of people in varying situations and contexts
. The disciples are willing to be tortured and killed rather than say they were lying as to what they saw
. Those close to Jesus during His earthly life, those who thought He was nuts, are soon worshipping Him as the risen Lord and are also willing to be tortured and killed rather than say Jesus did not rise from the dead.
. Paul, who was enthusiastically persecuting Christians, believing all along that he was doing the true God a service, leaves all his earthly accomplishments behind because he too says that he’s had a real-life encounter with the risen Jesus. He loses everything of worldly value, including his freedom and ultimately his life rather than recant what he claims to believe.
. And now we have a glaringly empty tomb. An empty tomb admitted to by Jesus’ enemies who are at such a loss as to explain the missing body that they invent a ludicrous story about the disciples stealing it.

While there may be other explanations for any or all of these five historical facts, each of us needs to genuinely ask ourselves, What is the best and most likely explanation of these historical facts? For me, the simplest explanation, the explanation that doesn’t require mental gymnastics and twisting of facts or preposterous suggestions like Jesus never existed. That explanation is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Jesus was in fact exactly who He said He is.
I mean, what else is there?

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