Friday, April 27, 2007
It is my desire to live an unmediated life in a mediated world. Everything we experience in this life is mediated or filtered. It is filtered through TV, video, DVD, u-tube, my-space, face book, etc., and other forms of media. I can be there even if I'm not there, which gives me a false of sense of having been there. This explains to be the popularity of American Idol, all survivor type shows and MTV's Real World. We can sense the exhileration of winning without really winning, of surviving the impossible with really surviving the impossible and experiencing the reality of life and love by watching others struggle with the same.
For me, give it to me real - the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. No wonder I like camping!
An unmediated life is one that lives in the face of the full brunt of reality, unfiltered and unfettered. It can be brutal, but it is also liberating. It's like being in a forest and seeing things for the way they really are, rather than watching nature on the Discovery Channel.
That which is unmediated is crisp, real, surprising, shocking, refreshing. We live in a plastic, phoney-baloney world where everything is mediated, filtered. Give me the real - about the sinful, imperfect self; about the way things are. Let me face the wind and feel it in my face. For it is in the real where I meet the most real - Jesus Christ, God face to face.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Tolerance is the operative word these days. We are to tolerate all things, i.e. ideas, theories, philosophies, worldviews, methods, etc. as of equal value and worth to the point of even tolerating what is wrong. Toleration has come to mean that all ideas are equal in value and worth. To suggest otherwise is the height of arrogance and bigotry.
Accompanying this definition of toleration is the equally deadly idea that truth does not exist. And, even if truth exists no one person can claim to speak truth. If truth is one – that is, if truth means one thing then the opposite thing cannot be true at the same time – then such a definition of truth is also a violation of the overriding concern for being tolerant. Toleration argues that either there is no truth or that all truth claims are equally true. Neither claim makes sense, but if tolerance trumps truth then this non-seneschal definition of truth and toleration must stand. The result is moral, philosophical and spiritual chaos and anarchy.
This confusion over a wrong definition of tolerance and the untruth of truth has made its way into the church. Even in the church many people cannot tolerate the truth. In his new book, The Truth War, John MacArthur hits the mark when he writes in the introduction:
“Certain avant-garde evangelicals sometimes act as if the demise of certainty is a dramatic new intellectual development, rather than seeing it for what is actually is: an echo of the old unbelief. It is unbelief cloaked in a religious disguise and seeking legitimacy as if it were merely a humbler kind of faith. But it’s not faith at all. In reality, the contemporary refusal to regard any truth as sure and certain is the worst kind of infidelity. The church’s duty has always been to confront such skepticism and answer it by clearly proclaiming the truth God has revealed in His Word. We have been given a clear message for the
purpose of confronting the world’s disbelief. That is what we are called,
commanded, and commissioned to do (1 Corinthians 1:17-31). Faithfulness to Christ demands it. The honor of God requires it. We cannot sit by and do nothing while worldly, revisionist, and skeptical attitudes about truth are infiltrating the church. We must not embrace such confusion in the name of charity, collegiality, or unity. We have to stand and fight for the truth – and be prepared to die for it – as faithful Christian always have.”
I believe MacArthur has hit the mark. God has called every believer to love and defend the truth, truth that is rooted in God Himself and His Word. Of course, we must speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). But love and truth are not mutually exclusive. Love and truth are companions because the most loving thing is truth; conversely, the most truthful thing is love. Love does not mean I consent to all things as being tolerant. Love may mean that I vigorously and respectfully disagree with you because you are wrong.
So, we speak and defend the truth of God’s Word with clarity, insight, thoughtfulness and humility. In this way we hold together the twin spires of the kingdom of God – love/grace and truth – “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Don Imus, Virginia Tech and Martin Niemoller!
The thought and speech police are on the way since Don Imus stuck his foot in his mouth all the way up to his kneecap. And now with the events at Virginia Tech, look for more controls to be placed on our lives by those who want to squelch the freedoms of Americans and silence the voice of many, especially the religious voices of America.
What Imus said was despicable – it was simply a reflection of a society bent on crudeness. The best way to censor filth is to follow the ‘turn it off,’ ‘don’t buy it,’ and ‘don’t participate in it’ techniques. What happened at VT was horrible. Enough said. But no amount of gun control can control a crazed man.
We must be aware that giving up our freedoms wholesale is no way to deal with tyrants and the crazed. It’s not just the Rutgers basketball players and the campus of VT that is under siege. What is at stake is our will desire to live as free people. Evil seeks to limit what God has rightly given to us to exercise with responsibility and restraint.
Let me introduce the tainted, redeemed figure of Martin Niemoller to explain my point. Niemoller was a German Lutheran pastor during WWII and who was, at first, sympathetic to the actions of Hitler and the Nazi party. He had been a U-boat captain in WWI and had been supportive of Hitler in the early days. The Nazi press held him up as an example of a model for how to handle the transition to a country controlled by Hitler (Newsweek, 7.10, 1937, p. 32).
But Niemoller quickly changed his mind when he discovered that giving up his precious freedoms for certain protections and comforts was no trade at all. By the time that Niemoller and others awakened to Hitler’s goals it was too late. Niemoller spent the rest of his life redeeming his life from evil. It was Niemoller who wrote the following famous poem.
“First they came for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up,
Because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak up,
Because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the
And I didn’t speak up,
Because I was a Protestant.
came for me,
And by that time there was no one
Left to speak for me.”
With the asinine statements of Imus and the crazed gunman of VT, the thought and action police are on their way. But when they come with their ‘good intentions’ they will seek to take away our freedoms in the name of the greater good. And by the time we discover this wicked fact it will be too late and there will be no one to speak for truth and freedom. They will label certain words hate speech, especially speech against sin, muting the voice of Scripture.
Freedom comes with the price of risk. No amount of controls can stop someone from making a stupid comment. And no gun control measure or extreme security techniques can stop the relentless or the crazed.
Providing law enforcement and certain security measures makes sense. But I am afraid that in our emotional reactions to the events of the past several weeks we will end of relinquishing such freedom that when it comes time to speak and act freely there will be no one left to freely speak.
Now That Virginia Tech Has Happened
It is tragic! Is it evil! It is useless! It doesn’t make sense! What are we to make of this event? How can we make sense of this, or any other tragedy, for that matter? We must turn to Jesus for guidance. His words of Luke 13:1-5 are helpful. Read them with my own commentary interspersed:
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.”
- Commentary: Some of Jesus’ followers mention to Him the evil of Pilate’s violent rampage against the Galileans – this could be referred as an ‘unnatural,’ or ‘intentional’ evil. It was a wicked, senseless massacre. Just like the events on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic University.
“2 Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?’”
- Commentary: Our answers are often lame and weak. We look for blame to make ourselves feel better. We think that if we can place blame we will be protected from the random, the senseless, from evil. The victims were no worse sinners than people who die in what may be termed as ‘normal circumstances.’ Nor, was the culprit any more evil than any other sinner on earth. We are all sinners capable of horrific evil.
“3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
- Commentary: Being ready for death, whenever and however it comes, is key!
“4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
- Commentary: Jesus mentions another tragedy – what about those who died from what could be described as a ‘natural’ or ‘accidental’ event? A tower in Siloam fell on eighteen people. So, both ‘unnatural,’ ‘intentional’ and ‘natural,’ ‘accidental’ events are covered. The tragedy is that all die – some outside of Christ, some in Christ – but all die. Whether by car accident, war, cancer, crime, etc., all deaths are the same.
“5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
- Commentary: Again, no matter how death comes, the real tragedy is the person unprepared for death. Preparation for death comes through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
There is a very good reason why Scripture calls death the enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). It is 'anti' every thing God represents. Yet, in Jesus Christ, God has conquered sin, death and hell and has offered life to any and all persons willing to repent of their sin and trust Christ as Savior and Lord. Having trusted Christ, that person will be ready for death whether it comes at the age of 19 at the end of a gun barrel from a crazed gunman on a college campus or at the age of 90 from 'natural causes.' God (and death) is no respecter of persons. We must be ready!
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Attempt anything of importance and the critics come out the woodwork. This is why this post is for all those who are attempting to do great things for their families, friends, society, church and God. Life is made up of two kinds of people – those who do and therefore accomplish stated goals and those who watch and criticize those who attempt to reach those stated goals. In other words, I am continually amazed how most people simply wait and watch for those who take risks to fail and fall in their endeavors to achieve and accomplish great things.
Too often, the lazy, unlearned, uninvolved, passive and critical majority – those who fail to take risks for fear of failure – salivate at the thought of the ‘attempters’ actually trying and failing. The end result is that people in places of leadership, influence and opportunity live with constant criticism. They live under the pronounced sentence of the 'do nothings' that the attempters are arrogant, prideful and inconsiderate; under the cloud of accusation of 'who gave them the right to try, to change things, to create new things.'
For the ‘attempters,’ those who dare to do something with the life God has given them, I refer you to a speech of one of my heroes given at the Sorbonne, Paris, France, April 23, 1910. The hero is President Teddy Roosevelt and the speech was entitled “The Man in the Arena: Citizenship in a Republic.” Roosevelt makes the following statement that ought to give every risk-taker, leader and ‘attempter’ hope and courage:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is not effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the
end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So, to the watchers and the criticizers I say – stand on the sidelines, gawk and stare, point the finger and say, “See, I told you so, he/she never should have tried!” I say to you that you will never know the agony of defeat or the ecstasy of victory!
But to the ‘attempters’ - teachers, leaders, politicians, public officials, company creators, inventors - I say try, work, engage, fail with flare and succeed with grace. As the great ‘attempter’ (the Apostle Paul) once wrote in Philippians 3:12-15 (ESV): “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own (I have a goal), because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own (I live in humility). But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind (failures and successes), I press on (I will not be passive) toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way (and the implication is that the immature and unengaged will think differently), and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let is hold true to what we have attained.”
When people ask me, ‘Kevin, why are you involved in so many different things? Aren’t you too busy, tired or afraid? What if you fail? How can you constantly put yourself out there?’ My answer is always, ‘I believe that all of life must come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ – all of it, i.e. eating, sleeping, preaching, teaching, coaching, loving, parenting, pastoring, hiking, investing, etc. I also believe that I have but one life to live. So, I will take every moment, every opportunity and every event and make it an opportunity to glorify God and influence the world in kingdom ways. If I fail, I fail trying; if I succeed, I do so by God’s grace. Failing or succeeding, I am living, breathing, risking, engaging, filled, and being fulfilled, and loving every moment.’
Monday, April 9, 2007
It is the day after Easter ‘07 and I am thinking of the word ‘clueless.’ According the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (’04), the term means ‘to have no idea, to be ignorant, not have an inkling, to be baffled, mystified, at a loss, to not have the faintest/foggiest/slightest.’ Sadly, this is where most believers are when it comes to connecting the resurrection of Jesus Christ with life.
Let me explain. I recently told the precious congregation I pastor that if the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not true then I quit; I will quit and become a member of the mafia. If it is not true then we are still in our sins, our preaching is foolish, our ministry is baseless and we are of all people most to be pitied (such radical ideas are not original with me – check out Paul’s thoughts on the substantive nature of the resurrection; see 1 Corinthians 15).
The reason I would join the mafia is that once you’re ‘in’ you have family (until you get knocked off), all the money you could desire, all the pleasures of life and a support group that will cover your back, of course, unless, you don’t cover theirs. But why the mafia if I quit the ministry? Because if the resurrection is not true then its' every man for himself, right? So my choice would be the mafia. Why? If the resurrection is not true, why not try to get all you can, as fast as you can, any way you can, for as long as you can, for the most personal gratification you can?
Here’s the deal. If the resurrection is not true, then the gospel is a hoax, Jesus is a liar and the Bible is a fable! If the resurrection is not true then not only is Jesus a liar, but there’s probably no God because redemption was God’s plan in the first place. And if there’s no God then why not eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we will die (the biblical version of a mafia motto).
I mean every word that I just wrote and that you just read. If the ‘Jesus thing’ is a lie, then the current crop of atheists, i.e., Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, are right – God does not exist – we’re on our own. And left to my own devices…you get the picture.
But I love 1 Corinthians 15:20, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead…” If the resurrection is true, and it is, our preaching, teaching, ministering and kingdom endeavors are not in vain. The resurrection is why I am committed to my wife, my children and to God’s call on my life. It is the very basis of my life in Christ. He alone died a substitutionary death so that I might have life in and through Him because of His subsequent resurrection.
Yet, this is where the word ‘clueless’ comes into play. I don’t believe that most Christians make the connection between the truth and power of the resurrection and the stuff of life. Why do I say this? Because every time I bring up the ‘mafia thing’ they will say, ‘Oh, brother Kevin, stop using such crazy ideas. You don’t mean it.’ YES I DO! You’re the one who doesn’t get it! The resurrection is the only power that can hold at bay my natural inclination toward evil and self-destruction. Thank God He is continually mashing my sinful will through Jesus’ resurrection power. Technically and biblically, I believed it’s referred to as being crucified with Christ so that I might be raised from the dead.
The resurrection is not an add-on, a cosmic afterthought or God’s ‘Plan B.’ It’s not an incidental, accidental part of the deal – it is the deal! This is why Paul writes in Philippians 3:10-11, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, becoming like Him in death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Because He lives I’m forgiven, I love my wife, I attempt to raise my children differently, I share the Word and I remain faithful to the faith once for all delivered and entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). So, you never thought I could connect the terms, resurrection, mafia and clueless? Think again!
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
You may have heard someone say, ‘I don’t do windows’ or ‘I don’t do yard work, etc.’ Such statements are used to declare what a person is unwilling to do in a given situation. If Jesus had used such language He would have said, ‘I don’t do graveyards!’ It’s not that He was afraid of them; He just did strange things when He encountered death because every time Jesus crossed paths with a graveyard or a funeral procession He altered history. And He is still in the business of disrupting the dead. Let me make my case.
Mark 5:1-20 tells us that when Jesus arrived in the region of Gerasenes He encountered a man living in a graveyard. This living dead man was demonized, lost, hopeless and out of his mind. Jesus so altered his life that when the townspeople came out to the graveyard they found Jesus talking with this man who was now ‘clothed and in his right mind.’ Jesus gave new life to this living dead man!
And what about Mark 5:21-24? The text tells us that Jesus was asked to heal the ailing daughter of Jairus, but while on His way to her home He was providentially interrupted by a women in need. By the time Jesus arrived at Jairus’ home the little girl had died. Jesus raised her from the dead and restored joy and life to the home of some very distraught family members.
Or, consider John 11. The text recounts Jesus’ marvelous relationship with Martha and Mary, and how He raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. Again, Jesus received word that Lazarus was sick, but while on His way He was delayed. By the time Jesus arrived both family and professional mourners were heart-deep in grief over Lazarus’ death. Jesus called Lazarus by name – had Jesus not called him by name every dead man and woman would have come out of their graves. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead as proof positive that He is the resurrection and the life.
Luke 7:11-17 tells the story of the widow of Nain. With her son already dead and on the way to the graveyard, the widow of Nain was grieving with an unrequited grief. Jesus stopped the funeral procession and raised the boy from the dead. Again, Jesus restored life to the dead and gave joy to the grieving.
And what about His own death? Mark 15:42-47 notes that after Jesus was crucified He was buried in a borrowed tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the ruling council of Israel. Yet, Jesus could only tolerate the grave for three days. Mark 16:1 reminds us that on the first day of the week Jesus’ disciples arrived at the tomb only to find the stone rolled away and the body of Jesus missing. And where was His body? Mark 16:6 gives us the answer: ‘He is risen; He is not here.’ His death atoned for our sins; His resurrection triumphed over sin, death and hell.
But Jesus is not done in the graveyard. In the future, Jesus will once again disturb every graveyard on the planet. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 tells us that Jesus will one day return for His church. When He does return the Scripture states that the ‘dead in Christ will rise first…and so we will always be with the Lord.’ Jesus’ final blow against death will land and God will be all in all.
In the mean time, even now Jesus steps into the lives of the living dead and gives new life to those who are dead in their sins and joy to those who are grieved and burdened. In other words, Jesus is still stepping into the graveyards and funeral processions of life, disrupting the dead and decaying, giving life and giving it abundantly (Jn. 10:10). I’m so glad that ‘Jesus doesn’t do graveyards.’
Monday, April 2, 2007
Every New Testament scholar and biblical theologian takes a risk in responding to every theological fad and/or new discovery that supposedly sheds light on the claims of Christianity. To respond to these ‘trendy notions’ is to give recognition and dignity where it is not deserved. However, from time to time, a response is required not so much because of the validity of the new claims as it is that the general public no longer possesses the wherewithal to appropriately respond. The public in general, and many in the church in particular, no longer possess the basic information required to respond to the outlandish claims of those who would seek to diminish the basic assertions of historic Christianity. This brief overview of the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is, I believe, in order.
Introduction: The Advent of Biblically Illiterate ‘Sound Byte Intellectuals’
Here we go again. Every Christmas and Easter either the secular press or a select group of ‘biblical scholars’ unveil supposed new and startling revelations about the church, the gospel, and/or the central character of the Christian story, Jesus Christ. These new revelations are offered in an effort to 1) expose the alleged secrecy of the church (i.e. Dan Brown’s, The Da Vinci Code) that has clouded the real truth about Jesus Christ, 2) to shed new light on the gospel in such a way that the gospel is diminished and its content destroyed (i.e., John Dominic Crossan and Robert Funk, co-founders of the Jesus Seminar, and Bishop John Shelby Spong in Resurrection: Myth or Reality?) and to 3) ultimately take off some of the supernatural and other-worldliness luster of the gospel that the church has affirmed for two thousand years (i.e., Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino’s recent, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History). In fact, this latest book will be on display in a Discovery Channel’s TV special to be aired Sunday evening, March 4th, 2007, 9 ET, 8 CT.
The disappointing thing about these ‘new discoveries,’ and the others that have preceded them and that will surely follow, are that they are not new. Many of the arguments presented in the Jacobovici and Pellegrino’s book have been around for decades. Most of them have been thoroughly debunked by sound, biblical scholarship, archeological discoveries, and textual verifications. It is apparent that those who produce and publish such materials have a financial motive. In other words, Jesus sells. In my humble opinion, the steady stream of these ‘new revelations’ in books and magazines each Christmas and Easter is driven by 1) greedy marketers, 2) all-too-willing and obscure bible scholars looking to make a name for themselves and 3) an ill-informed public that is always on the prowl for a scandal. And what better person to scandalize than Jesus, what better institution to scandalize than the church, and what better claim to scandalize than the claims of the gospel?
Even more disappointing is the reaction of an entertained crazed culture that is easily beguiled and deceived. Why is it that the average layperson readily accepts the errant propositions of already debunked, illegitimate scholarship? Three factors are at play: First, with the rapid development of media technology and techniques (most of which can be used for the good, if properly used), the vast majority of Americans have become ‘sound bite intellectuals’ who are prepared to uncritically accept whatever they hear and see from radio and TV as ‘the gospel truth.’ Most Americans have stopped doing the hard work of the kind of intellectual engagement that is required to sift through differing truth claims, an engagement that is required of a mature human being, particularly of a self-proclaimed Christian. In other words, many will view the Discovery Channel special and accept the assertions made on the program simply because it is being aired on a major cable network. Americans have somehow lost the notion that just as there are no completely objective individuals there are no completely objective media outlets – everybody has an angle.
Second, with the onslaught of ‘sound byte intellectuals’ the realization has come that we are a biblically illiterate society. I am continually amazed how biblically uninformed the general public is concerning God’s Word. Not only are all kinds of notions and phrases attributed to God’s Word that are not there – i.e., ‘God helps those who help themselves’ – but all kinds of notions and phrases that are there are denied on the basis of a truncated view of God and His Word – i.e., ‘Thou shall not commit adultery.’ Combine the gullibility of the public with a parallel biblical illiteracy and it makes for a receptive audience for the enemies of the cross and a minimalistic gospel.
Third, and maybe most tragic, is the lack of authentic, sound, thorough, and comprehensive Bible teaching in the church that only exacerbates the aforementioned problems. The gospel that is preached in thousands of churches across America is, at best, a mere shadow of the life-changing, historical, supernatural, revelatory gospel of Jesus Christ that is clearly and unequivocally outlined in God’s Word. The gospel that is preached today talks little of sin, minimizes the need for repentance, diminishes the ‘otherness’ of God, destroys the divinity of Jesus and virtually obligates God to meet the so-called felt needs of a self-centered public and childish church. Combine the factors of a sound byte society and a biblically illiterate public with a ‘gospel-less church’ and the result is fertile ground for heresy.
In a recent op/ed piece in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ, 3.2.07, W13), Ben Witherington, III, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., defined the cultural milieu in which we find ourselves when it comes to dealing with novel claims about Christianity:
"Year after year in spring, a new crop of religious dandelions pop up in our post-Christian culture. Like the real ones growing in my yard, they make a colorful splash that briefly captures our attention, until we realize that they are only shallow-rooted weeds, not beautiful flowers planted long ago in the deep rich soil of the past, such as Easter lilies. Last year (2006), it was the Gnostic nonsense of the 'Da Vinci Code.' We’ve had the 'gospel of Judas Iscariot,' written centuries after the eyewitnesses were dead. This year it’s a variation on the 'Da Vinci' theme. We are not only being told that there was a Mrs. Jesus (aka Mary Magdalene). We are also informed that her tomb and that of Jesus have been found in Jerusalem; that DNA testing has proved that they are not related and so must have been married (how exactly does it prove that?) and that an ossuary or small casket of at least one of their offspring has been found as well. News at 11! R, in this case, Discovery Channel’s documentary 'The Lost Tomb of Jesus,' scheduled for Sunday night (4.4.07). In a surreal moment on 'Larry King Live' earlier this week, the film’s producer, James Cameron (of 'Titanic' fame), told us with a straight face that we should all be thankful that we now have tangible evidence that Jesus existed. Actually, no serious historian of biblical antiquity has ever doubted that there was a historical Jesus. Yet it tells us a lot about the state of our culture that Mr. Cameron’s remark, backed by pseudo-science, could be seriously made on national television and that the film’s book has already shot up to No. 5 on Amazon’s rankings. We are a Jesus-haunted culture that is so historically illiterate that anything can now pass for knowledge of Jesus. No doubt there are those who welcome 'evidence' that undermines the foundation of Christianity. Many people, though, are simply beguiled by the 'obsolescence factor' in our technologically driven society - the 'newer' must be 'truer' and 'better.' This outlook, when applied to a subject like the historical Jesus, attracts all sorts of unbridled speculation, and worse.”
Witherington is correct. The recognition of what he calls 'obsolescence factor' is key. He is not arguing against all aspects of modernity. He is simply noting that modernity can fool a person into thinking that nothing in the past is credible, verifiable, worthwhile or substantive. So, what do we know about the historical events surrounding the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ? What we can know about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection may surprise you!
Resurrection: What are we talking about?
Before we make a case for the resurrection, we must establish what it is we are talking about. What does the term mean? For example, the great German New Testament scholar of the 40’s and 50’s, Rudolf Bultman, willingly used the term ‘resurrection,’ but did not mean by it what Christianity has historically claimed. Rather than using the term to describe the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, Bultman used the term to describe the resurrected ‘spirit of Jesus’ and the subsequent resurrection of the depressed spirits of the disciples, most of whom had abandoned Jesus and who thought that the movement Jesus started had ended with His death. In contrast to this view, historic Christianity has always claimed that while Jesus did experience a new spiritual dimension as a result of His resurrection, His resurrection also included the raising and transformation of His body. In other words, the resurrection was both a corporeal event in that it encompassed the material body of Jesus and a spiritual event in that Jesus was free of previous physical constraints in inhabiting a resurrected, glorified body.
In addition, by resurrection we do not mean resuscitation. For example, in John 11 Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. But is this the same type of resurrection Jesus experienced and that one day we will experience? Yes and no! Yes, Jesus overcame the power of death in order to raise Lazarus from the dead. But notice that Lazarus returns to his previous state of being instead of experiencing a new dimension of existence. It may be better to say that the raising of Lazarus from the dead was more akin to a resuscitation than a resurrection, without diminishing Jesus’ power over death. Lazarus would die again. The kind of resurrection Jesus experienced was not a resuscitation because Jesus was raised to never die again. Thus, by resurrection we mean that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead to a glorified state of being that He previously enjoyed prior to His incarnation; it is a resurrection we will one day experience as we are raised to a new state of existence that we have yet to experience as our souls are joined with a glorified body that will eternally exist in the presence of God.
What are we to Make of These New Claims?
Is there a thoughtful, measured, biblical response to the claims of Jacobovici and Pellegrino? I believe there is. Let me begin with two assertions that nearly everyone agrees with, both liberal and conservative scholars alike. First, no one disagrees with the fact that just a few days after His crucifixion the tomb of Jesus was empty. This fact is not in dispute. What is in dispute is how the fact of the empty tomb is explained. Even Jacobovici and Pellegrino offer an alternative explanation for the assertion that Jesus’ tomb was empty – it was the wrong tomb. An empty tomb has been replaced by a new tomb discovered in 1980 in a Jerusalem suburb known as Talpiot. Nevertheless, it is an alternative explanation to the biblical account that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was raised from the dead. But a new tomb location is not the only theory offered to explain the empty tomb. Down through the years numerous explanations with varying degrees of acceptance have been offered as theoretical hypothesis for the fact of the empty tomb. We will look at some of these theories.
Second, nearly all scholars affirm the veracity of texts that have import on this subject. For example, virtually all New Testament scholars, both those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus and those who do not, affirm that 1 Corinthians 15 is the earliest formulation (circa AD 55-56) of the gospel that is rooted in the belief that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead: (v. 3-5ff.) “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared…” What follows the assertion of Jesus’ appearance is a substantive list of those who were privileged to personally and corporately encounter the resurrected Christ. Again, the authenticity of this text is not in question.
The veracity and authenticity of the biblical narratives is given tedious attention in Philip Comfort’s monumental work, Encountering the Manuscripts (Broadman/Holman Press, 2005). Needless to say, the New Testament documents we possess are as authentic as any ancient documents we possess, probably more so! The number of full and partial documents we possess (15,000+) that attest to the Bible’s authenticity, along with the multiple copies of the New Testament books we possess demonstrate a remarkable level of verifiability. What is in question is how these texts are to be interpreted in relation to the traditional claim that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead on the third day. In other words, is the plain reading of the text the best explanation for the empty tomb? Or, are we to look for alternative explanations? In summary, we have two assertions upon which we can begin a thoughtful response to the claims of Jacobovici and Pellegrino – an empty tomb and historically verifiable texts. Let us now look at some of the theories that have been given in explaining the empty tomb.
Empty Tomb Theories
The ‘empty tomb’ theories are numerous and range from plausible to bizarre. These will be listed these in no particular order:
· The Stolen Body Theory - The first and most obvious theory is recorded in Matthew 28:11-15: “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” The stolen body theory has been an oft-repeated theory, discussed in differing forms and motifs, but with the same outcome.
· The Swoon Theory – This theory “posits that Jesus fainted on the cross and only appeared to be dead. Jesus then awoke and recuperated in the damp coolness of the tomb and subsequently fully recovered.” (Doug Powell in Christian Apologetics: A Clear and Complete Overview, Holman Reference, 2006, p. 270). While this theory may sound plausible, it also raises more questions then it answers - i.e. How did Jesus recover? Where did he recuperate? Doesn’t this contradict the well-documented Roman practice of not taking a person off a cross until dead?
· The Twin Theory – This rather bizarre theory argues that Jesus had an unknown, identical twin that assumed the role of the resurrected Jesus after the crucifixion (Powell, Christian Apologetics, p. 274). This theory is akin to a fraud, a motive that would have been completely contrary to what we know about Jesus from the four gospels. Further, there is no evidence to support such a theory historically, textually, or biographically.
· Hallucination Theory – This theory suggests “that in the midst of their profound grief, the disciples and other followers of Jesus experienced hallucinations in which they saw Him raised from the dead.” (Powell, Christian Apologetics, p. 278). The reason this theory has never been widely accepted is due to the nature of the public appearances of resurrected Lord. If Jesus had appeared to His followers individually or in small groups it could be argued that they may have hallucinated in seeing the resurrected Lord. However, 1 Corinthians 15 states that Jesus appeared to individuals and to a large number of the disciples, making it nearly impossible to postulate a comprehensive hallucinatory experience for such a large number of people. This theory also carries with it the weakness of failing to explain the empty tomb.
· Additional Theories – In addition to these major theories, such minor theories as:
o 1) The ‘bait and switch’ theory that argues that Jesus was replaced with a stand-in at the last minute and was never crucified at all. This theory is sometimes based on a spurious reading of Luke 23:26 where is it is noted “As they led Him (Jesus) away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.” It is argued that Simon from Cyrene replaced Jesus on the cross. Again, this theory carries no historical evidence and fails to explain the empty tomb.
o 2) The ‘Islamic theory’ is that Jesus was never crucified at all but somehow escaped the cross, only to reappear to His disciples. They, in turn, wrongly applied the concept of resurrection to Jesus Christ. According to the Qur’an Judas was crucified instead of Jesus (see the Qur’an, surahs 3:55 and 4:157-58 and Ergun and Emir Caner in Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at the Muslim Life and Beliefs, Kregel, 2002).
o 3) The ‘shallow grave theory’ has been suggested by John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar. This theory suggests that the empty tomb can be explained by arguing that Jesus died and was then subsequently buried in a shallow, unmarked grave where a pack of dogs consumed the body. The weaknesses of this theory are obvious as well. Not only does it fail to explain the empty tomb and the well-known, well-publicized request of Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus in his own tomb (Lk. 23:50-56; Mt. 27:57-61; Mk. 15:42-47; Jn. 19:38-42), but it also fails to explain the well-documented post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (1 Cor. 15).
o 4) A final ‘catch all’ theory is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was simply a legend that was perpetuated by the disciples in order to start a movement that had actually failed with the demise and death of their leader, Jesus Christ (see Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality, A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity, Harper Collins, 1994).
In summary, those who propose such theories go out of their way to avoid a plan reading of the text. In fact, one could argue that it takes greater faith to believe some of these theories than to believe the truth. Having surveyed some of the alternative explanations of the empty tomb and the resurrection, let’s survey some reasons, both biblical and logical, as to why it is plausible and probable that Jesus Christ did, in fact, rise from the dead on the third day.
The Biblical Foundations and Logical Supports for the Resurrection:
An Overview of William Lane Craig’s article entitled ‘Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? In Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, ed., Zondervan, 1995, pp. 141-176).
In what may be one of the best, most succinct, brief arguments for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Professor William Lane Craig (Ph.D., University Birmingham, U.K.), begins his article with the following declaration: ‘In seeking the best historical explanation of the evidence concerning the resurrection of Jesus, we employ a model of inference common to all inductive reasoning, including the natural sciences, known as inference to the best explanation. According to this approach, we begin with the evidence available to us. Then out of a pool of live options determined by our background beliefs, we select the best of various competing explanations to give an account of why the evidence is as it is and not otherwise.’ (p. 143) Craig begins with three well-known, well-documented, widely-accepted facts: 1) Jesus’ empty tomb, 2) the postmortem, post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and 3) the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. These three factors must be accounted for before accepting an alternative claim other than the one offered by the scriptures and the gospel – Jesus was bodily raised from the dead.
Jesus’ Empty Tomb
According to Craig, there are numerous plausible, biblical, and logical reasons that support the historical fact that the tomb of Jesus was empty soon after His death and burial. What is the supporting evidence for the empty tomb?
· The historical credibility of the burial based upon the gospel texts is largely undisputed (i.e. Mt. 27:57-61; Mk. 15:42-47; Lk. 23:50-56; Jn. 19:38-42).
· Paul’s testimony provides further verification in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared…” The dating of this confessional tradition is often dated to AD 30-36, making it nearly impossible to deny that Jesus was buried.
· The burial story is considered to be a part of the pre-Markan passion story, since Mark was one of the first gospels and records Mark’s insights as a reflection of the Apostle Peter’s testimony.
· The story of Jesus’ burial is simple and basic and lacks theological reflection and apologetic development, making it an unadorned claim. Too often lies, fables, or myths come with flowery language that clouds the issues of truth and verifiability. Not so with the burial accounts of Jesus.
· Joseph of Arimathea is a historical character.
· Joseph burying Jesus in his own grave is probably historical.
· Jesus was buried late on the Day of Preparation; the body could not have been left on a cross according to the Jewish regulations for holy days.
· The observation of the burial by the women is probably historical. According to Mark 15:40-41: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.” Since the testimony of women in Jesus’ day was often discounted, why would the early gospel writers mention their names in both observing Jesus’ burial and in recording their witness as the first appearance of the resurrected Lord if it would have undermined their story, unless the claims of the disciples were true?
· The graves of Jewish holy men were often well-preserved and cared for, so that you also have Joseph of Arimathea’s reputation at stake.
· No other burial tradition exists.
· The investigation of the empty tomb by Peter and John is historically probable (Jn. 21:24).
· It would have been virtually impossible for the disciples to openly proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty. For example, between the crucifixion/resurrection event and Pentecost was fifty days in which the disciples prayed and waited. This would have provided plenty of time for the empty tomb and resurrection claims to have been debunked by the Jewish leaders and the enemies of Jesus. Yet, on the day of Pentecost Peter had not changed his mind or his claim concerning the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (see Acts 2).
· The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. That is, the Jewish opponents of Jesus never denied the fact of the empty tomb. Further, they attempted to cover it up by paying off the guards (Mt. 28:11-15).
· The fact that the early disciples did not venerate or memorialize the burial place of Jesus may indicate that the tomb was empty.
In summary, these accumulated affirmations concerning the empty tomb make for a good case that, in fact, the tomb was empty. But an empty tomb alone does not fully account for the claims of the gospel. Craig moves to outlines numerous reasons for his affirmation concerning the truth of the gospel by looking at the postmortem, post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
Postmortem, Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus
The numerous accounts of Jesus appearance make for a substantial argument that Jesus physically/spiritually appeared after His death.
· Paul’s testimony outlines the vast number of people who witnessed Jesus’ appearances, i.e. Peter, the Twelve, five hundred other believers, James, all the apostles, and then to Paul himself (see 1 Corinthians 15:5-8).
· The Gospel accounts of the appearances of Jesus to the women and the disciples are historically reliable.
· Jesus’ appearance at the Lake of Tiberias seems plausible (John 21).
· Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35).
· Jesus appears in Galilee (Mt. 28:16; Acts 1:6).
· Jesus’ appearances are spiritual-physical appearances. Prior to His crucifixion Jesus was limited in that He was bound by corporeal dimensions. Yet, something happened in the resurrection that gave Jesus an added dimension of experience in that He could physically appear and eat fish (Lk. 24:40-43) and at the same time appear and disappear in locked rooms (Jn. 20:19-31).
· Craig calls the transformation of Jesus’ earthly body a soma pneumatikon, a transformation that does not rescue it from materiality, but from mortality. This is the first indication of what our resurrected bodies may be capable of (see 1 Corinthians 15:42-58).
· In every account, the gospels confirm that the appearances of Jesus were physical.
In summary, Craig argues that the converse side of the empty tomb is best explained by what the biblical texts state – the tomb was empty because Jesus had been bodily, supernaturally raised from the dead to a new dimension of existence as a forerunner of our resurrection bodies.
The Origin of the Disciples’ Belief in Jesus’ Resurrection
In what may be one of the best arguments for the historical accuracy and reliability of the claims of Christianity is the Christian movement itself. Most alternative theories break down when one takes into account that not many days after Pentecost the church was under persecution for preaching the gospel (Acts 81ff.). To preach a lie is one thing, to die for a lie is quite another. And yet the early disciples were more than willing to suffer for Christ’s sake and the gospel. What would make sensible men and women preach, teach, live, and die in the way the early believers did, and every subsequent generation since? In spite of the institutionalization and politicizing of the church and in spite of her well-documented failures throughout the centuries, there is something at the very core of the church’s belief system that is substantive, historical, and necessary. Apart from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, critics have a difficult time in explaining the continuing life of the church and the relentless affirmation of the resurrection in her preaching. Underneath the forms and structures the church has adopted throughout the centuries there is a bedrock truth that cannot be denied and that will not be dismissed - “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He is risen!” (Lk. 24:5-6)
The early believers were absolutely convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead. As a result, both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ formed the content of their message (see Acts 2). While the evidence is substantive, faith remains the requirement for the Christian walk. Though Jesus appeared to enough persons to substantiate His resurrection, the vast majority of believers are dependent on the eye-witness accounts of the early disciples and personal faith. We must be reminded of what Jesus said to doubting Thomas in John 20:28-29. When Thomas realized that he was actually seeing the resurrected Lord, touching and speaking to Him, he blurted out, “My Lord and my God!” And what was Jesus’ response? “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not yet seen and yet have believed.’” We are among those who believe but have not yet seen Him. But one day all that will change for we will see Him as He is, in all of His glory and majesty! Until then, we will faithfully serve and patiently tolerate those who would claim otherwise.