A course in evangelism is mandatory for most first year students of evangelical institutions or colleges. I went to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Il. Here, I was taught to think of sharing the gospel as viewing nonbelievers as unknowingly walking around with terminal cancer and you had the cure. Wouldn’t you feel obligated and excited to be able to offer them a remedy for their sickness? If true, this would be a great analogy. But is it?
It is a bold statement to make but one many Christians clearly believe. The history of the Christian church is rife with evidence supporting this belief. Infant baptism was created primarily to ensure parents their most prized possessions would be guaranteed an eternal abode in the event of early death (which was fairly common). The thought of waiting until they reached an age of intellectual capability was unfathomable. Anyone who thinks this doctrine was based on theological precision is grossly misinformed.
Most of us have likely experienced the well meaning attempt by an evangelical to coax us into the kingdom with images of torment and suffering. Children are often coerced into converting by their parents with a child version of hell juxtaposed to a wonderful depiction of heaven. This would be a tough sell considering children are not contemplating their own mortality except they are emotionally and mentally vulnerable at this age. The elderly are another story and perhaps more susceptible to exploitation. In between are the desperate and depressed. who are offered “the cure.”
I understand all too well many (not all) Christians sincerely believe by “accepting Jesus into your heart” you can find meaning and purpose in life. Furthermore, you are given a new capacity for overcoming drug or alcohol addiction, loneliness, depression, fear, anxiety, hopelessness and much more. Some Christian preachers even promise financial success, sexual reorientation and career advancement. There is no shortage of promises which come with Jesus.
Just because faith works does not mean it’s true. Alcoholics Anonymous recognizes the importance of believing in a power greater than ourselves. Often we lack the personal confidence for victory but if we believe an outside source is helping and empowering us, the chances of overcoming obstacles improves dramatically: The stronger the belief, the greater the chance of succeeding.
As a side note: There are basically two types of evangelicals. Those who are in it for eternal life and don’t invest much by way of time, energy and especially money in their faith. And those who need and depend on God who are willing to make sacrifices as a show of immense gratitude for what Jesus has done for them. I was in this second group. The bulk of evangelicals are in the first group. They are content to play at Christianity just enough to assure them of going to heaven when they die. Sadly, they are the face of modern day evangelicalism in America.
Christianity is built entirely on the premise of eternal life and the truth of the resurrection of Jesus as the sole means of obtaining it. Paul addresses this dilemma in his classic passage of the resurrection.
12”But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
It does not get clearer than this. Paul is so dogmatic about the truth of the resurrection. So what is his proof of such a vital claim? To answer this we must go to the beginning of the chapter where he lists all those who have been eyewitnesses to Jesus resurrection.
3”For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance a : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared [‘horao’] to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
The word for “appeared” Paul uses is tricky to interpret. It can mean “see” with one’s eyes or mind. Think of Paul’s experience. He was physically blinded and unable to see (Acts 9:8,12,18), yet he describes himself as one to whom Jesus appeared. In Luke’s recounting of this event (three times), Paul’s experience is audible (“a voice,” rf. Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14). He will later describe this as “a vision” (see Acts 26:19) in Luke’s third recounting of the event.
In the second description of his encounter, Luke/Paul refer to “ a trance in which Paul “sees” Jesus.
17“When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance 18and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’” (Acts 22:17-18).
In a later blog, we will take a painstakingly detailed look at the four gospel accounts of the resurrection paying particular attention to the experiences of Jesus’ followers. Here when the text is put under close examination, it will be shown the records conflict on multiple issues which undermine their overall credibility. For now we will make a few general observations about those first “eyewitnesses.”
First, we are relying on the gospel records which were written by men decades removed from the resurrection. Second, without getting into literary criticism, it is highly unlikely any of the writers were Jesus’ disciples except perhaps the author of John’s gospel, but this is dubious at best. Third, we are at the mercy of those who were predisposed to persuade their readers Jesus was the heavenly Christ. Finally, it is doubtful any of the original sources were still alive including Mary Magdalene, Peter, John or Paul to authenticate these claims. And even if they were, there can be no doubt they experienced something of profound import which they would later be willing to die for!
Christian apologetics (another mandatory course in many Bible colleges) teaches a Christian how to defend the central tenets of Christianity against rational attack. One of the strongest arguments put forward by evangelicals concerning the resurrection is if it were false, why would the Apostles sacrifice their own lives for a lie? This defense collapses, however, when one examines Christian history.
There are no shortage of Christian martyrs past and present, none of which have actually seen Jesus. This doesn’t mean their experience whatever it may be is not as compelling as if they had seen Jesus in the flesh. Go back two thousand years to those who actually walked with Jesus and witnessed an empty tomb and the experience is exponentially magnified. This brings me to a central argument against the resurrection.
Mary is undoubtedly a key figure if not the key figure in the beginning of the resurrection story. According to Matthew, Mark and John, she is the first (!) to encounter Jesus. Were it not for her discovery of an empty tomb and subsequent report to the other disciples, Christianity would not exist.
Another vital element in all the gospel accounts is the them of doubt. This is perhaps the greatest indictment on the historicity of the resurrection. If Jesus had actually appeared in a physical body, doubt among his closest followers would be non existent. If, however, these encounters were of a spiritual visionary nature, dubiousness is understandable because you cannot transfer experience to another person. Imagine if you’re Peter trying to persuade Bartholomew that Jesus is in the room when he can’t see him. This perfectly explains Thomas’ doubt. If Jesus had appeared in bodily form to his disciples gathered in a room, there would be no doubt whatsoever. Questions would be asked, Jesus would be touched and most importantly, they would have remembered he promised to be resurrected and all doubt would be removed.
Also, Jesus’ appearances were extremely limited despite what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:6, “He appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at the same time.” If this event were historical, it would warrant mention some where. Such an happening would generate a spate of documents and most certainly have made it into profane historical records. But there does not exist a shred of evidence it occurred. The gospels which were written well after 1 Corinthians are silent. Acts more than any document should and would have recorded it, does not. Instead only a handful of passionately committed followers could attest to having some kind of experience with a glorified/spiritual Jesus. Luke describes the disciples as being “startled and frightened, thinking they had seen a ghost” (Luke 24:37) hardly what one would expect from a group who had been informed Jesus was going to rise from the dead and then seeing him before their eyes.
As will be reiterated throughout these posts, my working hypothesis is Christianity is experientialism. Experience is incredibly real and profound to the one having it. It does not, however, prove anything beyond the experience itself without independent corroborating incontestable evidence. A thousand people sharing a similar experience is meaningless unless observed, tested and verified objectively; otherwise, all religions which have ever existed are equally valid despite being contradictory, for instance, one god (Christianity) or many gods Hinduism, Greek mythology etc… ).
Christians will claim the Bible and history support their experience. This is why an in-depth study of the biblical text is so critical. It starts here not with experience no matter how compelling it may be.
FINAL NOTE TO READER: This work represents a fraction of a life time of research and study into the foundation of Christianity particularly Jesus the Messiah and evangelicalism. These posts are intended to start a conversation not end one. We are all at different places on the path to truth. As such, it is my desire to help facilitate an open discourse into the most important but as of yet unexplored topic of Biblical authority from a non Christian perspective. I fully appreciate how sensitive and emotional this to be. But like anything of importance, it is necessary to expose every detail surrounding the person of Jesus for evaluation regardless of the pain it may cause. At times the findings may appear callous but I can assure you my sole purpose is exposing logical inconsistencies, contradictions and incongruences. Again, I cannot over emphasize how much is at stake: personal rights and freedoms of non believers who have “different” ideas of morality, political stability home and abroad and the viability of the planet.
There is nothing to gain by hiding ones beliefs behind the wall of faith and refusing to expose them to the glaring and unforgiving light of rational inquiry. Consider for a moment if all of Christianity is false. Would you live and vote differently? Therefore, you owe it to yourself and the rest of society to make certain you have chosen correctly and intelligently. Blind faith is folly.