Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Will the real Messiah please arise

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, christian faith

The apostle Paul, speaking on Mars' Hill in Athens, was just warming to his subject: "...For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." (Acts 17:31-32)

Every message the Apostles spoke, as recorded in Acts, refers to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is a constant theme mentioned in nearly every Epistle, and the Gospels record that Jesus told his disciples beforehand, on at least three occasions, that he would die and be raised.

Many years ago, I shared many things with a classmate in graduate school, an atheist. We could discuss anything with relative equanimity, but when I spoke of the resurrection, his outraged response was, "Do you really believe that?!?" In time, he also believed, and is an active Christian to this day.

Nothing has changed in about 1,975 years. Huge amounts of energy are being spent, in the form of scholarship, publishing, public speaking and debates, in an effort to dissuade people from believing the Bible, or Jesus, or His resurrection. The resurrection gets the most attention, because, as Paul said, it is God's proof that Jesus is our redeemer and is to be our Judge.

Stripped down to essentials, the conclusion of the Gospel message is this: In yourself, you know you cannot afford the penalty for sin. You need a redeemer. Jesus is the redeemer. He died to pay the penalty for you. He resurrected to prove the power of His redemption. He is also the Judge, and his resurrection also indicates his appointment to judge all who have not accepted His redemption.

Some may think, if they stand before God one day, they can say, "You don't know how it is, being human. Life is hard. Temptation is strong. You can't hold me to your standard." But when they look at the Judge, they will see the Son of Man, with the wounds still visible in his hands, and know that He can say, "I am as human as you are. I was tempted in every way that you were, and more besides. These wounds paid for your sin, and bought you forgiveness, which you rejected. Now it it too late."

When it comes down to it, "atheists" are actually "anti-theists". They know that any righteous God will not agree with many things in their life; they know that morality is not relative, and that they are sinful (Those who have no such feeling are psychopaths). Preferring to run their own life, they deny the existence of any god. Their unbelief does not make God nonexistent, and the anger they exhibit when reminded of God shows that their conscience disagrees with their conclusion.

Lee Strobel was once an atheist. Educated in journalism and law, working as a journalist and legal editor, he embarked on an investigative journalism project, to determine what is the objective evidence for Jesus and His claims to be the Christ and the Redeemer. In 1981 he became a believer, and his studies eventually led to The Case for Christ.

Now, as a new tide of anti-Jesus publishing and rhetoric grows, he has investigated the worth of the attacks against Christian beliefs. In The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ, he focuses on six challenges to faith.

It should come as no surprise that he concludes these challenges are without merit. Given his character and educational background, however, he didn't simply set up straw men to be napalmed at leisure. Rather, he gathered the strongest and best arguments made in each area, and in interviews with the most renowned scholars in each area, he has challenged them with the anti-faith material and reported their responses. It is compelling reading, indeed.

The book closes with a summary, wrapping up the six facets of the case. I could cop out and copy those two pages here, but instead, I'll present a shorter summary. After all, it really is best that you read Strobel for yourself.
  • Challenge #1 Scholars are uncovering a radically different Jesus in ancient documents just as credible as the four Gospels. Actually, I've read most of this "credible" material; it is incredible. The Gospels by Matthew and John were written by men who traveled with Jesus for more than three years and witnessed him in resurrection. Luke was written from interviews with eyewitnesses, and Mark was written from messages and stories told by Peter to Mark or in his presence. All the other "Gospels" (of Thomas or Mary or Judas) were written at least two or three generations later, and attributed falsely to people already dead for fifty to 150 years. If the attribution is a lie, what about the content?
  • Challenge #2 The Bible's portrait of Jesus can't be trusted because the church tampered with the text. I have on my desk A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament by Bruce M. Metzger. This 775-page volume discusses every textual point of controversy encountered by those who produced the Third Edition of the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament. I got it at the recommendation of Bart Ehrman, a "former evangelical", now an apostate. He claims there are hundreds of thousands of variations between New Testament manuscripts, a product of inflated attribution: If 500 manuscripts record "He said" and 400 record "He says", Bart counts 400 "differences", where a manuscript scholar would count one. Nearly all experts in Bible manuscripts, believer and skeptic alike, agree that all but a very few manuscript variations are minor and don't alter the sense of the passage. Not even the more major variations produce a text that denies the divinity of Jesus, His resurrection, or the effectiveness of His redemption. My own studies bear this out. The fact is, we have better manuscript support for the New Testament than we have for any of the Greek plays or biographies. We have documents produced by people who saw Jesus, alive, dead, and alive again. The oldest biography of Alexander the Great was written 300 years after he died (and stayed dead).
  • Challenge #3 New Explanations have refuted Jesus' resurrection. What explanations? If God exists, He is able to do things none of our science can account for. If He does not, then there could not have been a resurrection. There are five facts that go together on this subject, that are among the most well-established facts of history: Jesus died by crucifixion; his disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them (note, this belief is the historical fact here); Saul the persecutor of the church was converted and became Paul the apostle by encountering the risen Christ; Jesus' half brother James, initially a skeptic, was also converted by meeting Christ in resurrection; and all, friendly and hostile witness alike, attested that His tomb was empty (the religious leaders paid a high bribe to persuade the guards of the tomb to testify that they'd fallen asleep, which was a capital offense).
  • Challenge #4 Christianity's beliefs about Jesus were copied from pagan religions.It was shown a century ago that the pagan religions had no elements resembling the redemption and resurrection of Jesus, until the second Century AD or later; if anything, they were the plagiarists. Now that those books are out of print, ignorant scholars are reincarnating old, discredited news.
  • Challenge #5 Jesus was an imposter who failed to fulfill the Messianic prophecies. This again hinges on the resurrection. If Jesus is still dead, he is a shameful failure. By rising from the dead, he turned a supposed failure into the greatest of triumphs, proving that He and He alone is the Redeemer and Judge. There are a couple hundred statements in the Old Testament that are considered to be Messianic prophecies by the Jewish scholars who wrote the Talmud. Of those which had to be fulfilled while the temple was in existence, every one is shown to be fulfilled by Jesus. A somewhat smaller number remain to be fulfilled, and much of the New Testament contains supporting predictions that they will be fulfilled when Jesus returns in a "second coming" to Christians, and as "the one whom they pierced" to the Jews.
  • Challenge #6 People should be fre to pick and choose what to believe about Jesus. This is as good a definition as any of syncretism, which I call "Adding a nicey-nice Jesus to your bag of tricks." Jesus in the Bible spoke of sin and judgment, and warned of hell, about as often as he spoke of love and compassion. He is no milquetoast! Yet it is quite strange that the "Jesus" believed in by syncretists would never do or say something so gauche. Moral relativism and historical revisionism have been around for thousands of years. I once said to someone who said sex should be 'totally free', "OK, will you send your little daughter to my house to spend the night? I'd like a 'comfort companion'." His reaction proved that morality isn't relative. I suspect he was equally uninterested in anyone taking "comfort" from his older, adult daughter, or his wife.
The multitudes that are taken in by the sloppy historical thinking embodied in these challenges simply points up the educational crisis. If people were simply educated—a single day would do it—in the basic criteria of historical credibility, they would be harder to deceive, whether by clever politicians or amoral apologists.

Lee Strobel is an effective apologist for Christian faith. See his web site for a video-rich perusal of these issues and more.

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