Thursday, April 28, 2011

A different perspective: ethics and arguments

Have you ever eaten a piece of fruit and looked at the seed, and thought about the possibilities before throwing it away? Have you ever looked at an orange or apple or cherry seed and thought, "If I planted this, and all the seeds that came from it, it could be a grove, an orchard, a forest"? How many trees could be grown with a seed's children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren? I have sometimes looked at a seed in a piece of fruit and imagined a whole countryside planted with its offspring, beautiful and thriving. A seed thrown away has killed a forest that might have been.

I don't think it's possible to understand the Roman Catholic views on birth control without seeing humanity in the same way: good, and thriving, and full of possibility with each new birth.

I'm not here to convince anyone of the Roman Catholic views of birth control. I'm here to say: if we haven't really listened to each other, there are thoughts we might never have. (I sometimes wonder if thoughts are the same way. The seed of an idea, given time, might produce a great many other ideas. But if we don't listen ... if we throw it away ... our hard-heartedness and habitual disrespect might cause us to miss out on a whole forest of ideas. And on a whole forest of friends, while we're on the subject.)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Christ is risen!

You will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see decay. (Psalm 16:10)
There is ultimately only one hope for us: that God raises the dead. There is one key event in the history of the world that shows us we are not abandoned, not forsaken.

Today, of all days, we see the reason for the hope that we have.

Christ is risen.

Friday, April 22, 2011

My God, why have you forsaken me?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? - Jesus, on the cross
This year it is an especially urgent, focused question for me. This year, one thing weighs heavily on my mind: How do I offer support to someone who is asking that exact question? Someone I have known for a long time, but has always been skittish about church, has told me why: He blames God for his abuse during his early years at the hands of a vicious and sadistic parent. I will not go into details, but I will say: This is Good Friday, the day we look evil and human brokenness in the face. This grown man -- once a helpless child -- only had one question: Why had God forsaken him? If God protects us, why hadn't God protected him?

I know Jesus was much in the same situation: Innocent, but treated like dirt. Had the hatred of the hateful taken out on him, and blamed on him as if he had somehow caused it. Attacked and beaten without apology by those who thought they had right on their side. And not protected from it by God. Though with Jesus, at least, there was a greater good being accomplished, and for that he consented. As for the rest of us -- I have not heard of a greater good being accomplished by our being mistreated.

Of course this man blames the vicious and sadistic parent first of all. But he also blames his father, who didn't protect him as far as he can tell. And he also blames God, who didn't protect him as far as he can tell. Is it because he was "a worm and not a man", not worth protecting? "Worm" is probably kinder than anything his abuser called him.

For my own part, I have been on the receiving end of serious and intentional harm, too. And that's far from the whole of the evil I've received in this world. So I have struggled with similar questions. I expect many of us have struggled with that question: My God, why have you forsaken me?

I never did find an answer to the question, "Why have you forsaken me?" But I did find a willingness to trust Jesus, and then hope through him. It's because of Jesus that I know that suffering is not a sign that God has no love for us. It's because of Jesus that I know there is hope even after suffering injustice, brutality, and evil like that. And this hope is because of God's goodness.

It is God's goodness that makes it even more difficult to understand the evil around us.

May Jesus be blessed for joining the helpless, the despised, and the powerless. Without him, what hope would there be?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Cross: Challenging how we think about God

One of my Sunday school classes once told me that God was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnivorous. They were teenagers, and the big words confused the less bookish among them; they meant "omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent" like the philosophers of religion have long said. They were telling me, they thought, what I wanted to hear. But where exactly did they get those ideas about God?
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the philosophers. - Blaise Pascal
I have heard it taught that if God ever stopped being omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent, he would not truly be God. I have heard it said that God is the being such that it is impossible to imagine a greater being. Who knows; that may be true, but the Bible does not say that. The Bible teaches us of a God who creates, a God who adopts a people, a God who acts to save humanity from our own wretchedness. The philosophers are interested in "omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent"; the Bible is not too interested in that. To construct that God, someone had to be looking for those attributes and chase down texts from which they could be deduced. The Bible is interested in God's faithfulness, his mercy, his compassion, and his love. If we're looking at what the Bible teaches about God, those are the plainer things.

This brings us to the cross. This week, Holy Week, we who follow Jesus face the heart of our faith: Jesus' radical challenge to our man-made ideas about God's glory. If God is defined as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent -- and immortal, while we're on the subject -- then that guy dying on the cross can have nothing to do with our ideas about God. And the philosophers who follow Christ often hurry to protect their glorious hypothetical idols from the threat of the reality of Jesus' cross.

What is essential to God's being? What is God's real nature? Is it "omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent" -- or is it his overwhelming love for his people? Which is the real nature of God, and which is just accidental and could have been otherwise? If Jesus' birth did not answer the question clearly enough, his execution does. The cross says that the essential part of being God is not being omnimax -- power without limit, knowledge without limit, presence without limit. The cross says that the essential part of being God is love without limit. Even to the extent of giving up the power, and the immortality, to reach a weak and dying world.

For those who are interested in philosophy: Yes, without getting into technical jargon in the main post, I am questioning whether the essence of God involves his omnimax characteristics, or whether those are what the philosophers would call "accidents" -- non-essential traits that might have been otherwise, that can be lost without really altering the nature of things. Or to be more exact, I think the cross -- the necessary end of the incarnation -- challenges whether the omnimax characteristics are really essential to what it means to be God. If God intends to reveal himself to the world through Jesus, then God means that who he really is can be revealed better in the cross than in another way. And if we look elsewhere for the glory of God, we do it at the expense of what God wanted to show us.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Alternative Explanations for the Resurrection?

This is the final installment of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73.

Mr. Martin argues that it is not necessary for him to provide an alternative explanation for the historical evidence of the resurrection. But during his writing about other explanations, he placed a precise mathematical figure on the probability of alternative explanations. How is it possible to calculate an exact mathematical probability value for another theory without having any specific alternative theory in mind? How can anyone else assess whether that probability figure is valid? As someone I know has jokingly said, "86.7234% of all statistics are made up on the spot." Without any basis for the figures that Martin quotes, his numbers will inevitably seem to be of this sort. The precise mathematical values seem hollow, if not downright misleading, when there are no supporting details given to show their basis.

It is also necessary that those who reject the resurrection at least look at alternative theories for this simple reason: if someone claims that some alternative explanation for the facts is more likely, that claim depends entirely on there being an alternative explanation for the facts in the first place. For some types of miracles such as a mysterious healing, the facts can be explained in various ways: the fact that first someone was sick, and then someone was well, could be explained by natural causes. Even in cases where no cure is known for a disease, it may yet be possible (in theory) that a naturalistic explanation exists but has not yet been discovered.

In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the facts include that first he was dead – having been executed in public – and buried, then three days later he was alive again. Naturalistic explanations may be imagined for healing miracles, but at the point of death, nature no longer works to restore health. There is no natural process that restores the dead to life; that’s why naturalists’ insistence on opposing the resurrection is so strong.

There is only one explanation of the facts that he was dead before, then alive after: he was raised from the dead. All the alternative explanations of the facts are not actually alternative explanations of the facts, but selective denial of the facts. Some alternative explanations deny that Jesus died in the first place, such as the swoon theory. Some alternative explanations deny that he was alive afterwards, such as the stolen body theory, or the theory of mass hallucinations by the disciples.

The evidence that Jesus was seen alive again is strong enough to prompt opponents of Christianity to create theories in which Jesus never died; the skeptical community attests to the strength of the evidence for Jesus being alive whenever they argue for the swoon theory. The evidence that the tomb was empty is strong enough to prompt opponents to create a theory of a stolen body to explain it; the skeptical community attests to the strength of the evidence for the empty tomb whenever they argue for the stolen body theory. The evidence that many people did in fact see Jesus alive is strong enough to prompt opponents to create a theory of extended, shared hallucinations to explain it.

All of these alternative theories have something in common: they resort to altering the facts which they are supposed to explain. As such, they do not fully count as alternative explanations of the facts, besides being unlikely themselves. The swoon theory denies Jesus’ death; the stolen body theory denies the post-resurrection appearances; the mass-hallucination theory may explain Jesus' post-resurrection appearances but denies the reality of the empty tomb, something any of Jesus' highly-motivated opponents could have easily checked.

These are examples of the risk discussed earlier: when someone assumes it is always irrational to believe in a miracle, even granted that miracles are possible, then this anti-miracle view will necessarily lead to denial of facts or distortion of reality in the face of an actual miracle. Martin himself stops short of Hume's "always irrational" view of miracles, and stops short of the far-fetched theories which try to provide alternate explanations for the facts. But he does this at a cost: he has no viable alternative explanation, which is required for his assertion that there is a hypothetical alternative explanation that is far more probable than Jesus' resurrection. In how many arguments could someone claim that they have won because their explanation is more probable, but not have to provide that explanation? It would be like playing a poker game, and a person claims to have the winning hand; would anyone believe it if he refuses to show?

Rather than putting any hypothetical alternative explanation to the test so that someone else could evaluate his claim that it is far more probable, he wants that evaluation to be made simply on the fact that the resurrection is a miracle so something else must be considered more probable even if it happened. He wants his readers to follow his argument to deny the resurrection even if it is true, simply because it is a miracle. Granted it is a miracle; but if it is true, would you really want to deny it?

Is it really possible that everyone who claimed Jesus to be dead was mistaken about it, from those who watched him breathe his last, to the executioner who pierced his side to make sure of his death, to those who pried him off the cross, wrapped him in a cloth and laid him in the tomb? No, it is not; we can be certain of his death when he was buried. Is it really possible that everyone who claimed Jesus to be alive on the third day and after was mistaken about it, from the women outside the tomb to the close friends who gave him dinner the first night, the same who saw him come back again to show his wounds as proof to Thomas, those same close friends who cooked broiled fish with him by the lake, to Jesus’ brother who had been skeptical before but afterwards became a leader in the church? No, it is not; we can be certain of his life. There is only one explanation that explains the facts rather than denies them: Jesus rose from the dead.


I appreciate the job that Mr. Martin has done in setting out a number of different lines of thought that bear on peoples’ perceptions of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. I believe his most valuable contribution to the discussion is actually choosing a relevant topic: he gets to the heart of the matter when he asks whether it is likely, whether we can really believe it, rather than arguing about endless side issues as is sometimes done. He added much to the conversation by acknowledging the importance of God’s purpose, and by his recognition that miracles can have value as a sign.

The omissions of Mr. Martin’s article are not unique to him, and I would not wish to fault specifically him for them. It is typical that non-Christians, assessing the probability of the resurrection, do not take into account the solidness of evidence for earlier miracle claims associated with Jesus and do not consider that when thinking about the resurrection. It is also typical that non-Christians do not take into account how few people have been founders of major religions when considering the probability of Jesus’ resurrection; it is typically assessed no differently than the probability of my next-door-neighbor’s resurrection. Again, it is typical that non-Christians' grasp of atonement is incomplete, and this mainly because it is a large subject with many aspects, where any one given explanation is almost sure to be incomplete by itself.

However, the historical evidence is solid, and God has clear reasons to raise Jesus from the dead as outlined previously. This puts the resurrection of Jesus on solidly trustworthy ground. While disputes against Jesus' resurrection will no doubt continue, it is largely a dispute waged against the evidence, fueled on the one hand by those who oppose the idea of Jesus’ uniqueness in God’s purposes, and on the other hand by those who have not yet ventured to hope that God would truly do what so many have asked all along: give a clear sign that this world is not all there is, that he has not abandoned us to the grave, and that he will raise us up at the last day. I'm concerned whether an amateur like myself has given a good enough account, but I hope I have shown why Christians hold to the certainty of Jesus' resurrection.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

No Trustworthy Accounts of Jesus After the Resurrection?

This is the next-to-last installment of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73.

Martin makes a series of interrelated claims about the New Testament records of Jesus’ resurrection. He claims that there were no contemporary eyewitness reports of seeing Jesus after the resurrection other than Paul and that the other "alleged" eyewitnesses who saw Jesus after the resurrection may not have been reliable and trustworthy. From there he continues to multiply layers, that those who heard the eyewitnesses and passed on their reports may not have been reliable and trustworthy, and that those who recorded the accounts (supposedly third-hand) may not have been reliable and trustworthy. How do Mr. Martin's claims hold up against what we know? We will quickly review the history of the four gospels.

John: Its own value and the added value of the appendix

To begin with, there are not so many layers between the resurrection and our most direct account of it as Mr. Martin suggests. No matter your view of which person is "the disciple whom Jesus loved", the main author of the Gospel According to John, this person still claims to have seen the risen Jesus in person on more than one occasion, each time with a number of Jesus’ other disciples also present. The author claims that he himself had eaten with Jesus and spoken with Jesus on a number of occasions after Jesus was raised from the dead.

There is an interesting claim that certain people make about the Gospel of John, which is that John cannot have written it -- or that it had been "tampered with" -- because there is a separate part at the end, apparently an appendix of sorts, and it includes the comment "we know that his (the author’s) testimony is true." From this, the speculation begins about revisions and late dates. But there is an equally interesting history about the Gospel of John and how it was written. According to an ancient list of authoritative Christian writings, the Muratorian canon or Muratorian fragment, the Gospel of John involved a number of Jesus’ surviving disciples:
The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John in his own name should write down everything and that they should all revise it.
While the date of the Muratorian Canon (like everything else involving Jesus) is disputed, the document makes references to events from the mid-100's C.E. as happening "quite recently, in our own time" -- so the most likely date for the Muratorian Canon will remain in the second half of the 100's C.E. The "mystery appendix" to the Gospel of John is actually part of the known history of the document and not an unknown addition. We have separate confirmation of what the document itself tells us, that it was reviewed by other people. In this light, the book’s comment "we know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24) has support for what it claims to be: the confirmation of other eyewitnesses that it happened just as recorded. Contrary to the common skeptical view that the Gospel of John is to be taken less seriously than the other gospels because of its later date and "appendix", instead we have here, even in the latest of the accounts, a strong and direct claim to first-hand material, with support from more than one source that this material had been reviewed and confirmed by other witnesses.

Mark: Traveling companion to Peter, known to other disciples of Jesus

The Gospel of Mark is often lightly dismissed because Mark himself was not a disciple of Jesus. But Mark was a disciple of Simon Peter, the leader among Jesus’ followers and privileged to be with Jesus on certain special occasions when only a few of the disciples were present. Mark was known to have traveled with Simon Peter – see 1 Peter 5:13, where Simon Peter writes a greeting to his readers from Mark. He also here refers to Mark as "son". It was common to call someone "son" if there was a close relationship such as a spiritual mentorship, and this is the usual understanding of the relationship between Peter and Mark. It is against this background, that Peter and Mark were close, and that Mark traveled with Peter, that we can see the implications of our histories of how the Gospel of Mark came to be written.

But was Mark's gospel ever read by those who had known Jesus? Here the early writer Papias quotes what he learned from one of Jesus' disciples, here called the "elder" or "presbyter":
The presbyter used to say, 'Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he [Mark] had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teachings to the occasion without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard and to make no misstatement about it.' -- Papias, quote preserved in Eusebius' History 3:39
Note that this early quote, preserved in Eusebius' History, records one of Jesus' disciples approving Mark's diligence and the contents (if not the sequence) of Mark's writings. So here the person who has written the accounts is not far-removed from true knowledge, but someone who wants to leave an accurate record of what he heard from his mentor, who in this case was Peter, among the best sources of information available regarding Jesus.

Luke: Diligent researcher who met with eyewitnesses

Of other early Christian records, much is made of the possibility of Luke borrowing from Mark. We have good reason to believe that they met and knew each other; consider verse 24 of Philemon, in which Paul mentions both Luke and Mark among his fellow-workers, probably part of the Christian community in early Rome. But we also have good reason to believe that Luke traveled with Paul. There are sections of the Book of Acts in which the author lists himself as part of the action, saying that "we" did this or that, suggesting that the writer was, at that time, traveling with Paul. Luke had been to Jerusalem with Paul and met some of the key figures of ancient Christianity, including some of the eyewitnesses of the resurrection such as Jesus’ brother Jacob ("James").
When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present" (Luke, in Acts 21:17-18).
So Luke is known to have personally met some of those who knew Jesus directly. His writings explain how he has made every effort to write an orderly and well-researched account of Jesus’ life. Again, we do not have some supposedly untrustworthy and far-removed source, but a conscientious person who knows the value of being accurate and talking to the original sources, as he says, "Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:3-4)

Matthew: A complex history but a useful source

Probably the most controversial authorship for the records of Jesus’ life is the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew. The early church records are unanimous that it was written by Matthew (also known as Levi), one of Jesus’ twelve closest disciples, and that it was written in "the Hebrew tongue" for the benefit of Jewish Christians. At some point early in church history, the book underwent at least a translation; the traditional text we follow now is in Greek. The authorship question arises because of textual comparisons: certain sections of Mark’s account and certain sections of Matthew’s are nearly identical.

The different sides of the dispute have made claims ranging from that Matthew had never seen any of the material in Mark (which seems unlikely) to that Matthew "slavishly followed" Mark, which is at least a serious overstatement based on the documents we have before us. Whatever relationship there may be between specific accounts, the majority of material in Matthew is not found in Mark, some of the material in Mark is not found in Matthew either, and a number of the accounts found in both documents are in different order or vary in certain details. There are some instances where the accounts preserved in Matthew appear to be older than the corresponding accounts in Mark, and some vice versa where the accounts in Mark appear to be older than those in Matthew. There is plenty of textual material to occupy the scholars for some time.

While the debate is far from over about the exact relationship between the material in Matthew and Mark, the amount of independent material in Matthew is enough to make it a worthwhile source in its own right regardless of the outcome of that discussion. It seems an overreaction to rule out Matthew’s involvement solely on the basis of shared sections between Matthew and Mark, though of course any particular piece of information would not count as coming from two separate sources in cases where those accounts are shown to share a common source.

Closing words on the accounts in the gospels

What is left of Martin’s general claims about the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection? Not much. We have first-hand accounts from people who themselves saw Jesus after his resurrection. For most documents we have a reasonably clear picture of who wrote them and how the authors got their information. The authors showed themselves to be careful and earnest in what they recorded. We have records showing that the documents were written early enough that a number of eyewitnesses were still on the scene commenting, giving information, or even (in the case of the Gospel of John) adding notes vouching for the reliability of the reports.

Beyond that, there are even more basic reasons why many people, reading the gospels, believe them: writers who are basically honest do not make up things like that. Writers who are basically sane are not wrong on that level for that length of time about what they see. The gospels come across as having been written by people who are, like most people, basically sane and honest. It is difficult to believe that all of these authors were entirely wrong about everything important in their writings. Leaving aside questions of "infallibility", if the authors were merely sane, honest, and reasonably careful, then what they have recorded is of monumental importance.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"No Eyewitnesses to the Resurrection"?

This is a continuation of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73.

In recent years, I have heard people make the claim that there were "no eyewitnesses to the resurrection". Mr. Martin also makes that claim. This claim is common enough among skeptics, but it is misleading.

The "no eyewitnesses" claim is, if you think about it, spectacularly wrong. One of the earliest written accounts of the events, recorded by Paul in his first letter to the people of Corinth, mentions that there were over 500 eyewitnesses. Later, more detailed accounts mention appearances where Jesus spoke with people -- some of the conversations are recorded for us -- and even ate with people after rising from the dead. Even the latest written account that appears in the New Testament is written by someone who personally claims to have been an eyewitness of Jesus' resurrection himself, to have talked with Jesus on a number of occasions after he rose from the dead.

So how do skeptics make so bold as to claim that there were no eyewitnesses to the resurrection? It seems to be a bit of a sleight-of-hand: Are we discussing the event of the resurrection - the precise moment when Jesus became alive again inside the tomb - or the enduring fact of the resurrection: that Jesus was alive again? No one else was in the tomb with Jesus when he rose from the dead, but many people saw him alive afterwards. The fact that they were not in the tomb at the moment when Jesus rose to life again does not invalidate their testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead. They remain eyewitnesses to the fact of the resurrection, if not the event of the exact first moment of the resurrection.

To take the example from the other side, if nobody had seen Lincoln assassinated, but many had seen him later dead, it would be nonsense to claim that there were no eyewitnesses to Lincoln’s death and imply that therefore he might be alive. Lincoln’s death was an event, but also an enduring fact; anyone who saw Lincoln dead was a valid eyewitness of the fact of his death, if not the event of his death. They may not be able to say, "I saw him die," but they can say, "I saw him dead." They are witnesses of the fact of his death.

So with Jesus, the many who saw him alive again are eyewitnesses of the fact of his resurrection, if not the event of his return to life inside the tomb. They may not be able to say, "I saw him begin to breathe again, saw him draw the first breath of his new life and take off the funeral shroud," but they can say, "I saw him alive." They may not be able to say, "I saw him rise," but then can say, "I saw him risen." They are witnesses of the fact of his resurrection, and there were many of them.

I would give Mr. Martin the benefit of the doubt as to whether he was misleading deliberately; it could have been accidental ambiguity. Still, the claim that "there were no eyewitnesses of the resurrection" is misleading, bordering on deceptive; in fact many people saw Jesus alive again and were eyewitnesses of the resurrection in a very real and factual sense.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Atonement and Forgiveness

This is a continuation of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73.

Here I would like to quickly review the two complaints Mr. Martin specifically mentioned about various views of atonement: "that they either fail to explain why God sacrificed His Son for the salvation of sinners or else make the sacrifice seem arbitrary."

When we look at our own guilt for various things we have done, we know that our simple regret – as genuine and miserable as it may be – neither works to destroy the evil that is in us nor satisfies those we have wronged. While on the surface the idea seems attractive that God might forgive us without any punishment, if that had been the case then we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not really that serious. And we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not very serious based on what (in that case) would have been fact – that God simply shrugged and forgave. Now, shrugging and forgiving may be fine for a small and accidental thing where no real harm was meant and no real harm was done. But there is a lot worse going on in this world than small and accidental things, and a notable percentage of people are involved at least sometimes in these more destructive and more deliberate wrongs.

Given that God has the power to heal all the harm done and restore peace and cleanness to all the souls (both the wrongdoer and the wronged), it would be arbitrary if God chose a line of badness and said "beyond this, I will not forgive." But what if God opens his power for all people who turn to him, not just those who were not that bad in the first place? (I expect that many who read this may not suspect that there is much wrong within their own souls, so I write as to those who consider "the worst of sinners" to be someone else. Those of us who follow the example of Paul should hesitate to think that the worst of sinners is anyone but ourselves, as Paul said of himself.)

If God only forgave those who were not so bad in the first place, then how could we escape the view that he saved those who were good enough? How could we deny that they owed their forgiveness in part to their own goodness – or worse, to their superiority over those who were lost – as much as to God’s mercy? But if God was willing to redeem anyone, no matter how serious the offense, then how would could we keep any idea of justice, that thing had genuinely been wrong? If God chose to merely overlook a sin, no matter how serious, then what about the harm that had been done and the vileness of some of the actions that were forgiven?

So we begin to look at justice rather than merely overlooking the wrong. What is the worst punishment that justice can ask? There is no crime for which justice may ask a worse punishment than death, especially the slow and painful death of the cross. Jesus’ punishment – the extreme punishment of death, reserved for the worst of crimes – is sufficient to satisfy justice for the most serious of offenses. In this way our atonement has left no doubt that the wrongs being atoned are not a slight matter but are in fact dreadful. In this way our fear is quieted as to whether our particular sin is beyond the price that was paid. In this way our atonement increases the disgust for wrongdoing, rather than decreasing it, in those who understand their forgiveness.

The question implied at one point of Martin’s article is, "Why Jesus? Why the Son of God?" First, it would need to be someone sinless; otherwise we could never be certain that this person did not simply pay for his own crimes. Notice also that the atonement would leave us in the unique debt of the one who atoned for us, as much to that one as to God. It is fitting that the payment should be taken on by God himself. If our debt had not been taken by God himself, then we would have had cause to honor another as much as God, and cause to doubt God’s love of us, if he had created us but left it to someone else to redeem us. In providing for all wrongdoers, our atonement makes plain that we are indebted to God’s goodness rather than our own. It demolishes boasting about our own goodness and restores us to humility; all alike are in need of mercy. And in God’s providing atonement himself, our atonement restores our trust in God rather than sending us to look elsewhere for our redemption.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Atonement Theories; What does atonement do?

This continues a response to Michael Martin, previously posted at CADRE Comments in spring of 2005.We have already looked at the resurrection's value as a sign; this value alone is enough reason for the resurrection to have occurred. But the matter of our atonement still needs to be discussed because of the resurrection’s role in it. Martin, oddly enough, discusses in detail only Origen’s primitive ransom theory -- a view that Jesus supposedly paid a ransom due to the devil, a theory which is not fully Scriptural. Martin passes over other theories of atonement just by listing a number of them and giving a blanket statement that he finds "all the historically important theories" do not explain some aspect of the atonement to his satisfaction, referencing his book The Case Against Christianity.

This response will not review every theory of atonement or respond to an entire book. For the moment, let us give Martin the benefit of the doubt and suppose that with every given theory of atonement, he has found some major point that is not addressed by that theory. But in his approach of taking each theory of atonement singly as if it could and should stand alone, it seems likely that Mr. Martin does not appreciate that the different theories of atonement are complementary. That is to say, the different theories do not necessarily compete with each other but instead work together to explain different aspects of our atonement.

On a Christian view, the whole of atonement requires a number of things. Here are some things that atonement involves:
  • satisfying both justice and mercy
  • causing us to despise evil
  • humbling us
  • leading us to trust in God by demonstrating God's trustworthiness
  • cleansing us from the stain of past sin
  • cleansing us from corruption and the desire to sin
  • establishing a covenant (binding agreement) between us and God as the basis for becoming God's people
  • planting the beginnings of eternal life inside us
  • making us children of God
On a Christian view, accomplishing all that involves Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot going on with the atonement. It is not a legitimate complaint to take one theory that explains one thing in particular, and dismiss it because it does not explain something else. It was probably never intended to. For example, Martin mentions the Christus Victor theory – that Jesus has won victory over the adversaries of mankind (for example, death). Given the sign value of the resurrection, the resurrection makes it plain that Jesus has won the victory over death; this is most certainly true. That one theory does not address a number of other points that need to be discussed, but that does not make it untrue. It makes it only one part of the whole picture.

Athanasius, a prominent early Christian writer, wrote a great work on atonement that is still studied today, On the Incarnation of the Word of God. In it, he refers to a number of different theories of atonement and different aspects of atonement; he does not confine himself to an either-or view of atonement theories. Mr. Martin's blanket dismissal of all atonement theories rests on a view that one view of atonement should be the whole picture, and is not allowed to be only a part of a bigger picture. My response here is that the only thing required is a simple change of perspective: the atonement accomplishes more than one theory may discuss, and it's appropriate to discuss them separately.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

God's Law: The Siege Mentality

I thought a few days' time might make me willing to pick up my former series; but as it's a favorite old article of mine I've decided that I want an actual post separating it from my usual 4/1 fooling around. The series will continue next post. In the meantime ...

Our ladies' Bible study group recently studied the Song of Solomon, a poem containing a love story between a man and a woman. I noticed a large percentage of the Bible study was spent focusing on whether the man and woman were married at each different point in the story. The poem itself wasn't focused on that; it was mainly focused on how human love is a part of the big picture of the beauty and fertility of creation, and how right it is to celebrate that. But the Bible study didn't focus on that at all. As a Bible study, it was obligated to focus on the question of whether they were married at each stage ... wasn't it? (For the record: I think that Bible study distorted the teachings of the Bible by focusing on something other than the point the author was trying to make.)

Some people look at the Law of God as a fortress against evil, a stronghold against the attacks of the fallen world. I suppose it is that. Some use it to keep out sin, or to recognize sinners. Those who have tossed aside the law have shown us clearly that without the law's support and protection, peoples' lives -- and whole societies -- become trampled and broken. Some use the law to train people in righteousness -- in particular, learning to choose the ethical and refuse the evil.

But what if that law -- as necessary and good as it is -- is not actually the point of righteousness? If the law is meant as a hedge around us, to make our lives safe and to help our souls flourish, if the law is meant to protect our souls as a wall or a fence protects a garden -- then the point of the wall isn't to have a wall; the fence is not there for its own sake. The point of the fence is to have a garden. We can build the biggest, strongest, most prominent walls, we can fortify it and make it strong in every way we can imagine. And if we spend all our time on the wall, and forget to plant and tend the garden, then we have missed the purpose. We may have the most impressive wall or fence, but it may protect a wasteland.

The more we have something growing, something thriving -- love, for example, or compassion -- the more we'll understand the point of the fence.

Friday, April 01, 2011

New anti-terrorism measures on airplanes

The Department of Homeland Security is reviewing additional precautions for domestic and international flights. Frequent flyers are already familiar with routine air travel procedures: "There are emergency exits over the wings. In case of sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. In the event of a water landing, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device," and so on. Proposed for this spring is a new anti-terrorism measure: "In the event of a hijacking or other terrorist attack, your tray table may be detached and used as a shield or a bludgeoning device. After reattaching, please return your tray tables to a full upright and locked position."

The Transportation Safety Agency has considered this as an alternative to a proposal in which, rather than removing all potential weapons from travelers, instead each adult traveler would be provided with a fully charged taser so that the sneakiest or most dangerous person is not the only armed traveler aboard a flight.

The measures are under consideration as part of Airline Procedural Review #1 (APR-1).

Fighting Speciesism On Earth Day

Speciesism is defined as discrimination in favor of one species (usually humans). It is considered by some in the animal rights community to be no different than racism or sexism. To that end, international environmental organizations -- formerly comprised entirely of humans -- are being asked to diversify their membership and include representatives of other species in their leadership and decision-making processes. "Anything less is just giving lip-service to the idea that all species are inherently equal," explained one activist. "It denies the most basic tenets of animal dignity and pride. Until they practice what they preach, they cannot be taken seriously," said the spokes-being. (Although the speaker happened to be human, he preferred the term "spokes-being" over the antiquated and biased term "spokesman" with its speciesist presumption of human leadership.)

Another spokes-being of the Animal Empowerment movement explained, "Ideally, we hope to reach a stage in which each phylum or class of animals would receive representation so that true biodiversity could be achieved in our decision-making process. In fact, there's no guarantee that the representative of phylum Chordata or of class Mammalia would be human. It's arrogant of us to assume that position for ourselves. We're making decisions that affect every species on the planet. We could envision a day in which these global environmental meetings took place without human representation." The initial goals are more modest: to select Animal Parliament Representatives for a first meeting (APR-1), tentatively scheduled for Earth Day in Geneva, Switzerland.