Monday, April 30, 2007

Church and Restoration

Yesterday, my pastor, Ken Wytsma, directed us to the descriptions (in Acts 2, Galatians, and other places) of the early churches. Unlike many modern Christians, his point was not that these early churches are a perfect model for us to follow. Indeed, his minor thesis was that even the very first followers of Christ--the very first examples of local bodies of Christ--were imperfect (their specific flaws included such things as incest and legalism). Thus it is invalid to say that because the modern local church is flawed, we have no reason to associate with it. (Pastor Ken's major thesis was that the local church is God's Plan A for followers of Christ and that God has no Plan B.)

But since many well-meaning Christians do tend to cite the early churches as an ideal toward which we ought to strive, I thought I'd interact with this idea a bit more. And to do that, I want to start with an analogy.

I once took an entire course (at the graduate level) in Restoration Ecology. We studied all sorts of ecosystems--streams, marshes, sand dunes, forests, islands, and such--and how to restore them to a particular (ideal) health. Now, my intent here is not to disparage such efforts or the people involved in them, and so I need to point out that much good work is needed--and is being done--in this broad area. But the problem is that most of the systems at issue are dynamic systems, ones that, in the natural course of events would not remain static but would change (in some cases never to return to the previous state again). In the normal course of things, a pond becomes a bog or marsh, which in turn fills in to become a meadow, which eventually becomes a forest. Systems may linger longer in a certain state, but change is inevitable--naturally. Thus, whenever we select a particular stage (of a stream or forest system, e.g.,) and try to restore the system to that stage, we are choosing a mere snapshot of what is naturally a motion picture. Maintaining any system at a particular stage is thus working against nature, and will require constant expense (of time, money, and energy). In my opinion, the best such efforts are those that focus on correcting easily-identified prior human mistakes (eradicating exotic predators like snakes and mongooses from island systems where they were wrongly introduced, fencing cattle out of riparian areas, eliminating the use of DDT are some positive examples).

In like manner, the local church--and even the more comprehensive (but elusive) church universal--is a dynamic system. There are certainly principles to be learned from reading about the New Testament churches, and some of those principles have to do (as Ken pointed out) with how to deal with the messiness within those local churches. But the fact is that no church throughout history has been called to be exactly what our local church in Bend, Oregon in this generation is called by God to be. We will face some of the same issues that others have faced, and we will face new problems. We will be given opportunities that others have been given, but we will also have different and novel opportunities presented us.

If I'm right, it would not only be wrong to try to replicate the church of Acts 2; it would likewise be wrong to try to replicate any particular church with which we are familiar from our own past. We should follow Scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit, while remaining somewhat skeptical of things done only for tradition's sake.

We are responsible before God for how well we align ourselves with what He is doing in this unique generation--and that both locally, in Central Oregon, and around the world ("Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth"). May we not miss our calling to be involved in God's dynamic plan by focusing too intently on a particular past snapshot of it.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

An Earth-Like Planet

An important astronomical discovery was a big enough deal to make the news this week. A team of Portuguese, Swiss, and French scientists reported the first Earth-like planet ever discovered orbiting another star. In fact, this article describes the discovery of two more planets around a star in the constellation Libra, a star already known to have a large (Neptune-sized) planet. But it is the smallest of this sun's three (known) planets that warrants excitement. Of the 200+ planets now identified outside our own solar system, this is the first to meet the first criterion for life-support.

For astronomers and physicists in search of life-suitable planets, the first axiom is "follow the water." It is unanimously recognized that liquid water is required for life. Researchers can establish--based on the size and type of a star--a habitable zone, an orbitable range in which liquid water might be present. And this planet is the first to be located within its star's habitable zone. Moreover, its size is such that it might meet another necessary criterion; it may (assuming that it turns out to be a rocky planet) have the sort of long-term vulcanism and plate tectonics believed essential for life.

So here's the skinny... The smaller of the two newly-discovered planets has a mass five times that of Earth and a radius that might be as small as 1.5 times Earth's. It orbits 14 times closer to its star (Gl 581) than Earth orbits our sun. Nonetheless (and assuming an atmosphere as thin as ours), its surface temperature is estimated to be between 0 and 40 degrees Centigrade. And that's because its star is an M-type (red) dwarf, which is much smaller and less luminous than Old Sol. The system in question is 20 light years away, meaning that a journey there--or here--would require between 200 or 2000 years (estimates of the maximum possible travel speed vary between 0.1 and 0.01 the speed of light).

This really is exciting stuff, and I'm particularly impressed by astronomers' increasing ability to find stars of such small size and to measure important characteristics of them. But does this latest find provide support for the "principle of mediocrity"--the idea that the earth is nothing special and that there are probably many planets out there supporting life? Does this discovery undermine the anthropic principle, the idea that Earth (and our galaxy and solar system) were exquisitely designed for life? Some of the media hype would lead one to think so.

The answer is, well, no, not at all. Perhaps a little perspective is in order.

For one thing, a number of interested experts believe that the radiation emitted by this type of star would prevent life on any planets orbiting one. The planet's proximity to its sun likely means that it is tidally-locked (as our moon is by Earth), so that it does not rotate but always has the same side facing the star. This presents a number of problems for life. No rotation means no plate tectonics. It also means that one side of the planet would always be extremely hot while the other side would always be extremely cold. Moreover, the Earth's rotation is essential for maintaining the magnetic fields that protect us from solar activity. It is unclear how the planet in question would maintain a magnetic field, and its need for one is great since M-dwarf stars are much more active than stars like our sun.

The greater size of this planet would suggest a very thick atmosphere, which would negate the liquid water hypothesis. In addition, the proximity of the other two planets likely prevents this one from having the stable orbit necessary for life maintenance.

This planet is the first to satisfy the very first criterion for life-suitability--it lies (at least currently) within its star's habitable zone. Relative to the other 200+ planets so far identified, it is unique. But even if we ignore the problems for life (mentioned above) already being discussed by researchers, existence within the star's habitable zone is only one of more than 150 characteristics of our galaxy, solar system, and planet that lie precisely within extremely narrow limits that make life's existence possible here.

The evidence overwhelmingly supports the design hypothesis--this newest discovery notwithstanding--and leaves the principle of mediocrity without any evidential or reasonable basis.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Return of the Swainson's Hawks

This morning I saw the first Swainson's Hawks (Buteo swainsoni) of the year. These beautiful hawks breed in western North America, and then almost the entire population migrates to southern South America (mainly Argentina). What a peregrination! For the birds coming from Canada, this 12,000-mile (round-trip) excursion represents the longest migration of any raptor except the Arctic Peregrine.

This species has also experienced significant population declines, and its numbers may now be only about 10% of historical numbers. Reasons for this include habitat loss, direct persecution (especially shooting), and pesticides. A critical instance of the latter was discovered about ten years ago, when researchers (Brian Woodbridge and Marc Bechard) were able to track Swainson's Hawks (through the use of satellite radiotelemetry) to their exact "wintering" locales in Argentina. What they found was massive die-offs (6000 in 1995 and 1996), with these hawks succumbing within minutes of being sprayed with extremely lethal pesticides as they foraged on grasshoppers in alfalfa and sunflower fields.

Where we live is on the western edge of the Oregon range of Swainson's Hawks. Here, nests are found near alfalfa fields, and generally where there is a mix of native vegetation and agricultural lands. As relatively late spring arrivals, these hawks will be a good month behind resident species (like Red-tailed Hawks) in their breeding. They'll lay a single clutch of 1-4 eggs, and, if all goes well, two or three young will fledge in July. Throughout the breeding season, the adults will be eating and feeding to their young the Pocket Gophers, and Merriam's and Townsend's Ground Squirrels that feast on those alfalfa fields, the hawks thus allying themselves with the local farmers in controlling these species. In late summer, they will begin to come together in large flocks, and will switch to the largely insectivorous diet that they maintain throughout the non-breeding season.

And guess what? I'll be watching a nest or two in my area, hoping to learn more about these long-distance migrants and how they're faring.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Serious Times

Did you know that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the United States, died on the same day, and that it was July 4th, 1826, our nation's fiftieth anniversary? Toward the end of their lives, Adams wrote in a letter to Jefferson,
My friend, you and I have lived in serious times.
This information and quote come from the introduction of a great book I'm reading. Indeed, this quote provides the title for the book, Serious Times, by James Emery White. The subtitle is Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day. It's an extremely easy read (though its message is a distinct challenge). The first three chapters establish the fact that we live in serious times, and the last four present a call to live serious lives in response. The latter deal with (among other topics) deepening our souls and developing our minds. In addition, each chapter is followed by a brief biographical sketch--Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, St. Benedict, etc.

I highly recommend this book to any Christian who dreams of making his or her life matter.

Monday, April 23, 2007


My peregrinations took me to the City of Angels this past weekend, where I sat in on a class with Greg Koukl (Stand To Reason). Great stuff!

L.A. and Orange Counties had an afternoon of downpours on Friday (what we used to call "frog-stranglers" back in the Midwest). The area needed it desperately, and I had plenty of reading to do, so it all worked out well.

It's good to be back in Central Oregon, though, and today promises to be gorgeous here. I'm headed up into the high country to try to call up a pair of Spotted Owls or two.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Environmental Justification

I began the week by arguing that the Judeo-Christian worldview provides excellent justification for being environmentally conscious, for caring about and for the planet and its inhabitants. Now let me make explicit that I find no such warrant—no rational basis for environmentalism—in the paradigm of Darwinian naturalism.

I’m not here asking which worldview fits the evidence better. On that question the Judeo-Christian worldview wins in a walkover. Virtually all of what we know (empirically) about the universe coheres with the biblical portrayal and remains completely unexplained by Darwinian naturalism. I’m talking about such (seemingly important) things as the existence (and beginning) of the universe, its order, its design for life, the existence (and origin) of life, the presence (in life) of irreducibly-complex things (molecular motors and such) and of information (in the genetic code), and the presence in humans of consciousness and morality.

But for the sake of argument, in today’s post let’s pretend that Darwinian naturalism doesn’t have all of these evidential problems, that it is somehow equal to Christianity in terms of its explanatory scope and power. My point here is that it provides no rational foundation for caring for the environment.

If survival of the fittest is the overarching rule governing the diversity of life on this planet, then why would it matter that other—less fit—species are eliminated by the activities of human beings? Granted, the evolutionist might respond that our own survival might be dependent (in ways we don’t yet appreciate) on the existence of those other species, by maintaining as robust and diverse an ecology as possible. While I wholeheartedly agree with this particular statement, the assertion of it by the evolutionist is logically inconsistent and points out a more basic problem with his worldview.

If Darwinian naturalism is true, there is no such thing as purpose or ultimate morality. And yet any attempt to argue for care of the environment is laden with moral language (“everyone ought to recycle”) and ideas about value that are borrowed from a theistic worldview and which have no logical place in a worldview centered on Darwinism. Even to take a minimalist (selfish) tack and say that I care for the environment for the sake of my own children and grandchildren (that I might succeed in passing on my own genes) is ultimately a value idea that has no rational justification in the worldview of a Darwinian naturalist.

I happen to believe very strongly that we ought to care a great deal about and for our environment and the other life with which we share it. And I have excellent reasons for this conviction (including the reason that it is the substance of the very first command given us by our Creator). While I’m glad that many non-monotheists will take time this weekend to reflect on (and perhaps make personal resolutions about) creation care, I find in their worldview no logical justification for their participation in Earth Day.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

End Times Indifference

Having identified some valid reasons that Christians have for eschewing the environmental movement, I feel the need to mention an area in which some Christians--through less sound reasoning--tend to abdicate their God-mandated role in creation care. The subject of this post then is the area of eschatology--one's view of the end times.

Ever since Jesus ascended to heaven following his resurrection, his disciples have recognized that they live in the "last days," that this age of the world will end with the parousia--his second coming. The reason that Christians have universally believed in this parousia is that it is taught by nearly all the New Testament writers (e.g., Paul in I Thess. 4:15-17 and II Thess. 1:8, Peter in II Pet. 1:16 and 3:10, John in I John 2:28, James in James 5:7-8, and Jude in Jude 14) as well as by Jesus himself (as in Mt. 16:27 and Lk 22:27). Christians everywhere and throughout church history have acknowledged both the fact and the imminence of the promised return of Christ.

Besides articulating the fact of a second coming of Christ and the end of this age, the Bible identifies signs that will precede this great event. These include evangelism of the world, a conversion of Jews, a period of apostasy (in which many will fall away from the faith), an increase in wars, famines, and earthquakes, and a great persecution of the faithful.

With these signs in mind, many 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century Christians (as well as many cultists) have convinced themselves that they were (are) living in the very last days, and that Christ is coming again in their lifetime. In our day, the most dogmatic in this belief hold to a relatively recent interpretation of Bible prophecy known as dispensationalism. This interpretation, credited to the Plymouth Brethren J.N. Darby (ca. 1830), was popularized by the Scofield Study Bible and much more recently by the Left Behind series of fictional apocalyptic novels and movies. This particular interpretation has been held by only a minority of Christians during a very small portion of the church age. Nonetheless, its modern adherents point to the reestablishment of Israel as a nation, to current unrest in the Middle East, to the moral decline of Western culture, and to other factors in order to assure themselves that "this is it!"

Such end-time beliefs are pertinent to our discussion of our responsibility to be good stewards of God's creation. To the degree that Christians are certain that ours is among the very last generation, stewardship of the earth becomes an unnecessary consideration. Why should I worry about future generations when I know that this is the last?

Let me be perfectly clear here. This view is not the prevailing one even today within Christendom. Nonetheless, there is a significant segment of the church in America where this idea is accepted uncritically. Again, no one (to my knowledge) is articulating (preaching or writing) that we should not care about the environment because we know ours is the last generation. But I and many others have encountered this eschatological certainty and its accompanying environmental indifference in many conservative, fundamentalist circles.

My purpose here is not to critique dispensationalism per se. Rather, I mean to argue against such certainty (and its practical consequences) by a common sense appeal to what history teaches us and by reference to explicit Scriptures warning against such certainty.

First, it is clear that the prophecies concerning the end times--like many biblical prophecies--involve multiple fulfillments. Thus even Jesus' own longest treatment of the end of the age (the "Olivet Discourse" of Mt. 24) applies both to events that occurred during that generation (the seige of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple by Rome in A.D. 70) and to yet-future events. Indeed, most Christians will acknowledge that the entire church age has been characterized by the "signs" of the last days (and of persecution in particular), though most also anticipate an increase in such things before the end.

For this reason, generations throughout the church age have believed--and many have had plenty of reason to believe--that they lived in the very last days. Even the Apostle Paul seems to have expected the parousia to occur during his lifetime. Certainly Christians who witnessed the (aforementioned) seige of Jerusalem could be excused for thinking they were witnessing the end of the world. In like manner, the Europeans of the fourth and fifth centuries saw the entire civilized world overrun by barbarians. Again in the ninth and tenth centuries, Christendom was largely obliterated by Vikings, Maygars, and Muslims. In each case--and by God's providence--his people stood fast and endured these overwhelming onslaughts, and eventually rebuilt, recivilized and re-evangelized the world that had so drastically changed for the worse in their respective lifetimes. I submit that many who endured the Nazi regime and witnessed the Holocaust were likewise tempted to believe that things couldn't get any worse and that surely the end had come.

The lesson from history, then, would seem to be that we are unable to say with certainty when the sovereign Creator will choose to put an end to this stage of history. Moreover (lo and behold!), one of the most explicit teachings of Scripture on this subject is just that--that we cannot know the timing of the second coming. After discussing the signs of those last days, Jesus says (as recorded in Mark 13:32),
But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
One of the very last things Jesus is recorded as saying before his ascension is "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority." Paul assures the believers at Thessalonica that they did not need to know the exact time of the second coming (I Thess. 5:1-2), while Peter indicates that it is God's patience that causes the parousia to be delayed (II Pet. 3:9).

Scripture teaches that Christ's followers are to await with hope and longing his return and the culmination of his purposes for this creation. But over against that are the many expectations that we are to be found at our posts, going about the business to which we are called. The central message of Jesus' earthly ministry was not heaven, a future millenial reign, or even eternity. Rather, it was that his first advent--the incarnation--ushered in the kingdom of God there and then. We already live within the kingdom of God and, until he tells us otherwise, we are to be salt and light in this world. This means making disciples--helping others into that already-present kingdom--but it also means fulfilling the even older directives to be good stewards of the creation in which God has placed us. In the Lord's own words (Lk. 12:42-48),
Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household...? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions... Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

Green Amorality

Yesterday I suggested that commitment to the Judeo-Christian worldview very logically leads to a keen sense that we are to be good stewards of the environment, of God’s creation. I also alluded to the fact, however, that Christians in our day are not generally noted for their commitment to creation care. Before I examine (in a subsequent post) some illegitimate reasons for Christian environmental indifference, allow me to identify some reasonable concerns that Christians have with regard to environmental issues. Specifically, I will mention three different (albeit interrelated) aspects of modern environmentalism that (rightly) give Christians pause.

First, environmentalism as we know it today has largely been co-opted by those with a neo-pagan or pantheistic worldview. This is easily seen around Earth Day, whose most vocal participants openly honor “Mother Earth” or worship Gaia, the earth goddess. Thus, for Christians to join the existing environmental movement would involve closely aligning themselves with people whose religion and worldview are diametrically opposed to their own. (I find overwhelming logical and evidential warrant for concluding that pantheism—in all of its various forms—fails to correspond to the reality of this universe, but that argument will have to wait for another post.)

Similarly, the environmental movement in America has been twisted for political means, to the point that unbiased, reasonable discussions of environmental issues have become all but impossible. At the extreme, the most vocal calls for environmental activism are frequently imbedded in a larger agenda most of which is morally repugnant to Christians—an agenda that includes socialism, radical feminism, abortion activism, and the glorifying of homosexuality. But even where these elements are not involved, political biases all too frequently cloud the environmental discussion beyond hope of rational progress.

Third, the modern environmental movement has a distinctly pro-death (anti-human) aspect to it. For many in this movement, the biggest problem facing the planet is human beings. Most vocal environmentalists support abortion and euthanasia, and some (like biologist Eric Pianka) go so far as advocating deliberate reduction of the global human population. Christians are right to want nothing to do with such a culture of death.

For these (and perhaps other) reasons, Christians are acting reasonably and responsibly in not associating with the environmental movement as it currently exists. While the presence (in this movement) of these amoral and anti-Christian elements makes it reasonable for Christians to avoid such alignment, it does not absolve them (us) of the responsibility of either personal or corporate environmental stewardship. If anything, it requires us both to stiffen our resolve to be the very best creation caretakers that we can be and to better understand why good stewardship makes more sense from within a Judeo-Christian worldview than from a pantheistic or atheistic perspective.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Dominion Mandate

As Christians, we are called to be true environmentalists. That is, the rational link between the Judeo-Christian worldview and the call to care about and for the planet and its component parts is straightforward and clear.

According to the Scriptures, the universe, the planet Earth, and all of its inhabitants were created by God. Psalm 24 begins this way,
The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.
Moreover, God gave man (at the very beginning of human history and again later) dominion over the Earth and all of its other inhabitants. This "dominion mandate" is both descriptive and prescriptive. It accurately describes reality. Human beings, with their reasoning (an important aspect of the "image of God" with which they alone of all creatures are endowed by the Creator), do indeed have greater potential and actual impact on the global and local environment than does any other species. The biblical understanding is that this impact can be for good as well as for harm. (By contrast, some of today's most zealous environmentalists see the effect of humans on our planet as only harmful; they deny our potential for being good stewards or carrying out beneficial husbandry.)

The prescriptive aspect of the dominion mandate says that not only do humans have dominion over the planet but that they should take that dominion seriously. We are expected--and accountable to our Creator--to be good stewards of all that he has created.

While the Bible does not teach extensively on this issue (and is largely silent on the how of good stewardship), we can be certain that followers of the one true God are called by him to care for the creation with which he has blessed us. And while being Christian does not automatically give one any expertise in environmental science, it nonetheless behooves us to be salt (a preserving influence) in our generation with regard to creation care. This means (among other things) being responsible with our individual and local resources (indeed, I would argue that we should be on the forefront of such responsibility) as well as educating ourselves so that we might offer and support reasonable, well-founded solutions to more widespread environmental issues.

There are at least three reasons that Christians need to be better (than we have been in recent generations) at creation care. The first is simply that we are to obey God in all things, and being good stewards is one of those things he has commanded us. Another is for the sake of the environment itself, for the future generations of humans and other creatures that will need its resources. Many of the decisions our generation faces have greater potential for long-term effects on the future livability of our planet than the decisions of any previous generation. (I am not here denying God's sovereignty over such things, but affirming that that sovereignty involves the free will of the humans he created.) Third, our failure to obey the dominion mandate--the fact that Christians have not maintained a position at the forefront of creation-care issues--represents, for many in our generation, a further barrier to their considering the claims of Christianity.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I Also Am a Steward

Next Sunday, April 22nd, is Earth Day (and also the 16th birthday of our oldest, Nathan). So I want to do a few posts about the environment, from the perspective of a Christian thinker (uh, that'd be me).

But before that, let me start the week with a quote written by another Christian thinker, J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Return of The King, the wizard Gandalf is talking with Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who is despairing in the face of overwhelming odds arrayed against all that he has loved. (Shortly after this dialogue, Denethor takes his own life.)

I take Gandalf's words here to reflect Tolkien's understanding of what every individual is called to--by God--with respect to our care of creation. It certainly expresses my understanding well. Gandalf said...
...the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, these are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward.

Friday, April 13, 2007

An April Day

It's that weather where, if you're working outside, one minute you get nice and warm in the sunshine and the next it's cloudy and windy. You end up taking a sweatshirt off and then ten minutes later putting it back on and wishing you had a windbreaker. This sort of day was captured well by Robert Frost in a stanza from one of my favorite poems, "Two Tramps in Mud-Time"...
The sun was out but the wind was chill,
You know how it is on an April day.
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
you're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
a cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
a wind comes off of a snowy peak,
and you're two months back in the middle of March.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Patience and Civility

I think I've mentioned before that G.K. Chesterton is one of my favorite authors and that his Father Brown is one of my favorite fictional detectives. I like this quote from The Wisdom of Father Brown, and think we would all do well to imitate the little priest's response in the face of illness or exhaustion...
[Father Brown] had lately fallen ill with over-work...was still rather weak. He was [at the best of times] no very happy sailor. And though he was never of the sort that either grumbles or breaks down, his spirits did not rise above patience and civility.

Monday, April 9, 2007

It Really Happened

So, I think it's fitting here and now to lay out an argument for the factuality--the historicity--of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth some two thousand years ago. The argument I will lay out is a "minimal facts" approach, one taken by Gary Habermas. (For more detailed accounts of this argument, the reader is referred to Habermas' books The Risen Jesus and Future Hope and The Historical Jesus.) This argument does not assume that (as Christianity claims) the Bible is the inspired word of God and free of error (in the original autographs). Rather, for the sake of argument, this approach uses only those facts about Jesus that are widely acknowledged by scholars of all metaphysical stripes, even those who begin by rejecting any supernatural interpretations. That is, we are here treating the New Testament accounts about Jesus as merely the writings of fallible human beings to which can be applied all the skeptical scrutiny we may choose.

[I myself believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I have chosen to shelve that belief for the sake of this argument. It should be pointed out, however, that if this argument leads to the conclusion that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead in fulfillment of prophecies (including his own) and in vindication of his overall teachings and claims, then acceptance of the inspiration of Scripture would be a very reasonable inference following from that conclusion.]

Here are some of the facts upon which virtually all scholars agree:
1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.
3. Soon afterward, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost hope.
4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his internment.
5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.
6. Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed, even being willing to die for this belief.
7. The proclamation of the resurrection took place very early, at the beginning of church history.
8. The disciples’ public testimony and preaching of the resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.
9. The Gospel message centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
10. Sunday became the primary day for gathering and worshipping.
11. James, the brother of Jesus and a former skeptic, was converted when, he believed, he saw the risen Jesus.
12. Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) became a Christian believer due to an experience that he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.
We can use these established facts--accepted even by most skeptics and atheists--as a test for the explanatory power of the various ideas about what really happened. That is, any explanation for the alleged resurrection and for the rise of Christianity can be examined to see whether it corresponds to and satisfactorily accounts for each of these facts.

It should be obvious that each and every one of these facts fits perfectly with the Christian explanation. Jesus died, and remained in the tomb until the third day. He was raised from the dead, and really did appear to the disciples and others before ascending to heaven. On this view, the resurrection vindicated—even more than had his (alleged) healings and other miracles—his claims to being Messiah, God, and Lord. The question is: how well and completely do other hypotheses fit these facts?

One alternative explanation that has been offered is the hallucination theory—the idea that the disciples and others each had hallucinations that they took to be the risen Christ. When compared against the list of accepted facts, this theory fails to account for points 4, 11, and 12. That is, this idea doesn’t explain the empty tomb or the conversion of either James or Saul, two men with no emotional motivation to see a risen Jesus in whom they did not believe in the first place. The disciples were not expecting Jesus to rise, either before or even shortly after they first saw him. Moreover, the different people, times, and places involved in the circumstances surrounding these appearances argue strongly against the idea that all involved hallucinations. In addition, hallucinations do not usually account for life-long transformations of an entire group of people. Subjective visions do not explain the willingness of so many people to die for their belief in the risen Jesus. Other problems with this hypothesis could be demonstrated, but these are enough to show why scholars have abandoned it.

Every other naturalistic theory likewise fails to account for all of these facts in the satisfactory way that the Christian explanation does. Such theories include the wrong tomb theory, the unknown tomb theory, the swoon theory, the Passover plot theory, the ideas that the body of Jesus was stolen by the disciples or by the authorities, and others. One of the most popular—at least in American university courses—is the theory that the resurrection was a legend that developed in the decades following Christ’s life. Despite its popularity, this theory fails to account for any of the twelve historical facts in the list, and further fails to account for the fact that belief in a bodily resurrection of Jesus can be traced to within two-five years of the crucifixion event. All of these naturalistic theories have been abandoned by serious historical scholars, even liberal ones.

Obviously, that Jesus actually rose from the dead cannot be shrugged off as merely an unexpected conclusion of an academic exercise. Rather, it comes with several ramifications, some of them both important and personal. This is especially true since Jesus’ earthly message related his resurrection to the existence and activity of God. Indeed, a reasonable conclusion that flows from his resurrection is that it was God who raised him and that this raising represented God’s approval and vindication of Jesus’ overall teaching. Since a central part of what Jesus taught had to do with the “Kingdom of God,” including salvation and eternal life and how to obtain them, the conclusion that these teachings were approved by God has universal application, and demands the serious consideration of anyone seeking to understand the meaning of life. The power of resurrection that transformed Jesus’ early disciples and radically altered the course of human history continues to this day to change lives, to offer meaning, purpose, and life that is both abundant and eternal.

Friday, April 6, 2007

What Does it Mean?

In posts to come, I want to share the case for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus--the facts that lead many to conclude that the event celebrated this week is the most well-attested occurrence in ancient history. When I do that, I'll do so without assuming that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

But first, I want to share some of the ramifications of Jesus' resurrection, some of the things proven or implied by it. For this, I will refer to Scripture itself. That is, I will examine what Jesus' first followers (Paul, John, Peter, and such) believed to be the practical implications of the fact that Jesus came alive after being dead for part of three days. (I am indebted to my friend and colleague Tom Gender for compiling this list and the associated Scriptures.)

As I alluded to in yesterday's post, the resurrection proves the power of God. Paul writes to the early church at Ephesus, I pray that you will know "the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead..." (1:19-20).

Second, as seen in Romans 1:4, Jesus "was declared to be the Son of God... by his resurrection from the dead." This is reaffirmed in Peter's sermon recorded in Acts 2:22-24. By raising Jesus from the dead, God confirmed that Jesus was his Son and affirmed (put his stamp of approval on) Jesus' teachings. These teachings include Jesus' claim to be the only way to the Father, to be redeemed, to experience eternal life.

According to Roman 6:9, the resurrection proves that Jesus lives eternally: "We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him."

Likewise, Jesus' resurrection proves that his followers will also be raised. "God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power" (I Cor. 6:14). "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body..." (Phil. 3:20-21). "So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory" (I Cor. 15:42-43).

Fifth, Christ's resurrection proved the reality of the incoming kingdom of God (which was Jesus' central message). According to Revelation 11:15, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever." (Cue the choir.) Following his resurrection, Jesus is granted "all authority on heaven and earth" (Mt. 28:18) thus fulfilling the role reserved for the Messiah (see Psalms 2, 72, and 89). According to Colossians 1:24,
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible... all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
Sixth, Scripture clearly sets forth that the resurrection means that Jesus will judge the world. As the apostle Paul said to the men of Athens (Acts 17: 31), "He has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." In Acts 10:39-42, Peter shares the same understanding, "God raised him on the third day... and commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead."

Importantly, it is the resurrection of Jesus upon which our redemption and forgiveness hinge. "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (I Cor. 15:17). "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (Rom. 4:25).

But resurrection ensures not only forgiveness but new life for Christ's followers. "Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Rom. 6:4-5). As Peter has it (in I Pet. 1:3), "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."

Moreover (a ninth implication in this quick review of what the resurrection of Jesus means), the creation itself will be restored eventually as a result of the death and resurrection of Christ. This is the teaching of Romans 8:19-21 (see also Isa. 65:1, 66:2, 2 Pet. 3:13, and Rev. 21:1).

So, the resurrection is kinda a big deal, huh? Seems like there's a lot riding on it. If you're like me, you can sometimes gloss over those words about resurrection as you're reading through the New Testament (especially in Paul's letters, where he sometimes strings phrases together in such a way that you can miss the argument). I'd like to challenge you (and myself) this year to focus and meditate on the many practical ramifications that flow directly out of the fact that the Creator of the universe raised Jesus of Nazareth (and him alone) from the dead some two thousand years ago.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Crux of Human History

This week, people the world over will celebrate the single event that more than any other changed history, changed the world. For folks on every continent and in every nation, the crux or crossroads of history is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.

It is, of course, impossible to fully separate the incarnation (the coming of God in the flesh), the crucifixion (with all it accomplished and the multitude of theological ramifications), and the resurrection. And while each of these doctrines is central and necessary to the Christian faith, most of us (rightly) focus on the latter--resurrection--as we celebrate this week.

The bodily resurrection of Jesus was the incredible news that spread like wildfire through the first-century Roman Empire. It represented the vindication (on the part of God the Father) of Jesus' earthly teachings and of His claim of being one with the Father. It is what changed a ragtag group of uneducated Jewish outcasts--broken and demoralized by the humiliating execution of their leader--into a bold band of mission-minded evangelists, willing to spread their message of assured hope wherever they went and at whatever cost (including ignomious and excruciating martyrdom). His earliest disciples were quick to recognize that Jesus' bodily resurrection meant--because of His promises to that effect--that they too (and all for whom he died) would likewise be raised.

The evidences for the centrality (in human history) of the death and resurrection of Christ are many and varied. For now, let me just point out that much of our language testifies to that centrality. Words I have used in this short essay--'crux,' 'crossroads'--are used to describe centrality, to designate the heart of a matter. These words, of course, share their etymology--as does the word for horrible pain--'excruciating'--with the word for the method by which Jesus was killed, 'crucifixion.'

"Jesus lives!" The events referred to by those two simple words produced a fundamental, cataclysmic, unalterable change in the world. Two thousand years after those events, the power of the Resurrection of Jesus is still producing astonishing transformation in the lives of people, families, tribes, and nations.

For those first followers of Jesus and for millions of believers since, the events we celebrate this week were life-changing--indeed, world-changing. Whatever else may be going on, we now recognize that we live in a world visited by its creator, a world redeemed by his atoning sacrificial death, and a world in which death has been finally and ultimately conquered.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Opening Day

For most Major League Baseball teams, yesterday was opening day.

In my mind, Opening Day of the baseball season is surpassed only by New Year's Day (with its resolutions) as the epitome of hopeful new beginnings. For those teams whose dreams of a successful season had crumbled by mid-season in last year's campaign, the start of an entirely new season brings hope, excitement, anticipation. Some of that hope is unjustified, of course (for evidence of this, compare the preseason and postseason sports articles covering the Chicago Cubs from any season in the last six or seven decades). Nonetheless, there is something about a clean slate, a 0-0 win-loss record, that enables baseball fans to indulge themselves in ecstatic flights of fancy. What's more, occassionally one's team does justify that hope. They "click," put all the pieces together, find the magical formula, achieve the team chemistry, and have enough individuals experiencing better-than-average years to win the division, the pennant, or even the World Series.

Opening Day of the baseball season provides an analogy for the Christian life. Redemption--the life change accomplished on our behalf by Jesus' death on the cross--is (in part) an erasing of last season's errors and strikeouts. As the Apostle Paul has it (in II Cor. 5:17), "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."

The analogy breaks down, of course. Only one baseball team will achieve ultimate success, whereas every Christian ought to achieve the promised transformation. This does not always occur, obviously, and many could see their Christian experience as similar to that of Cub's fans'--unjustified expectation. The reasons that not all Christians experience true success (spiritual transformation to Christ-likeness) are many and varied, and I can't go into them here. Let me just point out that the answer is not to fire the manager--the problems are with us and not with the Holy Spirit, the best coach in the business.

Yesterday, by the way, the two teams I cheer--the Cincinnati Reds (I grew up in Cincinnati during the days of "The Big Red Machine") and the Seattle Mariners (the "local" team here in the Northwest)--each won handily. (Thanks for wondering.)

Monday, April 2, 2007

Home Again!

We're back from Mexico, where we built new houses for two families in Rosarito, just south of Tijuana. It was a wonderful experience, with a great group of young people and their adult leaders. Everything went more smoothly than I had expected, and a good time was had. Nights are still chilly, even south of the border, but we returned to even more signs that the seasons are changing here on the high desert of Oregon.

A trip like this--one that provides the opportunity to experience how most of the people of the world live and to make a positive contribution to improving their lives--should be a required rite of passage for America's youth.

It's good to be home!