Category Archives: Commentary

Correcting four myths about the history of the Crusades

Crusader
Crusader

Here is an interesting article from First Principles Journal.

Intro:

The verdict seems unanimous. From presidential speeches to role-playing games, the crusades are depicted as a deplorably violent episode in which thuggish Westerners trundled off, unprovoked, to murder and pillage peace-loving, sophisticated Muslims, laying down patterns of outrageous oppression that would be repeated throughout subsequent history. In many corners of the Western world today, this view is too commonplace and apparently obvious even to be challenged.

But unanimity is not a guarantee of accuracy. What everyone “knows” about the crusades may not, in fact, be true. From the many popular notions about the crusades, let us pick four and see if they bear close examination.

The four myths:

  • Myth #1: The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world.
  • Myth #2: Western Christians went on crusade because their greed led them to plunder Muslims in order to get rich.
  • Myth #3: Crusaders were a cynical lot who did not really believe their own religious propaganda; rather, they had ulterior, materialistic motives.
  • Myth #4: The crusades taught Muslims to hate and attack Christians.

Here’s the most obvious thing you should know. The Crusades were defensive actions:

In a.d. 632, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica were all Christian territories. Inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which was still fully functional in the eastern Mediterranean, orthodox Christianity was the official, and overwhelmingly majority, religion. Outside those boundaries were other large Christian communities—not necessarily orthodox and Catholic, but still Christian. Most of the Christian population of Persia, for example, was Nestorian. Certainly there were many Christian communities in Arabia.

By a.d. 732, a century later, Christians had lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa, Spain, most of Asia Minor, and southern France. Italy and her associated islands were under threat, and the islands would come under Muslim rule in the next century. The Christian communities of Arabia were entirely destroyed in or shortly after 633, when Jews and Christians alike were expelled from the peninsula.6 Those in Persia were under severe pressure. Two-thirds of the formerly Roman Christian world was now ruled by Muslims.

What had happened? Most people actually know the answer, if pressed—though for some reason they do not usually connect the answer with the crusades. The answer is the rise of Islam. Every one of the listed regions was taken, within the space of a hundred years, from Christian control by violence, in the course of military campaigns deliberately designed to expand Muslim territory at the expense of Islam’s neighbors. Nor did this conclude Islam’s program of conquest. The attacks continued, punctuated from time to time by Christian attempts to push back. Charlemagne blocked the Muslim advance in far western Europe in about a.d. 800, but Islamic forces simply shifted their focus and began to island-hop across from North Africa toward Italy and the French coast, attacking the Italian mainland by 837. A confused struggle for control of southern and central Italy continued for the rest of the ninth century and into the tenth. In the hundred years between 850 and 950, Benedictine monks were driven out of ancient monasteries, the Papal States were overrun, and Muslim pirate bases were established along the coast of northern Italy and southern France, from which attacks on the deep inland were launched. Desperate to protect victimized Christians, popes became involved in the tenth and early eleventh centuries in directing the defense of the territory around them.

If you asked me what are the two best books on the Crusades, I would answer God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Baylor professor Rodney Stark and The Concise History of the Crusades by Professor Thomas F. Madden. If you get this question a lot from atheists, then I recommend you pick these up. Anything by Rodney Stark is useful for Christians, in fact.

Bible study: what difference does the resurrection of Jesus make?

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Here’s an article from Bible.org, written by famous New Testament manuscript expert Dan Wallace. (H/T Eric Chabot, Ratio Christi OSU)

There is a lot in this article, but I’ll just snip out one that I think is interesting.

First, what does the Old Testament say about the doctrine of the resurrection in Judaism?

The resurrection of the dead was not plainly revealed in the OT until very late in salvation history. It was not until the Jews were taken in captivity, in the sixth century BC, that this was clearly articulated. Daniel 12:1-2 is the principal text: it speaks of the resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous:

At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time; but at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (RSV)

Why was it not clearly revealed till then? It was not revealed until there was a felt need for it. When the Jews had no present (because of the captivity) they had to look to the future. The revelation of the resurrection came at precisely the time when the people of God needed hope for the future.

What is significant about this is how masterful are God’s insights into human nature. In the NT era, one religious group in Palestine did not embrace the resurrection as a true doctrine: the Sadducees (cf. Mark 12:18)–that is why they were “sad, you see!” The Sadducees were in charge of the temple. They derived their income from the sacrifices. In a sense, they were the precursors to modern TV evangelists. They had it good! They were the rich aristocracy that ran the place.

Those who have it good in this life don’t often long for the next. The Sadducees illustrate this. The resurrection is a truth especially precious to those who are poor and those who are hopeless. It is precious to those who long for heaven enough that earth holds no sway over them.

Many things that I wanted to achieve in this life never happened. I wanted to do great things for God, not the least of which was getting married, having a family, getting a PhD and teaching computer science in a secular university. It seems like everything takes so long to do, and secular leftists in government keep making everything I wanted to try to do more expensive and more risky. I’ll never have enough time to do everything!

I often find myself thinking of Heaven, and having that eternal perspective on this life. On Sunday, I was on the treadmill listening to 1st Corinthians, and Paul was talking about how difficult the Christian life is supposed to be because of negative reaction from the people around you. I’m glad my salvation doesn’t depend on what people think of me, or whether I was able to get enough done for God.

Significance for apologetics

Did you know that Jesus provided the resurrection as evidence for those who were skeptical of his claims to be God stepping into history?

Here’s an article from Got Questions? on the “Sign of Jonah”, which appears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

It says:

The phrase “sign of Jonah” was used by Jesus as a typological metaphor for His future crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Jesus answered with this expression when asked by the Pharisees for miraculous proof the He was indeed the Messiah. The Pharisees remained unconvinced of Jesus’ claims about Himself, despite His having just cured a demon-possessed man who was both blind and mute. Shortly after the Pharisees accused Jesus of driving out demons by the power of Satan, they said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:38–41).

To fully appreciate the answer that Jesus gave, we must go to the Old Testament book of Jonah. In its first chapter, we read that God commanded the prophet Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and warn its people that He was going to destroy it for its wickedness. Jonah disobediently ran from the Lord and headed for the city of Tarshish by boat. The Lord then sent a severe storm that caused the crew of the ship to fear for their lives. Jonah was soon thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish where he remained for “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:15–17). After the three-day period, the Lord caused the great fish to vomit Jonah out onto dry land (Jonah 2:10).

It is this three days that Jesus was referring to when He spoke of the sign of Jonah.

I often bring up the Sign of Jonah when I am dealing with Christians who don’t want to learn how to explain their faith to non-Christians persuasively. I’m glad that story is in there!

The resurrection is a very important part of the life of the Christian. I argued in this post that it makes a difference to your feelings about your own life, and it makes a difference to your case-making with non-Christians.

The drowning stranger illustration challenges atheistic morality

Learning about right and wrong, good and evil
Learning about right and wrong, good and evil

This is by Matt from Well Spent Journey blog.

Excerpt:

Here’s a thought experiment.

_____

Imagine that you’re a healthy, athletic, 20-year-old male. It’s the morning after a thunderstorm, and you’re standing on the banks of a flooded, violently churning river.

You notice an object floating downstream.

As it moves closer, you suddenly realize that this object is a person. The head breaks the surface, and you see a panic-stricken elderly woman gasping for air. You’ve never met her before, but vaguely recognize her as an impoverished widow from a neighboring village.

You look around for help, but there’s no one in sight. You have only seconds to decide whether or not to jump in after her – recognizing that doing so will put your own life in significant peril.

_____

Is it rational for you to risk your life to save this stranger? Is it morally good to do so?

For the Christian, both of these questions can be answered with an emphatic “yes”.

The Christian is called to emulate the example set forth by Jesus, who not only risked, but sacrificed his life for the sake of others. The Christian believes that the soul is eternal, and that one’s existence doesn’t come to an abrupt end with death.  Additionally, he can point to the examples of countless Christian martyrs who have willingly sacrificed their own lives.

For the secular humanist, the answers to these questions are much more subjective. When I previously asked 23 self-identifying atheists, “Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?” only 4 of them responded with an unqualified “yes”.

Biologically speaking, the young man in our scenario has nothing to gain by jumping after the drowning woman. Since she’s poor and elderly, there are no conceivable financial or reproductive advantages involved. Evolutionary biologists often speak of “benefit to the tribe” as a motivation for self-sacrifice…yet the young man’s community would certainly place greater practical value on his life than that of a widow from a neighboring village.

Secular humanists argue that people are capable of making ethical decisions without any deity to serve as Moral Lawgiver. On a day-to-day basis, this is undeniably true. We all have non-religious friends and neighbors who live extremely moral and admirable lives.

In the scenario above, however, secular ethics break down. The secular humanist might recognize, intuitively, that diving into the river is a morally good action. But he has no rational basis for saying so. The young man’s decision is between empathy for a stranger (on the one hand) and utilitarian self-interest & community-interest (on the other).

In the end, there can be no binding moral imperatives in the absence of a Moral Lawgiver. If the young man decides to sit back and watch the woman drown, the secular humanist cannot criticize him. He’s only acting rationally.

When I read this, I was of one of the questions from one of my earliest posts, where I list a dozen interview questions to ask atheists. His question is very much like one of my questions. You may like the others in my list, as well.

It seems to me that on atheism, the only answer you can give for why you would do the right thing is “because it makes me happy”. And as we see with abortion – 56 million unborn children dead – it very often doesn’t make atheists happy to save someone else’s life. Not if it means any infringement on their own happiness. Every time an atheist votes Democrat, they are voting to declare that people who get in their way should not be saved. And atheists (the “nones”, anyway) are one of the largest Democrat voting blocs. According to the 2012 Secular Census, 97% of secularists deny that unborn children have a right to life. And the 2013 Gallup poll found that “nones”, people with no religion, are most likely to be pro-abortion. (Note that “nones” are not necessarily atheists, they may have some beliefs, but they are not observant). It’s not rational to inconvenience yourself to save others on atheism. You have one life to live, be happy, survival of the fittest.

When talking with a non-Christian, make truth – not behavior – the main issue

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Pastor Matt posted about something that I think all Christian apologists believe, deep down. (H/T The Poached Egg)

He writes:

Typically, the church has defined loving one’s neighbor as in line with Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and Christ’s teaching in passages such as Matthew 25:31-46, in which we are commanded to love the imprisoned, the homeless, the hungry, etc. as if they were Jesus himself. Of course all believers should do so whether by volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating money to ministries like World Help.

But there is more to loving one’s neighbor these days than caring for the poor, as important as that is.  Those of us who live in a first world western country now dwell in a post-Christian society.  Our neighbors are inundated with naturalism masquerading as good science and sound philosophy.  Non-Christians believe the faith is intellectually vacuous.

It shocks many people when those trained in apologetics point out that atheists cannot answer questions like, “How did the universe come into existence?” “Why is our planet so finely tuned for life despite all the odds against it?” “How did life begin?” “Why do humans have consciousness?” “How is there truth or right and wrong without God?” “Why did the disciples die horrible deaths as impoverished traveling peasants rather than deny the resurrection of Jesus?”, etc.

If we are to help bring our neighbors to saving faith, we must first destroy their false ideas of what Christianity is and is not.  That means we must preach the Gospel (2 Cor. 5:21), knock down specious views of the faith and present the truth of what we believe.

Apologetics is not just an intellectual exercise for nerds like me or a debate to be won on college campuses but an increasing tool in loving our neighbors.  For if they do not understand the faith, they will likely not come to faith and that is what the God we love wants and how we must show love to our neighbors.  So, let’s study not just to win arguments but to love others.

That reminds me of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5. Our job is to beat up on false ideas and speculations.

Pastor Matt’s point is critical, I think. Just stop and think for a minute about your non-believing co-workers. Do they know that the universe began to exist? Do they know that the initial conditions and the cosmological constants have to be finely tuned to support things like galaxies, stars, planets and elements heavier than hydrogen? Do they know how much information is in a protein, and how many proteins would be needed to make the first living cell? Do they know what it takes to make a planet that can support life? What facts from the gospels and the Pauline letters pass the tests for historicity? What is the best explanation of those minimal facts?

These are the facts that we share when we discuss spiritual things with people. They are not Christian facts, they are public, testable facts. And yet, almost no one in the culture who is not already a believer is curious to find out these things on their own. But without the evidence, how are they supposed to take the first step towards a relationship with God through Jesus Christ? It’s not possible. This is a propositional faith, and we know it’s true by evidence. To share the evidence with someone so they can decide is as loving as sharing the evidence about retirement planning, or the evidence about nutrition, or the evidence about fitness and exercise, or the evidence about career planning. When you love someone, you tell them the facts, and then they decide. Evangelism is the same thing.

Here’s something from a recent post by J. Warner Wallace, where he talks about doing apologetics with people who have not yet decided whether God exists or not.

The Undecided

In many ways, this group holds the most promise. People who are undecided usually fall into two categories. Some have never really given the issue much thought. They’re neither for nor against; they’ve simply been living unaware. You may be the first person to introduce them to the issues you are trying to share. If so, remember the importance of a first impression. What you say or do will have an impact on the work of those who follow you. The second group of “undecideds” are people who have given the issue some thought, but are just beginning to make their decision. For this group of people, your defense of Christianity may very well be the deciding factor. The responsibility you and I have with the undecided is daunting, but it’s a privilege to play a small part in their decision.

OK, so I want to make a point about this. So often, I see Christian parents and leaders trying to focus on changing people’s behaviors, and not by giving them evidence. Instead of trying to convince them about what’s true, they tell them Bible verses, or maybe tell them they are going to Hell. But given what Matt and J. Warner said, I don’t want us to be focused on changing outward behavior. I want us to be focused on showing people what is true and showing our work – how we arrived at these true beliefs. You are doing Christianity wrong if you focus on getting behaviors from people by shaming them, overpowering them or scaring them.

So in my case, I’m not trying to get non-Christians to act like Christians when they have no reasons to be one. I’m trying to get them to settle on true beliefs – so that each of them and God can shake hands and be reconciled, responding to his drawing them of their own free will. Then, they can decide how they are going to act. And how they act might be even better than what we had in mind for them when all we wanted was for them to quit swearing and eat their vegetables. The Christian life is bigger than just making people do what we want them to do.

A Harvard University student explains how evidence changed her mind about God

Harvard University student discovers apologetics
Harvard University student discovers apologetics

Here’s a must-read article  about the effectiveness of apologetics on college campuses in Christianity Today.

Excerpt:

I don’t know when I first became a skeptic. It must have been around age 4, when my mother found me arguing with another child at a birthday party: “But how do you know what the Bible says is true?” By age 11, my atheism was so widely known in my middle school that a Christian boy threatened to come to my house and “shoot all the atheists.” My Christian friends in high school avoided talking to me about religion because they anticipated that I would tear down their poorly constructed arguments. And I did.

As I set off in 2008 to begin my freshman year studying government at Harvard (whose motto is Veritas, “Truth”), I could never have expected the change that awaited me.

It was a brisk November when I met John Joseph Porter. Our conversations initially revolved around conservative politics, but soon gravitated toward religion. He wrote an essay for the Ichthus, Harvard’s Christian journal, defending God’s existence. I critiqued it. On campus, we’d argue into the wee hours; when apart, we’d take our arguments to e-mail. Never before had I met a Christian who could respond to my most basic philosophical questions: How does one understand the Bible’s contradictions? Could an omnipotent God make a stone he could not lift? What about the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because God declared it so, or does God merely identify the good? To someone like me, with no Christian background, resorting to an answer like “It takes faith” could only be intellectual cowardice. Joseph didn’t do that.

And he did something else: He prodded me on how inconsistent I was as an atheist who nonetheless believed in right and wrong as objective, universal categories. Defenseless, I decided to take a seminar on meta-ethics. After all, atheists had been developing ethical systems for 200-some years. In what I now see as providential, my atheist professor assigned a paper by C. S. Lewis that resolved the Euthyphro dilemma, declaring, “God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.”

Joseph also pushed me on the origins of the universe. I had always believed in the Big Bang. But I was blissfully unaware that the man who first proposed it, Georges Lemaître, was a Catholic priest. And I’d happily ignored the rabbit trail of a problem of what caused the Big Bang, and what caused that cause, and so on.

By Valentine’s Day, I began to believe in God. There was no intellectual shame in being a deist, after all, as I joined the respectable ranks of Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers.

I wouldn’t stay a deist for long. A Catholic friend gave me J. Budziszewski’s book Ask Me Anything, which included the Christian teaching that “love is a commitment of the will to the true good of the other person.” This theme—of love as sacrifice for true good—struck me. The Cross no longer seemed a grotesque symbol of divine sadism, but a remarkable act of love. And Christianity began to look less strangely mythical and more cosmically beautiful.

Now, I’m going to get into a lot of trouble for saying this, but I think that if you are a Christian and you are in a secular university, then you really need to have put in the effort to study the areas of science, history and philosophy that are relevant to the Christian faith. This is regardless of your personal abilities or field of study. We must all make an effort regardless of how comfortable we are with things that are hard for us to learn.

Granted, most people today are not interested in truth, because we just have this cultural preoccupation with having fun and feeling good and doing whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it. Most atheists I’ve met are like that, but some are more honest, open-minded, and they just have never encountered any good reasons or evidence to think that God exists and that Jesus is anything other than a man. There are a lot of atheists like that who are just waiting to hear some decent evidence. Our job is to prepare for them and then engage them, if they are willing to be engaged.

I think that definition of love she cited – self-sacrifice for the true good of another person – is important. I don’t think that ordinary Christians like you or me spends time on apologetics because we “like” it. I know lots of Christians who are in tough, expensive academic programs trying to get the skills they need to defend truth in areas that matter. They do this because they know that there are people out there who are interested in truth, and who are willing to re-prioritize their lives if the truth is made clear to them. We need to be willing to serve God by doing hard things that work.

Positive arguments for Christian theism