Category Archives: Polemics

Professor explains how his study of the historical Jesus made him leave atheism

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s investigate Jesus!

Dr. Michael F. Bird has a great article in Christianity Today. I’ve featured his debates with atheist historican James Crossley on this blog before, and I have the book they co-wrote.

In the article, Dr. Bird writes:

I grew up in a secular home in suburban Australia, where religion was categorically rejected—it was seen as a crutch, and people of faith were derided as morally deviant hypocrites. Rates for church attendance in Australia are some of the lowest in the Western world, and the country’s political leaders feel no need to feign religious devotion. In fact, they think it’s better to avoid religion altogether.

As a teenager, I wrote poetry mocking belief in God. My mother threw enough profanity at religious door knockers to make even a sailor blush.

Many years later, however, I read the New Testament for myself. The Jesus I encountered was far different from the deluded radical, even mythical character described to me. This Jesus—the Jesus of history—was real. He touched upon things that cut close to my heart, especially as I pondered the meaning of human existence. I was struck by the early church’s testimony to Jesus: In Christ’s death God has vanquished evil, and by his resurrection he has brought life and hope to all.

When I crossed from unbelief to belief, all the pieces suddenly began to fit together. I had always felt a strange unease about my disbelief. I had an acute suspicion that there might be something more, something transcendent, but I also knew that I was told not to think that. I “knew” that ethics were nothing more than aesthetics, a mere word game for things I liked and disliked. I felt conflicted when my heart ached over the injustice and cruelty in the world.

Faith grew from seeds of doubt, and I came upon a whole new world that, for the first time, actually made sense to me. To this day, I do not find faith stifling or constricting. Rather, faith has been liberating and transformative for me. It has opened a constellation of meaning, beauty, hope, and life that I had been indoctrinated to deny. And so began a lifelong quest to know, study, and teach about the one whom Christians called Lord.

And now specifics:

For many secularists, Ehrman is a godsend who propagates common misconceptions about Jesus and the early church. He believes there was a spectrum of divinity between gods and humans in the ancient world. Therefore, he asserts that the early church’s beliefs about Jesus evolved: from a man exalted to heaven to an angel who became human to a pre-existent “divine” person who became incarnate to a subordinated or lesser god to being declared one with God.

My faith and studies have led me to believe otherwise. First-century Jews and early Christians clearly demarcated God from all other reality, thus leading them to hold to a very strict monotheism. That said, Jesus was not seen as a Greek god like Zeus who trotted about earth or a human being who morphed into an angel at death. Rather, the first Christians redefined the concept of “one God” around the person and work of Jesus Christ. Not to mention the New Testament writers, especially Luke and Paul, consistently identify Jesus with the God of Israel.

Many people get the idea that Jesus was just a prophet and never claimed to be divine. But a careful look at the Gospels shows that the historical Jesus explicitly claimed to exercise divine prerogatives. He identified himself with God’s activity in the world. He believed that in his own person, Israel’s God was returning to Zion, just as the prophets had promised. And he claimed he would sit on God’s throne. These claims, when studied up close, are de facto claims to divine personhood, the reasons religious leaders of the day were so outraged.

Evidence shows that Jesus claimed to be God incarnate, and within 20-some years after his death and resurrection, Christians were identifying him with the God of Israel, using the language and grammar of the Old Testament to do so.

Sure, some sects in the first few centuries held heretical beliefs about Jesus. But the mainstream, orthodox view of Christ’s identity was always consistent with and rooted in the New Testament, though orthodox Christology became more refined in the following centuries.

It’s definitely true that you can recover a high Christology (a view of Jesus as divine) from the earliest gospel, Mark. I wrote about it in a previous post. But the earliest evidence for Jesus is that creed in 1 Corinthians 15, that I blogged about recently.

Here is his conclusion:

Some have great confidence in skeptical scholarship, and I once did, perhaps more than anyone else. If anyone thinks they are assured in their unbelief, I was more committed: born of unbelieving parents, never baptized or dedicated; on scholarly credentials, a PhD from a secular university; as to zeal, mocking the church; as to ideological righteousness, totally radicalized. But whatever intellectual superiority I thought I had over Christians, I now count it as sheer ignorance. Indeed, I count everything in my former life as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing the historical Jesus who is also the risen Lord. For his sake, I have given up trying to be a hipster atheist. I consider that old chestnut pure filth, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a CV that will gain me tenure at an Ivy League school, but knowing that I’ve bound myself to Jesus—and where he is, there I shall also be.

I recently led a Bible study on the passage he is paralleling there – it comes from my favorite book of the Bible, Philippians.

What I like about Bird’s story is that he was a skeptic, and his study of history is what changed his mind. This contradicts a narrative that young people are sold at the university, which is that the more education you have, the more you turn away from theism in general, and Christianity in particular. I wouldn’t even classify him as a super conservative scholar, by any means – he’s just a good scholar who believes whatever he thinks is historically sound. It just turns out that you can recover enough historically to ground a commitment to Jesus Christ. You can’t get everything as a historian, but you get enough to cause a change of mind about who Jesus was.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Can atheists help themselves to objective morality on atheism?


A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

Here’s Dr. William Lane Craig explaining why you can’t:

He presents 3 reasons why in the video, all of which are also discussed in his Defenders class:

The mention of Plato brings to mind another possible atheistic response to the first premise of the moral argument that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. Plato thought that the Good just exists as a sort of self-subsistent idea, as an entity in and of itself. Indeed, it is the most real thing in reality. The Good simply exists. If you find this difficult to grasp, join the company! Nevertheless, that is what Plato believed. Later Christian thinkers, like Augustine, equated Plato’s Good with the nature of God. God’s nature is the Good, and so it was anchored in a concrete object, namely, God. But for Plato, at least, the Good just sort of existed on its own as a kind of self-existent idea.

Some atheists might say that moral values, like Justice, Mercy, Love, and Forbearance, just exist all on their own as sort of abstract moral objects. They have no other foundation; they just exist. We can call this view Atheistic Moral Platonism. According to this view, moral values are not grounded in God. They just exist all on their own.

Unintelligibility of Atheistic Moral Platonism

What might we say by way of response to Atheistic Moral Platonism? Let me make three responses. First, it seems to me that this view is just unintelligible. I simply don’t understand what it means. What does it mean, for example, to say that the moral value Justice just exists? I understand what it means to say that a person is just or that some action is just, but what does it even mean to say that in the absence of any persons or any objects at all, that Justice just exists? It is hard to understand even what this means. Moral values seem to be properties of persons, and so it is hard to understand how Justice can just exist as a sort of abstraction.

Lack of Moral Obligation on Atheistic Moral Platonism

Secondly, a major weakness of this view is that it provides no basis for objective moral duties. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that moral values like Justice, Love, Forbearance, and Tolerance just exist on their own. Why would that lay any sort of moral obligation upon me? Why would the existence of this realm of ideas make it my duty to be, say, merciful or loving? Who or what lays such an obligation upon me? Why would I have the moral duty to be merciful or loving? Notice that on this view moral vices like Greed, Hatred, and Selfishness presumably also exist as abstractions. In the absence of any moral law giver, what obligates me to align my life with one set of these abstract ideas rather than with some other set of abstract ideas? There just doesn’t seem to be any basis at all for moral duty in this view. In the absence of a moral law giver, Atheistic Moral Platonism lacks any basis for moral obligation.

Improbability of Atheistic Moral Platonism

Finally, thirdly, it is fantastically improbable that the blind evolutionary process should spit forth exactly those kinds of creatures that align with the existence of this realm of abstract values.1 Remember that they have no relationship with each other at all. The natural realm and this abstract moral realm are completely separate. And yet, lo and behold, the natural realm has by chance alone evolved exactly those kind of creatures whose lives align with these moral duties and values. This seems to be an incredible coincidence when you think about it. It is almost as if the moral realm knew that we were coming! I think it is a far more plausible view to say that both the natural realm and the moral realm are under the sovereignty of a divine being, who is both the creator of natural laws that govern the physical universe and whose commands constitute the moral laws that govern our ethical duties. This is a more coherent view of reality. Theism is a more coherent view because these two realms of reality don’t fall apart in this disjointed way. They are both under the sovereignty of a single natural and moral law giver.

For those three reasons, Atheistic Moral Platonism is a less plausible view than theistic based ethics such as I have been defending.

And now, I must be mean to the atheists, because I think this me too nonsense is just ridiculous, desperate intellectual dishonesty.

I remember having a conversation with one of my IT project managers who was an atheist, and she asked me what I thought would happen to dogs when they died. I said “well they don’t have an afterlife so they just rot away when we bury them and get eaten by worms”. She was aghast and said “no they don’t, they go to Heaven”. And that’s what morality on atheism is. It’s just an appearance package that gets bolted on absolute meaninglessness and hedonism. And even if the atheist tries to make traditional decisions in their own lives, they typically push for full-on dismantling of Judeo-Christian values, especially in the sexual realm. And that spills over into abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage and government restraints on free speech, conscience and religious liberty.

Dear atheists: you cannot duct tape morality onto nihilism and have it be rational. We know you’re doing it to feel good about yourselves and to appear normal instead of wearing your nihilism openly. But your faked morality is not even close to the morality of theists, and especially not of Christian theists. Christians go against their self-interest because we imitate the self-sacrificial love of Christ, who gave himself as a ransom to save others. That makes no sense on an atheistic worldview, since this life is all you have, and there is no afterlife where your actions are in the context of a relationship with that self-sacrificial Son of God. In any case, free will doesn’t exist on atheism, so that means no moral choices regardless. These are the common sense implications of atheist first principles, and in fact that’s what you hear expressed from the finest atheist scholars: no free will, no right and wrong, no life after death.

If you want to see what atheists really think about morality, then take a look at this post featuring Matt Dillahunty, where he is asked to condemn the Holocaust as objectively wrong, and he refuses to do it. That’s intellectually consistent atheist morality right there. If the universe is an accident, and human beings evolved by accident, then there is way things ought to be, and no way we ought to act. And no one is there is no ongoing two-way relationship for our conduct to be part of, anyway. On atheism, human beings will die out individually and collectively in the heat death of the universe. Once the heat death of the universe arrives, there will be no one left to care how we lived after we’re dead – there is no one waiting for us who cares how we act towards him and towards others. Atheists can arbitrarily put any limits they want on their actions, based on what makes them feel good, and what makes people like them, perhaps taking account the arbitrary customs and conventions of the time and place they find themselves in. But it’s delusional and irrational make-believe for atheists to claim that morality is rational on their worldview.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Why Democrat talk of taking in Syrian refugees infuriates me

Women for bigger government, higher taxes
Women for bigger government, higher taxes

Obama wants to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, then another 100,000 in 2016 and another 100,000 in 2017.

In previous posts, I have laid out several reasons for why we should not take in Syrian refugees. First and foremost is the cost of taking in Syrian refugees – pegged at $6.5 billion total for just the first 10,000 refugees. Canada is taking in twice that number, and their government costed their plan out at $1.2 billion for only six years. Obama himself doesn’t earn any money, has never worked in the private sector. So he isn’t going to pay for this with his own $6.5 billion with his own hard work. He’s going to pass that bill onto young people to pay, but today he’ll preen for the cameras and show how “generous” he is for spending other people’s money. He already added $10 trillion onto the national debt, doubling it.

Second, we don’t have the national security in place to vet the Syrian refugees. The news lately has been full of cases of people traveling with Syrian documents, and some of them trying to come into the USA through our porous Southern border. In general, we should assume from the many national security failures of the Democrats that they cannot be trusted on anything they say about things being safe. We have the Bradley Manning leak, the Snowden leak, the Hillary Clinton private unsecure e-mail server hack, the Benghazi cover-up, the gun-running to Mexican drug cartels, the leak of the planned Israeli strike on Iran, the leaking of the name of the British spy who foiled the airline bombing attack, and on and on and on. Although none of these are remembered by Democrat supporters of the President, they paint a picture of the administration’s incompetence at protecting Americans. In fact, senior officials in Obama’s own administration confirm that the vetting process is unreliable. They can’t even ask them questions that would help to identify them as terrorist risks.

Third, although many of the refugees are women and children, we have to make two points about that. The first point is that women and children are frequently used in Islamic terrorist attacks. Here’s an article tracing some of the recent Islamic terror attacks involving women and children. We need look no further than the Boston bombers to see how letting in Muslim children can turn into a terrorist risk. They were carefully vetted by the Democrats, and yet they murdered anyway. Second point, there is something to be said about letting in a lot of Muslim immigrants in any case, since a critical mass of Muslim immigrants can create the environment that allows terrorist attacks to be planned. Just read this article on how the Islamic “no go” zones in Paris played a part in the recent terrorist attacks there.

Fourth point is about stewardship. What should we do in order to help the refugees. I’m running short of space, so I’ll just point you to this article that argues that it is a much better use of our money to help the refugees where they are. We can help many more refugees if we leave them over there than we can help if we only bring a few here, for the same cost. Although Democrats who are spending other people’s money don’t care to think of who is paying, it’s always a good idea to spend taxpayer money wisely.

The fifth and final point is something I could not articulate, but that was behind my anger at the well-meaning but naive Christians who were calling for us to take on Syrian refugees on Biblical grounds. I think the real reason I was so angry is as follows:

  • Naive Christians do not understand anything that is happening in the Middle East. They just don’t follow it, they don’t know the players, the previous attacks, the risks and threats, nothing.
  • Naive Christians take their cues from a pacificist culture, the left-wing media, and their own fact-free emotions. So, they think that war is NEVER the answer to aggression from evildoers, e.g. – Assad and his controllers in Iran. They just don’t have the understanding of good wars like World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, etc. that were clearly wars that America undertook in order to help others from terror, torture, murder and rape. They don’t understand that setting up Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Kuwait, etc. with long-term protection and guidance is what allowed them to recover and become peaceful and democratic.
  • Naive Christians had nothing to say about staying the course in Afghanistan and Iraq, invading Syria (which we should have done, instead of attacking Egypt and Libya, which was stupid and pointless) and NOT making a deal with Iran. In short, they have nothing to say about preventing the situations where wars and refugees result in the first place. They just want to ride in sanctimoniously after their benign neglect has failed to work, and then appear to be concerned about peace. But only by spending trillions of taxpayer dollars to clean up around the edges, while leaving the core problem intact.

So with all that said, here is the article that cured my anger once about this. It appears in The Weekly Standard, and it involves the indomitable Bill Kristol, quoting a journalist named Walter Mussell Mead, who voted for Obama in 2008, who now writes about Obama’s lack of seriousness about opposing evil with force, the disaster that resulted, and his attempt to paper over his stupidity with sanctimonious statements about taking in refugees from the mess he himself created.

Here it is:

“To see the full cynicism of the Obama approach to the refugee issue, one has only to ask President Obama’s least favorite question: Why is there a Syrian refugee crisis in the first place?

“Obama’s own policy decisions​—​allowing Assad to convert peaceful demonstrations into an increasingly ugly civil war, refusing to declare safe havens and no fly zones—​were instrumental in creating the Syrian refugee crisis. This crisis is in large part the direct consequence of President Obama’s decision to stand aside and watch Syria burn. For him to try and use a derisory and symbolic program to allow 10,000 refugees into the United States in order to posture as more caring than those evil Jacksonian rednecks out in the benighted sticks is one of the most cynical, cold-blooded, and nastily divisive moves an American President has made in a long time. .  .  .

“To think that conspicuous moral posturing and holy posing over a symbolic refugee quota could turn President Obama from the goat to the hero of the Syrian crisis is absurd. Wringing your hands while Syria turns into a hell on earth, and then taking a token number of refugees, can be called many things, but decent and wise are not among them. You don’t have to be a xenophobe or a racist or even a Republican to reject this President’s leadership on Syria policy. All you need for that is common sense and a moral compass. .  .  .

“For no one, other than the Butcher Assad and the unspeakable al-Baghdadi, is as responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria as is President Obama. No one has committed more sins of omission, no one has so ruthlessly sacrificed the well-being of Syria’s people for his own ends, as the man in the White House. In all the world, only President Obama had the ability to do anything significant to prevent this catastrophe; in all the world no one turned his back so coldly and resolutely on the suffering Syrians as the man who sits in the White House today​—​a man who is now lecturing his fellow citizens on what he insists is their moral inferiority before his own high self-esteem.”

Read the whole thing. Really. And remember than people on the Christian left are basically the same in terms of foolishness as people on the secular left. They are not guided by evidence, but by feelings. And they need to be told early and often how their feelings fail to work in real life. Otherwise, we will continue taking their compassionate naivete seriously, and go bankrupt paying for it, or maybe just get ourselves killed by the evil we allowed to fester. I know a lot of naive leftist Christians are trusting Think Progress and Huffington Post to tell us what the Bible says about refugees, but surprise! Think Progress is not that good at Biblical exegesis.

Another good article about how our retreating from a war that was won caused a humanitarian disaster: “What Happens When America Retreats From The Middle East“.

New study: evolutionary algorithms fail to produce meaningful change

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Dr. Ann Gauger has a short post at Evolution News about a new paper in the peer-reviewed journal BIO-Complexity.

She writes:

Winston Ewert of Biologic Institute has just published a new article in the peer-reviewed journal BIO-Complexity (“Overabundant mutations help potentiate evolution: The effect of biologically realistic mutation rates on computer models of evolution”).

He and his colleagues have been engaged in a series of critiques of evolutionary algorithms for the last several years.

[…]The advantage of these computer simulations is that they can be run many, many times and thus approximate the long time necessary for biological evolution. The disadvantage is that they do not replicate true biological evolutionary processes, but use “analogous” algorithms. Typically these models, such as Ev and Avida, are purported to solve complex problems.

Yet Ewert and his colleagues have shown that in every case the necessary information for the models to find their targets was smuggled in, whether intentionally or not, by the respective programmers.

[…]Ewert shows that even taking the models as they are, when they are tested using realistic scenarios they fail to accomplish their goals. In fact, they accomplish little beyond their starting positions. He determines the reason for this failure — the models can only go as far as one step will take them. They can’t evolve anything that requires two or more mutations, unless mutation rates are unrealistically high.

Here’s the abstract of the new paper:

Various existing computer models of evolution attempt to demonstrate the efficacy of Darwinian evolution by solving simple problems. These typically use per-nucleotide (or nearest analogue) mutation rates orders of magnitude higher than biological rates. This paper compares models using typical rates for genetic algorithms with the same models using a realistic mutation rate. It finds that the models with the realistic mutation rates lose the ability to solve the simple problems. This is shown to be the result of the difficulty of evolving mutations that only provide a benefit in combination with other mutations.

This reminds me of William Dembski’s “No Free Lunch” theorems, which show that you can never get information for free, through simple mechanisms like genetic algorithms. The only proven source of functional information is an intelligent agent.

Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet? A response to Bart Ehrman

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Here is the outline page, and the outline points:

  1. Great swaths of agreement
  2. Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
  3. Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
  4. Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
  5. Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?

We’ve talked about 1 and 2 before, so let’s look at #3.

Here’s the problem:

In this section, I want to consider a third major point of divergence between Ehrman and evangelicals: the issue of Jesus’ status as an apocalyptic prophet. Christians throughout history have agreed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet in the sense that he preached about God’s coming judgment and urged people to repent, trusting in God’s love and mercy. Where Christians disagree with Ehrman is over the issue of timing: did Jesus believe and in fact predict that the Final Judgment of the world by the Son of Man would occur within the lifetime of his followers? This difference is important because if Jesus did predict that the end of the world would occur within a generation of his death, this would obviously call into question his claim to be divine.

Ehrman thinks that Jesus was making apocalyptic predictions about events that would occur within a generation of his death. He also thinks that Jesus is talking about the end of the world, rather than using apocalyptic language to refer to some other calamity. So, if Jesus is predicting the end of the world sometime soon after his death and that never happened, then he cannot be God stepping into history. He made a big mistake about something important. So how do we explain Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies?

Well, most scholars agree that Jesus’ predictions of destruction in Mark 13 (and echoed in Matt 24 and Luke 21) predate the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and Neil thinks that he was referring to that event, and not the end of the world and final judgment.

Shenvi has 3 arguments for his view, let’s look at just one:

First, notice that Jesus’ use in [Mark 13] v. 29-30 of the phrases “these things… all these things” is a deliberate echo of Peter’s question in v. 4 about when “these things” will happen and when “all these things” will be fulfilled (the underlying Greek phrases are also identical). But in v. 4, Peter was asking about the destruction of the temple that Jesus had just predicted in v. 2. While Peter may have had the end of the world also in mind, the text in Mark makes no mention of that fact. Thus, whatever other material Jesus introduced in the Olivet Discourse, his (or Mark’s) repetition of those two particular Greek phrases in his prophecy about ‘this generation’ (v. 30) seems to indicate that his prediction is to be primarily understood as a response to Peter’s question.

As for the ‘cosmic’ predictions in v. 29-30, connecting an imminent, temporal judgment on a single nation with the final judgment on the entire world was a common device in the Old Testament. For example, the book of Zephaniah alternates between oracles of judgment against Judah and its neighbors, which were predicted for the near-future, with prophesies of God’s final judgment and restoration, which would occur at an unspecified future time. Similar motifs can be found in books like Joel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. At this point, it is unimportant whether we see the prophesies in these books as genuine predictions (the evangelical view) or as retrospective explanations of events which had already occurred (a common non-evangelical view). What matters is that, by Jesus’ time, it was understood that temporal judgments could foreshadow a future final judgment. So in transitioning immediately from the impending destruction of Jerusalem to the final judgment, Jesus was repeating a theme which had existed in the Old Testament prophets for centuries.

[…]Third, Jesus does not actually predict in this passage that the Son of Man will return within ‘this generation.’ This observation was astonishing to me, but it’s fairly clear in the text. Look again at the two key verses: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Mark 13:19-30). What Jesus predicts in v. 30 is that “all these things” will take place within “this generation.” Ehrman’s contention is that “all these things” include the coming of the Son of Man as described in v. 26-27. But look again at v. 29. When the disciples see “these things” taking place it will mean that the Son of Man is “near, at the very gates.” In fact, it is nonsensical to say that “these things” include the Son of Man arriving to judge the world. If that were true, then v. 29 would mean “when you see [the Son of man arriving to judge the world], you know that [the Son of Man] is near.” As I’ve argued, it’s far more plausible to see ‘these things’ as referring solely to destruction of Jerusalem. When the disciples see ‘these things’ [the events preceding the destruction of Jerusalem], then they will know that the Son of Man is near, even at the door.

He responds to several objections to his argument and concludes so:

The three independent arguments I’ve given here support the idea that Jesus did not intend to predict the end of the world within one generation in the Olivet Discourse. In my opinion, a better reading is that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem within the next generation and saw this destruction as a foreshadowing of a final judgment which would occur at an unspecified time “after that tribulation” (v 24).

If this is an objection that you’ve heard before, you can do two things. Read the post, and then bookmark it for later. When the question comes up next time, you’ll be ready, because Dr. Shenvi has done the work for you.

UPDATE: Jason Engwer has a post about this that goes into even more detail at Triablogue.