Dr. Neil Shenvi has had a successful career in the field of theoretical chemistry, but in his spare time, he thinks about faith questions. One of the questions he’s thought about is the difference that God makes when we are asking questions of ultimate meaning and purpose in life. And he’s even done a lecture on it.
Here’s the lecture:
Does life have a purpose? If naturalism is true, what is the purpose of life? If Christianity is true, what is the purpose of life?
Dr. Shenvi’s brief testimony and background
There is no purpose to the universe and us on naturalism
The answer to every why-question on naturalism is chance and necessity (laws)
Nothing in the universe has intrinsic / objective value
There is no hope on naturalism because of the heat death of the universe: everything dies
Nothing that humans do, on naturalism, matters in the long run
Given sufficient time, the universe will not even know we were here
Famous atheists like Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins agree on this
Purpose on naturalism:
Purpose response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up purposes
The monopoly in a prison illustration
Meaning on naturalism:
Meaning response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up meaning
The scrabble vs Shakespeare illustration
Value on naturalism:
Value response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up values
The subjective opinion vs objective truth illustration
Hope on naturalism:
Hope response: we can invent our own arbitrary made-up hopes
The heat death of the universe ensures that all hopes fail on naturalism
If Christianity is true:
The universe and human beings have an objective purpose
There is a meaning to life that is objective
Human beings have intrinsic value, because God made them and values them
There is hope because there is an life after death that extends eternally
This lecture does not argue that Christianity is true because it gives us goodies
People should become Christians because Christianity is true
Christianity is actually quite difficult because it requires self-denial and self-sacrifice
What God has done to help us overcome with our rebellion?
By the way, if you want to hear a recent debate on this question, I summarized one in a recent post. The debate featured Andy Bannister vs Michael Ruse. Ruse tried to argue that you could get a feeling of self-worth from your accomplishments and that this feeling of having meaning was enough.
Here’s a lecture from N.T. Wright, whose multi-volume case for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus seems to be getting a lot of respect from the other side, (although I strongly disagree with his economic and political views, which are naive at best). Wright has taught at Cambridge University, Oxford University, Duke University, McGill University, and lectured on dozens of prestigious campuses around the world. He’s published 40 books.
Here’s a video of his case for the resurrection:
N.T. Wright’s historical case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus
Wright basically argues that the resurrection cannot have been a myth invented by the early Christian community, because the idea of the Messiah dying and being bodily resurrected to eternal life was completely unexpected in Jewish theology, and therefore would not have been fabricated.
In Judaism, when people die, they stay dead. At the most, they might re-appear as apparitions, or be resuscitated to life for a while, but then die again later. There was no concept of the bodily resurrection to eternal life of a single person, especially of the Messiah, prior to the general resurrection of all the righteous dead on judgment day.
Wright’s case for the resurrection has 3 parts:
The Jewish theological beliefs of the early Christian community underwent 7 mutations that are inexplicable apart from the bodily resurrection of Jesus
The empty tomb
The post-mortem appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups, friends and foes
Here’s the outline of Wright’s case:
…the foundation of my argument for what happened at Easter is the reflection that this Jewish hope has undergone remarkable modifications or mutations within early Christianity, which can be plotted consistently right across the first two centuries. And these mutations are so striking, in an area of human experience where societies tend to be very conservative, that they force the historian… to ask, Why did they occur?
The mutations occur within a strictly Jewish context. The early Christians held firmly, like most of their Jewish contemporaries, to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world. ‘Resurrection’ is not a fancy word for ‘life after death’; it denotes life after ‘life after death’.
And here are the 7 mutations:
Christian theology of the afterlife mutates from multiples views (Judaism) to a single view: resurrection (Christianity). When you die, your soul goes off to wait in Sheol. On judgment day, the righteous dead get new resurrection bodies, identical to Jesus’ resurrection body.
The relative importance of the doctrine of resurrection changes from being peripheral (Judaism) to central (Christianity).
The idea of what the resurrection would be like goes from multiple views (Judaism) to a single view: an incorruptible, spiritually-oriented body composed of the material of the previous corruptible body (Christianity).
The timing of the resurrection changes from judgment day (Judaism) to a split between the resurrection of the Messiah right now and the resurrection of the rest of the righteous on judgment day (Christianity).
There is a new view of eschatology as collaboration with God to transform the world.
There is a new metaphorical concept of resurrection, referred to as being “born-again”.
There is a new association of the concept of resurrection to the Messiah. (The Messiah was not even supposed to die, and he certainly wasn’t supposed to rise again from the dead in a resurrected body!)
There are also other historical puzzles that are solved by postulating a bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Jewish people thought that the Messiah was not supposed to die. Although there were lots of (warrior) Messiahs running around at the time, whenever they got killed, their followers would abandon them. Why didn’t Jesus’ followers abandon him when he died?
If the early Christian church wanted to communicate that Jesus was special, despite his shameful death on the cross, they would have made up a story using the existing Jewish concept of exaltation. Applying the concept of bodily resurrection to a dead Messiah would be a radical departure from Jewish theology, when an invented exaltation was already available to do the job.
The early church became extremely reckless about sickness and death, taking care of people with communicable diseases and testifying about their faith in the face of torture and execution. Why did they scorn sickness and death?
The gospels, especially Mark, do not contain any embellishments and “theology historicized”. If they were made-up, there would have been events that had some connection to theological concepts. But the narratives are instead bare-bones: “Guy dies public death. People encounter same guy alive later.” Plain vanilla narrative.
The story of the women who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb cannot have been invented, because the testimony of women was inadmissible under almost all circumstances at that time. If the story were invented, they would have invented male discoverers of the tomb. Female discovers would have hampered conversion efforts.
There are almost no legendary embellishments in the gospels, while there are plenty in the later gnostic forgeries. No crowds of singing angels, no talking crosses, and no booming voices from the clouds.
There is no mention of the future hope of the general resurrection, which I guess they thought was imminent anyway.
To conclude, Wright makes the argument that the best explanation of all of these changes in theology and practice is that God raised Jesus (bodily) from the dead. There is simply no way that this community would have made up the single resurrection of the Messiah – who wasn’t even supposed to die – and then put themselves on the line for that belief.
And remember, the belief in a resurrected Jesus was something that the earliest witnesses could really assess, because they were the ones who saw him killed and then walking around again after his death. They were able to confirm or deny their belief in the resurrection of Jesus based on their own personal experiences with the object of those beliefs.
Peter J. Williams is the Warden (CEO) of Tyndale House and a member of the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. He received his MA, MPhil and PhD, in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible from Cambridge University. After his PhD, he was on staff in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University (1997–1998), and thereafter taught Hebrew and Old Testament there as Affiliated Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic and as Research Fellow in Old Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge (1998–2003). From 2003 to 2007 he was on the faculty of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he became a Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. In July 2007 he became the youngest Warden in the history of Tyndale House. He also retains his position as an honorary Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Aberdeen.
Summary of the lecture:
What if the stories about Jesus are legendary?
were the gospels transmitted accurately?
were the gospels written in the same place as where the events happened?
do the gospel authors know the customs and locations where the events happened?
do the gospels use the right names for the time and place where the events took place?
do the gospels disambiguate people’s names depending on how common those names were?
how do the New Testament gospels compare to the later gnostic gospels?
how do the gospels refer to the main character? How non-Biblical sources refer to Jesus?
how does Jesus refer to himself in the gospels? do the later Christians refer to him that way?
how does Jesus teach? do later Christians teach the same way?
why didn’t Jesus say anything about early conflicts in the church (the Gentiles, church services)?
did the writers of the gospels know the places where the events took place?
how many places are named in the gospels? how about in the later gnostic gospels?
are the botanical details mentioned in the gospels accurate? how about the later gnostic gospels?
And here are the questions from the audience:
how what about the discrepancies in the resurrection narratives that Bart Ehrman is obsessed with?
what do you think of the new 2011 NIV translation (Peter is on the ESV translation committee)?
how did untrained, ordinary men produce complex, sophisticated documents like the gospels?
is oral tradition a strong enough bridge between the events and the writers who interviewed the eyewitnesses?
what does the name John mean?
why did the gospel writers wait so long before writing their gospels?
do you think that Matthew and Luke used a hypothetical source which historians call “Q”?
which gospel do critical historians trust the least and why?
I really enjoyed watching this lecture. He’s getting some of this material from Richard Bauckham’s awesome book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, so if you aren’t familiar with it, you can get an idea of what’s in it. Peter Williams is a lot of fun to listen to – an excellent speaker.
Here’s my attempt, then we’ll see an expert do it.
I hope that everyone who reads my blog is passionate about the gospel and understands it enough to explain it to others. It is so practical, you can see the need for it immediately when you talk to people in any detail. People are in rebellion against God. We want to seek our own happiness from rational constraints, moral constraints, judgments and feelings of shame. We want to not have to care what other people think of us (unless they agree), and this goes double for the God of the universe. This is literally infuriating to God, since he is the one who gives us so many blessings. It is proper for us to to recognize and respect him in our decision making – even if we find his greatness offensive to our pride. Instead of respecting God, we attribute the blessings to blind luck. We refuse to acknowledge God in our decision-making, and not just in moral issues but in everything we do. This is just astonishing ingratitude, and for this we deserve to be punished. However, God has given us a way to be reconciled with him, by allowing his own Son to be punished in our place. This punishment of Jesus pays the debt that we owe to God for our rebellion against him. If we acknowledge this sacrifice by Jesus, and put him in place as our leader and mentor, then God will forgive us and we will be reconciled with Him. And so, a relationship with God can begin, and it lasts forever. That is the gospel.
Here is famous evangelist Ravi Zacharias explaining the gospel in two minutes:
For those who don’t want to watch the video, here’s a good thought about the gospel from J. Warner Wallace at Please Convince Me.
A “just” God does justice, which means to punish or reward appropriately. In the Western tradition, we punish people for the actions they commit, but the extent of punishment is dependent also on the person’s mental state, and a person’s mental state is reflective of his or her beliefs. Premeditated murder is worse than manslaughter, and is punished more severely, and a hate crime is a sentencing enhancement that adds more punishment to the underlying crime. In both examples, a person’s beliefs are at play: the premeditated murderer has reflected on his choices and wants the victim dead; a hate crime reflects a belief that the rights of a member of the protected group are especially unworthy of respect. So, considering a person’s beliefs may well be relevant, especially if those beliefs have motivated the criminal behavior.
But the challenger’s mistake is even more fundamental. He is wrong to assert that people are condemned for not accepting the gospel. Christians believe that people are condemned for their sinful behavior – the “wages of sin is death” – not for what they fail to do. The quoted challenge is like saying that the sick man died of “not going to the doctor.” No, the person died of a specific condition – perhaps cancer or a heart attack – which a doctor might have been able to cure. So too with eternal punishment. No one is condemned for refusing to believe in Jesus. While Jesus can – and does – provide salvation for those who seek it, there is nothing unjust about not providing salvation to those who refuse to seek it. After all, we don’t normally feel obliged to help someone who has not asked for, and does not want, our assistance. So too the Creator has the right to withhold a gift – i.e. eternity spent in His presence – from those who would trample on the gift, and on the gift-giver.
The quoted assertion also demonstrates an unspoken belief that we can impress God with our “kind” or “generous” behavior. This fails to grasp what God is – a perfect being. We cannot impress Him. What we do right we should do. We don’t drag people into court and reward them for not committing crimes. This is expected of them. They can’t commit a murder and then claim that punishment is unfair, because they had been kind and generous in the past. When a person gets his mind around the idea of what perfection entails, trying to impress a perfect Creator with our “basic goodness” no longer seems like such a good option.
I think it’s very important to get all of this clear, and nothing makes it clearer than when you get to know a non-Christian and really hear their reasons for not looking into whether God exists. Ask them what they think life is really about, and what motivates them, and see where God is in it. I think we get confused by non-Christians because they can sometimes be very nice to other people. But the real standard is whether people recognize and acknowledge God as he really is, and respond to him in a relationship.
This video has 3 parts, as well as questions and answers in individual clips.
For those who cannot watch the video, you can grab the MP3 file of the lecture, or read this essay by Dr. Craig which covers exactly the same ground as the video. The essay is for Christians already familiar with basic apologetics.
Part 1 of 3:
Part 2 of 3:
Part 2 of 3:
Here’s a quick couple of quotes from the essay for those who cannot watch:
If there is no God, then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed. After all, what is so special about human beings? They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest. If, as Kurtz states, “The moral principles that govern our behavior are rooted in habit and custom, feeling and fashion,”5 then the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably.
The objective worthlessness of human beings on a naturalistic world view is underscored by two implications of that world view: materialism and determinism. Naturalists are typically materialists or physicalists, who regard man as a purely animal organism. But if man has no immaterial aspect to his being (call it soul or mind or what have you), then he is not qualitatively different from other animal species. For him to regard human morality as objective is to fall into the trap of specie-ism. On a materialistic anthropology there is no reason to think that human beings are objectively more valuable than rats. Secondly, if there is no mind distinct from the brain, then everything we think and do is determined by the input of our five senses and our genetic make-up. There is no personal agent who freely decides to do something. But without freedom, none of our choices is morally significant. They are like the jerks of a puppet’s limbs, controlled by the strings of sensory input and physical constitution. And what moral value does a puppet or its movements have?
[…]Moreover, if atheism is true, there is no moral accountability for one’s actions. Even if there were objective moral values and duties under naturalism, they are irrelevant because there is no moral accountability. If life ends at the grave, it makes no difference whether one lives as a Stalin or as a saint. As the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky rightly said: “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.”