First, let’s take a look at what the Bible says in general about capital punishment, using this lecture featuring eminent theologian Wayne Grudem.
About Wayne Grudem:
Grudem holds a BA from Harvard University, a Master of Divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. In 2001, Grudem became Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Phoenix Seminary. Prior to that, he had taught for 20 years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he was chairman of the department of Biblical and Systematic Theology.
Grudem served on the committee overseeing the English Standard Version translation of the Bible, and in 1999 he was the president of the Evangelical Theological Society. He is a co-founder and past president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He is the author of, among other books, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, which advocates a Calvinistic soteriology, the verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the body-soul dichotomy in the nature of man, and the complementarian (rather than egalitarian) view of gender equality.
I was having a chat on Friday with a brilliant agnostic young lady who knew as much about Christian apologetics as I did. It was very strange because she was only in her mid-20s, but she was talking about the Cambrian explosion, the resurrection scholarship of Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman, and so on. She had seen a lot of debates, and even knew about intelligent design. Anyway, she asked me two questions that I wanted to write about. The first was whether I thought that Hell was unfair, especially because it’s determined by having correct beliefs, and the second was whether I thought that God was kind or harsh.
Regarding, I do hold to a traditional view of Hell being eternal separation from God. I don’t think that God will be actively torturing people in Hell. I’m not sure if the flames are literal or figurative. But I do know that the severity of the punishment will be proportional to the amount of sinning, in the same way that the rewards in Heaven will be proportional to good actions here on Earth. The duration is the same, but the rewards and punishments fit our actions.
I don’t have a problem with Hell because I’ve spent most of my life trying to talk to people about spiritual things. Although this young lady was very open-minded and honest and spiritual, more than most people in the church, even, I don’t think that this is normal for non-Christians. Growing up around Muslims and Hindus, and having spoken to Jews, I know that there just isn’t much curiosity about God and Jesus in these other religions. Believe me, I’ve tried to discuss spiritual things with people of all different religions, and the idea that religious beliefs should be bounded by logic and evidence is almost nowhere to be found. It’s not even to be found among most Christians, but at least we have scholars who you can find if you dig hard enough.
So, when people ask me about Hell, the first thing that comes into my mind is my experiences trying to get non-Christians to line up their beliefs about God and Jesus with logic and evidence. Although it may seem harsh to shut the door on people who don’t want to put in the work, it doesn’t seem harsh to me. I’ve had it with people who make everything except an investigation into God’s existence a priority. I have no patience for people who think they are very intelligent in their thoughts about God, but then when they get into a discussion, it is obvious they haven’t put in any effort.
Do you know what they do put a lot of effort into, though? Entertainment, fun and thrills. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to give books or debates to culturally Jewish atheists and Muslim-raised atheists and Hindus (because of family and community) in my previous jobs, and got no interest in truth whatsoever. They were too busy watching the Comedy Channel Democrats, and trying to get their kids into Ivy league schools, etc. to care about God or Jesus. And God is not going to force them into eternal life with him, they don’t want it, and they’re not going to get it. It’s important to note that to not prioritize God is a choice. We in the West all have leisure time, and to be ignorant about God after 40 years of leisure time when you have put the time in elsewhere is unacceptable. God expects us to be curious about him and to do our due diligence in investigating him using as much intellect and effort as we put into our educations, careers, marriages, etc.
Regarding her other question about whether I think God is kind or harsh, I just decided to tell her that I didn’t think that God was the kind of God who had to be nice to me so that I would like him. I explained to her that I had wanted marriage from an early age, and had prepared very hard for it, but that it had never happened. I’m not sure that God is able to cause women to freely desire the things I did to prepare for marriage, like chastity, STEM degrees, gap-less resume and savings. I’m not the smartest person in the world, and I did not have family or friends helping me to get ahead most of the time. It was very hard to get ready for marriage. But I realized very late in life that young, unmarried women tend to be interested in a man’s appearance and in having fun – not marriage-ready preparation. They do not want a man who is serious about marriage and children until their mid-30s, which is far too old for my marriage plan to work. So, there’s no point in me marrying now. So does this lack of marriage make me think that God is unkind? Not at all.
I do think that God has been kind to me with respect to health, education, career and finances. Also, I can understand from the Bible (2 Tim 2:3-4) why God might need an unmarried soldier to work for him. And this doesn’t bother me, because I’ve read the Bible, and I didn’t get the impression from it that God was my cosmic butler. Although many Western Christians think that God’s sole purpose is to make them happy, there is no way to actually get that meaning out of the text. God’s own Son has to suffer in order to love his Father self-sacrificially. So it’s clear that God is not “kind” to those who love him in the sense that most people would like him to be. In fact, I would believe in God and serve him, even if he were “harsher” with me than he is now.
So, why would I want to be a Christian, rather than just accept the scientific arguments for theism, and then just say that the New Testament is just not good enough historical evidence to warrant moving from theism to Christianity? Well, I did explain to her the minimal facts argument, and the historical criteria used to obtain them. And I also said that we all need to have some sort of historical explanation for the early belief in Jesus being God stepping into history, and for his rising from the dead.
But I think the real reason why I am a Christian, beyond the evidence, is just this daily experience of dealing with the lack of curiosity about God and Jesus (and sometimes outright self-delusion) that I see in so many people. I see it in uneducated people, unintelligent people, educated people, intelligent people. The willful ignorance about facts that matter, like the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, etc. It’s not even opposition to Christian specifics, it’s opposition to plain, well-supported scientific facts. I’ve just seen this in action so much with atheists and people of other religions that I have lost all sympathy for non-Christians with respect to what God decides to do with them.
It’s not that I am concerned by their immorality, or their hedonism, primarily. It’s that I am concerned with their lack of interest in puzzling out the big questions of life in a truth-centered way. The only people I really feel comfortable with are Christians who have been serious about proportioning belief to evidence, denying themselves fun and thrills if they have to, and putting their money and time into learning how to defend God’s honor when it’s called into question. A task that simply gets you nothing good from anyone in this world. I find it amazing that there are any of us, but that’s where I want to be – in a room with people like that who put God’s goals above their own desires and needs.
All of my close male friends are either virgins or married as virgins, and they’re all into apologetics. If you understood what it means to be in a room with people who have carefully chosen to live their lives in a quiet, humble way that’s respectful to God and self-sacrificial, then you would understand why there is no substitute for Christianity. In my case, I simply do not want God to lump me in with the people I talk to who have no curiosity about truth in religion. I am not going to be like them, grabbing for happiness, while deliberately shutting their eyes to anything that might cause them to have to take God seriously in a self-sacrificial, two-way relationship. I have more sympathy for God and his reputation and honor than I do for the majority of people who I have seen deliberately keeping him at arm’s length. They want the blessings he provides, but while avoiding the demands of a relationship with him. I’m just not going to be one of them, and I don’t care what people think.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Just in case you didn’t know, Cephas is Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers.
The general consensus among scholars is the that creed goes back to within 1-3 years after the death if Jesus, when almost all the eyewitnesses were still around.
In Eric’s post, he quotes very well-known skeptical historians who affirm each part of the creed.
First, the creed as a whole is respected, even by atheist scholars like John Dominic Crossan:
Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (3).
And atheist scholar Robert Funk:
The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” — Robert Funk co-founder of the Jesus Seminar.(5)
Let’s take a look at one of the parts of the creed that is respected by skeptical historians… namely, the early belief that Jesus was resurrected shortly after his death.
The early belief in the resurrection
Skeptical scholar E.P. Sanders:
That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions.” “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it. (14)
Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman:
Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. (17)
Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19). (18)
You know, if all you did was give someone his post, I think that would be enough to show people that a more complete investigation of the historical Jesus was certainly a reasonable thing to do. It’s amazing to me that people who grow up at this time when access to the data is so easy do not take the opportunity to look into Christianity.
List of virtually undeniable facts
Finally, below is a list of facts about the historical Jesus that are accepted by ancient historians – Christian, non-Christian, atheist.
These are compiled by non-Christian scholar E.P. Sanders:
From his book “Jesus and Judaism” (1985):
Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
After his death, his followers continued as an identifiable movement.
At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement.
From his book “The Historical Figure of Jesus” (1993):
Jesus was born c.4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
He was baptized by John the Baptist;
He called disciples;
He taught in the towns, villages, and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities);
He preached “the kingdom of God”;
Around the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
He created a disturbance in the temple area;
He had a final meal with the disciples;
He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
He was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate;
His disciples at first fled;
They saw him (in what sense is uncertain) after his death;
As a consequence they believed he would return to found the kingdom;
They formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.
The way the resurrection of Jesus is presented on TV, you would think that mythical stories about Jesus emerged decades and even centuries after the fact in other parts of the world from where the events happened. But the trouble is that no ancient historian thinks that. Only Hollywood TV producers and movie makers think that. Now, if you are getting your view of the historical accuracy of basic Christian beliefs from television and movies, then don’t be surprised if you are wrong. No one is saying that you have to go to Christian pastors and preachers for the facts, but you should go to the historians. They at least know the minimal facts.
The best way for a skeptic to tackle these issues is, I think, to watch a decent debate on the resurrection of Jesus between two respected scholars. My favorite debate on the resurrection is William Lane Craig versus atheist historian James Crossley. I have a video and a summary already ready made just waiting for you to check it out. Don’t worry, no one will be looking over your shoulder making you change everything your life should you be convinced. Just watch the debate and decide what you are going to do with it on your own. You don’t have to change your whole life overnight. Becoming a Christian is instantaneous and easy to do. Living like a Christian is a process, and it’s between you and God how fast you go. So just see what the facts are to start with and then take it from there.
This debate took place on March 1, 2010 at Oregon State University.
In this debate, Victor Stenger does affirm his belief that the universe could be eternal in his second rebuttal (1:02:30), thus denying the standard Big Bang cosmology. He also denies the law of conservation of energy and asserts that something can come from nothing in his concluding speech (1:33:50). He also caused the audience to start laughing when he said that Jesus was not moral and supported slavery. There is almost no snark in this summary. Instead, I quoted Dr. Stenger verbatim in many places. I still think that it is very entertaining even without the snarky paraphrasing.
The debate includes 30 minutes of Q&A with the students.
Here’s the video of the debate:
Dr. Craig’s opening speech:
The ontological argument
The contingency argument
The cosmological argument
The moral argument
The resurrection of Jesus (3-fact version)
Dr. Stenger’s opening speech:
There is no scientific evidence for God’s existence in the textbooks
There is no scientific evidence for God acting in the universe
God doesn’t talk to people and tell them things they couldn’t possibly know
The Bible says that the Earth is flat, etc.
There is no scientific evidence that God answers prayers
God doesn’t exist because people who believe in him are ignorant
Human life is not optimally designed and appears to be the result of a blind, ad hoc evolutionary process
The beginning of the universe is not ordered (low entropy) but random and chaotic
It’s theoretically possible that quantum tunneling explains the origin of the universe
The laws of physics are not objectively real, they are “our inventions”
Regarding the beginning of the universe, the explanation is that something came from nothing*
Nothing* isn’t really nothing, it is “the total chaos that we project existed just before the big bang”
If something has no structure, then “it is as much nothing as nothing can be”
Consciousness is explainable solely on the basis of material processes
There are well-informed, rational non-believers in the world and God would not allow that
Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal:
Stenger’s argument that there is no objective evidence for God’s existence:
First, it is not required that God rely only on objective evidence in order to draw people to himself (Alvin Plantinga)
Second, God is not required to provide evidence to everyone, only to the people who he knows would respond to him
Third, Craig gave lots of objective evidence, from science, history and philosophy
Stenger asks for certain evidence (answered prayers, prophecy, etc.), but Craig presented the evidence we have
Stenger’s argument that the balance of energy is zero so “nothing” exists:
if you have the same amount of assets and liabilities, it doesn’t mean that nothing exists – your assets and liabilities exist
Christopher Isham says that there needs to be a cause to create the positive and negative energy even if they balance
the quantum gravity model contradicts observations
the vacuum is not the same as nothing, it contains energy and matter
the BVG theorem proves that any universe that is expanding must have a beginning
Stenger’s argument that mental operations can be reduced to physical operations:
mental properties are not reducible to physical properties
epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with self-identity over time
epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with thoughts about other things
epiphenomenalism: is incompatible with free will
substance dualism (mind/body dualism) is a better explanation for our mental experience
God is a soul without a body
Dr. Stenger’s first rebuttal:
Craig’s cosmological argument:
Craig’s premise is “everything has a cause”, but quantum mechanics has causeless events
There are speculative theories about how something could have come into being uncaused out of nothing
“I don’t know of a single working cosmologist today who believes there was a singularity prior to the Big Bang”
“If there wasn’t a singularity then there’s no basis for arguing that time began at that point”
“There’s no reason from cosmology that we know of that the universe can’t be eternal”
“When I talk about an eternal universe, I mean a universe that has no beginning or end”
The Hartle-Hawking model doesn’t have a beginning
“There was no violation of energy conservation by having a universe coming from nothing”
“The universe could have come from a previous universe for example or even just from a region of chaos”
The paper by Vilenkin is counteracted by other papers (he doesn’t specify which ones)
Craig’s moral argument:
Dr. Craig is arguing from ignorance
But morality can be decided by humanity just like governments pass laws, and that’s objective
Dr. Craig has too little respect for the human intellect
I don’t need to tell me that slavery is wrong
The Bible supports slavery
Atheists can behave as good as theists
Morality just evolved naturally as an aid to survival
Craig’s resurrection argument:
No Roman historians wrote about the execution of Jesus
The empty tomb is doubtful because it is only mentioned in the gospels, not by Paul
John Dominic Crossan says there was no empty tomb
Christianity only survived because the Roman empire thought that they were useful
Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal:
Craig’s cosmological argument:
There is no reason to prefer an indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics
Dr. Stenger himself wrote that deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics are possible
The vacuum in quantum mechanics is not nothing
The quantum vacuum he proposes cannot be eternal
The cosmological argument does not require a singularity
The Hartle-Hawking model is from 1983
Hawking says that there is a beginning of space and time after that model
The Hartle-Hawking model does still have a beginning of time – the model is not eternal
The BVG theorem that requires a beginning for expanding universes is widely accepted among cosmologists
Craig’s moral argument:
Stenger redefined objective to mean that most people agree with it – but that’s not what objective means
Objective means right and wrong whether anyone accepts it or not
Richard Dawkins himself says that on atheism there is “no evil and no good” – why is he wrong?
Even Dr. Stenger says that morality is the same as passing laws – it’s arbitrary and varies by time and place
But on his view, right and wrong are the same as deciding which side of the road to drive on
But somethings really are right and some things are really wrong
Craig’s resurrection argument:
Josephus is a Roman historian and he wrote about Jesus, for example
There were four biographies of Jesus are the best sources for his life
The scholars that Stenger mentioned are on the radical fringe
Dr. Stenger’s second rebuttal:
Knowledge and the burden of proof:
Dr. Craig has to bear the burden of proof, not me – because his claim is more “extravagant”
“I don’t have to prove that a God was not necessary to create the universe”
“I don’t have to prove that a God did not design the universe and life”
“I don’t have to prove that the universe did not have a beginning”
“I don’t have to prove that God did not provide us with our moral sense”
There are a lot of books written about how morality evolved naturally
“I don’t have to prove that the events surrounding the supposed resurrection of Jesus did not take place”
Bart Ehrman says that the gospels are generally unreliable (Note: Ehrman accepts all 3 of Craig’s minimal facts)
Just because people are willing to die for a cause, does not make their leader God, e.g. – the Emperor of Japan
Aesthetic concerns about the universe:
I don’t like dark matter and I wouldn’t have made the universe with dark matter
I don’t like the doctrine of penal substitution
I don’t like the doctrine of original sin
I don’t like the heat death of the universe
Dr. Craig’s conclusion:
The case for atheism:
Dr. Stenger had two arguments and he has to support his premises
Dr. Craig addressed his two arguments and each premise and Dr. Stenger never came back on it
The contingency argument:
Dr. Stenger has dropped the refutation of this argument
The cosmological argument:
The theoretical vacuum he proposes cannot be eternal
The moral argument:
He asserts that things are wrong, but there is no grounding for that to be objective on atheism
The resurrection of Jesus:
There are surveys of scholars on the empty tomb and 75% of them agree with it
Bart Ehrman agrees with all 3 of the minimal facts that Dr. Craig presented
Ehrman’s objection to the resurrection is not historical: he’s an atheist – he thinks miracles are impossible
No response from Dr. Stenger
Dr. Stenger’s conclusion
The cosmological argument:
“I argued that we have very good physical reasons to understand how something can come from nothing”
“There is a natural tendency in the universe… to go from.. simpler thing to the more complicated thing”
The transition from a vapor to a liquid to ice shows how something could come from nothing
“It cannot be proven that the universe had a beginning”
The moral argument:
Objective morality, which is independent of what people think, could be developed based on what people think
“Jesus himself was not a tremendously moral person… he had no particular regard for the poor… he certainly supported slavery… he was for the subjugation of women” (audience laughter)
The resurrection argument:
Bart Ehrman says that the majority of the gospels are unreliable
I don’t see any evidence that there is anything more to religious experience than just stuff in their heads
God’s purpose of the world should be to make people feel happy:
God could have made people feel happier
God could have made people not die
God could could have made the universe smaller: it’s too big
God could have made it possible for humans to live anywhere “even in space”
Jordan Peterson is now known to be aware of the strongest case for the resurrection, because he’s tweeted about it. Let’s see what he tweeted and what’s in the article.
It’s this article, written by Dr. Gary Habermas, which was published at The Stream:
Not too long ago I listed six of these events in a dialogue with an agnostic New Testament scholar. I used the historical facts that 1) Jesus died by crucifixion, 2) his early followers had experiences a short time later that they thought were appearances of Jesus, 3) and as a result, they were transformed to the point of being willing to die for this message. Further, two former unbelievers 4) James the brother of Jesus and 5) Saul of Tarsus (later the apostle Paul) both similarly thought that they had seen the risen Jesus, as well; and 6) This Gospel message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ began to be taught very soon after these events.
Some might be surprised to hear that the agnostic scholar with whom I was dialoguing not only agreed with the historical nature of these six events, without exceptions, but he even added that each one was very well-recognized.
Perhaps the chief reason for the widespread agreement comes from recent critical recognition that the New Testament contains dozens of brief snippets of information from the earliest church teaching — preserved from the first 20 years before the first canonical books were written. Scholars call these “creedal texts” or traditions. The best known of them is 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 which scholars agree originated no later than the early to mid-30s AD, or within just five years of the life of Christ. There is also 1 Corinthians 8:6 and 11:23-25, Romans 1:3-4, 10:9, and Philippians 2:6-11. That’s not all of them. Among the many others are Luke 24:34 and the Acts sermon summaries. These texts actually predate by many years the works in which they appear.
Another avenue comes from the regular use of different tools and rules used by historians and others to recognize the occurrence of past historical facts. These are often called the criteria of authenticity. Here are six of these that help explain how scholars come to this kind of agreement:
Some events are established by the reliable testimonies from people who were close to or who even participated in the events.
Sometimes the witnesses reported these things very soon afterwards, rather than waiting years to do so.
On other occasions, these events are attested by two or even more independent sources.
Sometimes, enemies who actually oppose the occurrences and would have preferred that they had not happened, might agree that they nonetheless did so.
Or the accounts may be told in a way that is so embarrassing to those telling it, or to their loved ones or their cause, that the best explanation for them saying it is simply that it’s the truth.
Another test preferred by some scholars is the result of an event fitting well with or exhibiting similarities to other occurrences that are known to have occurred (coherence).
There are other historical tools and rules as well, but these are among the best-known ones. Often, two or even several of these additional reasons are present and endorse the same event from different angles. Once in a while, the list of confirmatory reasons can get quite lengthy. In such cases, it becomes more and more difficult to deny the factual nature of the reports. So actually, agreement among dissimilar scholars can be fairly common.
If you’ve ever seen debates with atheist scholars like James Crossley, Bart Ehrman, Gerd Ludemann, etc., you know that they agree with some or all of these “minimal facts”.
Now, this post is about Jordan Peterson. How come he is tweeting this argument? Well, I think part of the reason is that Peterson is a brilliant scholar, and he’s going to find out about pretty much everything that he sets out to investigate. I have been told that the New Testament is an area of interest for him. I can’t help but believe that his recent dialog with the venerable Christian scholar William Lane Craig might have put him on the right track.
Here is that dialog, in case you missed it:
I would like all my readers to pray for Jordan Peterson. Ask God to do what God does best – putting people into a time and place where they can find out something about him that leads to a relationship with himself.
If you want a place to start, read Acts 17:24-26 and then ask God to engineer Jordan Peterson’s life in such a way that he finds the answers to his questions from the people he meets and situations he finds himself in. God is a master architect and a brilliant general. Looking back on my life, I can clearly see how carefully he led me to know things about him, and then to know him. We just have to ask God to do what he does for Jordan Peterson. Asking is free. It might be a good idea to pray for wisdom for Dr. Peterson, as well.