Something happened this week that really provided the watching non-Christian world with a good example of what it means to be an authentic Christian. It was such a good story, that I shared it with my non-Christian co-workers. They were so impressed that they asked me to go to lunch with them so they could tell me why they abandoned their faiths after being raised Christian.
The story starts with a famous Christian musician named Marty Sampsons expressing doubts about Christianity, because he was exposed to challenges to his faith, and not getting any answers from people in the church. Instead, when he expressed his doubts, people who had formerly treated him very well started to insult him and post condemning Bible verses on his Instagram. Instead of listening to his questions, and actually putting in some effort to craft a plan and where everyone could work together, his critics just refused to learn anything or do anything with him to work on the problem.
To be honest, this is often what church people do when they are confronted with challenging thoughts or behaviors. In my office, one of my co-workers who had been raised in the church and then left it in college asked me “what did you expect? People leave the church all the time because this is how Christian parents and church people respond to doubts and challenges. They insult you, drag up everything personal that you ever told them, and slander you to other people. It’s a hate mob. They specialize in being judgmental. They don’t put in any effort to actually solve the problem. And that’s exactly why people DON’T go to church.” He actually used the word “unchristian” to describe church-trained Christians who responded to Mary Sampsons.
I have to admit, my co-worker had a point. I’ve experienced the unwillingness of Christians to take doubts and challenges seriously myself. When I express concerns about whether the church is preparing young people for the challenges of college, the church parents and leaders always stand above me, and reply with Bible verses, sermons, commands, judgments or worse. They don’t want to get down into the trenches and work with me to solve the problem. And there’s always the offer to “pray about it”. That response seems to just dump every problem on God. What I’d really like to see is people in the church who interrupt their happy lives in order to do something self-sacrificially with the people who have the challenges, in order to solve the problem.
Most of the people who responded to Marty Sampsons on his Instagram were not effective to solve the actual problem. But there were two exceptions.
Two Christian apologists have reached out with some helpful ideas for Marty Sampson, the former worship leader and songwriter for Hillsong Worship who publicly announced he was struggling to believe anymore.
Using their online platforms, they’re offering resources to assist the singer. Apologist and author William Lane Craig made Sampson the subject of his Aug. 26 podcast titled A Musician Struggles With His Faith. In the 23-minute program, Craig answers Sampson’s questions dealing with his doubts about the Christian faith.
[…][Dr.] Craig also recommended for fellow believers to support Sampson in his search for the answers to his questions, instead of blasting him with judgmental comments.
“Now is not the time for condemnation and criticism,” Craig told his listeners. “Now is the time to say, ‘Here are some resources that can help you in your search, and I’ll come alongside you and help you as I can.'”
Craig is a research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University and the founder of the ministry Reasonable Faith.
Likewise, apologist and author Mike Licona and his wife, Debbie, posted a YouTube video in which they discuss Sampson’s questions for those Christians who may find themselves doubting their faith. In the 38-minute video, the couple talks about several books and other resources for people to use.
In the video, Licona, associate professor in theology at Houston Baptist University and the president of the ministry Risen Jesus, said the questions “are difficult questions, and they’re deserving of thoughtful, reasonable answers.”
Debbie Licona, the wife of famous evidential Christian apologist Michael Licona, also arranged a discussion between two Christian scholars and an atheist scholar about the resurrection.
The right way to engage a non-Christian is always self-sacrificial love. If you are taking your time, money and effort to think of a plan, and then self-sacrificially invest in that person co-operatively, then you are doing love the right way. Debbie’s approach is correct because she is putting in work in order to get involved in the other person’s life from alongside them, not standing over them.
Debbie’s approach follows the evidence-focused model in the Bible. God is always having his prophets or his Son use evidence to confirm their claims to non-believers. Just think of Moses and Pharaoh, or Elijah on Mount Carmel, or Jesus with the healing of the paralytic or the resurrection.
Salvation is a gift from God. God is the General who is in charge of the overall effort to save someone from their rebellion against him. Individual Christians are just some of the tools he uses to achieve his aims. Outcomes are none of our business. Our business is to pursue his goals for other people in a manner that is consistent with Christ’s example of self-denial, self-sacrifice, humility and use of evidence.
So, the next time someone asks you questions about Christianity, or refuses to go to church, or whatever, you need to remember who you are working for, and respond like Debbie did. Don’t act in a way that pushes them further away from God. Take challenges to Christian belief and practice seriously. Control your tongue. Read books. Invest yourself. Come alongside the challenger, and solve the problem co-operatively.
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.
From the Unbelievable radio show, a debate featuring one of my favorite New Testament scholars, whose most recent book on gospel differences was published by Oxford University Press, the most prestigious academic press in the world.
Bart Ehrman is well known as a US New Testament Scholar who lost his Christian faith and now questions many core precepts of Christianity, including the Resurrection of Jesus. When Mike Licona had doubts he devoted himself to investigating the evidence and became convinced that Jesus resurrection is the only rational explanation for the facts.
They debate key historical facts about the resurrection – are the letters of Paul that report the resurrection and the Gospel accounts trustworthy or theologised and changed with time? What about apparent contradictions between the Gospels? Does the consensus of scholars count as evidence, or is there a Christian bias? Can a miracle count as an explanation for historical data?
Snarky summary of the radio debate: (items with * are my made-up paraphrases/clarifications)
– Bart’s new book is about forgeries in the ancient world
– some books were falsely attributed to prominent Christian figures
– there are mistakes in the Bible
– there are mistakes in the resurrection narratives
– the defeat of inerrancy led to his conversion to liberal Christianity
– the problem of evil and suffering caused him to become a non-Christian
– there are minimal facts that are agreed to by a broad spectrum of scholars
– the minimal facts are accepted because they pass standard historical criteria
– Fact 1: Jesus died by crucifixion
– Fact 2: Individuals and groups had visions of Jesus after his death
– Fact 3: Paul, a skeptic and an enemy, had an appearance of Jesus that converted him
– these facts are agreed to atheist scholars, liberal scholars, etc.
– virtually 100% of scholars agree with these three facts
– there is no naturalistic explanation of these three facts
– therefore, the best explanation of these three facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead
– all historians would accept these three facts, except for maybe the group appearances
– the death of Jesus is irrelevant to the resurrection
– the second and third point can be collapsed together
– so really there is only one fact
– the crucifixion is relevant because Muslims don’t admit that fact
– the crucifixion important because it establishes a resurrection, not a resuscitation
– well, if the point is that he died, then yes, this does require a resurrection
– the crucifixion refutes Muslims who deny that Jesus died
– the crucifixion refutes the apparent death theory (swoon theory)
– the death is required for a bodily resurrection
– it’s important to know what facts most scholars, regardless of worldview, agree on
– it’s important to emphasize that Licona is working from historical bedrock facts
– the resurrection is the best explanation for the historical bedrock facts
– you are trying to list 3 things, but really it is just one thing – the appearances
– and not ALL scholars agree that the group visions occurred
– name one prominent scholar who denies the group appearances
– the radically leftist atheist nutcase John Dominic Crossan denies the group appearances
* Crossan is so far on the left that I look like a nutcase for even citing him
* Crossan believes in the Secret Gospel of Mark, which is a hoax – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan believes that the synoptics are LATER than gnostic forged gospels – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan presupposes atheism, so he cannot admit to miracle stories as a pre-supposition – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan pre-supposes religious pluralism, so he cannot allow any exclusive claims Christians make – but I still cite Crossan
* Crossan is a good historian, it’s just that he is so far to the left that no one – NO ONE – agrees with his all of crazy theories
* I think it is a good idea to cite historians who pre-suppose atheism and political correctness before they sit down to do history
– let me explain why most scholars accept the individual and group post-mortem appearances
– the best source for the appearances is the early creed recorded by Paul in 1 Cor 15:3-8
– Paul himself had an appearance of Jesus after Jesus’ death
– Paul received this material from a source very soon after the appearances – within 1-3 years
– we know that Paul met with Jesus disciples multiple times prior to writing
– Paul probably received it from Peter and James, who were themselves eyewitnesses
– this early dating presumably rules out legend
– well legends CAN start quickly
– it does show that Paul was an eyewitness
– it does show that Paul was in contact with reliable eyewitnesses
– 1 Corinthians is written around 55 AD, twenty-five years after Jesus died
– it is not implausible that Paul got the creed from the disciples, who were eyewitnesses
– but you don’t need a long time for legends to emerge, so that is a possibility
– only about 3% of people could read and write back them
– instead, people had enormous capacity for memorization
– the Pharisees were particularly good at memorization
– Jews were very serious about passing along traditions accurately
– Paul, a prominent Pharisee, would have been capable of passing on early creeds accurately
– Paul, in 1 Cor 7, shows that he is willing to separate his opinions from authentic tradition
– Paul had an opportunity in 1 Cor 7 to put words into Jesus’ mouth, but he wouldn’t do it
– cultural anthropologists show that things do get changed in some oral cultures
– in these oral cultures, it is assumed that the story teller will change the story
– only in written cultures are they careful to avoid changing the story
– in the New Testament, you can compare the same story in two different gospels, there are differences
– Ehrman is right that the gospel writers pick and choose things from the oral tradition that they want to include in their gospels
– different oral tradition transmission schemes have more or less embellishment
– african tribes embellish more, rabbinic teaching embellishes less
* Jesus’ followers would have viewed him as a rabbi, and been careful about adding to his teachings
– Paul, an eyewitness, probably received the creed in 1 Cor 15 from other eyewitnesses
– Paul speaks about going twice to Jerusalem in Galatians
– he is meeting with Peter and James to check his facts
– when you look at Mark and John, there are lots of differences in the narrative
– I agree that the gospels have differences, but the oral tradition is likely fixed
– but Mark and John have different sayings
– why doesn’t Mark have the same explicit high Christology that John has?
– the “apocalyptic Son of Man” isn’t in John
– what about in John 9 with the man who was born blind
– where is the apocalyptic part?
– the healed man worships Jesus because he is the Son of Man
– that links to the apocalypic passages in the Old Testament
– what about the differences between the gospels?
* well, now is the time for me to set up an inerrantist straw man and then knock it down!
* who was at the empty tomb: one angel or two angels? we don’t know, so the whole Bible is false!
* I used to be an inerrantist, so one minor difference is enough for me to dump the whole Bible
* I’ll kill you, you stupid straw man! I hate you, Moody Bible Institute! You lied to me!
– many of these problems can be solved by realizing that the gospel writers compress time
– the stories don’t have to list ALL the characters in every scene
– you don’t have to force the Bible to meet some sort of wooden chronology
– the main thing is that the events happened, not that the descriptions match word for word across sources
– you can’t infer a miracle from history, David Hume says so
* extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, David Hume says so
* no I don’t know what begging the question is, I’m not a philosopher
* no I don’t remember when Bill Craig kicked my ass on this Hume objection in our debate
– the New Testament gospels contradict each other at every point, they are not reliable at all!
* they cannot even agree what Jesus’ name is! There are 1 trillion variants of Jesus’ name!
* “one angel vs two angels” proves that the gospels contradict each other at every point
* my expansive list of FOUR theologically insignificant variants proves that the gospels contradict each other at every point
– um, the gospels agree on the central narrative and disagree on the peripherals
– and they agree on the minimal facts I presented, even if they disagree about the number of angels
* they have to agree on everything and be inerrant! The Moody Straw Man Bible Institute says so!
* I really really really need to have the number of angels be the same, or Jesus didn’t die on the cross
– but you don’t deny any of the three minimal facts I presented (crucifixion, appearances, Paul)
– well, I don’t know if the group appearances occurred – maybe they did
– i think Jesus died on the cross, and I think that people said they saw him alive afterward
– if you deny the minimal facts, then you are outside the majority of scholars
– the majority of scholars who agree to the minimal facts you presented are Christians
* Gerd Ludemann is an atheist Christian
* James Crossley is an atheist Christian
* Hector Avalos is an atheist Christian
* the majority of the atheist scholars are all Christians!
– VIRTUALLY EVERYBODY IN THE SOCIETY OF BIBLICAL LITERATURE IS A CHRISTIAN!!! (Yes, he said that)
– but he CLAIMS TO BE A CHRISTIAN so that means HE IS A CHRISTIAN
* all you have to do to be a Christian is claim to be one
* you can even deny the existence of God and the divinity of Christ and still be one, you bigot!
– would Jesus or the apostles recognize a Christian as being someone who doubts God’s existence
– my view is that Jesus and the apostles would not recognize evangelical Christians as Christians
* a non-theist can be a Christian just by claiming to be one, but evangelical Christians are not Christians even if they claim to be Christians
– Christians can’t record accurate history about the resurrection because they are biased
– on your view, if a person is a Christian then he can’t write about the evidence for the resurrection
– so then similarly, you would not allow Jews to write about the historicity of the Holocaust
– because you think that if people have an interest in what they are recording then they can’t be objective
– but you have to consider the evidence we have, taking the biases of the sources into account
– but the only people who believe in the resurrection are Christians!
– well, people can consider the evidence for the resurrection as non-Christians
– and then if they accept it they can become Christians
– what about your bias? you don’t believe in God – doesn’t that pre-supposition affect how you do history?
– well, I presuppose naturalism, so I can’t admit to anything in history that implicates supernatural causes
* no I have never heard of the arguments for the Big Bang, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, irreducible complexity, limits on mutations creating information, habitability and so on – I never heard about that stuff from my atheist university professors and even if I had I would have been expelled for talking about it because that would make people feel bad about their sinning
– so it’s not bias you are concerned about, it’s that you don’t want history to contradict your untested religion of naturalism?
– why not just do the history without pre-suppositions to gather the minimal facts and then see what the best explanation is?
* well God is out of bounds as an explanation because I could not have got my PhD if I mentioned God
* I really needed my smart atheist professors to like me and give me good grades so God is RIGHT OUT
* ideas like a real God and moral laws and Hell makes my atheist professors uncomfortable and that means low grades for me
* I’m not really interested in butting heads with professors – it’s easier to just agree with them and move on to selling books to the gullible
* My books are much more sensational than Dan Brown books, so please buy lots of them!
– what if the historical evidence is good enough to show that Jesus rose from the dead?
– well I would not call someone rising from the dead a miracle – I would call it weird
* I also think that the Big Bang is “weird” but that doesn’t prove that God created the universe out of nothing
* if it’s a miracle then I’m going to have to not sin, and maybe even go to Hell, and we can’t have that
– well, you accept the three minimal facts
– what if we try all the naturalistic explanations for those three facts and there are problems with all of them?
– what if the resurrection is the best explanation for the three minimal facts?
– but I want to arbitrarily rule God put because I want to pre-suppose naturalism
– there is not historical reason I have to rule put supernatural explanations a priori
– I think you are struggling with the theological implications of a historical conclusion
– well when you do theology, you have to avoid grounding your theology on science or history
– theology has to be completely made up or it’s not good theology
– I think you are letting your dislike of the implications of the resurrection determine your historical conclusions
– you have to use historical methods to gather the minimal facts that every scholar accepts, regardless of worldview
– then you weigh ALL the hypotheses, natural and supernatural, that could account for these minimal facts
– then you choose the hypothesis that best explains the minimal facts