You Should See This Movie…

Mike Vogel as Lee Strobel

I was pleasantly surprised recently when I went to see The Case for Christ. Grab your spouse or a friend and see it while it’s still in theaters.

As an artist who is also a follower of Jesus, I guess I’m supposed to be a movie snob, especially when it comes to “Christian movies.” I think I’m not supposed to publicly admit that I loved this movie. But I did.

The movie tells the story of atheist Lee Strobel coming to faith in Jesus. (Whoopsie. I guess I just gave away the ending. That’s part of why I didn’t have high hopes for the movie. I expected another predictable Christian film.)

But you know what? I knew how my dinnertime was going to end last night but I’m still really glad I sat down at the table.

The movie highlighted the Strobel family’s journey to faith, and the relational tension that ensued during the process. That story was believable, well-written, and well-acted. It felt like a love story to me, full of characters that I was moved to care about.

Some Things I Liked
Maybe it was just me, but the movie touched on a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately.

I’ve been dialoguing with some atheists for several months, and the portrayal of the atheists in the film felt familiar to me. I liked that the atheist Strobel wasn’t made out to be an evil character. He deeply loved his wife and was a great dad. He had a strong moral compass and sense of justice.

I’ve been doing some reading about brain science and social psychology. I’m fascinated with how and why people change their opinions when confronted with information that challenges their worldview. (Or how they don’t, as is usually the case.) It was fascinating to watch one person’s process, knowing that it was a true story.

A big surprise was a direct reference to the “father wound” issue. I’ve been a bit obsessed with this issue for several months, and I’ve come to think that it’s widespread and profoundly important. In the near future I’ll post more on this topic specifically.

Also, an important truism for me is that biblical faith is evidential. This idea directly contradicts what “New Atheism” preaches – that faith is “belief despite the evidence.” The “New Atheists” are demonstrably wrong about what the Bible says about faith. It was nice to see a correct perspective on the screen.

Finally, on an incidental note, The Case for Christ is not a white Christian film. The story takes place in Chicago and several black characters figure prominently in the journey. We see blacks and whites working, attending church, and doing life together. This isn’t talked about; it’s just assumed, as it should be.

I don’t recall anything inappropriate for kids, but very small children might be bored with it just because it’s an adult conversation. At any rate, I say “two thumbs up”!

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The Genetic Apocalypse of the Human Race Made Simple

Poly-constrained message

Evolutionary theory holds that all of the diversity of life that we see – from dandelions to whales to hummingbirds to Vladimir Putin – all of this descended from a single ancestral genome. By accident. Somehow, life accidentally appeared from dead matter, and that first single-celled organism reproduced and, blindly and mindlessly, eventually led to increasingly “advanced,” “higher” life forms.

The biological process by which this all supposedly happened is this: random mutations plus natural selection. This is considered to be scientific fact in the sense that it is certain enough that it is no longer seriously questioned in secular academia. The assumption is that, over billions of years, the seemingly impossible has occurred innumerable times.

Materialist evolutionists claim that we know evolution is a fact because we can observe it occurring both in the laboratory and in the field. In saying this, they mean that we can observe mutations and natural selection giving rise to new species and newly adapted life forms.

Correcting a Common Misconception About Creationism
No one denies this. Natural selection and speciation are central to both creationist and evolutionist theory, but both worldviews disagree sharply on the role of natural selection and speciation. I would like to correct a common misunderstanding between the two worldviews. Here is where they disagree:

Creationists believe that mutations and/or natural selection can result in change and speciation within a given category of creature, but that there is a limit to what mutations and natural selection can accomplish. Dogs always produce dogs, and salmon always produce salmon. Mutations cannot create new genetic information of the type that is required to move an organism’s offspring in an “upwardly evolving” direction. For example, land bound reptiles could not have accidentally evolved into fully feathered, flying birds.

Evolutionists also believe that mutations and natural selection can result in change and speciation within a given category of creature, but they ascribe almost magical powers to the kind of change that mutations and natural selection can accomplish. Through gene duplication and other biological processes, they believe mutations can indeed add new genetic information of the type that would be necessary to move life from microbes to marimba players. For example, feathers accidentally evolved from scales via mutation, (or perhaps as some novel epidermal structure.)

100 years ago, microbes-to-mathematician evolution seemed like a viable possibility. Scientists had not yet discovered the astounding complexity of life at the cellular level, or seen the amazing complexity of the human genome. Within my lifetime we were told that humans and chimp DNA was about 99% similar. We were told that about 95% of our DNA served no function; that it was vestigial “junk DNA.” New research may be turning the tide of scientific opinion against these assertions.

In 2015, the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said in response to a question about junk DNA. “We don’t use that term anymore. It was pretty much a case of hubris to imagine that we could dispense with any part of the genome — as if we knew enough to say it wasn’t functional. Most of the DNA that scientists once thought was just taking up space in the genome turns out to be doing stuff.”

The Inevitability of Genetic Deterioration
I don’t really watch football. Instead, I’ve been a lifelong fan of following the creation/evolution “debate”. I’m no scientist, but I like to think I’m a (reasonably) intelligent designer. I’m willing to be convinced that all of life accidentally, mindlessly evolved from a single celled common ancestor, but I would have to at least be shown some natural process that could accomplish such a fantastical feat.

Probably the most important book I’ve read in the past year has been a book by Dr. John Sanford, entitled Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome. I highly recommend it to everyone, regardless of your worldview.

You can Google Dr. J C Sanford to learn his credentials. He was a materialist, evolutionary geneticist for most of his career. He holds over 30 patents, and has over 80 scientific publications. However, his research has led him to conclude that naturalistic evolution as currently taught is scientifically indefensible. His book, Genetic Entropy, claims to demonstrate that the human genome is unavoidably deteriorating, and thus cannot possibly be millions of years old.

Sanford refers to the idea that man is merely the product of random mutations plus natural selection as modern evolution’s “Primary Axiom.” The Primary Axiom is universally taught in academia and repeated in mainstream media.

Here is a brief excerpt from the prologue of Sanford’s book:

Late in my career, I did something that would seem unthinkable for a Cornell professor. I began to question the Primary Axiom…The Primary Axiom is actually an extremely vulnerable theory. In fact, it is essentially indefensible…To question the Primary Axiom required me to re-examine virtually everything I thought I knew about genetics. This was the most difficult intellectual endeavor of my life. Deeply entrenched thought patterns only change very slowly (and, I must add, painfully.) What I eventually experienced was a complete overthrow of my previous understanding.

As to the substance of the book, below is a sampling of one of several arguments against the Primary Axiom. As you read this, bear in mind that a mutation can be simply understood as a misspelling or copying error in the genome:

  1. Poly-constrained DNA
    Most DNA sequences are
    poly-functional and so must also be poly-constrained. This means that DNA sequences have meaning on several different levels (poly-functional) and each level of meaning limits possible future change (poly-constrained). For example, imagine a sentence which has a very specific message in its normal form but with an equally coherent message when read backwards. Now let’s suppose that it also has a third message when reading every other letter, and a fourth message when a simple encryption program is used to translate it. Such a message would be poly-functional and poly-constrained. We know that misspellings in a normal sentence will not normally improve the message, but at least this would be possible. However, a poly-constrained message is fascinating, in that it cannot be improved. It can only degenerate (see illustration above). Any misspellings which might possibly improve the normal sentence form will be disruptive to the other levels of information. Any change at all will diminish total information with absolute certainty…” (p 131.)

I would add a reminder that mutations are passed down to an organism’s offspring, accumulating with each generation. Sanford claims that all “higher genomes” are deteriorating, including ours. Mutations must ultimately move “higher” organisms in the wrong direction, “downward,” rather than in the direction needed for microbes-to-man evolution to occur. Far from solving the issue, deep time simply spells extinction.

Genetic entropy, if true, is not happy news for anyone, regardless of one’s worldview. If Sanford’s description of the world is correct, even a non-scientist can see important implications. From a theological perspective, I find it worth pausing to consider how pervasive are the effects of the fall of creation. Conversely, for those of us who hope in a Savior, it is worth considering how pervasive are the effects of the salvation that He has promised.
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Did Jesus Become Sin?

2 Cor 5:21 - "sin" or a "sin offering"?

Part of what defines Evangelicalism is the belief in the authority and reliability of the Bible. As with all subcultures, American evangelical church culture has developed certain beliefs through repetition that may or may not be correct. This post will examine one of those beliefs. I don’t see this issue as critical or disastrous to one’s faith, but I now think it affects how one views the God of the Bible.

The question
The issue in question comes from the singular usage of a phrase that the apostle Paul employs in a letter to the church at Corinth:

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor 5:21)

It has become a widespread evangelical belief that part of the mechanics of mans’ salvation is that in order to pay the debt for our sin, Jesus literally somehow “became sin” on the cross, suffering the punishment we deserved, even enduring separation from His Father for a brief time. This is understood to be part of the terrible price that had to be paid in order for Jesus to secure the salvation of sinful humanity. This idea has many respectable and orthodox proponents, foremost among them being Billy Graham, whom I deeply respect. This idea has been central to Reverend Graham’s presentation of the gospel for decades.

I didn’t have a problem with this idea until a few years ago. One morning I was sitting in church, listening to a pastor friend articulate this article of evangelical belief. But he went into a bit more detail, taking the idea to its logical conclusion, and suddenly, I felt that what I was hearing wasn’t true. Here’s what he said:

“…(Jesus) became the adulterer. He became the pedophile. He became the nasty…”

Well…when you put it that way…

I went home and studied the issue for myself. I wondered if there was a better way to understand Paul’s words “made to be sin.” Perhaps this was one of those ideas that gets passed down without having been critically examined. What follows is what I found. You decide for yourself.

I should state that I am not a theological liberal, and that I consider the Judeo-Christian scriptures to be God’s inspired and authoritative revelation to man. My aim is to understand and harmonize what the whole of scripture says, not to get it to say what I think it should say. In interpretation, my aim is to understand a biblical author’s meaning, operating from the underlying assumption that the entirety of scripture is internally consistent.

So…what was Paul’s meaning?
The passage in question illustrates why biblical inerrancy and biblical literalism are not synonymous terms. It is true that in 2 Cor 5:21 the Greek literally says that God made Jesus “to be sin.” However, I now contend that there are strong reasons why we can know that this is not what Paul literally meant, and that it is therefore appallingly incorrect to say, “He became the adulterer. He became the pedophile…” We never see apostolic teaching saying anything like this, 2 Cor 5:21 being the sole exception. The singularity of the phrase is the first red flag.

By contrast, if there is anything we can know with certainty about Jesus from the scriptures, it is that He was and is the sinless, spotless, Lamb of God (1 Pet 2:22; Heb 4:15; 1 Jn 3:5.) At no point did He take on a sin nature, nor is it necessary to believe this was essential in order for His sacrifice to secure our salvation. Furthermore, we know that YHWH doesn’t change, and that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8.) We must allow scripture to interpret scripture where the meaning of a passage is uncertain, as this one is.

As with all conundrums in the Bible, an understanding of its Jewish context is always essential to understanding what is being said. In regards to this question, the Jewish Tanakh (old testament) provides the foundation for properly understanding the sacrificial death of the Jewish messiah. This is not speculation. Indeed, one can argue that His sacrificial death was in view from the beginning, and that many old testament Jewish practices prefigure and foreshadow the redemptive, messianic fulfillment of the acts of Jesus.

There is ample reason to believe that the meaning Paul had in mind was, “He made Him who knew no sin to be a sin offering on our behalf…”

1) The sacrifice of Jesus was SUBSTITUTIONARY, as is prefigured in the Mosaic Covenant. There is no logical necessity or scriptural justification for saying that a sacrifice actually becomes guilty or sinful. If the Passover sacrifice was a prophetic picture of the better sacrifice to come in Jesus, (and it was: Heb 10:1; 1 Cor 4:7,) then in it we can see the nature of a sacrifice: substitutionary and spotless. Furthermore, in Lev 6:25‐27 we see the sacrifice remained holy before, during, and after the sacrifice was made. So it was with the spotless Lamb of God. The sins of the people are imputed/attributed to the sacrifice. The sacrifice must be innocent and free of all guilt to be acceptable, not so that it can literally “become sin,” but so that it can be offered in the place of the guilty. It becomes a sin offering.

2) There are many passages that refer to Jesus’ sacrifice as a “sin offering,” and it seems correct to me to say that Paul had this in mind when he used the shorthand Hebraism, “made to be sin.” (Hebraism = A linguistic feature typical of Hebrew occurring especially in another language.) Examples include:

> “So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without (reference to) sin…” (Heb 9:28)

> “And He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time…For by one offering He has perfected for all time…” (Heb 10:10-14)

> “For Christ also died for sins once for all, (the) just for (the) unjust, in order that He might bring us to God…” (1 Pet 3:18 NASB. The substitutionary nature of the sacrifice is very clear here.)

> “…sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh [referring to the incarnation] and (as an offering) for sin [referring to the atoning sacrifice], He condemned sin in the flesh,..” (Ro 8:3 NASB)

> “Yet it was the will of YHWH to bruise him…when he makes himself an offering for sin.” (Isa 53:10 RSV)

3) Perhaps most convincingly, the Septuagint’s use of the Greek word hamartia, translated as “sin” in 2 Cor5:21, supports the contention that Paul had “sin offering” in mind. When referring to sin offerings in the Tanakh, Jewish translators often used the Greek word hamartia in the Septuagint translation. We know that Paul and the apostles often quoted the Septuagint in their writings, as it was familiar to Greek-speaking Jews, (even though there were technically better translations available.) It seems reasonable in light of the whole of scripture that in this one verse in 2 Cor, Paul was simply employing the Septuagint’s use of hamartia to mean “sin offering.”

4) The wording itself in 2 Cor 5:21 is something of a parallelism, supporting the substitutionary nature of the Messiah’s sacrifice: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (a) that which was sinless became a sin offering; so that (b) that which was unrighteous could become righteousness in Him. In other words, He didn’t actually become sin, and we didn’t actually become righteousness – these things are imputed. We are counted as righteous “in Him.”

5) Finally, some may argue that, while Jesus was indeed a spotless sacrifice, it was necessary for Him to “become sin” in some way in order for Him to fully identify with us and secure our redemption. Similarly, some argue (incorrectly, in my view) that Jesus had to suffer in hell, or die spiritually, or endure separation from the Father in order to fully pay for the sins of the world. But it isn’t so. The scriptures explicitly say it is the blood of Jesus that secures our redemption. And His blood alone was and is sufficient because He is the eternal, incarnate Creator of all flesh, and He remained sinless in the flesh. As Creator, ultimate value resides with Him. It is neither logically nor scripturally possible for a holy God to “become the adulterer/pedophile.” Nor was it necessary:

You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot,…” (1 Pet 1:18.)

In fact, Paul describes precisely the extent to which our loving and holy Creator humbled Himself in order to secure our salvation:

…(Jesus) emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Php 2:7,8.)

But notice that Paul stops there. For the sinless Son of God to unjustly choose to die a humiliating, tortuous, criminal’s death demonstrates mind-bending love and humility. It is not necessary, and I would even say it is wrong, to embellish the story further by adding that Jesus literally became sinful, because the scriptures do not say this.

God is light and in Him is no darkness at all – 1 John 1:5
I think we can all confidently agree that the Bible says that Jesus “became a sin offering” in every full and complete sense. By contrast, we can only say that Jesus “became sin” in some figurative, qualified way, (which is what I believe Paul was doing.) Therefore, should say this at all without qualification?

The incarnation – the act of God becoming human – has many implications. Because human beings were made in God’s image, God could humble Himself to become human without violating His essential character. God could not become a monkey or a manatee, for example. This is a mind-blowing truth, illuminating the possibilities of what God created human beings to be. However, the incarnate Jesus entered into a fallen world where sin and its effects had damned the entire human race to disunity, destruction, and death. His life, death, and resurrection were God’s provision to restore us to life in Him. The scriptures repeatedly describe our life after spiritual rebirth as a process of being “conformed to the likeness of Jesus” (Ro 8:29; Eph 4:22-24; Php 2:1-5; 1Pet 1:14,15.)

Jesus arrived announcing the kingdom of God. He specifically claimed to have come in order that we might have life, and that He might reconcile us to our Heavenly Father. His life perfectly reflected the sinless beauty, glory, mercy, love, and justice of God. He did not “get Himself dirty” in the sense of becoming sin. His love and justice led Him to “get Himself dirty” for us in the sense that he humbled Himself, even to the point of laying down His life on our behalf. There is no greater love than this (Jn 15:13.)

 

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Settle Down, People! American Christianity Does Not Want A Theocracy.

Uncle Sam-I want you-theocracy

The ongoing accusation that the “religious right” wants to impose a theocracy is so wildly ignorant that it has to be another political tactic. Like the political tactic of painting anyone who opposes redefining marriage as being hateful and anti-gay.

Accusing Christians of seeking to establish a theocracy is simply bizarre. It might be an understandable offense to accuse goat worshipers of promoting theocracy, because most of us don’t personally know any goat worshipers. But if one wants to find out what Christians believe, one could simply talk to a neighbor who is one, or visit a church on a nearby street corner. Or one could find a Bible and read the words of Jesus, or the letters of the Apostle Paul. Easy. The more theologically orthodox a Christian is, the less he or she will be in favor of an American theocracy.

Why? Because the Bible teaches that all human beings are naturally depraved. It follows then for Christians that human beings cannot be trusted with power.

This is a biblical principle. This is what those scary Christian homeschoolers are teaching their kids in history class. It’s why American Christians love our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. It’s why our religious Founding Fathers established a system of checks and balances – our 3 branches of American government. It’s why we hold to being a nation governed by laws and not men. Because “fallen” people can’t be trusted with power.

In fact, Bible-believers have a compelling basis for believing these things, whereas secularists do not. It is secularists who tend to hatch idealistic, utopian political schemes and foist them onto the world. Even giving humanist totalitarians and oligarchs the benefit of the doubt – that they impose their systems “for the good of the people” – doesn’t change the fact that millions of “their people” in the last century ended up imprisoned or dead for the crime of resisting their utopian governments.

This should be common knowledge, yet somehow, we are now seeing a festival of uninformed fear-mongering from the Left crying that Christians want a theocracy. Those of us who are Christians need to start demanding proof.

So…prove it
I’m willing to be corrected. All I need is for someone to give me an example of ANY mainstream, respected, widely supported Christian leader, spokesperson, organization, politician, or theologian calling for an American theocracy. Just one. Please copy and paste your theocrat’s quote into the comment section below with a reference.

I’ll even help. Because we have lots of examples of religious people calling for and working toward theocracy. Scores. Masses of religious people are unapologetically and publicly opposed to democracy and freedom because of the “unrighteousness” these ideas allow. Unfortunately for those who might take me up on my challenge, these people are never Christians.

I got your theocracy right here:

Theocracy-sharia-anti-freedom

…But I digress.

This is all Kim Davis’s fault
The latest round of fear-mongering comes because Kim Davis is a publicly elected official, who, for reasons of conscience, is refusing to carry out her job responsibilities to issue marriage licenses, and has attempted to keep clerks under her from doing so, as well. When privately owned businesses refused to participate with the Left’s novel and arbitrary redefining of marriage, that was intolerable. But for an elected government official to refuse to comply with an arguably unconstitutional Court decision, that apparently amounts to establishing a Christian theocracy. Who knew county clerks had such power?

But is that what’s going on? Is this religious freedom, or theocracy?

I’m not going to defend Kim Davis, because I have mixed feelings about some of what she has done. Instead, to my own surprise, I’m going to quote the Pope.

I’m not really a big fan of the Roman Catholic Church, or such a thing as a pope, but I have to admit that brother (“Pope”) Francis cut right through the rhetoric around religious freedom with a simple statement:

“I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscientious objection … but yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right…”

Truer words were never spoken. This is especially heartening coming from the head of a 2000 year old religious institution that has a long and disturbing history of not allowing conscientious objection. Happily, brother Francis owned up to this as well when he said:

“…Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying “this right that has merit, this one does not.” It [conscientious objection] is a human right. It always moved me when I read, and I read it many times, when I read the Chanson de Roland when the people were all in line and before them was the baptismal font and they had to choose between the baptismal font or the sword. They had to choose. They weren’t permitted conscientious objection. It is a right and if we want to make peace we have to respect all rights…”

If I were a person who used emoticons, I would do a whole page of little smiley faces right here.

Then, when asked if conscientious objection includes government officials as well, brother Francis replied:

“…It is a human right and if a government official is a human person, he has that right.”
It is disturbing to me that anyone could disagree with this. For example, do we not all now despise the reasoning of Nazi government officials whose excuse for committing crimes against Jews, gays, and others is that they were “only following orders”?

But the importance of brother Francis’s statement seems to be lost on the Left. I’m saddened to see Huffington Post commenters, and the like, fail to grasp the gravity of what is at stake in this discussion. Instead, like a new generation of Hitler Youth, they are saying things like:
“If you work for the government you are obligated to carry out your duties no matter what, or else resign.”

But they’re wrong, and brother Francis is right. If no conscientious objection is allowed, then aren’t we left with totalitarianism? Just because it’s “Progressive” totalitarianism doesn’t make it good totalitarianism. Both sides of the political spectrum should be well aware that human governments are often wrong. In a free and pluralistic society conscientious objection must be allowed.

When Kim Davis was elected, she had no conscientious objection to performing her duties whatsoever. It’s not her fault that the Supreme Court pulled a new, arbitrary definition of marriage out of its butt.

A very big deal
It’s important to remember that we are not talking about the Supreme Court telling Americans that they must now abide by a new definition of weed whacking. What the Court has attempted to do is as penetrating and monumental as it is foolish. Heterosexual marriage is a longstanding institution upon which the very architecture of civilization has always stood. In addition it bears enormous religious significance for a majority of Americans. Furthermore, it is not defined in the U.S. Constitution. Does the political Left really think it can force such a major ideological bias onto an unwilling population?

“Progressives” attempting to use government to force their beliefs onto an unwilling populace is no different than religious people attempting to use government to force their beliefs unto an unwilling populace. Except that Christians have no intention of imposing their doctrines, while “Progressives” apparently do.

Contrary to LGBT talking points, people of biblical faith are not interested in re-criminalizing homosexuality, or preventing LGBT people from loving and committing to whomever they want, or forcing anyone to do anything. We’re simply not going to agree to the redefining of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Call it “civil unions” and this all goes away.

“Progressives” have said that non-compliant Christians are imposing their beliefs on gays by discriminating against them; that this amounts to theocracy. But it’s not true. These Christians are seeking non-participation, and it’s important that Christians not allow their motives to be redefined by the Left’s massive redefinition campaign.

There is no comparison here to America’s racial discrimination of the past. NO ONE is arguing that gays are subhuman, or that they are the property of heterosexuals, or that they should be denied fundamental civil rights. The proof is that these same people have been happy to serve gays so long as their service doesn’t require them to comply with the Court’s redefinition of marriage. The “right to marry” cannot be a fundamental civil right, because if marriage has any definition, then it necessarily excludes certain people. In fact the Court’s new definition is arbitrary and also excludes many U.S. citizens.

If there were ever an issue big enough, profound enough, and consequential enough to merit conscientious objection, the redefining of marriage is it. Bible believers are simply not going to go along with it, just as they have refused to be a part of the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision. In the same way that promoting the sanctity of human life has nothing to do with being “anti-woman,” so promoting traditional marriage has nothing to do with being “anti-gay.”

People of faith are going to act according to their consciences whether the government accommodates them or not. Fortunately, our Constitution’s first amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 limit the reach of government coercion in matters of conscience, within the confines of American citizenship.

Harmonizing the Resurrection Accounts in the Bible

Mary Magdalene-Scott FreemanI could wallpaper my house with skeptics’ claims of how impossible it is to harmonize the resurrection accounts in the Bible. Muslim apologists also use the “inconsistencies” in the four gospel accounts to prove that the resurrection of Jesus is a fabricated story. A few years ago, after hearing an overconfident atheist repeatedly proclaim the impossibility of harmonizing the resurrection accounts in the gospels, I accepted his challenge. He was so confident that the biblical accounts were hopelessly contradictory that he offered to personally help anyone who could harmonize them to claim a $10,000 reward offered by the Skeptics Society.

I sat down over breakfast, and saw how they fit together after about 15 minutes of reading. Just sayin’.

I’ll concede that these critics are all more intelligent and educated than I am. But this doesn’t seem to be about intelligence. There’s gotta be something else going on here. I’ll show you what I found, and you, be you skeptic or believer, can see what you think for yourself.

Courtesy to you prevents me from addressing all thirty-something supposed contradictions. But once I explain the key, you’ll be able to resolve them all for yourself.

The Problem in a Nutshell
For those unaware of the “glaring,” “mutually exclusive” contradictions, here are the biggest ones, supposedly making it “impossible” and “ludicrous” to attempt to harmonize the Bible’s own account of its most pivotal event:

  • How many women went to the tomb on resurrection morning? Was it one (John)? Two (Matthew)? Three (Mark)? Or more (Luke)?
  •  Did the woman/women arrive at the tomb while it was still dark (John)? Or as the sun was coming up (Matt and Mark)?
  • Who did the women see at the tomb? One person (Matthew and Mark,) or two (Luke and John)?
  • Did Mary Magdalene cry at the tomb (John)? Or were the women filled with joy (Matthew)?
  • Did Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus (Matthew)? Or not (John)?
  • Did the women tell the disciples immediately (Matthew, Luke, John)? Or did they say nothing to anyone (Mark)?

The key in a nutshell
The key to harmonizing the four gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus lies in recognizing that the Gospel of John describes a separate, earlier event from that which the Synoptic Gospels recount. The 3 Synoptic Gospels generally agree in what they report, with only minor variations. It is clear from an open-minded reading of the four accounts that Mary Magdalene, by herself, had already been to the tomb twice before the events described in Matthew, Mark, and Luke occur. By contrast, every skeptic I’ve read assumes that all four gospels are describing the same trip to the tomb. As we shall see, the answers to their criticisms have been there all along.

Is there textual evidence is to suggest that Mary Magdalene visited the tomb earlier than the other women? Yes, this is plainly stated. Two explicit references point to this scenario. First, John’s account begins, “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark (Jn 20:1.) The three other gospels describe a group of women, and mention dawn, or sunrise. Also, John’s text indicates that Mary was alone, and does not say that the purpose of her visit was to anoint the body.

A second clear reference to Mary’s visit is found in the gospel of Mark. He begins his abbreviated account with the group of women going to anoint the body at dawn, and ends with them fleeing the tomb in astonishment (v8.) But then, in verses 9-11 he states, “Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene…She went and told those who had been with them…But when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it” (16:9-11.) This is a reference to Mary’s earlier trip described by John, and summarizes his account perfectly. To attempt to read verses 9-11 as a continuation of the first 8 verses of Mark’s account makes little sense.

Bearing this scenario in mind, following is a chronology of the resurrection story wherein we will see all supposed contradictions resolved.

Mary Magdalene’s first two visits to the tomb
We begin with John’s account, “while it is still dark.” The stone has already been rolled back, the guards have already been dealt with, and the resurrection of Jesus has already occurred. Mary arrives to find the stone rolled back. This is her first visit to the tomb that morning. She goes no further, but turns and runs to get Peter and John, telling them that the body has been taken (v 1-2.) The men race to the tomb, look inside and see the empty grave clothes. John records that he believes, but that “as yet they did not know the scripture, that He must rise from the dead” (v 3-9.)

The perplexed men return to their homes, but Mary remains, alone and weeping, outside the tomb (v 11.) This is now her second visit. She looks inside the tomb and two angels appear and speak to her (v 12.) She turns to see Jesus, but does not recognize Him (v 14.) This is understandable as it is dark, she is weeping, and she believes Him to be dead. He reveals Himself to her and sends her to the disciples with a message. Mary finds the disciples, says, “I have seen the Lord!” and delivers the message (v 17-18.) This corresponds exactly with Mark’s summary in Mk 16:9-11. Note that Mark adds the detail that the disciples would not believe Mary. We will see why this is important shortly.

The Synoptic Gospel accounts: Mary Magdalene joins the other women
Now the Synoptic Gospels pick up the story. Mary M has now seen the empty tomb, angelic messengers, and the resurrected Jesus, but no one believes her. Does she simply go back to bed? Of course not! She had made a prior arrangement with the other women to anoint the body, after the Sabbath.

We know this from Luke’s account of the burial of Jesus:
“The women who had come with Him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. They returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Lk 23:55-56.) Since the entombment, these women had been waiting to return to the tomb to prepare the body for proper burial.

Verse 10 of the next chapter tells us who these women were: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some unidentified women. This is the most comprehensive description of the women. There were at least five. This accords with the remaining two accounts. Mark mentions the two Marys plus Salome, and Matthew only mentions the two Marys. The fact that they only name the two and three most prominent women is not a contradiction; it is simply the omission of detail. (Matthew does fill in these details earlier in his burial account, mentioning “many women” and naming “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mt 27:55,56.) It is reasonable to assume that this group accompanied the two Marys on resurrection morning.

So we have Mary M now joining the company of women who plan to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Note however that no one believes her story. Mary M, though frustrated, goes along with them because she knows they will soon see the truth for themselves. The three accounts agree that it is now dawn. This will be Mary M’s third visit to the tomb.

Mark 16:3 says that on the way the women were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” Is there a contradiction here? After all, Mary had already seen the stone rolled back, and Jesus Himself. There is no contradiction. Assuming Mary M has told them what she has seen, we’ve already been told that no one believes her crazy story. The picture that emerges is this: as the women rush to the tomb, most, if not all of the women are blowing off an exasperated Mary M; planning to anoint a body that Mary knows isn’t there, and asking who will roll away a stone that she knows has been rolled away.

Upon arrival, all accounts, (with the possible exception of Matthew,) say that they found the stone rolled away. We can reconcile the supposedly conflicting reports as follows:

The Stone and the Soldiers
Matthew describes an angel descended from heaven who rolled the stone back and sat upon it. The purpose of this first angelic appearance seems to have been to deal with the problem of the guard of Roman soldiers. They are not mentioned at the tomb again in any account, and it is reasonable to assume they remain unconscious (“like dead men” v4,) or have left to report to the chief priests (v11.) Obviously the earthquake and this angelic event had to have occurred before Mary M’s first visit.

There is nothing stated in Matthew’s account to contradict this scenario. Matthew states that the soldiers saw the angel roll back the stone (Matt 28:2-4.) He does not say that the women did. The angelic messenger was there, making himself visible to the women when they arrived.

We already know there were two angelic spirits present because Mary had already seen them inside the tomb earlier that morning. Notice, also, that Peter and John had been inside the tomb perhaps minutes before Mary looked in, and saw only empty burial clothes. A skeptic may think this business of angels appearing and disappearing at will is a very convenient device for someone attempting to harmonize resurrection accounts. However, if disappearing and reappearing is in the nature of what incorporeal beings do, a skeptic may not like it, but he cannot say it is inconsistent when they do it. It is therefore consistent to assume that one of the angels Mary saw earlier was the one who rolled back the stone, mentioned by Matthew.

Matthew does not tell us that the women entered the tomb, but it is reasonable to assume they did for two reasons: 1) a very shiny and fearsome angel had just commanded them to enter, and 2) the other 2 accounts say that they entered. Matthew simply omits this implied detail.

Critics see a contradiction in that Matthew has the angel giving his message outside of the tomb, while Mark has the angel giving the same message, thought for thought, inside the tomb. But at this point such criticisms are wearing thin. Given the emotional state of the women – fear, astonishment, lack of sleep – it seems completely reasonable to me that the angel would’ve repeated the message. Had I been an angelic messenger I probably would’ve written it down for them.

All of the other typically cited “contradictions” – the number of angels, whether they were sitting, standing, inside, or outside of the tomb – are easily reconcilable. The mention of only one angel when two are present is not a contradiction, but the omission of a detail. The angels were not frozen in position. Luke has the angel giving a different, but not contradictory, message. It is possible to conceive of omissions or additions that would be irreconcilable, but those in the gospel accounts simply do not fall into this category. (One such example might be: “…upon entering the tomb, they saw seven little men dressed in green, dancing around a pot of gold and singing songs to Zeus.”)

What is noteworthy is that two of the accounts have the angels insisting that the disciples see for themselves the place where Jesus lay, and the other two accounts record everyone doing just that. This is because faith as described in the Bible is evidential. The angels did not send the disciples away, saying, “Trust us. We’re angels. He’s risen.” No, they wanted human belief in the resurrection of God’s promised Messiah to be rooted in reliable, corroborated, eyewitness accounts. And, I would add, Jesus brilliantly revealed Himself to the women first, at a time when a woman’s testimony was not considered to be as credible as a man’s. This would be an unlikely strategy if a group of liars wanted to invent a popular new religion in a strongly patriarchal culture.

The Response of the Women
Finally, there is an oft-repeated “contradiction” that critics cite, which deserves a response. Upon leaving the tomb, what did the women do? Again the three accounts differ, but not irreconcilably so:
Matthew has the two Marys departing from the tomb with “fear and great joy,” running to tell the disciples. But on the way they are intercepted by Jesus. They take hold of His feet and worship Him, He reiterates the last part of the angel’s instruction, and sends them off (v 8-10.) Matthew is the only writer to recount this incident.
Luke simply states that after remembering the words of Jesus concerning His crucifixion and resurrection, they returned from the tomb and “told all this to the eleven and to all the rest” (24:8-12.)
Mark contains the seeming contradiction. He says “they fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid (16:8.)

Skeptics argue that the two Marys’ interaction with Jesus is significant and, if true, unlikely to be omitted from the other gospels. And at any rate, if Jesus met the women leaving the tomb as Matthew describes, then Mark’s account makes no sense. Mark says they told no one because they were afraid. These women had obviously not met Jesus. I’m inclined to agree.

The scriptures provide a clue for a plausible explanation. In John’s account, after Peter and John leave the empty tomb, he says “the disciples returned to their homes.” This indicates that the disciples – and there were many besides the eleven – were not staying together on a communal farm, but in individual lodging places. It is perfectly reasonable to posit that the company of women leaving the tomb split up to spread the message of the angels to the disciples. Possibly the two Marys then encountered Jesus apart from the others. It is reasonable to assert that not all of the five or more women were in the same frame of mind. Some, especially the ones who had not yet encountered Jesus, were too afraid to speak to anyone, while others felt “fear and great joy” as Matthew states.

Finally, skeptics attempt to make much of Mark’s statement, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8.) As if this must mean they never spoke of the resurrection to anyone for the rest of their lives. This is a goofy objection. Obviously, they were temporarily overcome with trembling and fear, and when they had collected themselves, they spoke of what they had seen, concurring with the other gospel accounts. Possibly, in stating this, Mark’s gospel is underlining the distinction between the fearful group of women, and the account of Mary M in the very next verse in which she immediately tells the disciples. The author wants to clarify that the Mary M event was an earlier incident.

In harmonizing the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, the most glaring inconsistencies come from attempting to read John’s account as the same incident as that described in the Synoptic Gospels. However, there are good and sufficient reasons, plainly stated in the text, which indicate that they are separate incidents. None of the accounts, recounted by four different authors, tells the entire story, yet taken together they complement each other beautifully.

Much of what Jesus did is now lost to us. One example would be His appearance to Simon which is referred to in Luke 24:34, but which is never detailed in the gospels. John plainly tells us, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” (20:30-31.) We have enough to get the picture.

As for me, I’m going to go and attempt to claim my $10,000 from the Skeptics Association, again. I’ll let you know how that goes. Until then, may our awesome Creator reveal Himself more clearly to you during this coming Passover season.

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Why the Magi Did Not Follow the Star to Bethlehem, and Why it Matters

Magi,Magus-Scott FreemanI’m not out to ruin Christmas for anyone. In fact, I hope to make Christmas more awesome for everyone who reads this. And by “awesome,” I actually mean “awesome.”

Even children know that it’s part of the Christmas story that three Wiseman followed a blazing star which led them to Bethlehem, to the manger where the infant Jesus lay; a “star of wonder…of royal beauty bright…westward leading…guiding,…” We get this idea from Christmas carols and greeting cards, which are supposedly derived from the Christmas story in the Bible. Does it matter that the Bible doesn’t actually say any of this?

Stay with me. I’m not a theologically anal party pooper. I love Christmas and Christmas carols. But I’ve also noticed that the traditions that have sprung up around the Christmas story and “Christianity” make it challenging to see what the Bible actually says.

For instance, did you ever notice that Luke never says that the angels sang to the shepherds? We get that idea from carols like Hark, the Herald Angels. See for yourself: Luke 2:13. (Michael Card agrees with me.)

Now, I’ll be first to admit that this business of control-freakish-Bible-verse-correcting can be pedantic and super annoying. Those of us who grew up in evangelical sub-culture have heard a million times: “You know, it doesn’t actually say there were three Wiseman.” And, “It doesn’t actually say it was an apple that Eve ate.” And, “It doesn’t actually say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.”

So freaking what?

However, in the case of the star of Bethlehem I do actually have a serious reason for being picky. On December 22, 2012 I published a blog post called, The Star of Bethlehem – A Fairy Tale? This post summarized the research of Rick Larson, who has produced, in my opinion, a very compelling video entitled The Star of Bethlehem. Larson’s video and website shows the correspondence between the observable, testable universe and the Bible regarding the Star of Bethlehem story. Modern computer software can show us the precise configuration of the stars at any point in history, from any location on earth. We can know exactly what was going on in the sky around the birth of Jesus. And what was going on will blow your socks off.

After I published that post, a PhD physicist with degrees in mathematics and astronomy replied. His name is Aaron Adair, and he has a special interest in the Star of Bethlehem. He had just published a book claiming to debunk Larson’s theory. For Bible “skeptics,” he is apparently considered the go-to guy regarding the Star of Bethlehem.

So the next year, on December 22, 2013, I published a blog post entitled, Answering a Debunker: The Star of Bethlehem. In response, Mr. Adair cordially visited my blog’s comment section where he and I engaged in a rather lengthy but respectful debate. (Those interested can view the entire conversation HERE.)

A brief summary of why interpretive accuracy matters in the case of the star:
Mr. Adair claims to have debunked a naturalistic interpretation of the biblical story of the star of Bethlehem. He claims to have proven there was no clear, natural, astronomical sign in the heavens around the time of Jesus’s birth that fits the story in the Bible. We now know what the ancient sky looked like, and there was nothing in the heavens that would have told the Magi that a king in Israel had been born. Furthermore, there was no star “dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite” that could’ve led the Magi to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem, and then to the child. But then, I contend that the Bible doesn’t actually say that this is what happened. I contend that Mr. Adair has merely done a great job of debunking nonbiblical traditions passed down through Christmas carols and greeting cards. I think the actual biblical account of the star only becomes more amazing under modern scrutiny.

Following is a brief summary of what the Bible actually says about the Magi and the Star:

  • The story begins hundreds of years earlier when Israel is in exile under Babylon and Persia. While in exile to these foreign powers, the Jewish prophet Daniel is given miraculous revelation from God concerning the coming of an eternal kingdom and an eternal king from Israel. Daniel provides a specific timeline as to when these events would occur. Hundreds of years later, when the Romans, (the fourth kingdom prophesied in Daniel ch 2,) came to power, the Persian Magi would’ve been watching for some sign that the prophesied king of the Jews had been born. We now know that in 3 and 2 B.C. there were, in fact, remarkable, rare and repeated astronomical signs having to do with the birth of a king.
  • So upon “seeing His star in the East,” the Magi left for the capital city of Israel – Jerusalem – assuming that’s where they would find the young king. They didn’t need to follow a star to get there, especially considering the history between Persia and Israel.
  • Upon arriving, the Magi were probably surprised to learn that no one in Jerusalem seemed to know about the birth of Israel’s own king. In fact it says the entire city was troubled by the statements of the Magi. It is clear that King Herod didn’t know about the star either (Matt 2:7.) So the Bible is not describing a blazing star leading Wisemen around the Middle East. Whatever the Magi were seeing would’ve been easy for others to miss.
  • A troubled King Herod assembles the chief priests and scribes to learn where the messiah would be born according to the Jewish prophets. Then, King Herod, (not a star,) sends them to Bethlehem (2:8.) Bethlehem was five miles down the main road. Again, the Magi did not need a star to guide them.
  • He tells them, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word…” (2:8).
    This is significant because there was obviously no blazing ball of fire leading the Magi around. Why would Herod have directed them to diligently search if he could see that the Magi already had a magical star to guide them to Jesus? Better yet, why would he not have sent his own guys to follow the star directly to the child?
  • As the Magi start out to Bethlehem, “lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy…” (2:9,10.)
    Can heavenly bodies appear to move in the sky and then stop over towns? Yes, they can. In fact, we know that in 2 B.C. Jupiter performed a retrograde loop and was stationary over Bethlehem on, interestingly, December 25th. This was only one of many significant planetary movements involving Jupiter. (See full explanation HERE.) While I understand how this one sentence has been interpreted over the centuries that mean that the star was guiding the Magi to the house where Jesus was, this is not the only way to see it. It can also be seen as a divinely orchestrated coincidence; an affirmation to the Magi that the young king was indeed in Bethlehem. Of course the Magi would’ve been overjoyed at this heavenly sign.

The reason all of this matters to me is that Christmastime has become one more occasion for Bible “skeptics” to come out of the woodwork, claiming they have debunked the Bible, claiming that science is at odds with the Bible, and claiming that biblical faith is irrational. I enthusiastically disagree.

There is one loose end in my dialogue with Mr. Adair, having to do with the Greek text, which I promised to check into, so I’ll briefly take the occasion of this blog post to respond. Mr. Adair claims the Bible implies that an unnatural star led the Magi to Bethlehem, and that the Magi followed it to the very house where Jesus lived; that the star was literally over the house in close proximity. I contend that the Bible does not say this. But then, I readily admit that I’m no Greek scholar. I welcome anyone who is to weigh in here.

Mr. Adair claims that when the text says, “the star…went before them” (proago), the Greek is clearly saying they were being led by the star. Not necessarily. Just because there are people going before you in the checkout line at Walmart doesn’t mean they’re leading you. In fact, after the resurrection, both Matthew and Mark have an angel telling the disciples that Jesus “… is going before (proago) you to Galilee; there you will see him” (Matt 28:7; Mk 16:7.) In the same way, the Magi were not relying on the star for directions. The words “went before” can simply mean “went before.”

Mr. Adair claims that when the text says the star went on before them “until it came and stood over (epano) where the child was”, the Greek must mean “on top of or slightly above.” As in, “…and they put up above (epano) his head this charge against Him…” (Matt 27:37,) speaking of the sign placed directly over the head of Jesus at His crucifixion. However, the same word is also used here: “…[he] threw [the dragon/Satan] into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over (epano) him…” (Rev 20:3.) Epano comes from epi – on, upon, and ano – up, above. In the case of the star, understanding epano to mean “in the sky directly over Bethlehem” seems to be within the range of allowable meanings. This is true especially considering that the text has already told us that the Magi needed no starry guide to get them to Bethlehem, that the Magi would have to diligently search for the child when they arrived, and that apparently no one else noticed the star. I favor letting scripture interpret scripture.

Conclusion
Am I arguing that there was nothing supernatural about the Star of Bethlehem? Am I sucking all of the mystery and wonder out of the Christmas Story?

Of course not. The entire thing is miraculous and supernaturally orchestrated from top to bottom.

The Christmas story only matters if it is true. Part of the beauty of it is that we can look back and see the correspondence between events recorded in scripture, and verifiable planetary movements using modern computer software. Yet it is a mantra of “New Atheism” that no evidence for God exists. Therefore the Star of Bethlehem must be assigned fairy tale status. Adair elsewhere appeals to tradition in saying “all ancient commentators” speak of the star as a supernatural (unnatural) phenomenon. But they didn’t know what we know today. Modern astronomy combined with the plain biblical text reveals an astonishing series of events that, in the sovereignty of God, can only have been scheduled when the stars were first created and set in motion.

God’s fingerprints are all over the Christmas story. The Magi were acting by faith on Jewish prophecy that had been handed down for some five hundred years. The Creator of the stars did announce the birth of His universal Messiah on the canvas of the observable universe, with amazing specificity. The Magi were a foreshadowing of the gentile nations coming into a salvation that would be for “the Jew first, but also to the gentiles.” After leaving Herod for Bethlehem, the Magi rejoiced to see the star going before them and stopping over Bethlehem because they knew that they were a part of a divinely ordained, world-changing chain of events. The invitation has been sent, and you are invited:

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:5,6.)

May God reveal Himself more clearly to us all this Christmas season!

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Answering a Debunker: The Star of Bethlehem

Image

Star of Bethlehem
Worship painting by Mollie Walker Freeman, 18×24″, mixed media
This is not so much a depiction of how the Star of Bethlehem may have actually appeared, but is more a symbolic depiction of light breaking into spiritual darkness.

Last Christmas season I wrote a post about Rick Larson’s remarkable Star of Bethlehem video and some new insights made possible by modern astronomy software. A reader commented on my post, claiming to have debunked Larson’s theory. I didn’t publish this reader’s comment because when I went to his blog site, he hadn’t finished writing about the two points of greatest interest to me. He has now finished those articles and has, in fact, published a book as well. He believes his book demolishes Larson’s theory. I haven’t yet read the book, but if it contains reasoning similar to that in his blog,…well, I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself whose arguments are left standing.

The author’s name is Aaron Adair. His new book is The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View. Adair has a PhD in physics, and degrees in mathematics and astronomy from Michigan State. He has read widely and published on the topic of the Star of Bethlehem, about which people have been theorizing and writing for centuries. Apparently the Star has long been an area of special interest for him.

I, on the other hand, know next to nothing about physics, math, or astronomy and have no credentials. I am relatively uneducated, and I paint pictures for a living. Perhaps it would make sense for me to accept Dr. Adair’s proclamation that he has debunked Larson’s theory. Perhaps. Except that, as is so often the case with experts and scholars, I can’t help noticing that his reasoning is super lame.

On his blog site, Fleeing Nergal, Seeking StarsAdair posts a “Critical View Index.” There he lists five posts wherein he critiques five claims from Larson’s theory. For the sake of brevity, and because it is Christmastime, I will comment here only on his third post: The Constellation Leo as the Sign of the Jews. His wrongheaded approach to discrediting the story of the Magi in the gospel of Matthew is typical of “skeptics” and Bible critics.

For those unfamiliar with Rick Larson or my post from last year, here’s a brief recap:
The movements of the stars and planets are set and predictable. We now have computer software that can show us exactly how the sky looked at any point in history, from any location on earth. Think about that. This means we can know what the Magi would’ve seen from their vantage point in Jerusalem when they were seeking the infant Christ. Larson narrows down the possibilities and settles on a time frame – 3 and 2 BC – and describes an incredible series of astronomical events that were occurring during that time frame, and explains how they might have corresponded with the events described in Matthew’s gospel. I read this perspective for the first time in a 1993 essay by PhD astronomer, Craig C. Chester, president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy (MIRA.) Larsen’s video and website goes into even more detail.

One such notable detail is referenced in the apostle John’s book of Revelation. John writes of a portent that “appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1,2.) The woman is about to give birth. She delivers a male child “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5.) Now compare this fact: astronomy software shows that on September 11 of 3 BC, the sun was in the constellation of Virgo (the virgin), and there was a new moon at her feet. In other words, we now know that in 3 BC the heavens corresponded exactly with what John wrote down, which was clearly a reference to the birth of Jesus. This would be true whether or not anyone was aware of it at the time.

Larson admits he is an amateur astronomer. I was curious to see if Adair would argue that Larson had somehow gotten the astronomy wrong. But the degreed astronomer doesn’t argue this. Instead he tries to chip away at the credibility of the story mostly by citing a lack of ancient sources corroborating his own unfounded assumptions about the story. For example Adair states:

Regulus was the king star. With the planet Jupiter moving back and forth around Regulus it seemed to indicate something important, and the final, supreme conjunction of Jupiter and Venus then took place after this in 2 BCE. Now (sic) only is this a key part of the film, there are many planetariums around the USA that at the holidays present this dance of the planets and stars (including the planetarium I used to work at)…So a lot is hinging on how important Leo and Regulus are to kingship and the Jews. That means we need to look at what is the evidence that Leo was connected to the Holy Land and God’s chosen people…”

Actually, no, we don’t. (Though it would be icing on the cake to find such an association.)

Adair then impressively references a list of Jewish Rabbis, both medieval and ancient, to show they did not associate the constellation Leo with Israel. He then quotes ancient non-Jewish sources connecting Leo with other nations, not Israel. He shows that astronomical interpretation was all over the place in the ancient world and that there was no known authoritative standard by which ancient astronomers would’ve associated Leo with Israel. But all of these points are irrelevant to the account in the gospel of Matthew. If anything these points lend credibility Matthew’s account.

Why the Magi would’ve associated heavenly signs with a king born in Israel

The Bible gives a harmonious account of history that is internally consistent. Does it provide any reason to believe that “wise men from the East” would travel to Jerusalem seeking a newborn king, based on signs they had seen in the sky? Yes.

But first, I should point out that we would not necessarily expect to find Jewish or rabbinical sources linking the constellation Leo to Israel. The Torah of Moses and the prophets forbade the practice of astrology in Israel! (Deut 18:9-14; Isa 47:13,14; Jer 10:1-3.) As I mentioned in my original post, neither Herod nor anyone else in Jerusalem seemed to know anything about “the Star of Bethlehem.” In fact Matthew says Herod and all of Jerusalem were “troubled” by the Magi’s news. So, whatever the Star was, it must not have been very obvious. Or if it was obvious, its meaning was unknown to the Jewish people.

Secondly, the Magi were (probably) not Jewish. The sign was for them, not for the Jews. I would humbly suggest that here in the 21st century, these astronomical events can now be taken as a sign for everyone, both Jew and gentile, since we can now see in hindsight what has occurred. But for Adair to cite a lack of ancient Jewish sources identifying Leo with Israel debunks nothing.

However, since Adair also shows that neither were there non-Jewish sources linking the constellation Leo to Israel, (none, at least, that are known to us today,) he concludes that the Magi therefore wouldn’t have known to travel to Jerusalem to pay homage to a newborn king. Game over, Larson’s theory is bogus, and the whole story is fictional.

Incidentally, Adair is especially intent on proving that the Star could not have been a “natural” event, but, if anything, could only have been a miraculous one. (I’ll say more later on why this matters to him.) For the sake of argument, let’s say that the Star was a miraculous event. This still doesn’t solve the problem. Why would non-Jewish Magi associate a supernatural star with Israel, or “follow” it, any more than they would follow a natural star? (Unless it was a talking star.)

Then what reason is there to believe that wise men from the East would journey to Israel based on heavenly signs?

The biblical account of Israel’s Babylonian exile provides a plausible answer. Bear in mind that, from the beginning, God’s plan in establishing a chosen people Israel was to bless all the nations of the world through Israel (Gen 12:2,3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14.) In keeping with this, the book of the exiled Daniel has God revealing remarkable, specific prophecies regarding the precise timing of the coming of God’s Messiah and the establishment of His eternal kingdom (Daniel ch 2, 7, 8, & 9:23-27.) As a result of these prophecies and other miracles, first the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, decreed that the God of the Israelites was pre-eminent (Da 3:29,30.) Later, the Medo-Persian King, Darius, exalted Daniel and made the following decree:

“…I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed…he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth…” (Da 6:25-28.)

These decrees came from idolatrous, gentile kings who had conquered the Jewish nation, and had then become convinced of the supremacy of YHWH, the God of the Jews. The Persian wise men in Daniel’s time could not have avoided being aware of Daniel and his God. They would’ve known of Daniel’s repeated prophecies that after Babylon there would be three more kingdoms and then the greatest of kings would come and establish an eternal kingdom (Dan 2:36-45.) Surely such knowledge would have been preserved and handed down until the time of the appointed fourth kingdom, which turned out to be the Roman Empire. At this time the Magi would’ve been watching for any sign from “the God who works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth.” They would have specifically been watching Israel, Daniels’s people, who had long since returned from exile to their homeland, and who were also in a state of Messianic expectation because of these same prophecies. So when the sky began announcing the birth of a great king, on cue, the Magi already knew exactly where to find him – Israel.

ImageSo we see that specifically associating the constellation Leo with Israel is not critical to Larson’s theory at all. As Adair admits, pretty much every ancient civilization wished to be associated with the lion. The Magi were expecting the birth of the greatest of kings who was prophesied to establish the greatest of kingdoms. How fitting it must have seemed to them that his sign would appear in the constellation of Leo.

I look forward to reading Adair’s book, and I’m hopeful that it will drive more people to check out Rick Larson’s beautifully produced video and website for themselves. Until then, just for fun, I want to go out on a limb and make a guess as to why Aaron Adair and people like him are so intent on proving that the Star of Bethlehem could not have been a “natural” event: They are dogmatists. It is an article of dogmatic belief for New Atheism that biblical faith cannot be based on evidence. At all. Ever. They feel that materialism/atheism owns the field of observable, verifiable evidence and that religious faith must ever remain wholly outside of that field. By definition. Always. Ironically, this in itself is a religious belief contradicting evidence, as I have explained here.

By contrast, I am perfectly content to share the field. I am happy to let PhD experts believe that by sheer coincidence the heavens declared the birth of a child who grew to be the most influential person who ever lived, and that this astronomical configuration was precisely described by the apostle John some 2000 years ago in the Bible. I understand that peer pressure in academia is very great. One simply won’t be respected by one’s academic peers if one entertains the possibility of events being foreknown and fixed in the stars by an omniscient Creator. Even if they were.

So to all academics everywhere, and to the academically unenlightened masses of which I am a part, I can only wish for us all the merriest of Christmases!

(For those interested in more detailed dialogue, please note that author Aaron Adair has replied in the comment section below…)