How Creationists & Evolutionists are Evidentially on Equal Footing

creationism vs evolutionism debate

The Science of Rock-Scissors-Paper

In my ongoing discussion with “skeptics”, my “skeptic” friends often appeal to the fact that the vast majority of living scientists, and educated people in general, hold to a belief in microbes-to-man evolution. I do recognize that this is the case.

My “skeptic” friends uniformly assume this must be because the scientific evidence is so overwhelming that only someone with a strong, predetermined, religious bias would seriously hold to creationism. Since relatively few hold to young earth creationism, they sometimes wonder if we think there is an anti-creationist conspiracy in academia keeping the truth of creationism from getting out.

I would like to enthusiastically offer my layman’s observations on those two assumptions.

ASSUMPTION #1: Creationists have a predetermined faith position into which they must fit all scientific data. They do not follow the evidence wherever it may lead, (like real scientists do).

It might surprise some that I actually agree with this assumption. Creationists are, in fact, quite open about their bias right out of the gate. Creationists do begin from a faith position that they choose not to question.

The fascinating point that I want to make here is that materialist evolutionists do exactly the same thing. Not something similar, but exactly.

Belief in microbes-to-man evolution is a faith position, complete with its own dogma that may not be questioned if one is to remain in good standing in academia among one’s peers. This isn’t merely my opinion. It is a fact that we can all observe. I will prove this shortly.

I will also point out that this notion shouldn’t be taken as an insult, but it is. It is insulting to materialists and “skeptics” only because they don’t want to see themselves this way. They’ve spent a lot of ink and pixels “accusing” the other side of acting from faith, while positioning themselves as standing strictly on scientific evidence. I am repeatedly told that there is no evidence for God. What nonsense.

Most often in my discussions, I no longer even attempt to prove that creationism is correct. That is far too ambitious a goal. My aim now is simply to get materialists to admit that they are also acting from a faith position when it comes to beliefs around the origins of the universe and life. I say we’re on equal footing. (Actually, as a theist, I believe that my position is the more rational of the two since my position is at least possible, but I’m trying to seek common ground).

But they will not budge. They have made the stakes for themselves too high.

ASSUMPTION #2: Creationists believe in an academia/media conspiracy designed to keep the truth from getting out, (like flat-earthers do).

This one I don’t agree with. It’s completely unnecessary to believe in such a conspiracy. The truth is much simpler than the existences of a secret conspiracy.

The truth is this: creationism is so embarrassing that it renders a conspiracy unnecessary.

Seriously. Creationists believe in an earth only thousands of years old, that God created human life fully formed in His image, and that a historical guy named Noah preserved humanity on an ark in a global flood that shaped geology. Anyone who claims to believe any of this in a secular academic setting commits career suicide.

It’s not a question of whether or not there is corroborating scientific evidence for all of this, (because there is), it is a question of academic respectability and peer approval. Creationism is not intellectual-sounding, and we all want to be thought of by others as intelligent people.

Furthermore, to even admit the possibility that science might corroborate these stories would amount to, not only scientific evidence for the existence of God, but even worse, it would amount to evidence for the existence of the God of the Bible. The secularist establishment will never allow that if it can be avoided. And it can be avoided by having faith that science will someday fill in the existing knowledge gaps.

The problem with questions of origins is that ALL of the possibilities are embarrassing! It’s just that we’ve been conditioned to accept the evolution story as somehow more plausible and intellectual. But it’s not. It’s ridiculous. As of today, it’s essentially belief in magic.

Just to be clear, materialist evolutionists believe that all of the life that we see today – from daisies, to hummingbirds, to blue whales, to Vladimir Putin – all of this accidentally arose from a single-celled organism – one ancestral genome – billions of years ago; blindly and mindlessly. Yet I would assert that we all innately know this is not how the real world works.

Someday science will fill in the gaps…
Perhaps. But until that day, can we admit that microbes-to-man evolution is a faith position?

Evolutionary science asserts that everything we see can be explained by natural processes. But as of this writing, that assertion is demonstrably untrue. In fact, at the most fundamental points, naturalism lacks known, scientifically observable, natural processes that can explain what we see:

  • There is no known, observable, natural process by which the material universe could have accidentally created itself.

 

  • We have known since the 19th century, from scientific experimentation, that life does not spontaneously arise from non-living matter. Yet materialists must believe that it does.

 

  • Even if simple living organisms could have accidentally appeared, there is no known, observable, natural process by which such organisms could have blindly evolved into doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs over time. Mutation (genomic copying errors) and natural selection are insufficient to account for this.

 

  • We know from genetic science that the human genome is deteriorating at an observable rate. Not only can mutation/natural selection not explain how complex information got into our deteriorating genome, it can’t even explain how it could have remained there up until the present time.

Accidental existence shouldn’t even be on the table as a serious option until it can be shown to be possible by natural processes. This is simply holding evolutionists to their own claims.

Yes, this too is dogma
I promised to prove that dogma exists in the realm of evolutionary science. Of several dogmas, here is perhaps the most crucial, authoritative doctrine in secular science: deep time – the belief that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, and that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

Let us be clear. There can be no theory of microbes-to-man evolution via mutation and natural selection without these billions of years. This is absolutely non-negotiable for naturalism or materialism if one wants to remain a rational believer in those things. Regarding the scientific method, an evolutionary scientist may not, cannot, will not, consider a young earth conclusion even if the evidence should point to that conclusion.

The theist’s job, then, is simple: Any evidence that points to a young earth is essentially hard evidence for a belief in God. And there is a great deal of it, from diverse scientific fields. (See a variety of examples here).

To clarify: creationists don’t have to prove the earth is only 6000 years old. It may be 10,000 years old. It may be 100,000. It may be 500,000. Some evidence indicates it may be one or two million years old. This is still far, far too little time for microbes-to-man evolution to be possible. This fact leaves evolutionists in the hopeless position of fitting all scientific evidence that comes in into a deep time scenario. Much of it does not. The fact that soft dinosaur tissue exists today in supposedly 65 million year old bones is just the tip of the iceberg. The universe continues to surprise us.

Without deep time, rational atheism is dead. The dictionary defines dogma as, prescribed doctrine proclaimed as unquestionably true by a particular group.” If you are a materialist, you may object to calling belief in deep time “dogma.” I would ask you to explain why it is not.

Science has its limits, particularly when discerning unobservable, unrepeatable, distant historical events. The creation-evolution debate is ultimately not about what science says. It’s really about what each of us wants to believe, because science says “both.”

 

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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”!

Speaking of kids, it you haven’t already done so, please sign up on my email list at my kids’ storybook website, RIGHT HERE!

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!

(My new fully illustrated kids’ storybook, The True Story of Christmas, tells the story of Jesus’s birth in fidelity to the biblical narrative, beginning with creation and the fall. ORDER HERE.)

Religious Freedom & Hobby Lobby: Who Is Imposing What on Whom?

Hobby Lobby Religious Freedom
Hobby Lobby is a privately owned, for-profit, arts and crafts business that has always provided contraceptive coverage in its insurance plan for employees. It continues to do so. However, the owners of Hobby Lobby objected to ACA (Obamacare) requirements that they cover four contraceptive options which may act as abortifacients. Complying in this manner would violate the owners’ sanctity-of-human-life beliefs, which are rooted in their biblical worldview. Hobby Lobby initially was denied a preliminary injunction from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. When Hobby Lobby was eventually granted a preliminary injunction, the government appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Without the Supreme Court’s recent intervention, Hobby Lobby would’ve been subject to fines of $1.3 million per freaking day.

On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court announced its decision that the US government cannot force Hobby Lobby to pay for contraceptive coverage that violates the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs. The Court ruled in accordance with the bi-partisan Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. This was primarily a religious freedom case, not a contraception case.

The Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision brought into the spotlight a reality that will not be going away anytime soon: In “secular” American culture, there is going to be an inevitable clash with religious freedom around the issues of abortion and human sexuality, because, embarrassing as it is to secularists, America is still the most religious developed nation in the world. Secular and religious worldviews will continue to collide.

I’ve argued here that the best we can hope for in America is freedom and pluralism. Creating a homogenous utopia always comes at too high a price. We must all put on our big boy pants and accept that we’re not all going to agree with each other, even on life’s most fundamental issues. Issues like the sanctity of human life and human sexuality. It’s okay if we disagree, so long as we respectfully allow other viewpoints to co-exist alongside ours. The deal-breaker is when either the Right OR the Left attempts to use government to force compliance on such fundamental issues. Everyone is free to ignore the Church. None of us are free to ignore the State, and everyone must recognize that government necessarily always entails force. This is what the Hobby Lobby case was about.

It’s simply not a question of whether you think you are right, or whether you think your view is the most fair and compassionate, or whether you think your political opponents arguments are stupid or misinformed. I’m pretty sure we all think something like that, or else we would change our opinions. The point is that we must never allow one side to take the step of violating by force, the civil rights and autonomy of those with whom it disagrees. The Supreme Court essentially ruled that this was, in effect, what the Obama administration (Sebelius/Burwell) was attempting to do in the case of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties.

In their decision, the Justices referred to the *Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Court ruled that the US Government could find a less restrictive means of accomplishing its interest in the matter, which is precisely what the RFRA requires. In the midst of all the hysterical, vitriolic, and often flat out dishonest media reaction I’ve heard around the Hobby Lobby decision, I heard precious little reference to the RFRA. I thought it would be helpful to address some typical objections in light of the RFRA:

Objection: Hobby Lobby is forcing their religious views on women…denying women access to birth control coverage…waging a war on women…carrying out a thinly disguised anti-woman agenda…imposing something on women…hating women, etc.

Such statements, honestly, are baffling to me. The only party having something forcibly imposed on it in this situation was Hobby Lobby. The choices were: abandon your reasonable foundational beliefs, or else pay $1.3 million a day until you either comply or go out of business.

In America, when an employer and an employee wish to enter into a consensual, contractual agreement, each party agrees to provide something for the other. If the prospective employee doesn’t like the benefit package for whatever reason, she is free to walk away. An Employer refusing to pay for something is not the same thing as banning it, or denying access to it.

I couldn’t find the numbers on this, but I’m pretty sure that if there were ever a business that caters mostly to women, it’s Hobby Lobby. From what I can see, their workforce is mostly women as well. I would be very surprised to learn that the Green family hates women. Until I see some rational reason to believe they do, I’m going to assume they are grateful to women for making their business a success.

Objection: What’s next, if “religious” people can pick and choose which laws they want to obey? Now anyone will be able to use “religious freedom” as a pretext for not obeying the law…Pandora’s box…minefield, etc.

The RFRA squarely addresses this concern. It begins:

The framers of the Constitution, recognizing free exercise of religion as an unalienable right, secured its protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution…”

However, the RFRA was designed to strike a balance between this inalienable right of the people and the interests of government. The law states that, in general, “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” but then it provides an exception:

Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person-

  • is in the furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
  • is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
    (See the RFRA in its entirety here.)

So, if a person’s religion requires them to not pay taxes, or to own slaves, or to conduct weekly human sacrifices, the Court will almost certainly find that government is justified in burdening those religious practices. (Here’s a great article on the RFRA)

Senator Ted Kennedy, together with Senator Orrin Hatch, led the bipartisan passage of the RFRA in the Senate (97-3.) The House unanimously passed it. Kennedy claimed that, under the RFRA, “not every free exercise claim will prevail.” The RFRA does not predetermine the outcome of any religious liberty claim.

Objection: The 4 contraceptives in question are not abortifacients.

1) Depending upon how one defines pregnancy, they may indeed act as abortifacients. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties chose to err on the side of not being a party to ending a developing human life, as is their right.

2) This objection is irrelevant anyway. Even if a company were religiously opposed to covering any birth control whatsoever, (which is not true of HL,) the RFRA still requires the government to “strike a sensible balance between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.”

 Objection: With this decision, America is heading toward a Christian theocracy…the end of the world as we know it…back to the Inquisition, etc…

 A guy seriously tried to argue this with me.

No. Just because the Supreme Court recognized that it’s illegal for a liberal administration to use governmental power to force conservatives to behave like liberals does not mean we are heading toward a theocracy. It means we’re heading back toward freedom. Anyway, it’s also unconstitutional for the American government to have a state church, so no, there will be no theocracy. Plus nobody wants one. Especially Christians. My guess is that such hysterical statements stem from the Left’s tendency to conflate Christianity and Islam.

And speaking of not understanding religion…

 In her dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made this statement: “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations.”

 With all due respect, she’s wrong. Her statement is certainly not true of the many faith-based universities, hospitals, and national and international relief organizations which shape the world we live in. One could even argue that her statement isn’t even true of many churches! Religious belief, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, provides a motivating, transcendent basis for valuing, loving, and helping all human beings, regardless of distinction. Such organizations do not screen refugees, earthquake victims, and starving people to make sure they “subscribe to the same religious faith” before serving them. In fact many “religious organizations” intentionally seek out people groups of other faiths to do good to them.

 Her statement mirrors the Obama administrations arbitrary (and incorrect) definitions of what religious organizations are, and what they do. Administration attorneys have been arguing in court that religious people give up any claim to a right of religious liberty when they choose to start a for-profit company.

Think about that.

Can the free market not sort most of this out? Do we really need the heel of government coercing people of faith to abandon their fundamental beliefs before they can incorporate a business? As if a secularist worldview is somehow less biased than a religious worldview. And anyway, is it really a good idea to keep people who may be religiously motivated to not be self-focused, cut-throat, money-grabbing dirt bags out of the business world?

Bigotry is bigotry. Just because it’s liberal bigotry doesn’t make it good bigotry.
‘Just sayin.’

I’m reading between the lines just a bit here, but I’m getting the impression from the Left that it is content to let “religious people” exist, so long as they stay out of the public square, outside of government, outside of the sphere of public influence, and squirreled away in their own churches. In fact the “new atheism” explicitly encourages this.

If I may close by putting this idea into perspective, let’s make some comparisons:

Many Islamic nations claim to have “religious freedom.” This means they allow Christians to live among them, so long as they do not build (or repair) churches, “make converts,” or criticize Islam. Should a Muslim decide to “convert to Christianity,” the consequences can be quite severe for everyone involved.

Similarly, China, an atheist state, claims to have “religious freedom.” Christian churches are allowed to exist, but only if they are registered with and controlled by the government. They must stay out of the public square and outside of government. The assumption is that religion will eventually die out as the public becomes more enlightened.

I’d be interested in hearing from someone on the American Left as to how the Left’s perspective on religious liberty is substantially different from that of China, or even from theocratic Islamic nations. In your answer, please tell me why you feel more threatened by the (non-compulsory) Church, than by the (compulsory) State. I’m genuinely curious.

Answering a Debunker: The Star of Bethlehem

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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…)

Part 5: Five Things in the Bible that Once Embarrassed Me but that I Now Think are Freaking Profound

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Thing #5 – The Ascension of Jesus
Here again, I’m amazed at how a belief that I once considered to be embarrassing has turned out to be an asset for everyone on the planet.

What was so embarrassing?
The story of the ascension just sounds so airy-fairy. Especially if you happen to be in an academic setting. You might as well say you believe Peter Pan is a historical figure. It sounds like a bedtime story: “…And then Jesus flew waaaay up into the clouds with the birds and butterflies while a band of angels and unicorns pranced gaily about on the earth below!” Maybe I’m making it worse than it is, but still…

You can read the actual account in Acts 1:1-11, but here are the key details:

  • After being publically crucified, Jesus is resurrected
  • He appears to His disciples for 40 days and talks to them about the kingdom of God
  • As they are looking on, He is “lifted up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight”
  • Two angelic messengers appear beside the disciples, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”

Believe it or not, every one of these details turns out to be significant. Following are my top 3 reasons why the ascension matters.

1 – The ascension story makes it really difficult to be a fake Jesus.
It would be an understatement to say that Jesus has a great deal of influence. Not surprisingly, then, since Jesus left there is a long list of people who have claimed to be him. Many of their stories would be funny if they didn’t involve so many dead people. Some of the better known fake Jesuses have been:

  • Haile Selassie, former Ethiopian Emperor, died 1975 – Rastafarians consider him to be the second coming of Jesus. Some believe he is still alive. He was a reluctant and relatively harmless fake Jesus.
  • Jim Jones, Peoples Temple cult leader of poison Kool-aid fame, died 1978 – claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus and also Vladimir Lenin, (which is slightly more believable.)
  • Marshall Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate cult leader of Hale-Bopp comet fame, died 1997 – claimed to be Jesus 2 years before He and his followers committed mass suicide in order to rendezvous with a space ship hiding behind the comet.
  • Rev Sun Myung Moon, Unification Church cult leader of mass wedding ceremonies fame, died 2012 – believed by church members to be the second coming of Jesus. Moon believed his mission was to complete unfinished the work of Jesus, who, the first time around was unfortunately crucified before he could get married and create the perfect family.
  • The Jehovah’s Witness cult takes a more subtle approach, claiming that Jesus returned invisibly in 1914.

Think about it. No one alive today knows what Jesus looked like. So how do you know that Marshall Applewhite wasn’t the second coming of Jesus? Well, this is what happens when people go cherry picking through the Bible. Even if you personally do not believe a word of the Bible, and even if you think this whole business of Jesus coming back is a bunch of baloney, you have to admit that those of us who do believe the Bible have a pretty strong litmus test for recognizing the second coming of Jesus: If he doesn’t come out of the sky in a cloud, he’s not Jesus. Simple! How reassuring is that – for both believers and non-believers alike!

It looks as though the real Jesus anticipated all of this. If you couple the angel’s message in Acts with the earlier words of Jesus, you get an unmistakably supernatural picture. Concerning His own return, Jesus said:

“…Then if any one says to you, ‘Lo, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Lo, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Lo, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; if they say, ‘Lo, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightening comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the son of man” (Mat 24:23-27.)

It’s supposed to be a very big event.

2 – The ascension of Jesus argues against participation in wacky, bloody, apocalyptic religious movements.
I’m so happy that Jesus ascended. I just never have to wonder if Jesus wants me to pick up a gun and shoot somebody in the face for His glory. Or, let’s say, fly an airplane into a building full of infidels. (See previous post.) Before His crucifixion Jesus made this clear statement:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (Jn 18:36.)

Then after his resurrection, he literally, visibly leaves the planet. Thank you Jesus. This pretty much renders illegitimate any violent, theocratic dictatorship headed by government officials claiming divine guidance. We don’t have to wonder. Such guidance does not come from above. To American ears this sounds obvious as we are accustomed to living with a separation of church and state. But for most of history, in most of the world, this hasn’t been, and often still isn’t, so obvious.

It certainly isn’t obvious in the Muslim world. It wasn’t obvious for most of Christian history either. With the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, the Church of Jesus suffered the unintended consequences of being married to a political state. In uniting with human government, the Roman Church became an instrument of oppression, because government always entails force. Any religion or ideology that merges with any government will always tend to become coercive because, by definition, “government wields the sword.” Many of Christianity’s well-intentioned “church fathers”, including Chrysostem and Augustine, viewed the Roman Church as the kingdom of God on earth. This unbiblical viewpoint resulted in a lot of religious wars, and a lot of shed blood, supposedly in Jesus’ name.

But Jesus has left the building. Before leaving He made it clear to His followers that His two greatest commands are to love God, and to love people (Mt 22:36-40; Lk 12:28-31.) He specifically commissioned His followers to non-violently spread the news of His kingdom, which is not of this world; even to suffer violence if necessary. Viewing the Bible as the internally consistent, ultimate authority on what Jesus taught, I have to conclude that even if a man has political power, and a shiny religious robe, and a jeweled pointy hat, if he contradicts what Jesus taught, then he’s not following Jesus.

3 – The ascension of Jesus shows concerns of an impending right wing theocracy to be hysterical nonsense.
In our current political setting, I have often heard that the religious right secretly plans to overthrow the American constitution and government, institute a theocracy based on Old Testament law, stone homosexuals, ban birth control and then force women to have babies, and implement who-knows-what other OT regressive measures that nobody wants. Over the years I’ve received political fundraising letters from the left that I wish I had saved, to show how goofy this accusation is. “New Atheist” Sam Harris is even worried that our elected officials might merely be praying and studying the Bible (The End of Faith, pg 47.)

If you are also worried about this, or even if you wonder how widespread this desire for a Christian theocracy is among Christians, I have wonderful news for you today! If you wonder what is going on in all of those Bible-believing evangelical churches all across America every Sunday morning, I hope to set your mind at ease. I recommend that you simply visit a local, mainstream, evangelical church. You won’t hear anyone promoting theocracy during the sermon, so maybe afterwards you could ask around about when the secret theocracy planning meetings are held. (I’ve never done this, but I think you should.) You will find instead that these people are busy raising their families, trying to make ends meet, serving the poor and homeless, raising money to support international aid and missions, and having Bible studies.

The Bible study part is really good news for you if you’re concerned about a Christian theocracy because there is no mandate for such a thing in the Bible. In fact, I’m sure it’s safe to say that most evangelicals think of “the American experiment” as a remarkably resilient and unique system of government based on Judeo-Christian concepts, (not laws,) of which religious freedom is a cornerstone. All evangelicals I know love our constitution and Bill of Rights, and are primarily concerned with “progressive” political forces violating it. They want to preserve our free, constitutional republic, not overthrow it. I only say these things because I’ve pretty much attended church every week since 9 months before I was born, and now I regularly speak and perform at various churches, many of which are very theologically conservative, of the sort that you are told to be afraid of. I have never, ever, in my whole life, heard a sermon or conference speaker anywhere promote the idea of a theocracy.

The reason is simple: It’s an unbiblical idea.  Jesus has left the building, and He gave no instructions to set up a Christian government. You can relax. Even if you think the Bible is a made-up book of fairy tales, you can relax in the knowledge that crazies like me who do believe it are harmless little fuzz-balls who have been enabled and commanded by Jesus to love God and to love people. If some right wing leader ever does appear with a theocratic agenda, people who believe the Bible won’t follow him.

People who believe the Bible are your friend.

A final note
It is true that the Bible really does speak of something called the kingdom of God. In fact it is the main topic about which Jesus spoke, making it a topic dear to my heart. I will post on this topic the future, but, for purposes of this post I will summarize it this way: The kingdom of God is indeed present on the earth, but not in a political form within a geographical boundary. The kingdom is presently manifested on the earth within the collective body of all who follow Jesus and submit to His authority. The kingdom is not a metaphor – it truly is a government, of which Jesus is the head. Whenever you hear someone referring to Jesus as their Lord, this is what they are saying.

This kingdom crosses all national, political, economic, racial, church and denominational boundaries. Jesus said the kingdom is entered into through spiritual rebirth (Jn 3:3-7.) In the kingdom there is no Jew or gentile, slave or free, or male and female; all are one in God’s Messiah; all enjoy a new relationship as sons and daughters in Him (Gal 3:26-4:7.) The kingdom of God, the coming of which was predicted by the Hebrew prophets (Isa 9:6,7; Dan 2:36-45), was fulfilled partially, but definitely, at the time of Jesus’ first coming (Mat 12:28;16:28.) It will only be brought to complete fulfillment at His return (Eph 1:9,10.)

So, if you are an atheist or skeptic, this should tickle you pink. What could be more harmless? Basically you have a group of people who believe they have been commanded to love everyone, and to peacefully spread their message of love and unity in Jesus around the world. The world is a better place for this (example). There’s nothing political or coercive there. So long as Jesus never comes out of the sky in a cloud, you can chill, and blow the whole thing off as a joke!

Now…whoever you are, aren’t you glad that the Bible says that Jesus ascended into heaven?