New Video Release: The Reason for Christmas

From a human perspective, the coming of Jesus changed the course of human history. From a divine perspective, the sending of Jesus was the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s long-awaited promises, and His final answer to human pain, suffering, and all disunity, including the most profound division of all, which is death.

While on earth, Jesus preached the arrival of His kingdom and the promise of spiritual rebirth and resurrection. We see this now in partial fulfillment, and those who believe look forward to the future “uniting of all things, in heaven and on earth, in the Messiah.” The Judeo-Christian scriptures refer to this as the explicit will and plan of God (Eph 1:7-10.) This plan is in keeping with the Bible’s description of God as Life, Light, and Love.

The specificity and verifiability of biblical prophecy is unique in the world. For example the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm that the book of Isaiah was indeed written and virtually unchanged for hundreds of years before the coming of Jesus. As knowledge advances in the fields of textual criticism, archaeology, and science, the case for the reliability for the Judeo-Christian scriptures becomes better, not worse. For the honest seeker, the 21st century is a great time to be alive.

A couple of years ago I created a short video with the help of a couple of friends. The video was designed to be an intro for one of my live painting performances, themed around Christmas. Last weekend I performed this piece again and realized that the video could also be viewed as a stand-alone piece, so I am putting it out on Youtube.

If you would be so kind as to view it, this would help my Youtube rankings! I think it might also encourage you. Plus my friend Linda Joy has a really cool accent.

Feel free to share this. If you would like to show it before a large group, such as a church congregation, I would appreciate it if you would let me know. I would like for you to credit me by using my kids’ book website, if you wouldn’t mind: http://www.BigPicturePublishing.com

Speaking of my storybook website. I’m still fulfilling orders for my newest book, The True Story of Christmas. (It is favorably reviewed in the current issue of World magazine!) While this book does not parallel the video, it does tell the Christmas story in the context of the big picture. But it doesn’t include creepy, unusual Christmas imagery like the video does. Like this:

nebuchadnezzars-dream

Image of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream as interpreted by the Hebrew prophet Daniel.    From the video, The Reason for Christmas – artwork by Scott Freeman

Okay. Now you know you have to watch the video. You could also subscribe to my Youtube channel while you’re at it.

Video Credits:
Writing, graphic design, and artwork by Scott Freeman
Video editing by Bree Hottinger
Voice acting by Linda Joy

Thanks for your support!
You can view my original children’s storybooks HERE.

My New Kids’ Book: The True Story of Christmas

Blg full spread

After 30 years of marriage and raising 5 kids together, Mollie and I have accumulated a beloved little collection of illustrated Christmas storybooks. When I worked at Hallmark Cards, the Creative Library there would bring in some of the best Christmas books on the market, and I ordered a few of my favorites for my kids (and for Mollie and myself!)

Some we bought for the great artwork, some we bought for the story. The best ones combined both. An important part of our Christmas season included slowing down, snuggling up, and reading Christmas stories to the kids in the evenings in December.

But I could never find a book like the one I’m making available to you and your family today.

Special care has been taken in The True Story of Christmas to remain as true to the biblical narrative as possible while still keeping the story accessible and engaging for children. The book seeks to reinforce the biblical narrative rather than the extra-biblical traditions that have grown up around the Christmas story.

For example, the scriptures do not say that a blazing star led the Magi to the manger in Bethlehem. (The Magi arrived in Jerusalem, where Herod eventually sent them to Bethlehem to search for the child. Bethlehem was just a few miles down the main road.) The scriptures also indicate that the Magi visited Jesus as a toddler in a house in Bethlehem, not in a stable on the night He was born.

Magi wisemen house gold frankincense myrrh

The Magi visiting Jesus in Bethlehem, from The True Story of Christmas.

While these details may or may not be significant, to me it seems best to be in accord with the scriptures regardless of how harmless such extra-biblical traditions may seem. Learning the true narrative at a young age will help to keep faith in the reliability of the Bible intact when such extra-biblical traditions, (and there are many,) are debunked later in a child’s life. The biblical narrative stands up to scrutiny – the extra-biblical traditions do not.

Perhaps more importantly, The True Story of Christmas gives the big picture context of the birth of Jesus according to the Bible.

The true story of Christmas begins at the very beginning, when God created the world. God is good, and everything He made was good. In the beginning the whole world was filled with God’s goodness and light…” (pg 1)

The book begins with God’s perfect creation, followed by the tragic consequences of the fall of humanity – the reason we are all in need of a Savior in the first place. After Noah’s flood, God’s restorative plan begins with His choosing of Abraham and the people of Israel. Kids are introduced to Israel’s prophets and their foretelling of a special child who would be born to Israel to set up a good and eternal kingdom. The Christmas story is the beginning of the fulfillment of this long-anticipated promise.

Following are some of the book’s illustrations and copy:

old testament jewish prophets messiah malachi

“The very last prophet to speak of the promised Messiah was named Malachi. After Malachi there were no more prophets at all in the land of Israel until it was time for the Messiah to be born. Israel had to wait 400 years after Malachi for God’s promises to come true. That is a very long time! But then, it finally happened!”…

Here’s an example of how the type appears on the page:

first christmas stable manger bethlehem swaddling clothes

To Order:
The True Story of Christmas is now ready to order, but PLEASE NOTE: Order by Dec 3rd to ensure that your order arrives in time for Christmas. The True Story of Christmas is not available in stores. You can only get it on my website! (And on Amazon, but I don’t tell people that because I want them to go to my website and sign up on my email list.)

To order now CLICK THIS LINK

Holy family warned in a dream egypt massacre of innocents

The flight to Egypt, from The True Story of Christmas

Thank you so much for your support!
May you and your family have a joyous Christmas season!

Special thanks to my 3 favorite teaching pastors – John Meyer, Pat Sokoll, and Jonathan Williams – for consulting with me on this book.
All images copyright Scott Freeman, 2015

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!

(Still Looking for Gift Ideas? If you live in Northern Colorado I’ll make you a GREAT deal on Fine Art Prints and/or Original Art!
There’s still time! Contact me: scottnmollie@yahoo.com. I’m calling it the “Hospital Bills are Kicking My Butt Sale”!!!)

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…)

About Good Friday: This Might Make the Little Hairs on the Back of Your Neck Stand Up

It’s the Passover/Easter season, so I would like to share something fittingly remarkable. Biblical faith is always evidential, and I contend that our relational Creator has provided sufficient reason for us to know He is real and that He has spoken. (You can read about the evidential nature of Biblical faith here.) Among these reasons are the many times when observable scientific data intersects with Biblical history. Last Christmas I posted about a scientifically plausible explanation for the fantastical-sounding story of the Star of Bethlehem (here.) As an aside, I will say that I don’t think God is obligated to prove Himself in this way. But the fact that there is a correspondence between the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the observable universe is only fitting if God is who the Bible says He is.

This post is about astronomical events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. This is a bit different from the case of the story of the Star of Bethlehem, which obviously refers to astronomical events. In the case of the crucifixion, the heavenly events are less obvious, but they are implied in the scriptures nonetheless.

The information that follows summarizes research from Rick Larson, creator of The Star of Bethlehem video. This pertains to astronomy, not astrology. In short, the idea is that the movement of the stars and planets is fixed and predictable, like the workings of a clock. The laws of planetary motion were first discovered by Kepler, and further refined by Newton. There is now software that, using these laws, can calculate the exact position of the stars, past or future. We can now run the “clock” back, and know exactly what the sky looked like at any point in history. Furthermore, the software can show us how the sky looked from any point on earth, say, in Jerusalem, around the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. What I like about Larson’s research is that this is all outside of human debates about when Jesus was born, or when Herod died, or what year, or on what day of the week Jesus was crucified. The astronomical data is, literally and figuratively, above all of that. These things were going on in the sky regardless of anyone’s calendar, theories, religious beliefs, or atheism. I think that’s profound, and powerful.

So…What was going on?

The Bible provides details that can be used as coordinates for pinning down the date of the crucifixion of Jesus. He must’ve been killed in a year when Passover (the 14th of Nisan,) fell on a Friday. Luke says Jesus was about 30 years old when He began His ministry (3:23,) and John mentions 3 Passovers during Jesus’ ministry (2:23; 6:4; & 13:1.) We know He was killed during the reign of Pilate, between 26 and 36 AD. For these and other reasons, Larson believes only April 3, 33 AD fits. Remarkably, it happens that there was a full lunar eclipse visible from Jerusalem on April 3, 33 AD. What is the significance of this?

A lunar eclipse produces a phenomenon called a blood moon. (Google “lunar eclipse” to see some cool photos.) During a lunar eclipse the moon is in the earth’s shadow and receives no direct light from the sun, causing it to glow a dull red color. Bear that in mind as you read the following timeline of events for the day of the crucifixion:

  • Jesus spent a sleepless night in the wee hours of Passover Friday enduring betrayal; abandonment by His followers; mocking, false accusations and an illegal trial by the Jewish religious authorities; being bound and presented to the crowd He loved – a crowd that became riotous and called for his death; an excruciating flogging; sentencing by the Roman Government; beatings, mocking, and abuse by Roman soldiers, including a crown of thorns beaten into His head with rods; and finally, a long public march to the place to the place of His crucifixion.
  • Mark’s gospel says “It was the 3rd hour (9am) when they crucified Him” (Mk 15:25)
  • Mark 15:33 says the sky went dark from noon to the 9th hour (3pm.)
  • Matthew’s gospel says it was “about the 9th hour” (3pm) when Jesus cried out and “gave up His spirit.”
  • As the Sabbath was approaching, and as Jesus was already dead, we are told His followers removed the body before evening, and hurriedly prepared and entombed the body before the Sabbath began. The Jewish leaders requested and were granted a Roman guard of 4 soldiers to seal and watch the tomb.

That evening when the moon rose, it was already in eclipse – a blood moon. One has to wonder if that might’ve been an “uh-oh” moment for some people. All the Jewish families in Jerusalem were busy with Passover. Having each selected a spotless male lamb for the Passover sacrifice, they had placed the lamb’s blood on their doorposts at twilight, commemorating how YHWH had freed Israel from bondage to Egypt. No one knew at the time that the spotless “Lamb of God” was in the process of accomplishing a more profound freedom for them – freedom from bondage to sin and death. Using astronomy software we can know something else that none of them could’ve known – below the horizon, when the day’s events were still unfolding, the moon began to go into eclipse at 3pm, as Jesus was dying, according to Matthew.

We could write all this off as an amazing, admittedly highly symbolic, coincidence if it hadn’t all been written about in the Torah and Hebrew prophets. But fifty days after Passover, at the feast of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter makes the claim that the words of the prophet Joel were being fulfilled, and that everyone in Jerusalem had seen, and was continuing to see, their fulfillment. He didn’t appeal to some vague, internal “knowing.” Layer upon layer of implicit foreshadowings and explicit prophecy had been fulfilled in Jesus. Here is part of the prophecy from Joel to which Peter referred, written hundreds of years before:

“And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, 

blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; (these occurred at the crucifixion and at Pentecost)

the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, (both occurred on “Good Friday,” April 3, 33 AD)

before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:19-21)

 Then Peter states:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it…” (Acts 2:22-24)

The position of the blood moon in the sky on “Good Friday,” April 3, 33, is also portentous. First we must recall that thirty five years earlier, around the time of the conception of Jesus, it is a fact that in September of 3 BC, the sun was in the constellation of the Virgin with a new moon under her feet. This corresponds exactly with scripture. The gospel writer John refers to this heavenly configuration as a “great sign,” giving it prophetic significance in the book of Revelation:

“And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth…” (Rev 12:1-2)

John goes on to say that she gave birth to a male child who will rule the nations. He also mentions a great dragon standing before the woman waiting to devour the child when it is born. It seems plausible that this is a reference to Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem in an attempt to destroy the child Jesus. Following is my depiction of the sky around the time of Jesus’ conception:

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Some thirty five years later, on “Good Friday”, April 3, 33 AD, the moon was again at the feet of the constellation of Virgo, this time not as a new moon, but as a full, blood moon. I suggest this signifies that the Messiah had fulfilled God’s plan. By His sacrificial death, the Messiah simultaneously satisfied the justice of God, and demonstrated His love for us at great cost to Himself.

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What blows me away in considering these things is the sovereignty of God. I hate to throw around religious words, but these events – the birth and death of Jesus – must have been planned, fixed, and ordained at the time of creation, since these precise dates were fixed in the stars when the universe began. It had to have been a divine combination of love, predestination, and free will. In fact the Bible says as much:

“…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 Messiah, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake…” (1 Pet 1:18-20.)

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For more information visit Rick Larson’s website at www.bethlehemstar.net

On Making Biblical Faith Seem Stupid – part 1

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Don’t believe me? Atheist Sam Harris states:
“It is only by the most acrobatic avoidance of passages whose canonicity has never been in doubt that we can escape murdering one another for the glory of God.” (The End of Faith, ch 2)

If I were to publish a book telling my readers that atheistic evolution teaches that humans evolved from monkeys, I would be sharply criticized, and rightly so. Because evolutionary theory doesn’t teach this. Rather, it asserts that some millions of years ago there existed “ape-like creatures,” and the line of these creatures split, giving rise to both monkeys and a human line of descent. Some creationists say evolutionists teach that humans came from monkeys in order to make the idea of evolution seem ridiculous. It’s a dishonest (or uninformed) tactic.

I assume reasonable people will agree on this.

In the interest of promoting respectful and honest dialogue, I must point out that atheistic evolutionists are doing precisely the same thing on an international scale, and they likewise need to get a grasp on what they are criticizing. Popular best selling “New Atheist” authors, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens uniformly misrepresent the nature of biblical faith. It’s one thing for an uneducated person to propagate a cartoonish stereotype of biblical faith, but for these movement spokesmen, it’s inexcusable. If they are literate enough to hold advanced degrees in their fields, then we can expect them to be able to read the Judeo-Christian scriptures and understand what they have read, despite their prejudice.

How do these guys misrepresent the biblical concept of faith?

Well, no matter which side of the debate you’re on, by now you’ve probably learned that:
> Faith is an irrational means by which we deal with what we don’t understand.
> Faith and reason are contradictory – faith starts where reason and knowledge end.
If a belief is verifiable, then it is in the realm of rationality. If a belief is unverifiable, then it is in the realm of faith, fairy tales, and unicorns. If it’s verifiable then it’s by definition outside the realm of faith.
> These things are true of all religious faith – all religious faith is the same.

Dawkins states it succinctly: “Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence” (Edinburgh Science Festival, 1992)

Christopher Hitchens concurs: “Faith is the surrender of the mind, it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals…” (author of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything)

Sam Harris waxes metaphorical: “Faith is the mortar that fills the cracks in the evidence and the gaps in logic, and thus it is faith that keeps the whole terrible edifice of religious certainty still looming dangerously over our world” (author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason)

Please allow me to clarify what I am about to say and not say:
1) I’m speaking of biblical faith, not religious faith in general.
2) This very brief essay is about the nature of biblical faith, as it is described in the Bible.
3) The point of this essay is not to convince you that the Bible is true. That is a separate topic. My point here is to inform the reader as to what the Bible actually says about faith, since experts and “skeptics” so uniformly get it wrong.
4) I contend that the Bible is unique in its description of faith. Based on what I’ve seen, the New Atheist’s criticisms may indeed apply to other faith traditions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Mormonism. I’m not addressing those religions here. I only contend that critics like Sam Harris are sloppy, incorrect, and overeager in lumping all faith together.

Having said this, I have one simple point. Biblical faith is about relationship. The starting point of biblical faith is the fact that God is depicted as a relational being in the Bible. Throughout all of scripture this relational God goes to great lengths to demonstrate that He can be trusted. Thus, faith in the Bible always has an object. That object is our relational Creator who loves us.

In contrast to how the “skeptics” mischaracterize it, the Judeo-Christian scriptures never characterize faith as:
 Wishful thinking
 An irrational form of positive thinking
 Following your heart per se (confusing the Bible with Disney movies)
 A mystical religious force
 Narrow mindedness per se
 Resistant to what is new or different per se
 Stubborn dogmatic belief in the face of contradictory, verifiable evidence. (“Belief in spite of the evidence” – Dawkins)

Biblical faith is always trust in the person of God, based on historical acts, demonstrations, and interactions that God has specifically provided to show Himself trustworthy. This is explicitly stated in the Bible, and it is unique to the Bible. In the Bible, people are never told to believe without good reason. Find me a place in the Bible where someone believes in Jesus “despite the evidence, just because his heart tells him to”, or because she has a warm, fuzzy, “feeling of faith” welling up inside, and I’ll send you a new iphone. In fact, in the book of Acts after the resurrection of Jesus, many accounts of belief are accounts of people logically concluding, kicking and screaming against their either Jewish or pagan dogmas, that Jesus is who He said He was, and then very reasonably placing their faith in Him.

The picture of faith in the new covenant is meant to be like that of a child placing confident trust in a loving father who has proved himself deserving of that trust. Regardless of whether or not you think the Bible is true, it is clear that the writers of the scriptures believed they were writing about historical events that really happened in space and time, and that these events carried meaning. Both old and new covenant books look back to historical events performed by God, and, in part, base their future hope on those past events. This is the opposite of “belief in spite of/because of a lack of evidence.”

But don’t take what I say about the Bible “on faith.” See for yourself. Following are just a few of countless examples of biblical faith:

 The God of the Bible initiates agreements, called covenants. These are historical, relational acts. In general terms, God initiated the “old” covenant, and later instituted a new covenant in the messiah.
 The spring feasts of Israel are designed to call to remembrance God’s relational faithfulness to Israel. Most prominently, the Passover feast has been celebrated for millennia as a remembrance of God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from slavery to Egypt. It was simultaneously a prophetic foreshadowing of the more profound freedom from slavery that the messiah would bring. This continuity between the old and new covenant books is remarkable and irrefutable.
 Throughout the Tanakh (Old Testament) Israel is told to “remember” what God has done in history:
Ex 13:3 – “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, and out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand YHWH brought you out from this place” (also Deut 16:3)

Psalm 105:5 – “Remember the wondrous works that He has done, His miracles, and the judgments He uttered…” (other clear examples: 1 Chr 16:12; Ps 77:11; Isa 46:8,9)

 Throughout the New Testament the authors take care to appeal to historical realities – verifiable references to times, events, people, and places, including genealogies. A few of many examples:

Luke 1:1-5 – “…those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth…”

2 Peter 1:16 – “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty…we ourselves heard…for we were with Him…And we have something more sure, the prophetic word”

1 John 1:1 – “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it…”

Obviously these writers were attempting to make the case that the events they recorded actually happened. For New Atheist critics to now say that biblical faith is “belief in spite/because of a lack of evidence” is a gross misrepresentation.

 In Romans 4:20, 21 Paul clearly states the relational nature of Abraham’s faith regarding the miraculous conception of Isaac: – “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised.”

 In making a case for faith in Jesus, His disciples repeatedly appeal to history, prophetic fulfillment, and current works of power in their preaching: Stephen recounts Jewish history at Jerusalem (Acts 7:1-53); Paul recounts Jewish history at Antioch (Acts 13:15-44); Peter appeals to fulfilled prophecy and signs performed by God (Acts 2:22-36 & 3:12-26.)

When we think of faith in relational rather than irrational terms, well-known faith verses are seen in a clearer light:
 Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The rest of chapter 11, known as the faith chapter, is a run through of history showing that the “things hoped for” and “not seen” were things God had promised. In context, this verse cannot be made to advocate the “surrender of the mind and reason”, as Hitchens claims. Harris’s treatment of Heb 11:1 is a shining example of ignoring context (page 64, The End of Faith.)
 Hebrews 11:6 – “And without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those Who seek Him.”
This is profoundly relational. God is not desiring irrational belief here.
 Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Hebrews 10:38 – “The righteous shall live by faith…”
This is not a call for people to live in opposition to reason, but in trusting relationship with God.
 2 Corinthians 5:7 – “…for we walk by faith, not by sight”
This is not a call to blind irrationality, but a call to trust a loving God even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

The New Atheists did not invent the idea of irrational faith. They have simply uncritically parroted a popular misunderstanding of faith that has been around for a long time. As a boy I was sometimes told by well-meaning church people that we’re not meant to understand (fill-in-the-blank) – that this is what faith is for. As though God is pleased with ignorance and superstition. But the Bible says nothing of the sort. In saying this, these people inadvertently undermined the message of the Bible. The New Atheists have propagated the error of these well-meaning folks and then blasted their “faith”. I actually agree with many of their criticisms. Bad theology from people who are sympathetic to the Bible is still bad theology. But bad theology coming from those who despise theology looks suspiciously like the fox helping the goose light the fire under her soup pot for dinner. If “skeptics” want to criticize the actual Bible, they are free to do so, but the first step would be for them to understand what it says.

Once they do admit what the Bible actually says, “skeptics” may feel that historical acts, fulfilled promises and prophecies, eyewitness accounts, and supernatural works of power (such as the resurrection,) are insufficient reason to place one’s faith in our Creator. They may feel such accounts in the Judeo-Christian scriptures are unreliable. So be it. But that is a different issue. My point here is that the picture of relational faith that permeates the Judeo-Christian scriptures is internally consistent, and that the God described therein is the Author of reason, is reasonable, and appeals to reason.

The Visitation

Sometimes I find it enriching to “copy” great paintings. I like doing this for a couple of reasons. First, re-tracing the stages of a great painting is a good way to learn about painting. It’s like thinking the thoughts of the painter after him/her. In the process one can sometimes understand why the original painter made certain decisions about color, composition, and subject matter. But secondly, I view re-painting a great composition as similar to doing a musical cover of a great song. It’s not about making a literal copy, or even necessarily trying to improve upon the old composition. Sometimes it’s about making the song (or painting) come alive for a new generation, and honoring the greatness of the original. For me it says there is something beautiful or profound there that is worth looking at or listening to again.

Below is an early 16th century painting by Italian artist Mariotto Albertinelli. I think it’s a painting worth writing about during this Christmas season. I’ve never seen this painting in person. I only ran across it in an old art book one day, and it stopped me cold. I’ll tell you why I was drawn to this painting…

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…I was moved for a number of reasons. The main reason is the tender depiction of the relationship of these two pregnant women, each leaning in toward the other. I love how their hands are clasped near their wombs; how the older begins to embrace the younger. Most striking of all to me is the proximity of their faces to one another – almost touching, as if there really is no adequate physical way to express what they are feeling. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the story that is depicted here, you may get the feeling that something momentous has happened, or is happening. You may feel that these women share some wonderful secret. In fact, they do share a terrible and fantastic secret.

This is a depiction of what has come to be called The Visitation, recorded in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke. After learning that her elder “kinswoman”, Elizabeth is pregnant, Mary goes to visit her in the hill country of Judah. Both women carry children miraculously conceived, and named by God Himself. Both pregnancies were preceded by secretive angelic visits, with messages so extraordinary that they strained belief. Even today, some two thousand years later, most of us do not believe their story. Yet, enough of us do believe it that the story remains with us.

Elizabeth’s situation is a bundle of conundrums. She is infertile, past childbearing age, and childless – until now. At the time of Mary’s visit, Elizabeth is six months into her pregnancy. Of her coming child, John, the angel Gabriel had spoken these words:

“…he will be great before the Lord,…And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and the power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children…” (Luke 1:15-17)

These words were a direct reference to the very last words written by the last Mosaic covenant prophet, Malachi, prophesying what would occur before the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5.) Now after 400 years of silence from God, the waiting is over, and Elizabeth’s child will be this Messiah’s forerunner. However, even knowing the prophecies, nothing would unfold as expected. Elizabeth was the wife of a Jewish temple priest. Their child John would announce the Messiah, who would in turn make that Jewish Aaronic priesthood obsolete (Heb 8:1-13). He would do this, not because that system was wrong, but because the entire Mosaic system pointed to Him, and He would bring something much better. In fact this Messiah would be the fulfillment of every Mosaic covenant feast and ritual, though no one could see it at the time.

Mary’s situation is even more impossible. In a culture where sexual infidelity is a punishable offense, she chooses to bear the stigma of an untimely pregnancy. But what can she say to people? God made me pregnant? Only an angelic visit to Joseph persuades him to stay with her. And after that, what can he say to people? An angel told me in a dream that God made her pregnant? Right. Oh…and by the way, our baby is the messiah that you and all of Israel have been expecting for centuries? There is really nothing to be done except to let the story unfold. Only trusting in the loving God who initiated all of these things makes sense.

So for now these two women have each other, both caught up in events too mysterious and too earthshaking to be understood at this point. They stand at a place of vivid tension between flesh and Spirit, faith and sight, darkness and light, and between this age and the one to come.

“The Visitation” – watercolor by Scott Freeman
based on a 16th c painting by Mariotto Albertinelli