Is the Bible Historically Reliable?

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. We all know the tune. But how much confidence can we actually have that anything the Bible records is true?

Many skeptics of Christianity are adamant that the Bible is not a reliable source of history. If they’re right, then as followers of Jesus we need to rethink our most deeply-held convictions.

If.

See, there’s a reason the Bible is held in such suspicion. Put simply, it’s because the Bible records miracles. And there’s an unspoken rule in the halls of academia that says a document is only historically accurate if it doesn’t describe supernatural events.

“If skeptics are right, we need to rethink our most deeply-held convictions.”

This might be a fashionable idea. But it’s far from being a self-evident fact. Really, it’s a worldview—an assumption that’s been made before any research has begun.

Anyone is free to believe this, of course. But that’s the point—it’s a belief. It’s as much a belief as the Christian who naively claims no research is needed since God wrote the Bible and it must be true.

“There’s an unspoken rule in the halls of academia.”

What if, for the sake of historical inquiry, we all agreed to suspend our beliefs? What if we asked a question everyone agreed on: Is the Bible historically accurate when it speaks of events that can be tested historically?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

The Embarrassment of Scholars

If you’re familiar with the Bible, you’ll know the feeling. Nodding off to sleep as you endure another list of dates, names or numbers.

In case it hasn’t occurred to you yet, those details aren’t there for your entertainment. They’re there for historical verification. Thousands of them.

For centuries, skeptics have assumed many of the Bible’s historical claims to be bogus. But so often, it’s the skeptics who’ve been put to shame.

Let’s take a few examples.

Isaiah talks about King Sargon of Assyria. For years academics scoffed and said such a king never existed. Then in 1842, his entire palace was unearthed in modern-day Iraq.

For a hundred years, skeptics said that the Hittites, mentioned many times in the Old Testament, were just a made-up people-group.

But in the late 19th century, the Hittite capital city Hattusa was uncovered in modern-day Turkey. It’s such a vast city that it’s still being dug up today.

Or take the Pool of Bethesda. For many years, university professors taught that the gospel of John was unreliable because it spoke of this apparently non-existent pool.

But with new technology, archaeologists were able to dig deeper, discovering what is without doubt the Pool of Bethesda spoken of by John.

This is just a sampling, but the pattern is a familiar one. Archaeology has vindicated the the Bible time and time again.

It’s beyond the reach of archaeology to prove the Bible’s supernatural events. But literally thousands of archaeological discoveries have been made that confirm the Bible’s other claims.

Let the Archaeologists Speak

Sir William Ramsay was born in Scotland in the 1850s. From a young age, he was skeptical of the Bible, calling it a book of fables.

He especially doubted that the book of Acts was real history because the author, Luke, spoke of so many places for which there was simply no evidence.

Ramsay studied at Oxford and then travelled to modern-day Turkey, fully expecting to discover there that Acts was mere myth.

After thirty years of study, Ramsay became the foremost scholar in this field. Towards the end of his life, this is what he said:

“Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians… Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.”

Sir William Ramsay died a believer.

“After thirty years of study, Ramsay became the foremost scholar in this field.”

W. F. Albright, one of the world’s great archaeologists, said, “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament tradition.”

Nelson Glueck unearthed some 1,500 ancient sites. He wrote, “In all of my archaeological investigation I have never found one artefact of antiquity that contradicts any statement of the Word of God.”

But the Bible’s Writers Were Biased

Let’s change gears for a minute. You may have heard it suggested that the Bible’s writers were already believers, so of course they were biased in their telling of history.

“The Bible has withstood centuries of skepticism.”

But even if we set aside the entire Bible, there’s still so much we know about Jesus from non-Christian writers like Thallus, Tacitus, Lucian, Emperor Trajan, and Pliny the Younger.

Consider these words from Josephus:

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”

From non-Christian authors alone, here’s what we know about Jesus:

  • he came from Nazareth
  • he lived a wise and virtuous life
  • he was crucified in Palestine, during the festival of Passover, under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius Caesar
  • he was considered a Jewish king
  • his disciples believed he was raised to life three days after he died
  • he was a sorcerer
  • his small band of disciples grew and spread as far as Rome
  • his followers believed in one God and worshipped Christ as divine

Is the Bible historically reliable? It depends. If you’re searching for proof of every miracle, historical inquiry won’t get you very far. At some point, you’ll have to exercise faith.

But it will be a faith that rests on facts.

The Bible has withstood centuries of skepticism. But here’s what we know: when it speaks of events that can be tested historically, the Bible is a thoroughly trustworthy document.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, please give it a like, comment or share on social media. To get new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.

Check out the rest of the series:

Sources

Clark, Mark. The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.

McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2017.

What Makes the Bible Unique?

Once upon a time, the Bible was a trusted book. Today many people hold it in suspicion, and feel that to believe Scripture is to take a leap of faith into the dark.

What a curious turn of events. Peter, one of the Bible’s authors, said, “We were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:16).

“The Bible stands or falls on the facts of history.”

John claimed, “We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands.” (1 John 1:1). And Luke said he wrote his gospel only after he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” (Luke 1:3).

In other words, this book claims to be more than religious truth (whatever that means). It’s true truth. Apparently it stands or falls on the facts of history.

Which is why, in this and future posts, I want to ask four questions:

To believers, I want to ask: do these questions make you nervous? If so, brilliant. It means your faith has a chance to mature, and be shored up on foundations stronger than just your feelings.

If you don’t follow Jesus, I have a different question: if it could be shown that the Bible is reliable, would you believe? In other words, are you truly open-minded?

It’s hard to find questions that matter more than these—because if the Bible is true, it changes everything.

What Makes the Bible Unique?

If every Bible on the planet ceased to exist this second, you could still go to your city library and piece it together just from quotations in other books. So profound is its impact on our world.

From science to education, democracy to medicine, and some of our dearest values like humility, reason, and equality, the Bible has truly given western civilisation its soul.

The word Bible simply means book. But in fact, the Bible is an anthology of books.

“It was penned from deserts and dungeons, palaces and prisons.”

The Bible was written over 1,500 years by more than 40 authors, who came from every walk of life: kings, peasants, military leaders, philosophers, shepherds, statesmen, and poets.

It was penned from deserts and dungeons, palaces and prisons. And on three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe.

It was written in times of peace, and periods of war and unrest. It expresses the heights of joy and the depths of despair; days of doubt and times of great faith.

“The Bible has truly given western civilisation its soul.”

And the literary styles that make up the Bible are unbelievably diverse: biography, romance, prophecy, correspondence, law, satire, song, allegory, memoirs and more.

Despite this amazing diversity, the Bible tells one story: the redemption of humanity. Everything that was lost in Genesis is restored in Revelation.

The Book That Just Won’t Go Away

The Frenchman Voltaire (1694-1778) was a famous philosopher and early atheist. He predicted that within a hundred years of his lifetime, Christianity would be swept from existence and pass into history.

Not long after his death, the Bible Society had bought Voltaire’s estate and were using it to print and distribute Bibles around the world.

Fast forward to today, and the Bible is the most widely printed, read and distributed book in history—5 billion copies and counting. No other book comes even close.

“Voltaire is dead, but the Bible lives on.”

The Bible is also the most translated book in history. Portions of it are now available in almost 3,000 of the world’s 6,500 languages, making it accessible to 90% of the world’s population.

Voltaire is dead, but the Bible lives on. It is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.

And if news from majority-world nations like China, India and Indonesia is to be believed, that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. In fact, its best days may yet be ahead of us.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, please give it a like, comment or share on social media. To get new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.

Check out the rest of the series:

Sources

Clark, Mark. The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.

McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2017.

How Pluralism Points to Jesus

In recent posts, I’ve explored the place of Jesus among other gods. Using controversial titles, I suggested that every major world faith contains clues that point to him.

In this cultural moment, it’s scandalous—even arrogant—to suggest that Jesus might be the only way. I’d get a lot more traction if I said that all religions are equally valid; that all paths lead to God.

This belief, known as pluralism, is today’s accepted wisdom. No one even feels the need to defend it because it’s so widely assumed to be true.

“It’s scandalous to suggest that Jesus might be the only way.”

But pluralism has disastrous blind spots. In seeking to affirm people of every religion for their insight and spiritual commitment, it actually insults them all.

How? Pluralism does this by failing to understand the unique claims of each world faith. The founders of every religion—and most of their adherents—are convinced that their path of salvation is needed, precisely because other methods have been found wanting.

Enlightenment became possible only because the Buddha discovered the eightfold path; the five pillars of Islam are the true path of submission to Allah; Hinduism’s way of release is what makes union with the ultimate life force attainable; the Jewish people can obey God only by following his law. The list goes on.

But according to pluralism, each of these—the Buddha’s eightfold path, Muhammad’s five pillars, Hinduism’s way of release, the Jewish law, and Jesus’ death and resurrection—weren’t really needed, because hope could have been found elsewhere.

“Pluralism has disastrous blind spots.”

There’s a famous parable from India that pluralists love to tell that exposes this problem. It’s called the tale of the blind men and the elephant, and it goes like this:

Five blind men inspect an elephant. One feels the trunk and concludes it’s a snake. One touches its ear and decides it is a leaf. Another finds the leg and thinks it’s a tree. One puts his hand on the elephant’s side and believes it’s a wall. The final man holds the tail and says it is a rope.

The moral of the story, says pluralism, is that ultimate truth isn’t found in any one religion. Rather, through our combined insight we will be able to arrive at an all-encompassing truth together. If we shared our wisdom, we’d realise that all paths lead to God (or the universe, or whatever—because who cares about details, right?)

But pluralists have missed the most important fact in the story: there is a sixth man. He is the narrator, the one telling the story. Only he has all the facts; only he perceives things objectively.

“Applied to the world’s religions, this story is manipulative and insulting.”

Do you see it? Pluralism congratulates itself for its tolerance, but it actually makes the most arrogant claim of all. It paints itself as the only truly objective point of view—the one that all other religions failed to see.

The blind men and the elephant is a nice story, and surely has use in other spheres of life. But when pluralists apply it to the world’s religions, it is manipulative and insulting. Pluralism becomes simply another ideology—and a bad one at that—for people of every world religion to disagree with. Please don’t miss the irony in that.

You definitely don’t want to miss the irony in that.

So where does this leave us? If a unity between all faiths can’t be achieved, should we just reject them all?

“A conversation between the different world religions is so important.”

The problem is that faith—even in all of its various forms—seems to find an echo in every human soul. For centuries in the West, we’ve tried the secular project. We’ve lived as though the universe were a closed system and God was just an optional extra. But faith hasn’t gone away. The world, even in the West, is as religious as its ever been.

Which is why a conversation between the different world religions is so important. As a pastor, I see too many Christians who grow up in church but never really examine the claims of Jesus for themselves—much less other world faiths. Then they hit a crisis in their twenties and declare that the faith they never owned and never really thought about is a fairy tale.

Do me a favour: don’t be like that. Whether you’re a person of faith or not, think about what you believe. Compare it with the claims made by the other competing voices out there.

“We’ve tried the secular project, but faith hasn’t gone away.”

I’ll try to abstain from the arrogance of pluralism. I won’t claim to have a handle on all other world religions that they have missed. I will continue weighing up all the claims I hear and comparing them with the words and works of Jesus.

But I will tell you what I’ve seen so far. I see the fingerprints of God in every worldview. I see people with eternity written across their hearts. I see people reaching out, not just for something greater than themselves, but for a way out of our human predicament—even if that predicament is framed in a thousand different ways.

In Jesus, I see something unique. Instead of asking us to live better or strive harder or reach higher, I see a God who has come down to us, who has literally stepped into our human predicament, and done for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

“Eternity is written across our hearts.”

In Jesus, I see the enlightened one that even the Buddha needed. More than a prophet, I see the truest Muslim, the one who perfectly submitted to God and enables us to do likewise. I see Hinduism’s way of release personified and fulfilled for us. I see the God that even atheists can’t seem to escape. I see the Messiah, the hope of Israel.

Maybe I’m just seeing things as I consider Jesus among other gods.

Or maybe he is the true God—the one we’ve all been searching for.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my blog, please like it, leave a comment, and most importantly, share it on social media. To get new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.

Check out the rest of this series:

Buddhism  |  Islam  |  Hinduism  |  Atheism  |  Judaism  |  Pluralism

How Atheism Points to Jesus

The world’s favourite atheist Richard Dawkins has said that faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse not to think or evaluate evidence. He has also likened religion to a mental illness.

Atheism likes the spotlight. It’s had a pop-culture resurgence in the last decade, driven by bombastic books like The God Delusion and God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. And today, an atheistic worldview rules the media and western universities.

As Christians, we’re sometimes known for our fear of other ideas. But what if we got over ourselves and asked what we can learn from atheism—and how it might point people to Jesus?

Origin and Influence

There were scattered pockets of atheism long before the time of Jesus, but it began as a serious movement in 1700s Europe. Two intellectuals called Voltaire and Hume bravely criticised the institutional church. They questioned miracles, faith and God—shaking Europe to its foundations.

Their ideas spread from the cafes of Paris to the halls of power, and soon atheism had replaced Christianity in government, launching the French Revolution.

“They questioned miracles, faith and God—shaking Europe to its foundations.”

Later, two Germans took up the mantle and wrote many important books. Karl Marx, the founder of communism, famously called religion the opiate of the masses—and Friedrich Nietzsche declared the death of God.

In the 20th century, atheism peaked when dictators like Lenin and Stalin of Russia, Chairman Mao in China, and Cambodia’s Pol Pot applied it to modern politics, leading to the loss of 100 million lives. (There were other causes for these genocides too, but it would be dishonest to deny atheism’s influence on them).

It’s no surprise then that atheism has declined in popularity since last century. It now accounts for about 3% of the world’s population, mostly in Europe, Scandinavia, China, and North America. Including agnostics—those who are unsure if God exists—that number is about 7%.

The Case For God’s Existence

Simply, atheism is a lack of belief in the existence of God. There are good arguments both for and against this position. Let’s look at three of each, beginning with the case for God’s existence.

1. The Cause Argument / The universe had a cause, therefore God must exist.

Things don’t just happen. Everything has a cause, from the weather, to buildings, to your choice of outfit today. If it’s true of small things, it must be true for something vast and complex like our universe. God is a good explanation for how it all began.

But then who created God? The God of the Bible calls himself I AM—he’s the great uncaused cause. He’s always existed, and he sits outside of time.

“God is a good explanation for how it all began.”

So why don’t we just say that the universe is the great uncaused cause, that it has always existed? Actually, science says this is impossible.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, we’re running out of heat energy. Soon every corner of the cosmos will be the same temperature, and no more energy will be exchanged. If you’re still breathing, that hasn’t happened yet—which means the universe had a beginning.

2. The Design Argument / Evidence of design is everywhere, therefore God must exist.

If you found a watch in the forest, you wouldn’t assume it came together by accident. The design of a watch makes it obvious that there was a watchmaker. In the same way, whether we look through microscopes or telescopes, the creation around us shouts that there is a Creator.

“Evidence of design is everywhere.”

Think about DNA. One pinhead of it has enough information to fill 500 stacks of books that reach the moon. DNA proteins even slightly out of order cause serious deformity or death. So in the past, could the right proteins have arranged themselves to form the first simple life? Honestly, it would be more likely for a tornado to assemble a functioning aircraft.

3. The Morality Argument / Objective morals exist, therefore God must exist.

We’d all agree that things like racism, child abuse and terrorism are evil. But to say this, we need something outside of ourselves to measure them against. According to the Bible, God is love—which makes him the transcendent measure of right and wrong.

“You know deep inside when something is evil or immoral.”

Without God, the worst we could say about injustice in the world is I don’t like it or it’s bad for society. But when you’ve been wronged, is that what you shout? You know deep inside when something is evil or immoral. In order for you to call it that, God must exist.

The Case Against God’s Existence

So a good case can be made for God’s existence. But how would atheists respond? What are the best arguments against the existence of God?

1. The Evolution Argument / Design in the universe is due to natural processes.

Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of the Species was a game-changer for atheism. Darwin had returned from Galapagos where he’d seen unfit species die, but the fit survive to pass on their genes and create new species. If this had been happening from the start, he realised it might explain the origin of all life without a Creator.

“A creative force is needed.”

Darwin called this process natural selection, and he was right about its mechanics. But what evolutionists have missed is that natural selection is a destructive force: it removes bad genes from the gene pool, but it doesn’t create new ones. In other words, it can explain the survival of the fittest, but not the arrival of the fittest.

A creative force is needed. Evolutionists point to mutations, which rearrange existing DNA information. But it’s still a great mystery where all the information came from to turn fish into philosophers. The origin of reproduction, language and eyesight still seems very miraculous, even in an evolutionary worldview.

But miracles are exactly what atheism was trying to avoid.

2. The Multiverse Argument / Our universe is one of many that just happens to be designed for life.

If you roll a dice enough times, you’ll eventually get the number you want. The same logic is behind the multiverse argument: if an infinite number of universes exist, then it was inevitable that a beautifully intricate one like this would exist. And so here we are.

This is an excellent argument—it solves every scientific problem imaginable. But there’s one small problem with the multiverse theory: there’s not a scrap of evidence for it.

“If an infinite number of universes exist, then it was inevitable that one like this would exist.”

Australian scientist Paul Davies wrote, “Invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.”

But faith is exactly what atheism was trying to avoid.

3. The Evil Argument / God can’t exist because evil does.

How can a good God exist when there’s so much evil and suffering? This is without doubt the biggest challenge for Christianity. Disease and natural disasters are unspeakably horrible, and they give clear evidence that something is broken in the world.

“This is the biggest challenge for Christianity.”

But are they evidence that God doesn’t exist? If you stumbled upon a broken watch in the forest, would you assume there was no watchmaker? Of course not—you’d just know that something had gone wrong since he made it. That’s what Scripture says: all creation was subjected to God’s curse and has been groaning right up to the present time.

What about evil—the actions of terrorists and child abusers? This takes us back to the morality argument: if these things aren’t just preference—if evil really does exist—there has to be a God.

But God is exactly what atheism was trying to avoid.

Atheism Points to Jesus

So not only do some of the best arguments for God’s existence point to God. Some of the best arguments for atheism do too. This shouldn’t be a surprise.

Scripture says that “People know the truth about God because he’s made it obvious to them. Through everything God has made, people can clearly see his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.”

“Some of the best arguments for atheism actually point to God.”

In other words, God doesn’t believe in atheists. But he does love them incredibly. And through our conscience and his creation, he is continually calling every person back to himself.

This is good news. It means there’s more to life than shopping at Ikea, being tolerant, having a few lattes and then dying somewhere quietly. There’s more than just static and darkness to follow.

“God is with us even in our darkest times.”

Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of this world’s mess, and it’s easier to give up on God. But at the very centre of history there is God, hanging on a cross, carrying the world’s evil and suffering.

Jesus’ death makes sense of our own pain and cynicism. It reminds us that God is with us even in our darkest times, and that he has defeated evil forever.

And that there is true and ultimate hope for us in this life—and in the next.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my blog, please like it, leave a comment, and most importantly, share it on social media. To get new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.

Check out the rest of this series:

Buddhism  |  Islam  |  Hinduism  |  Atheism  |  Judaism  |  Pluralism

Sources

Geisler, Norman, and Turek, Frank. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004.

How Buddhism Points to Jesus

Let’s be honest, it’s the world’s most fashionable religion. Buddhism has an exciting mystique about it, especially for us spiritually starved westerners.

Mindfulness has gone mainstream, along with Zen gardens and the Dalai Lama. Buddhist themes light up our cinemas, from The Matrix to Kung Fu Panda and every Star Wars film in history.

Christians are sometimes known for their fear of other religions. But what if we got over ourselves and asked what we can learn from Buddhism—and how it might point people to Jesus?

Origins and Influence

The Buddha lived long before Christ. He was born Siddhartha Gautama, a Hindu prince, in the 5th or 6th century BC. A prophecy foretold that he’d become the greatest founder of the greatest religion in the world. Fearing this, his father kept him safe inside a palace.

But that would never last. One day Gautama ventured outside, and on his travels he encountered an elderly person, a sick person, and a corpse—confronting him with the reality of human suffering.

He called this the wheel of suffering, and he made it his life’s mission to find an escape from it. At age 29, he abandoned his wife and son and gave up everything to live as a poor man. Following the Hindu tradition, he wandered the Ganges river to mediate, fast, and learn from gurus.

“A prophecy foretold that he’d become the greatest founder of the greatest religion in the world.”

Desperate to be free of suffering, Gautama sat under a tree and vowed not to get up until he was enlightened. Six years after his search began, the moment arrived. He became the Buddha or enlightened one—and a new world faith was born.

The Buddha’s teaching career continued until his death at age 81, during which time huge crowds followed him. 2,500 years later, Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion; the dominant faith in a dozen countries; and is practiced by half a billion people.

The Heart of Buddhism

Buddhism is complex and varied, drawing on Hindu ideas like karma and reincarnation, and mixing with many other beliefs as it spread through Asia. But in all its diversity today, it’s built on one simple idea: escape from suffering. The Buddha developed this in his Four Noble Truths.

1. The Existence of Suffering. To live is to suffer. Sadness, fear, worry and loss are all part of life. Even pleasure is fleeting. This too is a form of suffering.

2. The Explanation for Suffering. Suffering is caused by desire. We experience the pain of hunger, for example, only because we desire food; we experience grief and fear of death only because we desire life.

“Buddhism is built on one simple idea: escape from suffering.”

3. The End to Suffering. Suffering ends when desire ends. The end goal of Buddhism is nirvana—to end all desire by realising that we don’t really exist, so we can live in this world with complete detachment.

4. The Escape from Suffering. There is a way to be free. The Buddha had been a prince and a pauper, but neither experience dealt with suffering at its root. Under that tree, the Buddha found a Middle Way between these two extremes—also known as the Eightfold Path to end suffering:

Right understanding | embracing the Four Noble Truths

Right direction | aiming for a life of detachment from this world

Right speech | speaking truthfully, kindly, and gently

Right conduct | acting non-violently and compassionately

Right livelihood | finding a vocation fitting with Buddhist beliefs

Right effort | endeavouring to live a worthy and meritorious life

Right mindfulness | realising that all sensations are illusory

Right concentration | meditating to remove all distraction

This, in a nutshell, is Buddhism. Notice that God wasn’t mentioned? That’s because the Buddha was silent on the existence of God. In fact he was even silent on the origin of the universe. His goal was simply to discover a life of serenity that transcended suffering.

(Religion is still an accurate word to describe Buddhism. Most Buddhists today pray and take part in other rituals; one branch worships the Buddha as a god).

The Buddha and Jesus

In comparing Buddhism and Christianity, we must avoid two extremes. One is syncretism: combining these two faiths and ignoring what makes them unique and incompatible. The other is ostracism: rejecting the Buddha and his teachings completely.

There is a better way—a middle path, if you will. It involves caring enough about Buddhists to find points of contact between their beliefs and the gospel; taking down our walls and instead building bridges; asking how Buddhism can deepen our gratitude for the good news of Jesus.

“The Buddha’s goal was to discover a life of serenity that transcended suffering.”

First, the Buddha’s spiritual commitment is astounding, and it puts many of us Christians to shame. Am I seeking Jesus as passionately as the Buddha sought enlightenment? Am I as desperate to be free from sin as he was from suffering? Do I meditate on God’s Word—at all?

But let’s go a level deeper and explore Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. How does Jesus answer the Buddha’s deepest questions about life?

1. The Existence of Suffering. Suffering is part of our life in this world. Scripture says that Adam and Eve’s sin brought a curse on the world, and now all creation groans as we long to be released from sin and suffering.

2. The Explanation for Suffering. Left unchecked, our desires do lead to misery. In the words of James, they entice us, drag us away and lead to sin, which gives birth to death. The Bible even describes us as slaves to sin—caught in our own endless wheel of suffering.

“The Buddha’s spiritual commitment puts many of us Christians to shame.”

3. The End to Suffering. The gospel offers a remarkable solution. Not unlike the Buddha, Jesus stepped down from his heavenly palace to identify with a broken human race. But rather than seeking an escape from it, Jesus took our sin and suffering into himself at the cross. All who are enlightened to this, God welcomes into an eternal serenity where suffering is no more.

4. The Escape from Suffering. Jesus himself is the path to end suffering. He is the way, the truth and the life. Suffering will still touch us in this life, but as we follow him, his Spirit enables us to live detached from sin, and to act with truth, gentleness and compassion—and many other virtues the Buddha taught.

Not so that we can earn our escape from suffering, or finally reach enlightenment. But because we’ve already experienced this in Jesus, the truly enlightened one.

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my blog, please like it, leave a comment, and most importantly, share it on social media. To receive new posts directly by email, scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe.

Check out the rest of this series:

Buddhism  |  Islam  |  Hinduism  |  Atheism  |  Judaism  |  Pluralism

 

Sources

Cioccolanti, Steve. From Buddha to Jesus: An Insider’s View of Buddhism and Christianity. Oxford, UK: Monarch, 2007.

Claydon, David. Connecting Across Cultures: Sharing the Gospel Across Cultural and Religious Boundaries. Melbourne: Acorn Press Ltd, 2000, 99-108.

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 47-84.

The Myth About the Flat Earth Myth

Image credit: https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/flat-earth-meme/

So apparently there are educated people who still believe the earth is flat. I wouldn’t normally waste time on such mindless drivel—except that it’s been getting a lot of press lately.

This week Elon Musk made history and launched the world’s most powerful rocket—on private funds no less. Yet most of what I saw online ignored the feat itself. Instead, photos of a spherical earth were used to mock flat-earth believers.

Is it just me, or is this a strange waste of news in 2018?

Maybe it was a poke at the handful of rich and famous who’ve recently come out as flat-earthers— celebrities like Tila Tequila, cricketer Freddie Flintoff, Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics, and rapper B.o.B.

Maybe some genuinely fear the Flat Earth Society is gaining new members.

“Apparently there are educated people who still believe the earth is flat.”

But I think there’s something else at play. Ditsy celebrities come and go, but the group perennially targeted with flat-earth jokes is one I belong to: Christians.

Countless times I’ve had my faith in the Bible likened to belief in a flat earth. The story being told by high-school textbooks, high-budget documentaries and high-profile atheists is that religion held us captive to flat earth myth until science came to the rescue.

“In church history you’ll find approximately two Christians who promoted a flat earth view.”

Told and retold, the tale goes something like this:

Defending the Bible, the church through history taught a flat earth, and it persecuted any scientist brave enough to disagree. Only when Christopher Columbus discovered America without sailing off the edge of the world did Christians finally concede the earth was a sphere.

But as it turns out, this story is the real flat earth myth. Time to consider some facts.

The Bible Doesn’t Teach It

Critics scoff that the Bible uses phrases like “the ends of the earth”. They say verses like Psalm 19:6 complete the picture of a flat geocentric earth, which says the sun “rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other”.

Two problems. First, “ends of the earth” is a poetic phrase, not a geographical one. Any Hebrew scholar will tell you this is an idiom describing the furthest reaches of the inhabited world.

“Countless times I’ve had my faith in the Bible likened to belief in a flat earth.”

Second, while it’s scientifically wrong to say that the sun moves across the sky, even the most scientific among us do it. It’s called phenomenal language, and it’s a perfectly normal way of describing the world—so long as you’re not writing a science textbook.

What then does the Bible actually say about the earth’s shape? According to Isaiah 40:22, God sits enthroned above “the circle of the earth”. Admittedly, there’s poetry in this passage too. But it’s at least worth noting that circle here is the Hebrew word “khug” which also translates as sphere.

More curiously, Jesus spoke of his return as a momentary event, but describing that moment he said some people would be working during the day and others would be sleeping at night (Luke 17:34-35). That doesn’t work for a flat earth, but it does for a globe.

The Church Never Believed It

Dig up church history and you’ll find approximately two Christians who promoted a flat earth view—Lactantius (AD245-325) who was considered a heretic, and an obscure 6th-century monk called Cosmas Indicopleustes.

Through time and almost without exception, Christian theologians understood the planet to be spherical, as the sun or the moon appeared to be. The most influential theologian of the Middle Ages was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who emphatically supported the views of physicists and astronomers that the earth was a sphere.

Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liuthar_Gospels

Emperor Otto III Enthroned, 10th century

Or consider the artwork of this era. At their coronation, Holy Roman emperors were routinely depicted holding an orb, symbolising their rule of the known world.

Even evolutionist-philosopher Stephen Jay Gould has acknowledged that “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars… all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”

Skeptics Invented It

I’m fascinated by the Spice Islands. I’ve lived there, and read the stories, and inhaled the scent that drew heady explorers to “the far side of the world”. But in all I’ve read about the Age of Discovery, this now-legendary tale of Columbus is nowhere to be seen.

Columbus was controversial, but for altogether different reasons. He knew other sailors were tapping into Indonesia’s spice by sailing around Africa. So he planned to find a shortcut the opposite way, sailing West. Think that through: he already knew the earth was round.

“In all I’ve read about the Age of Discovery, this now-legendary tale of Columbus is nowhere to be seen.”

Yes, church leaders warned him not to go. But their fear wasn’t him sailing off the edge. They feared his maps were wrong and that he’d run out of supplies before he got to Asia.

It turns out they were right. Heading West, Indonesia was four times further than Columbus calculated. Lucky for him and his crew there was an unknown continent called America in the way.

“Columbus planned to find a shortcut the opposite way by sailing West.”

He also found the “West Indies”. Have you ever wondered why we use the name Indies for islands in the Caribbean Sea? It’s because Columbus thought he’d arrived in the Orient. More evidence—in case you needed it—that early explorers knew they were sailing around a sphere.

If all this is true, where did the fake history come from?

Put simply, it was made up out of thin air in 1828. The famous American novelist Washington Irving (of Rip Van Winkle fame) created it to pad out his book, “The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus”.

“Columbus was controversial, but for altogether different reasons.”

Once the myth was entrenched in the public mind, two skeptics decided to give it a veneer of scholarship: in 1874, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White included it in their so-called “History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science”.

And the rest is history. Or in this case, revised history.

Anyone Can See It

But we don’t even need a history lesson to find out what people of bygone ages knew about the shape of the earth. All we need is a bit of common sense.

Star constellations were visible to them in Africa that they couldn’t see in Europe. During a lunar eclipse, they saw the shadow of a curved earth move across the moon.

They saw the earth’s curvature at work when the hull of a ship sank below the horizon before its mast did. Climbing high on a cliff, they didn’t just see further because of better angles—they saw distant objects that were obscured at ground level by the horizon.

“We don’t need a history lesson to find out what people of bygone ages knew about the shape of the earth.”

Do you get it? Except for a few nuts on the fringe, the real myth never was that the earth is flat. The real myth, still believed today, is that the flat earth was a mainstream view advanced by the church.

Christianity and science aren’t at war. How can they be? Modern science was birthed out of a biblical worldview—in Christian Europe and nowhere else—and mostly by followers of Jesus.

“The real myth is that the flat earth was a mainstream view advanced by the church.”

So have a laugh at celebrities embarrassing themselves. Shake your head that something like the Flat Earth Society could still exist today. Read trashy news stories with a smirk.

But next time you’re the punchline of a flat-earth joke, be sure to set the record straight.

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We’re Not Debating Same-Sex Marriage—We Just Think We Are

Part 3 of 3

It’s still a fortnight until Australia votes, but the topic is already hot and has been for weeks. Who said Australians don’t care about politics?

Both sides have offered compelling arguments. In a recent blog, I tried to navigate these and champion a response that looks like Jesus, where principles are valued, and people are too. (Have a read of it here).

I received many warm words of feedback, from both sides. And I had to trash a lot of scathing remarks, also from both sides.

“Who said Australians don’t care about politics?”

In the end, I advocated for marriage as Jesus defines it, so naturally my harshest critics were on the yes side. And their words continue to ring in my ears.

So I’ve done some digging, and underneath their assumptions I made a surprising discovery. The debate we’re having isn’t really about same-sex marriage. It’s about other things entirely. Most surprising of all is that no one seems to notice.

“People are searching for themselves in race, politics, religion, sexuality.”

It’s not that the debate has gone off-topic. These other conversations need to be had. In fact they’re so important that if you can sway me on these, I’ll vote yes too.

So what is Australia really debating behind the same-sex marriage question? What would I need to be convinced of to throw my weight behind the yes campaign?

1. A person’s sexuality is their identity

Headlines collect like dark clouds on the horizon. Tyrants, riots, terrorism. The nightly news flickers its endless memes of a world filled with orphans, lost and scrambling for identity.

People are searching for themselves in race, politics, religion, and sexuality. All of these contribute to our sense of self—but to build an entire identity on any of them is to seal the fate of our own disillusionment.

“The nightly news flickers its endless memes of a world filled with orphans.”

The reason is simple. You can’t know who you are until you know whose you are. I am deeply known and loved by the One who created me. I don’t know a more solid ground where I camp my worth, and even begin to work out who I am.

I get it. Voting no can seem like a frontal assault on someone’s identity. But to any who feel that way, I want to plead with you that you are loved, and you are so much more than your sexuality.

2. This vote is a referendum on people’s humanity

It’s for the same reason that I refuse to see a no vote as a statement that anyone is subhuman. Framing the debate this way helps the yes cause—but it does terrible damage to those it’s trying to protect.

To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus offered a caring, if complex, response: safety from her would-be executioners, and a life-changing commission. Go and sin no more.

“You are loved, and you are so much more than your sexuality.”

God knows, the church has a long way to go before it looks like Jesus in this scene. Still, the Saviour’s point is clear: someone’s lifestyle isn’t to be confused with their humanity.

Vote yes or no this September, but remember the vote is about marriage, not people’s status as human beings. We’re all made in the image of God, and that’s a truth no survey can change.

3. Religion should stay out of politics

If religion should stay out of politics, then as a Christian, I should abstain from this vote altogether. But then so should everyone else.

To think the public square is religiously neutral is to commit insanity. Everyone’s beliefs influence their political views—this is just as true for the secular humanist as for the devoutly religious.

“To think the public square is religiously neutral is to commit insanity.”

Separation of church and state is about letting the government and the church both influence society for good, without either thinking they are the other. It’s not about a religion-free society. (A few communist states tried that last century and it didn’t turn out so well).

If you’re a Christian and you feel terrible about imposing your view on the rest of society—in this or any other vote—take comfort. If you don’t like the result of the postal vote, the rest of society will have imposed its view on you.

4. Less Christian influence in society is a good thing

The inquisition, the crusades and priestly abuses shock us all. The church has many apologies to make and a lot of trust to regain.

But for decades now this narrative has drowned out all else. You wouldn’t know it, but the role of Christianity in shaping our science, medicine, education, technology, democracy, reason and yes, equality, was nothing short of monumental.

“The commentariat has told us to disdain our Christian heritage.”

If all the church did through history was interrogate, kill and abuse, I’d be the first to jump ship. But I’ve done my homework. If the West divorces itself from the legacy of Jesus, we’ll only know what we had once it’s gone.

Even atheist Richard Dawkins has his reservations. This avowed critic of the church has “mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse.”

The commentariat has told us to disdain our Christian heritage. But most of us don’t even know what that is. And we abandon it at our peril.

5. Marriage is just about love between two people

I’ve heard that this vote is just about two people who love each other—it’s not about kids or broader society. But if this vote is about marriage, then by definition it’s about both kids and society, because all three are unbreakably linked.

Not all married couples have children. But marriage has and always will play a crucial role in raising the next generation. That’s why the government has such a vested interest in it.

Can any combination of genders parent? I’ll leave that to the experts. But to isolate marriage from all other relationships is to misunderstand it completely.

6. Ultimate fulfilment is found in sex

It’s not just porn saying that a life without sex isn’t worth living. The entertainment industry has preached that sermon for a hundred years, and no one questions it.

But we should. Many who are sexually fulfilled are miserable. And many who are celibate are more than satisfied. Jesus was. (And yes, he was a flesh and blood human).

“Many who are sexually fulfilled are miserable.”

Sex is a beautiful gift from God, but like all of his good gifts, we tend to carve an idol out of it. The thing with idols is they promise you the world, taking you to the highest of heights, only to push you off the edge and let you plummet.

Jesus will never do that. He came to give life, and life abundant. What can’t truly be said of sex can always be said of him. In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11).

I will vote yes next month if anyone can convince me these six points are true. Until then, let’s keep not debating same-sex marriage.

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Read the rest of the series on Same-Sex Marriage:  PART 1  |  PART 2  |  PART 3

The New Morality

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”—George Orwell

The Ten Commandments are out, and the New Morality is in. While these new decrees for the West didn’t come with claps of thunder and a voice from heaven, they’re embraced with equal religious fervour.

To be sure, as far as rules go, they’re reasonable, civilised and well-intentioned. What’s concerning isn’t the principles per se, but that their loudest preachers only practice them when it’s convenient.

Perhaps this disparity between word and deed can be chalked down to simple human failing. But deep down, I fear that the New Moralists (I’m referring here to political, cultural and media elites) remain unconvinced of their own morality, and that they’re just using it to manipulate and get their way.

Could such dark suspicions be true? Let’s see.

1. Tolerate all points of view

The first rule of the New Morality is that all perspectives must be tolerated; that people should have their point of view heard, understood and respected.

This sounds wonderful, but if you haven’t noticed, the New Moralists only tolerate points of view they already agree with. If you hold a belief that they consider bigoted, suddenly they don’t tolerate you. Watch them become bigoted as they put you in your place.

2. Lay prejudice aside

The second rule of the New Morality is that prejudice must stop. People shouldn’t be treated better or worse because of their sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious belief or gender.

Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “I have a dream that my four little children… will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

“What’s concerning isn’t the principles per se, but that their loudest preachers only practice them when it’s convenient.”

So it’s curious when the New Moralists divide society up into minority groups, ranking them by who feels the most offended. In this new system, it’s apparently clear from the outset that my privilege as a straight white Christian male makes me narrow-minded and suspect. Did you catch the irony?

3. Don’t judge the morality of others

The third rule of the New Morality is that it’s not your place to judge someone else’s moral choices. After all, it’s 2017 and people should be free to choose the lifestyle that makes them happy, so long as no one gets hurt.

This too works to a point. But if your moral convictions offend a New Moralist, watch how quickly they judge you. You’ll soon learn which of your moral standards they deem good and worth celebrating, and which are evil and must be shouted down.

4. Let people speak for themselves

The fourth rule of the New Morality is that everyone should be allowed to speak for themselves. It’s not fair to articulate another person’s worldview or experiences for them.

This rule is honoured—until a terror attack takes place. When the terrorists identify with a particular religion, prophet and sacred text, the New Moralists swiftly muzzle them, assuring us that the attackers’ motives couldn’t possibly relate to such things.

“It’s curious when the New Moralists divide society up into minority groups, ranking them by who feels the most offended.”

But wouldn’t the terrorists be best placed to inform us of the beliefs that animated their violence? Shouldn’t they be allowed to speak for themselves?

5. Never blame the victim

The fifth rule of the New Morality is that a victim is never to blame for crimes committed against them. It is a gross injustice to suggest, for instance, that a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault is responsible for the unspeakable horror they’ve endured.

I couldn’t agree more. So I’m astounded when an act of terrorism is committed against citizens of a western nation and the New Moralists blame the citizens of that same nation, claiming they’d first socially alienated the terrorists, provoking the attack.

In any other scenario, such victim-blaming would lead to unfettered outrage. Why is it acceptable—and the exception—in the case of terrorism?

6. Stand up for the oppressed

The sixth rule of the New Morality is that we should stand up for the rights of oppressed minorities and alleviate their suffering. The more mistreated a group is, the more they deserve our care and compassion.

If that’s true—and it is—why are the New Moralists near silent when it comes to the oppression of women and the sexually diverse in Middle Eastern countries? Female genital mutilation, forced child marriage, and capital punishment for homosexuals have to be among the most barbaric injustices of the 21st century. Why do the New Moralists pay no mind?

“Perhaps this disparity between word and deed can be chalked down to simple human failing. But deep down, I fear that the New Moralists are just using these rules to manipulate and get their way.”

And why are they silent about the persecution of Christians in the same lands? A hundred years ago, followers of Jesus made up around 14% of the Middle East’s population. Unrelenting persecution—most of it in the last decade—has decimated these communities, reducing them to less than 4%. Why is anyone who speaks up for them accused of favouritism?

The Real Agenda

None of this makes sense.

The New Morality is a strange beast. On closer inspection, it’s everything it claims to abhor: it’s intolerant and prejudicial; often judgmental and condemning; at times guilty of victim blaming, silencing the moral agent, and ignoring certain oppressed minorities.

Sure, we all fail from time to time. And to be sure, the New Morality’s failures are mingled with a great deal of good intention. What’s concerning though isn’t its failures, but its straight-up dishonesty.

Instead of pretending to stand for equality, it should have just been honest about the minorities it favours and the ones it disregards. Instead of claiming to be open and tolerant, it should have just told us which morals and viewpoints it despises. It’s not like we can’t tell anyway.

“The New Morality is a strange beast. On closer inspection, it’s everything it claims to abhor.”

If unbiased compassion isn’t the agenda of the New Morality, what is? Is it to dismantle capitalism, to make organised religion pay for its sins, or to impose a new form of Marxism?

Any answer to this question would sound like conspiracy theory, so I’ll just let you make up your own mind. In reality, all who join the movement do so for their own diverse reasons, so there’s little point trying to identify a single cause. One uniting factor seems to be the love of power which is just as strong in the New Morality as it was in the institutions it overthrew.

A Path Back to Sanity

Let me emphatically state that it is a virtue to tolerate the viewpoints of others, to lay aside prejudice, be temperate in judgment, to let people speak for themselves, and to protect victims and all who are oppressed.

But may it also be seen that these aren’t virtues simply because we decided they were. If humans determine what’s right and wrong in any given age, then we can also choose when to apply our new rules, and when not to. And that’s precisely the chaos we’re seeing take place.

“Without accountability to our Creator, all we can hope for is another cruel, self-righteous cult to rival all the others.”

These principles are good in every age precisely because they’re an accurate reflection of the One who made us. God has revealed himself as impeccably tolerant (Ex. 34:6), unprejudiced (Rom. 2:11) and slow to judge (Ps. 86:5). He hears us out when we express ourselves (Ps. 56:8), he stands up for the victim (Ps. 34:18) and he fights for the oppressed (Ps. 9:9).

The New Moralists may despise the Christian worldview, but they’re more deeply indebted to it than they know or care to admit. Their rules come to us almost unedited from the pages of Scripture.

Sadly, what the New Morality demonstrates is that, cut loose from the God who is there, even the best morals can quickly spiral downwards into manipulation. Without accountability to our Creator and his Spirit empowering us to live up to our restored humanity, all we can hope for is another cruel, self-righteous cult to rival all the others.

Yes, we live in a secular world. The Bible is not and never should be the law of our land. But in an age of such ubiquitous moral confusion, the book that shaped the West may just be reemerging as more relevant than we ever imagined.

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Seven Things God Can’t Do

omnipotent

There are some things God can’t do. Yes, God is all-powerful (“omnipotent” in Christianese). Nothing is too hard for him (Isaiah 43:13) and he does whatever pleases him (Psalm 135:6).

But “all-powerful” still has limits. By the time you’ve finished reading about these seven examples, I think you’ll not only agree with me, you’ll also love God all the more for it.

1. God can’t deny himself. In 2 Timothy 2:13, Paul puts it like this: “If we are unfaithful, God remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is.” Who God is today, he has always been.

“‘All-powerful” still has limits.”

Trustworthy, perfect in beauty, entirely without sin, full of unfailing love, present in our weakness. The second God falters in any of this, the moment he breaks a single promise that he has made, he ceases to be God. And that’s something he cannot do.

2. God can’t be tempted with evil. James 1:13 says that, “God is never tempted to do wrong.” We tend to think of right and wrong as abstract ideas that even God is accountable to. But we have it back-to-front.

“The moment God breaks a single promise he has made, he ceases to be God.”

Good is, by definition, anything that aligns with God’s perfect character. And evil is, by definition, anything that doesn’t. So to say that God can’t be tempted with evil is an understatement. It’s a logical impossibility.

3. God can’t learn. I don’t have a Bible verse for this one. But God knows everything. And if God could learn, it would mean that once upon a time, he didn’t know that thing he learnt. Think about it.

4. God can’t do the illogical. Have skeptical people ever taunted you with questions like, “Can God make a box he can’t escape?” or “Can he make a rock so large he can’t move it?” or “Can God draw square circles?”

“Add these silly semantic puzzles to the list of things God can’t do.”

Don’t try to defend the indefensible. The answer is no. Add these silly semantic puzzles to the list of things he can’t do. God’s not fazed; no need for us to be either.

5. God can’t get tired. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.” (Isaiah 40:28). That’s good news for weary souls.

6. God can’t teach you as much through pleasure as he can through suffering. How can a good God allow evil and suffering? This question is universal, and it’s borne out of the fire of our own uniquely painful experiences.

“The things that have shaped us the most have also cost us the most.”

While this doubt is deep, complex and touches us in different ways, we all know instinctively that the things that have shaped us the most have also cost us the most. Are not all of our favourite movies simply retellings of this same theme?

In our mess, this feels like cold comfort. But try to imagine your own story without a single struggle or challenge. What of substance in your life would there be to speak of today? In the chaos, hold on to God’s promise that all of these “light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

7. God can’t seperate you from his love. God didn’t remain aloof from the suffering of the world but entered into it. And it was this act of unthinkable humility—our Creator suffering all that we deserved, absorbing the rage of man and the wrath of God—that lifts the curse and welcomes us back into his eternal love.

“God didn’t remain aloof from the suffering of the world but entered into it.”

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).

I’m glad there are some things God can’t do.

How Jesus Shaped the West: Science

science

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginningor start here for how Jesus shaped Science.

* * *

Richard Dawkins has declared, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”

He may not speak for all, but he captures a mood now common in the West that faith—and especially the Christian faith—is a hindrance to inquiry. Is he right? Are science and Christianity at war?

The scientific worldview we live and breathe seems so normal. From car repairs to dieting, and from weather forecasts to the latest iPhone, we take science and all of its benefits for granted. In doing so, we forget that it’s an entirely unique way of perceiving the world.

“The ancients had astounding insights into nature, but a culture of science didn’t arise in the ancient world.”

India had great surgeons like Sushruta who wrote a textbook on medicine six centuries before Christ, but medicine didn’t develop in India. Another Indian introduced a revolutionary concept to mathematics: the number zero. Yet in India, maths didn’t go on to become the language of science, as it later would in Europe.

Over 2,000 years ago, Eratosthenes measured the earth’s circumference with eyebrow-raising accuracy. Ancients from Greece, Egypt, China and the Muslim world had astounding insights into nature. They observed facts, developed their skills, and accumulated knowledge to pass on to others. Despite all of this, a culture of science didn’t arise in the ancient world.

Science arose once in history: in Christian Europe. We could shrug and move on. Or we could inquire as to why that is.

“In India, maths didn’t go on to become the language of science, as it later would in Europe.”

A growing band of historians are drawn to Whitehead’s thesis, agreeing with John Lennox that, “human beings became scientific because they expected law in nature; and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”

We’ve become so accustomed to thinking of Jesus’ teachings as merely “spiritual” lessons. But Europeans of centuries past saw them as much more, believing Jesus spoke into every pursuit of life.

As such, Europe inherited from Jesus a set of assumptions about the nature of reality that no other culture had. See science only works if the following things are true:

Objective truth exists. Eastern faiths (and postmoderns) say that what’s true for you isn’t true for me. But who would bother experiment if the findings are true for some people and not for others? Jesus however insists that truth does exist and is knowable.

“Europe inherited from Jesus a set of assumptions about the nature of reality that no other culture had.”

The universe actually exists. Eastern philosophies taught that everything is an illusion. What point is there in studying an illusion? By contrast, the first declaration of Scripture is, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It actually exists, so it can actually be studied.

The universe is orderly. Greek, Roman and Hindu beliefs propose multiple gods competing to run the universe. But an enchanted world like this doesn’t lead people to search for “laws of nature”. If the planets are themselves gods, why would they follow established laws? The God Jesus spoke of, however, is a God of order, not chaos. And by inference, so is the world he created.

“Human beings became scientific because they expected law in nature; and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”

People have confidence to investigate the world. Indigenous faiths taught that there were spirits in the trees, rivers and mountains—that creation itself is divine. So poking around trying to study these things could anger the spirits—and this is one of the reasons many cultures never tried.

Christians also believe in angels and demons, but in Genesis 1:28 they read God’s command, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” Because of this, Christians had courage to study the natural world.

“Science rests on uniquely Christian ideas, and it can’t work without them.”

People have free will. Atheism—the idea that the material world is all that exists—leads to the inescapable conclusion that we’re just slaves to our brain chemistry, so we have no free will.

C.S. Lewis asked: “If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts… are mere accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true?”

Jesus’ teachings assume a free will given to us by God, so we can think and reason freely and arrive at trustworthy conclusions.

“It’s no coincidence that almost all of the founders of modern science were Christians.”

People need correction. Many in the East see humans as divine, and believe that enlightenment comes by mystical experience. Islam rejects the idea Jesus taught, that humans are born with a tendency towards error and sin. But it turns out that the Christian doctrine of original sin, despised by so many, was foundational to the scientific method. Because we’re fallen, early Christian scientists insisted, our findings are in constant need of objectivity, facts, peer review, and skeptical testing.

People see themselves as caretakers of creation. Most worldviews see humans as merely part of nature—a cog in the machine. Atheism views us as sophisticated, hairless apes. But the West’s passion for science began when Christians read the Bible and rediscovered God’s call to have caring dominion over the creation.

Francis Bacon, founder of the scientific method said, “For man by the Fall fell from both his state of innocence and his dominion over creation. Both of these, however, can even in this life be made good; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences.”

“Atheism leads to the inescapable conclusion that we’re just slaves to our brain chemistry, so we have no free will.”

Embarrassing as it may be to the intelligentsia, science rests on these uniquely Christian ideas, and it can’t work without them.

Is it any coincidence then that almost all of the founders of modern science were Christians? Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most important scientists of all time, discovered the law of gravity, but also wrote over a million words about the Bible.

Science arose once in history: in the Christian universities of Europe. This isn’t because other cultures lacked ability: many individuals outside of Europe saw nature with a scientific outlook. But their civilisations’ belief systems didn’t allow a culture of science to flourish.

Peter Harrison, Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bond University in Australia wrote, “It is commonly supposed that when in the early modern period individuals began to look at the world in a different way, they could no longer believe what they read in the Bible… [but] the reverse is the case: when in the sixteenth century people began to read the Bible in a different way, they found themselves forced to jettison traditional conceptions of the world. The Bible… played a central role in the emergence of natural science in the seventeenth century.”

Richard Dawkins couldn’t be more wrong. It was in fact the teachings of Jesus that drove Europe’s curiosity to study the world and view it scientifically. Centuries later, every culture—and Dawkins himself—has reaped the benefits.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Medicine.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.