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.

Has the Bible Been Tampered With?

You’ve probably heard it suggested that the Bible we read today is nothing like the original, given how many times it’s been copied through the centuries.

Surely this has provided too much opportunity—so the argument goes—for people to copy it poorly. Or worse, to tamper with it to suit their own agenda.

This makes for a good story, but is it true?

The Old Testament

The Jews had a special class of people whose only task was to preserve the Scriptures. In making a new copy, the scribe wasn’t allowed to write a single letter from memory: every one had to be checked.

Two others would hover over his shoulder ensuring he made no mistakes. If an error was made, all three of them had to initial it.

“The Jews had a special class of people whose only task was to preserve the Scriptures.”

On completion of a book, every word would be counted. And tallies would be made of each letter of the Hebrew alphabet to see if it matched the original.

If a new manuscript didn’t pass these and other tests, it was trashed and the process would begin again.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Until last century, the earliest copies we had of the Old Testament only went back as far as AD900. So arguably, it still could have changed a lot in that time, despite every scribe’s good intention.

But then along came a shepherd boy called Muhammad. He was tending his goats near some caves at the Dead Sea. The year was 1947.

Bored, he tossed a stone into a cave and heard the sound of breaking pottery. So he scrambled in and made the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“What made this find so important was that they dated back to the time of Jesus.”

They were a collection of around 500 works, written on leather, wrapped in linen, and stored in jars. Among them was most of the Old Testament.

What made this find so important was that they dated back to the time of Jesus—a millennia older than any previous Old Testaments we had. More important still, they bore remarkable similarity to those older copies.

Take for example Isaiah 53. After a thousand years of copying, only 17 letters in the entire chapter were different. Most of the changes were obvious slips of the pen or minor spelling changes, and none affected the meaning of the text.

Reflecting on the value of the Dead Sea Scrolls, archaeologist W. F. Albright said, “We may rest assured that the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible, though not infallible, has been preserved with an accuracy perhaps unparalleled in any other Near Eastern literature.”

The New Testament

Tiberius was the emperor who famously sent Mary and Joseph packing for Bethlehem. Volumes have been written about Tiberius. But almost everything we know about him was written 80 years after his life by the historian Tacitus.

Now consider the biographies of Jesus, also known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These gospels were written within 30-60 years of Jesus’ life.

In other words, our records about Jesus are better than the those we have for the man who ruled the world at the same time.

This has other implications too. If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote while witnesses to Jesus were still living, it would have been near impossible for them to invent stories about him.

“Our records about Jesus are better than they are for the man who ruled the world at the same time.”

Imagine an account was fake. To shut down the Jesus movement, all a skeptic needed to do was visit this village, ask if Jesus really did heal that person, and the whole charade would be exposed.

Instead, in those early centuries a perplexed pagan world watched on as this fledgling movement spread throughout the empire.

The Ancient World’s Most Copied Text

In the Rylands Library in Manchester, UK is a fragment of John’s gospel. It’s the earliest parchment we have of the New Testament.

Like most ancient documents, it’s a copy. But it’s been dated to within 50 years of the original. Compared with other writings from the ancient world, this is remarkable.

“As far as tests go for ancient documents, the Bible passes every one with flying colours.”

But the New Testament has even greater credentials. No one claims the history about Caesar or the writings of Plato were made up. But only a handful of these documents have survived.

On the other hand, 25,000 New Testament manuscripts can be found throughout the libraries of the world. Not just fragments, but whole scrolls and books too. As such, we can reconstruct the New Testament with near-perfect accuracy.

So has the Bible been tampered with?

There’s no evidence for this claim. Instead, the evidence points in a different direction. As far as tests go for ancient documents, the Bible passes every one with flying colours.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Bible is the best-attested document of ancient history.

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 Judaism Points to Jesus

Israel. It’s bizarre that such a tiny nation somehow makes news headlines every week. I guess when you occupy the hottest piece of real estate on the planet, the whole world is going to have an opinion.

Today the media buzz is mostly about Israel’s injustices. But if you look back in history, there’s probably no people group that’s suffered as much injustice as the Jewish people. From slavery to exile to the 6 million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust, it’s a miracle they’ve even survived.

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

The Story of Judaism

Judaism is a religion, but it’s also a story: the story of God calling a man who became a nation that blessed the world. God made amazing promises to this ethnic group, along with a high calling to obey his laws in every area of their lives.

So in brief, God’s people obeying his law is what Judaism is all about. The only way for us to understand this faith is to join its central characters on a fascinating adventure through time.

T H E   C A L L :   A B R A H A M

In 1800BC, in today’s Iraq, an idol worshipper hears a voice from heaven: Leave your country and family, go to the land I give you, and I’ll make you into a great nation that will bless the planet. Abraham obeys, and he becomes the founding father of Judaism.

As part of this promise, God expects every male in the family to be circumcised: a peculiar reminder that they are God’s peculiar people—and that his plan of universal blessing will come through their offspring.

“It’s the story of God calling a man who became a nation that blessed the world.”

The promise begins to unfold: Abraham’s grandson Jacob or Israel has twelve sons (who go on to become the twelve tribes of Israel). Like most brothers, they don’t get along so well, and during a low point in the story, one of them called Joseph is sold by the others into slavery in Egypt.

But in Egypt, God turns the tables. Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s chief administrator and saves the region from a devastating famine. Starving and in search of food, his long-lost brothers arrive to a surprising and emotional family reunion.

T H E   C O V E N A N T :   M O S E S

The family settles in Egypt, and their numbers grow so rapidly that a new Pharaoh, feeling threatened, puts them under brutal slavery. But God won’t stand for this injustice, so he raises up a leader called Moses to set his people free.

At Moses’ word, supernatural plagues and storms ravage Egypt, but Pharaoh’s heart is hard like stone. So in a final showdown, God has each Israelite household cook a lamb and smear its blood on their doorframe: the firstborn in every house in Egypt would die that night, and God’s judgment would pass over any home marked with blood.

“God raises up a leader called Moses to set his people free.”

Egypt is left devastated, and Pharaoh, broken-hearted, lets Israel go. Through a parted ocean,  God’s people escape. Meanwhile Pharaoh has changed his mind, and in hot pursuit of Israel, he and his armies are drowned in the engulfing waters.

The nation is finally free. On their journey to the promised land, God makes a covenant with them. He gives Moses their national law or Torah, which will govern every aspect of their lives as God’s people. If they obey it, God will make them prosperous and secure, and the model of a wise and just society. If they neglect it, curses and exile are sure to follow.

T H E   K I N G D O M :   D A V I D

After a long journey camping in the wilderness, Israel finally arrives in the promised land. The twelve tribes unite to form a kingdom, and in around 1000BC, their greatest king comes to power. David is a warrior-poet with many faults—but he captures the holy city of Jerusalem, extends Israel’s borders, and leads the nation with a heart after God.

“Israel finally arrives in the promised land.”

God honours David’s faithfulness by promising him a dynasty that would last forever. From David’s line, God says that an eternal king or Messiah would come, ruling over a universal kingdom—and leading Israel to fulfil its God-given destiny.

In time, Israel builds God a temple. The Jews know God is everywhere of course, but this temple is God’s throne room where they can approach him to offer praise and sacrifices. One day a year, on the day of atonement, the most important sacrifice is made. Two animals are brought: one is killed, bearing the nation’s sin—the other is released into the wild, declaring their forgiveness.

“David is a warrior-poet who leads the nation with a heart after God.”

But this spiritual and political high doesn’t last long. Soon most of the nation, even its kings, are perverting justice and worshipping idols. God sends prophets to remind Israel about the blessings and curses of the covenant—but Israel rejects and kills them.

God has had enough: from the 8th to the 6th centuries BC, the empires of Assyria and Babylon invade and take the Jewish people into exile. It would be centuries before they’d return to their land to restore the nation and rebuild their ruined temple.

T H E   C R O S S   R O A D S

Even when Israel returns many years later, life isn’t like it was. The new temple is small—only a shadow of its former self. Promises of a glorious future for Israel stay unrealised. Foreign empires keep invading: in an act of desecration, a Greek king sets up a statue of Zeus in God’s temple, leading to a Jewish revolt. Then Romans invade with a huge military and heavy taxes.

During this bewildering time, Israel is at the crossroads. There are competing visions for what the future of the Jewish people should look like: retreat to the desert and wait for the end of days? Overthrow the Roman invaders? Meet them with a compromise?

“Promises of a glorious future for Israel stay unrealised.”

There was another option. A peasant from northern Palestine called Yeshua knew the Torah, taught people to love their enemies—and even worked miracles and healed people. Crowds followed him everywhere and some thought he might be the long-awaited Messiah. But Israel’s leaders knew better, and they had him crucified outside Jerusalem in AD30.

T H E   C O N T I N U I N G   H O P E

The solution would be found somewhere else. After the Romans destroyed Israel’s temple a second time, a group called the Pharisees rose to prominence with a vision for how the Jews should live while their temple lay in ruins: the focus must now turn inwards to personal purity.

This would set the path for Israel for the next two millennia. In that time, the Jewish diaspora has taken the Jewish people all around the world. Everywhere they’ve gone, Jews have gathered in local synagogues to pray, sing and read the Torah and other scriptures like the Mishnah to help them obey God and live pure lives.

“For Jews, festivals are a time to reflect on the hardships of their people.”

Today, synagogue creeds and prayers remind Jews of their membership in Abraham’s family, their need to confess sin, their confidence in the afterlife, and their enduring hope that Messiah will come and establish his kingdom in Israel. (For many Jews, this hope has looked more likely since the modern state of Israel was formed in 1948 in the original promised land).

Jews today celebrate many important events. Once a week they rest for Sabbath. Male infants are still circumcised. Jewish teenagers mark their coming of age with Bar Mitzvah. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the temple after its desecration. For Jews, festivals are often a time to reflect on the hardships of their people—and their ongoing hope in God’s faithfulness:

New Year | A sombre day when a ram’s horn is blown to remind the Jews of their need for spiritual awakening and obedience to God.

Day of Atonement | Without a temple there can be no animal sacrifice, but this is still a day when the nation seeks God’s forgiveness.

Feast of Tabernacles | Faithful Jews eat their meals in outdoor tents to remember their time of wandering in the wilderness.

Passover | A special feast is eaten to commemorate God passing over Israelite houses in Egypt and delivering them from slavery.

Pentecost | Many Jews stay up through the night to read and study the Torah as a celebration of the day God gave his law to Israel.

That’s Judaism. Today the world’s 15 million Jews are found in 134 countries, but around one third of them live in the modern state of Israel.

Judaism and Jesus

You need to squint to see Jesus’ fingerprints in other world religions, but his place in Judaism is explicit. Jesus was a Jew—he was part of God’s unfolding story of the Jewish people. In case you missed it, he was Yeshua, the one rejected and killed as a false Messiah.

For the Jews, that rejection has lasted two thousand years. But maybe Jesus is worth another look. After all, he came as a prophet to point Israel back to the covenant and God’s law. Like the Jewish people all through history, even killing Jesus couldn’t keep him down. He predicted his crucifixion in advance, and explained what it would achieve for Israel.

“Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s plan to bless the world through Abraham’s offspring.”

He said he was the passover lamb whose blood would protect them from God’s judgment; that he was the animal killed at the temple to bear the nation’s sin so they could go free and be sure of God’s forgiveness. Could the enduring absence of a temple since the first century be proof that Jesus was the sacrifice to end all temple sacrifices?

Jesus wasn’t just a descendant of Abraham: he also came from the line of David. He claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah that would lead Israel to fulfil its destiny. Yes, he was crucified, but he rose again and has promised to return to establish and rule over a universal kingdom—a dynasty that will last forever.

This is a promise he made to Israel. But it’s also a promise that he extended to all nations. It wasn’t just in his earthly life that crowds followed Jesus: today there isn’t a nation on earth where his followers can’t be found. Jesus truly is the fulfilment of God’s plan to bless the world through Abraham’s offspring.

“Jesus wants to lead the Jewish people with a heart after God.”

Even as Jews regather in the land of Israel today, there is still a sense that they’re a nation in exile, a people wandering in the wilderness. The wailing wall in Jerusalem is a reminder of this. There is no temple; today Israel is still just a shadow of its former self; promises of the future stay unrealised.

That day will come. But until his return, Jesus has a vision for how the Jewish people should live—he wants to help Israel obey God with lives of inward purity. He wants to lead them with a heart after God. He longs for Israel’s spiritual awakening.

The Messiah is here—one greater than Abraham, Moses, and David. And he has come to set God’s people free.

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

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 85-131.

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 Hinduism Points to Jesus

Since the 1960s, Hinduism has profoundly shaped the West. But it goes beyond vegan food, henna and hippy culture. We’re all one with God; there’s a divine spark within each of us; I’ll find my own path—all of these Hindu ideas have gone global.

Hinduism inspired brilliant movies like Inception, Avatar and Interstellar. And many big-name celebrities have famously converted to the faith, including Julia Roberts, Russel Brand and George Harrison of The Beetles.

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

The Heart of Hinduism

Hinduism has no founder: there’s no historical figure called Hindu. That’s just a British word for the colourful rituals and beliefs of the Indian subcontinent. Even today, most Hindus don’t know that word—they just know they follow the eternal religion.

Eternal is a stretch, but it’s definitely ancient. Hinduism predates Moses, beginning around 2000BC—making it the oldest religion in the world. It’s not a neat, easily understood faith. It has no organised hierarchy, no creeds, and no central holy place. It sort of just is.

“Since the 1960s, Hinduism has profoundly shaped the West.”

At the centre of this spectacular web of beliefs and practices is one simple idea: union with the ultimate life force. To understand what this even means, we need to take a journey through the deep traditions that have shaped Hindu belief.


THE VEDAS (2000BC—500BC)

First are the Vedas. These hymns, curses and chants were brought to India by Persian nomads, explaining how to communicate with a vast array of gods through the use of drugs, and how to appease these gods with sacrifices.


THE UPANISHADS (1000BC—300BC)

Second are the Upanishads. Indian gurus and holy men reflected deeply on the Vedas and developed a whole worldview out of them, teaching these important ideas:

Brahman / Behind everything in the universe is a life force called Brahman. Brahman isn’t a who but a what—it has no personality. And Brahman isn’t seperate from the world: it encompasses everything, including you and me. Like sparks from a flame, we all came from Brahman, and to Brahman we will all return.

“At the centre of Hinduism is one simple idea: union with the ultimate life force.”

Illusion / You think you’re reading this blog, but actually you’re not. You, your device, and the entire universe is actually just a dream of Brahman. According to Hindu teaching, until you realise this, you’ll stay trapped in the illusion of this world.

Reincarnation / All of us, even plants, animals and insects, are caught on a carousel of being born, dying and being reborn again. Reincarnation isn’t fun to a Hindu—it means being spat back out into the illusion of this world; trapped once again in a false existence.

“In Hindu teaching, the entire universe is just a dream of Brahman.”

Karma / We think karma is doing good so good comes back to me. For Hindus, karma is vengeful—it’s the reason we’re trapped. The poor are suffering now because of their actions in a past life: it’s their fault. As such, I need to live a good life now so I can return as a king, not a cockroach.

Release / However, the end goal is actually to not come back at all. Instead, I’m aiming to experience final release from the futile cycle of life. Release isn’t a place; it’s a state of being where I no longer exist—where I’m absorbed back into Brahman, the ultimate reality.


THE SMRITI (500BC—AD300)

The third and final tradition is the Smriti. These epic Shakespeare-like dramas tell the stories of the gods, and teach two more ideas:

The Caste System / People are born into different castes or social orders based on their karma from past lives. Those at the top work in business and government, while the untouchables at the bottom fill India’s slums. Mahatma Gandhi fought the caste system, and today many Hindus reject it, but it remains deeply ingrained in Indian society.

The Way of Release / Release from reincarnation and a return to Brahman is possible, and it can happen in one or more of the following ways:

  1. Path of DutyPerforming good works that are fitting to your particular caste, and being faithful in giving offerings to the local gods.
  2. Path of DevotionChoosing one of Hinduism’s 330 million gods to love and worship with your whole life—the most popular being Vishnu and Shiva.
  3. Path of KnowledgeDenying comforts, chanting scriptures, and practicing mediation and yoga in order to achieve union with Brahman.

And that’s a brief summary of Hinduism. Today it’s the third largest religion in the world with over a billion followers. The vast majority of Hindus live in India.

Hinduism and Jesus

Hindu ideas challenge Christians, and in the best of ways. They rattle our safe little cage and make us question everything we thought we knew. Hinduism also reminds us that God is not just far off, but present everywhere; and many Hindus truly know the meaning of spiritual devotion.

But where does Jesus fit with Hinduism? It would be too easy to see him as just another guru or god among the millions. But this holy man is different. Jesus’ teachings are eternal, more ancient than the Vedas. In fact, they come directly from Brahman.

“Jesus came to show us what Brahman is like.”

According to Jesus, it’s true that Brahman is the life force present everywhere, giving unity to the world we see. But Jesus called Brahman a who, not a what. Brahman is actually personal, with a mind, emotions and the capacity for relationship.

This makes sense because we are personal. We use logic; we experience joy and sadness; and we relate to others. How could you or I, with all the beauty and wonder of personality, come from an impersonal force? Brahman must have a personality if we came from him.

“Brahman is a who, not a what.”

Jesus also taught about karma. He called it sin—actions from our past that have trapped us. But he didn’t teach the path of duty, devotion or knowledge, because they leave us uncertain; we can only know if they’ve worked after we die. Jesus taught a better way of release, one that we can know gives us release in this life.

Instead of us making our way back to Brahman, Jesus said, Brahman has come to us. Jesus wasn’t just another spark from the flame: he claimed to actually be Brahman, entering into our world, ending the illusion. Jesus came to show us what Brahman’s personality is like.

Jesus performed every good work and lived a perfect life, and this meant his karma was good. And when he died, he took all our karma upon himself, and he gave us his good karma in return. The moment we believe this and devote ourselves to Jesus, we experience final release.

“Jesus isn’t just another guru or god among the millions.”

When we die, we can be certain we’ll return to Brahman. Not like sparks to a flame. But like children to their father. We’re actually seperate beings from Brahman—and that’s good, because it means we can have a personal relationship with him. This is love. And this is true union with the ultimate life force.

We all need a god to worship and devote our lives to. Jesus is the only one who is truly worthy of this, because he’s not one god among many. He’s the one true God.

And this God loves and accepts us, no matter which caste we’re from.

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

Claydon, David. Connecting Across Cultures: Sharing the Gospel Across Cultural and Religious Boundaries. Melbourne: Acorn Press Ltd, 2000, 83-94.

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 17-46.

How Islam Points to Jesus

For some in the West, Islam is a synonym for terrorism and oppression. Others seem to believe that Muslims deserve a free pass, and special immunity from criticism.

I’ll admit upfront that I’m biased too. I love my Muslim friends, and I have a deeper interest in Islam than any other world faith outside my own. For me, Islam is an acronym for I Sincerely Love All Muslims.

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

Origins and Influence

It all began with Muhammad ibn Abdullah, born in Mecca in 570AD, five centuries after Jesus. Arabia was dry, hot, and full of warring tribes. Jews and Christian cults were scattered around, but most people were polytheists, and once a year they’d flood to Mecca to worship their gods.

As a travelling merchant, Muhammad sat around campfires at night hearing many religious ideas, and the idolatry troubled him. He would often retreat to a cave near Mecca for spiritual insight. One day there, a supernatural being appeared and spoke to him. He was so alarmed that he ran home to his wife, convinced he was demonised or insane.

“Muhammad sat around campfires at night hearing many religious ideas.”

But with the help of a scholar, Muhammad concluded that he’d met the angel Gabriel, and that he was called to be a prophet. For the next two decades until his death, he received 114 messages—today making up the chapters of the Qur’an.

His theme was this: only one of Mecca’s hundreds of gods was the true God, and all the others were false idols. That didn’t go down too well—so fleeing persecution, Muhammad moved to the city of Medina.

Here the people liked him and his message about the oneness of God. They embraced him as their prophet and political ruler. It was 622AD; Islam was born.

“Muhammad would often retreat to a cave for spiritual insight.”

The people of Mecca kept troubling Muhammad until eventually, with an army of 10,000, he marched on the city. The powerless Meccans were quick to convert to Islam.

Throughout his life, Muhammad lead 66 battles, married 11 times, and was heralded as a great military leader and God’s final and greatest prophet.

Within a hundred years of his death, Islam spread as far as Turkey, France and India. Fourteen centuries later there are 50 Muslim-majority nations, and Islam is the world’s second biggest religion with 1.8 billion followers.

The Heart of Islam

Islam is built on a single idea: submission to Allah—this is what the word Islam means. Muslims practice the Five Pillars of Islam in the hope that Allah will accept them into paradise:

1. Creed. There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. If you recite this in the presence of another Muslim and believe it, you become a Muslim.

2. Prayers. At five set times a day, faithful Muslims pray facing the city of Mecca. This involves a ritual washing, set postures and recited prayers. The Friday noon prayer is held in local mosques where a sermon is preached.

3. Fasting. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims aren’t allowed to eat or drink while the sun is up. Night time is for feasting; and celebrations are especially big at the end of this month—a time when Allah is more likely to hear and answer prayers.

4. Alms. This religious tax of up to 5% helps feed the poor, support war efforts, and spread the message of Islam around the world.

5. Pilgrimage. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must visit the city of Mecca once in their life. Here, pilgrims take part in many rituals: they wear special garments, circle a shrine called the Kaaba, and spend an evening on a hill outside the city where they hope their sins will be washed away.

Jihad is sometimes considered a sixth pillar. Jihad means struggle, and while some point to the days of Muhammad and think of this in military terms, most Muslims today consider jihad an internal struggle against sin.

Along with these practices there are Five Pillars of Faith which every Muslim must embrace:

1. God. Allah has 99 beautiful names. (His hundredth name is unknown). Allah is unique, and it’s blasphemy to equate any person with him; certainly, he is too lofty and majestic to have a son. Allah is our master, and we are his servants. He knows us, but we can’t know him.

2. Angels. These include jinn or genies, but most important are the two angels that sit on every person’s right and left shoulder, recording our good and bad deeds for a final day of reckoning.

3. Prophets. Moses, Abraham, David and many other Bible characters are prophets in Islam—Jesus is especially honoured as a prophet. But Islam’s final and greatest prophet is Muhammad. He’s the model for all Muslims to imitate.

4. Books. The Torah, Psalms and Gospels are holy books in Islam. In fact, Jews and Christians are considered people of the book. But the most holy book is the Qur’an. Muslims believe it was given because the other books were corrupted.

5. Judgment Day. Like Muhammad, Allah is a good businessman. On judgment day, he will weigh our good and bad deeds on a scale to see whether we deserve hell or paradise. But even then Allah is still sovereign, and his mercy is what will determine our destiny.

Muhammad and Jesus

Christians have much to learn from Islam. In a world of apathy, Muhammad led with uncompromising conviction, and he had a reverence for God that the western church desperately needs to recapture. And the cultures Muhammad has shaped are among the most respectful and hospitable on the planet.

What about Muhammad’s claims? Private visions are difficult to verify—but the Qur’an does help us build bridges with Muslims since it speaks so often of ‘Isa al-Masih or Jesus the Messiah. In fact Jesus is referred to 93 times in the Qur’an—four times more often than Muhammad himself!

“Christians have much to learn from Islam.”

The Qur’an says that Jesus was born of a virgin; that he was a healer and miracle worker who raised the dead; and that he will intercede for us on judgment day. These things are not said of Muhammad. In fact, while the Qur’an mentions Muhammad’s sins, it calls Jesus sinless—and even gives him titles like Spirit and Word of God.

Actually, this is what the Bible taught all along. There’s no theological reason for Muslims to believe the Bible has been corrupted: God can protect his books. And there’s no historical reason either: 25,000 manuscripts spanning from the second century AD are almost identical to today’s Bibles. How could forgers have edited so many documents—and no modern scholar notice?

“God can protect his books.”

The Word of God didn’t come to Jesus in a private vision. Jesus is the Word of God. His life was the message, and it was lived out in public where it could be tested by history.

Like Muhammad, Jesus called people to turn from their idols and follow the true God. The people of Jerusalem persecuted him for this. But unlike Muhammad, Jesus didn’t flee. He willingly submitted to the plan of God. That evening he was crucified on a hill outside the city—where he washed our sins away.

Because of this, our destiny no longer hangs in the balance between the good and bad deeds that we do. God has shown us mercy once for all in Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s guarantee that we’ll also be raised up to paradise.

“Jesus is the Word of God. His life was the message.”

Because of Jesus, God hears our prayers any time of the year. Because of him, we can win our internal struggle against sin. Most of all, because of Jesus, we can know God and the great love he has for us.

It is wrong for any human to equate themselves with God. But what if God equated himself with us? What if the greatest act of God’s majesty was to become one of us, and make himself personally known? What if God’s hundredth name is ‘Isa al-Masih?

“Because of Jesus, we can know God and the great love he has for us.”

Today there’s a wind in the house of Islam. In countries still shut to the gospel, Jesus is appearing to thousands of Muslims in dreams and supernatural visions. And many more are coming to faith in open nations through the love of Christian friends.

Muslims around the world today are discovering that Jesus is more than a prophet—and that following him is the true path of submission to God.

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

Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2004, 177-217.

Masri, Fouad. Bridges: Connecting Christians With Muslims (DVD). Indianapolis, IN: Crescent Project, 2008.

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.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.

It’s Time for Revolution

500th anniversaries don’t come around too often. This week, though, is a big deal for western civilisation—or at least it should be. Today marks the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation.

October 31st, 1517 was the day Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, unleashing a revolution that transformed Europe and helped usher in the modern world.

“This week is a big deal for western civilisation.”

So much that we love and take for granted in the West is a legacy of this event. Personal freedoms, universal education, modern scienceglobal languages, the nation state, and even democracy itself owe a massive debt to the reformers—radical followers of Jesus.

To us this sounds odd because we’ve been told that religion and reason are in conflict; that the world can only progress as faith retreats. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today’s world is dizzyingly advanced. But as I’ve recently written, our Judeo-Christian heritage is being quickly abandoned, and rushing into the vacuum are anxieties, terrorism, widening inequality, slavery on a scale never seen in history, and alarming social polarisation.

“So much that we love and take for granted in the West is a legacy of the Reformation.”

It was also into a bleak situation (the Dark Ages no less) that the reformers spoke. Post tenebras lux—“After darkness, light”—was their rallying cry.

Three convictions drove them. These convictions turned their world upside down. I’m convinced they could do the same for ours. So what were they?

1. Sola Scriptura

In Luther’s day, a corrupt church was selling heaven’s forgiveness for cash. The construction of St. Peter’s Basilica was being bankrolled by gullible peasants.

Medieval superstition had devoured truth. God’s Word was hidden in monasteries, shrouded in tradition, and uttered only in Latin. The answer of the reformers was Sola Scriptura—back to the Word of God.

“It was into a bleak situation that the reformers spoke.”

“I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the pope,” said men like Tyndale. And true to their word, they translated the Bible into the languages of the people, reawakening the hearts and minds of a continent.

Today truth has been swallowed by relativism. Now, for example, we’re told that something can be true for you but not for me; that absolute truth doesn’t exist; and that we should question everything.

But why do so few stop to question this? Or to ask if such nonsense is absolutely true? It’s time we stood up and said relativism isn’t true for me even if the befuddled intelligentsia believe it.

“Today truth has been swallowed by relativism.”

Little wonder superstition has returned. Mysticism is in full flower once more in western nations. People are desperate for something real to anchor their lives to. And in this truth vacuum, too many are satisfied with the horoscopes of human speculation, and gimmick-spirituality imported for mass markets.

Today the Bible is more available than ever, but it’s out of fashion and soiled by centuries of slung mud. Still it speaks. God is there, and he is not silent. He has spoken, and his Word remains a sure foundation we can build our lives on.

2. The Priesthood of All Believers

The reformers also rediscovered the priesthood of all believers: we no longer need priests to stand between us and God, mediating forgiveness and blessing. Jesus has opened the way for each of us to be priests, to know God for ourselves and relate to him personally. And that is possible because every person is made in his image.

Today we enjoy individual liberty and human rights, and they arose from these distinctly Christian beliefs. Now everyone cries “equality!” But do they know where this idea came from? More to the point, do they actually mean it?

Many preach tolerance, but only tolerate views they agree with. They tell us don’t judge the morality of others, but condemn anyone too puritanical for their liking. They say that all ethnicities, genders and orientations are equal, but then divide and rank us by who feels the most offended and deserves the biggest megaphone. That’s not equality—and it’s sowing division, not unity.

“Individual liberty and human rights arose from distinctly Christian beliefs.”

Here’s the awkward truth: in our heads, we think of evolution as true and Genesis as a myth. So survival of the fittest must be largely to blame for the racial and gender inequality we have today.

But in our hearts we can’t accept that. No one admits it in polite company, but deep down we still want to believe Genesis and the reformers: that male and female were made equally in God’s image; that no tribe or nation is any less qualified as priests unto God.

If our hearts and heads remain divided as they are, the door stays open to manipulation. When it’s convenient, the culture-makers will preach equality. But when they don’t get their way, they’ll act like some people are more equal than others, and oppress anyone who dares dissent.

It’s time to clear away the dust. The dignity and equality of every person is truly true—but only if the reformers were right. Can we, unashamed, share their convictions once more? Or are we on our way back to tyranny?

3. Sola Fide

Luther’s greatest discovery, the core idea that drove his revolution, was Sola Fide—by faith alone. God’s approval doesn’t come to us through good deeds or religious observance. Jesus won our forgiveness and freedom at the cross. Now it’s a free gift for everyone who believes.

This is dangerous. Fear and control, which religious leaders relied on for millennia to coerce good behaviour, are now powerless. The individual conscience is subject to God alone, and now we must trust that good deeds flow from hearts of gratitude to him, not external threats of judgment.

“God’s approval doesn’t come through good deeds or religious observance.”

It’s also offensive. In every religious system, humans ascend to God through strict obedience, sage insights, or single-minded devotion, and so we get the glory. In the gospel, people contribute nothing. God descends to us, clothes himself in flesh, and achieves salvation on our behalf. We get the gift, but God alone gets the glory.

Finally, it’s liberating—the most liberating news in the world. No longer are we haunted by guilt, bound by addiction, or straining for perfection. God meets us in our weakness, and covers every failure with his grace and everlasting love.

Sola Scriptura, The Priesthood of All Believers, and Sola Fide could change the world once more.

The time has come for another revolution.

If you enjoyed reading this, please like and share it on social media, and scroll to the bottom of the page to subscribe to my blog by email.