WHY I AM STILL A CHRISTIAN

Clay pots, by Gary Wilson

At the end of my Philosophy of Religion class last night one of my students asked me why I am a Christian. Why, among the world religions, would I choose Christianity? My answer went like this (I’m expanding on it here). [And thank you A.B. for the question!]

My Christian faith is based on the following.

1. My Conversion Experience
2. My Consequent Studies

I came to believe because of a powerful experience that changed my life and worldview. The result of this experience included consequent study and increasing experience. Credo (I believed);Intelligam (I grew in understanding).

Credo: My Conversion Experience

From age 18-21 I was heavily into alcohol and drugs. I flunked out of college. A lot of things were getting ruined in my life as a result of my addictions. I was in a deep hole dug by myself. I was afflicted, and didn’t know where to turn.

One day I prayed to God and said, “God if you are real and if Jesus is real, then help me. If you help me I’ll follow you.” That was the last day I did drugs. My worldview was rocked. I attribute this to Jesus.

I see similarities between my conversion to Christianity and C.S. Lewis’s conversion from atheism to Christianity. Lewis wrote:

“As the dry bones shook and came together in that dreadful valley of Ezekiel’s, so now a philosophical theorem, cerebrally entertained, began to stir and heave and throw off its grave cloths, and stood upright and became a living presence. I was to be allowed to play at philosophy no longer. It might, as I say, still be true that my “Spirit” differed in some way from “the God of popular religion.” My Adversary waived the point. It sank into utter unimportance. He would not argue about it. He only said, “I am the Lord”; “I am that I am”; “I am.”

People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.” (From Surprised By Joy)

The cat found the mouse. God found me. I was receptive. God existed. God loves me.

Intelligam: Understanding What Happened to Me 

This didn’t happen in a vacuum. The soil of my heart had been softening for some time. I was looking for Help. Help came. My life forever changed. What shall I make of this?

  • If this event had not happened I would not have become a Jesus-follower. I needed something experiential that could change me. It happened.
  • I agree with William James who, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, writes: “A mystical experience is authoritative for the one who experiences it. But a mystical experience that happens to one person need not be authoritative for other people.” I’m good with that. (With the exception that the mystical-religious experiences of certain other persons have carried authority with me because of, to me, their credibility.)
  • My initial religious experience ripped me out of non-reflective deism into full-blown Christian theism. I now believed in God, and in Jesus. This experiential belief had an evidential quality for me, and propelled me to go after an understanding of what had happened. 44 years later, this has not stopped. Today I am a deeper believer in God and Jesus than ever.
  • True religion (not the jeans – they are too expensive) includes experience. Theory without experience is empty. Hebrew-Christianity is essentially about a relationship with God; a mutual indwelling experiential reality. This includes prayer-as-dialogue with God, the sense of God’s presence, being-led by God, and so on. And worship. Worship is experiential and logical in the sense that: If God is love, and God is real, and love is about relationship (love has an “other”), then it follows that one will know and be known by God. (“Know,” in Hebrew, means experiential intimacy, and not Cartesian subject-object distance. For more see, e.g., the current writings of James K.A. Smith.)
  • I realize that certain atheists claim to have no religious exerience at all. John Allen Paulos, for example, in his Irreligion, claims not to have a religious bone in his body. I don’t doubt this. This fact does not rationally deter me, just as I am certain C.S. Lewis’s religious experiences don’t move Paulos from his atheism. (I’m now thinking of Antony Flew’s recent conversion from atheism to deism. Flew was moved by the logic of the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence. And the case of the famous and brilliant British atheist A.J. Ayer who had a vision and began to be interested in God.)
  • I keep returning to my initial God-encounter. It functions, for me, as a raison d-etre. Philosophically, it’s one of a number of “properly basic” experiences I’ve had, still have, and will have. (See, e.g., philosophers like William P. Alston._

I began to study about Christianity. I wanted to know: is Christianity true? Is there any epistemic warrant for my God-encounter experience? I changed my major in college from music theory to philosophy.

My studies confirmed my initial act of faith. Here are some things I believe to be academically sound.

  • Good reasons can be given to believe in God. I believe it is more rational to believe in God than to disbelieve.
  • The New Testament documents are reliable in their witness to the historical person Jesus. (The recent minority Facebook claim that Jesus never existed is sheer unstudied goofiness.) (See, e.g., something like Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, or Craig Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.)
  • A strong inductive argument can be made for the actual resurrection of Jesus from the dead. (I shared briefly about this in my response to the student’s question last night.)
  • Christianity is qualitatively distinct from the other major world religions. Only Christianity tells us that God loves us not for what we do or where we live but for who we are. The Christian word for this is “grace” and, to me, this is huge. The other major world religions are rule-based; Christianity is grace-based. And, in distinction from other religious alternatives, Christianity’s claim is that God has come to us. These kind of things make Christianity more plausible than the other alternatives.

My initial life-changing encounter with God led to a lifetime of Jesus-following, God-knowing, and God-seeking. God did and continues to reveal himself to me. My faith is experiential, relational, and rational/reasonable. (Note: it’s not without questions. Anyone who studies their own worldview will have intra-worldview puzzles. This includes me.)

For these reasons I became a follower of Jesus and remain one.

JESUS’ BODY LIES IN A TOMB OWNED BY JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA

Linda, before her mother’s grave in DeKalb, Illinois

SATURDAY, APRIL 19

SCRIPTURE – MATTHEW 27:57-66

57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb. 

62 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.”

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THESE VERSES?

As a new Jesus-follower many years ago there were factual, historical pieces of evidence that strengthened my new-found faith. One fact is this: Jesus’ dead body was placed in a tomb owned by Sanhedrin member Joseph of Arimathea. This provides a piece of evidence that, along with other facts (esp. Jesus’ postmortem appearances), forms an inductively strong argument for the resurrection of Jesus.

On that Saturday following Good Friday, Jesus’ body lay inert in Joseph of Arimathea’s family tomb. We can be certain, historically (which means “inductively certain”), that this was the case. How so? Here are two reasons:

1) this story, in the 4 Gospels and Paul, is found in independent sources that together, or multiply, attest to this; and

2) by the “criterion of embarrassment” a story of a member of the Sanhedrin helping Jesus’ family is unlikely, and not plausibly invented by Christians. This argues in favor of its historicity.

1) We have sources that multiply attest to Jesus’ burial in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea.

Paul Barnett writes: “Careful comparison of the texts of Mark and John indicate that neither of these Gospels is dependent on the other. Yet they have a number of incidents in common: For example, . . . the burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea” (Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History, 1997, pp. 104-5).Regarding the burial stories, the differences between Mark and the other Synoptics point to other independent sources behind Matthew and Luke.

So what’s the point? It’s this. If, e.g., a police officer had multiple, independent (unrelated) witnesses to a crime, and they all gave the same report (even if worded differently and with variations), this would provide stronger evidence than if only one report had been given. We have this, re. the burial stories, in the Gospels and Paul. Here is the key Pauline text.

1 Corinthians 15:3 ff.: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

About this William Lane Craig writes:

“This is an old tradition, handed on by Paul to the Corinthian church, which is among the earliest traditions identifiable in the NT. It refers to Jesus’ burial in the second line of the tradition. That this is the same event as the burial described in the Gospels becomes evident by comparing Paul’s tradition with the Passion narratives on the one hand and the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles on the other. The four-line tradition handed on by Paul is a summary of the central events of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, and his appearances to the disciples.”

2) Most NT scholars say it is highly likely that Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

Sometimes I hear someone say, “OK, but Christians just made these stories up.” This is improbable. As a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin that was against Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention. In this regard New Testament  New Testament scholar Raymond Brown says burial by Joseph of Arimathea is very probable. Why? Because: It is almost inexplicable why Christians would make up a story about a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who does what is right by Jesus. This would, for a Jesus-follower in the days after Easter weekend, be an embarrassment.

Craig Keener writes: “Given early Christian experiences with and feelings toward the Sanhedrin, the invention of a Sanhedrist acting piously toward Jesus is not likely.” (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio- Rhetorical Commentary, 690)

Why is this important? It’s important because the location of the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed was known. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (the mother of James and Joseph) knew where it was, as did the chief priests and the Pharisees. Tomorrow, this tomb will be empty. If Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, it could and would have been seen or exhumed on the days following Easter.

Why would Joseph of Arimathea do such a thing? The answer is: he had become a disciple of Jesus. (Matt. 27:57) Both he and Sanhedrin member Nicodemus saw something in Jesus and stepped out of the box to follow Him. In this sense Joseph is a risk-taker who is willing to put aside his place of political and religious power to go after the truth and love he sees in Jesus. He doesn’t realize what’s going to happen on Sunday. But he wants to make sure his new Lord receives a proper Jewish burial.


REFLECTION

1. Joseph of Arimathea risked his reputation and career to follow Jesus. Reflect on if and how you are risking all for Jesus.

Ancient tomb in Jerusalem

JESUS TAKES THE SECOND CUP

Linda, walking in Jerusalem

THURSDAY, APRIL 17

SCRIPTURE – LUKE 22:14-18

14When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdomof God.” 

 17After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of Godcomes.” 

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THESE VERSES?

The cup Jesus takes is one of the four cups taken at the Passover meal. New Testament scholarJoel Green thinks it was the second cup. This is important.

Cup #1 – the head of the family gave a blessing over that cup. Cups 3 & 4 came after the Passover meal, and then Psalms 114-118 were sung – “The Great Hallel.”

Cup #2 – that’s the point in the Passover Meal where the youngest son in the family asks the father, “Why is this night different from other nights?” “Why is unleavened bread eaten on this night?” And other questions…

Jesus, on that night 2000 years ago, took the second cup. It was a different night, and would change the world.

At the Passover meal the father, on taking Cup #2, would tell the story of the exodus, and give a message on Deuteronomy 26:5-11. The meal was interpreted as and seen as an act of remembering and thanking God for his past liberation of an oppressed people. It was a celebration of God’s faithfulness and hope for the future deliverance of God’s people.

They would eat lamb and bitter herbs. They would drink the series of four cups of wine.

At the original exodus Passover lambs were slaughtered. The blood of these lambs was applied to the doorways of the Jewish homes as a sign for the Angel of Death to pass over their homes and spare the life of their first born. When the father tells this story, the Jews at the meal imagine themselves right back in the world of Moses in Egypt. Haven’t you ever heard someone tell a story in such a way that you feel as if you are right there? You feel the emotions that were felt back then, as if you could smell the food being described and sense the oppression yourself, and then…

… experiencing the incredible thing of being set free!

Here, unknown to Jesus’ disciples, it was one of those different nights. The Jewish Meal of all Meals was happening, for the one-thousandth time. The original Passover WAS a night different from all other nights. It was the night when the avenging angel of death “passed over” the homes of the Israelites so God could liberate the people of Israel! But this night, recorded in Luke 22, is going to be very, very different from any other night. And it will be remembered forever, not just by Jews, but by the peoples of the world.

This quite-and-very-different night begins by Jesus talking, not of the Moses-Exodus story, but about His impending death, and His Kingdom that is coming in its fullness. Jesus is changing the meaning of Passover. This is shocking and unexpected.

Can we just stop here for a moment?

Change is hard. This change is beyond hard. Because up to this point Passover was celebrated in the SAME WAY ALL THE TIME! “We always have done it this way!” (These, BTW, are the 7 Last Words of the Church.) The same questions are asked. The same answers are given. And it has been this way, this very same way, for hundreds of years.

But ON THIS NIGHT, as Joel Green says: “Instead of the expected focus on the historic deliverance enacted by God in Israel’s past, Jesus talks about his own death and vindication, and the coming of God’s dominion.” (JG, Luke, 761) “As you drink Cup #2, this cupremember Me.“What Jesus does on this night draws on the Exodus story. But, as N.T. Wright is so fond of saying, this is the “New Exodus.”

“After taking the [second] cup, Jesus gave thanks and said…” He did this on a night that is different from any before it, and from any that will follow. Jesus was showing that He was the “New Moses” who was leading not only Israel but all of humanity in the New Exodus and the liberation of all humanity.

Tonight, the night Jesus was betrayed, Jesus lifted the second cup.

It was the night before the day when all humanity would be set free.

REFLECTION

1. Had you been one of Jesus’ disciples at that Passover Meal, how would you have felt when Jesus reinterprets hundreds of years of tradition in terms of His own life and sacrificial death?

2. Think of how Jesus has liberated you from your enslavement to sin. Count the ways He has done this. Give thanks to God for this.

REVIEW – “GOD’S NOT DEAD”

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A number of my college philosophy students have come to me and asked “Have you seen “God’s Not Dead” yet? You need to see it, because it’s about the things you teach in our class!” So last week Linda and I went to see it but couldn’t since it was sold out. Finally last night we saw God’s Not Dead, and I enjoyed it.

It’s about a Christian college student who is persecuted by his atheist philosophy professor. Is this scenario realistic?

This happened once to me. I was in my PhD program in philosophical theology at Northwestern University. This was a joint PhD with Northwestern and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Northwestern’s roots are out of the United Methodist Church (like Harvard and Yale have Christian roots). Garrett functioned as Northwestern’s Divinity School. My program required me to take courses at both Northwestern and Garrett.

I was studying and researching in Northwestern’s philosophy department and Garrett’s theology department. My program was going nicely until…

The head of Northwestern’s philosophy department called me into his office. I will never forget that day. This professor was an atheist and he told me that, even though he liked me (really?) as a student and I was doing well, he and the philosophy department would not support me and work with me because I was associated with a Christian seminary and he had real problems with Christians and some of their moral positions. I left his office thinking my PhD was wasted.

In retrospect I think I could have challenged this, maybe even sued because of contractual obligations being broken. But had I protested he would have battled me all the way and secured my ultimate failure.

Instead I went to a small chapel on Northwestern’s campus and prayed, much like the student did in God’s Not Dead. Thankfully, Northwestern’s Linguistics department and their History and Literature of Religions department supported me and worked with me, and I was able to finish my degree.

So, about the movie…

  • I found the atheist professor realistic. His arguments against God’s existence are relevant; e.g. against the cosmological argument (via Hawking) and using the existence of evil as a premise in an argument against God. And, BTW, this atheist has a deeper issue, which I have encountered many times before. Is every college atheistic professor like this? Of course not. The movie does not claim so. But this one is. Are there atheist professors like this? Of course there are. I’ve met them. I’ve been in their classes. I was bullied by one of them. And I teach with some of them. (Stay for the rolling of the credits at the end of the movie.)
  • The student’s arguments for God’s existence are well-presented and to be commended, especially since this movie has gained a wide following. For example, the movie uses atheist physicist Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design and theistic mathematician John Lennox’s (Oxford) God and Stephen Hawking, and I’ve read both. God’s Not Dead rightly tells us that there’s another side to the God debate. The movie has an intrinsic intelligence to it that speaks to the common man. As a philosophy professor I realize that’s not easy to do; viz., to take difficult intellectual ideas and serve them up so everyone can taste, see, and read the other side if they like.
  • God’s Not Dead is to be commended for its portrayal of real life struggles. The existential problem of evil and suffering is not avoided and runs like a river throughout the movie.
  • Finally, God’s Not Dead presents the living hope we have in God and Christ.
Last week God’s Not Dead was still in the Box Office Top 5. After watching it I can see why. People are laying out cash to see an alternative intellectual option to the media-bloated,”bright,” “free-thinking” (huh?), cliche-ish culturally fading old-school Richard Dawkins-type bully-hegemonic “atheism.”

BOX OFFICE TOP 5

SEE ALSO former philosopher- atheist Antony Flew, arguably one of the most prominent intellectual atheists of the 20th century who came to believe in God via the anthropic teleological argument – There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.

WORRY IS A CROOKED PATH THAT LEADS BACK TO ITSELF

Somewhere in Ohio
I come from a line of worriers. My mother, wonderful person that she was, suffered from excessive worrying. I think my father worried, but it was hard to tell since he was, generally, non-expressive. I was not invited into his inner life. I don’t blame him for this. He had no training or mentoring in such mental landscape.
But it’s not only my family. “Worry” is endemic to humanity in general. I come from a long line of worriers going back to Old Testament times. Fallen humanity broods, negatively.

This much I know: Worry is not helpful.

Brooding on darkness brings on a mood of helplessness. Worry says, “Something bad is happening. You cannot stop it. So worry, be unhappy.”

Worry is inactive, like sitting in the dark waiting for the tornado that never comes.

Worry adds nothing of value. Jesus said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27)

Worry is not additive. But neither is worry neutral. Worry is subtractive, knocking seconds off of life.

Worry is absurd because worry’s concerns are things that cannot be controlled. Like people. We can’t control other people. We can love them and serve them, but my experience is that love and service will not inexorably come back to us. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

We control none of this. Most of what happens to us in life is not in our control. To ruminate on the negative possibilities is absurd precisely because such rumination effects nothing. Except to subtract from us. Worry is a thief. Worry robs joy and peace and hope from the human heart.

Worry is a bad thinker. Worry thinks poorly. Anyone who has responsibilities exhibits care. Caring is good – better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Worry is caring gone berserk, which is bad for the soul. At this point legitimate care mutates into worry; caring (which is good) travels south into the land of worry (which is bad).

The antidote to worry is trust. The more trust, the less worry. The question then becomes, in whom or what shall I place my trust? Such trust must be rightly placed. Trusting in just anything will not do the job.

Proverbs 3:5-6 says, famously: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

Worry is a crooked path that leads back to itself. Trust in God and your convoluted mental highways will be made straight.