Christianity 201

August 26, 2015

Why Choose Christianity?

 Acts 26:1 ESV So Agrippa said to Paul, “You have permission to speak for yourself.” Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense:

“I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently…

Why Choose Christianity and Not Something Else? Or Nothing Else?

2295355354_e65354babd_nby Clarke Dixon

Why would we choose to be a Christian and not something else? Why follow Jesus when there are so many other options including an attempt at following no one? With so many religions, how can we settle on one, or should we even settle on one? One answer appeals to the tension that exists between naturalistic explanations and supernatural explanations.

There are perfectly good explanations for how the vast majority of religions arose, explanations which make no appeal to the supernatural. For example, it is not hard to see how ancient myths involving a pantheon of gods arose out of need to understand things beyond understanding. Bad things happen because the gods are angry, sometimes at humans, sometimes at each other. As understanding increased, the gods were pushed out as being not a very good explanation of the facts. The naturalistic explanation, saying “men came up with myths about Zeus and others” fits all the data we have available much better than an appeal to a supernatural explanation; “men spoke about Zeus and the rest because those gods were real.” Similarly, to say “Islam arose because Muhammad was impressed with neither the people nor theology of Jews and Christians and so founded his own religion” fits all the data available better than “Islam exists because Allah revealed himself to Muhammad.”  We can follow similar lines of reasoning for 99% of all the world’s religions. In this sense, atheism is a powerful ally to Christianity for the atheists help us make the case for why we reject the vast majority of religions. We should note that in fact the early Christians were accused of spreading atheism! They were going around saying that all idols and myths were human invention.

However, for Christianity, the supernatural explanation provides a better explanation of all the available facts than the naturalist explanation. To give some examples:

  • The supernatural explanation accounts for the amazing consistency of the Biblical message despite the many authors writing over many, many years, from different contexts, writing for different purposes. There is a simple explanation of this: the scriptures are “God breathed.” (2 Timothy 3:16)
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for why people in the days following the death of Jesus were going around saying “Jesus is risen, I have seen him” and were willing to die for that claim. Appeals to hallucinations and/or fabrications do not account for the facts very well.
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for sudden birth and rise of an unexpected Christianity theology. The theology of Christianity is not what you would expect from Jewish scriptures and expectations, but it is what you would expect from Jewish scriptures and expectations plus the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for the staying power of Christianity and why so many people over so many years have some claim of a personal relationship with God through Jesus. The Christian message was not popular to either Jews or non-Jews from the get go. And yet it caught fire and continues to do so today despite still being unpopular to the point of persecution throughout the world. Yes, other religions have had staying power also, but you can come up with naturalistic explanations for this. Christianity would have died out ages ago if God were not in it.
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for the big questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there life when the odds are against there being such? How did the universe get started? Why is there something startlingly different about humans compared with other animals? Why is there such a strong yearning for purpose among humans? Why do humans reflect on morality so much? Why is there evil and what can be done about it?” Naturalism struggles to explain what Christianity simply and  profoundly answers.

Within the Bible itself we find an example of this tension between a natural and supernatural explanation. In Acts 26 Paul shares with King Agrippa, the local governor Festus, and many others how he came to be a Christ follower including his experience of the risen Jesus. But at some point Festus has had enough: “And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.’” (Acts 26:24) With that Paul says “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.” (Acts 26:25) Here we have a tension between a naturalistic explanation given by Festus; ”Paul, you are mad, no gods here,” and a supernatural explanation from Paul: ”Jesus appeared to and spoke with me.” Paul could have gone for a naturalistic explanation himself “perhaps the stress is getting to me and so I had some sort of hallucination.” However any naturalistic explanation could not fit all the facts, including the fact that his companions experienced something also, “we had all fallen to the ground,” (Acts 26:14) not to mention Paul’s further experience of regaining sight through the ministry of a Christian (Acts 9:10-19). No naturalistic view could account for these things.

So why Christianity and not another religion, or no religion? Why follow Jesus and not someone else, or no one else? Because Jesus rose from the dead, because Christianity is true. That Jesus rose from the dead and that Christianity is true makes the best sense of the all the facts we have. Yes there are naturalistic explanations offered for the rise and spread of Christianity and they are many, diverse, and complicated. But there is a simple explanation that covers all the facts, the supernatural one; Jesus rose from the dead. How should we respond when people say we are crazy for believing in the supernatural? Just like Paul did with Festus: “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.” (Acts 26:25)

There is one more thing we should mention about all this. There is no religious perspective that if found to be true could offer more hope, both for this life and the next, for more people, than Christianity. That Jesus rose from the dead and Christianity is true is not just a rational conclusion, it provides for an amazing hope in God’s amazing grace.

All Bible references are taken from the ESV.
photo credit: Interfaith Banner via photopin (license)

December 6, 2012

Waiting on Emmanuel

Hebrews 1 (NIV) 1In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

Today’s post is a reblog from Benjamin Howard’s site, On Pop Theology. This is writer I was aware of a couple of years ago, but then rediscovered recently. I encourage you to bookmark him for some insightful articles and to click through for today’s look at Advent.

The season of Advent [began] on Sunday. If you’re unfamiliar with the Christian calendar, Advent is a time of waiting that takes place for the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It is a time of anticipation and reflection before we celebrate the arrival of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God With Us.
 

Advent

It’s one of my favorite times of the year because it’s both optimistic and reflective. It’s weighty, but it’s also beautiful.
 
Even more, I love the season because it allows the Church to focus on the Incarnation. I love talking about the Incarnation. I love talking about why God would become man, what that means for humanity, and how it should affect who we strive to be.
 
You see, I feel like in a lot of Christian traditions they view Jesus as a springboard to salvation. God became human so that he could die for our sins. To be a bit crass about it, the Incarnation was the Emergency Backup Plan for when humanity sinned. Sure, he told some nice stories and undermined the religious tradition for a bit, but the point of Christ was to be a sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
 
But I’m not so sure that’s true. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it isn’t.
 
There’s an idea prevalent in the Eastern Church that the Incarnation wasn’t something that God sketched out after humanity messed up, but was part of the plan all along. Essentially, even if humanity had done wonderfully, God still would have become man, Emmanuel still would have come, because God wanted to be with us.
 
In this telling of the Incarnation, it’s not a story about salvation necessarily, it’s a story about love and proximity. It’s a story that says God made us so that he could be with us and that the best way to be with his creation was to be part of his creation. The best part of being in love is being with the person you love. That’s the story we tell about heaven, in whatever way you describe it, so why shouldn’t it be the story we tell about the incarnation as well.
 
But I think the story is even more rich and beautiful and profound that God wanting to be close to us.
 
When I was a senior in college I did a project on Athanasius and his views of the Incarnation. Athanasius famously says that, “God became man so that we might become God.” This belief, often called divinization or theosis, argues that the reason God became human was so that humanity would have access to God’s divinity. God is with us so that we might share in the divinity of God.
 
Now, I’m willing to go one step farther, and I hope you don’t lose me here. I don’t know if there is a divide between humanity and divinity. We are told in Genesis that man is created in the image of God. Various points in the Bible, especially John, go to lengths to describe God as both human and divine. But what if being fully human, fully embracing what we were created to be is the same as being divine? What if Jesus is fully divine precisely because he is fully human?
 
What if in the Incarnation we are not being provided with a picture of a creator bending down to meet his creation, but of a creation rising up to meet its creator? What if God became man to show us the man could become God by embracing what humanity was created to be?
 
Then, like everyone, Jesus, fully human and fully divine, dies. I think that’s a part of the story we gloss over too quickly. In our need to feel catharsis and redemption, we too often forget that this redemption comes about in the form of resurrection, and that resurrection only comes through death.
 
Through the life and death of Christ we are told a story. It is not the story of how we are saved, it is the story of how we live, die, and live again. It is the story we are living, and it is the story we have yet to live. It is a story of anticipation and waiting and longing and hoping. It is the story of love and embrace and a God who empathizes through experience and not omniscience.
 
It is a story worth telling and it is a story worth re-telling. And so … we begin to wait on Emmanuel.
~Ben Howard