Book Review: Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ – by Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace

Bock, Darrell L and Daniel B. Wallace. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007. 237 pages.

Dethroning

Darrell L. Bock is Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. His postdoctoral work in Luke-Acts and in Jesus’ examination before the Jews has earned him international recognition, and he currently serves as corresponding editor at large for Christianity Today. Daniel B. Wallace, also a Professor of New Testament Studies at DTS, has done postdoctoral work in Greek grammar, syntax and textual criticism. Wallace is founder of an organization that works to ensure the digital preservation of all known Greek New Testament manuscripts.

Summary

Dethroning Jesus differentiates two competing stories about the historical Jesus. Christianity maintains that “Jesus was anointed by God to represent both God and humanity in the restoration of a broken relationship existing between the Creator and his creation” (4). “Jesusanity,” in contrast, calls him a prophet or wise religious teacher—a good example to follow; “the key is that Jesus inspires others, but there is no throne for him” (5). Bock and Wallace investigate the competing merits of each view of Jesus by analyzing and responding to six of Jesusanity’s major public claims.

1. The original New Testament has been corrupted by copyists.

World-class New Testament (NT) scholar Bart Ehrman presents three lines of argument in his 2005 best seller, Misquoting Jesus: 1) our copies of the NT are so late that the message of the originals is uncertain. Bock and Wallace reply that both the dating and number of NT manuscripts are much better than all of the other ancient texts that today’s historians accept as trustworthy. 2) There are many differences (errors) between NT manuscripts. However, ninety-nine percent of these involve wording and spelling differences and do not viably affect the meaning; the remainder do not affect any orthodox doctrine—e.g. “We have peace” vs. “Let us have peace” in Romans 5:1. 3) Orthodox scribes changed the NT text, altering its basic message. While Bock and Wallace grant that there were insertions, such as Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, and 1 John 5:7-8, they counter that Evangelical scholars have known about these “for more than a century, yet no theological formulations have been altered” (64). They conclude that Ehrman has a penchant for publicly inflating these issues, making them more sensational than they really are.

2. Secret gnostic gospels, such as Judas show the existence of early alternative Christianities.

For Ehrman, this fact “reverses everything we ever thought about the nature of true Christianity (99); “orthodoxy” was merely the winning alternative among many. Bock and Wallace agree that Judas is authentic ancient Gnostic text: it centres on secret knowledge and dualism, in which the spiritual is good and the physical is bad—and so is the inferior god who created the physical realm. Here Jesus is a secretive, disdainful figure who speaks ill of the disciples except Judas—whom he instructs to hand over “the man that clothes [him]” (96) to be crucified. There is certainly an alternative Christianity here, but Bock and Wallace point out that this is a second-century text while the canonical gospels are from the first century. Moreover, the anti-Jewish nature of Judas would have disqualified it because the early Christians accepted Hebrew teaching: the one true God had created the physical world. They conclude that Ehrman’s claim is a “historically false…misleading and anachronistic attempt to write a revisionist history” (103).

3. The Gospel of Thomas radically alters our understanding of the real Jesus.

In her 2003 book, Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels expresses her dismay that the Gospel of John rejects any “divine spark” within humanity—it rejects the “good news” of Thomas. Bock and Wallace’ contentions are similar as with Judas: 1) as a collection of 114 alleged sayings of Jesus, Thomas lacks any narrative that may have aided in its dating; it is most likely a second-century text—partly because it appears to borrow heavily from the Synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians. 2) Early Christians would have disqualified Thomas for its disdain for apocalyptic prophecy and its elevation of knowledge above faith, among other things. This Jesus performs no miracles, appears to teach panentheism, and says things such as “every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven” (125). 3) That scholars would treat Thomas as more trustworthy than the Gospel of John bewilders Bock and Wallace because this Jesus is “virtually untouchable by historical investigation” (128): Thomas himself is explicitly affirmed as “the only one with [secret] reliable information about Jesus” (128)—information that is so cryptic that it cannot be openly communicated. The Gospels, far from being non-falsifiable, were written anonymously and “give us earlier material, written in a way that subjects the narrative to historical inquiry. And what these gospels say about Jesus is not said in a corner: it is the memory of Jesus of the earliest Christian communities” (130).  

4. Jesus’ message was actually (only) political and social.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan make this claim in their 2006 book, The Last Week. They make a number of number of arguments with which Bock and Wallace take exception: 1) Jesus’ central message of economic and political reform incited his crucifixion. Bock and Wallace agree that Jesus’ most basic theme was the kingdom of God, but they insist that he presented himself as king-messiah—not merely as prophet-messiah. Bock and Wallace agree that the details of Jesus’ execution attest to this much, but Borg and Crossan insist on an either-or approach: “Jesus [either] speaks against the leadership, or…about himself” (This is Bock and Wallace’ summary–not a quote from Borg and Crossan. 140). Bock and Wallace point out that the church would not have invited persecution by needlessly emphasizing Christ as king-messiah; Hebrew teachings on the Messiah anticipate a “ruling or transcendent figure” (139). It is also curious that Jesus is not recorded as saying much about Rome at all, or even as visiting the Roman cities nearby—if his mission were purely political. 2) Jesus’ death was not understood as being “for sins” until Anselm popularized the idea in AD 1097. This claim is simply false. Paul taught Jesus’ death for our sins as the teaching he had received (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Here is another either-or: either “one participates with Jesus in the Cross, or one is substituted for by Jesus’ act on the cross” (145)—but the NT actually teaches both. 3) The resurrection is best understood as a parable. A plausible case is made for a mere vision of the risen Christ, but this ignores that many people saw him at once, and that Thomas’ doubt was remedied by physical contact. Bock and Wallace agree with Borg and Crossan that “Jesus is against egoism and injustice and for personal and political transformation…[but they insist that] Jesus is the key to this transformation, not just his teaching” (168).

5. Paul hijacked the Jewish reform movement of Jesus and James, creating one that exalted Jesus and included the Gentiles.

In his 2006 book, The Jesus Dynasty, James Tabor teaches that Christianity began with Jesus and John the Baptist’s teachings, in which “Jesus’s person or work wasn’t a central concern” (180); only later did Paul’s teachings, based on his “visionary experiences of a heavenly Christ” (174), become synonymous with Christianity—a very different movement than that of James. Bock and Wallace praise Tabor for some solid historical work, but his key assumptions are flawed: 1) he has an anti-supernatural bias; Tabor decries the virgin birth “dogma” but substitutes his own dogma that “all human beings [including Jesus] have both a biological mother and father” (175). He suggests that Jesus’ real father was likely a Roman soldier named Pantera since Mark does not mention Joseph (among other things). However, this ignores Mark’s literary emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:1); to focus on Jesus’ earthly father—apparently dead during the events in Mark—might have undermined this. 2) Bock and Wallace also note that Tabor excessively contrasts Christian texts. It is true that there were differing emphases in early Christianity, but this does not imply different faiths. Bock and Wallace also find this tendency in Ehrman, who accepts report of a “divisive” conflict with Peter in Galatians 2 but not the affirmations of unity in the same letter. Moreover, Paul speaks teaching that he has received: “When Paul saw the exalted Jesus and was converted, he had to have known the church’s teaching in order to understand the experience” (190).

6. Jesus’ tomb has been found; his resurrection and ascension were not physical.

In March 2007, the Discovery Channel aired “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary, with Tabor as the primary historical advisor. It suggested that the names found in a tomb unearthed at Talpiot, Israel, linked it to Jesus: “Jesus, Mary…Mariamne…Matthew, Jose (a variation of Joseph), and Judas, son of Jesus” (196). Bock and Wallace point out “a series of historical, cultural, and sociological problems…[,] ones most historians could readily spot” (198): 1) Either this is Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, who offered his tomb for Jesus’ burial, or “Jose” is Jesus’ father; the former squares with the gospel accounts, but only the latter supports the documentary’s claim. If the disciples stole the body and put it in this second tomb, as the documentary suggests, then they later knowingly preached a lie to the point of their own martyrdoms. Neither is there any explanation for why Mathew (not related to Jesus) would be in the family tomb, and not Jesus’ other brothers. 2) The documentary argues that Jesus and Mariamne were husband and wife on the basis that their DNA did not match. This simply cannot be proven by a DNA test; one wonders why they did not instead “test Judas, [supposed] son of Jesus, to see if he matched either or both” (206). 3) Bock and Wallace estimate that about 76,000 different Jesuses were alive in the area at the time—1,500 of which could have been the one in this tomb. 4) The documentary depends on the very late, fourth-century Acts of Philip in order to identify Mariamne as Mary Magdalene, but this conflicts with the first-century Gospel of John. Bock and Wallace also decry the documentary’s “naïve handling of the issue of resurrection” (208), which was presented as not being physical in nature—only spiritual. This ignores the Jewish backgrounds of the apostles, specifically of Paul, “a former Pharisee who held to a physical resurrection, as 1 Corinthians 15:1-58 makes clear” (210). Bock and Wallace conclude that when sensations like this come into the public eye, the underwriters should be more scrutinous and the public should let the controversy play out before passing judgment.

Historical investigation leads Bock and Wallace to conclude that Jesusanity misunderstands historical Christianity; it is “unlikely…that the earliest expression of Christianity had a less-than-exalted view of Jesus” (220). But a negative case against Jesusanity alone does not prove Christianity to be true, so they make three positive cases: 1) the early teaching of an exalted Jesus; 2) Paul’s teaching of an exalted Jesus as received from the church; and 3) a link between the root gospel (Mark) and Peter. Thus they end their book, observing that, historically speaking, “the earliest Christianity taught about the spiritual and personal benefits of knowing the exalted Jesus. An enthroned Jesus, not a dethroned one, is most able to lead us into the knowledge of God—and of ourselves” (227).

Critique

Bock and Wallace offer a readable, well-organized, and concise summary and rebuttal of six popular arguments aimed at undermining Christianity’s connection to the historical Jesus. They do so with class by acknowledging the expertise of opposing scholars—even conceding on certain points. Examples of this include agreeing that some passages have been added to the Bible (60-71) and acknowledging that Tabor is likely correct about Jesus having been a follower of John the Baptist before beginning his own ministry (180). They also handle the tension between social and doctrinal concerns quite admirably, given the sensitive nature of the topic.

Some minor concerns include the incongruity of speaking against Jesusanity’s “swallowing up” of the First Great Commandment to love God with all one’s being “by the second…to love one’s neighbour as oneself” (27) while, at the same time, using James’ affirmation of this second commandment as the “royal law” (2:8) as a point against Jesusanity (184); it seems they could have written more to resolve the apparent conflict between (1) denying Jesusanity for its tendency to make the Second Great Commandment the whole show while (2) James seems to do this very thing (on surface). Also, although Bock and Wallace consider the widespread evangelical ignorance of inserted passages as a “bomb waiting to explode” (63), their discussion of Paul and James’ unity (184) may have been a good time to acknowledge and discuss a similar “bomb”: Martin Luther himself considered James to be an “epistle of straw.” But these are minor complaints – the book is aimed at a popular audience, and it is unreasonable to expect them to nail down every possible loose thread.

My primary apprehension with Dethroning Jesus is Bock and Wallace’ apparent contention that Jesusanity is a monolithic movement aimed at dethroning the biblical Jesus. While they are correct that each of these six claims can be used to support Jesusanity, the idea that “Jesusanity” is some sort of driving force behind each of these movements is assumed. If they mean to say that this is the spiritual conspiracy of Satan to present a false Christ, then a brief discussion would have been welcome. But Bock and Wallace claim that “we cannot understand the public discussion about Jesus without understanding that the discussion entails [Christianity and Jesusanity]” (5). Thinking in these terms is a helpful grid for organizing these public claims, but this alone does not prove its reality as a unique movement apart from general sin and spiritual darkness in the world. They may be right, but such is not the case they have made in this book; rather, they seem to have assumed Jesusanity’s existence and interpreted these six claims accordingly. As a result, they may leave the impression that all of these scholars agree with all six claims—but this is surely not the case: if the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” was as bad as they claim, it’s difficult to believe that Borg, Crossan, and Ehrman would take it seriously. If “Jesusanity” is taken to loosely mean “any view that relegates Jesus to a mere teacher” then there is no issue, but Bock and Wallace appear to have taken great pains to establish it as a sociological reality. This runs the risk of having the reader think that there really is some Jesusanity committee somewhere, whose expressed purpose is to spread misinformation about Christ.

Ministry Application

Dethroning Jesus has much to offer in an educational context: its rebuttal of contemporary arguments against the Christian faith in the public square may be useful to both bolster the faith of some and to equip them better to answer questions from outsiders. Apologetics is generally well received by evangelicals, so opposition to this book is unlikely, but there are two related issues to be discussed: 1) a significant portion of evangelicals may be termed “recovering fundamentalists.” For these folks, admitting that certain portions of the NT were added later might as well be heresy; they need to deepen their faith and centre it on Christ rather than on modern ideas about what biblical inerrancy entails, but this book may not be the best way to enter that process: it seems to move on from the issue too soon after raising it. 2) Care must be taken to avoid feeding existing arrogance and triumphalism among evangelicals. Otherwise, those who learn about Thomas’ Jesus being sexist, for example, will simply gain an offensive fact to wave around whenever they speak disdainfully of these other texts. Instead, the goal should be to answer challenges to the Christian faith with “gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Pet. 3:15-16).

Easter: Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

tombAround Easter time, it is pretty common to hear sermons defending the historicity of the Resurrection, and I think this is a good thing. It is a good thing so long as we understand the difference between the reliability of the Christian message, and the Christian message itself – that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The reliability of the Gospel, is something we humans measure using our tools of historical-critical analysis, philosophical reasoning, archaeology, theology, science, etc.; it is a project on which we embark as humans, which is subject to our own fallibility and only has as much authority as we do – we can make mistakes, we can chase red herrings, and we can be wrong. The Gospel itself is a message that aims at the human heart with the authority of God, and has a self-authenticating property to it; it directly addresses one on a personal, spiritual level, convicting him or her of sin and calling him or her to belief and repentance. It is not subject to human mistakes or limited to human authority. (I am not addressing theories of inspiration at the moment; yes, I believe that Scripture is written fully by God and yet fully by man, not unlike Christ’s nature being fully God and fully man – see B. B. Warfield’s ideas regarding the divine concursus if you wish to learn more about this.)

As you may have noticed, this is a very sticky situation, for there are two very dangerous mistakes we can make:

  1. We can mistake our own human projects for the Gospel itself, and endow our own theology, philosophy, biblical interpretation, science, etc. with divine authority and think them infallible – which sets us up for a crisis of faith if one of these human projects should fail in some way;
  2. We can mistake God’s message for a merely human one – or worse, we can discount the possibility of any message from God altogether.

Two important questions come on the heels of these observations: an important Christian question, and an important Atheist or sceptical question:

Christians may ask, “Since the message itself is from God, with His own authority, why should we even bother with our own projects? What is the point?”

My answer is that we do so for a number of reasons, all of which are for the sake of service to God, intellectual integrity, and truth:

  1. We do so because we are servants of God – not that He needs us to do so, but because it is right; it is and always has been the Christian practice to respond to arguments made against our faith:
    • 2 Cor. 10:5 (NIV): “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
    • 1 Pet. 3:15-16 (NIV): 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
  2. We also do so for the sake of truth itself, because it is our vocation as Christians to follow the truth wherever it leads, with a heart full of faith and a mind fully open to the truth:
    • Prov. 18:13 (NASB): “He who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him.”
      • Notice that this means we must listen to Atheists, those of other faiths, etc. before we respond. This is kindness, this is gentleness, this is loving, and this is wise: do not go to atheist conventions to start a fight; go there to listen, learn, and seek truth better, and engage in fruitful, respectful dialogue. Sadly, it often happens that many of the most out-spoken among us Christians – or at least the loudest Christians – are (sometimes) the least thoughtful, the least kind, the least respectful, and the least wise. If Jesus is who He said He is, then we have nothing to fear from seeking Truth, and being civil as much as possible (cf. Rom. 12:18).
    • We must follow the truth wherever it goes, whatever the cost. We are free to do this because Jesus self-identified Himself with the truth (Jn. 14:6), and said that everyone on the side of truth listens to Him (Jn. 18:37); therefore, following the truth wherever it leads, with all your heart, is an essential part of following Jesus (although not an exhaustive description). We must be committed to being open-minded, and open to being convinced of truth; we must lay our pride, opinion, interpretation, and theology on the altar every time – all the time – and trust Jesus when He said that the Spirit will guide us in all truth. The only thing we must not lay on the altar is truth itself – for that is to fall into excessive scepticism; neither must we lay evidence on the altar, for that is to fall into excessive gullibility.
      • But we must also be vigilantly aware of our limits so that we will not deceive ourselves. We must take the warnings in Scripture seriously: we cannot trust our hearts completely (Jer. 17:9); there is a way that seems right, but leads to destruction (Prov. 14:12); many will surround themselves with false teachers, who tell them what they want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3); “woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26); “all men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Additionally, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).
        • (Side point: thus, I have a sort of “default position” that, generally, the way of Christ will often be at odds with the way of the world. Not always, of course: humanism, for example, has much in common with Christian love, even though it rejects the doctrine of sin. But we have to point out that even humanism has Christian roots, and that ideas of compassion, the dignity of people, etc. were not always widely-held in Western society before Christianity – just look at the gladiator fights! But that’s a different conversation.)
      • So we are in the peculiar position of having to hold that (1) we must always be open-minded and critically-thinking, and yet (2) aware that if the Bible is true, then we aren’t perfect truth-testers either: things like pride get in the way. As Ravi Zacharias often says, “Intent is prior to content.” But the sceptic should not balk at this second point too much, for it is, in some ways, a watered-down, moral version of postmodern scepticism – except for that postmodern scepticism knows no bounds: blindness to the Gospel is specific to morality and God, but hard-core postmodern scepticism is intellectual hemophilia: it bleeds out uncontrollably all over the carpet, causing us to lose any trust of our senses, giving way to unstoppable doubt that causes us to wonder if the physical world even exists. Whatever you want to say against the moral blindness proposed in 2 Cor. 4:4, the same and worse must be said about postmodern scepticism. (So, it’s rather ironic that any postmodern sceptic should be offended at 2 Cor. 4:4, because, leaving aside the fact that he or she doesn’t believe there is any meaning in the text at all – so why should it offend him or her? – the postmodern sceptic already believes that he or she is far more blind and isolated to everything than 2 Cor. 4:4 suggests.) All that moral blindness is saying is that we are blind to the truth about God and the human condition until God opens our eyes through the Gospel. If the transcendent God really exists and really communicates, then it follows that He must initiate the communication, for we cannot reach Him on our own; He must contact us first. I believe this is what happens in the preaching of the Gospel, and in all other special and general revelation.
        • I am convinced that it is unto God’s good pleasure that we be willing to hear any argument, investigate anything, and refrain from elevating our own understanding above scrutiny – this is the very thing of which Atheists often accuse us.
  3. We do so because we love God, and want to respond to accusations of Jesus’ being a liar, a madman, or a legend. To do this we have to be open – at least theoretically – to saying, “If Christianity isn’t true, then I don’t want to believe it; I’m willing to go to the church barbecue, but I will not suffer for something that is false. I am free to say these things because Jesus self-identified Himself with the truth, and if I find that Christianity is false, then Jesus is a liar we should not follow Him.”
    • But this is not us “putting Jesus on trial”; rather, it is the other person who has put Him on trial. It is as if someone had presented you with evidence or argument that your spouse had cheated on you: you wouldn’t just throw out the relationship, or put it on hold. But you would feel obligated to clear his or her good name – to defend your spouse. Well, in doing so, you would have to be open (theoretically, for intellectual integrity’s sake) to the idea that your spouse had, in fact, cheated on you, but that doesn’t mean you love your spouse any less. I do not love Jesus any less while I do the apologetic task; rather, it is because of my love for Him and the Truth – knowing that they are One and the Same – that I do this, and it must be done with the utmost honesty and integrity.
  4. We do so for the sake of our friends and family who need Jesus. While it is true that no one can come to Jesus without the Father drawing them (John 6:44), we should not assume that this is some sort of mechanical process that operates apart from Christians serving God. I think that in very much the same way that Scripture is 100% written by man – through his real thoughts and real personality freely expressed – and yet 100% written by God – through His sovereign providence and Fatherly care over His creation – people are brought to Christ 100% through the Father’s drawing, and 100% through creaturely means within God’s providence. This includes the witness of the Church, the Body of Christ, which, sometimes involves human-presented evidence and argument. It might help to look at this in terms of logic. People often seem to make the following error in their thinking:
    Logically valid but false, since the second premise is false: No C is B.

    Logically valid but false, since the second premise is false: No C is B.

    Premise 1: no one comes to Jesus without the Father drawing them. (All A is B)

    Premise 2: human arguments and evidence are something other than the Father’s drawing. (C is not B)

    Conclusion: therefore, no one comes to Jesus through human arguments and evidence. (Therefore, C is not A.)

    This is an false conclusion. Although the reasoning is valid (the logic is fine), the second premise is false: it assumes that the Father cannot not draw people through – and even speak through – our words, which is biblically false (c.f. Matt. 10:19-20). So the conclusion is biblically false, too.

    Rather, this is a correct syllogism on the matter:

    Some C is B.

    Some C is B.

    Premise 1: no one comes to Jesus without the Father drawing them. (All A is B.)

    Premise 2: some people have come to Christ through human evidence and argument, such as C.S. Lewis. (Some A is C.)

    Conclusion: therefore, some human evidence and argument coincides with the drawing of the Father. (Some C is B)

    • Notice that this means that some evidence and argument is not necessarily the drawing of the Father – only some is (we cannot say that all C is B). Also, notice that we cannot say (on the basis of this one verse) that all people drawn by the Father come to Jesus (we cannot say all B is A) – some people might be drawn, but not respond; nor can we say that all people must come through argument and evidence (we cannot say all A is C) – some people may be drawn by the Father through other means, such as friendship, visions, profound conviction of sin, emotional experiences, love, music, etc. All we can say is that sometimes, human evidence and argument coincides with the drawing of the Father.

     

Atheists/Sceptics may ask, “Why should we accept that the Gospel is from God, or that God even exists or tries to communicate? Those are extraordinary claims, which require extraordinary evidence.”

extraordinary-claims-require-extraordinary-evidenceWe must be open-minded about these things, and consider what the picture would look like if God exists and communicates with us. We must have our minds sufficiently open to think about how that might look and what sort of evidence might support it – otherwise we have decided beforehand that He does not exist and/or doesn’t communicate with us, and that is not critical thinking: to be excessively sceptical about these things is no more along the lines of critical thought or open-mindedness than it is to be excessively gullible. (← I am loosely quoting someone with this last sentence, but I cannot find the reference at the moment.)

Let’s think about it logically:
Premise 1: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Premise 2: X is an extraordinary claim.
Conclusion: Therefore X requires extraordinary evidence.

Fine, no problem here. But we have to determine what extraordinary means.

For example, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865), a medical doctor, made the extraordinary claim that if doctors would wash their hands, infection rates among patients would go down. He had this extraordinary notion that microbes were passed between patients by doctors who did not wash their hands, and that this was causing infections. This was an extraordinary claim for which many thought extraordinary evidence was necessary to establish. Over time this was eventually established, but not before Semmelweis endured all manner of ridicule:

Semmelweis“Although hugely successful; Semmelweis’ discovery directly confronted with the beliefs of science and medicine in his time. His colleagues and other medical professionals refused to accept his findings mainly because they did not find it convincing that they could be responsible for spreading infections. The reaction reflected on his job as well when he was declined a reappointment in 1849.” Read more: Semmelweis’ Germ Theory – The Introduction of Hand Washing

Semmelweis’ claim would have been extraordinary back then, but it is not extraordinary at all, now. But for some reason, Semmelweis’ colleagues did not think that the extraordinary claim warranted any kind of extraordinary investigation. Why? I submit that something more is going on, here; it seems that sceptical logic goes more like this:

Premise 1: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Premise 2: X (Microbes, God, etc.) is an extraordinary claim.
Conclusion: Therefore X (Microbes, God, etc.) is not true and we should not bother to take it seriously.

This, of course, is an unsound conclusion. This is not critical thinking, but it simply – dare I say it – dogmatic scepticism. (In fact, I personally suspect that 2 Cor 4:4 has something to do with it, when this flawed logic is used to reject God, but as far as the apologetic task is concerned, that “evidence” is merely circumstantial.) What one group of people finds to be extraordinary may be trivial to another group, and vice versa. Atheists love to say, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” in order to dismiss the idea of God – I believe this quote comes from Carl Sagan in his 1980 book, Cosmos. But, in fact, I find many anti-Christian claims to be extremely extraordinary. Here is an extraordinary anti-Christian claim that requires some truly extraordinary evidence:

Twelve first-century working-class Jews left everything and followed one of the many charismatic messiah figures who gained a following only to be executed around that time in Roman history. But when these particular men realized that their leader was a fraud, who lied to them about things like the kingdom of God and that he would rise – when they realized that he was just another man who made empty promises and then was executed – they did not disperse and hide, or return to their old lives. Instead, they got together and fabricated a crazy story about him rising from the dead – an idea wholly alien and unbelievable to both Greek/Roman and Jewish sensibilities at the time, for which they had no evidence at all – and then these would-be cowards became bold figures, proclaiming their own lie as the truth. They continued to do so under torture, until they were executed for doing so. They were killed for telling a lie that they themselves had made up – a lie that betrayed and blasphemed the culture and religion into which they had been born, and also invited the wrath of the reigning Roman empire.

That claim is psychologically unrealistic, and is very extraordinary. We might tell our kids that Santa is on the roof, but no one would die for that belief, because we all know that it is false. (Sorry, kids.) A suicide bomber dies for his belief, but, he thinks it is true – this is not the same as dying for a lie that one has personally invented. If anyone claims that twelve men would die for a lie that they invented, I think it requires extraordinary evidence, as I have never met a person who acted that way. Think about it: I don’t know about you, but if I were duped into following some guy who made all sorts of promises to me if I would leave everything and follow him, and even said he would rise from the dead, but then, in fact, didn’t rise from the dead, I would not proceed to worship him, pray to him, write religious scripture about him and spend my life telling everyone that he rose from the dead – and then die for that message! Rather, I would become very angry that I had wasted time and resources following him, and I would go back to my old life, and say very nasty things about him on occasion. The idea that the disciples made up the resurrection story is very extraordinary! And thus far, all of the evidence I have encountered in both sympathetic and non-sympathetic sources has pointed to the real, physical resurrection of the man Jesus, which also happens to fulfill prophecies in Jewish literature, going back at least 500 years (if not more like 1500 years, depending on who’s doing the dating) before His birth, not to mention that it is consistent with the words He Himself said – not to mention that the Gospels are more historically reliable than anything else from that time period – not to mention that the teaching in those Gospels relates a self-evidently higher ethic than any other religious teacher in human history: “Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you” – not to mention that it fills all life and the whole universe with meaning and purpose, and explains all of the happy-accidents of science and philosophy. So, I’m looking for some really extraordinary evidence to overturn all of this. Where is it?

The alternative offered to me by Atheism is basically this:

Life is about nothing; your morals are ultimately a subjective illusion; person-hood is an illusion; meaning is an illusion – so stop asking; natural selection has given us minds that are not simply wired for survival, but are somehow able to produce reliable beliefs and reasoning faculties such that we are able to reason about metaphysical ideas like the fact that God does not exist; the fact that the physical universe accords with mathematical laws is a happy accident – piled on top of the happy accident that humans are able to understand both mathematics and physics *and* notice that they work together *and* think about what that might mean, but, it means nothing; the fine-tuning of both the physical constants of the laws of nature *and* the initial amounts of matter and anti-matter in the big bang is another happy accident – without which planets and galaxies would never have formed, let alone any planets that could support life, let alone any life, let alone intelligent life, let alone intelligent life that can notice these things and appreciate them, let alone any such intelligent life that would also develop a set of morals that seems to be 180 degrees opposite what we would expect if survival of the fittest were our only instinct (like rape being a good thing, and protection of the weak being a bad thing); no, this is all a happy accident because, actually, in reality, there are an infinite number of universes, and of course we find properties that support our existence, because, we’re here aren’t we? But don’t concern yourself with religious claims, because morals, meaning, ethics, person-hood, right and wrong, truth, and anything else you cannot find in a test-tube is ultimately an illusion, so, there is no such thing as sin or accountability, or anything really wrong. Well, actually, one thing is wrong: religious intolerance. Those religious folk who talk about God and meaning are deluded; they don’t know how to think critically, and they appeal to miracles when they encounter something they don’t understand. We know better: life is about nothing, and we are just animals – but it is wrong to kill humans of course, so, don’t do that; we are special animals.

Meaninglessness makes grumpy cat grumpy.

Meaninglessness makes grumpy cat grumpy.

My initial reaction to that is, “Thank God for Jesus.” The above is an even more extraordinary claim; I cannot think of anything more extraordinary than the idea that life is about nothing. We need meaning; we crave it. We would not pay money see a movie with no meaning. (Although, I guess people do pay money to look at modern art – but that is another discussion.) What other animal will go so for as to end its own life for lack of meaning? What evolutionary advantage does a need for meaning afford? The Christian position that we are endowed with the image of God and are subject to universal sin explains our experience far better than the standard naturalistic explanations – especially since we share so much genetically in common with chimpanzees: how can you explain so big of a difference, when there is so little different on the physical level? Christianity’s answer: there are spiritual realities at play, here. All of a sudden, we can explain the origin, morality, meaning, and destiny of humanity (to use Ravi Zacharias’ often-cited formula for evaluating worldviews); Atheism, however, tells us nothing about the actual origin of life or the universe (only the process of its development), nothing about the morality of humans (only that it is an illusion, subject to our evolutionary past, which may have turned out differently), nothing about meaning (there isn’t any), and nothing about our destiny, except for that eventually everything will die with the heat death of the universe.

I do not mean to be unnecessarily uncharitable toward Atheists, but just as Christians perhaps do not always realize how crazy we sound to those who find our claims extraordinary, I think Atheists also do not always appreciate how extraordinary their claims are to us. The fact that Atheism is extraordinary to me does not, by itself, mean that Atheism is false; rather, it simply is a measure of my own “intellectual distance” from the claims of Atheism, just as they are at a great intellectual distance from the claims of Christianity, and just as Dr. Semmelweis’ colleagues were at a great intellectual distance from the ideas he had about hand-washing. The point is that the degree to which one finds a given idea X to be extraordinary is directly proportional to one’s intellectual distance from that idea – i.e. how far removed it is from his or her current worldview – and is completely unrelated to the truthfulness of X itself.

Therefore, let us substitute the words “intellectually distant” for “extraordinary.” Also, we must distinguish between important ideas, and unimportant ones, otherwise, we cannot distinguish between investigating the Santa theory and investigating the Resurrection. I take it as self-evident that if people are getting together and having debates about something, writing books about it, and arguing about it for a sizable part of human history, that it is important. Thus, I propose this logic:

Premise 1: Important, intellectually distant ideas require intellectually distant evidence. No, that can’t be right. Let’s keep thinking:

Premise 1: Important, intellectually distant ideas require extraordinary open-mindedness and careful investigation. (That’s better!)
Premise 2: The Resurrection is an important, intellectually distant idea to some.
Conclusion: The Resurrection requires extraordinary open-mindedness and careful investigation, for some. (And the same is true of Atheism, or any other important and intellectually distant idea.)

Rather than stopping the conversation and investigation, and ruling out possibilities, extraordinary (intellectually distant) claims should invite extraordinary open-mindedness, and careful, critical thought. Otherwise, we would never have discovered the benefits of hand-washing, the fact the universe is expanding, the finer points of quantum physics, a heliocentric solar system, the moral truth that slavery is wrong, and a myriad of other important truths that originally seemed extraordinary in their respective intellectual climates.

Something happened to Jesus of Nazareth that changed the course of human history. It’s worth taking a closer look.  

One helpful and very readable resource I’ve read on this is Gary R. Habermas & Michael R. Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004.

(I should mention this, here: I accept the big-bang, a 13.88 billion year-old universe, and a 4.54 billion year-old earth; I accept evolutionary creation; I think the universe was intelligently designed, but I am agnostic about whether science or philosophy can actually detect that design in a way that can be proven to sceptics – although I do think that a person can existentially recognize and identify the work of another Person; I accept postmodernity insofar as I think it rightly calls us to intellectual humility – but I do not accept the false humility that often comes with it, which undermines all knowledge and common sense. Many of those ideas were once very intellectually distant from me, and it took humility and honesty for me to investigate them. But the same humility and honesty lead me to think that there is far, far more going on than any of these human projects can tell us; specifically, I think that the Bible – God’s self-revelation – tells us of those things which cannot be known through any human project. The same honesty and humility lead me to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think also that I have the Spirit of God drawing me to Him.)

Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV), penned at least 683 years before Jesus was born:

“6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

Praise be to the Eternal King and God, our Lord Jesus Christ, whom God raised from the dead two thousand years ago, in whom our eternal hope is placed, who will not fail us, but is faithful to complete the work He has already started in rescuing us from all sin and death, and in doing so, rescues us from ourselves.  Hallelujah and Amen.