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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Is God just in punishing one person for the sins of another?

"How can it be fair to punish one person for the sins of another?" When I speak about the atonement, it's a question I've received more than once. "It doesn't seem for God to punish one person for the acts of another. Imagine a rapist whose brother volunteers to go to jail for him. A righteous judge would never accept such a thing! It wouldn't bring justice to the rapist, and it wouldn't bring justice to the victim, no matter how morally upright his brother is. How then can God punish Jesus for our sins and still be considered righteous?"

I think this is a good question and one that isn't addressed frequently enough in our understanding of salvation. There does seem to be something amiss here, but I think much of that is a misunderstanding based on the analogy used to explain the concept of atonement to begin with. In the past, I've even used courtroom analogies to try and show how God's love and His justice can be met simultaneously. But I've probably not done the best job in explaining this particular facet of the atonement. Let's take a look at what sin actually is and why Jesus' death can be accepted as full payment for our violation before God.

Over the next few posts, I will answer this objection. Today we'll see that people are only judged by God on how they violated of his laws. In the next couple of posts, I will talk about how God is justified in setting the appropriate punishment for violations against His laws and why the atonement is a more just and more fair solution to sin than even punishing the most heinous of sinners.

1. One can sin only against God

The problem here is one of equivocation. I agree that people can wrong, hurt, and abuse other people. But as I've explained before, sin is an absence of doing good, doing what is required of you. When we sin, we violate God's law because we don't do that which He as our Creator has set as our proper standard of conduct. Our sin may be due to an act against an individual, but it is not the laws of the individual I have violated. Another person does not inherently have a moral claim upon me. It is God to whom we are answerable because it is God who created us. God is also the source of moral law. Therefore, the condemnation resulting from sin is not primarily because one violated another's interests, but because he violated God's laws on how he should act.

In the book of Genesis, Joseph was tempted by Potiphar's wife to sleep with her. In resisting, he did not say he didn't want to violate Potiphar's trust. He said that he could not sin against God (Gen. 39:9). Similarly, after David, was confronted for taking Bathsheba in adultery and having her husband killed in battle, he said "Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge" (Psalm 51:4). It is the fact that the sinner trespassed God's will that makes him accountable before God.

Our modern judicial system does make this distinction as well. We can agree that one person sleeping with the wife of another is immoral; however a person cannot be put in prison for doing so. You cannot bring criminal charges against an individual for adultery in a court of law in the United States since the person has not violated any laws. However, if a person takes a married woman and forces sex upon her, he or she can be put in jail for rape, which is against the law.

Because God is loving, His law includes prohibitions against hurting others, but we has His creation are answerable first and foremost to Him. It is His law to which we are obligated, and when we transgress we break that obligation. This is why Jesus created such a stir with the Jewish leaders when he told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven. If sin is a violation of God's laws, then only God has the authority to forgive such transgressions, just as the authority the state holds to press charges even when a victim declines.

This sets the stage for the atonement, but it doesn't answer the question fully.  Even if God is the one offended, how is crediting the offender with the punishment of another just? We'll look at that aspect tomorrow.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

How did Reza Aslan Discover the Zealot Jesus?

Stop the presses.  Jesus is just a man.  That seems to be the reaction of the media to Reza Aslan's new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan has been making the media circuit, getting coverage on popular television news programs such as Fox News and Piers Morgan Live, along with featured articles in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and many others . Aslan is currently on tour, and you can even check his web site to find out when he's coming to your city.

Who would have thought that a book on the life of Jesus would garner so much attention?  Actually, it could have been expected, though the clumsy interview Lauren Green gave on Fox News definitely lifted Aslan's profile to the other outlets. (What's that saying, again? The enemy of my enemy is my friend?) But we have seen this kind of attention given to authors who wrote similar books previously. The Jesus Seminar has had great coverage throughout the 1980s and 1990s when it was active.  Two of its prominent members, Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, would be regularly seen in documentary specials and feature stories.  Debunking the Christian story is a draw, and the media knows it.

It seems that when any new theory about Jesus as someone other than whom the Gospels portray Him to be pops up, there is a new batch of faith-debunkers ready to jump on the bandwagon.  Of course, depending on your preference, each of these faith-debunkers have their own take on the matter. As Charlotte Allen wrote in her review:
"To be sure, all of the historical-Jesus people put their own idiosyncratic spins onto the basic narrative. Jesus is variously presented as a love-your-neighbor moralist (the Enlightenment view); a cynic philosopher (Crossan); a balding, overweight rabbi (Chilton); or a secular sage who hated organized religion (the Jesus Seminar's late founder, Robert Funk). Aslan's take is that Jesus was a fanatic Jewish ideologue and would-be messiah whose 'Kingdom of God' was a 'call to revolution' against the occupying Romans, and who envisioned 'blood-soaked streets' once the revolution got underway."
Isn't it interesting that those who claim to have the inside scoop of the real view of Jesus—the one that only dispassionate scholarship produces—all come out with different stories? It should give you pause when you hear claims that this new book or that one will disprove our Sunday school stories about Jesus. Why, if the scholarship is so convincing, do these scholars have such different conclusions on who Jesus really is?  They all use the same source material; the Gospel accounts, Paul's writings and some other historical texts are what both liberal and conservative scholars rely upon to build their understanding of Jesus' life and deeds. There are no new revelatory discoveries in the source material, so what's going on?

New Testament Scholar Craig A. Evans explains that "Aslan has canvassed much of the responsible scholarship in the field, but he does not always choose his options prudently. He often opts for extreme views and sometimes makes breathtaking assertions." Yes, it has been the practice by the historical Jesus crowd for a while not to take the whole of the source documents as reliable, but to cherry-pick only those facts that paint the picture one wants to portray. As Allen observed, "While Aslan describes the Gospels and other New Testament narratives as 'propagandistic legend' in which 'factual accuracy was irrelevant,' he quotes from them — when it serves his purposes — as often as any fundamentalist preacher." So Aslan dismisses miracles or the Resurrection as myth, but he somehow can discern just which passages are mythical and which are not. We are never told of the method he uses to do so, we are just to trust him to make these judgments for us.

In a court of law, when an attorney wishes to counter the testimony of a witness, they seek to discredit the witness entirely. In other words, the cross-examiner doesn't try to tell the jury "you have heard Mrs. Jones tell us that the robber was wearing a black shirt and blue jeans and he sped away in a red car. I think you should believe Mrs. Jones about the car, but she's making up the shirt and jeans part." That would never fly. Aslan needs to weigh in on the bits he dismisses as fable and answer just how he is able to so shrewdly discern the text. Otherwise we're left with Evan's summation that "at points Aslan's book is informative; it is often entertaining. But it is also rife with questionable assertions. Let the reader beware."

Monday, August 05, 2013

Should We Place Our Trust in Science?

Rachel: Guys! Guess what, guess what, guess what, guess what!
Chandler: Um, ok... the fifth dentist caved and now
they're all recommending Trident?

Our society has a love affair with the idea of science. If you turn on the television, there's always a man in a white jacket telling you how this product will relieve you headache better than any other. Women are sold skin cream that is "doctor recommended." We're always hearing how our kids are falling behind other nations' high test scores in science. If you're from the United States, you may take particular pride in the fact that your nation is the only one to ever put a man on the moon. Science, it seems, is the way we will conquer the plagues of our day.

 And why shouldn't we hold the highest regard for such a field of study? Look at the advancements that have been made in recent years simply by having scientists investigating and making wonderful discoveries. A prime example is smallpox. Smallpox was a disease unique to humans, afflicting them since 10,000 B.C. It was considered the most dangerous disease through its existence; it's estimated that smallpox killed about 400,000 people every year throughout the 18th century! Many more were blinded or disfigured.[1] It was responsible for more deaths than any other communicable disease. But smallpox was number one in other areas, too. Small pox was the first disease to have a vaccine developed against it. It was also the first disease to be eradicated from the planet through vaccinations.

Because of science we live in a brave new world

Smallpox is only one example of the many benefits we enjoy as a result of science. The only word to describe the way science has changed the way we live is "amazing." We live at a time unparalleled in human history, a time where we can do things considered unthinkable just a few decades ago. Scientific progress has produced changes as important as increasing our life expectancy or as benign as having an iPod hold 15,000 of your favorite songs.

Given that the many advancements we see today can be taken for granted, it may be helpful to step back and get a better perspective of how different life has become.[2] Pick three points in history: say the time of Israel's zenith, the time of the Revolutionary War and today. If we start some three millennia ago when King Solomon was on the throne, we notice that people could only travel as fast as the speed of their horses. The quickest way of communicating with each other over long distances was a message written out and carried by a messenger to the recipient.  And their houses and clothing came from natural material that were either gathered or harvested: buildings were built from mud, trees or rock and fabric made from plants such as cotton, animal skins, or wool.

Now, let's move the timeline up 3200 years to George Washington's days. People still could only travel as fast as horseback, they could only communicate as fast as a messenger and they still lived and clothed themselves by fashioning what they grew or found around them. But just 200 years later, humans travel at the twice the speed of sound, we communicate routinely at the speed of light, and we go into a laboratory to reassemble molecules and make the materials we want for clothing or construction. In fact, today we do more than lean on science to make our lives easier. We rely on the application of scientific discoveries to survive. Most people wouldn't be able to live through a New England winter if they were forced to use only the technology of the Puritan Settlers. We've simply lost that skill set. This is one reason science holds such high esteem in our culture.

You can see how easy it is to make science out to be some type of superhero; and many times our society does just that. People elevate science to the level of a Superman in a white labs coat, able to fix just about anything. We see this portrayed often in popular movies and television shows, such as the original Star Trek series. Creator Gene Roddenberry felt that only science held the answers for mankind, and his vision of the utopian future of Star Trek were the natural outgrowth of scientific achievements. There is no economic system in the Star Trek universe; people explore for the sake of knowledge alone. There is no more class warfare, bigotry, or any of the social ills that plague us today. Science has wiped them all out.

Of course, the real world is a much different story than Hollywood, where one can craft a tale that leaves out the realities of the human condition. The real world has shown that people are sinful, and that fact pervades all aspects of our lives. Scientists are not immune to bias, deceit, greed or the quest for fame and power any more than the rest of us. In fact, scientists ARE the rest of us! They're just people.  You see, science really doesn't tell us anything—scientists do. Science is a field of study people take to learn more about their world. And as long as the world gets its science from scientists, we will also need to caution ourselves against imbibing "science" with virtues that it doesn't hold.


1. Behbehani, A.M. "The Smallpox Story: Life and Death of an Old Disease."  Microbiological Reviews, Vol. 47. No. 4. Dec. 1983. p. 455-509
2. I first heard this comparison from a tape study from Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. Since it's been many years, though, the original source remains elusive.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Three Signs of a Religious Cult - Denying Essential Doctrines

We are all familiar with dog lovers versus cat lovers, Coke versus Pepsi, Mac versus PC; people like to divide themselves by their preferences. However, there are some things that are divided not by preference, but by the facts of the matter. Whales and dolphins, for example, look like fish, live in water like fish and swim like fish. However, they are not fish but mammals. We know this because mammals have certain essential features that fish don't have. There is a nature to fish and a nature to mammals, and whales and dolphins have a mammalian nature. No matter their preference, their nature says "you are a mammal, not a fish."

The nature of God, like the nature of mammals, is what defines God. The Christian God has a certain nature; there are essential attributes that make the God of Christianity God. If one teaches that God has different attributes, you are no longer talking about the God of Christianity and therefore you no longer teaching Christianity. You are teaching something fundamentally different.

In my last two posts, I've begun to explain some identifying characteristics of any religious movement that could be defined as a cult of Christianity. While the word cult immediately evokes mind control or armed compounds, it's more formal definition much more broad. As I've explained before, the word is used to express the idea of being seduced away from the historic Christian faith. That is really the third marker of cult of Christianity: it is any sect that claims to be Christian but teaches a denial of one or more of the essential doctrines that make Christianity what it is.

What are some of the essential doctrines of Christianity? Well here are a few:
  1. The nature of God: Christianity defines God as one being in three persons. Jehovah's Witnesses teach that God is one person and Mormons claim that God is multiple beings. Christian Science also denies the Trinity, with Eddy writing "The theory of three persons in one God (that is, a personal Trinity or Tri-unity) suggests polytheism, rather than the one ever-present I  AM."[1]
  2. The nature of Christ: Jehovah's Witnesses deny the deity of Jesus, claiming He's a created being. Mormons hold that Jesus was the physical offspring of Elohim and a spirit brother of all humans. In Christian Science, "Jesus Christ is not God, as Jesus himself declared, but is the Son of God."[2]
  3. The nature of salvation: Salvation is wholly accomplished by Christ on the cross. However the Book of Mormon teaches that "it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." [3] The Watchtower teaches that Jesus' death paid the ransom only for sin inherited from Adam, but believers' names won't be committed to the Book of Life until they pass the test of loyalty.[4] Christian Science teaches ""One sacrifice, however great, is insufficient to pay the debt of sin. The atonement requires constant self-immolation on the sinner's part."[5]
Other essential doctrines include the nature of man, the Second coming, and the person and work of the Holy Spirit. These beliefs have provided the framework for Christianity since its very beginning. The early church fathers were very careful when teachings that contradicted these would be offered; they would ultimately censure the teachers as heretics. Heresy is another word that has been weakened in modern times, but it is a proper label for these modern movements that attempt to supplant the truth of Christian theology with their own.

Heresy used to be a more serious charge as people understood that by changing any essential doctrine also changes the nature of the belief. It would be like claiming to be a fish but not having gills. For while these movements may look Christian on the outside, their nature shows they are not what they claim to be.


[1] Eddy, Mary Baker. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. (Boston: Mary Baker Eddy Foundation, 1986) 256. Accessed online at <>

[2] Eddy, Ibid. 361. <>

[3] Smith, Joseph, Jr. The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1948. Print. 92.

[4] McClane, Joe. "Understanding the Jehovah's Witness Teaching of the Ransom Sacrifice and the Atonement." Accessed online at> 8/2/2013

[5] Eddy, Ibid. 23. < >

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