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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 www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Talking with Mormons (podcast)



Mormonism boasts over 12 million adherents, and it's still growing. What should we say when Mormon missionaries come to our door? How are Christian beliefs different than Mormon beliefs? In this latest podcast, Lenny provides are some ways to help you how to engage Mormons in fruitful discussion.
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Monday, September 11, 2017

Yes Jesus Existed: Even Romans Outside the Bible Wrote About Him


It seems that given enough of a shine, any bad idea can gain traction. For most of history, scholars have debated the events of the life of Jesus recorded in the biblical accounts. However, the vast majority of New Testament scholars, both those who are of the faith and those who are critical of it, have held that it as historical fact that a man named Jesus of Nazareth lived in first century Palestine, had disciples follow him, and was eventually put to death. While a few fringe elements doubted the idea of a historical Jesus, not even most atheist New Testament scholars believe that Jesus never existed.

But with the advent of the internet and the ability to self-publish, that fringe has grown a much larger following. Now there are very popular atheists who hold that the entire account of Jesus's life, teaching, and death, are simply made up, setting a fictional stage for a fictional tale of a mythical messiah. They claim that if Jesus was such a big deal he would surely have been noticed and written about by more than just the biblical authors.

While that argument isn't valid—in comparison to the events of the Empire in circa 30 A.D., the goings on in Palestine wouldn't be considered newsworthy to those living in Rome—the fact is that Jesus does get mentioned in ancient Roman sources. In his book Jesus Outside the New Testament, Dr. Robert E. Van Voorst pulls together citations from Roman writers such as Thalles, Pliny the Younger, Seutonius, Tacitus, Mara bar Serapion, Lucian of Samosata, and Celsus, along with Jewish sources such as Josephus and other rabbinic writings. Of his Roman sources, Van Voorst underscores that this is a pretty diverse group:
The famous Roman writers on history and imperial affairs have taken pride of place: Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger. On the other end of the spectrum, the comparatively unknown writers Mara and Thallos have also contributed their voices. Philosophic opponents to Christianity such as Lucian and Celsus have also written about Christ. These writers have a range of opinion: from those perhaps sympathetic to Christ (Mara); through those moderately hostile (Pliny) and those fully hostile but descriptive (Tacitus, Suetonius); to those not interested in description, but who vigorously attack Christianity and in the process attack Christ (Lucian and Celsus). A variety of languages is also notable: Latin, the official language of Rome; Greek, both a common literary language and the language of trade; and Syriac, a main language of the eastern Mediterranean. Together, they speak of a variety of topics about Jesus' teachings, movement, and death. And they know that Jesus is worshiped by Christians, which they relate to his founding of a movement.1
Van Voorst is cautious not to make too much of these mentions, as he notes most of the outside accounts of Jesus's life are coming from Christians who do believe He existed. He even states "by the strictest standards of historical evidence we cannot use them to demonstrate the existence of Jesus. On the other hand, given the nature of the evidence on Jesus from classical authors, neither can one use them as conclusive evidence to disprove the existence of Jesus."2 But these sources cannot be counted out as of no value at all. After all, some of these sources were very hostile to Christianity and they would have motive to point out the fact that such a man as Jesus was mythical. Instead, Van Voorst sees them as secondary sources of historical accounts. After making the above points, he continues:
…Although independent confirmation by contemporary classical writers is excluded, we do gain a later corroboration of certain key elements in the life of Jesus. Corroboration of knowledge is important, in historiography as in the natural sciences. If classical writers had never mentioned Jesus, or especially if they had argued that he was a product of Christian myth­making, then it would be a different matter. They did treat Jesus as a historical person, the founder of his movement, and had no reason to doubt his historicity. It would have been easy (if Jesus never existed) to deliver a strong blow against Christianity by showing that it was based on a myth when it claimed to be based on history. But these writers accepted Jesus as historical, and all but one used the events of his life as arguments against Christianity: he began a movement that they called a pernicious superstition, and he was executed as a criminal.3
Van Voorst concludes that ultimately to do good history, we must do what scholars have done for centuries. We have to take the New Testament accounts themselves as what they are, documents of ancient history. The evidence there is very strong that the New Testament authors were writing in a specific genre of ancient biography, meaning they were writing about a real person. And given that both Jewish antagonists and Roman antagonists argued that the events of the life of Jesus proved he wasn't worthy of worship, it seems a much more reasonable to conclude that Jesus was a real person rather than that he never existed at all.

References

1. Robert E. Van Voorst. Jesus Outside the New Testament: an Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2000. 68.
2. Van Voorst. 73.
3. Ibid.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Are All These Natural Disasters Punishment from God?


The news seems to be filled the last few days with one natural disaster on top of another. Texas has already been victimized by Hurricane Harvey, with massive flooding and untold suffering. It was the largest hurricane Texas has ever recorded and may be the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history with estimates placing the damage at up to $180 billion.1 But Houston may not hold that record long as Florida sits directly in the path of Hurricane Irma, with Hurricane Jose following behind her. We then have a massive 8.1 earthquake off the coast of Mexico which may cause a tsunami. What’s going on?

Given the terrible destruction and suffering caused by Harvey and Irma, people are beginning to wonder if there isn’t some kind of divine retribution going on. Jeffery Terry tweeted "#HurricaneHarvey is Gods punishment for those who support @realDonaldTrump may God have mercy on them" and University of Tampa Professor Ken Storey tweeted "I don’t believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesn’t care about them." (Although Storey’s tweets are protected, you can view a screenshot here.)




Jennifer Lawrence didn’t blame God, but did invoke Mother Nature and insinuated that the recent destructions are somehow related to the recent election of President Trump, saying "We voted and it was really startling. You know you’re watching these hurricanes now, and it’s really hard especially while promoting this movie, not to… not to feel Mother Nature’s rage, wrath."2  Of course Christians are not immune to the temptation, either. Newsweek reports that Rick Wiles claimed "‘here’s a city that has boasted of its LGBT devotion, its affinity for the sexual perversion movement in America. They’re underwater."3

Shark Attacks and Jumping the Shark

So, with so many out of the ordinary natural disasters occurring, shouldn’t we attribute them to God’s wrath? Before we jump to that conclusion, maybe it would be wise to find out just how out of the ordinary this weather cycle is. It seems that with media channels reporting the continued destruction in our 24-hour news cycle, one could hardly be blamed for assuming 2017 was a special year for natural disasters, but that’s not necessarily the case. According to the folks over at Weather underground, 2005 was truly a record year, with 28 storms and 15 hurricanes in the North Atlantic. Of those, five were large and/or deadly enough to have their names retired (Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan, Wilma). 2017 isn’t close to that yet.

Interestingly, we’ve actually been in a downward trend of hurricanes that hit the United States. Writing for the NOAA, climate scientists Gabriel A. Vecchi and Thomas R. Knutson show how the United States has been seeing a decrease in the number of storms causing damage on land. They provide the figure below with the following caption:


Since the late-19th Century global (green) and tropical Atlantic (blue) temperatures have risen – an increase that was partly driven by increased greenhouse gases. If one does not account for possible missed storms (first red line) Atlantic tropical storms appear to have increased with temperature; however, once one accounts for possible missed storms (second and third red lines) basinwide storms have not exhibited a significant increase. When one focuses only on landfalling storms (yellow lines) the nominal trend has been for a decrease.4
So, the number of hurricanes displacing people and causing widespread damage is not increasing, even though we may think it is. A lot of it is because we forget just how bad seasons like 2005 really were and compare this year to last year or to two years ago. Some of it is the continued discussion in the media, spurring what is sometimes called "the shark attack effect" following the release of the book and movie Jaws. A quick explanation is that while shark attacks in real life are very rare (more people die from bee stings in this country each year than from shark attacks), once it captures our psyche, we are prone to look for more examples to confirm our fears. It’s kind of like how only after buying a new car you notice how many of that same model are on the road.

We live in a fallen world and natural disasters are a part of that fallenness. It is also true that God has and will use natural calamities to punish or correct nations. However, when people jump to that conclusion first, they remind me of Jesus’ disciples in John 9, who asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" There, Jesus gave a most prescient answer: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him." That should be the Christian response. Let us show the goodness of Christ’s love by reaching out to those afflicted by nature’s devastation and stop trying to pin the blame on some perceived sin. It will be a more effective way to share your faith with others.

References

1. Reuters. "Hurricane Harvey Damages Could Cost up to $180 Billion." Fortune.com, Fortune, 3 Sept. 2017, http://.fortune.com/2017/09/03/hurricane-harvey-damages-cost/
2. Long, Jackie. "Jennifer Lawrence: ‘I’Ve Heard and Seen Things on TV That Devastate Me and Make Me Sick.’" Channel 4 News, Channel Four Television Corporation, 6 Sept. 2017, www.channel4.com/news/jennifer-lawrence-ive-heard-and-seen-things-on-tv-that-devastate-me-and-make-me-sick. Beginning about 5:14.
3. Sinclair, Harriet. "Did Gay Sex Cause Hurricane Harvey or Was It Climate Change? Some on the Right Blame LGBT Americans (No Seriously)." Newsweek, Newsweek, LLC, 3 Sept. 2017, www.newsweek.com/gay-americans-are-blame-hurricane-harvey-apparently-659059.
4. Vecchi, Gabriel A., and Thomas R. Knudseon. "Historical Changes in Atlantic Hurricane and Tropical Storms." Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, GDFL/NOAA Research, 29 Aug. 2017, www.gfdl.noaa.gov/historical-atlantic-hurricane-and-tropical-storm-records/.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Approaching Reality with a Childish Mind



There used to be a time when most children in society would dream of becoming adults. When I say that, I don't mean how kids dream of adventurous occupations ("I want to be a fireman!") or the grandness of their wedding day. I mean that most children understood that as children they lacked the experience, wisdom, and maturity to be a fully functioning member of their community. They saw adulthood as the proper destination for childhood and if one did not arrive at becoming an adult, something went terribly wrong.

In a recent audio piece, Sir Roger Scruton in examining J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels expresses his concern that the novels not only became incredibly popular with adult readers, but how so many adults are trying to make the fantasy of Potter's world is spill out into the real one.

To understand this a bit better, one must understand the two categories of children's literature Scruton identifies:
On the one hand, there are stories addressed specifically to the child's state of mind and which play with those primordial emotions which are the residue of hunter-gatherer terrors. Of this kind are the folk tales collected and embellished by the brothers Grimm.

On the other hand, there is literature which is aimed not at the child, but at the idea of the child; literature that frames the childish mind, treasures it, and also uses it to convey truths about adult reality. Among works of this second kind are some of the masterpieces of our literature, including the Alice books of Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain's story of Huckleberry Finn.

Children's literature of this second kind is about the world as it really is, but written in such a way as to put the innocence and the guilelessness of the child in the center of the narrative. Children's literature of the less artful kind is not about the world as it really is but about the world as children perceive it when deprived of adult wisdom and experience.
Scruton doesn't disparage Rowling's work. He even commends her ability to grip audiences and her deft skill at creating imaginary worlds with engaging names. However, he notes that this less artful literature paints a childish and simplified picture "where good and evil are revealed in concrete terms and divide reality between them." Adults who would hold to such a view of the world would be quite capable of distorting reality, reducing complex issues like free speech, race relations, and differently held views to rather childish views of good guys and bad guys.

Desiring to be Children Instead of Dreaming to be Adults

To be clear, I don't believe Rowling's books are causing such childishness in adults. I believe it simply is one sign of many that our culture continues to shun the responsibility and weight of adulthood for what they perceive as the more carefree existence of childhood. Look at the rise of the Twitter hashtag #adulting, commonly used when someone must deal with choices that aren't necessarily fun, but are required to be considered a responsible person. More and more people bristled against such responsibility instead of embracing it as a welcome sign of maturity and ability.

J.M. Barrie tells us that Peter Pan "still had all his first teeth." I do not desire to now have all my baby teeth. If that were the case, I would seek medical attention because it is a signal that I'm not developing correctly. It would also mean that I would be less capable of enjoying the robust diversity of foods available to me. While children may hold that McNuggets or Mac and Cheese are the best things to eat, they really are poorer than adults who have developed a sophisticated palate.

Similarly, those with a childish concept of the world are poorer in that they cannot understand or experience the wide range of positions, ideas, and emotions that diverse people will naturally have. Tales of a world of magic where every bad guy is easily identifiable is comforting for children who do not yet possess the mental or emotional wherewithal to handle the intricacies of life. But one should not want to remain a child forever. To do so is terribly tragic.

Image courtesy Carlos and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.
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