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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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Sunday, April 06, 2014

C.S. Lewis on the Oppression of "The Good"

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be "cured" against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals."
C.S. Lewis "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment" AMCAP Journal Vol.13 No1. 1987. 151.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

What Skeptic Wish Christians Knew - Sean McDowell

I recently had the chance to catch up with Sean McDowell. He had just finished presenting at the annual apologetics conference sponsored by the Evangelical Philosophical Society, where he gave a stirring talk entitled "What Skeptic Wish Christians Knew". Here, Sean gives us a brief overview on why this message is so close to his heart and he also talked about some of his books, the Apologetics Study Bible for Students, and his research into the martyrdom of the apostles. Watch the interview below:

Friday, April 04, 2014

How to Be Smarter than Google

This week, I've been writing a series looking at some of the objections skeptics raise against the Easter celebration. Although it may have seemed like my purpose was to answer the objections, my true goal was something a bit more ambitious. I wanted to make you, dear Christian, smarter than Google. You may think "Make me smarter than Google? That's impossible!" Ah, but it is possible and let me show you how.

No one doubts that we are now a wired culture. Smart phones account for 74% of mobile phone users, according to Frank N. Magid Associates. We have the Internet at our fingertips no matter where we are, and that isn't always a good thing. As I heard one commentator explain, there used to be a time when as you and your friends were waiting in line at the movie theater, you may have an argument over whether that obscure bomb of a film from twenty years ago had such and such a scene in it. Such conversations may lead to discussions on the merits of the scene itself or other issues, but it would always foster communication and engagement with other people. However, now when a question like this arises someone will simply pullout their iPhone, search for the film clip or synopsis, and say "Here's the answer." That's the end of the story and usually the end of conversation on that point.

Because Google searches are so effective at slamming down an answer to points of detail, people have begun to rely on the search engine to answer everything they have a question on. And that's where the real problem comes in. When a question becomes more complex, such as "Was Easter influenced by pagan sources," simply taking the first two or three results of a Google search may not give you the correct answer. It will simply give you the most popular page. Worse, it limits your ability to critically think through the claims. By relying solely on Google, you're unplugging your brain, and that should never be the case.

But it doesn't have to be that way. You don't need to be an expert in history or on ancient religions to see why many times the claims made by these skeptics are truly ridiculous. In fact, I have been intentionally avoiding "scholar mode" to look at the facts as they are presented. Let's take that article I've been discussing this week by Heather McDougall that ran in The Guardian and just hit a couple of glaring problems. It begins:
Easter is a pagan festival. If Easter isn't really about Jesus, then what is it about? Today, we see a secular culture celebrating the spring equinox, whilst religious culture celebrates the resurrection. However, early Christianity made a pragmatic acceptance of ancient pagan practises, most of which we enjoy today at Easter. The general symbolic story of the death of the son (sun) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his rebirth, overcoming the powers of darkness, was a well worn story in the ancient world. There were plenty of parallel, rival resurrected saviours too.
We've already looked at the supposed connection with the spring equinox, the fact that the resurrection accounts are told in a Jewish context, and that the history of the resurrection accounts could not have evolved over the centuries. But look at that second to last sentence. McDougall writes, "The general symbolic story of the death of the son (sun) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his rebirth, overcoming the powers of darkness, was a well worn story in the ancient world." Uh, yeah. The first piece that McDougall seems to miss is that in the ancient world, no one spoke modern English. What do I mean? The play on words between son and sun only works in our language. You may not know the Greek for son and sun, but if you have taken high school Spanish, you can see that the word son (hijo) and the word sun (sol) are very different. They are not homonyms, and they wouldn't be in the ancient languages either. That play on words only works in English, and I'm pretty sure none of the Sumerians, Babylonians, or Romans spoke it in their day.

Secondly, McDougall ties the crucifixion to the constellation of the Southern Cross. Huh? We know that Romans crucified people, but trying to make such a connection is pretty tough. First of all, it's called the southern cross because it is only prominent in the night sky when you are positioned south of the equator. That's why Australia and New Zealand integrate it into their flags. But, more importantly, the idea of what shapes ANY of the constellations make are not universal. Different cultures would overlay their own images on different star clusters, just as you and a friend can look at the same cloud but see very different animal shapes in it. McDougall is spitting out a bunch of "just so" stories and there's enough here for you to at least be doubtful of them without having to do much research at all.

The Skeptic Bears a Burden When he Offers an Objection

It's natural that when Christians are confronted by a friend who questions them about an article like McDougall's, they feel a bit scared. I've received many inquiries by people asking for my help on the charges of the Zeitgeist movie or the supposedly rejected gospels. I get that it can feel overwhelming. But please remember, a lot of those objections are based on others doing their own brain-unplugging. They are uncritically taking any objection to Christianity that they can Google-search and presenting it before you to justify their skepticism.

If the skeptics you converse with are going to engage in a "you must give me reasons" exchange, then they should be prepared to give reasons why they think their "evidence" should be accepted as a real objection. It isn't enough for them to throw out the very first "critical response" they can find. As I've said before, any fool with a login and an opinion can post on the Internet. That doesn't mean the objections they offer are worthwhile.

As Christians, let's be more prepared to engage others by exercising our minds with a bit of practice in thinking through the claims instead of just turning to Google ourselves. Sure, there are going to be times where you need the background or the facts. There will be experts who offer thoughts that you may not have thought about yourself. In fact, part of my ministry is to help Christians by providing some of that information. However, I don't want Christians to be lazy. A little bit of thought can answer more than you may expect, and a quick reply based on your own common sense can help foster more discussion than copy and paste ever would.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Is Easter Pagan? Part 3 - Historical Documentation

This week, we've been looking at the claim that Easter is somehow a celebration with pagan roots. I've previously talked about how such a claim looks very superficially at the supposed similarities and ignores the distinctions. I've also discussed how pagan religious rituals would be considered abominable to the first century Jews who make up the adherents of the early church. On this second point some may argue that it wasn't the Jewish followers of Jesus that incorporated pagan influences, but it was the Gentiles who did so years afterward.

The problem with such a claim is that it ignores the incredible historical evidence we have for the resurrection. Unlike many pagan celebrations, such as the Mithraic rites which were so secretive we really don't have any written documentation about them at all, save some mentions by outsiders or artwork on walls. No books or scrolls exist. The resurrection, on the other hand, is incredibly well documented and its historical roots are strong.

4. The Historical Documentation of the Resurrection Accounts

Of course most people are aware that all four gospels are written with the event as their climax, and each Gospel dates to between thirty and sixty years of the resurrection itself. That means that when the gospels were being circulated, people were alive who could testify to the truthfulness of the accounts they contain. There really isn't much time for pagan myths to "creep into" the stories. Suggestions by skeptics such as Heather McDougall that "the Sumerian goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, was hung naked on a stake, and was subsequently resurrected and ascended from the underworld" somehow influence the resurrection accounts are laughable when you consider that:
  1. Crucifixion was a real punishment inflicted on Jews by Romans in the first century (and we can know that for certain).
  2.  Attracting others to your belief system by saying they were crucified was about as attractive as asking a French revolutionary to follow someone beheaded in the guillotine. Rome used crucifixion as a deterrent because of its abhorrence by the general public.
  3. The concept of the resurrection wasn't one that people of the ancient world took to immediately. For an example of this, just look to Paul's sermon on Mars' Hill. Luke tells us, "Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this'" (verse 32). That's not what I would call a rousing endorsement. The idea of anyone being resurrected was just as incredulous to those in Paul's day as it is today. Paul has made a pretty strong case to a crowd who he says were" very religious in all things" (v.22). Yet even they mocked the initial notion of the resurrection. Again, this is not an attractive aspect if you are trying to convert Gentiles.
However, the earliest documented mention of the resurrection is none of those found in the gospels. As I've written before, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, which contains the full creedal basis for the belief in the resurrection, is dated to within a few years of Jesus' death and resurrection itself. Paul even says that there are saints who were eyewitnesses to the resurrection who were still alive; the Corinthians could go and ask them themselves! There are other signs of the resurrection accounts as historical, but these should be enough to dispel the concept of the resurrection accounts to be corrupted by pagan myths. Tomorrow, we'll finish up this series by touching on some various incongruities of McDougall's claims. Until then, keep thinking!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Is Easter Pagan? Part 2 - What Do You Get When You Cross a Jew with...

Yesterday, I began a series looking at the claims made by some skeptics that Easter celebrations have their roots in pagan holidays and customs. My goal for these posts is to not dig into a ton of research to disprove these kinds of accusations, but to so you how, given a little time of reflection and focused thought, you can answer such claims without so much as an Internet search. Hopefully, this will give you a bit of confidence and help Christians to become better and more careful thinkers over the plethora of "Google Scholars" that simply add a lot of noise to the channel.

As an example of the "Easter is Pagan" claim, we've been looking at an article written by Heather McDougall that appeared in The UK newspaper, The Guardian. Let's look at a second paragraph from that article:
The Sumerian goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, was hung naked on a stake, and was subsequently resurrected and ascended from the underworld. One of the oldest resurrection myths is Egyptian Horus. Born on 25 December, Horus and his damaged eye became symbols of life and rebirth. Mithras was born on what we now call Christmas day, and his followers celebrated the spring equinox. Even as late as the 4th century AD, the sol invictus, associated with Mithras, was the last great pagan cult the church had to overcome. Dionysus was a divine child, resurrected by his grandmother. Dionysus also brought his mum, Semele, back to life."

2. Too much of everything leads to nothing

The first thing that should stand out to you as a red flag is how McDougall lists Sumerian, Egyptian, Roman, Baylonian, and Greek religions all as sources to the single holiday of Easter. There's something incredulous when one finds that the "real" origins of a very specific and detailed event (the death and resurrection of Jesus) has so many points of origin. It reminds me of when I was a little kid and I used to go to the soft drink fountain to create a "suicide," If you mix enough of everything together, all the distinctive tastes blur and what comes out is bland. Put a lot of various paints in a can and you won't get a vibrant color, but they meld into a dingy brown.

However, McDougall seems to think that everything that has even an inkling of parallel to the resurrection story is proof that the resurrection accounts are derived from that story (a concept we covered a bit more last time.) But religious rituals are not so easily changed, regardless of the ritual's cultural base. The reason a ritual works is because it is passed down. Religious rituals are taken even more seriously. Any changes would have to be shown with some pretty compelling evidence to back it up. McDougall has thrown out a Zeitgeist-type wild claim, but she will need to do more than simply make the claim. We will discuss more on this tomorrow, but the concept of changing religious understanding does lead me into my third point.

3. Jesus, His Followers, and His Detractors Were all Jewish

I don't know if it escaped McDougall's notice, but everyone agrees that Jesus was a first century Jew living in the Jewish state when Judaism was in full swing. Post-exile Judaism would be the de facto worldview for Jesus, His followers, his audience, and even His detractors, such as the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees. Anyone who knows anything about ancient Judaism knows how strict the Jews were not to have anything to do with pagan gods.

This point is underlined in the gospels when the Pharisees try to trap Jesus in asking Him whether they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. You remember the Pharisees, right? They are those people who took the Jewish faith so seriously that they would place a strainer on their wine glasses lest they ingest a gnat and violate the Jewish prohibition against swallowing an animal with its blood. The Pharisees question Jesus on giving money to Caesar as a violation of the Old Testament law. Jesus deftly answers "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." Jesus kept His Jewish understanding of serving only Yahweh intact while also showing the flaw in their thinking.

So, would a Jewish audience, one who is so attuned to the strict adherence of their faith that they would die rather than be forced to worship any other god really buy into a story that is perhaps Sumerian in origin? Do you think the Jews would recognize pagan myths that were popular in their day? Do you really think that Jesus or His Jewish disciples would invent such stories in order to gain adherents? The concept is preposterous! This would go over about as well as going to an Orthodox rabbi today and trying to convince him that the messiah is really Mohammad and Islam is Judaism fulfilled.

Tomorrow, I will look at the historical aspects of the resurrection accounts as my final point on why these claims are ridiculous. Until then, keep thinking!
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