Blog Archive


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, March 31, 2014

Is Easter Pagan? Part 1 - The Rites of Spring

Recently, I received a request from a friend who asked, "which came first, the Easter celebration: the resurrection of Jesus Christ or all this other stuff about the goddess of fertility and the eggs and rabbits and all that?" As we approach the Easter season, the question isn't uncommon. Modern media loves to plaster the covers of magazines with questions about Jesus or the Bible during this time, since they know such "special" issues are guaranteed moneymakers.

They also look to run some of the most inflammatory tripe passed as fact. For an example, look at the article in The Guardian newspaper that ran a couple of years ago.  Entitled "The Pagan Roots of Easter," author Heather McDougall leads with:
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.
So, should Christians worry? Is McGougall right? Does a Christian need to prove that the resurrection came before these other celebrations? The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic no. While one can go on a historical odyssey, checking out dusty books for hard dates, usually answering such claims doesn't take that much effort. If one were to slow down and just think a bit about what we do know, you can see how quickly these kinds of charges fall apart. I want to look at several points, in a series of posts, but we will start with the most obvious.

1. Seasons are Universal

The first point one must realize is that everyone throughout the history of the world experiences the change in seasons. (Folks like me living in California may be an exception, but that's a separate story.) Of the four seasons, spring has always been the biggest deal, because it is the time of more temperate weather, where one can come out from indoors. More importantly, it's the time for planting the food that will feed you and your family for the next year. Spring is the time when the trees and the flowers begin to bloom, so the season is associated with new life. Is it a surprise that various cultures would develop festivals and feast days to their gods at this time? Of course not!

There is a natural reaction to the new life that is sprouting from trees and from the ground. Part of that reaction is to tie the days of spring to the concept of new life. In early cultures, items like eggs and rabbits, which are known for their rapid reproduction, are natural symbols of new life. But because of the ties to new life, ancient people would tie sprint to the sexual cults. So the cult of Astarte (Astoreth in the biblical accounts) with the fertility and sexual prostitutes would have springtime festivals. But the spring is 25% of the entire year! Just because some fertility cults had big orgies and used symbols like eggs and multiplying rabbits doesn't mean there is any tie whatsoever to the resurrection! Think about it — what does a Jewish Messiah who rises from the dead have to do with temple prostitutes and creating babies? The similarities are tenuous at best.

Tomorrow I will go into more detail about the problem of the Jewishness of the resurrection accounts versus pagan spring rites. But until then, one must be mindful for an important principle: correlation does not imply causation. An example I use is the "Redskins Rule." For 60 years the outcome of the last home game of the Washington Redskins has predicted the outcome of that year's presidential election: "when the Redskins win, the incumbent party wins the electoral vote for the White House; when the Redskins lose, the non-incumbent party wins." The accuracy of that predictor over such a long period was Impressive, however anyone can see that one had absolutely nothing to do with the other. (For another interesting case, see the case of the book that predicted the sinking of the Titanic.)

I hope this first point has helped some in dispelling any worry that the resurrection may have ties to ancient pagan practices. Join me tomorrow and we'll see just how flimsy this "evidence" can be.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Jehovah's Witnesses and Jesus: What does "Firstborn" Mean?

One of the main problems with Jehovah's Witnesses is their denial of the deity of Jesus.  They claim that the Bible teaches that Jesus is a created being and point to passages like Colossians 1:15 and Proverbs 8:22 to make their point.

In this video, Lenny dispels those teachings by showing what the word firstborn really means and why Jesus must be more than someone who is created.


Image courtesy Emw and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dealing with All Those "Lost Gospel" Claims

Did the church fathers pick and choose which gospels to include in the Bible by selecting the ones they like and rejecting others? What are all these "other gospels" we hear so much about? Do they offer us new knowledge of who Jesus really was? In this podcast, we'll debunk the idea that we somehow "lost" gospels and show why we can be confident in the Biblical record.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Problems with Utilitarianism

One of the most prevalent moral systems adopted by many in higher learning is that of utilitarianism. It is popular because it purports to have a rational basis for morality while not requiring a God to be the originator of such a system. Here we hope to discuss the claims of utilitarianism and see if they accomplish what they assert.

This system of ethics was an answer to conflicting moral dilemmas, such as lying to save a life. Many people argued against moral absolutism by claiming that if lying is always wrong, then it is sinful to lie even when you are lying to prevent a bigger atrocity, such as hiding Jews during World War II, for example. This strikes many people as unreasonable that God would hold one guilty for committing a sin when they were trying to save lives.

The idea of a moral system based on utility was first put forth by Jeremy Bentham in 1789. It quickly became influential but was taken to even greater heights when John Stuart Mill advanced his version. Though there are some deviations between Mill's and Bentham's version, both maintain the basic belief that people should act in such a way as to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.1

Before we go too far, I want to unpack these ideas a little bit. Utilitarians cannot base actions on intrinsic rightness or wrongness, because that would require someone higher than humanity to set those standards. Therefore, there must be a self-supporting reason to do action A instead of action B.

Bentham and Mill say that that no action is good or evil in itself, but the results of those actions are the only things that matter. However, the question then arises how do you judge results of an action for their morality if good and evil don't really exist? The answer for the utilitarian is happiness is really what we mean by good. Whatever makes people happy, whatever brings pleasure is a good thing, and what gives people pain is what we mean by evil. This is why utilitarianism is also known as "social hedonism". You should maximize pleasure for the most people while minimizing pain.

What this means when we put it into practice is that lying in and of itself isn't wrong. If you lie and it makes people feel good with no negative effects, you've done nothing wrong. The actions you choose are only considered good or evil based on the results they produce.

While utilitarianism solves some of the problems of conflicting moral situations, it doesn't follow completely. First off, utilitarianism isn't a true moral framework. I say this because it confuses facts with values. Doing that which gives the most people the most pleasure is a statement of circumstance, not a good prescription of actions.

Let me give an example: imagine a married salesman visiting a distant town. He meets a woman, also married, and they instantly feel a powerful attraction to each other. Knowing that they'll never be found out, they embark on a passionate affair for the three days they're together. According to utilitarian ethics, they have not done anything wrong. On the contrary, it would be morally wrong for them to not sleep together because one would be denying the other pleasure!

Another situation shows the problem of the opposite situation. Imagine a young child pinned down in a burning building. Two firemen see her and know they can free her if they work together, but they will almost certainly die in doing so. In such a situation, we would regard the firemen as heroes, but in a consistent utilitarian outlook their actions would have to be labeled a bad. More pain was inflicted in the two men dying than in the saving of the one child.

Besides some of the strange circumstances one may face in utilitarian philosophy, the bigger problem is with the compulsion of subscribing to the philosophy at all. If everyone was a utilitarian, then all actions might be able to be judged within that framework, but you can't call the system itself  "good" because that implies a separate criterion.

Lastly, utilitarianism cannot work because, like all morally relative beliefs, it is self-defeating. Suppose everyone in the world were utilitarians. Now, suppose they all met and agreed that it was just too difficult always having to worry about what effects their actions would have on other people. The constant analysis was making their lives miserable. The consistent thing to do, according to utilitarian ethics, is to give up utilitarianism. In order to follow utilitarian beliefs you would have to abandon utilitarian beliefs! Can you see how contradictory this is?

Utilitarianism, while a popular way to try to ground moral truths, doesn't really succeed as a moral system. I takes a pragmatic approach to duties and values and fails to make a distinction between what's right and what's going to make most people happy. It smuggles in the idea that happiness is the greatest good, but it doesn't prove that point. It merely assumes it based on our human nature. However, if Christianity is true, then our nature is corrupted by original sin and it cannot be trusted to provide a grounding for good and evil. So, along with everything above, utilitarianism begs the question. Even though it is so that all people have the desire to maximize pleasure and reduce pain, why should we assume that those desires are right?


1. While Bentham's view of utility is based solely on the amount of pleasure or pain the actions ultimately produce for the people, Mill felt that some pleasures, such as the pursuit of knowledge, the arts, and music were more weighty than others. Yet, at its core either version of utilitarianism seeks pleasure over pain, happiness over unhappiness. There is nothing more to warrant labeling things good or bad.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Breaking News May Break Your Heart: Tales from the Front Lines in the Culture Wars

This week has been an explosion in news items for those who care about the Christian faith and the culture. The most important religious freedom case in at least a generation (Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby) was argued before the Supreme Court early in the week. Then the evangelical relief organization World Vision announced that they would be revising their employee policy to allow hiring of same sex couples who had a Christian cleric officiate a wedding ceremony. (Yesterday, World Vision reversed that decision.) Finally, a story broke in the UK about how British hospitals were using the remains of aborted and miscarried babies to generate heat for those same hospitals. And that was just through Wednesday.

As someone engaged in apologetics ministry, the clash between worldviews is part of my calling. I hope to communicate a reasoned Christian viewpoint on ethical and cultural issues that have theological implications to an unbelieving world. Most people today assume morality is a relative concept and religion is simply a private belief that shouldn't affect one's public interests.

As you may expect, the news has given me a busy week. But it gave me something else, too. It gave me a very heavy heart, which was a bit unexpected. I feel weary, weary not only in the added engagements but also weary that a moral framework that would have been so clearly understood just a few decades ago are now lost in the fog of this modern age. It scares me that people cannot connect the revulsion they experience when reading about using fetuses as fuel to the marginalization of an unborn child in the rhetoric of pro-abortionists. It scares me because I know that the marginalization of natural marriage will lead to further dangers down the road. Frankly, our slide towards Gomorrah is simply breaking my heart.

But maybe that's the thing. In my morning devotions, I always pray that God would change my heart to be more like the heart of Jesus. I think this is a fairly common prayer among Christians. What I didn't expect is such a change would cause pain. When looking over Jerusalem before His triumphal entry, Jesus wept over the city that would soon turn against Him. He didn't cry for His suffering and He didn't rejoice in the judgment that it would face in the coming years. It didn't cause Him to be angry; it caused Him to grieve. An unexpected consequence of having one's heart be conformed to Christ is to not only feel more love, but to feel more pain. When sin grieves us, we have a more proper understanding of what sin truly is.

I had a prominent apologist friend who was once being slammed by various critics for what he had written. I have been in that position, too. Especially online, there are critics who can get nasty and personal. They may even verbally attack your family, which happened to me in one instance. My friend, clearly anguished, asked "Why can't God give me a thicker skin to do work like this?" But I don't think God wants to do that. A thick-skinned apologist would be a dangerous thing, using arguments as clubs. I think God wants us to be tender-hearted to both the travesty of an evaporating moral standard and to those who would criticize us for taking a moral stand.  Like Jeremiah, we should warn with fervency, but all the while with tears in our eyes. Only then can the Gospel be shown to be what it truly is: the power of Christ to accomplish salvation in the hardened hearts of the unsaved. Jesus wept, then moved forward. Let us do so, too.
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