No Longer in Glimpses: In Memory of My Mother Joan F. Decker

Touched by the Hand of God  by Jayt74

Touched by the Hand of God by Jayt74

Richard Decker is a second-year English master’s student at Liberty University. His eulogy for his mother, on her recent passing, speaks to God’s transforming grace and the hope we have as Christians that God’s love will fully restore us to our true selves, made in his image and for eternal communion with him and our fellow creatures.


When I think back to the good that my mother did during her lifetime, what comes to mind is a person who, despite everything, made it clear that she loved me and was on my side—no matter what. My mother showed me how important it was for me to stay strong and to break the cycle. She gave me a love for music and for people. She taught me the importance of being down-to-earth and open with one’s thoughts and feelings, and she always made it clear to me that I could tell her anything. I believe what I am trying to say is that through all the cloudiness, I was still able to see glimpses of a person who loved and cared so much for me and for others and did her best to show that love. But as I said, these were glimpses.

Joan and Richard Decker

Joan and Richard Decker

 For when I would look at old pictures and hear stories of my mother when she was young, I must admit it was always a surreal experience for me. Because the young woman in those pictures and in those stories—the young woman that many of you knew and loved so well—I knew only in photo albums—in glimpses.

As my mother and I would tell jokes with one another, I would see glimpses of that young woman who walked the hallways of Cider Ridge High School, laughing and having a good time with her friends. As I read my mother’s cursive on my Christmas and birthday cards, I would see glimpses of that young woman who loved sending similar cards and letters to her friends and relatives. As I would see my mother dressed up for a get-together with family, I would see glimpses of that young woman who aspired to be a model—and had her aunts and uncles drive her to modeling classes. As I would watch my mother tidying up the house, I would see glimpses of that young woman who would babysit her cousins and clean up their house solely for the sheer joy of seeing things tidy. As my mother showed me the ills of addiction, I would see glimpses of that young woman who wanted so much to be a nurse so that she could care for and look after others. I would see that young woman, every now and then, through these small actions that my mother would take—and I loved her for that.

And above all, my mother knew Christ and trusted in Him. And I know that she is now with Him in a state of peace—no longer afflicted by the demons of this world—no longer consumed by its cloudiness. You know, I heard once—mostly through rumors—that when people enter heaven, they tend to look like their younger selves. I do not know how much I trust such an idea, but I believe I do trust the symbolism behind it: a symbol of purity and innocence that reveals that we as believers are able to see each other as our greatest selves when we are once again with our Heavenly Father.

I believe that such an idea is close to the truth because I also believe that when my time comes—when I, too, am with my Savior—I will also be with my mother again, and I will be able to not only see her but also that loving and caring young woman—no longer in glimpses, but in a full, bright, and beautiful image—to whom I will say, “Joanie! Mom! There you are! I knew you were there that whole time—and I love you for that.”

9 Evidences for the Resurrection of Jesus

Resurrection_Pilon_Louvre_RF2292_MR1592_MR1593.jpg

Christianity begins with Easter. Without the resurrection, there is no Easter. According to the apostle Paul, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain,” meaning that if the resurrection of Jesus never happened, then Christianity as a whole crumbles (1 Cor. 15:14).

How can we know that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened? Is our faith in Christ firmly placed and supported by evidence, or is our faith misplaced and in vain? In an effort to demonstrate that our faith is well-placed in Christ, I will share nine brief evidences for the resurrection of Jesus, each of which begins with the letter “E.”

 

1)     Early accounts. The majority of scholars believe that the crucifixion of Jesus took place in 30 A.D. The four Gospels were written within just a few decades of the death of Jesus (70-95 A.D. according to critical scholars). Most of Paul’s letters were written prior to 60 A.D. Additionally, Paul records an ancient creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which notes the appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups; this creed can be traced all the way back to within a few years of the resurrection itself (this creed dates to 30-35 A.D.).[1]

 

The sources for Jesus are remarkably early, especially in comparison to sources for other ancient historical figures. For example, consider Alexander the Great, one of the greatest leaders and military minds in ancient history. The earliest sources for Alexander are nearly 300 years after his life; the best sources (Arrian and Plutarch) are even later (400+ years after his life), yet they are still considered trustworthy. With Jesus, we have sources within 10 years of his life, and a number of other sources within 20-70 years.

 

2)     Eyewitness accounts. According to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, over 500 people saw Jesus alive, in addition to Peter, James, Paul, and the rest of the disciples. At the time Paul reported these events around 55 A.D., many of the individuals Jesus appeared to were still alive and could be interviewed (this was roughly 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

 

In addition to the people who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, eyewitness testimony is foundational for the New Testament as a whole, with every book either being written by an eyewitness or by someone under the direction of an eyewitness. One of the greatest examples of this is 2 Peter 1:16, which reads, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”[2] In other words, Peter wasn’t just reporting news that he heard, but rather something he saw with his own eyes.

 

3)     Extra-biblical accounts. The events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus are mentioned by numerous individuals (Christians and non-Christians) from outside the New Testament. For example, the crucifixion of Jesus is referenced by more than ten ancient sources (Tacitus, Josephus, Mara-Bar-Serapion, Lucian, Talmud, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, etc.). The disciples’ experiences with the risen Jesus are reported by several extra-biblical sources as well (Josephus, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, etc.).

 

4)     Embarrassing details. When dealing with historical events, one piece of evidence that lends credibility to an account’s authenticity is the inclusion of embarrassing details. All four Gospels mention that several women were the first to find the tomb empty, which makes them the primary eyewitnesses (Mt. 28:1-8; Mk. 16:1-8; Lk. 24:1-10; Jn. 20:1-2). This is significant because in first century Jewish and Roman cultures, women were looked down upon by men and their testimony was frequently regarded as untrustworthy. If the writers of the Gospels were making up a story that they wanted people to believe, they would have stated that men were the first to find the tomb empty. Why didn’t they do that? Because they wanted to tell the truth (women were really the first to find the tomb empty).

 

5)     Enemy attestation. Even Jesus’ enemies didn’t deny that the tomb was empty. They had an alternative explanation for how the tomb became empty (the disciples stole Jesus’ body; Mt. 28:11-15), but they acknowledged that the tomb was empty nonetheless.[3]

 

Enemy attestation is a powerful form of testimony that involves an enemy stating something in favor of the opposing view. Enemies have nothing to gain when they do this. In the case of Jesus, the enemies of Jesus certainly didn’t have anything to gain by reporting that the tomb was empty – but they did so anyway.

 

6)     Empty tomb. There are a number of reasons to believe that the tomb was empty,[4] one of which involves its location in Jerusalem. The Romans, Jews, and Christians knew where Jesus was buried; the location of his tomb was no secret. When Christians began spreading the news (in Jerusalem) that Jesus had risen from the dead, the Romans and/or Jews could have simply removed the body of Jesus from the tomb and displayed it in order to shatter the “hoax.” However, Jesus’ body was never produced; if it was we would have certainly heard about it from the critics of Christianity, particularly the second century skeptic, Celsus, who wrote against the resurrection.

 

7)     Emergence of the church. No historian would deny that thousands of people began following the life and teachings of Jesus in the first century shortly after his “alleged resurrection” (Acts 2:41). This number continued to grow rapidly throughout the remainder of the first century (Acts 2:47). There are several extra-biblical accounts to verify the emergence of the early church (Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Trajan, Suetonius, etc.). How can the sudden emergence of Christianity be explained apart from the resurrection of Jesus?

 

8)     Entirely changed lives. Prior to Jesus’ death, and for three days while he was in the grave, the disciples were skeptical and afraid (Lk. 24:21; Jn. 20:19).[5] However, after Jesus’ resurrection, the lives of the disciples were entirely different; all of them were persecuted and many were martyred as a result of their belief in the risen Christ. James (the brother of Jesus) and the apostle Paul experienced radical conversions as well. Like the disciples, James and Paul also subjected themselves to persecution and martyrdom because they were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead.[6]

 

Skeptics may comment that the transformation of these individuals (the disciples, James, and Paul) is insignificant, since it is normal for people to convert from one set of beliefs to another. However, the cause of these conversions is different. People usually convert to a particular religion because they hear the message of that religion from a secondary source and believe the message. The reason for the transformations of the disciples, James, and Paul is quite different; they are the result of what they actually saw with their own eyes: the risen Jesus.

 

9)     Expected event. On numerous occasions throughout his ministry, Jesus predicted that he would die and rise again (Mt. 12:39-40; 16:21; Mk. 8:31; Lk. 9:22; Jn. 2:18-22; 10:17-18). In fact, Jesus predicted these events so frequently that his predictions actually became common knowledge (Mt. 27:62-64; 28:6). It’s one thing to make a prediction; it’s another thing to predict something that actually happens. Jesus’ predictions regarding his own death and resurrection suggest that he really is the Son of God and risen Lord.

 

Despite the amount of evidence provided above, let’s remember that the resurrection is more than a fact to be proven; it’s the culminating event in God’s redemptive plan on behalf of mankind – and it has incredible implications for our lives today. The shed blood of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead are not distant events in history, they are present realities that make it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins (Heb. 9:22), experience and enjoy an intimate relationship with God (1 Pet. 3:18), undergo radical transformation (Gal. 1:23), and carry out all that God has called us to do in our lives (Mt. 28:20). The resurrection of Jesus also gives us hope for the future – since death was not the end for Christ, we have hope that it won’t be the end for us either (1 Cor. 15:22, 35-58).

 

Happy Easter! Enjoy celebrating the risen Jesus this weekend, knowing that your faith in him is well-placed and supported by a vast amount of evidence.

“He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:6).

 

 

 

Stephen S. Jordan currently serves as a high school Bible teacher at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is also a Bible teacher, curriculum developer, and curriculum editor at Liberty University Online Academy, as well as a PhD student at Liberty University. Prior to his current positions, Stephen served as youth pastor at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in State Road, North Carolina. He and his wife, along with their two children and German shepherd, reside in Goode, Virginia.


 *Note: This article was a community effort; it would not appear as it currently does without the thoughtful help of several of my apologetics students at Liberty Christian Academy, including: Kaadia Preston, Drew Thomas, Olivia Jerominek, Gillian Howell, Savannah Summers, Keana Starbird, Sarah Nelson, Jackson Downey, and Hunter Krycinski.


Notes:

[1] A New Testament creed is a statement of faith that was often recited verbally by groups of early Christians, most likely when they gathered for worship in house churches. Here are a couple of modern day examples of “creeds” or statements that we are well aware of due to the number of times we have heard and repeated them ourselves: (1) secular “creed” – “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall… (Can you finish the rest of this statement?); and (2) Christian “creed” – “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” (Can you finish the rest of this statement?). In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul records a creed like this – it was one that was very familiar to early Christians due to the number of times they heard and repeated it themselves. What is interesting about this creed is that it predates, or comes before, Paul recording it in 1 Corinthians in 55 A.D. Scholars actually trace this creed to 30-35 A.D.

[2] Also consider these verses, which further support the claim that eyewitness testimony is foundational to the New Testament as a whole: Luke 1:1-4; 24:44-49; John 1:6-7; 21:24-25; Acts 1:6-8; 2:23-24, 32; 3:15; 4:20, 33; 10:39-42; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 John 1:1-3.

[3] This is also referenced by the second century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr.

[4] Here are a few additional reasons to believe the tomb was empty: (1) several women found the tomb empty and told others about it – this is an embarrassing detail (see evidence 4); (2) the enemies of Jesus verified the tomb was empty and spread the news that the disciples stole his body in order to explain its emptiness (see evidence 5); (3) if the tomb wasn’t empty, then no one would have believed the disciples when they claimed the tomb was empty (see evidence 7); and (4) if the tomb wasn’t empty, the lives of the disciples wouldn’t have been transformed (see evidence 8).

[5] This is another embarrassing detail. The fact that the disciples doubted and denied Jesus is a detail that doesn’t paint the disciples in a positive light. Embarrassing details usually increase the perceived credibility of a historical source.

[6] The transformation of the disciples is referenced in several extra-biblical sources, including: Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Clement of Rome, and Pliny the Younger.

Help is Come!

Rembrandt van Rijn -  Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

Rembrandt van Rijn - Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

Reliable rumors circulate a dark lord has arisen.  He is seeking to strengthen his power.  He is annexing peaceful lands; building large armies; and manufacturing weapons at breakneck speed.  His ultimate prize is the last gold ring.  With the last gold ring his dominion will be complete.

By torturing a captive, the dark lord Sauron learns of the ring’s whereabouts.  It’s in the possession of a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.  A hobbit is a hafling – a little person of small stature and large feet.  Hobbit Bilbo Baggins dwells in a rural Shire in Middle Earth.  The dark lord Sauron dispatches wraith-riders to the Shire to seize the ring.  Oblivious to it all, the rural dwellers of Hobbiton throw a great birthday party for Bilbo.  Meanwhile, dark wraiths are riding to the Shire.

Before their arrival, a wizard galumphs down the road into Hobbiton.   In a donkey-drawn cart the wizard Gandalf comes wearing a dull, pointy, felt hat, a long grey beard and grey tunic.  He has come to help Frodo Baggins receive the ring and take it to safety.  The grey wizard comes with one motive:  to save the land from tyrannical evil. 

This story imitates the greater, true story.  We live in perilous times.   It certainly was then.  Judea was ruled by a foreign, world-empire, Rome.  There was no independence for the locals.   Disease was rampant.  ‘Doctors’ only made the ill worse.  Demonic activity was present but unrecognized.  Sin ruled personal and social relationships.  Sin wasn’t acknowledged but accepted as the way things are.  People lived in guilt.  There was little means of obtaining forgiveness.  Houses of worship were led by religious leaders interested more in themselves than God’s glory.  Death could strike at any time, even among the young. 

Though disease is moderated, the same dynamics are still present today.  Empire- building tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Muslim terrorists threaten us.  Once Christian Europe and America have lethal elements working within to expunge God from public life.  Sin is destroying the personal and social fabric of society.  Many today – even the churched – don’t recognize sin as sin.   Everyone reading this sees its effects in your lives.  Philosopher Etienne Gilson observed, ‘A world which has lost the Christian God cannot but resemble a world which had not yet found him.’  Someone please help us!  Help!! Help!!

Help has come!  A Rescuer is at hand!  A Deliverer is here!  Like the grey wizard Gandalf showing up in the village - but ten times better - ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1: 15).   Indeed, ‘the true light, the light that enlightens all, was coming into the world’ (John 1: 9) and ‘I have come as a light into the world’ Jesus says (John 12: 46).   Perk up your ears!  Hear the joyful news! Celebrate it!  Help has come!  Help is here!  ‘Ye blind behold your Savior come, and leap you lame for joy!’

Is it too good to be true?  What are the motives?  Who offers help without expecting something in return?  What’s the catch?  Is it for personal gain?  No. Jesus’ estate was a cloak for which soldiers gambled.  Was it for power?  Does the God of the universe need power?  Jesus had no institutional power.  The church hierarchy excluded him. Rome crucified him.  Was it for reputation?  For glory?  Called an illegitimate son, a false prophet and a fraud, Jesus died a criminal.  Even followers forsook him.  Don’t think so.

What’s His motive?  Love.  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…’ and ‘to Him who loves us’ writes John.  When Jesus saw the crowds, he pitied them.  Our Helper has a heart to shepherd us lost souls through this dark world.  “I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness’ (John 12: 46).   More, Jesus wants to overcome death with life.  ‘I came that they may have life…’ (John 10:10).  He does not want me a sinner to die in my sin alienated from God.  ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’.

Jesus helped us by accomplishing salvation through His death on the cross.  His death removed my sin the offense standing between God and me. His death removed my offense and fulfilled my sentence.  The novel I Am David takes place seven years after World War II.  The Communists take a little boy David from his mother.  David is put into a Stalinist labor camp in Bulgaria.  An older man Johannes befriends and mentors David.  Johannes prepares David to escape from prison.  He wants him to be reunited with his mother.

One day when David is twelve, the guards force the prisoners into a line-up.  Someone had stolen a soap bar.  The authorities will flush out the offender and shoot him.  The commander began to go down the line.  Little David had stolen the soap bar.  He held it in his hands behind his back.  He didn’t know what to do.  The guard brandished a pistol ready to shoot whoever held the soap.  His mentor Johannes, standing next to David, saw David had the soap.  Johannes slipped his hand secretly over David’s and took the soap from him.  No sooner had Johannes done so then the guard discovered Johannes held the soap.  Quickly pointing his pistol he shot Johannes dead.  David was spared.  Johannes covered David’s theft.  He made David’s wrong his own and took the judgment.  But having learned from Johannes, David escaped.  David lived and was reunited with his mother.  Jesus said, ‘The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many.’

You are in great danger.  You’re holding the gold ring.  The soap bar is in your hands.  Jesus has come to rescue you.  Picture Him as in Holman Hunt’s oil painting, ‘The Light of the World’.  See the figure of Jesus standing at night at your cottage door.  Holding a lantern in one hand, with the other Jesus knocks at your door.  His lamp illumines the vines growing up by your door.  Hard times have come to you.  Night is upon you.  But here Jesus is… at your door: the Light of the world, your Rescuer, your Savior, the Son of God, at your door!  The door has no handle on the outside.  Only you can open it from the inside.

“He came to his own home, but his own did not allow him to enter’.  Do not be like the passengers Seaman Leslie Morton saw in 1915 on the deck of the sinking Lusitania.  The Lusitania, the twin of the Titanic, fifteen minutes earlier was struck off the coast of Ireland by a Nazi U-boat torpedo.  The sea was filling the ship at a steady pace.  Seaman Leslie Morton lowered a lifeboat to some passengers.  Strangely, they were afraid to let go of the sinking ship.  They held tightly to the ship’s ropes and deck rails.  They more trusted the big sinking ship than the lifeboat that would save them.

Be persons who receive.  Even if you received Jesus twenty years ago, reaffirm you receive Him still.  To all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives the right to be His children.  See Jesus before you…at your door… your Savior come… ready to help you…able to save you.  Let go rebellion.  Let go of yourself.  Throw yourself onto Him.  Help is come!  


TomThomasStaffPhoto.jpg

  Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

 

 

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Risen from the Dead? A Sample Sermon Manuscript for Apologetic Preaching

            Here is a sermon manuscript (albeit another brief one!) based on the STEPS model for apologetic preaching, as applied to positive apologetics, i.e., where the apologist focuses on reasons why someone might believe, rather than focusing on what is wrong some particular belief or religion. To help understand the “flow” of the message, the manuscript is in five parts based on the STEPS acrostic.

Specify the Apologetic Topic

            What reasons are there to believe that Jesus rose from the dead? That question may surprise some of you, since you already believe Jesus rose, and you have never felt the need to develop a list of reasons for your belief. If that describes you, then I invite you to simply listen and consider why you believe what you believe. Remember, faith involves evidence and certainty, so what you hear today can be a help in growing your faith. Plus, you never know when the Lord is going to give you the opportunity to talk with someone who is not as sure as you about Jesus’ resurrection, and you will be able to help them along after hearing this message.

            Maybe, though, you are new to the Christian faith and hunger to know more about your faith, or possibly someone has recently posed a question or objection about the resurrection that you would like to be able to answer with confidence. In either case, this message is for you, too. It’s also offered with the seeker in mind, the one who is looking for answers and thinks Christianity may be where to find them. Whoever you are and whatever your situation, let’s make a journey together and discover reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Tell the Topic’s Significance

            Before considering the biblical and rational basis for believing the resurrection occurred, consider a few of the theological and practical reasons the topic is significant. From a theological perspective the resurrection is an essential part of the gospel message. As Paul explains in 1 Cor. 15:3-4, “I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” In this passage we learn that the gospel is about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection—all three are fundamentals of the good news, but especially the resurrection. This is why Paul goes on in 15:14 and 17 to declare that “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty, and your faith is also empty…. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” Clearly, the Christian faith depends upon the resurrection.

            Likewise, the resurrection is a practical help when considering our own mortality and the death of our loved one who are Christians. Jesus’ victory over death holds a promise of future things for all who believe, since every Christian, too, will one day rise from the dead if they die before Jesus returns. Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 15:20, 52 and 54 are especially helpful in this regard: “But now Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep…. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible…. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” What is the basis of this hope? The resurrection of Jesus from the dead! Death is not the final word. Resurrection is. Eternal joy is coming because Jesus rose from the dead.

Explain the Biblical and Rational Basis Concerning the Apologetic Topic

            The biblical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is plentiful. Paul’s testifies what Jesus “rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that he was seen by over five hundred brethren at once…. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also” (1 Cor. 15:4-7). Concerning the five hundred brethren Paul describes, he explains that “the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:6). Why is this significant? Only because Paul was making a public claim that many who saw Jesus after his resurrection were still alive at the time the letter to the Corinthians was written. Paul was appealing to eyewitness testimony writ large. Further, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all give accounts of the resurrection in their gospel narratives, each providing specific details about when the empty tomb was discovered, who was there, as well as accounts of the encounters they and others had with Jesus after he arose. These examples indicate there is strong biblical evidence to support Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

            What about other reasons to believe the resurrection account? Consider the historical testimony of leaders in the early church after the time of the apostles. Men like Origen, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr—sometimes referred to as Church Fathers—all testify to the resurrection of Jesus as both historical fact and having pastoral significance. Consider also the personal changes in the apostles after the resurrection, how Peter went from denying Jesus to boldly proclaiming him as the risen Lord, and how Paul went from persecutor of Christians to missionary for Jesus and defender of the resurrection. Finally, if the resurrection did not happen, they why didn’t the Jewish authorities simply produce the body of Jesus and end the early church’s growth and influence? They didn’t do so because the body of Jesus was not in the tomb. He rose from the dead, just as he promised. This isn’t all the biblical and rational evidence for the resurrection, but there is certainly much that is worthwhile in what we have considered. The evidence is in, and there is good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Practically Apply the Apologetic Topic for the Hearers

            Amid all this talk of biblical and rational evidence there are also particular practical benefits to the resurrection for each of your lives. Perhaps you are struggling with a sinful habit and you seem to always make one step forward but two steps back. As a Christian you can gain the victory because of the resurrection of Jesus. That’s right! According to Rom. 8:10-11, “if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” Without the resurrection you are powerless, but with the resurrection comes power through the Spirit. You can overcome sin in your life because Jesus rose from the dead.

            Another benefit to believing the resurrection relates to the brokenness in our world. Do you ever find yourself thinking that the news is always bad, that things just seem to get worse and worse? You are not alone, and the world is a dark place in many ways. However, because of the resurrection of Jesus there is hope that one day the world will be put to right. Concerning this hope, Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 15:22-25 are comforting: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the  first fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” These verses remind us that the resurrection of Jesus is more than a doctrine, more than a historical fact, it is the final hope for an end to suffering and the beginning of a better world.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            We started by asking about the reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. We have considered this question in several ways, including its theological and practical importance, the biblical and rational case for believing the resurrection, and how the resurrection matters in particular circumstances of our lives. I trust that you feel the weight of the evidence concerning Jesus’ resurrection, and that your faith is strengthened. If you are seeking answers, I pray you give sincere consideration to those offered here.

            As we conclude I would like to give this simple invitation. Christian, the resurrection is central to your faith. Perhaps it is time to give yourself to serious study of its reliability, asking God to give you opportunities to share the evidence for the resurrection with others. Will you do that today? Someone in your life needs to hear about the resurrection, and you are the one to tell them. What about you, the seeker who came today looking for answers? As I just stated, I pray you give sincere consideration to those offered here. Jesus died for you, and was buried and rose again, all for you. He offers to give you new life, resurrection life. Will you accept his offer today?


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

The Goodness of God after the Loss of My Son

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The goodness of God is perhaps nowhere more in question than in situations of unexpected loss—especially when this loss is of your happy and healthy 6-month-old son. A year ago, October 7, 2017, the dark cloud of death appeared over my family and brought with it a deluge of grief and flash floods of confusion, pain, and frustration after my son Landry failed to wake up from a routine nap. In the aftermath that followed in those difficult first few weeks and months, the slowly receding waters of despair revealed a new reality for our family that remains something from which we are healing to this day. On several occasions, the murky deeps even drew out an ancient serpent who hoped to sink its venomous fangs into my weakness and inject the poison of doubt concerning what I have publicly professed as a maturing believer, pastor, and theologian—doubts of God in general and of his goodness in particular. And yet, my commitment to and assurance of a good God, in spite of this horrible calamity, remains, and, in fact, is more certain than ever before. How can this be?

When Goodness Doesn’t Register

It is well known that the Christian worldview argues that a good God offers hope that brings perseverance in seasons of tribulation to those who know and belong to him. One iteration of this principle is recorded in 1 Peter 1:6-7:

In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

This passage teaches that the good promised in the future is able to provide needed perseverance in present difficulties. However, there are those moments in which this particular implication of the promised goods offered by a benevolent God seems especially distant and even foreign. Being reminded of how good God is in providing future hope while in the throes of great suffering might be compared to a flood insurance agent knocking on your door, hoping to sell you a policy for the next major weather event while there is still standing water in your house.

Both of these situations share the promise of coming answers and aid and yet both do not yield immediate comfort and/or present satisfaction for one’s existential confusion. Put differently, there may be at least one situation (acute grief and loss) in which a straightforward moral argument for God or the future goods that he provides is not the most appropriate means of rescuing someone from doubt and disillusionment. It certainly wasn’t what contributed to my resolve to remain a Christian theist in my darkest hour.

 

Other Goods and Cumulative Apologetics

Interestingly, even the apostle Peter appears to have recognized this in his first epistle. Prior to promising perseverance in trials (supported by the future hope offered by a good God) he reminds his audience of other foundational truths that are apologetically useful and uniquely evidenced.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)

In this lead up to the passage cited earlier, Peter appears to predicate any and all future hope for salvation and all of the good things that entails with the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This integral event happens to be one of the most thoroughly evidenced episodes in all of history. Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, William Lane Craig, and company have devoted decades to demonstrating that not only is the resurrection of Jesus Christ possible, it is the most probable explanation for all the available historical data that is conceded by the widest variety of critical scholarship. This data includes but is not limited to the following: the fact of Jesus’ death, the presence of an empty tomb three days later, the radical transformation suffered by the disciples in general and James and Paul in particular, the spread of the resurrection story in the proximity of Jerusalem (exactly where the events were said to have transpired and where they could have easily been investigated), the explosion of the early church, the instigation of Sunday worship, etc.

The evidential case made for this important event not only helps the believer defend a central component of Christianity and, by proxy, a myriad of other connected theological teachings, it is not as prone to the kind of emotional scrutiny and skepticism that the concept of a good God is (that is, when articulated in isolation), especially in tragic situations. In other words, one can know/remember in a primarily intellectual way that there are good reasons to affirm belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead along with its theological implications even if/when their existential experience has them doubting God’s goodness. This appears to be Peter’s agenda in his encouragement. When one suffers tribulation that interrupts his conviction in God’s goodness because of a tidal wave of emotion, he can still remember on a more cognitive level that there are good reasons to affirm other fundamental elements in his system. This initial step then has the potential to lead, eventually, to the acceptance of God’s work and many attributes—including but not limited to his divine benevolence. This became especially clear to me when on what would have been my late son’s first birthday, we celebrated Easter Sunday. On that day my Christian convictions were reinforced not by what I felt, or even directly by any formal moral argument, but by a miraculous event that transpired some 2000 years ago and the many strong reasons to affirm its historicity. It was only after this primarily intellectual recollection was made that I was able, in time, to reacquaint myself with more distant affirmations.

One may wonder, especially in the miry depths of despair, how the alleged resurrection of some Nazarene two thousand years ago can provide hope for anyone. Even if he was raised, what is that to me? Whether raised or not, still here I am, drowning, gasping for air. While in the dark, questions come quickly, incessantly. One question comes, perhaps, more naturally than the others: “Oh Jesus of Nazareth, what is this hope to me? How will you right these wrongs? How will you make my family, my son, and me whole again?” In the dark of the deep, only the brightest light will reach the bottom. So, what does the reality of Jesus and his empty tomb offer those who weep?

In that dark place, after recalling Christ’s most wondrous resurrection (affirmed by compelling evidences), I was reminded of several of his claims. Chief among these was his claim to be “the light of the word” (Jn 8:12)--a phrase often heard, but not frequently understood. When Jesus said these words, he was at the Jewish Festival of Lights. Around the temple, bowls were filled with oil and the wicks were so large, they were made from old priestly garments. When lit, the entire temple was filled with the blazing light. Since Jerusalem sits perched on a hill with the temple at the top, one would have seen the lamps burning for miles around.

The light of the golden lamps represented at least two things for the Jews at the feast. First, it was a reminder of the Exodus and of God in the pillar of fire. As the pillar of fire, God would lead Israel to the promised land and he would be in their midst. The Jews also saw the fire and hoped for a new Exodus, where God once again free them from oppression and be with them. God will liberate his people. But the light also represented God himself. After all, the temple was meant to be God’s dwelling place. In fact, there are many occurrences in the Old Testament in which God is said to be light or like light. For example, Isaiah (60:20) tells us that in the day of the messiah, “Your sun will no longer set; your moon will not disappear; the LORD will be your permanent source of light; your time of sorrow will be over.”

It was during this ceremony that Jesus declared, “I am the light world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).

What this Nazarene offers, then, is Emmanuel, God with us. He offers peace, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). That is some solace, indeed. What Jesus offers is to make all wrongs right, even the death of a son. How this will be accomplished may be a mystery, but that is the promise. Here is the lighthouse whose penetrating beams reach through the depths of grief.

This short testimony reveals the necessity of a well-rounded, multi-valent apologetic system. A cumulative case for God and his work is essential, because if one is either dependent on or tethered to a single argument/style or argumentation, he runs the risk of being broken loose when the storm strikes, doubt overwhelms, and skepticism rises. To encourage the church and effectively communicate in compelling ways to the secularist, the Christian theist must be equipped with a variety of cases for God and employ them appropriately to reach people where they are emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and otherwise. In my personal odyssey, it was the strict evidential case for the resurrection that acted as a lifeline that both kept me connected to my theism and eventually reacquainted me with other elements therein. In this an many other cases, more immediately assessible arguments are able to draw those at risk of drowning in darkness to other truths that slowly, but most assuredly, betray the guiding light that leads the way back to glorious God from whom are all good things.

The Goodness of God

In providing multiple evidences and/or arguments for his existence that can be employed in a multiplicity of situations (from the highly emotional to the academic), God shows something about himself that appears far off when tragedy strikes—his goodness. Only a good God would provide proof of himself that is capable of both piercing through the flood waters of grief and being intelligibly apprehended by people who are struggling to believe that he is benevolent in those painful moments. One might say that by providing arguments in addition to the moral argument, God once again demonstrates how utterly good he really is, and of that I am most assured even after losing my son.

Dead but not Deaf

Photo by  Greg Rakozy  on  Unsplash

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

The lord of Saxony Germany, Frederick the Elector, saved Martin Luther from execution.  He protected Luther for a year in his castle.  In the coming years, Frederick died, grieving Luther.  Luther moaned, ‘Death is oh so bitter – not so much to the dying as to the living whom the dead leave behind.’ ( Luther, Metaxas, 340)  Many of us have grieved over the death of a loved one.  We know the pangs of being left behind.  Good Friday and Easter Sunday are just passing in the rear view mirror.  Like me, maybe you have reflected on death and resurrection.  Let me share a Scriptural text that has consoled me in the wee hours of the night on death and life.

Jesus speaks it to you and me as he did to the onlookers at the Pool of Bethsaida.  He just healed a man lame for thirty eight years.  He says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’

Jesus introduces his word saying, ‘Very truly’ or, ‘verily, verily’ as in the King James Version.  In the New Testament text it is literally, ‘amen’, ‘amen’.  A teacher says, ‘Class, y’all listen up’.  Perk up your ears.  Listen carefully.  Trust what I’m going to tell you.  It is the truth. Guaranteed.   You can ‘take it to the bank’.  It will be on the exam.  

‘The hour comes’.  In fact, ‘the hour is now.’  The tense is ‘progressive present’.  The ‘hour’ was present when Jesus spoke.  The ‘hour’ is still present - at this very moment.  It is a special hour, a rare time. It will not always be here.  It is here now.  It is the juncture of circumstances that have been ripening to a purpose - n o w.   It is five minutes to midnight Christmas Eve.  You’ve been preparing for the stroke of midnight for weeks.  You have been anticipating it for months.  It has now arrived!

What hour is it?  The hour ‘when the dead will hear’.  Has not the hour for the dead past?  Why should the ‘dead’ concern us?  Jesus is referring to you and me.  Jesus can use the word ‘dead’ for both the biologically and the ‘spiritually’ dead.  Here Jesus is speaking of the spiritually dead.  It is not applicable to the biologically dead.  Have you ever thought of yourself as ‘dead’?  Every person either was, or, is, dead.  It is the default human state.  The apostle Paul tells the Ephesian Christians to remember ‘you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked’.  We either were, or, are, dead?  Can I own it?

My wife Pam lived in Haiti.  Her Haitian friend Vivi knew a Haitian girl the witchdoctors made a ‘zombie’.  The witchdoctors made this girl a ‘zombie’ by giving her a potion – a powdered drug.  It puts the victim in a paralyzed state, a ‘zombie’ state.  Though she was fully conscious, she was buried alive on top of the ground.  At night the witchdoctor took her out of the grave.  She did not die.  But she was not the same. She lived in a disoriented state.  She was what the Haitians call a’ zombie’ – the walking dead.  You are not a Haitian zombie.  But you were or, are, the walking ‘dead’.

The hour comes ‘when the dead will hear.’  Who can speak to the dead?  Is it not a contradiction in terms?  The dead are dead!  Are they not incapable of either having sounds directed at them or receiving them?  There is One who speaks to them.  He spoke to the possessed woman, Mary Magdalene and to Zacchaeus. What amazes me is He even wants to speak to the dead! Jesus says, ‘I came not to call the righteous but sinners.’

What will the dead hear?  ‘The hour is now when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God.’ The dead will hear the Voice of the Son of God.  Last summer my recent retirement was haunting me.  In the wee hours, retirement felt too much like death.  I was meditating on this phrase ‘the dead will hear’.  I cried to Jesus as a suppliant in the dark, ‘I want to hear your Voice…speak to me…I want to hear…I want to live’.  Hallelujah!  He speaks to the dead!  What is the effect of his speaking to the dead? 

‘The dead will hear …and those who hear will live’.  ‘Will live’ is contingent.  Living is dependent on listening.  The dead will hear with their ears.  Sounds will go in.  They must listen with their hearts.  They must consent to, own, obey, keep, treasure, and actively trust in what is said.  Those who hear say, ‘Yes, I will!’

I will never forget Harry R. Truman.  This is the other Harry Truman.  Harry and his wife operated for forty years the Spirit Lake Mountain Lodge at Mt. Saint Helen’s, Washington.  In 1980 the once dormant volcano began volcanic activity.  Scientists began to caution an explosion was imminent.  Officials warned people to get off the mountain.  ‘This is an extremely dangerous place to be’ said a USGS volcanologist.  Harry Truman was not going to hear of it.  He said, “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow…But I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up…the mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.’  Law officials were incensed he refused their last warning.  The next morning the entire northern flank blew off.  Harry was never heard of again.

Jesus’ word to mortals is heartening:  ‘those who hear will live’!  They will live now, and into eternity.  Jesus promises, ‘Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life’.   Be sure of this - you can take it to the bank- those who hear will live! I want to live!  I want to live now!  I want to live into eternal life!  Don’t you?!  Repent, and put all your confidence in Jesus’ word.  Martin Luther’s 13 year old daughter Magdalena lay dead in her coffin.  Luther said, ‘Go ahead and close it! She will rise again on the last day’.  After the coffin was carried away, he said, ‘Do not be sorrowful.  I have sent a saint to heaven.’

Do not be dead - and deaf!

 

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Different Bodies: Part Two

 

A Twilight Musing

Paul begins 1 Corinthians 15 by pointing to the Resurrection of Jesus as the culminating capstone of the Son’s mission on earth, forming an essential part of the Gospel message (vv. 1-19).  He then proceeds to argue that if there is no resurrection from the dead, the consequence is that “in this life only we have hoped in Christ, [and] we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 19).  In the succeeding verses, he goes on to draw a sharp distinction between the resurrected body of Jesus (the Second Adam) and the “natural body” of the First Adam: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 20-21).  After an expansion on why “we are of all people most to be pitied” if there is no resurrection, Paul responds to the question, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 30).

Paul goes to nature for analogies to answer these questions.  The resurrected body is as different from the natural body as is the fruit of a grain of wheat from the seed that was sown.  He points also to how the kinds of flesh are different from each other, and how heavenly bodies differ in brightness.  But the difference between our fleshly bodies and our resurrection bodies is even more striking:

What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.  Thus it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.  Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.  (1 Cor 15:42-49, ESV)

What struck me in a fresh way in this passage was Paul’s reference to the first man being “from the earth, a man of dust.”   I had always assumed that the “body of death” from which we are finally delivered in the Resurrection is the fallen body destined for physical death because of sin.  A corollary of this assumption was that the original, unfallen bodies of Adam and Eve were not temporal, but eternal, so long as they lived in obedience to God.  But as I pointed out in Part One, even unfallen mankind was subject to some form of limitation on their physical lives; some kind of development in the context of temporality still remained to be worked out.  Paul’s discourse makes clear that Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and the participation of all believers in that resurrection, constitutes the final working out of God’s eternal purpose for His creation. By giving details of the distinction between the body of Adam and the body of our resurrected Lord, which we will one day share with Him, Paul demonstrates also the difference between our present universe, whether fallen or unfallen, and God’s “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Pet. 3:13).

The core of my new insight hinges on the implications of Paul’s summation in vv. 50-51: “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”  It is not just the corrupted, sinful body of the fallen First Adam that cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but even the yet-unfallen flesh and blood with which God clothed him in the first place.  If we accept that the original, unfallen Adam and Eve were “flesh and blood,” then it must also be accepted that they were, in some sense, perishable when they were created.  We have no way of knowing what would have developed in our world if our first father and mother had not rebelled, but it seems fair to conjecture that some form of cessation to their fleshly form would have been part of the picture.

I ran across a statement in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet that articulates as a general principle of God’s creation what I believe to be true of Earth and the life God put on it.  The major character, Ransom, is talking to a being in the unfallen world of Malacandra (Mars), who has told Ransom about an ancient race that perished from the planet, leaving the area where they once lived cold and lifeless.  Ransom asks where the divine Creator and sustainer of the planet was when all this happened.  Could He not have prevented this destruction?  Ransom’s instructor replies, “I do not know.  But a world is not made to last forever, much less a race; that is not Maleldil’s [God’s] way.”  I present for your consideration the idea that God’s design in creating the world in which we live was not that it would last forever as it was, even if it had not rebelled; but that it was intended to be the stage for a process by which the Devil would be defeated and God’s moral superiority be established.

The eternal, resurrected bodies we will share with Jesus, as well as the eternal home in which we will dwell with Him, are not merely transformations of our present bodies and our present world, but entirely new, spiritually defined bodies and an abode that transcends completely our material universe.  In this eternal state, body and soul and spirit are so bonded together that they are no longer separable nor distinguishable from one another.  History, which by definition records change, will be at an end, wrapped up in God’s eternal “now.”

Image: "Eternity" by Norbert Reimer. CC License. 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Different Bodies: Part One

  A Twilight Musing

I have long been intrigued by the question of how things would have developed had Adam and Eve not eaten of the forbidden fruit and been banished from Eden.  One can exercise some inferential imagination by envisioning a world without the known consequences of sin. Attached to those inferences are some questions: Would Adam and Eve and their descendants have lived forever, absent the penalty of death?  Would the innocence of universal nakedness have continued?  If so, it’s hard for us fallen people to imagine there being no sexual desire except for one’s mate.  God arranged the union between Adam and Eve; how would the monogamous coupling of their descendants have been arranged?  Would reproduction be unlimited?  With no need to produce food by the sweat of their brows, would human beings have been engaged in other activities, such as creative, artistic, and scientific pursuits?

These questions may seem to be idle speculation, but I think they lead into matters of some significance.  All of the questions I have posed above are based on the assumption that there existed in the pristine world of Eden an expectation of purposeful and orderly development over a period of time.  God Himself looks in this direction when He tells the newly-created man and woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).  Things in the original creation were expected to change in ways designed by God to fulfill His nascent purposes for this new world of His.   Since any kind of change requires the observed passage of time, it seems legitimate to infer that there was a kind of positive temporality in the prelapsarian world that in the postlapsarian world became a degenerative penalty.

Perhaps the best way of getting some sense of God’s original plan for Edenic fulfillment is to consider the implications of the two trees placed in the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9).  We find out after Adam and Eve have eaten from the forbidden tree that God took precautions against their also eating from the Tree of Life.

Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—" 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.  (Gen 3:22-24)

To me, this passage implies that, had Adam and Eve not disobeyed God, there might have been a time for them to partake of both trees under God’s direction.  It seems not unreasonable to conjecture that the Lord wanted unfallen mankind, under His timing and direction, to become aware of the presence of evil in the universe so that He could equip them to partner with Him in the final defeat of that evil, and thereby be ready in the full maturity of their existence to eat of the Tree of Life.

At any rate, I think that God created the physical world as a kind of theater in which to do battle with the Devil.  We have some biblical hints of a battle in Heaven between God and his angels and Satan and his cohorts, in which God by His superior power cast a rebellious Satan down from his exalted position in Heaven (see Ezek. 28:11-19; Rev. 13:7-12).  The most familiar literary rendition of this battle is of course in Books V and VI of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Although his narrative of the epic battle in Heaven exercises the privilege of poetic imagination, it nevertheless presents a drama that may very well have taken place in some form before the creation of Eden.  This was a victory of God’s power, but it remained to provide a setting in which Satan could be confronted with the moral superiority of God, which could take place only in an arena where God’s love could be triumphant over Satan’s hate.  Exactly how that would have worked out if the Creation had not been corrupted by human sin, we don’t know, of course; but it’s hard to imagine how it could have had more dramatic or emotional impact than God’s “backup plan,” in which He participated in the suffering of the sinful world, even becoming a mortal human being and dying in order to redeem the fallen world.

This little essay (Part One) represents a refinement of ideas I have held in rough form for some time.  My central point here is that God’s created world, both before and after the Fall, is in marked contrast to His eternal being, which has no beginning and no end and is perpetually and always the same, yesterday, today, and all possible tomorrows.  As God’s inherent nature is immutable, so is the place where we will dwell with Him in resurrected form for eternity (see the description of the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21-22).  “Heaven” is where all divine purposes have been realized, and there is no longer the need for change toward an objective.  The catalyst for this refinement of my ideas on original and fallen creation was a rereading of Paul’s discourse on the Resurrection in I Cor. 15, in which he details the radical contrast between the temporal bodies of the first humans and the eternal bodies that we will share with the resurrected Christ.  Part Two is an analysis of this passage, with application of the principles Paul enunciates to the larger matter of the radical difference between the temporal earth and our eternal dwelling place with God.

Image: By William Blake - William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7735228

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Tuesdays with Tom: "They Didn't See Him"

Suppose I returned to Spring Hill cemetery several days after burying my father?  I reach his plot. I noticed the grave was disturbed; the marker overturned, and the clay dirt scattered around the sides.  Inspecting closer, I saw the casket opened.  The body was missing.  What would I conclude?  What would you conclude?

Suppose you were among those who went to pay your respects to Jesus?  Upon reaching the tomb, you saw the gravestone rolled back; the tomb disturbed, and the buried body missing.  Do you, like the disciples, have grave difficulty with the empty tomb?  Have you thought about Jesus’ bodily appearances?  Is your heart slow to believe?  You can identify with the disciples.  You can surpass their difficulty.  Let me consider the resurrection narrative.

It was the first day of the week, Sunday, at early dawn.  A group of women walked in twilight to Jesus’ tomb.  Go back three days to Friday.  Some of these accompanied the priest, Joseph of Arimathea, to bury Jesus’ body.  To leave a person without a burial shows gross disrespect.  I officiated in Long Beach, CA at the funeral of a man who had no one to bury him.  Joseph of Arimathea would see Jesus buried.  Joseph was a wealthy member of the Jewish Council.  He was also a secret disciple of Jesus.

The Roman governor Pilate gave Joseph Jesus’ body.  So Joseph removed Jesus’ body from the cross.  He would inter Jesus in his own never-before-used tomb carved out of rock. Would you let Jesus use your tomb?  It would be a good deal.  Jesus only used it three days but its value rose thereafter.

Joseph and another priest, Nicodemus, wrapped the body.  They use an expensive, linen shroud with spices of myrrh and precious aloes.  They hurried to complete the work before sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath. A handful of men rolled the huge, flat stone over the tomb’s entrance.  This kept thieves and animals out.  Later, Pilate ordered the tomb sealed and cordoned off.  He placed a guard of soldiers at the grave.  The tomb was now a site under state control.

At early dawn, Mary Magdalen; Joanna, the wife of King Herod’s manager; Mary the mother of James the apostle, and other women walked to the tomb.  They wanted to finish embalming Jesus’ corpse.  The women had not been thinking too clearly. How would they get into the tomb?  They couldn’t move the massive stone.  Going a little further, they looked up and saw the stone already rolled back.  Maybe Joseph of Arimathea had already arrived.  They ventured in the tomb’s darkness but saw no body – not even Jesus’ corpse.  They stood there perplexed, at a loss for answers.

Had the gardener moved him?  Had the authorities removed him?  Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two strangers appeared beside them.  The strangers’ clothing gleamed brilliantly - like the whiteness of lightening.  The dazzling intensity spoke for itself.  The frightened women could only bow their faces to the ground.

The angels searchingly asked the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  That is, ‘Why are you seeking the living one among the dead ones?”  The question was a gentle rebuff to the women’s accepted philosophy of reality.  Is it a rebuff to yours?

Imbedded in the angel’s question is the mark of history - not fiction.  The women went to the tomb thinking as I would to my dad’s grave.  One out of every one dies…and never returns.  Absolute fact.  The women went to the tomb knowing Jesus died.  They thought as you think – He’s gone forever – never to return.

Ever wondered where we get this philosophy?  From common, human experience.    Could there ever be a specific case, sometime, somewhere, that is different from what is generally thought to be the case?  An anomaly, an exception to the rule?  Suppose a scientist did an exhaustive investigation.  The scientist observed 30 kinds of flies, ten kinds of beetles, four kinds of wasps, and six kinds of grasshoppers.  The scientist generalized, ‘All insects have three pairs of legs’.  The next day a caterpillar sauntered by.  It has all the properties of an insect. Except it doesn’t have three pair of legs – it’s all legs! An exception to the rule.  Now the scientist goes back and revises his conception.

Many modern intellectuals – among them many theologians – say there is no example of a literal resurrection happening in common human experience. So a bodily resurrection can’t be.  Isn’t Jesus’ resurrection such an exception to common human experience?  But it can’t be, they say, that He rose from the dead.  There are no examples of such things in common experience!  This is circular reasoning.  It assumes as valid what one is trying to prove.  It won’t allow what doesn’t fit with what you have already determined to be the case.

It’s like our insect scientist saying he/she has already determined what insects are.  A caterpillar can’t be one.  It doesn’t fit his/her preconceived notion of what an insect is.

The angels gently reproach the women.  The women are surprised to hear Jesus is alive.  How about you?  Does God reproach you for looking for the Living among the dead?  Many still consign Jesus to the dead.  He’s a great religious figure; an inspired prophet; a great example; and one in whom divine consciousness lived.  Nonetheless, He’s gone the way of all other great religious teachers and philosophers.

A missionary was speaking in Northern India.  A Muslim came up to him afterwards and said, “You must admit, we have one thing that you do not – and it is better than anything you have.”  The missionary was interested to hear more. Muslim said, “When we go to our Mecca, we find at least a coffin.  But when you Christians go to Jerusalem, you find nothing but an empty grave.”  The missionary replied, “That’s just the difference.  Mohammed is in his coffin.  Jesus Christ is risen!”

Pam and I were on vacation in the California Gold Rush country.  We visited Sutter Creek’s cemetery.  We read the epitaphs on the tombstones.  One grave had a pillar - like the Washington Monument rising out of a block of granite.  At the top of the pillar was a clinched fist with the index finger pointing upward to the sky.  The deceased was saying to me, “Don’t look here, look up.”  Don’t look for Christ in the grave.  ‘He is not here.’

The women flee out of the tomb. They tremble in fear and astonishment.  They run to tell the giants of the faith, the eleven apostles, the news.  If anybody would believe, these guys would.  They watched Jesus do miracles for three years.

The woman relayed to the disciples their experience at the tomb - every last detail.  A woman’s testimony in a Jewish court was questionable.  Here is a group of women, having come from a resurrection, hysterical, trembling, pale from fear, unable to contain themselves as to all they had seen and heard.  They reported the news.  The disciples took it like the Editor of the New York Times:  ‘Uhh, huh – Sure!’  The men summed up the women’s words: “an idle tale.”  “Idle tale” is a medical term used for wild delirium.  They’re on drugs!  Rubbish!  Fantasy!

So some have thought ever since.  Paul preached Jesus’ resurrection.   “Some of them sneered”. (Acts 17:32)  Martin Luther spoke of the resurrection.  Luther noted the reaction, “To this day there are many who laugh all the more at this article, consider it a fable ….” An ‘idle tale’ thought Jesus’ disciples: a resurrected Jesus did not fit their framework of reality.  Jesus could break out of a rock tomb.  He couldn’t break out of the disciples’ rock hearts and rock minds!

Later that same day, two were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  Emmaus was a village about seven miles west of Jerusalem.  The two were absorbed in conversation about the women’s report of the empty tomb and angels.  While they were discussing this, a man overtook them.  He fell into their stride.  He said to them, “What is that you are talking about?”  They stopped still in the road.  They were full of the tragedy of Friday.  Cleopas answered, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days.  The stranger asked, “What things?”

Cleopas said, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a mighty prophet in words and actions.  How he was condemned and crucified.  We were hoping that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  They went on.  “Yes, this is the third day, and some women of our company amazed us.  Earlier they went to the tomb and didn’t find his body.  They came back saying they had seen a vision of angels who said Jesus was alive.  Peter and John went to see for themselves.  They found the tomb just as the women said.  But they didn’t see him.”  I can almost hear Cleopas voice trailing off when he said, “They didn’t see him.”  There’s the catch – whether 30 AD or 2017 – ‘they didn’t see him.’ Neither empty tomb nor women’s report convinced them.

“O foolish men!” the stranger upbraided them with strong emotion.  You are ‘slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Wasn’t it necessary that Christ should suffer and enter into his glory?” the stranger asked.  Didn’t they have the words of the prophets from the Old Testament?  And didn’t they have the words of Jesus prophesying he would rise again?  Now they heard first hand testimony of the women …and angels…yet they didn’t believe.  You’ve got all that.  Do you believe?  The stranger called them “unintelligent and dull of belief” – that is, slow in believing.  The stranger then explained how the Old Testament applied to the Messiah.  They liked what they heard. They begged the stranger to stay and eat.  He took the bread, broke it, and gave thanks.  They suddenly recognized him!  He was Jesus whom they knew.  Then “he became invisible from them.” They recalled to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us when he explained the scriptures?’ Believers through history have testified to burning hearts.  I have felt a burning chest the night I gave myself to God.

Preacher John Wesley put it in classic words.  He was in a fellowship/study group.  There he felt Jesus Christ.  Wesley said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed … I felt I did trust Christ.”  You don’t have to see Him to feel Him.  Your eyes may be closed, but you feel the warmth of the sun.

What it took to get the disciples to believe! I can hear people say, ‘If it was hard for them, how much harder for us?  At least they got to see him’.  This is Cleopas’ attitude which Jesus reprimanded: ‘But they didn’t see him’ Cleopas said.  ‘O people slow to believe!’  You now have the testimony of the Old Testament; the testimony of Jesus; the testimony of the women and the disciples, the evidence and testimony of Paul; and the experience of hundreds of years of burning hearts!

In some ways, we have more than the disciples had that first Easter morn.  The risen Jesus has been established by sight, by voice, by touch, by reasoning argument, by historical evidence from genuine and moral men and women, and by centuries of ‘warm hearts’.

Why are some of you still troubled by Him?  Why do some question?  Why do you dispute Him in your hearts?’  Jesus says, ‘Stop doubting and believe’. (John 20:27)

 

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

 Was this Resurrection Really Necessary?

 

Recently a pastor friend asked me how I would have answered a question from a member of his congregation: “Wouldn’t Jesus’ death on the cross have been enough, without the resurrection?”  I can see how someone with only a casual or beginning knowledge of the Bible could ask that question, since we often speak of Jesus dying for our sins, without reference to his resurrection.  The questioner may well have thought, “The animal sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament period were sufficient for reconciling children of the Covenant to God, so why would not the perfect sacrifice of Christ not be sufficient to take care of all human sin?” I told my pastor friend that my initial answer to the questioner would be short and simple: “No, the death of Christ alone would not have been sufficient for our salvation!”  But the question deserves a fuller answer, one that addresses the misconceptions and misunderstandings that the question embodies and makes clear the basic theological principles embedded in the statement, “Christ died for our sins.”

The bottom line about the necessity of Jesus’ resurrection is found in Paul’s exposition on the matter in I Cor. 15, where he concludes (addressing those who “say that there is no resurrection from the dead” [15:12]) that the resurrection of Jesus is at the core of the deliverance promised by the gospel.  “If Christ has not been raised,” he explains, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . . .  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied" (15:17, 19).  The phrase “in this life only” launches us into a discussion of the key difference between sacrifice for sins under the Old Covenant and the sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of all humankind, a distinction which is the subject of the central block of chapters in the epistle to the Hebrews.

Hebrews 4-10 makes clear several key facts about the necessary function of animal sacrifices under the Law of Moses, but also about their insufficiency to deal completely with sin (“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” [10:4]).  That insufficiency rested in their inability to cancel the ultimate penalty of sin, eternal death.  To put it another way, sacrifice under the Law dealt only with temporal forgiveness for failing to live up to the standards of the Law.  Obedience to the laws of sacrifice and penitence were sufficient to restore the worshiper to good standing with God, but neither that obedience nor that sacrifice had the power to cancel the ultimate consequence of sin, the death of both body and soul.  Some biblical interpreters have said that the effect of animal sacrifice under the Law was to “roll forward” the sins of the people in anticipation of the perfect, complete sacrifice of the spotless “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  Catholic doctrine speaks of two kinds of absolution, “de culpa,” from the guilt of sin, and “de poena,” from the penalty of sin.  In those terms, forgiveness through animal sacrifice under the Law is only “de culpa,” whereas forgiveness through the death of the perfect Lamb of God is both “de culpa” and “de poena.”  But for Jesus’ innocent death to overcome death as the penalty for sin, His body had to be resurrected to complete that victory, and for that victory over eternal death to be applied to those who accept Him as Savior.

The book of Hebrews also makes clear that the same Jesus who died in human form on the cross, in ultimate obedience to His Father, also became the heavenly High Priest for all who accept His sacrifice in faith and are thereby made to be children of God (see the whole of chapters 7 and 9, and chap. 10:1-23).  We, like our dying and resurrected Savior, will achieve the final victory over death when we are clothed with a new body like His and are taken to dwell with Him, forever alive.  Consequently, both now in anticipation and one day with all the saints in our eternal home, we can sing, “Thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (I. Cor. 15:57). It is a glorious victory, won through efficacious dying turned into triumphant resurrection.

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Seven Reasons Why Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity

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Various moral arguments for God’s existence are usually deployed for the purpose of arguing for the truth of God’s existence per se, but they strongly hint at a more specific conclusion. Namely, they are plausibly taken to be evidence that Christianity in particular is true. The claim isn’t that by moral apologetics alone one can somehow deduce all the aspects of special revelation contained in Christianity, but rather this: in light of Christianity having been revealed, moral arguments for God’s existence point quite naturally in its direction. The following list is far from exhaustive, but offers a few reasons to think this is so.

First, one of the great virtues of moral arguments for God’s existence is that they point not just to the existence of God, but to a God of a particular nature: a God who is morally perfect. A. C. Ewing once said that the source of the moral law is morally perfect. Such a notion is described in various ways: omnibenevolent, impeccable, essentially good, and the like. What does it look like when omnibenevolence takes on human form? Jesus is a powerful answer. Moral apologetics works best when it’s Christological.

Second, to conceive of God as essentially and perfectly loving requires some sort of account. The right account, again, isn’t the sort of idea that we’re able to generate on our own; we depend on special revelation to tell us what it is. But Christianity has provided us with an account of the divine nature that’s Trinitarian in nature. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love’. But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s Trinitarian.

Third, Christianity has a demonstrated track record historically in reaching people of every race and ethnicity, and every socioeconomic background, and radically transforming their lives. In a book chronicling the spiritual lives of various Christian saints called They Found the Secret can be found this description: “Out of discouragement and defeat they have come into victory. Out of weakness and weariness they have been made strong. Out of ineffectiveness and apparent uselessness they have become efficient and enthusiastic. The pattern seems to be self-centeredness, self-effort, increasing inner dissatisfaction and outer discouragement, a temptation to give it all up because there is no better way, and then finding the Spirit of God to be their strength, their guide, their confidence and companion—in a word, their life.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s individually transformational.

Fourth, Paul Copan speaks of an historical aspect of moral apologetics: the historical role played by Christ and his devoted followers to promote social justice. Morality demands deep cultural transformation too. Copan cites specific cultural developments that can be shown to have flowed from the Jewish-Christian worldview, leading to societies that are “progress-prone rather than progress-resistant,” including such signs of progress as the founding of modern science, poverty-diminishing free markets, equal rights for all before the law, religious liberty, women’s suffrage, human rights initiatives, and the abolition of slavery, widow-burning, and foot-binding.

Jürgen Habermas, who isn’t a Christian himself, writes the following: “Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s culturally transformative.

Fifth, Christianity holds out the hope for total moral transformation. Morality upholds a standard that all of us fall short of all the time, yet there’s nothing about morality that hints at accommodation or compromise. The right ultimate explanation of morality should be able to make sense of our aspirations for radical moral transformation, and even perfection as something more than a Pollyannaish pipedream. Christianity offers, by God’s grace through faith, moral hope instead of moral despair, forgiveness and liberation from guilt, and the prospect to be totally conformed to the image of Christ, in whom there’s no shadow of turning. The resurrection offers the prescription from both death and sin: abundant and everlasting life. Moral apologetics works best when it is soteriological (offering both forgiveness and transformation, both justification and sanctification).

Sixth, Christianity offers principled reason to think that the glory to come will not just outweigh, but definitely defeat, the worst evils of this world. Christian philosopher Marilyn Adams writes, “If Divine Goodness is infinite, if intimate relation to It is thus incommensurably good for created persons, then we have identified a good big enough to defeat horrors in every case.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s eschatological.

Seventh, Christianity gives compelling reasons to think that every person possesses infinite dignity and value. To be loved by God, the very archetype of all goodness—each of us differently, but all of us infinitely—and to have been made a person in his image is to possess greater worth than we can begin to imagine. And humanity isn’t just valuable in the aggregate, according to Christianity. Rather, each person is unique, each is loved by God, each is someone for whom Jesus suffered and died. And in the book of Revelation, for everyone who accepts God’s overtures of love, a white stone will reveal a unique name for each one of them—marking their distinctive relationship with God and vocation in him. Moral apologetics works best when it’s universal.

The way a labyrinthine maze of jumbled metal filings suddenly stands in symmetrical formation in response to the pull of a magnet, likewise the right organizing story—classical theism and orthodox Christianity—pulls all the moral pieces of evidence into alignment and allows a striking pattern to emerge.

 

 

An Easter Reflection

My wife’s an English professor, and she’s helped me realize I’m late to a game, or a party—or an awkward social occasion; whatever! I'm late—that of seeing the power of stories, the way they shape us, how we define ourselves by and see ourselves in relation to them. It makes sense, but as a philosopher I’ve heretofore tended to be more interested, when it comes to something like “worldview,” to think in terms of what’s true and what’s false, what we have good reason to believe and what we don’t. It’s why my philosophy stuff, as much as I love it, sometimes seems so thin and dry in comparison with the richness and thickness of her literature.

 Today is Easter, for example, and the evidential case for the resurrection is important to me. I am confident there’s a nondiscursive way of knowing, via personal experience, the truth of the resurrection, and it may be the most important knowing of all—but though that may be good for those who have it, it doesn’t much help those who don’t. Fortunately the historical case for the resurrection is amazing; my colleague Gary Habermas is one of the world’s leading experts on the topic. For those interested in wondering whether the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is actually true, whether there’s evidence for it historically, I’d encourage them to read Gary’s books.

 That sort of thing is a fun intellectual exercise, and it appeals to me as a philosopher. But suppose we establish the truth of the resurrection, or at least the credentials necessary to believe in it rationally. It’s hardly the end of the story, but just the beginning. Even devils presumably believe in the historicity of the resurrection. That it’s true is extremely important, but its truth doesn’t mean we’re conducting our lives according to that truth. This is where seeing worldview as more than a set of propositions one believes to be true can come in so handy, and seeing the power of stories can help.

 We are all of us inveterate storytellers. We love a good yarn—to hear them, to tell them. And the most important stories are the ones we most closely associate with our identity. On a garden-variety note, but one that rings with significance for me, I think of a few years ago, when my mom was still alive. A brother, my mom, a sister, and I met in Kentucky—and for a few hours one afternoon we reclined in a room together and endlessly rehearsed stories that make up our family lore. They were stories we’d told and retold a thousand times, each recounting as delightful as the one before, tickling us all to no end. We didn’t need to exaggerate or stretch the details; the canon’s already fairly established; too much deviation isn’t even allowed. The same stories, yet still rife with significance. I remember that afternoon, while regaling my family members with stories, and being regaled by them, I felt what I can only describe as unbridled joy. I was with people who’d known me my whole life, and we were relishing the stories that, to a significant degree, defined our shared lives together and knit us together as family. I was home.

 The best literature shouldn't be enjoyed just once. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers "I've read it already" to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. Some stories are good for ingestion; others are worthy to be relished, savored, digested. The greatest Story most of all.

 Each Easter, I go to church, and hear the Easter story one more time. The details are the same. Nothing changes. But as my pastor said this morning, we change. Each time we hear it we’re different. We bring a new set of needs to it, but the story itself remains the same. I couldn’t help but think of Holden Caulfield’s visits to the Museum of Natural History—where the exhibits are always the same, which he found deeply comforting, but those visiting the museum, he recognized, are always different, either in big ways or small. The Easter story provides an even more significant point of constancy, an even more fundamental Archimedean point on which to stand. The narrative of self-giving love reaches its climax each Easter and offers itself to each of us, and though the story is the same, how it speaks to us is always slightly different. For it meets us where we are, at our point of need, reminding us of what doesn’t change, and offers to transform us. It offers us the chance to become part of that universal Story, to define ourselves anew in relation to it.

 That the Story is true is obviously crucial, but recognizing its truth isn’t enough. The Story challenges us to become part of it, to define ourselves by It and Him, to grab hold of what’s constant and permanent, eternal and ultimate, while bracing ourselves for needed and inevitable change in the midst of growing and of life’s vicissitudes and contingencies.

 The Story tells me who I am and what I’m called to be. It reminds me of what love looks like and that death isn’t the end. It challenges me not just to believe that it happened, but that the fact that it happened makes all the difference. It was the key plot point on which the whole narrative turned, marking love's victory and the death of death. It reminds me that as a Christian I don’t merely believe static truths, but dynamic life-transforming ones—that I’m part of a Story that’s still in the process of unfolding. And we’ve been afforded a glorious peek to see how it ends.

Image: Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Master of Death Has Been Overthrown!

A Twilight Musing

Hebrews 2:14 states that Jesus “through death [destroyed] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” thereby turning the Enemy’s chief weapon against himself and delivering from spiritual bondage “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (v. 15).   In the context of the passage, this is the climax of Jesus being “made like his brothers in  every respect,” including experiencing the fear of death.  But Jesus’ fear of death was significantly different from the terror of death experienced by every other human being, for He alone of all mankind knew the full measure of not just physical death, but spiritual death as well.  The reason that Jesus sweated blood in the anguish preceding His crucifixion was not, I think,  just His anticipation of the excruciating physical pain that attended that mode of execution, but His knowing that he would experience the spiritual death that was the penalty assessed for sin, that is, complete separation from God.  By enduring that penalty in His innocence, as a voluntary sacrifice, He wrenched away from Satan his control of death, so that the Adversary could no longer threaten mankind with it, and thenceforth only through deceit could he make people believe that he was still master of death.  How wonderfully ironic that what Satan intended as defeat for the mission of the incarnate Son of God should become instead the very instrument by which death was overcome. 

How then is this delivery from the fear of death to become effective in our lives as disciples of Christ?  Of course we have the sure hope of our bodily resurrection to eternal life, but we live out a life of bodily decay before we reach the threshold of that life, and in that process we are subject to the fleshly desires that the Adversary takes advantage of:  he induces inordinate concern with our mortal bodies, which leads back to the fear of death.  Here again is an irony: the more we hold on to maintaining life as we know it now (seeking to avoid facing physical death), the weaker becomes our ability to appreciate and be comforted by the deliverance from death that Christ accomplished for us.  In order to profit from Christ’s redemptive death, we must embrace not only His death, but our own physical death as wrapped up within it.  And thus, embracing the cessation of our present physical existence is the only avenue to experiencing the life that never ceases.  As Jesus Himself said, “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:23-25).

Here are the facts: Through the unique death of His Son, God has banished death as the inevitable penalty for sin.  The death of our mortal flesh, rightly regarded, has become an avenue to eternal life, rather than (literally) a dead-end street.  The Devil, the Death Enforcer, has been routed.  Against these divine facts, he now has only lies to use against us.  Kyrie eleison!  Christe eleison!

 

Image: "Bonnat01" by Léon Bonnat - http://www.histoire-image.com/site/oeuvre/analyse.php?liste_analyse=299. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bonnat01.jpg#/media/File:Bonnat01.jpg

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Ascension Day, St. Athanasius, and Theosis

Christians celebrate throughout the year a number of holy days, each of which emphasizes the life and work of Jesus. Of notable importance are Christmas, the commemoration of the Son’s entrance into the world whereby he takes on our humanity through the incarnation, and Easter, a celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. In liturgical traditions from both the East and West, Christians also celebrate Ascension Day, which commemorates Jesus’s ascension to heaven.

Ascension Day is one of the earliest Christian celebrations. Tradition states that it is apostolic in origin and dates back to as early as the first century. According to Scripture, after the events of his death and resurrection, Jesus appeared to his followers over a span of forty days (Acts 1:3) and then was taken up into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father (Mk 16:20; Lk 24:53; Acts 1:9). Christians, therefore, celebrate Ascension Day on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday.

Jesus’s ascension remains an essential teaching of the Christian church. As with the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, the ascension is intricately connected to our salvation. Each should be taken as part of the seamless and inseparable work of Christ, as demonstrated in the writings of the early church.

In his defense of the incarnation, Athanasius (c. 297 C.E. – 373 C.E.), the Bishop of Alexandria, remarked that “it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 1.4). Death had dominion over us because of sin, and it was only through the incarnation of the Word that God could put an end to death and corruption. The Word, who is immortal and who is also the Father’s Son, is incapable of dying. “For this reason,” claimed Athanasius, “He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, . . . put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 2.9). Toward the latter part of his work on the incarnation, Athanasius says something startling: the Word “assumed humanity that we might become God” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 8.54). This may sound strange to our modern ears, but Athanasius’s claim would have made perfect sense among his Greek hearers. It is not that humanity becomes God in an ontological sense, as one might find in pantheism. For Athanasius and the other Greek Fathers, a clear distinction remains between God and creation. God alone is eternal, immortal, uncreated, and incorruptible. Rather, his point was that through the work of the Son of God we become a “holy race” and “partakers of the Divine Nature” (Athanasius, Letter 60, to Adalphius, 4; cf. 2 Peter 1:4). God, by his grace, shares eternal and abundant life with his creatures.

By no means was Athanasius the only church Father to emphasize this teaching that we now call “theosis” (deification). It first appeared in the work of Irenaeus, who claimed that God became incarnate through the Son in order to “win back to God that human nature (hominem) which had departed from God” (Against Heresies, 3.10.2). The doctrine of theosis places emphasis on restoration. Not only was Christ’s work for the forgiveness of sin and for our reconciliation to God; it was also for the restoration of our fallen humanity, for our healing, and to bring us into union with God. Theosis, then, refers to the full saving work of God in our lives, which ultimately culminates in our glorification and immortality.

Jesus, who is our advocate and intercessor before the Father (1 Jn 2:1), and who sympathizes with us in our suffering (Heb 2:17-18), experienced the full weight of our humanity while on earth (Heb 2:10-18; 4:15; 5:7-10). Yet, he did so without sin (1 Pet 2:22; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 Jn 3:5). He went before us and is now present with the Father. Because of the completed work of Christ we too may share in the full restoration of our humanity and in our future glorification (Rom 8:18). Not only do we experience forgiveness and a relationship with God, our bodies also will be raised in the likeness of Jesus’s resurrected body—mortality has been clothed with immortality (1 Cor 15:54). Jesus’s resurrection and ascension gives us the ultimate hope and assurance that God has defeated death. One day, those who are in Christ will bask in the indwelling and glorious presence of God in the renewed heavens and earth (Rom 18:21; Rev 21:1-3).

 

Ronnie Campbell

Ronnie Campbell lives in Gladys, VA, with his wife, Debbie, and three children. He is a PhD candidate in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary and he holds a BA in Youth Ministry from the Moody Bible Institute, an MAR in Biblical Studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and an MA in Religious Studies from Liberty University’s School of Religion. Ronnie’s research interests include God and time, the problem of evil, the doctrine of God (Trinity), afterlife studies, and spiritual formation. In addition to co-authoring an article with Dr. David Baggett on moral apologetics in Philosophia Christi, Ronnie regularly writes articles for Fervr.net, an online magazine dedicated to youth ministry.

Easter and Moral Apologetics

Resurrection of Christ  by Hans Rottenhammer

Resurrection of Christ by Hans Rottenhammer

Easter is the most important holy day for Christians; it’s the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is unapologetically historical. If the resurrection didn’t happen, and happen literally, then Christianity is false; and anyone and everyone is perfectly within their prerogative to heap scorn on Christianity to their heart’s content. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then Christians are of all men most miserable, for their hopes are in vain and their faith vacuous. But if Jesus was raised from the dead, scarcely anything could be more important, more revelatory of ultimate reality, more hopeful for the world and human beings.

When I think of the resurrection, my mind goes to Antony Flew, who had three debates with my friend and colleague Gary Habermas on the resurrection. Flew, perhaps the most famous philosophical atheist of the twentieth century, underwent a huge change of mind near the end of his life.

Having argued forcefully but respectfully his whole career that the evidence led in the direction of atheism, he came to believe that the preponderance of evidence pointed instead to the existence of God—though more the deity of Aristotle than the God of Abraham. On the strength of scientific arguments for theism, especially biological and fine-tuning ones, Flew left atheism behind, but only to become a deist, not a classical theist.

Interestingly enough, he remained unmoved by the moral argument, C. S. Lewis’s variant as the salient example in his mind. Since a deist does not believe in an interventionist God, arguments for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus never quite brought Flew around, despite his having said that, if he became a theist, he would probably become a Christian because of the power of the case for the resurrection.

Flew’s resistance, it would seem, was primarily rooted in his inability to affirm God’s moral attributes, and his difficulty overcoming this challenge explains his resistance to the moral argument for God’s existence. Moral arguments have the distinctive advantage of accentuating God’s moral nature: his omnibenevolence, his impeccability, his goodness. If such arguments work, they make sense of a God who does more than merely contemplate himself; indeed, they dovetail and resonate perfectly with a God who pursues, who would deign to intervene, become involved, stoop to save, die to bring life. Flew could not bring himself to believe this, as far as we know.

Flew was a firm moral realist and, later on, a believer in libertarian free will. Belief in moral regrets, moral responsibilities, moral rights, and moral freedoms, one would have hoped, might have enabled him to see the power of theism to explain such realities. He came to see the inadequacy of a naturalistic perspective when it came to the laws of nature, the existence of something rather than nothing, human consciousness, the efficacy of reason, and the emergence of life. He took all of these to be sound evidential considerations in favor of a divine Mind. Why not moral experience and the existence of a moral law as well?

As far as I can tell, the reasons for his resistance to the moral argument(s) were four-fold. One issue was that he was convinced biblical exegesis led to the view that God inexplicably predestines some to an eternal hell for lives they could not have avoided. A second issue was that if morality were to depend on God, God would be its justification, which would lead, at most, to prudential reasons to be moral, based on the prospects of punishment for failure to comply. A third issue was his concern over the equation of goodness and being, originally deriving from the teachings of Plato. One like Gottfried Leibniz, Flew argued, used this equation to derive a system of ethics on theistic foundations that is irremediably arbitrary. Things not at all recognizably good are to be called good anyway. This concern basically sounds like the classical arbitrariness and vacuity problem rooted in Ockhamistic voluntarism.

And a fourth issue was perhaps the biggest of all, and in a sense the culmination of all of the above: the problem of evil. Flew’s resistance to the moral argument makes good sense thus construed, and it was inevitable that until he thought of God as personal and moral, rather than merely intellectual and impersonal, his resistance to special revelation would remain intact and he would continue to be convinced by the teleological and cosmological arguments but not the moral one. Of course his resistance to the case for the resurrection would persist as well.

Flew’s story underscores the need for moral apologetics, because all of Flew’s worries can be effectively answered. The historical, biblical, and philosophical evidence weighs heavily against the problematic predestinationist soteriology that worried him, and most recent theistic ethicists, especially since Locke, have focused on the ontological grounding of moral facts in God, not the motivational and prudential incentive for morality provided by divine threats. A theistic ethic that avoids Ockhamistic voluntarism can be defended, and moral apologetics and the problem of evil are locked in a zero-sum battle; only one can survive, and I think the evidence for the success of moral apologetics is strong. This is not to say the problem of evil lends itself to any simple solution; certainly it doesn’t. In fact, the way the problem of evil remains a problem for Christianity, though not an intractable one ultimately, is one of the distinctive strengths of this worldview; it’s the worldview that lacks the resources to offer a robust account of evil in the first place that suffers from explanatory inadequacy.

What all of this shows is that the case for the resurrection of Jesus—likely the strongest argument for Christianity (even more so than the moral argument!)—goes hand in hand with moral apologetics. They are not in competition; they are rather two star players on a very talented team.

Moreover, the resurrection shows the inauguration of God’s kingdom life; resurrection living, free from the fear of death and sin, is the sort of life for which we were designed. Resurrection represents God’s work of re-creation; the power that raised Jesus from the dead can be at work within us, renewing us, transforming us, making us into the people God intended us to be. The resurrection shows that our hope is not in vain, that the moral gap can be closed by God’s transforming grace, and ultimately that there is no tension or conflict between the dictates of morality and rationality. The resurrection shows that the grain of the universe is good; that God intends to redeem the entirety of the created order, making it teem with life according to his original plan; that the worst of evils can be redeemed and defeated; that life is a comedy, not a tragedy; that the day will come when all our tears will be wiped away.

 

Saving Wasted Virtues: Heaven and the Ground of Morality

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I

At the outset of his chapter “The Suicide of Thought,” Chesterton made the ironic observation that the modern world, in some ways, is far too good.  Indeed, the modern world, as he saw it was “full of wild and wasted virtues,” an inevitable result when a religious scheme is shattered.[1]  When this happens, it is not only the vices that are let loose and create havoc.

But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly,

and the virtues do more terrible damage.  The modern world is full of the

old Christian virtues gone mad.  The virtues are gone mad because they

have been isolated from each other and are wondering alone.[2]

A generation later, in The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis echoed this point in criticizing those who depart from traditional morality (which he called the Tao) and offer new systems or ideologies in its place.  All such new systems, Lewis maintained, “consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.”[3]

While Lewis’s diagnosis is similar, his prescription for moral health and integrity is significantly different.   He prescribes a dogmatic belief in objective value and a commitment to the Tao as having absolute validity.  Indeed, the principles of the Tao must be accepted as obviously rational, just as one takes the axioms of geometry to be self-evident.[4]  Most interesting, for our purposes, is that Lewis goes on to emphasize that his argument does not depend on theistic assumptions.  Though acknowledging his own Christian convictions, he made it clear that he was not offering an indirect argument for Theism.  He insisted that he was “simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the values of Practical Reason as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become skeptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more ‘realistic’ basis, is doomed.”[5]   While leaving open the possibility that morality implies a supernatural origin, Lewis was prepared to hold that morality can be sufficiently grounded for anyone who can see the obvious rationality of the principles of practical reason.

Lewis’s fully developed argument has considerable force, but I do not share his confidence that traditional morality can stand alone without Theistic grounding. And here I claim Chesterton for an ally.  He suggests a different solution to the moral confusion that results when “wild and wasted virtues” are let loose in our society.   At the end of the chapter I cited above, he observes that Joan of Arc combined in her person virtues advocated by figures as diverse as Nietzsche and Tolstoy.  While they were “wild speculators” who did nothing, she actually did something.  “It was impossible” Chesterton remarked, “that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost.”[6]

His thoughts inevitably turned to a larger figure, namely, Christ Himself, and Chesterton noted that Christ combines virtues that moderns can only see as opposed to one another.  Most interestingly, he observed, altruists denounce Christ as an egoist whereas egoists denounce his altruism.  Chesterton concluded with the following memorable line

There is a huge and heroic sanity of which moderns can only collect the

fragments.  There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and leg

walking about.  They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labelled

egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness.  They have parted His garments

among them, and for His vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was

without seam woven from the top throughout.[7]

Chesterton’s example here is particularly well chosen, for the dilemmas posed by egoism and altruism have been particularly troublesome for moral philosophers for over a century now, and remain vexing to this day.  In what follows I want to argue, following Chesterton’s suggestion, that we need the resources not only of Theism to resolve these difficulties, but distinctively Christian doctrine as well, particularly the doctrine of heaven.

 

II

Although the problem of egoism and altruism emerged much earlier,[8] let us begin our examination of it with a landmark in moral philosophy by one of Chesterton’s contemporaries, namely, The Methods of Ethics by Henry Sidgwick, a work that went through seven editions between 1874 and 1907.  Sidgwick identified as the greatest moral problem of his time what he called the “Dualism of Practical Reason.”[9]  This dualism arises because of a possible conflict between what may serve the happiness of a given individual, on the one hand, and what would serve the happiness of the larger universe of sentient beings.   As a utilitarian, Sidgwick believes the ultimate good is happiness, or what he also calls desirable consciousness for sentient beings.

Consider the case of an individual who is called upon to sacrifice his own happiness, perhaps even his life, for the happiness of others.  Now if we judge it to be a reasonable thing for him to do so, then it might be argued that we are assigning a different ultimate good for the individual than for the rest of sentient beings; whereas their good is happiness, his ultimate good is conformity to reason.  While Sidgwick admits the force of this argument, he nevertheless maintains that it may actually be reasonable for an individual to sacrifice his own good for the greater happiness of others.  It is at this point that Sidgwick identifies the Duality of Practical Reason in his footnote.  There he acknowledges that it is “no less reasonable for an individual to take his own happiness as his ultimate end.”

Sidgwick goes on to observe that in earlier moral philosophy, particularly the Greeks, it was believed that it was good for the individual himself to act sacrificially even when the consequences as a whole are painful to him.  While he attributes this belief partly to certain confusions, it is also important to recognize that he also recognizes it is partly due to a “faith deeply rooted in the moral consciousness of mankind, that there cannot be really and ultimately any conflict between the two kinds of reasonableness.”[10]

Sidgwick returns to this unresolved difficulty in the final pages of his book.   Significantly, he identifies one clear way of resolving it that he rejects, namely, by assuming the existence of God and divine sanctions that would be sufficient to assure it was always in our best interests to be moral.  He rejects this assumption, defended most notably in the modern period by Kant, because he does not believe it is strictly required to ground “ethical science.”  In his view, later adopted by Lewis, the fundamental intuitions of moral philosophy are as independently self-evident as the axioms of geometry, and therefore need no grounding from theology or other sources.  But while our moral duty is intuitively obvious, it is, unfortunately, not equally evident that the performance of our duty will be suitably rewarded.  Admittedly, we feel a desire that this be the case not only for ourselves, but for all other people as well.  However, our wish for this to be so has no bearing on whether it is probable, “considering the large proportion of human desires that experience shows to be doomed to disappointment.”[11]

Now even if this desire is doomed to disappointment, this gives us no reason to abandon morality according to Sidgwick, but it does mean we must give up the hope of making full rational sense of it.  Our moral duty is still binding on us despite the fact that it makes no rational sense how this can be so when duty conflicts with self-interest.   In his final paragraph, Sidgwick tentatively offers some brief epistemological reflections on whether we might be rationally justified in believing in the ultimate convergence of morality and self-interest even if this belief cannot claim philosophic certainty.  But what is still clear at the end of the day is that the issue remains unresolved for him.

What Sidgwick recognized as the profoundest problem of moral philosophy in his day has only intensified in later generations.  In much twentieth century moral philosophy, the conflict was stated in terms of egoism versus altruism, and morality was often defined in terms that exclude egoism.  Moreover, this view remains widespread as moral philosophy advances into the twenty-first century.  As a representative of twentieth century moral philosophers, consider the words of John Rawls in his widely influential work A Theory of Justice: “Although egoism is logically consistent and in this sense not irrational, it is incompatible with what we intuitively regard as the moral point of view.  The significance of egoism philosophically is not as an alternative conception of right but as a challenge to any such conception.”[12]

While this conflict has been taken for granted for some time now, it is important to reiterate that it is sharply at odds with how morality has been conceived by most moral philosophers in the greater part of human history.  As David Lutz has observed, it was the view of “the multitude” or “the many” that virtuous living might be in conflict with self-love, but moral philosophers forcefully argued just the opposite.  But now, the view of “the multitude” has become the view of most moral philosophers.  As Lutz sees it, “this change in how we think about our lives is both significant and regrettable.”[13]

Surely the consequences for how we live our lives and for society at large are significant indeed.  The issues here are too pressing to be confined to the halls of academic debate, because they touch on all aspects of our common life.  It is no surprise that these debates have worked their way into popular culture and conversation.  A vivid instance of this occurred in the late 1980’s, a tumultuous time in American cultural history, during which a series of highly publicized scandals rocked a number of American institutions including government, business, the military and the church.  Time magazine did a cover story on ethics the title of which was simply, “What’s Wrong.”   In the concluding paragraph of the article, the author noted a profound ambivalence in the American soul, even as the nation aspired to restore some sense of moral integrity: “the longing for moral regeneration must constantly vie with an equally strong aspect of America’s national character, self indulgence.  It is an inner tension that may animate political life for years to come.”[14]  The tension that the author notes is, of course, another variation on the unresolved problem Sidgwick bequeathed to his successors.    Moreover, events since that time, only the most notorious of which involve the Clinton administration, have certainly vindicated the prediction that this tension would continue to animate political life for years to come.

In an accompanying essay, Time probed the roots of our moral disarray.  Again, it is interesting that the essay ends by grappling with the familiar issue of the relationship between morality and self-interest.  After citing ethicists who believe that it is possible both to be ethical and to get what we want at least most of the time, the essay observes that this is an optimistic solution which only lays bare the heart of the problem, namely, the nature of human desires.  The final sentences of the essay leave us with this prospect for moral renewal:

If Americans wish to strike a truer ethical balance, they may need to re-examine the values that society so seductively parades before them: a top job, political power, sexual allure, a penthouse or lakefront spread, a killing on the market.  The real challenge would then become a redefinition of wants so that they serve society as well as self, defining a single ethic that guides means while it also achieves rightful ends.[15]

The question this obviously raises is what could motivate such a redefinition of wants.  Some convincing account needs to be given of goods that clearly surpass things like top jobs, political power, sexual allure and so on.  The question is what sort of goods would not only be of surpassing value but would also be such that in choosing them one is not forced to decide between one’s own ultimate interest and that of others.

When this choice is forced upon us, that is, when altruism is pried apart from self-interest, it is very revealing to note that it is inevitably distorted in the process.  Indeed, here is a graphic illustration of  “wild and wasted virtues” isolated and wandering alone. Consider two extreme claims about the nature of self-sacrifice that are current in contemporary thought.  On the one side are those who maintain that the only real gift is one that expects nothing in return.  Thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida hold that the highest gift is a sacrifice of one’s life for others, a sacrifice that is ultimate and uncompensated.  Indeed, it is the very finality of death that endows morality with seriousness and makes it truly possible.  The hope of life after death on this view is problematic for ethics.  As John Milbank concisely describes this view, “Death in its unmitigated reality permits the ethical, while the notion of resurrection contaminates it with self-interest.”[16]

On this view, altruism has been stripped of any vestige of human self-interest and raised to truly heroic proportions.  This account of altruism takes moral sacrifice far beyond anything that traditional moralists imagined could be required or reasonably expected of human beings.  These thinkers demand that humans be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice without the support of the sort of moral faith that more traditional moral philosophers, such as Kant, thought necessary to make sense of morality.

By sharp contrast, there is another very different view of altruism current in contemporary thought, namely, that of some influential sociobiologists and evolutionary theorists.  These thinkers attempt to account for altruism in terms of naturalistic evolution, where it poses an obvious problem.  The problem stems from the notion of natural selection, which maintains that traits that reduce reproductive advantages will be eliminated.  Altruism is a double-edged sword in this regard, for not only is it a disadvantage to those who practice it, but it is also an advantage for those who are on the receiving end of it.  So it seems that those who are altruistic would sacrifice themselves out of existence in the unforgiving competition for survival and reproductive advantage.  And yet, altruistic behavior of various kinds continues to be exhibited and highly admired in the human race.  The question of how to account for this fact remains.

Sociobiologists have developed a number of different theories to meet this challenge, some of which can explain at least certain forms of altruistic behavior with a fair degree of plausibility.[17]  It would take us too far afield to discuss these in detail, but one thing in particular is striking about some of these theories, namely, the role that deception plays in them.  One such theory focuses on the recipients of altruistic behavior and suggests that behavior of that sort is produced by the skillful manipulation of those recipients.   Altruistic actions such as adoption, organ donation, and even radical human sacrifice have been explained in terms of manipulation of various social instincts by those who benefit from such activity.

In a similar vein, altruism is also explained as a matter of elaborate self-deception.  This account begins with the recognition that reciprocity is central to human society and the further observation that the optimal position is to cheat the system for personal advantage when one can get away with it.  Successful cheaters, however, must obviously avoid detection.  And one way they can do this is to engage in impressive displays of sacrificial behavior.  When cheaters are detected, ever more creative and costly exhibitions of altruism must be invented to persuade others of one’s sincerity.   Here is where self-deception enters the picture.  If we are to be successful in our self-serving manipulations, we first need to deceive ourselves into believing that we really do care about others and that morality rightly obligates us to do so.  Otherwise, we would never treat others well enough to accomplish our purpose of manipulating them.  Moreover, we will be most persuasive in this regard if our real intentions never enter our minds as conscious thoughts.   Thus, our altruistic displays mask our real purposes not only from others but even from ourselves.

Writing from a similar perspective, Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson maintain that nature has made us believe in a disinterested moral code according to which we are obligated to help others.  “In short, to make us altruistic in the adaptive biological sense, our biology makes us altruistic in the more conventionally understood sense of acting on deeply held beliefs about right and wrong.”[18]   Since we have been wired by evolution to believe in moral obligation, we are not being insincere or hypocritical when we endorse it.  It is because we consciously believe in morality in this sense that it works as well as it does and serves it reproductive purposes.  But the element of deception remains, as the following remarks by Ruse and Wilson indicate.

In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed of on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.  It is without external grounding.  Ethics is produced by evolution but not justified by it, because, like Macbeth’s dagger, it serves a powerful purpose without existing in substance.[19]

The illusion lies in the fact that we are naturally inclined to believe morality has an objective grounding and this illusion is what makes morality effective.  The illusion also explains why ordinary people do not view morality merely as a means of survival, or the promotion of our genes, or worse, as an elaborate form of manipulation and self-advancement.

 

III

Now then, let us turn to consider how distinctively Christian resources can help us save these wild and wasted virtues.  To get right to the heart of the matter, let us note that Sidgwick’s “Dualism of Practical Reason,” which fossilized in the twentieth century as the conflict between egoism and altruism, is simply dissolved on Christian premises.  Indeed, it is an impossible dilemma from a Christian standpoint.  The fundamental reason for this is that the ultimate good for all persons is an eternal relationship with God.  To enjoy this relationship, we must trust and obey God, even when it is costly and difficult.

At the forefront of what God requires of us is that we love others selflessly, but paradoxically, our own self-interest is best served when we do so.  We should distinguish then, between self-interest and selfishness.   One is acting selfishly when he promotes his interests at the unfair expense of others.  Christian morality, like most secular morality, would reject this sort of behavior as wrong.  But there is nothing wrong with acting out of self-interest since all rational creatures naturally and inevitably desire their own happiness and well being.   To love another person is to promote his happiness and well being.  The same thing that makes it right to promote these for other persons makes it right to desire these for oneself as well.  For all human beings share essentially the same nature and are alike valuable to God as creatures he loves.

Learning to love selflessly is what transforms us and prepares us to enter the fellowship of the Trinity.  So as we love in this fashion, we are being prepared to experience our own highest joy and satisfaction.  Consequently, the conflict between acting for our own ultimate good and that of others simply cannot arise.  But this assumes that the highest goods are not those mentioned above in the Time article, namely, things like a top job, political power, sexual allure, a lakefront spread, and so on.  Recall that that article suggested that we needed a redefinition of our wants so that they would serve society as well as self.  Well, I am arguing that the only sorts of goods that will fit the bill in a convincing fashion are heavenly ones.  If naturalism is true, the goods of this life are the only ones available, and it is a Utopian dream to think that we can consistently act in such a way as to promote these goods both for ourselves and for others.

Recognition of this reiterates the point that selfless actions are not easy on the Christian account of things.  For it requires profound faith in God to resist the seductive temptation to believe that the only goods, or the most desirable ones, are those of this life.  To sacrifice such goods for the sake of others is to trust that Trinity is ultimate reality, that giving is reciprocal and mutual in the end.

Because Trinitarian love is the deepest reality, the notion of altruism as ultimate sacrifice with no expectation of compensation is at best a distortion of the aboriginal truth about reality.  At worst, the notion that such utter disinterest represents a higher or more admirable standard is pagan hubris.  As previously observed, this view is represented in current thought by such writers as Levinas and Derrida.  Similar notions were expressed by the Stoics in antiquity, and in the modern period Kant is no doubt the high water mark of philosophers who worried that morality would be contaminated by any element of self-interest.  While Kant believed we must postulate God and immortality to make rational sense of morality, as noted above, he insisted, incoherently in my view, that this could not affect our motivation without corrupting its moral value.

In Christian thought, resurrection and immortality are not afterthoughts, nor are they  postulates to salvage morality from irrationality.  They are integral to the grand claim that ultimate reality is reciprocal love.  Christ’s resurrection, no less than his giving his life as a sacrifice for our sins, is a picture for us of the eternal dynamic of divine love.  It is life, not death--as Levinas and Derrida contend--that gives morality substance.  As John Milbank puts it, “resurrection, not death, is the ground of the ethical.”[20]

Consider in this connection the book of Hebrews, which presents a theologically rich account of how Christ offered his life as a sacrifice to save us from our sins.   In two passages particularly relevant to our current discussion we are informed not only that Christ yielded obedience to the one who could save him from death, but also that it was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross.[21]   Thus, the consummate sacrifice that gives meaning to all others according to the book of Hebrews gives no credence whatever to the pagan notion that the finality of death is necessary for ultimate sacrifice.  To the contrary, the ultimate sacrifice in human history, the sacrifice that saves the world, was given in faith that joy will triumph over death.

In commending Christ as a model in this regard, this passage is encouraging Christians who suffer for their faith to do so with confident hope that the God whose nature is love will reciprocate their costly obedience.  Self-interest in this regard is a straightforward component of Christian moral motivation.  Indeed, it is a rather obvious implication of the logic of Trinitarian belief.  For we cannot harm our well being by obedience to God, just as we cannot promote it by selfishness.

Indeed, there is no other way to be happy and to find the fulfillment we desire than by obedience to God.  Thus, there is no parallel problem on the Christian view to the one posed for naturalism by those who choose, often successfully, to cheat the system.  God cannot be deceived or cheated in any way, so moral parasites are completely out of the question on this view.   It might make rational sense to think that cheating could successfully serve one’s ultimate well being on naturalistic assumptions, but that could never be the case given Christian beliefs. This observation further confirms the power of Christian theology to account not only for why morality is objectively binding upon us but also for why any reasonable person should want to obey it.  It provides a rationally persuasive and winsome account of moral motivation that nothing in secular morality can emulate.

Before concluding this section, let us return for a moment to Sidgwick and recall that he rejected the notion of theistic sanctions for morality, confident that morality could stand on its own.   As Alasdair MacIntyre put it, he held that at the “foundation of moral thinking lie beliefs in statements for the truth of which no further reason can be given.” [22]  MacIntyre goes on to argue that it was this sort of intuitionist view that undermined any claim to objectivity and prepared the way for the emotivism of twentieth century moral philosophy.  Subsequent moral philosophy, not to mention the moral confusion of our culture, has surely shown that Sidgwick’s faith was not well founded and that morality needs a better grounding than he or his heirs have provided.  I have been arguing that the theism he rejected, particularly in its orthodox Christian forms, along with its teleological account of human nature and happiness remains the most viable resource for resolving the problems we have inherited from him.

 

IV

Before concluding, let us hear from Chesterton again.  In his discussion of the “Paradoxes of Christianity” he noted that “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”  He goes on to give this as an example: “One can hardly think too little of one’s self.  One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.”[23]

This comment points us to the very end of his book where he notes the irony that modernism is emancipated in seeking pleasure in this life, but ultimately despairing because it does not believe there is any final meaning in the universe.

 The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but

sad about the big ones.  Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it

is not native to man to be so.  Man is more himself, man is more manlike,

when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.[24]

Christians follow one who obeyed God, even unto death, because of the joy set before him.  Therein lies not only the foundation of morality and the salvation of wasted virtues, but our very humanity.

 

 

Notes:

[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image, 1959), 30.

[2] Orthodoxy, 30.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 44.

[4] The Abolition of Man, 40; 73.

[5] The Abolition of Man, 49.

[6] Orthodoxy, 44.

[7] Orthodoxy, 44-45.

[8] For helpful historical analysis, see David W. Lutz, “The Emergence of the Dualism of Practical Reason in Post-Hobbesian British Moral Philosophy,” Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Notre Dame, 1994.

[9] Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), 404, note 1.

[10] The Methods of Ethics, 405.

[11] The Methods of Ethics, 507-508.

[12] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 136.

[13] “The Emergence of the Dualism of Practical Reason in Post-Hobbesian British Moral Philosophy,” 8.

[14] Walter Shapiro, “What’s Wrong,” Time, May 25, 1987, 17.

[15] Ezra Bowen, “Looking to Its Roots,” Time, May 25, 1987, 29.

[16] John Milbank, “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice,” First Things 91 (March 1999), 34.

[17] For a helpful discussion of these theories, see Jeffrey P. Schloss, “Evolutionary Accounts of Altruism & the Problem of Goodness by Design” in Mere Creation, ed. William B. Dembski (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 236-261.

[18] Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences: The Range of Engagement, ed. James E. Huchingson (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993), 310.

[19] “The Evolution of Ethics,” 310.

[20] “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice,” 38.

[21] Hebrews 5:7; 12:1-3.

[22] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second Edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 65.

[23] Orthodoxy, 95.

[24] Orthodoxy, 159.

Photo: "Heaven Above" by Jochemberends. CC License. 

Jerry Walls

 

Dr. Walls, Dr. Baggett’s co-author of some of the books already mentioned, is one of the world’s leading thinkers on issues of heaven, hell, and purgatory, having written a book on each and a forthcoming book covering all three. He’s written voluminously, from a book on the apologetics of Schaeffer and Lewis, a critique of Calvinism, two books on basketball, and more besides. Currently, Dr. Walls is a professor at Houston Baptist University in Houston, TX.