Thinking Out Loud

January 6, 2014

We Track a Story People Were Willing to Die For

Crucifixion of St. Peter (Wikipedia Commons) Click image for link

Crucifixion of St. Peter (Wikipedia Commons) Click image for link

This appeared back in August — that’s forever ago in blog years — at Nailing It To The Door, a blog by Dan Martin. It was the eighth in a series of posts titled, Why I Believe; this one being The Testimony of Witnesses. To read this at source and then navigate to find the other parts, click this link.

There is no question in my mind that one of the most compelling reasons to believe specifically the accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings is the testimony of those who were there.  This is, I’m quite sure, a problematic claim for those who object to faith; I’ve encountered many rants on the unreliability of the gospel accounts, though I find that the same people who protest about the unreliability of the gospels tend to be far more credulous when looking at any other ancient written histories.  But there are two particular things about the Apostles and other first-century Christians that I find highly compelling.

The first is specific to the Evangelists who wrote the four canonical gospels (and I really do mean the canonical ones; I’ve read a number of the others and they differ so much in character that the judgment of the councils in rejecting them seems to me quite sound).  C.S. Lewis probably said it best in his 1959 lecture “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism:”

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one [of the stories in the Gospel of John, for example] is like this… Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” (see the full essay here; quote on p. 155)

Put perhaps a little more simply, the gospels just don’t look like anybody else’s idea of what mythical or divine characters ought to be, do, or say.  Weird and off-center as they might seem now, they were even weirder and less-probable in the time they were written.  Things only turn out that oddly if they’re either real (truth really is stranger than fiction) or very creatively written.

But even more compelling to me is the fact that the authors and their other compatriots were willing to die for the truth of what they had written or said.  And die they did, in some pretty horrible ways.  According to tradition and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563):

  • Philip was crucified
  • Matthew was “slain with a halberd”
  • James the brother of Jesus was beaten, stoned, and clubbed to death
  • Matthias (elected to replace Judas) was stoned and beheaded
  • Andrew was crucified
  • Mark was “dragged to pieces”
  • Peter was crucified upside-down
  • Paul was beheaded
  • Jude was crucified
  • Bartholomew was beaten and then crucified
  • Thomas was speared
  • Simon the Zealot was crucified
  • John was “cast into a cauldron of boiling oil,” survived, and was later exiled to the island of Patmos; “He was the only apostle who escaped a violent death.”
  • Barnabas is said to be martyred, though the means of his death is not reported.

These guys, unlike later generations of Christians killed by the thousands under various rulers, knew exactly what they were dying for.  They claimed to have seen and heard it themselves.  If they were faking it, they sure were willing to take their deception to a really crazy, extreme end.

I’m not saying that death alone testifies to truth.  Many hundreds and thousands have died for falsehoods throughout history … I think of the infamous Jonestown mass suicide in the 70s … but the difference, at least as I see it, is that these people were deluded by a charismatic leader who ordered them to their deaths.  Jesus did no such thing, and in fact he was already dead and gone (if we presume fakery) or dead and raised (if we accept the Gospels) before any of the apostles faced their deaths.  These men went willingly to gruesome deaths because they couldn’t recant the truth of what they’d spent their lives teaching.

There are, of course, many more martyrs since the first century.  While I have no desire to diminish their testimony, it seems to me that it’s of a different category.  Except for however they may have experienced the Holy Spirit in their own lives, the thing for which they died was removed from them in that they no longer could testify to having seen Jesus with their eyes, heard his teachings from his very lips with their own ears, and even sat and broken bread with him.  No one, however intense their experience, has had the same level of personal, experiential linkage to Jesus Christ that those first-century apostles had.  And when they were invited to either confess to their lie or die in pain, they insisted it was no lie and accepted the consequences.  Two millenia later, that testimony remains, to me, difficult to refute.

November 1, 2013

C.S. Lewis: Still Very Much Alive

Filed under: apologetics, books, children — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:16 am

If you die on the same day as someone more famous, you probably don’t make the evening news. Your newspaper obituary will probably be hidden away on a back page, if space allows it to run at all. So it was with C. S. Lewis.

Clive Staples Lewis, after whom the Staples office supply store is named

Clive Staples Lewis, after whom the Staples office supply store chain is named

Much will be made with month about the 50 year anniversary of the passing of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, but only on Christian websites and blogs will you read about Lewis. In some respects, I like to think it keeps him very much alive; that Lewis is at the same time one of our best classic writers and one of our best contemporary writers.

But a blog post a few days ago at Faith Village suggests that Lewis’ appeal is more focused in the United States (and Canada) and less so in his native Britain:

Lewis may be the most popular Christian writer in history, with millions of copies of his books sold, the vast majority in the United States where his influence is far greater than in his native country.

Many readers of the Narnia series have no knowledge of Lewis the Christian apologist, while others who enjoy books like Mere Christianity often forget the connection to the children’s fantasy series.

It’s not uncommon to read other authors where his approach to the claims of Christ are reiterated, or hear them interviews such as this one with U2 frontman Bono:

…Bono imitated C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, where Lewis argued that Jesus had to be a lunatic, liar or Lord.

“When people say ‘Good teacher,’ ‘Prophet,’ ‘Really nice guy,’ … this is not how Jesus thought of Himself,” Bono said. “So, you’re left with a challenge in that, which is either Jesus was who He said He was or a complete and utter nut case.”

“And I believe that Jesus was, you know, the Son of God…”

The 50th anniversary of his death has already been remembered in Oxford, England with a September festival,  with guest speakers such as Alister McGrath:

“Lewis is now read by more people today than during his lifetime. What makes people keep reading him?” said McGrath.

Answering his own question, McGrath ranged over the ‘three Lewises’ – Lewis the Oxford don, Lewis the Christian writer, and Lewis the creator of Narnia.

“The latter two are why he is remembered,” said McGrath, a professor of theology at King’s College London.

In addition to The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s best known writings include The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed and Mere Christianity.

McGrath praised Lewis for his skill in explaining the Christian faith in a way that “made sense” while still managing to “engage the imagination”.

“Lewis does need to be heard,” he said.

On Narnia, McGrath said academics were still unsure as to what motivated Lewis to write a series of children’s books seeing as he did not have children of his own and there was, he asserted, some evidence to suggest he did not particularly like children.

“Maybe Lewis is saying: I wish I had this kind of thing when I was younger, I might not have lost my faith,” he speculated.

We’ll have more on the Jubilee celebration of C. S. Lewis’ life and death later this month.

September 7, 2013

Apologetics Fail: Berating Your Audience

Filed under: apologetics — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:17 am

My wife and I have been discussing writing about the title of this 2009 book for some time, but honestly, words fail us, and we’re both prolific writers. What were they thinking? Oh wait, they were accusing their intended audience of not thinking.  Here’s the publisher marketing for Ray Comfort’s You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence But You Can’t Make Him Think: Answers to Questions from Angry Skeptics

You Can Lead an Atheist To EvidenceThere is a new breed of atheist which our educational system is pumping out like mad. These are militant atheists who have an agenda to eliminate Christianity from the face of the earth. Believers are in a war and we need powerful weapons to “fight the good fight of faith.” This book reveals not just the weakness of the atheists’ arguments and the solid foundation on which the Christian stands, but does so with humor and warmth. Few books take the time to address the atheist’s conscience. By way of a lively Q&A format, “You Can Lead an Atheist” gives empirical evidence for the existence of God. Not only that, this book shows the existence of God can be proven and anyone can do it!

Fine. But do you need to be totally condescending in the book’s title? The subtitle is interesting, too. Angry skeptics? Maybe the reason they’re angry is because you just called them stupid.

I’m sorry, but as much as I agree with the existence of God, as an atheist I would be totally offended by that title, and as a Christian… I am totally offended by it as well.

If I’ve learned anything from discussions with skeptics, agnostics and atheists, it’s that they are not lacking in any critical faculties. Thinking? Maybe they think too much, but last time I checked having intellectual doubts was not a crime. I hated the book’s title when it was released four years ago, and I hate it now.

May 30, 2013

A Homicide Investigator Looks at History’s Most Famous Death

Cold Case ChristianityEvery decade or so a great work of apologetics appears which breaks the boundaries of the discipline and reaches a wider audience. Josh McDowell did it years ago with Evidence That Demands a Verdict; Frank Morrison with Who Moved the Stone? and more recently Lee Strobel brought a large audience to the discussion with The Case for Christ series.

Enter former Los Angeles County homicide investigator J. Warner Wallace and his book Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. (2013, David C. Cook).  Like Strobel, Wallace was a skeptic turned believer, and like McDowell, Wallace leaves no stone unturned in his study of the reliability of scripture, from obscure passages to those central to core doctrine.

The book is divided into two parts, the nature of cold case investigation — and this case is 2,000 + years old, and the particular evidence that the Bible offers. But first one other book comparison, and you won’t see it coming. Years ago Philip Keller wrote A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. People loved that book because there were particular insights that only one who tended sheep could offer toward interpretation of the text that begins “The Lord is my shepherd.” In many respects, Cold Case Christianity offers the same type of intimacy with the subject matter that only an insider who has worked in this vocation can contribute. So if you feel you’ve read enough apologetics titles to last a lifetime, allow me to offer you one more! 

It’s important to note that Wallace approached this originally from the perspective of an atheist. While the evidence in this case is compelling, I found the first part of the book (which is more than half of the total) most interesting. Possible recipients of this book would include men (Father’s Day is coming) and anyone who reads mysteries or watches mystery or suspense or programs related to the justice system on video or TV.

In a sense, in Cold Case Christianity you, or someone you know who is sitting on the fence in terms of belief, are the jury. So the other possible recipients of this book would be anyone who is investigating Christianity; including people who might not read other books in the apologetics genre.

The second part of the book is the evidence itself. Here, Wallace brings in much from non-Biblical sources, satisfying the oft-voice complaint that some apologists are simply using the Bible to prove the Bible.

J. Warner Wallace is now part of the ministry of Stand To Reason, and posts articles and blogs at PleaseConvinceMe.com . This is a handbook I intend to keep within reach and will no doubt refer back to many times.

February 22, 2013

David Gregory Makes it a Trilogy

Filed under: apologetics, books — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:15 am

Night With A Perfect StrangerAlthough there has been a publisher change between the second and third books, David Gregory’s Dinner with a Perfect Stranger and A Day with a Perfect Stranger now has third companion title,  Night with a Perfect Stranger  (2012 Worthy Press hardcover).

I got to know David through the first two books, and then followed him to the nearly 400-page novel The Last Christian, which I reviewed here.  The first two books were also used as the basis of two movies, but with some significant plot changes. I explained the mapping of the two books to the two films here.

So it was interesting to follow David back to the much shorter (120 or so pages) format of the earlier titles.

I actually borrowed this book because I wanted to read it. I’m not aware of Worthy (the publisher) having any kind of review programs. So having mentioned it here let me use bullet points to highlight a few things:

  • The basic premise you have to agree to is that Jesus can appear to people today in the flesh. Yes, of course you disagree that this happens, but you need to suspend that issue to enjoy the book.
  • While this continues to be “apologetics fiction,” the main theme here is the nitty gritty of living the Christian life, of keeping up the zeal we have at major turning points when spiritual disciplines or church life become routine.
  • Tied to this is the nature of God’s dealings with us and the nature of God’s presence.
  • Like the first book — but not the second — there is more appeal here to the male reader, but not at the expense of women who will enjoy this as well.
  • This one is less static; there are more locations; there is more action.
  • There is a fun reference to “that book where God is an African-American woman,”  and readers of “that book” and others like it will enjoy this.
  • The back cover of the book, above the bar code, doesn’t indicate the title as fiction which, in terms of literary genre, it clearly is. Not sure why.

At $14.95 U.S., hardcover gift books like these are not cheap, but they are certainly worth giving to the right person who is struggling with a present Christian life that doesn’t equal past Christian experiences; or is simply longing, as we all do, for something more.

December 28, 2012

Why Mere Christianity Still Works: An Analysis

Mere Christianity C. S. LewisYou’re expected to review current books online, and this review is therefore 60 years too late. However, John Stackhouse has saved the best wine (so to speak) for the last (of the year) with a landmark analysis of the continuing popularity of the C. S. Lewis bestseller Mere Christianity.

I know not everybody clicks through, so I’ll include a few highlights here, but if you treasure good writing, you need to read the article now, because it is every bit as delightful as the book itself. 

john_stackhouseStill here? Okay, those highlights include:

  • A somewhat disjointed set of C. S. Lewis’s views on a wide range of theological, philosophical, and ethical matters, the book became the most important and effective defense of the Christian faith in its century.
  • The first reason why MC should not have worked is rather basic: It doesn’t deliver what its title promises. It does not do even what John Stott’s classic Basic Christianity does—namely, outline at least the basics of evangelicalism’s understanding of the gospel.
  • A second reason why… it is, after all, an extended set of philosophical and theological arguments. Even worse, it is front-loaded with its densest material, a reworking of the moral argument for the existence of God…
  • MC works because Lewis was a master at two rhetorical arts, which he combined fluently: argument and depiction.
  • Lewis can both show and tell. He can tell us what he thinks we should think, and then make it appear for us in an image that usually lasts long after the middle steps of the argument have vanished from memory.
  • What seems effortless for Lewis is actually extraordinarily difficult to emulate. The market is now flooded with books by Ph.D.s who cannot write an interesting and intelligible paragraph, and by wannabe pop apologists who just aren’t very smart.
  • People today do want arguments, but they want them the way Lewis delivered them: in plain language, about issues that matter, in a methodical step-by-step fashion, and with illustrations that literally illustrate and commend the point being made. For scholars to write this way today is at least as much of a challenge as it was in Lewis’s day.

Okay, that’s enough bullet points (aka spoon-feeding!) You really do need to read the article.

C. S. LewisBut then, if you haven’t already had the pleasure, you need to read Mere Christianity. I would suggest taking a chapter at a time; no more than one per day and don’t try to rush through it. Even better, if you can find an interested friend or relative, read it out loud to them daily for several days. (It was, after all, originally a radio broadcast.)

It may also whet your appetite for apologetics, a subject frequently discussed here, that is simply too foreign to too many Christ-followers. I encourage you to develop a taste for it.


If you make it through MC and do indeed find yourself wanting more, I would suggest your next stop be Classic Christianity by Bob George, a man who also knows the power of a good illustration.  Review here.  Excerpt here.

Images: I figured it rather obvious which one is John Stackhouse, Jr. and which one is C. S. Lewis, but, for the record, they appear in that order.  (Actually, the first image is the book in its most recent North American paperback edition from HarperCollins.)

July 6, 2012

God’s Will But Not God’s Desire

Several days ago at Christianity 201, I shared an audio clip of someone reading  C.S. Lewis on the subject of free will. Lewis talks about that are freedom actually is God’s will, but within that freedom we can choose wrongly, or choose the thing that God would not necessarily desire.

Rob Bell approached this subject in a chapter titled, ‘Does God Get What God Wants?’ in his controversial 2011 book, Love Wins:

In the Bible, God is not helpless, God is not powerless,

and God is not impotent. Paul writes to the Philippians that “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”

Once again, God has a purpose. A desire. A goal. And God never stops pursuing it…

…God in the end doesn’t get what God wants, it’s declared, because some will turn, repent, and believe, and others won’t. To explain this perspective, it’s rightly point out that love, by it’s very nature, is freedom. For there to be love there has to be the option, both now and then, to not love. To turn the other way. To reject the love extended. To say no. This perspective allows that while God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of relationship itself. If at any point God overrides or co-opts or hijacks the human heart, robbing it, and us, of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is.

So here, with all its British flavor, is the 3-minute C. S. Lewis reading.  As I stated to C201 readers, this was posted on YouTube on the ‘Islamic Worldview’ channel. I’ll leave it for you to ponder that one.  (For those of you reading on mobile devices or dial-up or limited data plans, this takes mere seconds to upload.)

I’ve watched this several times now, and would love to memorize this so that I could present it others.

The version of this at C201 also contains a full video clip from Ravi Zacharias.

June 10, 2012

One Rule for You

One of my all-time favorite songs is by 80′s UK mainstream band After The Fire (ATF) which also happens to be a Christian band.  Since we changed the rules here to allow video embeds, I realized it’s never been posted on the blog.  This song basically expresses the frustration that many of us feel when trying to give testimony to what Christ has done for us around people who grew up in a postmodern mindset.

“That’s good for you, and I’ll have to find something that works for me.”

But truth, if it is truth, has to be truth for all people. There cannot be a “truth for you” and a “truth for me.” The postmodern condition is, if anything, a quest to deny the existence of absolute truth. But if you’re flying from New York to London, you want a pilot who believes that 2+2=4, not one that believes that 2+2=5, or that there are many different answers.

That’s what this song is all about.

What kind of line is that when you say you don’t understand a single word
I tell you all these things, you turn around and make as if you never heard

What kind of line is that you’re giving me
One Rule for you, one rule for me

Too many people try to tell me that I shouldnt say the things I do
I know that you would only do the same if it meant as much too you

What kind of line is that you’re giving me
One Rule for you, one rule for me

They say believe in what you like as long as you can keep it to yourself
I say if what I know is right, it’s wrong if I don’t tell somebody else

What kind of line is that you’re giving me
One Rule for you, one rule for me

written by Peter Banks & Andy Piercy

April 8, 2012

Resurrection and Grace

The following is widely blogged:

In What’s So Amazing about Grace?, Philip Yancey recounts this story about C. S. Lewis:

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith.

They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death.

The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions.

Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree.

The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law—each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.

While I like the story, had I been present, I would have challenged the notion that other religions have verified accounts of resurrection. One of the other things that sets Christianity apart is the evidence for the resurrection; evidence which forms the themes of countless books on Christian apologetics.

But where I want to go with this today is this: If you think about it, grace and resurrection are somewhat similar ideas. The DNA present in the concept of grace is embedded in the concept of resurrection, and the DNA of resurrection is embedded in the concept of grace.

Both represent a ‘pass’ if you will.

I sin, but forgiveness is made available by the grace of God.

I die, but in expectation of being raised to eternal life just as Christ conquered death.

I avoid having to perform acts of penance or go through acts of contrition in order to recover my spiritual dignity; I simply need to sincerely ask God’s forgiveness, it is a gift from God, not involving effort or earning.

I avoid having to wonder if my remorse was sufficient, I can receive assurance from God’s Word that my transgressions are forgiven, because he is ever-faithful and ever-just.

I avoid a meaningless death, but die knowing that this is not the end; that death itself is a gateway to something greater that God has in store; something my eyes have never seen, my ears have never heard, my imagination has never conjured up.

Now, some will argue that avoiding the consequences of sin and someday experiencing the reality of victory over death is really the same thing; and I would agree. The two are linked.

But imagine — and you don’t have to — a belief system that includes both grace and resurrection.  Why would you look anywhere else?

March 12, 2012

Approaching Christianity Philosophically

Working in and around the Christian publishing industry, I am constantly frustrated by requests for resources that are appropriate to give as gifts to people who do not identify as Christians, but may be interested in reading something that resonates with their current worldview, or communicates in terms more familiar to other materials they are currently reading.

But then, when something arrives on the scene from outside the fold — not bearing the Seal of Approval of a publisher like Moody, or Zondervan or Baker or Tyndale — I find myself straining for clues that will verify that the title in question is sufficiently Evangelically kosher; and that the author is worthy of my unconditional recommendation.

I’m not sure you can have it both ways. If a book is going to absolutely connect with people of other faiths, there are times it’s going to seem foreign to those of us deeply embedded in modern church culture.

Ellis Potter’s book 3 Theories of Everything (2012, Destinée Media) arrived in my mail last week from Switzerland as the clear winner in my “curiosity of the month” category. At a trim 112 pages, nothing was stopping me from reading it cover to cover, but who was this author and where was he going with this?

It turned out not so important where he was going as where he was coming from.  A visit to the website of Eastern Europe Renewal provided this:

Mr Potter, a native Californian now residing in Switzerland, is a former Buddhist monk who became a Christian under the influence and ministry of the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer. Mr Potter’s dramatic conversion came about as a direct result of several intense, personal discussions with Dr. Schaeffer during the turbulent seventies.

In 3 Theories of Everything, Potter looks at the overarching structure of many popular religious worldviews, which can be classified into one of the following: Monism, Dualism and Trinitarianism.  Looking at each, he then shows the ways in they succeed or fail to succeed in explaining the world around them, with a particular emphasis on the problem of suffering.

The book would be of special interest to anyone who has experience with Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Astrology, Meditation or New Age religions; as well as anyone who has done basic reading in Philosophy including cosmology or metaphysics. Here’s a fairly accessible sample

Freedom and form is another pair of opposites that we see in the world. A good illustration is gravity. Gravity is one of the basic forms, or structures, of reality but it gives us a certain freedom. If gravity were not here and I began to walk, I would float and spin and soon I would be dead. Form or structure is necessary. Let me give you an equation to express this idea:

total freedom = death

There is nothing postmodern about this equation. Postmodernism as usually understood and practiced in western culture regards freedom as the highest value and sees the purpose of freedom as fun and play. But freedom cannot really be valuable or life-giving unless it is accompanied by form. If you want to be totally free to fly you can go to the top of a building and jump. You can say, ‘I am free;’ but you won’t be free, you will be dead because you have not respected form. But if you study the various forms of reality — the laws of properties that give reality, structure and shape, such as gravity, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, metallurgy, jet propulsion, stress, torque and so on — then you will be able to build an airplane and fly across the ocean. That’s a great freedom, but the freedom is connected to form. Freedom and form are not independent of each other in reality. Again, their relationship is complementary rather than competitive.  (pp. 48-9)

Having worked through alternative worldviews, Ellis gently builds a case for the Christian worldview incorporating a fresh (but orthodox) retelling of the fall, the incarnation and the atonement.

But then, as a bonus, the author appends answers to 45 questions that have been asked in seminars he has given in different parts of the world; some clearly arising from Christians and others from skeptics. He is not unwilling to tackle things like, ‘Is it possible you might one day find a different answer and abandon Christianity?’ In answering that most candidly he defines Christian commitment, while at the same time indicating the scenario to be unlikely. In another question, he’s asked if his years as a Zen Buddhist monk informs his present occupation as a Christian pastor. His answer would make a few people I know uncomfortable, but in the answer that follows immediately after, he says he identifies theologically as close to Baptist or Brethren.

Again, this is that book that I mentioned at the beginning; a rare gem of a book for that person not ready for Paul Little or Erwin Lutzer or Josh McDowell; and for reasons of length and style and the writer’s background, I think this would also be a good book to give to a man who is looking at faith questions from a distance; or with whom you want to begin a deeper conversation. It’s also a pre-apologetic title fitting for a college or university student.

3 Theories of Everything by Ellis Potter is available for bookstores to order worldwide as a print-on-demand book through Ingram Publisher Services, the largest book distributor in the world; in paperback at $13.99 U.S. 

Read another excerpt from the book at Christianity 201.

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