Difficult questions that are often raised:

 

"Religion is a choice of the heart and cannot be tested."

This is a common sentiment. Many people feel that religion is in its own category and is a choice that is outside of the domain of investigation. Of course, religion is not a science and cannot be "repeated" which is a necessary step of the scientific method. However a few religions, like Christianity, are based on certain events in history. Paul writes "If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:14). Now if someone were to tell you that Socrates was not poisoned or that Joan of Arc did not enter battle, then you of course, cannot formally prove that they are wrong. But you can offer historical, documented evidence to suggest otherwise.

In the same way, there are critical events in Christianity that cannot be "proved," but there is a great deal of supporting, documented evidence to suggest they happened. Examples of these events are documented in the next question.

It is true that ultimately, religion is a choice. However it should not be a blind choice. It should be made after careful thought and investigation since it is the most important choice that a person makes in his or her life. Most people have done very little research into this topic but pursue career or family and settle into a routine without God.

"What are some of the pieces of evidence that suggest Christianity is true?"

First, one cannot assume the Bible is true and then try to use the Bible to support Christianity. This is bad logic and only begs the question, "How do you know the Bible is true?" Other approaches are needed to answer this question.

But before going too far and ignoring the Bible altogether, it is useful to pause and reflect on the commonly asked question, "do you believe in the Bible?" That strikes me as a bad question. When someone says, "do you believe in Santa Claus?", the person is really asking, "do you believe Santa Claus exists?" I am not aware of anyone who believes that the Bible does not exist, so that cannot be the purpose of the question. It seems that another meaning is behind the question. It must mean something like "do you believe in the supernatural parts of the Bible, or its teachings about God and Jesus?"

It is important to establish that point because there is much about the Bible on which everyone agrees -- for example, that it is a very old book containing a complex mixture of history, poetry, proverbs, religious teaching, and letters. Similarly, everyone agrees that the Bible was written by many authors (roughly 40) over many centuries. That is, the Bible is a collection of books -- not one book as it is commonly perceived. More like a library of 66 books, there were many authors who contributed to this collection. Dozens of authors wrote documents over hundreds of years from different countries, circumstances, and motivations. For reasons that will not be explored here, these writings were thought to be important and were collected to form the Bible. There are of course two main parts to what we call the Bible: the Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh) and the New Testament. The Old Testament was completed by roughly 400 BC, although some would say as late as about 200 BC. The New Testament was completed somewhere between 70 and 100 AD.

Immediately a strong contrast should be noted between the Bible and other religious books. The Qur'an, for example, is the product of one man (Mohammed) and not a multi-author collection of works. Herein lies a strength of the Bible: many authors and sources are always better to attest to any truth. The multi-author nature of the Bible leads to a related challenge: to put together truth from different sources. While not always simple, I will soon argue that things hold together in ways that are too remarkable for a reasonable person to simply label a coincidence, especially involving predictions.

In the Old Testament (Tanakh), we read the writings of a people who were needy and oppressed. From Egypt to Assyria to Babylon, Israel was continually subjugated by foreign powers. In the midst of various plights, Jewish prophets and teachers made the claim that their God would one day vindicate Israel. We have extensive writings from their prophets on this subject. Yet besides the material one might expect from a situation of oppression, some of their writing was quite unexpected, puzzling, and not easily understood by that audience.

The essence of the argument I will make is that hundreds of years later, Jesus applied many of these writings and ideas to himself (including the puzzling parts). In applying these passages to himself, he made sense of texts that were shadowy and unclear, and sometimes added fresh meaning into these texts. Moreover, the way that these "fulfillments" come together is so remarkable, particularly in its description of events that would happen hundreds of years later, that it would take the most strained skeptic to not see a divine Artist crafting both the text of these books and perhaps even history itself.

The thoughtful reader will note that this approach does not suppose that the miracles of the Bible are true. While the Bible describes many miracles such as the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and the apostles healing diseases, none of these events are observable to us so they cannot be used to support Christianity. Using these events would require a prior belief in the supernatural events of the Bible, which is not a valid starting point. Instead of supernatural events, we must build upon the agreed upon parts. If it is agreed that a text was written before a certain date, and it is agreed that what is described by the text occurred after it was written, and that what was described was not a necessary or expected event, then we have a very interesting phenomenon.

For example, suppose that in 2004 I say and record that the Olympics will occur in 2020. When they occur, that is not much of a surprise because they are supposed to occur every four years. However, if I say and record that someone named Frederick will win a gold medal in the 100 meter dash at the 2020 Olympics and then that in fact occurs, then suddenly what I say takes on new credibility, including things where I talk about unseen phenomenon or about God. Even though Frederick's winning a 100 meter dash gold medal at the 2020 Olympics may not be a supernatural event per se, my prediction of it is somewhere between miraculous and coincidental, depending on your perspective.

I do not claim that the Bible's texts are as simple as saying that Frederick will win a gold medal in 2020. However, while variegated in the clarity of their descriptions, they are remarkable in that different texts by different authors seem to all converge on one person remarkably well. Thus we will study texts, beginning with obscure ones and becoming more precise as we progress. Let us start with one of the oldest texts written in the Hebrew language (probably around 1500 BC), from the Torah, which is the beginning of the Old Testament (Tanakh). It is part of a poem that was almost certainly a mystery to its hearers.

I see him, but not now;
   I behold him, but not near --
a star shall come out of Jacob,
   and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the borderlands of Moab,
   and the territory of all the Shethites.
Edom will become a possession,
  Seir a possession of its enemies,
  while Israel does valiantly.
One out of Jacob shall rule,
  and destroy the survivors of Ir. (Numbers 24:17-19)

Spoken by a man by the name of Balaam, it is a mysterious, almost war-like, vision of a person who will supposedly arise out of Jacob to rule and conquer Israel's enemies. Who is the person he was referring to? Admittedly unclear, there are other quite different texts that have similar themes, involving a mysterious figure who who would day come. The following passage (written around 700 BC by Isaiah) is related.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins... for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-5,9-10)

The text says that a "branch" shall grow out of Jesse, which presumably means that he will be a descendant of Jesse. Because Jesse was the father of King David, one might be tempted to say that this passage applied to the earthly life of David. However, the passage was written after David's life and seems too grand to apply to him. After all, the nations did not all rally to David, nor did the knowledge of the Lord spread globally. If there is some doubt that the above passage might apply to King David, there can be no doubt the following passage cannot, nor to any other Jewish king. It was written by Daniel, another Jewish prophet:

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being [literally "son of man"] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

In this vision by Daniel, we cannot help but wonder what the identity is of this "one like a human being." He approaches the Ancient One (God) and is given all authority that all peoples and nations would serve him forever. These and many other passages (like Psalm 2, Isaiah 9, 42, 61) were swirling around in the minds of Jews for hundreds of years before Jesus' day. Out of them emerged a vague concept of a "Messiah," which means anointed one, who would deliver them from oppression and bring God's justice to the world. While precisely understanding what the Jews believed about Messiah before Jesus' day is difficult, texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls (like 4Q174) confirm the expectation that Jews thought Messiah would be a conquering hero. With these ideas in the air, Jesus was born and ultimately made the claim to be the Messiah. Interestingly, his favorite title for himself was "Son of man," undoubtedly a reference to the Daniel 7 passage above.

At this point, the skeptic might say, "So what? You have proven little for your case other than that vague, ancient texts existed that talked about a coming hero, and that Jesus claimed to be this person. Jesus does not seem to have fulfilled this anyway." Fair enough. However, the part that must not be neglected is the way that Jesus put together these ideas and many more in an astonishing way. To get at this second part, let us look at an different kind of text.

Micah, sometime around 400 BC, lived in Israel and claimed to speak words from God. One of the things he told them was:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

Micah is claiming that God is speaking through him about someone who will be from Bethlehem. It seems that this is not a typical person because his "origin is from of old, from ancient days." No matter the uncertainty, it is clear that Micah is saying that Bethlehem will be the source of a ruler. Since Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem 400 years later, this passage takes on more interest.

Now the skeptic can immediately say, "Well those Christians just went back and changed the Bible to fit Jesus." This argument is easily refuted. First of all, you can go into any Jewish synagogue and ask to see their Bible. Remember that Jews and Christians share the same Old Testament (Tanakh), except that the Christians have a second part called the New Testament which describes the life of Jesus. But this prophet Micah is from the first part, called the Old Testament, that Jews and Christians share. Any rabbi will show you the same text. But surely the Jews did not also change their Bible to fit Jesus, whom they believe is not Messiah. To prove the point, here is the quotation of the same verse from the Jewish Bible:

And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath,
Least among the clans of Judah,
From you one shall come forth
To rule Israel for Me --
One whose origin is from of old,
From ancient times. (Micah 5:2, JPS Tanakh)

While translated slightly different into English, the verse is identical in meaning. While this argument is sufficient to settle the question, there is a second independent argument that is equally powerful and is, in addition, more tangible. I have already alluded to the Dead Sea Scrolls which are a set of manuscripts first discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. Many of these manuscripts are portions of the Old Testament, including a complete scroll in excellent condition containing the entire book of Isaiah. These manuscripts have been dated using carbon-14 and paleographic methods to be between 250 BC and 70 AD. The Isaiah manuscript is dated before 100 BC. The Dead Sea Scrolls add a second argument attesting that these manuscripts could not have been changed by Christians or Jews. I will not repeat this argument again, but it applies to the texts that I will continue to list, which are from the Old Testament.

At the time of its writing, like the poem by Balaam, Micah's audience must have been unsure about what he meant with this ruler, a puzzle piece of sorts. Now we turn to another supposed prophet named Zechariah, one of the last people described in the Old Testament. He lived in the time after the Jews returned from Babylonian exile. Here is a passage where God tells Zechariah:

Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest Joshua son of Jehozadak; say to him: Thus says the LORD of hosts: Here is a man whose name is Branch: for he shall branch out in his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD. It is he that shall build the temple of the LORD; he shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. (Zechariah 6:11-13)

One reason we immediately know this is a special passage is because this man Joshua was a priest who could not rule on the throne, that is to say, he was not his vocation. One key to unlocking this passage comes from understanding the term "Branch." The word "Branch" was used in the Isaiah 11:1-5 passage above, and is also used in Isaiah 4:2-6. Both describe the Branch as a person who will rule the earth and bring happiness and justice to all the nations. The key point is that God is telling Zechariah that this man has the name of Branch. What is the man's name? The passage says his name is Joshua. And Joshua is a Hebrew name (actually pronounced Y'shua) that means "God saves." And of course, Jesus is the Greek rendering of Joshua. (Similar to how John and Yohannan are the same name in different languages.) Thus, God is telling Zechariah that the name of this Branch will be Joshua (or in Greek, Jesus). Summarizing our puzzle pieces:

  • A ruler will be from Bethlehem. [spoken by Micah]
  • The name of "Branch" will be Joshua (=Jesus). [spoken by Zechariah]

Much of Israel's historical saga involves its kings. Israel's most famous king, David (who made Jerusalem its capital), was given a promise by Nathan, who claimed to be a prophet. The promise was:

Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:16)

To say that one's house will be made sure forever is to imply that one of your descendants will always live. The stronger part of the promise is that David's kingdom will be established forever. Yet how could a kingdom be established forever? The puzzle grows:

  • A ruler will be from Bethlehem. [spoken by Micah]
  • The name of "Branch" will be Joshua (=Jesus). [spoken by Zechariah]
  • David's house-kingdom will be established forever. [spoken by Nathan]

Now we return to Isaiah, to examine another intriguing text:

In the latter time he [God] will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:1-2,6-7)

This text is located between the "Branch" passages discussed earlier. Isaiah notes several ideas: Galilee is made glorious; people experience light from the birth of a child or son; and this son will establish a kingdom that will never end. Regarding Galilee, this is where Jesus was raised and did most of his teaching. Also, it is particularly important to see the repetition of the idea, from another source, that this is connected to David's kingdom. We may add now more pieces to the puzzle. (We will not explore the implications that this "son" is given the title of "Mighty God.")

  • A ruler will be from Bethlehem. [spoken by Micah]
  • The name of "Branch" will be Joshua (=Jesus). [spoken by Zechariah]
  • David's house-kingdom will be established forever. [spoken by Nathan]
  • Galilee is illuminated with light as a son is given. This son establishes an everlasting kingdom. [spoken by Isaiah]

Now we return to Zechariah, who describes how the king of Jerusalem will come:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Zechariah declares that the king will not come on a stallion or in a chariot, but on a donkey. This of course is exactly how Jesus entered Jerusalem in his triumphal entry about four hundred years later, at the beginning of the Passion week -- the week he was crucified. In fairness to critics, you could argue that Jesus read the Zechariah passage and came into Jerusalem on a donkey to fulfill the prophecy. Some of these others puzzle pieces are "involuntary" -- name, place of birth, pedigree -- but this one is "voluntary." Our list of puzzle pieces grows to:

  • A ruler will be from Bethlehem. [spoken by Micah]
  • The name of "Branch" will be Joshua (=Jesus). [spoken by Zechariah]
  • David's house-kingdom will be established forever. [spoken by Nathan]
  • Galilee is illuminated with light as a son is given. This son establishes an everlasting kingdom. [spoken by Isaiah]
  • Jerusalem's king comes riding a donkey. [spoken by Zechariah]

Besides Zechariah's, there is a second passage in the Old Testament concerning this entry to Jerusalem. It is the most difficult of the passages that we will examine. It comes from the book of Daniel:

So know and understand: From the going forth of the message to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until an anointed one, a prince arrives, there will be a period of seven weeks and sixty-two weeks. (Daniel 9:25, NET)

Before considering the meaning of this quotation, it should be stated that this is a controversial passage. I have written an essay describing the controversy and why I believe the following view is correct. It can be read by clicking here. In this passage, Daniel tells us that from the time of the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem, there will be seven weeks and another sixty-two weeks until an anointed one (in Hebrew, Messiah), who is also called a prince, comes. The Hebrew word (shv`m) that was translated "weeks" also means "unit of seven." (Click here to read more about this.) There is evidence that the unit of seven is seven years. Using the fact that the ancient Jewish calendar had 360 days, we may examine this prediction. From Artaxerxes commission to rebuild (Nehemiah 2:1-8), seven times sixty nine (7+62) equals 483 years which is supposed to pass until this anointed one comes. Using the secular dates of Artaxerxes reign, and the dating of the proclamation which occurred on the first day of the month Nisan, we add on the 483 x 360 days = 173880 days from Artaxerxes' commission which take us to the exact day (March 30) in AD 33 that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey! It is indeed remarkable that this calculation works to such detail even though it was written four hundred years before the event. For more detail about this astonishing calculation, I recommend Harold Hoehner's Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ. My more detailed look at this passage and the calculation may be read by clicking here. Adding this text to our others, we now have:

  • A ruler will be from Bethlehem. [spoken by Micah]
  • The name of "Branch" will be Joshua (=Jesus). [spoken by Zechariah]
  • David's house-kingdom will be established forever. [spoken by Nathan]
  • Galilee is illuminated with light as a son is given. This son establishes an everlasting kingdom. [spoken by Isaiah]
  • Jerusalem's king comes riding a donkey. [spoken by Zechariah]
  • An anointed one comes to Jerusalem 69 "sevens" after the word to rebuild Jerusalem is given. This corresponds to 33 AD. [spoken by Daniel]

The final passage we will examine is also from Isaiah. He described a "suffering servant" who would be rejected and bear the sins of the world:

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)

This passage does not fit any known figure in the Old Testament, and perhaps describes Jesus' sacrifice of death better than any passage in the entire Bible.

To summarize, our list of puzzle pieces becomes:

  • A ruler will be from Bethlehem. [spoken by Micah]
  • The name of "Branch" will be Joshua (=Jesus). [spoken by Zechariah]
  • David's house-kingdom will be established forever. [spoken by Nathan]
  • Galilee is illuminated with light as a son is given. This son establishes an everlasting kingdom. [spoken by Isaiah]
  • Jerusalem's king comes riding a donkey. [spoken by Zechariah]
  • An anointed one comes to Jerusalem 69 "sevens" after the word to rebuild Jerusalem is given. This corresponds to 33 AD. [spoken by Daniel]
  • A suffering servant will be rejected, wounded, and crushed to take away the punishment of others. [spoken by Isaiah]

How do the pieces converge? In the winter of 5/4 BC, Jesus (Y'shua) was born in Bethlehem. We have two records of Jesus' genealogy (from both his mother and father's sides) and both attest that he was a descendant of David. Claiming the title of "Son of man," and Messiah, he taught that the kingdom of God was about to be unveiled in a dramatic way. He taught a ethic of love, even to the extent of loving one's enemy. For three years he traveled around Galilee teaching about the kingdom of God and about himself. He taught that with his death, he would take away sin. Riding into Jerusalem, he was lauded by the crowds. However, a plot to accuse him as a heretic was successful and he was crucified on Friday, April 3, AD 33. These points are attested from Christian documents (the New Testament), Jewish documents (such as from Josephus) as well as secular documents (Romans like Tacitus).

While things like being born in Bethlehem or riding into a Jerusalem on a donkey may be clear, whether or not Jesus established an everlasting kingdom is of course controversial. Yet this is the key issue. On the basis of what is visible (meaning apparent through history) agreeing with these passages, how should we treat the invisible? On the basis of how well the rest of the pieces fit, especially the passages written long before Jesus' fulfillment, it is a decision that should not be taken lightly.

The Dead Sea Scroll and Jewish harmony arguments verify beyond a shadow of a doubt that these passages were written long before the birth of Jesus. Critics do not deny the datings, but say that they are either coincidental or self-fulfilling. While I could see that some prophecies like riding into a donkey could be construed as self-fulfilling, if Jesus wanted to trick others into thinking he was Messiah, it requires a great deal more skepticism to say that everything like place of birth, Davidic ancestry, name (Joshua), and death of suffering could have been planned.

Another powerful argument about Jesus' Messiahship concerns the claim that he was resurrected. Since we cannot observe this event, it cannot used as personally experienced evidence. However we do have several eyewitness accounts of the resurrected Jesus. Because the claim is so spectacular, we do require more evidence to believe this event than say, eyewitnesses describing a murder. Let me recommend an outstanding book which is a debate between an atheist and a Christian on this topic. It is called Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? The atheist in the book argues for a hallucination theory. It is a very fascinating read that honest truth-seekers will appreciate. If you don't want to read a whole book, click here for a good summary of Craig's position.

Those who carefully weigh the evidence on the resurrection are often transformed. Simon Greenleaf, a key professor in the early establishment of Harvard Law School, examined the historicity of the resurrection by evaluating the New Testament documents as "witnesses" in the manner practiced in a court of law. By finding contradictions, or other evidences suggesting fabrication, he could provide strong evidence against Christianity. However, he wrote a book (though somewhat dated) called Testimony of the Evangelists, which is a fascinating text arguing for the validity of the resurrection. Frank Morison, a British journalist, sought to do the world a favor by disproving Christianity. Understanding the centrality of the resurrection, he sought to attack the credibility of this event. He too became a Christian by carefully examining the legitimacy of the eyewitness accounts. He wrote a book called Who Moved the Stone?, detailing his findings. Morison did not believe the Bible was free of error, nevertheless, came to the conclusion that Jesus did rise from the dead.

Concerning details about Jesus' life, death, and supposed resurrection (applying to everything that has been discussed thus far), we must not forget that those early Christians who witnessed the supposed resurrection ultimately gave their lives for their beliefs. Had they been intentionally lying, it is doubtful that the apostles would have chosen to die for believing and teaching this message rather that rescinding.

Lastly, there is a more philosophical way of reasoning to see the truth of the Christian claims that will not be explored here. Perhaps the best introduction to this, which is very easy to read, was written by the Cambridge scholar C.S. Lewis. He left agnosticism for Christianity because he felt Christianity was the religion that truly explained the condition of humanity and his own perception of himself. He wrote a beautiful book called Mere Christianity that details his thoughts on the subject.

Of course, this discussion only scratches the surface of a much larger area of study. But the books I have referenced do discuss these points in much more detail. Regarding Jesus' Messianic claims, the best treatment (though very scholarly and not an easy read) is N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God.

I have been careful to provide references to my citations so please look them up on your own. I also invite comments or discussion at kuruvill[at] post dot harvard dot edu.

"Why does Christianity seem so exclusive and advocate proselytization?"

It is certainly true that Christianity teaches "proselytization" or witnessing, as it is often called. Because people rightly hold religion as a private choice, there can be great offense at someone coming to you in order to change your religion. However it is inevitable that the asker of this question is treating religion as a choice of limited relevance. Take the following examples. One could say (or at least think) that "I'm religion X, you're religion Y -- let's just happily coexist." However this statement has profound implications. If the statement were "I'm wearing a blue shirt, you're wearing a brown shirt -- let's just happily coexist," then everyone would agree that such a statement is fine because what color shirt you are wearing makes no difference. However if the statement were "I'm walking a steady bridge, you're walking a flimsy bridge -- let's just happily coexist," then it is easy to see that something is very wrong.

This error behind the question is often repeated in diverse settings -- from editorials in the Boston Globe, to articles in the Harvard Crimson, to conversations in dining halls. Whenever you hear this question asked, it implies that the asker does not believe in the eternal significance of religion. If they did, then it is obvious why a Christian (or member of another religion) would try to proselytize. The real question ought to be "Is that religion (or any religion, for that matter) true?" If it is not, then it must be dispelled, for it is a waste of time and energy. But if a religion is true that makes claims about how one's choices today have implications for an afterlife, then proselytization is a moral imperative for its followers because they believe that they are helping save lives. Hence it is important to dialog and pursue truth, not feeling slighted because someone is trying to "convert you," but to realize that they believe they are helping you. Then either show them that they are wrong or accept what they are advocating (if, of course, it seems true). But to say, "all beliefs should coexist" is not logical.

"Religion has led to so much bloodshed and troubles. Christians have done much evil in the name of Christ, like the Crusades."

An irony of this question lies in its subtle premise. Typically this question is posed by a secular person, living in a society with Christian roots, who complains that at times Christians have not behaved "Christianly" enough. In a sense, this accusation is parasitic upon Christianity itself -- the hearer nearly always depends on a sense of values that follow from Christian teaching!

Now, it is certainly true that many evil things have been done in the name of religion, including Christianity. This argument fails because it is also true that many evil things have been done by those who are atheists or of other religions. One could point out that the atheism that Nietzsche espoused ("God is dead") which was so avidly embraced by Hitler led to many more deaths than all of the Crusades combined. Stalin was also an atheist and tried to eliminate the practice of religion (including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in the 1920s and 1930s throughout the Soviet Union. Untold millions died under his leadership. There is not a single world religion whose adherents have at times abused the tenets of their religion and done horrible deeds.

One could actually make a counter-argument that Christianity has done incredible amounts of good for civilization, more than any other religion. The book Christianity on Trial nicely demonstrates this. To this day, nations founded upon Christian principles remain those that both Christians and non-Christians alike try to immigrate into (such as England or the USA). Historically Christian nations are nearly always places where religious freedom and civil rights coexist. Scientific historians have pointed out that the vast majority of scientific advances have occurred in traditionally Christian nations like the U.S., England, France, or Germany. Harvard University's original motto was, "Veritas Christo et Ecclesia" which translated means "Truth for Christ and the Church." (When Harvard secularized this motto was truncated to "Veritas.") The whole notion of the university is predicated upon the search for all truth, and that material truth is a reflection of the divine. It was Christian movements that led to abolition in the 1800s, women's suffrage, and the civil rights movements of the 1960s (typified by the Christian minister Martin Luther King). The largest nonprofit organizations in the world today that do work amongst the underserved domestically and internationally, ranging from the Salvation Army to Opportunity International to World Vision, are all Christian organizations.

The Christian answer to the objection that evil has been done in the name of Christ would be that, in the end, every person will be judged only by what they have done. The Bible teaches that every person will stand before God individually and give account for their own choices and cannot lay blame on anyone else. Indeed, even if not a single Christian existed in the world today and all supposed "Christians" practiced evil, one would still not have an excuse. The real question is, "what is true, in and of itself, and how can I practice that truth?" Looking to blame other people for reasons why you shouldn't do something is ultimately a form of laziness and arrogance.

"What about the notion that religions are like spokes on a wheel and all lead to the same central point, that is God? Then all religions are basically correct."

There is another version of this question that I have also frequently heard. It the analogy where each religion is a different part of a large elephant. Each religion describes something different -- one religion describes the trunk, another a tusk, yet another a leg -- but they in essence all describe the same thing. There is a certain romantic appeal to this analogy, or the spokes on the wheel analogy. However, we must take care not to select our beliefs based on their appeal because appeal does not necessarily mean truth. It is just as sensible to disbelieve the law of gravity because of the appeal of being able to fly.

Experience teaches us that people are generally highly averse to contradiction. In the sciences, for example, contradiction implies mutual exclusivity. In human behavior, contradiction goes by the name "hypocrisy" and is loathed. However with religion (perhaps partially from lack of interest) contradiction is largely ignored. Now even a very superficial examination of the religions reveals striking contradictions between each other. The polytheism of other religions and the monotheism of Judeo-Christian thought are but one obvious difference.

One simple way to see that the spokes on a wheel analogy breaks down is by examining some of the actual teachings from Judaism or Christianity. Let us first look at a portion of the Jewish Scripture (the Old Testament):

If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, "Let us follow other gods" (whom you have not known) "and let us serve them," you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. (Deuteronomy 13:1-4)

It would be some kind of elephant that says that acknowledging another "part" of itself is wrong. If truth really were in all religions, then surely this could not be truth. Indeed this passage says that God wants our love exclusively, as a husband wants faithfulness from his wife. This idea of exclusive devotion is one of the most common ideas in the Bible. The first of the Ten commandments reads, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2-3). This passage must either be right or wrong and cannot be harmonized with the elephant model. There are countless other passages that present the same problem. One example would be where Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) And therefore we should test the accuracy of religions (see question above) and not embrace too simplistic a model. We should pursue religion with the same desire for accuracy as we do when we search for which plane to board, or what medicine to take -- if there is such a thing as Truth, then the outcomes may be very different.

"With all the pain and suffering in the world, there cannot be a good God."

The critical insight to answer this question comes in two parts: first, love requires free choice in order to be true love and second, the power to do good cannot be separated from the power to do evil. The first part should be evident: one cannot force another to love you and call that genuine love. The second part also flows naturally, to the extent that a person is given a capacity for good, that person could wield that same power to do evil. Such an observation can be seen all around us: parents can help form their children to be very good or very bad. An elephant that can pull heavy loads can also turn and trample others, unlike a rabbit.

God has given human beings and angelic powers free will to choose good or do evil. This power extends toward treatment of fellow human beings or toward God. Many people use their power to do evil. While some might envision a universe in which God strikes down those who are about to do evil, such a restriction effectively prevents the possibility of free will to choose love to God. God has sovereignly given humans and angelic beings a limited sphere of influence, over which he does not interfere. That influence can be used for good or evil. The vast majority of the evil that we see today is from that abuse of freedom and influence. But to take away that freedom and influence would take away the possibility of true love.

Thus one main reason for suffering is that it is an inevitable consequence of free will and having power to do good. There is however, potentially good news along with suffering. The first piece of good news is that wrongs will be made right. Martin Luther King used to tell his listeners who were being treated as second-class citizens not to despair, because "the universe is ultimately on the side of justice." By this 'ultimately,' he of course would go to explain that he meant justice after death. He taught that after death all wrongs would be made right and what is right would be rewarded. He thought that any view of justice would be incomplete considering the eighty or so years we are on earth. This certainly accords well with the biblical teaching.

The second consolation is that suffering can be turned into good. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (author of The Cost of Discipleship who was killed in the Nazi camps) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (author of The Gulag Archipelago) paint vivid portraits of how suffering can strengthen the soul and turn a person to God, even in the nightmarish concentration camps of this century. Suffering can remind us of what is really important and make us fix our eyes on what matters most. Indeed, for the one who trusts in God, "all things work together for good" (Romans 8:28).

"I don't believe in organized religion."

There is a definite negative connotation to being part of "organized religion." Although most Americans "believe in a God," a minority regularly attend church. The most common tendency is to hold some kind of belief in God that feels right and is usually self-constructed. Usually this involves a distrust for "organized religion," perhaps partly due to the stigma of the blind following we saw with the Third Reich or Jim Jones. The feeling goes that when you are part of a movement you are more apt to be deluded and lose your individuality. While it is culturally accepted (or even encouraged) to believe in some kind of God, the culture generally looks down upon taking religion too far, especially when organized. The typical politician "believes in God or a higher power" but would shy away from calling themselves "born again" because that is a term reserved for the people deluded by the too well-organized televangelists.

While the Bible itself clearly says that assembling with other believers is part of the Christian life (see Hebrews 10:25), many professing Christians (or professing members of other religions) reject this idea and choose to practice religion "solo." However, there is very good reason that practicing religion should be done in an organized fashion. We take it for granted that fields like medicine have hospitals and clinics to deliver care. One hopes that such hospitals and clinics are organized! Organization is a good and healthy attribute of any important field. In the same way, God created the church partly so that we do not fall back into the religious errors of humanity of long ago. In the same way that science or the humanities have progressed, so should religion.

This is but a generalization, but very often the people who reject organized religion know the least amount of the teachings of any religion. Very often they have not developed or thought through the arguments of religion. Thus it is often the case that those who have studied the least put down those who have studied the most. And of course, organized religion, should not entail losing individuality or not questioning authority, any more than good students lose their individuality or stop questioning their teachers. We place high regard on "organized universities" and ought to do the same for religion. Indeed organized religion should make us stronger, smarter, and better able to understand and apply the most important questions that exist on earth. As it is written, "Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another." (Proverbs 27:17)

"Isn't the Bible full of contradictions?"

This is a commonly stated criticism. The next thing to ask the person who maintains this is to say, "Let's examine a few." The usual response is something like, "I can't think of any right now, but I know that there are some." Usually this general sentiment comes from statements heard from somewhere else and not from a primary investigation of the Bible. To a person who has actual citations, I have some recommendations. The first is to visit the website Christian Think Tank which has excellent answers to nearly all supposed contradictions. The second recommendation is to study the book by John Wenham, Easter Enigma. Using supposed contradictions in the resurrection accounts, Wenham makes an excellent case study on the nature of most biblical contradictions and how on more careful reading these contradictions evaporate.

The final recommendation is to consider the nature of the Bible -- its origins, purposes, and genres. For example, it is vital to understand that the holy book of Christianity (the Bible) is very different from the holy books of other religions. While the books of other religions are the product of one man (for example Muhammad and the Qur'an or Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon), the Bible is the product of around 40 authors over a time period exceeding one thousand years. The fact that any unity can come from such disparate authors (kings, shepherds, peasants), who in many cases had no access to what other authors had written, is remarkable. We must understand this in any reading of the Bible.

Regarding supposed contradictions, at the most superficial level, the 20th century in particular was a time of great archaeologic and historic discovery that resolved many of the ostensible errors in the Bible (such as the description of kings not previously found in secular literature). However, there is a deeper problem that I encounter more often: people reading the Bible as if it were the New York Times instead of Hebrew literature. We must thoroughly acquaint ourselves with what Hebrew literature and story really is before we can understand the basic message itself, much less approach supposed contradictions. One essay that I would recommend to begin tackling this rich subject is by N.T. Wright and can be read by clicking here.

"I'm a good person, isn't that all that's important?"

Most people who are not Christians believe that they are good people. Ironically, most Christians would call themselves anything but good. This difference is one of the most fundamental between Christianity and other belief systems. Jesus elegantly expressed this truth with the following story:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14)

C.S. Lewis expresses this truth in another way, "A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in your arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either." (Mere Christianity, Book III, Chapter 4)

Thus those who believe that they are "good" are those furthest from God. Indeed, the first step to knowing God is divesting self-righteousness. Those who calls themselves good in God's eyes merely have not looked closely enough at their hearts. Not only are we not good in God's eyes, but we often disgust ourselves with our moral failures.

The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is found in other places. Often you hear stories in the news of people who imagine some kind of "near-death" experience and feel a warmth, or see a glowing light at the end of a tunnel. This is the opposite of what happens to people in the Bible when they encounter God. When the prophet Isaiah had his vision of God, he ended up prostrate, crying the words, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5) There are several other stories in the Bible where the incredible beauty and glory of God only exposes the darkness in one's heart. Rather than being drawn to a glow, the person is ashamed to enter into a light that illuminates the ugliness of their heart.

One can easily convince oneself that they are good relative to other people, especially certain people. But to one's own conscience, it is difficult to do the same. We all have moments where we realize that we repeatedly break the moral code that we aspire to. To the law of love taught in the Bible, it is impossible to convince oneself that they are good. Jesus emphasized that the real difficulty was in the heart:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, "You shall not murder"; and "whoever murders shall be liable to judgment." But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment... You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery." But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:21-22,27-28)

In this passage, Jesus describes how it is the heart that is what God judges. Anger is the symptom of a murderous heart, though it might never result in death. Lust is a symptom of an adulterous heart, though it might never violate a marriage. Selfish ambition is a symptom of self-idolatry, though there is no golden statue involved. When one considers this standard, one can see why Christians regard themselves as sinful. The prospect of all of one's life and thoughts being broadcast in heaven is cause for shame, not delight. The litmus test is, after a videotape of one's entire life is shown before God, the ability of a person to honestly say, "I'm a good person and don't need a Savior."

Though we might try to delude ourselves into believing that we are good people, it is futile by careful consideration of the moral law. Other religions have its adherents work off their guilt by making pilgrimages, sacrifices, or recitations. However in Christianity, it is taught that doing one good deed does not simply cancel out the past. There is the need for a Savior to take away our sins in a way we cannot do. These reflections have led to the elegant statement that "In other religions, people reach to God. In Christianity, God reaches to people." When one recognizes the need for a Savior, the concept that God came to earth to die for our sins takes on a new light. We are far from good -- indeed we are sinful, evil, broken people. It is not our work that accomplishes any form of salvation, but receiving a work that has already been done.

 

"Jesus was a good teacher, but not God in the flesh."

There is something that is called the "trilemma" which is commonly stated in response to this sentiment. Given the statements that Jesus made (for example, claiming to have "all authority in heaven and on earth"), he must be one of three things: 1) a liar 2) a lunatic 3) God. There can be no middle ground. If a person claims to be God and says things like "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6) then they can only be one of the above three things. To call Jesus simply another "good teacher" is problematic. After all, besides claiming to be God, he said that he would die, bearing the sins of the world. He said that he would be resurrected and ultimately come again to rule the earth. If he is wrong, it is more logical to simply say that he was trying to deceive people or he himself was deluded. His words should force us to make a decision. "Whoever is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30) And of course, being "with me" must mean accepting his teachings such as "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) And the person who is with Jesus can only say, as Thomas declared to Jesus, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28)


Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures were taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Quotations designated (JPS) are from the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh. Copyright © 2000 by The Jewish Publication Society. All rights reserved.

Quotations designated (NET) are from the NET Bible ®. Scripture quoted by permission. Copyright © 2003 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. www.netbible.com All rights reserved.