SAT ’11 #1: The Case for Christ

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30 years ago, Lee Strobel, an award-winning investigative reporter and legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, was an atheist.  To hear him speak or read his words, he admits he was adamantly – perhaps even defiantly – convinced that not only did God not exist, but anyone who thought otherwise was a downright fool.  However, after his wife Leslie’s conversion to Christianity, he very reluctantly started attending church with her (though he admits he didn’t listen to much of what was taught there for years).  As he heard his wife’s pastor speak, month after month, his misconceptions (perhaps better called stereotypes?) about Christianity and Christians started to be dismantled.  While still refusing to believe, he realized that if Christianity is true, it would have dramatic implications for his life.  It was this realization that spurred a lengthy quest, in true investigative journalist style, for the answers to his most pressing questions.

In today’s world, where it seems like there are endless ideologies and philosophies that contradict what is written in the Bible, it can be easy to understand why someone would refuse to believe Christianity is true.  Atheists like Lee are becoming easier to find everywhere you look.  As a believer, if you found yourself conversing about spiritual matters with an atheist, could you explain your belief in Jesus Christ rationally?  If that individual presented you with questions, or arguments against God’s existence, the trustworthiness of Scripture, or the actual existence of Jesus (to name just a few common questions), could you offer substantial answers?  If you’re an atheist, what questions would a Christian have to answer before you could start to think they may just have a solid case for Christ?  An investigative journalist like Lee might ask the following types of questions:

  1. How many eyewitnesses were there?
  2. Who recorded the historical accounts of Jesus’ life?  How can we trust that these writers were reliable eyewitnesses?
  3. How do we know the Gospels are not centuries-removed myths and legends?
  4. The Gospels claim that Jesus fulfilled numerous Old Testament prophecies.  Did He?
  5. The Gospels also claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  What evidence exists to support that claim?

Lee found answers to each question.  These answers, drawn from eyewitness accounts as well as church history, can be helpful in providing answers to anyone who may ask the same types of questions.  They are summarized here, with the prayer that these brief synopses will stay with you and be useful when you meet an atheist who shares his questions and doubts with you.

1.  How many eyewitnesses were there to Jesus’ life?

There were numerous eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life.  Some of these witnesses include Matthew, a disciple (close follower) of Jesus throughout His earthly ministry; Peter, John, and James, also disciples of Jesus’ during His time on earth; Paul, to whom Christ appeared following His resurrection; Mark, one of Peter’s close companions; James, Jesus’ younger brother; and Luke, a “first-century investigative reporter” who was also a close companion of Paul’s after his conversion.  The aforementioned eyewitnesses actually wrote down their accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, but there were hundreds of others (see question 5 below).  Many of these witnesses became believers and followers of Jesus, either before or after his death and resurrection.

2.  Who recorded the historical accounts of Jesus’ life?  How can we trust that these writers were reliable eyewitnesses?

All four Gospels were written either by direct eyewitnesses of Jesus’ earthly ministry, or by men who conducted extensive research, soon after His death, to learn the facts of His life.  The apostle John, one of Jesus’ closest disciples who wrote the fourth Gospel, three letters, and one book of prophecy, recounted the facts of Jesus’ 3.5-year ministry as closely as he recalled them.  He stated unequivocally that he wrote about that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands.”  Another Gospel author, Luke, states that not only did he conduct a lengthy investigation into the claims of the newly-formed Christian church, he then summarized his findings (in the form of a letter to a man named Theophilus) as “an orderly account…[so] that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught,” i.e. the truthfulness of the stories relayed therein.  Peter, another New Testament writer who was with Jesus for His entire earthly ministry, stated in his second letter that “we did not follow cleverly devised myths…but we were eyewitnesses to His majesty.”

After learning this, Lee sought to apply the legal tests of evidence he had learned at Yale Law School to determine the credibility of the documents.  These are the same tests any lawyer or legal journalist would apply to documents, statements, or other witness reports that are being considered for admissibility to a modern-day trial.  As a result of these tests, he was forced to admit that the Gospel documents constituted reliable, historical records.

There is an additional piece of evidence, which appeals to common sense, but which I find very convincing that the New Testament writers knew their claims true.  Of all Jesus’ apostles, many of whom wrote various New Testament writings (John = Gospel, 3 letters, 1 book of prophecy; Paul = 13 letters; Peter = 2 letters; James = 1 letter), all except John were martyred for teaching the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (and John was boiled alive, but somehow managed to survive).

Why is this important?  Many people die for lies every day, you say?  Yes, but there is one very important difference.  Nobody dies for a lie when they know it is a lie.  The New Testament writers admitted without hesitation that they had witnessed the things they claimed.  If what they were claiming wasn’t actually true, don’t you think they would have recanted when their heads were (literally) on the chopping block for teaching it?  I know I would have, if I knew what I had been teaching wasn’t actually true.  Heck, Galileo faced so much pressure from the Inquisition in the 17th century that he did recant what he knew to be true!

To boil it down:  the New Testament writers were witnesses to the things they wrote about.  At some point in their lives, their lives were threatened as a result of the things they claimed to have seen.  Not one of them recanted or denied what they knew to be true.  A person may be willing to die for the truth when he knows it’s the truth.  Nobody dies for a lie when he knows it’s a lie.

3.  How do we know the Gospels are not centuries-removed myths and legends?

Some skeptics claim that the Gospels were written centuries after the events they describe took place, and were a combination of historical events with a healthy dose of legend added in to suggest Jesus’ divinity.  Strobel investigated these claims as well, and found it to be groundless.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written within 30 years of Jesus’ life – soon enough that each writer would still have plenty of living witnesses to interview to ensure the factuality of his material.  Additional non-Gospel canonical writings, such as Paul’s letters, were completed within 20 years of Jesus’ life.

Peter’s letters preserved creeds which were central to the early church’s traditions – creeds which predated even Paul’s letters, and unequivocally affirmed the divinity of Jesus.   The key idea to note here is that these affirmations of divinity were written into church beliefs soon enough after Jesus’ time on earth that witnesses to Jesus’ life would have been able to come forward and say, “Actually, it didn’t happen that way.”  They would have been able to discredit miraculous claims or even Jesus’ own assertions of His own divinity, which (according to the Gospels) He made frequently and publicly.  However, there is NO historical record that any witnesses did come forward to discredit these claims – hence their inclusion in early church creeds, and their reliability.

Additional knowledge discrediting the “legend” claim comes in the form of historians’ acknowledgement that in the ancient world, where oral tradition was paramount (it was not like playing the “telephone game” in kindergarten today!), it often took two generations or more – that’s 60+ years – for inaccuracies to filter into stories.  The examples I’ve provided above show that the most important historical documents we have regarding the historical Jesus were all written well inside of the two generation timeframe after His death, making it most unlikely that legendary exaggeration or untruth would have infiltrated the accurate accounts recorded in these writings.

4.  The Gospels claim that Jesus fulfilled numerous Old Testament prophecies.  Did He?

Over 50 prophecies regarding the Messiah were written hundreds of years before Jesus was born.  The prophecies stated clearly that whoever fulfilled all of them would, in fact, be the Messiah!  One excellent example of this type of Messianic prophecy is Isaiah 53.  This prophecy describes, in great detail, the conditions under which the Messiah would face His death by crucifixion.

A Jewish friend of Lee’s, after reading Isaiah 53, decided that it must have been a forgery written after Jesus’ death.  How else could it have matched so closely with what actually happened at Jesus’ crucifixion – especially considering crucifixion, as a manner of execution, hadn’t even been imagined at the time Isaiah was written (in the late 8th and early 7th centuries BC)? However, once he compared the version found in his copy of the Tanakh (Jewish sacred texts including the law, prophets, and writings) with the version found in the Old Testament, he saw that they were identical.

How hard would it be for one individual in history to fulfill numerous prophecies which had been written centuries before that person’s birth?  That very question was answered by a professor at Westmont College.  Together with 600 of his students, Professor Peter Stoner determined the likelihood of one person fulfilling eight prophecies to be one in one hundred million billion (that’s 100,000,000,000,000,000, if you like looking at zeros!).  They determined that the odds of one human being fulfilling 48 prophecies actually exceeds the capacity of the human mind to quantify or comprehend.  Those are some steep odds…and yet Jesus claimed that “everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

5.  The Gospels also claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  What evidence exists to support that claim?

Finally, let’s look at what may be the most fantastic New Testament claim of all – that Jesus, a living human being, died an actual death, and then came back to life and walked the earth for over a month following his public death.  We have already mentioned  that the apostles would have known whether or not the resurrection was true, and we have examined how their actions over the rest of their lives leads us to the conclusion that they knew Jesus’ resurrection had actually happened.

But what if that’s not enough?  What if you can’t just take some old guys’ actions as sufficient evidence for the resurrection?  Is there any more?  Yep.

For this truly extraordinary claim, Lee sought the “help” of one of his legal heroes.  British defense attorney Sir Lionel Luckhoo is recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the most successful defense attorney who ever lived” for winning 245 murder trials in a row.  I only mention this to show that Sir Luckhoo knew how to examine evidence, how to pick it apart and separate the truth from the fiction.  Sir Luckhoo, at the time an atheist, took the legal tests of evidence, which he had used to such astounding success throughout his career, and used them to examine the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.  He summed up his conclusions in one sentence: “I say, unequivocally, that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.”

What evidence did Sir Luckhoo examine?  To list just a few items:

  • The Romans, at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, were experts at public execution.  They did it all throughout the Roman empire, hundreds of times a day.  The executioners were professionals who were faced with their own deaths if they did not succeed in ending the lives of their charges.  This points to the fact that Jesus actually died on a Roman cross (contradicting the “swoon theory” put forth by some skeptics).
  • Jesus’ body was embalmed and wrapped in 75 pounds of spices and linen, then placed in a tomb with a 2+ ton stone rolled across the entrance.  How then to explain the missing body on Easter morning?  The Jews didn’t take it – they were the ones who had demanded Jesus’ execution for claiming to be the son of God; why would they then make His body disappear and risk their own people believing it might be true?  The Romans didn’t take it – just as the executioners faced certain death if they failed to kill convicted criminals, so the guards at the tomb faced certain death if they lost track of the body they were assigned to protect.  And His disciples didn’t take it – had they done so, it would have proved to them that Jesus really was not divine and had not resurrected.  If they had known Jesus’ divinity and resurrection to be untrue, why did they continue professing them right up until the times of their own deaths?
  • In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul undertakes to remind the Corinthians of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.  He points out that after His resurrection, Jesus appeared first “to Cephas [Peter], then to the Twelve, then…to more than five hundred brothers at one time.”  Upon reading this, Sir Luckhoo put on his defense attorney’s cap and thought about how long it would take for 500 witnesses to testify in court.  Assuming each one was on the stand for a mere 15 minutes, that would total 127 hours (5.3 days) of testimony.  Would anyone walk out of a courtroom after listening to 5+ days of testimony, all of it describing a single event, and doubt that the event had actually happened as described?  Not Sir Luckhoo – it was at this point that he became convinced of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection.

I realize that the tidbits of information provided above barely scratch the surface of the volumes of historical and biblical scholarship available today.  My intent is to give you small chunks of information to work with or use as a jumping-off point for further research.  We will also discuss some of these topics in greater detail in the coming weeks.

If you’d like to do some more reading on the topics discussed above, Lee Strobel has published a series of books based on his 30 years of research into Christianity’s claims.  The first, The Case for Christ, discusses at great length his conversion experience and provides additional details on the arguments I’ve summarized above.  His three subsequent books, The Case for Faith, The Case for a Creator, and The Case for the Real Jesus (my personal favorite), are excellent resources focused on more specific topics.  All four are excellent, engaging, quick reads and a great place to start your own apologetics studies.

Coming up in SAT ’11 #2:  The absurdity of life without God.  Check back soon!

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Studying apologetics together in 2011

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If you’ve read this blog’s “about” page, you know that I started it as a means of chronicling my ongoing study of Christian apologetics.  If you’ve read any of my posts, you’ll see that I haven’t really talked much about Christian apologetics!  Worldview issues?  Yes.  Culture?  Oh yeah.  But apologetics?  Nah.

This year I’d like to fix that.  About 18 months ago I enrolled in Biola University’s self-study certificate program in apologetics.  It comprises 24 separate lessons (3 modules, 8 lessons each) on a whole host of topics, based on lectures facilitated by renowned scholars in various apologetic disciplines.  There are also 2 recommended books per module.  I got through about 1/3 of the program last year, but then work / travel / family, etc. got in the way.  I’m planning to start over from the beginning and this time, I want to chronicle my progress here and invite readers to read along, ask questions, pose challenges…

I stole this idea from one of my very favorite Christian blogs, Challies Dot Com.  Every so often, Tim Challies does a series called Reading Classics Together, where he selects books on various theological topics, then invites his blog readers to follow along and interact with his guided study of the book.

I’ll plan to post about once each week, with an overview of the lesson and an outline of its salient points.  Who knows where the conversation will go from there?  Besides, there’s an old adage that says “the best way to learn is to teach someone else”…I certainly don’t consider myself a teacher of any sort, but if I think waaaaaay back to my college days (oh so long ago!) I definitely remember a pattern of studying more effectively (and learning more thoroughly) when I did my studying and learning with friends.

Interested?  Keep on the lookout…first installment coming soon!