Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Certain Hope

I have friends who really believe that this life is all there is. They are quite content to believe that there is no overall point to life except what matters at the moment. They believe that morality is a survival factor for society, selected for by Darwinian processes, and that what is not discovered doesn't matter. They live lives on the basis that it doesn't matter what you do as long as you harm no-one else. From this it follows that there is no such thing as sin, that euthanasia is sensible, abortion is a matter of personal choice and 'victimless crime' is fine as long as no-one finds out about it.

Yet to me such a life would be intolerable. Imagine a world where Adolf Hitler faced no eternal judge. He spent his whole life inflicting intolerable cruelty on millions of people and then when the Soviet Armies were closing in he escaped justice by killing himself.

When Peter wrote to the Christians scattered throughout Turkey his basis for living was entirely different. He talks about hope. This is not the sort of hope that looks forward to the possibility of the USA winning the soccer World Cup. Possible if Brazil and Argentina, Italy, France and Germany got wiped out by a virus, but even then no better than a 20-1 shot. No, this is a hope that you can bet your life on. And I have.

1 Peter 1:3 calls it a living hope through the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It is a hope grounded in an historical event. The apostle Paul tells us that if Christ be not risen we are of all men most miserable. Why? Because we would have bet our lives on a false premise. Everything depends on the Resurrection. It tells us that there is life after death. If you like, Christ is the earnest of our inheritance; He is the deposit that guarantees full payment. He is the hostage to our fortune.

If someone were to prove that Christ did not rise from the dead than our faith would be groundless. Oh, I dare say a case could be made for Christianity being a fine set of morals, that 'turning the other cheek' and 'loving your enemies' are fine ways to live, but without the hope of everlasting life we might as well connive, cheat, act, pretend and otherwise appear to be good in order to gain the approval of men, but in the meantime secretly feather our own nests by lying, stealing, fraudulently deceiving and cleverly evading detection.

Is the Resurrection historical fact? Did Julius Caesar land in Britain? We only have eye witness accounts of both these events, which took place within 100 years of each other. There are, in fact, much better historical records for the former than the latter. But you may say, men land on the beaches of Britain every day of the week; they don't rise from the dead quite so frequently.

But suppose I were to propose that Julius Caesar was a self-seeking fraud who was only concerned with gaining power and glory - there is a lot of evidence that might well be so - who is to say that, sure, the Romans came to Britain, but it wasn't Julius Caesar who undertook the Channel crossing, he sent a surrogate and took the glory without any of the risk. We have only the written record to say that it wasn't so. But who disbelieves Caesar's Gallic Wars?

The Bible claims that men don't rise from the dead as a general rule. But on a unique occasion one man rose miraculously because he was not simply a man. The thing about unique events is that you can't use the run of the mill to disprove them. Bournemouth once beat Manchester United at football. Now that doesn't happen as a rule of thumb. But you can't use that as a reason for saying it couldn't happen. It was a unique event. Eye witnesses were present. Some will have said, "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed it." I wasn't there, but I do believe it happened because there is a reliable written record that it did happen.

Just how reliable is the written record that Jesus rose from the dead. Contrary to popular belief, the earliest records of the resurrection do not date from centuries later. It was not an invention by the Catholic Church. We have eye-witness accounts of those who saw the risen Jesus, touched him and ate with him. These accounts were shared among his followers orally, but within a decade or so they were being written down.

OK, you say, show us the documents so that we can carbon-date them. As a mater of fact we don’t have the originals, but then we don’t have the originals of Caesar’s Gallic Wars either. In fact the earliest copy we have of that was written in 900AD, about 1000 years after it was composed. In contrast, the earliest copy we have of bits of the New Testament dates from 130 AD. This is a portion of John’s Gospel held in the John Rylands Museum in Manchester, UK. Even that is interesting. Much of the doubt about the authenticity of the historical record comes from the German Higher Critics of the 19th Century. The brilliant Professor Ferdinand Christian Baur from Tubingen argued that John’s Gospel could not have been written any earlier than 160 AD. Doh!

We also have the evidence of the Early Church Fathers. Not only can the whole New Testament (minus eleven verses) be found quoted by the Church Fathers such as Irenaeus (180 AD), Clement (150-211AD), Tertullian (160-220AD) and Hippolytus (170-235AD), but Ignatius, a prolific letter writer who died at the age of 40 in 110 AD has quotes from 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament in his letters.

Unique though it was, the resurrection of Jesus was believed by thousands of people within weeks of its occurrence. Despite attempts by the authorities to disparage it, the story would not go away. If it were just a story then it would only have been the few in the in-crowd who had actually witnessed it, say Peter, James and John and perhaps Mary Magdalene, but on one occasion the risen Jesus appeared to a crowd of 500.

The lawyer, Frank Morrison, who was trained in the rules of evidence set out to prove that the whole thing was a fraud. He considered all the other possible explanations – he didn’t really die, it was mass hypnosis, there was a conspiracy between the disciples – but in the end he comes to the conclusion that it really happened. He wrote it all down in his book, “Who Moved the Stone?”

The argument that really impressed me was the fact that the believers were tortured. This was not water boarding or being made to stand in a stressed position, these men were crucified, fed to the lions, covered with oil and set alight to provide floodlights for the gladiators. Now, people will withstand torture if they really believe in something, but I can’t believe they would withstand it for something that they knew was a lie. Remember that Peter himself was crucified.

The resurrection of Jesus is the most reliable historical fact from 2000 years ago. You’d better believe it.


joyful said...

Excellent. Amen.

Deb Light said...

A Big Thank You Dr. Terry for not only feeding us Physically but also enriching us Spiritually.
Beautiful job! Well thought out and well written!!

God Bless,

Burke said...

Dr. Hamblin,

As a physician, can you provide a rational explanation for a dead person arising from the dead?

Terry Hamblin said...

No. It was a miracle. Something that defies rational explanation.

Burke said...

Then why consider the evidence, as you have undertaken to do here?

Terry Hamblin said...

I have considered the evidence that a miracle occurred, not how it occurred. If someone claimed that a UFO had landed in Kansas and all we had were eye-witness accounts, it would be entirely valid to examine the reliablity of the reports without making any assumptions about whether UFOs could possibly exist.

Burke said...

And you have concluded that the evidence that Jesus was resurrected that you cite is greater than the evidence before you as a physician that such things don't occur?

Terry Hamblin said...

That's right. The evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is convincing. The evidence that such events can't happen naturally is convincing. Hence this was a supernatural event.

Burke said...

How do you define "supernatural"?

If something happened and there is evidence that it happened, then it's real isn't it? So why refer to it as supernatural?

Terry Hamblin said...

'Supernatural' means it can't be explained by any natural phenoma. The ministry of Jesus is characterised by supernatural events - turning water into wine, feeding 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish, healing miracles, walking on water, etc

Lynn M. said...

Last May one of my local pastors presented a more amplified legal/historical argument for Jesus' resurrection than here. I recommend also reading Scroll down to Happy Easter! The Resurrection: Part I, and just above it, Part II. I found these arguments to be very persuasive.

Burke said...

"'Supernatural' means it can't be explained by any natural phenoma."

How does the fact that we can't explain something mean it's supernatural? The list of things that can't be explained is incalculable. Many things about cancer, for example, can't be explained.

The saga of man, in large part, is the attempt to explain things around him.

If something exists, it's "natural" BECAUSE it exists, isn't it?

Terry Hamblin said...

Inexplicable things might one day be explained. Cancer can be partly explained and as our knowledge increases we would one day hope to explain it. God, by definition, cannot be explained. He operates outside the natural realm although he is able to influence things within it. He is 'above nature' or supernatural.

Burke said...

How do you know that Jesus' "resurrection" will not one day be seen to have a rational explanation? That it was an illusion of some kind, created by someone with the skills of a magician, for example?

You write,

"God, by definition, cannot be explained."

Without being omnipotent, how can anyone say what can and cannot be explained some day? In our lifetimes, we have seen creations that would have been regarded as miraculous in earlier times. There are people who still don't believe man walked on the moon.

Terry Hamblin said...

Burke, Your questions betray the fact that you don't want answers, you just want an argument. This is getting tedious. The conversation is over.

Burke said...

Actually Doctor, I was working my way around to asking you why you feel the need to justify your religious beliefs with reason and evidence when Christianity is based on faith?

Have a good day.

Terry Hamblin said...

Well, if that is your real question the answer is simple. Christian faith is not believing three unbelievable things before breakfast. It is a reasonable faith. We don't believe in fairies; we believe in a real historical person whose teaching even atheists find revolutionary and life enhancing. The historical record claims that he did remarkable things that are outside of our experience and have not been repeated since. Rising from the dead is the most extreme of these. There is no technical explanation for these 'miracles' although some have suggested that he was some sort of 'spaceman' who brought with him a future technology beyond our understanding. I find that more far-fetched than that he was who the historical record says he claimed to be. The other possibility was that the historical record was falsified either at the time by his disciples (though that they should maintain the lie to the extent of dying for it is unbelievable) or by later scribes (but this is against the documentary evidence).

Naive people will believe in anything that increases their comfort (Jedi knights for example) but faith should be scrutinized. It cannot be proved, of course, but at least it should not be unreasonable. 'Experts' have made shipwreck of the faith of ordinary people by claiming an 'authority' that is spurious.

Burke said...

Then your view would resemble that of St. Thomas Aquinas, who reintroduced Aristotle's rational philosophy to the Western World in the form of Scholasticism? He believed that eventually reason and faith would meet at the mountaintop.

But you wouldn't go as far as the Deists, who believed in a Creator who just started everything and left man with the power of reason as a guide and who otherwise rejected organized religions?

You're seem more like a pre-Enlightenment Christian.

Terry Hamblin said...

Do you really think labels help? The Enlightenment was extremely helpful in casting off the bondage of superstition and it certainly taught us a new way of thinking. However, the danger was always going to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I am reminded of the angler who caught some really large fish, but threw them all back until he caught a tiddler which he kept. When asked why he adopted this strange fishing method he replied, "My pan isn't large enough to cook the big ones." It is certainly simpler to reduce one's philosophy to what one can prove by the scientific method, but that pan is too small to contain all that there is.

Burke said...

The most influential of America's founders were Enlightenment thinkers and of far more Deistic bent than evangelicals over here like to admit. Thomas Jefferson, for example, thought Jesus was a very good man but did not believe he was the Son of God. He even went so far as to rewrite the Bible, taking much of what he regarded as mysticism out. It's known as the "Jefferson Bible."

It's interesting to me to watch intelligent people balance their religious beliefs with the dictates of their reason--seeing how much "bathwater" they throw out, etc.

Many believe that Isaac Newton was the most brilliant thinker ever, a true mega-mind. I've read, however, that he was intensely, even strangely, religious, having written some 4 million words about his religious beliefs.

It seems to me that the area in which rationality is least prevalent is morality, it being almost completely the province of religion. Even the secular socialists accept the (Christian) selflessness, self-sacrifice, altruism morality, which they use to bash the "selfish capitalists."

Terry Hamblin said...

Newton was a Deist too, though he wrote more on theology than on physics. Faraday was a fundamentalist Christian, though nowadays he would be regarded as a heretic by fundamentalists.