Monthly Archives: April 2011

A summary of Easter

My aim here is to summarise the case for Easter and to give a rough appraisal of its meaning and importance for me as a christian. This is not a complete exegesis, as when I started to write this it just longer and longer and longer; which I think goes someway to demonstrating why Easter is at the heart of christianity. So what follows is a brief overview and as such I have had to omit much detail and nuanced arguments, so I admit from the start that this is incomplete and full of holes. There are then two main ways to look at this: one is to look at the holes and dismiss the whole discussion as fraudulent, the other is to gloss over the holes and accept everything on face value. I would hope that you do not adopt either of these simplistic views, but that you can read and assess the whole thing as it stands, both in substance and in what it lacks. I ought to say from the outset that this subject has been on my mind much over the last few months and to that end my main text (other than the various books that make up the compendium known as the Bible) has been N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. I also followed this up with Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. Though I do not agree 100% with the conclusions of either, I think they are well worth following up for anyone who is serious about examining the ideas around Easter.

Each of these books deals with a different aspect of Easter. It’s not hard to tell from the titles that one relates to the crucifixion and the other to the resurrection. Yet in my readings of each of these, as well the biblical texts, it struck me that you can’t really have an Easter theology with considering both aspects. In my opinion, and this is all I am stating here, the crucifixion without the resurrection would leave us without hope, while the resurrection without the crucifixion leaves us unjustified. But for me, with the events of that particular weekend upon which the history of the world hinged, the doctrines of hope and justification are intimately entwined, like the weft and warp of the fabric of faith. Having one without the other leaves everything in pieces. However, I find that it is actually easier (accuse me of laziness, by all means!) to consider the resurrection before the crucifixion.

So then, we need to find out what happened over the course of the Easter weekend, some 2 millenia ago. As this was an historical event, we cannot rely on any notion of repeatable experiment, test groups or empirical measurement as would be the case if we wanted to employ a scientific scrutiny to the claims. It simply falls outside the scope of scientific investigation, so instead the most appropriate methodology to adopt is that of the historian. The best history is constructed by using the widest array of contemporary sources. The most obvious of these are the 4 gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) though it may surprise some to hear that these are not in fact the earliest accounts we have of Jesus’ resurrection. The earliest (that I know of, anyway) is actually Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. But here we have a snag. Was Paul an eyewitness to the death and resurrection of Jesus? Well, it seems that the answer is ‘no’ – so does that discount his testimony? We also have the problem of the apparent differences between the 4 gospels. Do inconsistencies in detail prove that the event did not take place?

To answer these questions, I think it helps to think in terms of journalism. Say, for example, an event happens for which there are various witnesses but which is not recorded by technology. i.e. there were a few people who saw it, but it wasn’t captured on CCTV or on a mobile phone. None of these people are professional journalists, but they describe what they saw to a several journalists. Is it likely that they would all report exactly the same thing? I think it’s pretty unlikely. If you pick up a copy each of the Guardian, The Times, The Daily Mail and The Sun, do a side-by-side comparison of them and what you will find is this:

a) They will not all report on exactly the same set of stories; some will include articles that others leave out;
b) On those articles relating to the same event, the reporting will be quite different.

There are a couple of more modern takes on this phenomenon of differences relating to the same event. One of these is known as “Wittgenstein’s poker.” If you haven’t heard of it, I don’t blame you. I only came across it for the first time a couple of years ago. There was a debate which took place at which several highly noted philosophers were having a discussion on the philosophy of science. On one side of the debate was Karl Popper. In the audience were Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. As the story goes, at some point during the evening, Popper said something that incensed Wittgenstein who grabbed a hot poker from the fire and brandished it at Popper, before storming out of the room. But later on, when asked to recount the details, no one could quite agree. In truth, the fact that there was so much disagreement about the fine details, in spite of a broad agreement on the core of the story, was testament to something extraordinary having happened.

More recently, there was a tv programme broadcast on terrestrial tv (though I admit I have struggled to find reference to it – if someone knows, please help me with this). What they did was to take a group of volunteers (who had volunteered for a different kind of experiment) and set up a fake stabbing while they were out at lunch. From my memory, there were about 20 or so volunteers, one of whom was a ‘mole’ and had been asked to insert a red herring – with one of the aims of the experiment to find out how many of the other volunteers included this red herring into their testimony. Each of the volunteers were then subject to a police interrogation as to what happened. Everyone gave different accounts; some omitted some details, whilst others were influenced by the mole and reported seeing something which they did not see. So how does this influence our take on the gospel writers? Does the fact that people can report seeing something which they have not mean that the gospels must be wrong? Well, I don’t think so. The casting of doubt on something is very different from outright dismissal, and I would regard anyone as foolish who, on this count, is led to think that the gospel writers must have all been mistaken or were in cahoots with one another to make it up. Instead, what the programme showed was that after the interrogations, the police were able to piece together an accurate picture of what happened, corroborating various witness statements, weeding out the incorrect information and getting to the heart of the matter. And so it is, I believe, mirrored in the gospels, and with particular reference here to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, although the same holds for the rest of the gospel narratives. The fact that they have slight differences between them, but that from looking at them collectively, it is evident that there is a consistent narrative implies that they are reviewing a real, historical event. I read recently somewhere that the slightly confused language that they use was indicative of someone writing about what they can see, but which they don’t understand.

Now let’s suppose for a moment that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead. What if it was a metaphor or, worse, an elaborate fabrication? Do you think the gospels would have continued to be copied and passed on by the contemporaries of the early Christian movement if they had known it was false? It strikes me as quite unreasonable that one would suppose this. There were enough eye-witnesses around at the time who would have been able to quash this early movement, known as The Way had its basis been historically and accurately incorrect. Without the historical reality of the resurrection, the task of explaining the origins of Christianity becomes very difficult.

One of the most obvious objections to the resurrection is the simple observation, known throughout history, that dead people don’t rise up from the dead. While to some it may appear that Christians are therefore going against common sense, this fact is in fact crucial: dead people, on the whole, don’t rise from the dead. That’s what makes the resurrection such an important event. The falsehood in this argument is one of induction, which the philosopher of science Karl Popper has opposed. He argued that simply because every adult swan you may observe is white cannot logically rule out the possibility that there is at least one black swan in the world. Applying that here, just because everyone you observe dying is not resurrected does not mean you can a priori discount the possibility of the resurrection by inductance. As Conan Doyle put it, via the mouth of Sherlock Holmes: “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The sticking point here on which Christians and atheists disagree is the definition of impossible. To the atheist, the possibility of resurrection is ruled out from the very beginning and so they immediately start to look elsewhere for their explanations of the rise of Christianity and its belief in the resurrection (if they can be bothered to think that far). However, if we are open-minded to admit the possibility of Jesus having been resurrected then the evidence we are presented with gives good reason to believe that this one-off event was an historical reality.

Are you still with me? If you disagree with me but have kept on reading then I tip my hat to you.

Something this extraordinary then merits further discussion. What does it mean? The Jewish hope, and hence the Christian hope too, is for all to be resurrected. The thing that caught the first century Jews off guard was that it was expected to happen to everyone at once at the end of time. It was not meant to happen to one person before all else. But then this is exactly what John says in Revelation when he calls Jesus “the firstborn from among the dead.” There is a popular myth the surrounds and pervades Christianity that the ultimate hope for the future is to live in heaven. No matter how often you hear this, it is not what is actually what the Bible says. If you disagree, go find the references and send them over to me. Rather, the hope is of a resurrection en masse and that in new, incorruptible bodies we will inhabit the new earth. So in order to understand what his resurrection meant, we must look back at what his death meant. Of course, for a complete argument, we would need to then go back further and give an account as to his life. But that I do not have space for that here.

We then switch our focus onto to the crucifixion, which need some preliminary remarks. First of all, crucifixion was a Roman punishment, not a Jewish one. So even though Jesus was accused of blasphemy by the Jewish authorities, the punishment for that was stoning (cf. The death of Stephen in Acts). Rather, it was the political aspect of Jesus’ following was more likely the reason for why he was executed. Yet we should not confuse the reason for why he was executed with the purpose of his dying. This tends to be another sticking point at which many people find Christianity unpalatable. But then who said the truth was ever easy to accept? As a Christian, I believe that God is just (in the legal sense of the word); that is, his judgement is fair and he cannot be unjust. It also very true to say that God is loving. The fundamental problem of mankind is what the Bible refers to as ‘sin.’ Now this has become a pejorative term these days, though I do not use it as such. It is the state of separation of mankind from God. Therefore, you sin because you are a sinner; not the other way around. Yet because God is just, it would against its nature (to use a non-gender specific pronoun) to, as many suggest, merely let it slide. To forgive without sacrifice. This is what Bonhoeffer refers to as “cheap grace.” Rather, a debt is owed, but God, in his love, chose to take that debt upon himself through the sacrifice of Jesus as a substitute for the whole of mankind.

To many Christians, the idea of God’s punishment is for us to be separated from his love; in other words to be completely separated from him. What makes this different from the separation of sin is that while we are sinners we are loved from afar. There is no intimate relationship, it is only one-sided from God to us. But its desire is to restore that relationship. But if we reject the evidence of God’s love as manifest through the ultimate sacrifice and continue in a state of self-deifying pride then what each of us deserves (as is only just) is for God to abandon us. I don’t subscribe to the notion of fire and brimstone being literal, but rather that there is no worse state to be in that that of being unloved. And when Jesus was on his crucifix, he was unloved by God. Not only had he been rejected by his people (the Jews), convicted as a criminal (by the Romans) and disowned by those closest to him (the disciples) but he was rejected by God in our place. So Jesus’ death was far more than a simple, if brutal execution. It was God abandoning itself.

We do not and, I believe, cannot know what happened on the silent Saturday. There are some early writings which suggest that Jesus preached to the dead, though I am not convinced of this. What we do know, as the best available historical evidence shows, is that on the Sunday morning he was resurrected with a new body which was still physical, bore the wounds which he had inflicted and yet was incorruptible – a resurrection body which each of us has set aside for us. So his death was not final, we are not without hope. By his dying we were justified and by his rising again we are given the hope of the future. That’s what I understand as the core message of Easter.

Book Review: Begat by David Crystal

Having never read any of other Crystal’s works, I came to this with a fairly fresh pair of eyes. As other reviewers have noted, the book is broken down into tiny, bitesize chapters, making it a great coffee table book that can be dipped into. There is no running narrative, so it doesn’t matter where you choose to start from (so long as you’ve read the introduction first).

Now I must confess to reading this from a certain angle; I’m a Christian, and have always been interested in the accuracy of translations of the Bible, as well as the history of how the collection of books (because it is not very accurate to refer to the compendium as a single book) was compiled. Now Crystal is not a theologian, so there is no real analysis comparing the KJV to such sources and the Masoretic Scripts or the Septuagint or any particular comment on what is a ‘good’ translation. Instead, what we have are numerous examples of how phrases found in the KJV have found their way into the English vernacular, as well as possible reasons for why they have stuck.

Crystal’s hypothesis is that the dominant factor is rhythm, and this is noted by looking at some earlier English translations of the Bible (which were banned by the catholic church) such as Wycliffe where the wording differed slightly and seeing which version caught on. The style of the book is quite repetitive, which could make for a dull reading if going through it cover to cover. Rather, I preferred to dip into it and just do a couple of chapters a day, intermittent with other reading.

That said, I did enjoy it a lot and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the English language. Crystal’s sources are very broad and include numerous references to online blogs. It may be questioned whether some of the modern cultural references will stand the test of time as well as the idioms discussed are, and I got the distinct impression that this was meant to be read at this time (the 400th anniversary of the publication of KJV).

Book Review: The Reason for God by Tim Keller

I first came across this book when I read an extract from it in Francis Collins’ anthology, Belief.

The book falls into two parts. The first is a rebuttal to various arguments put against Christianity, in an almost FAQ style format. The second half then puts forward a more positive case, giving reasons and evidence for why Christianity is true. This appealed to me a lot, as most apologetic writing I have read tends to deal with one of these whilst not stating the other side particularly well. (For the former, see the writings of Alister McGrath; for the latter, see Tom Wright).

The style of arguments will be very familiar to those who have read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and indeed Lewis is quoted frequently and properly credited at the end as being a significant source of inspiration for this book. So really, what it boils down to, is a 21st century update of that former apologetic work. This is not the only author from whom much has been borrowed. The chapter on the resurrection reads very much like a summary of N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of Son of God.

Now Tim Keller comes across in the book as an immensely likeable chap; he is very warm and rarely patronising. In fact the one verse that came to my mind was 1 Peter 3:15 “Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have; but do this with gentleness and respect.” This book is an outliving of that motif, which is one that I hold dear to my heart and always have in mind whenever I am questioned (by others or myself) on my faith.

There are hints in this book, which is more evident in other things he writes, that Keller is no fool. The footnotes give a hint to the depth and breadth of his study, and frequent reference is made to his own real-life experiences of leading a church in New York. But this mighty intellect is a little restrained here, in order to make the writing more accessible to a lay audience, and not be over-cerebral. This at once gives the book its greatest strength and one of its key weaknesses. The strength is that is highly accessible, and there is no complicated theological discussion or over-philosophising at the risk of losing sight of the goal. This does then have the drawback that it is not a watertight case. To most of the arguments presented there could always be at least one counter-argument. However, Keller has not had the time or space to cover all comebacks and possible disagreements.

The best chapters are those on the resurrection (mentioned above), justice and suffering. Where I personally disagree with him was on page 142 (and the subsequent chapter) where he attempts to show that people already know God exists. If this were the true, then it would not be such a bone of contention as it has been throughout human history.

It is very close to being a great book but the incompleteness of the arguments prevent of being such; nonetheless, it is still one of the better books out there in the field of modern christian apologetics and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in, and open-minded about, christianity, or has recently done something like an Alpha course, or Christianity Explored; though I doubt it will convince those who are determined not to believe.

Book Review: The Crucified God by Jurgen Moltmann

I read this as a sort of ‘Easter follow-up’ to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. I’d heard various good things about the book and have seen it referenced by quite a few people as being highly influential in their view of the crucifixion.

From the very start, this was not what I was expecting at all. The book begins not so much with theological exposition, but with a sociological look at the relevance of belief in the church and of the church’s place in society. From the outset, Moltmann states that his intention is to give food for thought and stimulate discussion, rather than give a systematic theology of the cross.

What follows is an extremely tightly written work. That is, is it not easily broken down and each sentence is carefully thought through and argued; and it is not all that easy to follow the argument, if I’m honest. There were numerous times I found myself having to go back on myself, re-read certain passages and try and find the origin of the thread. In that respect, it is not dissimilar to the way Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, with lots of sentences starting with a reference (e.g. therefore, so, since, etc.) to what had been discussed before.

A very large focus is put on the emphasis of God suffering as a result of the crucifixion, and of exploring the theology of what it means for God to be in Jesus and therefore for God to be crucified. Now a lot of my reading, and probably most people’s, will be coloured by their own pre-existing ideas about the nature of trinitarian theology and what it means for Jesus to be identified as God and yet abandoned and rejected by God on the cross. In this discussion, Moltmann certainly succeeds in giving a stimulus to thought and careful consideration, although from my point of view I did not agree with him on every point, most notably the fact that here he does not regard the resurrection to be an actual historical event, as was the crucifixion, agreeing more with Bultmann and less with Wright on this matter.

However, his conclusion at the end of the chapter which is given the same title as the book is a beautiful summary of a part of the gospel. Moltmann does not give a systematic theology here, though his concise conclusion is brilliantly written and eminently quotable.

From here, he suddenly jumps off in an apparent tangent for the last 50 pages of the book to his “liberation theology” where he looks at personal psychology and at politics. In here, he echoes an important distinction made by Karl Barth on the separation of faith from religion and proposes that the truth of Christianity be as far removed as possible from religious superstition, the root of so many misguided attacks on Christianity, which we still see today.

Overall, it is very odd book, in that some quite meaty theology is sandwiched between two sections on sociology. There is much to think about here though it is not the most accessible read I have come across by a long way. So would I recommend it? Just about; but you might want to keep a dictionary close to one hand and a Bible close to the other.