Thursday, 9 September 2010

When counting does and doesn't count

To a Christian it is both immensely comforting and intensely frustrating to hear popular atheist arguments against Christianity.  It is immensely comforting because they are (generally speaking) so weak, but it is intensely frustrating because the people can't seem to see the weakness.  I will outline one of these arguments here.

I was listening to past podcasts of the Unbelievable show and I heard an atheist responding to the rise of Christianity in first century Jerusalem as an evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity.  He said that this is no evidence whatsoever for Christianity, and if you accept it as evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity then you have to accept the truthfulness of Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses and all sorts of other cults that have had rapid growth.  He simply swept the whole argument into the bin, but what is wrong with his reasoning?  Is there a difference between the claims of these various religions?  What was it that caused the rapid rise of Christianity in Jerusalem?  What was it they were preaching?  Were the apostles standing in the porch of the temple telling people that Jesus of Nazareth's sermon on the mount was a beautiful model for living?  Is that what won people to believing this crucified man was God's Messiah?  No!  They were telling people that this man who had been crucified and buried was now alive, He appeared to them and ate with them, God had vindicated the claims of this man by raising Him from the dead.  Now what would be the simplest course of action for the doubter?  Check the grave - this new movement never would have got off the ground if the body was still there.  People might have said, "Well, this man, Jesus, had some nice thoughts that we can incorporate into our lives", but that would have been the extent of it, they would never have thought He was Lord, Messiah, Son of God, the exclusive way to God and the only Saviour of sinners. 

Can you see why the numbers do count here?  Christianity wasn't based on ethical teaching or claims about God that could not be proved (such being the case with many other religions), but Christianity was based upon a historical event that they claimed happened in their locality.  That's why looking at numbers who follow other religions isn't really the issue, because people can look at the teachings of other religions and believe their claims and like their ideas and decide that's the route they want to go, but the issue with Christianity is how could so many people have believed the Christian message if the Lord had not actually risen.  To put it another way, the Christian message was not merely morality, which would be valid no matter what happened to the person who taught it, but the message was about salvation, which depends entirely on the Saviour being presented, because you actually have to bow to Jesus as Lord and entrust the matter of your eternal salvation into His hands.  It wouldn't have been hard to convince first century Jews to trust in a crucified man who claimed to be the Son of would have been impossible, unless there was overwhelming evidence that He rose again.

But what if the body was stolen?  Well here it's important to see that the disciples didn't believe in the resurrection of Christ because the tomb was empty, but they believed it because they saw Him.  There are a few major factors we need to consider here. 
Firstly, in first century Israel, it wasn't cool to believe something new, different or strange.  The identity and security of the nation was bound up in their religious solidarity.  If the disciples had made a mistake about Jesus then they would have sheepishly slunk back to Galilee and kept their heads down and slotted back in to Jewish culture and customs.  It would have been a huge issue to have departed from the norm. 
Secondly, if the disciples made this story up then they were crazy, because it brought them nothing but suffering, loss and martyrdom.
Thirdly, if the disciples made this story up then they weren't just crazy, they were obviously atheists because they couldn't have believed in the God of Israel and at the same time knowingly proclaim a false Messiah, leading fellow Jews to give up the observance of Jewish ceremonial laws given to the nation by Moses from God.  If they really didn't believe Jesus was living then they didn't believe God was living either!  But you can't look at the record of their lives and read the letters they wrote and come to any other conclusion than that these disciples were sincere.  The question then is, could they have been sincerely wrong?  Given their claims, I don't know how they could have been mistaken, so I have a question for you if you don't believe in the risen Christ, do you think you could be wrong?