Tag Archives: The Reason for God

Was Individual Resurrection a Common Belief in the Ancient World? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 of this post, Tim Keller presented historian N. T. Wright’s analysis of Jewish and Greco-Roman attitudes toward an individual resurrection. Would the ancient world have accepted the story of Jesus’s resurrection without serious skepticism? According to Keller, Wright’s research indicates that the Greco-Roman world would not have been at all receptive.

But what about Jews in particular? Keller mines Wright’s historical research to further examine two skeptical theories which attempt to explain how the story of Jesus’s resurrection could have originated.

Over the years, skeptics about the resurrection have proposed that the followers of Jesus may have had hallucinations, that they may have imagined him appearing to them and speaking to them. This assumes that their master’s resurrection was imaginable for his Jewish followers, that it was an option in their worldview. It was not.

Others have put forth the conspiracy theory, that the disciples stole the body and claimed he was alive to others. This assumes that the disciples would expect other Jews to be open to the belief that an individual could be raised from the dead. But none of this is possible. The people of that time would have considered a bodily resurrection to be as impossible as the people of our own time, though for different reasons.

Keller notes that in the first century there were many other Jews who claimed to be the Messiah, and who were executed for those claims. What role did resurrection play in those cases? Here is Wright:

In not one single case do we hear the slightest mention of the disappointed followers claiming that their hero had been raised from the dead. They knew better. Resurrection was not a private event. Jewish revolutionaries whose leader had been executed by the authorities, and who managed to escape arrest themselves, had two options: give up the revolution, or find another leader. Claiming that the original leader was alive again was simply not an option. Unless, of course, he was.

There is only one Jew who claimed to be Messiah and whose followers proclaimed that he rose from the dead after he was executed. Perhaps they proclaimed it because it actually happened.

Was Individual Resurrection a Common Belief in the Ancient World? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A common claim of resurrection skeptics is that the people who lived in first century Palestine and the surrounding Roman Empire would believe just about anything.  They would have easily embraced the story of Jesus’ resurrection without thinking twice.  So, for the early proponents of Christianity who thought they really saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, it was relatively straightforward to spread the story.  After all, in the ancient world everything is believable.

Are the skeptics right?  Historian N. T. Wright has challenged the idea that the ancient world of Jesus’ day would have easily believed the story of Jesus’ resurrection.  Tim Keller, in The Reason for God, describes Wright’s research: “N. T. Wright does an extensive survey of the non-Jewish thought of the first-century Mediterranean world, both east and west, and reveals that the universal view of the people of that time was that a bodily resurrection was impossible.”

Wright first examines the dominant Greco-Roman worldview of the day.

In Greco-Roman thinking, the soul or spirit was good and the physical and material world was weak, corrupt, and defiling. To them the physical, by definition, was always falling apart and therefore salvation was conceived as liberation from the body. In this worldview resurrection was not only impossible, but totally undesirable. No soul, having gotten free from its body, would ever want it back. Even those who believed in reincarnation understood that the return to embodied life meant that the soul was not yet out of its prison. The goal was to get free of the body forever. Once your soul is free of its body, a return to re-embodied life was outlandish, unthinkable, and impossible.

But what about the Jews of Jesus’s day?  Were they expecting an individual resurrection, such as Jesus’s?

The report of Jesus’s resurrection would have also have been unthinkable to the Jews. Unlike the Greeks, the Jews saw the material and physical world as good. Death was not seen as liberation from the material world but as a tragedy. By Jesus’s day many Jews had come to hope that some day in the future there would be a bodily resurrection of all the righteous, when God renewed the entire world and removed all suffering and death.  The resurrection, however, was merely one part of the complete renewal of the whole world, according to Jewish teaching. The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable.

How would a first century Jew have responded to the claims of Jesus’s resurrection?

If someone had said to any first-century Jew, “So-and-so has been resurrected from the dead!” the response would be, “Are you crazy? How could that be? Has disease and death ended? Is true justice established in the world? Has the wolf lain down with the lamb? Ridiculous!” The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek.

Keller concludes his reporting of Wright’s historical analysis in part 2 of this post.  See you then!

Where Do God Substitutes Lead?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In a recent post, we discussed the fact that whenever a person makes something or someone their highest love in place of God, divisiveness occurs.  Tim Keller, in stark fashion, also shows us what the other negative effects of placing our faith in these God substitutes can be.  Here is an extended excerpt from The Reason for God:

  • If you center your life and identity on your spouse or partner, you will be emotionally dependent, jealous, and controlling. The other person’s problems will be overwhelming to you.
  • If you center your life and identity on your family and children, you will try to live your life through your children until they resent you or have no self of their own. At worst, you may abuse them when they displease you.
  • If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression.
  • If you center your life and identity on money and possessions, you’ll be eaten up by worry or jealousy about money. You’ll be willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which will eventually blow up your life.
  • If you center your life and identity on pleasure, gratification, and comfort, you will find yourself getting addicted to something. You will become chained to the “escape strategies” by which you avoid the hardness of life.
  • If you center your life and identity on relationships and approval, you will be constantly overly hurt by criticism and thus always losing friends. You will fear confronting others and therefore will be a useless friend.
  • If you center your life and identity on a “noble cause,” you will divide the world into “good” and “bad” and demonize your opponents. Ironically, you will be controlled by your enemies. Without them, you have no purpose.
  • If you center your life and identity on religion and morality, you will, if you are living up to your moral standards, be proud, self-righteous, and cruel. If you don’t live up to your standards, your guilt will be utterly devastating.

What Is the Difference Between Religion and the Gospel? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I have just completed reading The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, which has provided me much material for the blog in recent days.  In one powerful section of the book, Keller carefully draws out the distinction between one definition of “religion” and the Christian gospel.  Today I pick up the discussion where I left off in Part 1 of the series.

Keller gets back to the issue of divisiveness that we touched on a few days ago.  Those who are “religious,” who believe that God accepts them because of their good deeds, inevitably imagine themselves to be more advanced, of higher rank, than members of other faiths.

Religion and the gospel also differ fundamentally in how they treat the Other—those who do not share one’s own beliefs and practices. Postmodern thinkers understand that the self is formed and strengthened through the exclusion of the Other—those who do not have the values or traits on which I base my own significance. We define ourselves by pointing to those whom we are not. We bolster our sense of worth by devaluing those of other races, beliefs, and traits.

If we understand that God accepts us because of Christ, our views toward others change radically.

This gospel identity gives us a new basis for harmonious and just social arrangements. A Christian’s worth and value are not created by excluding anyone, but through the Lord who was excluded for me. His grace both humbles me more deeply than religion can (since I am too flawed to ever save myself through my own effort), yet it also affirms me more powerfully than religion can (since I can be absolutely certain of God’s unconditional acceptance). That means that I cannot despise those who do not believe as I do.

Keller continues:

Since I am not saved by my correct doctrine or practice, then this person before me, even with his or her wrong beliefs, might be morally superior to me in many ways. It also means I do not have to be intimidated by anyone. I am not so insecure that I fear the power or success or talent of people who are different from me. The gospel makes it possible for a person to escape oversensitivity, defensiveness, and the need to criticize others. The Christian’s identity is not based on the need to be perceived as a good person, but on God’s valuing of you in Christ.

Since one of the most fundamental characteristics of being human is feeling defensive about ourselves, we can know how much progress we’ve made as Christ-followers when these feelings come under control, when they start to subside.  They may never completely go away, but the more we come under the Kingship of Christ, the less we will see those who do not believe as we do as enemies, but as people Christ died for.

What Is the Difference Between Religion and the Gospel? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I have just completed reading The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, which has provided me much material for the blog in recent days.  In one powerful section of the book, Keller carefully draws out the distinction between one definition of “religion” and the Christian gospel.  First, Keller clarifies what he means by “religion” in this particular context:

In the broader sense, religion is any belief system of ultimate values that shapes our pursuit of a particular kind of life in the world. This is the reason that it is quite fair to call secularism a religion, and Christianity as well. However, virtually all religions require to one degree or another a form of self-salvation through merit. They require that people approach God and become worthy through various rites, observances, and behaviors. This is also what most people think of when they think of religion, and in this sense Christianity as presented in the New Testament is radically distinct. That is why for the purposes of this chapter we will speak of Christianity as distinct from “religion.”

According to Keller, religion “operates on the principle ‘I obey – therefore I am accepted by God.'”

The operating principle of the gospel is “I am accepted by God through what Christ has done – therefore I obey.”  This is what the concept of grace is in Christianity, that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done, not because of our own efforts.  Thus religion and gospel play out quite differently in people’s lives.

Two people living their lives on the basis of these two different principles may sit next to each other in the church pew. They both pray, give money generously, and are loyal and faithful to their family and church, trying to live decent lives. However, they do so out of two radically different motivations, in two radically different spiritual identities, and the result is two radically different kinds of lives.

The primary difference is that of motivation. In religion, we try to obey the divine standards out of fear. We believe that if we don’t obey we are going to lose God’s blessing in this world and the next. In the gospel, the motivation is one of gratitude for the blessing we have already received because of Christ. While the moralist is forced into obedience, motivated by fear of rejection, a Christian rushes into obedience, motivated by a desire to please and resemble the one who gave his life for us.

The distinction between religion and gospel also plays out in our own personal identity – what we think of ourselves.  Here Keller reminds us that the person who believes that God accepts them based on their deeds feels superior to everyone else, whether they are liberal or conservative.

Another difference has to do with our identity and self-regard. In a religious framework, if you feel you are living up to your chosen religious standards, then you feel superior and disdainful toward those who are not following in the true path. This is true whether your religion is of a more liberal variety (in which case you will feel superior to bigots and narrow-minded people) or of a more conservative variety (in which case you will feel superior to the less moral and devout). If you are not living up to your chosen standards, then you will be filled with a loathing toward yourself. You will feel far more guilt than if you had stayed away from God and religion altogether.

In part 2 of this series, I will continue to examine Keller’s thoughts on the differences between religion and gospel.

Why Are We So Divided?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A couple of years ago, I asked one of my good atheist friends what he thought the biggest problem facing mankind was.  His answer: our propensity to form exclusionary groups.  He explained that everywhere he looked, people were grouping themselves and casting everyone not in their group as “the enemy.”  He especially felt this to be a problem with religious people, as he was excluded from these communities because he was an atheist.

I’ve often thought about his assessment of the human tendency to exclude and to label outsiders as enemies.  Recently I encountered some thoughts on this human predisposition, captured by Tim Keller in The Reason for God.  Keller’s answer is drawn from the great theologian Jonathan Edwards.

In The Nature of True Virtue, one of the most profound treatises on social ethics ever written, Jonathan Edwards lays out how sin destroys the social fabric. He argues that human society is deeply fragmented when anything but God is our highest love.

How so?  Can’t we dedicate our lives to our family, to our nation, to our own interests?  Keller continues:

If our highest goal in life is the good of our family, then, says Edwards, we will tend to care less for other families. If our highest goal is the good of our nation, tribe, or race, then we will tend to be racist or nationalistic [Bill’s note: the Nazis dedicated their highest love to national Germany]. If our ultimate goal in life is our own individual happiness, then we will put our own economic and power interests ahead of those of others.

So how does making God our highest love solve the problem?

Edwards concludes that only if God is our summum bonum, our ultimate good and life center, will we find our heart drawn out not only to people of all families, races, and classes, but to the whole world in general.

Since God created each of us in his image, since we are all equally valuable in his eyes, since he desires that every one of us spend eternity with him, it is easy to see how the proper Christian response to every man, woman, and child, regardless of race, nation, or creed, is love, not exclusion.

Maybe you’re not convinced that setting our sights on other things cannot bring unity and break down divisions among people.  Can’t politics or ethnicity or socioeconomic status or tolerance or morality fit the bill?  Aren’t these worthy objects of our highest love?

If we get our very identity, our sense of worth, from our political position, then politics is not really about politics, it is about us. Through our cause we are getting a self, our worth. That means we must despise and demonize the opposition. If we get our identity from our ethnicity or socioeconomic status, then we have to feel superior to those of other classes and races. If you are profoundly proud of being an open-minded, tolerant soul, you will be extremely indignant toward people you think are bigots. If you are a very moral person, you will feel very superior to people you think are licentious. And so on.

There is no way out of this conundrum. The more we love and identify deeply with our family, our class, our race, or our religion, the harder it is to not feel superior or even hostile to other religions, races, etc. So racism, classism, and sexism are not matters of ignorance or a lack of education. Foucault and others in our time have shown that it is far harder than we think to have a self-identity that doesn’t lead to exclusion. The real culture war is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, and that fail to satisfy us even when we get them.

I think Keller and Edwards are right.  The solution to my friend’s problem is to make God our highest love; everything other answer is a dead end.  I hope that some day he will agree with me.

Are You Muslim Because You Were Born in Morocco?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A couple months ago I attended a debate between a Christian scholar and an atheist scholar at a local university.  At the conclusion of the debate there was a Q and A session and one of the atheist students stood up and asked something like the following to the Christian scholar: “How do you explain the fact that where a person is born is highly predictive of what religion they will believe?”

When I’ve heard this question before, the inquirer is usually making the point that religious belief is merely the result of cultural conditioning.  You don’t come to your beliefs through thought or reason; your religion is merely a reflection of where you were raised and what you were taught as a child.  Similar to your speaking accent, you “pick up” your religion through your parents and friends.

First, I must say that there are certainly people who merely inherit their religious beliefs from their culture.  There is no doubt about that, but what conclusion can we draw from this data?  Can we conclude that all religious believers are merely socially conditioned, that they don’t have any good reasons for what they believe?

Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason for God, quotes Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga as he answers those who claim religious beliefs are merely culturally conditioned.  Speaking of Plantinga, Keller says:

People often say to him, “If you were born in Morocco, you wouldn’t even be a Christian, but rather a Muslim.” [Plantinga] responds:  ‘Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different.

Plantinga then points out that the same goes for the person making the charge.  For example, if the atheist student had been born in Morocco, then he probably would be a Muslim, not an atheist!   Does it follow that his atheist beliefs are merely conditioned by his parents or peers?  Keller concludes, “You can’t say, ‘All claims about religions are historically conditioned except the one I am making right now.'”

The atheist wants to claim that he is exempt from the cultural conditioning that everyone else is subject to, but this won’t fly because even he is influenced by his upbringing.  Even so, he would never want to say that his atheism is merely the result of cultural conditioning.   If the atheist can escape his culture, then so can everyone else.  Just look around.  There are people who hold minority religious views all over the world.

Once I go down the road of claiming that those who disagree with me only believe what they believe because of their culture or upbringing, I have ceased giving their position any respect.  I am simply patronizing them and fruitful discussion ends.

Does Each Religion See Only Part of the Truth?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The vast majority of us believe in some kind of supernatural realm, but more and more people are uncomfortable saying that one religion possesses more truth about the supernatural than others.  We are becoming, in the US, a nation of religious pluralists.  A popular mantra of the religious pluralist, according to pastor and author Timothy Keller is: “Each religion sees part of spiritual truth, but none can see the whole truth.”

One of the most popular and enduring illustrations used to convey this mantra is recounted by Pastor Keller:

Several blind men were walking along and came upon an elephant that allowed them to touch and feel it. “This creature is long and flexible like a snake” said the first blind man, holding the elephant’s trunk. “Not at all—it is thick and round like a tree trunk,” said the second blind man, feeling the elephant’s leg. “No, it is large and flat,” said the third blind man, touching the elephant’s side. Each blind man could feel only part of the elephant—none could envision the entire elephant. In the same way, it is argued, the religions of the world each have a grasp on part of the truth about spiritual reality, but none can see the whole elephant or claim to have a comprehensive vision of the truth.

Christians see only their slice of supernatural reality, but all the other religions likewise see their slices of supernatural reality.  It is foolish to align oneself with a single religion, to make a commitment to one religion and deny the truths taught by others.  They are all grasping only part of the elephant and none can claim to know the entire elephant (i.e., supernatural reality).

Does the elephant and blind men illustration prove its point?  Not at all.  Keller explains, “This illustration backfires on its users. The story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to be able to see the whole elephant?”

The person giving the illustration (the religious pluralist) is claiming to know what the blind men (followers of single religions) do not know.  The religious pluralist knows that there is an elephant, even while saying that followers of single religions are blind.  But how does the religious pluralist have complete knowledge of the supernatural (the elephant)  if none of the followers of single religions do?  Why is he able to see and they are blind?

This is a case of false humility.  Every religion thinks it knows the truth about supernatural reality.  All the religious pluralist does is claim that every religion is blind and that only he can see! That, my friends, is not humility at all.  The pluralist should, instead of trying to convince everyone that he is above the fray, come down off his high horse (or elephant) and engage in the debate with the rest of us.  All religions are making the case for their beliefs and the religious pluralist needs to do the same.

*Note: If you want to hear from one of the preeminent religious pluralists yourself, then listen to this Unbelievable? podcast featuring John Hick from Feb 2011.

Is Religion Temporary?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

For some secular, non-religious people, their hope is that religious people will some day be the minority, that mankind will finally grow out of this unfortunate phase of history.  Religion may have helped our distant ancestors to explain where we came from, why we are here, why we have moral feelings, why we are unhappy, and where we are headed after we die.  The answers that religion provided gave aid and comfort in the face of a hostile world.

But, the secularist may argue, we don’t need religion any more.  The scientific method has served to successfully explain many aspects of the world that our ancestors did not understand.  Religion is on the way out.

Are the secularists right?  Will mankind move beyond religious answers?  Will the deepest desires of man be fulfilled without religion?

I do not see this happening any time soon, if ever.  The worship of God seems like a permanent need built in mankind, not something temporary that will disappear in the near future.  Pastor and author Timothy Keller has the following to say about man and religion in his book The Reason for God:

Religion is not just a temporary thing that helped us adapt to our environment.  Rather it is a permanent and central aspect of the human condition.  This is a bitter pill for secular, nonreligious people to swallow.  Everyone wants to think that they are in the mainstream, that they are not extremists.  But robust religious beliefs dominate the world.  There is no reason to expect that to change.

For the foreseeable future, those who deny the existence of the supernatural will remain in the small minority, as they always have.  It is always possible that they are right and the religious are wrong, but the entire history of man is the history of belief in the supernatural, not just by a few, but by the many.  Humans seek the supernatural – that’s who we are.