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Double Take

January 26, 2015 — Leave a comment
Sorted Magazine - July/August 2014

Published in the July-August 2014 edition of Sorted Magazine

“Content plus context equals meaning.” Whilst I may have forgotten much about ‘Prohibition America’ from my ‘A’ Level History class, these words still rattle around my mind. This maxim (another word I learnt in that class) of course rings true not just for a history essay, but for nearly everything in life.

For example, my first trip to the United States reinforced this point well. ‘Football’, ‘Cider’, ‘Pants’, ‘Biscuits’ etc. etc. When making the jump across the ocean, familiar words take on new identities faster than Clark Kent could ever change costumes. I found that it is entirely possible to have a conversation where you and the other party are using the same terms and yet are talking about something completely different.

Of course, we don’t have to cross borders for this to happen. My friend was once engaged in polite conversation with a senior member of the Royal Navy at some fancy evening event. Somehow or another the conversation turned to piracy, which both my friend and the top brass noted was a very real problem. A spirited conversation then ensued, and it was only after 5 minutes or so that it dawned on my mate that perhaps they were talking about different subjects. It turns out that the potential strategies for dealing with DVD fraudsters and Somalian armed gangs are strikingly similar …

Getting to the crux of a matter requires us to both hear what is being said about an issue and then also to understand what is meant by what is being said. Understanding this distinction, comprehending the context, is at the heart of good communication. Good listeners repeat back what they have heard, to check and see that their take reflects the intentions of the person making the statement.

The reason why misunderstandings occur is that we see the world and all the information therein through our own eyes and fail to realise that other people see things differently. When I hear a statement about something, the words that my ears pick up are run through my mind and all of its collected experiences and training, not to mention journeying through my emotions as well. We all hear through a contextual filter.

This applies to everything. The way that I view the world – my worldview – is entirely unique. It is a combination of millions of shaping influencers and factors. It shares many things in common with my friends, my family, my countrymen – but the nuanced version of the way that I see the world is my very own.

All the Big Questions of life pass through our worldview. Questions of meaning, hope, destiny, love etc. What you hear when I say ‘Jesus Christ’ depends entirely on your worldview. You could hear ‘prophet’, ‘hoax’, ‘myth’, ‘good man’, or ‘God’, to name a few.

The above answers can’t all be true however – Jesus can’t be both a myth and a good man, for example – so some people’s worldviews can be faulty. They need to be updated. Assumptions need to be suspended, the content re-visited, and the context re-evaluated.

Christianity invites this investigation. It wants to be examined. It is rich in both content and context. It is a faith based on evidence – not a blind leap, and certainly not a hasty assumption.

It turns out that there is a lot more to Prohibition America than a cursory watching of The Untouchables would let on (despite being a great film). Expanding my understanding through proper investigation helped me to go someway to getting a clearer idea of what really happened.

Perhaps in this way faith in Jesus Christ deserves a second glance, a double take. Don’t miss the meaning of the message of Christianity because of a deficient worldview constructed from assumptions. It doesn’t work well for essays; it’s potentially tragic for life.

Published in the May-June 2014 edition of Sorted Magazine

Published in the May-June 2014 edition of Sorted Magazine

I recently started watching Homeland. I think it was the combination of Damian Lewis donning US military uniform again as well as the award nominations that provoked my curiosity. And wow. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I found myself watching. Homeland is brutal. Sure, there’s the violence and the sex etc. but it was the uncertainty of the plot that was most assaulting. I wasn’t sure who to cheer for. But I kept watching, certain that at any moment Captain Winters would emerge and save the day.

Stories surrounding military conflicts – be it Band of Brothers or Homeland – are gripping because they are stories of struggle. If truth, hope, and beauty are lights that guide us then in wartime those things can become awfully dim. How people struggle to find that light through the chaos is the stuff of inspiration to authors and screenwriters.

War for those involved in them is not a neat thought experiment but rather a brutal testing ground of all that you believe and hold to be true. Perhaps this is why those that cling on to hope through turmoil provide us with some of the greatest film plots.

But you don’t need to have been to war to know the struggle for the good and true is within us. Even in the day-to-day rhythm of life we can ask ourselves what the purpose of our existence is all about. War may present these questions both suddenly and acutely but equally the monotony of life can provoke the formation of an unshakeable question: ‘why?’ ‘What’s the point?’

When we watch stories of triumph over despair on our screens we watch them actively looking for resolution. We want the hero to win, to overcome the odds, to persevere at all costs. Be it Batman, or Oskar Schindler, or Andy Dufresne – we long for the good to defeat the bad. There is something within us that agrees that it is right and noble to seek and strive for the good of a cause, a person, or an ideal.

That we all believe in a concept of goodness points us to a greater reality. The desire to cheer for a winner, the good side, makes perfect sense if there is, ultimately a good side.

It is a worthwhile thing to strive for the good and lament the wrong but the advantage the person of faith has an advantage here. For him, the entire framework of right and wrong makes sense being grounded in God.

Without God – as moral standard-setter – we can cheer for a winner but how can we ever be sure we’re cheering for the right side? If there is no standard to judge by, no ultimate right and wrong, then is there really any such thing as a right side at all or is our belief in goodness just a construct or perhaps based only on group consensus? Here’s hoping you’re in the right group – and the strongest and largest group – if that’s the case, because history points out that there the majority often get their way.

The moral tensions teased out on our screens taps into a deep desire in all of us, a desire based on an understanding of some kind of moral code, an order. That these things resonate so strongly with us suggest that we are wired in such a way to know right from wrong, which in turn points to a standard beyond ourselves and our cultures.

God provides a grounding point for morality that makes sense of this world as we experience it. Our searches for meaning that come from within ultimately point us to look outside of ourselves and outside of this world. The moral clues in all of us serve as a signpost to the true nature of reality. And with morality secured, there is hope that the winning side may be found and known.

Now, if only I could work out who is on that winning side in Homeland. But that will have to wait for another season or two I fear.

March-April Edition of Sorted Magazine

Published in the March-April 2014 edition of Sorted Magazine

Not so long ago it was popular to believe that the universe simply always existed. Carl Sagan famously stated that,

“The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”

But then along came a chap by the name of Georges Lemaître – working with ideas from one Albert Einstein – who said that actually, it looks like the scientific evidence points towards a starting point. We now commonly refer to this point in history as ‘The Big Bang’.

Science  – and our experience – points to the fact that the Universe began to exist. And this is quite interesting, because if we take things further it points beyond this, to the existence of God. When all of this is put together, this is known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

1st Point: Whatever begins to exist has a cause

Think of something, anything. Anything at all. Now think about how that ‘thing’ got there. In your mind or in reality, we instinctively know that things do not just pop into existence out of nothing.

My credit card bill is proof of this. It didn’t just get appear out of nowhere, it is the result of a cause (rightly or wrongly, but that’s a different argument). Likewise, the means to pay my bill won’t just spontaneously appear out of thin air, no matter how hard I wish it. Things that begin to exist have a cause.

2nd Point: The Universe has a beginning

Cue Einstein and friends with their scientific research. Science, as the exploration of what is, is of great help to us with this point. Established scientific theories today, such as the redshifts found by Hubble (the man, not the telescope), point towards a beginning for the universe. This is very much in agreement – not opposition – with faith.

Additionally, we can take this second point to be true by employing a bit of logic.

If the Universe has always existed and did not have a beginning then the history of the universe would be infinite. Sounds good, but as none of us possess the talents of Mr Buzz Lightyear, it is impossible for us to traverse an actual infinite.

Let my try to explain. Mr Chris Evans, of current BBC Radio 2 radio fame, is known for his large collection of Ferraris, all painted that classic Ferrari colour, white. Imagine that one morning Chris wakes up and finds that his collection has expanded and now he possesses an infinite number of Ferraris (for some of us, believing we could own just one Ferrari is the same as believing we could own an infinite number of those beautiful machines).

Chris is happy and as he muses over this increase in his collection he decides to break his own rules and paint every other car in his (infinitely long) garage, oh, I don’t know, red. Chris now has one red Ferrari sitting next to a white Ferrari and on and on …

Some time (in the not-too-distant future, perhaps), the BBC is faced with budget cuts. Chris has to take a pay-cut and decides to self off half of his beloved collection. The red cars must go. So Chris sells all of his red Ferraris and is left with just the white. But how many cars is Chris left with? He had an infinite amount of cars and removed half of them. What is half of infinity? It’s not a number, like 6, because that could be doubled to produce another number, which would not be infinity. Chris still has an infinite amount of white cars. So what happened with those red ones? What exactly did Chris lose?

The reality is, actual infinite series of anything just don’t exist. In this way, logically, the universe cannot have existed forever and had an infinite series of past events leading to the present moment.

3rd Point: The Universe therefore has a cause

We have shown the universe has to have had a beginning, and in point one we showed that all things that have a beginning have a cause. Let’s think about the nature of this cause.

The cause of the existence of the Universe must have been very powerful (to create the Universe from nothing), outside of time (the cause created time as well), as well as existing infinitely.

What’s more, this first cause, as well as having amazing attributes, must also be in some way personal because it chose to create the universe. An eternal, extremely-powerful thing doesn’t have to do anything. Nothing can compel something that large to do anything, in much the same say that I can’t force Martin Johnson to smile – or do anything for that matter – unless he wants to do it himself.

Let there be light

The Kalam Cosmological Argument doesn’t reveal a specific deity nor point to only one religion, but what it does do is turn on a light.

One can add – and we will this year – further arguments to this one, building a cumulative case for the existence of God, outside of Scripture and the historical record. As these lights turn on, take a look and see what they reveal. Perhaps they will lend themselves as starting points on a journey.

Perhaps you will discover that there are good signs within this universe that point to the existence of the divine, outside of space and time, incredibly large, complex, and powerful, commonly referred to as ‘God’.

Calling Our Bluff

January 7, 2014 — Leave a comment
The Jan-Feb 2014 edition of Sorted Magazine is available to buy now.
The Jan-Feb 2014 edition of Sorted Magazine is available to buy now.

For Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, Canada, things were pretty good. He was getting away with it. But when the revelations of character flaws appeared through a few films on YouTube it didn’t take long for the accusations of ‘unfit for office’ to be heard. I’m sure it could have been worse. Make no mistake, it will become harder and harder for a person to hold public office with hidden secrets when so much of our lives are being digitally recorded.

Of course we all hide things. Things we don’t like. Things that we have done and we regret or insecurities that we hold. For some of us, our greatest fear is being found out. And to protect ourselves we develop a self-righteous, stoic resolve and we reject enquiry. We don’t point fingers, because we don’t want any to be pointing back at us. As The Killers put it in the track Sam’s Town, ‘I’m sick of all my judges, so scared of what they’ll find.’

For the last 2,000 years or so Christianity has found homes in the overwhelming majority of cultures and civilisations. Spanning across race, language, and location the message of a man from Galilee has touched billions of people. And in one sense, this is not surprising. Christianity properly describes the ‘human condition’. It’s not a culturally defined, human-created idea, but the truth. And that truth rests on this fact:

We’re all bluffing.

Way back at the beginning of the story we the see the Bible describe the temptation put before Adam and Eve. ‘You will be like God (Genesis 3:5).’ The lie is: we, on our own, can be God. We can be arbiter and judge. We can decide what’s right and wrong. We can live our own lives well under our own power just fine.

History shows us the same story again and again. It is the story of people trying to live life under their own steam, and failing

If a friend of yours has a drinking problem, or is cheating on his wife, do you leave him in his error? On the surface he may seem fine, the thin veneer of normalcy and civility stretched over a framework of lies and shame. But when you learn of his problem, as a friend, you step in.

In the same way, whilst we struggle trying to make it within our own strength, God, who we originally rebelled against, and continue to rebel against, is the one who lovingly points out our weakness.

Enter Jesus. God himself, in the form of a man, came to earth to call our bluff. His first teaching starts with, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3).’ In other words, the ones who realise that they don’t have what it takes – blessed are they. Jesus came that we might know that we’re bluffing. For some of us, yeah, we know we’re holding nothing, but others of us may not realise this yet. Maybe we’ve never realised this fact or maybe we’ve been kidding ourselves for so long that we actually believe we have pocket aces when really we actually have nothing at all.

Go ahead, take a look at your cards. Socrates said, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ It is so incredibly easy today to add distraction upon distraction so that we never truly examine our life. Ask the big questions. Ask why the world is the way it is, why people are the way they are, what hope there is that may be found. Jesus was fond of questions – he asked them of many people. Enquire of yourself and then enquire of the world and look around for the answers.

I don’t know about Mayor Ford but sometimes when people are found out, though there are consequences to their actions, they are flooded with a deep sense of relief. They are relieved from the burden of having to live that lie any longer.

Jesus Christ offers explanation for the deep problems that we face. But he goes one step further than that; Jesus offers a solution and a real hope. To all who see him, accept him, and trust in him he grants to them deep peace and he offers them complete forgiveness. There’s no greater sense of relief on offer from any other source. Don’t bluff your way through life; the stakes are just too high. Be real with yourself and get real with God.

Why Did God Have To Die?

October 21, 2013 — 2 Comments
Sorted Magazine
The November-December edition of Sorted Magazine is available to buy now.

Have you ever thought, ‘Why the cross?’ ‘Why not some other way?’ ‘After all God being God, can do what he wants.’ ‘Why bother with death and all that?’ You wouldn’t be alone in thinking about these questions, many have.

Had To? Chose To.

One of the most well known Bible verses starts this way, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” (John 3:16).

Love is a choice; it has to be. Coerced love is no love at all. You could spend years of your life studying robotics and then create the perfect machine to meet your every need, but you wouldn’t have created something to love you, rather it would exist to merely serve you.

Other religions – not to mention a few cults – detest the idea of God dying. The idea of the most holy God suffering and dying as a human is repulsive to them because it brings shame on their God. God would have to be less than God if he suffered a human death.

Yes, I would agree, if God were not a God of love. But what greater act of love could someone perform than willingly exchanging their life for yours? If love were of immense value, surely the greatest person (God) would be capable of the greatest act of it?

To Pay The Price

The problem of sin runs deep. The Bible speaks of Jesus coming to earth and dying to pay the price for our sins and offer us forgiveness. But why, it may be asked, did not God just ‘click his fingers’ and be done with sin?

Richard Dawkins asks it this way, ‘If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment?’

Seems like an easy out, but it would cheapen the character of God to someone not worthy of worship.

The things that are most valuable are the things that people steal from (like the recent  $137million Cannes diamond theft – it was diamonds, not sand, that was taken). The perfect love of God is of immense value, and when it is stolen from – through sin – the cost incurred is immensely high.

When people are found guilty of a crime we hold them personally responsible for the cost.  When my computer was stolen after a break-in to my house, the thief who was caught later that night was ordered by the court to pay me in full. His crime brought a punishment that he had to pay.

I chose to forgive him for breaking into my house whilst I slept, to let that go and not hold it against him. At the same time justice was done through the courts that day. If I had chosen to forgive the thief and that court had not passed that sentence, the crime would not have been properly addressed.

Likewise, If God were to choose to just forget, and ignore the cost of our sin, our sin would be valueless, dissolving morality, and cheapening God’s love. If the French police turned around and said, “Ahh, they’re just diamonds – no big deal”, there’d be an outcry.

God’s perfection calls for sin to be dealt with and God’s patience gives us the chance, through his sacrifice, to make amends. He forgets and his death pays his price. Its is total love and total justice.

To Show Us His Love

What is the most loving thing you could conceive of? The greatest loving act imaginable?

The noted philosopher Alvin Plantinga says that the cross of Christ is the best loving act not only that has happened, but also that could ever happen.

If God exists, and is all loving, and we are in sin, then the greatest act would be to make his existence known to us, reveal that he loves us, and redeem us from sin.

In Jesus’ incarnation – coming to earth as a man – and atonement – dying to forgive us – we have the greatest possible act of love conceivable.

Just pause for a moment. If Jesus really was God, and Jesus really did die for you to forgive you, forget all the other objections you may have for a moment – if that were true, what would you say to Jesus if you met him? What would you feel, and what would you think about him?

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is compelling and well-documented. There are hard things to wrap our minds around and we continue to think about them. But if Christ rose from the dead then that changes everything. What this reveals when we piece it all together is the act of a perfect, loving, just God who offers full forgiveness to all.

This article appeared in the November-December edition of Sorted Magazine.

Sorted Magazine
The September-October edition of Sorted Magazine is available to buy now.

Have you ever heard something like the following?

“You only believe in God because you want someone to be there. You want your life to have meaning and purpose, you want the comfort of knowing someone is in control of it all. In short, your faith is simply a psychological crutch.”

This common objection against faith in God seeks to argue that many people only believe because they want to believe in God. That is, they do not believe on grounds of good reason. Belief in God, the argument goes, typically comes about as a result of experiencing pain, or worry, or heartache – something negative – to which the person responds by choosing to believe in God to make things better.

It was the psychologist Sigmund Freud who described that religion was a man-made system of belief invented to cope with the, “crushingly superior force of nature.”

The believer is described as projecting a view of God, in much the same way, perhaps, that a child believes that good fairies are protecting them whilst they sleep from all the nasty goblins and things under the bed. It is a belief that one believes to be true in order to feel better.

Recently I found myself at a talk listening to A. C. Grayling, the celebrated philosopher and one of the so-called New Atheists whose recent book The God Argument seeks to counter faith in religion with an optimistic view of humanism.

One of the arguments more heavily pushed by Grayling in that talk was this one of ‘wish fulfilment’. In fact, at a few points Grayling actually likened the argument for the existence of God as akin to an argument for the existence of fairies at the end of the garden.

What Does This Argument Really Prove?

Grayling was offering this argument in support of the idea that there is no God. But wait just a minute. What is the argument actually saying? It may be laid out like this:

  • Many people believe in God for psychological reasons
  • These psychological reasons aren’t reasonable
  • Without good reasons for God it’s unreasonable to say that God exists
  • Therefore God doesn’t exist

However there is a huge jump from premise two to premise three! Since when did how anyone believes in anything amount to any sort of evidence for/against that very thing?

Let me offer an analogy. I might believe that airplanes are carried magically across the sky by hoards of tiny invisible bats, contrary to all the laws of lift and thrust etc. I would be completely unreasonable in my belief structure but that doesn’t mean that airplanes don’t exist!

It’s entirely possible to do the sums wrong and end up with the right answer.

For And Against

Additionally, this same argument may be deployed against those who don’t believe in God. Could we not say that non-belief in God could just be wish-fulfilment also? That is, that you don’t want someone to be there, someone to say what is right and what is wrong, someone that might interfere with you life? You don’t want there to be a higher power so you believe and live in such a way that say there isn’t?

Listen to Thomas Nagel, another philosopher, here sharing his thoughts candidly on the matter of belief in God.

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

The fact of the matter is that how someone believes in God does not speak to the reasonableness of the existence of God. There are many reasonable cases to be made for God, including the historical accounts of Jesus, the evidence of the Resurrection, the arguments from design and from morality, and so on.

Dismissing the existence of God, as Grayling would like to do, because of how some choose to believe in God just does not make for a compelling case. Further more, on closer inspection the argument scuttles itself by the very fact that this argument is not reasonable.

This article appeared in the September-October edition of Sorted Magazine.

Salvation at Auschwitz

September 18, 2013 — Leave a comment
July-August Sorted Magazine
The July-August edition of Sorted Magazine is available to buy now.

Just a few months ago, on a bitterly cold day, I was trudging around the internment camp of Auschwitz, Poland, listening to my guide explain this building and that, when I came across a plaque that caught my attention. The corroded brass plaque was affixed to the side of the wall of one of the buildings that housed the inmates. It marked the courageous life of one man by the name of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest.

The story of Kolbe is one I will not forget quickly. After an alleged escape attempt by one prisoner of the camp, all of the inmates were assembled and from them 10 random men were selected for death by starvation. The brutality of this response was sure to crush any fleeting thoughts of escape that may have surfaced in the minds of the imprisoned men.

One of the chosen ten began to break down in tears as the realisation of his fate overwhelmed him. At this point Kolbe steps forward from the ranks and offered himself in the place of his fellow inmate. Laughing, the camp’s officers agree.

Locked in a small, windowless room underground, Kolbe and the 9 other men are left to slowly starve to death.

As the war drew to a close, the camps liberated and the few inmates who were still barely alive rescued, one man by the name of Franciszek Gajowniczek limped away from Auschwitz to begin the rest of his life. This shell of a man was one of the lucky few to make it through. He was a survivor and all because of one man. Maximilian Kolbe took Gajowniczek’s place in the 10 and this selfless act became the ‘salvation’ moment of Gajowniczek’s life, who incidentally went on to live to the ripe old age of 95.

Ultimate Salvation

When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross to pay the price for a crime he didn’t commit, what was happening had far deeper significance than the people murdering him knew at the time. The Roman soldiers had killed a man entirely unaware of the part that they played in the greatest selfless act the universe has ever witnessed.

When Jesus died, the pivotal point in all of human existence was permanently established. Jesus’ death was the salvation moment for not just one internment prisoner, but for the entire world imprisoned by sin and without hope.

The Bible says that God’s love and justice met at the cross. Jesus stood in our place and paid everyone’s mess with his life. His perfect life – and his life alone – could pay for all the mess of the world. Justice demands payment and as we faltered Jesus stepped forward and took our place, freeing us to life.

Established in History

You can visit Auschwitz today, as I did, and find the plaque honouring Maximilian’s life. You too can visit the small, dark cell where he was starved and murdered, as Gajowniczek did every year after his release. You can read the accounts of his fellow inmates and others at the camp, now published for the world to examine.

Maximilian’s story is grounded in history. His exemplary life and death still inspire many today.

Commemorative Plaque for Maximillion Kolbe
Commemorative Plaque in Auschwitz Internment Camp for Maximilian Kolbe

So too Jesus’ exemplary life and death reach out to us from history to ask us to learn from his story. Attested to by reliable eyewitness accounts, preserved through written records for generations after to examine, the stories of Jesus Christ reach out to us today and leave us with a question to answer.

Maximilian died and we celebrate him for a hero. We can think about why he did what he did but we ask those questions from the position of a spectator to the story. Gajowniczek alone reaped the reward of Maximilian’s death, our benefit comes through the inspiration we may receive from the story.

But with Jesus’ death the reward is yet to be determined. Jesus’ story isn’t merely an inspiring, courageous tale of an act of wonderful selflessness. That’s because the story of Jesus’ life and death isn’t over. We don’t observe that monumental historical event from afar as a spectator.

When we read of the life and death of Jesus we become aware that we are immediately and inescapably involved as characters in the story. Jesus died that all people would be liberated from their mess and the mess of the world. The rewards of his ultimate selfless act aren’t reserved for one man alone but are for all of us.

Jesus stepped forward, in front of us, to take our place, and set us free. The great selfless act has taken place and the freedom that has been bought is offered to all of us now. The only question left is: of what reward will his sacrifice be for you?

This article appeared in the July-August edition of Sorted Magazine.

In the last Big Questions article we saw how well established Jesus is in the historical record. History indeed shows Jesus as a man whose life and death had a huge impact on the communities, governments, and religions around him. So what was it about Jesus that produced these momentous tremors on the historical seismograph? The answers can be found in the four accounts of the life of Jesus: the gospels.

The May-June edition of Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now
The May-June edition of Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now

Now the four gospels of the New Testament claim to be based on eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus. The thing is, as far as historians can tell, none of the four gospels were written in the location they were set in. Countries like Syria (Matthew) and Egypt (Mark) are thought likely locations for the origin of these texts, so also is the Greek city of Ephesus (John). The Gospel of Luke may well have been written in Rome or Antioch and yet in the opening of his book Luke says that his writing is based on accounts, “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses.”

Well it is all very nice claiming eyewitness testimony you might say, but isn’t it a far simpler explanation to conclude that actually the origins of these books show that these so-called accounts are fabricated stories, made up far away from where the events supposedly took place?

To begin to answer this objection we must first take into account the style of writing of the gospels. Scholars agree that the gospels are presented to us as straightforward historical account. That is, they are full of facts such as names of places and names of people etc. Tom Clancy may fill his novels to the brim with every last detail but historical fiction didn’t bother with such exactitude. It just wasn’t the way it was done. The story was much more important that than the finer points. However, historical account was very much concerned with the facts.

Well, of course, showing that the style was historical account in no ways shows that what we have is a faithful account. What is does show however is that the authors were presenting their accounts to their readers as history. In that age historians thought that history had to be written during the time when eyewitnesses of the historical events were still available to be cross-examined. Polybius – a 2nd C. BC Greek historian – said that the role of the historian was “to believe those worthy of belief and to be a good critic of the reports that reach him.” The obvious benefit of this is that names, dates, people involved etc. – these could all be corroborated or disputed by the eyewitnesses themselves. In this way, the gospels leave specifics to be examined.

In the film Ronin, there’s a great scene the where CIA agent Sam, played by Robert De Niro, confronts Spence (Sean Bean) who claimed to be have been in the SAS. Spence is defending his tactics and Sam isn’t buying it so he pushes him on his story. “What’s the colour of the boathouse at Hereford?”, he demands. Spence falters, his story crumbling as a detail that would have been known to him if he had ever been around the SAS training base caught him out. Spence wasn’t in Hereford, he didn’t train with the SAS, he didn’t know the details.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is available to buy on Amazon
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is available to buy on Amazon

Richard Bauckham published a book in 2006 called Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. One brilliant piece of research highlighted in this book looks at the difference between Jewish names in Palestine in the 1st Century, and Jewish names in Egypt in the 1st Century. The popular names were different for the two countries despite common culture and language.  An author writing in 1st Century Egypt, who had no knowledge of Palestine, would simply not know this information. Yet, when we read the Biblical accounts we see two things. Firstly, the frequency of the names used throughout the Gospels correlates extremely well to the names recorded by wider history from Palestine at that time.

Secondly, and quite incredibly, the popular names are well qualified. Let me explain. In my GCSE maths class there were four Jonathans in the room, and we all sat next to each other on purpose. To our 16-year old minds it was hilarious when our teacher would shout “Jonathan!” and we would all simultaneously express complete innocence. But it didn’t work when our surnames were snarled at us from the front.

Similarly, when we see a popular name mentioned, like Simon (most popular in Palestine at the time) we see a qualifier e.g. Simon Peter or Simon the Zealot. That is how a guy called Simon would have been known to his friends, because there were many Simons around. But someone with a less popular name wouldn’t need a qualifier, and indeed, the gospels show this too.

The fact is that the gospels are full of precise details that scholars have since verified as authentic. We see place names, distances, and the names of people involved all matching up. The four gospels were presented and accepted in the 1st Century as true historical accounts. 2000 years on after much research our studies still continue to show how incredibly trustworthy these documents are. The court has admitted the evidence and now it is up to each of us to decide if we will accept Jesus for who he, and history, says he is.

This article appeared in the May-June edition of Sorted Magazine.

The Historical Jesus

February 25, 2013 — 1 Comment
The March-April edition of  Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now

The March-April edition of Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now

The great, British philosopher Bertrund Russell once said,

“Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him.”

Outside of the Bible – which incidentally is an incredibly reliable document – what kind of evidence is there that Jesus ever existed? Jesus Christ is arguably the most influential man in the whole of human history, indeed our entire calendar system pivots around his birth. Surely dear old Mr. Russell must be wrong? Surely there must be more evidence than the Bible for the life of Jesus?

Well, there is.

Non-Christian History

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Roman-occupied Nazareth. The Roman Empire covered much of Europe, Northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East at the time. So what of the Roman historical record? Here’s Tacitus, one of the great Roman historians:

“Christus … suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”

This small excerpt is part of a longer piece on how the Romans treated the early Christian church. Tacitus, writing in the second half of the 1st Century, corroborates Biblical facts about Jesus and the beginnings of the early church.

A well-worn objection to the Bible, and the New Testament accounts of Jesus in particular, goes something like this: “The early Christians made up the stories about Jesus because they needed to spread their false message.” Well, Tacitus and the Romans certainly didn’t need to spread the message. Quite the opposite; the Romans wished that the Christians didn’t exist! Christians were viewed as a nuisance and as law-breakers for not worshipping the emperor. The last thing that the Romans would have wanted to do would be to lend credence to the Christian message. Tacitus’ record is simply an honest historical account of the facts.

Jewish History

Another group of people not exactly tickled by the arrival of Jesus were, surprisingly enough, the Jews. Many Jewish leaders, keen to keep the peace with Rome, saw Jesus as a threat to the status quo. So let’s see what the Jewish historical record says.

Here we have Josephus. Writing in the early 90s (first Century) this Jewish Historian says:

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.”

Hmm. Jesus, Pilate … the historical record of Jesus does seem to be emerging clearly.

Christian History

We also have written records from early Christians. We have the Bishop of Rome, Clement, here writing to the church in Corinth:

“The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ.”

Or how about Ignatius? Just one of the many Christians murdered in Rome by the Romans. He wrote of the crucifixion, as did Justin Martyr. In fact, both of these men quote facts, places, and names – all things easily checked by their readers.  Additionally, both of these men were martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ.

It was the 16th Century French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, who said, “I believe those witnesses who get their throats cut.”

That’s the thing; these historical records were composed by people who didn’t have much to gain, but had plenty to lose. Reputation, peace, or even their lives were at stake.

So let’s return to Mr. Russell’s argument. It may be that one would not want Jesus to have existed for any number of reasons but the plain facts of the matter are that the historical record has overwhelming evidence for the remarkable life of Jesus Christ. As one New Testament scholar has put it, “The theory of Jesus’ non-existence is now effectively dead as a scholarly question.”

If Jesus didn’t exist then we can forget about Christianity. It would just be another myth and should be treated with as much respect as the hairy sky monster. But Jesus did exist and his very existence challenges us today. Will we ignore him, or will we brave further investigation of the man who changed human history more than anyone else in all time?

This article appeared in the March-April edition of Sorted Magazine.

This article appeared in the Jan/Feb '13 edition of Sorted
This article appeared in the Jan/Feb ’13 edition of Sorted

It used to be that the idea of belief in God, particularly the Christian God, was laughable in intellectual circles. Not so any more. Today you don’t have to search too hard to find a Christian in a philosophy or science department in a leading UK university.

And so the battleground moves on. Leaving behind the intellectual front, those with a particular disdain for Christianity retreated only to launch an offensive on the moral character of God. Instead of talking about such things as beginnings and designers and all the rest of it, now perhaps some of the thrust is towards what sort of a God is there.

Richard Dawkins, the best-selling author known for his articulate attacks on religion – and Christianity in particular – takes special objection to the character of God found in the Old Testament. Dawkins tells us that “[the] God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction”, before unleashing a torrent of nasty character attributes upon God. Whilst leaving aside claims of the Bible as “fiction” for a later article, the accusation of unpleasantness should be taken very seriously.

Let us be quite clear here, the Bible has some very difficult passages to digest. Many of these are found in the Old Testament and centre on the exploits of Joshua in his handling of the Canaanites.

Cries of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ and ‘Genocide’ ring out from the towers of atheism. How on earth could you love that same God? How on earth could you say that same God is loving? After all, we rightly condemn the atrocities committed at the hands of the Nazis upon the Jews, or of blood spilled in Rwanda in 1994, so how can the God of the Old Testament not be held to the same standard?

Some of the problematic parts can be found in the book of Joshua. In one such place it is said that Joshua “struck all the land” and “left no survivor”. He is said to have “utterly destroyed all who breathed”. Heavy words. Now to set the scene briefly, we must understand something about Canaanite culture. It was bloodthirsty. Think of a scene from the film 300, but worse. Child sacrifice? Absolutely, it was built in to the heart of the culture. Bestiality? Part of the norm. If we today, part of a nice, civilised, anaesthetised, culture were to be transported back to their day we would most likely break down under sensory overload at the horrors that confronted us.

But surely, you might say, there could be a better way to deal with this than killing everyone. After all, isn’t God supposed to merciful? Well, we read earlier in Genesis that God was patient. In fact, God waited 430 years before acting. We also read that this sort of thing wasn’t just a judgement on one people group, and indeed, when the Israelites, God’s own people, got mixed up in some bad things their judgement was equally bad.

But why did everyone have to die? The question persists. Paul Copan, author of Is God A Moral Monster?, looks at the wider culture of the Ancient Near East. Copan explains that it was common to practice the art of exaggeration in warfare rhetoric, a practice still used today. Let me give you an example. When Andy Murray thrashed Roger Federer in straight sets to win the Olympic Gold Medal all the talk was of the “annihilation” of his opponent. Reading the reports do we for a moment think that Andy, in the match, jumped over the net and ruthlessly murdered Roger? Not at all! We understand that this language in this context means that Andy well and truly thumped Roger. In the same way, the language used in the Bible here followed the pattern of the age. And how do we know? Immediately following on we read commands for the Israelites not to marry or associated with the Canaanites. Funny talk if by this time their nation were supposed to be extinct.

The Bible is a complicated book written over 1500 years and spanning several cultures. Cheaply writing off God with strongly emotive terms such as “genocidal” simply won’t do without proper examination of the text and the culture.