Evidence for God’s Existence

Romans chapter 1 says that God has planted evidence of Himself throughout His creation so we are without excuse. Sue Bohlin looks at different types of evidence indicating that God really does exist.

A “Just Right” Universe

There’s so much about the universe, and our world in particular, that we take for granted because it works so well. But Christian astronomer Dr. Hugh Ross has cited twenty-six different characteristics about the universe that enable it to sustain life. And there are thirty-three characteristics about our galaxy, our solar system, and the planet Earth that are finely-tuned to allow life to exist.{1} I do well to make the meat, potatoes, vegetables, and bread all come out at the same time for dinner; we’re talking about fifty-nine different aspects all being kept in perfect balance so the universe hangs together and we can live in it!

Our Earth, for instance, is perfectly designed for life. It’s the “just right” size for the atmosphere we need. Its size and corresponding gravity hold a thin, but not too thin, layer of gases to protect us and allow us to breathe. When astronaut John Glenn returned to space, one of the things that struck him was how thin and fragile our atmosphere is (only 50 miles above the Earth). If our planet were smaller it couldn’t support an atmosphere, like on Mercury. If it were larger, like Jupiter, the atmosphere would contain free hydrogen, which is poison for us.{2} Earth is the only planet we know of that contains an atmosphere that can support human, animal, and plant life.

The Earth is also placed at a “just right” distance from the sun and the other planets in our solar system. If we were closer to the sun, we’d burn up. If we were farther away, we’d freeze. Because Earth’s orbit is nearly circular, this slightly elliptical shape means that we enjoy a quite narrow range of temperatures, which is important to life. The speed of Earth’s rotation on its axis, completing one turn every 24 hours, means that the sun warms the planet evenly. Compare our world to the moon, where there are incredible temperature variations because it lacks sufficient atmosphere or water to retain or deflect the sun’s energy.

Speaking of the moon, its important that there is only one moon, not two or three or none, and it’s the “just right” size and distance from us. The moon’s gravity impacts the movement of ocean currents, keeping the water from becoming stagnant.{3}

Water itself is an important part of a “just right” world. Plants, animals and human beings are mostly made of water, and we need it to live. One of the things that makes Earth unique is the abundance of water in a liquid state.

Water has surface tension. This means that water can move upward, against gravity, to bring liquid nutrients to the tops of the tallest plants.

Everything else in the world freezes from the bottom up, but water freezes from the top down. Everything else contracts when it freezes, but water expands. This means that in winter, ponds and rivers and lakes can freeze at the surface, but allow fish and other marine creatures to live down below.

The fact that we live on a “just right” planet in a “just right” universe is evidence that it all was created by a loving God.

The Nagging Itch of “Ought”

As a mother, I was convinced of the existence of a moral God when my children, without being taught, would complain that something wasn’t “fair.” Fair? Who taught them about fair? Why is it that no one ever has to teach children about fairness, but all parents hear the universal wail of “That’s not fa-a-a-a-a-air!” The concept of fairness is about an internal awareness that there’s a certain way that things ought to be. It’s not limited to three-year-olds who are unhappy that their older siblings get to stay up later. We see the same thing on “Save the Whales” bumper stickers. Why should we save the whales? Because we ought to take care of the world. Why should we take care of the world? Because we just should, that’s why. It’s the right thing to do. There’s that sense of “ought” again.

Certain values can be found in all human cultures, a belief that we act certain ways because they’re the right thing to do. Murdering one’s own people is wrong, for example. Lying and cheating is wrong. So is stealing. Where did this universal sense of right and wrong come from? If we just evolved from the apes, and there is nothing except space, time, and matter, then from where did this moral sense of right and wrong arise?

A moral sense of right and wrong isn’t connected to our muscles or bones or blood. Some scientists argue that it comes from our genes — that belief in morality selects us for survival and reproduction. But if pressed, those same scientists would assure you that ultimate right and wrong don’t exist in a measurable way, and it’s only the illusion of morality that helps us survive. But if one researcher stole another’s data and published results under his own name, all the theories about morality as illusion would go right out the window. I don’t know of any scientist who wouldn’t cry, “That’s not fair!” Living in the real world is a true antidote for sophisticated arguments against right and wrong.

Apologist Greg Koukl points out that guilt is another indicator of ultimate right and wrong. “It’s tied into our understanding of things that are right and things that are wrong. We feel guilty when we think we’ve violated a moral rule, an “ought.” And that feeling hurts. It doesn’t hurt our body; it hurts our souls. An ethical violation is not a physical thing, like a punch in the nose, producing physical pain. It’s a soulish injury producing a soulish pain. That’s why I call it ethical pain. That’s what guilt is — ethical pain.”{4}

The reason all human beings start out with an awareness of right and wrong, the reason we all yearn for justice and fairness, is that we are made in the image of God, who is just and right. The reason we feel violated when someone does us wrong is that a moral law has been broken — and you can’t have a moral law without a moral law giver. Every time we feel that old feeling of, “It’s not fa-a-a-a-a-air!” rising up within us, it’s a signpost pointing us to the existence of God. He has left signposts pointing to Himself all over creation. That’s why we are without excuse.

Evidence of Design Implies a Designer

Mt. RushmoreIf you’ve ever visited or seen pictures of Mount Rushmore (South Dakota USA), you cannot help but look at the gigantic sculpture of four presidents’ faces and wonder at the skill of the sculptor. You know, without having to be told, that the natural forces of wind and rain did not erode the rock into those shapes. It took the skilled hands of an artist.

William Paley made a compelling argument years ago that the intricacies of a watch are so clearly engineered that it cannot be the product of nature: a watch demands a watchmaker. In the same way, the more we discover about our world and ourselves, the more we see that like an expertly-fashioned watch, our world and we ourselves have been finely crafted with intentional design. And design implies a designer.

Since we live in our bodies and take so much of our abilities for granted, it’s understandable that we might miss the evidence of design within ourselves — much like a fish might be oblivious to what it means to be wet. Dr. Phillip Bishop at the University of Alabama, challenges us to consider what would happen if we commissioned a team of mechanical engineers to develop a robot that could lift 500 pounds. And let’s say we also commissioned them to design a robot that could play Chopin. They could probably do that. But what if we asked them to come up with a robot that could do both, and limit the robot’s weight to 250 pounds, and require that it be able to do a variety of similar tasks? They’d laugh in our faces, no matter how much time or money we gave them to do it. But you know, all we’d be asking them to do is to come up with a very crude replication of former football player Mike Reid.{5}

Probably the greatest evidence of design in creation is DNA, the material of which our genes are made, as well as the genetic material for every living thing on the planet. One of the startling discoveries about DNA is that it is a highly complex informational code, so complex that scientists struggle hard to decipher even the tiniest portions of the various genes in every organism. DNA conveys intelligent information; in fact, molecular biologists use language terms — code, translation, transcription — to describe what it does and how it acts. Communication engineers and information scientists tell us that you can’t have a code without a code-maker, so it would seem that DNA is probably the strongest indicator in our world that there is an intelligent Designer behind its existence.

Dr. Richard Dawkins, a professor of biology who writes books and articles praising evolution, said in his book The Blind Watchmaker, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”{6} Even those who desperately fear the implications of design keep running into it.

Those who deny the evidence of a designer are a lot like the foolish fisherman. If he fails to catch a fish, he says, “Aha! This proves there are no fish!” He doesn’t want to consider the possibility that it might be he is an inept fisherman. Since science cannot measure the intangible or the supernatural, there are many people who say, “Aha! There is no Creator.”{7} Foolish fishermen deny the evidence that God exists and has left His fingerprints all over creation.

The Reliability of the Bible

Every religion has its own holy book, but the Bible is different from all the others. It claims to be the very Word of God, not dropped out of the sky but God-breathed, infused with God’s power as He communicated His thoughts and intent through human writers.

The Bible was written over a period of 1500 years, by about forty different writers, on three different continents. They addressed a wide variety of subjects, and yet the individual books of the Bible show a remarkable consistency within themselves. There is a great deal of diversity within the Bible, at the same time displaying an amazing unity. It presents an internally consistent message with one great theme: God’s love for man and the great lengths to which He went to demonstrate that love.

If you pick up any city newspaper, you won’t find the kind of agreement and harmony in it that is the hallmark of the biblical books. A collection of documents that spans so much time and distance could not be marked by this unity unless it was superintended by one Author who was behind it all. The unity of the Bible is evidence of God’s existence.

One other aspect of the Bible is probably the greatest evidence that God exists and that He has spoken to us in His holy book: fulfilled prophecy. The Bible contains hundreds of details of history which were written in advance before any of them came to pass. Only a sovereign God, who knows the future and can make it happen, can write prophecy that is accurately and always — eventually — fulfilled.

For example, God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel against the bustling seaport and trade center of Tyre. In Ezekiel 26:3-6, He said He would bring nations against her: “They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers; and I will scrape her soil from her, and make her a bare rock.” Ezekiel 26-28 has many details of this prophecy against Tyre, which would be like Billy Graham announcing that God was going to wipe New York off the map.

Tyre consisted of two parts, a mainland city and an island a half- mile offshore. The first attack came from the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who laid siege to Tyre for thirteen years. Finally, his battering rams broke through the walls, and he tore down the city’s towers. But the island part of the city wasn’t yet destroyed, because this prophecy was fulfilled in stages. For 250 years it flourished, until Alexander the Great set his sights on Tyre. Even without a navy, he was able to conquer this island city in what some consider his greatest military exploit. He turned the ruined walls and towers of Old Tyre into rubble, which he used to build a causeway from the mainland to the island. When he ran out of material, he scraped the soil from the land to finish the land- bridge, leaving only barren rocks where the old city used to be. He fulfilled the prophecy, “They will break down your walls and destroy your pleasant houses; your stones and timber and soil they will cast into the midst of the waters”(Ez. 26:12).

Fulfilled prophecy is just one example of how God shows He is there and He is not silent. How else do we explain the existence of history written in advance?

Jesus: The Ultimate Evidence

The most astounding thing God has ever done to show His existence to us is when He passed through the veil between heaven and earth and came to live among us as a man.

Jesus Christ was far more than just a great moral teacher. He said things that would be outrageous if they weren’t true, but He backed them up with even more outrageous signs to prove they were. Jesus claimed not to speak for God as a prophet, but to be God in human flesh. He said, “If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9), and, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30). When asked if He was the Messiah, the promised Savior, He said yes.{8} He told his contemporaries, “Before Abraham was, I am”(John 8:58). The fact that His unbelieving listeners decided then to kill Him shows that they realized He was claiming to be Yahweh, God Almighty.

When Jesus told His followers that He was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18), they would immediately be reminded of a passage in the book of Ezekiel where Yahweh God pronounced Himself shepherd over Israel (Ez. 34:1-16). Jesus equated Himself with God.

But words are cheap, so Jesus backed up His words with miracles and signs to validate His truth-claims. He healed all sorts of diseases in people: the blind, the deaf, the crippled, lepers, epileptics, and even a woman with a twelve-year hemorrhage. He took authority over the demons that terrorized and possessed people. He even raised the dead.

Jesus showed His authority over nature, as well. He calmed a terrible storm with just a word. He created food out of thin air, with bread and fish left over! He turned water into wine. He walked on water.

He showed us what God the Father is like; Jesus was God with skin on. He was loving and sensitive, at the same time strong and determined. Children and troubled people were drawn to Him like a magnet, but the arrogant and self-sufficient were threatened by Him. He drenched people with grace and mercy while never compromising His holiness and righteousness.

And after living a perfect life, He showed His love to us by dying in our place on a Roman cross, promising to come back to life. Who else but God Himself could make a promise like thatand then fulfill it? The literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the final, greatest proof that there is a God, that Jesus is God Himself, and that God has entered our world and showed us the way to heaven so we can be with Him forever. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by Me” (John 14:6).

God exists, and He has spoken. He made a “just right” universe that is stamped with clues of its Maker. He placed eternity in our hearts, as Ecclesiastes tells us, and all people have a strong moral streak because we are made in the image of a moral God. The evidence of design in our bodies, our world and the universe is a signpost pointing to a loving, intelligent Designer behind it all. The unity of the Bible and the hundreds of fulfilled prophecies in it show the mind of God behind its creation. And we’ve looked at the way Jesus punched through the space-time continuum to show us what God looks like, and opened the doorway to heaven. Jesus is the clearest evidence of all that God does exist.

Notes

1. Hugh Ross, Creator and the Cosmos. (Colorado Springs, CO.: Navpress, 1995), 111-145.
2. R.E.D. Clark, Creation (London: Tyndale Press, 1946), 20.
3. The Wonders of God’s Creation, Moody Institute of Science (Chicago, IL).
4. Gregory Koukl, “Guilt and God,” Stand to Reason Commentary.
http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/theology/gultngod.htm.
5. Phillip Bishop, “Evidence of God in Human Physiology.”
http://www.leaderu.com/science/bishop.html
6. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986), 1.
7. Bishop.
8. Mark 14:61-62; Matthew 26: 63-65; Luke 22:67-70

The author gratefully acknowledges the insights of Marilyn Adamson, whose article “Is There a God?” on LeaderU.com formed the basis for much of this essay.

© 1999 Probe Ministries.


How I Know Christianity Is True – A Defense of the Gospel

Dr. Zukeran presents five major reasons to believe Christianity is the truth. He begins with the Christian worldview and goes on to the authority of the Bible, Jesus’ confirmation of His claims to be God, the resurrection of Jesus, and Pat’s personal experience as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Because Christianity Teaches the Correct Worldview

Among all the religions and philosophies, how do we know Christianity is true? While there are many ways to address the question, let’s begin by saying that Christianity makes sense of the world around us. In other words, it presents the most correct worldview based on the world in which we live. There are three worldviews that lie at the foundation of all religions and philosophies: theism, naturalism, and pantheism. Theism teaches there is a personal God who created the universe. Naturalism teaches there is no divine being and that the universe is the result of time and chance. Pantheism teaches that the universe is eternal and that the divine is an impersonal force made up of all things. All three worldviews cannot be true at the same time and if one of them is true, the other two must be false.

The evidence from our study of the universe points to theism. Unfortunately, time will allow me to go over only three lines of evidence.

The first is the argument from first cause or the cosmological argument, which states if something exists, it must have either come from something else, come from nothing, or have always existed. What is the most reasonable conclusion of the three for the existence of the universe? Scientists confirm that the universe has a beginning. Many call this the “big bang.” Since the universe assuredly has a beginning, the worldview of pantheism bears the burden of proof. Second, to say the universe comes from nothing goes against responsible scientific inquiry and human logic. For example, any invention in human history is not brought about from nothing. It comes from materials and ingenuity that existed before its inception. Therefore, the naturalist worldview has no logical ground to stand on. The best conclusion is that the universe is the result of a cause greater than itself. That cause is God.

Second, we have the proof of design or the teleological argument. Complexity and design point to a designer. For example, although all the parts of a watch are found on the earth, no one would assume it evolved as the result of natural, unguided actions of chance. Why would we conclude otherwise when we look at the human brain or the human anatomy, which is much more complex? The more we discover about the universe and nature, the more we realize how unlikely it is that this could have all happened by accident. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the worldviews of naturalism and pantheism, which hold to a position of evolution.

Finally we have the moral argument. All people have a sense of right and wrong. In every culture, adultery, murder, and stealing are wrong. Where does that universal sense of right and wrong come from? A moral law code requires a moral Lawgiver who is personal and reflects the moral law in His character. Since we are made in God’s image, we reflect His moral law. C.S. Lewis stated, “As an atheist my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”{1} Naturalists and pantheists have difficulty accounting for the human conscience.

For these reasons, theism is the only possible worldview that can remain true to scientific and philosophical scrutiny.{2}

Because the Bible is God’s Word

Among all the books written by man, none have the credentials that equal the Bible. The second evidence for Christianity is the Bible, which proves itself to be true and divinely inspired.

The Bible proves itself to be true because it is a historically accurate document. Thousands of archaeological discoveries confirm its historical accuracy. Numerous civilizations, rulers, and events once thought legendary by the skeptics have been confirmed by archaeology. Even miraculous geographic events in Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho, and Sennachareb’s defeat in the 7th century B.C. have passed the test of archaeological scrutiny.

Another proof of the Bible’s truth is in historical records outside the Bible. Numerous historical records from ancient civilizations confirm the historicity of the biblical accounts. Dr. William Albright, who is still respected as probably the foremost authority in Middle Eastern archaeology, said this about the Bible: “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament.”{3} The historical evidence upholds the premise that if an ancient historical work proves to be accurate again and again in its detail, we can be confident that it is accurate on the material we cannot confirm externally.

The Bible’s divine inspiration is attested to in its unity. Although the Bible is written over a 1500 year period, written by over forty different authors from different backgrounds, and covers a host of controversial subjects, it maintains a unified theme and it does not contradict itself in principle from beginning to end. This indicates that a divine author supervised the entire process and guided each writer.

Second, we have the remarkable record of prophecy. Hundreds of detailed prophecies are written years before the event takes place. For example the prophet Ezekiel in chapter 26 describes accurately how the city of Tyre will be destroyed years before it occurs. Daniel predicts the empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Prophecy shows the divine hand of God because only an eternal being could have inspired the writers to leave such a legacy.

Finally, the Bible answers the major questions all belief systems must answer. Where did we come from? What is the nature of the divine? What is our relationship to the divine? What is the nature of man? How do we explain the human predicament? What is the answer to the human predicament? What happens after death? And how do we explain evil? Any system that does not answer these questions is an incomplete system. The Bible gives the most complete and accurate answers to the truly important questions of human existence.

No other book ever written has these credentials. A book written by God would have the fingerprints of God all over it. The Bible alone has His fingerprints.{4}

Because Jesus Confirmed His Claims

How do I know Christianity is true? Another source of confirmation comes from the person of Jesus Christ. Among all men who ever lived, Jesus stands apart from each one. Throughout the gospels, Jesus claimed Himself to be God. He claimed to have authority over the law, creation, sin, and death. John 10:30-33 states,

“‘I and the Father are one.’ Again the Jews picked up stones to stone Him but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’ The leaders replied, ‘We are not stoning you for any of these but for blasphemy because you a mere man, claim to be God.’”

The Jewish enemies of Christ clearly understood His claims and it is for this reason they killed Him. His disciples also understood His claim and presented it in their message. Not only did He make an extraordinary claim; Jesus confirmed it. There are numerous ways in which Christ proved His claims. I will cover only four.

The first confirmation of Jesus’ claims is His sinless life. Jesus’ most intimate companions stated He committed no sin that He needed to repent of. Paul writes of Christ, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21) It would have been hypocritical of Jesus if He had indeed sinned and never repented, for He taught all men this principle. Even His enemies could find no sin in Him. Pontius Pilate, after examining Jesus, stated to the angry mob, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” The Bible declares God is holy and Jesus showed Himself to be holy as well.

The second confirmation is the impact of Christ on mankind. More schools and colleges have been built in the name of Christ than any other man. More hospitals and orphanages are built in the name of Christ than any other person. More literature and music are written about Christ than any other person. More laws and ethical codes are built on His teachings than any other man. He has had a tremendous impact on every area of culture like no one else.

The third confirmation is the miracles He performed. God’s existence makes it reasonable to assume He would use miracles to confirm His message and messenger. Miracles are a powerful confirmation because it authenticates the creator’s authority over His creation. Christ’s miracles over nature, sickness, spiritual forces, sin, and death displayed this authority over every realm of creation.

The fourth confirmation is the fulfilled prophecies. Before He set foot on the earth, there were over seventy specific prophecies made by the Old Testament writers about the Messiah. The prophecies included the city of birth, His method of execution, His betrayal, the date of His death, etc. Jesus fulfilled each of these. The probability of His fulfilling just eight of these by chance is very close to a mathematical zero.

No one has both made the claims of Christ and confirmed them, as He did. His life is another proof Christianity is true.{5}

Because of the Resurrection

Jesus further confirmed His claims to be God by rising from the dead. Jesus openly proclaimed that as God He had authority over life and death. He states in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and he who believes in me will never die.” The resurrection is proof that His claim is true.

Many skeptics have presented alternative theories to the resurrection. Some of the most famous include: the theory that the disciples stole the body, the disciples went to the wrong tomb, the disciples hallucinated the resurrection, Jesus did not die but went unconscious on the cross, and the most recent theory is that wild dogs ate the body of Jesus.

However, these arguments have been shown to be severely flawed and could not account for all the facts surrounding the events of the resurrection. Many have done detailed analysis of the evidence and have concluded that the resurrection must be a historical event. The late Simon Greenleaf, the former Royal Professor of Law at Harvard, performed one of the most famous of these studies. In his book, The Testimony of the Evangelists, the Gospels Examined by the Rules of Evidence, he concluded,

They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted; . . . It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact.

As an atheist, lawyer and journalist Lee Strobel did a two-year investigation on the resurrection interviewing some of the great scholars on both sides. He finally concluded in his book The Case for Christ,

In light of the convincing facts I had learned during my investigation, in the face of this overwhelming avalanche of evidence in the case for Christ, the great irony was this, it would require much more faith for me to maintain my atheism that to trust in Jesus of Nazareth.{6}

No one has been able to conquer death by raising himself or herself from the dead. Jesus by His resurrection proves He is God. For only God, the giver of life has the authority over life and death. Since Jesus substantiates His claims, we conclude He is divine and what He teaches is true and authoritative.

Jesus also taught the Bible to be God’s Word. Therefore, the Bible is the foundation for all truth to all of mankind in every culture and for all time. Any teaching that is contrary to those of Jesus and the Bible are false.{7}

Because I Have Experienced It

Jesus Christ and the truths of the Bible are not simply facts to be stored in our minds, they are truths that we are invited to experience in a personal way. God invites us to a personal relationship with Him. The evidence points convincingly toward Jesus Christ. After reviewing the evidence, we each must make the decision to move in the direction the evidence is pointing. It is then that we experience the reality of God in our lives. Although an individual’s experience is a subjective thing, it is part of the proofs that authenticate faith.

When I first heard that the God of the universe loved me and desperately wanted a relationship with me, I thought it was the greatest news I ever heard. As I began to share my newfound discovery, I met scholars who seemed to have convincing proof that this was all a religious fantasy.

As I searched for answers I came across several Christian scholars who were able to defend the authority of the Bible and the claims of Christ. As I weighed the arguments and questioned men and women on both sides, I could not deny the overwhelming evidence that supported the Bible and the claims of Christ. Eventually I came to the conclusion that Jesus Christ is Lord.

I then realized it was time for a decision. Often we do not have all the answers, but we move in the direction in which the evidence is pointing. For example, many of us do not really know for sure if the person we are marrying is the right one. However, we make our decision based on the evidence we see at the time. If I find that I can communicate with my fiancée, our personalities are compatible, and that we share the same values, we move in the direction in which the evidence is pointing. When we make the commitment to marry, then our decision is confirmed definitively. Till we make the commitment, we base our decision on the evidence at hand. The same is true with becoming a Christian. Although we do not have all the answers, we can have enough faith to make a decision. When we commit our lives to Christ, we then experience the fullness of a relationship with the risen Savior.

It was then that I made the conscious decision to believe in Jesus Christ. I asked Christ to forgive my sin and invited Him to be the Lord of my life. Although nothing dramatic happened, I knew I had changed. I experienced the peace that comes from knowing your sins are forgiven. I experienced the joy of knowing I was placed here with a purpose and that there is meaning to my existence. Although I still had some questions, sins that I struggled with, and difficult trials, I had an ever-abiding peace and joy I had never had before.

The more I studied the Bible, the more the world around me began to make sense. I gained a new understanding in all my academic studies. The complexity of life on earth, biological organisms, and planets reflected the character and intelligence of a loving Creator who wants us to enjoy His creation.

My struggles in relationships were the results of selfishness, and a sinful attitude in my heart. Once I began to follow the principles of Christ’s love, my friendships became much more meaningful and joyous, not competitive. I experienced freedom from living up to others’ expectations because the God of the universe loved me just for who I was.

I experienced the reality of the Bible promises as I applied them to my life. My faith continues to grow each time I see that God’s truth works in every day life. The more time I spend with God in prayer, in study, and in worship, the stronger my faith becomes.

How do I know Christianity is true? The facts behind it along with my experience of God’s promises confirm it.

Notes

1. Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing, 1960), 45.
2. For more extensive discussion read the Probe article, “Evidence for God’s Existence” by Sue Bohlin.
3. Albright, William. Archaeology and the Religion of Israel. (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins, 1953), 176.
4. For more extensive discussion read the Probe article, “The Authority of the Bible.”
5. For more extensive discussion read the Probe article, “The Uniqueness of Jesus.”
6. Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1998), 265.
7.For more extensive discussion on the resurrection read the Probe article, “Resurrection, Fact or Fiction.”


Suggested Reading



Apologetics General


Boa, Kenneth. I Am Glad You Asked. (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor Books, 1994).


Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994).


Geisler, Norman. When Skeptics Ask. (Wheaton, IL: Victor Press, 1989).


Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing, 1960).


McGrath, Alister. Intellectuals Dont Need God and Other Modern Myths. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1993).


Moreland, J.P. Scaling the Secular City. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987).


Murray, Michael J., ed. Reason for the Hope Within. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1999).


Nash, Ronald. Faith and Reason. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1988).


Probe Mind Games Notebook. (Probe Ministries International, 1998).


Stroebel, Lee. The Case for Faith. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2000).


Zukeran, Patrick. Unless I See. . . Reasons to Consider the Christian Faith. (Dallas, TX: Brown Books, 2000).


Worldviews


Nash, Ronald. Worldviews In Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1992).


Phillips, W. Gary, and William E. Brown. Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview. (Salem, WI, 1996).


Sire, James. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, third ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).


Note: Material on the subjects below can also be found under the “Apologetics General” heading above.


The Existence of God


Jastrow, Robert. God and the Astronomers. (New York, NY: Norton & Company, 1978).


Dembski, Bill. Intelligent Design. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).


Evans, C. Stephen. The Quest for Faith: Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).


Kreeft, Peter and Ronald Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).


Moreland, J.P. The Creation Hypothesis. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).


Ross, Hugh. The Creator and the Cosmos. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing, 1993).


Zacharias, Ravi. Can Man Live Without God? (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994).


The Bible


Bruce, F.F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983).


Geisler, Norman, and William Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1986).


McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1972).


_______. More Evidence That Demands a Verdict. (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1975).


Price, Randall. The Stones Cry Out. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1997).


Jesus Christ

Greenleaf, Simon. The Testimony of the Evangelists: The Gospels Examined by the Rules of Evidence.


(Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1995).


LaHaye, Tim. Jesus, Who Is He? (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1996).


McDowell, Josh. The Resurrection Factor. (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1981).


Morison, Frank. Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1958).


Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1998).


Is Jesus the Only Way?

Anderson, Norman. Christianity and the World Religions. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).


Carson, Donald. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1996).


Nash, Ronald. Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1994).


Netland, Harold. Dissonant Voices. (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 1991).


Okholm, Dennis. Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1995).


Richard, Ramesh. The Population of Heaven. (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994).


©2002 Probe Ministries.


The Case for Christ – Reasons to Believe in the Reality of Christ

Dr. Ray Bohlin summarizes the evidence found by Lee Strobel when researching the question: Is Jesus Christ really who the Bible says He is? He shows that we have strong evidence on every front that backs up our belief in Jesus as the Son of God. This important apologetic argument helps us understand the enduring value of Christianity.

Sometimes the Evidence Doesn’t Stack Up

Skeptics around the world claim that Jesus either never said He was God or He never exemplified the activities and mindset of God. Either way they rather triumphantly proclaim that Jesus was just a man. Some will go so far as to suggest that He was a very moral and special man, but a man nonetheless. Well, Lee Strobel was just such a skeptic. For Strobel, there was far too much evidence against the idea of God, let alone the possibility that God became a man. God was just mythology, superstition, or wishful thinking.

As a graduate of Yale Law School, an investigative reporter, and eventual legal affairs editor for the Chicago Tribune, Strobel was familiar with the weighing of evidence. He was familiar with plenty of university professors who knew Jesus as an iconoclastic Jew, a revolutionary, or a sage, but not God. He had read just enough philosophy and history to support his skepticism.

As Strobel himself says,

As far as I was concerned, the case was closed. There was enough proof for me to rest easy with the conclusion that the divinity of Jesus was nothing more than the fanciful invention of superstitious people. Or so I thought.{1}

That last hesitation came as a result of his wife’s conversion. After the predictable rolling of the eyes and fears of his wife being the victim of a bait and switch scam, he noticed some very positive changes he found attractive and intriguing. The reporter in him eventually wanted to get to the bottom of this and he launched his own personal investigation. Setting aside as best he could his own personal interest and prejudices, he began reading and studying, interviewing experts, examining archaeology and the Bible.

Over time the evidence began to point to the previously unthinkable. Strobel’s book The Case for Christ is a revisiting of his earlier quest. He interviews a host of experts along three lines of evidence. In the first section Strobel investigates what he calls the record. What did the eyewitnesses say they saw and heard? Can they be trusted? Can the gospel accounts be trusted? What about evidence from outside the Bible? Does archaeology help or hurt the case for Christ? Strobel puts tough questions to his experts and their answers will both surprise and exhilarate.

In the third section of the book, Strobel investigates the resurrection. He examines the medical evidence, explores the implications of the empty tomb, the reliability of the appearances after the resurrection, and the wide-ranging circumstantial evidence.

However, here we’ll focus on the middle section of the book, the analysis of Jesus Himself. Did Jesus really think He was God? Was He crazy? Did He act like He was God? And did He truly match the picture painted in the Old Testament of the Messiah?

Was Jesus Really Convinced that He Was the Son of God?

The psychological profiler is a new weapon in the arsenal of criminal investigators. They understand that behavior reflects personality. These highly trained professionals examine the actions and words of criminals and from these clues construct a psychological and sometimes historical profile of the likely perpetrator.

These same skills can be applied to our question of whether Jesus actually thought He was God. We can learn a great deal about what Jesus thought of Himself, not just from what He said, but what He did and how He did it.

Ben Witherington was educated at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M. Div.) and the University of Durham in England (Th. D.). He has taught at several universities and seminaries and authored numerous books and articles about the person of Jesus.

Strobel began his interview by stating that Jesus wasn’t very forthcoming about His identity in public, even mysterious. He didn’t come right out and say He was the Son of God or the Messiah. Couldn’t it be that Jesus simply didn’t see Himself that way?

Witherington points out that Jesus needed to operate in the context of His day. To boldly state that He was God would have at first confused and then maddened the Jews of His day. Blasphemy was not treated lightly. Therefore He was very careful, especially at first, of what He said publicly.

There are other clues to Jesus’ self-identity as God. He chose twelve disciples, as God chose the twelve nations of Israel. He called John the Baptist the greatest man on earth; yet He went on to do even greater things in His miracles. He told the Pharisees, in contradiction to much of the Old Testament law, that what defiled a man was what came out of his mouth, not what he put in it. “We have to ask, what kind of person thinks he has the authority to set aside the divinely inspired Jewish Scriptures and supplant them with his own teaching.”{2} Even the Romans labeled Him King of the Jews. Either Jesus actually said that or someone thought He did.

Since Jesus’ followers called Him Rabboni or Rabbi, it seems they just thought of Him as a teacher and nothing more. But Witherington reminds us that Jesus actually taught in a radical new way. In Judaism, the authority of two or more witnesses was required for the proclamation of truth. But Jesus frequently said, “Amen I say to you,” or in modern English, “I swear in advance to the truthfulness of what I am about to say.” Jesus attested to the truth of what He was saying on His own authority. This was truly revolutionary.

The evidence that Jesus believed that He stood in the very place of God is absolutely convincing. Maybe He was just crazy. We’ll explore that question next.

Was Jesus Crazy When He Claimed to be the Son of God?

There’s considerable doubt in the general public about the usefulness of psychological testimony in the courtroom. It seems that you can find some psychologist to testify to just about anything concerning someone’s state of mind at the time a crime was committed. But while abuses can occur, most people recognize that a trained and experienced psychologist can offer helpful insights into a person’s state of mind while examining his words and actions.

In our investigation of Jesus, if He really believed He was God, can we determine if He was crazy or insane? You can visit just about any mental health facility and be introduced to people who think they are Julius Caesar or Napoleon or even Jesus Christ. Could Jesus have been deluded?

Not so, according to Gary Collins, a psychologist with a doctorate in clinical psychology from Purdue and the author of numerous books and articles in popular magazines and professional journals. Disturbed individuals often show signs of depression or anxiety or explosive anger. But Jesus never displays inappropriate emotions.

He does get angry, but this is clearly appropriate—in the temple, for instance, when He saw the misuse of the temple courtyard and that the moneychangers were taking advantage of the poor. He didn’t just get ticked off because someone was annoying Him. In fact, Jesus seems at His most composed when being challenged. In a beautiful passage, Collins describes Jesus as he would an old friend:

He was loving but didn’t let his compassion immobilize him; he didn’t have a bloated ego, even though he was often surrounded by adoring crowds; he maintained balance despite an often demanding lifestyle; he always knew what he was doing and where he was going; he cared deeply about people, including women and children, who weren’t seen as being important back then; he was able to accept people while not merely winking at their sin; he responded to individuals based on where they were at and what they uniquely needed. All in all I just don’t see signs that Jesus was suffering from any known mental illness.{3}

OK, so maybe Jesus wasn’t mentally disturbed, but maybe He used psychological tricks to perform His miracles. Many illnesses are psychosomatic, so maybe His healings were just by the power of suggestion. Collins readily admits that maybe some of Jesus’ miracles were of this very type, but they were still healed. And some of His miracles just can’t fit this description. Jesus healed leprosy and people blind since birth, both of which would be difficult to pull off as a psychological trick. His miracles over nature also can’t be explained psychologically, and raising Lazarus from the dead after being in the tomb for a few days is not the stuff of trickery. No, Jesus wasn’t crazy.

Did Jesus Fulfill the Attributes of God?

Modern forensics utilizes artists who are able to sketch the appearance of a criminal based on the recollections of the victims. This is an important tool to be able to alert the public as to the appearance of a usually violent offender. In Lee Strobel’s investigation of the evidence for Jesus, he uses the Old Testament as a sketch of what God is supposed to be like. If Jesus claims to be God, then what we see of Him in the Gospels should mirror the picture of God in the Old Testament.

For this purpose, Strobel interviewed Dr. D. A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. Carson can read a dozen languages and has authored or edited over forty books about Jesus and the New Testament.

At the start of the interview, Strobel asks Carson, “What did Jesus say or do that convinces you that Jesus is God?” The answer was a little surprising. Jesus forgave sins.

We all see ourselves as having the power and authority to forgive someone who has wronged us. Jesus forgave people for things they did that didn’t involve Jesus at all. This was startling for that time and even today. Only God can truly forgive sins, and Jesus specifically does so on a number of occasions.{4}

In addition, Jesus considered himself to be without sin. Historically, we consider people to be holy who are fully conscious of their own failures and are fighting them honestly in the power of the Holy Spirit. But Jesus gave no such impression. In that wonderful chapter, John 8, Jesus asks if anyone can convict Him of sin (John 8:46). The question itself is startling, but no one answers. Sinlessness is another attribute of deity.

This chapter is a wonderful interview with Carson, covering other questions, such as: how could Jesus be God and actually be born; or say that the Father was greater than He; or not speak out strongly against the slavery of the Jewish and Roman culture; or believe in and send people to Hell? I’ll leave you to explore those fascinating questions on your own in the book.

Strobel concludes that the Bible declares several attributes for God and applies them to Jesus. John 16:30 records one of the disciples saying, “Now we can see that you know all things.” Jesus says in Matthew 28:20, “Surely I am with you even unto the end of the age.” And in Matthew 18:20 He says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.” All authority was given Him (Matthew 28:18) and Hebrews tells us that He is the same yesterday and today. So Jesus is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and immutable. In John 14:7, Jesus says, “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.”

Did Jesus—and Jesus Alone—Match the Identity of the Messiah?

So far in Strobel’s interviews with scholars we have affirmed that Jesus did claim to be God, He wasn’t insane or emotionally disturbed, and He did things that only God would do. Now we want to review Strobel’s interview with Louis Lapides, a Jewish believer as to whether Jesus actually fit the Old Testament picture of what the Messiah would be like.

One of the important pieces of evidence that convinced Lapides that Jesus was the long-looked-for Messiah was the fulfillment of prophecy. There are over forty prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, and Jesus fulfilled every one. Some say this is just coincidence. But, the odds of just one person fulfilling even five of these prophesies is less than one chance in one hundred million billion—a number millions of times greater than the number of all people who have ever lived on earth.{5}

But maybe this isn’t all it seems. Objections to the correlation of Jesus’ life to the prophecies of the Messiah fall into four categories. The first is the coincidence argument, which we just dispelled. Perhaps the most frequently heard argument is that the gospel writers fabricated the details to make it appear that Jesus was the Messiah. But the gospels were written close enough in time to the actual events that, if false, critics could have exposed the details. Certainly this is true of those in the Jewish community who had every reason to squash this new religion before it got started.

Third, there is the suggestion that Jesus intentionally fulfilled these many prophecies so as to make Himself appear as the Messiah. That’s conceivable for some of the prophecies, such as Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, but for others it’s impossible. How could Jesus arrange for his ancestry, or place of birth, or the method of execution, or that soldiers would gamble for his clothing? The list goes on.

Fourth, perhaps Christians have just ripped these so-called prophecies out of context and have misinterpreted them. When asked, Lapides sighed and replied:

You know, I go through books that people write to try to tear down what we believe. That’s not fun to do, but I spend the time to look at each objection individually and then to research the context and the wording in the original language. And every single time, the prophecies have stood up and shown themselves to be true.{6}

What I found most intriguing about the interviews was the combination of academic integrity on the part of these scholars alongside a very evident love for the One of whom they were speaking. For these scholars, finding the historical Jesus was not just an academic exercise, but also a life-changing personal encounter with Jesus. Perhaps it can be for you too.

Notes

1. Lee Strobel, 1998, The Case for Christ, Grand Rapids Michigan/Zondervan Publishing House, p. 13.
2. Ben Witherington, quoted in The Case for Christ, p. 135.
3. Gary Collins, quoted in The Case for Christ, p. 147.
4. Strobel, The Case for Christ, p. 157-158.
5. Strobel, The Case for Christ, p. 183.
6. Louis Lapides, quoted in The Case for Christ, p. 185.

© 2001 Probe Ministries International


The Historical Reliability of the Gospels – An Important Apologetic for Christianity

Dr. Pat Zukeran provides a succinct argument for the reliability of our current copies of the four gospels. This data is an important part of any apologetic argument, i.e. defense of the veracity of the Christian faith.

Spanish flag This article is also available in Spanish.

Differences Between the Four Gospels

Skeptics have criticized the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, as being legendary in nature rather than historical. They point to alleged contradictions between Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They also maintain the Gospels were written centuries after the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. The late date of the writings allowed legends and exaggerations to proliferate, they say.

Are the Gospels historical or mythological?

The first challenge to address is how to account for the differences among the four Gospels. They are each different in nature, content, and the facts they include or exclude. The reason for the variations is that each author wrote to a different audience and from his own unique perspective. Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience to prove to them that Jesus is indeed their Messiah. That’s why Matthew includes many of the teachings of Christ and makes numerous references to Old Testament prophecies. Mark wrote to a Greek or Gentile audience to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. Therefore, he makes his case by focusing on the events of Christ’s life. His gospel moves very quickly from one event to another, demonstrating Christ’s lordship over all creation. Luke wrote to give an accurate historical account of Jesus’ life. John wrote after reflecting on his encounter with Christ for many years. With that insight, near the end of his life John sat down and wrote the most theological of all the Gospels.

We should expect some differences between four independent accounts. If they were identical, we would suspect the writers of collaboration with one another. Because of their differences, the four Gospels actually give us a fuller and richer picture of Jesus.

Let me give you an example. Imagine if four people wrote a biography on your life: your son, your father, a co-worker, and a good friend. They would each focus on different aspects of your life and write from a unique perspective. One would be writing about you as a parent, another as a child growing up, one as a professional, and one as a peer. Each may include different stories or see the same event from a different angle, but their differences would not mean they are in error. When we put all four accounts together, we would get a richer picture of your life and character. That is what is taking place in the Gospels.

So we acknowledge that differences do not necessarily mean errors. Skeptics have made allegations of errors for centuries, yet the vast majority of charges have been answered. New Testament scholar, Dr. Craig Blomberg, writes, “Despite two centuries of skeptical onslaught, it is fair to say that all the alleged inconsistencies among the Gospels have received at least plausible resolutions.”{1} Another scholar, Murray Harris, emphasizes, “Even then the presence of discrepancies in circumstantial detail is no proof that the central fact is unhistorical.”{2} The four Gospels give us a complementary, not a contradictory, account.

The Date of the New Testament Writings: Internal Evidence

Critics claim that the Gospels were written centuries after the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. This would allow for myths about Jesus’ life to proliferate. Were the Gospels written by eyewitnesses as they claim, or were they written centuries later? The historical facts appear to make a strong case for a first century date.

Jesus’ ministry was from A.D. 27-30. Noted New Testament scholar, F.F. Bruce, gives strong evidence that the New Testament was completed by A.D. 100.{3} Most writings of the New Testament works were completed twenty to forty years before this. The Gospels are dated traditionally as follows: Mark is believed to be the first gospel written around A.D. 60. Matthew and Luke follow and are written between A.D. 60-70; John is the final gospel, written between A.D. 90-100.

The internal evidence supports these early dates for several reasons. The first three Gospels prophesied the fall of the Jerusalem Temple which occurred in A.D. 70. However, the fulfillment is not mentioned. It is strange that these three Gospels predict this major event but do not record it happening. Why do they not mention such an important prophetic milestone? The most plausible explanation is that it had not yet occurred at the time Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written.

In the book of Acts, the Temple plays a central role in the nation of Israel. Luke writes as if the Temple is an important part of Jewish life. He also ends Acts on a strange note: Paul living under house arrest. It is strange that Luke does not record the death of his two chief characters, Peter and Paul. The most plausible reason for this is that Luke finished writing Acts before Peter and Paul’s martyrdom in A.D. 64. A significant point to highlight is that the Gospel of Luke precedes Acts, further supporting the traditional dating of A.D. 60. Furthermore, most scholars agree Mark precedes Luke, making Mark’s Gospel even earlier.

Finally, the majority of New Testament scholars believe that Paul’s epistles are written from A.D. 48-60. Paul’s outline of the life of Jesus matches that of the Gospels. 1 Corinthians is one of the least disputed books regarding its dating and Pauline authorship. In chapter 15, Paul summarizes the gospel and reinforces the premise that this is the same gospel preached by the apostles. Even more compelling is that Paul quotes from Luke’s Gospel in 1 Timothy 5:18, showing us that Luke’s Gospel was indeed completed in Paul’s lifetime. This would move up the time of the completion of Luke’s Gospel along with Mark and Matthew.

The internal evidence presents a strong case for the early dating of the Gospels.

The Date of the Gospels: External Evidence

Were the Gospels written by eyewitnesses of the events, or were they not recorded until centuries later? As with the internal evidence, the external evidence also supports a first century date.

Fortunately, New Testament scholars have an enormous amount of ancient manuscript evidence. The documentary evidence for the New Testament far surpasses any other work of its time. We have over 5000 manuscripts, and many are dated within a few years of their authors’ lives.

Here are some key documents. An important manuscript is the Chester Beatty Papyri. It contains most of the N.T. writings, and is dated around A.D. 250.

The Bodmer Papyri contains most of John, and dates to A.D. 200. Another is the Rylands Papyri that was found in Egypt that contains a fragment of John, and dates to A.D. 130. From this fragment we can conclude that John was completed well before A.D. 130 because, not only did the gospel have to be written, it had to be hand copied and make its way down from Greece to Egypt. Since the vast majority of scholars agree that John is the last gospel written, we can affirm its first century date along with the other three with greater assurance.

A final piece of evidence comes from the Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 7. Jose Callahan discovered a fragment of the Gospel of Mark and dated it to have been written in A.D. 50. He also discovered fragments of Acts and other epistles and dated them to have been written slightly after A.D. 50.{4}

Another line of evidence is the writings of the church fathers. Clement of Rome sent a letter to the Corinthian church in A.D. 95. in which he quoted from the Gospels and other portions of the N.T. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, wrote a letter before his martyrdom in Rome in A.D. 115, quoting all the Gospels and other N.T. letters. Polycarp wrote to the Philippians in A.D. 120 and quoted from the Gospels and N.T. letters. Justin Martyr (A.D. 150) quotes John 3. Church fathers of the early second century were familiar with the apostle’s writings and quoted them as inspired Scripture.

Early dating is important for two reasons. The closer a historical record is to the date of the event, the more likely the record is accurate. Early dating allows for eyewitnesses to still be alive when the Gospels were circulating to attest to their accuracy. The apostles often appeal to the witness of the hostile crowd, pointing to their knowledge of the facts as well (Acts 2:22, 26:26). Also, the time is too short for legends to develop. Historians agree it takes about two generations, or eighty years, for legendary accounts to establish themselves.

From the evidence, we can conclude the Gospels were indeed written by the authors they are attributed to.

How Reliable was the Oral Tradition?

Previously, I defended the early dating of the Gospels. Despite this early dating, there is a time gap of several years between the ascension of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. There is a period during which the gospel accounts were committed to memory by the disciples and transmitted orally. The question we must answer is, Was the oral tradition memorized and passed on accurately? Skeptics assert that memory and oral tradition cannot accurately preserve accounts from person to person for many years.

The evidence shows that in oral cultures where memory has been trained for generations, oral memory can accurately preserve and pass on large amounts of information. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 reveals to us how important oral instruction and memory of divine teaching was stressed in Jewish culture. It is a well-known fact that the rabbis had the O.T. and much of the oral law committed to memory. The Jews placed a high value on memorizing whatever wri ting reflected inspired Scripture and the wisdom of God. I studied under a Greek professor who had the Gospels memorized word perfect. In a culture where this was practiced, memorization skills were far advanced compared to ours today. New Testament scholar Darrell Bock states that the Jewish culture was “a culture of memory.”{5}

Rainer Reisner presents six key reasons why oral tradition accurately preserved Jesus’ teachings.{6} First, Jesus used the Old Testament prophets’ practice of proclaiming the word of God which demanded accurate preservation of inspired teaching. Second, Jesus’ presentations of Himself as Messiah would reinforce among His followers the need to preserve His words accurately. Third, ninety percent of Jesus’ teachings and sayings use mnemonic methods similar to those used in Hebrew poetry. Fourth, Jesus trained His disciples to teach His lessons even while He was on earth. Fifth, Jewish boys were educated until they were twelve, so the disciples likely knew how to read and write. Finally, just as Jewish and Greek teachers gathered disciples, Jesus gathered and trained His to carry on after His death.

When one studies the teachings of Jesus, one realizes that His teachings and illustrations are easy to memorize. People throughout the world recognize immediately the story of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Lord’s Prayer.

We also know that the church preserved the teachings of Christ in the form of hymns which were likewise easy to memorize. Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 is a good example of this.

We can have confidence then that the oral tradition accurately preserved the teachings and the events of Jesus’ life till they were written down just a few years later.

The Transmission of the Gospel Texts

When I am speaking with Muslims or Mormons, we often come to a point in the discussion where it is clear the Bible contradicts their position. It is then they claim, as many skeptics, do that the Bible has not been accurately transmitted and has been corrupted by the church. In regards to the Gospels, do we have an accurate copy of the original texts or have they been corrupted?

Previously, we showed that the Gospels were written in the first century, within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. These eyewitnesses, both friendly and hostile, scrutinized the accounts for accuracy.

So the original writings were accurate. However, we do not have the original manuscripts. What we have are copies of copies of copies. Are these accurate, or have they been tampered with? As shown earlier, we have 5000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. When you include the quotes from the church fathers, manuscripts from other early translations like the Latin Vulgate, the Ethiopic text, and others, the total comes out to over 24,000 ancient texts. With so many ancient texts, significant alterations should be easy to spot. However, those who accuse the New Testament of being corrupted have not produced such evidence. This is significant because it should be easy to do with so many manuscripts available. The truth is, the large number of manuscripts confirm the accurate preservation and transmission of the New Testament writings.

Although we can be confident in an accurate copy, we do have textual discrepancies. There are some passages with variant readings that we are not sure of. However, the differences are minor and do not affect any major theological doctrine. Most have to do with sentence structure, vocabulary, and grammar. These in no way affect any major doctrine.

Here is one example. In our Bibles, Mark 16:9-20 is debated as to whether it was part of the original writings. Although I personally do not believe this passage was part of the original text, its inclusion does not affect any major teaching of Christianity. It states that Christ was resurrected, appeared to the disciples, and commissioned them to preach the gospel. This is taught elsewhere.

The other discrepancies are similar in nature. Greek scholars agree we have a copy very accurate to the original. Westcott and Hort state that we have a copy 98.33% accurate to the original.{7} A.T. Robertson gave a figure of 99% accuracy to the original.{8} As historian Sir Fredric Kenyon assures us, “…the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”{9}

Do Miracles Discredit the Gospels?

Skeptics question the accuracy of the Gospels because of the miracles. However, this is an issue of worldviews. Those who hold to a naturalistic worldview do not believe an omnipotent creator exists. All that exists is energy and matter. Therefore, miracles are impossible. Their conclusion, then, is that the miracle accounts in the Gospels are exaggerations or myths.

Those who hold to a theistic worldview can accept miracles in light of our understanding of God and Christ. God can intervene in time and space and alter the natural regularities of nature much like finite humans can in smaller limited ways. If Jesus is the Son of God, we can expect Him to perform miracles to affirm His claims to be divine. But worldviews are not where this ends. We also need to take a good look at the historical facts.

As shown previously, the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the events of the life of Christ. Early dating shows eyewitnesses were alive when Gospels were circulating and could attest to their accuracy. Apostles often appeal to the witness of the hostile crowd, pointing out their knowledge of the facts as well (Acts 2:22, Acts 26:26). Therefore, if there were any exaggerations or stories being told about Christ that were not true, the eyewitnesses could have easily discredited the apostles accounts. Remember, they began preaching in Israel in the very cities and during the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. The Jews were careful to record accurate historical accounts. Many enemies of the early church were looking for ways to discredit the apostles’ teaching. If what the apostles were saying was not true, the enemies would have cried foul, and the Gospels would not have earned much credibility.

There are also non-Christian sources that attest to the miracles of Christ. Josephus writes, “Now there was about that 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 to him both many of the Jews and many of the gentiles.” The Jewish Talmud, written in the fifth century A.D., attributes Jesus’ miracles to sorcery. Opponents of the Gospels do not deny He did miracles, they just present alternative explanations for them.

Finally, Christ’s power over creation is supremely revealed in the resurrection. The resurrection is one of the best attested to events in history. For a full treatment, look up the article Resurrection: Fact or Fiction here at Probe.org.

Notes

1. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 10.

2. Ibid., 9.

3. F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 14.

4. Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002), 530.
5. Michael Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing, 1995), 80.

6. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 27-28.

7. Geisler, 474.

8. Ibid.

9. Quoted by Norman Geisler, General Introduction to the Bible, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 405.

© 2004 Probe Ministries.


Ancient Evidence for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources

Dr. Michael Gleghorn examines evidence from ancient non-Christian sources for the life of Jesus, demonstrating that such sources help confirm the historical reliability of the Gospels.

Evidence from Tacitus

Although there is overwhelming evidence that the New Testament is an accurate and trustworthy historical document, many people are still reluctant to believe what it says unless there is also some independent, non-biblical testimony that corroborates its statements. In the introduction to one of his books, F.F. Bruce tells about a Christian correspondent who was told by an agnostic friend that “apart from obscure references in Josephus and the like,” there was no historical evidence for the life of Jesus outside the Bible.{1} This, he wrote to Bruce, had caused him “great concern and some little upset in [his] spiritual life.”{2} He concludes his letter by asking, “Is such collateral proof available, and if not, are there reasons for the lack of it?”{3} The answer to this question is, “Yes, such collateral proof is available,” and we will be looking at some of it in this article.

Let’s begin our inquiry with a passage that historian Edwin Yamauchi calls “probably the most important reference to Jesus outside the New Testament.”{4} Reporting on Emperor Nero’s decision to blame the Christians for the fire that had destroyed Rome in A.D. 64, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote:

Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. . . .{5}

What all can we learn from this ancient (and rather unsympathetic) reference to Jesus and the early Christians? Notice, first, that Tacitus reports Christians derived their name from a historical person called Christus (from the Latin), or Christ. He is said to have “suffered the extreme penalty,” obviously alluding to the Roman method of execution known as crucifixion. This is said to have occurred during the reign of Tiberius and by the sentence of Pontius Pilatus. This confirms much of what the Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus.

But what are we to make of Tacitus’ rather enigmatic statement that Christ’s death briefly checked “a most mischievous superstition,” which subsequently arose not only in Judaea, but also in Rome? One historian suggests that Tacitus is here “bearing indirect . . . testimony to the conviction of the early church that the Christ who had been crucified had risen from the grave.”{6} While this interpretation is admittedly speculative, it does help explain the otherwise bizarre occurrence of a rapidly growing religion based on the worship of a man who had been crucified as a criminal.{7} How else might one explain that?

Evidence from Pliny the Younger

Another important source of evidence about Jesus and early Christianity can be found in the letters of Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan. Pliny was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. In one of his letters, dated around A.D. 112, he asks Trajan’s advice about the appropriate way to conduct legal proceedings against those accused of being Christians.{8} Pliny says that he needed to consult the emperor about this issue because a great multitude of every age, class, and sex stood accused of Christianity.{9}

At one point in his letter, Pliny relates some of the information he has learned about these Christians:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.{10}

This passage provides us with a number of interesting insights into the beliefs and practices of early Christians. First, we see that Christians regularly met on a certain fixed day for worship. Second, their worship was directed to Christ, demonstrating that they firmly believed in His divinity. Furthermore, one scholar interprets Pliny’s statement that hymns were sung to Christ, as to a god, as a reference to the rather distinctive fact that, “unlike other gods who were worshipped, Christ was a person who had lived on earth.”{11} If this interpretation is correct, Pliny understood that Christians were worshipping an actual historical person as God! Of course, this agrees perfectly with the New Testament doctrine that Jesus was both God and man.

Not only does Pliny’s letter help us understand what early Christians believed about Jesus’ person, it also reveals the high esteem to which they held His teachings. For instance, Pliny notes that Christians bound themselves by a solemn oath not to violate various moral standards, which find their source in the ethical teachings of Jesus. In addition, Pliny’s reference to the Christian custom of sharing a common meal likely alludes to their observance of communion and the “love feast.”{12} This interpretation helps explain the Christian claim that the meal was merely food of an ordinary and innocent kind. They were attempting to counter the charge, sometimes made by non-Christians, of practicing “ritual cannibalism.”{13} The Christians of that day humbly repudiated such slanderous attacks on Jesus’ teachings. We must sometimes do the same today.

Evidence from Josephus

Perhaps the most remarkable reference to Jesus outside the Bible can be found in the writings of Josephus, a first century Jewish historian. On two occasions, in his Jewish Antiquities, he mentions Jesus. The second, less revealing, reference describes the condemnation of one “James” by the Jewish Sanhedrin. This James, says Josephus, was “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ.”{14} F.F. Bruce points out how this agrees with Paul’s description of James in Galatians 1:19 as “the Lord’s brother.”{15} And Edwin Yamauchi informs us that “few scholars have questioned” that Josephus actually penned this passage.{16}

As interesting as this brief reference is, there is an earlier one, which is truly astonishing. Called the “Testimonium Flavianum,” the relevant portion declares:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate . . .condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life. . . . And the tribe of Christians . . . has . . . not disappeared.{17}

Did Josephus really write this? Most scholars think the core of the passage originated with Josephus, but that it was later altered by a Christian editor, possibly between the third and fourth century A.D.{18} But why do they think it was altered? Josephus was not a Christian, and it is difficult to believe that anyone but a Christian would have made some of these statements.{19}

For instance, the claim that Jesus was a wise man seems authentic, but the qualifying phrase, “if indeed one ought to call him a man,” is suspect. It implies that Jesus was more than human, and it is quite unlikely that Josephus would have said that! It is also difficult to believe he would have flatly asserted that Jesus was the Christ, especially when he later refers to Jesus as “the so-called” Christ. Finally, the claim that on the third day Jesus appeared to His disciples restored to life, inasmuch as it affirms Jesus’ resurrection, is quite unlikely to come from a non-Christian!

But even if we disregard the questionable parts of this passage, we are still left with a good deal of corroborating information about the biblical Jesus. We read that he was a wise man who performed surprising feats. And although He was crucified under Pilate, His followers continued their discipleship and became known as Christians. When we combine these statements with Josephus’ later reference to Jesus as “the so-called Christ,” a rather detailed picture emerges which harmonizes quite well with the biblical record. It increasingly appears that the “biblical Jesus” and the “historical Jesus” are one and the same!

Evidence from the Babylonian Talmud

There are only a few clear references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings compiled between approximately A.D. 70-500. Given this time frame, it is naturally supposed that earlier references to Jesus are more likely to be historically reliable than later ones. In the case of the Talmud, the earliest period of compilation occurred between A.D. 70-200.{20} The most significant reference to Jesus from this period states:

On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald . . . cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.”{21}

Let’s examine this passage. You may have noticed that it refers to someone named “Yeshu.” So why do we think this is Jesus? Actually, “Yeshu” (or “Yeshua”) is how Jesus’ name is pronounced in Hebrew. But what does the passage mean by saying that Jesus “was hanged”? Doesn’t the New Testament say he was crucified? Indeed it does. But the term “hanged” can function as a synonym for “crucified.” For instance, Galatians 3:13 declares that Christ was “hanged”, and Luke 23:39 applies this term to the criminals who were crucified with Jesus.{22} So the Talmud declares that Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover. But what of the cry of the herald that Jesus was to be stoned? This may simply indicate what the Jewish leaders were planning to do.{23} If so, Roman involvement changed their plans!{24}

The passage also tells us why Jesus was crucified. It claims He practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy! Since this accusation comes from a rather hostile source, we should not be too surprised if Jesus is described somewhat differently than in the New Testament. But if we make allowances for this, what might such charges imply about Jesus?

Interestingly, both accusations have close parallels in the canonical gospels. For instance, the charge of sorcery is similar to the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus cast out demons “by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.”{25} But notice this: such a charge actually tends to confirm the New Testament claim that Jesus performed miraculous feats. Apparently Jesus’ miracles were too well attested to deny. The only alternative was to ascribe them to sorcery! Likewise, the charge of enticing Israel to apostasy parallels Luke’s account of the Jewish leaders who accused Jesus of misleading the nation with his teaching.{26} Such a charge tends to corroborate the New Testament record of Jesus’ powerful teaching ministry. Thus, if read carefully, this passage from the Talmud confirms much of our knowledge about Jesus from the New Testament.

Evidence from Lucian

Lucian of Samosata was a second century Greek satirist. In one of his works, he wrote of the early Christians as follows:

The Christians . . . worship a man to this day–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. . . . [It] was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.{27}

Although Lucian is jesting here at the early Christians, he does make some significant comments about their founder. For instance, he says the Christians worshipped a man, “who introduced their novel rites.” And though this man’s followers clearly thought quite highly of Him, He so angered many of His contemporaries with His teaching that He “was crucified on that account.”

Although Lucian does not mention his name, he is clearly referring to Jesus. But what did Jesus teach to arouse such wrath? According to Lucian, he taught that all men are brothers from the moment of their conversion. That’s harmless enough. But what did this conversion involve? It involved denying the Greek gods, worshipping Jesus, and living according to His teachings. It’s not too difficult to imagine someone being killed for teaching that. Though Lucian doesn’t say so explicitly, the Christian denial of other gods combined with their worship of Jesus implies the belief that Jesus was more than human. Since they denied other gods in order to worship Him, they apparently thought Jesus a greater God than any that Greece had to offer!

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned about Jesus from this examination of ancient non-Christian sources. First, both Josephus and Lucian indicate that Jesus was regarded as wise. Second, Pliny, the Talmud, and Lucian imply He was a powerful and revered teacher. Third, both Josephus and the Talmud indicate He performed miraculous feats. Fourth, Tacitus, Josephus, the Talmud, and Lucian all mention that He was crucified. Tacitus and Josephus say this occurred under Pontius Pilate. And the Talmud declares it happened on the eve of Passover. Fifth, there are possible references to the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection in both Tacitus and Josephus. Sixth, Josephus records that Jesus’ followers believed He was the Christ, or Messiah. And finally, both Pliny and Lucian indicate that Christians worshipped Jesus as God!

I hope you see how this small selection of ancient non-Christian sources helps corroborate our knowledge of Jesus from the gospels. Of course, there are many ancient Christian sources of information about Jesus as well. But since the historical reliability of the canonical gospels is so well established, I invite you to read those for an authoritative “life of Jesus!”

Notes

1. F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 13.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Edwin Yamauchi, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 82.

5. Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.

6. N.D. Anderson, Christianity: The Witness of History (London: Tyndale, 1969), 19, cited in Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 1996), 189-190.

7. Edwin Yamauchi, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.

8. Pliny, Epistles x. 96, cited in Bruce, Christian Origins, 25; Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 198.

9. Ibid., 27.

10. Pliny, Letters, transl. by William Melmoth, rev. by W.M.L. Hutchinson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1935), vol. II, X:96, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 199.

11. M. Harris, “References to Jesus in Early Classical Authors,” in Gospel Perspectives V, 354-55, cited in E. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What is the Evidence?”, in Jesus Under Fire, ed. by Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 227, note 66.

12. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 199.

13. Bruce, Christian Origins, 28.

14. Josephus, Antiquities xx. 200, cited in Bruce, Christian Origins, 36.

15. Ibid.

16. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament”, 212.

17. Josephus, Antiquities 18.63-64, cited in Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament”, 212.

18. Ibid.

19. Although time would not permit me to mention it on the radio, another version of Josephus’ “Testimonium Flavianum” survives in a tenth-century Arabic version (Bruce, Christian Origins, 41). In 1971, Professor Schlomo Pines published a study on this passage. The passage is interesting because it lacks most of the questionable elements that many scholars believe to be Christian interpolations. Indeed, “as Schlomo Pines and David Flusser…stated, it is quite plausible that none of the arguments against Josephus writing the original words even applies to the Arabic text, especially since the latter would have had less chance of being censored by the church” (Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 194). The passage reads as follows: “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” (Quoted in James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism, (Garden City: Doubleday, 1988), 95, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 194).

20. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 202-03.

21. The Babylonian Talmud, transl. by I. Epstein (London: Soncino, 1935), vol. III, Sanhedrin 43a, 281, cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 203.

22. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 203.

23. See John 8:58-59 and 10:31-33.

24. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 204. See also John 18:31-32.

25. Matt. 12:24. I gleaned this observation from Bruce, Christian Origins, 56.

26. Luke 23:2, 5.

27. Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, transl. by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), vol. 4., cited in Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 206.

©2001 Probe Ministries


First Dallas Series “How Can I Know?”: Links to Apologetics Articles

How Can I Know? First Baptist Dallas Apologetics Series

We are pleased and honored to suggest these articles and answers to email as helpful additions to Dr. Robert Jeffress’ 2012 apologetics series at First Baptist Church Dallas (Texas).
Aug. 26 How Can I Know How To Start Over When I’ve Blown It?
Grappling with Guilt
“Will God Punish Me Forever for My Mistakes?”
“Will Jesus Still Forgive Me?”
The Sinfulness of Humanity
Sept. 2 How Can I Know How To Forgive Someone Who Has Hurt Me?
Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and You
The Keys to Emotional Healing – Part 2
“How Do I Overcome My Hurts and Disappointments From My Church?”
Sept. 9 & 16 How Can I Know There Is a God?
Evidence for God’s Existence
There is a God
Does God Exist?
Answering the New Atheists
No Reason to Fear: Examining the Logic of a Critic
Sept. 23 & 30 How Can I Know The Bible Is True?
Are the Biblical Documents Reliable?
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
Authority of the Bible
Bart Ehrman’s Complaint
The Christian Canon
Oct. 7 How Can I Know God Is Good With All The Suffering in the World?
The Problem of Evil
“I Doubt the Existence of a Good God Who Allows a Baby to Suffer and Die”
Where Was God on Sept. 11? The Problem of Evil
Hope For a World Gone Bad
The Value of Suffering
Oct. 14 & 21 How Can I Know Christianity Is The Right Religion?
Do All Roads Lead to God? The Christian Attitude Toward Non-Christian Religions
Is Jesus the Only Savior?
Christianity and Religious Pluralism
“How Can I Teach Pluralism Wisely?”
Will Everyone Be Saved? A Look at Universalism
Oct. 28 & Nov. 4 How Can I Know I’m Going To Heaven When I Die?
“How Can I Know I’m Going to Heaven?”
Dealing with Doubt
“Can a Christian Lose His Salvation?”
“Can a True Believer Commit the Unforgiveable Sin?”

 

 


Defending Your Faith – Additional Readings

Defending Your FaithAdditional Readings for Probe’s course on basic apologetics

Issue 1 – The Christian Mind

Issue 2 – Apologetics & Evangelism

Issue 3 – Worldviews

Issue 4 – Religious Pluralism

Issue 5 – Building a Case for Faith

Issue 6 – Apologetics in the Church

Issue 7 – The Self-Revealing God

Issue 8 – The Reliability of the Bible

Issue 9 – The Deity of Christ

Issue 10 – Miracles & the Resurrection

 

Issue 11 – The Problem of Evil

Issue 12 – Faith & Science


Tactics for an Ambassador: Defending the Christian Faith

Most Christians equate evangelism with conflict: an all-out assault on the beliefs and values of others. In our relativistic, live-and-let-live culture, even the most motivated believer feels like he’s committing a crime by entering into a spiritual discussion. Are there ways to take the anxiety out of evangelism?

The idea of doing Christian apologetics, a fancy word for defending the Christian faith, has lost some luster among church goers. The word conjures up images of conflict, anxiety, and even anger. But most of all, it generates thoughts of inadequacy and lack of confidence among those called to “give an answer” (1 Pet. 3:15) for the hope we have in Christ. Most people are trying to avoid conflict and the emotional fatigue that comes with defending a controversial set of beliefs that are often ridiculed in our culture.

download-podcast We live in an era that values diversity and tolerance above all other virtues. Anyone claiming to have true knowledge about important things like the nature of God, good and evil, or the purpose of human existence will be accused of intolerance and a mean spirited attempt to impose their beliefs on their neighbors. You are allowed to believe almost anything today, as long as you don’t claim that it is true in any universal sense.

Part of the reason that Christians in American churches do so little evangelism is that they are convinced that it constitutes a spiritual invasion, an attack on the beliefs of a friend or neighbor who will resist this apologetic assault with everything he or she has to offer. They also believe that they will have failed miserably unless every encounter ends with someone trusting in Christ. It’s either total victory or utter defeat, and there are no innocent bystanders.

Tactics by Greg KouklGregory Koukl’s book Tactics helps to give Christians the right perspective on evangelism and apologetics.{1} He argues that the D-day invasion model for evangelism is counterproductive, and that seeing oneself as an ambassador for Christ makes more sense. We need fewer frontal assaults and more embassy meetings. The skills necessary to be a successful ambassador are quite different from those of an infantryman. Persuasion rather than conquest motivate the ambassador, and one’s style of communication can be as important as the content being conveyed.

According to Koukl, an effective ambassador for Christ must master three skill-sets. First, a Christian ambassador should possess a clear understanding of the message being offered by his sovereign King. Second, he needs to exhibit a personal character that reinforces the message he’s been charged with, not distract from it. Finally, an ambassador needs sufficient wisdom to know how to communicate his message in a manner that draws people into dialogue and then to keep the conversation going. This kind of wisdom translates into specific tactics for communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to a culture that has been preconditioned against the message.

Why Do We Need Tactics?

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says that we are Christ’s ambassadors and that God has entrusted us with a message of reconciliation to a lost world (2 Cor. 5:20). But, although we have good news to share, Christians often don’t feel capable or confident to share it.

Being tactical has to do with the way one arranges his or her resources. The effective tactician knows when to be aggressive and when to hold back and gather information. Commanders on a battlefield don’t unleash every weapon available at the beginning of a conflict, nor do ambassadors immediately unveil all of their arguments.

Apologists know that one of their most important tactics is the well placed question. Picking up important personal information about someone’s background and worldview provides critical insight into the best way to steer the conversation. The ability to ask good questions, combined with good listening skills, helps to avoid stereotyping people in ways that can cause the conversation to end suddenly. It also shows that you care about someone as an individual, not just as, for example, a Mormon or a Muslim. Even when someone labels oneself, let’s say as a Hindu, it’s important to discover what that term means to them. Hinduism contains a wide variety of possible beliefs and it would be counterproductive to argue against something that this person doesn’t adhere to. As you can imagine, being a good listener and shaping your comments to fit the individual will most likely have a greater impact on them than just memorizing a tract and delivering it regardless of the setting.

Employing wise tactics implies a thoughtful rather than emotional approach to conversations. Emotions can quickly get the best of us, especially if we are unprepared to respond to the questions and challenges that we may encounter. Good planning helps us to accomplish our goal of guiding people to the truth about Jesus. It can also help us to avoid provoking someone to anger. Once people get angry they rarely hear our defense of the gospel. It’s even worse if we get angry.

Some might respond to this call for wise tactics in sharing Christ by saying that you cannot argue someone into heaven. I would respond that you cannot love someone into heaven either. Neither arguments, or love, or a simple telling of the gospel alone will win someone to heaven. Only the Holy Spirit can change someone’s heart, but it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t use these methods to build His kingdom.

Becoming Sherlock Holmes

Sometimes we Christians are tempted to dump our entire theological systems on anyone willing stay put long enough to listen. This doctrinal dump might be a light load for some but a train load for others. The problem is that we are often trying to answer questions that people haven’t even thought up yet and we can add confusion and distractions to the gospel message without even being aware of it. How can we avoid making this mistake?

When we sense that a conversation is headed toward spiritual territory, perhaps our first inclination should be to ask good questions so that we better understand the person we desire to share Christ with. Good questions protect us from jumping to conclusions and to deal with the actual beliefs a person holds rather than some straw man position that we might prefer to attack. They also have the tendency to naturally promote further dialogue and shape the discussion.

Once a person makes a statement regarding what they believe to be true, good questions can be particularly helpful. If someone tells you that it is irrational to believe in God because there is no proof that He exists, you now have an opportunity to ask key questions that will make your eventual responses far more effective. The first category of questions seeks further information and clarification. For instance, you might ask “What do you mean by God?” or “What evidence would you count as proof towards His existence?” You might ask if he knows anyone who believes in God and whether or not they might have good reasons for doing so. Asking someone how they arrived at a conclusion or how they know something to be the case helps to differentiate between simple assertions of belief and reasons for holding that belief. People often make statements of belief without much forethought, and when challenged they find that they have little more than an emotional attachment to their view.

Don’t panic if you run into someone who is prepared to defend his or her views. Even if they have an extensive argument supporting their position, good questions can get you out of the hot seat and provide time to build a stronger case for your next encounter. You might ask them to slow down and present their case in detail so that you can understand it better. You can also tell them that you want time to consider their position and will get back to them with a response. Giving someone the podium to clearly present their beliefs is usually well received. Listen carefully to what is said and then do your homework.

Suicidal Arguments

One of the more interesting parts of Tactics are Koukl’s chapters on ideas that commit suicide. These are commonly called self-refuting ideas or ideas that defeat themselves. A fancier description is that they are self-referentially incoherent. It doesn’t take long to encounter one of these arguments when talking to people about religion.

A simple example of a suicidal view is expressed by the comment, “There is no truth,” or the more humble version, “It is impossible to know something that is true for everyone, everywhere.” This statement fails its own criteria for validity by denying universal truth claims and then making a truth claim implied to be universal. If what the statement professes is true, then it is false. It commits suicide because it violates the law of non-contradiction which prohibits something from being both true and false at the same time.

Christians who are highly influenced by a postmodern view of truth often make self-defeating arguments as well. Koukl gives the example of a teacher in a Christian college classroom asking her students if they are God. When no hands went up she proclaimed that since they are not God they only have access to truth with a small t; only God knows Truth with a capital T. The implication is that small t truth is personal and limited. A student might ask the teacher if what she just offered is truth with a small t; if so, why should the students accept the teacher’s limited personal view of reality over the student’s perceptions?

Another argument that’s quite popular and self-defeating is, “People should never impose their values on someone else.” A quick response might be, “Does that express your values?” Of course it does. Then ask the person why he is imposing his values on you. His statement violates the criteria of validity that it tries to establish.

Even comments that seem to make sense at first suffer from suicidal tendencies. For instance, some have argued that since men wrote the Bible, and given that people are imperfect, the Bible is flawed and not inspired by God. The problem is that although people are imperfect it does not follow that everything they say or write is flawed. In fact, if everything a human says or writes is flawed, then this comment about the Bible is flawed. Just because people are capable of error, it doesn’t mean that they will always commit error.

Helping people to see that their truth claims might be contradictory must be done gently. The point is not to merely defeat their position, but to help them to become open to other ways of thinking about an issue. It is in this context of gentle persuasion that the Holy Spirit can change a heart.

Sharpening Your Skills

The list of self-defeating truth claims can get rather long. For instance, it is common to hear people say something like “science is the only source for truth.” The problem with this statement is that it is not scientific. There are no scientific experiments that one can perform which establish that science is the only source of truth. It is a self-defeating statement.

It is also quite popular to assume that all religions are basically the same and equally true. If this is the case, then Christianity is true. However, a basic teaching of Christianity is that the core teachings of other religions are false and that Jesus is the only source of salvation. Again, the statement defeats itself.

Ideas that commit practical suicide include the notion that it’s wrong to ever condemn someone, and that God doesn’t take sides. The first comment is a condemnation of all who condemn others. The second assumes that God is on their side, even though God doesn’t take sides. If you think through these ideas you can be ready to gently point out their self-contradictory nature and move on to subjects more profitable.

When dealing with difficult ethical issues like abortion or homosexuality, it is always helpful to have a preplanned set of tactics. Koukl gives the example of a Christian who is asked his views about homosexuality by a lesbian boss. He begins his response by asking if the boss is tolerant of diverse points of view. Does she respect convictions different from her own? Of course, true tolerance means putting up with someone you disagree with. Since very few people want to label themselves as intolerant, they will usually affirm their support of the practice, protecting you from being attacked for giving your viewpoint.

Gregory Koukl’s book contains many more great ideas about responding to attacks on Christian belief. At the end of the book he leaves us with what he calls the ambassador’s creed. An ambassador should be ready to represent Christ. He should be patient with those who disagree. He should be reasonable in his defense. And, finally, he should be tactical, adapting his approach to each unique person that God brings into his path. Our wise use of tactics should improve the “acoustics” in a conversation so that people can hear the gospel well.

Note

1. Gregory Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).

© 2011 Probe Ministries


God and the Canaanites: A Biblical Perspective

Rick Wade provides a biblically informed perspective of these Old Testament events, looking back at them with a Christian view of history and its significance.

The Charge of Genocide

A common attack today on Christianity has to do with the character of the God of the Old Testament{1}. Moses’ instructions to the Israelites as they were about to move into Canaan included this:

In the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded (Deut. 20:16-17).

download-podcastBecause of such things, biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins describes God as “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser . . .  genocidal . . . [a] capriciously malevolent bully.”{2}

Can the actions of the Israelites legitimately be called genocide?

The term “genocide” means a major action “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” {3} Some twentieth-century examples are the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis and the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. Going by this definition alone, the destruction of the Canaanites would seem to have been genocide.

But there is a major difference. These twentieth-century examples were basically people killing people simply because they hated them and/or wanted their land. The Canaanites, by contrast, were destroyed at the direction of God and primarily because of their sin. Because of this, I think the term should be avoided. The completely negative connotations of “genocide” make it hard to look at the biblical events without a jaundiced eye.

One’s background theological beliefs make a big difference in how one sees this. If God was not behind the conquest of Canaan, then the Israelites were no different than the Nazis and the Hutus. However, once the biblical doctrines of God and of sin are taken into consideration, the background scenery changes and the picture looks very different. There is only one true God, and that God deserves all honor and worship. Furthermore, justice must respond to the moral failure of sin. The Canaanites were grossly sinful people who were given plenty of time by God to change their ways. They had passed the point of redeemability, and were ripe for judgment.

Yahweh War

To understand what God was doing in Canaan, one must see it within the larger context of redemptive history.

The category scholars use for such events as the battles in the conquest of Canaan is Yahweh war. Yahweh wars are battles recorded in Scripture that are prompted by God for His purposes and won by His power.{4}

Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman sees five phases of Yahweh war in the Bible. In phase one, God fought the flesh-and-blood enemies of Israel. In phase two, God fought against Israel when it broke its side of its covenant with God (cf. Dt. 28:7. 25). In phase three, when Israel and Judah were in exile, God promised to come in the future as a warrior to rescue them from their oppressors (cf. Dan. 7).

In phase four there was a major change. When Jesus came, He shifted the battle to the spiritual realm; He fought spiritual powers and authorities. Jesus’ power was shown in His healings and exorcisms and preeminently in His victory in the heavenlies by His death and resurrection (see Col. 2:13-15). Christians today are engaged in warfare on this level. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12).

Phase five of Yahweh war will be the final battle of history when Jesus returns and will once again be military in nature.

Thus, Longman says, “The war against the Canaanites was simply an earlier phase of the battle that comes to its climax on the cross and its completion at the final judgment.”{5}

There are several aspects of Yahweh war. The part that concerns us here—the real culmination of Yahweh war—is called herem. Herem literally means “ban” or “banned.” It means to ban from human use and to give over completely to God. The ESV and NIV give a fuller understanding of the term by translating it “devote to destruction” (the NASB renders it “set apart”).

Old Testament scholars Keil and Delitsch write that “there can be no doubt that the idea which lay at the foundation of the ban was that of a compulsory dedication of something which resisted or impeded sanctification; . . . it was an act of the judicial holiness of God manifesting itself in righteousness and judgment.”{6}

Canaan, because of its sin, was to be herem—devoted to destruction.

The Conquest of Canaan

In the conquest of Canaan, three goals were being accomplished.

First, the movement of the Israelites into Canaan was the fruition of God’s promise to Abram that He would give that land to his children (Gen. 12:7). When Joshua led the people across the Jordan River into Canaan, he was fulfilling this promise. Since the land wasn’t empty, this could only be accomplished by driving the Canaanites out.

The second goal of the conquest was the judgment of the Canaanites. Driving them out wasn’t simply a way of making room for Israel. The Canaanites were an evil, depraved people who had to be judged to fulfill the demands of justice. What about these people prompted such a harsh judgment?

For one thing, the Canaanites worshipped other gods. In our pluralistic age, it’s easy to forget what an offense that is to the true God.

In the worship of their gods, the Canaanites committed other evils. They engaged in temple prostitution which was thought to be a re-enactment of the sexual unions of the gods and goddesses.

An even more detestable practice was that of child sacrifice. Under the sanctuary in the ancient city of Gezer, urns containing the burnt bones of children have been found. They are dated to somewhere between 2000 and 1500 BC, between the time of Abraham and the Exodus.{7}

The third goal of the conquest was the protection of Israel. God was concerned that, if the Canaanites remained in the land, they would draw the Israelites into their evil practices.

How could the Canaanites have that much influence over the Israelites? For one thing, the Israelites would intermarry with them, and their spouses would bring their gods into the marriage with all that entailed.{8} In addition, the Israelites would be tempted to imitate Canaanite religious rituals because of their close connection to agricultural rhythms. The fertility of the land was believed to be directly connected to the sexual relations of the gods and goddesses. The people believed that re-enacting these unions themselves played a part in the fertility of the land.{9}

At first, the Israelites tried to compromise and worship God the way the Canaanites worshiped their gods. God had warned them against that (Deut. 12:4, 30, 31). Then they would simply abandon worship of the true God. As a result, they eventually received the same judgment the Canaanites experienced (Deut. 4:26; 7:4).

The Dispossession and Destruction of the Canaanites

In Deuteronomy 20:16, Moses said the Israelites were to “save alive nothing that breathes” in the cities in their new land. The question has been raised whether God really intended the Israelites to kill all the people. It has been suggested that such “obliteration language” was “hyperbolic.”{10} Commands to destroy everyone are sometimes followed by commands not to intermarry, such as in Deut. 7:2-3. How could the Israelites intermarry with the Canaanites if they killed them all? Maybe this was just an example of Ancient Near Eastern military language.{11}

I think God meant it quite literally. Here’s why. Leviticus 27:29 says very plainly that every person devoted to destruction was to be killed. Further, in Deuteronomy 20, Moses said they were only to kill the adult males in far away cities (vv. 13-14), but in nearby cities they were to “save nothing alive that breathes” (v. 16). If God didn’t mean to kill everyone in nearby cities, then what distinction was being made? And how else would God have said it if He did mean that? That being said, I do not think God had the Israelites comb the land to find and destroy every person; they were to devote to destruction the people who remained in the cities when they attacked.

Another observation is that the instruction is frequently to dispossess the Canaanites or move them out rather than to destroy them. Scholar Glen Miller points out that “dispossession” words are used by a three-to-one margin over “destruction” words.{12}

Can these be put together? With Miller, I think they can. The people of the land had heard about all that had happened with the Israelites from the time they escaped Egypt. “As soon as we heard it,” Rahab of Jericho said, “our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). Because of that advance warning, it is possible that some people abandoned their cities. Thus, the Israelites could possibly have married people who weren’t in the cities when they were attacked.

A more obvious reason for the possibility of intermarriage is the fact that the Israelites didn’t fully obey God’s commands. In Jdg. 1:27-2:5, we read that tribe after tribe of Israelites did not drive out all the inhabitants of the cities they conquered. The Israelites intermarried with them which eventually drew God’s judgment on them as well.

Final Comments

The most disturbing part of the conquest of Canaan for most people is the killing of children. After the defeats of both Heshbon and Bashan, Moses noted that they had “devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children” (Deut. 2:34; 3:3, 6).

No matter what explanation of the death of children is given, no one except the most cold hearted will find joy in it. God didn’t. He gets no pleasure in the death of anyone. In Ezekiel 18:23 we read, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (see also Ezek. 33:11). When God told Abraham He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded for them, and God agreed in his mercy that if but only ten righteous people were found, He wouldn’t do it. Long after the conquest of the land, when God decided He would have to destroy Moab, according to Isaiah God “wept bitterly” over her cities (Isa. 16:9; cf. 15:5).

But what about Deuteronomy 24:16 which says that children shall not be put to death because of their fathers’ sins? Isn’t there an inconsistency here?

The law given in Deuteronomy provided regulations for the people of Israel. On an individual basis, when a father sinned, his son wasn’t to be punished for it. The situation with Canaan was different. Generation after generation of Canaanites continued in the same evil practices. What was to stop it? God knew it would take the destruction of the nations.

Here are a few factors to take into consideration:

First, the sins of parents, just like their successes, have an impact on their children.

Second, if the Canaanite children were allowed to live and remain in the land, they could very well act to avenge their parents when they grew up, or at least to pick up again the practices of their parents.

Third, if one holds that there is an age of accountability for children, and that those younger than that are received into heaven with God at their death, although the means of death were frightful and harsh, the Canaanite children’s experience after death would be better than if they’d continued to live among such a sinful people.{13} How persuasive this thought is will depend on how seriously we take biblical teaching about our future after the grave. [Ed. note: please see Probe’s article Do Babies Go to Hell?by Probe’s founder Jimmy Williams.]

These ideas may provide little consolation. But we must keep in mind that God is not subject to our contemporary sensibilities.{14} The only test we can put to God is consistency with His own nature and word. Yahweh is a God of justice as well as mercy. He is also a God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

Notes
1. This article is a slightly adapted version of the program that aired on the Probe radio program. A more detailed version is also available on our Web site with the title “Yahweh War and the Conquest of Canaan.”
2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), 51.
3. “Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide,” Article II, University of the West of England, at: www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/.
4. The phrase “the Lord’s battles” or “battles of the Lord” are found in 1 Sam. 18:17 and 25:28.
5. Tremper Longman III, “The Case for Spiritual Continuity,” in C. S. Cowles, Eugene H. Merrill, Daniel L. Gard, and Tremper Longman III, Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 185.
6. C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, trans., James Martin, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1: The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 484-485. Emphasis added.
7. M.G. Kyle, “Canaan,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 550. 8. The atheism of today wasn’t an option. If the Israelites started to get a little slack in their obligations to Yahweh, they would turn to other gods.
9. Bernhard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1957), 93-94; 96-103.
10. Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”, Philosophia Christi 10, no. 1 (2008): 7-37; www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=45. In his article “Yahweh Wars” which was written after “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?,” Copan presents two scenarios, one in which everyone was put to death, and the other in which the targets were military leaders and soldiers. He believes the latter is the correct interpretation. See Paul Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 73-92; www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=63.
In his discussion in “Moral Monster,” Copan refers specifically to Deut. 23:12-13 where Joshua also warns the people against intermarrying. One should note that Joshua’s commands in Deuteronomy 23 are given before the Israelites have completed their sweep through the land, so of course there are Canaanites there to marry. The Deut. 7 passage provides better support for his position.
11. Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.”
12. Glenn M. Miller, “How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?” on the web site A Christian Thinktank,
13. Cf. Paul Copan, “How Could a Loving God Command Genocide,” in That’s Just Your Interpretation (Grand Rapid: Baker, 2001), 165.
14. And I say “contemporary” because children weren’t regarded as highly in the Ancient Near East as they are today.

© 2010 Probe Ministries


Yahweh War and the Conquest of Canaan – A Biblical Worldview Perspective

Rick Wade provides an expanded discussion of the issues around the Israelites battles against the Canaanites.  He points out how Yahweh Wars, i.e. wars instituted by and fought with the direct help of Yahweh, have a specific, God-designed purpose and are not a call to genocide against non-Christians.  He considers the events and differing views of those events before summarizing a biblical worldview perception of them.

The Charge of Genocide

A common attack today on Christianity has to do with the character of the God of the Old Testament.{1} Especially singled out for censure by critics is the conquest of Canaan, the land promised to Abraham, by Joshua and the Israelites. Through Moses, God gave these instructions:

In the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded” (Deut. 20:16-17).

In obedience to this command, when the Israelites took Jericho, their first conquest after crossing the Jordan River, “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (Josh. 6:21).

Because of such things, biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins describes God as, among other things, “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”{2}

Dawkins also complains about God’s jealous rage over the worship of other gods. “One cannot help,” he says, “marveling at the extraordinarily draconian view taken of the sin of flirting with rival gods. To our modern sense of values and justice it seems a trifling sin compared to, say, offering your daughter for a gang rape” (referring to Lot offering his daughters in exchange for the angels). “It is yet another example,” he continues, “of the disconnect between scriptural and modern (one is tempted to say civilized) morals. . . . The tragi-farce of God’s maniacal jealousy against alternative gods recurs continually through the Old Testament.”{3}

For an atheist, of course, there is no supernatural, so the gods of all the many religions were, of course, made up; they are merely mythologies devised to give meaning to life. The God invented by the Israelites (and still believed in by Christians) was given a very jealous and mean-spirited personality. What atheists truly dislike is not only that people actually believe in this God but that they think other people should, too!

Of course, it would be illogical to try to argue against the existence of God on the basis of the conquest of Canaan. In fact, the moral values that make what the Israelites did seem so objectionable to atheists are grounded in God. As William Lane Craig notes, “The Bible itself inculcates the values which these stories seem to violate.”{4} But atheists come to the matter already confident that there is no God. They then condemn belief in such a made-up God.

But some Christians also have doubts about the matter. Some believe that a more accurate exegesis reveals that the command to destroy everyone doesn’t mean what it appears to on the surface. Some believe the command wasn’t given by God at all, but was the product of an Ancient Near Eastern mentality; that the people thoughtthey were doing God’s will and put those words in His mouth. Some take the command to be authentic but hyperbolic. I’ll return to this later.

The actions of the Israelites are often called genocide.Is this a legitimate use of the term?

The word genocide was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew.{5} According to Article II of the United Nation’s Genocide Convention of 1948, the term genocide means a major action “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”{6} Some twentieth-century examples are the massacre of Armenian Christians by Turks in 1915 and 1916, the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis in the 1940s, and the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. Going by this definition alone, the destruction of the Canaanites was genocide.

But there is a major difference between these events and the Israelite conquest of Canaan. The twentieth-century examples were basically people killing people simply because they hated them and/or wanted their land. The Canaanites, by contrast, were destroyed at the direction of God and primarily because of their sin.{7} Because the Canaanites’ destruction was believed to be directed by God, obviously atheists will not find anything acceptable in what happened. If the atheists are correct in their naturalistic understanding of the world—that there is no God, no supernatural; that religion is just a human institution; that all there is is nature; and that people are the products of random evolution—then the Israelites were no different than Hitler or other Ancient Near Eastern people who slaughtered people simply to take their lands.

However, once the biblical doctrines of God and of sin are taken into consideration, the background scenery changes and the picture looks very different. There is only one true God, and that God deserves all honor and worship. Furthermore, justice must respond to the moral failure of sin. The Canaanites were grossly sinful people who were given plenty of time by God to change their ways. They had passed the point of redeemability, and were ripe for judgment. The doctrines of God and of sin put this in a different light.

Because of this, I think the term genocide should be avoided. The completely negative connotations of the word make it hard to look at the biblical events without a jaundiced eye.

Dawkins accuses the biblical God of jealousy as well. If the God of the Bible really does exist, why might He be so jealous? For one thing, being the creator and Lord of all, He ought to be the only one worshiped and served. He has the right to claim that. Second, people worshiping other gods are indeed worshiping gods of their own (or their forebears’) invention. Even Dr. Dawkins should understand why worshiping a god that isn’t real is a problem! Third, since God made the world and the people in it, He knows best how they function. To go against the true God is to lose sight of one’s own nature and of what makes for the good life.

Furthermore, being the creator of the world, God has the authority to move people as He wills. As Paul said much later to the Athenians, God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). If God wanted the Israelites in that land, He had every right to put them there.

One more note about the complaints of atheists. Not only do they leave out the key factors of the reality of God and sin, but they think that their own ideas about ethics should have ruled in Joshua’s day and even for all time since clearly their own modern liberal ethical sensibilities are the height of moral evolution! Never mind that such critics, while castigating Israel for killing children, will support a woman’s right to have her unborn child cut to pieces in her womb (an odd ethical system, to my mind). Never mind, too, that the best of modern liberal ethical beliefs were built upon Judeo-Christian ethics.

Yahweh War

To understand what God was doing in Canaan, in addition to having a correct understanding of God’s existence and authority and of the consequences of sin, one must see it within the larger context of redemptive history.

One of the categories scholars use for such events as the battles in the conquest of Canaan is Yahweh war. Yahweh wars are battles recorded in Scripture that are prompted by God for His purposes and won by His power.{8} Old Testament scholar Eugene Merrill describes Yahweh war this way: “God initiated the process by singling out those destined to destruction, empowering an agent (usually his chosen people Israel) to accomplish it, and guaranteeing its successful conclusion once the proper conditions were met.”{9} These wars were “a constituent part of the covenant relationship” between Yahweh and Israel. “Israel . . . would not just witness God’s mighty deeds as heavenly warrior but would be engaged in bringing them to pass.”{10}

There are numerous examples of Yahweh war in Scripture. In some of them, God fights the battle alone. Think of the Israelites caught between the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front. God told them, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. . . . The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Exodus 14:13-14). They walked through the parted waters and watched them close down around the Egyptians behind them.

Another example is found in 2 Kings 18 and 19. When the Assyrians were about to attack Judah, King Sennacherib’s representative threw down a challenge to Judah’s God:

Do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The LORD will deliver us. Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand (2 Kings 18:32-35)?

Unfortunately for the Assyrians, Yahweh decided to take them up on that challenge. Hezekiah prayed, and God answered through Isaiah:

“I will defend this city to save it,” He said, “for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” And that night the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies (2 Kings 19:34, 35).

Most of the time God had the Israelites help in the battle. So at Jericho, for example, God made the wall fall, and then the Israelites moved in and took the city. Numerous examples are given in Joshua and Numbers of the Israelites fighting the battle, with God making them victorious.

The involvement of God is a key point in the whole matter of the conquest of Canaan. It wasn’t just the Israelites moving in to take over like any other tribal people. It was commanded by God and accomplished by God. Merrill says this:

It is clear that the land was considered Israel’s by divine right and that the nations who occupied it were little better than squatters. Yahweh, as owner of the land, would therefore undertake measures to destroy and/or expel the illegitimate inhabitants, and he would do so largely through his people Israel and by means of Yahweh war.{11}

The Israelites were not at heart a warrior tribe. There was no way they could have conquered the land of Canaan if they didn’t have divine help. They escaped the Egyptians and moved into their new land by the power of Yahweh (Judges 6:9; Joshua 24:13).

Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman sees five phases of Yahweh war in the Bible. In phase one, God fought the flesh-and-blood enemies of Israel. In phase two, God fought against Israel when it broke its side of its covenant with God (cf. Deuteronomy 28:7, 25). In phase three, when Israel and Judah were in exile, God promised to come in the future as a warrior to rescue them from their oppressors (cf. Daniel 7).

In phase four there was a major change. When Jesus came, he shifted the battle to the spiritual realm; He fought spiritual powers and authorities, not earthly ones.

This change might explain a rather odd question asked by John the Baptist. When he was in prison, John had his disciples go and ask Jesus if he was the expected one (Matthew 11:2). Why would John have asked that? Didn’t he baptize Jesus and understand then who he was? He did, but it could be that John was still looking for a conquering Messiah. Matthew 3 records John’s harsh words to the Pharisees: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). Was he thinking this was imminent? Perhaps later when he was in prison John was still looking for an exercise of power against earthly rulers on Jesus’ part. Notice how Jesus responded to John’s disciples in Matthew 11. He told them about his miracles, his exercises of power in the spiritual realm. Then he made this curious comment: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” or does not “stumble over” me (v.6). He may simply have been thinking of people stumbling over him saying the he was the one who fulfilled Old Testament prophecies (see Isaiah 29:18; think also of Nichodemus’ comment: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” [John 3:2].). It could be, however, that Jesus was urging John (and others) not to fall away on account of His actual program of fighting the battle at that time in the spiritual realm rather than militarily. Jesus conducted Yahweh war on spiritual powers in His healings and exorcisms and preeminently in His victory in the heavenlies by His death and resurrection (see Colossians 2:13-15).

Christians today are engaged in warfare on this level. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). We do not (or ought not!) advance the kingdom by the sword.

Phase five of Yahweh war will be the final battle of history when Jesus returns and will once again be military in nature. In Mark 13:26 and Revelation 1:7 we’re presented with the imagery of Christ coming on a cloud, an imagery seen in the prophecy of Daniel: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him” (Daniel 7:13). The cloud represents a war chariot.{12}

Summing up, Longman writes, “The war against the Canaanites was simply an earlier phase of the battle that comes to its climax on the cross and its completion at the final judgment.”{13}

There are several aspects of Yahweh war, not all of which are seen in every battle narrative. Merrill names, among other aspects, the mustering of the people, the consecration of the soldiers, an oracle of God, and, at the end, the return to their homes or tents.{14}

The part that concerns us here—the real culmination of Yahweh war—is called ḥerem. Ḥerem literally means “ban” or “banned.” It means to ban from human use and to give over completely to God. The ESV and NIV give a fuller understanding of the term by translating it “devote to destruction” (the NASB renders it “set apart”). Exodus 22:20 reads, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” Deuteronomy 7:2, speaking of the conquest of the land, says, “and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” Tremper Longman writes that “ḥerem refers to the climactic aspect of divine warfare: the offering of the conquered people and their possessions to the Lord.”{15}

Old Testament scholars Keil and Delitsch give a fuller understanding of the meaning of ḥerem in their discussion of Lev. 27:29. They write,

Nothing put under the ban, nothing that a man had devoted (banned) to the Lord of his property, of man, beast, or the field of his possession, was to be sold or redeemed, because it was most holy. . . . [Ḥerem], judging from the cognate words in Arabic . . . , has the primary signification ‘to cut off,’ and denotes that which is taken away from use and abuse on the part of men, and surrendered to God in an irrevocable and unredeemable manner, viz. human beings by being put to death, cattle and inanimate objects by being either given up to the sanctuary for ever or destroyed for the glory of the Lord. . . . [T]here can be no doubt that the idea which lay at the foundation of the ban was that of a compulsory dedication of something which resisted or impeded sanctification; . . . it was an act of the judicial holiness of God manifesting itself in righteousness and judgment.{16}

The word used to translate ḥerem in the Greek translation of the Old Testament—the Septuagint—is anathema, a word we encounter in the New Testament as well. There it is translated “accursed”. The same underlying meaning is seen in Gal. 1:8 and 9 where Paul says that anyone who preaches a gospel contrary to what he preaches is to be accursed. About this the Dictionary of New Testament Theology says:

He who preaches a false gospel is delivered to destruction by God. . . . The curse exposes the culprits to the judicial wrath of God.

In this act of being handed over to God lies the theological meaning of the . . . ban curse. . . . [T]he person sentenced by the anathema is immediately delivered up to the judgment of God.{17}

A major difference, of course, is that, in the New Testament, the “sentence” isn’t carried out by people but by God.

Canaan, because of its sin, was to be devoted to destruction. And Israel was to be the instrument of God for the carrying out of judgment.

The Conquest of Canaan

Let’s turn now to look at the goals of the conquest of Canaan by Israel.

In this conquest, three things were being accomplished: the fulfillment of the promise of land, the judgment of the Canaanites, and the protection of the Israelites.

Possession of the Land

First, the movement of the Israelites into Canaan was the fruition of God’s promises to Abram. We read in Genesis 12 where God promised Abram that He would produce a great nation through him (vv. 1, 2). When Abraham and his family reached Canaan, Yahweh appeared to him and said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (v.7). This promise was repeated to the people of Israel in the years following (cf. Exodus 33:1; Numbers 32:1). When Joshua led the people across the Jordan River into Canaan, he was fulfilling the promise. Since the land wasn’t empty, they could only take possession of it by driving the Canaanites out.

Judgment of the Canaanites

The second goal of the conquest was the judgment of the Canaanites. Driving them out wasn’t simply a way of making room for Israel. The Canaanites were an evil, depraved people who had to be judged to fulfill the demands of justice. What about these people prompted such a harsh judgment?

For one thing, the Canaanites worshiped other gods. In our pluralistic age, it’s easy to forget what an offense that is to the true God. This sounds almost trivial today. As noted previously, Richard Dawkins mocks this “jealous” God. But since Yahweh is the true God who created us, He is the one who ought to be worshiped.

In the worship of their gods, the Canaanites committed other evils. They engaged in temple prostitution which was thought to be a re-enactment of the sexual unions of the gods and goddesses. Writes Bernhard Anderson:

The cooperation with the powers of fertility involved the dramatization in the temples of the story of Baal’s loves and wars. Besides the rehearsal of this mythology, a prominent feature of the Canaanite cult was sacred prostitution (see Deut. 23:18). In the act of temple prostitution the man identified himself with Baal, the woman with Ashtart [or Ashtoreth, the mother goddess]. It was believed that human pairs, by imitating the action of Baal and his partner, could bring the divine pair together in fertilizing union.{18}

Although the worship of other gods and temple prostitution might not be sufficient grounds for the overthrow of the Canaanites in the eyes of contemporary atheists, another of their practices should be. In their worship of their gods, Canaanites engaged in the detestable practice of child sacrifice.

The people of Canaan were viciously cruel. Christopher Hitchens speaks of the “Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites” who were “pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel.”{19} (“Ungrateful” and “mutinous” are silly charges in themselves. Ungrateful to whom? I don’t recall the Canaanites issuing an open invitation for the Israelites to move in. And mutinous? Did the Canaanites have some kind of inherent rights to the land? They had taken it from other peoples earlier.) One might get the impression from Hitchens that these were good people (maybe in the mold of good modern Westerners of liberal persuasion) who were just minding their business when out of the blue came this ferocious band of peace-hating Israelites who murdered them and robbed them of their just possession! To speak of the Israelites being “pitiless” with respect to the Canaanites is worse than the pot calling the kettle black. Apparently Mr. Hitchens hasn’t bothered to read up on these people! If he had, he wouldn’t feel so sentimental about their demise. Writes Paul Copan,

The aftermath of Joshua’s victories are featherweight descriptions in comparison to those found in the annals of the major empires of the ANE [Ancient Near East]–whether Hittite and Egyptian (second millennium), Aramaean, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, or Greek (first millennium). Unlike Joshua’s brief, four-verse description of the treatment of the five kings (10:24–27), the Neo-Assyrian annals of Asshurnasirpal (tenth century) take pleasure in describing the atrocities which gruesomely describe the flaying of live victims, the impaling of others on poles, and the heaping up of bodies for display.{20}

In addition to the Old Testament claims about child sacrifice by the Canaanites, there is extra-biblical evidence found by archaeologists as well.

Under the sanctuary in the ancient city of Gezer, urns containing the burnt bones of children have been found that are dated to somewhere between 2000 and 1500 BC, between the time of Abraham and the Exodus.{21} The practice continued among the Canaanites (and sometimes even among the Israelites) even up to the time Israel was deported to Assyria in the late eighth century BC. Jon D. Levenson, professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, reports that thousands of urns containing human and animal bones were found in Carthage. “These human bones are invariably of children, and almost all of them contain the remains of not one but two children, usually from the same family, one often a newborn and the other 2-4 years of age.” It is highly doubtful the urns represent a funerary custom, he says. “The frequency with which the urns were deposited makes it unlikely that natural death could account for all such double deaths in families in a city of such size.”{22}

The Canaanites were so evil that God wanted their very name to perish from the earth. Moses said, “But the LORD your God will give them over to you and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed. And he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven. No one shall be able to stand against you until you have destroyed them” (Deuteronomy 7:23-24; see also 9:3).

Now, a critic today might be happier with a God who simply showed Himself to the Canaanites and invited them to discuss the situation with Him, to negotiate. Wouldn’t that be a more civilized way to deal with them? Of course, any criticism from an atheist will have behind it the belief that there is no God behind such events at all. But just to play along, we have to try to put ourselves in the mindset of people in the Ancient Near East to understand God’s way of dealing with them. Philosophical reasoning wasn’t the order of the day. God showed Himself to the Canaanites in a way they understood, just as He did earlier with the Egyptians. It might better suit the sensibilities of twentieth-century people for Yahweh to have convinced the Canaanites by rational argument of His existence and rightful place as Lord of the land, but it would have accomplished nothing then (and it doesn’t work very well with a lot of people today, either!).

It was typical in ancient times for nations to see the power of gods in military victories. Recall the Rabshakeh’s taunt in 2 Kings 18 that the gods of the other peoples they’d conquered hadn’t done them any good. There is evidence of this understanding outside Scripture as well. For example, an ancient document with the title “Hymn of Victory of Mer-ne-Ptah” is from a thirteenth-century BC Egyptian ruler who gives praise to Ba-en-Re Meri-Amon, son of the god Re, for victory over Ashkelon, Gezer, and other lands.{23} In the ninth century BC, Mesha, a king of Moab, built a high place for the god Chemosh, “because he saved me from all the kings and caused me to triumph over all my adversaries.”{24}

When the Israelites were about to attack Jericho, the prostitute Rahab helped the Israelite spies and offered this explanation for her help:

I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:9-11).

God showed Himself through acts of power, and some people recognized it.

The Protection of Israel

The third goal of removing the Canaanites was the protection of Israel. God said that the Canaanites had grown so evil that “the land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:25). And He was concerned that, if they remained in the land, they would draw the Israelites into their evil practices and they, too, would be vomited out (v. 28).

How could the Canaanites have that much influence over the Israelites?

It might be thought that simply being the dominant power in the land would be sufficient to prevent a strong influence by inferior powers. However, the shift from the life of the nomad to the life of the farmer marked a major change in the life of the Israelites. The people of Israel hadn’t been settled in one place for over forty years. The generation that entered the promised land knew only a nomadic life. They might easily have become enamored with the established cultural practices of the Canaanites. This happened with other nations in history. Anderson points out that the Akkadians who overcame the Sumerians were strongly influenced by Sumerian culture. Centuries later, Rome conquered the Greeks, but was greatly influenced by Greek culture.{25}

The most important danger for the Israelites was turning to the Canaanite gods. Today the way people have of dropping religion from their lives in favor of no religion isn’t a model that would have been understood in the Ancient Near East. The option of atheism or secularism was unknown then. People would serve one god or another or even many gods. If the Israelites turned away from Yahweh, they wouldn’t slip into the complacent secular attitude that is so common today; they would transfer their allegiance to another god or gods.

God knew that, unless they kept the boundaries drawn very clearly, the Israelites would intermarry with the Canaanites who would bring their gods into the marriage and set the stage for compromise.

In Exodus 34, we see this connection:

Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods (vv. 12-16).

In addition, the Israelites would be tempted to imitate Canaanite religious rituals because of their close connection to Canaanite agricultural rhythms. Whether or not each year’s crop was successful was of major importance to the Israelites. It would have been very tempting to act out Canaanite religious rituals as a way of insuring a good harvest. To do this didn’t necessarily mean abandoning Yahweh. They tried to merge the two religions by adopting Canaanite methods in their worship of Yahweh. God had warned them not to do that (Deuteronomy 12:4, 30, 31). They couldn’t straddle the fence for long.

The Israelites had much earlier shown how quickly they would look for a substitute for the true God when Moses went up on the mountain to hear from God, recorded in Exodus 20-31. Moses took too long to come down for the people, so they demanded that Aaron make them some new gods to go before them. Aaron made a golden calf that the people could see and worship (Exodus 32:1-4). Worshiping gods that were visible in the form of statues was a central part of the religions of their day. It was what everyone did, so the Israelites fell into that way of thinking, too.

The book of Judges is witness to what happened by being in such close proximity to people who worshiped other gods. Repeatedly the Israelites turned away from Yahweh to other gods and were given over by God to their enemies.

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them for harm, as the LORD had warned, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress (Jdg. 2:11-15).

Thus, God’s judgment wasn’t reserved just for the Canaanites. This was the second phase of Yahweh war. The Israelites had been warned (Deuteronomy 4:26; 7:4). By disobeying God, the Israelites experienced the same judgment meted out through them on the Canaanites.

“Save nothing alive that breathes” – Part 1

In Deuteronomy 20:16, Moses said the Israelites were to “save alive nothing that breathes” in the cities in their new land. The question has been raised whether God really intended the Israelites to kill all the people in the land. I’ll address three views on this which deny that the commands and/or reports about the battles are to be taken literally. The first is that the presence of such commands and reports are evidence that the Bible isn’t inerrant. The second is that the commands are clearly antithetical to the character of Jesus and so couldn’t have come from God. The third is that the commands are authentic but not intended to be taken literally. These three views are ones that are held by people who believe in God and take the Bible seriously.

Untrustworthy Records

Wesley Morriston, a Christian philosopher, believes the conquest narratives which tell of the slaughter of children are strong evidence against the inerrancy of Scripture. I won’t go into a defense of inerrancy here, nor will I present a detailed rebuttal, but it might be helpful to take a brief look at the basic framework of Morriston’s argument.{26} He writes:

Here is a more careful formulation of the argument that I wish to discuss.

1. God exists and is morally perfect.

2. So God would not command one nation to exterminate the people of another unless He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so.

3. According to various OT texts, God sometimes commanded the Israelites to exterminate the people of other nations.

4. It is highly unlikely that God had a morally sufficient reason for issuing these alleged commands.

5. So it is highly unlikely that everything every book of the OT says about God is true.

I believe that this argument constitutes quite a strong prima facie case against inerrancy. Unless a better argument can be found for rejecting its conclusion, then anyone who thinks that God is perfectly good should acknowledge that there are mistakes in some of the books of the OT.{27}

In response, I wonder how the argument might look if we presuppose inerrancy on other bases. Let premises 1 to 3 stand. Then add these premises:

4. Everything the OT says about God is true.

5. God, being perfectly holy, always has morally sufficient reasons for everything He does (acting in keeping with His morally perfect nature).

6. Therefore, God must have had morally sufficient reasons for exterminating the people.

When it has been decided on other bases that the Bible is without error, that itself becomes a foundational part of our consideration of the conquest narratives. We might not understand why God does some things, but we don’t always need to. There are secret things that belong only to God (Deuteronomy 29:29).

A second view which casts doubt on the reliability of the conquest narratives is based on the character of Jesus. Theologian C. S. Cowles, for example, believes that, since Jesus is the best and fullest revelation of God, any characterizations of God that run counter to the character of Christ are wrong. “Jesus made it crystal clear,” he writes, “that the ‘kind of spirit’ that would exterminate”{28} To show Jesus’ attitude toward children, Cowles points to Matt. 18:5,6: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” When the disciples tried to send people away who were bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed by him, he said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Surely Jesus would have nothing to do with the wholesale slaughter of innocent children, and thus it couldn’t have been commanded by God.

As Eugene Merrill points out, in his insistence on separating God from violence, Cowles doesn’t take seriously descriptions of God as a warrior elsewhere in Scripture.{29} Tremper Longman notes the connection of Jesus as divine warrior in the book of the Revelation with God as warrior in the book of Isaiah. In Revelation Jesus is described as wearing a robe dipped in blood (Revelation 19:13 / Isaiah 63:2, 3); he has a rod in his mouth (Revelation 19:15 / Isaiah 11:4b); he treads the winepress of his wrath (Revelation 19:15 / Isaiah 63:3).

To distance God from the stories of slaughter in the Old Testament, Cowles calls for a distinction between the parts of the Old Testament that Jesus endorsed and all the rest which must be rejected as an authentic witness of God.{30} As with Morriston, the recognition of both Testaments as equally inspired (and true) prior to an examination of particular parts will mean that such a distinction cannot be maintained.{31}

A Non-Literal Interpretation

Philosopher and apologist Paul Copan offers a detailed discussion of this issue in his article “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.” He sets forth two scenarios, one of which takes the commands as being typical of Ancient Near Eastern warfare hyperbole (Scenario 1), and the other of which takes the commands at face value (Scenario 2). He says “we have excellent reason for thinking that Scenario 1 is correct and that we do not need to resort to the default position [Scenario 2].”{32} He believes that God didn’t really intend the Israelites to literally kill everyone in the cities they attacked. In his article “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” Copan writes,

The “obliteration language” in Joshua (for example, “he left no survivor” and “utterly destroyed all who breathed” [10:40]) is clearly hyperbolic. Consider how, despite such language, the text of Joshua itself assumes Canaanites still inhabit the land: “For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you” (23:12-13). Joshua 9-12 utilizes the typical ANE [Ancient Near Eastern] literary conventions of warfare.{33}

How could there be anyone left to marry if everyone was put to death?

In addition to this, drawing on the work of Richard Hess, Copan thinks that the cities which were attacked were primarily military fortresses occupied by soldiers and military leaders, Rahab of Jericho being an exception. Thus, the targets of the Israelites’ attacks were soldiers, not the citizens of the land.{34}

Hess makes the curious comment that “there is no indication in the text of any specific noncombatants who were put to death.”{35} This is so with respect to the accounts of the battles following the crossing of the Jordan. But one wonders what he makes of the vengeance taken on the Midianites recorded in Numbers 31. When the soldiers returned from defeating the Midianites, Moses was angry because they had allowed the women to live. He commanded them, “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him” (v. 17).

In addition, consider the instructions given in Deuteronomy 20 about warfare. Regarding cities far away, only the males were to be put to the sword; “the women and little ones” were to be taken as plunder (along with everything else; v.14). However, in the cities in the areas they would inhabit, the instruction was to “save alive nothing that breathes, but [to] devote them to complete devotion” (vv. 16, 17). If the distinction isn’t between sparing women and children and killing them, what is it? Hess says that Rahab and her family were the exceptions, but, given the instructions in Deuteronomy 20, perhaps she should be seen as further evidence that there were indeed civilians in these cities.

The distinction just noted along with what Israel did with the Midianites and the clear statement in Leviticus 27:29 that every person devoted to destruction was to be killed lead me to conclude that women and children were indeed put to death as Israel cleared the land of the Canaanites. If God didn’t mean to kill everyone when it was commanded to “save alive nothing that breathes” (Dt. 20:16), how would He have said it if He did?

One further note. Even if we should conclude that the treatment of the Midianites was a unique event and that the army of Israel didn’t kill women and children in their battles, God still won’t be off the hook with critics. Women and children were surely killed in the Flood and in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Save nothing alive that breathes” Pt. 2

Intermarriage

But this still leaves unanswered the matter of intermarriage. Who would be left to marry if everyone was put to death?

Glen Miller explains how some would have remained. As he observes, the Israelites didn’t sneak up on the Canaanites.{36} People had heard about the Israelites and their God Yahweh, and they had plenty of time to get out of town. Before ever crossing the Jordan River, the Israelites took a whole swath of land from the middle of the Salt Sea on the east side up to the Sea of Chennerith, or the Sea of Galilee as it came to be known later (accounts can be read from Numbers 21 through 31). Recall Rahab’s claim that the people of Jericho had heard about the victories given the Israelites by Yahweh. Likewise, Amorite kings heard about the Jordan River drying up for the Israelites to cross over and “their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel” (Joshua 5:1). The inhabitants of Gibeon heard about what happened at Jericho and Ai and were so afraid they devised a deceptive scheme to protect themselves (Joshua 9).

Because of that advance warning, it is quite possible that some people abandoned their cities. Copan agrees:

When a foreign army might pose a threat in the ANE, women and children would be the first to remove themselves from harm’s way—not to mention the population at large: “When a city is in danger of falling,” observes Goldingay, “people do not simply wait there to be killed; they get out. . . . Only people who do not get out, such as the city’s defenders, get killed.”{37}

There is no indication that the Israelites pursued people who escaped. Those who stayed, however, showed their obstinate determination to continue in their ways, and they were to be destroyed. (Joshua 2:9-11). Goldingay supposes that only the cities’ defenders remained and were killed, but Moses clearly believed those who remained could include women and children.

Why wouldn’t the Israelites have pursued those who escaped? To answer that we must determine what God’s main purpose was in this series of events. Earlier I gave three reasons for the destruction of the Canaanites: possession of the land by the Israelites, judgment on the Canaanites, and the protection of Israel. All these worked together. Yahweh wanted to move the Israelites into a land of their own, but knew that for them to thrive and remain faithful to Him, they would have to be free of the influence of the Canaanites. The Canaanites were also ripe for judgment. Clearing the land, by whatever means, seems to have been the foremost goal.

Glen Miller points out that two kinds of words are used to describe what was to be done with the Canaanites: “dispossession” words and “destruction” words. He notes that the former are used by a three-to-one margin over the latter.{38} Here’s an example of the former:

I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. . . . I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you” (Exodus 23:27, 28, 31).

Unlike the people in Ninevah who repented at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:6-10), the people of Canaan resisted. Because of that, they had to be moved out by force. But their presence wasn’t the only problem. Theirs was a debased culture, and it had to be destroyed. Thus, the Old Testament also speaks of the destruction of the Canaanites. Miller believes it was the nations that God intended to destroy more than the individual persons.{39} The cities represented the real power centers of the land, so to move the inhabitants out by terror or by destruction would have seriously weakened the nations.

If it’s true that people escaped before the Israelites attacked, then it is possible that the Israelites would marry some of them.

Secondly (and more obviously), the Israelites could marry Canaanites who were not removed from the cities because of their (the Israelites’) disobedience. As it turned out, Moses’ warning in Deutonomy 4:25-28 became prophetic. Starting in Judges 1:27 we read that tribe after tribe of Israelites did not drive out all the inhabitants of the cities they inhabited. Verse 28, for example, tells us that “it came about when Israel became strong, that they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but they did not drive them out completely.”

With all this as background, I think we can understand why Moses both commanded that literally everyone was to be destroyed in the cities taken and warned the Israelites against intermarriage. The cities, the power centers of Canaanite wicked and idolatrous culture, were to be destroyed along with everyone who obstinately refused to leave. People who escaped could possibly have intermarried with the Israelites. And when the various tribes failed to deal appropriately with the Canaanites, they eventually mixed with them in marriage and in the broader society as well.

The Children

The most disturbing part of the conquest of Canaan for most people is the killing of children. After the defeats of both Heshbon and Bashan, Moses noted that they had “devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children” (Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:3, 6). Why would God have ordered that?

No matter what explanation of the death of children is given, no one except the most cold hearted will find joy in it. God didn’t. He gets no pleasure in the death of anyone. In Ezekiel 18:23 we read, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (see also Ezekiel 33:11). When God told Abraham He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleaded for them, and God agreed in His mercy that if but only ten righteous people were found, He wouldn’t do it. Long after the conquest of the land, when God decided He would have to destroy Moab, according to Isaiah God “wept bitterly” over her cities (Isaiah 16:9; cf. 15:5).

But what about Deuteronomy 24:16 which says that children shall not be put to death because of their fathers’ sins? Isn’t there an inconsistency here?

The law given in Deuteronomy provided regulations for the people of Israel. In the course of normal life, children weren’t to be punished for the sins of their fathers. The situation in Canaan was different. Generation after generation of Canaanites continued in the same evil practices. What was to stop it? God knew it would take the destruction of those nations.

Here are a few factors to take into consideration.

First, the sins of parents, just like their successes, have an impact on their children.

Second, if the Canaanite children were allowed to live and remain in the land, they could very well act to avenge their parents when they grew up, or at least to pick up again the practices of their parents.

Third, if one holds that there is an age of accountability for children, and that those younger than that are received into heaven with God when they die, although the means of death were frightful and harsh, the Canaanite children’s experience after death would be better than if they’d continued to live among such a sinful people.{40} How persuasive this thought is will depend on how seriously we take biblical teaching about our future after the grave.

These ideas may provide little consolation. But we must keep in mind that God is not subject to our contemporary sensibilities.{41} If we’re going to find peace with much of the Bible, we will have to accept that. There is much to offend in Scripture: the burden of original sin; that the Israelites were permitted to keep slaves; the gospel itself (1 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 5:11); the headship of the husband. How about commands about servanthood, suffering for the gospel, and dying to oneself? Such things may still not be as offensive to us as the killing of children, but our sensibilities—especially those of modern individualistic Westerners who haven’t grasped the seriousness of sin and of worshiping other gods—do not raise us to the level of judging God. We cannot evaluate this on the basis of contemporary secular ethical thought.

The only test we can put to God is consistency with His own nature and word. Yahweh is a God of justice as well as mercy. He is also a God who takes no more pleasure in the death of adults than in those of children.

This doesn’t resolve the issue, but I’ll just point out (again) that it’s hard to swallow the revulsion people feel at this who themselves support abortion rights. It’s well known that the unborn feel pain, and that late term abortion methods are abominable practices, ones pro-choicers wouldn’t tolerate if performed on animals. A critic might hastily claim that I am employing a tu quoque argument here, but I’m not (that is the fallacy of defending something on the basis that the other person does it, too). I’m not offering it as a defense of the killing of children in the Old Testament. The purpose of the observation is intended simply to make critics stop and think about the charge they are making. It’s rather like the adage, “One who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones.”

Final Comments

Another term used in place of Yahweh war is holy war. We think of holy war primarily in the context of Islam. Critics may try to paint with a broad brush and claim that what the Israelites did to their neighbors was no different than modern day Islamic jihad. How might we respond?

I noted early in this article that the conquest of Canaan presupposed a particular theological background. The one true God was moving His people into their new home and meting out judgment to the Canaanites at the same time. Such warfare could only be conducted at the command of God. After the Israelites rebelled at the news of the spies that the inhabitants of the land were strong and their cities were large and fortified, God pronounced judgment on them. To try to make it up, the Israelites took it on themselves to go up into the land and fight. Moses pled with them not to, but they did anyway, and they were defeated (Numbers 14). Even having the ark of the covenant with them wasn’t sufficient when they fought against the Philistines apart from the will of God in the time of Samuel (1 Samuel 4:1-11). As Eugene Merrill says, God was the protagonist in Yahweh war. If He was not behind it, it would fail. Since today the battle has shifted to the spiritual level, there is no place for military warfare in the service of the advance of God’s kingdom. Muslims who engage in jihad are not fighting on the side of the true God. Furthermore, for the atheist to criticize Christianity today for what God did a very long time ago is to show a lack of understanding of the progress of revelation and the development of God’s plan. What has Jesus called us to do? That is what matters today.

Apologists have the task of answering challenges to biblical faith. We talk about Christianity being “reasonable,” and we want to show it to be so. But reasonable by whose standards? The laws of logic are valid no matter one’s religious beliefs. But we aren’t here talking about the laws of logic. We’re talking about moral issues. By whose moral standard will we judge God? We can clarify the conflict between the Canaanites and Israelites to non-believers. We can also appeal to the ethical principles we know Western secularists accept (e.g., prohibitions against child sacrifice). But, bottom line, the only way we can appease modern Westerners in this matter is to deny the inspiration of the text or to re-interpret the text and so to distance ourselves from what the Israelites did. We certainly shouldn’t do the former, and we have to be careful with the latter.

One final note. Our own circumstances will weigh heavily in how we read such texts. Not being oppressed ourselves, we view apparent oppressors (in this case the Israelites) with a jaundiced view. What about people who are oppressed?

Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim quotes Walter Brueggemann, another OT scholar. “‘It is likely that the violence assigned to Yahweh is to be understood as counterviolence, which functions primarily as a critical principle in order to undermine and destabilize other violence.’ And so,” Fretheim continues, “God’s violence is ‘not blind or unbridled violence,’ but purposeful in the service of a nonviolent end. In other words, God’s violence, whether in judgment or salvation, is never an end in itself, but is always exercised in the service of God’s more comprehensive salvific purposes for creation: the deliverance of slaves from oppression (Exodus 15:7; Psalm 78:49–50), the righteous from their antagonists (Psalm 7:6–11), the poor and needy from their abusers (Exodus 22:21–24; Isaiah 1:23–24; Jeremiah 21:12), and Israel from its enemies (Isaiah 30:27–33; 34:2; Habakkuk 3:12–13).” Quoting Abraham Heschel, he continues, “‘This is one of the meanings of the anger of God: the end of indifference’ with respect to those who have suffered human cruelty. In so stating the matter, the divine exercise of wrath, which may include violence, is finally a word of good news (for those oppressed) and bad news (for oppressors).”{42}

Notes

1. This article is a more detailed version of my “God and the Canaanites” which aired on Probe. That version is available on our Web site as well.
2. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), 51.
3. Ibid., 278-79.
3. William Lane Craig, “Slaughter of the Canaanites,” Reasonablefaith.org, www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5767.
5. Seymour Rossel, The Holocaust: An End to Innocence, chap. 15, “Genocide,” www.rossel.net/Holocaust15.htm.
From “Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide,” University of the West of England, at: http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/.
6. Later I’ll mention the goal of fulfilling the promise of land to Abraham. To fulfill that promise, God needed only to move the Canaanites out.
7. Here I’m talking specifically about the command to destroy them.
8. The phrases “the Lord’s battles” or “battles of the Lord” which make this clear are found in 1 Sam. 18:17 and 25:28. In Deut. 20 one can find the most succinct biblical description of Yahweh war.
9. Eugene H. Merrill, “The Case for Moderate Discontinuity,” in C. S. Cowles, Eugene H. Merrill, Daniel L. Gard, and Tremper Longman III, Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 65.
10. Ibid., 66.
11. Ibid., 67.
12. Tremper Longman III, “The Case for Spiritual Continuity,” in Cowles et al., Show Them No Mercy, 182.
13. Ibid., 185.
14. Merrill, “The Case for Moderate Discontinuity,” 69.
15. Longman, “The Case for Spiritual Continuity,” 172.
16. C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, trans., James Martin, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1: The Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 484-485.
17. Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978); s.v. “Curse” by H. Aust and D. Müller, I:415.

18. Bernhard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1957), 98. See also Jack Finegan, Myth and Mystery (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 133.
19. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007), 101; quoted in Copan “Is God a Moral Monster?”
20. Paul Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 73-92; www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=63.
21. M.G. Kyle, “Canaan,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 550.
22. Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1993), 20-21.
23. “Hymn of Victory of Mer-ne-Ptah,” in James B. Pritchard, ed. The Ancient Near East, vol. 1, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton Univ. Press, 1958), 231.
24. “The Moabite Stone,” in Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East, 209.
25. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 93-94; 96-103.
26. Paul Copan offers an response to Morriston’s argument in his “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.”
27. Wesley Morriston, “Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist,” Philosophia Christi, 11, no. 1 (2009): 7-26.
28. C. S. Cowles, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” in Cowles et al., Show Them No Mercy, 26.
29. Merrill, “A Response to C. S. Cowles,” in C. S. Cowles, et al, Show Them No Mercy, 49.
30. Cowles, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” 33.
31. More detailed responses to this argument are found in the responses to C. S. Cowles in Show Them No Mercy, 47-60.
32. Paul Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1 (2009): 73-92; www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=63.
33. Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”, Philosophia Christi 10, no. 1 (2008): 7-37; www.epsociety.org/library/articles.asp?pid=45. Copan also refers to Deut. 7:2-3 as evidence of this. See also his discussion in “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.”
34. See Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.”
35. Richard S. Hess, “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview,” in War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 25; quoted in Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.”
36. Glenn M. Miller, “How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?” on the web site A Christian Thinktank, christianthinktank.com/qamorite.html.
{37. Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites,” quoting John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), chap. 5.
38. Miller, “How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?”
39. Copan says similarly that “wiping out Canaanite religion was far more significant than wiping out the Canaanites themselves.” See his “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”
40. Cf. Paul Copan, “How Could a Loving God Command Genocide,” in That’s Just Your Interpretation (Grand Rapid: Baker, 2001), 165.
41. And I say “contemporary” because children weren’t regarded as highly in the Ancient Near East as they are today. People may not have found this as appalling as we do today (because it so out of keeping with our experience).
42. Terence Fretheim, “God and Violence in the Old Testament,” Word and World, 24, no. 1 (Winter 2004); accessed online at www2.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/24-1_Violence/24-1_Fretheim.pdf; quoting Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 244, and Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper&Row, 1962), 284.

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