Why I am Still a Christian2022 Sep 14
I was born into a Christian family. However, today my view on Christianity is not the same as it was when I was a child. note
It feels to me like the Christianity I have today is not that different from when I was young.
However, my model about what Christianity is has changed substantially. It is more simple and yet more profound. Over time it was deconstructed and rebuilt for the better.
The most significant thing is using a values system perspective to understand and develop spiritually. (See God's Value System is significant to me.) Everyday experience validates this perspective, and it is practical.
Often a person remains in the religious belief system they grew up in. If they do leave their belief system it may be for reasons that involve experience, rationales or evidence. I however am still a Christian, and it is because of evidence, reason and experience. note
Those that leave beliefs may do so because of bad experiences, or because they had insufficient reasons to remain, or because there was lack of evidence to back their beliefs. However, I am still a Christian because of the good support of Christianity by these aspects.
Note of course that being born into some belief system is not a rationale for it being true. It also is not a rationale for it being false (the Genetic Fallacy). So then because you grew up with it is not a reason to doubt it and leave. And in contrast it is also not a reason to stubbornly hold on to an old less truthful system if you come to understand a new better belief system.
Note that correctness and truth are also not correlated with the feelings you have about your spiritual beliefs. These experiences could be personally very meaningful, but they are not evidence of truth. Many people have feelings of affirmation within many different religious systems. These could be experiences of highly unlikely things (“therefore God must have done it, and it must be true”), or they could be emotional (“therefore it feels right”). These don't of themselves indicate truth even for things that are true.
Most people are not convinced of a belief system only by logic and argumentation. They usually become convinced of it by seeing others that live it well, and often by experiencing God meeting them personally in ways that they cannot explain naturalistically. Each person's path is varied and different.
So the truth of of a belief system should be able to be shown by evidence, reason and experience.
First, my experience was that Christians were the best people I knew. They were not perfect, but their character matched sufficiently to the characteristics of Jesus, the person that they followed so that I saw the good. note
Christians are supposed to be good people. They identify with Jesus Christ, a person that has been recognized as good by virtually everybody. Christians claim to be Jesus-followers, so they should be like Jesus.
While growing up, the adults around me and their families were people like this. The character of what I could read about Jesus matched sufficiently with their lives that it was attractive, even though I also knew they were not perfect.
However, I know this is not the experience of all who have grown up in a Christian context.
This is a point of great sadness to me because, again, people that claim to follow Jesus should be like him and try to represent him well. The people that spent time with Jesus on earth found him attractive as a person. If those now who now claim to be associated with Jesus have instead pushed people away from Jesus because they were so unlike him, then they have failed very badly indeed.
Second, I have evidence which supports my beliefs by means of reason:
- evidence that God is the best explanation for our human existence
- evidence for the historical credibility of the Christian movement
- evidenced practicality of Christian thought and its benefits for mental health
And finally, personal lived experience has continued to agree with this evidence.
Models of Truth
Finding truth is a challenging problem. The scientific method is one of the best ways that humans have found to discover truth about physical things.
Science is the systematic study of effects according to their causes. In practice, it can be thought of as the business of developing testable models of the physical world.
Spiritual things are outside the scope of science. This is because our experience of spirituality occurs partly in the physical world, but it is not of the physical world.
We all have some opinion of what spiritual reality is. This view is a mental model of the spiritual world. It is our explanation of how everything spiritual works. It tells us how the spiritual world relates to our physical world. It tells us about what the spiritual effects will be of the things that we do.
Maybe theology can be thought of as the systematic study of spiritual effects according to their causes. In practice, maybe it could be thought of as the business of developing testable models of the spiritual world.
In working toward truth in science, we ask a number of questions which we then use to rank scientific models. (See questions --> note) I think these questions can also be used to assess spiritual models. Models of spiritual systems should answer positively to these assessment questions in the same way as good scientific models do.
Regarding science and scientific models, the questions we think about are:
- What is the scope of the model? (Do we know what is inside the model’s scope and what is outside the scope of the model?)
- Is the model the most simple one that explains the most things satisfactorily?
- Does the model have strong (deep, effective) explanatory power that gives superior understanding of the context?
- Does the model have a minimum of explanatory gaps?
- Is the model without internal conflicts?
- Does the model consistently explain what happened in the past?
- Does the model consistently predict what will happen (the future)?
- Can the model be tested at present in the real world?
- Does application of the model enable you to consistently influence/change the environment in a known way (staying within the scope of the model)?
These are all key questions that are part of developing good scientific models and of doing good science. The questions can be used to assess which model(s) among a number are better than the others, and therefore they can be used to rank models.
Of course many people see that spiritual things are revealed to us, and we should just accept revealed truth as it is supplied. But yet, how do we get that spiritual revelation? It is a combination of gods and humans getting these ideas to us. Maybe the god doesn't make mistakes, but humans certainly do. Humans involved in transmitting the ideas to us have their own motives which might deviate from truth. And since we are humans, once the ideas get to us we might make mistakes in understanding even perfectly good spiritual revelations. For this reason we should be cautious about our sources and humble about our understandings.
Therefore, honest questions and reasonable doubts about spiritual things should be welcomed. Spiritual knowledge certainly should be able to withstand questions and thinking and reasoning. It should also withstand comparison against evidence. note If nothing else, this is to avoid human errors. Spiritual systems that do poorly under this inspection rightfully should be doubted. (How can you have confidence that they have truth?) However, a spiritual system that stands up well under this scrutiny is more likely to be filled with truth.
Why should we think we can check spiritual ideas against evidence? Followers of Jesus (in particular) should do this because:
- Jesus recommended this approach.
- In Luke 7:18-22, Jesus' cousin John was doubting the role of Jesus. Jesus told him to look at the evidence of the miracles that Jesus was doing. Only one with genuine authority for the role could be doing them. This evidence would show John that he could trust that Jesus was the One.
- Because we actually do this all the time.
- As a silly illustration: Imagine someone was promoting a new "Videogame Church of Jesus" and was teaching that Jesus loved playing video games and also that Jesus told us the way to heaven was by playing them. We would correctly reject this spiritual teaching because it lacks positive evidence and in fact there is good evidence against it. (Video games did not exist in the 1st century.)
- This approach is practical.
- Jesus said in John 14:14, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
- However, I have asked God to do some things for me "in Jesus name" and God did not do them. Many other people have confirmed this same learning. This is an apparent problem.
- I believe God keeps his promises, so at minimum this is a problem of understanding about the meaning of the words.
- Because of evidence, I am forced to conclude that there is a limited context for the meaning of the word "anything". When we ask for things that are within this context, only then will God consistently do what we ask!
- (Although this is not the point I am trying to make, I believe the context is about asking for help to become more like Jesus.)
- So, the theological conclusion about the verse is guided by evidence.
We must compare what we think we understand against evidence to have assurance that we are understanding it correctly.
This approach is again similar to science. In science we can imagine all kinds of theories, even crazy ones. These are models of the physical world. However, an untested theory/model is not yet scientific. When the results of experimental evidence come in and support the model, only then is the theory fully scientific.
Regarding spiritual things we can imagine all kinds of ideas, especially crazy ones. These are models of the spiritual world. However, a spiritual model that has not been compared against evidence does not have certainty.
God: Maybe, Yes or No?
The first most important thing to determine is regarding the existence of God.
These days many people take the position of physicalism (also called materialism, or methodological naturalism). This view is very much oriented toward science and only the answers of science. This is the idea that:
- nothing exists beyond the natural material world, and
- physical explanations are (or will be) available for everything needing explanation
The physicalist view is incompatible with gods of course. Note however that the physicalist view is a metaphysical opinion. note No experiment can confirm the view, therefore science is impotent to prove the truth of the view. The physicalist position itself therefore is not scientific; it cannot even justify itself.
The strong version of this idea is that only scientific answers are answers of truth. Again, this is a metaphysical opinion. And, there are no scientific tests or experiments that could show characteristically that non-scientific answers are non-truth. That is, this statement is scientifically unprovable, therefore this is self-refuting and it is a false idea.
On this basis, there must be some non-scientific answers that could be true.
On the other hand, an opinion that there are non-physical things which are real things can be justified. This concept has strong support because of things like math, aesthetics and love. All these are non-physical (though they can have physical representations). They are some of the most real and true things that we know! Science isn’t possible without math; I don’t think human culture is possible without aesthetics, and I doubt close human relationships are possible without love. Therefore necessarily in our world some non-physical things exist and are completely real.
Most would consider that a god might be non-physical. note So if it is possible for non-physical entities to exist, then a god is not impossible.
A god with non-physicality is of course the most common idea of a god.
On the other hand, maybe there could be a god having only a physical existence. It could not be the god over this universe, however, because it could not have existed until the universe had already begun.
But is a god necessary? Many people manage to get through life seemingly without a god. And yet for some aspects of our existence, I think a god necessarily seems to be the best explanation.
The default position about god might be that of the agnostic. The agnostic does not know if there is a God or if there is no God. Agnosticism is a safe position because it is impossible to prove there is no God, and proving there is a God is just as "easy".
Of course there are different concepts of gods. There may be only one god, many gods, or no gods at all. A god might be an intelligent conscious agent, or maybe not have all those characteristics. A god might sustain everything, or be the everything, or only be a "force".
This gives us too many choices to be able to decide. If there is some god, I think it is reasonable to expect that there should be evidence which the god left behind. And, we should be able to determine some characteristics of what god might be from that evidence which still exists in the world.
Why do we exist?
Why is there something rather than nothing (Leibniz)? Why are we here, alive, conscious and thinking about our existence? This is one of the greatest of mysteries.
One idea about this is that the universe is infinitely old and never had a beginning. If it has always existed, then there might not be any need to explain anything. However, there are good reasons to be skeptical of an infinitely old universe. note
Infinity is a concept that exists in math. However infinity isn’t a number and it is a strange “thing” which creates absurdities:
- You can add any finite thing to infinity or subtract any finite thing from it and still have infinity (e.g. Remove the number 2 from an infinity of numbers and it is still infinity.)
- You can never reach an infinity by accumulating things (such as numbers or seconds or atoms). Whatever count you get to, infinity is still more.
- You can subtract infinity from infinity and get any desired finite result. (e.g. Natural numbers are non-negative counting numbers. All numbers of an infinity of natural numbers greater than 2 is still an infinity. Subtract this infinity from a full infinity of natural numbers and you have the finite two numbers 1 and 2.)
These logical and physical impossibilities indicate that infinity can’t be a real thing. If a real infinity is impossible then an infinitely old universe is the same problem in reverse and it is impossible. (See also Infinity does not Exist)
There are other reasons the universe could not be infinitely old:
- We see evidence that because entropy increases, the universe will wind down into what is called "heat death". Since we are not already at this heat death, the universe could not already be infinitely old.
- Some have suggested that the universe is (infinitely) cyclical, repeatedly collapsing and re-expanding. However, that increase in entropy in our own universe would affect the next one in the cycle, making the available free energy be smaller every iteration. Since we live in a universe with plenty of free energy it also could not be cyclically infinitely old.
- Roger Penrose has suggested a variation of this idea with a "phantom field" that resets the entropy. However this concept is unsupported scientifically, the field has no relation to any field known to science, and the field appears to simply be a substitute for a god.
Instead, in this last century science has gained evidence that the universe has a finite age. note This is a problem because then the universe requires a cause. note That then which could cause the universe must be transcendent (outside the universe and independent of it). Since time is a property of this universe, and without the universe time itself has no existence, the cause of the universe must be timeless. The cause of the universe must itself be uncaused because an infinite causal regress is impossible.
This is the point from the Kalam cosmological argument:
- Premise: That which begins to exist has a cause.
- Premise: The universe began to exist.
- Conclusion: The universe had a cause.
In the previous note I argued the coming into existence of the universe is indistinguishable from a miracle. The cosmological argument shows this miracle requires a causal entity. Any entity able to cause the universe is indistinguishable from a god.
If this line of reasoning is followed then a god must have existed and did a miracle. This first miracle is the biggest possible miracle. Any other miracles are lesser and would also have been within the capability of this entity. Therefore miracles are possible, are plausible, and are not a reason to reject spiritual ideas.
(Some suggest the multiverse is the ultimate cause for the universe. However, the multiverse cannot be this solution because the multiverse itself requires a cause - for the same reasons our universe requires a cause.)
The beginning of the universe is accepted truth in the Big Bang standard cosmological model (based primarily on the red-shifted light of distant suns). Since the age of the universe is finite, the universe came into existence at a point. This point was the beginning of all. Without the universe, nothing existed: not space, not energy, not matter, not time.
This coming into existence of the universe is indistinguishable from a miracle. Miracles may be said to be events that exceed the scope of what natural laws normally explain.
Some think that science shows that miracles are impossible (Hume). However, science does not show that. That is obsolete understanding.
In the world of quantum events, anything is possible although some events are very low probability. For example, some theories in science suggest our universe simply came from a fluctuation in a quantum field. Modern science does not disallow miracles. And in fact, modern science depends on a miracle (although just one miracle): the miracle of the appearance of the universe.
As discussed in the book Return of the God Hypothesis, the finite age of the universe, the fine-tuning of our world for life, and the vast store of functional information in living things make a strong positive case for an creative, intelligent, purposive and active god as the best explanation for our existence. (See my review of the book.) This fine-tuning of the universe to support life also is a highly integrated and cohesive design; to me this indicates that it came from a single mind. Since impersonal causes have an immediate effect and our universe has a finite age, this cause must be be a personal agent. note
If a physical cause is sufficient to make an effect, the effect is implemented when the cause exists. (For instance, at any time water is in temperatures below its freezing point it changes into ice.) So whenever a sufficient physical (an impersonal) cause exists, its effect will also exist.
Since the universe has a finite age, it had a cause. Since without the universe time does not exist, and the cause of the universe existed without the universe, this cause must be timeless. Problematically however, a timeless physical cause would have created the universe infinitely long ago.
The solution to this difficulty is the cause possessing agency. As William Lane Craig illustrated, if I had always been sitting in a chair, I could get up at the moment of my choosing. If the cause of the universe possessed free will, this timeless agent could create the universe at any chosen finite time in the past. And so the cause could do this only as a person having agency.
From these evidences we could try to identify which kind of god would best fit, and we could also reject a few concepts of god. By observing the universe then we can expect a transcendent, timeless, uncaused, purposive, creative, intelligent, active, single, personal god. But this is as far as physical evidence gets us. From here on we would have to rely on other sources such as history or revealed knowledge for guidance about the most likely god. note
Revealed knowledge (revelation) is not a bad thing, and it is not exclusive to the spiritual world.
- I might go to a talk by a scientist and learn about things that I had not previously known because I had no experience in the topic. This is revelation.
- A friend might tell me about something they had been thinking about or something they privately experienced. This is revelation.
Revealed knowledge is information communicated to us about things that we might otherwise never discover. (Often this could be because it isn't something that we could participate in or otherwise have experience to know.) A critical part about revealed knowledge is the trustworthiness of the source. If the source reliably knows the material they are communicating, is concerned for our interests and is not deceptive, then they they should be trustworthy.
Revelation in our modern world is necessary. Most of what we learn when we get an education is revealed knowledge! And of course we should be thinking about the various bits of revelation and consider if they make sense in the context of things that we do know through our own personal experience. In this way we test what is revealed to us and put critical thinking skills into practice.
Religions claim to reveal spiritual knowledge to us. All religions have some historical basis and they each have some set of tenets. Hopefully the ideas are consistent and should correspond to evidence. These aspects should either lend credibility to a religion if it is true, or otherwise cast doubt on it. Major religions note (with my thoughts about them) include:
This is not an exhaustive list of religions, but it includes the big ones and some other ones important to the general category of thought.
- Atheism note
- Deism note
- Judaism note
- Christianity note
- Islam note
- Hinduism note
- Buddhism note
- Pantheism note
- Paganism / polytheism note
Paganism and polytheism are not the same thing, however, they have substantial overlap because pagans are usually polytheistic.
The evidence of fine-tuning indicates to me there is a singular creative agent for the universe because of the integrated cohesiveness of all things. On this basis, polytheism and so then paganism seem dis-indicated by the evidence.
Pantheism is the idea that god is identical with the universe, or that the universe is god.
The pantheistic god could and would not exist before the universe so therefore it would be unable to create the universe. By this we can reject the pantheistic god.
Buddhism doesn’t have a god as in monotheistic religions, and has no creator deity. The goal of Buddhism is for all humans to attain nirvana and become a Buddha. A Buddha is the closest Buddhism has to gods, although they are not actually gods.
There can be many Buddhas, so in this way Buddhism has a similarity to polytheism. The evidence of fine-tuning indicates to me there is a singular creative agent for the universe because of the integrated cohesiveness of all things. Buddhism seems dis-indicated by the evidence because it is polytheistic and creator-less.
Note also: A teaching of Buddhism is that the universe has a cycle of rebirths that are without a discoverable beginning. This is in conflict to evidence that the universe had a singular beginning. On this cyclic view basis, Buddhism seems dis-indicated by the evidence.
Hinduism encompasses a diverse set of spiritual ideas and traditions. Hinduism is not a religion; it is a category of religions. Usually multiple gods are accepted (though monotheism is an option). Because Hinduism is a collection of belief traditions that do not agree, how can they all be true at the same time? To me this casts question on whether Hinduism generally contains the truth about god(s).
Many Hindu texts describe endless creation and destruction of the cosmos. However, physical evidence indicates that the universe had a singular beginning. On this cyclic view basis, Hinduism seems dis-indicated by the evidence (or at minimum, the physical evidence does not support Hinduism).
The evidence of fine-tuning indicates to me there is a singular creative agent for the universe because of the integrated cohesiveness of all things. Polytheistic Hinduism therefore seems dis-indicated by this evidence.
Islam is the third of the Abrahamic religions. Islam seeks to worship the god of Abraham in a way that is discontinuous from the earlier Abrahamic religions. It is complicated because of issues that I see regarding deception, origination continuity, fears of disrespect, bullying and lack of love.
See Considering Islam for a discussion of these concerns and how I see that this brings questions to its trustworthiness.
Characteristics of this God as revealed in Islam includes transcendence, intelligence, purposiveness and action. Islam is monotheistic and Allah is taught as the creator. These match to requirements from physical evidence about the universe.
However, the god of Islam appears to act deceptively. This does not match with evidence of a universe of laws that are consistent, and laws that do not deceive us. Islam seems dis-indicated by this evidence.
Christianity is the second of the Abrahamic religions and directly came out of Judaism. It is based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was a Jew who lived in Israel in the first century. Jesus knew Judaism at a such a level that he bettered the top scholars of the day (Luke 2:46,47, Matthew 7:28,29), and he showed that Judaism pointed to him as its fulfillment (Luke 24:25-27).
Christianity seeks to worship the god of Abraham, and promotes Jesus as the best representation to humans of this God (John 1:14, Hebrews 1:1-3).
Characteristics of this God as revealed to us by him includes transcendence, intelligence, purposiveness and action. This matches to requirements from physical evidence about the universe.
Christianity is monotheistic, therefore, the Christian God could be the singular creative agent for the universe as indicated by the evidence of fine-tuning and its integrated cohesiveness.
Judaism is the first of the Abrahamic religions, and clearly seeks to worship the God of Abraham.
Judaism established a theocracy with one people. For this and other reasons I see that it is limited and arguably not a religion for all people. See Considering Judaism for a discussion of this.
Characteristics of the Jewish God as revealed by him includes transcendence, intelligence, purposiveness and action. This matches to requirements from physical evidence about the universe.
Judaism is monotheistic, therefore, the Jewish God could be the singular creative agent for the universe as indicated by the evidence of fine-tuning and its integrated cohesiveness.
Deism might not be an organized religion, but it claims to have spiritual knowledge. It is the position that there is a god, but that this understanding is achieved exclusively through observation and reason. It accepts that god's existence is revealed through nature (natural theology), but it rejects all direct sources of revelation such as scriptures.
A notable part of deism is that god does not intervene in the world. The deist sees that god set everything up and then let the world run as designed. The deist also believes that a moral perspective can be determined through philosophy.
There is a variation of the Deistic god concept in which the god does act in history to providentially bring things to happen, while still being remote. Many deistic founders of the USA saw happenings that could not be attributed to coincidence, and so they took it to be the providential hand of god for the start of the nation.
The deist sees god as transcendent, intelligent and (initially) active. This matches to requirements from physical evidence about the universe.
Deism seems to be monotheistic, therefore the deist god could be the singular creative agent for the universe as indicated by the evidence of fine-tuning and its integrated cohesiveness.
The most common deist position, however, is that god is non-intervening after creation. Since paleontology indicates continued infusions of information across history into the biosphere to make new organisms (such as in the Cambrian Explosion), the deistic good seems dis-indicated by the evidence.
It may be surprising to include atheism in a list of religions. However, atheism claims to have spiritual knowledge. Atheism's position is that there is no god. As to beliefs, the atheist apparently believes their position (even though the proposition is unprovable). Atheism therefore is a matter of faith (like all opinions about gods).
See Considering Atheism for my discussion about the atheistic position and problems with it.
Atheists often suggest the idea of the multiverse as a cause for our universe. However, for the same reasons we know our universe was caused, the multiverse also requires a cause; this explanation then ultimately fails. Because the position fails to provide a valid answer, atheism seems dis-indicated.
Atheism uses the virtually infinite probabilistic "resources" of the multiverse to explain the fine-tuning that makes our existence possible. However as I have discussed in some other places here, real infinities do not exist. Even if real infinities did exist, the infinitely most probably answer to our existence and our (apparent) awareness of our existence is that we are a disembodied brain that randomly popped into existence and began "experiencing" this world. If this is the fact, then our universe and our own planet of people is a massive delusion; there is no science and no truth and there is no reason to believe this position. Atheism seem dis-indicated by its inability to produce a rational explanation for the evidence of fine-tuning.
Atheism again falls back to the multiverse to explain the information that is encoded in living things. Infinite probabilistic "resources" are suggested to enable natural processes to have a path through the improbabilities of life. However, as described the multiverse has already failed, and certainly our universe fails to overcome the The Probability of Life. Again, atheism seem dis-indicated by evidence that natural processes are emphatically unable to account for the information in living things.
Christianity came out of Judaism. I see it as a continuation of Judaism (as Paul describes - Acts 26).
A substantial difference from Judaism is that the followers of Jesus Christ are part of a spiritual kingdom, and this kingdom is not earthly (John 18:36). Judaism was for a nation which later became an earthly kingdom. In contrast, the spiritual kingdom of Jesus is for all people regardless of their earthly national associations.
Christianity then is based on Jesus: his existence, his accomplishments and his teachings.
Jesus and the Resurrection
What is commonly accepted among all careful scholars of history is that a man Jesus lived in the Middle East in the first century. The documentation of this Jesus is one of the best for all ancient figures.
Eyewitness accounts about Jesus were recorded by a number of his contemporaries. These independent writings were collected into an anthology which we call the Bible’s New Testament (NT). Other historians of that era corroborate these accounts. This historical evidence for Jesus meets or exceeds the documentation of most other figures from history. Because of this, modern historians (many of them not even Christian) are convinced that Jesus was a real historical figure.
So, Jesus lived in the first century, had disciples and taught them, and was killed by the Romans by crucifixion. This is consistently acknowledged because it is credible.
Then the evidence is that:
- Jesus was honorably buried in the nearby tomb of a well-known man
- On the third day from the crucifixion, this tomb was found empty by women followers of Jesus
- Multiple people then in multiple contexts experienced appearances of Jesus alive
- Jesus’ disciples believed that he was resurrected and alive even though all normal contextual thinking would be against this
The challenge is how to explain these facts. The explanation that best fits is that God resurrected Jesus as described by many writers in the Bible NT. note Other non-miraculous explanations have been proposed, but they either don’t explain the evidence, or are absurd. note
A few examples of theories to explain the resurrection without a resurrection:
The "swoon" theory
This theory suggests that Jesus did not die, but only had passed out and so only appeared dead. After he was buried, he came back to consciousness, opened the tomb and left. He showed himself alive and well to his disciples.
This proposal fails because crucifixion is a brutal and highly effective means of killing. It causes substantial body trauma, loss of blood, and exposure to infection. Crucified people predictably died. Of course then, no person just then crucified would have sufficient strength to move the large stone which sealed the tomb to escape from it. Right after his resurrection, Jesus did a 6.5 mile (10.5 km) walk and he used his hands for eating. A crucified person could not hike a large distance after such an experience because their feet would be mangled. They would not trivially manipulate objects for eating because their hands would have been severely damaged. Any human that might have only survived crucifixion would be obviously not well; they would not be full of vitality.
The "disciples stole the body" theory
In this suggestion, the disciples came secretly and stole the body. They claimed that Jesus resurrected when he had not.
The proposal fails because the tomb was officially guarded by trained Roman soldiers and so the body could not be stolen secretly. Anyway however, the disciples had no motivation to make it seem like Jesus resurrected because they had all fled. They also still believed that any resurrection would only happen at the end of the world.
However, after the resurrection they became changed people. They had seen Jesus alive and knew that he was God. Their belief in the resurrection was so strong that they maintained their testimony of it in the face of violence and death. A charade about Jesus could not have caused this.
This theory is the original one that was invented immediately after Jesus’ resurrection by Jewish leaders to excuse the missing body. If the soldiers had actually let the body be taken away by some people they would have been very severely disciplined. However, the Jewish leaders covered up their failure to contain Jesus' body with bribes. Essentially by this the regional authorities acknowledged that Jesus' dead body no longer existed.
The "Jesus had an identical twin" theory
In this story Jesus had an identical twin who was unknown to everyone. The twin came to the tomb and stole the body, but then presented himself as Jesus alive and well.
This fails because the followers of Jesus who were confident of his resurrection included close relatives who knew him and his family history. Jesus could not have had such an unknown twin. In addition, Jesus had spent extensive intimate time with his disciples. They would be able to spot an imposter because his mannerisms and knowledge of experiences would not match to the real Jesus. It is true there were times when disciples did not recognize Jesus, but at those times they were thinking that Jesus was a complete stranger to them. They did not think that he was similar but different.
The fact was that the disciples saw Jesus alive and they knew that he was not an ordinary human. They had evidenced confidence instead that Jesus was God. It was this that changed them and gave them unshakeable certainty for the rest of their lives.
The resurrection is the best explanation of these facts because:
- The place that Jesus was buried was well-known since it was nearby and it belonged to a well-known man. Jesus' dead body was shut in the tomb by a large stone which was then officially sealed by the Roman authorities. It was then put under continuous guard by competent Roman soldiers. If Jesus' dead body actually had remained in the tomb, it would be able to be displayed by the Jewish or Roman authorities. However, the only thing that could be evidenced at the tomb was that the body of Jesus was not there.
- All the authorities of the day would have liked to be able to show a dead body as evidence that the Jesus character was a fraud. Even though competent guards were put on the tomb, no dead body of Jesus was found anywhere. The best explanation is that he was no longer dead.
- In the Jewish culture, the testimony of women was not admissible in courts. Therefore, if someone was falsely trying to convince other people of a resurrection they would certainly not record women as being the ones who found the tomb empty. Only a story which was corroborated as truth by other living witnesses would have been recorded like this for history. They told the story as it really happened since it was the truth as attested by all.
- It would be reasonably possible that hallucinations of Jesus could be experienced by a few people. However, consistent experiences of a living Jesus by many people in multiple contexts and multiple group sizes is not something that would occur by hallucination. The best explanation is that Jesus was alive to be experienced.
- The people who were experiencing appearances of a living Jesus were strongly predisposed against this. In Judaism any resurrection was only expected at the end of the world. They also understood all too well the brutal effectiveness of crucifixion as a means to assure someone’s death. The best explanation is that Jesus was alive again, fully restored by resurrection.
- The disciples had been dispirited. To them after Jesus' death there was no possible continuation of the Jesus messiah idea. In fact they were already returning to their activities from before having met Jesus. And yet, when they experienced the risen Jesus, they were completely changed. They enthusiastically told everybody about Jesus in spite of adversity for the rest of their lives. A living Jesus best explains this.
If however Jesus was restored to life from the dead, then God must exist to have done this miracle. note By this, God also confirmed who Jesus was and vindicated what Jesus said; these would include that he:
I already argued that miracles are possible because the existence of the universe had a beginning. (This is indistinguishable from a miracle. See notes in the "Why do we exist?" section.) And so if God had already created the universe in a miracle, resurrecting Jesus would have been by comparison an "easy" miracle.
There is interesting contrast between these two miracles:
- We can observe evidence today of the beginning of the universe, but Jesus is not observable as physically living on the earth today.
- There were no human eyewitnesses to the start of the universe, but we have record of many people who witnessed the resurrected Jesus.
These two events both give evidence for God.
- best (and exactly) represented God to us
- had the authority of God
- could forgive our sins
- had a spiritual kingdom we could participate in
Origins of the Christian movement
The disciples of Jesus right away, against expectations, started a movement promoting Jesus as living and the way to come to God. This new teaching was contrary to all established beliefs of the time. Although they were uneducated, they were so startlingly effective that everyone noted they had been with Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus had so changed them that they maintained this bold focus in spite of threats and death. And the lives they lived were consonant with the message of good news that they preached.
But were these narratives reliable? Was life in the area accurately described in the Bible? Archeology does back up descriptions of the places and happenings of the time (see here and here). And, the gospel narratives consistently have the hallmarks of eyewitness accounts (see here and here). By these confirmations it is reasonable to take the narrative as believable and trustworthy.
So, Christianity started in Jerusalem a few months after the time of Jesus. It spread across the world as followers of Jesus told others about the life, character, authority and message of Jesus.
The Christian model of spiritual reality
Christianity is a model of the spiritual world and the effects it has on the physical world. The following description of it is classical orthodox Christianity, but given from a value systems perspective. note
The value system perspective is based on the work of Darren Twa.
- There is one God.
- God is so unlike us that we cannot comprehend him.
- This God created the universe.
- God put people in it whom he created in his image with personal free will.
- God is good and loves all people.
- God's supreme motivating value system is sacrificial love for the benefit of others.
- God desires everyone to be good like him and love others.
- Every person has rebelled against God and has chosen selfish values for personal motivation instead of beneficial love.
- These motivations inevitably result in selfish behaviors.
- Every one of us has committed this offense against God.
- (The selfish values and resulting behaviors is called sin.)
- These selfish values cause all of the evils that humans do in this world.
- In this rebellion we end up having nothing in common with God’s most essential personal values, and this puts us out of relationship with God.
- This is because all relationships are based on common values, and all conflicts in relationships come from conflicts over values.
- Our broken relationship with God is equivalent to death.
- In this state we are unable to repair our relationship with God.
- We have already committed an offense against God and we have no currency to pay this debt.
- We instead rely on God to forgive us. Only a forgiver can release an offender from a relationship debt between them. This forgiveness is costly to the forgiver.
- God willingly forgives any person asking for it.
- God forgives our sin gladly.
- However, God expects each of us also to be like him and forgive the relationship debts that others owe us.
- God forgives those that are forgiving. This is because forgiving others is evidence that we share values with God, and evidence that our relationship with God has been restored.
- God does not forgive an unforgiving person. Remaining unforgiving is evidence of still being in conflict with God about what God holds to be most important. It is a rejection of God's values because forgiveness importantly is about coming to common values.
- Jesus is a unique person because he is both fully God and fully human.
- God is a supremely rational being (and is the source of our rational abilities).
- John describes Jesus as being the reason of God (the Word of God, the Logos of God, the rationality of God). (John 1:1,14)
- God is one God, but as best as we can humanly understand God has multiple persons (Father, Jesus and Spirit).
- Jesus took up humanity to hold a shared identity with us.
- What Jesus did on earth is the means by which God forgives us.
- Jesus fully absorbed the cost of sin of all time in his death. This justifies God forgiving us.
- Jesus returned to life to validate this work was fully accomplished and therefore that he had the authority to restore life and relationship with God for us.
- Jesus took on the cross because that is what he fully wanted to do. What happened on the cross was the highest expression of God’s unselfish personal values, and which of course are Jesus' own personal values. God's value system most looks like Jesus on the cross: giving of self to benefit others because of love!
- Jesus has a spiritual kingdom and is the king.
- This is not an earthly kingdom, but it is meant to positively affect all earthly kingdoms (nations, etc).
- All Jesus' followers are in his kingdom.
- In this kingdom Jesus has all authority and is our Lord.
- Jesus established his kingdom with his death and resurrection.
- Jesus loves us and desires us to love each other like he loved us.
- Living this way is very difficult, so God sends his Spirit to us to help us as we grow to be like Jesus, having love like him.
- This kind of love coming directly out of us is evidence to ourselves and to others that we are a follower of Jesus.
- This love in the lives of others is evidence to us of other followers of Jesus.
- We extend the kingdom of Jesus by our death to self and the renewed life that God gives us.
- The degree we show this love like Jesus is the primary measure of our maturity as a follower of Jesus. It is the primary evidence that we are a follower of Jesus.
This is the essential whole of Christianity. If you understand this, you understand all the important parts of Christianity. (See also Christian Theology Details.)
So, how do you become a Christian? There is a part you believe and a part you do. The important summary points of believing and doing which Jesus taught us are:
- That Jesus is both God and man
- Believe Jesus is your Lord and King
- Believe Jesus has a kingdom that is spiritual and for all people
- Believe the kingdom is established by death and resurrection
- Do adopt Jesus’ value system of sacrificial love for the benefit of others to be in the kingdom
Since we believe that God did his value system for us, we adopt God's value system to do it for others. note
Note that God's goal for us is not for our happiness. God's goal is for our character to grow to be like Jesus in love.
Many times this will bring us to places of great happiness, but not always. Therefore, don't mistake tough circumstances to be a removal of God's love. God loves you.
Advantages of the Christian model
The Christian spiritual model produces practical benefits for good relationship and for mental health.
When a person is born, they are made in the image of their parents. Parents who love their children give them courage to work hard to live well and to live up to the example of their parents. Christianity teaches that we are valuable because we are made in the image of God and that God always loves each one of us. This gives us purpose for life and courage to overcome the difficulties of life even if we have failures. Not everyone had parents that loved them. Christianity particularly gives to these people a motivation and strength they otherwise might never gain.
These days, with the apparent popularity of atheism, there is a lack of purpose and value for life. That standard narrative says we are accidents of nature and we have no more value than any animal that lives and dies alone in the wild. The result is that many people give up when life is hard. The unconditional love of God taught in Christianity is a strong counter to this despair in the culture. And taking on responsibility to love others gives meaning and purpose for living.
Christianity provides redemption for the things that we have done wrong. We all know that we have personal failures, and in many cases the memory of them eats away at us. We are unable to change the things that we did to make them right. Instead, God’s forgiveness and love washes this out and removes the corrosive guilt. note
The point here is that redemption helps the recipient of forgiveness, the forgiven. However, because God expects his people to be forgivers, there is another mental health benefit.
The Release step of the forgiveness process also removes burdens of offenses for the forgiver. They have release from offenses which they have experienced which were against them.
Christianity teaches responsibility for values and not just behaviors. The religions that emphasize obedience to rules and law can produce people who are able to look good on the outside without an improvement of internal character. By compliance to the rules you can appear to be good without actually being a good person. A follower of Jesus, however, adopts the good value system of Jesus. Over time, this changes personal character, the person does become good, and this internal good naturally comes out in good behaviors.
Religions that emphasize obedience to rules and law are looking at your work and not your character. When the character does not improve it leaves the person with uncertainty about their spiritual status. They know the broken and evil parts remain inside them in spite of spiritual tasks externally accomplished. None of the tasks they do is enough to give deep spiritual assurance. However, for a follower of Jesus who is growing in beneficial love, their character gets better which produces better actions. This ongoing change confirms to them that their spiritual status is right with God and their spiritual state is alive.
Integrating Jesus' value system into our own person is very hard. This value system is so unlike ours! It is almost impossible to do this. However, God gives us help by sending his Spirit to work in us and with us to bring change. It is still hard, but in Christianity, God works with us to help us become better people.
Some religions say the way to overcome difficulties in life is by disengagement. Life seems hard, but if we don't have any desires then we won't experience craving and suffering. Instead, Christianity recognizes that evil and suffering are real. We are not to ignore them. Instead, the solution for followers of Jesus is to love other people and give them help in the midst of trouble. Growing to have an unselfish value system reduces cravings in us. And by unselfishly sharing the burdens of life with others, suffering is reduced.
God does not live sin (because God's own value system is good), however, God in Jesus took up humanity to be able to share the experience of our imperfect world and so identify with us. In fact Jesus experienced all the horrible consequences of sin in his death at the cross. And in this he absorbed the cost of sin, repairing that evil for all of us. note Similarly, Jesus wants us to repair evil by getting involved - by sharing in the difficult experiences of other people and helping them.
Regarding sin see also:
Depending on the spiritual perspective, we might be told there is one god with a capricious character, or many gods all completely different, or simply that the base of reality is physical quantum chaos. If any of these things were fact, then truth could not ultimately be known: the conflict or chaos would not enable us to know what to trust or even if there were any truth. In contrast, the Christian God is rational and consistent. God is so completely different from us such that we can only comprehend parts of him. However, what we do know is that he is consistent, rational and good, and God therefore can be trusted. Because God can be trusted and we are made in God’s image, we therefore have reason to believe that our own ability to reason can be trusted.
And then finally: Looking at life, spiritual life and relationships as a follower of Jesus through the lens of value systems is intuitive, it is very practical, and it is fruitful. note
See also The Seven Principles of Good Relationships and much more at the Good News page.
Testing the Christian model
Does this Christian model correspond to the real world? Does experience validate it?
My experience is that, yes, as a very simple model it has extraordinary explanatory power, and its predictive power is consistent. It is a functional model that can be tested, and I have found that prediction and experience match very well.
As a spiritual model, its origins also matter. These aspects are validated by historical evidence, including even the most challenging part (the resurrection).
The one great difficulty with this model is that you can't make people love and you can't make them forgive. People must have a personal desire to participate in the model, in the kingdom of God, before it is effective for them.
When people do want to follow Jesus, however, this is a powerful tool for changing and bettering lives. It has been very effective and practical for changing my own life. And, I see it in action dramatically improving the lives of people around me.
Still a Christian
I grew up in a Christian family, and I am still a Christian. The God of Christianity best explains evidence that we see about our universe. The Christian religion is well supported by historical evidence. The Christian model matches to the world we live in. And application of the model improves our world.
The value system concepts and perspective on the gospel that are on this page are based on ideas from the work of Darren Twa, pastor at Life Fellowship and author of several books including God's Value System.