Evidence for the Truth of the Christian Message

August 2, 2010 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith, New

We live in a pluralistic society with dozens of competing claims to truth.  A bewildering variety of religions, philosophies, political ideologies and personal codes of conduct all attempt to convince us that they have special insights into reality and the proper way to live.  To many people, the historic Christian gospel appears as just one more voice in the marketplace of ideas.  All of this raises the question of why anyone should believe that what we have to say is any different.  In other words, who is to say that Christians are right when we claim that the gospel is uniquely the truth?

Providing compelling reasons to people who question the Christian Faith is called Apologetics.  We don’t have space in this article for more than a brief explanation of some of the more compelling pieces of evidence, so I will simply deal with some of the good reasons we have for believing the gospel under the following headings:

  • The reliability of the Bible
  • The amazing evidence for the Bible’s inspiration
  • The compelling body of facts affirming Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel and the risen Savior of the world.
  • The Evidence of History and Archeology
  • The startling transformation of the disciples of Jesus
  • The unstoppable spread of the gospel across time and cultures
  • The millions of supernaturally changed lives over the past couple of thousand years.

The first thing we must tackle is the issue of the Bible, and specifically:

  • Is the Bible trustworthy as a document? That is, can we understand our current Bible versions as accurately representing the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments?  To answer this question we must rely on the evidence of the manuscript tradition.  And, along with that is another question–
  • Is the Bible inspired by God? In other words, is the Bible more than just a collection of merely human writings?  Put simply, can we discern the hand of God in the books of the Bible?

OK, back to the first part of this question: You may already be familiar with the fact that the Bible comes from the ancient scriptural writings of the Jews, mainly in Hebrew, and from the Greek writings of the early Church.  As far as anyone knows, no actual documents from the original writers still exist.  That means we must rely on ancient manuscripts copies of these original documents.  But how do we know that when we pick up the Bible to read Genesis or Romans that what we are reading is a faithful and accurate representation of what was originally written by say, Moses or the Apostle Paul?

Old Testament Evidence. Let’s begin with a quick look at the manuscript evidence for the Old Testament.  What Christians accept as the Old Testament, Jews have been using for centuries as their sacred scriptures.  By the way, they don’t call it the Old Testament: they use terms like Torah, Tanach or simply the Hebrew Scriptures.

Until 1947, the standard Hebrew manuscripts available for making copies of the Old Testament were the Massoretic Texts.  These documents, dating from around 900 AD, were used as the basis for making more current copies of the Old Testament.  Since the conventional date for the writing of the books of the Old Testament is between 1400 and 400 BC, and the Massoretic Texts date from around 900 AD, that leaves an average of more than 1,500 years between the originals and the copies being used for Old Testament study and translation.  In other words, there appeared to be lots of time for copyists to make copying mistakes, or even deliberate changes.

But the situation changed in 1947 with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Some of the documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls are dated from before 100 BC and the collection includes every book of the Old Testament except Esther.  So, suddenly we have manuscript copies a thousand years closer to the source.

These fragile manuscripts from well before the time of Christ have been compared with the Massoretic Texts in order to discover how much the material of Old Testament might have changed over centuries of copying.  The result was the amazing discovery that little or no significant variation occurred in more than 1,000 years between the Dead Sea Scrolls (around 100 BC) and the Massoretic Texts (around 900 AD).  It proved what Jewish and Christian tradition had always claimed: that Jewish scribes followed rigorous copying procedures to ensure accurate transmission of the text of the Hebrew scriptures.

New Testament Evidence.  If we are encouraged by the evidence for the Old Testament, the evidence for the integrity of the New Testament is even better.  The text used for study and translation of the New Testament is derived from literally thousands of early manuscripts.  Just for starters, there are the more than 5,000 manuscripts in the original Greek in which the books of the New Testament were written.

To be fair, not all of these manuscripts are complete copies of the New Testament.  Some are just fragments of books.  But even so, this is an impressive amount of evidence.  Add to this, the very early copies of the New Testament in other languages, which can be used for comparison with the Greek copies, This adds up to a total of more than 20,000 early manuscripts on which our current New Testament is based.

__________________________________________

Greek:                                                5,686

Latin Vulgate:                            10,000+

Ethiopic:                                           2,000+

Slavic:                                                4,101

Armenian:                                       2,587

Others:                                                 596

___________________________________________

If that were not enough, virtually the entire New Testament can be reconstructed from quotes found in the writings of early Christian leaders (called the Patristic Writings).  These date from the Second to around the Seventh Centuries AD.

What does all of this tell us?  Just that we can be highly confident that what we are reading in our mainstream English translations (or Spanish, French—or any other language) is a highly accurate rendering of what was contained in the original documents of the Old and New Testaments.

The issue of inspiration.  The Bible is littered with claims that it is much more than just the words of its human authors.  In the Old Testament, some writers passed on messages directly from God. For example Isaiah 44:6, “This is what the LORD says— Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty:  I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.” In fact, the phrase “Thus saith the Lord” (or its equivalent) appears more than two thousand times in the books of the Old Testament.  Others received messages from God in dreams and visions, while still other writers like Samuel and Ezra saw themselves as guided by God to record events in Israel’s history.

In the gospels, Jesus affirmed the infallibility of the Old Testament in Matthew 5:18 and he cited other passages as predicting aspects of his life and ministry.  Verses like             2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:20-21 affirm the Old Testament to be from God.  Then in 2 Peter 3:15, the Apostle Peter refers to Paul’s New Testament writings like Romans and Galatians as being inspired in the same way as the Old Testament scriptures.

However, the Bible is by no means the only book claiming divine inspiration.  The Qur’an of Islam, the Book of Mormon and a variety of other religious books make similar claims.  So, what evidence is there that the claims made in the Bible have any basis in fact?  To answer this, we will look at the evidences of:

  • Fulfilled prophecy, and of—
  • The Bible’s uncanny insight into human nature.

Let’s take just the prophecies specifically fulfilled by Jesus:

  • Jeremiah 23:5 says that the Messiah will come from of the family line of David.    This is fulfilled in the life of Jesus in passages like Matthew 1:6 and Luke 3:31.
  • Micah 5:2 gives Bethlehem as the place where Messiah will be born.  Again, this is shown to be Jesus’ birthplace in Matthew 2:1.  Some might bring up the fact that other of Jewish men in the First Century could make those claims.  That is certainly true.  Nonetheless, only those who could make these claims would have been candidates for Messiah.  So, this shows that Jesus’ claims were at least valid.
  • Messiah will be born of a virgin in Isaiah 7:14?  Luke 1:26-35 claims this is fulfilled in the angelic announcement to Jesus’ mother, Mary.  Again, some would point out that a virgin birth would be hard to prove.  Granted, but on this point there is independent evidence that there was indeed some irregularity about Jesus’ birth.  Oddly enough it comes from a source not exactly positive toward Jesus or Christianity–the Talmud of ancient Judaism.  It says, in reference to Jesus’ birth: “His mother was Miriam (note—we call her Mary), a women’s hairdresser.  As they say, ‘This one strayed from her husband’.”

The Talmud says in another place, also speaking of Mary, that she was, “… the descendant of princes and governors, who played the harlot with carpenters.” In other words, it was a well-known fact that Jesus birth was unusual.

Let’s move on to some things which would clearly be far-fetched for Jesus to fulfill through his own efforts:

  • According to Isaiah 50:6, the Messiah will be beaten and spit upon. This was fulfilled in Jesus’ experience according to Matthew 26:67.
  • His hands and feet will be pierced: predicted in Psalm 22:16 and fulfilled in Luke 23:33.
  • His clothing will be divided by casting lots; predicted in Psalm 22:18 and fulfilled in John 19:23-24.
  • His bones will not be broken: this is predicted in Psalm 34:20 and fulfilled in John 19:33.
  • His side will be pierced, according to Zechariah 12:10.  This is fulfilled in John 19:34.

One statistician calculated that the odds of Jesus accidentally fulfilling just eight of the more than sixty prophecies attributed to him would be on the order of 1 in 10 to the 17th power (that’s 1 in 10 with 17 zeros behind it).  Plainly stated, the chances are simply astronomical [Peter Stoner in Science Speaks].

The Evidence of History and Archeology. How about the many historical and archeological confirmations of the Bible?  Those who question the Bible sometimes ask questions like: “Don’t history and archeology show that the Bible contains significant errors, which bring the entire Christian Faith into question?”

Fortunately, many claims made by the Bible can be tested historically.  People, places and events mentioned can be directly confirmed through various types of inquiry.  For instance:

  • The strange three-hour period of darkness which Matthew 27:45 describes as covering the land at Jesus’ death, and which is referenced to Amos 8:9-10.  But can this be believed?  The claim that darkness covered a significant portion of the Mediterranean world between noon and 3:00 pm on the day Jesus was crucified might seem a bit hard to believe.  And yet there are those very intriguing references to such an event in non-biblical Roman sources.

For instance, the Second Century Greek author Phlegon, is quoted in the writings of Origen [Against Celsus, Book 2] as saying, “During the time of Tiberius Caesar an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon.” Another mention of this event comes through the Third Century author, Julius Africanus who says concerning this mysterious darkness,  “Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away this darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me…”.

So why would the writer Africanus consider a solar eclipse to be unreasonable as an explanation for the darkness during the crucifixion?  The answer is because a solar eclipse can only occur when the moon is directly between the earth and the sun.  But Passover season, when Jesus was crucified, only happens when the moon is full—that is with the earth directly between the moon and the sun.  In other words, a solar eclipse was impossible at that particular time.

Over the past century or so, a growing body of archeological evidence has also given its support to the overall picture of Bible events and conditions.  During this time, several prominent archeologists have become convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly tends to confirm the Biblical record.   For example:

  • William Foxwell Albright (dates), of John’s Hopkins University and Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, said this in his book, The Archaeology of Palestine: ”The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible…. has been progressively discredited.  Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.
  • Dr. Nelson Glueck (dates), world-renowned expert of the archeology of Palestine and President of Hebrew Union College put it this way, “..it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted (disproved) a biblical reference.  Scores of archaeological findings have been made, which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible.”  Rivers in the Desert, pp. 31.

Here are some examples of archeological and anthropological confirmations of the biblical record:

  • Legends of a catastrophic flood found among widely scattered ethnic groups worldwide cast an intriguing light upon the story of Noah in Genesis 6-9.
  • The fact that Mesopotamia (parts of Iraq Iran and Syria) was the cradle of world civilization confirms the biblical account of early human culture from the early chapters of Genesis.
  • Various ancient documents, such as the Ebla, Amarna and Nuzi Tablets both confirm and shed new light on various cultural practices of people mentioned in the Bible. (Thompson, pp.1654-55, 1633, 1883)
  • In 1975 a clay seal surfaced, inscribed with the name of Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, authenticating the existence of that biblical character.
  • During archeological excavations in 1994 in northern Israel, workers found an inscription mentioning for the first time independently of the Bible, the Israelite royal House of David.
  • Archeological findings at Delphi in Greece authenticate the words of Acts 18:12-17 that Gallio was governor of the city of Corinth in 51 AD.  No mention of this fact had been available until this discovery at the turn of the Twentieth Century.

Psychological Arguments. Moving on to evidence that might be described as more psychological, the Bible has what I would call a supernatural knack for accurately describing human nature.  In example after example, it accounts in realistic detail, as no other religion or philosophy does, for the heights of our nobility as well as the depths and extent of our degradation.

Take for instance the case of King David who, in the book of Psalms, wrote some of the most moving devotional poetry ever composed, and yet who also deliberately committed sins of adultery and murder.  I could cite numerous other examples from the lives of Abraham, Moses, Peter and others whose lives are praised for their faith and heroism but who also had very typical human failings.

What does this tell us?  It seems to me pretty clear that the Bible realistically portrays human behavior.  It also tells us that God is truly gracious in using real people to accomplish his will and in his urgency in redeeming us.  In other words, the biblical accounts ring true as they show real people relating to God.

Given the Bible’s inspiration and reliability, we can go on to make a case for other aspects of the Historic Christian message.  For example:

  • The miracles of Jesus are a powerful indication that his claims of being the Son of God were valid.  The Gospel accounts show Jesus doing things no one has done before or since.  With a simple word, he healed the sick and raised the dead.  He walked on water and turned water into wine.

Certainly other religions make claims that their founders worked miracles.  But the way in which the Gospels depict Jesus as doing the miracles and then downplaying the sensational effects they generated, certainly says that these events were performed by someone extra special and that they were performed for purposes which have nothing to do with common publicity value.

Then of course there is the resurrection.  Here is a topic worthy of discussion all by itself.  The resurrection is the supreme evidence that Jesus is indeed the Son of God.  From a historical point of view, it is clear that Jesus’ tomb was empty.  Even his enemies agreed about that.  But their explanation that Jesus’ disciples overpowered the guard and stole the body doesn’t fit with the demoralized spirit of the disciples at the crucifixion.  It doesn’t fit with their initial unbelief when the women announced that his body was missing.  Neither does it account for the dramatic change in the behavior of these disciples or the astounding growth of the early Christian movement.

The incredible impact of the Jesus’ resurrection shows that his crucifixion did achieve reconciliation with God and the making of a new humanity.

  • Let’s move on to consider the absolute conviction of the Apostolic generation.  Nearly all of them were willing to die horrible deaths for the message they proclaimed.  The argument has been made in numerous other settings that it makes no sense whatever that men would willingly die such deaths if they knew (or suspected) that their message was false.  Yet they remained unshakeable to the end.  That fact communicates huge confidence that the gospel message is truthful.
  • How about the impressive basic consensus of the Christian community which transcends generations and ethnicities.  Whether it was the unprecedented coming together of First Century Jews and Gentiles through the redemption of Jesus, or the gospel’s appeal in the Early Middle Ages to the barbarian tribes of Europe, or its spread in more modern times to the diverse peoples of every continent, the message of Jesus resonates in every time and culture.

So the Christian message is not tied to a certain group of people or a particular era in history.  It is truly trans-cultural and adaptable to a variety of peoples and situations.

  • That brings us to a final piece of evidence: the changed lives of millions upon millions of individuals over the centuries.  I could relate the stories of people like Augustine who changed from a philosopher critical of Christianity to the greatest defender of the Faith during those dark years when Rome was collapsing.  Then there is John Newton, who was actively involved in Britain’s slave trade during the late 1700s, but who was transformed into an opponent of slavery and an advocate of God’s amazing grace.

These examples represent thousands more.  In fact, the kind of proof for Christianity which is compelling to average people, isn’t the somewhat technical material we discussed earlier, but the truly changed lives of real believers living among us.

This is just a fraction of the evidence Christians can point to supporting the claims of Christianity.  A complete course in apologetics includes much more extensive evidence and arguments for the Christian Faith.  But let’s be realistic: none of the evidence is absolutely irrefutable.  There will always be arguments against any of the points we could make.

But then, for nearly everything in life, fool-proof evidence is hard to come by.  Even in our courts of law, jurors are asked to decide difficult cases based upon evidence that is merely “beyond a reasonable doubt”.  So what I have presented may simply be dismissed by those heavily committed to other points of view.  It boils down to this: I believe that, taken together, the evidence for the Christian faith is compelling in a way, which no other religion or “rival gospel” can match.  In other words, the evidence for Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world authenticates itself in every area of human inquiry and experience.  That means we can share the good news about his with great confidence.

Michael Bogart                          (I owe much of the data for this article to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell.)

Look in the Bible for Basic Answers

October 10, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith, Thoughts

CSL047The last book of the Bible was written 1,900 years ago. In that time, empires have risen and fallen: Rome is gone; Charlemagne’s empire has vanished; mighty Britannia has given her children their freedom. Major wars have been fought. New philosophies have come into vogue and have declined. Electronic technology has improved and become common place. In light of all this, the Bible may seem like a quaint but archaic book, good only for gathering dust on the shelf or for analyzing in a classroom.

What could the Bible possibly have to say that would be relevant to us and our particular needs in the Twenty-first Century? Surprisingly, it has a lot to say! This is partly because fundamental human needs haven’t changed at all in 2,000 years and partly because God inspired scripture to speak to people in every age. So, the Bible we have today continues to answer the basic questions people are asking. You can look up the scripture references yourself and see what you think. For example:

  • Is there a God, and if so, what is He like? (See Psalm 14:1, Romans 1:19-20, John 3:16, etc).
  • How did the universe come into being? (See Hebrews 11:3, Genesis chapters 1 and 2, etc.)
  • Why do humans have a strong tendency to hurt others, break widely accepted rules and live for themselves? Is there some basic flaw in us? (See Genesis chapter 3, Romans 1: 18ff, 3:9-18, etc.)
  • Is there some way to correct this flaw and have acceptance with God? (See John 14:6, Romans 3:22-23, Galatians 5:24).
  • Is there any basis for real brotherhood among people? (See Genesis 1:27-28, 10:32, Romans 10:12, etc.)
  • Does life have any meaning or purpose? (See John 10:10, John 17:3).
  • Is there life after death? (See Revelation 20:11-15, Luke 23:40-43, John 14:2, Revelation 7:9).

These questions and many others are answered in the book of books, known as the Bible. I challenge you to search for its answers yourself. You might just be delighted by what you find!

Michael Bogart

March, 2009: Mexico

June 18, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Missions Projects

April, 15, 2009      Dear friends,Mexico flag

This has been a very full spring so far.  I am involved in my two half-time ministry positions (Director of the JARON Bible Institute and Associate Pastor at Campus Bible Church of Fresno, California).  Beyond these responsiblities I will have taught five college and university courses by the time June 1 rolls around.  So you can see that it was a nice break (and a very fulfilling experience)  to interrupt the schedule and travel to Texas and northern Mexico to engage in a week of intensive ministry (March 6-15) with my cousin, Roger Tomlinson of Dayspring Outreach.

One of the personal benefits of this trip is the chance to take an extra couple of days and visit my brother, Marty Bogart and his family in south Texas.  Marty, Roger and I usually spend time catching up and reminiscing about our childhood days in the 60s.  For us, at least, it is a lot of fun.

On Sunday, Roger and his wife Carolyn and I drove across the border into Mexico, crossing a narrow arm of the state of Tamaulipas and pushing on into Nuevo Leon.  Our destination is the village of La Haciendita, about ten miles outside Cadereyta, which in turn is 20 miles or so from the third-largest city in the country: Monterrey.

With all of the news about drug-related killings along the Mexican border, we were extra-watchful on our journey.  The only signs of tension we saw during this week were beefed-up checkpoints of the Mexican Army along the route.  This time about half of the soldiers were wearing ski masks to hide their identities against possible reprisals by the bad guys.  It was a bit sobering, but as far as we were concerned, perfectly routine.

The week of teaching began on Monday with classes in apologetics for the mixed class of about 15 Mexicans and Americans.  Apologetics is the reasoned defense and explanation of the Christian faith in response to various questions and attacks.  I had to brush a bit of dust off my notes from the last time I taught this course at JARON BIble Institute  and then reformat them in the weeks before the trip.  It was a pleasure to review this information and interact with the students –all of whom are very bright and eager to learn.  I became friends with nearly all of them.

The Americans come mostly from widely-scattered parts of the Midwest.  Likewise, the Mexicans are from several different regions of that country.  Though they come from diverse backgrounds, they all share the passion for ministry in the unchurched cities, villages and rural areas of Mexico.  It was my privilege to take part in their training.

Dayspring Outreach has several facilities in the country–two in Nuevo Leon, one in Oaxaca and one in Vera Cruz— and there may also be others I am unaware of (For more informatiuon on Dayspring, check out the link on the homepage of this website).  I was very impressed by the work Roger has been doing these past twenty years or so.  He is obviously very committed to the spread of the gospel in Mexico and shows a high degree of innovative ability and persistence to accomplish what he has.

After the return to yet another Dayspring base, this time in south Texas, my brother Marty scheduled a venue at his office for me to present a basic seminar on the background, teachings and goals of Islam.  I developed this workshop out of my 17 years of teaching courses in world religion as an adjunct professor in various colleges and universities in central California.  I have enjoyed presenting it dozens of times in a variety of formats and venues–sometimes presenting the basic facts of the subject and other times contrasting it with Christian faith.

This gathering turned out to be rather small–only a few of us around a conference table in my brother’s accounting office, but I found the more informal setting very refreshing.  The next day, Marty dropped my off at the local airport and I flew home through Dallas to resume my spring schedule.

Let me describe one incident that really stuck out during that week of ministry.  Imagine wanting to call your family from a rural area in a foreign country a couple of thousand miles away from home.  So, after dinner, one evening I borrow one of Roger’s cell phones and take a stroll .  It is dark and chilly and the rain is coming down in a fine mist.  With flashlight in hand, I climb to the unfinished top floor of a small apartment block being built in the Dayspring compound for the permanent staff.  No roof or walls have gone up yet on this upper storey, so I stand there savoring the damp darkness in this far-away corner of the world.  I dial the access code for the US and then my home number.  The call goes through and I am talking to Melinda as clearly as if I were next door.  Then the signal is lost for a moment, so I dial again, this time standing in a different corner of the roof-top where the signal is stronger. The conversation continues, this time with no interruptions. After checking in and sharing about my day, I sign off, climb down and head for my room to prepare for the next day’s classes.

I know that in the Twenty-first Century, calling someone long distance  sounds pretty normal.  At home, I use a cell phone regularly to call all sorts of people.  Yet it struck me, standing in the rain on that dark roof in rural Mexico, how interconnected the world has become and how relatively convenient it is to do business or missions work almost anywhere on the face of the globe.  It is truly a pleasure to serve Jesus Christ and his coming kingdom in these very interesting times of ours.

Thanks for listening,

Mike Bogart

Understanding and Dealing with the New Age

June 14, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith

new-age1The New Age Movement is a grab-bag of many sub-groups and organizations who share common goals and concepts. The recurring link between these groups is their commitment to working for a “new age” in which spiritual consciousness and harmony will come to planet earth. Though some would take pride in using the term “new age” to describe themselves, others might use such descriptive terms as human potential, aquarian, cosmic consciousness or various types spiritualities (such as native American spirituality, feminist spirituality, etc). Certain buzz words are commonly used among New Age groups, such as: holistic, synergy, unity, oneness, global, awakening, self-actualization, networking, energy, etc.

New Agers tend to be very syncretistic, in that they adopt ideas and practices from many sources. However there are various common characteristics, including:

Open-Ended Revelation. Various books (including the Bible) may be honored and used by groups within the movement. Divine revelation is seen as personally perceived and on-going. God (or the Ultimate) may manifest itself to or through anyone. There is no single truth because truth is personal and experiential.

God. The concept of deity is much more nebulous than in Judeo-Christianity. Groups tend to see the Ultimate as an impersonal life-force, rather than as a personal being. Deity can neither be analyzed nor systematized — because God is all. As in the Star Wars Epic, the Ultimate has a “light” and a “dark” side. In other words, the New Age concept of deity is often dualistic (including both good and evil).

The Cosmos. The universe itself is a form of God. This can either mean that everything shares in the divine being, or that the universe is not fully real, existing only as a shadow of the Ultimate.

Humanity. It will be no surprise, then, that people are also seen an emanation of God. As such, people have infinite potential if they will draw on their inner divine nature and seek consciousness of union with the Ultimate.

Salvation. Though the term “salvation” is sometimes used among New Age groups it is almost never used in the gospel sense of the word: new life and cleansing through faith in Jesus. It usually carries the same significance as the term “enlightenment”, “inner awareness” or “cosmic consciousness”. The goal is to seek a profound and intuitive understanding of the “divine nature within” as the outer, unreal self is stripped away.

Jesus is usually seen as an insightful teacher or spiritual master similar to those in Hinduism, Buddhism or the ancient mystery cults. He is deity only in the sense that anyone is connected to the divine. Many of Jesus teachings are re-interpreted to fit with New Age ideas.

The Coming New Age. As the 1960s musical group, The Fifth Dimension, sang way back in the day, there is a new age coming with the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The old Age of Pices (the fish) was the Christian era of religious doctrines which stifled true spirituality. By contrast, the new age will be one of spiritual energy and fulfilling personal experience. Linear thinking (typical of both Christianity and Modernism) is a hindrance to enlightenment. The new era will be one of intuitive thinking and freedom.

Self-Actualization. Eastern wisdom, tribal ceremony, feminine perspectives and occult practices are often the preferred methods to foster spiritual awareness. Magic, astrology, crystals, cosmic energy, etc. are used as a means to self-understanding and the releasing of potential. Reincarnation and karma are incorporated because they allow multiple opportunities to achieve these goals.

Tolerance. There is a widespread belief that all religions, philosophies and cultures are equally valid. People ought to accept and tolerate almost any concept, lifestyle or practice. The odd thing is that there are certain exceptions to this general rule. Often it is Christianity which is the target of scorn, dislike and discrimination because Christians are seen as the major obstacle to new age goals.

Dealing With the New Age. A Christian approach to dialog with people from New Age groups should focus on the core truths of the gospel, such as:

The Bible is God’s complete revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). It is God’s loving communication with us through those he inspired to write it (2 Peter 1:20-21). Its purpose is to introduce and explain God’s perspective on the world and his plan for redeeming it. With the coming of Jesus, that plan is fulfilled and no further revelation is required.

God is a personal being who is both holy and merciful (Isaiah 6:3, Psalm 25:6). The fact that he is both holy and merciful is truly good news because he is in no way tainted with the evil and ugliness in the Cosmos, while at the same time he is willing and able to save those who are caught in the dreary and horrifying web of sin. He is also omni (all) powerful, knowing and present (Isaiah 55:9), which means he is strong enough to intervene, wise enough to be trusted and completely accessible. The best part is that he actually desires relationship with us.

The Cosmos is God’s creation, distinct from him, but certainly showing evidence of being designed and made by him (Romans 1:20). It is the perfect venue for the utter defeat of evil (Revelation 21:4).

People are made in God’s image, which means we are eternal beings, sharing a certain similarity of self-consciousness and creativity with him. Though we are not ourselves divine, people may become his children through a reversal of the faithlessness of the Garden. This happens when people trust in Jesus’ atonement and are forgiven and reconciled to God (John 1:12). The redeemed will eventually be glorified because of our union with Christ (Psalm 8:4-5).

Jesus is the business-end of the Father’s redemption. As the Second Person of the Trinity, he is divine (John 1:1-4). He is also fully human (Romans 5:17). This too is good news because his deity assures his ability to atone for the sin of the entire world while his humanity allows him to die on behalf of human beings. As a true man, he is also able to relate to our limitations (Hebrews 2:18).

A sticking point for new age people is the New Testament claim that salvation is through Jesus alone (John 14:6). They take this truth as excluding other religions. Sadly, this is exactly backwards because Jesus as the sole source of eternal life is actually tremendously good news. None of the things offered in other religions really leads to any eternal resolution of the fundamental human problem. Not everyone can attain the esoteric wisdom of Eastern philosophies. Few can devote the time to the study of rituals and incantations. Most people are stuck in whatever routines and ruts their birth and culture dictate. The New Testament gospel is simple enough for a child to grasp, yet profound enough to satisfy the most philosophic intellect. It is trans-cultural (Galatians 3:28). It is accessible to male and female. It transcends all classes and backgrounds. The practice of Christian faith can be adapted to any society or culture (Acts 10:34-35).

There is more good news because there is indeed a new age coming when Jesus returns and judges evil and the demonic powers behind it. He will set up a kingdom of truth and righteousness and peace (2 Pet 3:11-13).

The big picture is actually very simple: if the gospel is truly good news, perhaps the best approach is to simply let it be what it is: good news. We Christians may need to learn to give up our own need to prove our faith with the very kind of linear thinking many new age people find so unappealing. Letting the gospel be good news and living the good news in everyday life can be a compelling testimony to the truth we have found!

People are attracted to authenticity. Few people can resist the joy or peace or true self- acceptance that come with new life in Christ. If followers of Christ were to actually seek these qualities and learn to live in the promises of the new life they already possess, perhaps we might experience a breakthrough with those desiring a new age.

Michael Bogart

Why I am Not Ashamed to be a Christian

May 30, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith, Thoughts

ikthus2In the last several decades it seems as though there has been an effort on the part of some in our society to discredit Christianity. Followers of Jesus Christ are sometimes portrayed as bigoted, narrow-minded and hypocritical. It is insinuated that sincere believers are either willful relics of the Dark Ages or simply ignorant folks who have yet to get with the more enlightened modern times.

To be fair, there are cases in which the shoe does fit. No doubt, the isolated instances of hypocrisy or ignorance have been exploited to the maximum by Christianity’s detractors. It is absurd to suggest, however, that this ridiculous caricature of Christianity represents reality. I should know: I once believed it myself. It was a major turning point in my life to realize how twisted that picture often is.

So, I refuse to be ashamed of being a Christian. In these times when believers are often sneered at, there is a great temptation to take a low key approach to one’s faith. I refuse to be intimidated by this scorn. Here’s why:

I am a follower of Jesus Christ, the noblest person who ever lived. The Bible says that he is God the Son made into a human being. It also says that someday Jesus will return as judge of the earth, and that all authority both on earth and in heaven has been given to him even now. How could I be ashamed of being identified with him?

The Bible is God’s communication to us through various chosen servants. Through the years it has been vindicated against its critics many times. This is true archeologically, prophetically, textually and, not the least, in the powerful way it diagnoses human need and changes lives through its good news.

Christians are often wonderful people to associate with. Yes, there are hypocrites, backward folks and even phonies, but many, many believers are just quality people. Studies have shown that serious Christians are, in general, hard working, honest, less self-centered and more likely to have a strong family life. I have personally experienced true friendship as well as constructive criticism among those who identify themselves with Christ’s name.

Christianity has stood the test of time. The pages of history are littered with the wrecks of fads, trends and movements. The Christian Church in its various forms has proven amazingly adaptable to the ravages of the past 2,000 years and singularly difficult to suppress over time.

Finally, I am a better person for having committed my life to Christ many years ago. Following him has made me wiser, more realistic about myself, and able to survive the inevitable ups and downs of life in much better shape than I might have otherwise.

What about you? Are you a bit shy of being labeled a “religious fanatic” because of your association with Christ? Or perhaps it is this very type of fear that has deterred you from even investigating Jesus at all. Don’t be intimidated. There is no better way of spending your life than to follow him.

Michael Bogart

Jesus is the Real Issue

May 26, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith

jesus-christ“Ladies and gentlemen! The President of the United States!” This is the introduction given by a person at the entrance to the Floor of the House of Representatives just before the President gives his State of the Union Address. This official’s job is to announce clearly that the person the assembled dignitaries have come to hear has arrived and is about to ascend to the podium.

It is possible, though highly improbable, that this person could make their announcement in a drunken state, or in tattered clothes, or that he or she could hog the limelight in such a way that the president might be overshadowed. But one thing is for certain, if that sort of thing happened, the announcer would not hold their job for very long. The announcer’s only function at that point is to introduce the President and let him speak.

From time to time, it seems that there are some “announcers” in Christian circles who have done this very thing. I am talking about men and women in Christian ministry who have grabbed attention for themselves, sought to represent the Kingdom of God and somehow have forgotten that the whole issue is not them at all. In so doing these folks have reflected badly on the one they should have been drawing people’s attention to.

As a preacher and Christian leader myself, I understand how tempting it might be to hog the limelight. Though I have never achieved celebrity status, I can imagine that when such a person finds himself (or herself) with power, popularity and access to wealth, it must be tempting to believe that they are somehow a cut above others and that the attention they are receiving is deserved. If they dwell on that sort of thing long enough, it is not difficult to see how they might begin to feel that they are above the standards that everyone else must keep. Perhaps some of these “announcers” may have begun with the best of intentions; others may never have had pure motives or even really understood the gospel from the beginning. God alone knows.

Be that as it may, I think we need to be reminded of something very important: no matter how shabby or disreputable the announcer may be, it is Jesus Christ that we need to hear. I am not excusing Christian people who bring shame on Christianity. To dishonor Christ’s name is very nearly inexcusable. But even if all those who proclaim Christ were dishonest, Christ would still be as good and true and powerful as ever because he is perfect.

So I am calling us all to remember that it is Jesus who died for sin; who offers forgiveness and new life through faith; who claims lordship of our lives. It is Jesus Christ who will judge the heart of each person. In other words, Christ is the all-important issue.

I for one am glad when a man or woman of God announces Christ clearly and reflects his image brightly. When they do not I mourn, not only because it reflects so poorly on the rest of us announcers, but mainly because it discourages people from seeing Jesus in all his truth and grace and glory.

So I urge us all to remember: announcers have their job to do. If they do it well, be glad; if they do it poorly you may have a right to be disgusted. But either way, don’t focus on them. It is Jesus who is the real attraction. Whatever you do—hear Him!

Michael Bogart

Modernity and Religion: A Clash of Worldviews

May 25, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Defending the Faith

arm-wrestlingThe clash between modernist thought and Judeo-Christianity has produced more than a century of accusation, rebuttal and counter-accusation, with religion forced into a mostly defensive position. Modernity has asserted that religious belief is irrelevant because it is based on an outmoded and unscientific worldview. Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976) the famed critic and de-mythologizer of the Bible put it this way, “It is impossible to use electric (devices) and take advantage of modern medical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” This modern worldview spoken of by Bultmann and others has been responsible for a significant decline in religious belief in Western culture. Modernity’s claim that religious faith (specifically Judeo-Christianity) is no longer relevant is based on the following arguments:

1. Religion is invalid because of the vastness of the Cosmos. In other words, if a Creator exists, why would he be concerned about such an insignificant place such as earth? It is unrealistic to think that a Being of such immensity would pour so much of himself into this tiny speck in the hugeness of the universe. Modernity would say that if religion has any value, it is in its expression of the human aspiration for meaning and belonging in the larger scheme of Cosmic reality.

2. Science has demonstrated that religion is an inadequate explanation for the reality of nature. Natural phenomena, which less advanced people explained in a religious way are now known to be caused by natural forces. For example, thunder was seen by primitive people as God expressing his displeasure or showing his power, but the scientific method shows that it is caused by complex electrical processes in the atmosphere. So science and technology have replaced the need for supernatural explanations, making religion a much less necessary part of human life.

3. Human beings ought to be allowed the freedom to search for whatever personal fulfillment each may find to his or her sensibility. Religion has often been a hindrance to the quest for personal fulfillment, and should be abolished or modified so that it no longer obstructs that freedom. Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed that religion was simply a tool of oppression used by the upper classes to maintain their control. He once called religion “the opiate of the people.”

4. Religion is simply a protective framework constructed to deal with the fear and uncertainty which naturally result from an unpredictable and dangerous universe. In his book, The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) argued that religion could be explained as a psychological response to the human inability to control nature. Because they feel helpless and frustrated, people need a sense of security provided by a theoretical Protector. In other words, Freud saw religion as a form of neurosis. Freud did see belief in God as providing some social and psychological benefits, but he felt that the downside of religion was to leave people in an infantile state. Mature people, freed from neurosis, would have no need for God.

5. The best that can be said for religion is that it is a useful social “glue”. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) saw religion as a necessary institution which enabled society to function harmoniously. In the West, Judeo-Christianity has provided a certain stability by teaching and enforcing a definite moral code, which, over time, became formalized into law. It has also validated authority structures and discouraged anti-social behavior.

Let us think through each of these main objections to religious belief posed by Modernity. Do modernistic explanations really disprove religious belief?

Response 1: If a Creator exists, it would seem rather rash for human beings to attempt to predict what the Supreme Being would be likely to do. As a part of God’s creation ourselves, it would be foolish to say dogmatically that he would have little or no interest in one particular planet in his universe or about human life on that planet. So, simply because the universe is a very large place, doesn’t disprove the Judeo-Christian assertion that the Creator is profoundly interested in us.

Response 2: It is the function of science to provide technically correct explanations for natural phenomena. What may seem like mythological views of God’s activities and character in the Bible may be understood as complementary to science rather than in contradiction of it. A careful study of the Bible as ancient literature shows that biblical descriptions of God are not so much mythological as they are poetic. When God is spoken of as riding on thunder clouds, it is a picture of God’s majesty and power, rather than a technical description of the hydrological cycle. In other words, religion offers valid explanations of realities which lie beyond the physical properties of natural phenomena. Science can describe and (sometimes) predict the way in which nature is structured. It cannot evaluate the origins of nature, nor is it always in a position to answer questions about why it functions as it does. Furthermore, science cannot predict whether the laws of nature may be temporarily set aside should the Creator think fit to do so.

Response 3: Probably no informed person would want to argue the point that religion has often been used to prevent people from pursuing certain avenues of self-expression. Certainly people have used the Bible and religious tradition to deter people from all sorts of activities. Most people who have been involved in a religious community have either personally experienced or at least witnessed the harmful and manipulative use of power by religiously motivated people. For many, one such experience is more than enough to convince them that all religious warnings and moral statements are simply a type of power-play.

The true question is whether religion is serving its proper function when it attempts to use various forms of persuasion to affect people’s thinking and behavior. To answer this, we must discuss the issue of assumptions. Either God exists as Judeo-Christianity depicts him or he does not. If the Judeo-Christian view of God is not accurate, then the argument might be made that religious moralizing is an improper hindrance to human self-expression. However, even assuming that God does not exist, religion might still serve a useful function in deterring people from behaviors and activities which generations of human experience have shown to be either harmful or unproductive. On the other hand, if Judeo-Christianity gives an essentially accurate picture of God’s character and will, then a major task of religion would be to help people understand and conform to those ideals.

Response 4: It is undeniable that religion meets some very basic psychological needs. Like most other religions, Judeo-Christianity deals with fear of the future and offers a sense of peace amid life’s calamities. The fact that it does so is no argument against its validity. The truth is that if Judeo-Christianity did nothing to address those very common human experiences, it would argue strongly against its validity. Simply because religion effectively addresses deep-seated human fears and insecurities, does not mean that this is its sole function. Nor does it mean that religion is somehow false because fearful people find refuge it its assurances.

Response 5: It is also true that religion performs the function of binding people together in community. Communities teach social values, enforce a minimum standard of adherence to those values and demand respect for approved leadership. The result is a fairly stable social structure. In doing all of these things, religion plays a crucial role in society. Perhaps in non-Western cultures religion plays such a dominating role in people’s lives that its value as a social glue is outweighed by its oppressive effects. For the most part, Western societies are in no imminent danger of that scenario. Given the fragmentation of Western culture, religion’s stabilizing effects may prove of even greater value in the future (provided we don’t fall into religious conflict). Once again, the fact that religion plays such a role, is no argument against its validity.

Conclusion: While making major inroads into the influence of religion in society, Modernity has failed to convince a significant portion of Westerners to abandon religious belief and practice and its arguments have fallen short of proving religion to be either false or unnecessary. To the contrary, Judeo-Christianity has benefited from the modernist critique in that it has been forced to re-evaluate its premises and function, resulting in a renewed confidence and in a needed overhaul of its approach to society.

Michael Bogart

Opinions About God

April 13, 2009 by admin  
Filed under New, Thoughts

milky-wayFrom time to time, various magazines and television channels tackle the perennial question, “Who is God?”.   Much space is devoted to  personal views of a cross-section of people concerning who, or what, God might be.  Well-known personalities are interviewed as well as other lesser-known people from around the world, including professed Christians of different varieties, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, agnostics and free thinkers.

As a student of world religion and Christian leader I find such inquiries to be intensely fascinating because they give us the pulse of what people are thinking in our wider world.  For example, a Hindu beggar from Benares, India, reverences a variety of deities and wonders why he has been stricken with leprosy.  He suggests that it may be because he is being punished by Brahma for bad karma in previous lives.
A California woman was raised in an Orthodox synagogue but says she can’t connect with God or with being Jewish anymore.  The idea of God as she has understood it simply doesn’t connect in her life experience.  A British biologist views God as the “ultimate reality” and believes that the destiny of individuals is to be absorbed into this supreme truth.
A Columbian hit man describes life as a dark experience in which God makes each person pay for the evil they commit.  Yet he goes on to say , “God pardons everyone who seeks him, so pretty much you can do what you want.”
A Presbyterian minister defends his gay lifestyle by saying, “God loves you just the way you are”.  He blames strong feelings against homosexuals on traditional religion.
A Palestinian sheikh views Allah as a vengeful God, and boasts of his willingness to die in holy war.

These views of God are indeed fascinating.  Yet even so, they ought to prod our thinking a bit.  Given the fact that people have an almost endless variety of opinions about what God is, it certainly does not follow that every opinion is equally valid.  We Americans cherish our religious freedom.  However, simply because people are free under the law to practice religion as conscience may dictate, this does not mean that all religions are equally true, or even equally beneficial.

This brings up the question, “How can we sort through the menu of religious ideas and recognize the truth when we stumble across it?”  The Bible’s answer to this is simply that the whole question of religious opinion is  irrelevant.  It is not what we think about God that really matters, but what God has revealed about Himself to us that counts.

To this many people say, “Wait!”  Who says the Bible’s portrayal of God is any better than the views of an Indian peasant or a Hollywood producer?”  This is an excellent question.  If what the Bible says about God is simply just another human opinion, then Christianity (and the ancient religion of Israel for that matter) crumbles like a house with no foundation.

So let’s narrow the field a bit.  The Bible does not belong alongside the religious opinions of ordinary people simply because the Bible claims to be divinely inspired.  It claims to be God’s word as revealed through the prophets and apostles.  There is a quantum difference between what your neighbor thinks about God, and an ancient and widely revered document that claims divine inspiration.

What about the other books which share this claim?  Many Christians answer this by pointing to the need to simply have faith in the Bible.  While it is true that faith is necessary, it would be wrong to assume that there is no evidence for the Bible’s final authority.  Consider these bits of evidence for the Bible’s unique inspiration:  the amazing unity of its message, though written over a span of roughly 1500 years through more than 40 human authors; its triumph time and again over those who actively sought its destruction; the dozens of literally fulfilled prophecies; the impact it has had on millions of lives.

Also consider the historical fact of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I understand that many people consider this to be a matter for faith as well.  This is true, but not without some evidence.  A major piece of this evidence is the ease with which those who wished to stop the rumor could have disproved it by opening the grave and displaying the body.  They didn’t.  Why would hundreds die willingly, knowing that the resurrection which they claimed to witness was a lie?  Indeed, the Resurrection is the foundational fact on which the Christian gospel was and still is based.

So there is compelling evidence for the authority of the Bible in what it says about God.  It proclaims Him to be the Eternal One:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It shows Him to be holy, yet also merciful in sending His Son Jesus to die for our sins.  It invites us to know Him through Christ and become His children.  This, and much more God has revealed.  Why settle for mere opinions?

Michael Bogart