Why Did Jesus Have to Die? An Extension of Thought on Penal Substitution Atonement.

By: S.J. Thomason

“The people stood watching and the rulers even sneered at Him. They said, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One. The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered Him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself. There was a written notice above Him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Jesus. ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong’” – Luke 12:35-41.

“Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” – Psalm 22:16. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Mark 15:34; cf., Psalm 22:1.

Given such mental and physical anguish, people often wonder why the Prince of Peace, Jesus, had to die for our sins and for our salvation. This question is answered through theories of the atonement, which theologians have been developing for centuries. Christian theologians refer to the atonement as the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ. The purpose of the following blog is to discuss the atonement theories of ransom, moral influence, and satisfaction/penal substitution and to offer an additional line of reasoning on the latter.

Ransom Theory

In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons argued in favor of Ransom Theory (aka, Christus Victor and Classical Theory) as a way to explain Jesus’ crucifixion, stating that Jesus was paid as a ransom to Satan (Mattison, 2017). According to Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28, Jesus said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

However, many Christian scholars question whether Satan deserves to receive such a ransom. Indeed, references to Satan in the Bible refer to him as a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44), one who disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), a deceiver (Revelation 12:9 and 20:3), evil (John 17:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:3), and one who holds people captive to do his will (2 Timothy 2:26).

Furthermore, the LORD has made it clear that He is against Satan:

“Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: Because of your false words and lying visions, I am against you, declares the Sovereign LORD. My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. They will not belong to the council of my people or be listed in the records of Israel, nor will they enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Sovereign LORD” – Ezekiel 13: 8-9.

“He will cause deceit to prosper, and he will consider himself superior. When they feel secure, he will destroy many and take his stand against the Prince of princes. Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power” – Daniel 8:25.

From these verses, we understand that the LORD has sovereignty, so elevating Satan to His level by suggesting that the LORD must pay Satan ransom does not follow what the scriptures say of God or Satan.

Church fathers, including Augustine, taught Ransom Theory for centuries until other theories were developed, including Moral Influence Theory by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory by Anselm (1033-1109).

Moral Influence Theory

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) argued that Christ did not die to satisfy a ransom or for any principle of divine justice. Instead His purpose was to impress humanity with God’s love and to influence humanity toward moral improvement.

“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” – 1 Peter 2:22.

While these assertions are correct, the theory doesn’t fully explain the atonement and the payment for sins. For this reason, many church fathers and leaders adhere to Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory instead.

Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory

Anselm, a Benedictine monk who was a great philosopher and theologian of his day, argued that Jesus’ life was paid as a debt not to the devil, but to God. Anselm considered sin to be a dishonor to God and since the world’s sinful humanity cannot make sufficient satisfaction to God, God became human to do it on humanity’s behalf. Protestant reformers replaced God’s honor with God’s justice and many churches still adhere to the doctrine today (Mattison, 2017).

Below are two of many scriptural references that support this theory:

“Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered Him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was brought on Him, and by His wounds we are healed” – Isaiah 53: 4-5.

“He Himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; (Isaiah 53:9) by His wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray (Isaiah 53:4, 5, 6) but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” – 1 Peter 2:24.

In Exodus 12:29, God instructed the Israelite slaves to sacrifice a Passover lamb without blemish in order to spare their sons from the fates met by their Egyptian masters. The sacrifice led to the freedom of the Israelites from the Egyptians. The Feast of the Passover is celebrated annually in commemoration of the event.

In the New Testament, John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). Like the unblemished Passover lamb, Jesus is free from sin (Hebrews 4:15). He was crucified during the time in which the Passover was observed (Mark 14:12). As the sacrifice of the original lamb led to freedom from slavery, the sacrifice of Jesus, the Passover lamb, led to our freedom from the slavery of sin.

“For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” – 1 Corinthians 5:7

Over the past century, philosophers, theologians, authors, and others have also offered support for Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory as a way to explain the atonement of Jesus. They include William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer, and Charles Spurgeon.

“Divine Command Morality demands only that God act consistently with His own moral nature. But, arguably, God the Son’s voluntarily bearing of the punishment for sin that we deserved is entirely consistent with God’s nature, for it demonstrates His great love for fallen human beings that He should bear the penalty for sins that they deserved” – William Lane Craig.

“The atonement in Jesus Christ’s blood is perfect; there isn’t anything that can be added to it. It is spotless, impeccable, flawless. It is as perfect as God is perfect. So Anselm’s question, ‘How dost Thou spare the wicked if Thou art just?’ is answered from the effect of Christ’s passion. The holy suffering on the cross and resurrection from the dead cancels our sins and abrogates our sentence.”

“Where and how did we get that sentence? We got it by the application of justice to a moral situation. No matter how nice and refined and lovely you think you are, you are a moral situation – you have been, you still are, you will be. And when God confronted you, God’s justice confronted a moral situation and found you unequal, found inequity, found iniquity.”

“Because He found iniquity there, God sentenced you to die. Everybody has been or is under the sentence of death. I wonder how people can be so jolly under the sentence of death. ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall die’ (Ezekiel, 18:20). When justice confronts a moral situation in a man, woman, young person, or anybody morally responsible, then either it justifies or condemns that person. That’s how we got the sentence” – A.W. Tozer

“There was never an ill word spoken, nor an ill thought conceived, nor an evil deed done, for which God will not have punishment from some one or another. He will either have satisfaction from you, or else from Christ. If you have no atonement to bring through Christ, you must forever lie paying the debt which you never can pay, in eternal misery; for as surely as God is God, He will sooner lose His Godhead than suffer one sin to go unpunished, or one particle of rebellion unrevenged.”

“Oh! then, beloved, think how great must have been the substitution of Christ, when it satisfied God for all the sins of His people. For man’s sin God demands eternal punishment; and God hath prepared a Hell into which He casts those who die impenitent. Oh! my brethren, can ye think what must have been the greatness of the atonement which was the substitution for all this agony which God would have cast upon us, if He had not poured it upon Christ” – Charles Spurgeon

“The work of Christ on the cross did not influence God to love us, did not increase that love by one degree, did not open any fount of grace or mercy in His heart. He had loved us from old eternity and needed nothing to stimulate that love. The cross is not responsible for God’s love; rather it was His love which conceived the cross as the one method by which we could be saved. God felt no different toward us after Christ had died for us, for in the mind of God Christ had already died before the foundation of the world. God never saw us except through atonement. The human race could not have existed one day in its fallen state had not Christ spread His mantle of atonement over it. And this He did in eternal purpose long ages before they led Him out to die on the hill above Jerusalem. All God’s dealings with man have been conditioned upon the cross.” – A.W. Tozer

“But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was a man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.” – C.S. Lewis

Jesus Served as Both a Substitute and an Integral Part of Humanity

Consider Jesus’ role as the vine and humanity as its branches. In other words, consider that Jesus is at one with us, so when He was crucified, we and our sins were crucified. He and we are one. He served as both a substitute for us and as an integral part of us as both God and man. The scripture supports these assertions, as noted below.

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.  am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” – John 15:1-5.

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace” – Colossians 3:15.

“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in Heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross” Colossians 1:17-20.

Jesus suffered greatly in His human form. Prior to and following His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus performed many miracles, demonstrating His divinity. Following His arrest and during the crucifixion, Jesus performed no miracles. During that period of time, He served as the body of mankind and endured pain and suffering at a very human level. He was “led like a lamb to the slaughter” in silence (Isaiah 53:7) and in a very human way, He endured excruciating pain.

Yet Questions Remain

The above theories offer explanations on the atonement of Jesus, yet questions and issues remain. Ransom Theory gives too much power to Satan, while Moral Influence and Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theories make only inferences of him. Satan’s role shouldn’t be discounted, given the attention he gets throughout the Bible and the way he is essentially the poster child of evil, deceit, lies, lawlessness, and sin. Moral Influence Theory also does not address the way Jesus Christ paid the price for our sins, which is an essential element to understanding atonement. The benefit and truth behind Moral Influence Theory is the way it explains Jesus’ positive ethical influence and the way He came to serve as an example to us of the loving and equitable way we should treat humanity.

Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory, which states that LORD substituted Jesus in payment for our sins to the LORD, causes one to question why God needed to make a payment to God for the people He created. Atheists use the latter argument to refute Christianity altogether. They often follow up with a question on why God didn’t simply forgive humanity’s imperfections since He created humans with all said imperfections. Accordingly, Christians need an additional line of reasoning (and defense) to explain the atonement. For this reason, the next portion of this essay is devoted to offering this additional line of reasoning.

One way to answer to the question of why the atonement was necessary is to consider free will. The sins of humanity are the result of God’s gift of free will, which underscores God’s generosity and love in giving such a gift as He knew the implications. He knew that by giving the gift of free will, He would also need to make a tremendous sacrifice to give the gift of eternal life, as free will in a world of temptations and challenges often leads to sin, which leads to death.

“If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having” – C.S. Lewis

Captives of Sin

To provide a second answer, we need to direct our attention for a moment away from the payment to the LORD for the crime (i.e., sin) to focus on the crime itself. Jesus atoned for the sins of humanity. Sin is what binds and holds humanity hostage to the father of all sins, Satan. Prior to Jesus’ resurrection, mankind was imprisoned in death for its sins.

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people” – Matthew 27: 51-53.

The moment Jesus died on the cross was the same moment in which holy people who had passed were freed from captivity, death, and Satan, and raised to eternal life. Jesus had fulfilled the scriptures, such as Isaiah 53, by overcoming the world and redeeming humanity from sins and death.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” – John 16:33

According to 1 John 3:8, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” This verse makes it clear that the devil did not benefit from Jesus’ death and resurrection as Ransom Theory suggests. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Satan expected the resurrection to occur, or he wouldn’t have worked through Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus (Luke 22:3; John 13:27).

In his children’s book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis drew the same conclusion. The great lion in the book, Aslan, who represented Jesus, was killed by the White Witch, who represented  Satan. She and her helpers had strapped the lifeless body of Aslan to a Stone Table, pleased that they had killed him .

“The rising of the sun had made everything look so different – all colors and shadows were changed – that for a moment they didn’t see the important thing. Then they did. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan…they looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.”

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

C.S. Lewis’ “different incantation” is part of the Old Testament. Around 700 years before Jesus’ death and resurrection, the prophet Isaiah predicted both His suffering and the outcome: “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and though the LORD makes His life an offering for sin, He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hand. After He has suffered, He will see the light of life and be satisfied” – Isaiah 53:10-11.

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; He has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” – Colossians 2:13-15.

One can only imagine the rage of Satan when he realized Jesus had triumphed and that he had been duped. His schemes in the first three hundred years of Christianity to persecute Christians by guiding Roman Emperors like Nero to torture them also backfired. The bravery of early Christians inspired many conversions and by the time Christianity was legalized  in 313AD, it had between five and six million adherents (Wawro, 2008). By 350AD, 33 million Christians lived in the Roman Empire and Christianity had become a universal religion (Wawro, 2008).

C.S. Lewis notes that “joy is the serious business of heaven,” while the Bible infers that sin is the serious business of hell. While Jesus is the vine, which grows love and life, Satan is the cancer of sin, which leads to death. Through sin, Satan grows his cancer and poisons humanity. Yet he was overcome, likely unexpectedly, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus overcame the world, Satan, sin, lawlessness, and the cycle of sin, which had bound humanity to Satan.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” – John 15:13.

In summary, Jesus died for us not to pay ransom to the devil but to free us from the ties which bind us to the devil: our sins. He served humanity as the perfect sacrifice without sin, the Passover Lamb, and the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. He also served as the perfect moral influence and the example by which we should all strive to live.

This following logic is offered as a supplement to Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory to help explain the atonement of Jesus:

  1. Sin, which is also considered lawlessness, violates the law established by God (1 John 3:4)
  2. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)
  3. Satan represents sin and death (cf., Daniel 8:25; 1 Corinthians 26; Ephesians 2:1-2).
  4. We all sin (Romans 3:23)
  5. When we sin, we’re held captive to Satan (2 Timothy 2:26) and death (Romans 6:23)
  6. Sin cannot break the cycle of sin and lawlessness; only one without sin (Jesus) can break the cycle (1 John 3:4); and only one who established the law (the LORD) can shatter lawlessness (Isaiah 33:22) and legal indebtedness (Colossians 2:13-15)
  7. Jesus’ death on the cross freed sinners from sins (1 Peter 2:2; 1 John 3:5), captivity and death (1 John 1:7)
  8. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we have eternal life (John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 15:22)
  9. Jesus’ resurrection was a triumph over the powers and authorities of darkness (Colossians 2:13-15).

Thank you for your time.

Bible References

1 John 3:4: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that He appeared so that He might take away our sins. And in Him is no sin.”

Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Daniel 8:25” “He will cause deceit to prosper, and he will consider himself superior. When they feel secure, he will destroy many and take his stand against the Prince of princes. Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power.”

1 Corinthians 26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Ephesians 2:1-2: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”

Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

2 Timothy 2:26: “and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”

1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam, all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Isaiah 33:22: “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; it is He who will save us.

1 Peter 2:2: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

1 John 3:5: “But you know that He appeared so that He might take away our sins.”

1 John 1:7: “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son, purifies us from all sin.”

Book and Website References

Craig, W.L. (2017). Philosophical Challenges in the Doctrine of the Atonement. Accessed February 6, 2017 at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/philosophical-challenges-in-the-doctrine-of-the-atonement#ixzz4Xx7AsJbR

Lewis, C.S. (1942; 1980; 2002). Mere Christianity. The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. Harper One.

Lewis, C.S. (1950; 1978). The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.

Mattison, M. (2017). The Meaning of the Atonement. Accessed February 6, 2017 at http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/openhse/atonement.html

Spurgeon, C. (1858) Particular Redemption. Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens. 1858. http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0181.htm.

Tozer, A.W. (2005; 2009) The Radical Cross. Living the Passion of Christ. Moody Bible Institute

Wawro, J. (2008). Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World.  Millennium House.

Why Were Early Christians So Brave?

By: S.J. Thomason

The intention of the following blog is to offer support for Christians who encounter people who believe Jesus is merely a myth, perpetuated by the early Church. One such mythicist is Dr. Richard Carrier. I have had a number of delightful interactions with Carrier on Twitter, which alerted me to his thoughts on Christianity, Jesus, and the Bible. He is an historian with a Ph.D. from Columbia University who has written numerous books and blog posts refuting the existence of Jesus.

Unlike Carrier, supporters of major world religions outside of Christianity do not question Jesus’ existence. For example, Jews and Muslims do not claim that Jesus didn’t exist. While Jews do not accept Jesus’ divinity, they acknowledge His existence and crucifixion. According to Muhammad, Muslims consider Jesus a prophet whom God took to heaven prior to the crucifixion (leading some to conclude that someone else took Jesus’ place on the cross). Carrier denies Jesus walked the earth, stating in his Twitter posts that Christianity was born out of a “hallucination” by Paul of a “celestial Jesus.”

According to Carrier’s webpage, his research focus is on the “origins of Christianity,” yet he has tweeted that the Bible is “propaganda” and the only historical texts one can rely upon are extra-Biblical.

Let’s consider that point. If I were going to write books on the “origins of Muslims,” wouldn’t it make sense for me to incorporate the Quran? If I were going to craft a history of any countries within the Arab region, wouldn’t I want to take the Quran into account? The Quran certainly offers historical accounts of Muhammad, Muslim beliefs, and Sharia law. Muhammad is an extremely influential prophet among Muslims, so excluding him from any discussions about Arab history seems nonsensical. Applying Carrier’s logic to this situation would require that I obtain extra-Quran accounts of Muhammad’s life before admitting he even lived.

Note that the Guinness Book of World Records has indicated: “Although it is impossible to obtain exact figures, there is little doubt that the Bible is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book. A survey by the Bible Society concluded that around 2.5 billion copies were printed between 1815 and 1975, but more recent estimates put the number at more than 5 billion” (www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/best-selling-book-of-non-fiction). Furthermore, the Bible has been translated into 349 languages. Such figures indicate strong support for the Bible from all over the globe.

William Lane Craig’s website includes the following comment: “Archaeology is the greatest defender of the accuracy of the Bible. Archaeologists, when in Israel, still rely on the Bible to determine the location of tell sites which reliance has proved to be remarkably accurate. Historians have long acknowledged the accuracy of place names and events recorded in the Bible despite so-called “higher criticism” and skepticism. In fact, the Bible is now a standard historical text for archaeologists in the Middle East, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Macedonia. The great names of Archaeology, including Dr. Flinders Petrie, Dr. William Albright, Dr. J.O. Kinnaman, Ira M. Price, Professor Sayce of Oxford, and Sir William Ramsay have gone on record to say that archaeology confirms the accuracy and reliability of the Bible. Dr. William Albright, who was not a friend of Christianity and was probably the foremost authority in Middle East archaeology in his time, said this about the Bible: ‘There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament.’”

“Sir William Ramsey, one of the greatest archaeologists of all time, spent 30 years of his life trying to disprove the New Testament, especially Luke’s writings. After much intensive research with many expecting a thorough refutation of Christianity, Ramsey concluded that Luke was one of the greatest historians of all time and became a Christian based on his archaeological findings.”

Extensive evidence of the Bible’s historicity exists, derived from the Dead Sea Scrolls, stone inscriptions, and archeological findings from regions described in the Bible. For a more extensive review, visit http://www.reasonablefaith.org/two-recent-archaeological-discoveries#ixzz4XfDkyKvG

In addition to the support from archeologists, secular historians support the historicity of the Bible. One example of a history book in which the history of early Christianity and Jesus is documented is “Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World” written by forty-five academic contributors from prestigious universities from all over the globe.

The Historical Atlas states: “In fact, it came to pass that Jesus’ death was the foundation of Christianity as we know it. Rather than running scared, Jesus’ followers grew into thousands. This early ‘church’ ran into very strong opposition in Jerusalem and around 35CE great persecution took place there. Around this time, one of the most decisive turning points in world history occurred. The early church began to accept those who were not of Jewish origin- the Gentiles” (Wawro, 2008, page 84).

Carrier’s blog opines that the apostles “died for a vision.” He then proceeds to refer to a debate he had with Bass, stating that “He couldn’t even establish that they could have avoided their deaths by recanting. Or even that what they died for was their belief in the resurrection, rather than their moral vision for society, or (I could have added) some other belief they wouldn’t recant—such as their already-Jewish refusal to worship pagan gods, the only thing Pliny really ever killed Christians for (the resurrection was never even at issue); and that’s the only explicitly eyewitness account we have of any Christians being killed for anything in the whole first hundred years of the religion.”

As reported by Wawro (2008) in the Historical Atlas, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus reported that “Nero punished Christians for their role in the April 64 CE fire in Rome’s Circus Maximus using the following means:

  • He had them covered with animal skins and let them be eaten by dogs.
  • He had them nailed to crosses.
  • He had them burned as torches for light after sundown” (Wawro, 2008, page 85)

In the Tacitus Annals 15,44, Tacitus states “Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dross of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.”

In fact, suffering and martyrdom of the early Christian disciples has been documented by a variety of extra-Biblical sources. Eusebius, the first church historian, wrote Ecclesiastical History in which he speaks to the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. He cites Dionysius of Corinth (~ 170 A.D.), Tertullian (~ 200 A.D.) and Origen (~ 240 A.D.) to back his assertions. He also cites Josephus (~ 95 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (~ 200 A.D.), and Hegesippus (~ 170 A.D.) on the martyrdom of James, the half brother of Jesus (Habermas & Licona, 2004).

“Despite persecutions for the next 150 years, the new Christian Church spread into France, Spain, North Africa, and Mesopotamia. The once small sect devoted to Jesus Christ grew to between 5 and 6 million by 300 CE. By 350 CE, the number of Christians in the Roman Empire was over 33 million, and Christianity had become a universal religion” (Wawro 2008, page 85). In other words, between 5 and 6 million Christians were willing to worship Jesus illegally in the first few hundred years following Jesus’ resurrection. In 312 AD, Constantine had a vision of a Christian symbol, which led to a battle victory and the legalization of Christianity, ending the persecutions of early Christians.

Does it seem reasonable to determine that millions of early Christians would risk their lives by worshipping illegally to follow a “vision” or “hallucination” by a tentmaker named Paul? Additionally, Paul’s supposed hallucination did not include the gospel accounts of Jesus and accounts of the many miracles He performed, including the Resurrection. It is the miracles, including the Resurrection, which drove Christians to risk their lives. Paul’s supposed vision, or hallucination, of a celestial Jesus obviously excluded same.

Below I’ve listed some of Jesus’ miracles:

  1. Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-12)
  2. Jesus heals an official’s son without going to see the boy (John 4:46-54).
  3. Jesus heals a crippled man on the Sabbath (John 5:1-17).
  4. Jesus feeds 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:19-21; Mark 6:30-34; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14).
  5. Jesus walks on water (Matthew 14:22-32; Mark 6:47-52; John 6:16-21).
  6. Jesus heals a man born blind (John 9:1-41).
  7. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44).
  8. Jesus heals a bleeding woman (Matthew 9:2-7; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48).
  9. Jesus calms a storm (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:37-41; Luke 8:22-25).
  10. Jesus heals a paralyzed man (Matthew 9:2-7; Mark 2:3-12; Luke 5:18-26).
  11. Jesus resurrected from the dead (Matthew 28:5-6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24; John 20).

Additionally, does it seem reasonable that a tentmaker invent his own tale of Christianity when the rewards of crafting such a story did not exist? Paul boasted about his suffering because he truly believed in a greater purpose, which was glorifying Jesus and advancing in heaven. Paul suffered great peril, as documented in the books he wrote. This suffering occurred after his conversion from a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian persecuted by Jews.

Paul, the author of between six and thirteen New Testament books, offers one of the most compelling stories of a transformation. Paul (known as Saul) was on the road to Damascus in his effort to identify and arrest early Christians for illegal worship. “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9-1-6). Paul immediately converted to the Way and became one of its most ardent followers who was beaten, imprisoned, and eventually beheaded all in Jesus’ name.

In 2 Corinthians 16:26-27, Paul states: “I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” 2 Corinthians 12:10 adds: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Clearly, Paul was not living an easy life once he decided to follow Jesus.

As C.S. Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me ‘happy.’ I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Carrier points to times in history in which people have been “gullible,” thereby generalizing all gullible people into a basket of gullibles into which he throws early Christians. He implies that the gullible within the “Heaven’s Gate Cult” are similar to early Christians and that all Christians are “gullible.”

I agree that some people are gullible within every group, as were the adherents to atheist despots like Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, and Stalin, yet I would never make the assertion that the gullibility of Stalin’s followers applies to atheists today (following Carrier’s logic that all atheists are “gullible”). I also know that the vast majority of atheists today abhor the acts of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung, so I would never throw them into a basket of atheists with Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung.

Carrier states: “Thus countless people die for a ‘lie’ in the sense that they don’t know that what they are dying for is false. This is most obviously true for non-eyewitnesses, who die merely for trusting someone else’s word (many religions have many examples of this happening, from Mormonism to Islam to Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, and beyond). But it’s also true for “eyewitnesses,” whose own minds have lied to them. And also, of course, eyewitnesses who are being conned (and indeed many a person has been fully convinced of something that was in fact a perpetrated sham). And also witnesses who aren’t sure of what they saw, but who believe they will gain eternal life if what they saw is what they are told it was, or want it to be—convincing themselves it must be true, merely to avoid personal despair.”

Rather than dig into the psychology behind the movement of early Christians, Carrier implies that their minds have lied to them, they are following a perpetrated sham, and that the early Christians (who, again, were burned and nailed to crosses), believed to “avoid personal despair.” Other more honest atheists with whom I’ve had these conversations acknowledge that early Christians truly believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Early Christians weren’t merely following the hallucination of Paul. They believed Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. Jesus’ birth was predicted in the scriptures, as noted here:

Isaiah 9:6 “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:1-2: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future He will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Jesus’ resurrection fulfilled the scriptures, as noted here:

Isaiah 53:5 “But He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.

  1. Isaiah 53:11 “After He has suffered, He will see the light of life and be satisfied, by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and He will bear their iniquities.”
  2. Psalm 16:9-11 “Because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You will make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
  3. Psalm 118:22 “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
  4. Isaiah 53: 9-10 “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and though the LORD makes His life an offering for sin, He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hand.”

Roman history books included references to Jesus, as noted here (Miller, 2007, page 346):

  1. Antiquities of the Jews, by Joseph (about 93-94). “There was a wise man who was called Jesus, and His conduct was good…Pilate condemned Him to be crucified…His disciples didn’t abandon their loyalty to Him. They reported that He appeared to them three days after His crucifixion that He was alive.”
  2. Annals of Imperial Rome, by Tacitus (about 55 – 120). “Christ suffered the ultimate penalty at the hands of procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was emperor of Rome.”
  3. The Lives of the Caesars, by Suetonius (about 70-130). “Chrestus caused the riots in Rome in AD 49. This is probably a reference to Christ and to the hostility that erupted when traditional Jews clashed with Jews who believed Jesus was the promised Messiah. Acts 18:2 supports this theory, reporting that Claudius Caesar expelled all Jews from Rome during this time.

Carrier goes on to state that “it’s also possible for people to die for what they know is a lie.”

Yes, this is possible if the death were unexpected, yet for Carrier to suggest that early Christians, whom either expected or acknowledged the possibility of death, beatings, or imprisonment, knew in their minds that what they were doing was in vain obliterates any rational theories of human behavior and psychology.

  1. People of sound minds make decisions that maximize their outcomes.
  2. People of sound minds weigh benefits against drawbacks when making decisions.
  3. Early Christians wanted to maximize their chances of going to heaven by following Jesus.
  4. Early Christians weighed the benefits of going to heaven and following Jesus against the risks of imprisonment and death.
  5. Had early Christians determined the risks outweighed the benefits (and considered it all a lie), they would have recanted their testimonies in support of Jesus.

“In the centuries that followed, the believers in Jesus, called Christians, braved horrible persecution to found communities across the Roman Empire” (Belt, 2014).

Carrier then questions whether saints such as Peter, Jesus half-brother James, Stephen were (1) martyred and if they indeed were martyred, he questions whether they (2) were martyred for what they believed or for what they saw.

According to the Antiquities of the Jews, written around Flavius Josephus mentions the death by stoning the brother of James the Just, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”

According to Acts 12:2, King Herod put the apostle James to death with the sword.

According to Acts 7:55-58, Stephen was stoned. “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him.”

Other accounts of the deaths of the disciples are based on tradition. The most commonly accepted traditions are as follows: (https://www.gotquestions.org/apostles-die.html unless otherwise noted).

  • Matthew suffered martyrdom in Ethiopia, killed by a sword.
  • Bartholomew was flayed to death by a whip (Johns, 2014).
  • Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross in Greece. The cross is now known as the cross of St. Andrew (Johns, 2014).
  • Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India
  • Paul was tortured and beheaded by the Emperor Nero in 67 AD.
  • Peter was crucified upside-down, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy (John 21:18).
  • James the Lesser was either beaten or stoned to death, while praying for his attackers (Johns, 2014).
  • Philip was reportedly crucified upside-down in Hierapolis, Turkey. In 2011, archeologists in Hierapolis discovered what they believed to be Philip’s tomb (Johns, 2014).
  • Matthias reportedly preached in the “land of the cannibals” (Johns, 2014).

Though we only have traditions that offer glimpses of the specific ways that most of the early Christian disciples died, we can infer from the fact that Christianity was considered illegal and Christians were persecuted that no matter the means by which they passed, their lives were not easy and their faith in the way, the truth, and the life was strong.

The disciples preached, despite the risks, because they believed that a humble carpenter is the Son of Man and Savior of the world. Had they not seen Him resurrect, they wouldn’t have preached that He resurrected. Had they not seen Him perform miracles, they wouldn’t have preached that He performed miracles. Had they not been filled with the Holy Spirit, they would not have been so brave.

It’s humbling when one considers the way a humble carpenter, a tax collector, several fishermen, a tentmaker, and others were able to change the world.  With God, nothing is impossible. Amen.

Thank you for your time.

“The great difficulty is to get audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity simply because you happen to think it true.” – CS Lewis

References

Richard Carrier’s full blog is available at http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/9978

Belt, D. (2014). Life in the time of Jesus. National Geographic. Jesus and the Apostles. Christianity’s early rise. Special Issue.

Craig, W.L. (2016) Two recent archeological discoveries. Accessed February 3, 2017 at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/two-recent-archaeological-discoveries

Habermas, G.R. & Licona, M.R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Kregel  Publications: Grand Rapids, MI.

Johns, C. (2014). Life in the time of Jesus. National Geographic. Jesus and the Apostles. Christianity’s early rise. Special Issue.

Miller, S.M. (2007). The Complete Guide to the Bible. Barbour: Phoenix, AZ. USA.

Wawro, G. (2008). Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World. Millennium House: Elanora Heights, Australia

Walking with God, personally

Every so often, we encounter true joy, whether it be the intense feeling of love for another human that we experience just after his or her birth or a flash of intense colors and brightness while walking along a nature path, we know this feeling is different and very special, perhaps even other worldly.

C.S. Lewis had much to say about joy. He spent his life in a constant quest for the type of joy that was beyond this life. He once said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”[i]

Perhaps these glimpses of joy are other worldly. Perhaps they are God’s way of demonstrating His presence. Perhaps they provide us with a tiny glimpse of heaven. Even if one doesn’t buy those arguments, such experiences may ignite curiosity and the desire to increase their frequency. If we associate those feelings of joy with God, then our natural response may be an increased passion and desire to learn more about God. We may desire to walk with Him, personally.

But can we walk personally with God? Is that a possibility? According to the Christian faith, the answer is a resounding YES. Several Bible verses lead us to this conclusion.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

“He has made it clear to you, mortal man, what is good and what the Lord is requiring from you— to act with justice, to treasure the Lord’s gracious love, and to walk humbly in the company of your God.” Micah 6:8

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” Psalm 23

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” John 8:12

Throughout the centuries, many men and women have experienced the innate need for a God who can help them to understand the wonders of the world – and the world around them, more generally. Major world religions have sometimes grown from these desires. Those seeking to explain their spiritual experiences and tiny glimpses of joy may have developed deities or faiths or belief systems to help explain same. All but one of these deities are aloof, transcendent, and/or passive. The deity in which God does not have these qualities is the Judeo-Christian God. The Judeo-Christian God wants a personal relationship with humanity. The Judeo-Christian God was not created by man. Christianity was created for man, by God.

Hindu pantheism identifies God with the universe, or the universe to be a manifestation of God. What this means is that Hindu pantheists consider God to be a part of creation, rather than its creator. God is everywhere as a passive part of nature, neither good nor evil, yet beyond both.

Buddhism is not pantheistic in that it doesn’t identify God with the universe in a passive way. Buddhism focuses on enlightenment, which is absolute and transcendent, yet not personal.

Allah, the God of the Muslims, is remote, lofty, and impersonal. According to Muslim theologian Ismail al Faruqi, “Allah does not reveal himself to anyone in any way. Allah reveals only his will…Allah does not reveal himself to anyone…that is the great difference between Christianity and Islam.”[ii]

After pondering these points for a while, and while watching a delightful video in which a Muslim man encountered Jesus and converted to Christianity, I wondered whether any Muslims claim to have seen Allah in visions, dreams, or more personally.

On Twitter, I identified a few atheists whom I challenged to find testimonies from Muslims who have encountered Allah. The atheists to whom I posed this challenge were  particularly hostile towards the Bible and Christianity. One, the son of a pastor, often claimed that the only reason I chose to be a Christian was because I was born into a nation of mainly Christians. He said that I would be a Muslim if born into the Muslim world. I have always countered that assertion by saying that while seeking Allah, I would have found Jesus. Jesus is the finest example of servant leadership known to man. Plus, I have my own testimonials of encounters with Jesus. He told me that his “Muslim friends” have their own testimonies too, to which I responded that they must not have been very convincing, given his choice to remain an atheist. So, the challenge was posed. After a long day of waiting for Muslim testimonials of Allah encounters, the atheists provided nothing. I ran my own Google search for encounters with Allah and I also found none. I also ran a similar Google search for encounters with Jesus and found quite a few.

And that made me smile.

[i] Lewis, C.S. (2002) Mere Christianity, New York: Harper One.

[ii] Al Faruqi, I. (1982). Christian Mission and Islamic Da’wah: Proceedings of the Chambesy Diologue Consultation, Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 47-48.