COVID-19, Christians, and Conspiracy Theories

In our new COVID-19 world, there is a lot of confusion, misinformation, and even disinformation.  The plethora of Internet-based news outlets and social media does not help matters. What are reliable sources of information? Who can you really trust?

Such a climate is fertile ground for generating conspiracy theories. Granted, it is very easy to pooh-pooh skepticism about conspiracy theories. After all, some conspiracy theories actually do happen.  Here is just a partial list of some of the more well-known conspiracy theories, that turned out to be true:

  • Watergate. The 1970s break-in attempt at the Democratic National Committee headquarters triggered a cover-up that brought down an American President.
  • The Arrest & Crucifixion of Jesus: Jewish leaders, Roman rulers, and one of the insiders of the Jesus movement, who defected (Judas), conspired together, leading to Jesus’ Crucifixion.
  • The Arrest of the Apostle Paul: As former persecutor of Christians, turned follower of Christ, Paul threatened the religious establishment of his day, in Jerusalem, which led to his arrest and final appeal to Caesar in Rome to resolve the matter.

In recent times, we have seen conspiracy theories emerging from the far left, as some advocates of the “Social Justice Movement” and “Critical Race Theory” have gone off the deep end, freaking out even those on the moderate left, …. as well as, from the far right, with the “QAnon” conspiracy theory… related to the 2016 “PizzaGate” craziness (if you have not heard about “QAnon,” then read, or listen to, this article from The Atlantic about it…. it will scare the daylights out of you). Sadly, you can find Christians on both sides that get drawn into these types of conspiratorial thinking.

Now, we have COVID-19. Did it come from a lab in China, even as part of some intentional bio-warfare? Is it somehow related to Bill Gates and the Mark of the Beast?

There are a lot of good questions that sit underneath some of these more overt questions. There is still a lot about COVID-19 that we do not know. But sometimes the lure of conspiracy thinking can easily take us down the wrong path. As a Christian, I get bothered when critics of evangelical faith create their own conspiracy theories about Christianity. But when Christians themselves foster conspiracy thinking, that lacks evidential support, we risk damaging our witness to an unbelieving world.

It is far better to follow the evidence we already do have, instead of speculating on the possibility of evidence we do not currently possess.

Look. The uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 crisis is extremely stressful. We are already seeing a great deal of civil unrest, partly related to the COVID-19 crisis. I know people who are currently out of work, due to the crisis. I long for the day when businesses can fully reopen, and our churches can begin meeting again, without having to worry about social distancing. Thankfully, as I am writing this (June 1, 2020), there are positive signs that things are slowly coming back to normal. But let us not needlessly complicate matters by giving into unwarranted conspiratorial thinking.

Some Christians will be offended by my post here. But I would encourage keeping an open-mind on these things. Consider this: How is your conspiracy theory helping to enhance the service of the proclamation of the Gospel? Are you building bridges of trust, or are you creating an unnecessary barrier, keeping others from hearing about Jesus?

It is important to say that the conspiratorial theorizing about COVID-19 should not be linked even to Young Earth Creationism. Todd C. Wood, a prominent Young Earth Creationist, with a PhD in biology, has written two blog posts encouraging fellow Young Earth Creationist Christians not to give into the conspiratorial rhetoric. Wood even likens the rise of conspiracy thinking among Christians to a revival of the ancient heresy of gnosticism. A couple of quotes from Wood stand out for me:

“Everything about [COVID-19] is a classic, natural viral outbreak.  I’ve seen absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.  The concern that prompted the drastic social distancing was the rapid rate at which this virus spread, combined with early estimates of a fatality rate about ten times higher than the flu.  Have we learned more and revised those estimates?  Of course we have, that’s what science does.  We learn new things and revise our models.  It’s not the sign of a scam…..
…..Is COVID-19 really no worse than a bad outbreak of the flu?  It’s far worse, or at least it has the potential to be.  The flu has been around for years, and there’s a lot of resistance already in the population.  Plus, the flu does not spread nearly as fast as COVID-19, and there are preventatives (flu shot) and effective treatments available for the flu.”

Wood even links to a video done by Robert Carter, of Creation Ministries International, who reviews the viral “documentary” film called “Plandemic. Part 1,” that some of my friends have sent to me as well in emails.  Carter’s conclusion?  “What a load of bunk.”

Also, a new edition of the Reasons to Believe podcast, RTBLive, tackles some of the questions surrounding conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19. Virologist A.J. Roberts, who has studied coronaviruses extensively, and Mark Clark, a political scientist and expert in national security, fielded a number of questions from listeners, offering a sound Christian perspective, grounded in good science and evidence-based reasoning. The program is about an hour and a half, but if you are looking for reliable information, that goes into some detail to answer questions many people are asking, it would be worth your time to listen. Some of the questions could not be answered in the RTB Livestream, but they can be found in the RTB Live Extra podcast, linked here:

 


On the Danger of Overstating Apologetic Claims for the Christian Faith

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, in 1601. But was Peter really crucified upside down? Well, according to Sean McDowell (in this linked YouTube video), Peter was most probably killed as a martyr, for his faith. But the historical record of him being crucified upside-down is difficult to substantiate (It might be true, but it may not).

I can not tell you how many times I have used this argument, in conversations with non-believers, over the years: With the exception of John, the “Beloved Disciple,” all of the remaining 11 original disciples of Jesus (after Judas Iscariot) were martyred for their faith. This is a proof of Christ’s resurrection. For why would all of those in Jesus’ inner circle “die for a lie?”

Sound familiar?

If you are like me, you probably read it in books like Josh McDowell’s More Evidence That Demands a Verdict, or more clearly, in his More Than a Carpenter, apologetic books for the Christian faith that have been around for decades. Here is how Josh McDowell put it in More Than a Carpenter, perhaps as late as a printing in 2009(?), or a few years earlier (from an online excerpt, in the chapter on “Who Would Die for a Lie?):

“I can trust the apostles’ testimonies because, of those men, eleven died martyrs’ deaths on the basis of two things: the resurrection of Christ, and their belief in him as the Son of God. They were tortured and flogged, and they finally faced death by some of the crudest methods then known:

1    Peter — crucified

2    Andrew — crucified

3    Matthew — the sword

4    John — natural

5    James, son of Alphaeus — crucified

6    Philip — crucified

7    Simon — crucified

8    Thaddaeus — killed by arrows

9    James, brother of Jesus — stoned

10    Thomas — spear thrust

11    Bartholomew — crucified

12    James, son of Zebedee — the sword”

.

That is a pretty powerful argument.

But here is the problem: This argument is an overstatement of the actual evidence.

Now, when someone first told me this, that Josh McDowell’s claim was an “overstatement,” I got angry. After all, I trusted Josh McDowell. He was defending the Christian faith in his books. So, if someone was attacking these books, with the charge of “overstatement of the actual evidence,” then clearly such a charge was an attack from Satan, and I should resist it with all of my “righteous indignation.”

That’s right. I was angry. And I justified myself as being in the right. I mean, I was defending Jesus, was I not?

But then when I began to hear the same charge from fellow Christians, it really caused me to stop and think: What is really going on here?

As it turns out, a few years ago, Sean McDowell, Josh McDowell’s son, began to wonder about the same thing. Josh encouraged his son, Sean, to go figure it out. So, Sean McDowell did his own PhD dissertation on the topic of which of the early apostles actually died for their faith.

Sean McDowell’s research concluded that, yes, indeed, his father’s claim in More Than a Carpenter was an overstatement of the actual evidence (though it is hard to pin the blame specifically on Josh McDowell, as he got his information from others before him). Nevertheless, there is still good reason to believe that at least a few of the original apostles did die deaths as martyrs, and that even if the others did not die as persecuted martyrs, they never recanted from their belief in the Resurrection of Jesus, and they were at least willing to die for their faith. This does not necessarily prove the truth of the Resurrection, but it is still an important data point, as part of a larger argument to support the claim of the Risen Jesus.

Sean’s work is summarized in this linked article for the Christian Research Institute. Sean shows that much of what Christians often believe about martyrdom in the early church goes back to church tradition, and stories that originated several centuries after the events took place. Nevertheless, Sean notes that historically speaking, we can look at the available evidence and conclude, that while most of the original apostles may not have died gruesome deaths as martyrs, a few of them most probably did. Here is Sean in his own words:

…I examine the historical evidence for each apostle and rate the likelihood of his martyrdom on a ten-point probability scale that ranges from not possibly true (0–1) to highest possible probability (9–10). Historical research deals with probability and not certainty. And so my estimates are based on a careful assessment of the quantity and quality of the available evidence for each apostle. The common narrative is that all the apostles except John died as martyrs for their faith. While this may be true, it cannot be demonstrated historically.

In fact, here is what I believe the historical record reveals:

Highest possible probability (9–10): Peter, Paul, James son of Zebedee, James brother of Jesus

More probable than not (7): Thomas

More plausible than not (6): Andrew

As plausible as not (5): Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, Matthias

Improbable (3): John

So, a more modest approach to the evidence indicates a high degree of confidence that folks like Peter, Paul, and those first two James did die as martyrs for their faith. But when it comes to the rest of the others, the evidence is murkier. The only clear exception is concerning John, whom all agree did die a natural death.

For example, consider the death of Andrew, that Sean McDowell puts at a probability of 6, of being killed for his faith. Our primary source for this is an apocryphal work, The Acts of Andrew. The ancient church historian, Eusebius, dismissed The Acts of Andrew as a spurious work, and even heretical in its teachings. Could there still be good evidence for Andrew’s martyrdom, in The Acts of Andrew? Possibly, yes. But considering the disputable nature of the source, Christians should be cautious when appealing to it as some kind of authoritative statement.

Here is another example: There is a claim that Bartholomew was skinned alive. But the only available source for this claim comes from around 500 A.D., over 4 centuries after the event would have taken place. While this does not rule out martyrdom for Bartholomew completely, it makes the story that I had been sharing with non-believers for decades less than compelling.

Does this new conclusion from Sean McDowell harm the case for the Resurrection? Not really, but it does help us to properly frame the argument. Rather, it is yet one more data point, along with the claim of the empty tomb, and the unlikelihood of mass hallucination among the early witnesses to the Resurrection, that supports the central truth claim of the Christian faith. As Sean puts it, “This may come as a disappointment to some, but for the sake of the resurrection argument, it is not critical that we demonstrate that all of them died as martyrs. What is critical is their willingness to suffer for their belief that Jesus had risen from the grave and the lack of a contrary account that any of them recanted.”

Still, skeptics and critics have pounced on this admission as evidence that Christians have been lying, when they have advanced the “would they die for a lie” argument. I certainly got that sense when I read reviews for Candida Moss’ book on The Myth of Persecution. But such claims of Christians “lying” are over-reactive overstatements themselves.

A more fair way of putting it is that sometimes Christians tend to trust too much in what we hear, and do not do the harder work of discerning if what is being said is actually true or not. The path of least resistance is always simply holding onto what we think is true, just because we were always taught that way, or because we have developed a deep conviction about something, despite the existence of evidence to the contrary. We tend to latch onto those things that reinforce our presuppositions and intuitions, and ignore evidence that might overturn such presuppositions and intuitions (this was my big take-away from Jonathan Haidt’s insightfully excellent book, The Righteous Mind).

This principle holds true for believer AND non-believer alike. If we really want our non-believing friends to consider changing their minds about the truth claims of the Christian faith, we need to be willing to re-examine our own presuppositions and intuitions, that blind us from the truth.

The fact that Josh McDowell’s story about the  “eleven martyrs deaths” has been in print since 1977, without a serious inquiry, among evangelical scholars, as to its evidential support, until his son, Sean, started to do his own research, within the last decade or so, is indeed embarrassing. But to suggest that this delay in setting the record straight is due to some purposeful, ethical misconduct, is simply an over-reach, in the opposite direction, by critics of the Christian faith.

A First Century Fragment from the Gospel of Mark?

Another good example of this is the whole debacle over the supposed “first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark.”  Back in 2012, conservative biblical scholar Daniel Wallace, a favorite of ours, here at Veracity, made the provocative statement in a debate with skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman, that he knew of the discovery of a first-century fragment, from the Gospel of Mark. Were this discovery to be true, it would have been a landmark triumph, as we currently have no first-century remnants of New Testament documents, though we do have some New Testament fragments that date back to the mid-2nd century, or so.

Wallace was reasonably confident of the first-century Mark claim, due to assurances from other trusted scholars, that the discovery was, in fact, legit. Wallace did caution that he was waiting for a peer-reviewed study to confirm this claim. Josh and Sean McDowell included a statement from Wallace, to this effect, in a recent edition of Evidence That Demands a Verdict, published in 2017. The McDowells did so despite the fact that some had grown increasingly skeptical of the claim, in the intervening years.

Subsequent research, and developments in the story, have revealed a tangled web of convoluted stories and scandal, and even a criminal investigation, as reported by The Atlantic magazine. Participants in the debacle include Hobby Lobby, the Museum of the Bible, and an Oxford scholar. Finally, in 2018, many learned that the supposed “first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark,” officially known as P137, actually dates to either the late-second or early-third century, according to that long awaited peer-reviewed study. A much chagrined Wallace, offered an appropriate apology, for his part, and rightly noted, that while there is quite a bit of disappointment in not having a first-century fragment, nevertheless, having a late-second or earth-third century fragment of Mark is newsworthy on its own merit.

As Elijah Hixson, co-author of Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism(p.161-163), put it, this fragment of Mark is currently the earliest archaeological evidence for the antiquity of the Gospel of Mark. That is nothing to dismiss lightly. The discovery is still a remarkable piece of evidence, that furthers the case for the substantial integrity of the New Testament.

Sadly, the actual news of the discovery of the earliest known fragment of Mark has been overshadowed by the scandal surrounding it…. and this is the type of stuff that demonstrates why it is dangerous to overstate apologetic claims for the Christian faith. Critics will latch onto these missteps, and use it as further leverage, in their argument that Christians are not to be trusted. Doing our homework, to verify certain apologetic claims, is worth the effort. The integrity of the apologetics enterprise is at stake.

 

One clarification here: I have great respect and admiration for the apologists and scholars mentioned above. Yes, mistakes were made, but I do not believe that any of these Christians intentionally sought to deceive anyone. In fact, I respect their efforts to acknowledge their own shortcomings, and in their work to set the record straight. But in other respects, there have been other players in the mix, who have used fraud and deception, and duping other Christians in the process.

I could highlight several other examples, where Christians have repeated overstated claims, in hopes of defending the Christian Faith. Hopefully, these two examples are sufficient to drive home the point. While voicing such claims, is often driven by good intentions, there is a downside.

Great harm is done when Christians are tempted to overstate certain apologetic claims for the faith, that turn out to be overreaches at best, or even duds, at worst, upon closer examination. Sadly, when such overstatements are made, they can create barriers for further conversation, that only further alienates skeptics and critics of the faith.

We see this all of the time now, when it comes to the decline of civility of political discourse, that marks a crisis in our current culture. Having this spill over into spiritual and theological matters can be devastating. Unfortunately, we live in an era, dominated by the proliferation of Internet-based media, that makes it very difficult to properly distinguish between good, solid, evidence-based reasoning and “fake news.”

Christians, above all people, should be advocates for the truth.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
and favor is better than silver or gold.
(Prov. 22:1 ESV)

 

 

If you really want to geek out on all of this, here are just a few of videos that address, first, the martyrdom of the apostles issue, with a discussion between Sean McDowell, and an Internet atheist critic, Paulogia, and secondly, a panel discussion covering issues pertaining to textual criticism, led off by a question posed to Daniel Wallace, about the Gospel of Mark fragment. Then, finally, here is a brief video by Ariel Sabar, of The Atlantic, who told the tale of the “first-century Gospel of Mark” scandal, but who in this older video, uncovers the incredibly crazy story about the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” that led to a debunking about it, back in 2016, much to the chagrin of certain skeptics of Christianity:

 

 

 


Happy Ascension Day!!

Today is Ascension Day in the Western church calendar (it will be a week from now in the Eastern calendar). But is it not interesting, that while a number of essentially secular European countries mark today as a bank holiday, most evangelical Protestants in the United States would never have given it a thought?

I would have forgotten it myself, if London Bible teacher, Andrew Wilson, had not reminded me. Get his book Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation of Eucharismatic Worship, on why recovering the great liturgy of the church, such as remembering Ascension Day, might be important.

In the meantime, I stumbled on this video by Bishop Robert Barron, that succinctly explains, in 8-minutes, why the Ascension should be important, to all Christians, corresponding to what is taught in the Bible. Bishop Barron makes me think of the teachings of Joshua Ryan Butler. Though I am an evangelical Protestant, this Roman Catholic theologian has a lot to teach any Christian.


Impact: Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias died May 19, 2020, after a short battle with bone cancer.

Ravi Zacharias was born and raised in India, coming to Christ as a cricket-playing teenager, after a failed suicide attempt in a hospital, where he read a Bible. In the coming years, he spoke at countless university audiences across the world, taught on a radio program Let My People Think, and engaged in evangelistic conversations with numerous civic and political leaders, all over the globe.

His greatest impact was through the establishment of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), where Ravi built a network of young Christian apologists, that carry on the legacy of providing sound, intellectual reasoning, in support of defending the Christian faith. This newer generation of Christian apologists includes the voices of Vince Vitale, Abdu Murray, Amy Orr-Ewing, and Sam Alberry.

Even though RZIM has not always been without controversy, RZIM has sought to continue the work that Ravi Zacharias began decades ago, through extensive speaking engagements, and a growing Internet presence.

I taught several Adult Bible Classes, based on his book Jesus Among Other Gods. I even got a chance to meet Ravi, when he spoke at my church, a little over a decade ago. He will be sorely missed.


Why Do Some Evangelical Protestants Convert to Roman Catholicism OR Eastern Orthodoxy?

Roman Catholic Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill made history in February, 2016, by meeting together, in an effort towards Christian reconciliation. (Photo credit: Edgar Jimenez / Flickr | Larry Koester / Flickr)

The vast majority of evangelical Protestants remain in such churches, once they become Christians. Also, quite a number of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox convert and join evangelical Protestant churches, particularly if their faith was rather nominal to begin with.

But interestingly, some evangelical Protestants move in the opposite direction, and either join the Roman Catholic Church, or they join an Eastern Orthodox church.  So, why do some evangelicals bail out on Protestantism, to become members of these other churches?  When it comes to Roman Catholicism, is it not true that Protestants fought long and hard to try to reform Catholicism, only to find themselves outside of the church of Rome? When it comes to Eastern Orthodoxy…. well,… what is Eastern Orthodoxy, anyway?

Well, there are multiple reasons why some evangelical Protestants either “cross the Tiber” (a metaphorical way of saying that they become Roman Catholic…. the Tiber River cuts through the heart of the city of Rome), or “cross the Bosphorus” (a metaphorical way of saying that they become Eastern Orthodox…. the Bosphorus is a body of water that goes through Istanbul, Turkey, the traditional heart of the Eastern Orthodox world). One reason is that in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is central to their corporate worship. Whereas, in much of Protestantism, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper often takes a back seat, when compared to the teaching of the Scriptures.

But perhaps one of the main reasons for leaving evangelical Protestantism is a disillusionment with how Protestants often handle the doctrine of sola scriptura, from the Latin, or “Scripture alone.”

The idea of sola scriptura assumes that Scripture, by itself, can be interpreted, without an authoritative magisterium, or teaching authority, like the Pope (Roman Catholic) or college of bishops (Eastern Orthodoxy). But when Protestants rely on the private interpretation of Scripture, confusion has often ensued. Protestant Christians, in the United States, have been often known to “vote with their feet,” once they run into perceived problems with a teaching pastor, who says something that does not line up with how they read the Bible.

You do not have that problem in either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.

The “vote with your feet” syndrome, that commonly divides Protestant churches, can become quite weary for some Christians. When Protestants are unable to work through their differences, it can get rather tiresome.

So, on the other hand, it is pretty much a “package deal,” if and when you decide to join either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox communions. Both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have their own authoritative magisteriums. Such conflicting understandings of teaching authority has created another whole set of problems, which would take a comprehensive look at church history, to fully digest.

Those “package deals” presented by both older communions have presented obstacles for those Protestants who have considered making the journey across the Tiber or the Bosphorus, but who end up not crossing one of those rivers (I would include myself in this latter category). For example, both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy hold to what is called the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. That is a big stumbling block that keeps many evangelical Protestants from seriously considering crossing “the” river.

If you want to learn more about why some Protestants look to Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy, these two short videos, respectively, help to explain why:


%d bloggers like this: