Monthly Archives: June 2018

Do the “New Atheists” Get Their History Right?

“The Course of Empire: The Destruction.” Thomas Cole, 1836, showing the Sack of Rome in 410 A.D., by the pagan Visigoths.  But was the destruction of classical Greco-Roman culture, really the fault of the Christians instead?

You might have heard some of these historical claims before: Jesus never existed. The emperor Constantine colluded with church leaders at Nicea to fix the New Testament canon. Medieval Christians believed the Bible to teach that the earth was flat, until Christopher Columbus proved them wrong. Christians persecuted leading early scientists, in order to defend their erroneous Bible. And on it goes.

I have addressed some of these topics before on Veracity (Jesus “mythicism”, Constantine and Nicea, the Giordano Bruno affair). But someone could easily dredge up the ad hominem claim, that as a Christian, my sympathies are biased, and can not be trusted by any rational, thinking person. For the sake of the argument, let me concede the criticism: Why take my word for anything?

In answering this, I would suggest that readers consult a fascinating website, History for Atheists. Tim O’Neill does a great job dismantling such pseudo-historical claims, that get uncritically passed on over the Internet, and through television media, advancing the agenda of so-called “New Atheists,” along the lines of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But what makes Tim O’Neill compelling is that he is an unapologetic atheist himself. He would not find much credible to my Christian faith.

Of course, I would beg to differ. But O’Neill is actually an ally for truth, when it comes to history. Tim O’Neill addresses some of the most egregious pseudo-historical claims made by some atheists, in a very substantive and mind-opening manner. For example, in early June, 2018, the New York Times reviewed a book by Catherine Nixey, THE DARKENING AGE: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, that attempts to revive the old, worn-out thesis that the rise of Christianity in the early medieval period led to the so-called “Dark Ages,” through the wholesale violent destruction of classical Greco-Roman culture. Nixey is regarded by some as an “Edward Gibbon” of the post-modern era. In his 18th century classic, The History of the Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, Gibbon popularized the thesis that the rise of Christianity played a significant role in the decline of ancient Rome.

For example, Nixey builds on the worst claim of Candida Moss, Notre Dame professor and author of The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom , discussed here on Veracity, that the Christians made up nearly all of the persecution stories of martyrs dying for their faith, under pagan Rome. Such propaganda was used as justification for committing appalling violence against their pagan neighbors.

Those “bad” and “evil” Christians!!

Sure enough, if you go to Tim O’Neill’s website, he has a highly critical review of Nixey’s work. Yes, there were cases of violence, statues being destroyed by some Christian enthusiasts, and various Christian martyrdom stories of the early church were exaggerated. However, in the early medieval period, there was clearly a conscious attempt by early medieval Christians to recover what they thought to be the best of classical, pagan culture, that was not in conflict with the Bible. Christianity superseded Roman paganism, but Nixey greatly overplays her “violent, ruthless and intolerant” story of the Christians.  In response, O’Neill is simply brilliant.

As British historian Dan jones says, “History is a vaccine against propaganda.” Even extreme atheist propaganda. How true that is!

The next time you hear about some startling historical claim that tries to throw Christianity into the dustbin of history, you might want to “fact check” those claims by consulting History for Atheists. O’Neill has his biases, but honestly and gladly, he admits them. If only every Christian would be as ruthlessly a seeker of historical truth as Tim O’Neill is, but that is a topic for some other blog post…







C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms

C.S. Lewis.

The Psalms remain a difficult book for many Christians today. C. S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms might help many of us to find our way through this great book of poetry, in the Hebrew Scriptures.

I have come to the conclusion that C. S. Lewis is probably one of greatest Christian writers that actually few Christians hardly ever read. As I have written about before, back when I was in college, C. S. Lewis was all the rage. But aside from his children’s books (the Narnia series) and a handful of other titles, I think that many evangelical Christians, like myself, probably have bought C. S. Lewis books before, thinking that we really should read more of Lewis, but that if we are honest, we often leave those Lewis volumes gathering dust upon our shelves.

I bought Mere Christianity a good 35 years ago. There it still sits on my shelf, beckoning me.  Even my co-blogging colleague, John Paine, has confessed here on Veracity that he found C. S. Lewis very hard to read.

Many evangelicals know that C. S. Lewis has been probably one of the greatest apologists for the Christian faith, of all time. Therefore, we feel we ought to know at least something about him, aside from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As my church begins to preach on the Psalms this summer, I thought it might be good to step up to the challenge myself and listen to Reflections on the Psalms, as an audio book, and hear what I can learn from the Oxford don, whose voice once resonated across the BBC airwaves, during the horrors of Hitler’s bombings of London, during World War 2 (That is how we got the essays that make up Mere Christianity, by the way).

Evangelical unease over Lewis can be put no better than in Douglas Wilson’s brief review, when he read Reflections on the Psalms: “Glorious, but awful in parts….Lewis has an uncanny ability to edify me and appall me simultaneously.” Continue reading

What Was the Sin of Sodom?… (Taking A Closer Look)

Colorado cake artist, Jack Phillips, who recently won a Supreme Court case, in a United States freedom of religion case, that opponents say legitimizes discrimination against gay persons. (credit: Sam Brasch, Colorado Public Radio)

To bake the cake, or not bake the wedding cake?

Nothing gets a group of Christians animated like the topic of same-sex marriage. Go ahead. Try it. The next time you are in a Bible study, or share a meal with believers, just mention “same-sex marriage.” I guarantee you that for the next twenty minutes, the conversation will be anything but boring.

Ever since the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, that legalized same-sex marriage, many Christians have besieged themselves with questions as to how to reach gay and lesbian people, while still affirming the Bible’s teaching that God created marriage between only a man and a woman.

Some say that Christians have focused too much on the issue of same-sex marriage. Others are concerned that the church is gradually capitulating to the culture, in accommodating “the sin of Sodom.”  A recent Pew survey even suggests that among younger evangelicals, there is an increased acceptance of gay marriage, at least in terms of its legality, in the wider culture, if not also, in the church.

Many say that the church needs to “preach the Word.” Specifically, we should preach against “the sin of Sodom.” Every Christian should surely agree with that.

However, the problem is that we often fail to understand what “the sin of Sodom” really is. Is “the sin of Sodom” gay marriage? Would this include a society’s increased acceptance of gay marriage as normal? What really is “the sin of Sodom?”

Let us take a closer look at the biblical text, and see if the common, traditional understanding of “the sin of Sodom” actually matches what the Bible teaches. Continue reading

Podcasts for the Thinking Christian (2018 Update)

This is the age of the Internet podcast. About four years ago, I published a review of some of the most thoughtful and engaging Internet podcasts available at the time. Now is a good time to update the review.

What I like about podcasts is that I can download the MP3 material right to my phone, or even stream them directly from the Internet, even fire up a YouTube app in the background and just listen, either while I am driving around town in the car, or out pulling weeds in the yard. There has never been any other time in world history where someone can have such excellent access to the Bible and great Christian theological content.

What I do not like about podcasts is that there are too many of them, and the quality varies greatly, not just in terms of style, but more importantly, in terms of theological quality. The sheer volume and variety of options, with “Christian” themes, creates a crisis: Is the podcast done by some random person with a microphone, an Internet connection, and pages missing from their Bible? Or is it done by someone who actually knows what they are talking about, having a love for God, with Scripturally informed scholarship backing them up? Who can I trust?

My time is important, and probably, so is yours, so I have narrowed down to some of the better podcasts you can get. Depending on the category, I would recommend finding one or two podcasts you like, and subscribe to them, or otherwise, download select, archived material. So here is the update on the best Christian podcasts around… Continue reading

Is the Kingdom of God (Mystically) Within the Christian?

Leo Tolstoy, Russian apostle of non-violence, in Yasnaya Polyana, 1908, the first color photo portrait in Russia. (credit: Wikipedia)

The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20b-21, King James Version)

Is this the best translation of what Jesus was really teaching? Here is a good lesson as to why it pays to use a modern translation of the Bible, and compare with other translations.

As a young Christian, I struggled with the concept of Jesus’ teaching on the “kingdom of God.” Is God’s kingdom ever, in a sense, something inward, something that can not be seen? Sure, God’s kingdom is about the rule and reign of God in our lives, but is it in any way, a call to look within your yourself for the truth?

For example, Leo Tolstoy, the great 19th century Russian novelist, wrote a whole book about it: The Kingdom of God is Within You. Tolstoy rejected what he considered to be the “mystical” tradition of his Russian Orthodox state church, famously arguing for the principle of non-violence, as the summary of the ethics of Jesus Christ. Tolstoy’s prose has deeply inspired people, such as Mohandas Gandhi, in his efforts to overthrow British rule and assert Indian independence, in the mid-20th century.

But in doing so, in an odd twist of irony, Tolstoy himself left behind all institutional forms of Christianity, dismissing much of the supernatural reporting of miracles in the Bible, for his own kind of mystic individualism. Tolstoy viewed the Sermon on the Mount to be in conflict with the Nicene Creed, the ancient church affirmation of core, fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the Triune nature of God and the deity of Christ. Tolstoy felt forced to choose the former over the latter.  Tolstoy had become disenchanted with a state sponsored church, that encouraged passivity towards evil, by encouraging intellectual adherence to a set of abstract beliefs, at the expense of living out the ethics of Jesus.

While I felt drawn to Tolstoy’s ethic of non-violence, and his critique of shallow faith, built on mere intellectual adherence to Christian beliefs, I was still uneasy about his outright dismissal of historic, orthodox theology. In today’s terms, minus his anti-supernaturalism, Tolstoy’s views came dangerously close to a kind of New Age, “roll your own” type of spirituality.

I remember reading from the King James version (above), as well as my old, “trusty” NIV 1984:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

Mmmmm…. The way my mind worked, as I appreciated the teachings of Leo Tolstoy, was that this meant that the kingdom of God had some type of mystical presence inside the believer, Leo-Tolstoy-style. At least it seemed that way. What made me a little hesitant, though, was that this was the ONLY passage in the Bible that described the kingdom of God with such internalized language. But, if the Bible even had one verse like this, I figured, I might as well go for it.

Fast forward nearly twenty years later … Today, nearly all modern translations reject this English reading as inadequate, if not misleading. Here is the ESV rendering (below), and the NIV 2011 is pretty close:

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21)

You might get a footnote that exchanges “in the midst of you” with the older “within you,” or another, improved alternative, “within your grasp.” Nevertheless, the prevailing current view is that the kingdom of God is “in the midst of you.” But the point is that improvements in modern translation demonstrate that God’s kingdom can not be so easily turned into a mystical, inward, New-Age-type of experience. A note for the online NetBible, regarding the historical context for these verses, are worth considering:

[“In your midst”] is a far better translation than “in you.” Jesus would never tell the hostile Pharisees that the kingdom was inside them. The reference is to Jesus present in their midst. He brings the kingdom. Another possible translation would be “in your grasp.”

The truth of the kingdom of God was within the grasp of the Pharisees, but they were unable to observe or detect it, even though Jesus was right there in front of them. Contrary to the popular tendency to pluck verses of Jesus out of thin air, the context of this passage suggests that the Pharisees were not “Spirit-filled” believers, who should look introspectively to find the truth. Instead, the emphasis is on Jesus as the truth, and how He confronted the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, with their unbelief.

Likewise, for us today, the kingdom of God also concerns our relationship with the Jesus who confronts us, and not some “fake Jesus” that we can easily internalize and control. We can become so filled with self-righteousness that we become unable to observe the reality of the kingdom of God, right there in front of us. Sadly, it is temptingly easy to project our own inward thoughts, wishes, fantasies, and desires, onto our frame of mind, and pretend that God is revealing supposed “truth” to us. Far too often, the popular call to “look within yourself” to find out “who you really are,” is more about spiritual narcissim than having an encounter with Jesus, who calls us to follow in obedience.

True, the Holy Spirit does indwell in the heart of the believer (Romans 8:9), so there is, in a sense, a mystical element to our faith. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, does live in every Christian. So, broadly speaking, you could get away with the older “the kingdom of God is within you,” as a possible application for believers today, in that we can trust in the Holy Spirit’s leading.

But it is a translation not without its limitations, particularly within the historical context of Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees. We still need the external check of the Word of God, to make sure we do not float away into some supposedly superior mystical realm, that leads us to have thoughts and opinions that contradict the Scriptures. To put it another way, the only “Jesus” that we can know is the one presented to us in the Bible, and not some creation of our own fertile imagination, however well-intentioned. Our beliefs about Jesus, like His divine status within the Godhead, can not be so easily dismissed as controllable abstractions, without undermining the very call of radical discipleship, that Jesus demands of us.

Sadly, Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Thomas have a field day with phrases like “the kingdom is inside you,” , thus giving the wrong-headed idea that a knowledge of the Gospel is like having some special, esoteric knowledge of God, that only the spiritual “elite” can have. Genuine, orthodox, historic Christianity suggests otherwise. Real experience of the kingdom of God can be had by anyone who has a relationship with Jesus, and not only by self-proclaimed, spiritual “super-Christians,” who supposedly have an inside-track to God.

As someone who considered himself a Christian, Leo Tolstoy was not exactly “New Age,” in the way we think of it today. But he did have an unfortunate gnostic streak running throughout his writings. Leo Tolstoy was right to challenge a state church, that had completely subverted itself as a pawn to a totalitarian, oppressive government. But by setting in opposition the ethics of Jesus against the core, supernatural beliefs of historic Christian faith, Tolstoy has left us with a false dichotomy that has continued to confuse his admirers, almost two centuries later.

Thankfully, modern English Bible translations are trying to correct that false dichotomy.


Patheos blogger Mark Roberts, a few years ago, put it this way:  “If the Pharisees want to find the kingdom, Jesus says, they should look, not into their own sinful hearts, but right in front of their eyes, at Jesus himself, at his words and works.”  New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado chimes in with the scholarly reason as to why more recent Bible translations have changed their wording for this passage. There is a dissenting view by Roman Catholic scholar Ilaria Ramelli, who argues for the traditional translation of this verse, that so captivated Leo Tolstoy, but I do not know of any other scholars who follow her.




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