Category Archives: Apologetics

Does Dark Matter … Really Matter?

Did you know that astrophysicists have found the “missing baryons?”  Why would a Christian care about such a discovery?

 

As Hugh Ross, an astrophysicist and president of Reasons to Believe, put it, this discovery helps to solve the mystery of “dark matter,” supporting the modern Big Bang theory, which points to a beginning of the universe. When the Big Bang theory was first developed in the mid-20th century, a problem immediately became apparent, as the theory predicted that there should be a great mass of matter (or energy) existing between galaxies, making up to about 70% or so of the universe. The problem was that researchers could never see it; hence, roughly speaking, the term, “dark matter.”

In 2017, two independent teams of researchers were able to develop a method whereby they could detect the existence of the “missing baryons.” For those Christians who believe that the Bible affirms, or is at least not in conflict with, the idea of an ancient universe, of millions of years, this discovery appears to point towards the existence of so-called “dark matter,” helping to solve a persistent riddle, as to what was missing in the Bang Bang cosmological model. There is still a lot more to learn about so-called “dark matter,” and neither this discovery, nor the Big Bang theory necessarily “prove” the Bible. But for Christians who hold to an Old Earth Creationist interpretation of the Bible, like astrophysicist Hugh Ross, this discovery is yet another piece of evidence in favor of the truthfulness of the Christian faith.

Ironically, many Young Earth Creationists have been fighting against the notion of dark matter for decades. Why? Because if dark matter really exists, it would help to bolster the Big Bang theory, and thereby undercut their interpretation of the Bible, namely that the earth and universe is only about 6,000 years old, contrary to the consensus of modern science. Now, there are at least some Young Earth Creationists, such as Danny Faulkner at Answers in Genesis, who are saying that the question of dark matter is really irrelevant, and that Young Earth Creationists, like astronomer Faulkner, should embrace the existence of dark matter in their alternative proposals. This is quite a concession.

But for those who believe that the evidence supporting the modern scientific consensus for the Big Bang is, at least, in some sense, consistent with what the Bible teaches, namely, that the universe had a beginning (“In the beginning”…. see Genesis 1:1), dark matter is not a problem at all. For if the universe had a beginning, it stands to reason that you will also have a Beginner!

Now, with a God who works miracles, a Young Earth Creation is still possible. Many of my dear Christian friends are Young Earth Creationists, and they have several thoughtful reasons for holding to their position. But the story of dark matter raises a good question: As a Christian, what is easier to defend when talking with a non-believer? The idea that science coheres with the Bible, or that science is in conflict with the Bible?


Does Carbon-14 Radiometric Dating Undermine the Bible (or Confirm It)?

Some Christians are not fans of radiometric dating. They believe that radiometric dating has been used to attack the Bible. These Christians seek to honor God’s Word, so the motives behind the argument against some scientific practices, such as Carbon-14 dating, are well-intentioned. Nevertheless, this approach can be confusing, if not wrongheaded, for the simple reason that Carbon-14 dating actually presents strong evidence for the Christian faith (and not against it).

How can that be?

Carbon-14 dating is but one of several radiometric dating methods, whereby scientists can determine the ages of things, by examining how quickly certain substances have decayed over time in a sample. Substances, like Carbon-14, will slowly break down, at a rate determined by the radioisotope’s half-life.

Radiometric dating methods, like with Carbon-14, get a bad rap among some Christians, in that the science of radiometric dating is used to suggest that the earth is really, really old… as in millions of years old… which runs contrary to a common view, that the earth is only 6,000 years old. However, it should be clarified that Carbon-14 dating, specifically, can only measure things in terms of thousands of years old, and not millions. But the calibration principle behind Carbon-14 dating, when applied to other substances with a much longer half-life, like potassium, allows scientists to measure dates in the range of millions of years. Therefore, the concern about radiometric dating in principle remains.

But how many Christians know that Carbon-14 dating actually has been used to confirm the Bible? Let me describe a few examples. Continue reading


Elisha, She-Bears, and the Cursing of Children?

This is up there near the top of “Weird Stories of the Bible,” when the prophet Elisha curses a group of young boys, who taunt him. But does this image really correspond to the message that the Scriptural writer is intending to convey?

I was totally dumbstruck, a moment I will never forget. I was doing youth ministry, when a high school student asked me about the weird incident of Elisha and the She-Bears, found in 2 Kings 2:23-25. What is that all about?

I had never seen the passage before, and it left me speechless:

23 He [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.

What is going on in this passage? I will be honest: Having never read that before, I had no clue how to respond. Over seven years in Bible-teaching churches had never prepared me for that question (Why do most churches skip over these difficult passages????).

Skeptics use these verses to mock the morality of the Bible. It is hard not to blame them, from a quick, surface reading of the text. It sounds like God is sanctioning, even inflicting, violent child abuse.

But this high school student who quizzed me about this passage was not at all trying to ridicule the Bible. It was a honest question. This teenager was sincerely confused… and I was stumped.

I could have simply said, “Well, that is in the Old Testament. No need to worry.” But I knew better.

So, what is the Bible really talking about here? Could there be more going on, than what a plain-text, isolated reading of the text indicates?

A theologian who writes frequently for First Things magazine, Peter Leithart, highlights the work of Keith Bodner, that gives a more nuanced, and greatly more compelling answer as to how to interpret this difficult text in the Bible. In short, the story of Elisha and She-Bears is really an event with satirical theological-political commentary, criticizing the apostatizing of Israel’s leadership, by their sanctioning of idolatry at Bethel. A careful reading of other biblical texts gives us the clues needed to fully unpack this story (see 1 Kings 12:1-15, 2 Kings 1:8, 1 Kings 14:21, 1 Kings 13:24, 2 Kings 8:12, for additional context).

In this interpretation, the “small boys” in this passage, really are not children at all. Instead, they are a band of idolatrous priests that threaten Elisha, and the true worship of God the prophet represents. The author uses the language of “small boys,” not to historically chronicle their age, but rather to criticize the immaturity of these rebellious priests.

The critique of Elisha’s “baldness?” Well, this is not really about a loss of hair, but rather the loss of losing his mentor Elijah, as a spiritual covering.

This explanation may not completely remove for you the scandal that this passage raises. Understood, but the shock value maybe the point. Passages in the Bible that sound just plain weird, might be clues that more is going on than what can be picked up by a surface reading. As I wrote about in my review of Andy Stanley’s book, Irresistible, perhaps the problem with the Old Testament, is not with the Old Testament itself, but in how we interpret it.

Additional Resources:

Gospel Coalition blogger, Derek Rishmawy has an older post highlighting Peter Leithart’s own commentary on this passage, from Leithart’s 1 & 2 Kings commentary. For some other, informed takes on the same story, I would recommend either the following segment of Dr. Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast (Heiser is an Old Testament scholar, for Logos Bible Software, who wrote many of the notes for the FaithLife Study Bible, and author of the groundbreaking book, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible), or a sermon by Dr. Peter Williams (Williams is a textual critical scholar at the University of Cambridge, and Tyndale House, in England, and a translator for the English Standard Version of the Bible), or the detailed analysis from the “uber-intellectual” Alastair Roberts, MereFidelity podcaster and blogger. Dr. Heiser’s treatment is just audio, with no video. But one of Dr. Heiser’s key themes is that if it is weird, it is probably important. This passage surely qualifies. The Dr. Williams’ video is from a talk he gave at, what I think is, Park Street Church in Boston (Williams takes a more traditional view of the “young boys”, summarized in a series of Tweets). Alastair Roberts’ video is from his YouTube Question & Answer channel. All three scholars offer great resources on other topics, I might add!:

 

 

 


Irresistible, by Andy Stanley, A Review

Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World. Pastor Andy Stanley overstates a central theme in his argument, but his critics should learn something from him as well.

A little backstory, as to why I decided to read this challenging book: I am not really the type of guy who would be naturally drawn to a pastor like Andy Stanley. At least, that is what I thought a few years ago.

Andy Stanley is the son of the well-known Atlanta pastor, Charles Stanley, who for years has been an example, par excellence, of classic, traditional Bible Belt preaching. When I think of the oft repeated phrase, “The Bible says… the Bible says…,” I think of Charles Stanley.

But I must confess. While he has had a profound, positive impact on the lives of many, and I am sure he is a wonderful man, Charles Stanley’s teaching never thrilled me personally.

About twenty years ago, I was teaching a Sunday school class on church history. I love studying and teaching church history. It helps deepen my love for God. The history of Christianity is often neglected in evangelical churches, so I was thankful for the privilege to try to fill in the gap, at our church. After a few weeks of examining how God has moved in the lives of influential Christians, across the centuries, one dear, elderly woman confronted me and asked, “It is all about history to you, isn’t it?

Apparently, this woman did not understand why anyone in a Bible-believing church needed to waste their time learning about church history. I responded by saying something along the lines of, “Yes, I do believe that God works in history. Jesus did not just stop working in the world after the completion of the New Testament, and He continues to work in our world today.” This genuinely sweet woman then had that “I-have-no-clue-what-you-are-talking-about” look on her face.

*SIGH*.

The following week, the same woman walked into class, and handed me a whole set of resources from Charles Stanley’s InTouch Ministries to look at. I gulped. In particular, she pointed me to a cassette tape, with a title, something to the effect of why “the Bible alone is the Word of God.”

I got the message: Just stick with the Bible, and forget about this history stuff. “The Bible says” is good enough.

I thanked the woman, as she was kind and well-intentioned, and while I did eventually listen to the tape, and agreed with the teaching message, I was still flustered. For if this woman, who evidently was a big fan of Charles Stanley, was learning that we should disregard the lessons of God’s working over the past 2,000 years, since the closure of the New Testament, then I was not really impressed with what she was being taught.

My less-than-enthusiatic encounter with my less-than-enthusiastic church history student pretty much poisoned me. Frankly, Charles Stanley’s son, Andy, had never been on my radar, at all, until a few years ago. When I learned that Andy Stanley, a former youth pastor, now a mega-church pastor himself, started to rise in prominence, I really had no interest in learning anything from him either. Like father, like son, I supposed. Life is short, and since I can not read or listen to every resource article or sermon someone gives to me, I just left the ministries of the Stanleys at that.

That was until son Andy began making waves among his fellow Southern Baptist, conservative evangelical constituents. Though Andy Stanley continues to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, he no longer thinks that the old evangelical mantra of “the Bible says” really works any more in an increasingly post-Christian society. We simply can not assume today that people believe the Bible.

That is a pretty big shift in message from the elder Stanley…. and it got my attention, because that is the world I live in.

My interest was sparked. Perhaps the younger pastor Stanley has something important to say after all. As it turns out, he does. I am chagrined to think that I never paid attention to this before. Continue reading


When Did Joseph and Mary Go to Bethlehem for the Census?

Joseph and pregnant Mary at the census. But what if we got this picture wrong, and Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census, when Jesus was 10 years old? (credit: Chora Church, Istanbul/Shutterstock)

 

If this proposal turns out to be correct, it would positively throw perhaps the best argument AGAINST the historical reliability of the Bible into the dumpster…. But to get the idea, you would have to completely rethink how Luke handles chronology. Veracity readers, get out your thinking caps!

One of the thorniest apologetic challenges is trying to fit Luke’s traditional dating for Jesus’ birth to Caesar’s census, during the time when Quirinius was governor, with Matthew’s version, which has Jesus born during the latter years of Herod. The big problem is the timing. Luke’s Quirinian census is typically dated to 6 A.D., largely due to Josephus’ historical record, whereas Matthew’s description of the death of Herod is somewhere around 4-1 B.C.

That is like at least a 7-10 year discrepancy. Whoops.

Skeptics of the Bible often point to this as proof that the Bible has errors in it, and therefore, the Bible can not be trusted for history.

Over the years, Christian apologists have put forward various explanations to account for this discrepancy. Perhaps we are talking about a different census, with Luke’s census happening a few years earlier, but that we simply have no secular or other record for it. Perhaps Josephus was wrong on his dating of events. While these proposals present some thoughtful possibilities, the critics often respond with, “Meh…. There go the Christians again, overreaching for an apologetic.”

But what if the traditional reading of Luke’s story has been misinterpreted? What if it is possible, that about 10 years after Jesus’ birth, after living a few years in Nazareth, the Holy Family returned back to Bethlehem for the census? What if the story about the census is a digression, purposefully inserted by Luke, temporarily jumping ahead in the chronological narrative, before returning back to the main story about Jesus’ birth?

I argue for a similar literary technique used by Luke in Acts, regarding the number of visits Paul makes to Jerusalem, that attempts to reconcile with Paul’s own story in Galatians. Studies by New Testament scholars, such as Michael Licona, author of Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, argue that Luke uses such literary techniques more frequently than traditionally known, whether by evangelicals or skeptics!

In fact, Luke unambiguously does this very thing in Luke 3, by sandwiching verses 19-20, detailing John the Baptist’s future imprisonment, in the middle of the narrative regarding Jesus’ baptism. We know from Mark 1:9-11 that John the Baptist baptized Jesus, which must have happened prior to John’s imprisonment. Apparently, Luke is not afraid of reporting events in a non-chronological manner, to suit his own purposes, assuming that his readers would already know the exact historical chronology.

British bible teacher, Andrew Wilson, on the “Think” blog, pointed me to this new research done by David Armitage, and published in 2018, at the British evangelical think tank in Cambridge, Tyndale House. Armitage’s proposal has a number of exegetical and translation steps to make, but the more I think about it, Armitage’s idea is quite persuasive.

Jump on over to the Think blog to get the argument summary, but here below is Armitage’s proposed translation of Luke 1:80-2:7, that puts all of the pieces together. The chronological digression might be hard to pick out, so you may need to wait for the full explanation at the end of this post to get it straight. The main thing to look for is Luke 1:80 to 2:5, where the narrative jumps forward in time, following along the time period of John the Baptist’s upbringing, before resuming in verse 6, which chronologically follows after the narrative of where John the Baptist’s birth ends, described in Luke 1. It starts with the story of the young, John the Baptist, as he was growing up (notice how chapter headings, first introduced in our Bibles by, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 13th century, can be misleading):

1:80 The child [John the Baptist] grew and was strengthened in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. 2:1 As it happens, it was during that time that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the Roman world 2 (this was the first registration, when Quirinius was governor of Syria), 3 and everyone went – each into their own town – to be registered. 4 Joseph also went up: out of Galilee, away from the town of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s town (which is called Bethlehem) because he was from the house and family of David; 5 he went to be registered with Mary (she who was his betrothed when she was pregnant).

6 Now, it transpired that the days were completed for her to give birth when they were in that place, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was insufficient space for them in their lodging place.

Compare with the ESV translation, and see what you think:

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The most troublesome verse for me is verse 5, as the ESV follows the standard interpretation, by describing the condition Mary was in, during the Quirinian census, that of being pregnant with Jesus. But Armitage argues that the Greek allows for a different translation, with a parenthetical comment, that simply reminds the reader of who Mary was, with no immediate time reference implied. This sets us up to read verse 6 as a transition, implicitly ten years prior, back to the main narrative, emphasizing the place of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem, and not the timing. I am no Greek scholar, but this is very intriguing! Armitage paraphrases verse 5 like this:

Joseph went there to register with Mary – that same Mary, you will recall, who whilst betrothed to him was pregnant.

Objections to Armitage’s reconstruction might focus on the complex number of interpretive steps required. However, the whole solution is actually simpler, if we grant that Luke has a habit of sometimes jumping around chronologically in his narrative, for reasons clear to his original audience, that are not always intuitive to more contemporary readers. One big plus is that Armitage’s reconstruction adequately explains why Matthew’s account never mentions the Quirinian census; that is, Matthew never covers the events of Jesus’ life at age 10.

If Armitage’s proposal holds, and he admits that it is far from being certain, this is what he says his revised chronology looks like. It totally reframes one of the most well-known Bible stories, of all time, but it solves a particularly knotty, chronological problem:

  1. Towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great, Mary – who is from Nazareth – encounters an angel who foretells Jesus’ birth.
  2. Mary visits Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, then returns home.
  3. Although already found to be pregnant whilst betrothed, Mary marries Joseph – a man from Bethlehem – who initially takes Mary to his family home.
  4. Jesus is born in Bethlehem; because of space restrictions in their quarters, Mary and Joseph place the baby in a feeding trough in the main living area.
  5. The family subsequently relocate to Nazareth, establishing there a home of their own.
  6. Several years later, when Quirinius is governing Syria, an enrolment is announced, so Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, because this remains the location of Joseph’s family home, and he needs to register in connection with property there.

Pretty cool, huh?

Additional Resources:

I wrote about the Quirinius question five years ago, but David Armitage’s new solution is by far, the most persuasive, in my view…. A couple of other twists to the birth narratives:  The traditional story of Jesus’ birth, as told in many Hollywood movies, tries to smash together the events recorded by Matthew and Luke, such that you have Luke’s shepherds together with Matthew’s wise men from the east, gathered around the newborn Jesus. It makes for a tidy story, until you start comparing Matthew and Luke together, a well-known difficulty for students of the Bible. Matthew has no shepherds, and Luke has no wise men! More than likely, the visit with Matthew’s “wise men,” or more specifically, “magi,” was a separate event, happening weeks, if not months, after Jesus’ birth. This places the trip to Egypt, as described in Matthew, at some undetermined time after the birth of Jesus, yet prior to the permanent settlement in Nazareth, an historical detail that Luke simply ignores. As another example, a growing consensus among Bible scholars has pretty much rejected the popular, traditional idea, of Joseph and a pregnant Mary going up and down the streets of Bethlehem, looking for a place to stay, only to be finally turned away at the “inn.” Contemporary scholarship makes the more modest claim that there was no available “guest room” for the family to stay in at relatives in Bethlehem, a correction made explicit in the NIV 2011 translation of Luke 2:7 (The ESV keeps the more traditional “inn,” but puts “guest room” in a footnote; see above, but according to New Testament scholar, Ian Paul, the evidence favors the “guest room” translation).

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