Category Archives: Apologetics

Why Would A Good God Create a Killer Virus, Like COVID-19? (In 5 Minutes)

Does having a good God … and deadly viruses, like the coronavirus, really mix? That is a question on the minds of many folks these days.

To help me think through this type of question, I am indebted to the good folks at Reasons to Believe. A few years, virologist A. J. Roberts joined the staff at Reasons to Believe, an Old Earth Creationist ministry. She participated in several very good (and short) interviews on this very topic, when she joined Reasons to Believe, and her answers are just as helpful today, as they were a few years ago….

…. in the meantime, pray for the medical workers on the front lines, who are at the highest risk of infection from COVID-19:

If you like the video, you may want to watch the others, in this series below:

 

 


Does the Bible Really Support Slavery on the Basis of Skin-Color?

Noah curses his son Ham, a 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov. Ham looks pretty white to me here, but for thousands of Christians in the American South, from at least the 19th century to recent times, they thought Ham (or his son Canaan) had black skin.

One of the persistent criticisms made against the Christian faith is the claim that the Bible supports slavery. The “New Atheists” argue that the Bible’s support for slavery demonstrates that the Bible is an immoral book, an ancient text better left to the Bronze age, from which it came. Overly-enthusiastic defenders of the faith, eager to answer such critics, can sometimes overreact in the opposite direction, ignoring some of the more difficult statements found in Scripture.

The answer is, as is the case with all “social justice” issues, is a bit more complicated. For the critics, they have a point in that Leviticus 25:44-46 looks to be, on a surface reading, to be condoning chattel slavery, treating persons as property, that can be bought or sold. However, Tyndale House linguistics scholar Peter J. Williams makes the case that passages like these require a more thoughtful reading, paying closer attention to the historical context in which they were made (see video below).

Many people today find the Bible’s comments on slavery disturbing, because they often confuse the Bible’s discussion of slavery, with how Americans in the antebellum South practiced slavery, with dark-skinned Africans. Many Americans, particularly in the antebellum Old South (and even perhaps some even today!!), based the enslavement of dark-skinned Africans on a rather crude reading of Noah’s “Curse on Ham”, as found in Genesis 9:20-27, when Ham’s son, Canaan, was cursed by Noah, after Ham uncovered “the nakedness of his father.” What is striking right away is that the curse was actually made against Canaan, Ham’s son, and not Ham himself. The “African slavery” interpretation is all the more alarming, when one considers that Canaan is the ancestor of the Canaanites who populated the Promised Land, that Joshua and the Israelites settled. There is no evidence in Scripture that Canaan had any African descendants.

By the 15th century, an interpretive tradition became popular, identifying the practice of enslaving Africans, as a result of this so-called “Curse on Ham.” But according to semitic and Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser, in an episode of FringePop321, this particular Bible interpretation is woefully flawed, in multiple ways, failing to take into account, the critical presence of metaphor in Genesis, that can be seen by a more broad reading of Scripture, following the practice of interpreting Scripture with Scripture (see second video below).

So, what was the whole “nakedness of [Noah’s] father” all about? Dr. Heiser makes the compelling case that it had EVERYTHING to do with Ham seeking to usurp his father’s clan leadership, and absolutely NOTHING to do with skin color.

The bottom line? Whatever criticisms can be levied against the Bible regarding the practice of slavery, such slavery can NOT be equated with the kind of racial-based slavery practiced in the antebellum American South.

Bible interpretation matters, folks. Bible interpretation matters.

For a helpful summary of the Bible’s teaching on slavery in general, please read this excellent article over at Alisa Childers’ apologetics blog. For a critical interaction with the idea that the Bible only endorses indentured servitude, and not chattel slavery, consult this YouTube video by Digital Hammurabi (also this additional video by Digital Hammurabi: scholars appear to be divided on this issue concerning chattel slavery). For a summary of scholarly views on the Genesis 9 text, with an extensive interaction with Dr. Heiser’s exegesis, read this article by Kathleen Kasper at YourBibleBlog. Dr. Heiser’s work largely depends on research done by Roman Catholic scholars John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Hahn. Peter Leithart summarizes Bergsma and Hahn. This current blog article updates the research I did regarding the “Curse of Ham,”  for a previous blog article I wrote in 2015.

 


Joseph Smith’s “Corrections” to the Bible?

Gary, the Mormon kid on South Park.

Some friends of mine are Latter-day Saints (Mormons). They are some wonderful people.

But the more I dig into the history of Mormonism, the weirder the story of Joseph Smith gets. For example, in the early 1830s, Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Latter-day Saints movement, undertook the task to “correct” some of the “mistranslations” found in the King James Bible. Smith’s rationale for doing this is well documented:

“From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled….I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol 1, p. 245 and vol. 6, p. 57).

Many Mormons are probably unaware that Joseph Smith ever made such a translation, and for good reasons. First, Smith never completely finished this new translation. Furthermore, some portions of this work appear in other Scriptures considered sacred to the Latter Day Saints, so no additional affirmation of these portions is considered necessary (as is the case of Smith’s The Book of Moses).

After Smith was killed in 1844, his surviving wife, Emma, obtained the manuscripts of his translation work, and joined what was called the RLDS, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ). The RLDS were a breakaway sect, led by Joseph Smith’s son, which eventually settled in Independence, Missouri. So, the RLDS should not to be confused with the main body of Mormons that moved to Utah. The RLDS retained the copyright for the “Joseph Smith Translation,” so technically, the main Utah group does not have an official claim to it (though selections from the translation are viewable from the main LDS.org website, under “Study Helps”).

Most of the changes are relatively benign. Some changes are like a sort of commentary on difficult parts of the Scriptures, that actually chime in well with what many Christians today believe.

For example, what does it mean to “take up his cross, and follow me?” Here is the King James (KJV) on Matthew 16:24-25:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

A lot of people wonder about this: What does it really mean to take up one’s cross, and follow Jesus? So, Smith added some explanatory verses:

And now for a man to take up his cross, is to deny himself all ungodliness, and every worldly lust, and keep my commandments. Break not my commandments for to save your lives; for whosoever will save his life in this world, shall lose it in the world to come. And whosoever will lose his life in this world, for my sake, shall find it in the world to come (Italics belong to Joseph Smith, from JST, Matthew 16:26-28).

I have heard numerous sermons over the years, that pretty much support the ideas that Smith inserts into the text. At first glance, it may seem credible.

Then there is Joseph Smith’s intellectual battle with Calvinism, reflecting on some of the struggles he had listening to some of the Presbyterian preachers of his youth. In the LDS official version of Joseph Smith’s famous “First Vision” account, Smith admits that he sought comfort for a time in attending the Methodist church, the Methodists being essentially an Arminian denomination, that often rejected key themes found in Calvinistic Presbyterianism. For example, consider a favorite prooftext for what many Calvinists call the “Reformed” doctrine of limited atonement:

No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:44 KJV).

Advocates of limited atonement find support in this verse for this idea: that Jesus only died for the elect, and not for all of humanity. For only someone who is drawn by the Father can truly know Jesus, and be truly saved.

The evidence that Joseph Smith chafed at this thought is evidenced by how he seeks to “correct” this verse, in his own translation. Note the italicized additions/changes that Smith inserted into the text:

No man can come unto me, except he doeth the will of my Father who hath sent me. And this is the will of him who hath sent me, that ye receive the Son; for the Father beareth record of him; and he who receiveth the testimony, and doeth the will of him who sent me, I will raise up in the resurrection of the just (John 6:44 JST).

Smith clearly sides with the Arminians, the opponents of historic Calvinism, who champion the alternative idea of universal atonement, that Jesus died for all people. In Joseph Smith’s rendering of this verse, he even goes farther than most Arminians, by suggesting that salvation is contingent on doing the will of the Father.

Furthermore, many Calvinists rest in the confidence of a doctrine of predestination, that emphasizes the calling of God:

But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. (I Corinthians 1:24 KJV).

But Joseph Smith will have none of this. It is not those who are “called” but those who “believe” will be saved:

But unto them who believe, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24 JST).

Arminians: 2. Calvinists: 0…. Sorry, Calvinists.

But there are places where Smith just added some stuff, that, ….. well…. see what you can make out of it.

Here is the King James for 1 Corinthians 15:40:

There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

Now, here is Joseph Smith on the same verse (the italics show the changes):

There are three degrees of glory in the Resurrection. Also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial, and bodies telestial; but the glory of the celestial, one; and the terrestrial, another; and the telestial, another. (Joseph Smith Translation, 1 Corinthians 15:40).

What stands out here is that Smith takes the two realms (or degrees) from Paul’s letter, the celestial and the terrestrial, and then Smith adds a third realm, what he calls the “telestial.”

Does anybody know what “telestial” is? Not really.

Nobody really has a clue.

Even Mormon scholars.

Now, here is a real head scratcher. In Hebrews 7:3, the KJV has a real brief description of Melchizedek:

Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.

Joseph Smith goes on and fills out some more details. Here is his translation of Hebrews 7:3:

For this Melchizedek was ordained a priest after the order of the Son of God, which order was without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life. And all those who are ordained unto this priesthood are made like unto the Son of God, abiding a priest continually. (Italics by Joseph Smith, from Joseph Smith Translation, Hebrews 7:3).

So, where did Smith get his information for this new translation? He had no background in any biblical language: Neither Hebrew, Greek, nor Aramaic. There is no known existing variant from New Testament sources that can account for Smith’s additions. Strangely enough (or strangely not), Smith’s commentary sounds a whole lot like what is known about the Mormon priesthood.

But here is the real kicker. In standard translations of Genesis, the book ends with Genesis 50:26. Not so with the Joseph Smith’s version. He adds a good 20+ verses to the end of the book. Here is just a portion of what Smith wrote. Keep in mind that there is a not a shred of physical evidence from antiquity to support Smith’s amendments. Note where the italics, belonging to Smith, start:

And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die, and go unto my fathers; and I go down to my grave with joy. The God of my father Jacob be with you, to deliver you out of affliction in the days of your bondage; for the Lord hath visited me, and I have obtained a promise of the Lord, that out of the fruit of my loins, the Lord God will raise up a righteous branch out of my loins; and unto thee, whom my father Jacob hath named Israel, a prophet; (not the Messiah who is called Shilo;) and this prophet shall deliver my people out of Egypt in the days of thy bondage…. (Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 50:24-26)

But here is more, towards the end:

And that seer will I bless, and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded; for this promise I give unto you; for I will remember you from generation to generation; and his name shall be called Joseph, and it shall be after the name of his father; and he shall be like unto you; for the thing which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand shall bring my people unto salvation. (Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 50:33)

Notice that Smith adds that a descendant of the Genesis Joseph, whose name will also be called, “Joseph,” will be a prophet, who is to come.

Joseph Smith’s first name is “Joseph.” On top of that, Joseph Smith was a “Junior,” as his father’s name was “Joseph,” too.

Get the connection?

Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins researches problems in LDS history: Many Mormons are completely unaware of the checkered past of their own church.

If anyone has read Grant Palmer’s An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, you will know that during the early 1830s, Smith was under tremendous pressure, as some of the early witnesses to the Book of Mormon, were denying their testimony. By appealing to his own translation of Genesis 50, he could claim that his appointment as a prophet was established back in the Old Testament, centuries before his own birth! This surely helped to bolster the flagging faith of those who might be tempted to abandon Smith’s leadership.

On what basis does Joseph Smith make the claim that “ignorant translators” and “careless transcribers” made such grevious errors, such that he and he alone was qualified to make such corrections to the received Scriptural text of the Old and New Testaments? Apparently, Smith believed that he was under divine inspiration.

Mormonism has always had what scholars call a “Restorationist” impulse; that is, a movement towards trying to recover what the original Jesus and original Christianity was all about, and restoring things back to the way it was, before corruption set into Christianity as an organized faith. But rarely do the specifics of what those “corruptions” are get discussed, in the Mormon circles I have encountered. Here, in Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible itself, we get an idea of what Smith was really going after.

Will Mormonism survive, in its current form, as more of these details of Mormon history emerge? Who knows.

However, I am concerned that there any many, even among my fellow evangelical Christian believers, who are also unaware of these things, and who are all too willing to say that Mormonism is fundamentally no different than any other form of Christian faith, a problematic statement at best. (see previous Veracity postings about the LDS faith here, here, here, and here).

Weigh the evidence for yourself. But it really makes you pause to think about the legitimacy of Mormon origins, when its leading figure sees fit to “correct” the Bible, to serve the purposes of the movement, which he himself started.

For more detail, watch apologist Mike Winger’s video on this topic.

For other posts addressing problematic issues concerning the Mormon faith, please consult these previous Veracity blog posts:

A brief summary of Mormon doctrine, and how the LDS movement is different than other Christian movements.

Some Christians apparently believe that Mormonism is no different than any other Protestant denomination, and even more on target spiritually-speaking than Eastern Orthodoxy. I briefly argue why this is flatly wrong.

Why attempts to somehow “whitewash” Mormon history fail to pass the historical evidence.

An overview of how Mormonism is changing (and not changing) today.

 


Joseph Smith’s First Vision

For historically-orthodox Christians, the foundational event that undergirds the Christian faith is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), the foundational event for the Mormon faith is the “First Vision,” as described by Joseph Smith, most importantly, in an account written in 1838. The “First Vision” is about establishing the claim that Joseph Smith was selected by God to restore Christianity back to its true, original foundations. The Christian church had fallen into confusion, due to centuries of corrupt doctrine and traditions, having taken the Christian church away from its proper course.

In the “First Vision,” Joseph Smith encounters a vision of Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, in the spring of 1820, close to his teenage home, near Palmyra, New York. There he inquires of the vision, wishing to know which branch of Christianity he should follow: Would it be the Presbyterians? The Methodists? The Baptists? The answer was “none of the above.” The LDS church has a four-minute video, detailing a depiction of that signal event:

However, the narrative of this “official” story of the “First Vision” is complicated by the fact that Joseph Smith also details another account, written in 1832, that differs in detail from the 1838 account. Two differences stand out:

  • (1) In the 1832 account, Joseph Smith only sees “the Lord,” thus indicating the appearance of only one personage, and not two, according to the standard 1838 account.
  • (2) In the 1832 account, Joseph Smith has already himself determined that none of the churches are true, which differs from the standard 1838 account, where the visionary personages instruct Joseph to believe that none of the churches are true, as an answer to his inquiry.

Can these two accounts be reconciled? For a detailed explanation, suggesting that the accounts can NOT be reconciled, you may wish to view this 35-minute YouTube video, by Dan Vogel, author of Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet.

How would you answer the question?

ComeUntoChrist.org is an evangelistic ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They often post YouTube videos encouraging others to consider the Mormon faith. Is the message of Mormonism consistent with the message of historically orthodox Christian faith?


Patterns of Evidence: The Red Sea Miracle (A Review)

Filmmaker Tim Mahoney is a man on a mission, to find out the real history of the Exodus. Recently, I viewed a Fathom theatre event, showcasing his latest Patterns of Evidence film: The Red Sea Miracle. The Red Sea Miracle is part one of a two part set of films, the second to be scheduled for theatre release on May 5, 2020.

In general, The Red Sea Miracle was ambitious, even for a 2 1/2 hour movie, but the storyline held together better than his last film, The Moses Controversy, which explored the possibility of how Moses might have been able to write the first five books of the Bible. Like the original film, The Exodus, which considered the chronology of Moses, and the timing of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, this first part of the third film series, The Red Sea Miracle, looked at yet another controversial question, regarding the historicity of the Exodus, namely where the crossing of the “Red Sea” might have taken place. Overall, I found the newest film quite fascinating and encouraging, despite a few noticeable drawbacks.

First, let us consider the good parts of the film. The Red Sea Miracle does a very good job at giving a helpful overview of the questions that archaeologists, Old Testament specialists, and other scholars are asking, when they try to determine where Moses might have led the Israelites across the “Red Sea.” The amount of data to work through, both biblically and archaeologically, is quite a lot, and numerous interpretation challenges remain. So for a 2 1/2 hour film, Tim Mahoney is to be commended for his honesty, his warmth, his sincerity, and his determination, in helping viewers understand the complex issues involved. He also produced a cinematically pleasing movie to look at, a highly professional piece of film making that helped me to focus on the topic being addressed.

Tim Mahoney also rightfully exposes viewers to a wide range of scholarship, in considering the question of where Moses might have parted the Red Sea. Anyone who has shown serious interest in Bible archaeology will know that the majority of archaeologists today are highly skeptical about the presence of Israelites in Egypt, much less who believe the traditional account of the Red Sea crossing. Mahoney interviews some of these scholars, but interestingly, he interviews one scholar, Manfred Bietak, one of today’s leading Austrian Egyptologists, who now believes that there is at least some evidence, that is consistent with the story of Israelites being slaves in ancient Egypt. When Mahoney interviewed Bietak, over a decade ago, for the first Patterns of Evidence film, The Exodus, it was Bietak’s skepticism regarding the historicity of the Exodus story, that first discouraged Tim Mahoney in his film making journey.

In addition to some skeptical scholars, Mahoney also interviews a wide range of evangelical Christian scholars, who hold various, and even conflicting views, as to where the Red Sea crossing might have occurred. Mahoney divides these scholars into two broadly-defined camps: those who favor the “Egyptian” view, and those who favor the “Hebrew” view. The “Egyptian” view, generally speaking, favors a crossing of the “Reed” Sea, through the shallow lake region, within a few dozen miles of Egypt, with perhaps as few as 20,000 or so Israelites. The “Hebrew” view favors a crossing at the Gulf of Aqaba, over 200 miles away from Egypt, on the eastern side of the Sinai peninsula, with over 2 million Israelites. The “Egyptian” view favors the traditional location of Mount Sinai, on the Sinai peninula, whereas the “Hebrew” view favors Mount Sinai being in Saudi Arabia.

I was surprised to discover, that unlike the two previous Mahoney films, Mahoney is now less enamored with the ideas proposed by Egyptologist David Rohl, who Mahoney tends to elevate highly in the first two films. David Rohl, who considers himself to be an atheist, is a genuine, peer-reviewed scholar, but his unconventional revision of Egyptian chronology has yet to gain significant support from his other historian and archaeologist colleagues, from within the scholarly guild. This is important, for a viewer of the first two films might be erroneously drawn to conclude that David Rohl’s proposals carry far greater weight, in academic circles, than is actually the case. One can not simply dismiss David Rohl’s ideas out of hand, but a lot more work needs to be done before Rohl’s proposals gain broader acceptance. Interestingly, I found it quite telling that David Rohl is highly skeptical of the “Hebrew,” Gulf of Aqaba crossing view. He tells Mahoney that he would need to see an actual chariot wheel dug up from the floor of the Gulf of Aqaba, before he would accept a “Red Sea” crossing, at that location.

I was also glad that Mahoney did not mention Ron Wyatt in the film, the late adventurer and fringe archaelogist, who made a big splash years ago by reportedly spotting such a chariot wheel on the bottom of the Gulf of Aqaba floor. The shenanigans of Ron Wyatt have brought a lot of Christian attempts at archaeology into ill-repute, making for an unnecessary stumbling block for some regarding the Gospel. Thankfully, Mahoney did his best to interview top, well-regarded scholars in the field instead.

Despite the film’s many strengths, there was one aspect that stuck out as a major criticism of The Red Sea Miracle. Mahoney clearly favors the “Hebrew” over and against the “Egyptian” view of the crossing. He believes that a shallow lake crossing, with a relatively smaller number of Israelites, is somehow less “miraculous” than a Gulf of Aqaba crossing.

This is really peculiar, as it assumes that the bigger the miracle, the more miraculous it would be, and therefore, the more Scripturally faithful it would be. I get the point that Tim Mahoney is trying to make, but it is not necessary to make such a point, in the interest of defending the Bible. Sure, if Moses took over 2 million Israelites across the Red Sea, Cecil B. DeMille-style, even somewhere relatively deep, like the Gulf of Aqaba, then God can do anything. Who are we to put limits upon God?

But a smaller event is still a miracle. To conclude that today’s shallow lake region near Egypt is unsuitable for a crossing, assumes that Pharoah’s army could not have drowned in only a “few feet of water.” Nevertheless, storm surges can still kill a lot of people, even in relatively shallow areas. Just consider how at least 6,000 died during the 1900 hurricane to hit Galveston, Texas, with an 8 to 12 foot storm surge.

Yet even if a more naturalistic explanation could be found for the Red Sea crossing, the timing of such an event, such as a large wind separating the waters, at just the right time, is still miracle enough, and thoroughly demonstrates the power of God. Did Moses simply get lucky that the sea parted, just when he got to the water’s edge? Or was this, too, evidence that points to the providence and power of God?

Consider the story of the Risen Jesus: If God really wanted to show a grand miracle of Resurrection, he could have Resurrected thousands upon thousands of people on Easter morning. That would have been a much more impressive miracle. But it was sufficient for God to demonstrate his overwhelming power and victory over sin and death, by Resurrecting the one God-Man, Jesus Christ. Does not God have the right to demonstrate his miraculous power, however God wishes to do so?

Unfortunately, Mahoney did not adequately address some of the weaknesses of the Gulf of Aqaba crossing proposal, that is rejected by a greater number of evangelical scholars. Alas, there is only so much you can do in such a long film, and still hold people’s attention, even with an intermission midway through the theatre showing. Dr. Michael Heiser, for example, notes that a Gulf of Aqaba crossing presents a number of problems when trying to reconcile certain chronological aspects of the journey through the Wilderness, such as where the Israelites obtained water from a rock. In other words, the issues are a lot more complex than most realize (which is partly why the controversy over the location of the Red Sea crossing continues to perplex even the best evangelical scholars).

To be fair, while Tim Mahoney still appears to favor what he calls a “Hebrew” view, he rightly acknowledges that different evangelical scholars hold some widely differing perspectives, in good faith, on this most interesting topic.

The last half hour of the film was a panel discussion, held at the Answers in Genesis Ark Encounter, in Kentucky, where some Christian leaders reflected on the film, including Truett McConnell University Old Testament scholar Jeremy Lyon, radio talk show host Janet Mefferd, Precepts founder Kay Arthur, and Answers in Genesis’ Ken Ham. What was interesting about this panel is that all four participants interviewed are all Young Earth Creationists. Yet perhaps the larger majority of scholars interviewed in The Red Sea Miracle do not hold a Young Earth Creationist interpretation of the Bible. Is this perhaps a sign of a rapprochement between advocates of Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism? It made me curious.

All in all, I enjoyed The Red Sea Miracle, despite what I detected to be noticeable flaws. The exact location of where the Israelites crossed the Red Sea is not a critical matter of faith, nor is the exact size of the Israelite nation as they crossed it. At the same time, considering these issues would help believers to gain a greater interest in studying Scripture, as well providing helpful conversation points, when engaging with skeptics. As a bottom line, I would tend to agree with Dr. Michael Heiser, “Although we can’t determine the precise location of the crossing, the various possibilities in no way rule out God’s providential intervention on behalf of his people.”

Keep an eye out for The Red Sea Miracle, Part 2, coming May 5th.


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