Category Archives: Apologetics

When Philippians Says “Every Knee Shall Bow” to Jesus, Does This Mean That Everyone Will Be Saved in the End?

Philippians 2 includes some verses that advocates of universalism often quote to argue that every human individual will be saved in the end. Let us take a look at that claim, and see if it stands up under scrutiny. First, here is the passage, Philippians 2:4-11:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (ESV).

The highlighted part, in verses 9-11, has phrases that puzzle many readers of the Bible, like “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,” and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

What does that really mean?

Time magazine’s April 25. 2011 cover was inspired by former megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins, with a revisionist look at the classic doctrine of hell, that eventually led to Rob Bell leaving the pastorate.

What is “Christian Universalism?”

Now, before we dive any deeper, it is important to define what is meant by “universalism.” There is a popular form of “universalism,” embraced by those who have only a shallow knowledge about the Bible, which basically argues that there is no such thing as hell. Instead, when any and every human dies they are automatically ushered into the presence of “God,” and warmly received there.

This is essentially a typical “man on the street” view of what life after death looks like. However, this rather generic view of the afterlife is to be distinguished from a specifically “Christian Universalism,” that actually engages the Bible and affirms a doctrine of hell, but that frames the experience of the afterlife in terms that are quite different from what most other Christians believe.

Advocates of “Christian Universalism” make the claim that Philippians 2 teaches that, in the end, every human individual will eventually find salvation in Christ, because this passage teaches that everyone will ultimately make a profession of belief in Jesus. In other words, even those who do not make a profession of faith in Christ in this life will eventually be won over to the Gospel in the next life.

Not all “Christian Universalists” articulate their argument in exactly the same way, but there is a common thread of logic: A “Christian Universalism” perspective argues that the experience of hell, in the afterlife, does not have a purely punitive effect. Rather, hell has a purgative effect, of redeeming the lost sinner, who has refused the Gospel in the earthly realm, only finally to be united with God, once the experience of hell removes their rebellion and hostility towards God. At the risk of oversimplifying the position, a “Christian Universalism” is basically an attempt to treat the medieval doctrine of purgatory as being applicable to all human beings, where God will ultimately sanctify every person, ranging from your kind yet eccentric uncle or aunt, who spouts atheistic sentiments, to the most terrifying persons, like an Adolf Hitler and a Joseph Stalin.

Cautions About Prejudging Any Discussion Regarding Universalism

It is necessary to say a couple of more things, before diving into the Scriptures regarding this passage. First, it must be acknowledged that over the years of the Christian church, outspoken advocates for a “Christian Universalism” have made their case for this particular point of view. Back in the early church, those like Origen, and perhaps(???) Gregory of Nyssa, have promoted some form of universalism. In the 19th century, the famed Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald wrote in favor of a “Christian Universalism,” while others have made the claim that the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, did so, too (albeit in a rather obfuscated way).

In the 21st century, contemporary advocates of universalism have included the author Robin Parry; the somewhat obfuscated perspective offered by former megachurch pastor, Rob Bell, in his 2011 book, Love Wins;, and most recently, an unashamedly forceful case made by Eastern Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart. Hart has no qualms in announcing that the traditional doctrine of eternal hell is a cruel “obscenity” that does nothing more than terrorize young children with unfounded trauma.1

In other words, let those who believe in eternal damnation be damned themselves.

While some may find such a view of eternity as attractive, accompanied by a sigh of relief, it must be stated that “Christian Universalism” has been a minority view in the long history of the Christian church.  More often than not, Christians over the centuries have typically viewed such purveyors of “Christian Universalism” with contempt.

Some Christians have believed that all historically orthodox Christians should shun such “Christian Universalism” proponents as being nothing more than pure heretics, that deserve full-on condemnation and the utter rejection of all of their writings and teachings. However, we should be careful not to sanction a blanket dismissal of such persons. Consider just a few of these things:

  • Origen wrote the first Christian systematic theology, in defense of a Christian worldview, in the early church of the 2nd century. After Saint Paul, we owe pretty much the entire intellectual development of a “Christian mind” to the seminal writings of Origen.
  • Gregory of Nyssa championed both the doctrine of the Trinity as well as being one of the first persons to advocate for the elimination of slavery, hundreds of years prior to the Atlantic slave trade of Africans to America.
  • George MacDonald’s fantasy books played a large role in bringing the well-known apologist C.S. Lewis out of atheism to having faith in Christ.
  • Karl Barth has been credited as almost single-handedly recovering the doctrine of the Triune nature of God, for 20th century Christians, back in the day when many Christians were ready to abandon the Trinity.
  • David Bentley Hart, one of the world’s most prominent theologians, has written perhaps the most lucid, extraordinarily witty, and highly acclaimed critiques against the “New Atheists,” Atheist Delusions.

One can respectfully and strongly disagree with someone on a very important point of doctrinal controversy without having to feel the need to completely throw that other person without mercy under a bus. Christian Universalists can still be quite orthodox in other doctrinal matters. Christians can learn even from those who have heretical tendencies, on certain doctrinal matters. Or to put it another way, if you have a Christian friend who believes in universalism, it is okay for you to let your friend be wrong.

Secondly, very few thoughtful Christians relish the idea of the doctrine of hell, and for good reason. The doctrine of hell raises really difficult questions, that even the most devout Christian struggles with from time to time.

The late J.I. Packer put it this way:

“No evangelical, I think, need hesitate to admit that in his heart of hearts he would like universalism to be true. Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!”

Likewise, I want the universalists to be right. I do not want people, for whom I deeply love and care for, to perish eternally separated from God. Even if universalism was not true, and yet there was still a way for people to somehow have an opportunity, post-mortem, to come to faith in Jesus (as some have argued), I would want that to be true. Better yet, I would want everyone to come to know Jesus, in this lifetime!

But just because I want something to be true, does not make it true. If the Bible teaches something that I have a difficult time accepting or understanding, that still does not give me the liberty to pick and choose what to believe, from the Bible. If the Bible really teaches that not everyone will be saved in the end, a viewpoint which I will argue is indeed found in the Holy Scriptures, then it is incumbent on me to be willing to submit to that teaching, out of obedience to God. If the evidence found within the Bible points towards a particular direction in establishing a doctrinal truth, then I need to hold onto that, and not waiver, even if from my limited point of view, I do not like it.

Sure, there are difficulties, such as the fate of the unevangelized, that every Christian reading the Bible needs to deal with. But one answer to that would be for Christians to be gripped with the urgency of the missionary enterprise, and do everything we can to make disciples of all of the nations. One of the biggest criticisms aimed at the “Christian Universalist” position, is that it undercuts the impetus behind world evangelization.

Alternatively, by taking seriously the Great Commission, we demonstrate obedience towards following the commandments our our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:16-20). Still, when all is said and done, it is one thing to hope for and pray for God to make a way for someone to come to know Jesus, in a manner that might completely defy our understanding. But it is quite another to dogmatically assert a belief which can not be wholly be reconciled with Scripture (I will have to save any discussion of conditional immortality, or annihilationism, as a possible alternative to the doctrine of conscious eternal torment to a future blog post).2

Thirdly, what makes “Christian Universalism” so attractive to many is that it is perceived as a solution to one particular aspect to the problem of evil. Therefore, one can share empathy with such a concern on an emotional level without giving into a denial of sound doctrine. Here is the objection: For if God so loved world that he gave his Son for us, why would God not also just save the entire world, with every person in it? The doctrine of hell, in this context, comes across as triggering a sense of unfairness, that begs for an answer, for many non-believers and believers alike. In many ways, “Christian Universalism” addresses yet another dimension of any supposed unfairness being imposed on humanity by God. However, this is where Christians need to tread carefully, for what might appear to be unfair from a human perspective many not accurately correspond to what God deems to be unfair. A truly Christian view of God requires us to have the confidence that God is indeed right and good in ways that we as humans do not fully understand.

The bottom line is this: I am called to put my trust in God, and his goodness, and therefore I must accept the judgments of Scripture, and not defiantly question the Scriptures themselves as our authority. I may have doubts and struggles, and even honest questions, but I do not have the freedom to outright reject the truth of something taught within the pages of the Sacred Text, if I truly consider myself to be follower of Jesus.

Medieval depiction of purgatory, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (credit: Wikipedia). For “Christian Univeralists,” the experience of hell is real, albeit in a disputed sense, but not eternal. Rather, it is the rough equivalent to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Those who do not accept Jesus in this life will eventually be purged of their sins in hell, before becoming ultimately reconciled to God in the next life.

So, What About “Every Knee Shall Bow” and “Every Tongue Confess?”

Now, with those introductory remarks out of the way, we can explore what Philippians 2 is teaching, with more clarity. Contextually speaking, Paul in Philippians 2 is making a case for the incarnation of God, as expressed through Jesus Christ. What is true of God the Father is also true of God the Son. Furthermore, we need to follow Christ’s example, in his humility in becoming human, for our sake, considering others better than ourselves. It is through this humility that Jesus the Son of God is, in turn, lifted up to be given honor and glory, just as the Father is.

What then does this “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” regarding the Lordship of Jesus really mean? Some advocates of the doctrine of hell, in the form of eternal conscious torment, suggest that Philippians 2 is teaching that the sinner, separated from God in hell, will ultimately offer some begrudging acknowledgement in the superiority and/or worshipful-status of Jesus as Lord.

The problem with this interpretation is that in just a few verses later Paul urges his readers at Philippi to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (verse 14). Yet this would be a strange thing to say, if indeed in a couple of prior verses Paul teaches that this form of acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus would include those who do so under duress, in a begrudging manner. Why would Paul teach this “begrudging” view of Christ’s Lordship, only to flip the application upside down a few verses later to warn against “grumbling or disputing?”

Some reinforce this “begrudging” view by suggesting that those “under the earth,” in verse 10, will included Satan and the powers of evil. But the phrase “under the earth” need not necessarily refer to such evil powers. It could just as easily refer to those who have died, including those who are buried; that is, “under the earth“, who are awaiting resurrection and salvation, upon the Second Coming of Jesus.

Still, a case might be viable for a “Christian Universalism,” at this point, if this “begrudging” view is to be rejected. But is this really what the Apostle Paul had in mind? A better answer would be to consider where this language of “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” actually came from.

The key is to remember that the mind of the Apostle Paul, as a Jew, was saturated in the world of the Old Testament. The language of “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” can be found in Isaiah 45:23:

By myself I have sworn;
    from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
    a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ (ESV)

In other words, Paul is forcing the reader to look back at what the prophet Isaiah was talking about, and that this gives us the clue as to what Paul is really after here. When Isaiah was writing this, he was referring to Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler, who ended the Babylonian Exile, for the Jews in 6th c. BCE, and instructed the Jews to return back to their Promised Land (Isaiah 45:1). The favor that Cyrus extends towards the Jews in Exile is a sign of God’s faithfulness to the Jews, and therefore, the people should bow in reverence and allegiance to the God of Israel.

Interestingly, this passage of Isaiah also makes reference, not just to the restoration of the Jewish homeland, but a calling to the Gentile peoples to repent and come to know and worship the God of Israel (Isaiah 45:20,22 ESV):

“Assemble yourselves and come;
    draw near together,
    you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge
    who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
    that cannot save….

“Turn to me and be saved,
    all the ends of the earth!
    For I am God, and there is no other.

In other words, the prophet Isaiah is talking about “every knee” and “every tongue,” not the sense of “every individual,” but rather, in terms of “every kind of person.” For Isaiah, this means that God is interested having “every kind of person,” including not just Jews, but Gentiles as well, including all “the nations,” coming to know the God of Israel.

Furthermore, Paul argues throughout nearly all of letters for a view of salvation, that not only includes Jews, but Gentiles as well.  This ties in perfectly with the message of Isaiah, that Paul has brought to mind in Philippians. He specifically brings up the Jewish/Gentile issue in Philippians 3. Therefore, it is more consistent and exegetically responsible to say that the “every knee” and “every tongue” in Philippians 2 is about “every kind of person,” including not just Jews, but Gentiles as well, acknowledging that Jesus as the Son is just as much divine as the Father is.

However, for the sake of the argument, what if the “Christian Universalist” is right, by suggesting that “every knee” and “every tongue,” in this passage, is about “every individual,” as opposed to “every kind of person,” both Jew and Gentile? While this case is not likely, it is important to consider briefly what else Paul might be thinking regarding the permanence of hell.

It is true that the Apostle Paul never talks about hell specifically in any of his letters. But this does not mean that he does not address the topic. In 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Paul writes that at his Second Coming, the Lord Jesus will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Regarding the permanence of this punishment, he goes onto say that “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord,” which indicates a certain finality to the eternal judgment against those who reject the Gospel. It is just really difficult to imagine how anyone can read this passage, while still making a compelling argument for “Christian Universalism,” though some have tried. While Paul admittedly focuses on the message of eternal life for those who do know the Lord, by always urging his readers to believe the Gospel, he never ignores the sad reality of God’s condemnation of the lost.

You really can not get away with trying to make a case for universalism from Philippians 2 without running against a central argument that both Isaiah in the Old Testament, and Paul in the New Testament, are trying to make. When we allow our “wishful thinking” for something to be true to distort our evaluation of the evidence for or against a particular doctrine, we end up creating a situation that creates more problems than it solves. In other words, “Christian Universalism” may sound like a great thing, and some might still hope for it, but you really have to bend over backwards with awkward exegetical somersaults and hermeneutical handstands to try to “make it work” with the Bible. Instead, we should soberly accept that the failure to acknowledge Jesus as Lord in this life has eternal consequences that lead to an ultimate separation from God.

To summarize the points of this post, readers might want to view the following video interviewing Dr. Russell Moore, public theologian at Christianity Today magazine. After that, for a quick summary as to why “Christian Universalism” does not work with the teachings of the Bible, take a few minutes to listen to Old Testament scholar, Dr. Michael Heiser.



1. David Bentley Hart has raised a lot of eyebrows in recent years. His spat with N.T. Wright over competing New Testament Bible translations (Wright’s review of Hart’s translation, and Hart’s review of Wright’s translation) serves as a reminder that one should never simply depend on just one Bible translation, particular one done by just one scholar. Committee-based translations, like the NIV and ESV, are not perfect, but they have a built-in mechanism that prevents idiosyncratic readings from disturbing the reader, how thought-provoking they might be. Hart’s own Bible translation has come under critical review from a wide variety of sources (a positive review at the PostBarthian blog,  James Parker at The Atlantic with a mixed review,  Eastern Orthodox priest Stephen Young’s incisive review, blogger Alex Joyner’s mixed review, Bob Short’s multipart review at CatholicBibleTalk #1, , #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, and Wesley Hill’s description of Hart’s project as a “glorious failure.”). Ah, but N.T. Wright’s New Testament translation got a good work-over by Robert Gundry.  

2. In Christian circles, there are basically three views regarding the doctrine of hell: (1) the doctrine of conscious eternal torment, the most traditional view, (2) the doctrine of conditional immortality, whereby the wicked are annihilated in hell, once they have fully experienced God’s judgment against them, and (3) Christian Universalism, whereby all people are saved. There has also been a revised interest in purgatory, among some evangelicals, in recent years. Obviously, this relatively short blog post is not the place to advance any sustained argument regarding any particular view of hell. Rather, my aim here is to address one particular objection raised by “Christian Universalists” regarding one particular Bible passage, by examining the larger Scriptural context for that one Bible passage.  

Christian Urban Legends

Were the shepherds at the birth of Christ really despised, social outcasts? This popular story makes for a great Christmas sermon message, namely that lowly, poor shepherds, having the social reputation equivalent to prostitutes, were given the honorary privilege of giving testimony to the birth of the Messiah. Though well intended, it turns out that this is largely an urban legend.

“Adoration of the Shepherds,” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622. (credit Wikipedia: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202)

Evangelical Bible scholar, David Croteau, the Dean of Columbia Biblical Seminary, and author of Urban Legends of the New Testament, acknowledges that many other scholars over the years have commented on the supposed despised nature of 1st century Jewish shepherds, citing sources like Aristotle and the Babylonian Talmud, for support. However, Croteau points out that Aristotle was not a Jew, and lived several hundreds of years before Christ, and the Babylonian Talmud was not produced until several centuries after Christ. Furthermore, British Bible scholar Ian Paul notes that the Babylonian Talmud’s denigration of shepherds might have been shaped more by an anti-Christian polemic, rather than the actual historical context. In other words, these are not the best expert witnesses as to how shepherds were viewed by 1st century Jews.

As it turns out, Croteau cites the best evidence that counterbalances this legend directly from the New Testament itself. Luke 2:18 tells us that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them,” when speaking of the appearance of angels. But the people were not amazed by the supposed fact that these were “lowly” shepherds. Rather, they were amazed by what the shepherds were talking about, that of the birth announcement of the Messiah.

Instead, the Bible holds the profession of shepherding in high respect. For example, Genesis 13 notes that Abraham had much livestock, herds, and flocks of sheep. Also, Exodus 3:1 tells us that Moses was a shepherd, and that before David was king, 1 Samuel 17 tells us that David himself was a shepherd. Jesus himself speaks of being “the good shepherd [laying] down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

True, shepherds were not wealthy, and belonged to the lower class, and thus represented the poor and humble, but they were hardly the social equivalent to prostitutes. With such an established pedigree, from Abraham to David, to ultimately Jesus, the traditional story of the “despised” Bethlehem shepherds simply does not fit the actual data.

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Did Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

Merry Christmas, Ye Veracity Readers!

While you are putting the last touches on your Christmas tree, and reading the story of the Nativity to your family, someone is bound to wonder (at least silently, if not out loud), “Do we really know if this ‘Virgin Birth’ story is really true?” …

Anyone familiar with the world of mainstream biblical scholarship will know that the Christmas narratives, which are found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, have come under a great deal of scrutiny over the last couple of hundred years. As I have addressed elsewhere, critics will cite “contradictions” between Matthew’s story and Luke’s story, as well as problems trying to sync up the Scriptural narratives with sources outside of the Bible, notably the timing of the census of Quirinius.

The story of Herod the Great’s Massacre of the Innocents, recorded in Matthew 2:16-18, is often singled out as being implausible as well. The main difficulty is that we have no source outside of Matthew describing how Herod ordered the killing of all of the male infants, under the age of 2, in and around the town of Bethlehem. In Matthew’s story, the Gospel highlights in Matthew 2:13-15 that Jesus was able to escape the slaughter when his parents took him to Egypt, for safety.

Massacre of the Innocents, 1610-1611, Toronto. By Peter Paul Rubens – Rubenshuis, Public Domain,

A Useful Fiction?

Some have sought to defend and rescue Matthew’s story by suggesting that Matthew was using a type of fictional narrative device, as a means of symbolically associating Jesus with being the “new Moses.” After all, Exodus 1:22 suggests a parallel with Matthew’s story by describing the slaughter of Hebrew infants, while sparing the life of Moses, in the days of Pharoah. The similarities are striking.

The use of fictional narrative devices to communicate truth is not unknown to the Gospels, along with other parts of the Bible. Jesus himself used parables to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, the theme of Jesus being the “new Moses” is indeed a big part of Matthew’s Gospel. But the idea of a fictionalized Massacre of the Innocents undoubtedly will strike some as suggesting that Matthew was simply “making up” a historical detail, by riffing on an idea pulled out of the Old Testament.


We see this same type of criticism about the Bible, more broadly, made particularly by so-called “Jesus Mythicists,” those who believe that Jesus never even existed, suggesting that much of what we read in the Gospels is simply riffing on a whole set of ancient stories of a pagan origin, and not simply depending on stories found in the Old Testament.

New Testament scholar Mike Licona uses the following illustration to show the fallacy of such thinking: ….

…. Most Americans are quite familiar with the story of an airplane, that took off from Massachusetts one morning, that at some point after 9am flew into one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, in New York City, between the 78th and 80th floors, killing everyone on board.

Of course, you probably know exactly what event this is, right?

Are you sure you know what I am talking about??

Are you really sure?


Here is the answer:

It is about the B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945.

Some readers might be surprised here, as what immediately comes to mind is 9/11, when the Boeing 767 flew into the South Tower, of the World Trade Center.

Coincidentally, both airplanes hit their respective buildings at the exact same floors! Both planes took off in the morning from Massachusetts. Both planes had no survivors, following their respective crashes. The parallels are striking, are they not?

Nevertheless, we would never draw from this example the conclusion that 9/11 never happened. But you never know what someone might think, 2,000 years from now, assuming humanity is still on this planet by then. Here is Dr. Licona explaining this:

Herod’s Atrocities Were So Numerous, They Were Hard to Keep Track

So, do we really need to accept Matthew’s story about the slaughter of babies as being purely fictional? A closer look at what is already known about Herod suggests that we need not go down that road. There is plenty of material in Herod’s life to indicate that the Massacre of the Innocents is quite plausible indeed. In other words, the absence of evidence does not necessarily mean the evidence of absence.

Dr. Paul Maier, a retired historian at Western Michigan University, tells us that Herod was a master politician, who sought to placate his Jewish subjects while seeking help from the Romans. After the Romans conquered Judea in 63 BCE, Herod acted as a governor, representing the Roman emperor. Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, restoring it to a type of glory, reminiscent of King Solomon’s temple. He created the sea port city of Caesarea over a period of twelve years by sinking some ship hulls to create a harbor area. He also built a great palace for himself, theaters, a stadium, and the famous mountain fortress at Masada.

Yet as an ambitious ruler, Herod could be quite paranoid and ruthless. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that after some attempted poisonings within his family, he put three of his sons to death on suspicion of treason. He put his favorite wife, Mariamne, a Hasmonean Maccabean princess, to death, as well as his mother-in-law. Towards the end of his life, Herod was so rattled by threats to depose him that he even plotted to kill a stadium full of Jewish leaders, a plot that eventually failed. Caesar Augustus remarked that “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

Part of the suspicion about Matthew’s account of Herod stems from unwarranted traditions that arose within the church, over the years, that lack Scriptural support. A Byzantine liturgy stated that 14,000 infants were killed by Herod at Bethlehem. A Syrian tradition placed the number at 64,000 infants killed. During the medieval period, an attempt was made to link Revelation 14:3 with the massacre, thus inflating the number to 144,000 thousand!

The problem with these large numbers tied to certain Scriptural narratives is that other facts on the ground make such claims unnecessary. In the case of Herod’s massacre, the town of Bethlehem was known to be pretty tiny. Imagine the Bethlehem in the days of Jesus to be the rough equivalent of a rural American town that only has one traffic light in it. You might miss Bethlehem if you were driving through it and blinked! We are talking about an area, with probably less than a 1,000 inhabitants, having a relatively small number of young children. With that in mind, it is quite plausible to consider that perhaps only a dozen or so of Bethlehem’s male infant population were murdered, which would hardly have measured a blip on the notoriously brutal life of Herod, as reported by those like Josephus.

So, it should not come as a surprise to learn that Matthew was the only ancient writer to have recorded this incident from the life of Herod the Great. While some might still have qualms about the historicity of certain events found in the Bible, a strong case can be made, giving us a great deal of confidence that the story of Christmas happened exactly like what we are told within the Sacred Book.

… And with that, I wish you once again, a Merry Christmas!

How Believers Become Unbelievers: A Review of Alec Ryrie’s Emotional History of Doubt

Deconstruction. That is the popular word used nowadays to talk about how certain Christians go through severe periods of doubt about their faith. Some recover from these periods of deconstruction, and continue on with a stronger, renewed faith. Others do not, either hoping to hang onto some sliver or strand of faith, couched within a progressivist view of Christianity, while others simply become agnostics, or even, perhaps, atheists.

It is a phenomenon that hits people ranging from Christian musicians to Bible scholars… I remember the terrible feeling I had, in the pit of my stomach, when I first read Bart Ehrman’s introduction to Misquoting Jesus, one of the first of his many New York Times bestsellers, where he chronicled his story of deconstruction, in the process of becoming a Bible scholar. The scary part was just how similar his story was to mine, at least initially. Ehrman had grown up in a mainline Episcopal Church, with a pretty nominal Christian upbringing, until he got involved with a vibrant evangelical youth ministry, where he describes himself as becoming a “born-again” Christian, in high school.  However, I went off to a secular college, and was strengthened in my faith through my college Christian fellowship. In contrast, shortly after Erhman’s “born-again” experience, Ehrman was drawn into a very “fundamentalist” type of Christian faith, that propelled him towards attending Moody Bible Institute, and then to transfer to Wheaton College.

Wheaton was a more “sophisticated” brand of evangelical Christianity back then, as compared to Moody, but Ehrman was still deeply steeped in a rather rigid form of Christian belief. It was only during his years in graduate school, at Princeton Seminary, when the wheels fell off of his faith. He first lost confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture, but finally became disillusioned with the Christian answer to the problem of evil and suffering. How was it that a person with such a classically evangelical pedigree, having been educated at some of the best and well known conservative Christian institutions of higher learning, end up throwing away his faith in God? Today, Bart Ehrman is perhaps the world’s most recognizable skeptic of Christianity, having a rather large Internet following, who enjoys a highly visible presence on YouTube. I have personally experienced a number of seasons of doubt, in my own Christian walk, but nothing to the extent to which Ehrman himself went through. Sadly, stories like Ehrman’s have become more frequent in the age of the Internet.

Pastor Joshua Ryan Butler argues that there are four main causes behind deconstruction: (1) hurt experienced in the church, (2) poor Bible teaching, (3) a desire to sin, and (4) street cred; that is, it has become hip these days to doubt. As compared to previous generations, it seems like the propensity towards doubting Christianity has been on the rise. As a blogger writing for an apologetics blog, I still believe that the Christian faith still offers the best explanation for reality. I am confident that not all seasons of deconstruction lead to a completely unraveled faith. Nevertheless, I am still left with the question: What are the historical roots behind deconstruction in our post-modern world? A deeply thoughtful book by Alec Ryrie has been written in an attempt to probe this question for answers.

An Emotional History of Doubt

Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt comes as an aid to help one understand why it is that those from certain Christian backgrounds go through periods of deconstruction. Ryrie, a professor of Christian history at Durham University in the U.K., and an expert in the history of the Protestant Reformation, analyzes how societies that were once overwhelmingly Christian, at the start of the Protestant Reformation, became so secular. Charles Taylor, the Roman Catholic and Canadian philosopher, and author of the monumental, The Secular Age, wondered why “it was virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?

Ryrie tackles Taylor’s question by providing his own answer. Doubts that lead to atheism are not first prompted by philosophical inquiry, as many believe. Instead, intense periods of doubting are first triggered by emotions born of anxiety, buoyed by changing cultural trends. A reorientation of someone’s moral framework can easily lead to the sentiment of anger, where such feelings are often directed against those in religious authority. The abandonment of time-honored traditions only amplifies the problem. In response, more radically-oriented, liberal Protestants have recast Christian theology in terms of ethics, which ironically has only made the problem worse. The rapid decline of mainline liberal Protestant Christianity provides evidence that this trend tends towards promoting secularism, thus demonstrating the difficulty in sustaining such a revisionist understanding of faith across multiple generations.

I would add that going to an extreme in the opposite direction, from liberal Protestantism, also exacerbates the problem. Certain forms of Christian fundamentalism, in responding to our age of anger and anxiety, end up seeking to double-down on certain theological commitments, as a means of safeguarding theological certainty. But in doing so, the apologetic complexities and strenuous efforts required to sustain such theological commitments become so unwieldy, that they can create a type of emotional exhaustion, all of its own. Once one reaches a certain threshold of that exhaustion, the floodgates of doubt are let loose. Like pulling a loose thread on a sweater, faith begins to completely unravel.

Ryrie makes a case for an emotional history of doubt, as opposed to the typical intellectual history of doubt, as told by many skeptics themselves (think of Edward Gibbon’s 18th century classic apologetic for modernistic skepticism, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire). Ryrie’s argument parallels the theme of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, reviewed here on Veracity, which posits that human beings are moved primarily by intuitions, and only secondarily moved by evidence-based argumentation.


Historical Factors Behind the Deconstruction of Christian Faith

Ryrie locates the beginning of the cultural acceptance of atheism, not at the start of the Protestant Reformation, but during the medieval period.  In other words, the seed for the post-modern trend for rejecting Christian faith was planted during the Middle Ages, as the state church started to become crippled by corruption from within, as book reviewer Andrew Wilson observed.

Ryrie’s thesis goes on to indict the Protestant movement for adding fuel to the fire in enabling atheism to grow and flourish in the West, as summarized in Graham Hillard’s review of the book in The National Review. What resonated with me the most in Unbelievers is just how much the variety of conflicting opinions given by religious authorities, in how to interpret the Bible, feeds into skepticism about the Bible itself. Christian group “A” believes that the Bible teaches doctrine “X”, while Christian group “B” believes the Bible teaches doctrine “Y”, which flatly contradicts doctrine “X”. Sadly, this state of affairs has all been done in the name of upholding the Protestant claim of “sola Scriptura;” that is, believing that the Bible, and the Bible alone, teaches authoritative truth.

Ryrie devotes most of his writing to telling stories of how the deconstruction of Christian faith impacted uncertain believers, between the age of Martin Luther in the early 16th century and the beginnings of historical criticism associated with Baruch Spinoza in the 1670s. It was very insightful to learn that such explorations of doubt rarely had much to do with the so-called contemporary conflict between the Bible and science. Instead, deconstruction before the modern era was driven more by anxiety about the instability of one’s personal theological beliefs, and anger at established church authorities for failing to guide and unite believers. As it has been often repeated, “division in the church leads to atheism in the world.” As a book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, Jeffery Collins, put it, “It wasn’t the books of Hobbes and Spinoza that shook the faith of the people. Rather, the people’s weakening religious certainty cleared the ground for godless philosophers.”

The connection between anger and deconstruction suggests a way of understanding why unbelief has proliferated so much in modern and post-modern periods. Evangelical Christianity enjoyed its greatest hegemony in the United States up until the eve of the Civil War. While some Christians believe that it was the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 that prompted the decline of this hegemony, I would argue instead that it was the moral outrage behind the Civil War that sparked this movement towards skepticism. The failure of evangelical Christianity to address the moral problem of slavery, without triggering a bloody Civil War, only increased anger towards historically orthodox Christianity. We see this also in the decline of Christianity in 20th century Europe, in the wake of two world wars primarily fought on European soil, where religion was used as a justification for the perpetuation of violent atrocities. I would then continue to make the case that moral outrage over the perceived inability of Christianity to ward off the evils of racism, misogyny, hatred towards sexual minorities, and exclusivism (think of the doctrine of hell and divine judgment) fuels the move towards deconstruction in 21st century America. In my conversations with critics of Christian faith, it is the anger towards the perceived lack of an adequate moral vision in Christianity that triggers the process of personal deconstruction more than anything else.

In the last chapter of Unbelievers, Ryrie offers two insights that helps to describe why unbelief has risen so much in the West, particularly since the end of World War 2. First, Ryrie observes that the phenomena of “Jesus Mythicism,” the belief that Jesus never existed, owes itself less to rigorous historical inquiry, and more to the claim that Christianity has lost the moral high ground. Napoleon himself denied the existence of Jesus on several occasions, but Ryrie identifies Napoleon’s reasoning here as based on Napoleon’s resentment towards the “moral authority of a dead Galilean peasant” (p. 196). Secondly, Ryrie argues that the positive moral authority of Jesus, in the modern age, has been superseded by the negative moral authority of Adolf Hitler, as Nazism has largely replaced Satan and all of his minions as being the ultimate expression of the demonic. Ryrie’s conclusion is that the trend towards unbelief will continue, but that at the same time, unbelief will not dominate, as both the believer and unbeliever ironically have an equally vested interest in the future of the Christian faith.

Anger and Anxiety: Unbelief Is Not Just about Questions of the Intellect

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt is an invitation to skeptics to consider how much the emotional dimension of doubt will often supersede the intellectual dimension. With that in mind, Alec Ryrie’s efforts here are less about persuasion, and more about encouraging self-reflection. In other words, rational argumentation rarely works to convince someone out of unbelief. Likewise, for believers undergoing periods of doubt, it is worth considering the role intuitions play in instilling anxiety about faith, as opposed to purely evidenced-based logic.

Personally, I am glad I read Tom Holland’s Dominion last year, before reading Ryrie’s Unbelievers, as Holland successfully argues that even for those disenchanted with Christian belief, the thought streams of a Christian worldview are deeply embedded in Western culture. It is simply in the water that we drink and the air that we breath. In other words, the truth claims of the Gospel of Jesus will continue to haunt the skeptic, even if one accepts atheism. The influence of Jesus of Nazareth is simply unescapable.

In my own spiritual journey, I have experienced extended periods of doubt, but I always find myself sensing that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is that “Hound of Heaven,” who never stops pursuing me, and who will not let me go. Nevertheless, both Christians wrestling with their own faith journey, along with agnostics and atheists, will find Unbelievers to be a helpful tool to process how developments within culture impact personal experiences of doubt in today’s world.

Alec Ryrie offers the following lecture based on the content of his book.

Did the Apostle Peter Really Write 2 Peter?

Here is a thorny question that Christians seldom consider, but it is pretty important: How do we know if the Apostle Peter actually wrote 2 Peter? Let us take a deep dive into exploring the answer.

Christians have long believed that there is an authoritative New Testament “canon”, or rule, by which the teachings of the church can be measured. Protestant scholars speak of the “self-authenticating” nature of Scripture, and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox scholars speak of the magisterial authority of popes and bishops that have received the twenty-seven books that we have in our New Testament canon.

However, many Christians wrongly assume that the table of contents in their Bibles were somehow dropped down out of heaven, like the tablets of Moses at Mount Sinai. Rather, the development of the New Testament canon was a process that happened over many decades during the history of the early church. The 2nd century heretic, Marcion, had first developed his own list of authoritative New Testament books, but others in the church believed that Marcion’s list was far too restrictive. Others proposed that certain popular books read in church could be included within the New Testament canon, but doubts arose as some questioned the apostolic authenticity of those certain books. It was not until the last quarter of the 4th century C.E. when the church across the Roman empire finally received our list of twenty-seven books.

How then was a book received into the New Testament canon? Generally, a New Testament book needed to conform to the “rule of faith,” a common body of teaching that could be traced back to the early apostles of the Christian movement. Furthermore, a New Testament book must have been authored by one of those early apostles, or someone who moved within that early circle of apostles.

This document, Papyrus Bodmer VIII, is considered to be the oldest copy of 2 Peter we possess. It is dated to the 3rd or 4th century. Scholars are divided as to the date the original manuscript for 2 Peter was written…along with actual identity of its author. (credit: Wikipedia)

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