Category Archives: Apologetics

Are Eclipses Signs from God?

 

Some are calling it the “Great American Eclipse,” when the moon covers the disc of the sun, racing across from Oregon to South Carolina, on Monday, August 21, 2017. The last time this happened in the U.S. was 1918. But is God trying to tell us something with this event?

Some Christians might think so, but is such a belief warranted? The Bible does report some unusual astronomical phenomena, such as the darkness that covered the earth, on the afternoon of the Crucifixion.

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two”(Luke 23:44-45 ESV)

Interestingly, one popular Bible translation tries to tell us how this happened:

“It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun….“(Luke 23:44-45a NAB)

A solar eclipse? While the translators of the New American Bible might be good Bible scholars, they need a refresher in astronomy. Let me explain why.

First, the movement of the moon’s shadow across the face of the earth, across a single point, travels much faster than three hours. The moon’s shadow will book across the United States, at the speed of at least 1000 mph. For example, in Columbia, SC, in the path of Monday’s total eclipse, the duration of the totality will be 2 minutes, 30 seconds.

Secondly, the timing of the lunar calendar is completely off, to support the idea of a solar eclipse. The Crucifixion happened near the time of the Jewish Passover, which happens during a full moon, midway through the Jewish month of Nissan. Total solar eclipses only occur during a new moon, when the moon’s surface facing the earth, is completely within the sun’s shadow, which is at the opposite time of the month from a full moon.

The math simply does not work. Whatever darkness happened on Good Friday, trying to tie it strictly to a natural event of a solar eclipse is pure folly. Sure, God can use these things, for His purposes, and He can produce supernatural events. But whether it be solar or lunar eclipses, or planetary alignments, caution is in order before drawing too much from naturally occurring, astronomical events.

Astrology and the Bible Do Not Mix

In the history of the church, some Christians have read too much from the “signs in the heavens.” I remember watching the movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age, just shaking my head. Queen Elizabeth, the monarch who set the theological course for the Church of England, for at least the next 400 years, consulted her astrologer, John Dee, about how her navy would fair against the Spanish Armada.

Or there is the influential colleague of Martin Luther, the German Reformer, Philip Melanchthon, who consulted astrological horoscopes, to help him decide on when to take long journeys.  Even Huldrych Zwingli, the early Swiss Reformer of Zurich, dabbled in believing in various “signs and portents” in the heavens.

However, it would be anachronistic to judge Christians from earlier generations, who appropriated ideas from astrology, before the age of modern astronomy. But when some Christian leaders today, speculate on whether or not the “Great American Eclipse” is a sign of God’s impending judgment against America, it is cringe-worthy. To her credit, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, Anne Graham Lotz, is being pretty vague, but it bothered me that she uses the prophet Joel to encourage people to look for heavenly “signs”:

“The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.“(Joel 2:31 ESV)

Lotz neglects to tell the rest of the story. While the Bible does employ cosmologically rich language to refer to God’s judgment, the Bible also warns us not to look to the heavens for prophetic signposts. For the prophet Isaiah, astrology is condemned, lumping it along with all forms of occultism and sorcery:

12 Keep on, then, with your magic spells
    and with your many sorceries,
    which you have labored at since childhood.
Perhaps you will succeed,
    perhaps you will cause terror.
13 All the counsel you have received has only worn you out!
    Let your astrologers come forward,
those stargazers who make predictions month by month,
    let them save you from what is coming upon you.
14 Surely they are like stubble;
    the fire will burn them up.
They cannot even save themselves
    from the power of the flame.
“(Isaiah 47:12-14a)

So, for those planning on braving the traffic, to places like South Carolina, next Monday, enjoy the eclipse for what it is, a really cool display of God’s wonder and creation. It demonstrates the reliability, predictability and beauty of nature, which only a God of order and elegance can create. What a great opportunity to talk with friends about how awesome God is, as Creator!

But as for applying prophetic significance to the eclipse, as a reason why you might want to pull your money out of the stock market, to avoid financial ruin,… well, leave that to the astrologers.

Christians have other, better things to do.

 


Canaanite DNA and Biblically-Illiterate Journalism

An ancient Canaanite skeleton gives us clues to the DNA history behind a people group in the Middle East. (Credit: Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal)

A recent study indicates that much of the DNA record of modern day Lebanese can be traced back to the Canaanite people described in the Bible. Sadly however, a number of mainstream journalists got the story wrong.

Archaeological studies over the years have raised a number of interesting questions about how the Biblical record is tied to history. But when the genome of 4,000-year-old Canaanite skeletons were sequenced, the discovery supports a significant aspect of the Bible’s historical claims.

However, you would never grasp that idea from a New York Times article reporting the discovery. Deuteronomy 20:16-17 does show that the Israelites were to completely wipe out the Canaanite peoples, when they take hold of the Promised Land.

“You shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded” (v.17)

Yet the Times article goes on to miss the target, “But a genetic analysis published on Thursday has found that the ancient population survived that divine call for their extinction, and their descendants live in modern Lebanon.” The implication is that the Bible got it wrong.

Other media outlets did pretty much the same thing, with scathing headlines, such as “Study disproves the Bible’s suggestion that the ancient Canaanites were wiped out” (The Telegraph), and “New DNA study casts doubt on Bible claim” (Mother Nature Network)

However, if these journalists had kept on reading the Bible, they might have realized a problem. While Israel achieved notable victories at Jericho and Ai, the destruction of the Canaanites was far from complete.  Judges 1:27-28 specifically tells us that the Canaanites were not all wiped out by Joshua’s conquest of the land:

“…the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land…” (v.27)

Many of the Israelites tried to splice belief in the God of the Bible with beliefs in the Canaanite gods. More than a few Israelites intermarried with the Canaanites, adopting a syncretic form of religion. All of this behavior brought God’s judgment on the Israelite people, when God condemned their idolatrous actions. To miss this part of the story is to fail to understand the narrative within the Bible itself.

So, far from disproving the Bible, the survival of the Canaanites down to the present day actually confirms what the Bible claims. If we would but only read the text.

Thankfully, some of the news organizations have realized their error and made the appropriate corrections. The Telegraph made a note in their article, acknowledging the correction, and changed the headline more appropriately, as did Mother Nature Network. Science magazine did the same with their news story.

The irony behind the whole thing is that skeptics will often reject the Bible, on moral grounds, because of the supposed claim that the Israelites committed mass genocide against a large Canaanite population. But then they ding the Bible again, on historical grounds, when they discover that the supposed, full-blown, genocidal annihilation of the Canaanites never took place. Does anyone see something wrong with this picture?

There is a twist to all of this, too. True, Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land, no matter how you envision the scale, and there is evidence to show that the traditional view is greatly oversized , did result in a lot of violent death. But were the Canaanites, properly speaking, the target of God’s wrath? Dr. Michael S. Heiser, an expert in Semitic languages, writes that the Anakim giants were actually the target for elimination, and not the Canaanites. His book, The Unseen Realm, is on my “to-be-read” list, but he gives an overview of his contrarian argument here. I am not sure what to make of Heiser’s argument yet, but he knows his Bible. The point is: there is more to the Bible than what most people realize.

Biblical illiteracy is at an all-time high, despite the ease of access to reading and studying the Bible, in a digital age. So, it does not help when mainstream journalism propagates errors, largely out of Bible-reading ignorance. As the proliferation of news sources abounds in the digital age, perhaps part of the problem is due to cuts among copy editor staff, at major newspapers, as Old Testament professor, Claude Mariottini, reports in another “fake news” story about archaeology in the land of the Bible (… a “BOO” for Fox News).

The best way people can correct such mistakes is pretty simple, and it does not take a Bible scholar to figure this out:

READ AND STUDY THE BIBLE.

HT:  Breaking Israel News.


Historic Jesus

JamestownVeracity


Pluralism In Your Face

Editorial comment:

I’m not a political person. Faith means much more to me than politics. I do have strong opinions about the need to keep politics out of practicing and sharing our faith because equating the importance of God and politics is disrespectful to God. And it’s unwise. There is scriptural guidance in the form of an argument from silence—Jesus did not politicize His teachings. At the risk of appearing to taint this ethic, please dismiss the political and constitutional implications of the following material and focus on the core questions.

 

In potentially uncomfortable situations, most of us have some fear of rejection or confrontation that compels us to be silent about our faith. Thinking about it ahead of time can help overcome those fears.

Imagine that you are on the hot seat. Attention is focused on you, and your beliefs are called into question. How would you respond? (If you’ve never been in this position it might be good to ask yourself, seriously, “Why not?”)

Earlier this month, Russell Vought, an evangelical Christian, was testifying during a confirmation hearing, and Senator Bernie Sanders questioned Vought’s beliefs. The following two-minute YouTube clip captures the contentiousness of the incident.

For context, please read what The Atlantic has to report. Pay careful attention to the scriptural citations. If you aren’t aware of the context, you could be inclined more to an opinionated, rather than informed, reaction.

Back to the question. Forgetting about the political and constitutional issues and personalities involved, how would you respond?

Just in case this topic comes up at your water cooler or cocktail party, here are some thoughts to help you prepare an answer.

  1. The teaching of Jesus does not foment hatred, bigotry, or intolerance. Jesus said, directly, the greatest two commandments are to love God and love your neighbor. When questioned about whom He meant by ‘neighbor,’ Jesus taught the parable of the good Samaritan. Samaritans were held to be low-class people in the first century. By including them in the parable, Jesus made a clear point that His followers are to love others broadly and inclusively.
  2. As Christians, we believe the Bible contains the inspired word of God and is the final authority for faith and practice. We rely on what it says and do not have the liberty or right to make up our own brand of Christianity, or to cherry pick proof texts. There are many reasons, objectively and personally, for accepting the Bible as the inspired, holy word of God.
  3. Christians do not have the right to condemn people—we are commanded to love people—but God does have that right. If you really want to understand why, study the Bible. We, the created, are in rebellion against the Creator, and a holy and just God has a plan for the salvation of those who accept His complete sacrifice on our behalf. He has the right to condemn those who reject Him, as Scripture clearly teaches (again, read The Atlantic article).
  4. John 3:16, the most familiar passage of scripture in the New Testament, states, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” From this passage, we can see that God is loving and did not discriminate to whom salvation is offered. He offers salvation to the world.
  5. Jesus said directly that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to God the Father except by Him.
  6. The apostle Paul, who wrote half of the New Testament, taught that we are saved by our faith in Jesus, not by our works. While we all know people of every faith and creed who are indeed wonderfully good, salvation is by faith in Jesus alone. Again, we’re not free to make this up—it is directly stated in the Bible. Just because people are ‘good’ does not entitle them to salvation.
  7. Western culture is inebriated with pluralism. We resist anything that might impinge upon personal freedoms—such as a morally-based worldview. Pluralism by its nature appeals to a wide swath of voters and is therefore quite pragmatic in politics. But on logical and spiritual levels, pluralism comes up short.
  8. In logic, there is the law of non-contradiction, which holds that two opposite truth claims cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. “There is either milk in the refrigerator now, or there isn’t,” as Norman Geisler says.
  9. The world’s major religions ALL have opposing truth claims. The nature of truth claims is that they are exclusive.
  10. Christianity teaches that Jesus was crucified and resurrected from the dead. Islam teaches that Jesus was not crucified and therefore did not rise from the dead. Keep it real. Both claims can be false, but both cannot be true. The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.” Christianity depends on the objective truth of the Resurrection.
  11. Hindus acknowledge multitudes of gods and goddesses. Buddhists say there is no deity. Muslims believe in a powerful but unknowable God. Christians believe that God is loving and personal. As Ravi Zacharias says, “The world’s major religions are not fundamentally similar and superficially different, they are fundamentally different and superficially similar.” Most advocates of pluralism don’t take the time to investigate the differences.

Pluralism may be good for getting votes, but it’s an empty and illogical worldview. Although I disagree with those who wish to cast Christianity into a cultural stew with the world’s other religions, my Christian faith compels me to love those who disagree. I wish we could at least all agree on that.


Truth in a Culture of Doubt: Brief Book Review

Still looking for that perfect gift book, for a high school graduate, off on their way to college? Consider Truth in a Culture of Doubt: Engaging Skeptical Challenges to the Bible, by Andreas Köstenberger, Darrell Bock, and Josh Chatraw.

Young people growing up in the church today face immense challenges from a culture skeptical to the Gospel. Leading the charge towards encouraging doubt is popular author and University of North Carolina religion professor, Bart Ehrman.

If you have never heard of Bart Ehrman before, you need to get out from underneath your rock, and learn about him. Ehrman grew up going to church and attending Christian colleges, but eventually lost his faith in the process. He has since authored five New York Times Bestsellers, and dozens of other books, all aimed at undermining confidence in the reliability of the Bible and its message.

What makes Ehrman’s skepticism so caustic, is that he knows his facts really, really well. He knows his Bible better than most Christians do, and he remains one of the world’s top textual critical scholars of the New Testament. The problem is that the conclusions he draws from his research are not always warranted. There are indeed very good answers to the issues he raises, that affirm the trustworthiness of the Bible.

In Truth in a Culture of Doubt, Köstenberger, Bock, and Chatraw, all evangelical and believing scholars themselves, tackle each of Erhman’s challenges in a very engaging manner, issues that every thoughtful Christian will face, as they seek to share their faith with their informed neighbors:

  • Is God Immoral Because He Allows Suffering?
  • Is the Bible Full of Irresolvable Contradictions?
  • Are the Biblical Manuscripts Corrupt?
  • Were there Many Christianities?
  • Are Many New Testament Documents Forged?

A nice little extra is a quick question and answer guide at the back of the book, that summarizes the basic arguments. Truth in a Culture of Doubt is an updated, more in-depth version of an earlier book by these evangelical scholars, Truth Matters, that I reviewed a few years ago. Though Truth in a Culture of Doubt was itself published back in 2014, the information packed in it is still relevant today, as the issues dealt within are not going away any time soon. Ehrman is still himself writing books, but more and more, any new issues that he writes about move further away from his area of expertise.

In many ways, the topics that Ehrman has been writing about for over fifteen years are not new. They are no more than popular distillations of scholarly, critical views in the history of Christianity, that have been taught in secular departments of religion at private and public universities for nearly a century now. Sadly, it has taken a barrage of these skeptical writings, in popular form, to force the evangelical church to better inform her people, and give better answers.

Read a brief excerpt from Truth in a Culture of Doubt here, then go buy the book for that young person you know, who is facing challenges from a skeptical culture.


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