My friend and one of my pastors, Hunter Ruch, sat me down after lunch not too long ago to record two sessions for the Williamsburg Community Chapel Institute. The Chapel Institute is a ministry of the Williamsburg Community Chapel, in my hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Just a few comments about what you will see and hear. First, Hunter introduced me as the senior networking “director” of IT at the College, which is not accurate. I am more properly a “senior network engineer,” part of a team of IT staff, though my main responsibility is in the area of architecture and design. Secondly, I got a little lost halfway through the second segment, explaining some of the problems associated with “Christian universalism,” but hopefully I got back on track!! Please let me know what you think in the comment section below.
This summer was amazingly hectic for me with my job at the College of William and Mary. One phrase summarizes my summer: Supply chain delays. But now that students are back on campus, things are starting to settle down.
What follows is my attempt to recap some things that have made me think a lot, so far this year…. Bart Ehrman, “women in ministry,” where do you get your news, David McCullough, Roe vs. Wade, Jordan Peterson, Alex Jones and Sandy Hook, what is the best argument for the Resurrection, the “Late-Date” theory for the Exodus, Henry Emerson Fosdick 100 years later, “progressive Christianity,” divine hiddenness, and analytic philosophy.
A bit disjointed for sure, but all very important. I have a bunch of thoughts, but instead of individual blog posts about each topic, I will try to keep things fairly short, and include the summaries below. Read on!! ….
Blogging Recap… Featuring Bart Ehrman
I have written several blogs this year that I put quite a bit of thought into, after reading several books on my bike ride commutes to work. The longest series is on the “historical criticism” of the Bible, some of its history dating back to the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, how “historical criticism” has both positively and negatively impacted the church, and offering a sample of Bible passages, with a model of doing “historical criticism” in a nuanced way, that appreciates the value of allowing historical method to inform our interpretation of the Bible, without slipping into unnecessary skepticism of the Bible’s divine inspiration.
My fundamental claim, in a nutshell, is that the most common methodology employed by historical critics like Bart Ehrman, as well as “Progressive Christians” who adopt the same methodology, is that they believe that you can only do proper historical research on the Bible by treating it like any other piece of human literature, which in their minds, implies that you must bracket off claims regarding the inspired nature of the Scriptural text as being the very Word of God, at least temporarily. If you fail to bracket that off, you ironically risk distorting the interpretation of the text. Historical critics like Bart Ehrman says the Bible is inherently contradictory, and so he dismisses attempts to try to harmonize Scriptural texts, even in the most nuanced way, as actually obscuring what the Bible is trying to tell us.
I am increasingly concerned that the negative impact of “historical criticism” that in the 20th century wrecked havoc in mainline Protestantism is now creeping into certain areas of less denominationally oriented evangelicalism, in a way that most evangelicals are completely unaware of. I will just leave it at that.
The most substantial book review was for Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell. I had not read through a Bart Ehrman book before, with such detail. I can see why Ehrman has so many followers. I am just surprised that there have not been any Bart Ehrman fans who have jumped down on me and made critical comments on the blog yet. I strongly disagree with Bart on many points, but I have to concede that he articulates probably the most cogent critical view that I have read attacking the reliability of the New Testament, which partly explains why he is such a popular author. Plus, I would describe him as an honest non-believer, who does not try to pretend that he is a Christian. His interest in Christianity is primarily historical, trying to make sense of Jesus of Nazareth, the single most influential person in the world who has ever lived. If you want to understand why so many educated people reject the Bible as being authoritative, you better read Bart Ehrman. The chances are high that some highly educated “former” Christian you know, or someone who is going through a faith “deconstruction,” has read some Bart Ehrman.
An Update on the Complementarian/Egalitarian Divide in Evangelicalism
Nevertheless, I still hold high regard for evangelical Christians who are egalitarian in their convictions. My main concern is not in the specific conclusions that are drawn, but rather, I am concerned about the hermeneutical methods that some use to draw their conclusions. A faulty hermeneutic in one area of reading the Bible can lead to other distortions of Scripture in other areas.
So, Where Do You Get Your News?
We do not live in the 1970s anymore. Gone are the days of three major television news outlets, CBS, ABC, and NBC nightly news programs, and the hegemony of newspaper publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post. For most of the 1990s, I narrowed down the options even more: The only time I bothered with listening to the news was on my evening commutes with NPR’s All Things Considered playing on the radio. Today, we get our news from various sources, which all give us conflicting and contradictory views of the world, which pretty much makes civil discourse in society today near to impossible.
I try to steer clear of exclusively of heavily biased news sources. Occasionally, I will read longer pieces by liberal outlets like the New York Times, but I try to balance it out with stories from the much more conservative Wall Street Journal. My wife likes listening to The World and Everything In it, the daily news podcast put out by WORLD News Group, which styles itself like a conservative evangelical alternative to NPR’s All Things Considered. WORLD has gotten better over the years, but recent staff upheavals at WORLD make me a little leery as to its future.
I pretty much stick with Ground.News, a secular outfit that ranks the bias of various news organizations when reporting stories, which I find quite helpful. But I have decided to try the PourOver email newsletter and podcast, as it offers to give a Christian perspective on the news while trying its best to steer clear of heavy bias, without flooding your brain, as it only comes out three times a week. So far the PourOver is a very refreshing approach to the news.
The Late David McCullough
While the bulk of what is posted on the Veracity blog is an Christian apologetics, my other love is for church history ( and history more broadly). Not too long ago the popular American historian David McCullough died. For me he models what a good historian does. He was the author of various best sellers, including 1776 and John Adams.
At the risk of being a little controversial, blogger Samuel D. James has some insightful thoughts regarding what Christians can learn from McCullough. James points out that some recent Christian books criticizing evangelicalism historically have fallen into a bad habit. In the most memorable quote by James, one particular author “wanted me to see the subjects of her history the way she sees them, not as how they saw themselves. How they interpreted their lives and beliefs was of little consequence. How the generations after them interpreted them was everything. This is the kind of history that gets people angry and eager to deconstruct whatever they sense is tainted by moral failure…. What renews my soul about reading David McCullough’s work is that it doesn’t do this.” Now that is provocative, but I am inclined to think that James is right, based on some other writings I have read along the same lines.
The Overturning of Roe vs. Wade
Like a lot of people, I was really surprised when the U.S Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, earlier this year. On the other hand, I am not convinced that the court’s verdict will have a lasting impact on public opinion about abortion, though I could easily be wrong. By putting the issue back in front of the states, the legislative debates will surely continue and get really complicated on a state by state basis. Perhaps the only solution will be something like an amendment to the federal constitution to ultimately settle the matter, and I do not see that as happening anytime soon. The main reason for thinking this is that even if extensive anti-abortion laws get passed, it might be almost impossible to enforce them. Without public support, passing unpopular laws will probably achieve little.
Marvin Olasky, an outspoken pro-life journalist, agrees citing what we know from history: “From the 1840s through the 1940s, public opinion concerning abortion was more negative than it is now, but even during that era, enforcement of abortion bans was rare. Millions of abortions occurred during that century, but only a tiny percentage of doctors did prison time. It was hard to get police to arrest, juries to convict, or judges to support jury decisions and turn down appeals.” As the subtitle of his article in Christianity Today declares, “Looking ahead, Christians should focus less on enforcement than on changing cultural attitudes.”
In the meantime, I am grateful for friends who work in or otherwise support crisis pregnancy centers that offer assistance to those in need. In my area of Williamsburg, Virginia, the closest center is CareNet Peninsula. They do great work there. It is through such efforts that perhaps there will be a day when abortion becomes an unthinkable option for people faced with such difficult decisions.
The “right to life” cause, in the political sphere, is primarily an effort led by Christians, as Bible readers seek to make their moral convictions known within the public arena. There are notable exceptions to this, as the late and famed New Atheist Christopher Hitchens opposed abortion. But by and large, I doubt if we will see a remarkable surge in support of the “right to life” until we have a massive wave of Christian spiritual revival in the West. That can only come about by prayer and evangelization, which means in part engaging in the type of apologetics being promoted here on the Veracity blog. Interestingly, history shows us that as more and more people came to Christ in the Roman Empire, in the first 500 years of the church, that this shifted public opinion away from promoting abortion. As more people embraced the Gospel, the less support there was for abortion. Perhaps this can be a lesson for us in the 21st century.
I just recently ran across a short, Tik-Tok type video, put out by one of my favorite YouTube apologists, Michael Jones, at Inspiring Philosophy, who addresses the objection that the Bible actually sanctions induced abortions, based on Numbers 5:27. I have been hearing the Numbers 5:27 pro-abortion argument a lot lately, and really did not know how to respond to it, until I saw Jones’ video. Jones argues that the NIV translation is unlikely, and explains what might be a much better translation. Worth checking out:
The Return of Jordan Peterson
While the world was swirling in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the outspoken Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, had a close brush with death of another kind. As a result of a successful nation hoping medical tour, Peterson finally made it out of this crisis and is back on the public stage. Many have described Jordan Peterson’s teachings as a “gateway drug” to Christianity, and I believe this is correct.
The following video by Peterson is perhaps the best short video supporting a psychological apologetic for complementarianism, urging Christians to stop downgrading men with constant talk about “toxic masculinity” and instead challenging young men to step forward and take responsibility, as a matter of Christian virtue. As Peterson argues, by supporting young men this will have a positive impact on young women as well. Plus, I believe that taking seriously Peterson’s argument will go a long ways towards trimming back the number of mass shootings, which are almost universally committed by young, disaffected and lonely males, longing for a sense of visionary purpose in life…. and that ranges from the Uvalde, Texas elementary school shooter, who had no father figure in his life, to the May 2022 racist shooter in Buffalo, N.Y. where as a child, he felt he did not have “that much importance” to his family, and that “my parents know little about me,” despite outward appearances that he had a nice, balanced family life.
Nevertheless, we should not define doctrine based on what Jordan Peterson says, but rather we should look to the Bible as our final authority. Jennie Pollock, a blogger in the U.K., has a nice short essay summarizing what she says, “Why I love my complementarian church.”
As a bonus, I found a really provocative approach to the issue of having “women as elders” by Dr. Gerry Breshears. In the following video interview by Preston Sprinkle, Breshears argues as a “soft” complementarian that only qualified men are to serve as local church elders, but interestingly, this has NOTHING to do with hierarchy. In fact, Breshears contends that neither Paul nor Timothy would have qualified to become church elders, even though Paul was an apostle and Timothy was the undisputed leader of the church in Ephesus. Agree or not, Dr. Breshears’ presentation will turn your head upside down on this (as it did mine!):
Alex Jones, Sandy Hook, and Conspiracy-Theory Driven “Christianity”
There is just some absolutely crazy stuff going on at the fringes of the evangelical Christian world. The story of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who was recently sued by parents of a child killed by the Sandy Hook mass shooter, says that he is a “Christian.“
Author Elizabeth Williamson has written a whole book about this, An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, something I want to put on my reading list. Here is part of the promotional flyer on the cover for the book: “On December 14, 2012, a gunman killed twenty first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Ten years later, Sandy Hook has become a foundational story of how false conspiracy narratives and malicious misinformation have gained traction in society….One of the nation’s most devastating mass shootings, Sandy Hook was used to create destructive and painful myths. Driven by ideology or profit, or for no sound reason at all, some people insisted it never occurred, or was staged by the federal government as a pretext for seizing Americans’ firearms. They tormented the victims’ relatives online, accosted them on the street and at memorial events, accusing them of faking their loved ones’ murders. Some family members have been stalked and forced into hiding. A gun was fired into the home of one parent.”
As Williamson argues, the professing “Christian” Alex Jones was propagating this conspiracy theory, repeatedly using his InfoWars platform to spread these lies, influencing his followers to threaten some of those Sandy Hook parents. Over time, Jones eventually started to back off on such claims, but it took a number of years before he finally emphatically admitting that the killings were real, during this summer’s trial. Why it took Jones so long to admit his errors is baffling. Was it all just for show? Why he continues to propagate further lies and just plain odd behavior is even more troubling.
The testimony of this mother of one of the kids murdered at Sandy Hook, confronting the lies that Alex Jones continues to spread is heart-wrenching:
You read that right: the largest religious group in the American South are unchurched people claiming to be evangelical Christians.
Effectively, we have a steadily growing number of people who are leaving churches, while still claiming to be Christian, who are no longer being discipled by churches but who are instead being discipled by right-wing media outlets, that claim to promote Christian values. Historian Daniel K. Williams summarizes it like this: “Data suggests that, when their attendance drops, these nominal Christians become hyper-individualistic, devoted to law and order, cynical about systems, and distrustful of others.”
I can believe Williams because I know of a several professing Christians who have pretty much given up on going to church. They are not Sandy Hook conspiracy promoters, but they follow the same pattern that Williams summarizes.
As a reaction against this, I also know of several professed “Progressive Christians” who have a negative view of conservative evangelical faith, particularly that which often carries the label of “Christian nationalism.” But it might help such friends of mine to consider that perhaps what they are reacting against is not actual Christianity being practiced in our churches, but rather, they are reacting against a kind of fake Christianity practiced by professing “Christians” who would rather stay home and watch conservative media outlets on television instead of going to a vibrant Christian fellowship on Sunday mornings, and otherwise actively becoming part of some community, where they might get discipled in the faith.
Just something to think about.
Dispute over the Minimal versus Maximal Facts Argument for the Resurrection
Christian apologist and YouTuber Mike Winger is a bit simplistic here, but he has a decent short summary of each approach:
The minimal facts argument, articulated best by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, suggests that we limit the evidence used in our argument to those facts that the widest spectrum of biblical scholars and historians, ranging from conservative to liberal, will most reasonably accept. For example, many scholars and historians today believe that the Apostle Paul only wrote 7 of the 13 letters in the New Testament attributed in him. Also, many scholars suggest that a good deal of the material we have in the Gospels is historically unreliable, much of it being the product of the early church placing ideas and words on the lips of Jesus. For people who are to some degree aware of what such scholars and historians say, the minimal facts approach will probably meet the least amount of resistance. Nevertheless, the goal is to try to persuade people that Christians can be thoughtful and still believe in the Resurrection at the same time, so that inquirers might consider taking further steps in having a deeper understanding of what the implications of the Resurrection are, so that they might embrace the whole of the Christian message.
Alternatively, the maximal facts approach suggests that we use the entire arsenal of evidence from the New Testament to make our case for the Resurrection. My thought is that we should use whatever approach makes sense, based on the assumptions made by the audience with whom we are engaging. If someone follows the broad scholarly opinion, I would lead with the minimal facts argument. If someone is willing to accept the whole of the New Testament as historically reliable, or is at least fairly open to it, then I would use the maximal facts approach instead.
In other words, Christians should invest the necessary time to be able communicate both arguments, both the minimal facts and the maximal facts approach in their evangelistic conversation. Since in my experience, most Christians I know are not familiar with the minimal facts approach at all, and that they tend to fumble their way through some variation of the maximal facts approach, it would be the most wisest thing to learn both approaches, with their pluses and minuses.
The key is this: Know your audience. Adjust your argument accordingly so that you keep the discussion on track, in hopes that your friend will take a closer step to knowing Jesus. Pretty straightforward, to me, at least.
I have come to conclude that the so-called “late date” theory of when the Exodus occurred is probably the best explanation of both the Scriptural archaeological data, as YouTuber apologist Michael Jones, and his Egyptologist consultant, Dr. David A. Falk, suggest. Here are some of the latest and best YouTube videos that dig into the details. I am still open to changing my mind on all of this, but to date, this position seems to be the best argument to make to support the historicity of the Exodus:
Lest anyone think I am being unfair here, you might want to listen to the following interview that Sean McDowell did with archaeologist Dr. Titus Kennedy, who favors an early date (15th c. BCE) versus Jones/Falk’s late date (13th c. BCE) proposal. Jones was previously an early date advocate, like Kennedy, but was convinced on the late date (as I am) by Dr. Falk. If you are still persuaded by the early date proposal, let me just say that the late date proposal, in my view, is easier to defend with non-believers, regarding the historicity of the Exodus. At some point, I hope to do a whole blog series regarding the historicity issue of the Exodus, but that’ll be some time far off into the future!!
I could be wrong about the “Late-Date” (13th century). The “Early-Date” (15th century) could be correct. Whatever I am, I am not impressed by chariot wheels stories passed around by Ron Wyatt. No Christian archaeologist is either.
As a bonus, here is another cool video from Inspiring Philosophy about the stopping of the sun moving in Joshua 10:
Shall the Fundamentalists Win? – Harry Emerson Fosdick 100 Years Later
On May 21, 1922, Henry Emerson Fosdick, a Baptist serving in a New York City Presbyterian Church, preached a most (in)famous sermon entitled, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick’s sermon was a tipping point in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early 20th century, that led to the split between liberal mainline Protestants and conservative evangelical fundamentalists in America, during the 1920s. One hundred years later, church historian Darryl Hart discusses the impact of this sermon on the church today.
The Debate over Defining “Progressive Christianity”
The problem with “progressive Christianity” really is about definition of terms, but it also points to the difficulty in being able to know where to draw the line between essentials and non-essentials of Christian faith. In the 20th century, the line between liberal mainline Protestantism and conservative evangelicalism was pretty clear. Here in the 21st century, this is not the case any more, as the term “evangelical” gets played around with a lot. In my view, it is better to err on the side against progressive Christianity.
In defense of Alisa Childers, I must say that in the various videos that I have seen, Childers is actually quite honest and revealing that “progressive Christianity” is indeed a very loose and difficult concept to define, as various “progressive Christians” will often contradict one another. For some reason, Randal Rauser does not see this. Perhaps this is because Alisa’s book comes across as less nuanced, and I will admit that I have not read her book, so Randal might be right. Still, I think she has a good approach to this, even when I do not completely agree with every particular position she takes on certain issues. I would say that her journey away from egalitarianism to complementarianism is a perspective that does not get discussed that much.
To her credit, Alisa Childers has a quite revealing interview with Bobby Conway, the One-Minute Apologist, who actually went through his own deconstruction process a few years after he started his One-Minute Apologist YouTube channel. As he describes in the video, the destructive behavior that resulted from his deconstruction process cost him his job as a church pastor, but thankfully he has been in recovery since then.
The Problem of Divine Hiddenness
If there was one area where I think that both atheists and even progressive Christians raise a good question, that I personally struggle with, it has to do with the problem of divine hiddenness. To put it briefly: “Why doesn’t God seem to reveal himself to people who are open and seeking him?” This is something I have to do some more thinking about, so I am not making any claims here. Many Christians tell me that the reason why God sometimes seems silent in a person’s life is because that person has some sort of sin impeding their ability or receptibility to actually hear from or see God at work. I am not so sure about that at this point, but I am willing to learn more. Justin Brierley at “Premier Unbelievable?” invited atheist Alex O’Connor (aka Cosmic Skeptic) and Christian apologist Lukas Ruegger to discuss the issue on the Unbelievable? YouTube channel and podcast. This (and the following) video I probably need to listen to a few times before I finally have some remedial grasp:
Philosopher Liz Jackson was also interviewed a couple of years ago on this very topic:
…. and then there is this…..
And Finally….. A Christian Approach to Philosophy
I want to introduce you all to a fairly new friend of mine. Dr. Philip Swenson teaches philosophy at the College of William and Mary. I met Philip through the ministry of the Cambridge House, a Christian study center serving the campus community at William and Mary, here in Williamsburg. Dr. Swenson, as you will see below, has interests in the area of free will and responsibility, where he talks about stuff like Monism and compatibilism, and other fancy ideas that I can barely pronounce. Frankly, philosophy at this level is not really my area, but I still enjoy learning things from Philip. You may agree or disagree with him, but the main thing is that Philip loves Jesus!
Recently, Philip told me that he has a few interviews up on a Christian apologetics YouTube channel. So, if you think that Christians are dumb anti-intellectuals, the following videos will cure you of that misguided notion (HA-HA!!). Philip has an interesting background, having grown up in a charismatic church but currently attends a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. What a combination. He was recently interviewed a couple of times on the Analytic Christian YouTube channel (the last video is response by another Christian philosopher, Justin Mooney at Denison University, in defense of Molinism). I will probably have to listen to these a few times myself to get everything, but for those who appreciate analytic philosophy from a Christian perspective, here ya go!!
…. For the Rest of 2022….
I have started reading a couple of other books which I hope to complete when my wife and I go on vacation later in the Fall. For example, I am near the end of reading a book on “Divine Violence” in the Bible, which has been very helpful to think through during this age of the ongoing war in the Ukraine.
Also, I FINALLY got around to reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which I have been putting off for about 40 years, and that is no joke. Why did I wait so long? Mere Christianity is really an excellent book, one of the best apologetic books I have ever read. Look for a book review coming out fairly soon. Stay tuned!!
…. Oh, and Just For Fun….
Found the following video, from a bluegrass band, Southern Raised, performing (oddly enough) the song “Thunderstruck” as an instrumental. Their YouTube channel describes them as a Christian band, but I must say that their version of this well-known song by the Australian heavy-metal rockers, AC-DC, is much better than the original. Lot’s of fun… just wait ’till mid-way towards the end!
Yesterday’s Easter sermon covered the last few verses in the Gospel of Mark…. or did it?
If you pick up any copy of any modern English Bible translation, Mark 16 starts off telling the reader that the women came to the tomb, where Jesus was laid after the crucifixion, early on Sunday morning, only to find that the stone at the entrance of the tomb had been rolled away, and a “young man” (an angel perhaps?) sought to answer the questions that the women had in their minds at that moment:
‘And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (Mark 16:6-8 ESV).
It is a very awkward ending to the Gospel. This unknown figure announces that Jesus has been risen from the dead, but there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus to the women. That is really odd, but that is what you have here.
The graveyard at Bruton Parish Church, in Williamsburg, Virginia. What if you were among the women to visit the grave of Jesus, and Jesus was not there, but someone told you that Jesus had been raised from the dead?
Most of these modern translations will then have a footnote describing what is called the “shorter ending of Mark.” They will often include, in the main body of the text, what is called the “longer ending of Mark.” The most interesting feature of the “longer ending of Mark” is that it includes the infamous snake-handling verse (Mark 16:18), that some Christian groups in Appalachia use as a prooftext for handling live snakes in their worship services (Link to creepy National Geographic story on snake handling).
So, what is the story with these alternative endings for Mark?
Many Christians familiar with the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible will notice that there is no note at the end of verse 8, but that verses 9-16 are included anyway (the longer ending of Mark). Many therefore conclude (understandably) that the longer ending is the authentic ending for the Gospel of Mark.
However, most scholars (Christian and non-Christian) do not believe that the “longer ending” (or even the “shorter ending”) of Mark are authentic. But scholars differ as to why most of our earliest sources lack anything after verse 8. Perhaps Mark just left the Gospel as a cliff-hanger at the end. Perhaps the original ending to Mark’s Gospel simply got lost, as though the last few inches of Mark’s papyrus got ripped off. A handful of scholars even suggest that some type of oral tradition gives us the alternative endings to Mark that are found after verse 8. Others say that it just seemed too awkward for Mark to end the Gospel at verse 8, so other endings were invented to smooth out the ending of the story.
The bottom line is that we simply do not know how to account for Mark’s abrupt ending at verse 8. Aside from the snake-handling verse, which is perhaps an allusion to Paul being bitten by a snake on the island of Malta, and surviving (Acts 28:1-7), (and the related bit about drinking poison), there is nothing in verse 9-16 that is not repeated or covered elsewhere in the New Testament. No theological problems here. So, we do not lose any specific Christian doctrine if we recognize verses 9-16 as not being authentic.
But it does make for some interesting conversation!!
For a “shorter” summary of the broad scholarly consensus on Mark 16:9-20, you might want to briefly look at the 2 1/2 minute video below from a recent Mike Licona debate. For a “longer” summary, you can consider Mike Winger’s 2-hour video teaching on the topic. Mike Winger is one of most popular Christian Bible teachers / apologists today on YouTube, with over 400,000 followers. As a church pastor, with a YouTube channel on the side, Mike Winger says he spent 150 hours researching this topic. Did you ever think it was possible to spend 150 hours studying the final 12 verses of the longer end of Mark?
Here is one of those Bible passages you probably never hear a sermon about:
50 But Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.51 Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:50-53, Christian Standard Bible)
It is Good Friday. Jesus had just died, after being crucified on the cross. Verse 51 is loaded with interesting details, but the really weird part starts in verse 52. At first glance, it seems like something out of the 1968 movie, The Night of the Living Dead. Does this mean we really have “zombies” in our Bible?
What makes this text all the more strange is the fact that only in the Gospel of Matthew do we have this story about the “zombies.” None of the other three Gospels even hint at this. You would think that the Resurrection of Jesus is a big enough event, but to have a whole group of raised saints wandering around Jerusalem would have really caused a stir. Where did they all go? What is going on here?
There are two basic ways of interpreting this passage: The traditional view suggests that this is an historical event that Matthew uniquely records. Yet trying to grapple with who these “saints” are, and what this all means, are both provocative questions.
The most common explanation is that these raised “saints” are Old Testament believers, such as some heroes of the faith, like the great prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, perhaps. Some tie this story of these raised “saints” with the Harrowing of Hell, commonly associated with the phrase, “He descended into hell/hades,” found in the classic early creed of the church, the Apostle Creed, which some suggest teaches that between his death on Good Friday, and his Resurrection on Sunday, Jesus is preaching the Gospel to those who have died, raising those who believe to new life.
The apocalyptic/metaphorical view suggests that this story in Matthew is not an historical event, but rather a type of prophetic vision of what will happen in the End Times, which is the reason why it is called “apocalyptic.” The appearance of raised saints points forward to the future, whereby all true believers in Jesus will be raised permanently to eternal life. While the apocalyptic/metaphorical view does not insist that this actually happened historically on Good Friday, it is nevertheless still true, since it is anticipating the reality of the future Resurrection.
Dr. Michael Licona, a New Testament scholar, and probably one of the most able defenders of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, against the skeptics who deny Jesus’ Resurrection, takes this metaphorical view. Dr. Licona came under severe criticism about ten years ago, or so, by suggesting that this story is an example of “special effects” added in by Matthew, to better explain the meaning of Christ’s death. Defenders of the traditional view say that inserting a fictionalized literary device smack dab in the middle of an historical narrative like this interrupts the flow of the story. But even more serious, Licona’s critics accused him of denying biblical inerrancy by “de-historicizing” this element of Matthew’s narrative.
So, which view is right? The traditional, historical view or the apocalyptic/metaphorical view?
A still frame from George Romero’s 1968 horror film, Night of the Living Dead. Matthew the Evangelist did not have this in mind regarding the risen dead that walked the streets of Jerusalem, following Christ’s Resurrection. But this peculiar incident in Matthew’s Gospel raises some interesting questions: Did Matthew mean this to be part of his historical narrative, or was this an apocalyptic metaphor, looking to the future?
Examining the Evidence
In classical debates about how best to interpret difficult passages like this, it is always the prudent idea to place the burden of proof on the non-traditional view. The traditional view, by the very fact that it has been embraced by Christians for a long period of time, even back to the period of the early church, should enjoy the favor of place in these type of discussions. It is up to defenders of the apocalyptic/metaphorical view to see if they can meet the burden of proof, in order to overturn the tradition.
Furthermore, defenders of the traditional view are concerned that the metaphorical view might call other miraculous events in Scripture into question. This is a very reasonable concern: Where do you draw the line here, and on what grounds do you make a distinction between an historical narrative account versus a prophetic, metaphorical vision of some sort? Jesus spoke in parables, which are fictional teaching devices, but the Gospels also claim that the Resurrection of Jesus is a real historical event, in space and time. The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus has the unanimous consensus from our New Testament sources, including all four Gospels. For if Jesus is risen from the dead, then this opens up the historical possibility of other miraculous Bible events having happened in history as well. But does this necessarily mean that the best explanation for another difficult passage requires a “miraculous” explanation? Another “non-miraculous” explanation, that fits the data better, might actually make better sense of the text. But does the evidence really support this? Traditionalists have a right to be worried, as some Christians, who find no difficulty in accepting the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, will go to great lengths to dismiss other miracles, such as the Virgin Birth of Jesus, as a pious fiction, a view which causes all sorts of mischief.
From the perspective of an historian, one could argue that both the traditional and apocalyptic/metaphorical views are historical possibilities. Only those skeptics who reject the supernatural would rule out the traditional view as a possibility, because the idea of people walking around after being dead is most definitely a supernatural event. For some who employ the historical critical method, the impossibility of the miraculous is the starting point, and the divine inspiration of the text is an assumption that can be safely set aside, for the sake of getting at the “real” history. In other words, if you treat the miraculous with utter disdain, or you reject the concept of God-breathed inspired Scripture, then the whole business about Matthew’s Gospel “zombies” as historical event will probably just come across to you as completely silly. For historically orthodox Christians, the use of historical critical method does not require one to take those kind of skeptical steps.
However, it is not enough to determine an event’s possibility. What is more difficult is to try to determine how plausible an event might be, considering the evidence, and then try to weigh that evidence to figure out what view is more probable, compared to the other alternatives.
The sheer weight of tradition is not something to dismiss lightly. However, there are a number of factors to consider, that are frankly ignored or otherwise distorted by some commentators who defend the traditional view.
The first thing to consider is what did it mean for these saints to be “raised?” After all, Jesus himself had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). But was the raising of Lazarus the same as the raising of these saints on Good Friday?
Most scholars would agree that Lazarus was risen from the dead, but that he eventually died at some later time. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who believes that a 2,000 year old Lazarus is still living in some New York City high-rise apartment, collecting social security. Likewise, there are some who believe that these raised saints on Good Friday eventually died again, just as Lazarus did. Unfortunately, the text in Matthew does not tell us anything about the eventual fate of these raised saints.
If these saints who were raised died again, it does make you wonder what the point of the whole story was about. For if these raised saints were Old Testament believers, what would the point be for them to be raised, and then die a second time?
The other alternative would be that these raised saints remained alive after this event. Does this mean that a whole group of “zombies” are living in New York City apartments, collecting more social security, and making our taxes so high? Well, most probably not. Unfortunately, if these saints did remain alive, we have no record of an ascension of these saints (Though some do suggest that this is implied by another weird and difficult passage, Ephesians 4:7-10, and/or that these saints quietly ascended to heaven along with Jesus at Jesus’ ascension).
The real tricky part is trying to make this historical reconstruction of events fit with other parts of Scripture. Here is the Apostle Paul:
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:20,23-24 ESV)
Some commentators say that the raised saints on Good Friday are some of the “firstfruits” of the resurrection promised to all believers. Some suggest that verse 23 above should have a comma after “Christ” but before “the firstfruits“, to therefore read: “But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” In other words, first Jesus is raised, then the “zombie” saints in Jerusalem, and then finally associated with the event of the Second Coming, everyone else is raised.
There are several problems here. To take verse 23, and divide it up into three separate events does not mesh well with verse 20, where the Resurrection of Christ, by itself, is equated with the “firstfruits” of the Resurrection. The answer to this objection is that “firstfruits” is plural, which would suggest that multiple events can be associated with these “firstfruits.” In other words, both the Resurrection of Christ AND the raising of these saints together are the “firstfruits.”
True, firstfruits is plural here, but this is a grammatical construction that can have a singular referent. A good example in English is the word mathematics. I majored in mathematics in college, but it does not mean that I double-majored, or triple-majored in multiple mathematic subjects. To say that I majored in mathematics is the same as saying that I majored in math, which is singular. I majored in one subject, mathematics. Likewise, it is perfectly consistent with the biblical text here to say that the (singular) Resurrection of Christ is equivalent to the (plural) firstfruits of the Resurrection. Furthermore, we can find another example of this singular referent to the plural firstfruits in a passage like Romans 16:5, where Epaenetus is described as the “first convert” (firstfruits) to Christ in Asia.
However, the most serious difficulty is that the order of events described by Paul here in 1 Corinthians does not mesh well with the traditional historical interpretation associated with Matthew. A number of commentators will say that in Matthew’s narrative that Jesus was Resurrected on Sunday morning, and then followed by the raising of the saints, who made their way about Jerusalem. This reconstruction might fit 1 Corinthians, if it was possible to interpret the firstfruits of 1 Corinthians 15 with multiple events.
However, a careful reading of the text shows that this simply is not true. In the Matthew passage quoted above, in the Christian Standard Bible translation, Jesus dies upon the cross on Good Friday (v. 50), then followed by the phrase, “Suddenly….” in verse 51, describing all of the events associated with the death of Jesus, which includes the opening of the tombs and the raising of the saints, all happening there on Good Friday (see verses 51 and 52). It is not until Sunday, after Jesus’ Resurrection do these saints leave their tombs and appear about the city, as we find in verse 53.
What the raised saints were doing in their tombs over the weekend is anyone’s guess…. perhaps they were waking up from their long sleep?? But the point here is to say that the raising of these saints preceded Christ’s Resurrection, which if understood in a non-metaphorical manner, would contradict with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. That is a serious problem.
The “Suddenly…” of the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) in verse 51 is obscured in the otherwise excellent English Standard Version (ESV), which has the more archaic “Behold...” The New International Version (NIV) renders this as “At that moment…” There really is no way that you can delay the raising of the saints, in their tombs, until two days later, if the traditional historical interpretation is to be adopted.
However, the most pressing concern is the theological meaning behind the whole “zombie” episode. For if the point of the episode is to tell us that a number of saints were resurrected before Jesus’ Resurrection, it really messes with the whole theology of Resurrection that Paul is trying to describe in 1 Corinthians 15.
Unlike the “resurrection” of Lazarus, who eventually did die sometime in the 1st century timeframe, the Resurrection of Jesus is quite different. When Jesus died on the cross, and then was Resurrected, this Resurrection was (and “is”) permanent. In other words, Jesus will never die again. Likewise, the hope that Paul is trying to give to the Corinthian church is that Resurrection for us as believers, is unlike the story of Lazarus. Instead, our Resurrection will be like that of Christ’s Resurrection. For those believers who have died prior to Jesus’ Second Coming, they will be raised to eternal life, and they will never die again, following the example, the firstfruits, set by Jesus himself.
If this is indeed the point of the Matthew story, then we really are not dealing with something out of a “zombie” horror movie. Rather, the raising of the saints is a look into the future, whereby Matthew wants to reassure the reader that the coming Resurrection of Jesus two days later, after the Crucifixion, is the same hope that we can have as believers, that in the “End Times,” all who have died in Christ will be raised in Christ…. permanently!!
For the Christian, Jesus has conquered death, permanently. That is Good News!!
This is why the “special effects” apolocalyptic literary device mentioned by Michael Licona makes sense with the metaphorical interpretation, in contrast with the traditional, historical interpretation of this passage in Matthew’s Gospel. Historical critical analysis of this particular text chimes in well with the generally accepted view today that the Gospels fit within the literary genre of Greco-Roman biography. For example, Virgil describes the death of Julius Caesar with all sorts of reports of various apocalyptic phenomena, such as cattle speaking, streams standing still, pale phantoms being spotted at dusk, the opening up of the earth, and a comet being seen. It would have been perfectly acceptable for Matthew to use a similar literary device to make a theological point about the believer’s hope in a future Resurrection.
Where Do You Land on Understanding the “Zombie” Passage in Matthew’s Gospel?
So, which is the better interpretation of this passage? Is it the traditional, historical view, or the metaphorical, future-looking ahead view? Scholars will weigh the evidence differently, in order to make a judgment on the probability of an event. This is not a hill that I am willing to die on, but in my mind, the evidence favors the metaphorical view as the better interpretation, when examining all of the evidence. Has the burden of proof been met, to overturn the traditional view? I would say, yes, but many other devoted Christians would probably disagree with me here.
What does bother me is when some advocates of the traditional, historical view regard advocates of the apocalyptic/metaphorical view as somehow having a lower view of the Bible. With all due respect to such critics, the idea of promoting a particular “miraculous” interpretation of a difficult passage that results in postulating a contradiction in the Bible is not a good way of trying to supposedly “defend the Bible.”
Nevertheless, what both the traditional, historical view and the apocalyptic/metaphorical view have in common is the affirmation that God has the power to conquer death, and that God has done this through the Resurrection of Jesus. That message should give us hope that death does not have the final word. When all seems bleak, and at its darkest, we can trust in the reality that “Sunday is a’coming.”
In these early years of the third decade of the 21st century, we have endured the stench of death from the loss of friends and family who have suffered from Covid-19, and now more recently, we recoil from the horror of bodies left piled up on the streets of the cities of Ukraine. Thankfully, the story of the Christian faith gives us a sense of hope that a Resurrection awaits those who put their trust in Jesus, no matter how dark our world seems today. That is a message worth pondering on Good Friday.
In the next post of this series on “historical criticism,” I will review a book written by one of the finest conservative Bible scholars alive today, that uses the tools of “historical criticism” in a very responsible manner, without falling off any theological cliffs, as so many other advocates of “historical criticism” have repeatedly done. Look for it in a week or so.