Aug 02

Gospel Truth: A Christmas Story(ies)

This is my third post in a series on the New Testament Gospels. The purpose of this series is to introduce in a very general way the findings of New Testament scholars using the historical-critical method.

Thus far, I have covered whether the gospels were written by eyewitnesses and discussed a few general contradictions that impact theology. Stay tuned for a discussion of John, which is often called The Maverick Gospel, and the Resurrection. This time I will cover the birth narratives of Jesus.

The first thing to note about the Gospels and the birth of Jesus is that only two of them tell a birth story. This suggests that the virgin birth narratives either were not known to the Gospel writers or the writers doubted their veracity. Some apologists will argue that perhaps the writers just didn’t feel it was necessary to include the stories. This does not seem likely, though, and creates an interesting conflict with another issue in apologetics (the argument from silence when dating Acts).

But even among the accounts in Matthew and Luke, there are some differences. I’ll just name a few.

Where was Jesus born and where did his family originate?

According to Matthew 2, Mary and Joseph seem to already live in Bethlehem. There is no journey there. Afterward, Herod orders the death of all children two and under around Bethlehem, so Mary, Joseph, and Jesus must flee and eventually settle in Nazareth. According to Luke 2:4-5, they had to travel there from Nazareth in order to take part in a census. Afterward, they return home. So, what do we make of this? Well, people seemed to think that Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee, but they also thought he was born in Bethlehem. How do we make these fit? Each author had a different (I would say opposing) solution. It might be the case that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, yet grew up in Galilee, but we have good reason to believe the authors made up parts of their narrative to make that happen. There is no record of the census mentioned in Luke, which was how Luke got the characters to Bethlehem. There is a similar lack of evidence for the killing of young children in and around Bethlehem, which was how Matthew got them to move to Nazareth. The so-called “Massacre of the Innocents” is also eerily similar to the story of Moses.

Who was present at Jesus birth?

In Matthew 2:9-11, wise men come bearing gifts for the Messiah after following a star, but in Luke 2:8-17, shepherds come after being told by an angel. Typical nativity scenes simply mash the two accounts together, as if they are one. What they actually portray is not found in the Gospels. This is evidence again of the author creating a narrative for the events.

Was Jesus born in a stable?

According to Matthew 2:11, Jesus was in a house after his birth. According to Luke 2:7, Jesus was in a manger. There is some question around the translation of “inn” by some scholars, but these stories do seem to disagree. They especially seem that way in the larger context, considering one of them has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem already versus traveling.

 

Conclusion

That is a very brief introduction to a few of the issues debated by scholars surrounding the birth narratives of Jesus. Other issues include the overall perspective of the stories, some of the surrounding details before/after the birth, and especially the genealogies, which I covered in my last Gospel post.

Given just these few problems outlined briefly, I think we have good reason to believe that certain elements were invented to get the characters where they needed to be. But beyond that, we do have some agreement to some central elements too. They both, after all, say that Jesus was born of a virgin. Is this small amount of agreement enough to have us believe in a virgin birth? The central claim of the stories is so improbable that I think we can hardly consider this evidence strong enough for that conclusion.

Jul 29

Atheist vs. Agnostic

I am an atheist. Let me be clear. I don’t believe in any gods or goddesses. I don’t believe in ghosts or ESP. I don’t believe in anything you might associate with the supernatural. Period.

Yet, there is a move often made by theists. It goes a little something like this:

Theist: Can you prove that (my) God does not exist?

Atheist: Not absolutely, no.

Theist: Then you should really call yourself an agnostic.

Many of us then go into a discussion of knowledge versus belief and the meaning of the terms, but I think we ought to do something else. Why not agree to call yourself an agnostic, but ask them for the same in return? After all, can they prove their God exists absolutely? Of course not. So, shouldn’t they really call themselves agnostic? Theist is just a misnomer, if they accept their own argument.

 

Jul 26

What makes a being great?

There is an argument I’ve floated in a few comment threads, but I thought it deserved a formal presentation. This argument, if correct, would show that our existence disproves a greatest possible being. It’s an ambitious claim, but here goes:

1. Given two options, a greatest possible being would only do the better thing in every given situation.

2. An act of creation is considered better if, and only if, it improves the state of affairs compared to what existed previously.

3. No act of creation could improve upon a perfect state of affairs.

4. The existence of a greatest possible being would entail a perfect state of affairs.

5. An act of creation exists (don’t get too hung up on the term, fellow skeptics).

6. Therefore, a greatest possible being does not exist.

Now, there is a lot to defend in this argument. Given the nature of a blog post, I don’t think I should do a full treatment here. But I would at least like to get the ball rolling and hear objections from anyone. I foresee the major objections coming against premises 2, 3, and 4.

I think the most common objection would say that it’s an exercise in greatness to create something, so maybe the creator being is greater. This would probably work similarly to Plantinga’s modal ontological argument. He says that it is obviously greater to exist than to not exist. Well, here we could say it’s better to exercise the power of creation than to simply have it. If someone were to say this, though, I think it would entail some internal consistency problems. For, if they think a greatest possible being exists here and now, then they must admit that certain great acts are not being performed. I think this is essentially covered by premise (2).

I’ll be curious to hear other objections. Basically, I want to say that we can compare two possible beings. One improves the state of affairs by creating some moral beings, etc. The other realizes that nothing it creates will improve the state of affairs because they are already perfect! Now, which is the greater being? It might depend on how we frame the issue, but I think it’s clearly the latter.  The latter being still has the power to create the beings, but it does not because the state of affairs would no longer be perfect. If the state of affairs were no longer perfect, then there could be a greater being. The only way to avoid Guanilo-style problems, I think, is to say that only the greatest possible being could exist.

What do you think?

Jul 20

Fine Tuning and a Beginningless Past

One of the most popular arguments for theism is the Fine Tuning Argument (FTA). The FTA is generally formulated something like this:

  1. The “constants” of the universe either arrived by chance or design
  2. The chance is overwhelmingly small
  3. Therefore, they must have arrived by design

There are a lot of things we could discuss about the FTA. It poses a particularly intriguing problem due to all the unknowns involved. However, I want to focus on a single aspect. If it is correct that the past is beginningless, then chance actually poses no problem.

The biggest hurdle to people accepting the possibility of a beginningless past, at least in my experience, are a strand of arguments regarding actual infinites. The thing about actual infinites is they grate against our intuitions as they are presented in the aforementioned argument. They are, in a sense, a completed infinite or an infinite set of things. This tends to bring about questions like, “How can an infinite ever be complete?” It’s a good and difficult question, but I hope to offer a different perspective on these arguments that may give you something to at least think about, even if you aren’t convinced.

So how might we respond to this difficulty? To start, the proponent of the FTA will often not have a problem with a potential infinite. They will likely grant the possibility of a potentially infinite future – namely, Heaven. I question whether this is really so different than asserting a beginningless past. One states that for any moment chosen in the future, there will be a later moment. The other says the same, but for the past. This symmetry can be seen in the following figure:

It does not seem clear at all why we should accept one, but not the other. Confronted with this, the proponents will often turn to another sort of argument that seemingly applies to past events.

So, what are these arguments? I’ll give a few varieties and you should see their basic form:

You cannot create an infinite set through successive addition (i.e., 1, 2, 3, 4 … ∞).

If you knock down the first of an infinite set of dominoes, you will never knock down the entire set.

If you start filling an infinite hole with an infinite amount of dirt and an infinite amount of time to shovel, you will never fill the hole.

The gist of the arguments is that we would never reach “now” given an infinite past. I initially found these arguments very persuasive. But after seeing them in a different light, I came to realize they don’t actually address the idea of a beginningless past head on enough to be convincing. You’ll see that these arguments all rely on starting somewhere. You begin adding, you begin the dominoes, and you begin filling the hole. But who has asserted that we are beginning anything? The dominoes have always been falling. If the concern is that we  can never reach the present, you can say, “Ok, choose any moment in the past and it will be countably far away from the present.” Their argument, though, doesn’t rely on counting from a past moment to this one – it relies on counting from the first past moment. But that is precisely what the beginningless past theory says we will not find.

I propose that the popular arguments against a beginningless past merely seem to have force because we aren’t framing the issue correctly. And, if a beginningless past is an option, what do we make of the “chance” problem presented in the FTA?

Jul 13

The Paradox of the Ravens and Hypothesis Testing

Generally speaking, when an atheist views the world, they tend to do so with a respect for hypothesis testing. We find something admirable in the notion that you can come up with predictions, test them in the real world, and the end results affect your view. Since very few things are certain, these outcomes generally either raise or lower probability.

Hypothesis testing  is a central component to many theories about why science has been successful, but there is a popular counter argument. It is based on something called The Paradox of the Ravens. I wrote a paper on this strange paradox once that I thought I’d share in case it may aid you in defending hypothesis testing against a clever opponent. This piece is meant as an introductory level explanation of the problem and why I think it’s not really a problem at all. Enjoy!

 

Observing Green Frogs: Why we should accept Hempel’s paradoxical conclusion

  

Introduction

Carl Hempel’s Paradox of the Ravens argues that observing a green frog actually confirms the hypothesis ‘All ravens are black.’ But why would observing a green frog confirm any knowledge about ravens? It strongly disagrees with our intuitions, but this is the case, according to the paradox. The paradox has generated considerable controversy among philosophers and scientists since its introduction by Hempel. I will defend the counterintuitive result to argue that, yes, observing a green frog can confirm knowledge about ravens.

 

Observation and Confirmation

Given certain skeptical problems about knowledge due to our epistemic limitations, it is very difficult to prove a theory or hypothesis correct. Instead, we will often say that experimental results or observations will confirm or disconfirm a particular hypothesis. If a hypothesis is confirmed, that means the probability of it being correct is raised by the observation, however slightly. Conversely, the probability is decreased when a hypothesis is disconfirmed.

We will deal primarily with confirmation here. Your probability is affected because an observation should limit your sample space in some way when confirming a hypothesis. Ideally, if an observation is confirmed, then you eliminate certain alternative explanations. Consider a murder case with three suspects. For this example, we will take it as a given that we know it must be one of these three suspects. The prior probability is as follows:

Suspect A: 1/3

Suspect B: 1/3

Suspect C: 1/3

Let’s say that the detective has a hypothesis that Suspect C is guilty. A consequence of this hypothesis is that Suspects A and B are not guilty. Our experiment will test for the effects of firing the gun, so the guilty person should have residue on their hands from the gunpowder. Even though the detective has a suspect in mind, he decides that he will not let his bias affect experiment and he tests all three in order.

The first test shows that Suspect A does not have residue on his hands. The probabilities are now as follows:

Suspect A: 0

Suspect B: 1/2

Suspect C: 1/2

The probability of the hypothesis that Suspect C will have gunpowder residue on his hands has increased from 1/3 to 1/2. Or, you might say the sample space of possible alternatives has shrunk from three to two. This example in which we did not actually test the suspect named by our hypothesis will be relevant to how we solve the paradox of the ravens.

 

Logical Equivalence

Before giving the paradox, we should understand logical equivalence. To say that ‘All F’s are G’ is equivalent to saying that ‘All non-G’s are non-F.’ Many find the abstract formulation of this argument confusing, but it should be clear with a more concrete example. We can say that ‘All numbers ending in 2 (F) are even (G).’ So, the equivalent then is ‘All numbers that are not even (non-G) do not end in 2 (non-F)’. This is clearly true.

Or, to return to our murder case, we might say our initial hypothesis once the experiment was decided was something like, ‘Suspect C [and only Suspect C] will have residue on his hands’. So, our logical equivalent would be ‘Any person without residue on their hands will not be suspect C’. We saw that this was true in the above case, at least when Suspect A was tested.

 

The Paradox of the Ravens

The case with examining one of the other suspects seems straightforward, but what happens when we introduce something that seems completely unrelated to the hypothesis? This was the goal of Hempel’s Paradox of the Ravens.

The Paradox

  1. If an observation O confirms a hypothesis H, then O confirms anything logically equivalent to H.
  2. Observation of an F that is G confirms ‘All F’s are G’
  3. ‘All non-G’s are non-F’ is logically equivalent to ‘All F’s are G’
  4. Observing a non-black non-raven confirms ‘All non-black things are non-ravens’ [From 2]
  5. ‘All non-black things are non-ravens’ is logically equivalent to ‘All ravens are black’ [From 3]
  6. Thus, observing a green frog confirms ‘All ravens are black’ [From 1,4,5]

The conclusion is certainly an odd one if our intuitions are to be trusted. One would expect that to confirm something about ravens, observing non-ravens won’t do the trick. Yet the construction of the argument is valid and, given what we have seen about confirmation and logical equivalence, the premises seem sound.

So what do we do with the paradoxical conclusion? We should accept it. As I hope to show, observing a non-black non-raven does confirm ‘All ravens are black’ ever so slightly.

 

Limiting our Sample Space

I think much of the confusion arises because of the very small increase in probability that occurs upon observing a green frog. While our intuitions can easily spot relatively large increases in probability, as with the murder case above, we do not so easily spot relatively small increases. Hence, we feel that the result is counterintuitive.

If we return to the example of the murder suspects, we can hopefully recognize that limiting our possibilities made it easy to see exactly why the probability was raised. Recall that it was raised without testing Suspect C. It would be nearly impossible to construct an accurate model of all black and non-black things in our world, let alone our universe, because the numbers are too large and fluctuate regularly. However, we can again simplify our sample space to clearly illustrate how the conclusion of the paradox works.

Let us consider a possible world W1, which is illustrated in Figure 1. W1 consists of 15 objects, and only these 15 objects. These can be divided into objects that are black and objects that are white (that is, non-black objects). There are 10 white objects and five black ones.

 

Figure 1

 

An explorer decides to visit W1 and discern things from the objects in it. She comes upon her first object and it is a black raven (noted with an asterisk in Figure 1). From this, she generalizes that perhaps all ravens are black. We do not know at this point if any of the other objects on W1 are also ravens. Perhaps more of the black objects are ravens and perhaps some or all of the white objects are also ravens. Every object could be a raven! Given this, even observing every black object in W1 will not provide a proof.

 

So, her hypothesis needs further confirmation. Our explorer continues to wander until she comes upon a white handkerchief. She suddenly has an idea; since she already knows there is at least one black raven, she can observe all the white objects in W1 and determine the truth of ‘All ravens are black.’ She sets out on her mission and eventually does examine all 10 white objects. None of them turn out to be ravens. This shows with absolute certainty that ‘All ravens are black’ in W1. Perhaps this can best be illustrated by Figure 2.

Figure 2

As you can see, she has crossed out every white object. The only objects left to observe in W1 are black. We still do not know how many more of them, if any, are ravens. But we now know that any remaining ravens must belong to the class of objects that are black. Observing the first white handkerchief was the first step toward determining this.

 

Solving the Paradox

In the case of the detective investigating a murder, we saw that there were three possible suspects, which gave us a prior probability of 1/3 and was then raised to 1/2. In the case of W1, we might say that any of the white objects had an equal probability of being a raven since we knew nothing about this world except what had been described. We can now think of W1 as being 11 objects, since we only care about the one black raven observed and the 10 unknown white objects. So, when our explorer wandered around observing the white objects of W1, she knew that 1/11 objects fit the categories of both black and raven. We can consider the numerator here to be confirmed objects that fit her hypothesis and the denominator to be items of uncertainty. When she observed the white handkerchief, that fraction became 1/10 because one item about which she was previously uncertain had now become irrelevant in a sense. Later, when she observed five of the white objects, and none of them were ravens, then the fraction became 1/6. Finally, when she observed all 10 white objects, and none of them were ravens, the fraction was 1/1. This is actually not a probability at all because it is complete certainty.

In this case, we were increasing our probability with each individual observation. But what if we had a world with 500 objects of which 400 were white and we had at least one confirmed black raven? Well, we would increase by an equivalently smaller amount with each observation of a white object on this world. Now think of the actual world and how many non-black non-ravens there must be. With an estimate of 300 sextillion stars in the universe, the fraction of each observation must be unimaginably small. But remember that these small increases in probability simply make it less intuitively obvious. If we restrict our sample space, we can clearly see there is an increase in probability occurring.

 

Conclusion

Hopefully it is now clear that by observing non-black non-ravens, like a green frog, we actually do confirm our hypothesis in some way. We made the example easier to see by limiting our sample space, but in the real world the degree of confirmation would miniscule. This would of course not be an effective way to do science, since our possibilities are not restricted like those of W1, but we can at least maintain that our confidence in the logic of hypothesis confirmation is not affected by this paradox.

We saw that observing non-black non-ravens did not confirm our hypothesis in the normal way by adding things that met the description of ‘all ravens are black’; rather, it confirmed our hypothesis by eliminating items of uncertainty, which potentially could have disconfirmed our hypothesis. Observing one green frog is simply checking off one item from a list that would seem infinite to us.

 

[Sources: Black, Andrew. The Authority of Science.]

Jul 06

Biblical Inerrancy is Not Probable

Whenever you attack someone on the inconsistencies in the Bible, they will often retreat to the realm of possibility. But the point I always make is “Why should we care about possibility?” It’s possible that you are reading a blog post typed by a large, green rodent. It’s possible that you will wake up tomorrow only to discover that you’re on a Vogon ship and you forgot your towel. Shouldn’t we instead be concerned with what is likely – with what is probable? With that in mind, let’s consider the issue of biblical inerrancy and discuss probability.

I’d like to be overwhelmingly generous to those who support inerrancy. I’m going to grant you two things:

1. We will say there are only 40 alleged inconsistencies in the whole Bible*

2. We will grant an extremely high probability to each inconsistency and say that there is a 95% probability that a resolution is correct

The way to determine the collective probability (the probability that all of these inconsistencies are merely apparent and would be resolved if we knew the right context, language, etc.) is to multiply the probabilities together. If, for example, you posited two simultaneous events, one with a probability of 50% and another with a probability of 35%, the probability of both together would be 17.5% (0.5 x 0.35 = 0.175). If there were only two inconsistencies in the Bible, each with a probability of 95%, then your collective probability would be 90.25% (0.95 x 0.95 = 0.9025). Are you following me so far? It’s pretty simple, really.

Now for the big question. What is the collective probability, given (1) and (2) above? It is only 12.85%, and that is with my very generous concessions. Conversely, there is over an 87% chance that the position of inerrancy is incorrect. How can that possibly be defended?

 

*I’ve never actually counted, but this number wasn’t random. I recently saw a book written by an apologist attempting to counter the 40 most popular alleged inconsistencies. So, I think we can assume there are at least 40.

[EDIT: I provided an updated calculation based on a better estimate of the number of alleged contradictions (457) in the bible in the comments. It doesn’t look good for inerrantists – 0.95^457 = 0.00000000660218389726311%]

Jun 29

Human Sacrifice

Imagine a village in ancient times. This village is inhabited by a culture that is quite primitive when viewed through the lens of today. They don’t know much about how the world works. In good times, they are thankful to their local god for the bounty. In hard times, they feel they must have wronged the god in some way.

During one particularly hard time, a terrible drought, the villagers conclude that they must have wronged the god greatly. They are all guilty and cannot achieve blessings without some way to please the god. The villagers have a history of animal sacrifice, but that has not helped. The animals must not be enough, they decide.

So, the villagers set out to find another kind of sacrifice – a human sacrifice. But not just any human will do. No, for some reason, they think it must be a very pure human. So, they take a young virgin barely into her teen years. Yes, she should do nicely, they think. She is not stained by the filth of a man’s flesh and she has not had time on this Earth to make bad choices to anger the gods. She is faultless by anyone’s definition of the term. This young girl in no way deserves what is about to happen to her, which apparently makes her the perfect sacrifice to the god.

The next day, she is bound and dragged to the volcano nearby. The whole village attends and, while they know it is gruesome, they believe this will be their salvation. Their relationship with the local god will be restored and its good graces will again be upon them.

The girl is thrown into the volcano; she dies in agony. Her parents weep for her.

If you tell anyone a story like this set on a Polynesian island, they will be disgusted. Indeed, it is a barbaric way to think about the world and how to improve our situation. And yet, there are many similarities we can draw to the Christian story of salvation. It is a story of the perfect human sacrifice.

Jun 09

Catching Up

I’ve been travelling lately, so I’m sorry if I haven’t kept up with the site over the past week or two. I did have some interesting site-related things happen, though.

– I received a review copy of Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith. I wanted to complete my review prior to the book’s release, but that didn’t happen; expect a review soon.

– A Hindu man tried to convert me.

– I found out that the Denver International Airport is the subject of many crazy conspiracy theories.

– And, I got to meet Michael Shermer. He gave an hour lecture, took questions from the audience, signed copies of his new book The Believing Brain, and then went out for drinks. Sadly, I did not attend the last part since I was in town for work.

Michael Shermer signing The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

__________

I’ll get back to regular posting soon, but for now I’ll share an interesting study discussed by Shermer. Check out this Harris Poll on belief. Would you expect more people to believe evolution was true compared to ghosts? How about the Virgin Birth? Here are the highlights of what percentage of people believe in the following (more detail provided at the link):

  • God – 82%
  • Miracles – 76%
  • Heaven – 75%
  • Jesus is God or Son of God – 73%
  • Angels – 72%
  • Survival of soul after death – 71%
  • Resurrection of Jesus – 70%
  • Hell – 61%
  • Virgin Birth – 61%
  • The Devil – 60%
  • Evolution – 45%
  • Ghosts – 42%
  • Creationism (I assume this means literal biblical) – 40%
  • UFOs – 32%
  • Astrology – 26%
  • Witches – 23%
  • Reincarnation – 20%

Try not to get too depressed by these results; it just means there’s room to improve!

May 26

Francisco Ayala on Intelligent Design

The implication of Intelligent Design is that God is a very, very bad engineer. I mean, an engineer that we have design an eye with the optic nerve having to cross the retina would be fired. An engineer that would have designed the human jaw would be fired; I mean, our jaw is not big enough for all our teeth. God making this trivial, obvious mistake, an error of design? Well, maybe their God does those things – certainly not mine. I don’t want to have to worship a God who is not smart enough to do as well as a human engineer.

May 19

Interview with a Pastor – Allen Atzbi, Element Church

This is the first part in a series of interviews with pastors. I’ve asked questions I thought an atheist audience would want to know, but I’m open to suggestions for different questions. Feel free to comment and let me know. For these posts, I will limit myself to only asking the questions. I want the pastors’ answers to speak for themselves. So, I will withold commentary, though, I may revisit these issues in the ensuing comments or on a later post. Now that the boring stuff is out of the way, let’s get to it!

My first guest is Allen Atzbi, the youth pastor of Element Church. Element Church is a thriving non-denominational church in Wentzville, MO (the St. Louis area). Outreach Magazine recently named Element one of the 50 “Fastest-Growing Churches in America,” and the 9th largest by percentage growth. Element is known in the community for their love for people and their innovation. For more info visit www.elementchurch.com or email allena@elementchurch.com. I’m sure Allen would love to hear from you if you have questions, but please be respectful. This piece is a bit long, but worth the read if you have an interest in truly understandng the people with whom you disagree.

General Questions

1. Why do you think the Christian faith is the one true faith, if that is your belief?
That’s a really great question. A lot of people have the “all roads lead to the same place” idea that, as long as you believe in something, you’re good to go, but that just doesn’t make sense. I mean, test out that theory; go out to your car and begin driving for Rome (they say all roads lead there too). You can’t use a map, a GPS, or get any sort of directions; just drive, and by that belief, in a few days you should find yourself in the Vatican’s parking lot. Sounds silly when you look at it like that doesn’t it? Obviously one path will lead you one direction and a different path another. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Why is Jesus the ONLY way to the Father in Heaven? Because Jesus is the only way to receive God’s forgiveness. He is the only sinless Son of God who took the justice for our sins on the cross.

Why do I believe that, you asked. Short version: the Law and the Prophets. The Law, the Ten Commandments, shouts at me that I’m guilty, that I’ve broken them like a pane of glass in letter or in spirit. I was a liar, thief, blasphemer, and so much more. Like a referee throwing flags all over the field, my conscience confirms my shame. I deserve God’s furious wrath on Judgment Day; I desperately need forgiveness—which is what Jesus died to make available.

The Prophets, because centuries before the birth of Jesus there were prophecies written of a Savior who would love us so much that He would die for us, making a way where we could be forgiven if we’d just choose to love Him back. Hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth the Jewish Bible predicted He would in an uncanny way be like Moses (which He unmistakably was), be born in Bethlehem, come before the destruction of the second temple in AD 70, be wounded and bruised for our sins, die between criminals, be buried in a rich man’s tomb, rise from His own death, and so much more. In fact, in the book of Daniel, it breathtakingly predicts the precise year this Savior would die for the sins of the people five hundred years in advance! What year? AD 32. The same year Jesus died. Any sincere skeptic has to take a step back and see the thumbprint of God all over Jesus. Just read Isaiah 53 to a random co-worker and ask them who it’s talking about, and then remember it was written 700 years before the coming of Christ.

Peter Stoner in his book Science Speaks determined the probability of one man fulfilling just eight of the prophecies of the coming Savior to be 1 in 10 to the 17th power. That is 1 in 10 with 17 zeroes behind it (100,000,000,000,000,000). To help make that more real, imagine you covered the entire state of Texas two feet deep with silver dollars. Then you pick up a silver dollar and Sharpie a big X on it. Then you shuffle the entire state together and mix up the silver dollars. Now, you blindfold a person, tell them they can travel through the entire state of Texas, but they only have one chance to reach down and grab a silver dollar. The chance that they’d, on their first try, randomly pick up the silver dollar with the X on it would be the same 1 in 10 to the 17th power. It’s no coincidence that Jesus fulfilled these ancient prophecies. He is exactly who He said He was, which means through Him and Him alone can we know God.

2. Do you ever question your faith? If so, with what issues do you wrestle and how do you resolve the dissonance?
Yeah, sure, every blue moon I have my doubting moments. Since I became a follower of Christ as a teen, every now and then I’d have a few days in a row of just raw struggles with waves of unbelief. (It used to be a few times a year; although nowadays I can’t remember the last time I had one.) Tons of random thoughts would run through my mind, and in the end I’d end up still loving Jesus. It wasn’t that there was a single thought I craved an answer to, more of a heart full of unbelief with tons of doubts sprinting through my mind. Finally years ago I felt this was much more a heart issue than a mind issue, more spiritual than intellectual, so I decided to approach it spiritually. I prayed about those doubts and decided to nail down exactly what my doubts were. I decided to make a list of any major skeptical objection or question I had and objectively seek the answers. I did it with the mindset of being objective and unbiased, meaning not caring what conclusion I came to so long as I did a fairly conclusive study, hungering for nothing but the truth. Now of course I understood that if God is there He is not obligated to bow before me and answer every question or shut every door of doubt; but like any good juror I wanted to see which way the evidence pointed me to make a verdict. So I’d make that list and then research both sides of the argument. In the end I always came to the conclusion that the Bible is God’s Word, Jesus is God’s Son, and through Him I can know God. In retrospect that’s the same path that former Legal Editor for the Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel took in writing the award-winning book The Case for Christ (a book I’d highly recommend any sincere skeptic read).

3. Have you always believed in God or was there a time you did not?
I have pretty much always believed in some form of a Creator; but I have not always believed in Jesus. In fact I grew up with two Jewish parents. They divorced when I was young, and then when I was in middle school my mom remarried… a Muslim. And as a teen, all my friends were atheists, agnostics or thought they were God! With such a buffet of spiritual beliefs all around me I finally started asking the hard questions. I figured when I died I wasn’t going to stand before fifteen different Gods for all the major religions of the world and just pick the one I liked, either there was one God or no God at all, and I needed to know. I didn’t want to believe in something just to believe, I wanted the truth, whatever that was. When I learned more about Jesus, God in His own profound way began drawing me to Himself. I became convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Savior of the world. When I became a true follower of Christ I became “born again.” I became new inside. My sins were forgiven, and I was infused with new life. I was translated from darkness to light, from lost to found, from slavery to freedom. Somewhere in that joyous and tough time I got plugged into a good Christian church, began to grow and here I am today.

4. What, if anything, would convince you that there is no God?
Eek! That’s like asking what could convince you that the sun isn’t hot. I’ve felt the warmth of the Son of God in my life; I haven’t simply learned about Him, I know Him. I couldn’t deny His existence anymore than I could deny my own; I’ve walked with Him. I think that’s where many atheists and agnostics find the disconnect; many have had a Christian experience—were raised in church, learned the facts and stories, saw the good and the bad, but didn’t meet Christ. Like memorizing the stats on the back of a baseball card, but never meeting the player, many know tons about the Bible, but have never met the Author. When you meet Him, you just can’t be convinced that He isn’t.

5. Why do you think there are atheists? What, in your opinion, is keeping them from God?
I love atheists! I really couldn’t generalize. The reason a person would turn to Atheism or Islam or Judaism is as different as each person is. However, when someone hears the gospel and rejects it there are usually far fewer reasons.

There are a lot of “front-end” reasons that seem to keep people from God: they felt disillusioned or burned by a church, they blame God for certain painful experiences, they wrestle with objections, they were raised in an unbelieving family, etc.

While those front-end reasons are all real, and there are many, many more—in John 3, Jesus said it all boils down to “men loved darkness rather than light.” Beneath surface reasons, at its core the reason the Bible says people reject Jesus is a love for the things God hates, a stiff-necked prideful attitude that only looks the way they want to see, a spiritual blindness that Satan himself places on the minds of unbelievers, and a rejection of the Holy Spirit who’s trying to attract them to Christ.

I really wish there were a perkier, friendlier way to say that. But I care far too much for you and your readers to dilute or sugarcoat truth.

It’s been said the reason most people can’t find God is the same reason a thief can’t find a cop; they won’t look. Intuitively we know everything made has a maker. We know cars don’t make themselves, if there is a car there is a car maker; if there is a cell phone there is a cell maker. If there is creation then there is a Creator. What would you think of a man who looked at the Mona Lisa and said he didn’t think anyone painted it because he couldn’t touch, taste, smell, hear, or see the painter? You’d think whether he realizes it or not he has obvious ulterior motives for denying the obvious. If there is a painting, there is a painter; the painting is all the evidence you need. The universe, even just the human eye that God has lent you to read this interview, is vastly more complex than any painting; God has made His existence crystal clear. When we deny the obvious and attribute it to a cosmic bang, we have to stop and reexamine our motives.

6. Do you think that believers in other faiths deserve to go to Hell? How about atheists who outright deny the existence of God?
Forget other faiths or atheists; I deserve to go to Hell! I’ve broken eleven of the Ten Commandments. On my own I’m lost and guilty. I’ve lied, stolen, used God’s name in vain, dishonored my parents, and so much more. On Judgment Day God will be more just than a Supreme Court judge. Scripture says He sees our thought life, every deed done in darkness, and will bring it all into account. The Bible says all fornicators, thieves, and liars will have their part in the Lake of Fire. On my own I would get God’s judicial wrath poured out on me and end up in Hell. That’s not because God is a jerk, it’s because He’s holy and just. Imagine a man stands before a judge in a human court of law and he’s been found guilty of rape and murder. If the judge looks the other way and lets the man go free he is a corrupt judge, the Bible warns the opposite of God. He is so holy He doesn’t only look at the works of our hands, but also the attitudes of our heart. In 1 John 3:15 it says God sees hatred as murder, in Matthew 5:27,28 it says God sees lust, or x-rated thoughts, as adultery. We all need God’s forgiveness. And please keep in mind… God WANTS to forgive. The Bible says God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” In Romans 5:8 it says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We did the crime, but Jesus paid the fine in His own blood. He showed the depth of His love on that cross. But knowing that isn’t enough, you have to choose to follow Him to have the forgiveness He died to make available.

And it’s worth adding: Christians are no better than non-Christians; we’re just infinitely better off. Like a man jumping out of a plane with a parachute is better off than a man who jumps off without one. John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”

7. Do you think miracles still occur today? Have you ever witnessed one?
Absolutely. The scent of a freshly budded rose, the incredible symphony of intricate, unseen life-giving transactions within the human body, the distance of the sun from the earth—not too close to scorch us to death or too far to drive us into an ice age, but at just the right distance to ripen our tomatoes. If you’re asking about spontaneous healing, raising the dead, and those sorts of miracles, I have had friends I trust share with me amazing stories, but I can’t say that I have yet personally eye-witnessed one.

8. Do you think that the modern church is shaped by the teachings of Paul more than Jesus?
The teachings of Paul are the teachings of Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” or God-breathed. When you write a text message, do you write it or does your phone? Of course you’re the one doing the typing; your phone is just the instrument you use. In the same way God used men to write His “text” to mankind, the Bible, but He is the one who wrote it. A study of the Bible’s supernatural prophecies proves God to be the author.

9. According to the website, you believe in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. How should we interpret the use of imminent?
That He’s coming soon. Jesus told us He’d return suddenly as a thief in the night; it also goes on to say that no man knows the day or hour of His return. Imminent is sooner than it was yesterday. It could be next week or in hundreds of years; but each person should live like He’s coming back tonight, because He just might.

10. You say in your bio that you’re a huge fan of Ray Comfort. Do you agree with his views about the age of the Earth and biological evolution?
Yes, I sure am a huge fan of Ray Comfort. I love his heart and the wisdom God’s given him. In fact he has a great blog called “Atheism Central” that you can find at www.RayComfortFood.BlogSpot.com.

To answer your question, I honestly don’t know what Ray believes about the age of the earth. As for me, it’s a non-issue. Genesis 1 starts off with, “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.” The way it’s written gives room for the idea that God didn’t make the earth on the first day, but that it could have been there already in a messy state before God made Adam. With that thought in mind, I am not positive if you can define the age of the earth by starting at the time God made man. The Bible says in 2 Peter 3 that one day God will purify the whole earth by fire before He brings a new Heaven and a new Earth; perhaps God already did that millennia ago. Maybe there was a pre-Adamic race of people who lived for tens of thousands or millions of years and in a similar way God ended their age. Perhaps the dinosaurs were alive during that period or perhaps the dinosaurs were on the ark in baby form so they could fit. Got me. I honestly have no idea. I personally think the age of the earth or what killed the dinosaurs, etc. are interesting but trivial matters that aren’t worth being stumbling blocks to people. There are logical hypotheses to them, but it’s all guessing games. I can only know for sure what the Bible does clearly say: the first man rebelled against God, ate the forbidden fruit and brought suffering, death, and the desperate need for forgiveness to all mankind.

As far as evolution, I don’t know the full details of what Ray believes on that either. (I think I’m going to have to turn in my Ray Comfort fan club badge soon.) As for me on evolution, the proper term used to teach macro-evolution is “The Theory of Evolution.” A theory is purely a guess, a hypothesis, an idea. There is no conclusive evidence for evolution or it’d become “The Fact of Evolution.” Evolution is a religion built on blind faith. You’ve probably seen the famous evolution diagram with a hunched chimp on the far left, a man on the far right, and in-between the supposed different stages of a monkey with arthritis slowly turning into a tall-standing man through millions of years. While it makes for interesting art, all we really have in the fossil record is a chimp and a man, with no transitional forms in-between to prove that change ever happened. The missing link is still missing. Why? It never existed. If anyone thinks they have scientific proof for evolution they can visit www.IntelligentDesignVersusEvolution.com and take them up on their $10,000 offer for evidence.

11. If you had the chance to convert an atheist, what is the most important thing you could tell him or her?
If I had a chance to sit with them over coffee and share my heart, I’d plead with tears in my eyes for them to come to Christ. There is nothing more important or urgent than getting your life right with God. I would beg them to doubt their doubts. I’d ask them a question asked me years ago, “If you were to die tonight, where would you go?” Whether or not they believed in Heaven or Hell, I’d ask them again, “If there is a Heaven, do you think you’re good enough to go there?” Most would say they consider themselves a good person, and then I’d ask them if they kept the Ten Commandments. Had they told a lie, had they used God’s name in vain, dishonored their parents, looked with lust, hated, always had God first in their life? Chances are they’d be guilty like me. On Judgment Day we both deserve to go to an eternal Hell to get justice for our sins. But that’s not God’s will.

Two-thousand years ago God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to come and teach us the way, but ultimately to die on the cross for our sins. When Jesus died on that cross it was a legal transaction. It was the sinless dying for the sinful. It’s as though we’ve committed this horrible crime, we’re in the courtroom, and the judge says we have earned the death sentence, when someone we don’t even know walks into the courtroom and says they’ll take our place. Jesus’ death on the cross was for our crimes, not His (He never sinned). It was God expressing His love for us.

After Jesus died, He was buried; three days later He rose from the dead. He was seen by hundreds of eyewitnesses after His resurrection, many of whom died in the waves of severe persecution that arose after His crucifixion. They died for Him when they could have denied Him and lived, but they wouldn’t deny what they had seen. You don’t die for a lie; they had seen Him. He also fulfilled the supernatural prophecies about His coming that were made hundreds of years before His birth, so intellectually we could know it’s the truth. But knowing isn’t enough. We have to choose to follow Him.

This past Easter weekend I shared a story that I thought perfectly illustrates the heart of the good news… there is a bridge that goes over a large river. It’s the sort of bridge that has two separate sides that motors move up and down. When it’s down, trains can run over it and when it’s up ships can go between it. Normally the bridge is up for passing ships. But at a certain time each day, a train would come and the bridge would be lowered, allowing the train to cross the river. A switchman sat in a small booth where he operated the controls to move the bridge. This day the switchman brought his four-year-old son with him to work. The train’s daily whistle let him know it was time to move the bridge. The father, with his hand on the lever to lower the bridge, heard his little boy cry for help. The panicked father ran out of the booth and saw that the little boy had got caught in the gears of the engine that raises and lowers the bridge. Just as he was about to run to save him, he looked at the coming train. If he went to get his boy now, the train wouldn’t have enough time to stop before crashing into the raised bridge. If the bridge didn’t lower, hundreds would lose their lives. If it did lower his son would be crushed in the gears and he would lose his boy. The train was getting closer; he had to make his decision quickly. He took one long look at his crying son and with tears streaming down his own face he ran back into the booth, shut his eyes and pulled the lever to lower the bridge. His boy’s crying stopped. The train safely crossed just as the bridge closed. That man gave up his son so others could live. That is a picture of the sacrifice the heavenly Father made for all of us when He sent Jesus.

On our own we’re doomed, ready to crash into the wrath of God for our sins, but in His love God made the heartbreaking decision to send His Son to get tortured and killed in the gears of eternal justice so we could cross the bridge of God’s mercy to find forgiveness. The Bible says if we will believe and repent (choose to love God and thus ditch sin), if we’ll choose to truly follow Jesus, God will forgive our sins. It’s the greatest story ever told with the greatest command ever given: repent and be forgiven.

I’d say to that atheist or anyone reading this interview that there is nothing more important than knowing God. I’d say turn to Christ, I beg you. Like me, you’re guilty; you desperately need God’s forgiveness. You are standing on the tracks and Judgment Day is racing around the corner. Right now, in God’s love for you He is offering you a pardon. He is offering mercy when you deserve wrath. Step off the tracks into His arms. Like the prodigal son of old come home. Right now God’s arms are stretched out to hug you and embrace you, but there will come a day when He will lower His arms, put on His robe, pick up His gavel, and judge the world in righteousness. Don’t meet God as your Judge; meet Him as your Father. Repent, pull a one-eighty, choose to love Him with all your heart and follow Jesus.

Isaiah 55:6,7 says, “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”

12. Do you think that pastors have an obligation to teach church members about Biblical scholarship?
Absolutely, I love the idea of sharing more about the backdrop, history, etc. of the Bible. In fact many churches do offer classes or small groups on these topics. I was actually just looking at a youth ministry curriculum that got into some of the rich theological nuggets of how the Bible came to be. Good stuff.

Biblical Questions

1. On your website you say, “We believe the entire Bible is the inspired, infallible, authoritative Word of God and should be the supreme and final authority in our lives and faith.” What does infallible mean to you? Do you think the Bible contains contradictions or errors?

 Infallible? That it’s surefire truth. Watertight, perfect, God inspired.

There are definitely some difficult and confusing sayings, but there are no doctrinal contradictions in the Bible. A deep saying is not a contradiction. A so-called contradiction might be when someone says in conversation, “I hear you” and then later claims, “I didn’t hear you.” Is that a contradiction? No, it’s simply two different tenses of a phrase. The first meant they heard the sound of your voice while the second meant they didn’t pay attention to what was being said. There are great Christian resources online and in books to help with some of those more confusing passages.

I love what Mark Twain said, “It isn’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand.”

2. Do you think there are any pseudopigraphic attributions in the Bible? For example, were the Pastoral Epistles really written by Paul and the letter of Peter written by Simon Peter?
You definitely get the ten-dollar prize for the big word of the day. I feel smarter for just having heard this question. [Big smile.]

At the beginning or end of many of the Bible books it says who God used to write them. Understanding all Scripture is inspired by God, I believe what it says.

3. Should certain controversial stories in the Bible, like the creation account and Noah’s ark, be taken literally?
If I asked you what your name is and you told me, and then I said I didn’t believe you and asked for your real name, you’d find yourself insulted. Insulted because I’m suggesting you’re a liar. I am attacking your character. If God says He made man from dust or saved man and animal-kind via a hand-made boat, fantastic. I buy it wholeheartedly and literally, as it was written. When God speaks I listen. He is surely trustworthy.

4. Do you believe in Glossolalia? Why has it changed since the original Day of Pentecost from earthly language into something else?
Yes, I sure do, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Scripture is speaking in unknown languages or “tongues” (Glossolalia). It’s important to mention though that tongues weren’t limited to the foreign languages mentioned in Acts 2. In 1 Corinthians 13:1 Paul goes on to say that tongues can be in the languages of men… or of angels, and then in the next chapter, 14, he goes on to explain tongues is largely for the purpose of private prayer or public prophecy when someone with another gift of the Holy Spirit is present, the gift of interpretation of tongues. In 1 Corinthians 14:2 it says, “Anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.” So, from its origin, much of speaking in tongues isn’t meant to be understood by men, but only by God.

5. Do you think the canonical gospels are eyewitness accounts?
Hmmm… great question. I’m honestly not sure. The gospel of Luke starts off with Luke saying that he wasn’t an eyewitness himself but was putting together an orderly account from eyewitness testimonies, the others I’m not sure about offhand. As I recall Matthew, Mark and John were all written in first person eyewitness language, were accepted as Scripture by the early church, and were quoted by others in the early church in their writings (who could verify the authorship). Beyond that I’d really have to research it out. Great question.

6. How do you deal with the passages in the Bible people have traditionally found difficult? (Examples: children being mauled by bears for teasing Elisha in 2 Kings 2:23-24 or some of the harsher punishments prescribed by Leviticus.)
The starting point for any difficult question is the understanding that God is holy, just and love. He can’t sin, everything He does is altogether right, if God looks wrong in some passage the starting point is to understand He can’t be wrong and our understanding must be wrong.

The next step to help better understand the moral behind a difficult passage is to dig into the text, the history, and the context. In the Elisha passage you mentioned the Hebrew word used could refer to children or “young men”; while the KJV translates it as “children” the NIV translates it out as “youth.” (An important reminder: the original Hebrew and Greek are divinely inspired, our English translations of them aren’t; hence the many translations. Translating into a language with a more limited vocabulary can leave some gaps that only looking into a Hebrew/Greek concordance or referencing a few translations can help.) Keep in mind also there were at least 42 of these “youth”; this may not have been a small group of playground kids making fun of a bald man, but instead may have been a threatening gang of twenty-somethings ridiculing a prophet of God, and thus God Himself. God stepped in and made an example of them for all generations. Is it God’s norm to kill youth for mocking a preacher, or kill a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, or as in Acts to kill a couple for lying? No, of course not, the Bible was written only once and is full of potent warnings for all mankind for all time. God gave us these severe examples to help us see the seriousness of the issues.

So, to sum up, how do I deal with difficult passages? With the understanding God can’t sin, with integrity and due study, and with humility to know that I might not get everything this side of Heaven and that’s ok, God is certainly trustworthy.

7. If the Torah is no longer applicable to Christians, then should we still honor the Ten Commandments? If so, what separates it from the rest of the Law?
There is a common misconception in how that question is asked. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, are totally applicable to Christians today; the over 600 laws had a special function to create an identity for God’s chosen people, protect their health, reveal God’s holiness, etc. Now that Christ has come we are no longer under that tutor. The Bible says Jesus fulfilled the Law. The Ten Commandments, unlike most of those laws, are moral laws, not ceremonial. Morality has not changed. It was wrong to murder then, it’s wrong to murder now; it was wrong to lie then, it’s wrong to lie now, etc. The New Testament consistently reaffirms the moral teachings of the Old Testament Law.

8. What do you think is the most common misconception about the Bible?
That it’s just a good book. There is tons of evidence that the Bible is God’s supernatural book for mankind. There are at least four keys to scientifically, rationally, and logically prove the Bible.

1) The Bible is historically accurate. It all really happened (Noah’s worldwide flood, the walls of Jericho falling outwards, God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.). Archeology has given us plenty of evidence of that.

2) The Bible’s teachings are in perfect harmony. Over 40 different people wrote the Bible over a span of about 1,500 years, and there are no contradictions in its teachings. It all agrees with itself.

3) The Bible is the same today as the day it was written. The Bible has been preserved. Comparing our modern Bible text with ancient Bible text, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, easily proves the Bible hasn’t been tampered with or changed.

4) The Bible contains supernatural prophecies. The Bible contains scientific and medical foreknowledge, precise event predictions, and messianic prophecies. Many of the messianic prophecies (predictions of the Messiah/Savior) were given hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth. They give us details about the Messiah’s birth, death, and much more. Jesus Christ fulfilled every one of the prophecies (no one else came close).

God made it clear that He wrote the Bible. My prayer is that everyone would read it and do what it says. A great section to start is called “John.”

For more info about the Bible your readers could check out The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell.

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