God in the brain

BrainA few years ago Dr. Dean Hamer made a splash with the publication The God Gene, in which he argued that he pinpointed a gene responsible for theism. The study, however, was very poorly done as his indicators of theistic belief had more in common with Eastern mysticism than theism. According to my answers to the survey questions Dr. Hamer would predict that I am a very skeptical agnostic when in fact I have dedicated my life to my religious belief.

Carl Zimmer, writing for Scientific American, ridiculed Dr. Hamer’s new book. In 1993 Scientific American published Dr. Hamer’s peer reviewed study “The Gay Gene,” which study was enthusiastically received by much of the scientific community before it was discredited a few years later. Zimmer was not impressed with Hamer’s exotic theories motivated by a quest for self-understanding.

Dr. Hamer, however, was trying to answer an important and troubling question. Certainly not everybody professes belief in God, but religion is a universal phenomenon that has existed in every culture since the beginning of human history until now. Plutarch observed, “If you go round the world, you will find cities without walls, or literature, or kings, or houses or money, without gymnasia or theaters. But no one ever saw a city without temples or gods, one which does not have recourse to prayers, oaths or oracles.” Cicero likewise wrote, “There is no people so wild and savage to have not believed in a god… It is necessary to believe that there are gods, because we have an implanted or an innate knowledge of them.”

Freud argued that religion is neurosis but he could not explain its universal impulse. Feuerbach argued that belief in God is wish-fulfillment, but he could not account for why we should have a desire for which there is no corresponding fulfillment. Karl Marx, like many before him, declared that religion was the opiate of the masses devised by the ruling class to keep the working class in line. While it is true that many rulers have used and perverted religion to this end, John Calvin pointed out the flaw in this explanation: “they never could have succeeded in this, had the minds of men not been previously imbued with that uniform belief in God, from which, as from its seed, the religious propensity springs.”[1] Even atheists often feel “the truth that they are desirous not to know” and they are troubled with the prospect of this truth.

If there is a God who has implanted in mankind an innate knowledge of the Divine then it follows that this is a God to whom we are morally accountable to. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes these sobering words, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:18-23).

The prospect of a personal God to whom we are morally accountable to is a frightening thing. Atheism is quite understandable from a psychological point of view: who wants an all Seeing Eye scrutinizing our every action and thought? But there is a way that we can come near to God without fear. He has provided a way for us to approach him as a father instead of a judge. Only through Jesus Christ, who gave himself for sinners, can we serve God without fear (Luke 1:74). Jesus came to take our place as God’s obedient Son. He obeyed the law in every respect so that he might substitute our disobedience with his obedience. On the cross he was judged as a sinner and absorbed the wrath of God against sin. Through his resurrection he was vindicated and conquered death. Through faith in Jesus our sins are covered and his righteousness is imputed to us. We are able to stand on the Day of Judgment forgiven and clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Although we are guilty, we will stand acquitted (Romans 5:12-21; 2 Corinthians 5:12). It is therefore through Jesus Christ alone that we can enter into a right relationship with our Heavenly Father.

[1] Inst., 1.3.2.

Is the Bible a Wax Nose?

holding-bible“Why should I take the Bible seriously?” some ask, “Christians cannot even agree amongst themselves as to what it teaches!” Indeed, today there is a great variety of Christian sects, each with seminary trained teachers and PhDs in the fields of Biblical scholarship. How can the average Joe expect to arrive at the “correct” understanding when so-called scholars cannot agree how to interpret the Bible? Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the Bible is really a “wax nose?”

Some will suggest that the Christian church was united in its understanding of the Faith until the Protestant Reformation, when the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin abandoned the authority of the church and placed the responsibility of interpretation in the hands of every individual. It is no wonder, therefore, that ten individuals might have ten distinct interpretations of any given passage. “Obviously” they say, “this led to the multiplications of Christian sects, which causes many to loose their faith and embrace skepticism. The thing to be done is for the factious Protestants to return to Mother Rome.”

Cardinal Sadoleto relied on this argument when he tried to lure the city of Geneva back to the Catholic faith through a letter he addressed to them in March 1539. He appealed to the multiplying Anabaptist sects teaching novelties and disrupting the peace. “For already, since these men began, how many sects have torn the Church? Sects not agreeing with them, and yet disagreeing with each other – a manifest indication of falsehood.”

John Calvin, then 30-years of age, replied that the sects were Rome’s stepchildren, rather than those of the Protestant Reformers. All sects, he argued, believe that the Holy Spirit leads their guys, and not the other guys, into the correct interpretation. Calvin wrote,

“We are assailed by two sects, which seem to differ most widely from each other. For what similitude is there in appearance between the Pope and the Anabaptists? And yet, that you may see that… the principle weapon with which they both assail us is the same. For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods. …For, as if those who seek the way of God were standing where two ways meet and destitute of any certain sign, you are forced to introduce them as hesitating whether it be more expedient to follow the authority of the Church, or to listen to those whom you call the inventors of new dogmas.”

Calvin pointed out that the issue of Biblical interpretation is not as difficult as it first seems. There are two fundamentally different approaches. There is the “Bible and” approach, and the “Bible only” approach. There are many Christian sects today. They differ widely from each other, but they all agree that the “Bible and…” guides their interpretation. “We know the Catholic faith is correct,” the priest says, “because the Holy Spirit guides our church into all truth.” This is essentially the same argument I heard growing up in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles. “We know we are correct because the Holy Spirit guides our church into all truth.” When the Mormons came knocking on my door they appealed to the multiplication of sects resulting in religious confusion. They then said “we know we are correct because the Holy Spirit guides our Church into all truth.” I told them that this is the same line all the other sects are feeding me. I also pointed out that their dogma had not prevented them from dividing into sects among themselves.

The “Bible only” approach means that “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6). We believe that Biblical interpretation follows the ordinary rules for interpreting other literary or historical texts. We have no private pipeline to ultimate reality and we do not look for secret or private messages from God on the pages of Holy Scripture.

There are not many Christian groups that accept the “Bible only” approach – the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation. Those who hold to the “Bible only” are mainly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Some Reformed Baptists and a small number of other Baptist groups also strive to discover the meaning from the Biblical text, rather than reading meaning into it. Among these groups there is broad agreement. There are still some differences, but they are few when compared to the astonishing variety among the sects. In every academic discipline there is variety among experts. But we do not despair of all historical knowledge because historians have different interpretations on the finer points. It is the same in the field of Biblical scholarship.

The “Bible only” view is the Bible’s own teaching. Jesus promised his Apostles that he would send his Spirit to them and said of the Spirit, “He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (Jn 14:26). The Spirit cannot bring to remembrance Jesus’ words to those to whom Jesus never spoke! It is only to apostles that Jesus promised to lead into all truth and to give divine recall. Witnessing the totality of Christ’s ministry was the prerequisite for apostleship. The criteria for the replacement apostle were that he accompanied Jesus from the time he was baptized by John until the resurrection, having witnessed that also (Acts 1:22-24).[1]

The Apostle Paul also refers to himself as the last Apostle, “as to one untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8). For this reason in the Apostle John’s Book of the Revelation he sees the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven. It had twelve gates, which represent the 12 tribes of Israel and twelve foundation stones, which represent “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:14). There is no reason to believe that the Church is ruled by a group of Apostles in every generation, or that their foundational ministry continues in every age.

Neither does the prophetic ministry continue in the Church, but it passed away with the Apostles. Ephesians 2:20 states that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” When Paul compares himself to a “skilled master builder” who lays the foundation he teaches that this was done once and for all. “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid” (1 Cor. 3:11). Jesus the cornerstone has ascended to the father. The Apostles and prophets, our foundation layers, related to us the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We do believe in an apostolic succession, but it is not a succession of persons, but of doctrine. Our job is to hold fast the teaching that we received directly from them (2 Thess. 2:15).

If we follow this method, we discover that the Bible is not like a “wax nose” that is open to any interpretation. We will discover that although “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7).

Was Jesus an Egyptian god?

horus_thesun_adI was watching Bill Maher interview while promoting his documentary Religulous. At one point he stated that what sealed his rejection of the Christian religion was his realization that it all happened before. The Christian story consisted merely of pieces-parts from various pagan myths. Bill claimed that the son of God, born of a virgin, born in a stable on December 25th, announced by a star in the east, visited by three wise men, baptized at age 30, delivering the sermon on the mount, having 12 disciples, walking on water, being crucified between two thieves and rising on the third day, were all derived from pagan myths. He then launched into his familiar bit about how rational, scientific people don’t believe in “drinking the blood of a 2,000 year-old space god.”

I was shocked. I am pretty familiar with the 1st century and the ancient near east, and the contours of ancient religious belief, and I am very familiar with Biblical scholarship. The suggestion that Christianity is substantially like ancient mythological religion is a highly improbable thesis. Of course I am aware that there are plenty of myths about dying and rising gods. But this dying and rising always signified the change of the seasons – the conquering of winter by spring. This parallel is utterly unremarkable.

Although these myths spoke of the cycle of nature, the ability to overcome death answers our deepest longings and fears. The uniqueness of Jesus’ resurrection is not that Christians were the first ever to conceive of a resurrection. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it actually happened! Some also have suggested Christian dependence upon the mystery religions that were popular at that time, although this theory has been thoroughly exploded. The New Testament is utterly distinct in character and world-view from these mystery religions and from pagan mythology in general.

But Bill was suggesting that there are very specific parallels in mythology to the life of Christ – to the extent that it would be easy to convict the Gospel writers of plagiarism. I wondered, however, why I had never come across the particular parallels in the scholarly literature I have read. I soon discovered the reason. These parallels do not exist.

Nevertheless, the Internet is filled with these claims. There are perhaps hundreds of “cyber scholars” repeating these claims: cutting and pasting their evidence. The “evidence” is always the bald assertion, never accompanied by primary source documentation. Most of this seems to trace back to Acharya S’s book, The Christ Conspiracy, and to a handful of other Christ-mythers. Jesus is most frequently compared with the Egyptian god Horus, the son of the gods Isis and Osiris, who bestowed divinity upon the Pharaohs as incarnations of his life.

To debunk the particular examples of the Jesus/Horus connection all you need to do is to wade through the Egyptian book of the Dead or look up books or Encyclopedia articles on Egyptian Mythology and Horus. You can link here to an article that debunks these claims with the same brevity with which they are made. In the end you will discover that the closest we come to a substantial parallel between Horus and Jesus is that one of the three birth dates given for Horus corresponds to December 25. This date also appears in other myths as well. Unfortunately for the Christ-mythers this is not a date given in the Bible and there is no evidence Jesus was born on Dec 25. The reason the Church picked that day to celebrate the nativity was precisely so that Christians might commandeer the pagan celebration of the winter solstice and appropriate it for new use.

The Horus = Jesus thesis has as much credibility as 2012 doomsday predictions that supposedly draw from the Mayan calendar and coded messages of the Tao Te Ching. And yet Bill Maher, smugly claiming the side of logic and enlightenment, relies on these pseudo-scholars and pajama-bloggers in an effort to debunk Christianity!

As our nation becomes increasingly secular, the popular case against Christ has become increasingly sensational and absurd. We saw this clearly illustrated a few years back with Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller, The De Vinci Code. Certainly an intelligent person can find reasons to disbelieve the Gospel accounts, if they desire to find such reasons. But perhaps the case against Christ is too subtle for those with less than a professional interest in the subject. Perhaps more people can see through the enlightenment presuppositions on which the case against Christ is built (if you preclude God and the miraculous a priori, then you are in fact concealing the conclusion in the premise, thus begging the question). Or perhaps as we become more religiously ignorant as a culture, we become more easily swayed by lazy and fantastical arguments.

It is easy also for an intelligent person to discover cogent reasons to believe. The books of the Bible fit very comfortably within the context of their contemporary culture, and hold up well under rigorous scholarship. Internally, they are remarkably consistent, with parallel narrative accounts containing just enough dissonance to disprove collusion. These are large topics which if you are interested in exploring in depth, I would recommend, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by Kenneth Kitchen and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, by Richard Bauckam. Both are top-tier scholars and offer extensive interaction with the primary sources and current scholarship.

C.S. Lewis, the Renaissance English scholar, once bought into popular atheistic theories regarding the mythological origins of Christianity, without giving it much serious thought. In Surprised by Joy he writes of the event that caused him to look a second time at Christianity. He writes,

“Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’ To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not – as I would still have put it – ‘safe,’ where could I turn? Was there then so escape?” Subsequently, writes Lewis, “God closed in on me.”

If God is closing in on you, why not let him close in all the way? We all ought to acknowledge that the ultimate problems of our existence, such as death and the self-centeredness that gives death its sting, finds its only remedy in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.