John Lennox against the tide in history
This post is based on the documentary movie “Against the tide” by Pensmore Films, in which the actor Kevin Sorbo interviews Professor John Lennox to test belief in God. In the previous posts we looked at God and the cosmos, and God and biology, and God and consciousness and suffering. Now we look at God and history. In this post the tide of atheism in academia is represented by statements by Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer and Peter Singer.
In the previous post John Lennox claimed that “God coded Himself into humanity in Jesus Christ”. But how do we know that God came to earth in human form? Does belief that Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form pass the test of historical scrutiny? In this the rational thinking associated with science will still be our guide.
Did Jesus exist?
John Lennox: “Christianity is not a mere philosophy, it’s geared into history and the only way to answer these questions is to get involved with history”.
Jerusalem was founded 3,000 years ago by David Israel’s second king. But its greatest attraction, Jesus of Nazareth, was only a visitor. He died here and what happened next changed the world.
Peter Singer: “Christianity is built on believing the New Testament record is true. But who saw them? Who reported them? And are the reports reliable?”
Peter Atkins: “… a number of voices ringing in my ear that this is all folly”.
Michael Shermer: “I would not think that the Christian Scriptures are evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a divine being”.
Sam Harris: “It’s mostly wishful thinking. It’s driven by the inability of people to come to terms with the prospect of their own annihilation.”
Challenge: “Religion is a fiction that is never challenged”.
Do historians agree that Jesus existed?
John Lennox: “They do indeed. There is scarcely one who would doubt the existence of Jesus. And this gives us marvellous confidence because many of these historians are quite skeptical about the details of Christianity. But they can confirm many of the things that are claimed of Him. What He said and did. Even Richard Dawkins when I debated him had to concede that Jesus actually existed.”
Richard Dawkins: “Is it true or not? That is the basic question. Now when you look at history, Jesus existed.”
John Lennox: “The interesting thing is ancient historians, whose job is to investigate the rationality of history, are agreed on it”.
John Lennox: “The apostle Peter is one of the most important eyewitnesses in reporting the facts about Jesus. There is pretty strong evidence that he was the main source of the gospel of Mark. So eyewitness testimony is the key thing here.”
There is a strong connection between the gospel records and eyewitnesses. Men like Peter who saw and heard things that are among the most astonishing experiences in human history. Experiences that are challenged by 21st voices of skepticism.
Richard Dawkins: “As we throw away the sort of imaginary friend who comforts us when we are children when we feel the need of some kind of parent figure to turn to. I think when we grow up we need to cast that aside.”
Who is this man, Jesus?
John Lennox: “In the midst of many pagan religions and temples at Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked His disciples, ‘Who do men say that I am’. He was inviting them to consider what other people are saying. And that tells me that Christianity is not just a matter of blind faith for following. Jesus wants us to think about what other people say. I’ve been doing that all my life. Listening to what people are saying, especially about Jesus. Because the central issue is, ‘who do you say that I am?’ Peter said, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. And then as now there were a multitude of religions and philosophies clambering us to follow them. And Jesus wanted Peter to make an informed decision”.
If Peter was right, the implications are immense.
Challenge: “Peter made a very bold statement, but during the week of Jesus’ trial before His crucifixion Peter denied knowing who Jesus was. Does not that make you wonder can we believe what this guy says. Does he have a change of mind?
John Lennox: “Within a few minutes of Peter’s response, Jesus said to them all, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem and I’m going to be crucified’. It was that bit of the program, that Messiah should have to die for the people’s sins that Peter didn’t understand. He saw Jesus about to be crucified and people were pushing, ‘You were with this man’. And he was terrified. What’s going to happen? It was a very human response. And it’s honestly reported in Mark’s gospel. Peter probably told Mark about it. Peter’s honesty runs very deep and therefore we can regard him as an extremely reliable eyewitness.”
What about spectacular events in the life of Jesus?
Did the events alleged to have occurred in the life of Jesus actually occur or are they embellished? The transfiguration was an event without parallel. But does it overstretch credibility in a scientific age?
How could Peter be sure that he was following the right person? Jesus led Peter, James and John up a high mountain. There He was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white. Whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses who were talking with Jesus (Mk. 9:2-4).
John Lennox: “What it tells us is that although in this world Jesus was rejected, there is another world above this world where He is its center, its sun, its source of energy and power”.
This is where imagination runs out of fuel.
John Lennox: “This was to convince them that the eternal world is real. And what happened up there influenced Peter so deeply that as a very old man, just before he died, he wrote, ‘For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to Him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with Him on the sacred mountain’ (2 Pt. 1:16-18) (see Appendix).”
This event makes atheists go on fire because if science can’t prove it they claim it must have never happened.
John Lennox: “Certainly materialism denies it. But science doesn’t necessarily lead to materialism. What we have here I believe is the intersection of two worlds. This world isn’t the only one. Suppose we live in a one-dimensional world. But we could have another one-dimensional world. And they intersect at a point. Now if you think about it at a higher level. The intersection of two worlds at the top of this mountain. They came together for a brief moment and the disciples got a glimpse into that eternal world.”
Why did they wait 30 years or so to write about this event?
John Lennox: “I think they had to wait until the picture was more or less complete. Because there were even more spectacular events to happen, particularly the resurrection. Bigger things than the transfiguration were going to happen in Jerusalem.”
Events at Jerusalem resulted in His crucifixion and hostility to claims of miracles, Messiahship and His eventual resurrection. This has endured for almost 2,000 years.
Richard Dawkins: “If you’re going to say that Jesus was born of a virgin, that Jesus walked on water, that He turned water into wine, that’s obviously unscientific. There is no evidence for that. No scientist could possibly take the idea seriously.”
But how can a scientist believe the miracles that Jesus was said to perform? They can’t be explained by science.
John Lennox: “I’m not committing intellectual suicide by believing these miracles. Atheist scientists will deny them. But the irony is that they then expect us to believe things that they themselves describe as miraculous. For instance, the universe emerged from nothing. Mind from mindless matter. These things to me are extremely implausible unless you are prepared to involve the supernatural dimension. Atheism is a very strong faith.”
John Lennox: “When you say that it is antiscientific, I don’t think it is antiscientific at all. Science cannot say that miracles do not occur. It can say they are highly improbable. But no one is claiming that these things occurred by natural processes.”
Richard Dawkins: “What I mean by that is that if and when doing science we constantly have to keep in mind that at any moment there might be a little magic trick slipped in, that would completely nullify the whole enterprise of science.”
John Lennox: “I agree with that. Because in order to recognize what the New Testament calls a miracle (a special act of God), you must be living in a universe that has regularities and that we recognize them. If dead people were popping up all over the place, you wouldn’t think it was very special. Scholars have a term for it, paradoxa erga (baffling works) because they baffle people, especially atheists. But they need not baffle if we believe that Jesus is the Son of God. And Professor James Dunn who is a world expert in these things says that ‘the historical evidence for these so-called baffling works is as strong as the evidence for anything else that Jesus said’.”
Richard Dawkins: “John Lennox believes that the creator of the universe, the God who devised the laws of physics and the laws of mathematics couldn’t think of a better way to rid the world of sin than to come to this spec of cosmic dust and have Himself tortured and executed so that He could forgive Himself. That is profoundly unscientific.”
Why did Jesus die?
The question is, is all this really necessary? Why can’t God, if He wants to forgive us, just forgive us?
John Lennox: “If we were to do as Dawkins says, it would be like a judge in a court saying, ‘You’re forgiven. You can just go’. Society would completely collapse into anarchy. All of us know that when we do wrong, something needs to be done to put it right. God’s not going to say ‘that doesn’t matter’. It does matter. And I know that I personally need forgiveness. And this is the big question, ‘how can the holy God forgive me?’ I haven’t even lived up to my own standards, let alone God’s standards. At the heart of Christianity is this message, He lifts the burden from my shoulders. He took the penalty of sin upon Himself on the cross and I can go free. And He can declare me to be right with God. To me this is everything.”
John Lennox “Jerusalem can easily give people the impression that Christianity is a religion for the ceremonies and buildings. But the central message of the cross is that Jesus died to bring us forgiveness and to give us a relationship with God that’s not really represented by the other religious trappings.”
What about the crucifixion?
Let’s investigate the claim that Jesus was crucified and then resurrected. Although most histories agree that Jesus existed, what do they think of the crucifixion?
John Lennox: “They also largely agree about the fact of the crucifixion. Of course we have the evidence on the New Testament documents. We also have the evidence of the Jewish historian Josephus, the Syrian philosopher Bar-Serapion, and the Roman historian Tacitus. So we’ve got a lot of lines of converging evidence.”
What about the resurrection?
Challenge: “How in the world would you ever prove that Jesus was resurrected?”
John Lennox: “It’s very interesting, historians are again agreed on the following things. Jesus was crucified and laid in a known tomb. And then a few days later the tomb was found to be empty. And now the question that needs to be answered is ‘Why?’”
Reference to Jesus in the works of ancient secular writers is obviously significant, but is it enough? Does it prove anything?
Richard Dawkins: “There is a fundamental incompatibility between a sophisticated scientist which we hear part of the time from John Lennox and that is all very grand and wonderful. And then suddenly we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, so trivial.”
Peter Atkins: “The resurrection of Jesus never happened”.
Christopher Hitchens: “I don’t normally need five minutes to rebut the resurrection. And I don’t know what I would do with the remainder of my time.”
Where’s the proof of the resurrection?
John Lennox: “Yes they do ask where is the proof. And it is a good thing to ask. But we need to remember that you can’t get a proof like in mathematics, where proof is obtained by starting with a group of axioms and a logical system. Instead we get pointers and evidences so that we can come to a conclusion beyond reasonable doubt.”
The gospels report multiple claims that Jesus was seen alive after the resurrection. Is it possible that the resurrection was like a hallucination?
John Lennox “It is a suggestion that many people have made. But it doesn’t really stand up to the evidence. Who were these people who claimed to see Jesus? Thomas was a born skeptic. Matthew was a hard-headed tax collector. But even more importantly, people usually have hallucinations about something they are expecting. The disciples were not expecting to see Jesus again. When they saw that He was going to go through with the crucifixion, they forsook Him and fled. We don’t hallucinate about things we are not expecting.”
So the hallucination theory is unconvincing, but what about conspiracy? What if the disciples or someone else removed the body to give the impression of resurrection?
John Lennox: “That has no explanatory power. Why would they do that? They would then go on to preach in public that Jesus was raised knowing that it was a complete lie. Resurrection possesses unrivalled explanatory power of what went on 2,000 years ago in this area in Jerusalem.”
What is the most telling piece of evidence for the resurrection?
John Lennox: “The position of the grave clothes is one piece of evidence that is very special to me. Peter and John came to the tomb. Obviously John went in first and it says he saw the grave clothes that had been on Jesus (wrapped up like a mummy). And he saw them lying there exactly as they had been on the body. And it says that John saw and believed. It was enough to convince him. The only explanation that made sense was that Jesus’ body had somehow come out through the grave clothes. And that He was alive. And therefore John just left the tomb. There was nothing more to be seen. This is the heart of my faith. If you take this away, there is nothing in Christianity at all. I’m convinced of it not just as a Christian, but as a believing scientist.”
The resurrection story is the scene of the most extraordinary story in all of history. Naturally the gospel writers give it prominence. But each gospel gives a different version of the events. In Luke’s account there were two angels at the tomb, in the other gospels there was one. In John’s gospel Jesus appeared to Mary in the garden, but there is no such reference in the other accounts. Could this be a weakness at the very heart of the evidence? Whose account do you believe?
John Lennox: “Well I‘d like to challenge the assumption underlying the question. If you have reporting, even today, by four witnesses of the same events, there will be variations. But what any jury would be asked to decide is whether, despite the differences, there is unanimous agreement about the central fact. As there is. The fact that we have four accounts actually enhances the veracity of the story rather than taking away from it. We mustn’t miss that most important fact here, that they all agree that Jesus rose from the dead.”
The rise of Christianity is based on the resurrection.
Is there anything out there that would cause you to change your mind?
Could you change your mind?
John Lennox: “Of course. I open myself up to questioning. I want to be certain of this stuff. Asking questions about what I believe. And taking very seriously what my critics say to me. I would say that that process over 50 years has strengthened my faith immeasurably.”
John Lennox: “I’ve stood against the tide because of my deep conviction that Christianity is true. I’ve discovered that it has also encouraged many to see that there are answers to these big questions and they too can form part of the ranks of people who stand with me against the tide.”
Truth or delusion, that is the fundamental question?
Richard Dawkins: “When you consider the beauty of the world, you almost feel a desire to worship something. What science has now achieved is an emancipation from the impulse to attribute these things to a creator.”
John Lennox: “And that is where I want to step into the frame and say, ‘hold on a minute’. There are alternatives to this atheism because their explanatory power is much greater of all that we see around us. Atheism gives me far too small world to live in.”
At stake is the reality of the world beyond or not.
John Lennox: “But once you are open to the fact that science doesn’t tell us everything, that this world is not all that exists, there’s something more. Then you begin to open your mind to the possibility that there is another world. We’ve got it all upside down! I believe that Christianity is true. The more I question, the more I’ve felt the answers are solid. I believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Death is going out to a greater world, not to a lesser world. And the hints given to us in the New Testament fill my mind with a thrill and expectation. Roll on eternity! It’s bigger and better in the future.”
The veracity of historical accounts are established on the basis of beyond reasonable doubt, which is the legal standard of proof that applies in criminal matters.
Historians agree that Jesus existed. And there is extrabiblical evidence of His crucifixion. But the resurrection can’t be explained as a hallucination or a conspiracy.
The historical evidence for the spectacular events associated with the life of Jesus is as strong as the evidence for anything else that Jesus said. They are evidence of the divine power of Jesus and the existence of a world beyond the physical.
Appendix: Peter’s account
The apostle Peter was an eyewitness of the supernatural events that marked the life of Jesus (2 Pt. 1:16-18). His account was not made up of myths, embellishments, or imaginative stories, as was the message of heretics (2 Pt. 2:3). In Christ’s transfiguration, the disciples received a preview of the coming Millennial kingdom of Christ.
The content of this post comes from the documentary movie “Against the tide” (2020), which looks at finding God in an age of science.
Posted, July 2021