I have been asked to provide evidence of the existence of God. While researching this topic, I discovered the following article by Dr Gregory E. Ganssle of the Department of Philosophy at Yale University.
You Cannot Prove God’s Existence
Ever since Immanuel Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason, it has been common for thinking people to insist that it is impossible to prove the existence of God. In fact this claim has been elevated to the level of dogma in American intellectual culture. The reason I know this is considered unquestionable dogma is the reaction I get when I call it into question. When someone says “You cannot prove the existence of God”. I want to ask “How do you know? You just met me! How do you know what I can do?”
What do most people mean when they recite this claim? Most people mean that I cannot provide a philosophical argument for the existence of God which will convince all thinking people. It is impossible, so the story goes, to provide an argument which will compel assent. If my argument will not convince the most ardent atheist, I have not proven God’s existence. Since I cannot convince such an atheist to believe, my arguments do not count as proof. If they do not count as proof, what good are they?
I agree that I cannot provide an argument that will convince all thinking people. But what does this tell me? Does this tell me anything about God? No. This tells me more about the nature of proof than it does about whether God exists. I cannot provide an argument which will convince everyone, without a possibility of doubt, that God exists. That is no problem. You see, I cannot provide an argument for any interesting philosophical conclusion which will be accepted by everyone without possibility of doubt.
I cannot prove beyond the possibility of doubt — in a way that will convince all philosophers that the Rocky Mountains are really here as a mind-independent object. I cannot prove that the entire universe did not pop into existence five minutes ago and that all of our apparent memories are not illusions. I cannot prove that the other people you see on campus have minds. Perhaps they are very clever robots.
There is no interesting philosophical conclusion that can be proven beyond the possibility of doubt. So the fact that arguments for the existence of God do not produce mathematical certainty does not by itself weaken the case for God’s existence. It simply places the question of God’s existence in the same category as other questions such as that of the existence of the external, mind-independent world and the question of how we know other people have minds.
Does this mean that arguments for the existence of God are useless? Not at all. Sure, I cannot provide an argument which will convince all thinking people but this does not mean I don’t have good reason to believe in God. In fact some of my reasons for believing in God may be persuasive to you. Even if you aren’t persuaded to believe that God exists, my arguments may not be useless. It is reasonable to believe that the mountains are real and our memories are generally reliable and that other minds exist. It is reasonable to believe these things even though they cannot be proven. Maybe some argument for God’s existence will persuade you that belief in God is reasonable.
So how can we know that God exists? Instead of looking for undoubtable conclusions, we weigh evidence and consider alternatives. Which alternative best fits the evidence? We will choose one alternative or another. There is no neutral ground.
Where Can we Find Information about God?
When you get to thinking about it, it seems that there are only two basic sources of information about God, if such a being exists. They are the following:
We can infer what might be true about God from what we observe in the universe. We look at the physical universe, human nature and culture and we observe things which may be clues to the existence or nature of the supernatural. God may have entered the Universe and told us true things about himself, morality, meaning and how to have a relationship with him. This is called Revelation.
Let me explain each of these. One year my wife and I drove from Los Angeles to Rhode Island. It took a long time. The country is pretty big. From this observation it makes sense to think that if there is some person or being who is responsible for making the physical universe, this being has a lot more power than we do. Now this is a rather simplistic example. Another observation we can make is that every culture we know anything about has a deep sense that certain things are morally permissible and certain things are morally prohibited. This leads us to infer that if there is some supernatural being responsible for human nature, that being is personal. He has a moral aspect to his nature.
The second source of information is that God may have taken the initiative and stepped into the universe to reveal himself. He may tell us true things about his nature and purposes and about human meaning and morality.
Christianity holds that both of these are good sources of information. We have clues to God’s existence which can be observed and God has entered the physical universe through the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth in History and told us about himself.
Now in this article I am concentrating on the first source. Can we know anything about God from what we observe? Are there good reasons to believe in God based on these observations? I think there are.
Reasons to Believe in God
I want to pick up two observations which I think give us good reason to think there is a God. First, the existence of the universe is better explained by the existence of God. Second, the existence of objective moral values is better explained by the existence of God.
The Existence of the Universe is Better Explained by The Existence of God.
I will begin by laying out the argument:
1. There are things which come into existence.
Everything which comes into existence is caused to exist by something else. There cannot be an infinite series of past causes. Therefore, there exists a first cause which did not come into existence. In other words, the first cause always existed. Let us look at each of the steps in the argument:
Premise 1. “There are things which come into existence.”
Many things have come into existence. This article is coming into existence as I write it. You came into existence and so did I. This premise is not uncontroversial.
Premise 2. “Everything which comes into existence is caused to exist by something else.”
It is obvious that Nothing can cause itself to come into existence. Anything that causes itself to come into existence has to exist before it exists. This is impossible. Perhaps something can come into existence from Nothing without any cause whatsoever. Can a thing just pop into existence with absolutely no cause? This also does not seem reasonable.
I have three children. If I walk into the dining room and see a picture of Pinky and the Brain which is drawn on the wall in Permanent Magic Marker I will ask “Where did this picture come from?” My daughter Elizabeth (who is almost five) might say “It came from nothing, Dad. Nothing caused it. It just popped there. I think it is quite strange — don’t you?” Will I accept this? No! Things do not come into existence from Nothing without cause. So, we have good reason to think that premise two is true. Everything which comes into existence is caused to exist by something else.
Premise 3. “There cannot be an infinite series of past causes.”
Is the series of past causes infinite? Can the universe have an infinite past? The answer is that it cannot. First, there are philosophical reasons to think the past cannot be infinite. Second, there are scientific reasons which support this view.
Why can’t the past be infinite? The answer is that it is impossible to complete an infinite series by addition. The series of past events is complete. Think of this mathematical fact. Why is it impossible to count to infinity? It is impossible because, no matter how long you count, you will always be at a finite number. It is impossible to complete an actual infinite by successive addition.
The past is complete. This claim means that the entire series of past events ends now. It ends today. Tomorrow is not part of the series of past events. The series of past events does not extend into the future. It is complete at the present. If it is impossible to complete an infinite series by successive addition (as it is impossible to count to infinity) the past cannot be infinite. If the past is finite, that is, if it had a beginning, then the universe had a beginning. We have strong philosophical reason to reject the claim that the universe has always existed.
I will not develop these. Rather, I will simply point them out.
Big Bang theory does not prove that the universe had a beginning, but it supports this claim.
The second law of thermodynamics does not prove that the universe had a beginning but it also supports this claim.
We can see that we have good philosophical and Scientific reasons to reject the idea that the Universe has always existed.
About the Universe, there are only three alternatives:
1. The universe has always existed. It has an infinite past.
2. The universe was popped into existence from nothing with absolutely no cause.
3. The universe was caused to exist by something outside it.
We have strong reason to reject the first two alternatives.
Alternative Three is the most reasonable. There was a first cause. This cause existed eternally. It initiated the big bang and created the universe. Now what can we know about this cause? Why think the cause is God? I will briefly sketch a few implications.
First, the first cause is not a part of the space-time physical universe because it caused the space time universe to begin. Therefore it is outside of space and time. It is not physical. Second, it has a great deal of power. Third, it is a personal agent. This means it is not an inert force but it must have aspects of person hood; namely, that it wills. How do we know this? This is because it is the best answer to the question of why the Big Bang happened when it did. Why not sooner? Why not later? All of the conditions for producing the Big Bang existed from eternity. The only kind of cause we know of that can initiate an effect when all of the conditions are already present is the will of a personal agent.
I have not argued that it is logically impossible that the universe popped into existence from nothing without cause. I have argued that it is more reasonable to hold that it has a cause and that this cause is a non-physical personal agent — God.
So it seems that the first argument is fairly strong. The existence of the universe is better explained by the existence of God.
The Existence of Objective Moral Values is Better Explained by the Existence of God.
People experience a sense of morality that leads them to hold strongly that certain things are right or wrong for all people in all cultures. For example, it is wrong to torture another person just for fun. It is wrong for me today. It is wrong for a citizen of the Philippines and it was wrong for someone living in 500 BC. Our moral sense provides strong reason to believe in a personal God.
It will help clarify what I am saying if we put it into the form of an argument.
If there is no God, there are no objective moral values.
There are moral values which are objective.
Therefore, God exists.
Before I discuss this argument, I must make it clear that I am not claiming that one must believe in God in order to be moral. I am not claiming that statistically those who believe in God are more moral than those who do not. I am also not claiming that our knowledge of morality depends upon God. This argument is to the effect that objective moral values themselves are foreign to a universe without God. They do not fit.
Defending Premise 1. “If there is no God, there are no objective moral values.”
I have to admit that this claim is quite controversial and many philosophers disagree with me. I think, however, that objective moral values are not sufficiently explained in a universe without God. Many have agreed with this claim. For example, Dostoevski had Ivan Karamazov claim, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” Sartre wrote of Dostoevski’s statement, “That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to” [see his essay Existentialism]. John Mackie — probably the best philosophical atheist of the twentieth century recognizes this: “[Objective moral values] constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful god to create them. If, then, there are such intrinsically prescriptive objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them [The Miracle of Theism, pp 115-116].
Mackie recognizes that these objective values do not fit in the universe if there is no God. His answer, since he rejects God, is to claim that there are no objective moral values. His book on ethics is appropriately titled Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. I agree with Dostoevski, Sartre and Mackie. If there is no God, there are no objective moral values.
Defending Premise 2. “There are objective moral values.”
We know there are objective moral values. By this I mean that the content of morality is not determined by the individual, or by culture. Rather some things are objectively wrong. Other things are objectively obligatory. Actions such as rape, racist discrimination and torturing an innocent baby to death for no reason are really wrong. Furthermore, It is wrong for me to do these no matter when I live and no matter from what culture I come.
Now many people believe that morality is not objective. This view comes in three basic varieties.
1. The individual determines morality.
If the individual determines morality, then if I believe it is morally permissible to steal your stereo and beat up your girlfriend, it is permissible for me to do it. But it is not permissible for me to beat up your girlfriend. Therefore, the individual does not determine morality.
2. Society determines morality.
If I lived in a completely racist society, would racism be right for me? Not at all. When an American university student protests against South Africa’s policy of apartheid, he is assuming that morality is not determined by society. It is transcendent of cultures. All of our greatest heroes have been men and women who have stood up to society’s wrongs and appealed to a morality that is transcendent to society in order to demand change. If society determines morality, it is always morally wrong to criticize society. There is no morality outside of society which can form the basis of a moral critique.
3. Morality has survival value.
Some people claim that the reason we have this moral sense is that it helped the human race survive. Those individuals with moral sense grouped together for mutual protection and these did better than those without the moral sense. This is a kind of prehistoric social contract theory of morality. The problem with this is that we do not need morality to survive today. In fact, if you and I know that morality has no objective validity and the rest of our culture still thinks it is valid, we can take advantage of this to get the most we can. There is no moral reason to refrain from rape, robbery and murder.
These inadequate objections show that our sense is that there is a morality that is trans-personal, trans-cultural and trans-temporal The existence of a personal God is the best explanation for this. It is not up to the individual or the culture whether it is permissible to rape simply for fun. Any individual who believes it is morally permissible to rape for fun has a false belief. Any culture whose moral guidelines include the claim that it is permissible to rape for fun has simply got it wrong.
If it is true that Hitler was morally wrong, it is true that there are objective moral truths which are trans-cultural. If it is true that it was wrong for Romans to leave baby girls to die on the trash heaps — simply because they were girls, then morality is not determined by culture. If it is true that Martin Luther King was a moral hero because he criticized his own culture by appealing to objective morality, then it is true that morality is not determined by culture.
Now, It is true that Hitler was wrong. It is true that the Romans were wrong. It is true that Martin Luther King was right — heroically right. So, we know there are objective moral truths. But objective morality makes no sense in the Universe if there is no God. Objective moral values point to the existence of a moral being who created the universe. His moral character is the standard for objective right and wrong.
I have briefly presented two arguments for the existence of God. These show that it is more reasonable to believe that God exists than that He does not exist.
A. The Existence of the Universe is Better Explained by The Existence of God.
B. The Existence of Objective Moral Values is Better Explained by the Existence of God.
So we see that some of the things we observe about the natural world ground a strong inference to the claim that God does exist. This gives us reason to consider with renewed openness the possibility that God has entered the space-time universe and revealed Himself through the person and life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.
I have not claimed to prove with mathematical certainty that God exists. I have, however, provided good reasons to think that He does. If someone wishes to argue successfully that God does not exist. He must first, provide an answer for each of my arguments and second, he must offer arguments that God does not exist. Until He does this, we can conclude that we have good reason to claim that God does exist.
This article was written by Dr Gregory E. Ganssle of the Department of Philosophy at Yale University.
Posted, November 2017
According to the Macquarie dictionary a sense of humor is appreciating what’s amusing, funny or comical. A joke is an amusing or ridiculous circumstance. Laughter is usually normal and healthy, but there are times when it is not. For example, it can mask and trivialize sin (Jas. 4:9).
Of all God’s creatures, human beings alone possess a sense of humor. As they are also made in the image and likeness of God, I suggest that God is capable of humor as well (Gen. 1:26). But of course God doesn’t share all our attributes (such as sinfulness).
Solomon said that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Eccl. 3:4NIV). For example, we laugh at the things that children do. I wonder whether God (as our Father) laughs at some of the things that we do?
God created some funny creatures. For example, the distinctive call of the laughing kookaburra. And it looks like God was having fun when he designed the Australian platypus and bilby. The first English scientists to see a specimen of a duck-billed platypus thought it was a hoax because it had a bill and webbed feet like a duck, which is a bird. They thought the bill of a duck had been attached to the body of an otter, beaver or mole! The bilby is called a “rabbit-eared bandicoot” because it has ears like a rabbit. And its back legs look like those of a kangaroo, but it gallops like a horse!
Recently I went to the zoo with a grandson. We saw lots of God’s creatures. I’m sure God had fun designing all the animals in the web of life. From bacteria to whales. Will they walk, fly or swim? Adding a long neck or stripes. Which would be companions, predators and prey? They are so diverse, but integrated.
Funny incidents in the Bible
There are some funny incidents in the Bible. As “all-Scripture is God-breathed”, it means that God has caused these to be recorded (2 Tim. 3:16). At Babel the builders constructed a tower “that reaches to the heavens”. Ironically God had to “come down” to see the tower they were building (Gen. 11:4-5)! So it wasn’t very high according to God! Such delusions of grandeur would have made God laugh.
Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachael. She was veiled during the wedding and unrecognized in the darkness of the wedding night and the Bible says, “When morning came, there was Leah!” (Gen. 29:25). What a surprise! Did Jacob drink too much wine at the wedding?
God used a talking donkey to warn and rebuke Balaam for planning to curse Israel (Num. 22:21-35)! And he used a fish to get Jonah to Nineveh!
When the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant they added it to their gods by placing it in the temple beside the god Dagon. But next day Dagon was flat on the ground before the ark. So they put Dagon upright once again. But the following day the idol was flat on the ground once again with his head and hands broken off (1 Sam. 5:1-5)! It was obvious who was the stronger God.
When Saul was pursuing David, he went into a cave to relieve himself. It happened that David and his followers were also in the cave and David crept up and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe (1 Sam. 24:1-4). Saul looked ridiculously vulnerable!
After being told that Jesus was from Nazareth, Nathaniel says “Can anything good come from there?”. Then Jesus says that Nathaniel was without deceit! And accepts him as a disciple!
The disciples took a metaphor literally. When Jesus said to them, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”, they said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread” (Mt. 16:5-12)! They were dumb!
Funny sayings in the Old Testament
When describing a stork, the book of Job says “God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense” (Job 39:17). That’s not very flattering!
God used irony and sarcasm when He answered Job. Where were you when I created the earth? Surely you’re old enough to answer my questions about the creation (Job 38:4, 21)? Of course the answer is no! Job wasn’t there in the beginning, but God was.
Jehoram, was an evil king of Judah who lead the nation into idolatry. The Bible says that “He passed away, to no one’s regret”, didn’t have a funeral fire and wasn’t buried in the tombs of the kings (1 Chr. 21:19-20). That’s a colorful way of saying what people thought about Jehoram.
Some of Solomon’s proverbs are funny:
– “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion” (11:22)
– “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife” (21:9). And “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm” (27:15).
– “The sluggard says, “There’s a lion outside!”” (22:13). That sounds like a good excuse to stay home!
God mocks idols. They had mouths, but can’t speak. Eyes, but can’t see. Ears but can’t hear. And mouths, but can’t breathe. They seem to be useless and dead! And then He adds the punch line: “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Ps. 135:15-18)! Idols are a fraud and worthless (Jer. 10:14-15). They were just a dead stone or block of wood (Isa. 44:9-20; Hab. 2:18-10).
God can use wordplay in serious situations. For example, the Lord showed Jeremiah the branch of an almond tree and said “I am watching” (Jer. 1:11). The Hebrew word for almond (saqed) sounds like the word for watching (soqed).
Funny sayings in the New Testament
Jesus used some funny illustrations:
– He said to the hypocrites, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt. 7:3). This hyperbole is hilarious!
– After He spoke with a rich man, Jesus said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:24). This is another exaggeration.
– He said the hypocritical Jewish religious leaders were “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Mt.23:27).
– He said to the hypocritical Jewish religious leaders, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Mt. 23:24). They were leading people into danger like blind guides (Lk. 6:39). And by concentrating on minor matters (like gnats), they missed dealing with major matters (like camels). Jesus also used a pun here as the Aramaic word for gnat is galma and for camel is gamla.
– He also mentions lighting a lamp and putting it under a basket, building a house on sand, and a father giving their child stones instead of bread. All of which are ridiculous.
– And He makes a Samaritan behave better than a priest and Levite (Lk. 10:30-35).
The common people would have laughed at these comical images.
Jesus also used puns like saying “on this rock I will build my church” when he was speaking to Peter (whose Greek name meant detached stone) (Mt. 16:18).
When describing Abraham, the writer of Hebrews says, “from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Heb. 11:12). That’s a colourful way of saying that he was very old when Isaac was conceived.
There are probably lots of other incidents and sayings in the Bible that would have been shocking or amusing in the culture of the time, but are lost on us today. For example, there is wordplay in the names of people and places in the Old Testament.
The Bible says that God laughs when nations rebel against Him (Ps. 2:4; 59:8). He scoffs at them. God also laughs when the wicked plot against the righteous (Ps. 37:12-13). They don’t realize it’s impossible to defeat the omnipotent God. It’s ludicrous because of the great difference in power.
We may say that God has the last laugh. It may be delayed; and evil may appear to have prevailed. But in the end, God will be victorious.
God is happy and joyful
When the Jews are delivered from their enemies in the future, the Bible says that God “will take great delight in you … will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph. 3:17). This is similar to Paul saying that God is happy (“makariou” is translated as “blessed”) (1 Tim. 1:11; 6:15). This is lasting joy and not just a transient emotion.
Jesus used wordplay
Large crowds of people followed Jesus to hear Him speak and see Him do miracles. Obviously He was a skilled orator. And He would have seen the humor in life – that which is ludicrous or incongruous. He used exaggeration, irony, sarcasm, and satire to help communicate His message. It may have been like street theater with subtle wit and wordplay, but with a serious message.
Jesus also welcomed children and children usually see the funny side of life (Mt. 19:13-14; Mk. 10:13-16; Lk. 18:15-17).
Lessons for us
Humor is cultural and situational and doesn’t always translate into other languages. For this reason, much of the humor in the Bible is probably lost to us today. But we have seen that there is evidence that God has a sense of humor. This is consistent with a God who is personal and who sustains the world.
Coarse jokes are ungodly (Eph. 5:4). And some comedy relates to sinful behavior. This is not part of God’s character. It has been said that:
God is serious because sin is serious. God finds nothing funny about the state of the world. How could a God so holy and righteous be funny in a world where sin is still present? Jesus was a serious person because He was on a serious mission. Our eternal life was a serious issue to Him. Leaving His glory in heaven to come into the world was no fun. The death on the cross was no fun at all. He didn’t come to put people down, but to lift them up.
This is true, but it is clear that God is joyful and Jesus used wordplay. God is serious and He has a sense of humor. He has both attributes, not just one or the other. So, let’s have a balanced view of God.
The joy of the Christian life can be expressed in humor. While worldly humor glorifies sin, puts down others, ridicules righteousness, and hurts the soul – Godly humor encourages others, honors the Lord, and restores the soul. And humor helps us get through life by providing relief from the seriousness of life. So, let’s balance the seriousness and humor of life. And, like Jesus, let’s use appropriate humor to promote our communication with other people.
Although we are usually unaware of it, God is capable of good humor and there is evidence of this in the Bible and in creation. And the carrying out His plan of salvation and His coming exaltation bring Him much joy. Do we share in this joy?
Written, June 2017
There’s a country music song by Brooks and Dunn titled, “God must be busy”. It mentions fighting in the Middle East, a single mum who lost her job, people dying and missing in a tornado, the abduction of a young girl, a drought, elderly people who can’t afford their medication, and violent street gangs. The writer feels as small as a speck of sand and that God’s got better things to do than to help them. They think that God hasn’t answered their prayer because “God must too be busy to help me”. This is an example of those who say they don’t want to bother God about their problems because He’s too busy running the universe.
In a class I’ve been attending at Bible College we’ve been looking at what the Bible says about God. This includes God’s attributes (His character) and God’s actions. His attributes can be summarized as: God is great and God is good. An example of His greatness is His power and an example of His goodness is His love. Of course God is much greater than we can imagine and more virtuous than we can imagine.
But what does God do? In this blogpost we are looking at what God does. His actions. And we will see that in the past God has planned and created, but now He sustains and governs His creation.
Like an architect designs a building, and an engineer designs a car, and a graphic artist designs an animated movie and a sculptor designs a pot, God has planned everything that will happen (Rom. 9:20-23). Like the plan begins in the mind of the architect, the engineer, the graphic designer, and the sculptor; the plan also begins in the “mind” of God. He decides. It’s His will. When we say “God’s will”, we mean “God’s plan”.
We don’t know much about God’s plan. Only what’s revealed in the Bible. We see what happens, not why it happens.
First, God’s plan included creation. It was God’s idea. God didn’t have to create, but He did.
Second, God’s plan includes the history of nations and individuals. For example:
– God used Assyria to punish ungodly nations, “Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you have turned fortified cities into piles of stone” (Isa. 37:26NIV). It says that God planned it long ago. God also determined the beginning, the end and the area occupied by nations (Acts 17:26).
– David says that our life span and its events have been already determined by God, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps. 139:16).
Third, God’s plan included salvation (Eph. 1:11). God gave a promise to Abraham, and through him to humanity. This promise-plan is fulfilled in the history of Israel, in Jesus Christ as the source of salvation, in the church, and in the age to come (Kaiser, 2008). God wanted to have people become like Himself, so He could enjoy their fellowship (Rom. 8:29; 1 Jn. 3:2). Jesus was sent on a mission at a time that was determined beforehand (Gal .4:5-5). The death of Jesus was part of “God’s deliberate plan” (Acts 2:23). God decided beforehand what happened (Acts 4:28).
God’s plan is good; it has good consequences. And the ultimate purpose of God’s plan is His glory (Eph. 1:12, 14; Rev. 4:11; 5:13).
When did God do this planning? The Bible says that it was “before the beginning of time” and “before the creation of the world” (Eph. 1:12; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pt. 1:20). So it was made before anything was created. When the triune God was all that existed. In eternity past.
But God’s work is more than planning; He also creates.
God brought everything that exists into being without the use of pre-existing materials. God created time, the physical world of matter, forces and energy out of nothing. He also made the spiritual world of angels. God created things from what He created earlier. For example, He made animals, birds and Adam from dust and Eve from Adam (Gen. 2:7, 19, 21). There was nothing evil within God’s original creation (Gen. 1:31). And through the laws of genetics, variations can be created within the various types of creatures that God created. This limited variability helps creatures survive changes in their environment.
Creation is emphasised at the beginning of the books of Genesis, John and Hebrews. The Bible says that God created the world for His glory (Ps. 19:1; Isa. 6:3; 43:7; Rom. 1:20-21). In heaven, God the Father is praised, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will (God’s plan) they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:11).
An architect is greater than a building, and an engineer is greater than a car, and a graphic artist is greater than an animated movie and a sculptor is greater than a pot. As a creator is greater than their creation, God is greater than anything in creation. He alone is to be worshipped.
But God’s work is more than planning and creating; He also sustains.
The whole creation belongs to God and matters to Him. He cares for it. God sustains and preserves the creation He has brought into being. This means that God is active in creation (nature) and in our lives. Without God’s sustenance, nature would cease to be. It’s like driving a car without using cruise control. The driver needs to keep pressing on the accelerator pedal to make it go and to keep it going.
The Bible says, “In Him (Christ) all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). And Jesus is “sustaining all things by His powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). The fundamental forces of nature are gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear forces. Gravity holds the universe together, keeps planets in orbit and keeps the atmosphere, water, and us on planet earth. Electromagnetism keeps electrons in orbit around the atomic nucleus and binds atoms to one another to form molecules and compounds. And nuclear forces hold the nucleus of an atom together. Scientists believe that these forces are related, but they don’t know how. But we know how – Jesus holds all things together! He’s the common power.
God sustains nature. Jesus said that God provides for the birds and flowers (Mt. 6:25-34). He works through the processes of nature to provide for the needs of His creatures (Job 5:10; Ps. 104:10-28).
God also sustains humanity. We are in His care (Dt. 31:6). Jesus said that all the hairs of our head are numbered (Mt. 10:30). In Athens, Paul said that God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25). Also, Christians are sustained through suffering. Writing from prison, Paul said that God will meet all our needs (Phil. 4:19).
But God’s work is more than planning, creating and sustaining; He also governs.
God has planned what is to occur and history is carrying out His intention. He works behind the scene so that events fulfil His plan. History is moving towards a definite goal. This means that God is active in history. God directs history. For example, God controlled:
– Nature when Elijah said it wouldn’t rain and there was a drought for 3.5 years (1 Ki. 17-18; Lk. 4:25; Jas 5:17).
– The rise and fall of nations (Dan. 2:21; Acts 17:26).
– Events in the lives of individuals. Hannah praised God, “The Lord brings death and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; He humbles and He exalts” (1 Sam. 2:6-7). David said, “my times are in your hands (Ps.31:15). And Paul realized that even before his birth, he had been set apart by God for a special work (Gal. 1:15-16).
Two illustrations come to my mind. SimCity is a city-building computer game, which was released in 1989. A person building a city in SimCity is like God directing history. And it’s like 3D virtual reality. Monash University have developed a virtual civilization of Angkor Wat in Cambodia as it was 1,000 years ago. 25,000 computer people are animated to perform tasks as four classes of people: residents, commuting workers, suppliers and visiting elites. Virtual reality gives audiences a sense of time and place. In real life it’s God who is directing history, and not a digital animator.
The government of God is when He directs the course of events to fulfil His purposes. For example, look at the history of the Jews. Although their future was threatened in Egypt, in Babylon, and in the holocaust, God has preserved them as a nation.
So God is sovereign. He rules. That’s what is meant by the term, the “kingdom of God”. David said, “His (God’s) kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19).
God also redeems. He is waiting patiently for people to repent of their sin and rebellion (2 Pt. 3:9). He is calling the chosen and justifies them when they come (Rom. 8:28-30, 33-34). Then Christ and the Holy Spirit intercede on their behalf (Rom. 8:26-27; Heb. 7:25). And God makes them more like Jesus, which is called a “good work” (Phil. 1:6). Because no one can separate believers from the love of Christ, “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28; 31-39). So God is working for their good.
Meanwhile, He is preparing a place in heaven for the redeemed (Jn. 14:2). When Christ returns, God’s love, patience, holiness, mercy and grace towards sinners will be evident for all to see.
Lessons for us
We have seen that God plans, creates, sustains and governs. The planning is now past. And God has created in the past, but Christians are part of a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) and God promises a millennial kingdom (Rev. 20:1-6) and a new heaven and a new earth in the future (Rev. 21:1 – 22:5). On the other hand, God is actively sustaining and governing at present and into the future. What are the lessons for us in all these things that God does?
It is evident that God implements His plans. Because His plan included creation, He creates and He sustains His creation. Because His plan includes the history of nations and individuals, he governs history. Because His plan includes salvation, He redeems those who follow Him.
Because God has a good plan for creation, history and salvation; life has purpose and we are moving towards the time when God’s glory will be revealed.
Creation has value because God made it and sustains it. But, do we believe that God will meet all our needs? We can be confident that God will sustain us. Peter said, “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Pt. 5:7).
People have value because they are made in the image of God, because Jesus came as one of us, and because believers will be like Him in heaven.
What about when we are struggling in our circumstances? Let’s remember, God is sovereign. He rules. He knows what’s happening. He cares. Like Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane we can say, “Not my will, but yours (God’s) be done” (Lk. 22:42). God answers our prayers in accordance with His will (His plan). We can be assured that our life is in God’s hands, and that His plan for our lasting good, and for His glory, is being followed. He is always in control. God is with us in our struggles. He loves us so much that He gave His life for us. So, we can continue to trust God whatever our circumstances.
God is constantly working out His purpose in our lives, in the life of the church and in the world at large; sometimes visibly and sometimes unseen. So, although God rested on the day after creation, He is certainly busy today!
In the past God has planned and created, but now He sustains and governs His creation. And it’s good to know that we are part of God’s plan. So Brooks and Dunn were right and wrong – God is busy, but He’s not too busy to help us today!
References: Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.
Kaiser WC (2008) “The promise-plan of God”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.
Written, April 2017
In a world of evil, pain and suffering, some question whether God is good. Instead they claim that the God described in the Bible is cruel and definitely not good. But how do we define “good”? Is it what makes me happy? Is it what only happens in the short-term? It is being nice and politically correct? Or is it different to these?
What does the Bible reveal about God’s attributes, characteristics, nature or qualities? In this case we are looking at who God is, not what He does. Erickson (2013) divides these attributes into two categories: God’s greatness, and God’s goodness. My previous blogpost summarized aspects of God’s greatness.
This blogpost summarizes eight aspects of God’s goodness. They may be grouped into purity (holy, righteousness, and just), integrity (genuineness, honesty and faithfulness), and love (benevolent, gracious, merciful, and persistent).
God is Holy
The Bible says that God is holy (Ex. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2;2; Ps. 99:3). He is “high and exalted” (Is. 6:1; 57:15). In this context, the Hebrew word qadosh (Strongs #6918) means that God is separate from all of creation. The proper reaction to God’s holiness is awe and reverence (Ps. 99:3). Also, God is not wicked or evil. He “cannot be tempted by evil” (Jas. 1:13NIV). This means that God is absolutely pure and He is untouched by the evil in the world. So God is holy.
God is Righteous
David says, “The Lord is righteousness in all His ways” (Ps. 145:17). He always does what is right. Nothing He does is wrong. There is no sin or wickedness in Him (Ps. 92:15). In fact, He defines what’s right and what’s wrong. He’s the source of morality. God sets the standard of righteousness. And He commands only what is right (Ps. 19:7-9). So God is righteous.
God is Just
Isaiah says, “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isa. 30:18). Justice is when God requires others to follow His moral laws. The Bible says that sin has consequences and that God will punish sin. For example, although the wicked may prosper (Ps. 73:3-12), they will be ultimately destroyed (Ps: 73:17-20, 27). Although this justice may not be evident in the short-term, it is certain in the long-term. So God is just.
God has Integrity
Integrity includes genuineness (being true), honesty (telling the truth), and faithfulness (proving true). Jeremiah says “But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God, the eternal King” (Jer. 10:10). God is real, unlike many other gods. And His attributes are true. So God is genuine.
What God says is accurate. God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). God “does not lie or change His mind; for He is not a human being, that He should change His mind” (1 Sam. 15:29). Because of this and His omniscience, He can always be trusted. So God is honest.
God keeps all His promises; “God is not human, that He should lie, not a human being, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and then not act? Does He promise and not fulfil?” (Num. 23:19). So God is faithful.
God is Benevolent
God is loving and caring. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). This is a sacrificial, unselfish love, that seeks the good of others and which is called agape in Greek (Strongs #25). He died for His enemies, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us … while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:8-10). God’s benevolence extents to all humanity and to animals (Mt. 5:45; 6:26, 30; 10:29). So God is benevolent.
God is Gracious
God deals with us according to our need; not according to our merit, worthiness or what we deserve as sinners. He supplies underserved and unmerited favors. God told the Israelites, “The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7). And Paul said, “In Him (Jesus) we have redemption through His blood (death), the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8). Our salvation comes through God’s grace: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). This is God’s response to the fact that we have rebelled against Him and so deserve to be banished from His presence forever. So God is gracious.
God is Merciful
God is also compassionate; “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him (His faithful followers)” (Ps. 103:13). For example, when God rescued the Israelites from Egypt He said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Ex. 3:7). Jesus also felt compassion for the physical and spiritual condition of the people He met; “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36). In response He “went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Mt. 9:35). So God is merciful.
God is Persistent
Another aspect of God’s love is persistence. He withholds judgment and offers salvation and grace over long periods of time. David said, “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15). God often delays judgment so that people will repent and turn to Him (Rom. 2:4; 2 Pt. 3:15). It seems that God warned Noah’s generation for 120 years about the coming flood (Gen. 6:3; 1 Pt. 3:20). Also, He was patient with Israel even though they repeatedly rebelled against Him. And Christ’s second coming is delayed because God doesn’t want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). So God is persistent in His love.
God’s goodness in Scripture
The Bible refers repeatedly to God’s goodness. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each said to be good (Neh. 9:20; Mt. 7:11; Jn. 10:11). God is inherently good and His actions are good – “You are good and what you do is good” (Ps. 119:68). The Hebrew word towb (Strongs #2896) means good and kind (Brown-Driver-Briggs).
The Israelites praised God with thanksgiving saying “He is good” because His love to them endures forever. (1 Chron. 16:34; Ps. 136:1, Jer. 33:11; Ezra 3:11). Reasons to praise God include being good, loving, and faithful – “the Lord is good and His love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations” (Ps. 100:5; 135:3). David gives reasons to praise God – “They celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness” (Ps. 145:7). According to the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, His righteousness is said to be equivalent to His abundant goodness.
David appeals to God’s goodness when he prays for forgiveness – “you, Lord, are good” (Ps. 25:7). He mentions God’s goodness in association with His guidance of those who fear Him – “Good and upright is the Lord” (Ps. 25:8). David is confident that God will answer his prayer for deliverance from his enemies – “the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 27:13). When he was being pursued by his enemies, David used a figure of speech urging people to trust and experience God – “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8; 1 Pt. 2:3). The context is the Lord delivering the righteous in their sufferings. And when David prayed for deliverance from enemies, he praised God for being forgiving and good – “You, Lord, are forgiving and good” (Ps. 86:5).
Moses saw that God’s goodness included His mercy, forbearance, love, faithfulness, forgiveness, and judgment (Ex. 33:19; 34:6-7). And Hezekiah appealed to God’s goodness when he prayed for forgiveness of those who ate the Passover without purifying themselves – “the Lord, who is good” (2 Chron. 30:18).
Jesus reminded the rich ruler that only God is intrinsically good – “No one is good—except God alone” (Mt. 19:17; Mk. 10:18; Lk. 18:19). The Greek word agathos (Strongs #18) means inherently good (Thayer’s Greek Lexion). It describes what originates from God.
Peter alludes to Psalm 34:8 – “now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pt. 2:3). Since they have personally experienced God’s goodness, they should lay aside the sins mentioned in verse 1. This shows that we must personally experience God to know His goodness.
The kindness (goodness), love and grace of God is why He acted to save fallen humanity (Tit. 2:11; 3:4). The Greek word chrestotes (Strongs #5544) is translated goodness, or kindness (Thayer’s Greek Lexion).
God and humanity
These are all positive moral attributes because God has no negative moral attributes (sin). And God exercises these attributes all the time, they are part of His character. Because God is good, everything He does is good. For example, “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28).
The attributes listed above can also be found in humanity, but not on a continuous basis. They are part of humanity being created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). People can be holy, righteous and just, but not when they are sinful. People can be genuine, honest and faithful, but not when they are sinful. People can be benevolent, gracious, merciful and persistent in love, but not when they are sinful. This means that people don’t exercise these attributes all the time like God does.
The fact that we can share these attributes with God would help Christians to represent Him on earth. Through them we can “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4). For example, our new self is righteous and holy (Heb. 12:10; Eph. 4:24). And Christians and churches are urged to be holy (2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 5:25-27). Although they are already positionally holy through Christ, they are to become holy in practice.
Lessons for us
Our God is good because He is pure, trustworthy and loving. His purity is evident as holiness, righteousness and justice. His trustworthiness is evident as genuineness, honesty and faithfulness. And His love is evident as benevolence, grace, mercy and persistence. In this respect God is unique, being far above humanity and any other deity. He’s greater than all other gods. So He deserves our praise and thanks!
That’s how the Bible defines what is “good”. Because God is pure, He deserves our respect. Because God is trustworthy, let’s trust His message in the Bible. Because God is loving, let’s accept His love shown in Christ’s sacrifice. And because God is good, let’s follow and serve Him.
Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.
Written, April 2017
The Islamic call to prayer begins with “Allahu akbar”, which means “God is great” or “God is greater”. This phrase is recited by Muslims in many different situations.
There are lots of ideas about God. Some think God’s like a harsh judge or policeman. Others think God’s like an indulgent grandfather. Is God close or distant? Is God involved in our world or disinterested? Is God separate from creation (nature) or a part of it? Is God fixed or changeable?
Job’s friends were rebuked for misrepresenting God (Job. 42:7). And the Israelites were commanded not to worship false gods (Ex. 20:3-5). God has revealed Himself to humanity in creation, the Bible and Jesus Christ. As all we know about Jesus is from the Bible, the Bible is the best way to know what God is like and what He is not like.
What does the Bible reveal about God’s attributes, characteristics, nature or qualities? In this case we are looking at who God is, not what He does. Erickson (2013) divides these attributes into two categories: God’s greatness, and God’s goodness. This blogpost summarizes eleven aspects of God’s greatness.
God is Spiritual
Jesus said, “God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24NIV). This means that God’s not part of our physical world. It’s like He is in a different dimension or realm of reality. He is not composed of physical matter and is not restricted by the limitations of our physical universe. So God is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15-16). But Jesus did reveal some of God’s attributes when He took on a human form (Jn. 1:18; Col. 1:15). So, let’s study the Bible to find out more about the unseen God and how He wants us to live.
God is Alive
Jesus said, “as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son (Jesus) also to have life in Himself” (Jn. 5:26). God is self-existent and the source of all life (Acts 17:25). In contrast to dead idols, He is a living God (Jer.10:10; 1 Th. 1:9). Because God is alive, He can think, act, communicate, and answer our prayers. And He can give spiritual life to those who seek Him. So, let’s bring our cares and needs to the living God in prayer.
God is Personal
The Bible teaches that God is personal, with self-consciousness, intelligence to reason and design, a will, capable of feeling, and choosing and having a relationship with people. Personal names and pronouns are applied to God. In the beginning, God communicated with Adam and Eve. And later, Jesus visited earth as a human being. God is not an impersonal force. So, let’s interact with the personal God as we read the Bible.
God is Triune
It is evident from Scripture that there is one true God who is in the form of three persons. When dismissing idols as gods, Paul said that “There is no God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). And in a discussion on faith and deeds James said “You believe that there is one God. Good!” (Jas. 2:19). So Christianity is monotheistic. But it is a different monotheism to that of Islam.
Jesus told His disciples, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son (Jesus Christ) and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). Here the singular name of God is said to be “the Father … the Son and … the Holy Spirit”, which is three persons. Jesus was God (Jn. 1:1). He was “in very nature God” and equal with God (Phil. 2:6). Jesus was also “the exact representation of His (God’s) being” and called “God” and “Lord” (Heb. 1: 3, 8, 10). Also, the Bible uses the “Holy Spirit” and “God” as interchangeable expressions” (Acts. 5:3-4; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19). So let’s praise God for sending Jesus as part of His plan of salvation. And pray to Him in Jesus name because Jesus is our mediator (Jn. 16:23). And realize that the Holy Spirit is always available to help us because He lives within us.
God is Infinite
As God created everything, He can’t be limited by anything. This includes: time, space, knowledge, power, and anything else we can think of. He is outside time and space (or in a different dimension or realm of being). So He can’t be limited by any of the constraints in the universe. God’s greatness can’t be measured. So, let’s respond with awe to the infinite God. As this attribute is beyond our understanding, it is considered in more detail in the next four attributes.
God is Eternal
Because God existed before there was time, He isn’t limited in time. He’s not located at a particular time in history because He created time. This means that He doesn’t have a time clock like us. He always is, always was and always will be. God is eternal – He is “the eternal God” (Gen. 21:33; Dt., 33:27; Rom. 16:26). As God existed before anything else came into being (Gen. 1:1), He can continue to exist independently of everything else. Because He had no beginning (or cause), God has no birthday or age. He also has no end – He is immortal. Moses prayed, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2). This means that God is always present. He has access to creation at all times. Although God isn’t bound by time, He is aware of the succession of events within the history of the universe. And because God is eternal, He doesn’t get taken by surprise. So, let’s appreciate the eternal life we have though the eternal God.
God is Everywhere (omnipresent)
Because God existed before there was space, He isn’t limited in space. He’s not located at a particular point because He created space. This means that He doesn’t have any GPS coordinates like us. Conversely, there is no point in space where it can be said that God isn’t present. David wrote, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens (up), you are there; if I make my bed in the depths (down), you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn (east), if I settle on the far side of the sea (west), even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps. 139:7-10). David couldn’t hide from God’s presence. This means that God is accessible at any point in His creation. And God can access all the universe. So God is omnipresent. But this doesn’t mean that He is everything. So, let’s be aware of God’s presence at all times.
God is All-knowing (omniscient)
Because God existed before knowledge came into being, He knows everything. David wrote, “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Ps. 139:2-6). And the writer of Hebrews says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him (God) to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). God sees and knows everything! Nothing is hidden from Him. Nothing is a mystery to Him. So God is omniscient. Since He knows everything, His justice will always be administered fairly. So, let’s trust the all-knowing God to know what is best for us.
God is All-powerful (omnipotent)
Because God created and sustains everything, He has unlimited power. From Genesis to Revelation, He is referred to as “God Almighty”. God told Abram, “I am God Almighty” (Gen. 17:1). And John saw “the Lord God Almighty” in his vison of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:22). God’s power over nature is illustrated in the Bible by many miracles such as the birth of Isaac, the plagues in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and Christ’s miracles including the stilling of the storm. Of course God cannot act contrary to His nature or fail to fulfil His promises. So, let’s trust the all-powerful God to keep His promises.
God is Constant (unchanging)
God’s attributes don’t change with time. Although the Jews repeatedly broke their covenant with God, God kept His part of the covenant in accordance with the statement that “I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6). And James says that God “does not change like shifting shadows” (Jas. 1:17). There is no reason for God to change because He is perfect. So He is constant, consistent, reliable and trustworthy. He’s perpetually the same. That’s why God is said to be like a rock (Dt. 32:4). This means that God is dependable and will fulfil His promises. So, let’s rely on the constant God.
God is All-sufficient (sustainer)
When Jacob blessed his son Joseph, he said that God Almighty blesses “with blessings of the skies above, blessings of the deep springs below, blessings of the breast and womb” (Gen. 49:25). So God nourishes and sustains His people like a mother breastfeeds her infant. Because God is self-sufficient, He needs nothing from anyone. He is able to supply all the needs of His people; “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). God has addressed all our problems, doubts and difficulties, in the gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ. So, let’s rely on the all-sufficient God to get through the trials of life.
God’s greatness in Scripture
The Bible refers repeatedly to God’s greatness. He is “the great God” (Dt. 10:17; Ezra 5:8; Neh. 8:6; 9:32; Ps. 95:3; Dan. 2:45) and “great and awesome” (Dt. 7:21; Dan. 9:4). Also, Jesus is said to be “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13). The Hebrew word is gadol (Strongs #1419), which in this context means great in importance (Brown-Driver-Briggs). The Greek word is megas (Strongs #3173), which in this context means a person of great rank because of their ability, virtue and power (Thayer’s Greek Lexion). In these passages, this greatness relates to the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The magnitude of His greatness is described as:
– “God is greater than any mortal” (Job 33:12)
– “How great is God—beyond our understanding!” (Job 36:26)
– God is “very great” (Ps. 96:4)
– God is “greater than all” (Jn. 10:29)
God’s greatness demands a response:
– “praise the greatness of our God!” (Dt. 32:3)
– “great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” (1 Chron. 16:25; Ps. 104:1)
– “And they were all amazed at the greatness of God” (Lk. 9:43)
God and humanity
The only attributes listed above that are shared by humanity are spirit, life and personality. But there are also differences. While on earth, our spirits are linked with our bodies, whereas God the Father and the Holy Spirit are spirits without bodies and Jesus Christ is a spirit linked to a resurrected (heavenly) body. Although we are alive, we are not self-existent or the source of all life. And although we can know, feel, will and act, we can’t do this as three persons! But because we are both personal, we can have a relationship with God.
Lessons for us
Our God is great because He is an infinite, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, living and personal triune spirit, who is reliable (constant) and all-sufficient. God is mega! He is unique, being far above humanity and any other deity. He’s greater than Allah and all other gods. So He deserves our praise and worship!
Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.
Written, April 2017
I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. I don’t believe in Santa Claus. You could say, I’m a skeptic! But what if I don’t believe that Babe Ruth, Mark Twain, and Christopher Columbus were real people? That they were myths as well.
Also, what if I don’t believe that people who lived longer ago like William Shakespeare (AD 1600) and Muhammad (AD 600) were real people? And what if I don’t believe that Jesus (AD 30) existed? That He’s a myth made up by Christians.
According to a survey in 2015, 22% of people in England thought that Jesus was a mythical or fictional character, while another 17% were unsure whether He was real or not. The remaining 61 % said Jesus was a real person who actually lived. It was found that younger people are the most skeptical about Jesus’s existence.
What is a “myth”?
In everyday language, the term “myth” is given to stories, ideas or beliefs that are false and not true. They are unreal or imaginary stories that may be called “legend”, “fiction”, “fairy tale”, “folklore”, or “fable”. But academic scholars use “myth” as a synonym for a story with a symbolic message that used to be believed as true, but now there are no implications on the truthfulness of the story. In this post I’m using the everyday usage of the word “myth”, not the academic one.
Let’s look at two skeptical views about Jesus.
Skeptical views about Jesus
Christ myth theory.
Some people claim that Jesus is a mythical character, and not a historical person. He never existed. He was made up by the early church which wrote the New Testament. They conclude this from the following beliefs:
– Jesus left no writings or other archaeological evidence.
– We don’t have any original manuscripts of the New Testament.
– The genre of the gospels may be legendary fiction instead of ancient biography.
– The Gospels and other early Christian writings cannot be verified as independent sources, and may have all stemmed from a single original fictional account.
– All documents about Jesus came well after the life of the alleged Jesus – so it’s all unreliable hearsay. No eyewitness accounts survive.
Mainstream historical view
Others say that Jesus of Nazareth did exist but He had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and the accounts in the gospels. They believe that Jesus was an extraordinary man, but He didn’t do miracles. The miracles were made up by Christians afterwards and written in the Bible. The life of Jesus was embellished like St Nicholas became Santa Claus.
We will now evaluate these two skeptical views about Jesus. Do they match the evidence or not?
Historical evidence for the existence of Jesus
Most of what is known of the ancient world comes from written accounts by ancient historians. But these only record a sample of human events and only a few of these documents have survived. Few people could write such histories as illiteracy was widespread in ancient times. And the reliability of the surviving accounts needs to be considered. But the existence of someone in history is often easily established on the basis of small textual samples, sometimes even a single name in a list or sentence. For example, my great grandfather Richard Hawke is in a list of people living on the goldfields at Hill End near Bathurst in New South Wales in 1867. This is listed in a book that was published 109 years later in 1976 (“Valleys of gold” by Brian Hodge).
Jesus was a Jew (a minor race) who lived in Galilee, which was a part of Palestine (not the capital, Jerusalem). And Palestine was an outpost of the Roman Empire (a tiny part of a vast empire). He was a long way away from the local center of power and from Rome (the capital of the empire). So the fact that we can find any written record of Jesus outside the New Testament is significant. Based on this, the best place to look for evidence of Jesus that is independent of the Bible is in ancient Roman and Jewish literature.
About 80 years after Christ’s death, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote (“Annals”, 15, 44, AD 115-117): “They (Christians) got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition (Christianity) for a short time, but it broke out afresh not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home”.
The Annals is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero (AD 14–68). The context of this passage is the 6-day fire that burned much of Rome in July AD 64. It indicates the manner and time period of Christ’s death. Emperor Nero (AD 37-68) accused the Christians of starting the fire and he persecuted them.
Josephus is the best known Jewish historian. He was born in Jerusalem and went to Rome in AD 71 where he wrote his histories under Roman patronage. Jesus Christ is mentioned twice in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (a history of Israel from Genesis to the first century AD) published around AD 93 (about 60 years after the death of Jesus).
A passage in Book 18, 63-64 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says:
“Now, there was about this time (a source of further trouble) Jesus, for he was a doer of surprising works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure (men who welcome strange things). He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him (cease to cause trouble). And the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day”.
The context of this passage is the political disturbances that the Roman rulers dealt with during this period.
A passage in Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says,
“he (Ananus the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”.
This event is dated at AD 62. The Bible also says that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). This passage assumes you already know about Jesus, which is true because Josephus has already mentioned him two books earlier.
Summary of Roman and Jewish literature
These two non-Christian historians are independent historical sources, one Roman and one Jewish. What do they say about Jesus?
– He was a Jewish man named Jesus and Christ (in Greek) who lived in Judea.
– He had a brother named James.
– He had a reputation for doing unusual works (possibly miracles)
– He won over both Jews and Greeks (but most of this happened after His death).
– He was sentenced by Pilate to be executed by crucifixion during Tiberius’s reign. The Jewish leadership pressured Pilate to condemn Jesus in this way.
– Christianity and Christians came out of Christ’s ministry.
– Both Jewish and Roman leaders were hostile towards Jesus and Christians.
So, hostile Jewish and Roman witnesses show that Jesus is a historical figure, and not a myth. This means that the first skeptical view that Jesus never existed is debunked. It is a myth itself!
In 2013 Time magazine had an article on “the 100 most significant figures in history”. They ranked them like Google ranks web pages. They said that historically significant people leave evidence of their presence behind. The top rank went to Jesus, followed by Napoleon, Muhammad, William Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln. So Jesus left an impact in our world. One indication of this is that the years in our calendar are dated from when He was born. Mythical figures don’t leave such an impact. Another indication is the growth of the church despite persecution.
We will now evaluate the second skeptical view that doesn’t believe Jesus did miracles.
Historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles
Now we’ve established that Jesus existed, the question is “did He do miracles?”. Is the only evidence of these in the New Testament that was written by Christians? No! The Christian message was offensive to both the Jews and the Romans. They attacked Christianity by saying that Jesus was a real wonder-worker who made blasphemous claims to divine authority.
Jesus was regarded by the Jews of His day as a person who possessed supernatural powers. According to Justin Martyr, they said that Christ’s miracles “was a display of magic art, for they (Jews) even dared to say that he (Jesus) was a magician and a deceiver of the people” (Justin Martyr, AD 160). They executed Him for sorcery and said His power to do miracles was Satanic.
According to Celsus, an anti-Christian Greek Philosopher, “Jesus performed His miracles by sorcery” (“The true word”, about AD 180). And, “because (Jesus) was poor he hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and there tried his hand at certain magical powers on which the Egyptians pride themselves; he returned full of conceit because of those powers, and on account of them gave himself the title of God…”.
“These were the actions of one hated by God and a wicked sorcerer…”
Celsus treated Jesus as a person who was a dangerous con-artist like a conjuror or illusionist. He considered Jesus to be a magician who made exorbitant claims.
So both hostile Jews and Greeks acknowledged that Jesus had miraculous powers. And they said that these were magical, Satanic and deceptive.
Were the gospels fabricated?
Some skeptics claim that the gospels were fabricated after Christ’s death and aren’t reliable accounts of what actually happened. But you wouldn’t expect the following in the gospels if they were fabricated:
– Mathew was written by a tax collector and Jews hated these.
– A key event, the resurrection of Christ, was revealed first to women who had low status in society at that time. A woman’s testimony was not accepted in court during those days.
– No Jew would invent a story of a crucified Messiah, and Christians wouldn’t invent such a horrific ending for their leader.
– There are multiple accounts of the life of Jesus in the gospels with variations between them.
– The embarrassing parts would probably have been deleted: Jesus’ baptism by John (Mk. 1:4-11), His family believing He was out of His mind (Mk. 3:21), His ignorance of the time of His own return (Mk. 13:32), His not doing miracles in some places (Mt. 13:58), and Jesus calling Peter Satan (Mt. 16:23).
– Why would two of the leaders in the early church reject Jesus when He was on earth? His brother James was a skeptic (Mk. 3:21; 6:2-4; Jn. 7:5) and Paul persecuted Christians (Acts 7:58, 60).
– Why would the apostles invent so many miracle stories, when most Jews expected a political deliverer as Messiah, not a wonder-worker?
– Why would the writers say that some people doubted that Jesus rose from the dead (Mt. 28:17; Mk. 16:11-13; Lk. 24:11, 38; Jn. 20:24-27)?
– Why would the apostles invent a religion that caused them painful humiliating deaths?
The New Testament was written by the apostles and their associates. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the events they described and the associates would have obtained information from eyewitnesses. Scholars think that the “memory gap” between the events described in the gospels and their documentation is about 30-55 years. There are variations between the gospels. This is because there are multiple witnesses and multiple writers. And like in real life, there are variations between the accounts (each records different aspects and details) but they have the same core message and they are consistent with each other. It’s a bit like children recalling events from their childhood for a parent’s eulogy.
Let’s look at the “copy gap” (between the original document and the oldest manuscript available today) for some historical documents. For the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek, the copy gap was about 800 years and for the Annals of Tacitus it was about 1,000 years. On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap was about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was copied in AD 300-325 and Codex Sinaiticus in AD 330-360. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for these other Roman and Jewish historical documents. In this way, the evidence for the existence of Jesus is stronger than that for most other people of the ancient world.
Do we have an open mind?
I’ve presented some evidence, but whether you believe it depends whether you have an open mind or not. Our presuppositions can override the evidence in order to inevitably conclude what was presupposed from the start. That’s circular reasoning! In such cases our assumptions and beliefs largely determine our findings and interpretation of these. If we have already made up our minds, no evidence will change them.
Let’s look at some people who investigated Jesus with an open mind.
CS Lewis was Irish and became an atheist in his early teenage years. He graduated from Oxford University with triple First Class Honors in Classics, Philosophy and English. And he wrote many books. His mother died when he was 10 years old, he had been unhappy at school, and he experienced trench warfare during the First World War. But after spending some years with Christian colleagues at Oxford University, at 30 years of age he became a Christian. He realized that atheists don’t have an open mind because they deny the supernatural and therefore the existence of God. They don’t even consider this possibility. But if God exists, then surely the Creator can intervene in His creation. He can alter the natural environment, reverse the progression of disease, or conquer death in ways we consider to be miraculous. He has written many books defending Christianity, including “Mere Christianity”.
Lee Strobel trained at Yale Law School and was an avowed atheist. He was a legal journalist for 14 years. After his wife’s conversion, he began investigating the Biblical claims about Christ. After a nearly two-year investigation, he became a Christian at the age of 29 years. He has written many books defending Christianity, including “The case for Christ”.
Jennifer Fulwiler was an atheist blogger. But she came to realize her mind was closed to ideas that didn’t fit into her atheist worldview. At the birth of her first child the only way her atheist mind could explain the love that she had for him was to assume it was the result of nothing more than chemical reactions in her brain. Then she realized that’s not true! She found that the Christian worldview had the best rational explanation for the world in which we live. She writes a blog called “Conversion Diary”.
Warner Wallace was a homicide detective. He was an atheist, but reading the gospels changed his life. After he saw that they were accurate eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, he became a Christian. He stresses that as detectives need to be open minded by avoiding presuppositions, so should we. And the highest standard for prosecution is “beyond a reasonable doubt”, not “beyond every possible doubt”. This is because they are dealing with history, not observational science or mathematics. Wallace writes a blog called “Cold case Christianity”.
This evidence from an author, a journalist, a blogger and a detective shows that when people investigate Jesus with an open mind, they are convinced that He did the things described in the Bible.
Lessons for us
We have seen that Jesus is a historical person and not an imaginary figure. The evidence is overwhelming. And that He wasn’t an ordinary person. He did miracles and founded Christianity that has spread across the world. Also, the gospels are based on eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus and not something fabricated by early Christians. And people with an open mind will agree with this finding.
Do you have an open mind about Jesus? Have you read about Him in the gospels? Do you think He is a great moral teacher, but don’t accept his claim to be God? In that case, Jesus would be a liar. Why would a person willingly die under an accusation they knew wasn’t true? Or do you think He was deluded? That He had a mental illness? Then why would the apostles give up their lives for such a person? The only other option is that He was the person who He claimed to be and who He demonstrated to be by His miracles, the divine Son of God.
And if Jesus existed and did the things that history says He did and He’s alive today as the Son of God, then what must change in our lives today?
Why did Jesus come?
Jesus coming to earth is a bit like us becoming an ant in order to talk to the ants. Or us becoming an amoeba or bacteria to communicate with them. It’s amazing! It’s even more amazing because Jesus made and sustains the world He entered! The Creator and Sustainer became a creature at the same time.
Jesus came to earth so we can have spiritual life. A life connected with God now. A life that is connected with God forever. That’s called eternal life. He did it to solve the problem of our rebellion against God. Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Noah’s generation rebelled against God. The people of Babel rebelled against God. The Israelites rebelled against God. The Jews and Romans killed the Son of God. And we ignore God. He’s not in our calendar! The Bible says that we all rebel against God and that’s what separates us from Him (Rom. 3:23). We’re all guilty of wrong attitudes and wrong behavior. How do we know what’s right and what’s wrong? The Bible gives examples and our conscience can guide us (Rom. 2:15). The consequence of our guilt is to be separated from God.
Jesus solved the problem of our rebellion against God by taking our punishment when He was executed by crucifixion. He substituted for us. No one else could have done this because everyone else is a rebel and is separated from God themselves. Only Jesus could do this because He is the Son of God who is always in contact with God the Father.
Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am” (Mt. 16:15-16NLT). Peter answered, “You are the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the living God”. Can you say that as well? If we recognize that we can’t get right with God ourselves because of our rebellion, and that as the Son of God, Jesus has done all that is needed for us to get right with God, then the Bible says that the barrier between us and God comes down and we are no longer separated from Him. We come near to God. We become spiritually alive. If you want to get right with God, pray to Him about it and speak about it to a Christian today.
Jesus described eternal life as follows: “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up (be crucified), so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him” (Jn. 3:14-17NLT).
Here we see that Jesus was on a rescue mission. Just as the Israelites could be healed of snakebite by looking at the bronze snake on a pole, which changed their status from dying to being alive, our separation from God can be removed by accepting Christ’s sacrifice for us. We become spiritually alive and our destiny changes from hell to heaven.
Jesus also said, “I have come that they may have (eternal) life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). Jesus came so we can have spiritual life. And following Jesus turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful one. “Life, be in it!” was a program to encourage us to be more physically active. But Jesus says, “Eternal life, be in it!”. Let’s get spiritually active.
Jesus as Lord
But what if you already follow Jesus? This evidence about Jesus and the Bible supports our faith. We are Christians because of historical events, not because of mythical stories.
Peter told Cornelius that Jesus Christ “is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). “Lord” means a person who has authority over others; a master, boss, chief, or ruler. But most people act like Jesus was a liar or a mental case. They live as though Jesus never came to earth. But if we have trusted Him to bring us close to God, the Bible says that we are to live as though He is Lord of our lives (Rom. 10:9). That means giving Him priority. How can we do that? By obeying God’s commands and principles in the New Testament. A disciple follows their leader.
Paul is also a good example to follow (1 Cor. 4:16; Phil. 3:17). He said “You should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Is what we say and what we do consistent with what Paul said and did? Here’s one example from Paul, “dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all He has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind He will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship Him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2). Do we give our bodies to God? Does He influence our calendar? Do we copy the behavior and customs of this world? Or, do we let God transform our lives? Do we let Him change the way we think? Are we different from those that don’t follow Jesus? Is it evident that we are spiritually alive?
We have seen that because Jesus lived on earth almost 2,000 years ago, and did miracles to prove His divinity, and paid the price so we can be reconciled with God, if we turn to follow Him, He turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful spiritual life.
Eternal life, be in it!
Written, February 2017
Also see: Extra-biblical evidence of Jesus
Have you ever worked on a giant jigsaw puzzle? What if some of the pieces are missing? How about piecing together the 20,000 Dead Sea Scroll fragments! Historians piece together pictures of what life was like in days gone by. They also look for patterns – what has remained the same, what has changed, and why. In their investigations, historians follow a process of historical inquiry – they ask questions, form opinions and theories, locate and analyze sources, and use evidence from these sources to develop an informed explanation about the past.
Most of what is known of the ancient world comes from written accounts by ancient historians. But these only record a sample of human events and only a few of these documents have survived. Few people could write such histories as illiteracy was widespread in ancient times. And the reliability of the surviving accounts needs to be considered.
According to Christian history, Jesus lived in Palestine about 5 BC to 33 AD. The gospels record His birth, teaching, death, burial and resurrection. But all historians are biased and selective. Christians are biased towards believing that Jesus existed as a historical person, whereas non-Christians can be biased towards doubting the existence of Jesus. Could the story of Jesus be just a Christian myth or conspiracy and He doesn’t exist outside the Bible or outside early church history? By the way, almost no early ancient historian believes this. But how robust is the historical evidence about Jesus? How confident are we that Jesus lived in history?
Jesus was a Jew (a minor race) who lived in Galilee, which was a part of Palestine (not the capital, Jerusalem), which was an outpost of the Roman Empire (a tiny part of a vast empire). He was a long way away from the local center of power and from Rome (the capital of the empire). So the fact that we can find any written record of Jesus outside the New Testament is significant. Based on this, the best place to look for extra-biblical (outside the Bible) evidence of Jesus is in ancient Roman and Jewish literature.
In His work “Lives of the twelve Caesars” (AD 120, about 85 years after Christ’s death), the Roman historian Suetonius (AD 69 – AD 122) says,
“He (Claudius) expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus” (Book 5, Life of Claudius 25.4).
Claudius was the Emperor of Rome in AD 41-54. “Chrestus” may be a misspelling of Christ (this is debated by classical scholars). If Chrestus refers to Christ, the riots were about Him, rather than led by Him. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Suetonius misunderstood conflicts between Jews and Christians over “the Christ” as a conflict involving a person named Chrestus (a common slave name). This passage may refer to the expulsion of Jews from Rome in AD 49 mentioned in Acts 18:2. Or, Chrestus could have been an agitator in Rome. As the meaning of this passage is inconclusive, it’s debatable whether it refers to Jesus Christ or not.
Now we move to an earlier reference that is more conclusive. In his “Annals” (AD 115-117, about 80 years after Christ’s death), the Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 120) says,
“They (Christians) got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition (Christianity) for a short time, but it broke out afresh not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home” (15, 44).
The most recent complete copy of the Annals was copied in the 11th century AD (1,000 years after it was written). The Annals is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero (AD 14–68). The context of this passage is the 6-day fire that burned much of Rome in July 64 AD. The integrity of the passage isn’t disputed by classical scholars. It indicates the manner and time period of Christ’s death. Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) accused the Christians of starting the fire and persecuted them. This means that the Christians in Rome must have been a well-known group, with many members, and with good internal organization. Paul Barnett suggested that as a former consul in Rome, Tacitus would have had access to official archives and may have seen Pilate’s report to Tiberius about the execution of Jesus and others in Judea in AD 33.
We now move from Rome to Bithynia in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Pliny the Younger was the Roman governor of Pontus/Bithynia in 111-113 AD. We have a whole set of exchanges of his letters with the emperor Trajan on a variety of administrative political matters. Letters 10, 96-97 describe his encounter with Christianity (See Appendix A and B), where the emperor advises that Christians be punished unless they denounce Christianity by worshipping Roman gods.
Pliny said that Christians:
– Wouldn’t offer prayer with incense and wine to images of the Emperor and Roman gods.
– Wouldn’t offer sacrificial animals at temples to the Emperor and Roman gods.
– Wouldn’t curse Christ.
– Met on a fixed day before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a god (worship).
– Pledged not to commit any crimes such as fraud, theft, or adultery, or be dishonest or untrustworthy.
– Assembled together to eat ordinary food (communal meal).
– Practiced depraved, excessive superstition. “Superstition” was what the Romans called religions they didn’t like.
Trajan supported Pliny’s approach, provided he acted justly and not on the basis of rumor.
Pliny’s letter supports the existence of the early Christian Church (80 years after Christ’s death) and its rapid growth and mentions aspects of its belief system. It shows that the movement had spread from Jerusalem into Asia Minor and to Rome. And it was widespread in Turkey at that time. Clearly the movement was named after its founder, Christ. This meant that Jesus existed. Because if Jesus didn’t exist, then Christianity wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, Christians worshipped Christ “as to a god”. Clearly Pliny said this because Christ was a human being, unlike their Roman gods. Also, it states that Christians died for their faith (Pliny executed Christians who refused to renounce their faith), which is unlikely to have happened if Jesus was only a mythical figure that had not existed. So this passage shows the impact of Jesus about 80 years after His death.
Josephus (37 – 100 AD) is the best known Jewish historian. He was born in Jerusalem and went to Rome in 71 AD where he wrote his histories under Roman patronage. Jesus Christ is mentioned twice in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (a history of Israel from Genesis to the first century AD) published around 93 AD (about 60 years after the death of Jesus). The oldest manuscripts of the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek date to the tenth and eleventh centuries (800 years after it was written).
Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says,
“he (Ananus the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”.
This event is dated at 62 AD. The Bible also says that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). According to Dr. Chris Forbes (Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Macquarie University), no historian suggests that this passage is forged or not authentic. This passage assumes you already know about Jesus, which is true because Josephus has already mentioned him two books earlier (see below).
The exact wording of Book 18, 63-64 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” is disputed as it comes down to us only through Christians. It has probably been edited by a Christian scribe (whose annotations have been added to the text) and it’s fairly easy to decide which parts were written by Josephus and by the scribe. Here is a likely wording of what Josephus wrote:
“Now, there was about this time (a source of further trouble) Jesus, for he was a doer of surprising works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure (men who welcome strange things). He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him (cease to cause trouble). And the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day” (D. Bock, 2016)
The context of this passage is the political disturbances that the Roman rulers dealt with during this period. It’s clear from what Josephus wrote that:
– Jesus lived during the time of Pilate.
– Jesus had a reputation for doing unusual works (miracles).
– The Jewish leadership pressured Pilate to condemn Jesus to the cross.
– Jesus died by crucifixion.
– Christianity and Christians came out of Christ’s ministry.
Does any tampering with a passage like this make it inadmissible? No, because historians always face incomplete and inconclusive evidence. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing! In this case, the consensus is that there is a historical nucleus written by Josephus, but it was edited by a Christian scribe.
According to Justin Martyr (Apology 69.7; AD 160), the Jewish view of Jesus was “They said it (Christ’s miracles) was a display of magic art, for they even dared to say that he was a magician and a deceiver of the people” (D. Bock, 2016). So the Jews acknowledged the existence of Jesus and explained His unusual ministry by saying He was a “magician”, “deceiver” and a “false prophet”. In this context a “magician” was an appeal to spiritual forces, and not to an entertainer. Because they tried to explain the source of His power, they accepted Christ’s miracles. This is consistent with the account in the gospels where the Jews say that Jesus:
– was “subverting our nation” (Lk. 23:2).
– “stirs up the people all over Judea by His teaching” (Lk. 23:5).
– was “inciting the people to rebellion” (Lk. 23:14).
– “It is by the prince of demons that He drives out demons” (Mt. 9:34; 12:24).
– was “called Beelzebul (Satan or the prince of demons)” (Mt. 10:25). Here He was accused of being a deceiver.
Also, the Israelites were told in the Pentateuch that a prophet that urged them to follow other gods “must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God” (Dt. 13:1-5). So false prophets were to be put to death (Dt. 18:20-22). Furthermore, during Christ’s religious trial, the high priest Caiaphas accused Him of blaspheme, which was punishable by death under the law of Moses (Lev. 24:16; Mt. 26:65-66).
Dead Sea scrolls
Is Jesus mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls (DSS)? Scholars have dated the scrolls from approximately 200 BC to 70 AD (the date of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans). According to scholars most of the scrolls were written before Christ’s birth and so we wouldn’t expect Jesus to be mentioned in them. That’s why most scholars have dismissed any connection between the community that hid the scrolls in caves at Qumran about 2,000 years ago and the earliest followers of Jesus. Therefore, they assume that Jesus isn’t mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls. And this preconceived idea may influence how they translate the text of some of the scrolls.
It has been suggested that words such as “dove”, “nail”, “cross” and “mourning” in DSS fragment “4Q451” may refer to Jesus. And “11QT54” says that a person who is a “glutton and drunkard” and a traitor is to be crucified. But it is debatable as to whether these refer to Jesus or not.
Skeptics are biased towards doubting the existence of Jesus. Because the contents of these documents differ from their bias, they usually doubt the authenticity of these passages. But if we discard so many different passages, then we are in effect saying that any ancient document is unreliable and that we know very little about ancient history.
Because of the temporal spread of these documents, it’s unlikely that all the statements about Jesus were interpolated into the original texts. Together with the consistency between these passages, this is strong evidence of the existence of Jesus. The documents stated that:
– Jesus lived in Judea/Palestine.
– Jesus was a wise man and a teacher.
– Jesus did “surprising works” (miracles) which the Jews said was magic.
– Jesus was Jewish and had a brother called James.
– James (who was martyred in AD 62) was a contemporary of Josephus.
– Some people said Jesus was the Christ (that is, the Jewish Messiah).
– Jesus was accused by the Jews.
– Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius.
– Jesus had followers (called Christians) who were persecuted for their faith in Christ.
– Early Christians believed Jesus was GOD.
– Early Christians upheld a high moral code.
– Early Christians met regularly to worship Jesus.
– Early Christians were persecuted and some were martyred.
– Christians were named after Christ.
– Within 85 years, Christianity spread from Judea to Asia Minor and Rome and the Christians in Rome were well-known, with many members, and with good internal organization.
So there is significant evidence outside the Bible for the existence of Jesus. This means that the story of Jesus isn’t a Christian myth or conspiracy. By the way, the mere existence of someone in history is (often) easily established on the basis of small textual samples (sometimes even a single name in a list or sentence). So, we are confident that Jesus lived in history. These historical sources rule out the option that the story of Jesus was a fabrication (it was made up).
There are no “contemporary” accounts of Jesus. But the fact is, almost no ancient historical figure has contemporary accounts of their existence, including Alexander the Great, and we don’t see anyone questioning his existence.
It’s also instructive to look at the “copy gap” (between the original autograph and the oldest manuscript) for these historical documents. For the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek, the copy gap was about 800 years and for the Annals of Tacitus it was about 1,000 years. On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap was about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was copied in 300-325 AD and Codex Sinaiticus in 330-360 AD. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for these other Roman and Jewish historical documents.
Extracts from ancient Roman and Jewish extrabiblical literature confirm that there is a historical basis for the existence of Jesus outside the Bible and outside early church history. So the evidence that Jesus existed is conclusive. Furthermore, these independent extrabiblical sources are consistent with the biography of Jesus given in the gospels of the Bible. This means that the story of Jesus isn’t a Christian myth or conspiracy. And we are confident that the Jesus described in the Bible lived in history.
Appendix A: Pliny’s letter (AD 111)
“It is my rule, Your Majesty, to report to you anything that worries me, for I know well that you are best able to speed my hesitation or instruct me in my ignorance. I have never in the past been present at the investigations into Christians, and so I am at a loss to know the nature and extent of the normal questions and punishments.
I have also been seriously perplexed whether age should make some difference, or whether the very young should be treated in exactly the same way as the more mature. Should the penitent be pardoned, or should no mercy be shown a man who has recanted if he has really been a Christian? Should the mere name be reason enough for punishment however free from crime a man may be, or should only the sins and crimes that attend the name be punished?
Till I hear from you, I have adopted the following course towards those who have been brought before me as Christians. First, I have asked them if they were Christians. If they confessed that they were, I repeated, my question a second and a third time, accompanying it with threats of punishment. If they still persisted in their statements, I ordered them to be taken out (executed). For I was in no doubt that, whatever it was to which they were confessing, they had merited some punishment by their stubbornness and unbending obstinacy. There were others possessed by similar madness, but these I detailed to be sent to Rome, for they were Roman citizens.
Soon, as I investigated the matter, types began to multiply as so often happens, and charges started to spread. An anonymous notebook was presented with many names in it. Those who denied that they were or ever had been Christians I thought should be released, provided that they called on the gods in my presence, and offered incense and wine to your statue (which I had expressly brought in with the images of the gods for that very purpose), and, above all, if they renounced Christ, which no true Christian, I am told, can be made to do. Others informed against admitted that they were Christians but later denied it; they had been, but had given up, some three years past, some further back and one person as long as 25 years ago. All of them reverenced your statue and the images of the gods, and renounced Christ.
They stated that the sum total of their fault or error was as follows. On a fixed day they used to assemble before dawn to sing an antiphonal hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath not for any criminal purpose, but to commit no fraud, no robbery or adultery, to bear no false witness, and not to deny any debt when asked to pay up. After this it was their custom to separate and to reassemble to eat a communion meal, all together and quite harmless. They claimed that they had stopped even that after my edict in which I followed your commands in banning society meetings. So I felt it all the more necessary to find out the truth under torture from two slave girls whom they called Deaconesses. But I found nothing but a depraved and groundless superstition.
So I postponed my inquiry to consult you. The matter seemed worth your attention, especially since the number of those slipping is great. Many people of all ages and classes and of both sexes are now being enticed into mortal peril and will be in the future. The superstition has spread like the plague, not only in the cities but in the villages and the countryside as well. I feel it must be stopped and checked. It is true that everyone is agreed that temples once deserted are now being attended once again, and that sacred ceremonies once neglected are again being performed. Victims for sacrifice are everywhere on sale, for which only an odd buyer could be found a short while ago. All this goes to show how many men could be saved if there is room for repentance.”
Appendix B: Emperor Trajan’s reply
“You have acted quite properly, Pliny, in examining the cases of those Christians brought before you. Nothing definite can be laid down as a general rule. They should not be hunted out. If accusations are made and they are found guilty, they must be punished.
But remember that a man may expect pardon from repentance if he denies that he is a Christian, and proves this to your satisfaction, that is by worshiping our gods, however much you may have suspected him in the past. Anonymous lists should have no part in any charge made. That is thoroughly bad practice and not in accordance with the spirit of the age.”
Written, January 2017
Also see: Jesus:history or myth?