By: Ian Murray
Many Christian apologists try to find some ‘common ground’ with unbelieving audiences. They look for areas of the discussion both parties can agree on. This approach asserts that both party’s worldview do hold some merit; and there is always some ground that conflicting worldviews share. However the adage ‘there is a time and place for everything’ rings true. Sometimes ‘dividing lines’ have to be drawn, and when discussing the Christian Gospel there must be no compromise. Paul makes it clear.
“I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?”” - Galatians 3:2[i]
Paul is drawing a distinct line between people who assert that salvation through Christ is ‘works-based’ verses ‘belief-based’; he is not trying to find ‘common-ground’ between their worldview and his. Trying to find ‘common ground’ between the Christian Gospel and an ‘another gospel’ is compromising on the Christian Gospel. It is true there are foundations that develop the Gospel that many conflicting worldviews can agree on: every worldview has a doctrine that deals with evil; every worldview deals with ‘moral good’, etc. Within the Gospel message there lies the doctrines of sin and loving your neighbor. However the actual premises of the Gospel can never be compromised:
1) We are breakers of God’s law (cf. 1 John 3:4)
2) The wages of sin is death (cf. Romans 6:23)
3) Christ died to take the punishment of death from us (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3, Romans 8:5)
4) Christ rose and thus conquered the affects of sin (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:4)
5) A belief in points 1-4 and decision to turn from their evil ways and do God’s will warrants salvation (cf. Matthew 7:21-23, John 1:12, 1 Corinthians 10:9)
If the above Gospel is true then all other ‘gospels’ are false. The Bible makes hard distinctions and doesn’t operate from a spirit of compromise.[ii]
There is also another aspect of the Gospel message that cannot be compromised on. Paul writes:
“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” - 1 Corinthians 15:12-14
The Gospel has two major hemispheres: The Message and History. Paul shows that the ‘message’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) is displayed as a real, recorded event in earth’s history (1 Corinthians 15:12-14). Or to put it another way there is a recorded event in earth’s history (1 Corinthians 15:12-14) that is explained in the ‘message persona’ of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Without the message, does the recorded historical data make sense? Without any facts to substantiate the Christian’s ‘good-news-message’ can it be more than a mere belief? In short, ‘no’ on both accounts, both the Gospel message and the historical event must be united to make the picture complete.
Main stream academia has an interwoven relationship with God and his Word, and the academic field of history is no acceptation. A grave mistake that a Christian can make is to separate both the Gospel’s message and history from one another. In a debate on the resurrection of Christ, Christian historian and scholar Dr. Michael Licona separated the Gospel message’s metaphysical message from its historical substantiation in an attempt to find ‘common-ground’ with his non-believing audience. Licona states:
“...in terms of plausibility do you have to deposit God - no I don’t have to deposit God in the resurrection hypothesis to get to the conclusion; I just have to be open to it.” [iii]
Licona proposed that one can divorce ‘the that’ aspect of the resurrection (‘that’ the event happened) from its ‘how’ aspect (‘how’ the event happened - God raised Jesus). However his own criteria failed him as it demanded that he be willing to be ‘open to the God hypothesis’; in sum one cannot be closed to the God hypothesis and accept the resurrection interpretation of the historical data. Licona’s debating opponent New Testament scholar and sceptic Dr. Bart Ehrman agrees:
“...the only thing makes the resurrection - the plausible explanation - is if you believe in God; you have to believe in God in order to have a resurrection. ... what other option is there?” [iv]
However many propose that the resurrection cannot happen because it is a miracle. Scottish philosopher David Hume is recorded in saying that someone’s “...conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of reinsurance, and regards his past experiences as full proof of the future existence of that event.” [v]
In sum someone expects X to happen based only on their experience of X having happened in their past; or someone predicts X to happen in the future based on their present and knowable past. So unless someone experiences a dead person coming back to life (X), there is no logical reason for them to believe in a bodily resurrection, either from the past, now or in the future. However Hume disallows for any supernaturalist explanation and presupposes that X must be ‘natural’, like snow in Canada in January.[vi] The Christian’s presupposition does allow for supernatural explanations;[vii] and pitting natural explanations again supernatural ones, regarding the resurrection hypothesis, the documentable historical data is best explained ‘supernaturally’. Although many naturalistic explanations have been offered they fail on many grounds, even the ‘thought provoking’ ones.[viii] In sum one must be willing to accept the ‘Christian God-hypothesis’ for any hope of a rational explanation for the empty-tomb.
Severing the Gospel’s two hemispheric parts from each other is making the Christian’s good-news message of God’s love mere mysticism and making the objective data unintelligible. God tells us that he loves his creation, (cf. John 3:16) and without this claim, the ‘empty-tomb’ is just a hole in some mountainside in Jerusalem. This hole is the tangible fact, that supports the claim ‘that’ the resurrection happened, (cf. Acts 1:3, 2:29-32) thus validating the metaphysical claim of God’s love to be true.
However not only should someone not separate the resurrection theory from the historical data, neither should the ‘God loved the world - theory’ be separated from Jesus’ death from a historical aspect. Paul explains:
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” - Romans 5:8
God just didn’t give us a message that is emotionally induced mysticism: an inner sense of peace and a message of love and refuge (cf. John 3:16, 14:27, Psalms 46:1), he gave us a documentable foundation that substantiates this message. The Christian should therefore never divorce head knowledge (objective knowable facts) and heart knowledge (subjective knowable facts) offered by God. Although it is the ‘heart-change’ that saves someone from their sin, God provided us with evidence to use to change the heart! Lastly, almost everyone, from every belief system claims to have a subjective ‘heart-experience’; there is one question that should be asked: Is it documentable and logical? The Christian Gospel is!
[i] All verses are taken from the NIV translation.
[ii] For two examples: 1. Some assert that we are only imperfect human beings. However if humans are just ‘imperfect’ then why did Christ die? Also if acts like theft, murder, rape, insults, bullying, etc. do not break God’s law, why does human law hold such acts as crimes? Are they not merely acts of imperfectness? Ergo shouldn’t we just educate people instead of punish them as criminals? 2. Many people assert that Jesus’ death showed his, love instead of paying a consequence of sin. If this is the case then Jesus’ death didn’t accomplish anything.
[iii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPDlHlGGLiI (15:48 min. - 15:57 min.) - accessed July 23, 2013
[iv] Ibid., (22:10 min. - 22:32 min.) - accessed July 23, 2013
[v] William L. Rowe & William J. Wainwright, Philosophy of Religion. essay by David Hume Of Miracles: (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)., 492
[vi] So even if he heard of a story of a modern bodily resurrection his worldview requires that he disbelieve it. But of course he, as a person was allowed to open himself to any option he wished, however if he opened the door to a supernatural explanation, he would have evolved into a supernaturalist.
[vii] Just because theists say that they are a witness to a miracle, from a theists perspective they should not be totally believed, however neither should they be deemed outlandish; not everything that people, Christians included declares to be miraculous is in fact a miracle.
However another aspect to highlight: just because an event was not a miracle, it does not mean that God is not involved. God works through both the natural and supernatural.
[viii] See: The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus - Drs. Michael Licona and Gary Habermas