Season of Skepticism
Here is my submission for this year to my church's locally authored Advent Devotional. I suppose it's more apologetic than devotional, but that's no surprise considering the source.
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. —Luke 1:1-4
It's Christmas season again, and with it comes the inevitable garland, plastic Santas, and holiday sales. Judging by the TV programming, the public school music selections, and the lawns of most of my neighbors, it would seem to be a fully secularized holiday. The One whose birthday we once celebrated has become a non-value-added tradition of an unenlightened era.
But (faithful Christians aside) is Jesus fully absent from public attention? Not by a long shot! As "tolerant" and "inclusive" as this culture claims to be, Christmas seems to be the season of slander and skepticism. Perhaps you've caught one of the annual TV specials or news exposés on the "real" Jesus, where the media is very eager to "correct" our simplistic, "faith-based" view of the biblical stories. As Christians committed to the Truths that Luke and the other authors of Scripture have carefully and earnestly commended to us, such contrary claims should be cause for confusion, irritation, or outright anger. As one who has studied apologetics extensively, I've learned to smell a rat, and these spurious attacks on the historical claims of Christianity are particularly frustrating for me, since I know that people are being needlessly influenced by them.
I wish I had the space to deal with all of the modern accusations and criticisms against the Jesus of the Bible, but perhaps this is a case where teaching men to fish is more beneficial than just passing them out.
The first thing to notice is that this kind of scrutiny and criticism is reserved almost exclusively for Christianity. When have you ever seen an ABC special on the "real" Muhammad, or an interview with a New Age celebrity that asked hardball questions, or a Hollywood depiction of the early church in contrast to the excesses of paganism, or a news exposé on Christian martyrdom in the Sudan or China? My daughter once told me that she would believe Christianity to be true if for no other reason than for how it is singled out for persecution. Methinks they doeth protest too much.
Another thing to notice is that the complaints and alternate stories offered by the skeptics change with the seasons. What was in vogue to claim against Christianity one century or decade is passé the next. For instance, in the early 1900's some scholars attempted to argue that Jesus never actually existed as a historical character, but in light of the various extra-biblical Jewish and Roman documents found that reference Him, this theory has lost credibility. And it was once claimed that the New Testament was written one or two hundred years after Christ's death, thus giving quarter to myth and inaccuracy, but now even the most critical scholars accept that the documents were written in the lifetime of the apostles. Even the very first accusation against the followers of Jesus — that the body had been stolen — has fallen on hard times. If the skeptics could manage to find a criticism that worked, and stick with that, then it might be easier to take them seriously.
Archaeology is often brought to bear against various points of Scripture in what has not yet been found or what seems to be found to the contrary. For example, there was a time when the Hittite nation, the Davidic kingdom, and even Pontius Pilate were thought to be mythical. Later excavations of cities, tablets, and inscriptions have affirmed these and other points of biblical history. Because of the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, and the fact that our earliest Old Testament copies dated from a thousand years after Christ, there was once speculation that it was partially authored or tampered with by the early church fathers. But the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which date before the birth of Christ) in the 1940's put this theory to bed. Even though there are still a few open historical questions, it should be remembered that the archaeological trend is toward confirmation of the Bible.
Many of the objections to Scripture are merely based on the presuppositions of the skeptic. For instance, one of the "Christian" scholars that is regularly interviewed for these Jesus exposés is John Dominic Crossan. This fellow has gone on record as saying that he does not believe that God interferes with His creation. Consequently, he begins his analysis of the Bible with the assumption that the miracles must be mythical or allegorical, and he then sees the task of theology to peel away these "fictional" layers to get at the underlying "reality." These kinds of critics end up "discovering" a Jesus in Scripture that is made in their own image.
Conspiracy theories make up a good deal of skeptical thinking, and some of these are real doozies. It has actually been proposed that Jesus was a space alien, or the leader of a hallucinogenic mushroom cult. Only slightly more respectable are the ideas that Jesus had a secret twin brother who showed up just in time to be crucified, or that He didn't really die on the cross, He revived in the tomb and reappeared to the disciples who mistook Him for the first fruits of the resurrection. (Need I refute the idea that a scourged and crucified body could be mistaken for the "Lord of life?") Perhaps the latest theory is the re-popularized notion that the resurrection appearances were the product of mass hallucination on the part of the disciples. Now these are all interestingly imaginative theories, but unless we are given some sort of tangible evidence to the contrary, which never seems to be forthcoming, then we are justified in sticking with the unanimous testimony of those writers who had the most direct access to the facts (i.e., the authors of the Bible).
Another common ploy is to bring up meaningless associations and observations. For example, it is often noted that the story of Jesus has various similarities to other pagan mythology, or that some of the sayings of Jesus, like the golden rule, are similar to the saying of Buddha or other spiritual figures. Sometimes critics will imply that people are believers based merely on psychological "need" or because they grew up in a Christian nation. Or perhaps they will point out the numerous denominational divisions or examples of hypocrisy in the church. The world is big and history is diverse, and there are plenty of (apparent) connections to be made. But even if we grant the critics each of their observations, it is all immaterial to the point of whether or not Jesus was a historical figure who actually did those things recorded in the Scriptures.
It is probably not by force of reason that you became a believer, and without the work of the Holy Spirit even a bullet-proof case for Christianity will win no converts, but we should at least take confidence and comfort in knowing that God has not left us to the wolves unarmed.
Lord Jesus, thank You that You have given us such an abundant record of Your deeds and words among mankind. Thank You that we are not left to rely on our own speculations about heavenly things, and we delight that our God is a God who is sovereign over history and the men used to pen Your truths. Thank You for giving us Your Spirit to open our eyes to this truth and to hold us fast during times of trial and doubt. Thank you that we are not left unarmed to defend our conviction, but that Your words and ways have the power of truth and that history is ripe with the knowledge of it. Amen.