I spent last weekend in Wisconsin with pastor (and Packer's Chaplain) Troy Murphy and his family of believers at Green Bay Community Church. They hosted an "Accidental Faith" Seminar on Saturday and we talked about the case for truth, the case for God's existence and the case for the Resurrection. I was very impressed with the number of people who came out on a beautiful, warm, pre-Spring day in Wisconsin. Troy has done an amazing job raising up a group of disciples who want to be intentional. They get it. They want to be more than accidental Christians. I often use that expression to describe what I see around the country. Here's what I mean:
Imagine that you and I are sitting in my family room. The television is turned off; it’s 5:20pm. I lean over and ask, “What channel is the weather report on?”
“I don’t really know,” you respond.
“Well, give me a channel number’” I insist.
“OK, channel 7,” you reply, shrugging your shoulders.
I turn on the television and switch over to channel 7. Lo and behold, the weather report is being broadcast at that very moment on the channel 7 nightly news. “Good call,” I proclaim as you grin with satisfaction. You made a proclamation about where the weather forecast was being aired and your claim about the truth was accurate. You were right. But you were only accidentally correct. You made that proclamation without any evidence to support your claim; you simply took a stab at it and happened to be correct. This doesn’t in any way diminish the “rightness” of your proclamation, but you came to it “by accident.”
There are lots of us who are Christians in a very similar way. We have trusted in Jesus for our salvation; acknowledging He paid the price for our sin on the cross. We recognize He is God. We accept the essential orthodox teachings of classic Christianity. But if you asked us why we believe these things to be true, many of us would have little to offer. We just happened to guess the right "channel". We’re accidental Christians. We happen to hold to the truth of Christianity in the same way you guessed the right channel for the weather report.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter, I suppose, how you happened to turn to channel 7. I guess the important thing is simply that the weather report was playing on the channel you happened to pick. But if someone was listening to our conversation, do you think they would trust you to tell them when the next weather report was going to broadcast? I think they would know you only found the first report accidentally. You had no evidence to support your selection, so there’s little reason to expect you will get it right the next time around. Accidental Christians are saved just like those of us who have taken the time to study the evidence and understand the solid reasons why we believe Christianity is true. But accidental Christians aren't likely to be trusted by those who are watching or listening to our conversations. Accidental Christianity has a hard time competing in the marketplace of ideas, especially when alternate worldviews are being argued evidentially.
Troy Murphy and Green Bay Community Church understand this. That's why so many of them turned out last Saturday to move from accidental Christianity to evidential Christianity. As Christians, we happen to possess the truth. We don't have to be accidental Christians. It’s time to prepare ourselves so we can demonstrate our faith is well placed, reasonable and evidential.
Christianity is unique among theistic worldviews. Some religious systems are based purely on the doctrinal, proverbial statements of their founders. The wisdom statements of Buddha, for example, lay the foundation for Buddhism. In a similar way, the statements of L. Ron Hubbard form the basis of Scientology. But in both these examples, the statements of these worldview leaders exist independently of any event in history. In other words, these systems rise or fall on the basis of ideas and concepts, rather than on claims about a particular historical event. While Christianity makes its own ideological and conceptual claims, these proposals are intimately connected to a singular validating event: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why should you believe what Jesus said rather than the teaching of Buddha or Hubbard? The authority of Jesus is grounded in more than the strength of an idea; it’s established by the verifiability of an event. When Jesus rose from the dead, He established His authority as God, and His Resurrection provides us with an important Christian distinctive. Like other historical events, the Resurrection can be examined for its reliability, and the verifiability of Christianity separates it from every other religious system.
If I told you I had a vison from God yesterday in which He revealed a number of important ideas and concepts, how could you ever verify (or falsify) my claim? Personal visions and pietistic wisdom statements are difficult to validate evidentially. You either have to accept my story or reject it, but in either case you’ll have to do so without an evidential investigation. What if, on the other hand, I told you I had been visited by God physically? What if I told you God came to me in the form of a man and, in the presence of my friends, worked several miracles? What if I told you He moved trees and created a playhouse for my kids from thin air? These kinds of claims are categorically different than claims about ideas and concepts. These claims are locked into historical events occurring in my backyard in front of witnesses. As such, they can be investigated forensically and historically. They can be verified in a way conceptual claims cannot. This is the nature of Christian claims. Christianity is established on the basis of an event in history. We can investigate this event like any other event in history (including cold-case murders). Verifiability is a Judeo-Christian distinctive.
You may be asking yourself, “Hey, wait a minute, Christianity isn’t the only theistic system based on an historical event. What about systems like Mormonism or Islam?” While Mormonism, for example, is also based on an historical claim about the past (in this case, a claim about one thousand years’ worth of events here on the North American continent), these claims are demonstrably false. In fact, the same four step process I used in Cold-Case Christianity to verify the New Testament Gospel accounts quickly falsifies the claims of Mormonism. The distinctive attribute of Christianity is not simply that it is verifiable, but also that an intense investigation of its claims actually confirms its truth. Christianity is both verifiable and verified. It is true. Mormonism is verifiable but false. It fails to pass the test we might offer to establish its authenticity. While I am no expert in Islam, my friends, Abdu Murray and Nabeel Qureshi both examined Islam as I examined Mormonism and came to the same conclusion about its historical claims. Christianity remains the one religious system (1) rooted in an historical event and (2) verified by critical examination.
I’ve often said I am not a Christian because it works for me. There are many days when the Christian life is the most difficult life I could choose to lead. It requires me to think of others first, to remember my true positon relative to a Holy God and deny my selfish desires. I’m also not a Christian because I was raised in a Christian home. I wasn’t surrounded by practicing Christians as a child. I’m not a Christian because I was trying to fix a problem or because I was hoping for Heaven or afraid of Hell. None of these things animated me. I had a great life before becoming a Christian. I am a Christian today because I investigated the reliability of the Gospel accounts and determined Christianity was true. It’s really that simple. I’m a Christian for the same reasons I’m a not-Mormon. One system can be verified, the other only falsified.
If evidential verifiability is truly a Christian distinctive, shouldn’t it cause us to live differently than the adherents of other religious systems? Shouldn’t we, as Christians, be the one group who knows why their beliefs are true and the one group who is most willing to defend what they we believe? Shouldn’t we be the one group most interested in making the case for our metaphysical beliefs? Why then, are we often uninterested in the evidence? It’s time for us to allow the distinctly evidential nature of Christianity result in distinctly evidential believers. The nature of Christianity, rooted in the Resurrection, allows us the chance to investigate and defend its claims. As Christians, we ought to be uniquely thoughtful, reasonable and evidential in our beliefs, because verifiability is a Christian distinctive.
When I first examined the New Testament Gospel accounts, I was intensely interested in their authorship. I found it interesting that two of the accounts were not written by (nor even attributed to) eyewitnesses. Luke wrote his account based on the testimony of “eyewitnesses and servants of the word,” but Mark’s Gospel is a bit more mysterious. Was Mark a previously un-named witness? Form whom did he get his information? I’ve written about the case for Mark’s source both at ColdCaseChristianity.com and in my book, Cold-Case Christianity. I believe the evidence points to the Apostle Peter as the authority for the material in Mark’s Gospel. In this post, I’d like to offer a Bible Insert summarizing briefly the case for Peter’s involvement (along with a graphic illustration of the cumulative case):
Peter is Described with Familiarity
More importantly, Mark is the only writer who refuses to use the term “Simon Peter” when describing Peter (he uses either “Simon” or “Peter”). This may seem trivial, but it is important. Simon was the most popular male name in Palestine at the time of Mark’s writing, yet Mark makes no attempt to distinguish the Apostle Simon from the hundreds of other Simons known to his readers (John, by comparison, refers to Peter more formally as “Simon Peter” seventeen times). Mark consistently uses the briefest, most familiar versions of Peter’s name.
Peter Is “Bookended”
Unlike other Gospel accounts, Peter is the first disciple identified in the text (Mark 1:16) and the last disciple mentioned in the text (Mark 16:7). Scholars describe this type of “bookending” as “inclusio” and have noticed it in other ancient texts where a piece of history is attributed to a particular eyewitness. In any case, Peter is prominent in Mark’s Gospel as the first and last named disciple.
Peter Is Mentioned Frequently
Peter is featured frequently in Mark’s Gospel. As an example, Mark refers to Peter twenty six times in his short account, compared to Matthew who mentions Peter only three additional times in his much longer Gospel.
Peter Is Named By the Church Fathers
A number of early Church witnesses and authorities confirm Peter as the source for Mark’s Gospel. Bishop Papias of Hierapolis (60-130AD) repeated the testimony of the old presbyters (disciples of the Apostles) who claimed Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome as he scribed the preaching of Peter (Ecclesiastical History Book 2 Chapter 15, Book 3 Chapter 30 and Book 6 Chapter 14). In his book, “Against Heresies” (Book 3 Chapter 1), Irenaeus (130-200AD) also reported Mark penned his Gospel as a scribe for Peter. Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD) wrote a book entitled “Hypotyposeis” (Ecclesiastical History Book 2 Chapter 15). In this ancient book, Clement confirmed Mark was the scribe of Peter in Rome. Early Christian theologian and apologist, Tertullian (160-225AD), also affirmed Peter’s contribution to Mark’s Gospel in “Against Marcion” (Book 4 Chapter 5). Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History Book 6 Chapter 25) also quoted a Gospel Commentary written by Origen (an early church father and theologian who lived 185-254AD) attributing the Gospel of Mark to Peter.
Peter’s Embarrassments Have Been Omitted
There are many details in the Gospel of Mark consistent with Peter’s special input and influence, including omissions related to events involving Peter. How can Mark be a memoir of Peter if, in fact, the book contains so many omissions of events involving Peter specifically? It’s important to evaluate the entire catalogue of omissions pertaining to Peter to understand the answer here. The vast majority of these omissions involve incidents in which Peter did or said something rash or embarrassing. It’s not surprising these details were omitted by the author who wanted to protect Peter’s standing in the Christian community. Mark was quite discreet in his retelling of the narrative (other Gospel writers who were present at the time do, however, provide details of Peters ‘indiscretions’ in their own accounts. See Cold-Case Christianity for a more detailed explanation).
Peter’s Knowledge Has Been Included
In addition to the omissions we have cited, there are a number of details included in Mark’s Gospel demonstrating Peter’s involvement and connection to Mark. As we describe a few of them, notice these inclusions are relatively minor and don’t seem to add much to the narrative. Their incidental nature is an indicator the author lacked a motive other than to simply include Peter’s perspective in the account. Peter’s involvement appears to have been faithfully recorded by his scribe and assistant, Mark.
Peter’s Outline Has Been Followed
Papias maintained the Gospel of Mark was simply a collection of Peter’s discourses (or his preaching) as this information was received and recalled by Mark. If we examine the typical preaching style of Peter in the Book of Acts (1:21-22 and Acts 10:37-41 for example) we see Peter always limited his preaching to the public life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel omits the private birth narrative and other details of Jesus’ life described in the opening chapters of Luke and Matthew. Mark begins with the preaching of John the Baptist and ends with the resurrection and ascension, paralleling the public preaching of Peter as we see it summarized in the Book of Acts.
There is sufficient cumulative, circumstantial evidence to conclude Mark did, in fact, form his Gospel from the teaching and preaching of the Apostle Peter. I’ve illustrated the cumulative case for Peter’s involvement in the following way (excerpted from Cold-Case Christianity):
To download a free Bible Insert of this cumulative case diagram, visit the homepage at www.ColdCaseChristianity.com and follow the Bible Insert link in the right column.
I’ve been investigating cold-case murderers for about fifteen years. During this time I’ve met several defense attorneys who have been certain their client was innocent. One confided she was unable to believe her defendant could have committed such a horrific crime given his present life. I can almost understand her disbelief. Most of my suspects are regular people who live quite ordinary lives following their crime. They are doting parents (and grandparents), firemen, church elders, engineers, painters, professionals and blue collar workers. They’re your neighbor, your kid’s scout leader, your co-worker and your family member. These people aren’t serial killers, they’re regular people who have committed an extraordinary crime. When you arrest a serial killer and interview his neighbors, they’ll typically say something like, “Wow, I am so glad you took that guy to jail. He was weird. I always suspected he was up to no good. I heard strange noises and smelled strange smells over there all the time!” But when you take a cold-case murderer to jail, his neighbor will typically say, “No way! I’ve known that guy for a dozen years. He’s watched my kids and we hang out all the time. There’s no way he could have committed a murder!” How can regular people who’ve lived good, decent lives for decades be capable of committing a horrific murder thirty years earlier? If you’re a Christian, you may already know the answer to this question. I certainly do, because my cold-case killers confirm the Biblical description of humans.
The dual nature of humans is sometimes described as the “enigma of man”. We are capable of nobility and kindness on the one hand, yet capable of shockingly evil behaviors on the other. And I’m not talking about humanity as a group, I’m talking about each of us as specific individuals! The same person who can be kind and loving, can also (under the right circumstances) be brutal and ruthless. We are beautiful and ugly, trustworthy and unreliable, noble and despicable, and each of us is a confusing blend of each extreme. You might think there’s something mentally wrong with people who are this contradictory, but none of my suspects have been crazy. None have been deemed insane. This kind of conflicting behavior is not necessarily a sign of mental instability; it is often simply a sign of our common humanity. You may not want to believe it, but each of us is capable of doing the unspeakable. Given the right set of events, and pushed to the limit, every one of us is capable of dreadful behavior. This is the human condition.
As Christians, we happen to possess a worldview accurately describing and explaining our experience as humans. The Bible tells us humans were created in the “image of God”. Our capacity for good is a direct gift from our Creator. It is an attribute reflecting His nature. But if this is the case, how are “noble” creations (humans) capable of such great evil? The Biblical narrative provides us with the answer: God has given us the one foundational characteristic necessary for the existence of love. He’s given us the freedom to choose. But freedom is dangerous. It makes love possible, but often results in acts of hatred. There can be no love without this kind of dangerous freedom. If you want one, you have to allow for the other. To do anything else would be logically impossible, like creating a square circle or an unmarried bachelor. Love requires freedom and humans possess this dangerous freedom. But there’s more.
The Bible also tells us humans are fallen. The first humans abused their freedom and we have inherited both their behavior and their blame. If you doubt the fallen nature of humans (or your own fallen disposition) you probably haven’t examined yourself deeply enough. But if you’re a parent, you already know you don’t have to teach your infant children to be impatient, rude and self-serving. They behave this way from the onset unless we teach them otherwise. Our own experience as parents (and as humans) confirms the Biblical description. All of us begin as self-serving, fallen creatures and this doesn’t change much as we get older. We’re all a mess, if we are willing to be honest.
The Bible describes both the problem and the solution. As enigmatic, contradictory creatures, designed in the image of God but marred by our rebellious, fallen nature, our only hope in reuniting with our Creator is offered at the Cross. We can’t fix this problem on our own. We can’t eliminate our imperfection, and this imperfection deserves death and separation. But a perfect God offers us perfect forgiveness. He’s willing to take the consequence and blame on Himself. Jesus did that for us on the Cross. Each of us is a cold-case killer, a mixture of beauty and cruelty, love and hate, compassion and aggression. I’ve seen it over and over again. We’re all the same murderer. But for the grace of God, each of us could find ourselves in a similar situation. All of us are killers unaware. All of us need a Savior. Cold-case killers confirm the Biblical description of humans.