I’ve been on the road for several weeks, training Christians in churches (and at conferences) prior to the Easter holiday. Much of this training has been focused on the Gospel accounts of the Passion Week. Why should we trust these accounts, and how might we evaluate their reliability? As I first examined the Gospels, I found two pieces of hidden science lending credibility to the eyewitness accounts. The Gospel authors included two incredulous observations, even though they didn’t completely understand what they had seen (or what had been seen by others) at the time of the initial writings. Only years later, as our understanding of biology increased, did these observations make any sense. When a witness adamantly testifies to an incomprehensible observation, only to have that observation explained by someone else many years later, the credibility of the original eyewitness is strengthened.
Let me give you an example. I once had a case in which an eyewitness, Debbie, claimed her mother’s jewelry had been stolen by a burglar. She told the police she came home early from school and caught the burglar in her home. The thief ran out the back door, with Debbie chasing close behind. Debbie said he vanished, however, the minute he entered her back yard, and although Debbie checked the fences around her parent’s property, the thief seemed to disappear into thin air. The responding police officer doubted her story, given the fact Debbie had been in trouble with the law before. The officer assumed she stole the jewelry and was lying about the “vanishing burglar”. Weeks later, another burglary occurred in the neighborhood, however, and this time the burglar was apprehended by the police. He confessed to taking the jewelry in the first theft and told investigators he immediately jumped under the house (through an open vent in the foundation) when he was chased by the young woman who saw him. He hid under the house for several hours until the police had come and gone. He then carefully snuck out of the yard. The confession of the burglar now explained Debbie’s observations; she became credible once her seemingly incredulous testimony was explained.
Two of the Gospel eyewitnesses (Luke and John) provide details of the Passion Week incredulous to the first readers of their accounts. Centuries later, when our understanding of human biology improved, these observations finally made sense. Luke, for example, describes the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane in which Jesus prayed prior to being taken captive:
And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.
In the last line of this passage, we have a rather incredulous description of Jesus sweating drops of blood. It appears this was confusing for the first readers of Scripture as well; the Church Fathers weren’t quite sure what to make of it in their own writings. Many treated the line as poetic license on the part of Luke. Justin Martyr, when describing the verse in his own teaching, typically omitted this line altogether. The readers of the ancient world struggled to make sense of Luke’s description because they had never seen anything like this in their own personal experience. Today we understand the rare hidden science behind Luke’s observation. As Dr. Joseph Bergeron describes, “Psychogenic (fear induced) Hematidrosis has been observed in a handful of reported cases from fear of impending physical harm. Most of these reported cases were in individuals just prior to execution.” Luke’s report of Jesus sweating blood was not poetry; it was simply an example of hidden science lending credibility to the original observation. It’s unlikely the Luke would invent an unexplainable detail if he wanted the story to seem reasonable to the first hearers.
Luke isn’t the only one to describe something confusing in the Passion Week. John also includes an incredulous detail in his description of Jesus on the cross:
The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.
John, a simple fisherman, described the activity of the soldier and said water poured from Jesus’ side when pierced by the soldier. While an ancient fictional account of such an event might include the appearance of blood pouring from Jesus’ side, John included water without any attempt to clarify or explain his comment. His observation was confusing to his first readers. In fact, the early Church Fathers again struggled to make sense of this claim. Tertullian, Augustine, Cyril and Jerome suggested John was referring allegorically to the baptism of Jesus, water regeneration, or the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Today we understand the hidden medical science explaining the existence of water in Jesus’ body cavity. Anyone beaten as badly as Jesus in the hours prior to his crucifixion would surely have suffered circulatory shock and heart failure. When this happens, pericardial or pleural effusion typically results. Water begins to form around the heart or in the lungs. If this happened to Jesus, water would pour from his body if the soldier’s spear entered into either of these two regions. John’s report of water was not allegory; it was simply another example of hidden science lending credibility to the original observation. It’s unlikely John would invent an unexplainable detail if he wanted the story to seem reasonable to the first hearers.
The findings of science now explain the observations of the Gospel eyewitnesses; like Debbie, they’ve become even more credible now that their seemingly incredulous testimony has been explained by later in history.
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Those of us who are interested in Christian Case Making (aka “apologetics”) are aware of the challenges facing young Christians in their teens and twenties. It’s a simple fact; most young Christians will walk away from the Church in their college years. Like other Case Makers, I’m animated to work as hard as I can with this age group; young people need Christian Case Making more than any other demographic within the Church. Yesterday, after speaking at the Easter services at First Presbyterian Church in Bonita Springs, I was approached by a mother who was concerned for her high school aged children. We began discussing several ways parents can prepare their kids before sending them off to college. Here are four simple guiding strategies:
Become the Source for Answers
Parents often come to me after speaking engagements or during a book signing, hoping to get a book they can give to their growingly skeptical college-aged children. While I’m happy they are interested in Case Making literature, I typically tell them the odds are good their kids will accept the book but leave it sitting, unopened, on the shelf. Rather than giving our kids books we hope they’ll read, we need to become the source of information when our kids have difficult questions. We need to read these books first, so we can be ready to give the answers our kids are seeking. They’re far more likely to engage us than they are to read a book written by a stranger. Read, research, and commit what you’ve learned to memory. Become your kid’s best source for answers.
Talk About the Issues
All of us talk about our areas of passion and interest; we can’t help it. If I want to know what you’re interested in, let me eavesdrop on the conversations you have at dinner, while driving in the car, or while walking the dog. If you’ve passionately adopted a reasoned, rational approach to your faith, odds are good you’ll start sharing this interest with your kids during these moments of conversation. You can’t force this; it just happens. But sometimes we need to be intentional and carve out the opportunities, especially as our kids enter their teen years. Be passionate, take advantage of opportunities, and speak up. Talk with your kids about the stuff that matters most.
Find Relevant Mentors
As parents, we need all the help we can get. I’m not suggesting you should relinquish your responsibility to prepare your kids, but I do recognize the value of relevant mentors in the lives of my children. Back when I was a youth pastor (and my kids were part of my ministry), I paired my sons with a young man I came to trust as a leader. He was nearly twenty years younger than I was, and he was much more culturally relevant. My sons loved him and respected his musical ability and his athleticism. He shared my Christian worldview and my passion for case making, but was a much cooler version of me. He often echoed my thoughts and beliefs, but my sons embraced these ideas more readily when they came from him, rather than me. Identify relevant mentors, introduce your kids to thoughtful role models, and do whatever it takes to keep them connected. Partner your kids with younger, cooler versions of you.
Provide a Transformational Experience
Most of us can remember a pivotal moment in our young lives as Christians; some point in time when someone said something incredibly significant or we experienced something transformational. These moments often happen by accident, but they don’t have to. As parents, we can facilitate these kinds of moments and experiences for our kids. Sometimes it’s a missions trip. I’ve been taking “case making” missions trips for many years, and the kids who attend these excursions always describe them as transformational. This year I’m also sending my high school daughter to Summit Worldview Conference in Colorado. I taught there last year and will be part of the faculty there again this summer. I’ve seen what happens in this intensive two week worldview training experience, and I know it can be life changing. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Look for opportunities, prioritize your calendar, and encourage your kids to engage in a short-term, high intensity adventure. Help your kids have a pivotal moment.
Parenting is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, so I empathize with parents who express their struggles. I share many of these struggles; my kids have been both PK’s (Pastor’s Kids) and CCMK’s (Christian Case Maker’s Kids). People expect a lot from them. But like all young people, they have their own questions and doubts, I am sure. I’ve done my best to share what I’ve discovered and to prepare them with the truth. Along the way, I tried to provide them with answers to encourage them, opportunities to talk with them, mentors to guide them and experiences to remind them.
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Every group has its own distinct language, and Christianity is no different. Back when I was an unbeliever, a Christian friend approached me and said, “Jim, I've been convicted lately, and God has put you on my heart. God told me you need to be born again; you need to come to repentance and experience a conversion. It’s time for you to deal with the sin in your life and have a true spiritual rebirth. Why don’t you invite Jesus into your heart and make Him the Lord of your life? If you have faith you can be saved. You can be washed by the Blood of the Lamb, and sanctified so you can enjoy fellowship with your Christian brethren.” OK, he didn’t actually put it quite like that. But he might as well have. I couldn’t understand a thing he said. His “Christianese” was fluent and mine was not. Years later, I found myself using much of the same language with my unbelieving friends, only to find them equally confused and alienated. So, here’s a list of common Christian expressions I’ve decided to translate for all my friends who are still speaking the language of the secular culture:
#1. “God has put you (or something) on my heart. / God told me.”
Really? As an atheist, I was offended by this kind of language. What makes you Christians so sure you know what God is thinking? Are you actually hearing a voice from Heaven? Does it sound like Morgan Freeman? Sounds a bit presumptuous to me.
Try this instead: “Jim, I've been thinking about you a lot lately. You come to mind when I am praying and talking to God.”
#2. “Be ‘born again.’ / Have a spiritual rebirth.”
Is “Born Again” a political party or something you want me to join? Aren’t all Christians “born again?” If so, why are you using the additional adjective? Are “Born Agains” the true, hardcore Christians? Are they political activists like the modern day “Birthers”? Sorry, I’m too busy to become a fanatic or join a movement.
Try this instead: “Reconsider your beliefs and begin a new life as a Christian.”
#3. “You need to come to repentance. / Experience a conversion.”
My mother used to take me to Catholic Mass occasionally when I was a small boy. I hated it. I never understood what those priests were saying, but I’m sure it had something to do with “penance,” “penitence,” or “repentance.” Didn’t King James die a long time ago? Why are we still trying to talk like him?
Try this instead: “You and I might be ‘good’ at times but we’re not ‘perfect.’ If God is all-powerful, He has the ability to be perfect. The only way imperfect creatures like you and I can be united to a perfect God is to accept the pardon He’s offering for our imperfection.”
#4. “Deal with your sin.”
You go ahead and deal with your sin if you want to. I’m too busy dealing with everyone else’s sin. I’m a police officer, for crying out loud; we’re the “good guys.” We put the “bad guys” in jail, and most of the folks I arrest tell me they’re Christians. Please Mr. “Holier Than Thou,” don’t start talking to me about my “sin.” It’s offensive.
Try this instead: “The Bible says Jesus is God and the only perfect man who ever lived. Yet He died like a common criminal to pay the price for our daily ‘crimes’ of imperfection. If we are willing to accept what Jesus did for us on the cross, He’s willing to apply His perfection to us.”
#5. “Invite Jesus into your heart.”
You mean like a boyfriend? What exactly does that mean to have “Jesus in my heart?” I’m not an emotional kind of guy, so please don’t ask me to sing songs or hold hands with Jesus, especially in public. Do I have to emasculate myself to become a Christian? If so, thanks for reminding me why I’m not a Christian.
Try this instead: “When we admit our imperfections, believe Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for our mistakes, and accept His sacrifice, we can start a new relationship with God.”
#6. “Make Jesus the Lord of your life.”
Isn’t this the twenty-first century? Are there still serfs and lords? Was J.R. Tolkien the author of your Scripture? It kind of sounds that way. What is a “Lord” anyway? Is it like a “slave master”? Between bosses and supervisors, most of us have enough people trying to be our “Lord.” Thanks anyway.
Try this instead: “As you begin to appreciate the magnitude of God’s forgiveness and sacrifice, you’ll find yourself wanting to be more like Him.”
#7. “Have faith.”
If by “faith” you mean believing in something in spite of the evidence, no thanks. Blind faith is dangerous. I’m a cop; evidence matters to me. You can keep your “faith;” I’d rather have my “reason.” The world would be a better place if fewer people flew planes into buildings because they believed something blindly.
Try this instead: “Jesus gave us more than enough evidence to believe what He said about Himself. He never asked people to take an irrational, blind leap. He asked instead for a reasonable step of trust.”
#8. “Be saved.”
Saved from what and saved by who? Last time I checked, I’m the guy who usually does the saving. And doesn’t your holy book say “God helps those who help themselves?” I’ve been helping myself for thirty-five years now without a problem. No need to change that. I’m okay, but thanks for the offer.
Try this instead: “God doesn’t want anyone to be separated from Him. He’s given us a way home. All we have to do is accept His offer of forgiveness through Jesus.”
#9. “Be washed by the blood of the Lamb.”
Tell me you didn’t just say that. I know what a “blood bath” is, and it’s not usually a good thing. I’m not sure what a lamb has to do with it, but lamb’s not my favorite food anyway. Are you trying to get me excited about Christianity or chase me away?
Try this instead: “It turns out that the death of one man (Jesus) provides forgiveness for the rest of us.”
#10. “Be Sanctified.”
Is that kind of like “sanctimonious?” I sure know a lot of Christians who are smug and self-righteous. Is that what happens over time if I become a Christian? It certainly seems that way. “Sanctified” sounds a bit arrogant. I bet sanctified people think their pretty “special.” You can keep your pretentious “sanctification.”
Try this instead: “Grateful people are selfless people. Christians who understand how much they’ve been forgiven are changed over time.”
Bonus Expression #11. “Enjoy fellowship.”
What, another Lord of the Rings reference? Really? Do you people ever use language from this century? Christianity sounds a lot like an exclusive country club. If I join, it sounds like I’ll get to become a “fellow” of some sort. Do I have to give up having a beer with the fellas in order to hang out with the Christian fellows? Hmm, that kind of makes the decision easy for me.
Try this instead: “It’s encouraging to find grateful Christians who are struggling to become people of God. We’re out there and eager to have you join our community, regardless of what you may believe today.”
I understand the importance of our theologically rich Christian language, and as a Christian I often use similar words when talking with Christians. But when I’m talking with unbelievers, I try to think about how I used to hear and interpret these words before I became a Christian. How do I share what I believe? I take the time to translate important Christian concepts for those who might be willing to entertain the ideas if only I was willing to speak their language.
This post is excerpted from my article, “What Cops Can Teach Christians about the Critical Use of Language” first published in the Christian Research Journal. The Christian Research Journal equips Christians with the information they need to discern doctrinal errors, evangelize people of other faiths, and provide a strong defense of Christian beliefs and ethics.
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A visitor to ColdCaseChristianity.com wrote recently to express her concerns and growing doubts about Christianity. Raised in the Church, she finds herself questioning the reliability of the Gospel authors because some of them failed to mention important events in the life and ministry of Jesus. Why does only one Gospel writer mention the Raising of Lazarus? Why does only one writer mention the dead people who rose from the grave at Jesus’ crucifixion? There are many examples of singular, seemingly important events mentioned by only one of the four Gospel authors. Shouldn’t all of the alleged eyewitnesses have included these events, and doesn’t the absence of information in a particular Gospel cast doubt on whether or not the event actually occurred? My experience working with eyewitnesses may help you think clearly about these issues and objections. You can trust the Gospel eyewitness accounts, even though some are missing important details:
Eyewitness Accounts Vary Based on Their Scope
When I interview an eyewitness, I am very careful to set the parameter for the testimony before I begin. I usually frame the interview by saying something like, “Please tell me everything you saw from the moment the robber came in the bank, to the moment he left.” I make sure to set the constraints the same way for each and every witness. Without these parameters, the resulting testimony would vary wildly from person to person. Some would include details prior to or after the robbery, some would include only the highlights, and some would omit major elements in the event. If I want to be able to compare the testimony of two or three witnesses later, I’m going to have to make sure they begin with the same scope and framework in mind.
The Gospel authors clearly did not testify with the same initial instructions. There was no unifying investigator present to set the framework for their testimony, so their responses vary in the same way they would vary today if the scope of their testimony was not established from the onset. Mark, according to Papias, the 1st Century Bishop of Hierapolis, “became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had followed him, but later on, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.” More concerned about accuracy of individual events than the order in which they occurred, Mark offered details like many of my witnesses who are interviewed without a unified parameter. Mark is simply recording the preaching of Peter, and Peter only referred to portions of Jesus’ life and ministry, making no effort to order them for his listeners.
Eyewitness Accounts Vary Based on Their Perspective and Purpose
In addition, the witnesses I interview often want to highlight a particular element in the crime scene or a particular suspect behavior they think is important. Sometimes their choice of detail is influenced greatly by their own life history. Their values, experiences and personal concerns guide their selection of which details they include, and which they omit. Witnesses also typically try to offer what they think I am looking for as the detective rather than every little thing they actually saw. They are speaking to a specific audience (an investigator), and this has an impact on what they choose to include or omit. When this happens, I have to refocus each witness and ask them to fill in the details they skipped over, including everything they saw, even if they don’t think it’s important to me as a detective. If I don’t encourage eyewitnesses to be more inclusive and specific, they will omit important details.
The Gospel authors were not similarly directed. They had specific audiences in mind and particular perspectives to offer, and none of their testimony was guided by a unifying investigator who could encourage them to fill in the missing details. Luke clearly had a particular reader in mind (Theophilus): “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)”. Like other witnesses and historians, Luke likely allowed his intended audience to influence his selection of details. His testimony was also most certainly shaped by his own life experience (as an educated man),his own personal history, and his values. Matthew did something similar when he highlighted the details of Jesus’ life most relevant to Matthew’s Jewish audience.
Eyewitness Accounts Vary Based on Their Knowledge of Other Testimony
Sometimes an eyewitness will only provide those details he thinks are missing from the testimony of others. This is most likely to occur if the witness is the last one to be interviewed and he (or she) is already familiar with the testimony of the other witnesses. When I see this happening, I ask this last witness to pretend like he or she is the only witness in my case, “Try to include every detail like I’ve never heard anything about the case. Pretend like I know nothing about the event.” Once the witness has done that, I may go back and re-interview the prior witnesses to see why they didn’t mention the late details offered by the final witness. In the end, my reports related to everyone’s testimony will be as complete as possible, including all the details remembered by each person I interviewed.
The gospel authors were not similarly directed and re-interviewed. John was the last person to provide an account, and he clearly selected those events important to him, given his stated goal: “…many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20)”. John knew what had already been provided by others, and he selected specific events (some which were previously unreported) to make his case. He acknowledged his limited choice of data: “…there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written (John 21)”. John admitted what we already know: witnesses pick and choose from their own observations unless they are specifically directed to do otherwise.
Skeptics sometimes infer more from omissions (or inclusions) in the Gospels than what is reasonable, especially given the manner in which the Gospels came to be written. Because the four authors were not specifically instructed, guided or re-interviewed by a unifying detective, we simply cannot conclude much from the differences between the accounts. We must, instead, do our best to employ the four part template we use to evaluate eyewitness reliability after the fact. This template (as I’ve described it in Cold-Case Christianity), provides us with confidence in the trustworthy nature of the Biblical narratives. That’s why you can trust the Gospel eyewitness accounts, even though some are missing important details.
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