When describing the difficulty in creating a more thoughtful version of Christianity in America, I sometimes describe the Church as a large ocean liner. If we, as Christian Case Makers, hope to have a significant impact on what appears to be a sometimes uninformed (or apathetic) Christian culture, we must turn this large ship one degree at a time. The Church is not a jet ski we can turn on a dime; it is a large, established institution requiring gentle nudging from the tugboats amongst us who want to change its direction. I love the Church. I’ve been a pastor and church leader myself, and I’ve come to respect the role of pastors and shepherds. It’s an incredibly difficult job, requiring special gifts. As Paul says in Ephesians Chapter 4 (verse 11), only some of us have been given by God to be pastors. Most of us are not gifted in this way, and the more I work with local churches, the more I respect those who are in a position of leadership, especially those pastors who recognize the importance of Christian Case Making. As I visit with these pastors around the country, I’ve heard them describe how difficult it is to raise up congregations who are capable and ready to defend what they believe, especially in a hedonistic culture such as ours. When they describe the Church at large, it sounds a lot more like a cruise ship than a rescue boat.
I’m using this analogy to help us think about the nature of the Church in America so we can be more focused in our efforts to make it better. I believe the Church is our best and last hope. It has been the often unrecognized foundation of our culture, the unsung (and maligned) hero responsible for much of what we take for granted as a nation and a people. As skepticism, hedonism and nihilism grow in our country, Christianity has the opportunity to meet the challenge or shrink from the fight. I believe we must renew the life and role of the mind in Christendom if we expect to have a continuing impact on our culture. And that’s where I think my analogy may illustrate the nature of the challenge we face. Let me describe two kinds of ocean vessels and you tell me which one sounds more like the Church today:
The Nature of Cruise Ships
Luxury cruise liners are large. In fact, most people who take vacation cruises seek the largest ship possible. Bigger is usually considered better. Cruise ships are tailored to human indulgence; they are designed to entertain. They offer the best food and nearly every kind of creature comfort possible. Cruise ships are largely self-contained and inwardly focused. You can get everything you want without ever leaving the boat. They navigate the waters alongside a variety of cultures and geographic locations, and their passengers can enjoy these locations as passive observers and visitors. They don’t have to get off the ship if they don’t want to, and even if they do, they get to return to the safety and comfort of the ship at the end of the day. There is no urgency on a cruise ship. In fact, most passengers of cruises want the trip to slow down. They want to relax and take their time. Passengers on cruise ships want to escape and disconnect from their regular lives so they can focus on themselves and enjoy the trip. On cruise ships, the paying customer is at the center of the experience. It’s all about the passengers; their happiness is all that matters. For a cruise ship to be successful, it must simply meet the desires and needs of its customers. At the end of a trip, the passengers will feel satisfied if they had a good time.
The Nature of Rescue Boats
Rescue boats are nimble and small. In fact, the smaller the vessel, the better able it will be to navigate hostile waters to accomplish its mission. Rescue boats are designed and equipped for a purpose; they are utilitarian and less concerned about comfort than function. They are designed to engage the world around them. They are outwardly focused; concerned more about the people they will rescue than the creature comforts of the rescuers. Rescue boats don’t have restaurants or movie theaters or massage parlors. They are designed specifically to serve those who aren’t on the boat. They don’t simply cruise alongside the world around them, they actively engage those in need. Rescue boats aren’t designed to carry passengers on long trips; they’re designed to deliver rescuers to a world in need. In fact, there are no passengers on rescue boats, only staff. Everyone has a job to do and a role to play. There is a sense of urgency, purpose and mission. Everyone knows where they fit and what they are trained to do. On rescue boats, fast is better than slow, mission is more important than comfort, and the needs of those off the boat are more critical than the desires of those who are on it. For a rescue boat to be successful, it must be able to engage the world tactically and effectively. At the end of the trip, the staff will likely be exhausted but satisfied they did something significant and worthy.
Now let me be clear about something here as I analogize the Church to one of these two vessels. I am not against large churches. As a skeptic, I first examined the gospels in the context of a huge church, and after becoming a Christian I eventually served on the staff there. I continue to engage and partner with large churches all the time and I am often impressed by their activity, mission and passion. Not all large ships are cruise ships and not all rescue boats are small. I’ve been involved with many large churches specifically designed as a rescue boats. It’s all about the attitude and mission of the church, and much of this comes down to the leadership and vision of the pastor. I’m talking more about the Church with a capital “C”: the Church in America at large, including local churches of all sizes. Have we become self-focused and oblivious to the world around us? Are we more concerned about our comfort than our character? Have we become a monolithic sub-culture more concerned about our selfish desires than the needs of others? Are we equipped to rescue the lost with the Gospel of Christ? Are we nimble and responsive? This may not be the situation where you are locally, and if it isn’t, you’re in a good place. But I think these are important questions to ask as a family, and I bet as you read the description of these two vessels, you recognized the similarities between the cruise ship and the Church in America.
We can change that if we want to. It’s going to require us to recognize the urgency of our situation and to see the value in training rather than teaching. We must embrace a reasonable faith and be ready to give the reason for the hope we have in Jesus. There isn’t much room left for an accidental, unexamined, passive Christian faith. If Christianity is true, it’s time to treat it with the respect it deserves as we engage our devolving culture with the urgency it requires. Is the Church a cruise ship or a rescue boat? We have to answer this question honestly so we can change the course of this ship one degree at a time.
As Christians, we have a lot of questions that we don’t always know how to investigate on our own, and we’re grateful when somebody will come in and give us the quick answer. But if you’ve raised kids, you know that when your kids have a question and ask you to sort something out for them, they come away with one kind of knowledge. When you allow your kids to work through, and find, and research the answer for themselves, they come away with a completely different kind of understanding. I can remember when I first came to Christianity out of atheism, I really needed to examine the issues for myself. And let’s face it, there are lots of times when it’s not so much an understanding of the truth; it’s not so much that the truth is out there and I just can’t grasp it; it’s that I hold some type of prerequisite, presupposition, that prevents me from seeing the truth clearly.
That’s why for me, as a new Christian, apologetics websites were just as important as the skeptic sites I had been visiting. I wanted to get some balance and some clear thinking on the issues we know are inherent to the Christian worldview. I found myself applying the same skepticism I had as a detective, and an atheist, to my own examination of Scripture. Here is my approach to answering some of my own questions about Christian doctrine, and Christian evidence. These are principles and tools that may help you sort out the truth for yourself. To help you remember, each of them start with the letter “D”. First, some qualities I think are important as a student of the Bible:
First, be Devoted.
This is a matter of passion and interest. The truth is that most of us are just not interested in getting the answers until we hit a crisis point. If we were to measure where we spend our free time, our finances, and our gifts, we would find that we spend a lot of time examining other things. People who are passionate and have a strong desire to learn can do amazing things because they are devoted to begin with. And that’s what I would encourage all of us to cultivate. The questions I ask myself are, Am I truly passionate? Am I truly interested? Am I teachable? Am I eager? And does my allocation of time, resources, and energy, reveal that I am truly a God-worshiper? Am I devoted enough to not wait till a crisis and ask somebody else for the answer? Am I devoted enough to spend my time living a faith that always seeks the answer?
Second, be Deliberate.
I ask myself, do I have a purpose, an intention about the way that I study Scripture? Do I have a goal in mind? Am I purposeful about my approach to my faith? Am I intentional about being a good ambassador? I want to be a good Christian case-maker, and so every time I open Scripture, I mine it and look deeply into it because I want to be able to have a certain grasp of the doctrine, creeds, and essentials that Scripture teaches so that I can defend it to others.
Third, be Disciplined.
I ask myself, am I as disciplined about things related to my faith as I am about other hobbies or daily fitness? I’m disciplined about running and going to the gym a certain number of times a week. Am I that disciplined about the pursuit of my own faith? One thing I discovered is that discipline like this is the difference between those of us who excel at anything, and those of us who don’t.
Fourth, be Dedicated.
I ask myself, am I consistent? Have I been able to develop a pattern that I can really achieve on a consistent basis and can execute daily? Is the examination of my faith part of my long-term spiritual goals? As someone who podcasts, I have recognized that if I am simply a dedicated to doing it every week, after a while I’ll build an audience. It’s not that I have to be perfect in every podcast or be precise in every selection. I want to be, but there are times when I can fail. Yet, I don’t stop. If we were to do the same thing with our spiritual growth and commitment to reading Scripture, it won’t belong before we have a certain mastery of the issues.
Fifth, be Dubious.
I ask myself, do I understand the value of skepticism? Do I accept a doctrine blindly without ever examining it? Do I accept a position because it’s emerged from the Christian culture, rather than because it’s evidenced in Scripture? Detectives always have to be skeptical. Unfortunately, it’s like the basic premise held by the character Greg House, on the show “House;” Everyone lies. It’s that kind of skeptical approach to the issues that helps us want to dig deeper to the truth.
Last, be Detailed.
I ask myself, am I thorough in the number of tools and the kinds of tools that I use? Do I use trustworthy sources for my research? Am I seeking a broad source of opinions from people and sources that I know I can trust are orthodox? Do I sometimes read the other side of the story, as well, to see where other views come from, and then develop the discernment to know if those sources are telling me the truth?
Be deliberate, devoted, disciplined, dedicated, dubious, and finally be detailed. This is the kind of principled approach I would take in studying the Bible and Christianity. In addition, there are some tools that I think may help you:
Get the Right Bible
The first thing I did was purchase an inexpensive Bible with very wide margins. I also purchased a number of multicolored pens. As I studied through the Scripture, I made copious notes, circled and dissected things. I wrote in the margins until it got to the point that my own Bible was very difficult to read because it was filled with so many comments and links to other passages of Scripture. I constantly wrote in my Bibles. I went through several of them.
Get the Right Study Aids
I also needed to get a good commentary. I started with the Wycliffe Bible Commentary from Moody Bible Institute. It’s a 1962 commentary. I still have it on my shelf, and I still use it. It’s a very large Bible commentary for the New and Old Testament. I also have a Holman Bible Dictionary, which I used quite a bit. It’s helpful in looking up certain terms. Eventually one of the most important books in my collection as I was reading through Scripture was a book called Christian Theology, by Millard Erickson. It’s a systematic theology book. Another good systematic theology is by Wayne Grudem. If there was an encyclopedic reference or any research I could put to this text, I would do it, to see what others have seen there that I may not be seeing, or that will stimulate some thought for me. The last book I added to my shelf that I use in my study is a book that you may be familiar with if you listen to Greg Koukl. It’s J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig’s, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview published in 2003. I can tell you, as soon as it came out, I grabbed it, and I have used it in an incredible way. It’s been very helpful for me. Finally, I bought the PC Study Bible. There are also other brands of Bible study software , but this one has a number of Bibles, concordances, cross-references, commentary sets, dictionaries, encyclopedias, word reference books, Greek and Hebrew sources, in addition to all kinds of systematic theologies. I couldn’t even read to you the entire list. Logos is another great Bible software resource. And for phone apps, there are resources from Olive Tree. For those of you who don’t have those kinds of there are a few helpful Internet sites that may be good references for you. Two other websites are BibleGateway.com and BibleStudyTools.com. These have a searchable Bible with many translations. There are a number of commentaries, Greek and Hebrew, and other tools. There are also Christian history sites like CCEL.org.
As you begin to study on your own, here are a few tips:
First, start collecting resources
Everything that I started with, I purchased for pennies at my local library used bookstore or online bookstores like Amazon who link to small book retailers. It’s amazing how many resources are available. Start collecting and start creating your own library.
Second, think about the value of focusing on time, not distance
When I run each day, I don’t worry about how far I run, I worry about how much time I spend running. I make a goal to run for an hour. If that ends up being a certain distance or a greater distance, it doesn’t really concern me. What is important to me is to get the cardiovascular effort of running for that hour. Don’t worry about how slow you’re moving through Scripture. Be more concerned about the amount of time and effort you’re spending in Scripture, and be dedicated and disciplined.
Third, be patient with your own growth
One thing you learn working in apologetics, like I have for the last six years, is that there’s more and more that I don’t know. I often get impatient with my inability to get to the truth of everything. For me, it’s about disciplining myself to be patient. Slow and consistent gets it done.
When I challenged myself to write and defend my positions in writing, I grew in ways that I couldn’t imagine I would. Journal. Start a blog. Write these things out. It’s that process of writing that seals the deal.
So there are some tips tools, and basic principles I hope will help you to become a better Christian case-maker.
As a detective, I am impressed with cases when they are evidentially diverse. Two witnesses to the same event are better than one. In a similar way, three witnesses are better than two, especially if they agree on their observations in spite of their individual peculiarities or differences. When I have multiple witnesses from diverse ethnic, social, economic or demographic backgrounds and these witnesses generally agree on what they say occurred, I reasonably adopt a higher level of confidence in their testimony.
That’s why the diverse accounts related to the Resurrection of Jesus are particularly important in assessing the validity of these claims. Take a look at a brief list of the Resurrection sightings:
1. Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden shortly after His Resurrection. (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18)
2. Jesus appeared to the women returning from the empty tomb. (Matthew 28:8-10)
3. Jesus appeared to two disciples (Cleopas and another) on the road to Emmaus. (Mark 16:12,13; Luke 24:13-35)
4. Jesus appeared to Peter. (Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5)
5. Jesus appeared to his disciples, in Jerusalem, while Thomas was absent. (Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23)
6. Jesus again appeared to his disciples, in Jerusalem. This time Thomas was present. (John 20:24-29)
7. Jesus appeared to his disciples (Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee's sons and two other of his disciples), on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. (John 21:1,2)
8. Jesus was seen by 500 believers at one time. (1 Corinthians 15:6)
9. Jesus appeared to James. (1 Corinthians 15:7)
10. Jesus appeared to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee. (Matthew 28:16-20)
11. Jesus appeared to the believers in Jerusalem for forty days after the Resurrection. (Acts 1:1-11)
12. Jesus appeared to His disciples, blessed them, and ascended into heaven. (Luke 24:50-53)
13. Jesus also appeared to Paul, on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:3-6; 1 Corinthians 15:8)
If you examine these accounts closely, you’ll be impressed by the diversity of the claims:
Jesus Appeared to Groups of Diverse Size
Jesus appeared after the Resurrection to single eyewitnesses, to small groups and to huge crowds.
Jesus Appeared at Diverse Locations and Times
Jesus appeared in enclosed rooms and open areas; in the region of Jerusalem, Galilee and well beyond. He appeared at night and at various times of the day.
Jesus Appeared to People of Diverse Status
Jesus appeared to people he knew well and to people he didn’t know well at all. He appeared to those in His inner circle, to those less connected and to complete strangers (Paul). Some were devout followers, some were more skeptical (James) and some were in complete denial (Paul). These witnesses were from nearly every social / economic group.
Jesus Appeared for Diverse Purposes
Jesus appeared for a variety of purposes. To many He simply wanted to demonstrate His Deity and Resurrection power. With others He ate a meal or had an important conversation. He appeared to Peter to comfort and challenge him and to Paul to call him away from his murderous mission.
Jesus Appeared for Periods of Time
Jesus appeared and stayed with the eyewitnesses for different lengths of time. Some of his appearances were little more than a few minutes, others for hours. He stayed with the believers in Jerusalem for forty days.
Jesus’ Appearances Were Recorded By Diverse Authors
Jesus’ Resurrection appearances were recorded by people from a variety of backgrounds. Two were direct eyewitnesses, two were close associates of the eyewitnesses. Some were better educated than others. One was a doctor, one a tax collector, one a fisherman.
The diversity of the Resurrection appearances ought to give us confidence in their reliability. The Resurrection is not a work of fiction written by a single author or observed by a single witness in a single location at a single time of day or night. Instead, the appearances were recorded by a variety of authors and occurred in front of a diverse set of eyewitnesses in assorted locations and times. The expansive and differing aspects of these sightings ought to give us increased confidence in the authenticity and reliability of the accounts. This list of appearances and evidential properties is available as a free downloadable Bible Insert. You can download it, along with all our free Bible Inserts, from the link in the right toolbar on the homepage at ColdCaseChrstiainity.com.
I’ve been involved in numerous criminal trials over the years, most involving cold-case murderers. In many of these cases, the outcome was influenced (in large part) by activity outside the presence of the jury. There are legal rules both sides must follow when conducting the prosecution and defense. Sometimes these rules allow one side to take advantage of the other in subtle, yet powerful ways. If a rule allows one attorney to benefit strategically (while staying within the applicable legal restrictions) most lawyers will capitalize on this opportunity to gain an advantage (so long as they are within their legal right to do so). Here, as in every part of our society, there is an important distinction between legality and morality; between what is legally permissible and what is morally virtuous. This distinction highlights God’s role in the existence of objective moral truth, as it exposes the inability of culture to provide an objective, transcendent moral law.
I think there are good reasons to believe objective moral truth exists; it is a self-evident reality of our world if we stop to think about it. It’s never morally acceptable, for example, to torture babies for the fun of it. But how do we account for such moral truths? Are they embedded in our DNA or a product of evolution? Are they the result of societal development or cultural progress? Both of these explanations seem deficient. If moral truth is created by our culture, what is legally permissible in a society should be synonymous with what is morally permissible. If moral truths are the result of proclamations made by the government in a representative republic, our law reflects (at least in theory) the majority opinion and moral progress of our culture. In other words, our laws define moral truth by legal consensus. But most of us would agree laws such as these are (and have been) inadequate in determining moral truth.
Adultery, for example, is legally permissible in our country yet morally reprehensible. In addition, most of us have learned how to manipulate certain laws or societal rules to our advantage; we are more than willing to find a loophole in the tax law, for example, if it will help us avoid paying our share of taxes. Our legal system may adequately describe what our laws are, but they are inadequate in prescribing what our moral truths ought to be. There’s distinction between legal truths (held by individual governments or societies) and moral truths (transcending all humanity). That’s why we identify certain behaviors in criminal trials as legally permissible, even if they are ethically questionable. That’s why we recognize the difference between the legal status of adultery and the moral status of adultery.
Most cultures describe themselves as morally virtuous even when engaged in morally reprehensible behavior. Hitler, for example, would most certainly have described himself (and the society he led) as morally upright. If history is any guide, humans cannot be trusted to define objective moral truth; we typically favor our own desires over others. Organizations like the United Nations exist (in part) to monitor the behavior of nations who believe their decisions about legal truths are sufficient to form realities about moral truth. When a nation readily embraces a morally unacceptable policy or behavior, the United Nations does what it can to correct the situation. But to what moral authority are they appealing? Is it simply to the majority? Does majority consensus make something morally acceptable? We should hope not, because there are times when the world’s largest nations are the target of our concerns about inappropriate behavior. If “might makes right,” we have good reason to be concerned.
The laws of our individual countries may reflect moral truth, but they don’t define moral truth. Humans are decent describers, but are historically inept prescribers. Our local, regional or national laws are designed to enforce transcendent moral truths recognized across the spectrum of human experience. Our societal laws may describe what is legally true, but they don’t prescribe what is transcendently virtuous. If this were the case, adultery would be a virtue rather than a vice.
In the numerous trials I’ve been involved with over the years, I’ve heard attorneys complain about the tactics used by the other side, even when the opposition was well within their legal right to do what they did. These trials expose the difference between legality and morality. Cultures and governments can dictate and describe what is legal related to each society, but transcendent moral truths must be grounded in what Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once described the “law above the law”. Transcendent moral truths require a transcendent moral truth Giver. God alone transcends every culture and people group. As a result, God is the most reasonable explanation for the transcendent source of objective moral truth.