Our England mission trip

Our team of six FBC members returned this week from the United Kingdom after an incredible mission trip.  This was a combined effort between Tryon-Evergreen Baptist Association (our local partners) and the Northern Baptist Association in England.  The NBA’s director, Paul Revil, planned a series of evangelistic events that he called Northern Lights Weekend.  Three TEBA churches sent teams.  Our group of six was actually split; two of us went with another TEBA church group.  I am here to report on what my group of four experienced.

The Setting

Although this was my first time in the UK, in many ways this trip was like going home.  We Americans owe much of our faith heritage to the English; preachers like George Whitfield and John Wesley helped forge the Gospel-centered character of our nation.  Baptists first emerged out of the English Separatist movement in the 1500s.  And we still lean on the writings of great English authors like CS Lewis and NT Wright for much of our devotional strength.  But the religious landscape of England has changed drastically in the past 50 years.  One recent survey reported that only 11% of UK citizens attend church at least once a month.  It’s popular to call Great Britain a post-Christian culture; the evidence of Christianity’s past influence is still there, including the majestic cathedrals, but for the average UK citizen, God is not a subject of interest.

We were headed for Durham County in the Northern part of the nation.  We were told, “This is the part of England that tourists don’t visit.”  This area was long known for coal mines and iron factories.  Those businesses have been gone for decades now, and they have left behind beautiful green rolling hills, dotted with sheep, and cozy villages.  My team was assigned to work with two churches, both in the village of Consett.  Rowley Baptist is a church with a great history.  It was founded in the 1600s, when Baptist converts were often persecuted for rejecting the state church.  The Baptists of Rowley met in different farmhouses on the outskirts of town to avoid arrest.  Eventually, they built a little stone church building right next to one of those farmhouses.  It’s still there, and it’s beautiful, but its location–once necessary for protection–make it difficult to reach people in town.  The church just called its first pastor in over 40 years (yes, you read that right), Paul Harris.  Blackhill Baptist Church is in the center of Consett.  Though not as old as Rowley, Blackhill’s history puts churches like ours to shame.


The People

For such a geographically small country, England is remarkable for its many distinct accents.  People in Northeastern England are known to speak a dialect called “Geordie.”  We were told that Geordie is nearly impossible for Americans to understand (Carrie and I even watched Youtube videos of Geordie speakers to prepare ourselves), but we had no problem understanding our friends in Consett.  Some, especially those who grew up closer to Newcastle, had a strong Geordie accent.  But most had an accent I would describe as closer to a soft Scottish brogue.  Still, when we traveled to London later that week, the change in accents was extreme!

More importantly, the people we met were incredibly friendly, gracious and hospitable.  We stayed in guesthouse, and the first morning, we were served the legendary “Full English Breakfast.”  Everywhere we went, people kept us well-fed.  The weather there was beautiful–sunny with highs in the sixties–and they thanked us for bringing our wonderful Texas weather with us (it’s usually cold and rainy this time of year).  Eventually we stopped trying to convince them that weather like that is even rarer in Texas, especially this time of year.  We made so many friendships in a short time with these sweet people.  They were kind, generous, witty and entirely unpretentious.  I already miss them tremendously.

Our Week

We arrived a day later than expected because of a flight delay in Houston, so we had to quit the ground running.  We arrived in Durham on Thursday morning (September 20).  Durham is a key point in the history of Christianity: Men like St Cuthbert and The Venerable Bede are buried in the city’s cathedral, which is over 1000 years old.  We held a commissioning service in that cathedral, and had a brief moment to tour that historic building.  Then Adam, the church secretary at Rowley, drove us to our guest house (Church secretary is a very different position for British Baptists; it’s more of a church administrator.  Adam is a young man, in his late twenties, and has a lot on his shoulders, but certainly seems up to the task).  Friday morning, we began by leading an assembly in a local primary school.  English schools are open to religious presentations in their schools, as long as there is no attempt to convert anyone.  So I found myself with the immense privilege of speaking to around fifty young Brits between five and twelve years old.  I spoke about how Jesus changed the way we think of children.  Even the Lord’s disciples tried to chase away parents who brought their little ones to see Him.  But Jesus rebuked them, saying we must all come to God like little children, or not at all.  I briefly told a series of stories, including David and Goliath, young Samuel’s call in the tabernacle, the little boy who donated his lunch to Jesus to feed the 5000, and the daughter of the synagogue ruler who Jesus raised from the dead, to show that God values each child infinitely…including each one of them.

Friday afternoon, we headed to Blackhill for “messy church.”  This is a term among British Baptists for a church service that is entirely child-focused, with games, crafts, and food…a “messy” church service.  There were around fifty kids and their parents there, most of whom have no other connection to the church other than this monthly event.  Saturday morning, we attended a charity coffee/tea time at the Consett Methodist church, with helped us meet several more locals.  It was great to see how Christians from different churches and denominations support one another.   both churches were holding family fun day events, so our team split in two.  Carrie and Kim Hutchins went to the event at Blackhill, while Robert and I went with our friends at Rowley.  Their fun day was at an Anglican community center.  Pastor Paul has started holding many Sunday morning services at the center; his philosophy is “If the people won’t come to you, go where the people are.”  But this was the first of this kind of event in Rowley’s history.  They had rented a bounce house along with lots of indoor games and face-painters.  Robert and I manned the “barbecue” (in England, barbecuing is what we would call grilling).  As we handed out sausages and burgers, I had several kids tell me they remembered me from the school assembly.  One boy asked, “Are you really an American, or are you just putting that accent on?”

Sunday, we split our team once again. Carrie and Kim attended Rowley’s service in the community center, while Robert and I were honored to lead at Blackhill.  Robert sang “His Grace Always Amazes Me,” and I preached on the Prodigal Son and his older brother.  The Spirit was very evidently present in that service.  Also present were a young couple named Dave and Kat.  Dave is preaching this next Sunday in view of a call as Blackhill’s next pastor.  They are a very impressive couple, and I am excited for their future there.  That evening, both congregations met for a communion service at the old, historic Rowley church.  Again, Robert and I had the supreme privilege of leading, alongside deacons from both churches.  Afterward, we shared hot roast beef sandwiches and shared regretful goodbyes.

Bright and early the next morning, we boarded a train for London, where we spent our last couple days sightseeing.  London is a stark contrast to the lovely, slow-paced countryside of Durham county.  One of the largest cities in the world, everything moves at a rapid pace.  You see people from all over the world there (we observed that the accents in most businesses and restaurants was more likely to sound distinctly non-English).  The mass transit system there is an absolute marvel; you can hop on their underground railway (known as The Tube) and be anywhere in the city in a matter of minutes.  But even in this intimidating city, we met friendly people; at one point, Carrie, Connie and I were shocked to find out that the Tube station we thought would take us back to our hotel was closed due to flooding (our perfect weather didn’t hold out forever).  We didn’t know where else to go, but a young Londoner (who, as we later found out, was an immigrant from Poland), helped us find the nearest open Tube station and practically held our hands for us until we were back on the train.

Ways to Pray  

The most significant things that happened were interpersonal encounters.  It started before we even left the states: At Bush Intercontinental, we met a young man (the same age as my daughter) who was headed for a year of study in England.  When our flight was cancelled, we helped him figure out where to go.  The next morning, Carrie and I were pleasantly surprised to find that we were seated next to this same young man on our flight.  We had wonderful conversations with him all the way until our connection, then met up again when we landed in London, helping him find transportation to his school.  Carrie and Kim had some incredibly deep, spiritually meaningful conversations with people at the messy church and family fun day events.  Of course I can’t share any details, but please pray for the people who we encountered.  God knows their names.  Pray that God would continue to make himself known to each one, and bring them home to His family soon.

Pray for Rowley Baptist.  Pastor Paul has a wonderful heart, and Adam is a terrific lay leader.  The Rowley members are wonderful, faithful believers, and I hope you’ll join me in praying that God would show them how to reach their community for Him.  Pray also for Blackhill, especially that God would bring them together with Dave and Kat if that’s His will. Pray that their ministry there would be long and fruitful.  Blackhill’s congregation is a little larger and in a better location than Rowley’s, but they still face a lot of obstacles, including a culture that shows no interest in spiritual matters.  Pray that God would bring a new Gospel awakening to Northern England.

So now we’re back.  We’ve learned lots of new words and sayings (including some words that mean something very different in England than they do here!).  We’ve seen Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace, eaten sticky toffee pudding and fish and chips.  Best of all, though, we’ve made some wonderful friends, and we’ve seen the way God is moving in the lives of these friends across the pond.  I hope to see them again someday soon.

Tough Questions: Does Science Make the Bible Irrelevant?

In 2006, in his bestselling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserted that in today’s world, you cannot be an intelligent, educated person, especially a person who takes science seriously, and have religious faith.  The God Delusion was part of a string of books by “The New Atheists” like Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, during that same post-9-11 decade.  Those books were all best-sellers and stirred up lots of conversation.  Statistically speaking, atheism hasn’t actually grown all that much in the decade since (the most recent Pew Research study put their number at 3% of the US population).  But the voices that publicly ridicule faith have grown precipitously louder.  Just read the comments on any online story that has to do with church, faith, or spirituality and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s no wonder that many Americans, especially younger ones, draw the conclusion that the smartest people are all unbelievers, and that people who believe in the Bible and accept Christian doctrines are just not all that bright.  One of the reasons often cited by young people who leave the church (even if they don’t completely reject belief in God) is that Christianity seems to be anti-science. Don’t misunderstand: We shouldn’t obsess about what people think of us.  But we should be very concerned that increasingly, intelligent people feel like they have to choose between what they learn through science and what they are taught in Scripture.  Is that true?

Dr. Francis Collins is one of the most eminent geneticists in the world, and was in charge of the project that ultimately mapped the human genome.  He was raised in a highly educated, irreligious home.  As a young scientist, he was struck by the fact that he had never really researched the evidence for faith in God.  He considered himself an atheist and didn’t expect to find anything pointing to God’s existence, but he thought that a scientist shouldn’t simply make up his mind without at least doing a little homework. A conversation with a Methodist minister led him to read Mere Christianity by CS Lewis.  That book (which has changed so many minds) posed a question Collins couldn’t answer.  He knew evolutionary science and was convinced it explained the existence of all life, but where did morality come from?  Why do we as humans all instinctively know there is such a thing as right and wrong?  Why don’t we simply follow the law of the jungle, in which the strongest do whatever they want, as all other animals do?  This question led Collins to belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, and then to Christian faith.  His book The Language of God shows very elegantly how he sees God’s handiwork in his genetic research.  That’s a great book if you want to see how science and faith can coexist in the same brain.  I would also recommend the books of Tim Keller.  He was for many years the pastor of a church he planted in Manhattan, where he preached to highly educated, mostly skeptical people.  His best books for working through intellectual issues with faith are The Reason for God and Making Sense of God. Let’s touch on three specific questions regarding how to live as both people of science and people of faith.

Aren’t science and faith in conflict?  This is very commonly believed, even by many Christians.  And we can all point to times when people of science and people of faith have indeed been in very public conflict.  But it shouldn’t be that way.  Modern science came out of a Christian environment, because Christians, unlike Platonists, believed that matter was essentially good and should be studied.  Most of the pioneers of science, men like Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, Pascal, Priestley, Pasteur, and Newton were devout Christians who studied science because learning about God’s creation brought them closer to Him.  A few years ago, a Rice University study found that 36% of scientists believe in God.  18% attend church weekly, and 19% pray regularly.  Those numbers are much lower than in the general public, of course, but they certainly prove that it’s possible to be rigorously scientific while still holding faith in God.   So where did this idea come from?  Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, in his book The Secular Revolution, asserts that, toward the end of the 19th Century, many major universities were under the control of Christian denominations.  Some university officials, wanting to gain control, promoted the idea that religious faith was opposed to scientific research.  This was during a time when some Christian leaders—who identified themselves as fundamentalists—felt threatened by recent advances in science and spoke out against them.  Even though these fundamentalists didn’t represent all Christians, and certainly didn’t represent those in leadership of major universities, the theory stuck, and has persisted.  The media plays a role in this too.  The 24 hour news cycle must be fed, and nothing drives up ratings better than conflict.  So instead of a story about a scientist like Francis Collins who is a devout believer, it’s simply good business to run a story about a small town science teacher who is fired for teaching evolution, a preacher who predicts the end of the world on a certain date, or about a religious group who opposes stem-cell research.  But let’s be honest: we Christians bear some blame, too. I sometimes see my Christian friends commenting on science-related stories when they don’t know what they’re talking about.  We haven’t done research or read any studies; we just don’t like what some scientist is saying, so we criticize him.  Or we post stories that claim to validate the Bible, but aren’t true.  For instance, I have seen Christian friends post several times that NASA has discovered a mysterious “extra 24 hours” in the history of the earth.  They can’t explain it, according to the story, but it corroborates the story in Joshua about God making the sun stand still in the sky.  I believe the story in the Bible, but the internet tale about NASA scientists is absolutely not true.  When we post such things, we leave the rest of the world thinking, “Those people don’t care about science.”

So let’s just say it out loud: Thank God for science.  I for one am glad that when I get sick, I can go to my local doctor and get antibiotics to fight my infection, instead of visiting a witch doctor who will kill a chicken and shove stinkweed up my nose to repel the evil spirit of sickness.  I’m thankful that when a solar eclipse occurs, none of us assume the world is ending, and that when hurricanes bear down upon us, we know ahead of time and can prepare.  These and so many other wonderful things we take for granted in our modern world are the result of brilliant men and women doing scientific research.  But science also has its limits.   Science can’t tell us why the world exists.  Why is there something instead of nothing?  What was there before all of this came to be?  How did inanimate matter become living tissue?  What is the purpose of life?  Science and faith are not at war. They each answer key questions that the other cannot.

But hasn’t science disproved the Bible?  As Christians, the Bible is our ultimate authority in telling us who God is and how we can know Him. In other words, the Bible is key to us understanding who we are, why we’re here, and how we should live.  And to many unbelievers, that’s a conversation stopper.  They wonder how we can base our lives on the words in a book so ancient, primitive, and blatantly unscientific.  For instance, they say, “Everyone knows that life on this planet developed over hundreds of millions of years, but the Bible teaches that all life was formed in six days.  That alone is reason enough to set the Bible aside as anything more than a book of myths and fables.”

There are certainly plenty of Christians who believe that Genesis 1 must be taken literally, that God created the world in six 24 hour days, and that any scientific findings to the contrary must simply be ignored as being based on false presuppositions.  They point to the discoveries of Creation Science and Intelligent Design theory to bolster their convictions.  I am not going to debate the merits of these beliefs here.  I just want to show that these people are not “anti-science.”  They have examined evidence and come to a different conclusion from most secular people.

There are also Christians (Francis Collins is an example) who point out that some portions of the Bible are poetic in form.  For example, in Judges 4, we read the straightforward account of Israel, commanded by Deborah and Barak, defeating the army of Canaan, commanded by Sisera.  Then in Judges 5, we read the same story in poetic form, as a song written by Deborah about the event. Here’s a line from the poem in v. 20: From Heaven the stars fought; from their courses they fought against Sisera.  No one believes that celestial bodies literally fought against the Canaanite army.  This is Deborah’s picturesque way of saying, “We didn’t win this battle by our own strength.  We had the supernatural power of Heaven on our side.”  These Christians would submit that Genesis 1 is also a poem, not a narrative.  It’s more like Judges 5 than Judges 4.  So God didn’t write it to literally tell us how many days it took Him to create the world, or when it happened.  It’s meant to tell us that He made the world and it was very good, and that there is a natural rhythm to life, including work and rest.  They might say Genesis 1 is meant to be a work of theological truth, not a biology textbook.  Some of these Christians believe that God used the process of natural selection to get us where we are today; some call this idea Theistic Evolution.  Others believe in a variation of this idea.  They believe God intervened at times in the process of natural selection.  For instance, they would say that God created human beings separate from the way the rest of life evolved.    By the way, those different perspectives within the church aren’t new; they’ve existed for years.

My point is that if you believe the Bible, you don’t have to be afraid of science, or vice-versa.  Follow the truth wherever it leads.  All truth is ultimately God’s truth.

Can an enlightened person believe in miracles?  I sometimes hear, “I can’t believe you actually pay attention to a book of fairy tales, like a man being swallowed by a whale and surviving, or a baby being born of a virgin.”  This isn’t a modern phenomenon, by the way.  Our nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, put together a Bible stripped of all miracles or any reference to Jesus’ divinity.  That was a Bible for an enlightened person, in his view.  But this reasoning is circular.  It says, “If science can’t prove it, it doesn’t exist.  Since no scientist has ever proven a child was born of a virgin, the story of Jesus being born that way must be an old legend, believed in by much more primitive people.”  This kind of thinking assumes that science is the only way anything can be known. I like the way the philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it: It’s like a drunk looking for his keys who insists on only looking under a streetlight because the light is better there.  Since he can’t see anything out there in the darkness, he just keeps walking circles under that streetlight, saying to himself, “If those keys exist, sooner or later, I’ll find them here.”  We’ve already demonstrated there are things that cannot be known through science.

On the other hand, if there really is a God who created all things—as almost all people on Earth have historically believed—then would it really be difficult for Him to put a fetus in the womb of a virgin?  If miracles are rare, as the Bible asserts, is it really surprising that we have little scientific evidence to substantiate them?  To put it more plainly, if God only performed one virgin birth in all of human history, and it happened two thousand years ago, should we be surprised that no scientist has witnessed one?

2 Corinthians 4:4-6 says the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  For those of us who are Christians, we need to understand that we’re not smarter than or superior to unbelievers.  We didn’t find Jesus on our own.  God turned on a light in our hearts, so that what would seem to be ridiculous superstition to us when we lived under the dominion of the “god of this age” has become the truth that changed our lives forever.  That’s a miracle, just like God saying “Let there be light,” and it was.  Be patient with your unbelieving friends.  Respect their questions and doubts.  But also realize that you cannot argue them into salvation.  When you get to know them well, you will often find that it wasn’t their intellectual objections that caused them not to believe.  Many, like Francis Collins, were raised in homes where belief in God was simply never taught.  Others grew up in a toxic church environment (like my favorite Christian author, Philip Yancey), or a dysfunctional family that caused them to doubt the faith of their parents.  Others experienced a traumatic event that made them doubt the existence of a loving God.  For many, the only contact they have with Christian faith is what they see on the news, or the occasional angry conversation on Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.  Instead of trying to prove their atheism wrong, which only makes them defensive, just be intentional about loving them.  Look for opportunities to treat them the way Jesus has treated you.  They will be won by your faithful friendship, not your arguments and certainly not by arrogance and self-righteousness.  If you have a relative who is not a believer, pray that God would introduce them to someone who would show them what the Gospel really looks like in the life of a person who has been changed by God’s grace.

If you’re not a religious person, you might find this Scripture offensive.  Does the Bible really teach that unbelievers are blind?  Yes.  But rather than be offended, consider the following:  Have you ever subjected your own convictions and doubts to the same scrutiny that you hold up against the Christian faith?  Your own beliefs are, in fact, a form of faith.  How do you know your faith in your own beliefs is valid?  What if you did what Francis Collins did all those years ago?  Why not investigate the possibility that the Gospel is true?  You don’t need to decide what you believe about Genesis 1 or whether Jonah really was swallowed by a whale or whether you agree with me on any particular social or political issues.  Just figure out who Jesus was, really.  Jeremiah 29:13 says If you seek me you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.   What an amazing promise!  Why not put that promise to the test?  If you need some guidance on how to investigate these things, I would love to help, and to answer any questions you have.

I know it’s much more comfortable to think that what you’ve always believed is still true.  I know it’s easier not to believe in a God who you will ultimately be accountable to for everything you say, do or think.  But here’s the good news.  Here’s why 2 Corinthians 4 talks about belief being like a light turned on in our souls: The story of the Bible is NOT that God wrote down a list of rules, and whoever is really good at following those rules, and gives money to a church, goes to Heaven and everyone else goes to Hell. The story of the Bible is that when humanity was lost and without hope, God became a man who lived among us long enough to live the life we should have lived, and then died the death we all deserved to die, so that we could experience true living, including a never-ending, always challenging, exhilarating, joyful, purposeful relationship with Him.  It says the Universe was created by and will ultimately be ruled by someone who loves you and has a beautiful purpose for your life.  In other words, the message of the Bible is that God would rather die for you than live without you.  Not only that, this God has a plan for the full redemption of the entire Universe; not an escape to a mystical fantasy world, but a renewed World, where things are finally set right, and things function as we all wish they would.  If there is even a possibility that is true, isn’t it worth your time to find out?

Tough Questions: How do we know Jesus is who He said He was?

Last time, we looked at how it’s possible that, out of all the world’s many religions, there is only one that is true.  As we saw, Jesus certainly thought so.  To paraphrase CS Lewis, the claims of Jesus leave us with only three alternatives: Either He was a con man who duped innocent people into giving their lives to Him, or He was a lunatic who thought He was God incarnate, or He was Lord and God, just as He said.  How do we know which path to choose?

Why should we believe in Jesus?  After all, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, Joseph Smith, and many others have claimed to have a special link to the divine, have claimed to know exclusive truth.  Why should we believe that an obscure, uneducated, blue-collar Jewish guy who lived 2000 years ago and was executed as an enemy of the state is the only one who is right?  Easter is the answer.  One main thing that separates Jesus from all those others is the resurrection.  Think about it: Christianity is the only religion that is based on an historical claim.  For example, you don’t have to believe that Buddha ever really existed in order to practice Buddhism.  You can still follow the Noble Eightfold Path.  Muslims believe the events in the Koran actually happened, but even if they didn’t, you would still have the teachings of Mohammed, the Five Pillars of the faith.  If a Jew didn’t believe that the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea occurred, they could still follow the Law of Moses, still believe in Yahweh as the One True God.  Christianity alone says, “It’s not about following Christ’s teachings.  It’s about knowing Him.”  Jesus didn’t say, “My philosophy of life is the way to God.”  He said, I am the way, the truth and the life.  He didn’t invite people to a new religion, or say, “follow my teachings,” He said, “Follow me.”  If the resurrection never happened, if Jesus is dead and in the ground, then He can be rejected out of hand.

Tim Keller pastored for years in Manhattan, and often irreligious people would come to him who had been attending the church for a while.  These were highly educated, sophisticated people, so they would say, “I’d love to be a Christian, but I just can’t believe the biblical account of creation.  That doesn’t square with science.”  Or, “I like some parts of Christianity, but I can’t go along with its teachings on sexuality.  It’s just too primitive.”  Keller would refuse to argue or defend Christianity on those points.  Instead, He would say, “What really matters is, did Jesus rise from the dead?  If you look at the evidence and believe the resurrection never happened, then why worry what the Bible says about anything else?  It can all be rejected as foolishness.  But if you believe He rose from the dead, then you have to believe the answers to those other questions are there, and that you’ll find them eventually as you follow Him.”

The Bible confirms this, by the way. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:14 writes, if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  In v. 17, he doubles down: if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Why does everything hinge on the resurrection?  Because Jesus said He was more than a man.  He claimed to be the One sent from Heaven to save us, God in human flesh come to atone for our sins.  That’s very good news, but if it’s true, then He couldn’t have stayed dead.  If He stayed dead, then His predictions about rising are lies.  If He stayed dead, all His beautiful rhetoric was for nothing.  If, on the other hand, He did rise, then He is everything He said He was…He is indeed the way, the truth and the life.  That means the most important question in the history of the world is, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”  I believe the answer to that question is yes.  I have staked my life and eternity upon it.  I realize, of course, there are all sorts of fantastic stories from antiquity that virtually no one believes today: Hercules slaying the Hydra is one example.  What evidence do I have that the fantastic story of Jesus rising from the dead really happened?

The eyewitnesses.  The Twelve disciples, Mary Magdalene and several female followers, James the brother of Jesus, and at least five hundred other people claimed they saw Jesus risen from the dead. One argument against the historicity of the resurrection is that it is much more likely to be a legend than a factual event.  Sometimes stories about beloved heroes get told so many times, eventually people start believing them, even though there’s no evidence they actually happened.  This is why we have the legend that young George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree or that Babe Ruth pointed to left field before he hit a home run in the World Series.  So according to this theory, the legend of Jesus rising from the grave grew up among Christians and was inserted into the biblical accounts by church leaders. But there are problems with the legend theory of the resurrection.  First of all, most New Testament scholars will tell you that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written while there were still people alive who remembered Jesus.  And Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, in which he says he personally knows of 500 people who saw the risen Jesus, in AD 55, about 25 years after Easter Sunday.  How many people here can remember the OJ Simpson murder trial, which took place around 25 years ago?  Imagine if someone today wrote a book claiming that OJ was declared not guilty because, in the midst of the trial, Nicole Brown Simpson walked into the courtroom and revealed that she was not, in fact, dead.  Such a book would be laughed out of existence.  Too many people remember those events to allow it.  In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, there wasn’t time for a legend to develop, because if Paul and the other writers had been writing down folk tales, people would have called them on it.  To recall an earlier example, there were people who witnessed the World Series game in which Babe Ruth supposedly pointed to left field before hitting a home run.  All said it was not true.  The pitcher who faced Ruth on that occasion, in fact, said that if Ruth had done something so flamboyant, the next pitch would have hit him in the ear.  Early Christian writers were able to claim that Christ was risen without anyone of their time saying, “No He’s not!  His body is still in the cave in Jerusalem.”

For me, the most convincing eyewitness was not an apostle, it was Mary Magdalene.  All four Gospels agree she was the first person to see the risen Christ.  Now think about it.  In that culture, women were not seen as equal to men.  A woman’s testimony was inadmissible in a trial, unless it was corroborated by a man. So if the church had been making up a story about Jesus being risen, why would they make a woman the first eyewitness?  The answer is that they didn’t.

The change in the apostles.  In addition, you have to look at what happened to the apostles themselves after Easter.  They were uneducated, fearful men, by their own accounts in the Gospels.  Yet they became the kind of men who changed history.  Something obviously happened to them.  And then look at Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude.  According to the Gospels, they didn’t believe in Jesus when He was alive.  In fact, they made fun of Him.  Again, why would the early church make up details like that if they weren’t true?  But after He died, they became leaders of His movement.  James became the head of the Jerusalem church and was martyred for his faith.  They both wrote books of the NT and called themselves the servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.  I have a brother, and I love him, but I wouldn’t call myself his servant if he paid me to do so.   I certainly wouldn’t tell people my brother was divine, especially if doing so put my life in jeopardy.  Why would they believe in Him when He was dead, if they hadn’t believed while He was still alive?  Keep in mind, there was no incentive at that point to declare Jesus the Son of God; for James, it meant leaving a secure life for an insecure one.  It ended in martyrdom for him, yet he never denied that it was true.

These faithful Jews began worshipping together on Sunday, when their tradition had always been to worship on the Jewish Sabbath, a Saturday.  Why did they make this change, unless something extremely important had happened on a Sunday?   Then look at what happened to their little movement.  120 people become more than 3000 within a few months.  Then within a generation, they were known in the Middle East as “These men who have turned the world upside down.”  Within three centuries, it was the official religion of the Roman Empire.  How on earth did a religion that was completely opposite traditional Roman religion (one God instead of many, with sexual ethics that were a stark contrast to Roman sexuality), that started with slaves and other disenfranchised people and emphasized qualities like humility and compassion, qualities the Romans tended to hate, spread so fast and win over so many?  Something must have happened after the death of Jesus that changed everything for His followers and His brothers.  It had to have been something transformative, and a resurrection would certainly fit the bill.  I’m certainly not the only one who thinks so.  Luke Johnson, a New Testament scholar from Emory University, muses, “Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.”  N. T. Wright, an eminent British scholar, writes, “As a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”

The testimony of martyrs.  The legend theory of how the resurrection story came about doesn’t hold water. So instead, many skeptics believe the early apostles cooked up the idea of Jesus’ resurrection.  We can call this the conspiracy theory.  But it’s highly unlikely as well.  Here’s why: Let’s say you, me and a few hundred others decided to start a new religion.  We could sneak into a cemetery where a good friend was buried, we could dig up his body in the middle of the night, and we could start telling everyone he rose from the dead.  We could make up stories about how he had told everyone he was the Son of God, and predicted that he would rise from the grave.  We would have to be really good salesmen, because there are a lot of religions already in this world, and what we are saying is going to be pretty hard to believe.  Do you think we could pull it off?  People are going to treat us like freaks.  Can you stick with the story if your family disowns you, and you lose your job, and folks start making fun of you?  And then the police will come and arrest us for robbing a grave.  They’ll ask each one of us to tell what really happened to the body.  They’ll say, “Tell us the truth, and we won’t prosecute you.  But when one of your friends tells us the truth first, you’re going to jail for a long time…”  We all know that it wouldn’t be an hour before the first person in our group blurted out the truth: “Okay, we made it up.  Don’t send me to jail!”  See, the conspiracy theory sounds great, until you realize that almost all of the people who claimed to see the risen Jesus died a martyr’s death. They didn’t just go to jail, they died.  Their fellow Jews or the Romans said, “Renounce Christ or die!” and they died, confessing the resurrection with their dying breaths.  And we know that’s the case, because if even one of them had given in, had revealed that it was all a conspiracy, then the authorities would have published that story, would have displayed the body of Jesus, and there would be no Christianity today.

Now you may say, “Big deal.  People are always dying for their faith.  Look at suicide bombers, for instance.”  But there is a difference.  A suicide bomber believes that when he blows himself up, he is guaranteed a trip to heaven.  He believes this because he has been told this by his religious leaders and other people he trusts.  It does make one wonder why the young person doesn’t ask his leader, “If you believe in this so strongly, why don’t you blow yourself up?”  But at any rate, this devout person is willing to die for what he believes to be true.  But these first Christians knew the truth.  No one had told them Jesus was risen.  They either saw it happen, or they had made up the story themselves.  And while many people will die for what they believe to be true, no one dies for what he knows is a lie.

Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg put it this way, “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”  Do you believe that Jesus rose again?  If so, then He is everything He said He was.  If not, which category do you fall into?  If you disbelieve because it is hard for you to accept that a man could rise from the dead, I can understand that.  But consider the evidence.  What else accounts for the hundreds of eyewitnesses, the explosive growth of the early church, and for the martyrdom of most of the apostles?  If it is that second reason that bothers you, that you would have to change the way you live if Christ is truly Lord, then I appreciate your honesty.  But I urge you to consider the possibility that Jesus becoming Lord of your life would be the best thing that ever happened to you. What if He really is what you’ve always needed?

Frederica Matthews-Greene was raised in a Catholic home, but when she was a young teenager, she became convinced that the Gospel story was preposterous, something no sane, educated person could ever believe in.  She toyed with atheism, she studied other religions.  She was most intrigued with Hinduism because it was so different from what she was brought up with, but the one religion she was not interested in was Christianity.  She married a man who was a confirmed atheist, but on their honeymoon, as they were hitchhiking through Europe, he told her he had been reading the Gospels as part of a class assignment.  He said, “There’s something about Jesus. I’ve never encountered anyone like this before. I know that he’s speaking the truth. I’m an atheist. But if Jesus says there’s a God, there must be a God.”  That was very scary news for Frederica; the last thing in the world she wanted was for her husband to become a Christian.  Later in the same trip, while they were touring a church in Dublin, she suddenly found herself kneeling before a statue of Jesus.  A voice inside of her said, “I am your life. You thought that your life was your history, your name, your personality. You thought that your life was the fact that your heart beats. But that is not your life. I am your life. I am the foundation of everything else in your life.”  Frederica started reading the Bible at that point, and found that she disagreed with much of what she was reading. Yet she couldn’t stop reading the life and teachings of this man, Jesus.  Months later, a friend asked the two of them, “Have you asked Jesus to be your Lord?”  Their response was classic: “We’re not Southern Baptists.”  He said, “Actually, Jesus wants to be Lord for everyone.”  They objected, “But we’re in grad school.”  He replied, “No, even for you.”  There in that friend’s apartment, Frederica and her husband prayed and invited Jesus to take control of their lives.  Today, she is a highly-regarded Christian writer and he is a minister.

So what do you believe about Jesus?  Give Him a chance, and He’ll change your life forever.

For more, see William Lane Craig’s excellent article on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-resurrection-of-jesus/