Should Christians Celebrate Easter?

Every year it comes up about whether Christians should celebrate Easter or not. People have seen parallels in pagan religions and have concluded that Easter should be forgotten. I think that some of the parallels have been overstated, but for the sake of argument, let us assume that all the claims are true. Let us say that it was named after a pagan goddess, was timed according to a pagan date, that it originally was a celebration of pagan hopes of renewal and that it was filled with all kinds of other pagan stuff. Does this make Easter something to avoid?

I think we need to get some perspective. Does any Christian attempt to celebrate the original pagan elements? Since most Christians don’t even know about the parallels, that is unlikely. What is it that most Christians are consciously thinking about at Easter? Most would be thinking of Jesus’ death on the cross, his atoning sacrifice, the mourning of the disciples and the resurrection of Jesus. I cannot see anything sinful in celebrating our hope in Christ. As far as I am concerned, biblical truth of the crucifixion and resurrection trumps any supposed pagan origins that have been buried for centuries. The church has long been active in Christianizing what was there before and I hope we keep doing it.

Lent: Cloak Sunday

Cloak Sunday? I must have made a mistake, it is supposed to be Palm Sunday. But take a closer look.

“Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” (Matthew 21:8 ESV)

“And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields.” (Mark 11:8 ESV)

“And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road.” (Luke 19:36 ESV)

The emphasis of three of the four Gospels is on the cloaks and not the branches. The emphasis on the branches really appears in John.

“So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”” (John 12:13 ESV)

I believe that the triumphal entry included both cloaks and branches but in the original setting, the cloaks were far more important. So why does John emphasize the palm branches? If you read through John, branches are a major theme all the way through. It was natural for John to focus on the branches.

So why are cloaks more important? Any one get a branch and once it was trampled and destroyed, it made no difference. But most of the people at the entry were poor people. They did not have closets full of cloaks. When they threw their cloaks on the path, it was a real sacrifice. The cloaks could be ripped up or they could be lost in the sea of cloaks.

This leaves the question to us, what is our worship? Do we give the palm branches that we do not miss or do we give the cloaks that we value dearly?

Lent: Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross?

In order to try and explain the resurrection, some claim that Jesus did not actually die on the cross. This is often called the swoon theory. Why do I believe that Jesus really died on the cross?

The swoon theory argues that Jesus only passed out on the cross. But if you understand crucifixion, you will know that is not possible. Crucifixion kills by making the person so weak that they are no longer able to raise their body to catch a breath. It is possible that Jesus passed out but that would only mean that he died a few minutes after.

Assuming someone got Jesus down between the fainting and the death (which is extremely unlikely) and had him buried, what then? What are the chances that Jesus would recover in the tomb? Jesus would need intensive care to survive. Days in a tomb without medical help, food or water would have finished him off if the cross didn’t.

There is a reason that almost every scholar accepts the crucifixion of Jesus. It is one of the surest facts of ancient history.

Lent: Did God Turn His Back on Jesus?

It is common to suggest that when Jesus was on the cross, that the Father turned his back on Jesus. There are two arguments for this, both of which I think are wrong.

The first argument is that Jesus quotes Psalm 22, where it talks about God forsaking him. The problem with this is that Jesus was not the first say these words. They were written by David. This Psalm entered into the worship of Israel and expressed the feelings of worshippers in times of distress. There is no reason to believe that David or any of the other Israelites who recited this Psalm were ever completely cut off from the presence of God.

The second argument is that Jesus took on the sin of the world and since God is holy, he could not look upon his Son. The problem is that the Bible never says this. The other problem is that God never turns away from sin in other circumstances. The world has always been full of sin and yet God continues to look upon us.

We must be careful not to argue doctrines that are not taught in the Bible.

 

Lent: Why Did Jesus Die?

As this is the first Sunday in Lent, I thought I would start a series looking at different aspects of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Why did Jesus die? That depends. Do we mean from the perspective of the Jewish leaders, the Romans or God?

The Jewish leaders (and I draw a distinction between certain leaders and the Jewish people) wanted Jesus dead for a couple of reasons. One was out of jealousy for the popularity that Jesus had with the people. It was not just that the people liked him but Jesus made these leaders look foolish in front of the people. Another reason was the cleansing of the Temple. The action of Jesus in the Temple was unacceptable to the leaders and it was a direct challenge to their authority. The official charge may have been blasphemy but these others were the real reasons.

The Romans had no interest in the religious debates of the Jews. They executed Jesus (don’t call Jews “Christ killers” because it was the Romans who did the actual killing) because he was a threat to the peace of Judea. Jerusalem was filled with visitors and it would not have taken much to spark a riot. Jesus was a charismatic leader who some were calling a king. It was in their political interest to execute Jesus before things got out of hand.

The real reason that Jesus died is that this was God’s plan. Humanity was separated from God and only something radical could fix this. This was the sacrifice of God’s Son. Some would say that it was cruel for the Father to allow his Son to die. This is based on a simplistic understanding of the situation that does not take into account the Trinity or the resurrection. If God chose this as the way, our job is to respond to the gift and not to complain about the way God did it. God loved us so much that he gave his one and only Son.

Seeing is Believing

seeingisbelieving

A number of years ago, I had the privilege of being able to speak at a conference in Belgium on the resurrection. One of the speakers was Gerd Ludemann.[i]  Although I knew I had some different opinions than Ludemann, I was eager to learn from such a well-known scholar.

Ludemann began his presentation with an argument for the historicity of Peter’s denial of Jesus.  He did a fantastic job of demonstrating that we should take the Gospel accounts of this event seriously and that the denial has the ring of truth. Ludemann then went on to talk about the emotional toll this must have had on Peter.  I agree that it must have been extremely difficult for Peter and that the guilt must have been overwhelming.  Ludemann went on to cite some modern psychiatric studies that have shown that people under tremendous emotional strain can hallucinate and can see the things they need to see to get through their difficult time.

I need to make a confession.  If Peter was the only one to whom Jesus appeared, I could see this as a reasonable option.  It seems entirely plausible that Peter could have broken under the strain.  The problem is that Peter is not the only one to whom Jesus appeared.  This is where the hallucination theory breaks down.[ii]

When trying to understand what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion, it is essential for us to examine 1 Corinthians 15:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–8 ESV)[iii]

This passage includes an appearance to Peter (Cephas) but also identifies a number of other witnesses.  Any theory as to what happened to Jesus must take all of these appearances into account.  The first group after Peter is that of the twelve.  Of course Peter is one of the twelve and with Judas dead, there were only eleven at this point.  What this passage is saying is that there was a specific appearance to Peter and then another appearance to the rest of the group that was known as the twelve.  The Gospels give an account of these appearances.  What is interesting is that these appearances were not used to add to the prestige of the twelve but to demonstrate their weakness.  We are told that Thomas doubted the resurrection because he had been absent at the first meeting (John 20:24-29).  In case people want to be overly critical with Thomas, we should remember that more among the twelve had their doubts (Matthew 28:17).  These doubts fall under the criteria of embarrassment, the kind of details that historians look for when determining historicity.

We also find in this passage a reference to an appearance to more than five hundred people.  We do not know where this appearance fits with the Gospel accounts or if it is a separate tradition.  What is important is that there were many witnesses, far more than could be explained by the hallucination theory.  Paul seems to indicate that most of these witnesses were still available to be interviewed if anyone has doubts.

The next reference is to that of James.  This is significant as James was the brother of Jesus and eventually the leader of the Jerusalem church.  What is interesting about James is that he did not start off with such leadership potential.  We meet James in the Gospels as one of a number of brothers (Mark 6:3) from a family that was explicit in their disbelief in Jesus’ messianic identity (John 7:5).  Again using the criteria of embarrassment, the lack of belief seems to be historical.  If that is the case, how does James go from being an unbelieving and even a mocking brother to becoming the leader of the Jerusalem church?  The answer is the resurrection appearance that he experienced.  There was no psychological reason for James to create an imaginary appearance, as the truth of Jesus’ messianic identity would only increase James’ sense of guilt over not believing.  The best explanation is that James did encounter the risen Jesus.

The next group mentioned is that of the apostles.  Many people assume that the twelve and the apostles are the exact same group.  While there is overlap, in reality the twelve were a subset of the apostles.  This larger group of apostles probably included Joseph and Matthias (Acts 1:23) and may have included other individuals identified as apostles such as Barnabas (Acts 14:14).  This group tells us that not only did many laypeople witness the risen Jesus, so did those who were leaders in the church.

Paul then goes on to add himself to the list of witnesses.  Although Paul’s encounter with Jesus is recorded in Acts (9:1-9; 22:4-16; 26:9-18), he also describes it in his letters:

“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:13–17 ESV)[iv]

What we know about Paul is that he was a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the church, met Jesus and went on to become one of the greatest evangelists and theologians of the Christian church.  This has to be explained somehow.  Could Paul have converted because he was impressed with the Christians and how they treated one another?  This is extremely unlikely.  The Jewish community would have been just as tight knit and there is every reason to believe that Paul was content as a Jew.  Could Paul have felt guilty over his violent treatment of the Christians?  There is no indication of this.  Paul likely saw himself as being faithful to the example of Phineas who was willing to kill for what he believed (Numbers 25:8).  It is important to remember what Paul was doing when he converted to Christianity.  He was burning one bridge without having the next bridge built.  By becoming a Christian, Paul was abandoning his Jewish community and yet he had no reason to believe that the Christians would embrace him.[v]  To make such a radical decision would require an extraordinary reason.  It is unlikely that Paul hallucinated, as he probably did not know Jesus during his earthly ministry.  It is unlikely that Paul invented the story of meeting Jesus as he suffered tremendously for his faith.  The only explanation for the conversion of Paul is that he encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Although it is not mentioned in 1 Corinthians, another important appearance of Jesus is that to the women.  The fact that it is not mentioned in 1 Corinthians is significant as it shows that it added nothing to the testimony from an ancient perspective.  In the first century, there was no value in a woman’s testimony and yet the Gospels agree that it was to women that the risen Jesus first appeared.  There is no reason for the Gospel writers to invent this detail and so it likely goes back to a historical event.[vi]

Believers and skeptics will continue to debate about what happened after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Some with a naturalistic worldview will see the resurrection as impossible while others with a worldview open to the supernatural will see it as possible.  Aside from philosophical bias, one must still deal with the historical problem of the appearances.  The resurrection of Jesus is not described as a dream or a feeling but as physical appearances to real people.  The fact that there is such rich evidence from the eyewitnesses points to the historical nature of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.


[i] All of the presentations from this conference can be found in G. Van Oyen and T. Shepherd (eds.) Resurrection of the Dead:Biblical Traditions in Dialogue (Leuven: Peeters, 2012).

[ii] Although this essay touches on the hallucination theory, it is not the focus.  For more on the hallucination theory, see William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), pp. 384-87 and Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), pp. 495-519.

[iii] This is likely an early creed being passed on by Paul.  See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 722-37.

[iv] For more on Paul’s encounter with Christ, see Michael F. Bird, Introducing Paul (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 32-35.

[v] The church was hesitant to accept Paul as we see in Acts 9:26.

[vi] For more on the presence of the women, see N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 607-8.

This article was done in partnership with the Canadian Apologetics Coalition. Bloggers from across Canada have put together a cumulative case for the historical Resurrection of Jesus. Here are the other articles:
By Tim Barnett | Sunday, March 24th
Tim Barnett (BSc, BEd) is a high school science teacher and the founder of Clear Thinking Christianity. His passion is to train Canadian Christians–both young and old–to think clearly about their Christian convictions because Christianity is worth think about. God willing, Tim will start his MA in Philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary this fall. Website: www.clearthinkingchristianity.com.
By Tawa Anderson | Monday, March 25th
Tawa Anderson was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, where he earned his BA in Political Science at the U of A (1997), and his MDiv from Edmonton Baptist Seminary (2000). He served as English pastor at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church from 2001-2008 before returning to school to earn his PhD in Philosophy, Apologetics & Worldview from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky). Tawa now serves as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma Baptist University (Shawnee, Oklahoma), and returns regularly to Canada to preach, teach, and visit family and friends. Person blog:www.tawapologetics.blogspot.com.
By Paul Buller | Tuesday, March 26th
Paul enjoys discussing and teaching on philosophy of science, philosophy of ethics and theology among other related topics. He is an engineer, husband and father of two. He is the author of Arguing with Friends: Keeping Your Friends and Your Convictions.
Website: www.whyjesus.ca
By Kelly Madland | Wednesday, March 27th
Kelly Madland is a wife, mom, and community apologist who has hosted a local
apologetics conference called ‘Thinking Clearly About God’ in Kamloops. She has been leading a bible study on campus at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She is also a part of the Ratio Christi Canada development team, and is looking forward to completing her Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics in 2014. Personal blog: www.thinkclearly.ca.
By Justin Wishart | Thursday, March 28th
Justin Wishart is the general editor and blogger for Faith Beyond Belief and lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is most interested in issues surrounding Christian philosophy, particularly epistemology and early Christian thought. Justin is a husband and a father. He currently works as a mechanic and enjoys many hobbies such as camping, hiking, and creating music. Website: www.faithbeyondbelief.ca.
Contending for Easter: Seeing is Believing [PART 6]
By Stephen J. Bedard | Friday, March 29th
Stephen J. Bedard (MDiv, MTh, MA, DMin (cand.)) is the director of Hope’s Reason Ministries and an instructor at Emmanuel Bible College and Tyndale University College. Website: www.hopesreason.com.
By David Haines | Saturday, March 30th
David Haines was born and raised in Ontario, Canada. He holds a BTh from Covington Theological Seminary and an MA in Philosophy from Southern Evangelical Seminary. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at University Laval. Personal blog is: www.philosopherdhaines.blogspot.ca. Website: www.associationaxiome.ca.
By Jojo Ruba | Sunday, March 31st
Jojo Ruba is committed to equipping Christians to be good ambassadors for Christ. He does this as a youth pastor with Faith Builder International Church in Calgary as well as a public speaker and executive director of Faith Beyond Belief. His experiences speaking at public forums, university debates and in Christian settings have helped him understand how we can better communicate the truth of the gospel. Through Faith Beyond Belief, Jojo shares solid tools to help Christians engage their culture with compassion but without compromise. Website: www.faithbeyondbelief.ca