Monthly Archives: April 2018

Can We be Sure of our Election?

April 2018 Credo

Arguably, John Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination could be regarded as one of the most controversial dogmas in the Protestant Reformation in 16th Century Europe. Critics say that Calvin’s teaching made God into a tyrant who chose some to be saved and others to be damned.

Moreover, the 1559 edition of the Institutes of Christian Religion–Calvin’s final version following twenty-four years of revisions to this work–seem to reflect his concluding position on double predestination. Apparently, it only lends fuel to the fire of criticism against him.

The doctrine of double predestination, however, is more complex and multifaceted than its critics care to acknowledge. Moreover, Calvin’s position on the subject must be seen from a variety of situations beyond just the didactic context of the Institutes. Indeed, elsewhere through his commentaries and sermons, Calvin presents an assuring note to all who feared that God might just have appointed them to be damned rather than redeemed.

Hence, in this brief article, I wish to highlight from the less cited commentary on 1 Peter and the 1559 Institutes itself the other side of the picture in which Calvin sought to assure those who were gripped by fear about their eternal destiny. In this, I wish to demonstrate that a distinguishing hallmark in Calvin’s doctrine of election was the assurance he brings concerning the prospect of being chosen by God.

First off, we affirm Calvin’s clarification that our election “depends on nothing else but on God alone, for he of his own free will has chosen us.” – Comm. 1 Peter. This ought to engender in us humility and gratitude since we realize that apart from God’s election by grace, we would otherwise all perish in our sin.

But Calvin would go further to assure those who may waver in their confidence. He adds that “…all who are admitted by faith into the church, are to be counted as the elect; for God thus separates them from the world, which is a sign of election.” – Comm.1 Peter.

When you participate, by faith, in the confessions of a church, you may be counted as the elect.

That is not to say that it is our faith that precedes our election. It is, in fact, the reverse. Election precedes faith. That is to say, faith is a fruit of our election.

After all, Calvin’s definition of faith presents a picture of the triune God engendering faith in us: “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of God’s given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Inst 3.2.7)

In it, we notice that the Holy Spirit seeks to reveal the promise given in Christ to our minds and seal it upon our hearts. In the process, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ (Inst. 3.1.1), engenders faith in us, and helps us to recognize in God a benevolent Father rather than a fearsome Judge (Inst 3.11.1).

Not only so, the Holy Spirit works to sanctify us and leads us on to “cultivate blamelessness and purity of life” (3.11.1).

When we discover that God is treating us as his adopted children and disciplining us for our sanctification, we know inwardly that God has indeed elected us. Listen to Calvin’s assuring word here: “As far then as they proved that they were regenerated by the Spirit of God, so far did he deem them to be the elect of God, for God does not sanctify any but those whom he has previously elected.” – Comm. 1 Pet.

Our experience of being sanctified by the Holy Spirit bears testimony to this effect. Hear again Calvin’s reasoning: “notice the effect, by which he sets forth and bears witness to our election. That effect is the sanctification of the Spirit, even effectual calling, when faith is added to the outward preaching of the gospel, which faith is begotten by the inward operation of the Spirit.” – Comm. 1 Pet.

Further, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit spurs us to a life of obedience to Christ. This manner of living would then be indicative that we are in fact elected by God. Notice how Calvin reasons about this in the Institutes: “the object of regeneration … is to manifest in the life of believers a harmony and agreement between God’s righteousness and their obedience, and thus confirm the adoption that they have received as sons [Gal. 4:5; cf. II Peter 1:10]” (3.6.1).

Again, it is not a blameless life that earns our adoption, but one that is the fruit of the certainty of our election. In reality, the heart’s knowledge that the Holy Spirit is working tirelessly for our sanctification spurs us on to let this doctrine permeate every aspect of our living.  “For, [as Calvin adds], it is a doctrine not of the tongue but of life. It is not apprehended by the understanding and memory alone, as other disciplines are, but it is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds a seat and resting place in the inmost affection of the heart” (3.6.4).

“[It] must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us” (3.6.4).

When this is happening, we receive in our hearts the Holy Spirit’s assurance that we are indeed the elect of God.

This then is the other side of Calvin’s word on double predestination. It is a word that assures and affirms.



Rev Jimmy Tan is lecturer of Pastoral and Practical Theology at Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.

Worship and Witness

April 2018 Pulse

In his first epistle to the Christians of the disapora scattered throughout Asia Minor, the apostle Peter used vivid and powerful imagery drawn from the Old Testament to describe the Church. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), he wrote.

But the set-apart status of the Church cannot be divorced from its awesome responsibility to be the witness of the electing God. Thus Peter added, “… that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV).

The Church’s doxology – her praises of the One who brought her into being – is inseparable from her witness, that is, her work of mission and evangelism.

Peter’s simple yet profound statement rejects the dichotomy, so endemic in the sensibilities of some modern Christians, between worship and witness. As a worshipping community, the Church is always also a missional community.

The Dutch theologian J. C. Hoekendijk stressed this vital point more than 50 years ago. “The ‘Church’, he wrote, “exists only in actu, in the execution of the apostolate, i.e., in the proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom to the world”.

He added, “A church that knows that she is a function of the apostolate and that her very ground of existence lies in the proclamation of the Kingdom to the world, does not engage in missions, but she herself becomes mission, she becomes the living outreach of God to the world. That is why a church without mission is an absurdity.”

To gather as a body of believers to worship the sovereign God, whose cruciform love is revealed at Calvary, is to bear radical (and sometimes costly) witness to Him.

Think of the courageous Catholics in Krakow when Poland was languishing in the suffocating grip of the communists, who faithfully marked the solemnity of Corpus Christi by a public procession, despite attendant dangers.

By simply being true to its calling, and by courageously conducting worship in the face of opposition, the Polish Church bore prophetic witness to Christ in the dark decades of communist dominance between 1945 and 1989.

Just as the worship of the Church is inseparable from its public witness, so the Church’s engagement in the public arena must also be seen as an expression of its worship.

Think of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, composed by the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth, which declared the unrivalled supremacy of Jesus Christ when Germany was under the sinister shadow of the Third Reich.

Barmen states categorically and without compromise that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death”.

In making this claim, Barmen rejects any political figure who masquerades as a god, and exposes as false the sacralising of any political ideology or programme. “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”

In witnessing to Jesus Christ, Barmen dismantles and destroys the idols conjured by the prevailing zeitgeist, and points to the true God who alone must be worshipped and honoured.

In the same epistle, Peter urges his readers to be prepared to explain the rationality of their faith and hope, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV).

The Greek word for ‘answer’ is apologia, which in this context means to commend the faith to the wider public and to defend it against its despisers. The fundamental theological assumption behind this injunction is the belief that the Gospel is public truth.

As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon explained, “Our claim is not that this tradition will make sense to anyone or will enable the world to run more smoothly. Our claim is that it just happens to be true. This really is the way God is. This really is the way God’s world is.”

Christian witness can therefore be described as the kind of truth-telling that brings God’s truth not just in the sanctuary but also in the public square.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Gene Editing and Ethics

April 2018 Pulse

One of the most significant and controversial recent developments in genetic engineering and genomics is CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a new genomic editing tool.

While scientists have been tinkering with the genome for decades, CRISPR promises to transform the field of biology – especially genetic engineering – because of its unprecedented precision, efficiency and flexibility. Not only is CRISPR more efficient than current gene editing techniques like ZFN (Zinc Finger Nuclease) and TALENs (Transcription Activator-like Effector Nucleases), it is also much cheaper.

Already the therapeutic applications using CRISPR as a tool for gene editing is promising.

For example, in cancer immunotherapy CRISPR can be used to edit the properties of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR-T) cells used especially in patients suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. The technique can also be used to treat latent infections with HIV or herpes by removing viral DNA in infected human cells. CRISPR is used in animal experiments to help scientists replicate the genetic defects in humans in the quest to understand them better.

However, CRISPR is also a useful technique that can be employed for human enhancement and the modification of the germ-line that may have unanticipated and irreversible consequences which may harm future generations.

These developments have generated considerable debate among ethicists. From the standpoint of Christian ethics, human enhancement through genetic engineering and the genetic modification of the human germ-line raise such serious ethical issues that they should be categorically prohibited.

CRISPR is also being used to modify animals or insects in an effort to eradicate certain diseases. For example, CRISPR is used to edit the genes of disease vectors like the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits dengue fever and a subspecies of the Anopheles mosquito that carry the Plasmodium parasite (which causes malaria).

Although this strategy may significantly lower the incidence of dengue and malaria, it may also have dire consequences to the environment and the ecology. As Arthur Caplan has pointed out: ‘The use of gene drives … also poses a much larger risk to the environment, as they have the potential to decimate an entire species, eliminate a food source for other species, or promote the proliferation of invasive pests’.

Regulatory bodies such as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHS), an arm of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), have produced guidelines for research on genetically modified organisms. However, there seem to be a growing trend of deregulation in the US as techniques like CRISPR become more widely used. The European Union (EU) follows a stricter regulatory regime compared to the US that requires extensive risk assessment before any research on transgenic organisms could be carried out.

Although measures are in place to regulate research in this area, the question is whether it is possible to sufficiently control the off-target effects of CRISPR. Is it possible to prevent the unanticipated mutation of organisms that would result in the emergence of an undesirable phenotype?

Related to this is the problem that some ethicists have described as ‘directed evolution’. The artificial mutations that result from gene editing could lead to the emergence of organisms that are alien to the natural ecosystem, which may not have the capacity to accommodate these organisms should their population increase exponentially.

Is it possible to guarantee that mutated organisms will not enter the environment, replicate themselves and in the long run irreversibly damage the ecosystem?

Bio-safety issues loom large in the debate about CRISPR and gene editing.

Gene editing raises the similar set of ethical issues that other dual-use techniques or technologies present.

On the one hand, CRISPR can be used effectively for therapeutic purposes or for research that may result in therapeutic applications. However, on the other hand, the same technique can be used to create new strains of viruses (that can be used in warfare). This had led the U.S. intelligence community to include gene editing in the list of threats posed by ‘weapons of mass destruction and proliferation’ in its 2016 report.

The best way forward is to ensure that proper governance is exercised on the use of this and other gene-editing techniques. In addition, there should be meaningful engagement on policies governing the use of such technologies with a wide spectrum of the public, including religious bodies.

In framing policies, governments should not only consider technical or safety concerns surrounding the technology in question, important though they undoubtedly are. Moral or ethical considerations or objections should also be taken seriously.

Technical or safety issues could be resolved as the technology advances. But their resolution does not necessarily legitimise the use of the technique or technology. The larger philosophical and moral issues must also be properly addressed before policy decisions are made.

More than thirty years ago, the influential philosopher and ethicist Hans Jonas emphasised the imperative of responsibility in the wake of what he calls ‘super technology’. This call to responsible action is even more pressing today in light of the unprecedented advances in science and technology, which only a few decades ago would be regarded as the stuff of fiction.

Our responsibility is not only to ourselves but also to future generations. For as Daniel Callahan has perceptively pointed out, to exclude any humans, present or future, from our moral community and our moral consideration is not only irresponsible, it is also to be guilty of a form of oppression.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

A Rising New Incivility?

April 2018 Feature

Preamble

In contemporary society, a trend towards incivility seems to be rising. This article registers my observations about the shifts. I hope this article will invite many others to consider how we may pushback incivility for the sake of our society and for posterity.

Though the idea of civility may be traced to Confucius in the Eastern hemisphere, and Aristotle and Kant in the Western hemisphere, for this article, I take my reference from George Washington’ recommendation against displaying repulsive behavior and using vulgarity, whether in public or in private conversations (cf., Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, 1888).

I define civility as relating to another person with respect in speech and conduct, regardless of their achievement, educational level, ethnicity, race, religion, social standing or acquired status of honor. Though the measure of civility, i.e., who defines right and wrong, is contextually dependent, my premise is that, people ought to have learned to respect others, in the light of a longstanding tradition in advocating for civility and in recognizing the equality of fellow humans.

Political Incivility?

While partisanship and political rudeness are not unfamiliar in America’s political landscape, Donald Trump’s presidential election and first year presidency have reached a new level of incivility. Trump degraded women, interrupted opponents in public debates, mocked the disabled, name-called, and used sexist comments on nations and women journalists and nations. After he was sworn into office, he has roused discord nationally and insulted various international leaders. Recently, he called two National Football League players who knelt at the singing of the national anthem, “son of a b—h.” A hyper-partisan media that uses blustering further aggravated the political incivility.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for standing up for the powerless. Yet, she denied Rohingyan “minority-ethnic cleansing,” and seemingly condoned the killing of Rohingyan Muslims in 2017. In 2013, she too denied occurrence of ethnic troubles in Rakhine.

To these incidents, we add the brawling and throwing of chairs against fellow politicians in recent Uganda parliamentary debate, occurred at the end of September 2017.

Should not the highest public office seek incumbents who would lead with impeccable character and etiquette to reflect the dignity of their office, despite the realities of corruptions and politicking? Is condoning injustice, and keeping silent about abhorrent, inhumane socio-political situations acceptable? Though politics manifests differently in America and in Myanmar, I am troubled about a consistent wave of political incivility.

Journalistic Civility?

When news readership expects fair and even coverage of significant and pertinent news globally, between August and September 2017, many news agencies in the USA gave focal attention to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, and almost to the exclusion of covering the even more devastating floods caused by monsoons in Sierra Leone, Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Has the US media normalized disasters in other regions just like how they sometimes normalized violence in other regions?

Social Media Incivility?

The social media has seen incidents of incivility. The circulation of “fake news” via social media is what most people do not intentionally commit. While not verifying sources before forwarding to one’s social network may be harmless in some situations, fake news can produce consequences far deeper, even as it may add as a social cost.

Social media incivility is also observable in the circulation of viral pictures and videos, staged or un-staged, and the comments generated thereafter. The viral videos include the staged videos intended as advocacy for interest-groups, and the filmed, real life incidents of inappropriate social behaviors (e.g., bullying, sexual preying, cheating, and stealing).

The incivility with regards to viral videos pertains not just to filming someone else in public without their permission (thereby infringing another’s privacy) or shaming them thereafter on social media (which makes us vigilantes of sorts). Perpetuators of impropriety, injustice and violence against others have to be stopped. Alerting the public may deter some from committing impropriety, injustice and violence.

The incivility also pertains to 1) whether to make public the viral video, and 2) how viewers respond to incidents. The public may feel “safer” when incidents are made public. Yet, a viral circulation tends to affect lives, and injure persons and institutions, anger a crowd, risk breaking up social cohesion, and can cause other social problems.

Social Incivility?

Each society develops its culture in light of what it values and prioritises. I believe that given a choice, we would choose to live in a charitable, friendly, gracious, hospitable, kind, inclusive, and respectful society. Yet, have signs of social incivility crept up unnoticed in our hurried and driven lifestyle?

In our phone-distractible society, people check their phones in the middle of a conversation, at a meeting, or over dinner. On MRT rides, some commuters would blast their music without regard for other commuters. In fast-food and coffee outlets, boy and girls, who come from literate and well-to-do family backgrounds, use vulgarities like punctuation marks in their sentences.

Many passengers have had Grab and Uber drivers shouting rudely at them. Many are still aggravated over the SMRT technical problems, train delays, and the groundswell of discontentment with the SMRT CEO’s steep and swift pay increment, amid a fare increment that is not commensurate with a reliable, world-class operation.

On social medias, citizens respond curtly and with vulgarities to express their dissatisfaction and outrage. Name-calling, death threats, profanity, and all manner of insults are hurled at the perpetrator, the victims, and by-standers. In recent years, we have seen, on viral videos, by-standers watching bullying in schools without intervening.

I am betwixt between 1) my desire to encourage citizens to stand up for injustice or call out on inappropriate behaviors, and 2) my concerns about the unintended consequences that comments can stir in an already angry crowd.

On the one hand, as the saying goes – “he/she brought it on himself.” But on the other hand, no one deserves to be treated with violence. When persons in the viral videos are identified in public, some have “given them the finger.” Society judges victims too. The personal stigma, the social stigma, and the implications can continue for years, to the extent of destroying lives, families, institutions.

Postscript

To be sure, incivility is not a unique manifestation in our milieu. Rudeness, hate-speech, and shock jocks existed during Washington’s era too. Even then, philanthropic activities are also readily evident in our generation just as charity was evident in bygone eras. I perceive value in inquiring into the state and development of civility in our time. Is our milieu characterized as what Pankaj Mishra calls, the Age of Anger (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2017)? How did we get here in sociality? How can we pushback the trends of incivility in our time? May this article be a step in the exploration of what may be possible, for re-envisioning our world together.


Rev. Dr. Timothy T. N. Lim, Ph.D., is a Visiting Lecturer at the London School of Theology. His recent book, Ecclesial Recognition with Hegelian Philosophy, Social Psychology, and Continental Political Theory (Brill, 2017), adds to his other publications on christian unity, ecclesiology, interreligious dialogue, and theology.

Evidence for Jesus

April 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: Are there historical evidences that Jesus Christ lived and died?

In his article entitled ‘The Quest for the Mythical Jesus’, Robert Price discusses ‘the series of realizations about methodology and evidence that eventually led me to embrace the Christ Myth Theory’. The Professor of Biblical Criticism at the Council for Secular Humanism’s Centre for Inquiry Institute argues that even if Jesus really did exist, he is lost in the sands of time. ‘There may once have been an historical Jesus’, he writes, ‘but for us there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth’.

I believe that in advancing the Christ Myth Theory, Robert Price has deliberately refused to consider the overwhelming evidence for the historical Jesus.

In this brief article, I turn to extra-biblical sources to look for evidences for Jesus. I argue that in the works of non-Christian authors of the 1st and 2nd centuries there can be found sufficient evidence of the existence of the man Jesus. I believe that these Jewish and pagan sources are reliable precisely because their authors were antagonistic to Jesus and his early followers. The clear references to Jesus or the Christ in their writings conclusively shows that the historical Jesus is not the figment of the imagination of the early Christians or a myth – as Price has argued. I will also explain why I think that on the basis of the historical evidence it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was crucified, and that he rose from the dead.

The Historicity of Jesus

The first non-Christian author that provided evidence for the existence of Jesus is Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who was born in AD 37 (or 38) and died in AD 97. Born into a priestly family, Josephus became a Pharisee at the age of nineteen. After the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, Josephus moved to Rome, where he became the court historian for the Emperor Vespasian.

In his work entitled, Antiquities of the Jews, published around AD 90-95, Josephus gave an account of John the Baptist that is in complete agreement with the record in the Gospel of John. In Book 18, Chapter Five, Josephus writes:

‘Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment for what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism …’

The accuracy of Josephus’ account of John the Baptist suggests that what he said about Jesus in the same document must also be reliable. This especially applies to the Arabic version of Antiquities, whose authenticity is endorsed by reputed scholars such as Professor Schlomo Pines of the Hebrew University. This is what Josephus wrote concerning Jesus in Antiquities 18:3:

‘At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he appeared to them three days after his resurrection and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders’.

The second reference to Jesus is found in Antiquities 20:9, where Josephus describes the trial and sentencing of James and other disciples:

‘After the death of the procurator Festus, when Albinius was about to succeed him, the high-priest Ananius considered it a favourable opportunity to assemble the Sanhedrin. He therefore caused James the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and several others, to appear before this hastily assembled council, and pronounced upon them the sentence of death by stoning’.

The evidence is so overwhelming that Professor Pines could write:

‘In fact, as far as probabilities go, no believing Christian could have such a neutral text; for him the only significant point about it could have been its attesting the historical evidence of Jesus. But the fact is that until modern times this particular hare (i.e. claiming Jesus is a hoax) was never started. Even the most bitter opponents of Christianity never expressed any doubt as to Jesus having really lived’.

The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus

We turn now to inquire if there are convincing evidence from non-Christian sources for the crucifixion and death of Jesus. All the canonical Gospels report the torture and execution of Jesus. However, there are Gnostic Gospels that claim that this did not happen. For example, in the First Apocalypse of James, Jesus is depicted as consoling James with these words: ‘Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And this people has done me no harm’.

In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus made it clear that he did not die and that it was someone else – Simon of Cyrene – who died in his place:

‘I did not die in reality, but in appearance … in error and blindness …[they] saw me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was rejoicing in the height over all … And I was laughing at their ignorance’.

Islam makes a similar claim: that Jesus was not crucified, and therefore did not die on the cross. In the Quran, we read:

They denied the truth and uttered a monstrous falsehood against Mary. They declared: “We have put to death the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the apostle of God”. They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did.

Those that disagreed about him were in doubt concerning him; they knew nothing about him that was not sheer conjecture; they did not slay him for certain (4:157-158).

Are there extra-biblical sources, penned by pagan authors that corroborated with the accounts in the canonical Gospels about Jesus’ death? The answer is Yes.

In his historical account entitled, Annals (written at about 115 AD), Cornelius Tactitus (ca. 55-201 AD) the Roman historian offers this account of the great fire in Rome during the reign of Nero:

‘Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular’.

Tacitus wrote about Christus (which is Greek for Christ) who suffered ‘the extreme penalty’ (death) at the hands of Pontius Pilatus during the reign of Tiberius. He said that the ‘mischievous superstition’ (i.e., Christianity) was checked for a while (after Jesus’ death), but broke out again.

The second century Greek satirist, Lucian, also wrote about the death of Jesus in his work entitled, The Death of Peregrine. ‘The Christians’, Lucian asserts, ‘worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account’. The Syrian author, Mara Bar-Serapion similarly alluded to the execution and death of Jesus in a second century manuscript:

‘What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgement for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished’.

I have already cited the passages from Antiquities by Josephus that explicitly reported that ‘Pilate condemned him [Jesus] to be crucified and to die’ (18:3). The first century writer Thallus even corroborated with the Gospel account of the darkness that covered the sky at Jesus’ crucifixion, but attributed it to the eclipse of the sun. Although Thallus’ work is no longer extant, the third century scholar Julius Africanus referred to it, rejecting Thallus’ naturalistic explanation of the phenomenon: ‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonably, as it seems to me’.

Perhaps the best evidence of the death of Jesus is from the Talmud. In its earliest period of compilation known as the Tannaitic period (70-200 AD), we have this remarkable passage about Jesus’ death:

On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf”. But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.

‘Hanging’ is synonymous to crucifixion (see Galatians 3:13, where crucifixion is described as hanging on a tree). There is therefore plenty of extra-biblical material that testified to the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Resurrection

We come finally to the resurrection of Christ. Since the second century, there have been a number of sceptics who tried to refute the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Recently, Richard Cevantis Carrier, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, has tried to debunk the historicity of the resurrection in his books and articles. Carrier sought to do this by reviving the old hallucination theory and dressing it up in a new garb. The origin of this hypothesis can be traced to 19th century writers such as David Strauss and Ernest Renan.

According to this theory, the disciples of Jesus were so emotionally attached to their Master that after his death, they hallucinated about him, believing that he has risen from the dead. Carrier writes:

I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence … is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another … In the ancient world, to experience supernatural manifestations of ghosts, gods, and wonders was not only accepted but encouraged.

Theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg, Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and historians like Gary Habermas have provided compelling arguments for the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. These scholars have marshalled the historical evidence to show that it is not unreasonable to conclude that the resurrection of Christ really took place.

Space does not allow me to develop their arguments in detail. I will simply summarise them, placing special emphasis on the historical facts on which they are established.

The Empty Tomb

The first historical fact is that the tomb in which the body of Jesus was placed was found to be empty by the women on the Sunday following the crucifixion.

Now, the reliability of the story of the burial of Jesus was never in question. This was because of the involvement of Joseph of Arimethea, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Almost every scholar agrees that since a member of the ruling class was instrumental in the burial of Jesus, the narrative is unlikely to be fictitious. Furthermore, because it was Joseph who provided the tomb, it is unlikely that the women went to the wrong tomb on that first Easter morning. If they had, the mistake could have been easily corrected and the right tomb located.

The Jewish authorities could also have easily exhumed the body of Jesus from the tomb to prove once and for all that the claims of Jesus’ disciples about his resurrection are false. Instead, they concocted the story that the disciples have stolen the body (Matthew 28:11-25). In the fifth century, an anti-Christian document called the Toledoth Jesu revived the theory that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body. But the Toledoth Jesu is deemed too late and unworthy as a source. Be that as it may, the stolen body hypothesis shows that the tomb was indeed empty.

In addition, we must also note that the disciples of Jesus did not go to some far away place to preach about Christ’s resurrection. Instead, they began preaching in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus had died and was buried. As the Lutheran scholar Paul Althaus has rightly pointed out, proclamation about the resurrected Christ ‘could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb has not been established as a fact for all concerned’.

Resurrection Appearances and Witnesses

The second historical fact related to the resurrection of Jesus is the numerous witnesses who saw the risen Lord. The earliest account of the resurrection comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

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.

Here, Paul lists a very wide range of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ. Some of these witnesses saw him individually, while others encountered the risen Christ as a group. They saw him at different times and under different circumstances.

The indication that most of the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ were still alive is significant. Scholars have understood this statement as an open-ended invitation for the Corinthians to inquire for themselves whether this is true, since many who witnessed the risen Christ were still with them. Mention of James, the brother of Jesus, is also significant. This is because James did not believe in Jesus during his earthly ministry (John 7:2-9). But after Jesus’ resurrection, James did not only become a follower of Christ, but also an apostle who exercised leadership in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). Paul recognised James’ apostleship in Galatians 1:19.

The Gospel accounts of the appearances of the resurrected Christ are also diverse. There were multiple, independent accounts of these appearances. According to William Lane Craig:

‘This is one of the most important marks of historicity. The appearance to Peter is independently attested by Luke, and the appearance to the Twelve by Luke and John. We also have independent witness to Galilean appearances in Mark, Matthew and John, as well as to the women in Matthew and John’.

What about the theory forwarded by scholars like Richard Carrier that the disciples of Jesus thought that they had seen the resurrected Christ, but in fact were merely hallucinating? Gary Habermas has roundly refuted this hypothesis in fine paper entitled, ‘Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: The Recent Revival of Hallucination Theories’. Again space does not allow a more thorough treatment. I provide a simple summary.

There are several reasons why the hallucination hypothesis is untenable.

Firstly, most psychologists dispute the reality of group or mass hallucinations. Rather, they maintain that hallucinations are private, individual events. But Paul said that more than five hundred encountered the risen Christ as one time. It is highly unlikely that these five hundred witnesses had hallucinated.

Secondly, the wide variety of times and places that Jesus appeared, together with the fact that the witnesses come from diverse backgrounds, is a huge obstacle to the hallucination hypothesis. As Habermas explains:

Men and women, hard-headed and soft-hearted alike, all believing that they saw Jesus, both indoors and outdoors, by itself provides an insurmountable barrier for hallucinations. The odds that each person would be in precisely the proper frame of mind to experience a hallucination, even individually, decrease exponentially.

Thirdly, studies have shown that hallucinations generally do not transform lives. However, even critics have noted the radical transformation of Jesus’ disciples. The same band of followers, who appeared fearful when their Master was crucified, suddenly became bold witnesses who were willing to die for their faith, after claiming to have seen their risen Lord.

There are also other important points that should be noted. Why did the ‘hallucinations’ suddenly stop after 40 days? Why did it not spread wider, to other believers or disciples? The hallucination hypothesis appears unable to stand under the weight of such evidence and arguments.

Conclusion

The overwhelming extra-biblical evidence for Jesus shows that the New Testament accounts are extremely reliable. The NT’s account of the historical Jesus is corroborated by numerous pagan texts. But the NT has much more to say about this man than the fact that he existed. It testifies that the man Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal Word of God (John 1:1-14), the Saviour and Lord of the universe he has brought into being (Colossians 1:15-17). It tells us that Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth and the life (John 14:6) and that ‘whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.