Why Christians get sick, suffer, and die

Most humans, regardless of their worldview, seem rather bothered by the fact that “good people” suffer. Christianity takes this a step further because God – being a loving father – is supposed to protect those who submit themselves to him. And yet good people suffer. Christians get sick and die; even before their time.

There have been many profound explorations of this subject, to which I add a few (not entirely original) thoughts.

Continue reading “Why Christians get sick, suffer, and die”

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Jesus’ resurrection – the argument from weirdness (pt 4)

In parts 1, 2 and 3 I looked at just how weird the early church’s behavior was (with respect to the Bible), just how weird the circumstances surrounding their founder’s life were (which is important because his life has always been the central focus of Christianity). Any viable explanation of this weirdness must not only account for the fact that Christianity survived at all, but that it was embraced by some of its most ardent opponents and complete strangers who never met this enigmatic character, Jesus.

Let’s consider the explanation offered by Christianity itself.

The resurrection

As I discussed in the last post, the Christian religion had pretty much everything going against it. A “nobody” founder with a resume that would not have inspired any admiration. Then the founder was dishonourably executed. The early church leaders were cowards and idiots (according to their own records!). The authorities executed the leader because they intended to squash the movement and the intentions (and the tactics) of the authorities had not changed. Joining the movement put one at demonstrably higher risk of persecution and/or execution.

For the record, this is not speculation or religious conviction, but historically verifiable facts affirmed by Christian and non-Christian historians alike.

If this fledgling religion stood any hope in the world of enduring it needed some kind of knock-your-socks-off sales pitch that would counteract all these negative features. And history shows that Christianity not only managed to survive, and not only managed to gain a few followers to boot – which would have been surprising in its own right – but it managed to overtake the Roman Empire in a mere three centuries without the use of military intervention. It persuaded a sizable chunk of the known world to convert based on the merits of the religion itself.

Again, this is not a religious assessment, but a summary of historical facts.

Any intellectually honest individual would have to admit there must have been one mind-blowing “secret sauce” to pull off that kind of history-altering success story. What was that missing ingredient? The early Church made sure to give the missing ingredient a central role in their writings and their theology.

That missing ingredient is the rather simple fact that their executed founder got up and walked out of his own grave after a couple of days.

That one fact alone puts Christianity in a league of its own when it comes to world religions and philosophies. Buddhism offers insights. Islam offers a prophet. Atheism offers… well… whatever it is that Atheism offers.

But Christianity offers God incarnate, walking among us, teaching us, healing us, giving his life for us and then restoring that same life – a life violently ripped from among us in a brutal display of human injustice – by picking himself up and walking right out of the grave.

There were no miracle healers around; they were all cowering in fear in some locked room. There were no religious leaders praying for his restoration; they were praying the movement would die as conclusively as its leader. Nobody went near his tomb except a group of guards tasked with keeping it sealed and secured.

They never imagined the seal would be broken from within, not from without.

That one little fact of history was enough to turn this you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me religion into a tour de force in the Roman Empire and, eventually, across the entire planet. Because no human is capable of performing such a feat, it becomes clear that this founder – who didn’t amount to much of anything by our usual standards – wasn’t any mere human. He was evidently much more than that.

And that missing ingredient is not merely some tacked-on little factoid about the founder that is kind of cool but little more than a party trick. Rather, the surprise twist at the end of his life suddenly put his entire life and ministry into a whole new perspective far more effectively than any M Night Shayamalan movie. His life didn’t amount to much by our usual standards until one realizes that the entire message of his life had to be seen through the lens of his eventual plan to rise from the dead. When his life and teaching is viewed from that perspective it becomes clear that he is far more than anything our usual standards could possibly measure; his teachings far more valuable than just some insightful parables from a wise sage.

Lots of people aren’t thrilled with that “missing ingredient.” I get that. It’s a miracle, and we’re not supposed to believe in those because of “science.” And if God really walked among us then we should probably actually take what he said seriously, to the point of adjusting our entire lives within that new framework. And because Jesus said a whole lot of stuff that we’re not thrilled with I can see how people would be hesitant to hop on board.

I get it. It makes sense. In my honest moments I’d be happy to dismiss this whole thing as “weird” and call it a day, but it’s so weird that it demands an explanation if we are going to be intellectually honest. I understand why people might not like this particular “missing ingredient” explanation, but it does beg the question, “what’s your explanation?”

If not the resurrection, how would you explain Christianity?

I’ll bet your explanation is even weirder than Christianity itself!

Jesus’ resurrection – the argument from weirdness (pt 3)

In parts 1 and 2 of this series I tried to show just how weird the early church was. And if you’ve met folks in the church today you might say that not much has changed!

But when I talk about “weird” I don’t mean it in the sense of “Uncle George who embarrasses everybody at family gatherings with lame jokes and bad hygiene,” but in the sense of “this is so utterly bizarre that it demands an explanation.” But not just any explanation will do.

The missing ingredient

Obviously something is awry here. Even if you don’t believe the message of the New Testament – if you don’t believe in miracles, or God, or whatever – the fact that this collection of ancient books survived in so many numbers, in so many languages, across two full millennia is unusual. That it survived in vastly larger numbers than any other literature from that time of history is astounding.

That any book would have been so vigorously copied by hand – across centuries, continents and languages no less – is stunning enough. But when one considers the subject of this widely distributed book the subject matter makes the copying of the book all the more bizarre. The facts surrounding Jesus’ life make him appear, by any typical standards, to land somewhere between “modestly interesting individual, I suppose” and “nobody worth paying attention to.” It has been observed,

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He worked in a carpentry shop until he was thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. … He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never went to college. He never traveled more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompanies greatness.

Based on those facts alone – an irrelevant leader and uninspiring followers – this religion should have died the same day as its founder died. End of story. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

The fact that it continued at all is weird, and requires an explanation. And it would take a pretty amazing explanation to take all those strikes against it and offset them. These are the key points I really want to drive home:

  1. The rapid expansion of the early Church demands an explanation, and
  2. Whatever the explanation is, it must be grand enough to overwhelmingly offset the many strikes the early Church had against them.

If I were somebody living at that time and I were aware of the full range of the embarrassing / mockery-worthy facts about Jesus and his followers (which, I might remind you from the last essay, the early church wasn’t exactly shy about) then I’d want to know why in the world I should adhere to this religion. Why would anybody in their right mind commit themselves to a religion like this, especially with those bozos at the helm? It’s got nothing going for it, the founder was inconsequential, and it’s run by a bunch of losers. Despite all this, Christianity exploded across the Roman Empire without the use of “conversion at the end of a sword” which has proven remarkably effective at other points of history.

Christianity exploded across the Roman Empire on its own merits. After all, that’s all the early church had to work with. Yet it would seem to be devoid of merits.

Shrug it off?

Why can’t we just dismiss this as “ah, well, strange things happen now and then”? It would be tempting to just shrug it off and get on with life. The simple reason this cannot be dismissed is because of the magnitude of just how counter-intuitive this really is. Let’s consider some what-if scenarios.

If the “early church” was represented by only one of Jesus’ eleven remaining disciples who kept pushing his message despite his death, we might be able to ignore him as a lunatic. Or maybe a drunkard. If the other ten returned to their livelihoods and communities – dismissing the one guy who just couldn’t let it go – that might make sense. One crazy guy isn’t hard to explain, and there isn’t anything particularly unusual about that. We even have crazy people today.

That all the remaining eleven disciples unanimously began actively proclaiming the message of this obviously failed Messiah is a little harder to explain, but, if we get creative, we could probably come up with some kind of almost believable explanation. But here’s the kicker; “insanity” isn’t on that list any more. You can explain away an individual person’s bizarre behavior as a result of mental instability, but explaining eleven people’s bizarre behavior as a result of insanity rapidly strains credibility. There might be something in the water, or we could chalk it up to group-think; various other explanations could be considered. But the explanation for such behaviour grows a little more difficult.

But it gets worse.

These bizarre eleven devotees to a failed Messiah gathered followers. People converted to their religion. Two converts in particular deserve some consideration; James and Paul. History records (and, as I understand it, even non-Christian scholars will agree) that neither of these two gentlemen wanted anything to do with Jesus and his band of nutcase believers. Paul was one of the most zealous persecutors of the early church. James was Jesus’ brother and he was more than a little embarrassed by his older sibling. Not only had these guys refused to “drink the Kool-aid” so to speak, they were actively opposed to the whole thing.

Yet they converted. After Jesus had been executed. Paul became one of the most effective evangelists for Christianity the church has ever seen. Both of them contributed to the writing of the New Testament. It’s one thing to keep the “faithful” wrapped around your little finger despite the dishonourable execution of the leader, but quite another thing to convert active opponents of the church after the dishonourable execution of the leader. Good luck with that!

But wait; we’re not done with the weirdness yet.

How much harder to accomplish all this when this fledgling movement is well aware that the same fate is likely to befall any of them as just befell their leader? If you’re not sure what a crucifixion is all about, Mel Gibson gave us a glimpse of that in Passion of the Christ. Imagine watching that knowing full well that if you sign up for this religion what happened to its leader could very well happen to you. When death is on the line, people will think twice about jumping on the bandwagon.

But hold one, we’re still not done with the weirdness.

Then they expanded beyond Jerusalem. A Jewish sect, dripping in Judaic imagery and references, expanded beyond Israel. The Christian message ended up being preached across most of the Roman Empire (much of Europe, Middle East and North Africa) to audiences who never would have met Jesus, nor heard about him until after his execution! Think about that for a minute. Here’s this ridiculously depressing tale about some “nobody” you’ve never met who lived in the armpit of the Roman Empire, never did anything worth getting excited about, was surrounded by idiots and was eventually executed by the authorities. He’s the center of our worship. Want to join our movement?

Oh, and by the way, the Roman soldiers right behind me aren’t exactly my body guards. I’m wanted, and if you join our movement you’ll be in for some persecution yourself.

When the “offer” from the church is so self-evidently ridiculous, yet so many people (not just one or two lunatics) became so fiercely dedicated to it that they gave their lives for it – including many years of their lives hand-copying the record of this you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me Jesus fellow – this situation demands an explanation. This is not the kind of thing that any open-minded, intellectually honest individual can shrug off.

When something is kind-of weird, is limited to a small group of people, and passes away almost as quickly as it came on to the scene we might be excused for not giving it a whole lot of thought. But when something is weird in the defies-any-categories-of-understanding-we-might-normally-have sense of weird, involved a large – and ever expanding – group of people, and lasts 2,000 years, then we are no longer justified in dismissing it or ignoring it.

The underdog is back in the game

There must be some aspect of the message of the church – something about the person of Jesus – that not only puts him back in the game, but gives him such a commanding lead in the game that he eventually overturns the Roman Empire and provides the philosophical frame of reference from which much of Western Civilization has been operating since then. In fact, even today a full 1/3 of the human race is devoted to this nobody who got nailed to a piece of wood 2,000 years ago.

Whatever that “missing ingredient” was for Christianity, it must have been remarkable enough to cause the earliest disciples (per their own written records!) to stop cowering in fear and start proclaiming their allegiance to their recently executed founder.

And that “missing ingredient” had to also be amazing enough that those to whom they were speaking would actually take them seriously! Stop and think about that for a minute. If you lived through all these events and were there to see the bloody execution in person, and then those early believers said, “join us” wouldn’t your first reaction be, “Are you out of your [insert your expletive of choice here] mind?!?!” You wouldn’t need reminding that the authorities that capped their founder were still eager to squash this new religion, and they just finished demonstrating the lengths to which they would go to accomplish their purposes.

That anybody would join this religion is incomprehensible!

So that missing ingredient had to be something that not only offset all the “you’ve got to be kidding me” elements of the religion itself, this missing ingredient had to be something so outlandish, so remarkable, so awe-inspiring that people far and wide – separated by time, geography and culture – would passionately pass this new religion on to those around them and, in some cases, face their own execution in the name of the founder.

That “nobody” founder.

The executed founder.

The guy who never led an army, ran for office, wrote a book or even held his ministry job for more than a few years.

That’s one heck of a “missing ingredient” and only the intellectually lazy could shrug the whole thing off and dismiss it without serious inquiry.