Is Our Culture “Post-Christian”… or “Post-Secular”? Or Both? (w/ Book Review)

post-christian

UNDERSTANDING POST-CHRISTIAN CULTURE

Gene Edward Veith’s book Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Crossway, 2020) is more of a State of the Union Address than a call to arms. The topics covered in this book are wide and sweeping; and though Veith provides suggestions to the church sprinkled throughout on how to respond, overall the book is a photograph of the landscape — a statement on where we’re at in Western culture and where the church stands within that culture.

It’s a readable, relatively quick book for the amount of land it covers. He covers trends in modern Western thought, worldview, religion, science, technology, politics, sexuality, our ideas about reality, the body, truth, certainty, and even newer cultural phenomenons like intersectionality, transgenderism, transhumanism, genetic engineering, sex robots, and the loss of community. As I said, he covers a lot of ground! 

Veith’s work is insightful and important. As any decent missionary, pastor, or church planter can tell you, Christians need to understand the cultural context of where they’re doing ministry. Post-Christian is certainly a good guide to give us the big picture of the spirit of the age and the challenges facing the church.

 

POST-SECULAR?

Depending on how attuned someone is to the changing culture, some of the information in Post-Christian may be surprising. But perhaps what is most surprising is Veith’s conclusion that we’re not just living in a post-Christian culture, but also a post-secular culture. 

He writes that today’s current version of secularism, which is usually marked by a rejection of religion, is only “skin deep because under the surface we find interior spirituality—often vague and poorly thought through, drawing on pagan elements old and new.” God has created us to know him. So, we are — by nature and design — religious creatures, even if we deny it. Thus, when Christian faith is abandoned, other spirituality rushes in to fill the void.

This post-secular religion, the child of Western postmodern thinking, is a cafeteria of pick-and-choose, including things like astrology, reincarnation, nature spirits, and self-deification (seeking the “god within”) but all “wholly internalized, ethereal spirituality” — which, of course, makes no moral or convictional demands on the individual. In other words, they can be the “god” of their own reality; they can be spiritual without self-denial, self-sacrifice, or even inconvenience — a religion based solely on self. So, where God made humans in his own image (Genesis 1:27), humans are making God into their own image — or, at the very least, in their own preferences.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the growing movement of what I call “Technology Cults” —  people who are looking to merge biological life with technology (called transhumanism) to achieve eternal life and propel humankind to god-like status (not unlike something you’d see on Black Mirror, the Netflix series.) But all “new” heresies are really just old news. Mixed in with the new is also a lot of the old. For example, as more people return to ancient pagan (or “New Age”) practices, people contacting Christian churches looking for exorcisms have spiked!

Peter Jones in his book The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity’s Greatest Threat, draws the same conclusions about Western culture not just being post-Christian, but post-secular. He describes it as “the rebirth of ancient paganism, ” a “modern embrace of, principles originally found in the ancient spirituality of the pre-Christian, pagan world.” Jones writes, “Spirituality has become a do-it-yourself life hobby that blends ancient Eastern practices with modern consumer sensibilities.” And so, this is where the modern mantra “I’m spiritual, not religious” grows from.

Based on how things are going — despite what has been assumed (and often proclaimed by ardent atheists) — as “societies have grown more modern, they have not become less religious.” Perhaps much of secular culture has turned away from traditional religions — dreaded “organized religion” — but they’ve traded it in for disorganized religion. Veith concludes, “So scholars no longer accept the ‘secular hypothesis,’ the assumption that as a society becomes more modern, it becomes less religious.” Post-Christian does not mean post-religious.

 

THE DYING CHURCH?

Unfortunately, at the same time, religious institutions are becoming more secular, and the Christian church is not impervious to such things. This is not surprising as the battle between theologically liberal (mainline) and theologically conservative Christianity has raged for over 100 years. 

As another example of the dogged religiousness of humankind, the author writes about the (unintentionally ironic) “atheist church” movement, which has tried to have all the benefits of church without God. In one of Veith’s more humorous insights, he comments:

“Do you reject the existence of God except as a metaphor? Do you deny the authority and truth claims of the Bible? Do you believe traditional Christianity is outdated and oppressive? You might be an atheist. Or you might be a mainline [liberal] Protestant.”

As someone a lot smarter than me pointed out — something that is quite obvious — some time ago: Liberal Christianity and traditional, historical, biblical Christianity are not the same religion. They’re two totally different faiths. After all, as Veith plainly drew attention to, the beliefs of theologically liberal (mainline) Christians differ little from the beliefs of atheists. Therefore, “Post-Christian Christianity needs to be desecularized,” and even theologically conservative churches need to be aware of how the surrounding secular culture affects the thinking of their congregation (and leadership). 

It also has to be remembered that churches that have adopted secular or theologically liberal views have usually consciously done so to make themselves “relevant” to the culture, yet these liberal churches are the exact churches that have been in steady decline for decades. The liberal church is not thriving or growing. Think about it: If all the church is is a lousy imitation of the world, what does it have to offer that isn’t already readily available elsewhere?

 

BUT THE TRADITIONAL CHURCH IS DYING TOO, RIGHT?

So, the culture is growing more pagan. The liberal church is in steady decline. But what about the traditional, historical, conservative, orthodox, Bible-believing church? How is it doing? Isn’t it in decline too? Well, it all depends on how you look at it.

Yes, church attendance is down in general, but what seems to be happening is a “refining of the church.” Looking only at church attendance may be the easiest way to conduct a survey concerning Christian growth or decline, but it also has its limits. Based on the studies of Ed Stetzer, “The percentage of convictional Christians… has held steady over the years.” This may be the most surprising thing one finds in Post-Christian, but Veith (with Stetzer) isn’t the only one making this point. For instance, see Glenn Stanton’s book The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World. (For the record, I haven’t read Stanton’s book yet, but I’ve heard interviews with him — and others — making the same point.) 

Now, the thing to note in Stetzer’s assessment is that it is “convictional Christians” who are holding steady. Instead of just making general studies of church attendance or of anyone who labels themselves as “Christian,” Stetzer and Veith consider that calling oneself a “Christian” doesn’t make one a true follower of Christ. There’s a lot of cultural Christianity out there, folks. So, when we look at someone’s commitment to following Christ, church attendance of those who take their faith seriously — i.e. devout Christians — are not decreasing.

In fact, it looks like the more theologically conservative churches are growing steadily. The slight decline in attendance at evangelical churches over the years has to do with the “cultural Christians.” So, it’s not the case that devout Christians are leaving the faith in droves, but church-goers who never were invested much in the first place are coming clean. The growing acceptability of atheism has allowed these people to be honest on where they stand on God and the church: 

“The nominal believers are leaving. There is no longer a cultural pressure to be in church, so those who used to attend out of a desire to be socially respectable are no longer bothering… Increasingly, the only ones left in the churches are the true believers. Such defections, ironically, strengthen the church. Just as the refining process burns away the dross to extract the precious metal, the hostility of secularism is purifying the church.”

Mark Twain may or may not have once said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” It seems Christianity can say the same. 

In fact, the church is growing at an alarming — well, alarming to secularists anyhow — rate worldwide. “If the United States and Europe are becoming post-Christian, the rest of the world is rushing into Christianity.” Compare the 286 million Christians in 2010 in North American to the 544 million in Latin America, 493 million in Africa, and 352 million in Asia. Those who claim Christianity is “the white man’s religion” need to look at the global picture. By 2050, says religious scholar Philip Jenkins, only one-fifth of Christians will be “white.” In fact, the most common Christian worldwide today is a brown-skinned woman. Post-Christian even lays out how Scandinavian countries, upheld by many in the U.S. as secular utopias, have a solid, devout Christian presence.

Not only are church numbers growing worldwide, but the Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia take the Bible seriously. They’re theologically conservative. This, ironically, puts them at odds with many Western churches who have liberal leanings. Some theologically liberal denominations are finding their denominational brothers and sisters in other countries aren’t willing to set aside the Bible to conform to secular cultural demands.

This was seen recently when the United Methodists voted to overturn certain policies concerning homosexuality; it was the African United Methodists who kept the church where it has traditionally (and biblically) stood for centuries. (And now it’s looking like the United Methodists, which is considered primarily a liberal denomination in the U.S., may split in two.) Let Veith point out the irony: “Western liberal theologians — whose social gospel praises multiculturalism, denounces Western colonialism, and lauds racial diversity — now find themselves as a beleaguered white minority in opposition to black Africans.” 

Veith concludes, “In this vast sea of faith, Americans and Europeans occupy a small island of secularism, like teenagers fixated on their cell phones, oblivious to what is happening all around them. It turns out that this is not a post-Christian world after all.”

 

*I received a review copy of Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (2020) by Gene Edward Veith Jr. from publisher Crossway.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints (Mormons) & the Titles of God: Almighty God, mighty god, Jehovah, Elohim

MormonMissionaries

This is a continuation of an earlier GFTM mini-series addressing Jehovah’s Witnesses, but let’s include another religious group that may come knocking on your door…

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

How Can Jesus Be “Firstborn of All Creation” Yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19.

If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:6 (& 1:18)

KNOCK, KNOCK. J.W., WHO? ALMIGHTY GOD VS. MIGHTY GOD

Sometimes more savvy Jehovah’s Witnesses will point out that theos and the Hebrew equivalent elohim, which are usually translated “God,” are titles that can be also applied to powerful humans or spiritual beings. They’ll appeal to Jesus’ words in John 10:34-36 about Psalm 82:1, 6-7 (“Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?”) to show that some beings that aren’t the one-and-only God can be called (lower-case-“g”) “gods.” They’ll point out that within Christian scripture the apostle Paul even calls the evil spiritual being Satan “the god [theos] of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are correct that “god” (theos, elohim) is a title, not God’s personal name. (And don’t forget we can’t look for capitalization in the Greek and Hebrew to denote proper names.) And where I would agree with Jehovah’s Witnesses that every use of theos and elohim don’t necessarily refer to the one-and-only God of the Bible (though this is plainly the exception rather than the norm), there are still three big challenges to trying to use these passages to justify the Jehovah’s Witness view of Jesus as a special creation who is higher than the angels but lower than God.

The first challenge can be brought into the light by simply asking Jehovah’s Witnesses a question: Are Satan and these other “gods” false gods or true gods? I’d be surprised if any Jehovah’s Witness would answer, “True gods.” Thus, according to Jehovah’s Witness thinking, Satan and these others are false gods. An interesting follow up question is, “Is Jesus a false god or true god?” The Jehovah’s Witness should answer, “True.” Now, doesn’t that mean Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in two Gods — Jehovah and Jesus? Yet, Jehovah’s Witnesses insist they believe in only one God.

The second challenge has to do with how Jehovah’s Witnesses may respond to this first set of questions. Jehovah’s Witnesses make a distinction that Jehovah is the “Almighty God” and Jesus is the “mighty god.” Again, I would spotlight the issue with a question: If Jesus is “mighty god,” how is he different from Satan and these other false “mighty gods”? Clearly, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own beliefs, Jesus is unique from God, but also unique from these other “gods.” So, it appears the Jehovah’s Witnesses have invented a category to place Jesus in that doesn’t exist in the Bible. 

If your Jehovah’s Witness friend doesn’t find this convicting, you can simply point him or her to passages that show this sharp distinction between Jehovah as “Almighty God” and Jesus as “mighty god” isn’t in the Bible, because “Jehovah” is sometimes called “Mighty God.”

When you see “the LORD” in all caps in the English Old Testament, the Hebrew originally reads YHWH or “Yahweh,” which is God’s proper name. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version of the Bible, the New World Translation, replaces all of these with “Jehovah.” It’s not a bad idea to show them these verses in their own Bible, but I’ll continue to use the ESV translation here:

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the LORD [“Jehovah”], the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty [gibbor] God [el].  (Isaiah 10:20–21)

…I prayed to the LORD [“Jehovah”], saying: “Ah, Lord [adonai] GOD [“Jehovah”]! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. You show steadfast love to thousands, but you repay the guilt of fathers to their children after them, O great and mighty [gibbor] God [el], whose name is the LORD [“Jehovah’] of hosts…” (Jeremiah 32:16–18)

Yes, the LORD (“Jehovah” in the Jehovah’s Witnesses New World Translation, but “Yahweh” in the Hebrew) is also called “mighty God.”

 

KNOCK, KNOCK. L.D.S., WHO? WHO’S JEHOVAH ANYWAY?

Please allow me to address our LDS (Latter-day Saint a.k.a. Mormon) friends. Afterall, I don’t want our Jehovah’s Witness friends to feel like I’m picking on them by only signaling them out. Jehovah’s Witnesses put a lot of religious significance in knowing the name of the one true God, which they say is “Jehovah.” Since they deny the Trinity, they distinguish Jesus from Jehovah, making Jesus a lower-case “god” — not Jehovah, but an elohim. Interestingly, Latter-day Saints do the exact opposite: According to LDS beliefs, Jesus is “Jehovah” and God the Father is Elohim.

First, what’s up with the hangup some religious groups have with the name “Jehovah”? It’s been well-established that “Jehovah” is a mispronunciation. Can we move on? 

Secondly, we only have to look at a few passages of the Bible to see that this sharp LDS distinction between “Jehovah” and Elohim is mistaken.

To begin, in Genesis, Jacob refers to Issac’s God (the God of Abraham) as “the LORD your God” — that is, “Yahweh [“Jehovah”] your Elohim” (Genesis 27:20). In Deuteronomy 6:4, we find one of the most important religious confessions of the Jewish people: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD [“Jehovah”] our God [elohim], the LORD [“Jehovah”] is one.”

Next, during the same exact event where God appears to Moses in the burning bush and gives his proper name, we find:

Then Moses said to God [elohim], “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God [elohim] of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God [elohim] said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD [Yahweh, “Jehovah,” literally “I am”], the God [elohim] of your fathers, the God [elohim] of Abraham, the God [elohim] of Isaac, and the God [elohim] of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exodus 3:13-15)

With this, sometimes we find the name Yahweh (“Jehovah”) paired up with elohim when speaking of the one-and-only God. Isaiah 10:23-24 calls God “the Lord GOD of hosts.” In Hebrew, “the Lord GOD” is “adonai Yahweh.” [1] We see the same exact thing — “adonai Yahweh” — in other examples in Ezekiel 34: 15, 17, and 20.

Finally, LDS will affirm that the famous prophecy in Isaiah 9:6 is about the birth of Jesus, yet in it we find Jesus called “Mighty God,” that is, “Might Elohim” [2]:

For to us a child is born… and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God… (Isaiah 9:6)

So, just like the sharp distinction Jehovah’s Witnesses make between “Almighty God” and “mighty god” doesn’t hold up to biblical scrutiny, neither does the LDS distinction between “Jehovah” and Elohim.

[1]  adon, a form of adonai.

[2] Literally, in Hebrew, “gibbor el.” El is singular for elohim

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

 

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

 

If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:16 (& 1:18)

Confidence in Christ v2

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 3) Harmonizing the Empty Tomb Accounts

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

READ PART 2: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

 

To review from last article, when reading ancient biographies, like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Now, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

 

MAKING SENSE OF MATTHEW’S ACCOUNT

Selective Chronology doesn’t really come into play with the accounts of the women and the empty tomb with the exception of — possibly — Matthew’s Gospel. This isn’t surprising since Matthew is the Gospel writer who most arranges things thematically and the one who regularly gives condensed versions of accounts that read very differently than the other Gospels’ accounts. 

When you read it, it’s easy to visualize what Matthew writes as unfolding as follows: 

(1) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb, (2) an earthquake happens, (3) an angel descends, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it. (4) The guards pass out. (5) Still sitting on the stone, the angel speaks to the women. 

But I don’t think this is the chronological order of these events. Is Matthew using “creative license” here with chronology? The other accounts make no mention of the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the actual rolling away of the stone. Matthew is the only one to mention these events, and it makes sense that they would have happened before the women arrived because the other accounts report the women find the stone already rolled away upon arrival (and they encounter the angle inside the tomb). 

I think the description of the angel rolling back the stone and the guards fainting is a flashback to what happened before the women arrived. I believe it’s acceptable to read Matthew’s account as: 

(1) An earthquake occurred, (2) an angel descended, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it. (3) The guards pass out. (4) Later, the women arrive (the guards have likely awoken and run off by now), and the women find the empty, open tomb. (5) The angel (no longer on the stone) speaks to the women inside the tomb.

Thus, the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the guards’ falling into unconsciousness is a flashback sandwiched between Matthew telling us the women went to the tomb and the angel speaking to the women. So, Matthew can be understood as follows:

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, [before they arrived] there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But [after the women arrived] the angel said to the women [inside the tomb], “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen… (Matthew 28:1–6)

After looking at the other Gospel accounts, we see that Matthew drastically condensed his account, taking many shortcuts in his retelling, but giving the key elements. Because of Matthew’s “shortcuts,” it’s easy to visualize his account differently had we not had the other accounts to compare it to.

 

HARMONIZING THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS

But the big differences just don’t appear in Matthew, as we touched on in the last article. Understanding the ancient (and non-ancient) writing conventions we looked at in the last article will now continue to assist us as we put the pieces of the four Gospels together to get a complete picture of the events surrounding the finding of the empty tomb.

Based on a careful reading of all four Gospels, I believe the events played out in the following way:

  • An earthquake occurs, the angel descends and rolls back the stone before the tomb’s entrance and sits on it, and the guards “become like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4)
  • Sometime later, around dawn, Mary Magdalene and other women go to the tomb. (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-3, Luke 23:55-24:1, John 20:1)
    • Selective Representation – John only mentions Mary Magdalene and the other writers mention select women with her.
  • Mary Magdalene and the other women find the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance. (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1)
  • Mary Magdalene splits from the other women and runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2) 
    • We’ll pick back on Mary Magdalene’s path below…
  • The remaining women enter the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing. (Mark 16:5-6, Luke 24:3)
    • No specific women are named here — just a general reference to the women entering the tomb. Because of this, it’s easy to imagine Mary Magdalene still with them when we read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but we know from John’s Gospel she has run off.
  • The women see at least two angels in the tomb.
    • Selective Representation – Luke mentions two angels, where Mark 16:5 and Luke 24:4 mention one, likely the one speaking.
  • The women are told Jesus is risen (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:5-7)
    • If we only had Matthew’s account, we can imagine the conversation taking place outside the tomb. Matthew’s condensed version leaves out the details of them entering the tomb.
  • The women are told to go tell the disciples (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:7, Luke 24:8-10).

 

A CHALLENGE IN MARK’S ACCOUNT

After this, both Matthew and Luke tell us the women go and tell the disciples, but Mark seems to make a big issue for us: Mark tells us the women flee the tomb in fear and tell no one! This is where his Gospel ends. How do we rectify this?

One common way, which I’ve encountered many times, is to say that the women at first didn’t tell anyone, yet we know from the witness of the other Gospels that they eventually did. It’s often said that Mark chose to end his Gospel at this moment to emphasize what Christians are not to do. Christians are not to “keep it to themselves,” but share the good news of Jesus Christ. I’ll let you decide if this is a reasonable solution to Mark’s ending, but based on what we talked about concerning ancient writing, I think we have another, better option.

I believe it’s possible that Mark is using Selective Representation. So, just like we had a person split off from the group when Mary Magdalene ran off after seeing the open tomb, here we have another split in the group of women: Some of the women listened to the angel and ran off to tell the disciples where another section of the group ran off and didn’t tell anyone. Mark is only focusing on those women who didn’t tell.

After all, Matthew tells us the women left the tomb with both “fear and great joy” [emphasis mine]. Are both groups of women in sight here in Matthew? Luke gives us a general statement about “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” telling the disciples, the same women named at the beginning of his account.  Salmone is the only woman named in any of the Gospels (in Mark’s Gospel) but not named here in Luke. Was she one of the unnamed “other women” in Luke or was she one of the women who didn’t tell anyone about Jesus’ empty tomb? Mark is the only one to name Salmone, and Mark is the only one to include that (some of) the women didn’t tell anyone. 

So, to continue our timeline:

  • Women Group A runs off and tells no one. (Mark 16:8)
  • Women Group B runs off to tell the disciples and meets the risen Jesus. (Matthew 28:8-10)
  • Women Group B tells the disciples all they experienced, but the disciples doubt it. (Luke 24:11)
    • Luke 24:11 includes Mary Magdalene here. We can assume she joins back with the other women later when she returns to the disciples. Even if that’s not the case, this is just a general statement by Luke about who told the disciples about the risen Jesus. 
    • This is where Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s account begin to overlap again with the other Gospels.
  • But Peter runs to the empty tomb (Luke 24:12, John 20:3-9)
  • Peter returns home. (Luke 24:12, John 20:10)

 

JOHN’S GOSPEL & MARY MAGDALENE

Backing up in time a bit and returning to Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s Gospel:

  • After Mary Magdalene leaves the other women at the open tomb, she runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2)
    • *IMPORTANT DETAIL TO NOTE: Mary says to Peter and John, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and *WE* do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:2) Mary was NOT alone when she found the tomb missing.
  • Peter and John run to the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing and burial clothes laying inside. (John 20:3-9)
    • Selective Representation – Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
  • Peter and John head back home. (John 20:10)
    • Selective Representation – Again, Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
  • Mary weeps at the tomb. She has either arrived after Peter and John left (since they literally ran there – John 20:4-6) or she arrived while they were still there and remained after they headed back. (John 20:11)
  • Mary looks inside the tomb and sees two angles, who speak to her. (John 20:11-13)
  • She turns and encounters the resurrected Jesus. (John 20:14-17)
  • Mary goes and tells the disciples she has seen the risen Jesus. (John 20:18, Luke 24:10)

There’s room for other interpretations within my timeline of these events, but I think this is a plausible option for harmonizing the four accounts of the women finding the empty tomb of Jesus and — more importantly — encountering the risen Lord himself.

All glory to Christ!

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

READ PART 2: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

Related GFTM articles:

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 1 – Differences or Contradictions?

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 7 of 7 – Positive Evidence: Going on the Offensive

 

Visit my ministry site: confidenceinchrist.net

Confidence in Christ v2

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

 

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

THE PROBLEM OF 4 ACCOUNTS

To get the most out of this short blog series, I suggest taking some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into some major challenges: All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

For instance, in Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb. In Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), and Salmone go to the tomb. In Luke, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), Joanna, and “other women” go. And in John, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned.

Further, in Matthew, it appears that an earthquake happens, an angel in a dazzling white robe rolls back the stone in front of the tomb’s entrance and sits on it as the Roman guards pass out from fear. Then, it seems, the angel speaks to the women from atop the stone about Jesus’ resurrection. 

Yet, in Luke, the women find the stone already rolled away from the tomb’s entrance when they arrive, and once they go inside, two angels in dazzling clothes announce Jesus’ resurrection. The women go and tell Jesus’ disciples.

In Mark, the women seemingly find only one angel in the open tomb, and the angel tells them to go tell Jesus’ disciples. Yet, the women flee in fear and say “nothing to anyone”!

And in John, it seems Mary Magdalene alone finds the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance and Jesus’ body missing. She runs to tell Peter and John. After Peter and John race to the empty tomb, they leave, and then Mary encounters two angels and the risen Jesus. She, then, goes and tells Jesus’ disciples.

As you undoubtedly see, all four of these share similar key details but have considerable differences. What are we to make of this, and can the differences be rectified? Do we have to accept that the Gospel writers got the “big” details correct, but got the “smaller” details wrong?

 

UNDERSTANDING THE GOSPELS AS ANCIENT BIOGRAPHY

First, we need to understand some basic characteristics of ancient historical writing. The Gospels reflect the style of ancient biographies. In short, these ancient biographies sometimes used literary devices that may seem a bit odd to us today.

This has been thoroughly documented by Michael Licona in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography as well as elsewhere. What follows is my own simplified explanation and own phraseology, some of which differs from Licona. For a more in depth look at this, along with many more examples from the Gospels, see my earlier GFTM blog 7-part series: The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

Once we understand these ancient literary conventions (which, in truth, most are used by modern writers as well), the chain-of-events surrounding the empty tomb will fall into place. Understanding this will not just help here in understanding the differences between these passages, but will help any time you read parallel passages across the Gospels and notice differences.

 

1. Selective Details

First, writers must leave out much more than they include in a retelling of true events. All good writers are selective in what details they include, and they select those details for a specific purpose.

Keep in mind, a difference and a contradiction aren’t the same thing. Writers may select certain details to emphasize something while totally ignoring other details another writer may include. That’s not a contradiction. Things that contradict can’t both be true. So, when we’re looking at parallel passages, we have to ask ourselves: Can the differences all be true without contradiction?

 

2. Paraphrasing

Differences in dialogue between Gospels can be understood with two simple concepts.

First of all, the authors are likely not giving us the full dialogue but only selective sections.

Second of all, the dialogue — or at least parts of it — might be a paraphrase. Though modern Bibles have quotation marks around dialogue, quotation marks didn’t exist in ancient Greek. Also, keep in mind, Jesus likely taught primarily in Aramaic, but the Gospels were written in Greek. Thus, we don’t know if what is written is supposed to be a word-for-word representation or a paraphrase or a summary. 

Even in modern times, when telling a true story, people rarely repeat the dialogue verbatim. Instead, they sum up the dialogue by paraphrasing.

 

3. Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)

Next, think of a telescope. A telescope can be extended to its full length or it can be compressed to a much smaller size. Ancient historians sometimes give a longer account with more details, but sometimes they compress the account, cut out details, and tell it in abbreviated form. To understand this better, share about a true event with your friend and take a good five minutes or more to tell it. Afterwards, tell the same story again but in 30 seconds.

To illustrate telescoping (as well as some other literary concepts covered here) let me tell you about Paterson, New Jersey and mixed martial arts fighter Jon Jones. 

Established in 1792, Paterson, NJ is the first planned industrial city in the United States, thanks to Alexander Hamilton and a 77-foot waterfall called the Great Falls on the Passaic River. The Great Falls produced a lot of energy for running mills, making Paterson a major player during the Industrial Revolution. Not only was the city known for its cotton, wool, and (later) silk mills, but the first locomotives and the first Colt revolvers where manufactured there. I taught high school English for 16 years in downtown Paterson, a short walk from the Great Falls. It’s an interesting sight: A huge waterfall in the middle of one of the most urban areas of the United States. In 2011, the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was established thanks to President Obama.

In 2011, I had been involved in martial arts for about as long as I had been teaching in Paterson when I heard the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) was coming to Newark, NJ. On March 19, 2011, Jon “Bones” Jones would fight Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the light heavyweight belt. I bought my tickets and was anxiously awaiting fight night when these two very different parts of my world collided.

On the day of the fight, Jon Jones had visited the Great Falls. But the really exciting news was that he had stopped a thief from stealing a woman’s purse while there. I was at work when I heard this, barely a block away from where this happened, so I got on the internet as soon as I could to find out more details. Evidently, Jon Jones had gone to the Great Falls to relax before his big fight and, instead, found himself using his martial arts skills to take down a bad guy not unlike a comic book hero.

So, here’s how all this about Paterson, Jon Jones, and the Gospels intersect: As I read various online articles about the incident — some very short, some longer — it was interesting to see how different articles gave different details. Longer articles would fill in details that the shorter articles left out. The shorter articles took shortcuts in retelling the story. It wasn’t until after reading several different articles that I felt like I had a full picture of what happened.

For example, one article only mentioned that Jones stopped a thief who stole a woman’s purse, so in my head I was picturing a purse-snatching or mugging. But another article explained that the purse was grabbed through the window of a parked car. One article only stated that Jones chased down and physically stopped the thief, where another gave the detail that a double-leg takedown (a standard wrestling move) was involved.

This is similar to the differences we find between the four Gospels. Ancient writers write differently than we’re used to and we can’t expect them to write like modern newspaper reporters, but there are shared similarities. In their articles, modern reporters select the details they will or will not share; sometimes they include direct quotes and sometimes they paraphrase or summarize what someone said; they “telescope” — sometimes they retell the events in a longer format or they compress it all into a shorter telling.

Finally, they also use “Selective Representation.”

 

4. Selective Representation

Selective Representation is when an ancient writer only focuses on one person instead of everyone involved. At other times, the writer may focus on several people to represent the larger group. This explains why Matthew and Mark mention only one angel in the empty tomb, but Luke mentions two. Matthew and Mark appear to be only focusing on one, likely the one who spoke. Let me point out this isn’t a contradiction. It would be a contradiction if one of the writers claimed that there was only one angel in the tomb, which none of the writers do. 

Likewise, this explains why Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention different women with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb and John only mentions Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is the most known of the women, so John only focuses on her. This may seem odd to us today to not mention the other women with her at all, but even modern writers do this. When I read the articles about Jon Jones stopping the purse thief, several writers only mentioned Jon Jones being involved. It wasn’t until I read other articles that I learned that Jon Jones’ trainers were also involved in chasing and stopping the thief! Thus, some of the articles focused only on the person with the big name, the most famous person involved — Jon Jones. Likewise, John’s Gospel only focuses on the “big name” of the women, the most “famous” person involved — Mary Magdalene. Again, let me point out that this isn’t a contradiction. For it to be a contradiction, John would have had to written that only Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty.

 

5. Selective Chronology

Of these literary conventions used by ancient authors, this may be the one that is most odd to us today. Ancient writers, even when retelling true events, didn’t feel as compelled as us today to place things in chronological, linear fashion. Ancient writers used more flexibility in narrative sequence than modern writers. In other words, they were okay with moving things around to emphasize a point. Sometimes they organized things in topical or thematic groups. The overall structure of the story remains the same, but the smaller units within the bigger framework may be moved around. 

For example, in Matthew 13 we find several parables of Jesus with similar messages. Did Jesus say all of these parables one-after-another or did Matthew lump these parables with similar themes together? Either option is possible. 

Another example: When did Jesus drive the merchants out of the Temple? John has it happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but the other three Gospels has him doing it at the end. One possible explanation is that John is using Selective Chronology to emphasize Jesus’ zeal at the beginning of his Gospel. (Of course, another simple explanation is that Jesus drove out the merchants twice — once towards the beginning and once towards the ending of his ministry.) 

To sum up, when reading ancient biographies like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Next, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

NEXT: The third (and final) article in this series: Harmonizing the empty tomb accounts.

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

READ Part 1 of The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WOMEN WITNESSES 

Women-at-tomb

After Jesus’ arrest, Peter — one of Jesus closest disciples — denied association with Jesus three times and the rest of the remaining 12 “inner circle” disciples ran off, abandoning Jesus (Mark 14:50). Even if we were to take a skeptical stance when reading the Gospels, this doesn’t seem like an invented detail by the early church since it certainly doesn’t make the disciples look good; these same men would be leading the early church, especially Peter. It was the woman who stayed by Jesus to watch him die on the cross (along with John)(Matthew 27:55; Luke 23:49; John 19:25-27), and it was the women to first see him alive afterwards.

The New Testament Gospels report that at least five women, several who are named, including Mary Magdalene, were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty, and Jesus’ first post-crucifixion appearances were to Mary Magdalene and (at least some of) these other women (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18). Considering that in first-century Israel women’s testimony wasn’t taken seriously, even in a court of law, this is an interesting detail.

The Talmud, a written commentary on the Jewish oral law, gives us insight into attitudes towards women in first-century Israel when it puts the testimony of women as witnesses on the same level as gamblers (dice-players and pigeon-racers, to be exact) and slaves [1]. A well-known morning prayer for Jewish men thanks God that “You have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” With this, first-century Jewish historian Josephus writes:

“But let not a single witness be credited; but three, or two at the least; and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.15)

In fact, when the women share that they witnessed Jesus alive, the disciples don’t take them seriously (Luke 24:10-11) — yet another detail not likely to be invented; it certainly makes the future leaders of the church look clueless. Even 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, an important early confession of the church, mentions numerous eyewitnesses of the resurrection by name but leaves out naming any women. (We can assume the women were numbered with the 500 unnamed witnesses it mentions.)

So, the big question is: Why would all four Gospel writers claim that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection when no one in their culture would take the testimony of women seriously? Even in the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus mocked Christianity as a religion based on the testimony of Mary Magdalene, a “half-frantic woman.” [2]

Therefore, it seems unlikely the Gospel writers would invent this detail if they were only looking to convince people of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, this detail points towards the opposite: The Gospel writers were more concerned with reporting what they believed to be true than creating a story of mass appeal. 

The combination of the embarrassing details of Peter’s denial and the male disciples’ abandonment of Jesus; the absurdity of worshipping a crucified God-man to first-century Jews and Romans (which I wrote about before); and the first witnesses of the resurrection being women all are details very unlikely to be invented if the Gospels were mere fictions, especially if they were invented to win converts to a new religion. 

 

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

As I pointed out before, when we read the retelling of the same event in more than one Gospel, sometimes they’re told differently and this often causes confusion. (Let me point out, this is often the case when reading four independent accounts of any incident.) For instance, the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke share key details but are also extremely different, almost seeming like two different stories. But when we read them carefully, we can figure out how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Much of Matthew’s account — including the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt — occur later than many of the events recorded in Luke’s account, perhaps months or even a year or two after Jesus’ birth.

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into the same challenge but worse. All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

Take some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

Next article, we’ll tackle how to understand these differences.

NEXT: Differences vs. Contradictions & the Gospels as Ancient Biographic Literature

[1] Rosh Hashannah 1.8

[2] Quoted by Origen in Against Celsus.

If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:16 (& 1:18)

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Previous posts:

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

MONOGENES

The fact that Jesus is sometimes called “only begotten” causes a lot of confusion (and is, likewise, emphasized by our Jehovah’s Witness friends).

The King James Version famously says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” John 1:18 in the King James Version also reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”

If Jesus is the eternal Son of the Trinity, how could he be “begotten”? This is a valid question. I always wondered myself how the early church justified the Son being both eternal and begotten.

First, why are we – today – still saying “begotten”? Can’t we update to “born” already? Have you ever said, “Congratulations on your newly begotten daughter”? But I digress.

Secondly, the Greek word mongenes that is sometimes translated “only begotten” can also be translated as “one and only” (as the NIV does) or “unique” or simply “only” (as the ESV and NRSV do). In fact, if you were to do a study of all the available Bible translations, you’d notice something: It’s usually the older versions that translate it as “only begotten.” Why is this?

This is because Greek scholars used to think the two smaller words that form the compound word monogenes (“mono” + “genes”) meant “only” (mono) and “to beget” (gennao). But after discovering and studying more and more ancient Greek writings, it became clear that the second word wasn’t from the Greek word gennao (to beget), but genos (class, kind). The term monogenes literally means “one of a kind.” To understand monogenes as “only birthed” or “only born” is incorrect. New Testament scholar Michael S. Heiser describes “only begotten” as an “unfortunately confusing translation.”

The definitive Greek to English lexicon (BDAG!) give only two definitions for mongenes: “[pertaining] to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” and “[pertaining] to being the only one of its kind or class, unique (in kind).” [1] Notice, BDAG only gives two definitions for monogenes; neither are “only born.”

 

BEGOTTEN, NOT MADE

The theologians who created two important creeds of the early church clearly didn’t take “begotten” literally. These creeds were statements of faith based on a close study of the Bible. 

In the Nicene Creed (325 AD), Jesus is described as “eternally begotten of the Father.” How can one be eternally born? The creed goes on to describe Jesus as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” and then they wrote this: “begotten, not made.” Seems to me they’re emphasizing that “begotten” shouldn’t be taken literally. 

The main purpose of the Athanasian Creed (500 AD) is to explain the Trinity. It states, “That we worship one God in Trinity…  The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated…. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.  And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal.” It goes on to say, “The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten.” Clearly, the hardcore Trinitarians that wrote out this long creed to explain the Trinity as precisely as possible didn’t see any contradiction is calling Jesus “eternal” and “uncreated” but also “begotten.” This is a big clue that “begotten” isn’t being used in a literal sense.

Still don’t believe me? God calls Isaac Abraham’s “only son” three times (in Hebrew) during the event of Abraham’s way-too-close sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Then, the Greek word monogenes is used by the author of Hebrews in the New Testament to describe Abraham’s son Isaac: 

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only [monogenes] son.” (Hebrews 11:17)

Isaac was neither Abraham’s only son nor first son. Before Isaac’s birth through Sarah, Abraham had his son Ishmael with Hagar. Monogenes illustrates Isaac’s unique relationship with his father and special status to his father, just as Jesus, God the Son, holds a unique relationship with and special status to God the Father. 

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 894). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Previous posts:

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ

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