Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – Would Ancient Jews or Romans Invent a Crucified God?

Alexamenos Graffiti

As we explore what the ancient Romans thought of Christians, it’s worth taking a little more time to speak of the absurdity to Roman sensibilities that Christians would worship a crucified person.

Crucifixion – It Ain’t Pretty

One doesn’t have to contemplate crucifixion long to grasp the ultimate horror of it. Simply imagine being laid out naked on a rough wooden beam and spikes being driven through your wrists or forearms and feet or ankles. Some ropes may be used to prevent your flesh from ripping to prevent you from falling from the cross once it has been stood upright. As gravity pulls your bodyweight down on the stakes that have been driven through your flesh and bones, then begins the long wait for your slow death to play out – in public for all to see, in the heat of the sun and chill of the night.

A small, slanted piece of wood for your feet to sit on helps support a bit of your weight. Some studies say the weight of your body and the position of your outstretched arms may have made it hard to breath, and thus, the crucified would have to push up on the spikes piercing their feet and pull up on the spikes through their arms to raise their bodies enough to a position to take in good, deep breaths of air.

Torture usually preceded crucifixion. With the Romans, this often came in the form of being beaten by a leather whip with bits of metal and bones weaved into it to rip the flesh, exposing muscle and bone. Once hung on the cross, the cause of death could be many things: shock from loss of blood, exhaustion, suffocation, exposure, or any combination.

What Did Ancient People Think of Crucifixion?

Martin Hengel in his book Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross looks at ancient historical sources and brings to light several things about this cruelest form of execution.

Crucifixion, wide-spread in antiquity, was seen as the ultimate deterrent. A risk that may lead one to be put up on that cross was a risk not worth taking. The cruel and public (not to mention inexpensive) nature of crucifixion was an appealing tool in keeping order. After being tortured, the Romans made the victim carry his own cross to the crucifixion location. After death, the executed was left on the cross as food for wild animals and birds of prey. To ancient people, the victim going unburied would have grim religious significance. It was all a brutal, public spectacle.

In the Roman Empire, the elite inflicted crucifixion primarily on the lower classes (especially slaves), violent criminals, and rebellious upstarts. Such criminals held no rights in the Roman world, and any challenge to the Roman authority would not be tolerated.

What Hengel displays convincingly is that crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation and offense to the Romans. It was a slave’s death. It had such a stigma, the word “crucifixion” itself was not used in polite company. Even writings mentioning this horrible practice avoided using the word. Among the lower classes “crux” was considered one of the most derogatory, offensive things you could say to a person. Having a family member hung on a cross was disgraceful. In no uncertain terms, crucifixion was scandalous to the ancient Romans (and Jews) and a source of dread.

Why is this significant to Christians today?

First, if the first Christians of the first century had decided to invent a story so they could start a new religion (for whatever motivation), creating a story about a crucified God-man who rose from the dead would not be the way to do it. In fact, it would be a good way to make sure your new religion died a quick death. The idea of following the teachings of a crucified man would have been scandalous and offensive to the extreme. If a Jewish or Roman family would have been ashamed and humiliated knowing one of their own family members had been punished by crucifixion, why would anyone want to adamantly declare that they worship a crucified person?  The idea of worshiping a crucified God-man would sound more absurd to ancient Jewish and Roman ears than to modern, secular ears.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… 

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Our second concluding point is this: when we get a clearer understanding of the terror and dehumanizing nature of crucifixion, we understand more fully the length Christ went to because of his love for us. Hengel writes, “Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.”

“Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11)

Read Part 1: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

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Want to partner with me as I defend the faith and give a reason for the hope of Christ to college students at Rutgers University? Learn more by clicking here.

 

Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

Alexamenos Graffiti

The above photo is of the earliest known visual depiction of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, it doesn’t come from an ancient church or even from Christian hands. It’s a piece of ancient graffiti scratched into a wall in Rome, dated to just before 200 AD. In it, a man looks upon a naked man with a donkey’s head crucified on a cross. The Greek reads, “Alexamenos worships god.”

When studying history, what is sometimes called “enemy attestation” is considered the strongest sort of evidence. The idea is that all historical writings have the bias of the authors, so a historical record from a certain people about themselves will likely have a positive spin. On the other hand, historical writings about those same people by those who opposed them will likely have a negative spin. Thus, enemy attention is valuable when it affirms the same information as the other side. Such harmony is of high value to the historian.

The ancient graffiti above appears to have been created by a Roman mocking Christian beliefs. The graffiti artist degrades the beliefs of the Christian Alexamenos for worshipping a crucified man, going so far as to portray Alexamenos’ God with the head of an ass.

This piece of enemy attestation from just before 200 AD not only confirms the crucifixion of Jesus, but also confirms that ancient Christians worshipped Jesus as a God. (This is confirmed in the earliest Roman writings about Christians as well.)

This is significant to Christians today because many modern skeptics often explain away Christian beliefs about Jesus as legends that developed long after Christ walked the earth. A popular claim (which is not argued in the academic world but lives on thanks to the internet and the book The Da Vinci Code) is that Jesus was deified at the Council of Nicea over 300 years after Jesus’ ministry or, at least, some time after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD and – as the dead theory goes – mixed pagan beliefs with Christian beliefs. This simple piece of scratched slander on a Roman wall alone disproves that theory.

Another point of interest about this piece of crude ancient art is that it gives us a glimpse into what the ancient Romans thought of this strange new cult that worshipped a crucified God-man.

In this series, we’ll look more at what the Romans thought of Christians and see how it helps us to understand our faith today.

NEXT: The folly of the Cross continued…

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Want to partner with me as I defend the faith and give a reason for the hope of Christ to college students at Rutgers University? Learn more by clicking here.

The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

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Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Inclusivism VS. Exclusivism

In article #2 of this series, we started exploring the idea of inclusivism – the idea that salvation can be attained apart from the knowledge of Jesus (though Jesus’ work was necessary for salvation to be available, even if through a faith other than Christianity). So, we asked, “Is this idea biblical?”

We concluded inclusivism does NOT hold up under biblical scrutiny and concluded that the clear stance of the Bible is exclusivism: salvation is only found in faith in Christ alone.

Before we move on in this series, I wanted to quickly give one more explanation why Christianity is an exclusivist religion.

It comes down to this: Christianity isn’t exclusivist because certain verses say so; Christianity is exclusivist because the whole biblical explanation of reality leads to exclusivism. Those verses we looked at in the last article are simply confirming the exclusivist storyline of the Bible.

And it comes down to three things:

the nature of God,

the nature of humankind, and

the nature of Christ.

If what the Bible says about the nature of God and the nature humankind are true, then the ONLY hope for salvation is Jesus Christ.

 

THE NATURE OF GOD

First, God is perfectly good, righteous, holy, and just.

 

THE NATURE OF HUMANKIND

Secondly, all of humankind has sin. Thus, all of humanity – every individual human being – is separated from our perfectly good, righteous, holy, and just God. To deny this is to not have a high enough view of God or a low enough view of sin.

Separation from God due to sin is the current state of every human (apart from Jesus Christ), and once they die, they will continue to be separated from God. Thus, we need a savior.

This answers a common misunderstanding I hear often from those who are offended by the exclusivism of Christianity. The mistaken idea is that God condemns those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ because they don’t believe in Jesus, as if God chose belief in Jesus as some random reason for condemning people to hell. But humankind is ALREADY condemned because of sin. Jesus Christ is NOT the CAUSE of damnation but the CURE.

So, then the question is: WHY? Why must one believe in Jesus Christ to have salvation? Why can’t someone follow another spiritual teacher? Or, why can’t someone even follow, say, Moses instead – after all, both Moses and Jesus serve the same God?

 

THE NATURE OF CHRIST

Jesus Christ is exclusively the God-man. The second person of the Triune God took on flesh and became a man. He is completely God and completely man.

This God-man lived a perfect life that none of us can and died a death he didn’t deserve. As fully man, he can represent humankind. As fully eternal God, his sacrifice can cover us all and all our sins.

The separation between God and humankind could only be bridged by Jesus Christ, the only God-man. The exclusive gift of salvation could only be won by the exclusive God-man.

This is why Christianity is exclusivist.

The gift of salvation can be attained alone by faith in the only one who could attain it.

Thus, if all that the Bible says is true – about the nature of God, man, and the God-man – then Christianity must be exclusivist.

NEXT: Is the Holy Spirit needed for salvation?

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Learn more about Who Jesus Ain’t here.

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The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

The New Paganism

As our culture becomes more post-modern—as well as post-Christian—in mindset, both traditional religions and unambiguous atheism are being rejected by many and an undefined spirituality—a fuzzy spiritual agnosticism—has been embraced, which lives by the axiom, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

For all practical purposes, they live as atheists within secular society but still embrace some self-defined form of spirituality. In many ways, Western Christians are living in a culture that is increasingly like the culture the first Christians lived in: a pagan culture. The only thing forbidden in this new paganism is believing your faith is the only true faith.

In the first article, we examined pluralism and its close cousin universalism to see if they were compatible with the Christian worldview. In the following articles, we’ll be looking at the claims of inclusivism, another cousin of the new paganism.

The Nuanced View: Inclusivism

As we saw in the last articlepluralism and universalism are clearly not Christian beliefs; the only way a Christian can subscribe to either view is to disregard much of the Bible. But what about the less extreme view of inclusivism?

Inclusivism is the belief that Jesus Christ’s life and work achieved salvation, but one does not have to believe in Christ to be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or through general revelation. General revelation is the idea that we can know certain things about God through nature and/or our innate senses.

Inclusivism is a much more conservative view than pluralism and universalism, and an inclusivist often holds to a higher view of Scripture. The inclusivist believes Jesus when he said “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) and Peter when he says “there is salvation in no one else” but Jesus (Acts 4:12). Yet, the inclusivist diverges subtly from the traditional exclusivist view and says, Yes, salvation is only possible because of Jesus, but one does not have to specifically believe in Jesus to benefit from his salvation.

One of the most respected scholars for presenting an argument for inclusivism is Clark Pinnock; therefore, his arguments will be considered for the rest of this series.

We will address Pinnock’s inclusivism by addressing 4 questions throughout the articles in this series:

(1) Is knowledge of Jesus needed for salvation? 

(2) Is the Holy Spirit needed for salvation? 

(3) Are there pagans in the New Testament who gained salvation through other faiths?

(4) Are all the faithful people in the Old Testament damned to hell simply because they lived before the life and work of Jesus Christ?

 

Saved Apart From Christ

“The saving grace of God can be effective through a person’s relationship to God as creature in advance of conversion to Christ,” Pinnock states in his chapter on inclusivism in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. 

He is careful to point out that inclusivism does not blindly cast a blanket over all religions as equally valid or even good. He admits there are certainly negative aspects, untruths, errors, and dangers in other religions. Contra pluralism, Pinnock confirms that all paths to God are not equally valid and a criterion is needed to discern truth and error (1 John 4:1). Political correctness and blind tolerance, he writes, are not always virtues. He confirms that Jesus is Lord of all and the standard of truth in all religions.

Yet, according to Pinnock, God may use other religions to bring a person to salvation. Christianity is not just the fulfillment of Judaism, but “in some way” the fulfillment of “all religious aspiration and the human quest.” At one point, he refers to religious non-Christians as “’not yet’ Christians.” 

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The Need to Know

The validity of Pinnock’s inclusivism can be determined by answering one question: Is knowledge of Christ required for salvation? 

Interestingly, in his chapter in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Pinnock cites 1 John 4:1 (“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.“) when stating that we must test all religious claims. Yet, if we continue reading, 1 John 4:2–3 stands in clear opposition of his inclusivist views:

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist…”

John goes on to explain in 4:6 that this is the ultimate test of whether one knows God or does not:

“We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (4:6)

Immediately, we find Pinnock’s case at a biblical disadvantage!

Pinnock clearly believes that the Holy Spirit can give saving faith to someone who has never heard of Christ. Pinnock differentiates between the work of Christ for salvation and the knowledge of Christ for salvation; Christ’s work made salvation possible, but one does not have to know of Christ’s work to benefit from it, according to Pinnock.

Conversely, as we saw above, 1 John 4 states one must confess belief in Jesus Christ to truly know God. Clearly, in order to confess Christ, one must know of Christ.

An inclusivist may dismiss verses like Romans 10:9 (“because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved“) by saying that the verse doesn’t state one must confess and believe to be saved or Romans 10:9 doesn’t say only those who confess and believe are saved, yet 1 John 4:2-3 makes a clear contrast.

Likewise, 1 John 5:12 states, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Both 1 John 4:2–3 and 5:12 are clearly “either/or” statements, not “both/and” statements.

Commenting on the exclusivity of 1 John 5:12, John Stott explains, “We cannot escape its logic. Eternal life is in God’s Son and may be found nowhere else. It is impossible to have life without having Christ as it is to have Christ without thereby having life also.”

Furthermore, one does not have to read far after Romans 10:9 to find 10:13–14, which lays out that the gospel must be preached, heard, and believed in order for someone to be saved:

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Romans 10:13-14)

Paul concludes in 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Additionally, shortly after one of the most famous proclamations of salvation through belief in Christ, John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”), we find John 3:18. Again, an inclusivist may say John 3:16 never explicitly says that belief in Christ is the only way to salvation, but John 3:18 states, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The key phrase here is “condemned already.” Christ is the only solution to the state of condemnation. Since all people are sinful and separated from God by that sin without exception (Romans 3:23), without specific belief in the Son of God that condemnation remains.

Furthermore, in John 3:33–34, 36, we read, “Whoever receives his [Christ’s] testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure… Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

The Gospel Call

When ordering the teachings of the Bible into a systematic theology, what is often referred to as the gospel call is placed immediately before regeneration (i.e. being born again). The gospel call is – of course – communicated, which means it’s a clear exchange of giving and receiving information about Christ so the non-Christian hearer may be saved.

Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology states, “Anyone who comes to Christ for salvation must have at least a basic understanding of who Christ is and how he meets our needs for salvation.” Grudem cites the following three pieces of knowledge as essential for salvation:

(1) All people have sinned (Rom. 3:23);

(2) The penalty for sin is death (Rom. 6:23); and

(3) Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins (Rom. 5:8).

Along with this information comes a personal invitation to receive the free gift of salvation through Christ, and thus a personal response, based on the knowledge received, is needed (John 1:11–12; Rev. 3:20, 22:17). 

Grudem, citing Romans 10:14 (How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”), emphasizes the absolute importance of the gospel call because if a person never hears, how can he be saved? In other words, without the knowledge of Christ, there is no salvation. In the same way, John Frame in his Systematic Theology places the gospel call before regeneration.

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The Big Picture of the Bible

Along with the explicit verses we looked at above, which are enough to discount inclusivism, exclusivism — the belief that there is only one true faith — is taught throughout the Bible. Throughout both the Old and New Testament there are many warnings against following false gods, false prophets, and false faiths.

In Exodus 20:3, the first of the Ten Commandments says there are to be no other gods worshipped other than the one true God (Isa. 43:10, 44:6), and the second commandment forbids worshipping idols (Exod. 20:4-5). The Shema, arguably the most important group of verses to Jews, states God alone is to be worshipped (Deut. 6:4), which is echoed by Paul about the Father and the Son in 1 Corinthians 8:6. In John 4:22, Jesus bluntly tells the Samarian woman “salvation is from the Jews,” instead of saying something, like “salvation is found in many faiths.”

Yes, general revelation appears to have instilled some truths in non-Christian faiths (and even secular thought) as we see in Paul’s interaction with the Athenians in Acts 17, but the overall view in Scripture of other faiths is overwhelmingly negative.

For instance, Romans 1:18–2:5 explains that faiths apart from the gospel of Christ are the result of sinful rebellion against God’s clear revelation in nature. We are told that because of the sinful suppression of God’s truth, adherents to false faiths have become “fools” (1:22), and they are “storing up wrath” against themselves (2:5).

Nowhere in Scripture do we find confirmation that the partial truths found in other faiths can lead to saving faith.

Why Evangelize? Why Missions?

Furthermore, if the inclusivists are correct, one has to ask why Jesus commands the spreading of his gospel and why his commands for evangelism hold such prominent places in Scripture.

The Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations is the culminating climax of Matthew’s gospel (28:18–20), and Luke records Jesus’ words about the Spirit empowering his disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth as his final words before his ascension (Acts 1:8).

Moreover, if inclusivism is true, much of the book of Acts, which tells of the first Christians’ work to spread the gospel, can be discarded as a waste of time – as well as all evangelism and missions. If knowledge of Christ is not needed for salvation, evangelism and missions are pointless, but this is clearly not the stand Jesus and his first followers take.

Finally, throughout Scripture, correct doctrine is emphasized (1 Tim. 1:3–4; Eph. 4:11–14; Gal. 1:6-8, 11–23; Deut. 6:7), confirming again that knowledge is important to faith. Stephen Wellum writes in Faith Comes By Hearing, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Scripture is concerned that one’s theology is correct.”

Proper knowledge of Christ cannot be separated from saving faith.

So, faith comes from hearing, and salvation comes from knowing and believing.

NEXT: Is the Holy Spirit needed for salvation? **The 1st two articles in this blog series were long! The last 3 will be short and sweet!** 

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Sources:

Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013. Kindle.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Morgan, Christopher W. and Robert A. Peterson, ed. Faith Comes By Hearing. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008. Kindle.

Pinnock, Clark H. “An Inclusivist View.” In Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic Worldedited by Stanly N. Gundry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. Kindle.

Stott, John R. W. The Letters of John. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009

Read Who Jesus Ain’t…

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Quick Responses to Bad Memes #2 (Ricky Gervais Version)

Welcome to “Quick Responses to Bad Memes #2” i.e. “the Ricky Gervais Version” i.e. “the meme + video version” i.e. “Don’t get your theology from a comedian #2.”

If you see this meme…

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Reply with this meme…

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In early February, Some people got excited that Ricky Gervais (atheist) and Stephen Colbert (Roman Catholic) had a short (very short) debate about the existence of God on Stephen’s show (Watch the clip here).

In my opinion, even a short debate on primetime TV about God is a good thing. But neither man really said much, and based on how atheists are sharing the clip (and applauding Gervais in the video), they seem to think Gervais won the “debate.” Though what Gervais said certainly sounded clever, he really didn’t say anything at all.

Feel free to use the following memes in reply to the primetime “debate”…

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Sincerely, God From the Machine

Quick Responses to Bad Memes #1 – Click Here.