The Pursuit of Happiness: A Six Step Plan and Response to Mr. Oz Atheist

The intention of the following blog is to offer a Christian response to an atheist perspective on our purpose in life. The blog begins with an atheist’s perspective and purpose without God, followed by a Christian’s response and purpose with God. The latter includes a discussion on the pursuit of happiness and joy and the predictors of same, since the underlying current in Mr. Oz Atheist’s message speaks to the pursuit of enjoyment. Mr. Oz Atheist, as he calls himself on social media, composed the following blog a couple of years ago.

Mr. Oz Atheist: Purpose without God

“I didn’t ask to be born” The catch-cry of the angsty teenager. An exclamation from a mouth that belongs to a body that’s surviving off more hormones than oxygen.

They’re right too. They didn’t ask to be born. No one does. It happens before we’re even aware of who or what we are. We are alive, and that’s our starting point.

Not asking to be born is one thing we atheists agree about with our theistic friends. However, our theistic friends seem to be of the opinion that without God our lives have no purpose. I have been asked why we, the non-believers, don’t just kill ourselves? They openly wonder what we have to live for.

I have said before that being an atheist doesn’t mean I’ve got nothing to live for, it means I’ve got nothing to die for.

Now please don’t confuse this with me saying that I *wouldn’t* die to save my children, for example. Because I would. Of course. What I mean is that for me, in death, there is nothing.

But a theist believes that when they die they’ll be forever in a world of bliss, and paradise, and, if the right flavour of belief is correct, 72 virgins. (Of course if virgins is your thing, 72 for eternity feels like being short changed. Assuming you want a virgin for the obvious reason…they’re only a virgin once. Maybe it’s one 72 year old virgin.)

For me though, life is everything. Everything I’ll ever experience will be experienced in *this* life. That’s what I mean about nothing to die for and everything to live for. I mean it literally.

Some theists though seem obsessed with having an ultimate purpose.

I don’t understand why, even if Earth is consumed by the sun in 5 billion years, I still can’t enjoy the here and now. I will die one day and that will be that. Is that enough reason to not enjoy today? I can’t see how. Why is my enjoyment today dependent upon being in heaven when I die? As I said, being alive is my starting point. Why not enjoy it?

Theists talk about having the ultimate purpose (which seems to be just getting into heaven…what then?) but they never say why it should matter. They never say why the ultimate purpose is necessary.

Matt Dillahunty has used the book example. You start reading a book, knowing it’s finite, knowing it will end. But you read it anyway. I doubt anyone avoids reading the first page of a book simply because there’s a last page.

I know the counter to this is that you remember the book. I might finish a book today, but I can remember it tomorrow. They book stays with me once it’s finished, but my life doesn’t.

But I do have tomorrow. I even have this afternoon, or later tonight. And even if I didn’t why do I need heaven later in order to enjoy NOW? Maybe I throw a blanket down on a remote beach and lie there with a friend looking up at the stars. Must I need to know I’ll one day be in heaven to enjoy that moment? Must I need belief in a deity to be glad I was doing that? Of course not.

Yes, maybe a theist has an ‘ultimate’ purpose in life and as an atheist, I don’t, but they fail to explain what it matters. They fail to convince me I need one.

I’m happy to define my life’s own purpose. I’m happy to decide for myself what I would like to achieve, where I would like to go as a human being.

A friend of my daughter would have been 14 or 15 at the time when she said ‘I would die without God in my life’. I don’t see any honour in this. I don’t see anything of which to be proud. This is a sad way for a child to be thinking. How dare someone convince this person that her life is worth something only if a god is real. How dare they convince her that her worth is tied to a fairytale?

God is unseen and unheard. Yet religion knows exactly what he wants, exactly how he feels. And it tells you how to behave and tells you that without *its* particular god, you are worthless. It’s a scam, and cruel and ridiculous scam and millions of good and otherwise intelligent people fall for it.

Why does religion try to convince people without its god, they are worthless? Because if they didn’t people might realise they can live free and happy lives without it. If that happened, where would the money come from?

Christian Apologist: Purpose with God

Mr. Oz Atheist has made a couple of assertions which merit a response. First, I note that it is a great shame that any theist has suggested to Mr. Oz Atheist that he kill himself because he does not believe in God. The theist likely believes Mr. Oz Atheist is in quicksand and instead of offering a rope, it appears she or he would rather walk away.

God calls on us to offer the rope:

“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” – 1 Peter 3:15

Mr. Oz Atheist additionally states that he is living for the here and now – for enjoyment in this life – and that theists are living for enjoyment in the next. This assertion is true, but he has forced a false dichotomy with the implicit assumption that theists are not also seeking happiness and joy in this life. Of course we are seeking happiness and joy! The difference for Christians is that we are seeking happiness and joy in both this life and the next.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Mr. Oz Atheist would likely agree with the following famous quote by Aristotle: “Happiness depends on ourselves.” The central purpose of human life, according to one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Aristotle, is happiness.

But what makes for happy lives? Studies of happiness over the past few decades have drawn from the seminal articles or books by Cantril (1965), Andrews and Withey (1976) and Diener (1984). The focus of these studies often includes subjective well-being (SWB), which is concerned with “how and why people experience their lives in positive ways, including cognitive judgments and affective reactions” (Diener, 1984, p. 542).

Diener (1984) distinguishes two dimensions of subjective well-being: cognitive well-being, which relates to life satisfaction, and affective well-being, which relates to happiness. Diener’s (1984) extensive review examined a variety of demographic variables impacting subjective well-being, including age (findings mixed), race (blacks lower SWB), religiosity (findings mixed) employment (unemployed least happy), education (interacts with other variables), marital status (married people higher SWB), having children (negligible or negative effects), income (income inequality lowers SWB), and gender (interacts with age). More recent studies have indicated that demographic variables are established variables of interest in quality of life studies (Vinson & Ericson, 2014). Other factors also relate positively to SWB, such as optimism, social support, and self-esteem (Quevedo & Abella, 2011). Additional positive correlates of happiness include personal income (Cummins, 2000), health (Salinas-Jiminez et al., 2010), social capital, trust (Growiec & Growiec, 2014), and financial satisfaction (Ng & Diener, 2014).

As Deiner (1984) discovered, the relationship between religiosity and happiness is mixed. One explanation relates to social conformity to prevailing country norms. As Okulicz-Kozaryn (2010) note, people who live in countries where many people believe in God are much happier than non-believers. Considering I reside in a country considered religious (the United States), while Mr. Oz Atheist resides in a country considered less religious (Australia), and we both consider ourselves happy, our happiness is partially explained by our beliefs and social conformity theory. Our happiness is further partially explained by the individual-level variables noted above. Other reasons for mixed findings with respect to religiosity include demographics. For example, women tend to be more religious (Freese, 2004).  Even so, Okulicz and Kozaryn (2010, p.  155) determined that “the major conclusion from the extant literature is that religious faith predicts happiness (it creates purpose in life) and church attendance predicts happiness (it creates a sense of belonging)”.

Within the United States, the Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Study (2014) differentiated respondents who identified themselves as highly religious (praying and attending religious services at least once per week) with those who don’t on several factors. Highly religious people were more likely to gather with extended family at least once per month, were very happy with life, were more likely to have volunteered, and more likely to have donated goods or time to the poor. These differences persist within a variety of religions and after controlling for age, income, education, geographic region, marital status, and parental status.

Empirical studies, such as those cited above, do not explain one hundred percent of the variation between predictors and outcome variables. Other variables (those not considered or available) account for the unexplained variance. Furthermore, we all know of people who are healthy and wealthy, yet extremely unhappy: “outliers” on a regression line.

So, what are other important predictors of happiness? Given that the above variables are primarily demographic and attitudinal, let us consider higher order variables, following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and self-actualization.

According to Aristotle, happiness is derived from the cultivation of virtue and the fulfillment of a broad range of physical and mental conditions (http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/aristotle/). In other words, aside from the demographic and attitudinal variables cited above, the cultivation of virtue speaks to one’s happiness. Aristotle’s assertion is consistent with the resounding theme of Christianity.

In fact, his assertions, when coupled with Christianity, provide a pathway to achieve tremendous happiness and joy. The truth is, we can never find true joy and happiness apart from the vine which supports us: Jesus. If we try to separate from the vine, as a grape would free itself from a branch, we start to wither and become weak. We lose the strength of the love and light within us. We end up in darkness and find ourselves in a constant state of trying to find light and happiness through any means but that of the source of all light and happiness. The attempts are futile. Yet God lets us live out our desires (cf., Romans 1) and always welcomes us back with open arms as prodigal sons and daughters, or lost sheep. With all of this in mind, I offer six steps to happiness.

Six Steps to Happiness

  1. Seek Jesus through prayer and study.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened for you” (Luke 11:9).

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”  John 8:32

  1. Take delight in the Lord.

 Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).

  1. Find and achieve your purpose in life by identifying and capitalizing on your spiritual gifts. What do you do really well? What are you passionate about? How can these gifts be used to help others? If we all do our part, a greater collective happiness will follow.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” 1 Corinthians 12:7

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in various forms” 1 Peter 4:10

  1. Listen to and obey the Lord. Expect the Lord’s discipline. We all have room for improvement, and as we grow closer to Jesus, we begin to see the areas in which we need to improve the most. The plan is to strive for perfection and to be as Christ-like as possible. Jesus came to set the example. He is the reason for our very existence and our ultimate purpose is to emulate our servant leader.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and; Love your neighbor as yourself” Luke 10:27

Blessed is the one whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty” Job 5:17.

  1. Build in a pattern of continuous improvement. Once you’re on the path and your eyes have been opened to the love and the light of the Lord, there is no stopping you. Your passion will be ignited and prosperity will come your way.

“And let us run with perseverance the race that is marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him He endured on the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” Hebrews 12:1-3

  1. Expect and embrace adversity. Of course, challenges will come your way as well. God uses challenges to build and shape us spiritually. He promised adversity. The very fact no one is immune demonstrates God’s fulfillment of His promise.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” John 16:33

“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer” Revelation 2:10

“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him” James 1:12

With that, I offer a quote from C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity, which he attributed to George MacDonald:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

In conclusion, the pursuit of happiness is achieved when we learn about, acknowledge, and embrace our spiritual calling.  Fulfilling our purpose with God brings love, light, happiness and joy. It opens our eyes to an array of colors on the planet never realized before. It is as if a rainbow, which once appeared dim and shadowy, is suddenly unveiled in brighter and more spectacular hues than we could have possibly imagined. The sky seems bluer, the roses redder, and the grasses greener.  Our path to heaven is set – and we have cast all fears and doubts into the deep sea.

Joy is the serious business of heaven” – CS Lewis

Thank you for your time.

Mr. Oz Atheist’s blog can be accessed here: http://mrozatheist.blogspot.com/2015/10/

References

Andrews, F. M., & Withey, S. B. (1976). Social indicators of well-being. New York: Plenum.

Cantril, H. (1965). The pattern of human concerns. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Cummins, R.A. (2000). Personal income and subjective well-being: A review. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1, 133-158.

Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95(3), 542–575.

Freese, J. (2004). Risk preferences and gender differences in religiousness: Evidence from the World Values Survey. Review of Religious Research, 46(1), 88-91.

Greenfield, E.A., Marks, N.F., (2007). Religious social identity as an explanatory factor for associations between more frequent formal religious participation and psychological well-being. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 17, 245–259.

Growiec, K. & Growiec, J. (2014). Trusting only whom you know, knowing only whom you trust: The joint impact of social capital and trust in CEE countries. Journal of Happiness Studies, 15(5), 1015-1040.

Ng, W. & Diener, E. (2014). What matters to the rich and poor? Subjective well-being, financial satisfaction, and post-materialistic needs across the world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(2), 326-338.

Okulicz-Kozaryn, A. (2010). Religiosity and life satisfaction across nations. Mental Health, Religion, and Culture, 13(2), 165-179.

Pargament, K., 2002. Is religion nothing but. . .? Explaining religion versus explaining religion away. Psychological Inquiry 13, 239–244.

Quevedo, R.J.M. & Abella, M.C. (2011). Well-being and personality: Facet-level analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 206-211.

Salinas-Jiminez, M., Artes, J., & Salines-Jiminez, J. (2010). Income, motivation, and satisfaction with life: An empirical analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 11, 779-793.

Vinson, T. & Ericson, M. (2014). The social dimensions of happiness and life satisfaction of Australians: Evidence from the World Values Survey. International Journal of Social Welfare, 23, 240-253.

 

 

A Marriage of the Ontological and Moral Arguments in Support of the Christian God

The intention of the present blog is to offer support for the existence of the Christian God by marrying several ontological and moral arguments. The blog begins with a discussion of the history of the ontological argument, followed by an integration of the moral argument and the example of Jesus Christ.

The Ontological Argument

Centuries ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Anselm (1033-1109 AD), formulated the ontological argument, which he describes in the Proslogium as follows:

“[Even a] fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing greater can be conceived … understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.… Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”

Anselm’s argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. God is the greatest conceivable being.
  2. If we can conceive of something greater than God, then that would be God.
  3. Nothing greater than God can be conceived in the mind.
  4. It is greater to exist in reality than merely in the mind.
  5. God must therefore exist not merely in the mind, but in reality as well.
  6. Therefore, God exists.

To explain this simple concept, Anselm used the example of a painting. He asked which is greater: the artist’s idea of the painting or the painting itself? Obviously the painting itself is greater as the painting exists not only in the mind of the painter but in reality.

Alvin Platinga reformulated the argument using a conception of God as a being that is “maximally excellent” in every possible world. Maximal excellence in every possible world is “maximal greatness.” The properties of a maximally excellent being are omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection.

Platinga’s argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
  2. A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
  3. It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness.
  4. Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
  5. Therefore, (by axiom S5) it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
  6. Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.

Other ontological arguments have been presented, which vary slightly from the above. Each version is not without its skeptics. As an example, skeptics have replaced a maximally excellent being with a maximally excellent achievement (such as the creation of the universe) or conception (such as the perfect island). I don’t find these arguments compelling because the “creation of the universe” is an act and the conception of a “perfect island” is a place, a creation. Both are products of a maximally excellent being, our Creator, of whom nothing greater can be conceived.

Another criticism states that the arguments for God include presumptions about His characteristics (omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good). Conceiving of maximally excellent knowledge is omniscience; conceiving of maximally excellent power is omnipotence; and conceiving that the perfect being is wholly good is a product of our conscience and our innate desire to equate goodness and love with maximally excellent morals.

At issue, however, is that we have defined maximally excellent morals as goodness and not evil. One might argue that we can equally conceive of a maximally supreme evil being, characterized by omnipotence, omniscience, and being wholly evil. For example, it is not impossible for me to conceive of a giant wholly evil monster. I could make the argument that said monster must exist because I conceived of the monster and applied it to the argument. Accordingly, without further explanation, skeptics could build a case against the arguments for a supreme or maximally excellent, wholly good being with its supreme or maximally evil counterpart.

According to C.S. Lewis (1952, p. 43) “There are only two views that face all the facts. One is the Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. The other is the view called Dualism. Dualism means the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war…But it has a catch in it.”

If one power is inherently and independently good, while the other is inherently and independently bad, we should have had experiences with both. But we do not. While we are witnesses to people who strive to do good for goodness’ sake, we are not witnesses to people who strive to do evil for evil’s sake. Instead, we are witnesses to people who started out good and something occurred which perverted them, whether it be pleasure, power, money, safety, security, fame, or sex.

Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel” (Lewis, 1952, p. 45-46). The rebel is the fallen angel: Satan.

“You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God” (Ezekiel 28:13). You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, guardian cherub, from the fiery stones. Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth” (Ezekiel 28:14-17). “I reduced you to ashes on the ground in the sight of all who were watching. All the nations who knew you are appalled at you; you have come to a horrible end and will be no more” (Ezekiel 28: 18-19).

Accordingly, there is no greater conception than that of a maximally excellent, wholly good being. Its counterpart cannot be true. The ontological arguments formulated by Anselm and Platinga are valid. The very fact that humanity values, recognizes, and strives for goodness underscores the existence of the one who made and continues to make that happen.

Furthermore, consider the way pride always comes before the fall. If we were on an unguided planet, the proud and selfish would thrive. They don’t. Pride is the ultimate sin, which led to Satan’s fall. Pride is the sin that leads to all other sins. God admonishes the proud.

The Moral Argument

The very fact that all humans of sound minds have the ability to distinguish what is right from what is wrong suggests the presence of one who made that happen: a moral lawgiver. All humans of sound minds have the ability to conceive of moral perfection as shaped by the values of love, kindness, honesty, justice, benevolence, and truth. Since we have such conceptions, we have an objective way to judge conduct, which is to consider it against the objective set of moral values that guide society.

Dualism is an outcome of the human understanding of the dichotomies of love and hate, selfishness and unselfishness,  and justice and injustice.

Survival of the fittest theories suggest we would gravitate to and revere selfishness, yet we don’t. Humans revere selflessness and humility. Those of us who have revered selfishness have been humiliated to ensure compliance with God’s preference for humility. We have all stood trial and the prideful have all fallen. We are hard wired to follow the example of our source and to understand that through trials, we triumph and become better people.

The source and giver of this absolute moral standard of love, humility and selflessness is God. William Lane Craig outlines this logic as follows (2010, p. 129):

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. God exists.

“God is the ground and source of ultimate value, and He endows us with His image. Therefore, our lives have objective value, meaning, and purpose. If there is a real purpose in life – a ‘final cause’ as Aristotle put it – then there must be a right way to live it” (Turek, 2014, p. 104).

“In a world without a divine lawgiver, there can be no objective right or wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments. This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist – there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say that you are right and I am wrong” (Craig, 2008, p. 75). God “is the source from which all your reasoning power comes. You could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source” (Lewis, 1952, p. 48).

“[God] left us conscience, the sense of right and wrong: and all through history there have been people trying (some of them very hard) to obey it. None of them ever quite succeeded. Secondly, He sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men. Thirdly, He selected one particular people and spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was – that there was only one of Him and that He cared about the right conduct. Those people were the Jews and the Old Testament gives an account of the hammering process” (Lewis, 1952, p. 49).

Jesus Christ

The shocker occurred when a man appeared among these Jews and said He is the way and the truth, and the life. He performed miracles, healed the weak, forgave people’s sins, and spoke with authority. During His relatively short earthly life, He fulfilled numerous Old Testament prophecies about Him, such as Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah 53, Zechariah 9:9 and Psalm 22. Furthermore, He exemplified perfect love, kindness, humility, mercy, faith, and forgiveness. His perfect example set the standard against which we can judge our decisions.

Again the high priest asked Him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?

‘I am,’ said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-63; cf., Daniel 7:13).

Jesus’ words, coupled with His miracles, posed such a great threat to the high priests that they were willing to trade Him for an imprisoned insurrectionist, Barabbas. His growing group of followers likely threatened to reduce the high priests’ influence.

During the time of Jesus’ arrest, His disciple Peter doubted His divinity and denied Him three times. During His ministry, Jesus’ half-brother James was openly skeptical. Then Jesus was crucified and James and Peter were among five hundred eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). Both became brave, worshipping illegally and openly for years – until they were martyred.

In conclusion and when taken together, the ontological and the moral arguments support the existence of a maximally excellent, wholly good being under whose objective moral standards we live. The exemplification of our objective moral standards is the person of Jesus Christ.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him” (John 1:9-10).

“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Thank you for investing your time.

References:

Anselm, St., Anselm’s Basic Writings, translated by S.W. Deane, 2nd Ed. (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co., 1962)

Craig, W.L. (2008). Reasonable Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Craig, W.L. (2010). On Guard. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook

Lewis, C.S. (1952). Mere Christianity. C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.

Plantinga, Alvin, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1974)

Plantinga, Alvin, The Ontological Argument from St. Anselm to Contemporary Philosophers (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965)

Turek, F. (2014). Stealing from God: Why atheists need God to make their case. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress.

Why Were Early Christians So Brave?

The intention of the following blog is to offer support for Christians who encounter people who believe Jesus is merely a myth, perpetuated by the early Church. One such mythicist is Dr. Richard Carrier. I have had a number of delightful interactions with Carrier on Twitter, which alerted me to his thoughts on Christianity, Jesus, and the Bible. He is an historian with a Ph.D. from Columbia University who has written numerous books and blog posts refuting the existence of Jesus.

Unlike Carrier, supporters of major world religions outside of Christianity do not question Jesus’ existence. For example, Jews and Muslims do not claim that Jesus didn’t exist. While Jews do not accept Jesus’ divinity, they acknowledge His existence and crucifixion. According to Muhammad, Muslims consider Jesus a prophet whom God took to heaven prior to the crucifixion (leading some to conclude that someone else took Jesus’ place on the cross). Carrier denies Jesus walked the earth, stating in his Twitter posts that Christianity was born out of a “hallucination” by Paul of a “celestial Jesus.”

According to Carrier’s webpage, his research focus is on the “origins of Christianity,” yet he has tweeted that the Bible is “propaganda” and the only historical texts one can rely upon are extra-Biblical.

Let’s consider that point. If I were going to write books on the “origins of Muslims,” wouldn’t it make sense for me to incorporate the Quran? If I were going to craft a history of any countries within the Arab region, wouldn’t I want to take the Quran into account? The Quran certainly offers historical accounts of Muhammad, Muslim beliefs, and Sharia law. Muhammad is an extremely influential prophet among Muslims, so excluding him from any discussions about Arab history seems nonsensical. Applying Carrier’s logic to this situation would require that I obtain extra-Quran accounts of Muhammad’s life before admitting he even lived.

Note that the Guinness Book of World Records has indicated: “Although it is impossible to obtain exact figures, there is little doubt that the Bible is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book. A survey by the Bible Society concluded that around 2.5 billion copies were printed between 1815 and 1975, but more recent estimates put the number at more than 5 billion” (www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/best-selling-book-of-non-fiction). Furthermore, the Bible has been translated into 349 languages. Such figures indicate strong support for the Bible from all over the globe.

William Lane Craig’s website includes the following comment: “Archaeology is the greatest defender of the accuracy of the Bible. Archaeologists, when in Israel, still rely on the Bible to determine the location of tell sites which reliance has proved to be remarkably accurate. Historians have long acknowledged the accuracy of place names and events recorded in the Bible despite so-called “higher criticism” and skepticism. In fact, the Bible is now a standard historical text for archaeologists in the Middle East, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Macedonia. The great names of Archaeology, including Dr. Flinders Petrie, Dr. William Albright, Dr. J.O. Kinnaman, Ira M. Price, Professor Sayce of Oxford, and Sir William Ramsay have gone on record to say that archaeology confirms the accuracy and reliability of the Bible. Dr. William Albright, who was not a friend of Christianity and was probably the foremost authority in Middle East archaeology in his time, said this about the Bible: ‘There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament.’”

“Sir William Ramsey, one of the greatest archaeologists of all time, spent 30 years of his life trying to disprove the New Testament, especially Luke’s writings. After much intensive research with many expecting a thorough refutation of Christianity, Ramsey concluded that Luke was one of the greatest historians of all time and became a Christian based on his archaeological findings.”

Extensive evidence of the Bible’s historicity exists, derived from the Dead Sea Scrolls, stone inscriptions, and archeological findings from regions described in the Bible. For a more extensive review, visit http://www.reasonablefaith.org/two-recent-archaeological-discoveries#ixzz4XfDkyKvG

In addition to the support from archeologists, secular historians support the historicity of the Bible. One example of a history book in which the history of early Christianity and Jesus is documented is “Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World” written by forty-five academic contributors from prestigious universities from all over the globe.

The Historical Atlas states: “In fact, it came to pass that Jesus’ death was the foundation of Christianity as we know it. Rather than running scared, Jesus’ followers grew into thousands. This early ‘church’ ran into very strong opposition in Jerusalem and around 35CE great persecution took place there. Around this time, one of the most decisive turning points in world history occurred. The early church began to accept those who were not of Jewish origin- the Gentiles” (Wawro, 2008, page 84).

Carrier’s blog opines that the apostles “died for a vision.” He then proceeds to refer to a debate he had with Bass, stating that “He couldn’t even establish that they could have avoided their deaths by recanting. Or even that what they died for was their belief in the resurrection, rather than their moral vision for society, or (I could have added) some other belief they wouldn’t recant—such as their already-Jewish refusal to worship pagan gods, the only thing Pliny really ever killed Christians for (the resurrection was never even at issue); and that’s the only explicitly eyewitness account we have of any Christians being killed for anything in the whole first hundred years of the religion.”

As reported by Wawro (2008) in the Historical Atlas, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus reported that “Nero punished Christians for their role in the April 64 CE fire in Rome’s Circus Maximus using the following means:

  • He had them covered with animal skins and let them be eaten by dogs.
  • He had them nailed to crosses.
  • He had them burned as torches for light after sundown” (Wawro, 2008, page 85)

In the Tacitus Annals 15,44, Tacitus states “Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dross of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.”

In fact, suffering and martyrdom of the early Christian disciples has been documented by a variety of extra-Biblical sources. Eusebius, the first church historian, wrote Ecclesiastical History in which he speaks to the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. He cites Dionysius of Corinth (~ 170 A.D.), Tertullian (~ 200 A.D.) and Origen (~ 240 A.D.) to back his assertions. He also cites Josephus (~ 95 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (~ 200 A.D.), and Hegesippus (~ 170 A.D.) on the martyrdom of James, the half brother of Jesus (Habermas & Licona, 2004).

“Despite persecutions for the next 150 years, the new Christian Church spread into France, Spain, North Africa, and Mesopotamia. The once small sect devoted to Jesus Christ grew to between 5 and 6 million by 300 CE. By 350 CE, the number of Christians in the Roman Empire was over 33 million, and Christianity had become a universal religion” (Wawro 2008, page 85). In other words, between 5 and 6 million Christians were willing to worship Jesus illegally in the first few hundred years following Jesus’ resurrection. In 312 AD, Constantine had a vision of a Christian symbol, which led to a battle victory and the legalization of Christianity, ending the persecutions of early Christians.

Does it seem reasonable to determine that millions of early Christians would risk their lives by worshipping illegally to follow a “vision” or “hallucination” by a tentmaker named Paul? Additionally, Paul’s supposed hallucination did not include the gospel accounts of Jesus and accounts of the many miracles He performed, including the Resurrection. It is the miracles, including the Resurrection, which drove Christians to risk their lives. Paul’s supposed vision, or hallucination, of a celestial Jesus obviously excluded same.

Below I’ve listed some of Jesus’ miracles:

  1. Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-12)
  2. Jesus heals an official’s son without going to see the boy (John 4:46-54).
  3. Jesus heals a crippled man on the Sabbath (John 5:1-17).
  4. Jesus feeds 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:19-21; Mark 6:30-34; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14).
  5. Jesus walks on water (Matthew 14:22-32; Mark 6:47-52; John 6:16-21).
  6. Jesus heals a man born blind (John 9:1-41).
  7. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44).
  8. Jesus heals a bleeding woman (Matthew 9:2-7; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48).
  9. Jesus calms a storm (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:37-41; Luke 8:22-25).
  10. Jesus heals a paralyzed man (Matthew 9:2-7; Mark 2:3-12; Luke 5:18-26).
  11. Jesus resurrected from the dead (Matthew 28:5-6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24; John 20).

Additionally, does it seem reasonable that a tentmaker invent his own tale of Christianity when the rewards of crafting such a story did not exist? Paul boasted about his suffering because he truly believed in a greater purpose, which was glorifying Jesus and advancing in heaven. Paul suffered great peril, as documented in the books he wrote. This suffering occurred after his conversion from a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian persecuted by Jews.

Paul, the author of between six and thirteen New Testament books, offers one of the most compelling stories of a transformation. Paul (known as Saul) was on the road to Damascus in his effort to identify and arrest early Christians for illegal worship. “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (Acts 9-1-6). Paul immediately converted to the Way and became one of its most ardent followers who was beaten, imprisoned, and eventually beheaded all in Jesus’ name.

In 2 Corinthians 16:26-27, Paul states: “I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” 2 Corinthians 12:10 adds: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Clearly, Paul was not living an easy life once he decided to follow Jesus.

As C.S. Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me ‘happy.’ I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Carrier points to times in history in which people have been “gullible,” thereby generalizing all gullible people into a basket of gullibles into which he throws early Christians. He implies that the gullible within the “Heaven’s Gate Cult” are similar to early Christians and that all Christians are “gullible.”

I agree that some people are gullible within every group, as were the adherents to atheist despots like Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, and Stalin, yet I would never make the assertion that the gullibility of Stalin’s followers applies to atheists today (following Carrier’s logic that all atheists are “gullible”). I also know that the vast majority of atheists today abhor the acts of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung, so I would never throw them into a basket of atheists with Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung.

Carrier states: “Thus countless people die for a ‘lie’ in the sense that they don’t know that what they are dying for is false. This is most obviously true for non-eyewitnesses, who die merely for trusting someone else’s word (many religions have many examples of this happening, from Mormonism to Islam to Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, and beyond). But it’s also true for “eyewitnesses,” whose own minds have lied to them. And also, of course, eyewitnesses who are being conned (and indeed many a person has been fully convinced of something that was in fact a perpetrated sham). And also witnesses who aren’t sure of what they saw, but who believe they will gain eternal life if what they saw is what they are told it was, or want it to be—convincing themselves it must be true, merely to avoid personal despair.”

Rather than dig into the psychology behind the movement of early Christians, Carrier implies that their minds have lied to them, they are following a perpetrated sham, and that the early Christians (who, again, were burned and nailed to crosses), believed to “avoid personal despair.” Other more honest atheists with whom I’ve had these conversations acknowledge that early Christians truly believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Early Christians weren’t merely following the hallucination of Paul. They believed Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. Jesus’ birth was predicted in the scriptures, as noted here:

Isaiah 9:6 “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:1-2: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future He will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Jesus’ resurrection fulfilled the scriptures, as noted here:

Isaiah 53:5 “But He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.

  1. Isaiah 53:11 “After He has suffered, He will see the light of life and be satisfied, by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and He will bear their iniquities.”
  2. Psalm 16:9-11 “Because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You will make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
  3. Psalm 118:22 “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
  4. Isaiah 53: 9-10 “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and though the LORD makes His life an offering for sin, He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hand.”

Roman history books included references to Jesus, as noted here (Miller, 2007, page 346):

  1. Antiquities of the Jews, by Joseph (about 93-94). “There was a wise man who was called Jesus, and His conduct was good…Pilate condemned Him to be crucified…His disciples didn’t abandon their loyalty to Him. They reported that He appeared to them three days after His crucifixion that He was alive.”
  2. Annals of Imperial Rome, by Tacitus (about 55 – 120). “Christ suffered the ultimate penalty at the hands of procurator Pontius Pilate when Tiberius was emperor of Rome.”
  3. The Lives of the Caesars, by Suetonius (about 70-130). “Chrestus caused the riots in Rome in AD 49. This is probably a reference to Christ and to the hostility that erupted when traditional Jews clashed with Jews who believed Jesus was the promised Messiah. Acts 18:2 supports this theory, reporting that Claudius Caesar expelled all Jews from Rome during this time.

Carrier goes on to state that “it’s also possible for people to die for what they know is a lie.”

Yes, this is possible if the death were unexpected, yet for Carrier to suggest that early Christians, whom either expected or acknowledged the possibility of death, beatings, or imprisonment, knew in their minds that what they were doing was in vain obliterates any rational theories of human behavior and psychology.

  1. People of sound minds make decisions that maximize their outcomes.
  2. People of sound minds weigh benefits against drawbacks when making decisions.
  3. Early Christians wanted to maximize their chances of going to heaven by following Jesus.
  4. Early Christians weighed the benefits of going to heaven and following Jesus against the risks of imprisonment and death.
  5. Had early Christians determined the risks outweighed the benefits (and considered it all a lie), they would have recanted their testimonies in support of Jesus.

“In the centuries that followed, the believers in Jesus, called Christians, braved horrible persecution to found communities across the Roman Empire” (Belt, 2014).

Carrier then questions whether saints such as Peter, Jesus half-brother James, Stephen were (1) martyred and if they indeed were martyred, he questions whether they (2) were martyred for what they believed or for what they saw.

According to the Antiquities of the Jews, written around Flavius Josephus mentions the death by stoning the brother of James the Just, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”

According to Acts 12:2, King Herod put the apostle James to death with the sword.

According to Acts 7:55-58, Stephen was stoned. “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him.”

Other accounts of the deaths of the disciples are based on tradition. The most commonly accepted traditions are as follows: (https://www.gotquestions.org/apostles-die.html unless otherwise noted).

  • Matthew suffered martyrdom in Ethiopia, killed by a sword.
  • Bartholomew was flayed to death by a whip (Johns, 2014).
  • Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross in Greece. The cross is now known as the cross of St. Andrew (Johns, 2014).
  • Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India
  • Paul was tortured and beheaded by the Emperor Nero in 67 AD.
  • Peter was crucified upside-down, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy (John 21:18).
  • James the Lesser was either beaten or stoned to death, while praying for his attackers (Johns, 2014).
  • Philip was reportedly crucified upside-down in Hierapolis, Turkey. In 2011, archeologists in Hierapolis discovered what they believed to be Philip’s tomb (Johns, 2014).
  • Matthias reportedly preached in the “land of the cannibals” (Johns, 2014).

Though we only have traditions that offer glimpses of the specific ways that most of the early Christian disciples died, we can infer from the fact that Christianity was considered illegal and Christians were persecuted that no matter the means by which they passed, their lives were not easy and their faith in the way, the truth, and the life was strong.

The disciples preached, despite the risks, because they believed that a humble carpenter is the Son of Man and Savior of the world. Had they not seen Him resurrect, they wouldn’t have preached that He resurrected. Had they not seen Him perform miracles, they wouldn’t have preached that He performed miracles. Had they not been filled with the Holy Spirit, they would not have been so brave.

It’s humbling when one considers the way a humble carpenter, a tax collector, several fishermen, a tentmaker, and others were able to change the world. With God, nothing is impossible. Amen.

Thank you for your time.

“The great difficulty is to get audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity simply because you happen to think it true.” – CS Lewis

References

Richard Carrier’s full blog is available at http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/9978

Belt, D. (2014). Life in the time of Jesus. National Geographic. Jesus and the Apostles. Christianity’s early rise. Special Issue.

Craig, W.L. (2016) Two recent archeological discoveries. Accessed February 3, 2017 at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/two-recent-archaeological-discoveries

Habermas, G.R. & Licona, M.R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Kregel  Publications: Grand Rapids, MI.

Johns, C. (2014). Life in the time of Jesus. National Geographic. Jesus and the Apostles. Christianity’s early rise. Special Issue.

Miller, S.M. (2007). The Complete Guide to the Bible. Barbour: Phoenix, AZ. USA.

Wawro, G. (2008). Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World. Millennium House: Elanora Heights, Australia