Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 1b: “Who Is Jesus?”

Gumbel begins his presentation by telling us of his youth and how during this time he viewed Christianity as “completely irrelevant to my life”. He confesses to being “really an atheist”. All that was to change, though, after picking up a Bible and reading it. Night after night he read, and it wasn’t long before his scepticism had been replaced with a newfound faith in Jesus Christ. You may be wondering what it was in particular that convinced him. I’ll let Gumbel explain in his own words: “When I got to the end of the New Testament I came to the conclusion: It’s true!”.

Surely there’s more to it than that?

He continues…

Christianity is, he says, “based on evidence. Historical evidence” and proceeds to rhetorically ask, “So what is the evidence? How do we know for example that Jesus even existed? The answer is that there is a great deal of evidence”

He reels off the names of a couple of Roman historians, namely Tacitus and Suetonius, in whose voluminous writings can be found only very brief allusions to Jesus. More of that later.

Gumbel covers ground quickly and assures us of the reliability of the New Testament documents. He concludes the question of a historical Jesus with, “So, we know from evidence outside and inside of the New Testament that he existed, but who was he?”

Do we really know such a thing? I was about to look around the room to see if anyone else thought his conclusion was perhaps just a tad hasty, but then I reminded myself that I was in a room with a group of Christians already convinced of a historical Jesus by faith, so I doubt they were weighing up the argument like I was.

The talk then moves on to the topic of Jesus Christ as God. Gumbel lists a number of “evidences” that support the likelihood of Jesus’ divine nature. A number of Bible verses are presented, a number of his “miracles” are highlighted, then there’s a quick reference to C.S Lewis’s “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” trilemma (as expressed in his book Mere Christianity), before it’s all topped off with the triumphant assertion that the words attributed to Jesus in the Bible are, “The greatest words ever spoken”

The resurrection of Jesus is touched upon briefly, and how “five hundred people at one time” witnessed Christ’s post-resurrection appearance. They can’t all have been hallucinating, claims Gumbel. I’ve often wondered who these five hundred witnesses were [1 Corinthians 15:6]. Can the existence of any of them be verified? Did any of them write a single word about such an episode? If I were to accuse a neighbour of vandalising my property, and I were to tell the police that I had 500 witnesses to the alleged crime, would it be a shock to me if the police were to ask for a few of their names and addresses? Or would the simple fact that I made the claim that there were such an amount of witnesses be enough to convince the police and to convict my neighbour? I wouldn’t have thought so. Would you?

From the resurrection we seamlessly blend into the Christians “relationship” with Jesus. For me this is one of the more fascinating aspects of the Christian claim. “Countless millions throughout the ages have experienced a risen Jesus… Millions of Christians around the world today experience this relationship” states Gumbel.

A brief return to Lewis’s false trilemma is capped off with, “the possibilities of him [Jesus] being evil or deluded – I think we can rule them out as being impossible” and “To say that he [Jesus] was evil or deluded is absurd. It’s illogical”. Is it? It didn’t escape my attention that today’s presentation, though interesting, seemed to be absolutely crammed full of unsupported assertions like these.

The twenty-minute video comes to an end and the pastor ejects the DVD…

“Any questions?” asks the pastor. There is a quiet pause as people look at each other to see who has the guts to speak first. A few nervous giggles follow, but the silence is broken by the pastor who boldly states, “Jesus existed. Historically he was a figure on earth. Whether you’re an atheist, a believer or whatever, that [the fact that Jesus existed] is undeniable. He existed on earth. There is historical evidence.”

Me: “Do you think it is unjustifiable to perhaps doubt that there was a historical Jesus? Is it really that clean-cut?”
Pastor: “The question I would ask you is do you believe that Julius Caesar existed?”
Me: “Yes”
Pastor: “And if you were to say “no” then you would go against a big grain of historical support.”
Me: “True. With Julius Caesar we have accounts of his life from contemporaneous sources from various parts of the globe. We have coins depicting Caesar, which were minted during his lifetime. That’s decent evidence in support of the existence of Julius Caesar. What do we have of Jesus, in terms of supporting evidence, from the time that he lived?”

The pastor puts forward the name Flavius Josephus as a contemporary historian who made mention of Jesus. Josephus was, the pastor claims, “a man who was writing when Julius Caesar was alive”. Sadly there are two problems with the pastor’s claims. 1) Josephus was not a contemporary of Jesus; in fact he was not born until nearly 10 years after the alleged death of Jesus. Josephus wrote his “Antiquities” more than 60 years after Jesus’ supposed execution. 2) Julius Caesar died in 44BC. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see the problem with the claim that Josephus was a contemporary of Julius Caesar. I need not expand further on that point.

The pastor then names the two sources offered by Gumbel in his presentation, those being Tacitus and Suetonius, both of whom, I point out, were writing in the 2nd century – therefore not contemporaneous. He then mentions the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (even though the earliest of the Gospels was not written until 40 years after the death of Jesus).

The pastor seems to be drawing a blank on this question. Why could he not offer any historical sources who made mention of Jesus during his alleged lifetime?

He then tries a different tack to explain how and why accounts of Jesus did not appear until decades after his death. As an analogy the pastor gives an example of a 110yr old World War One veteran who was interviewed on TV recently. The pastor says that the veteran is “speaking of things that happened 90 years ago. He’s speaking of his experiences. We all trust most of what he speaks of, though there may be parts what he doesn’t remember clearly”

I think the pastor is missing the point completely here. The conversation continues…

Me: “Yes, but what the veteran says is supported by accounts from the time. We have innumerable, corroborating, contemporaneous accounts of WW1 from every corner of the earth. We don’t just take the word of a WW1 veteran that WW1 was a historical event. Why is it that no one wrote of Jesus during his supposed lifetime?”
Pastor: “The historical evidence that a man called Jesus existed is pretty solid”
Me: “Outside of the Bible we have the likes of Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius, but you’re looking at nearly a one hundred years gap between the supposed Gospel events and the accounts of the Roman historians. If this event [God himself coming to earth in the form of the man Jesus] is supposedly the biggest event in human history then why was everyone at the time silent about it?”

It doesn’t add up. What I’m being led to believe here is that the biggest event in the history of mankind went unnoticed by every single chronicler and historian in the area where it allegedly occurred! Are we supposed to take that seriously? Think about that for a moment.

I’m conscious of the fact that this course is scheduled for eleven weeks, so I’m willing to give the pastor more time to produce the contemporaneous sources. Hopefully as the course progresses we will come to know of an abundance of written evidence about the life of Jesus from people who wrote during his alleged lifetime. But for now we’ll have to wait and see.

The conversation then (conveniently?) drifts into the differences between Christianity and other religions, and how Christianity is a “relationship”. As stated earlier, this has always been something that has puzzled me. Thankfully the pastor assures us we’ll delve more deeply into this in a later session.

At this point the long-standing male member of the church gives us a rather lengthy testimony of how he came to Christ. Beaming with enthusiasm, pride and passion he tells us how one day “something just told me “God exists”. So I pulled out a Gideon Bible and read the Gospel of John. After that I was absolutely hooked!”

One of the ladies asks for a little information about my background. I reveal to her, and the group, that I am a former believer. This raises a few eyebrows, and it is at this time that the pastor highlights the fact that we have overrun the allocated 2hrs for this evening’s session.

The session ends with the pastor saying a prayer. He thanks us all for attending the first of eleven sessions and states that he hopes we have all enjoyed it. I most certainly did.

After the prayer we all nod to each other in appreciation. The pastor gives me a smile, shakes my hand and promises to bring some examples of those “contemporaneous sources that made mention of Jesus” to next weeks session. He is without doubt a likeable, personable chap who displays an admirable attitude. I like him already.

As I fasten up my jacket he says to me, “I want you to test me. I want you to challenge us and to ask questions”. He looks me cheerfully in the eye and states that in regards to Christianity being true, “I am 100% convinced.” To which I reply, with a wink, “I am 100% convinced that you’re 100% convinced”. We laugh, shake hands, wish each other a safe and enjoyable week ahead, and then shuffle off separately into the night.

September 9, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 48 Comments

WEEK 1a: “Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?”

I arrived at church early and was warmly welcomed by a fresh-faced gentleman sporting a beaming smile who introduced himself as the pastor of the church. After shaking my hand he led me into the room where the course would be held. In the room were three men and three women. The three women were all members of the church, and had been for some time. Two of the men were also members of the church, one a long-standing member and the other a relatively recent addition to the flock. The remaining gentleman was a neighbour of the long-standing male member but he was not a Christian. So of the bunch we were the only two non-believers in attendance, which, I must admit, came as somewhat of a surprise.

As we all exchanged pleasantries the three ladies served drinks and handed round slices of cheesecake and bowls of fruit salad. It was a very warm and pleasant atmosphere.

After we had eaten, the pastor asked us all to introduce ourselves in turn. After that he switched on the DVD player and inserted the first disc of the program, which would last approximately twenty minutes. As the introductory credits rolled, the pastor quickly assured us that any questions would be allowed. Each one of us would be free to air our views and he would do his best to assist. He then handed out a manual that accompanied the complete set of DVD’s that we were to be watching throughout the course, which gave us a rough outline of each weekly session, and in which we could make notes.

Lights were dimmed and the course began…

On the DVD an amiable chap called Nicky Gumbel would present the weekly programmes, and he began by trying to get us to imagine the big questions in life. We should ask ourselves, “What are we doing on earth? Where did we come from? Where are we heading? Who are we? Does our life have any ultimate purpose and meaning? What happens when we die?”

He then goes onto explain that there’s more to life than material possessions. He tells us a story of the legendary lead singer of the rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury, who had all the material goods he could wish for, yet, as Gumbel tells us, Mercury was lacking the one thing he really wanted in life: a loving relationship. Gumbel doesn’t waste time moving into God territory, and claims, “Ultimately there is only ONE relationship that is completely loving and totally ongoing, and that is a relationship with God.” And that such a relationship brings “reality to a confused world”.

More of the same followed, including a brief allusion to, of all things, Pascal’s Wager. He then assures us that, “Jesus came to set us free” and that “the Christian message is good news… and the good news is this – God loves you. And he loves you and me so much that he came in the person of his son, Jesus Christ, to live and to die for us”.

A little later he ends the sermon by stating that Christianity wasn’t boring and that “it’s not untrue. It’s not irrelevant to our lives. It’s exciting. It’s true”

Interesting stuff.

The program ends, the DVD is ejected, and we begin to discuss what we had just watched.

“Can anyone relate to any of the points raised in the programme?” asks the pastor. One of the ladies says that she had asked herself those ‘big questions’ in her childhood. She begins, “As a child I asked myself, “Do I love my mum and dad as much as I do and its all going to dust at the end of the day? All this love that I’ve given out, and all the love they have given me, is it not going to be anything at the end of it all?” I was thinking these kinds of things when I was really small and it used to make me really sad. I used to think that if the story [Christianity] was not true then what a waste all of this [the universe, life and everything] would be.”

I suggested to her that the things that we humans consider to be valuable in life are often the things that are rare and temporary. Diamonds and other precious jewels, for example, are considered valuable not because they are common, but because they are rare. A collector would not spend £5million on a blade of grass from a neighbouring field, or on a grain of sand from the Sahara Desert, but he may spend that much on an original Ming Vase or an original painting by Van Gogh. An evening at the theatre does not lack meaning because the performance is only two hours in length. Does the show/movie/ballet have to go on forever in order for it to be fulfilling and meaningful? Of course not. Similarly the temporariness of life does not preclude meaning and purpose. Our lives are full of meaning, despite being finite. I then suggest to her that if indeed there is no God and no eternal paradise, and that this life is the only life we’re ever going to get – then it becomes all the more valuable because of it.

The group then takes it in turn to offer insights into why it is that we do or do not believe in God, and we discuss these reasons briefly.

We’re now one hour into the course, and it is at this point that the pastor turns on the DVD player again, for we are about to watch the first proper session on the DVD, entitled, “Who Is Jesus?”….

[Note: To read the next instalment click on the appropriate link under the “Recent” header to the right of the screen. Or alternatively scroll down to the bottom of this page and click on the “Next” button.]

September 9, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 38 Comments

INTRO: What Is The Alpha Course?

I’m sure that most of you will have come across an advertisement for the Alpha Course at one time or another. They can usually be found plastered on the back of public transport, on the occasional billboard, and on banners attached to churches, which run the headline “The Alpha Course. Come and explore the meaning of life”.

The adverts do grab ones attention and they are thought provoking but it isn’t obvious, from a first glance at least, that they are religiously affiliated (unless you’re reading one that is attached to a church, of course!) In fact some people who take a look at the ones on buses and billboards may be surprised to learn that they are the product of Christian think tanks. But, one may ask, what has kick-started the church into such a move? Why are they clamouring for us to take an interest in what they have to say? Why now?

The answer is simple.

With church attendances dwindling ever closer to non-existence, as more and more of the British populace look upon organised religion with dissatisfaction, distrust and in some cases disdain, the church has been forced to act. Keen to bring ‘lost souls’ back into the fold, a Christian apologetics program was formulated back in the early 1990’s designed to entice sceptical and/or undecided people into attending weekly meetings with Christians, where they could learn about core Christian beliefs and, more importantly, learn how it is of great importance that they adopt such beliefs themselves!

Their website states that the Alpha Course is “an opportunity for anyone to explore the Christian faith in a relaxed setting over ten thought-provoking weekly sessions, with a day or weekend away”.

Having been raised as a Christian, only later to drift away from the faith, I thought I’d give the Alpha Course a go. What did I have to lose? Maybe I’d get some questions (that had troubled me for a while) answered? What did the Christian faith have to offer in terms of evidence and fact? Would their arguments stand up to examination? I was looking forward to discovering the answers.

After finding a course in my local area, and after swapping a few emails with the gentleman who was running the course, I was all set to go. What follows is a week-by-week, blow-by-blow account of my time spent on the Alpha Course….

September 9, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments