Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 2: “Why Did Jesus Die?”

I arrive early for the second session of the Alpha Course. The pastor is pottering around in the hallway and as I enter the building he greets me with a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder. “Great to see you, Steve” he says.

Both of us sit down in the meeting room and begin to chat. We spend ten minutes or so becoming more familiar with each other. We ask about each other’s family, each other’s history, our likes and dislikes, and whatnot.

People begin to trickle in to the room and in a matter of minutes the group is made up of the same people that attended last week’s course opener. That’s a good sign.

As the pastor chats to another member of the group my eye is drawn to the table opposite. I notice something familiar. It’s a Christian apologetics book that I have at home. I go to pick it up and as I finger through its pages the pastor tells me that he has brought it along for me to read because, he assures me, “it answers all your questions”.

I break the news that I have read the book already, in fact I have several books by that particular author, but I don’t tell the pastor that the book offers no answers to the question of extra-biblical, contemporaneous historical sources that mention Jesus. It offers none. I don’t want to appear rude by refuting his claim that “it answers all your questions” so I thank him for being so thoughtful, and offer him my appreciation for the kind gesture.

He picks up the book and turns to a page that he has book marked. He reads a paragraph from the book that says, more or less, that the historicity of Jesus is as certain as that of Julius Caesar. Maybe he has forgotten that we touched upon this claim last week? I mention again that we have historical accounts of Caesar from the time that he lived. Could the same be said of Jesus?

The pastor says that Julius Caesar was a well-known man in the day, so people will have written things about him. Jesus on the other hand wasn’t such a big shot, suggests the pastor, and that is why we have no record of him from the time that he lived. Hmmm. God himself wasn’t that much of a big deal? Is the pastor pulling my leg or grasping at straws?

He then offers an analogy…

Pastor: “If, in two thousand years from now, people were to look back to the start of the 21st century there would be quite a lot of evidence about Tony Blair. There will have been a lot of people writing about him. There may be some evidence about us, but there could possibly be none.”

Is the pastor suggesting that Jesus was nothing more than a simple, unspectacular man who made no impact on the society in which he lived? Was Jesus just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill man like you and me? God in human flesh made no mark in history? Is this really what the pastor is suggesting? Surely not?

What if you or I were going around in 21st century Britain raising the dead, curing the blind, feeding thousands with a few crumbs, and walking on water? What if, upon our death, the skies darkened and the earth trembled, and out of their tombs sprang the dead, who walked in to the nearest town and revealed themselves to the multitudes? Would this not at the very least make the local newspaper? Such events are not everyday events; they are the miraculous, the sensational, and the fantastic. It would be WORLD NEWS. People in two thousand years from now would find tons of accounts referring to such earth-shattering events.

But think about this for a moment: if the Gospel accounts are to be believed [Matthew 27:51-53], such events DID happen in 1st century Palestine. But what most Christians today do not know is that not a single person at the time made any note of these astonishing events whatsoever. That’s right, there is absolutely no record to be found of such tales outside of the Bible. The contemporary silence is deafening.

And we are supposed to take such claims seriously?

It just doesn’t add up, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

The conversation then moves on to how people have personal experiences of God. I ask what he thinks of people who have experiences of other gods. I mention the Aborigines of Australia, who, prior to the latter part of the 18th century – when the British arrived – had never heard of Jesus. Why is it that they had absolutely no knowledge of Jesus, Abraham, Moses, and all the rest of the Biblical characters? Why hadn’t the Christian God revealed himself to them?

“They didn’t worship Jesus because no one had ever taken them the good news” explains the pastor.

Shouldn’t God have thought of that, though? Why would he want the Aborigines to get Christ’s salvific message 1800 years later than most?

Lets say that you have a message of utmost importance that you need to send to a few friends in various parts of the world. Knowing that their knowledge of the content of such a message could save them from an eternity of torture, how would you get it to them? Pretty quickly I’d imagine. Perhaps you’d send them an email, call them on the telephone, send a text message, or maybe even a fax. To make sure they received the message you may even hop on a plane and deliver it by hand. But what about this for an idea… you’d glue the message to the back of a tortoise, point it in the right direction and hope it gets there. Good idea? No, of course not. It’s a preposterous idea. Isn’t it?

Think about this for a moment. What kind of method would God employ in order to get an important message to his children? Remember, God is omnipotent. God could have revealed himself to the Aborigines instantaneously. He could have sent down a copy of his divine word for them to peruse and digest, there and then. Countless Aborigines died in the 1800 years it took for them to receive the word of God from the European colonisers, when all it would have taken was a click of the fingers from God to make them aware of his existence. He chose the tortoise approach rather than the email. What a flagrant misuse of omnipotence!

At this point I suggest to the pastor that the evidence in favour of personal experiences of the Christian God would be immeasurably strengthened if, for example, the first European explorers arrived in Australia to be met by Aborigines whose religious experiences were identical to their own. If the Aborigines already knew of Jesus, of Abraham, of Moses and Joshua, of Elijah and Enoch, and of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and if they already knew of Christ’s passion and his message of salvation, independently from people of another continent, wouldn’t this be good evidence in support of objective religious experiences? The fact is, though, they knew NONE OF IT. And this is precisely what we would expect if “religious experiences” were subjective and/or culturally influenced.

This impromptu discussion has been going on now almost one hour, and we haven’t even started watching the video presentation yet. A break in the action gives the pastor a chance to insert the DVD into the machine. We all quieten down, sit back, relax, and get ready to watch the second video presentation of the Alpha Course entitled, “Why Did Jesus Die?”…

Gumbel begins by explaining the significance of the cross. He tells us that Jesus “died for our sins” and that we should understand that, “All of us have done wrong. We have all sinned”.

He lists a few of these “sins” such as “evil thoughts”, “sexual immorality”, “theft”, and “murder”

He then tells us what Jesus thought of sin. Gumbel states that “Jesus said, really, if we’re angry with someone [then] that’s kind of committing murder in our hearts”.

A bit over-the-top I thought.

He then lists a few more of these sins – “greed, malice, deceit, envy, slander, arrogance”.

He then talks about the horrors of children being molested and abused, and of old people being attacked in their homes. “Something within our nature cries out for justice” he says. “The people who did that should be brought to justice. There should be a penalty for that” exclaims Gumbel. Of course we all agree.

Gumbel has us on his side – in that we agree that people who do bad things should be punished. I sense that we’re about to be told that being a non-Christian is also a ‘bad thing’, and that my fellow sceptic and I are about to find out that we’re in for some deserved punishment after we die, if we remain sceptical to the truth claims of Christianity.

Gumbel brings a Bible verse to our attention [Romans 6:23] and reads it aloud, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”

What he’s saying here is that all of us “sin”, so we all deserve punishment of some sort. “There is a partition between us and God caused by the things that we do wrong” states Gumbel. God’s punishment for sin is death. “That’s the bad news,” he says.

Yes, I’d have to agree with him on that one, death isn’t particularly great news is it?

But, Gumbel assures us, Christianity isn’t all bad news, there’s a way that we can escape death. Christianity brings good news, and the good news is, according to Gumbel, that, “God loves you and me. God so loved the world – that’s you and me – that he sent his one and only son to do something about it”. Then he asks, “So what was the solution?”

He tells us that Jesus bore our sins into his body by getting nailed to a cross outside the gates of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. “Jesus died in our place” says Gumbel. “He endured crucifixion for us”.

It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me, to be honest.

Gumbel then goes in to graphic detail about the methods of crucifixion, and tugs at our heart strings by highlighting the kinds of torment and torture that Jesus must have suffered by being subject to such a punishment. And to make it all worse, “Jesus never did anything wrong. He lived a sinless life”, laments a now emotional Gumbel. “Jesus on the cross was carrying your sin and my sin.”

Gumbel reads us a Bible verse [John 3:16] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“We can receive total forgiveness!” says Gumbel.

By dying on the cross Jesus paid the “ransom price” to free us from sin. Whatever that means. To clarify this term Gumbel gives us an illustration of two school friends who, after leaving university, go their separate ways. One goes on to become a lawyer and later a judge. The other goes into a life of crime. One day the criminal appears in court before his old friend the judge. The judge loved his friend but he had to serve justice upon him. Gumbel likens this to God’s dilemma with us, in that he loves us but he must serve justice upon those that have done wrong. The judge eventually fined his old friend the appropriate penalty of £20,000… but… moments later the judge removed his robes, went round to meet his friend on the other side of the courtroom and wrote him a cheque for £20,000. Gumbel smiles as he says, “He [the judge] paid the penalty himself and almost tearfully adds “That’s what God has done for us in Christ” (There will be more of this later when the pastor and I discuss courtroom proceedings to see if justice has in fact been served).

Gumbel hits us once more with John 3:16 to emphasize the point that we can become free of sin and death, and that we can achieve eternal life by simply believing that God himself intervened in world affairs, in a certain way, at a certain place, in the form of a certain man, at a certain time in human history.

I don’t know about you but I’d much prefer to accept these sorts of claims based on the evidence that supports them (if any), rather than just “believing” something on faith because it’s emotionally, rather than intellectually, satisfying.

Gumbel then tells us how God is offering us a free gift of salvation. Like the judge and his old friend, God is “offering us a cheque”. According to Gumbel we should accept it. All we have to do is “believe”. In any case what do we have to lose? Who’d turn down a free gift anyway? God is being incredibly generous to us. Isn’t he?

I’m not sure that I agree that God is offering us a free gift in the first place. Think about it. If you give someone something and demand something in return then it’s hardly a “free gift”. Let me offer an illustration of my own. If I walk up to a lady in the street and hand her a wonderful bouquet of flowers and say, “Here’s a free gift for you!” and then moments later add, “all you have to do now is give me £75”. I’d probably get a slap in the face and be on the receiving end of a few choice words. Of course it isn’t a “free gift”!

But it doesn’t end there. Think about this, too. If the lady refused my “free gift” would I then be justified in torturing her for a few years? Wouldn’t this be the sort of “justice” that Christians find appropriate? Remember, it is Christians who believe that God is justified in sending us to an ETERNITY OF TORTURE if we do not accept his “free gift” of salvation!

If God REALLY wants us to have a “free gift” then he’ll give it to us without demanding anything in return, and that includes leaving us free to not believe that he did something a couple of thousand years ago. In fact it includes leaving us free to not believe that he exists in the first place!

The DVD presentation comes to an end. The lights are turned on and our talk begins…

The pastor begins, “Ok. Lots and lots of issues covered in that talk. So if you’ve got any questions then let them come to the fore”

The youngest male, a relatively new Christian and member of the church, wants to know a little more about sin, so the pastor explains a few points to him. They talk for ten minutes or so.

The long-standing male member of the church adds his few cents with regards to God’s nature, “The human aspect of God, Jesus, was that he was sinless. No sin. He never even had a bad thought!” How does he know that?? How can he possibly know what the creator of the universe actually thought?

He then supports what was said in the presentation by telling us that every sin deserves a punishment. He then gives us the account of Adam and Eve. It would appear that this group of Christians are Biblical literalists. This course is going to be interesting…

I’ve kept quiet for the best part of fifteen minutes, as I’m keen to let other people have a chance to air their views. I don’t want to come across as someone who is anxious to do all the talking. It isn’t long before there’s a lull in the action and it is at this point that the pastor turns to me and asks if I have any questions…

Me: [Scratching my head] “Well, I suppose I’m a little perplexed by the whole idea, to be honest. I don’t understand God’s apparent need to torture someone. Supposedly he’s sitting in heaven with such incredible power and, from what I’m led to believe, loves us all very dearly. Yet the BEST idea he can come up with to make things better is to send his son down from heaven and have him nailed to some wood. Is that really the BEST solution that omnipotence can produce?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “How would YOU have done it, Steve?”
Me: “I’m sure there are innumerable methods that are better than having your own son tortured and killed. God could have clicked his fingers and solved the problem. Surely?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Seems shocked that I would even suggest such an idea] “So you think God could have just clicked his fingers and sorted everything out?”
Me: “God is supposedly omnipotent, so of course he could have. I think it’s better than torturing someone to achieve the same goal”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “So where does freewill come in if I want to carry on sinning?”
Me: “I don’t know what you mean. Can you elaborate?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “When God made us he gave everyone freewill. So if God clicks his fingers and says that he wants everyone to love him, but I want to carry on sinning, then God is going to have to keep clicking his fingers every time!”
Me: “Well, he doesn’t have to keep torturing Jesus every time someone wants to sin, does he?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “But that only had to happen once”
Me: “So he’d only need to click his fingers once, then!”
Long-Standing Male Member: “But I’d need to make a choice that I accept Jesus as my Lord and saviour, that I believe that he died for us, and that I surrender my life to him.”
Me: “Well, you wouldn’t need to believe that Jesus died for you, only that he clicked his fingers for you, because he cares for you. You can accept Jesus as your Lord and saviour, and you can surrender your life to him. And, best of all, no one needs to have been tortured in the process. A much better idea, I’d say”

A few more people add their thoughts to the conversation, and all the Christians in the group cannot accept that any other method – than Jesus being tortured and killed – would have been good enough to save us from sin. This had to happen, they say. And their reasons for believing that? “Because he loves us!” they exclaim in unison.

I take a sip from my glass of water and we break for a moment as someone pays a quick visit to the toilet.

It strikes me as somewhat curious as to why they consider it a good thing to punish an innocent person (in this case Jesus) for the crimes of the guilty (in this case us). I’m reminded of Gumbel’s courtroom illustration that he gave during the presentation. I decide to use a courtroom illustration of my own in my next query…

Me: “Do you have any children?”
Pastor: “Yes. I have three”
Me: “Let’s say that one of your children is murdered by a madman. This man is brought before a court of law and the sentence of twenty-five years imprisonment is given to him. As the judge passes judgment I stand up and say “It’s ok, judge, I’ll do the twenty-five years for this guilty man. You can let him go.” Would you consider justice to have been done? Would you give me a round of applause for making such a sacrifice?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “Why not?”
Pastor: [Pause] “Because the guilty one has gone free”
Me: “So the innocent shouldn’t be punished in his place?”
Pastor: “No, because the price hasn’t been paid”
Me: “The price is twenty-five years in prison. I’ve said I’ll pay that price. Will justice have been served?”
Pastor: [Long pause]
Me: “It’s not justice, is it?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “But you consider it to be perfect justice when an innocent man, Jesus, pays the price for the sins of the guilty”
Pastor: [Pause] “Because he chose to take on our sin”
Me: “Yes, and I could choose to do the twenty-five years in prison for the child murderer. But that WOULDN’T be justice, according to you. But when it comes to innocent Jesus taking the punishment for the guilty you think it’s ideal”
Pastor: [Very long pause] “I understand what you’re saying”
Long-Standing Male Member: “But the thing is, though, God is the judge. The judge is paying the price.”
Me: “So if the judge stood up and said that he’d do the twenty-five years, that would be perfect justice according to you, yes?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Thinks for a moment] “Yes”
Pastor: [Turns to the long-standing male member and says] “I wouldn’t consider that to be justice, no.”

I admire the pastor’s honesty here. He’s openly disagreeing with one of his congregation on this point when he could have sat back and kept quiet. This is turning out to be a very interesting conversation. These two Christians do not agree with each other on what does, and what does not, constitute justice. Yet the foundation of their belief demands that they know such a thing. I sit back and watch as they quietly discuss the matter.

Their conversation slowly drifts towards forgiveness, something my fellow sceptic isn’t quite sure about. They spend a minute or two explaining to him that all one must do to receive forgiveness is to accept Jesus in to your heart whilst sincerely admitting that you’re a sinner who is in need of forgiveness. My fellow sceptic states that he has a problem with the belief that on one hand a murderer or a rapist can gain entry to heaven just by asking the Lord for forgiveness, whilst on the other hand there can be people who spend their entire lives caring for the unfortunate, feeding the hungry, and giving shelter to the poor, who are then doomed to an eternity of torture in hell simply because they do not hold certain beliefs about a particular religion.

Isn’t it just absolutely preposterous?

I ask, “If Adolf Hitler had asked God for forgiveness moments before he killed himself in his bunker as World War II came to a close, would he be in heaven now?”

Pastor: “The answer is yes.”
Me: “And if [my fellow sceptic and I] remain sceptical about the truth claims of Christianity, despite genuinely investigating them, and despite being relatively “nice” people, God is going to burn us for an eternity?”
Pastor: “Yes. It’s because when we come to Judgment Day we’ll all be judged, and the only difference between you and me is that I stand clothed in the righteousness of Christ. When God looks at me he doesn’t see [pastor’s name] he sees a white robe. I’ve got Christ’s goodness all over me. If you stand next to me, and haven’t accepted Christ, then you’re not wearing Christ’s robe, so he sees you in your sin”

He continues…

Pastor: “The trouble is that we measure sin. We tend to think that our own sins are nowhere near as bad as, say, Myra Hindley’s, and Myra Hindley may think that her sins are nowhere near as bad as Adolf Hitler’s, but if the gap between us and God is this big [holds his hand about 5 feet from the floor], and I’m here [holds his hand about an inch from the ground] and Adolf Hitler is here [holds his hand about an inch and a half from the ground] there isn’t really that much difference.”
Me: “I disagree. I happen to think there’s A LOT of difference between someone being responsible for the deaths of FIFTY MILLION PEOPLE and someone harbouring a few doubts concerning the subject of religion!”

I must say I was quite troubled by the last couple of comments made by the pastor. He is without a doubt an intelligent, pleasant, honest, and passionate fellow, but can he REALLY believe in the sort of God he is describing? We’re only two sessions in to the course, but already this God character is coming across as inconsistent, petty, cruel, childish, and vindictive. It’s early days yet though, so I’ll reserve judgment until the end of the eleven weeks. I don’t want to reach a hasty, and perhaps inaccurate, conclusion so it’s only fair that I give these people more time.

We’re approaching 9pm – finishing time – and it is at this moment that one of the three ladies (the second youngest of the three, who I will refer to as “Lady two”) decides to give us an account of how she became a Christian.

Lady Two: “The night I became a born-again Christian I actually said to a friend that I didn’t believe that anyone could have 100% faith. I said that to her at about 11pm. At 1:30am that night God filled me with his Holy Spirit and I said sorry to him for the things that I had done wrong, and I prayed to him through Jesus Christ that he’d forgive me. I asked him to fill me up with the Holy Spirit and he did just that. And the whole Bible that I was holding on my chest… just… well… I couldn’t feel the weight of it. In this experience it [the Bible] just went into my body. I couldn’t feel the Bible at all, but I was filled completely with the Holy Spirit. Tears poured down my face because I knew that due to what I’d said a few hours ago God was giving me what I’d always wanted, and that was 100% faith”
Pastor: “And that’s what I pray for you too, Steve”
Me: “I don’t deny the strength of religious conviction, or indeed the power of a “religious experience”, but whether these experiences are supernatural experiences as opposed to psychological experiences, well, that’s another matter.”
Pastor: [Smiling]“And that is what we’re here to explore”

We all smile and the pastor brings the wonderful session to a close with a prayer.

These conversations are fuelling my interest in religion and religious people. I’m thoroughly enjoying the course, and next week’s session is entitled “How Can I Be Sure Of My Faith?”

Hopefully it will be as fascinating as the first two sessions!

Until next week….

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September 14, 2008 - Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

55 Comments »

  1. Steve

    Fascinating and briliantly written. The problems with the Alpha Course (and by extension the evangelical believism on which it is based) are manifold. Thanks for taking the time to explore and expose them. Here’s hoping your pastor might actually see the light and realise the inherent contradictions of his faith before you reach the end of the course.

    TD

    Comment by TD | September 15, 2008

  2. “Jesus on the other hand wasn’t such a big shot, suggests the pastor….”

    I see. So it is not like he got so famous that Herod was longing to meet him, hoping to see a miracle?

    Comment by Steven Carr | September 16, 2008

  3. Just stumbled across this blog and I am very happy I did so! Please keep asking those challenging questions of the pastor; I’m fairly certain you will receive many replies that fail to make much sense. It is fairly inevitable that 2000 years after Jesus’s death, our interpretation of what he said, did and taught will grow ever removed from the truth. That is not to say, however, that Jesus did not exist.

    If you believe there are no such things are co-incidences, you might find it profitable to research the Nag-Hammadi library, discovered ‘by chance’ in Egypt in 1945 as well as the better-known Dead Sea Scrolls. This is an excellent link to hundreds of documents, none of which you will find in the official Bible, but which add so much depth to our understanding about who Jesus was:

    http://www.thenazareneway.com/

    On your ‘evidence’ question (contemporaries of Jesus), this might (or might not!) be of interest:
    http://www.thenazareneway.com/ossuary_of_james.htm

    Looking forward to next weeks installment

    Comment by Anthony | September 17, 2008

  4. “The judge eventually fined his old friend the appropriate penalty of £20,000… but… moments later the judge removed his robes, went round to meet his friend on the other side of the courtroom and wrote him a cheque for £20,000.”

    God’s solution is like me forgiving third world debt by taking all my money out of the bank on Friday afternoon, burying it in the garden, and digging it up again on the third day.

    How does that solve anything?

    Comment by Steven Carr | September 17, 2008

  5. I would like to correct something I said in my previous post. Some of the documents found in Nag-Hammadi (& I think DSS) ARE in the current bible, sometimes word for word the same (e.g. Isaiah). My main point, which I didn’t make very clearly, is that there are also many other ancient texts that purport to contain the sayings, and reflect the works & life of Jesus (as well as prophesising His incarnation on earth], but which are not included in the bible as they were considered either heretical or not canonical.

    Based solely on the sheer volume of this material [i.e. ignoring much other material I won’t go into here], the age thereof and the focus given to Jesus, I personally cannot take seriously any argument that Jesus did not exist.

    On the other hand,I’m not sure that this material answers definitively the question: who exactly was Jesus? That will be question eternally debated, or at least until His second coming.

    I hope you enjoy your course.

    Comment by Anthony | September 17, 2008

  6. There were many writers who referred to Jesus as a historic figure. The fact that most were Christians seems to put you off. Do a Wikepedia on “Josephus Jesus”.

    You’ll never be as smart as God is dumb, Stephen, Whatever it is you have against Him, Jesus loves you regardless.

    RevRomansky

    Comment by revromansky | September 18, 2008

  7. Hello RevRomansky,

    Thanks for your comment.

    It would appear that you’ve completely misunderstood my question regarding historical accounts of Jesus. Have you read the previous weeks blog entry entitled “WEEK 1b: “Who Is Jesus?”” I think it’s safe to say that you haven’t, because I discuss Josephus in that particular post.

    But even if you haven’t read last weeks post, I did state clearly in this weeks article that I was interested in “extra-biblical, contemporaneous historical sources that mention Jesus”. Why, then, would you suggest someone who wasn’t a contemporary of Jesus, i.e. Josephus?

    Oh, and by the way, I don’t have anything against Jesus. Again, you’ve obviously misunderstood.

    I would also like to take this opportunity to stress to everyone else who reads this blog that I do not possess the belief that Jesus did not exist. I am not of the stance, nor am I attempting to argue, that there was no historical Jesus. But I do think, based on the (weak) evidence we have at our disposal, that we are justified in approaching the claim “There was a historical Jesus” with a healthy dose of scepticism.

    All the very best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | September 18, 2008

  8. Was there a historical Sherlock Holmes?

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based the character of Sherlock Holmes on a real person.

    Does that mean that Sherlock Holmes existed?

    If the Jesus of the Gospels was based on a real character, does that make the Jesus of the Gospels as real as Sherlock Holmes?

    Comment by Steven Carr | September 19, 2008

  9. Hi Stephen,
    Sounds like you had another interesting week!

    You’ve asked some interesting questions about justice and about whether God is really offering a ‘free gift’ if there’s small print (I assume you mean that we have to believe ‘in return’?).

    I’d suggest that the way to think about the gift is in terms of relationship (isn’t it always?). God offers us himself. You may say, ‘well, no thank you!’ and that would be your prerogative. He’s not in the business of forcing himself on us. So you do have to say ‘yes’ if you want to accept him.

    The free gift then is that he offers us a new relationship with him (and, at the same time, a new life). The Bible talks about it in the language of a betrothal: God has asked us to ‘marry’ him and the choice is up to us. If we do say yes, anything we then do is just our response to being ‘engaged’ to Jesus/God and our desire to be a worthy ‘bride’. The offer is open to everyone, freely, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, but no one is forced into it!

    Of course, what Christians believe is that God is the source of life and every good thing: love and joy and beauty, etc. So that when human beings reject God they cut themselves off from the source of life itself. The exact consequences of this, ‘hell’ or ‘destruction’, is a source of discussion among Christians. Many believe that seeing human beings as having ‘eternal souls’ is not a Biblical idea, but a Greek one. Life comes from God and therefore those who cut themselves off simply pass into something like eternal death / non-existence / destruction.

    CS Lewis put it another way, but it’s quite helpful: “The doors of hell are locked on the inside” (my emphasis).

    I hope that helps to make sense of some of the things you said you were puzzled about!

    I don’t have time to respond to the justice question right now (let alone to the historical questions!) but hopefully I’ll get a chance later.

    Blessings,

    Clare

    Comment by C Miller | September 19, 2008

  10. Hello Clare,

    Thanks once again for your input. It’s gratefully received.

    Interestingly enough most of the points you raised in your post were brought up in this week’s Alpha session (week 3).

    I’m hoping to have the transcript complete for tomorrow evening and have it uploaded soon after.

    In answer to a private message from “qmonkey”, yes, all the conversations you see in my blog are taken from the digitally recorded audio, verbatim.

    All the very best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | September 20, 2008

  11. CLARE
    He’s not in the business of forcing himself on us.

    CARR
    I guess the story of the conversion of Saul is a pack of lies then.

    CLARE
    CS Lewis put it another way, but it’s quite helpful: “The doors of hell are locked on the inside”

    CARR
    So I guess Jesus was telling a pack of lies when he spoke about Lazarus and the rich man

    Luke 15
    But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

    But the gates of Hell are locked on the inside, according to Lewis.

    Surely the point of the parable (according to Lewis, but not Jesus), is that the rich man could have left Hell any time he liked. There was no lock from the outside. No chasm.

    Christian apologetics is so shabby. It takes sceptics about 5 seconds to show where the Christians own Holy Book contradicts people like Lewis.

    Comment by Steven Carr | September 20, 2008

  12. Hi Steven
    I’m sorry I haven’t responded sooner – I only just picked up your replies.

    Apologetics isn’t really my forte I’m afraid, I was just trying to help out Stephen with some of the questions he had.

    I should say that the quote from Lewis is just a picture to illustrate a point, just as Jesus’ parables are stories that illustrate a point (we normally don’t expect them to tell the ‘whole’ story or to be taken literally). What Lewis is saying is that we choose our own destiny (and hell is just rejection of God taken to its end). What Jesus is illustrating is that this destiny may be a complete reversal of our positions in this world and that the choices we make cannot be undone after death.

    What’s interesting about that parable is that Jesus says that the rich man’s brothers will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. It’s another variation on Hume’s argument, that no amount of evidence for a miracle will convince someone if they don’t believe in miracles. It’s what I was I was saying in my comment on Week 1 – there’s a sense to which arguing about evidence for the resurrection may be a dead-end conversation!

    Blessings

    Comment by C Miller | September 22, 2008

  13. CLARE
    What Jesus is illustrating is that this destiny may be a complete reversal of our positions in this world and that the choices

    CARR
    But I thought the gates of Hell were locked on the inside?

    Clearly this parable from the author of Luke was intended to explain away why the Jews did not believe although the resurrection was supposed to have happened in the middle of Jerusalem. It was is called ad hominem, which Jesus would have known was a fallacy if he had been wise.

    Comment by Steven Carr | September 23, 2008

  14. Stephen, I reiterate that those who personally witnessed Jesus close up wrote about Him, and their accounts have been preserved.

    For you to so qualify the historic Jesus as to exclude any eyewitness accounts due to the writer’s religious response to Jesus’ message is unreasonable.

    Please, no strawmen. They don’t sit well.

    Sincerely,

    RevRomansky

    Comment by revromansky | September 23, 2008

  15. RevRomanksy, I repeat, if you actually read my articles you will see that I asked for “extra-biblical, contemporaneous historical sources that mention Jesus”. So why would you then refer me to the Gospel writers (who aren’t extra-biblical)??

    Remember, in your previous attempt [post #6] you referred me to Josephus (who wasn’t contemporaneous!)

    To top it off you falsely claim that I’m eager to “exclude any eyewitness accounts”

    It’s evident that you have not read my articles properly. Or maybe it’s just a case of you being keen to attack a position that I don’t occupy? But that would have you guilty of setting up a strawman. And yes, I agree, they don’t sit well.

    All the very best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | September 23, 2008

  16. Hi Stephen,
    The “free gift” concept is something I had a hard time understanding because it sounded like I had to “believe” in exchange for this “free gift.” I didn’t get it until I understood that what Christians meant as a “free gift” should better be worded as an “unearned gift.” In other words we can’t get into heaven by earning credits by doing good deeds or giving money to the church. The gift of salvation is unearned, and therefore in that sense it is free. However in order to obtain this unearned gift it does cost us something. We must “believe”, repent and turn our entire lives over to God which is a very high cost to us! I think this is where Christians should be more clear in their message, otherwise it is confusing. Let me know if that helps.
    Thanks,
    Frank

    Comment by Frank W. | October 6, 2008

  17. But there is no evidence for any Heaven.

    Comment by Steven Carr | October 7, 2008

  18. Hi Frank,

    A “gift” is defined as “something given voluntarily without payment in return”.

    If God is giving us the “unearned/free gift” of salvation then, like I said in my article, he shouldn’t expect anything in return (i.e. that we must believe that he exists).

    If, as you say, “it does cost us something” then you’re admitting that he’s not offering us a gift. A “reward” maybe, but not a “gift”.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | October 7, 2008

  19. Hi Mr. Carr,
    I find that it is healthy to be skeptical about both sides of the argument. I would agree with you, that there is no evidence of heaven. However I would also argue that there is no evidence there is not. So at this point I am at least open to the possibility that there may be one. I am hoping the Alpha course can help answer some of my questions as to whether Christianity is plausible.
    Thanks,
    Frank

    Comment by Frank W. | October 7, 2008

  20. Hi Stephen,
    According to dictionary.com a gift is also defined as “something bestowed or acquired without any particular effort by the recipient or without its being earned”.
    I think in reference to the verse Rom 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” the thrust of the verse is oomparing wages (which are earned) with a gift (that is unearned).
    It may also helpful to understand it as 2 separate transactions. Jesus opened to door to heaven. Christians can accept this gift by surrendering their lives to God. They can now enter through the door to heaven. However surrendering their lives to God did not open the door, it just gave them the right to enter the door. Opening the door is a gift in the sense that there is no way man could have opened the door on his own. I hope this helps.
    I do agree with you that Christians do not explain this concept very well. I think many people hastily accept this “free gift” of salvation and once they realise they must now follow God, they bail out. Sometimes I think churches do this just to make converts only to see many of them fall away at a later date.
    Better to be honest with people up front and let them know what they are signing up to I say.
    Thanks,
    Frank

    Comment by Frank W. | October 7, 2008

  21. Stephen,
    I also wanted to comment on your story of a madman killing a child. Would it be different if the father of the murdered child (the one seeking justice) offered to pay the price?
    Thank you for the stimulating conversation,
    Frank

    Comment by Frank W. | October 8, 2008

  22. Hi Stephen,

    I’m enjoying reading this. I’ve just come across you’re blog. Thanks for taking the time to let us listen in! It sounds like you’re doing the ‘express version’ which, given the good questions you’re asking might not be as helpful – especially because you lose some of the nuance and subtlety in the shorter edit. It strikes too me that the people leading your course (no offence to them intend) aren’t on your level of thinking and may help you but not as much as you might need. I’m sure this is helpful for them though in getting them thinking!

    Can I offer one or two thoughts about the judge illustration? If this just sounds like crazy waffle then please come back to me and I’ll try better to explain what I mean!

    When we use illustrations there are always issues and what happens at the cross of Jesus is so multi-faceted any one illustration doesn’t quite get there. On the question that the Pastor disagreed with the long standing male member there’s something crucial that the Pastor has missed out. When someone becomes a Christian they become ‘united with Christ’. This means one of the thing the God the Holy Spirit does (you’ll learn more about Him later in the course) is that He joins us and Christ together so that our history becomes connected with Jesus’. When Jesus died on the Cross, that death is applied to us. This is the cost that you’re aware of and why you feel the tension about using the phrase free gift. The call to become a Christian is really a call to death, to ourselves, to our own prerogatives, to our own ways of trying to live rightly and please God by our own moral performance.

    Yet Jesus also was raised to life and that resurrection life is applied to the Christian. This is the free gift – Jesus lived the life we couldn’t live and died the death that should have been ours.

    A guy called Daniel Blanche puts it this way:

    Sometimes I stand at a distance and look at the cross, and see that Jesus suffers there alone. He is there, and I am not. He is dying, and I am not. He is enduring the wrath of God, and I am not. All of which is amazing, because everything that he is going through is everything that I deserve but will now never face.

    Sometimes I look down from the cross, and realise that Jesus’ suffering there includes me. I died with him. I am there. My old, sinful self died as he died. My old identity as a sinner died as he died. My old way of living and looking at the world died completely as he died. Which is equally amazing, because it means that I can be a new person now – I can change.

    God’s justice, expressed in his law, is satisfied; the future judgement against sin has been paid for, Matt Finn has died – in Christ – and since I no longer live, there is no further charge to be brought against me. Yet, because I died in Christ, I’m also raised to life we Him – Matt Finn, as some independent person no longer lives, but I live in Christ.

    Does that help at all? Just realised what a long comment that was! Apologies for that!

    Comment by Matt | October 14, 2008

  23. So Matt Finn can kill as many people has he wants , as ‘the judgement against sin has been paid for,’ and ‘there is no further charge to be brought against him’?

    If Matt Finn went on a killing spree, would there be a ‘further charge to be brought against him’? Obviously not.

    So Christians can kill with impunity…

    After all, we know Christians are not ‘perfect’, just ‘forgiven’…

    Comment by Steven Carr | October 14, 2008

  24. Spot on Steven – that’s exactly the objection we should raise and its one that Paul anticipates and answers in his letter to the Romans (see Chapter 6 if you’re interested). He says it better than I can, so I’ll leave it to him if that’s alright.

    Comment by Matt | October 14, 2008

  25. Where does Paul refute your claim that ‘there is no further charge to be brought against you’?

    Paul says the exact opposite to you in Romans 6. He claims Christians have to avoid sin, not that ‘no further charges will be brought’ against Christians.

    Where does Paul in Romans 6 agree with Matt that ‘the future judgement against sin has been paid for…’?

    Romans 6 says Christians will be judged as sinners if they murder and rape.

    So what did Jesus acheive by getting himself killed that God could not do by making everybody ‘a new creation’ so that they were ‘dead to sin’?

    Paul might waffle on about how Christians are ‘dead to sin’, but a glance at the real world shows that Christians go to prison just as often as non-Christians.

    And you don’t see Christian Bishops volunteering to serve the jail sentences of fellow Christians. They know perfectly well that that idea makes no sense.

    Comment by Steven Carr | October 15, 2008

  26. Hi Steven,
    “A glance at the real world shows that Christians go to prison just as often as non-Christians”.
    Some questions:
    What is a Christian and how do you personally tell if someone really is one?
    Do you really have data to support that claim?

    On the Christian Bishops thing I think it’s appropriate to draw a distinction between the law of God and the law of our land. This is continually why ‘law-court’ illustration break down – personally I wouldn’t use them. If a Christian murders someone they will and should certainly face the consequences of that – in the UK – prison. What I’ve said above doesn’t undermine that fact that when people do wrong things that there are consequences. Yet, “sin”, isn’t just doing wrong things, but not doing the right things. Once the law of the land has been satisfied we still face that fact that wrong action against someone, nature and ourselves is at heart an offence against God. (That point really needs expanding but for brevity I’ll leave it there.) The Christian though is to live a life consonant with the new reality of who they are and what has been done for them in Jesus Christ. To use the jargon, it sounds a bit like you’re conflating justification (God’s act of declaring or making a sinner righteous before God) and sanctification (the ongoing process of being made holy).

    To respond to your other point: Paul in his whole argument builds all this stuff to Romans 8 where he says the point I made earlier. The words of the New Testament connect together the death of Jesus and our death and the new life in him – which is being made a ‘new creation’. If you want God to “just do it” the question you need to ask is what does it cost for God to do that. If nothing, I’d suggest that the God you’re talking out is not just, not loving and not even merciful.

    Comment by Matt | October 15, 2008

  27. I see Matt never bothered answering my question ‘Where does Paul in Romans 6 agree with Matt that ‘the future judgement against sin has been paid for…’?’

    Instead of answering questions, we get more meaningless religious waffle.

    Apparently, it is now wrong for Christians not to serve prison for murder, but right for Jesus to pay the sentence for sins.

    Does any of this make sense? Is it right and just for innocent people to volunteer to do time instead of murderers? Yes or No.

    Is it right and just for Jesus to be killed instead of other people? (who all die anyway, promises of eternal life are pie in the sky)

    How can we tell who is a Christian?

    Why , they are the people who are new creation and are dead to sin.

    I will let you know if I ever meet any.

    Comment by Steven Carr | October 15, 2008

  28. Hi Steven,
    I got the wrong end of the stick because I thought the issue you were raising was why Christians can’t (or shouldn’t) go on killing sprees if they are forgiven of all they have done or will do rather than the future judgement against sin bit. This was why I mentioned Chapter 6 above because it gives a reason for why Christians can’t just go on sinning, even if Jesus has forgiven them. You right that Paul doesn’t talk about the future judgement against sin being paid for there in that chapter. I didn’t mean to suggest he was – just that he deals with the question I thought you were asking!

    Apologies for waffle – it’s difficult to see how things will be understood when written down here in the comment section rather than in person.

    To try and be a bit more direct:
    Is it right and just for innocent people to volunteer to do time instead of murderers?” I say no.
    We should be able to see that have some problems though – we haven’t clearly defined what right and just even means! By whose standards? Must everyone agree to them? Is justice defined in relation to God or irrespective of Him? How we answer these questions will lead us to very different ideas about what justice even is.
    To illustrate this change the analogy to money that is owed – a debt. It is right and just for me to pay for someone else’s debts owed if they are to be sent to prison until they can pay? If you think that’s ok we should explore why the two are different. I think that makes a big difference to the way I would answer the million dollar question in this discussion of: “Is it right and just for Jesus to be killed instead of other people?

    Comment by Matt | October 15, 2008

  29. But Romans 6 says Christians shouldn’t go on killing sprees, not that they can’t.

    As you pointed out, ‘no further charges will be brought against them’, so no further charges will be brought against Christians who kill.

    ‘It is right and just for me to pay for someone else’s debts owed if they are to be sent to prison until they can pay?’

    Where are the debtor’s prisons nowadays? Why do you liken your god to somebody who throws people in debtor’s prisons until their friends are forced to collect money to pay?

    Is that your alleged god? Somebody who behaves in ways that we humans threw out as immoral last century?

    Comment by Steven Carr | October 15, 2008

  30. Really interesting Steve. I am about to go off and run an Alpha group and it is very useful to be able to reflect on the kind of questions that may be rased. I think that some people make the mistake of thinking that every question can be answered and problem solved in the world in general or christianity in particular. We don’t know all the answers but we know enough to know what action to take. Go with that after all faith is a factor!

    Comment by Mark | September 28, 2009

  31. Thanks Mark. Good luck with your Alpha sessions, and I hope this site comes in handy, either to yourself or to those that attend your course.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | September 28, 2009

  32. It is interesting that people say that religion cannot answer every question.

    Of course, religion answers the questions that empirical evidence can not answer.

    And the answer is ‘That question cannot be answered by us.’

    Comment by Steven Carr | October 1, 2009

  33. I’ve been reading your posts with fascination and will continue to read them all the way to the final week.

    I lost my best friend to an Alpha course. Before it, she seemed fairly happy with her life and probably a vague agnostic. After it, she was a devout Christian and sadly, could not find a place in her life for someone who was both an atheist and who remembered who she was and how she had thought before she had been “born again”.

    I have been tempted to go to an Alpha course to find out how it is so powerful. Your blog is far better than me attending one. Not only are you incredibly eloquent in your descriptions of the evenings but you maintain far more patience and circumspection than I could ever hope to.

    Thanks for taking the time to add your words to the web!

    Comment by Vicky P | October 7, 2009

  34. Thanks for this Stephen. It’s incisive, and I think the most useful observation (amongst many) is that Alpha is designed for ‘inquiring believers’. In other words your mind is ready to believe, so the affirmation from a peer group is all you need to make an apparently unbelievable paradigm shift in thinking.

    I’ve just embarked on a Christianity Explored course, but the conclusions already look remarkably similar.

    Comment by Phil Balderson | March 2, 2010

  35. Hello Phil,

    Thanks for bringing to my attention the “Christianity Explored” course. I’d not heard of it before. Do let me know how you get on.

    Since you mentioned it, I’ve had a word with a couple of local churches and discovered that a course is planned to start quite soon, so I’ve enrolled.

    Should be interesting!

    I’ll keep you posted.

    All the best,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | March 12, 2010

  36. I have to admit, your observations are quite entertaining, but I have to ask…What is your goal? I sense this ego-centric grandiosity going on with you. I could be wrong, but your questions have an air of elitist intelluctualism to them. I mean, really, what is your point? Is it that people of faith are ignorant playthings for your “obvious” superior intellect to bat around or are you really searching for answers? My gut tells me you aren’t the open-minded person you are for some reason trying to potray yourself to be. Your intolerance saddens me, as does all intolerance. Do you have a core issue with Christianity or all religions? These are just a few questions I have for you. Just so we can level the playing field a little. I also find it interesting that you post a quote from Robert Ingersoll, an agnostic. Agnosticism leaves open the possibilty for INDIVIDUAL certainty of the existence of God. Interesting, huh? And as far as the quote goes…I interpret that to speak to the issue of humility, a principle in life we all should cultivate. No man can say he knows the exact truth from God…only God know’s that. Think about it. Peace!

    Comment by Kaile Moran | September 28, 2010

  37. Hello Kaile,

    My goal was to offer a resource for people curious about attending an Alpha Course. I am a sceptic, obviously, and I appreciate the fact that not everyone who reads this blog will agree with my views on a number of the issues raised, but there’s ample opportunity in the comments section for anyone wishing to point out any flaws in any of my arguments.

    People are free to make their own minds up after reading this blog, I’m merely offering a write-up of how the course progresses and what sort of arguments to expect.

    I didn’t for one moment think of these people as my “playthings” (as you suggest) and your comment “Your intolerance saddens me” was a curious one and, I believe, rather unfair. If I was truly intolerant of these people surely I have would left after the first week? If I may ask, in what way am I intolerant?

    You also said, “I also find it interesting that you post a quote from Robert Ingersoll, an agnostic.” Why would that be particularly interesting, Kaile? I am after all an agnostic-atheist.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Best wishes.

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | September 29, 2010

  38. Too many comments to see if this one has already been made:

    * If the judge were not party to the crime (the offended) then there would be no justice in him giving the pardon. HOWEVER, if the judge is the offended party (i.e. the judge’s child is murdered). Sin is an offence against God firstly, and normally an offence against others too.
    That’s why there IS justice in the Judge releasing the offender.
    It’s like if someone slashes my tyres. I can either get revenge, or I can choose to be the one with slashed tyres.

    Our (humanity) ignorance and rejection of God has removed us from relationship with Him. In order to restore that relationship, He has taken the punishment on Himself on the cross, and offers us reconciliation and peace with Him, and an eternity of that.

    Eternal Life from God is “free” in that we cannot earn it. We can only believe it. But it is also extremely expensive – it costs us our life. Jesus said
    Mar 8:34ff And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
    For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
    For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
    For what can a man give in return for his soul?
    For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

    Comment by Malcolm | August 23, 2011

  39. I wonder if you’re still reading these comments, or if this point has already been made; apologies if it has.

    You say of the comparison of the sin of your average Joe, Myra Hindley and Adolf Hitler, God’s regard for their actions is ‘inconsistent’, among other adjectives. The verse in the Bible that best explains this is Romans 3:23 – “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

    Now, regardless of what you believe about God, it is purported that he is Holy, that is, set apart and not like us, with no tolerance of sin whatsoever. So his treatment of those who are unrepentant of sin is, in fact, entirely consistent. You just don’t like it, but you’re honest in saying so!

    The other words you use to describe God are much harder to refute. All I can say is, if nothing else, Christianity is (or should be) self aware. The apostle Paul was acutely aware that “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18a) and that “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:17-19).

    This stuff is hard to understand (from a purely intellectual standpoint, as well as emotionally and spiritually) and even harder to believe. However, I believe that accusing Christianity (and God specifically) of being inconsistent to be a false charge.

    Comment by Stu N | October 15, 2011

  40. Hi Stephen

    Just stumbled on your blog as a result of preparing to speak at our own Alpha course. Really interesting stuff….thanks.

    On a side note, have you ever heard or come across Source ‘Q’? MIght be worth exploring…

    Rick.

    Comment by Rick Hill | February 3, 2012

  41. Hi Rick,

    Yes, I’m aware of the hypothetical “Q” document.

    Glad you enjoyed the blog, and good luck with your Alpha. Hope everything goes well.

    All the best,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | February 3, 2012

  42. i am starting the first module next week, and find this blog entertaining and informative !
    as i hope the full course to be.
    i’m purely there for interest and educational purposes, but i fear i shall not be able to keep it `trouble free` !
    thank you Stephen, for a lil inspiration !

    Comment by Gav | April 12, 2012

  43. Hi Gav,

    Thanks for your kind words. Good luck with your course. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

    All the best,

    Stephen.

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | April 12, 2012

  44. Stephen,

    Your stuff is truly brill! I was particularly struck by Kaile’s comment and your fantastic response that folk are quick to criticise you and your writing style rather than what you actually say. Of course, you must know they do that because they cannot criticise your excellent arguments. I study the Bible with an amazing bloke called Andrew Parker http://www.bibleincartoons.co.uk . He is not at all religious and sees the Bible as a revolutionary political book ( with God of the Bible being the personification of the worldview of the marginalised Hebrew people ( later taken up by Jesus) just as all the other communities of the ancient Near East had their own gods represnting their own worldviews. What makes Yahweh different is his anti-status-quo stance. ) Andrew sends round a monthly Bible study but mainly folk criticise him for the way he writes while steadfastly ignoring what he is saying. It’s a common problem when you tell folk things they don’t want to hear.

    kindest regards, Julie

    Comment by Julie Mansfield | August 28, 2012

  45. Wow, what a debate.. I think everything has been covered! Anyway, hello stephen and thankyou for opening it up… I hope you are well..:)
    It is hard to know quite how to respond to so many thoughts and diving into particulars seems only to run into counter-arguments.. . I have attended several Alpha courses myself and even helped run a few ( but ours was open to street folks and drug addicts, many of whom were nearly unconscious after they ate their meal. . so our debates weren’t quite as lively and intense as this! ha ha)… i hope you appreciate that was said in humour as many of them had to nip outside to take their drugs half way through.. 🙂
    ANYWAY….Yes, the Alpha conversations can be lively and range a bit.. one of ours Ill never forget was when one of our group struggled for a while, rising out of a bit of a stupor, then asked seriously why was Mother Theresa the same as God!! I still giggle when i think about it.. that particular addict is a lot better these days an only last week told someone proudly that “that was the Alpha where we all sat with our faces in our dinner”… I couldn’t have put it better.. and we did all have a good laugh and grew to love all of the people who came… Anyway, all of that nonsense aside, I think i just said it because in a way i feel to some extent you’re coming at some of this from the wrong angle… its not that we shouldn’t ask, discuss and debate things.. but the problem sometimes is that statements merely produce counter-statements- if you’re out to refute something. And we can all do it. For years I searched like that and even studied philosophy at university in order to find out what the truth was about why we’re here. But that, not surprisingly, yielded no results. If you’re you’re looking for ABSOLUTE proof, you’ll never find it simply because a counter argument can always be inserted which sets you off again, on a dfferent tack. However there is as it happens plenty of very very real EVIDENCE for the life of Jesus. …
    In those days it was an oral tradition and less people could wite and less people did write. People memorised and passed things on orally-that was how they did things. ANd as it happens Jesus DID come up in a few writings from back then. People however were far too excited TELLING each other about Jesus while He was alive to bother to stop and write ( as this was a skill few people had)- but the word about Him got around nevertheless- and many,many turned up to see what He was up to… so it must have been a bit out of the ordinary even for those days!! However if Jesus had NOT existed its highly unlikely He would have appeared in the writings of proper historians like Josephus and tacitus ( and a few others) even fifty years later. They would not have discredited themselves- and neither did they ‘side’ with Jesus or approve of him- they were merely reporting what was well within their living memory. Writing about Jesus WHILE it was happening wasn’t necessary to a oral-based community- the news had already spread and they knew full well what was going on and the crowds were arriving !! The historians only wrote a while later ( and it was NOT outside of living memory… only as long ago as when kennedy was shot for us… oooh, I hope I got that right! lol!)…to document a relatively recent event and set it into order. And it popped up more than a few times- and not by believers..This is evidence that Jesus was real and was known and was about the place. The four gospels and letters written by Paul were written as little as a mere 15-20 years after Jesus died and was resurrected ( and that is very little time after the event). …BUT NEVERTHELESS REGARDLESS OF THIS EVIDENCE THIS WILL NEVER CONVINCE ANYONE!!! The reason is because God is Spirit and He sent Jesus INTO this physical world to teach us to love, forgive and live more compassionate lives. WE CAN EASILY IDENTIFY AND LOCATE JESUS IN HISTORY, BUT THAT IS NOT THE POINT! God is spirit and it is His spirit which creates and sustains our physical realm. A brief, but honest search into what scientists have really discovered in their various subjects would show what they consider to be the literally impossible odds of our eyes, brains, bodies, ears, skin, bones, and all the unlikely interconnecting bodies having formed at all. I would highly recommend a book by former atheist and journalist Lee Strobel called “CASE FOR THE CREATOR” DNA they say could never have come about by random chance and more and more top scientists from around the world are throwing up their hands and saying, ”There MUST be an intellegent creator”… But even that isnt what its all about….God wants a relationship with His creation, He wants us to want Him as well as Him wanting us…You’ve looked at all of this from the negative.. the ultimate downsides that you can see… but what about the up sides, which are just as real, just as present ? What about the beauty in the world, the wonder of animals, their eyes looking at us with their thinking free spirits- so unlike any computer, better, freer, more lovely, more huggable, the impossibility of any ”computer” being so free….what about the love that wells up in your own heart, the compassion you feel, your own conscience when you ask honestly, where did I come from ? And why can i think if I’m ”just” a pile of chemicals ? What about that sense of meaning and connection that you occasionally glimpse, even if its gone the next second ? And now… getting more daring…. what about the tens of thousands of sane, rational people suddenly saying they believe in God, can accept Him, want to know Him ? What of the VAST number of people saying they have been healed when prayed for by believers ? ( of things like AIDS< heart disease, blindness, deafness, even mental health problems)… week after week new reports come with doctors also throwing in the towel saying they also now believe because their patient has been healed..research this… you will find a few more than you expect…..The list could go on and on of supernatural phenomena being reported, but oddly, everything being centred around this one person Jesus, who gives us more and asks more of us than anyother being in history….Even the calendar is based around him- beofre Him and after Him! God really does love; He is the one who created us and made us in His likeness; the feelins we know were passed onto us from Himself becasue He want s a relationship with those He created. Its not hard to believe He loves His created ones…..Each animals so unique and different, all the beauty and variety in Nature- only Love could create that way. If you really want to know the truth then understand that God didnt come to suppress your way of thinking… He will allow you to think all of this until you are fed up with its fruitlessness!!.. But if you are willing to lay down how you see thins and ask Himto show you the truth- He will!! God bless you stephen….keep chuggin on…but please be honest at every step and look at the evidence!! You are loved !! 🙂

    Comment by fiona | January 19, 2014

  46. hi, Fiona. I know I am speaking out of turn because your post is for Stephen. But could you just explain the main thing which I don’t understand about what you are saying. How is Stephen loved by God? What difference is being loved by God making to you? I have lots of friends who say exactly what you are saying – talking of being loved by God and how Jesus did perform all these strange acts – but they are no different from anyone else. You’d have thought that with all the supernatural God power they have from God / Holy Spirit they would be different from others. But we’re all the same. And even if it could be proved that Jesus did all these things and God did create Jesus – that was clever of Him but so what for my life? And if you believe God is doing selective healings of some folk – why do you think He is being so choosy? Why do you want to believe in a selectively deaf God?

    Comment by Julie Mansfield | January 19, 2014

  47. Hi Fiona,

    Thanks for your post. I’ll respond to some of the points you raised:

    “… in a way i feel to some extent you’re coming at some of this from the wrong angle… its not that we shouldn’t ask, discuss and debate things.. but the problem sometimes is that statements merely produce counter-statements- if you’re out to refute something.”
    I didn’t approach Alpha with the intention of refuting everything that was said, it’s just that it turned out that everything that was said was so inconsistent or contradictory that I had little option but to question it, and ultimately came away unimpressed. I just don’t see anything to Christianity, that’s all.

    “If you’re you’re looking for ABSOLUTE proof, you’ll never find it simply because a counter argument can always be inserted which sets you off again, on a dfferent tack.”
    I’m not looking for ‘absolute proof’.

    “However there is as it happens plenty of very very real EVIDENCE for the life of Jesus. …”
    There is evidence for a 1st century itinerant preacher named Jesus, yes. But that’s very different from having evidence that this same Jesus was in fact a god, was born of a mortal virgin, performed miracles, rose from the dead, flew up in to the clouds and then turned invisible. I’m not aware that any such evidence exists.

    “… Jesus DID come up in a few writings from back then. People however were far too excited TELLING each other about Jesus while He was alive to bother to stop and write ( as this was a skill few people had)… However if Jesus had NOT existed its highly unlikely He would have appeared in the writings of proper historians like Josephus and tacitus ( and a few others) even fifty years later. They would not have discredited themselves…”
    The passage that you’re alluding to in the writings of Josephus is almost universally accepted as a much later interpolation (in other words, forged), and Tacitus (writing in the 2nd century) tells us nothing about a virgin-born, miracle-performing godman named Jesus, only that a “mischievous superstition” (Christianity) had broken out in Rome during the reign of Claudius and the man from which the religion took its name (Christus) had been put to death some years earlier when Tiberius was emperor.

    Tacitus also tells us that a woman gave birth to a snake, and that various other “monsters” were born (half men/half beasts) during the reign of Claudius. I’m not sure how seriously you take such reports?

    “What about the beauty in the world, the wonder of animals, their eyes looking at us with their thinking free spirits- so unlike any computer, better, freer, more lovely, more huggable, the impossibility of any ”computer” being so free….”
    I fail to see how the “beauty in the world” is evidence for God. Would the horrible things in the world, then, such as cancers, parasites, and natural disasters, be evidence against God? If not, why not?

    “what about the tens of thousands of sane, rational people suddenly saying they believe in God, can accept Him, want to know Him ? What of the VAST number of people saying they have been healed when prayed for by believers ? ( of things like AIDS< heart disease, blindness, deafness, even mental health problems)… week after week new reports come with doctors also throwing in the towel saying they also now believe because their patient has been healed..”
    Let me ask you, what of the vast number of people saying they have been ‘healed’ when prayed for by believers of other religions? If someone is ‘healed’ of a certain ailment after being prayed for by a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, would you consider this evidence that their gods exist? If not, why not?

    “Even the calendar is based around him [Jesus]…!”
    Most of the days of the week are named after gods and goddesses (Monday – the god “Mani”, Tuesday – the god “Tiw”, Wednesday – the god “Wodan”, Thursday – the god “Thor”, Friday – the goddess “Frige”, Saturday – the god “Saturn”, Sunday – the goddess “Sunna”). Is the calendar, therefore, evidence for these gods too?

    “Its not hard to believe He loves His created ones…..Each animals so unique and different, all the beauty and variety in Nature- only Love could create that way.”
    Actually, Fiona, in all honesty it is very, very difficult to believe that. Nature, red in tooth and claw, would hardly be the crowning achievement of a supposed omnibenevolent designer, surely?

    “If you really want to know the truth then understand that God didnt come to suppress your way of thinking… He will allow you to think all of this until you are fed up with its fruitlessness!!.. But if you are willing to lay down how you see things and ask Him to show you the truth- He will!!”
    If you’ve read my review from start to finish you will be aware that I have asked him to show me the truth many times already. Sadly I haven’t heard anything back from him.

    “God bless you stephen….keep chuggin on…but please be honest at every step and look at the evidence!! You are loved !!”
    Thanks Fiona. Your input is appreciated.

    All the best,

    Stephen.

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | January 26, 2014

  48. Hi Stephen, Just came across your post in a Google search on Alpha. I must say it makes for very interesting reading, as you have articulated your views very well and very politely too. Well done!!

    You mentioned “we have historical accounts of Caesar from the time that he lived”.

    Would you be able to provide more details: What historical records do we have for Tiberius Caeser? How many sources do we have? And how close/far were they written form the time Tiberius Caeser lived?

    I believe an important aspect that will serve as a valid starting point to the discussion will be: What sort of criteria historians use to assess the historical reliability of any source?

    The next logical step will be to apply this very same criteria to examine if the gospels narratives are historically reliable (purely from a historical view point); and see the gospels fare when compared to records we have for Tiberius Ceaser.

    The reason for the questions is simple: if it can be shown that the gospels are NOT historically reliable documents, then the discussion can end right at that point. There will be no further point in examining questions like why did Jesus die.

    Thanks, David

    PS: I have chosen Tiberius Caeser (TC), because according to historian Luke, TC was the Roman emperor at the time Jesus and John the baptist lived.

    Comment by David Chellappa | February 26, 2014

  49. Hello David,

    You asked:

    “What historical records do we have for Tiberius Caeser? How many sources do we have? And how close/far were they written form the time Tiberius Caeser lived?”
    We have quite a lot of sources. Those of which that were written during the lifetime of Tiberius include accounts by Paterculus, Augustus, Seneca the Elder, and Strabo. Historians that were contemporaries of Tiberius, but who wrote about him after his death, include Pliny the Elder and Josephus. Sources written within 80 years of his death include Tacitus, Suetonius, and Plutarch.

    In their histories, Tacitus and Suetonius used as sources the minutes from the sessions of the Senate from when Tiberius was Emperor, as well as the written speeches of Tiberius himself.

    In addition to the written accounts, we have statues and busts of Tiberius that were made during his lifetime (one example in the Louvre is dated at 13AD), as well as coins that displayed his image.

    The above is all well and good but I want to stress something here because it’s very important: I am not arguing that there must be contemporary accounts of a person in order to believe they existed. There are many people throughout history of whom we have no contemporaneous accounts. I can believe (perhaps tentatively, of course) that they existed, as I do with Jesus. However it’s quite a leap from the Jesus of history to the Christ of faith. Evidence for the former far outweighs that of the latter, yet I am supposedly obligated on pain of physical torture to believe more so the latter than the former. I have difficulty with that, and perhaps understandably so.

    All the best,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | February 27, 2014

  50. Thanks Stephen for taking time to respond – especially for providing historical sources for Tiberius.

    Please allow me to make two points.

    Point #1
    One noteworthy observation is that most of sources that you quoted sources are Roman sources, written by Romans, about a Roman emperor.

    Can this fact be used as the basis the minimize the historical credibility of the Roman sources you quoted, and the veracity of what they have said about Tiberius? Can a student who wants to know the historical facts about Tiberius conclude, “well, since I don’t find too many non Roman historical narratives of Tiberius, I am inclined to discount or undermine the historical records provided by Roman sources” And, if the student takes such a stand, what are his chances or arriving at the truth about Tiberius?

    Point #2.
    What do Roman sources – such as Tacitus, Suetonious, Celsus, Pliny the younger etc say about Christ in particular, and early Christianity in general. If a student of history were to piece together facts about Christ (in particular), and early early followers of Christ from Roman sources, and Josephus, what is the picture that emerges?

    I’ll provide what answers I have gathered after I you reply.

    Regards, David

    Comment by David Chellappa | March 2, 2014

  51. Hello David,

    “Point #1
    One noteworthy observation is that most of sources that you quoted sources are Roman sources, written by Romans, about a Roman emperor.

    Can this fact be used as the basis the minimize the historical credibility of the Roman sources you quoted, and the veracity of what they have said about Tiberius? Can a student who wants to know the historical facts about Tiberius conclude, “well, since I don’t find too many non Roman historical narratives of Tiberius, I am inclined to discount or undermine the historical records provided by Roman sources”
    Of the nine historians that I listed, a third of them were non-Romans; two of them were Greeks (Strabo and Plutarch) and one was a Jew (Josephus). Your hypothetical student is seemingly concerned about the credibility of the Roman sources in question for no other reason than them being Roman. Just out of interest, why would that be the case?

    “Point #2.
    What do Roman sources – such as Tacitus, Suetonious, Celsus, Pliny the younger etc say about Christ in particular, and early Christianity in general. If a student of history were to piece together facts about Christ (in particular), and early early followers of Christ from Roman sources, and Josephus, what is the picture that emerges?”

    I’m not aware of any facts about Christ coming from the Roman sources in question, other than Tacitus mentioning that the figurehead of the religion had been executed. They do, though, tell us a little about early Christians. Pliny in particular tells us briefly about their practices and beliefs, though both he and Tacitus consider Christianity little more than a troublesome superstition.

    All the best,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | March 4, 2014

  52. Hello Stephen…apologies for the long delay in getting back.

    Here are few resources on historical sources outside the Bible.

    http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm, refer Chapter IX Ancient Non-Christian Sources

    http://www.garyhabermas.com/
    Audio: Methods and Sources in New Testament Historiography

    http://www.garyhabermas.com/video/habermas_evid_hist_jesus_1.wmv

    Also, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUKW2Bm5P2k

    Thanks, David

    Comment by David | April 16, 2014

  53. Hi David,

    Nice to hear from you again. Don’t worry about the delay in getting back to me, there’s no rush.

    I appreciate you finding a few links but, to be fair, rather than me sitting through a two hour long YouTube video or reading through lengthy pages on websites, I think it’s best if you point out the contemporaneous, non-biblical sources contained in the video/website and we’ll discuss them here. Thanks.

    Take care,

    Steve

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | April 17, 2014

  54. Stephen Butterfield your blog is amazing!! I love reading it and find it very interesting. I am on week 2 of the alpha course,

    I find in this blog that responses to your very skilled arguments are very UN Christian!

    To accuse you of being intolerant is a personal attack – not a very nice thing to do.

    I do find that the Christian faith is based on purely defending its birth. Not a great starting point to be on the defence.

    There is nothing concrete to support either arguments, did Jesus exist or is god a supernatural force.

    In the end I see religion as a way of life, a guide, a code, comfort to those who need it and a way to explain difficult things in life. So a good thing to have.

    I am still on the fence and will remain an atheist and agnostic. I rather like the idea of Buddism, that is a religion based on a man and is a wonderful code to follow.

    Thanks again for a wonderful read, have truly enjoyed it and find it all rather fascinating!

    Comment by Eloise Walduck | January 27, 2015

  55. Hi Eloise,

    Thanks for your lovely post. If you’re participating in an Alpha Course at the moment I do hope this blog is of some help.

    Thanks again for your kind words.

    Best wishes,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | January 28, 2015


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