Moral Relativism: A Self-Contradictory Absolutist Position

Objective morality is under attack in modern society. Largely driven by what the author observes to be a desire to escape personal and communal accountability, moral relativism contests the very existence of right and wrong. However, reason dictates that such a worldview is invalid. This essay will demonstrate that moral relativism is illogical and even contradictory. As Socrates put it in ages past, “A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.”[1]

What is Moral Relativism?

Before arguing that moral relativism is an invalid worldview, we must first define what it is. Quite simply, moral relativism is the belief that no absolute values exist, rather, they are based on personal and/or societal preferences that have developed through natural and social evolution. Beckwith and Koukl discuss three types of moral relativism:

  • Cultural/descriptive relativism claims that various societies have different morals, effectively rendering specific values applicable only to a particular culture.
  • Conventionalism asserts that morality is defined by the society in which one lives.
  • Individual ethical subjectivism lets the individual define his or her own morality.[2]

Regardless the flavor of relativism one believes, the underlying view is the same—objective morals do not exist, they are simply preference. However, as humans we instinctively know this to be false. Who of us approves of rape? Which of us would not feel aggrieved were our car stolen? If morality is not absolute, is it even reasonable to take a position on these issues? And is not the assertion that all morality is relative actually an objective one? As we unpack these three categories, we will uncover the truth that moral relativism is an illogical position, regardless of race, gender, culture, or religious view. We start by considering the macro level—societal values.

Society Does Relativism—Or Does It?

Cultural/descriptive relativism—what Beckwith and Koukl have termed as “Society Does Relativism,”—focuses on the idea that morals are different for each culture and civilization and therefore cannot be objective. However, there are two issues with this worldview. First, just because values differ among diverse groups of people does not mean a correct moral foundation fails to exist. Is it not plausible that a society is just wrong in some of its ethics? What about the Jewish Holocaust committed by Nazi Germany? Or the slaughter of citizens by the Stalinist Soviet Union? Not to mention the execution of non-Muslims in fundamentalist Islamic countries. To be consistent, the honest cultural relativist would have to agree that although the preference of much of the world is against these acts, no outsider could objectively refute their practice.

Second, the claim that societies have widely varying moral values is not necessarily true. One must analyze the situation. For example, although euthanasia is illegal in many countries, some nations—such as the Netherlands—allow it in certain cases. This would seem to be a conflict in underlying moral principles. However, at stake is not the valuation of human life, rather, a difference in opinion regarding euthanasia as a valid and merciful tool to end suffering. The belief that people are precious is maintained, while the facts of how it plays out vary.

Society Says Relativism—So It Must be True!

Conventionalism (normative ethical relativism or “Society Says Relativism”[3]) says that what one’s society accepts as moral (or immoral) is the defining standard. Society—by definition—is perfectly moral. For example, if the speed limit is fifty-five miles per hour, the moral person will not drive fifty-six. More seriously, if the government tortures and executes homosexuals, then it is immoral to dispute such an action. In fact, one supporting the “Society Says Relativism” position must label any social reformer depraved since such people oppose specific societal norms. Even one protesting a perceived injustice lacks decency because she is going against society. To further illustrate the absurdity of this concept, a consistent conventional relativist would have to admit that emancipation of slaves in the United States was an immoral act because it went against the standards of American society in the nineteenth century. While societal relative morality is clearly mistaken, sadly there exists a prevalent third category.

I Say Relativism—And I’m Right!

Finally, we reach “I Say Relativism,” i.e., individual ethical relativism/subjectivism.[4] This category is at the personal level, and according to Koukl may be the most rooted form in modern society.[5] Subjectivism is the position that morality can only be defined by the individual based his or her preferences. Not being a new idea, a great illustration of this philosophy comes from antiquity, where Socrates and Protagoras are debating the nature of truth:

Protagoras: Truth is relative, it is only a matter of opinion.

Socrates: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?

Protagoras: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me. Truth is subjective.[6]

There are several issues with this position. An obvious implication is that evil does not exist. Kidnapping children to be sell them as sex slaves is no less ethical than feeding homeless refugees. One may prefer the former over the latter, but that does not make him a more moral person, except in his own mind. Another issue is the concept of fairness. If all moral truth is relative, is it really unfair if the government favors certain classes or races of people over others? If morality is truly only a personal preference, then each individual gets to determine right and wrong without obligation to consider others. This is characteristic of sociopathic behavior.

Conclusion

Although not exhaustively, relative morality is shown herein to be illogical and contradictory. At the heart of this worldview is refusal to accept as self-evident truths of right and wrong. The implications of following such a philosophy on a large scale would be chaos. Fortunately, morality is firmly grounded, and for the most part people innately adhere to an objective code of ethics, whether or not they intellectually admit it. This speaks volumes to the truth of objective morality.

Works Cited

Beckwith, Francis J. and Gregory Koukl. 1998. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.

Koukl, Gregory. “Responding to Relativism.” Defending the Faith I—CSAP 601. Biola University, Los Angeles. 2019.

Plato. 1961. The Collected Dialogues, Including the Letters. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Sahakian, William S. and Mabel L. Sahakian. 1966. Ideas of the Great Philosophers. New York: Barnes and Noble Books.

[1] Plato, Page 52

[2] Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books), 36-39.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gregory Koukl, “Responding to Relativism,” Defending the Faith I—CSAP 601, Biola University, 4.

[6] William S. Sahakian and Mabel L. Sahakian. Ideas of the Great Philosophers (New York: Barnes and Noble Books), 28.

Is the Concept of God Rational?

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote “All thinking men are atheists.”[1] This is often the position of those who claim the concept of a supreme being—commonly known as God—should simply be dismissed as a delusional fairy tale of the simple-minded and uneducated. But is this assertion valid? In contrast with such an attitude, numerous men and women of great intellect throughout history and into the present age have held the view that belief in an ageless, powerful, and creative intelligence is not only beneficial but rational.  If this proposition is indeed a sensible one, even in theory, the ramifications are important enough to merit further enquiry. To stimulate this quest, two logical positions—the cosmological and moral arguments—are introduced to show that the existence of God is indeed a rational proposition worthy of further study.

Before we explore the validity of belief in a supreme being, note the following: (1) although the author is a born-again Christian, the arguments proposed in this essay in no way demonstrate supremacy of faith in the God of the Old and New Testaments. (2) As with most truths, the evidences are not presented as final proof of the existence of God. Rather, they show such a belief is rational and are intended to generate curiosity for further exploration of the topic.

To commence our investigation, we start at the beginning of all things.

The Cosmological Argument for God

To establish the idea of God as a rational worldview, we first consider the origin of the universe. As presented by Copan, the kalam cosmological argument posits the following:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its beginning.[2]

The first assertion follows the conventional understanding of modern science. For example, Hawking writes, “All the evidence seems to indicate, that the universe has not existed forever, but that it had a beginning, about 15 billion years ago.”[3] Much research by world-class physicists, mathematicians, and astronomers has gone into development of this consensus view. A primary supporting proof for this theory is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which states that heat always moves from hot to cold toward equilibrium. At some point far into the future, all heat in existence will have dissipated. This provides a sound basis for the temporality of the universe since, as Copan observes, “If the universe were eternal, why has this heat death not already occurred?”[4]

The second claim—that the universe began to exist—is evident through the concept of an actual infinity. If the universe has always existed, then it has existed from eternity, and is therefore infinitely old. Since part of an actual infinity is another actual infinity, the universe would have had to have already passed through an eternity to reach its present state. But according to Geisler and Brooks, this is logically infeasible because the cosmos cannot, in fact, have passed through infinity to reach today.[5] To exist as it is and for us to be observers, it must have had a beginning. Again, we agree with Hawking.

The third claim is where we encounter God. If we accept that the physical universe had a beginning, then it was certainly caused. The question is, did that which produced the universe itself have an origin? Has this causality been going on endlessly with one caused thing begetting another? As with the argument for the universe not having an origin, we are faced with the issue of infinite regress. If everything with a cause were itself caused, we are stuck with no beginning. The rational choice, then is that the ultimate cause of everything is itself beginningless.

If this is true, then what is this ultimate cause? If the originator has no origin, then logically it is eternal, existing outside the confines of space and time. Since the universe is massive and full of energy, the origin must be extremely powerful. Also, inexplicable order that exists within the universe—crystalline structures, seasonal cycles, and life itself—strongly implies that this first cause has intelligence and what Moreland calls “spontaneous choice.”[6] Thus, we argue that it is reasonable for an uncaused origin to have always existed and possess tremendous power and intelligence. Does this not fundamentally describe the concept of God?

We have contended that cosmology logically points to the existence of a God. But the investigation does not end here—our evidence also includes ethics.

The Moral Argument for God

Another strong evidence for the rationality of belief in God is the existence of objective moral truth. The reality of objective morality may be clear to most people (granted, not all—we will not get into that here), but how does it provide evidence to the existence of God? This is where we must look at the nature of values themselves. Moral truths are not simply fact claims—they tell us what ought to be. They act as imperative.  One should not steal. One should not torture.  One should not murder. Violation of such ethics brings with it a sense of personal guilt that goes beyond societal shame.[7] Essentially, as imperatives, moral laws have a sense of force behind them. Where does this force come from? Natural evolution over time? Does it not make more sense that an uncaused cause of everything created these laws and upholds them? And if something caused these morals to exist, would that entity not have to have the same characteristics of power and intelligence some ascribe to God?

Conclusion

We have argued that belief in an ultimate deity is a rational worldview worth considering. That claim is shown to be supported by both the cosmological and moral arguments. The evidence discussed herein only scratches the surface of logical and natural proofs developed over years of honest study and research by the cited experts and others. It is the hope of this author to plant a seed of interest for the reader to pursue further study of this important topic.

Works Cited

Copan, Paul and William Lane Craig. 2018. The Kalam Cosmological Argument: Volume I. New York New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Geisler, Norman L. and Ronald M. Brooks. 2013. When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.

Hawking, Stephen. “The Beginning of Time.”  http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html (Accessed 28 July 2019)

Hemmingway, Ernest. 1929. A Farewell to Arms. United States: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Moreland, J. P. “Arguments for the Existence of God.” Defending the Faith I—CSAP 601. Biola University, Los Angeles. 2019.

[1] Ernest Hemmingway, A Farewell to Arms, (United States: Charles Scribner’s Sons) 8.

[2] Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument: Volume I (New York, Bloomsbury Academic), 4.

[3] Stephen Hawking, “The Beginning of Time,” accessed on 28 July 2019, http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html.

[4] Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument: Volume I, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 7.

[5] Norman Geisler and Ronald Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 11.

[6] J. P. Moreland, “Arguments for the Existence of God,” Defending the Faith I—CSAP 601, Biola University, 3.

[7] Ibid, 5.

Application of the Mosaic Law to the Life of the Christian

Introduction

One of the age-old challenges for the Church is to assess the applicability of Mosaic Law to the believer. Understanding the resolution to this conundrum is key to settling such issues as Sabbath observance (or lack thereof), the disappearance of the sacrificial system, and even whether or not getting a tattoo is permissible. Unfortunately, as Wayne Strickland observes in his Preface to Five Views on Law and Gospel, “there is no consensus of understanding of the relationship between Law and Gospel.”[1] But why is this the case? Is not the Bible that we Christians regard as inerrant and “God-breathed” clear on this point? As is the circumstance with many things in the life of the believer, this perceived issue of Mosaic Law applicability was very clearly resolved by the Biblical authors in the early days of the Church, but it has since been over-complicated by many well-thought and well-intended believers. This essay will demonstrate that Christians are not now—nor have we ever been—subject to the Mosaic Law, either in whole or in part. Rather, through the Holy Spirit the Law of Moses provides direction to the Christ-redeemed on how to live righteously, and we should (and are positively instructed to) look to it for guidance.

Jesus and the Mosaic Law

To begin our investigation into the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law, let us look at perhaps the most difficult Scripture for the believer to reconcile on this topic: Matthew 5:18-19. In this passage, Jesus says the following:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”[2]

Taken by itself, this is indeed a most difficult text! In it Jesus very clearly demonstrates that His purpose is not to abolish the Law, but fulfill it. In fact, for all intents and purposes, the Law is to exist in its entirety until the end of time.

Much analysis has been conducted on these words of Jesus. For example, Bahnsen defends the Mosaic Law as still applicable, largely based on the Matthew 5:18-19 passage.[3]  While he rightfully observes that the Law has not been repealed, he goes on to claim that “We should presume that Old Testament standing laws continue to be morally binding in the New Testament, unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation.”[4] In this case, “standing law” is defined as “policy directives applicable over time to classes of individuals,” i.e., moral law. This assessment leaves room for the Mosaic Law to be changed by “further revelation.” Unfortunately for his analysis, this idea still goes against the principle that “not an iota, not a dot” can be displaced from the Law because it gives preference to only parts of the command, i.e., those deemed “moral.” On another side of the debate, Moo—who agrees with the contention of this essay that the believer is not under the Law—claims that “It is the law as fulfilled by Jesus that must be done, not the law in its original form,”[5] (emphasis his). However, this is a somewhat ambiguous answer to the question of Mosaic Law applicability because the “all” that is to be accomplished includes the passing away of heaven and earth, which exist to this day. Jesus fulfilled the Law through his perfect adherence to it. And while Jesus did fulfill the predictions of the Prophets—particularly Isaiah—He still has not accomplished everything in the history of creation, and heaven and earth still exist. Surely there is a more suitable approach to this passage. In fact, Willem VanGemeren is correct in his assertion that “Clearly, Jesus did not abrogate the law!” while then falling short in his claim that “he called for a more radical observance.”[6] Since we have established that the Law has not been repealed, the question we must answer, then, is for whom is the Mosaic Law applicable? The next section will show that Paul tells us it is not the Christ-redeemed who are under Law. The conclusion then becomes this: Mosaic Law is still applicable to unregenerate humankind in general.

Romans 7: Our Release from the Mosaic Law

The first key we will discuss regarding the born-again believer’s relationship with Mosaic Law is given by Paul in Romans Chapter 7, beginning with Verse 1: “Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?”[7] He continues in verse 4: “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.”[8] Paul comes to his final conclusion in verse 6: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”[9] This passage does not tell us that Jesus has somehow abrogated—or revoked—the Mosaic Law from mankind, thereby releasing it from adherence to its every word. Rather, as seen in the previous section, Jesus fulfilled the Law through his perfect life and fulfilled the Prophets through His death and resurrection. It is the reality that Christians—covered by the blood of Jesus Christ—have died to sin and the Law that we are no longer bound to it. Conversely, those who have not been buried with Christ are still, in fact, yoked to the words of the Mosaic Law. One might ask the point of God holding the unredeemed to the Law since the Law cannot save them. God is both just and gracious—those who do not accept the grace of Christ will be judged based on their adherence to His Law. In contrast, those of us who have been saved by Christ will be judged based on His blameless adherence to the perfect Law of God. However, even though the believer is not under the jurisdiction of the Law or subject to its commands, could it still benefit our lives as Christians?

Is the Mosaic Law of Value to the Redeemed?

Lest we fall into the trap of believing the Mosaic Law is completely useless to the redeemed, we would do well to review what the Apostle Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”[10] Although it does not contradict the concept of the believer being dead to the Law as revealed in Romans 7, this passage lays to rest the idea that the Law has no bearing on the Christian. In fact, we are to study it during our lifelong process of Spirit-led sanctification in order to fully know the will of Yahweh. In light of this, we must ask ourselves the following question: What lessons can we learn from a study of the Mosaic Law, and how can we use it to instruct our lives?

To begin, we look to the Savior for guidance, because He sets the standard for what is important to us as believers. Matthew Chapter 22 provides a clear and concise summary of the Law as seen through the eyes of Jesus:

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it” You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.[11]

Jesus identifies two commandments that summarize the entire Mosaic Law, as well as the words of the prophets: (1) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and (2) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The message is clear: the Law is summarized in terms of love for God and love for humankind. As Lincoln states,

Instead the believer walks by the Spirit, and though no longer under the law, he or she in fact finds that the requirements of the law are fulfilled through the Spirit in his or her life (Rom. 8:4) The Spirit produces love and love turns out to be the fulfilling of the law (cf. Gal. 5:14).[12]

Not only is Christ the fulfillment of the Law for the believer, but the believer himself is characterized by Spirit-produced love for both God and fellow man. We can see how God intends this love to be played out by looking to those Mosaic Law commands that demonstrate love.

Nowhere is this concept of Law summarized as love clearer than in the Decalogue, i.e., the Ten Commandments.  These directives—taken from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5—are briefly paraphrased as follows.

  1. You shall have no other gods but Yahweh.
  2. You shall not bow down to idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of Yahweh in vain.
  4. You shall observe the Sabbath by resting from all work on the last day of the week.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

How do the two most important commands as summarized by Jesus connect to the Ten Commandments? One will notice that the first three are associated with our relationship with God Himself. Specifically, if we love God with all our hearts, we will worship only Him, we will not make any idols, and we will not take His name in vain. The final six very clearly direct our relationships with fellow humans, such as not murdering one another, not stealing, and not coveting each other’s goods and relationships. It is evident that the Ten Commandments are simultaneously relational and moral in nature. As believers in Christ, we find a treasure trove of examples in the Law of how to treat one another and the LORD.

Ok, we skipped the Fourth Commandment. So what about adherence to the Sabbath? Since –in accordance with Romans 7—we are very clearly not under the Mosaic Law, then we are not subject to the Sabbath. This is supported by the Apostle Paul in Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16. However, we must remember that the purpose of this section is simply to demonstrate that the Law is still of value for the believer. In other words, what wisdom can we glean from the Fourth Commandment that we can apply to our lives as the redeemed of Christ? Let us first look to the original command recorded in the book of Exodus:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”[13]

Deuteronomy restates the command and adds background information:

“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.[14]

A couple key points stick out of the original commands. First of all, the Israelites were instructed to observe the Sabbath to emulate the Creator in his work: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.” Secondly, God commanded Israel to obey the Sabbath for health, i.e., “that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.” Jesus further highlights why the day of rest was instituted in Matthew 2: “’The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’”[15] The logical conclusion regarding the matter of the Sabbath agrees with that of Lincoln:

“God’s concern for the whole person and for all His creatures being able to have regular rest from their work surely instructs us that although the literal Sabbath day of rest has been abrogated[16] and has not been transferred to Sunday, we should share this concern for regular periods of rest both for ourselves and for others in our society.[17]

As Christians, we are wise to honor the spirit of the Sabbath through regular rest for ourselves as well as allowing regular rest for others when it is in our power.

Let us revisit the point of this section, i.e., the Law is to serve as guidance for the Christian. In summary, we find that the Law—through the eyes of Christ—is defined as love for God and love for fellow man.  We as believers will do well to study the Law to better understand how to show love for Him and each other.

Can Salvation Come by the Law?

As shown through earlier discussion, Romans 7 positively establishes that the believer is no longer bound to the Mosaic Law. In a related discussion, the question often gets raised as to whether or not the Law can theoretically save someone by their keeping it perfectly. Moo claims that “the New Testament teaches that the law of Moses does hold out an inherent promise of life for those who do it.”[18] He continues by saying that although Jesus does not teach salvation in this way, “there is no reason on this account to think that Jesus does not view the promise as at least theoretically valid.”[19] But since when does unrealizable theory make for valid theology? Even if perfect adherence to the Law could impart life, by our very nature as sinners we could not attain such through our actions. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 8:3: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.”[20] Again, in Galatians 3:21 Paul writes: “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”[21] Therefore, since the inspired Word of God has demonstrated that it is impossible to be saved through the Law due to our sinful nature, there is no point in expending further time and effort on this topic.

Conclusions

In conclusion, we have done what we have set out to do—establish that the Law is not binding on the redeemed in Christ. We have also demonstrated the following:

  • The law has not been revoked; rather, it still wields power over those who have not been redeemed by Jesus Christ.
  • The law is, in fact, profitable for the practicing Christian. In the law we find guidelines for how to treat the LORD as well as each other.
  • The law never had the power to bring salvation to God’s people, even if for no other reason than man is inherently sinful and is wholly unable to fulfill every command.

As believers in Christ we will do well to study the law for guidance and wisdom, but not allow ourselves to be overcome by a false duty to adhere to every precept. 

Works Cited

Bahnsen, G. L, Kaiser, W. C., Moo, D. J., Strickland, W. G., and VanGemeren, W. A. Five Views on Law and Gospel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Carson, D. A. 1999. From Sabbath to Lord’s Day. Eugene: Wipf and Stock.

Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway.

[1] Wayne Strickland, Five Views on Law and Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 9.

[2] Matthew 5:18-19.

[3] Greg Bahnsen, “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” Five Views on Law and Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 114.

[4] Bahnsen, 142.

[5] Douglas Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” Five Views on Law and Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 353.

[6] Willem VanGemeren, “The Law is the Perfection of Righteousness in Jesus Christ: A Reformed Perspective,” Five Views on Law and Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 38.

[7] Romans 7:1.

[8] Romans 7:4.

[9] Romans 7:6.

[10] 2 timothy 3:16-17.

[11] Matthew 22:35-40.

[12] Andrew Lincoln, “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, (Eugene, Wipf and Stock), 370.

[13] Exodus 20:8-11.

[14] Deuteronomy 5:12-15.

[15] Matthew 2:27.

[16] We agree not that the Fourth Commandment has been repealed; rather, that it does not apply to the redeemed in accordance with Romans 7.

[17] Lincoln, 404.

[18] Moo, 324.

[19] Moo, 325.

[20] Romans 8:3.

[21] Galatians 3:21.

Was Jesus a Real Person? Extrabiblical Evidence of His Existence

In his 2014 op-ed piece for The Conversation, Raphael Lataster asked the following question: “Did a man called Jesus of Nazareth walk the earth?” [1] He ultimately concluded that “…there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable.”[2] This belief is sometimes held in the world of skeptics of which we live, but is it an accurate one? Are the reasons for doubting Jesus’ historical existence in fact “clear” and “good?” Certainly, if one could definitively prove that Jesus was not a historical figure, then he or she would hold the keys to the destruction of the Christian faith. However, in contrast to Lataster’s sentiment, the pool of evidence available to the proponent of Jesus’ historicity runs deep. To answer the skeptic who might hold any Christian-based evidence to be biased, this paper will examine some non-Christian sources that testify to a historical Jesus who was called Christ.

Tacitus, Roman Senator and Historian

Tacitus, a second-century Roman senator and historian, clearly believed that Jesus was a real person when he wrote about the Great Fire of Rome:

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[3]

Being a non-Christian, Tacitus would only speak matter-of-factly about Christ if he believed the man to have existed. Additionally, he clearly identified himself as a non-Christian insomuch as he referred to the faith as “a most mischievous superstition.”

A. Wells argued three reasons for believing “Tacitus is here simply repeating what Christians had told him.”[4] First, Tacitus called Pilate a procurator rather than a prefect, which he states would have been a more applicable term for the given era. However, in a book review of Earl Doherty’s, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ, Richard Carrier writes, “Doherty repeats Wells’ mistaken claim that ‘procurator…was the title of [Pilate’s] post in Tacitus’ day, but in the reign of Tiberius such governors were called prefect.’”[5] Carrier continues, “A few years ago, correspondence with Wells on this point inspired me to thoroughly investigate this claim, and my findings will eventually be published. But in short, this sentence is entirely wrong. It seems evident from all the source material available that the post was always a prefecture, and also a procuratorship.”[6] Clearly Carrier—himself a non-Christian historian—believes that the title “procurator” is adequately used to describe the position of Pontius Pilate.

Wells next argues that Tacitus essentially identified Jesus by the title “Christus” rather than using his actual name, Jesus. However, Robert Van Voort argues two reasons that this does not discount Tacitus as a reliable resource:

First, the New Testament itself moved in the direction of using “Christ” as a proper name independent of “Jesus.’ This could have been reflected in the usage that perhaps reached Tacitus, just as it certainly was in the Christian usage that reached Pliny (Letters 10.96). Second, and more significantly, even if Tacitus did know the name ‘Jesus’ he presumably would have not used it in this context, because it would have interfered with his explanation of the origin of Christianoi in Christus, confusing his readers.[7]

Van Voort argues that not only does the omission of the name “Jesus” make sense since the name “Christ” had taken precedence in much of the New Testament, but he likely preferred its use since it shows direct connection to the Christians about whom this passage was written.

The third reason cited by Wells to doubt the validity of Tacitus identification of Jesus is that he “was surely glad to accept from Christians their own view that Christianity was of recent origin, since the Roman authorities were prepared to tolerate only ancient cults.”[8] However, in discussing nine specific reasons to trust the Tacitus account in counterpoint to Wells, Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson establish the integrity of Tacitus’ claims:

Tacitus does not quote his sources uncritically. In Annals 4.57 he questions the majority report of the historians. In 15.53 he considers Pliny’s statement absurd, and in 13.20 he notes Fabius Rusticus’ bias. B. Walker comments that Tacitus “was a persistent skeptic towards popular rumor, even when a rumor coincided with his own prejudices” and cites Annals 2.68 as an example.[9]

As a “skeptic towards popular rumor,” Tacitus would have taken measures to avoid establishing as factual information items that were only rumor, even if doing so would further his case.

Flavius Josephus, First Century Historian, on James

Flavius Josephus, a first-century historian, wrote that the early church leader, James, was in fact the brother of Jesus: “Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]….” [10] Josephus, a non-Christian Jewish historian, clearly identifies James as the brother of Jesus in the midst of describing a historical setting.

Josh McDowell and James Wilson describe an attempt by G. A. Wells to claim that the original text does not likely contain the words “who was called Christ;” rather, Josephus only mentions James as a leader of the Christian church. However, that supposition is quickly dispelled. McDowell and Wilson state the following:

But if the passage simply said “James and certain others” were arrested, the reader would be compelled to ask, “Which James?” James was another very common name, and Josephus almost always supplied details to locate his characters in history. If Josephus simply said, “James the brother of Jesus,” the reader must ask, “Which Jesus? You have already mentioned at least thirteen others named Jesus.”[11]

As pointed out by McDowell and Wilson, devoid of the description “who was called Christ,” the passage loses its context since James and Jesus were names commonly used during this period.

Another objection focuses on some translations of this passage where “so-called Christ” is substituted for “who was called Christ.” Once again, Wells takes exception, claiming that the passage directly quotes the Gospel of Matthew: “But the Greek does not have ‘so-called’ but ‘him called Christ,’ and this, so far from being non-Christian, is the exact wording of Mt. 1:16.”[12] But again, how does the use of the same language void this passage? We still have the problem of context, i.e., discussion about Christians, and without the context this writing of Josephus makes little sense.

Flavius Josephus and the Testimonium

Flavius Josephus, in the famous Testimonium given in Chapter 18 of Antiquities of the Jews, is purported to have written the following:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.[13]

Many historians argue that the Testimonium Flavianum is an obvious forgery inserted by Christians in the centuries following Josephus’s death. However, others have hypothesized that the Testimonium, though modified by scribes, does in fact contain the words of Josephus. For example, James Tabor proposes the following version of the Testimonium Flavianum:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonders. He drew many after him. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.[14]

When stripped of the Christian interpolations, the remaining text of the Testimonium retains its reference to the man Jesus and his association with those who were called Christians after him. However, Tacitus and Josephus do not constitute the entirety of evidence for the historicity of Jesus. We still have Lucian, a most anti-Christian historian.

Lucian: Master of Sarcasm

When speaking of Christians, Lucian makes reference to the “first lawgiver,” Jesus:

The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.[15]

Lucian shows that he believes Jesus to be a real person when he claims that the Christians’ first lawgiver persuaded them to worship him rather than the Greek gods.

In refuting McDowell’s reference to Lucian, Jeffrey Jay Lowder notes that “Lucian is not an independent witness to Jesus.”[16] Much of his reasoning hinges around the fact that Lucian lived about a century and a half after Jesus. After conceding that Lucian did, in fact, strive to make his accounts historically accurate, he states the following:

Nevertheless, given that Lucian’s statement was written near the end of the second century, it seems rather unlikely that he had independent sources of information concerning the historicity of Jesus. Lucian may have relied upon Christian sources, common knowledge, or even an earlier pagan reference (e.g., Tacitus); since Lucian does not specify his sources, we will never know. Just as is the case with Tacitus, it is quite plausible that Lucian would have simply accepted the Christian claim that their founder had been crucified. There is simply no evidence that Lucian ever doubted the historicity of Jesus. Therefore, Lucian’s concern for historical accuracy is not even relevant as Lucian would have had no motive for investigating the matter.

However, Lowder’s conclusion does not rely on the evidence; rather, he makes several assumptions. First, his claim that “it seems rather unlikely” Lucian would be in possession of “independent sources of information concerning the historicity of Jesus” is complete conjecture lacking evidence. Lowder admits this when he observes that “since Lucian does not specify his sources, we will never know.” Second, Lowder claims that “Lucian’s concern for historical accuracy is not even relevant since Lucian would have had no motive for investigating the matter.” However, this is a false assumption. James Patrick Holding recognizes that Lucian, having significant disdain for the Christians “would certainly have satirized Christian belief in a fictional or historically doubtful personage mercilessly, if any such arguments existed at the time.”[17] Moreover, as noted by Holding, Lucian’s high position would have given him access to knowledgeable people and resources and thereby would have known if there existed any noteworthy doubt about Jesus’ existence.

Conclusion

Though some doubt the historicity of Jesus, that view is not supported by the evidence. While not Christians themselves—and even hostile to such in some cases—the Roman historians Tacitus, Flavius Josephus, and Lucian all refer to Jesus. Tacitus notes that his followers called him “Christ;” Lucian mocks his followers for following the teachings of this “crucified sophist;” and Josephus notes that Jesus was the brother of James and he had many followers who believed he was the Christ. As such, the Bible is not the sole source of evidence of the existence of Jesus. On the contrary, when relying on the extrabiblical, non-Christian sources discussed in this essay, one is justified in believing in the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.

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References

[1]Raphael Lataster, “Weighing up the evidence for the ‘Historical Jesus,’” The Conversation, 14 December 2014, accessed on 20 January 2019, https://theconversation.com/weighing-up-the-evidence-for-the-historical-jesus-35319.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tacitus, The Annals, Book 15, The Internet Classics Archive (2009), accessed on 27 January 2019, http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html.

[4] G. A. Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 16.

[5] Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?, rev. ed.. (Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications, 2005), 202, quoted in Richard Carrier, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity (2002),” The Secular Web, accessed 4 February 2019, https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/jesuspuzzle.html.

[6] Richard Carrier, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistory (2002),” The Secular Web, accessed 4 February 2019, https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/jesuspuzzle.html.

[7] Robert Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans), 46.

[8] W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1965), 111, quoted in G. A. Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 17.

[9] Bessie Walker, The Annals of Tacitus (Manchester University Press, 1990), 142, quoted in Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, Evidence for the Historical Jesus: A Compelling Case for His Life and His Claims (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993), 48.

[10] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 20, ch. 9, ed. William Whitson.

[11] Josh McDowell and James Wilson. Evidence for the Historical Jesus: A Compelling Case for His Life and His Claims. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993), 37.

[12] G. A. Wells. The Historical Evidence for Jesus. 211.

[13] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3. Edited by William Whitson.

[14] James Tabor, “The Ancient Jewish Historian Josephus on John the Baptizer, Jesus, and James,” accessed on 20 January 2019, https://jamestabor.com/the-ancient-jewish-historian-josephus-on-john-the-baptizer-jesus-and-james/.

[15] Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus, trans. A.M. Harmon, accessed on 10 February 2019,http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/lucian/peregrinus.htm.

[16] Jeffrey Jay Lowder. “Josh McDowell’s ‘Evidence’ for Jesus: Is It Reliable?” The Secular Web,accessed on 4 February 2019, https://infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/chap5.html#149.

[17]James Patrick Holding. Shattering the Christ Myth: Did Jesus Not Exist? (Place of publication not identified: Xulon Press, 2008), 71.

Communication

One of the traits of human beings that sets us apart from other creatures is our ability to communicate both concrete and abstract ideas.  However, since we are imperfect beings, we can never do this flawlessly, and so we are never really sure if we have effectively communicated our ideas.

The media through which we communicate can have a profound effect on our understanding of the message.  In other words, everyone has a preferred communication style.  Effective communication requires that we are sensitive to each other’s approach.  For example, my message tends to be more clear, concise, and complete when I communicate via written language.  Likewise, I absorb information much better when I read it than when someone speaks to me (those who know me will notice that I’m a slow responder in verbal conversation).  However, many of those with whom I communicate on a regular basis are more verbal, and although I struggle with this, I must adapt if I want to keep the lines of communication open and clear.

One of the biggest problems in communication, however, is an unwillingness to listen.  James 1:19-20 states the following: “Know this, my beloved brothers:  let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”  James tells us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak” to push us to purposefully absorb the information being communicated.  What if what we hear at first is not what is intended?  We are likely to draw conclusions and/or become angered more quickly and easily.  When we come to anger quickly and in a manner not in accordance with God’s righteousness, even if we do ask for forgiveness from the communicator, we have tainted that relationship and degraded our ability to communicate.  This can and does prevent us from doing the work of God and can even be a hindrance when spreading the Word.

The following are some recommendations to keep the lines of communication clear when we are communicating among one another:

  • If someone is verbally communicating, listen to the entirety of the message before weighing in. Few things can shut down cooperation as quickly as when people talk over each other.  Proverbs 18:13 states, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
  • When you communicate, do it with grace. There are times when we need to be abrupt and direct with each other in order to speak the truth.  However, we must always strive to show grace to those with whom we are communicating.  Colossians 4:6 states: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
  • Don’t answer someone’s message with a knee-jerk reaction. Be thoughtful in your response.  Make sure you fully understand the message before replying.  Keep in mind Proverbs 12:18, which reads, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”  Being wise may require asking for clarification.
  • Learn how to communicate in a variety of ways. Only being able to effectively communicate via email, or only being able to verbally communicate, can hinder our cooperation with each other.  Although not the context and intent of the passage, perhaps the apostle Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 9:22 can be extended to our communication practices:  “I have become all things to all people . . . ?”

As we work out the things of God throughout our lives, I would challenge us to understand the importance of communication and strive to better understand how we speak and listen directly impacts our effectiveness and relationships with each other.