The Incarnation: Amazing Grace

For all the amazing aspects of God’s being, character, and personality—His infinite power, knowledge, wisdom, love, grace, and mercy—the most amazing of all just might be the Incarnation. It is staggering to think about a perfect God taking on imperfect human form, the infinite becoming finite, the immortal taking on mortality, the invisible God becoming visible through His Son, Jesus Christ.

God coming to earth in the form of a lowly human being is such a profound mystery, and so unexpected, that even today, two thousand years after it happened, people still struggle to understand how it was possible. Even followers of Christ often fail to grasp the significance of the Incarnation. Once a year they, along with the rest of the world, are reminded of this event when they celebrate Christmas, but the true implications of what the birth of Jesus means are generally lost amidst the pageantry, decorations, and gift giving.

John Newton a former slave trader, understood what it all meant when he composed the world’s most popular hymn:
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The Fact the Other Side Can Make a Case Doesn’t Mean It’s True

I’m sometimes surprised to see how quickly young Christians are shaken when they first encounter a well-articulated objection (or opposing claim) from someone denying the truth of the Christian worldview. When we first started taking missions trips to the University of California at Berkeley, I watched my Christian students to see how they would react when confronted by impassioned atheists. Some were genuinely disturbed by what they heard. Protected by their parents for most of their young Christian lives, it was as if they weren’t even aware of alternative explanations. Now, as juniors and seniors in high school, they were hearing the “other side” for the first time, and the atheist ambassadors we placed before them were eloquent, passionate and thorough. Many of these students wondered how these atheists could be wrong, given the length and earnest (even zealous) nature of their presentations. But after sitting in hundreds of criminal trials of one nature or another, I’ve learned something important: The fact the opposition can make a case (even an articulate, robust and earnest case), doesn’t mean it’s true.

Last Friday, I attended the sentencing hearing for my latest cold-case murder investigation. Douglas Bradford killed Lynne Knight in 1979 and we convicted him of this murder in August of 2014, nearly 35 years (to the day) after the murder. The investigation and trial appeared on Dateline (in an episode entitled, “The Wire”). I arrested Bradford in 2009 and he retained Robert Shapiro (famed attorney from the O.J. Simpson case). Shapiro and his co-counsel, Sara Caplan, presented a robust defense of Bradford, and he thanked both of them during the sentencing hearing.  Along the way, Shapiro and Caplan articulated the opposing case thoroughly and with conviction. In addition, Bradford made a short, emphatic statement of his own at his sentencing, saying: ““The murder of Lynne Knight is a terrible tragedy. I want you to hear me very clearly now. I did not murder Lynn Knight. I am an innocent man, wrongly convicted. I’m mad as hell. I’m paying for somebody else’s crime. This is a horrendous, horrendous miscarriage of justice.” That’s a pretty direct (and perhaps convincing) denial, and these were the first words any of us heard from Bradford during the entire investigation, arrest, and trial (Bradford refused to talk to us and did not take the stand in his own defense). His attorneys were even more passionate and direct in their statements to the jury during the criminal trial and the sentencing hearing. They spent hours articulating the many reasons why the case against Bradford was deficient and inadequate as they continued to proclaim his innocence.

My cold-cases are incredibly difficult to investigate and communicate to a jury. Remember, these cases were originally unsolved, and for good reason. There were no eyewitnesses to any of my murders and none of my cases benefit from definitive forensic evidence like DNA (or even fingerprints). My cases are entirely circumstantial. Defense attorneys love to argue against these kinds of cases, and I have seen many attorneys present compelling alternative explanations over the years. Jurors have sometimes been moved by these defense presentations. But none of them have been fooled. I never lost a single case in my career as a cold-case detective, in spite of the robust arguments of the defense attorneys involved.

A few years ago I investigated another cold-case (this time from the early 1980’s). Michael Lubahn killed his wife, Carol, and disposed of her body, telling her family she left him. This case also went unsolved for over 30 years. Lubahn’s attorney whole-heartedly believed Lubahn was innocent and passionately defended him in front of the jury. Unlike Bradford, Lubahn actually took the stand during his defense and repeatedly denied he was involved in any way. Lubahn and his attorney articulated their case ardently and earnestly, and Lubahn’s attorney presented a lengthy closing argument in support of his position. But, like Bradford, none of it was true. At his sentencing hearing, Lubahn eventually confessed to killing Carol. His attorney was dumbfounded. He truly believed Lubahn was innocent and had crafted a through defense. But Michael Lubahn was a killer all along (this case was also covered by Dateline in an episode entitled “Secrets in the Mist”).

I’ve come to expect the opposing defense team will present a well-crafted, earnest, engaging, and seemingly true argument. But an argument isn’t evidence. Since that first trip to Berkeley, I’ve been teaching this to my students. Don’t be shaken just because the other side can articulate a defense. This happens all the time in criminal trials, even when our defendants are obviously (and even admittedly) guilty. Be ready in advance for passionate, robust, articulate, alternative explanations. But remember, the fact the other side can make a case doesn’t mean it’s true.

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Do Dogs Go to Heaven?

Pope Francis has on various occasions reached out to those who feel alienated in one way or another from mainstream culture while not necessarily fully endorsing their lifestyle or personal choices. Now his eminence has built a bridge to an entirely new class of sentient creatures, namely our canine friends. This isn’t an insignificant group. Globally there may be upwards of a half billion dogs on the planet.

Trying to console a distraught little boy whose dog had died, Francis told him in a recent public appearance on St. Peter’s Square, “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”

And there you have it. It may not be official Catholic doctrine, but such a statement has to be enormously comforting to hundreds of millions of dog owners and dog lovers: All dogs do go to heaven.

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Preston Yancey Q and A (Part 2)

In Part 1 of his interview with Michael Summers, Preston Yancey talked about prayer, the intimacy of God, the importance of exploring your faith, and what it means to be a generous evangelical. In Part 2, Michael asks Preston four more questions that spark Preston to offer insights concerning the silence of God, the twin gifts of faith and doubt, God's patience, and the importance of reading widely. These themes and more are found in Yancey's exceptional new book, Tables in the Wilderness.

A major theme in your book is the motif of the silence of God. What has the silence of God taught you, and how do we continue to follow God in light of such silence?

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What the Earliest Non-Biblical Authors Say About Jesus (Free Bible Insert)

What would we know about Jesus if we lost every Biblical manuscript on the planet? Could we have any certainty Jesus actually lived, and would we be able to re-capture any of the details of his life or nature? As it turns out, there are several ancient sources of information about Jesus. Some of these are from pagan, non-Christian authors (I’ve written about these sources here at Cold-Case Christianity). But there are even more compelling early non-Biblical accounts we can reference in an effort to understand who Jesus is (and was). We can still read the accounts of those early Christians who learned directly from the Biblical authors. Ignatius and Polycarp were direct students of the Apostle John; Clement was a direct student of the Apostle Paul. These students later became leaders in the early Christian Church and wrote their own letters to local congregations. Seven letters from Ignatius still survive, along with one letter from Polycarp and Clement. These are the earliest non-Biblical accounts we have describing the life and nature of Jesus. They are not in your Bible, but the information provided by these students of the Biblical authors is compelling. It provides us with the earliest snapshot of Jesus, and demonstrates the story of Jesus was not distorted or modified in the centuries between Jesus’ ministry and the first Church Councils. Here is a brief summary of what we can know about Jesus from the earliest Non-Biblical authors:

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Why the Historicity of Jesus Matters

All of us need a little help at one time or another. When times get tough and we need some wise advice, we can turn to our friends, our parents, our mentors or the wise philosophers and thinkers of the past. I’ve known people who have gleaned comfort and wisdom from historic thinkers or writers like Mahatma Ghandi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or even John Lennon. Wise sources from the past seem every bit as reasonable as more current ones, especially when the wisdom of these thinkers has been vetted and embraced by individuals and cultures across the ages. By contrast, few people would consider Barney the Dinosaur or Yoda to be reasonable sources for such wisdom. Why not? After all, Barney and Yoda have actually offered many wise statements, and some of these statements may even apply to whatever hardship you’re experiencing at this time in your life. Given the wise advice offered by Barney and Yoda, why don’t we embrace them as reliable sources of wisdom? You know why: Barney and Yoda are fictional characters. While we may find some truth in the words of such characters, we typically reject them as consistent, reliable sages. So, to which category does Jesus belong? Is he a wise teacher from who we can gain wisdom, or a fictional character we ought to reject?

Some believe Jesus falls in the latter category. Earlier this year, a story broke in Memphis, Tennessee when a teacher rejected Jesus as a reasonable source of wisdom and comfort. 10 year old Erin Shead was attending Lucy Elementary in Memphis. Her teacher assigned a simple project: write about someone you idolize. Erin chose God. “I look up to God,” she wrote. “I love him and Jesus, and Jesus is His earthly son. I also love Jesus.” Erin’s teacher objected to her choice and told her Jesus could not be the subject of her short project. She told Erin to start over again, and allowed her to pick Michael Jackson as the subject of her report. Erin’s mom brought the case before the School Board. The Board eventually agreed with the Shead’s and permitted Erin to write about Jesus. Why would anyone consider Michael Jackson but reject Jesus as a credible source of wisdom and admiration? While it is most likely due to a growing bias against theism in general, it may also be due to disbelief in Jesus as a true person from history.

Over the past ten years or so, a number of popular works have challenged the historicity of Jesus in significant ways. Films like The God Who Wasn’t There and Zeitgeist: The Movie have garnered millions of views on the Internet. Both films challenge the historicity of Jesus and argue Jesus is nothing more than a borrowed mythological character, crafted from prior similar mythologies. Popular writers and authors such as David Fitzgerald, Richard Carrier and Robert M. Price have advanced this notion in their own publications. As our culture becomes increasingly hostile to the Christian Worldview, authors and filmmakers who depict Jesus as a fictional character will be ever more popular. If Jesus is like Barney or Yoda, there’s really no reason to listen to His teaching or embrace His message.

But Jesus is not like Barney or Yoda. The evidence for the historicity of Jesus is significant and compelling. Jesus is not a re-creation of early mythologies. His existence was confirmed by non-Biblical ancient historical sources and was accurately preserved over the centuries. Even the non-canonical authors affirm the true existence of Jesus.  The historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is so compelling and overwhelming, even an ardent agnostic skeptic like Bart Ehrman has written publicly about the topic (in an e-book entitled, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth). Ehrman may not be a Christian, but he know Jesus was a real historical character. The historicity of Jesus has been established by credible historians and critics, even if denied by popular authors and filmmakers.

You and I, as Christians, need to master the case for the historicity of Jesus. It matters. If Jesus really lived, he is a candidate for our attention, just like Ghandi, Emerson or Lennon. His words are more than clever fiction invented by an anonymous playwright or author. They are Jesus’ words of wisdom, captured for eternity. The historicity of Jesus matters because it allows us to talk about Jesus in a culture which only accepts real people as wise sages worthy of consideration. If we are allowed to talk about the way Ghandi’s wisdom impacted us on a personal level, we ought to be allowed to talk about how Jesus’ wisdom changed our lives. Jesus is a viable candidate because Jesus was a real person. That’s why the historicity of Jesus matters.

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Science and Faith: Are They Compatible?

The whole point of Darwinism is to explain the world in a way that excludes any role for a Creator. What is being sold in the name of science
is a completely naturalistic understanding of reality. (Phillip Johnson)

Scientists, philosophers, and theologians are pretty much agreed about this: it is the function of science to determine the facts of the universe; it is the function of religion to determine its meaning. But opinions about the origins of the universe diverge, and arguments become heated, over whether the Bible can be used as a source of scientific information. Secular scientists try to exclude biblical perspectives by limiting the inquiry to what can be tested in a laboratory. It is their position that any belief or theory with any hint of “supernatural” causes must be disregarded. Since God doesn’t appear in a telescope or under a microscope, these scientists reject from consideration any theory of a God-caused universe.

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The Cumulative Case for Christianity: Death By A 1,000 Paper Cuts

Following Dateline’s airing of our latest cold-case (“The Wire”), I received a number of concerned emails from viewers who felt there simply wasn’t enough evidence to be certain Douglas Bradford killed Lynne Knight. I think I can see their point. Dateline has done an excellent job chronicling four of our investigations, but our cases are nearly impossible to adequately represent in the limited time Dateline has to tell the stories. Why? Because our cases are complex, layered, cumulative, circumstantial cases. While I’ve written often about the nature of circumstantial evidence, one of the most evidential concepts related to our cold-cases is the role of cumulative arguments. When a large quantity of evidence point to the same suspect, the cumulative impact of this evidence can be powerful. Many of the individual facts and evidences may seem unimportant or trivial on their own, but when assembled as a set, their collective weight becomes unbearable. All my cold-cases are built in this way. We assemble dozens of facts, details, inferential statements and evidences and show the jury how the collective set of evidence implicates our suspect. I’ve often referred to this process sarcastically as “Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts”.

Defense attorneys typically respond to cumulative cases by focusing on those few pieces of evidence they believe to be the most damaging for their client. They then try to show how any number of other, unrelated causes might also explain these specific items of evidence. They want jurors to focus on the individual pieces rather than the collective set. In essence, they hope jurors will see the “trees” rather than the “forest” (and hopefully only a few of the trees, at that!) In the end, defense attorneys explain the evidences by way of many unrelated causes rather than by the simpler explanation: their client is the one causal factor who can account for all the evidence in the case. In many ways, it’s an “Ockham’s Razor” exercise. When one causal factor explains all the evidence in the case, that cause is the simplest (and most reasonable) explanation.

If you want to be a good Christian Case Maker (or you simply want to examine the case for Christianity for the first time), you’ll need to understand the power of cumulative cases. The Christian worldview is established in a collective manner: the reliability of the eyewitness Gospel accounts is built on more than one line of evidence. In fact, eyewitnesses are established based on four separate categories of evidence, expressed with four important questions: Where the eyewitnesses really present to see what they said they saw? Can their statements be corroborated or verified in some way? Have the eyewitnesses been honest and accurate over time? Do the eyewitnesses possess a bias or ulterior motive disqualifying them? These questions must be considered collectively. In addition to this, the case for each category is also made cumulatively. The issue of corroboration, for example is established on the basis of several unrelated lines of evidence including archaeology, ancient Jewish writings, ancient non-Christian Greek writings, geographic internal evidence, linguistic internal evidence, correct use of proper nouns, and the unintentional eyewitness support I describe in Cold-Case Christianity.

None of these individual elements corroborates the Biblical account on its own. They must be considered collectively. When a skeptic tries to attack the insufficiency of any single line of evidence for the Christian worldview, they are (like defense attorneys) asking the jury to ignore the implications of the collective case. They hope people will focus on a “tree” rather than the “forest”. They typically do their best to argue for an alternative explanation (or several alternative explanations) for each of these evidential facts. But the more reasonable explanation is much simpler: Christianity, if true, can explain all the evidence as the only causal factor. I’ve tried to illustrate the depth of the cumulative case for Christianity with a simple illustration (available as a free, downloadable Bible Insert on the homepage at www.ColdCaseChristianity.com):

 

When our cases are covered by Dateline, only a few evidences ever make the final edit. As a result, I often get notes from viewers who can’t understand how the jury convicted our suspect (even when some of these men later confessed to the crime!) But our juries never seem to struggle with their decision. Instead, they typically convict rather quickly. When jurors come to understand the power of a collective case, the decision is easy. The Christian worldview is also established cumulatively. If we can learn to communicate the strength of collective cases such as these, we’ll become better Christian Case Makers. If you’re examining the case for Christianity for the first time, don’t stop at the “tree-line”. Go deep. Look at everything. Assemble and assess the cumulative case.

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Three Good Reasons to Celebrate Your Christian Worldview

I had the great honor of speaking at the National Religious Broadcasters Apologetics Conference two weeks ago, along with Frank Turek, Abdu Murray, Alex McFarland, Stephen C. Meyer, Ed Stetzer and Troy Miller. In case you weren’t aware, the NRB Network (available on Direct TV) features many Christian Case Making programs (including Cold-Case Christianity). Troy Miller is the President and CEO of the network, and with the help of Arline Bell (the Director of Programming), the network has forged a new path for Christian programming. This is definitely not your parent’s Christian television network. NRB TV is filled with great Christian teaching and Case Making programs. I am delighted to be a small part of the line-up. At lunch, Troy shared the results of a recent viewer survey in which people who watch the NRB Network reported what they liked about it. High on their list were two responses: When using a single word to describe what they enjoy about the programming, many viewers said “orthodoxy”. People who watch NRB TV love the fact the programs argue for an orthodox, conservative view of Christianity. In addition to this, many of the viewers said, “The NRB Network makes me proud to be a Christian.” That last statement was powerful for me. Although most of us, as Christians, tend to shrink away from talking about any form of “pride” (given its negative connotations in Scripture), I think I understand what the viewers meant by the statement. In a culture dominated by Christian programming seen as more embarrassing than praiseworthy and in a cultural environment where Christians are often portrayed as unintelligent and unthoughtful, the NRB Network provides examples of just the opposite. There are good reasons to celebrate our Christian worldview and to be “proud” (not of ourselves, but) of the God who created us:

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Can You Really Know God?

Is it possible to know God? Most people believe it is possible to know about God the way you know about any person, place, or thing. All it takes is a little research, such as reading a book about whatever it is you want to know about. So in the case of God, you could read the Bible. Or in the case of Allah, you could read the Qur’an. But what if you want to actually know God in the way you would know a spouse or a close friend?

Muslims take offense at the notion that a person can know God. To the Islamic mind, a human ability to know God would make God dependent on his creation. For this reason, Allah doesn’t reveal himself; he reveals his mashi’at (desires and wishes), but not himself. Since Muslims believe that people cannot know Allah, they don’t try.

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