Creation Concerns

I’ve been promising a post on creation and evolution ever since I touched on the topic in a previous blog. So, here we go — the first of a two-part blog on the issue. No doubt many of you may disagree with what you’re about to read, and that’s perfectly fine. I can’t stress strongly enough that this is a secondary issue — one about which Christians can disagree and discuss, but should not divide.

First, I believe in creation. I believe in the Bible, and I believe it to be the inerrant word of God. I am also a scientist, with four graduate degrees — three of them in engineering. For some, this may pose a problem — but not me, and I’ll tell you why.

Second, I am what some call an “old Earth” or “progressive” creationist. Some of you are ready to stop reading, but I’d ask that you stick with me for a few more paragraphs, and try to think clearly about this issue. Nearly every discipline of science — astronomy, cosmology, geology, anthropology, paleontology, archaeology, even chemistry and physics — provides considerable evidence that the Earth is billions of years old. I could cite thousands of examples, including distant starlight (known as anisotropic synchrony), sedimentation, the fossil record, ice cores, red shift in space, star ages, cosmological and gravitational constants, radiometric dating, the list goes on. Point is, science is nearly unanimous in this regard. Are there exceptions? Sure. There are a few places where the sedimentary layers are reversed. There are gaps in the fossil record. Radiometric dating is notoriously unreliable. There are inconsistencies in other places — but what we can’t do is use the exception to prove the rule.

Third, I find there to be very scarce credible scientific evidence that the Earth is 6,000 – 10,000 years old. However, there appears to be abundant Scriptural evidence that this is so. Answers in Genesis, one of the leading defenders of the Young Earth view, publishes a Biblically-based timeline that puts the Earth right at 6,000 years old.  The Institute for Creation Research also has some great resources advocating the young-Earth view. Hopefully, my clear-thinking readers are sensing the coming train wreck — if science gives us an old Earth and Scripture a young Earth, there is an apparent “conflict” between science and Scripture. This is a false dilemma — here’s why.

I call the concept “Dual Authorship.” God is the author of nature (Romans 1), and God is the author of Scripture (1 Tim 3, elsewhere). Understood accurately, the two will not — cannot — contradict each other. So, when you see a conflict between what you observe in nature and what you read in Scripture, you are doing one of the two inaccurately. Either you are observing nature incorrectly, or you are interpreting Scripture incorrectly. In my view, many Christians are far too quick to assume it is the former, and discount the possibility that they’re not reading the Bible accurately. When it comes to Genesis 1, this is precisely what we have — nature and Scripture apparently in conflict.

(NOTE: There are two separate issues at play here that are often conflated, but shouldn’t be. First, how long did it take God to create the universe, the Earth, and all its inhabitants? Second, how long ago did this creative act take place? They’re normally conflated since those who believe in a literal 7-day creation almost always also believe in a very young Earth, and those that believe in an old earth usually reject a literal 7-day creation in favor of other models. Let’s deal with the age of the Earth first.)

So, which is it? Are our scientific observations wrong, or is Scripture wrong? I’m sure you know by now that the answer is NEITHER. They’re in synch. How? Well, to get this answer, young-Earth creationists have to do some pretty fancy dancing. Normally they’ll rely heavily on a global flood (which is another issue altogether), and suggest that things like the Grand Canyon can happen in a matter of days if you have enough water and soft enough soil. Multiple layers of sediment may appear thousands or even millions of years apart, but only be days or months apart, due to flood geology. All of these are grand attempts, but they fall short in most serious investigations. But, we don’t have to try to force the observable, natural evidence into a preconceived notion of Scripture.

In fact, there is no discussion in the Bible about the age of the Earth. To get the age, scholars have to use the genealogies from Genesis and Leviticus and the ages of the key figures (Adam, Seth, Enoh, Lamech, the Kings, etc). I believe this is very shaky ground. These genealogies are NOT consecutive (they contain gaps), are NOT complete (many are missing multiple generations), and the ages of the individuals in question are not precise (it’s not like we have birth and death certificates for these folks). From a Jewish perspective, these genealogies are designed to show a general line of descent, not to be all-inclusive. The genealogies are not unlike those referenced in the New Testament, where we hear of Christ referred to as the “son of David,” although we know there were many generations between David and Christ (Matthew 12:23, Luke 1:32 & 18:39, elsewhere). Or when the Israelites as a whole are referred to as “sons of Abraham,” though we know that most are not directly his sons, just in his lineage.

In addition, many believe that the ages are not actual ages, but numerical representations of their lives. Both Hebrew and Greek authors and theologians were frequent practitioners of what is known as Gematria, or establishing theological and linguistic significance to numbers. We see this throughout the Bible, where certain numbers (often 40, 12, or 7) contain significance. You probably already know about these cases…for example, the number “7” in Scripture usually signifies perfection or completeness. How many times do I forgive my brother? “Not 7 times, but 70 times 7 (or 77 times).” Matthew 18:21-22. It’s not telling us to that we should keep count, and when we get to 77, it’s over…it’s telling us that we should ALWAYS forgive. There is no limit. Same with 40. How many years did the Hebrews wander? How many days did the rain last during the flood? How many days was Jesus tempted in the desert? We’re not sure what exactly “40” signifies, but it appears time and time again in Scripture, and carries great significance. How does this apply? Well, when we read that Lamech lived 777 years, this could be much like saying we forgive our brother 77 times. It’s not meant to be a precise count, it’s meant to tell us something of theological significance…perhaps Lamech lived a complete or nearly perfect life. That’s just one example of many…bottom line, using ages and genealogies to establish the age of the Earth, rather than scientific exploration and observation, is bad business.

So, in summary, we cannot create a false conflict between science and religion, and we cannot drive a wedge between how God has revealed Himself in nature and how He has revealed Himself in Scripture. The two are not incompatible or contradictory. The Bible is silent on the age of the Earth, and the use of genealogies to establish the age is unreliable and most probably inaccurate. On the other hand, God has also given us nature in abundance, as well as the tools and mental faculties to observe, test, measure, and draw conclusions from that general revelation. With notable exceptions, those observations, tests, and measurements clearly point to an Earth considerably older than the 6,000 – 10,000 years supposedly determined by the genealogies.

Should a Christian Join the Masons?

Today’s question is another good one from Aaron in Alexandria. The question is simple — should a Christian join the Masons? Most folks have seen the signs all around us…not just in the movies, but on buildings, bumper stickers, and everywhere else. If you happen to live in the Washington, DC area — as I did for several years — then the signs of them are even more prevalent. Who could miss the massive monolith that dominates the Old Town Alexandria skyline and the King Street Station metro stop? But how should a clear-thinking Christian approach the Masons? Is it just another civic club, like Kiwanis or Rotary — or is it a secret Satanic cult? I’ve actually heard both opinions on more than one occasion, so let’s get to ground truth.

The origins of Freemasonry are debated within Freemasonry itself. Some say it is traced back to the medieval craftsmen in the seventh century, others claim the Freemasons are a continuation of the fourteenth-century Knights Templar. There is no documentation dating Freemasonry back prior to 1717, but that hasn’t stopped Freemasons from embellishing their history a bit. Freemasonry has also developed somewhat differently in Europe and in America — there are traditions and rituals in European Freemasonry that are not found in American Freemasonry, and vice versa. In general, Freemasonry is a brotherhood — a Fraternity of members — who get together to participate in various rituals. They also partner with each other in service projects and other community improvement efforts. Their Lodges are places where the brothers gather together to aid each other in spiritual development and pass on ancient (usually “secret”) wisdom. Also, Masonry is to be commended for expecting high moral standards and a life of virtue from its members — there are many positive things that could be said about the Lodge.

But, history aside, the question to a Christians is clear — what do the Freemasons believe, and is it consistent with the core beliefs of Christianity? On the plus side, Freemasons at every level must affirm the existence of a supreme being, normally called the “Great Architect of the Universe.” Unfortunately, this “Supreme Architect” is intentionally inclusivist, denying the exclusive claims of Christianity. That said, they will not expressly deny the deity of Christ, but they affirm the deity of all. Sure, Christ is god — but so is Allah, Krishna, Jehovah, Mohammed, or whomever else is your favorite “flavor” of god.

Second — similar to the “Great Architect” being synonymous with god — the “Celestial Lodge” up above is their version of Heaven, and getting there is no easy feat. Though the specific procedures and rituals for advancing through the Masonry levels is shrouded in secrecy, a bit of focused research will reveal most of the rite and ritual in readily-available books and accounts of former Masons. Regardless, it’s quite clear in all the ritual that the work of Christ on the cross has absolutely nothing to do with reaching the “Celestial Lodge.” Most prominently, access to the Celestial Lodge is offered to all Masons, including those who expressly reject Christ, so we can be sure that this Celestial Lodge is not consistent with the Biblical view of Heaven.

Third, some original Masonic teachings equate the Masonic patriarch Hiram with Christ. In fact, part of the ritual for a third-degree candidate involves the candidate playing the role of Hiram, through which the candidate identifies with Hiram through his death, burial, and raising (not resurrection). Most Masons are encouraged to imitate Hiram’s virtuous conduct, and to welcome Hiram as a messenger from the Great Architect. The more one reads about Masonry, the more one starts to see clear parallels between the Christ of Christianity and the Hiram of Masonry.

These are just a few examples of the teaching of Masonry…there are others, and there are portions of their rituals that are downright scary (at least, should be scary for Christians). I’m also aware of the occasional (even frequent) comparisons of Masonic ritual to Satanic ritual, but I think that’s a stretch — and it’s not necessary. Simply based on their rejection of the exclusive claims of Christ and Scripture, their rejection of the saving work of Christ on the cross, and the elevation of Hiram to Christ-like status, clear-thinking Christians can confidently reject Freemasonry as clearly inconsistent with a Biblically-based belief in Christianity.

I suppose it is theoretically possible for a mature, Biblically-grounded Christian with excellent discernment skills to participate in Masonic ritual without abandoning or compromising core Christian doctrine, but why? At best it will confuse and tempt, at worst it will mislead. Should a Christian join the Masons? Absolutely not.

Sticks and Stones…

20120716-220730.jpgSeveral weeks ago, I received a comment from NotA on my prior blog, “Q&A: Mormonism”:

“The Bible also ‘clearly’ says we should stone people to death who work on the Sabbath. It also ‘clearly’ tells us how to keep slaves, and how to make them permanent.”

I assume this comment was meant as a means to discredit the authority of the Bible — in other words, since the Bible allegedly tells us to do these things which are clearly ridiculous or immoral, then we can’t trust the other things it tells us to do. Ignoring the obvious non-sequitur, I simply asked NotA if or when he had studied the Bible…I find that these objections, and others like them, are often presented by those who have heard the objection from others or read it in another book. It is not an objection that is easily arrived at by a study of the Bible itself. Regardless, I’ll do what I can to clear up this common misconception…the capital punishment issue in this blog, slavery in another.

Let’s go to Scripture first. Does the Bible say that those who work on the Sabbath should be stoned? Yes, it does. First, there is a teaching in the Mosaic law, found in Exodus 31:14 – 17 and 35:2. While this law does not specifically direct stoning, it does say that anyone who does work on the Sabbath should be put to death. There is also a well-known story in Numbers 15:32 – 36. In this story, during the time the Israelites are in the desert, a man is found gathering wood on the Sabbath, so the people bring him to Moses and Aaron and ask what is to be done with him. After praying, God clearly commands them to stone him, which they promptly do. So, in this case, the Bible does clearly show that this man is to be stoned for working on the Sabbath, I have no dispute there.

Trying to think clearly about this issue, I can think of three reasons someone might disagree with this command. First, you may think capital punishment is just wrong. Whether found in the Bible or in the US Code or State laws, capital punishment is wrong — never justified. If this is your objection, we can have a great discussion, but it ceases to really be a theological or Biblical issue.

Second, you may disagree with the form of punishment. While capital punishment (electric chair or perhaps lethal injection) is not necessarily wrong, stoning is wrong. It’s cruel and unusual or barbaric. Again, this doesn’t really take up a Biblical issue. The Mosaic code is simply prescribing the death penalty for certain crimes, and stoning was the standard means of administering capital punishment in Jewish culture. Dead bodies (and in some cases, criminals even while they were still alive) were considered unclean, so no Jew could touch them. So, they needed some means of administering death “from a distance”. Obviously, there was no firing squad, and no electric chair or lethal injection in 4,000 BC or in the first century…the result? Stoning.

Finally, you may think the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. There’s nothing inherently wrong with capital punishment, but it’s far too harsh for something as minor as picking up wood (the Numbers example). I can certainly understand this objection, and I’m sympathetic to it. It does seem harsh to arrest someone and stone them to death for working on the wrong day of the week. However, this is completely out of context in two key ways. First, it sounds harsh or barbaric to our civilized Western society in the 21st century. However, compared to other ancient Near-Eastern codes of laws (Sumeria, Ur, Hittite, Hammurabi), the Mosaic law was actually a significant advancement in moral code. Compared to today’s standards, it seems harsh — but it is actually mild by ancient near-eastern standards. Second, the point of the Mosaic code was not to establish a fair and democratic system of equal justice, it was to establish — positionally — the role of the nation of Israel and their God. It set up a theocracy, with Yahweh (God) as the spiritual, moral, and political leader of the nation. Simply stated, the point was to teach obedience. If the Israelites couldn’t obey simple (comparatively) instructions about what to eat or wear, or what to do and when, then they wouldn’t obey far more important instructions about worshipping other gods, adopting pagan customs, and so forth. God was trying to establish a pattern of obedience to test the commitment and trustworthiness of the Israelites before granting them the greatest reward in Biblical (and arguably human) history — the Promised Land and the lineage of the Messiah.

So, going back to NotA’s objection, my disagreement is not with the charge that the Bible prescribes stoning for working on the Sabbath. It does. Perhaps surprisingly, my disagreement is with the use of the word “we”. Unless you are a Jew living by the Mosaic Code under the theocracy established for the nation of Israel, then the Bible does not, in fact, say that “we” should stone people for working on the Sabbath. In fact, every day is considered equal now, though we are still expected to obey God in all things. The “Sabbath rest,” under the new covenant, is not found on a particular day of the week, rather it is found in Christ (Hebrews 4:1 – 11). The Sabbath was simply the shadow of things to come, the reality of the Sabbath is found in Christ (Colossians 2:17).

A Knock at the Door…

Nearly every Christian in America — at least, every one that I’m aware of — has received that telltale knock at the door. A quick peek through the curtains or the peephole reveals two young men in white shirts and black tags, or perhaps two or three women with copies of “Awake” in hand. How do you handle those encounters? Most Christians I know are surprisingly “unChristian” about these encounters…many don’t answer the door, or pretend they’re not home. Others answer the door, but respond with a curt “No thanks, I’m a Christian” or similar dismissive response, most often closing the door without waiting for a response.

I’ve welcomed literally hundreds of missionaries through my door. Let me propose a new way for you to handle these encounters, one that actually shows that you are what you claim (a Christian), and one that might give you an opportunity to share your faith as well. It’s quite simple, almost common sense — based on five very basic principles:

1. Answer the door. This is often the hardest step for many people. Hiding behind a peephole, or hiding with the lights off hoping they’ll think you’re not home, is not only childish, it’s unChristian. And don’t just answer the door, open the door, actually remove the barriers between you and your visitors. Don’t talk through a glass or screen door. No, answer the door, open it, and greet them with a warm welcome and a handshake. Trust me, after a year or two on the job, these missionaries have had dozens of doors slammed in their faces, have heard “sorry, I’m a Christian”, more time than they can recall, and have walked away from many houses they knew were occupied. By simply answering and opening the door, and greeting them with a warm welcome, you will place yourself in the top few percent of their visitations that day, and likely in their entire mission.

2. Invite them in. Don’t just answer the door, and don’t just open it. Actually invite them in! Invite them to have a seat, offer them something to drink (with appropriate sensitivity to their religious restrictions), and treat them as guests. I recognize, only at step two, some of you may think I’m approaching the ridiculous — even the unthinkable. I also recognize that some of these suggestions aren’t practical for everyone — some stay-at-home moms, for example — who may not feel safe inviting two men into their home, or perhaps there is a baby sleeping upstairs. If these are your reasons, that’s understandable. If your reason for refusing to answer the door is that you’re afraid of what you may be asked, or you are sorely unprepared to articulate your faith or even present a basic description of what you believe, then you have failed the most basic task of an ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20): to know the message of the Sovereign and convey it to His intended audience.

3. Listen. As an Alpha male, this one is especially hard for me…but it is critical. after you’ve invited them in and offered them something to drink, I strongly encourage you to do the one thing you want to do least — listen. Let them speak, and actually listen to what they say. Practice active listening, by making eye contact and even taking notes. Resist the urge to jump in and contradict or challenge every point they bring up, even if you disagree. Just listen. It’s hard, but it will be worth it and you’ll see why in a moment.

4. Offer a short response. Here is where your training, and all your clear thinking as a Christian, will pay off…and where your patient listening will pay off as well. When they have finished their presentation, and you have listened quietly, actively, and patiently, simply ask the same in return. Perhaps something like, “Thank you — that was fascinating. I’ve listening to everything you’ve said, and I do have several questions…but would you mind doing the same favor for me in return?”. Or perhaps, “Thank you. I’ve listened quietly and carefully for fifteen minutes — would you do the same for me for five?” Whatever works for the situation. The point is, common courtesy, even human decency, almost requires that they now listen to you for a duration. Be ready. I could write for pages on what to say, and I’ve screwed it up as many times as I’ve gotten it right, but simply present a basic gospel message. Don’t try to refute every point you disagreed with. Above all, don’t debate! Tell them who Christ really is, and perhaps a short version of when He means to you. Be brief, be kind, and largely non-confrontational, because you are going to…

5. Invite them back. Even better, feed them. A nebulous “come back some time” just won’t cut it here. Set an actual date and time, and invite them back for dinner. Give yourself a week or two — if you listened carefully and took good notes during their talk, then you will have lots of homework to do. When they come back, start over with point #1 above. After dinner, if the opportunity presents itself, mention their prior visit and ask a simple question. Again, don’t feel obligated to play point-counterpoint, at least not yet. Just ask a simple question and follow the conversation from there. Ask questions. Take notes. Offer an alternative. Repeat.

It’s not easy, it’s not fast, it’s not always comfortable, but it works. It doesn’t work every time, but it works.

What are Relativism and Postmodernism?

In my blog on “What Must We Believe,” I start with the statement, “I fear that the encroachment of relativism and postmodernism has greatly affected the Christian message…” Over the weekend, I received a question on this statement from Aaron in Alexandria via email. He had gotten into a discussion with some co-workers, and they had all reached some confusion about the ideas of postmodernism and relativism — what they are, why they matter, and most importantly for Aaron, why a clear-thinking Christian should care. Let’s see if we can help him think through this.

First, I’m no expert here. I will rely heavily on a course I took on “The Challenge of Postmodernism” from Dr. Millard Erickson at BIOLA, and on the book, “Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Thin Air” by Greg Koukl. Credit given, let’s proceed.

Immediately, we are faced with the challenge that postmodernism is not monolithic. That is, there is no universally accepted definition of what beliefs or positions constitute postmodernism, and certainly no book (like the Bible or other definitive work) that serves as a common foundation or reference point for establishing postmodernism. However, with little disagreement, we can establish some widely-held concepts that most postmodernists will affirm.

First (and most importantly for the Christian), nearly all postmodernists deny the existence of absolute truth. All truth, then, is subjective — it is “in the eye of the beholder”. There is no such thing as an actual right and wrong, things being intrinsically good or evil, there are only opinions and personal preferences. I like chocolate ice cream, you don’t — I think murder is wrong, you don’t — these kinds of claims are largely equivalent. They’re just personal preferences. When a postmodernist or relativist hears you say something is “wrong,” all they hear is something equivalent to “yuck” or “eww”. To them, it simply means you don’t like it, no different than presenting me with pimento olives. YUCK. You’re just emoting, expressing displeasure.

Some claims, like “murder is wrong”, may have developed some social weight, such that they are frowned upon (even disciplined or punished) by society…but when you commit a murder all you’ve really done is violated a social norm. You haven’t done anything wrong, just gone against the norm a bit and offended some social sensibilities. Similarly, some behaviors (like murder) may be disadvantageous from an evolutionary perspective, and have hence fallen into disfavor…but again, they aren’t objectively or intrinsically wrong, just a dumb thing to do if your goal is to preserve the human species.

This rejection of absolute truth and relegation of all truth claims to the subjective is the basic definition of relativism. So, to answer one of the initial questions AB asked, relativism and postmodernism are closely related — so much so that relativism is likely one of the most significant defining beliefs of postmodernists. The two are related, but not equal…so almost all postmodernists are relativists, but not all relativists are postmodernists.

Hand-in-hand with a rejection of absolute or objective truth is the rejection of religious exclusivity. Most postmodernists will also embrace religious pluralism. To be fair, we can look at pluralism in two different ways — first, pluralism on one definition is a fact. There are many different religions, and they believe many different things. This is pluralism in a largely descriptive sense, and should not be opposed by clear-thinking Christians. However, in a more prescriptive manner, most postmodernists affirm that not only do many different religions exist, but they are all equally valid. No religion is better than any other, no one religion or denomination is “true” and others “false”, they are all equally true (or, for the large contingent of postmodernists who reject theism, equally false).

These two concepts — relativism and pluralism — are as close as we will get to core, defining beliefs of postmodernism. Of course, clear-thinking Christians should see that both views are objectively false, and pluralism is demonstrably false. Biblically, there are actual rights and wrongs, and things aren’t wrong just because they violate some social norm. The “wrongness” of murder and rape aren’t something extrinsic (defined by society or culture), nor are they subjective (defined by individual preferences), murder and rape and other actions are intrinsically, objectively wrong. Wherever murder goes, the wrongness goes with it. In the great words of Greg Koukl, “If you think torturing babies for fun is okay, I’m not going to ‘appreciate your alternative moral perspective’. I’m going to think you need help. FAST”. Beware of the slippery slope you’re on if you think society defines what is right and wrong, it’s a dangerous one. If the Nazis had won, then their values would have been the societal norm, and from their perspective, elimination of “The Jewish Problem” would have been the most advantageous from an evolutionary perspective.

When it comes to pluralism, we can readily concede the descriptive point. There is no question that there is a plurality of belief systems and religions throughout the world. However, they are not all equally valid, nor are they all true. This is easily demonstrable by picking one of a thousand readily apparent examples. Picking an easy one, the Christians claim Jesus was the Messiah, the Jews claim he was not. Now, it’s possible that the Christians are right and the Jews are wrong. I’ll even admit that it’s possible that the Jews are right and the Christians are wrong (though I obviously don’t think that’s the case). However, I hope you can see that at no time, in no way, can they both be right. Christ cannot both be the Messiah and not be the Messiah at the same time in the same way, which is exactly what pluralists propose. This is one of the inviolable laws of logic, called the “Law of Excluded Middle” — something is either A or not-A, but cannot be both.

For clear-thinking Christians, both relativism and pluralism are highly toxic. Absolute (objective) truth exists and can be known, and Christianity is clear in its exclusive claims. You cannot simultaneously affirm the objective truth taught in the Bible and the subjective truth taught by relativism. Of course, you cannot affirm both the exclusive claims of Christianity and the “all are equal” mantra of pluralism. Christianity is objective and exclusive. Postmodernism is subjective and pluralist. Show me a Christian postmodernist and I’ll show you a married bachelor.

Is Belief in the Resurrection Required?

Answering a question today, submitted via email from Aaron in Alexandria. “My brother asked me the other day if the belief in the resurrection of Jesus is a mandatory essential for salvation. I wasn’t 100% on the answer so I told him I wasn’t sure but that it was definitely the quintessential proof that Jesus was the truth. I know Paul teaches you must believe in the resurrection, but the thief on the cross obviously was not aware of it.”

First, belief in the deity of Christ is required to affirm Christianity — in fact, it is arguably the defining belief of Christianity. Believing in the existence of Christ but denying his deity places you in the same camp as the Jews and Muslims. Similarly, believing in the deity of Christ but denying his resurrection presents at the very least a consistency problem. It seems to me that the step from existence to resurrection is a smaller step than from existence to deity, and the resurrection is the primary way in which Christ demonstrated/proved His deity.

Second, we have to understand what the resurrection accomplished. It gets back to the basic gospel message — we are sinners in need of salvation, and we are unable to save ourselves. We are completely reliant on someone (or something) else, and for the Christian it is complete reliance on Christ for our salvation. The effectual means of that salvation is the resurrection. The penalty for our sin is death, and to be reconciled with a perfectly just God, that penalty must be paid. Christ paid the penalty. He was crucified to pay the penalty for our sins, but it was his resurrection that provided the justification — that is, the resurrection is how we are seen good before God. If you don’t believe the resurrection occurred, then how are you justified before God? See Romans 4:24 – 25: “…God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” It was the resurrection that provided the justification.

The point is made even more strongly a few chapters later, in Romans 10. When discussing the disbelief of the Jews, in verse 9 Paul very clearly lays out what is necessary for salvation: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” However, Paul seals the deal, firmly and unequivocally, in his letter to the Corinthians. In the earliest known creed of Christendom, the Apostles’ Creed in 1 Cor 15, Paul passes on to us that which he received of “first importance” — that Christ died, was buried, was raised, and appeared. This all-important Creed is followed by almost an entire chapter on the resurrection, where we are told very specifically, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” A Christian faith devoid of the resurrection is simply not a Christian faith.

In short, denying the resurrection comes very close to denying the deity of Christ, it denies the means of our justification, it denies the earliest Creed of the church, and it likely denies our resurrection (and thereby salvation) as well. It doesn’t get any more essential than that.

What Must We Believe?

I fear the the encroachment of relativism and postmodernism has greatly affected the Christian message — in fact, it has undermined the very definition of Christianity. When I meet someone today and they tell me they’re a Christian, I’m sorry to report that it tells me very, very little about what they actually believe. I know people who call themselves Christians, but deny the unique deity of Christ, or deny the historicity of the resurrection, or other key doctrines I would consider “essential”. This leads to an obvious question — what does it mean to say,”I’m a Christian?” If I make that claim, what does it mean that I believe?

John Wesley is reputed to have said, “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”. But what if we can’t agree on what the essentials are? About 10 years ago, I started teaching a lesson series called “Essential Christian Doctrines,” or ECD, with the goal of answering this very question. Many of the issues we deal with among Christians are secondary issues, those which we can discuss and debate but not divide over. This includes young-Earth versus old-Earth creation, Calvinism versus Arminianism (and Pelagianism and other variants), and basically every flavor of eschatology (end-time theology) including pre-trib, post-trib, amillennialism, premillennialism, dispensationalism, and so forth. When we boil it down to the simple question of the Centurion in Acts 16, “What must I do to be saved,” it even relegates evangelical sacred cows like inerrancy and the canon of scripture to secondary status.

So what essentials remain? The easiest way to do this is to examine what the first Christians considered essential – those beliefs that they thought and taught were necessary for salvation.
There are a number of places in Scripture where we can turn for guidance — for example, 1 Timothy 3:16. In this one verse, you have the deity of Christ, His incarnation (humanity), resurrection, and ascension. Another key passage, perhaps the most well-known on this issue, is 1 Cor 15:3 – 5. Like the verse in Timothy, this passage affirms the death, the atonement, and the resurrection. Most theologians believe that these two passages are the foundation for what later became the Apostles’ Creed. Finally, we can look at Peter’s sermon (commonly called the “Kerygma”) in Acts 10:36 – 43. This passage is perhaps the best expression of the core doctrines maintained and taught by the early church. It affirms the deity of Christ, the personality and power of the Holy Spirit, the humanity and death of Christ, His resurrection, his second coming and final judgment, and salvation by faith in Christ.

So, based on the stated beliefs and doctrines of the first Christians, we can eliminate quite a few from the “brainstorming” list above. Those that remain, those that were taught by the followers of Christ, include:

i. The Deity of Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit (the Trinity).
ii. The humanity of Christ (the incarnation).
iii. The death and resurrection of Christ (the substitutionary atonemtent).
iv. The sinfulness of man.
v. Salvation by grace through faith.

If you do not affirm these basic, core beliefs, then you do not fall under the minimum essentials to be called a Christian. If you believe the essential doctrines, and do not hold to others that are contradictory to these, then you can confidently and proudly proclaim that you hold to the same historic Christian faith taught by Christ and the apostles. To be sure, there is some room for discussion here…but I think this is a fair conclusion based on an examination of the relevant Scriptures and Christian history. What to you think?