Jesus and the early church on abortion

It is sometimes claimed that the Bible has nothing to say on abortion, and often assumed that Christianity has never really made its mind up on the topic, paving the way for disagreement among Christians on abortion. But in fact the church has always been unanimous on abortion, from a very early point – from the same time as the New Testament was written, in fact. Although abortion isn’t explicitly referenced in the Protestant New Testament, it was explicitly prohibited in the Didache, written in the late first century (i.e. the same time as other works in the New Testament), and which has always been seen by the church as a helpful work, just not rising to the level of scripture (at least, not everyone thought it was scripture).

The reason for this post is mainly to provide a (non-comprehensive) list of early church writing on abortion to demonstrate just how forcefully and how unanimously it was rejected from the very earliest stages of the Christian church. My other post on how Christians rejected all forms of killing humans (which obviously relates!) is here. There is much more to be said on the Christian approach (both ethically and historically) to abortion, which I can’t recite here yet, though I have done so to some extent here. I recommend David Albert Jones’ “The Soul of the Embryo”, John Wyatt’s “Matters of Life and Death” and a short chapter in Scott Klusendorf’s “The Case for Life” on this if you’re not convinced. But I want to offer what the early church said and a few preliminary thoughts. Again, much more could be said about all this (and I will in future), but I wanted to get this blog post out ASAP. So don’t assume this is all there is to the story.

1) Some things aren’t mentioned explicitly in the Bible because they weren’t common cultural problems or because they are covered by other commands. The Bible doesn’t mention FGM because it wasn’t common in Hebrew culture. Likewise, because the culture was very pro-life and in particular valued having children, abortion was not a common problem (bear in mind how much pride people in the OT took in having many children, and how much of a curse lacking children was seen as). But the Bible does claim that human beings are made in God’s image and that all killing of humans is wrong. And since the unborn are living human beings (which we can learn from science, independently of the Bible, but the Bible also seems to gesture in this direction: see Psalm 139, the prophets being called in the womb, and John the Baptist leaping for joy at Jesus’ conception – when he was presumably just a few cells big!), the Bible prohibits it indirectly. This is certainly how it has been interpreted throughout church history. The Bible is silent on lots of specific things and this has been exploited for great evil in the past (for example, Christian proponents of slavery used the lack of clear prohibition of slavery as an argument for it, even though the Bible clearly denounces all the wrong things about slavery and so bans slavery by implication).

2) The reason it was unnecessary for Jesus to denounce it in Jewish culture was because Jewish culture already forbade abortion except to save the life of the mother. Hence various Jewish documents from the time make this clear: Pseudo-Phocylides (written around the time of Jesus) explicitly prohibits abortion and infanticide together, clearly seeing them as parallel, and the Sibylline Oracles does likewise. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian who tells us about Jesus himself,  and by far the best source we have for 1st century Israel, says clearly that the law prohibits abortion and infanticide, and in fact calls those who perform abortions murderers. So there was no need for Jesus to repeat what was already clear Jewish law – just as he didn’t have to reaffirm the rest of it!

It is sometimes claimed that Exodus 21:22-25 shows that the unborn are not treated as full rights-bearing human beings in the Bible. David Albert Jones has the best discussion of this; I can only offer a few points for reasons of space: 1) This appears to be literally all the pro-choice proponent has: one tiny, controversial passage in Exodus. That is not a strong precedent. 2) The Old Testament is not the final authority for Christians. 3) Even if the pro-choice interpretation is correct, the action is still strictly illegal. 4) Believing that there should be different penalties for different kinds of killing doesn’t mean that one sees some victims as less than human. Most people guilty of killing in UK law are given different penalties. 5) The passage is deeply controversial and always has been. It could well refer to premature live birth vs miscarriage, in which case the lesser penalty is because the baby survives. Indeed, the verb used (‘yatsa”) is more often used for live birth than for miscarriage in the Hebrew scriptures. And the author specifically avoids a more standard term for ‘miscarriage’ which the author has already used (‘shokol’)! So the textual evidence itself suggests that causing miscarriage is not what is in mind. 6) Even those later Jewish scholars and interpreters who did think it referred to miscarriage thought that abortion should be strictly illegal in any situation except where the mother’s life is at risk. The Mishnah, which allows this exception, still describes abortion as dismemberment, ‘limb from limb’. And there are certainly parts of the Talmud which prescribe capital punishment for abortion.

3) We often learn a lot about how people view the unborn from their language about them. Pro-choicers tend to call them ‘clumps of cells’, ‘parasites’, ‘tumours’, and so on. Pro-lifers tend to call them babies. The New Testament in Greek calls them βρεφος (‘brephos’, singular, Greek), as when John the Baptist is described in Luke 1:41-44 as being a ‘brephos’, leaping for joy in the womb. What does ‘brephos’ mean? The rest of the New Testament makes clear. In the next chapter, Luke calls Jesus a ‘brephos’, lying in the manger while people come to worship him. And, astonishingly, in Luke 18:15, it is the exact word used when Jesus illustrates those who inherit the Kingdom of God: “People were also bringing babies (brephé) to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”” Likewise 2 Timothy 3:15: “From childhood (brephous) you have known the sacred writings…”; 1 Peter 2:2: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” and, remarkably, Stephen’s description of Pharaoh forcing the Israelites to expose (i.e. leave to die) their babies as a paradigm example of Pharaohs wickedness: “He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive.” The New Testament is as clear as medical science is: unborn babies really are babies, and are no different in standing from newborn babies.

4) Surrounding cultures practised infanticide for much the same reasons as people today justify abortions: infants are poorly developed, can’t really think for themselves, aren’t ‘persons’, etc. But yet the Jewish and Christian proto-‘pro-life’ movements regarded this as heinous and likewise condemned abortion. The evidence for this is clear throughout the Bible and early Christian literature. Indeed, Christians were the reason infanticide (which was often done for reasons of disability or female gender, just as in today’s world) in the Roman Empire was outlawed, and pagans would leave their babies at the doors of Christians because Christians had such a reputation for looking after babies.

5) The early church (even by the end of the first century) was clearly in opposition to abortion, presumably addressing this issue slightly later than the gospels and epistles because the gospel finally spread to cultures where abortion was more common. Hence the Didache (which, we recall, was probably written in the first century and even accepted as scriptural by some early Christians) forbids abortion expressly. The rest of the church fathers do so in very strong terms, time and time again. I list here merely some of the condemnations of abortion by early Christian writers.

  • You shall not kill a child by abortion nor kill it after it is born.’ Didache
  • ‘even worse than murder … Why then do you abuse the gift of God … and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter?’ John Chrysostom
  • ‘Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born’ Epistle of Barnabas
  • ‘And these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion’ Apocalypse of Peter
  • ‘There are some women among you who by drinking special potions extinguish the life of the future human in their very bowels, thus committing murder before they even give birth’ Minucius Felix
  • ‘those women who use drugs to bring about an abortion commit murder’ Athenagoras
  • ‘There is also (another instrument in the shape of) a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: They give it, from its infanticide function, the name of εμβρυοσφακτης, ‘the slayer of the infant,’ which of course was alive … [they] all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive.’ Tertullian
  • ‘See, then, into what great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by teaching adultery and murder at the same time!’ Hippolytus
  • ‘(Christians) marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring.’ Diognetus
  • ‘Those who use abortifacient medicines to hide their fornication are causing the outright destruction, together with the foetus, of the whole human race’ Clement of Alexandria
  • ‘Some when they sense that they have conceived by sin, consider the poisons for abortion, and frequently die themselves along with it, and go to Hell guilty of three crimes: murdering themselves, committing adultery against Christ, and murder against their unborn child’ Jerome
  • ‘The rich women, to avoid dividing the inheritance among many, kill their own foetus in the womb and with murderous juices extinguish in the genital chamber their children’ Ambrose

It appears, then, that the early Christian approach to abortion was clear. We cannot pretend otherwise. There is much more that could be said, and I recommend again the books I mentioned at the start. But the early church was also clear about something else: about God’s complete and unassailable grace. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, Paul writes in Romans 8. Complete freedom, complete forgiveness, and a complete wiping away of every sin we have ever committed is promised to those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. That is a promise as certain and as complete as the rest of God’s promises. What a Saviour we have, and how free we are!

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. ” Ephesians 2:4-7



The scientific evidence on abortion

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1 As conceded by, for example, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, p. 10:

2 See, for example, David Fergusson’s 2013 study in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry: David Fergusson is a pro-choice Emeritus Professor of Psychology whose primary studies showing this association are highly regarded and published in top psychiatry journals.

3 See e.g., P. Levine’s 2004 paper in the Journal of Law and Economics:, his 2003 paper in the Journal of Health Economics:, and New’s 2011 study in State Politics & Policy Quarterly:, all of which show that restrictions on abortion lower abortion rates.

4 Hence the details on ‘feticide’ in the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ guidelines, pp. 57-58:

5 See the report on Savita Halappanavar’s death, pp. 85-96:

6 See e.g. the independent ComRes poll showing that, for example, 70% of women in the UK think that the time limit for legal abortion should be lowered:

7 For example, see Skotko’s 2011 study showing that nearly 99% of people with Down Syndrome are happy with their lives: and the contrasting rate of abortion in many countries with liberal abortion laws (to near eradication of people with Down Syndrome in Iceland):

8 See, for example, the Care and Quality Commission report on Marie Stopes in Maidstone: ‘Staff were concerned that ‘Did Not Proceed’, the term used when women decided not to proceed with treatment, was measured as a KPI and linked to their performance bonus. They felt that this encouraged staff to ensure that patients underwent procedures.’

9 See the UK government report from 2016, showing only 6 out of 185,000 abortions were done as emergencies to save the life of the woman, and only 99 non-emergency abortions: _data/file/679028/Abortions_stats_England_Wales_2016.pdf


What can we know about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection without using any Christian sources?

What can we know about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection without using any Christian sources?

It is sometimes alleged that all the sources for Jesus’ resurrection come from biased early Christians, and so cannot be trusted. I do not agree with this approach for a number of reasons: for one thing, that the early Christians were persecuted heavily for their faith suggests that they were not insincere propagandists but probably sincerely believed what they taught about Jesus, including that he was resurrected. And I (along with many New Testament scholars) think that there are other very good reasons to trust at least the basic gist of events as characterised in the New Testament, and particularly those relating to the last week of Jesus’ life. The wealth of independent sources for the crucifixion, for example, far exceeds almost any other event in ancient history, and is hard to explain simply by Christian bias. So let us not underestimate the strength of the historical evidence of Christian writers. The evidence I give here – from writers who not only denied Christianity but despised it – is a radical underestimate of the evidence in favour of Jesus’ identity and ministry.

But there is another reason this objection fails. It is that we can actually know a remarkable amount about Jesus’ final days without using any Christian sources at all. Some people will be familiar with some non-Christian sources for his life, perhaps in the form of the odd reference to his existence and perhaps his death. How much can they really tell us? Indeed, even Christian apologists tend to act as though non-Christian sources just tell us Jesus existed and was crucified, and not much more. So in preparation for a debate a couple of years ago, I made the game harder for myself. I determined to make a case for the resurrection using not a single Christian source. This does, of course, make things much harder. And as I noted at the start, it is not necessary for an honest, robust historical case for the resurrection. But when I took the task seriously, I surprised myself with the power of the case I ended up making. I want to relay some of that evidence here. Of course, I cannot hope to cover non-Christian corroboration of everything in the gospels – there are far too many relevant archaeological and literary finds to hope to cover in an article like this. And of course, much of this evidence supports the reliability of the Gospel authors, indirectly supporting the veracity of the resurrection narratives. But let me focus on more direct evidence for the resurrection in non-Christian sources and see how far we get. I will quote the passages fairly fully but embolden the relevant pieces – the reader may skip the rest of the quotes to save time if they wish.

Turn first to Tacitus, the Roman historian. In his Annals, which covers the history of Rome from 14-68 AD, he turns his attention in Book XV to the fire in Rome under Nero in 64 AD, for which Nero subsequently used Christians as scapegoats. He relates:

But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man. (Book XV, 44)

The key points:

  • Christians were persecuted very severely under Nero in 64 AD
  • Christians were already disliked
  • Their founder was known as ‘Christ’ (i.e. the Greek for ‘Messiah’)
  • Christ had been executed in the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD), sentenced by Pontius Pilate himself (Prefect/Procurator of Judaea from 26-36 AD)
  • The movement stopped temporarily after his death
  • The movement then restarted in Judaea
  • It spread to Rome in large numbers

The Jewish writer Josephus, having defected to the Romans after being captured in the Jewish-Roman War, later put together Antiquities of the Jews, a history of the Jews from the beginning of the world through to the war. The work contains three central references to Jesus or his companions. And while the first of these is routinely discarded by lay sceptics as inauthentic, it is fair to say that the weight of scholarly opinion thinks there is an authentic core of the passage, even though scholars typically grant that there are Christian interpolations. The latter passages, of course, suffer from little to no such concerns regarding authenticity.

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Book XVIII, 3.3)

Probably (though not certainly, since Jews had vastly differing concepts of Messiahs, and it is possible Josephus thought Jesus was a Messiah despite not being worthy of significant devotion) Josephus did not call Jesus ‘the Messiah’, although it is very plausible that he thought Jesus was held to be the Messiah by many people (in any case, his being titled ‘Christ’ early on is fairly uncontroversial). And he likely did not believe that Jesus had been resurrected. But he nevertheless otherwise confirms:

  • Jesus was known as a wise man and the Messiah
  • He performed ‘surprising feats’ and was a teacher
  • He won over Jews and Gentiles
  • On accusation by Jewish authorities, he was crucified under Pilate
  • After this, he was still followed by a group who became known as ‘Christians’
  • (Possibly), he was held to have been raised on the third day

Josephus shortly after goes on to describe the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army by Aretas IV and its interpretation as divine punishment for John the Baptist’s execution. He had previously just explained Antipas’ marital scandals:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behaviour. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus, the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod. (Book XVIII, 5.2)

While John the Baptist is not mentioned as connected to Jesus in this passage, virtually no scholar doubts the relation between them. So, making one tiny exception to my rule of using no Christian sources, we can assume that John the Baptist was an associate of Jesus. But then we learn a few more very interesting facts:

  • John the Baptist was executed by Herod Antipas
  • He was known as a good person who encouraged lives of righteousness and piety to Man and God
  • He baptised fellow Jews and taught that righteousness was necessary for certain worship rituals to be acceptable to God
  • He won crowds with charismatic preaching
  • Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet governor of Galilee, was alarmed at John’s teaching and worried it would lead to sedition
  • John the Baptist was relatively popular among the Jews

Finally, Josephus references James, the brother of Jesus, just subsequent to Festus’ death in 62 AD. He describes James’ execution by Herod Agrippa II:

Upon learning of the death of Festus, Caesar sent Albinus to Judaea as procurator. The king [Agrippa II] removed Joseph from the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to this office upon the son of Ananus, who was likewise called Ananus. It is said that the elder Ananus was extremely fortunate. For he had five sons, all of whom, after he himself had previously enjoyed the office for a very long period, became high priests of God—a thing that had never happened to any other of our high priests. The younger Ananus, who, as we have said, had been appointed to the high priesthood, was rash in his temper and unusually daring. He followed the school of the Sadducees, who are indeed more heartless than any of the other Jews, as I have already explained, when they sit in judgement. Possessed of such a character, Ananus thought that he had a favourable opportunity because Festus was dead and Albinus was still on the way. And so he convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned. Those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were strict in observance of the law were offended at this. They therefore secretly sent to King Agrippa urging him, for Ananus had not even been correct in his first step, to order him to desist from any further such actions. Certain of them even went to meet Albinus, who was on his way from Alexandria, and informed him that Ananus had no authority to convene the Sanhedrin without his consent. Convinced by these words, Albinus angrily wrote to Ananus threatening to take vengeance upon him. King Agrippa, because of Ananus’ action, deposed him from the high priesthood which he had held for three months and replaced him with Jesus the son of Damnaeus. (Book XX, 9.1)

They key point, of course, is that Ananus convened the Sanhedrin to put James, the brother of Jesus (known as the Messiah), to death.

Turn next to Pliny, governor of Bithynia (northern Turkey) in the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD). Pliny and Trajan shared many letters still extant, one of which concerns Pliny’s approach to Christians in Bithynia:

It is my custom to refer all my difficulties to you, Sir, for no one is better able to resolve my doubts and to inform my ignorance.

I have never been present at an examination of Christians. Consequently, I do not know the nature or the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed. Nor am I at all sure whether any distinction should be made between them on the grounds of age, or if young people and adults should be treated alike; whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity, he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name.

For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished. There have been others similarly fanatical who are Roman citizens. I have entered them on the list of persons to be sent to Rome for trial.

Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons. Among these I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

Others, whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ. They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.

I have therefore postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you. The question seems to me to be worthy of your consideration, especially in view of the number of persons endangered; for a great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. It is not only the towns, but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult. I think though that it is still possible for it to be checked and directed to better ends, for there is no doubt that people have begun to throng the temples which had been almost entirely deserted for a long time; the sacred rites which had been allowed to lapse are being performed again, and flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it. It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be reformed if they were given an opportunity to repent. (Letters, XCVII)

Pliny here confirms a number of details:

  • Christians in Bithynia were punished severely
  • There were certain crimes associated with Christianity
  • Christians were stubborn in their beliefs and persisted to their execution
  • Some were Roman citizens
  • Christians were freed if they denied Christ and ritually worshiped the Roman gods and Emperor
  • True Christians had a reputation for never doing any of these things
  • Some Christians in Bithynia had ceased to be Christians 20 years previously – and so Christianity was likely in Bithynia at least 20 years previously
  • Christians met on a fixed day before dawn to chant verses
  • Christians worshiped Christ ‘as if to a god’
  • Christians bound themselves to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and to commit to loyalty and financial integrity
  • Christians reassembled later to take ‘ordinary, harmless’ food
  • Christians, including women, were tortured
  • The Church had ‘deaconesses’
  • Christianity was seen as a degenerate, extreme cult
  • Christianity had broad demographic appeal and extended into rural areas
  • There was a desertion of temples, Roman cultic rites and animal sacrifice associated with the spread of Christianity

Trajan’s response is also extant:

Trajan to Pliny

You have followed the right course of procedure, my dear Pliny, in your examination of the cases of persons charged with being Christians, for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be. But pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age. (Letters, XCVII)

Trajan adds little new, but confirms that Christians were punished harshly, but spared if they denied Christ and worshiped the Roman pantheon.

Suetonius was a Roman historian most famous for his De Vita Caesarum – a set of biographies about the Julius Caesar and the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Domitian. He has two separate excerpts of note, the first of which is in his Claudius, regarding the Roman emperor reigning from 41-54 AD:

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome. (Claudius, 25.4)

Although there is some debate regarding whether ‘Chrestus’ is a misspelling of ‘Christus’, the Latin word for Christ, most scholars agree that it is, according to which the well-known expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius in 49 AD was particularly related to the new Jewish faction started by Jesus – Christianity. So we have here confirmation that Christians were of a sufficiently large number in Rome in 49 AD to warrant the expulsion of Jews from the city. This fits well with the other evidence we have so far considered.

But Suetonius also discussed Christianity in his biography of Nero, who reigned from 54-68 AD:

During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city. (Nero, 16.2)

Both passages from Suetonius mention Christians fairly incidentally, in lists of new policies instituted by the respective Emperors. But here Suetonius again confirms more clearly that Christians were severely punished under Nero, and that Christianity was a new phenomenon which was causing some sort of trouble.

A letter survives from Mara bar Serapion, a philosopher from Roman Syria, to his son Serapion. The dating is unclear, and stands sometime between 73 AD and the 3rd century. Nevertheless, it seems to be another non-Christian reference to Jesus’ life:

What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defence? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates? Famine and plague came upon them as a punishment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own kingdom, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise king, because of the ‘new law’ he laid down.

Mara bar Serapion hints at Jesus’ description as a ‘wise king’ – likely a reference to his status as Messiah among his followers – and the fact that his followers still existed following his law despite his execution.

Ending our discussion of Roman historians, let us look at Lucian, the satirist and historiographer who lived from 125-180 AD. His The Passing of Peregrinus recounts a pejorative biography of Peregrinus, a philosopher who he claims lived among Christians and exploited their generosity. While Lucian was a novelist, he also wrote works on historiography wherein he laid out stringent rules for historians recounting events of the past, and it is generally accepted that this work is broadly biographical rather than pure fabrication. But his clear antipathy towards Peregrinus lends us some scepticism towards the details. In any case, we need not be concerned with the reliability of the details of Peregrinus’ life in the account, since we are concerned with how Lucian portrays Christians here. He gives hints at various points:

It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be?—in a trice he made them all look like children; for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. (11)

Indeed, people came even from the cities in Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succour and defend and encourage the hero. They show incredible speed whenever any such public action is taken; for in no time they lavish their all. So it was then in the case of Peregrinus; much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it. 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. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk. (13)

In 16 he also goes on to mention that the Christians have food forbidden to them. So we learn from Lucian:

  • Christianity was based in Palestine
  • Christians were associated with synagogues/Judaism
  • Christians worshiped a man crucified in Palestine who introduced the religion
  • Christianity was prevalent in Asia (i.e. Turkey)
  • They were extreme and generous
  • They believed in an afterlife, and therefore do not resist punishment, including capital punishment
  • They considered themselves brothers after abandoning Roman gods and worshiping the crucified man, whose way of life they followed
  • They did not care much for material things and shared them as common property
  • They had forbidden food

Turning briefly to non-Roman sources (except Josephus, whom we have already discussed), we move into slightly more controversial territory. A relatively late source (5-6th century, though very likely based on much earlier tradition) the Babylonian Talmud. Of course, it is not sympathetic to Christianity, and notes:

It was taught: On the day before the Passover they hanged Jesus. A herald went before him for forty days [proclaiming]. “He will be stoned, because he practised magic and enticed Israel to go astray. Let anyone who knows anything in his favour come forward and plead for him.” But nothing was found in his favour, and they hanged him the day before Passover. (b. Sanhedrin 43a)

This confirms Jesus’ death at Passover, and his reputation for practising ‘magic’ and ‘leading Israel astray’.

Closer to the time of Jesus, we find that the Sanhedrin in the 80s AD formulated the following prayer:

For the renegades let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom soon be rooted out in our days, and the Nazarenes and the minim perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant.

References to the ‘minim’ and the ‘Nazarenes’ in the Talmud normally refer to Christians, suggesting that we here have a very early reference to Jewish antipathy (and probably persecution) towards Christians in Judaea – and a confirmation that Jesus was held to be from Nazareth, i.e. a very small Galilean (and therefore maligned) town.

We turn finally to a marginal case: 7 examples of the Sator Square have been found in Pompeii, necessarily dating to before 79 AD. This set of letters – whose meaning is to scholars unclear – can be arranged into a cross shape spelling ‘Pater Noster’ (Our Father), with two As and two Os – ostensibly transliterations of Greek Alpha and Omega. If this interpretation of its unclear significance is correct it would confirm Christian presence in Italy at this stage. But the evidence is so unclear, and the evidence for Christian presence in Italy at this stage so strong in any case, that I will not use it henceforth.

Of course, this evidence can all be augmented enormously by uncontroversial details taken from the New Testament and other Christian literature, but part of my point here is to emphasise the strength of the case even on the (wildly implausible) assumption that Christian literature has nothing of value to tell us. The sources discussed here are those from within roughly 100 years of Jesus’ life. This is extremely impressive given the insignificance of Jesus’ life by secular Roman measures (bear in mind that the main sources for the Emperor Tiberius are broadly the same as the sources here), and given the ordinary nature of ancient sources for lives: the much larger time disparity between other ancient figures and their biographers is well known and does not need rehearsal here. So let us see what we have in total:

Jesus was from Nazareth, a small and maligned village in Galilee. He performed ‘surprising feats’ and ‘magic’ and was a respected teacher/wise man who won over Jews and Gentiles alike (Sanhedrin prayer, Talmud, Josephus). His movement was associated with John the Baptist, who was known as a good person who encouraged lives of righteousness, piety towards Man and God, who baptised fellow Jews, taught that righteousness was necessary for worship to be acceptable to God, and won crowds with charismatic preaching. John the Baptist was popular among the Jews and was executed by Herod Antipas, who was alarmed at his teaching and the possibility that it would lead to sedition. This may also have been related to Antipas’ marriage (Josephus).

Jesus himself was known as ‘Christ’ (i.e. the Greek for Messiah) (implied by ‘Christian’ in all authors, explicit in several), and as a ‘wise king’ (Mara bar Serapion). He started a new movement which was still associated with Judaism (Suetonius, Lucian).

He was executed (most authors) in the reign of Tiberius and sentenced by Pontius Pilate (26-36 AD) in Judaea (Tacitus, Josephus) at the request of the Jewish authorities (Tacitus, Josephus, Talmud, Mara bar Serapion), because he practised magic and led Israel astray (Talmud). This happened by crucifixion (Tacitus, Lucian, perhaps Talmud) and took place on Passover Eve (Talmud). The movement stopped temporarily after his death (Tacitus).

The movement then restarted in Judaea (Tacitus), perhaps related to a belief in Jesus’ resurrection on the ‘third day’ (Josephus). It persisted after his death (Tacitus, Josephus, Mara bar Serapion; implicit in all). It spread very quickly and in large numbers to Rome, northern Turkey, and perhaps other parts of Italy (Tacitus, Pliny, Lucian, Pompeii, Suetonius). They were present in sufficiently numbers and sufficiently devout to cause disturbances in Rome and Bithynia (Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny) and empty temples and ruin the sacrificial market in Bithynia (Pliny). It had broad demographic appeal in age, class, gender and citizenship (Josephus, Pliny) and extended into cities and rural areas (Pliny).

The movement was widely reviled (most authors) and persecuted early on by Romans and Jews alike (Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny, Trajan, Suetonius, Lucian, Sanhedrin prayer), including torture of women (Pliny). They did not fear death and gave themselves over to capital punishment (Lucian). Reasons for this included being scapegoated, being widely reviled, simply being ‘Christian’, not worshiping the Roman gods and Emperor, stubbornness, transgression of the Jewish law, degeneracy, extremism, stirring up trouble, and perhaps depraved rituals related to food (very slightly later evidence confirms this as a charge of cannibalism) (Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny, Suetonius, Lucian). Jesus’ own brother, James, was executed by the Jewish authorities for having transgressed the law (Josephus). They were freed in Bithynia and probably elsewhere across the Roman Empire if they denied Christ and ritually worshiped the Roman gods and Emperor (Pliny, Trajan).

Finally, the movement was both associated with Judaism (Suetonius, Lucian; implicit in most authors) and yet reviled by it (Josephus, Sanhedrin prayer, Talmud). They worshiped Christ ‘as if to a god’ (Pliny, Lucian). They were stubborn in their beliefs until execution (Pliny, Lucian), known for their extremeness and generosity (Lucian), and had a reputation for never denying Christ or worshiping Roman gods (Pliny). They met on a ‘fixed day’ (apparently Sunday), chanted verses, bound themselves to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and to commit to loyalty and financial integrity (Pliny). They had a suspicious food-based ritual (Pliny). They believed in an afterlife and ‘despised death’, apparently not fearing it (Lucian). They considered themselves brothers and followed the way of the crucified Jesus (Lucian). They did not care much for material things and shared them as common property (Lucian). They had ‘deaconesses’ (i.e. ‘servants’ in the Church).

So we really know a rather impressive amount from non-Christian sources alone – much more than that Jesus was executed in the 1st century AD! What we need to do now is explain the data. We know from Josephus (certainly from the interpolated version, and plausibly from the original version) that Christians believed in Jesus’ resurrection. In any case, it is not at all controversial that Christians believed in his resurrection at an early stage after his death. And this firm conviction explains almost everything we see after his death – the martyrdom, the despising of death, the persistence of the movement. Indeed, it would require something like this: a crucifixion victim was cursed according to Jewish law, and Messianic movements invariably died with the failure of the movement and the death of the Messiah figure.

So we have to ask what would cause belief in the resurrection. NT Wright’s work is most helpful here. He demonstrates ably the difficulty of explaining a belief in the resurrection in this case without appearances of the risen Jesus, and without an empty tomb. ‘Resurrection’ meant a bodily raising from the dead, and the Jews were well acquainted with grief hallucinations, visions, subjective feelings, and so on. They had terminology for those other than ‘resurrection’. And the idea of a resurrection before the end of the world was entirely anathema to Judaism. So it would take a radical experience to really convince Jews that someone – most especially a crucifixion victim from Galilee – had been raised from the dead. They would not have believed it if they did not see Jesus risen from the dead. And the movement would have died if Jesus’ tomb were not empty. That the holy day changed from Saturday to Sunday (implied by Pliny) fits the suggestion of Josephus that it was on the ‘third day’ that Christians held Jesus to have been raised. That it started in Judaea (not Galilee) after Jesus’ crucifixion there suggests this as the likely location.

This is not the place to go into detail on alternative explanations of these facts. But I do want to point, at least, to the non-Christian evidence for Jesus’ burial. It is often alleged that Jesus could easily have been not buried, or that his followers might have got the wrong tomb. I explain in a separate blog post (forthcoming) the non-Christian evidence for Jesus’ burial as a necessary part of Jewish practice, including for criminals. It is almost certain even without any Christian sources that Jesus was buried and that the location would have been known.

What was Jesus himself like? He was a Galilean who performed surprising feats, taught wisdom, and was linked with John the Baptist’s movement encouraging righteousness and authentic worship. This movement used baptism and was ended by Herod Antipas’ worry about sedition. He likely taught a stringent and radical moral code detailed above, which included extreme generosity and appeal to outcasts. He probably saw himself as the Messiah, perhaps as a sort of king (which lends itself most naturally to messianic interpretation), and may have instituted something like the Eucharist, perhaps near to Passover. He taught that his followers became brothers, and started a movement that soon worshiped him ‘as if to a god’ – perhaps implying stronger claims than we have made here. These claims very well explain his title as a ‘king’ and Antipas’ worry about sedition.

The question then arises as to the nature of Jesus’ kingdom. Messianic expectations were ordinarily (though not entirely) military, and his controversial execution as a politically unstable time must have required significant claims or trouble on his part, such as the charge of sedition. But in that case, why is there no hint of any military activity on the part of Christians? The natural interpretation is that he saw his kingdom as spiritual, not military. Of course, this is what we find in the gospels, but it is at least heavily implied by the secular writers.

We noted also that the new movement was heavily linked with Judaism and yet reviled by Jewish authorities. This fits perfectly with all we have said so far: Jesus was a messianic figure, but from many perspectives a failed one. And if he had made claims related to divinity, invited Gentiles and outcasts into his kingdom, and rejected the strict interpretation of the Sabbath for his believers, it is not difficult to see why he would be hated by the authorities.

What we end up with, therefore, is the same basic case made in normal arguments for the resurrection. I do not have space to make those arguments here, although they will be made as comprehensively as possible on my website in due course. But the fundamental question is how we explain the data here. Jesus was a remarkable figure, a unique man, who claimed to be the Messiah and perhaps made claims to divinity, who claimed to institute a spiritual kingdom on Earth, who taught a radical moral code and inspired a group of followers who spread across the world and persisted despite threat of death. After his crucifixion his tomb was empty and his followers (and others) had experiences of him risen from the dead.

All this evidence, of course, vindicates what the canonical gospels say about Jesus. So the evidence presented here in the first places gives us great reason to trust the gospels more than we might otherwise have done. But more acutely, the evidence here impresses upon us directly a picture of Jesus which itself needs explanation. And it is my considered judgment that the most complete, unifying explanation of these facts, given all the historical evidence, is that Jesus really was who he claimed to be. He was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, who changed the world with his teaching and revealed the way to abundant life through following him and trusting in him. Through his healings and his death he ended the reign of corrupt humans and evil on Earth and instituted the reign of God himself. As a seal vindicating this ministry, God raised him from the dead, so that his followers, and we too, might despise death and be given to this new and mischievous superstition.


Why Christians shouldn’t get drunk

(NB: Much of this stems from a recent discussion with a friend. I am grateful to that friend for engaging in that discussion helpfully and constructively. I apologise in advance for the length of this piece: I can only say that this reflects the large amount of Biblical discussion on the topic!)

“Admit that drunkenness is wrong and that you struggle with temptation. Or admit that you pick which parts of Christianity you follow on the basis of what you enjoy doing. Or, it pains me to say, if you really reflect on it and feel this way, even admit that you are not really concerned about living in accordance with Christian principles. But please do not pretend that the Biblical perspective on drunkenness is one which condones it.”


This is not going to be a popular article. Among certain people, it will be incredibly unpopular. This article comes with a warning that you may end up feeling indignant, angry, and more. I have little doubt that at least one person will come away thinking that I am a judgmental, sanctimonious moraliser. My intention is (obviously) not for any of these feelings (about yourself or about me) to occur: I am already well aware of my own failings, and I’m not hugely keen on making myself unpopular among strangers, even less so among friends. I write this because I am genuinely seriously concerned (and have been for several years, without making it so clear until now) and because I feel it is important for people to hear this. If, afterwards, you do feel angry or judged, send me an e-mail and we can talk further.

My concern, bluntly, is this: that many Christians engage in behaviour which is destructive on a number of levels, and which is clearly in conflict with Biblical teaching (I can feel the indignation already). Of course, this is true of all Christians in some sense – everyone slips up from time to time. But this is of a different character in at least two respects: it is an extremely widespread problem, and worse still, it is often not seen as a problem at all. Here, I hope to outline some of the reasons for thinking that drunkenness is in conflict with Christian character and that Christians ought to make every effort to avoid it.

Since I’m writing spontaneously, there will probably be little structure to this piece. It is likely to consist of an awkwardly cobbled together list of Biblical passages relating to drunkenness and reasons why Christians should not get drunk. Since I’m writing to implore rather than to impress, this doesn’t bother me much. Let’s get started.

Explicit passages about drunkenness – Old Testament

It seems sensible to begin with the most obvious passages talking about drunkenness. There are a number of passages in the Old Testament addressing drunkenness, of which the following are just a few:

“This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Deuteronomy 21:20b

“Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Proverbs 20:1

“Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.” Proverbs 23:20-21

“Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart will utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink.”” Proverbs 23:29-35

“it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” Proverbs 31:5b-7

“These also reel with wine and stagger with strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are swallowed by wine, they stagger with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment.” Isaiah 28:7

“But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. “Come,” they say, “let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure.” Isaiah 56:11b-12

“They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the LORD to cherish whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding.” Hosea 4:10-11

This is hardly a flattering picture of drunkenness. Drunkenness is unanimously portrayed negatively, and there are explicit injunctions against it. The effects of drunkenness are described and held to be unwise and shameful. Drunkenness is described as being for those who are perishing. This could not be in starker contrast with the Christian ideal, laid out in both Old and New Testaments, that Christians be people of wisdom, clear judgment and living not by themselves or by any artificial power but by God’s Spirit. Hosea chastises Israel for their drunkenness in the context of describing them as a whore. The contrived manoeuvres one has to perform to argue that drunkenness is compatible with life by the Spirit are nothing short of embarrassing.

Explicit passages about drunkenness – New Testament

Things are no more promising when we get to the New Testament. It is easy for Christians to dismiss many things as part of the Law, or as part of ceremonial cleanliness which has no moral relevance for Christians now. Jesus has set us free from the Law, and we are not bound to obey everything in the Torah as written. But the first obvious problem here is that almost every passage about drunkenness in the Old Testament comes not from the Law, but from the wisdom literature and the prophets. Isaiah and Proverbs portray wisdom as a divine quality and state clearly that drunkenness violates this spiritual quality by undermining our clarity of thought and judgment, virtues that are emphasised as major themes elsewhere in the Bible. Hosea describes a similar theme in the context of calling Israel a whore for the extent of their violation of God’s standards. It is clear that this is no ceremonial uncleanliness which is only possibly minorly wrong for reasons we can’t quite understand and about which the relevant passages are ambiguous. Drunkenness is clearly seen as a significant violation of spiritual living, and the reasons for this are made quite clear.

The second problem is that the New Testament is even more explicit about the matter. Paul writes to the Ephesians:

“Look carefully when how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ephesians 5:15-21

And in Galatians:

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Galatians 5:16-25

Talking to the Corinthians:

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”” 1 Corinthians 5:9-13

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

To the church in Rome:

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Romans 12:3

“Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Romans 13:11-14

To Titus:

“But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers or slaves to much wine.” Titus 2:1-3a

To the Thessalonians:

“For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” 1 Thessalonians 5:5-8

In addition to Paul, see 1 and 2 Peter:

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8

“These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For it, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” 2 Peter 2:17-21

This amounts to a compelling case on its own, and should really make a judgement on the matter obvious to any sincere reader. But it is worth taking a closer look anyway.

Beginning with Ephesians, Paul is speaking in the context of “walking in the light”, which is part of his wider theme of separating two infinitely different ways of living: on the one hand, there is the “natural” way of living which seeks sensual pleasure, indulgence, greed and other selfish ways of living at the expense of holiness, and on the other hand is the “spiritual” way of living which seeks God’s will and imitates Jesus. Paul says to therefore “walk as children of the light”. A key point is that simply to live without doing anything terrible isn’t enough: walking in the light doesn’t mean walking limply in a dimly lit corridor, it means walking boldly and passionately in the full glory of God. Being lukewarm and living averagely without actively pursuing bad or good things isn’t what life in the Spirit is about: life in the Spirit is about grasping every moment given to us by God and using it for his glory. Tom Wright comments on this passage:

“The danger is on the other side: of not taking each day and hour as a gift from God, to be used for his glory, but instead letting them wash over and pass by, like water down a river, never used, never to return. For such people, verse 16 is another wake-up call: these are evil times we live in, and you as a child of light have a chance to do something about it. Take that chance with both hands.

Of course (verse 18), there’s nothing like a few drinks to make opportunities slip by unobserved. Paul has nothing against wine; but against getting drunk he is adamant. That’s no way for Christians to behave. If you want to celebrate – and why not? – then you know what to do. Let the spirit fill your hearts and lives, particularly your minds and imaginations.” Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, 64

I once asked a friend whether they thought getting drunk was a godly way of living. Their reply? “Well it’s not ungodly!” But is this really what we’re aiming for? Did Christ die so that we could be “not ungodly”? No! All the New Testament writers (and Jesus) make it clear: there is no middle way. There is no walking in a sliver of light. There is walking in the light (or trying), and there is walking in darkness. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31), Paul commands us. Can we really say, in spite of these Biblical passages, that getting drunk is a godly thing to do, reflects our new life in Jesus to everyone around us and glorifies God? When getting drunk is, time and again, explicitly contrasted with walking in the light and used as one of the paradigmatic examples of walking in darkness, is this really a plausible option?

The passage in Galatians is very similar – drunkenness is used as a paradigmatic example of the “works of the flesh”, a phrase for what Paul sees as the natural behaviour of humans before redemption by Christ. This is contrasted with everyone’s favourite passage about the fruits of the Spirit: what license do we have for taking Paul’s word on the fruits of the Spirit and dismissing his contrast with the works of the flesh, including drunkenness? It is hard to overestimate the force of Paul’s words here. He is not just condemning a random list of behaviours, he is describing a whole lifestyle of living without Christ, of which drunkenness is just an obvious illustration of “things like these”. Again, for Paul, drunkenness stands in stark contrast with the fruits of the spirit.

The passages in 1 Corinthians are similar, listing drunkards among idolaters, thieves and swindlers. Paul explicitly makes the point that many were drunkards before coming to Christ – and part of the power of the gospel is that it renewed people and saved them from their past behaviour. If this was one of the most remarkable features of Christians back then – and no doubt it is now – do we really want to give up this witness to the new life found in Christ? If we’re taking joy in all the same things as our non-Christian peers and not living any differently, are we really showing the good news and joy that is to be found in Jesus? There is no beating around the bush: in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, we are told that drunkards do not inherit the kingdom of God, and in the latter, drunkenness is seen as such an embarrassment to the Corinthian church that Paul actually forbids the Corinthians to associate themselves with those who call themselves Christians but still get drunk!

Romans 13 includes, of course, the powerful passage which convicted St Augustine of his need for Christ:

“There I had left a volume of the Apostle when I got up. I snatched it up, opened it, and read in silence the first passage my eyes lit upon: No revelry or bouts of drinking, no debauchery or sensuality, no quarrelling or jealousy. No, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and never think how to gratify the cravings of the flesh. I neither wished nor needed to read further. With the end of that sentence, as though the light of assurance had poured into my heart, all the shades of doubt were scattered.” Confessions, VIII.12

There is yet another clear injunction against drunkenness. Barclay comments: “To the Greeks drunkenness was a particularly disgraceful thing … This was a vice which not only a Christian but any respectable heathen also would have condemned.” I needn’t make another remark about the contrast Paul explicitly draws here. Similarly with the passages from 1 Thessalonians and Titus.

(A quick word about Romans 12:3 – here, Paul is not explicitly talking in the context of drunkenness, but the ideal of sobriety in our thinking is once again clearly held up – more on this later).

1 Peter 5:8 contributes to the injunctions to be sober: the reason given is that humans are incredibly susceptible and vulnerable to be led astray and have to live in complete wisdom and clear thinking in order to resist our natural inclinations to sin. It is easy to see how drunkenness thwarts this. 2 Peter picks up the theme, declaring that “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” (cf 1 Corinthians 6:12: “”All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.”) And since we cannot have two masters, anything overcoming us and directing our thoughts which isn’t Jesus or his Spirit will compromise our service to God.

All in all, then, we have a consistent and repeated injunction not to get drunk, with many reasons given. Being drunk is seen throughout the Bible as a key example of a work of the flesh, walking in the darkness and life without the Spirit. It is seen as shameful, and something which detracts from God’s glory and from our clear-headed and sober worship of him.

Other considerations

We have dealt with most of the passages talking explicitly about drunkenness and sobriety. But there is more that can be added to the Biblical case against drunkenness. To try and keep this section brief, I will not elaborate on these extra reasons much – don’t take it as a sign that there’s not much to be said!

One of the key problems with drunkenness, as is made clear from the texts already examined (e.g. Isaiah 28, Hosea 4, Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 6, Titus 2), is that it affects our understanding, judgement and wisdom. In the Bible, these are seen as virtues given to us by God: we are told to be wise stewards of God’s creation, and to use our minds and thinking for God’s glory. Drunkenness is clearly detrimental to these, and to that extent can be seen as antithetical to Christian living. How can we expect to be taken seriously, showing the wisdom that Christianity has for others, if we are spending our time “enquiring of pieces of wood”, as Hosea puts it?

Another problem is the health issues associated with heavy drinking. These are well known, and most Christians will accept that we are to respect our bodies and take care of them, so that we can use them for God’s glory. Why make an exception for drunkenness?

Another problem is the lack of a witnessing opportunity it gives us. In a culture so dominated by heavy drinking, is it not obvious that staying sober is a talking point that gives us an opportunity to speak to others, in wisdom and love, about the joy found in Christ? Are we really spreading Jesus’ love with our actions if we are not really standing out from our culture in any way?

A few more thoughts: by getting drunk, we buy into a culture that idolises drunkenness and, in many social circles, bases our entire social life around it. How many times do we hear “it’s not really fun unless you’re drunk”? And have we not noticed that getting drunk is no longer an addition to a given social activity: rather, getting drunk is a social activity itself? And we are all aware of how common drunkenness is, and how commonly disasters in relationships and property stem from it? If we’re buying into a culture which idolises drunkenness, do we really have a strong witness against the destruction that can occur from it?

This is a really serious point: we must all know how many lives and relationships have been ruined from heavy drinking. We generally consider it a good thing to not invest in cultures which have idols and which are heavily involved in disaster. We think it’s good not to promote and help companies which exploit third world workers, and we think it’s good not to fuel the horrifically anti-human sex slave industry by doing business with them. Are we going to be listened to and taken seriously as loving neighbours when we condemn sex trafficking but consort with trafficked prostitutes? Are we going to be taken seriously as people condemning sweat shops and poverty when we are fuelling companies which trap people in such atrocious conditions? Obviously not. So how can we be seriously considered as wise stewards who care about the lives that heavy drinking has ruined when we spend our Saturday nights doing it ourselves?

One more really important reason: drunkenness is a stumbling block to other Christians whose conscience doesn’t allow it. This is one of the most tragic parts: many times I’ve spoken to Christians who don’t think that drunkenness is acceptable, but all of whose Christian friends get drunk. There are several passages in the New Testament tackling this kind of thing:

“But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” 1 Corinthians 8:9-13

“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil … Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” Romans 14:13-16, 20-21

The application to drunkenness is clear. But is it not even more problematic that we have Christians whose conscience forbids them from drunkenness, but who feel pressured into it because even their Christian friends are doing it? And if some Christians whose conscience is against it go to parties and are the only sober ones there, would it not be loving for their fellow Christians to support them in that decision and allow them to still enjoy the party by being sober with them?


In summary, there is a huge number of good Biblical reasons to not get drunk, not least all the passages explicitly forbidding it. The Bible is not ambiguous on the matter: there are many passages explicitly describing drunkenness in a bad light, and it is never portrayed positively. It is not enough to say that addiction is bad, but drunkenness isn’t – the Bible talks a lot more about drunkenness than addiction! Nor is it enough to say that the passages can potentially be interpreted differently – perhaps saying that your life shouldn’t be controlled by drunkenness, and that it shouldn’t be put before God. But the amount of interpretive gymnastics required to sustain this is embarrassing. If we remove all biases for a moment, ignore the fact that getting drunk is pleasurable to some, and simply look at what the text is very probably trying to say, any sincere, honest reader has to come to the conclusion that it is drunkenness itself which is being warned against.

Nor will it do to say that getting drunk occasionally doesn’t make you a drunkard. Even if true, we could just as well say that being gluttonous occasionally doesn’t make you a glutton. But the Biblical condemnation of gluttons still suggests that any gluttony itself is problematic. And, of course, we have plenty of passages specifically about drunkenness, not drunkards. So please, let’s think sincerely about what the most plausible interpretation of all these passages is, and be aware of any biases to interpret them differently just so we can live how we want to. It’s not sinful to do things we enjoy – but if it’s something our lives begin to revolve around, or which we do simply for pure pleasure without doing it to glorify God, we should at least be very cautious about whether we’re doing it for God’s glory or just to satisfy our natural desires.

Admit that drunkenness is wrong and that you struggle with temptation. Or admit that you pick which parts of Christianity you follow on the basis of what you enjoy doing. Or, it pains me to say, if you really reflect on it and feel this way, even admit that you are not really concerned about living in accordance with Christian principles. But please do not pretend that the Biblical perspective on drunkenness is one which condones it.

I am sorry if any of this has caused offence: no doubt there will be some indignation from many of my friends. But please think about my motivations for posting it and about the content, and I hope you’ll see that there is something to it.

The meaning of the crucifixion

The Meaning of Easter – Part I

I have set out a vision elsewhere on the significance of resurrection in new creation in more detail elsewhere in the context of eschatology (technically the ‘last things’, more broadly God’s direction for creation – see my Christian Eschatology), but I am convinced that this is the key to understanding Easter. For many, it will seem natural to give a treatment of the crucifixion first, thinking about the cross as an act of atonement and then reflecting on the significance of the resurrection. My problem with this is that it can all too easily make the resurrection a bonus, something which is not all too important in itself but which adds the icing on our Easter weekend cake. Jesus has done the important bit in dying for our sins – his resurrection just rounds off the story neatly. After all, he would have gone to heaven after dying anyway, right?

I find this inadequate, and I think we ought to. I think that a treatment like this gives inadequate and sometimes disabling views of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. Consequently, I will begin with the resurrection, arguing that it holds the key to at least a partial understanding of the crucifixion.

We often say that Easter is about new life, and some of us may be able to relate a commercialised Easter into this analysis – our chocolate eggs represent the new life that comes from an egg, etc. But what does this really mean? Does it mean that Jesus has been raised? Well yes, that is part of it, but what significance does it have beyond that?

What God has been doing so far
Our understanding of the world, our vocation, and where we are heading must change drastically[1]. From Genesis to Revelation (and it is conveniently these two which particularly emphasise this point), the Bible is an overwhelming affirmation of the ultimate goodness of creation. Of course, it is one that has been corrupted and one which cries out in agony (cf. Romans 8:22), and there are no neat answers given for why this is so[2]. Sometimes this is from humans’ uncooperation, at other times the righteous are inexplicably held captive and persecuted (e.g. the Israelites in Egypt, the suffering righteous one in deutero-Isaiah, Daniel, and particularly characters in the inter-testamental literature like the Maccabees). But the entire story of the Bible is one of redemption – time and time again, God’s purposes for creation are thwarted for whatever reason, but the consistent response is one where God promises, through covenant, to redeem that situation. This is so in smaller narratives such as the story of Joseph at the end of Genesis, more prominent themes in Israel’s history like the Exodus narrative and, I will argue, the meta-narrative of Scripture, the whole story of God’s plan for creation.

We often ignore the Old Testament context for Jesus’ ministry in order to affirm, on the basis of a few New Testament epistles and perhaps slightly too much attention to a monocultured, Westernised Church history, that Easter is primarily about Jesus dying as the punishment for our sins. I think the Old Testament and New Testament both provide us with more than that. To understand this, we must go back to Abraham. Genesis opens with a few disjointed tales of human disobedience and arrogance, and these are quite profound. Whether they offer an exhaustive account of evil is not the issue here, what is important is that they have set the context of a world desperately in need of redemption. In chapter 12, God calls a nomad, Abraham, and promises to bless the whole world through his family. This theme is repeated throughout the Old Testament, with God promising to restore creation to its purpose, using Israel as his vehicle of redemption. Israel is to be a light to the Gentiles, and the Old Testament context of this theme finds its fulfilment in the Gospels, with Jesus being heralded as that light, Israel’s representative to bless the nations. More of that particular fulfilment later. As we move through the Old Testament from Abraham to the inter-testamental period, the problem of how God will use Israel becomes more complex, as Israel itself decides to turn away from God individually and on a corporate level. But what is so striking about all these narratives, and this is the important point, is that God always remains faithful to his covenant, and he does so in order to bring the world back to its original purpose. When Israel are exiled from the promised land, God does not decide that the land has become too corrupt anyway and try to find a new abode. He leads them back to the promised land, always trying to find a new way to continue his plan of redemption.

Where we are going
And so it is now. To ignore that covenant is to neglect all that God has been doing to redeem our world, and it can disable us from taking part in that covenant. Jesus, arguably, saw himself as recreating a new Israel (e.g. by choosing twelve apostles to represent the twelve tribes of Israel), in order that they might be a light to the world (cf. Matthew 5). Paul takes this further, effectively interpreting the church as constituting a second incarnation – we are the body of Christ, he says, effective to bring about massive change in the here and now. It is impossible to overemphasise this point – we as the church are called to embody Christ’s will, to be part of the same covenant God made with Abraham so that we might redeem this world. And so, understanding this principle of the covenant people mediating redemption, we might now suggest that the answer to where we are heading is nowhere. Our vocation is to renew the world we live in, as was Abraham’s vocation, as was Israel’s, and as was Jesus’. We are under the same covenant God made with Abraham to bless the world, and we forget that at the greatest cost. There is no talk in the New Testament of us going to heaven when we die, much less of us leaving earth permanently. It is illuminating that all talk of an afterlife in the Judeo-Christian tradition came after hundreds of years of focussing strictly on this life. Until the very latest Old Testament books (e.g. Ezekiel, Daniel), Jewish afterlife was pretty non-existent. The dead went to the grave (Sheol), and had a pretty shadowy existence[3]. The real message of the Old Testament covenants and prophets was a call to action now. Let us have justice on earth, let us live out God’s calling to bless the nations, let us live out God’s calling to renew the world; this is the vocation of a pre-Christic believer (and, of course, of a post-Christic believer).

All of which brings us to Jesus. As with the prophets in the tradition preceding him, Jesus’ concern was ultimately in making the Kingdom of God manifest here. This is the proper sense of ‘parousia’, often translated in terms of Jesus’ second coming to whisk away the elect to heaven. No, ‘parousia’ means, literally, ‘presence’ – Jesus is to be present with us in the renewed creation.[4] When Jesus talks of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew is using ‘Heaven’ as a reverential synonym for ‘God’. Thus, Jesus is not preaching a Gospel of leaving Earth to go to heaven, but of a renewed Earth where God’s reign is clearly manifest. We are to be co-creators with God, we are to bring about his Kingdom on Earth (have we forgotten that line of the Lord’s prayer?), and we are to bring the new creation of the future into the present.

The Resurrection
This, I propose, is (some of) the context and significance of Jesus’ resurrection. It is not a bonus to our salvation as already bought by the crucifixion, it is not just an excuse for us to aimlessly yell about Jesus still being alive. No, it is a symbol of that new creation, of God’s future Kingdom of justice and love being brought into the present to empower us for action. And how empowering it is! The crucifixion and resurrection are not events that remain in the past, having done something important for us and now staying tidily out of our way while we aim for heaven. To the contrary, says Paul at the end of his magisterial chapter on the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15), it is precisely because we have the hope of new creation in us, by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, that we are able to strive for justice and for God’s Kingdom here and now. “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.”

Let us return to the overarching theme of the Bible of God’s covenant to bless and renew a broken world, and let us be empowered by the resurrection and its promise of new creation. Let us focus on bringing justice and peace, on offering mercy and forgiveness so that God’s Kingdom may be manifest through us on Earth as it already is in heaven. As a Church, we are not to do good deeds merely for our individual salvation, or even as an expression of our salvation. We are to do all these things, by the power and promise of the resurrection, in order to bring Heaven to Earth, that all the Earth might be blessed. The call of the Gospel is no less.

(Part II on the crucifixion hopefully coming soon. This is by no means exhaustive of the significance of the resurrection, but I have tried to point towards the theme and context I find particularly empowering).


1. Due to time constraints and the fact that I have already attempted some justification for this elsewhere, forgive me if I tend to state things dogmatically here.
2. This is contrary to the insistence of some that suffering is always a result of punishment, or that the free will defence sorts everything out. The Bible is so diverse in its explanation of the origin of evil that whole books argue for different perspectives (and, of course, give different perspectives within themselves). Scattered around is the affirmation that suffering can be a result of God’s wrath – not necessarily as an active damning punishment, but God’s decision to allow humans the natural consequences of their own misconduct. A slightly more tame form of this is found in the everyday wisdom of Proverbs – act stupidly, and you’ll get in trouble. Job is dedicated largely to the repudiation of using sin as an explanation of evil as a whole, as is Jesus’ remark in John 9:3, and, in fact, most of the Bible. Ecclesiastes seems to give up altogether, finding no hope in the ‘suffering-from-sin’ model… or, indeed, anything at all.
3. It may be argued that some Old Testament authors denied an existence after death at all.
4. Passages traditionally interpreted as referring to hell are, I would argue, in the most case referring to something quite different, a judgment on Israel and the contemporary sacrificial system as it stood then, not the eternal fate of unbelievers for all future generations.

Christian Eschatology

Christian Eschatology

I thought it was time for another one of these. After watching a little discussion on the Christian notion of heaven, I thought I’d give my views on it, and related ideas. No doubt much of this could be wrong and will probably be revised, but I’d like to outline my views at the moment. I’m using a somewhat revised definition of ‘eschatology’. Typically, it is seen as the events of the ‘end times’, from ‘eschatos’ (Greek εσχατος- last), but in my view, ‘end times’ terminology tends to bring up too many unhelpful images of heaven, hell, and ones that have no doubt been distorted by political medieval thinking, and an inappropriate literal reading of hell. I have no intention of discussing hell here, but I would like to redefine ‘eschatology’ for present purposes as, perhaps, ‘God’s future goal, plan and purposes for humanity’. I do not hope to go into too much depth, and most of this is copied from my writings elsewhere, but I felt it was time for an overview.

It often seems as though many Christians simply speculate on heaven, eschatology, and the ‘afterlife’. In my experience, at least, people often tend to just guess at what heaven will be like, or even simply interpret it as whatever they want to be. This idea of heaven simply as a place where a select few *go* to after death, in my view, ought to be abandoned, and I see little Biblical support for it. Similarly, we ought to dismiss the idea of heaven and hell as simply polar opposites, future realities where we simply get lumped into one or the other at the end of time. I will elaborate on heaven later.

Creation and eschatology
According to the common usage of ‘eschatology’, one might see it as an entirely independent theology, or one with not much relevance to modern day life, or other areas of theology. Sure, we can talk about atonement, natural theology, or whatever, but what use are the precise details of the end of the world? Does the exact chronology of the last days affect my daily life? Does the precise nature of Christ’s return have anything to do with the world until then? On this view, it is easy to see eschatology and creation as self-sustaining theologies. Perhaps they are the two ends of a linear progression, both related to God, but separated by the fog of the present, fog that we are caught up in ourselves. Too seperate to add much significance to each other, we think. God began the world, God will end the world. One is in the past and we are unable to change it, the other is entirely God’s prerogative, and damn us if we interfere!

I would like to challenge this. For me, creation and eschatology are inextricably linked, and we cannot hope to understand one without the other. Not only this, but they link in such a way that affects us, and in such a way that we can affect it. God has brought about this universe in the hope of realising a purpose, and this brings us our doctrine of creation. He hopes to guide the universe towards this realisation, and this brings us eschatology. Creation is not just about origins; that is deism, God pulling out a toy for his child and leaving him to play with it, regardless of whether it is harmful. Rather, Theism is the idea that he and his child share in the joy the toy brings; if the child is injured, God redeems the situation if the child will allow him to get near. There are new ways of using the toy, new situations that arise, but all point towards a common goal. Every moment of the universe implies a creative act by God, God upholds creation *throughout* time, and his decision to sustain the universe at each moment is one of creativity. Similarly, eschatology is not just concerned with the end, but with the realisation of God’s purpose in each moment of creation, in individual moments and as a whole. In the old view, creation is the seed of a tree, sufficient to start it off but then insignificant. Now, creation is the roots, upholding the tree, while eschatology is the way the gardener uses the tree for its overall purpose, the roots a necessary component. Analogies, however, can only go so far.

God’s general purpose in creation
It would therefore be appropriate to consider some issues in creation, and God’s purpose, in brief[1]- this necessarily precedes a discussion on the ‘afterlife’, at least. I would argue that the Bible advocates a Christ-centric idea of creation- this point is key to understanding Christian eschatology. Paul emphasises it throughout his writings; everything that has been made, has been made through Christ, in Christ, and for Christ. Creation is by God’s Word (to be identified with Christ) in Genesis, and this Word is portrayed through the figure of Wisdom in Old Testament and other Jewish writings. This is what creation centres around, and Paul leaves us in no doubt: God’s Word is the means and the goal of creation. Christ becomes a ‘type’ or even ‘blueprint'[2] for us, something which we are to fulfill, yet revere as unique. We are to become part of the body of Christ, doing his work and sharing in his love. Humans are made in God’s image (imago Dei) in Genesis, and by becoming more like God, we become more of what he intended us to be. Paul sees this image as culminating in Christ; the Spirit transforms us ‘into his likeness’, as he puts it in his second letter to the Corinthians. He is the ‘visible image of the invisible God’, assuming bodily form to give a unique revelation of God’s purpose for us. We are to take up our cross daily, take action in doing God’s work, and follow Christ in his life of self-sacrifice, love and, contra some ideas with emphasis on ascetism, joy. Through the transforming power of the Spirit, we become increasingly Christlike (Christian)- our humanity is emphasised through Paul’s comparison with Adam, and our transformation is compounded through Paul’s vision of us as followers of Jesus[3]. This sets the tone for Christian eschatology. We are created by God by his Word (he is our Creator), for his Word (he is our Lover), and in his Word (we are his image-bearers). God has a plan, not for us to destroy ourselves, but to redeem us, transform us into his likeness, and be in communion for him. By Christ becoming human (the Incarnation), he shares in our humanity and our sufferings. By Christ’s death, we are redeemed from our sin and self-centredness. By Christ’s resurrection, we are given a promise.

Jesus and eschatology
This promise is, for me, the heart of Christian eschatology. Through creation, we learn of our humanity, the condition of our humanity, and the goal of our humanity. This much is known, and is affirmed as part of our purpose through the Incarnation. God rejoices in who we are, despite our need for redemption. ‘The Word became flesh’ as an example to us, and so that God might share in our humanity. What next? Whence eschatology? I would like to draw on two aspects of Jesus’ ministry.

First, there is Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. This is one of the most well attested facts concerning the historical Jesus. The overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars agree that Jesus talked of the Kingdom of God, and saw himself in a unique position to initiate a new manifestation of it. The phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ is translated from the Greek ‘basileia tou theou’ (βασιλεια του θεου), ‘basileia’ being translated as kingdom, kingship, or reign. Jesus is demonstrating the coming reign of God, but what significance it would have had for the earliest Christians! In some sense, they are the words of a madman. In another sense, they are quite profound. In any sense, they are revolutionary. Israel, occupied under Roman rule, was expecting a military Messiah to overcome the Romans and liberate themselves. Jesus performs the miracles expected of the Messiah, yet nothing seems to change on a big scale. “Lo, the Kingdom of God! Follow me!” he cries. A few fishermen listen. Jesus teaches on the Kingdom of God, “Here it is! There will be no more death! Follow me!” All we witness is a slightly eccentric preacher from the suburbs. Time passes. The preacher dies, a gruesome death on a cross. No more Messiah. But what is next? “The Kingdom of God is here!” cry the rabble of fishermen. “You are drunk”, is the reply. More time passes. The Romans destroy the Temple. God has finally left Israel. “God is dead!” they shout, pre-empting Nietzsche, “Long live Caesar!” And STILL, repeat the scrawny group, “Jesus is Lord! Caesar is History! The Kingdom of God is here! The reign of Caesar is over!” … The rest is history.

Why this madness? It will be different for various New Testament scholars. For me, it is the resurrection. My aim here is not to discuss the historicity of the resurrection, but a brief few sentences on the resurrection are necessary for understanding eschatology. Through Jesus’ resurrection, death is conquered. The Kingdom of God is on its way. Jesus is vindicated as the son of God, and Messiah, and initiator of a new reign of God. The Kingdom of God is on its way. Jesus is, as Paul puts it, the ‘firstfruits of the resurrection’. The Kingdom of God is on its way. Jesus is brought into new life through the resurrection, God has raised him from the dead, and this gives us a promise. By becoming Christlike, by becoming part of Christ’s body, by doing his work to take care of the poor, shelter the foreigner, and heal the leper, we are following Christ into the Kingdom of God, into his resurrection, into this new life he brings. This is the heart of being ‘born again’, and it is in this context we must look at look at the nature of Christian eschatology.[4]

The ‘afterlife’ in Christianity
We have considered God’s general purpose, creation, Jesus’ ministry from an eschatological perspective, and we have taken note of our own role in bringing about the Kingdom of God, the focus of Christian eschatology. We will now turn to the nature of the ‘afterlife’, briefly.

Let me state plainly that I consider the idea of a body-soul dualism to be a contamination of Hebraic thought, from Greek (specifically Platonic) dualism. Hebraic and Judaic thought has always emphasised a psychosomatic unity, and it was only the influence of Hellenic philosophy upon early Christian thought that led to this kind of dualism, which became prominent in the thought of philosophers like Descartes. The reality is that the traditional Christian view has always meant to emphasise an unashamedly physical creation, and that the afterlife is not so much an escape of the soul as in the Eastern traditions, but rather a transfiguration and redemption of the *whole* person (as an embodied soul) by God, to bring about his ultimate purpose. One might say that the soul is not trapped by the body, but at home in it. My contention is that Biblical thought, from Genesis to Revelation, is very much content with a psychosomatic unity as a view of humanity, and that this is an essential part of our nature.

If we are to be content with the physical realm, what happens to us? As I have repeated, we are not a soul trying to escape from our body, we are people as a whole. God delights in our physical nature, he delights in our spiritual worship. We are instruments designed to bring about his Kingdom, through following the example of Jesus. This is where the figure of the archetypal Christ/Word enters, again. We are portraits of Christ. We are paintings, he is the real thing. We follow him into the image of God, we follow him into bringing about the Kingdom of God, we follow him into death, and we follow him into resurrection. We stand on the edge of the ineffable, we are on the tip of a paintbrush, guided by the genius of the divine. This is his crowning glory for man. From a world of decay and death, we are brought into a new creation at the end of time. We are brought into new life, with Christ as the firstfruits of this promise. All those who are willing to participate in the Kingdom of God are brought into a new creation. While it’s debatable whether it refers specifically to resurrection, I would argue that, at least as a prototype, God’s vision for humanity is beautifully pictured in Ezekiel 37:1-6,

“The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me to and fro among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”

Despite this not necessarily being a picture of the resurrection, we can see a hint of God’s plan for us here, to bring us into new life. We see God’s plan for the new creation; there is a new earth where God fully reigns, where the Kingdom of God is manifest in all its glory. There is new life, we are resurrected into a new, glorified, transfigured, physical body. We are to be clothed in Christ, to be clothed in a body which can never decay, and to be active creatures revelling in the love of God, in relationship with him and with others. This is the picture Christianity paints of the ‘afterlife’, though I would rather call it ‘new life’. It is an even more full life, free from ‘death or mourning or crying or pain’, as John pictures it in Revelation, ‘for the old order of things has passed away’. Here, finally, the Kingdom of God is manifest. Justice reigns, mercy triumphs, and righteousness rolls on like a never-ending stream.

NB: It will be pointed out by many that there is a part I haven’t mentioned, and this is simply because I do not feel I have the knowledge to reflect on it at all. It is the idea of Sheol, a kind of waiting place before the final resurrection. This is where the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory comes from, and there are different interpretations of it. For more, see,8599,1710844,00.html

Heaven and conclusion
Where then, does heaven enter? Heaven is difficult, there seem to be different uses of it, in various contexts. I should also add that this is much more speculative, and my personal interpretation of what heaven might mean in the context of the Bible and Christianity. The general idea, to me, is that heaven is the dwelling place of God, and the presence of God where he is recognised in the fullness of his glory. NT Wright calls it ‘God’s space’. Obviously, this must be some sort of metaphor. Any Christian who has meant that heaven is a place where God *is* in the sense that God is part of a spatio-temporal world has surely not grasped the concept of the metaphor, and I would argue that seeing heaven as God’s dwelling place is, rather, acknowledging all the different situations and senses in which God is seen as sovereign creator and Lord of all: essentially, the heart of worship. One might argue that Matthew sees it similarly, using the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’, rather than ‘kingdom of God’. God is therefore not *in* heaven in a physical sense, but rather heaven is the culmination of all things disposed towards reverence for the Creator, and this is the reason for the metaphor of God being in heaven. The way we relate to heaven, then, is that heaven and Earth ‘collide’ in places (to use Wright’s metaphor), and that certain times in this physical world, there is a revelation of God, or even in somewhat mundane circumstances, a general didactic or ineffable revelation of his nature. This can be from natural theology, or through revealed theology, the more specific Christian claims, such as the Incarnation (some would argue that it is also a part of other world religions, probably myself included). When heaven collides with earth, there is a clear manifestation of God at work in our world, and we are aware of a future promise.

I should clarify that the afterlife is absolutely *not* equivalent to heaven. My personal preference would be to avoid the use of the term ‘heaven’ to avoid confusion, although heaven is obviously an important part of Christian theology. The afterlife is grounded in physical experience, but with heaven ‘colliding’ with the ‘new earth’ so clearly that all of creation will cry out with praise to God. All of creation will appreciate the Sovereignty, beauty, and goodness of God, and will bow down in worship to him. We can see heaven as not just a future reality, but as a present reality. God makes his dwelling among us, and at times we fully appreciate him. Even now, we can picture angels ‘in heaven’, rejoicing at God’s goodness, far from the end of the world. I wouldn’t like to say that heaven is metaphorical in the sense that it is only a symbol of something, but it is metaphorical in the sense that God couldn’t possibly ‘inhabit’ it! Heaven is a reality, and a present one. We are called to bring about the Kingdom of God, through treating those around us with compassion, justice, mercy, and love. God created us for Christ’s glory, with Christ as our archetype and goal. We work for Christ, through Christ, and towards Christ. Christ leads us into new life and resurrection. Our eschatology focusses around how we respond to Christ’s call to “Follow me”. We are to become part of a new creation, where God is God. Now let us get on with being Man.[6]


1. I hope to elaborate on creation at some point.
2. Thanks to Prof. P. Clarke for the blueprint analogy.
3. For example, cf 1 Cor 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
4. To clarify on what the Kingdom of God actually *is*, Wright writes, “His invitation to people to ‘enter’ the kingdom was a way of summoning them to allegiance to himself and his programme, seen as the start of God’s long-awaited saving reign. For Jesus, the kingdom was coming not in a single move, but in stages, of which his own public career was one, his death and resurrection another, and a still future consummation another.”
5. Bones were considered one of the strongest symbols of the physical body for Jews, when the flesh had decayed on a dead body, they would collect the bones, put them in an ossuary, and rebury the bones ready for the final resurrection.
6. As Anthony Phillips put it.


Joel Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life (Michigan: Grand Rapids, 2008)
Anthony Phillips, God B.C. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)
The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and NT Wright in Dialogue, ed. R. Stewart (London: SPCK, 2006)
Keith Ward, God, Faith and the New Millenium (Oxford: Oneworld, 1998)
Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science and Religion (Pennsylvania: Templeton, 2008)
David Wilkinson, Darwin, Creation and the Fall: Theological Challenges, Chapter 1, ed. R. Berry and T. Noble (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009)
Tom Wright, Simply Christian (London: SPCK, 2006)
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007)
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003)

Post-debate thoughts on Prof Atkins’ arguments

On 27th April 2012, I engaged in a debate with Prof. Peter Atkins, at Christ Church, Oxford. The topic was, “Does God Exist?” Prof. Peter Atkins is the former Professor of Chemistry at Oxford, and has written the seminal textbook on physical chemistry. He was very cordial and polite before and after the debate, and very generous in giving his time – I had a great time at the debate. Of course, I disagree strongly with his arguments, and so offer my thoughts here – I responded to as much as I had time for during the debate, but there were inevitably issues left untouched. Hopefully this will be a more comprehensive review. The debate video is available here.

Arguments for atheism

As blunt as it might sound, I’m still not convinced that Prof. Atkins actually offered an argument for atheism – that is, the proposition that, probably, God does not exist. Indeed, he explicitly noted at the start, “all I can do is to assemble evidence that… leads to the conclusion that God is not necessary for any aspect of the current world, and that there is a far simpler explanation for everything.” Note that it does not follow at all that God does not exist, or that God probably doesn’t exist. So it seems to me that, at most, we are left with agnosticism. As I argued in my opening speech, unless we have an argument for why theism should be improbable, or evidence against theism, we ought to remain agnostic. Nevertheless, Prof. Atkins did offer some arguments to at least some kind of problematic conclusion for theism, so I will address them more comprehensively here.

1. God is complex

Prof. Atkins’ argument here is that “an entity as functionally unbounded as a God must be of extraordinary complexity.” But this seems to me to be little more than an assertion, so I’m not sure what reason we have to accept it. While I would accept that simplicity is an indicator of a priori probability and complexity an indicator of a priori improbability, God simply doesn’t seem to be complex in this way. Prof. Atkins gave no account of what simplicity is: I gave a generally well accepted account. Simplicity consists of positing few entities, few kinds of entities, few properties, few kinds of properties, and so on. This is what Occam’s razor suggests. It has recently been more precisely expressed as fewness of independent adjustable parameters, and there have been some attempts to try and quantify simplicity more rigorously (some have gone for information theory, looking at things like Kolmogorov complexity), but either way, it seems far from clear that Prof. Atkins’ assertion is correct. At the very least, there needs to be some alternative account of simplicity, to the generally accepted “Occam’s razor” type simplicity, which it seems to me clear that God fulfils. And, as I explained in the debate, Prof. Atkins’ view seems to commit him to the view that Newton’s law of gravity is extremely complex: after all, it suggests that there exist tiny, invisible particles, which exert a force on every other particle in the universe at infinite speed (consider that “functional unboundedness”). But, of course, we recognise Newton’s law of gravity to be extremely simple. Moreover, it is typically characteristic of a good explanation that it explains a lot of data – and it can only explain a lot of data by having many powers, in this way. Hence, Prof. Atkins holds Darwinism to be a very good theory on similar grounds: “it is arguable that the theory of natural selection is one of the most powerful theories ever proposed, for from a simple acorn of an idea, a great forest of consequences follows”.

Moreover, it seems to me that any explanation for the universe has to be extraordinarily powerful – after all, it has to have the power to cause a universe to come into existence. And, again, it seems to me that the neatness of omnipotence – limitless power – is simpler than a large, finite amount of power, because it does not raise the question of why this incredibly powerful entity has precisely that limit. Infinite degrees of properties can be seen to be simpler than large, finite degrees, by other examples from the history of science: as I noted in the debate, the speed of light was held to be infinite until empirical observations showed otherwise – because it was a simpler hypothesis.

2. Theism is a lazy hypothesis

I hope I responded to this well enough in the debate. Firstly, in any case, it does not mean that it is less likely to be true, so we are again left with agnosticism at most. But I also made the point that many explanations we give do not provide mechanisms, as Prof. Atkins wants – but that does not prevent us from finding out such mechanisms. My example was with alcohol abuse and liver damage. To say that alcohol abuse caused liver damage, and even that liver damage is evidence of alcohol abuse, does not give us a mechanism in terms of molecular or cellular effects of alcohol on the liver. But clearly it does not prevent us from finding out such mechanisms, and clearly the liver damage can still be used as evidence in favour of alcohol abuse, despite the mechanism not yet being made clear. So it’s a complete non-sequitur to say that theism halts science on these grounds: indeed, if I am right in my own argument, it is theism which provides us with the rational ground needed to engage in science in the first place.

3. Theism is unnecessary

Once again, this does not show that theism is false, or even that it is improbable. Moreover, as I note, no scientific hypothesis is strictly necessary to explain some data – there will always be some contrary hypotheses at least compatible with the data. But this is hardly a mark against the hypothesis, and it does not show that the data do not constitute evidence for the hypothesis. I think these considerations should suffice to rebut this point.

4. The problem of evil

Aside from Prof. Atkins’ opening remarks about theism’s being unnecessary, complex and lazy, this was the only ostensible argument given against theism. And, I must confess, my ADHD actually allowed me to completely miss this point: I was only told after the debate that it had even been raised. So I am obliged to address it, at least very briefly, here.

It seems to me that Prof. Atkins didn’t give much by way of argument for his claim that the suffering in the world is evidence against the existence of God. But, of course, it will not do simply to assert that some datum is evidence in favour of a hypothesis: some argument has to be given, as in my opening speeches, for why that datum should be likely on a hypothesis and unlikely otherwise. So I am not even convinced that Prof. Atkins’ assertion should be found persuasive as evidence against theism, even in the absence of a response from me. But my lack of response in the debate was nevertheless a glaring omission on my part, and has compelled me to consider Ritalin before taking part in future debates. I will give a few brief thoughts.

As I explained, in order to argue that something is evidence in favour of a proposition (in this case atheism), one needs to show that it is unlikely given that the proposition is false (theism), but reasonably likely if the proposition is true. It doesn’t seem to me that Prof. Atkins justified either of these claims, but I think we have good reason to be sceptical of both. Firstly, I do not see why suffering is particularly unlikely on theism. Most people would accept that, on some occasions, there is some suffering which serves a greater purpose – that is, there is often a morally permissible reason for permitting suffering. Whether this is for teaching purposes, or a surgical procedure, we all generally agree that there can be morally permissible reasons for permitting suffering. This fact alone leaves us able to easily doubt the premise. But we can also give at least plausible reasons why God might permit suffering in a universe. We are not committed to saying that any of these are the actual reason God might permit suffering – only that they are possible reasons, which ought to make us doubt the idea that a theistic universe would be extremely unlikely to include suffering. For example, some unique goods simply cannot be instantiated without suffering, or without the possibility of suffering. For example, free choices, which very plausibly allow for much more meaningful commitments and relationships, necessarily involve the possibility of suffering and evil. Or, consider other unique kinds of goods which cannot be achieved without evil: forgiveness, grace, mercy, comfort, compassion, and so on. These greatly enrich our world, and yet would not be possible without evil. So we have reason to at least moderately expect evil or suffering, on theism. It also seems to me that the critic here is committed to the idea that this universe was, on balance, not worth creating. The argument suggesting that the world would have slightly less suffering, on theism, seems to assume not only that such a world would be overall better, but also that that world doesn’t, in fact, exist. But there seem to me to be no such restrictions on God’s creation – it seems to me perfectly possible that he not only created the best of all possible worlds, but is free to create any worlds which are, on balance, morally better to create than to not create. And when we bear this in mind, that this world may not even be the best kind of world overall, but merely better to be instantiated than to not be instantiated, then I think we have very strong reason to doubt this premise.

But I also think we have reason to doubt the premise that suffering would be reasonably likely on atheism. There doesn’t seem to me to be any good reason to accept this. For one thing, suffering requires consciousness, but consciousness seems to be a very strange, ontologically awkward appendage on atheism – it’s far from clear that we should expect consciousness to arise at all on atheism. But it would, of course, fit very neatly on theism: since the ultimate explanation for everything would be in terms of a conscious agent, it is easy to see why consciousness would arise. And, of course, the fine tuning required for suffering of embodied agents is extremely unlikely on atheism, as I argued in my opening speech. So I think we have ample reason to doubt the premise that suffering would likely arise on atheism.

Finally, of course, I argued in my opening speech that one of the reasons God would likely become incarnate is in order to share in our suffering. Permitting one’s creation to suffer (think parents and children) generally gives one at least some kind of obligation to share in that suffering to at least some extent – to take on some of that burden. Now, if this is the case, this only seems to confirm my argument for the resurrection, since it gives us far more reason to suppose that God, if he existed, would become incarnate. If God would very likely become incarnate, and if Jesus is the best candidate for that, then this acts in confirmation of the claim that, if God existed, we would likely to expect the resurrection facts to obtain. It then follows, as long as the resurrection facts are unlikely otherwise (a non-controversial claim), that they are evidence for theism.

Now, Prof. Atkins criticised me for not addressing all the arguments in his opening speech, but it seems to me that most of the rest of the opening speech did not actually consist of arguments against theism – at the very most (and even then, not all of them), they were intended as responses to typical arguments for theism. So, unless I actually advocated these arguments, it does not seem as though I am really rationally compelled to address them at all. For example, Prof. Atkins first gave an overview of some of the scientific issues in contemporary cosmology and studies of the origin of the universe. Well, sure. There’s nothing really to be said there. Similarly, Prof. Atkins addressed the argument from purpose by saying that there is no evidence of purpose. Aside from the fact that this begs the question against people who argue from purpose (or for purpose?), it seems irrelevant to my own presentation. Almost exactly the same is true of Prof. Atkins’ argument to do with miracles – again, it does not argue for atheism – at the most, it begs the question against those who argue for (and from) miracles. And the section on morality was, again, not an argument against God. So, the only argument offered which was non-question begging and which at least plausibly stood a chance of undermining my case, was his response to the fine-tuning argument, which I shall deal with next. (Prof. Atkins also offered some alternative hypotheses to the resurrection, which I shall also address).

Arguments for theism

1. Argument from order

It’s not clear that there was really a response at all to this argument. There was an explanation of how order (in some sense) can arise from disorder (in some sense), but nothing that really addressed the premises of the argument, and especially not all the data I used in my argument. Let me make a few points:

Firstly, it would be no criticism of my argument that order can arise from disorder – that is perfectly compatible with my argument. If anything, it might seem to be an admission of the second premise. But moreover, the argument is far from diminished in case one law is explained by a more fundamental law. Of course some laws are explained by more fundamental laws – my example in the debate was that Newton’s laws might be seen as following from Einstein’s (and Kepler’s from Newton’s). This ought to serve as a rebuttal to Prof. Atkins’ claim that, on my view, light travels in straight lines “because God says so”. Clearly this simplistic strawman is a misrepresentation of my view: my view is that God sustains the most fundamental regularities (both temporal and spatial, though no doubt the dividing line between the two has become blurred in the last century of physics) in the universe, and that other regularities arise from the more fundamental ones (as with Einstein, Newton and Kepler’s laws, for example). While I am not well versed enough in physics to speak authoritatively on the nature of light, in particular, it seems to me that Prof. Atkins’ example here clearly only shifts the problem one step further: instead of the regularity that light travels in a straight line, we are told that light travels in all directions and takes every possible route to a particular point. Aside from concerns about how true this is, it doesn’t seem to help us out here: all we have done is appeal to a more fundamental regularity, namely, that light travels in all directions and takes every possible route to get to a particular point (as opposed to simply taking some routes, for example). Of course I accept that some regularities can be explained in terms of other regularities, but appealing to a regularity in explanation is unpersuasive when it is the existence of fundamental regularities themselves which we are using as a datum to support theism over atheism.

Prof. Atkins’ other example was to do with the conservation of energy and the uniformity of time. According to Prof. Atkins, if time is uniform, then energy is conserved. Again, I am not sufficiently educated in physics to know if the conservation of energy follows necessarily from the uniformity of time – I suspect it doesn’t, but am open to being persuaded – but I will even grant this, for the sake of argument. The argument was that, supposing the universe emerged from nothing, then that ‘nothing’ was uniform. Therefore, if that uniform ‘nothing’ gives rise to something (by “nothing happening at all”), then whatever it gives rise to will assume that uniformity henceforth – leading to the uniformity of time.

There seem to me to be obvious problems with this. Indeed, the reason I did not use the kalam cosmological argument is because I think it is a caricature of the atheist’s position to suppose that they think that the universe really did come to exist from nothing – I wouldn’t expect any atheist to actually accept that. But, bizarrely, Prof. Atkins seems to. The problem with the kalam cosmological argument, as I see it, as that to “come into being” seems to denote a temporality such that there was, at one point in time, absolutely nothing, and at a later point, a universe. But, of course, time itself began with the universe, according to the standard Big Bang model, and so on no view would it be the case that there was originally nothing, and then something at a later date. But Prof. Atkins’ presentation of his view seems to imply exactly that. The problems with this are obvious: absolutely nothing lacks the potential for anything (or else it would be something), and so it can hardly be said to give rise to anything. And, of course, in the absence of time, it remains to be seen what sense can be made of Prof. Atkins’ view that uniformity is preserved with the inception of the universe – preserved over what? Time? It cannot be preserved over time, since there is no time.

But even if we take Prof. Atkins’ view more literally for the sake of argument, we see that it begs the question entirely, in a way similar to the light example. For the key assumption of Prof. Atkins’ view, even if it did maintain coherence in light of the above considerations (which I strongly doubt), is that uniformity is preserved over time (or whatever other parameter is supposed to connect nothing existing and the universe existing). But this is precisely one of the data that I am using in the argument: Hume’s whole problem of induction is that we have no good reason to believe that the uniformity we observe extends into the unobserved: the spatially distant and the temporally distant (namely, the future). So appealing to some regularity to explain the regularity is, I think, utterly impotent. So Prof. Atkins’ view here is not only contradictory; it also fails completely to explain either past order (spatial or temporal) in the universe, and brings us nowhere nearer to solving the problem of induction.

2. Argument from fine tuning

It is in order to give a few brief thoughts on Prof. Atkins’ response to my fine tuning argument. I noted in the debate that there were other problems with his alternative hypotheses which I didn’t have time to go into, so I will go into just a small bit more detail here. Note that both Prof. Atkins’ alternative hypotheses, necessity and a multiverse, are irrelevant to the argument as I have presented it: presenting possible alternative hypotheses does not diminish either of the premises of my argument, but this is especially emphasised when the alternative hypotheses are themselves very improbable or problematic. I will give a few considerations here:


As I mentioned in the debate, the primary difficulty with the multiverse is its gross violation of Occam’s razor, which tells us to posit as few entities as possible to explain the data (NB: this latter clause explains what is wrong with Prof. Atkins’ suggestion that nothing is the simplest explanation at all, which implies that God doesn’t exist – I agree that nothing is very simple, but it is also causally impotent, and so does not explain the universe – I hope this point would already be obvious to anyone watching, however). This ought, also, to answer Prof. Atkins’ question, “If there is more than one universe, then there is no obvious reason why there is not an infinite number of universes. Why stop at 2? Why stop at 42?” The answer seems obvious: Occam’s razor.

And so, if we have an alternative hypothesis for which there is no independent evidence, and which is itself extremely complex by violating Occam’s razor in the most incredible way possible, this will do nothing to damage the argument at all. The prominent physicist Paul Davies, himself a deist, puts the problem this way: “In spite of the power of the many-universes theory to account for what would otherwise be considered remarkably special facts about nature, the theory faces a number of serious objections. The first of these I have already discussed in chapter 7, which is that it flies in the face of Occam’s razor, by introducing vast (indeed infinite) complexity to explain the regularities of just one universe. I find this “blunderbuss” approach to explaining the specialness of our universe scientifically questionable … my conclusion is that the many-universes theory can at best explain only a limited range of features, and then only if one appends some metaphysical assumptions that seem no less extravagant than design. In the end, Occam’s razor compels me to put my money on design.”

Moreover, it is hardly a more “natural” or “scientific” hypothesis. The whole point of the hypothesis is to explain why our “nature” is the way it is, by positing a multitude of different universes, completely contrary to the laws of our own, one of which is life-permitting. While the demarcation between science and non-science is a very controversial area, it is hard to come up with any epistemically privileged notion of ‘science’ according to which the multiverse hypothesis would be scientific and theism would not. As John Polkinghorne puts it, “people try to trick out a ‘many universe’ account in sort of pseudo-scientific terms, but that is pseudo-science. It is a metaphysical guess that there might be many universes with different laws and circumstances.” (And, indeed, Prof. Atkins himself admits elsewhere that one of the proposed models supporting a multiverse, M-theory, “might not be science”).

Now, a brief look at some of the theoretical models which Prof. Atkins claims gives the multiverse some credence. The first group, random fluctuation models, aim to explain the low entropy of the universe by positing a field with generally high entropy, but which has random fluctuations giving rise to small ‘islands’ of entropy. The problem with this is that such a model would lead us to expect that any given observer would be in a tiny region of order, no larger than our own brain, and especially no larger than our solar system. As Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees writes, If Boltzmann were right, we would be in the smallest fluctuation compatible with our awareness  – indeed, the overwhelmingly most likely configuration would be a universe containing nothing but a single brain with external sensations fed into it”. But in that case we should expect far less entropy than we currently observe. The conclusion? Either our not being a so-called “Boltzmann brain” serves as a defeater for the random fluctuation model, or it is probable that we are, indeed, Boltzmann brains, and thus should consider any external reality to be highly misleading, illusory, or otherwise unreliable. Both, I suspect, will be unfavourable conclusions to Prof. Atkins.

The only theoretical models which have even theoretical plausibility (though no evidence, as Atkins concedes, and perhaps even in principle no experimental tests available to verify it) are those based on a mix of inflationary cosmology and superstring theory (M-theory might be seen as an elaboration of the latter). I’ll give a brief overview of some of the problems with each.

One problem with inflationary cosmology is it’s simple disagreement with observation: as Bennett et al. put it, “[inflation’s] prediction of a perfectly flat universe seems to disagree with observations showing that the total density of matter (including dark matter) is only about 25% of the critical density.” And, of course, there is little (if any) independent evidence for inflation’s being true – Prof. Atkins himself notes that “inflationary theories are highly speculative”, and Earman and Mosterin note: “In sum, inflationary cosmologists have never delivered on their original promises. The newer models to which they have been driven depart radically from the original goal of improving the standard big bang model by means of a straightforward modification. And the link to concrete theories of elementary particle physics that initially made inflationary cosmology so exciting has been severed. The idea that was “too good to be wrong” has led to models that an impartial observer might well find contrived or fanciful or both.”

But, perhaps most importantly, inflationary models seem themselves to require fine tuning, and arguably make the problem worse in some respects. Even if it does solve the problem of low entropy (though it doesn’t, as we shall see), it only serves to emphasise the fine tuning of the cosmological constant: as physicist Robert Brandenberger writes, “the field which drives inflation … is expected to generate an unacceptably large cosmological constant which must be tuned to zero by hand. This is a problem which plagues all inflationary universe models.” And, of course, as I mentioned in the debate, it makes the problem of low entropy far worse, Penrose explaining: “it is fundamentally misconceived to explain why the universe is special in any particular respect by appealing to a thermalization process. For, if the thermalization is actually going anything … then it represents a definite increasing of entropy. Thus, the universe would have had to be more special before the thermalization than after. This only serves to increase whatever difficulty we might have had previously in trying to come to terms with the initial extraordinarily special nature of the universe … invoking arguments from thermalization, to address this particular problem, is worse than useless!”

String theory and M-theory are barely more helpful – Atkins concedes that string theory is “an example of a theory that appears to be experimentally untestable”, and that it “might not be science”. Michio Kaku, the prominent physicist writes, “Not a shred of experimental evidence has been found to confirm … superstrings.” And on M-theory, Atkins concedes: “what direct experimental tests it suggests … [are] likely to be forever outside our technological capabilities … there is no direct experimental motivation for M-theory: it is a gorgeously beautiful idea, with suggestions of how it can resolve deep questions, but it has not made a single numerical prediction.” And, he concludes, “scientists working on M-theory rightly yearn for it to be true, as it is so beautiful; but I have said before, and must emphasise again, that the satisfying warmth of faith alone is insufficient in science.” The chemist has spoken.


There are also problems with this response. Again, of course, it doesn’t respond to the argument – no premise is denied, in the absence of any positive reason to think that the constants necessarily had to have the values they do. As I mentioned in this debate, this kind of pure speculation would stultify scientific enquiry: if it were really a serious objection against a hypothesis being used to explain some datum, then there is nothing stopping us from suggesting that any datum might be necessary – but this would hardly be convincing – there’s no obvious contradiction in saying that the gravitational constant is 4 m3 kg-1 s-2, so it remains to be seen how this is any more than sheer conjecture.

Moreover, this is contrary to the practice and beliefs of theoretical physicists – those physicists frequently make ‘toy’ universes with different laws. As Davies explains, “There is not a shred of evidence that the Universe is logically necessary. Indeed, as a theoretical physicist I find it rather easy to imagine alternative universes that are logically consistent, and therefore equal contenders for reality.” And, of course, even if the values of the physical constants were logically necessary, the initial conditions of the universe are an entirely different matter. Davies goes on: “Even if the laws of physics are unique, it doesn’t follow that the physical universe itself is unique … the laws of physics must be augmented by cosmic initial conditions … There is nothing in present ideas about “laws of initial conditions” remotely to suggest that their consistency with the laws of physics would imply uniqueness.”

Finally, it seems that Prof. Atkins’ response to the argument is multiply contradictory. He argues that the multiverse is possible, but note that this necessarily commits him to the view that other universes are possible – in other words, he is committed to the view that it is not possible that this universe is the only possible universe. Indeed, the theoretical models which he cites as ostensibly “giving credence” to a multiverse, explicitly allow the possibility of other universes (cf. for example, Stephen Hawking: “Does string theory predict the state of the universe? The answer is that it does not. It allows a vast landscape of possible universes, in which we occupy an anthropically permitted location”). So it is literally contradictory for him to offer both a multiverse and a necessity-type response to the argument. Moreover, this response is inconsistent with his empiricist philosophy and his antipathy towards logic. For the ultimate irony is that, if this is really the only logically consistent universe, then we should, in principle, be able to work out the structure of the universe, all its laws and initial conditions, by logic alone – all we would have to do is take logic as far as possible and avoid a contradiction! But Prof. Atkins explicitly claims that logic alone will not get us anywhere, and that we have to look at the world to gain a posteriori knowledge about contingent facts. So, ironically, Prof. Atkins’ view is contradictory here, too. So, even aside from its sheer speculative nature and contrariness to theoretical physics, Prof. Atkins’ view is also multiply contradictory, and so need not be considered as a reasonable objection to my argument.

3. Historical argument

As with any historical enquiry, there is an enormous amount of material that could potentially be covered here. It’s not really clear that Prof. Atkins responded to the actual argument at all: there were a few assertions about other possible explanations (on which, cf. again, my opening speech) and about how the gospels are wholly unreliable, but none of the key facts or the actual argument were addressed. In a sense, this makes it harder to respond: Prof. Atkins’ bare assertions that the gospels are not to be trusted in anything contradicts the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholarship, including non-Christian historians. This is wholly apart from the fact that many of the resurrection facts I mentioned can be established through Paul’s writings alone. Let me say it plainly: irrespective of whether gospels are to be trusted in each minor detail, there is overwhelming agreement on these particular facts which I used in my argument. And the reasons I gave for the actual argument were not challenged. For time, I am not going to provide the evidence for the resurrection facts here – this can easily be found elsewhere, and I am happy to respond to e-mails on them. So, just a brief word about the suggestions Prof. Atkins did make – you will have to trust that there is a lot more to be said than is outlined here: I am currently revising for exams, so do not have time to go into much depth at all.

Swoon hypothesis

Prof. Atkins, remarkably, suggested the swoon hypothesis – that Jesus didn’t actually die, but was in a coma and recovered on his own. This, really, was put to death in the 19th century, and has not been advocated by any reputable historian since. Back in the 19th century, the German New Testament scholar David Strauss – who denied Jesus’ divinity – put it this way: “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening, and indulgence, and who still at least yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”

This point alone is, I think, sufficient for us to discard the swoon hypothesis – even if true, it has no explanatory power whatsoever to explain the faith and experiences of the disciples. But there are other serious problems with the hypothesis: for one, it would make Jesus a deliberate deceiver, which is extremely unlikely given the evidence for his sincerity during his life. It also fails to account for the overwhelming evidence and prior probability that Jesus was, indeed, dead. Aside from the prior improbability of Jesus surviving purely on the grounds that he was crucified as an attempted execution (and such people generally die – executioners could get in big trouble if they didn’t make sure the victim died), we have multiple attestation of Jesus’ death, no evidence of medical help, evidence of a burial (with no fluids for 3 days) and evidence of specific death-ensuring practices (e.g. the spear in Jesus’ side). Moreover, if one takes Jewish burial practices seriously, as well as the evidence for Jesus’ burial in a tomb (and the guard story), we have yet more obstacles to Jesus pushing away the tombstone and escaping beyond the guard to demonstrate to the world that he had been raised from the dead – as much in grave need of immediate medical attention as he would be. So it seems to me that, when one is multiplying extraordinary improbabilities by extraordinary improbabilities in order to come up with a hypothesis which itself does very little to explain the data we have, we are not here faced with a hypothesis that need be taken very seriously.

Wrong tomb hypothesis

Once again, this hypothesis, even if true, would do very little to explain the data we have – most notably because of the appearances, but also for other reasons. Let me give a very brief overview of some of the factors counting against this hypothesis.

For one, note the gospel attestation to women noting the burial place – if this were a made up story, it is extraordinarily unlikely that women would be the witnesses, given their perceived negligible importance as witnesses in that context. This story, which has a priori plausibility because of the importance of proper burial, anointing and ossuary-making in Jewish society (cf. for example, Josephus: “Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset”), thus seems to be confirmed beyond doubt from this datum alone. It is inconceivably unlikely that a Jewish figure so important to a good number of people, would have been buried so carelessly such that the burial place remained unknown. As the renowned historian Craig Evans writes, “suggestions that Jesus’ followers would not be able to find the correct tomb in which their master had been interred … have not impressed qualified historians and archaeologists. The conspiracy theories are even more ludicrous, not only unable to explain how it is that such a grotesque secret was kept by so many, but also unable to discover a cogent motive for such a caper in the first place.”

And, of course, all this is supported by the specific evidence we have for Jesus’ burial: the multiple attestation in the gospels (including in the very early material in the Markan passion source), the independent attestation from the very early creed (c. 2 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, maximum) in 1 Corinthians 15, the unlikelihood of a sympathetic Sanhedrin member being created by the early Christian community, the lack of any competing burial story (or shrine veneration elsewhere) and the fit with Jewish burial practice in general. Thus, there is substantial agreement on the burial of Jesus even among the liberal end of New Testament scholarship: the late JAT Robinson concludes, “the burial is one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.” And Bart Ehrman argues that “we can conclude, with some certainty, that Jesus was in fact buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb and that three days later the tomb was found empty.”


And so I am convinced that neither of these two alternative hypotheses carry much weight at all, and can comfortably be dismissed as untenable. So, in addition to Prof. Atkins not really addressing my argument, and in addition to my point about possible alternative hypotheses not showing that some data are not evidence for the proposed hypothesis, but the alternative hypotheses which Prof. Atkins advanced are abject failures when it comes to having any prior plausibility, and when it comes to explaining the data. I conclude, therefore, that my argument remains very much intact. There remain just a few points of clarification and contention.

Firstly, I hope to have sufficiently dealt with the idea that the resurrection facts arose because of, or are explained by, deceit on the disciples’ part. It beggared belief to see this objection still launched in the face of all the evidence of the disciples’ persecutions and martyrdoms, as well as the evidence of the persecution of James and Paul, who were unsympathetic to Jesus during his ministry. In his closing speech, Prof. Atkins made the point that plenty of people die for false things, and so it doesn’t prove that what they believe is true. This is a strawman of my position: I never argued that this proves that it is true, only that it shows that they were sincere about their beliefs, and thus the narratives’ being deceitful, political propaganda, is an untenable hypothesis.

Similarly, the idea of Jesus as a composite image of a typical Jewish rabbi is undermined by enormous marks of dissimilarity relative to his Jewish context. Some of the features mentioned in the debate were the claim to be the Son of Man, the idea of a crucified Messiah and the claim of a resurrection before the end of time. Indeed, these facts strengthen my case, since it implies that something truly extraordinary must have happened to account for the disciples believing these propositions, despite their being completely contrary to Jewish expectations (it also puts an enormous dent in the hallucination hypothesis, since hallucinations typically involve experiences of something expected).

Finally, clarification. Prof. Atkins alleged that I made the argument that Jesus must exist because he was so inspiring. I hope it is clear from the video alone that I never made this absurd argument but, just in case, that was not my argument. The point was that this is one of the marks we might expect from an incarnate God – and thus that Jesus fulfilling this criterion raises the likelihood of God vindicating him – thus supporting the premise that we would moderately expect the resurrection facts to obtain on theism. A second point of clarification: I do not have to believe in the virgin birth simply because the gospels say so. I am not committed to biblical inerrancy, and so believe in the virgin birth for quite different reasons. And finally, as much as I expect those set firm in their beliefs that all religious people are brainwashed to disagree, I have not been brainwashed. I do not know when exactly I began believing that Jesus was God – though I know for certain that I did not believe it until I was 16 and a half, at the earliest. I was then convinced by looking into the historical evidence more thoroughly. I should hope, despite the speculative assertions and emotional protests of others, that the period of extreme vulnerability to indoctrination would have finished by then. And I should think that my disagreement on plenty of points with most Christians should make it obvious that there is no indoctrination there. In any case, there is little here to support Prof. Atkins’ assertion other than sheer determination that he is right, and perhaps the psychological force audiences perceive this assertion to have because of his prominence in academia. But for those of us concerned with arguments, evidence and reason, I think it is obvious that we should remain unpersuaded.

As I said, there is plenty of material I have not had the time to engage with, and I may even have missed some points entirely. But I hope what I have offered here suffices to respond to Prof. Atkins’ arguments reasonably comprehensively, and I am happy to respond to queries (including suggestions for further reading on some of these points I may not have demonstrated sufficiently persuasively) by e-mail.