Friday, December 13, 2019

Then and Now

I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and one of the ones I recently “read” was Ben Franklin’s autobiography. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting insight into great minds and accomplished lives. That type of genius is hard to find and I think we could all benefit from learning about it.

One of the things that interested me most was Franklin’s approach to religion. As you may know, he was a deist. I don’t recall whether he used the precise term, and his version of it was a bit more traditional than later formulations became. He believed that God was personal, that He was interested in humanity, and that good and evil received rewards and punishment. However, Franklin did not believe in the miraculous or in special revelation (i.e., that the Bible came from God), and he was greatly concerned by religious sectarianism.

The United States has benefited from that concern, but paradoxically, we have benefited so much from it that we do not understand it as well as Founding Fathers like Franklin did. We are used to religious liberty, and therefore to religious pluralism, so we take it for granted that the freedom of all religions is to the advantage of the spread of truth. We take it so far for granted, in fact, that it is perversely contributing to contemporary efforts to curtail religious freedom. But it was a different situation in the 18th Century. From the start of Protestant Reformation to the Early Modern period when Franklin lived, religious wars and persecutions had been a fact of life in Europe. Part of what drove the emigration to the New World was a desire to escape that conflict.

Of course, some of that conflict came over with the colonists, and dissent was still punished in places like the Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, it never quite rose to the level that existed across the Atlantic. Ultimately, it boiled down to being practical. When you are busy trying to face down a hostile wilderness, there is just not enough energy left to assault your neighbor because he goes to the “wrong” church. There was also some philosophy involved, though. Many in the colonies had enough self-awareness to realize that they should not recreate the conditions that has driven them from home in the first place.

Men like Franklin took that to the next level. They saw the horrors of the 16th and 17th Centuries and decided that religious differences were inherently faulty. They believed that distinctions inevitably led to disaster, and that they should therefore be avoided. The best path to peace was to establish the lowest common denominator and to hold no fixed opinions beyond that. Knowing their experiences and the history that was fresher in their minds, it is hard to blame them.

And yet, of course, I do not agree with them. It’s a bridge too far. Certainly, we cannot force anyone to believe the truth. It is evil to try. But that is not the same as saying the truth is unknowable, or that it is not exclusive. Moderns like Franklin unwittingly set the stage for moral relativism and its resulting errors.

That raised another question for me, though. How would I have attempted to reach out to Franklin, had I known him at the time? George Whitefield, the greatest preacher of the Great Awakening, was a personal friend of Franklin’s and Franklin discusses their relationship at some length. Whitefield frequently attempted to evangelize to him, but with no success. I do not know the precise nature of those attempts, but it is discouraging to imagine how anyone could succeed where Whitefield failed.

I would never expect to win an argument with Franklin. He was far too intelligent and rhetorically skilled for me to believe that I could convince him he was wrong. Fear, obviously, would not work either. I don’t mean threats, of course, but fear in the sense of concern for the future. Franklin was too convinced of his own righteousness to be touched by that. The one thing I could see potentially working, the one thing that has worked best through the history of the church, is the evidence of a changed life and its expressions of Christ-like love. Perhaps that would have thawed his heart to the gospel. Again, however, Franklin was very self-righteous. He simply refused to see the need for anything that he did not supply himself.

Thinking about all of this, I realized that I have a benefit that Whitefield did not have. In fact, it is one that all of us living today have and which did not exist from the 1st Century until the 20th. We have evidence.

One of the things that early deists—and indeed even today’s atheists—relied upon was the belief that the Bible was the result of legendary development. They thought that Jesus existed and that He was a great moral teacher, but that over the course of centuries stories were added to His history by His followers to make Him more than human. Eventually, they made Him God and Savior. These things, deists thought, should be stripped away in order to leave the real truth of who Christ was.

What they did not know, and we now do, is that there was no time for legendary development to occur. That requires generations to intervene so that the truth can become distorted. However, through literary studies, sociology, anthropology, and archaeology, we have determined that the traditional dates for the writings of the New Testament are, in fact, correct. The earliest books were completed less than 20 years after the crucifixion, the last no more than 60 years later, and all were widely attested before the middle of the following century. We have established a straight line to the apostles without any substantive subtractions or additions to their teachings.

What we can know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is what the earliest Christians believed. From there, we can also apply the modern science of psychology. Why did they believe it? It does not make sense to suggest that they were lying. People may die for the lies they have been told, but they are not willing to die for the lies they tell. If the apostles had made it all up, they would have cracked in the face of persecution rather than willingly embracing it. They gained no earthly reward for what they said, so they had no earthly reason for saying it.

Critics sometimes propose mass delusion as the explanation, but that does not hold up, either. Mass hysteria has defined limits. For one thing, when people undergo it they do not experience it in multiple senses. It is either something they see, something they feel, or something they hear. Those elements do not combine. More importantly, mass hysteria is not experienced in the same way by different people. Suppose the sufferers all thought that they were all seeing Bigfoot. They would all describe a tall, hairy biped, but that would be the only similarity. Each one would have a different description of his hair, his face, his gait, and his location. Another issue is that hysteria requires a predisposition to believe. Most of the disciples were in fear for their own lives and were convinced they would never see Jesus again. Thomas basically laughed at the idea before the Lord appeared to him (John 20:24–29). And Paul was an outright enemy of the church before his encounter with Christ (Acts 9:1–9).

Hysteria simply does not fit the record. The record presents people who were not disposed to believe in the resurrection having multi-sensory experiences in separate groups across multiple occasions and locations without contradictory descriptions. We do not call that delusion. We call that eye-witness testimony. It is a historical fact that the earliest Christians saw Jesus Christ alive and glorified, and the NT is a verified record of their experiences. There can essentially be no evidence-based challenge to this. There are only excuses that seem born from the desire to avoid the implications of it.

I do not know how Benjamin Franklin would have responded to this information, had he had access to it. However, he was a very fair-minded and curious person. I like to believe that if he had known, he would have accepted it and from that point moved on to consider what it meant. The life that Jesus lives requires a response because it proves everything He had to say. And that is the intriguing and frustrating thing about it. In an age where we can be more certain than ever about the truth of Christianity, we have more people than ever who are certain it is false.

While they are sure, they do not actually know, having never thought about it deeply. That presents us with important opportunities. We must encourage people to actually investigate what we believe, and we must also know it so that we can tell them. This era is more dismissive than Franklin’s, but it is also better equipped to get answers. Hopefully, knowing that will be an inspiration to share the truth with someone who needs it.

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