Why I Am A Christian (#2): The Apostolic Church’s Internal Dialogue: The New Testament Letters

Eastern Orthodox icon of the Apostle Paul. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Eastern Orthodox icon of the Apostle Paul. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

[<<] [Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11] [>>]

The Christian faith is not infrequently derided as irrational, delusional, fairyland. Though such arguments are sometimes made in an intellectually vigorous manner, I would argue that at least as often such arguments are made facilely, and without any proper understanding of what Christianity claims or teaches.

In spite of such attacks on the Christian faith (intellectually vigorous or otherwise), I remain a believing Christian, convinced of the truth of God’s revealed word, the Bible. In this series of eleven posts, I outline some of the reasons why I still find the Christian faith compelling and convincing.

Reason #2: The Apostolic Church’s Internal Dialogue: The New Testament Letters

“The Gospels are only part of the New Testament writings. If you were to divide the New Testament into two major divisions, then this would surely be into (a) the Gospels, and (b) the Letters.”

In my previous post I discussed the testimony of the New Testament’s four Gospels, which — far from being the obvious fairy stories that I once imagined — read as accounts of historical events seen and told by eyewitnesses.

The Gospels, however, are only part of the New Testament writings. If you were to divide the New Testament into two major divisions, then this would surely be into (a) the Gospels, and (b) the Letters.

If we include the book of Revelation in this latter category — it is, after all, addressed as a ‘letter’ to seven churches in the province of Asia Minor[1] — then the New Testament contains a total of twenty-two letters out of its overall twenty-seven books.

These letters are really the surviving records of the Apostolic Church’s internal dialogue with itself.[2]

The early Christians: gullible and credulous?

Now if one were to believe much of the anti-Christian conspiracy bunkum that is out there, one might well think that the New Testament’s letters are backdated forgeries dropped by a fourth-century established religious élite on a gullible and credulous public.

“What we have in the New Testament letters is the Christian Church’s dialogue with itself within two or three decades of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The earliest of its letters — such as Galatians and 1 Thessalonians — were written around twenty years after the ascension of Jesus.

And what is remarkable when one reads these early Christian documents, is how not credulous the churches are to which the New Testament’s writers wrote.”

Such theories are utterly risible and are immediately blown out of the water simply by the act of reading these letters. The problem — and the reason such theories gain any traction — is because a sufficiently large percentage of the populace don’t read these documents.

In fact, what we have in the New Testament letters is the Christian Church’s dialogue with itself within two or three decades of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The earliest of its letters — such as Galatians and 1 Thessalonians — were written around A.D. 49—51,[3] that is, around twenty years after the ascension of Jesus.

And what is remarkable when one reads these early Christian documents, is how not credulous the churches are to which the New Testament’s writers (particularly Paul, who wrote Galatians and 1 Thessalonians) wrote.

So in these letters we see the Christian church in various cities and regions asking themselves:—

  • “Should husbands and wives abstain from sexual intercourse now that they have become Christians?” (see 1 Corinthians 7:1-5)
  • “Should Christians who are single refrain from getting married, in order to concentrate on their devotion to the Lord Jesus?” (see 1 Corinthians 7:6-9)
  • “Should Christians who are betrothed break their betrothal, in order to concentrate on their devotion to the Lord Jesus?” (see 1 Corinthians 7:25-38)
  • “If I am a Christian and my spouse is not, should I separate from him/her?” (see 1 Corinthians 7:10-16)
  • “If a Christian is invited to a meal, and that meal may have been offered beforehand to an idol, should that person attend?” (see 1 Corinthians 8)

“We know some of the questions which Christians in the 40s and 50s A.D. evidently were asking themselves. These are not the questions of a gullible and credulous public.”

These are just some of the questions which Christians in the 40s and 50s A.D. evidently were asking themselves. These are not the questions of a gullible and credulous public.

Nor was the gospel they received something dropped upon them from on high — from an established religious hierarchy.

Reading the letters of Paul, it is clear that he did not proclaim the gospel message from a position of economic prosperity or high position. He proclaimed from a position of weakness. Thus he writes to the Christians in Galatia:

Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of the blessing you felt? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?
Galatians 4:12-16[5]

Further, Paul had to do manual labour in order to support himself during his missionary tours.[6] He also had to rely on the generosity of existing churches for financial support to maintain him on these tours.[7] This is not a case of the message of Christianity being dropped from on high.

Early doubts over the bodily resurrection

“As a young Christian aged twenty and believing for the first time, the resurrection of Christ was something I struggled to get my head round. Could it truly have happened? Was it something which the Gospel-writers had made up to justify their faith in Jesus?”

For me, as a young Christian aged twenty and believing for the first time (see my account of how I came to faith in my previous post), the resurrection of Christ was something I struggled to get my head round. Surely if Jesus bore the punishment for the sins of all humanity, he would have to remain dead (remain in hell) for the rest of eternity? Hence the resurrection of Christ didn’t make logical sense to me. Could it truly have happened? Or was it something which the Gospel-writers had made up to justify their faith in Jesus? (Yes, I did think these things!)

What finally settled these issues in my mind, and enabled me to get my mind around the resurrection of Christ was reading Paul’s forceful arguing of it in 1 Corinthians 15. For I was not the first Christian believer ever to entertain doubts about the resurrection — some of the Corinthian believers in the 50s A.D. were having the same doubts!

And it is this — the fact that believers in the 1st century had the same doubts about the resurrection that people have today — that finally settled my own doubts about this.

See what Paul says to the Corinthian believers about the resurrection of Jesus (n.b. This letter was written around 55 A.D.[8]):—

“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.”

1 Corinthians 15:12-16

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection”, it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?[9] Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

1 Corinthians 15:12-49[10]

Paul here is clearly responding to direct questions: “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”

“It seems that a belief in the resurrection was as difficult for people to swallow in first-century Corinth as it is for people today.”

It seems that a belief in the resurrection (of the body — which is what ‘resurrection’ implies) was as difficult for people to swallow in first-century Corinth as it is for people today.

And that gives me tremendous confidence. When Paul (or Peter, or James, or John) proclaimed the resurrection of the dead — and the resurrection of Christ himself — to people in the Graeco-Roman world, they weren’t proclaiming this to village idiots: they were proclaiming it to people who had a healthy dose of skepticism.

The fact that in such an environment of skepticism the disciples and apostles succeeded in persuading large numbers of people of the truth of the resurrection, strongly suggests that they were doing so as eyewitnesses — as people who had seen and heard the risen Jesus with their own eyes and ears.

That is why it was reading 1 Corinthians 15 that finally convinced me that the resurrection (of Jesus in the past; of us in the future) really is true.

*        *        *

In the third instalment in this series, I will consider a third reason why I find the truth of Christianity convincing: the diversity of different voices in what we now know as the New Testament.

 

[<<] [Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11] [>>]

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] cf. Revelation 1:4,10-11

[2] By ‘Apostolic Church’ I mean the Christian Church during the age of the apostles — that is, up to around A.D. 95.

[3] https://www.esv.org/resources/esv-global-study-bible/chart_40_00_nt_timeline/

[4] In this and several of the following passages, Paul is not answering a direct question. In these cases I take it that the fact Paul deals with these particular issues, is sufficient evidence either that he was being asked about these issues by Christians, or (at least) that such issues were being speculated about in the churches to whom he writes.

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians+4%3A12-16&version=ESVUK

[6] 1 Corinthians 9:3-6

[7] Philippians 4:10-20; 2 Corinthians 11:7-11

[8] https://www.esv.org/resources/esv-global-study-bible/chart_40_00_nt_timeline/

[9] The meaning of this allusion is obscure; the New Testament nowhere else mentions such a practice. It is often thought that this ‘baptism for the dead’ was something that some of the pagans in Corinth were practising: it was a practice of ‘those out there,’ rather than a Christian practice.

[10] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+15%3A12-49&version=ESVUK

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