Astrology and the ‘Wise Men’ who visited Jesus

Question 126 from Matt, United Kingdom
Astrology is wrong… God said it, Daniel was shouted at for it. Why then did the wise men, when looking for the baby Jesus, follow the stars to where he was?

Although astrology, as a form of divination, is specifically condemned in the Old Testament (eg in Leviticus chapter 19, verse 26), this prohibition only extended to the Israelites, as the chosen people who had received the divine law.

The nation of Israel was forbidden to practice astrology because it was closely linked to worship of the stars and other heavenly bodies, which made it a form of idolatry. It also detracted from the divine Law entrusted to Israel, and the fact that Yahweh dwelt among the Israelites in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Old Testament writers placed an emphasis on how Yahweh – and the worship of Yahweh – was meant to be the focus of the Israelite people.

However, there are two important things to be drawn from the story of the wise men visiting Jesus. Firstly, (more…)

What has God made?

Question 125, from ‘Dan’, United Kingdom

According to Romans chapter 1, verse 20 what specifically has God “Made” that leaves us without excuse?

This verse in Romans is referring to an argument for the existence of God, deduced from the existence of the world around us. Sometimes this is referred to as ‘natural theology’, or in philosophical terms as the ‘cosmological argument’ (from the Greek word ‘kosmos’ meaning ‘world’). What the writer, usually thought to be the apostle Paul, is saying, is that the existence of the world is evidence of God’s existence and because this is so obvious, anyone who does not worship God has no excuse for their impiety.

In the Epistle to the Romans Paul advances several ‘apologetic’ arguments, that is, he states reasons why he thinks people should accept Jesus Christ as their saviour (see chapter 1, verse 16). Paul begins his argument by explaining why every human needs a saviour. Pointing to the universality of human sinfulness, he cites the rejection of God, despite the ‘evidence’ of God’s existence, as proof that humans are sinful.

Although Paul uses the existence of the world as evidence for God, he also denies (more…)

The effect of the Flood on human life-spans

Question 124, from SF

The average life-span of people written about in the Old Testament was hundreds of years, yet after the flood life spans dramatically declined. I have heard somewhere that the cause of this is related to a change in the earth’s atmosphere after the flood. Where might I go to find out more on this theory?

The only time average human life-spans are recorded as notably longer is before the story of the great flood. Although there was a much lower life-expectancy in Old Testament times, for the vast majority of the Old Testament, a life-span of 70 years was considered a good age (see, for example Psalm 90, verse 10).

The theory mentioned in the question is often found in creationist literature produced by people who seek to ‘prove’ (more…)

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Pagan quotes in the New Testament

This question is sponsored by Going Public

Question 123, from ‘Sandra’

I was told there were six pagan quotes in the New Testament. Can you list them?

The New Testament was written in Greek, with many of the letters written in a multi-cultural society, so the fact that popular quotations from ‘pagan’ authors appear in the New Testament is unsurprising. What is more surprising for many people is to learn that phrases and words ascribed to Jesus himself often have ‘pagan’ roots and imply that Jesus was aware of contemporary pagan culture.

Examples of this include the word ‘hypocrite’, which was usually used in the context of Greek theatre to mean ‘actor’. It is certainly a Greek (Hellenistic) word that owes nothing to the Jewish culture or faith. In The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus, author Carsten Peter Theide puts forward a thesis that Jesus may have been a theatre-goer, or was exposed to pagan culture in Sepphoris, an almost-exclusively Roman city next to Nazareth (op cit, chapter 2). Similarly studies have been made of gnostic or other religious words (e.g. ‘logos’) which appear in to have been appropriated by the authors of the New Testament.

In Paul’s letters and recorded speeches, there are considerable allusions and references to pagan culture. (more…)

Alternative therapies – right or wrong?

Question 122, from CB, United Kingdom

Why do Christians think alternative therapies are wrong? ie Acupuncture, Reiki, Reflexology, Chinese medicine, herbal remedies etc?

The reluctance of many Christians to engage in ‘alternative medicine’ stems from a number of different sources, the most basic of which is a distrust for witchcraft and sorcery. There are, however, definite differences of opinion on whether alternative medicine is harmful, or ‘un-Christian’.

Theologically there is little to warn against in alternative medicine, and certainly any comments on non-Christian alternative medicine would also apply to Christian claims of healing, or the efficacy of prayer. There is considerable doubt about whether these treatments work, although some such as acupuncture do seem to have some evidence-based research to prove their effectiveness.

To understand why some Christians object to it requires (more…)

Long lives in Genesis

Question 121, from Luci, Canada

Our current system of dates was devised by Dionysus Exiguus in about 525 AD. I know that prior to adopting this ‘modern’ system many western cultures measured time by the reigns of their leaders. Today (as it was in the book of Genesis) days are measured by periods of light and darkness. What I wonder is who decided what an hour was, and who decided a day had 24 hours and the year was 365 days? Is it possible that the people who are marked as being centuries old in Biblical times actually had the same life spans that we do now but the method of measurement was different?

There are basically three different explanations for the long lifespans recorded in Genesis, before the account of Noah and the Flood. The first, adhered to by those who would argue that Genesis is literally true is that they did live those lengths of time. Various theories relating to the state of the world before the Flood are put forward to explain this.

The second explanation is that there has been some kind of counting error. This might be because of confusion over dating, due to time being measured in a variety of ways, or it could be because Hebrew ‘numbers’ are easy to misread and misinterpret (see this previous article). The third explanation is that the long lifespans were invented (more…)

The type of fruit Adam and Eve ate

Question 120, from LLG, USA

I have a question about the tree of knowledge? Was the tree an apple tree or a fig tree? I was told that Adam and Eve did not eat from an apple tree because an apple tree can not grow in the Middle East due to the climate, but that they ate from a fig tree instead. Also I was told that Adam and Eve came from Africa. Is any of this factual from a scientific viewpoint?

The account of the ‘Fall’ in Genesis chapter 3 where Adam and Eve disobey God by eating from ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil’ is probably best understood as being metaphorical. The type of tree (or fruit) isn’t referred to in the text.

The idea that Adam and Eve ate an apple has certainly taken hold in popular Western thought. Possibly this can be traced to (more…)

Jesus’ prophecy about his return

Question 119, from RW

I have read and reread Matthew chapter 24 and from what I see, Jesus was talking directly to the apostles about what would happen to them specifically. As far as the “generation” He spoke of, how could He mean something thousands of years away? I am beginning to see why Jews have nothing to do with Christ.

Whenever I ask people of faith about this, they look at me as if to wonder why I even bring up the question. I also get these long explanations as to why the return is some future event.

I smell a cover up and seriously wonder if the Christian community will ever come clean on this issue.

This question highlights a major difficulty with eschatology (the study of the ‘end times’). Certainly, a number of studies of the Christian belief about the end of the world ignore sections of the Bible, such as Matthew chapter 24, which suggest the second coming/judgement day is just about to happen, although this shouldn’t perhaps be viewed as a deliberate “cover up”.

In Matthew chapter 24, Jesus is recorded as warning his disciples about the imminent destruction of the Temple (verse 2), and how they could tell when the destruction is going to happen. It is generally accepted that (more…)

The morality and logic of hell

Question 118, from RF, Australia

This answer is sponsored by – the web hosts with standards.

I have a question about hell. What do you think of a God who says (to paraphrase Brian McLaren), ‘If you don’t love me, I’ll torture you forever in hell’? If the lake of fire scenario is right, then the vast bulk of humanity are going to be eternally tortured in ways that make Guantanamo seem tame. I want to be faithful to the Scriptures, and to God, so what do you think? Is annihilation-ism an unscriptural cop-out, or a better rendering of the biblical evidence?

One of the big issues of Western theology since the Enlightenment has been the application of moral judgements on theological statements. Frequently the debate about hell descends into a moral debate: is it right for people to suffer eternally, regardless of what they have done? Can Christianity assert on the one hand that God is loving, and yet equally willing to condemn people to hell?

This contradiction is a common criticism of Christianity. The cartoonist Scott Adams sums this up in one of his earlier books when he illustrates (more…)