Paul’s Conversion: Evidence for the Truth of Christianity

Conversion of St Paul
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“And here let me pause to say that it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of St. Paul’s conversion as one of the evidences of Christianity. That he should have passed, by one flash of conviction, not only from darkness to light, but from one direction of life to the very opposite, is not only characteristic of the man, but evidential of the power and significance of Christianity. That the same man who, just before, was persecuting Christianity with the most violent hatred, should come all at once to believe in Him whose followers he had been seeking to destroy, and that in this faith he should become a “new creature”—what is this but a victory which Christianity owed to nothing but the spell of its own inherent power? Of all who have been converted to the faith of Christ, there is not one in whose case the Christian principle broke so immediately through everything opposed to it, and asserted so absolutely its triumphant superiority. Henceforth to Paul Christianity was summed up in the one word Christ.

And to what does he testify respecting Jesus? To almost every single primarily important fact respecting His Incarnation, Life, Sufferings, Betrayal, Last Supper, Trial, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Heavenly Exaltation. We complain that nearly two thousand years have passed away, and that the brightness of historical events is apt to fade, and even their very outline to be obliterated, as they sink into the “dark backward and abysm of time.” Well, but are we more keen-sighted, more hostile, more eager to disprove the evidence, than the consummate legalist, the admired rabbi, the commissioner of the Sanhedrin, the leading intellect in the schools—learned as Hillel, patriotic as Judas of Gaulon, burning with zeal for the Law as intense as that of Shammai?

He was not separated from the events, as we are, by centuries of time. He was not liable to be blinded, as we are, by the dazzling glamour of a victorious Christendom. He had mingled daily with men who had watched from Bethlehem to Golgotha the life of the Crucified,—not only with His simple-hearted followers, but with His learned and powerful enemies. He had talked with the priests who had consigned Him to the cross; he had put to death the followers who had wept beside His tomb. He had to face the unutterable horror which, to any orthodox Jew, was involved in the thought of a Messiah who “had hung upon a tree.”

He had heard again and again the proofs which satisfied an Annas and a Gamaliel that Jesus was a deceiver of the people. The events on which the Apostles relied, in proof of His divinity, had taken place in the full blaze of contemporary knowledge. He had not to deal with uncertainties of criticism or assaults on authenticity. He could question, not ancient documents, but living men; he could analyse, not fragmentary records, but existing evidence. He had thousands of means close at hand whereby to test the reality or unreality of the Resurrection in which, unto this time, he had so passionately and contemptuously disbelieved. In accepting this half-crushed and wholly execrated faith he had everything in the world to lose—he had nothing conceivable to gain; and yet, in spite of all—overwhelmed by a conviction which he felt to be irresistible—Saul, the Pharisee, became a witness of the Resurrection, a preacher of the Cross.”

-The life and work of St. Paul, Volume 1, By Frederic William Farrar pp 114-115

How I Became a Christian – Part 3

Icon of saint womens who went to Tomb of Christ
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In my last post I talked about my conversion from atheism to theism. My lifestyle didn’t change; I was still acting pretty wild, but I also started to get more serious about getting passing grades under the threat of failing to graduate high school.

I didn’t know who God really was, and I wasn’t sure anyone did. In our pluralistic world, there are countless different religions, denominations, sects making exclusive truth claims. How could I tell who was telling the truth? My gut told me that the truth about God had to be objective, not subjective. The truth about God couldn’t be reduced to something like picking what baseball team to root for, or what kind of soda you prefer. The relativistic, politically correct attitude of “whatever works for you” seemed like a patronizing way of saying “I don’t believe anything you’re saying, but whatever floats your boat, just so long as you leave me alone”.

For a short while, I tinkered with the idea of deism, but that view presents God as some sort of deadbeat dad. A god who does not have anything to do with people has no real purpose for existing in to being with. God by necessity would have to care about his creation, or he is not a god worth our time, so I quickly ditched that idea.

From there, perhaps strangely enough, I moved my attention to Islam. Why exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe it was the inclusive portrayal of Islam  towards the end of the movie Malcolm X. I liked the idea that he was willing to die for what he thought was right, and the 5 Pillars of Islam seemed noble enough. Then I started reading up on Islam. I didn’t get far. I just had a hard time of making sense of its claims.

I was now coming full-circle back to my childhood. I dug up the Bible that was given me when I was confirmed as a catholic and started to go through it. It was partly illustrated, and I got a good chuckle from the different pictures of lions laying with lambs and apostate Jews singing to pieces of wood. What was I getting myself into?

I didn’t accept the bible as God’s word, but I was giving the Bible its day in court. Like most people, I got started in Genesis but I didn’t make it very far. I’m probably opening a can of worms, but talking serpents, forbidden fruit, the mystery of Cain’s wife and giant flood made my head swim, if I’m being honest. I now feel I have a better understanding of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, but then it was just confusing and didn’t seem credible.

Going forward, I just opened the bible to a random spot and started to read. The Psalms poetry was beautiful, and as a “suburban gangsta-ite” I liked the psalmists’ fearlessness. Take for instance the 56th Psalm:

In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can mortal man do to me?

I found the transparency of the wide range of emotions of the psalmist refreshing, and I enjoyed the quick-hits of morality and wisdom found in the proverbs, but I struggled to get into the new testament. At the time I think I would have really been happy if I had a copy of the Jefferson Bible. Like Jefferson, I found the teachings of Jesus to be “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man”, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, but the miracles were a tough sell. Like Jefferson, I felt like tearing them out of my bible. The other side of Jesus, the “magician side” of turning water to wine, healing the sick, casting out demons and his grand finale – rising from the dead – fell on deaf ears.

But then I had a hard time dealing with the simple fact that the church grew out of the basis of Jesus’ alleged miracles and resurrection. And historically, these men who were spreading this message believed what they preached so much they were willing to be chased halfway across the world, and many of them died some of the most gruesome sorts of deaths without recanting this belief. Why would they do this? In the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul, a former persecutor of the church declares that a little over 500 people had testified to seeing a risen Jesus. In other words Paul was saying “if you don’t believe my testimony, ask around. There are plenty of others who saw him.”

Jesus’ own brother James disbelieved and thought that Jesus was nuts (John 7:5, Mark 3:21), but then later he became a pastor, apostle and martyr. The disciples went from cowering in fear to boldly accusing the Sanhedrin for the death of Christ, and the Jews didn’t even dispute that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Instead they came up with a cockamamie  story about the disciples stealing Jesus’ body, but again, that doesn’t explain the conversion of skeptics – James, Paul, or again, the willingness of the early church to be persecuted, imprisoned, whipped, tortured, exiled, crucified, beheaded, eaten by lions, and cut to pieces by gladiators. Usually a good hoax leads to some sort of gain, this certainly wasn’t the case with the early church.

The astonishing personality and moral teachings of Jesus convinced me that he was an exceptional human being. But that his followers were willing to die before revoking their claim as eyewitnesses of his resurrection was something that made me think there was more to this Jesus person besides being a good, moral teacher. The other question that being begged to be asked – “what did Jesus gain by dying in such a horrible way?” If it was as the bible teaches, that his death was to reconcile me to God,  that would more sense than him dying as some sort of martyr. It would also give proof that God was not some deadbeat dad in the sky, or some lawgiver standing completely aloof from his creation. It would demonstrate that He is a God of amazing love.

I hadn’t made the leap quite yet, but as it turned out, Christianity looked more reasonable than I had imagined it could have.

to be continued