If it bleeds it leads

First published in the Bridge Magazine, October 2018

I was chatting with someone recently and we got onto politics and elections, and his real fear that if an election came suddenly, he wouldn’t know who to vote for.

Conservative? But the Prime Minister is incompetent – just look at the mess with Brexit. Labour – Corbyn just wants to take the country back to the 1970s. And the other parties are no better.”

Then we switched to the broader political scene – and

that idiot Trump, and Putin – he’s a monster.”

We live in a frightening world. Or do we? Is it really as bad as it seems in the newspapers? When the Queen had her 90th birthday back in 2016, Guardian Columnist Simon Jenkins reflected on why a good news story was getting so much coverage when newspapers generally only give us bad news. And the simple answer is that bad news sells: or in newspaper speak:

If it bleeds, it leads.”

He recalled how an edict once came down from a newspaper owner saying he was fed up with so much bad news, so his staff prepared a spoof front page. ‘It reported:

No crashes at Heathrow”; “Government doing well”;

and in gossip column,

All celebrities slept in their own beds last night”.

Would you buy a newspaper that read like that?

And that’s part of the problem. We live in a frightening world because most of our information about our frightening world comes from newspapers who know that we won’t buy them if they don’t give us a reason to! The Pew Research Centre in the USA studied people’s news preferences over a 20-year period, starting in the late 1980s. What they found is that

people’s interest in the news is much more intense when there’s a perceived treat to their way of life.”

Fear sells! There’s money in crisis. Click here to find all about something horrible and how to avoid it.

The psychologists have probed the consequences of all this. Apparently, the more we’re exposed to news media, the more likely we are to feel our communities are unsafe; that the crime rate is rising (it isn’t!); and that the world is a dangerous place. Most strikingly of all, it makes us completely overestimate the odds of becoming a victim.

So how do we handle fear? Well we could read less news, but that too has its dangers. But what if we could find a place to read from that offers absolute security? Psalm 46 is an ancient prayer written by an unknown Bible author to teach his people how to pray in response to fear:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging…

…The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress….

…He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 1-3, 7, 10)

We love good news, and it’s a helpful buffer to fear. But what we really need in this life is the safety the Lord provides. When we place ourselves in his fortress we can choose not to fear, because we’ll know the absolute security offered by the one who, one day, will call all the nations to be still, and to give an account of their actions before him.

So next time you find yourself afraid because of a news story, why not turn to Psalm 46 and read it through and use it to pray away the fear?

The Power of Forgiveness

First published in the Bridge Magazine, November 2018 edition.

On March 28 2010, 19-year old Conor McBride shot his fiancée Ann Grosmaire, after a horrible row that had lasted for two days. An hour later he voluntarily handed himself into the police.

Ann was so badly wounded she had no hope of recovery. As he sat at her hospital bedside, her father Andy longed for her to speak. And as he listened he became utterly convinced he could hear her say, “Forgive him.” But how could he forgive this?

After four days Ann’s parents decided to switch off her ventilator. As he prayed next to her bed, Andy felt God speaking to him, that it was not just Ann asking him to forgive Conor, but Jesus Christ. Andy shared this with his wife Kate, who next day visited Conor in jail.

It was an emotional meeting. Conor wept as he said how very sorry he was. And then battling tears of her own, Kate explained that she and Andy wanted to forgive Conor for what he’d done. Then murderer, and the mother of the victim, sat and cried together for fifteen minutes. When the visit was over, Kate returned to the hospital, where she and Andy turned off Ann’s life support. Conor later received a twenty year sentence for her murder.

Forgiveness is not easy, but it is better than bitterness. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats us up from the inside out, destroying our relationships with others, splitting churches and villages, hindering our prayers and blocking the flow of God’s blessing in our lives. The only cure for the cancer of bitterness is the chemotherapy of love and forgiveness. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount,

love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”


if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Kate and Andy’s decision to forgive Conor set them free. Kate says,

Everything I feel [now], I can feel because we forgave Conor… Because we could forgive, people can say her name [around us]… I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it. Forgiveness for me was self-preservation.”

So how do you forgive? One simple way is to get a blank sheet of paper, and write down who needs to be forgiven and for what. Write honestly about how the wrong made you feel, and how you want to let go of those feelings. Then try to imagine the benefits of forgiving and write those down too: for example, how you long for sadness to become joy. Then at the bottom write “I forgive X” where X is the person who has wronged you. Then when you’ve written it all down, turn it into a prayer, seeking God’s help to forgive, saying sorry for how hard you find forgiveness, and asking him to help you change how you feel about that person. Finally, share the news with someone. If it’s the person you’re angry with, so much the better!

And as you do that, you’ll discover something wonderful: freedom. As counsellor Lewis B. Smedes puts it,

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”




You can read the full story of Conor and Ann’s families here.


Madagascar: Help me make a difference!

Help me make a difference!

First published in the Bridge Magazine June 2018


Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries: 70% of the population live on less than $1 a day – not quite the image we get of Madagascar from the movie!

The Good News Project in the town of Mandritsara, in Northern Madagascar is a charity hospital, a school, radio station and nursing school. For the last seven years, my Godmother has been a Missionary Optometrist at the hospital in Mandritsara. She is vital to the work they do and incredibly involved in lots of different aspects of the project, including the childrens work they do at the local church. Through my godmother, I have been invited to join the hospital’s Family Support Team for part of this summer, which I am immensely excited about.


Before starting university in Autumn 2018, I am eager to explore Christian mission and service in a Third World setting, and am excited about the opportunity to make a difference in a very needy part of the world, so on July 12th, I’ll be flying to join the team there for a month, to help them in a variety of ways:

  • Helping my Godmother teaching at a Saturday kids club run by a local church, and in the creche at a church plant in the village adjacent to the hospital.
  • Putting my drama A-level to work – leading drama workshops with some of the children.
  • Assisting with a school sight-screening programme. Madagascar has the second highest incidence of cataracts in the world and in 2014 my Godmother began a programme ensuring that all children starting school in Mandritsara have their vision screened.
  • Occasionally the Eye-Team travel to extremely remote locations in Madagascar to perform outreach clinics (cataracts again). If the opportunity arises, I would hope to be able to serve on one of these trips.
  • Educational support for five children of missionary doctors at the hospital (aged 18 months to 12 years), encouraging them with their education, especially reading.
The Good News hospital, Mandritsara

To fund the trip I’ve been working part-time as a lifeguard all through my final year at school. Family members have offered to help too, but my costs aren’t quite covered yet – and to help plug the gap on 23 June I’m doing a sponsored walk along the length of the Malvern Hills. If you’d like to sponsor me please get in touch with me via my mother, Carol Unwin  (carolunwin@gmail.com) or by post at Rose Bay, Tunnel Hill, Upton upon Severn, WR8 0QL. Or you can give directly via my Justgiving page.

I know some of you won’t be in a position to help financially, but I’d also really value your prayer support as I travel. It’s my first long trip alone – and straight into a malaria area! Please also pray for the hospital and the amazing work it’s doing in Mandritsara. Their website is full of useful information. The work they do is life changing.

This will be such a good opportunity for me to expand upon my knowledge of different cultures and also help those who need it most. I am thoroughly excited for this chance and hope that you will all pray for me whilst I am out there.

Many thanks for your support and I shall of course write another article for the Bridge after my trip to let you know how I got on!



Isobel Unwin

Do all religions lead to God?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, May 2018

Do all religions lead to God?

The belief that all religions are merely different paths up the same mountain is something of a cultural norm today. It’s often taught in schools to undergird the so-called “British” values of tolerance and respect, things which are surely essential in a multicultural society. And yet the moment you pause to think about the statement, it’s utterly absurd.

For a start, how could anyone claim to know that all religions are merely different paths up the same mountain? To know that all the paths up the mountain lead to the top you’d have to have total knowledge of the mountain, which when you remember that the mountain is God, is an enormously arrogant thing to claim!

Next, there’s the problem of what you mean by “all religions”, does “all” really mean all?  For example, does “all religions” include the Mexican cult of Santa Muerte (St Death)? In 2008, drug gangs kidnapped rival cartel members and sacrificed them in a ritual honouring St Death.   Does a human sacrifice religion count as a legitimate route to the top of the mountain? Or what about some of our modern science-fiction religions – for example, Jedi, which only began when Star Wars came out in 1977, or L.Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement? Hubbard was a science fiction writer in the 1940s and 1950s, and allegedly as a result of a bet with another author, invented a religion as a get rich quick scheme. Hubbard was reputedly worth $600million when he died, so it must have worked for him – but will it work for anyone else? Are these all legitimate routes up the mountain? And if they aren’t, why not, who gets to decide, and how do you apply for the job?

But perhaps the biggest problem with saying that all religions are merely different paths up the same mountain is the huge differences between the religions on important things like god, the nature of the universe, human beings, morality and salvation.

Let’s take three obvious examples:

  1. Christians believe there is one god. Hindus believe there are many gods. In what way is that the same?
  2. Jews believe in a personal, speaking god. Buddhists don’t believe in god at all. In what way is that the same?
  3. Islam, Judaism (in fact most of the big religions) teach that salvation (whatever they mean by that) comes about by human effort. Christianity teaches that no amount of human effort can ever earn salvation, instead, it’s a gracious gift from God offered through Jesus. In what way is that the same?

When you take the time to understand what the different religions believe, they can’t all be true because their beliefs are mutually exclusive. No matter how sincerely people believe they are right, there cannot be both multiple gods, only one god, and no god. In other words, some of the paths going up the mountain are leading nowhere!

The poet Steve Turner sums it up well in his tongue-in-cheek poem, Creed (which is well worth reading in full if you have the time).

We believe that all religions are basically the same,
at least the one that we read was.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
creation sin heaven hell God and salvation..

The differences between religions really matter. So much so that saying all religions lead to the same place is a bit like saying all trains lead to the same place.

As a child, I used to catch a train home from school, and one night my train wasn’t on its regular platform. I noticed, but two of my friends didn’t and boarded the express train to Scotland that the Fat Controller had unhelpfully parked on our regular platform.

Looking across at them through a grimy British Rail window, my first thought was, “It’s alright because all trains use platforms, rails, tickets, and seats – so they must lead to the same destination.” But then thankfully I realised that if they ever found out I hadn’t warned them, they’d probably never speak to me again, so I got off my train, got onto their train, and gave them the shocking news that all trains don’t go to the same destination and that if they wanted to get home tonight they really needed to get off!

I’d like to tell you that a surreal debate followed, in which my friends declared that all train destinations are just a matter of opinion and that they liked how their train made them feel, and who was I to declare it wrong for them? But thankfully my friends listened to the good news and followed me onto a train that would take them home!

All trains don’t lead to the same destination, and nor do all religions. Not if you actually bother to take onboard what they teach.

So what does all this mean for life in multicultural Britain?

Well, first it means we need a better basis for tolerating and respecting difference than arrogant and empty statements like “all religions are merely different paths up the mountain.”

Second, it means that when we hear people saying “all religions are merely different paths up the mountain” we should ask them why they believe that and demand to see the evidence.

And thirdly it should challenge us to ask the big question that our multicultural society is trying to tell us doesn’t matter: How can I know what is truly true?


Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, April 2018

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Someone recently told me he needed scientific proof before he could believe that Jesus rose from the dead. The problem is, it’s impossible to study past events under laboratory conditions!

Thankfully there are ways to probe the past: our legal system depends on it. No one demands scientific proof when it comes to a court case (though of course, we do use science to better understand some of the evidence). Instead, a jury uses the evidence to see which explanation (guilty or innocent) fits.

And we can do something similar with the resurrection. Listed below you’ll find seven common attempts to explain the first Easter. Let’s see which one best fits the evidence.

  1. Jesus rose from death.
  2. Jesus wasn’t dead, just unconscious, and exited the tomb when he recovered.
  3. Jesus’ disciples visited the wrong tomb.
  4. Jesus’ body was stolen by graverobbers.
  5. Jesus’ body was stolen by the Romans
  6. Jesus’ body was stolen by the disciples so they could claim Jesus had risen.
  7. Jesus’ disciples hallucinated the whole thing.

Let’s start by making sure Jesus was dead. In the hours leading up to his death, Jesus suffered an appalling beating leaving him significantly weakened. He was then crucified in classic Roman fashion (if you can stomach it, watch the Passion of the Christ to understand what he went through!) Wanting him dead before the Sabbath began at dusk, the Roman soldiers, who presumably knew a thing or two about killing, thrust a spear through his chest. From the description of the fluids flowing from the wound, it’s likely this perforated his lung, pericardium and heart. No reasonable doctor would suggest he was alive at this point.

But maybe his disciples went to the wrong tomb? The problem here is that the tomb wasn’t in an anonymous mass graveyard but a private burial cave in a garden belonging to a prominent citizen (Joseph of Arimathea). That’s a relatively easy thing to locate, which is why the Bible’s description of the reaction of Jesus’ followers to finding the tomb empty gives no hint that the location was in doubt.

So what about grave robbers? Let’s ignore the Romans guarding the tomb and the heavy stone sealing it and ask why anyone would want to rob the tomb? Jesus was known for his life of poverty, the only valuables in his tomb were the burial clothes – which his followers found left in the empty tomb. Why leave them and steal his body?

Maybe the Romans (or the Jewish authorities) took the body instead? They certainly had the opportunity, and perhaps a motive: to crush the Christian movement. But this begs an even bigger question: how much more damaging would it have been to produce the corpse when the disciples were running around Jerusalem telling people Jesus was alive?

So perhaps the disciples stole the body? For any resurrection conspiracy to work, you’d certainly have to get rid of Jesus’ body. The problem here is threefold.

  1. The gospels are pretty clear that the disciples weren’t expecting Jesus to rise from the dead.
  2. If it was a conspiracy, making a group of women your main eye-witnesses makes no sense at all: women’s testimony had no weight in Jewish law.
  3. If the conspirators spent the rest of their lives lying about Jesus rising from the dead, it’s astonishing that no one ever told the truth. Charles Colson – one of the Watergate conspirators – said:

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one  was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and  they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re  telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years?  Absolutely impossible.

Having ruled out most of the alternatives, what evidence is there that Jesus rose from death? Two strands of evidence are particularly helpful.

First, we have multiple eye-witness accounts of people seeing the risen Jesus. St Paul tells us Jesus appeared to Peter, “and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living” (1Corinthians 15:5-6). “Still living” is an invitation for doubters to go and meet the 500 eye-witnesses who saw the risen Jesus and ask them about it!

Now you might respond by saying they were hallucinating? But the sightings of Jesus don’t fit any pattern of mass hallucination that modern psychology is aware of. There was no expectation that Jesus would rise, there’s no use of narcotics, and Jesus was seen in different places by different groups of people, who interacted with him, touched him and even ate with him.

My second strand of evidence supporting the resurrection is the remarkable transformation in the disciples. Jesus’ arrest and execution left them distraught, demoralised, and afraid. Yet six weeks later they’re standing on street corners and in the Temple fearlessly proclaiming that they have seen the risen Jesus – a message that shook Jerusalem to its core and which despite huge persecution, spread rapidly outwards through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the Earth: even rural Worcestershire.

Modern science first came up with the Big Bang theory because scientists looked at our rapidly expanding universe and concluded that something pretty remarkable (a big bang) had to have set everything in motion. It’s the same with Christianity. When you look at the rapid expansion of the early church it’s clear something remarkable happened to set everything in motion. Which of the explanations do you think best fits the evidence?


If you’d like to read more on arguments about the resurrection, Who Moved the Stone? By Frank Morison, a sceptic who set out to disprove the resurrection is a great place to start. Or catch the film Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes.

Does the Bible condone slavery?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, February 2018

Does the Bible condone slavery?

Someone once asked me, “Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?” He’d been reading some bits of the Bible (in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Philemon) and couldn’t find anything saying slavery was wrong. He therefore concluded that the Bible condones slavery. Was he right?

Let’s start by defining what we mean by “slave.” Today, it makes us think of the horrific race-based “colonial slavery” that took place in the 17th-19th centuries on plantations in the Americas, and sometimes even closer to home: there are slaves mentioned in the baptism and burial records of the nearby village of Twyning!

However, the word had a more complex meaning in the ancient world. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as slave in modern Bibles can mean a colonial-type slave or a servant or a bondservant. A bondservant was typically someone who got into debt and had no alternative but to sell themselves into the service of a rich master for a period of time. In exchange, this master would clear their debt, pay them a wage, house them and feed them (and their family). Arguably that’s a better deal than you’d get from Wonga, and isn’t so far removed from the idea that Andy Burnham, Mayor of Manchester, proposed on Question Time recently: to pay off junior doctors’ student loans if they’d commit to working in Manchester for five years after they graduated!

So when we read the word “slave” in the Bible, we have look for clues in the surrounding verses to work out which of the three meanings the author meant. Here are a few examples:

  1. Joseph – (he of the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) – is a classic colonial slave: assaulted by his brothers and sold to slave traders who sold him into the service of an Egyptian nobleman.
  2. Moses and the whole people of Israel in Egypt are also classic colonial slaves: cruelly treated, they have no hope of freedom.
  3. 3.The slaves held by the Israelites in Leviticus 25 (from v39 onwards) are most likely bonded servants, because the passage sets out how, if there was no help available from family, a debtor could sell himself into slavery to clear the debt.
  4. Onesimus – the slave who features in Paul’s letter to Philemon is most likely a bonded servant too (though there’s no way to know for certain).

What does the Bible think of these different types of slavery? Does it condemn or condone them? It can hardly be said to condone slavery when it condemns any trading activity involving slaves. Exodus 21:16 says

“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.”

St Paul echoes this in the New Testament by including slave traders in a list of breakers of God’s moral law (1Timothy 1:9-10).

We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers,10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

The Bible also condemns any abuse of power in a master-slave relationship – see for example Ephesians 6:9:

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

– and encourages slaves who have become Christians to seek freedom if they are able (1Corinthians 7:21).

Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.

So the Bible doesn’t condone slavery, but nor does it go the whole hog and condemn it by commanding that all slaves be set free. The most plausible reason for this is political. It took Christian MP William Wilberforce decades of coalition-building and campaigning at the highest level of a relatively democratic government to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. The early Christians had none of his advantages – they were a tiny, powerless, persecuted sect living in an autocratic Empire that had slavery at every level of its life. Changing this was too big a task for such a small group of people; so instead they set about changing hearts and minds by caring for the sick, widows and orphans, all the while sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t, however, excuse later generations of Christians who did have the power and influence to change things, and either didn’t use it, or took advantage of the Bible’s varied meaning of the word slave to continue to profit from slavery.

Thankfully there have always been those who vocally opposed slavery. For example, St Wulfstan, the 11th century Bishop who laid the foundations of Worcester Cathedral and Malvern Priory, was an outspoken mediaeval opponent of slavery. But it wasn’t until the Evangelical Awakening of the late 18th century that Christians really began to mobilise, leading to the abolition of slavery in first the British Empire and then the Americas.

Tragically that struggle continues today. The Christian charity International Justice Mission estimates that there are some 40 million modern slaves worldwide, and Christian charities across the world continue to be at the forefront of the battle to set them free.

If you would like to know more about the campaign to end modern slavery, visit www.ijmuk.org

“Virgin on the Ridiculous!” Was Jesus really born to a virgin?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, December 2017

“Virgin on the Ridiculous!” Was Jesus really born to a virgin?

The idea that Jesus was born to a virgin mother is found in two of the Bible’s four accounts of Jesus’ life. The gospel of Luke tells the story from the perspective of Mary, a young teenage girl, who is visited by an angel saying,

Don’t be afraid Mary. You have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Mary replies,

How will this be since I am a virgin?

Matthew’s gospel gives us Joseph’s take on the story: how an angel visits him to talk him out of breaking his engagement to the pregnant Mary because

What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew then links it to a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Isaiah,

The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Immanuel’ – which means ‘God with us.’”

So why do people object to the idea of the Virgin Birth? Well let’s look at the main objections and try to address each in turn.


1)There’s no evidence.

This is the weakest objection to the Virgin Birth. For starters, we have the eye-witness testimony of the mother (recorded in Luke) and her future husband (recorded in Matthew). Luke made a comprehensive study of the early Christians, he met James, one of Mary’s other sons, and Joseph, the half-brother of Jesus, and he spent time in Jerusalem within Mary’s possible lifetime. He tells us many things about her that no other gospel writer does – the sort of things that might have come direct from her. By any historical standard, that’s good evidence.


2) Mary lied about it. She was just a young girl who got pregnant and made up the angel story to pacify her angry parents and fiancé.

Except it didn’t pacify them – Joseph wanted to cancel the engagement! If Mary was a liar, she could have invented a far more plausible lie: for example, she could have invented the sort of story that the Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity Celsus made up 150 years later, telling everyone she’d been raped by a Roman soldier (Celsus gave him the very common Roman soldier name Pantera.)


3) Luke and Matthew copied pagan myths of Virgin Births to make Jesus seem impressive.

The problem with this objection is twofold. First, there aren’t any pagan Virgin Birth myths that sound anything like Jesus’ birth. There are stories of women who had sex with gods and produced children, but whilst that’s miraculous, that’s not a Virgin Birth. Historian Thomas Boslopper compared the Virgin Birth to all the Pagan stories and concludes,

The literature of the world is prolific with narratives of unusual births, but it contains no precise analogy to the Virgin Birth in Matthew and Luke. Jesus’ ‘Virgin Birth’ is not ‘pagan’” [i]

The second problem is that Matthew’s gospel was written to convince a Jewish audience that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Jewish religion. So how could dressing Jesus up in a Pagan myth have persuaded them he was a good Jew?


4) The apostle Paul doesn’t mention it. Apart from Luke and  Matthew, the rest of the New Testament ignores the Virgin Birth.

This objection is an argument from silence. The rest of the New Testament doesn’t mention the Virgin Birth, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – it just means they didn’t mention it.

Let’s change tack for our next objection and think of the scientific objection.


5) It’s biologically impossible. Science says you need a woman and a man for conception to occur. Therefore, Jesus’ origin must be miraculous, and this is impossible because miracles don’t happen.

The problem with this objection is that it’s conclusion (the virgin birth is miraculous and therefore impossible) is assumed in the initial assumption (that there is no God, or if there is a God but he doesn’t intervene in nature).

But what happens if we change our initial assumption to something a little more open-minded? If we allow the possibility that the all powerful creator God the Bible describes is real and that he intervenes in nature, then of course a Virgin Birth is possible!


6) Christians misunderstand what the Bible says.  The word translated “virgin” in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (which is quoted by Matthew in his account) can also mean “young woman.”

It’s true that the word translated “virgin” can also mean young woman, but it’s also true that it’s never used of a young woman who isn’t a virgin.

However there’s a far bigger clue to the meaning of the word in what Isaiah says: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”.

Now imagine your God’s PR company and you want to do a publicity stunt (a sign) to publicise the birth of God in human form (that’s what Immanuel means). Which would be the more memorable publicity stunt: a young woman giving birth to a son, or a virgin giving birth? Which would people still be talking about 2000 years later?

I once heard a scientist speaking on the radio critiquing the biology of the Virgin Birth. He said,

If such a thing were to happen it would be an event unique in human history.”

He said that as a way of dismissing it, but actually I think he makes my point rather well. The Virgin Birth is a unique, miraculous moment in history, a sign, pointing us to the significance of the baby born to an unmarried mum in a rundown stable in a backwards hill-country town in the middle of nowhere; God with us. May you enjoy discovering him this Christmas time!

If you’d like to read more about the Virgin Birth, historian and theologian NT Wright has written a good article here:


[i] Boslooper, Thomas (1962), The Virgin Birth, Philadelphia: Westminster Press)., p162

Are Christians inconsistent about laws in the Old Testament?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, November 2017

Are Christians inconsistent about laws in the Old Testament?

Sometimes Christians get accused of picking and choosing which Old Testament laws they want to obey.  For example, the Old Testament outlaws the eating of shellfish, and the wearing of mixed fabrics – yet many Christians today say it’s okay to ignore those laws, whilst at the same time insisting that we obey other parts of the Old Testament law. Surely this is inconsistent?

If you know the US TV series The West Wing you might remember an episode in which the US President challenges an obnoxious Christian radio host about her apparent inconsistency. First he baits her into quoting chapter and verse on some Old Testament laws she upholds. Then he says to her:

I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?

While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police?

Here’s one that’s really important ’cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? …”[i]

Now it’s undeniable that Christians ignore some Old Testament laws while obeying others. Whilst some might do this out of ignorance, I want to suggest that actually there’s a really good reason why Christians should be inconsistent in their approach to the Old Testament law, and that reason is Jesus and the bigger story the Bible is telling.

To understand why, let’s think about the purposes of Old Testament laws. Broadly speaking they fall into three categories:

  1. Sacrificial laws which relate to the animal sacrifices offered in the Jewish religious system. The purpose of these sacrifices was to deal with sin.
  2. Ceremonial purity laws which include rules about clean and unclean foods and animals (the President pigskin laws!) Their purpose was to help people be ritually clean, ready to come into God’s presence in the temple, and also to keep Israel distinctive from the other nations.
  3. Moral laws which set out moral rights and wrongs. For example Leviticus 20, which among other things says that practices such as child sacrifice, incest, spiritualism and adultery are wrong.

However the Old Testament isn’t just a law book, it also tells the story of God’s relationship with his people. As we meet characters like Abraham, David, Esther and Ruth, we learn about God’s trustworthiness and his care for his people. We also see how impossible it is to keep God’s law perfectly. That’s why in the Old Testament, the heroes are also always villains!

Taken together these individual stories reveal a bigger story arc: the search for a descendant of Adam and Eve who will put the world to rights. He’s given various names, for example:

  • Serpent Crusher (Genesis 3:15);
  • a Prophet greater than Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-19);
  • an Everlasting King (2Samuel 7:12-16);
  • and the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53).

But it wasn’t until nearly 500 years after the final words of the Old Testament were written that Jesus declared these prophecies were all about him (John 5:39). You can imagine what a shock it was. Such blasphemy! No wonder they crucified him! And if Jesus had stayed dead his words would have died with him. But he rose from the grave, and that’s why we take what he says about the Old Testament and what we do with its laws so seriously.

So what did Jesus do to the Old Testament Law? For starters, Jesus commits himself to all of it. He says,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)

But what does that word fulfill mean?

  1. The sacrificial laws find their fulfillment in Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice. Christians have no need to sacrifice sheep and goats because Jesus is the final sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10) “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
  2. The ritual purity laws also find their fulfillment at the Cross. No amount of eating the correct diet can makes us ritually clean before God, but asking for forgiveness through the cross makes us clean once and for all (1John 1:8-9). Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19) and the early church rejected ritual practices such as circumcision (1Corinthians 7:18).
  3. But what about the moral laws – the laws governing life and love and all our relationships? Jesus made them even more demanding! He said things like, “You’ve heard that it was said love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but I tell you love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s the moral law of love dialled up to 11! No wonder we need the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

So are Christians inconsistent in their handling of Old Testament laws? Yes – but only if you take the Old Testament law books in isolation and ignore the purpose of the laws they contain. However if you read the Old Testament laws books in the context of the bigger redemption story revealed in the Bible, Christians are right to distinguish between different types of Old Testament law. In fact, to not distinguish would be to deny one of the central themes of Christian faith: that Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for sin.


[i] The West Wing, series 2, episode 3, “The Midterms” quote cited from http://bernidymet.com/president-bartlets-theology-challenge-how-will-you-respond/

Does religion cause war?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, October 2017

Doesn’t religion cause most of the conflict in the world?

The sooner all religions are gone, the sooner the world will be a peaceful place”

was how one angry caller responded to a phone-in on Radio 5 Live last week about the proportion of religious and non-religious people in our country.

We only have to think of ISIS in Syria, or to the sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, to recognize that religion has some blood on its hands. But is the caller’s idea true more broadly? Eminent atheist Richard Dawkins certainly thinks so:

There’s no doubt that throughout history, religious faith has been a major motivator for war and for destruction.”[1]

Atheist author Sam Harris goes even further by calling religion,

the most prolific source of violence in our history”[2]

Now in their books, Dawkins and Harris are always very keen for us to only believe things for which there is sound evidence, so let’s examine the evidence to see if what Harris says is true: is religion really is the most prolific source of violence in our history?

In 2014 The Institute for Economics and Peace published “Peace and Religion” exploring the causes of the 35 armed conflicts that occurred during 2013. It concluded that

Religion did not stand as a single cause in any conflict”

and that religion played no role at all in 40% of the conflicts. Whilst religion was identified as the main cause of conflict in 14% of cases, something else was far more likely to be the main cause: opposition to a particular government or its economic, ideological, political or social system (65%).

But that was just 2013, surely the picture is different if we take a longer-term study? In 2004 Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod published a book every nerdy schoolboy would want on his shelf: the Encyclopaedia of Wars. It covers every major war, rebellion and revolution from the last 5,500 years.  Of the 1,763 wars analysed, just 7% (123) were categorized as having religion as their main cause. Interestingly more than half of the 7% were related to just one religion: Islam.

You might think therefore that with the rise of Al-Qaeda and Isis since 2004, the proportion of conflicts having religion as their main cause is on the rise. However Gordon Martel’s 2012 The Encyclopaedia of War, which covers similar ground to Phillip and Axelrod but also includes the period up to 2011, identifies religion as the cause in only 6% of wars.[4]

In his book River out of Eden, Richard Dawkins said[5],

Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.”

And the evidence tells us that the claim religion is “the most prolific source of violence in our history” is a myth!

But if it isn’t religion that causes war, what does? All the evidence suggests that the main cause of conflict is what American political scientist Randolph Rummel called “Death by government” – a phrase he coined  to describe the biggest single cause of death in the 20th century – the 170 million men, women and children “shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed or killed in any other of a myriad of ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners.”[6]

When you break down Rummel’s numbers it’s easy to see who lies behind most of the deaths in the 20th century, but it’s impossible to tell how much religion (or its absence, in the majority of these cases) contributed to this death toll.

  Religious belief Deaths
Stalin (Russia) Atheist 42,672,000
Lenin (Russia) Atheist 4,017,000
Mao Zedong (China) Atheist 37.828,000
Chian Kai-Shek (China) Confuscianism (mixed with Christianity) 10,214,000
Hideki Tojo (Japan) Emperor Worship 3,990,000
Pol Pot (Cambodia) Atheist (mixed with Buddhism) 2,397,000
Adolf Hitler (Germany) Most likely a pantheist, though his religious statements are so contradictory that it is hard to pin him down. 20,946,000


Perhaps we should blame Communism instead? Certainly a lot of the 20th Century’s “Death by Government” can be linked to Communism. But what of the millions who died in the 19th century before Marx and Lenin appeared on the scene? We can’t hang their deaths on Communism.

The fact is, every century, every period of history, has an -ism: Imperialism, Communism, Capitalism, Atheism, Islamism, Christianism – and it isn’t the -ism that causes the conflict in that period. Conflict is caused by giving unchecked access to power to leaders willing to kill to impose their -ism. As Theologian David Bentley Hart puts it,

-isms are variables, but killing is a human constant.”[7]

Which brings us to the heart of the problem – which is the problem of the human heart. If my Radio 5 Live caller really cares about making the world a more peaceful place, it’s not religion that needs eliminating, but the problems of the human heart.  As Jesus said,

it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”” (Mark 7:21-23)

And what offers the best solution to the problem of the human heart? Atheism or Religion? Well my money is on Jesus!



[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfYrNz3zhno

[2] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith, page 27

[4] https://www.str.org/blog/is-religion-the-cause-of-most-wars#.Wa__cMiGOUk

[5] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins

[6] Rummel, RJ, Death by Government, p9

[7] Bentley Hard, David, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies


Half-Term Holiday Club