Bible Truths

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If ever there was evidence that Christianity is an entirely human affair it’s the way believers constantly disagree with each another. If the bible really was, in some way, ‘the Word of God’ (they don’t all agree even with what this might mean) then surely it would offer greater clarity on what being a Christian entails. Given what’s at stake – heaven or hell, a life of fullness or one spent mired in sin, helping the poor and hungry or self-indulgence – you’d think God would be just a little more precise about what his expectations are.

Instead, what do we get? A rag bar collection of myths, pseudo-history, folklore, poetry, fantasy, yet more pseudo-history, letters, forgeries and invective. Muddled and inconsistent about what the Supreme Being requires of his creation, it ranges from a forever agreement that says following a set of arbitrary laws is what he wants, along with a spot of male genital-mutilation (Genesis 17.1-16), to a new scheme that involves magical incantation (Romans 10.19), to yet another that says helping those in need is what he requires (Matthew 25.31-40).

I’ve been involved at different times in my life with writing policy documents for a range of organisations. Despite creating what I’d estimate to be around 50 of these documents, it never occurred to me to cobble together myth, stories, letters and fake news in even one of them. They needed to be precise, detailing how the organisation worked, what its take was on various areas of operation and, most importantly spelling out for people as clearly as possible what was expected of them. This precision was important; the documents had to be water-tight and open to as little interpretation as possible. They couldn’t allow for the possibility of one part of the organisation acting in one way in a given area while another acted completely differently in that same area.

If I, a fallible human, could manage this more often than not, why couldn’t God? Why could he not, for example,

Declare definitively how old the Earth is so as to leave no room for dispute?

Why could he not set out his requirements for pleasing him as one single, unequivocal list? (he’s not averse to bullet points – see his ten commandments, of which he manages to present two largely incompatible versions, both of them fairly useless.)

Why could he not ‘inspire’ scribes contemporaneous with the figures in the Old Testament to record what happened as they happened and not centuries later?

Why could he not ‘inspire’ eye-witnesses of Jesus ‘ministry’ to write about it at the time, instead of waiting decades before giving the job to strangers who’d never met him?

Why could he not say decisively what happens to people when they die?

Why could he not present one definitive way of how to get in his good books instead of offering a range of confused alternatives, about which he is prone to change his mind?

And so on and so forth…

If the managing director of an organisation produced policy documents as shoddy and shambolic as God’s they wouldn’t last five minutes. Nor would the organisation.

But of course God didn’t write, inspire or otherwise cause the bible to be written. It’s human through and through, culturally-bound (to a range of ancient cultures) and not intended by its myriad authors to be a single volume. This fact doesn’t trouble most Christians; they read it selectively, if they read it at all, and believe what they are told about it. Others, who are aware of the bible’s shortcomings, have a variety of ways of negotiating around them. All of these entail great dollops of cognitive dissonance. We’ll look at some of them next time.

Jesus, plus nothing

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‘Jesus, plus nothing’ is the motto – the slogan – of ‘The Family’, a secretive, clandestine Christian group that for 60+ years has influenced, and been part of, the government of the USA. Yes, poor persecuted Christians, who find their rights eroded on a daily basis (or so they like to tell us) actually exercise a disproportionate amount of control over those in power. Controlled for many years by ‘the most influential Christian you’ve never heard of’, Doug Coe, this group disregards any notion of separation of church and state. The new Netflix series, The Family, based on Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family and C Street, documents their activities, which include affecting policy both at home and abroad, and taking the gospel of ‘Jesus, plus nothing’ to the mighty and powerful across the globe, often on the taxpayer’s dime.

But what does ‘Jesus, plus nothing’ really mean? There’s no doubt it’s intended to convey a stark honesty: this version of Christianity, it says, is without all the clutter that has accrued since Jesus walked the Earth, including all of Paul’s complicated theology. The Family’s holy book is not the bible in its entirety but a slim volume simply entitled Jesus that contains only the four gospels and Acts. The Jesus story, pure and simple.

Except there really isn’t anything simple about the Jesus story. It isn’t even a single story. Nor is there one, single Jesus. (As you’ll see at the links, I’ve written about both of these problems before.) The Jesus that The Family promotes is one of its own making. Of course, every version of Jesus is a construct, loosely based, at best, on bits and pieces from the bible, but manufactured entirely by what different groups and individuals would like him to be. It’s probable that the gospels themselves are constructs built on Old Testament ‘prophecies’ and references, and that the Jesuses they portray are no more than literary creations. Even so, the Jesuses held dear by modern believers, and The Family in particular, bear little resemblance to the constructs of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John on which he is supposedly based.

He is, as one of The Family’s Christian critics points out, a talisman, a magic word that opens doors for speaking ‘truth’ to dictators and tyrants. A Jesus synonymous with power; the power to control nations’ policies, direction and morality. A Jesus who chooses his men (always men) to wield this power; a Jesus who chooses ‘weak vessels’ to do his bidding; a Jesus who, The Family is convinced, chose Donald Trump to be president. And when Jesus chooses you – or when his agents on Earth do – then you are chosen indeed. They make sure of it.

To be continued.

What have reason and logic to do with faith?

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Last time I considered the Christian claim that reason and logic can only derive from God, and that non-believers’ use of them is nothing more than a illicit hijacking of powers supplied by the God they deny. Why is it important to modern day Christians to attribute reason to their God? After all, the bible only ever speaks disparagingly of reason. It is, it says, the path to self-delusion; Proverbs 3.5 warns ‘trust not in your own understanding,’ while faith, according to Paul far surpasses the limitations of reason and rationality. More than this, as I discuss here, the God of the bible is far from reasonable and logical himself. His response to every issue is the death penalty, mass murder and blood sacrifice.

According to Christians, human reasoning makes no sense if it is ‘merely’ the product of evolution. A random and undirected process cannot produce a reliable rationality on its own. Naturally, they are never entirely clear why this is the case; evolution has, after all, led to other distinctly human characteristics on which we regularly depend, imperfect though they may be: language, memory, social bonding and creativity among them.

However, having singled out reason and dismissed evolution as its cause, Christians then jump to the conclusion that the human capacity to think must come from God. According to Tim Keller, rationality is a ‘clue’, planted in every human being, to God’s existence.* It has evidently never occured to Keller that, by the same token, the human capacity for unbounded irrationality is likewise a ‘clue’ to the non-existence of any rational deity.

Human reasoning – and there’s no other kind – is, like every other evolved characteristic, flawed. It is only as secure as the premise from which it proceeds. Get that wrong, by adopting a premise with an insufficiency of evidence (such as ‘God is a God of Reason’) and human cognition will only ever abandon us in the blind alley of faith.

*The Reason For God, p141

The Incarnate Deity?

Blog347Nativity

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity,

Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.

This, according to Charles Wesley’ hymn, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, is what Christmas is all about: God manifesting himself on Earth as a child and subsequently a man.

What a disaster this whole idea is. The stories of Jesus’ birth do serious damage to two key elements of the Christian message:

First, they detract significantly from the good news the adult Jesus proclaimed and which survives to some extent in the synoptic gospels: the Kingdom of God was coming to the Earth very soon and people – Jewish people – should mend their ways accordingly. Instead, the nativity stories, which occur only in Matthew and Luke, are a reflection of what had happened to the faith by the time these gospels were written. The message had changed. It was less about what Jesus had to say and more about how he himself should be worshipped. He had, after all, as early Christians had started to believe, come from Heaven to save everyone from their sins.

Second, the nativity stories negate the resurrection. If a mortal Jesus rose from the dead, then we might conceivably have a miracle on our hands. But for an ‘incarnate deity’ to have accomplished the same thing – well, that’s no big deal. It’s what gods do all the time. The resurrection experiences, whatever they were, are invalidated by the gospel writers when, at the start of his story, they suggest Jesus is somehow divine. (John is even more emphatic; Jesus is the eternal Word made flesh.) So there’s nothing special about the resurrection, it’s just a god doing what gods do.

The nativity stories represent the confusion within early Christianity. Its adherents wanted it both ways, to have their cake and eat it. Maybe today’s believers can help us out of the dilemma: is it Jesus’ birth – his incarnation – that matters, or is it his death? Because it cannot be both. If Jesus was God in human form from the very beginning, then there’s nothing particularly special about his death and resurrection. Gods can’t really die, especially when none of them, including Yahweh, are alive in the first place.

God’s deficient policy documents

Universe

If you have read even a small percentage of my posts then you know I focus a great deal on defining and presenting the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I also focus on the Word of God as our source of God’s Truth, which is absolute. We also have defined faith and what God has done to save His people from their sins, which is the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, perfect life, crucifixion, and resurrection.                 

Mike Ratcliff on Possessing the Treasure

 

Is your job description at work expressed as a story or myth?

       Are the aims and objectives of your company based on the hallucinations of the owners?

                   Is the health and safety policy made up of spells and incantations devised by someone with no real connection to the company?

Can you imagine if the kind of documentation that determines your work conditions was composed of myths, stories of dreams and visions, historically unreliable accounts and largely incomprehensible, magical terms and conditions? Not only this, but you’re required to root around within this documentation to discover what it is you’re meant to be doing and when you have, you need to find someone who can explain it properly to you.

This, according to Christians, is how God chose to tell his creation what he expected of it. The omniscient, all powerful creator of the universe, whose thoughts are so much greater than ours, was unable to put together a clear, systematic and concise set of directions about how he wants us to live and what we should believe if we’re to avoid an eternity of torture.

These messages are so important, apparently, that he thought they’d be best conveyed in folklore and myth – much of it plagiarised from other cultures – fantastic stories written decades after the events they relate, and muddled, contradictory theology.

Why on Earth would he do this? Why would he not speak directly and clearly to fallible, sinful humans? Provide us, perhaps, with a list that sets out straightforwardly and unequivocally what we need to do if we’re to be ‘saved’. (It’s not as if he’s averse to supplying lists; the Ten Commandments are a list, as are the rules in Leviticus about beating slaves and what should and shouldn’t be eaten.) Why not communicate with us so that we know it’s him and not, say, some pre-scientific tribesmen or a bunch of superstitious zealots? Why not speak to us in ways that are not identical with the way we ourselves invent stories about imaginary beings and far-fetched events?

Why provide us with a ragbag of myths, legends and fables crammed with confused and inconsistent ideas, all of them created by those same fallible, sinful human beings, and stitched together, eventually, by a committee with a vested interest in the success of such a book?

It’s a mystery. Unless of course there’s no God behind the bible. Maybe that’s why we have much better policy documents at work.

Jesus: Speak not clearly did he

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Why did Jesus not speak clearly? If he came from God, or was God in some way, why didn’t he express himself directly and with precision? Why did he obscure what he had to say with hyperbole, riddles and demands that even he couldn’t meet?

Don Camp, light-weight apologist and C. S. Lewis aficionado, has been giving me a little lecture over in the comments section of Debunking Christianity. He’s been providing the basics in how some of Jesus’ remarks in the gospels are hyperbolic and are therefore not to be taken literally. I am, of course, already aware of Jesus’ tendency to exaggerate (how far does this qualify as false witness, I wonder?) but Don and I were specifically discussing Matthew 5.29-30 where Jesus advises those who lust after a woman to pluck out their right eye and cut off their hand. Don asserted that obviously this is an exaggeration, to be understood figuratively, not literally. I asked him how one distinguishes between the two.

Don responded by saying one should look for clues in the scriptures (the bible as Murder, She Wrote); clues that might reveal how early Christians responded to Jesus’ assertions. If they ignored what Jesus said (while most did disregard his more extreme commands, such as the self-mutilation statements, there is evidence that some did indeed take him literally), then we can safely do the same. If, on the other hand (no pun intended) they acted on what he said, then it’s fair to assume it’s okay for today’s Christians to do the same. Sounds simple right? But it still doesn’t help anyone decide what is hyperbole and what is meant literally.

For example, Christians largely ignore Jesus’ commands to go the extra mile, give the shirts of their back to those who ask for them, turn the other cheek, love their enemies, disavow wealth, sell all they have, give no concern for the future and do all they can for the homeless, sick, naked and displaced. There isn’t a lot of evidence that even early followers did these things. Does their disregard for these commands mean that Jesus must have meant them figuratively? That there is spiritual truth to be discerned from them but that no practical action is expected or required?

Where do Jesus’ apparent assurances that his followers would heal the sick, raise the dead (Matthew 10.8) and do ‘works’ even greater than his (John 14.12) fit? Are these hyperbole or are they intended to be taken literally? Given early Christians serve as Don’s yard-stick for what is hyperbole and what is literal, what did they think? We don’t actually know, though evidently some considered the promises significant enough to include in the gospels. Among today’s believers, there are those – and not just on the fringe – who accept them as literal, while others scoff at the idea of taking them at face value.

What about Jesus’ promises that God’s Kingdom was imminent and that he would rise from the dead? Aren’t these just hyperbole too? Don says no, because people at the time didn’t ignore them (as they did his ‘obvious’ hyperbole) but believed they would happen. Therefore, they must have been meant literally. Unfortunately, Don fails to take into account that the promises of a resurrection were applied retrospectively; Jesus didn’t actually predict his own return from the dead (for reasons discussed here.) The Kingdom of God, meanwhile, failed to materialise when Jesus said it would. The extent to which early Christians believed these promises hardly demonstrates their literal truth. In any case, is ultimate truth to be determined by how ordinary, largely uneducated, superstitious back-water folks responded to what they heard or read? What a spurious and unreliable way to decide.

Which brings me back to my original question. Couldn’t Jesus have been lot clearer about what he meant? Instead, he dressed up a lot of what he said in what might, or might not be, hyperbole. He issued other ‘truths’ in parables that he didn’t intend the hoi-polloi to understand (Mark 4.12). He offered advice that is of no practical use, some of it positively detrimental. He was neither systematic nor consistent and contradicted himself. So much of what he said is open to interpretation, to the extent that there are now thousands of Christian churches, cults and sects, all at odds with one another because they disagree about what he meant.

The New Testament as a whole too is a muddle of conflicting ideas and advice… though that’s a discussion for another time.

Why Jesus can’t possibly have known he’d ‘rise from the dead’.

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I said at the start of this series of posts about the date of Jesus’ crucifixion that the gospel writers perhaps felt unable to exclude Jesus’ predictions about rising from the grave after three days because these were too well-known. On reflection, it seems more likely that Jesus didn’t make any such prophecies. It is more probable that the gospel writers introduced them into their stories about him decades later.

I’ve written before about how the Resurrection appearances were nothing more than visions and dreams. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus most certainly was – he says so himself – and Mary’s encounter with angels, telling her Jesus was no longer in his tomb, is described as ‘a vision’ in Luke 24.23. The subsequent accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances also bear all the hallmarks of hallucinations; he disappears at will; passes through closed doors; isn’t always recognisable, drifts up into the sky and so on.

These mystical experiences, those that really happened anyway (it’s safe to say some – the Emmaus story, for example – are complete inventions: see Alter, pp536-8) quickly became a conviction among Jesus’ early followers that he had somehow risen from the grave. By the time of Luke’s and John’s gospel, 50 to 70 years later, this idea had evolved into a full-blown bodily resurrection.

The question is, did Jesus know that this was what was going to happen? Could he have had foreknowledge that he would be seen again after his death? Could he, during his life, have predicted he would rise bodily from the grave?

Christians will tell you that as God or God’s Son, Jesus was omniscient and therefore of course he knew these things in advance. There are, however, several good reasons why we can be sure he didn’t:

  • According to Paul, it was the resurrection that elevated Jesus to his god-like status, not his divinity that enabled the resurrection. Christians who argue that Jesus rose from the dead because he was divine have it back to front. Paul says clearly that Jesus ‘was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead‘ (Romans 1.4; my italics). Without the resurrection, Jesus was, Paul argues, of no great significance (1 Corinthians 12.15-19). However, the only ‘evidence’ for the resurrection is the contradictory, incompatible accounts offered by only three of the gospel writers and by Paul himself. So implausible is this evidence that we can safely conclude, with Michael J. Alter, that there was no such event. How, then, could Jesus possibly ‘know’ he’d rise from the dead when in fact he didn’t?
  • While he suffered from the delusion that he was going to rule God’s imminent Kingdom, it is unlikely Jesus thought he would have to die and be resurrected in order to do so. There was nothing in the Jewish scriptures to suggest either the Son of Man (a figure from Daniel with whom Jesus appears to have claimed some affinity) or the Messiah would be put to death only to rise again. This wasn’t what these characters were about and it wouldn’t have been how Jesus thought.
  • The Kingdom of God did not come about in the way Jesus believed. His death therefore did not bring about the apocalypse, judgement and rule of God he predicted and anticipated. In fact, his death took his cult off in a completely different direction, thanks mainly to Paul’s intervention. Jesus, and to a significant degree, the synoptic writers appear to have little awareness of this seismic shift. The Jesus they portray has little cognisance of events following his demise. Any suggestion he foresaw the creation of the Church is anachronistic, written back retrospectively into the accounts of his life. This was not what his ‘good news’ was about.

  • From their reactions preserved in the gospels, Jesus’ execution evidently came as a shock to both himself and his followers. None of them appear to have been expecting anything like a resurrection. Immediately following his death and burial, not a single one of his followers recalled his supposed predictions of his resurrection, nor did they express the sure and certain hope he would be returning. Even the discovery of the empty tomb (if it happened at all) failed to elicit such an expectation, nor any recollection of his words. The gospels say all those who witnessed the empty tomb were ‘frightened’, ‘astonished’ or ‘amazed’ that the body was missing, but not that they believed he must have risen from the dead. All those who witnessed the empty tomb behaved as if they’d never heard Jesus’ predictions that he’d be returning – probably because they hadn’t

  • It wasn’t until the ‘visions’ started that some of them began to consider the possibility that Jesus had ‘risen’. Not all were convinced, however. Matthew 28.16 notes how a number ‘doubted’ that the apparition they were seeing was Jesus. Significantly, at no point do any of those who think they’re seeing the risen Jesus say, ‘I remember him predicting this would happen.’ On every occasion, either angels or the risen Jesus himself has to explain it to them. (Of course, it’s the gospel writers doing the explaining for those hearing these stories decades later.)

All of this points to the fact that, while he was alive, Jesus didn’t make any predictions about rising from the grave on the third day, after three days, or after three days and nights; these prophecies, incompatible with each other and with the synoptic timeline, were created later, probably much later, after belief in the resurrection had become a central plank – the central plank – of the new cult. They were subsequently written back into the gospels, and placed on Jesus’ lips on the basis to show that of course he knew he’d rise again and knowing would have spoken about it.

The circle was thus complete; his early followers created the myth of Jesus’ return while later ones invented the ‘prophecies’ to bolster the belief that Jesus must have known he would. He said so, didn’t he?