Young men’s visions, old men’s dreams

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In Acts 2.17, Luke (mis)quotes a prophecy from Joel 2.28:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.

I was always taught that the Acts version was a prophecy in its own right, predicting what would happen in the very last days before Jesus returned, some time in the future (his future, though maybe not ours.) But it isn’t. Luke, or whoever wrote Acts, is claiming the fulfilment of the prophecy in his own time. He’s not saying,’ this is what will happen at some point in the next few millennia.’ He’s declaring – or he’s making Peter declare – ‘this is what’s happening right now.’ Luke, like all members of the cult in its early days, believed the last days had arrived; God was about to impose his Kingdom on the Earth, in a display of power and glory (Luke 21.27).

The dreams and visions of which Luke speaks were, he believed, happening then, as he was writing. To prove it, he relates numerous dreams and visions in Acts; Stephen’s vision of God and Jesus; Paul’s ‘sighting’ of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and Peter’s encounter with, erm… a table-cloth to name only a few. Elsewhere, Paul himself refers obliquely the innervision that led to his conversion (Galatians 1.16) and recounts his ‘visit’ to ‘the third heaven’ (2 Corinthians 12.2); he’s kind of embarrassed about this one though – as well he might be – and relates it in the third person.

Luke knows that the new cult is built on dreams and visions. He believes such hallucinations are genuine revelations from God himself. Moreover, Luke tells his readers explicitly and directly in Acts 2.17 that such visions and dreams were how the cult’s founders experienced the risen Jesus. How do we know this is what he means? Because he puts the quotation about young men having visions and old men dreaming dreams into the mouth of Peter. That’s the disciple Peter whom the gospels tell us was one of the first to experience the risen lord. Luke has Peter reveal the nature of that experience. ‘This is how it was for me,’ he confesses. ‘I had a god-given vision, just as the scriptures promise.’

Luke is proud of the fact that the new faith is based on young men’s visions and old men’s dreams. Proud enough to include it in Acts 2.17 and proud enough to make Peter of all people declare it. Christianity owes its existence to these hallucinations and delusions, nothing more.

 

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What A Dream I Had

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Last night.

I dreamt I was troubled and anxious about something or other, even though I’m not aware of being this way in reality.

In the dream, a couple of people drop by to console me. One of those people is my dad. He asks what’s wrong, listens and offers advice. He’s concerned and wise, positive and supportive. I have no doubt this is my father; he looks and sounds like him, but he’s an idealised version of him. I’m dimly aware in the dream that he’s behaving differently from the way he would in life – we rarely had heart-to-heart talks – but I’m so grateful for the help he’s offering, and it’s good to feel close to him.

In reality, my father died over ten years ago. I’m not sure I was aware of this in the dream or perhaps I just ignored it. I certainly ignored the way he was acting slightly out of character; I just was glad to see him again. I woke this morning feeling invigorated by the time spent with him (or the illusion of time spent with him) and with other friends who appeared in the dream to offer support.

I don’t for minute believe that the father I experienced in my dream was really my dad, returned from wherever he’s been these last ten years to offer words of comfort. My real dad has been nowhere for the past decade. He ceased to be in 2007. The version of him in my dream was a construct of my own mind, made from memories, wishful thinking and – okay, I admit it – a glass or two of wine. He was an image of how I’d like my dad to have been, perhaps – not that I give that much conscious thought. Nevertheless, this version of him is evidently buried somewhere in my head, waiting to be resurrected when the dream circumstances are right.

This is what it must surely have been like for those few individuals who, in visions and dreams, experienced Jesus after his death. In their grief and turmoil, the need to embrace the dream version of their friend must have been overwhelming. They would have persuaded themselves it really was him, communicating with them from beyond the grave. The fact one or two others had a similar experience can only have reinforced the compulsion to believe: ‘You saw him too? Then it must really have been him.’

It wasn’t, of course. What those who witnessed the risen lord experienced was, as Paul suggests in Galatians 1.16, a creation of their own minds, constructed from religious fervour, wishful thinking and a powerful need to believe.

From this, all else followed.

The Resurrection Explained

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The earliest reference to Jesus being raised from the dead appears in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: 

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers (Corinthians 15.3-6).

Scholars are generally agreed that Paul is quoting from a very early creed, created within a few years of Jesus’ death. Ftbond, a commenter on Escaping Christian Fundamentalism, asks that if this creed was in existence

within a year or two or three after Jesus crucifixion (and, obviously, claimed resurrection), then one must ask: What was so important, so astounding, so amazing, so desirable, so attractive, so encaptivating (sic) and charismatic about that person that anyone would think him to be a “candidate” for resurrection in the first place?

It seems to me all of these questions and attendant adjectives are irrelevant and that ftbond is looking at the resurrection claims the wrong way round.

First, the creed doesn’t refer to ‘resurrection’. ‘He was raised’ is the term favoured by these earliest of Christians, one that doesn’t suggest they could only have had a reanimated corpse in mind.

There is no justification for supposing that ‘he was raised’ meant the same, either in Paul’s mind or that of the creed writers, as ‘bodily resurrection’. To assume they’re the same is to impose all the later accretions of the latter term onto the much simpler earlier one. We know Paul’s ‘risen Christ’ was a ‘revelation’ in his own head (let’s call it an hallucination) and nowhere does he suggest that Jesus was brought back to life in his old body. Paul talks only of Jesus being raised as ‘a life giving spirit’, not a ‘corrupt’ body of flesh at all (1 Corinthians 15.46).

Hallucinations of a ‘raised’ Jesus, then, long preceded the idea that he had returned in the same physical body that two days earlier had died on the cross. The notion that he was alive again resulted from the ‘visions’ – quite possibly dreams – that two or three of his early followers had. They took these visions to mean that Jesus had returned spiritually from beyond the grave.

Others came to believe in the risen Jesus, not because they personally experienced a vision or dream about him (though Paul insists there were some who did), but because of the reports of others experiencing them. Still more became believers as a result of reports of reports (of reports.) These experiences were then incorporated into creeds like the one quoted by Paul, and ultimately into the gospels when they were written 40-100 years later. By that time the original hallucinations were being worked up into real encounters with a Jesus physically resurrected in the flesh.

No-one needed to find Jesus ‘captivating’, ‘astounding’ and all those other adjectives ftbond applies to him; most converts, like Paul, would never even have met him. It is all a matter of interpretation; either a few early believers convinced themselves they’d experienced their late charismatic companion alive again, or, if he didn’t actually exist (and he is so mythic this is a possibility), they concocted a back story for their mystical experiences. The result was the creation of stories about Jesus, largely cobbled together from the ‘Scriptures’ (as Paul all but admits.)

This seems to me to be the most likely explanation of the ‘resurrection’. There is so much special pleading in the gospel accounts, so much that is clearly invented and designed to fulfil prophecy, so many inconsistencies and anomalies, that the entire enterprise smacks of imaginative invention, designed to lend credence to a few people’s innervisions.

It all comes down to feelings and subjective experience

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Argue with Christians (Hi there, Jim! Hi there, Don!) about the veracity of their faith and they will tell you it’s true for two reasons: the Bible and their own personal experience. ‘Christianity is true and Jesus is real because the Bible says so – and, whatsmore, I feel it.’

Or, as William Craig Lane likes to put it, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit testifies to the truth of Christianity. It’s a beautifully circular argument: ‘Christianity and its holy book are true; I know this because the Holy Spirit who lives in me tells me so; I know the Holy Spirit lives in me because the Bible says he does; therefore, I know Christianity and the Bible are true because the Holy Spirit tells me so’.

But equally, Mormons claim that they ‘know’ a completely different set of improbable beliefs are true because they experience a ‘burning in the bosom’ that tells them so. Roman Catholics say their faith is true because they experience Christ through the Eucharist, while Muslims know theirs is true because they have a real sense of Allah’s presence.

All of these spiritual convictions are not, as a liberal theologian like Karen Armstrong might claim, evidence that there is Something-Out-There that loves and communicates with us, but more obviously that human beings’ brains are adept at creating whatever ‘inner witness’ is required to support the beliefs and convictions they have arrived at. William Lane Craig concedes this when he acknowledges that

Anyone (or, at least any sort of theist) can claim to have a self-authenticating witness of God to the truth of his religion. But the reason you argue with them is because they really don’t: either they’ve just had some emotional experience or else they’ve misinterpreted their religious experience.

In other words, any experience of ‘self-authenticating witness’ enjoyed by believers in faiths outside Craig’s own brand of Christianity is at best mistaken, at worst fake. But then, how can anyone know, Craig included, that his own conviction isn’t just as much an emotional flush or mere subjective experience? Why is his conviction any more real than that of other kinds of believers? Ultimately, Craig can only say, “because it is”:

a person (possessed by the Holy Spirit) does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God.

In other words, the true believer knows his experience of the Holy Spirit is real because his experience of the Holy Spirit tells him it is. And round the argument goes, though no amount of assertion makes a subjective experience an event in objective reality.

It is impossible for Craig, or any other Christian, to demonstrate that an entity he imagines inhabits his brain, no matter how convincing its presence may seem, has any existence anywhere other than in his brain. What the person who says ‘I believe’ is really saying is that they have no evidence at all for what they are claiming. If they had, they wouldn’t need to believe it; they would know it. They would, whatsmore, be able to point to independent, external evidence for it.

The Bible makes a virtue out of not knowing, of believing when there is no evidence.  It calls the resulting cognitive dissonance, ‘faith’.

Adapted from my book, Why Chrisitans Don’t Do What Jesus Tells Them To …And What They Believe Instead.

The Sect Hiding in Plain Sight

Condemning-Pharisees

With thanks to David Eves.

Back at the start of Christianity, the cult was divided into numerous factions; not unlike its modern counterpart. Acts’ claim that all the new converts – the church – got on famously, sharing all they had and generally taking part in one big love-in is spin, a lie concocted by its author, ‘Luke’. Its not the only lie he invents; later in Acts he tries to present the new faith’s ambassadors, Paul and the original apostles, as being largely in agreement about what the Christian message was about. We know from Paul’s own writing that this wasn’t so.

Likewise the united church. We know that there was part of the cult that had a very different theology and soteriology (doctrine of salvation) from Paul. They didn’t subscribe to his incantational magic about a dying god-man who would save them if they claimed his death for themselves. Instead, this group believed that the way to find favour with God was to be ‘righteous’, by doing good works and generally expending oneself on others. Its members promoted, and probably practised, a yin and yang measure-for-measure philosophy: God would show forgiveness, mercy and compassion, they said, only to the same extent that a believer demonstrated them him or herself. Because they believed Jesus had commanded it and God favoured it, they denounced wealth and advocated a self-deprecating way of life. They were predominantly Jewish. They believed Jewish Law was still valid and should still be followed by cult members. They were, however, hostile towards those who, unable to see any value in the new cult, remained within Judaism. The sect invented anachronistic stories about Jesus sparring with the Jewish leaders of their time, half a century or more after Jesus died.

Though it is unlikely any of members of this sect had ever encountered Jesus in person, they believed he was going to return to the Earth while they were still alive in order to judge humankind. Naturally he would vindicate them while condemning all others, particularly the rich and powerful. He would do this because they were the ones who were doing as he commanded – helping the sick, the hungry and the homeless – which would ensure the returning Lord would look on them favourably. None of them had seen the resurrected Jesus but nevertheless they valued the stories they heard about those who supposedly had, and they promoted these stories themselves.

How do we know this? Because this particular sect left behind a record of their beliefs. They imbued them with authority by putting them into the mouth of a preacher who had lived more than fifty years earlier. Who knows, maybe he did say such things. The sect either believed that Jesus had actually contradicted Paul’s notion that the Jewish Law was no longer valid or they felt it necessary to to make Jesus say so themselves. Likewise, they rejected the magical mysticism preached by Paul that was beginning to take hold in those early days. The group’s beliefs were radically different and their writing specifically designed to counteract ideas they opposed with a passion.

Where will you find this group’s writings? In the bible, at the very start of the New Testament in the book called ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’; this book is their writing, give or take the odd bit of tampering from later on. Matthew’s gospel details the sect’s beliefs about Jesus, their measure-for-measure morality, their recipe for righteousness and their beliefs about salvation and the coming judgement.* So different are these from Paul’s ideas that the gospel can only have been created to counteract his doctrines. The community that produced Matthew had no truck either with Paul’s theology or his soteriology.

Read Matthew for yourself and see how much it is at odds with Paul. The discrepancy is there for all to see, yet Christians have always convinced themselves, if they’ve thought about it at all, that not only is Matthew’s gospel compatible with the mumbo-jumbo that follows it, but that its ‘good news’ and Paul’s are identical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

* I’m happy to provide chapter and verse from Matthew’s gospel to support all I say about it.

Were the gospels ‘fact checked’ by those in the know?

Ashes

In a discussion I’ve been having with Don Camp on his blog-site, Biblical Musings, Don has been arguing that the Gospels are completely accurate because a) he wants to believe this and b) the Gospels ‘could have been fact checked by people living who had known Jesus and who had heard the Apostles teach this very story for many years. New and embellished versions would not have been acceptable to these people’ (my emphasis).

Clearly this is not so; John’s gospel presents a very different, highly embellished Jesus from that of the synoptic gospels (a divine being who is preoccupied with himself as opposed to a prophet concerned with ushering in God’s Kingdom), yet nowhere do we have any record of anyone saying, ‘hang on, one of these isn’t right – this isn’t how I remember things.’ Similarly, Paul’s itinerary (not to mention his theology) in Acts differs from that he talks about in his letters. Yet there’s no surviving evidence that anyone pulled Luke up about his inaccuracies.

If it didn’t happen, as far as we are aware, for these discrepancies, then why should we suppose it would have happened for others? It isn’t legitimate to hail the absence of ‘fact checking’ as evidence that everyone thought the gospel writers’ versions of Jesus’ life, despite multiple contradictions and evident embellishments, were reasonably accurate. This absence is not evidence that there was nothing to be disputed; it can be explained in numerous other, more likely ways (no-one was particularly interested in the discrepancies and embellishments because the gospels are literary creations, not historical accounts; the objections weren’t recorded or simply didn’t survive; they were quashed by orthodoxy and so on.)

Still Don insists ‘nobody in the know’ objected to anything in the gospels at the time they were written. This of course is mere conjecture on his part. We simply don’t know whether anyone objected, who did and who didn’t. Perhaps the disciples did object but were overruled (just as they were by Paul over other matters); maybe they objected to being portrayed as idiots, when their interpretation of what Jesus was about was being diminished, and nobody actually cared; maybe they didn’t mind the mythologising of their leader; maybe they never even saw the gospels, written as they were well away from Palestine and long after the events they portray; maybe most of the disciples were dead by the time the gospels were in circulation – life expectancy was short. Yes, I’m hypothesising here, just as Don does, my conjecture being every bit as valid as his.

Finally, Don refuses to see the errors, discrepancies and contradictions in the Gospels, as well as the mythologising of their central figure. Even with their inconsistencies, inaccuracies and flights of fancy (that may or may not have been objected to), Don maintains the Gospels are still ‘true’ and ‘inspired’. He really knows how to stretch a definition to the point of meaninglessness.

As if that’s not bad enough, he now he wants to pray for me.

In which the witnesses try to get their story straight

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Mary: Well, the other Mary and me (Matthew 28.1) were first to go down to the cave where somebody said they’d put the body overnight.

Salome: I was there too, don’t forget (Mark 16.1).

Mary: Were you? I don’t remember that.

Salome: Bloody was, I’m telling you. So were a bunch of others (Luke 24.10).

Mary: Anyway, we get there and the entrance stone has been rolled away (Mark 16.4).

Peter: Wait a minute… I thought you said that happened after you got there. I thought you said there was an earthquake nobody else could feel and an angel came and rolled away the stone in front of your very eyes (Matt 28.2).

Mary: Did I? Oh yes, that’s right. That’s what happened. And the guards fainted out of sheer fright (Matt 28.4)

Thomas: They did? You didn’t mention any guards the first time you told this story (Mark 16.4).

Mary: Didn’t I? I must’ve forgotten. Oh well. And there was this strange young man sitting inside the tomb (Mark 16.5).

Salome: There were two young men and they were standing outside (Luke 24.4).

Mary: Really? I saw only one and he was definitely inside.

Peter: It wasn’t a young man, it was an angel (Mark 28.5).

Mary: Angel? Oh yes, I suppose you’re right. It must have been an angel. And he said the Master wasn’t there, that he’d risen or something (Matt 28.7).

John: That’s funny, I don’t remember anyone being there at this point. I certainly don’t remember anybody speaking to us (John 20.4-5).

Mary: That’s strange, because the young man in the tomb definitely spoke to me.

Salome: And the two men outside the tomb spoke to me.

Peter: And the angel… don’t forget the angel.

Thomas: So what happened then?

Mary: We were so frightened, we just ran away.

Thomas: You ran away? And then what?

Mary: Nothing. We said nothing to anybody (Mark 16.8).

Thomas: You said nothing to anybody. Then how did Peter find out? ‘Cos the next thing he was running hell for leather to the garden to see this empty cave for himself.

Peter: Oh, she must’ve told me. Yes, that was it, she said something to me and some of the others (Luke 24.10).

Mary: Erm, yes, that’s right. I told Peter and he went to see the empty tomb.

Peter. Ran all the way on my own, I did (Luke 24.12).

John: No, you didn’t. I went with you. In fact I overtook you and got there first (John 20.3-6).

Peter: Did you? I don’t remember that. Are you sure you haven’t just added yourself in here?

John: So anyway, we ran to the tomb…

Peter: And we see that the body has gone. I’m telling you, we couldn’t work out what had happened (John 20.9).

John: Though the most logical explanation seemed to be that he’d risen from the dead. I mean nothing else made sense (John 20.8).

Mary: It’s a shame you didn’t see the young man/men/angel. They’d have spelt it out for you like they did for us.

John: Don’t worry, we’ll bring them into the story later and we’ll have two angels for good measure. (John 20.12).

Mary: So while I was waiting there alone…

Thomas: Wait, you were there alone? I thought you said you ran away with the other women (Mark 16.8)?

Mary: Erm, yes, that’s right, I did. I must’ve gone back later just to hang about (John 20.11) and suddenly I see this, like, apparition. At first, I thought it was the gardener…

Thomas: You mean you didn’t know who it was?

Mary: No, I didn’t, which I agree was a bit odd, but then I realised it must be him, the Master, I mean. Who else could it have been?

Thomas: Well, if it was anyone at all, I’d have thought it more likely it was the gardener than a body back from the dead.

Mary: I suppose, but it just felt like the Master to me. I so wanted to see him again.

Thomas: Did he have holes in his hands and a wound in his side (John 20.27)? Surely that would’ve told you it was him.

Mary: Erm, I can’t recall now. But anyway, it was him.

Thomas: How’d you know?

Mary: ‘Cos he spoke to me. He said, ‘Keep your hands off me, woman, because I’ve not yet, erm… ascended’ (John 20.17, 20).

Thomas: What did that mean? If he was back like you said then how come you couldn’t touch him?

Mary: Well, I don’t know, you’d have to ask him.

Thomas: And how we gonna do that, him being dead and all?

Mary: He’s not dead, I tell you, and you’re all just jealous ‘cos I did better than all of you. I saw him in person and he talked to me!

Peter: All of you, just stop a minute and listen. Can you hear it?

Thomas: No.

Peter: Can you feel it?

Mary: Yes, I can. I can sense his presence (Luke 24.36-37).

John: He’s here with us. He’s back. Hallelujah!

Mary: It’s as if he’s standing right in front of us, talking to us.

John: Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. He’s here with us. I can feel him. He’s back from the dead, I’m sure of it (John 20.19).

Peter: Let’s tell people we’ve seen him. They’re bound to believe us. I mean, we don’t live in a superstitious first-century backwater for nothing.

Thomas: Jesus Christ! Next you’ll be trying to convince everyone that this cockamamy story is true.