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.

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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.

Death’s Sting

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Image copyright DC Comics

 

A long time friend of mine died suddenly a couple of days ago. Tom was in his comic shop, putting together orders, and, it appears, suffered a heart attack. He died there alone.

Death still has its sting – for both those who die (which is all of us) and those who are left behind. Paul’s rhetorical question, ‘Oh death, where is thy sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55) has always seemed to me to be particularly fatuous, not to mention deceitful. He said it, of course, in the belief that faith in his Christ meant life would resume on the other side of the grave. Even if this were so, dying would not be without its pain, and grieving not without deep sorrow.

And what about that word ‘sting’? The Greek Paul uses, ‘κέντρον’, means ‘a sharp point’ as if death is nothing more than a pin prick, a short sharp shock no more troublesome than an injection. In my experience, spending time with people who are dying, it is far from that. The body’s shutdown is often slow, relentless and unbearable. Morphine helps, not Jesus.

Mourning too is persistent; an emptiness and a profound sense of loss, as we often acknowledge when offering condolences. I takes time to subside, but never truly disappears. Every death, especially of loved ones, depletes us. As John Donne puts it:

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

God Nature, whose product we are, is insensible and indifferent to our suffering. It neither knows nor cares that we are self-aware, emotional beings who grieve and suffer. Death, which troubles us so much, is one of the engines of evolution. Once we have passed the stage at which we might viably reproduce we are programmed to decline and  die. We must make way for new creations, which is not, despite what Christians claim, in a brand new body on a new earth or in heaven. The new creations are those who follow us. Paul, as he was in so many respects, is wrong to say that because of the futile hope of resurrection, death has lost its sting and the grave its victory. Death will never lose its sting, its pain and finality.

Tom will be remembered by those to whom he mattered in life. This is the best we can do; this and living our lives to the full while we’re still here, loving others and being kind.

Farewell Tom, my friend.

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?

How to work out when Jesus died

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When did Jesus die? The year, I mean.

The honest answer is we don’t know. In Michael J. Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Enquiry, recommended by John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity blog-site, the author considers twelve different dates that have been proposed, together with the reasons why. Ultimately though, we don’t know.

Which is strange, not only because, as Alter points out, Jesus’ death and resurrection are supposedly the most significant events ever to have happened in the entire history of the world, but because it should be really easy to pinpoint the date. It was the year there was –

  • a total eclipse of the sun that, for over three hours, plunged the whole land (some translations have ‘earth’) into darkness,
  • an earthquake that caused appreciable damage, 
  • the tearing from top to bottom of the four inch thick, 82 feet high curtain in the temple,
  • the dead rising from their graves to make themselves known to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (including, presumably, the extensive Roman presence.)

We know this because the gospels tell us so; these events all took place either just before (Luke) or just after (Matthew) Jesus’ death. Let’s overlook the fact that solar eclipses don’t ever occur at the point of a full moon, while Passover, when Jesus died, happens only when there is one, and take a look at Matthew’s version of events:

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice… and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27.45, 46, 51-53)

All we need to do, therefore, is look for corroboration of these four cataclysmic events occurring together in the records of the time. (The Romans were particularly good at recording such things; we know, for example, there was an eclipse in AD29, though that lasted a measly 2 minutes.) Once we’ve found this corroborative evidence, we’ll know for certain the year in which Jesus died.

But you’re ahead of me: there is no record anywhere, apart from the gospels, of these events ever taking place, certainly not in combination. No record of a widespread darkness, nor of an accompanying earthquake nor of the temple veil tearing from top to bottom, nor of the dead emerging from their tombs. Which isn’t to say they didn’t happen, but you’d think someone, somewhere would have noticed and would have written about them. Josephus maybe, or Plutarch, Greek or Roman authorities, or even Paul; anyone writing at the time or soon after; any of those whose history of the period has survived.

But no.

It’s enough to make you think these earth-shattering events didn’t really happen; that they’re all made up for theological reasons.

And you’d be right.

Give me some of that ol’… New Testament scholarship?

Blog336JC&Kids

Roger E. Olson has deigned to reply to me! He says that every fule know there are multiple Jesuses in the New Testament. All the same, Rog is sure he has a pretty clear picture of the real one, even if this is only in his own head. Then I hit the jackpot! Rog treats me to one of the Christian apologist’s top retorts: those with dissenting views know nothing about New Testament scholarship.

Here’s his response in all its glory:

I hear your suggestion, but I’m not sure what it has to do with atheism. All serious New Testament scholars–including the most conservative Christian ones–already know and admit that the gospel portraits of Jesus differ somewhat from each other. But very early in Christian history all attempts to reduce them to one portrait (one united gospel stitched together from the four in our New Testament) were rejected as heretical. We Christians already know what you say and it doesn’t bother us. I have read numerous biographies of Abraham Lincoln, for example, and the “man himself” stands out in spite of differences of description from different points of view. Your point is simplistic and displays that you know little or nothing about New Testament scholarship.

My reply to this, which Roger hasn’t seen fit to post:

So you think one has to be fully cognizant with New Testament scholarship to be a Christian? Funny, I don’t find any of the Jesuses in the bible saying that. Doesn’t one of them suggest we ‘become as little children’? Still, I expect you’re right: if you need a level of understanding that’s the equivalent of a doctorate to follow Jesus, then I guess I don’t qualify.

As for what my comment has to do with atheism, you were the one who said we see God most clearly in Jesus. I responded by saying I don’t see God in any of the interpretations. If Jesus is the best reflection we have of God, as you suggest, then his failed prophecies, false promises and general ignorance make it probable that the God he, and you, promote doesn’t exist.

If you can cherry-pick which bits of the bible are relevant to your understanding of the divine, Roger (you dismiss, for example, the barbarity of the Old Testament), then it is not unreasonable for others to do the same, even if we aren’t as well versed in Christian mumbo-jumbo theology as you.

God is revealed in Jesus… or not

 

Blog335CompositeOn his blog-site, humbly named after himself, Roger E. Olson trots out the tired old cliche that there’s no such thing as atheism. Atheists, Rog tells us, know in their hearts that God exists, they just choose to ignore him. As a result, Rog has little time for atheism. (I discovered Roger’s wonderfully smug site through Bruce Gerenscer’s excellent one.)

Rog says that if we want to see what this heart-implanted God looks like, then we shouldn’t look to the Old Testament and the tribal warlord we find there – goodness me, no; we can safely discard him! That God just doesn’t match up to our twenty-first century sensibilities. No, if we want to see God then what we must do is look at Jesus, for in Jesus we see what God is really like.

Oops! We’re right back at the problem I’ve been discussing these last few posts: just which Jesus are we talking about? There are so many. There’s the Jesus of the synoptic gospels (though he’s neither consistent nor pleasant), who is nothing like the self-obsessed Jesus of John’s gospel. Paul’s Christ is different again; he’s a complete invention, much like the Jesus of Hebrews who has morphed into a Jewish High Priest. The Jesus of Revelation meanwhile is an Evil Mutant straight out of the Marvel Universe, what with swords coming out of his mouth and all. So which Jesus has Rog got in mind? I think we should be told.

There are so many discrepancies in the various interpretations of Jesus in the New Testament, that it’s hard to see a clear, consistent picture of anything, let alone God, in such a shifting kaleidoscope of images. I’ve recommend that Rog should take atheism a little more seriously; the often incompatible Jesuses of the bible don’t reveal ‘the true nature of God’ anywhere as clearly as he claims. I’d go further: none of them show – can possibly show – what the non-existent is ‘really’ like. What they reveal instead are ideas about a God and a saviour made entirely in the image of the men who tasked themselves with creating them.