Those resurrection experiences explained

Emmaus

Isn’t it amazing how modern Christians see Jesus in clouds (the picture in the previous post was taken from a site that genuinely believes it was Jesus in the sky – there were lots of others examples there too), on toast, in their own whipped-up emotions, through voices in their heads and as a result of inner-visions but deny that the original resurrection appearances were just the sort of thing? No, Jesus really appeared then, they say, resurrected in his damaged body – he showed Thomas the holes in his side, didn’t he?

Given people’s propensity for seeing things that are not really there – figures in clouds, the sense of a supernatural presence (‘Mother Mary comes to me’) – isn’t it more likely the original ‘manifestations’ of the risen Lord were precisely this; the same sort of ‘sightings’ that people claim to experience today? Maybe not on toast admittedly, but in their heads, in the euphoria of shared worship, in their need for comfort? I’ve done it myself, when I was a Christian. I sensed Jesus’ presence in carefully stage-managed worship, in intense prayer, in what I took to be his response to those prayers. Of course, these were nothing more than my interpreting my own emotions as something from outside myself; an intense and reassuring self-delusion.

Is there evidence of this sort of process in the accounts of the risen Christ? Sure there is – Paul’s encounter is a vision in his head (Galatians 1.16; 1 Corinthians 9.1 & 15:8), while the gospels have Jesus say that whenever two or three of his followers are gathered together, there he will be amongst them (Matthew 18.20). He cannot have meant that, long after he’d left the Earth, he’d be physically present. Rather, this is a later explanation of the intense emotion early believers felt and decided could only be Jesus’ mystical presence – his so-called holy spirit (which isn’t called ‘The Comforter’ for nothing.) They were doing what I did and what millions of Christians still do today – interpreting the feelings they shared in these worshipful contexts as visits from the risen Lord. Later, the gospel writers made Jesus ‘predict’ just such experiences and then firmed them up, so that the accounts of warm feelings and visions became, retroactively, encounters with a physically manifested person.

That’s how it happens today – a vaguely human-like shape in the clouds or on toast and warm feelings become an experience of Jesus. We readily see human form where there is none (we are psychologically primed to seek out human faces) and attribute external agency to phenomena that don’t have any. No reason to suppose it was any different back in the first century.

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How the bible gets almost everything wrong: volume 3

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So there we have it. The bible is historically, scientifically, medically, morally, and psychologically inaccurate. It is a muddle of contradiction and confusion, written by pre-scientific, bronze-age tribesmen and religious zealots who made guesses about how the world worked. In almost every respect they got it wrong.

So what does this mean for the central premise of the book, its claim that the Creator of the universe, the Father of mankind speaks through it? Why should we suppose that when it gets everything else wrong, it manages to get this right?

We shouldn’t. The bible’s knowledge of God comes from the same source as the rest of its information: the wild imaginings of men who knew no better. The bible itself tell us so, many times. By its own admission, it is a catalogue of dreams, visions and inner ‘revelations’. In the New Testament alone there are at least twenty ‘meaningful’ fantasies of this sort, including the entirety of its final book, the aptly named ‘Revelation of St John’. The bible comes from an era when dreams and other subjective internal experiences were widely regarded to have significance as messages – revelations – from the gods, not the routine and not-so-routine workings of the human mind we now know them to be. Every era, before the scientific, regarded them in this way.

So Paul interpreted his psychotic episodes, depicted as a disembodied voice and bright light in Acts but far more dreamlike and hallucinatory in Paul’s own descriptions, as experiences of the risen Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 9.1 & Galatians 1.11-12) and of heaven (2 Corinthians 12.1-4). From these he built up all of his fanciful ideas of ‘the Christ’, not one of them based on anything demonstrable or real. All of them mere notions in his head, notions that others were all to willing to accept as the words of a god. After all, wasn’t that how the Almighty always communicated with mere mortals?

Still today people surrender to these ‘revelations’; Paul’s theology built on out-of-body experiences, the disciples’ grief-induced visions, John’s hallucinogenic ‘bad trip’. These are the foundation of Christianity as we have it, providing all we know of God, Christ and salvation, and all of them without any basis in reality. Some believers even claim to have the same sort of ‘revelations’ themselves; God speaking to them, Christ bathing them in light, visions of Heaven. All of these, again, entirely within their heads and no more real than the occasional appearances of my long dead grandfather in my own dreams. However much Christians might insist on a rational basis for their beliefs, it is an inescapable fact that the faith has its origins in ancient people’s dreams and hallucinations. Rationalising after the fact doesn’t alter this.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in basing my life on others’ emotionally-induced inner visions, whether those of a Paul, or a Joseph Smith or a contemporary whack-job. I don’t want to learn about the world and life from people whose understanding and knowledge derive from their sub-conscious and hallucinatory fantasy life. Give me science any day, with its attempts to minimise subjective, human biases from its exploration of how things are. Give me its discoveries that have enhanced life, however imperfectly, in the here and now. Above all, give me honest rationality over sub-conscious imaginings and psychoses.

I have no interest in a god, or a saviour, constructed from other people’s dreams, visions or hallucinations, even, or especially, when they’re recorded in that most unreliable of sources, the bible.

 

It was all just a dream…

Stone2Perry Stone, self-styled prophet, evangelist and teacher is of the view that God provides dreams and visions to his followers. He does this, apparently, when he can’t think of a better way of communicating them. Perry recommends that those on the receiving end of God’s special messages should immediately wake up and quickly write down what their dream was about. If they don’t, they’ll forget it! Who knew we can’t always recall dreams once we wake up? Who knows how to wake up as soon as a dream is over? Perry has big drawings made of his own God-delivered dreams. Here’s one. See if you can guess what it was about:

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Yes, it was a warning about 9/11. The Lord gave it to Perry, in a dream, long before the 2001 attack.

You can’t see it? You think five tornadoes and the monolith from 2001: A Space Oddysey look nothing like 9/11? Shame on you! You need to take this more seriously. You’re thinking, aren’t you, that Perry’s dream, if he had it at all, was down to the cheese he’d eaten before going to bed. That and a deranged mind.

But you’d be wrong; Perry knows for certain his dream was from God and that his interpretation is right on the mark. And who are we to doubt it? Curious, though, that even though the Lord had warned him about the attack in advance, Perry neglected to tell anyone about it. I wonder why that was? God must have wondered too – why he’d entrusted such an important message to a dimwit who did nothing with it. (Then again, if the Lord is capable of inducing dreams why didn’t he speak directly to the terrorists to prevent them from doing what they did?)

Still, good ol’ Perry’s made up for lost time since and is now more than happy to tell the rubes everyone about his dreams. And so what if it makes him a few million dollars? Frenetic Perry has a significant following on TBN and on his own web-site, which is where you can buy his dream-world DVDs for as little as $45 a set.

Nut-jobs’ dreams and visions have been at the centre of religious belief since forever. Dreams are significant, or so it’d have us believe, in the Old Testament where there are at least two dozen ‘important’ ones, together with advice about their interpretation (Job 33.15-18, for example). They’re quite a presence in the Qur’an too.

In fact, dreams and their waking equivalent, visions, are ultimately what religion is made of. They’re certainly what Christianity is made of; Joseph, the Magi, Pilate’s wife, Peter and Paul all have deeply meaningful dreams while Peter, Paul, John and others have visions which, they persuade themselves, can only be the monolith from 2001 Jesus returned from the dead, and other fanastic nonsense. The authors of the New Testament attached such importance to converts’ dreamy/visionary experiences that they had them written back into the Jesus narrative itself. That way it sounded like Jesus knew when he was alive that later fanatics would think they could sense his presence (especially when they whipped themselves up together) and could experience him in dreams and visions. Still today there are those who convince themselves they have a ‘relationship’ with him and can see him in their dreams, near-death experiences and other hallucinations. Just ask Perry Stone. It’s all real!

Well, as real as things entirely in the mind can be.

Same as it ever was…

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(Edited for clarity 2nd Aug)