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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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.

Man imagines he sees Jesus

Congregation

Just last Friday, a pastor saw the Risen Lord.

I wonder: how different is Pastor Stovell Weems’ sighting from those of the disciples and Paul? Would you say it was just as real? Less real? Completely inauthentic? How do we decide?

For me, his encounter is every bit as real as those experienced by the disciples. I defy anyone to demonstrate otherwise.

Of course, accounts of visions, hallucinations and dreams, however old or however new, are not evidence that the resurrection really happened. Paul happily admits that his experiences were in his head (Galatians 1.16). It is entirely reasonable to conclude that Pastor Weems’ encounter with an apparition-like Risen Lord is exactly the same as Paul’s, and identical to that experienced by Mary, Peter and John in the gospels. Like theirs it’s vague – “I could sense his personality”, “I didn’t see his face” – and dream-like.

There is a difference though: the nutty pastor recounts his hallucination first-hand. The disciples’ encounters were reported third, fourth, fifth… hand, decades down the line.

 

The evidence for Christ

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The evidence for Christ is not historical — it’s spiritual — and that evidence is indeed abundant for those who believe.

So says T. C Howitt, commenter on the Rational Doubt blog. And what is the ‘abundant evidence’, of which he speaks, for the existence of this spiritual being? It is, he says, ‘spiritual’. That’s quite a tautology: ‘the evidence for my fantasy is my fantasy’.

T.C. goes on to say that only those who truly believe can know that their experiences of the spiritual are real; the rest of us, he decrees, are blind. In other words, evidence that his fantasy is real is that other people have experienced versions of the same fantasy – some of them thousands of years ago. The ‘evidence’ for Christ (as opposed to Jesus) is therefore one’s own feelings plus the strange psychotic experiences Paul relates that he feels sure must be this supernatural being.

Science removes human subjectivity, as far as is possible, from its demonstration of how things are. All that Christians (and other believers in the supernatural) need do is similarly demonstrate that the spiritual realm, with its attendant beings, has an existence independent of human emotions, feelings and imagination. They could show us that, like gravity, electricity and quantum mechanics, Christ and angels, seventh heavens, demons and all manner of spiritual beings, have an existence separate from the internal, subjective experiences of human beings.

They’ve had two thousand years to do just this and still they haven’t. Why not? Because it can’t be done: Christ and his angels, God and his heaven are mythologies and, like all others, are constructs of the human mind.

 

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.

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.

 

The disciples would not have died for a lie (part one)

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The disciples would not have died for a lie, or so Christians like to argue.

Would they not?

Fanatics today do and it is more than likely the disciples believed their lie was true, if indeed they died for it at all. There’s not much evidence that they did. But if they did, maybe the lie they believed to be true was not the one today’s Christians think it was.

There is no evidence anywhere that Jesus’ original followers were martyred because of their faith in a physically resurrected Jesus – for their beliefs, maybe, but not necessarily because they believed Jesus had returned in bodily form from the dead. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that they holed up in Jerusalem to await his return through the clouds as the Son of Man, with a phalanx of hostile angels by his side (Heaven was, after all, just on the other side of those clouds). This was the crux of their beliefs.

How do we know?

There was significant tension between the disciples and Paul, which Paul himself relates, not only because he was convinced his message should be taken to the Gentiles but because of the very nature of that message. Paul and the disciples meant different things by ‘the gospel’. Paul’s irritation that others were preaching a different gospel is apparent in 2 Corinthians 11 & 12 where he calls the original disciples, ‘false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’ and bitterly refers to them as ‘the most eminent apostles’. He is arrogant enough to suppose, and to proclaim, that he has it right and they are wrong.

Paul’s good news was about the resurrected Christ of his visions, who magically made those who put their faith in him righteous in God’s eyes. As he puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:21, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Paul also believed this supernatural being would soon descend from the skies when he would give believers new bodies (Philippians 3.20) but this is a very different figure, and agenda, from the Jesus known to the disciples.

What then of Paul’s insistence, in 1 Corinthians 15.5 (written circa 55CE), that ‘the Twelve’ experienced the Risen Christ in much the same way he did? Firstly, of course, we have only Paul’s word for this. We have no first-hand corroboration (just the opposite in fact) and Paul had a vested interest in showing how significant his own experiences were. What better way to do so than by claiming Jesus’ original followers had had the same sort of hallucinations? Secondly, we don’t know what these ‘visions’, if they had them, meant to the disciples. Their belief would undoubtedly have been in a physical, bodily resurrection (cf: Daniel 2.12; Matthew 27.52), not in the beam-of-light manifestation of hallucination; this was much more Paul’s thing. Perhaps this is why any words uttered by vision-Jesus (for surely he would have spoken to his old chums) were not considered significant enough to be included in the earliest written record, ‘Q’.

The fully-realised resurrection appearances found in the gospels, then, in which Jesus declaims ‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ and ‘go and make disciples of all nations,’ are very clearly later developments, based, not on Q but on the visions suffered by Paul and others of influence and ‘written back’ into the gospel accounts.

Despite claiming that the Twelve experienced the Risen Christ in much the same way he did, Paul is critical of the disciples for preaching a different gospel, a different Jesus even, from the magical salvation-formula gospel he expounds. So what did the disciples believe – what was this other gospel that Paul disparaged so much?

We’ll see next time.