A Primer for Christians and Skeptics

The debate that never gets old

Image by Joshua Earle, from Unsplash

LITERALISTIC CHRISTIAN: Do you know that Jesus Christ died for your sins? Just believe God crucified his Son for you, and you can be reconciled with the Creator of the universe. Otherwise, you’re in danger of spending eternity in Hell. Just a friendly heads up.

SKEPTIC: Thanks, but do I know all of that? I know that Christians claim as much, but would you take the mere word of a busy-body know-it-all, especially on such monumental, cosmic matters? I’m not as gullible or arrogant as to think transcendent truths are doled out on street corners or that anyone could so easily comprehend what’s really going on in the first place.

LC: I’m not the author of the good news; I’m just passing the truth along, as it’s been passed throughout Christian history. The good news comes from God and from what Jesus did when he came to earth and was killed and buried, but who was then resurrected so that he could ascend to Heaven. He’ll return when God is ready to judge our profane lives and civilizations and to rule over those whom Christ made deserving.

S: Again, that’s what you’re claiming, but nothing profound is known on the basis just of those claims. I can’t even infer that that’s what you genuinely believe, since you could be lying, deluded, confused, or brainwashed. Do you claim to know the truth of all of what you just said, or of the Christian creed?

LC: I do know it to be so or else what kind of Christian would I be?

S: Right, but do you understand how knowledge works? I mean, do you know what epistemology is?

LC: That’s a pretty condescending question. I’m only trying to save your soul here.

S: So you keep insisting. But the human brain isn’t organized to think logically all of the time. If we had to avoid fallacies before making any decision, we’d hardly have survived as a species. We’re prone to making snap judgments based on faulty reasoning, because we used to run for our lives on a daily basis, before we learned how to build those “profane civilizations” that have kept us out of the mouths of predators and have sheltered us from the wilderness, in all the latter’s apparent indifference to whether we survive or plunge into oblivion.

LC: In any case, yes, I know how knowledge works and yes I’ve studied some philosophy.

Is Christian Faith Rational?

S: Okay, then, what reason can you offer to justify those wild claims you made about Jesus, Heaven, Hell, and so forth?

LC: Read your Bible; it’s all in there.

S: I’m sure the Bible makes those claims, but once again, those are just claims. How do you know they’re true?

LC: The Bible is the supernatural Word of God. It’s a miraculous book that includes prophecies we know were fulfilled. The Old Testament prophesied that the messiah would come to save us, and Jesus came and saved us.

S: You sound now like you’re trying to be deliberately obtuse. Surely, if you’ve studied philosophy you know you’re just begging the question. You said we know Jesus is a divine saviour, because the Bible says so, and now you’re saying we know the Bible is true because Jesus came to save us in fulfillment of Jewish prophecies. That’s obviously circular.

Moreover, there was no such fulfillment of prophecy. Most Jews rejected Christianity, because they rejected the pagan idea of human sacrifice. There’s nothing supernatural about the fact that poetic scriptures can be interpreted in infinite ways, such as in Jewish or Christian ones. Do you think any poem which is vague enough to apply to any situation is thereby demonstrated to be supernatural in origin?

LC: The prophecies were often specific rather than vague.

S: If that’s so, those passages were predictions that turned out to be naturally reasonable and accurate or foolhardy and inaccurate. Alternatively, the texts were written or compiled after the events occurred to explain history in religious terms. That’s what happened with the gospels’ “prediction” of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem. The texts were written after 70 CE, but instead of coming clean, the authors told stories about their past to make it look like Jesus predicted the Temple would be destroyed. There’s nothing miraculous about such literary chicanery.

LC: What about the empty tomb story, then? How else could Christianity have spread so quickly if it weren’t based on miraculous events that inspired the disciples to carry on Jesus’s teachings and even martyr themselves? The New Testament is emphatic that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. It names names so it’s a historical document, not an obvious myth.

S: Christianity was able to spread so soon because of two catastrophes, the destruction of Jerusalem and the collapse of the Roman Empire. In the first centuries of the Common Era, Roman emperors sought to promote various cults to attempt to unify the crumbling empire. Eventually, Constantine settled on Christianity, after others failed or the emperors were assassinated before they could capitalize on their preference for certain religious ideas. The Romans were pragmatic and they used their principle of religious tolerance as a tool to keep the peace.

There’s no reliable evidence the disciples were martyred. The reports of such early martyrs come much later in plainly ahistorical, propagandistic documents. Even if they were martyred, that wouldn’t establish the truth of their religious beliefs. Lots of people have died for lots of bad reasons, because they were deluded, brainwashed, confused, gullible, or desperate. The Church tortured and executed many pagans and heretics. Does that prove witches were divinely inspired to worship nature and to condemn Christianity?

The New Testament is not at all unified in its view of the resurrection. First of all, the Gnostic view of Jesus was excluded from the canon, as in the Church’s conflict with Marcionism. But even within the canon, Paul’s view of the spiritual resurrection hardly agrees with the gospels’ view. The earliest Christian documents ignore the historical Jesus and focus on an abstract savior deity, as in the Pauline epistles, or they ignore the theology and focus on anonymous wisdom teachings, as in Q and Thomas. The gospel narratives were written a generation or two after Jesus would have lived, and they’re all likely based on Mark. Instead of presenting us with a historical case, the author of Mark seems more interested in allegories, parables, and revealing hidden spiritual wisdom.

LC: It seems you’re trying very hard not to accept Christianity. Perhaps you hate God and prefer to be damned.

S: What a strained interpretation! No, I think you need to ask yourself how likely it is that God has waited so long before revealing himself to everyone and ending our domination of the planet. The longer he waited, the less rational Christianity became: the chain of evidence grew weaker and more convoluted, and eventually critical-historians set their sights on the Bible and discovered innumerable reasons to doubt the naive account of Christianity’s origin. With all we now know about the interpolations, plagiarism, dating, discrepancies, incoherence, and propaganda in the New Testament, even you should have grasped by now that there’s nothing you could say to sell your message that wouldn’t run smack into a boatload of reasonable doubts.

LC: I can see you have a very skeptical mindset.

S: Are you recalculating, then, and about to choose a different evangelical tactic? I mean, are you just a salesman after all, not a genuinely spiritual person?

LC: I’m spiritual, because Jesus saved me. You’re the one who’s lost in ignorance and in the delusions of mere worldly wisdom. You’re proud of your learning and of your intellect, I can tell. But what does so much rigorous reasoning get you other than doubt upon doubt until you lack any basis to go on living?

S: You seem to be coming around to the idea that religion should be supported by a faith-based commitment, not by reason. Perhaps that’s because I showed you want it means to evaluate the rational justifications of a belief. But if spirituality is about faith rather than reason, why would you continue the obnoxious evangelical practice of attempting to convert everyone under the sun to your way of thinking? Where’s your humility in the face of the great mystery?

LC: If God is real, so is the danger of eternal punishment. What kind of spiritual person would I be if I didn’t alert you to that danger?

S: You’re rationalizing, since you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. It’s been two thousand years, so you’d have to look under rocks now to find people who know nothing of Christianity. Instead of being the Good Samaritan, you’re disgracing yourself and trivializing your faith by pretending you have anything like an airtight rational case for the truth of your religious beliefs.

The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Faith

LC: How could I be trivializing my faith if I’m demonstrating my confidence by sharing those beliefs with strangers?

S: The beliefs themselves are trivial because of their literalism and naivety. I mean, why does it matter so much whether God was incarnated as a man in history?

LC: Nothing could possibly matter more than God’s incarnation as a man.

S: Yes, but why? As a Christian, you must care more about the Christ of faith, the preexistent, risen, spiritual savior that could magically ascend to Heaven, than about a historical Jew named Jesus who might have stirred up trouble in the Roman Empire and gotten himself executed.

LC: They’re one and the same person, so I care about them both. We wouldn’t have Christianity if it weren’t for the historical man who taught with authority and started a spiritual revolution.

S: But what was the revolution? The humanism, egalitarianism, and cosmopolitanism were already present in Hellenistic philosophy and in the esoteric Mystery cults, while the fire-breathing prediction of divine judgment in an imminent end of the world was a staple of Jewish prophecy — which in turn derived from Zoroastrian process theology. What was so original about Christianity that required a unique religious genius to have actually lived to synthesize Greco-Roman thought and Jewish moralism? Again, after two thousand years of Christian compromises with secular regimes and mores, what does it matter if Jesus really lived or not?

LC: It matters because that’s what actually happened. Jesus lived and founded Christianity. Those are the facts.

S: Please don’t speak about facts; you sound like a baby trying to talk about American tax policy. We’re discussing a religion here, so what do mere facts have to do with it?

LC: You’re just begging the question. That’s what makes Christianity unique, because unlike any other religion, Christianity locates God within nature, within the world of “mere” objective facts. God isn’t just abstract or transcendent, since he entered history — and not just in some ambiguous miracle, but in a particular person who revealed God’s forgiving nature.

S: The forgiveness is contradicted by Jesus’s resentful promises of hellfire for nonbelievers. But anyway, how does what you just said that make Christianity superior to Hinduism or Jainism or even Gnosticism? Those religions maintain that God is within every person, that as intelligent, autonomous, conscious and creative beings we each have a spark of divinity inside us? Isn’t Christianity just a dilution of such mysticism, to appeal to a baser crowd?

LC: No, that kind of mysticism is a source of profound arrogance. None of us is a god. Only Jesus shared the divine nature, but he showed how we could fulfill our potential of being more like God, if only we let Jesus into our hearts.

S: The latter cliché is offensive on aesthetic grounds. Also, Eastern ascetics don’t seem particularly arrogant to me. In any case, do you really think the difference between the average Christian and non-Christian is greater than that between the average human and animal, or between any old organism and some inorganic clump of matter? Would you stand there and maintain that Christians tend to demonstrate that divinity shines especially through them, but not so much through anyone else or through life in general? No, the basic spiritual point is that we’re all made in God’s image, which is just another way of saying we’re all godlike compared to the rest of the universe. So again, what does it matter if Jesus was the “only begotten Son of God”? What does such empty jargon add to the Upanishads?

LC: We have the potential to be co-creators with God, but we fell from grace, because as a species we succumbed to demonic temptations. We fell for the lie that we ought to rebel against God and go our own way, but that “humanistic choice” leads to our destruction. That blunder and hubris happened within history so they had to be rectified on the same plane. That was the purpose of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross.

S: Yes, but I assume you’re aware that the ancient world was chock-full of saviour gods who mythically conquered death and enabled their followers to do the same by symbolically taking ownership of that feat.

LC: Christianity differs from all those other myths and cults because Jesus died and was reborn in history, not as some mere symbol or in an immaterial realm.

S: Well, that’s been Christianity’s selling point since the second-century apologists, who said the mythic saviour gods were only paving the way for Jesus or were tricks played by the devil to get people to doubt the real deal. But when you locate God in history, you only muddy the waters and introduce doubt. Contrary to the animists of prehistory, history isn’t the same as theology. Real history deals with objective facts which are ascertained rationally by consulting the evidence. By insisting that God entered history at a specific point in time and space, you’re inviting everyone to treat Christianity not as a religion at all but as a pseudoscience. Don’t you know that for thousands of years, all around the world, religions and spiritual movements have dealt not with mere literal, material facts, but precisely with symbols that are meant to point to transcendent, subjective or existential truths?

LC: What good were such symbols if they could be so freely interpreted in incompatible ways? God realized that such open-ended, mystical religions weren’t setting us on the right path, so he had to enter the morass of matter and ignorance, to become a man to redeem his Creation. God became one of us to show that he empathizes with us in our fallen condition, and wants to open a backdoor for us to atone with him.

S: More claims. So am I supposed to treat them as historical or theological? If they’re the latter, they’re full of poetic symbols and were meant originally to inspire the listener to be a better person. If they’re the former, faith takes a back seat and you have to run the gauntlet and face an onslaught of rational scrutiny. I could pepper those claims with a thousand reasonable doubts which would reduce your religion to a pseudoscience. Is that what you want? Do you want to stand there like a used car salesman and pretend you’ve got the historical goods when what you’re really selling is subjective, poetic theology and myth? The Jesus of history is independent of the Christ of faith; that’s been established by the critical, objective historians over the last few centuries, notwithstanding the complaints of the religious dogmatists.

LC: I just think it’s sad that you don’t take God more seriously. Why wouldn’t God have realized that religions were corrupting us so that he needed to take more direct, decisive action to save us from his wrath?

S: How about because the creator of the universe wouldn’t have screwed up in the first place, wouldn’t “realize” he’d erred and “decide” to fix the situation like a bumbling, mixed-up human? How about because such anthropomorphism is childish and it trivializes the cosmic mystery? You Christians think you’re taking God seriously, but you’re only reducing religion to a pseudoscience.

How do I know you’re slinging snake oil? Because Christianity has been arguably the most devious, conniving, corrupt of all the extant organized religions. If God did become a man in history, he evidently solved nothing. Science, philosophy, and secular liberalism have much greater progressive potential than the Christian creed and churches.

LC: You think there’s salvation in being a selfish, materialistic consumer? The secular notion of progress through anti-spirituality is a contradiction in terms.

S: Well, now you’re playing word games. “Salvation” is a loaded term, since it has Christian presuppositions in this context. And you’re confusing spirituality or existential progress with theism. I’m not saying reason and liberalism (capitalism and democracy) will necessarily produce an earthly utopia. It’s more likely that nature has a tragic fate in store for all of us. But that has to do with the real world that’s been uncovered by philosophy and science. Theology is about telling stories to make us feel better about the harsh facts, as though we were children playing in our daydreams.

Maybe we do need to be largely irrational and to trust in some ideal or program to go on living in spite of the real world’s appalling inhumanity. In that case, I’d prefer the work of artists who are honest about their intentions, to the bastardized hodgepodge of religious symbols amassed by fraudsters or confused dupes who no longer have a clue what they’re doing.

LC: [snorts] No clue? You do know Christianity is the world’s largest religious group, with over two billion members, don’t you?

S: And what percent of those are remotely Christlike so that their lives corroborate your claim that God once incarnated as a man in history? Two? Three? What’s the merit of being a Christian if the church engaged in fraud from the outset and had to betray the morality preached by its founding documents, by becoming an imperial institution, because those documents were otherwise erroneous, unoriginal, and unworkable?

LC: I’m tired of listening to you insult me and my religion. Good luck facing God’s judgment of your sins, without Jesus’ protection to save you!

S: Don’t worry: if I need magic protection in the heavens, I’ll invoke Star Trek’s force fields.

LC: Yeah, it’s all just a joke to you, because your atheism makes you a nihilist. You’ve got nothing to believe in and nothing to live for, so out of jealousy and humiliation you seek to tear down the religion that proves how small you and all your secular projects are by comparison with God’s plan for us.

S: My jokes could never compete with the comedy that oozes out of every one of your hypocritical “Christian” words and deeds. Christianity is just a farce, which makes you a clown.

LC: I’d rather be a fool for God than a slave of demons.

S: More comedy. Thanks for the laughs, child.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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