Sunday, October 19, 2008

Christian Apologetics - Can it be proven that Jesus was a real Historical figure?

Christian Apologetics is the field of writing in defense of Christianity and it's doctrines. This relates specifically to the Bible and the historicity of Jesus, and the interaction with other faiths and philosophical systems. Now I have found in dialogues with Christians that they will consistantly bring up the Bible, in particular the New Testament books refering to Jesus as if it is objectively proven to be completely true, ie infallable. Thus, the Bible and Jesus are played as trump cards that override any other arguments or evidence. In fact, several people have suggested to me that I am "picking at straws" to question the accuracy of the Bible. Just quickly, I'd like to point out that it is traditional for writers on both sides of this topic to patronize their
opponents with personal attacks, I'd like to ask if we can avoid that please.

As this is the first post on this topic, I will be quite general. If you object to what I've written, then point out where and how you think I've gone wrong, and we can go into detail. Whether or not I get responses, I will go into greater detail later. As I mentioned in my previous email on Sin, Salvation & Hell, I am finding that I've bitten of more than I can chew, and finding it impossible to fit all the detail that I want into a single post, and that I don't seem to have the time at the moment to edit the posts to a level that I'm happy with. So I'll just post as-is and deal with any criticism I recieve.

The single most fundamental issue relating to Apologetics is Jesus Christ. Christian doctrine relies absolutely upon the belief that the Gospel accounts of Jesus are accurate and literal. Over the past 3 hundred years there have been many writers who have brought this into question, however they are generally seen as being in the fringe. The vast majority of "experts" on this topic today (Christian, Agnostic, Atheist or other) at least concede belief that there was a genuine historical figure called Jesus who founded the Christian religion. As well as the writers that believe that Jesus was a Myth, there are countless alternative theories on Jesus, as a Kabbalist Initiate, the Jesus that went to India and studied Yoga, and then some wacky theories about ET's or Freemason which probably aren't even worth mentioning. Most Christians consider the issue of Jesus to be non-debatable as fact, yet I would like to see some of the Apologetic writers engage in step-by-step debate with writers such as Kenneth Humphreys (author of the book and website "Jesus Never Existed" I'm convinced that there is good reason for debate, and as such I put forth the following challenge: If the issue is so clear cut as Apologists maintain, then they should find it easy to dismiss the claims of their oponents in a debate.

Whilst other Religions do have significant figures and stories related to them (Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Hermes Trismegistos etc), New Age and Eastern traditions can survive relatively unaffected if it were proven that the founding figures were in fact myths. Orthodox Christianity however could not survive such a revelation, without a literal Jesus you have Gnosticism, the Arch-Heresy of Orthodox Christianity, and according to the particular sect and how you choose to translate their teachings, Gnosticism fits in nicely with New Age as Perrenial Philosophy. So for this reason, debate will be very hot on this topic.

Ok lets start off with a common arguments that is used by Apologists. Their are a vast number of copies of the Bible texts, spanning over a wide period of time, all with very few inconsistencies between them. Apologists therefore argue that this proves that the texts are accurate, as this is one of the ways in which scholars test the accuracy of classical texts (works of ancient Greece and Rome), along with the period of time from when the events were believed to have occured and the earliest remaining texts. The closer the earliest texts to the date of the events, the more accurate according to this reasoning. Therefore, they conclude, that if you reject the accuracy of the Biblical texts then you should also reject all classical learning!

A related argument is the Gospel accounts and Pauline Epistles appeared too early for them to be myths, it is argued that Myths generally take a few generations at least too form, whereas the New Testament documents are dated by Conservative Scholars from the middle of the first Century AD. Therefore, the apologists conclude that as the origional writings were too early to be mythological, and that there is a vast amount of copies of these texts with very few inconsistencies, that therefore they are accurate. Going further, the New Testament texts contain the occasional reference to events and figures that have been confirmed via other means.

Now the fallacy of this is easy to see, this only shows that the current texts are accurate in relation to the way they were origionally written. It doesn't say anything about the context in which they were origonally written. The dating of the New Testament documents as first century can be contested and the assumption of them as being close to the actual events assumes that the events described really happened, something of which external proof is lacking. But in this situation, Apologists use circular arguments.

A major factor in Apologist arguments is the writtings of Paul, in that they cary on from the Ressurection and Ascension accounts to the formation of the early Church. However, on close scrutiny, these Pauline epistles fall apart completely, seemingly written by various authors, also from the mid second century. Have a read of these articles on Kenneth Humphrey's website, he clearly shows how absurd and impossible the claims of the Pauline Epistles are. A major tell is that the towns that are listed as being visited by Paul on his Journey show no evidence of early Christian settlement, where as the towns that Paul supposedly skipped (which are often the major ones in the most obvious locations, which would require unusual detours to avoid) actually contain evidence of Christian settlement in the Second Century. The claims therefore of the 500 eyewitnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus are nothing more than a single claim in a highly suspect document.

As for the famous non-christian attestations of Josepheus, Tactitus, etc, close inspection reveals them as frauds, references to other people with similar names to JC, and reports of the existence of people referring to themselves as Christians in the late first and second century. Obviously this movement called Christianty started at some point, so it is not particularly suprising to references to people referring to themselves by that name at some point in history. The question is of course how did the moment start, by the Orthodox account or as an allegorical myth that was gradually taken literally. Study of this evidence leads to the conclusion that there is really no evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ!

The Mainstream account of early Christianity puts the writings of Paul in the Mid-1st century, with the canonical Gospels following in the later half of the 1st Century, and then presents Gnosticism as a 2nd Century aberration, but I see good reasons to question this time-line. The arguments for the early dating of the Gospels is based upon very weak arguments (the fact that they do not mention the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD)

There are a handfull of references to historical people and places, that could easily have been pulled out of a copy of Josephus when they were actually written (in the second century). (There are heaps of stories in the Epistles that bear enormous resemblence to part's of Josephus writings). There is really no mention of Jesus, Paul or the Apostles in Historical records of the day (Hence, the argument from silence).

Christians proclaim that they have a mountain of evidence to support their beliefs, yet every single point they raise relies upon unproven assumptions (ie Jesus existed, the Bible is accurate etc).

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Philosophical problems with the traditional Christian Doctrine of Sin & Salvation & Hell

One of the most primary and fundamental difference between the doctrines of New Age and orthodox Christianity is the issue of exclusivity. Orthodox Christianity claims that it is the only true path, the only genuine form of Spirituality, and the only way out of Sin & it's natural consequence, eternal death. Hence, you frequently hear the statement that "Jesus is the only way". I would like to look at this in detail today, and as such this will be a long post. I have recently had some interesting dialogues, from which I will use some of my writings. I am going to be writing this article specifically to Chrisitans, and those considering the arguments for different Spiritual Worldviews. I acknowledge that Atheists reject any notion of an afterlife and Spiritual retribution for their actions, thoughts and words, and as such this whole discussion might seem irrelevant to some. For the purpose of this post, I'm almost assuming that readers of this article either already excepts, or can at least consider the possibility of the reality of Spiritual beings, forces and dimensions.

I must also state at this point, that I have bitten off more than I can chew at the moment. I would like to have edited this post to a higher standard, and expanded to a greater level, however I simply do not have the time, so I will publish this as it is, recognising that it can be improved. So hence, please comment if your so inclined, maybe I can continue on this theme later.

Christian doctrine states that Mankind is naturally Sinful (Sin being defined as that which is harmfull to ourselves and others, and contrary to God's law), and that as such we require Redemption or Salvation through God's grace (according to Christian doctrine the only available means of this is through excepting Jesus as Lord & Saviour). Now, the effects of this Redemption is said to have effects both in the hear-and-now, and in the hear-after. The effects in the hear-and-now, appear from an outside perspective to be in many ways relatively similar as those of other systems of philosophy, spirituality and self-help. Believers will claim otherwise, but to actually measure such a thing objectively seems impossible, if not extremely difficult.

Now, according to Christian doctrine, the effects in the hear-after of Salvation is that the believer is saved from the natural consequences of Sin, Death, in this case Eternal Death, Eternal seperation from God, Hell. (Once again, some Christians believe in Non-existence for the unsaved, I have already spoken with some believers that take this view. Just quickly, whilst I find this concept far less offensive than the idea of eternal torment, it still implies an infinite punishment for a finite crime, and many of the same arguments that I use against the doctrine of Hell also apply agianst this doctrine.)

Now, the concept of Hell is found to be offensive by many people, including myself, and I would like to go into detail regarding it. I will also argue that a literal interpretation of Orthodox Christian Doctrine with emphasis on exclusivity makes no sense without the idea of Hell, or alternatively Non-Existence, and that therefore Liberal Churches and Believers that avoid this issue sit in a theological grey area, in between Christianity and New Age. Take away Hell, and the concepts of Sin & Salvation become symbolic, rather than literal, or merely refer to self-improvement in the hear and now.

Ok, so I'll start with talking about this concept of Hell, and working backwards to Sin and Salvation. I have mentioned Hell in a few previous posts, but lets go further into the implications of this doctrine. The following is a typical Christian example of dealing with this:

From the website

"But how can an all-loving God send anyone to Hell? In a nutshell, God doesn't send anybody to hell - we decide to send ourselves there. The Bible tells us that God does everything possible to keep us out of hell, while maintaining our nature as free-will human beings. God made us in His image and after His likeness, giving each of us the ultimate power to say "yes" or "no". If we choose to reject God, we choose to spend eternity separated from Him. Some continue, "Why did God set up the world this way, including a heaven and a hell?" The only answer is that He's the Creator of the Universe. He has a plan and He established the rules. He's God, and we're not! He's an all-loving Creator, but He's a truly just Creator. If we decide to break His rules by writing our own, we will pay the consequences. Why would a loving God send people to hell? Because a perfectly loving, perfectly holy and perfectly just God will send people where they choose to go."

Ok, so lets go through it slowly, piece by piece.

"But how can an all-loving God send anyone to Hell?"

This is the crux of the whole issue. The concept of Hell implies eternal suffering, whilst the concept of infinite love implies mercy, forgiveness, compassion & grace.

"In a nutshell, God doesn't send anybody to hell - we decide to send ourselves there".

Ok, people do not reject Christianity making a conscious decision that they want to suffer an infinite existence removed from everything that is good (thus experiencing only those things that are polar opposites: pain, anguish, fear, hate etc), thus nobody decides to send themselves to Hell. People reject Christianity for a number of reasons. Many people do not see or experience anything which would point to a spiritual dimension of life, hence many people do not believe in God. Others, see Religious principles as being restricive, and choose to ignore them. Others like myself have considered different Religious and Philosophical systems and have concluded that Christianity is not what it claims to be, and that the Bible is not the Word of God. From where I'm standing, I reject orthodox Christianity because I wish to follow God.

"The Bible tells us that God does everything possible to keep us out of hell, while maintaining our nature as free-will human beings. God made us in His image and after His likeness, giving each of us the ultimate power to say "yes" or "no"."

Ok, now this implies that it would be obvious to everyone that the Bible is true and that Jesus is the way, however I do not find this to be the case. It is proposing that these are self-evident, which I strongly argue is not the case. Christianty does not stand out to everyone as obviously being truth. It takes a very significant period of time to reach conclusion on these topics, and even then we don't all agree. If this doctrine was indeed true then you would expect than that it would be clear and obvious.

"If we choose to reject God, we choose to spend eternity separated from Him."

By saying God, it implies Christian doctrines, practices and scriptures. Once again this implies that Christianity is self-evident. Interestingly I have found in discussion with Christians using reason that they tend to fall back on the assumption of the Bible as a trump card, essentially conceding that they are unable to use logic to back up the doctrine. God does not appear to us personally in a puff of smoke and ask us, would you like to spend eternity in Heaven with Me or in Hell seperated from Me. The assumption is that upon either/and/or, hearing the Gospel, reading the Bible, praying to God in their prescribed manor, attending Chruch, that Christianity would then become self-evident as truth, and that anyone that then remained unconvinced was making a conscious decision to reject God. Clearly this is not the case.

"Some continue, "Why did God set up the world this way, including a heaven and a hell?" The only answer is that He's the Creator of the Universe. He has a plan and He established the rules. He's God, and we're not!"

This is the heart of the matter, why would an infinite being who's nature was Divine Love create such an unjust way of rewarding and punishing His creations?

A very simple understanding of the nature of infinity and justice implies that an infinite punishment cannot be in preportion to a finite crime.

Unable to use reason and logic to defend this doctrine the conservative Christian must resort to Circular Reasoning, presupposing that the Bible has already been proven as fact, therefore it's doctrines must be true, therefore their response of "He's God, and we're not!" basically amount to an argument of "Just Because!". In a similar situation to a Father being tired out of the ineccesant question of a young child, and eventually just stating "Just Because", I'm the Dad and what I say goes! In doing so they have reduced their concept of God to a Cosmic Tyrant! How then, do you reconcile Infinite Love with a Cosmic Tyrant?

"He's an all-loving Creator, but He's a truly just Creator. If we decide to break His rules by writing our own, we will pay the consequences".

Just, here implying that somebody could deserve an eternity of Hell. Even the most heinous crimes would be swallowed up into insignificant in comparasion to Hell. The Biblical concept of Justice is completely different to how we humans naturally perceive Justice. When pointing this out in discussion we often get given the response that God's Justice is not our Justice, his ways are not our ways. Surely God's justice should be greater, and higher than our own? Surely, God should have greater compassion and love than we human beings.

"Why would a loving God send people to hell? Because a perfectly loving, perfectly holy and perfectly just God will send people where they choose to go."

This brings us back to the start, nobody wants to go to Hell. This only makes sense to people who have already convinced themselves that it must be true, and defies all logic and reason.
The New Age teachings on the contrary, allows God to express His unconditional love to all, even those that choose to reject Him and his Laws, whilst Justice is allowed to be served. If God is the source of Law and truth, it is ultimately in His power as to how He chooses to respond to the choices that we humans make. If God was constrained by Universal Laws, then the Laws would be the Absolute power, rathen than God. Therefore, he has the power to create Universal laws. Why would He therefore create laws that stipulated that the souls of human beings would have to suffer immense tortures indefinately? Doesn't the New Age doctrine of reincarnation (properly understood) seem more logical, reasonable and compassionate, as it allows both Justice and Mercy to operate?

In mathematics if you have part of an equation which asks you to divide by zero, than you know that both everything that comes afterwards in the equation must be incorrect, and that the previous workings which led to that point must be flawed in some way. The doctrine of eternal Hell seems to me to be a "divide by zero" moment, where as from where I'm standing, the New Age alternative works out much better.

Some people have proposed that this issue is related to the issue of free will, as God must allow Sin, so that we then choose Him by choice. But this presupposed that the punishment of eternal Hell for the imperfect is just, which clearly is not the case. The obvious philosophical point is that we must have free will for life to be meaningfull. However, God does not have to condemn us because we make mistakes. God can choose to show compassion to us imperfect humans, giving us oppurtunites to grow and learn from our mistakes, whilst making sure that we experience consequences for our mistakes, pointing to the natural laws that operate in the Universe.

God does not have to condemn people, because we are not perfect. If you believe that He has to, because He is Holy, then you are to believe that he is "compelled", limited by pre-existing laws that are greater than He, thus contradicting the definition of God as Absolute. Of course, I do not believe that God is constrained by anything, I am merely pointing out obvious problems with this doctrine.

Surely the New Age doctrine seems far more compassionate to us humans. This is a major point, as Christians maintain that Satan is the inventor of New Age doctrines. Accordingly they have then invisiged Satan as being able to propose a fairer and more compassionate reality than God Himself! Ok, obviously Christian doctrine isn't suggesting that Satan is in fact more compassionate than God, it does however suggests that Satan puts forth this doctrine to appeal to humans over the teachings of Judaism originally, and more recently with Christianity (as this New Age doctrine pre-dates Christianity by at least 3000 years).

As many Christians will acknowledge that the doctrine of Hell is a "hard" one, therefore the only reason Christians go along with it is that they are convinced it is the actual reality. Now as this isn't self-evident, then you need good evidence to support this. So, from here it's down to arguing whether the Bible is the infallable Word of God, basic Apologetics, and comparing life experiences in various Spiritual setting and explaining why we believe our Worldview is the best explanation for these experiences. Most Christians argue that it is a rationable and reasonable faith. However, if they are required to rely upon the Bible to back up their beliefs, after exhausting logical analysis, then it is falling back on Circular Reasoning. Whilst a small degree of Circular Reasoning is basically unavoidable, if it is relied upon completely for such major doctrines then it essentially fails in debate with it's alternatives!

Even the very worst of tyrants such as Adolf Hitler would have his crimes swallowed up into insignificance by an infinite and eternal punishement. Particularly if this punishment consists of either horrendous torture or gut renching nothingness. A punisment must be in proportion to the crime for it to be considered justice. Therefore the problem with the Christian doctrine of Hell is that this then implies that God is unjust. A human being can summon enough compassion and mercy to forgive the worst of criminals, how much more than must God show mercy to all of, if indeed His very nature is Love.

If a man rapes and murders a woman and is then caught, you expect the man to be punished. It is quite normal that the friends and relatives of the victim in a case like this will be very angry with the perpetrator, perhaps they would hold anger against him, this is human nature. Occasionally, you have a situation where some of the victims friends and relatives offer the perpetrator complete forgiveness, this is an example of the goodness within humans. However, showing forgiveness does not mean that the consequences of his actions are taken away from the perpetrator, in fact he still will have to serve the prison time. If in fact the man was then let off with no sentence, it would be a failing of justice, fake mercy. Alternatively, if the authorities were so angry with the perpertrator that they decided to begin torturing the man indefinately, then this would also be a failing of justice, this would be an example of sadistic hate, worse than the original crime itself. However, if the man was moved by the forgiveness and mercy he was shown and was thus motivated to devote himself to working back his sentence by serving others, this would be an example of Justice and Mercy in proportion.

If as Christian doctrine states the default position (without Salvation) of humanity is to be condemned for all eternity as the consequence of Sin (as they are born into it), then therefore the sole purpose of life is to "choose" the right Religion. A single lifetime on earth with maybe 80 odd years (give or take) pales in comparasion to eternity, so if the only thing that made any difference to our eternal abode was whether or not we excepted Jesus Christ as our saviour, then this in my mind devalues all the other things in life.

Therefore I would describe this as being a test, testing mankind as to whether they can sort through the mire of different philosophical systems to choose the right one, with the consequences of choosing the wrong one, eternal torture, or if you prefer, eternal seperation from God.

Biblical justice suggests that the blood of an innocent must be shed for the sins of the wicked (hence Old Testament sacrificies and the New Covenant of Christ), yet human conceptions of justice clearly suggest that the guilty must take responsiblity for their own mistakes, and the innocent should not be held accountable for what others do.

In his book "A Generous Orthodoxy", Author Brian McLaren writes about the trouble he had when his Son was home from College for the holidays.

He writes:

"I asked him how he was doing spiritually.

"I'm struggling Dad", he said

"Tell me about this", I said

He replied, "Well, Dad, if Christianity is true, then nearly everyone I love is going to be tortured in the fires of Hell forever. And if it's not true, then life has no meaning. He was silent for a moment and then added, I just wish there was a better option."

My heart was broken. I asked, "Is that the understanding of Christianity you got from me?

He replied, "No, but that's the way most Christians think. They just kind of bottom-line everything to heaven or hell, and that makes life feel kind of cheap.""

This is always going to the bottom line with Christianity as long as it maintains it's fundamental exclusivity. Most Christians will not openly say this (some will, like Fred Phelps) I suggest, there is a better option. You do not need to reject Spirituality to reject orthodox Christianity as such. Being liberal and inclusive doesn't necessarily imply that you have to be philosophically "soft' either. Eastern Mysticism is anything but soft, and correctly understood, New Age is essentially an expansion of this.

Whilst Christians do not state in their language that God condemns unbelievers to an eternity of hell, this is an unavoidable consequence of their beliefs. They often respond to this kind of statement as a being a misrepresentation of their doctrines, (I have lost count how many times I've been told that I obviously do not understand Biblical Christian doctrines), however I respond that this is the logical conclusion of their belief system. If I'm wrong, then please, explain to me in detail where and how I have misrepresented Biblical Christianity.

There are other Christian doctrines in regard to it's exlusivity or inclusivity, but these are often vague, and end up sitting on the fence between Orthodox doctrines, and Universalism which is really a soft form of New Age.

Comments anyone?