Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #2: are accounts of the miracles of Jesus (especially his own resurrection) only retelling older myths and legends?

Many cultures and religions have produced stories than contain elements like those which skeptics regard as unbelievable in the Bible. There are talking animals, miraculous healings, control of the weather, even the death and resurrection of the hero. Why do Christians regard the Bible’s accounts as reliable and true when we do not accept similar stories from other sources? How is the story of Jesus different from that of King Arthur or of Robin Hood?

These questions are not new. Skeptics noticed such similarities already in the 1600s, a time period they called the Enlightenment. Thinkers in Europe were willing to accept the moral code of the Bible even while they discounted all the miracles it describes. Out of this approach came a philosophy called Deism. Deists say that God is responsible for creating a world, for giving it natural laws and moral laws, but they insist that God is no longer involved in his creation. Like a watchmaker, he assembled the pieces and started the machinery, and he has since stepped away. From Deism only a single step was needed in the nineteenth century to advocate the idea of evolution, that living things gradually change over time, adjusting to the environment, and that no belief in God is required to explain everything that exists.

The study of biology includes the idea of evolution, and so does the study of religion. Since the Enlightenment, a few scholars have suggested that religion began in primitive humanity out of awe toward the natural world and a desire to explain things that happened. Beginning with a sense of spirits in every tree and river and mountain, humanity began to develop stories about gods. The first monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, were further steps away from primitive thought, only to be further enhanced by Christianity and Islam. Deism and atheism are viewed as the final steps on that road of progress.

Far more people believe that the earliest people knew the true God and that the many religions of the world grew out of distortions and devilish manipulations of that one true religion. Conservative Christians and observing Muslims share that belief in a primal true religion and in many paths of de-evolution. Neither approach is more scientific or more reasonable; each of them has many loyal adherents.

One of the most famous works describing the evolution of religion and the similar accounts found in various religions is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. First published in 1890, Frazer’s book describes many stories and ceremonies from all over the world. He presents numerous examples of human sacrifice, either done in reality or feigned to act out a story. Many Christians, Including C.S. Lewis, have responded to Frazer’s suggestion that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of many versions of the same ancient story.

First, to say that the earlier versions of a hero who dies and returns to life cancels the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection is equivalent to saying that ancient accounts of travelers such as Jason and the Argonauts and Odysseus disprove the accounts of Columbus’ four trips across the Atlantic Ocean. The existence of the earlier stories does not speak against the truth of a similar historic event. In fact, the many versions of the story of death and resurrection of a god or a hero might confirm the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, since it appears that people all over the world expected such an event to occur at some time.

Second, we see Old Testament accounts of what Jesus would do being shared since the day of the first sin, when Adam and Eve were told that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head. It comes as no surprise that distorted versions of that promise would appear all over the world as religion de-evolved among various cultures. C.S. Lewis presented this thought—that the promise of a killed and risen Savior was hidden in the hearts of people everywhere and appeared in various forms and appearances all over the world. One could go further and suggest that when Abraham and Isaac acted out the sacrifice of a son by his father (Genesis 22), they were preparing their own family to believe in the coming Savior. Their Canaanite neighbors, however, got the wrong idea from this event and began sacrificing their own children to gods.

Third, the death and burial and resurrection them is often associated with agriculture. Persephone disappeared into the underworld, prompting autumn and winter; when she returned, she brought spring, and summer followed. The common religious themes of a hero who dies but then returns to life could be drawn from the life of the land, planting and tending and harvesting the crop each year. One could argue that the image of Jesus dying on a cross and rising to life again echoes these ancient agricultural stories. One could also argue that the natural and agricultural pattern was set by a God who already knew what he must do to redeem sinners and to reconcile them to himself. He planned the death and resurrection of his Son to happen in the springtime precisely so nature would be telling the story in its own way while the center truth of the story—the sacrifice of Jesus and his return to life—were happening in Jerusalem. (And the annual celebration of this sacrifice and resurrection likewise correspond to the change in seasons, not by coincidence, but by divine plan.)

As I wrote yesterday, the career of Jesus is linked in its earliest descriptions to historical times and figures. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians some twenty years after Jesus died on a cross and rose again from the dead, Paul gave a list of witnesses to that resurrection, most of whom were still alive. (For cultural reasons, Paul omitted the women who first saw Jesus but included the men.) His assertions could have been disproved at that time, and Christianity would have been stomped out before it had started. If Christianity had arisen in the British Isles or in Persia, describing events in Jerusalem, we would have much reason for doubt. But the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus was killed. If the account of his resurrection was false, the evidence would have been easy to produce. The inability of enemies of the Christian faith to counter its key event with proof of the lie proclaims the truth that Christ indeed has risen from the dead.

Later this week, I will discuss the historical documents that describe this resurrection. J.

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Sources, and the origin of the world

I teach history. Every term, in the first session, I talk to my students about sources. I tell them that there are primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources come from witnesses, people who were there when history was being made. They might be autobiographies and memoirs, diaries, letters, oral histories, or any other record of what people saw and heard and felt. Artifacts can also be primary sources—ruins of buildings, tools, artwork, even garbage. Garbage is a great source of information about the way people live.

Secondary sources come from scholars who interpret the primary sources. They gather as much information as they can, and they explain what happened, and why it happened, and what resulted from its happening. Secondary sources can be very narrow and deep investigations into a topic, or they can be broad evaluations of an entire culture or time period.

Journalism produces a mix of primary and secondary source material. The journalist explains and interprets, but often the journalist quotes a witness directly. The quote from the witness is a primary source, even as the article as a whole is a secondary source. This is true of newspaper accounts, magazine articles, radio and television broadcasts, and internet news services.

Tertiary sources summarize what the secondary sources say. Encyclopedia entries, whether printed in books or distributed online, are tertiary sources. Textbooks are tertiary sources. Papers written by students are tertiary sources. Such sources are useful summaries and can be a good starting place for research. However, a student who writes a paper based only on tertiary sources has produced a quaternary source which has no academic value. Beyond the junior high school level, teachers generally do not approve of student papers that are based only on encyclopedias and on the textbook.

After explaining sources to the students, I ask them whether a larger number of primary sources guarantees that historians will understand what happened. That seems like a reasonable proposition, but my test case shows the opposite. On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy was shot and killed. Hundreds of people were present at the time. Many of them had cameras, even moving pictures. Along with the human witnesses, there are numerous artifacts: the injuries to the bodies of the President and Governor Connelly, the gun, the bullets, the clothing of the President and of the Governor, the car, the pavement—all these are primary sources. Yet the secondary sources disagree about what happened. Most witnesses heard either two or three shots; hardly any witness reports hearing more than three shots. Yet many secondary sources insist that the damage was caused by at least four and sometimes up to twelve gunshots. Some secondary sources conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot the President. Others say he was part of a conspiracy. A few say he was investigating a conspiracy to shoot the President but was unable to prevent its success. Many others say that Harvey was innocent of any crime but was framed for the shooting.

If historians are confused about an event that happened just a few decades ago in front of many witnesses, how can people today investigate the origin of the world? There are primary sources—some written documents that describe creation, and many oral traditions about creation—but they do not all agree. Other primary sources exist as artifacts: fossils, geographic patterns, radioactive decay, and astronomic observations, among others. Can investigation of these primary sources be trusted when the conclusions of those investigations match none of the other primary sources that claim to have inside knowledge about creation?

Americans are fond of easy choices between two extremes. One approves of the President’s actions, or one disapproves. One votes Republican, or one votes Democratic. Creation is true, or evolution is true. In fact, there are more than two opinions about the origin of the world. Some Hindus believe that the world goes through lengthy cycles of development, culminating in a catastrophic destruction that is followed by a new beginning. Some ancient Greek philosophers thought that the physical universe is eternal, without beginning or end. Muslims are as divided as Christians about whether the world was created by direct miracle a few thousand years ago or whether it evolved over many millions of years. Some Christians hold to a young earth opinion, while others believe that God worked through the powers he created, planning and developing the world over many millions of years. Some say that God is eternal and unchanging but chose this slow method to create the world, while others say that God himself developed and evolved over the course of creation. Yet another view says that God created the world as it is now in an instant, but that he described creation to Moses over the course of six days.

What did Jesus say? He treated the account of creation written in Genesis as an accurate primary source. Trusting his authority, my opinion is that the earth and the universe are less than ten thousand years old. I view the act of creation as a singularity, as some physicists would say. God spoke, and the world appeared according to his design. He did not plant acorns and wait for them to sprout and grow; he created mature oak trees bearing acorns. He did not wait tens of thousands of years for coral reefs to grow from a single coral creature; he created mature coral reefs containing thousands of coral creatures. Adam and Eve were created with mature adult bodies; they did not grow from babies. Distant objects in the universe are visible from Earth because God created beams of light that extend to the Earth, even though the sources of those beams are more than ten thousand light years away.

I admit that I may be wrong. As I have written before, when I meet Jesus face to face in the new creation, he might tell me that I took the first chapters of Genesis far too literally. If so, the two of us will have a good laugh about my mistake. On the other hand, those who reject Jesus because they refuse to believe in a literal creation by an all-powerful God will not be laughing on that Day.

The primary job of the Christian Church is to warn sinners of the consequences of their sins and to introduce those sinners to the Savior who rescues them from evil and death and promises everlasting life. When our conversation disintegrates into arguments over creation versus evolution—or arguments over abortion, or homosexuality, or other matters that are important but not vital—only the devil wins. We have time to debate important matters, but we must be careful not to neglect the vital matters. At times, like Paul, we must know nothing aside from Christ and Him crucified. That matters most of all. J.

Book report: The God Delusion

 

Richard Dawkins is a scientist, a writer, and an atheist. When I saw a chance to grab a free copy of his best-selling attack on religion, The God Delusion, I seized it. This month I have read Dawkins’ book and am ready to offer a review.

Some parts of the book are quite interesting and even useful—particularly those near the beginning and the end of the book. Much of what exists between the two is less satisfying reading. For a while, I thought that Dawkins might be engaged in deliberate satire, mocking the earnest but shrill defenders of religion whom he deplores. Alas, Dawkins is equally earnest and equally shrill in his attacks upon religion. His certainty that science provides correct answers to the questions of the universe blinds him to the reality that, at best, he can provide, for an agnostic, evidence that creation and evolution are equally plausible (or, one might add, equally implausible).

I was prepared for better writing. Dawkins’ friend, Douglas Adams, was able to skewer religion while provoking laughter. Although the back cover promises “a hard-hitting, impassioned, but humorous rebuttal of religious belief,” most of what passes for humor is snide sarcasm. I’ve seen better-phrased rebuttals of religious belief in the comments on various blogs, written by amateurs with no published books to their credit.

Logic is an important tool in the pursuit of scientific investigation, but Dawkins employs most of the logical fallacies identified centuries ago by Aristotle. He lists notorious abuses done in the name of religion, as if this was sufficient to condemn all religion. By the same logic, one could condemn science because it has caused pollution and nuclear bombs. He cherry-picks the Bible, reporting the statements he finds least believable without bothering to establish context for any of the quotes he selects. He references religious leaders who reject the truth of the Bible, as if their authority was somehow greater than that of religious leaders who still trust the Bible.

Dawkins firmly suggests that no one should speak of “Christian children” or “Muslim children.” He claims that no one can be part of any religious group without years of training and indoctrination. He offers no evidence for this claim. Dawkins speaks disparagingly of any person who does not accept evolution as a scientific fact beyond all doubt. In this book he never presents a shred of evidence that evolution is a scientific fact. (I am aware that he has written other books for that purpose, but somewhere in this book he should at least summarize his case for evolution since he uses opposition to the theory of evolution as a reason to attack religion. Given the poor communication skills he shows in this book, I am not likely to seek to read his books about evolutionary theory.

Dawkins also complains that the topic of religion is given a free pass in society, unlike any other topic. Bizarre behavior that should be unacceptable is allowed if it can be labeled as religious. People are unwilling to confront religious ideas with opposition, although they will debate any other subject. I don’t know where Dawkins has been living. I experience less tolerance of religious diversity than of cultural diversity, gender-identification diversity, or many other kinds of diversity in the world today. Perhaps Dawkins’ exaggeration balances that of the Christians who claim to be persecuted by those who say “Happy Holidays” to them.

Near the beginning of the book, Dawkins offers a usable distinction of theists, deists, pantheists, and atheists. (Rather than pantheists, he should have written panentheists. The former believe that everything is God, while the latter believe that God is contained in everything—a necessary distinction.) Many scientists, Dawkins says, are pantheists, viewing God as a result of the universe rather than its cause. While Dawkins remains an atheist, he shows some sympathy for the thought that a mighty God could develop in a universe of increasing complexity, although he says that a perfect God could not exist prior to such a universe. Nowhere in the book does Dawkins address the idea of entropy (the tendency of closed systems to become less complex over time), but his distinction allows for interesting discussion of these four approaches to belief in God.

When I was in college, I raised this question: Is it easier to believe that advocates of evolution were created or that advocates of creation have evolved? Dawkins provides a fine answer, explaining how religion could be a necessary part of human evolution, reacting to the world as it was seen in earlier times. He writes eloquently about the gaps in human knowledge that once were filled by religion but that now are closed by science. Reversing the metaphor, he speaks of science ripping away barriers to our sight, revealing a far more spectacular universe than our ancestors could sense or comprehend.

Dawkins does not realize, though, that believers find the vast universe unknown to our forbearers to be additional reason to praise the God who called the universe into being and shaped it according to his plan. Dawkins’ confrontation between science and religion is fueled by religious leaders, past and present, who have rejected science as a whole. Yet his approach borders on satire of religious discussion rather than a genuine attack upon religion as a whole. He seems to believe that no one can be scientific and religious at the same time.

To maintain an open mind, one must (from time to time) read the work of those with whom one disagrees. Perhaps the greatest benefit, for me, of reading this book is to confirm that rejection of religion does not result in clearer thinking and a healthier view of life as a whole. Dawkins demonstrates the truth that one can be a brilliant scientist without being an expert in other fields. I thank him for his effort, but I am not convinced by what he writes to abandon my faith. J.

Who is correct about religion?

What are the origins of religion? Why are so many people so religious, while others are so hostile toward religion? Why are there so many religions in the world, and why are they so different from each other?

Traditional practitioners of religion generally believe that their religion is the true religion and that all other religions are distortions of the truth. Take the two largest religions: traditional Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the God who created the universe, established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living, and will judge the world at the end of time. Traditional Christians believe that the first people to live in the world knew Jesus and that Moses and the prophets foretold the birth and mission of Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus is quoted as saying that Moses and the prophets wrote about him. Traditional Muslims believe that Allah is the God who created the universe, established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living, and will judge the world at the end of time. Traditional Muslims believe that the first people to live in the world knew Allah and that Moses and the prophets (including Jesus) all preached the same message that Muhammad preached, the message that is written as the Quran. Traditional Muslims say firmly that Jews and Christians follow distorted messages from the prophets of Allah but that the Quran is the true and timeless message from Allah.

When I went to college, I learned about a different approach to the history of religion. This could be called the evolutionary approach. According to this approach, primitive humans did not understand the world and were in awe of its workings, from the violence of thunderstorms to the regular growing of crops. What they did not understand they attributed to spirits, and they came to believe that powerful but invisible spirits filled the world. Over time, they began to worship some of these spirits as gods. Heroes from earlier times were also remembered and worshiped as gods. Each culture had its own gods, although they often would borrow gods from one another. Over time, different cultures began to think that their god was better than all the other gods. They would consider success—in warfare, in agriculture, in business, or in any other sphere—as proof that they were honoring the strongest of the gods. After many generations, some cultures began to develop monotheism—the belief in one god. Monotheism appeared briefly in Egypt but was rejected. It appeared in Israel as monotheistic Judaism, and it appeared in Persia as monotheistic Zoroastrianism. Christianity and Islam then developed from these two monotheistic religions, gaining the power to share their beliefs with other civilizations and convert them. Finally, during the Baroque period of European history, thinkers in what they called the Enlightenment developed deism. Deists believe that a god created the world and established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living. However the god of the deists is not presently active in the world. This god has been compared to a watchmaker who assembles the watch, winds the spring, and leaves it to run on its own. Deists do not believe in miracles. They do not believe that worship or prayer have any value. Their focus is largely on learning and following the moral teachings established by god at the beginning of time. Today many atheists and agnostics consider themselves the heirs of deism, the final step in the evolution of religion which began with primitive people who do not understand the world but ends with scientific people who both understand and control their world.

Both views of religion are internally consistent, so which one is more likely to be true? Has religion evolved from primitive times to the present, or has religion de-evolved from a shared set of beliefs to many different forms of religion? Which position is best supported by the evidence that is available?

Many of the indigenous religions of Africa and the South Pacific islands have a core of monotheism with a twist: practitioners of these religions believe that a single powerful god made the world and all that exists. They also believe that this god is no longer involved in the world. Whether this god lost interest in the world or whether this god is angry that people have broken the moral laws, the god is no longer available to people of this world. Many other spiritual beings have arisen, though, to watch over people. They exist to hear and answer the prayers of people, to grant good things to people who worship them and who live moral lives but to bring trouble to those who do not worship the lesser gods and do not live by the moral code. Early Chinese texts also indicate that monotheism was believed by the earliest Chinese writers. The multitude of gods in Chinese thought developed largely from the belief that ancestors remained spiritually present after death to watch over the families, rewarding them for holding to the old ways and punishing them for developing new ways. Monotheism changed to polytheism as these glorified ancestors took the place of gods. Advantage: de-evolution.

The moral code of the world’s religions is remarkably similar wherever it appears. The basic rules about honoring the divine and being kind to other people are found in every religion. The Golden Rule—to treat others as you want to be treated—is expressed in every religion. Traditional believers see this as proof that the one true God put his Law in the hearts of people everywhere. Those who favor the evolution of religion search for details to prove diversity rather than a common set of teachings. They point to details—some religions permit and encourage the abandonment of unwanted babies and of the elderly while others condemn those acts as murder—but the former group views the death of the weak as a kindness to them and not as cruelty. Those who abandon their parents in such cultures hope that their own children will abandon them when they can no longer take care of themselves. The pursuit of kindness remains their motivation. Advantage: de-evolution.

Ever since the start of the so-called Enlightenment, self-labeled progressives have prepared the world for the end of religion. Science and education will end our silly superstitions, they say, and humanity will fulfill its destiny by forsaking primitive beliefs for modern and enlightened thoughts. Their announcement of the death of religion has been badly premature. Even in the atheist state of the Soviet Union, Christianity remained alive but largely hidden for seventy years. When the Soviet Union ended, the churches reopened. Humanity has not outgrown its need for a god; science and technology have brought world wars and polluted environments and the possibility of destruction of life on this planet, but religion brings hope that God remains in control of the world he made. The failure of religion to disappear—its continued importance in the lives of most humans—indicates that people are not evolving away from primitive superstitions that led to religion. Some may drift away, and their drifting may take them different directions, but religion continues to be meaningful and significant in the twenty-first century. Advantage: de-evolution.

Those who announce the evolution of religion and its eventual demise search through the holy books of religion—especially the Bible—seeking evidence that religion has developed over time. They point to scattered verses, taken out of context, to try to prove that ancient Israel changed from polytheism to henotheism (“My god is better than your god”) to monotheism. With their bits of evidence, they tell themselves that they have won the debate, just as other people are convinced they can prove that Paul McCartney died in 1965 or that Elvis Presley is still alive. This debate will not end in the foreseeable future, because both sides have a deeply held conviction—one might say, a religious faith—that they are right and the other side is wrong. Only in time will the final verdict be known. J.