I just got back from my second week of my second Alpha Course, and boy… was tonight ever different than last week. Another nice dinner with friendly chitchat; another cheerful singalong; a somewhat insipid video; and a much more lively conversation than before. We had a new member of the group, and we lost a member, so it balanced out. But I’ll get to that soon enough – first, the video.
Tonight’s subject was “Who is Jesus?” The first few minutes were about how Nicky was an atheist for most of his life, with little interest in religion, but when some of his college friends became Christians, he spent several days reading the New Testament to try to learn about ‘the enemy’. From this reading of the Bible alone, he claims, he came to know that it was true, that there was a God, and that Jesus was him. In other words… before he learned a thing about the history of the bible, or the societal and cultural context of stories it tells, he believed it was true. Of course, he then went on to say that he’s a person who values evidence and doesn’t do leaps of faith. Okay, Nicky… if you say so.
Eventually he worked around to saying what the evidence for the existence of Jesus was. He mentioned Tacitus and Suetonius (Roman sources) and Josephus (a Jewish source), saying they all spoke about Jesus. He didn’t go into any detail, so I decided to do a bit of Googling on my phone while he talked. As it turns out:
- Tacitus mentions Jesus’ execution and the existence and persecution of Christians in the first century CE. Nothing is said of the claimed miracles.
- Suetonius makes a vague reference to the instigation of “persistent disturbances” by a Jewish leader named Chrestus… during the rule of Emperor Claudius in and around 50 CE, long after Jesus died.
- Josephus makes two references to Jesus. Of the first, scholars largely agree that Josephus gave an overview of what people believed about Jesus, but that the details have been corrupted due to intentional interpolation over the years. Of the second, it simply says “Jesus who is called Christ.” Sure. People called him Christ. They called others Christ, too. It’s a title. It means Anointed.
None of these men actually witnessed the events of Jesus’ life as documented in the Bible. But apparently that doesn’t matter, since Nicky said that the evidence in the New Testament itself is more important. He actually cited a statement in Matthew from Peter to Jesus as evidence that Jesus was who he said he was. Forget actually trying to confirm the stories… just believe the stories! Righty-o.
He went on to talk about textual criticism, and how there are thousands of ancient, accurate manuscripts of Biblical stories – more than any other ancient document of its era. I’m not sure if that’s true; I’m not an expert. But I do know that textual criticism is just a study of the accuracy of a transcription of a document, and has absolutely nothing to do with whether the document is reliable as historical documentation. I also know that the number of copies and the age of the copies is irrelevant. If the story was written decades after the events took place and was passed along largely by word of mouth among non-eyewitnesses before it was ever written – as we know to be the case with the gospels – then it doesn’t matter how accurate our modern copies are; a perfect copy of a legend is still just a legend.
Nicky said some rather ridiculous things about why Jesus’ character proves who he was. For example, he said that since Jesus pointed people to himself rather than to God, it made him distinct from other religious leaders. (Sure, but why on earth is that important?) He also said that since Jesus, in pointing to God, led people to himself, he was humble and self-effacing. Yes… because going around telling people that you’re the creator of the universe is humble. But that’s still irrelevant; why would his humility be evidence of his divinity?
The best part came next, when Nicky invoked C. S. Lewis’ trilemma:
… Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. …
This is often summarized as the choice between lunatic, liar, or lord. As several people have pointed out, and as I described earlier in my discussion of how the gospels developed, there’s a fourth option: legend. This, to me, seems much more likely and believable, considering the similarities between Jesus and other demigod hero myths of the cultures of his era.
Nicky then said that Jesus’ teachings were “the greatest teachings ever to fall from the lips of a human being.” All well and good, except for the serious flaws in his teachings (like telling people to give no thought for tomorrow) and the unoriginality of his most popular ideas like the Golden Rule and nonviolent resistance. But then Nicky went on to say that “no one has ever improved on the moral teachings of Jesus.” In my notebook, I jotted down:
“Don’t own other people.” DONE.
And it really is that simple, isn’t it? There are so many terrible things Jesus never spoke against. It’s actually quite simple to improve upon his moral teachings.
He went on to say that one aspect of Jesus’ character that proves he is who he claimed to be was that he forgave his torturers from the cross, saying “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Well… not quite. In one gospel, these are Jesus’ last words. In another gospel, his last words are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So… just a wee bit different there.
(Which brings up another point: why does it matter how accurate our copies of the Gospels are if they contradict each other in serious ways? And if we’re to believe the gospels are written by eyewitnesses, who the hell were the FOUR eyewitness at Jesus’ birth who followed him around to record all the major events of his adulthood as well?)
I got a kick out of Nicky saying that nobody else in history had a book full of prophecies written about them before they were born. Not only is this likely not true (considering how many other leaders in the ancient world claimed to have been foretold by prophecy), but the “over 300 Old Testament prophecies” that Jesus supposedly fulfilled were largely not considered to be messianic prophecies until they were re-read in the light of some of the events of Jesus’ life. All Nicky has to do is go ask a Jew why he doesn’t believe Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about Messiah, and he’ll realize the truth of this.
(Not to mention that the even if these things were considered prophecies before Jesus was born, the gospels were written by people who would have known of these prophecies before they started writing, and would have had every opportunity to fudge facts to make them fit.)
Nicky presented the empty tomb as evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, and dismissed the objection that the Romans could’ve stolen his body by saying that the Romans would parade him around to prove he was dead. He mentioned how quickly we put Saddam Hussein’s sons on display after we killed them, to prove they were dead. My mind immediately jumped to Osama bin Laden – how his body was never displayed because it could turn the location of his body into a shrine, and how there are still people who insist he wasn’t dead because the body was never produced.
Finally, he presented Jesus’ numerous post-mortem appearances recounted in the Bible as proof of the resurrection. Let’s ignore for the moment that he’s using the story to prove the story. He went on to assert that they couldn’t be hallucinations because “500 people could not see the same hallucination.” This is false, plain and simple. On October 13, 1917, between 30,000 and 100,000 people all shared a hallucination near Fátima, Portugal. They claimed that they saw the sun appear as an opaque, dull, spinning disc in the sky which cast multicolored light everywhere, and that after about ten minutes of this, it rapidly dove toward the earth in a zig-zag pattern. They claimed that their clothes and the ground, which had previously been soaked by rain, had instantly dried themselves. Many thousands of people claimed to have had visions of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. This was thousands of people hallucinating the same events for a sustained period of time – many times more than ever claimed (or were recorded to have claimed) to see Jesus simultaneously. “But Mike,” you say, “how do you know it was a hallucination?” Simple – the planet still exists. The sun did not crash into the earth on October 13, 1917. Voila.
And thus ended the video. On to the discussion… I won’t recount the whole thing (it was an hour long, after all), but there are some pretty good highlights.
First, when someone else mentioned the supposed 300 prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, I asked, “Do you ever wonder why the Jews don’t believe it?” Just as in my previous Alpha course, the response was essentially “well, some do.” (Invoking Messianic Jews as if they’re the majority of Jews is a sign of either dishonesty, discomfort, or ignorance; I believe it was a combination of the latter two in this case.) This led to a discussion of what the Jews expected from their messiah, which was mostly a political or military leader who would lead the Jews to prominence and overthrow the Roman oppression. A couple others in the group admitted that this means he didn’t fulfill their expectations, but somehow they narrowly avoided realizing that means he didn’t fulfill their prophecies.
An older gentleman who I’ll call ‘J’ took this opportunity to go off on a tangent, wondering aloud what Jews today do about animal sacrifices. I suggested that if they do take part in it nowadays, we likely don’t see it in public because of the laws of the land against animal cruelty and such. I don’t know… I honestly haven’t ever thought of it.
After this, the conversation was relatively tame for a while.
- We talked about whether we believed in Jesus’ resurrection. I said I didn’t, and compared the supernatural claims made about him to those made about other ancient hero figures.
- They asked me what it was that lead to my becoming an atheist, and I gave them a brief overview of the process, contrasting the seemingly instant ‘born-again’ conversion experience of Christianity to the gradual process of deconversion.
- J asked why millions of people would’ve martyred themselves in the early years of the church for something that was false. Ignoring that his numbers were way off, I responded by mentioning that there have been numerous religions that people have been willing to die for in the past, and that they couldn’t all be right.
- We all agreed that though big-name Christian apologists like William Lane Craig love to come up with good-sounding arguments, it’s not likely that many of them came to faith because of an argument, and that it’s more interesting to find out what actually convinced them.
- They asked if I believed Jesus was a good teacher. I said he had some good ideas and some bad, but that a lot of what he taught (especially the Golden Rule and the concept of nonviolent resistance) had been around for thousands of years before him. Eventually I said I thought you could probably do worse than emulate him, but that I don’t believe he was who the Bible says he was or that he was right about everything he said.
Finally we hit on a subject where things got touchy: whether we think we’ll live even after we die. Everyone else said yes, and briefly talked about what they thought heaven would be like. One lady said she hoped we do, but she feels like she’s just waiting for “something great to happen” – some personal experience that’ll confirm her beliefs for her. (An all-too-common feeling among evangelicals, which I’ve seen lead to people pretending that they’ve had wild experiences just to keep up a good image with the congregation.)
I said I don’t believe we do. This threw J into a flurry:
J: The alternative to no heaven – no live hereafter – means we aren’t spiritual beings, which means we’re just rational animals, which means there is nothing after death, which means I should just go out and do whatever the hell I want, and get all I can and can all I get and screw everybody over I can screw over without getting caught – ‘cause it doesn’t mean anything in the end. Seriously. Because it doesn’t mean anything.
Me: Would you start to do that if you stopped believing in God?
J: Sure would. Why not?
[well, now… this is getting interesting.]
Me: I wouldn’t.
J: Why not? What’s the difference?
Lady 1: Because he has morals. [thanks!]
J: As long as I don’t get caught, what’s the difference between you and me, except you’ve got a sense of morality… [uh… I think you just nailed it…] and I’ve got a million dollars? How’s your morality doing? Seriously? The alternative is just… animalistic. It’s just… isn’t it? I mean, what’s the alternative?
Me: The alternative…
J: We’re just animals with a brain.
Me: If there isn’t life after death, then this is the alternative.
J: Pardon me?
Me: If you don’t assume that there is life after death, then what we see now is what the world is like without life after death.
J: Doesn’t seem real good, sometimes. Seriously, my… I’ve lived in a very hedonistic way. I’ve seen what “no god” means – can mean in a person’s life, and it’s not pretty. And I see what it is out there, and it’s not pretty. And people do absolutely horrible things to other people. When there’s no sense of … there’s a purpose, there’s a meaning. I had a roommate in college who did not believe in anything. And I said, “well, jeez, I can rip you off and it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t get caught, right?” And he says, “what?” And I said, “I might as well just screw over everybody I can because when I’m dead, then it’s over.
Lady 2: But see, I know people that are – I know a very good friend of mine doesn’t believe. And she believes that when we’re dead, we’re dead. And that’s her belief, that’s the way her children were raised, and they’re decent, giving, caring people.
J: Oh, I’m not saying they wouldn’t be.
Lady 2: No, no. But I can see where he’s saying that … not necessarily, would it make you a rotten, stealer, thiever, killer.
J: No, but…
Me: Well, people are good or bad with or without religion.
J: True, but the alternative to me is… for me, the alternative is, well, if there’s no afterlife – if when I’m dead, I’m dead, and that’s the end of it, why not get all I can while I can of happiness, money, whatever it is – maybe I won’t screw everybody over. But the point is, the alternative is, who cares what I do as long as I don’t get thrown in jail or hurt people? I can do any friggin’ thing I want, and nobody can judge me for it and… you know. So if I hurt somebody, I hurt somebody, and when I’m dead it won’t matter anyway.
Me: The thing for me is… I have the perspective that I want to behave in a way that I would want other people to behave. I act in a way that… I would feel comfortable living in a society where everyone acted like that. I think that the best way for people to enjoy the best life they can is usually to cooperate with each other – to work together to try to make their lives as good as they can.
J: Yeah. To get what they want.
Me: Well, if what you want is to have a stable society where people cooperate and make the world a better place for each other, then that’s fine.
J: But what do you care when you’re dead? … My point exactly. What difference does it make?
Me: Well, I care while I’m alive.
J: That’s my point. I’m sorry, the alternative to no god is just… whoa. Everybody doing… you know.
Me: Well, there are three quarters of a billion atheists on the planet [statistic thanks to this fantastic book by Guy P. Harrison – may actually be more now], and the world isn’t all bad. You see…
J: We’re on the verge of self-destruction, sir. I don’t know what glasses you’re looking through!
Me: If we look at some of the most secular nations in the world, like Sweden and Finland, they’re some of the most stable democracies in the world.
J: Yeah, but they don’t have nuclear weapons, either.
Me: Well, that’s a good point. I’m not much of a fan of those.
J: My point being, what is the difference if there is no afterlife? Except to get along in society.
Lady 1: I do know some atheists, and there’s this one particular person, he’s just a wonderful, wonderful person. And I remember … there’s this gentleman I worked with; I didn’t know much about him. But he was just the sweetest person. I deal with people all day long, so you get somebody really different… he just stands right out. This guy was just really Christlike. So I said to him one day, “You have got to be a Christian.” And he goes, “no, actually I’m the opposite – I’m an atheist.” I think we have to … the biggest commandment of Jesus is love for all mankind, and I think that even people that don’t believe still want to be good people. There are some that aren’t, but I think the same could go for Christians, too. You understand what I’m saying? Something tells me that if you didn’t believe in Christ, you’d still be a good person, J.
Lady 1: You don’t think so?
J: I mean, I’m in recovery as an alcoholic. [DING DING DING, we have our answer. This is the AA propaganda speaking through him. “Everything is terrible without God and we’re just hedonistic sinners with no power to fix ourselves.”] I know what I’d be like without God – selfish, self-centered. I might be a nice guy on the outside; I might portray myself as a nice guy, but on the inside, I know I’d be selfish, self-centered. [Goes on to tell a story about his cousin having a near-death experience, and how it confirmed the truth of his beliefs about the afterlife.] When I was talking, it’s just… I know what it’s like to be without God in my life. I turned my back on the church. I didn’t stop believing, I just said I’d rather go do this other thing. [Note the difference between believing in God but ignoring your church’s teachings, and actually not believing in God. I don’t think he realized they’re different things.] So it’s like, I know how nice people can be, and I also know how bad people can be – even Christians. But the alternative, with no God, is like, whoa.
Me: Well, if you look at it from my perspective, if there is no God, then you’ve become a good person of your own volition. I mean, granted, your beliefs have helped you do it, but that would mean the power to improve your life and to overcome your temptation to do all these hedonistic things came from you.
J: It didn’t. I can tell you that for sure. I had no power to stop drinking – none. None at all. 38-year drunk. [Again… this is AA speaking through him. Being powerless to seriously improve yourself is actually a tenet of their teaching.]
At this point, Lady 2 interjected, saying that she can understand both of our views, and that she hopes something happens to her like what happened to J, so she’d really get confirmation of the idea of life after death. (She seems to be depressed about her situation in life – impoverished, possibly unemployed, waiting for God to do something big for her.) The conversation softened up again.
To his credit, J apologized afterward to me for attacking me. I told him not to worry about it, because I don’t get upset easily and I’ve had to face worse already; after all, as an atheist in a country that is majority religious and specifically majority Christian, I couldn’t get through life without running into religious people unless I became a hermit. (You get used to people disagreeing with you.) J admitted that he finds the idea of life without an afterlife “just too scary,” which I found unsurprising and understandable. Lady 3 brought up Pascal’s Wager, to which I responded:
- If God’s there, he wouldn’t want you to believe in him out of a desire to hedge your bets; it almost seems like ‘fire insurance’.
- It’s not just ‘believe’ or ‘disbelieve’; there’re thousands and thousands of gods that man has come up with that you could believe in.
And that was that; finally, we all exchanged pleasantries and said our goodbyes.
Stay tuned for week #3!