Who is Jesus to Me?

I’ve posted a fair bit on this blog about how others view Jesus. I’ve talked about the views of scholars, theologians and interested skeptics. But I’ve never really taken the time to unpack and explain exactly what I think of it all and what conclusions I’ve come to (tentative conclusions of course, but also ones based on lengthy study and serious reflection).

“Who is Jesus to me?” While I don’t feel required to answer such a question, I think it may be helpful to lay out my views on this topic. Part of my reason for doing so is to further debunk the idea that there are only 2 or 3 possible ways to view Jesus. My view doesn’t fit neatly into the famous “trilemma” proposed by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis who said that we must accept Jesus as either a liar, a lunatic, or as lord (that is, as co-equal with God, the second person of the Trinity). Even though my view doesn’t fit into that neat little formula, I hope that it will provide a window into how many atheists and ex-Christians view Jesus. While many will happily declare that Jesus was simply a charlatan or severely mentally disturbed, there are plenty of non-believers who don’t subscribe to those views.

So, with that intro out-of-the-way, here are my personal conclusions about the man Jesus of Nazareth:

  • 1st Century Jew
  • Galilean Preacher/Teacher
  • Definitely not a “Hellenized” Jew, but probably a Pharisee or a member of a similar “conservative” sect (scholars advise us that the Pharisees didn’t interpret the Law strictly literally and the gospel tradition of them being strict legalists is not correct either…they allowed for significant interpretation of the Old Testament and we see this in the ministry of Jesus as well. I think there are good reasons for believing that Jesus either was a Pharisee or belonged to a sect that split off from them. It’s hard to say for sure though, given the sources we have.)
  • Travelled in a relatively small geographic area (Unlike Paul, Peter and the other founding apostles, Jesus never left Palestine).
  • Had a very short ministry (1-3 years at most going by the accounts in the gospels).
  • I don’t believe Jesus called himself God or claimed to be equal with God. This is in alignment with the majority view of critical scholars. The view that Jesus was a Divine Being from before Creation is expressed only in John, which scholars consider to be the latest gospel written. The Gospel of John (GoJ) shows us a very different Jesus than what we see in the Synoptics. I don’t believe Jesus ever said “I and the Father are One” or indeed most of the sayings and long speeches attributed to him in the GoJ (there may be some authentic shorter sayings in the gospel). I also don’t believe that Jesus had a secret meeting with Nicodemus where he explained how to achieve eternal life (I view that section, like several others in John, as a literary invention of the author). The GoJ clearly expresses a more exalted and transcendent view of Jesus than the Synoptic gospels do.
  • The Synoptic gospels generally view Jesus as a Redeemer and as being (in various ways, dependent on the writer) somehow “adopted” or “fathered” by God. But, none of the Synoptic gospels views Jesus Christ as a pre-existent divine being. The writers likely belonged to Christian communities where Christ was viewed as an exalted, divine being, but as we do not see evidence of an incarnation theology in them, we must assume this was not central to the theology of their specific communities. Early Christian communities held a variety of views about Jesus and in what ways he was divine (being a “divine being” in the ancient Jewish world did not necessarily mean being equal to or somehow equivalent to the God of the Old Testament, Yahweh and the Greek world also had a broad range of meaning for the concept of divinity).
  • Paul rarely cites any sayings of Jesus or discusses Jesus’ earthly life in any detail. I view Paul’s exalted views of Jesus as rooted in his own mystical strain of early Christianity. Paul’s primary “knowledge” about Jesus does not appear to be biographical traditions, but rather supernatural revelation. Even in Paul’s day it was clear that there were competing “apostles” and not just one take on who/what Jesus was. Paul refers to himself as an apostle even while admitting he was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ life and teachings. Thus, when Paul expresses an exalted Christology (viewing Jesus as a kind of divine being who existed with God the Father before coming to Earth as a man) we cannot simply assume that this is somehow because Jesus must have taught that himself. Rather, it seems more plausible (from the perspective of critical, secular history) to see Paul’s view also as an adaptation, one of several that developed after the early Christians came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.
  • I view the Gospel of Mark as our most reliable version of Jesus’ life. Still, I think it has issues. And I don’t think John Mark, the companion of Peter, had any role in writing it. Rather it appears to have been written by an anonymous author living far from Palestine (the author makes several major mistakes about Palestinian geography which even conservative scholars often acknowledge). But the author probably does preserve something of an informed oral tradition about who Jesus was and even some of the sayings he was known for. There wasn’t a single oral tradition as there was no central authority controlling the message about Jesus in the very early years of Christianity. Mark crafts a plausible (but certainly not perfect) narrative around some of Jesus’ well-known sayings that were doubtless circulating at the time. Scholars inform us that some sayings seem to “fit” with the type of Aramaic that Jesus would have spoken. Some sayings could have been invented by Mark, but I think it more likely that if Mark did invent anything it would have been filling in the gaps of some of the narrative (especially related to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion).
  • The Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is intent on preaching the Kingdom of God. He also has a lot to say about a coming “Son of Man.” Usually the sayings about this Son of Man are spoken as though Jesus is talking about someone other than himself. It is my view that Jesus did not view himself as the Son of Man (though proving that would probably be impossible as we don’t have more direct access to Jesus’ mind and even his sayings come to us 3rd, 4th, 5th hand or more through oral transmission). I think that Mark (whoever he was) viewed Jesus as the Son of Man, but I think that Mark also tried hard to preserve most of the sayings as he received them.
  • Jesus likely did speak in parables about the coming kingdom. We find such parables in all of our early sources for Jesus. The parables in Mark mostly focus on accepting the message that the Kingdom of God is at hand and therefore people need to repent of their sins. In contrast to GoJ, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark does not indicate that belief in the “Son of God” or in himself is necessary for people to be in right relationship with God. Also, the emphasis on the coming Kingdom shows that Jesus had an apocalyptic vision. He saw this Kingdom as an event soon to happen, interrupting the normal events of history (and possibly the whole cosmos) in a major way. He did not view the Kingdom of God as some abstract analogy of the church (which didn’t exist in Jesus’ lifetime) or as “what happens when you die.” Both those views were developed by later gospel writers, partially as a response to the delay in the occurrence of the apocalyptic events (see Mark 13) that Jesus preached would occur.
  •  I don’t presume that Jesus was a charlatan or a liar. He certainly could have been, but so could any religious leader at the time or into our present day. Most religious teachers that I know of, even the more ecstatic ones who preach a judgment soon to come, seem very sincere to me. Also, I don’t think most people have the temperament needed to lie continuously. So, yes, Jesus could have been a lying charlatan just trying to make a buck or just eager to lord some meager spiritual authority over others…but I think it far more likely that he really did believe that the Kingdom of God and the associated apocalyptic events really were at hand. I think the early Christians who adapted and passed along this message were also quite sincere. I think the idea that Jesus was a charlatan is rooted more in our modern cynicism towards supernatural events in general (a cynicism even shared by most conservative Christians) rather than in an honest look at his historical circumstances. The times he lived in were ripe with superstition. He wasn’t the only prophet of doom in town. If he was some sort of “healer” then he also wouldn’t have been the only healer known at that time.
  • Whether Jesus performed many acts of healing is unclear to me (or “apparent healings” as a skeptic like myself would say since it’s possible to fool oneself or others into believing an ailment has been cured when in reality it is just a temporary psychological effect). The healings in the gospel are generally of a striking and miraculous nature and don’t seem to match up with what we see from contemporary charlatan healers today like Benny Hinn. Jesus doesn’t just cure upset stomach, fever, and sore backs, but debilitating diseases such as blindness, lameness, deafness and (in later gospels) even death. These would not be the works of a charlatan but of a truly gifted individual…if they could be reliable confirmed as true reports. And the inability to properly confirm these extraordinary reports and put them above the miracle claims of other religious figures (past and present) is exactly the problem. I think most of the healings in the gospels can now be chalked up to legendary embellishment after the fact. Some of that embellishment may well have happened during Jesus’ lifetime, but I suspect that most of it occurred as stories about Jesus were being orally transmitted after his death. People would be eager to latch onto the idea that their spiritual savior had literally rescued people not just during his death and resurrection, but also during his lifetime. Such miracle stories would vindicate their view that Jesus was on a mission to save the frail and sickly…not just in the coming Kingdom of God or in some distant afterlife, but also when he walked among us.

The “Mystical Jesus” and the “Historical Jesus”

To me, Jesus wasn’t a “raving lunatic” or a charlatan, or God Incarnate. He was none of those things, because I honestly believe the evidence points to him being simply misguided. He was human and like many of us prone to error. I don’t view simple religious fervor as being a form of mental illness (and to claim that Jesus was so fervent that it must have been a form of mental illness or narcissism is a very tough claim I haven’t seen anyone back up). Humans are prone to bias and prone to making errors in judgement. In my view, Jesus didn’t claim anything wildly out-of-bounds of Jewish orthodoxy at the time. He probably wasn’t incredibly popular during his own lifetime, despite the claims in the gospels that he drew massive crowds (if this was really the case I think we’d have more sources and especially more diverse sources for his life than a handful of hearsay accounts made decades later, exclusively by followers of a religious movement that saw him as humankind’s savior…it’s also hard to square the narrative of his widespread popularity with his later violent “betrayal” by the Jewish people during Passover). In all likelihood he had a small core group of followers, including men and women, who supported him and helped him to spread his message of the Kingdom. These original followers were all Jewish and the texts themselves (excepting the Gospel of John) indicate that during Jesus’ lifetime his followers didn’t view him as some sort of deity or superhuman being. At best they viewed him as an earthly prophet carrying on in the tradition of Old Testament figures such as Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Malachi and others who were inspired by God but who were also clearly mortal men. The most exalted ideas about Jesus and his role in the world were likely a response to the belief that Jesus was raised by God. That belief that Jesus was raised by God may not have been originally tied into the idea of a sustained physical appearance such as we see described at the end of Matthew, Luke and John (tellingly, Mark’s gospel does not state that there was a physical appearance of the resurrected Jesus, merely that the tomb was empty and the women were told to tell the others). This belief in a risen Jesus could have simply been an ecstatic vision or an inspired dream experienced by several of his early followers. I view it as ultimately immaterial whether or not there was in fact an empty tomb or whether that element was an embellishment by later storytellers (crucified criminals usually didn’t get nice burials because desecration of the corpse was considered part of the punishment). Maybe there was some sort of “empty tomb” or maybe not, but in either case an empty grave wouldn’t normally prove or suggest (to an unbiased person at least) that this meant the corpse was out walking around. And also on this note, I don’t view Paul’s claim that there were “five-hundred” witnesses to the Resurrection as reliable. If you look up that passage, you’ll see it doesn’t make it clear what type of experience those people may have had; unfortunately we just have Paul’s word for it too and no other confirmation either first or secondhand of these supposed witnesses.

For myself, I see most of the “amazing” claims that people make about Jesus now as stemming from the fervency of his early followers and those who were converted to Christianity after the death of Jesus. I do not believe the most amazing claims about Jesus were ever spoken by Jesus during his lifetime. There is a stark demarcation between the “historical Jesus” that we can attempt to reconstruct from the gospels and the “mystical Jesus” who dominates the gospel narratives and who we see also adored in Paul’s letters. I simply don’t see them as the same person.

Being asked to hold myself accountable to what the mystical Jesus demands of me makes no sense to me personally. I have no relation to that person and I view him as being unreal. The mystical Jesus is a sincerely created but ultimately false representation. A religious ideal and not a man. But the historical Jesus is a being I can understand, at least in part. The historical Jesus demands that I repent of selfishness and hard-heartedness, and that I turn to worship the true God of Abraham. The historical Jesus has no interest in being worshipped or adored or being “invited into my heart.” He would have recoiled at such blasphemy. He simply wants to send out a warning that God’s justice is coming soon and that now is the time to get on the right side of history. Of course, this person ended up being dead wrong. The apocalypse didn’t come soon. Nearly 2000 years later, The Old Testament prophecies remain unfulfilled. The establishment of the promised Kingdom didn’t occur during the lifetime of his disciples as he apparently promised. This, in my view, doesn’t make Jesus a “false prophet.” I’ll leave that terminology to the religious followers who believe that there actually are “true prophets” with divine authority. In my view, this mistake simply makes him human. Jesus was a human who lived and died in about 30 years. He preached a somewhat unique, but not radically different, form of ancient Judaism. Not surprisingly, he gathered Jewish followers. Some of those followers came to believe that he had been raised up and exalted after his crucifixion. Those immediate followers gathered converts to their new belief, first from within Judaism but soon spreading throughout the gentile world of the Mediterranean. After gaining many gentile followers the religion took on new aspects while still retaining the core belief that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent by the Jewish God and raised by God after his death. Thus, Christianity was born and it eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Millenia later, the mystical Jesus still matters to billions of people in the world. They long for a savior. They long for someone to connect them with the divine and offer them eternal rewards and protection. For myself, I’m content with the historical Jesus: a simple, humble human who devoted several years of his life to a cause that he believed in and which ultimately led to his demise. The best that I can do to honor such a person is to sincerely devote my time and talent to the causes and ideals that I believe in, even if I encounter adversity and even if I do not receive great recognition in my own lifetime. Like him, I hope for a better world.


Related posts:  What is History?,  Robert Price on Skepticism and Historical MethodLiar, Lunatic, Lord or Legend?, Thy Kingdom Come, Review of Jesus Before the Gospels, Comments on ‘Ecce Homo!’ by Baron d’Holbach

jesus and apostles
Jesus and some of the apostles (5th cent. art, from Ravenna, Italy)

A brief reflection on Calvinism, Depravity and Humanism

From depths of woe I raise to thee,
the voice of lamentation

If thou iniquities dost mark,
Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before thee?

Hymn: Psalm 130 by Martin Luther

Some background

I don’t attend many Christian church services these days. Recently I did attend a service at a church in Minnesota, while I happened to be visiting that weekend for other reasons (those “other reasons” may get their own blog post later). Oh, did I mention that my friend is the pastor of the church? I felt like visiting my friend and thought this would be a convenient way to say hello and to visit briefly. I also wanted a chance to see my friend in his element, as I had never seen this friend in his role as church pastor before.

It’s been nearly four years since I last set foot in Hope Community Church where I had been heavily involved. The church I visited (which will remain unnamed in this public post unless the pastor wants to comment here) reminded me of Hope in many ways. Two big similarities which I’ll be reflecting on here are the music and the theology.

What do humans deserve?

Calvinism is a specific variant of Christianity. It’s a theology, not a denomination. When I use the word “Calvinist” and “Calvinism” here I’m specifically referring to what theologians call the “doctrines of grace.” These doctrines talk about how people are saved. The handy memory tool that teachers have used for centuries is TULIP, which stands for 5 major points of the doctrine (go ahead and google all five points if you are curious as I won’t be covering them all here).

Calvinism presents an abysmal view of humanity. The “T” in that acronym above stands for “Total Depravity.” Part of what this doctrine means is that humans must totally rely on God for salvation due to our inborn sin nature. It also carries with it the idea that we are under affliction nearly constantly (even if we don’t always feel it) due to this same sin nature, which causes us to have the temptation to do and think evil things. Classic hymns, such as Martin Luther’s version of Psalm 130, are meant to heighten our sense of desperation and increase our conviction that we need divine rescue. Moving sermons are also meant to help inspire this conviction in us.

The sermon on this particular Sunday focused on John 5, which contains a story of Jesus healing a lame man and how the religious authorities wrongly responded to this miraculous occurrence.

After the broader context of the story was explained, some brief analysis of how the Trinity operates was given. But the core of the message wasn’t about how the Trinity works, which the pastor admitted was a mystery beyond human understanding. The core of the message that day was on eternal life and death…high stakes indeed. We paused to examine one particular verse together, part of Jesus’s response to the naysaying of the wicked Jewish religious authorities in the story:

Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.

John 5:24

At this point in the message a bold vertical line was displayed on the slide show. One one side was listed Life, through belief in Jesus. On the other side just a single word was stamped, “Death.” A stark contrast, practically and clearly on display.

Very sincerely, we were asked which side we were on (no one in the audience ventured to voice an answer at this point). The pastor, my friend, asked us to examine whether we were believing in Christ for salvation or not.

The central point of the passage in John chapter 5 was shown to us, and the central point of Christianity (at least according to this theological variety and in line with other conservative views) was set forth as well, elegantly and simply. We are broken. We are so broken, so sinful, that we deserve no better than death and divine destruction, yet God has chosen to make a way for us, so that we can pass “from death to life.” In traditional orthodox Christianity this passing doesn’t just mean dying and going to heaven, but it certainly does include that component. And in Calvinistic theology, heaven is where the saved are truly made whole and freed from the temptations and afflictions of  sin.

While some variants of Calvinism embrace the view that “love wins” in the end and that God will (eventually) grant salvation to all people, most Calvinists today are not so optimistic (and indeed, theologically conservative churches tend to see the doctrine of universal salvation [‘universalism’], as a dangerous heresy rather than just another point of view that Christians are at liberty to hold). I received no indication that this church was an exception to the rule. The test for belief occurs in this life, and after that we must suffer from or enjoy the permanent consequences of the beliefs which we held while in our mortal bodies.

So, here I am in kind of a “mini-Hope.” It’s a small church. The setting is much more intimate, but the language and the music both call me back to that former time in my life when I believed in this message 100%. I see a room full of mostly young adults, sitting in metal folding chairs, attentively listening. My friend is passionately pleading with us to consider whether each of one of us, as individuals, has the correct beliefs. Because if we don’t have the correct beliefs and convictions, if we don’t trust in Jesus as the text instructs us to, then we are very…deeply…screwed.

The music amplified the message of the sermon and I must stress that it showcased the Calvinistic perspective quite well, though that label was never spoken. Calvinism portrays humanity as desperate, as totally reliant upon an outside force for salvation.

And here I am sitting in a hard metal folding chair. Ex-Christian. Atheist. It’s been barely three years since I left this same faith (even this same particular flavor of White Evangelical Protestant American Christianity) and this message has no resonance with me. I can see what it means to the participants in the room. The worshippers want to sing out, sometimes almost groaning as they recite ancient lyrics in a heavy, contemporary rock, musical style. They want to tell their god about how undeserving and sinful they are. But to me, it lacks relevance. There is no pull. It’s a window into a part of my past that I look on with mixed emotions. The message itself neither entices nor convicts me. I will grant that it was an interesting experience and a bit surreal.

Maybe some imagery will help to explain my feelings better. I found this recently while browsing on Facebook and it really sums up my personal journey out of the Christian faith and how I often feel about it:

rain coming from umbrellas

(original source unknown, but this copy on imgur may be the most high-resolution)

I’ve written before about how it felt to grow up with the message of an angry god and the threat of eternal torment. I’m glad that unlike many ex-Christians I don’t experience vivid nightmares of hell. I’ve been able to let go of that fear with relatively little pain.

My current view of humanity is almost diametrically opposed to the strict Calvinism of my college years. Below are some brief comparisons between my past and present worldviews. Please take these simplistic comparisons with a grain of salt as your understanding of your particular theology (if you have a god belief of some kind) is likely to vary in some respects:

  • Calvinism insists that humans are born sinful and fallen from grace.
    Humanism insists that humans are born with various imperfections, but not a “sin nature.”
  • God despises sin.
    We’re not convinced that this particular god exists, let alone how he feels about our actions.
  • Humans sin almost constantly. Even thinking the wrong thing can be a sin against your creator.
    Humans mess up from time to time. We have biases and failings. We confuse truth and error. Most of us try hard to be better when given the chance. There is no such thing as “thought crime.”
  • Humans need to be rescued from “eternal death” by God.
    When you die you stop thinking and experiencing things. We don’t need to be rescued from any kind of afterlife (and if you think we do, the burden is on you to prove it, not on us to disprove something no living human has ever seen or provided reliable, solid evidence for).
  • Human beings must totally rely on God.
    Humans can get by in life and function well without any gods
  • Humans are wretched and naturally miserable without God.
    Humans have great potential and creativity. We are not perfect, but we are a marvelous part of this universe. We do not require a god to give us happiness, purpose or meaning.
  • The most important thing we can do in this life is to believe the correct things about Jesus and trust in him for salvation.
    The most important thing we can do is to leave this world a better place than we found it. We can all aspire to this. Belief is in the end far less important than action.

    I find Humanism provides me with a far more positive and motivating life stance than the old-time religion of Calvinism ever could. In my current worldview there is no Authority up above us, evaluating our thoughts, determining our destinies and punishing us for the moral failings that he built into us in the first place. There is no fear of hell and there is no guilt for simply being human. What kind of Esau would I be if I traded my current beliefs about humanity for my past beliefs? And why would I even want to believe in that angry god again?

A Brief, Non-Scholarly Review of “Jesus Before the Gospels”

I’m going to keep this relatively short. I’ve got a lot of other “life stuff” going on right now (including getting prepared for the MidAmerica Conference/Regional Assembly this weekend).

book coverI recently checked out and quickly read through Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. Like his other recent books, Jesus Before the Gospels is aimed at a lay audience. Ehrman makes sure to hold our hands as he explains some pretty challenging concepts including personal memory, collective memory, anthropological studies of oral cultures, and the complex ins-and-outs of early Christian views of Jesus.

If you’ve read almost any of Ehrman’s popular books, you won’t be surprised by what he does here. He takes a complicated topic, boils it down for easier consumption, and provides some nice personal bookends to balance things out (at the end of this book, for example, Ehrman devotes a chapter to contemplating the value of memory outside of historical study and how it is necessary for us to have rich, meaningful lives).

The one thing I really didn’t like about the book was that I wished it had followed through more on the promise of the title. Maybe I was just expecting more. When he got down to what Jesus was actually like before the Gospels, the content was surprisingly thin. Pretty much every critical scholar could have provided the same basic summary (give or take a few points). It seems especially lackluster when one compares this book with Jesus, Interrupted and Misquoting Jesus. Both of those books engage us with Bart’s specialty of textual criticism (trying to discern and explain the textual variants in the New Testament documents) but both also cover much of the same ground that Jesus Before the Gospels treads on. Yes, Bart subscribes to the now-mainstream view that Jesus was most likely an apocalyptic prophet who preached a coming Kingdom of God which would appear either in his lifetime or at least in the lifetime of his disciples. But I don’t feel that this book, despite its interesting premise, actually took the risk that it could have. Ehrman goes through great pains to describe how oral transmission actually works, and what the flaws of it are. Unfortunately the analysis in the end leaves us no further in our picture of the historical Jesus. Bart’s other books feature rich discussion and analysis of the actual texts (the canonical Gospels and Paul’s letters mainly) and this book seemed to be piggy-backing off of their success without offering much new insight to the question of who Jesus really was. So, in the end maybe I’m disappointed because it felt a bit like a bait and switch. I don’t know that this actually had to be an entire book. It could have been just fine as a long form article talking about oral transmission.

Still, despite my griping that the book couldn’t offer me more, part of me is still glad it is out there and that it is published in a format that will bring these ideas to a much larger audience than Bart’s blogs and formal debates.

Challenge to Conservative Apologetics and the “No Time for Legends” Argument

While this book doesn’t directly engage with popular lay apologetic books like Truth that Demands a Verdict or Mere Christianity, it is bound to disturb many fundamentalist Christians who have built their intellectual foundation on the ideas in such books. One of the key defenses of modern Christian apologetics is the idea that “there just wasn’t enough time for legends to develop” between the time that Jesus died and the time that the Gospels were published (at least a 30 year gap, but probably a bit longer according to mainstream, non-Evangelical, non-Fundamentalist views). Bart’s detailed description of how memory (including eyewitness recollection) can be distorted during very short time periods effectively undercuts this argument. One of the most fascinating parts of the book was the research showing how fickle our memories can be…even about things that we are sure happened and even about significant events (such as remembering where you were and what you were doing when the Twin Towers fell). The research shows that people are prone to making up details and visual images wholesale when a traumatic or newsworthy event occurs. Rather than being more reliable than our usual everyday memories, such “flashbulb” moments can actually cause people to simply be more insistent that it must have happened how they remembered it. This type of research can help us to explain how Donald Trump greatly exaggerated a news story with rumored reports of American Muslims cheering 9/11, and turned it into a memory of actually seeing thousands of American Muslims cheering on TV (that footage was never found). But, worryingly for Christian apologists, it can also explain how the beleaguered and disappointed disciples–who had just lost their teacher and friend–could actually become convinced that he did miraculous things or that they really did see a vision of him as a resurrected being after his death on a cross.

Jesus Before the Gospels does explicitly debunk the related idea that ancient oral cultures would accurately preserve a famous teacher’s words and deeds. I haven’t seen this tactic used as much, but it’s common enough that it is worth bringing up (and part of that may be my own ex-Evangelical bias…certainly Catholic and Orthodox tradition stress the importance of oral transmission much more). Some people have the idea that early Christians sharing the Gospel and sharing stories about Jesus (from friends of friends of friends of friends…etc) would not be problematic if it occurred during the time when living eyewitnesses were around to consult with. Surely, anyone in the community would chastise and correct those who corrupted the truth, even if it was only accidental. Thus the “chain” of transmission was safe until the Gospel writers could actually record these transmissions. Maybe the traditions weren’t word-for-word, but they were close enough…right? Ehrman uses a variety of tools to debunk this rosy-eyed view of the past and demonstrates that this is actually a completely wrong view of how oral cultures function when we take the time to examine them carefully.

Your Mileage May Vary

Many liberal Christians and skeptics are bound to enjoy this latest entry by Dr. Ehrman. It’s not dull. There is plenty of wit and the content is presented in a way that makes it easy to digest. Still, for those who have already read several of his other popular books, they may find this one a bit repetitive. Maybe if I feel that way, it means it’s time to “graduate” to something harder and more complex. I can hardly fault a teacher for doing too good of a job in making his previous lessons stick.

For conservative Christians seeking an intellectual challenge from the opposing side, I promise you will not be let down. Ehrman will give you plenty of challenges, plenty of moments where you feel that he hasn’t sufficiently considered all of the possible ways for traditional religious ideas about Jesus to still somehow be true, despite the appearance of irreconcilable accounts. I’m sure you will enjoy thinking of counters to his viewpoint and writing blog posts pointing out all of the stuff he “left out” or down-played in his analysis of the Gospels. And given Bart’s current profile, you will have no shortage of professional and lay apologists eager to bolster your skepticism of the skeptic.

I do have a word of caution for the truly curious and devout. Dwelling on some of these topics, which touch on some of the central ideas of your faith, may prove unnerving and difficult. Not just on an intellectual level (getting used to a new idea) but also on a personal level as you grapple with what the Bible should mean to you personally. Trying to square the traditional Protestant ideas of Biblical inspiration and infallibility with modern ideas on memory, could put you into a difficult position.

Bart Ehrman on the Fear of Hell

What do we think of humans who torture others for, say, three hours? We think they are among the lowest life-forms in the universe. Do you mean God is worse than that? Trillions of times worse? That he is gazillions times worse than the most malicious and evil Nazi the world has ever seen? I simply don’t believe it. And if someone does believe it, well, I think it would be interesting to explore why people would believe that a good God was at heart totally evil. (I know that people who believe in eternal punishment would say that God is not evil but “just.” But “justice” means, among other things, devising punishments that fit the crimes. We don’t torture people for months for robbery. Surely God is better than us, not worse. Quadrillions of years of torture in exchange for, say, ten years of disbelief is by any standard incommensurate. I just don’t believe it’s true.)…(read the rest)

~ Bart Ehrman, in a recent blog post

Related posts: Neil Carter Explains “Hell 2.0”, Afterlife Reflection

Doubting Libertarianism

I’ve identified as a libertarian of one sort or another since about 2007 when I became enthralled with Dr. Ron Paul and his long-shot bid to become the Republican nominee for President. Dr. Paul advertised himself as a strict Constitutionalist. He was also known for being a two-time Libertarian Party presidential candidate. I say this not to bore you with minor details, but to impress upon you that being a libertarian has been a label I’ve carried for quite a few years now. While I’ve shifted in terms of exactly what tribe I fit into within “liberty movement” the basis of my libertarian zeal was born when I was a college freshman, eagerly devouring every word that I saw Dr. Paul speak in countless YouTube videos. He seemed like quite the radical to me at the  time, someone who always spoke his mind and who bucked “the establishment” in major ways. I gave up my rosy-eyed view of the good doctor quite a few years back, but I won’t deny that he had a major effect on my political consciousness.

My emerging libertarian views ended up combining with my fundamentalist religious beliefs in some interesting ways. For a long time I really wanted to reconcile my religious beliefs that homosexuality and abortion were heinous sins with my libertarian principles and a desire for an extremely limited government. Eventually I crossed over into being an anarchist, which I felt was both more consistent with libertarian views and which fit into my new belief that Christians should oppose all wars and all uses of force. I was a Christian pacifist and though I stayed within non-pacifist churches, my personal views were quite radical and opposed to the status quo. I came to the view that Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with the state, since the state relied on coercion (violence) and this must be antithetical to the ethics that Jesus proclaimed in the Beatitudes and other parts of the Bible.

After deconverting I remained an anarchist, I just dropped the religious fervor and the pacifism that I had before. I no longer evangelized for “God’s Kingdom” but I did still have a deep level of distrust towards “the State.”

I take my views pretty seriously. Maybe too seriously sometime. I’d like more time to reflect on some of the harder questions involved in this topic. I don’t think there’s an easy way to “debunk” libertarianism since the term itself now really stands for a whole umbrella of related philosophies and political stances, some of which are at direct odds with each other (pair an “anarcho-capitalist” with an “anarcho-communist” and expect some fireworks). For every “head” of a libertarian argument you cut off, two more might grow in its place to remind you of some twist that you have overlooked or of some new way of formulating this worldview. I myself am often an over-analyzer, and I will try to seek out every logical loophole. But not every rabbit trail is worth following given the limited time we have.

This post then won’t be an attempt to once and for all “debunk” libertarianism. In fact, in many ways I still have a warm spot in my heart for the liberty movement, warts and all. Instead what I’ll be doing is highlighting what I see as a few “trunk” issues that inform a libertarian/anarchist worldview, and how my doubting of certain libertarian positions has led me to a different path. (note, from here on out the terms “libertarian” and “anarchist” will be used interchangeably as synonymous terms)

Understanding Individualism

A key component of the libertarianism I embraced was individualism. I looked to greats like Henry David Thoreau and other classic American writers to inform my view that the individual was what primarily mattered. In a sense this ideal already permeates our culture. We don’t really publicly question whether the individual matters…it’s assumed now that we all agree on this. You can’t just arbitrarily stomp on individual freedom and expect people in our culture to be OK with that (though sometimes we have blinders when we don’t recognize that others are similar to us and we discriminate based on gender, race, sexuality or other factors not relevant to holding rights). Individualist anarchism entails taking this concept further and making the individual freedom to choose and act however one desires a primary (if not the primary) value. Under this worldview no infringement on individual rights can be justified unless the individual forfeits those rights by using outright physical violence or by fraud (violating a legal contract). This ethical principle is sometimes referred to in libertarian-speak as the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle). Even within the liberty movement there is criticism of the NAP and how it plays out in real life scenarios. The NAP is really a bare-bones idea that doesn’t tell you much in itself, but if you talk to almost any libertarian online it will come up again and again either as an explicit or implicit premise.

Once you understand how libertarians conceive of the NAP as a sort of bedrock ethical stance, it can be easier to see why they make claims like “taxation is theft” and “the State is nothing but a criminal gang.” In their mind, these are not hyperbole, but statements of brute fact. Often when you talk to libertarians (and I was guilty of this myself) they will try to get away from the specifics of how a certain government works and they will strip everything down to simple comparisons. The end goal of those comparisons (such as comparing tax-collectors to muggers or pick-pockets) is to de-legitimize government and to show that we morally ought to oppose all governments, even the relatively “good” ones. For a libertarian no government can ultimately be good due to their continued denial of the NAP by collecting taxes and by enforcing regulations against peaceful people (almost any state regulation can count as an aggression or unjust imposition in this worldview).

Is Taxation Really Theft?

An issue I’ve been re-evaluating this year is the notion of government services and whether taxing people to provide a service actually constitutes theft. I’ve come to the conclusion that while this idea of “taxation is theft” does have some intuitive appeal, it can lead to some absurdities, especially in the light of our present social-political environment. For example: is it theft to tax someone making $100,000 a year to pay for public roads that they also benefit from? Is it theft for the state to require that this person contributes to the “common good” (a phrase I know libertarians often object to) by supporting state police forces and state courts which are given special monopoly status in our society? Is it theft or aggression for the state to tax someone wealthy who has far more than they need to survive and be comfortable, so that the money can be redistributed to someone indigent and who would otherwise suffer from malnutrition or preventable disease? Yes, private charities can play a role in that last dilemma. There is a long and wonderful tradition of private charity fulfilling many needs. But the truth is that due to a variety of factors, private charity is not sufficient to meet every need and some people would only give a pittance of their fortune were it up to them (leaving generous people more burdened to deal with the evils of poverty). Is it really theft to tax a rich person? This, in my view, is a problem for the NAP and for most forms of libertarian ideology which must ultimately concede that whatever property you have worked for or inherited is rightfully yours (this may not mean it is always practically yours). Even more radical left-leaning anarchists seem to embrace this ideal, though they must face the additional hurdle of explaining how they square it with a fervent desire for a much more even distribution of wealth. I could go much further into the ins and outs of this debate, but I just wanted to put the basic problem out there. My view has definitely shifted in a major way from “taxation is theft” to “some taxation is definitely justified.” I can no longer say that I would object to a millionaire–or even someone making a comfortable salary of say $50,000 with no dependents–from contributing to the welfare of others.

I’ll be totally honest and admit that part of what has tipped the scales for me on this issue has been my own experience. I have benefited from government welfare and redistribution (tax ‘refunds’ above what I paid in) for years. I have been able to enjoy clean, modern hospital births for three children without having to pay any expense thanks to MinnesotaCare and BadgerCare. I know many other people who are very hard workers who receive government assistance for healthcare, food and other necessities and who would have a very hard time making up those needs if they had to rely purely on private charity.

Avoiding the Slippery Slope

As a libertarian I was very prone to slippery-slope fallacies. I know I wasn’t alone in this, but I’ll keep the finger pointed on myself here. In the context of political arguments, the slippery slope fallacy goes something like this: “Here’s something that may or may not be OK for the government to do. It has pros and cons. BUT, if we let the government do this thing, then it will almost surely lead to them doing something that we can all agree is terrible. Therefore, we should be careful and err on the side of caution and not let the government do that first thing.”

If you’ve ever seen the tasteless “Hitler loved gun control” meme then you’ve seen this fallacy. Some people really believe that intense regulation of firearms or broad restrictions on gun ownership will lead to citizens being trapped in a totalitarian society. And some people will post that meme anyways, even if they aren’t 100% committed to such a prediction, since it has a certain blunt rhetorical force that can be difficult to respond to (“How can you be for gun control? Don’t you know that Hitler was for gun control and that’s how he was able to kill the Jews!?”). The first casualties of a slippery slope appeal are often the inconvenient facts that would confound an overly negative assessment (facts such as looking at all of the governments that have almost totally banned handgun ownership and yet haven’t sent a huge portion of their populace to prison camps or gas chambers or also the fact that the actual historical record on Hitler and gun control isn’t as black and white as many Internet memes suggest).

As a libertarian I was very prone to thinking that any government intervention, no matter how benign initially, would always lead to worse results. Things would start good but slide quickly into disaster. Higher corporate taxes? You’re going to kill American industry and force companies overseas. More inflation from the Fed? You’re going to enslave us all to wealthy bankers and create hyperinflation for sure. Regulations on lead paint in houses? This nanny-state meddling will turn us all into helpless babies, unable to properly weigh the pros and cons of our own actions.

I now see that my thinking on a wide range of issues often fell into the slippery slope category. I was able to sustain naive views by doing what I did when I was a Christian and simply ignoring or downplaying contrary details. Usually this could be done in a fairly automatic, unconscious way. But, as a skeptic, this is the kind of thinking I just don’t want to tolerate in myself. There are societies taxed far more heavily than America which haven’t devolved into Stalinist dictatorships or veered off a fiscal cliff. There are safety regulations that are based on such firm scientific footing that to ignore them in our daily lives would be willful ignorance and neglect and would expose people to unnecessary risks (I don’t need the “freedom” to ignore experts and risk my four-year old’s life by having her ride on my lap in the car instead of sitting in an age appropriate, government-approved car seat).

I now think that government institutions are capable of producing some good outcomes. This doesn’t mean I think government and the written laws must always compel our loyalty (I’m not interested in swinging to that extreme) but it does mean that I think there is a place for some sort of social contract and a place for using government as a tool to achieve real goods in society–goods that might be much more difficult to achieve through private means alone (less income inequality, less poverty, shared roads, shared protection from violent crime, protecting the environment, shared property law etc). A libertarian society would seek to achieve many of these same goods but would want to do this in a purely voluntary way, without recourse to the power of taxation or monopoly. As far as that goes in theoretical terms I can’t say I’m strictly opposed. Maybe some future Libertopia will show us the way to a better society. That “Galt’s Gulch” just doesn’t exist now. While I was a libertarian I watched several attempts to create such a libertarian enclave go up in metaphorical flames. If that’s your passion, go for it. I’m just not convinced right now that creating Libertopia (a society where the vast majority abide by libertarian principles) is the best path forward or the only morally acceptable option.

 

Hopefully you enjoyed this peek into my head. There’s plenty more to say but I’m well past 2000 words so I should probably stop here.