And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His Father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva, in the brain of Jupiter.
~Thomas Jefferson in a letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823
eeping in mind the points already made in a previous section about prophets (namely that they are often maniacs and/or charlatans), let us cast a skeptical eye on Jesus and see how he fares.
The tale of Jesus was circulated orally amongst his followers after his death. Before crystallizing into the four gospels the story was certainly embellished. The narrative that emerged was heavily influenced by god-man stories from the Old Testament and other religious traditions, and perhaps also by stories of the many other “messiahs” who started their own apocalyptic cults around the time of Jesus. The tale was further colored by the agendas of particular story tellers. Such is the nature of oral tradition. Myths arise in short order.
There is a striking similarity between miracles depicted in the New Testament and other pagan mythologies. Jesus was not the only Son of God born to a virgin (there was also Romulus). He was not the only spiritual leader to heal blindness by his spittle (Vespatian did too), or to raise the dead (Apollonius of Tyana pulled off the same trick), or to turn water into wine (Dionysus did it first). Such god-man themes were borrowed from older pagan traditions familiar to the first Christians.
The mythology surrounding Jesus tempts one to question whether there was a real Jesus at all. Perhaps the entire story was cut out of whole cloth. But, while there is certainly no irrefutable proof that Jesus existed, the early success of the Christian church indicates that he probably did. There was enough time between the death of Jesus and the writing of the gospels for a mythology about Jesus to form, but not enough time for a completely fictional character to become mistaken as factual due to excessive literalism. The New Testament accounts of Jesus are assuredly littered with fabrication, but the most parsimonious interpretation of the information available points to an actual, historical figure. He wasn’t the Jesus you learned about in Sunday School, but he was probably a real guy. So who was the real Jesus?
Certain biographical tidbits from the gospels are probably true. One random example: It seems plausible that Jesus truly had a brother named James (whom Paul in his letter to the Galatians claimed to have met). Scholars debate these tidbits, but a few assumptions seem relatively safe, and a general picture of the historical Jesus emerges.
He was a peasant Jew from Galilee. He lived at a time when Jews lived under Roman occupation and were particularly susceptible to the promise that God was on the verge of establishing a kingdom for the Jews on earth. He was influenced by John the Baptist. The crucifixion was a real event.
And perhaps some vestige of the historical Jesus remains in the general tone, if not the actual words, of the teachings ascribed to him. His sermons were suited to his audience of poor, rural, uneducated Jews. His central message was that the kingdom of God was close at hand and was not for the rich, but for the poor, i.e. his audience. His apocalyptic ideas were nothing new; they were actually common. What was radical about the teachings of Jesus, and what was possibly the key to the later triumph of Christianity, was the egalitarianism.
Jesus was almost certainly not as famous in his day as the gospels indicate, but he at least succeeded in acquiring a small following. This tells us something about Jesus but even more about the psychology of his followers – the impoverished Jews who first took to his message. Who is most vulnerable to a message of divine deliverance from poverty and oppression? Oppressed peasants. The needy. Jesus preached to the poor, the outcast, and the chronically sick.
As for the miracles in the gospels, as already indicated, those are mostly fictions borrowed from other traditions. But some of the healings may have been real. Of course, by Hume’s maxim (“no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish”) we assume that Jesus did not actually have magical healing powers. But his followers believed he did, and he exploited their faith and the power of the placebo effect to perform healings in the exact same way as modern faith healers do.
So Jesus was a real man, subject to the same urges and psychological flaws as the rest of humanity. He believed that a new monarchy of peasant Jews would be established on earth, with himself as the monarch. And he evidently performed faith healings. It is apparent that Jesus had the same sorts of grandiose beliefs and engaged in the same sorts of behaviors as modern cult leaders who we judge to be venal and/or delusional. What might these facts imply about the character of this man?
We must accede that Jesus might have been like modern cult leaders, who preach love publicly but exploit their followers privately. The only real accounts we have of the character of the Christ were written by Christians. How many current and recent cult leaders are truly as pure and good as their followers believe? Isn’t it at least possible that Jesus was a Sathya Sai Baba?
Yes, it is possible. But we’ve now ventured into pure speculation. We can only base our judgment on the evidence available. The Jesus depicted in the New Testament is admirable, and it is plausible that he was as benevolent as advertised. He might have been delusional but there is no indication that he was a charlatan in the god-man business for material gain; on the contrary, his willingness to die for his cause suggests he was a true believer. For better or worse that’s the best information we have about the Nazarene.
In conclusion, the evidence suggests that Jesus was a historical figure, and though his true character is lost to history, it is entirely possible that the historical Jesus was as fine a person as any other spiritual leader who ever lived. The same could not be said for the figureheads of other prominent religions were they to be similarly scrutinized, and so Jesus deserves a measure of respect.
Now let us delve into the man’s doctrine.
Many of the moral teachings that are ascribed to Jesus are quite wonderful. The Golden Rule, the admonishment against hypocritical judgments, the injunctions to turn the other cheek and to love thy enemies, the command to share with the poor, and the lesson of the Good Samaritan – all laudable. To the degree that Christians follow these teachings they are indeed an inspiration to the rest of us, a light of the world.
There is some question as to whether the behest to “resist not evil” is as nice as it sounds, for to fail to resist evil is to embolden and abet evil doers, and how can this be moral? This quibble requires an intentionally naïve interpretation of the text. Jesus promoted non-violence, not cowardice (as is clearly revealed by his own example). He was exhorting against meeting wickedness with wickedness and hatred with hatred. Notice that reckless pacifism does not seem to be a problem in Christian nations. The moral teachings of Jesus must be seen in light of his eschatology; they were practical for his immediate followers, who sincerely believed the world was going to end any day, and who in the meantime needed a few rules to help them get along with each other. The Golden Rule was never meant for complex moral quandaries like whether or not it would be right to assassinate Hitler. In practice, Christians have found that passive resistance and measured self-defense accord with a non-excessively-literal reading of the text.
In fact, the Christian principles of equality and empathy are at least partially responsible for modern democracy, the abolition of slavery, and equal rights for women and minorities. Of course, Christian institutions stood in the way of progress. Christian churches supported slavery and actively oppressed women and minorities. We should chalk this up, however, to the general tendency of religion to squash critical thinking and individuality, to grant unchecked power to the undeserving, and to protect comfortable biases and the status quo. Because religion gives undue authority to the priest class, it is easily exploited by corrupt people to further their petty personal agendas. Let’s give credit where it is due to the philosophy of Jesus, and blame Christian institutions for the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch burning, condoning slavery, anti-Semitism, etc.
However, while some of his moral teachings are laudable, it is difficult to see how the key religious beliefs of the historical Jesus should be of any interest whatsoever to modern audiences. His central message was that the kingdom of God was at hand, and of course it wasn’t. Specifically, he expected an apocalypse to come within the lifetime of his immediate followers. Christianity at first was a rather unremarkable doomsday cult. The apostle Paul was so convinced that “the appointed time has grown short” that in 1 Corinthians he advised the unmarried not to bother with marriage. The legacy of Jesus’ absurd eschatology is that every generation of Christians in the past 2,000 years has convinced themselves they live in the end time. There is a long history of Christian numerologists forecasting the date of judgment, inciting mass hysteria, and then recanting and recalculating when “judgment day” comes and goes uneventfully, leaving the faithful baffled, disappointed, and decidedly unrapturous. The continued failure of the apocalypse to show up is the humiliation of the Christian religion (and leaves the rest of us thanking the absence of Yahweh). And at this point Jesus’ prediction has been so overshot that even if earth were hit by an asteroid tomorrow and human civilization burned to the ground, it would be far too late to vindicate him (as if anyone at that point would care). But these sorts of issues never bother the faithful.
A naturalist has a difficult time with many core Christian doctrines, e.g. the existence of God and Satan, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of Heaven, and the impenetrable brain-scramble called the Trinity. These doctrines are difficult to accept merely because, like most religious doctrines, they either make supernatural claims or defy common sense. Believing in them is therefore foolish. There is one Christian doctrine, though, that is especially vile: the doctrine of salvation. You are commanded to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior – whatever that means – or else to suffer in Hell for fifty years! Oh wait, it’s not fifty years. Not a hundred years. Not a thousand years or even a million. If you fail to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour before you die, then you are sentenced to suffer in Hell for eternity.
Aside from the theological problem of reconciling the existence of Hell with a supposedly omni-benevolent deity (which in my view is insurmountable), this doctrine is starkly, violently, unforgivably oppressive. It is the sort of creepy psychological bullying often employed by child abusers to compel obedience and crush independent thought. The Christian religion is a spiritual mafia, making offers that cannot be refused.
This is a brilliant move, of course. If you want your cult to be successful, tell people that being human is a mortal sin, and then offer obsequiousness to your prophet as the only pathway to forgiveness.
Most Christians aren’t bothered much by the thought of Hell, though, because they have agreed to the bargain, and herein lies the second problem with the doctrine of salvation. Christians know they are saved and this makes them smug. Their salvation is independent of their moral behavior; it’s nice to be nice to other people but ultimately not that important. Frequent screw-ups are to be expected since humans are sinners. The screw-ups are okay; Christians are safe. They’re in. No matter what, they get to go to heaven. Hell is for all those other people, the out group. This makes Christians superior. The unsaved might be pitied or they might be hated, but they are not regarded as equals. Or at least this is sure how it seems to us, the unsaved.
It is ironic that the followers of Jesus, the consummate egalitarian, ended up becoming a bunch of smug bastards who think they’re better than everybody else.
Perhaps the problem is that Christians use up all their humbleness prostrating themselves before their heavenly god and have none left over to offer their fellow earthlings. To those of us outside the fold, Christians appear to be people who get off on telling strangers what they can’t do. They’re insufferable moralists half the time and raging hypocrites the other half. They’re as rigid and unforgiving as a cold slab of stone when applying their codes to others, and as pleading and pathetic as watery-eyed dachshunds when they themselves need forgiveness for the exact same transgressions.
To be fair, there really are Christians who strive to love their neighbors and to judge not. Many Christians are extraordinarily decent human beings, brimming with genuine altruism without a hint of condescension, quietly doing their part to live righteously and to make the world a little bit better. These are admirable people and much can be learned from them. These sorts of Christians won’t be found filming evangelistic infomercials, parading their children outside abortion clinics, or spewing hate-rants on Fox news. How such Christians cope with the doctrine of salvation is a mystery. Probably they manage by keeping the whole thing fuzzy in their heads or by mentally redacting chunks of scripture. They find a way to take the good from their religion and leave the bad.
This raises a question: Can the bad be purged from Christianity without losing the religion itself?
The tendency amongst Christians to find Biblical justifications for bigotry toward women and homosexuals is discouraging. But once upon a time Christians found Biblical justifications for racism and slavery, and they eventually grew out of that. So the religion evolves, and it is reasonable to be optimistic that these attitudes can change.
On the other hand, the Christian lust for the apocalypse is absolutely terrifying in light of the tendency in humans to fulfill our own prophecies, and the use of the threat of eternal damnation to compel obedience is despicable. Unfortunately these doctrines are permanent features since they are solidly grounded in the New Testament and date back to the first Christians and the actual teachings of the historical Jesus. Liberal Christians might try to temper the nastier elements of their faith, discreetly dumping the disagreeable doctrines like dead bodies in a swamp at night, but fundamentalists will always dredge them back up. It is one thing to downplay disagreeable passages in Leviticus, but to make Christianity a truly decent and sane religion would require nothing less than whitewashing the core message of Jesus in the New Testament. And so, while there are admirable Christians who are a credit to their faith, and while Christianity has many beautiful aspects, civilization would be better off if all religions, including the religion of the Nazarene, would fade away (naturally and gradually, as adherents lost interest), and allow humanity to progress to whatever comes next.
-  See http://books.google.com/books?id=kNIcAQAAIAAJ&lpg=PA284&pg=PA284#v=onepage&q&f=false. ↩
-  There is a case to be made, compelling at first blush, that Jesus never existed. Proponents of this argument are bothered by all the holes in the New Testement. For example, the Massacre of the Innocents described in the Gospel of Matthew (the infanticide ordered by Herod in Bethlehem) would have been widely documented at the time, but the historical record is silent. The central argument is that all the writings we have about Jesus come from well after his death. Why was there silence about Jesus during his lifetime? This argument may prove that Jesus was less popular in his day than the gospels imply. But it is unsurprising to scholars that nothing was written about Jesus during his lifetime, and they do not see this as proof that Jesus was a myth. The consensus amongst scholars (at least for now) is that a historical Jesus existed. ↩