I had the opportunity to discuss aspects of the Christian faith with an atheist. It was an interesting exchange that ended with the atheist stating:
"I'm sorry, but I found you to be anything but reasonable when we (or at least I) attempted to have a rational discussion several months ago. I do not wish to waste any more time on you. Kindly do not write to me again."
This exchange started with the atheist making charges against an apparent Christian organization and their use of scripture to show some translation work. The atheist took offense. I inquired as to why one felt that way. This was the beginning of an exchange of email.
Before I get into some of the details, there are some things to point out. This is not a summary of the discussion. It is my viewpoint on various topics that were raised and discussed during that exchange.
Please reconcile the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus that are found at the ends of the Gospels. Hardly a single detail is reported consistently in all four.
One of many scores of examples is that the "Prince of Peace" "came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10.34).
Jehovah ordered, condoned, facilitated, or applauded the extermination of entire nations. He himself killed off every animal (and presumably almost every plant) in the world save eight persons and either two or seven (another self-contradiction) members of each other animal species. Almost every page of the Bible (some of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon being notable exceptions) drips with blood and debauchery.
Dæmons, miracles, prophecies, revelations, dietary restrictions....
After extensive investigation the atheist found no documentary evidence whatsoever for Jesus’ existence. Surely a human deity who performed miracles right and left would've attracted the attention of the many literate people who lived in ancient Palestine.
The Gospels do not count as documentary evidence; they were written no earlier than 90 CE and probably several decades later. Their authors (who are not known; "Matthew" &c are just conventional names) could not have been contemporaries with Jesus.
Before getting to the responses. There are some other points that I wish to address.
A fellow Christian asked, "Why do you even bother to write to an atheist? They are not going to be persuaded by any proof that you can come up with." My reply was that I was just being salt and light and witnessing to the Hope I have.
...and you will be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth."
I had no expectations of anything to come of it. I viewed the exchange as an opportunity for me to better understand that which I believed. I had no expectation that I would ever see a conversion or even the beginnings of persuading the atheist’s viewpoint. For I know that:
Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this (that Jesus was the Christ) to you, but My Father who is in heaven.
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
the god of this world (Satan) has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
2 Corinthians 4:4
So all I saw my role as answering tough questions to the best of my ability and with humility. Since I had nothing to do with my own revelation on who was Jesus, there is no reason to think that I would be more involved in someone else's.
The core of the story is the same in all four Gospels. That core is Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus, puts it in a tomb, the tomb is visited by a small group of women followers of Jesus early on Sunday morning following his crucifixion, and they find that the tomb is empty. They see a vision of angels saying Jesus is risen.
This was foretold by the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 53:5-9
But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquuities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers. So He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of living, for the transgression of my peopel to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
Isaish prophesies that Christ would bear our sins on the cross and that His death was substitutionary and atoning. He was on the cross with thieves (His grave was assigned with wicked men) and was buried by a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea (yet He was with a rich man in His death).
There is an online source that attempts to reconcile the accounts of the resurrection.
The "Prince of Peace" is from Isaiah 9:6. The "not come to bring Peace" is from Matthew 10:34.
Here is the full verse from Isaiah:
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, ...
Here is the full verse from Matthew:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
First let's look at the various aspects of peace. There is "Peace with God" and this is something the believer gains when they enter into faith that Christ's death was atonement for their sins. Then there is "Peace from God" which is emphasizing the source of true peace is God. Then there is "Peace of God" and this is the inward peace that believers have now having entered into "Peace with God". Then "peace on earth" is in reference to universal peace during the millennium.
To understand what "Prince of Peace" means in Isaiah, you can look further in Isaiah.
Isaiah 26:3 "The steadfast of mind Thou will keep in perfect peace..."
Isaiah 26:12 "Lord, Thou wilt establish peace for us..."
Isaiah 54:10 "For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake. But My lovingkindness will not be removed from you. And My covenant of peace will not be shaken."
Isaiah 66:12 "For thus says the Lord, 'Behold I extend peace to her [Jerusalem] like a river'..."
I believe that in Isaiah the peace that is being discussed is the peace on earth that will be established after the Second Coming of Christ.
For Matthew lets compare this to what John 14:27 says "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled not let it be fearful."
The Jews where looking for the Messiah to come like an earthy king to come and establish His Kingdom and reign in peace. But in Matthew chapter 10, Christ is talking about cost of being a follower of Him and is alluding to the fact that is first coming is not to establish His earthy reign. He came to provide "Peace with God" to those that would believe. And in John 14, Jesus is talking about "Peace of God".
I think the passages are not in contradiction at all and if fact work in harmony once you understand the context and consider the various aspects of peace.
This is by far the hardest one to explain. It requires getting deep into the understandings of God and His just righteousness. I will grant you that there are things within the Bible that seem barbaric and unfair, even for many Christians. So here is goes...
God is just and righteous. Any sin cannot be dismissed and there must be some payment for that sin. The result of any sin is death. In other words, the wages of sin is death; the payment for works of sin is death. The definition of death can be considered separation from God. A rather bleak and perhaps barbaric perspective if we are to stop there.
So God introduced to the Jews the concept of substitutional atonement. This is where a blameless lamb would be killed as a substitute for the sins of the people for that year. The lamb would die in place of men to pay or atone for the sins of men. Later the Messiah would be the blameless lamb that would atone all of the sins of all people for all times.
So the short answer is that we all deserve to be exterminated because of our sinful nature. While this may seem barbaric to some, it is what a just and righteous God demands. Yet, Christians believe God loves us and wants to bring us back into fellowship with Him.
Now that I have given you the short and brief religious angle on why these apparent barbaric acts of God happen, lets look at this from a more secular angle.
If you were to steal someone's property then would it not stand to reason that once caught and convinced of your crime that you would have to pay for your crime? Perhaps just paying restitution would not suffice because the crime was so hideous and some form of punishment would also be deemed as just. So for justice to prevail you are fined and imprisoned. One would say that you reaped (fine and imprisonment) what you sow (committing a crime). Is the fine and imprisonment being barbaric? Or is it meeting the demand of justice that society says must be done?
Or how about you made something out of clay and it was beautiful. But someone came and altered your clay and made it ugly. Would it be barbaric for you to wipe out the clay and to then work to remake your work of art from the ruins of the clay?
Much of the Bible is history and that history includes much blood and debauchery on the account of men. The point being that when justice is served in criminal acts, it is seen as right and civil. But when one cannot see acts as being criminal, then it seems barbaric.
If these things really happen, would you still consider it superstitious? If someone wrote down way in advance what would happen (prophecies) and it all came true would that be superstitious?
I would guess that what is really at the heart of this one is that one believes that all of this is nonsense. There are no such things as dæmons. Miracles do not happen. That no one has correctly prophesied. That all these revelations are pure nonsense. And the dietary restrictions are pure foolishness. Would that be an accurate summation?
Let's take two of the various aspects mentioned, specifically prophecies and miracles. If one could show cases where many years in advance prophets predicted what would happen and then show that it took place then would that not remove part of the superstition? Would not a resurrection be a miracle?
Let's look at the predictions of Tyre and Babylon (we could just as well look at Samaria, Gaza and Ashkelon, Sidon, Moab and Ammon, Petra and Edom, Thebes and Memphis, Nineveh, Chorazin/Bethsaida/Capernaum, Palestine, and more).
Peter Stoner gives the probability of the prophecies being fulfilled as:
Tyre 1 in 75,000,000 Babylon 1 in 5,000,000,000
That probability of both then is 1 in 375,000,000,000,000,000. That is quite unlikely. And if you factor in for the others it is practically impossible to be chance if all are truly fulfilled. I can imagine that you will challenge this and believe they were amended after the fact. If so then you can dismiss them as such. But if not then you will need to decide for yourself what that all means.
Now for miracles with the specific case of the resurrection, there are two aspects that will either prove or disprove the resurrection. Did Jesus die? And did he appear alive to others after his death? Jesus was documented as having been crucified and buried in a tomb. The tomb was sealed and undisturbed until the third day. It is quite unlikely that any man could have survived the crucifixion, let alone survives being placed in a sealed tomb with the wounds, without food or water for that period of time. So would you agree that, if Jesus did exist and was crucified, that he did died? Now how about the resurrection? Well if he is dead and he later appears to many people would that be convincing evidence that he is no longer dead? Since dead people usually do not come back to life would not that be considered some kind of miracle as well?
Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians that Jesus appeared to people after his death. Paul gives personal testimony to this and also states the testimony of others. The testimony of others appears to be part of an early church creed. The creed states that Jesus appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve, then to more than five hundred at the same time, and then to James, and then to all apostle." Paul adds and then Jesus appeared to Paul. My understanding is that this creed is traced back to 2-10 years after the time of the resurrection. The other apostles were preaching the same thing. Thus you would have at least three people testifying that they personally witnessed the risen Christ. Those three would be Peter, Paul, and James. All were willing to die for Christ and the point about Christ's resurrection was at the very center of what they believed and preached. Paul and James are well documented to have been great skeptics of Jesus prior to his death. Yet both lives changed dramatically and both died for Christ after seeing the resurrected Christ. Paul is documented at being quite careful in investigating the witness accounts of the many still alive. The result is that you have many people bearing witness that Jesus did indeed come back to life. While Peter, Paul, and James are preaching, listeners would have been able to confirm the testimony of the others on appearances of Christ. The amount of testimony to Jesus appearing after his death is staggering. These people really believed that it was true.
While that does not prove anything, it does leave you to determine why they believed or gave witness to such seemingly impossible events. Did they make it all up to create the foundation of the new faith, believed in some legend, or they were all hallucinating? Or could it be that it really happened?
The point being that Christianity is only superstitious if these things are not real. If they are real then one is left to conclude something other than superstition.
This was the center of much of the discussion. It was here that most of the correspondence took place. Below is the evidence given to support Jesus' existence along with a brief reason why the atheist dismissed each and every one.
Peter, James, and John were all writers in the New Testament. They all walked with Jesus. So they are witnesses to the fact that a man named Jesus existed. We can argue the deity or not.
dismissed since they were followers of Jesus
Cornelius Tacitus was roman historian in the 1st century, wrote of the reign of Nero:
...availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Jedea in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but though the city of Rome also
dismissed since it was written in the second century; it is now believed that Nero did not burn Rome, the accuracy of the rest of the information in this passage is questionable; there were very few Christians in Rome in 64 CE, when Rome burned, the text claims that great hordes of Christians were implicated, it was probably doctored; this passage does not explicitly mention Jesus, only that Christianity was founded by the Christian messiah (Christ).
The Encylopaedia Britannica concludes:
These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds by several authors at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.
dismissed as unacceptable since only two of the non-Christian sources cited mention Jesus and both of those (the two short passages in Josephus) are acknowledged to be of dubious authenticity.
Others who give testimony outside of the Bible are:
dismissed on the grounds of either circumstantial, inauthentic, ambiguous, unconfirmed, or non-historical evidence. The summary is illustrated by this paragraph:
You've given me a laundry list of sources that you dug out of some Christian pamphlet on the historicity of Jesus; I, who have read those sources (in the original languages, no less), have told you in detail why they do not support your claim. If you were expecting in me an ignoramus who'd start pleading for salvation the instant you presented a list of classical names, you've obviously been disappointed. I know more about Christianity than the great majority of Christians, possibly even the great majority of the clergy.
Interestingly, the atheist did give this source and summation on that source:
"The Christ: A critical review and analysis of the evidence for his existence", by John E Remsberg (sometimes _Remsburg_), a turn-of-the-century work that was reprinted a few years ago by Prometheus Books. Remsberg concludes that a person named Jesus did exist in antiquity but that the Christ of Christianity is a myth.
I think it's quite possible, even probable, that Christianity is based on some real person named Jesus."
This all started by my curiosity on why you felt Christianity was inconsistent, self-contradictory, barbaric, and superstitious. And I was curious on why you felt that Jesus did not exist as a man in history.
You gave some evidence that has lead you to believe these assertions are true. I in turn gave some reasons why I don't necessarily agree. In essence I would guess you feel that my reasons are not creditable and as a result feel that I have offered nothing new or insightful.
On the question that of did Jesus exist as a man. We both concluded that this is very likely. You seemed to feel cheated or treated as if your arguments were not worthy of a response by me. Hopefully you now understand that I did not see the point in debating details that, while we may have interpreted differently, lead us both to the same conclusion -- that in all likelihood Jesus did exist.
On the charge of inconsistency, you feel that the four accounts of the resurrection are inconsistent. And they are, but my point is that the main message and important aspects of the account are consistent and they’re in all accounts. While I do feel that I could give a single account that used the details of all four accounts, I don't see the point in reconciling accounts that are in harmony with each other. Inconsistent? -- Sure. Contradicting each other? -- I don't think so but each person will need to decide that for themselves.
On the charge of self-contradictory you presented the title of Prince of Peace from Isaiah vs. "did not come to bring peace on earth" from Matthew. I laid out the various aspects of peace and provided an explanation that reconciled this, or you might say gave an interpretation that made them not be contradictory. Whether you or anyone accepts my interpretation is another matter.
On the charge of barbaric, I offered that it only seems barbaric if the punishment does not seem to fit the crime.
On the charge of superstition, I offered that it is only superstitious if it really does not exist or did not happen.
So the above represents a quick summary of how I addressed the issues you raised.
There are some questions that I think we both have to ask ourselves, "are we trying to seek the truth or are we trying to find the evidence to support our beliefs?" I cannot prove that God exists anymore than you can prove that he does not exist. What I can tell you is that I belief He does exist and that I see all sorts of things that I believe is evidence that He does exist. There was a time when I thought the Bible was full of contradictions and I sure did not want some God who destroyed a nation of people being my master. But the more I study the Bible the more I came to the conclusion that it was my lack of understanding that made it appear contradictory. The more I concluded that this God had just reason to destroy people and that I was just as wicked as they were, the more I sensed that I needed something beyond myself. And when I came to the point that I believed that Jesus was who He said He was and accepted Him as Lord over my life, the emptiness that I felt deep down inside (which I was quite good at hiding) was filled.
Who takes away your guilt and shame? What made you understand the difference from right and wrong? Are you capable of never knowingly doing something you believe is wrong? Do you fear death? And if so why? How do you cope with the world that has done you wrong? What hope do you have for a better world? Are you really as good of a person as you think you are? These are the types of questions that I asked myself and made me think that perhaps my attitude was all wrong. Perhaps I was seeking to prove my beliefs, the things I wanted to belief instead of believing what was true. I doubt you will pray to a God that you don't believe exist. But what do you have to lose? What would it hurt to go somewhere private and tell God out load that you want Him to reveal that He does exist to you in some form? And then be patience and trust that if He is really God that He will honor that prayer. If nothing ever comes of it then you have just called the bluff of some confused Christian. But if He does reveal Himself to you then perhaps you have found something more valuable.