No! Not … the comfy chair!

By this point, I’ve come to expect the Spanish Inquisition.

This is how things work in the evangelical subculture, where stridency is rewarded with prominence. You invite suspicion, inquisition and spontaneous catechism whenever you quote anything from the Bible that’s outside the usual limited parameters — such as anything it says in hundreds and hundreds of passages about wealth and possessions and the poor. You can expect the same thing whenever you question any of those things that everybody seems to know the Bible says even if it never actually says them.

There’s a very strange if … then logic at work behind this steady stream of questions and questioners. The idea seems to be that if you believe that Jesus said to feed the hungry, then you must not believe that Jesus was the Christ, the only begotten Son of God. Or if you believe that the origin stories of the early chapters of Genesis were not written as journalistic accounts (“Dateline: Eden”) and thus should not be read as such, then you must not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, vindicated by God and victorious once and for all over sin and death.

Very, very strange logic, that. I do not see how the supposition follows, but I am no longer surprised to see the supposition made. (It’s being made again, right now, as the next wave of inquisitors parses the words “for all” in the paragraph above. I shall be hearing from them shortly, I’m sure.)

Ultimately, I suppose, the logic of this illogic is the idea that any Christian who is not precisely and exactly the kind of Christian that one’s particular megapastor or favored author or radio host demands all Christians to be isn’t really a Christian at all, just a “liberal” impostor claiming the name to lead the unwary astray. For most of my inquisitors, it seems, the world is filled with such impostors. And that makes the world a very scary place.

I remember being taught what it meant to live in such a frightening, perilous world. It was not pleasant.

Responding directly to my catechists rarely gets at the root of their fears, but every once in a while I try to respond anyway, so let me do that again here with the latest “Gotcha!” inquisition from comments.

INQUISITOR: “So what happened to the physical body [of] Rabbi Yeshua bar Joseph after he was executed as an insurgent in the year 33 CE?”

MY ANSWER: I highly doubt that Jesus was executed in the year we call 33 CE.

Pin-pointing the date of Jesus’ birth is a tricky business due to the general difficulty of dating most first-century events precisely and due to the thin and not quite harmonious clues in the Gospels. Not to mention the complications that arise simply from the fact that no one living in 33 CE thought of themselves as living in “33 CE.”

I had a brilliant astronomy professor in college whose best guess, based on the sort of thing that would have gotten the attention of the magi as the “star” of Bethlehem, was that Jesus was born in what we would call 6 BCE. As he was much smarter than I and had given the matter much more thought than I likely ever will, I’m prepared to go along with that guess on this bit of adiaphora.

Now, see, what happens next is my inquisitors note that if I can’t accept the clear biblical teaching about the date of Jesus’ death, then I obviously don’t respect the infallible authority of the scriptures, and therefore, they assume, I’m John Shelby Spong.

(They haven’t actually read anything by Spong, but they’ve been assured that he is eeeevil. I haven’t read anything by Spong either, so I really can’t say.)

The arithmetic is straightforward and simple: If I do not believe what the Bible says about the date of Jesus’ death, then I must not believe that Christ is risen or that Christ is Lord. If I don’t accept the simple, straightforward fact of what the Bible teaches about the dates of Jesus’ birth and death, then I must not really be a Christian at all — just one of those liberal impostors your pastor warned you about.

Funny thing, though: the Bible doesn’t actually say what year Jesus was born or what year he died. Any guess as to those dates is nothing more than that — a guess.

And this, in a nutshell, is the dynamic of the never-ending evangelical inquisition. People who insist that the Bible says what it never actually says attack anyone who refuses to pretend that it does, accusing those people of not taking the Bible seriously because they refuse to substitute fantasies, fabrications and far-fetched extrapolations for the actual thing itself.

Hence again that constantly repeated exchange: “About 4.5 billion years.” “You Spong you!”

The inquisitors are ever-eager to exclude, condemn, ostracize or categorize away anyone who refuses to play along with the idea that “the Bible clearly teaches” things it does not clearly teach or things it clearly does not teach. That is not the right way to go about being right. Mainly because it’s wrong.

Young-earth creationism? Not in the Bible.

Premillennial dispensationalism? Not in the Bible.

Idolatry? That’s in the Bible, quite a bit of it, actually, but it’s not what the Bible teaches.

Gandhi is damned to eternal conscious torture? Not in the Bible.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and chauvinism of every kind? See “Idolatry” above.

Light travels at roughly 186,000 miles per second? Not in the Bible — but still true!

That last one I’ve included as an example of a whole other category of statements that prompts more catechizing by evangelical inquisitors who have been taught to be suspicious of any truth from any source other than the Bible. (“You keep claiming that Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota,” they say, “where in the Bible do you find support for this claim? Sola scriptura!“) That’s a related, but separate, confusion that I will have to try to address separately in a separate post.

Now I realize that the main substance of my most recent inquisitor’s question wasn’t primarily concerned with the precise date of Jesus’ death. The main substance of his question was an attempt to catechize me on what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion. My answer will not satisfy him, because it is an answer only to his spoken question and not to his unspoken fears. But let me tell you what I believe happened.

I believe Jesus was taken down from the cross and buried in a grave that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea.

And then, on the first day of the week, he rose again.

Mary saw him. A bunch of us did. Scores of us.

And so we know that Jesus, who was descended from David according to the flesh, was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace. So Christ Jesus died, yes, and was raised, and is at the right hand of God and indeed intercedes for us so that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That is what I believe happened to Jesus after his execution. And that, by the way, is actually in the Bible. Although I suppose it doesn’t really count, since it’s from Paul and, you know, Paul was one of those sentimental, liberal, unbiblical impostors who failed to stand with Team Hell.

Anyway, that’s the short version of my answer. For a longer version, I’d recommend N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. It’s a massive book — luminous, but not light reading. But then when one is tackling the subject of the most important thing that ever happened, one shouldn’t expect a quick and breezy read. (I should confess I haven’t finished it yet myself, so let me reserve the right to revise or amend this recommendation if Wright takes some unexpected, bizarre turn near the end of the book.)

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  • Rowen

    I’d like to point out that the Gospels DO give a date for Jesus’ birth. Actually, they give two. Both of which are ten years apart.

    Also, here’s my thinking as to why I’m highly doubtful Jesus even lived. First of all, beyond the nativity story, the Gospels tend to get a lot wrong. Jesus and co travel in some REALLY round-about routes to get places. The Sanhedrin had the authority to try their own prisoners, however, they would never have meet on the Sabbath, in secret, or during Passover. Pontius Pilate was more of a jerk-ass who wasn’t known for his clemency. And this is just from the adult life, and not the nativity/childhood. Also, no extra-biblical sources make any mention of him until MUCH later, and of those, many are simply recognitions of there being Christians. Others are most likely forgeries.

    So, for me, I haven’t been conviced by the evidence for Jesus existing as presented in the gospels. And if he didn’t live as presented in the gospels, then I think that makes the whole debate moot.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/5OPDTGMVEFDYDKHEXSNNWOFNWY Jim

    That word, “eternal destruction,” really doesnt’ match up well with annihilationalism. It’s more like “eternal utter ruination.” The word picture I’ve used is that of a car that has been smashed up beyond all recognition as a vehicle – you’d refer to is as “destroyed,” but it’s no longer what it was.

    Annihilationists have used this to explain that a person can never be completely and utterly and totally destroyed, that there’ll always be fragments left behind, but that holds little water.

  • Guest-again

    ‘Yet Jesus is a historic void.’ – Titus Flavius Josephus

    ‘Jesus is considerably more historical than Solon’ – An interesting point, and certainly one I invited, but the distinction rests, in my eyes, on what we mean by ‘historical.’ Which wraps around to the point that both Solon and Jesus, whether they actually existed or not, are major influences on the Western society we likely share. It is quite possible that nothing either said or thought is actually what we believe they said or thought, but their ‘historical existence’ is something which forms our history, and shapes the world we exist in.

    Which tends to be why some people feel it is so important to dismiss the existence of such a figure, as if by showing they didn’t exist, the ideas associated with them would lose their power. Solon is possibly not ‘historical’ – but it is possible to believe that we can trace the start of the idea of democracy which now governs us back to a point in Athens associated with Solon, at least when looking through a long chain of the past.

    I have no real opinion about Solon’s existence – but I certainly don’t think that proving or disproving Solon’s existence or the origins of words or thoughts considered to be his changes anything about democracy. Which may just be why now, few people concern themselves with anything but a generally scholarly interest in regards to Solon’s putative existence.

    And again, I am not talking about the supernatural – the Jefferson bible/gospel comes to mind as an example of trying to view the words and thoughts of a possibly mythical figure – the words and thoughts of that version stand on their own, even if essentially most Christians can’t accept such a text as being ‘accurate.’ Because in my honest opinion, the historical existence or non-existence of Jesus is not about history, it is about faith.

    But then, so is just about any belief in history which relies on ever more fragmentary evidence as it recedes in time. So yes, count me in as having faith that Solon actually lived, and I would be incllned (promise, not now) to actually argue that Solon is a more historical figure than Jesus.

  • http://twitter.com/sotonohito55 sotonohito

    @Guest-again: Joesphus was born at or around the time Jesus was supposed to have died. He is not a contemporary record of Jesus. He comments on the existence of Christianity, not on Jesus, and certainly not as a person who saw Jesus first hand.

    You are completely correct that, regardless of whether Jesus existed or not, he has exerted and continues to exert tremendous influence on people. And I certainly don’t expect that influence to vanish just because I fall into the “Jesus may not have existed” camp. For me the question of his historic existence is, at best, a matter of academic interest.

    If, tomorrow, we dug up some new relics that dated to around 20CE and they spoke of Jesus as a contemporary figure doing the stuff described in the Bible my position on Christianity would not change. Though I have no doubt that the Pat Robertsons of the world would be all over it.

    @Froth, I don’t expect it to be. But I do hope that you can see how, as a person who considers all supernatural claims to be equally silly and nonsensical, I might be inclined to be less charitable to claims of a historic Jesus that also include what I’d categorize as blatant lies.

    And, as I’ve said before, I don’t think the question of whether or not Jesus actually existed has any real influence on the world or Christianity or anything else.

  • http://brainfroth.wordpress.com Froth

    I think the supernatural is absolutely real – more real than the physical. Telling me that the virgin birth is obviously impossible and therefore can’t have happened and therefore there is no Jesus is not terribly persuasive.

  • http://frasersherman.wordpress.com/ Fraser

    As far as mythologizing history goes, even an event within many of our living memories–JFK’s assassination–gets heavily mythologized. Oswald was certainly a real figure, but the legend he was replaced by a KGB/CIA/Sinister Conspiracy imposter has gathered around him just the same.

  • walden

    re: Existence of Jesus.
    His existence is actually better attested than most historical figures — other than kings, who tend to have monuments. You have the Gospels and letters all arising in the latter half of the first century CE. You have churches springing up all over the empire. You have manuals on how to conduct worship and church governance (Didache). You have a historical movement of people who all claim to be followers of someone with whose lifetime at least the elders overlap. It was a highly literate culture and empire. The fact that the manuscripts arise as early as they do, but give differing accounts actually gives greater likelihood to their linkage to a real remembered person. I think you can argue about the content of the accounts and about the activities of the “historical Jesus”, but it’s pretty hard to come up with an explanation for this ferment of action, publishing, missionizing, etc. based on an invention. Granted we don’t have much in the way of Roman records, but you do have the one preserved letter from Pliny the Younger also in the mid first centruy, asking for instructions as to what to do with the Christians who gather once a week and sing a hymn to one “Christus” “as to a god”, and who seem harmless but won’t recant after they’ve been flogged. In short, you have a movement, within not a long time after the life of the person to whom the movement is linked…not some rediscovered ancient wisdom of Atlantis. Ockham’s razor still has its uses, does it not?

  • Froborr

    Any time we have two situations that would both lead us to expect X to be true, I don’t find X being true to be meaningful evidence.

    QFT.

    I would not be surprised to learn any of the following are true:

    1) Jesus never existed.
    2) Jesus existed historically, and a bunch of legends and sayings got attached to him by later generations.
    3) As 2, but Jesus is a conflation of multiple people.

    I would be very, very surprised to learn that any of the supernatural events described in the Gospels occurred (or any other supernatural events, for that matter).

    *Real historical Pharisee, not the caricature of Pharisees that appears in the Gospels.

  • http://style92.livejournal.com/ style 92

    Does anyone know of any good research sources that proposes a non-existent Jesus? I’ve always been curious about this. Because the obvious question would seem to me to be “How did Christianity get started if there was no actual Jesus?” Plus, there were many Jesus movements. If there were no actual guy, then how did all this fuss start, really?

    Like I said, I’d be interested in knowing, if anyone had a source.

  • Rowen

    This article is a good place to start.

    http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/camel.html

  • http://robyrt.livejournal.com/ Robyrt

    Unfortunately, the Ebon Musings article commits the standard historical-Jesus error of advancing a theory with even less support than the one they are criticizing. Pretty much every verse he cites as problematic has a trivial counter-explanation, and he appears to have never heard of the existence of Gnostics or indeed any competing early Christian sects at all.

    As for the basic argument – Yes, the secular historical evidence for Jesus is thin at best. This is exactly what you would expect of a poor, itinerant preacher who instructed others not to speak of him, died young, was not politically active, made the same claims as a bunch of other people in the same time period who made more noise, etc.

  • hapax

    For some reason, I am now thinking of a story I read (in Richard Armour, perhaps?) of a British academic who laboured his entire career to prove that Homer wasn’t written by Homer, but in fact by someone else also called Homer…

  • Rowen

    Hapax, I kinda love you right now.

    Recently, I was having a discussion with my roommate, where his point was that he believed that there was a historical Jesus, but that all that stuff in the Gospels that wasn’t true or verifiable was a later add on and cooped from other cultures, and that it’s possible that historical Jesus had very little to do with the story that later came to represent him. I asked him, “what’s the point of a historical Jesus then?”

    P.S. are the “regulars” posting here anymore? It seems like a new crowd.

  • LL

    Fred seems to be suggesting that these people read scholarly books on Christianity. It’s nice of him to try, even though there’s no chance it’s going to happen.

    If I thought it would help, I’d encourage them to watch (takes slightly less effort than reading) “From Jesus to Christ” (link to site: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/).

    I haven’t seen all of it, but what I have seen gave me a much greater appreciation of the first Christians. The point seems to be (and I suspect this is where many people will have the problem with it) that the first Christians were not a bunch of old men condemning others for their failure to toe the strict Christian line. They were ordinary people who wanted something better than the corrupt old religion they were being forced to serve. And many of them were women.

    Much of Christianity today does not hold up well by comparison. At all.

  • LL

    That link may not work. Here it is again: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/

    and if that doesn’t work, just go to PBS’ Frontline page and then type “Jesus” in the search box.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=581585394 Nicholas Kapur

    I’m a bit late, but I suppose I should apologize for being a little harsh in my first post. I spoke too broadly, which is pretty much the cardinal risk of posting in irritation, and I walked right into it.

    Now, if I may go off-topic for a moment, I have an acquaintance who, though quite liberal (for Texas), still maintains that while gays should have equal rights (including the ability to become pastors and such), homosexuality itself is still a sin. He feels that this position is immaculately tolerant, and that as long as he supports “real” changes like laws and policies, his religious belief that it is sinful is unassailable.

    To put it another way, he appears to actually hate the sin but love the sinner — but I cannot get across to him that that’s simply not acceptable when it isn’t a sin. I mean, it would be if you never mentioned your view that homosexuality is sinful, but if you insist on constantly talking about it, then you are still causing harm.

    So, I was hoping that someone here might know of a link or resource that addresses this very specific issue: “I support LGBT rights, but homosexuality is still a ‘minor’ sin.” I’m pretty sure anything I try will simply be met with, “But it’s my belief!”

  • Anonymous

    Flat: But when you believe in God you have to be a witness and you have to tell other people where you believe in and what the reasons are why you believe.

    That is what you believe.
    It is not what I believe, nor what everyone who believes in God believes.

    (For the record, I do believe in God, but do not feel that I must ‘be a witness and tell other people’ what I believe in. I tend toward the idea that the best recommendation for a religion is the behavior of its adherents, rather than than constant statements about what I believe, and will be happy to go into the reasons behind that if anyone’s interested in knowing.)

    Kindly quit universalizing; your experience and beliefs are not everyone’s experience and beliefs.

  • Keromaru

    Heh. I’m all about Jesus scholarship. I actually have Raymond Brown’s “Birth of the Messiah” on my coffee table. I have yet to crack it open, since it’s so thick and dense.

    Which takes me to my thoughts on John Shelby Spong, which I wanted to mention earlier. I was a fan for a while a few years ago, and read several of his books. But these days, I have too many issues with his work. His strident “I’m right, so nyah” tone is too similar to RTCs, and I find the way he portrays early Christianity to be too heavily distorted. The way he describes it, “fundamentalism” took over in the church the moment John mailed off his Revelation.

    Basically, I find his theology too shallow, too empty. He seems to jettison everything that even remotely offends his 20th-century left-wing materialist sensibilities (and I say this as a 20th-century left-winger myself!), and all that’s left is a safe, harmless little shell. Long story short, I agree with Rowan Williams’ assessment:

    http://anglicanecumenicalsociety.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/bishop-spong-and-archbishop-williamss-response/

  • Anonymous

    @Nicholas Kapur: The argument I would use against him–which is also the one that convinced me to abandon “love the sinner, hate the sin” in favour of full acceptance of homosexuality–is that gay people almost universally do not experience “love the sinner, hate the sin” as love. If you oppose homosexuality, you oppose something that is an intrinsic part of their identities. If you reject such a key portion of someone’s identity, your treatment of them will not have the effects of love. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” just doesn’t WORK.

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    In response to the turning water into wine and the virgin birth and walking on water and such, I have nothing Scully-like to say; that is, no rational explanation.* I will say that Thomas Jefferson agreed with you – he cut out any suggestion of miracles from his copy of the Bible, viewing them as obvious falsehoods. Make of that what you will. But, the loves and fishes – well. I’ve always viewed that as going something like this: boy offers loaves and fishes, and Jesus announces that, hey, here’s some loaves and fishes, and suddenly everyone else in the audience sort of thinks a bit and says, “yeah, now that I think of it, I’ve got a bit of matzah that I was saving for later,” and someone else says, “hmm, I’ve got some olives – not really enough to share, but if everyone else is pitching a bit in,” and so on, until, Stone Soup** like, there turns out to be enough for everyone and a little left over. The miracle is convincing everyone that it’s in their best interest to pitch their little bit – “just enough for me, not really enough to bother sharing” – into the collective pot. And if you don’t think that’s a miracle, we need to talk about taxation policy…

    * I, personally, have no problem with those aspects of the story, because, like many, if not most, self-professed Christians, I have no fundamental problem with the idea of the supernatural. Still, I understand that many people do have a problem with the idea of the supernatural, and I’m not going to convince anyone who disagrees otherwise.

    ** Actually, I’d always heard it told as Axe Head soup. And I don’t remember if this was my embellishment or my grandfather’s, but I recall the soldier with the axe head as being my grandfather on his way out of Russia after WWI.

  • PJ Evans

    One of my friends has a similar view, and says the miracle is getting all those tight-fisted hard-headed people to contribute what they’d brought for their own meal to the group meal.

  • Guest-again

    ‘For some reason, I am now thinking of a story I read’
    Heinlein used it, possibly in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Which doesn’t mean that Heinlein didn’t borrow it from somewhere else.

  • Nixnutz

    I realize that this is terribly late and I probably shouldn’t expect a reply but I feel I’m missing a couple of implicit points which seem to be clear to the rest of the readers (since I don’t see anyone asking). Namely, what are we to presume is the belief system/spiritual orientation of the questioner and what in turn does he believe happened to the body? An atheist “inquisitor” makes the most sense to me but the context seems to be of literalists challenging Fred’s Christian bona-fides so that seems wrong.

    Re-reading the post I find this is less important to the main themes than I first thought but I still feel that I was supposed to understand those points.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    My understanding of the question is whether the body remained a corpse and eventually decayed, as bodies of humans generally do, or whether it got up and walked out of its tomb, as the body of Jesus is said to have done, with the inquisitor’s implication being that what actually happened is that it got up and walked out of its tomb, but that Fred would be reluctant to say that, since (the inquisitor putatively implies) he’s not a real Evangelical but some kind of wishy-washy Unitarian-in-Christian-clothing or something whose theology is impure and unreliable.

    More generally, my understanding of the context is that Fred is accustomed to having his bona fides as a Christian Evangelical challenged because he does not profess belief in some of what he considers countertextual cultural artifacts (e.g., Hell) but many Evangelicals consider part of the text.

    This comes on the heels of a longer discussion in the comments of an earlier post, where several people were speculating on where Fred stands on the actuality of various supernatural phenomena described in various texts.

  • Nixnutz

    Thanks, so it’s “you deny the literal truth of this thing (which is often not in the text), do you even believe this other really important thing?” Yeah, now I see why the rest of you got it, I should have figured that out.

  • Guest

    I think to say the bible doesn’t support homophobia or sexism is naive. What about the passages that say gays should be put to death? What about the part where it’s claimed the people of soddom and gomorrah were punished with ‘unnatural appatites’ and turned gay? What about Paul’s claim that gays won’t go to heaven?

    Then there’s the rape laws that say a woman should marry her rapist if she’s a virgin and that if she’s raped in a town and doesn’t cry out, she should be put to death. The whole nasty symbolism of eve being made after adam, and of taking the apple first. The fact that God himself seems to be sexist- he punishes all womankind with the pain of childbirth, he selects mostly male prophets and male kings. Even Jesus had mostly male diciples. There’s Paul, who thinks women should be quiet and not be teachers. It’s a deeply problematic book.

    As for racism, you could make the arguement that God himself is racist, since he favours the jews above all others and never has a black or asian prophet.

  • Guest

    There’s no direct evidence that Jesus exsisted. He never wrote anything himself (or if he did we haven’t found it) and there are no eye-witness accounts of him, or second-hand accounts of people claiming to meet him.

    As for why the church sprang up, it’s possible that some-one had a dream that the messiah had been born, or heard a rumour, and then convinced other people. Cults were springing up all the time back then.

    I don’t consider churches to be evidence for his exsistence. People worshipped Hercules; he never lived.

    There are many folk-tales and non-canon ‘gospels’ about Jesus that are treated as untrue, but really, how can anyone tell? There’s no established truth about Jesus to compare them to.


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