Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Galilee question

While reviewing Andy Stanley’s set of talks entitled ‘Who Needs God’ – https://whoneedsgod.com/ – I was promted to research the likely reliability, or otherwise, of one of the accounts of Jesus appearing to his disciples after his resurrection.

He summarises the first believers’ testimony very simply as: ‘We saw him killed, then a few days later we had breakfast with him on the beach’ – a reference to the story in John 21 in which Jesus appears to his disciples while they are fishing on Lake Tiberias (another name for Lake Galilee), causes a miraculous catch of fish, and cooks breakfast for them on the shore. Unfortunately for the argument for the resurrection, researching this story quickly leads to uncovering one of the major discrepancies between the gospels when it comes to their resurrection narratives – whether Jesus appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem or in Galilee.

On first inspection, the Galilee breakfast in John 21 fits with the narrative presented in Matthew and Mark, in which the angel gives the following instruction to the women at the tomb:
“Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” (Matthew 28:5–7)
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16:6–7)
The implication of this instruction is that the disciples won’t see Jesus in Jerusalem. Accordingly, in Matthew, while Jesus himself does appear immediately to the women, it’s in Galilee where Jesus appears to the male disciples and gives them his last instructions:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16–20)
However, in Luke, the words of the angel(s) have been subtly altered. They still mention Galilee, but this time it is a reference to the time Jesus was there with the disciples in the past:
“Why are you looking in the place of the dead for someone who is alive? Jesus isn’t here! He has been raised from death. Remember that while he was still in Galilee, he told you, ‘The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners who will nail him to a cross. But three days later he will rise to life.’” Then they remembered what Jesus had said. (Luke 24:5–8)
And so in contrast with Matthew, in the remainder of Luke (and in its second volume, Acts) Jesus appears to his disciples while they are still in Jerusalem, before giving them his final instructions and ascending to heaven from the Mount of Olives just outside the city. There is no return to Galilee; the disciples are instructed to stay in Jerusalem until the day of Pentecost. It seems Luke, generally reckoned to have used Mark as a source, subtly altered the words of the angel because he wanted to place the appearances of Jesus to the disciples in and around Jerusalem instead of in Galilee. If Matthew and Luke cannot agree on where the disciples saw the risen Jesus how can we trust either as composed from eye-witness accounts?

To further complicate things, coming back to John where we started, John 20 has Jesus appearing to his disciples in Jerusalem, but then John 21 includes this breakfast appearance in Galilee. John 21, however, is widely recognised as being a later postscript, the original conclusion being at the end of chapter 20. Maybe the author of the postscript is trying to harmonise both sets of stories from Matthew and Luke, but in doing so he only succeeds in highlighting the discrepancy.

In an attempt to harmonise Matthew and Luke it is claimed that the disciples simply must have travelled to Galilee and then back to Jerusalem again, between Passover and Pentecost, and that Jesus appeared to them in both locations. It just happens that each gospel only records some of these occasions. But if that were the case, why does it also happen that each gospel, as originally written, only selects one of the locations? Even more to the point, why does each gospel structure its narrative to the point of apparently excluding the possibility of appearances in the other location? Matthew excludes the possibility of any Jerusalem appearances by means of the words of the angel, while Luke excludes the possibility of any Galilee appearances by keeping the disciples in Jerusalem until the ascension.

This attempt at harmonisation also has to imagine there were two separate sets of ‘last words’ of Jesus on a mountain – in Galilee recorded by Matthew, and on the Mount of Olives recorded by Luke. This stretches credulity to breaking point.

It seems clear that each author has their own agenda when it comes to their resurrection narrative, to set the focus either on Galilee or on Jerusalem, for theological or political reasons, and that they place this agenda more highly than reporting accurately. We therefore have to conclude that we do not have unspoilt access to any original eye-witness accounts.

Review - 'Who Needs God' - part 3

I’m reviewing a series of six talks called ‘Who Needs God’, by Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church, Atlanta — https://whoneedsgod.com/ — and we’ve reached the third talk.


Talk 3: ‘The Bible Told Me So’


In this third talk, Andy hopes to reach a turning-point in his appeal to those who were brought up in the church but have since left it. To start with, he continues in the same vein as the second talk, carefully (and I think successfully) dismantling some erroneous foundations of Christianity that the church has taught in the past. This helps to continue his argument that many people who have left the church may have left needlessly, because all they have done is to reject a belief in what was in fact the wrong version of Christianity, based on faith rather than evidence. But this third talk is also the first point at which he starts to introduce a positive argument for what he claims is a more authentic version of Christianity, centred on what he claims are more reasonable arguments.

But first, the dismantling of old foundations: Andy quotes the well-known children’s song:
Jesus loves me! This I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Andy picks this song as a simple example of the erroneous belief that the Bible is the foundation of Christianity. He criticises churches and pastors for preaching a version of Christianity that stands or falls on the reliability of the whole Bible. It’s a version of Christianity that people have only naturally turned away from, once they have found any reason to doubt the accuracy of even just one single part of the Bible. It’s the idea that the whole Bible must be literally true, otherwise the whole of Christianity comes tumbling down like a house of cards.

But in fact, Andy says, Christianity doesn’t exist because of the Bible; it’s the other way around. He laments the fact that the church has over the years got sidelined into defending the accuracy of the Bible as the main way of defending itself. I can’t help but agree that the church seems to have done more to turn people away than attract them by attempting this defence, and I applaud Andy again for addressing the issue so clearly, in a church context, at what has proved to be substantial risk to his own reputation.

Andy goes on to give a very brief history lesson to prove his point. Drawing a timeline on screen, Andy explains that while the events of the life of Jesus and the birth of the church took place in the 1st century, it wasn’t until the 4th century that what now call the New Testament was first brought together in a single volume, and published together with the Jewish scriptures, which then became known as the Old Testament. Prior to that, the New Testament documents were being circulated between churches, copied individually and gradually collected. During this time many non-Jews became converts to Christianity without easy access to the Jewish scriptures, which they knew only from quotations in the new Christian writings. Andy concludes that original Christianity was not based on a belief in either the Old or New Testaments as we know them today. So far, so good. Any scholar investigating the origins of Christianity would agree, and Andy wishes all churches and pastors would acknowledge this.

What then was the original basis of Christianity? Andy identifies it as the belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Or rather, as he claims, not a belief but a historical fact. He states quite boldly that the first Christians didn’t have faith in the resurrection; they had seen the risen Jesus, and that didn’t need faith at all. To put it another way, early Christianity wasn’t a religious belief, but the outcome of a historical event. But this is where things get much harder for scholars, and anyone else, to find the truth behind the origins of Christian belief. We are dealing with the largely unknown period between the events of the life of Jesus himself, ending in about 30CE, and the earliest known fragment of a Christian gospel, dated to around 125. The process of uncovering what happened in that period is fraught with difficulty, and prone to subjective interpretation depending on one’s prior faith position.

Andy makes the claim that all the documents that now make up the New Testament were written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE. He doesn’t identify his sources for this belief, but he seems to be following the arguments of scholar John A.T. Robinson and apologist William Lane Craig, among others. The main reason both he and they give for this opinion is that the gospels do not refer to the events of 70CE, but Andy fails to address any of the many counter-arguments. He mentions in passing that many scholars date the gospels after 70CE, but fails to admit that these scholars are in fact in the majority. He simply takes the early dating of the gospels as a given, and concludes from this that the four gospels contain eye-witness accounts of the life of Jesus, including therefore the resurrection appearances. But there are many more questions that the conscientious reader will want to investigate before making the same simple conclusion. These questions relate to the nature and purpose of the gospels, as well as their dates. There are many hurdles to overcome before anyone can demonstrate beyond doubt such an unlikely event as the resurrection.

Aside from any argument over the dating of the gospels and whether they contain first-hand testimony, there still remains the question of why Christianity grew after the first generation. It is unlikely that later generations could really be said to have become Christians on the basis of evidence for the resurrection. The first-generation testimony, if it had existed at all, had now vanished, retained only in writings, and the later believers must have had other reasons to join the new religion. The same even applies to first-generation believers who were remote from Jerusalem. Like it not not, Christianity certainly was a religion, with beliefs, rituals, and ecstatic experiences — witness the letters of Paul. It is much more likely that these later generations, especially of non-Jews, were converted by the appeal of the religion, including its ecstatic experiences, rather than by documents, which then casts doubt on the claim that it can only have been the resurrection of Jesus that convinced the first generation too.

Ultimately Andy is right that Christianity doesn’t stand or fall on the reliability of the whole Bible. But it does stand or fall on the dating and nature of the gospels, a topic which is far from resolved, and on gaining an understanding of why people converted to the new religion.

As in the previous talks I congratulate Andy on deconstructing the erroneous foundations of Christianity that the church clings onto, but query whether he has successfully replaced them.

Postscript – into the fourth talk


It’s no surprise that Andy received some backlash from more conservative Christian quarters for this talk, condemning him for ‘not believing the Bible’. It seems some Christians are not amenable to rational argument, and see any attempt to base Christianity on something other than the reliability of the Bible as heresy. As a result, he spent about half of his next, fourth, talk going back over the reasons for giving this series of talks in the first place, and re-iterating why he sees the gospels as evidence for the resurrection firstly, and as scripture only secondarily.

He refers to the first believers’ testimony very simply as: ‘We saw him killed, then a few days later we had breakfast with him on the beach’ – a reference to the story in John 21. Unfortunately for his case, he has picked an example of a supposed resurrection appearance that demonstrates very clearly why these accounts cannot be taken at face value. Researching this event quickly leads to uncovering one of the major discrepancies between the gospels when it comes to their resurrection narratives – the Galilee question – which I’ll write about separately.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Review - 'Who Needs God' - part 2

I’m reviewing a series of six talks called ‘Who Needs God’, by Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church, Atlanta — https://whoneedsgod.com/ — and we’ve reached the second talk.

Talk 2: ‘Gods of the No Testament’


In this talk, Andy says more about why people have left the church, having discarded their former beliefs. In his view, though, they don’t have a reason to be atheists. He says that many of their former beliefs weren’t actually right in the first place. People leaving Christianity have done so because they can no longer believe in versions of God, or of Jesus, that they were being taught. But, he claims, these versions of God and of Jesus weren’t part of Christianity anyway.

In this talk he focuses on these wrong ideas about God, which he calls the ‘somebody-told-you-so’ God. In the next talk he deals with wrong ideas about Jesus, which rather controversially he calls the ‘Bible-tells-me-so’ Jesus.

So what are these wrong ideas about God that people have been taught by their parents, their Sunday-school teachers, or even their pastors — these gods that don’t exist? Andy works his way through six:
  1. the bodyguard God — a God who ensures that good things happen to good people. Andy’s argument is that many people have abandoned belief in God because their experience of pain and suffering contradicts this concept of God. (Andy will deal with this area in more detail in a whole talk later in the series.) But, he argues, the idea that bad things never happen to good people isn’t part of the original claims of Christianity; it can’t have been, because Christianity itself started with the crucifixion of a good man, and with the persecution of his early followers. So we can’t use bad things happening to good people as an argument against God.

    As far as it goes this is a valid point.

  2. the on-demand God — a God who responds to fair requests the way we would. This is the expectation that God would do for us, at the very least, what we would do for someone else. Some people have decided there is no God because they didn’t receive answers to their prayers. But, Andy claims, this idea too isn’t part of Christianity, so again, you can’t use God not responding the way you expect as an argument against his existence.

    While the argument here is valid if it’s true that Christianity doesn’t make this claim about God, Andy fails to mention that there are parts of the Bible, especially the teaching of Jesus, that do appear to give exactly the impression that we can expect God to give us what we ask for.

  3. the boyfriend God — a God whose presence is always felt. Andy says that some people have decided there is no God because they have lost the sense of the presence of God that they used to experience. But, he says, the idea that God’s presence should always be felt is just an idea that somebody told them, not part of Christianity.

    Again, this is a valid point.

  4. the guilt God — a God who controls us through guilt and fear. This is the God who says, ‘No you can’t’ to everything, the God who supposedly loves us but who doesn’t really like us. As Andy probably rightly says, of all the gods that don’t exist, this is the hardest one to give up believing in if you were taught about him by your parents or your pastor. But you should.

    This is an important point for his Christian audience to hear, although Andy fails to say how he deals with large parts of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, where God is presented exactly like this.

  5. the anti-science God — a God who requires us to ignore the undeniable. People leave religion because the church asks them to close their eyes to undeniable science; it tells them to stop thinking and just believe. But thinking people can’t do this. Andy is bold enough to concede — in fact strongly state — that the ‘Sunday School God’ cannot be reconciled with science. But it’s not true that science and theology have to conflict. Rather, he says, if you find a conflict between science and your theology, it’s your theology that’s wrong.

    This argument certainly needs to be heard by Christians. But the unanswered question at this stage in the series is what sort of God is left over once you do eliminate the beliefs that are disproved by science.

  6. the gap God — a God who is the convenient explanation for everything we can’t explain. Believing in this God, Andy says, ultimately undermines faith, because the list of things we can’t explain is getting smaller. If your faith in God is based on the unexplainable, it’s going to crumble when things get explained. Unexplainable is not evidence for God, it is evidence of our ignorance. Here, Andy addresses the Christians in his audience and says the church shouldn’t be afraid of everything being explained, because that does not remove the necessity for someone having created it. Christianity doesn’t rely on there being mystery. He goes as far as to say that the fact that things are explainable, predictable, is evidence for a creator who created but then stopped.

    Andy credits Christians with the birth of science due to their belief that God had stopped creating, meaning that the universe should follow fixed laws, in contrast to belief in a pantheon of gods who were continually meddling with the world. But this ignores Greek philosophy in which there was an underlying order to the world that can be studied, despite the gods, and it ignores science in other ancient cultures which had other religious beliefs. It also fails to explain why ancient Jewish culture, which shares the same creation story, didn’t produce science, or why Christianity didn't produce science for many centuries.

    That aside, there’s much to commend Andy’s approach here: his realisation that the church has mostly got it wrong in its approach to science is an important message that Christians need to hear. But his side argument that the universe points to a creator is lacking substance. He doesn’t deal with any detail. What sort of God does the Big Bang point to? What sort of God does natural selection point to? There are many unaddressed questions here.
To conclude, Andy says that none of these six non-existent gods are evidence for or against anything; they are just unmet childhood expectations. They are elements of a childhood faith that has been undermined by adult questions, and rightly so. He’s not claiming to have presented any evidence for God in this talk, just to have said that anyone who has left Christianity may have done so unnecessarily because they believed in the wrong God in the first place. Having discarded virtually all the popular ideas about God that Christians have been taught, or that non-Christians imagine Christians to believe, at this stage in the series Andy gives hardly any hints about what sort of God he’s left with.

I’m not sure how relevant this talk is to an atheist audience; although on paper his target audience for this series are those who have left the church, it actually seems to be his Christian audience that he is really addressing here, urging them to rethink their faith and discard any childhood ideas about God that don’t fit with the real world. And for this, even if not for everything he’s said, he has my vote so far. It remains to be seen how much of the Christian God can be left after discarding these ideas.

The next talk in the series takes the same approach even further, dealing with Jesus and the Bible in ways that get him into trouble with many other Christian leaders.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Review - ‘Who Needs God’ - part 1

A Christian friend recommended I watch a series of six talks called ‘Who Needs God’, by Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church, Atlanta — https://whoneedsgod.com/

I suppose I belong to the target audience for these talks. Andy’s aim is to convince people who have left the church that they have left for the wrong reasons, people who have found that the faith they were taught as children doesn’t hold up in the outside world, people who, as he puts it, were ‘asking fact-based questions’, but were ‘being given faith-based answers’ by the church or their parents — answers that contradicted what they were learning from science. They are the ‘Nones’, those of no particular faith. ‘Who Needs God’ is his attempt to provide a version of Christianity that is fact-based rather than faith-based, that is compatible with science, and that will draw the ‘Nones’ back to church.

I should say from the outset that I don’t believe he has succeeded. Despite his claims, the talks do in fact hinge on certain assumptions that are very much faith-based. These talks were after all given as a series of sermons in church, albeit with the intention that non-church people would watch them online as well. The very fact that Andy remains a pastor shows that his version of Christianity still needs faith to believe it; he still needs to teach people its doctrines, to immerse them in its ideas, to keep them from abandoning it. His real audience in this series of talks is just as much his church members, who need their faith constantly topped up, as it is the ‘Nones’.

I should also say, though, that I would recommend every Christian should watch ‘Who Needs God’, especially talks 1-3. Andy does a great job of demolishing, one by one, many false ideas that the church has held onto by default over the years. Many of his points in the first half of the series, which have got him into trouble with more conservative pastors and organisations, are spot on, and no Christian should be allowed to remain a Christian without having faced up to them.

So, onto the detail. ‘Who Needs God’ is a series of six 40- to 45-minute talks. I’ll cover the first now, and hope to review the others in future posts.

Talk 1: ‘Atheism 2.0’


In this, the first of six talks, Andy Stanley says what he believes to be the main reason many people who were brought up in the church no longer consider themselves Christians. They have left, not because atheism is attractive, but because religion has become less attractive. They wouldn’t necessarily call themselves atheists, they just have no particular faith. They are the ‘Nones’, the non-affiliated. The religion and the God that these people were presented with as children have lost their attraction. If atheism were attractive, people would be leaving all religions, but this is something specific to Christianity, and Andy claims it’s the church’s fault for presenting the wrong version of Christianity. This is a bold claim, offering the promise of an alternative version that will draw people back again.

But before Andy offers that alternative version, he takes a detour to discus atheism. He does this to set out what he believes is the other choice that the ‘Nones’ have ultimately, if they don’t come back to Christianity. He describes six ‘uncomfortable things’ you have to accept if you’re an atheist, using a lot of quotes from atheist authors as he goes:
  1. If there’s no God, there’s no mind. He quotes Christopher Hitchens: ‘I don’t have a body, I am a body’. If the mind is a product of biology, then we can’t exist without our bodies.
  2. The illusion of free-will. He quotes both Sam Harris and Stephen Hawking here, to make the point that science claims everything is determined by physics and there is no room for choice.
  3. The illusion of value. Science doesn’t confer value on anything. If there’s no God, then there is no actual value to anything, only what we ascribe. Justice is just determined by what we want.
  4. Something came from nothing. The universe didn’t exist, then it did, but no-one has explained it yet. He quotes Richard Dawkins: ‘Cosmology is waiting on its Darwin.’
  5. Life from no life. Life arose spontaneously, but this hasn’t been explained either.
  6. Natural selection is responsible for all life after the first life, and it’s a purposeless process (even though it’s difficult not to speak of it as though it is a purposeful power).
For all these points, Andy says that for all he knows, they might be scientifically correct (he jokes, ‘I have a masters in Theology, not Biology!’), but he does his best to make them sound uncomfortable to his audience. On a couple of points, he seems to stray into the so-called ‘God of the gaps’ argument — that something unexplained by science might require a God — an idea which is repeatedly disproved by new discoveries. But it seems his main aim in this part of the talk has not been to argue logically against atheism, so much as to make an emotional appeal against it. If you were brought up with faith, then he hopes you still have an emotional link with it, and you will feel uncomfortable with the conclusions of science. I don’t really see how this fits with his stated intention to provide fact-based answers instead of faith-based ones. I sense a bit of emotional manipulation going on. These points would certainly not serve in any way to convince someone brought up as an atheist to doubt their position. They’d just think, ‘Yes, I accept those things, so what?’

It’s the Christian audience that I think would most benefit from looking at these six points. They should ask honestly, ‘If these things are true, what does that say about my faith?’ I congratulate Andy for bringing them up in a church context. I just hope he gives his church members enough emotional space to consider them honestly.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The ‘Old Atheists’

We hear a lot about the ‘New Atheists’—Dawkins, Hitchens, et al—but let’s not forget the previous thinkers who came to the same conclusion.

Through another blog I’ve recently discovered the writings of Robert Green Ingersoll, 19th century American lawyer and orator. Here are a few quotes:
Each nation has created a god, and the god has always resembled his creators. He hated and loved what they hated and loved, and he was invariably found on the side of those in power.
The doctrine that future happiness depends upon belief is monstrous. It is the infamy of infamies.
In nearly all the theologies, mythologies and religions, the devils have been much more humane and merciful than the gods. No devil ever gave one of his generals an order to kill children and to rip open the bodies of pregnant women. Such barbarities were always ordered by the good gods.
The facts and forces governing thought are as absolute as those governing the motions of the planets. A poem is produced by the forces of nature, and is as necessarily and naturally produced as mountains and seas. You will seek in vain for a thought in man's brain without its efficient cause. Every mental operation is the necessary result of certain facts and conditions. Mental phenomena are considered more complicated than those of matter, and consequently more mysterious. Being more mysterious, they are considered better evidence of the existence of a god. No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and, incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.
If these take your fancy, his full works can be read and downloaded for free at the Gutenberg Project.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Jesus, the Kingdom of God, and ISIS

I’ve recently enjoyed reading a thoroughly absorbing book about Jesus, Joshua, the Man They Called Jesus, by Australian film producer/director and historian Ian Jones.

Jones vividly portrays the first-century Jewish world under Roman occupation in which Jesus (Hebrew, Yeshua) lived, and explains more clearly than any scholarly works I’ve read what the New Testament means when it describes people who were ‘waiting for the Kingdom of God’. People at the time were longing for Israel to be restored to its glory days, the days of the great kingdoms of David and Solomon. Most people believed that this would come about through a new great leader, anointed by God for the job—the now-familiar title Messiah means ‘anointed’. The Kingdom of God meant the end of Roman rule, and while some believed they only had to observe their religion faithfully and God would bring it to pass miraculously in his own time, others took it into their own hands and led semi-military rebellions, that were quashed time and again—both before and after Jesus.

Scholars differ as to quite where on this scale Jesus was—were his intentions entirely peaceful, or did he allow that there might need to be some violence in the end? It is difficult to establish the real motives of Jesus from the records that we have. If you choose to accept the four Gospels as reliable history and reject other documents such as the Gospel of Thomas, you still have to work very hard to explain away the apparent contradictions between the four, not just in a few details, but in how they portray the overall shape of Jesus’s mission. If you take a more sceptical, historical-critical approach, you have to decide which elements of the Gospels represent the earliest historical layer and which are later developments of ideas within the early churches. Neither approach is easy.

What almost all scholars do agree on is that Jesus believed the Kingdom of God would come about through his own career. Whether he intended it or not, this claim was an inherently political claim. That’s why the Temple authorities in Jerusalem, whose interests were best served by keeping the peace, were able to have him executed by the Roman governor, when his growing following presented a threat to the status quo.

According to Jones’s reconstruction of events, Jesus started out unwilling to be a Messiah figure, but changed his mind as his following grew. When he headed into Jerusalem on that fateful last week of his life, he accepted that he and his followers were risking execution—hence talk of ‘taking up the cross’—but he truly believed God would intervene, sending his ‘legions of angels’ to protect them and destroy the occupying power. Jesus would then rule the Kingdom, with the twelve disciples acting as his royal court, ‘judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ as he had promised them. Not directly stated, but implied, is that this would also involve the present Temple authorities being removed. When this mission ended instead in his death, the belief emerged among his followers that, rather than failing, Jesus had in fact been raised to heaven, from where he would soon return to complete his mission. (The origin of the belief in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus is perhaps the hardest part of the whole story to piece together—a topic for another time.)

In those early weeks and months following the crucifixion (and I’m adding my own observations now), the vision of the coming of the Kingdom of God remained implicitly political. It would be the end of Roman occupation, and the promotion of Israel to be the centre of a world-wide theocracy—now with God’s rejection of the Temple authorities being openly proclaimed because of their rejection of Jesus, and with Jesus and his followers taking their place. This was not a new religion, just a new interpretation of Judaism with Jesus as its (temporarily absent) Messiah. As the years went by, however, and the expected return from heaven did not take place, there was plenty of room for other people to re-interpret the message, which might have otherwise died out.

Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, whose letters form a large part of the New Testament, was the most notable of these opportunists. Despite having not been a follower during Jesus’s lifetime, and despite avoiding any contact with the Jerusalem leaders of the Jesus movement for the first three years after his conversion, he went about preaching his own version of Jesus’s message, in which the coming Kingdom of God would not be a Jewish-centred theocracy, but a cosmic transformation—a new world era in which Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) would be equals under the spiritual rule of Jesus. In this way, he crafted a version of the Jewish Kingdom hope that was acceptable to people across the whole Empire, with no implied threat against Rome. Despite some early opposition from Rome, this new belief was eventually adopted by Constantine as the Empire’s official religion. Instead of being the enemy of God’s people, Rome could itself become the agent of God’s rule on earth. And so Christianity as we know it was born. The Kingdom of God became an apolitical, spiritual concept. Jesus’s teaching, originally linked inseparably with the impending transition to God’s rule that he was announcing, was turned into abstract moral teaching for all time by a Church that was by now ignorant of its original Jewish context. Christianity today is very different from the original Jewish hope that Jesus tried to realise—a very physical, political Kingdom of God on Earth, centred on Jerusalem.

But the idea of a Middle-Eastern theocracy didn’t die out completely with Paul and the rise of Roman Christianity. Around 300 years after Constantine, a new variant of monotheism appeared in Arabia, spreading rapidly through military conquest and aiming to reach Jerusalem. From the start, Islam believed in God’s rule being implemented through a succession of Caliphs who rule according to God’s laws, and spread God’s rule through conquest. This is exactly the aim of ISIS today, to secure and expand the current Caliph’s rule over an Islamic state. Their long-term aim is for this state to expand to cover the whole world. Anyone who opposes this is an enemy of God, just as Rome was seen as the enemy of God in first-century Judaism. According to ISIS’s version of Islam, violence is a legitimate means to defeat God’s enemies, just as it was seen as legitimate to many Jews to use violence against Rome in Jesus’s day. The Islamic goal of a worldwide Caliphate is not so different from the old Jewish hope of the Kingdom of God, from which Christianity developed.

If we are to successfully defeat ISIS, not just temporarily hold it back, we will need to defeat its ideas. And to do this it may be necessary to realise that its beliefs are actually very similar to those that lie behind the origins of the founding religion of our own society.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Forgiveness, part 2

I said I’d come back and say a bit more about forgiveness.

Last time I started from what Jesus said about forgiveness and how the church sometimes says almost the opposite. Jesus said, ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’ Concern yourself first with forgiving others, and your ‘standing before God’ (to use a modern phrase) will take care of itself. But the church says that to ‘get right with God’ you need to feel guilty for your sin; you need to believe that Jesus died for you; you need to repent; you need to be baptised and join the church; etc., etc. And the church then says very little about forgiving others, except as moral teaching for its own members. It has swapped the priorities.

What I drew out in my last post were the parallels between what Jesus said and atheistic humanism. Jesus said live as though the angry God of the Old Testament, who requires sacrifice, doesn’t exist; instead, live a good life in the way you treat others. Jesus was against the religion of his day in as much as its rules and regulations were detracting people from being good to each other. And I think he would say the same of at least some churches today.

This time I want to explore a bit more about how forgiveness works in practice, and how church teaching can get in the way instead of helping or, at least, how it did for me.

The process of forgiving someone else is hard, but there are things you can do to make a start. You can try to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. You can try to focus on what’s good for their future rather than just on their offence in the past. You can try to focus on what’s best for the wider family or community that’s affected. And most of all, you can try to focus on what’s best for yourself, which is to move on from your negative feelings and replace them with positive ones.

All too often, however, the church doesn’t help with any of this. In fact its teaching can, perhaps unconsciously, discourage you from taking these steps. By teaching that God only forgives you when you have passed through certain steps (guilt, remorse, belief, repentance, etc.) it makes you think that you should only forgive others when they meet certain conditions too. It makes you place the same demands on the other person that you think God places on you. So you require the other person to show they are ashamed; you require them to give you an emotional apology; you require them perhaps to carry out a specific action, to pass a test that you give them to prove that they are sorry. Only then will you say that you can forgive them. But that keeps you looking backwards, to the offence, instead of forwards, and can never be true forgiveness. True forgiveness is a decision you reach to move on, for the best, regardless of what the other person says or does.

I should make clear at this point that I’m not saying that I’ve found Christians I know to be any worse at forgiving than anyone else, but I am saying that when I was a practising Christian I found myself being unforgiving. I expected others to demonstrate repentance, otherwise I didn’t think it was appopriate for me to forgive them. I know from first-hand experience that it’s possible to be a practising Christian and join the church without ever learning how to forgive. Thankfully most Christians I know do better at this than I did when I was in the church, but I think they do so because of their better humanity, despite the church’s teaching, not because of it.

I think the problem with the church’s teaching boils down to it making the wrong choice between two fundamentally different ways of understanding what forgiveness is.

To the church (and to much of human society throughout history, to be fair), forgiveness is a two-way transaction between the victim and the offender. The victim (the god who is offended by our sin) offers forgiveness to the offender (us) on condition that the offender demonstrates remorse and follows the path of repentance laid down by the victim. In many religions, that path to forgiveness involves sacrifice, and in Christianity that sacrifice becomes the death of Jesus himself.

But these days most of us recognise that forgiveness is something initiated entirely by the victim, regardless of whether the offender appreciates it or even knows about it. According to Wikipedia contributors and their sources forgiveness is
‘the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.’
Forgiveness is a process undertaken by the victim, freely and without placing conditions on the offender. There is no need for any sacrifice.

I think Jesus understood forgiveness in this second way. He placed the emphasis on forgiving others. This is the practical action we can take as the victim, towards the offender. Only when we have tried to do that will we truly understand what unconditional forgiveness is—how difficult it is, yes, but also how radically liberating it is, and necessary for improving society. I hope I've moved on a bit from the judgmental person I was when I was a practising Christian, but I know I've still got a lot to learn.

If only the church taught the same thing as Jesus, that we should concern ourselves with forgiving others, rather than with religious rules or formulae that are supposedly required to gain forgiveness from a god. But I suppose if it did that, it would probably put itself out of a job!