Question from Kamil:
I have done more research on Jesus NDEs, and found that while he does come up more than other deities from other faiths ex: Muhammad, that it may make some sense. I mean, Christians view Jesus on the same playing field as God, and they feel like they have a relationship with him. That may be why whenever they see a light in their NDEs they assume it is Jesus. Muslims do not feel like they have this kind of relationship with Muhammad, and they don’t worship him. Also there are no pictures of Muhammad, so during an NDE, their brains would be less likely to come up with seeing Muhammad potentially.

However, this leaves me with one question: what about the NDEs where Christians see Jesus, but he doesn’t look exactly like depicted in the paintings. Many report seeing him with dark hair, and some even say olive skin. Different people say he has different physical characteristics, and NDErs argue that he appears to each person differently so that they can understand who he is and so that their souls can learn in the best possible way. So person A may imagine Jesus as being tanned with black hair and brown eyes while person B may imagine him having fair skin with blue eyes, so he will manifest in those images for each person. My question is, does this mean that since he shows up to some people in ways that don’t reflect cultural imagery that NDEs with him are likely to be genuine?

And even though I feel Muslims would be less quick to jump to the idea that seeing a light or having a good “familiar” feeling is the result of Muhammad, it still seems Christian NDEs are much deeper with more life lessons and reinforcement of Jesus than Muslims are of their cultural beliefs. Does this prove Christianity?

Answer by SmartLX:
Kamil, did you start with the final sentence, “Does this prove Christianity?” and work backwards? Because if you read your question from the start up to that point, there is nothing approaching a proof there even if everything you write were true.

Jesus as described in the Gospels was one person, with one physical appearance. Shapeshifting was not one of his documented miracles. If different people who claim to see him are clearly not describing the same individual, this is a glaring inconsistency which contradicts the general claim that the same person is appearing to them all. The idea that Jesus is deliberately appearing to different people in different guises is an excuse for this inconsistency. The existence of an unsupported suggestion as to how the visions of Jesus might be both inconsistent and real is not evidence that they are real; it is at best an argument against utter disproof, which is a very, very long way from proof.

It would make the combined stories a lot more compelling in concert if the images of Jesus were separately verified as consistent AND did not fit the common media images. This would suggest that one person, independent of the cultural meme of Jesus, was reaching out to people. That still wouldn’t be proof, but it would be an interesting phenomenon which warranted further study. The reality is nothing like it.

Cornering the Market, Continued: The NDE Niche

Question from Kamil:
After emailing back and forth with a near death experience expert, I got a figure that from the NDEs he collects, about 13% of NDEs that people have include seeing Jesus. There are not too many Islamic NDEs, but there is yet to be one where a person encounters Muhammad. There are a few Hindu NDEs which differ from Christian ones, but again, almost no mention of Krishna. Would you say 13% of NDEs seeing Jesus would give Jesus more of a chance of being real than the other deities? I have heard that Islamic people may be quiet on encounters with Muhammad as it may be seen as taboo to mention a Muhammad encounter. however, I have seen testimonies of people dreaming about Muhammad and mentioning it, so I’m not quite sure how “taboo” it would be. My question is, if there was never a single NDE of Muhammad but NDEs with Jesus, does this mean Christianity has a better chance of being true? Also, I have seen forums on this topic, and no one can seem to figure out why Muhammad never shows up in NDEs. I do know that Christians on the web will proudly point this out and say “We see Jesus, others don’t see their deities, so we are correct!”. I would like to know an atheistic standpoint on this.

Answer by SmartLX:
I concur on two points. All the research done so far has failed to come up with a statistically significant amount of NDE claims involving Muhammad, and as shown here some Christians do point out Jesus’ supposed monopoly on NDE appearances as support for the reality of his divinity.

Firstly, at 13% of all NDE claims it’s not much of a monopoly. Jesus is not a part of the vast majority of NDE claims even by Christians. Even if it’s really Jesus, he’s not making good use of his omnipresence. But more importantly, when all appearances by Jesus in all claims made so far aren’t enough to convince non-believers due to the lack of good evidence any given claim provides, it means little to point out that other religions do not have the same claims. “Oh, your rivals don’t have this same support that isn’t any kind of support anyway? Well whoop-de-do.”

A more likely reason for the discrepancy than the occasional genuine presence of Jesus, expanding on what I wrote here and here, is that this form of NDE is an almost exclusively Christian cultural meme at this point in time. People are aware of prior claims, so if they have an experience that gives them even a fuzzy feeling of a divine presence (often attributable to medical effects) they will subconsciously shape the memory to fit the expectation. And of course if they’re making it up entirely they will custom-tool it to the memetic specifications.

Now if a recognisable Jesus appeared to someone who had never heard of Jesus, that would be something. But it would also be nearly impossible to prove after the fact, as I’m sure we’ll explore if anyone has a claim like that to share.

Cornering the Market on Divine Visions

Question from Spivak:
I had a question regarding proof of Jesus. People always say the bible or the quran are not reliable proof of Jesus or his existence. My question is, what about all the personal testimonies people have of seeing Jesus. There are many people who make claims that they met Jesus, or Jesus helped them in a particular time. More specifically, I have read and watched accounts of Muslims, Hindus, etc who say they had a problem for ex: they were about to die, they called out to Allah or Krishna, and wouldn’t get an answer. Yet, when they call out to Jesus, they see light, and he comes and saves them. He also tells them bible versus which they later confirm exist. There are healing testimonies, dreams, near death experiences, somehow, it seems no other deity really comes up in these kinds of potentially supernatural experiences other than Jesus. Does this mean Jesus is the most likely deity to exist?

Video examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PExVfzRsKU

there are many more examples where that came from. There don’t seem to be testimonies of other faiths meeting other deities. Does this seem convincing for Jesus?

Answer by SmartLX:
We’ve often covered the implications of claimed personal experiences of the divine, and how they have little reason to mean anything to anyone who doesn’t already believe. Here I’ll focus on the supposed imbalance between claims of visits by Jesus and claims of other deities. There are a few potential and very likely reasons for this imbalance besides Jesus being the only real godlike entity that makes house calls.

The most obvious reason is the media sources available in the Western world and the English language, both of which have an immense Christian majority. Accounts of Jesus are written out, recorded, published and distributed because there’s guaranteed to be an audience for them. This is helped along by the engines that rely on people’s faith being continually reassured: televangelism and Christian Right political advocacy to name two.

The religion with the next most adherents worldwide, though with nowhere near the amount of English-language media profile, is Islam. It’s not surprising that there are no stories of visits by Allah, because it’s a matter of doctrine (see here for instance) that we’re not capable of comprehending or withstanding Allah’s presence while alive. As for Muhammad, Muslims take it practically for granted that he can appear in dreams (they have to take care that it’s not their Devil “Shaytaan” in disguise) so it’s no big deal when he does and they’re not so driven to proclaim it to the world.
That leaves Hinduism as the only other religion with more than 500 million followers, and it’s got even less profile in the West. From what I can gather it happens plenty for Hindus as well; many yogis, gurus, monks and priests have their own stories about how Ganesha or Hanuman appeared to them, but only their own congregations hear the tales.

That’s probably the big takeaway from this topic: only Christianity has the infrastructure in place to widely proclaim everything that happens to anyone as a miracle and a vindication. By and large people of other religions just rejoice and get on with it.

Why Atheists Don’t Worship Jesus, Because Apparently Some People Want to Know

Question from Son of David:
Hello, why don’t you have a personal relationship with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? The Son of God. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. – John 3:16

Answer by SmartLX:
Because I’m an atheist.

All right, let’s try that again with a bit more detail. Because…

I don’t believe that Jesus is in any sense alive or capable of having a personal relationship with anyone at this point. I don’t believe a god exists, you see. Following on from that, If Jesus lived then he lived right around two thousand years ago, and I don’t believe he was the son of a nonexistent god. When he died, I don’t believe he was resurrected or that he had a soul, so based on that nothing remains of him now but some as-yet-undiscovered/unidentified human remains, plus a very popular tale. To have a one-sided relationship with half a skull and a story does not strike me as beneficial for either party, me or Jesus.

Your question combined with the core Biblical claim is of the form, “Why have you not reacted to this situation in the obviously necessary way?” It’s simply because I don’t think the situation is as you claim. I do not accept the supernatural claims of the Bible, so Bible-based assertions mean nothing to me. So what do you do when they don’t work on people, I wonder?

The Face Of Jesus

Question from Vlad:
Last night I got together with a few friends, and we were talking about how in Islam for example, there is very little imagery (if any) of the prophet Muhammad or Isa (Jesus) but how in Christianity, there are numerous depictions and drawings of Jesus. One thing I found curious was that many of the so-called visions people have of Jesus in dreams, or even according to some individuals “in real life” generally cater to the images they were brought up to believe. A Christian living in Texas, for example, who believes he or she encountered Jesus, is likely to describe him as having long dark hair, pretty light skin, a thin build, etc. However, I brought this up during our conversation, and one of my friends (who is very religious) told me that Jesus did actually look like the way he is depicted in photos. I know quite a few people on here may not even believe Jesus ever existed, but assuming he did, I would have thought that he would have likely looked less “European”. My friend told me that recently, a cloth with Jesus’s face on it was discovered apparently where he was buried, and there are documentaries about this. Apparently carbon dating was done to prove that this cloth existed around his time. He said the only thing they could not verify was Jesus’s skin colour, but that it is actually known what his physical structure looked like. I’m not sure if any of you are familiar with these recent claims, but I would like to know, what would your opinion be on this? Does this give these visions any more credence?

Answer by SmartLX:
Islam, or the widely practiced version of it, expressly forbids depictions of Muhammad. That was the whole basis of the furore surrounding the Danish cartoons depicting him, and the resulting attack on the publication in which they appeared. That’s why there are so few images of him. As for Jesus in the Muslim tradition, he’s only a relatively minor figure in that mythology, and not being able to depict Muhammad makes it difficult to express images of any of the other figures regardless.

The “cloth with Jesus’s face on it” was the Shroud of Turin, which I’ve covered before. Its whereabouts have only been traced definitively back to the 14th to 15th century, and the majority of carbon dating tests done on it so far place its origin around that time. The Christian image of Jesus had mostly been standardised by the 6th century, so if the shroud is a fake then it creators were already working from the image we’re familiar with from so many paintings.

There are claims that those tests were invalid because they were supposedly done on newer patches of cloth, but even the strongest advocates of the shroud’s authenticity can only point to a test which indicates a date range that includes the time of Jesus, but also includes the year 1000 BC and the year AD 1700. In other words it’s useless.

Coming back to your question about people’s visions of Jesus matching the image on the shroud, they also match the accepted image of Jesus from all the art. Even if the shroud is genuine, the supposed visions would only be amazing just for matching the shroud if the shroud were the only surviving source of that type of depiction of Jesus. To sustain the claim, a Christian would have to go on to claim that every famous artist who painted that kind of face for him had a similar vision, because otherwise the face comes to people’s minds for other reasons than that Jesus has paid them all a visit.

Where Do Bad Folks Go When They Diiiiiiiiiie

Question from Becky:
I was never a big believer in the Christian God but I did read the Bible which showed me nothing but a vengeful God as oppose to one of love. I considered being a deist but hell has latched into my brain and won’t let go. Worst knowing there is fire underneath the earth seems to support hell even more since Jesus said he was going to the heart of the earth I just want to let the fear go since it was a main reason I believed. How do I let this fear go?

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re suffering from what I call faithdrawal, the continued fear of the wrath of God (including banishment to Hell) after belief in God has faded. As the link shows, I’ve discussed it a lot, because you’re not alone in dealing with it. You realise of course that it’s irrational because in a doctrine where God is responsible for the existence of Hell there can be no Hell without a God, but since when was fear rational all the time?

Let’s look more closely at the apparent piece of support you’ve found for the existence of Hell: Matthew 12:40, where Jesus spends three days “in the heart of the earth”. First of all, that might simply have meant he was physically down in his tomb for that long. If instead it is actually a claim that he was in Hell between his crucifixion and his supposed resurrection, I wouldn’t be surprised at the implication that Hell is deep underground. In the same way that it’s easy to imagine Heaven being up in the clouds, the unexplored depths seem like a perfect place for Hell, and may even have been part of the inspiration for the popular image of Hell. People living near volcanoes and elsewhere along fault lines, in Biblical times as in any other, would have seen and documented literal lakes of fire and many varieties of red-hot wrath spewing from fissures in the ground. Miners all over the world would have noticed the increase in temperature in a deep enough cave (though this might often have been caused merely by lack of ventilation). From the science of geology we now know why it happens in great detail, so the God-of-the-gaps has retreated from the subject entirely. Unlike our ancestors, we know the lava isn’t coming from Hell.

To answer your final question directly, It’s not a matter of letting the fear go so much as the fear letting you go. An irrational fear, like a belief, must be reinforced artificially in the absence of evidence, by various means: acts of devotion, new personal discoveries in the source texts (like the “heart of the earth” thing) and so on. If you recognise on the face of it, and continue to actively recognise, that all support for the reality of the danger is unfounded, it won’t kill the fear but it will leave it with no reason to remain. Over time, and without emotional reinforcement, the fear will fade and leave you. Though it’s frustrating to hear, the less you worry about it the faster it will go, so engross yourself in something else for a few weeks or months.

“Did they Die for a Lie?” And Other Appeals to Character

Question from Jamie:
I have a question about two types of evidence that Christians use to prove the Bible. What do you (and maybe most atheists?) think of Saul of Tarsus’ conversion and the historical record of at least 3 of the apostles being martyred for their beliefs as being any kind of proof that Christianity is true? They say that it is very unlikely that people would have died for a lie and Paul had no reason to suddenly convert. I’m not asking as a Christian but as kind of a skeptic.

Answer by SmartLX:
Doesn’t matter who you ask as, I’ll answer it the same way.

Christian-persecutor Saul had no reason to suddenly convert to super-Christian Paul that we know of, but that’s not the same as having no reason to do it. There are plenty of reasons you can imagine; guilt is an obvious one, but it could simply have been a very persuasive proselytising Christian. If Saul had any earthly reason to switch but didn’t want to admit to it, the story of Jesus appearing to him on the road to Damascus was a great alternative that his new fellow worshipers would happily accept.

Perhaps something really did happen to him which he mistook for a divine experience. He’d never seen Jesus in life, so any man might have sufficed. The temporary blindness he reported could even be a sign of a stroke, so there are plausible ways in which his judgement could have been impaired.

The point is that supporting one’s claim by saying or implying there are no alternatives is a very weak argument unless one can actually establish that there are no possible alternatives. Otherwise you’re claiming that if you don’t know of a possibility, there is no such possibility. This is an argument from ignorance, the logical fallacy I most often see in arguments for the existence of God.

The argument about the apostles’ sacrifice is similar: that they had no reason to “die for a lie”. As you can see from the linked YouTube search, this is a major talking point for Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and other prominent apologists. Again, the short response is that there are plenty of potential reasons. Maybe they believed the lie, or they thought the lie was worthwhile to advance the teachings of Jesus. Maybe the lie was a good short-term measure to keep them from being lynched by their own followers; not counting Judas an apostle was first killed eleven years after Jesus died, which isn’t bad considering. Maybe reports of their martyrdom are greatly exaggerated.

There are Christians who won’t tolerate a bad word about these arguments appealing to the integrity of the earliest disciples. Whenever I address one here, a long thread of comments follows where each of the hypothetical alternatives I’ve presented is attacked in great detail. It’s pointless because the alternatives aren’t limited to what I personally can imagine, but it shows that this topic genuinely and reliably strikes a nerve. That makes me think that behind the chaff of myriad apologetics Christians are taught and simply repeat, this is one idea that they actually use to reassure themselves that they’re right.

The Virginal Consensus

Question from Kaitlyn:
I need some help with a question that is really confusing me. I just watched a video regarding Jesus in the Bible. It said that Matthew and Luke wrote about how Jesus was born, his miracles, and his resurrection. It also was said that they may have not known each other. How were they able to write about the same thing, for example that Jesus came from a virgin? Even though they don’t have the exact same story, how could they both all of a sudden think he came from a virgin? I am an atheist, but I question all theories because I would rather be 100 percent about everything before completely crashing it down. This question is one I can’t find myself to answer on my own, and is really making me question what to believe. Please, some help would be awesome! Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s quite a lot going on here. Your question touches on several different issues of Biblical authorship, so I’ll address them separately.

If the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke were in fact written by the apostles Matthew and Luke who knew and followed Jesus, then of course they knew each other and could collaborate on their accounts. As you probably know, though, these gospels were written years or even decades after the given timeframe of Jesus’ crucifixion, and very possibly by other people.

Though the authors might not have known each other, they could have had access to the same accounts from earlier on. As it happens, a popular hypothesis is that the authors of Matthew and Luke shared two principal sources, which explains much of the overlap: the Gospel according to Mark, and an as-yet-undiscovered and therefore hypothetical second document known as the Q source. To summarise, there are credible alternative explanations for the claims made by Matthew and Luke ‘independently’ to the false dilemma of pure coincidence or divine advice.

When the Book of Isaiah, which contains the prophecy relating to the Messiah’s birth, was translated from Hebrew to Greek, the word almah regarding the mother was translated to parthenos. The easiest way to explain the significance of this is that the equivalent of the word maiden, which might mean ‘virgin’ in some circumstances but otherwise just means ‘young woman’, was changed to the word virgin and all ambiguity was eliminated. (The literal Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ is betulah, which wasn’t used.) The Greek translation was made around 200 BC(E) and was therefore available to all the authors of the Gospels if they did basic research. Even if the above hypothesis is wrong and ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ had no common direct sources for the life of Jesus, they both knew that the Messiah’s life had damn well better match the centuries-old prophecy’s call for a virgin mother.

Sometimes we’re the only atheists to ask.

Question from Cody:
a) What does it mean to be human?
b) What happens after death?
c) Elaborate on who Jesus Christ is according to your worldview.
d) How does your worldview deal with the concepts of evil and suffering in the world?

These are 4 questions that have come up in my class. The goal is to get the answers for each question for a Christian and atheistic view.

Any help is appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re not the first person who’s asked for help fulfilling an academic requirement to get an atheist’s perspective on philosophical and traditionally theological matters. We did a big piece here specifically to address the questions in a college course called Christian Worldview. I find it interesting how many people are under the impression that they don’t know any atheists. While in some cases perhaps it’s true, in many cases I bet people know more atheists than they think.

Anyway, to the questions. I’ll give my own views, but I’ll also explain where there is any major disagreement among atheists in general.

a) The human being, or Homo sapiens, is a species to which we all belong. Because our physical and neurological makeup is so similar as members of a species, we have a great deal in common. With very few exceptions, we feel great empathy for each other, and at least some empathy for other life on Earth. Systems of law, ethics and morality have come about not just so we can protect ourselves, but so we can help others in society and achieve justice for all. Of course it doesn’t always work out like that, but we make adjustments and improvements as we go.

b) All known evidence indicates that all behaviour which defines life, humanity and identity is driven by the physical brain and the electrical signals going through it, and not an additional ethereal “soul”. (Consider that physical brain damage can alter or destroy any part of a person’s identity, up to complete brain-death which is equivalent to true death.) When a person dies, the electrical signals stop and the structure of the brain is effectively destroyed in a matter of minutes. Therefore, by all indications there is no longer a person after death for anything to happen to.

c) It’s more a case of who Jesus Christ was, as atheists do not accept that he came back from the dead. And it’s too much to accept Jesus Christ without challenging it, as I understand “Christ” in context means “the anointed one of God” and we don’t believe that God exists, let alone that Jesus of Nazareth had any special relationship with him (that is, more than any Christian claims to have a “relationship” with God). Anyway, there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life since everything we have was written after his death, but on balance I’m prepared to accept that there probably was an itinerant Jewish preacher (or several) on whom the Biblical stories of Jesus were based. Beyond that, not a single event in his life can be established conclusively, let alone his miracles or his resurrection, as historians writing afterwards may have been simply repeating the claims of early Christians. Some atheists don’t think there was any real Jesus and it was all a myth, but this is currently a minority view even among atheists and those who hold it are derided as “Jesus mythers”.

d) Evil is an abstract concept and atheists have all sorts of opinions about it; I try not to label anything absolutely good or evil, only beneficial or harmful to specific people, creatures or causes. Suffering on the other hand is obviously real, and I want to minimise it whenever possible. As for why suffering exists, I don’t have to try to explain it in the presence of a loving god who ought to be preventing it. It occurs simply because people get hurt, deliberately or accidentally by other people, and naturally by the world around them.

That about covers everything. Let me know if you want to drill into any of these topics further, but do search the site first because they’re all pretty popular.

Biblical Evidence Disqualified?

Question from Zach:
Does Christians not having evidence that isn’t rooted in the Bible mean there is no proof that has yet been discovered?

Answer by SmartLX:
What’s in the Bible isn’t proof either, so regardless of the Bible there’s no available proof at all.

There are quite a few different ways in which people attempt to prove the truth of Christianity using the Bible, some of which we’ve looked at here (see following links where available) but none of which have achieved much more than to reassure those who already believe.
– They argue that the text couldn’t have stayed as intact as it is from copy to copy from the original manuscript if the important bits weren’t true. To address this as briefly as I can, this is not convincing, because yes it could have.
– They argue that the Bible makes prophecies that are fulfilled in later books of the Bible, came true later or reveal scientific truths unknown to the people of the ancient world. This was Great Big Argument #5 in my series.
– They argue from their own personal “religious experiences” while reading the Bible, claiming that God has done what He’s supposed to do and acted upon them through His Word. This is extremely subjective, and unless it results in a verifiable miracle it’s not verifiable at all. It’s their word against anyone else’s.
– They argue that if people acted as written in the four Gospels and afterwards, then Jesus must really have risen from the dead. This one has caused a lot of long arguments here with little progress, and it remains unconvincing to non-believers no matter how incontrovertible it sounds to believers when it’s coming out of Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell or William Lane Craig. One problem is that Christians tend to be very, very reluctant to concede the slightest point about Jesus, so central is he to the truth claims of the religion. If you want to wade in, there are recent-ish articles about Jesus here and here. This answer has links to tons of material both within and outside Ask the Atheist if you want to go all out.