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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Question from Kage:
So what exactly is a Christian, and why do they believe that someone died, and somehow managed to raise himself from the dead and all? Is there a reason they believe this? Any evidence at all? Any contrary?
Answer by SmartLX:
Christians are followers of Jesus Christ, as the name suggests. Some self-proclaimed Christians don’t let this affect their daily life very much, to the point where being a “follower” of Jesus Christ means no more than being a “follower” of someone on Twitter. Still, Jesus is their central figure.
Trinitarian dogma varies between denominations, but since a common belief is that Jesus was not just the son of God but God himself, it’s fair to say many Christians do believe he raised himself from the dead.
The reasons why Christians believe this is often different from the reasons they give others to believe it. For most, they believe it simply because they were taught it from a very young age. For some, they’ve had a “religious experience” and think they’ve seen the risen Jesus first-hand.
The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is entirely document-based. The Bible states that it happened, and some other sources mention it (though there are no contemporary accounts), and people simply argue for accepting the fact based on this. That gets you into long discussions about scriptural reliability and fulfilled prophecies. If you search this site for Jesus and/or the resurrection, you’ll find a lot of this kind of thing.
The only thing which might count as evidence against the resurrection is the lack of evidence for the resurrection, but it depends on how much evidence you would expect there to be.
Question from Meg:
So why don’t you believe in God? I’ve always found that with most real atheists there is an actual reason rather than just a lack of interest.
In previous discussions I’ve noticed that there has apparently been other stories of saviours with twelve disciples etc. I have never heard of these parallels, so I can’t say whether or not they are true but I do know one thing for sure. Not one of these could forgive sins. Does this not mark Jesus as special?
Answer by SmartLX:
It’s certainly not a lack of interest. Religion as a whole is not only interesting but fascinating. It is rather a lack of evidence or convincing arguments. At a certain point enough time had passed since my early indoctrination into Catholicism that the emotional connection had faded, so I was able to look at it with no strong bias, as a real agnostic. As I did I realised I didn’t buy into it at all anymore, and had not replaced it with any other faith, and was therefore an atheist.
While it’s been established that the individual features of Jesus’ story are all fairly common in mythology, Jesus does apparently represent a unique combination. For instance, while many gods have spent time in human form and many gods forgive sins, I know of no other story in which the earthly avatar himself was personally responsible for forgiving sins. Here is a list of other crucified saviours, and the reasons for several have to do with sin, but none of them appear to be quite the same.
I suppose you could call Jesus special based on that, but it would mean that all comparable figures are also special in their own ways. They’re all unique combinations, because they’re all at least slightly different. The Hindu god Indra, for instance, is probably the only one who had to get wasted on the liquid essence of another god (Soma) before fighting a serpent to get Earth’s water back.
Ultimately, even without devaluing the word “special” like this, the idea that Jesus was special among religious figures does not in itself support the idea that he was really a god, or rose from the dead.
Question from Casey:
In a previous question about the birth of Christianity the answer detailed the many links between the story of Jesus and other ‘myths’. It was then suggested that the story of Jesus was stolen. My question, however is that if so many other ‘myths’ exist that are so similar doesn’t that imply that there is more truth to Jesus’s life as even non Christians are stating His story? All ‘myths’ tend to have a basis in truth. Just something to think about.
Answer by SmartLX:
The myth of centaurs has a basis in truth. The basis is that people have ridden horses for thousands of years, but not everyone has. Some tribes and races unfamiliar with horses, when seeing them ridden for the first time, have failed to immediately realise that the human riders were separate from their mounts, and identified the two as a single creature until they became familiar with the utility of horses.
The point is, just because you can easily see where the myth came from doesn’t mean that there was ever a real horse-man hybrid. Not even P.T. Barnum tried to fool anybody with that one, and he once exhibited a carefully crafted mermaid.
In the story of Jesus we see claims which have been repeated throughout history at the foundation of different religions, and this is the likely basis for the similarity of those claims. In what’s now known as the early-to-middle first century, there was definitely a group of people trying to convince everyone that their now-absent leader not only spoke for God but was God. They went about it in the usual manner of people in their position: they told a story which was amazing and yet satisfyingly well-aligned with prophecies and symbolic numbers (and I use “well-aligned” deliberately, given the possible Zodiac connections).
The fact that others had tried this before says little or nothing positive about the veracity of the claims about Jesus. It just tells us that his chroniclers might have been reassured by historical precedent that people would believe them.
Answer by Andrea:
The fact that the myth of the sun god Horus preceded the tales of Buddha, Christna, Jesus, etc. by about one to two thousand years shows that the latter myths all stemmed from one source.
The main reason the Christ mythology still survives today is because Christians had the luxury of slaughtering the opposition,e.g. the Crusades.
I don’t know that it is true that all myths tend to have a basis in truth. I have yet to see a jolly guy dressed in red drop presents down my chimney, for example.
Of course, you’re entitled to believe whatever you choose to believe — provided it doesn’t hurt anyone else or you don’t try to shove your beliefs down the throats of others. If your beliefs make you feel better, I’m all for it.
Question from Peg:
I am an agnostic and skeptic. I am curious and confused about the Shrould of Turin and wondered if you know anything about it. I have heard that the carbon dating that was done was incorrect in that the piece of cloth cut for the dating came from a re-sewn area from when the shroud was in a fire, so another carbon dating has to be done.
Also, the person who said he re-created the shroud was proven inaccurate as well. Evidently, it was not exactly the same as the shroud. From the documentaries I have watched on this, it seems the experts are at a loss to know how it was done. They even went so far as to say that the image could have been made by a “light”.
Your thoughts would be appreciated.
Answer by SmartLX:
Sometimes you don’t have to know how a hoax was achieved to know it’s a hoax, and the Shroud may well be one example of this.
In 2010 Gregory S. Paul published a study of what the markings on the shroud imply about the position and dimensions of the body it would have been shrouding. Most significant (but not alone) among his findings is the fact that the corpse’s head would have been abnormally small relative to the body. The fact that no likely method of fabrication or duplication has yet been found hardly matters when the end result is apparently the imprint of a seriously deformed man. (I find it interesting, but not surprising, that no Christian has attempted to answer this study by supposing that Jesus really was deformed, for example by microcephaly.)
Meanwhile Dr Raymond Rogers, the man who concluded that the earlier carbon dating was of a newer patch of cloth, has given his own estimate. (Scroll down in this article, but read the stuff on the way there if you like.) He places it in the period between 1000 BC and 1700 AD. This estimate does include the time of Jesus but is broad enough to include the entire Medieval era and many others besides. In fact, it includes every period anyone has ever suggested as the origin of the shroud, and is therefore useless for purposes of elimination or deduction. Assuming that we can now identify which parts of the shroud are original and which are not, a new carbon dating analysis of the original material would be nice to see.
To speak more generally, the two points you bring up are instances where people debunked apparent evidence that the shroud is not that of Jesus. That’s very different news to the discovery of positive evidence that the shroud is that of Jesus, which hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen.