By Trevor Burrus | 5 May 2008
10. It is Absurd: This may seem like I am re-stating what this list sets out to show. However, this is misleading. When someone comes to us with an extravagant claim the most common reason we may discount the claim is because, to put it curtly, we find it absurd. The reason why the majority of people don’t believe in Scientology, reincarnation, Mormonism, Greek Gods, etc. is not because they have extensively researched the historicity and veracity of the claims, it is because they don’t believe such things happen in the world. In other words, common sense tells us that when someone claims the absurd almost anything is more likely to be the case (i.e. they are lying, they are delusional, they are relying on misinformation) than for the absurdity to be real. Men do not miraculously heal the sick, raise the dead, cure the blind, and rise from the grave. The claims of Christianity are prima facie absurd. The burden of proof is on them.
9. Jesus Has Not Returned: This, also, may seem a soft point. However, for 2000 years—80 generations—a substantial number of every single generation of Christians has whole-heartedly believed that Jesus’ return was imminent. This often included exact dates that, when they came to pass, did not cause the believers to toss their erroneous ideologies aside. And this perennial incorrectness goes back to the beginning. One can only understand the earliest Christians—the generation immediately following Jesus’ death—as a group who were expecting Jesus to return at any moment (I Thess 4:15-17). Why did they believe this? Because, on more than one occasion, Jesus unequivocally said so (Mark 9:1, Matthew 26:64, Mark 13:30). Christians have proven to be resolutely imperturbable and incorrigible to their continued failures.
8. God Doesn’t Care: Most people believe in God. And, when asked why they believe in God, the most common answer is taken from the argument from design: the universe is too ordered and beautiful to have arisen without an intelligence behind it. Whether or not this is true, this claim has little to do with Christianity. Christianity claims that God not only created the world but also takes an active part in its management, in our moral choices, and in our fates. In other words; He cares. It is this conception of God that bends credulity to the breaking point. God as essence—that is a “first cause” God or a “higher power” God—is a far less difficult concept than God as being. First of all, according to centuries old Christian dogma, God is immutable. In other words He is a static, non-changing “being” that cannot create new beliefs, make inferences, or adjust desires. Secondly the idea of an omniscient, omnipotent “being” having desires borders on the nonsensical. If all things are known—all that ever was, is, or will be—what would be the point of desiring anything? This is not just a simple word game. Christians consistently claim that God “wants” us to believe in him and follow his commandments. However, they also claim that he knows whether we will do so or not. So, what is the point of Him wanting anything? A God as essence is palatable. A God as being is not only ridiculous but likely impossible. (P.S. This one is for the non-predestinarians. If you are a predestinarian there are other reasons you are wrong: see below. However, most Christians are not predestinarians; although, if they care about consistency [not high on the list], they should be.)
7. Other Religions: For most of Christian history the problems caused by other religions were not pressing, if they were considered at all. In the enclosed world of medieval times—when most people would never travel more than 10 miles from their place of birth—people of non-Christian faiths seemed almost phantasms. However, in the modern world the pots have been poured together and the faiths now intermingle on a daily basis. This, of course, brings religious problems to the forefront. But it also should force Christians (and other faiths) to make a few realizations: first, that faiths are conveyed primarily genealogically—from parents to children—as opposed to through dialectical, later-life conversion. We can never reasonably expect everyone to become Christian. This is not because Christianity is right or wrong, but because faiths carry their own momentum that is not derived from the truth or falsity of the beliefs. Secondly, that people of other faiths can live saintly lives of intense moral rectitude that rivals any Christian saint. And third, that people are exceptionally good at perpetuating, believing in, and dying for faiths that are manifestly false (as Christians believe). In other words, as Christians must unhesitatingly accept, people are very good at making up fantastic stories about events and figures in the past and then believing in them with fervor. If Christianity was the only belief system in the world that made extravagant claims, and if its claims resembled none others in the world, then we would have more reason to believe it to be true. However, this is obviously not so. In fact, often the claims of Christianity are hopelessly derivative. Healing and resurrecting god-men have been the objects of stories for millennia (these god-men were particularly common in the Hellenized world of post-Maccabean Palestine. i.e. Apollonius of Tyana). Also, in addition to sharing many strong features with Mithraism and Zoroastrianism, many early Christians found much distaste with the idea of the virgin birth, finding it too pagan. Plutarch writes in Convivial Disputations, “The fact of the intercourse of a male god with a mortal woman is conceded by all.”
6. There is No Soul: The inexcusable flippancy of the term “soul” abounds. And, although most people believe in it and freely use the term, they have no idea what it means. The evidence for physicalism—that the mind is the brain—has become nothing less than overwhelming. This evidence exists not only in the highest levels of research—where scientists can now point to, and manipulate, the exact location in our grey matter where essential characteristics lie—but it exists in the everyday lives of millions of people who take psychotropic drugs on a daily basis. These users will tell you drugs such as Prozac, lithium, Paxil and Ritalin don’t just give them a slight pick-me-up, they make them an entirely different person. Some of them must wonder if their “soul” is depressed or happy, anxiety filled or laid-back. Only by ignoring 200 years of medical progress can we believe that we simply inhabit our bodies—dropping by on the way to something better. It isn’t “I have a brain,” it’s “I am a brain.”
5. Evil: The tried and true returns. If you are a Christian you are probably rolling your eyes because you’ve heard it time and again. Why don’t we atheists understand that: [A] God works in mysterious ways, [B] God gave us free will which allows us to commit evil and good, [C] the world is in a fallen state, and [D] Satan represents a real presence in the world? No, we don’t understand because: [A] clearly God doesn’t work in ways that are too mysterious for you to be unhesitant in calling something “He” did “good” and asking him to do “good” things in the world on your behalf. You can either use moral qualifiers to describe God’s actions or you cannot; you can’t have it both ways. [B] Not only does this point not jibe with argument “A” (if God works in mysterious ways we couldn’t claim that free will is a “good”) it is difficult to see how, if free will is good, the using of free will to take away another’s free will (i.e. murder) is not intensely problematic in God’s eyes. Hitler used his free will to take away the free will of 10 million others. Thus, if, in 1919, God flipped the “become an artist” switch in Hitler’s mind, the result would have greatly added to the net amount of freedom in the world. [C] This is a non-starter if the Old Testament is not accurate but, even if it is, a God who holds great-great-great… grandchildren responsible for their ancester’s actions does not pass even the bare minimum test of human morality. Without a defined concept of desert, morality is a completely empty concept. It seems God is playing fast and loose on this count. [D] If this objection is forwarded seriously, then it is little more than ditheism (dual theism). Otherwise, in the Christian universe the only power Satan has is that which God lets him have. If you believe in the traditional Christian conception of God you must believe that, ultimately, everything is His fault. Everything. This in a world where rocks fall out of the sky onto innocent people and babies are eaten by dingoes.
4. The Bible is Not Consistent: Many, if not most, Christians would say that the Bible is inerrant. Well, they are wrong. Saying so doesn’t require an appeal to history, science, and/or archaeology; it only requires a demonstration that the Bible is incoherent—that is, it contains claims that cannot be true simultaneously. In such instances either one claim is false or they are both false—there is no other possibility. If you wish to throw rationality out the window and claim that a contradiction is possible, then you can just take your ball and go home; you are now playing a game that you can ask no one else to play with you. One example of many: Matthew (1:1-16) claims that there are 27 generations between David and Jesus, Luke (3:23-38) claims 41 generations. These cannot be reconciled. The Bible is not inerrant. QED
3. Christianity Cannot be the Religion that Jesus Preached: The story of Christianity is the story of the beliefs that Jesus professed developing into the religion that professes Jesus. In other words; dogma. It is pure folly to believe that Simon Peter, Thomas, Mary Magdalene et.al followed Jesus because, when he died, they would be able to absolve their sins by believing in him. This later theological construction was created by believers who were searching for a meaning to the seemingly pointless execution of their leader and teacher. Those who originally followed Jesus did so because of his life—because he was an exemplary teacher who radically reinterpreted the Law in favor of inclusion rather than exclusion. Those who now follow Jesus do so because of his death. They turn a man’s poignant teachings—his life’s work—into a secondary and near meaningless preface to the panacea of his death. We primarily have Paul and John the evangelist (two people who did not know Jesus in his life) to thank for this inexcusable dumbing-down of Jesus’ life. With Paul and John’s help, what Christianity would become is embodied in the Nicene Creed. Take a look at it. Dogmatic fiat has expurgated everything the man stood for.
2. The Gospels are not Historically Reliable: We need not demonstrate Biblical errors solely through appeals to internal consistency. Doing so only tells us that something in the “word of God” is awry—but not necessarily which word is wrong. In order to perform Biblical analysis that actually broadens our view of what is true and false in the “good” book we need to bring in external sources. From these external sources we learn that the Bible makes claims that cannot stand up to even the most cursory historical examination. In the Gospel of Luke the story is told of a census enacted by the governor Quirinius (Luke 2:1-7). The census, according to Luke, required everyone to return to their ancestral homes to be counted. Thus Joseph, being in the line of David, travels from Nazareth to Bethlehem where—after unadvisedly traveling ninety miles with a woman in the final days of pregnancy—Mary gives birth. The Romans, being meticulous record keepers, did take censuses. However, because of this meticulous record keeping, we know that the only census conducted during Quirinius’ governorship took place in A.D. 6-7—a time over ten years after Herod was king of Judea (Luke claims they are contemporaries). However, aside from this fact we can use common sense to realize that the story is totally unbelievable. Luke invents an empire-wide migration for a simple tax registration: millions of people traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to go to their ancestral home of a millennium past (David predates Joseph by approx. 1000 years) in order to sign a simple form. Imagine this happening today. Imagine the cataclysmic disruption of societies resulting from the masses of people crossing boarders and oceans in order to sign a form. This, of course, supposes you could even find your ancestral home of a millennium past. No, something is wrong here and it isn’t that the Romans liked to periodically enact sadistically cumbersome legislation. No, I think our evangelist needs to go back to history class. But wait…
1. The Gospels are not History: This may seem like a paltry excuse for the number one spot on a list that makes such a grandiose claim. This reason, however, is the lynch pin. The historicity of the Gospels represents the most crucial element of Christianity—for either its truth or falsity. Christianity claims a specific historical relationship between God and man. If that relationship is historically inaccurate then Christianity is wrong. Or, as Paul memorably put it, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Cor. 15:14).
As we’ve seen the Bible is often contradictory and the Gospels are not historically accurate. However, the Christian mistake is compounded by believing that the Gospels are even history—that is that they were written or designed to accurately portray historical truths. The evangelists did not intend their writings to be taken as historical truths. If they could see modern Christianity they would be shocked at the millions of Christians interpreting their writings as historically authoritative. Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying. I am not saying the Gospels were entirely made up. I am saying that they were primarily written as myths that forego historical truths (but use many of them) in favor of conveying larger, theological truths that the evangelists believed about Jesus of Nazareth.
The evangelists poured through the Old Testament and found “prophecies” that predicted Jesus’ life. After all, there had to be grander reasons why their great teacher had been executed like a common criminal. In the pages of Jewish scripture they found those reasons. They then consciously wrote their gospels in order to retroactively fulfill prophecy. That this happens at all is beyond dispute. Sometimes, while stumbling over themselves to “fulfill” prophecy, they get it horribly wrong: Mark (1:1-3), using shoddy sources, begins his gospel with “prophecy” that mistakenly conflates two Old Testament versus; Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. Matthew (1:20-23) uses a mistranslated Old Testament, in which the Hebrew almah, (meaning “young woman”) was changed to the Greek parthenos (meaning a physical virgin), as a justification for the immaculate conception. Matthew (21:1-7) so wants to fulfill a “prophecy” from another shoddy source that has combined Isaiah 62:11 and Zachariah 9:9, that he misinterprets the passage—which only speaks of one animal (with subsequent qualifiers)—and has Jesus ride into Jerusalem, in some bizarre act of balance, on two animals. (The other gospel writers are quick to correct this grievous error.) Thus, we begin to see that not only is it a manifest absurdity to believe the Gospels are history, it becomes tenuous to believe they are even accurate.
Each evangelist had his own interpretation. The theology of the evangelists—and specifically their Christology (the nature of Christ)—developed into more grandiose claims as Jesus’ life moved further into the past. If you wish to discover this for yourself, I advise you to successively read the Gospel of Mark (almost universally agreed to be the earliest Gospel written between A.D. 65-70) and the Gospel of John (agreed to be the latest Gospel written between A.D. 90-100) in a single sitting. Ask yourself this question; are they telling the same story? In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus largely speaks in parables and evasive third-person proclamations about someone called “the Son of Man.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells no parables and spends most of the time talking about himself, his godly status, and what the future will bring.
So, here is a brief lesson in the development of the concept of Jesus as God—the transition from focusing on what Jesus said to focusing on who he was. We will only look at the beginning and the end; Jesus’ birth and death. Changing the birth and death of Jesus is the most direct route to altering Jesus’ status from one contained within a life to one transcending it.
First the birth narratives. In Mark there is no birth narrative. Jesus’ higher metaphysical standing begins when He is chosen at his baptism. This is a story that Jews would have known well. The Old Testament is replete with God adopting servants—sometimes even called “sons”—during a communicative moment in their lives. Mark did not believe Jesus’ status differed greatly from God’s chosen sons of the past; David, Elijah, Moses, Elisha etc. In fact, in writing for a Jewish audience, he thought it important to strongly align Jesus with the prophets of old. Mark’s Christology is thoroughly earthly and—when judged against later alterations—mundane. However, this aspect of Mark is of paramount importance; the earliest Evangelist, the one least removed from Jesus’ life, did not know what Christians now “know.” It is simply absurd to believe that, of all the things Mark knew about Jesus and with all the time he took to compose and disseminate his gospel, Mark just didn’t know that Jesus’ birth was a once-in-an-eternity miraculous event. While Mark certainly plays up the figure of Jesus, he was not willing to go that far. When Mark is taken by itself—a gospel lacking a birth narrative and a resurrection narrative (the last twelve verses are almost universally agreed to be later additions), fraught with a persistent “messianic secret” in which no Apostle is able to completely understand Jesus’ status, and Jesus’ constant, oblique, third person references to a figure called the “son of man” (almost assuredly a reference to Daniel 7:13)—no interpretation even remotely resembling Christianity can be culled from it. Instead Mark fits squarely into well-known traditional Jewish stories of chosen prophets instructing the Jews as to God’s will.
For Matthew and Luke this “Jewish Jesus” would not do. Rather than taking a modern viewpoint that the earlier source should be trusted (that is, if you care about historical accuracy which, as I’ve said, they clearly did not), Matthew and Luke (written c. 80-90) decide to insert important “facts” into Mark’s general narrative that raise the status of Jesus to a figure whose scope extends beyond Judaism. With this in mind, doctoring what he said was not as important as doctoring who he was. Thus, they go back to his birth and tell incompatible, incredible, and clearly manufactured stories of Jesus’ miraculous birth to a virgin. In doing so they both establish Jesus’ higher ontological status than the prophets of old, and—by bending over backwards to place Jesus in Bethleham—they make sure that Jesus satisfies the prophecy that the Messiah was to come from the “city of David.”
Looking at the differences between the Synoptics, we are also able to see the solution to the oft-mentioned “problem” of Jesus’ missing years. Other than Luke’s small story of a twelve-year-old Jesus teaching in the Temple, we have no other (canonical) stories of Jesus between birth and baptism. By comparing Mark with Matthew and Luke, the obvious answer presents itself; such stories didn’t exist because no one cared about Jesus until he established a ministry. Jesus’ “missing years” are no more bothersome than the “missing years” of the majority of Hebrew prophets.
But John would change everything and one-up all who came before him. Jesus wasn’t merely “chosen,” “adopted” or created from a miraculous set of circumstances. No, Jesus is something else all together. Feeling it wasn’t good enough to go back the the beginning of His ministry or the beginning of His life, John decides to go back to the beginning of time (John 1:1 “In the beginning was the word…”) to establish the nature of Jesus. Thus, Jesus has been raised to the ultimate heights; dizzying heights that would have confused and shocked Mark.
Likewise, the death of Jesus changes dramatically throughout the Gospels. The changes (of which there are many more than these) can be summed up in the three different accounts of the last words of Jesus: Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46 “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me.” Luke 23:46 “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” John 19:30 “It is finished.” The development of Christianity is encapsulated in the move from the utterance of pain, ignorance, nonacceptance, and suffering seen in Mark and Matthew to the statement of acceptance, foreknowledge, and peace that is seen in John. These are incompatible interpretations of Jesus. The character in the gospels may have the same name but it is not the same man hanging on the cross.
The Gospels are guides to belief written by believers. This is a horribly unreliable way to learn accurate information. When you already believe “The Truth,” distortions that you consciously engage in—that you see as promoting “The Truth”—are not seen as lies, but rather, as efficacious ways of getting “The Truth” to the hearts of readers. We don’t know why the evangelists believed as they did, but in the gospels they don’t give us the reasons they believe, they give us reasons to believe; an entirely different matter. But we do KNOW they invented things. We KNOW that the theological conception of Jesus changed as the believers grew more distant from his life. What Christians believe most fervently (i.e. Jesus being God, appearing after he died, dying for the sins of the world) are concepts that were developed later. They are concepts that did not exist in the earliest generations of Christian belief. They certainly did not exist when Jesus was alive.
Early Christians invented myths to overcome the “stumbling-block” (1 Cor. 1:23) of the cross. Paul knew that, for the Jews and Gentile Greeks, the execution of Jesus represented a major problem. The “king of the jews” was not supposed to be an executed lowly peasant. The “savior of mankind” was not a common criminal. Over time, theological concepts developed that explained this hang-up. Thus, an executed traitor was turned into a victorious Messiah.
Conclusion: This article is primarily designed to address the reasons that Christians themselves believe. In other words, I consciously stayed away from having catchall reasons that counter any religion—i.e. “because evolution is true,” “because of the Big Bang,” “the anti-anthropic principle,” “because God doesn’t exist,” etc. None of these abstract issues reach the core of any religion’s believers—particularly not Christians. Christians believe for one, over-arching, epistemologically primary reason; the figure of Jesus represents God’s will on this Earth and this story is accurately related in the Bible. In the gospel stories they see something miraculous that they believe to be true. After this belief is established the others will fall neatly into line. They will most certainly not believe in evolution, the big bang, the age of the Earth, etc. All of this simply because they think one paltry Jewish techné (not a carpenter, just a craftsman) did some special stuff.
In debating Christians, for the sake of argument, I will concede every point they make—that the universe had to have a beginning, that it had to be designed, that God cares, that evil doesn’t exist, etc.—except (generally) those based on the reliability of Christian tradition. A Christian’s house of cards is usually built entirely upon this foundation. This is what matters to them and, thus, for these purposes, it is what matters to me.
I am aware of the counterpoints that numerous, well-informed Christians and theologians have made to many of my points. This article isn’t meant to be comprehensive but only informative. While none of these reasons is entirely convincing by itself, when taken together they create a strong case for the falsity of Christianity. If not that, then these points at least deserve pause, consideration and research. Most Christians and atheists do not know much of what is enumerated here. If you are a Christian and you are reading this (which I highly doubt) and if you cannot respond to each of these objections with evidence and coherent argumentation—as opposed to with faith and shouting—then you need to start shopping for a new religion.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Trevor Burrus is a philosopher, political philosopher, legal theorist, music aficionado, and graduate of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Currently, he is a legal associate at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC.
Stephen Fry on God
The Future of World Religion (in 2050)
Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook