Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Apostate's Creed

The Apostles' Creed goes like this:
I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth. 

I believe in Jesus Christ,
his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead. 

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Suffice it so say, I don't believe all that anymore. I was raised to believe it all, and for a while I did believe most of it, but having looked at the evidence for some of this myself, I just don't see sufficient evidence to persuade me back into belief about most of the above. (Note, I don't think you can make yourself just believe something or, for that matter, just stop believing something. In order to believe something you must either hear compelling evidence or trust that the person who tells it to you has good reasons for believing it.) 

I had planned on going through this creed, line by line, and giving my reasons for why I don't believe each part of it anymore, but I realised that if I started at the start, there would be no logical flow. I didn't shift to a position of agnosticism of much of the above by starting with God the Father, so I'll not start this post there either. I'll aim to cover all of the above beliefs, but not following the original order. Here goes:

I believe in I'm not sure about Jesus Christ
For one thing, I don't think there ever was a man called 'Jesus' who was known as 'Christ' within his lifetime. If you look at the early church (or rather, early churches, as I don't see much evidence for a unified church until the end of the 2nd century) you find quite a range of beliefs about Jesus. One of these beliefs, which appears to be quite widespread, is that Jesus became the Christ when he was raised from the dead. In other words, he hadn't been the Christ before this, so would never have been called Christ within his earthly lifetime. Another belief which can be identified is that Jesus will return as Christ - that is, he isn't Christ yet and won't be until his second coming. So again, he couldn't have been known as Christ within his lifetime. Of course, some will say that those believers were simply wrong and we have biblical evidence that Jesus was known as 'Christ' during his ministry - the gospels say as much. But this is a quite naive conclusion based on only part of the available evidence. If Jesus was widely known as Christ during his ministry, how would the alternative beliefs have arisen so quickly after his death? Its not easy to explain. However, the converse is much easier to explain. If Jesus came to be understood as Christ after his death (and apparent resurrection) it is not unreasonable for some later author, writing his biography, to have (anachronistically) named him Christ when he wrote his gospel. The author knew Jesus as 'Christ' in his time, so he simply called Jesus 'Christ' in retrospect. So as I said above, I think it seems quite likely that the man Jesus, if he ever lived (see below), was not known as Christ during his time on earth. So I don't believe in a historical Jesus-Christ.

Moving on, if there was a historical Jesus (not-Christ), was he believed to be the Son of God during his lifetime? That's a tricky one and involves a lot of discussion about what "Son of God" actually meant to the people in the supposed time of Jesus. See quite a few of my recent posts, including this one. The evidence and reasoning I've read brings me to the point of believing that whatever it was that 1st century 'Christians' thought was meant by the phrase 'Son of God' it was not the 'second person of the Trinity' belief that is held by most Christians today, and appears to be implied in the Apostles' Creed. So I don't believe the 'Son of God' bit either, unless you mean in the sense of a prophet, messenger or leader sent by God, like Moses, David or Elijah, and even then things get complicated when we look at the 'sent by God' bit, see what I say about God, below.

Is Jesus Lord? Well, that's a matter of perspective. I believe that Jesus is Lord for all Christians who believe in him and follow his teachings. This doesn't actually entail his existence. Krishna is Lord for millions of people who follow him, and so on. So when the Apostles' Creed says 'our Lord', it is true, from the point of view of the Christian saying it. Is Jesus Lord over all the universe? Well, that's a different question that I'll deal with when I get to the issue of God, the Father.

I believe in I'm really not sure about the Virgin Birth
This is one of those red herring debates that is simply not worth getting into. There is precisely zero evidence that Jesus's mother was a virgin before (and, indeed, after) his conception. The gospel stories are just that; stories. There is no conceivable way to verify the claim, and some do argue that the gospels themselves don't actually mean to say that Mary was a virgin. So if it can be shown that Jesus is/was divine, then maybe it becomes reasonable to start wondering about this, but if Jesus's divinity is in doubt, then his virginal conception has to be even more in doubt.

I believe that I don't know if he suffered under Pontius Pilate
This starts with a big if. If there was a first century preacher at the root of all the gospel stories about Jesus, then yes, it appears likely that he suffered and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. But there are some odd lines of evidence to suggest that this isn't as definite as some folk, including the vast majority of Christians, think. Whichever way you slice the NT evidence, it is clear that none of the earliest epistles to be written know about Pilate. He only appears as a named character in one of the Pastoral Epistles, which many people are convinced are pseudepigrapha, that is, Paul didn't write them. Most people who acknowledge that Paul didn't write the pastorals are also reasonably convinced that these were written late - either very late 1st century, or even well into the 2nd century. Either way, these letters probably get their information about Jesus's sufferings from the gospels, not independently of the gospels. Which, of course, brings us to the gospels.

It is clear that the very earliest gospel, Mark, has Jesus suffering and dying under Pontius Pilate. Most folk (other than apologists) seem to think that this gospel was written somewhere between 70 and 90 AD, and probably written in Rome. Other documents from about the same time (e.g. 1st Clement) have the same opinion expressed. It is just a bit odd that none of the earlier NT writings, all the 'authentic' Pauline letters, Hebrews, etc. have a historical setting for the crucifixion. Richard Carrier has just written a big book (which I have yet to read) presenting and explaining all the evidence that points to an early Christian belief in a non-historical, mythical crucifixion event, which was then historicised in the very late 1st Century (by Mark, followed by others) as events which had happened a couple of generations earlier. I don't know if I am yet convinced by this case, but at least I am convinced there is a case to be made, so I face two rival hypotheses, one that the stories of Jesus are based on what happened to a man circa 30 AD, and one that the stories of Jesus are a fiction, based on earlier myths, written at the end of the 1st century. At present I don't know all the facts, so actually can't choose between these two options. For now, this really has to stay in the realms of I don't know...

If he was crucified, it is pretty likely that he also died and was buried, so I don't really need to get into any debate there.

I believe that I'm not sure if he descended to the dead
Oh Hell! Hell is such a tricky subject. If Jesus descended to hell, that would, of course, be reliant on there actually being a hell to go to. I mean, if there is a hell, and it is a place that some dead people go to, then it is not unreasonable to assume that Jesus might have gone there if he died. Coming back out of hell is a different matter entirely, but we'll get there in a moment. But first I want to question the reality of hell.

Why should there be a hell? What kind of a God would devise such a place? And, most importantly, do we have any evidence of hell's existence?

Well, with regard to the third question there, no. We have no evidence. We have claims of visions, both inside the bible and outside of it, but nothing beyond that. Furthermore, if the evidence of near death experiences actually counts for anything (and I'm not sure it does, there's a big difference between nearly dead and actually dead), then pretty much all accounts of the afterlife are happy and positive things, seemingly irrespective of the prior beliefs of those who have the experience. I've never heard tale of a NDE where the 'returning' person emerges talking of the horrors of hell. But even if there are such stories, it still wouldn't provide any real evidence for the reality of hell, beyond the human imagination, that is.

Why should there be a hell? Well, I think that the whole hell concept emerged when people were trying to reconcile the injustice observed in the world with the idea of a just God. Something bad needs to happen to bad people who had enjoyable and luxurious lives, right? Well, only if you think that the world is, or needs to be, a just place. If you accept that there is no justice, then there is no need for hell. Probably no need for heaven either, as the two go hand in hand. If there is some kind of afterlife, it is probably more of the same, neither heaven nor hell. For what its worth, I don't think the idea of hell is actually consistent with a God of justice, as no finite amount of badness can ever balance with an infinite extent of hell. In other words, if hell is the punishment, then the punishment never fits the crime.

I believe that I very much doubt that on the third day he rose again
Dead people stay dead. Of course, some people who have been technically dead for minutes or occasionally hours can be resuscitated. This has nothing to do with resurrection. The Christian view of resurrection is not that Jesus was simply reanimated, but rather that he returned to life in a transformed body that was radically different from the body he had before. In his new body Jesus can sometimes walk through walls, but sometimes eat solid food. He can appear and disappear, apparently at will, and he can fly into the air. Of course, there is no actual evidence for all of this, merely stories, and somewhat contradictory stories too. Does the story of the empty tomb provide evidence for the resurrection? Well, not really, the story tells of people who hadn't previously been to the tomb finding an empty tomb two or three days after the crucifixion event. What is more likely, that they went to the wrong tomb (and found an empty one) or that someone who had been dead for three days came back to life in a transformed body? Any way you slice it, it is far, far, far more likely that fallible humans made a mistake and found an empty tomb, while the filled tomb lay still occupied nearby. I'm not saying I believe that happened, I'm merely saying that we know people make mistakes and/or make stories up, so either of these possibilities are far more likely than resurrection, which we're pretty certain doesn't happen in every other circumstance.

I believe that I very much doubt that he ascended into heaven
Given that it is highly unlikely that he died, it is also highly unlikely that he ascended. When I looked into this a couple of years ago, I found that there is no ascension in Matthew, Mark, some manuscripts of Luke, John or any of the epistles. It is only in Acts and some manuscripts of Luke, and even there only in a single verse. In the epistles, by the way, the resurrection and ascension seem to be merged into the single concept of Jesus being 'raised' - apparently directly from death to the right hand of the Father. Or rather, given that the epistles came first, it seems that Matthew, Mark & John reinterpreted Paul's "raised" to mean resurrected back to life, and Luke-Acts was the one that split the concept into the two components.

But the main reason I doubt the ascension is that there is nowhere up there where Jesus could have flown to. Its a long way to the moon, or to Mars, or wherever, but there is certainly no physical heaven for him to go to, so the idea of a physical ascension is utterly meaningless.

I believe that I doubt that he is seated at the right hand of the Father and will return as judge
This doubt really follows from all the others, so doesn't need any particular justification in and of itself. We'll get to the issue of God the Father in a moment. The thing about the second coming and the final judgement arises out of an apocalyptic view of history that seems to pre-date Christianity, but wasn't originally part of the ancient Hebrew religion. As far as I can tell from what limited reading I've done on the subject, the apocalyptic worldview became merged with Jewish thinking following the return from exile in Babylon. It was originally part of the Zoroastrian religion, which the "exiles" were indoctrinated into, and which they apparently borrowed bits from when they "re-established" (perhaps reinvented) Judaism in Judah on their return.

So that's about it for Jesus, the supposed 2nd person of the trinity. Let's think about the 3rd...

I believe in the Holy Spirit
The eagle eyed readers among you will have noticed that I haven't done that thing in the heading there, scoring out one bit and highlighting another. That is because I do believe in the Holy Spirit. But perhaps without the capital letters. I see no reason to doubt the existence of the holy spirit, because you can see the evidence of its existence in the lives of Christians. Yes, I said 'its' there, not 'His'. You see, while I believe that there is something there, that Christians call the 'Holy Spirit', I'm not convinced it is a person in any meaningful way, and I have no reason to suppose it is divine. The holy spirit is simply that consensus, or unity, or harmony, or one-ness, or whatever, which emerges where Christians are gathered together to worship. It could be purely psychology at work. It could be a lot more than that, but I don't know. The spirit apparently provides guidance to some, and purpose to others, and strength to others, but actually has a pretty poor record of giving anyone accurate insights into the future or actually doing the miraculous.

When Christians get together to worship, and all believe the same things and sing the same songs, with conviction, and believe that God is present, there is a sense of elation, there is a feeling of something transcendent. It may be nothing more than a sense or a feeling, but the experience is real, and I'll call that the holy spirit.

Now take this concept back before the dawn of Christianity. I expect people had similar experiences back then. They experienced the 'Spirit of God' or the 'shekinah' and this confirmed their belief, not in the third person of the godhead, that concept hadn't evolved yet, but of the first... God the Father.

I believe in I'm not sure about God the Father and that he is the creator
I think the ancient belief in God (the Father, although that bit was added later) arose pretty much out of the experience of what I've called the holy spirit, above. People experienced something they though was divine and started telling stories about this 'person' God. I think belief in this God arose out of experience long before anyone thought about the concept of creation, but when the idea of a beginning to all things emerged, then God must have been there before the beginning, and therefore must have been the creative force. Its easy to see how that belief could have developed.

I'm not convinced by modern apologetics arguments that claim various philosophical proofs that God must have pre-existed the big bang and must have been the first mover. There are holes in all the arguments. That's not to say that I have a hole-free argument for the origin of all things myself, but if there was an origin of all things, then it must have been the origin of all things, including any transcendent life forms that may or may not exist. To speak of God (or anything else) existing before time and space came into being is meaningless. If there was no time, there was no, erm, was. There was no time or space for God to exist in, and no time during which he could do any kind of creative act. If there was a time in which he was able to create, then the creation wasn't the beginning of all things and so we need to go up a level of reality and find the beginning of that... and so on. God doesn't offer a solution to the mystery of beginnings, he merely shifts the mystery up a level. I think it is better to say "I don't know" than to postulate an agent with no explanation for how that agent came to be.

I believe in the Catholic church, although it isn't very holy
Nuff said.

I believe in the communion of the saints
I do. It is the same as the holy spirit I talked about up there. The other bits of the creed aren't really worth discussing here, so I'll leave it at that. So here's my creed:
I'm not sure about God,
or in what sense he is supposed to be the Father almighty,
or, indeed, if he created anything. 

I'm not sure about Jesus Christ,
if he was even a real person,
how he was conceived,
although I doubt he was born of a Virgin.
He might have suffered under Pontius Pilate,
and if he did it is likely that he was crucified, died, and was buried;
but I'm not sure what 'descended to the dead' even means.
On the third day he probably stayed dead;
I doubt he ascended into heaven,
and there is no seat up there for him to be sitting on,
given that, it is unlikely that he will come back to judge the living and the dead. 

I'm not sure about the Holy Spirit,
although there is something that Christians experience,
but probably not the third person of the Trinity,
I believe in the catholic Church, although it isn't very holy,
there might be something in the communion of saints,
I believe in forgiveness, but not necessarily in sins,
I doubt the resurrection of the body,
and nothing lasts forever. Erm, amen.