Based on a conversation between two lifetime friends one a Christian priest-hermit, the other an Ex Christian seminarian and now an “honest to God ‘bona fide’ atheist!”
This question was asked in a manner that leant in favour of atheism. It is based on a discussion held between my friend Craig and I when I received my first parish and he had left the church completely. It was an amicable discussion, well as amicable as can be when two long term friends disagree on something. Nevertheless I have remained true and have written what was said in an attempt to look at both sides of the spectrum with the help of ‘an honest to God bona fide atheist.’
I myself, was born a cradle Catholic and raised in Italy. I then explored a few other religions in my teens, Buddhism, Old Catholicism, Islam, Mormons and Anglicans. Later in life I took Holy Orders and was ordained a deacon and then presbyter in the Catholic Church. Now, I’m a hermit-priest in the Independent Sacramental Movement of the Holy Celtic Church. Christ and the Ever Blessed Virgin Mary have always played a pivotal part in my life and I believe they have worked with great vigour within my life, for which I am eternally grateful.
My friend Craig was a cradle Anglican whom at 23 years of age became an ‘honest to God bona fide atheist,’ he had obtained his Baccalaureate in Divinity and was originally hoping to follow his mum a parish vicar and his Canon dad into the clergy; but instead of becoming an Anglican priest he became an avowed non believer of God, Christ and ‘the rest [sic] of the his merry circus’; and he became an avid follower of the evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins instead, to the consternation of both his parents. Following the Baccalaureate in Divinity degree he obtained a post grad in Biblical Archaeology and now works as an archaeologist in Israel, what an unusual profession for an atheist.
From Craig’s atheist point of view he tells me that “Christ was a deluded individual who believed and claimed that sometimes he was the Son of God and at other times the Son of Man, telling everyone that his mother Mary was a virgin when he was born. His friends thought him a bit odd, a dreamer, fantasist with a great sleight of hand and a lot of tricks up his sleeve. He tried to minister among the Jews but they ridiculed and rejected him as a mad blasphemous man and eventually getting fed up with his antics, executed him on the trumped up charges of anti-government rebellion. He died horrifically but I give him credit, he did so in “full glory” by maintaining and reaffirming what he had told people until the very end when in his agony he called out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”—that is, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Why? The question erupts from the heart of a righteous man. Yesterday Jesus had been enjoying God’s favour as His only begotten Son, and this afternoon He feels utterly abandoned by his father without explanation whatsoever. He is subjected to brutal beatings and suffered tremendously. His agony must have been… Wow.. massive I suppose. The Jews turned him into a nonconformist object of ridicule.” Did God somehow change without anyone noticing?
Jesus’ disciples, of course, beat a hasty retreat and hid. They stole Jesus’ twisted and bloodied body, from the sepulchre right under the noses of legionaries and Pharisees guarding his resting place. Then, a few of them decided to proclaim that he, Jesus, had risen again and had now returned among the living. Perhaps he’d been in a coma induced by the horrendous beatings he had received. Its very likely, that if he had been seen again three days after his execution that he hadn’t died at all. Its highly likely that Peter, one of Jesus’ disciple, and who claimed to be in charge and the successor of Jesus had taken Jesus’ place. This form of new schismatic Judaism or faction did not appeal to the run of the mill Jews of his time, they had enough to worry about, one reason being is that the Messiah —according to Jewish scripture— would arrive as a conqueror to free them from Roman bondage, and that was the kind of trouble they could have done without. Somehow, in the Apostle’s great delusions —perhaps they were intoxicated on too much wine or a few honey cakes laced with cannabis, who knows— they started to claim they had visions of Jesus Christ, and also something they called the Holy Spirit, which was yet another facet of their so called triune god which seems to me polytheistic and the total opposite of monotheism which they claim to be.
Through this new upsurge of belief an entirely new christian conspiracy was born; Think about it! You cannot defeat the Romans, so you decide to change your mind half way through, repent and then instead attempt to overthrow Judaism as the main religion just by claiming that Jesus’ death had been sacrificial and that he had fulfilled all of the required messianic prophecies contained in the Old Testament of the Bible, yet they had to in some manner reflect the biblical narrative, adding a few miracles here and a few words of wisdom here and different interpretations there, and now you can basically write whatever you want without question. Next you hire a scribes and begin to produce numerous copies of it for distribution, hide some of the scrolls in terracotta jars in caves somewhere in the Judaean desert, and continue to teach your new version of religion to the Jews and the unenlightened gentiles, who are always too willing and eager to believe in some new fad; they dont know any better? As I said many of the Jews wouldn’t buy into this new religion (perhaps the Christians were like the Mormons and Jehovah witnesses knocking on your door today). Obviously, the mainstream ancient orthodox historians of the day had no reason to account for Christians as a group in their demographic. Christians had absolutely no recognition from anyone and were considered more as a terrorist organisation with a political agenda.
It was not until Yosef ben Matityahu known to us as the first-century Romano-Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus —during the Second Temple period dating between the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, c. 515 BCE, and its destruction by the Romans in CE 70— Josephus work Antiquities of the Jews contain only two passages one about Jesus and the other of Jesus’ brother James the Just.
There was a man named Saul of Tarsus, he was a Pharisee; who had participated in the persecution of early disciples of Jesus, in the areas surrounding Jerusalem, prior to his own conversion to Christianity, appeared a few years later, not from the main group of apostles, he claimed to have received divine inspiration after he was struck blind for three days, and that Christ had spoken to him personally. He started an evangelical mailing list and an office which targeted the gentile population without deceit and with a message of prosperity. If you cannot beat the Romans physically, beat them psychologically: spiritual conquest. Paul then wrote a manifesto to the Gentiles in a book we now call the Epistle to the Romans, which goes on and on; Its the longest of all of Paul’s epistles. There was also another book called Epistle to the Hebrews that may —or may not according to Eusebius— have been written by the Apostle Paul to the Jews. The writer’s style reflects some characteristics of Paul’s writing, but, there are some differences, and do not reflect the teachings of Christ, speaking more about the fulfilment of Scripture through ritual sacrifice and the grace of God. Its essential purpose was to try to persuade the Christians to soldier on in the face of their continued and unabating oppression and harassment. It was a time when many new christians were considering a return to Judaism to escape their persecution after having accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviou.
The Four books that were written about Jesus Christ and his life and ministry were written over the course of almost a century after Jesus’ death, the four gospels of the New Testament, though they tell the same story, reflect varying concepts and area of interest. A period of forty years separates the death of Jesus from the writing of the first gospel. They were probably copied from the same source but with the addition of quite a few errors. Most of the men of the time did not communicate all that well in written form or with each other, most of them would not even have had a basic education. Mark’s Gospel is first the gospel of the new testament, the “good news”. Matthew was followed by, Mark, Luke (who also wrote Acts) and John (who also wrote the three books of John and Revelation). Each of them came from different walks of life and professions, leaving their lives behind to follow Jesus and to share His story of salvation with the whole world. Matthew had been a tax collector, Mark’s profession is unknown. Luke was a physician, whose accounts of Jesus were often extremely detailed as one would expect from a doctor; John had been a fisherman all of his life.
Other writers like Saul of Tarsus, renamed Paul, had been a Pharisee whom additionally concentrated on persecuting christians and the newly formed church. He later went on to write the epistles to the Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews.
James the Just was an adelphoi (brother) of our Lord —as well as Joseph, Simon, and Jude and two sisters Salome and Mary. James’ profession is also unknown. Peter whose name was also ‘Simon’ son of Jonah, had been a Jewish fisherman in Bethsaida (John 1:44). Jude (or Judah) author of the Epistle of Jude and an adelphoi of Jesus, may have been one of the original 12 disciples. There is a lack of evidence about Jude with which to fully identify him, we are not sure what his profession may have been.
Several hundred years later, Christians had some difficulties explaining why their god was three distinct persons (to me that polytheism) instead of just one god (which is monotheism). This so called doctrine was contrived in ancient Christianity and they needed several meetings before they got this so called dogma straight.
The dogma of the “trinity” states that God is one, unique and absolutely simple is his “substance,” but common to three “persons” consubstantial and distinct. To me as an atheist it mean that christianity has three divinities which is polytheism as far as I understand it. Christians the state that these three “persons” are three unique aspects of the same divinity. These three ‘hypostasis’ or ‘persons’ are on the other hand traditionally understood as distinct but of the same substance as God: i. God the Father: creator of heaven and earth. ii. the Son: the Father made man as Jesus Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Redeemer of the world and iii. the Holy Spirit: whom the Father and the Son send to the disciples of Jesus to make them understand and to bear witness to the revealed truths. Now isn’t that convenient I ask, they had just over 300 years to tinker with this dogma only to make it more confusing to the man on the street. As an atheists I really fail to understand why God is able to, or even why he would want to make himself be born as a human who had flesh and blood and who could die, to me, that would signify a divine weakness, surely? God cannot be the father and the son at the same time, and then throw a totally unrelated spirit into the mix at the same time. Christians claim God is not a God of confusion. Well, if this isn’t confusing enough I dont know what is? The Christian God is disfigured and deformed, he’s twisted because no other sane deity would behave in such a perverse and peculiar a manner, and when we take into account our modern day understanding morals, sexuality, human reproduction and social processes, it seems that this god makes things up as he goes along. This has achieved nothing more than complicating a whole number of issues about who he is.
The end result was that Judaism and Christianity separated, Judaism did not and still does not recognise Christ as the Messiah, whilst Christians tend to ignored major parts of the Old Testament thinking them obsolete as now there is a new and worthier covenant.
So the bottom line is that Christianity was meant to be an entirely Jewish affair, a continuation and a progression or maturation of their own belief system. Christianity today is essentially a commandeered and adulterated form of Judaism, largely contrived and banded together by different people claiming to be Kings, prophets, seers, apostles, and later believers over a number of centuries.
Of course as a Christian and cradle Catholic, I do not hold the same view expressed above by my friend Craig. Symbolism is found where-ever we look within the Bible. Symbolism arises out of the tension which exists between consciousness and the world. Indeed, the raison d’être of religious symbolism is to transcend that tension and move beyond, into ‘the other,’ into the world of ascendancy. Symbols in other words are bridges between consciousness, the world, and the sacred. So, symbolism is used to convey the hidden meaning to the reader or listener. Whilst reading the Bible, we note a diversity of people, objects, and events that have a myriad of expressions and significance. If we actually understand them, we can strengthen our faith and move closer to a personal relationship with God. They give deeper meaning to abstract notions. Most biblical symbols are easily recognisable to a frequent reader, but a few of them have cultural references that need further knowledge in order to be able to understand their meaning.
Christ was born to a young virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit. And science has recently proven that Virgin births are a biological reality, virgin births, therefore, are no longer exclusive to the divine; This process of Virgin births is called parthenogenesis (literally ‘virgin creation’). Jesus’ had been foretold by God in order to remove humanities stain of original sin, which was Eve’s rebellion and Adam’s doubt in disobeying God. In the second half of John 1:18 we note that the apostle John was talking about God the Father, not God the Son, Jesus Christ. Also Jesus said, “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him [referring to Jesus]; Jesus is the Logos [Word] and is therefore the “only Son” and he is also God the Son, but not God the Father. He [the one who is from God – Jesus] has seen the Father’ (John 6:46). These verses point to the fact that it was God the Son who appeared to the Old Testament peoples and that He was the One who later became Jesus Christ! So not that complicated at all, I would say!
For the Roman Governor Pontus Pilate a gentile, Jesus had not committed a sin, for John the Forerunner, a cousin of Jesus, and his disciple in the womb, he had no sin. For the religious fanatic, Paul, he had never spoken sin. He ministered to the Jews but they rejected him for blasphemy and executed him for rebellion. His miracles and teachings consisted of undoing the damage and consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in order to reconcile humanity with God. Jesus had been the spotless lamb offered up as a sacrifice for the benefit of humanity.
His passion brought the ancient malediction of the testament like sweat and thorns to a messianic verse closer to fulfilment. He died horrendously and in “full glory” faithfully clinging to His Father’s will to the very end. At around three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” — that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This expresses Jesus’ extreme anguish but also His certainty of final vindication. It was a prophetic verse in the Old Testament that meant that we transferred our sins to him, God and being holy has to turn away from Christ. The Old Testament atonement requires the death of the lamb for the sinner in order for his sin to be cleansed. The crucifixion coincided with the sacrifice of the Passover lamb.
His disciples deserted Him and locked themselves in a room fearing for their lives. Jesus rose again on the third day as he had foretold and His tomb was found to be empty. The penalty for falling asleep whilst on guard duty in the roman legion was to be beaten to death. A Roman general had the power to summarily execute any soldier under his command. The risen Christ was seen by many, he continued his ministry and sorted out Peter. The Road to Emmaus reinforces the idea that Christianity had been Jesus’ idea all along.
Three thousand people believed and received the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts on the day of Pentecost. This was the sign that empowered Peter’s mission to spread the good news to the rest of the world. These men and women who only a few days before had been trembling with fear, now evangelised in the open and did so without fear.
The sacking of the second temple in AD 70 by the Romans closed the chapter on ritual sacrifice. There was no longer a need for ritualistic sacrifice because the Lamb of God has been sacrificed once and for all of humanity.
Christ, God the Son, now in heaven, continued His work through the agency of the Holy Spirit, and through the man called Saul of Tarsus, now called Paul the Apostle, former a Pharisee, terrorist and a fanatic who had persecuted many Christians, and stoned Stephen to death [see Acts 7:58-60]. His priority had been to persuade the gentiles to worship יהוה — YHWH and teach them to understand the new covenant. God made contracts with humans from time to time and the most current is the Covenant of Grace and Truth that came through Jesus Christ.
The four books that were written about Christ occurred many years later and their contents vary in terms of scope and time. The culture of those days used oral tradition, where knowledge is received, preserved, and transmitted orally from one generation to the next, because of that they had to be recorded by scribes while the apostles continued to teach and travel. I also believe that the different books of the bible all have a common origin in Christ’s day but were written by different people, interpreted differently because they were written for a different audience and several languages. The book for Matthew to the Jews, hence his genealogy, John on his Divinity, Luke (as a physician, trained in Greek, is truthful, logical, objective and biased towards miraculous healing and resurrections) to the Gentiles and Mark, the servant of the gospel. Together, they all represent the many facets of Jesus Christ.
The Trinity then explains the situation, three different forms in one Deity, Christ is 100% man and 100% God. Its is not very intuitive, but I accept that He defines the nature of God, to be honest, I dont believe that any man or woman living today has ever personally seen God, nor are any of us able to fully perceive His true nature. Arguing about it, therefore is absolutely pointless and a waste of time. This is where our faith comes in. It will always be challenging for the created to be able to understand their own creator. There are so many things, in our age of scientific enlightenment, that we still do not know or understand about ourselves, our planet earth upon which we live with so many other creatures of creation —most of which we have destroyed—, that I believe that it would be a monumental and grave error on our part to simply dismiss God only because we are unable to grasp Him let alone understand Him properly. Claiming to understand God would be hubris on the part of the human.
Judaism in the mean time continued, they rejected their awaited Messiah, the Christ, curiously, though I wonder why the Jews dispensed with their sacrificial worship system if they did not accept Christ and His sacrifice? Surely by removing certain sacramental aspects in their system of worship—sacrifices that God had demanded of them—, they no longer practice their faith correctly or in accordance with God’s wishes. Or have they perhaps secretly accepted part of the new covenant and acknowledged Jesus as their Messiah and are now to ashamed to admit it? Realising the boat has sailed and gone can be quite embarrassing.
I believe that when the bible is properly understood by someone, they will be able to discern that Christianity was the “mystery” that was revealed, therefore the rehabilitation of recalcitrant humans had been accomplished and their stain of original sin removed. When it boils down to it Christianity is a simple religion and not as complicated as the Atheist would want it to be.