Why evangelical Christians fear Covid vaccination

May 16, 2021 • 11:30 am

It’s pretty well known that some of the people most hesitant to get vaccinated against Covid are evangelical Christians. In the NYT article below (click on screenshot), two of them do a good thing, urging their fellow evangelicals to get their jabs. Here’s a plot showing that while Jews and white Catholics are pretty down with getting their shots, Protestants, particularly white evangelical and Hispanic ones, are resistant, with fewer than half being “accepters”. (Evangelicals are also less likely to wear masks.)

Why is this? Chang and Carter explain:

The decision to get vaccinated is essentially a decision to trust institutions. Many people do not understand the vaccines’ scientific complexities, regardless of religion. That means getting immunized is a decision to trust “them” — the constellation of scientific and government institutions offering assurances that the vaccines are safe and effective.

But American evangelicals are historically prone to ambivalence toward dominant secular institutions. In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith. Evangelicals interpret Jesus’ teaching that his followers are in the world but not “of the world” (John 17:16) to mean we should engage with secular institutions with a certain measure of wariness. Some amount of caution is healthy for all communities, not just for evangelicals. No institution is infallible, and critical thinking can be a civic virtue.

What ever happened to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s“? For surely the vaccine is Caesar’s!

But there are other reasons as well:

Unfortunately, in recent years, the evangelical approach to engaging with secular institutions has morphed from caution into outright fear and hostility. Three forces have exploited this inherent ambivalence toward secular institutions. First, conservative media has mastered the art of sowing evangelical suspicion of the establishment to increase ratings. Second, politicians — some Christian and some not — have used evangelicals’ distrust of so-called elite institutions to gain our votes. Third, conspiracy movements such as QAnon and antivaccine campaigns have targeted evangelicals, conjuring fictional enemies intent on destroying our values and, in the case of the vaccines, our actual bodies. All of these forces shape how large segments of the evangelical community perceive the Covid vaccines.

In our vaccination outreach, evangelicals have told us they’re suspicious of the shots for a variety of reasons. Many worry that the development process was rushed, that the vaccines contain a microchip or that they are the “the mark of the beast,” a reference from the Book of Revelation that some Christians associate with a future Antichrist figure. A sharpened distrust of institutions underlies these fears.

But did you note the explanation above, which I’ll repeat:

In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith. Evangelicals interpret Jesus’ teaching that his followers are in the world but not “of the world” (John 17:16) to mean we should engage with secular institutions with a certain measure of wariness. Some amount of caution is healthy for all communities, not just for evangelicals. No institution is infallible, and critical thinking can be a civic virtue.

You can already see the dissonance here, and I’ll quote reader Philip, who sent me this link, who has a few questions:

As if critical thinking and “critical evaluation” (based on rational evidence and the desire to acquire it) constitute the foundation of evangelical skepticism.  Does he include “The Church” in his “No institution is infallible . . . .”?  Would he tell evangelicals that?  And when is critical thinking not a civic virtue?

The first sentence, “In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith” evoked a guffaw, if not a horse laugh. True critical evaluation by evangelical Christians would lead to the disappearance of the faith, if for no other reason than no Christian, evangelical or otherwise, if sufficiently critical, could demonstrate that their religion—as opposed to the gazillion others on the planet—is the right one. And if you don’t choose the right one, you’re going to fry for eternity.

Kudos to Chang and Carter for trying; theirs is an admirable though an uphill battle. But they really shouldn’t have claimed that critical evaluation and caution are healthy and “built into the fabric of their faith.”

A Christian tries to save my soul by answering my hard questions about religion

August 23, 2020 • 9:15 am

In 2014 I published a piece in The New Republic (click on screenshot) which, despite the title, which I didn’t choose, described ways to turn religious peoples’ debate arguments back on themselves.

Part of that article involved using a “no-god of-the-gap” arguments, asking religious people to answer a series of six questions. The bit below is from my piece:

But we can play the Gap Game, too. There are huge gaps in believers’ understanding of God, and in those lacunae, I claim, lies strong evidence for No God. Here are a few religious gaps:

  • Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer, or stay the waves of tsunamis?
  • Why, if God so ardently wants us to know and accept him, does he hide himself from humanity? And, since modern humans originated over 100,000 years ago, why did God wait 98,000 years before sending his son to redress our sins—and then to only a small portion of humanity within a hundred miles of Jerusalem? Or, if you’re sufficiently sophisticated to see God not as a bearded spirit but as The Ground of All Being, why isn’t that Ground obvious to everyone?
  • Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant such punishment? Official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you eternal immolation in molten sulfur. That’s unconscionable. And would a loving God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?
  • Why is God in the Old Testament such a narcissistic bully, toying with people for his amusement, ordering genocides in which innocent women and children are killed en masse, and demanding the death of those who work on the Sabbath? How does that comport with the God that Christians and Jews worship today?
  • Why didn’t Jesus return during his followers’ lifetime, as he promised?
  • How do any believers know for sure that their faith is the right one, especially given the presumed penalty for guessing wrong?

Now I didn’t think that these questions would flummox more “sophisticated” believers, but they were designed to plant doubts in the minds of the more open-minded believers, or of those on the fence, and help them realize the intellectual vacuity of Abrahamic religion.

And, sure enough, six years later a Christian came out of the woodwork, emailing me a long screed yesterday giving his answers to the questions above (the writer is a man). To be fair, the guy spent a lot of time on the answers, even quoting the relevant Biblical passages. But the email turned out to be too long to post here.

Instead, I’ll just show you how he answered  three of the questions above (they’re in bold below, and stuff from the email is indented). I’ll say a few words (flush left after my initials), and let readers respond. I have the writer’s complete email with the answers to the other three questions, and will be glad to send them—without the sender’s name—if you’re interested.

If you respond, please be polite: the gentleman did, after all, have my salvation in mind. But be as hard-nosed as you want in the answers. Afterwords, I’ll inform the sender of the comments on this site so he can see the responses.  I have of course eliminated the name or any identifying aspects of the sender; the point here is to address arguments, not “out” a believer.

Here we go, with the sender’s words indented, with all words exactly as sent: typos and other errors are the sender’s.

In this article from 2014 you said that no theologian could provide credible evidence to the “gap” in believers understanding of God. I have a rebuttal to your six gaps. I know it will probably not change your mind about a thing, but if anything I hope that it enlightens you to the fact that some Christians will research and formulate comprehendible arguments. If it means anything to you know this; even as a stranger, i sincerely do hope that you will think about these things and I care enough about your salvation that I bothered to do this for you.

Q) Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer, or stay the waves of tsunamis?

A) This question is easily answered by the most simplistic Biblical concept there is. Loving God=freedom for people, freedom=choice. Humanity chose to rebel against God and the consequences is separation from God=death(Gen 3). God holds all things together (Pslm 75:3)therefore going against him, rebelling, sinning and going our own way leads to death(Rom 6:23). He dwelt among us in the garden which was perfect and God(Gen 1:31) (Gen 3:8) and kept all things Holy, once His presence left death and decay gripped all creation. Satan is the accuser, the liar, the murderer of the human family(Jn 8:48) who holds the power of death(Heb 2:4). Because of his pride he first rebelled against God and has sinned from the very beginning(1 Jn 3:8), and he uses that very same pride today to get people to not believe, masquerading as an angel of light(2 Cor 11:14) making sin look fun and beautiful, lying that we will not die for disobeying God (Gen 3:4). The key is though, that God has been using redemptive work ever since the days of Noah (Rom 8:21). All of the Biblical story points to Jesus and how it is God’s plan to save us from the punishment and judgement of our sins by becoming a perfect man (Heb 9:11) fulfilling all of God’s law and dying on the cross, rising again to bring us to life through him (Jn 6:40). So the all loving God was able to make a way for anyone that believes in the Son to live forever by reconciliation with the Father again(Jn 3:16) (Rom 10:9).

Suffering is a permanent sickness for the earth until we go to our true home, heaven (Rom 8:18-26). Even Jesus was not exempt from suffering. It is used as an instrument of obedience. As Wayne Jackson from The Christian Courier says ” all sunshine and no rain creates a desert”. We use suffering as a means to bring glory to God by persevering, enduring, and to become patient, compassionate, loving, kind, and yes even joyful which are all qualities God desires to see arise out of us from trials. The child that gets cancer has hope, hope in Life with Jesus eternally (Matt 19:14). The tsunami victims have hope if they cry out to God to be saved (Pslm 34:17). God also promises we are not alone during life’s trials(2 Cor 1:3-7)(Heb 4:16). Jesus told us that in this fallen world we would suffer but he has overcome the world(Jn 16:33) so we can overcome the world through him( 1 Jn 5:5). Life is not all about the materialistic. There is another life beyond this. Plus God can heal providentially with medicine, wisdom for the doctors, and for the complex design of the human body and immune system are all ways he can work through natural law. It is foolish to think that if God created the world that all of the resources we have available are not created by him either. Who would understand it better than the one who created it all? With no God, cancer consumes the child and they have no hope, no more life, just a cruel and unfair “chance” that is uncontrollable and uncalculated in an uncaring universe.

JAC:  Here the blame falls on humans and (naturally) Satan, with God unable or unwilling to intervene to stop natural evil. Humans, of course, were responsible because Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit, damning all their descendants to both moral and natural evil. Note that, unlike theodicy of “moral evil,” in which humans do bad things to other humans as an undesirable but necessary product of free will, free will here invoked only once: on the part of Adam and Eve. (You can’t invoke free will for stuff like cancer and tsunamis, which do not have any capacity to choose freely. Neither, of course, do we, but here we see the critical importance of libertarian free will in Christianity. If our “choices” are all determined by factors we don’t control, the whole explanation above collapses.)

Note, too, the Mother-Teresa-like concentration on suffering as a way to glorify God. This is barbaric. “The child that gets cancer has hope in eternal life with Jesus”? Not if the kid is too young to know about Jesus, much less accept him as a savior! And what about tsunami or accident victims that don’t have time to cry out to God to be saved? After all, as the writer said in another part of the email:

Not being baptized does not necessarily mean you will go to hell. Observe the thief on the cross. All he did was repent and that was last minute(Lk 42-43)! We all have been blessed with time to repent and come to Jesus(2 Pet 3:9). Then through acceptance of him, the Holy Spirit leads you to the decision of baptism and repentance(Matt 3:11)(Acts 13:24).

Not if you meet a sudden and unpredictable death, much less if you’re of a faith that doesn’t worship Jesus as the savior (e.g. Islam or Hinduism)!

Finally, if medicine and doctors are all products of God’s wisdom, why was He so late to bring antibiotics to our attention? Or, for that matter, why doesn’t he heal those cancer-stricken kids himself rather than rely on methods that aren’t always reliable? Why is suffering abated in some children but not others? But we must drop these questions and pass on.

Q) Why, if God so ardently wants us to know and accept him, does he hide himself from humanity? And, since modern humans originated over 100,000 years ago, why did God wait 98,000 years before sending his son to redress our sins—and then to only a small portion of humanity within a hundred miles of Jerusalem? Or, if you’re sufficiently sophisticated to see God not as a bearded spirit but as The Ground of All Being, why isn’t that Ground obvious to everyone?

A) He is hidden, or veiled, away from humanity because He is too Holy to be looked at without humans dying (Ex 20:18-20). He has revealed himself through His Word from which he spoke to prophets and patriarchs through dreams and visions and messengers (angels) see (Pslm 147:19) (1 Sam 3:21) (Isa22:14). Also creation displays God’s attributes and wonders and God is evident through all creation (Rom 1:20)(Pslm 19:1-2). In fact, we bear the image of the Almighty (Gen 1:27) and, God’s people also bear fruits that can only come from the holy spirit(Jn 15:16) which reveals a transformation that is visible for all to be recognized as coming from God(Matt 7:16) which shines a light for others to see (Matt 5:16). He also revealed himself through His Son Jesus (Jn 14:9) who was fully God and testified all that we need to know about God in our present state, more shall be revealed later, in eternity we will have all the answers we have ever sought(Pslm38:15). Jesus even says that there are some who would be unbelieving even while seeing (Jn 5:43-47),(Jn 20:29)(Jn 6:36).

Finally, we are to seek God with all our hearts, minds and strength humbly and confidently (Jer 29:13), (Matt 6:23), (Duet 4:29). God’s timing is His own and his ways are not our ways(Isa 55:8), the reason he waited was because everything had to be fulfilled perfectly for his redemptive plan (Matt 8:17), (Jer 33:14), (Acts 7:17), just as we are waiting now for Christ’s return (Jm 5:8). The area that He chose was foretold in prophesy (Pslm 130:8), (Rom 11:1-5) and the milage sure didn’t seem to make a difference for the spread of Christianity. We are now reconciled to Isreal from all nations and peoples who call on His name, great multitudes (Eph 2: 11-18) (Rev 7:9). Why is the ground not obvious to everyone? Because of our hard hearts. Our idolatry. Our carnal desires that we will not give up to taste and see. Our rebellious nature(Ezek 12:2)(Pslm 53:12). Seeking our own ways(Isa 53:6), inventing our own gods and following the god of this age(2 Cor 4:4)

JAC: First of all, several humans in the Bible (e.g. Moses, Abraham, etc.) did see manifestations of God without dying. But what I was talking about here was not a vision of God as a person, but the absence of well documented miracles these days when they were so frequent in Biblical times. (This is a question I discuss in Faith Verus Fact, even including the kind of miracle that would make me a provisional believer.) In the end, the writer expects us to accept God because the Bible says that there’s a God, and the Bible is TRUE. This is another instance of “begging the question” in the correct sense: assuming what you want to prove. The writer has no evidence that the Bible, as opposed to gazillions of other scriptures that make contradictory claims, is the truth.

Which brings us to the last question this Christian tries to answer.

Q) How do any believers know for sure that their faith is the right one, especially given the presumed penalty for guessing wrong?

A) How we know for sure that our faith is correct is that our God has revealed himself (Isa43:12)(1 Cor 4:1)(Duet 29:29)(Ezek 20:5). This was achieved by signs and wonders, prophets, his Holy spirit, his Word, his promises that have been fulfilled(Jos 21:45). No other God is like Him who created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1)(Col 1:16). No other “god” has ever or will ever be able to prove themselves and have faded and passed through the ages, but the word of the Lord endures forever (1 Pet 1:25). So therefore, if someone in a monotheistic religion believes all of this about the one true God, then they must believe Jesus is who he said he was (1 Tim 2: 5-6). If not, they are calling God a liar and the entire Christian religion is false. If Jesus didn’t create the New Covenant through his death and resurrection, then that means we cannot be reconciled to God. We would be stuck having to atone and sacrifice for our own sins which we would all fail at and be lost forever.

My point is Christians can be confident their faith is the right one through faith in Christ, the other religions are not even confident enough to know if they are saved or not! Even the most devout among them still question whether God will have mercy on them based on their actions, which still might not even be enough for salvation no matter how good they have been. But there is a contradiction: if God has revealed himself then how can one not know what God wants from them to be saved? Even better, how does any other religion have a superior way to salvation than God dying in their place for them? Trusting that Jesus is the way is how to be sure your faith is right(Jn 14:6). Jesus is Divine. Jesus is God. And to deny him is to deny God (1 Jn 2:23(Luke10:16).

JAC: Here we have more question-begging. We know that Christianity is the right faith because the New Testament says so, and the Bible must be true. If you doubt the Bible, you “are calling God a liar.” I’d put it more gently: the Bible is the word of humans, not of a god. The second paragraph assumes that we all want salvation, but some religions, like many kinds of Judaism, don’t believe in or expect an afterlife.

Oh hell, I’ll put in one more question and just a snippet of the sender’s response, just to show that he sees homosexuality as a sin:

Q) Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant such punishment? Official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you to eternal immolation in molten sulfer [sic]. That’s unconscionable. And would a loving God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?

A) First of all let’s get one thing strait: all sins are punished(Rom 5:12). Not just homosexuality but also lust, idolatry, murder, greed, selfishness, fornication, adultery, hate, theft, lying, idolatry, and blaspemers. No one is good, there is not one(Pslm 53:3). We all have weakness(2 Cor 12:9). Now this is considering that these sins are not repented of that we receive the punishment. . . .

Final thoughts [from the sender]:
• How, after fierce opposition and persecution to the early church, did Christianity spread so rapidly by so few men, with such little resources and survive 20 centuries and is still the biggest religion? Why risk your life and families life for something that is false, and why do so many people suffer for the name of Christ but are still zealous and faithful?

JAC: Lots of people have risked their lives and families for religions that this sender claims are false. QED

• The biggest humanitarian and philanthropic movements in history are influenced and supported by Christians and the church and some examples are: The Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, World Vision International, Samaritans Purse, Water Missions International, Feed the Children, ect. Also most addiction services and many hospitals and nursing homes are started in the name of Christ with Christian values and ethics as their mission statement.

JAC: Do I need to point out that the argument above says nothing about whether the tenets of Christianity are correct? At best it says that belief in Christian tenets can motivate some people to do good. The same holds for the tenets of many faiths.

• Some of the most influential historical figures that have impacted society and made for a better life include: Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo Da Vinci, Mozart, William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr, ect.
Ect. indeed!  I won’t bother to list the many historical figures or organizations who were Christians and did bad things. As the physicist Steven Weinberg famously said:
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”

An Easter homily by Peter Nothnagle on the “Empty Tomb”

April 12, 2020 • 12:15 pm

JAC note: A bit more than two years ago, I made available to readers a Jesus-themed essay by reader Peter Nothnagle, whose day job is helping record early classical music. His essay, “Jesus: Fact or Fiction,” comprised a talk he gave to the to a joint meeting of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Iowa City and the Secular Humanists and the Secular Students at Iowa. It came down on the side of Jesus being “fiction”, and here is its summary:

I conclude that the figure of Jesus was invented by one faction in a diverse religious landscape in an effort to create an “apostolic succession” of authority – “our priests were taught by priests that were taught by followers of Jesus Christ himself, in person”. But even if I’m completely wrong about that, it is undeniable that the only evidence that exists for a living, breathing, walking, talking Jesus is weak, contradictory, or simply fraudulent. Therefore no one can be justified in believing that such a person existed.

That essay has since been substantially revised and updated, and you can read it and download it here. It was very popular and inspired a lot of argument on this site.

Today we have a special Easter homily written by Peter seven years ago and also recently revised. It deals with the “miracle” of the empty tomb, and proffers a number of explanations that are purely naturalistic, even if you do believe that there was an empty tomb. It’s a good read for nonbelievers on this Easter Sunday, and I put it here with Peter’s permission. He invites readers to suggest their own explanations.

And, without further ado (Peter added the cartoon):


The Empty Tomb

Peter Nothnagle, July 17, 2013, revised Easter Sunday 2020

“So how do you explain the empty tomb?”, the Christian asks, assuming it’s a stumper.

According to the Gospel accounts, some of Jesus’ friends and relations (the different versions of the story conflict with each other on this and many other rather important details) visited his tomb two days after his execution (or three days, according to the Gospel of John), only to discover the seal broken, the stone rolled aside, and no body. They were informed, variously by the gardener, an angel, etc., according to which version you read, that the occupant had somehow gotten up and left. This evident miracle is a cornerstone of the Christian faith — who but a god could have pulled it off?

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. The story of the empty tomb is not evidence of a miraculous resurrection from the dead. The story is not evidence in support of the claim, it is only the claim. And the closest thing we have to an original source for the story is the anonymous Gospel of Mark, which was only written down after a whole lifetime had passed. The other gospels, written even later, take great liberties with Mark’s account, and elsewhere in the New Testament the epistles of Paul don’t count at all — Paul’s Jesus seems to have been some kind of celestial being who never even came to earth, and whose death and rebirth took place on some spiritual plane.

In order to believe something so amazing as a days-old corpse coming back to life, we’d better have some really good evidence. A reliable first-hand account by a non-Christian, written down at the time, would be good — like if we had a letter written by one of the soldiers guarding the tomb, which started with “You’ll never believe what happened at work today!” Of course we have nothing of the sort. Evidence might be provided by archaeology, although what that might be, I don’t know. After all, an empty tomb is not out of the ordinary (I’ve seen lots!). Since the Christians are accepting of miracles maybe they could produce something more unequivocal, like a first-century video recording of a body that had obviously been dead for several days coming back to life. That might be persuasive. You object that video technology wasn’t available in the first century? But mere humans invented video recording all by themselves — if there’s a god involved, and this god really, really wanted us to believe, you would think that this god could do it too.

A really strong piece of evidence that Jesus had overcome death would be if he were still among us all these centuries later, but we are told that he was beamed up to heaven the day he was resurrected (Mark 16:9,19; Luke 24:13,28-36,50-51), or maybe it was forty days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3,9). So whoever wrote the stories conveniently incorporated an excuse for why that most persuasive evidence no longer exists.

The only evidence we do have for the resurrection is of the very worst kind — a single fantastic story by an unknown author who didn’t even see it himself, writing from an unknown location at an unknown time for an unknown purpose. Some contradictory retellings (the other three Gospels and Acts) were written even later. All these accounts are preserved only as unreliable copies of long-lost original sources. If we are supposed to believe that anything so, well, unbelievable as the resurrection truly happened, this isn’t the way to convince us!

Christians often address this lack of evidence by saying that there is virtue in believing the story on faith, and that God knows that clear and compelling evidence would take away our capacity to choose freely to believe. Of course, according to the story itself, Jesus didn’t have a problem with demonstrating his resurrection to believers and doubters alike. Also, as a thought experiment, imagine what would happen if someone really did discover a first-hand account of the resurrection written by an actual eyewitness. Would the Christians still deny the importance of clear and persuasive evidence? I suspect not. So the emphasis on the value of accepting the story on faith sounds a lot like an excuse for the lack of evidence, not an explanation for it.

The Christian challenges us to come up with a better explanation for the empty tomb than the miraculous one he accepts on faith. It comes down to a choice between two possibilities:

  • One: An unseen, unevidenced, all-powerful being somehow reached down from His celestial abode, reversed the effects of shock, dehydration, blood loss, and trauma, which were so devastating to a human body as to cause death, and also reversed the effects of days of decomposition, to make a dead man come back to life, with enough of his faculties restored to be able at least to walk and talk (even though, at least according to one account, his body still bore fatal wounds).
  • Two: There is any other explanation which fits the paltry evidence, which is in keeping with what we know about the laws of physics with no miracle required. One such explanation might be “people make up stories”.

If any Christian still wants to pose the question “how do you explain the empty tomb?” as a gotcha for the atheist, let me see if I can think of anything more likely than divine intervention. The best explanation will fit the elements of the story while requiring the fewest additional factors for which we have no evidence. [I suppose I betray my bias when I point out, one last time, that we don’t actually have to explain the evidence or facts, because there are none to explain — we know nothing except what’s claimed in the fantastical Gospel of Mark.]

Off the top of my head, here are ten explanations for the story of Easter morning, A.D. 33, that are all much more likely to be true than the story that Christians believe:

  1. It’s pure fiction, a wholly made-up story fully in keeping with timeless story-telling traditions, having no basis in fact.
  2. Dying-and-rising savior god myths and traditions were common all around the eastern Mediterranean at that time, and this is one of them.
  3. It’s an allegory created to illustrate some theological point, possibly for some esoteric “mystery cult”, in the manner of Masonic rituals today. It wasn’t originally intended to be taken as actually true, but its hidden meaning has been forgotten over the centuries.
  4. The Romans really did execute a first-century itinerant prophet, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave as befitted his social status, the location of which was quickly forgotten. However, as legends about him grew over several generations, the one about his missing body arose and was eventually written down.
  5. There really was a Jesus, but when his followers went to anoint the body they went to the wrong tomb, and, finding it empty, jumped to the erroneous conclusion that he had risen from the dead.
  6. There really was a Jesus, one of whose followers, the wealthy but eccentric Joseph of Arimathea, had Jesus buried in his costly family tomb. But Joseph’s family intervened and got rid of the body, possibly having Joseph put in an asylum to prevent further outrages. Note that Joseph, who should have been a hero to the early Christians, is never heard from again in the Gospels.
  7. There really was a Jesus, some of whose followers removed his corpse from the tomb to a secret location, there to await his expected miraculous return to life. Unfortunately for them, he stayed dead, so they either kept quiet about it, letting the rumors swirl, or they started the resurrection stories themselves to cover their embarrassment.
  8. The local authorities removed the body from the tomb to prevent Jesus’ followers from making it a focus of veneration or unrest, kind of like how Stalin had Hitler’s body destroyed, or the Navy SEALs dumped Osama bin Laden’s body in the ocean.
  9. There really was a Jesus, but he lived and died in the ordinary way, and in order to add weight to his teachings, his followers invented stories of signs and miracles to add to his life story.
  10. It all happened more or less as described, but Jesus was a visitor from another planet, whose people removed the body from the tomb using their advanced technology.

Of course, until we can say for sure if anything happened in the first place, there’s little reason even to speculate about how it happened.

See http://articles.exchristian.net/2004/04/easter-facts-quotes-and-quiz-for-you.html for chapter and verse.

Ross Douthat’s dumb Easter theodicy: what is the “meaning” of the pandemic?

April 12, 2020 • 11:00 am

If you knew that Ross Douthat was religious, or even that his faith was Christian, but didn’t know what brand, you’d know by the end of his new column that he was Catholic. And indeed he is, for at the end he invokes the Hornéd One, aka Beelzebub.  In other words. . . SATAN.

After going through all the reasons why we’re having a pandemic, even under the watch of a benevolent and powerful God, at the end Douthat defaults to Old Nick. Such belief in Satan as a real “being” is inherent in Catholicism. Even the supposedly liberal Pope Francis accepts Satan—and the driving out of his demons via exorcism.

It is pathetic that a paper like the New York Times publishes this kind of drivel, ridden with explicit acceptance of supernatural beings. And now. . . SATAN? Yes, the paper strives to publish all points of view, but why so many op-eds expressing the point of view of deluded religionists lacking evidence for their beliefs? Where are the columns by “nones” and atheists? After all, we’re now about 25% of the population, so for every three religious columns there should be one expressing nonbelief.

But I digress. Read Douthat in one of his wonkier pieces, dilating on theodicy and meaning-making:

The point of the piece, of course, is how to reconcile the pandemic with Douthat’s Catholicism.  Now we have familiar answers to this kind of theodicy: free will (for moral evil), balancing the scales in the afterlife, testing people, and so on.  But none of these deal adequately with the issue of physical evil, like the pandemic or earthquakes, in which good people meet their ends. Nor do they explain why people who have never had the opportunity to sin, like small children, often suffer horribly: getting cancers and other diseases and, in poorer parts of the world, malaria, eye diseases, and starvation. The unanswerable question for believers is this: why would a powerful and loving God allow this to happen? It is in fact the inability to answer that question that cost Bart Ehrman his faith.

Douthat runs through the usual litany of answers for “sophisticated believers”:

1.) There is an explanation, but we don’t understand it. That doesn’t wash because the same people who say that seem to understand a whole lot about God.

2.) The “ministry of healing” of Jesus, as well as of those who care for the sick, show us that God is “loving” and tells us “where to find his presence today”. That’s hogwash as well, for if one concludes anything from pandemics and the pervasiveness of suffering (in animals, too), God isn’t loving at all but either indifferent or sporadically cruel. Further, because you don’t have to be religious to help people (most scientists racing to find vaccines and medicines are nonbelievers), finding helping behavior doesn’t say anything about God’s presence.

3.) “It is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.” If that’s the case, who would want such a vocation? I thought that the major benefit of religion was it’s ability to provide people with explanatory schemes.

4.) “Suffering may be a gift to the righteous, given because their goodness means that they can bear more of its hard medicine, its refining fire.” Is that the “gift” of the Holocaust? What a stupid thing to think!

No, the existence of things like this pandemic testifies, if you’re religious but honest (an oxymoron?), to the idea that God is pretty much of a jerk. And the responses of god-enablers to show why He isn’t forms a sad commentary on the willingness of people to be duped.  In fact, to many nonbelievers, this kind of suffering is clearly a result of natural selection—in this case on the virus to propagate its genes. Earthquakes? The result of plate tectonics. The nonbeliever, in fact, is in a much better position than the believer to understand suffering, for we have credible explanations.

But none of those explanations have an extrinsic “meaning”. Christopher Hitchens exemplified this when he got throat cancer, and briefly pondered the reason. And then he said this:

To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply “Why not?”

Douthat, though, argues that even atheists must make meaning out of these tragedies.

This need is powerful enough that even people who officially believe that the universe is godless and random will find themselves telling stories about how their own suffering played some crucial role in the pattern of their life, how some important good came from some grave evil. And it’s a need that religious believers must respect and answer: We can acknowledge the mystery, with Martin and Wright, while also insisting that in their own lives people should be looking for glimpses of a pattern, for signs of what a particular trial might mean.

And indeed, we are meaning-making beings, and many of us try to find some good in the pandemic. And there is good in people’s responses and behaviors—so much good that it often brings me to tears. Every time I see a nurse or doctor decked out in full anti-virus regalia, my eyes get moist. For I am seeing true biological altruism: people risking their own lives without hope of reproductive gain.

But for atheists there is no “mystery”. The pandemic is here because of biology and evolution. If there is a “meaning” to the tragedy, it’s one we confect ourselves post facto. And who among us would argue that the world is better off with the pandemic than without it? Did we need this “trial”? We can surely learn lessons from the pandemic about how to prepare for the next one, and perhaps there is a calculus somewhere that, in the end, tells us that fewer lives will be lost with the pandemic than without it. I have not heard that argument, but even if it were true that is not the “meaning” of the pandemic—it’s the result.  And surely you can’t say that about all physical evils. What is the “meaning” of earthquakes that kill so many people? That now we can prevent them? What is the meaning of the Holocaust? So we can prepare and stave off the next one? For that we lost ten million people?

Douthat believes we have an “obligation” to discern and interpret the meaning of the present moment—of this pandemic. Agreeing with the Dominican theologian Thomas Joseph White, Douthat believes that we must figure out what the pandemic tells us “about ourselves, or about God’s compassion and justice.” (Of course he never entertains the idea that perhaps there is no God, and that everything would make a lot more sense under that hypothesis.) And so the hapless Catholic comes up with his Easter Message in the time of the virus:

Asking these questions does not imply crude or simple answers, or answers that any human being can hold with certainty. But we should still seek after them, because if there is any message Christians can carry from Good Friday and Easter to a world darkened by a plague, it’s that meaningless suffering is the goal of the devil, and bringing meaning out of suffering is the saving work of God.

I’ve read the last sentence several times, and am not quite sure what the sweating columist means. It’s pretty clear that he does believe in Satan, but it’s not clear what Satan’s role is. You could say that physical evil is the product of Satan, and it’s then the goal of believers to find the good side, and the meaning, of that evil. (But why would God allow Satan to do stuff like this?)

Alternatively, you could say that physical evil is part of God’s enigmatic plan, and Satan is delighted if we can’t make sense of it, and so, like Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffry, we must “counteract the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.” That is, we vanquish Satan by finding meaning.

To make his own meaning out of the pandemic, Douthat must not only accept the existence of God and his alter ego Jesus, but must also drag Lucifer into the mess. How much easier to dispose of that whole mythology and see suffering as the inevitable result of a materialistic world—one in which suffering is often an inevitable outcome of natural selection!  Yes, we must, as humans, try to find some good in the bad, but that doesn’t mean finding some pre-existing, externally imposed “meaning” to suffering that, in the end, it would be better to have avoided.

Atheists don’t have to go through the mental contortions of believers like Douthat. But then our own answers—which happen to be the right ones—don’t get published in the New York Times.

h/t: Bruce

More dumb theodicy in the New York Times

March 22, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Even though the New York Times is full of advice about how to take care of yourself during the pandemic, it also brings in a Jesuit priest, Fr. James Martin, to deal with the issue of theodicy, as you can see from the title of his piece in today’s paper (click on screenshot to read):

The paper identifies Martin as “a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication and the author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” And of course he raises the inevitable question—what I call the Achilles Heel of Abrahamic religion: “why is there natural evil?” Why would an omnipotent and loving God suddenly snuff out thousands of lives for no discernible reason? (We atheists don’t need to ponder that question, for the answer is simple: there is no God, and viruses evolved by natural selection to propagate their genes, killing our cells and fostering their transmission between people to do so.) Martin’s a Jesuit, so he’s not dumb, just canny:

The question is essentially the same that people ask when a hurricane wipes out hundreds of lives or when a single child dies from cancer. It is called the “problem of suffering,” “the mystery of evil” or the “theodicy,” and it’s a question that saints and theologians have grappled with for millenniums. The question of “natural” suffering (from illnesses or natural disasters) differs from that of “moral evil” (in which suffering flows from the actions of individuals — think Hitler and Stalin). But leaving aside theological distinctions, the question now consumes the minds of millions of believers, who quail at steadily rising death tolls, struggle with stories of physicians forced to triage patients and recoil at photos of rows of coffins: Why?

. . . The overall confusion for believers is encapsulated in what is called the “inconsistent triad,” which can be summarized as follows: God is all powerful, therefore God can prevent suffering. But God does not prevent suffering. Therefore, God is either not all powerful or not all loving.

To his credit, Martin disposes with the answers that suffering is a test (“Does God send cancer to ‘test’ a young child?”) and that suffering is a punishment for sin (ditto).  But then he punts:

In the end, the most honest answer to the question of why the Covid-19 virus is killing thousands of people, why infectious diseases ravage humanity and why there is suffering at all is: We don’t know. For me, this is the most honest and accurate answer.

This answer always baffles me. For if you don’t know why God does horrible stuff, or allows horrible stuff to happen, or fails to prevent horrible stuff, how on earth do you know that God is all-powerful and all-loving? Indeed, how do you know there’s a God at all? If you say “revelation tells me”, then why can’t revelation give you the answer to the question of natural evil? (The answer to that, of course, is that there is no such benevolent and powerful God, and you can’t fabricate a convincing reason if you think there is.) And if you respond, “The order and goodness of existence tells me there’s a God,” well, you’ve just contradicted yourself, for existence isn’t that orderly and good.

So, instead of giving an explanation, Fr. Martin suggests we just look to Jesus, even though the good Father has no more knowledge of Jesus or his motives than he does of God and His motives.  Yes, the benighted priest says that because Jesus was a healer, too, in looking to Jesus we are looking at a model for how to treat the sick and how to be compassionate even towards the dying. Because, after all, Jesus was that way.

And so we get this pathetic circumlocution to avoid questions of theodicy:

Christians believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Yet we sometimes overlook the second part. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a world of illness. . . . “A case of the flu, a bad cold, or an abscessed tooth could kill.” This was Jesus’s world.

Yeah, and a world of dead people too, whom Jesus was able to bring back to life. Sadly, doctors can’t yet emulate that. And so here’s our model:

. . . in his public ministry, Jesus continually sought out those who were sick. Most of his miracles were healings from illnesses and disabilities: debilitating skin conditions (under the rubric of “leprosy”), epilepsy, a woman’s “flow of blood,” a withered hand, “dropsy,” blindness, deafness, paralysis. In these frightening times, Christians may find comfort in knowing that when they pray to Jesus, they are praying to someone who understands them not only because he is divine and knows all things, but because he is human and experienced all things.

Except for coronavirus! But let us pass on. . . .

But those who are not Christian [JAC: If you’re not a Christian then in all likelihood you don’t think Jesus worked miracles, much less did what the Bible says he did!] can also see him as a model for care of the sick. Needless to say, when caring for someone with coronavirus, one should take the necessary precautions in order not to pass on the infection. But for Jesus, the sick or dying person was not the “other,” not one to be blamed, but our brother and sister. When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was “moved with pity.” He is a model for how we are to care during this crisis: with hearts moved by pity.

So THAT is the answer? Be compassionate? Do we really need Jesus to teach us this? As far as I know, there are plenty of atheists out there on the front lines, with hearts moved by pity. They are risking their own lives to help others. They are altruists, and they don’t demand the fealty that Jesus did. These are real people to see as models, not some fictionalized rabbi whose deeds are, at best, dubious, and who may not even have existed.

The fact is that we don’t need religion or Jesus to give us an example of how to behave. Simple empathy or even humanistic philosophy is a better guide. After all, Jesus also counseled people to leave their families to follow him, and surely that’s not what Father Martin wants us to do in these trying times.

Yes, look to the doctors, the nurses, the healthcare workers, the ambulance drivers, and others of their species to be models “for how we are to care.”  We don’t need a fictional Jesus-Man to show us how to act. We already know how to act. In fact, the Euthyphro dilemma tells us that our compassion isn’t really modeled on that of God or Jesus, for we see Jesus’s supposed acts as good because they were good before Jesus even existed.  Jesus didn’t invent compassion; rather, we see Jesus as compassionate because his behavior conformed to behavior that was considered good long before he supposedly lived.

And I’d say this to Jesus, too: “Since you’re actually God as well as the son of God, you’re fricking responsible for this pandemic. Why on earth should we use you as a model for anything?”

I hate to say it, but this article is a crock, and doesn’t do credit to the NYT. Even the admission that we don’t understand God’s ways doesn’t qualify it as serious theology. It is a waste of column inches.

Father James Martin from Korean Wikipedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Another Jesus relic goes down the drain

March 21, 2020 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: Greg found the debunking paper from J. Archaeological Science Reports (Science got the name wrong), and a judicious inquiry will land you the paper.


I’m about to start reading the book below, which was published on March 1 and was kindly sent me by the author, Andrea Nicolotti, a professor at the University of Turin: specifically “Professor of History of Christianity and Churches”. That’s ironic because, according to Andrea, the Shroud of Turin is a bogus relic—something that most people acquainted with the evidence have realized for a while. As Andrea wrote me:

There is no evidence that the shroud comes from the time of Christ. On the other hand, there are three major contrary proofs: 1) the historical documents, which points to the 14th century (that was showed for the first time by a serious French historian more than 100 years ago); 2) the radiocarbon analysis, which points to the 14th century; 3) the study of the type of fabric, which points to the 14th century. Obviously these three arguments are ignored or manipulated by believers in authenticity. In my book you will find a detailed discussion of the historical matter (point 1) and the story of the C14 radiometric dating (point 2). I have also published an in-depth study about the type of fabric, but in another book (point 3)—unfortunately only in Italian. In the book you will receive I can’t go deeper into all the scientific aspects, because it remains a history book. In any case, I know all the literature about the argument, and if you will have any doubts on some issues I can provide you with the bibliography.

It’s a long book—524 pages—but I’m looking forward to finally seeing all the arguments collected in one place.

As the cover says, the Shroud is “the world’s most famous relic” (at least of Christianity), but another famous one has just bit the dust, at least according to Ann Gibbons’s new article in Science (click on screenshot). Her piece recounts a new analysis published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a journal I can’t access through my library.

It’s a short piece about what was thought to be the “Nazareth Inscription” a Greek inscription on a piece of marble acquired in 1878 by a curator at the Louvre, and left behind with a note that the stone “came from Nazareth”. The Greek inscription is an “Edict of Caesar” that threatens death to anyone who robs the grave that the marble presumably topped.

Naturally, Biblical scholars—often faithheads who want to prove the truth of the Bible rather than question it—took the curator’s note and the inscription to mean that, yes, Jesus himself was in that tomb. The article, says epigraphist (one who studies inscriptions) John Bodel of Brown University, was “considered by many Biblical scholars to be the oldest physical artifact connected to Christianity.”

Well, rational people should abandon that view, according to the new article in the journal by Kyle Harper. Chemically analyzing the marble, Harper showed that it was a close match to the chemical composition of rock from a marble quarry on the Greek island of Kos. That doesn’t rule out that the marble was mined in Kos and transported to Nazareth, but Bodel considers that unlikely.

Further, says Gibbons, other epigraphists argue that the kind of Greek used on the inscription “was rare outside of Greece and Turkey.”

So what is this thing, if not a warning to leave the bones of Jesus alone? Gibbons summarizes the paper’s conclusions:

Based on the style of the inscription and the age of the quarry, Harper and colleagues propose the object was carved in the first century B.C.E. for a ruler on Kos known as Nikias the Tyrant. Sometime after his death in about 20 B.C.E., angry citizens of Kos pried open his tomb and dragged out his corpse, according to an ancient Greek poem.

Then-Emperor Augustus, who knew of Nikias, may have ordered the tablet to re-establish law and order in the region, Harper says, although that inference has not yet been proved. Harper’s team plans to use stable isotope analysis on other Roman and Greek marble artifacts, too, he says. “We want to apply this to other tales.”

And another beautiful idea destroyed by ugly facts.  It’s curious, but not surprising, that every time a bit of evidence offered to support Jesus’s existence is debunked, “Biblical scholars” and believers don’t reduce their belief in a Bayesian way. But when evidence is adduced in favor of Jesus (e.g., they once thought the Shroud of Turin was real because they said it contained pollen from spring-blooming flowers of the Holy Land), they strengthen their belief. This is no way to deal with evidence. But it’s Christianity, Jake!

h/t: Ken


Weekend religiosity

January 11, 2020 • 10:40 am

I bin comments like this one frequently, as they’re from those who have drunk the Kool-Aid and come over here to make us drink it, too.

This time, however, I will put up a believer’s comment, addressed to the “dear atheists here” (we’re also called “simple folk”). Apparently Mr./Ms./Their Dejuss thinks that the metaphor of Russell’s teapot is simply dumb.

I am not necessarily going to allow Marius Dejesus to comment, but I will inform that person to look for responses to this post devoted entirely to the comment.

So, dear atheist readers, you’re welcome to respond to this in the comments. The thesis is that the teapot is a worthless argument and says nothing about the existence or nonexistence of a god. I disagree, but I’ll let you folks take it from here:

[JAC quoted here”:] Most of you have heard of Russell’s Teapot, the hypothetical but undetectable orbiting object that Bertrand Russell used to …

You see, dear atheists here, before anything else, Russell should tell mankind what he knows of the concept of God among peoples who do know God exists, otherwise Russell is not being sincere with his analogy of God to a fantasy in his brain of an orbiting teapot in space.

Now, before anything else, God in concept for Christians, Muslims, and Judaists, God in concept is the creator cause of the universe and man and everything with a beginning.

So, Russell if he is really a sincere investigator of the existence of God, in concept as the creator cause of the universe and man and everything with a beginning, he should attack the concept and then show that in concept God is contradictory even just in concept, so God cannot exist, owing to the concept being intrinsically contradictory, like for example, an invisible pink unicorn.

You see, atheists here, because Russell knows that he can and does hoodwink simple folks, he gets away with making fun of God, and simple folks think that he is very rational with comparing God to an orbiting teapot in space.

What he is doing is misrepresenting God to make fun of God, but there is nothing of any rational argument at all, with analogizing God to an orbiting teapot in space.

If he is sincere, he should instead attack the concept of God, namely, that God in concept is the creator cause of the universe and man and everything with a beginning, that is what Christians and Muslims and Judaists know about God, namely, that in concept God is the creator cause of the universe and man and everything with a beginning.

So, atheists here, please attack this concept of God, no need to bring in analogies like orbiting teapot in space, flying spaghetti monster, invisible pink unicorn – they are all straw men, or evasions from the issue itself, Does God exist or not, in concept as the creator cause of the universe and man an everything with a beginning.

And also, dear atheists, you can attack the religious practices of Christians and Muslims and Judaists, you see, you are not into God’s existence but into adverse critique of religion(s).

So, dear atheists, you are factually into anti-religion, but not rationally into the argument that God does not exist, God in concept as the creator cause of the universe and man and everything with a beginning.

A bad argument for a good cause

January 6, 2020 • 8:30 am

I originally called this post “Lying for Jesus,” but that’s not quite accurate since the church that posted the sign below (seen on a walk in Hyde Park yesterday) may really believe in the virgin birth.  What bothers me about this sign is that it uses a delusion to prop up a good cause. (Actually, two delusions: the existence of a wonder-working Jesus figure, and the claim that he was sired by God). Also, it’s somewhat hypocritical since the Bible condemns homosexuality in other places.

Of course, this is cherry-picking scripture, for the Bible also contains homophobic phrases that have long been the basis for Christian opposition to gay behavior, gay marriage, and so on. To wit (all from the King James translation):

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. (Leviticus 18:22)

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)

For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. (Romans I:26-27)

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind. Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). 

Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Timothy 19-10). 

It’s not smart for religionists to justify gay marriage—or homosexuality in general—using scripture. Although it’s well meaning, and the church above is on the right side of morality, this kind of scripture-based argument is hoist with its own petard.  What would Pastor Hill say if I quoted Leviticus to her?

The NYT’s Christmas sermon: Jesus presented as real

December 24, 2019 • 12:45 pm

The op-ed piece below, which is the most prominent article in today’s New York Times Opinion section (top right of webpage), is an example of how religious delusions get mainstreamed, simply by being presented as if they were incontestably real. (Note: the piece isn’t the paper’s opinion, but they decided to publish it.)

The author, Peter Wehner, is a conservative Presbyterian who works at a right-wing think tank and served in the Reagan administration as well as both Bush administrations. He’s also a contributing opinion editor for the Times, and seems to come up with a faith-osculating piece every Christmas (here’s 2018‘s and 2017‘s), as well as various other kinds of apologetic palaver (e.g., here, a piece that I criticized).

His homily for 2019 (click on screenshot below) is a sermon on the misunderstanding of “the power of Jesus.” And the paradox lies in its title: Christmas is supposed to “humble” us, but who has more hubris than a man willing to state in the New York Times that the entire Jesus story—complete with the Incarnation and the actual words Jesus is quoted in the Bible as speaking, really happened?  Wehner is not using Jesus as a metaphor to guide our behavior, but as a real-life person who was the son of God.

Wehner’s message, though long-winded, is simple, and summarized in the first four paragraphs:

If you were wholly unfamiliar with the life of Jesus and listened only to what many Christians in America say today, you could be forgiven for thinking that the most important thing Christianity values is worldly power — the power to control and compel, to impose one’s will on others, to vanquish one’s enemies. Blessed are the politically powerful and the well connected, you might assume, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The birth and life of Jesus shatter this narrative. Those of us of the Christian faith believe that Christmas Day represents the moment of God’s incarnation, when this broken world became his home. But it was an entrance characterized not by privilege, comfort, public celebration or self-glorification; it was marked instead by lowliness, obscurity, humility, fragility.

The circumstances of Jesus’ birth “were calculated to establish his detachment from power and authority in human terms,” wrote Malcolm Muggeridge, a 20th-century British journalist who converted late in life to Christianity.

That could be said not just about Jesus’ birth but also his entire life, which was in many respects an inversion of what the world, including much of the Christian world, prizes.

Well it’s a good thing that Wehner is deeply familiar with the life of Jesus—as recounted in that work of fiction known as the Bible—so he can pile Jesus’s episodes of humility atop one another. “Blessed be the meek”, footwashing, rich men seen as camels straining to go through a needle’s eye, etc., etc. Jesus held no worldly power: indeed, as the 2000-year-old novel tells us, he was destroyed by people with power, the Romans.

So Wehner tells us the locus of God’s real power, to wit:

.  . . strength that is not coercive, domineering, prideful and self-seeking but rather compassionate, sacrificial, humble and empathetic. God’s power, perfected through our weakness, makes us instruments of mercy, seekers of justice, agents of reconciliation. It helps us see the world in a different way.

Well, he doesn’t mention that God also has the power to cast people into Hell if they don’t believe in Jesus, for, as Jesus told us in the Big Novel, the only way to the Father was through him. God as a tyrant is constantly on display in both Old and New Testaments. But let’s not emphasize that on this Christmas eve!

Like most liberal religionists, Wehner’s essential message is a humanistic one: be good to each other, support each other, and help those less fortunate than we are. I have no quarrel with that. What bothers me is that he draws these messages from the Jesus story, and tells the Times‘s readers that the whole kit and kaboodle, as presented in the New Testament, really happened.

I wonder how the Times editors would react if some author presented the theology of Scientology, complete with Xenu, thetans, and nuclear weapons, as if it were all true, and then used it to draw conclusions about how we should treat our fellow humans. (After all, Scientologists claim that they’re all about helping humanity.)

Of course we’ll never see a column like that, for Scientology is a new religion and it’s palpably clear that its “theology” is pure hokum. The only reason Christianity can be presented as real, and as a support for morality, is that over two millennia its fictional background has become so widespread that it doesn’t seem ridiculous. But it is, and Wehner makes himself a figure of fun by presenting an Iron Age Paul Bunyan as a real character.

Nicholas Kristof still struggling about whether he’s a Christian; queries evasive evangelical writer

December 23, 2019 • 11:30 am

For some reason that I don’t understand, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has published column after column in which he asks theologians and other religionists about what they really believe. Do they believe Jesus was resurrected? Did he really perform miracles? As I wrote about his last column in April:

For a long time, New York Times op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof has been interviewing religious people, struggling to somehow buttress his Christianity.  He’s written a number of columns in which he asks religionists and church leaders if he, Kristof, is really a Christian (see herehere, and here), for, like any sensible person, he has doubts about the miracles that underlie Christianity, and about concepts like the efficacy of prayer, heaven, and hell. He wants to be a Christian but is having problems. I think he’d be better off as a secular humanist (he holds a number of appealing liberal views), and that would also save us from the spate of tedious columns about religion flowing from his pen.

And indeed, the people Kristof interviews, like former President Jimmy Carter, usually disavow any literal belief in the foundational tenets of Christianity, like the Resurrection, but still consider themselves as Christians because somehow the whole fictional story resonates with them. But doesn’t there has to be some acceptance of Christian truths to call yourself a Christian rather than, say, a Muslim or Hindu?

Kristof is the soul of politeness in these interviews, but often, as in this week’s Q&A with Philip Yancey—a well known evangelical Christian writer who has sold 15 million books in 40 languages—Kristof is persistent in his questions. The upshot is that he shows these people for who they really are: glib but confused souls who can’t quite sign on to the literality of the Jesus story, but who somehow still think it’s true—and truer than other faiths that have equally assertive and dubious scriptures.  Yancey’s simultaneous skepticism and certainty should, as Hitchens said, be met with mockery and contempt. I intend to proffer some.

But not, of course, from Kristof, who’s still finding his way through the thicket of theological mendacity. Click on the screenshot below to see an enormous waste of column space:

Look how Yancey evades Kristof’s questions about Jesus’s virgin birth. (After the first exchange, Kristof’s words are in italics, Yancey’s in regular type):

KRISTOF Merry Christmas! And let me start by asking about that first Christmas. Do you believe in the Virgin Birth? Doesn’t that seem like one of those tall tales that people tell to exaggerate an event’s significance?

YANCEY I’m smiling at the question. A hundred years ago, the Virgin Birth was considered so important that it made the list of five “fundamentals of the Christian faith.” Nowadays, with in vitro fertilization, virgin births are old news. For me, the issue centers not on the mechanics of reproduction but rather the nature of Jesus. In the Incarnation, God’s own self came to earth as a human. I wouldn’t pretend to guess how divinity interacted with human DNA, but that’s the mystery the Virgin Birth hints at.

Here Yancey is completely evading the issue. Mary’s virgin birth occurred when she was not only a real virgin (well, at least a young woman), but certainly when she HAD NOT BEEN INSEMINATED BY A HUMAN.  That is not the case with in vitro fertilizations, where human sperm is required.  In vitro fertilizations are not “virgin births” in the Biblical sense of the word.

Note how quickly Yancey moves from the question Kristof asks to asserting that the virgin birth is really about the nature of Jesus. And while the godly writer is not certain about whether the Virgin Birth was real as most evangelicals understand it, and doesn’t “pretend to guess how divinity interacted with human DNA”, he’s dead certain that Jesus was the incarnation of God.  How does he know this?  Presumably because the Bible says so. But the Bible also says that Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Here we see some judicious cherry-picking by an evangelical.

Yet in the next exchange, Yancey implies that there really was a virgin birth, and it wasn’t due to in vitro fertilization. For one thing, there was no vitro back then.

KRISTOF So it’s no longer such a big deal? I can say that I doubt the Virgin Birth without whispering?

YANCEY It’s only a big deal if you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, as most Christians do. Otherwise you have a different mystery: How did the child of two simple villagers end up changing history more than anyone before or since?

Here we have a Lewis-ian claim that if Jesus wasn’t the Son of God, he couldn’t have changed history. Ergo he was the son of God, and if he was the son of God, and the literal son of God, there must have been somebody who impregnated Mary. After all, Jesus wasn’t haploid, and if he was the result of Mary’s fused eggs, he would have been a woman (XX chromosomes).

Yancey then evades the issue of theodicy, saying he “has no solutions” to Kristof’s questions about why God raised Lazarus but not dead children. Yancey’s solution is apparently that all will be made good in the hereafter: “Believe me, the hope of resurrection means something when you’ve just lost your child to a school shooter.” Well, yes, the hope means something if you believe in a hereafter, by why should we believe it? And Yancey, who seems to know so much about God, doesn’t know why He permits natural evils to occur at all.

Yancey goes on to verbally circumvent questions about miracles:

KRISTOF I also wonder: In embracing miracles, don’t we reject our own rationality? In my travels, I’ve met all kinds of faith healers who claimed to make the lame walk or the blind see. I don’t believe them — and I’d be even less likely to believe accounts that were written six decades after the fact by someone who had never met the healer (like the accounts in the Gospel of John). Why be skeptical of eyewitness accounts of U.F.O.s but not of Gospel accounts written decades later by people who weren’t even eyewitnesses?

YANCEY: Most scholars believe that eyewitnesses such as Matthew, Peter, John and Mary were major sources for the Gospels’ accounts. That said, I agree with your main point. Miracles are overrated as a basis for faith. Jesus’ disciples, who had seen miracles, all deserted him at his hour of greatest need. Jesus himself refused to perform miracles on demand, to impress the doubters. Most of them came about as a compassionate response to a needy person.

It seems strange to me that we keep wanting God to intervene in the material world. God is spirit, and all the great masters emphasize instead that we need to learn spiritual disciplines to commune with God.

Look at that first bit: Yancey claims that the miracles were real because the Bible says so, but then agrees as well that “miracles are overrated as a basis for faith.” Well, if you’re an empiricist and not a superstitionist, miracles are required for faith. But since Yancey’s a superstitionist, he simply says that you can see miracles but still have doubts—a position that doesn’t come close to answering Kristof’s question. And if we keep wanting God to intervene in the material world, well, maybe that’s because the Bible says he did—over and over again, and in both the Old and New Testaments. Why should we suddenly give up theism? God may be “spirit”, but to be a theist, as Yancey and his followers are, you have to think that God can intervene in the world.

Kristof then poses the devastating “Why does God hate amputees?” question, since God heals only those diseases that sometimes show spontaneous remission. He doesn’t replace missing eyes or limbs.

Again Yancey won’t answer the question, but moves to something else:

KRISTOF: . . . I note that people claim cases of miraculous cures where there is room for ambiguity, such as cancer going into remission. But prayer never seems to help an amputee grow back a limb.

YANCEY: George Bernard Shaw is said to have wryly observed that although he saw crutches and wheelchairs at shrines of healing, he saw no artificial limbs, glass eyes or toupees. Jesus did not come to earth to solve all our problems. In person, he affected only modest numbers of people in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. But he set loose a movement with the mission of bringing the good news of God’s love across the globe.

I’m not sure whether the Shaw quote was apocryphal, but I did find Anatole France asking the same question (and answering it); I discuss this on p. 117 of Faith Versus Fact. At any rate, note how Yancey gets around Kristof’s question by saying that “Jesus did not come to earth to solve all our problems.” But the question remains: why does Jesus (or his saints) only cure those diseases known to remit spontaneously? Once again Yancey evades, and fails has to answer why Jesus solves only a subset of our problems. And he still doesn’t tell us why Jesus waited thousands of years after humanity existed before appearing to only a small subset of people in the Middle East.

You’ll be amused to see how Yancey gives credit to evangelical Christians for curing AIDS, but I’ll leave you to read that for yourselves. Finally, in his final end run, Yancey evades the question of Hell. Does God really want those who don’t accept Jesus to fry forever?

KRISTOF: Yet evangelical tradition suggests that non-Christians burn forever in hell.

YANCEY: Jesus didn’t mince words when he talked about judgment, yet in his parable of the sheep and the goats he declared that we’ll be judged on how we treated those who were hungry, imprisoned, sick and in need of clothes and hospitality. Interestingly, he spoke of actions, not doctrine.

The more I know Jesus, the more I trust him as merciful and am content to leave questions of the afterlife in his hands. I like the depiction of hell in C.S. Lewis’s fantasy “The Great Divorce”as simply a place for those who choose against God, and it may well be an ongoing choice.

So Yancey now accepts what C. S. Lewis said instead of what Jesus said?  For remember that Jesus says this, too (John 14:6): “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

This, and other verses, are the basis for the bedrock Christian doctrine that unless you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you are simply not going to Heaven.  If there’s any doctrine that defines Christianity, it is that one. But Yancey circumvents the whole issue by saying “I trust Jesus as merciful and am content to leave questions of the afterlife in his hands.” That’s contemptible, for Jesus already said that those who don’t accept him will burn in hell. In what sense is Yancey “content”, then? Is he content to think that, according to Jesus’s wisdom, billions of Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and non-Christian believers are going to suffer eternal torments? 

Kristof, while asking good questions, doesn’t push Yancey very hard here, more or less accepting his answers. But Yancey’s answers are non-answers: just one evasion after another. It sickens me to see this kind of palaver (Yancey’s, not Kristof’s) portrayed in the New York Times as some kind of respectable belief. And Kristof still won’t give up and become a secular humanist, which is what he should be.