I Don’t Believe in Jesus

Magellan

This is the newest rage…and by people far less intelligent than Magellan.  (FTR, I support Magellan, Galileo and Copernicus)

Just go onto any social media outlet and you’ll find people clanging the cymbals of disbelief.  And not just disbelief in general (for which there may be justifiable cause) but disbelief in Jesus, his actual historical existence.  Magellan disagreed for sound reason.  Today, people disagree because they don’t WANT to agree…baseless disagreement and decisions abound.

Pseudo-intellectuals that want to sound smart and flex their post-modernism resound uniformly, “I Don’t believe in Jesus.”

Like this is the new popular belief that all the cool kid’s hold…cool kids who are not experts in history, Jesus or modes of belief…hell, people who hardly read a book or if they do its Richard Dawkins lite.

This very phrase was actually used in a recent conversation I had with someone that should know better.

After I spoke about my very historical trip to the Middle East and some of the reasons for going, out of nowhere this phrase comes flying in, as if from a resident twitter atheist, “I Don’t Believe in Jesus.”

I mean, what does that even mean?  What are you expressing when you say that?  Cause when I hear that, without any kind of qualification, I immediately ask myself, “which part of Jesus do you not believe in?”

And then things become drowned in the absurd.  The illogical leap is made from the presumed, “I don’t believe in the Divinity of Jesus,” (which I understand and am willing to discuss) and quickly devolve into the “I don’t believe he EVEN EXISTED?”

Seriously?

In our collective attempt to sound enlightened or flex our autonomy from the strictures of the Bible belt, let’s not look stupid.  We can be critical thinkers without being idiots.

Let’s be clear: those that deny that Jesus even existed are on shakier ground than those that believe all the dogma about Jesus ever contrived.  There is simply no warrant for disbelief in the historical personage of Jesus other than the ideological preference for his non-existence (and thus not having to deal with his historicity…I digress).

Like anything else, if we hear others say it, and we tell it to ourselves, we can eventually believe the most ridiculous things…things like saying Jesus wasn’t even born.  That he never walked the earth.  And that all the people who heard stories and read stories of this figment of our imagination were equally duped into retelling them.

Now, we can debate the nature OF his birth.  We can debate the PURPOSE of his life.  We can discuss his ROLE in the historical plane of the 1st century.  We can even debate his HUMANITY and its relation to God, but we cannot debate that he was born, had a purpose (we all do), had a role and he was a human that made sense of his life within the drama of God (if you don’t think about your life like that fine, but most 1st century Jews did…this part is called history for those of you wanting to make historical statements about Jesus not ever setting foot in history).

So how do we know?  What are our sources?

First, there is the Bible.  I know I know.  The Bible.  It’s a book ridden with fairy tales, myths and absurdities.  I agree.  It is.  But so is your life and mine.  Deal with it.

We cannot discount the Bible based on the logic that all literature therein is of a singular type.  The Bible is NOT A BOOK.  It is a compilation of many books.  Think of it as an anthology.  As such, it is comprised of many TYPES and KINDS of literature.  Some of this literature is poetic.  Some is mythological.  Some is historical.  Some is hyperbolic.  Some is biographical.  Some is personal, like letters.  Some is apocalyptic, etc.  Therefore, we cannot reduce the content of one type of writing in one part of the anthology because writing in other parts includes things like talking asses and floating ax heads, stories shaded as much by theological intent as by the event itself.   This means that the literary character of  Genesis 1-11 or parts of the loosely historical books can logically discount the content of the Gospels.

The Gospels are our primary source for information about Jesus especially that he existed.  The literary type that is the Gospels was basically brand new in the 1st century but its closest of literary ken was Greco-Roman Biographies.  These biographies included three elements usually: a birth narrative, a life with work and pivotal moments of significance and a narrative of death.  Greek biographies were not synonymous with “lies” or “myths.”  They addressed real historical people and attempted (with some literary freedom) to interpret that life for their audience.  T

This literary genre was in no way synonymous with what we today know as fiction.  Thus, the nature of the Gospels as writings indicate that the kernel with which they deal is real and historical and this not even mentioning the striking historical accuracy of geography and Jewish custom found in the Gospels.  In addition, there is diversity of witness about Jesus in the Gospels, yet in this diversity is a singularity of a historical personality: Jesus of Nazareth.

Further, there is an entire field of research that deals with issues pertaining to the “historical Jesus” and scholars that participate in that endeavor range from fervent believers in his divinity to fervent detractors of anything about Jesus that has to do with “saving” the world.

Yet, what they all agree on is that Jesus did EXIST and the Gospels offer us clues to the more or less accurate details of the life of Jesus.  The literature here is too dense to describe here in detail, but if you are so inclined a quick googleing of “historical Jesus” will bring up enough sources to remain occupied for a lifetime.  There you will find the criteria for why parts of the gospels may be more or less historical, how that criteria is judged, and the implications of this research.  I recommend, for a juxtaposed study, to begin with Dominic Cross and John Meier.  They disagree on everything, but they both believe as historians that Jesus existed.  One believes Jesus was resurrected; the other thinks he bodied decayed like all bodies but he lives on metaphorically in Christians…so you get the drift.

Secondly, we have the Apostle Paul.  I know I know.  He wrote the “Bible” so that makes his letters a bunch of lies and myths.  Humor me for a minute.  He didn’t write the Bible.  He wrote letters that came to comprise large portions of the New Testament.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we have the earliest extant Christian reference to the last supper.  Paul writes,

“ For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;  and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”  In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

This is important because Paul is writing about an event that presumably took place, historically, and the events of that night were passed on through oral tradition.  The Gospels have not been written yet when Paul writes this.  Paul says this in a letter.  Paul’s Letters, while theological, were not fictitious rehearsals of history.  We can debate Paul, his theology and anything else you want, but what cannot be debated is that Paul in a very personal letter to a real historical church mentions an event that was remembered to have happened with Jesus and his disciples even before that event was recorded in any Gospel.  Oral history does not equal fiction.  While this passage obviously carries some Christian dogma, the kernel of the event remains tucked inside.

This passage alone, and its authentically Pauline character, gives reason for most scholars to say that the Last Supper, along with Jesus’ Baptism and death, are THE three most historical moments in the life of Jesus that can be explored by the unbiased critical historian.

Secondly, we have extra-biblical sources that testify to his existence.

The most notable source is Josephus, a Jewish historian during the time of Jesus’ life that kept history for the Romans, traveled with their armies, and who never believed on Jesus or his teachings.  Josephus writes this,

“About this time arose Jesus, a wise man. He drew to himself many; and when Pilate, on the indictment of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not cease to do so, and even to this day the race of Christians, who are named from him, has not died out.” (Antiquities 18.63-64)

This is a reconstructed passage that takes out agreed upon Christian interpolations of Josephus’ writings.  In fact, there has been a lot of ink and keyboards spilled on scholarly opinion regarding Josephus’ statement about Jesus but the central idea that Jesus lived, was killed and had followers, is virtually agreed upon by all scholars as authentically Josephus.

Josephus has no reason to play into the make believe fantasies of Christians.  He has no reason to reinforce the idea that Jesus lived.  While his writings are not free of historical error, he is widely held as an authoritative voice in Roman history and his work, especially writings free of ideological content as the above.  Josephus, at this point in his work, simply mentions “Jesus” as one who was also killed by the Roman empire at this time and that people who followed him are still called Christians.

That is history.  That is an event of some kind.  That is a real historical person whether you like it or not.

Josephus, however, is not the only extra-biblical source that confirms that Jesus existed.  Roman historian and Senator, Tacitus, also mentions Jesus aka “Christ” in his writing.

He notes

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”  (Annals Book 15).

Tacitus was not alive during the time of Jesus (Born in 55AD) but he was also not known for perpetuating falsehoods.  As a Roman historian and Senator he would have taken his work seriously and would have only recorded what he knew was of definitive importance and accurate.  Tacitus’ mention of Jesus, or his posthumous personage “Christ”, demonstrates the existence of one Jesus and his followers.

I could continue to offer other Roman authorities or very early Christian sources that would also continue to provide these historical centralities: that Jesus was born, lived, was killed by the Roman Empire and continues to have followers.  Time would fail me and this blog would bore you more than it has already.

We can say many things about Jesus.  We can debate a lot about him.  We can disagree on his nature or if Christianity is a total waste of time.  But what cannot be debated is that Jesus was a real person.  He lived.  He existed.  He taught people.  And he was executed.  Just because you don’t want to follow him doesn’t mean you should make yourself look foolish by denying his existence.  The former can be a respectable choice; the latter, a childish outburst to deal with your daddy issues.

You don’t have to believe what the church says about him but church dogma and historical existence are two different things.

So when you say, “I don’t believe in Jesus, “ at least think about which Jesus you don’t believe in because the historical Jesus is one that you disbelieve at your own discretion and at the display of your own ignorance.

Heaven Doesn’t Matter

Yellow (gold) Brick Road, heaven doesn't have one of these, but I'm sure you'll need the high heels to dress for the occassion

Yellow (gold) Brick Road, heaven doesn’t have one of these, but I’m sure you’ll need the high heels to dress for the occassion

I mean who does care about heaven?

We care so much about heaven we speak of it as often as we speak about hell. (see my previous post Why the Hell does Hell Matter? wherein I describe the banality of this idea more academically than my approach here to heaven)

Equally we spend as much time trying to keep people out of hell as we do get them into heaven…makes me wonder if we really believe in either one. We spend precious little time doing either.

At least I’m honest about this. Why keep giving attention to irrelevant concepts that don’t help me love, live and embrace beauty around me?

These are theological buzz words that define your camp. They are not words that mean a damn thing for any of us when we start each morning.

Heaven, and its corollary hell, are nice ideas in church on Sunday, but when I’m running my business, playing with my kids, talking with my wife or hanging out with my band of brothers, heaven and hell might as well be the man on the moon. Is he there and if he is do any of us care?

A friend of mine likes to say that most Christians are practical atheists and Christian only by confession. I think he’s right. Heaven and Hell are ideas we feel the need to acknowledge but nothing that constitutes our attention daily.

By practical atheism he means that we do not really embrace, or incarnate, a theocentric worldview, one that would rely on the deity for our very sustenance.

To the contrary, most of us live very secular lives for very secular reasons. We just participate in religion because we are scared of the man upstairs. We are scared of the opposite of heaven…and because there is a “hell to shun, there is a heaven to gain.”

Yet this idea of shun and gain, has little import on how our worldviews are constructed or how we attempt to orchestrate divine responses from the heavens.

We no longer NEED it.

We know God doesn’t really supply our food. Dirt, water and agro-manipulation allow us to eat. God doesn’t shelter us from the heavens. Our air conditioned and heated homes do that. God doesn’t bring the rain. Weather patterns of the globe bring us rain. Etc.

I could continue the list, but generally speaking we are all practical atheists because we can be, and when our atheism runs dry or hits a space of unknown geography, our God comes in handy. We then give him control by saying he’s in control, but in reality, we will practically live into tomorrow as we have lived into today: very independently, ideologically and self-sufficiently.

We believe in Moses and manna from above, but not that much.

Our lives are NOT centered on these grandiose eschatological schemes any more than our lives are centered on other solar systems. They simply do not matter. And neither does heaven or hell.

Just because we think we have to believe in something, doesn’t make believing in that something a constitutional priority over how we regulate our daily activities.

If this were the case, then all the Christians who are consequently good capitalists would quit their jobs and invest in “eternal” matters because the “matter” of matter really doesn’t matter. Right?

At least until Monday morning when heaven doesn’t matter and the material world is more valuable than any hymn we hypocritically sung the previous Sunday morning.

Heaven doesn’t matter, and neither does hell, at least not as much as we think it does.
But they do matter as much as we act upon them, which means never.

As the psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Zizek is quick to point out, we are not the sum total of our beliefs. We are the sum total of our actions because our actions embody what we really believe, even if you want the preacher and fellow cultural Christians to think otherwise.

Heaven doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter, affect, how we live in the world. Maybe we can be good Platonists, or Neo-Platonists, and adopt a bizarre dualism that history challenges with each passing day, but otherwise, heaven doesn’t matter.

(And if it did matter, even a little, I bet it matters to you for wholly different reasons than it mattered to Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t worried about what happened to him.  He was crucified.  Us?  We like our bodies and our souls a little too much than to volunteer them for a cross or the great unknown of the grave.  Buncha Christian narcissists confusing heaven with ideal ego.  I digress.)

But we should take heart. We can be honest about this and not fret the hell fire of a God that lives to be right. We need not worry about a God that longs to be holy and can’t wait to tempt us with neat little things such as trees and gardens, all the while knowing what we will do, so that he can then provide a way of redemption for us, you know, so God can feel good about being God. A prearranged ideal foreordained for the faithful. We need not worry about this or that heaven doesn’t matter.

Why?

Well, because the Bible doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about heaven either.

Heaven is not the reason Jesus came. The coming of God into creation was the reason Jesus came. This seems to be at least a little what Jesus might have meant about the Kingdom of God arriving with him, in him, through him, and remaining after him.

Jesus didn’t spend any time talking about heaven the way preachers today talk about heaven. Sure, go read the Gospels. There are some cryptic sayings one might deduce to be the heaven we all know and love, the same heaven that matters very little on a daily basis, but that is only because we are reading the Gospels through the Book of Revelation.

Guess what? Jesus never read the Book of Revelation and his view of heaven was not redacted with images of Johns Revelation.

Jesus’ idea of heaven was not hijacked by the scariest book of the Bible, one so scary that not even the scariest of Reformation theologians, John Calvin, could write a commentary on it.

Jesus used Jewish eschatological concepts in his preaching and there is very little Jewish theology that would look anything like disembodied spirits floating at the feet of Jesus.

I think of this and I’m reminded of that scene in the Little Mermaid with all the damned souls floating in Ursella’s abyss…only our idea of heaven is the opposite. That’s just weird and if your Christianity makes you believe something like that, go right ahead but it’s not what Jesus came preaching and it’s not consistent with St. Paul either.

But it would make you a good heretic in the early church and that’s pretty cool.

And check this, not only did Jesus not read Revelation for a clue about heaven but Revelation isn’t even about going to heaven!

Seriously, it’s not.

Revelation is about God restoring justice in the world and bringing redemption to the nations. That’s why in this apocalyptic letter the New Jerusalem (the place where God is) comes to us and dwells with us.

We don’t go to it.

Sound familiar? Well it is. Jesus. Incarnation. Gospel of John. Jesus came and dwelt among us.

Revelation is not interested in a literal picture of heaven anymore than heaven matters to us on any given day. Revelation is using metaphor, simile and symbolism to create an apocalyptic vision of what the dwelling of God looks like through the lens of a finite creation.

The Streets are not literal Gold. The gates do not have real gems. The measurement of heaven is not an exact geometric line with plane and circumference.

That’s why phrases such as, “And I saw something LIKE…” or “and it APPEARED AS…” I mean come on people! We get this all the time in movies and books and never take it literal, but when these words are used for the Bible they becomes EXACT?!?

All of these things are simply portrayals of the place where God is and how fantastic that place is when all that is good comes into the realm of all that is wrong, God taking up permanent residence with us in this vision.

John in the Book of Revelation is not interested in talking to us about heaven and hell or the devil or Rosemary’s Baby.

John is interested in giving us the story of God via a unique apocalyptic literary genre that employs Old Testament imagery to tell the story of God in Christ as such unfolds in the face of Empire and anti-christological forces.

Therefore, it is not a map, a literal description or a future prediction. It is a letter to Christians that lived 2000 years ago and needed a good word from their preacher. Revelation is that letter.

I’m sorry you’re reading someone else’s mail and misunderstanding it.

No, I’m not surprised.

So heaven doesn’t matter for us. If it doesn’t help us organize and structure our daily lives or cast us into the world unabated by financial necessities, than it doesn’t matter. It’s a belief we hold out of obligation and guilt, not one we hold because it matters one iota.

If it doesn’t matter for Jesus, at least not the way we like to think of it as evangelicals, than the idea of heaven we hold certainly doesn’t matter because it didn’t even matter to Jesus.

And it doesn’t matter to the writer of the Book of Revelation, chapter 21 being the chapter that tells us EXACTLY what heaven is like. If even the chapter on heaven doesn’t think heaven literally matters…then I guess we are in good company.

It’s OK to be practical atheists and have a faith that doesn’t shape how we live, at least its eschatological contours and end doesn’t enjoin us to act as if it did.

It’s OK to continue living like practical atheists when it comes to heaven. We are in good company. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor the Book of Revelation seems to care much about either.

That’s an abbreviated reason I don’t believe in heaven. The Bible doesn’t ask me to believe it and it wouldn’t matter even if it did because it’s never a matter that mattered anyhow.

I actually like that heaven, and hell, doesn’t matter because now I can be Christian for a plethora of reasons that doesn’t involve saving my own soulish ass.