Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Talking With Skeptics

This is a letter I sent to a skeptical friend:
I don't know about you, but whenever the world stands on the brink of total war, I like to distract myself by discussing theology with a self-described "asshole" atheist. I repeat, self-described! But really, we might agree on 90% of issues... economic, political, social, probably even ethical. But mention religion in a positive manner, and he'll pounce. I'm fine with that. Both as a Christian and an inquiring mind, discussion/debate/engagement with non-believers is cathartic and obligatory.

I say obligatory because Peter, the first of the Apostles to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, writes, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." While we were neither gentle nor respectful, I think that was just mutually understood as the nature of our conversations. This writing can be called a brief apologia, from the ancient Greek meaning "in defense of." Christian Apologetics is a branch of theology that attempts to form a rational basis for Christianity.

To be specific in the passage above, the "hope" that Christians have is that we will be resurrected to live with God in the afterlife, and the "reason" we believe that is because we know Jesus rose from the dead Himself. Yes, I do believe that a man named Jesus (a Latin-English adaptation. His native name in Aramaic/Hebrew was Yeshua/Yehoshua, which more directly entered our language as Joshua. It means, "God is Salvation") walked in Palestine in the early first century. This man preached to the Israelites in a confused, bitter time with nationalistic anger brewing against the Roman occupiers (It was like a prototype for Zionism). Jesus convinced pockets of Jews (and Gentiles, too) that He was the Messiah for whom they waited. Of course, as a nation, they rejected Him as Messiah and sent Him to die as a blasphemer, which was, ironically, His misunderstood mission in the first place. Between Jews and Christians, there have always been debates about whether the Old Testament predicts an atonement of sins by the Messiah through self-sacrifice. Isaiah 53 is the most contentious passage, perhaps.

I hope I have shown to you over the months that I do think deeply about all issues. Reason is paramount in my philosophy. I concluded that Christianity is provable beyond a reasonable doubt (which is what I told you, since it is ridiculous to think that God can be proven to exist like a math equation). In fact, I have never had a "religious experience" of the embarrassing kind we know today. An honest reading of the Apostles' work actually shows that they believed whatever miracles they were performing would die with them (when the Church was an established force).

There are literally dozens of issues that we could address. However, I will focus for now on some essential points: Two predictions Jesus made that turned out to be true (one being a historical fact, the other, I believe, to be provable beyond a reasonable doubt). Followed by an outline of various Christian eschatologies (how Scriptures say the world will end) with some critiqued.

Besides John, the other three Gospels all mention a speech Jesus gave outside of Jerusalem called the Olivet Discourse in which He predicted to His followers the devastation that would befall Israel in the coming years, and indeed it did. The Romans totally obliterated Jerusalem, killing and exiling the Jewish nation, which continued until modern Israel was being formed. The reasons for this punishment: The four centuries between the last Old Testament writings and Jesus' ministry saw the Israelites turning away from God, creating divisions amongst themselves, adding so-called "Oral Law" to the Scriptures (which then became the basis of post-Christian Judaism, codifying all the Oral Law into the Talmud), adopting pagan doctrines from the surrounding world, and, of course, the final straw: The rejection of their Messiah.

The fact that these accounts so vividly and accurately describe the fate of Jerusalem has been used by skeptics to argue that they had to have been written AFTER the 70AD siege.

There are some problems with that assumption. If we say the accounts were in fact written after the Jewish revolts, and therefore were not available before or during, then we are saying that the people of the early Church accepted writings that just appeared out of nowhere after the siege it claimed to predict! This is quite absurd. When coupled with the history that Christians began fleeing Jerusalem when the Jewish revolts began in the late 60's AD is further evidence that they were warned to leave because a calamity was coming. It would only make sense that the Gospels were written and accepted after the siege if Christian leaders were teaching it beforehand anyway!

The second claim of Jesus' for which He was vindicated is that He would be resurrected. I know that seems like a ridiculous claim to you. However, what I was trying to convey to you is that insisting the resurrection did not happen reveals numerous problems which are impossible to explain away.

For example, women are the first to discover the empty tomb and alert Christ's grief-stricken and beaten down disciples. Now imagine today how a bunch of men would treat women who are telling them something thought ridiculous. Probably exactly as they treated the two women, scoffing at them. But amplify that 2000 years in the past. Josephus, the Jewish historian, writes: "From women let not evidence be accepted because of the levity and temerity of their sex." It's a weak start to a faith that proclaims itself the whole and only truth.

Then there is the insistence on the irrelevance of divisions in economic and social stature, nationality, and race, which were even more deeply entrenched in those times. Jesus had already described a reaction to classist abuse (That's mine! Read it!)) and now His rejuvenated followers were preaching a message of grace with equal and universal opportunities and ramifications, but again, that it was also the whole and only truth. Again, not a pro-growth factor for a sham of a religion.

Third, the fact that this radical philosophy was coming out of the Israelites would not help proliferate the faith. Consider the Jewish people. Their ethnicity is based not primarily on blood per se, but a bloodline of a family given a promise. There are maybe two dozen subtypes of Jews in the world who have become meshed into the society in which they reside. I do not jest, there are Chinese Jews. Their blood can be wildly different, but trace them back to Abraham, Isaac, and David, and they consider each other kin. So, in Jewish views, the world is us (Jews) and them (Gentiles). Eskimo, Filipino, Danish or Haitian, we are all Gentiles, and they are the chosen people. Not that I'm denying that they were indeed the chosen people. But as much as people spout off the concept of a "chosen people," few ever consider exactly what purpose they were chosen FOR. They were supposed to be a light to the world and through their Messiah show humanity the one true God, which would usher in a pleasant afterlife (in Hebrew: olam haba, "the world to come."). However, they failed, not because they are Jews, but because humans are helpless and hopeless before God's character. The Jewish covenant was negated when Jerusalem was destroyed, and the job of proliferating God's word went to the Gentiles themselves, who learned from the remnant of Israel that did follow their Messiah.

So anyway, Rome already regarded Judaism as a crock, so a radical messianic sect proclaiming a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy would have no advantages. It was violently suppressed as it came roaring from Jerusalem to Europe. So the final factor I'd like to point out is the notion of a Jewish savior who demanded His Jewish followers tell the Gentiles that they witnessed the proof of religion and they must surely join with them! It begs to fail. (As a sidebar, Jerusalem's Jewish Christians (the Judaizers) began demanding that Gentile converts be required to adhere to the entire Torah (613 laws in all as traditionally counted). This includes circumcision (Whaaaat? I know, right). That is exactly what would drive converts away. In the Book of Acts, however, many of the Apostles met in Jerusalem to discuss the situation, eventually coming to an agreement that Gentile converts need only to follow certain laws.)

You may think they are crazy, but the only two options are these: Some very strong hallucinogenic was introduced to some of the population of Jerusalem for weeks after Jesus was crucified. On top of that, everyone had the same hallucinations at the same time. When the Jewish court "tried" Jesus, He was asked, "Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God." The other option is that His response is the truth: "Yes, it is as you say."

Now, a quick outline of eschatologies. There are four main systems for interpreting Biblical prophecy: Idealism, Historicism, Futurism, and Preterism. I will ignore Idealism because it is irrelevant to today's events. Historicism considers the Book of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) to be referring to the struggles of the Church throughout history. It was the view of the Puritans and other Calvinist colonists as they set out to make a better world. Futurism considers the Revelation prophecies to be in the future. Some also consider the Olivet Discourse to be chiefly about the end of the world rather than the fall of Jerusalem. Preterism comes from the Latin word for past and holds that most prophecy about wars and terrible trials were fulfilled in the first century with the fall of Jerusalem. Most Preterists consider the only things in our future to be the Second Coming and the Resurrection. Preterism is the view I hold, diametrically opposed to Futurism, which I believe is dangerous and heresy. So I will focus on Preterism vs. Futurism.

Weaving in with these wider interpretative systems are views about the millennial reign of Jesus described in Revelation. There are three views: post-millennialism, pre-millennialism, and a-millennialism.

Post-millennialism holds that Christianity will gradually dominate the world and things will get better until a golden age is reached, after which Christ will return. This view fits with Historicists and Preterists, but I consider it a pipe dream because the world is falling apart at the seams.

Pre-millennialism says that Jesus will return before millennial reign and set it up on Earth for a literal thousand years. All pre-millennialists are futurists since the Kingdom is yet to come, according to them. There are two strains of pre-millennialism. The first is mild, called Historic Pre-millennialism, and says Jesus will simply come and set up the Kingdom on Earth.

At last, we reach the most dangerous of these eschatologies: Dispensational Pre-millennialism. These are the crazy Christian Zionists who think the anti-Christ is coming and want war, war, war because that's what their theology says is necessary for the Second Coming. This view, less than 200 years old, divides God's dealings with humanity into divisions called dispensations. They believe that God is not finished with His dispensation with Israel and the Jews will gain their promised Earthly Kingdom near the end of history and into eternity.

I won't go into the Biblical minutia of why this view is so flawed further than this: In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus repeatedly says that "This generation" will see all the calamities that He is describing. You'd think this could be enough for people to accept that the speech concerns Jerusalem and not the end of history, but these dispensationalists try to wiggle around and say the Greek word for generation can mean "race," as in the human race, or that He could be talking about some future generation. Of course, this is cleared up elsewhere when Jesus says "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death..." Pretty clear to me.

It's a shame, too, because the Olivet Discourse is such a powerful argument for the truth of the Gospels and the claims of Jesus and His zealous followers, who marched straight into death to proclaim this message.

So that leaves us with the final view, a-millennialism, which is mine. It meshes in perfectly with Preterism. The millennium is symbolic for the Church age, with Jesus reigning right now. History will end out of no where, all at once, and will be witnessed by the whole world. All these futurists who try to predict or "nudge" the Second Coming closer, and divide it into separate events, are guilty is some blasphemy I would say. Number one because they declare that humans have to "do" something for God to fulfill His plans. And also because Jesus proclaimed: "No one knows about that day or hour [of the Second Coming-Jimmy], not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

That's a good start, I think. Look forward to your thoughts.
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