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Part 3: Answering questions from Christians

February 26, 2014

Continuing with answers to questions emailed in by Christians. Also, see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

Question 1: “How can Christianity be false, when Paul and Peter and most other apostles gave their lives for the things they preached. They had real experiences.”

Answer: The sole accounts we have of their deaths come from the Roman Catholic church tradition (the same tradition that teaches that Peter, the unlettered Jewish fisherman, was the first Pope of the Catholic Church). The gospels themselves or the NT letters say nothing about how or when they died. However they died, people die for their beliefs all the time, including beliefs which originated directly with them. These individuals may even sincerely believe in their own teachings, visions and experiences. Should we believe their claims? History teaches us to be quite skeptical.

Let’s consider a more contemporary example in the founding of the Mormon Church. The martyrdom of its founder and leader Joseph Smith and the sufferings and deaths many of his followers feature prominently in Church’s claims to authenticity. Joseph Smith started his religion as the restoration of a supposedly once pure apostolic faith which has been corrupted by other Christian denominations over hundreds of years. The justification for this were his personal visions of the Father, the Son and the angels that the Church claims were not unlike those of Apostle Paul, who two thousand years before Smith also claimed to have vividly experienced visions of Jesus. In fact, Joseph’s claimed experiences were even greater than Paul’s. There were even many sworn witnesses to back up Joseph Smith’s claims, whose testimonies are printed on the first pages of the Book of Mormon. Smith was killed by an angry mob while sitting in jail awaiting trial on a number of charges, which included polygamy and seeking to set himself up as a theocratic king. Many of his followers were also killed for their faith or suffered greatly. Mohamed also founded Islam based on visions he had experienced and he too was at first persecuted for his new-found religion. Jim Jones founded the Peoples Temple cult based on his visions, and he died in a mass suicide together with hundreds of his followers. Like other founders of religions, he too was persecuted for his faith by authorities (he was under an investigation by the U.S. government for abuses he was perpetrating.)

Question 2: “I have seen people’s lives transform for the better after they became believers. How do I deal with that? Was it all just emotions and fraud?”

Answer: Their transformations, when they occur, were certainly real. My own life was also transformed when I believed in G-d and it is still being transformed. But the changes need not be attributed to any action on behalf of Jesus and they need not be miraculous. In fact, the same transformations happen in all other religions, including Judaism, as spirituality and relationship with a divine is certainly not unique to Christianity. It’s a response to heightened standards of morality and acknowledgement that there’s a higher power. It is unfortunate that many Evangelical Christians believe that G-d only works through Christians like themselves and ignores others (including Christians of the so called “dead denominations”). Since people of other faiths are not “born again” they are “spiritually dead”, according to some of these Christians. They believe that only their lives were supernaturally transformed as a result of their faith, while all others are languishing in spiritual mediocrity and worldliness. And when people of other faiths do accomplish great things or fundamentally better their lives and conduct, they do so in their own strength. But if these Christians were ever to talk to non-Christians who are faithful to their religions, they would hear of transformative experiences much like their own.

Question 3: “What about the letters of James, John and other New Testament writings? Were they all Paul’s? Which ones are reliable?”

Answer: Biblical scholars tell us that Paul’s letters preceded all other writings of the New Testament, including the gospels. Some letters traditionally attributed to Paul are believed by many scholars to have been actually written by others after Paul’s death, but in his name (e.g. Ephesians, Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, First Timothy, Second Timothy and Titus.) Nobody really knows who wrote the book of Hebrews and even to whom. Scholars also doubt that the books attributed to Peter (the “unlettered” Galilean fisherman of Acts) were actually written or dictated by him, not only because of the cultured quality of Greek they display but also because they reflect Pauline theology. In effect, while Christianity is based on the person of Jesus, Paul is the founder of Christianity as we know it today and most of Christian theology, practices and world view (including its view of Judaism, the Law and the Jewish people) is based on Paul’s writings (who wrote thirteen of the twenty-seven books in the NT).

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