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The Message of Jesus

09/24/08 | by [mail] | Categories: faith/skepticism

A friend asked me what I thought of the message of Jesus. Here's my response:

If Jesus had a single coherent message, it was "Repent, for the Kingdom of God/Heaven is at hand." Jesus (assuming he really said it) probably meant it just like all the other apocalyptic preachers of the time. He meant that God was going to restore the glorious kingdom in Jerusalem and right all the wrongs Israel had endured. He was dead wrong, of course, and things got worse for the Jews rather than better. Later Christians read different ideas into his words and we can probably assume they selectively passed on his sayings to support their revisionist interpretations. Now the Kingdom means the church or the second coming or heaven or something else. There's not even a consensus of what it means.

He spoke in riddles and parables and again there's still disagreement about what some of them mean. Seems like he could have taught more clearly if he really had something important to convey. That was his one chance at direct contact with humans. Pretty unimpressive.

Once you look past the kingdom talk and the unclear stuff, there are some good ideas. Pride and hypocrisy are bad, especially in religion. Forgiveness and peace. Sharing of wealth. Love. Reciprocity. Nothing groundbreaking or original, but certainly some ideas that any humanist (secular or otherwise) can appreciate.

But the core of his message was just wrong. There is no Kingdom.



What do you think of the message of Nietzsche?

Tim [Visitor]09/25/08 @ 17:01
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/09/25/08 @ 17:04

if you are going to talk about Christianity, and you tell me you were a ’so called’ preacher, then you better expect to hear some scripture. I did explain God you ignorant man, it is through faith. You decided to leave it, that is your fault.

nathan [Visitor]http://nathannairn.blogspot.com/09/25/08 @ 17:49

you can write me off as a crazy fool if that is what you want to do. Faith goes beyond what Logic can Reason, you can’t deal with God on a logical level alone. All religions need faith, and logical ideas are then established on that faith. Sorry you don’t get it man or person(?), that is just how this religious system works.

nathan [Visitor]http://nathannairn.blogspot.com/09/25/08 @ 19:29

I don’t know that I agree that Jesus’s message about the “kingdom” is a Zionist one (at least if we assume Jesus’s message is more or less what is attributed to him says in the gospels).

I think, in particular, of Luke 17:20-22:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”

But also of all the passages in Matthew where Jesus seems to describe the Kingdom of God is described as more about life on earth that continues into, but is not even primarily located in some apocalyptic moment.

Even in the “Repent” sermons of Jesus which do exist, the message seems very much the opposite of a heralding of the return of the Davidic monarchy, but rather, an announcement of a terrible judgement against Israel. The fig tree will be burn up, the wicked tenants will be destroyed, the king will return and destroy those who have been disloyal…

I agree that the idea of the Kingdom of God in evangelicalism is sometimes too focused on ushering people into the hereafter when Jesus prayed that it would be reality “on earth as in heaven.” But I don’t think you can say that the Jesus of the canonical gospels meant to establish Himself as an anti-occupation revolutionary.

Doug [Visitor]09/25/08 @ 19:30

So here’s a funny story…

I remember listening to Dan teach sermons at his church, I’d downloaded an mp3 from their website. At the time I thought they were pretty good, in fact, I think I tried to edify myself with them. If I recall correctly, I shared it with my girlfriend as well.

But I guess, he’s no true scotsman, and it didn’t work so hot.

Actually, I don’t think the lesson had anything to do with my journey in that regards. In fact, I found them encouraging to hang on to my own belief longer. But wouldn’t that be convenient.

Brendon [Visitor]http://www.techfreak.net09/25/08 @ 21:07
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/09/26/08 @ 08:57


I think your theory may seem to explain “why the later Gospels have a more fleshed out account of his death,” but does not work when considering the Gospels in their historical context. John has more to say about the Passion than Mark, so that must show legendary accretion, right? Well, that’s assuming that Mark included every bit of material available to him. That assumption is incorrect.

1 Corinthians is almost universally believed to predate Mark, and in the famous chapter 15 on the resurrection, Paul actually quotes a saying that was in existence before his letter was written. Some scholars have put the formulation of that resurrection account, which mentions several post resurrection appearances, within 5-10 years of the supposed event.

Mark mentions only one post-resurrection appearance, and that’s not even one of the “impressive” ones. Did he not know about the other accounts? Paul includes the formula in his letter as a way to validate his preaching of the true gospel, so it seems to function as a well-known phrase that he uses as a litmus test.

Therefore, it is more plausible that Mark knew of the other appearances (and other details generally) and chose not to include them, than that he included only what was available at the time of writing (i.e., before revisionists polluted what were otherwise historical accounts). Neither Mark nor John provide ascension stories, but Matthew and Luke do. Does this mean that Mark did not believe in the ascension, then Matthew and Luke embellished the account with a fascinating story, then John corrected back to the less incredible version?

The point is that your reconstruction does not take into account what the Evangelists were doing as writers. Mark’s inclusions and exclusions are not simply decisions made based on the availability of data, but (especially in Mark’s case, but perhaps less so with Luke) decisions made to craft a theological narrative against the backdrop of shared (and therefore less necessary to enumerate) beliefs about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

peter [Visitor]09/26/08 @ 14:32

I’ve only read a bit of Nietzsche. Nothing too exhaustive, but enough to be interested in what you think of his message.

Your critique of the message of Jesus relied heavily on your interpretation of his message - “Repent” - and the fact that you believe the texts to be historically unreliable and/or works of fiction. Both of these two points have already been disputed.

But Nietzsche’s message is clear to everyone - “God is dead” - and as far as I know, his texts are considered historically reliable fact. Plus you now share his atheistic worldview. Therefore I’m interested to hear what you think of his expanded message and supporting details. Once you get past the “God’s funeral” stuff, does he have some good ideas?

Tim [Visitor]09/26/08 @ 18:58


I’ll jump in quickly just to say that I as a Christian enjoy reading Nietzsche very much. He seems to me to be one of the most intellectually honest thinkers–someone who was willing to accept even the most unsavory implications of his beliefs. That’s something a theist or atheist should appreciate.

On the “God is dead” business, yes he was an atheist, but I think he was being descriptive of the development of Western society.

Finally, I think that his critiques of the use of religion to gain power (and a particularly spiteful variety) are a shame to the church–not just that he was in many ways accurate, but more that no one within the church spoke so unequivocally. Generally, what I can appreciate about the new atheism (and Danny’s many challenges to those of us who remain theists) is that many of the criticisms are prophetic in nature and ought to have been raised within the church long ago. But these days we imagine that prophetic correction is meant for those outside. This was the case in only one of the Writing Prophets in the Hebrew scriptures, and you know what God’s intention was there.

Not that you asked me, but there you go. Favorite Nietzsche quote: “Only where there are graves can there be resurrection.” I have been moved to tears meditating on that before.

peter [Visitor]09/26/08 @ 20:28

Peter’s discussion of the textual and source history of the Gospels nicely summarizes and extends what I would otherwise say in regard to those issues. But, I find your argument dissatisfying on a deeper level.

As you have said, most, perhaps all, of the extant early accounts of Jesus are in the New Testament. Therefore, to discuss the “message of Jesus” one has to engage the Gospels and other early Christian writings. You can argue that this “message” is not actually connected to the historical Jesus, but at that point you are rejecting all the evidence you have about Jesus–early Christian writing exclusively defines the “Jesus Message.”

You spend a lot of time talking about the legends that may have grown up around the resurrection, and while I, as a Christian, would certainly consider the resurrection an incredibly important doctrine and part of the general eu-angelion message, it really seems beside the point, or at least tangential, when formulating a response to the message (or if you like, substitute “teachings") of Jesus. The resurrection to the Christian incarnates this teaching, but one can still respond to the message without accepting the story.

You can argue that the “historical” Jesus was an anti-Roman revolutionary, but I don’t think you have any evidence of that anywhere. Even the apocalyptic writings in Mark 13 seem to be more about a judgment against Israel rather than any verdict against Rome. You say, “I’m guessing he was an apocalyptic rabbi because that was a fairly common thing at the time,” but one might as easily conclude that you are a Republican because you live in a rural Midwest and are a white male.

I’m not saying the Gospels aren’t biased; in fact, I would say they were never meant to be objective (I don’t therefore conclude they are untrue, but that’s another issue). I’m just saying that a response to the message of Jesus, Socrates, or Barack Obama should at least engage the best information we have about the person.

Doug [Visitor]09/26/08 @ 20:34
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/09/26/08 @ 20:40

good question, I will discuss that one in another post. As for the last issue, I believe I already covered that sufficiently.

n [Visitor]http://nathannairn.blogspot.com/09/27/08 @ 08:06

A couple of first passes at answers your questions:

1) “What is the central message of Jesus":

For lack of other evidence, let’s assume “Jesus” is the character who speaks in the four canonical Gospels without worrying about historicity at this point. I’d think Jesus’s central message in these books is “Love.” (in the form of an imperative verb). “Love your enemy.", “Love your neighbor as yourself", “Love God and keep his commandments.” As Jesus himself said, everything else seems to be pretty much summed up in this idea.

A condition for love in a lot of Jesus’s teaching seems to be humility, so he spends a lot of time demolishing pretension. He doesn’t seem all that concerned about Rome as an occupying force, but is really peeved at religious leaders who think of themselves more highly than they ought.

2) “What is the Kingdom of God?”

I think in the Gospels this is probably best understood as Jesus’s favorite metaphor for the paradise/Eden way of life he wants to reestablish. It’s in contrast, I think, to the current state of affairs with all it’s oppression, poverty, and suffering. To establish this, Jesus needs to teach the behaviors that make this kingdom possible. The word “kingdom” suggests the subversive language of a political “messiah,” which I think helps grab the attention of the audience, but the context in which he uses it seems to me to indicate that he is talking of a kingdom where God’s will is done fully “on earth as it is in heaven.” When the kingdom fully comes, heaven and earth will overlap, to the point that that “there is no longer any sea” that separates them.

3)"Why wasn’t God able to communicate his message more clearly?”

You and I have troubles with some of the logical inconsistencies in the Bible, but there are a WHOLE lot of people throughout history that don’t (or, at least, aren’t seriously bothered by them). Christianity caught on and grew so rapidly that in the course of a couple of generations it managed to cover the entire Roman empire (and that without the aid of any modern form of communication). Clearly, the message seems to have come through loud a clear to a lot of folks. Strict logical consistency and rationality is, perhaps, not considered the primary way of knowing for a good part of the human race. If those like us who are better educated and perhaps even more rational find it harder to believe, then perhaps this is in part because these qualities of our personality that make us more likely succeed in the world also have the danger of making us prideful.

Humility seems to be something like an entrance requirement to participate in the “Kingdom of God.” Jesus says he speaks in parables, in part, to keep out folks like the pharisees, so, despite all the sermons and hymns to the contrary, I’m not completely sure that God wants everyone to come into the kingdom just as they are. We have to at least lay down our selves, especially our pride.

So much of the writings of the new atheists seems to involve looking down on those ignorant, backwoods theists who are ruining our country rather than working with the fervor and self-sacrifice exhibited by many theists who donate at least 10% of their income and go into poor and dangerous regions and work to bring about a better world. The work of Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins ultimately seem to me self-congratulating and arrogant (neither more nor less so than the communications of Fred Phelps or John “Jesus wore pants” Anderson). Perhaps an Edenic society, the Kingdom of God, can never be established as long as these attitudes persist and so these very traits prevent either group from truly grasping the keys to it’s entrance.

Doug [Visitor]09/27/08 @ 16:02

Doug, I like the way you put that post together. The idea that Jesus was less clear to preserve humility as the key to entering the Kingdom is thought provoking. Thanks.

The “lack of clarity” issue assumes that it is better to be understood–but for what purpose? I have really loved John 6 these last couple of years. Its John’s inclusion of the feeding of the 5,000, followed by Jesus turning away what seems like thousands of people. In fact, he turns and challenges his own disciples to see if they are going to leave. Jesus could have easily cleared up his teaching to eat his flesh, but he did not. He obviously did this intentionally, so the question is not why “God was not able to communicate clearly,” but “Why did he choose to leave some in confusion knowing exactly what was at stake?”

peter [Visitor]09/27/08 @ 19:23
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/09/28/08 @ 09:16
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/09/28/08 @ 11:31
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/09/28/08 @ 11:43

Just a couple of quick points:

* I haven’t read in any great detail the work of Dawkins or Phelps, nor have I watched everything that Bill Maher has ever produced. I am sure all of them have redeeming qualities, and, to be sure, I’d much rather read more of Dawkins (and respect him more) than Phelps. My point was all (well, maybe not John Anderson) have recently come to popular attention of late for publicly ridiculing, not just disagreeing with but actually ridiculing, another group of people. This strikes me as arrogance.

* You say:

“When you point out that Paul was first on the scene with this theological understanding of Jesus, it doesn’t do much to convince me that the orthodox position is the same one that Jesus taught.”

Actually, I think it was Peter who brought that up (just to give credit, I don’t disagree with him), but his point was in response to your argument that the idea of the resurrection (you say) seems to come later in the development of the Christian faith. I believe Peter was saying that we have to date the concept of resurrection (and, indeed, a lot of “orthodox” Christian doctrine) to at least the 50s (20 years after Christ) when Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

* I thought we were just talking about the message of “Jesus” right now rather than the historicity of Jesus. So the arguments about the Mormons seem beside the point.

* I fully acknowledge that not all tithes ultimately go for moral purposes, but I also think there is something noble about a family sacrificing 10% of their income regardless of where the money goes. I don’t have any statistics, but I’m pretty sure secular humanists aren’t giving to ANYTHING at the same levels.

Doug [Visitor]09/28/08 @ 14:18
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/09/28/08 @ 14:58

You’re right that I should read Dawkins fully before calling him names. I was using him as a sort of stand-in for what I perceive as the more arrogant wing of the “new atheist” movement. Snippets I’ve read in reviews gave me this impression, but I’m willing to be proven wrong about this, and should not have named him in my list.

If all I knew about Mormonism was the book of Mormon, I would probably say that it seems to me to be a not terribly well written rehash of passages from the King James Bible, the best parts of which simply restate Christianity.

Scientology’s message seems so disconnected from actual experience (controlling biorhythms is a lot weirder than thinking about whatever is “noble, pure, praisworthy, excellent, etc.") that I think I would have discard it based purely on the content of its message.

I would say, though, that someone who decides to truly sacrifice by giving to Scientology because they believe it is somehow an act of mercy and charity is performing a noble action. I am wholeheartedly agreed that churches are far too focused on building structures (and food courts, tennis courts, coffee shops, book stores, etc.) and think that the tithe of church members is far too often abused or, at least, used for very self-serving ends. BUT, I still believe that, even if one sets aside the money used for such purposes, Christians tend to be more generous in their giving and in their willingness to serve the poor than their secular humanist counterparts.

Doug [Visitor]09/28/08 @ 17:53
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/09/28/08 @ 18:22


I’m not interested in Nietzsche in particular. I posed the Nietzsche question in order to compare your response to my question to your original response about the message of Jesus. I agree with Peter’s post and also appreciate Nietzsche’s willingness to follow his worldview to even its undesirable conclusions. But as someone who disagrees with Nietzsche’s worldview, I think Peter’s response to Nietzsche was more intellectually honest than your response to Jesus. I think your response to the original question left some big philosophical questions floating in the air. I wasn’t criticizing your disbelief in the Bible, but rather mentioned that your two core points had been disputed only because I felt your response to the original question lacked rigor. In trying to better understand your atheistic worldview, rather than asking you to clarify your response to Jesus’ message, I thought it would be helpful to hear your critique of an atheist’s message.

I chose Nietzsche, but I could have chosen others instead. You say that Jesus’ core message is false or a lie, but his “secondary” messages about forgiveness and love are good ideas. In mathematics, a false postulate doesn’t yield good theorems. But perhaps it’s possible with philosophy. In any case, I would expect that if someone’s core message were true, then the “secondary” messages would also be true. So if someone begins by postulating atheism, which in your judgment is true, we should also expect his or her ideas to be true, regardless of whether they are “good.” Can we expect a true starting point to lead to more truth?

This is not about expecting you to agree with every atheist. It comes as no surprise there are fewer shared beliefs between atheists. But if the fundamental principle of atheism is indeed true, on what grounds do you disagree with the resulting ideas of Nietzsche, Sam Harris, or others? Nietzsche said “equality is a lie concocted by inferior people who arrange themselves in herds to overpower those who are naturally superior to them.” And if given the choice of permanently eliminating either rape or religion, Harris says he would choose to eliminate religion. Are these good ideas? Would you rather your friends and family live out the “secondary” messages of Jesus, or the “secondary” messages of atheists? Can an atheistic starting point ever lead to the good ideas of Jesus becoming moral imperatives? I don’t expect you to agree with all of the atheists, but I’m not sure how you arrive at a consistent, valid metric for determining the quality of their ideas.

Also, by pointing out that the gospel writers were intending to be persuasive rather than objective, you would have to conclude that Dawkins is no different Luke or John and then read his works with the same level of skepticism. In The God Delusion, Dawkins states in the forward that his goal is for a theist to read the book and be an atheist by the end. Whatever his scientific accomplishments are – Luke was allegedly a doctor as well – much of Dawkins’ work has the explicit goal of making converts. Thus his objectivity is compromised. Having read just this one work and listened to some of his debates and lectures, I do think he’s arrogant.

Tim [Visitor]09/28/08 @ 19:03

I sense a bit of apples and oranges here…

1) Can a Christian reject parts or the whole of the teachings of Jesus?
2) Can an atheist reject parts or the whole teaching of Nietzsche, Harris, etc?

It seems to me, the point is steering towards the old “you can’t have ethics outside of religion” idea, which I disagree with. Practically speaking, so do non-theistic philosophers, large chunks of Europe, Japan, etc.

“Can we expect a true starting point to lead to more truth?”

No. Going back to mathematics, think of proofs; it could start properly, but go haywire halfway through.

This idea of necessarily linking the truth of a core message, to the truth of resultant messages isn’t very compelling for me I guess. Either it’s true for most things (read: Scientology, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, etc), or it’s ad hoc reasoning when applied uniquely. Some Muslims can simultaneously believe they will be granted 72 virgins in the afterlife, and that stealing is wrong. I don’t believe one notion testifies regarding the other. I do think it is better to have a true starting point, but it’s not a guarantee of anything. Technically speaking, an atheist could subscribe to astrology or palmistry, which I on the other hand, would not. And I should probably point out that in doing so, I’d probably label myself as skeptical rather than atheistic.

I’ve liked reading the little of Nietzsche that I have, and look forward to reading more. But I can also tell you, he could also engage in total dickery with regards to women.

“Would you rather your friends and family live out the “secondary” messages of Jesus, or the “secondary” messages of atheists?”

Either or? I’d prefer my friends read some books on ethics and figure it out. I don’t anticipate my brother is going to read some Peter Singer and then knife me while I sleep, thankfully.

Brendon [Visitor]http://www.techfreak.net09/28/08 @ 21:55

About the Paul point, Danny said, “By his own account, Paul never met Jesus and developed his theology independently from the leadership of the early church. It’s possible that Paul himself was the source of the theological understanding of Jesus that became the orthodox view.”

The formula that Paul includes in 1 Corinthians shows that the resurrection (including the most incredible details) had attained the level of doctrine long before Paul or any of the Evangelists began writing. The inclusion of the formula is not Paul’s invention of orthodoxy, but the testing of his message according to what was already considered orthodox.

Conspiracy theories, while intriguing, do very little to make your case because 1. You have to lend a certain credence to the texts to develop the conspiracy theory, but then you like to throw them out entirely when it suits you; and 2. When confronted with historical details that plainly contradict the theory, you simply say it’s still more plausible than the alternative.

You would preserve your credibility as someone who values evidence and reason if you admitted that within five to ten years of the death of Jesus his disciples had already codified some of the most fantastic accounts of his resurrection into a widely known formula.

While that is certainly worded strongly (too strongly?), I’m not really that peeved by it. You’re doing the same thing you ridicule the gospel writers for: beginning with a conclusion you absolutely believe to be true, and rereading the story of Jesus with that end in mind. In reality, the Evangelists are being no more abusive to the story of Jesus than you have been to your own story in your Religious Autobiography. There were things that you believed to be true at the time, and a certain way in which you thought events were progressing in your life. Now that you have come to a much different conclusion about the existence of God and the nature of the universe as a whole, not everything that you at first believed can still be true.

I see the gospel writers doing this very same thing–especially Mark, which is another point against him being the least revisionist. He plainly intends to portray the disciples as not getting it until the resurrection, and then reinterpreting everything in light of that experience.

Better not touch on the clarity issue–this is already too long.

peter [Visitor]09/28/08 @ 23:11

When I said, “I’m not really that peeved by it,” I meant that I’m not actually agitated by your approach because I think there is some validity to it. I think it came across as, “I put that strongly, and I don’t care.” In reality, I think that the comment comes across a bit too forcefully.

peter [Visitor]09/29/08 @ 08:07
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/09/30/08 @ 10:04
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/09/30/08 @ 10:07

I think the point about 1 Corinthians is that if we’re trying to date beginning of orthodox Christian doctrines, we can’t suppose that it didn’t really come into being until a second century Gospel of John. That is, Mark might have ended “And they told no one, for they were much afraid” (though I think most people think he had a least SOME longer ending, even if it wasn’t what is extant), but Paul had a pretty complete of the orthodox view of the resurrection, even if he completely made it up himself, around 20 years after Jesus.

To be fair, though, to me at least you’ve more or less answered the question about what you think about the message of Jesus. You say you approve of the non-violence, social action stuff but question some of the apocalyptic teachings and the miracles. Fair enough. I guess I just disagreed with your statement that Jesus was an apocalyptic rabbi who aimed to “restore the glorious kingdom in Jerusalem and right all the wrongs Israel had endured.” For that sort of claim I think you actually have less evidence than Christians do for the resurrection.

Doug [Visitor]09/30/08 @ 19:24
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/10/01/08 @ 08:30

To start, I’m not one who actually believes that things like the resurrection can be definitively proven or can even be made to seem likely through logic or completely rational analysis. I actually question whether any historical event can be definitively proven, but I admit that the resurrection is something, which, as you say, seems to demand more evidence than, say, the assassination of Julius Cesar if one is constructing a faith-free history. For me, my faith is something I understand in a mode different than my logical scholarly way of knowing, and I think that the writings of Paul, at least, confirm that this is not unusual. The wisdom of God appears as foolishness and all that… For me, it’s enough that my two ways of knowing don’t completely contradict. For instance, strict Biblical literalism, which I once was taught and to which I once subscribed, is, on the other hand, not compatible with either way of knowing, and so I have more or less discarded it. I think, though, that you are just as hard pressed to prove that the resurrection DIDN’T occur as I am to say that it DID. If the only way of knowing is logic which depends on constructing the past from what we commonly observe in the present, then you’re right to conclude that the resurrection is highly unlikely. However, my occasional sense of the presence of God, my experience with answered prayers, and my more emotional or poetic sense of the way the world works fits with the theistic worldview better than any other alternative I have found. I am unconvinced though, that the path to God ever really lies through displays of strength (whether political or military power or intellectual rigor), and my sense of God is that He likes it that way.

I fully admit that talking of non-rational ways of knowing is indistinguishable from madness or even the knowledge claimed by other religions which I would consider false. Fine. I think a lot of religions have in them fragments (some more than others) of the True God, which may resonate with the spirit of the believers in ways that generate experiences similar, perhaps even indistinguishable, from my experience with Christianity. Perhaps it is all madness, but, then, the insane person cannot cease to be mad because he is told he is not rational, and I feel this particular brand of madness more often produces more moral, happier, and well-adjusted people than it harms. There is ugliness in religion, I admit it, but it also produces a lot of beauty, a LOT of beauty, which should not be so quickly discarded.

Back to your question. I suspect the Mark story originally went something like–then, when disciples showed up, they asked the women why they were so afraid. “We think we have seen the Lord,” they replied. Then Peter and John ran to the tomb. Peter, who by the way is my homie, got there first. Surely, he was the coolest of the apostles. And behold, there was Jesus.

In any case, if we are to believe Paul’s own account of his life in the epistles and Luke’s account in Acts, Paul was persecuting the church for a while before he had his vision. He surely knew something of the Jesus thing when he stood around holding coats. When he says he didn’t receive the message from man, I think he’s differentiating himself from the Jerusalem church which seems to have had a problem with his inclusive approach to Gentiles (maybe the James section of the early church). I think he just wants to say that he didn’t go back and get a stamp of approval from those folks, especially in a letter to the Galatians where he is trying to contradict those he sees as the Judaizers.

Doug [Visitor]10/01/08 @ 09:41

I don’t want to move the discussion, but I began writing a response to clarify Paul’s connection to the development of resurrection belief. I thought it was too long to post as a comment here, and I know it’s not technically what you posted about originally (although I think it is quite connected). So I posted it on my blog. Like I said though, I don’t want it to end the discussion here.

peter [Visitor]10/01/08 @ 20:51

Before responding to some of the points and questions raised earlier, I’d like to note that the original question is one I had thought of asking Danny as well. For example, if you had a new next-door neighbor move in that was a Christian and followed Christ’s message, what would be your reaction? Would you be sad or frustrated because he has built his life around what you believe is a lie? Would you be hoping he didn’t hang with Fred Phelps on the weekends? Would you be glad to know he won’t steal from you or covet your stuff? Many people in America, even non-Christians, recognize that if someone were to follow Jesus’ teachings, we might well just find Ned Flanders. Is that all that bad?

We know that you don’t believe the Bible to be true, so the question is really about your response to the alleged message of Jesus. The tough thing is that the more I think about your original answer, the more it seems uncharacteristically flippant for you. Identifying “repent, the Kingdom is at hand” as the message seems a bit like a straw man. True, it’s what we grew up with, but that might have contributed to where we both are today. So maybe I’m wrong on judging your answer to be dismissive. Because I had considered asking you the same question, I was just hoping for a more thoughtful answer (like the honest reflection of Peter about Nietszche or Doug’s candid admittance that he uses other methods of “knowing” than simply cold, hard, logic). Having been a Christian for so long, I was hoping you would have a more substantive, genuine answer. Thankfully, your responses to the comments have been more in line with what I’m used to.

On to the points raised by my previous posts. I wish I knew how to make the cool quotes blocks for referencing others’ points.

Brendon, first, on the apples and oranges:

“1) Can a Christian reject parts or the whole of the teachings of Jesus?
2) Can an atheist reject parts or the whole teaching of Nietzsche, Harris, etc?”

It’s not so much a matter of “can,” so much as “should.” And then, what is the basis for rejection? Danny can reject Harris’ conclusions, but should/ought/must he? If a Christian rejects a teaching of Jesus, on what grounds would he or she do so? Appeal to a higher power :) ? Sure, an atheist can reject all or part of Nietzsche, but does that mean Nietzsche’s conclusions are truly wrong? If Harris wants to abolish religion, but another atheist thinks that is a bad idea, can they both be logically correct? These questions are my main point, and I’ll flesh them out more below.

“It seems to me, the point is steering towards the old “you can’t have ethics outside of religion” idea, which I disagree with.”

People can certainly live ethically without religion. People generally believe it is wrong to steal, regardless of their belief in the supernatural, so I’m not at all saying that you have to believe in god to behave morally. But I question whether they have a logical basis or compelling reason to do so. Atheist Kai Nielsen has said that it’s impossible to arrive at morality through reason alone. So how do people determine their ethics?

“Going back to mathematics, think of proofs; it could start properly, but go haywire halfway through.”

I’m glad you made this point, because it’s exactly what I’m getting at. In mathematics, we often use a technique called “proof by contradiction.” You start with a postulate and follow it through its logical implications, constructing theorems and corollaries along the way. If the conclusion you reach is obviously false, or contradicts the original postulate, you are logically forced to conclude that either the original postulate was false or you had a flaw somewhere in your steps of reasoning. So if Christians begin by positing that there is a god who has spoken through the Bible, endowed human beings with intrinsic value, and therefore instructed them to love their neighbors, I should/ought/must cry foul when I hear of Christians mistreating others. I would say such Christians have gone haywire in their reasoning, because their conclusion has strayed from their starting point.

But if atheists begin by positing that there is no god, and presumably then man is the measure of all things, we find that Danny reaches some conclusions, Nietzsche reaches others, and Harris reaches others. Have any of their conclusions gone haywire? How would “haywire” be defined? It could be argued that they all reached valid conclusions through following the logical implications from their starting point. Can Nietzche’s dickery then really be called haywire? Does it violate any of his original premises? Harris’ determination that religion is worse than rape is either (1) a valid conclusion from his viewpoint, (2) his reasoning is flawed, or (3) his original premise (or core message) is incorrect. In mathematics, if the steps are logically valid and the conclusions aren’t true, then the flaw must either be with the original postulate or one of the theorems along the way.

“Either or? I’d prefer my friends read some books on ethics and figure it out.”

Many of Jesus’ secondary messages are very different than Nietzsche’s or Harris’ and cannot be simultaneously accepted as good. Having read some ethics books, I’m not convinced that will lead to more clarity for your friends.

To Danny’s points:

“God exists” is not exactly a core message that puts me in camp with Fred Phelps. The core message would be what the nature of that god is, or what he/she/it has said. In that regard, I’m not sure what Phelps’ core message is, but the Christian message shouldn’t be evaluated by examining those who pervert it. His actions are not in keeping with what Jesus taught. So Phelps’ interpretation of Jesus’ core message would be wrong.

“the assumption that people who agree on one idea will agree on another idea is wrong.”

I disagree with this statement for a couple of reasons, primarily because it needs more qualification. Will two politicians who agree on environmental policy issues necessarily agree on military spending? Of course not, because they are mutually exclusive ideas. In such a situation, you’re correct. My point is about resulting ideas from a larger previous idea – theorems based on postulates. If we agree that parallel lines never intersect, then you and I should/ought/must agree with all of the resulting conclusions. You could indeed produce many Christian quotes that I would not agree with, but I doubt any of them would promote stealing or mock humility. They also probably wouldn’t suggest that atheism is worse then sexual assault. And even if they did, I could appeal to Jesus’ teachings as evidence they are wrong.

Thus the quotes I listed are very relevant for reasons mentioned earlier in response to Brendon. I know you don’t agree with either of those quotes from Nietzsche and Harris. That wasn’t my point. It’s about whether those conclusions are logically valid given an atheistic starting point. If you disagree with Nietzsche, how would you convince him that he is wrong? I can sit down with Fred Phelps and look at the Bible to try to convince him of where he’s gone wrong. He probably won’t listen. Phelps perverts Jesus’ teachings, but is Harris really perverting the atheistic viewpoint? I’m interested in why you disagree with Harris and how you would convince him he is wrong.

All this is to say that I don’t think you arrive at a valid metric in the same way that I do. Having decided God exists and believing that he has revealed himself and spoken through people as recorded in the Bible, I do my best to use that as my metric for living my life and denouncing Fred Phelps. But whence comes your metric for saying Harris is wrong?

I’ll need some examples of what you mean when you say that Dawkins’ conclusions are supported by other objective sources. Are you referring to things like research studies on whether prayer works?

Lastly, and most importantly, I sincerely apologize for making you think I want you to say that life is meaningless without god. That’s not my intent at all, and I was surprised to hear that you felt that’s what I was getting at. You’ve said that you find meaning in life, and I take your word on that. My question is that if another atheist determines that life is meaningless, like Sartre or others, can you say he or she has reached an invalid conclusion? How would you convince that person otherwise?

Tim [Visitor]10/11/08 @ 18:45

What is the message of Jesus???

jg [Visitor]  05/24/13 @ 17:03

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