Chapter Fifteen: Christianity
Christianity takes an all-together different view of the writings of the Torah. Rather than being centered on the nation of Israel and the Jewish people, Christians believe the ancient writings were only a background to the much more important story of Jesus Christ. Rather than viewing the Messiah prophecies to mean a future political king who would restore the glory of Israel and reaffirm her status as God's Chosen People, Christians interpreted them as a prediction of the coming of a much more supernatural figure. They believed that one day the Word of God became flesh, and God himself lived in the land of Israel to fulfill all that had come before. Christians believe that a man named Jesus Christ was the incarnation of the God of Israel, who came to save all human beings from the sins of the world.
Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, challenged many of the traditional views of the Torah. He introduced major changes in Jewish theology that would lead to the establishment of a separate religion. Most important was the belief that he was the physical incarnation of the God of Israel, the Son of God. His followers believed that after his death he was supernaturally raised from the dead to prove this claim. After continuing to teach to his followers for a time, he rose up into the mystical world of heaven to become the voice of God himself. Jesus altered the meaning of the Torah by asserting that God was more concerned with compassion than with justice. Jesus also declared that God was deeply concerned with the salvation of all humanity, not just the nation of Israel. According to this new theology God's Chosen People, or salt of the earth, were now the Christians of the world.
These new ideas are eloquently summed up in the book of John. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3,16). Life after death would be granted to anyone, not by absolute obedience to the Laws of Moses, but by believing that Jesus was the incarnation of this new view of God. It was more important to believe and take his moral teachings to heart that zealously follow the teachings of past prophets. Believers were commanded to spread the new teachings to all the people of the world. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mathew 28,19).
The Gospels teach that Jesus was born to a woman named Mary before she had ever had sex. This type of divine conception was not unknown to the ancient world, and was traditionally meant to emphasize the special importance of a person to God. Mary would marry Joseph, who was said to be an ancestor of the House of David, a requirement of the Jewish prophecies of a messiah. Thus from the start of the narration of the life of Jesus we learn that he was specially created by God to fulfill the messianic hopes of the Jewish people.
Little mention is given in the Gospels to the early life of Jesus except that he became well versed in the Torah and was trained as a carpenter. But at the age of about thirty he embarked on a crusade to teach the people of his homeland that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and that all people needed to repent in preparation for the coming judgement. In doing so he laid the theological foundation of what would eventually become Christianity, the world's current largest religion. All this would come about from three years of sermons and teachings from a man who is arguable the most influential human being who ever lived.
Many of the moral teachings of Jesus are outlined in a sermon known as the Beatitudes. He begins with the promise that accepting his teachings would bring about future rewards in the afterlife. "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets." (Luke 6,20-23).
Compassion was the next theme of the sermon. "But I say to you that hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them." (Luke 6,27-31).
Jesus further taught that obeying the Golden Rule would lead to great rewards. "Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into you lap. For the measure you give will be measure you get back." (Luke 6,37-38).
Jesus denounced the hypocrisy of the unrighteous judging others. "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in you own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye." (Luke 6,41-42).
Jesus believed that material wealth was a serious impediment to living a moral life. "The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." (Luke 6,45)
He ended his sermon by chastising those who heard his teachings but refused to live by them. Jesus described his followers as men who built their houses on a firm foundation. "But he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation; against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great." (Luke 6,49).
Jesus was once asked what a person needed to do to have eternal life. He answered that the commandments of God must be followed. "You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love you neighbor as yourself." (Mathew 19,18-19) But he went further than these Mosaic Laws, adding that the rich should give their treasures to the poor. "Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."" (Mathew 19,21)
For those who failed to follow Jesus the penalty after death would be hell. Jesus taught that in fact most people would not be allowed into heaven. "For many are called, but few are chosen." (Mathew 22,14) It would be especially unlikely for anyone who lived a wealthy life to achieve everlasting life. "Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Mathew 19,23-24)
One way that Jesus taught God would judge people would be how they treated the less fortunate in society.
"Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you have me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' (Matthew 25,34-36)
"Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Mathew 25,45-46)
Throughout the Gospels Jesus is described as performing miracles. When asked if he would pay a half-shekel tax in Capernaum he made the following statement to his disciple Peter. "... go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself." (Mathew 17,27) Even though he was apparently able to create unlimited wealth for himself, he lived out his life in an apparent vow of poverty and chastity.
Jesus was also believed to be able to magically create food. While along the Sea of Galilee his disciples complained that they only had seven loaves of bread and a few fish to feed a great crowd that had been following them for three days. "And commanding the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied; and they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over." (Mathew 15,35-37).
Keeping with his compassionate nature, most of the miracles attributed to Jesus involve faith healing. He frequently is portrayed casting out demons from possessed individuals. He also used a form of laying-on of hands to cure physical illness. "And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him. And taking him aside from the multitude privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly."
When Jesus violated some of the specific teachings of the Torah he justified himself by asserted that he had come to fulfill the laws of Moses, not to obey them. When questioned by Pharisee Jews about his disciples picking grain to eat on the Sabbath and his own faith healing, he simply responded that "The Son of man is lord of the Sabbath." (Luke 6,5)
After teaching for three years Jesus was arrested and executed by the Romans in about 33 AD. Christians believe that three days later Jesus appeared to his disciples, demonstrating to them that in fact he had been the physical incarnation of God. This is such a vital and dramatic story in Christianity that is worth looking at each Gospel account in some detail.
In Mark we read:
"Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast our seven demons." (Mark 16,9) "After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation." (Mark 16,15) After describing supernatural signs they would be able to produce, the story continues. "So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God." (Mark 16,19)
In Matthew we read:
"So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, "Hail!" And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me." (Matthew 28,8-10) After saying that the chief priest had paid the soldiers guarding the tomb to spread rumors that the disciples had stolen the body, the story continues. "Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Matthew 28,16-20)
In Luke we read:
"That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him." (Luke 24,13-15) They made their way to town and sat down to eat. "When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight." (Luke 24,30-31)
The two rushed to tell the other disciples the new, and the story continues. "As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in you hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have." And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them." Luke 24,36-43)
After teaching them to spread the Gospel to all the nations, the story continues. "Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven." (Luke 24,50-52)
In John we read:
"On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord." (John 20,19-20) "Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." (John 20,26-29)
Later the disciples received advice on which side of the boat to throw their fishing nets from a man they did not at first recognize. "Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised form the dead." (John 21, 12-14)
Given the passion with which they spread the teachings of their beloved master there can be little doubt that the disciples did have a profound experience after Jesus died. But despite this, the majority of the Jewish community in Israel remained faithful to the original interpretations of the Torah. Christianity, however, spread quickly in non-Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire. The conversion of Paul of Tarsus would prove to be a tremendous asset to the early Christians. Paul took the monumental step of not requiring converts to abide by all the strict Mosaic Laws, such as circumcision and the ban on certain foods. This appears to have made early Christianity a much more appealing religion in the Greek and Roman world than was Judaism.
Jesus gave much more emphasis to the idea of heaven than does the Torah. He frequently promises his followers everlasting life throughout the Gospels. The book of Revelation gives more detail to how and when the dead will go to heaven or hell. The author, another man named John, gives a bizarre description of a vision he had, one filled with avenging angels and terrible beasts with multiple heads and horns. John foresees that after Jesus comes back to earth a judgement of some of the dead will be made to bring them back to life:
"Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom judgment was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life, and reigned with Christ a thousand years." (Revelation 20,4-5)
Exactly who "those to whom judgement was committed" is a bit unclear, but it presumably means a group of supernatural beings who will help God to judge the multitudes. John teaches that some people will now be brought back to life here on earth to live a thousand years. Although this isn't yet heaven, the devil has at least been removed from the earth by being thrown down into a bottomless pit. After the thousand-year kingdom is over, the devil will be released and then thrown into a lake of fire along with his evil companion creatures to be "tormented day and night for ever and ever." (Revelation 20,10)
Then a second judgement day will take place:
"And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done." (Revelation 20,12-13)
At this point anyone who "was not in the book" will be thrown into hell. Heaven will then be created, not in the sky, but rather back here on earth in a magical restoration. The center of this new earth will be the shining city of Jerusalem:
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband..." (Revelation 21,12)
With the evil people in hell and the good people now in a supernaturally restored earth, God's acts of creating and destroying will apparently come to an end. "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." (Revelation 21,6) There is to be no more morning, crying or pain of any kind in this New World. But not everyone will be living in the jewel-covered city of Jerusalem, even though it will measure some fifteen hundred miles on each side. There will be people living in other nations with Kings like there were during Biblical times, but they will treat Jerusalem as their temple to God. "By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it..." (Revelation 21,24)
Early Christians soon adopted the view that communication with God could now only come through the resurrected Jesus Christ. Anyone who refused to believe that Jesus was the incarnation of God was doomed to go to hell. This included not just all the Jews, but everyone in the world. Followers passionately struggled to convert nonbelievers to their new religion, believing that Jesus would soon return to earth as the king of kings to usher in the end of the world. Although Jesus is recorded as having promised that the Second Coming would occur within the lifetimes of some of his original disciples, this in no way seems to have undermined the commitment of believers in the next generation. In community after community Christianity spread.
Early Christians often suffered harsh persecution, being seen as another sect of Judaism that was a potential threat to Roman authority. Given the fact that Christian theology taught belief in a higher power that superceded Rome, this is hardly surprising. But Christianity's fortunes would forever change with the conversion of Emperor Constantine. Although perhaps only nominally a Christian in a theological sense, Constantine was able to both protect Christians and force them to come to a theological consensus. (The Religious Experience of Mankind p 363) At the time there existed several rival Gospels and rival versions of Christianity, such as the Gnostics. Constantine ordered the formation of the Nicene Council in 325 AD. While the early church had adopted the books that make up the modern Bible by the end of the second century, with Constantine's backing, they were now able to enforce this canon by banning all others that were considered heretical. (The Religious Experience of Mankind p 355)
The council of Nicene created the first formal Christian theological statement, one that all Christians were expected to accept as the official teaching of the church. Of central importance was the clarification of the doctrine of the Trinity:We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true
God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilot; he suffered, died, and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and Son.
With the Father and Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen. (Catechism of the Catholic Church p56-57)
Augustine (354-430) would prove to be the most influential theologian in early post-Gospel Christianity. His writings would synthesis the ideas of the Gospels and Hebrew theology with the philosophy of the Greek and Roman world. (The World's Living Religions p 276) For example, theologian Archie J. Bahm makes this distinction between the Hebrew and Greek worldview:
"The Greek mind conceives its world as a system of natural law, operating constantly in the same way regardless of men's desires to change it; one must accept (submit his will to) the laws of nature if he would use, benefit from, enjoy them (as in science and engineering). The Hebraic world appears as an historical process, a cosmic drama, in which each life and circumstance occur uniquely and unrepeatably." (The World's Living Religions p 278)
Augustine combined these worldviews by conceiving God to be both the rational basis for the world and the emotional person acting in history. God had created all the idealized "eternal forms" of Platonic philosophy but still allowed humans the power of free will. (The World's Living Religions p 281) God created the world at one moment in time but also had eternally had that creation in his mind. (The World's Living Religions p282) Augustine believed that Christianity had in this sense always existed:
"That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion which already existed began to be called Christianity." (Reincarnation in World Thought p73)
Thomas Aquinas (1227-74) would be the next great theologian of Christianity, adopting many of the philosophical idea of ancient Greece to the service of the church. Aquinas pictured God as a First Cause, the ultimate origin of all things. Human beings are a combination of a divine soul and a physical self. Because of Adam and Eve's Original Sin all humans are condemned unless they can successfully turn to God for forgiveness. But Adam and Eve's sin is a venial sin, and can be pardoned. Purgatory, a sort of partial Hell, is a place where the dead might go to be cleansed of such pardonable sins. And on earth the church, or more specifically for Aquinas, the Roman Catholic Church, was the vehicle for that salvation. (The World's Living Religions p288)
According to Catholics the Pope, as head of the Roman Catholic Church, is the representative of Christ on earth. The church has the authority to maintain institutions or rituals not found in the Bible, such as fasting at certain times of the year. The Pope and his bishops can also change or eliminate past customs of the church, such as altering the structure of the mass or changing the church's stance on secular issues such as the age of the earth.
The first great division within Christianity occurred in 1054 when the Roman bishop and the Constantinople bishop both officially excommunicated each other over doctrinal disagreements. The Eastern or "Greek" Orthodox Church does not accept the authority of Rome to pass judgement on theological matters, but still maintains close ties and a strong similarity with the Roman church.
A more widespread dissention from the Church of Rome came from Martin Luther (1483-1546) when he publicly criticized doctrines such as the selling of forgiveness by priests. Excommunicated from the church but politically safe from punishment, he formed the Lutheran church and founded the Protestant movement. Several Protestant groups were to follow, most of who tended to put more emphasis on the literal wording of the Bible than the declarations of the Catholic Church. (The World's Living Religions p 294-295)
As the Christian powers of Europe began to explore and colonize the rest of the world, they took their religion with them. At home the church took several steps to prevent rival religions from contaminating their faith. For example, the Catholic Church specifically condemned the doctrine of reincarnation in the Council of Lyons in 1274 and Florence in 1439:
"If anyone assert the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows form it: let him be anathema. If anyone does not anathematize [these heretics] was well as their impious writings, as also all other heretics already condemned and anathematized by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and by the aforesaid four Holy Synods and (if anyone does not equally anathematize) all those who have held and hold or who in their impiety persist in holding to the end the same opinion as those heretics just mentioned: let him be anathema." (Reincarnation in World Thought p116)
Thanks in part to the long domination of Colonial Europe throughout much of the world modern Christianity can boast to being the world's largest religion, both in terms of numbers of followers and in numbers of nations with large Christian communities. Although the many denominations hold major disagreements over doctrine, all revere Jesus as the Son of God and the key to salvation. Christianity adopted the Hebrew view of God as a personal being, but added the idea that God contained three parts, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The teachings of Jesus emphasis the need to live a moral and just life, treating others in the same way as we would wish to be treated. According to Christian doctrine anyone who believes that Jesus was the incarnation of God and follows the teachings of Christianity will be rewarded one day with a blissful everlasting life in heaven. Anyone who fails to do these things, baring forgiveness by God, will be condemned to eternal suffering in Hell.
Problems with Christian Inerrancy
To restate the purpose of this section: Can any of the major religions prove that they are the inerrant Word of God on each and every doctrine? Is it reasonable to think that each religion combines some insights into that eternal reality with purely cultural beliefs, or is there evidence that would force us to accept the fundamentalist position that one religion is true and all other faiths are false?
Our examination of the books of the Torah revealed several examples of what strongly challenge their claim to being the absolute inerrant Word of God. While Christians hold several theological views of these writings that are in conflict with traditional Jewish interpretations, such as prophecies about a messiah and the doctrine of Original Sin, they still incorporated the Torah into their own sacred scriptures. The orthodox Christian view holds that the Torah was created by God and has as much claim to divine truth as do the Gospels. Although divided into the Old and New Testaments, they are all considered by Christians (with some minor differences) to be sacred scriptures. The value of all of these books is emphatically stated in the Book of Timothy:
"All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (Timothy 3, 16-17)
Any arguments therefore that brings into question the idea of the Torah being the inerrant Word of God also applies to the Christian Bible. Thus the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah's Ark, which appear to be as much of a cultural construct as divine inspiration, give support to viewing Christianity as also being a combination of these two forces.
If we look at the Gospels themselves we find other clues that fallible humans had a much greater part in their creation than fundamentalists for some reason seem willing to accept.
One of the most inexplicable aspects for believers in Christianity is an apparently unfulfilled prophecy made by Jesus to his disciples. This is certainly one of the most amazing and specific predictions found in any religious writing -- the end of the world and when it would come! Jesus prophesized that the world would first be torn by wars, famines and earthquakes. The sun and moon would darken and the stars would fall from the sky. Jesus, as the Son of God, would appear in the clouds to usher in the end of the world.
The actual prediction of the end of the world itself is not unusual. Religions the world over that have a Creation story often have a Destruction story to go with it. Many of the visions and details of this Gospel prophecy of destruction share elements with prophecies in the Torah, which Jesus and his followers would have been familiar with.
One thing that makes this prophecy unique is the belief that the prophet himself would return after his own death to end the world. When we take into account that Muslims accept this prophecy, minus the claim of Jesus actually being God, we have an incredibly widespread acceptance that this prophecy will one day come true. If we were to make a list of great global beliefs held by human beings at the beginning of the millennia, the prophecy of Jesus coming back to the earth on Judgement Day would be one of them.
But there is one part of this prediction that is problematic, one that makes it difficult to view the Gospels as absolutely inerrant. Jesus makes a very specific prediction about when his prophecy would occur. If we assume that we have been given an accurate rendering of what Jesus said, it appears that Jesus planned to return during the lifetimes of at least some of his disciples.
In the book of Mark this is presented as one of the first things Jesus taught. "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel."" (Mark 1,14-15) Jesus becomes more specific in chapter nine. "And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."" (Mark 9,1) In chapter 13 the author becomes even more detailed:
"But in those days, after the tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven" (Mark 13,24-27)
Jesus makes a very specific prediction of when these things would happen at the end of chapter 13. "So also, when you see these things taking place, you will know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place, but my words will not pass away."
Additional details of the prophecy are found in Matthew. "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes." (Matthew 10,23) Later in chapter 16 he says, "For the Son of man is to come, with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." (Matthew 16,27-28)
In chapter 24 Jesus continues, predicting the rise of false prophets claiming to be the messiah and horrible wars and earthquakes. "But he who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come." (Mathew 24,13-14) Again Jesus makes the same time prediction we saw in Mark "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." (Mathew 24,34-35). This is again repeated in Luke 21,32-33.
The book of John repeats the sense of nearness of the prophecy. "Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live." (John 5,25)
The early Christian community seems to have passionately believed that Jesus would return during their lifetime. Paul admonished the Corinthians not to marry, morn, celebrate, or even deal with the material world so that they might better prepare themselves for the impending Second Coming:
"I think that in view of the present stress it is well for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those rejoice as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away." (1 Corinthians 7,26-31)
In the book of Peter this sense of urgency continues. "The end of all things is at hand; therefore keep sane and sober for your prayers." (1 Peter 4,7) The book of James reaffirms the idea of the imminent return of Jesus, "Be patient, therefore brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. Establish you hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand." (James 4,7-8)
The book of Revelation also testifies to the imminent return of Jesus. Consider the following passages:
"Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near." (Revelation 22,10)
"Behold I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay everyone for what he has done." (Revelation 22,12)
"He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon."" (Revelation 22,20)
If we accept a literal reading of the prophecy we are forced to conclude that it didn't come true exactly as predicted. All of the original followers of Jesus died and the world didn't come to an end. It appears that the early Christians were forced to assume that the end time of the Kingdom of God had begun but the Second Coming of Jesus would occur sometime in the future. Since that time many (if not all) generations of Christians have believed that they were living in the last days and that Jesus would return within their lifetimes. This view is still widely held two thousand years later by many Christians. The Catholic Church, for example, believes that current events going on in the world today appear to be leading up to the prophesied final days. "Already the age of the world is with us, and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way; it is even now anticipated in a certain real way, for the Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real but imperfect" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 670).
In any case, we must look at the apparent fact that at some point in the flow of information from what they thought was God, to the human form of Jesus, to his disciples, to the written word of the Gospels, some type of error appears to have occurred. This is not the only interpretation of the prophecy and its potential fulfillment of course, but it is the most literal one.
The doctrine of Jesus being God incarnate is the most important theological belief that caused the Jewish disciples to establish a separate religion from Judaism. We obviously don't have the Jewish or Roman versions of these events to caste insight into those distant historic events. The only non-biblical reference to Jesus during this time appears to be the statement in the Annal's of Ticitus that Poncious Pilot executed someone named Jesus for dissention. Aside from that, we must rely solely on the Gospel accounts.
The Gospels tell two stories that Christians believe demonstrates that Jesus rose from the dead. In the first story the body of Jesus was laid to rest inside a cave tomb with a heavy boulder set in front of it. It was later discovered that his body was missing from the tomb. In the second story, after the empty tomb is discovered Jesus appears to his former disciples, much to their astonishment. Paul, who had never met Jesus, also reports having had some form of direct encounter with him years after the execution.
There is nothing in these stories that proves or disproves them from being true. The alternate explanations for these events, which of course rival religions and philosophies accept, are very much a matter of faith on both sides. But one point does support the idea that these claims, despite their ultimate possibility of truth or fiction, were not unaffected by human influence. A careful examination of details of the claims shows some contradictions that testify to the fact that fallible humans had a large responsibility in recording these events. Even if one accepts the stories as true, there still seems to be a need to acknowledge the influence of conflicting individual memories working there way into what some dogmatically claim to be the inerrant Word of God.
For example, the empty tomb story contains somewhat different versions of what would appear to have been an unforgettable experience. In Mark 16 we read:
"And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun has risen. And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?" And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back-it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him."" (Mark 16,1-6)
In Mathew we read:
"Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay."" (Mathew 28,1-6)
In the Luke version we read:
"But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" (Luke 24,1-5) And later the women are listed by name. "Now it was Mary Magdalene, and Joana and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them like an idle tale, and they did not believe them."" (Luke 24,10-11)
In John we read:
"Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb." (John 20, 1) Mary brought back the disciples to see, and the story continues. "But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stopped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Saying this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus." (John 20,11-14)
These four versions of the story all agree that Mary Magdalene discovered that the body of Jesus was not in the tomb, which is the essential point. On the rest of the information there is not much agreement. The tomb was found empty either by 1) Mary Magdalene, 2) Magdalene and the mother of James, 3) Mary Magdalene, the mother of James, Joana and several other women, or 4) Magdalene, the mother of James and Salome. The stone was either found to have been 1) already rolled away or 2) witnessed to be rolled away by an angel with an accompanying earthquake. Either 1) one angel, 2) two angels or 3) two angels and Jesus are seen at the empty tomb. Arguments can be made that these inconsistencies either undermine or increase the credibility of the basic claim itself being true. In any case, it does show that human influence is readily apparent in the recording of the story.
While the stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples are more consistent than the empty tomb stories, there are still several reasonable questions raised by some of the details. First the repeated theme that the man was not at first recognized as Jesus brings up the question of who the man actually was. The scolding of the disciples for not at first believing it was Jesus and the praising of any who would believe without seeing brings up further questions of this sort. The fact that these stories were not recorded until many years after the events also brings up questions.
While the disciples were apparently unsuccessful in convincing the Jewish people of Israel or their immediate Roman overseers that the stories were true, they were very successful in spreading their teachings throughout other parts of the Roman world. Because we have no record of these events from anyone other than the small handful of disciples and loyal followers, there seems little hope of being able to prove or disprove the resurrection beyond a reasonable doubt. In the final analysis it comes down to a matter of faith.
One perhaps unfair criticism of Jesus was his level of earthly knowledge. For all his moral genius and spiritual insights, Jesus often seemed to be lacking a detailed understanding about how the physical world actually worked. His doomsday prediction that the stars would fall from the sky implies that, like most people living in his time, he didn't distinguish between stars and meteorites. He accepted his culture's belief that sickness was caused by demonic possession. In one memorable passage he actually removes the demons from a possessed man and transports them into the bodies of several hogs, who then proceed to run over the edge of a cliff. In another he combines spit and dirt to heal a man of blindness. In all fairness these beliefs were common before the development of modern astronomy, psychiatry and medicine and it could be argued that Jesus knew better but merely went along with them for the sake of the people.
While fundamentalists argue that the Bible is entirely consistent, the Gospels contain four different account of the life of Jesus that demonstrate fallible human memories and perceptions were at work in there creation. For example, the genealogies found in the books of Mathew and Luke contain different names for the ancestors of Jesus, including an apparent disagreement over his grandfather. The genealogy in Luke even begins with Adam, the mythological character from the Genesis creation story. The writer obviously believed that Adam and Eve had actually lived in the not too distant past and that all humans were descended from them. This, as we have seen, is simply not true.
Even small details that are not theologically significant testify to the Gospels having been written under less than complete divine control. Fundamentalists who claim that there is no error in the Gospels might well consider the follow two passages and ask themselves if Jesus wanted his disciples to carry a staff with them or not when they evangelized:
"Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belt, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food." (Matthew 10,9-10)
"He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics." (Mark 6,8-9)
One moral problem with viewing the Gospels as the inerrant Word of God is that it shares the Torah's disturbing acceptance of slavery. The following passages make it clear that keeping a slave is not considered a sin. On the contrary, according to the Gospels it is the slave who has a divinely ordained obligation to remain an obedient and hard working slave even to an abusive master:
"Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free." (Ephesians 6,5-8)
"Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved." (1 Timothy 6,1-2)
"Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to be refractory, nor to pilfer, but to show entire and true fidelity, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God the Savior." (Titus 2,9-19)
"Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not me, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance of your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ." (Colossians 3,22-24)
The failure of Jesus and Paul to declare that slavery is an abomination in the eyes of God and demand its abolition would allow epic suffering for the people of Africa and the Americas at the hands of future European and American Christians. The very idea that slaves should be submissive in their plight in order to not give Christianity a bad name seems a horrible moral compromise, one hardly worthy of being called divine. It seems more reasonable to conclude that these are mistaken human views that worked there way into the Gospels. We must remember that the Torah and the Gospels were both written in the ancient world when slavery was a normal part of society. The great moral outraged against slavery that we see today was still a long way off.
Another moral question the Gospel raises is the status of women. A literal reading of the Gospels, just as the Torah, leaves no doubt that women are not the social equals of men:
"But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God." (1 Corinthians 11,3)
"For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.)" (1 Corinthians 11,7-8)
"As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." (1 Corinthians 14,34-35)
"Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became the transgressor. Yet a woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty." (1 Timothy 2,11-15)
For generations Christian women suffered an inferior social status because of these egregiously sexists writings of the apostle Paul. The fact that Paul actually invokes the mythological story of Adam and Eve as if they were real historic people exposes his very human failings as a supposed prophet of God. The only way to view the Bible as not being sexist is to simply declare that some of the teachings are not the Word of God. Many modern Christian societies, thank God, accept women as the social equals of men. It would seem, therefore, that at least many Christians today accept that the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God, at least not on the subject of the equality of the sexes.
Another problem with viewing the Gospels as the inerrant Word of God is the lack of any denouncement of the Torah's historic acceptance of genocide. The story of the drowning of every human being except for Noah's family sets the first instance of the God of Israel justifying mass murder. The story of the direct killing of every first born Egyptian by God, rather than just killing Pharaoh, is another case of mass murder by God. The story of the genocide against the people of Canaan is another example of mass murder, this time done by the Hebrews with the help of God. Since Jesus specifically says that all of the Torah is to be obeyed, we must indirectly assume that he also viewed all these purported events as being acceptable to the God of Israel. This monumental omission to denounce military conquest and genocide allowed European and American Christians to biblically justify their ruthless and racist treatment of other races throughout the world.
One might argue that these are unfair criticisms, that only the Gospels or perhaps just the specific teachings of Jesus are what really count in Christianity. When compared to the rest of the Bible, I agree that the words attributed to Jesus do in fact seem more moral, more divinely guided than the rest. In any case, if we are being honest and logical we must conclude that either our modern ideas about human rights are mistaken or the entire Bible simply is not the inerrant Word of God on each and every moral issue.
But in passing judgement on the lack of inerrancy of the Bible we must be careful not to overly judge the religious people of the ancient world for failing to live up to our modern standards of morality. We do find in early Christianity the development of a more compassionate and universal understanding of God, grown beyond its tribal and war-like roots. Biblical Christianity laid the theological foundation that would allow the European enlightenment to eventually transform the religion, if painfully slowly, into the much more humanitarian faith that it is today.
To put it bluntly, modern Christianity has overcome many of the great moral failings of its long history. Modern Christians have often led the fight against genocide, slavery and in many denominations even the subjugation of women. But the fundamentalist claim that everything in the Bible is the inerrant Word of God is not supported by what it actually contains. It seems much more reasonable to me to view the Gospels as a combination of some insight into that eternal reality mixed together with some very mistaken views of fallible human beings. The Gospels, much like the Torah, holds a treasure of moral teachings and spiritual wisdom -- if you pick and choose which passages to accept. But an unbiased observer might reasonably conclude that it suffers from too many mistakes, contradictions and omissions to be viewed as the absolute inerrant Word of God on every subject.