I recently had a very interesting conversation with an old friend. He and I got into a robust discourse on the Christian faith; debating its historical roots, it’s modern-day abuses, and it’s truth claims. It occurred to me that others like myself who are interested in apologetics might find our discussion engaging and thought-provoking, so I’ve decided to post it here. What makes this conversation noteworthy is not just the fact that it was a respectful and polite dialog between opposing viewpoints on the often-volatile topic of religion, but that it occurred on Facebook.
A couple of notes on editing: To assist with readability I’ve fixed typos and misspellings, but otherwise left the text as written. I also added web links where appropriate. And, because I am posting a semi-private Facebook conversation here on my not-private blog, I’ll be referring to my friend as Henry (not his real name).
It all began when I posted a link to a recent article I’d written about the book Jesus Calling. I’m not sure if Henry read the article, but he commented on my Facebook post.
HENRY: “My problem is that almost all Christian religions try the soft sell/feel-good approach to their interpretation of Jesus. They write the narrative as they want to see it. And while that is a noble pursuit, it always comes down to one joining their particular club. I find that without exception very few people who attend church have studied the history of their own religion. It’s very complicated and not so provable with factual evidence.
In fact in actual history books aside from the New Testament there is but one mention of Jesus of Nazareth. Much of what we’ve been told over and over is a story that has been passed down and reinterpreted over 2000 years. The same can be said of the Old Testament as well. It was actually written by Jewish Scholars around 500 B.C. While there are many great stories and lessons in both texts, there are many complicated stories involving heroes who were also corrupt and sometimes murderers as well. I always come away with the same conclusion there is no absolute truth, and believing it does not make it fact. That’s why it called faith!”
RLS: “I hear you, Henry! There are a lot of Christian denominations that tend to bicker over the small stuff. That’s what I alluded to in my article, and I don’t like that either. Just recognize that is man-made stuff, not what Jesus taught. As far as the historicity of Jesus, there are actually multiple ancient extra-biblical sources from both Greco-Roman and Jewish authors that mention Jesus. (Tacitus and Josephus being the most popular.) Plus, we have the documents from the New Testament writers as well, which have more historical validation than any other ancient writings. Even secular scholars attest to their authenticity as historical documents. As far as absolute truth, I think it has to exist, logically speaking. If your statement ‘there is no absolute truth’ is true, then the statement itself is an example of an absolute truth claim.”
HENRY: “No doubt that you believe that, the problem is still factual evidence. My problem is if I sold you any goods or made a deal with you on anything without providing goods or evidence of them, you’d call it crazy. My point is not to discourage your faith in whomever you wish to worship. But rather look at it from a non-religious viewpoint, and understand my perspective as I try and understand yours as well. If you cannot do that then I would say you’re afraid of asking some serious questions of your own faith/religion. When something is real, critical thinking and questions cannot diminish it in any way.”
At this point, another friend recommended a book to Henry that he had found helpful in his own transition from atheism to Christianity. (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist by Frank Turek.)
HENRY:”Thanks for the recommendation. I have read several books purporting evidence of Jesus and Biblical stories. I don’t think most Christians realize that Jesus only preached to a Jewish audience of his era. And that in no way included the Gentiles. In fact, the purpose of his movement was to bring the Kingdom of God back to earth for the Jewish people and rid the region of Roman Rule.
Much of what’s become Christian Dogma is added by later scholars, Paul, etc. In fact, it’s more appropriate to think of it as a religious movement started by John the Baptist than Jesus of Nazareth and then continued by his followers. Here’s a YouTube clip I found very enlightening.”
RLS: “That’s interesting stuff, Henry. But it’s just not factual. Jesus never promised (or even expressed any intention) to liberate Jews from Roman rule.
“The Jews who followed Jesus thought his mission was to rid them of Roman rule, but Jesus corrected the record saying that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). In fact, when Jesus saw a bunch of Jews were about to come and take Him by force to make Him an earthly king, He high-tailed it out of there (John 6:15). And His disciples, still hoping He would become king, asked Him after His resurrection if He was finally going to restore the earthly kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). But that was not His mission. Rather, Jesus said He came to bring light to a dark world (John 12:46, John 15:22), to proclaim the Good News to the poor and set captives free (Luke 4:18-19), to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37), and to give us eternal life (John 3:16, John 6:51).
“And, by the way, Paul was not a ‘later scholar’, he was a contemporary of Jesus. After Paul’s conversion, he taught and wrote letters to all of Jesus’ followers and disciples, which included many people who personally met Jesus and heard Him teach in person. They were still alive at the time Paul was teaching and would have known if Paul was making up his own dogma that contradicted what they had heard Jesus Himself say. In fact, much of what Paul taught came from the Old Testament, and in that sense pre-dated Jesus’ earthly ministry.”
HENRY: Much of what you quote, Rob, comes from the Gospels, which is a written story 70 years AD. These are not facts or corroborated by any historical record other than what is in the New Testament. And much like the Old Testament, they are stories told long after the events supposedly took place. One needs to have historical records from those times say kept by the Romans, Egyptians, Jewish authorities, etc. My point is, it’s fine to have faith in whatever you wish. But to espouse it as fact when it hasn’t been proven leads to a slippery slope. By that I mean it ends up being misused for bad intentions or simply power over others. It also dismisses other narratives that are of equal importance to others. I personally don’t believe there is any one absolute truth, but many different versions of truth.”
RLS: “I agree with you that people have sometimes misused religion with bad intentions, sometimes to exercise power over the people. And that is flat-out wrong! It goes against what Jesus taught (Luke 11:37–54). I’m not sure of your personal story related to faith, Henry. But if you happen to have been personally affected in a negative way by the church or by religious people, I know what that feels like and I’m sorry you experienced that. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. But I think it’s important to remember that we shouldn’t judge a belief system based on those who abuse it. We should judge it based on what it actually teaches.
“All people are of equal value in God’s eyes, that’s for sure. But all ideas are not equal. Some ideas are wrong. Even ‘narratives that are of equal importance to others’ can be wrong. As an extreme example, consider Nazis, slave traders, or murderous terrorists. These are narratives that should be dismissed and argued against. But we can never call these ideas wrong if there is no absolute truth. Because if there are ‘many different versions of truth’ than the Nazi can simply reply, “What do you mean it’s wrong to imprison and kill Jews? That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Yet we all know that the Holocaust was objectively, morally wrong.”
HENRY: “Remember, Rob, the Catholic Pope went along with the Nazis in not condemning (the Holocaust) outright. There are many Conservatives as well as Christian Evangelicals embracing Trump at this point in time as well. It’s a slippery slope when you abuse power. My problem is that Jesus is but one of many ways to self-enlightenment. People who embrace only one way are delusional at best and are quite narcissistic as well. Why would God choose any person as a favorite over others? Why does God only come in human form? And most importantly why does God even need worshipping? Again I’m good with the Golden Rule philosophy as well as many other culture’s versions of that same idea. It’s just when you feel God is strictly a Judeo/Christian one is where I leave the party.”
RLS: “Those are some valid questions to ask. And your ‘only one way’ point actually goes well beyond Christianity. When anyone makes any claim that something is true, they are at the same time saying other things are false. For example, when you make the claim ‘Jesus is but one of many ways to self-enlightenment’ you’re claiming that Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Atheism, and Hinduism are all false because none of those belief systems agree with your statement. In other words, you’re telling 99% of the population of our entire planet that they are wrong and you are right. And if that’s what you believe that’s fine. I disagree with you, of course, because it’s logically impossible that all roads could lead to God. But I’m not offended and I certainly wouldn’t call you ‘delusional’ or ‘narcissistic’ for holding such an exclusive position. The truth, by its very nature, is exclusive. All religions in the world cannot be true. They could all be false, of course. But they cannot all be true.”
HENRY: “So first let me apologize since I crashed this party with my viewpoints, which weren’t asked for. As far as factual and truth being one and the same, I agree they aren’t necessarily the same. The confusion comes with a religion or set of beliefs that espouse the one and only true path through their particular perspective. The facts are historical non-biased evidence that supports those beliefs. This is no different than say scientific discovery that must be subjected to a set of proven evidence. My point is whichever belief you have faith in is not based on proven factual evidence from non-biased evidence, say Roman, Egyptian records of the period as examples.
“Much of faith seems to be based on indoctrination by hearsay of non-historical evidence. And especially third-party accounts of stories written much later than the events that supposedly took place. My point is if I proposed to you a different narrative with similar non-empirical evidence you would have doubts of it being factual and true. But because we’ve grown up with the Christian/Judeo culture/experience in the West, you feel it to be more acceptable. For me personally, I have much acceptance of the Bible both new and old as life lessons, both good and bad. But not in a religious way.”
RLS: “No apology necessary, Henry! Your viewpoints are always welcome on my posts.
“The thing with Christianity is that there is actually a wealth of historical evidence for Jesus and His resurrection. Even skeptical/secular scholars will admit the following six historical facts: 1) That Jesus died by crucifixion; 2) that very soon afterward, his followers had real experiences that they thought were actual appearances of the risen Jesus; 3) that their lives were transformed as a result, even to the point of being willing to die specifically for their faith in the resurrection message; 4) that these things were taught very early, soon after the crucifixion; 5) that James, Jesus’ unbelieving brother, became a Christian due to his own experience that he thought was the resurrected Christ; and 6) that the Christian persecutor Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) also became a believer after a similar experience.
“So why do even critical scholars agree with these individual historical facts? The answer is that each one is virtually undeniable. Most of the half-dozen facts listed above are confirmed by ten or more historical considerations each. That is an amazing foundation, especially for events that occurred in the first century AD!”
HENRY: “The term Christian didn’t actually exist until around 100 AD. The movement was referred to as ‘The Way’. (Jesus’) brother James led the movement for 30 years after Jesus’ death. But again the historical facts are not corroborated in any non-Christian history or actual records by any authorities of the times they occurred.
“I’ll leave you all with this link, which was very informative: From Jesus to Christ.”
RLS: “I’m a little confused as to why you would say that the historical facts about Jesus are not corroborated in ‘actual records’? I provided six pieces of specific evidence for Jesus that even skeptical, non-Christian scholars do not dispute. I’d love to hear your response to that. And I mentioned earlier that we’ve got early extra-biblical references to Jesus by non-Christian authors including Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Julius Africanus, Origen, and Pliny the Younger. I’d love to hear your response to that, as well. In addition, I see no reason why we should not also count the writings of the New Testament authors as historically valid. I’d love to hear your response to that, too. Respectfully, it seems to me your issue may not be that there is no evidence for Jesus, but that you’re not willing to consider or engage with the evidence in front of you.”
HENRY: “Watch the PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ and it will address much of what we’ve been covering here in these threads, Rob. It explains how the movement began as a Jewish sect first and was later exported by Paul to include Gentiles. The Gospels aren’t actual proof, and neither are conversions to any faith by even one’s own family members. Josephus only mentions Jesus once in history and not as God himself. Again I’m not trying to diminish your viewpoints, but just clarify things that are not based in actual facts versus stories past down over the centuries.”
RLS: “No worries, Henry. I don’t feel like you’re trying to diminish my viewpoints. We’re just having a friendly dialog! I am actually familiar with that PBS series. And if you’re genuinely interested in facts you should be aware that what it offers is not even close to an accurate (or even balanced) perspective on Jesus. It is built entirely around liberal theology. And I’m not using the word ‘liberal’ in the political sense. I’m talking about Protestant Liberalism, which emerged in the 19th century as a specific approach to Christianity. It’s an approach that differs significantly from historic orthodoxy and is essentially a rejection of biblical Christianity. Which is why we don’t see a single evangelical or orthodox scholar in the entire series. What they present is not an accurate historical or Biblical description of Jesus, but rather the biased beliefs of a carefully chosen group of liberal scholars. It’s the equivalent of PBS producing a series on Barack Obama based on the beliefs and interviews of right-wing conservatives.
“I understand that you don’t believe in the real Jesus of the Bible and history, who was God incarnate and who came to us out of His great love for mankind and sacrificed Himself to liberate and save us from our sins. And I respect your right to believe that. I just want to point out that the ‘actual facts’ on which your arguments are based are not as factual as you think they are.
“Which leads me to want to ask you a question, if you don’t mind: If Christianity were true, would you become a Christian?”
HENRY: “Frontline and PBS are credible journalism sources. Also, the people they interview are scholars from different universities, such as Notre Dame, etc. I wouldn’t call that liberal as universities go.
“As far as (Christianity) being true, we still have that problem with facts. And unless it included everyone I wouldn’t join it. I’m not against it as much as I like a lot of the teachings or tenants of Christianity. But if you study other religions, you find many of the same positive messages, and sometimes bad ones as well.
“If you think about it logically, why would any omnipotent being (God) need anyone to be worshiped or have power over their creation? There are just too many cases of abuse of religious power in all religions that make me wary of them. Also, if God really did exist as religions portend them, why would the Pope or leaders/hierarchy be any closer to God than the lowest person on earth? I do like the positive community sense of religion, but it’s the dark side that controls the levels of power/morality that scares me.”
RLS: “Man, I hear you about religious abuse! It breaks my heart whenever I hear of people abusing their religious authority to manipulate or control other people. That is so wrong! Jesus’ harshest words were aimed at religious leaders who did this. He called them hypocrites, fools, blind guides, unclean, full of dead men’s bones, and snakes. (Matt 23, Luke 11). In fact, Jesus said this about them, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (Matt 15:8). So you and I and Jesus all agree about that!
“Henry, please don’t judge Christianity based on the actions of humans who abuse it. Christians who abuse their religious authority are directly disobeying Jesus Himself. Your problem is not with the teachings of Jesus or Christianity as a belief system, it’s with the people who abuse it. For example, any Christian leader who claims they are closer to God than the lowest person on earth is doing the opposite of what Christianity teaches! Every single human being on earth has direct access to God because of Jesus. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). We do not need to go through priests or Popes or televangelists. “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb 4:16). True, biblical Christianity is about loving God and loving people. It’s not about wielding power or control over other people.”
HENRY: “Unfortunately there are too many current church leaders, especially evangelical ones, who while good intentioned originally, fall prey to the $$$$$. They also preach a sanitized, suburban white Jesus that has no poverty, immigration, monetary, and identity issues. This is what Reza Azlan was referring to in my earlier posts as the “Jesus The Christ” vs. the “Jesus of History”. In my 61 years, I’ve found people who truly are Spiritual of any kind, are usually calmest with themselves and feel no need to advertise their religion.”
RLS: “There are some more things that You and I and Jesus all agree on! Preachers who fall prey to the money and the fame are getting it all wrong. And preachers that make Jesus out to be a white, Western man with blue eyes and a sweet beard are not preaching the true biblical Jesus. He was a first-century Jew born in the Middle East who walked among the people (not flew over them in a multi-million dollar jet) and hung out with everybody from religious teachers to thieves and prostitutes.”
“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” —Matthew 20:25-28
“And that’s my larger point, Henry. Please don’t judge Christianity based on the actions of people who abuse it. Christians who abuse their religious authority are directly disobeying Jesus Himself. And don’t gloss over the fact that there are also plenty of evangelical Christian pastors who do it right. Even some of the more famous guys, like John Piper (in your neck of the woods) and Rick Warren who wrote the mega best-selling book (The Purpose Driven Life) and now gives 90% of his income to charity. So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“Given our mutual understanding about what Jesus really taught, let me ask you the same question again. If Christianity were true—the actual biblical version where Jesus is not a white Republican, where He came to serve, not be served, and He loved the poor as well as the rich, and He broke with the societal norms of his day by treating women, people of other races, and sick/weak/poor people with dignity—would you become a Christian?”
To date, Henry has not responded to my final question.