If you were to ask a Christian, or rather a gospel-reading Christian, who the ‘Son of Man’ is, invariably, you will get the answer that he is Jesus. As this article will show, what is surprising is that the very early Christians did not believe that Jesus was the Son of Man. In fact, one never finds the phrase in any of Paul’s writings, whose authentic letters span the fifties CE. Moreover, despite what the gospels say, reading between the lines, in all probability, Jesus thought the Son of Man was someone else. Furthermore, there is serious doubt whether the Son of Man actually exists or ever existed.
The phrase ‘son of man’ appears roughly 200 times in the Bible, about 70 of which appear in the gospels. Ordinarily, it means ‘human being,’ and it always has this meaning in Ezekiel, where it appears about 90 times. For instance, in Ezekiel chapter 2 alone it appears 4 times:
“And he [God] said unto me [Ezekiel], ‘Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee.’ And the spirit entered into me when he spake unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spake unto me. And he said unto me, ‘Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children and stiffhearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, “Thus saith the Lord God.” And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them. And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house. And thou shalt speak my words unto them, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear: for they are most rebellious. But thou, son of man, hear what I say unto thee; be not thou rebellious like that rebellious house: open thy mouth, and eat that I give thee.’ And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein; And he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.” (Ezekiel 2:1–10, KJV, emphasis mine)
All 4 occurrences of the phrase “son of man” in this passage mean ‘human being’ and it is not a title of any sort.
In the gospels, however, most of the time, it refers to Jesus, and it is a sort of title. Some of the verses are very clear who the phrase refers to; to give a few examples:
“When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, ‘Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?’” (Matthew 16:13, KJV, emphasis mine)
Note the all-telling phrase “I the Son of man.”
“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40, KJV, emphasis mine)
Jesus was the one buried for three partial days.
“As they [the apostles Peter, James, and John] came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, ‘Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.’” (Matthew 17:9, KJV, emphasis mine)
Jesus was the one who resurrected.
“And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples [apostles] apart in the way, and said unto them, ‘Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death.’” (Matthew 20:17–18, KJV, emphasis mine)
Jesus was the one who was betrayed by his apostle Judas and consequently sentenced to death.
But there are several exceptions in the gospels where it’s not so obvious who the phrase refers to; for example:
“Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me [Jesus] and of my words in this adulterous [unfaithful] and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38, KJV, emphasis mine)
Notice the word “also,” which gives the impression that the “Son of Man” is someone other than Jesus. Luke’s gospel, written around 90 CE, twenty-odd years after Mark’s, gives the same verse almost word for word, except that it strategically leaves out the word “also”—presumably, not to leave any doubt in the reader’s mind.
“Whosoever shall be ashamed of me [Jesus] and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:26, KJV, emphasis mine)
Mark’s version (the one that includes the word “also”), however, passes the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’: something embarrassing Christians would not make up—like Jesus’s crucifixion or baptism—but which has the ring of truth. This means that it is, most probably, what Jesus said originally. Recall that Mark’s gospel was the earliest gospel written (around 70 CE) and so probably the most authentic. Luke’s version is what later Christians (who wanted to extol him higher than he claimed to be) started to believe in Jesus. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman explains this much better in his book Did Jesus Exist?
“The sayings in which Jesus talks about himself as the Son of Man cannot pass the criterion of dissimilarity. But the sayings in which Jesus seems to be talking about someone else do pass the criterion: surely Christians who thought Jesus was the Son of Man would not make up sayings that appear to differentiate between him and the Son of Man.” (p. 306)
So, what made Christians start to believe that Jesus was the Son of Man? Look at the following two gospel verses:
“Jesus said unto them [his apostles], ‘Verily I say unto you, that ye which have followed me, in the regeneration [new world order] when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” (Matthew 19:28, KJV, emphasis mine)
The ‘new world order’ corresponds to the ‘kingdom of God/heaven’—a kingdom of justice, sharing, and love—as we have seen in the last posted article by the same title.
“That ye [apostles] may eat and drink at my [Jesus’s] table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:30, KJV)
Now, if the apostles were going to judge the tribes of Israel, it stands to reason that Jesus (as their master) would judge the whole world. In fact, in the Apostles creed, which can probably be traced back to the first century CE, we still pray,
“From there [heaven] He [Jesus] will come to judge the living and the dead.” (Catholic Online: “The Apostles’ Creed,” accessed April 11, 2022)
Now, look at this verse from Matthew’s gospel:
“As therefore the tares [weeds] are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:40–42, KJV, emphasis mine)
In this passage, again it is uncertain whether Jesus is referring to himself: but the “Son of Man” seems to be a ‘cosmic’ character sent by God to judge the whole world at the ‘end-times’; that is, prior to the inauguration of the ‘kingdom of God’ (or ‘kingdom of heaven’). In fact, it hardly seems that Jesus is referring to himself here: throughout his life, he always tried to convert, not eliminate, sinners. It sounds more like a warning than a threat.
Let me start our discussion of this subject by first quoting New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? Regarding the kingdom of God, he writes,
“The future kingdom [of God] would be brought by a cosmic judge whom Jesus called the Son of Man.” (p. 305)
In other words, according to a biblical scholar, the phrase ‘Son of Man’ does not seem to refer to Jesus himself. I must admit I was quite astonished when I first read about this concept: I always thought that Jesus simply referred to himself by the phrase ‘Son of Man.’
Book of Daniel
But who could this cosmic judge be if not Jesus? We find the answer in the Old Testament book of Daniel. The protagonist of the book had the following vision:
“I [Daniel] saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days [God], and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13–14, KJV, emphasis mine)
So, according to Daniel, a world-wide kingdom of God was transferred to this “Son of Man” to rule it indefinitely. Jesus, of course, never questioned scriptures; so, he assumed the existence of this cosmic ruler, the Son of Man, in his speeches and teachings.
It seems, therefore, that Daniel’s vision was a future one: the Son of Man was supposed to come in the ‘end-times’ to judge everyone prior to establishing God’s kingdom on earth. So, it’s not clear whether the Son of Man, in fact, existed during Daniel’s vision. Notice also that there is absolutely no indication that this Son of Man was supposed to suffer at all, nor die as the gospels suggest above. Have a look at this verse, which is much clearer:
“For as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of man be in his day. But first must he suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation.” (Luke 17:24–25, KJV)
Of course, such verses are made-up nonsense by the evangelists: it doesn’t jibe with Daniel’s portrayal of the Son of Man.
Now, Daniel was written around 165 BCE (although its author claims he wrote it around 600 BCE); but in any case, there is no doubt that Jesus, as a human being, was inexistent when this book was written.
However, because of the many gospel verses identifying Jesus with the Son of Man, and assuming that the Son of Man existed in heaven at the time of Daniel’s vision, Christians reasoned that it was Jesus who appeared in Daniel’s vision. Indeed, they believe Jesus existed prior to his birth, from the beginning of the universe, as God’s “Word.” In fact, in John’s gospel, we read,
“In the beginning [of creation] was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1, 14 KJV)
Some Christian denominations, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe that Jesus is Michael the Archangel in human form. (Reed, accessed April 12, 2022) So, Jesus is supposedly ‘God’s Word,’ the ‘Son of Man,’ and Michael the Archangel; not to mention also ‘Son of God’ and even ‘God.’ All this confusion clearly shows that from the Bible one cannot tell who Jesus really is. I like to keep things simple: I do believe Jesus was born of a sperm donated directly by the Holy Spirit to his mother, Mary; but I also believe that he was inexistent before his birth (i.e., around 5 BCE) like all of us.
Again, in his book Did Jesus Exist? New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman continues,
“The sayings that make this differentiation [between Jesus and the Son of Man] are always ones that predict what will happen in the future, when the Son of Man comes in judgement on the earth. These sayings are also multiply attested in early sources …. Conclusion: Jesus appears to have talked about a future Son of Man who would bring God’s kingdom.” (pp. 306–7, emphasis mine)
The ambiguous references to the ‘Son of Man,’ therefore, always relate to his coming in judgement in the end-times. Notice that Ehrman adds, “These sayings are also multiply attested in early sources”; so, it is probably the case.
It follows, therefore, that we have another contradiction in the Bible (a subtle one, perhaps): that is, passages that say that Jesus is the “Son of Man” and passages that say (or at least imply) that the “Son of Man” is someone else.
So much also for the Apostles’ Creed where it says, “from there [heaven] he [Jesus] will come to judge the living and the dead.” Although that is what Christians believe, Jesus himself did not seem to think that he was going to be the judge of all of humanity: as far as he was concerned, the Son of Man was given that responsibility. So, oddly enough, our most ancient Christian creed is not even authentically Christian.
Not convinced yet? Here is another interesting passage from Matthew’s gospel; it portrays Jesus saying,
“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat [food]: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’ Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?’ And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’ Then shall they also answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?’ Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.’ And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (Matthew 25:31–46, KJV)
First, notice that in this passage, there is absolutely no mention of Jesus: the only reference is to the “Son of Man.” Second, according to this passage, all one must do to enter the “kingdom” of the “Father” (the ‘kingdom of God’ or the ‘kingdom of heaven’) and gain “life everlasting” is to do good deeds to others in need. So basically, all one must do is to observe the core of the Mosaic Law.
Probably needless to mention, this is contrary to Christian theology because one of the tenets of Christianity is to believe in Jesus’s death, resurrection, and his being the Son of God and our Savior to enter the kingdom of God (or heaven). In the above passage, the “righteous” had no clue who the “Son of Man” was, and they still entered God’s kingdom! So, the title “Son of Man,” here could not have originally referred to Jesus: because according to early (and even modern) Christian teaching, one could not possibly enter the kingdom of God (or heaven) unless one knew and acknowledged Jesus as God’s Son and one’s Savior. Consequently, the evangelist Matthew seems to have slipped here. The above gospel passage, therefore, passes the criterion of dissimilarity and, consequently, it’s most probably authentic: that is, what Jesus actually said.
Let me now quote New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to confirm what I just wrote here: this way, I will be more convincing. He comments as follows on the last passage from Matthew’s gospel:
“The future [last] judgement is based, not on belief in Jesus’s death and resurrection, but on doing good things to those in need. Later Christians—including … Paul … [and] other writers of the Gospel—maintained that it was belief in Jesus that would bring a person into the coming kingdom. But nothing in this passage even hints at the need to believe in Jesus per se: these people didn’t even know him. … The conclusion? The sayings of the passage probably go back to Jesus.” (pp. 312–13, emphasis mine)
Let me reiterate Ehrman’s conclusion here: “The sayings of the passage probably go back to Jesus.” This means they bear much more weight, for us Christians, than any other passages in the New Testament, including those by Paul. Consequently, belief in Jesus as well as ‘substitutional atonement’ (Savior) seem to be false doctrines. In fact, in his book God and Empire, John Dominic Crossan states,
“It is certainly correct … to call Jesus’ death—or in fact the death of a martyr—a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of a sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the [non-violent] radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’ execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation [well-being].” (pp. 140–41, emphasis in original)
Apparently, the apostles lost Jesus (a great miracle worker) so abruptly that the only way they could make sense of it was assuming it was all part of God’s plan and that Jesus had to die to deliver us from our sins. And that’s what they taught Paul when he converted to Christianity. Paul, being new to Christianity, regurgitated their then-current ‘creed’:
“I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” (First Corinthians 15:3, KJV)
But, in fact, there are no Old Testament scriptures saying that the ‘Messiah’ (Jewish for ‘Christ’) must suffer. The Messiah was supposed to be a great Israelite king (the calibre of David and Solomon) who would rule the whole world with God’s help.
It goes without saying, that despite what Christians believe, the above theological concepts are false; they rob God of his impartiality: God gives rain to everyone—good or bad. Since modern Christians equate the kingdom of God to heaven, these doctrines condemn the majority (about 5.5 billion) of humanity to hell, possibly leaving only (about 2.4 billion) Christians who can go to heaven. If this were truly the case, then Satan has defeated God—hands down—throughout the ages.
Although, throughout the gospels, Jesus seems to refer to himself as the Son of Man, in his book God and Empire, also biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan makes it clear that he does not think Jesus adopted the title himself; he believes that the evangelists assigned it to him (p.127): basically agreeing with Ehrman that Jesus is not the Son of Man.
So, it seems Catholics are right in this respect: we probably all have to pay a fair price for our sins in purgatory before we can enter heaven. In other words, Jesus did not pay for our sins, as Protestants believe. Here’s another quote from Matthew’s gospel confirming this:
“For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16: 27–28, KJV, emphasis mine)
In other words, Jesus thought that the coming of the kingdom of God (in which God ‘rules’ in our heart) was imminent—within his generation; he was wrong, of course, by two millennia and counting: showing that he was only human: it shows he didn’t know everything, so he couldn’t possibly also be divine (God).
Of course, I don’t believe the punishment for our sins will be eternal. (Refer to my article on “Hell” to see why.) Recall also that, in Jesus’s mind, the ‘kingdom of God’ was a kingdom on earth: in fact, in the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ we still pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth” (Catholic Online: “The Our Father,” accessed April 13, 2022, emphasis mine). See my last article on the “Kingdom of God/Heaven.”
In short, most of the time in the gospels, the phrase ‘Son of Man’ refers to Jesus because later Christians assigned this ‘title’ to him; however, in fact, the Son of Man should not refer to Jesus. Jesus himself probably believed that there would be a universal judge inaugurating the beginning of the kingdom of God.
Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus thinking that the Son of Man will accomplish his task in one fell swoop: like lightning flashes across the sky from east to west.
“For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” (Matthew 24:27, KJV)
This verse is repeated, almost word for word, in Luke’s gospel. (Luke 17:24)
According to the gospels, following the coming of the Son of Man, the end of the earth as we know it will ensue. In Matthew’s gospel, the above verse is immediately followed by these words of Jesus:
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. … Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” (Matthew 24:29–31, 34, KJV, emphasis mine)
So, Matthew portrays Jesus predicting the end of the earth as we know it prior to the establishment of a brand new one within the then-living generation. The same concept of the ‘end-times’ is also found in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels. (See Mark 13:24–27 & Luke 21:24–28, 31–32, 36)
Notice also that Jesus did not seem to realize that if a single star (like the sun) were to fall upon the earth, it would disintegrate the earth—the earth would not survive the conflagration. However, in those days, people taught that stars were small—the size of a fig, say. This means that, even according to gospel texts, Jesus did not know everything, especially scientific facts: which implies that he was only human; thus showing he cannot be God.
Note, however, that Jesus seems to keep himself distanced from this ‘cleansing’ action: the task is delegated to the Son of Man. Naturally, this conforms with Jesus’s totally-non-violent character.
Incidentally, Jehovah’s Witnesses (and other Christian denominations) believe there are no humans in heaven, except Jesus, because of the following verse in John’s gospel portraying Jesus telling Pharisee Nicodemus:
“No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which [who] is in heaven.” (John 3:13, KJV)
Of course, their belief crumbles all to dust if Jesus is not the Son of Man himself: in other words, if this is truly the case, not even Jesus is in heaven—by their own teaching.
Still, the Son of Man possibly only existed in Jesus’s imagination: the way he understood Scriptures as written in Daniel; it does not even follow that he really exists. For all we know, it was only a vision or a dream Daniel had: we don’t really know whether what he saw was factual. So the very existence of the Son of Man, even biblically, is questionable. The introduction to Daniel’s dream or vision goes,
“Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream.” (Daniel 7:1, KJV)
Remember also that Jesus was only human, and keep in mind that the Bible is not a truth factory, either.
Incidentally, Jesus could not possibly have said the last clause “who is in heaven” if he was referring to himself. In writing the last clause “who is in heaven,” the evangelist John seems to have forgotten, momentarily, that Jesus was supposed to be speaking in this account—not the evangelist himself: Jesus could not possibly be in heaven while speaking to Nicodemus. It may be worth clarifying what the evangelist means here. At the time his gospel was being written (i.e., some 70 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection), Jesus had presumably ascended into heaven. Since Jesus was referring to himself in the text, he could not possibly have uttered this clause while speaking to Nicodemus (i.e., while he was still alive); naturally, he only went to heaven after he died and was resurrected. Talk about ‘gospel truth’!
In his book Did Jesus Exist? New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman explains how the phrase kingdom of God is used in the New Testament: it might be a little surprising to some readers; he writes,
“When people today hear the term kingdom of God, they typically think of heaven, as the place where souls go once they die. But that is not what [was] meant …. For Jesus the kingdom was an actual place, here on earth, where God would rule supreme. … The kingdom was a real tangible place, where love, peace, and justice would prevail.” (p. 305)
Ehrman then refers to a few quotes from the gospels to show this is the case.
Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus telling his apostles that, in this new kingdom, they were all going to be rulers sitting on thrones and judging the twelve Hebrew tribes; we read,
“Jesus said unto them [his apostles], ‘Verily I say unto you, that ye which have followed me, in the regeneration [new age (NAB)] when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” (Matthew 19:28, KJV)
Of course, it goes without saying that, if his apostles were going to be rulers, Jesus would still be above his apostles: that is, he would be their head, or the ‘king,’ of this so-called kingdom of God.
Luke’s gospel portrays Jesus thinking that there would be normal eating and drinking in this new kingdom.
“He [Jesus] said unto them [his apostles], ‘with desire I have desired to eat this Passover [meal] with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.’” (Luke 22:15–18, KJV)
And again, Luke’s gospel portrays Jesus warning people that they might be left out of this new kingdom unless they measure up; we read,
“There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.” (Luke 13:28, KJV)
In my article “Adam and Eve—Original Sin” I argued that the story of Adam and Eve is only a myth and, therefore, no original sin was actually committed; consequently, God never expected Jesus to atone for original sin or our sins. So, what did God desire of Jesus? I believe God begot his Son, Jesus, so that he could show us, through example, the best way to live this gift of life: never to use violence and establish a personal relationship with God.
In fact, John’s gospel portrays Jesus telling the Pharisees, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10, KJV) I don’t think he was talking about riches, here. And elsewhere, the same gospel portrays Jesus telling his apostle Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6, KJV) Assuming Jesus did really utter this last clause, I interpret it as ‘through Jesus’s teachings’ because they apply to all humans: that is, not through belief that Jesus is God’s Son, nor through his intercession with the Father.
Humanity, in the time of Jesus, was completely lost: it had no sense of direction; perhaps the same as nowadays, I would dare say. God did not beget his Son to die atoning for our sins; Jesus’s death was a consequence of his mission from his Father. Let me explain why.
In one of the undisputed Pauline letters, First Corinthians, we read,
“Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:6–8, KJV, emphasis mine)
Notice the phrases: “not the wisdom of this world” and “the wisdom of God.” What, exactly, is the “wisdom of this world” and how does it differ from “the wisdom of God”?
Violence has been the drug of choice of humanity throughout all ages. Particularly, Rome’s ‘theology’ at the time of Jesus was: conquer by the violence of war, and once victory is achieved, it would be followed by ‘peace’—the famous Pax Romana, Latin for ‘Roman Peace.’ There would be nobody left in the conquered land, anyway; so, there had to be peace: everybody was killed by the Roman legions.
In this article, I shall show how God gradually guided Jesus what to teach humanity: that the kingdom of God can only come on earth through the non-violent means of justice, sharing, equality, love, kindness, mercy, and truth; followed inevitably by true peace and happiness. Naturally, the rest of the world did not have much faith in this type of behavior. In fact, Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus saying,
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven [i.e., kingdom of God (see next section)] suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Matthew 11:12, KJV)
[Apparently the evangelist momentarily forgot that Jesus (and not himself) was supposed to be speaking in this verse.] What this verse means is that, since the time of John the Baptist (i.e., around 30 CE) to the time of Matthew’s writing his gospel (i.e., around 80 CE)—that is, for about half a century after Jesus died—Jesus’s opponents had been trying to prevent people from accepting the kingdom of God and to snatch it away from those who had received it by violent means. From experience we know that frequently justice is hindered and injustice perpetrated by violent means. John the Baptist’s and Jesus’s deaths were two obvious examples of such violence—not to mention Peter’s and Paul’s in the mid-60s CE.
Kingdom of Heaven
From various texts in Matthew’s gospel, one can deduce that the author’s congregation was “originally strongly Jewish-Christian” (NAB, p. 10). So, in most instances, the author substituted the expression ‘kingdom of heaven’ for ‘kingdom of God’ out of respect for the name of God, which was normally “avoided by devout Jews of the time” (NAB, Matthew 3:2n).
Let us examine one obvious case, from the synoptic gospels, just to prove the point.
Mark’s gospel portrays Jesus saying,
“Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them [his disciples], ‘Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24–25, KJV, emphasis mine)
Luke’s gospel has practically the same thing.
“When Jesus saw that he [the would-be follower] was very sorrowful, he said, ‘How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25, KJV emphasis mine)
But Matthew renders these verses,
“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, ‘Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’” (Matthew 19:23–24, KJV, emphasis mine)
That is, Matthew uses the phrases “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” synonymously.
As mentioned, to Jesus the kingdom of God was a kingdom of justice, non-violence, sharing, equality, peace, happiness, love, kindness, mercy, and truth. However, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s gospel introduces overtones of the afterlife. This is where and how our confusion started from.
In the above verses by the three synoptic evangelists, Jesus warns us that it is much harder for rich people to join the kingdom of God, which is an earthly kingdom. Of course, he says it in the form of a hyperbole and should not be taken literally; however, it is true that rich and powerful people (addicted to money and power) tend not to play fair and to lord it over others. Obviously, such an attitude is not conducive to an environment of sharing and equality. So, the erroneous conclusion from these verses by later Christian churches (equating the ‘kingdom of God’ or the ‘kingdom of heaven’ to heaven) was that most, if not all, rich people will go to hell. But the kingdom of God (or equivalently the kingdom of heaven) was supposed to be a kingdom on this earth.
It might also interest the reader that, according to Wikipedia, there are other considerations to this rather strange last verse. It says that fifth century CE Christian church patriarch “Cyril of Alexandria … claimed that ‘camel’ was a Greek scribal typo where kamêlos (… camel) was written in place of kamilos, (… meaning ‘rope’ or ‘cable’)” (Wikipedia: “Eye of a Needle,” accessed March 4, 2022).
Still, it is rather impossible to thread a rope through the eye of a needle, but it is more in line with the verse’s exaggeration—it makes more sense.
Alternatively, Wikipedia adds:
“The ‘Eye of the Needle’ has been claimed to be a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed at night. A camel could not pass through this smaller gate unless it was stooped and had its baggage removed. This story has been put forth since at least the 15th century, and possibly as far back as the 9th century. However, there is no widely accepted evidence for the existence of such a gate” (Wikipedia: “Eye of a Needle,” accessed March 4, 2022).
Personally, I tend to lean toward this latter explanation.
Something like this explanation is a classic example of how biblical concepts become tangled over time. Obviously, this verse became quite an incentive for a rich person to donate one’s wealth to the church on one’s death-bed.
Anyway, the most important point, I want to make here, is that the phrases ‘kingdom of God’ and ‘kingdom of heaven’ in the gospels are one and the same thing. They both mean a somewhat utopian ‘kingdom’ of the heart on this earth and have nothing to do with the afterlife. If the reader is still unconvinced, recall the words of the prayer commonly known as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ or the ‘Our Father.’ It says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”—notice my emphases.
Kingdom of God
The kingdom of God can only come on earth if everyone pitches in.
Imagine a place where people do not drive on one side of the road, they drive any which way they feel like and they have no driving rules. It would be a nightmare trying to get from one place to another. Cars will have to move much more slowly and cautiously. We would drive nowhere close to one hundred kilometers (c. 62 mi.) per hour or faster.
Likewise, think of people’s behavior in a building on fire—they push, stumble, and step on one another: with the result that hardly anyone gets out and saves oneself. Meanwhile, had they tried to organize themselves and move out rationally, and perhaps some of them tried to control the fire in the meantime, many more would be able to escape the fire.
Our solidarity in sin, has, over time, constituted dominating systems that are now equivalent to what one might call ‘powers of evil’ that one person alone cannot defeat. Besides the fact that the whole of society must realize that we must all act together, I doubt whether we can achieve this by ourselves; that is, without any direct help from God himself.
About two millennia ago, Jesus came to help us accomplish this—he jump-started things for us—but after two-thousand-odd years, it still did not happen. It looked like it was going to happen initially:
“All that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat [food] with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:44–47)
But it stalled. So naturally we expect Jesus to come a second time to finish the job. But, would a second coming make any difference?
I think a wait of two thousand years for Jesus’s Second Coming should be enough for us to reconsider our thinking. I think God is waiting for us to wake up. We need to give up our drug of choice first—violence. God will help us; but first we must realize what we are doing wrong and decide that we really want to do this together. Then Jesus will be in our midst again, not necessarily physically, but certainly in spirit: when the whole of humanity is living in a kingdom of God’s making.
We figured out that we must drive on one side of the road—that all of us must do it. We have learnt to trust what the other person is going to do on the road. But we have not yet figured out what to do in a burning building. Complete honesty and trust in God are the requirements for his special assistance. Personally, I do not think I could think and act rationally in a burning building—unless God gives me special help at that very moment. I have, however, in the past, experienced special help from God that enabled me to do things that I did not believe I could do. Perhaps the reader has too—on very rare occasions.
Let us, however, for a moment, forget about rare situations like terrorism, ideological or ethnic wars, and burning buildings; let us concentrate on everyday life and share what we have with others: practice will then enable us to do the harder things, when and if the time comes. God assures us that he will be there for us on the side of good and truth, ready to help us. He also assures us that the power of good is greater than the power of evil. Like light has an advantage over darkness: it simply cuts through darkness. He also assures us that doing good to others is contagious and spreads like wildfire or a weed. In fact, Mark’s gospel portrays Jesus saying,
“Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.” (Mark 4:30–32, KJV)
However, it so happened that in the process of preaching the kingdom of God, Jesus got killed by the church and state of his time; he was an accusatory stumbling-block to both. Jesus (and his Father) probably knew that he was going to end up killed because of this, but he had to show us that in following him, we too will probably have to suffer. Jesus died as a consequence of our sins—because of our sins, because of the way the world had become—not to pay for our sins. It is easy to confuse these two concepts.
The sequence of what normally happens is clearly shown in John’s gospel. First the church accused Jesus.
“The Jews answered him [Pilate], ‘We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.’” (John 19:7, KJV)
Then the state accused Jesus.
“But the Jews cried out, saying, ‘If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.’” (John 19:12, KJV)
Finally, the church joined the state in accusing Jesus.
“The chief priests answered: ‘We have no king but Caesar.’” (John 19:15, KJV)
In failing to recognize a man of God and a miracle-worker, like Jesus, one might wonder where God fitted in the lives of these chief priests.
Jesus came to challenge the social paradigms of his time: proclaiming a better life. He did not come to form his own government; in fact, he apparently avoided kingship according to John’s gospel.
“When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.” (John 6:15, KJV)
He also taught that God and state are compatible.
“Jesus answering said unto them [the Pharisees and Herodians], ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” (Mark 12:17, KJV)
God is not interested in a political kingdom: he only wants to ‘reign’ in our heart/mind.
John’s gospel portrays Jesus conversing with the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, during his trial.
“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence [here].’ Pilate therefore said unto him, ‘Art thou a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.’” (John 18:36–37, KJV)
Jesus here declares that his kingdom (the kingdom of God), unlike any other earthly kingdom, is a kingdom of non-violence and truth. He also declared that this is the reason why he was born—to be the king of such a kingdom—hence, the meaning of ‘Christ the King.’
However, Jesus, like God, wants to reign in our heart—he does not desire a political kingdom: politics and God’s kingdom are, therefore, compatible. What is a little harder to understand is the phrase “this world”; it means the world of those days—the Roman Empire: its ideology, which, as I argued, was based on war, victory, and what it called ‘peace.’
Unfortunately, over time, the here and now changed to the hereafter—getting us off the hook. The clause “but now my kingdom is not from hence [here]” may be misleading: we might think it is a kingdom in heaven. Yet, it is a non-violent earthly kingdom, which has heavenly roots: “as it is in heaven.”
Son of God
An interesting and important question is whether Jesus was aware that he had a mission from God, and that he was supposed to promote this ‘kingdom of God.’
In Luke’s gospel, we read that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit who donated a sperm to his mother, Mary; we read,
“The angel [Gabriel] said unto her [Mary], ‘… Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest [God] ….’ Then said Mary unto the angel, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man [have no husband]?’ And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost [Spirit] shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest [God] shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing [offspring] which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’” (Luke 1:30–32, 34–35, KJV, emphasis mine)
Assuming this was the case, I presume Jesus’s mother, Mary, would eventually have told him about all this. So, I would not be surprised that Jesus may have considered himself to be literally the Son of God, and that he had to do something about it. Incidentally, Mary’s acceptance of such a role (see Luke 1:38) was breathtaking: in those days, adulterers, especially women, were stoned to death (see John 8:5).
Donating a special sperm so that Mary could conceive Jesus is not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things: God can perform much greater miracles; take, for example, the ‘Miracle of the Sun’ near Fatima, Portugal. I believe that Jesus’s virgin birth did happen (see my article on “Mary’s Virginity”) and that, therefore, Jesus is the Son of God par excellence. But then I do not believe that Jesus is also God, or that he existed before his birth—as most of Christianity tends to believe—I think there is only one God, and Jesus is only human.
In the New Testament, there is hardly any doubt that Jews despised their ruling Romans. For starters they hated paying taxes to Rome, and they considered native tax collectors traitors and even public sinners.
They also hated, in a special manner, the Roman legions. Here is an account of a miracle in Mark’s gospel, supposedly performed by Jesus, showing Jewish sentiments toward the Roman legions.
“They [Jesus and his apostles] came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes. And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains: Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones. But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him, and cried with a loud voice, and said, ‘What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.’ For he said unto him, ‘Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit.’ And he [Jesus] asked him, ‘What is thy name?’ And he answered, saying, ‘My name is Legion: for we are many.’ And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country. Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding. And all the devils besought him, saying, ‘Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them.’ And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand); and were choked in the sea.” (Mark 5:1–13, KJV, emphasis mine)
I find Jesus’s alleged behavior—allowing the evil spirits to enter the swine—somewhat unbecoming of his general character. Moreover, it seems that two-thousand-odd demons’ possessing one person is unlikely. But then, a legion consisting of several thousand (c. 5,000) legionaries might have personified the devil incarnate to a patriotic Jew.
Although Jesus might have performed an exorcism of some sort, I think the account is exaggerated and shows the hatred the Jews had for Rome and its legions. Whenever a Roman colony rebelled, the Romans sent their legions, and they levelled it to the ground: they were hated and had the worst of reputations. Indeed, they also levelled Jerusalem and destroyed its temple in 70 CE. This miracle account reeks of superstitious overtones too; to the Jews of that time, inside a pig was one of the worst places one could end up in—the pig was such a despicable animal: recall the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:15–16). The Roman legionaries’ place was inside pigs. That must have triggered a chuckle.
Furthermore, Jews hated the Roman Empire: revolutions abounded in Israel. The author of Revelation, the exiled John of Patmos, writes against Rome in code form: calling it Babylon (the nation that had exiled the Jews from 597 BCE to 537 BCE), comparing it to a whore, and telling Christians to stop sleeping with the devil, so to speak (Crossan, p. 142).
“I [John of Patmos] heard another voice from heaven, saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.’” (Revelation 18:4, KJV)
Biblical scholars detect erotic language in this verse; it is crudely telling the Christian church, “Interrupt your intercourse with her lest you become infected by her venereal diseases.”
In his article “Roman Religion,” ancient and medieval history teacher Donald Wasson writes that one wise policy the Roman Empire had was freedom of religion. The Romans did not force anyone to adopt their religion or any of their gods; while, at the same time, they adopted and included most foreign gods with their own—lest the deities might be offended if they did not.
Since the Jews believed in only one God, they did not participate in the worship of the Roman gods, nor did they offer sacrifices to the Roman gods or the emperor—who was declared divine—as the rest of the empire did. Jews were therefore considered ‘atheists’ of some sort by Roman standards, but still they were fairly tolerated because they were firmly established throughout the Roman Empire; albeit they might have been blamed for many a misfortune because of their, so called irreligion (Wasson, accessed March 4, 2022).
So, had the chief priests accused Jesus of claiming to be the ‘Son of God,’ Pilate would have asked them which god and probably told them to get lost. His point would have been that it was a religious matter and that, consequently, it had to be sorted out by the religious authorities.
The problem for the Jews who wanted Jesus dead was that the Romans did not allow capital punishment to be carried out by the local people: only the Roman governor had the authority to execute a death penalty. But the religious authorities wanted Jesus dead for blaspheming—claiming to be literally the Son of God. I cannot say I blame them entirely; we would probably have reacted the same way nowadays if someone were to claim to be, literally, the son of God. So, they had to somehow show the governor conspiracy against the state: a strictly religious accusation would not have been enough for Pilate to consent to capital punishment.
In John’s gospel, initially the chief priests tried to be elusive in their accusations, but Pilate quickly put them in their place.
“Pilate then went out unto them [the crowd], and said, ‘What accusation bring ye against this man?’ They answered and said unto him, ‘If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee.’ Then said Pilate unto them, ‘Take ye him, and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews therefore said unto him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.’” (John 18:29–31, KJV)
True, the Jews despised the Roman colonists so much they would never have delivered one of their own to Pilate: probably not even if one was truly a revolutionary.
So that did not go too well with Pilate: they knew they could not execute him. So, they resorted to another plan: trying to explain blasphemy to Pilate.
“The Jews answered him, ‘we have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.’” (John 19:7, KJV)
But the chief priests probably also knew that this was not going to fly: Pilate could not care less about their laws or religious beliefs.
This was probably something that Jesus had claimed for the longest time. So, why did the chief priests not arrest him for it before? Because it was strictly a religious charge, and that would not have impressed Pilate at all.
They needed something more politically sensitive. Such opportunity was, apparently, given them by Judas Iscariot, who, according to the gospels, is said to have ‘betrayed’ Jesus. So, the crucial question is; when the gospels say that one of Jesus’s apostles, Judas Iscariot, betrayed Jesus: what exactly did they mean, what did he tell the religious authorities to make them think they had enough evidence to have him convicted of a capital offence? What did they pay Judas thirty silver pieces for?
This is what enabled the chief priests to bring out their third ace up their sleeve—the information Judas Iscariot gave them.
“But the Jews cried out, saying, ‘If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.’” (John 19:12, KJV)
Where did that come from? Jesus never declared himself king.
New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, in his book How Jesus Became God, explains what probably happened; we must read between the lines, of course. The gospels give us the impression that Judas Iscariot led the Jewish authorities to Jesus at a time when he was away from the crowds. Ehrman does not buy this explanation. He asks why they did not have him followed. Hiring an insider was totally unnecessary; he argues,
“There are reasons for thinking that in fact Judas betrayed something else. Here are two facts to bear in mind. The first is to reaffirm that we have no record of Jesus ever proclaiming himself to be the future king of the Jews, the messiah, in public context. This is never his message. His message is about the coming kingdom to be brought about by the Son of Man. He always keeps himself out of it. The second fact is that when the authorities arrested Jesus and handed him over to Pontius Pilate, the consistent report is that the charge leveled against him at this trial was that he called himself king of the Jews. If Jesus never preached in public that he was the future king, but this was the charge levelled against him at his trial, how did outsiders come to know of it? The simplest answer is that this is what Judas betrayed. Judas was one of the insiders to whom Jesus disclosed his vision of the future. Judas and the eleven others would all be rulers in the future kingdom. And Jesus would be the king. … He told the Jewish authorities what Jesus was actually teaching in private, and it was all they needed.” (pp. 121–22)
Although many gospel verses identify Jesus with the Son of Man, in the next post, by the same title, I shall show that Jesus did not think himself to be this Son of Man. The Son of Man was a character from the book of Daniel to whom was given dominion over God’s kingdom: he would judge and clean up the world in the end-times. It was a misinterpretation by the evangelists identifying Jesus as the Son of Man.
Reading between the lines of the following subtle, probing question, which in John’s gospel the chief priest asks Jesus right after he was arrested, agrees with what Ehrman contends above.
“The high priest then asked Jesus of his disciples, and of his doctrine. Jesus answered him, ‘I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing. Why askest thou me? Ask them which heard me, what I have said unto them: behold, they know what I said.’” (John 18:19–21, KJV)
Although the evangelist John portrays Jesus saying nothing different in private than in public, Ehrman argues that Jesus might have said something that could be misconstrued by outsiders. As we saw at the beginning of this article, he apparently told his apostles that in the coming kingdom of God they would all be judges of the Hebrew tribes, and that, by inference, he would be king of Israel. (See Matthew 19:28)
In fact, it is interesting to note that Jesus does not deny most of the Jews’ charges before Pilate. John’s gospel continues:
“Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, ‘Art thou the King of the Jews? Jesus answered him, ‘Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?’ Pilate answered, ‘Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence [here].’ Pilate therefore said unto him, ‘Art thou a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.’” (John 18:33–37, KJV)
After this discussion Pilate realized that Jesus was not a military threat: that Jesus was an idealist; he probably also thought that Jesus was just a dreamer, and so from then on he tried to release him. (See John 19:12)
In fact, he later makes a joke of the phrase ‘king of the Jews.’ After having Jesus scourged, he showed him to the crowd, also crowned with thorns.
“He [Pilate] saith unto the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’ But they cried out, ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’” (John 19:14–15, KJV)
Although it seems Pilate was toying with them, this last sentence must have struck him like a rock. Naturally, Pilate could not risk his career for a simple peasant; so, he went along with them in his verdict and condemned Jesus to death.
“Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was ‘Jesus Of Nazareth The King Of The Jews.’” (John 19:19, KJV, emphasis in original)
Thus, Jesus ended up the victim of church and state.
In his book God and Empire, biblical scholar John Crossan writes that people in the first century CE could hardly separate (distinguish between) church and state. The early Christians were not only religious but also political: church and state were like the two sides of the same coin. He points out, for example, that even Caesar’s coins had ‘Divi F’ inscribed, which is short for Divi Filius, meaning ‘Son of God.’ In the first century CE, church and state were synonymous, as the Church of England was a few centuries ago, or Christianity in the Roman Empire after Constantine adopted Christianity as the religion of the state. The ultimate question for the early Christians, therefore, was to whom does the world belong: God or the emperor? And how should it be run? (Crossan, p. 117) So, they adopted the Roman emperor’s titles and invested Jesus with them.
According to Unitarian Universalist Pastor Carl Gregg, in the days of the Roman Empire, it was dangerous to declare God king of the whole world because the emperor occupied that position.
“One aspect of historical Jesus studies that almost all scholars actually agree about is that a central aspect of Jesus’ ministry concerned speaking about the kingdom of God. And to speak about God being king, when Caesar had declared himself divine, was audacious to say the least.” (Gregg, accessed March 4, 2022, emphasis in original)
The phrase ‘whole world’ was synonymous to the Roman Empire.
Why is all this not clearly stated in the gospels? Well, following Jesus’s mandate to preach the gospel to the whole world, Christians wanted to infiltrate the Roman Empire (the whole world of that time). Consequently, they could not openly admit that Jesus might have been construed as an insurgent under Roman law, and that he might have been justly condemned by the Roman authorities; so, Christians blamed his death on Jewish envy of Jesus. In fact, even in the earliest gospel, Mark’s, we read, “For he [Pilate] knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy.” (Mark 15:10, KJV)
The reader should not be naïve enough to think that there are no politics involved in religion. Everyone knew for whom crucifixion was reserved—revolutionaries: there was no need for the evangelists to emphasize it in their writings. Had Christians admitted that Jesus might have been condemned fairly, they would not have been able to settle anywhere in the Roman Empire. Christians tried to integrate and merge with people in the Roman Empire as unobtrusively as possible. They obviously realized they had to somehow pussyfoot around Jesus’s crucifixion in the Roman Empire.
John the Baptist
John the Baptist was also a special person—by God’s standards, I mean. If one were to believe what Luke’s gospel says, his birth was also almost miraculous; we read,
“There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course [priestly division (NAB)] of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken [advanced] in years. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, ‘Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.’” (Luke 1:5–13’ KJV)
In short, although Elizabeth was barren and past her age of fertility, she still conceived a son—John the Baptist. As I argued above, I have no problem with miraculous (or almost miraculous) accounts; in other words, I have no reason to question this account since it does not contradict anything else in the gospels.
Now, according to Luke’s gospel, it also seems that John the Baptist and Jesus were related. Luke continues his account.
“After those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, ‘Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.’ And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, ‘Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.’ And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, ‘Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest [God]: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob [Israel] for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.’ Then said Mary unto the angel, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man [have no husband]?’ And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost [Spirit] shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest [God] shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing [offspring] which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be [is] impossible.’” (Luke 1:24–37, KJV, emphasis mine)
According to Luke, therefore, Mary and Elizabeth were ‘cousins’; so, chances are that John the Baptist and Jesus knew each other. Now John’s gospel contradicts this (see John 1:31, 33), but since Luke’s gospel was written prior to John’s gospel, I shall assume the former is the correct version of the facts.
Luke continues his account.
“Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; and entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost [Spirit]: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, ‘Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her [Mary] from the Lord.’” (Luke 1:39–45, KJV)
So, it is quite clear from this gospel that Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, somehow knew quite well what was going on with Mary’s pregnancy.
John the Baptist, therefore, probably realized that God wanted something special from him, too, because, I presume, his parents told him about his almost miraculous conception and the angel’s apparition telling Zachary that “he shall be great in the sight of the Lord.” (Luke 1:15, KJV) He, therefore, started a mission of preaching repentance of personal sins and baptizing (symbolizing both cleansing and rebirth by immersion in water) people in the River Jordan: he believed there was going to be an imminent cleanup of the whole world executed by God himself.
I also presume that his mother, Elizabeth, eventually told him about Jesus and Mary: that his relative Jesus was miraculously conceived by the direct action of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, John knew that his relative Jesus was someone even more special—by God’s standards, that is.
As a result, in Mark’s gospel, for example, we read about John the Baptist referring to Jesus’s greatness.
“[He] preached, saying, ‘There cometh one [Jesus] mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.’” (Mark 1:7, KJV)
In Luke’s and John’s gospels (Luke 3:16 & John, 1:27), we read practically the same thing.
John the Baptist seems to have had a fiery personality, so he thought that God would come to clean up the whole world violently: that is, disposing of all evildoers in one swoop fell so that the righteous could live in harmony together. In Matthew’s gospel, for example, we read,
“But when he [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, ‘O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet [evidence (NAB)] for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, “We have Abraham to [for] our father”: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.’” (Matthew 3:7–10, KJV, emphasis mine).
In Luke’s gospel (3:7–9), we read practically the same thing.
But when, decades later, God did not come to clean up the world violently (simply because it is not God’s nature to do such things) all the evangelists toned down John the Baptist’s words foretelling the end of the world as we know it; they wrote that he was only preparing or announcing the coming of Jesus—the Messiah/Christ—the ‘Anointed One’ of God. But that is not quite right; John the Baptist was foretelling a violent divine cleanup of this evil world: like that described in Revelation by the exiled John of Patmos.
John the Baptist might have thought that everything hinged on Jesus, but he was still confused by Jesus’s somewhat passive nature: God’s kingdom, however, was nothing like he or anyone else had expected.
In fact, while he was imprisoned, he sent a couple of his disciples to ask Jesus, point blank, whether he was the Messiah or whether the Messiah was someone else who still had to come.
“Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ [Jesus], he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, ‘Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?’ Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in [shocked by] me.’” (Matthew 11:2–6, KJV)
Jesus here quotes John several verses from Isaiah (26:19; 29:18–19; 35:5–6; 61:1). Was it a prophecy? Possibly! Personally, I just think it was more like Isaiah’s dream-wish. Although some miracles might have happened in Jesus’s time, we know, for a fact, that all the above wonders stopped happening nowadays.
Judas the Galilean
Before I move on to Jesus of Nazareth, I would like to take a quick look at an important historical figure (also mentioned by first-century-CE historian Josephus) who came from Jesus’s backyard, so to speak, and from whom Jesus might have had inspiration.
In his books The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus labeled Judas’s resistance a fourth philosophy; the other three being: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. Judas preached that God alone was the ruler of Israel, and therefore no taxes should be payable to Rome: in his opinion, submitting to a Roman tax census was, therefore, equivalent to substituting Rome for God. According to Wikipedia, around 6 CE Judas instigated Jews not to register for Roman tax-paying purposes, and whoever complied with the Romans had his house burned and his cattle stolen by Judas’s followers. (Wikipedia: “Judas of Galilee,” accessed March 4, 2022)
Apparently, however, he used no violence against the more powerful and radically retaliatory Romans. According to Crossan in God and Empire, Judas’s resistance was nonviolent: possibly one of the first of its kind. Judas’s followers were willing to suffer torture, martyrdom, as well as the extermination of their kinsmen; but they were unwilling to pay taxes to Rome. Crossan concludes his introduction of Judas the Galilean,
“Thus, Judas [the Galilean], not Jesus, was the first Galilean to proclaim nonviolent resistance to violent injustice in the first quarter of the first century CE.” (pp. 91–94)
I contend that Jesus, being human, might have learnt something from him.
Jesus of Nazareth
Since most of Christianity believes that Jesus is God (or some pre-existing spirit—like Michael the archangel in human form—Reed, accessed March 4, 2022) we frequently assume that he knew everything in advance. It may come as a surprise to the reader, as it was to me, that Jesus was completely human: he learned from his experience, his mistakes, and others’ mistakes. God did not reveal everything to him up front; however, it seems God provided enough happening around him to formulate a good-enough plan of action: God instructed Jesus like us—gradually.
Like John the Baptist, Jesus also probably knew that God wanted something special from him because, again I presume, Mary and Joseph probably told him about his miraculous birth by the Holy Spirit. They probably also told him about the almost miraculous birth of his relative, John the Baptist; Jesus’s first move, therefore, was to join a man of God he knew almost first hand: he went to be baptized by John.
There is hardly any doubt about Jesus’s baptism by John: all four gospels testify to it, and it sure passes the criterion of dissimilarity that New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman explains in some detail in his book Did Jesus Exist? Briefly, an incident passes the criterion of dissimilarity if it is an odd or embarrassing account that has the ring of truth—like Jesus’s crucifixion, say. (pp. 291–93) Mark simply mentions Jesus’s baptism (Mark 1:9); Matthew tries to justify it (Matthew 3:13–15); Luke practically hides it (Luke 3:21); and John only implies it (John 1:32–34). Ever since I was very young, Jesus’s baptism has always bothered me: baptism with water is presumably a figurative cleansing: so, why did Jesus have to be baptized if he was without sin? Possibly, as a ritual to join John the Baptist’s group: the same way we are first baptized to become Christians.
In God and Empire, Crossan opines that, initially, Jesus also probably thought that God would clean up the world through a swift violent action. However, when John the Baptist got arrested and God did not come to his rescue, he learnt from experience; presumably, he realized that violence was not God’s nature: God only uses conviction and conversion. So, from then on, Jesus started to think that, possibly, God’s kingdom was already present on earth, but in ‘seed form,’ and that it would grow slowly to a tree, or like a weed, to immeasurable proportions. (Crossan, pp. 114–15)
How did Jesus think God’s kingdom was being realized on earth? According to Crossan, it involved healing (especially spiritual healing), getting to know one another by eating together, and looking forward to the coming of a new, divine world order—the kingdom of God. (Crossan, p. 118)
Commensality (sharing meals) is a symbol of equality: the celebration of the Eucharist was originally a full meal. In Corinth, however, Paul still found inequalities in the celebration of the Eucharist—better known as the ‘Lord’s Supper’ or the ‘Breaking of the Bread’ in those days. (1 Corinthians 11:17–34) It consisted of three parts: (1) the breaking of the bread (1 Corinthians 11:23–24), (2) the main meal (1 Corinthians 11:25a), and (3) the passing of the wine cup (1 Corinthians 11:25b–26). The separation of bread and wine at the beginning and end of the meal symbolized the separation of Jesus’s body and blood during his sufferings. (Crossan pp. 170–71)
Crossan explains further that equality does not necessarily mean that everyone gets the same thing or the equivalent. One person might be smaller than another, and one might not require the same amount of food. However, everyone’s needs were satisfied, as usually happens in a normal family. (Crossan p. 159)
Now, I have no doubt that the power of performing miracles helped Jesus jump-start the Christian movement tremendously—especially his own resurrection from the dead. But I also think that from Judas the Galilean he learnt the importance of utter non-violence and not trying to avoid paying taxes to the Roman emperor. He also learnt, from John the Baptist, that normally God does not intervene to protect an individual—not even a good individual: like a good father, he is impartial and lets all his children sort things out among themselves.
Starting with the non-violence principle, for example, when Jesus was arrested the night before he was executed, we read the following incident in Matthew’s gospel:
“Behold, one of them which were with Jesus [Peter (see John 18:10)] stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote [cut] off his ear. Then said Jesus unto him, ‘put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.’” (Matthew 26:51–52, KJV)
Jesus then proceeds to heal the servant’s severed ear. (See Luke 22:51)
And regarding paying taxes, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees and Herodians,
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17, KJV)
Both Matthew and Luke concur. (See Matthew 22:21& Luke 20:25)
Oddly enough, Mark’s gospel portrays Jesus, like John the Baptist, believing that the kingdom of God would come to earth in full bloom within his generation.
“He [Jesus] said unto them [his disciples], ‘Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.’” (Mark 9:1, KJV)
Matthew and Luke have similar verses. (See Matthew 16:28 & Luke, 9:27)
The synoptic evangelists (Mark, Matthew & Luke), and probably Jesus himself, seem to have truly believed this—and so did Paul; but they were wrong by almost two thousand years, and counting. (Crossan, p. 127) I think this is enough proof (at least as far as what the gospels tell us about him) that Jesus was only human. Needless to add, these verses pass the criterion of dissimilarity: Jesus didn’t know everything.
So, one can conclude that although Jesus may have initiated God’s kingdom on earth, he also needed a considerable amount of help from God and human experience—the same way we will need God’s help and to learn from experience to be able to bring it along. Can we bring God’s kingdom to earth by ourselves—without any of God’s help? I would say no. Yet, possibly, God might be waiting for us to make a move. But, what can we do? We do not have the power to perform miracles. What chance do we stand if even Jesus failed? Good question!
Disease is a physical ailment that can be cured. Illness is a mental ailment that can be healed: usually the result of a disease, social environment, or lack of resources. Nobody has miraculous powers to cure; however, modern medicine can cure diseases that Jesus cured—like blindness and leprosy. Moreover, everybody can heal family members and friends by a simple smile, words of kindness and understanding, or financial and physical help. In other words, God’s kingdom can still come to earth as Jesus envisioned it. However, all of us must start from the little things; God will then help us achieve the rest. Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus saying,
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33, KJV)
Religion, patriotism, racism, and sexism all tend to be divisive and, consequently, detrimental to the coming of the kingdom of God. We still have much to learn: especially organized religion, which should be in the forefront promoting human equality.
Finally, Jesus learnt something else from his association with John the Baptist. He also realized that when John was arrested, the latter’s movement stalled and eventually ceased; so, he made sure that the growth of God’s kingdom did not solely depend on him: to Jesus, the concept was more important than its leader. The evangelist Mark describes an interesting incident to this effect.
“John [Jesus’s apostle] answered him [Jesus], saying, ‘Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part.’” (Mark 9:38–40, KJV)
Luke relates the same incident, almost word for word. (See Luke 9:49–50) Anybody is welcome to promote God’s kingdom: the more there are of us the better are its chances of success.
John of Patmos
According to Crossan in God and Empire, we have a difference of opinion in the Bible between Jesus and John of Patmos. According to Revelation, John of Patmos also believes that the kingdom of God already existed in his time, but in heaven—not on earth. (Crossan, p. 228) Now, according to Revelation, the kingdom of God will come on earth after the current wicked earth is destroyed by God, and a new one is created; he writes,
“I [John of Patmos] saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, [the] New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.’ And he that sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ And he said unto me, ‘Write: for these words are true and faithful.’” (Revelation 21:1–5, KJV, emphasis mine)
Notice the clauses: “the first earth … passed away,” “the former things are passed away,” and “I make all things new.”
Crossan concludes that, according to Revelation, the kingdom of God will come from heaven to earth, but only after the earth is destroyed—not reformed: that is, by completely replacing the current corrupt earth. On the other hand, Crossan also adds, both Jesus and Paul believed the new world would come about non-violently: that is, by our cooperating together and adopting God’s recommendations of justice and love. (Crossan, p. 230) Thus, even in the first century CE, Jesus’s followers diverged: Paul of Tarsus accepted Jesus’s method of radical nonviolence; John of Patmos did not. (Crossan, p. 142)
John of Patmos, in the last book of the Bible, believed that God must act violently to get rid of all the evil on earth prior to establishing a new divine world order. So, many Christians ended up waiting for God to act violently; while God is probably waiting for us to participate and cooperate with him to change the world non-violently. The Bible, therefore, again contradicts itself in this matter: leaving it wide open to an individual’s or a church’s interpretation.
To inculcate the last point I make in the previous paragraph, even people who follow the Bible to the point of calling their congregation place the ‘Kingdom Hall,’ Jehovah’s witnesses believe something completely different from mainstream Christianity, either way (i.e., coming from heaven or originating on earth).
According to Jehovah’s witnesses, God’s kingdom on earth will be ruled by 144 thousand people from heaven—with Jesus as king there. Only the righteous will be left on earth, and they will live harmoniously forever in an earthly paradise: very much like the original garden of Eden in Genesis.
The righteous will be granted immortality: that is, resurrected from the dead never to die again. The wicked will die permanently after being punished for their sins in fire. Jesus will then supposedly rule God’s kingdom for a thousand years and then give it back to his Father—God. (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, “Good News from God!” pp. 14–15)
In the Lord’s Prayer, we Christians pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth daily; but most of us, early Christians included, do not know or follow what Jesus preached.
Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008. (ISBN: 9780060858315)
Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York, NY: Harper One, 2012. (ISBN: 9780062204608)
Ehrman, Bart D. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York, NY: Harper One, 2014. (ISBN: 9780061778186)
A Christian doctrine that has been heavily attacked is whether Jesus was born of a virgin: in other words, that he had no human father but was divinely conceived. According to two of the canonical (official) gospels, Matthew & Luke, God donated a sperm, directly, to his mother Mary—through the Holy Spirit, “the giver of life” (The Nicene Creed). Jesus thus qualified, literally, as the ‘Son of God.’ Indeed, in one of the undisputed Pauline letters, Galatians, we read, “It pleased God … to reveal his Son in [to (ESV)] me.” (Galatians 1:15–16, KJV, emphasis mine) Now, recall that Paul was a contemporary skeptic of Christianity and persecuted Christians prior his conversion; so there is enough reason to believe what he says here. Moreover, according to the New American Bible, Galatians was possibly written as early as around 50 CE (p. 283); it is therefore one of the most reliable New Testament scriptures. Furthermore, even though the Jews kept track of the male descendants of King David (and Levites, i.e., priests), there’s hardly any doubt that Jesus’s father is unknown. But what if Mary was raped, say, by a Roman soldier, as detractors of Christianity claim? One must admit that if the father is unknown, it is much more likely that the mother was raped rather than that a virgin conceived a child: in practice, the latter case requires nothing less than a ‘miracle.’
Jesus’s Virgin Birth
In Luke’s gospel, we read that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit’s donating a sperm to Jesus’s mother, Mary; we read,
“The angel [Gabriel] said unto her [Mary], ‘Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest ….’ Then said Mary unto the angel, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man [have no husband (WNT)]?’ And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost [Spirit] shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing [offspring (WNT)] which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’” (Luke 1:30–32, 34–35, KJV)
Assuming this was the case, I presume Jesus’s mother, Mary, would eventually have told him about all this. So, I wouldn’t be surprised that Jesus may have considered himself to be literally the ‘Son of God,’ and probably thought that he should do something about it. Incidentally, Mary’s acceptance of such a role (Luke 1:38) was breathtaking: note that, in those days, adulterers, especially women, were stoned to death (see John 8:5).
Now, is there any historical evidence supporting this belief—Jesus’s virgin birth or divine conception—outside the gospels? One must admit that there is hardly any evidence for it; in fact, there is evidence against it. In the Jewish Talmud, which is a collection of rabbinic discussions completed around 500 CE, we read that Mary conceived Jesus of a Roman soldier named Tiberius Julius Abdes Panthera (or Pantera). However, according to historian, Christian apologist, editor, and academic Edwin Yamauchi, this was only the result of a false ‘rumor.’ Still, in a strange kind of way, it suggests that there was something unusual about Jesus’s birth. It seems to be a case of “methinks thou doth protest too much.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene II) As investigative journalist and author of several books Lee Patrick Stroble rightly points out in his book The Case for Christ, had everything been normal, regarding Jesus’s birth, there would have been no such controversy. So, we only have indirect evidence supporting Jesus’s supposed virgin birth (Strobel, p. 86). Let us now take a closer look at this contrary evidence.
In his book The Bible Fraud, author of several other religious books Tony Bushby writes,
“The Talmud writers mentioned Jesus’ name twenty times and quite specifically documented that he was born an illegitimate son of a Roman soldier called Panthera, nicknamed the ‘Panther’. Panthera’s existence was confirmed by the discovery of a mysterious tombstone at Bingerbrück in Germany. (Bushby, “Just Who Were the Parents of Jesus,” accessed November 23, 2021) The engraving etched in the headstone read:
“Tiberius Julius Abdes Panthera, an archer, native of Sidon, Phoenicia, who in 9AD was transferred to service in Rhineland (Germany).” (Smith)
Most modern historians preclude the possibility of miracles; but, as I show in my book Is God a Reality?, miracles do happen—albeit rarely. (Attard, Is God a Reality?, pp. 283–324) New Testament scholar and pastor, Ben Witherington, reviewing religious studies professor James Tabor’s book The Jesus Dynasty, deplores this assumption by modern historians; he writes,
“I must confess that one of the things that bothers me about some modern historical reconstructions of the life of Jesus is that there is no openness at all to what we would call the miraculous, or it might be better to call it divine irregularity. I see no reason why divine intervention should be ruled out of the equation ‘ab initio’ (i.e., from the beginning). It is not a good historical principle to rule out causes of events in advance of examining the evidence (Witherington, accessed November 23, 2021).
Of course, he adds, we should not go to extremes and interpret everything supernaturally; as, for example, attributing every ailment or disease to an evil spirit: all evidence should be evaluated critically but with an open mind. He continues,
“I might add as well that the assumption ‘miracles cannot happen and therefore do not happen’ is equally a faith assumption. It is not based on empirical evidence or a careful study of history. There are thousands of credible testimonies to the contrary even in our own era. (Witherington, accessed November 23, 2021)
Witherington then proceeds to challenge the above calumny against Jesus’s mother, Mary; he writes,
“[The] story first appears in a work written by a Greek philosopher named Celsus (circa A.D. 178) … [and] the earliest Jewish [Talmud] text which includes this idea is … certainly not a first century text at all, and indeed it was written at a time when the polemics between early Christianity and early Judaism were in high gear. The same can be said about the text from Celsus, only in that case the debating partner is a pagan. … These stories about Pantera are the later rebuttals to the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. … The names Tiberius Julius suggest that this soldier was a slave who became a freedman and a soldier. [Emperor] Tiberius came to rule in A.D. 14 so he [Pantera] cannot have received this name before that time. Presumably he received the name and the Roman citizenship for his service in the army, which again places that service after A.D. 14. Now the gravestone also mentions that this soldier’s unit was the first cohort of archers and we also learn that this man served some 40 years in the army, dying at the age of 62. … This in turn would mean he became a soldier at the age of 22.” (Witherington, accessed November 23, 2021)
Now, according to historian Adolph Deissman, Pantera died around 50 CE; if this be the case, Pantera would have been born around 12 BCE. So, Panthera was only about seven years old when Jesus was born around 5 BCE. Witherington concludes,
“Pantera was not a Roman soldier in 2-6 B.C. the period in which Jesus was born …. If indeed this Cohort of archers went to Dalmatia in A.D. 6 and then on to the Rhine in A.D. 9, as Tabor avers (p. 69), then our man Pantera was not even yet with them it would appear, or if he was, he had only just become a solider in the first decade of the current era [A.D. 1–10/1–10 CE], not in the period 2-6 B.C. In other words, the calculations are off by a least a decade if not more. … I would say there are too many weak links in this whole line of thinking …. What is troubling about this suggestion in any case is that it ignores that Mary grew up in a strict honor and shame culture and every indication we have is that she was exceedingly young when she became betrothed and pregnant—probably, as Tabor suggests, barely a teenager.” (Witherington, accessed November 23, 2021)
Naturally, this begs the question of how a thirteen-year-old girl could have met Pantera in a different province, Phoenicia, forty-odd miles away when he was not yet a soldier. But then, some skeptic might still argue that it might have been another Roman soldier who impregnated Mary. It is not unheard of that Roman soldiers raped Jewish women in the first century CE. However, still, young girls, in those days, were watched very closely and never allowed to be alone with a strange man—let alone a pagan.
What I think clinches this argument is the Nazoreans website’s pointing to a couple of anachronisms in the engraving on Panthera’s headstone; it has,
“The term AD [i.e., anno Domini] was not in use until Pope Gregory XIII (1502–1585) and the term Rhineland was not in use during that time frame [first century CE].” (Nazoreans, accessed November 24, 2021)
The anno Domini (Latin for “in the year of the Lord,” i.e., Jesus) time-scale was conceived by a sixth century CE monk; that is, five-hundred-odd years later. (Wikipedia s.v. “Anno Domini,” accessed November 24, 2021) The engraving, therefore, must have been a fake. The Nazoreans website opines further,
“The inscription may have been made by someone during the Middle Ages who had knowledge of the true identity of the Gospel Jesus garnered [collected] from Jewish documents burned by the Church during the 15th century.” (Nazoreans, accessed November 24, 2021)
The Talmud, therefore, only repeats Celsus’s calumny that Mary had an illegitimate child; but that was one-hundred-and-eighty-odd years later: at a time when there were probably no more records in existence.
Now, the Jews despised the ruling Romans extremely; so, the Talmud authors did not just say that Jesus was illegitimate, but that he was the son of a Roman soldier: to denigrate him even further in Jewish eyes. In other words, it has the ring of a fabrication: recall that Jews and Christians were enemies for centuries. Of course, the raping and impregnating of Jewish girls by Roman soldiers were quite common in first-century Israel: so, it was easy to sell without one’s asking for more evidence. Still, this calumny against Mary did not arise until late in the second century CE: thus, it seems to have been merely an attempt to combat the concept of a virgin birth given in the gospels.
Now, according to Pastor Wayne Jackson, there seems to be compelling evidence that genealogy records were kept in the Jerusalem Temple, at least for the descendants of Levi, (the priests because they could only inherit their offices) and for the descendants of David (since the Messiah was supposed to have Davidic ancestry). The Jews did not seem to keep track of women—only men. However, these records seem to have all been destroyed in 70 CE: that is, when the Romans destroyed most of Jerusalem including its temple by fire. (Jackson, accessed November 24, 2021) Still, if this be the case, then up until 70 CE, the records should have shown whether Joseph was Jesus’s father or not because Joseph was of the line of David. Apparently, the records did not show that Joseph was Jesus’s father; so, no one could come up with a name for Jesus’s father at the time of Jesus or a few decades later. That is why, earlier in this article, I pointed out that there seems to have been something unusual about Jesus’s birth.
In fact, both Matthew’s (1:1–17) and Luke’s (3:23–38) gospels give us a genealogy of Jesus even though they were written significantly later, namely, around 80 CE and 90 CE respectively (NAB pp. 10, 96): that is, about three generations after Jesus’s birth. Apparently, these records the evangelists referred to did not show that Joseph was Jesus’s father; unless, of course, they were both lying through their teeth.
Despite this, so-called negative evidence, I am still willing to concede that such evidence is not strong enough to prove, without the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus was conceived directly by the Holy Spirit. So then, why do I still believe that he is truly the Son of God?
There is compelling evidence for Jesus’s ‘divine’ conception and his resurrection from the dead in Paul’s undisputed letters as well as Jesus’s reputation of a miracle-worker in first-century-CE historian Josephus’s writings—as I have shown in my book, Is God a Reality? (Attard, pp. 306–24) To me, this triple evidence proves, satisfactorily, that Jesus was a special person—by God’s standards, that is. This is where, in my opinion, faith parts from reason: when there is enough compelling evidence. If you personally see a miracle, do you still not believe it is a miracle? However, most of the time, our faith is what we’ve been told even though it goes against reason, and if you look closely, it boils down to superstition.
Donating a special sperm so that Mary could conceive Jesus is not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things: God can perform much greater miracles; take, for example, the ‘Miracle of the Sun’ near Fatima, Portugal (Attard, pp. 284–95). I do believe that the Jesus’s virginal conception did indeed happen and that, therefore, Jesus is the Son of God, literally—the same way a human father conceives a son. But then I do not believe that Jesus is also God, or that he existed before his birth—as most of Christianity tends to believe. I think there is only one God, and Jesus was only human. Technically, we are all ‘sons of God’ since God created all of humanity (directly or indirectly); but Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ par excellence.
Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
When one uses the term ‘virgin birth,’ one refers to Jesus’s virginal conception through the miraculous action of the Holy Spirit. When one uses the term ‘perpetual virginity,’ one refers to Mary’s subsequent virginity after the birth of Jesus, her firstborn (Luke 2:7). In his book Papal Sin, Catholic historian Garry Wills tells us that around the end of the fourth century, both Christian theologians Augustine and Jerome cast a dark shadow on sex: almost everything sexual became taboo—a kind of necessary evil. Consequently, celibacy and virginity became the ideal way of Christian life. Mary, presumably being the perfect Christian, was therefore claimed to be a virgin too—a perpetual virgin, of course. In the Middle Ages, Christians even claimed Mary’s hymen was miraculously unbroken in giving birth to Jesus: thus preserving also her physical virginity. (Wills, p. 209) But by virginity one also normally means never having had sexual intercourse, and this is the only meaning I shall adopt in this article.
Although it is a Catholic ‘dogma’ (obligatory belief), the problem with the concept of Mary’s perpetual virginity is that the New Testament does not seem to support it. Following are several quotes saying that Jesus had brothers and sisters. The word used in the Greek original is adelphos.
“When the sabbath day was come, he [Jesus] began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, ‘From whence hath this man these things? And what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother [adelphos] of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? And are not his sisters [adelphai] here with us?’ And they were offended at him.” (Mark 6:2–3, KJV, emphasis mine; see also Matthew 13:54–57)
“While he [Jesus] yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren [adelphoi] stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, ‘Behold, thy mother and thy brethren [adelphoi] stand without, desiring to speak with thee.’” (Matthew 12:46–47, KJV, emphasis mine; see also Luke 8:19–20)
“After this he [Jesus] went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren [adelphoi], and his disciples: and they continued [stayed (ESV)] there not many days.” (John 2:12, KJV, emphasis mine)
“After these things Jesus walked [went about (ESV)] in Galilee: for he would not walk [go about (ESV)] in Jewry [Judea (ESV)], because the Jews sought to kill him. Now the Jew’s feast of tabernacles was at hand. His brethren [adelphoi] therefore said unto him, ‘Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest. For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world.’ For neither did his brethren [adelphoi] believe in him.” (John 7:1–5, KJV, emphasis mine)
Even Paul confirms this in his undisputed letters.
“Then after three years I [Paul] went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother [adelphon].” (Galatians 1:18–19, KJV, emphasis mine)
“Have we [apostles] not power to lead about [take along (ESV)] a sister, a wife, [a Christian sister as our wife (WNT)] as well as other apostles, and as the brethren [adelphoi] of the Lord, and Cephas [Peter]?” (First Corinthians 9:5, KJV, emphasis mine)
Besides confirming it in his gospel, the evangelist Luke confirms it in his Acts of the Apostles.
“When they [the apostles] were come in, they went up into an upper room, where [they (ESV)] abode both [?] Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes [the Zealot (ESV)], and Judas the brother [son (ESV)] of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren [adelphois].” (Acts 1:13–14, KJV, emphasis mine)
So, in my opinion, there is hardly any doubt that, according to the New Testament, Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters (plural); it seems, therefore, that Mary had at least six more children after Jesus.
Still, the Catholic Church denies this, saying that Jesus had cousins or relatives not brothers and sisters. Yet, one can clearly see in the above quotes, that the Greek original uses adelphoi (sing. adelphos) and adelphai (sing. adelphe) respectively for the English words ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters.’
Now, according to the (Catholic) New American Bible, in Semitic languages, the words ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ not only apply to full-siblings but also to half-brothers, half-sisters, nephews, nieces, and cousins. (NAB, Mark 6:3n; see also Genesis 14:16, 29:15 & Leviticus 10:4) Although one should not explain away an unusual usage of a Greek word by referring to its Semitic usage, there is some justification in taking such latitude in meaning because the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) often renders the Hebrew ’āh as adelphos (e.g., the Old Testament verses cited above). Still, the New American Bible ends its note with,
“The question of meaning here would not have arisen but for the faith of the church in Mary’s perpetual virginity.” (NAB, Mark 6:3n)
In other words, the Catholic Church is stretching the meaning of the Greek word adelphos to conform to its dubious doctrine, which, incidentally, the Protestants no longer adhere to, although the Orthodox Church still does.
There are several passages in the New Testament where the Greek word adelphos most probably means full-siblings, which no one questions. For example,
“Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren [adelphous], Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother [adelphon], casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. … And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren [adelphous], James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother [adelphon], in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.” (Matthew 4:18, 21, KJV).
However, in all fairness, the Greek adelphos is also used for half-siblings, even in the New Testament.
“Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren [adelphous].” (Matthew 1:2, KJV)
Jacob (or Israel) had twelve male children (the twelve tribes of Israel) through four wives/concubines (Wikipedia s.v. “Jacob,” accessed November 25, 2021); so the word adelphous is also used for half-siblings in this New Testament text. Similarly,
“Herod [Antipas] himself had sent forth and laid hold upon [seized (ESV)] John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother [adelphou] Philip’s wife: for he had married her.” (Mark 6:17, KJV)
Philip the tetrarch was the half-brother of Herod Antipas. (Wikipedia s.v. “Philip the Tetrarch, accessed November 25, 2021)
On the other hand, in the New Testament we find a different Greek word for ‘cousin,’ namely, anepsios. (Douglas Jacoby, accessed November 25, 2021) In Colossians, we read,
“Aristarchus my [Paul’s] fellowprisoner saluteth you, and Marcus, sister’s son [cousin (ESV)—anepsios] to Barnabas, (touching [concerning (ESV)] whom ye received commandments [instructions (ESV)]: if he come unto you, receive him).” (Colossians 4:10, KJV)
I think this last verse clinches the argument that the above quotes concerning Jesus’s brothers and sisters are not talking about cousins but of full-siblings or half-siblings. Technically, they could only be half-siblings since Jesus was presumably conceived by the Holy Spirit, and they can only be Mary’s children—not Joseph’s. In other words, if one believes the Bible is God’s Word and that it is infallible, they must be Mary’s children. But if, for the sake of argument, they were half-siblings to ‘outsiders,’ so to speak, for Mary to remain a virgin, they must have been Joseph’s children. If they were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage, they would all have been older than Jesus since Jesus was Mary’s ‘firstborn’ (Luke 2:7). Naturally, if they were Mary’s children through Joseph, they would all have been younger than Jesus.
In its article “Was Joseph Married before Mary?” the Got Questions website unequivocally opines,
“The suggestion that Joseph was married previous to being mentioned in Scripture as Mary’s betrothed is completely fictional. … There is no scriptural evidence, or even a subtle suggestion, that Joseph was married to anyone but Mary.” (Got Questions, accessed November 25, 2021)
I think the article also makes a good case that the scriptural evidence strongly suggests the opposite. Let me try and follow it here. The article first refers to the verse,
“But he [Joseph] did not consummate their marriage until she [Mary] gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name ‘Jesus.’” (Matthew 1:25, NIV, emphasis mine)
The article contends that the word “until” in this verse implies “a change to the first action” (Got Questions, accessed November 25, 2021): in other words, that their marriage was consummated afterwards.
The website also contends that the verse,
“she [Mary] brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger,” (Luke 2:7, KJV)
suggests that Mary had more children than one.
However, the New American Bible argues that,
“The Greek word translated ‘until’ does not imply normal marital conduct after Jesus’ birth, nor does it exclude it.” (NAB, Matthew 1:25n)
And the phrase “first born son” does not necessarily imply that Mary had other children after Jesus was born; it only happens to be a legal description indicating that Jesus possessed the rights and privileges of a firstborn son. (NAB, Luke 2:7n)
Where, I think, the website article wins the argument is the circumstantial evidence we find scattered in the Gospels.
(1) First, had Joseph any children, they would most probably have been mentioned in the couple’s trip to Bethlehem mentioned in Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:1–20); although, according to Wikipedia Joseph’s children did not have to be present, but then neither was Mary’s presence required.
“Every paterfamilias [Latin for ‘father of the family’] had to appear in person before the [Roman] censors. … First he had to give his full name … and that of his father … and he was likewise obliged to state his age. He was then asked, ‘… do you have a wife?’ and if married he had to give the name of his wife, and likewise the number, names, and ages of his children, if any.” (Wikipedia s.v. “Roman Censor,” accessed November 25, 2021)
Still, Luke ‘makes’ Mary, despite being close to delivering baby Jesus, go for the census with Joseph: thus enabling Jesus to be born in Bethlehem (c. 158 km away) as supposedly prophesied by Micah (5:2, KJV).
(2) Second, in Matthew, we read about the couple’s flight into Egypt:
“When they [the magi/wise men] were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for [King] Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.’ When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: and was there until the death of Herod. … But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.’ And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.” (Matthew 2:13–15, 19–21, KJV)
The article points out that there is absolutely no mention of any children in this passage (Got Questions, accessed November 25, 2021); they could not possibly have been left behind alone for several years if Joseph was their father: such a scenario is implausible, to say the least.
The final possible scenario is that Joseph married his first wife when he was very young, at age fifteen, say; had six children, and his wife died at the last childbirth: this brings Joseph to age twenty-one, say. Allowing fifteen-odd years for all his children to reach adulthood and leave home, brings Joseph to about thirty-six years of age when he was betrothed to Mary, who was about fifteen years old, say. It was not unheard of, in those days, that older men married much younger women, so I must concede that this scenario is plausible.
However, according to John’s gospel, we read that right after the wedding at Cana,
“He [Jesus] went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren [adelphoi], and his disciples: and they continued [stayed (ESV)] there not many days.” (John 2:12, KJV)
Had Jesus’s brethren been living with their wives in their own homes for some thirty-odd years, why would they go to Capernaum with their mother/step-mother for a few days? Their wives are not even mentioned here either. I think the text implies they were still living with their mother.
On the other hand, the account also makes one conclude that Joseph was not around any longer; meaning, he was probably dead: which suggests that he either was somewhat older than Mary or that he died quite young.
According to Wikipedia, the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity stands on “shaky scriptural foundations,” consequently most modern Protestants reject it. (Wikipedia s.v. “Perpetual Virginity of Mary,” accessed November 25, 2021).
Roman Catholics, generally, believe what they are told: namely, that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus was born, but the majority of biblical scholars think otherwise. The Gospels only say that Jesus was born of Mary through the Holy Spirit (not through Joseph) but they do not say that Mary and Joseph never had sexual relations despite being married. The indications in biblical texts, reading them candidly without any preconceived notions, are that Joseph and Mary had six or more children together after Jesus was born. Of course, whether Mary remained a virgin or not, does not mean that she did anything wrong, either way, since she was married to Joseph.
Attard, Carmel Paul. Is God a Reality?—A Scientific Investigation. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2017. (ISBN: 9781532012228)
New American Bible: Revised Edition (NAB). Translated from the original languages, authorized by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, and approved by the United States Confraternity of Catholic Bishops. Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 2010. (ISBN: 9780899429519)
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. UK, c. 1600.
Smith, Morton. Jesus the Magician. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1978.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998. (ISBN: 0310209307)
Tabor, James. The Jesus Dynasty. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2006.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (ESV). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.
The Holy Bible: King James Version (KJV). Oxford, UK, 1769.
Weymouth New Testament (WNT). Translated by Richard Francis Weymouth, and edited by Hampden-Cook. New York, NY: Baker & Taylor Company and London, UK: James Clarke & Company, 1903. Revised by James Alexander Robertson in 1929.
No doubt, we often hear the word ‘gospel,’ but, personally, I must admit that, for decades, I didn’t really understand what it meant. As I’ll also show in this article, even before the writing of the Gospels, Paul’s authentic letters used the same word but with a different meaning, thus creating even more confusion to the Bible reader. This article aims at clarifying its intended meanings.
In his article “What Does ‘Gospel’ Really Mean?” Christian apologist James Warner Wallace explains,
“The word ‘gospel’ is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word, ‘godspel’, or ‘good story’ and was substituted for the original Greek word ‘euaggelion’ [pronounced ‘euangelion’] which first signified ‘a present given to one who brought good tidings’, or ‘a sacrifice offered in thanksgiving for such good tidings having come’. In later Greek uses, it was employed for the good tidings themselves.” (Wallace, accessed November 1, 2021)
Probably needless to add, from the Greek word euangelion, we get the English word ‘evanvelist’ for a ‘gospel author.’
Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Carl Gregg elaborates,
“According to scholars of ancient Rome, gospels in the Roman Empire were typically ‘Roman propaganda.’ Recall that the Greek word we transliterate as ‘gospel’ literally means ‘good news.’ Thus, Roman gospels would herald the good news of a Roman ‘military victory … or of the ascension to power of a new emperor.’ Imperial subjects in the Roman empire, would be all too familiar with Roman gospels because it was in Rome’s interest to spread Roman military and political propaganda in order to keep the famous peace of Rome, the so-called Pax Romana.” (Gregg, accessed November 1, 2021, emphasis in original)
In the four canonical (i.e., church-recognized/official) Gospels, the concept of ‘gospel,’ or ‘good news,’ was originally coined by the evangelist Mark: his gospel was the first to be written, around 70 CE. Mark’s gospel has the opening statement “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1, KJV) What did the evangelist Mark mean? What was this supposed good news? What exactly was he referring to? Mark himself explains, later in his first chapter, what this good news was all about. He writes,
“Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.’” (Mark 1:14–15, KJV, emphasis mine)
The Jesus portrayed in the Gospels (like John the Baptist before him and Paul of Tarsus after him) believed that this kingdom of God was imminent; in fact, Mark portrays Jesus saying, “The time is fulfilled”: that is, “the time allowed us by God is over.”
The kingdom of God is not a political kingdom; it is supposedly a kingdom of justice, sharing, peace, non-violence, love, kindness, mercy, truth, and happiness: in which God ‘rules’ the world in our ‘hearts, so to speak, through love of neighbor. In his book Did Jesus Exist? New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman affirms that John, Jesus, and Paul all thought that God was going to accomplish this feat single-handedly—very soon. (Ehrman, pp. 298, 302, 304) Truly, it was tidings of great news!
The evangelist Matthew agrees with Mark’s definition of ‘gospel’; following are some verses from Matthew’s gospel.
“Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.” (Matthew 4:23, KJV, emphasis mine)
“Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.” (Matthew 9:35, KJV, emphasis mine)
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” (Matthew 24:14, KJV, emphasis mine)
In this last quote, notice the reference to the “end” of the world as we know it—the present violent word.
Surprisingly enough, the evangelist Luke never explains exactly what he means by the word ‘gospel,’ and, even more surprisingly, the evangelist John never even mentions the word ‘gospel.’
Minister Gregg proceeds to explain the controversial, if not subversive, nature of the use of this Greek word euangelion, translated in English as ‘gospel.’
“When trying to understand the Gospel of Mark’s first-century perspective from our twenty-first century context, we cannot remind ourselves too often of the historical event surrounding Mark’s writing. In the middle of the Roman-Jewish War, Mark uses the genre of gospel—a genre typically associated with glad tidings from the battlefield regarding Roman military victories or with the good news of a new Roman emperor—to tell the subversive good news of Jesus, a Jewish peasant whom the Roman had crucified decades earlier. As I said earlier: breathtaking.” (Gregg, accessed November 2, 2021, emphasis in original)
According to Wikipedia, the first Jewish-Roman war took place between 66 and 73 CE; in 70–71 CE the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. (Wikipedia, “First Jewish-Roman War,” accessed November 2, 2021)
Son of God
Observe also that, in the first verse of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is given the title ‘Son of God.’ Now, this was a usurpation of the Roman emperor’s title. Several emperors in the first century CE were given the title Divi Filius, Latin for ‘Son of God.’ According to Wikipedia,
“Divi filius … was a title much used by the Emperor Augustus …. The title … was also applied to some of Augustus’s successors, notably Tiberius, Nero, and Domitian.” (Wikipedia, “Divi Filius,” accessed November 2, 2021)
In 42 BCE, almost two years after he was killed, Julius Caesar was officially recognized as a god by the Roman Senate. He was thus given the title Divus Julius, Latin for ‘God Julius.’ So, his grand-nephew, Octavian, whom Julius had adopted as his own son, thereafter called himself Divi Filius, or ‘Son of God.’ When he became Rome’s first emperor, in 27 BCE, the Roman Senate conferred on Octavian the title of Augustus Caesar, Latin for ‘Venerable Caesar.’ Several other emperors, after Augustus, were also deified, but only after their death: namely, Tiberius, Nero, and Domitian. (Wikipedia, “Divi Filius,” accessed November 2, 2021)
Admittedly, according to the New American Bible, in various major manuscripts the phrase “the Son of God” does not appear in the first verse of Mark’s gospel. (Mark 1:1n, NAB) However, if this phrase was introduced early enough in Christian manuscripts, it would surely have been a challenge to Roman sensitivity: the followers of a condemned criminal of the state (Jesus) were trying to take over the emperor’s title. Christians usurped the titles ‘Son of God’ and ‘Savior of the World’ (English for Salvator Mundi) from the emperor, and they also usurped his official propaganda phrase for any type of good news: the official name of his ‘newspaper,’ so to speak. This boiled down to subversion, to say the least, if not treason: Christians were taunting the Roman authorities. In his book God and Empire, biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan states,
“Christians were not simply using ordinary titles applied to all sorts of people. … They were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant.” (Crossan, p. 28)
No wonder Christians were considered enemies of the Roman Empire; especially when one considers that Emperor Augustus was, in general, considered a good emperor across the empire.
Kingdom of God
As a matter of fact, according to Minister Gregg, in the first-century (BCE/CE) Roman Empire, it was even dangerous to declare God as the king of the whole world: the phrase ‘whole world’ was synonymous to the Roman Empire. He writes,
“One aspect of historical Jesus studies that almost all scholars actually agree about is that a central aspect of Jesus’ ministry concerned speaking about the kingdom of God. And to speak about God being king, when Caesar had declared himself divine, was audacious to say the least.” (Gregg, accessed November 2, 2021, emphasis in original)
The reader may now start to realize why Jesus ended up condemned and crucified as a revolutionary by the state, and why Christians were ‘persecuted’ in the Roman Empire.
This is why Pilate asked Jesus, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” (John 18: 33, KJV) Jesus tried to explain to him that it was not a political kingdom and it involved no military force.
“Jesus answered, ‘my kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence [the same kind].’” (John 18:36, KJV)
After ascertaining Jesus was no military threat, Pilate tried to release him.
“From thenceforth Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, ‘If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.’” (John 19:12, KJV)
Hearing this, Pilate was not going to risk his political position for a Jewish peasant; so, he decided to condemn him anyway.
“Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was ‘Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.’” (John 19:19, KJV)
The trouble was that Jesus used the word ‘kingdom.’
Jesus, and later his apostles, did jump-start the ‘kingdom of God,’ but, unfortunately, it eventually stalled. According to the Acts of the Apostles, about three thousand persons converted to Christianity after the speech made by the apostles’ leader, Peter, at Pentecost—right after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the first Christian community. (Acts 1:13–14; 2:1–41) These converts decided to live a communal life together:
“All that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted [shared] them to all men [everybody], as every man [person] had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread [Eucharist] from house to house, did eat their meat [food] with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:44–47, KJV, emphasis mine)
Paul of Tarsus
There are thirteen New Testament letters that are attributed to (Saint) Paul in their internal text, but biblical scholars are of the opinion that only seven of them were written by Paul (mainly in the fifties CE); the other six were probably written by his disciples/followers in his name. I shall confine this section to the seven undisputed Pauline letters (i.e., Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon).
The Greek word euangelion or ‘gospel’ appears more than sixty times in the seven authentic Pauline letters, but it has a different meaning from that in the Gospels: in these letters Paul did not associate the ‘good news’ with ‘God’s kingdom.’ The New American Bible defines ‘gospel’ as follows:
“In Greek, this word signifies good news, and specifically the good news of the kingdom of God (Hebrews 4:2; Matthew 4:23). Saint Paul uses the word to indicate his preaching; later the same word will be applied to the accounts of Christ’s life (First Corinthians 9:16; Romans 1:3).” (NAB, “Bible Dictionary” p. 418)
So, the New American Bible shows clearly that the use of the word ‘gospel’ in the Gospels differs significantly from that in Paul’s letters; however, I tend to disagree somewhat with its definition in Paul’s case. Please notice my emphases in the following Pauline quotes and see whether you come to the same conclusion I arrive at.
In the first chapter of his Romans, Paul writes,
“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1:1–4, KJV, emphasis mine)
And later in the same chapter he writes,
“I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, KJV, emphasis mine)
In the next chapter of the same letter, he writes,
“In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” (Romans 2:16, KJV, emphasis mine)
In the first chapter of his First Corinthians he writes,
“Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” (First Corinthians 1:17–18, KJV, emphasis mine)
And in the last chapter but one of the same letter, he writes,
“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.” (First Corinthians 15:1–2, KJV, emphasis mine)
Finally in his Second Corinthians, he writes,
“But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost.” (Second Corinthians 4:3, KJV, emphasis mine)
In my opinion, therefore, Paul’s ‘good news’ consisted of the bodily resurrection (like Jesus) and subsequent eternal life of all those who believed in Jesus Christ—while all the others who did not believe in Jesus were going to perish. This is the age-old solution to humanity’s problem: how to defeat death and achieve immortality. Truly it was great news!
This is probably why the early Church Fathers came up with the dictum, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” Paul and the Church Fathers were wrong, of course: God is impartial and loves everyone; just as Paul was wrong about the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. (Incidentally, also Jesus was wrong about the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.)
Now, I don’t want the reader to think that I am the only one who defines Paul’s use of the word ‘gospel’ given above; so, to confirm my conclusion here, I quote theology graduate Happy Riches’s answer to the question “What Exactly Did Paul Mean When He Used the Word ‘Gospel’ Throughout His Epistles?” in Quora,
“The good news (Gospel) is that Jesus rose from the dead and there is a resurrection—the redemption of our bodies to which we can look forward to being included. … Many think the gospel is merely the forgiveness of sins. But the good news is that not only have our sins been forgiven, but we have a hope of eternal life wherein we will receive redeemed bodies that will have no imperfections or be subject to death.” (Riches, accessed November 2, 2021, emphasis mine)
Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008. (ISBN: 9780060858315)
Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York, NY: Harper One, 2012. (ISBN: 9780062204608)
One of the most mindboggling Christian doctrines is that of the Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper). This article challenges the blind-faith teaching of Christ’s real presence under the Eucharistic species: it irons out the wrinkles in the various New Testament texts concerning this sacrament, and finally gives the true symbolic meaning Jesus really intended when he instituted it.
I shall use the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as a representative for the various Christian beliefs on the Eucharist in general. For the benefit of the reader who might not be familiar with the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, after the priest pronounces the exact words of consecration at Mass, the bread and wine supposedly turn into the real body and blood, respectively, of Jesus Christ. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as (p. 296 ¶ 1374) ‘the consummation of the spiritual life, and the end of all of the sacraments.’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologica III, 73, 3c) ‘In the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ.’ (Council of Trent, sess. 13, can. 1, http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch13.htm, accessed September 10, 2021) ‘This presence is called “real” not to exclude the idea that the others are “real” too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial, and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man.’ (Paul VI, Misterium Fidei, 39)” [emphasis in the Catholic Catechism]
The Church admits, without any hesitation, that nothing changes, physically or chemically, in the bread and wine after the priest’s ‘magical’ words; nonetheless, Jesus becomes wholly present in each of them. This is a classic example of blind faith—against all odds, so to speak.
It is not only Catholics who believe in the ‘real’ presence of Jesus in the Eucharist; several other Christian denominations believe practically the same thing, with minor nuances: including the Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists, but not Calvinists, Baptists, and Pentecostals. In this article, I contest this official teaching of the Catholic Church.
The Naked Emperor
Most famous author Hans Christian Andersen tells a tale of an emperor who was excessively fond of new clothes and cared about nothing else but wearing and displaying them. Two rogues, pretending to be weavers, claimed that they knew how to make the most beautiful clothes from a fabric that was invisible to anyone who was either unfit for one’s office or extraordinarily stupid. The emperor liked the idea of having such knowledge of his subjects, so he hired them. They pocketed the money, and pretended to work earnestly at producing this imaginary fabric. Of course, his ministers could not see the inexistent fabric but pretended to see it for fear of appearing either unfit for their position or extraordinarily stupid; and the emperor acted likewise. Finally the swindlers reported that the emperor’s suit with this special fabric was ready; they mimed dressing him up, and he marched in procession naked before his subjects. The townsfolk played along with the pretense, for the same reason as the ministers and the emperor. Then a little child in the crowd blurted out that the emperor was naked, and the cry was taken up by all the people watching. Naturally, the emperor was vexed, knowing that they were probably right, but he thought the procession must go on, so he kept on pretending. (Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” pp. 58–63)
The story describes a situation where one thinks that everyone else believes something, so one forces oneself to pretend to believe it too: even though one does not believe any of it. I’m sure the reader can see the parallelism of this tale with the Eucharist.
I used to believe very strongly in the Eucharist, so much so, there was a period of several years in which I used to spend fifteen to thirty minutes, daily, ‘talking’ to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament after work; but I started questioning my belief in the last decade or so.
Compare the following scenario to the doctrine of the Eucharist. Suppose someone tells you that, literally, the Eifel Tower moves from Paris, France, to Toronto, Ontario, and vice-versa the Canadian National (CN) Tower moves from Toronto to Paris after a magician utters some ‘magical’ formula. “Not unless I can see it happening,” you would naturally retort, no? “But unfortunately,” the claimer continues, “there would be no evidence of this taking place: the Eifel Tower would still be visible in Paris and the CN Tower would still be visible in Toronto, but, in reality, the Eifel Tower would be physically in Toronto and the CN Tower in Paris: one has to believe it.” Would you believe something crazy like that? I simply cannot imagine God (or Jesus) expecting this kind of utterly-unreasonable, blind faith from us.
Notice also how Andersen’s tale ends: the emperor, rather than coming clean, decides to continue the charade. Unfortunately, this is, very often, the case with the Catholic Church and its dogmas. It gets in waters that are too deep and cannot come back out. I strongly believe the Church should come clean and revise, or even reverse, some of its teachings from time to time: whenever it finds out it was wrong, or there are no longer enough valid reasons for believing something any more—just like science does occasionally. I say this, not because of any animosity against the Church, but because the Church should be on God’s side, and God is definitely on truth’s side.
Interestingly enough, philosopher and theologian Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) was probably the first who thought that faith should be based on reason: “He defined theology as ‘faith in search of reason’”; (Wright, p. 59) yet, for some strange reason, he never questioned the alleged transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist—termed transubstantiation. It shows the power of conditioning: tie a baby elephant’s leg to a peg in the ground as soon as it is born, and it wouldn’t try to unearth it in adulthood when it is strong enough to do so.
However, some might still insist that in transubstantiation a miracle happens, in which, through the power Christ gives to the Church, which is subsequently transmitted to the priest, the bread and wine are really changed to the body and blood of Jesus. Is there enough evidence for such a stance?
After I came to my senses and jolted out of my lifetime conditioning, I did not just stop believing in the Eucharist: I embarked on a thorough search for the whole truth. In this article, I shall take the reader through my journey contesting the possibility of such a miracle taking place by playing in the Church’s own home court—the Bible—particularly the New Testament.
Because of the centrality assigned to the Eucharist by many Christian denominations (especially Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists), before proceeding further in this article, I would like to state my position regarding the Bible so there is no misunderstanding. In both my books Is the Bible Infallible? and Faith and Reason, I prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the Bible is not God’s Word. It fails both ‘litmus’ tests: namely, there are many contradictions in its own texts, and its prophesies never transpired. It simply consists of writings by humans who, admittedly, cared about God and morality. I concede that, at times, people might be inspired to write something by God, but most of the time, like Anselm, one cannot think outside the box of one’s then-current beliefs. (Wright, p. 55) Many times the biblical authors got things right, but often enough they got things totally wrong too. Therefore, I treat the Bible as I treat cultural wisdom: like the sayings or proverbs of a nation, say. One might think I am cherry-picking what I like and leaving out what I don’t like in the Bible; but I believe one should read the Bible with intelligence, using one’s reason and honestly judging for oneself what is good in it and what is not: one should not accept all it says blindly. I believe that there is no other way of reading the Bible because of the numerous textual contradictions and failed prophecies I have listed in the chapters on “Bible Contradictions” and “Bible Prophecies,” respectively; otherwise, one might as well discard the Bible. I suggest the reader keep this in mind during my ensuing discussions.
Transubstantiation, or equivalently Luther’s proposed consubstantiation, is a matter of blind faith alone; however, to me, faith is more of a trust in someone or something one knows well: not a blank check. Naturally, Science can hardly say anything if a Church, of its own accord, claims there is no change in the physical or chemical properties of the bread or wine after transubstantiation or consubstantiation. For this reason, I shall henceforth play strictly on Christianity’s own turf: I shall quote the New Testament without questioning what is written.
Keep in mind that the New Testament so-called ‘books’ were not all written at the same time; certain books were written before others, and the earlier books tend to be more authentic than the later ones: later authors normally tend to mythologize their heroes (like Robin Hood or Zorro), over time, in an effort to make them look better than they really were. Moreover, as time goes by, the number of eyewitnesses who could challenge their writings decreases because they happen to die.
In this article I shall be referring to five New Testament books; so, before I start my discussion, let us have a quick look at the approximate time when they were written—according to biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, as given in his book The Historical Jesus. (1) The undisputedly authentic First Letter of (Saint) Paul to the Corinthians was written in 53 or 54 CE, (2) The Gospel according to Mark was written between 70 and 79 CE, (3) The Gospel according to Matthew was written around 90 CE, (4) The Gospel according to Luke was written between 95 and 99 CE, and (5) The Gospel according to John was written between 100 and 105 CE—some parts in John’s gospel were added between 120 and 125 CE. (pp. 429–32) So, from what I said in the previous paragraph, the most reliable is Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, then Mark’s gospel, and so on.
Bread and Wine Eucharist
Let us therefore first look at what Paul has to say regarding the institution of the Eucharist at Jesus’s Last Supper. I shall use the Berean Literal Bible version for this earliest text to be as close as possible to the original words Paul wrote.
“I received from the Lord [Jesus] that which also I delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and having given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you [apostles/disciples]; do this in remembrance of Me.’ Likewise also the cup after having supped, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you might drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you may eat this bread and may drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He should come.” [1 Corinthians 11:23–26 (BLB) emphasis mine].
It is interesting to note that Paul says he had “received” this information directly “from the Lord,” that is, from Jesus himself. It is clear from the above text that Paul wanted to pass on Christianity to his churches just as he had received it: in other words, to do exactly what Jesus had instructed him to do. Recall that Paul was a Pharisee who persecuted Christians prior to his conversion; so, for him to be able to change so drastically, I believe he was sincere and convinced of Christianity. This is also why I believe he is the best source of information about authentic (early) Christianity.
Another obvious observation from this passage is that Jesus clearly wished to be remembered by his disciples after his death: his request “do this in remembrance of Me” occurs twice.
At first blush it does seem that Jesus’s words imply he turned the bread and the wine, miraculously, into his body and blood, respectively; and this is probably why many generations of Christians later believed it to be so: they trusted Jesus’s (or rather the biblical author’s) words.
Presumably, he did turn water into wine early in his ministry in Cana, Galilee, but the transformation was visible and palatable to everyone around (see John 2:1–11). At the Last Supper, however, the bread (visibly and palatably) remained bread and the wine remained wine: evidently, therefore, there was no obvious miracle. Presumably, with his power, Jesus could have changed them to flesh and blood, as he had changed water into wine, no?
Needless to mention, it sounds somewhat repulsive to eat someone’s flesh and drink someone’s blood: it has overtones of cannibalism and vampirism; but that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make before proceeding with my analysis: it’s probably not what Jesus had in mind.
So, if not cannibalism and vampirism, what was Jesus trying to convey by this ‘non-miracle’? It seems Jesus wanted us to remember him by means of an outward sign, which delivered a deeper meaning—termed sacrament. Take baptism, for example—the introduction into Christ’s Church: in the old baptismal rite, the convert’s immersion under water signified the death and burial of the old, wicked self, and the subsequent emergence from the water signified the birth of a new, good person. In the Eucharist, therefore, I contend that Jesus wanted to convey some symbolic meaning as in baptism. The person being baptized does not, in actual fact, die nor is he really born again: it’s all symbolic.
For the longest time, I thought that by the clause “took bread, and … broke it”, Jesus was symbolizing his crucified (or ‘broken’) body, but lately I started to think that Jesus would not want us to remember his suffering. His suffering was a gift to us: he would not want to brag about it, over and over again, every time we met in his name. He would like us to remember him, yes, but not his suffering. So, now I believe the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine was his way of recommending commensality (eating together) among his followers: which is what he did with his apostles/disciples throughout his lifetime. Sharing meals has always been one of the best ways of making new friends and maintaining old relationships.
Incidentally, I am positive that during the Last Supper, some bread crumbs must have fallen on the table, on the recliners, and possibly even on the floor: which I presume nobody picked up. If Jesus truly meant to change the bread to his body, he would probably have asked his apostles/disciples to pick up the crumbs; just as he had asked for the scraps of bread to be picked up after his miracle of the multiplication of bread and fish (see Mark 6:43; Matthew 14:20; Luke 9:17; John 6:12–13). His body is more precious than leftover bread, no? Yet Paul and the Gospels don’t even hint at anything like that during the Last Supper.
Now, we need to read Paul’s text in the context it was written. It was an ancient Greek custom to indulge in drinking a little wine after supper. Greek influence spread throughout the Roman Empire— including Israel—in Jesus’s time. In fact, the entire New Testament was written in Greek. Notice, however, that no wine is mentioned in Paul’s text above; however, a few verses before, in the same letter, he does hint at its being wine by the phrase “gets drunk” in the following verse:
“So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.” [1 Corinthians 11:20–21 (NIV) emphasis mine]
The ancient Greeks had another custom: namely, making a libation (see 2 Timothy 4:6) prior to certain religious ceremonies. According to Wikipedia, it consisted of
“a ritual pouring of a liquid, or grains such as rice, as an offering to a deity or spirit, or in memory of the dead. … Various substances have been used for libations, most commonly wine or other alcoholic drinks, olive oil, honey, and … ghee. … The libation could be poured onto something of religious significance, such as an altar, or into the earth.” (Wikipedia: “Libation,” emphasis mine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libation, accessed September 12, 2021)
Pouring a portion of the wine onto the ground, “in memory the dead” is probably what Jesus had in mind. Presumably, Jesus knew he was going to die and naturally wished to be remembered by his followers, but more importantly he wanted them to stay united together through commensality. Wikipedia continues,
“After [some] wine was poured [out] … the remainder of the … contents was drunk by the celebrant.” (Wikipedia: “Libation,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libation, accessed September 12, 2021)
Apparently, Jesus did not drink all the remainder of the wine himself but shared it with his apostles/disciples—his mystical body—the Church. So, the celebrant in the Eucharist is the Church, not Jesus. Likewise, during Mass nowadays, the priest (in Jesus’s place) represents the community—not Jesus himself. The priest is only supposed to lead the community in the Mass ritual. Wikipedia then adds,
“The Greek verb spéndō … “pour a libation”, also “conclude a pact”, derives from the Indo-Eurpean root *spend-, “make an offering, perform a rite, engage oneself by a ritual act”. The noun is spondê (plural spondaí), “libation.” In the middle [i.e., both active and passive] voice, the verb means “enter into an agreement”, in the sense that the gods are called to guarantee an action.” (Wikipedia: “Libation,” emphasis mine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libation, accessed September 12, 2021) Notice the clauses “conclude a pact,” “engage oneself,” and “enter into an agreement.”
Now, with this background in mind, Paul’s rather strange phrase “the new covenant in My blood” makes much more sense. As a Pharisee, Paul must have known the Hebrew Scripture in and out; so, he was probably also alluding to the ancient rite of the old covenant (or agreement) the Hebrews ostensibly made with God, as described in Exodus—what we nowadays call the Old Testament. (Technically, the following account was a ratification, by Moses, of the older covenant with Abraham—which I also quote below under “New Covenant.”)
“Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and builded [built] an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars [engraved slabs], according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which [who] offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons [bowls (DRC)]; and half of the blood he sprinkled [poured (DRC)] on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, ‘All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.’” [Exodus 24:4–8 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice that Moses poured half of the blood of the sacrificed animals onto the altar (compare with the wine libation) and sprinkled the other half upon the people (compare with sharing the wine). Jesus shared the rest of the wine with his apostles/disciples ostensibly to seal the new covenant of the Church with God through his Son, rather than through the prophet Moses or the patriarch Abraham. Observe the parallelism of the Last Supper with the Exodus covenant account given here. So, to Paul, the blood Jesus shed on the cross constituted a new covenant, which we nowadays call the New Testament, of Jewish-Christians with God. The gentiles (non-Jews—the rest of humanity) were later also invited to join in this new covenant with God and indeed Paul had a prominent part in doing this.
It is also most important to note that, according to Paul’s account, Jesus never said the words, “this is my blood” while handling the wine cup, as he definitely said, “This is my body” while handling the bread. This is very significant, as I’ll soon show more clearly.
Note also Paul’s final sentence: “For as often as you may eat this bread and may drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He should come.” This was (and is supposed to be even now) the whole idea of the ritual. Notice also that Paul does not say: “as often as you may eat this body and may drink the blood” but he says: “as often as you may eat this bread and may drink the cup.” Keep in mind that this text from Paul’s letter is the earliest and most important New Testament record regarding the institution of the Eucharist, but also remember that this was already twenty-odd years after Jesus’s death (refer to the dates when the New Testament books were written, given above).
Moreover, we do not really know what Jesus was alluding to while handling the bread. Was he referring to himself when he said, “This is my body” or to his apostles/disciples? For all we know, he could have been showing the whole congregation when he said it. Paul teaches that the Church is Jesus’s mystical body. In his undisputedly authentic First Corinthians, he writes,
“For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond [slaves] or free; and [we] have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, ‘Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body’; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, ‘Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body’; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were [would be] the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were [would be] the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were [would be] the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, ‘I have no need of thee’: nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: and those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour [clothe with the greatest care (NLT)]; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness [are treated with special modesty (NIV)]. For our comely parts have no [such] need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked [it]. That there should be no schism [division] in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether [if] one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or [if] one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” [1 Corinthians 12:12–27 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Try to remember the clause “we have been all made to drink into one Spirit”: I shall come back to it later. Recall that “spirit” is synonymous to ‘life,’ and the Holy Spirit is the ‘life’ of the church. But why did Paul use the word “drink”? Why not use “inhale,” “breathe in,” “take in,” or something similar?
Now, where did Paul get the ‘mystical body’ symbolism from? Could it have come from Jesus himself? If so, it is possible that Jesus might have been referring to his apostles/disciples while he was handling the bread. Take a look at this quote, from John, which happened right after Jesus had cast the sellers out of the Jerusalem Temple.
“Then answered the Jews and said unto him [Jesus], ‘What [miraculous (NLT)] sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?’ Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then said the Jews, ‘Forty and six  years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear [build] it up in three days?’ But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.” [John 2:18–22 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice the clause, “he spoke of the temple of his body,” which Jesus never explained to his apostles/disciples. Most of us, nowadays, would not have understood what Jesus was talking about had not the evangelist explained it. A temple is made of many stones, like a body is made of many parts. This shows that Jesus was no shallow person by any standard.
I think I’ve said just about enough, for now, to throw serious doubt, at least, on the Catholic Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation. Indeed, several Protestant Churches, like the Calvinists, Baptists, and Pentecostals, got it right: namely, that it is a symbolic ritual. But let us continue our biblical investigation anyway, and try to see exactly what Jesus had in mind when he instituted the Eucharist.
I shall continue by examining the New Testament Eucharistic text that was written next: that is, Mark’s gospel account. Keep in mind that Mark was written about twenty years after Paul’s Eucharistic passage in First Corinthians (just discussed); that is, some forty-odd years after Jesus’s death, and that there was probably no communication between the two authors; he writes,
“As they [the apostles/disciples] did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, ‘Take, eat: this is my body.’ And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, ‘This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 14:22–25 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice the addition of the clause “This is my blood” in Mark’s text; so, one can already see a radical change from Paul’s passage: Paul never quotes Jesus saying, “This is my blood.” This probably happened because a significant amount of time had elapsed—about forty years from Jesus’s death—during which time there was no other gospel written to refer to. Moreover, Mark’s gospel was written in a different location from Paul’s Eucharistic passage in his First Corinthians: according to the New American Bible, Mark was written in Rome, Italy (NAB p. 69), while First Corinthians was written in Ephesus in modern Turkey (NAB p. 243). Mark’s gospel was initially transmitted by word of mouth, so inaccuracies understandably crept in. Furthermore, most eyewitnesses were already dead, by then, so there was hardly anybody who could possibly correct these inaccuracies. So, later Christians, reading Mark’s ‘official’ gospel and trusting the evangelist blindly, misunderstood Jesus’s intention at the Last Supper.
One also notices the concept of “shed” blood crept in; which is a remnant of the ancient Greek custom of libation I described above: that is, the pouring of some of the wine onto the ground before the ceremony. Compare this with Moses’s pouring half of the sacrificed animals’ blood onto the altar during the Hebrews’ covenant with God (see Exodus 24:6).
This is where wine (“the fruit of the vine”) is clearly mentioned for the first time. If we did not know of the ancient Greek custom of drinking wine after supper, technically, we would not even know for sure, from Paul, whether Jesus used wine at the institution of the Eucharist. But this ancient Greek custom, Paul’s hint about participants “getting drunk,” combined with Mark’s (the earliest gospel) text should be enough corroborating evidence.
At this point, I would also like to quote biblical scholar John Crossan’s book The Historical Jesus to show that the above ideas are not simply my own opinion, farfetched interpretations, or mere fantasy. I’m quoting him after my discussion, rather than before, in an effort not to brainwash the reader beforehand. With reference to the above two passages in Paul and Mark, he writes,
“The ritual [in Mark] is, as in Paul, explicitly connected with Jesus’ passion both in its timing as a last supper and in its bread and wine, body and blood symbolism, and especially in the far greater emphasis given to cup/blood than to bread/body. It is now, however, a Passover [Jewish feast] meal as well. And, even though the ritual now seems completely separated from the Greco-Roman formal meal tradition, with, for example, no mention of the wine-cup ‘after supper’ as in Paul, the phrase ‘poured out [shed]’ appropriates the libation moment of the Greco-Roman sequence even more precisely than does Paul.’ (pp. 365–66, emphasis mine)
Let us now have a look at Matthew’s text of the institution of the Eucharist.
“As they [the apostles/disciples] were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’” [Matthew 26:26–29 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Matthew practically copied the text from Mark; consequently, although at least another decade had passed from Mark’s gospel, we hardly read any difference. The gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are very similar—termed the synoptic Gospels.
Finally, Luke’s version of the institution of the Eucharist, written possibly ten-odd years after Matthew’s text, reads,
“He [Jesus] said unto them [the apostles/disciples], ‘With desire I have desired to eat this passover [meal] with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.’ And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.’ Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.’” [Luke 22:15–20 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Surprisingly enough, Luke’s version is much closer to Paul’s version than to the other two synoptic evangelists’. Note that, just like Paul’s version, Luke’s version does not portray Jesus saying “this is my blood” while handling to the wine cup. Although Luke is one of the synoptic Gospels, and Luke certainly had access to Mark’s gospel, he still follows Paul’s version. Notice also that Luke mentions the wine twice: reminiscent of a libation before the ceremony as well as the other Greek custom of having wine after supper; likewise, in the Old Testament, Moses poured half of the sacrificed animals’ blood on the altar and half on the people. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why Luke mentions the wine cup twice.
Even though Luke’s gospel was written after both Mark’s and Matthew’s, apparently Luke also had access to information from Paul; if indeed they were not travelling companions as tradition holds according to the New American Bible (NAB, Acts 16:10–17n). In fact, Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, which deals mainly with Paul’s missions to the gentiles. Given the two versions (Pauline and synoptic), Luke noticeably omits the clause “this is my blood” while Jesus was handling the wine cup, which both Mark and Matthew inserted, and leaves only “this is my body” while Jesus was breaking the bread. Like both Mark and Matthew, Luke mentions wine (“the fruit of the vine”) and also the shedding of blood.
Bread of Life Discourse
Although John’s gospel has an extremely long description of the Last Supper—taking five full chapters—strangely enough, it does not even hint at the institution of the Eucharist as described in the above four New Testament books. However, elsewhere, it has an important passage that needs to be addressed seriously. It is commonly known as the ‘Bread of Life Discourse.’
“Jesus answered them [the crowd/Jews] and said, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat [food] which perisheth, but for that meat [food] which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man [I] shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed [(with) approval (NIV)].’ Then said they unto him, ‘What shall we do, that we might work [do] the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on [in] him whom he hath sent.’ They said therefore unto him, ‘what [miraculous (NLT)] sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? What dost thou work [do]? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’ Then Jesus said unto them, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which [who] cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.’ Then said they unto him, ‘Lord, evermore give us this bread.’ And Jesus said unto them, ‘I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on [in] me shall never thirst. But I said unto you, that ye also have seen me, and [still] believe not. All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which [who] hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which [who] seeth the Son, and believeth on [in] him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.’ The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, ‘I am the [living (DRC)] bread which came down from heaven.’ And they said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that he saith, “I came down from heaven”?’ Jesus therefore answered and said unto them, ‘Murmur not among yourselves. No man can come to me, except the Father which [who] hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall be all taught of [by (NIV)] God.” Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me. Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which [who] is of God, he hath seen the Father. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on [in] me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ Then Jesus said unto them, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, except [unless (NIV)] ye eat the flesh of the Son of man [my flesh], and drink his [my] blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth [feeds on (ESV)] my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat [food] indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth [feeds on] my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth [feeds on] me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth [feeds on] of this bread shall live for ever.’ These things said he in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum. Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, ‘This is an [a] hard saying; who can hear [listen to] it?’ When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, ‘Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man [me] ascend up where he [I] was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth [gives life (NIV)]; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you that believe not.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him. And he said, ‘Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of [by] my Father.” From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve [apostles], ‘Will ye also go away?’ Then Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.’ [John 6:26–69 (KJV) emphasis mine]
If one looks only at the clause “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you,” it does indeed look like Jesus is literally asking us to eat his body and drink his blood—presumably, transubstantiated or consubstantiated bread and wine. But those days of quoting one verse out of context are gone.
In the first place, when this incident happened, the Eucharist had not been instituted yet: recall that it was instituted at the Last Supper, that is, at the very last day of Jesus’s life. Therefore, if Jesus were referring to transubstantiated or consubstantiated bread and wine, how were his disciples (not to mention the crowd) supposed to understand what he was talking about? When he heard them asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” and saw them abandoning him, why didn’t he explain to them how he was going to do it, or at least tell them that they would understand later? Again, why did he then turn to the “twelve” apostles and ask them, “Will you also go away?” Why would he not elaborate a little and give them some details as to how he was going to achieve this? It was because he was talking in another sense, nothing to do with the Eucharist, a meaning that they were supposed to understand. Here’s the background needed to understand this passage.
The Bible makes a very close connection between ‘breath,’ ‘life,’ ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘wind.’ Without breathing there is no life; breath is a kind of wind; a spirit is intangible, somewhat like the wind; and the word for ‘soul,’ nephesh in Hebrew, means ‘breather.’ For example, in the Book of Genesis we read,
“The Lord God formed man [Adam] of the dust [slime (DRC)] of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul [nephesh].” [Genesis 2:7 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Moreover, “bread” is a common metaphor used for the physical body’s sustenance of life; but there is also another important requirement in life: namely, spiritual sustenance. In fact, Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus, in the desert after his first temptation to turn stones into loaves of bread, telling this to the devil.
“But he [Jesus] answered and said, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”’” [Matthew 4:4 (KJV)] Jesus (or the evangelist Matthew) was here quoting Deuteronomy 8:3.
The New American Bible, commenting on John’s Bread of Life Discourse, opines that in verses 27 through 50, the phrase “bread of life” is a metaphor for the person of Jesus (i.e., God’s revelation to us), and in verses 51 through 58, the phrase refers to the Eucharist. It has,
“Up to v. 50 ‘bread of life’ is a figure for God’s revelation in Jesus; in vv. 51–58, the eucharistic theme comes to the forefront. There may thus be a break between vv. 50–51.” [NAB, John 6:35–59n]
I contend the first meaning holds throughout the passage: in other words, the Eucharist has nothing to do with the entire passage.
God revealed himself to humanity, historically, in the person of Jesus. Through him we got to know how God thinks and how he would like us to behave in our life and toward one another: how to live a ‘spiritual’ (or ‘godlike’) life as opposed to living by the laws of evolution governing all the other animals, namely, survival of the fittest. With this in mind we can easily see that, basically, what Jesus is saying in John’s passage here, is that we can only find God through him; by meditating on him and imitating him in our life. The evangelist John contends that this is the only way we can attain “everlasting” or “eternal” (i.e., ‘godlike’) life coupled with immortality after the final resurrection; otherwise, he believes, we will simply die—like all other animals.
Elsewhere in John’s gospel, we read that Jesus’s character is identical to his Father’s—God’s.
“Jesus saith unto him [Thomas], ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also.’” [John 14:6–7 (KJV)]
With the above explanations in the background, let us now go through some rather strange verses in the above Johannine passage.
(1) “Labour not for the meat [food] which perisheth, but for that meat [food] which endureth unto everlasting life.” (2) “For him [Jesus] hath God the Father sealed [with approval].” Both these statements are now perfectly understandable: “look for spiritual sustenance by modeling your life on mine (Jesus’s).”
(3) “I [Jesus] am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on [in] me shall never thirst.” Obviously, here Jesus is not referring to eating and drinking, in the ordinary sense, transubstantiated bread and wine: because there is no doubt that we do get hungry and thirsty again after we eat and drink them.
There is a parallel verse, in John’s gospel, where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman,
“Whosoever drinketh of the water that I [Jesus] shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” [John 4:14 (KJV)]
This means that if we focus our attention on the person of Jesus, this contemplation, this studying of the person of Jesus, will enable us to grow spiritually and live a godlike (“everlasting” or “eternal”) life. The metaphor of the spring (a source of water that never fails) explains why we will never thirst again if we keep learning from Jesus, modelling our life on his.
Similarly, the metaphor applies to Jesus, as our spiritual food (typified by bread) in the verse we are considering, “I am the bread of life”: the phrase “of life” means ‘spiritual’; so, “I am the spiritual bread.” Our contemplating and imitating Jesus’s life becomes a source of spiritual food—it becomes a seed that always grows inside us.
(4) “I [Jesus] am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” If we substitute “living” with ‘spiritual’ and “flesh” with ‘person’ this verse becomes easily understandable: “I am the [spiritual] bread which came down from heaven: if any man eats of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my [person], which I will give for the [spiritual growth] of the world.”
(5) “Except [Unless] ye eat the flesh of the Son of man [my flesh], and drink his [my] blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth [feeds on] my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat [food] indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” This is the crucial verse I started my discussion with in this section. Here again the phrase “my flesh” refers to the ‘person’ of Jesus, the phrase “my blood” refers to his ‘life,’ and the word “everlasting” means ‘godly.’
In the Bible, blood was considered the ‘seat’ of life: “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” according to Leviticus 17:11 (KJV). So again, the metaphors of eating and drinking are to be understood as spiritual sustenance.
We can therefore paraphrase this verse as: “Unless you sustain yourself [spiritually by contemplating my person and my life], you shall not [grow spiritually]. He who sustains himself [spiritually contemplating my person and my life] possesses [godly] life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my [person] is [spiritual] food indeed and my [life] is [spiritual] drink indeed.”
(6) “It is the spirit that quickeneth [gives life]; the flesh profiteth nothing.” This makes perfect sense given that “spirit” and “life” are synonymous.
(7) “The words that I [Jesus] speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” This is the clinching verse: the verse that explains the entire discourse. Notice how hard Jesus (or the evangelist) tries to clarify things at the end of his speech! In other words, Jesus is here clearly telling them (and us) that his words are not to be taken literally but metaphorically: that is, in the spiritual sense not in the physical sense.
John’s gospel then adds that as a result of this speech, many of his former disciples abandoned Jesus. Ever since I was very young I heard priests (including a close friend) say that had Jesus not mean this passage literally (that is, actually eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharist), he would have called them back and said something like, “Wait a minute, you misunderstand me, let me explain.” But he did not, so he must have meant them literally. I am not so sure of this explanation; a case in point, the earliest gospel written (Mark’s) gives the following account:
“When he [Jesus] was alone, they [the disciples] that were about him with the twelve [apostles] asked of him [about] the parable. And he said unto them, ‘Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: ‘That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.’” [Mark 4:10–12 (KJV); see also Matthew 13:10–15; Luke 8:9–10] Jesus (or the evangelist Mark) was here quoting Isaiah 6:9–10.
I don’t think Jesus was that mean-spirited; but that’s how the evangelist Mark perceived Jesus’s behavior when, occasionally, he did not explain things clearly. The synoptic evangelists, Matthew and Luke, then followed suit.
The New American Bible comments on the similar passage in Matthew 13:10–15,
“Since a parable is figurative speech that demands reflection for understanding, only those who are prepared to explore its meaning can come to know it. To understand is a gift of God, granted to the disciples but not to the crowds. In Semitic fashion, both the disciples’ understanding and the crowd’s obtuseness are attributed to God.”
The hypothesis is that humans are themselves responsible for their own obtuseness: very often, they are totally disinterested in spiritual things and do not spend any (or enough) time reflecting on them. So, Jesus leaves the crowd (the majority) in their own blindness. I doubt this was indeed the case: I don’t think God, or Jesus, treats people like morons, but, anyway, that was what the synoptic evangelists and Isaiah probably thought. So, according to this logic, Jesus might have simply let his disciples go after trying to explain what his words meant.
Finally, Jesus turns also to his twelve apostles and asks them if they wanted to abandon him too. But Peter tells him that they had come to believe that Jesus had the words of “eternal” (i.e., godlike) life and to trust him completely, even though, at times, they could not quite understand his words. And the Catholic Church (as well as the Orthodox and most Protestant denominations) still has not understood these words after close to two millennia! This begs the question, why has the Church allowed this to happen?
My guess is that priests like the idea of being able to perform ‘miracles’ like Jesus and his apostles. It gives them a ‘power trip’: it separates them from the rest of the believers, and it buys them the believers’ respect. Similarly, regarding the sacrament of reconciliation (confession), it supposedly gives priests divine powers to forgive sins; while, in fact, God forgives anyone’s sins if truly repented.
When did Jesus ever hint at the concept of priesthood? There were no Christian priests in Jesus’s time; there were only Jewish priests—Levites: they belonged to one of the Hebrew tribes, that of Levi. The religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, even ostracized Christians from the Jerusalem Temple and their synagogues.
As if the modern concept of the Catholic priesthood were not bad enough, according to Catholic Church historian Garry Wills, it was probably women who served the Eucharist in private homes in early Christianity (Wills, p. 116): and yet, mind-bogglingly enough, they are now completely cut off from this function in Catholicism.
In early Christianity, Holy Communion, as the name implies, was a symbolic meal, more like a ceremony, where bread was shared and wine was served, after some of the wine was poured onto the ground as a libation in memory of Jesus’s death: all this emphasized and sustained Christian unity. There was no cannibalism or vampirism intended in the ceremony: it was a simple getting together over a meal, remembering the founder of what was supposed to become the religion of love.
Some people, especially Catholics, might think that my explanations above are farfetched or even bizarre; but, in my opinion, the concept of eating a man’s flesh and drinking his blood is much more bizarre. What I am trying to explain is that the Johannine passage above should be understood metaphorically not literally, as the text itself suggests: “The words that I [Jesus] speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” In other words, they must be understood in a spiritual sense not in a literal sense.
But what, exactly, was the intended symbolic meaning of the ritual Christ instituted? Some might still insist that even according to authentic Paul, Jesus presumably said, “this is my body”: even if he did not say, “this is my blood.” So Jesus might have intended an actual miracle transforming the bread into his body. And if this be not the case, if he did not perform a miracle; what did Jesus have in mind when he instituted the Eucharist at his Last Supper?
Until very recently, two aspects of the Eucharist always bothered me: the ‘cannibalism-vampirism’ aspect and the apparent ‘bragging’ concerning Jesus’s suffering. I thought there had to be a deeper symbolism (as in baptism) Jesus had in mind that we have lost over time. Imagine eating someone’s body and drinking someone’s blood: it is disgusting by any standard to practically everybody, and I’m sure first-century Christians didn’t feel any different (see John 6:52). The cannibalistic-vampiric aspect of the Eucharist I have practically ruled out in the previous section. So, in this section, I shall discuss the bragging aspect and thereby shed further light on the cannibalistic-vampiric aspect for the benefit of those readers who are still unconvinced.
I always found it rather strange that Jesus would have intended to keep reminding us of his suffering; his suffering was a gift to us: normally, one does not keep reminding one’s wife or one’s family of a great gift one has given them. Jesus had more class than to brag about his sacrifice for us and give us a guilt trip every time we meet in his name. But then what exactly is the symbolism he wished to convey in his institution of the Eucharist?
The answer to this question eluded me for decades. I finally got the answer after reading Paul’s verses from his authentic Romans and First Corinthians for the hundredth-odd time. One is prone to miss the connection because they are, textually, somewhat disconnected from the institution of the Eucharist. In his undisputedly authentic Letter to the Romans, we read,
“So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” [Romans 12:5 (NIV) emphasis mine]
Bread, being made up of many grains of wheat crushed, kneaded together, and baked is a symbol of the mystical body of Jesus Christ— his Church. This is what he explains in his First Corinthians.
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. … For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” [1 Corinthians 10:16–17; 12:13 (NIV) emphasis mine]
Naturally, red wine resembles blood, but what does the blood symbolize? What does it stand for in Christ’s Church? As mentioned in the previous section, blood was thought to be the seat of life in Jesus’s time: that is, what keeps the body alive. “The life of the flesh is in the blood,” says Leviticus 17:11. And what keeps the Church alive? The love between its members is what keeps Christ’s Church alive. So, the blood of Jesus in the Eucharist symbolizes our love for one another.
It also explains Paul’s strange use of the word “drink” in reference to the Holy Spirit, who is the life of the Church: rather than use some other verb like ‘inhale,’ ‘breathe in,’ ‘take in,’ or something similar. So, in the Eucharist, Jesus was not asking us to remember his suffering, but to strengthen our unity in him through love and commensality.
In fact, in his letter to the Trallians, Ignatius (c. 50 CE–c. 110 CE), first–second century bishop of Antioch in modern Turkey, once wrote that we Christians are created again in faith, which is the Lord’s flesh, and love, which is Jesus Christ’s blood; he writes,
This is the key to the Eucharistic symbolism! And we had the right answer since the turn of the second century. So, according to Ignatius of Antioch, our faith is Jesus’s mystical body, and our love for one another is Jesus’s mystical blood. Christian love is what keeps Christ’s mystical body alive. This is the true symbolism Jesus wanted to convey in his institution of the Eucharist. It is as rich in symbolism as baptism.
Moreover, according to Catholic historian Garry Wills, at the turn of the fifth century CE, theologian Augustine of Hippo still believed that
“the faithful [is] the stuff that is transformed by the Eucharist. He [Augustine] never mentions … the power of the priest to consecrate … it is the faithful recipients who make the body of Christ present by becoming it.” [Wills, p. 141, emphasis in original]
In Augustine’s opinion, what makes the Eucharistic transformation actually take place in someone is the participant’s unity with the Church and God, not the priest’s magical words. He totally rejected the concept that Jesus’s physical, albeit-resurrected body could be in many places at once. Therefore, whenever we say that Jesus is in different locations at the same time, it must be symbolic: we mean his mystical body, the communities gathered together in Christ’s name. In Augustine’s own words,
“If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery [symbol (Wills, p. 141)] that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery [symbol] that you are receiving! You are saying ‘Amen’ to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear ‘The body of Christ’, you reply ‘Amen.’ Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your ‘Amen’ may ring [become] true!” [Early Church Texts, “Augustine on the Nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist,” emphasis mine https://earlychurchtexts.com/public/augustine_sermon_272_eucharist.htm , accessed September 14, 2021]
Indeed, Wills points out, Augustine explicitly rejected the concept of our actually eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ: (Wills, p. 141) commenting on John 6:50, Augustine writes,
“This, then, is the bread that cometh down from heaven, that if any man eat thereof, he shall not die.’ But this is what belongs to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; he that eateth within, not without; who eateth in his heart, not who presses with his teeth.” [Augustine, In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus, tr. 26 § 12, trans. Gibb & Innes in Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, p. 279, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.ii.html, accessed September 14, 2021]
It makes one wonder why these words of Augustine—one of the most revered Christian theologians—were forgotten. To their credit, however, Calvinists (the Reformed Churches) have adopted Augustine’s doctrine of the Eucharist.
Commensality is undoubtedly one of the best ways to make new friends and nurture old friendships. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Jesus would have liked his Church to continue the legacy he had started with his apostles and disciples. In sharing bread and wine he was asking us to remember that we are a unity and that our unity depends on our love for one another. He was not asking us to keep remembering his sacrifice and suffering for us. For the longest time—decades—I got this wrong. Although his writing was not very clear, authentic Paul had the right concept of the Eucharist, but a couple of the evangelists missed the boat later on. Recall that even the first two gospels written, Mark’s and Matthew’s, went wrong.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that we misunderstood the Eucharist: a couple of the evangelists misled us. Probably, over many years, Protestants have had better biblical scholars than us Catholics; consequently, they seem to have hit on the right concept of the Eucharist: that Jesus’s words at the Last Supper are to be taken allegorically or symbolically rather than literally. I hate disappointing Catholic priests here—I was going to be one of them.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, the above discussion on the Eucharist is all academic, of course, since the Bible is not God’s Word: I just wanted to convey the various concepts in the New Testament for the benefit of those Christians who still insist on believing that the Bible is a divine book.
Like Paul, all three synoptic evangelists (especially Matthew who was writing for a Jewish-Christian community) also believed that Jesus was instituting a new covenant between God and all of humanity through his death on the cross, similar to the one God had ostensibly made with the Hebrews through Abraham: that Jesus’s death on the cross substituted the animals cut in half in the following rather strange ritual given in Genesis.
“He [God] said unto him [Abraham], ‘Take me an [a] heifer [cow (DRC)] of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. … And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces. In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram [Abraham], saying, ‘unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.’” [Genesis 15:9–10; 15:17–18 (KJV)]
According to the New American Bible,
“Cutting up animals was a well-attested way of making a treaty in antiquity. Jeremiah 34:17–20 shows the rite is a form of self-imprecation in which violators invoke the fate of the animals upon themselves. [NAB, Genesis 15:9–17n]
Passing between the animals cut in half signified invoking the animals’ fate on any party that breaks the agreement. This is where our concept of the New Testament (agreement or covenant) comes from: of course, it was especially important to the Jewish-Christians like Paul and Matthew.
Bread and Fish Eucharist
Commensality, or eating together, is probably the most intimate human experience, barring sexual intimacy, of course. When a couple starts dating, this is what they do: they go out for dinner or lunch together. In his lifetime, Jesus practiced open commensality with his disciples, where everyone at table, male or female, Jew or gentile, slave or free was treated equally. A common Mediterranean diet at the time of Jesus was, and still is, bread and fish; as attested by the multiplication of loaves and fishes described in all four gospels (see Mark 6:33–44, 8:1–9; Matthew 14:13–21, 15:32–38; Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1-15). Indeed, in his book The Historical Jesus, biblical scholar John Crossan opines that
“It was … open commensality during his [Jesus’s] life rather than Last Supper before his death that was the root of any such (bread and wine identified with his own body and blood) ritualization. This is confirmed by the bread and fish Eucharists in the early tradition. … For me, then, two different traditions, one of bread and fish, another of bread and wine, symbolically ritualized after his death, the open commensality of Jesus’ lifetime. That disjunction possibly represented a Jewish Christian and a Gentile Christian development.” (pp. 398–99)
There are two narratives of bread and fish ‘Eucharists’ in the Gospels, one in Luke and one in John. I shall start with John’s narrative (even though it was written later and therefore less reliable) because it’s more straightforward. According to John’s gospel, this narrative happened after Jesus’s resurrection.
“After these things Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and on [in] this wise [way] shewed he himself. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. Simon Peter saith unto them, ‘I go a fishing.’ They say unto him, ‘We also go with thee.’ They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus saith unto them, ‘Children, have ye any meat [fish (NIV)]? They answered him, ‘No.’ And he said unto them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find.’ They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’ Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea. And the other disciples came in a little ship; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits [c. 300 ft.],) dragging the net with fishes. As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus saith unto them, ‘Bring of the fish which ye have now caught.’ Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an [a] hundred and fifty and three : and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken. Jesus saith unto them, ‘Come and dine.’ And none of the disciples durst ask him, ‘Who art thou?’ knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise.’ [John 21:1–13 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice how the clause in the last sentence, “taketh bread, and giveth them,” resembles the words used by Jesus during the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The New American Bible is of the same opinion, stating, “This meal may have had eucharistic significance for early Christians.” [NAB, John 21:9, 12–13n]
This narrative portrays Jesus continuing his previous commensality with his disciples, even after his death and resurrection: showing that he was physically present among them. Was it only wishful thinking on the disciples’ part? Possibly! Personally, I do believe this account did really happen for two reasons: firstly, because Paul believed Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his apostles/disciples alive again (see 1 Corinthians 15:4–8), and secondly, because this narrative does not contradict anything else in the Gospels; so there is no reason for me to disbelieve it.
Thus, Holy Communion (eating together) may have come to signify a real, resurrected presence of Jesus among his followers, even though he had died: because, of course, he had risen from the dead. Naturally, Jesus is not present physically during Mass nowadays, although he is presumably present mystically—in his Church. To have him present physically as well is only wishful thinking: such wishful thinking might have misled the early/later Christians to come to the wrong conclusion concerning the Eucharist.
With this in mind, we now move to the other bread and fish ‘Eucharist’ narrative, in Luke’s gospel, which again happened after Jesus’s resurrection.
“Behold, two of them [the disciples] went that same day [Jesus resurrected] to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore  furlongs [i.e., 7.5 mi.]. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed [discussed] together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden [restrained] that they should not know [recognize] him. And he said unto them, ‘What manner of communications [discussions] are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?’ And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, ‘Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?’ And he said unto them, ‘What things?’ And they said unto him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which [who] was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which [who] should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which [who] were early at the sepulchre [tomb]; and when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which [who] said that he was alive. And certain of them which [who] were with us went to the sepulchre [tomb], and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.’ Then he said unto them, ‘O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, ‘Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.’ And he went in to tarry with them. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat [table] with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.’ And their eyes were opened, and they knew [recognized] him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?’ And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven [apostles] gathered together, and them that were with them, saying, ‘The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon [Peter].’ And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of [recognized by] them in breaking of bread. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, ‘Peace be unto you.’ But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, ‘Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’ And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, ‘Have ye here any meat [food]?’And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an [a] honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.” [Luke 24:13–43 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice how close the clause “he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them” is to the institution of the Eucharist. Notice also the clause “how he was recognized by them in breaking of bread.” Obviously, they were used to this; they had dined with Jesus many times before. The bread and fish ‘Communion’ is therefore completed when Jesus is given a piece of fish and he eats it with them. He purposely interrupts their Communion at Emmaus, half way, to bring all his disciples together physically; then he continues the other half when they were all together.
Again we have the concept of togetherness and of the resurrected Jesus being physically present with his disciples while they shared a meal: nostalgically, perhaps, the same way they did before his death. Jesus’s followers wanted to keep remembering him the way he was: sharing a meal with them, a meal of bread and fish to the Jewish Christians.
Needless to mention, in a bread and fish Eucharist, there is no wine; consequently, unlike a bread and wine Eucharist, there is hardly a question of a physical conversion of the fish into the blood of Christ.
Moreover, when one really thinks about it, these Eucharistic narratives are a far cry from an actual miracle happening during Mass: that is, miraculously changing the bread and wine to the physical body and blood of Jesus. The early/later Christians seem to have misinterpreted the institution of the Eucharist, possibly because of wishful thinking: wishing Jesus to continue being present with them in their gatherings even after his resurrection.
Theologically, we believe God is omnipresent, that is, he is present everywhere in space as well as outside space in a fourth (timeless) dimension. Now, since Christians believe Jesus is also God, some might argue that he must also be present in the bread and wine, no? But one must appreciate the difference here: Jesus, as God, would be present in the bread (the host) and in the wine the same way he would be present in the pyx (container of hosts), or in the altar, or in one’s shoes for that matter: no miracle is required for that. Anyway, personally, I do not believe Jesus is God; I believe he is the Son of God—I shall stop here because it’s quite a complex subject that I deal with in my article on “The Trinity.”
Now, Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus telling his disciples,
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” [Matthew 18:20 (KJV)]
However, to me, Christ is present in Church only mystically, as the Church—the mystical body of Christ—whenever we pray to God together: he is not physically present; as Augustine contends, the resurrected Jesus cannot be in more than one place. The most important thing to keep in mind is the communion, the gathering together, of Jesus’s followers to commemorate the Son of God’s historical presence among us humans, being one of us, and sharing meals with us; perhaps also to recall and appreciate, at times, his undeserved death. When a group of people (two or more) meet in God’s or Christ’s name, in a spirit of love (ideally also sharing a meal together) the spirit of Christ is among them. And when a group of people help one another, sharing and giving freely some of their abilities or possessions to whoever might need them badly: that would be the mystical body of Christ alive. We, though many members, become like one organism, working as a whole unit with an aim in mind: a better life here on earth, not just in the afterlife—as we pray in the Our Father: “Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.”
Recall that in his authentic First Corinthians, Paul writes,
“We being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” [1 Corinthians 10:17 (KJV)]
A loaf of bread is made from many grains, but it becomes one loaf when ground, mixed, and baked: similarly, we Christians, although we are many, should act as one body. I believe this will be Christ’s Second Coming: when all of humanity acts as one body, everyone caring for everyone else. I don’t expect Jesus to come to earth physically a second time around.
A little later in the same letter, Paul writes,
“That there should be no schism [division] in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether [if] one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or [if] one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” [1 Corinthians 12:25–26 (KJV)]
This should be the spirit in Holy Communion. Unfortunately, we have reduced Christ’s wonderful idea of commensality and Holy Communion to a bizarre meal and a gossip session.
Finally, as an aside, I must disagree with Crossan’s possible implication at the beginning of this section: that the Eucharist was probably instituted during Jesus’s lifetime through commensality rather than at the Last Supper. Authentic Paul (as well as all three synoptic gospels) describes Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Especially Paul’s opening statement, “I received from the Lord” [1 Corinthians 11:23 (BLB)], I think, clinches the argument, despite the evidence Crossan gives in his book; otherwise we would be belying Paul. But I do agree with Crossan on his main concept, that open commensality was the root of the Eucharist: total equality and serving one another while eating together was an everyday thing with Jesus and his disciples.
Something I never understood is why Catholics, under pain of mortal sin, are obliged to fast for one hour from any food or drink prior to receiving the Eucharist. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (p. 299 ¶ 1387),
Other Christian denominations, like the Orthodox and Anglicans, have even stricter Eucharistic fasting rules—overnight fasting. We are usually told it is out of respect for our Lord who is about to enter our body. But if one were to eat right after receiving Holy Communion, wouldn’t ‘Jesus’ end up in one’s stomach mixed with all the other food anyway? Inconsistencies!
Moreover, if we look closely at our Christian roots this Eucharistic fast did not exist. In his authentic First Corinthians, Paul actually encourages the early Christians to have their regular meal before celebrating the Eucharist with other Christians, especially if they were heavy eaters: this way everyone could have a fair share of the Eucharistic meal; he writes,
“When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? what shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.” [1 Corinthians 11:20–22 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice Paul’s rhetorical question “have you no houses to eat and to drink in” before you come to participate in the Lord’s Supper? He is indeed encouraging them to eat before celebrating the Eucharist, which back then consisted of an ordinary meal. Given the fact that our founders had no problem eating and drinking prior to the Eucharistic meal, to make fasting prior to receiving Holy Communion mandatory, under pain of mortal sin, deserving eternal punishment in hell fire is puzzling to me.
Why do priests, very much like the Pharisees in the Gospels, try to make life so difficult for us believers—don’t we have enough problems and suffering in our life? Incidentally, the same thing applies for the Sunday obligation to go to church (Catholic Catechism, p. 448, ¶ 2181, p. 450, ¶ 2192) and to abstain from work on Sundays, (p. 449, ¶ 2185, p. 450, ¶ 2193) the Friday obligation to abstain from meat, together with the seasonal fasting (p. 421, ¶ 2043): all under pain of mortal sin.
If God were to go by what the Catholic Church says, it would be doing him more harm than good, because according to Christian theology, no amount of good deeds and self-sacrifice can make up for a single mortal sin a person commits: a mortal sin is supposedly an infinite offence since it is committed against an infinite being—God. Luckily, the Church is not a truth factory. Whatever happened to Jesus’s call in Matthew’s gospel?
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11:28, 30 (KJV)]
Naturally, on the other hand, I am not recommending one gets drunk before receiving the Eucharist: that would be disrespectful to the Eucharistic celebration.
I also do not understand why people in mortal sin aren’t allowed to receive the Eucharist? (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 304, ¶ 1415) Christ was always kind and understanding toward sinners, and, to the amazement of the Pharisees, he was also very often seen in their company. He always desired their changing their ways and turning back to God, of course, but he never tried to cut them off completely from the community. And if the Eucharist truly is, as the Church claims, spiritual food, why is a spiritually sick person deprived of the food that can nourish and heal him? Inconsistencies!
Paul’s authentic First Corinthians is often misquoted to justify this inconsiderate, discriminating, and cruel Church law.
“Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation [judgement (DRC)] to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” [1 Corinthians 11:27–29 (KJV)]
However, if one reads his entire letter, one would see what kind of abuse of the Eucharistic meal Paul found in Corinth: namely, dining separately, eating and drinking excessively, and assuming positions of rank.
As I argued above, Jesus is not inside the bread or the wine; however, if Jesus were truly inside the bread or the wine, no human could ever be worthy of receiving the body or the blood of the Son of God anyway; so why not sinners? Jesus never drove sinners off in his lifetime. Again, I think several of our Protestant friends got this right too, namely, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.
Holy Communion is a showing of mutual love among Christians, which is the life of the Church—symbolized by the wine (blood was considered to be the ‘seat’ of life)—spiritually united with Jesus in the Church, his mystical body—symbolized by the bread (made of many grains). The ‘real’ presence of Jesus is an illusion stemming from early Christians’ nostalgic wishful thinking and later Christians’ misunderstanding of the New Testament texts.
Andersen, Hans Christian. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Illustrated by Jenny Thorne. Maidenhead, Berkshire, UK: Purnell Books, 1977 pp. 58–63. (SBN: 361038704)
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. (Latin for “Theological Summary”) Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York, NY: Benzinger Brothers, 1947.
Attard, Carmel Paul. Faith and Reason: Disturbing Christian Doctrines. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2020. (ISBN: 9781663210937)
Attard, Carmel Paul. Is the Bible Infallible?—A Rational, Scientific, and Historical Evaluation. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2019. (ISBN: 9781532078446)
Augustine of Hippo. In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus. (Latin for “Treatises on the Gospel of John.”) c. 420 CE.
Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Translated by Concacan Inc. Ottawa, ON: Publications Services, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1994. (ISBN: 0889972818)
New American Bible: Revised Edition (NAB). Translated from the original languages, authorized by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, and approved by the United States Confraternity of Catholic Bishops. Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 2010. (ISBN: 9780899429519)
Paul VI. Misterium Fidei. (Latin for “The Mystery of Faith”) Vatican, Italy, 1965. Translated by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Wills, Garry. Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit. New York, NY. Image Books, 2001. (ISBN: 0385494114) Wright, Keith. The Hell Jesus Never Intended. Kelowna, BC: Northstone Publishing, 2004. (ISBN: 1896836658)
Following is a summary of my three published books.
Is God a Reality?—A Scientific Investigation (502 pages)
This book investigates whether a God created us or we created him—a figment of our imagination. It contends, as a basic premise, that whether God exists or not is a scientific question: in other words, we should be able to figure out whether there is enough evidence for a Creator in our universe; just as science could postulate the existence of atoms even though they are invisible. A written book, for example, implies an intelligent author; similarly we can deduce an Intelligent Creator from what we see in the universe. I presume God can protect his own interests, and that he is on the side of truth: so, I see no reason for trying to defend his cause; I look for the truth, and let the dice fall whichever way they will. The book looks mainly at the origins of the universe and of life showing, beyond any reasonable doubt, that a Superior Intelligence was their cause: intelligence is the language he speaks to us in.
The book starts by looking at the huge quantity of matter (which is a form of energy—E=mc2) in our universe, and how difficult it is to produce it. According to basic physics, energy cannot be created or destroyed (it can only change form: from heat to light, say). It begs the question, therefore, where did all this matter come from? And why is there something rather than nothing?
Until just over a century ago, scientists thought that matter and energy were eternal. This concept was flustered when it was discovered that the universe is expanding (the big bang theory). An expanding universe implies that it was smaller yesterday, even smaller a week ago, a month ago, and a year ago; much smaller a thousand years ago, a million years ago, and a billion years ago. If one keeps reversing the clock, one comes to a time, about fourteen billion years ago, when the universe was just a point. This, interestingly enough, implies a moment of ‘creation.’ It also begs the question: what or who made the universe start expanding?
Consequently, the only way matter could be eternal, at the same time allowing for the expansion of the universe, is if we assume the universe is oscillating in size. However, such a scenario is precluded by the second law of thermodynamics, which is the principle that everything in the universe deteriorates and runs down if undisturbed. Anyone can tell if a shattering glass is filmed in reverse.
The book then looks at how fine-tuned the universe is and determines the astronomical odds against producing a starry universe (most chemical elements are produced in stars) and the even more astronomical odds against producing a life-sustaining universe. These ‘impossible’ odds practically leave no doubt that the universe had to be ‘coaxed’ to its present existence: chance alone is not a viable option.
The book then denigrates some mainstream scientific hypotheses for the origin of the universe, like the multiverse, string theory, and the anthropic principle.
The book then changes gears and examines life: the intelligence in DNA, the catch-22 structure and the coordination (factory-like structure) in the living cell. It then calculates the astronomical odds against producing a viable replicating living cell by chance alone—since evolution cannot act before a replicator occurs: finally showing that the age of the universe is far from enough time to produce the most primitive of cells—a bacterial cell.
The book then shows that there is no evidence for macroevolution (large-scale evolution) in the fossil record (especially in the Cambrian explosion) or from genetic engineering laboratories. Indeed, the fossil record shows that species appear and disappear, without showing any transitory forms: according to Darwinian evolutionary theory they should be the norm not the exception. It seems God intervened several times: causing a ‘down-up’ (from less complex to more complex organisms) evolution.
The book then examines our consciousness (self-awareness) and qualia (senses, feelings, color, etc.) which science has no clue how they come about from our physical (chemical) bodies. It then gives percentages (as reported by medical doctors) of near-death experiences: accounts of people who reported being lucidly conscious while clinically dead—including a well-documented case.
The book finally looks at a few well-witnessed as well as medically-examined miracles: so we also have positive evidence (rather than just circumstantial) for the existence of a Powerful Supreme Being.
The book ends by assuming God’s existence and examining the meaning of life—why we are here. It seems we are here to develop a personal relationship with God and to participate in God’s ‘continuing creation’—the procreation of other human beings who can likewise have a personal relationship with him.
Is the Bible Infallible?—A Rational, Scientific, and Historical Evaluation (826 pages)
Most Christian denominations assume the Bible was directly or indirectly dictated (‘inspired’) to its various authors by God himself; consequently, they consider the Bible as God’s Word and every verse infallible. This book respectfully questions this claim by evaluating the Bible text rationally, scientifically, and historically.
After a brief description of the history and English translation of the Bible, the book shows clearly that Adam and Eve’s story of the Fall of Humanity into sin (original sin) and Noah’s Ark story of the Flood are both myths templated (adapted to monotheism) on the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was etched on clay tablets about a millennium prior to the book of Genesis—the first book of the Bible. A definite giveaway is the talking serpent, which obviously belongs to the realm of fables. In other words, a fable is not reality, so original sin never really happened; consequently, there was no need for Jesus to redeem us from it. This begs the question, however: is the Bible God’s special ‘revelation,’ or is it a human collection of previous ancient myths?
Probably the best ‘litmus’ test for verifying the Bible’s infallibility, and therefore its being God’s Word, is whether there are any contradictions in its text. The fact is we do find many irreconcilable contradicting versions of biblical accounts if we read it in its entirety. Now, contradicting versions cannot both be God’s Word—at least one version, if not both, must be false.
The book then looks at science in the Bible. The cosmology of the Bible far from conforms to modern science. For example, it says the universe and the earth were both created within a week and they are roughly six thousand years old; while, in fact, from the big bang theory the universe is about fourteen billion years old and from radiometric dating, the earth is about four and one-half billion years old. It also says all animals and humans were created within a week of each other; radiometric dating of fossils shows they (e.g., dinosaurs and people) lived millions of years apart. It also says that the earth is flat, while it’s common knowledge it’s spherical. It also postulates the sky to be a shiny brass vault, and that stars are very small (the size of figs, say) while, in fact, they are as huge as the sun, and maybe even larger. Although it seems to be right regarding large-scale evolution (macroevolution): namely, that God seems to have acted directly (like ‘coaxing’ a down-up evolution, say), all the above scientific errors don’t say much for God’s inspiration: it seems to reflect the contemporary authors’ beliefs.
The ballpark historicity of the Bible is reasonably correct, but it’s inexact in a few years here and there: again undermining the hypothesis of God’s authorship.
The Bible’s treatment of the soul (consciousness/self-awareness) seems to be better than that of modern scientists: so far, science has no clue what consciousness is all about. Science says the soul is inexistent, but evidence from near-death experiences suggests otherwise. Some marginal Christian institutions, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, although they use the same Bible, also believe the soul does not exist. The book explains why they believe so, and why they are, at least biblically, wrong. It then examines the biblical heaven and hell, and why Christianity grossly misunderstood hell to be an eternal fiery pit.
Although Jesus is probably the Messiah (the Christ/Anointed One) promised to King David, he was nothing like the world leader his contemporary Jews expected him to be—so much for biblical prophesies. On the other hand, he was definitely not the Son of Man, as the gospels (especially John’s) contend; nor was he the suffering Servant of the Lord, as later Christians contended trying to explain why he suffered such a shameful, painful death. I contend Jesus had to suffer a public death so that there would be no question about his resurrection: his suffering was collateral damage. (Saint) Paul’s authentic letters seem to give enough evidence for Jesus’s resurrection since Paul was originally a skeptic who even persecuted Christians.
The kingdom of heaven (or equivalently the kingdom of God) is not in heaven, but on earth: as we pray in the Our Father (“Thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.”). God’s kingdom is a kingdom of justice, truth, love, and sharing on this earth: where God ‘rules’ in our ‘heart.’ According to the gospels, Jesus foretold this kingdom of God would flourish in his own (or rather the apostles’) generation: he seems to have jump-started it, but unfortunately it stalled. Salvation in the Bible means to live a full life in this kingdom of God, and gospel means the ‘good news’ of the imminent coming of this kingdom.
Now, if you ask Bible-inerrancy believers, the most common reason why they (and most Christians) believe the Bible to be God’s Word is because of its claimed prophesies: the assumption being that only God knows the future. However, while I generally don’t question biblical miracles, prophesies claimed in the Bible text itself (especially in the New Testament), historically, never transpired; likewise, prophesies claimed by most religious institutions, say from the book of Daniel. Thus, the Bible fails both ‘litmus’ tests for God’s authorship and infallibility—contradictions and failed prophesies.
The last chapter of the book exposes God’s ‘duality’ in the Bible, which portrays God with a Jekyll-Hyde personality. God is described both as a benevolent, unconditionally-loving Father (as Jesus taught us) but also as a violent, vindictive Judge (e.g., the Flood, Sodom & Gomorrah). At times, he is even given a character with diabolical traits, nonetheless: why? That’s the way we, humans, want him to be—tit-for-tat. We have been lied to about God. I contend Jesus was conceived by God to show us God’s real character and so set scriptures right—that God is absolutely non-violent (like Jesus)—not to redeem us from original sin.
Faith and Reason: Disturbing Christian Doctrines (602 pages)
In the interest of this book’s integrity (wholeness), the first third of the book revisits some of what was said in the previous book: in order to set up an autonomous basis for the arguments that follow. It does away with the ‘axiom’ of the Bible’s infallibility, which induces Bible-inerrant Christians to quote a verse from the Bible to prove their point of view conclusively. I contend the Bible is simply a human book; once this axiom is shaken, a number of disturbing doctrines come to our view strictly through our reasoning.
To do this, the book first shows there are contradictions in the Bible; consequently, both versions cannot be God’s Word. Secondly, prophesies claimed in the Bible itself, historically never transpired; likewise, other prophesies claimed by religious institutions. Thus, the Bible fails both significant ‘litmus’ tests for infallibility.
False or disturbing Christian doctrines treated in the book are:
(1) The portrayal of the Christian hell (an eternal fiery pit) is a gross misunderstanding of the gospels. Jesus described (corpses) being burnt in Gehenna after one’s death rather than enjoying oneself in ‘God’s kingdom’ on earth if one does not cooperate in establishing it. But Gehenna was only a valley, south of Jerusalem, which contained the city’s garbage dump, where there was always enough refuse to keep it burning incessantly. The earliest canonical (official) gospel written (Mark’s) described this fire as “unquenchable,” but the second canonical gospel written (Matthew’s), in using Mark’s as a template (synoptic), paraphrased it to “eternal.” There is a big difference between ‘unquenchable’ and ‘eternal’: ‘unquenchable’ means the fire never stops until it is allowed to consume itself, while ‘eternal’ means it never ends. The worst thing that could happen to a Jew of Jesus’s time was not to be properly buried—to be thrown in a garbage dump, say. Jesus used contemporary beliefs to make his point; he never questioned contemporary ‘wisdom’: he never intended hell to be eternal or fiery. I contend Jesus was only human; consequently, he knew nothing about the afterlife. Such scare-tactics might help force us to live better lives, but they also tend to distance us from God. Our Lady’s apparitions ‘revealing’ hell are also discussed.
(2) Jesus’s divinity is never claimed in the first three gospels written (the synoptic gospels: Mark, Matthew & Luke), it’s only the last gospel written (John’s) that mythologizes him and ‘makes’ him divine. John wanted to make Jesus equal, or better, than contemporary Roman Emperors (e.g., Augustus), who were worshipped as gods; so, in his gospel, he claimed Jesus was divine. By assuming the infallibility of every biblical verse, the later Christian Church came to the absurd and illogical conclusions that God is one, yes, but also a trinity, and that Jesus is both human and divine. The book shows that the pronouncement of the dogma of the Trinity, historically, was politically coerced by the then Roman Emperor (Theodosius I) before universal agreement was reached by the entire Christian Church.
(3) Adam and Eve’s story of the Fall of humanity into sin (original sin) and Noah’s Ark story of the Flood are not original; they are myths adapted from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was etched on clay tablets about a millenum prior to the book of Genesis—the first book of the Bible. A definite giveaway is the talking serpent which belongs in the realm of fables. In other words, original sin never happened: consequently, there was no need for Jesus to redeem us from it. I contend that Jesus died a public death so there would be no question about his resurrection. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is also discussed.
(4) Roman Catholics (and several Protestant denominations) believe that no one outside the Church can be ‘saved’ (go to heaven). Indeed, the original Christian Church Fathers preached, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” So, according to this teaching, at most only 1.3 billion people (Catholics) can be saved; at least 6.5 billion people will surely burn in hell eternally. Now, all Catholic dogmas (main beliefs) must be believed by the members: to the extent of believing something white even if it looks black; otherwise they would be excommunicated, and therefore destined to eternal hell fire. Some Protestant denominations, like Presbyterians, believe in predestination: that God predestines those ‘deemed’ Christians for eternal salvation but non-Christians for eternal damnation: thus, still creating them despite his knowing the final outcome. I contend God doesn’t know the future as far as we’re concerned, and that we are completely free to save ourselves or not—one cannot have it both ways. I also believe that eternal salvation (be with God) can be achieved even after one’s death and that everyone can be saved if they only want to. Belief that Jesus is the Son of God is unnecessary.
(5) Most Christians (especially Roman Catholics, but not Presbyterians) believe that Jesus is fully present in the Eucharist (Holy Communion): they claim the bread and wine become truly the body and blood of Jesus during the ceremony: making the sacrament sound like cannibalism and vampirism when they eat and drink the Eucharistic species. Again, this is a gross misunderstanding of the New Testament texts. What Jesus intended for this sacrament, besides promoting commensality (it seems there was also a bread and fish Eucharist), was symbolic. For example, the immersion in water during baptism represents the death and burial of the old (wicked) self and the rebirth of a new (reformed) person. The true meaning of the Eucharist was explained by Augustine of Hippo in the fourth/fifth century, but somehow it was discarded. The bread represents Christian unity (many grains in one loaf) and the wine represents their love, which is the ‘life’ of the community—in Jesus’s time blood was considered the ‘source’ of life. Wishful thinking made early Christians continue to believe that Jesus was still with them physically, rather than spiritually in his mystical body—the Church.
(6) The doctrine on confession in Roman Catholicism is also skewed: most of the emphasis is on the actual act of confessing mortal (grave) sins to a priest; imperfect contrition hardly insists on repentance and inner personal change (e.g., it’s enough to be sorry for gaining hell or losing heaven). But sacrifices in the Old Testament were only a symbol of an inner-disposition change: an outward sign that the invisible God has forgiven one’s sin. God forgives sin if we truly repent of it, it does not have to be confessed officially to anyone: auricular confession should only be an outward sign to satisfy one’s doubts, if necessary.
(7) Christianity has tabooed sex since the fourth century, mainly because of the theologians Augustine of Hippo and Jerome of Stridon, who thought it a necessary evil for procreation purposes. In enforcing priestly celibacy and contraception in Roman Catholicism, historically, the pope (Paul VI) misquoted the Bible and manipulated the ecumenical council into a status quo. He even disregarded what his own birth-control commission of forty-eight members had decided. Unfortunately, however, the world is fast approaching an overpopulation crunch around the ten billion people mark; we are currently pushing eight billion people: (non-abortive) contraception will soon become a necessity. However, the world’s population can easily be controlled if every woman, voluntarily, decides to limit her childbearing to two children in her lifetime. On the other hand, I tend to agree with the Catholic Church that abortion is evil because it harms another ‘person’ (zygote, embryo, or fetus), which, although helpless, should be protected—like a baby: there is no way of reproducing the same ‘individual’ once it is destroyed. Homosexuality is also deemed a mortal sin by Catholicism, but it’s the ‘wrong’ hormones that alter a person’s sexual orientation: it is to be tolerated, of course, but nothing to be proud of (why pride parade?)—it’s not quite normal: isn’t it better to keep it private? Jesus’s virgin birth and Mary’s perpetual virginity are also addressed.
(8) According to the Catholic Church (as in most Christian institutions), masturbation is a mortal sin—despite its harming nobody and there being nothing condemning it in the Bible; it is therefore effectively lumped together with rape or adultery (strangely enough, there is no ‘triviality of matter’ in sex). This is equivalent to the Church’s planting a Trojan horse in our own bodies; thus frustrating our chances for ‘eternal salvation.’ I contend masturbation is God’s gracious gift for sexual release to the unmarried. Apparently, the clergy want to keep the faithful dependent on them, through obligatory frequent confession, so they can feel important—a power trip. They want to hold on to that aura of ‘miracle-workers’ in both confession and the Eucharist.
(9) We are told to always trust God completely, and that God is in control of everything. Such passivity in letting God handle all our problems is a formula for disaster. “God helps those who help themselves.” God made us ingenious at solving problems, so we must do everything in our power, as if God doesn’t exist. Very rarely does God help pull us out of a jam; neither is God an irritating vending machine, which does not always deliver the goods. We are also told that with faith alone we can move mountains: I’ve never seen or heard of such a feat.
(10) Although God’s creation of the universe from ‘nothingness’ is probably true, which is the doctrine upheld by practically all of Christianity, it’s not what the Bible says; it says God created (or rather, constructed) the universe and earth from chaotic matter—as a sculptor uses a piece of raw marble: so, in this case, the Church disregards what the Bible says.
(11) The book finally revisits God’s nature in Christian doctrine (rather than in the Bible): God is portrayed as violent, self-centered, arrogant, manipulative, and condescending. For example, we are told he made Jesus suffer for our sins (especially original sin—which never happened); not to mention his asking us to do penance to compensate for our offences he constantly puts up with. God does not punish us for our sins: like a good Father he hates sin, but not the sinner: a good parent hates a disease killing the child, but not the child; nor does the parent punish the child for being sick. God forgives repented sin: forgiveness implies non-repayment (refer to the parable of the prodigal son). Moreover, in the Our Father, Christians pray, “Thy will be done.” This portrays God as the ultimate self-seeker—like the devil. If you ask God what he wants you to do, he’ll tell you “I don’t know, son; what would you like to do?” God has no master plan for any of us; he gave us our life as a free gift, without any strings attached, to live it as we desire: his will is for us to enjoy a full and happy life, possibly having a loving relationship with him if we so desire. Furthermore, we blame God for everything. “Everything happens for a reason,” is false teaching: life is simply made stressful so we are challenged and, consequently, we can become the best version of ourselves. If a team always wins a football game, it stops being exciting, indeed it even becomes boring: so does a life devoid of challenges. Finally, even the gospels tell us that if we’re generous with God, he will be generous with us in return; this portrays him as a manipulator—again like the devil. It also gives license to religious institutions, and televangelists, to extort money from their followers. In reality, God is impartial and loves everyone unconditionally, whether they are generous or not, because he is everyone’s Father: he pours rain indiscriminately. If you want to contribute to society, do it because you are convinced of the need and to alleviate the pain, not to be rewarded by God in return.
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Probably the strangest Christian doctrine is that of the Trinity: that there is only one God, but there are three ‘persons’ in this one God. According to this doctrine, each of these three persons is entirely God by himself; and yet, it insists, there is only one God (see above diagram). This is a classic case of ‘blind faith’: faith that is diametrically opposed to reason (or evidence). Why do Christians believe such irrationality? Christians claim that God’s nature was revealed by God himself in their Bible. This article explains, both biblically and historically, why Christians have come to believe such an oddity: termed a mystery, which, by doctrinal definition, “defeats human understanding.” As my blog contends, blind faith, if examined carefully, usually boils down to superstition.
The Christian God
In the Bible, the Old Testament book of Isaiah portrays God declaring,
“I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me.” (Isaiah 45:5, KJV)
“Thus saith the Lord the King of Israel, and his [Israel’s] redeemer the Lord of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God. … Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no [other (ISV)] God; I know not any.” (Isaiah 44: 6, 8, KJV)
So clearly, according to the Old Testament, there is only one God. However, in the New Testament, in John’s gospel, we read that also Jesus is God; it has,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1, KJV, emphasis mine)
Later, in the same chapter, the evangelist John makes it very clear that by the “Word” he means Jesus because he writes,
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, KJV, emphasis mine)
How do Christians reconcile these two concepts? That there is only one God, but that Jesus is God too. Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians believe in the so-called Trinity, and they declare it a ‘mystery’ that “defeats human understanding.” Maybe, however, there is no mystery at all. The problem stems from the belief that every verse in the Bible is infallible; the solution to the riddle may simply be that the Bible is fallible: that one should not assume that every verse in it is true. (It doesn’t necessarily mean that we should trash the Bible.)
Interestingly enough, on the other side of the religious fence, although Jehovah’s Witnesses also believe the Bible to be infallible, they do not believe that Jesus is God. This, therefore, constitutes a major rift in the interpretation of the same Bible. Now, how do Jehovah’s Witnesses reconcile Isaiah’s and John’s seemingly conflicting verses? Their translation of the first verse in John’s gospel is a little different; they have,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god [divine (note)]. (John 1:1, NWT, emphasis mine)
So, they claim that the contradiction between the two biblical texts in Isaiah and John is only apparent and can be reconciled by ‘proper’ translation. Oddly enough, however, the original Greek text uses the same word for “God” and “divine/a god” in the above verse (except for the case difference required by Greek grammar). (Bible Hub: “Interlinear,” accessed July 23, 2021) I honestly do not really understand what Jehovah’s Witnesses mean by “a god” or “divine” in their translation of the first verse of John’s gospel—except what ordinary folk, like you and I, think they mean. Still, of all Christians, I think they have the best understanding of who (or what) Jesus is. I just don’t agree with them that Jesus existed before his birth: that he is the incarnated Archangel Michael, as they contend. (Wikipedia: “Jehovah’s Witnesses Beliefs,” accessed August 8, 2021.)
Whatever translation one adopts, the word used in John’s gospel is misleading: typical of a human book, I’d say. If it were truly God writing John’s gospel, he would not have used the word “God/god” for a created supernatural being like an angel, say: he would have used a word like ‘spirit.’ Personally, I disagree with both Jehovah’s Witnesses and most of Christianity: I contend it is simply a biblical contradiction, like the many examples I list in the chapter (of more than fifty pages) on “Bible Contradictions,” which I give in my book Faith and Reason (pp. 15–73).
Moreover, although Mormons (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) also revere the Bible, they believe that the three persons in the ‘Godhead’ are distinct, but that they think and act alike with a common purpose or will. I believe something similar too, but I do not believe (as they contend) that the Father has a perfect physical body as Jesus has: I believe the Father is a ‘spirit’ like the Holy Spirit. Nor do I believe there is a Heavenly Mother, or that the Father was once a man, or that people can become divine as Jesus did. (Wikipedia: “Mormonism,” accessed July 23, 2021)
What is important to realize for our discussion of the Trinity, is that the first of the four canonical (official) gospels written, Mark’s (around 70 CE, NAB, p. 69)—and consequently probably the most authentic—does not narrate Jesus’s infancy: it only portrays him as an adult and claims he is the “Son of God”; it has,
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God ….” (Mark 1:1, KJV, emphasis mine)
This begged the question of the early Christians: how is it, exactly, that a human became the ‘Son of God’? So, the next two canonical gospels written afterward, Matthew’s (around 80 CE, NAB, p. 10) and Luke’s (around 90 CE, NAB, p. 96), try to answer this question by telling us that Jesus was the ‘Son of God’ from his conception: they give us an infancy narrative of Jesus adding that the Holy Spirit impregnated his mother Mary. So far, so good, miracles do happen occasionally, and possibly God decided to conceive a special person for us: one who thinks and acts exactly like him, I presume.
However, this was still not enough for the early Christians. For some reason, they started to believe that Jesus existed with God even before his birth: so, initially, they identified him with God’s ‘Wisdom’ or ‘Thought.’ Consequently, the last of the canonical gospels written, John’s (around 100 CE, NAB, p. 144), declares Jesus existed “in the beginning” (John 1:1, KJV) of the Creation (of the earth and the universe), and that God sent him on earth to tell us all about himself. Thus, John identifies Jesus with God’s “Word”: naturally, words are the expression of one’s thought or wisdom.
Of course, the divinity of Jesus claimed in John’s gospel does not make much sense in today’s concept of God. It may have been understandable, however, in John’s time since many considered even the living Roman emperor, although human, to be ‘divine’: as biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan tells us in his book God and Empire (p. 19). We shall see exactly why this happened under “First-Century Divinity” below.
In their zeal, over time, the early Christians tried to extol Jesus more and more, until they eventually made him a god (or rather God) like the Roman emperor. Of course, being the last gospel written, John’s gospel lends itself to being the least authentic. (For starters, the number of eyewitnesses still alive, who might have questioned inaccuracies, decreases with time.) In fact, Jesus’s divinity is only claimed in John’s gospel: one does not find such a claim in (Saint) Paul’s undisputedly authentic letters (written approximately between 50 and 60 CE) or in any of the other three gospels—the synoptic Gospels.
In trying to emphasize Jesus’s importance, the evangelist John ended up making him greater than he really was. However, it backfired on him because Christianity, later believing his book to be infallible, came to the absurd conclusion of the Trinity: that is, roughly, that there are three ‘gods’ in the one God. The three gods in the Trinity are probably best described like Siamese twins (triplets rather) or possibly like the three-headed Greek mythological monster, Cerberus. It is significant to add, here, that at the time the Trinity was defined in 381 CE, Christians were still highly influenced by Greek philosophy and mythology.
As I already pointed out, all this mess stems from the assumption that every biblical verse is infallible: Christians promoted a simply human book to divine status; but Christianity is not a ‘truth factory.’ The whole mystery of the Trinity would be no mystery at all if one were to concede that the Bible is fallible.
I don’t believe Jesus pre-existed from the beginning of the universe (or earlier) even though a handful of verses in the New Testament, mostly from John’s gospel and a couple of later writings, say so. (See John 1:1, 14, 30; 8:24, 28, 56–59; 10:30–33, 37–38; 13:19; 14:20; 17:5, 21–24; 18:5–8. 20:27–28; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1.) Why? Primarily, because they are the least authentic. Again, if one were to simply forget about the initial assumption, the axiom that the Bible is totally infallible, it would be easy to come to the right conclusion: namely, that Jesus did not exist before his birth—like every one of us.
I think that what the evangelist John tried to convey in his text was the concept that Jesus is most like his Father (God): he is like a chip of wood taken from a large tree, and so he is of the same ‘substance’ as his Father—but not physically, of course, since God is a spirit. He is as close as a human could possibly get to being like God. Having said this, I contend Jesus was still totally human, and his existence only started when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in his mother Mary’s womb—no more.
Now, is there any biblical support for my opinion? Surprisingly enough, there is quite a bit.
(1) To start with, the early Christians believed God exalted Jesus to his right hand, but only after his resurrection. For example, in his undisputedly authentic letter to the Philippians (written around 55 CE, NAB, p. 301), Paul writes,
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form [essence (AMP), nature (NIV)] of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of ‘Jesus’ every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5–11, KJV, emphasis mine)
Note: According to Greek philosopher Plato (c.428–c.347 BCE), the form is an imitation of an ideal or a concept: like drawing a circle or a triangle, say. (Wikipedia: “Theory of Forms” accessed July 23, 2021)
Observe the word “exalted” in this passage. Had Jesus been God, how could he be exalted any higher? Paul, probably like John, perceived Jesus as closest to the nature of God : like a son is to his father; in fact, Jesus was known as the ‘Son of God.’ Paul too recognizes Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ in another of his undisputedly authentic letters, the letter to the Galatians (written around 50 CE, NAB, p. 283), but not exactly God—there was only one God for Paul; he has,
“When it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in [to (ISV)] me, that I might preach him among the heathen [gentiles (ISV)]; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood.” (Galatians 1:15–16, KJV, emphasis mine)
(2) Moreover, the Acts of the Apostles (written around 120 CE, The Historical Jesus, p. 432) portrays the apostles’ leader, Peter, about fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection, addressing the crowd that gathered following the commotion at Pentecost (the descent of the Holy Spirit on the first Christian community) as follows:
“‘Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain …. this Jesus hath God raised up [from death], whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by [to (ISV)] the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost [Spirit], he hath shed forth this, which [what] ye now see and hear.’” (Acts 2:22–23, 32–33, KJV, emphasis mine)
Again, notice the clause “being to the right hand of God exalted” and the phrase “a man” (not ‘a god’). Was Peter being heretical, then? Of course not, the source of this speech is probably from very early Christianity; at which time Christians simply thought of Jesus as a special person: notice the phrase, “a man approved of God.” But later, there was a concept ‘evolution’: trying to understand how, exactly, Jesus was so closely related to his Father.
Indeed, the so-called heretics later known as Adoptionists believed that Jesus was totally human, but God divinely adopted him at his resurrection, his baptism, or his birth without compromising his humanity or susceptibility to pain and suffering in any way—allegedly because he had to suffer to deliver us from original sin. (Freeman, p. 147) But this was still not good enough for the later Church.
(3) Furthermore, John’s gospel has, “My Father is greater than I [Jesus].” (John 14:28, KJV) How can one be more specific in stating that Jesus was not exactly God? The Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible tries to explain this embarrassing, contradicting verse as follows:
“It is evident, that Christ our Lord speaks here of himself as he is made man: for as God he is equal to the Father. (See Philippians 2:5–11) Any difficulty of understanding the meaning of these words will vanish, when the relative circumstances of the text here are considered: for Christ being at this time shortly to suffer death, signified to his apostles his human nature by these very words: for as God he could not die. And therefore as he was both God and man, it must follow that according to his humanity he was to die, which the apostles were soon to see and believe, as he expresses [in the next verse] ver. 29: ‘And now I have told you before it come to pass: that when it shall come to pass, you may believe.’” (John 14:28n, DRC, emphasis mine)
Notice the clause: “as God he could not die.” Presumably, however, neither does a human soul; and we still talk about a person dying. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus is supposedly one person in whom both divinity and humanity are inseparable. Therefore, when Jesus says “I,” it should include both his divinity and his humanity: just as when a person says “I,” it includes both his soul and body. There was no need for any explanation whatsoever because when a person dies we assume, or believe, that one’s soul does not die; likewise, both Jesus’s soul and alleged divinity would not die with him. The lengthy explanation the Douay-Rheims Bible gives here is only an indication of another biblical contradiction.
Both God and Son of God
Recall that, in the first verse of his gospel, the evangelist John says that Jesus is “God.” But toward the end of his gospel, he also has,
“Many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20: 30–31, KJV, emphasis mine)
Notice then that, in the same book (John’s gospel) the Bible says that Jesus is “God” and at the same time he is also the “Son of God.” How can one reconcile these two statements? The two clauses: “the Word (Jesus) was God” and “Jesus is the Son of God” cannot be simultaneously true: the same person cannot be both God and the Son of God when there is only one God. Clearly, we have another biblical insolubility—a contradiction—if not a real mess!
The Roman emperor Octavian (63 BCE–14 CE) was the adopted son of the well-known general and politician Julius Caesar. Octavian was the first and probably the most famous of the Roman emperors, he was later known as Caesar Augustus (Latin for ‘venerable’) in Jesus’s youth. (Wikipedia: “Augustus,” accessed July 24. 2021)
In his book God and Empire, biblical scholar John Crossan notes that Roman poets of Augustus’s time, like Virgil (70–19 BCE), Horace (65–8 BCE), and Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE), deified the emperor, even while he was still alive (p.19). These poets found no problem identifying a living human with a divine being. Their reasoning was axiomatically simple: since the gods run the world, and Caesar certainly runs the world, Caesar must be a god (p. 20). The reader will therefore appreciate that the concept of a ‘god’ in the first-century (BCE/CE) Roman Empire was far removed from our current concept of God, the Creator of the universe.
Crossan then asks the reader to imagine being given the following description of a person that lived in the first century CE: people called him ‘Son of God,’ ‘God from God,’ ‘God,’ and ‘Divine’; and he was bestowed various titles like ‘Savior of the World,’ ‘Liberator,’ ‘Redeemer,’ and ‘Lord’ (p. 28). Naturally, Crossan adds, most people familiar with Western tradition, especially Christians, would automatically identify him as Jesus of Nazareth. However, Crossan points out, all these terms and titles were given to someone else before Jesus was even born: they all addressed the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus (p. 28).
Moreover, the term euangelion (Greek for ‘good news’), which was first coined in the Gospels by the evangelist Mark, was a news flash: a piece of Roman propaganda extolling the actions of the Roman emperor (or the legions). In the Gospels, it referred to the imminent coming of the kingdom of God on earth: a ‘kingdom’ of justice, truth, love, and sharing, where God ‘rules’ in our ‘heart.’ Mark writes,
“Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel [good news (NIV)].’” (Mark 1:14–15, KJV, emphasis mine)
Note: Also Paul used the word euangelion, even before Mark, but for Paul it had a different meaning from that in the Gospels: namely, that Jesus resurrected from the dead, and that his followers will also be resurrected to live eternally. (Riches, accessed July 25, 2021)
Crossan therefore concludes that, to first-century-CE Romans, all the above constituted an identity theft of the Roman emperor, which was equivalent to high treason; he writes,
“Christians were not simply using ordinary titles applied to all sorts of people. … They were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant. (p. 28)
Who was, may I add, executed as a revolutionary by the Roman state. So, when we hear of Christians being persecuted, thrown in arenas with wild beasts, and burnt alive in ancient Rome, they weren’t exactly innocent in the eyes of the state: they were considered a menace to the state and to humanity in general since Rome ruled practically the whole known world. Moreover, they did not believe in the Roman gods; they believed in one God (like the Jews): so, they were considered ‘atheists’ of some sort and therefore enemies of the religion of the state.
The crucial question is therefore: were Christians provoking the Roman Empire by their attitude? All in all, I would say yes; even though Jesus presumably taught,
“‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” (Mark 12:17, KJV)
Since the Gospels were written in the Roman Empire and for its people, their message was, naturally, watered down a little.
Christians certainly challenged polytheism (many gods) with monotheism (one God); but the Jews also believed in one God, and they were still tolerated and even respected in the Roman Empire. However, Christians were also challenging Roman theology and Roman ideology. As Crossan points out, Jesus, Paul, and John of Patmos (the author of the book of Revelation) did not challenge the Roman Empire militarily, economically, or politically: they stood no chance of defeating it that way; but they did challenge it ideologically (p. 15). Their doctrines may not have been intentionally directed as a head-on attack on the state, but, inadvertently, it created an intellectual revolution in the Roman Empire that eventually toppled it—turning it Christian.
As Crossan further explains, the sequence of Roman theology consisted of: religion, war, victory, culminating in ‘peace’—the famous Pax Romana. Christians challenged this philosophy because violence usually breeds more violence. Normally, victory does not bring about peace; it either produces the utter destruction of the vanquished (which one can hardly call peace) or it only produces a rest period in which the vanquished prepare for escalated violence to avenge themselves—if possible. What Jesus taught was an alternate method of achieving true peace; his sequence was: religion, non-violence, justice, followed by peace. In other words, justice would automatically be conducive to true peace: this was the basic message of the kingdom of God. The coming of this kingdom to the world was what the ‘good news’ of the Gospels was all about. Indeed, the original Latin meaning of the word ‘salvation’ was deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss. This concept of peace through justice is the subject of Crossan’s entire book God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. Notice especially the subtitle of his book (p. 29).
Therefore, when the evangelist John says that Jesus was God, we must not take it out of its context of the first-century-CE Roman Empire: at which time all the emperors were considered gods—without question; subjects even had to offer sacrifices to the emperors. To come up with the concept of God being a Trinity, almost three centuries later (in 381 CE) just because of a few verses in John and a couple of other later New Testament authors, is to take the concept of ‘god’ or ‘divine’ in the first-century-CE Roman Empire out of its context.
However, still, this whole argument does not excuse the Bible from its fallibility: it only shows there is a ruinous danger in promoting human scriptures to divine status.
There are no Old Testament scriptures saying that God is a ‘trinity’: they all say there is only one God. However, Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) believed that God’s Trinity is implied in the words “us” (and “our”) in the Genesis verse which portrays God saying, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26, KJV, emphasis mine) as well as in the verse, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22, KJV, emphasis mine), after the serpent had told Eve, “ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5, KJV) However, as I show under “Evidence” in my article “Adam and Eve—Original Sin,” Genesis’s author sloppily carried over these words from a previous myth, the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” while adapting it to a monotheistic setting. Indeed, despite these two Genesis verses, the Jews—who are the authors of the Old Testament—always believed that God is one.
The concept of God being a trinity, therefore, started in the New Testament: it is strictly a Christian invention. I contend it all started unintentionally with Paul: in his undisputedly authentic Second letter to the Corinthians (written around 57 CE, NAB, p. 266), he has,
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost [Spirit], be with you all.” (Second Corinthians 13:14, KJV)
To Paul, therefore, Jesus is up there with God and the Holy Spirit. Why? Jesus is “God’s Son,” Paul tells us in his undisputedly authentic Galatians:
“When it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in [to] me, that I might preach him among the heathen [gentiles]; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood.” (Galatians 1:15–16, KJV)
Consequently, Paul thought that Jesus was even higher than the angels: in his undisputedly authentic letter to the Philippians, he writes,
“At the name of ‘Jesus’ every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.” (Philippians 2:10, KJV, emphasis mine)
Notice the phrase “things in heaven.”
Now, all four evangelists confirm Jesus is the “Son of God,” Matthew, however, also adopts Paul’s doxology (liturgical formula) at the end of his gospel:
“Jesus came and spake unto them [his apostles/disciples], saying, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost [Spirit].” (Matthew 28:18–19, KJV, emphasis mine)
Still, it is only the last gospel written (John’s) that actually claims Jesus is also God. As we have seen, apparently, John wanted to convey the concept that Jesus’s character was the exact image of his Father, God, and he also wanted to elevate Jesus higher than the Roman emperor, who was considered divine. However, centuries later, Christianity ended up misinterpreted the first verse of his gospel.
The early Christians did not consider Jesus to be God. In fact, as I have already shown earlier, in Philippians, authentic Paul writes that God exalted Jesus’s name (Philippians 2:9). Had Paul thought Jesus was always God, he would not have used the word “exalted”: to both Jews and Christians, God cannot possibly be exalted any higher. We have also seen that Acts too portrays Peter declaring that Jesus was a “man” (Acts 2:22) and saying that Jesus was “exalted” to God’s right hand. (Acts 2:33) So, also to the evangelist Luke (who was also the author of Acts) Jesus was “a man” not a ‘god’ or ‘God.’
So the basic question is: how could later Christians go so wrong? As I have argued, most of the problem originated from the fact that Christians considered the entire Bible to be God’s Word and that every single verse in the Bible is infallible. However, as I show clearly, in my book Faith and Reason in the chapter on “Bible Contradictions,” (pp. 15–73) not every verse in the Bible can be reconciled with every other. Consequently, Christianity ended up with a total mess.
In his book AD 381, ancient Greece and Rome historian Charles Freeman shows convincingly that the Trinitarian doctrine was a historical rather than a theological development—AD 381 (i.e., 381 CE) was the year the Trinitarian doctrine was supposedly finalized: he introduces his book with,
“The story, as this book hopes to show, is well documented, but an alternative narrative, that the Church itself came to a consensus on the nature of the Godhead, is still the dominant one in histories of Christianity. The ‘consensus’ approach glosses over the violent antagonisms the debates over doctrine aroused and the pre-eminent role the [Roman] emperors played in their resolution.” (p. 2, emphasis mine)
Notice Freeman’s phrase “well documented.” He concludes his book with,
“The Church was forced by sheer weight of imperial power to acquiesce in a doctrine that had not come to fruition and that, if debate had been allowed to continue, might never have. … The aim of this book has been to reveal what has been concealed.” (p. 204, emphasis mine)
Notice the phrase “what has been concealed.” Of course, one needs to read the whole book to be convinced of what Freeman says here: I strongly recommend it. (I draw extensively from Freeman’s book in following section.)
According to Freeman, the family estates of the Roman emperor Theodosius I (347–395 CE) were in Spain (p. 11), where the majority of Christians believed God the Father, Jesus his Son, and the Holy Spirit were ‘of equal majesty’ (pp. 26, 103). When Theodosius became emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, it was threatened by invasion in the east from the Persian Empire (p. 5) and in the north by the nomadic, Germanic Goths, who were refugees displaced by another nomadic people, the Asian Huns (p. 6). As soon as Theodosius became emperor of the East in 379 CE (p. 15), he must have thought it would be a good idea to unify the whole Roman Empire against these threats by having one common religious belief; so he imposed his own Western belief on everyone else: even though theological discussions were still very hot in the East. The Roman-cultured West was still not up to par with the Greek-cultured East on both debate and theology: hence their simplistic view of the three persons being ‘of equal majesty’ (pp. 29, 35, 105, 157).
Although Theodosius had no theological background (p. 103), apparently to assert his authority over the weakened Roman Empire (pp. xvi, 25), he issued the following edict in 380 CE from Thessalonica, in modern Greece, to the people of Constantinople (Istanbul, in modern Turkey), the then capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire:
“It is Our will that all peoples ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans … this is the religion followed by bishop Damasus of Rome and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity; that is, according to the apostolic discipline of the evangelical doctrine, we shall believe in the single deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost [Spirit] under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity. We command that persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of catholic [true/universal] Christians. The rest, however, whom We judge demented and insane, shall carry the infamy of heretical dogmas. Their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by Divine Vengeance, and secondly by the retribution of hostility which We shall assume in accordance with the Divine Judgement.” (Williams & Freill, Theodosius, p. 53 (emphasis mine); Theodosian Code, 16:1, 2.) Notice the most important theological phrase “of equal majesty,” the concept of first-century divinity in the phrase “the divine Peter the apostle,” which still persisted in 380 CE, and the derogatory phrase, “demented and insane,” which was applied to those who disagreed: totally uncharacteristic of the religious tolerance practiced in the Roman Empire a few decades earlier. This edict was totally unprecedented (pp. 25–26, 47).
Historically, there were four synods (local—not ecumenical or universal—councils) (pp. 94, 105–106) of bishops trying to resolve the so-called mystery of the Trinity; three of which took place after Theodosius’s edict quoted above. All four synods took place in modern Turkey: at Nicaea in 325 CE, at Constantinople in 381 CE, at Ephesus in 431 CE, and at Chalcedon in 451 CE (pp. xviii, xix, 198). One might safely add that the Trinitarian issue remained unresolved after these four synods and is still basically unresolved even today.
What we nowadays call the Nicene Creed was, in fact, put together in Constantinople in 381 CE, that is, after Theodosius’s edict was issued (pp. 205–206). According to Freeman,
“My description of the Council of Constantinople … might appear shocking to those who have been brought up on the idea that it deserved the status of an ecumenical council or achieved a consensus on the Trinity. However, the contemporary accounts suggest otherwise. One of its own chairmen, Gregory of Nazianzus, has left a graphic … account of the chaos, and the fact that the Council was not even able to publish its revised version of the Nicene creed in the hostile environment of Constantinople speaks volumes.” (p. xviii, emphasis mine)
Freeman adds the following revealing details regarding the Council at Nicaea in 325 CE:
“Nicaea was a Greek council, with virtually no participants from the Latin-speaking west of the [Roman] empire. In the west, Christians tended to refer to the three members of the Trinity in rather general terms, such as ‘of equal majesty’.” (p. xix)
Yet, interestingly enough, the actual text of the Council at Nicaea in 325 CE, does not even say that the persons of the Trinity are ‘of equal majesty,’ especially regarding the Holy Spirit. Here’s the actual text:
“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance (ousias) of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance [consubstantial] (homoousion) with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down, and became incarnate and became man, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and dead, And in the Holy Spirit. But as for those who say, ‘There was [a time (Freeman, p. 205)] when He was not,’ and, ‘Before being born He was not,’ and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis [essential nature (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary)] or substance (ousias), or created, or is subject to alteration or change—these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes [declares heretics].” (Early Church Texts: “The Creed of Nicaea” accessed July 25, 2021)
Regrettably, as Freeman points out, our current version of the Nicene Creed was not even published by the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE; yet, it was dogmatically adopted later by the Church after its historical circumstances were totally forgotten (p. xviii).
According to Freeman, apart from one possible exception where bribery by Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, Egypt, might have led to a personally desired outcome, it was the Roman emperors who had actually defined Christian doctrine. This definition was then incorporated into the legal system so that orthodoxy was upheld by both secular and Church law, and heretics were condemned by the state (p. 155).
The first and probably most challenging objection to the Trinitarian doctrine came from Arius, a presbyter (priest) of Alexandria, Egypt. He argued that if Jesus is the Son of God the Father, there must have been a time when the Son did not exist. Consequently, the Son cannot be eternal like the Father: which means that the Son cannot be ‘of equal majesty’ to the Father: in other words, the Son must be subordinate to the Father. Moreover, if Jesus is not eternal, he must be a creature; God the Father must have created him: Jesus could not possibly pop into existence on his own if he did not exist for some time beforehand. Arianism, therefore, makes much more sense than our current Christian doctrine as formally given by the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
“We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the ‘consubstantial Trinity.’ The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: ‘The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e., by nature one God.’ In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215): ‘Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.’” (p. 63, ¶ 253)
Needless to say, this is a lot of words with no real meaning: no one can really understand the above paragraph; however, Christians claim that one cannot really understand the nature of God, but that God’s nature was revealed to us in the Bible. Again, according to the Catholic catechism,
“The Trinity is a mystery of faith in the strict sense, one of the ‘mysteries that are hidden in God, which can never be known unless they are revealed by God.’ To be sure, God has left traces of his Trinitarian being in his work of creation and in his Revelation throughout the Old Testament. But his inmost being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone or even to Israel’s faith before the Incarnation of God’s Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit.” (p.60, ¶ 237)
Now, in my book Is the Bible Infallible?, I prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the Bible is fallible; but let us, for the moment, assume the Bible is indeed God’s revelation, and see whether the concept of a triune God is supported by scriptures.
In his 1531 book On the Errors of the Trinity, Protestant theologian Michael Servetus writes,
“To me not only the syllables but all the letters and the mouths of babes and sucklings, even the very stones themselves, cry out there is one God the Father and [as a separate being (Freeman p. 194)] his Christ, the Lord Jesus. … Not one word is found in the whole Bible about the Trinity nor about its persons, nor about the essence, nor the unity of substance, nor of the one nature of the several beings, nor about the rest of their ravings and logic chopping.” (MacCulloch, pp. 184–88)
Regrettably, the Protestant theologian and reformer John Calvin had Servetus arrested and burnt as a heretic. (Freeman, pp. 194–95)
I agree with most of what Servetus writes here as far as the Old Testament is concerned; however, I think there is a significant body of evidence in the New Testament of Jesus’s alleged divinity, possibly even of his consubstantiality with the Father especially in John’s gospel (See John 1:1, 14, 30; 8:24, 28, 56–59; 10:30–33, 37–38; 13:19; 14:20; 17:5, 21–24; 18:5–8. 20:27–28; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1). For example:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1, KJV, emphasis mine)
“Jesus said unto them [the Jews], Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself.” (John 8:58, KJV, emphasis mine)
“‘I [Jesus] and the Father are one.’” (John 10:30, KJV, emphasis mine)
“‘If I [Jesus] do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.” (John 10:37–38, KJV, emphasis mine)
“Thomas answered and said unto him, ‘My Lord and my God.’” (John 20:28, KJV, emphasis mine)
“Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13, KJV, emphasis mine)
“Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” (Second Peter 1:1, KJV, emphasis mine)
According to biblical scholar John Crossan, both Titus and Second Peter were written after 120 CE: that is, even later than John’s gospel (The Historical Jesus, pp. 431–33); in other words, Jesus was already mythologized, as in John’s gospel, by then.
However, on the other hand, the concept of ‘subordination’ is also strewn all over John’s gospel, which is the main gospel that declares Jesus God.
“‘Ye have heard how I [Jesus] said unto you [disciples], “I go away, and come again unto you.” If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, “I go unto the Father”: for my Father is greater than I.’” (John 14:28, KJV, emphasis mine)
“‘For I [Jesus] came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.’” (John 6:38, KJV, emphasis mine)
“Then said Jesus to them [the disciples] again, ‘Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.’” (John 20:21, KJV, emphasis mine)
“‘Neither pray I [Jesus] for these [disciples] alone, but for them also which shall believe on [in] me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.’” (John 17:20–21, KJV, emphasis mine)
John has so many more verses stating that Jesus was “sent” by the Father: see John 4:34; 5:24, 30; 5:36, 37; 6:38, 39, 40, 44, 58; 7:16, 28, 29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 11:42; 12:44, 45, 49; 13:3, 20; 14:24, 31; 15:21; 16:5, 27–28, 30; 17:3, 7–8, 18, 21, 23, 25; 20:21). I don’t have space for all of them—especially since one such verse should suffice. I shall only give one more quote, a triple dose, just to convince the reader.
“Jesus cried and said, ‘He that believeth on [in] me, believeth not on [in] me, but on [in] him [the Father] that sent me. And he that seeth me seeth him that sent me. I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on [in] me should not abide in darkness. And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day. For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which [who] sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.’” (John 12:44–49, KJV, emphasis mine)
Sending, or commissioning, someone to do something is a sign of superiority, as is the case with John the Baptist, whom God ‘sends’ to baptize; the same way Jesus ‘sends’ his apostles to evangelize the world.
“‘Verily, verily, I [Jesus] say unto you [disciples], the servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.’” (John 13:16, KJV, emphasis mine)
“John [the Baptist] bare record, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him [Jesus]. And I knew him [Jesus] not: but he [God] that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, “Upon whom thou shalt see the [Holy] Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost [Spirit].”’” (John 1:32–33, KJV, emphasis mine)
Yet, there is not a single biblical verse in which the Son (or the Holy Spirit) ‘sends’ the Father to do something. (Freeman, p. 166)
So, how do Christians work around all these verses? They contend that since Jesus allegedly has two natures (human and divine), in the verses above, he was speaking as a human, not as a divine being. As if, when one speaks, one has the option of speaking as a physical or as a spiritual being at will. Jesus was one person: therefore, when he says “I,” it includes both his humanity and his alleged divinity. Whatever Christians want to believe, the Bible says that Jesus is subordinate to his Father: their ‘interpretations’ are not what the Bible actually says.
The Holy Spirit
The Old Testament does not really say anything about the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit. There are biblical verses that may seem to: like at the very beginning of Genesis:
“The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2, KJV, emphasis mine)
But, for example, the New American Bible renders the literal phrase “the spirit of God” or “the breath (ruah) of God” in this verse as “a mighty wind” (New American Bible Genesis 1:2n); it renders the verse as,
“The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.” (Genesis 1:2, NAB, emphasis mine)
The Hebrews (or the Jews) never considered God as complex, a duality, or a trinity; for them such a concept would be “not purely monotheistic.” (Wikipedia: “Holy Spirit in Judaism,” accessed July 26, 2021)
The New Testament portrays the Holy Spirit being ‘sent’ by the Father and/or the Son, and so, according to the scriptures, he is presumably inferior to both the Father and the Son.
“‘I [Jesus] will pray the Father, and he shall give you [disciples] another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.’” (John 14:16–17, KJV, emphasis mine)
“‘But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost [Spirit], whom the Father will send in my [Jesus’s] name, he shall teach you [disciples] all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.’” (John 14:26, KJV, emphasis mine)
“‘But when the Comforter is come, whom I [Jesus] will send unto you [disciples] from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which [who] proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.’” (John 15:26, KJV, emphasis mine)
“‘Nevertheless I [Jesus] tell you [disciples] the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.’” (John 16:7, KJV, emphasis mine)
“‘[Jesus] being assembled together with them [the apostles], commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, “which,” saith he, “ye have heard of [from] me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost [Spirit] not many days hence.”’” (Acts 1:4–5, KJV, emphasis mine)
“‘[Jesus] being by [to] the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost [Spirit], he hath shed forth [upon us] this, which [what] ye now see and hear.’” (Acts 2:33, KJV, emphasis mine)
Notice particularly the theological clause “who proceeds from the Father,” which might also be interpreted as ‘consubstantiality’ with the Father.
The later heresy known as Macedonianism contended that the Holy Spirit is not a divine being. (Freeman, pp. 68, 206) In 1054, the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the other persons of the Trinity caused the great schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church: the latter saying that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father alone, and the former saying he ‘proceeds’ from both the Father and the Son. Both churches professed that we cannot know the real nature of God, yet they thought one word, filioque (Latin for “and the Son”), was sufficient to sever the Christian Church in half. For the sake of argument, I think the Orthodox Church is right if one follows scriptures:
“‘But when the Comforter is come, whom I [Jesus] will send unto you [disciples] from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which [who] proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.’” (John 15:26, KJV, emphasis mine)
The gospel text says clearly that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father”; it does not say “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
In short, scriptures don’t say the persons of the Trinity are of equal majesty—far from it—but there seems to be some kind of close relationship between them which might be interpreted as consubstantiality. However, I still contend that John simply wanted to elevate Jesus to a level higher than the Roman emperor, who was deemed ‘divine’ by his subjects—coupled with his inability to express himself adequately with the right ‘technical’ words, so to speak. Later New Testament authors, naturally, followed suit.
In my opinion, probably all of the so-called ‘heresies’ make more sense than our current Christian belief. Regrettably, though, many have lost their life for trying to understand the alleged divinity of Jesus and the so-called procession of the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, the Christian Church says that we cannot really understand the nature of God; on the other hand, it killed the people who disagreed with it.
Personally, I like to keep things simple: I believe there is only one God. Jesus was totally human and did not exist before his birth: he was God’s Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit through Mary; on him God endowed miraculous powers. The Holy Spirit, according to the Nicene Creed, is “the giver of life”—life’s connection with the supernatural (God).
Note: By this last observation I do not mean to infer that everything in the Nicene Creed is correct; for example, as I argued above, the Bible disagrees with the Nicene Creed: it does not say that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Nor do I believe that Jesus is “God from God” or “light from light” (Catholic Online: Prayers. “The Nicene Creed,” accessed July 26, 2021). Light is a physical entity: it is a form of energy; so it is not divine. However, in the fourth century CE, people did not understand much about light: they figured that light and darkness were synonymous to good and evil, respectively. The Gnostics, the Essenes, and the Manicheans were obsessed with light: they thought it was some form of divine substance (Freeman pp. 158, 160–61), and the Nicene Creed text confirms this.
Still, the above is all academic, anyway: I have shown clearly in my book Is the Bible Infallible?, that the Bible is not God’s Word; it is only a human book, and so, it contains no divine revelation whatsoever about God or the Trinity.
The Trinitarian doctrine, as my blog contends, is a classic example that if faith is not supported by reason or evidence, it is simply superstition. There are no scriptures written by God himself; there are no divine revelations: all scriptures were written by ordinary humans. The only thing we probably all have from God is our reason. Now, “to err is human, but to persist is diabolical”; yet the Church does it all the time: it never retracts dogmas, as science does from time to time. However, unlike the Church, Science has everyone’s respect: if the Church doesn’t change its diabolical persistence in error soon, there will be nobody left in its pews.
Amplified Bible (AMP). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2015.
Attard, Carmel Paul. Faith and Reason: Disturbing Christian Doctrines. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2020. (ISBN: 9781663210937.)
Attard, Carmel Paul. Is God a Reality?—A Scientific Investigation. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2017. (ISBN: 9781532012228.)
Attard, Carmel Paul. Is the Bible Infallible?—A Rational, Scientific, and Historical Evaluation. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2019. (ISBN: 9781532078446.)
New American Bible: Revised Edition (NAB). Translated from the original languages, authorized by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, and approved by the United States Confraternity of Catholic Bishops. Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 2010. (ISBN: 9780899429519.)
New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (NWT). Wallkill, NY: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., 2013.
Our planet, Earth, (and possibly the universe) may be divided into the living (organisms) and the non-living (inanimate objects). Living organisms are normally characterized by their ability to reproduce and grow. The Latin word for ‘soul’ is anima from which we obtain the English word ‘animal,’ meaning, roughly, any living organism that can move around: vegetation is usually excluded mainly because trees, plants, and grass cannot move around and presumably have no feelings. The soul is our self, our consciousness, or what we refer to when we say “I.”
This article deals mainly with the question of whether there is enough scientific or empirical (data-based) evidence that the soul exists and is indeed a separate entity from the body, or whether it is only a figment of our imagination: that is, whether the soul can still exist on its own after it is presumably separated from the body at death, say, and whether it is incorruptible and immortal as Christianity (as well as several other religions) contends.
Mind versus Brain
What this question boils down to is whether we can differentiate between the mind and the brain. The brain is simply that chunk of matter at the top of our head, but what it can do (the mind) is a totally different kettle of fish. For simplicity, I usually compare the brain and the mind to a computer (the hardware—the machine) and its program (the software), respectively.
Without an executable program, a computer just sits there: it’s simply ‘dead’; but once an executable program is installed, it comes to ‘life.’ It’s no wonder, therefore, that previous generations couldn’t figure out what the soul is all about: they had no computers. But they somehow knew there was something special and wonderful they could not quite put their finger on in the soul: the same way they figured out there was something invisible in the air, simply because they could feel the wind.
So, we may confidently conclude that the mind is the software program for the brain while the soul is the software program for the entire body. Consequently, it seems foolish to deny the existence of the soul; just as it is ludicrous to say that software does not exist in a working computer.
Now, there is something strange about software; it’s intangible. Moreover, a software program cannot do anything on its own: it needs a computer (a machine) to be able to do anything; and vice versa, a computer cannot do anything by itself without a program. Still, a software program can be separated from a computer on a disk, say, or it can perform the same job if it ’s reformatted and installed in a different type of computer. Can the soul be likewise separated from the body and ‘reformatted’ for a different type of ‘body’?
The computer program controlling our body is in practically every cell of our body; roughly speaking, it consists of twenty-three (23) twin pairs of chromosomes of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) inside the nucleus plus the mitochondrial DNA. There is no doubt this program can be written down on paper in terms of its four nucleotide bases (its ‘letters’) and stored on a disk: that’s what the human genome project actually did.
Still, it is not enough to write down the human genome on paper or save it on disk to be able to say that the soul ‘exists’; the crucial question is: can it take an existence of its own when separated from the human body? Is there any tangible evidence for the separate existence of the soul? Does it survive after a human dies? Moreover, is it (unlike the body) immortal and incorruptible?
One thing we know about computers is that if the machine is changed to another type, the format of the software must also be changed, to jibe with the new machine, in order to produce the same outcome. Does the soul take on a new ‘body’ after death—a ‘spiritual body,’ so to speak? But what exactly is a ‘spirit’? Christians believe that angels (and demons) are spirits: they are intelligent and presumably immortal and incorruptible. But what does their ‘body’ consist of? This is a question this article tries to answer.
God, presumably, resurrected Jesus from the dead: what kind of body does Jesus have in heaven? Christians believe they shall all be resurrected like Jesus: that Jesus was only the firstfruits of their universal resurrection. In one of his authentic letters, First Corinthians, Paul of Tarsus (better known as Saint Paul) writes,
“But now is Christ [Jesus] risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them [Christians] that slept [died].” (First Corinthians, 15:20, KJV)
Incidentally, one must admit it’s hard to imagine the total destruction of software, at least in the author’s mind: especially if the author is God. Conceivably, the author can always re-write it once it has been conceived; as mentioned above, it can also be modified to do the same job on a different kind of machine: a temporary ‘spiritual body’ or a finally-resurrected body.
According to Wikipedia,
“Following [philosopher] Aristotle … and [polymath] Avicenna, [Christian theologian] Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) understood the soul to be the first actuality [primary mover] of the living body. Consequent to this, he distinguished three orders of life: plants, which feed and grow; animals, which add sensation to the operations of plants; and humans, which add intellect to the operations of animals. … Moreover, he believed in a unique and tripartite [human] soul, within which are distinctively present a nutritive, a sensitive and intellectual soul. The latter is created by God and is taken solely by human beings, includes the other two types of soul and makes the sensitive soul incorruptible.” (Wikipedia: “Soul,” accessed June 18, 2021)
In other words, Aquinas believed a human possesses a nutritive soul in the zygotic and embryonic stage, a sensitive soul in the fetal stage (after about three months from conception), and an intellectual soul in its toddlerhood (after about three years from birth): from then on the intellectual soul takes over. According to Aquinas, this intellectual soul is incorruptible and consequently immortal. Indeed, until just over a couple of centuries ago, black people and women were believed to have no soul, presumably because they were not as ‘intelligent’ (well-educated) as white men; and therefore they were denied voting rights. Of course this was because of the fact that they were not given any opportunity to educate themselves.
Now, at the other end of the Christian spectrum, it is somewhat distressing that Jehovah’s Witnesses accuse all Christians of corrupting the purity of the Bible by adopting pagan philosophies. In their book The Bible: God’s Word or Man’s?, they write,
“Christendom has proved to be a false friend of the Bible. … Bible truth was corrupted by Greek philosophy, and many mistakenly came to accept pagan doctrines as Bible truth.” (pp. 25, 27)
It’s interesting to note that although Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in the same Bible as the Protestants, they deny the existence of the soul—let alone its immortality. I am mentioning their belief only to bring to light the major differences of opinion in interpreting biblical texts—even among Bible inerrantists; begging the question: what should one believe? In their book Is There a Creator Who Cares About You?, they write,
“During the fifth creative ‘day,’ the Creator proceeded to fill the oceans and the atmospheric heavens with a new form of life—‘living souls’—distinct from vegetation. … The Hebrew word [nephesh] translated ‘soul’ means ‘a breather.’” (p. 97)
The Hebrew original text does indeed use the word nephesh, meaning ‘breather’ in Genesis 1:20. Of course, one might argue that fish cannot breathe air like other animals under water. We now know, however, that fish are also creatures that ‘breathe’: they can extract the oxygen dissolved in water through special organs called gills. But how did the biblical author, with his primitive scientific knowledge, know that fish ‘breathe’? Was Genesis’s author inspired what to write directly by God himself? At first blush, that is what it seems like. However, we also know that vegetation does, in fact, ‘breathe’ in carbon-dioxide during the day and oxygen during the night; so, technically (i.e., according to the above definition), they should be called ‘breathers’ or ‘souls’ too. Yet clearly, Genesis’s author excluded vegetation from among the ‘breathers’ (as Jehovah’s Witnesses confirm above): which doesn’t say much for ‘divine inspiration.’
Jehovah’s Witnesses deny not only the existence of an immortal soul that survives apart from a dead person’s body but also the possibility of its suffering or its happiness. In their book Is There a Creator Who Cares About You?, they write,
“Christendom … [teaches] that humans have an immortal soul that survives the body. This ‘soul’ is said to be involved in suffering—either in a present life or in an afterlife. Such ideas are widespread, but what proof is there that they are valid? On important matters like this, is it not wiser to be guided by what our Creator says?” (p. 167)
Jehovah’s Witnesses are, of course, referring to the Bible as God’s ‘Word,’ here. However, in my book Is the Bible Infallible?, I show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the Bible is very often inaccurate and even wrong.
Moreover, Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to overlook their own translation of another one of Paul’s authentic letters, First Thessalonians, where he writes,
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may the spirit [pneuma] and soul [psuke] and body [soma] of you brothers, sound in every respect, be preserved blameless at [for] the presence [second coming] of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (First Thessalonians, 5:23, NWT)
Furthermore, there are also other biblical verses in the New Testament, where the Greek word for ‘soul,’ (psuke—the equivalent of the Hebrew word nephesh), is mentioned in reference to disembodied martyrs (e.g., Revelation 6:9, 20:4)—not to mention several other instances where the word ‘psuke’ is used for ‘soul.’
There are many philosophical (and religious) definitions of the soul, but I define it simply as the ‘principle of life’: it is the quality that distinguishes a living human from a corpse (or an animal from a carcass).
Most scientists contend that our consciousness (or self-awareness) is a figment of our imagination. For example, in his essay “The Soul of the Matter,” philosopher Charles Taliaferro summarizes Daniel Dennett’s philosophy as follows:
“Dennett’s case against subjective states of awareness is … radical …. Dennett takes particular aim at our apparent awareness of ourselves as subjects. … Dennett thinks there is nothing physical in the brain or the body as a whole that can play the role of such a substantial, individual subject.” (p. 31)
Indeed, in his book Consciousness Explained, philosopher Daniel Dennett, quite appropriately, writes,
“The trouble with brains is that when you look in them, you discover that there’s nobody home.” (p. 29)
I have to agree with Dennett: there is no ‘little person’ inside our brain. However, I do believe that there is a connection, a ‘supernatural’ (in the sense of ‘above’ the natural) ‘hardwiring,’ between the brain’s physical states and the living organism as a whole entity. Matter is intrinsically dead, and it is this ‘supernatural’ hardwiring that gives it life (see the section on the universal wave function below). It is similar to telling the computer of a complex mechanical system which relay is number one relay, which proximity sensor is number three sensor, which pneumatic cylinder is number seven cylinder, and so on.
In his book The Self Illusion, developmental psychologist Bruce Hood writes,
“Philosopher Derek Parfit uses [certain] types of scenarios to challenge the reality of the self. He asks us to imagine replacing a person cell by cell, so that the original person no longer contains any of the physical material before the process started. (Parfit, Reason and Persons) … Using this logic, Parfit dismisses the notion of an essential self in the first place.” (pp. 112–13)
So, according to Hood and Parfit, regarding anything you remember from your childhood, that wasn’t you: because there probably aren’t any cells left in you from your childhood. Your maternal fertilized egg has probably died and been replaced by now; your original identity (the self) must have changed, or perhaps better, he contends, it never even existed: it’s just an illusion. Nonsense, of course!
According to Wikipedia,
“Many modern scientists, such as [cognitive scientist] Julien Musolino, hold that the mind is merely a complex machine that operates on the same physical laws as all other objects in the universe. According to Musolino, there is currently no scientific evidence whatsoever to support the existence of the soul and there is considerable evidence that seems to indicate that souls do not exist.”
However, in his book The Taboo of Subjectivity, author of books that discuss Eastern and Western scientific, philosophical, and contemplative modes of inquiry, Bruce Alan Wallace, writes,
“Mainstream neuroscience … insists that individual consciousness vanishes with the death of the body. However, given its ignorance of the origins and nature of consciousness and its inability to detect the presence or absence of consciousness in any organism, living or dead, neuroscience does not seem to be in a position to back up that conviction with empirical scientific evidence.” (p. 5)
In other words, Wallace is saying here (and many scientists agree) that mainstream neuroscience has no clue as to what consciousness is all about. Mainstream science downplays consciousness: explaining it away as the direct result of complexity: culminating in an illusion of self. In actual fact, current empirical (data-based) evidence from near death experiences (NDEs—see corresponding section below) seems to support the opposite view: namely, that consciousness can still have an existence separate from the body while clinically dead. In short, neuroscience has no solid argument in declaring that consciousness ceases to exist at the organism’s death.
Indeed, in his book God and the Folly of Faith, also particle physicist, philosopher, and self-declared atheist Victor Stenger graciously admits,
“The one major area where we do not yet have a plausible physical model that satisfies a consensus of experts in the field is the question of the nature of consciousness.” (p. 44)
I can’t say that I agree with Stenger that everything in our universe can be explained physically, but it’s worth noting the exception he makes.
Incidentally, scientifically it’s doubtful whether the human soul can suffer mental anguish (not to mention physical pain) without a brain, but people who had near-death experiences seem to indicate that our consciousness can, somehow, have such experiences. Moreover, Christians believe that angels and demons are presumably pure spirits (immortal and incorruptible), yet it seems they can be happy in God’s presence or suffer from lack of it. I must admit this is not easy to grasp: there must be some very basic concept we are still unaware of. (Something quite revolutionary like, for example, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein’s formula E = mc2—i,e., that mass ‘m’ is another form of energy ‘E.’)
Mathematical physicist and cosmologist Frank Tipler proposes, in his book The Physics of Christianity, that Jesus’s body turned completely into neutrinos and antineutrinos (see annexed note) after his resurrection. (pp. 496, 649 of 714) Could Tipler, be right despite particle physicist and philosopher Victor Stenger’s vehement disagreement in his book God and the Folly of Faith? (p. 244)
Note: Neutrinos and antineutrinos are very small (a millionth of the size of an electron) neutral (uncharged) particles; they hardly interact with any kind of matter—they can pass through the whole globe (Earth) without colliding anywhere: they are therefore invisible and can pass through matter very easily.
Do spirits have neutrino bodies? I must confess I do not have the answer to this question yet. But to be able to suffer (including mental anguish) or to be happy, in my opinion, a ‘spirit’ needs some kind of ‘spiritual body’ (or, at least, a ‘spiritual brain’).
In his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, philosopher Alex Rosenberg assures the reader that matter is simply atoms: there is no such thing, he contends, as atoms that can convey other ideas, such as concepts, memories, or thoughts: it’s all just an illusion; he writes,
“Physics has ruled out the existence of clumps of matter of the required sort [i.e., conveying thoughts, etc.]. There are just fermions [e.g., electrons, protons, neutrons & neutrinos] and bosons [e.g., photons] and combinations of them. None of that stuff is just, all by itself, about any other stuff. There is nothing in the whole universe—including, of course, all the neurons [see annexed note] in your brain—that just by its nature or composition can do the job of being about some other clump of matter. So when consciousness assures us that we have thoughts about stuff, it has to be wrong. Therefore, consciousness cannot retrieve thoughts about stuff. There are none to retrieve. So it can’t have thoughts about stuff either.” (p. 179, emphasis in original)
Note: Neurons (or nerve cells) are cells that can be stimulated electrically by means of ions (electrically charged chemicals); thereby, they process and subsequently transmit information to other cells through these electrical signals. (Wikipedia: “Neuron,” accessed June 23, 2021)
I suggest the reader’s not taking Rosenberg’s above quote too seriously; its author obviously cannot understand how inanimate matter, a complex aggregate of simple atoms, can possibly generate thoughts or retrieve memories in human beings—and neither can I, but we know it does. So, for its author, ideas, thoughts, and memories cannot exist—problem solved! However, we know that a living human being can generate thoughts, while a human being that has just died irreversibly, presumably, cannot. They have the same collection of cells; yet one can take care of itself, one might loosely say, indefinitely, while the other is doomed to constant decay. So, what is the difference between them? The soul! The soul is the principle of life.
According to Newton’s laws of motion, if we know accurately and completely the initial states (mass, position, velocity, direction, acceleration, temperature, impact-restitution factor, frictional coefficient, etc.) of two particles that interact (collide) with each other, we can predict their final states. Conversely, if we know their final states, we can tell what their previous states were. This also holds true for a system of particles, that is, ‘bodies,’ if we are able to know accurately and completely the state of every particle constituting the body.
If, for a moment, we forget about our inability to know the state of every particle accurately and completely, whatever those states might be, it follows, from the above reasoning, that the current state of any body is completely determined by its prior state, and that prior state is completely determined by an even more prior state, and so on and on. It follows that any physical system, including our bodies and our brains, is completely determined by what occurred before; in other words, according to the laws of classical physics, we have no free will: Newton’s laws are completely deterministic. This scientific conclusion, one must admit, is quite a formidable one. And this is exactly what Rosenberg proposes in his same book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. (pp. 236–37)
It so happens, however, that, in fact, the laws of physics are not as deterministic as described by Rosenberg above. When we speak of an electron orbiting a nucleus, initially we imagine it orbiting in a two-dimensional circle or mild ellipse, perhaps, like the moon or a satellite orbits the earth, or like the planets orbit the sun. But then, when you think about it, why should the electron settle in one plane; why shouldn’t it move in a sphere all-around the nucleus? So all we can say is that the electron of every atom settles in some three-dimensional distance from the nucleus (in a spherical shell); at any instant of time, we cannot tell exactly where it is: we can only talk about its probability of its being in a certain location. Not only that, but even the distance of the electron from the nucleus is not defined precisely, it can deviate a little in a mild elliptical manner. One can plot a bell-shaped statistical distribution of the distance of the electron from the nucleus; it will be a very narrow distribution, but still we can only talk about the probability of an electron being a certain distance from the nucleus; therefore, we can only think of an electron as a negatively charged cloud when it is inside an atom—albeit the electron is definitely a particle.
Changing gears, the reader probably knows that red light does not affect a photographic film in a developer’s ‘dark room,’ no matter how intense the red light might be, or for how long it shines onto the film. Blue, green, or perhaps yellow light is required to produce (or spoil) an image on the film; their higher frequency enables them to produce an image: the higher the frequency the higher the energy of a light train, termed photon. Although light consists of waves, it travels in discrete ‘packets’ of energy termed quanta (singular quantum—hence quantum physics). The energy of a light quantum is given by the equation E = hf, where ‘h’ is a very small fixed number, known as Planck’s constant, and ‘f’ is its light frequency. Although there are many observations indicating that light consists of waves, at times it also behaves as particles—normally called photons. Unless these photons have a certain threshold (size) of energy, they will not produce any effect: the cumulative aspect of waves wearing off a cliff gradually (through numbers) does not kick in. The red light in a photographic dark room is such an example.
It is beyond the scope of this article, but it can also be proved, experimentally, that matter, particularly electrons and light, can behave both like particles and like waves under different circumstances. (Attard, Is God a Reality?, pp. 261–64)
The theory of determinism originated from the behavior of particles alone; we don’t even know if electrons and light are going to behave as particles or as waves at any given time: we can only talk about probabilities. So, by its very nature and at its very foundation, physics is probabilistic. Now, if you think about it, probability and chance cannot co-exist with determinism. The behavior of matter and energy at the subatomic scale is termed quantum physics or quantum mechanics.
Now, according to Wikipedia,
“Physicist Sean M. Carroll has written that the idea of a soul is incompatible with quantum field theory (QFT) [i.e., quantum physics]. He writes that for a soul to exist: ‘Not only is new physics required, but dramatically new physics. Within QFT, there can’t be a new collection of “spirit particles” and “spirit forces” that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments.’ (Carrol, accessed October 11, 2014) Some theorists have invoked quantum indeterminism as an explanatory mechanism for possible soul/brain interaction, but neuroscientist Peter Clarke found errors with this viewpoint, noting there is no evidence that such processes play a role in brain function; Clarke concluded that a Cartesian [as upheld by René Descartes] soul has no basis from quantum physics (Clarke, p. 84).” (Wikipedia: “Soul,” accessed June 19, 2021,)
However, neuroscientist Mario Beauregard totally disagrees with them. In his book The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, he writes,
“[The] area of physics, [known as] quantum physics, is the study of the behavior of matter and energy at the subatomic level of our universe. Briefly, the synapses, the spaces between the neurons of the brain, conduct signals using parts of atoms called ions [charged particles]. The ions function according to the rules of quantum physics, not of classical physics. What difference does it make if quantum physics governs the brain? Well, one thing we can dispose of right away is determinism, the idea that everything in the universe has been or can be predetermined.” (p. 32)
There you have it: our brains function at the subatomic level and therefore obey the laws of quantum physics, not of classical physics. In other words, our brains act freely: their behavior is not predetermined. Our every-day experience confirms this: we are free to do what we want, plan for the future, or change our mind in between.
In his book The Universe in a Nutshell, possibly the greatest theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking goes so far as to write the following regarding Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle—a direct result of quantum physics uncertainty.
“We cannot even suppose that [a] particle has a position and velocity that are known to God but are hidden to us. … Even God is bound by the uncertainty principle and cannot know [both] the position and velocity [simultaneously]; He can only know the wave function [probability].” (p. 107)
It is this uncertainty principle which is the basis of our free will: otherwise everything would be predetermined. God constructed our world in such a manner that we can have free will. So, I contend that God does not really know the future, especially where we are concerned. One cannot have it both ways, either we are completely free to do what we like or God knows everyone’s future (implying predestination): I opt for the former.
Recall that, according to mainstream scientists the mind/soul is just a machine—a complex computer—that develops consciousness as a consequence of its complexity. So, let us examine some properties of computers and compare them with our experience of ourselves.
The Chinese room is a thought experiment originally conceived by philosopher John Searle. In this thought experiment, he assumes the existence of a computer program that can pass the Turing test in the Chinese language: that is, it can carry on an intelligent, or rather a human-like, conversation in Chinese. He then supposes that an English-speaking person, who knows no Chinese at all, either written or spoken, is locked in a room with a manual containing a set of instructions corresponding to the operations of the above computer program—but written in plain English. These instructions enable an English-speaking person to correlate one set of formal symbols (Chinese characters constituting the ‘question,’ so to speak) with another set of formal symbols (different Chinese characters constituting the ‘answer,’ so to speak). Consequently, if pieces of paper written in Chinese are slipped under the door, by hand-simulating the above program, the English-speaking person can carry on an ‘intelligent’ conversation in Chinese without understanding a single word! The process will, admittedly, be very lengthy and much slower than that of a computer; but nevertheless, conceivably at least, he can. Therefore, Searle concludes that, if there were such a program that allows a computer to carry on an intelligent conversation in any given language, the computer executing the program would not understand the conversation either. (Wikipedia, “Chinese Room,” accessed June 21, 2021)
Now, in all fairness, it is worth noting here that Tipler, in his book The Physics of Immortality, denies the possibility of hand-simulating a computer that passes the Turing test:
“A human being could no more hand-simulate a program that could pass the Turing Test than she could jump to the Moon.” (p. 39) And again a bit later, he insists,
“As I said, a man can no more hand-simulate a Turing Test-passing program than he can jump to the Moon. In fact it is far more difficult.” (p.40)
He also gives mathematical calculations to this effect because he believes that if a computer passes the Turing test, it becomes a ‘person.’ I, for one, disagree with him and so does Searle: I still think that if a non-Chinese-speaking person in a closed room is given a manual corresponding to the program, one (or a dozen non-Chinese-speaking people, say) can hand-simulate a sophisticated program without understanding any Chinese. In any case, I won’t go into the assumptions and calculations because it’s outside the scope of this article; let’s stick to the concept here, and suppose for a moment that it is possible. I only wanted to point out, for the sake of fairness, that a scientist, Tipler, thinks that hand-simulating a computer that passes the Turing test is physically impossible: just keep that in mind.
One of the things I realized since my youth, is that machines can do things much better and much faster than the people who invented them: a car runs much faster than a human can; a crane can lift loads much heavier than a human can; a sewing or weaving machine can do the job much faster and much better than a woman can; and so on. So, is there anything that makes us, their creators, ‘better’ than machines? We have creative powers, and they possibly cannot carry out an intelligent conversation, that’s true; machines don’t have that … yet; but we don’t know what will happen in the future! Truly we are an efficient package; but our own machines seem to be outrunning us—by far.
I was told, while still in my youth, that we have ‘intelligence,’ which machines don’t have. But then this last statement has always baffled me. A ten-dollar ($10.00) calculator can do calculations much better and much faster than I can, even though I have a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics: and I surmise that puts me, mathematically, in the top ten-percentile (10%) of humanity. So how intelligent does a machine have to be before it is considered human? Talking about intelligence, chess is a game of both intelligence and strategy: nobody can deny that; I’m a very good chess player, I’m not a master, but I pride myself on being able to play a good game of chess; again I surmise I’m in the top ten-percentile (10%) of humanity in my ability to play a good game of chess. Yet, I can hardly beat my computer program without taking some moves back. I don’t have the least doubt that I could mistake my computer program for a human being if I gave it a ‘Turing test’ in chess, rather than in English. So exactly how ‘intelligent’ does a machine have to be before we consider it human? So for a while, until the recent past, I leaned towards scientists like Tipler who believe that machines can eventually be considered persons. However, deep down, I somehow felt something was wrong in my way of thinking. I think I resolved the puzzle only lately during my research, when I came across the Chinese room thought experiment and realized that, as Tipler himself points out in his book The Physics of Immortality,
“Searle’s central point in the Chinese Room Experiment is ‘A computer has syntax, but no semantics.’ (Searle, p. 33) That is, all the program does is manipulate symbols according to certain formal rules (syntax). It has no understanding of what the symbols mean (semantics). True enough, symbol manipulation per se gives no understanding. … The meaning in the symbols comes from how the symbols in the program are connected through the computer hardware to the environment, not from the manipulation of the symbols themselves.” (p. 42, emphasis in original)
Manipulations are carried out depending on the exact position (first, second, third, etc. location) in a line, or string, of characters. That’s not intelligence; that’s a mechanistic process: typical of a machine. The machine does not understand anything it is doing—it’s not aware of what it’s doing!
We have already talked a little about consciousness (or self-awareness) above: it’s an awareness of oneself; computers are not conscious of themselves or of anything around them. However, nowadays, some scientists (including Tipler) think that, as a system becomes more and more complex, somehow, it automatically develops consciousness: somewhat like a pattern emerges from the natural arrangement of a large number of basic entities. I do believe that, to some extent, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: that a whole system can accomplish feats that the individual (separate) parts cannot. Every good chess player knows that one must play the whole board and coordinate all of one’s pieces together (rather than use them one at a time) to beat the opponent. So the above claim is not entirely without merit.
A computational model, such as a weather-forecasting model, contains numerous variables that characterize the system being modeled; it uses mathematics, physics, and computer science to study the behavior of complex systems by computer simulation. Because of such a system’s many connections to the outside world, some scientists nowadays think that, somehow, it becomes conscious automatically. The computational theory of mind holds that the mind is a computation that arises from the brain acting as a computing machine: that is, the brain is a computer and the mind is the result of the program that the brain runs. In his book Consciousness and Language, philosopher John Searle writes the following concerning consciousness emerging from complexity or computation:
“Computational models of consciousness are not sufficient by themselves for consciousness. The computational model for consciousness stands to consciousness the same way the computational model of anything stands to the domain being modeled. Nobody supposes that the computational model of rainstorms in London will leave us all wet. But they make the same mistake of supposing that the computational model of consciousness is somehow conscious.” (Searle, “The Problem of Consciousness” p. 16)
Consciousness and understanding are what, I believe, makes us ‘superior’ to the machines we create; and this is not just wishful thinking on my part: I honestly believe it. They are what make us living beings, capable of being hurt or murdered.
Strangely enough, ever since resuscitation methods have improved, lately, there has been a considerable body of positive evidence that the soul is a separate entity from the body. There are books written by doctors, nonetheless, on near-death experiences (NDEs). However, I suppose they have been happening all along in humanity’s history, but they were not reported to us because so few survived to be able to tell us about them.
One of these extremely rare accounts in antiquity, for example, is given at the end of Plato’s work The Republic. Plato recounts the case of a soldier who was slain in battle; he was dead for twelve days but came back to life; the soldier tells of how his ‘soul’ separated from his body, travelled through a different world, and was sent back into his body to tell us, the living, what he experienced. (bk. 10) For the longest time, everyone took this account as a myth, of course, but lately (i.e., ever since medical doctors have been relating accounts of near-death experiences) people have started to wonder whether it truly happened. Possibly, it was happening all along, despite people, in general, denying it or refusing to believe it. Plato does not give any impression that he doubted the soldier’s account.
Near-death experiences have only lately been studied by the medical profession: since resuscitation techniques have improved and are succeeding in bringing more and more people back to life from clinical death. One of the first books to be written on the subject, in 1975, was Life after Life: again, by a physician—Raymond Moody. In this book he was first to coin the phrase ‘near-death experiences.’ His book ended up selling more than thirteen million (1.3×107) copies. In Moody’s book, and many others after it, we are told that 10%– 20% of people, who happen to be very near death to the point of even being unconscious, experience lucid ‘consciousness’ at the very moment they can ‘see’ their own body, while totally unconscious and being resuscitated. As mentioned, although the medical profession became aware of it only lately, it has probably always been happening. Past records of this phenomenon are much rarer, of course, because whoever experienced it probably ended up dying and was therefore unable to come back and tell us about it; while the very few who survived would have been hesitant to talk about it because nobody would believe them.
In a survey on 613 near-death survivors by a medical doctor, Jeffrey Long, about 75.4% (i.e., 462 individuals) reported that they had an out-of-body experience (OBE—see annexed note), while about 57.3% (i.e., 351 individuals) reported encountering deceased relatives—some of whom they never knew before. (Long & Perry, Introduction) Needless to mention, both cases are evidence for the existence of the soul as a separate entity from the body.
Dutch cardiologist, researcher, and author Pim van Lommel describes out-of-body experiences as follows: (Beauregard & O’Leary, p. 157)
Note: “Out-of-body experience (OBE) … is an experience of floating outside one’s own body, while retaining one’s identity and a very clear consciousness. Most patients report looking down from above. … In some cases, patients have reported information that was later verified.” (pp. 120–23)
In 1988, van Lommel started a study consisting of interviewing heart-attack survivors within a week of their resuscitation from clinical death; he interviewed three hundred and forty-four (344) patients. Medical science has no doubt that a person in a state of clinical death is not aware of anything happening around him or her; yet, sixty-two (62), or about eighteen percent (18%), of the above subjects reported experiences of varying intensity during the exact time they were clinically dead; twenty-four (24) of them, or about seven percent (7%) of the total interviewed, reported a very deep such experience. These results showed no connection to the patients’ educational or religious background. (Van Lommel, “About the Continuity of Our Consciousness”)
Similar studies resulted in roughly the same percentage of very deep experiences: in an American study (Greyson, 2003) the rate was ten percent (10%), and in a British study (Parnia et al., 2001), the rate was over six and three-tenths percent (6.3%). (Beauregard & O’Leary, pp. 156–57)
It goes without saying that the details are of the essence in such reports: it’s the only way to be convinced. In his book The Spiritual Brain, neuroscientist Mario Beauregard gives the following well documented account of a particular near death experience. The reader may refer to the internet for confirmation of what follows and possibly for more details if one likes.
In 1991, thirty-five year old singer and song writer Pam Reynolds of Atlanta, Georgia, USA, started to feel dizziness, lose her speech, and experience general difficulty of movement. So she had a CAT scan done. Her CAT scan spelled very bad news: she had a grossly swollen blood vessel in the brain stem that was inoperable.
Note: The acronym ‘CAT’ stands for ‘computerized axial tomography’—a CAT scan is a special X-ray-type test that produces cross-sectional images of the body on a computer.
Attempting to drain and repair the swollen blood vessel would most probably kill her anyway; her doctor told her that she had no chance of survival if conventional procedures were used. (p. 153)
But Pam’s mother had heard of neurosurgeon Robert Spetzler, who was a specialist and pioneer in a dangerous, but sometimes necessary, procedure known as hypothermic cardiac arrest. The technique basically consists of cooling the body down to a very low temperature (60F/15.6C): so low that the body is essentially dead; but then the body is brought back to normal body temperature (98.6F/37.0C) in a timely manner, that is, before the brain has had enough time to suffer irreversible damage. The swollen blood vessels that would easily burst at normal body temperatures become soft and operable with less risk at the low temperature used in the procedure. There is also another added advantage. Since the brain is non-functional in this cooled state, it uses much less oxygen. As a result, it can last much longer without oxygen before irreversible damage sets in. Pam consented to this procedure because she realized she didn’t have much of a choice. So, for all practical purposes, Pam was actually dead during her surgery: in fact, her heart stopped, and her EEG was ‘flat’ (a horizontal straight-line).
Note: The acronym ‘EEG’ stands for ‘electroencephalogram’—it is a test that detects electrical activity in the brain using electrodes, or small flat metal discs, attached to the scalp.
Beauregard continues his account by giving several details of Pam’s near-death experience, which I shall simply quote for the sake of accuracy: (p. 154)
“When all of Reynold’s vital signs were stopped, the surgeon began to cut through her skull with a surgical saw. At that point, she reported that she felt herself ‘pop’ outside her body and hover above the operating table. From her out-of-body position, she could see the doctors working on her lifeless body. … She described with considerable accuracy for a person who knew nothing of surgical practice, the … bone saw used to open skulls. Reynolds also heard and reported later what was happening during the operation and what the nurses in the operating room had said. … She became conscious of floating out of the operating room and travelling down a tunnel with a light. Deceased relatives and friends were waiting at the end of this tunnel, including her long-dead grand-mother. She entered the presence of a brilliant, wonderfully warm and loving Light and sensed her soul was part of God and that everything in existence was created from the Light (the breathing of God). This extraordinary experience ended when Reynolds’ deceased uncle led her back to her body. She compared entering her body to ‘plunging into a pool of ice’”. (pp. 154–55)
Possibly, she felt so cold because her body was still at a very low temperature when she came to again. The reader is here asked to notice the sentence above: “She entered the presence of a brilliant wonderful warm and loving Light and sensed her soul was part of God and that everything in existence was created from the Light (the breathing of God).” Recall the Bible’s (Genesis’s) concept of God’s ‘breathing’ life into Adam’s (mud) form (Genesis 2:7) and into every living being—see also Tipler’s proposal of a universal wave function below. I think they fit Pam’s experience like a glove. Many near death experiences (NDEs) have been reported; of course, not all of them are equally credible. However, Pam Reynolds’ case is unique for several reasons: she had the experience at a time while she was fully instrumented; she was under observation by the medical profession and known to be clinically dead (see annexed note); furthermore, she was able to recall verifiable facts that happened while she was clinically dead: things she could not have known if she were not somehow conscious during her surgery.
Note: Clinical death is the state in which all vital signs have ceased; the medical profession can tell that someone is clinically dead by the following observations. (1) The heart is in ventricular fibrillation: that is, the muscle that normally contracts (squeezes) the ventricles (chambers) to pump the blood out of the heart does so in an uncoordinated manner, making them quiver rather than contract properly. (2) Brain-stem activity is abolished: characterized by loss of corneal (blinking) reflex, fixed and dilated pupils, and loss of the gag reflex. (3) There is a total lack of electrical activity on the cortex (outer layer) of the brain (i.e., the EEG is flat): during a cardiac arrest, the brain’s electrical activity vanishes after 10 to 20 seconds. (p. 155)
Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard concludes his account of Pam Reynolds’ NDE with the following two statements:
“Pam Reynolds’s case strongly suggests that: … mind, consciousness, and self can continue to exist when the brain is no longer functional and clinical criteria of death have been reached; and … RSMEs [religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences] can occur when the brain is not functioning. In other words, this case seriously challenges the materialist view that mind, consciousness, and self are simply by-products of electrochemical brain processes, and RSMEs are delusions created by a defective brain. Such a view is based on metaphysical belief, not on scientifically demonstrated facts.” (p. 155)
Pam Reynold’s case seems to satisfy most, if not all, of the requirements for authenticity. In his article “Who’s Afraid of Life after Death?” philosopher Neal Grossman writes the following regarding this case:
“Perhaps the ‘smoking gun’ case is the one recently described by [cardiologist] Michael Sabom (1988). In this case, the patient had her NDE while her body temperature was lowered to 60 degrees [Fahrenheit], and all the blood was drained from her body: ‘her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain (Sabom, p.49). A brain in this state cannot create any kind of experience. Yet the patient experienced a profound NDE which included detailed veridical [coinciding with reality] perception of the operation.” (Grossman, p. 6)
The reader probably noticed the author’s use of the phrase ‘smoking gun’: meaning, that there is hardly any doubt as to its authenticity.
Universal Wave Function
Now, in the introduction to his book The Physics of Immortality, mathematical physicist and cosmologist Frank Jennings Tipler writes,
“[Theologian] Wolfhart Pannenberg has suggested [in 1977 and 1981] that there may exist a previously undiscovered universal physical field … which can be regarded as the source of all life, and which can be identified with the Holy Spirit. … I shall argue … that the universal wave function … is a universal field with the essential features of Pannenberg’s proposed new ‘energy’ field. If this identification is made, it becomes reasonable as a matter of physics, to say God is in the world, everywhere, and is with us, standing beside us at all times. … Such Presence is a key property of the Christian God. (This does not mean, however, that God intervenes in human history in a supernatural way.)” (pp. 13–14)
These are the words of a full-fledged scientist who endorses the original idea of a theologian and identifies the Universal Wave Function with the Holy Spirit. In the “Nicene Creed”, formulated in the year 325 CE, Christians profess as part of their faith: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life ….” I am not sure, from a scientific point of view, whether the Holy Spirit is another person distinct from God (the Father) as Christians believe; but I do believe that there is a close connection between God and life: giving living beings a self-awareness (or consciousness) among several other things, like feelings and qualia (color, smell, taste, etc.). I also believe that God is the only source of life: that all matter is intrinsically dead and will remain dead unless he acts on it directly.
Note: A field is usually invisible in space, but its effects are obviously noticeable. For example, we don’t see the gravitational field that pulls us to the ground, but if one falls off a building, there is no doubt that something is pulling one down: yet we see no strings from the earth attached to the individual being pulled down. Likewise we don’t see a string pulling magnetic pads to the refrigerator door, but we know there is an invisible magnetic field in between. Similarly, the universal wave function (or the Holy Spirit) is an invisible field from God to all living organisms supplying them with life.
Finally, in conclusion, I would like to add an impressive statement from Jeffrey Long’s 2009 book Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences. Notice the word ‘science’ in the book’s subtitle. He is a medical doctor and therefore must know quite a bit about science; still, in his book he categorically declares,
“By studying thousands of detailed accounts of NDErs [Near-Death Experiencers], I found the evidence that led to this astounding conclusion: NDEs [Near-Death Experiences] provide such powerful scientific evidence that it is reasonable to accept the existence of an afterlife. Yes, you read that correctly. I have studied thousands of neardeath experiences. I have carefully considered the evidence NDEs present regarding the existence of an afterlife. I believe without a shadow of a doubt that there is life after physical death. My research convinces me that near-death experiences are the exit from this life and the entrance to another life. … This book presents the remarkable results of the largest scientific NDE study ever reported …. In the NDERF [Near-Death-Experience Research Foundation] study we examined the content of more than 1,300 NDEs. Previous scientific NDE studies generally examined only a few hundred case studies at most. With great care, we analyzed the twelve elements of the near-death experience. By looking deeply at the accounts of these NDErs, we have found some answers to humankind’s oldest and deepest questions about the afterlife.” (Ch. 2, p. 34 of 149, emphasis in original)
Notice that Long calls it “powerful scientific evidence,” he endorses the “existence of an afterlife,” and ends with the emphatic statements “you read that correctly” and “without a shadow of a doubt.” Science is never totally certain of a hypothesis or even a theory: it only goes by analysis and probability. Whether the reader wants to believe it or not, medical doctor Jeffrey Long testifies that the existence of an afterlife is simply a fact— proven scientifically.
Attard, Carmel Paul. Is God a Reality?—A Scientific Investigation. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2017. (ISBN: 9781532012228)
Attard, Carmel Paul. Is the Bible Infallible?—A Rational, Scientific, and Historical Evaluation. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2019. (ISBN: 9781532078446)
Beauregard, Mario and Denyse O’Leary. The Spiritual Brain: A Neurologist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. Toronto, ON: Harper Perennial, 2008. (ISBN: 9781554682188)
Carrol, Sean M. “Physics and the Immortality of the Soul.” Archived October 6, 2011 at the Wayback Machine. Scientific American.
Clarke, Peter. Neuroscience, Quantum Indeterminism, and the Cartesian Soul. Archived September 10, 2017 at the Wayback Machine. Bain and Cognition pp. 109–17.
Dennett, Daniel Clement III. Consciousness Explained. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
Grossman, Neal. “Who’s Afraid of Life after Death?” Journal of Near-Death Studies vol. 21, no.1 (2002): pp. 5–24.
Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2001. (ISBN: 055380202X)
Hood, Bruce. The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2012. (ISBN: 9781443405225)
King James Version (KJV). Benjamin Blayney ed. Oxford, UK: 1769.
Long, Jeffrey and Paul Perry. Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009 (ISBN: 9780061887734)
Moody, Raymond A. Jr. Life after Life. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2015. (ISBN: 9780062428905)
Nicene Creed. 325 CE.
NWT—New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Wallkill, NY: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., 2013.
Parfit, Derek. Reason and Persons. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Plato. The Republic. 375 BCE.
Rosenberg, Alex. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2012. (ISBN: 9780393344110)
Searle, John Roges. “The Problem of Consciousness” in Consciousness and Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 7–17.
Sabom, Michael. Life and Death: One doctor’s Fascinating Account of Near-Neath Experiences. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.
Searle, John Roges. Minds, Brains, and Science. London, UK: BBC Press, 1984.
Stenger, Victor J. God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2012. (ISBN: 9781616145996)
Taliaferro, Charles. “The Soul of the Matter.” in The Soul Hypothesis: Investigations into the Existence of the Soul. Eds. Baker, Mark C. and Stewart Goetz; New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2011, pp. 26–40. (ISBN: 9781441152244)
Tipler, Frank Jennings. The Physics of Christianity. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2007. (eISBN: 9780385521840)
Tipler, Frank Jennings. The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1995. (ISBN: 0385467990)
Van Lommel, Pim. “About the Continuity of Our Consciousness” in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology vol. 550 (2004): pp. 115–32.
Wallace, Bruce Alan. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Is There a Creator Who Cares About You? Brooklyn, NY: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. International Bible Students Association, 1998.
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. The Bible: God’s Word or Man’s? Brooklyn, NY: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. International Bible Students Association, 1989.
Self-declared atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, concludes his book The Ancestor’s Tale with
“My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world. They represent a narrowing-down from reality, an impoverishment of what the real world has to offer.” (p. 614)
In this book, Dawkins tries to explain the evolution of life on planet Earth strictly through the Darwinian principles of random mutation coupled with natural selection, in its supposed journey from bacteria to us humans. He tries to do this by pointing to current examples in nature of what he considers ‘re-enactments,’ which he believes suggest to us what happened in life’s journey through the ages. He writes,
“This book’s pattern [uses] some tales as modern re-enactments of evolutionary happenings.” (p. 487)
He fails to show, however, that God’s finger was never in the pie: he fails to show that random mutation coupled with natural selection (rather than ingenious ‘design’) were the driving forces of life’s journey from unicellular bacteria to multicellular organisms, to complex animals, and eventually to ultra-intelligent beings—us humans.
Yet, in his book The God Delusion, Dawkins insists that whether God exists or not is a scientific question. He writes,
“The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice—or not yet—a decided one.” (p. 82) And again,
“A universe in which we are alone except for other slowly evolved intelligences is a very different universe from one with an original guiding agent whose intelligent design is responsible for its very existence.” (p. 85)
In other words, following his own beliefs and implicit suggestion, Dawkins needs to prove (from a scientific point of view) that God’s intervention was never the case in life’s journey on Earth, nor did God have anything to do with the laws governing evolution. In this article, I hold Dawkins to his own requirement: that is, showing whether a Supernatural Being is responsible for what we observe through science or not—in particular, the evolution of life on Earth.
Of course, one cannot simply say, “I cannot see how this could have happened by chance alone, therefore God must have intervened.” So, Dawkins is absolutely right when, in The Ancestor’s Tale, he states,
“The ‘Argument from Personal Incredulity’ would lead us to invoke the supernatural every time we see a good conjurer whose tricks we cannot fathom.” (p. 549)
Deep down, as a scientist, I wish Dawkins is right! In the seventeenth century, science (Isaac Newton) showed that God is not constantly moving the planets around the sun, as ancient scientists thought: they moved unaided under gravity. And just as God never touched the planets, God may not have edged evolution along, as it might seem to us at first blush. However, the evidence so far shows otherwise in the case of evolution—not to mention the origin of both the universe and of life (see my article “God of the Gaps?”) Indeed there are scientists, like one of the two discoverers of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), Francis Crick, who believe that life originated extra-terrestrially. In The Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins does not even attempt to eliminate the possibility of extraterrestrial intervention; he simply shoots it down saying,
“Crick himself … finds little good evidence to support his own theory of Directed Panspermia. ” (p. 550)
As if, a priori, Darwinian evolution is the only possible solution. But I’m sure the reader agrees that Dawkins needs, at least, to rule out extraterrestrial intervention—not to mention God’s intervention. As we shall see, he never even tries to rule out, for example, that the animals whose fossils are found in the Cambrian explosion (see “Fossil Record” below) were not planted by extraterrestrial aliens.
There is no doubt that microevolution is a fact: organisms do change slightly (peripherally) with time.
(1) For example, we have evidence of vestigial (useless) parts in animals: like the tailbone and appendix in humans, the hoof in horses (which is the middle ‘toe’—it has four small digits around it), and so on. I don’t think God would design a useless anatomical part in the first place.
(2) Moreover, dogs, horses, pigeons, and other animals can be tailored to acquire certain qualities through careful selective breeding.
(3) Furthermore, in an ongoing experiment involving Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski showed that one group, out of twelve, developed the ability to assimilate citrate (C6H5O73-) in the presence of oxygen—something never experienced before. (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._coli_long-term_evolution_experiment, accessed June 7, 2021.)
With regard to macroevolution, however, I feel myself in the awkward position of those ancient scientists who tried to defend the concept of God’s constantly moving the planets around the sun before Isaac Newton came along and explained planetary motion (to some extent) by his ‘law of gravitation.’ (In all fairness, science still did not explain how this law of gravity came about: that is, whether God was its designer.) Anyway, I’m only interested in finding the truth, possibly without making assumptions, following the evidence we have so far—today.
The reason I still feel that God intervened in macroevolution is because there is hardly any evidence of transition forms: like the bat (a mammal with wings), the penguin (a bird with flippers), and the lungfish (a fish that breathes air). Likewise in the fossil record, we have hardly any evidence of transition forms: life forms appear suddenly, evolve slightly for a while, and become extinct. But according to Darwin’s ‘theory of evolution,’ transition forms should be numerous—the norm rather than the exception.
Before we proceed further, for the benefit of the reader who might be unfamiliar with the subject, let me summarize briefly the salient stages in the evolution of life on Earth, according to the ‘theory of evolution.’
(1) Proponents of the theory of evolution contend that life on Earth started with bacteria, which are single-celled (unicellular) organisms that have no nucleus in this cell (termed prokaryotes).
Note: How bacteria came about in the first place is a question of the origin of life, not a question of evolution: which deals with the development of life forms after life had started.
(2) Next came the protozoa, which are also single-celled organisms, but they have a nucleus in the cell (termed eukaryotes) containing their genetic code in various chromosomes (strings of DNA).
(3) Then came organisms having many cells (multicellular): first those that had identical cells and then those that had differentiated cells.
(4) They were followed by vegetation (grass, plants, and trees), which are able to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen (O2) using sunlight energy: a process termed photosynthesis.
(5) Then emerged the sea animals, followed by the land animals, including the flying animals: these animals gradually grew in size and became more and more intelligent.
(6) Of particular intelligence were dolphins and primates (apes, chimpanzees, monkeys, etc.). Finally, humans appeared on the scene; their body was somewhat similar to that of primates, but their intelligence was many orders of magnitude higher than that of any of the other animals.
Note: Viruses are not exactly living organisms since they cannot reproduce themselves: they need the replicating mechanism of living cells which they hijack to multiply—usually to the detriment of the host cell. There are more types of viruses than stars in the universe (which number around 1024); Vincent Raniello, in his Virology Blog, estimates 1031. (Raniello, Virology Blog: https://www.virology.ws/2013/09/06/how-many-viruses-on-earth/, accessed June 7, 2021.) Admittedly, it’s hard to see what God had in mind in creating viruses!
What Dawkins tries to show in his Ancestor’s Tale is that we see evolutionary occurrences, even nowadays, that could explain how life diversified, little by little, from bacteria to humans. It seems that, in this book, he abandons the old concept of Darwinian evolution to some extent: which assumes that random mutation takes place one nucleotide (basic DNA ‘letter’) at a time. He here assumes that evolution happens in ‘chunks,’ so to speak: that is, entire ‘paragraphs’ of DNA are incorporated at intervals in its ‘ascending’ journey from a simple to a complex organism. Of course, this is a more plausible scenario than the one-letter-at-a-time concept. However, on the other hand, this is exactly what a design engineer would do: he would incorporate partial designs, one at a time as needed, into more complex machinery. In other words, God could have intervened time and again, or designed life in such a way as to be able to incorporate more and more features in a ‘down-up’ (i.e., from simple organisms to complex ones) evolutionary journey.
Do we have any evidence of major changes in organisms happening in real life? I think we do.
(1) The metamorphosis of certain animals, like the butterfly, the fly, or the frog, say, is a wonder of nature to anyone who has seen it.
(2) In botany one might be familiar with the phenomenon of grafting a branch of a desirable fruit—like an orange, say—onto its wild-counterpart tree.
(3) In 1924, embryologists Hans Spemann and Hilde Mangold used microsurgery to cut a portion of a newt (lizard-like amphibian) embryo and transplanted it onto another newt embryo. The second embryo produced two bodies, each with a head and tail, joined at the belly: very much like Siamese twins. (Spemann & Mangold, pp. 13–38). So, although Spemann and Mangold did not change the second embryo’s DNA, they managed to alter its anatomy drastically.
(4) As Dawkins writes in The Ancestor’s Tale, “A Hox gene … is a gene whose mission in life is to know whereabouts in the body it is, and so inform other genes in the same cell. … When things go wrong with a Hox gene, the cells in a segment are misinformed about which segment they are in, and they make the segment they ‘think’ they are in. So, for instance, [in a fruit fly] we see a leg growing in the segment that would normally grow an antenna. … The instructions for making any segment lurk in the cells of every segment. It is the Hox genes, under normal conditions, that call forth the ‘correct’ instructions for making the anatomy appropriate to each segment.” (p. 418)
(5) Similarly, the wings and the eyes of a fly can be grown in the wrong place, but they end up somewhat disconnected from the rest of the body. (p. 418)
In other words, it’s all a matter of switching on and off the right signals at the right time and a significant mutation can be made to occur. However, constructing a viable animal this way shows mindboggling intelligent design and versatility: the problem is that unless there is proper planning (design), random mutations normally cause the wrong thing to be constructed in a given location: which will naturally serve the animal no good purpose—thus normally ending up in premature death without replication.
Dawkins places his trust for the occurrence of ‘down-up’ evolution in what is commonly referred to as the evolutionary arms race: he believes that organisms improve themselves continuously through competition because otherwise they would not survive. (Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, p. 599–603) He writes,
“The improvements to be seen in an animal arms race are improvements in equipment to survive, not generally improvements in survival itself …. In an arms race between attack and defence, there may be episodes during which one side or other pulls ahead. But in general, improvements on one side cancel out improvements on the other.” (p. 600)
Thus, the sky is the limit. Although this sounds logical and easy to accept as fact, unfortunately, there is no evidence of novelty at the genome level.
Indeed, in his book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, biochemist Michael J. Behe shows biochemically that humans’ centuries-long struggle for survival with malaria (Plasmodium Falciparum—a eukaryotic unicellular organism) was more like evolutionary trench warfare rather than an arms race. In trench warfare, the warring parties destroy rather than build each other’s already existing armaments and structures. In a sort-of introduction to the book, he writes,
“In its real war with malaria, the human genome has only diminished.” (p. 43)
Nor did the malaria genome improve, despite its enormous populations over the centuries (thus enhancing its ability to mutate beneficially). In other words, history (evidence) shows that, seemingly, ‘down-up’ evolution is beyond the limits of Darwinism.
In other words, microevolution (peripheral adaptation) occurs spontaneously, but not macroevolution (core adaptation).
How did single-celled prokaryotes (having no nucleus—like bacteria) at the dawn of life, supposedly evolve into single-celled eukaryotes (having a nucleus—like malaria)? According to Dawkins,
“The evolution of the eukaryotic cell, with its nucleus to contain the chromosomes, its complicated ultrastructure of membranes, and its self-reproducing miniature organelles, such as mitochondria and (in plants) chloroplasts … was actually two or three events, perhaps widely spaced in time. Each one of these historic … events was a merging of bacterial cells to form a larger cell. … Perhaps 2 billion years ago, an ancient single-celled organism, some kind of proto-protozoan, entered into a strange relationship with a bacterium.” (Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, p. 536)
Interesting as this might be, it begs the question: are all the varieties in life packed into the genome of a bacterial cell, or was more information subsequently added somehow to more complex cells and organisms? In which case, evolution wreaks of design.
Moreover, unless I am misunderstanding, it seems to me that Dawkins wants to have it both ways when he writes that “some kind of proto-protozoan” cooperated with a bacterium: a protozoan already has a nucleus.
Needless to reiterate, the above assumes, in the first place, the existence of an intelligent bacterium cell (often compared to a whole factory) being incorporated into another equally (or more) intelligent cell: Dawkins never explains how the prokaryotic (i.e., bacterium) cell came about. As I mentioned in my article “God of the Gaps?” the odds against a bacterium cell evolving by chance alone, in all the time the universe has existed, is one to 1040860: which is practically impossible.
Dawkins even admits, “All our cells are like individual [cells], stuffed with bacteria which have become so transformed by generations of cooperation with the host cell that their bacterial origins are almost lost to sight. (Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, p. 537)
Which throws serious doubt as to the validity of the above hypothesis: making it sound more like wishful thinking rather than scientific conclusion.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica Online defines the Cambrian explosion as “the unparalleled emergence of organisms between 541 million and approximately 530 million years ago at the beginning of the Cambrian Period. The event was characterized by the appearance of many of the major phyla (between 20 and 35) that make up modern animal life.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online: https://www.britannica.com/science/Cambrian-explosion, accessed June 7, 2021.)
In his book The Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins tries to downplay the Cambrian explosion, by associating it with Creationists, who believe strictly in the science (or rather pseudoscience) found in the Bible (see my article “Science in the Bible”). He writes,
“Creationists love the Cambrian Explosion because it seems, to their carefully impoverished imaginations, to conjure a sort of paleontological orphanage inhabited by parentless phyla: animals without descendants, as if they had suddenly materialized overnight from nothing.” (Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, p. 436)
The fact that Creationists love it does not make it less real, nor does denigrating them. He even tries to throw doubt about the reliability of the fossils found in the Cambrian explosion.
“We must remember what a lot of imagination necessarily intervenes between the blurred and squashed fossil in a rock and the reconstruction that is eventually drawn, often in daring colour, on the page.” (Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, p. 438)
But Dawkins doesn’t have similar misgivings regarding the hominid fossils (pp. 87–89), of which we mainly have only the skulls (except for one case—pp. 68, 71): he seems to regard hominid-fossil evidence as cast in stone simply because he agrees with it.
At the same time, Dawkins lumps Intelligent Design advocates with Creationists, describing them as an offshoot of Creationism. (Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, pp. 549, 551) However, proponents of Intelligent Design believe in practically all that science has to say, even though most of the time it disagrees with the Bible, but they see the universe, life, and intelligence (the mind/soul) as being designed by a Supreme Being, commonly referred to as God.
In contrast, Intelligent Design advocate, philosopher of science, and geophysicist Stephen C. Meyer summarizes the Cambrian explosion in the epilogue of his book Darwin’s Doubt as follows:
“Darwin’s Doubt makes its case for the reality of the Cambrian explosion chiefly, but not entirely, on the basis of the fossil record. Representatives of twenty-three of the roughly twenty-seven fossilized animal phyla (and of the roughly thirty-six total animal phyla) are present in the Cambrian fossil record. Twenty of these twenty-three major groups of animals make their first appearance in the Cambrian period with no discernable ancestral forms present in either earlier Cambrian or Precambrian strata.” (Mayer, p. 417–18)
Moreover, Dawkins tries to explain away the Cambrian explosion by the usual unimaginative assumption that organisms in the Precambrian were too small or too soft to form fossils (pp. 436, 441–42): as if shells and bones evolve overnight, from very soft to very hard, with no intermediate stages whatsoever in between. This, notwithstanding the fact that we do have Precambrian fossils of very small and very soft organisms: like bacteria and embryos respectively.
Ape to Human Evolution
On the other hand, Dawkins enhances the fossil evidence suggesting the evolution of humans from primates (apes, chimpanzees, monkeys, etc.) even though it is so flimsy: we practically only have fossils of skulls; we only have one near-complete hominid skeleton. Meanwhile, as I shall show under “Intelligence” below, he gives absolutely no explanation for the origin of our far superior intelligence compared to that of all the animals including primates. Although, personally, I do believe that our bodies have somehow evolved from that of primates, in my opinion, Dawkins misrepresents the flimsy scientific evidence in favor of this hypothesis, simply he believes in it.
Furthermore, his arguments for the inexistence of anything irreducibly complex is totally unconvincing to any engineer. (Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, pp. 549–52) (I spent a career of a lifetime in engineering—I even possess a Canadian & US patent.) Any seasoned engineer knows intuitively that in most system designs, if one removes any one of the items constituting the system, it will not work at all: in other words, it becomes totally useless. Consequently, Darwinian evolution will reject a partial inoperative system immediately, without giving it a chance to completion. Indeed, in particular, in his book The Edge of Evolution (p. 100), molecular biologist Michael Behe totally disagrees with Dawkins that the bacterial flagellar motor is not an example of irreducible complexity. (p. 550)
Dawkins then also tries to explain the origin of multicellular organisms; he writes,
“Cellular slime moulds are social amoebas [eukaryotic unicellular organisms]. They literally blur the distinction between a social group of individuals and a single multicellular individual. In part of their life cycle, separate amoebas creep through the soil, feeding on bacteria and reproducing, as amoebas will, by dividing in two, feeding some more, then dividing again. Then, rather abruptly, the amoebas switch into ‘social mode.’ They converge on aggregation centres, from which chemical attractants radiate outwards. As more and more amoebas stream in on an attraction centre, the more attractive it becomes, because more of the beacon chemical is released. It is a bit like the way planets form from aggregating debris. The more debris accumulates in a given attraction centre, the more its gravitational attraction. So, after a while, only few attraction centres remain, and they become planets. Eventually the amoebas in each major attraction centre unite into a multicellular ‘slug.’ About a millimeter long, it even moves like a slug, with a definite front and back end, and is capable of steering in a coherent direction—for example towards light. The amoebas have suppressed their individuality to forge a whole organism. After crawling around for a while, the slug initiates the final phase of its life cycle, the erection of a mushroom-like ‘fruiting body.’ It begins the process by standing on its ‘head’ (the front end as defined by its crawling direction), which becomes the ‘stalk’ of the miniature mushroom. The inner core of the stalk becomes a hollow tube made of swollen cellulose carcasses of dead cells. Now cells around the top of the tube pour into the tube like … a fountain flowing in reverse. The result is that the tip of the stalk rises into the air, with the originally posterior end of the stalk at the top. Each of the amoebas in the originally posterior end now becomes a spore encased in a thick protective coat. Like the spores of a mushroom, they are now shed, each one bursting out of its coat a free-living, bacteria-devouring amoeba, and the life cycle begins again.”(Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, p. 504)
This is all very interesting, no doubt, and it might explain the origin of multicellularity and even that of plants to some extent (except for photosynthesis). However, it doesn’t explain much: for example, how or why the beacon chemical is emitted: just like we don’t know how gravity came about to form planets. For all we know, all these phenomena could be God’s designs in nature. Moreover, Dawkins omits a crucial point in explaining how multicellularity came about. In a complex multicellular organism, different organs consist of different tissues with different functions. One cannot write a book by copying a paragraph thousands of times. So, what guides the organism to the next levels of complexity? Chance? Can chance produce an entire book from a single paragraph?
One thing we do not observe is a gradual (evolutionary) increase in intelligence from animals to humans: our intelligence is orders of magnitude superior to that of animals; and there is absolutely no evidence of a transition ladder. Dawkins seems to think that intelligence is a matter of brain size alone, and bases the supposed human evolution from apes mostly on brain size (and bipedalism, to some extent). (Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, pp. 63, 66, 76, 68, 86, 94) I do believe intelligence is somewhat related to brain size, of course; but it is not the only factor: as is shown by the fact that although Neanderthals were apparently not as intelligent as Homo sapiens, they had larger brains. That is, unless they were the same species as Homo sapiens—just slightly different physically—as I believe: in fact they interbred. If brain size were the only measure of intelligence, as I mention in my article on “Evolution,” the African elephant’s brain is more than three times the size of the human brain, but the elephant’s intelligence is nowhere close to ours.
Dawkins makes a good job of comparing apples to apples regarding brain size by plotting the ‘logarithm of brain mass’ versus the respective ‘logarithm of body mass’ of animals: which turns out to be approximately a straight line. Clearly humans are well above the average (i.e., the best straight line drawn through all the points), but although dolphins come pretty close to the humans’ ratio, (Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale, pp. 77–85) dolphins are nowhere close to us in their intelligence. How do I know this? Judging from the works of humans (abstract concepts, art, books, bridges, buildings, games, machinery, mathematics, medicine, paintings, problem solving, religion, roads, science, tools, etc.) human intelligence must be many orders of magnitude (a trillion times, say, or more) higher than that of dolphins (not just nearly the same) or the primates from which humans supposedly evolved. Is it unreasonable to conclude that this intelligence was infused in us directly by God, rather than having evolved by chance? God’s language is not English, French, Chinese, or any other language humans speak: it is intelligence. Intelligence and reason are what, I believe, make us resemble God most—much more than all the other animals—so that we can communicate with him, I suppose.
Dawkins also makes a big deal of what is commonly referred to as the molecular clock method of determining branching or common ancestor dates. (By counting the number of changes in DNA nucleotides (letters) of a given gene (or protein) for two animals gives the mutation rate since their known common ancestor if its fossil age is determined by radioactive methods. Using this rate of mutation, the separation date of any other two animals can be determined from the change in DNA nucleotides of their respective gene.) For example, on p. 455 of The Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins writes,
“Carefully deployed … the molecular clock has produced some stunning results.” Notice the introductory proviso “carefully deployed.” What does he mean by it? He explains,
“It does seem to be the case in practice that, with known exceptions that we can usually allow for (by carefully choosing our clock genes, and avoiding species such as rodents with exceptional rates of mutation), the molecular clock has proved itself a workable instrument. To use it, we need to draw the evolutionary tree that relates the set of species we are interested in, and estimate the amount of evolutionary change in each lineage.” (p. 455)
In other words, one has to know the final result beforehand, and then choose a gene that matches the result. Crazy so-called science! As I have shown clearly in my book Is God a Reality?, the mutation rate of different genes is not constant, and so molecular clock determinations give contradicting or widely varying results: dates only match when genes are cherry-picked with preconceived notions of elapsed time and ancestry; but that is not a valid scientific process. (Attard, pp. 182–90)
This article may be considered a critique or review of Richard Dawkins’s book The Ancestor’s Tale, which tries to trace human evolution through all sorts of living (and a few extinct) organisms from the first living organisms—bacteria. Although Dawkins’s book is a great work (“a magnum opus”) possibly giving us a lot of pieces of the evolutionary puzzle, which might eventually lead us to the final true picture of what actually happened in life’s history, he misses the big picture. He fails to notice the obvious concept of design in every step of all living organisms, which needs to be explained. The situation inevitably leads one to conclude that there exists a Supremely Intelligent Being guiding this ‘down-up’ evolution, rather than things happening by mere chance; just as one inevitably concludes that the universe seems to have been ‘fine-tuned’ for our existence to eventually come along, and life on Earth seems to have been initiated by a Supreme Intelligence (see my article “God of the Gaps?”) Of course, I do not preclude the possibility that this situation (resulting from the evidence we currently have today) regarding evolution might change in the future. Science must keep an open mind, but, so far, it seems that God is in the background of all our science: the existence of matter, the origin and fine-tuning of our universe, the origin of life on Earth, and the design in life’s evolution on our planet.
Attard, Carmel Paul, Is God a Reality?—A Scientific Investigation. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2017. (ISBN: 9781532012228.)
Behe, Michael J. The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. New York, NY: Free Press, 2007 (ISBN: 139780743296229, 100743296222.)
Dawkins, Richard. The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2005 (ISBN: 9780618619160.)
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion; New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2008. (ISBN 0618918248, 9780618918249.)
Meyer, Stephen C. Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014. (ISBN 9780062071484.)
Spemann, Hans & Hilde Mangold. “Induction of Embryonic Primordia by Implantation of Organizers from a Different Species.” Translated by Viktor Hamburger; edited by Klaus Sander; International Journal of Developmental Biology vol. 45 (2001).
If one were to identify the doctrine that deters would-be Christians most, it would be that of hell: usually described as a pit of fire in which souls (dead people) who did not quite measure up are eternally and incessantly tormented in a fire that never consumes them. I don’t think anybody has any doubt that this doctrine practically prevents us (Christians) from ever truly loving God: we can only be scared of him; thus, our so-called religion is, in fact, irreligion because religion is supposed to be conducive to our loving God. How did this bizarre concept creep into our religion?
Religious institutions have no police force to keep their followers in check; not to mention that the afterlife is somewhat remote, and most people naturally tend to ignore anything that is not imminent. So, how do religious leaders make believers behave in this life? They first tell them that God knows everything and keeps records of all wrongs, and then they threaten them with a horrendous punishment in the afterlife. This might work to some extent in practice, but it has the great disadvantage of distancing us from God who, indeed, loves us unconditionally: like the best of parents love their children. They figure that if people are not threatened by punishment, they go out of control. In fact, I hate to imagine what would happen in our cities if there were no police force to keep control: we would probably experience murder, rape, and looting in every street corner. But God is not like that: he is best portrayed as the father in the parable of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11–32)
Hell in the Bible
Now, where do we find this concept of eternal punishment in a fiery pit? Not surprisingly, we find it in the Bible—the assumed source of all our supernatural revelation. Although the vast majority of Christian denominations deem the Bible inerrant, in my book Is the Bible Infallible?, I show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that this is not the case. It is not the scope of this article to prove it anew: it is enough for the reader to have a quick look at my article “Science in the Bible” to see that it is only about 50% right scientifically. Indeed, in this article I shall not even question whatever is written in the Bible and still show how and why we have been misled by our church to believe in the Christian hell.
It might come as a complete surprise to most Christians that the Hebrews, who were the authors of the Bible’s Old Testament, did not even believe in an afterlife almost until the time of Jesus (the New Testament). It’s not that the concept did not occur to them because their next-door neighbors, the Egyptians, buried their kings in pyramids together with their belongings so they could be comfortable in the afterlife: no, the Hebrews simply believed that immortality belongs to God alone. In his book The Hell Jesus Never Intended, Presbyterian pastor Keith Wright affirms,
“Not until the period beginning 300 years before the birth of Jesus [c. 300 BCE] did the Jews begin to develop a concept of an afterlife that included both punishment and reward.” (p. 45)
The turning point was around the harsh religious persecution the Jews experienced from the Hellenistic king Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire, which occurred between 175 and 164 BCE. The Jews realized that those who obeyed God’s laws (the Mosaic Law) meticulously ended up dead, while those who disobeyed them (apostatized) got to live another day. God’s justice, therefore, demanded some other form of ‘life’ after death in which everyone is rewarded or punished according to one’s actions in life. Hence, in the book of Daniel, written between 167 and 164 BCE, (NAB, p. 1065; Wright p. 46) we read,
“Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth [died] shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (KJV, Daniel 12:2)
This is probably the one and only reference to an afterlife of some sort, we find in the Christian (i.e., Protestant) Old Testament.
The question of the afterlife was still unsettled in Jesus’s time. In fact, in his book The Antiquities of the Jews, first-century-CE historian Flavius Titus Josephus reports a contemporaneous difference in opinion between three Jewish, religious groups: the Pharisees and Essenes on one side and the Sadducees on the other. (Josephus, bk. 18 ch.1 §§ 2–5; Wright, p. 46) Josephus tells us that the Sadducees still did not believe in the immortality of the soul; we are also told the same thing about the Sadducees in three Gospels (Mark 12:18; Matthew 22:23; Luke 20:27) and in the Acts of the Apostles. (Acts 23:8)
Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus speaking about the Last Judgement, (Matthew 25:31–46) in which he ends by saying,
“Then shall he [the Son of Man] say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’ … And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.” (KJV, Matthew 25:41–43, 46, emphasis mine)
Luke’s gospel portrays Jesus telling the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, (Luke 16:19–31) in which the rich man is depicted ending up in ‘hell’ and Lazarus in ‘heaven.’
“And he [the rich man] cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.’” (KJV, Luke 16:24–26, emphasis mine)
And again Matthew portrays Jesus telling his disciples,
“If thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt [lame] or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.” (KJV, Matthew 18:8, emphasis mine)
At first blush, it really does seem that there is enough evidence in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, that damned souls are punished eternally and in fire. Moreover, the Gospels portray Jesus (of all people) saying these words: which obviously gives them more weight. However, one must keep in mind that Jesus never wrote a word in our Scriptures: these are the words of the evangelists; and, unfortunately, we don’t even know who these evangelists were (NAB, pp. 10, 69, 96, 143). So, let us have a quick look at some history of the Gospels. (I shall keep calling the evangelists by their traditional names to avoid confusion.)
There were many so called gospels written, but Christianity only recognized four as canonical (i.e., official), and they were written at different times and locations. In his book The Historical Jesus, biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan tells us that Mark’s gospel was written between 70 and 79 CE, Matthew’s gospel was written around 90 CE, Luke’s gospel was written between 90 and 99 CE, and John’s gospel was written between 101 and 125 CE. (Crossan, pp. 429–32) The New American Bible agrees with him to a great extent: it dates Mark’s gospel around 70 CE, Matthew’s gospel after 80 CE, Luke’s gospel between 80 and 90 CE, and John’s gospel between 90 and 100 CE. (NAB, pp. 10, 69, 96, 144) In short, the easiest way to remember when the four canonical Gospels were written is: Mark’s around 70 CE, Matthew’s around 80 CE, Luke’s around 90 CE, and John’s around 100 CE.
It also helps to keep in mind that sympathetic authors tend to mythologize their heroes over time, making them larger than they really were (like Robin Hood or Zorro), especially when there are no more eyewitnesses around to contest what is written because they all died by then. Consequently, generally, the earlier writings tend to be the more accurate, authentic, and reliable.
The three gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are very similar and the three together are therefore termed the synoptic Gospels. The word synoptic is a combination of two Greek words: syn meaning ‘together,’ and opsis meaning ‘sight’ or ‘view.’ This means that these three gospels saw the life of Jesus from a single point of view. (NAB, p. ) Matthew and Luke seem to have used Mark (which is the shortest gospel) as a skeleton account for theirs.
Needless to mention, not all translations of the Bible are the same. A translation of any literary work loses a lot of its original meaning and forcefulness, simply through the process of translating it—albeit faithfully—even if done at the same time when and in the same place where the original was written; let alone if it’s done centuries later and in a different culture. (In fact, the translation of the Koran from its original language, Arabic, is discouraged because of this phenomenon.) Indeed, any translation of the Bible has been compared to a lion in a cage: it is still a lion but its magnificence is far from that in the wild. Naturally, therefore, the best translations are those made directly from the original languages: not translations of translations of the original text—because some of the meaning is lost every time it is translated. It stands to reason that, in translating (and reading) the Gospels, it is also of primary importance to know the background knowledge and paradigms assumed by the evangelists when they wrote them in order to produce an accurate and faithful translation. Moreover, as far as possible, and as long as the idiomatic meaning is not compromised, it is best to stick to a literal translation of the biblical text. For this reason I have chosen the Berean Literal Bible in most of what follows rather than the King James Bible, which was significantly influenced by prior arguable translations.
Hell in the First Century CE
In his book Why I am a Catholic, Roman Catholic historian Garry Wills opines that the essence of the Apostles’ Creed can be traced back to a first-century declaration of Christian faith. (p. 300) In the Apostles Creed, Christians declare,
“I believe … in Jesus Christ … who … was crucified, died and was buried; He descended into hell; on the third day He rose again from the dead.” (Catholic Online, “Prayers”)
Now, it is ludicrous to conclude from this statement that Jesus entered and stayed in the fires of hell for three partial days between his death and resurrection. Admittedly, some might object that the Apostles’ Creed is not part of the Bible and is therefore not necessarily a source of the so-called Christian revelation. However, it is based on a passage from the First letter of Peter where we read,
“Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, so that He might bring you to God, having been put to death indeed in the flesh, but having been made alive in the spirit, in which also having gone, He preached to the spirits in prison [who] at one time having disobeyed, when the longsuffering of God was waiting in the days of Noah, of the ark being prepared, in which a few—that is, eight souls—were saved through [from] water.” (BLB, 1 Peter 3:18–20, emphasis mine)
So, what exactly did first-century-CE Jews understand by the word ‘hell’? As mentioned above, it is important to read the Bible in the context it was written, not through our modern concept of hell, because the evangelists took certain paradigms of their time for granted when they wrote the gospels.
The underworld, or the netherworld, is another word for what was thought to be the ‘place of the dead’: that is, where dead disembodied souls were believed to keep on existing like zombies; it was also known as Hades in Greek mythology. Greek was the language in which practically all of the New Testament was originally written; it stands to reason that its authors were highly influenced by Greek culture. Hades was technically the god of the underworld, but the underworld later took his name. (Wikipedia, “Hades”) This is probably where the concept of hell being underground on this earth originated from. The underworld, the netherworld, and Hades were, and still are, often mistranslated as ‘hell’ in our Bibles.
Another name for Hades or the underworld is the Hebrew Sheol; the word Sheol also was, and still is, often mistranslated as ‘hell’ in our Bibles: yet, it is just another name for the place of the dead. The souls in there supposedly experienced no feelings of joy or pain, and everybody, good or bad, went there after death. The word Sheol was also used synonymously for the grave or metaphorically for despair. For example, in Psalms we read,
“For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those descending to the Pit. I am like a man without strength. I am forsaken among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You [God] remember no more, who are cut off from Your care [influence (NAB)].” (BSB, Psalms 88:3–5, emphasis mine)
Notice that in this quote “Sheol” is synonymous to the “grave” or the “pit.” It is important to realize then that, in the Sheol of the Bible, people were supposedly totally disconnected from and forgotten by God. (Wright, p. 43) Recall also that prior to 300 BCE, in Jewish scriptures we find no concept of punishment or reward after death.
However, the Douay-Rheims Version (which is based on the official Roman Catholic Bible—The Latin Vulgate) renders the original word “Sheol” as “hell.” For example the above passage is rendered as,
“For my soul is filled with evils: and my life hath drawn nigh to hell. I am counted among them that go down to the pit: I am become as a man without help, free among the dead. Like the slain sleeping in the sepulchres [tombs], whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cast off from thy hand.” (DRC, Psalms 87:4–6, emphasis mine)
This is where Jesus allegedly went to, according to the Apostles’ Creed and First Peter, for the three partial days between his death and resurrection. In actual fact, therefore, Jesus was simply dead before his Father resurrected him: just like Jesus’s friend Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, was dead for four days. (John 11:1–44) In fact, for several years right after the Second Vatican Council, Catholics changed the above verse from the Apostles’ Creed slightly to “He descended to the dead” instead of “He descended into hell.” (I think “He descended to the dead” renders the original concept better, but for some strange reason it was lately changed back.)
The word ‘Gehenna’ is the English rendering of the Hebrew phrase Ge-Hinnom, meaning ‘valley of Hinnom,’ which was a small valley west and south of Jerusalem where all of the city’s garbage was burnt. Prior to its becoming a garbage dump, child sacrifices to the Ammonite god Moloch and the Canaanite god Baal were performed at that location in the time of the Hebrew king Solomon in the tenth century BCE and Judah’s kings Ahaz and Manasseh between 700 and 600 BCE; (Encyclopaedia Britannica Online & Wikipedia, “Gehenna”) thus prompting Jeremiah to portray God cursing that valley. (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2–6)
Now, let us examine some gospel quotes involving Gehenna. (I shall use the Berean Literal Bible translations in this section for better accuracy and fidelity.) Matthew portrays Jesus saying,
“I say to you that everyone being angry with his brother will be liable to the [local (NAB note)] judgment, and whoever shall say to his brother ‘Raca’ [Imbecile/Blockhead (NAB note)], will be liable to the Sanhedrin [highest Jewish religious court]. But whoever shall say, ‘Fool!’ will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” (BLB, Matthew 5:22)
Notice the progression of culpability in the above quote: Gehenna seems to be the ultimate punishment for Jesus. (NAB, Matthew 5:22n) But then, one might ask, why would a valley near Jerusalem be a place of ultimate punishment? The same chapter, of the same gospel, portrays Jesus adding,
“If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and cast it from you. For it is better for you that one of your members should perish and not that your whole body should be cast into Gehenna. … If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and cast it from you, for it is better for you that one of your members should perish and not that your whole body should depart into Gehenna.” (BLB, Matthew 5:29–30, emphasis mine)
Later, the same gospel portrays Jesus making threats that are almost identical to the above quote, but try to detect the most significant difference in the following quote.
“If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; it is better for you to enter into life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire. … If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and cast it from you; it is better for you to enter into life one-eyed, than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire.” (BLB, Matthew 18:8–9, emphasis mine)
These last two quotes express practically the same concept, but notice how the first “Gehenna” of the first quote changed to “eternal fire” in the second quote: they are used synonymously by the author (Matthew). Now, recall and keep in mind that according to biblical scholar John Crossan, these passages were written around 90 CE. (p. 430) No doubt, this last quote was paraphrased from the following passage in Mark, which was written a decade or two earlier according to Crossan: recall that Mark’s gospel was written between 70 and 79 CE. (Crossan, pp. 429–30)
“If your hand should cause you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life crippled, than having two hands to go away into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. … If your foot should cause you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life lame, than having the two feet, to be cast into Gehenna. … If your eye should cause you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” (BLB, Mark 9:43–48, emphasis mine)
Notice how the phrase “unquenchable fire” in Mark’s earlier gospel was subsequently upgraded to “eternal fire” in Matthew’s gospel a decade or so later. “Unquenchable” means it does not stop burning until it burns itself out; “eternal” means it never ends. This is a big difference in interpretation, especially if a book is promoted to ‘divine’ status later. My question to the Bible-inerrancy believer is: which gospel would constitute the infallible Word of God, the former or the latter?
Moreover, the embedded quote at the end of Mark’s passage originally comes from the book of Isaiah, where we read,
“As they go forth, they will see the corpses of the men who have rebelled against Me [God]; for their worm will never die [cease], their fire will never be quenched, and they will be a horror to all mankind.” (BSB, Isaiah 66:24)
The embedded quote from Isaiah is repeated three times (for measure) in some manuscripts of Mark’s gospel: that is, in verses 44, 46, and 48. The New American Bible comments that verses 44 and 46 are “lacking in some important early manuscripts.” (NAB, Mark 9:44, 46n) Talk about trying to shove one’s opinion down everyone else’s throat!
However, all that Isaiah’s original verse means is that the corpses of God’s enemies shall lie dead outside the city walls in a filthy rubbish dump, where maggots and worms decomposed them, and where huge fires that were constantly burning eventually consumed them. Isaiah was talking about corpses, not disembodied souls. According to the Got Questions website Isaiah’s passage was written prior to 680 BCE: (“Summary of the Book of Isaiah”) at which time the Jews still did not believe in an afterlife. At that time, the worst thing that could happen to a person was not to be duly buried: that one’s corpse would be thrown among the city’s garbage, say, where it is eaten by scavenging animals or birds, slowly decomposed by worms, or burnt by fire. There was no end to worms and fires there—this was the Jews’ concept of hell back then.
Interestingly enough, although the synoptic Gospels normally repeat what Mark had said because they are based on Mark as skeleton, Luke totally omits this passage: which makes one think that, for some reason, he did not agree with it.
Confirming what I am saying here, recall what Pastor Wright affirms in his book ,
“Not until the period beginning 300 years before the birth of Jesus [c. 300 BCE] did the Jews begin to develop a concept of afterlife that included both punishment and reward. (p. 45)
Now, it does not look like the concept of hell in the first century CE (i.e., in the 70s CE—Mark’s gospel—or around 90 CE—Matthew’s gospel) was much different either. Recall that first-century-CE historian Flavius Josephus reported a contemporaneous disagreement between three Jewish, religious groups: the Pharisees and Essenes on one side and the Sadducees on the other. We are told that the Sadducees still did not believe in the immortality of the soul; (Wright, p. 46) we are also told the same thing about the Sadducees in the synoptic Gospels (Mark 12:18; Matthew 22:23; Luke 20:27) and Acts. (Acts 23:8)
The word “Gehenna” was, and still is, often mistranslated as “hell” in our Bibles. However, it was simply a valley south and west of Jerusalem where the city’s garbage was dumped and where the fires that burnt the garbage never went out: there was always enough garbage being added on to keep it burning. This is probably how the concept of “unquenchable fire”, and subsequently “everlasting fire”, entered our modern concept of hell! Confirm what I am saying, the Encyclopaedia Britannica Online states,
“The imagery of the burning of humans supplied the concept of ‘hellfire’ to Jewish and Christian eschatology [last things] … a place in which fire will destroy the wicked.” (“Gehenna”)
Pastor Wright makes it even clearer in his book; he writes,
“In … these passages, the word Jesus uses for Hell is ‘Gehenna’—an area just outside Jerusalem where garbage was dumped and where the fires that burned that garbage never went out. This is possibly how the idea of eternal fires entered the concept of Hell.” (p. 28)
This is the kind of thing that happens over time: one loses the key connection with the culture of the place where and time when certain things were said or written. Then the church, centuries later, autonomously declares the Bible infallible: probably because it has no real source of divine revelation for a template to follow; finally one comes to believe in the literal faulty translation of that particular passage.
It is clear then, that in the above passages, Jesus is not talking about our present understanding of hell; he is just using a contemporaneous concept hyperbolically to accentuate importance. That is, if he ever uttered these words: I mean, assuming they are not just scare tactics orchestrated by the evangelists to keep their congregation in check.
Interpretation of Scriptures
In his book The Hell Jesus Never Intended, Presbyterian pastor Keith Wright opines,
“Jesus used the promise of Heaven and the threat of Hell just as the prophets of Israel and the Jewish leaders in the 1st and 2nd century BC had used them.” (p. 48)
He is not the only one who thinks so, of course. Commenting on the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) in its e-book An Introduction to Bible Prophecy, the Evangelical Christian denomination Grace Communion International has,
“It is not there to paint us a portrait of heaven and hell. It is a parable of judgement against the unbelieving Israelite leadership and the unkind rich, using common Jewish imagery of the afterlife (Hades and ‘being with Abraham’) as a literary backdrop to make the point. In other words, Jesus is not commenting on the validity of Jewish imagery of the afterlife; he was simply using that imagery as scenery for his story. Jesus was not satisfying our itching curiosities about what heaven and hell must be like.” (p. 104/154)
Moreover, in his book Eternal Life? Catholic theologian Hans Küng writes,
“The New Testament statements about Hell are not meant to supply information about a hereafter to satisfy curiosity or fantasy. They are meant to bring vividly before us here and now the absolute seriousness of God’s claim and the urgency of conversion in the present life.” (p. 141)
Although they strongly believe in the same Bible, marginal Christian churches like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the United Church of God do not believe in the Christian hell, either. Across the board, therefore, Christianity agrees that we cannot tell anything about the afterlife from what we find written in the New Testament: in other words, we cannot take it literally.
Now, let me give the reader just a rough idea of what eternity is. Imagine all the sands of the earth, from every conceivable place, gathered in one place. Imagine a bird picking a grain of sand every thousand years and placing it on the moon. When all the sands of the earth are thus transported to the moon, the first second of eternity has not passed yet! One may substitute a million, a billion, a trillion years, or any other time interval, for the thousand-year interval between any two sand grains being transported to the moon; the conclusion will always be the same: the first second of eternity has not passed yet.
Meanwhile, if a soul happens to be in hell, it is allegedly suffering unbearable pain in fire—every single second. Can we, as humans, fully understand and commit a sin that deserves such a punishment? Not to mention that some of the sins deemed grave by the church seem so trivial (e.g., masturbation, non-abortive contraception, and missing Sunday Mass). Obviously, the punishment does not fit the crime. Do you think God could be so cruel? Or, maybe, we are more compassionate and merciful than God? In his book, Pastor Write asks whether we don’t honestly feel, deep inside our being, that something is wrong with this kind of reasoning—that we might be more compassionate than God. (p. 14) The idea that God is capable of punishing people forever is a serious obstacle to the concept of a loving God and is inconsistent with many Bible passages that describe God as all-merciful, for example,
“Then the LORD passed in front of Moses and called out: ‘The LORD, the LORD God, is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion and faithfulness, maintaining loving devotion to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.’” (BSB, Exodus 34:6–7)
Moreover, we have corroborating evidence of God’s kindness in our everyday life too. Pain is necessary to force us to protect our bodies from harm, but isn’t it strange that when someone is extremely hurt physically, one goes unconscious and doesn’t feel anything anymore? This seems to me a sign of kindness on God’s part: it seems he cannot stomach seeing us suffer excessively. By the same token, I contend God cannot take seeing us suffer burning in hell for all eternity if he cannot take it for more than a few minutes. So, even the evidence from life makes me seriously question the reality of the Christian hell.
In order to find the truth about hell, we cannot refer to mainstream Christianity: I think it’s a good idea to use reason in evaluating the beliefs of marginal Christian denominations. The United Church of God, for example, is a marginal Christian Church that does not believe in the eternity of hell. Although, like most of Christianity, the United Church of God believes in the infallibility of the Bible, it still rightly asks whether the concept of a loving God could be reconciled with the concept of a God punishing many eternally in a fiery hell.
In its booklet Heaven & Hell, it asks us to imagine lighting a match and try holding a finger on the little flame for just five seconds. The pain will be unbearable, not to mention the physical damage it will cause—which (strangely enough) supposedly is not the case in hell. Then it asks us to imagine ourselves being trapped in a fire and feeling such pain all over our body for a minute, a year, a lifetime, and eternity. It is horrible to imagine that God, whom we adore and respect, could do something like that to any human being, let alone to a multitude of people who die every day: people who probably tried their best to obey his commandments for most of their life but failed sometimes. How then, it asks, some of us can reconcile such behavior with the infinitely loving God described in the Bible? It concludes that something must be amiss. (Heaven & Hell, p. 15) Naturally, the United Church of God’s answers to these questions are far from what mainstream Christianity teaches; Jehovah’s Witnesses agree with the United Church of God’s doctrine, and so do I.
However, at the same time, the United Church of God is quick to point out that, still, it does not mean that God’s justice will allow the wicked to go unpunished, and it quotes the book of Revelation to this effect.
“But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” (KJV, Revelation 21:8, emphasis mine)
The ‘first’ death is the death we are familiar with; the “second death” supposedly corresponds to God’s total annihilation of the person, byburning the wicked person in fire after a temporary resurrection. After this “second death” one cannot be resurrected again: one is annihilated. As the United Church of God goes on to explain in its booklet,
“This verse and others like it show that the doctrine of universal salvation is false. Not everyone will be saved. Some will, in the end, refuse to repent—and they will suffer punishment. But that punishment is not to burn in fire without ending. Rather, it is to die a death from which there is no resurrection.” (Heaven & Hell, p. 26)
I think this makes much more sense than what mainstream Christianity teaches. In his book The God of Hope and the End of the World, theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne writes,
“If hell is the place where the divine life has been deliberately excluded, then some have thought that its inhabitants will eventually fade away into nothingness, because the divine Spirit [‘the giver of life’ (Nicene Creed)] has habitually been denied its sustaining work in their lives. There is some persuasiveness in this notion of annihilation … though it would also represent the final creaturely defeat of the divine purpose of love. It is hard to know what to think.” (Polkinghorne, p. 137, emphasis mine)
In other words, annihilation of the damned soul makes some theological sense. If hell is a place where the Holy Spirit, who is also described as the Spirit of Life, is deliberately denied its sustaining work, then the inhabitants of hell will eventually fade away into nothingness: they are annihilated. This would be the creature’s final defeat of Divine Love, so to speak—which does not make much sense either. So, like Pastor Wright, I believe that God’s love will always be victorious in the end: consequently, hell will eventually be empty (p. 115).
For decades I used to think that God, in his kindness, might give sinners a choice between existence and non-existence; but, in fact, we are given no choice in being born. Some Christians, trying to defend God and their church’s doctrine, maintain it is better to exist in a fiery hell for all eternity than not to exist at all: so, they argue, people (or souls, rather) would prefer to suffer eternal punishment than be annihilated. Nobody can deny that defiance and hatred are strange motivators for choosing existence to annihilation; but personally, I must totally disagree with such a hypothetical choice: I think it is simply nonsense—in the long run (eternity) one will have to give up.
Vengeful Wishful Thinking
Christians who suffered harsh persecution for their faith often consoled themselves that God would even things out in the afterlife: so, the concept of an eternal fiery hell as punishment for these unbelievers resonated with them. Christians who were tortured and killed must have thought: “We suffer now, but your turn will come in the next life when God will even things out, and he will pay you tenfold, hundredfold, thousandfold … no, eternally.” Thus, the concept of eternal punishment in a fiery hell sprung from the vengeful wishful thinking of persecuted Christians. And what manner of punishment will God use? The most painful and scary to both humans and animals—fire. Thus, a fiery hell in which sinners and unbelievers are punished eternally was created: clearly, however, the concept existed only in their minds—Christianity is not a truth factory.
Some readers might think this is only my fantasy running away with me. Lest the reader think so, let me quote from the United Church of God’s booklet again.
“Other aspects of the traditional teaching of hell simply offend the senses. One such belief is that righteous people, who are saved, will be able to witness the torments of the wicked. As one author [Walker] explains the view some hold, (Heaven & Hell, p. 18)
“Part of the happiness of the blessed consists in contemplating the torments of the damned. This sight gives them joy because it is a manifestation of God’s justice and hatred of sin, but chiefly because it provides a contrast which heightens their awareness of their own bliss.” (Walker, p. 29)
“This scenario is especially revolting for several reasons. According to such twisted reasoning, parents would inevitably witness the suffering of their own children and vice versa, relishing in it. Husbands and wives would feel joy in seeing unbelieving spouses tortured forever. Worst of all, the doctrine paints God as sadistic, cruel and merciless.” (Heaven & Hell, pp. 18–19)
The concept of evil people suffering may fly high in our imagination when we think of extremely evil people, people who persecute us because of our religion, or even our enemies, but not for our family and friends. Keep in mind, however, that God loves everyone, good and bad: he lets the sun shine and the rain pour on everyone, good and bad; (Matthew 5:45) not to mention that evil people were once innocent children, toddlers, and babies. God loves them like their mother loves them. (Isaiah 49:15; 66:13) He hates the evil they do, but he still loves them: like a parent hates a disease oppressing a child, but still loves the child.
The sad fact is that the concept of eternal punishment in a fiery hell has turned Christianity into a religion of fear, and I intend to fight the concept of the Christian hell until I die. Had Christianity stuck to an equitable punishment for one’s lifetime evil deeds by a just and impartial God, it would have cut a much better figure since, deep down, most people (if not all) are willing to pay a fair price for their shortcomings. It would also have been much more attractive for outsiders to join in, but that is the way we want our God to be—violent and vindictive like us.
It seems that little does Christianity care that by teaching an eternal fiery hell, it is distancing believers from having a personal relationship with God; which is probably what we are here on earth for—the whole meaning of our life on earth—as I argue in my book, Is God a Reality? (pp. 361–68) Believers become so intimidated by God that it is impossible for them to love him freely. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists, “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him.” (p. 221 ¶ 1033) How can one “freely choose to love” a God capable of creating a fiery hell to punish people eternally? One can only fear him, but fear and love do not mix well: love cannot be forced. If hell truly existed, one would practically be forced to comply: there would be no freedom of action. It is similar to torturing someone during an interrogation or a trial: one cannot be sure of the truth.
Consequently, I believe the only punishment in hell is separation from God: simply because it cannot be helped if one decides to make such a choice; it is the nature of the beast: “One cannot have a cake and eat it too.” Jesus never intended to preach a violent, vindictive God to us. One thing we know he taught us, for sure, is that God is a loving Father: a loving father would not punish his children eternally; his anger would eventually subside. One would know this instinctively if one happens to be a good, loving parent. Not surprisingly, the United Church of God agrees with what I have been saying above: its booklet says,
“The idea that God sentences people to eternal punishment is so repulsive that it has turned some away from belief in God and Christianity.” (Heaven & Hell, p. 18)
I do not think anybody could question this statement. It adds that Charles Darwin was one of those who chose this route. I would say it is many people, not just some, that were and are being turned away from Christianity because of this repulsive doctrine—especially intelligent people. The sad consequence has been that, unlike the past, nowadays, most scientists do not even believe in God. And, if we keep this up, soon there will hardly be anybody left in our pews!
Separation from God
Separation from God is probably similar to the feeling of losing a loved one, being separated from a loved one, or being rejected by a loved one. The problem is that not everybody has had such an experience, and therefore not everyone can understand how awful it can feel. I suggest reading A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis, to get some idea.
According to Christian doctrine, God is the only one who can ultimately really make us happy and satisfy all our emotional needs. Separation from God may be described as a continuous, gradual consumption or depletion of our very being. Perhaps, ‘burning inside by a non-consuming fire’ is the best imagery to describe separation from God: consisting of an interior and exterior consumption by despair and almost physical pain. It is probably the best description that approximates the reality and seriousness of the situation in hell—possibly one that some of us might understand.
Pastor Wright describes how religious affairs commentator Karen Armstrong, while she was a nun, struggled within herself to dispense with the love of and attachment to other people but was unsuccessful. Wright tells us, “She remembered that the theologians had said that Hell is not really a pit filled with fire.” (Wright, p. 88) He then quotes from Armstrong’s book Through the Narrow Gate:
“It is far more terrible than that [fire]. It is the endurance of oneself forever and ever with no alleviation at all. You’ve chosen yourself instead of God, so God gives you yourself. But this time without anything or anyone to distract you. Just you on your own.” (p. 137)
No doubt, it is a terrible situation to be in; but the ‘non-consuming fire’ is still symbolic, and I think most people would prefer it to the physical pain of burning in fire. Whatever it is, the church should be honest and straightforward about things—not try to scare believers—and it should revise and correct old misconceptions from time to time (quit being dogmatic). Of course, it is not wrong for the church to try to explain the intense psychological pain we might experience being separated from God; but at least its teaching would be consistent with the evidence we have from the grave: the body remains there, and so no physical pain is possible. Besides, it does not portray God as a merciless tormentor.
In conclusion, apart from the absence of physical fire in hell, another key difference between my concept of hell and the church’s teaching is that it is a voluntary separation, and therefore it does not necessarily have to be eternal. The soul decides, for some reason or other, to remain separated from God: God does not send it there because he judges it unworthy of his presence, but I do not preclude the possibility that a soul might judge itself to be unworthy to join God for a while, or simply refusing to join him. Recall the parable of the prodigal son: the father in the parable was always waiting for his spendthrift son to come back to him; in fact, he spots him at a distance. (Luke 15:20) Frankly, I concede I don’t know why it would take a soul so long, but then how can a spirit be reconciled with the concept of time? A spirit seems to exist in a fourth dimension, where time is another (fourth) variable (not fixed)—like the space we move around in: just as we can move around from one place to another, a spirit can move around in time (I surmise without changing things considerably). So, like Pastor Wright, I believe that hell will eventually be empty. (Wright, p. 115)
Armstrong, Karen. Through the Narrow Gate. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
Attard, Carmel Paul. Is God a Reality?—A Scientific Investigation. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2017. (ISBN: 9781532012228.)
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Josephus, Flavius Titus. The Antiquities of the Jews. C. 93 CE. Translated by William Whiston in October 2001. Produced by David Reed in a Project Gutenberg e-book, posted January 4, 2009.
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Lewis, Clive Staples (C. S.). A Grief Observed. London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1961.
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Polkinghorne, John. The God of Hope and the End of the World. New Haven, CT & London, UK: Yale University Press, 2002.