A South African theology student wrote to me, asking me five questions. I’ll answer them here, so everyone can read my thoughts on these matters.
(1) According to your understanding, who was Jesus Christ?
There are 2 different ways I could interpret this question, and I’m not sure which you are asking. You could be asking, “According to my understanding, who do theists believe Jesus Christ was?” or you could be asking, “Who do I think Jesus Christ was?” I’ll answer both.
As for who theists believe Jesus Christ was:
Most sects of Christianity think Jesus was the son of God, the Word, the perfect sacrifice whose blood washed away humanity’s sins, one of three parts of the Trinity, the messiah who came to intermediate between God and man and thereby bring salvation from the wages of sin and from eternal torment. Most sects of Islam think he was a prophet of God who has been misrepresented by Christians. Most sects of Judaism think he was one of a long line of false messiahs. I imagine most Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, Jains, Zoroastrians, and so on, also reject the claims of Jesus’s divinity, if they think about Jesus at all.
As for who I think Jesus Christ was:
I think he was most likely an entirely mythical figure who was never closely based on any actual historical figure at all. I say this for several reasons.
[A] There’s no evidence outside of the Bible that Jesus ever existed. No tomb, dwelling, boat, scourge, cross, thorn crown, burial shroud (I’m not counting the Shroud of Turin because it’s a fake), nor artifacts of any kind, no writing by him or by his peers about him, no accounts from anyone who met him nor from of any of his contemporaries at all … no anything whatsoever. Supposedly the son of God came into the world — allegedly the most important person and most important historical event ever — and left literally no trace. His birth incited King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, slaughtering all of the young males in the vicinity of Bethlehem … but no historian, magistrate, nor anyone else at the time felt it deserved mention, and no trace was left that it ever occurred. Jesus was purportedly traveling the land and sea, feeding the hungry, healing the sick and raising the dead, tossing the moneychangers out of the Temple, preaching his message to crowds of thousands — all at the same time and same area as numerous notable historians, theologians, business people, monarchs, politicians, and commentators … such as Pliny the Elder, Seneca the Elder, and Philo of Alexandria — but literally nobody bothered to mention him even once. He triumphantly rode into Jerusalem as the King of Israel, while the crowd cheered — and neither presiding king nor the locals bothered to make note of it. The Bible tells us that upon his death, the world was cast into unnatural darkness from noon until three, a devastating earthquake occurred, and the dead rose from their graves and walked the streets of Jerusalem — but, again, nobody at the time found any of this worthy of mention. In short, the son of God came and rocked the world, and nobody said a word about it even once until about half a century later.
[B] The Bible’s gospel narratives of Jesus’s life contradict each other on almost every point. Who was it that the angel informed about Mary’s immaculate conception of the son of God, Joseph or Mary? When was Jesus born, before 4 B.C. or after 6 A.D.? Where and when did Peter and Andrew meet and start to follow Jesus, by the Sea of Galilee after the imprisonment of John the Baptist, or in Bethany by the River Jordan before the imprisonment of John the Baptist? Did Jesus carry the cross all the way to Golgotha by himself, or did Simon of Cyrene help him carry it part of the way? Was Jesus crucified around 9 AM on the first day of Passover or some time after noon on the day before Passover? Did Jesus drink vinegar while he was on the cross, or refuse wine mixed with myrrh and drink nothing at all while he was on the cross? Was Jesus dead for three full days before his resurrection, or a day and a half from late Friday afternoon until early Sunday morning? Did Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome anoint Jesus’s dead body, or was it Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who anointed Jesus’s dead body? These questions and many more have multiple, incompatible answers, depending upon which gospel you read. When you actually look at the details of each of the gospel accounts side by side, they disagree with each other in hundreds of particulars, amounting to wholly inconsistent accounts of Jesus’s life, overall. The only source for Jesus — the Bible — is comprised of contradictory, anonymous, generations-later reports. It’s not reliable.
[C] The anonymous authors of the gospels, writing down their Jesus stories generations after they were supposed to have taken place, wrote lots of stuff that historians and archaeologists know to be erroneous. Stuff like Jesus being raised in Nazareth, when it’s known that Nazareth didn’t exist in Jesus’s time. Or Jesus teaching and preaching in synagogues around Galilee, when it’s known there were no synagogues around Galilee in Jesus’s lifetime. Then there’s that bit about Joseph needing to leave Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem for the census because his lineage was from there — a fictitious census policy that the Romans of course never had, which would’ve been both pointless and insanely disruptive to the entire nation. (Plus the Romans kept careful enough records for us to confidently know that this census never took place at all). And there’s Jesus’s conversation with the thief on the nearby cross, when it’s known that Romans did not execute thieves. To name just a few examples.
[D] Jesus is one of a long line of similar, purported gods to emerge from the ancient Middle East and surrounding areas. There was a personal-Savior-dying-and-rising-God fad sweeping through all of the national cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle East at the time, and Jesus was the one that emerged from Judea. When you look at the details of the Jesus story in the context of the religions in the region and time, it appears that Jesus’s story is an amalgamation of the beliefs in the surrounding cultures.
Or to put it as the Christian theologian and apologist Justin Martyr put it in 150 A.D.: “When we say that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.”
I’m open to the idea that the Jesus character in the Bible is based on an actual historical figure, should new data lean in that direction. However, even if the gospel stories of Jesus are rooted in a real historical figure, I still doubt his divinity, for a lot of reasons.
For instance, one reason I doubt Jesus’s divinity is because of Jesus’s ignorance. He erroneously said that the mustard seed is the smallest seed on Earth (Mark 4:31). He mistakenly thought salt can lose its flavor (Matthew 5:13). He falsely claimed that birds don’t sow, reap, and store food (Matthew 6:26), when many kinds of birds — such as sapsuckers and woodpeckers — do. In numerous Bible passages like these Jesus demonstrated that his knowledge was as error-prone as every other insular bronze age peasant’s. Furthermore, he imparted no special insight nor useful knowledge that wasn’t known to everyone else. A brief comment about quantum physics, general relativity, stellar nucleosynthesis, DNA, or some such, would’ve shown that he actually knew something tangible that others in his time and place didn’t and couldn’t. If he’d really been divine and benevolent, he could’ve shown mankind how to harness electricity and make electric motors work for us, or how to make antibiotics and cure diseases, or how to do calculus, to name just three out of many possible ways he could’ve greatly improved life for everyone if he’d actually known anything worthwhile and shared it. Instead, you find just the opposite in the Gospels — numerous passages where Jesus ignorantly teaches extremely harmful errors which significantly worsened humanity’s plight. For example, Matthew 15:1-11 and Mark 7:1-15, where Jesus instructs people that they need not bother washing their hands when preparing or sharing food, because it’s only the words that come out of your mouth, not what you put into your mouth, that cause you harm. This disastrous, dysentery-and-cholera-spreading teaching was made possible by Jesus’s ungodly unawareness of the germ theory of disease.
Some of the more obsequious non-Christians will say that if Jesus existed and was not divine, then he was at least a very wise teacher. But upon actually reading his words in the Bible, Jesus doesn’t appear to have been at all wise. Thinking he was a sagacious teacher requires some combination of presupposing Universalist premises and selectively ignoring the many foolish and vile things the Bible says Jesus said. To give a few examples: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother… And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” (Matthew 10:35-37); “…There be some eunuchs, which have gelded themselves for the kingdom of heaven. He that is able to receive this, let him receive it,” (Matthew 19:12); “As for my enemies who don’t want me as their king, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27); and, “…Those who believe will be able to … drink poison without being hurt.” (Mark 16:17-18)
(2) “According to your understanding, what is the Bible?”
The Bible is a collection of ancient Middle-Eastern folk tales, genealogies, poems, songs, proverbs, legal codes, missive letters, and various odds and ends, written by numerous anonymous authors over hundreds of years. The Old Testament of the Bible starts with the story of creation, then mostly relates rocky events in the rise of the Israelites. The Gospels in the New Testament relate the story of the final years of Jesus, who is claimed to be the messiah, and Revelation prognosticates Jesus’s and God’s future plans for humankind. The Bible is the foundational sacred scripture for those of Judeo-Christian faiths, many of whom take it to be historically accurate, and believe it to have been given by inspiration from God. Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and other groups disagree with each other as to exactly which texts belong in the collection. Each sect decided for themselves which texts do and which do not belong in the Bible, based on their own doctrines, and their own socio-political interests.
In the larger sense, both the Old and New Testaments are the story of the god Yahweh’s relationship with mankind. To most believers who have not actually read the Bible themselves, it is thought to be the story of a mistreated, long-suffering God’s enduring love for thankless and wicked humankind. To most nonbelievers who have actually read the Bible themselves, it appears to be the story of a despicable, psychopathic, stupid, jealous, hateful, misogynistic, racist, warmongering, genocidal, incompetent, dictatorial cosmic monster making a long series of monumental blunders, then always blaming his mistakes on humanity and punishing people for his own shortcomings.
Those of Judeo-Christian faiths also often think of the Bible as our source of moral guidance. They believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, and thus a reference to God’s morality, which is considered to be perfect by definition. In actuality, much of the morality of the Bible is perverse and dysfunctional. For example, God’s unmitigated advocacy of slavery, including kidnapping foreigners and enslaving them, brutally beating slaves, and selling your daughter as a sex slave. Thus, believers frequently ignore or willfully misinterpret the parts they find morally abhorrent — which shows that they are not deriving their morality from Yahweh nor from their religions, but rather imposing their pre-existing morality onto their interpretations of their religions and onto their imagined divine sources.
(3) “According to your understanding, what is the most important reason that people join a religion?”
Historically, most people who joined religions did so due to threats that they would be persecuted, exiled, imprisoned, tortured, or executed, if they did not join. Think of the many Christian inquisitions, such as the Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese Inquisition, the Peruvian Inquisition, the Mexican Inquisition, and the Roman Inquisition; or how American slaveowners converted black slaves at the end of a whip; or what I.S.I.S. / Daesh is doing currently in Syria.
In the words of the Roman Emperor Theodosius’s decree in 392 A.D., “It is Our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans…. The rest, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas… and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative.” (Codex Theodosianus, XVI 1.2) That is an example of why people have joined religions.
These days, most adherents were born into a religious culture, wherein the people who raised them inculcated their religious beliefs into them. It’s natural for most kids to believe what their parents, and all of the other authority figures they trust, have told them. When they grow up, it’s often hard to face the harsh reality that everyone they trusted, believed, and cared about filled their heads with a load hooey. Especially when admitting they were duped seems shameful, and also casts their loved ones in a worse light, because what they were told was so obviously puerile, and so clearly depraved. Add to this that disavowing the religions they were raised into often means being disowned by their parents, divorced by their spouses, losing custody of their children, being ostracized by their friends and their social networks, and losing their jobs — and in many places, also being imprisoned, tortured, and / or executed — and all of these factors come together to permanently lock in most of those raised in a religion.
Many other factors may also come into play. Here are a few that come to mind: 1) lack of critical thinking skills often play a role in coming to religion, especially among people who are scientifically illiterate and are misinformed by creationists, apologists, theologians, and clergy; 2) some people join religions as a precondition from their spouse, in order to marry; 3) the Bible and Qu’ran are full of threats of eternal torment for everyone outside of the religion, and some people who find those threats frightening join religions to hedge their bets against damnation; 4) schizophrenia, hallucinogenic drugs, seizures, severe brain injury, and a variety of other types of neurological impairment may lead people to have experiences that they believe are best explained through religion; 5) missionaries prey upon the weakest and most vulnerable in their times of most unbearable distress — such as alcoholics who have “hit bottom” — luring them in with false hope and solace when they can’t think clearly.
(4) “According to your understanding what do you consider sin to be?”
Sin is: thinking or acting against the purported will of a god, particularly in accordance with what a supposedly holy scripture claims that god’s will to be. In your point of view, I presume, that means thinking or acting against the will of Yahweh, as the Bible claims Yahweh’s will to be.
It’s a strictly theological concept, of no relevance to nonbelievers. Notably, “sin” bears no particular relationship to being bad to others and “righteousness” bears no particular relationship to being good to others. In other words, sin has nothing to do with humanist values of right and wrong. On the one hand, the God of the Bible thinks that shrimp are abominations and eating them is a sin. Or wearing mixed fabrics. Or planting two kinds of crops in the same field. Or even merely being born. On the other hand, the God of the Bible thinks that it’s righteous to execute people for practicing homosexuality. Or for following other religions. Or gathering sticks on the weekend. From the viewpoint of a nonbeliever, a lot religious codes about sin are pernicious nonsense, influencing people toward unfounded guilt, self-hatred, sexual psychosis, and unwarranted harassment of people who have not harmed anybody. Most nonbelievers would rather just focus on trying to help others, and trying not to harm others, without framing morality in terms of unsupported supernatural claims.
(5) “According to your understanding what happens when one dies? Considering you lead a good life. Why?”
I have no reason to suspect anything happens when one dies other than cessation of the existence of the person who died. The body dies and the brain along with it — and as far as we can see, the dead person is no more. Eventually the atoms that the person was made of recycle into other things. Anything beyond that is a departure from what we have so far been able to discover.
Is there not more? Those who assert they know — often with all kinds of specifics details! — are either lying or deluded. Nobody has ever demonstrated any sound basis for any claims about anything hereafter. That’s really all there is to say on the matter.
By the way, I’m intrigued that you wrote, “Considering you lead a good life” — when you were specifically writing these questions as a Christian writing to atheists. I’m intrigued by that because it seems unbiblical to say that atheists can lead good lives. It goes against what it says in Psalm 14:1: “Only a fool would say, “There is no God!” People like that are worthless; they are heartless and cruel and never do right.” In any case, I’m pleased to see that you recognize it’s possible for atheists to lead good lives, and I’m pleased to see that you can reject what the Bible says when it is false and divisive.