CHRISTIAN TRACTATUS - SECTION 15

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15. There is no worthwhile subset of Christianity as traditionally understood that conforms to the modern worldview.

15.1 That this is a problem is the message of this paper.

15.1.1 It is commonly held by Christians that the modern world view is arbitrarily atheistic & that the (then current) non-Biblical world view has been constantly changing throughout history. Therefore, it is alleged, since the Biblical world view is neither of these, there is no point trying to reconcile it with the current world view.

15.1.2 In response to the above view, I have the following points to make:-

a). It is not clear that the Bible has a single world view. As trivial examples, we have noted the differences between the Old Testament and the New : ie. that in the Old Testament, resurrection is not given much prominence, nor is Satan, and demons are not mentioned at all. All three concepts are given considerable space in the New Testament.

b). The Bible is likely to reflect the world view then current at the times and places at which its various books were written.

c). The secular world view is not a randomly fluctuating one, at least not since the Renaissance, and especially not since the rise of the scientific method in the seventeenth century. The modern world view may be considered, optimistically, as a steadily advancing one, or more realistically as a random walk heavily biased in the direction of increasing knowledge.

15.1.3 To pre-empt later discussion somewhat, how should we respond to the lack of harmony between the Biblical world view (s) and the modern world view (s) ? I suggest the following programme :-

a). As a foundation principle the Bible should, on any particular issue, be interpreted exactly as its original authors intended, if this original intention can be recovered.

b). Secondly, a choice should be made between the two (or more) world views on a point-by-point basis.

c). Finally, one should not, or ought not, to force oneself to believe something simply because it is part of a package. If one doesn't believe something, one doesn't believe it, and that's that.

15.1.3.1 The above scheme may seem to be open to criticism as being impractical. Is it really possible to hold our beliefs on a point-by-point basis ? In any systematic study, do not some counter-intuitive ideas have to be accepted because they are logical deductions from other beliefs ?

15.1.3.2 As an example, what about time dilation & length contraction in Special Relativity theory ? Are these not counter-intuitive effects accepted because they follow logically from more fundamental notions of simultaneity and the constancy of the speed of light (in vacuo) in any inertial frame ?

15.1.3.3 The answer to the above two sets of questions is multifold :-

a). Firstly, it is often the case that intuitions need educating. This is true of normal education & continues to be required as different areas of experience are encountered (eg. the extreme banking of a velodrome track may initially seem counter-intuitive).

b). Secondly, in general our offended intuitions are not left without recourse. Taking up the above example, we can demonstrate their fallibility by watching cyclists on the velodrome. Similarly, we can experiment with particles in an accelerator & monitor the changes in their half-lives.

c). In the physical sciences, where a discrepancy between theory and reality (experiment) exists, we realise that there is a problem with the theory. We may be forced to put up with the situation for a while for lack of a better theory, but we are not deceived into thinking that the theory is correct.

d). However, we do not often appear to have this freedom in theology. As I have stated before, we have to fall back on the inscrutibility of the divine ways.

15.2 The fundamentals that I consider to be essential parts of any reconstruction of Christianity were given in a previous section (7.5). They are repeated below, with comments :-

15.2.1 The existence of a personal, good, loving and omnipotent God, interested in, but not confined by, the material universe.

15.2.1.1 Apart from the perennial moral problems related to the existence of evil, the very principle of theism now runs up against redundancy. So much more is now known about the world that the need for a god to create & control it is no longer universally felt. hence, it is all the more important that belief in God should be a direct response to his acts, either in the present or in history, and not merely symptomatic of a desire for explanation, comfort, direction or some other panacea.

15.2.2 The existence of ubiquitous corruption in the universe and man, resulting from a fall from initial righteousness, and of some form of universal need in man of salvation.

15.2.2.1 Sin, defined as the premeditated or inadvertent transgression of a moral code, is real enough. However, guilt requiring expiation may, after Freud, be treated as pathological. What is required in response to sin is not so much expiation, which changes nothing, but repentance leading to right action (which is, of course, also part of the Christian message).

15.2.2.2 It has been popular to suggest that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a consequence of the Fall (either of Adam or of Satan). However, this is to go far beyond what the Bible says. We might ask ourselves what a world without the Second Law would be like ? It would certainly be an odd place. For instance, there would be no direction to the arrow of time in such a world, so there would be no causality.

15.2.2.3 Even within the Biblical paradigm, a case may be made for the existence of death from the beginning of creation. The argument proceeds as follows :-

a). How could Adam be expected to respond to the threat of death if he didn't know what it was.

b). If there was no death, there is an obvious problem with respect to the carnivorous animals. For instance, the whole bodily structure of the big cats, for instance, not to mention their digestive systems, are based upon their carnivorous nature. A vegetarian lion would not be a lion. It would certainly not be a well-designed animal.

c). Denying the possibility of massive natural morphological change (if macro-evolution is false, as most fundamentalist Christians claim, then animals today must by default be of similar form to when they were created) we are left with the necessity of a sudden miraculous change.

d). The fall of Adam is a favourite candidate for the event that triggered this change, though Genesis says nothing about large scale changes in the animal kingdom consequent on the fall of Adam.

e). The only changes mentioned in association with the fall of Adam are, in chronological order, the transformation of the serpent into its present form, the increased difficulty of human childbirth, the cursing of the ground (leading to difficulties in husbandry) and the promise to Adam of eventual death. In any case, the whole passage has the character of a folk tale with a serious message.

15.2.2.4 There is no problem with the near-universal need in man for salvation, at least in western society, though, as we have noted elsewhere, there may be cultural reasons (themselves not uninfluenced by the Bible) for this attitude. This feeling tends to be obscured by moderate prosperity, however.

15.2.3 The existence of the man Jesus of Nazareth with a personality approximating to that with which he is portrayed in the Gospels.

15.2.3.1 There is no problem in accepting the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The credibility of the extreme sceptical theories that doubted this has been demolished.

15.2.3.2 The only problem with establishing a clear view of Jesus' personality, assuming that the various gnostic or other apocryphal lives of Jesus bear no relation to the truth, is that the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of John is radically different to that in the Synoptics.

15.2.3.3 While it is easy to appreciate the theological intentions of evangelists, it is difficult to see how the different personality traits recorded in John and the Synoptics could cohere in the same individual, especially in situations (eg. Gethsemane) where the differences would seem to be mutually exclusive.

15.2.4 The extraordinary status of Jesus as the unique Son of God.

15.2.4.1 There has always been a theological puzzle here, especially in the Trinitarian formulation. However, given that the premise of theism is accepted, I do not think that this is one of the major problems facing Christianity. Indeed, to Christians at least, the bringing together of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ is one of the major attractions of Christianity.

15.2.4.2 However, it is strange that the attempts by Matthew & Luke to underline Jesus' uniqueness by the stories of the virgin birth are not taken up elsewhere in the New Testament.

15.2.5 The physical death & physical resurrection of Jesus.

15.2.5.1 While the death of Jesus needs to have been what we normally understand by physical death, we have no norms for evaluating resurrection. Hence, I do not think a physical resurrection involving Jesus' former body is a priori essential.

15.2.5.2 However, the concession of asomatic resurrection would raise the issue of how we could be sure the resurrection had taken place. Hence, and particularly because the disciples claimed that the body had not been found, I think the physical resurrection of Jesus' body, albeit in a "glorified" state, is an essential foundation of Christianity.

15.2.5.3 The New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are difficult to reconcile, though, of course, there have been many attempts to do so that have been confident of success.

15.2.5.4 Other aspect of the resurrection accounts, such as the ability of someone both to be able to pass through locked doors and to be able to eat breakfast, seem as incongruous as stories of the invisible man. Could the breakfast pass through locked doors ?

15.2.5.5 The main reasons for believing in the resurrection seems to be its theological significance and the dynamic effect something had on the Jerusalem community of disciples after Jesus' death.

15.2.5.6 The way the Acts of the Apostles resolves the issue of what to do with the risen Jesus, by having him depart from the Mount of Olives like a space rocket, obviously raises the question of where he went. This may lead one to suspect that this form of exit was chosen based on the three-tier view of the universe then current, with heaven "up there in the sky". The only alternative seems to be some form of accommodating demonstration on the part of Jesus, ie. to demonstrate to the disciples, in a way that would be understood, that he was leaving them.

15.2.6 The effectiveness of Jesus' death & resurrection in procuring salvation for the believer, and the efficacy of faith in Jesus to avail the believer of that salvation.

15.2.6.1 The New Testament takes up the theme of the need for the expiation of sin from the Old Testament sacrificial system. The whole idea of expiatory sacrifice seems ugly to the modern mind and no dwelling on the seriousness of sin (or on judges taking the penalty on themselves) can make it seem otherwise.

15.2.6.2 The issue of faith is taken up later in this paper.

15.2.7 The continued and eternal existence of the believer, with a substantially preserved personality, in a state of happiness after death, commencing at or before some form of resurrection.

15.2.7.1 The precise (or even general) form, location and time of the resurrection is not central to a meaningful Christianity.

15.2.7.2 However, the location of all things spiritual outside the physical universe, so that they are totally unobservable, may be seen as a fortunate convenience, but one making them liable to excision by Occam's razor.

15.2.7.3 Hence, the more Biblical approach of placing the resurrection, or resurrections, within this universe at a certain time, or times, in the future has the virtue of concreteness. It has to be noted, however, that Christian orthodoxy has always resisted this idea & there is, in any case, a measure of ambiguity in the later Epistles of Paul.

15.2.7.4 There would, of course, be a requirement for a change in the laws of physics if life were to be literally endless (taking this to be the meaning of "eternal").

15.2.7.5 The Pauline picture of the return of Christ in the clouds "with all his saints", which accompanies the resurrection, and of his being met in the air by those Christians then alive, suffers from the same conceptual problems as Christ's ascension : where have Christ & the saints come from ? Again, we have to presuppose some form of accommodation.

15.2.7.6 This time (ie. at the resurrection), however, the viewers might be expected to have an entirely different background to those who saw the first event (the ascension). Hence, the accommodation may be supposed to be for the benefit of Paul's original readers.

15.2.7.7 This, of course, raises another thorny issue : the delay in the parousia (the return of Christ). Even if, as dispensationalists argue, the early return of Christ was contingent on unspecified premises (eg. the national repentance of Israel), the whole cultural milieu of the end times, whether as recorded in Daniel or Revelation, presupposes an antique technology & power structure (horses, swords, kings etc.).

15.2.7.8 Without resort to the accommodation hypothesis yet again, this would imply a return to the dark ages before these events may be fulfilled. While nuclear wars & energy crises may yet bring this about, I cannot believe that the ancient authors had anything like this in mind. Also, it could be argued that a post-industrial economy would be a debased form of industrialism (rather than a reversion to classical culture) much as the dark ages were a debased form of classicism.

15.2.8 The ultimate restoration of man and the universe to a form analogous to that of the initial righteousness and blessedness enjoyed before the fall.

15.2.8.1 This idea of restoration suffers from the same sorts of objections as did the Fall : there would need to be a change in the laws of physics.

15.2.8.2 Lions eating straw would be a pitiful sight, which is why this idea from Isaiah 11 is often taken figuratively as, no doubt, it was originally intended. However, unless such passages are taken literally, it is difficult to see how a state without pain or death could be achieved.

15.3 Without maintaining, and preferably substantiating, at least the above beliefs, Christianity would be so denuded of real content as to have nothing of real significance to say, except, possibly, as a system of morality.

15.3.1 We have noted that there are significant problems with some of these foundation beliefs. We will now consider whether there is anything that can be salvaged from the wreckage and whether, even as a system of morality, Christianity is adequately founded.



© Theo Todman 1992 - 2000.
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