Heaven and Earth Shall Pass Away
"In twenty-five years the Bible will be a forgotten Book"--Robert
"It took twelve ignorant fishermen to establish Christianity; I will
show the world how one Frenchman can destroy it"--Voltaire.
One often encounters these quotations on the lips of Biblicists, the
implication being, of course, that skepticism is nothing new. The Bible
has faced it before, and triumphed. It has survived Porphyry, Paine,
Nietzsche, Darwin, Russell, and indeed will survive The Skeptical
Review. I suppose it could very well survive another five hundred
years, maybe longer. And yet, for some reason, I imagine that were I a
19th-century skeptic, impressed with the shrewd critiques of Ingersoll
and the like, I just might have believed that the Bible would soon be
abandoned. Now I know better.
I remember when my interest in religion first drove me to read the
Bible, partly out of some misdirected desire to find meaning in the
universe and partly out of curiosity. This, of course, was before I
knew of the documentary hypothesis, or the "Q" source, or any of
that. It was before I knew anything of Christian apologetics or
Biblical skepticism. I had never read any commentaries, never listened
in on any debates; I basically knew very little about anything
regarding the Bible. You see, I had no real religious upbringing. My
mother is Jewish and my father Catholic and I suppose the two faiths
sort of cancelled each other out. So I found myself a copy of the
Revised Standard Version and began to read.
Now you see, when I read, I like to really imagine what's happening.
And many of the stories in the Bible require a very vivid imagination.
I would picture an enormous column of fire, the base being larger than
a football stadium, slowly rotating off in the distance as the great
host of Israelite refugees marched onwards towards the Promised Land.
Other stories I had more difficulty picturing. Can someone tell me what
it looked like when Jesus fed the multitudes with only five loaves of
bread? Did new bread materialize in each basket when a piece was
removed from the basket? And what would happen if you took the bread
basket and just turned it upside down? Would bread simply pour out
infinitely? Never mind. The point being here that as I read I liked to
have a pretty good idea of what was going on. I needed to picture the
events vividly to enjoy the story.
But soon I ran into a problem. I just couldn't understand how Mary and
Joseph had the time to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, for
I was under the impression that they had returned to Nazareth promptly
after leaving Jerusalem. Then, when I thought about it more, I
remembered I had originally imagined Joseph and Mary living in a small
house in Bethlehem, where their Son was born. Now I had to picture the
Holy couple traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a Roman
census. Something wasn't right. I read, and re-read the passages. What
is interesting however, was my original reaction. I simply assumed I
was missing something. For I thought, how could so blatant a
contradiction have gone unnoticed by millions of people for almost two
millennia? Surely, I who spoke not a word of Hebrew or Greek, who had
only just now picked up God's Word to give it a read, had not noticed
an error that countless preachers, bishops, and theologians had been
unaware of. I simply assumed I was misunderstanding the text. I
tried to envision how it was possible that Joseph and Mary, apparently
dwelling in Nazareth, had journeyed to Bethlehem for a census, after
which Mary gave birth to Christ at a local stable but was then forced
to flee to Egypt and return to Judea in time to make it to the temple
to devote the infant Savior to Yahweh, apparently ignoring the danger
posed by Herod. What the hell was going on?
I ignored it for the time being and went on reading. As it was the
first time I had ever read the Gospels, I didn't notice Matthew's odd
obsession with doubling everything, or the discrepancies between the
two accounts of the centurion and his suffering slave. I contentedly
read on, until I realized that I wasn't able to picture exactly how the
discovery of the empty tomb unfolded either.
Needless to say, I dared not believe that the entire world had been
deceived, and had failed to notice these transparent contradictions in
the two most important narratives to the Christian faith, the birth of
Christ, and the resurrection. Was I seeing something that had somehow
managed to escape everyone else for centuries?
It wasn't until later, when I began to browse through the Internet more
frequently, that I realized that the discrepancies I noticed were
really discrepancies, and furthermore, that there were countless others
that had escaped my attention. Apparently, with the exception of a few
notable individuals, for the past two thousand years, all of western
civilization had either never bothered to compare the gospel accounts,
or else was not bothered that there were contradictions. Later of
course, after reading much apologetic works, I came to realize that it
was not so much that the contradictions did not bother anyone; indeed
they were bothersome enough that volumes have been written to account
for them. It was more of a volitive act of denying they were truly
This absolutely astounded me. To think, the Catholic Church, the Holy
Roman Empire, the most powerful organization in all of Europe, had for
centuries exerted its theological grip on millions of people, and yet
nobody seemed to care that the principle documentation behind this
organization, its very basis for existing, contained differing and
incompatible accounts of its two most important doctrines!
Of course, the answer is simple. Over and above the depressing fact
that most of the world has been, and still is, largely uneducated and
thus not really aware of the matter at all, is the fact that religion
is not an institution that relies on rationality to exist. Indeed, it
could be argued that it relies on the very absence of rationality to
exist; hence, the importance of faith. It thrives on the need of the
masses to believe in something higher than their tedious, often
unpleasant lives. Skeptics often seem to be under the impression that
they are doing the world a favor by trying as hard as they can to rid
the world of its religious bonds. But it seems the world does not want
to be rid of them.
Men like Robert Ingersoll and Voltaire saw the decline in the power of
the Church as an obvious opportunity to reveal to the world the truth
behind their beloved religion. And it must have seemed so easy. All one
has to do is to point out the obvious discrepancies in the Gospel
accounts or the various incompatible core-doctrines and everyone should
immediately realize the problem. With the Church unable to persecute
them as viciously, the overwhelming force of the truth should most
certainly prevail! Without the oppressive arm of the papacy,
Christianity doesn't stand a chance once the skeptics expose the
grotesque anthology of error that is the Holy Scriptures. "In
twenty-five years the Bible will be a forgotten Book."
But that is not what happened. And look at us today, over one hundred
years after the death of Mr. Ingersoll. For many of us, in our nation
and in Europe, unlimited information is available in seconds at the
stroke of a key or the click of a mouse. The lie is out, the myth
exposed. But it doesn't matter. The Church is doing fine. Oh, sure,
they're plagued by a few pedophilic preachers, but other than that,
it's business as usual. They don't withhold the scriptures from the
public, or persecute dissenters relentlessly, but it doesn't seem to
matter. Approximately 1.6 billion Christians, nine-hundred million of
them Catholics, exist today.
The Bible has survived the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Darwin,
and will most assuredly survive the next intellectual onslaught that
attempts to breach its fortifications. It will endure. Indeed, if
tomorrow the world's top scientists should invent a time machine and
return to first century Judea only to find that no such city as
Nazareth existed and the only man that even remotely resembled the
great Savior of the New Testament was an insignificant wandering Rabbi
named Yeshua who got himself crucified for upsetting the Romans, it
would make no difference. Fundamentalists would insist that God had
changed the past to test our faith.
Christianity does not draw its strength from rationality, so why do
skeptics think that rational argumentation would be able to overthrow
it? As I soon realized, rationality is impotent in the face of the
desire to believe.
I must admit, I do enjoy the Bible. Reading it and studying it has been
one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I suppose I'd
miss its popularity if it were to eventually fall into obscurity. I can
appreciate of course, the efforts of skeptics worldwide, who do not
tolerate the assault on human reason found amidst its pages. But I also
sympathize with the simple minded man who has found some sort of
happiness in his God, the man who does not know or care to know about
Yahweh's more questionable decisions, or Jesus's oddly hostile attitude
towards blood relations, the man who is not about to let reason
interfere with the transcendent relationship he has with his Creator.
But the sad fact is, if the human race is to endure into the distant
future, this simple man's progeny must eventually give reason a try,
because as we advance as a race we must of necessity leave behind some
of our more cherished possessions.
(Charles Salvia's e-mail address is Chsalvia@aol.com .)