Is supernatural religion a fraud?

Can Christianity survive Christianity?

5 minute read
Even bishops and Biblical scholars have joined the ranks of skeptics.
Even bishops and Biblical scholars have joined the ranks of skeptics.
What if Christian churches can't fill their pews because the New Testament stories aren't believable?

A Rasmussen Reports poll in 2013 revealed that 19 percent of American Christians don't believe in Christ's resurrection and 17 percent are not sure.

Thirty-plus years ago, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, John Spong, called for a rethinking of the literal interpretations of Christian scripture. "The interpretations of the past are not sustainable," Spong said, "because they do not speak honestly to the situation of modern Christian communities."

Spong rejected some basic Christian doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He called for a new Reformation.

"The sin of Christianity," he added, "is that any of us ever claimed that we had somehow captured eternal truth in the forms we had created."

Juiced-up Jesus narrative

For his views and forthright opinions, Spong (who is now retired) has been condemned and censured by his peers. But what if Bishop Spong is right? What if the only way the Christian church can survive is to admit that the early Christians juiced-up the Jesus narrative in order to sell it?

It's not as though Spong's ideas are new. The German philosopher Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) is believed to have launched the investigation into the historical Jesus. Reimarus was a Deist whose belief in God was based on reason. He rejected "supernatural revelation." As a Deist, he believed God created the universe and then abandoned it.

Albert Schweitzer— theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary (1875-1965)— admired Reimarus's writing skills as well as his views on Christianity. Although Schweitzer disagreed with some of Reimarus's opinions, Schweitzer wrote in The Quest of the Historical Jesus that Reimarus's essay, "The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples," was "not only one of the greatest events in the history of criticism but also a masterpiece of general literature."

Jesus as a failure

In the course of Reimarus's investigations into the historical Christ, the philosopher became convinced that Christianity was untrue. Jesus, he maintained, was a Jewish apocalyptic preacher and disappointed revolutionary. To Reimarus, Jesus's cry from the cross ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") was an admission of failure. Reimarus believed the apostles invented a religion to cover up Jesus's failure.

The German Lutheran historian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) agreed with Reimarus. Bultmann said there were two Jesus Christs. There was the historical Christ and the "Christ of Faith" invented by theologians. However, Bultmann saw no reason for theology to adopt the historical Christ as the theological Christ. Bultmann said the Christ of theology was "based on a response to Jesus, not on historical verity."

Scholars' verdict

In 1985, Robert Funk organized "The Jesus Seminar," sponsored by the Westar Institute of Salem, Oregon. The group of 200 scholars of religion and laypeople met in Berkeley, California, twice a year for six years, averaging 30 participants per meeting.

They attempted to verify that the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were actually his words and acts. They cast votes by putting colored beads in a cup. Red beads indicated it was likely, pink beads somewhat likely, grey beads somewhat unlikely, and black beads unlikely to be a saying or deed of Jesus.

The results were finally published in 1993 in a tome-sized book titled The Five Gospels. Although the Jesus Seminar was widely denounced by theologians, the conclusions were stunning: Only about 18 percent of the sayings and 16 percent of the deeds were viewed as being authentically those of Jesus Christ.

Going online

The Christian religion has always had its skeptics and doubters. And all questions have been met with a circular-logic answer from Christian religion apologists: The accounts in the four synoptic gospels in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) are true because they prove each other to be true.

But skepticism isn't Christianity's challenge in the 21st Century. The mountain of available information about religion has made it possible for everyone to do his or her own research at home, or even on a laptop at the beach. No longer must Christians or followers of any religion depend on an elite group of men— it's almost always men— to tell us what to believe and why. And it's putting all religions at a crossroads.

According to Pew Research surveys last year, the number of Americans who don't identify with any religion has grown in the past ten years. As of 2012, about one-fifth of the public overall— and a third of adults under age 30— were religiously unaffiliated. One-third of U.S. adults say they don't consider themselves a "religious person." And two-thirds of Americans— affiliated and unaffiliated alike— say religion is losing its influence in Americans' lives.

St. Paul's sticking point

Perhaps, as Bishop Spong suggests, a makeover, a retooling, a reinterpretation of Christian scripture will bring Christians back into harmony with Christianity. But the stumbling block to any ideas of modernizing Christianity is that intractable, uncompromising final demand made by St. Paul, which was adopted by the founders of the Christian faith as the key element of Christianity:

To be a Christian, you must believe that Christ died, was buried and on the third day arose from the dead. As Paul said, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." (1st Corinthians 15:1-20; also the Nicene Creed.)

Has the Christian religion painted itself into a corner? For 2,000 years theologians have said that there is no Christian religion without the resurrection. But it may also be said, in this century and beyond, that there is no Christian religion.♦

To read a response by Kile Smith, click here.
To read other responses, click here.
To read a response by God Almighty, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation