Is Christianity true? If so, it can stand a little critique. This blog is that critique—50 big ideas that every Christian should understand (but rarely do) and that each take a couple of minutes to read. The goal is not to deconvert Christians but simply to inform them. Think of this as a friend giving honest feedback.
The Argument from Design says life on earth looks designed. A single microscopic cell divides and differentiates into a full-grown cypress or zebra or human, and its internal machinery is marvelously complicated. This argument says that nothing but God could explain this and points to DNA as the prime illustration of design in life.
We must avoid the temptation to think that complexity means design. Elegance might, but mere complexity—especially unnecessary or sloppy complexity—gives little support to the design hypothesis. The cell, marvelously complicated though it is, is more a convoluted Rube Goldberg machine than the elegant and sophisticated product of an all-knowing designer.
The Argument from Design imagines we see the hand of a designer in life. Since the only designers we know are human designers, it says life looks as if a human designer with sufficient capability built it.
What guides a human designer? Consider the design criteria human designers use for a bridge, smartphone, or engine. These criteria fall into a handful of categories: cost, strength, speed of assembly, durability, constraints on allowed materials, beauty, and so on. But a criterion you never find in a human design is that the finished product should have added junk. You may not care for the Art Deco design at the top of the Chrysler building, but it was put there deliberately to follow the criterion of beauty. You may find a design that was poorly built or left unfinished, but that was never a goal of the designer. Useless junk is never in a design on purpose.
Contrast this with the debris in human DNA. Every cell in your body has a broken vitamin C gene as well as 20,000 other nonworking pseudogenes taking up space. Nonworking DNA injected by viruses over millions of years makes up another eight percent of our genome. Atavisms (archaic genes that are accidentally switched on, like legs in snakes) and vestigial structures (structures that have lost ancestral function, like eyes in cave fish) are DNA flashbacks to body features from ancestor species in the distant past.
You might imagine humans need the most DNA of any living thing since Christianity says we’re made in God’s image, but we’re not even at the top of the list of mammals. Cows, mice, and bats have more. There are grasshoppers, beetles, ticks, worms, and snails that have more DNA than humans. There are plants that have more. The record holder, with 400 times more DNA than humans, is a protozoan.
Maybe those animals with more DNA are just more complex than we are, but then how can Man be God’s greatest creation? The alternative explanation is that there’s a lot of waste in DNA, but that rejects the idea of a designer. Neither is a good option for the Christian who sees God’s design in life.
The Design Argument fails when applied to DNA. No, human DNA does not look like it was designed by an omniscient Designer. This doesn’t prove God doesn’t exist. What it does make clear, however, is the difference between mere complexity, which we find in DNA, and evidence of a careful and skillful designer, which we don’t.
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Teleology is the study of something’s purpose, and the Design Argument is often called the Teleological Argument.
Rube Goldberg machines perform a simple task in an unnecessarily complicated and indirect way. The name comes from a cartoonist who drew these ridiculous machines in the first half of the twentieth century.
Christianity says we’re made in God’s image: Genesis 1:26.
we’re not even at the top of the list of mammals: Gregory, T. R. (2005). Animal Genome Size Database. http://www.genomesize.com/statistics.php.
Man [as] God’s greatest creation: Genesis 1:26–8, Psalm 8:5.
Christianity claims to be able to answer the Big Questions of Life. These are questions such as, why are we here? Or, where did we come from? Or, what is the purpose of my life? Or, what happens after I die? It’s true that Christianity can answer these questions, but so can any person or any religion. It’s whether the answers are believable that matters.
For discovering reality, religion fails. We have never learned anything objectively true from religion. Surprisingly, we rarely answer the Big Questions by turning to science, the discipline that has faithfully answered so many other questions. But science can help here, too.
For example, why are we here? Science has an answer: we’re here for no more cosmically significant reason than why deer, jellyfish, and oak trees are here. We can’t be certain, of course, but then we can’t be certain that unicorns don’t exist. There’s no good reason to imagine they do, so we live with the working assumption that unicorns are just legend. Similarly, there’s no good reason to imagine there is a divine plan for our existence.
Let’s move on to the question, where did we come from? Science has some remarkable and compelling answers (Big Bang and evolution) though it still has questions (Why did the Big Bang happen? How did life start?). Science never answers anything with certainty, but the scientific consensus is the best approximation we have to the truth, and it continues to improve. The retort “Well, if science can’t answer it, my religion can!” is not a meaningful response. Yes, your religion may have an answer, but is it worth listening to? Is it backed up with evidence or just dogma? Why trust its answer over conflicting answers from other religions?
What is our purpose? There is no evidence of a transcendental or supernatural purpose to your life. One great thing about rejecting dogma is you get to assign your own purpose. That responsibility can be intimidating, but it can also be empowering. No one is better than you to decide your life’s purpose.
What happens after we die? There’s no evidence that anything more remarkable will happen to you than happens to a deer, jellyfish, or oak tree when it dies.
Science has answers, it’s just that religions don’t like them. Supernatural answers to these questions are groundless without compelling evidence. So far, there is none.
Science has only one reality to align itself with. It gives answers backed by evidence, and we don’t need faith to accept them. Unburdened by science’s need to conform to the evidence, each religion makes up its own truth, which is why religions can’t agree and why their answers aren’t grounded in reality.
Think of a church steeple with a lightning rod on top. The steeple proclaims God exists, and the lightning rod says it can reduce lightning damage. Which claim is backed by evidence?
Religion makes truth claims and so does science, but science takes it one step further: it actually delivers on its claims.
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[The earthquake] was God’s punishment for lightning rods: Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (D. Appleton and Company, New York 1901), p. 366
The gospel of Mark was the earliest gospel, written in roughly 70 CE, but Paul wrote his first epistle to the church in Corinth more than a decade earlier. This passage makes the earliest claim of the resurrection of Jesus.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died].
Claims about the dating of this important passage vary widely. Some argue that it preceded Paul’s letter. They say it appears to be in a different style, as if it were a creedal statement believers would have recited. One example familiar to modern Christians is the Apostle’s Creed. That is, though Paul wrote this epistle about thirty years after the crucifixion, this fragment had been an oral creed since just a few years after Jesus’ death. They cite this as evidence that belief in the resurrection was years earlier than Paul’s writing.
This popular claim fails under inspection. If the passage is a creed, then it’s not evidence for the resurrection. A creed is a faith statement, a statement of what people believe, not why others should believe it. It even sounds like one. There is no mention of date or location, like a newspaper article would have, and the passage states “Christ died for our sins” as dogma (beliefs not subject to debate), without evidence.
The different style Christians point to might instead suggest that a copyist inserted it decades after Paul wrote the original.
The gap from the authorship of this epistle to our oldest copy is about 150 years. That means a lot of opportunity for hanky-panky as scribes copied and recopied the letter, especially during the early turbulent years of the new religion of Christianity when dogma was still being decided. We can only guess what changes were made.
There are other reasons to question this passage as evidence for Christianity. Jesus “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” is a reference to the book of Jonah (“Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights”), but the resurrection can’t be “according” to this scripture when the author of Jonah wasn’t making a prophecy. And this “prophecy” fails since Jesus was dead for only two nights, from Friday evening to Sunday morning.
Finally, each gospel makes clear that women were the first to see the risen Jesus, but Paul ignores them in his chronological list of witnesses.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a supernatural claim like the resurrection is certainly extraordinary. Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 passage at best says that the resurrection was an early Christian belief, but it is poor evidence that the resurrection was a historical event.
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Corinthians: Most of Paul’s epistles were written to churches in different cities or regions. 1 and 2 Corinthians were written to the church in Corinth. Ephesians was to the church in Ephesus, Philippians to the church in Philippi, and so on for the churches in Rome, Galatia, Colossae, and Thessalonica.
Epistle: An epistle is a letter. All the New Testament books besides Acts, Revelation, and the four gospels are epistles.
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance”: 1 Corinthians 15:3–8.
The gap from the authorship of this epistle to our oldest copy is about 150 years: The earliest manuscript of this passage is Papyrus 46, dated to around 200 ce.
“raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”: 1 Corinthians 15:4.
“Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights”: Jonah 1:17.
An ancient and curious map illustrates the backwards society we have inherited from Christianity.
Hereford Cathedral in England has the world’s largest mappa mundi, a parchment map of the world made in roughly 1300. This is not the kind of map we’re used to. It wouldn’t serve an explorer or navigator, and its creators didn’t claim that it would.
Using the theme of a world map, medieval cartographers embellished maps like this one to make them into something of an encyclopedia. With science in its infancy, however, the information can be bizarre, and the zoology sounds more appropriate for Alice’s Wonderland. This map documents the Sciapods, people with a single large foot that they used to shield themselves from the sun. The Blemmyes were warlike and had no head. Instead, their face was in their chest. The Cynocephali were dog-headed men, and Troglodites are “very swift; they live in caves, eat snakes, and catch wild animals by jumping on them.”
As with all mappae mundi, this one puts Jerusalem in the center. It shows places of biblical importance such as the Tower of Babel, the Garden of Eden, the route of the Exodus, and Sodom and Gomorrah. Mythology and history are mixed without distinction. We see Jason’s Golden Fleece and the Labyrinth where Theseus killed the Minotaur, but we also see the camp of Alexander the Great.
When Christianity was in charge, this is what it gave us. Mythical creatures populated the world, we had little besides superstition to explain the caprices of nature, and natural disasters were signs of God’s anger.
Christianity’s goal isn’t to create the internet, GPS, airplanes, or antibiotics. It isn’t to improve life with warm clothes or safe water. It isn’t to eliminate diseases like smallpox or polio. It’s to convince people to believe in a story that has negligible evidence.
Admittedly, it’s not like Europeans of the 1300s had many options, and Christianity might have offered a better explanation than nothing. Today, we have had a couple of centuries to test modern science, and we know that it delivers. Nevertheless, we still find God-centric mappa mundi thinking today. For example, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” not improve society, and even today some Christian leaders declare that natural disasters come from God.
If Christianity is what you create in the absence of science, why is it still here? The metaphor of assembling an arch illustrates the problem. First, build an arch-shaped scaffold. Next, lay the stones of the arch. Finally, remove the scaffold. Once the stones of the arch are in place, they support themselves and don’t need the scaffold.
That’s how religion works. Superstition in a world before science was the scaffold that supported the arch of religion. Science has now dismantled the scaffold of superstition, but the arch of religion has already calcified in place.
It’s the twenty-first century, and yet the guiding principles for Christians’ lives might as well come from the fourteenth, back when the sun orbited the earth, disease had supernatural causes, and distant lands had Sciapods, Blemmyes, and Troglodites.
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Central to the Christian message is that we are irrevocably sinful because of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Their sin was the original sin, we inherit it, and we need Jesus to remove it.
The Garden of Eden story is one of two creation stories in Genesis. In it, God permits Adam and Eve to eat any fruit in the Garden except for that from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Encouraged by a serpent, they disobeyed.
Four in ten Americans see the Garden of Eden story as history. Look skeptically, though, and it doesn’t even hold together as a coherent story.
As crimes go, eating the fruit was a misdemeanor. Admittedly, Adam and Eve did disobey God, but this was the first sinful act in their lives. How about a scolding instead? Perpetual punishment through the generations is out of proportion to this crime. And even if they deserved punishment, why punish all their descendants? Elsewhere, the Bible agrees, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” God contradicts himself in his own book and undermines the basis for original sin.
Were Adam and Eve even blameworthy? Moral knowledge in this story comes from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so before that, they couldn’t have understood morality. Blaming them for doing something wrong was like punishing a one-year-old for a moral infraction.
If we’re inheritors of Adam’s moral knowledge as well as his sin, then Man must thoroughly understand good and evil today. Why then are we so bad at figuring it out? Shouldn’t we all agree? Why are post-Eden humans divided on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and capital punishment? Christians can’t even agree among themselves.
Since the Bible makes clear that wisdom is good (“How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver!”), why is getting wisdom a bad thing? Solomon was celebrated for his wisdom, and yet Adam and Eve were punished for gaining it.
Think about the illogic of a garden with a dangerous tree in it. God knew that humans mustn’t eat from the Tree, so where does he put it? In with the humans! True, God was new at parenting, but some safeguards are common sense. Why not warn Adam and Eve about the serpent or make the fruit of the tree smell unappealing or put a wall around it? God knew how to make effective safeguards, since he put cherubim with a flaming sword to keep mankind out of the Garden after the Fall, so why not guard the tree beforehand?
Even the punch line of the story fails. God said, “When you eat from [the Tree,] you will surely die,” but the serpent was right, and Adam and Eve didn’t die. Nor can this be rationalized by saying that they would now die eventually because they never were immortal—that’s what the Tree of Life was for.
The Garden of Eden story works as a fable but not as a coherent account. Not only does being burdened with an ancestor’s sin clash with our moral sense, the Bible itself agrees. Without transgenerational guilt, original sin has no basis, and without original sin, Jesus had nothing to save us from.
Continue to chapter 10.
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Four in ten Americans see the Garden of Eden story as history: “Evangelicals Question The Existence Of Adam And Eve,” NPR, August 9, 2011, www.npr.org/2011/08/09/138957812/evangelicals-question-the-existence-of-adam-and-eve.
“Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin”: Deuteronomy 24:16.
“How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver!”: Proverbs 16:16.
Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) formulated the original Ontological Argument a thousand years ago: first define “God” as the greatest possible being that we can imagine. Next, consider existence only in someone’s mind versus existence in reality—the latter is obviously greater. Finally, since “God” must be the greatest possible being, he must exist in reality. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t meet the definition of the greatest possible being.
This is a popular argument for Christianity, but how is this not wishing something into existence? If we can simply think God into existence, what else can we think into existence?
There are other issues: look at that first step in the argument. It defines God as the greatest possible being that we can imagine. But in step three, we are talking about beings that exist, and the definition of “God” from the first step no longer applies. Definitions have switched mid-argument.
Next, “greatest” is subjective. Was the English military victory at Agincourt or the Greek holding action at Thermopylae greater? Was the Hoover Dam or the Taj Mahal the greater civil engineering project? Is the greater god the omnipotent one, or is he the one limited in power but who surpasses his limitations by getting things done through cooperation? The greatest possible being is like the highest integer—you can always go a little higher.
God from the first point in the argument (God is the greatest being that we can imagine) is undefined, just like the greatest political candidate. These are subjective categories.
Next, given the genocide, slavery, and other backwards thinking in the Old Testament, God is clearly not the Greatest Possible Being.
Next, the Greatest Possible Being is perfectly satisfied and has no needs. No needs means no motivation to change or create, so it can’t be the creator of our universe.
Next, if we’re just imagining things into existence, other less-pleasant things could come along as well. The Ontological Argument invites its negative version: define “God” as the worst possible being that we can imagine. Then consider existence only in someone’s mind versus existence in reality—it would obviously be worse if this being actually existed. Finally, since “God” must be the worst possible being, he must exist in reality.
Lastly, many philosophers have rejected the argument. David Hume observed that to think of a unicorn (for example) is to think of it existing. Adding a second step, “Now think of the unicorn existing,” is meaningless. The same is true for God—the idea of God is the idea of God existing, and the argument no longer works.
The Ontological Argument is effective, not because it’s right, but because it’s perplexing. A God who wanted a relationship with humans wouldn’t be findable only through opaque arguments.
Continue to chapter 9.
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Anselm of Canterbury: Born in Italy, Anselm became abbot of an abbey in Normandy, France. He became the second archbishop of Canterbury installed after the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy. He died in 1109 and was canonized in 1163.
xkcd cartoon: www.xkcd.com/1505.
Psalm 22 is a popular place to look for Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by the life of Jesus. Christian apologists (that is, defenders of Christianity) claim that it closely parallels the crucifixion story, even though it preceded Jesus by roughly a thousand years.
This argument is compelling only if we examine verses that support it and ignore others. Taken as a whole, this chapter is no prophecy of the crucifixion.
Let’s first consider verses that support the argument.
• The very first verse of Psalm 22 is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which are the last words of Jesus according to the gospels of Matthew and Mark.
• “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say, ‘Let the Lord rescue him.’” Sure enough, Mark records the onlookers insulting Jesus and mocking his inability to free himself.
• “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing,” as noted in Mark.
The author of Mark was surely familiar with Psalm 22 and could have added the distribution of clothes, the mocking from the crowd, and the last words to his gospel. No supernatural prophecy is needed if Mark lifted these elements from Psalm 22.
Let’s reconsider those last words, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Not only does forsaking Jesus not sound like part of God’s plan, this doesn’t sound like the cool-headed Jesus we find in the crucifixion stories in Luke and John.
The apologetic argument points to intriguing little fragments, but taken as a whole this doesn’t look at all like the crucifixion story. Consider the entire chapter, and we find verses that paint a different picture.
• “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you”—again, this sounds like an ordinary man. The first person of the Trinity wouldn’t need to make the second person of the Trinity trust him.
• “Many bulls surround me…. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.” Bulls and lions? That sounds like a spectacle in an arena, not crucifixion.
• “I can count all my bones.” This unfortunate man must be starving, but (again) this isn’t the gospel story.
• “Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen.” Yet again, not the gospel story.
A final problem with shoehorning Psalm 22 into the gospel story is that there’s no reference to the resurrection. This can hardly be the story of the sacrifice of Jesus if it omits the conclusion.
When read completely and without presupposition, Psalm 22 doesn’t sound at all like a summary of the crucifixion story.
Continue to chapter 8.
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the last words of Jesus according to the gospels of Matthew and Mark: Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34.
Mark records the onlookers insulting Jesus: Mark 15:29–32.
“They divide my garments” … as noted in Mark: Mark 15:24.
This Christian argument looks at innate human desires and sees a hint of God. We feel hunger so therefore there must be food, we desire companionship and therefore there are other people, and we yearn for the supernatural, so therefore there must be a god.
This reasoning is easy to understand and has an intuitive appeal, but it fails under closer inspection. If our feelings are a reliable instinctual pointer to the supernatural, why then do we fear death? If we instinctively know there is a god and an eternal place for our soul after life on earth, humans should differ from other animals in having an ambivalence about death or even a longing for it. We don’t.
This argument imagines that hunger points to the existence of food, but it’s the other way around. It’s as backward as the thinking of Douglas Adams’ puddle, which marveled at how well-crafted its hole was. We don’t notice hunger and then conclude that food must exist; rather, animals need food to survive, and evolution selects those that successfully strive to get it.
This argument lists fundamental, innate, physical needs and drives like food, water, sex, safety, and sleep. It could also add higher-level desires for beauty, justice, knowledge, friendship, love, or companionship. The Christian may want to avoid the skeptic adding Aladdin’s lamp or superpowers to the list and so reject anything that doesn’t obviously exist. But if we’re to keep food and drink (which we know exist) and reject magic lamps and superpowers (which we don’t know exist), we must be consistent and discard God. And note that if the desires for food, water, sex, and other basics are never fulfilled, the human race dies out. By contrast, hunger for the supernatural has nothing to do with survival. The hazy desire for a god to make everything right doesn’t logically fit in with mandatory drives. Calling the desire for God innate is hard to justify when we share basic drives for food, water, and so on with other social animals but not a desire for the supernatural.
C. S. Lewis said, “It would be very odd if the phenomenon called ‘falling in love’ occurred in a sexless world.” But is it odd? People believe you can talk to the dead or that the motion of the planets affects your life, and yet these beliefs are false. It’s not at all odd that humans desire things that don’t exist.
We can imagine perfect justice, world peace, or a loving god, but that doesn’t make them reality. As with the Ontological Argument in chapter 8, thinking of it doesn’t make it so.
Wishful thinking in religion is like wishful thinking in a store’s health and beauty aisle, or in diets, or in end-of-life care. It’d be great to look younger or live longer, and it’d be great to have an all-powerful Friend looking out for you. That doesn’t make it so. As with claims for cosmetics and cure-alls, we must be skeptical.
Continue to chapter 7.
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Jesus is called the Great Physician, but the stories of healing miracles of Jesus in the gospels document outdated and false notions about disease. Here are some examples.
Sickness can come from sin. Jesus healed a disabled man but warned him, “You are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”
Evil spirits cause disease. Demons caused insanity in a man, and Jesus expelled them into a herd of pigs, which ran into a lake and drowned. We also read that demons can cause physical crippling.
Potions can cure disease. Jesus healed a blind man by making mud with his spit and putting that on the man’s eyes. After rinsing, the man could see. In the parallel story from another gospel, Jesus needed two tries to get it to work.
Jesus heals by touching. Jesus used touch to cure a leper, a person with a fever, and two blind men. He also raised the dead.
Touching Jesus can heal. Touching Jesus healed a woman without Jesus doing anything, as if he were a medicine battery: “At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him.”
Spells can heal. The Bible carefully recorded the words Jesus used to heal: the Aramaic words ephphatha to cure a mute man and talitha koum to raise a dead girl.
Healing works over distance. Jesus didn’t even need to be there. For example, he healed the centurion’s servant remotely.
It’s unclear what to make of this hodge-podge of techniques except to wonder why Jesus didn’t just put up his feet and heal thousands of worthy people remotely or eliminate entire diseases like cancer and smallpox.
The gospels say he was motivated. In Matthew, Jesus was moved by compassion and healed the sick in a crowd. “His heart went out” to a woman at her only son’s funeral, and he raised the son from the dead. He healed people, at least in part, for the same reason a modern doctor does, because of compassion. He also used healings as proof of his divinity.
Compare Jesus’s approach with modern medicine. Jesus healed lepers. We don’t heal lepers with miracles but with antibiotics. Leprosy is no longer much of a problem, as is true for smallpox, plague, polio, and many other diseases.
Jesus cast out demons. We don’t because we have found only natural causes for disease and can conclude that demons aren’t a factor. While we can’t cure all illnesses, we do a better job now that we’re focused on the actual causes.
Jesus restored sight and hearing. Modern medicine has made remarkable progress, not only in restoring sight and hearing but in preventing illness before it happens.
Jesus raised the dead. Modern medicine has saved thousands from conditions that just a century ago would have killed them.
These Bible stories are a fascinating look at an ancient view of health when there was no alternative, but modern medicine shows that science is much more effective than Jesus.
Continue to chapter 6.
Image credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
incestuous relations between Lot and his two daughters: Genesis 19:30–38.
“You are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”: John 5:14.
Demons caused insanity in a man, and Jesus expelled them into a herd of pigs: Mark 5:1–20.
demons can cause physical crippling: Luke 13:10–13.
Jesus healed a blind man by making mud with his spit: John 9:6–7 and Mark 8:22–5.
Jesus used touch to cure a leper, a person with a fever, and two blind men. He also raised the dead. Matthew 8:2–3, Luke 4:39, Matthew 20:34, Luke 7:14.
“At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him”: Mark 5:30.
cure a mute man: Mark 7:33–5.
raise a dead girl: Mark 5:35–42.
[Jesus] healed the centurion’s servant remotely: Matthew 8:5–13.
“His heart went out”: Luke 7:13.
[Jesus] healed people . . . because of compassion: Matthew 14:14.
[Jesus] also used healings as proof of his divinity: Luke 7:22.
A toy from roughly the time of Jesus shows what little Christianity did to improve society when it had the chance.
In the first century CE, Hero of Alexandria described the aeolipile, a steam-powered toy. It was a hollow metal sphere that rotated on an axle. The axle was hollow and carried steam into the sphere from a boiler below. The steam exited the sphere through two jets, which made it spin.
Remarkably, this steam turbine was never more than a curiosity. The Roman Empire built roads, bridges, coliseums, temples, and aqueducts that weren’t surpassed for centuries. If they had applied their engineering ingenuity to the ideas latent in this toy, the Romans might have developed steam-driven machinery 1700 years before the Industrial Revolution.
With the Christianization of the Empire in the fourth century, Christianity had the opportunity to improve the lot of its flock. Where was its Industrial Revolution? Where at least was the blossoming of a new, nurturing society driven by scientific innovation?
The Bible promised that God’s people would be vastly more prosperous than others. Jesus said, “No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age.” God said, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse … and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”
The period when Christianity was in charge in Europe didn’t stand out for the flowering of science and technology. There was innovation during the medieval period (eyeglasses, the water wheel, metal armor and gunpowder weapons, castles, crop rotation, and others), but that was in spite of Christianity, not because of it. In fact, much of this wasn’t native innovation but the adoption of foreign inventions.
The ledger on social improvement is also uninspired. For example, European countries didn’t outlaw slavery until 1500 years after Christianity took charge of European morality. Laws against slavery passed despite the teachings of the Bible, not in keeping with them.
Christianity could drive innovation if it wanted to. Consider the remarkable period of cathedral building beginning in the thirteenth century and the Church’s patronage of art during the Renaissance. But the technological and scientific advances driven by the Church were just to glorify itself. Any benefit to the people was inadvertent, and creating a better society wasn’t a goal of the church.
Science, not religion, delivered the health and prosperity that we have today. A peasant living in Europe in the year 1100 would have noticed little improvement a century later. Contrast that with the enormous jump between a century ago and today.
Christianity looks like just another human institution. There’s no evidence that it channels the power of the Creator of the universe.
Continue to chapter 5.
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“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me”: Mark 10:29–30.
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse … and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven”: Malachi 3:10.