19 Kalam Cosmological Argument: Was God the Cause of the Universe?

The Kalam argument states: (1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause; (2) the universe began to exist; (3) therefore, the universe has a cause. What was this cause? The apologist tells us it was God.

While this simple argument may sound compelling, it fails in significant ways. Consider the first premise—why not simply “Everything has a cause”? Why the clumsy “begins to exist” qualifier? The apologist wants to distinguish between the universe that had a beginning and the God that didn’t, but where’s the evidence that God had no beginning? We know of many things with beginnings, but none without a beginning. The apologist must give a reason for thinking such things exist; otherwise, God can’t be one of them. Until then, premise 1 is equivalent to “Everything has a cause, except for God.” And if that can be claimed without evidence, so can “Everything has a cause, except for the universe.”

The only “whatevers” referred to in “Whatever begins to exist”—such as stars, oak trees, or a dent in a fender—are natural. The apologist must show this commonsense rule of thumb also applies to supernatural causes. And why even imagine that the supernatural exists? The argument simply assumes it without evidence.

The only “begins to exist” we know of is the rearrangement of existing matter and energy. An oak tree begins with an acorn and builds itself from water, carbon dioxide, and other nutrients, but God supposedly created the universe ex nihilo (“out of nothing”). The apologist must then defend “Whatever begins to exist from nothing has a cause,” but there is no evidence to support this claim.

Finally, in a stunning example of how common sense can lead us astray at the frontier of science, the Copenhagen interpretation in quantum physics says quantum events don’t need causes. For example, the electron or neutrino that comes out of a radioactively decaying atomic nucleus are things that “began to exist” since they weren’t in the nucleus before, but they didn’t have a cause. The universe itself was once the size of a quantum particle, and that causelessness could apply to the universe as well.

Every example apologists can point to, like oak trees and dented fenders, has a different kind of “begins to exist” than the one they imagine, a (1) supernatural creation (2) from nothing (3) before time began. We have no examples of these.

The second premise, “The universe began to exist,” has problems as well. In the first place, while the origin of the universe remains one of science’s big unanswered questions, plausible beginning-less models of the universe exist. It may yet turn out to have no beginning.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is often used to support premise 2, to argue that the universe is slowly running down, like a wind-up clock. It can’t have run forever, Christians tell us, so it must have had a beginning. But the same logic must then apply to God, demanding that he also have a beginning.

The Kalam argument sounds good at first. It’s popular in some circles, but its claims aren’t supported by physics.

Continue to chapter 20.

Image credit: Wikimedia (public domain)


Kalam means Islamic scholastic theology, which is where this argument originated. This argument is a Muslim variant on Aristotle’s First Cause argument (something had to be the first cause; otherwise, you have causes going back forever).

Zero-energy universe: a hypothesis that the total amount of energy in the universe is zero. Positive energy (which includes matter) is counterbalanced by the negative energy of gravity. This would dismiss the question, “But where did the energy in the universe come from?” The answer: What energy?

18 Morality, Purpose, and Meaning: Life’s Ruby Slippers

Dorothy’s lesson in the movie The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a lesson we may need to learn. Just as Dorothy’s ruby slippers had been able to grant her wish all along, morality, purpose, and meaning have always been ours to define, not God’s to impose.

Near the end of the movie, after the wizard was exposed as a fraud, he still tried to grant the requests of Dorothy and her friends. The Scarecrow wanted brains, the Lion courage, and the Tin Man a heart. To the Scarecrow, the wizard gave a diploma; to the Lion, a medal labeled “Courage”; and to the Tin Man, a heart-shaped pocket watch. The wizard didn’t give them what they wanted but instead gave them an acknowledgment of what they already had.

Throughout their journey with Dorothy, her friends had developed the very traits they said they wanted most of all. Though the wizard no longer stood behind a curtain pretending to be what he wasn’t, he still got credit for giving everyone what they already had.

Does that sound like Someone we know? Christians tell us God gives us morality, purpose, and meaning, though this is the same morality, purpose, and meaning that non-Christian believers might say they get from their god(s) and that atheists get from nature and reality.

The Christian may respond that objective or absolute versions of these traits must come from a supernatural source, but until the Christian shows that there are objective versions, this is an empty claim. Look up the dictionary definitions of morality, purpose, or meaning to see that none require objective or supernatural grounding. We can get through life just fine by dropping the pretense that they do and finding within ourselves our best versions of these traits.

These are human traits, not Christian traits. For proof, look at non-Christian cultures that have developed similar versions. These are traits we have always had. They’re borrowed by Christianity, and much is made of God’s giving back to us what we already had.

Christianity’s most generous gesture would be to drop the pretense of its gatekeeper role. Draw back the curtain to show that the power to improve or destroy society is (and has always been) ours, not God’s. It could help people grow and reject their dependence on the supernatural.

Want a better society? Only our hard work, not God’s miraculous intervention, has ever improved it. Want a healthier environment? We made the mess, so let’s admit our responsibility and work on it ourselves. Want to improve yourself? There’s no higher power helping you pass tests, kick bad habits, or get promoted at work—it’s just you, with other people to help.

At the end of The Wizard of Oz, it’s Dorothy’s turn. Glinda the Good Witch tells Dorothy that her ruby slippers, which she received at the beginning of her adventure, can return her home. She had been able to get her heart’s desire all along.

And so it is with us. We’re like Dorothy with her ruby slippers. Morality, purpose, and meaning don’t come from outside our world but have always been ours to define.

Continue to chapter 19.

Image credit: Wikimedia (public domain)

17 Euthyphro Dilemma: God’s Relationship to Morality Loses Either Way

Is something good because God says so, or does God say so because it’s good? The first option makes morals arbitrary. They’re just whatever God says, and he could have made them something else. They’re not based on anything, including external facts.

If God couldn’t have made them anything else, then they’re constrained, and that’s the second option. But this is no better: morals are external, and this reduces God’s role in morality to a messenger. God is bound by an external morality. Arbitrary morality or morality external to God—which is it?

This is called the Euthyphro dilemma, and it comes from Plato’s dialogue of the same name.

Here’s an analogy. If I’m a clerk in a store and need the price of something, I look it up. I consult an external, superior source. But if I’m the owner, I could make the price whatever I want: “For you, let’s make it $5.95.” So which one is God? Is he the owner (morals are arbitrary and changeable) or the clerk (morals are external and fixed)? For the Christian, it’s “heads I lose; tails you win.” Either option is unpalatable—morality is either arbitrary or there’s an external morality that constrains God.

Christians may respond that this isn’t a true dilemma because other options are possible. They say instead that God is good because that’s his nature, but this doesn’t avoid the problem. This simply changes the dilemma to: Is something good because God’s nature says so, or does God’s nature say so because it’s good? Is “God’s nature” changeable (morality could be something else) or not? If not, what does God’s nature conform to? And we’re back to the original problem of arbitrary vs. external.

Euthyphro’s challenge to the atheist might be: Is something good because our genetic programming says so, or does our genetic programming say so because it’s good? But there’s no dilemma here—our genetic programming (or conscience) tells us what is good and bad, and it tells us that because that’s been useful for survival.

Let’s recast the original problem into an unambiguous dichotomy. Let A be the statement “Morality is defined by God” (or “God’s nature” if you prefer). The two possibilities are now A and not-A. No other option is possible.

Consider the consequences:

  • Option A is true, so morality is defined by God/God’s nature. Morality can be anything God says it is since it’s not bound by or evaluated against anything external, and morality becomes changeable. Murder would be a good thing, for example, if only God had said that. (And why couldn’t he? He’s not bound by anything.)
  • Or, option not-A is true, so morality is not within the control of God/God’s nature, and murder is wrong no matter who says otherwise. This makes morality external to God. God might report morality to us (through the Bible or our consciences, say), but morality’s source is something besides God.

Does God have such a fixed, external source of morality that he consults? Then Christians are caught on one horn of the dilemma. Or does the buck have to stop somewhere, and God is it? Then Christians are caught on the other horn. Neither makes God look good.

Continue to chapter 18.

Image credit: Wikimedia, public domain

16 Christianity Meets its Match: The Argument for Historical Mormonism

LDS temple in Salt Lake City

The case for historical reliability is important for many Christians, but suppose there were a religion that would, point by point, beat Christianity’s case. If historical reliability is truly important to these Christians, they should convert to this new religion.

We don’t need to invent such a religion because it already exists, Mormonism (I’ll use Mormonism as shorthand to refer to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

The conventional Christian apologist may claim that non-Christian sources support the New Testament story, but Mormons point to newspaper articles, diaries, letters, and even court records documenting the early fathers of their church, a far broader record than that of the New Testament. Some of these accounts of the events in the early Mormon church were written days or even hours after the events.

The apologist will point to the tens of thousands of New Testament manuscript copies and the antiquity of some of the oldest manuscripts, but the Mormon record wins again. The books of Mormonism were written after the modern printing press, and we have many early, identical copies. There is no centuries-long dark period separating originals from our earliest copies and no worry that scribes “improved” manuscripts as they copied them.

The Jesus story is from a culture long ago and far away, and the gospels document the Christian tradition as it arose within Greek culture, already one step removed from the Aramaic Jewish culture of Jesus. In Mormonism, we can read the accounts documenting the history of the church in our own language.

The apologist will talk about how little time elapsed between the events and the documentation of those events—perhaps forty to sixty years for the gospels. That’s not bad, but Mormonism spent basically no time in the limbo of oral tradition.

The Bible’s four gospels don’t claim to be eyewitness accounts, and we don’t even know who wrote them. By contrast, eleven men saw the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, and testimony from those men, along with their names, is at the beginning of every copy.

Christian apologists ask, “Who would die for a lie?” They point to the martyred disciples of Jesus, who, they claim, died rather than deny the gospel story, but Mormonism matches that. The Mormon inner circle put themselves through much hardship, including the death of founder Joseph Smith. If Christian apologists claim this as strong evidence for Christianity, it must be for Mormonism as well.

Let’s return to those Christians weighing the historical evidence. Is historical reliability critical to Christians’ faith? Then they should upgrade to Mormonism since its historical claims are much stronger. And if not, they should drop claims about Christianity’s historical reliability.

Continue to chapter 17.

Image credit: Michael Hart on Unsplash


Apologist: someone who defends a position. A Christian apologist defends Christianity.

15 The Bible Has No Recipe for Soap: What This Tells Us About God


The Bible’s priorities are clear from where it spends its time (and it doesn’t spend time on improving the welfare of the people).

The Bible has a detailed description of the priestly costume in Exodus 28. If the Bible devotes an entire chapter to attire, why not spend a few verses on a method for making something beneficial, like soap?

It’s easy to make. Suppose the following soap recipe were in the Bible:

Pack a wooden bucket with wood ashes. Pour in boiling water. Make a small hole near the bottom and collect the water in a pot as it drips out. The liquid is caustic, so don’t let it touch skin or metal. Pour the liquid back through the ashes until it is strong enough to dissolve a feather.

Boil this liquid to remove most of the water. Add rendered fat from cattle or other animals and stir while cooking until it thickens. Pour into molds and let it harden.

Use this soap to clean your hands before preparing food or eating.

There are lots of tricks to making good soap, but a priesthood could have perfected the technique.

In addition to soap, the Bible could have then added the basics of health care—when and how to use this soap, how boiling will purify water, how to build and site latrines, how to avoid polluting the water supply, how to respond to a plague, how germs transmit disease, the basics of nutrition, how to treat wounds, and so on. After health, it could outline other ways to improve society—low-tech ways to pump water, spin fiber, make metal alloys, keep livestock healthy, or improve crop yields.

One attempt to salvage the Bible’s medical reputation argues that its kosher dietary rules (no pork or shellfish, no mixing of meat and dairy, and so on) show an advanced understanding of health, but these rules are arbitrary when seen from a modern standpoint. They weren’t health rules but ritual rules, ways of culturally distinguishing their tribe from others. Sure, avoiding pork means you can’t get sick from eating poorly cooked pork, but you can still get sick from eating contaminated meat from other animals.

The problem continues in the New Testament. Someone who preached “Love your neighbor as yourself” would have been eager to share any knowledge he had about public health.

For a book that is supposed to be inspired by an omniscient god, the Bible’s understanding of science and medicine is primitive. It looks instead like just another book of mythology and superstition like all the rest.

There are two explanations for the Bible’s poor health advice. First, an infinitely loving God created us but didn’t care about the health of his creation. He could have made healthy practices into mandatory rituals, but he didn’t. However, he did care enough about making his priests look stylish to devote an entire chapter to their outfits.

Or, option two, the Bible was written by primitive men long ago and reflects the knowledge and interests of the time.

Which seems more likely?

Continue to chapter 16.

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Exodus 28: God is quite detailed in what the priest must wear—a blue robe with bell tassels, an embroidered apron and sash, The Breastplate of Judgement with twelve precious stones, a linen turban, magic stones to divine God’s will, and more.

Origin of soap: Babylonians were the first culture to make soap, in around 2800 BCE.

14 God Supports Slavery: And it Was the Same as American Slavery


In the Bible, God defined rules for slavery that made biblical slavery basically identical to American slavery.

The United States had two kinds of servitude. With indentured servitude, Europeans would come to America to work for fellow Europeans. Masters paid for their servants’ transportation, and they provided food, clothes, shelter, and training. In return, the servants were usually obliged to work for five years. Roughly half of the European immigrants to the thirteen colonies came as indentured servants.

The other form of servitude was chattel (ownership) slavery. These slaves were rarely Europeans, and they remained slaves for life, as did any children.

The Old Testament defined the same two categories. Fellow Jews could be slaves, but only for a limited time. God said, “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free.”

Many Christians have heard that this indentured servitude is the extent of biblical slavery. This ignores the other kind, about which God says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you. . . . You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life.”

God approved of slavery in the same way he approved of commerce—by regulation. The book of Proverbs admonishes merchants to use fair weights and measures. God’s regulation of commerce makes clear that he approves of it when honestly done, and his many rules about slavery make clear that he approves of that, too. For example, “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”

Again, this sounds very much like slavery in America, which also had rules to “civilize” it. For example, the 1833 Alabama law code stated, “Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offence had been committed on a free white person.”

Christians may defend God by saying that social conditions of the time constrained him, though God didn’t feel bound by the status quo when he imposed the Ten Commandments. They weren’t the Ten Suggestions, and the death penalty backed most of them. If God had room for “Don’t covet,” surely he could find room for “Don’t enslave anyone.” Slavery clearly wasn’t a problem to God in the Bible.

Another response is that Christians helped abolish slavery in the West. That’s true, but the Bible was a tool for Christians on both sides of the issue. During the American Civil War, some in the South argued that abolitionists were apostates for denying the clear meaning of the Bible.

Granted, slavery was common in the Ancient Near East, but surely an all-wise god can rise above manmade customs. That God sanctioned slavery that was as degrading as American slavery makes God look no wiser than a character in a manmade myth.

Continue to chapter 15.

Image credit: Miltiadis Fragkidis on Unsplash


Ancient Near East: the region that roughly corresponds to the modern Middle East from the beginning of civilization in Sumer through the Bronze and Iron Ages. It includes the Egyptian, Akkadian, Phoenician, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Israelite civilizations and more.

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years”: Exodus 21:2.

“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you”: Leviticus 25:44–6.

The book of Proverbs admonishes merchants to use fair weights and measures: Proverbs makes this demand four times: in verses 11:1, 16:11, 20:10, and 20:23.

“Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod”: Exodus 21:20–21.

“Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life”: Alabama slave code of 1833, http://www.archives.state.al.us/teacher/slavery/lesson1/doc1-3.html, section 3.

the death penalty backed most of them: For breaking the first commandment against worshipping another god, see Exodus 22:20. For idols, Exodus 32:27. For blasphemy, Leviticus 24:16. For not keeping the sabbath day holy, Exodus. 31:15. For dishonoring parents, Leviticus 20:9. For killing, Exodus 21:12. For adultery, Leviticus 20:10. For lying, Proverbs 19:9. Stealing and coveting did not always have a death penalty.

“Don’t covet”: Exodus 20:17.

abolitionists were infidels for denying the clear meaning of the Bible: Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press: 2002), 640.

13 Argument from Design: Life Is Marvelously Complicated, but Does that Mean it Was Designed?


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.

Continue to chapter 14.

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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.

12 Christianity Answers Life’s Big Questions (But Are the Answers Worth Listening To?)

sea nettle jellyfish

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.

Continue to chapter 13.

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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

11 Paul’s Famous Creed: Is 1 Corinthians 15 History?

Bodmer papyrus

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.

Continue to chapter 12.

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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.

10 The Society that Christianity Gave Us: Monsters, not Medicine

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.

Continue to chapter 11.

Image credit: Wikimedia (public domain)