When attacking the very concept of religion, many atheists make the same mistake as do biblical literalists, namely, interpreting the Christian bible 100% literally, with absolutely no room for other, more rational interpretations. They do this in order to justify attacking others for what they believe. But a closer look at the bible, and at what early Christian scholars believed, reveals the folly of such literal interpretations.
Case in point:
Genesis, God created everything, including people with no sense of right or wrong, then punishes them for committing an act that they literally could not know was wrong (because they were made that way). This is the supposed downfall of Man (pretty goddamn quick, if you ask me. Did God not run simulations on his product? No focus groups?) God then spends the next 3,000 years punishing his ‘chosen people’ because of his initial mistake.
Actually, when one reads the writings of notable Christian scholars such as Origen, Jerome, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, he or she realizes that the Genesis stories were most likely written as an allegory describing creation and the birth of the human spirit. No one of any note believed in literal interpretations until centuries after Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth.
This can be forgiven because, as I will reiterate, it is a response to the literalist beliefs of self-proclaimed Christians. But the attacker then goes on to make a serious (and seriously warped) misinterpretation of scripture to try to justify his rant.
One day, God suddenly goes from a singular being called Yahweh to a Father, who is also a Holy Ghost, who is now also his own son (none of whom were ever mentioned specifically before). God decides that even though he’s spent the last several thousand years tossing his chosen people to the wolves, now they need a savior (this is the fucked up part… they needed a savior… from his wrath) and so he impregnates a married girl (without her permission) and she gives birth to himself.
This is false. Mary wasn’t “raped” by God. In Luke 1:38, Mary gives her consent to bear the son described to her by the angel Gabriel: “And Marie said, Behold the handmaide of the Lord, be it vnto me according to thy word: and the Angel departed from her.” At no point can this be interpreted as anything other than consent. The writer was simply lying because he despises Christians. One might suppose that if he didn’t spend every waking minute antagonizing them he might not get the sort of responses he does, but that’s a subject for another time.
Back to the topic at hand. In sharing literal interpretation of the bible, many Christians commit the same error of thinking that Jesus was somehow an incarnation of God Himself.
We believe the entire Bible is inspired by God and is therefore inerrant and infallible. We aspire to take the Bible as our highest authority. (Posts from and about the Bible.)
As I’ve written before, Origen warns us against literal interpretations of scripture because of the perceived inconsistencies and absurdities incorrect interpretation can bring about. Kevin Lewis writes of literalism:
The heresy of literalism as such is a modern, post-scientific phenomenon. Its beginnings can be traced in seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy, but it bloomed with twentieth-century Fundamentalism, when the modern world fully embraced the dynamic power of natural science. Scientific method crucially altered the Western mind. After Descartes we became principled skeptics, doubting in order to find out the truth. The notion stole into the religious mind that biblical narratives make proposals that only appear to compete with testable scientific findings (to test our faith) while ultimately, if miraculously, conforming to scientific truth.
Hence the apt, related observation by another Episcopalian theologian, Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, that Fundamentalism is to be regarded as “the bastard child of science and religion.” Heretical literalism is the issue of an adulterous mis-match: the bastard-child product of a modern religious imagination formed or perhaps deformed by uncritical embrace of scientific method.
So rose up in history a reactionary Christian mind, panicked and defensive, straining to assert scientific proof (thereby establishing absolute certainty) for its Scripture and the articles of belief it wished to communicate. Thus did literalism teach the “letter” to drive out the “spirit” of the biblical writings, effectively misusing the text in order to promote a corrupted theological agenda. The effect is a rigid constriction of the inspiring Word.
In other words, challenged in their religious beliefs about the origins of life on Earth by the theories of Charles Darwin and other scientific observers, many Christians adopted an extreme, reactionary, literalist belief in their bible, and in the process made it into their idol—in so doing committing an act of blasphemy that continues to this day.
That blasphemy is based in large part on the deification of Jesus dating back to Paul of Tarsus, who began describing Jesus as the divine Son of God. Later Christians, especially those who converted after the adoption of the religion by Roman emperor Constantine, inserted pagan religious beliefs into Christianity to bring it more in line with their own sensibilities. This includes the notion of Trinitarianism, which teaches that God is three entities in one: a Father aspect, a Son, aspect, and a Holy Ghost or Spirit aspect. This comes from pagan notions of the Maiden-Mother-Crone goddess and has no relation to what the earliest Christians actually believed. Jesus himself on many occasions in the gospels refers to God as a singular entity greater than he, and other passages in the New testament support these assertions, including 1 Cor. 8:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Eph. 4:5-6; Mark 10:18; John 16:27; 17:7-8 (compare also John 13:3); Phil. 2:9; Col. 1:19; Acts 2:36; 3:13; 5:31; Matt. 28:18; John 5:19; 10:29; Eph. 1:22; Heb. 1:2, 9.
Further, Jesus at no point in the gospels claims to actually be an incarnation of God. This may be proven by Matt. 16:15-17, where it is pretty clearly indicated that Jesus’ closeness to God is such that he is called God’s Son, but this is not to say that he is any more God’s child than is anyone else—that is, we are all the sons and daughters of God, and Jesus, because of his holiness as a person, was special in the eyes of God.
Other passages clearly show that Jesus regarded God as a separate and distinct entity greater than he. These include Luke 6:12; Matt. 11:25; Luke 22:42; Heb. 5:7; Matt. 6:9; John 16:23; Luke 11:1, 2; John 4:23; Rom. 15:6; 2 Cor. 11:31; Eph. 1:3, 17; 1 Pet. 1:3; John 14:28; John 12:49; Mark 13:32; Matt. 20:23; and 1 Cor. 11:3.
(More detailed explanations of the cited passages may be found here.)
The confusion over the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God does owe to some ambiguity in the New testament over the subject, but when taken in context with the other passages cited, it becomes clear that Jesus is not God and never claims to be. He is called “Son of God” in the bible and in early Christian writings, but never “God the Son” until the writing of the Nicene Creed in the 4th century as ordered by Constantine to settle the divisions in the Christian church over, among other things, Jesus’ nature. But even then, many bishops signed the concurrent condemnation of Arius under protest and did not support the Trinitarian doctrine.
So what we see in literalist interpretations and the deification of Jesus is the creation of a Cult About Jesus that focuses on his alleged godhood to the exclusion of his teachings, and the atheist reaction is to seize upon the doctrines of this cult as proof of their beliefs in no god(s). But both rely on a literal interpretation and on a deification that, historically, are almost purely modern inventions. No one can know the answers to questions about the nature of Jesus with absolute certainty, but adopting warped interpretations regarding him leads only to endless bickering and even bloodshed. This has to stop.