Friday, May 31, 2013

Salvation: What does it take?

Last week, the Pope seemed to suggest that even atheists have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. The Vatican promptly clarified that the Pope's comments were being misunderstood. While "No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin", "people who aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her”."

One is tempted to clarify to the Holy See that atheists do not really care for an imaginary heaven or eternal damnation in an imaginary hell or judgement by an imaginary god!

Let's set that aside for a bit and take a look at the christian theology of salvation. It is quite interesting and by gawd, extremely convoluted.

If the Pope and the Vatican confused you, why don't we just look at what Jesus himself had to "say" about it in the book he "inspired"? I mean, Jesus came to the earth for our salvation, right? Wouldn't he have told us exactly what is needed to avoid eternal damnation? I mean, in addition to dying and rising, he'd have told everyone around him exactly what to do, right? Right?

So, what does it take? What do Jesus and his apostles say about it?

1. Belief and Baptism
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. -Mark 16:16 
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. -John 3:16

2. Righteousness
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. -Matthew 16:27
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. -Matthew 5:10 
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. -Matthew 7:19
The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. -Luke 3:9

3. Keeping the Commandments (law)
If you want to enter life, keep the commandments. -Matthew 19:17

4. Wealth
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” -Matthew 19:23-24

5. Mercy
he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, -Titus 3:5

6. Faith (Belief), not works of the law
know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. -Galatians 2:16
If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. -Romans 10:9


Not very clear, are they now? Well, I know what we can do? If we do all six of the above, then perhaps we have the right answer? Right?

Perhaps, a person who believes, does good works, is baptized, keeps the commandments and gives up all wealth should presumably expect to go to heaven! Right?

Actually, no. While it does look superficially straightforward, Jesus seems to have an uncanny knack for contradicting himself! Jesus flat out says that a wealthy man cannot go to heaven. He also says that baptized belivers shall be saved. What about wealthy person who believes and is baptized? Is the Pope going to be saved? How about say, Mel Gibson?

What about a Hindu who does good deeds and is poor? Jesus is very clear in Matthew 16:27, when he says such a person will be saved. He is also quite clear in Mark 16:16 that that person will be damned.

Then there is apostle Paul who in his epistles contradicts Jesus (from Matthew 19:17) and says that keeping the commandments do not count. Pseudo-Paul in Titus 3:5 says salvation is just a result of God's mercy and has nothing to do with good works.

Let's put all this together.

        Salvation       Damnation       What matters not?       
1 Belief + Baptism No Belief (contra 2)  - 
2 Righteousness (contra 1, 4) Bad fruits  - 
3 Keeping the commandments (law)  -   - 
4 Poverty? Wealth-
5 It's all God's Mercy (contra 1, 2, 3, 4, 6)    - Righteousness (contra 2)
6 Faith in Jesus  -Keeping the law (contra 3)

Wait, there is more from where that came from!

7. Luck
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. -2 Thessalonians 2:13

8. Can the meek, step forward please?
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5

9. Spouse
For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. -1 Corinthians 7:14

10. Calling on the unmarried
But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, -Luke 20:35

11. Survivors
You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. -Matthew 10:22

12. Obey, fear and tremble
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, -Philippians 2:12

So saith the omniscient god's book!

No wonder the Pope and the Vatican sound confusing. Their big boss in heaven was not very clear about what exactly he wanted from us!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Jesus died for the atheists too!

Jesus died for everyone, not just the Catholics, says the Pope! He redeemed even the bloody atheists!

He says:
"The Lord has redeemed us all with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone," he said. Some may ask, "'Father, even the atheists?' Them, too. Everyone."
Well, who'd have thought?!

But consider what the gospel has to say about this, through the words of John the baptist.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them." -John 3:36
It seems the Pope gets to ignore the gospel of John when he quotes the gospel Mark (on which he bases his homily)! He's the POPE for Christ's sake!

It would also be pertinent to note that the Catholic Church has been teaching for centuries that only catholics can go to heaven. In Unam Sanctam, the Papal Bull issued by Pope Boniface VIII in 1302 says,
"Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff."
This stance was seen as too outdated and the second Vatican council did a near about face. As the "Assessment of this Council", written to spell out the council's conclusions in terms that the lay public could understand says,
"The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his Church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience, for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible Church."
If you can attribute an atheist's non-belief to ignorance and if the said atheist is somehow said to be seeking God, then yes, salvation is possible. If you are willing to go through mental gymnastics, then yes indeed, anything is possible!

Make no mistake, the Pope's message of tolerance is to be welcomed, of course. The idea of inclusiveness is also quite welcome too! The world could certainly do with more tolerance and less bigotry!

What is funny however is the Christian insistence on cherry picking and looking at verses atomically. One understands why, of course. Take the Bible as a whole and you get a messy goo of inconsistencies and God begins to look like he has multiple personality disorder.


Not so fast atheists, says the Vatican.
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.
At the same time, Rosica writes, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”
Perhaps, the Pope was referring to atheists who enter and remain in the Church! Ha!

So, here is the new Rock-Paper-Scissors game in town: Pope-Jesus-Vatican!

The Pope overrides the Bible's message (John 3:36)
The Bible guides the Vatican
The Vatican "clarifies" the Pope's statement

Update 2:

While the pope seems to have said that atheists have been redeemed by Christ's blood, he need not have meant that atheists who do good will go to heaven.

Here is how it could possibly be interpreted: Christ redeemed us all (from the original sin or all sins). That does not necessarily imply that we, atheists get to go to heaven! Well, no one says theology is easy!

Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly claimed that John 3:36 were the words of Jesus. It is has been updated to correctly note that those are the words of John the baptist.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The inerrant word of God?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning - the first day. -Genesis 1:1-5 (NIV)

Most religions have holy books of one form or the other. In Hinduism, there are Vedas which contain "eternal truths". Then there are the Itihasas or epics like Ramayana and Mahabharatha. The Mahabharatha contains the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Kirshna's advice to Arjuna.

Islam has the Quran, Sunnah and Hadith. The Quran was supposedly revealed by the angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammed and is considered to be literally the word of Allah or God.

The primary scripture of Judaism is the Torah which includes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The Christians know the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament. The canon of the Hebrew Bible is called the Tanakh. The Tanakh comprises of the collections of Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim. Then there are the Talmuds which are attempts by the Rabbis to elucidate the Torah. The Tosefta is another competing collection of halakhoth or rules.

Christianity has the Holy Bible which includes the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible or the Jewish Scripture. The New Testament includes the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, a collection of Epistles and the book of Revelation of John.

A survey by The Pew Research Center in 2008 found that 33% of Americans considered scripture to be word of God, literally word for word. Another 30% considered it to be also word of God, though not word for word. 28% considered it to be book by mere mortals. [1]

In this post, let me talk primarily about the Christian scripture. Let's start with the Old Testament.

Young Earth Theory

The first book of the Old Testament is the book of Genesis. Tradition credits Moses with having written this book. It describes the origin of this universe. God created this world in six days. On the seventh day, he rested. The first humans created were Adam and Eve.[2] This story is the source of the Young Earth Theory, the theory that God created this universe in the recent past. Back in the seventeenth century, using the genealogy and the ages of our ancestors mentioned in the Bible, Bishop James Ussher famously dated the first day of creation to Sunday 23 October 4004 BC.[3] Depending on who you ask, the calculations vary a bit, but sometime between 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, this act of creation is supposed to have happened.

The young earth theory is not a fringe theory or without supporters. A 2010 Gallup poll found that 4 out of 10 Americans believe this.[4] According to the published results, this percentage has remained in the forties for the past thirty years. That is a lot of support! However, this view is quite incompatible with what science has found. Here is what science tells us.
  • The universe originated about 14 billion years ago with a big bang. [5]
  • The planet Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.
  • Life first appeared on this planet about one billion years ago.
  • Life on earth evolved from primitive single celled organisms to complex animals and plants.
  • Human beings and apes (and every other plant and animal on this earth, for that matter) evolved from common ancestors.
  • The fossil record that we have illustrates evolutionary change over the past millions of years.

Young earth theory contradicts sciences like biology (the theory of evolution and palaeontology), astronomy, geology, archeology, physics etc [6]

The Global Flood

The story of creation in the Bible is followed by the story of the Flood. A giant flood covered the entire earth washing away as a punishment, most of its inhabitants. The only survivors were Noah and his family of eight and a pair of all the animals Noah took with him in his arc. [7]

There are problems here as well. To drown and cover all of the earth in forty days, we'd need a rain coming down by the buckets – actually a bit more than that. Mt. Everest is approximately 5.5 miles (29,029 feet) above sea level and earth's surface is approximately 200 million square miles. To cover that, the great flood would have to produce about 1.1 billion cubic miles of water and in just about 40 days or 289 cubic miles of water per second. According to the US Geological Survey, the earth has 332.5 million cubic miles of water. This includes all of the oceans (96.5%), ice caps, glaciers, fresh water, ground water and atmospheric water (0.001%). [8]

A simpler calculation is that the water level has to rise about (29029 ft÷40 days) 726 feet per day for forty days to cover Mt. Everest. Per the story, not all the water came from the rain. Some of it came from inside the earth as well. [9] The water on earth simply cannot account for covering all of Mt. Ararat, let alone Mt. Everest. [10]

Had there been a massive flood of this proportion, the geological record should show that the surface of the continents were washed off. That is not what we see. The geological record does not show any trace of a world wide flood.

The Egyptian and Chinese dynasties which existed during the time of the supposed flood show no signs of having drowned. They seem to have survived just fine.

Noah's arc should have been quite humongous to contain all the different species of animals. The plants and the marine animals that would have died with all the fresh water that poured in are left unaccounted for as well. It is worth repeating; that is also a lot of water with no source. The problem of a loving yet ruthless God also rears its ugly head.

The only rational conclusion to be made is that the great flood did not happen. It is just a myth. [11] To believe otherwise would be to believe in spite of a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

The Exodus

After the story of the flood, the stories of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob follow. The book of Exodus traces journey of the Israelites, lead by Moses in their exodus from Egypt and slavery to their promised land of Canaan. After decimating the inhabitants of Canaan, the Israelites led by Joshua settle down to live their lives in the land flowing with milk and honey.

Unfortunately, there are problems here as well. There was a time when the Bible was considered to be historically accurate. Many an archaeologist has tried to find evidence for the Patriarchs and Moses. At this time however, the conclusion is that an exodus as described in the Torah probably never happened. There is no evidence to be found of a large crowd wandering the desert for forty years. The Egyptians never left a record for such an exodus of slaves. We have little or no evidence for the Patriarchs either. [12]


The creation in seven days is something that is best considered a creation myth, something the ancient people came up with. And the rest is also fanciful mythology. This however creates a problem in considering the Bible as the inerrant word of God.

There are Christian apologists who argue that the days in the creation accounts do not translate to literal days or 24 hour periods. They could just refer to a long time interval, even billions of years and the story would still work. Noah's flood need not have referred to a worldwide flood but just a regional one. The problem with this line of argument is that we have no reason at all to think that the seven days originally meant anything other than seven days. We also have about three millennia of teaching of creation in seven days. The order of creation does not make any sense (day and night before creating the Sun, for instance).

The people who wrote these accounts had no clue about a universe that evolved over billions of years. Not a clue. Trying to read that into the text is imposing modern science on to old mythical tales.

Given that evolution of life on earth and age of the universe are mainstream theories of science with a mountain of evidence, many Christians have moved to embrace these and meld them with religion.

Unlike its centuries long resistance to the Heliocentric theory, the Roman Catholic Church was quick to jump on to the Big Bang Theory bandwagon and pronounced it to be in accordance with the Bible. [13]

Many scientifically inclined Christians accept that much of the Old Testament is not historically accurate. Perhaps God only meant these to be allegorical. Perhaps the ancient folks could not have handled a complex theory of evolution and needed allegory!

The New Testament

But, the New Testament on the other hand, or so many say, is quite accurate. Unfortunately for the inerrantists (those that consider the Bible to be error free), there are many contradictions between the New Testament accounts as well as historical issues.

The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus born during the reign of Herod the Great which implies that it was before 4 BC; The Gospel of Luke places it during the governorship of Quirinius which puts it after 6 AD. [14]

Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus eat the passover meal on first day of the Passover and crucified the next day. (cf. Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7). John on the other hand portrays Jesus as a perfect pascal offering and has Jesus dying on the day of the preparation of the Passover. (cf. John 19:14).

Matthew and Luke both have Jesus resurrecting after his crucifixion but have the details all different – the angels at the empty tomb, where Jesus and the disciples headed to, who saw the resurrected Jesus and so on. We have many many more inconsistencies. Who was Jesus' father Joseph's father? (cf. Matthew 1:16, Luke 3:23) What was Jesus' last words? (cf. Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34, Luke 23:46, John 19:30). How did Judas the betrayer die? (cf, Matthew 27:5, Acts 1:18). What was Jesus' and his parents' home town? Bethlehem? (cf. Matthew 1:18-2:2) Nazareth? (cf. Luke 2:4) or Capharnaum? (cf. Mark 2:1, Matthew 9:1). How many times did the cock crow?

I have written more about it here and here. The New Testament is clearly not innerrant. What what God thinking, inspiring these Gospel writers to write such varying accounts? Did God not care about the details? How do we go about deciphering God's intentions with all these confusing details?

Religion often has the holy scripture as its foundation. Scripture is how we get to know how and why God created us and how God wants us to live (scripture and revelation, actually). But once we realize that scripture is errant and man-made, we are on the road to leaving our religion behind.


[3] James Ussher, "The Annals of the World" (1658)
[5] Stephen Hawking, "A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes", Bantam Books (1988).
[9] Genesis 7:11,12
"In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month - on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights".
[10], Noah's Ark
[11], "Forget about Noah's Ark; There Was No Worldwide Flood", Robert R. Cargill, (2010)
[12] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts", Touchstone (2002).

[13] The proofs for the existence of god in the light of modern natural science: Address of Pope Pius XII to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, November 22, 1951.
"In fact, it would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to that primordial "Fiat lux" uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It's a Miracle!

And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. -Mark 5:25-29 (NIV)
We all have heard of claims of miraculous cures. Miracles and supernatural claims are the mainstay of religious myths.

The Roman Catholic church claims to have investigated and satisfied itself that miraculous cures have happened before declaring someone a saint, for every saint it canonizes.

On September 5, 1998, Monica Besra, a Bengali woman from the village of Dangram, near Calcutta, India and a mother of five was in pain. She had a malignant ovarian tumor and a visible lump on her belly. To help her, the nuns from Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity placed a medallion of the late Mother Teresa on her stomach and prayed. A beam of light from the medallion came towards Monica, reportedly. When Monica woke up next morning, the tumor was gone! [1] This was the first miracle that the Roman Catholic Church claimed for Mother Teresa's beatification, bringing her a step closer to sainthood.

The story does not end there. Monica Besra later admitted to having gone to the state-run Balurghat Hospital and taken the prescribed medication. Monica's husband Seiku Murmu went on record that his wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle. [2] Dr. Tarun Kumar Biswas and Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, who treated Monica over several months, say Monica responded to their treatment and the lump in her abdomen was not a full-grown tumor. The Vatican reportedly did not consult with these doctors before confirming the miracle. [3] [4]

Here's another story. Back in September 21, 1995, in a temple in New Delhi, a devotee offered milk to a statue of Ganesha. Devotees have been doing this for centuries now. But this time, to everyone's surprise, the statue actually drank the milk. It was a miracle! The miracle was repeated again and again not just in that temple but in nearby temples as well. The news spread rapidly by word of mouth and Ganeshas all over India and even outside India were drinking milk. Statues of other deities like Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathi, Lord Ganesha's parents were also drinking milk. By end of day, it had taken the proportion of mass religious hysteria. [5]

Scientists from India's Ministry of Science and Technology investigated this and found nothing more than capillary action causing the porous idols to suck up the milk to be the cause. This didn't stop the miracles from recurring in 2006 and again 2010. [6] [7]

The Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, first appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl from Lourdes, France back in 1858. The Virgin appeared to her 17 more times. Millions visit Lourdes every year many reporting miraculous healing.

In 1917, the Virgin appeared again, this time to Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, three shepherd kids at Fatima, Portugal. On October 13, right before the eyes of a crowd numbering thousands, the Sun reportedly changed colors and rotated like a wheel. Jacinta “beheld St. Joseph with the Child Jesus and Our Lady robed in white with a blue mantle, beside the sun.” [8]

Every year, at Sabarimala in the Western Ghats of South India, a few million devotees of the Hindu God Ayyappan assemble for prayer and festivities. Lord Ayyappan the child of Lord Shiva and Goddess Mohini (Lord Vishnu in the female form) is supposed to have meditated at Sabarimala. Every year, on the day of Makara Samkramam, a miraculous light or the Makara Vilakku lights up on the hills near the temple while pilgrims watch. That some people have come forward clarifying that burning a big heap of camphor is the source of the light has not dampened the spirits of the pilgrims. [9] [10]

Not very far from Shabarimala is Potta, a tiny village, also in Kerala, India. Fr. Matthew Naickomparampil, a Catholic Vincentian priest upon receiving divine revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit founded a 'Divine Retreat Center' at Potta. Since its beginning back in 1987, it has grown to become one of the most famous prayer groups in the state. It has since moved to Muringure, near the banks of river Chalakudy. A few thousand people attend the services every week. Many return home cured of their illnesses!

In 2004, in the home of Gregg and Diana Duyser, the face of the Virgin Mary appeared on the grilled cheese sandwich, no less. [11]

The Islamic world is not averse to miracles either. In 1996, a farmer in Senegal discovered a watermelon on which the name of Allah had appeared. In 1999, a Toman fish with markings resembling the words “Ya Allah Ya Malik” got a lot of publicity. Listings of miraculous appearance of the word Allah on the Moon, mountains, fruits, babies' bodies etc is just a google search away.

Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a God-Man from India claimed to have been the reincarnation of another 19th century holy man called Sai Baba. Sathya Sai Baba counted as his devotees ministers and judges and industrialists in India. He was known for producing sacred ash or golden Shiva lingams out of thin air for his devotees. As a child, he was once punished by being asked to stand up on his bench. The teacher who punished him thus was magically glued to the teacher's chair until another teacher stepped in and asked Sai Baba to sit down! These and various other miracles are documented by books published by the Sri Sathya Sai Books & Publications Trust and the websites maintained by them. [12] [13]

Demonic possession is a phenomenon that the Catholic church accepts and has guidelines on how demons may be exorcised. [14] Priests with the sanction of a bishop can perform exorcism. [15]

Stigmata (marks resembling the wounds of the crucified body of Christ) has been claimed by many from St. Francis of Assisi to Padre Pio. [16] Padre Pio went on to be canonized as Saint Pio of Pietrelcina and in anticipation of the canonization, two statues of of the Padre reportedly wept.

Statues sweating or weeping blood or oil or tears have been reported many many many times. Bleeding Eucharists are quite common too. [17]

These are but a sampling of reported miracles. These are not isolated incidents. Reports of miracles and miraculous cures are actually dime a dozen! Yet, none of these miracles, not a single one has been reproduced under controlled conditions where scientists can investigate them. Many have been investigated and some found to be outright fraud. Some aren't. But not a single miracle has been reported in a science journal as a direct result of a deity in action. Not one. Now why would that be?

Confirmation bias

If you are a Protestant or Evangelical Christian, you are very likely to have had a quiet chuckle about the miracles claimed by the Catholic church. If you are a Catholic, the Ganesha miracle would have sounded funny to you. Idols drinking milk! Oh, those idol worshiping Hindus!

Why is it that we wear the skeptic's hat when it comes to other faiths? It is for no reason that it is said that we are all atheists when it comes to most religions that humanity has believed in! Yet, when it comes to our own, we are willing to believe.

Humans have a tendency to exhibit selective thinking and favor information that confirms our beliefs. We are biased in the way we gather information. We are biased in the way we process and retain information. We tend to reduce the importance of pieces of information that conflict with our beliefs and interests. This is a well known phenomenon called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias explains why we tend to believe the miracles and supernatural claims from our own religious group but are very skeptical about those from other groups.

How do we distinguish faith in miracles from gullibility?


[1], "Mother Teresa's First Miracle?", Amanda Bower.

[2], "Mother Teresa 'miracle' patient accuses nuns", Peter Foster.

[3], "Is Mother Teresa's Miracle for Real?", Charles Duhigg.

[4], "What's Mother Teresa Got to Do with It?".

[5], "15 Years of the Ganesha Milk Miracle: Paranormal Phenomenon of the Last Millennium", Subhamoy Das.

[6], "Idols 'drinking' milk is pure science", Press Trust of India.

[7], "Did Statues of Hindu Gods Miraculously Consume Milk Offerings to Them?", Whitney Hopler.

[8] Fatima In Lucia's Own Words: Sister Lucia’s Memoirs. 16th edition, July 2007. Edited by Fr. Louis Kondor, SVD.

[9], "TDB was lighting the fire: ex-Commissioner", Radhakrishnan Kuttoor.

[10], "For God’s sake, end this fraud", M Kesavan Nampoothiry.

[11], "Grilled-Cheese Madonna", Joe Nickell..

[12], "Sathya Sai Baba: The Man Who Was God Is Dead", Jyoti Thottam.

[13], "The Divine Life and Message of Sri Sathya Sai Baba QUIZ", [via the internet archive].

[14], "Catholic Encyclopedia: Exorcism".

[15], "The Celebration of the Christian Mystery: The Celebration of the Christian Mystery".
When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called "a major exorcism," can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.

[16], "Padre Pio: Wonderworker or Charlatan?", Joe Nickell.

[17], "Eucharistic ‘Miracles’", Joe Nickell.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Saint Factory

The Catholic Church is a saint making factory. Starting with Pope John Paul II, the factory dramatically increased its production. Pope Francis in a matter of weeks has already surpassed all of his predecessors. In one fell swoop, he canonized 813 15th century martyrs, last Sunday. These “Martyrs of Otranto” were beheaded by Ottoman soldiers for refusing to convert to Islam.

Per the Catholic Church's rules, attaining sainthood is a two step process which requires one miracle per step. But martyrs can proceed to step two without a confirmed miracle. They just need one miracle to attain sainthood.

Enter Sister Francesca Levote. Sister Levote reportedly recovered miraculously from ovarian cancer after her fellow nuns prayed to the Martyrs of Otranto. This paved the way for Pope Benedict XVI to confirm the miracle and Pope Francis did the rest. It hardly matters that the sister's doctor insists that chemotherapy and radiotherapy helped! The silly doctor must think he knows better than the holy church!

If you think martyrs for Christ are unique, think again. A student of history would know of many many such instances and not just for Christ. For instance, in 782 AD, Charlemagne beheaded 4500 Saxons (pagans) for refusing to convert to Christianity. In 1492 AD, the Spanish King and Queen decided to drive all Jews (about 200,000 of them) out of Spain. Tens of thousands likely died in the exodus. These are but two examples. Want more? Pick up a history book!

So, one is forced ask Pope Francis, why are the Martyrs of Otranto all sainty and special? Is martyrdom for any other god worthless? Is it because of the “miraculous” cure of Sister Francesca Levote?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Keep an Open Mind!

If you are an atheist, it is very likely that you have been asked, at some time or the other, to keep an open mind about God. I have been asked to. Many times.

The position of atheism, the position that there is no good evidence for a God, let alone a personal God is usually arrived at by evaluating the evidence or the lack thereof. Many atheists, in fact, a vast majority of the ones I know of were religious or came from religious families or at least considered religion at one time or another.

[To be sure, if today's trend of more and more people opting for atheism is anything to go by, we will soon see atheists who have not thought through their lack of belief. But that is not the case today.]

Yet, atheists are often asked to keep an open mind by the religious folks. So, tell me now, what is the evidence that atheists are not open about? Where are the arguments that atheists are closed minded about?

The answer of course, is the possibility of existence of God, the possibility that scripture was inspired by God. Throw in the possibility of supernatural, after life and hell and you get the answer.

Being open to an idea is not the same as accepting that idea with no regard to its evidentiary support. The idea of a personal God or a loving deity has been considered and found to lack any grounding in the realities of this world. And that being the case, one can not and should not accept such an idea.

But that is hardly being not open to the idea. If new evidence were to be found, new arguments were to be made, if a compelling case were to be put forward, then many an atheist, myself included, would be quite happy to consider it.

In the absence of such arguments and evidence, my open mindedness does not include embracing a belief in a deity who rules from above, stands in judgment on me, keeps an account of every good and bad deed I do, cares about what I eat and who I sleep with and how and rejoices when I believe in this deity.

Let's try turning the tables on the believers now.

Are believers open to the possibility that there is no God? The vast majority of believers (as anecdotal evidence suggests), hold to to their faith as a matter of faith and often will not consider the possibility of a godless universe.

Many have persuaded themselves that their illusion of God is grounded in fact. I am sure, some have weighed the evidence and come to a conclusion that there is a God. I am sure that is possible, even though I have come to the opposite conclusion.

For believers who are not open to the possibility of a godless universe, to talk about open mindedness is pure hypocrisy.

I am open to being corrected. I am open to new ideas. I am open to new evidence and new arguments! But I am not open to believing in remote possibilities as facts, not without supporting evidence.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Litany of Excuses

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” -Mathew 7:7
When pushed to produce evidence for God or explain the lack of such evidence or evidence suggesting that there isn't any God, we often get many excuses for why that is indeed the case. These are often compelling excuses, until you take the time to think about it. The excuses often contradict each other as well, as you will see.

Here are some often cited ad-hoc explanations for the God theory.

1. You cannot test the Almighty!

This is usually in response to requests or demands that the Almighty make his presence felt. If there is an Almighty God, let that God show himself. This is often met with a retort that you simply cannot test God. This is fair enough except for the claim that the Almighty really wants you to believe in him.

2. There is a plan for you; you just don't know what it is.

When life seems to be going from bad to worse, from the frying pan into the fire, we often wonder if a loving caretaker God is really around. To that, believers of say that God has a plan. It is just not obvious to you or known to you.

Isn't that convenient? Well, do tell that to earthquake victims or genocide victims. When plans can not be explained, just say that we are too stupid to know it or that the plan is so divine that we can't be expected to understand it. This is a classic excuse.

3. God works in mysterious ways.

This is a variation of the previous excuse. It in other words means we are clueless as to what is happening. This excuse is a favorite when a calamity that can't be explained away needs explaining.

4. You can't judge God by human standards!

If we can't use human standards, what exactly does the phrase 'loving God' mean to humans? Would it then be fair then to say that this God is a dreadful one, by human standards?

5. Prayers are answered only when what you ask is good for you.

This is an often heard excuse when prayers are not answered. You might think what you are asking for is good for you. But there might be bad consequences for what you ask for, that you are unaware of! So, the good all-knowing God doesn't answer your prayer and it is all in your very own interest!

We are like little children. We do not know what we want and what we ask for. So, not everything that we ask for can be granted to us! Would a father give a knife to an infant that asks for it? Of course not!
You might think a million dollars and a month long cruise would be good for you. But God might be privy to the future possibility that the cruise that you end up taking would hit an iceberg or you'd catch a disease while cruising, or hookup with someone who breaks your marriage. Or the money might make you greedy for more. And so on. The possibilities are infinite.

Well, perhaps the almighty could also fix the future so that the cruise would be a safe and fun filled one? Well, now that would be too good to ask for!

This excuse is a good one. If you get what you ask for, then God is so loving. If you don't, then God just thinks that what you asked is not good for you just yet. Isn't that a win-win situation no matter what the outcome is?

6. Prayers are answered when the time is right

This is a variant of the earlier excuse. Instead of claiming that what you asked for was not good, this one suggests that you'll indeed receive, but not just yet. Again, do tell that to the earthquake victim.

7. Prayers are answered, but only in the after life.

This is yet another variant of the previous excuse. The blessings you ask for will be showered on you only after you die and go to heaven!

Well, one would have thought that I would not have much use for my million dollars once I am in heaven. With an eternity long vacation in the company of angels playing the harp, who gives a dime for a silly month long cruise or a million dollars?

This is as good as saying that God does not interfere in this life. Well, if only we could know that for sure, we could stop praying for God's intercession in this life.

8. It does not matter if prayers are answered; you should keep asking as you would with your own parents.

This is another variant. Just ask but do not demand results! Just keep asking and take things the way they come. The problem with this is, one might as well not ask! Unless unanswered prayers make you feel good.

9. The more hardships you face in this life the easier your path to salvation

This one is supposed to make you feel good about the hardships you face. Don't worry, you'll get a proportional amount of blessings in the after life to make up for it.

10. It could have been worse!

Given any bad scenario, you can always think of a worse one.
Did you get hurt? You might have been killed!
Did you get killed? You might have been tortured and killed. All your loved ones could have been killed too!
Did you get raped, tortured and killed? Hey, it could have been worse; praise the Lord!

11. You will see all the evidence if you would just believe in God.

If you already believe that there are pink unicorns on the moon, then you can actually come to the realization that there are these, you guessed it, wonderful pink unicorns! And would you like to guess where you'd find these unicorns? The Moon!

12. If you read the Bible with faith, you will believe.

This excuse uses the same inverted argument as the earlier one. The problem with reading the Bible is that it tends to relieve you of your faith. It happened to me. During a time of confusion, I decided that I wanted to read the bible cover to cover. I did not get past a couple of chapters. I ended up deciding that it was all nonsense.

If you have already made up your mind that it is indeed the word of God and it is your duty to somehow harmonize it and make sense of it, and tell yourself that it is your own failing when you can't, you will indeed be able to perceive the 'perfection' of the Bible.

13. If you have faith, you will believe.

This is simply circular reasoning and a variant of the above one.

14. The Old Testament is allegory.

How convenient?! Perhaps you'd consider that it is pious fiction written by the ancient people, to be read for the insights it provides about their world and not as a moral guide in this age and time.

15. Scripture is largely metaphorical. Except for the core dogmas like sin, salvation, the holy trinity etc.

Absolutely everything that you can disprove is allegory. Every evil and disgusting event described in the Bible is allegory. Everything you can't completely disprove is absolutely true. Every unfalsifiable dogma (throw in resurrection, assumption of Mary, belief in an afterlife) that cannot be completely disproved is absolutely true!

Probability, you may stand down!

It does not matter if you can show that the resurrection was very very very very unlikely. If you can not completely disprove something, it is, you guessed it, true. And in case you manage to disprove it, then it is all allegory.

16. Free will

This is the classic excuse for the problem of evil. Why is there evil in a world designed by a do-gooder God? Because God does not force us to do no evil. God has given us all Free Will, people! It is our choice to do evil and hence it is all our own responsibility!

Perhaps tectonic plates and volcanoes have free will too.

It is also interesting that God does not force us to do right or wrong but still manages to perform miracles and resurrect himself to give just a few lucky ones some vague guidelines. There is also the carrots and sticks strategy of heaven and hell. But hey, no pressure. Really, no pressure. Really.

17. God is testing you!

This is a retort when you whine that your prayers are not being answered. It is also an explanation when things go wrong in life.

You should have the same faith that Job had when he lost all his wealth and his family! Well, do tell that to Job's first wife and ten kids. Am I reading the parable too literally now??

How about our own lives? Are the troubles that we face just metaphorical troubles? Maybe not.
That God is just testing them would certainly console the victims of the Tsunami in Japan and the earthquake at Haiti.

18. God is testing you and it is for your own good

Hardships make you better equipped to deal with even more hardships. It's all good.

19. Satan is testing you!

This is a variation of the earlier excuse. This one frees God from the burden of being a tyrant. God is goodness personified, see? It is Satan that is evil!

20. It is a test of your faith!

Do you find inconsistencies in scripture, find religious claims difficult to believe? Well, it is all a test of your faith!

21. Your misfortune is punishment for your sins

This is an explanation for why a misfortune befell you. It is divine punishment. Almost every one of us is ashamed of something or the other that we did. Well, guess what, God did not like it either. And it is now time to face the music.

For instance, some preachers in the United States actually attributed the 9/11 attacks to God's punishment for the sins of the nation.

22. God will only give you what you can handle.

Well, I certainly see the uplifting message in this. But do people seriously think misfortune is dished out based on one's ability to handle it? A child who has lost both its parents in an earthquake would, I am sure, be happy to know that God believes in its capacity to handle misfortune! Or a rape victim. Or victims of torture. Or Savita Halappanavar. Or Nirbhaya...

23. God is good but God cannot let sin go unpunished.

Actually, God can. It is the almighty you are talking about here! In fact, it apparently is God who defined sin as sin. It is God who apparently created us with the tendency to sin. Should God punish himself, then?

24. Human mind cannot understand God

Our difficulty in making sense of all the discrepancies of the God theory is just a facet of the very limited human mind! It is all our fault. Of course, if God had been a better communicator, we might have understood. If God had made us smarter, we might have understood better. Or just dumber and we would have unquestioningly accepted.

More importantly, as I have said before, believers do seem to know a lot about God, including the fact that God can not be understood by us.

Yet, as lacking in understanding as we are, we are still expected to believe! Why are we, so lacking in our ability to understand, mandated to believe?

25. Science can not be used to explain God

The claim is that science and religion are two methods for understanding the natural and supernatural respectively. This assertion is very useful when we find that science indeed strongly suggests that there is no God at all. It is convenient indeed to declare rigorous observation and inference to be invalid methods when it comes to God. Instead we'll just use rigorous fantasy.

26. I just know in my heart that my God is the one.

Well Morpheus, a warm fuzzy feeling in the heart is very far from what is commonly called 'hard evidence'.

27. What if you are somehow wrong?

Yeah, yeah, all your arguments seem to make sense. But what if you are wrong? You puny human, what if you are wrong, in spite of all the evidence?

This is the trump card after using up everything else. Any reasonable person has to agree that we could all be wrong.

What if the weight of evidence tilts the probability against the loving heavenly father? You could still be wrong! We could be living in The Matrix too.

Fallacy fallacy

Let me emphasize here that just because some or all of these excuses are fallacies does not disprove the existence of God. (That would be a fallacy fallacy.) It just means that these excuses are to be recognized for what they are – mere excuses.

That believers often have to resort to these excuses on the is evidence that their belief system is flawed, though not necessarily disproved.

The explanations do not add to the explanatory power to the God hypothesis. They are often untestable arguments. How does one prove that prayers are answered only when what you ask for is really good? It is untestable as the definition of 'good' in reality depends on whether the prayer is answered or not and hence will always be true. That God works in mysterious ways is calling on theology to hold God's actions above investigation. How does one predict the outcome of the actions of a God who is by definition mysterious?

Cognitive Dissonance

These excuses are a mix of different logical fallacies. And the believers seem to always know exactly what God would do and why! The believers seem to be quite capable of reading God's mind!

The reason for coming up with these excuses can be explained with the theory of Cognitive Dissonance. When we have conflicting thoughts, we tend to reduce the conflict by a) changing the cognitions b) adding cognitions or c) altering the importance of cognitions. When believers see a conflict between the idea of a God that has infinite love and a natural calamity, they rationalize it perhaps as God's “mysterious plan”. When prayers are not answered, they rationalize that perhaps the wish was after all not good for them, a classic case of sour grapes. Aesop knew!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Christian Origins: 14. Looking Back

14. Looking Back

Christianity as we have been seeing, has a murky past. Many Christians are completely unfamiliar with the religion's history. Christianity's origins are obscure and are not as Christian orthodoxy would have us believe. In the first few centuries we see a mass of variant traditions, beliefs and dogmas. Under the watchful eyes of the Roman Empire, the "orthodox" traditions evolved and beat out the "heretical" sects. The religion has a very violent history, especially during the medieval times.

To make the claim that it is all the work of a loving God requires one to ignore a lot of evidence to the contrary.

Let's quickly enumerate some of the problems with the New Testament that we have discussed so that we get a feel for the cumulative weight of all the evidence.
  • The gospels are anonymous works. We do not know who wrote them. But they now are attributed to figures of apostolic authority.
  • Many of the epistles are written fraudulently in someone else's name (Pseudepigrapha) to give it authority.
  • The gospels seem to have been written decades after the events they describe.
  • The gospels are not four independent accounts. The synoptic problem suggests that the authors were copying and modifying and redacting each other.
  • The gospels and epistles are reinterpreting the Old Testament and drawing new interpretations. We see extensive use of midrash or retelling of old stories in new settings.
  • Claims of prophesy fulfilled are often words taken completely out of context.
  • We do not have the original autographs of the texts.
  • We do not know what the originals said. We have multiple variant readings. We can't reconstruct the originals as we don't have manuscripts that are early enough, let alone the originals.
  • The books seem to have gone through multiple rounds of redaction before reaching a form close to what we have today.
  • The Gospels, Acts and the epistles are not mutually consistent in what they report. The Jesus in the gospels is a composite figure.
  • The earth shattering events in gospel story are not attested to by any contemporary historian.
  • No contemporary historian writes about Jesus of Nazareth.
  • There are clearly legendary details in the Bible – virgin birth, miraculous star, massacre of infants, miracles, sun going dark, zombies walking around, resurrection etc.
  • A symbolic and theological agenda is clearly visible in the texts.
  • We have many apocryphal texts. There is no good or scientific reasons for holding the canonical texts, authoritative and the 'apocryphal' ones, heresies.
  • The New Testament canon has never been universally accepted, till date.
The problems with the Biblical texts are manifold and non-trivial. To suggests that this is all the work of a omniscient deity trying to get us all to believe in him, is clearly ridiculous.

The mind boggles at the suggestion that God incarnated on earth and died for us, but left us with this muddled mess as evidence! Apparently, God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to die an agonizing death but forgot to have this recorded in the contemporary books of history. The Son's life and death apparently inspired a mass of variant beliefs some of which survive to this day. But we know very little, if anything, about this Son of God or what he taught.

The Holy Bible was written and redacted or modified by many different people with varying agendas over a very long period of time. It was compiled to promote theological and possibly political agendas. It is painfully obvious that they do not all fit together as if all of it were inspired by one Omniscient God.

The jealous and violent Yahweh or El Elyon of the Old Testament and the violent crucifixion, antisemitism and apocalyptic message and imagery of the New Testament clashes with the message of loving one's neighbor that many modern Christians like to project.

One is forced to relegate much of the Bible as allegory, symbolism and myth to hold on to the Christian faith. The only other options are to ignore the facts or live in ignorance of facts.

[This concludes my series of posts on the origins of Christianity.]

Christian Origins: 13. Schisms

13. Schisms

In the fourth century AD, Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire. It was no longer persecuted by the state. Soon, by the end of the fourth century it was the state religion and heretic sects and pagans were converted at the pain of death. It was around these times that the winter solstice holiday or the birthday of Solar deities (Sol Invictus and others) was co-opted by Christians. Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25. Christianity never looked back and during the medieval times was a major power player in Europe.

The Ecumenical Councils

However, Christianity was hardly a monolithic faith. In the pursuit of universally accepted dogmas, many ecumenical councils were held. How Jesus the son and God the father were related was the issue at hand at the Council of Nicaea. It was convened by Emperor Constantine in 325 AD. The Nicene Creed declared that the Son was begotten, not made and was of one substance with the Father. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD declared that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, at the same time.

The Great Schism

Despite the councils and the efforts of the church, the variant and heretic sects remained and differences persisted. Though having the weight of the Roman Empire behind it helped root out some of the heresies, some did not quite die away. The Churches of the East (Greek) and the West (Latin) had a fall out and eventually split in AD 1054. The split was, at least on paper, primarily over the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the both the Father and the Son or just the Father (the Filioque controversy). It was accompanied by much politics in the background and a good dose of drama.

The Reformation

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century saw many Protestant Churches break away from the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England also broke away from the Catholic Church leaving it a much smaller and weaker power broker.

In the last two centuries many many more denominations emerged; Pentecostal denominations, Jehovah's Witness, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) and many many more. According to the "World Census of Religious Activities" by the U.N, there were over 23,000 sects of Christianity by 1989. [1]

[To be continued... Next Chapter: Looking Back ]


[1] World Census of Religious Activities, U.N. Information Center, NY, 1989.
[Note: I have only seen citations of this report; haven't actually seen the report.]

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Christian Origins: 12. Evolutionary Strands

12. Evolutionary Strands

What the early Christian writings tell us is that there were vastly variant beliefs before they all coalesced into what became orthodox Christianity. Once Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, it ruthlessly beat out all variant branches and burnt their writings or just stopped making copies of the heretic writings which meant they did not survive. The fact that all those writing are now lost makes it difficult for us to piece together the origins very precisely.

But here is a quick sampling of some of the interesting branches of early Christianity.


Docetism was a strand of Christian theology (variant from what became the orthodox theology) that seem to have been popular during the second century. The proponents thought that Jesus only seemed to be human but did not actually suffer during his crucifixion. If you think about it, it actually seems to make better sense. Why would the Son of God have to suffer? Why not just the appearance of suffering, the docetists seem to have thought!

Christian Gnosticism

Gnostic sects believed that a creator God or demiurge put us here on earth and there is a bit of divinity in us. Realizing this truth or getting the secret knowledge or gnosis was the way to attain salvation from this material world. Many gnostic sects are believed to have existed, some of them with a Revealer figure who aids in the attainment of the knowledge.

The Christian Gnostic sects equated Jesus to this revealer figure. The Johannine Gospel has Jesus revealing to everyone who would listen that he was the way, the bread of life, the light of the world etc. This Gospel is considered by some to have had Gnostic roots.


We know of the second century Marcion of Sinope who reputedly bankrolled the Church of Rome for a while. But he had a falling out and found himself excommunicated. Marcion's theology apparently was quite popular and he did not identify the Jewish Yahweh as the Father of Jesus. Yahweh was relegated to the position of a demigod while Jesus' father was a God of love. This was in contrast with the Christian orthodoxy that came to believe that Yahweh was indeed Jesus' father.

Marcion appears to have used a collection of ten Pauline epistles and a version of the Gospel of Luke. The versions he used were either stripped and modified to suite his purposes or it is the versions that came down to us that got redacted. We don't know for sure and this is a source of much controversy and speculation.

Copies of Marcion's canon unfortunately have not survived. In fact, most of what we know about Marcion comes from church fathers like Tertullian and Epiphanius who make no secret of the fact that they did not like him or his theology so much! It is even a mainstream view that the Orthodox New Testament canon that evolved was a response to Marcion's canon.


The little that we know about the Ebionites is from polemical writings of Church fathers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons. The Ebionites seem to have been Judaizers, following the Mosaic laws unlike what became orthodox Christianity. They seem to have rejected the doctrine of virgin birth of Jesus and believed that Christ descended into a human Jesus after his baptism. They also rejected apostle Paul and Pauline Christianity. [1]


The Valentinians were a gnostic sect. They seem to have believed in an invisible, incomprehensible, eternal, unbegotten, perfect and preexistent God called Bythus (or Proarche, Propator). Bythus along with Sige who coexisted with him gave rise to lesser Aeons.

Of these was Sophia, a degenerate Aeon who suffered from a desire to search and comprehend the greatness of the father Bythus who, as you might remember was invisible, incomprehensible! To purify Sophia, more Aeons were produced including Christ and the savior Jesus, the second Christ.

The Demiurge, a lesser divine is the creator god in this theology. Some men fashioned by the Demiurge have a spiritual element which when perfected by Gnosis or knowledge of God becomes ready for salvation. To bring this about, to secure this salvation, the savior descended to earth and took on an animal form. Upon salvation, these men will enter the higher heaven.

Lesser men who are of animal nature (and lacking the spiritual element) can enter the lower heavens provided they are righteous.

The Valentinians believed that the savior descended in the form of dove at the time of Baptism and departed when Jesus was brought before Pilate. All this we know from church father Irenaeus of Lyons' polemical text Against Heresies where he rips into their beliefs. [2]


Arius of Alexandria (AD 250–336) taught that the son Jesus was secondary to God the Father. This was a major competitor to Christian Orthodoxy which was defined by the Council of Nicea which gave Christianity the Nicene creed.

Nestorianism and Monophysitism

Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople (386-450 AD) taught that Jesus had two natures, a divine one and a human one. Monophysitism on the other hand insisted that Jesus had a single nature which was divine (or a mix of divine and human). Christian Orthodoxy that emerged victorious at the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) decided that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, simultaneously.

And there were many many more strands in the evolution of what became Christianity. Montanism, Sabellianism, the Borborites, the Carpocratians, the Basilideans and many more that has been lost to us.

Some of the writings which were considered heretic were destroyed by the Church. Many others were just not copied and were consequently lost to time. We know very little of many of the sects that were active during the first and second centuries. We attempt to reconstruct what they thought from the Church Father's polemic writings. Some of the recent findings like the early Christian gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi and the Jewish writing from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) give us snapshots of these ancient times. But we'll probably always know that we don't know enough!

But what we do know is that early Christianity was a mass of varying views. What came to be known as orthodox Christianity had a long painful evolution from these strands.

The view that Jesus taught the disciples, died and with the Holy Ghost guidance Peter and Paul and the rest founded a Church and spread the word far and wide with a teaching that is identical to what Christians believe today is a naive view. What the evidence tells us happened is quite different!

The New Testament Canon

The twenty seven books of the New Testament that we today see in most Bibles were declared by the Church to be canonical or authoritative. This canonization process happened gradually and over a long period of time. The four gospels were considered as authoritative as early as the late second century by the proto-orthodox Christians. But there were disputes on which other books to retain and which not to. For instance, the book of Revelation, Philemon, Hebrews etc. were not accepted by many. The Acts of Peter, the epistle of Barnabas, Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter, the epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans, 3rd Corinthians, the book of Hermas, the epistles of Clement etc. were accepted by many to be authoritative.

The Council of Trent in 1546 A.D made the canon of twenty seven books an absolute article of faith for the Catholics. The Protestant churches followed suit shortly thereafter. [3]

[To be continued... Next Chapter: Schisms ]


Friday, May 3, 2013

Christian Origins: 11. Apostolic Traditions

11. Apostolic Traditions

Traditions about Peter and Paul

We do not have much evidence of the life and journeys of the disciples of Jesus. To be sure, we have plenty of legends. Peter is supposed to have been the first Bishop of the Church at Rome, which he also founded. The Gospel after all, has Jesus say that Peter was the rock on whom the church of God would be built! Credible historic evidence however, is very light. What we do have is of dubious nature. The apocryphal acts that we have are fanciful and difficult to believe as history.

Hippolytus of Rome (170 – 235) supposedly wrote 'On the Twelve Apostles of Christ', and 'On the Seventy Apostles of Christ', telling us what the apostles did and how they died. However, historians suspect these to be spurious works by later hands.

Peter's martyrdom in Rome is a late tradition. Clement, the Bishop of Rome mentions Peter and Paul passing away after much hardship. However, he does not say they were martyred or that they died in Rome. That is a curious omission considering that Clement was a bishop of Rome and supposedly a successor to Peter. Tertullian, writing towards the end of the second century is the earliest author who claims that Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. Much later, Origen reports that Peter was crucified upside down!

Paul left for us a corpus of epistles. The 'authentic' Pauline epistles are often dated to around AD 50. The Acts of the Apostles which talks about Paul's conversion and his evangelical work is now considered to be a second century work, which is more fiction than history. [1] With just the epistles to go by, dating the epistles securely is difficult as it has few historic markers. In spite of this, the vast majority of scholars consider the Pauline corpus a product of the first century. Scholars like Hermann Detering and Robert M. Price take the minority position that it was a second century work possibly attributed to a legendary preacher from earlier times. [2] [3]

The Rest of the Cast

Though we lack credible historical information about the disciples, a cottage industry of traditions, legends, relics and tombs have stepped in to fill the void.

The disciple James the son of Zebedee is reputed to have been martyred in Jerusalem by the sword of Herod Agrippa (c.f. Acts 12:2).

The Acts of Andrew, an apocryphal work has the disciple Andrew martyred by crucifixion at Patras near Athens. Andrew is bound to a cross rather than nailed. Many relics including a small finger, the top of his skull, pieces of the cross etc can now be found at Church of St Andrew at Patras.

Tradition has disciple John die of natural causes and old age in Ephesus in present day Turkey. There is an alternate tradition attributed to church father Papias where he is slain by the Jews.

The Acts of Philip has Philip preaching in Greece, Phrygia (Turkey) and Syria and martyred in city of Hierapolis in Phrygia. He is crucified upside down on a cross. Some legends have him beheaded.

According to the Church historian Eusebius and St. Jerome, the disciple Bartholomew went to India to preach. Other legends hold that he was either beheaded or flayed alive in Armenia. Disciple Nathaniel (who is mentioned in the gospel of John but goes unmentioned in the Synoptics) and Bartholomew are held by Christian apologists to be the one and the same person.

Matthew, the supposed author of a Gospel is reputed to have originally written it in Hebrew. Scholars however believe that that the original language of the gospel of Matthew was Greek. Legends have him go as a missionary to many countries. Catholic tradition has him meet a martyr's end. The tax collector Matthew is by the way, called Levi in the gospel of Mark.

Thomas is another disciple reputed to have traveled to India. [4] Thomas is supposed to have been speared to death in India. There is a tomb of Thomas at Mylapore, Chennai (Madras). Thomas is considered to have founded seven and half churches in Kerala (India) and St. Thomas Christians of Kerala consider themselves to be descendants of these converts.

Church father Hippolytus suggests that the James son of Alphaeus, another disciple from the synoptics was stoned to death in Jerusalem. The Coptic church of Egypt on the other hand suggests that he was crucified in Egypt.

Simon Peter is not the only Simon in the list of disciples. Simon the Zealot has many different traditions associated with him. He reputedly was either crucified in Samaria or martyred in present day England or Georgia or sawn in half in Persia.

Judas son of James is usually identified with Thaddaeus who is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. The book of Acts of Simon and Jude has him martyred in Beirut.

Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus either committed suicide (cf. Matthew 27:3–10) or died of a ruptured gut (cf. Acts 1:18).

Per the Acts of the Apostles, Mathias was the replacement for Judas Iscariot. Depending on which tradition you rely on, he was either crucified or stoned and then beheaded or just died of old age.

Catholic traditions have Mary, the mother of Jesus ascending into heaven, human body and soul. One tradition has her live in Ephesus along with the beloved disciple of Jesus until death. There is an empty tomb in Jerusalem claiming to be hers. The tomb is empty, presumably because the body ascended into heaven leaving the tomb empty!

Establishing what the smaller cast members like Mary Magdalene or Joseph of Arimathea, Mary of Bethany or Lazarus went on to do is far more difficult. What we again do have are legends. Mary Magdalene's alleged relationship with Jesus (which Dan Brown makes much hay of) falls squarely in the region of late legends. We have no reason whatsoever to believe any of that is rooted in history.

All of these are pious fictions and legends. There is little if any credible historical evidence for these traditions. The abundance of clearly conflicting stories tells us that that early Christians had no trouble imagining and cooking up stories to demonstrate successful evangelization and martyrdom.

[To be continued... Next Chapter: Evolutionary Strands ]


[1] Richard I. Pervo, "The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling its Story", Polebridge Press (2008).
[2] Hermann Detering, "The Dutch Radical Approach to the Pauline Epistles".
[3] Robert M. Price, "The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul", Signature Books (2012),
[4] Benedict XVI, "Thomas the twin", Libreria Editrice Vaticana (2006).