There’s a long list of ‘coulda-shoulda’ divine interventions
Based on prayer activity alone, we can assume that Christians believe God meddles regularly in human affairs—otherwise, why would they pray so much? Even on Facebook, devout folks muster prayer marathons to bring God’s attention to those who might have fallen off the divine radar.
Of course, skeptics have a long list of human catastrophes that provoke suspicions about God’s power and goodness: why hasn’t he intervened to put an end to a lot of really bad stuff? Historian Barbara Tuchman has suggested that The Black Plague in the 14th century—which brought horrifying death to about a quarter of the human population between India and Britain—might have been the beginning of the end for confident piety in the West. The suffering was so inexplicable. (Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, 1987)
The next big thing on the skeptics’ list is the Holocaust: if God didn’t rescue his Chosen People, just what is he up to in his management of the world? Even today I hear believers talk about God being ‘in control’ of history. How so? Darrel Ray has put the Holocaust in the broader context of 20th century violence: “It took two world wars for the Europeans to realize that the prayers of millions of people were not answered. It doesn’t take much intelligence to see that god isn’t working too well when 92 million people died in two world wars.” (p. 75, Darrel W. Ray, The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Cultures, 2009)
God seems to be the Missing Miracle-Worker.
Yet despite all the evidence disconfirming the existence of the kind of god Christians want, they insist that the Miracle-Worker has been on the job, and they commonly cherish one divine intervention especially. Christianity itself, we are assured, is a miracle. It should never have survived the brutalities of the ancient world—and its own stark theology—had not God’s manipulations enabled it to survive and thrive. Given God’s inattention to massive episodes of evil, if anything falls into the oh-give-me-a-break category, this would be it. Nonetheless, this claim deserves to be debunked as much as any of the other miracles that Christians tout.
A specialist on this subject is Richard Carrier, who has a doctorate in ancient history from Columbia University; he must also now be ranked as one of the top Jesus scholars on the planet. He contributed an essay to John W Loftus’ 2011 anthology, The End of Christianity. The title of the essay is “Christianity’s Success Was Not Incredible,” based on his 2009 book, Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed. This is good homework if you want to understand Christianity’s survival and expansion as one cult among many in the ancient world.
Was God giving Christianity a boost right from start? In Acts 4:4 we read that “… many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.” Was this claim based on research and polling? Or was the author’s enthusiasm at work here? Carrier points that, by the year 110 CE, the senior Roman official Pliny the Younger (a senator, attorney general and governor) “…had never in his life even seen any Christians. He had no idea what they believed…” “That’s 80 years after the movement is supposed to have begun,” Carrier notes, “the equivalent then of nearly two entire lifetimes and more than four generations. The number of Christians must have been exceedingly small for a very long time, of no greater account than any lunatic fringe.”
And did God help the new religion bring the Roman Empire to its knees? “…the claim that the rise of Christianity caused the fall of the Roman Empire is a myth,” Carrier explains. “It was the other way around: the fall of the Roman Empire caused the triumph of Christianity. Its success was a symptom of a decaying age of anxiety and despotism.”
Since the Christians believed in a God who had been crucified, surely no one would have bought that. But Carrier notes that gods who had suffered humiliation held wide appeal among the lower classes, and the idea of a tortured god was nothing new: one of the top Sumerian goddesses, Inanna “…was stripped naked and crucified, yet she rose from the dead and, triumphant, condemned to hell her lover, the shepherd-god Dumuzi. This became the center of a major Sumerian sacred story, preserved in clay tablets that date back over a thousand years before Christ.”
Carrier explains as well that, while there was anti-Semitism in the ancient world, Judaism also was attractive because of its deep roots and austere moral laws. Christianity was a new variety of Judaism, and the new sect benefited when the apostle Paul cancelled circumcision as a membership requirement.
The quote from Acts 4:4 is another tipoff that no miracles were required for the new cult to succeed: “… many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.” Just like that? In Acts 3 we read that the crowd had heard Peter give a speech filled with typical preacher-talk to win converts. This was an age of high illiteracy and low command of critical thinking skills.
Carrier offers a dose of reality: “When we pore over all the documents that survive, we find no evidence that any Christian convert did any fact-checking before converting or even would have done so. We can rarely even establish that they could have, had they wanted to…Indeed, every Christian who actually tells us what convinced him explicitly says he didn’t check any facts but merely believed upon hearing the story and reading the scriptures and just “feeling” it was right.”
Carrier’s essay covers many other aspects of early Christian success, e.g. its recruitment tactics, and its weird beliefs that would have appealed to superstitious masses at the time—but that are far below the standards one would expect from a divine mind. His concluding paragraph begins with this statement:
“All attempts to argue that Christianity’s origin and success were supernaturally special only end up exposing how not special it is and how not supernatural its origins and success were. Because a close look at the actual facts fully undermines the claim that Christianity ever had the backing of God.”
So, back to reality: millions of people who died horribly in the Black Plague and in the Holocaust clearly did not have God’s backing either. Christians want us to believe that there is a God who declined to block these calamities, but, once upon a time, used his powers to help Christianity get on its feet. How can that possibly make sense?
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith was published last year by Tellectual Press.