Jesus and the Celestial Teapot

Weighing probabilities

I have an app on my phone that measures the quality of sleep; so, first thing every morning, I reach for the phone to check the data. Earlier this week, this message was included:


“It’s not uncommon that we imagine sounds and visions to be very real when we’re sleeping, as mirages in a desert. The brain doesn’t much care about our idea of what’s real or not.”


It was cool to encounter this bit of wisdom when I woke up! The same can be said about our perceptions of reality when we’re awake. We tend to like our imaginings—and those of others, especially those of authority figures. There’s a reason our vocabulary includes the term brainwash. Religious imaginings especially can be addictive. We can be taught to resist the data the natural world supplies to our senses, and we develop defenses to protect cherished beliefs, despite disconfirming information. We succumb to confirmation bias and make attempts to overcome cognitive dissonance. 


This observation about “very real visions” brought to mind one of the most disastrous texts of the New Testament, in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: 


“For I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12)


Here Paul is bragging about his direct communications with Jesus via his visions. But his brain didn’t care whether these were real or not. Indeed, that question would never have occurred to him. Today, however, we call these events hallucinations. Of course, all religions assume that their own visions are real, while discounting the visions of rival faiths; Protestants, for example, dismiss as nonsense the ubiquitous visions of Mary.


But Paul’s hallucinations of a dead man talking to him illustrate how vulnerable the Christian faith is. Devout believers protest, of course, that Paul had visions of a newly alive man. The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the Christian faith, but Christians rarely ask how this belief arose. Who was the first person to say that this had happened? The gospel of Mark tells us this:


When the women “…entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” (Mark 16:5-6)


So was it this anonymous young man sitting in the tomb who broke the news to the world? Since Mark was the first gospel written, this might be considered evidence—by the faithful at least—that the resurrection happened. But a careful reading of Mark’s gospel by lay people—and, of course, by scholars who have studied the gospel in depth—give ample reason to suspect that Mark was not writing history; there is so much fantasy and folklore in his gospel. And how would Mark have found out what a young man in the tomb said? The women “…went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s where the gospel originally ended. 


The belief in Jesus’ resurrection arose long before any of the gospels were written. Because Paul’s letters are a major portion of the New Testament, it is sometimes said that Paul “invented Christianity,” but there was a Jesus sect that existed well before Paul hallucinated his way into it. But because of Paul’s missionary zeal—and the good press that he received from the writer of the Book of Acts—his theology achieved prominence. Indeed, Mark’s gospel may very well be narrative created to promote Paul’s theology. Tom Dykstra makes this point in his book, Mark Canonizer of Paul


Thus we have to pay close attention to Paul’s claim that he didn’t find out about Jesus from human sources: his fervent belief that Jesus had resurrected is based on his hallucinations. But that is so shaky. What else can we find in the New Testament to make the case? The faithful—if they’re paying close attention—should be alarmed.


·      In the four gospel accounts of the resurrection—well, its aftermath: as Robert Conner has pointed out, nobody saw it happen—there are so many contradictions. This is hardly a surprise, since the gospels were written decades later and none of the authors mention the sources for their accounts. 


·      Matthew undermines the whole enterprise with his claim that many dead people came alive in their tombs when Jesus died, then walked around Jerusalem on Easter morning. If this is dismissed as a tall tale—Luke and John didn’t care to repeat it—why should we take the resurrection of Jesus seriously?


·      Paul didn’t know the Empty Tomb story; apparently in his visions of Jesus, that never was disclosed. It seems to be the clumsy invention of the later gospel writers. 


·      But most embarrassingly of all: belief in resurrected gods wasn’t all that unusual in the ancient world, going all the way back to vegetation gods who were thought to die in the fall and come alive again in the spring. 


[The literature on the weakness of the Christian resurrection story is vast. A good place to start in John Loftus’ essay, “The Resurrection of Jesus Never Took Place,” in his anthology, The Case Against Miracles.]


Of course, the will—the determination—to believe that Jesus rose from the dead is strong. Christians are obsessed with this guarantor of eternal life: “With God all things are possible…” and we hear as well, “Can you prove it didn’t happen?” 


But possible really isn’t the issue here. What is probable, and who has the burden of proof? One of the most famous statements of this problem was written by Bertrand Russell in 1952:  


“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. 


“But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

A few years later, Russell added this:

“I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.”


So is the resurrection of a Galilean peasant preacher any more probable a celestial teapot? There are several reasons—as I mentioned above—for accepting the gospels stories as religious fantasies designed to put Paul’s hallucinations into narrative form.


But putting all that aside, billions of Christian are confident that Jesus is even now a living force in their own lives. Is this Jesus whom the faithful worship and adore—with whom they are sure they have a personal relationship—is this Jesus any more probable than the celestial teapot? We’re back to fond imaginings that are disconfirmed by theism itself. If Jesus is a part of God, with whom humans can have personal relationships, it’s strange that devout Jewish and Muslim theists—who spend as much time in prayer and meditation as Christians do—haven’t “found Jesus.” And this is because…well, because their imaginings about God don’t include Jesus as savior. How can some theists be so out of touch with the real God Christians know so well?


It’s just as strange too that different kinds of Christians claim that Jesus gives wildly conflicting answers to prayers—on just about any controversial topic we can imagine. Tim Sledge, author of Goodbye Jesus, sums up the puzzlement that many of us feel:  “We now have a front-row seat to multiple real-time examples of how believing that God is leading you can cripple one’s ability to perceive reality, as we watch evangelicals deny climate change, the seriousness of COVID-19, and the results of a free and fair presidential election.” (Twitter, @Goodbye_Jesus)


It is alarming indeed that many Christians seem to think that Jesus has told them it’s okay to leave home without masks. Hemant Mehta published this article on 3 January 2021: TN Church Holds Three-Day COVID Super-Spreader Conference in the Name of Jesus.” Mehta’s conclusion:

“The simple truth is that there’s a very good chance people in Tennessee will get sick and die because these Christians didn’t give a shit about their lives. They wanted to party in the name of Jesus, and they believe God won’t listen if they gather over Zoom. Their God must be very weak. This is a death cult. And not enough Christians—certainly not enough Christian leaders with large platforms—have the good sense to condemn this act of voluntary harm.”

Let’s wrap up the Jesus/celestial teapot thought experiment. We could argue that it’s possible there’s a planet, on the other side of our galaxy, on which life evolved, producing tea-like plants and intelligent creatures who learned how to make ceramic teapots. These creatures also developed astronomy and space flight, and set out to explore the galaxy. A few million years ago one of their spaceships, passing through our solar system, did a trash dump that included kitchen utensils…and voilà, a teapot ended up in orbit around our star. We could argue that this is possible, while there is no actual data whatever to remove this imagining from the realm of fantasy. 

But wait, what would happen—as Bertrand Russell suggested— “if the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school…” 

Probabilities and requests for data are ignored. 

Voilà too—that’s how we got Jesus, and why the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult has a couple of billion followers today.  


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 by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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