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Why Christianity is Different

There are a lot of people out there that think that religions are all the same, and a large number of those people are Christians themselves.  The idea is that there really isn’t any true explanation out there, and anyway, it would be rude, or arrogant, to say that you’ve got it, even if you think you do.  This pretty well numbs the Christians who hold such a view from doing any evangelism… it would be rude… but these folks forget that their Scriptures do not define ‘religion’ the way it has been used all over the place for centuries.  You find it in James as “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

This is a great chasm away from notions that a religion (or the Christian ‘religion,’ at least) is a set of beliefs, typically subjective beliefs that cannot be proved or disproved.  What James says ought to cut to the heart of most of the Christian church which seems to have thought that acceptable religion in God’s eyes centers around building massive church buildings and singing hymns in line with those ‘subjective beliefs.’

But Christianity, unlike nearly every belief system out there (including non-belief systems), is not based on a subjective claim at all.  It is based on an objective claim, which if it can’t be substantiated, Christianity is simply false.  That claim is the resurrection of Jesus.  1 Corinthians 15 makes it clear that if Jesus was not raised, our faith is futile.  This is placed in the context of a series of specific historical appearances of Jesus.

Later Christianity did not in the slightest diminish the importance of this claim.  If you examine the Apostle’s Creed, for example, you will find a very large chunk of material that has nothing to do with any doctrine of Christianity at all, but rather a list of historical facts:  “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,  suffered under Pontius Pilate,  was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again;” http://www.creeds.net/ancient/apostles.htm

The bolded are actually historical claims, and they are being made centuries later.  The Nicene Creed repeats this material  Compare and contrast this with Mormonism or even Islam:  in both cases, the ‘founders’ received their message in private.  Jesus hung on a cross in the midst of hundreds, preached in public- often- and appeared to many people later on, including, as Paul says in 1 Cor 15, “500 people at the same time, many of whom are still alive.”

Thus, the content of what Jesus said was not a secret, and his appearances were not limited to one or two individuals.  This is really a remarkable thing, because what it means is that God respects our need to have a reasonable basis for believing something.  He does not, according to Christianity, send subjective proofs or fables that are not set within a historical context.  He immerses himself in our world at a real place at a real time in our world’s history, and then performs a feat upon which everything else is given to hinge on.

Very few of the ‘religious’ rivals of Christianity can boast to having such an epistemological robust verification scheme.  In fact, you would be hard put to produce any.  What this leaves us in our modern day is the question of whether or not we will treat a historically verified fact as having a legitimate claim to being considered ‘knowledge.’  This is a matter of presuppositions.  Many people will say that they will elevate empirical claims over a historical one any day, and they may feel that they have (and may have) good reasons for doing so, but this does not change the fact that Christianity rests on a historical claim- not an empirical one.  As such, it is open to historical methodologies that we would employ in any other historical inquiry- no special treatment, thank you- and let the pieces fall where they may.

Can you think of any other ‘religion’ that says “You could disprove me by doing ‘x’” ?

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3 Responses to Why Christianity is Different

  1. Thus, the content of what Jesus said was not a secret, and his appearances were not limited to one or two individuals. This is really a remarkable thing…

    What makes it remarkable is that, given the number of people who allegedly witnessed his miracles and post-resurrection appearances, there aren’t more independent historical references to substantiate the claims.

    Very few of the ‘religious’ rivals of Christianity can boast to having such an epistemological robust verification scheme.

    That is certainly true, and, as you point out, Islam, Mormonism and now Scientology all rest upon the unverifiable claims of a single person. While this makes Christianity a little more admirable, in that it more easily disproved, painting this as one of Christianity’s virtues is also a little hypocritical.

    After all, Christians love a good miracle.

    Can you think of any other ‘religion’ that says “You could disprove me by doing ‘x’” ?

    Rabbits in the pre-Cambrian, anyone? :-)

    (not that we think evolution is a religion… but it’s detractors certainly like to pretend we do)

  2. Not wishing to sound like a Mormon apologist, but there actually are historically testable claims within the privately revealed revelations of Joseph Smith Jr – most notably the claim that the Americas were peopled by various groups of Israelites who travelled across the pacific ocean in boats. So the sharp dividing line which you would like to draw between Christianity and other religions may be a product of wishful thinking.

    Ironically, having debated with Mormons about the dubious historicity of the Book of Mormon saga, I know that they employ modes of argument extremely similar to those much used by orthodox christian creationists while they defend their religion’s falsifiable claims. The anti-Mormon bias of scholars who dispute the BoM account is trumpeted. Minor points of the accumulated evidence (genetic, archaelogical and anthropological) for the peopling of the Americas via a land bridge across the Bering Strait are attacked, as if the entire theory would fall if they did. Glaring anachronisms (horses, wheels, steel and elephants in pre-Columbian Central America) are ignored or explained away with post hoc rationalisations which have absolutely nothing to recommend them other than their utility in rescuing faith from the jaws of reason once again.

    So I’d say that you’re doing your fellow theists a major disservice here. You’re really not so different after all. :-)

  3. Good points, DB… although, to be fair, I think SJ’s point is not that Christianity makes historically testable claims, but that it explicitly states that if one claim in particular is proven false, then they’ll admit they made the whole thing up (or at least, that they were mistaken).

    My knowledge of Mormonism is admittedly a lot less extensive than yours, but as far as I’m aware, they don’t put their hands up and say “OK guys, if you can prove that Joseph Smith’s golden tablets were actually petrified horse shit, then we’ll admit we were wrong”.

    Of course, given that each claim is, for all intents and purposes, inherently unverifiable, perhaps this is a distinction not worth making. :-)

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