Friday, June 27, 2008

Could Jesus Have Been An Atheist?

According to Christian orthodoxy, established by the Counsel of Calcedon in 451 C.E., Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. (The prior Nicean Creed merely stated that Jesus and the Father are of a single substance.) But if this is the case, one might wonder, then could Jesus have questioned/doubted the existence of God? As the spurious “Johannine Comma”—textually removed from many Bibles today, but theologically retained by most denominations—confirms, Jesus (along with the Father and Holy Spirit) is God. This is, of course, the ontological doctrine Trinitarianism.

Now, it follows from this that Jesus, as a fully human being, would have been in a very privileged “epistemic situation,” as it were, with respect to God’s existence. Indeed, if anyone can know with Cartesian certainty that one exists, surely it is God; and since Jesus is God, our syllogism concludes that Jesus must have known with Cartesian certainty that God (that he himself) exists. But what are the implications of this deduction? First of all, it follows that Jesus’s sublunary predicament was fundamentally different from that of all other human beings—fundamentally different in the epistemic sense because of a fundamental difference in the ontological sense.

My reasonable claim: A deep, intrinsic aspect of the human condition is that we can never know with absolute certitude whether God does or does not exist. The theistic and atheistic hypotheses are not, in Popperian terms, falsifiable. And while the empirically-minded naturalist can adduce compelling evidence for the proposition that God does not exist, it is thanks to David Hume that we now recognize the nature of such endeavors as, at best, probabilistic (although this is a very complicated matter). Nevertheless, we can conclude from the premises (i) Jesus could not have questioned God’s (his own) existence, and (ii) a central feature of being human involves an unbridgeable epistemic gap (between the human mind and epistemic certitude about God’s existence), that Jesus could not have been fully human.

Now, consider the proposition that Jesus, as a fully divine being, would not have really suffered during his crucifixion (despite the horrendous visual hyperbole of Mel Gibson’s cinematic portrayal). What reason does one have for thinking this? People cite two primary reasons for experiencing existential death anxiety: (1) Many people are uncertain about an afterlife, esp. one involving, as the Bible puts it, “gnashing of teeth.” There are two possibilities here for any individual A, assuming for a moment that God does exist: (i) A is an atheist, and therefore A incurs damnation for failing to believe in any God, and (ii) A affiliates with a false faith, and therefore A incurs damnation for failing to believe in the true God. And (2) a second reason for death anxiety is that many (or all?) people fear the physical/psychological pain of dying.

How do these existential solicitudes apply to Jesus, given that Jesus was a compulsory theist—that is, a theist by ontological necessity? To begin, for the very reason that Jesus was a necessary theist, the first concern could not have applied: not only did Jesus know with absolute epistemic certitude that God exists, but he also knew that the existent Deity is not that of Islam, Greek mythology, etc., but rather the God of Christianity (although the use of this term here is anachronistic).

With respect to the second concern, I am dubious that anyone would really suffer much, no matter how excruciating the pain, with the absolutely certain knowledge that everlasting life in the infinite, ineffable bliss of God’s empyreal abode awaits one after the final expiration. Indeed, psychological studies have shown that the subjective perception of pain can be significantly modulated by one’s psychic attitudes. For example, Melzack and Wall (1984) reported cases of WWII soldiers who sustained serious injuries feeling little or no pain, and even declining medical attention. In contrast, civilians with the very same injuries experience severe, unbearable pain. Thus, we can conclude that, for Jesus’s passion to retain the meaning that Christians confer to it, Jesus could not have been fully divine (or even partly divine, insofar as being fully/partly divine entails direct knowledge of God’s existence, the reality of heaven, and the eternal fate of one’s soul in that heaven).

The result is a problematic tension between the claims that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, which stands as the orthodox Christology. This adds yet more incoherence to an Everest-like mountain of incoherence upon which Christianity is founded.

1 comment:

xtransoc said...


The human/divine nature of Christ is generally (to the extent of my knowledge) thought to be a concept that the human mind does not have the ability to conceive.

The nature of Christ's humanity and divinity is agreed upon as a concept that is revealed in the Christian's Holy Writ, but not necessarily a concept that jives with our brains. It gives a Christian a sense of relationship, and a high value of the person of Christ within the religious belief system.

Because we (Christians) can’t fit the pieces of the puzzle together, doesn’t mean we come to a conclusion that the entire system of beliefs is false.