What Does
'Believing In Hell
Disproves Jesus' Mean?
Chris

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: A question concerning Bertrand Russell
Date: October 16, 2001 5:34 AM

Well, then, which is it that you want? my thoughts, or your preconception of what my thoughts would be if I could present them in just the right format for you to take them seriously?

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Reply to a Reply: A question concerning Bertrand Russell
Date: October 17, 2001 4:51 AM

And my original response tried to communicate that the tone of the whole letter made me feel taken advantage of. I still don't understand the gist of your question, what it is that you're asking, only what is and is not acceptable in the way of doing the research and formulating an answer to your question.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Reply to a Reply to a Reply: A question concerning Bertrand Russell
Date: October 18, 2001 7:58 AM

I will get into some preliminary discussion showing why any talk of disproving Jesus is not really valid. Then, I think I got lucky and stumbled on your real question. If I did, I think you'll agree that this was indeed a stroke of luck because what you were asking wasn't even close to what the question really was.
 

It doesn't.

You can't disprove the claim that Jesus existed any more than you can disprove the claim that Santa Claus exists. To say that something exists is to make an existential claim, and it is impossible to empirically disprove any existential claim.

The balance to this seemingly unfair apparent incongruity is known as the burden of proof. This says that the person making an existential claim is responsible for proving that claim to be true: the listener is never obligated to believe an existential claim unless and until the person making it can come up with a compelling reason for the listener to do so. Were it not for the burden of proof, the very fact that I cannot disprove the claim that Jesus existed would force me to believe that he did, in fact, exist.

You can go into depth on the burden of proof by checking out the letter "Reason And Faith: Apples And Oranges" with Todd Smith, which is a pretty thorough explanation of why this is. The letter "The Vice Of Religion Is Firmly Behind Me" with Jeremy Franke is also contains Bertrand Russell's orbiting teapot bit.
 

The reasoning is simple: Don't believe everything you read in the Positive Atheism "De-Conversion Stories" feature. The whole point of that feature is so we can compare notes and perhaps log back on in a few years and see how much we've changed since we wrote that pathetic thing.

Basically, here is how far you can go with the Jesus thing: you cannot go any further than this unless he floats down out of the sky and shakes your hand (and even then, the laws of physics are more reliable than your ability to know that you're not hallucinating or dreaming or whatever, so there comes a point where I'll back off and trust physics over what I appear to be observing -- unless there's a way to repeat the observation at will and allow others to repeat a similar observation at will):

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A man in a brown suit walks up to me and tells me that Jesus is really real.

I roll my eyes and go, "Yeah, right!"

And he goes, "No, really!" and whips out all these arguments.

To make it short, though, the only writing alleged to have come out of the first century that mentions a historical Jesus (that is not part of the New Testament or similar sympathetic document) is a paragraph allegedly from Josephus called the "Testimonium Flavianum" (Antiquities 18:63-64). This is easily shown to have been a forgery.

Well, the guy wearing brown shoes can believe whatever he wants, but this one happens to be real slim and no Christian apologist in his right mind would use it as his main point -- simply because it's so vacant.

Unfortunately, the "Testimonium" is the only thing alleging to have come out of the first century that pretends to give corroborative evidence that a Jesus existed back then. And even if we were to prove that a Jesus thought he was messiah and all that, we still have said nothing of the wild tales and stretched interpretations claimed by the Christian Church -- such as the meaning of the Cross. But as it stands, all we have are several very vague mentions by Paul (several of which are probably forgeries). None of these give any indication as to when Jesus lived, but speak simply of some a supernatural figure who lived and died some time in the past, and who afterwards made appearances to people who were then living when Paul wrote (around C.E. 60 or so). We also have an equally shadowy mention by a James.

Later, at least C.E. 70 but probably closer to 80 or 90, "Mark" (or whoever) writes his Gospel. By the year 100 or so, the four Gospels as we have them today have been published and enjoy relatively wide circulation. The Gospel accounts betray a revising process ("Luke" revising "Matthew" which itself is a revision of "Mark") and clearly appear to be attempts to improve and correct one another. Nothing was written within thirty years of Jesus having allegedly lived.

So what we have is the shakiest of shaky evidence for even the very existence of Jesus. Never mind whether he was raised from the dead, etc.

So I ask him, "Why would I want to drop everything, drop to my knees, and accept Jesus as my personal savior, like you suggest? You need to give me good reasons for doing that!"

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My point is this: He is making the claim. First he needs to tell me what he is saying, because, I don't know until he tells me. Then he needs to back up what he's saying. Until he does this, I'm just a man who, up to that point, had been minding my own business.

Through repeated exposure, we forget that the Gospel tale is just that: a tale. Through repeated exposure to that tale, we somehow get the idea that we ought to know this stuff already. The very idea of God needs to be taught to a culture. Then the kids learn on their Mama's knee. By the time we even grow up, the idea is so familiar that they can get away with browbeating us into thinking that we ought to know this stuff. But we don't "out to know" any such thing!

This is why when someone comes up to me and starts talking about God, I stop and make them tell me what they mean when they utter the sound "god." I don't pretend to know what they're talking about because, in all truth, I doubt that even they know much about what they're talking about.
 

Okay, I think I might know what this was originally supposed to say. I had to read a bunch of Bertrand Russell speeches to be sure, though. If so, then when you see it you'll see why I was so confused.

Properly stated, this argument (if it's the right one) goes something like this:

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Jesus cannot be God and should not even be considered a moral leader simply because he believed in the doctrine of everlasting punishment, that is, in a literal burning Hell.

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In his famous essay, "Why I Am Not A Christian," Bertrand Russell has, as one of his points, "The Moral Problem." In it, he says,

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There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person that is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.... You do not, for instance, find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation.

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In describing the unforgivable "sin against the Holy Ghost," Russell says,

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That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and though that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of this sort into the world.

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Most of this section consists of Russell recounting passages where Jesus talks about hell, and how, when the lines are repeated over and over as in a litany, Russell observes, "it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often."

In summary, Russell says,

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I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world, and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as his chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.

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As you can see, there is not much to this argument.

The real problem with this argument is that it depends on the Bible accounts being true, and I am not ready to give the Bible much weight at all. If I trust the Bible well enough to read it and conclude that Jesus believed in Hell, then I might as well trust it well enough to conclude that he rose from the dead. But with me, this is not the case at all! Thus, I prefer to speak in terms of a "Jesus figure" believing in hell. When I state it like this, I am speaking of a character that people respect and emulate and consider a model of morality, an ideal, the best that humankind has ever produced. As such, this Jesus figure (the fictional character) did believe in Hell and as such is not worthy of my respect; I will not use this model human as a moral guide for my life.

I hope this is what you wanted. If it wasn't then I hope I covered enough of the basic questions regarding whether or not we can prove that Jesus did or did not exist. The most important thing to remember is that they're the ones claiming that he existed, so they're the ones who must come up with the evidence and strong arguments. Like Russell, we may voice our objections, and the teaching of the Christian Hell is certainly a strong and popular objection. But we must remember that that is all they are: objections. We can never empirically prove that Jesus did not exist because you cannot disprove any existential claim.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: Reply to a Reply to a Reply: A question concerning Bertrand Russell
Date: October 19, 2001 3:59 AM

Separated -- from God? Uh -- I -- er, uh -- I guess!

Yeah, right! That's it! After they woke up and realized that the Bible Jesus literally teaches about a literal Hell, they had to do something to it so God could save face. And it makes sense that people who desperately want to believe in God but cannot handle what Jesus taught about Hell would run toward an interpretation like this one with open arms.

If you try really hard and bring in an assortment of other passages and word meanings and exegesis, I guess you might be able to take all this "lake of fire" imagery and going on and on about "wailing and gnashing of teeth" and eventually get "separated from God" out of all that! I mean, nobody would come to this conclusion on their own, but if led through the logic several times, and with the proper motive of protecting God's reputation, I can see it happening.

But I shoulda known that someone who'd connive and pester and degrade until I put myself through what I did would come up with a line like this!

Have a nice life!

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To:
Subject: Re: One final question before I go to band
Date: October 19, 2001 11:36 PM

You die. You don't go to sleep, you die. Life, and everything involved in being alive (including consciousness) ends.

If your conscious, aware "Self" is established by the structures and processes of the brain, then you cease to be when those structures are destroyed and processes cease to function. It will be, for you, as if you had never existed at all.

Life is all you have, and all that's left after you die is the work you've done and the memories you've left -- and a corpse that other people must dispose of.

Death will never touch you; you will never experience death: you will never know that you have died. The only thing you will ever experience is while you're still alive.

Think of your field of vision. You look straight ahead and you can see off to the side, a little blurry but enough so that you can function. But you cannot see behind your head. Why? Because there are no nerves and no photosensitive cells to detect what's going on back there. Is it dark? No. You do not darkness behind your head, it's just not there for you. It's hard for you to even imagine whether or not it's dark back there!

In the same sense, just as it's hard for me to imagine what it "looks like" behind my head in my field of vision (with no nervous system to detect), then it's hard for me to imagine sensing or feeling or being aware of anything if my nervous system has been destroyed by death.

The likelihood of me even having been born is so remote that I cannot even ponder along those lines. The likelihood that Time's "spotlight" happens to be focused right now, in the year 2001, when it's my turn to be alive, rather than a thousand years ago or a million years from now, boggles my mind even more.

That I happen to not only exist at this moment but that I exist as an agent who can ponder his own existence is such an unfathomable stroke of fortune that I dare not waste any of it trying to fool myself with comfortable myths. I am very ashamed of the years I spent telling people (and myself) that there is more to life than what we can detect. Years and years of my only opportunity to ever exist ticked by and I cannot redeem them. I can only do what I can to spend the rest of my days pursuing truth and following her wherever she may lead.

The only thing that keeps me from completely freaking out about the finality of death is the fact that without death, we could never have been. Every one of my ancestors lived long enough to bring their young up to the age of procreation. And every one of them had cousins and siblings that didn't survive. This is natural selection, and without the "weeding out" (through premature death) of countless organisms, we could never be.

Thus, the price for being able to live at all is that there's nothing I can do to keep my life. Nothing. Whenever I start to mope about it, I remind myself that even moping will not change anything. Whenever I get tempted to believe a comfortable myth that tells me something that I cannot verify, I remind myself that even pretending it's not true will not change the finality of death.

But my awareness of the finality of death does have one very important advantage: I will never destroy any person or thing thinking that there is more to this life. Awareness of the finality of death keeps me from committing Jihad. The sometimes terrifying moments that my awareness of the finality of death brings to me are assuaged by the realization that this awareness prevents me from ever committing any of the destruction that almost all religious wars have been about. This awareness prevents me from wanting to make even a single moment unpleasant for another being -- human or animal.

Sometimes I can't help it, such as when I need to get rid of a bug to protect myself and my animals or when dignity demands that I put my foot down and refuse to take any more abuse, but I will never seek to make life unplesant for anybody. This will always and ever be in the form of a response, a reaction.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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