Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Friday, October 13, 2017

They promise eternal life and happiness

A Christadelphian's primary hope is to live forever in a future state of bliss, surrounded by fellow believers and worshipping Jesus and God for eternity. No more sorrow and suffering, no more tears, no more pain, no more death. So the promise goes.

This utopia is apparently available to anyone who wants it. Just give up your ambitions and freedoms in this life, and submit yourself as a slave to a magical, invisible being, and you will be rewarded with more happiness than you can imagine. The sacrifices you make in this life will be more than repaid in the next, and the suffering you endure now will be insignificant compared to the glory you will inherit later. Feeling lucky?

But what are these merchants really selling?

What dreams are made of

It's the ultimate fantasy. A worldwide kingdom of peace. The end of sickness, pain, and death. Eternal life. Eternal happiness. Eternal freedom from the curse of sin and the evils of this fallen world (Christadelphians rarely acknowledge the many good people in the world). They want us to imagine a utopia where we can go anywhere, and enjoy all the natural wonders of the world and of life, without any of the downsides, and a world where no one does anyone else any harm, ever. All of our negative human characteristics will be replaced by perfect attributes, and the world will be rid of everything bad, and be full of everything pure and good.

You may think I am parodying them, but I assure you I am not. It sounds like a fairy tale, but this one is believed by children and adults alike. The descriptions of what this future is supposed to offer are almost always vague, and littered with superlatives and hyperbole. There are only so many ways to describe ultimate bliss, it seems.

Sometimes Christadelphians do try to go into more detail about what people will actually be doing during this time. I've heard talks describing great feasts (seriously - Ezekiel's temple is almost entirely dedicated to eating or sacrificing food!), and teaching the non-Christadelphians about God and trying to preach to them so that they too will want to join the ranks of the immortal saints.

When the evidence of immortality and bliss is right in front of them, I'm not sure how much convincing would be necessary, but the Christadelphian narrative assumes that many, perhaps even most, people would reject eternal life even if it was directly offered in person by evidently immortal beings with clearly demonstrated supernatural powers. Perhaps this is because their message is not readily believed by people today, and thus they assume the same would be true in the future as well. Best to avoid the conclusion that the slow/non-existent growth of their religion today is primarily due to the complete lack of evidence for their claims. No, the reason people don't believe today must obviously be because they just don't want to believe, and thus they would not believe no matter how much evidence was presented. Or perhaps people would reject any offer of eternal life because they prefer evil over good. These are in fact some of the assumptions made by Christadelphians about non-believers today.

The Ugly Details

Of course, part of the Christadelphian narrative is that there will be great resistence to God when Jesus returns to offer peace and happiness to everyone, and thus God will be forced to send in his "army" (why an all-powerful God needs an army I am not sure, but bear with me) and slaughter anyone and everyone who stands in his way. I've heard talks given by Christadelphians about the bloodbath of Armageddon, the epic battle between God and men (as if such a battle makes any sense at all), and the millions of dead bodies left behind afterwards. The speakers made sure to mention the stench of blood from the corpses, and the many years it would take to clean up the "mess". Charming.

But obviously all of this is only necessary because people simply don't know what is best for them. God, who does know what is best, has offered everyone eternal bliss if only they would worship him, but since many people do not want eternal bliss (that is surely the only reason), they refuse to worship God. So God will be forced to kill all of these people. He obviously has no other option, except for, say, educating them, allowing them to live in freedom and peace despite their disagreement, or any number of other peaceful resolutions surely available to an all-powerful, all-knowing being. Nah, just kill them all, exactly the way the people who wrote the Bible would have done it if they were God. Wait, did I say that out loud?

Look, shiny!

This period of tribulation will only last a short time, and we are supposed to forget about this and instead focus our attention on the glorious 1000 year reign of Jesus, when the whole world will be at peace. Because obviously the ends justify the means. Then at the end of the 1000 years, God will finally be able to remove sin and death, something he was unable to do earlier for reasons no one really knows. I have received conflicting answers from Christadelphians. Many seem to think that sin is a necessary or inevitable consequence of free will, and that death is a necessary consequence of sin. I don't know why any of these things are necessary. If you're all-powerful, doesn't that kind of destroy the concept of anything being "necessary"? But where Christadelphians seem to differ from each other is in their answers to the question of whether there will be free will in the kingdom and beyond. Some say there will be no free will, since otherwise they would need another explanation for sin and evil. Others say there will be free will, but never quite explain how God will eradicate sin in that case. If sinless free will is possible in the future, why not now? Why not in the beginning?

But these questions are merely a distraction from the real questions we should be asking about the whole thing.

Is it actually true? How do you know? What evidence is there? Why should anyone believe it? 

I have heard a number of Christadelphians state their confidence in their future salvation and declare how sorry I and other atheists will be when they are proven right. Usually this involves some claim that I will end up standing in front of Jesus and suddenly realise I was wrong. The problem I have with this scenario and others like it, is that it involves a demonstration of exactly the kind of evidence that conspicuously does not currently exist!

The evidence generally presented by Christadelphians often falls into one of two categories. Either it is just plain false (thus ironically revealing their flawed understanding of the evidence), or it doesn't actually necessitate their stated conclusion. That is, there are alternative explanations that work equally well, or are perhaps even more likely (especially if they do not rely on magic).

Let's take the claims about the resurrection of Jesus. First there's the fact that even if the resurrection really happened it still tells us nothing about the accuracy of any words attributed to Jesus. Then consider that the only sources we have are the gospels, the book of Acts, and some writings of Paul. Even if we're extremely generous and say we have maybe a dozen accounts from people who claim to have seen Jesus alive after he died, there are far more such accounts of Elvis, or witches, or UFOs, or Mary (Jesus's mother).

Most of the biblical accounts are anonymous, not first-hand, and are generally agreed by scholars to be biased accounts based on stories that had been passed around for decades. Why would any rational person believe the stories must be true? How is it considered more likely that a person rose from the dead than that stories written in a book might not be factually accurate? We don't need to explain events or miracles or any of that. All we need to explain is how several people might end up writing accounts of a resurrection that never actually happened. The problem for Christadelphians is that there are many other written accounts of miracles throughout history that they don't accept as accurate. For the atheist, there isn't much to explain. Written accounts of events that never happened are very common (even where the authors believed them to be true). Actual resurrections, not so much!

Or what about the claims of fulfilled prophecy? I've written several articles showing why at least some of the prophecies definitely failed, and other articles showing why other prophecies never actually said what Christadelphians claimed. If the idea of ancient books somehow containing cryptic messages foretelling future events is not bizarre enough, surely just one failed prophecy is enough to cast doubt on the whole enterprise!

How about the claims that the Bible was written by a god? Which god? What would you expect it to say if it wasn't written by a god? Perhaps if it wasn't inspired it would sound much like other religious texts. Well isn't that a coincidence! Perhaps if it wasn't inspired it would contain ideas generally held by people from the time and place in which it was written. Bingo! We don't start by assuming books were written by gods. We start by assuming they weren't. That's the null hypothesis. Falsify that, and we'll have made progress.

I don't believe the promises about the afterlife because I don't accept any of the evidence presented to support them. It has nothing to do with not wanting what is being offered. I simply don't believe the offer is real.

An even bigger question

Never mind why I don't believe Christadelphian claims about a future paradise. The bigger question is, "Why do they believe it?"

The vast majority of Christadelphians were probably taught similar ideas by their parents and Sunday School teachers when they were children. Childhood indoctrination remains the number one reason why people grow up believing religious ideas. However, such indoctrination is not perfect, which is why some people eventually reason their way out of religion.

This explanation is demonstrable, and simple. It also nicely explains how we have so many different religions, and why most people tend to adopt the religion of their parents. Furthermore, it explains why religions tend to be linked to geographical regions.

It's time to take a closer look at those promises made by Christadelphians. Sure, it's sometimes fun to imagine what it might be like to have long feasts in a magic castle and rule the world with cool superpowers, but some of us care about what is actually true. If it sounds like a fairy tale, it probably is. In order to be convinced that it's true, I'll need a lot more than an Iron Age book full of talking animals, ghosts and demons.

They promise eternal bliss, but the promise is empty, and instead they want to take away the only life we have!