The Sunday School class I currently attend uses a random selection process for the questions we’ll discuss. Class members put questions in a container, and we draw a question for each week. Last week the question was: Why am I such a doubting Thomas?
As we were discussing how much we doubted, what we doubted, and why, someone commented that what we believe as Christians really is quite bizarre if you haven’t gotten used to it. Most commonly we would cite things such as the resurrection. I believe that one person who died about 2,000 years ago didn’t stay dead, but came back to life. That’s a fairly bizarre thing to believe, or better to base an entire system of belief on.
The person who made the comment cited the belief that Jesus died for our sins and thus we can have salvation. I believe that’s equally bizarre. Who these days would think of such a thing? The idea of atonement was much more common in the ancient world, but not so much in western civilization today.
And that brought another question, which seemed to be addressed to me. Did Christianity seem less bizarre back in the first century. My answer is “yes,” though different things would seem bizarre and likely in different ways. As I’ve already mentioned, the atonement would seem more natural, provided one was drawing on a range of ideas prevalent in the ancient world, but there are aspects of it that are odd. For example, the idea of a single, universal atonement, reconciling the whole world to God, was unique to Christianity, I believe.
I don’t think it came out of thin air. There are many, many parallels that come close, but I think the full idea of atonement as expressed especially by Paul, is unique.
But what first comes to our modern, or even slightly post-modern minds, is generally the question of miracles. But there is where I think we differ less from the ancients than we generally think. We imagine that they were much more naive about miracles in general than we are, that they would tend to believe whatever miracle might be claimed. I see little evidence for this. In fact, the resurrection was very hard for either Greeks or Jews to believe, and was often a stumbling block, as noted, for example, in Acts 17:32.
I observe two things. First, there are quite a number of miracle stories even today, and plenty of people to believe in them. Second, there is plenty of evidence of ancient people who were quite unwilling to believe miracle stories. In both cases, such belief tends to be easier regarding miracle stories in one’s own religious tradition than in those of others. As a Christian, I find it much easier to accept the idea that Jesus ascended to heaven than that Muhammad did.
I’d suggest that this has a substantial impact on the way I read the Bible, as opposed to how I might read other literature, especially religious literature. While I look at evidence regarding historical events related to my faith, at some of the most critical points, it is faith, without that much sight involved.
One important reason to recognize this, I think, is that it will impact the way we relate to other people. When we understand that, in a sense, one must put on a whole new religious culture before our religious faith makes sense, we may be somewhat more charitable. I’m afraid I may lean the other way. I find doubt and even rejection of things I hold dear quite reasonable, despite the depth of my own commitment to those beliefs.
So I may not believe at least six impossible things before breakfast every morning, I do believe some things that, to someone outside my faith tradition, are bizarre.