What If Jesus Never Existed?
The new atheism assaults the excesses of religious zeal, which in our time have become a destructive force. In its convincing proof that Jesus never existed and its gleeful rush towards liberation, however, the new atheism overlooks entirely the existential root of Christianity, which is truer than the facts.
The Contents of This Essay
1. Did Jesus Exist?
The New Information Questioning and Denying His Existence.
How and Why Does It Matter?
Historical Fact as the Criterion of Truth
Does It Really Matter?
2. Does Christ Really Exist?
Comprehending the Knower
Psychology and Ontology
Hidden Factors: Gnosis
1. Mythic Symbolism and Its Use in Faith
2. The Experience of Death and Resurrection
3. The Message in the New Testament
The Truth of Love, the Divine State of Compassion
3. Jesus Christ: A Likely Story
4. The Value of Anti-Religious Thought
What if Jesus Never Existed?
In a recent documentary, The God Who Was Not There, former fundamentalist, Brian Flemming, starts out by reminding us that the folks who expect us to believe the truth of Jesus Christ were the same folks that enforced the 'truth' that the sun revolves around the earth by putting to death anyone who suggested that the earth revolves around the sun. This disposition towards truth creates deep distrust. In the name of faith, belief co-opts fact. The world is becoming all too aware of this sleight of hand. I have heard the traditional holiday greetings given as “Merry Hoodwink” and Easter as “Happy Hogwash.”
Flemming’s documentary and another which appeared recently, called Zeitgeist, as well as books and websites gather evidence that the Biblical story of Jesus Christ was no more than the equivalent of an “urban legend” woven together of mythic themes current in first century Mediterranean culture.
The case against Jesus contributes to a wave of anti-religious thinking, known as “anti-theism” or “the new atheism” that is growing in importance and gaining louder and louder voices. Bill Maher's film, Religulous, adds to this chorus. They all have an important message. In their zealotry Christians (and other theists) are deluded into forms of behavior that are dysfunctional in the twenty first century, as is all fundamentalism, and are distracted from seeing the manipulation of power in history hidden behind their gentle man of Galilee.
In their attack on the "religulous," all the films and sites present very convincing evidence that Christian believers have little or nothing upon which to base their faith.
1. Did Jesus Exist?
History is the contemporary, scientifically oriented study of the past. By any of its criteria, the story of Jesus Christ cannot be said to have the same historical verisimilitude as, say, the accounts of Caesar Augustus. There were Roman historians of the time who recorded events after the crucifixion. Josephus, who writes of the early Christian community in Jerusalem in the first century AD, refers to “Jesus who was called Messiah.” (Antiquities of the Jews, XX: 9, para. 200) In about 115 AD Tacitus the Roman Historian identifies the leader of a new cult: “Christ, from whom they derive their name, was condemned to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of the Emperor Tiberius.” (Annals. XV: 44) Scholars regard these as more or less historically accurate by modern standards, but these ancients only make reference to such a person. There are no recorded historical facts about his life. All accounts that believers rely upon were generated by faithful followers many years after Jesus’ death, hardly the objective and dispassionate observers modern historians rely upon for our understanding of the past. Indeed, the history of the Bible, now well established through careful scholarship, presents an interesting picture.
Let us look more closely at the evidence. The first factor proceeds from this problematic lack of contemporary accounts of Jesus' life, even by his followers. Using many ingenious techniques, contemporary scholars have put together a chronology of events, including the creation of the Bible itself, in the first century. Jesus purportedly departed the earth in 33 AD, but the earliest gospels, the only documents that relate the events of Jesus' life, were not written until at least fifty years later. Paul, who began his letters soon after the demise of Jesus and wrote them before the composition of the gospels, never mentions any of the events of Jesus' life other than the crucifixion and resurrection. The first account to appear, The Gospel of Mark, was not written until the eighties. Moreover, the author was not writing history, but a spiritual message whose elements were taken liberally from the folklore that gathered around Jesus' followers.
This "folklore" is the second factor. The miraculous aspects of the story of Jesus Christ include the following: the immaculate conception, the star at the birth, the slaying of the innocents, the brilliant childhood, the many miracles performed, as well as the crucifixion and resurrection. These are the staples of Christian belief, but they are identical to the stories of other heroes of Hellenistic and Roman mythologies of the time. Each theme appears in the stories of deities predating or contemporary with early Christianity: Mithros, Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Tamuz and Dionysos, to name just a few. In a book called The Hero, Lord Raglan took the myth of Oedipus as a standard and divided it into twenty-two elements. Then he scored each story of a divine hero current in the Hellenistic period, including those mentioned above. Of the heroes studied, Jesus ranked third highest, after Theseus and Oedipus, with nineteen out of the twenty-two elements in common with the myth of Oedipus. It takes an act of intellectual violence to say that either these other heroes did not exist or that they are copies of Christian themes, which is absurd because they all predate the gospels. These themes were the conventions of the divine heroes of the time. They were urban legends, which, just as the urban legends of our own time, bear no responsibility to fact or historical truth.
There are numerous other factors, easily proven through history or anthropology that effectively invalidate the historical verisimilitude of the story of Jesus. Therefore from the point of view of objective history it is just as likely that Jesus did not exist as that he did. The story upon which Christian faith is based is nothing but a likely story.
There is something gleeful about these debunking accounts, something of naughty children getting the better of the grownups. On the adult side, they purport to be liberating, in the same way that Galileo was freeing science from belief.
How and Why Does It Matter?
Christian believers base their faith on the historical facticity of Jesus. His miraculous provenance, nature, and resurrection, retold in the events of the New Testament, form the basis of their faith. The truth of his historical existence is the justification upon which the Christian Religion is based. There are dark rumors that actual contravening evidence exists deep in the forbidden vaults of the Vatican, hidden away forever, because such indisputable evidence would eliminate the very foundations of the church. If somewhere along the line, someone were able to prove that the fundamentals of Christian faith based in historical truth were in fact false, it would eliminate the authority of the church and throw the community of believers into a turmoil that might be catastrophic to Western Civilization. There are several works of fiction that depict such an eventuality.
Historical Fact as the Criteria of Truth
In fact this campaign to validate the historical existence of Jesus Christ has been active for the last two centuries. Attempts to use historical rather than traditional religious methods to construct a verifiable biography of Jesus began in the 18th century with Hermann Samuel Reimarus, up to William Wrede and Albert Schweitzer in the 19th century. Although Schweitzer was among the greatest contributors to this quest, he also ended by noting very astutely how each scholar's version of Jesus seemed little more than an idealized autobiography of the scholar himself! A later generation of scholars emphasized the "constraints of history," so that despite uncertainties, there were historical data that were usable. Yet another generation tended to focus on the early textual layers of the New Testament for data to reconstruct a biography for the historical Jesus. The theme of the existence of Jesus has also been dealt with in fiction. Dostoevsky's famous story, The Grand Inquisitor, shows that the church has its own agenda for keeping moral and spiritual order, which has nothing to do with Jesus or his historical existence.
The fact is that religion blurs the line between fact and belief. "Sinners go to hell." is different from "There are white corpuscles in the blood." But not for believers. This was the issue with Copernicus and the Roman Church. The campaign against Christian beliefs began with the coming of reason as the criterion of truth over faith in the 18th century. It gathered force with the development of science, with its criteria for empirical truth, and its transference of these criteria onto the systematic study of the past, which we understand as history. History is the science of the past. It deals in facts. These criteria came into being over the last two hundred and fifty years and barely existed before that time.
It is also important to understand that this "historical consciousness," understanding history as past facts, is not a given of human civilization. Nor is it a universal criterion of truth. It did not exist in Asia. Even today, what non-westernized Asians understand to be "history" is what we call mythology. History is the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the great Indian epics. Only Westernized Asians worry about anything else. This is undoubtedly closer to the mentality of Mediterranean civilization at the time the New Testament was written.
In reaction to these challenges over the last two centuries Christian believers, who also live in this time of historical consciousness, fiercely defend the historical veracity of the Bible as the legitimate basis of their social and political views. Many find this oppressive. The relish with which the new atheism refutes these accounts expresses a reaction against societal pressure to believe something that your basic intelligence suspects to be factually false, as was the case during the time when faith was based on the earth as the center of the universe.
It seems to me that it is most likely that an extraordinary person such as Jesus did exist, but that the mythology that grew up around him after his death fits not historical actuality, but the heroic themes predominant at the time in the Middle East. In their efforts to convey a "spiritual truth" the authors of the gospels tended to make the accounts of his life a kind of composite of all the current heroes and gods. This is entirely possible, indeed probable, and with understanding, completely excusable.
Does It Really Matter?
Let us go to a deeper question. Suppose it were possible to prove that the historical Jesus did not exist. For those whose faith is based on the historical truth of the miraculous events of the Bible this would be disastrous. For those who set forward this contravening evidence, it is a great relief, as when the Copernican universe was finally accepted and science was freed from its shackles.
But is there a baby here that is getting thrown out with the baptismal water?
That water may be the belief in the historical truth of Jesus, which has been the kingpin of Christian entitlement in the world -- to theocracy, religious dictatorship, ideological crusades, and the colonial right to overwhelm and eradicate other cultures. This same pernicious entitlement supports the tendency of Christian fundamentalism to contradict other fundamentalists, feeding a clash of unilateralist belief systems that is pulling the world apart.
But what is the baby?
2. Does Christ Really Exist?
The real question is; what kind of truth do we find in the New Testament? What is the vaguely acknowledged "spiritual message" that the authors of the gospels and indeed Paul were seeking to convey? Therefore, what is the real basis of Christian truth? Who is Christ?
It is important to understand that if Jesus of Nazareth did exist, he was a man and a teacher. Christ is the Greek term conferred upon him subsequently to designate the divine state of being which he is believed to have embodied. This state is the fundamental human potential, hence "divine". This was the teaching.
What is experienced as the truth of Christ is so distant from any kind of intellectually generated understanding or factual account that, in our day and age when these things have primary value, it can only be called "the mystery".
We know nothing of mystery. We have very crude conceptual language to attempt to describe what the truth behind the mystery would be. The strength of our current knowledge centers on scientific and historical fact, but our great weakness as a culture is our lack of understanding of the fundamental nature of consciousness. This is the real paucity of our time and the reason that Christians have displaced their justification for faith onto historical and scientific forms of knowledge. We know the known; we are in fact obsessed with the known: but we are deeply ignorant of the knower. The Christian truth, as is the truth of all great religion, is in the understanding of the knower.
Comprehending the Knower
To understand the knower is the key to the mystery. While the empirical scientific model for the study of objective phenomena has dominated the Western intellect in the last three centuries, there has been a lesser tendency to look into the nature of the knower, primarily in psychology, ontology and to some extent, in anthropology.
Psychology suffers from the fact that it seeks to treat the fundamental and universal consciousness or "psyche" as an object of scientific study. Therefore experimental psychology, with its empirical orthodoxy, is a very clunky endeavor indeed, a blunt instrument for understanding the knower, and useless in comprehending the lived subtleties of existence. In the case of clinical experience and theory, psychotherapy has yielded productive methods for treating pathologies. In the work of C.G. Jung and his followers, there is penetrating insight into the way that myth and dream symbolism originate and function. This has been supported by the very sympathetic approach to universal psychology available through the anthropological study of other cultures and cross-cultural phenomena.
Ontology, which questions the suppositions of our suppositions about what- is, or Being, has been the deepest of all studies in the West, but as it reached closer to the subtle truths of the knower, it became so obscure that it is almost incomprehensible, as anyone who has attempted to read the works of Martin Heidegger can attest. The enquiry into the fundamental nature of Being, or Foundational Ontology, started with Edmund Husserl and his development of phenomenology, which initiated a systematic approach to a vital skill utterly lost to the West, rooted as it has become, in empiricism. Taking the cue from phenomenology, Heidegger ultimately attempted to reinstate the place of direct observation of consciousness, or contemplation as the true path towards an authentic understanding of the nature of Being. Empiricism is direct experience and objective evaluation of the known: contemplation is direct experience and objective evaluation of the knower.
The greatest master of contemplation was Gautam Buddha. In the last fifty years, the increasingly sophisticated understanding of the contemplative traditions of Asia and the esoteric traditions in the West has begun to free up westerners from the myopia of empirical thinking, to allow them to understand the nature of contemplation, and finally to actually practice it. As practice proceeds, the nature of the knower begins to reveal itself and the mystery of Christ becomes genuinely available once again.
The understanding of the functioning of the psyche obviates the need to engage in the misguided and losing battle for the historical veracity of Jesus. But contemplation is even more deep and appropriate to resolving the issues surrounding the historical validity of Jesus as a justification of faith. The practice of contemplation is observing consciousness itself. There are different levels: direct observing in a deep state of concentration, such as perfected in the Zen Buddhist tradition; using divine imagery systematically as a lens through which to comprehend consciousness, as in deity yoga; using the focus and study of mythical imagery to realize the nature of consciousness, as in faith; to falling in love with images, as in devotion.
In the West, however, intellectual and academic endeavor encourages only factual understanding of the Bible and Christianity, and also a possible theoretical understanding of the truth of Christ. This intellectual understanding does not necessarily lead to the experience of Christ, the state which alone is the ultimate truth of Christ. In the great poems of spiritual truth, the Upanishads, we find a summary evaluation of such theoretical pursuit: "Those who are in ignorance are in darkness, but those who think they know are in greater darkness still."
Hidden Factors: Gnosis
But let us back up to the controversy surrounding the existence of Christ. In the debunking books and films, there are hidden factors in the mystery overlooked in the blindness of our time. Here are the clues and the questions they raise:
1. That the New Testament is full of mythic symbolism. What is mythic symbolism?
2. The fact that the death and resurrection were not the facts but the expression of Paul's experience. What was the nature of this experience?
3. "Mark was writing a spiritual message." What was the message expressed by the events of Jesus' life as related in the New Testament?
1. Mythic Symbolism and its Use in Faith
With the anthropological studies of the Middle East, which show that these themes are to be found as leitmotifs among the heroes of the various religions, we are halfway there. Even more convincing is the fact that all great religious heroes of the world are described in similar ways.
Myth has two meanings. The common meaning, and that of the debunkers, is basically, "made up and factually untrue". In this sense, to call the themes and events of Jesus' life mythical means to dismiss them out of hand as mere inventions masquerading as facts. The second meaning of myth is more useful: imagery used to express and evoke an otherwise inexpressible psychological or spiritual truth.
The genius of the human psyche is its capacity to express itself in symbols. This is dream imagery. As anyone who has undergone serious dream analysis in psychotherapy knows, at any one moment the psyche has the capacity to express its gestalt or fundamental circumstance in symbolic form. This is not an intellectual act, as is the creation of a metaphor: rather, it is the generation of a truth that is not factual, but constitutive of present psychological truth. Modern psychotherapists generally understand that psychological well-being has to do with the capacity to bring one's dream into self-understanding. Myth is collective dream and functions in the same way on a cultural level as dream on an individual level. Jung and Campbell and their many followers have shown this. To dismiss myth as non-factual is deeply wounding to our well-being. Tending with awareness to our dream and the mythology of our culture are essential to optimal existence.
The imagery of Christian symbolism refers to a state of self-understanding or integral unity that is called gnosis. Gnosis is basically esoteric in our culture, because it is not the knowledge of the known as is scientific and empirical knowledge, but what comes to be understood through the contemplation of the knower.
To say that the truth of Christ is 'merely a state' may seem an enormous comedown, compared to the epochal and miraculous events recounted in the New Testament and celebrated by Christians for centuries. But it is far more radical, intimate, and fundamental. This description as a 'state' reflects the words attributed to Jesus, that the kingdom of God is within. Before we live in the world, we live in consciousness. Before we live in a circumstance, a set of facts that we call the reality of the world, we live in states of being, either going upwards towards life affirmation or going downwards towards dissolution. Living from the state of gnosis is optional consciousness. All the promises of the kingdom are figuratively present. With gnosis, in the quiet depths of your being, you know who you are, why you are here, and where you are going.
That which the story of Jesus Christ was shaped to convey DOES exist, is truer than the facts, and is actually the very structure of existence. Gnosis is the truth beyond the facts and far more fundamental, and once experienced and assimilated, entirely eliminates the futile chase after historical verisimilitude.
Myth is the vehicle of gnosis, the truth of consciousness. Only by understanding the nature of myth can one understand the true nature of faith, the most productive form of contemplation in the Christian tradition. Faith is not a hardened conviction that contrary to any evidence, beliefs are facts to be imposed on the world. This is the will to power of the intellect. Faith is rather a devoted and receptive tending to the imagery of the Christ story by entering a deep study of the Bible. This use of Biblical myth was the contemplative method set forth by St Francis.
Let us take the Immaculate Conception, both as an example of "tending myth" and demonstrating the way faith works. The Virgin is chosen by God to conceive Christ through the Holy Spirit. Existentially speaking, the Virgin is the central character in faith. Forget whether she was historically a virgin or actually seeded by the Holy Spirit, and enter into a devoted and receptive awareness of "who" she is. Her purity and innocence elegantly express the simple and open disposition, which alone is capable of bearing the child of gnosis. In this sense she is the only one capable of bearing Christ, she is "chosen". The chosen is the heart of contemplation, the polar opposite of calculation or theorizing. She is an openness of heart on the part of the faithful, as opposed to a willful focus on the believed. She is the opposite of the greed for power and intellectual computation. This disposition of sublime receptivity to how things show themselves is the fundamental attitude of contemplation and phenomenology, absolutely essential to their practice.
The active element in the Conception is the Holy Spirit, the aspect of gnosis, which is an innate guide. In the way of faith you so concentrate on the Virgin, that her disposition begins to overtake your way of being. If with this attitude, you contemplate each event and character of the New Testament, the meaning comes clear. As the meaning reveals itself, gnosis grows within, comes to term and is born. To become the Virgin through your faith, you set up the circumstance by which the Holy Spirit can conceive gnosis within you. Once the virginal aspect of your intellectual will opens to it with the disposition of the Virgin Mary, it guides. Together with the deep receptivity of the Virgin, the Holy Spirit conceives and gives birth to the child of gnosis. This is the authentic process of faith.
2. The Death and Resurrection Were the Expression of Paul's Experience.
Perhaps the most potent of all Biblical images is the death and resurrection.
No one doubts that Paul existed and that he lived at the time of Jesus, because his letters are full of actual accounting and communication. He personally interacted with many who had known Jesus. If Jesus performed so many miracles, how could it be that Paul's letters never recount any of the miraculous events of Jesus' life? But Paul was very aware of the crucifixion and purported resurrection, because up until his illumination on the road to Damascus, Paul (then Saul) was a government official who was dedicated to eliminating the Christian heresy. Ironically, the fact that he was initially against the believers in the Resurrection may be the closest thing there is to valid contemporary evidence that Jesus existed. But more important is the question as to the nature of Paul's experience.
Under certain circumstances, gnosis overwhelms the psyche in such a way as to alter entirely one's self-understanding. What happened to Saul is called a reaction formation. He was so fixated on one extreme position, that of denying the resurrection and eliminating its believers, that the opposite extreme completely overtook him and he had the experience of the resurrection by which he became Paul.
What Paul experienced, and spent the rest of his life urging upon the world, is the fact that the sudden arrival of gnosis, which he called the resurrection, creates a unique and distinct perspective that is authentic to the true nature of being. Moreover, it is not just a passive reservoir of correct information, but is dynamic in its own right. In the East one works toward enlightenment to enter the Light, but Paul's experience demonstrates that the Light can also most forcefully make itself known, coming with blinding intensity and completely transforming ones being. This overwhelming apotheosis of gnosis, often called Grace, is the existential fact of Christianity.
The result of this grace could be described as Love upon understanding, the existential experience of which we are calling gnosis. What we call "love" is generally understood as a feeling or emotion, but Love is a substratum of our being, like the air. In gnosis the self-identity reverts to this substratum and becomes it. The result of gnosis is the state of Divine Compassion, the truth of Love.
What is this Love? What the romantics and the pop songs call love is merely an echo, a clue. Heidegger showed how the fundamental disposition of consciousness is attraction, or care. Because our consciousness is grounded primordially in care, it surfaces in all our experiences of love to which we attribute particular significance, for instance in the way we value romance or friendship. In gnosis care becomes transformed from an underlying disposition to an overt and prevailing force. For this reason Love, the basis of human existence, is a collective force, like a positive virus to which the rebellious human spirit is essentially vulnerable. This Love is the "sword" of Christ, because in its presence, the significance of everything else evaporates.
When Love becomes this basic state, it becomes virtue. When Jesus speaks of fulfilling the Law, what he means is that the Love upon gnosis obviates the laws of civilized behavior, morality and ethics. Gnosis generates virtue -- compassion, patience, forgiveness, prudence, and internal balance -- not as constraints that must be enforced through the authority of the church or the self-discipline of Christian morality, but as intuitively and existentially imperative. The gnostic becomes intrinsically virtuous and thus has no need of the constraints of moral law.
Fundamental Love, or compassion, makes its universal appearance via religion. Evoked and supported through authentic religion, the truth of Love has the power to gather itself and assert itself into human culture. This is what has happened in the case of each of the great religions. Love through understanding arrives, often via one gifted human being, and spreads until it becomes the base value of a culture. However, it is almost universally the fate of religions that unloving forces, primarily the greed for power, a form of insanity, co-opts the original inspiration and exploits the religion to its own purposes and ends. This is what happened when Rome took over the Christian Church, and the West has been living out the resulting contradictions ever since.
It is always incumbent upon the people of the culture, indeed each individual, to discriminate through the mendacity perpetrated by religious authorities and conditioned into their own reality to find the kernal of the true, the gnosis in the religious mythology. This is why authentic gnostics are always moved to reform the church.
Within each religion, behind its façade of beliefs and symbologies, is a methodology. If we have the discernment to see this methodology and follow it, we are provided with a means to achieve gnosis. If we have an understanding of this truth, the real nature of Christ, the historical facticity of Jesus becomes a non-issue, an irrelevant distraction. It does not really matter.
(For more on gnosis, see the essay The Heart of the Matter)
3. Jesus: A Likely Story
Now that we have established that the historical facticity of biblical events is irrelevant to the true nature of the living Christ, let us revisit the original question: Did Jesus Christ exist?
Here is a likely story. Probably a remarkable person named Jesus existed and became a great teacher. The story of Paul and the situation he was in, of persecuting members of a cult who followed a recently executed prophet, indicates to me that such a teacher did exist. But he was certainly never a Christian, rather one of those authentic mystics who reformed the "church" of his time.
He lived in a period, not unlike our own, of great spiritual diffusion, growing up as he did at a nexus of the Roman and Hellenistic cultures near the Silk Road that led to the East. As a Jew he was surrounded by elders of a reactionary culture that was deeply threatened by this spiritual diffusion and the authority of Rome. In reaction, the Jewish authorities were very tight-minded, in a word, fundamentalists.
What was a brilliant Jew of his time to do? In the years from the time he was twelve to the time he was thirty, the "missing" years of his life of which there are no accounts, it is most likely that he traveled East, out of the oppressive influence of Semitic legalism and Roman authority into the world influenced by India. At this time the star of Buddhism was reaching its zenith in India. Not far down the silken route he would have taken was one of the greatest and most massive of all Buddhist universities, Nalanda. In the environment illuminated by this star his spiritual genius was attracted to the pragmatic teaching of budhi, the state of divine compassion upon enlightenment as the ultimate human achievement. Becoming enlightened, he assimilated and clarified the truth of gnosis and, journeying home, brought this illumination of divine Love into the Semitic world under the domination of Rome.
The power of the Love he taught was so great that it transcended Judaism, but also, as Jesus realized, "fulfilled" it. This constituted a fundamental threat to all the local structures of power. The teaching of the achievement of divine Love was too revolutionary for the Semitic establishment, who were trying to survive by collaborating with Rome. Its essential freedom stirred things up and attracted the zealots who awaited a "messiah", a warrior whose sword would deliver the Jews from the captivity of Rome. But Jesus' serene declaration was that only divine compassion would transcend the power of Rome and eventually undermine it. In time these rebel Jews grew impatient with this teaching of non-violence. A political collusion between the disappointed rebels and the fundamentalists of Jewish tradition took place, and Jesus was sold out to Rome in the person of the local governor, who, apparently against his better judgment, acceded to the demands arising out of this local disruption to allow the man to be sentenced to death. It is also likely that he was crucified. This became a primordial image, for all time, of a fundamental existential truth; how the lust for power overwhelms divine Love.
The horrible end of Jesus was utterly traumatic to his followers and those who believed in him. Some among them that had completely internalized his teaching of Love grew enflamed by it. This was a figurative resurrection, which over the course of almost a century, melded together with the divine resurrection themes current in Hellenistic culture, themes which in their own heyday had mythically expressed the truth of divine Love. Over 200 years this mythology overtook the "facts". Remember, no one cared about facts anyway.
In my view, the Gnostics, who used the story of Jesus to engender and clarify the state of gnosis, had it right. As their gospels, recently recovered from their hiding places in the earth, clearly demonstrate, they were small communities dedicated to achieving, developing and promulgating this state. But gnosis is the very essence of freedom, which was (and remains) antithetical to any centralized organization such as the Roman Empire or Catholic Church. This is why the separation of church and state in the eighteenth century was such an important step in cultural evolution.
In the fourth century, the wave of Christian Love grew so attractive that the Roman Empire, which for 300 years had been trying to wipe out Christianity, shifted its policy to "conquer" it by assimilating it. Finally, under Constantine, the Empire overtook it and made it over into its own image. In the Apostles Creed those elements of the Christian mythology and writing that reinforced the centralized power of the church became doctrine, and the rest, that which led to the freedom of gnosis, was cruelly and preemptively dispatched along with all traces of classical Hellenistic culture and wisdom. Gnosis and the scriptural gospels that presented and promoted the living Christ were hidden away in the earth, deep in the mystery. Thus was born the catholic (universal) Church, and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages.
But the Dark Ages were also the age of faith. And faith, rightly practiced, can be the flintstone of gnosis. Gnosis constantly reasserted itself in the experiences of the Christian mystics, often suppressed by the church and its preoccupation with power. When periodically the power madness of the church became overwhelming, persons achieving gnosis would seek to reform it, culminating in the protestant revolt and the Reformation. But these too, perhaps inspired by the powerful and refreshing realization of divine Love, nevertheless succumbed in the same way to the greed for power and control.
I believe this to be the real history of Jesus Christ.
4. The Value of Anti-Religious Thought
The confiscation of the truth of Christ into the authoritative structure of the Roman Empire gave this gentle guidance the entitlement of power that has been exploited for centuries as a way of dominating and controlling. The power aspects of Christianity have played a part in all the violence throughout Western history, what we could call the anti-Christ in all religions: ignorance, superstition, bigotry, judgment, force, militancy, violence in the name of God.
The power madness in authoritative religion may finally have reaped its just rewards. The world has witnessed the use of Christianity to fuel the disastrous policies of the Bush Administration and the use of Islam to fuel the militant fundamentalism raging in the rest of the world into a clash resonant of the medieval crusades. The policies have hastened dramatically the process of deterioration of world peace and well-being.
The increasing atheism represents a legitimate rebellion against the inauthenticity of Christian belief and the excesses of power and greed that have thrived in its name. We can surely do without these, and anything that purges them at their roots is of greatest value.
Perhaps the real challenge for Christians is to welcome these critiques, purge themselves of the inauthentic elements and return to the spiritual roots of Love through understanding. This is radical. It will be up to those who experience the gnosis of the living Christ to re-form the religion and cast away its illusions.
Throw out the bathwater, but rediscover, indeed become, the babe.