With each new poll on religion, the number of people in the West identifying as Christians is declining. Church membership in most Christian denominations in the West is in steep decline. Baptisms are in even greater decline. Christianity is shrinking (dying?) in Europe and North America.
I believe that the answer can be summed up in two words: the Internet.
For the previous two thousand years, the overwhelming majority of Christians were never exposed to in-depth criticism and analysis of their religion’s teachings. Now, every Christian with a computer has access to massive quantities of information on every subject imaginable, including the teachings of his or her faith. And this massive wealth of information is exposing the weakness of the foundational claims of Christianity.
The principle foundational claim of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, proving that he was God. The historicity of this alleged never-heard-of-before-or-since feat has always been supported by the claim that Christians have eyewitness testimony to this event in the four Gospels of the New Testament. And not just two or three eyewitnesses. Christianity claims that there were over five hundred eyewitnesses to this event! How could 500 people be wrong???
The problem for Christianity is this: Modern New Testament scholarship has exposed the evidence for the claim of eyewitnesses testimony for the Resurrection as unsubstantiated, weak, and most likely, false. The majority of New Testament scholars do not believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses nor even the associates of eyewitnesses. The majority of scholars believe that the Gospels were written by non-eyewitnesses outside of Palestine, many decades after the death of Jesus; people who had never met Jesus.
Many conservative Christians will hand wave away this majority scholarly opinion stating that the majority of scholars have a bias against the supernatural; a bias which distorts their views on the authorship and dating of the Gospels.
But even if we accept the existence of a liberal bias, what do Christians do with highly respected main-stream Christian New Testament scholars such as NT Wright and Raymond Brown who also question the traditional, eyewitness authorship of the Gospels; who also doubt the reliability of the second century Asia Minor bishop, Papias, the primary (only??) source for the traditional authorship of the Gospels. A man who in the second century claimed that he had heard from un-named sources that the apostles or their associates had written the Gospels.
The truth is we do not know who wrote the Gospels or whether the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony. We therefore do not know if the stories within the Gospels are historically accurate. And yet based on this weak evidence, Christians continue to ask modern educated people to believe that a brain-dead first century corpse really did come back to life, walk out of its sealed tomb, and later flew off into the clouds.
Many people in our culture are no longer buying this ancient tale.
But even if we are able to convince Christians to admit that the evidence for the Resurrection is shaky or weak, they will usually then appeal to the second foundational claim of Christianity: that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled hundreds of Old Testament prophecies. If Jesus fulfilled hundreds of Old Testament prophecies, then the claim that he was resurrected from the dead must also be true.
But how many Christians have taken the time to listen to what Jews say about these alleged Old Testament “Jesus prophecies“? After all, the Old Testament is their holy book!
Before the advent of the Internet, I would bet that very few Christians ever bothered to go to a library or a book store to read what Jews have to say about the alleged Jesus prophecies in their (Hebrew) Bible. But now, hundreds of lectures and hundreds of fascinating videos are available on the Internet presenting the Jewish point of view on these issues. (We have reviewed some of these lectures and videos in posts on this blog over the last week.)
It is true that if a Christian is presented with individual (alleged) Jesus prophecy passages in the Old Testament, the passages will often appear to be talking about Jesus. “Wow! Just look in the Book of Psalms, chapter 22, it states that ‘they will pierce his hands and feet’! How could that not be talking about Jesus??”
But if one reviews the position and interpretation of Jews on these passages, one will see that at a minimum, the claims that these passages, written hundreds of years before Jesus, are actual predictions of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, are highly questionable if not blatantly false. If one reads many of these alleged “Jesus prophecies” in context, by reading the chapter in its entirety or the book in its entirety, one will often see that the “Jesus passage” was cherry picked out of context!
As your parents told you, always listen to both sides of a dispute before making a decision on who is correct in the dispute.
“But wait!” says the conservative Christian. “There is a third foundational belief of Christianity which shores up the evidence for the first two: the abundant evidence of God’s existence! Look at how the universe operates in a seemingly regulated manner, as if an intelligent Designer created it and controls it. If the universe existed by chance as atheists tell us, there should be utter chaos. But there isn’t. The universe is governed by natural laws. Where did these laws come from? Pure chance or an intelligent Designer??”
You are correct, Christian friend. There does appear to be at least some evidence for the existence of a Creator. This evidence is not overwhelming, but I will admit that neither is it weak. However, there are plenty of brilliant scientists like Stephen Hawking who believe that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the universe may have come into existence without a Creator. So at this point in time we must admit the following: We do not know how the universe began!
We don’t have enough evidence. We need to be patient until more evidence is accumulated. Let’s not jump to the usual knee jerk reaction that we humans have repeatedly done since the beginning of time regarding events in nature which we do not understand: “A god did it!” Yes, it is possible that an intelligent Designer created the universe, but, it is also possible that the universe came into existence by forces or means which we have not yet discovered.
But here is something that many Christians fail to consider regarding a Creator: Even if there is a Creator, evidence for a Creator is not automatically evidence for your god, Yahweh/Jesus Christ!
If we are going to appeal to the laws of nature as evidence for the existence of a Creator, then Christians must also accept the evidence that science has not found sufficient evidence to believe that the laws of nature have ever been violated since the beginning of the universe! The scientific evidence strongly suggests that the supernatural does not operate in our universe! The Creator may have used the supernatural to create the universe, but once Creation was finished, he seems to have banished the supernatural from our universe.
And there is other evidence that strongly indicates that the claims of Christianity are false: If there is a Creator, the evidence strongly suggests that he (she, they, or it) has no interest in identifying himself, and, he is indifferent (or enjoys) massive human and animal suffering. That doesn’t sound like the Jesus of the Bible!
The evidence is undeniable, friends. The Internet is quickly eroding belief in traditional Christianity.
And I say, “That’s a good thing! The fewer the number of human beings who believe in invisible spirits and devils…the better!”