(RNS) — As 2019 begins, the world is becoming more religious, not less. Faith from diverse traditions grows as population expands throughout most of the Global South. Last year, nearly 50 million more Christians were added in Africa, making it the continent with the most adherents to Christianity in the world, 631 million.
In the U.S., a narrative of religious decline and growing secularism is now culturally popular. The percentage of “nones” — those claiming no religious affiliation — is growing, particularly among millennials. But what are the deeper trends and challenges, beneath the headlines, that are likely to shape the future of faith?
White U.S. congregations are withering. From 1991 to 2014, the number of white Protestants declined by a third, a trend that will continue as they age: Though 20 percent of Americans are 18 to 34 years of age, only 1 in 10 white Protestant congregations reflects that in their attendance. As a result,more than half of U.S. congregations now have fewer than 100 members. Hundreds will close this year.
Where there is growth in American Christian denominations, it is driven mostly by nonwhites, whether Catholic or Protestant, evangelical or mainline. Over the past half-century, 71 percent of growth in Catholicism, for instance, has come from its Hispanic community. In the Assemblies of God, one of the few U.S. denominations to show overall growth, white membership slightly declined while nonwhite membership increased by 43 percent over 10 years.
Multiracial congregations are also expanding to draw 1 in 5 churchgoing Americans, and surveys report a higher level of spiritual vitality among them compared with racially homogeneous congregations.
Globally, thanks to dramatic geographic and demographic changes, Christianity is recentering its footprint and becoming a non-Western religion. For 400 years, the faith has been molded by the largely European culture that came out of the Enlightenment. But today its vitality is coming from emerging expressions of Christianity in Africa as well as in Asia and Latin America.
Gary: Christianity is growing in Africa and Asia and dying in the West. Some Christians blame materialism and economic prosperity as the causes of Christianity’s decline in the West. They believe that people who are financially well off and comfortable are less likely to need God compared to those who are struggling economically. “People in the Third World exercise more faith than those in the West. This is why more miracle claims come from the Third World.” I suggest another cause: People who are less educated, poor, and living in countries where superstitions are a significant part of the culture will be more open to the fantastical supernatural claims of Christianity.
I believe that as Africa and Asia become more economically prosperous, their populations will become increasingly more educated and have better access to the Internet…the ultimate antidote for all superstitions, religious or otherwise!
As we saw in the last post, there is excellent evidence that one does not need to see a resurrected body to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus: Millions of Christians today believe this fantastical claim but will readily admit that not one of them has ever seen a resurrected body to prove it.
But what about someone who claims to have seen the resurrected Jesus? Can someone believe that they have seen a bodily resurrected person but never have seen his resurrected body??? Yes. Thousands of devout Christians claim to have “seen” the Virgin Mary in cloud formations, shadows, stains on walls, and even in their burnt toast. When asked what they saw, these people do not say, “I saw a stain on a wall that looks like Mary.” No, they say, “I saw the Virgin Mary!” Althouth no Christian denomination claims that Mary’s body is resurrected, over a billion Catholic Christians believe that Mary’s body was “assumed” into heaven and therefore that her body is a “heavenly” body. Is a heavenly body different than a resurrected body? If so, how would an observer tell the difference???
Since we know that the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels and in Acts are likely fictitious embellishments (see here), and, neither the Early Creed nor Paul’s epistles mention any details about what Paul or anyone else saw when they allegedly received an appearance of Jesus, how do today’s Christians know that the early Resurrection of Jesus belief did not start in the same way: illusions of reality.
How many times have you heard a Christian apologist say this:
“The earliest Christians claimed that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. How could anyone come to that conclusion unless they had actually seen his resurrected body? “Resurrection” in first century Jewish theology only meant bodily resurrection, therefore, the early Christians must have seen a resurrected body in order to believe that a resurrection had taken place.”
This assumption can be very easily disproven: Millions of Christians today believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus but even Christians must admit: not ONE of these millions of believers in the bodily resurrection of Jesus has ever seen a resurrected body! Therefore, one does not need to see a resurrected body to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
“But some early Christians claimed that he appeared to them,” apologists will respond.
The earliest story of resurrection appearances is found in the Early Creed recited by Paul in First Corinthians chapter 15. There is no mention whatsoever of anyone in this list claiming to see a walking, talking, broiled fish-eating resurrected body. In fact, the Early Creed gives zero description of what anyone on this list allegedly saw! Only in the last three Gospels do we find stories of anyone claiming to have seen a resurrected body. And as I have shown here, these stories have all the signs of being literary/theological embellishments (fiction).
People today see cloud formations and stains on a wall and believe that they have seen Jesus’ mother. So why is it so improbable to Christians that similar illusions were responsible for the early Christian Resurrection of Jesus belief???
Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,[c] one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
–Gospel of Mark, chapter 9
The original Gospel of Mark had no stories of Jesus’ alleged post-death appearances to his disciples, only a statement by a “young man” at the empty tomb that Jesus would appear to his disciples in Galilee at some time in the future. The subsequent Gospels, canonical and non-canonical, have increasingly elaborate stories of a bodily resurrected Jesus making appearances to his disciples in a transformed body that could walk, talk, and eat, but could also perform supernatural feats such as walk through locked doors, teleport between cities, and levitate into outer space (or at least into the clouds). Conservative Christians assure us that these Gospel stories were written by eyewitnesses and therefore they can be trusted as historical facts.
But take a look at the story above.
Notice that Jesus’ body is “transfigured” in this story too. Not only that, but two long dead Jewish prophets appear before the eyes of the disciples and…Jesus talks to them! One of the men Jesus allegedly talked to in this scene was Moses, you know, the guy who allegedly lead a mass horde hundreds of thousands or even a couple million Israelites out of Egypt, across a dry sea bed, to wander around the Sinai for 40 years, and then invade Palestine.
But there is a problem: There is zero good evidence of any of these persons or events. Zero.
The overwhelming majority of archaeologists and Near East experts now believe that Moses was a fictional character in ancient Jewish folklore. There was no Captivity in Egypt. There was no Exodus, no Passover, no wandering for 40 years in the Sinai, and no Conquest of Canaan! As we saw in a previous post, even evangelical Christian Egyptologist and archaeologist James Hoffmeier admits that there is no clear evidence for any of these events or persons.
In the case of the Israelite sojourn and exodus, no direct, clearly identifiable support has come to light in Egypt.” (Hoffmeier, EWN, 48)
So in the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus was talking to someone who did not exist.
Jesus was talking to a fictional character!
The Transfiguration story is FICTION. So why on earth should anyone believe that the other stories in the Gospels in which Jesus’ body once again experiences a metamorphosis and takes on superhero powers are historical facts???
We shouldn’t. These are tall tales, and nothing more.
The early Christians may have experienced something (mistaken identities, vivid dreams, illusions) that caused them to believe that Jesus had appeared to them, but the story of the Transfiguration is excellent evidence that the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels are literary/theological fiction.
Have you heard that hundreds of thousands of Mormons are deconverting from the Mormon Church due to the discovery that the DNA of North American Indians fails to demonstrate that some of their ancestors were seafaring Jews who arrived on the shores of North American hundreds of years before Jesus, as the Book of Mormon claims?
Well, neither have I.
So why aren’t hundreds of thousands of devout Mormons leaving their faith after science has conclusively proven that their holy book made a whopperof a mistake? Answer: They aren’t leaving their religion for the very same reason that conservative and moderate Trinitarian Christians are not deconverting in droves after science has demonstrated that evidence for a mass Exodus of a couple million Hebrews from Egypt, as told in the Christian Bible, is fiction. And that’s a big problem, because their “Lord and Savior” Jesus of Nazareth, who they believe is the perfect, eternal, all-knowing Creator God of the universe, mistakenly believed that this event really happened.
So what is going on?
Well, the fact of the matter is this: Evidence is never going to stop religious people from holding onto their supernatural superstitions if their heart (or “bosom”, in the case of Mormons) tells them otherwise!
Listen to the Mormon Church try to explain away this error in their holy book:
The conclusions of genetics, like those of any science, are tentative, and much work remains to be done to fully understand the origins of the native populations of the Americas. Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples, and even if their genetic profile were known, there are sound scientific reasons that it might remain undetected. For these same reasons, arguments that some defenders of the Book of Mormon make based on DNA studies are also speculative. In short, DNA studies cannot be used decisively to either affirm or reject the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
As we saw in a previouspost, according to evangelical authors and apologists Josh and Sean McDowell, a significant percentage of Christian evangelicals now believe that it is completely acceptable for a “Bible-believing” Christian to believe that God created the first human being using an already existing hominid (an ape man).
And as we saw in another previous post, it is also now perfectly acceptable for evangelicals in good standing to believe that although the first humans were created in God’s image in “Eden”, located between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers in Mesopotamia as the Bible claims, it is possible that after God ejected the first humans from his garden for their sin of forbidden-fruit-eating, they migrated to east Africa, consistent with the consensus scientific opinion regarding the location of human origin.
A majority of today’s evangelical Christians now believe that a literalist interpretation of the Genesis Creation story is silly, uninformed, and naive. As long as an evangelical Christian believes that Yahweh, the Judeo-Christian god, created the universe (using one of many possible methods, including evolution through natural selection), and that he created humans in his image (in some fashion, including breathing his spirit into an already existant, pre-homo sapien, hominid ape-man), that is perfectly acceptable.
But…what do evangelical Christians say about another story in the Bible, the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt?
First, let’s see what evangelical Christian authors and apologists Josh and Sean McDowell say about the use of the Bible as an historical source:
We discover that often a different standard of evidence is applied to the Bible as opposed to other ancient manuscripts. Leading archaeologist and Old Testament scholar James K. Hoffmeier explains the double standard: “The reason is straightforward: there is a general skepticism toward the Bible as a reliable source for history. If it were not still Scripture to Jews and Christians, the Bible would not be treated in such a condescending and dismissive manner. Because of this hermeneutic of suspicion, the Bible is not treated as a historical source unless there is external corroborating archaeological or historical (textual) evidence. In the case of the Israelite sojourn and exodus, no direct, clearly identifiable support has come to light in Egypt.” (Hoffmeier, EWN, 48)
In this chapter we present and evaluate the latest evidence for the historicity of the exodus. At the outset we must say the extra-biblical evidence is far from overwhelming. We have no smoking gun providing clear, solid evidence that Israel lived in Egypt and Moses led the Hebrews out of the country. …The lack of unambiguous extrabiblical reference does not rule out the fact, or at least the possibility, of the exodus as an historical event. Therefore, in this chapter we attempt to show the Old Testament exodus story is plausible, even if seemingly improbable.
Josh and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 461
Gary: Wow! And I mean, WOW! Evangelical apologists and their scholars admit that the Exodus Story is seemingly improbable; that there isn’t any clearly identifiable evidence for it in the archaeological or textual evidence…but dog gonnit…they are going to prove to everyone that it is…plausible! Good grief. If that isn’t evidence of conservative Christians seeking evidence to confirm their faith-based conclusions instead of evaluating the evidence like good scientists to arrive at unbiased, evidence-supported, conclusions, I don’t know what is!
And what about this complaint of a “double-standard” applied to the Bible? Since when do mainstream archaeologists, Near East experts, and other scientists accept as historical fact claims made in other ancient texts which have no supporting archaeological or textual confirmation? Never, that I am aware of. So where is the doubt standard? Archaeologists and Near East experts accept the historicity of some fact claims in the Bible, for instance the historicity of the biblical Israelite kings Omri and Ahab. Why? Answer: Because there is supporting archaeological and/or textual confirmation of these biblical claims in other ancient sources! There is no bias against the Bible in archaeology and among historians except in the minds of Christians! If there is no archaeological or textual evidence to support the Bible’s Exodus from Egypt Story, why the hell should educated people living in the 21st century believe this fantastical tale to be historical fact??
So why do so many evangelical Christians dismiss the Genesis Creation Story as allegorical fiction, yet insist that the Exodus, including the celebration of the first Passover and the death of the first born of Egypt, must be historical fact? Why the double standard when evidence for both claims is essentially non-existent? Here is why:
The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is one of the most important historical events for both the Jewish and Christian faiths. That central experience of rescue for the helpless out of a desperate condition has been recognized as a key example of God’s love in making salvation (wholeness, healing, and restoration) available. Theology is connected to these historical events. …The saving power of God as shown in the event of the exodus is woven throughout the Bible and ancient Israelite beliefs and practices. …The exodus and Jesus Christ’s provision of salvation are connected as type and fulfillment. …Believers for over 1500 years linked the history and theological insight. …Without its [the Exodus] central meaning—an account in real history of God’s loving awareness of his people and his saving action on their behalf—much of the Bible also comes under attack.
—Josh and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 459-460, 477
Gary: So in summary, there is no good evidence for the historicity of the Exodus, but conservative and moderate Christians are going to believe it anyway, because without it…Christianity collapses.
Can we give a specific date for the life of Abraham beyond a shadow of a doubt? The answer is no. Can we have confidence from the overlapping story developed from biblical texts, sociological indicators, and ancient Near Eastern evidences that Abraham likely lived near the end of the 3rd century BC? The answer would be that it is not only possible, but probable.
…”Of greater historical interest and difficulty [than the anachronism of domesticated camels in the time of Abraham] is the identification of Abimelech as a Philistine (Gen. 21:32, 34). It is generally assumed that this identification is anachronistic at best because the Philistines, as part of the Sea Peoples migration, did not enter and subdue lower coastal Canaan until 1200 BC or later. Moreover, the name Abimelech is Semitic and not Philistine (Merrill, KP, 58).”
Evangelical Old Testament scholar Kenneth Kitchen suggests that the term “Philistine” could have been an editorial update where “some earlier and obsolete term would have been replaced” with a newer, more familiar term.
—Josh and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, pp. 447, 456-457
Gary: Editorial update??? You’ve got to be kidding me! Once again, this proves that Christians can (and will) find a “harmonization” for any apparent anachronism or other error in their ancient holy book. Evidence will never convince these people that their ancient text is false as long as they believe that the ghost of a dead first century peasant “lives in their heart”, giving them secret wisdom and life direction.