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Christianity's Colossal Catch 22

Updated on August 8, 2014
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Introduction

In the world today, there are over 40,000 denominations of Christianity. Apart from the periods when the Catholic (or universal) church dominated the political and religious landscape of the European world, there has not been a united church. The early Christians varied in beliefs, doctrines and teachings every bit as much as Christians disagree today, and it's hard to pinpoint what the "true" faith may be amidst all of the varieties. Christians are often eager to demonize and criticize their brothers and sisters in Christ when faced with disagreements, and are quick to point out that people who disagree with their interpretations are not "true" believers, dragging believer and non believer alike into the endless cesspool of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. So how are people not associated with Christianity supposed to gain an understanding of the God that Christians worship? Ultimately, there are four options. All four have their own problems, and that's what this hub will explore and identify in-depth.

Where Does the Idea of Catch 22 Come From?

From Wikipedia:

A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules.[1][2] Catch-22s often result from rules, regulations, or procedures that an individual is subject to but has no control over because to fight the rule is to accept it."

The Four Paths to Christianity's Version of Truth

Most Christians will kindly and patiently explain to those with a curiosity about the faith that there are four ways to come to an understanding of the Christian (and Jewish) God that their faith is based around. Unfortunately for the skeptic, these paths are all fraught with problems of their own, and they're difficult to grasp. Are any of these methods reliable? Is there any way other than simple blind faith to grasp the principles and doctrines that Christianity hinges upon, or are skeptics, non-believers and adherents of other faiths simply left swinging in the wind to find their own answers - that may or may not prove to be accurate or realistic in and of themselves?

These four methods are:

1. External Testimony
2. The Holy Spirit
3. Personal Experience
4. Biblical Study

If all of these methods are unreliable, what path is there for the common person to come to truth? Are they simply left to rely on the method or collection of method that feels "right" to them? What if none of them do? The more these questions are asked, the more frustrated a lot of Christians become - but they're important questions. It's equally important to recognize that absent tangible, real evidence, coming to a conclusion based on anything but faith becomes less and less likely. Unfortunately, the problem my be resolved if the beliefs of several denominations that believe (amongst other doctrine) that God personally selects who will be saved prior to their birth - and that humanity ultimately has no choice in the matter from the very beginning. If predestination is correct, then there is unfortunately nothing to be done - and no amount of will could possibly bring a person who was not selected for salvation to God's grace.

External Testimony

Preaching is one form of external testimony, designed to keep the congregation in line and convert new souls to Christ.
Preaching is one form of external testimony, designed to keep the congregation in line and convert new souls to Christ. | Source

External Testimony

External testimony comes in many shape and sizes depending on where you live in the world. In the United States, external testimony comes in forms most recognizable as preaching, churches, the personal testimony of a believer, charities, outreach groups and missionaries. Missionaries are the most prevalent form of external testimony in areas like Africa where indigenous tribes and cultures are still separate from the world at large and may not have had an opportunity to hear the Biblical tales. It is practically impossible to grow up in the United States or most of Europe without hearing about the Bible, God and Jesus. You'd think that this would mean that missionaries are practically irrelevant, yet they remain as persistent as ever.

The problem with external testimony is that for the questioning mind, there may be no justifiable reason to accept what a relative stranger says as absolute truth without any complimentary evidence. Unfortunately, many people still are far too willing to take the word of someone at face value. Combined with tales (but never evidence of) miraculous healing or other claimed supernatural events, many people simply do not know enough to question what they're being told. For the natural skeptic, however, who is familiar with the exaggerated nature of testimony in general, testimony is ultimately insufficient evidence for the supernatural - let alone a specific, proposed deity.

There is no way for the believer to demonstrate their claims other than to assert them and simultaneously assert the need for faith - which is Biblically defined as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen" (Hebrews 11:1). Blind faith is simply believing something - most likely because a believer hopes it or wishes it to be true. For skeptics, however, faith is an insufficient justification for belief, and testimony on the street corner or the pulpit cannot be relied upon for supernatural truth. For extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence is required - and taking the word of someone simply doesn't fit the bill for belief.

Source

The Holy Spirit

According to the Bible, after Jesus died, was resurrected but prior to his ascension into heaven, he promised his disciples that he would send someone to them to help them in their mission to spread the gospel and convert the world to Christ. According to believers, the Holy Spirit bestows various gifts upon the faithful, including (but not limited to) speaking in tongues, prophecy and wisdom.

The problem is that believers of almost all denominations claim to have the Holy Spirit, but if the Holy Spirit is, in fact, providing them with interpretations of the gospels and of ultimate Godly "truth", it is providing contradictory information. Obviously Christians get around this problem by claiming that denominations that disagree with their doctrines, dogmas and interpretations are not "truly" filled with the Holy Spirit - and that their denomination is. Once again, non-believers are confronted with the "no true Scotsman" fallacy and left with no recourse. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit - like any other supposed spirit - is invisible, and ultimately undetectable. Believers can claim that they have it, but it cannot be demonstrated to be true. They can claim to see it in others - typically only others that agree with them on matters of doctrine and interpretation - but once again, skeptics are left with the problem of external testimony, which has been shown to be unreliable. While the Holy Spirit may or may not exist, there's simply no way to detect its presence, which makes it indistinguishable from a spirit that doesn't exist, so the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit is not a reliable method for determining ultimate spiritual truth.

Personal Experience

Have You Ever Had an Experience You Can't Explain?

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Personal Experience

Many believers from many different religions, denominations, faiths and beliefs throughout the world have claimed to have personal experiences from whichever deity they subscribe to. The presence of personal experiences from hundreds of faith throughout the world and throughout history seems to indicate that for any particular religion to claim that a personal experience is from their specific deity is unlikely - almost impossible. That being said, we all have experiences in our life that may not be easily explained. That doesn't mean, however, that we get to decide where those experiences came from or what they mean simply because it creates an explanation that we are comfortable with. It's astounding to me the sheer numbers of believers who have an unexplained experience of one sort or another, and without investigating it, examining it or looking into it just decide (apparently by some force of will or desire) that not only was the experience supernatural in nature (while simultaneously telling non-believers that God cannot be proved in the natural world, although he apparently performs miracles and experiences for people constantly) but that it was caused by a very specific deity. It's no surprise that in the overwhelming number of cases, the deity attributed with the experience is either the very same deity that the individual already believes in, or is a deity that is prevalent in their culture and country. That is to say that it's very rare for someone raised in the United States to have a personal experience that they're convinced came from Allah - and it's equally unlikely that someone born and raised in the middle east would have an experience attributed to Jesus.

The problem with personal experience should be evident to almost everyone - there is no possible way for the believer (or new convert) to validate their claim to a source behind whatever experience they believe that they had. There is no way to tell that a prayer was answered by the deity that was prayed to, or if it was coincidence or chance. Even when the experience itself is demonstrable - which it almost never is - the cause behind the experience is not. The believer simply decides that the experience was caused by the God that they chose to attribute it to, and there's no way to either affirm or deny that self-prescribed cause. When only the end result of the experience is observed, attributing a cause to it is not only dishonest, but it's ultimately simply assumption - and assumptions/assertions cannot be demonstrated, proven or shown to be true.

I believe that believers truly believe what it is that they experienced came from God. Belief, however, does not make it factual - and with no way to demonstrate it, repeat it, test it or reliably attribute it, the believer is left with yet another unsubstantiated claim that cannot possibly be used as evidence for the God that's getting the credit for their personal experience.

Source

Biblical Study

The Bible, as described by Christians, is the word of God. Whether their particular denomination ascribes to the idea that it was inspired by, dictated by, or interpreted from God itself, is infallible, accurate,etc. is secondary to the point. It's possible that the Bible, written by man, was influenced - not by God - but by the time, culture and experiences of the men that wrote it. It's possible that it's a combination of divine inspiration and cultural influence. It's possible that it was simply written by men. Regardless of its origins, the Bible is THE book to gain an understanding of the Christian and Jewish deity found solely in its pages. Therein lies one of the fundamental problems with relying on the Bible for spiritual truth about the God that it is written about.

Despite what many Christians profess, the Bible cannot be used to prove the God discussed in its pages. Attempting to do so is circular reasoning - and it opens up a slippery slope. If the Bible can be used to prove that the Christian God is real, then it should also be logical that the Koran or any other Holy Book from other faiths could be used to prove their God/Gods as real. This claim, however, raises an outcry from the Christian community. They claim that the Bible is somehow special - and that other Holy Books - even older Holy Books - somehow don't count, thus introducing the fallacy of special pleading.

Even more than that, there's another problem with using the Bible to determine truth about God. The Bible even states that problem emphatically. Anyone who is literate can pick up a book and read it from cover to cover, gaining an understanding of what it says, teaches and claims. I have read the Bible multiple times, both as a believer - and now, as an atheist. But when I quote Bible verses to refute claims that a particular Christian is making, they are equally quick to assert that I, as a non-believer, am unable to truly understand or interpret what the Bible is saying due to the fact that I do not have the guidance of the Holy Spirit. According to the New Testament itself:

"The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14)"

If non believers cannot be expected to understand the Bible simply by reading it, we uncover the truth of Christianity's Catch 22 - which means they have to find a believer (who at least claims to be filled with the Holy Spirit and may or may not have had personal experiences) to explain the words of the Bible to them - which brings us full circle to the beginning with no justification in sight.

On top of that, the Bible that the overwhelming majority of Christians read today is an English Translation from another language and another language and another language before that - all the way back to the original Hebrew or Greek. As Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman points out in his writings and lectures, copyists made errors along the way - and in many instances, uncovering what the original text said is next to impossible - if not completely impossible.

A Lecture on the Bible

Conclusion

With all four methods of determining Biblical truth shown to be unreliable at one or more points of contention, it seems impossible for a non-believer and skeptic to convert to some form of belief. With Christians of varying denominations vying for position and power throughout the world, each with their own claim of absolute knowledge and truth, how are skeptics expected to determine which, if any, are right. Is it not easier, all things considered, to withhold belief until more reliable, non-contradictory evidence can be presented, leaving no room left for doubt and unbelief?

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    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 14 months ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Thank you for visiting and commenting. Your comment, however, raises several issues.

      You say that you believe the Bible to be infallible in its true form. Since its true form is unavailable, by what basis do you make that claim? How can you know that something is infallible in a form that you've never seen - that no one is ever seen, and furthermore, who determines what its true form is?

      Your second claim is that Christianity in its "true form" (whatever that means" has been perverted by the so-called "secular world" and other religions. Firstly, you're bordering on the "No True Scottsman" fallacy here. You are determining that what millions of people around the world would call Christianity is not "real" Christianity - as determined by who? You? What are your qualifications to determine what is or isn't "real" Christianity. Secondly, if God is perfect, why would He let the "True" form of the one true faith be perverted by anything? Thirdly, what is the secular world, and how is it able to pervert your version of "true christianity". How can other religions pervert it.

      No, it is not faith to lack belief in something because you don't feel it has been sufficiently proven. You do not have faith, for example, that unicorns do not exist. You don't believe in them because you've never seen one. You don't know anyone who's seen one, and there are not pictures or evidence to make the determination that they're real. You also seem to not understand the nature of the burden of proof. The burden of proof rests on the person making the positive claim. You believe there is a God, you are making the positive claim, so in the world of debate, the burden of proof would fall on you. I, on the other hand, am not making a positive claim. I am not asserting that no God exists. I simply do not believe in the God that you posit to be true, due to lack of evidence. So your claim about my supposed "faith" is incorrect.

    • Syrup Please profile image

      Syrup Please 15 months ago

      I would like to first state that I am a believer in the bible and the God of it.

      I do believe the bible to be infallible, in its true form. There have been several errors in it, some by translation mistakes and some on purpose by the church and the councils responsible for the translations. With that said, if you use a concordance to study in depth you can correct many of these errors in one's own studies.

      The other issue is that Chirtianity in its true form has been perverted by the secular world and other religions throughout the past two millennia. The true form of Christianity is described in the bible and as Proverbs 25:2 states, we are to seek it out however on a simple level, we are saved by the grace of our Savior who died for us. That simple.

      Lastly, you are correct in stating that one cannot prove the existence of God by the tools of this world but you cannot disprove his existence either. Therefore, it is faith that you, I, or anyone has in either His existence or His nonexistence.

    • TheOdinSeeker profile image

      Steven Banker 3 years ago from Fairfield, OH

      Nice hub, Jay. Voted up. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      It's always "God did it", unless the person doesn't agree with it. Then, it's "Satan did it". You really can't have it both ways. But when you point that out, they just say that, "you just don't understand".

      We'll, if someone could actually explain it, I would love to hear it.

    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 3 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      In addition, it always seems to stymie fundamentalists when I tell them that I used to be a Christian and was even studying to be a missionary (after growing up as a missionary kid) in college. Their only recourse is to say that I was either never truly saved to begin with or that the devil somehow snatched my salvation, or that I wasn't predestined to be saved. If I wasn't predestined to be saved, how can I be punished for it? At what point did I lose the Holy Spirit, or did I never have it to begin with

    • profile image

      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      JMcFarland: I've heard the same debate many times in chat rooms. What it comes down to is you have to believe in order to believe. Or in other people's words, you can't be led by the Spirit until you believe but on the other hand you can't believe unless you're led by the Spirit. That's illogical in every way. But I will say there are some things in the Bible people will never believe until they first believe the basic tenet that there is a God. No one can believe in miracles and other things if there is no God to perform them. Does that make sense?

      I wish I could say it better, but when it comes to this particular discussion I'll admit I'm as confused (if that's the word to use) as most non-Christians.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      It's very true the "God of the Gaps" theory. Ever since the dawn of time, Gods were "created" to explain the wind, rain, fire, lightning, caves, the earth, water, and well, you name it. That's why there are still thousands of "Gods".

    • JMcFarland profile image
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      Julie McFarland 3 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      Sheila - your last paragraph in your first response hit the nail on the head for me, but I think it goes even deeper than that. I don't for one second believe that the Bible was written in code - it sounds like something that the early Christians who were gnostic or Docetic would believe. But, by the same token, I get a lot of Christians telling me that if I just read the Bible, I would believe. When I tell them that I have, in fact, read the Bible multiple times in multiple languages including Hebrew and Greek and I'm still an atheist, they tell me that I clearly didn't understand it because I'm not filled with the spirit. So is the Bible a tool for coming to belief or isn't it? They can't have it both ways. If you can't understand it without already being a believer, then why do they hand them out to non-believers? Why do they encourage non-believers to read them? It's like they want to have their cake and eat it too. In addition, when asked for evidence of the spirit, or that the Bible was inspired by god or anything else for that matter - I'm often told that you get evidence after you believe, but you have to believe first. I find that directly backwards to the way that most people - Christians included about everything but their own religion - see the world and come to believe something is true.

      Austin - I agree that most people do not have any way to conceptualize the idea of Infinity, and that God is often substituted for a concept that intellectually more complex. It's simply an engineering of a "God of the Gaps" philosophy. Anything that is not easily understood or known is automatically somehow "gods" territory.

    • profile image

      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      Austinstar: An interesting thought I'll have to think about. Thanks. I always enjoy hearing your opinions and ideas about these topics.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      @Sheila - The thing is that no one has been able to prove OR disprove a creator God. Personally, I endorse an infinite universe/cosmos as:

      infinite matter + infinite energy + infinite space = our universe

      Most people can't conceptualize infinity and I think the closest they get to it is "God".

    • profile image

      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      WOW! Not wow as in you're so wrong, but wow is in you're so right. I don't agree with everything; however, you've hit on quite a bit that I, as a Christian, have a problem with and we're talking about my chosen religion.

      It is true that we can't always know if the people relaying their testimony or anything else is telling the truth because there are Christians who will make things up just to make the religion sound good. Even if the person is being truthful, there's no way to verify those experiences. That said, I'll share my stories and experiences with people if they're interested enough to ask, but you didn't ask so I'm not going to say a word.

      My biggest pet peeve is the people you mentioned who say that just because I don't believe exactly as they do I'm not being led by the Spirit. Here's the key - everyone makes mistakes. Whether that's as you may see it and we're wrong about everything or simply because we're wrong about a handful of things we believe, no one has a grasp of 100% of the truth (or lack thereof). As I see it, we won't know who was correct until we die and meet God face to face or we don't because (again as you may point out) he doesn't exist.

      I'll skip discussing the Bible because as you'll be able to figure out I believe it because I'm a Christian.

      Austinstar: I had to laugh at your statement about the Bible being in code. I ask the same question about the theory. Seriously? As a believer I'd have to ask anyone who believes in a code why God would use a code only certain people can figure out because doesn't he want us to know everything? And it's also been proven that the exact same process to break that code can be used in silly novels and produce amazing results. So do I only use proven facts when it suits me and ignore them if other people think I only do so to hold onto my other Christian beliefs? No. I just haven't read enough hard facts against my religion to fully turn my back on it.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 3 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      It's amazing that believers never even notice that their "personal" God is the one they were raised to believe in. Christians do not have religious experiences with Mayan Gods or even Japanese ones. In fact, they never even acknowledge that other peoples believe in their own Gods. Allah is simply unacceptable to a Christian even though it's purportedly the exact same God.

      And I get comments from a few people that the Bible is written in "code" and no one understands it fully without this "code". Seriously?