Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > A Reply to Dr Lightfoot's Essays



WE have seen that Divine Revelation could only be necessary or conceivable for the purpose of communicating to us something which we could not otherwise discover, and that the truth of communications which are essentially beyond and undiscoverable by reason cannot be attested in any other way than by miraculous signs distinguishing them as Divine. It is admitted that no other testimony could justify our believing the specific Revelation which we are considering, the very substance of which is supernatural and beyond the criticism of reason, and that its doctrines, if not proved to be miraculous truths, must inevitably be pronounced "the wildest delusions." "By no rational being could a just and benevolent life be accepted as proof of such astonishing announcements."

On examining the alleged miraculous evidence for Christianity as Divine Revelation, however, we find that, even if the actual occurrence of the supposed miracles could be substantiated, their value as evidence would be destroyed by the necessary admission that miracles are not limited to one source and are not exclusively associated with truth, but are performed by various spiritual Beings, Satanic as well as Divine, and are not always evidential, but are sometimes to be regarded as delusive and for the trial of faith. As the doctrines supposed to be revealed are beyond Reason, and cannot in any sense be intelligently approved by the human intellect, no evidence which is of so doubtful and inconclusive a nature could sufficiently attest them. This alone would disqualify the Christian miracles for the duty which miracles alone are capable of performing.

The supposed miraculous evidence for the Divine Revelation, moreover, is not only without any special Divine character, being avowedly common also to Satanic agency, but it is not original either in conception or details. Similar miracles are reported long antecedently to the first promulgation of Christianity, and continued to be performed for centuries after it. A stream of miraculous pretension, in fact, has flowed through all human history, deep and broad as it has passed through the darker ages, but dwindling down to a thread as it has entered days of enlightenment. The evidence was too hackneyed and commonplace to make any impression upon those before whom the Christian miracles are said to have been performed, and it altogether failed to convince the people to whom the Revelation was primarily addressed. The selection of such evidence for such a purpose is much more characteristic of human weakness than of Divine power.

The true character of miracles is at once betrayed by the fact that their supposed occurrence has thus been confined to ages of ignorance and superstition, and that they are absolutely unknown in any time or place where science has provided witnesses fitted to appreciate and ascertain the nature of such exhibitions of supernatural power. There is not the slightest evidence that any attempt was made to investigate the supposed miraculous occurrences, or to justify the inferences so freely drawn from them, nor is there any reason to believe that the witnesses possessed, in any considerable degree, the fulness of knowledge and sobriety of judgment requisite for the purpose. No miracle has yet established its claim to the rank even of apparent reality, and all such phenomena must remain in the dim region of imagination. The test applied to the largest class of miracles, connected with demoniacal possession, discloses the falsity of all miraculous pretension.

There is no uncertainty as to the origin of belief in supernatural interference with nature. The assertion that spurious miracles have sprung up round a few instances of genuine miraculous power has not a single valid argument to support it. History clearly demonstrates that, wherever ignorance and superstition have prevailed, every obscure occurrence has been attributed to supernatural agency, and it is freely acknowledged that, under their influence, 'inexplicable' and 'miraculous' are convertible terms. On the other hand, in proportion as knowledge of natural laws has increased, the theory of supernatural interference with the order of nature has been dispelled and miracles have ceased. The effect of science, however, is not limited to the present and future, but its action is equally retrospective, and phenomena which were once ignorantly isolated from the sequence of natural cause and effect are now restored to their place in the unbroken order. Ignorance and superstition created miracles; knowledge has for ever annihilated them.

To justify miracles, two assumptions are made: first, an Infinite Personal God; and second, a Divine design of Revelation, the execution of which necessarily involves supernatural action. Miracles, it is argued, are not contrary to nature, or effects produced without adequate causes, but on the contrary are caused by the intervention of this Infinite Personal God for the purpose of attesting and carrying out the Divine design. Neither of the assumptions, however, can be reasonably maintained.

The assumption of an Infinite Personal God: a Being at once limited and unlimited, is a use of language to which no mode of human thought can possibly attach itself. Moreover, the assumption of a God working miracles is emphatically excluded by universal experience of the order of nature. The allegation of a specific Divine cause of miracles is further inadequate from the fact that the power of working miracles is avowedly not limited to a Personal God, but is also ascribed to other spiritual Beings, and it must, consequently, always be impossible to prove that the supposed miraculous phenomena originate with one and not with the other. On the other hand, the assumption of a Divine design of Revelation is not suggested by antecedent probability, but is derived from the very Revelation which it is intended to justify, as is likewise the assumption of a Personal God, and both are equally vicious as arguments. The circumstances which are supposed to require this Divine design, and the details of the scheme, are absolutely incredible and opposed to all the results of science. Nature does not countenance any theory of the original perfection and subsequent degradation of the human race, and the supposition of a frustrated original plan of creation, and of later impotent endeavours to correct it, is as inconsistent with Divine omnipotence and wisdom as the proposed punishment of the human race and the mode devised to save some of them are opposed to justice and morality. Such assumptions are essentially inadmissible, and totally fail to explain and justify miracles.

Whatever definition be given of miracles, such exceptional phenomena must at least be antecedently incredible. In the absence of absolute knowledge, human belief must be guided by the balance of evidence, and it is obvious that the evidence for the uniformity of the order of nature, which is derived from universal experience, must be enormously greater than can be the testimony for any alleged exception to it. On the other hand, universal experience prepares us to consider mistakes of the senses, imperfect observation and erroneous inference as not only possible, but eminently probable on the part of the witnesses of phenomena, even when they are perfectly honest and truthful, and more especially so when such disturbing causes as religious excitement and superstition are present. When the report of the original witnesses only reaches us indirectly and through the medium of tradition, the probability of error is further increased. Thus the allegation of miracles is discredited, both positively by the invariability of the order of nature, and negatively by the fallibility of human observation and testimony. The history of miraculous pretension in the world and the circumstances attending the special exhibition of it which we are examining suggest natural explanations of the reported facts which wholly remove them from the region of the supernatural.

When we proceed to examine the direct witnesses for the Christian miracles, we do not discover any exceptional circumstances neutralising the preceding considerations. On the contrary, we find that the case turns not upon miracles substantially before us, but upon the mere narratives of miracles said to have occurred over eighteen hundred years ago. It is obvious that, for such narratives to possess any real force and validity, it is essential that their character and authorship should be placed beyond all doubt. They must proceed from eye-witnesses capable of estimating aright the nature of the phenomena. Our four Gospels, however, are strictly anonymous works. The superscriptions which now distinguish them are undeniably of later origin than the works themselves and do not proceed from the composers of the Gospels. Of the writers to whom these narratives are traditionally ascribed only two are even said to have been apostles, the alleged authors of the second and third Synoptics neither having been personal followers of Jesus nor eye-witnesses of the events they describe. Under these circumstances, we are wholly dependent upon external evidence for information regarding the authorship and trustworthiness of the four canonical Gospels.

In examining this evidence, we proceeded upon clear and definite principles. Without forming or adopting any theory whatever as to the date or origin of our Gospels, we simply searched the writings of the Fathers, during a century and a half after the events in question, for information regarding the composition and character of these works and even for any certain traces of their use, although, if discovered, these could prove little beyond the mere existence of the Gospels used at the date of the writer. In the latter and minor investigation, we were guided by canons of criticism, previously laid down, which are based upon the simplest laws of evidence. We found that the writings of the Fathers, during a century and a half after the death of Jesus, are a complete blank so far as any evidence regarding the composition and character of our Gospels is concerned, unless we except the tradition preserved by Papias, after the middle of the second century, the details of which fully justify the conclusion that our first and second Synoptics, in their present form, cannot be the works said to have been composed by Matthew and Mark. There is thus no evidence whatever directly connecting any of the canonical Gospels with the writers to whom they are popularly attributed, and later tradition, of little or no value in itself, is separated by a long interval of profound silence from the epoch at which they are supposed to have been composed. With one exception, moreover, we found that, during the same century and a half, there is no certain and unmistakable trace even of the anonymous use of any of our Gospels in the early Church. This fact, of course, does not justify the conclusion that none of these Gospels was actually in existence during any part of that time, nor have we anywhere suggested such an inference, but strict examination of the evidence shows that there is no positive proof that they were. The exception to which we refer is Marcion's Gospel, which was, we think, based upon our third Synoptic, and consequently must be accepted as evidence of the existence of that work. Marcion, however, does not give the slightest information as to the authorship of the Gospel, and his charges against it of adulteration cannot be considered very favourable testimony as to its infallible character. The canonical Gospels continue to the end anonymous documents of no evidential value for miracles. They do not themselves pretend to be inspired histories, and they cannot escape from the ordinary rules of criticism. Internal evidence does not modify the inferences from external testimony. Apart from continual minor contradictions throughout the first three Gospels, it is impossible to reconcile the representations of the Synoptics with those of the fourth Gospel. They mutually destroy each other as evidence. They must be pronounced mere narratives compiled long after the events recorded, by unknown persons who were neither eye-witnesses of the alleged miraculous occurrences nor hearers of the statements they profess to report. They cannot be accepted as adequate testimony for miracles and the reality of Divine Revelation.

Applying similar tests to the Acts of the Apostles we arrived at similar results. Acknowledged to be composed by the same author who produced the third Synoptic, that author's identity is not thereby made more clear. There is no evidence of the slightest value regarding its character, but, on the other hand, the work itself teems to such an extent with miraculous incidents and supernatural agency that the credibility of the narrative requires an extraordinary amount of attestation to secure for it any serious consideration. When the statements of the author are compared with the emphatic declarations of the Apostle Paul and with authentic accounts of the development of the early Christian Church, it becomes evident that the Acts of the Apostles, as might have been supposed, is a legendary composition of a later day, which cannot be regarded as sober and credible history, and rather discredits than tends to establish the reality of the miracles with which its pages so suspiciously abound.

The remaining books of the New Testament Canon required no separate examination, because, even if genuine, they contain no additional testimony to the reality of Divine Revelation, beyond the implied belief in such doctrines as the Incarnation and Resurrection. It is unquestionable, we suppose, that in some form or other the Apostles believed in these miracles, and the assumption that they did so supersedes the necessity for examining the authenticity of the Catholic Epistles and Apocalypse. In like manner, the recognition as genuine of four Epistles of Paul, which contain his testimony to miracles, renders it superfluous to discuss the authenticity of the other letters attributed to him.

The general belief in miraculous power and its possession by the Church is brought to a practical test in the case of the Apostle Paul. After elaborate consideration of his letters, we came to the unhesitating conclusion that, instead of establishing the reality of miracles, the unconscious testimony of Paul clearly demonstrates the facility with which erroneous inferences convert the most natural phenomena into supernatural occurrences.

As a final test, we carefully examined the whole of the evidence for the cardinal dogmas of Christianity, the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. First taking the four Gospels, we found that their accounts of these events are not only full of legendary matter, but even contradict and exclude each other and, so far from establishing the reality of such stupendous miracles, they show that no reliance is to be placed on the statements of the unknown authors. Taking next the testimony of Paul, which is more important as at least authentic and proceeding from an Apostle of whom we know more than of any other of the early missionaries of Christianity, we saw that it was indefinite and utterly insufficient. His so-called "circumstantial account of the testimony upon which the belief in the Resurrection rested" consists merely of vague and undetailed hearsay, differing, so far as it can be compared, from the statements in the Gospels, and without other attestation than the bare fact that it is repeated by Paul, who doubtless believed it, although he had not himself been a witness of any of the supposed appearances of the risen Jesus which he so briefly catalogues. Paul's own personal testimony to the Resurrection is limited to a vision of Jesus, of which we have no authentic details, seen many years after the alleged miracle. Considering the peculiar and highly nervous temperament of Paul, of which he himself supplies abundant evidence, there can be no hesitation in deciding that this vision was purely subjective, as were likewise, in all probability, the appearances to the excited disciples of Jesus. The testimony of Paul himself, before his imagination was stimulated to ecstatic fervour by the beauty of a spiritualised religion, was an earnest denial of the great Christian dogma, emphasised by the active persecution of those who affirmed it; and a vision, especially in the case of one so constituted, supposed to be seen many years after the fact of the Resurrection had ceased to be capable of verification, is not an argument of convincing force. We were compelled to pronounce the evidence for the Resurrection and Ascension absolutely and hopelessly inadequate to prove the reality of such stupendous miracles, which must consequently be unhesitatingly rejected. There is no reason given, or even conceivable, why allegations such as these, and dogmas affecting the religion and even the salvation of the human race, should be accepted upon evidence which would be declared totally insufficient in the case of any common question of property or title before a legal tribunal. On the contrary, the more momentous the point to be established, the more complete must be the proof required.

If we test the results at which we have arrived by general considerations, we find them everywhere confirmed and established. There is nothing original in the claim of Christianity to be regarded as Divine Revelation, and nothing new either in the doctrines said to have been revealed, or in the miracles by which it is alleged to have been distinguished. There has not been a single historical religion largely held amongst men which has not pretended to be divinely revealed, and the written books of which have not been represented as directly inspired. There is not a doctrine, sacrament, or rite of Christianity which has not substantially formed part of earlier religions; and not a single phase of the supernatural history of the Christ, from his miraculous conception, birth and incarnation to his death, resurrection, and ascension, which has not had its counterpart in earlier mythologies. Heaven and hell, with characteristic variation of details, have held an important place in the eschatology of many creeds and races. The same may be said even of the moral teaching of Christianity, the elevated precepts of which, although in a less perfect and connected form, had already suggested themselves to many noble minds and been promulgated by ancient sages and philosophers. That this Enquiry into the reality of Divine Revelation has been limited to the claim of Christianity has arisen solely from a desire to condense it within reasonable bounds, and confine it to the only Religion in connection with which it could practically interest us now.

There is nothing in the history and achievements of Christianity which can be considered characteristic of a Religion Divinely revealed for the salvation of mankind. Originally said to have been communicated to a single nation, specially selected as the peculiar people of God, for whom distinguished privileges were said to be reserved, it was almost unanimously rejected by that nation at the time and it has continued to be repudiated by its descendants, with singular unanimity, to the present day. After more than eighteen centuries, this Divine scheme of salvation has not obtained even the nominal adhesion of more than a third of the human race, and if, in a census of Christendom, distinction could now be made of those who no longer seriously believe in it as Supernatural Religion, Christianity would take a much lower numerical position. Sâkya Muni, a teacher only second in nobility of character to Jesus, who, like him, proclaimed a system of elevated morality, has even now almost twice the number of followers, although his missionaries never sought converts in the West. [168:1] Considered as a scheme Divinely devised as the best, if not only, mode of redeeming the human race and saving them from eternal damnation, promulgated by God himself incarnate in human form, and completed by his own actual death upon the cross for the sins of the world, such results as these can only be regarded as practical failure, although they may not be disproportionate for a system of elevated morality.

We shall probably never be able to determine how far the great Teacher may through his own speculations or misunderstood spiritual utterances have suggested the supernatural doctrines subsequently attributed to him, and by which his whole history and system soon became transformed; but no one who attentively studies the subject can fail to be struck by the absence of such dogmas from the earlier records of his teaching. It is to the excited veneration of the followers of Jesus, however, that we owe most of the supernatural elements so characteristic of the age and people. We may look in vain even in the synoptic Gospels for the doctrines elaborated in the Pauline Epistles and the Gospel of Ephesus. The great transformation of Christianity was effected by men who had never seen Jesus, and who were only acquainted with his teaching after it had become transmuted by tradition. The fervid imagination of the East constructed Christian theology. It is not difficult to follow the development of the creeds of the Church, and it is certainly most instructive to observe the progressive boldness with which its dogmas were expanded by pious enthusiasm. The New Testament alone represents several stages of dogmatic evolution. Before his first followers had passed away the process of transformation had commenced. The disciples, who had so often misunderstood the teaching of Jesus during his life, piously distorted it after his death. His simple lessons of meekness and humility were soon forgotten. With lamentable rapidity, the elaborate structure of ecclesiastical Christianity, following stereotyped lines of human superstition and deeply coloured by Alexandrian philosophy, displaced the sublime morality of Jesus. Doctrinal controversy, which commenced amongst the very Apostles, has ever since divided the unity of the Christian body. The perverted ingenuity of successive generations of churchmen has filled the world with theological quibbles, which have naturally enough culminated of late in doctrines of Immaculate Conception and Papal Infallibility.

It is sometimes affirmed, however, that those who proclaim such conclusions not only wantonly destroy the dearest hopes of humanity, but remove the only solid basis of morality; and it is alleged that, before existing belief is disturbed, the iconoclast is bound to provide a substitute for the shattered idol. To this we may reply that speech or silence does not alter the reality of things. The recognition of Truth cannot be made dependent on consequences, or be trammelled by considerations of spurious expediency. Its declaration in a serious and suitable manner to those who are capable of judging can never be premature. Its suppression cannot be effectual, and is only a humiliating compromise with conscious imposture. In so far as morality is concerned, belief in a system of future rewards and punishments, although of an intensely degraded character, may, to a certain extent, have promoted observance of the letter of the law in darker ages and even in our own; but it may, we think, be shown that education and civilisation have done infinitely more to enforce its spirit. How far Christianity has promoted education and civilisation, we shall not here venture adequately to discuss. We may emphatically assert, however, that whatever beneficial effect Christianity has produced has been due, not to its supernatural dogmas, but to its simple morality. Dogmatic Theology, on the contrary, has retarded education and impeded science. Wherever it has been dominant, civilisation has stood still. Science has been judged and suppressed by the light of a text or a chapter of Genesis. Almost every great advance which has been made towards enlightenment has been achieved in spite of the protest or the anathema of the Church. Submissive ignorance, absolute or comparative, has been tacitly fostered as the most desirable condition of the popular mind. "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven," has been the favourite text of Doctors of Divinity with a stock of incredible dogmas difficult of assimilation by the virile mind. Even now, the friction of theological resistance is a constant waste of intellectual power. The early enunciation of so pure a system of morality, and one so intelligible to the simple as well as profound to the wise, was of great value to the world; but, experience being once systematised and codified, if higher principles do not constrain us, society may safely be left to see morals sufficiently observed. It is true that, notwithstanding its fluctuating rules, morality has hitherto assumed the character of a Divine institution, but its sway has not, in consequence, been more real than it must be as the simple result of human wisdom and the outcome of social experience. The choice of a noble life is no longer a theological question, and ecclesiastical patents of truth and uprightness have finally expired. Morality, which has ever changed its complexion and modified its injunctions according to social requirements, will necessarily be enforced as part of human evolution, and is not dependent on religious terrorism or superstitious persuasion. If we are disposed to say: Cui bono? and only practise morality, or be ruled by right principles, to gain a heaven or escape a hell, there is nothing lost, for such grudging and calculated morality is merely a spurious imitation which can as well be produced by social compulsion. But if we have ever been really penetrated by the pure spirit of morality, if we have in any degree attained that elevation of mind which instinctively turns to the true and noble and shrinks from the baser level of thought and action, we shall feel no need of the stimulus of a system of rewards and punishments in a future state which has for so long been represented as essential to Christianity.

As to the other reproach, let us ask what has actually been destroyed by such an enquiry pressed to its logical conclusion. Can Truth by any means be made less true? Can reality be melted into thin air? The Revelation not being a reality, that which has been destroyed is only an illusion, and that which is left is the Truth. Losing belief in it and its contents, we have lost absolutely nothing but that which the traveller loses when the mirage, which has displayed cool waters and green shades before him, melts swiftly away. There were no cool fountains really there to allay his thirst, no flowery meadows for his wearied limbs; his pleasure was delusion, and the wilderness is blank. Rather the mirage with its pleasant illusion, is the human cry, than the desert with its barrenness. Not so, is the friendly warning; seek not vainly in the desert that which is not there, but turn rather to other horizons and to surer hopes. Do not waste life clinging to ecclesiastical dogmas which represent no eternal verities, but search elsewhere for truth which may haply be found. What should we think of the man who persistently repulsed the persuasion that two and two make four from the ardent desire to believe that two and two make five? Whose fault is it that two and two do make four and not five? Whose folly is it that it should be more agreeable to think that two and two make five than to know that they only make four? This folly is theirs who represent the value of life as dependent on the reality of special illusions, which they have religiously adopted. To discover that a former belief is unfounded is to change nothing of the realities of existence. The sun will descend as it passes the meridian whether we believe it to be noon or not. It is idle and foolish, if human, to repine because the truth is not precisely what we thought it, and at least we shall not change reality by childishly clinging to a dream.

The argument so often employed by theologians that Divine Revelation is necessary for man, and that certain views contained in that Revelation are required by our moral consciousness, is purely imaginary and derived from the Revelation which it seeks to maintain. The only thing absolutely necessary for man is Truth; and to that, and that alone, must our moral consciousness adapt itself. Reason and experience forbid the expectation that we can acquire any knowledge otherwise than through natural channels. We might as well expect to be supernaturally nourished as supernaturally informed. To complain that we do not know all that we desire to know is foolish and unreasonable. It is tantamount to complaining that the mind of man is not differently constituted. To attain the full altitude of the Knowable, whatever that may be, should be our earnest aim, and more than this is not for humanity. We may be certain that information which is beyond the ultimate reach of Reason is as unnecessary as it is inaccessible. Man may know all that man requires to know.

We gain more than we lose by awaking to find that our Theology is human invention and our eschatology an unhealthy dream. We are freed from the incubus of base Hebrew mythology, and from doctrines of Divine government which outrage morality and set cruelty and injustice in the place of holiness. If we have to abandon cherished anthropomorphic visions of future Blessedness, the details of which are either of unseizable dimness or of questionable joy, we are at least delivered from quibbling discussions of the meaning of aiônios, and our eternal hope is unclouded by the doubt whether mankind is to be tortured in hell for ever and a day, or for a day without the ever. At the end of life there may be no definite vista of a Heaven glowing with the light of apocalyptic imagination, but neither will there be the unutterable horror of a Purgatory or a Hell lurid with flames for the helpless victims of an unjust but omnipotent Creator. To entertain such libellous representations at all as part of the contents of "Divine Revelation," it was necessary to assert that man was incompetent to judge of the ways of the God of Revelation, and must not suppose him endowed with the perfection of human conceptions of justice and mercy, but submit to call wrong right and right wrong at the foot of an almighty Despot. But now the reproach of such reasoning is shaken from our shoulders, and returns to the Jewish superstition from which it sprang.

As myths lose their might and their influence when discovered to be baseless, the power of supernatural Christianity will doubtless pass away, but the effect of the revolution must not be exaggerated, although it cannot here be fully discussed. If the pictures which have filled for so long the horizon of the Future must vanish, no hideous blank can rightly be maintained in their place. We should clearly distinguish between what we know and know not, but as carefully abstain from characterising that which we know not as if it were really known to us. That mysterious Unknown or Unknowable is no cruel darkness, but simply an impenetrable distance into which we are impotent to glance, but which excludes no legitimate speculation and forbids no reasonable hope.


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