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THE PROOFS OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION,
MIRACLES, PROPHECIES, AND MARTYRS.
WE have seen, in the preceding chapters, what just reasons there are to doubt the authenticity of the revelation of the Jews and Christians.
And further, relative to this article, Christianity has no advantage over any other religion.
All the religions on earth, notwithstanding their discordance, declare that they have emanated from God, and pretend to possess an exclusive right to his favours.
The Indian asserts, that the Brama himself is the author of his worship. The Scandinavian derives his from the awful Odin. If the Jew and the Christian have received theirs from Jehovah by the ministry of Moses and Jesus, the Mahometan affirms, that he has received his from his prophet, inspired by the same God. Thus all religions pretend to a divine origin; and they all interdict the use of reason in the examination of their sacred titles. Each pretends to be the only true one, to the exclusion of all others. All menace with the wrath of heaven those who refuse to submit to their authority, and all acquire the character of falsehood by the palpable contradictions with which they are filled ; by the misshapen, obscure, and often odious ideas which they give of the Godhead; by the whimsical laws, which they attribute to him, and by the disputes which they generate among their sectaries. In fine, they all appear to be a mass of impostors and reveries, equally disgusting to reason. Thus, on the score of pretensions, the Christian religion has no advantage over the other superstitions with which the world is infected, and its divine origin is contested by all others with as much propriety as theirs is denied by it.
How then shall we decide in its favour? How prove the validity of its pretensions? Has it any superior qualities, by which it merits the preference? And if so, what are they? Does it, better than any other, make us acquainted with the nature and essence of God? Alas! it only renders them more incomprehensible. It represents him as a capricious tyrant, whose whimsies are sometimes favourable, but more commonly injurious to mankind. Does it render mankind better? Alas! it arms them against each other, renders them intolerant, and forces them to butcher their brethren. Does it render empires flourishing and powerful? Wherever it reigns, do we not see the people debased, destitute of energy, and ignorant of true morality? What then are the proofs which are to establish the superiority of the Christian religion over all others? We are answered, "miracles, prophecies, and martyrs." But these are to he found in all religions of the earth. There are in all nations men, who, being superior to the vulgar in science and cunning, deceive them with imposture, and dazzle them with performances which are judged to be supernatural, by men ignorant of the secrets of nature and the resources of art.
If the Jew cite the miracles of Moses, I see them performed before a people most ignorant, abject, and credulous, whose testimony has no weight with me. I may, also, suspect that these pretended miracles have been inserted in the sacred books of the Hebrews long after the death of those who might have testified the truth concerning them. If the Christians cite Jerusalem, and the testimony of Gallilee, to prove the miracles of Christ, I see them attested only by an ignorant populace; or I demand how it could be possible that an entire people, who had been witnesses to the miracles of Christ, should consent to his death, and even earnestly demand it? Would the people of London, or Paris, suffer a man who had raised the dead, restored the blind to sight, and healed the lame and paralytic, to be put to death before their eyes? If the Jews demanded the death of Jesus, all his miracles are at once annihilated in the mind of every unprejudiced person.
May not we, also, oppose to the miracles of Moses, and Christ, those performed by Mahomet in presence of all Mecca and Arabia assembled? The effect of his miracles was, at least, to convince the Arabians that he was a divine person. The miracles of Jesus convinced nobody of his mission. Saint Paul himself, who afterwards became the most ardent of his disciples, was not convinced by the miracles, of which, in his time, there existed so many witnesses. A new one was necessary for his conviction. And by what right do they at this day demand belief of miracles, which could not convince even in the time of the Apostles; that is to say, a short time after they were wrought?
Let it not be said that the miracles of Christ, are as well attested as any fact in profane history, and that to doubt them is as ridiculous as to doubt the existence of Scipio or Caesar, which we believe only on the report of the historians by whom they are mentioned. The existence or a man, of the general of an army, or an hero, is not improbable; neither is it a miracle. [31:1] We believe the probable facts, whilst we reject, with contempt, the miracles recounted by Titus Livius. The most stupid credulity is often joined to the most distinguished talents. Of this, the Christian religion furnishes us with innumerable examples. In matters of religion, all testimony is liable to suspicion. The most enlightened men see but ill, when they are intoxicated with enthusiasm, and dazzled by the chimeras of a wild imagination. A miracle is a thing impossible in the order of nature. If this be changed by God, he is not immutable.
It will probably be said, that, without changing the order of things, God and his favourites could find resources in nature unknown to mankind in general. But then their works would no longer be supernatural, and would have nothing of the marvellous. A miracle is an effect contrary to the established laws of nature. God himself, therefore, cannot perform miracles without counteracting the institutions of his own wisdom. A wise man, having seen a miracle, might with propriety doubt the evidence of his own senses. He ought carefully to examine, whether the extraordinary effect, which he does not comprehend, proceeds not from some natural cause, whose manner of acting he does not understand.
But let us suppose, for a moment, that miracles may exist, and that those of Christ were real, or, at least, that they were inserted in the gospels by persons who imagined they had seen them. Are the witnesses who transmitted, or the Apostles who saw them, extremely deserving of credit? And have we not a right to refuse their testimonies? Were those witnesses very deserving men? By the confession of the Christians themselves they were ignorant men, taken from the dregs of the people, and consequently credulous and incapable of investigation. Were those witnesses disinterested? No; it was, undoubtedly, their chief interest to support those miracles, upon which were suspended the divinity of their master, and the truth of the religion they were endeavouring to establish. Are those miracles confirmed by the testimony of contemporary historians? Not one of them has mentioned those extraordinary facts. We find not a single Jew or Pagan in the superstitious city of Jerusalem, who heard even a word of the most marvelous facts that ever were recorded, and facts which happened in the midst of them. The miracles of Christ were ever attested by Christians only. We are requested to believe that, at the death of the Son of God, the earth quaked, the sun was darkened, and the dead arose. How does it happen that such extraordinary events have been noticed only by a handful of Christians? Were they the only persons who perceived them? We are told, also, that Christ arose from the dead; to prove which, they appeal to the testimony of his Apostles and. followers. Would not one solemn apparition, in some public place, have been more decisive than all those clandestine ones, made to persons interested in the formation of a new sect? The Christian faith, according to St. Paul, is founded on the resurrection of Christ. This, then, ought to have been demonstrated to mankind, in the clearest and most indisputable manner. [33:1]
Have we not room to accuse the Saviour of the world with want of benevolence, in showing himself only to his disciples and favourites? It seems that he did not desire that all the world should believe in him. The Jews, it is said, deserve to be blinded for putting Christ to death. But, if this be the case, why did the apostles preach to them the gospel? Could it be expected that the Jews would believe the report of the apostles, rather than their own eyes?
Miracles appear to have been invented to supply the want of good reasons. Truth and evidence have no need of miracles to ensure their reception. Is it not very astonishing that God Almighty should find it easier to derange the order of nature, than to convince mankind of truths the most evident, and calculated to force their assent? Miracles were made to prove things which it is impossible to believe. There is no need of miracles when we talk of reason. Things incredible are here adduced in proof of incredible things. Almost all impostors who have fabricated religions, have announced incredibilities to mankind. They have afterwards fabricated miracles in proof of those incredibilities. "You cannot comprehend,'' said they, "what I tell you; but I will clearly prove to you that I tell the truth, by doing things that you cannot comprehend." People have in all ages been overcome by this brilliant reasoning. A passion for the marvelous has prevented enquiry. Mankind have not perceived that miracles could neither prove impossibilities, nor change the essence of truth. Whatever wonders a man, or, if you please, a God may perform, they can never prove that two and two are not four, or that three are no more than one. They cannot prove that an immaterial being, destitute of organs, has spoken to man; or that a good, wise, and just Being has commanded the execution of injustice, folly, and cruelty. It appears, therefore, that miracles prove nothing, unless it be the address and imposture of those who are desirous of profiting by the stupid credulity of mankind, and endeavour to seduce them into a belief of the most extravagant falsehoods. Such men have always begun by falsely pretending to have an intimate commerce with God, in order to prove which, they have performed wonders that they attribute to the Being by whom they say they were commissioned. Every man, who performs miracles, endeavours to establish, not truth, but falsehood. Truth is simple and evident; the marvellous is ever to be suspected. Nature is always true to herself; she acts by unvarying laws. To say that God performs miracles, is to say that he contradicts himself, and violates the laws which he has prescribed to nature. It is to say, that he renders useless human reason, of which he is the author. Impostors alone can pronounce it necessary to discredit experience and reject reason.
Thus, the pretended miracles of the Christian, as well as all other religions, have no foundation, but the ignorance, credulity, and enthusiasm of mankind, and the cunning of impostors. The same may be said of prophecies. Mankind are ever anxious to pry into futurity; and there are always some kind individuals disposed to aid them in the gratification of this desire. There have been enchanters, divines, and prophets, in all the nations of the earth. The Jews have not been happier, in this respect, than others. Tartars, Negroes, and Indians have their share of impostors. All societies will find deceivers enough, so long as they are willing to pay for deception.
These inspired men have not been ignorant, that their prophecies ought to be extremely vague and ambiguous, in order that they might not, in process of time, appear to have been falsehoods. We need not, therefore, be surprised, that the Jewish prophecies are very dark, and of such a nature, that any thing may be found in them which interpreters think proper to seek. Those which are attributed to Christ, by his followers, are not considered in the same light by the Jews, who still expect the Messiah, whom the former believe to have been on earth eighteen centuries ago. The Jewish prophecies uniformly announce the deliverer of a discontented and oppressed nation. Such a one was also expected by the Romans, and almost all the nations of the earth. All mankind have a natural propensity to hope for a termination of the evils they suffer, and believe that Providence cannot, in justice, fail to render them, one day, happy. The Jews, the most superstitious nation on earth, building upon the supposed promise of their God, have always expected the coming of a monarch or conqueror, who is to elevate them from disgrace, and crown them with triumph. It was impossible for them to see this deliverer in the person of Jesus, who, instead of being the restorer of the Hebrew nation, was its destroyer; and since whose coming, they seem to have lost all favour with God.
It is asserted, that the destruction of the Jewish nation, and the dispersion of the Jews, were themselves foretold, and that they furnish a convincing proof of the truth of Christian prophecy. To this I answer, it was easy to foretell the dispersion and destruction of a restless, turbulent, and rebellious people, continually torn and convulsed by intestine divisions. Besides, this people was often conquered and dispersed. The temple destroyed by Titus, had previously suffered the same fate from Nebuchadnezzar, who carried the captive tribes into Assyria, and spread them through his territories. The dispersion of the Jews is more perceptible than that of other conquered nations, because they have generally, after a certain time, become confounded with their conquerors; whereas the Jews refuse to intermingle, by domestic connections, with the nations where they reside, and have religiously maintained this distinction. It is not the same with the Cuebres or Parsis, of Persia and Indostan, as well as the Armenians, who dwell in Mahometan countries! The Jews remain dispersed, because they are unsocial, intolerant, and blindly attached to their superstitions. [35:1]
Thus Christians have no reason to boast of the prophecies contained in the books of the Jews, nor to make invidious applications of them to that nation, because they detest its religion.
Judea was always subjected to priests, who had great influence over affairs of state. They were always meddling with politics, and undertook to foretell the events, fortunate or unfortunate, which were to befall the nation. No country was ever more fertile in prophets. This description of men instituted schools, where they initiated into the mysteries of their art those who proved themselves worthy of that honour, by discovering a wish to deceive a credulous people, and by such honest means acquire riches and respect. [36:1]
The art of prophesying was then an actual profession, or an useful and profitable branch of commerce in that miserable nation, which believed God to be incessantly busied in their affairs. The great gains resulting from this traffic of imposture must have caused divisions among the Jewish prophets. Accordingly, we find them crying down each other. Each one treated his rivals as false prophets, inspired by evil spirits. There have always been quarrels among impostors, to decide who should have the exclusive right of deceiving mankind.
If we examine the conduct of the boasted prophets of the Old Testament, we shall find them far from being virtuous persons. We see arrogant priests continually meddling with affairs of state, and interweaving them with religion. We see in them seditious subjects, incessantly caballing against all sovereigns, who were not sufficiently submissive to them. They cross their projects, excite their subjects to rebellion, effect their destruction, and thus accomplish the fatal predictions, which they had before made against them. [36:2] Such is the character of most of the prophets, who have played a part in the history of the Jews.
The studied obscurity of the prophecies is such, that those which are commonly applied to the Messiah, or the deliverer of Israel, are equally applicable to every enthusiast or prophet that appeared in Jerusalem or Judea. Christians, heated with the idea of Christ, think they meet him in all places, and pretend to see him in the darkest passages of the Old Testament. Deluding themselves by force of allegories, subtilties, commentaries, and forced interpretations, they have discovered the most formal predictions in all the vague oracles and nonsensical trash of the prophets. [37:1]
Men are not scrupulous respecting things which accord with their desires. When we examine, without prejudice, the prophecies of the Hebrews, we find them to be a misshapen mass of rhapsodies, the offspring of fanaticism and delirium. We find them obscure and enigmatical, like the oracles of the Pagans. In fine. it is evident that these pretended divine oracles are the vagaries and impostures of men, who imposed on the credulity of a superstitious nation which believes in dreams, visions, apparitions, and sorceries, and received with avidity any deception, provided it were sufficiently decorated with the marvelous. Wherever mankind are ignorant, there will be found prophets and workers of miracles, and these two branches of commerce will always decay in the same proportion as mankind become enlightened.
Among the proofs of the authenticity of their religion, Christians enumerate a multitude of martyrs, who have sealed with their blood their belief of the opinions they had embraced. There is no religion destitute of ardent defenders, who would sacrifice their lives for the opinions to which they believe their eternal happiness attached. Superstitious and ignorant men are obstinate in their prejudices. Their credulity prevents them from suspecting any deception in their spiritual guides. Their vanity persuades them that they are incapable of wavering; and if, in fine, their imaginations be strong enough to see the heavens open, and a recompense prepared therein for their courage, there is no torment they will not brave and endure. In their intoxication they will despise all torments of short duration; they will smile upon their executioners; and their souls, alienated from earthly things, will become insensible to pain. In such scenes, the hearts of spectators are softened; they admire the astonishing firmness of the martyr; they catch his enthusiasm, and believe his cause just. His courage appearing to them supernatural and divine, becomes an indubitable proof of the truth of his opinions. Thus, by a sort of contagion, enthusiasm communicates itself. Men are always interested in the fate of those who show the greatest firmness; and tyranny always multiplies the friends of those whom it persecutes. The constancy of the first Christians must, therefore, have produced proselytes, by a natural effect of their conduct. Martyrs prove nothing, unless it be the strength of the enthusiasm, error, and obstinacy produced by superstition, and the barbarous folly of those who persecute their fellow-creatures for religious opinions.
Every violent passion has its martyrs. Pride, vanity, prejudice, love, patriotism, and even vice itself, produces martyrs; or, at least, a contempt of every kind of danger. Is it, then, surprising, that enthusiasm and fanaticism, the strongest passions of mankind, have so often enabled men, inspired with the hopes they give, to face and despise death?--Besides, if Christians can boast a catalogue of martyrs, Jews can do the same. The unfortunate Jews, condemned to the flames by the Inquisition, were martyrs to their religion; and their fortitude proves as much in its favour, as that of the Christians can do in favour of Christianity. If martyrs demonstrate the truth of a religion, there is no religion or sect which may not be looked upon as true.
In fine, among the perhaps exaggerated number of martyrs, boasted by Christians, many were rather the victims of an inconsiderate zeal, a turbulent and seditious spirit, than a real love of religion. The church itself does not presume to justify some, who, transported by a volcanic zeal, have troubled the peace of the earth, and poured out flaming destruction on all who differed in opinion from themselves; until mankind, consulting their own tranquillity and safety, have destroyed them. If men of this description were to be considered as martyrs, every disturber of society, when punished, would acquire a right to this title.
[31:1] A supernatural event requires, in order to be believed, much stronger proofs than a fact in no wise contradictory to probability. It is easy to believe, upon the testimony of Philostrates, that Appollonius existed, because his existence has nothing in it that shocks reason; but I will not believe Philostrates, when he tells me, that Appollonius performed miracles. I believe that Jesus Christ died; but I do not believe that he arose from the dead.
[33:1] The Basilidians and Cerinthians, heretics who lived in the infancy of Christianity, maintained that Jesus was not dead, and that Simon the Cyrenian was crucified in his place. See Epiph. Haer. c. 28. Thus, there were men, from the of the church, who doubted the crucifixion, and. consequently the resurrection of Christ; and yet we are exhorted to believe them at the present day.
[35:1] The Acts of the Apostles evidently prove, that, even before the time of Jesus, the Jews began to be dispersed. Jews came from Greece, Persia, Arabia. &c. to the feast of Pentecost. Acts, c. ii. 8. So that, after Jesus, the inhabitants of Judea only were dispersed by the Romans.
[36:1] Saint Jerome says, that the Sadducees did not adopt the prophets, but contented themselves with believing the five books of Moses. Dodwell, De Jure Laicorum, asserts, that the prophets prepared themselves to prophesy by drinking wine. See page 259. It seems they were jugglers, poets, and musicians, who had made themselves masters of their trades, and knew how to exercise them profitably.
[36:2] The prophet Samuel displeased with Saul, who refused to second his cruelty, declared that he had forfeited the crown, and raised up a rival to him in the person of David. Elias appears to have been a seditious subject, who, finding himself unable to succeed in his rebellious designs, thought proper to escape due punishment by flight. Jeremiah himself gives us to understand that he conspired with the Assyrians against his besieged country. He seems to have employed himself in depriving his fellow-citizens of both the will and the courage to defend themselves. He purchased a field of his relations, at the very time when he informed his countrymen that they were about to be dispersed, and led away in captivity. The king of Assyria recommends this prophet to his general, Nebuzaradan, whom he commands to take great care of him.--See Jeremiah.
[37:1] Any thing
may be found in the Bible, if it be read with the imagination of
Saint Augustine, who pretended to see all the New Testament in the
Old. According to him, the death of Abel is a type of that of
Christ; the two wives of Abraham are the synagogue and the church;
a piece of red cloth held up by an harlot, who betrayed Jericho,
signifies the blood of Christ; the lamb, goat, and lion, are
figures of Jesus Christ; the brazen serpent represents the
sacrifice on the cross. Even the mysteries of the Christian
religion are announced in the Old Testament. Manna represents the
Eucharist, &c. See S. Aug. Serm. 78, and Ep. 156. How
can a man, in his senses, see, in the Immanuel announced by Isaiah,
the Messiah, whose name is Jesus? Isaiah c. vii. v. 14. How
discover, in an obscure and crucified Jew, a leader who shall
govern Israel? How see a royal deliverer and restorer of the Jews,
in one, who, far from delivering his nation, came only to destroy
their laws; and after whose coming their land was desolated by the
Romans? A man must be sharp sighted indeed to find the Messiah in
their predictions. Jesus himself does not seem to have been more
clear, or happy, in his prophecies. In the Gospel of Luke, chap.
xxi. he speaks of the last judgment: he mentions angels, who, at
the sound of the trumpet, assemble Mankind together before him. He
adds: "Verily, I say unto you, this generation shall not pass away,
until these things are accomplished." The world, however, still
stands, and Christians have been expecting the last judgment for
eighteen hundred years.
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