Could Christianity really be said to have existed before the birth of Christ, or could it exist were the historical facts of his life disproved?
"Jesus was absolutely required for the formation of what Christianity is today. In other words, no other person could have substituted for him. This is not the case with Buddhism or Hinduism. In the latter case, I have often heard it said that if the Mahabaratha and Ramayana (two classic works of Indian religious literature) were proved to be historically wrong, then Hinduism would stand. The reason for this is that Hinduism is based on universal truths which (a) do not require an individual founder [Hinduism is the only major world religion without a 'Prophet'] and (b) are seen as transcending space and time. In the case of Christianity, if the Bible were somehow proven to be historically completely incorrect, then Christianity would collapse. This is because Christianity is tied to Jesus, just like Islam is tied to Mohammed. In both cases, two prophets (the first divine, the second mortal) were absolutely integral in communicating religious doctrine from God to man. If this link is severed, the religion is invalidated."
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Continuing, it is certainly true that Christianity would not be what it is without Christ, and that more so than any other religion or any other person within that religion. However, modern Christianity would not be what it is without Saul of Tarsus, known as the Apostle Paul, whose writings give us the richest understanding of the message of Christ although he never met Jesus until after the crucifixion. It could also be said that Augustine, several hundred years later, left an indelible mark on our understanding of our faith; his writings have been credited as the foundation of the thoughts of such diverse later thinkers as Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin--who perhaps also have sharpened and clarified and refocused the understanding of our faith even among those churches and denominations who did not accept their teachings generally. My own faith owes much to each of these men, and to others, some born and died in this century; yet I have come to my own understanding of the scriptures which differs in some way from each of them (except, I would hope, Jesus and Paul--my objective is to understand the faith as they understood it, and to apply it to life today). As prophets and teachers of Judaism, Jesus and the New Testament authors certainly changed the focus and expanded the understanding of that religion. But if they did not perceive themselves as creating a new religion, and if the earliest followers of that faith regarded it a continuation of their ancient faith, it is inappropriate for us, thousands of years later, to argue that their religion did not exist before then.
You did not respond to my point about continuity through prophecy. Let me use an example (I've just thought of this, so it might not be a great example) to illustrate. Sometime in the mid-1980's, E. R. Jones began working on a new role playing game. He developed the basic concepts, ran some test games, revised the idea, ran more games. He promised his players that he would get the game published when he could. In September of 1993, he invited me to help him refine the game and put it to paper. I worked on this for several years, firing draft sections to him, revising, meeting with him. In December 1995, a first draft of the entire game had been completed. By the spring of 1997, there was a finished second draft; over a thousand revisions were made by September 1997 before it was ready for publication, and then there were some technical problems which prevented printing for a few months. Valdron Inc. was founded that month, to control publication and promotion of the game, and licensing agreements were signed. Copies were sent to the Copyright office in December of 1997, and the first copies were sold. But when did Multiverser truly come into existence? It could be said that there was no Multiverser game before the rules were published; it could be said that the creation of Valdron Inc. was necessary for the existence of Multiverser; you could argue that the game did not exist before the rules were written. But in every case you would be wrong. The Multiverser game existed back in the 1980's, when E. R. Jones ran the first test games. It was faintly foreshadowed and poorly understood, and would become focused and refocused, expanded and redirected over the next decade before reaching its published form. But the first time the game was played, it existed. In much the same way, the Christian faith existed from the moment God promised a deliverer to Eve. The fact that that deliverer arrived so much later, and that He refocused our understanding of much that was Judaism, does not mean that the faith in Him after his life is not a continuation of the religion which looked forward to his coming before His birth. To say otherwise is like telling the early Multiverser test players that the game they played in 1988 did not exist until 1997.
Certainly if the Bible were proven false historically, Christianity would collapse. Fortunately, there is little in pre-modern history as certain as the Bible. Yet I understand the point. Hinduism is about principles, and the historicity of its documents isn't terribly relevant--were they proved to be invented moral stories intended to illustrate the principles of the faith, they would still be as valuable. Prove the Bible is wrong about Jesus, and Christianity fails. Perhaps that's why there have been so many attacks on the historicity of the gospels especially, and the Bible generally. It has withstood them all. I expect that there will be future assaults on the historicity of the Bible as new ways to challenge it are created; but the farther we are removed from the events, the more difficult it becomes to challenge the accounts. Conspiracy theories, evolution of religion, impossibility dating, textual challenges, linguistic arguments, alleged contradicting documents, have all been raised, and all failed.
And I return to a first principle: the only thing that matters about a religion is whether it is true. A religion might have wonderful thoughts, great wisdom, meaningful insights; it could comfort us, give meaning to our lives, help us in times of need, or motivate us to great good works. But if it's not true, none of that matters.
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Read about the Multiverser role playing game--accused by some critics of being "too Christian".
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