Devil in the detail
Have you ever tried to zoom in on a digital picture to examine some detail or other? I did once, out of curiosity, and was astonished at the results. At normal size, the picture looked like it was as detailed as you could wish, but even at double magnification, you can clearly see pixellation. Zoom in much further, and it barely looks like a picture at all, more a collection of coloured blocks. Looking closely at the detail shows that the picture isn’t nearly as detailed and precise as you might have thought.
All of which is a very dodgy analogy to lead into another moan about religion. The Bible makes all sorts of claims which look harder and harder to believe in the more you examine the details and practicalities. I couldn’t honestly say whether I ever believed them in a strictly literal sense, because I tried not to think too hard about them, but I was never all that worried about treating them as holy mysteries. When I started thinking about the detailed hows, whats and whys, though, it broke the spell and they stopped making any sense at all.
Starting from the beginning, the virgin birth. Ecumenical Christian theology is that Jesus is God’s son, “begotten, not created”. Leaving aside the mindboggling mechanics of the conception (possibly the one time when crying out “Oh God” during sex might be entirely appropriate), we can rule out parthenogenesis due to Jesus’s sex, so where does the additional DNA come from? Does God the Father have DNA? Wouldn’t that make him a part of His own creation, rendering the incarnation unnecessary? But if God doesn’t have DNA, it either belongs to someone else, or it was specially created, either of which is a theological no-no.
Maybe you don’t see the problem, so how about some miracles? I’ve mentioned before that I remember being baffled when I was about 7 (before growing up and learning to ignore the obvious) by the feeding of the 5,000. How did it work? What would you have seen if you’d been standing there, watching? Was it like a sleight of hand every time Jesus broke a bit off? In fact, the question in all of these cases comes down to this: what would the theoretical “perfect observer” actually see? Put in those terms, I’ve yet to hear a satisfactory answer to any of these questions.
Or how about Jesus’s resurrected body? We’re told it was a physical body, not just a spiritual one. That would be consistent with the claims that people touched him and he ate food (does this mean he also used the toilet?), but he still had his wounds, so why wasn’t he still dead? Was he a reanimated corpse? And physical bodies don’t tend to walk through walls or look unrecognisable for unexplained reasons. But then, if he could walk through walls, who rolled the stone away and why? This all leads me into thought processes reminiscent of the explanation of why Jesus was not a zombie. (Warning, satire!)
And then there’s what might be termed the “werewolf problem”. Werewolves don’t wear clothes as wolves (obviously!), but when they become human again, that means they’re naked and have to find clothes, because naked humans tend to attract attention. So when Jesus was resurrected, and left his graveclothes neatly folded, what did he wear? Did he skulk behind bushes like a character in a dodgy sitcom until he found a house where someone had carelessly left clothes out to dry? The thought amuses me, but it doesn’t exactly sound like a triumphant resurrection.
Finally, my favourite, what happened at the ascension? Luke, generally claimed as the most sober, factual evangelist and almost universally regarded as the author of Acts, records the event as Jesus literally rising into the sky, until he was hidden by a cloud. This is still regarded as mainstream doctrine, despite the obvious problems. If he just rose in the air, where did he go to? Did he hide behind a cloud so he could disappear, or is he still heading straight up at the same rate, stuck in space and expecting to find heaven just around the next asteroid?
Any explanation that takes this story literally quickly boils down to either deceit or absurdity. Rising in the air is either for a cheap effect, followed by something less dramatic out of sight, or else it leaves the resurrected Christ drifting in space. No doubt he can manage without oxygen, being God and dead already, but he certainly won’t have got very far since then. If he was travelling at 10mph, for example, he’d only be twice as far away as the Sun after 2,000 years, so maybe we should send a probe to look for him. And interestingly, if he intends to come back the same way, as the Bible claims, a spot of careful observation would give us plenty of advance warning.
Of course, it’s possible that the problem lies with the doctrine that’s been imposed on the accounts – I notice that much of the time, the problem is exacerbated (or even created) by doctrinal claims. Strangely, it seems that a substantial number of people are quite happy to belong to a church which tells them things they think are just daft, so maybe there’s no incentive for the church to restrict its claims to the realms of reality or common sense.
Of course, if anyone could provide some actual detail on how these things are meant to work, I’d look at that, but if extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, that should include at least a nod to the mechanics, rather than a shrug and an attempt to protect the modesty of incoherent beliefs with a veil of mystery.