This is the eighth and final part of my story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years in my teens and twenties looking at all the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.
As I’ve previously mentioned, I’d already seen that Christianity was big on the claim that the Jewish scriptures had miraculously prophecied Jesus’s life/death/resurrection. I’d read Christian claims about many of these, and found they didn’t stand up to being checked out. I’d read Jewish explanations about flaws in the Christian interpretations, and found that those did stand up to being checked out. But something kept niggling at me; other than the isolated passages that Christians picked out, I’d never read what the prophets had to say for myself. And by this stage in my life I was well aware of how people could cherry-pick facts to support the side of a debate that they wanted to support. How did I know that this wasn’t happening here?
With hindsight, I realise that people don’t usually cherry-pick poor arguments, so the very fact that Christians weren’t coming up with better scriptural prophecies to prove their arguments was an excellent indication that such prophecies didn’t exist. At the time, however, I could only see one fair way of making sure; I’d have to read the biblical prophets for myself.
I put this off for quite a while, because it was a pretty big project, but in the end I made up my mind to do it. I would read them through from Isaiah to Malachi inclusive. I’d write down anything that genuinely seemed to have been at least intended as a prophecy about someone being sent by God. And then I would read through all the ones I’d written down and see whether they really did – as Christians claimed – come up with an astonishingly close description of Jesus’s life. If they did… well, as awful as the prospect was, I supposed I’d have to become Christian. If they didn’t, on the other hand, then that would be reassuring information.
And so I did just that. This time, the parental Bible I appropriated was the RSV. I don’t remember why – probably because it was smaller and lighter than the others and I was packing it to take back to university – but I now know that it’s considered one of the better translations, so that was an unintentionally good choice. I spent hours reading through it and carefully copying any noteworthy passages into an old exercise book I had left over from middle school maths lessons. (I kept the exercise book afterwards, as a souvenir. Years later, when my husband and I were busy packing for a house move, he found it in a pile and asked me what it was. “Oh,” I said absently, preoccupied with the box I was packing, “that’s just prophecies.” The look on his face when I glanced up made me realise that some comments in life really do need context.)
I also reread quite a lot of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. I don’t actually remember how that became part of the project; either I’d done this at an earlier stage and I’m conflating the two in my mind (plausible, as I know I’d read them several times before, including a reread only a few years before the time I’m thinking about), or it was something I did as a minor change of pace from ploughing through the prophets (also plausible, as I got really bogged down reading through Jeremiah, the depressing so-and-so). However it happened, I know I did it at some stage, because the information from that was one of the things I took into account when I weighed up what I’d learned.
And, as so often happens with questions related to Christianity, sitting down and properly reading large parts of the Bible really clarified things. Here – after much tedious slogging through the writings of ancient people ranting on about stuff, and meticulous note-taking – is what I learned.
1. The Jews were right.
Well, I still had no idea whether they were right about details such as the existence of God or whether this God might be responsible for the scriptures supposedly inspired by him; I was still firmly agnostic. They were, however – not surprisingly – right about what the scriptures had to say about Messianic prophecies.
I’d found several passages that fit my original criterion of ‘intended as a prophecy of someone sent by God’. The main ones were:
Reading through all of those, there was a very clear pattern: a king of David’s line would be ruling over Israel in a time of peace and plenty when the Jews were living in their own land, their enemies had been defeated, and life was good all round. Jesus, of course, clearly hadn’t done that.
Of course, there was no logical reason why a divine being couldn’t send two different people to do different jobs, so these passages didn’t exclude the hypothesis that there might exist a god who would both send someone to fulfil this prophecy and, separately, send someone whose job it was to get killed as a sin sacrifice. However, Jesus, as a Jew among Jews, would have known what his followers meant when they excitedly labelled him the Messiah; he would have known that the term referred to the prophecied king who would rule over a liberated Israel. Yet he seemed quite all right with going along with the term; while he did sometimes tell his disciples not to shout it out for everyone to hear, there’s no record of him declaring that he’s not the Messiah but is here for a different purpose entirely. And it didn’t make sense that a messenger sent by God to give humanity a new and crucial message of salvation would be so willing to muddy the waters by going along with the idea that he was someone completely different. So that excuse didn’t really hold up.
There was, of course, also the traditional Christian explanation; that Jesus just hadn’t done the ‘rule over a land of peace and plenty’ part yet, but would return to do it in the future. While that was logically possible, it was also logically unfalsifiable. If we were going to claim that Jesus was the Messiah just because he was going to fulfil the prophecies in the future, then we could just as well claim that about any would-be Messiah in Jewish history, since we were equally unable to prove or disprove that any of them might miraculously return to do those things despite not having done them the first time around. For that matter, since nothing in the prophecies specified that this person had to say they were the Messiah prior to doing all these things, we could use that basis for claiming that any random Jewish man, present or past, was the Messiah. So that particular loophole didn’t stand up to logic.
2. The sacrificial system wasn’t actually that important anyway.
In the course of my reading, I’d found some passages that weren’t what I was originally looking for – they weren’t about people sent by God – but that were, nonetheless, relevant enough to the whole discussion that I copied them out too.
And most of Ezekiel 18, especially verses 21 and 22.
This message, too, was clear and consistent: Sacrifices aren’t really the main thing God’s after. The important thing is that you live a good life and repent for any misdeeds. No addendum about how you also had to provide a sacrifice as a final necessary step before being forgiven; God was very clearly quoted as saying that if you lived a good life, that was good enough. It was a flat-out contradiction of what Christianity taught.
3. However, the sacrificial system was still meant to be permanent.
I found that little gem of information buried in one of the propechies listed above, in Jeremiah 33:18. The verse, supposedly a direct quote from God, is a promise that he’ll keep the Levitical sacrificial system going forever.
That, of course, also presents problems with the validity of any of this, given that the Levitical sacrificial system was destroyed with the temple almost two millennia ago and never restored, but I was focusing on checking the claims of Christianity rather than Judaism and so that escaped me at the time. The important takeaway for me was that this verse flat-out contradicted the entire claim that God went on to abolish the Levitical sacrificial system in favour of a once-and-for-all uber-sacrifice. In other words, it contradicted the key claim of Christianity.
4. And so was the entire system of Jewish law.
This was where the Deuteronomy reading came in.
The overarching theme that gets pushed throughout Deuteronomy is the importance of keeping this law (with considerable description of all the rewards the Jewish people would get from keeping it/the punishments they’d call forth if they didn’t), and, sprinkled through this, were several places where it was specifically stated that this requirement was for ever. Another verse specified that it was to be ‘to a thousand generations’, which technically wasn’t forever (although it was fairly clearly meant symbolically to indicate this) but certainly wasn’t a timeframe that allowed for discarding the law in 33 CE. By the way, the verses I’ve linked to weren’t just isolated comments, but were in the context of lengthy harangues about the rewards the Jews could expect if they followed these laws and the punishments they could expect if they didn’t. Overall, the message was extensively hammered in and absolutely clear.
Deuteronomy even specified that there weren’t any loopholes for following miracle-workers. If someone tried to persuade Jews to turn away from the Jewish law then their message was to be rejected absolutely regardless of what ‘signs and wonders’ they showed you to try to persuade you they were the real deal. No ‘but if he heals the sick, raises the dead, and rises from the dead himself then it’s OK’ exceptions there.
There was simply nothing there to support the idea that the whole shebang was meant to be cancelled a mere couple of millennia later; quite the reverse. Deuteronomy was very, very clear that the Jews were meant to keep to the Jewish law permanently.
To answer my original question, the Jewish scriptures clearly didn’t prophecy Jesus’s life. On top of that, I’d learned that they did clearly specify that the Jewish law was a permanent obligation on Jews; that the Jewish sacrificial system was also permanent; and that divine forgiveness was available to anyone who lived a good life and repented of their sins. All of which was, of course, in absolute contradiction to Christianity’s teachings that the Jewish law and sacrificial system are now obsolete and that divine forgiveness is only available via believing in Jesus’s sacrifice.
In short, the Jewish scriptures could not have done a better job of warning Jews off Christian theology if… well, if a divine being had deliberately written them that way.
So, where did that leave me?
With a logic puzzle unexpectedly reminiscent of Raymond Smullyan.
If the Jewish scriptures actually were the instructions of a divine being to His people, then Christianity could not possibly be true.
Of course, as an agnostic I was fully aware of the possibility that they might actually be the works of mere humans trying to convince themselves there was someone out there watching over them. However, the belief that these scriptures were the instructions of a divine being to His people was fundamental to Christianity as well as Judaism. Therefore, if the Jewish scriptures weren’t the instructions of a divine being to his people, then Christianity could not possibly be true.
This was not looking good for Christianity’s validity.
I was still determined to approach this logically, and, as such, I realised there was a theoretically possible third option: The Jewish scriptures might be the instructions of a really evil divine being who wanted to absolutely screw humanity over by giving them a set of instructions that would lead to their damnation. It did not take too much thought to realise that a) this was logically unfalsifiable, b) it seemed fairly unlikely, and c) it was entirely unhelpful. The key premise of salvation religion is that God is at least trying to offer us a route to salvation and will keep up his end of the deal if we follow instructions. If we’re actually dealing with a god who’s out to trick us and mess with us, then there is nothing we can do about that situation; following orders isn’t going to help if the Being giving the orders is a psychopath who doesn’t even care about trying to save us. If that’s the case, we might just as well ignore the whole problem anyway and at least focus on making the world a better place. So, from the practical point of view, it seemed entirely reasonable to ignore this possibility. In any case, it was still hardly helpful for propping up the truth of Christianity, since another of their teachings was that God was ultimate goodness.
In summary… the clash between Christianity’s teachings and the Jewish teachings on which it depended was irreconcilable. Whether Judaism was true or false, the result was still that Christianity was false. The very Bible Christianity cited to prove its veracity did the exact opposite. And, in probably the only time I will ever use this sentence on this blog, you can’t really get more authoritative on this subject than what the Bible has to say.
And that was it. After all those years, I finally had a conclusive answer and could stop worrying. I got on with my life. I finished medical school, worked as a doctor, enjoyed life to the full, eventually got a blog on an atheist blogging platform, and maintained my interest in religion and counter-apologetics to this day. And I never worried about hellfire again.