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“Ask a Priest: Couldn’t the New Testament Be Made Up?”
Q: I was brought up Jewish but I was never religious. I used to believe in God, but when I was about 15 (I’m 18 now) I turned to deism, and then atheism/agnosticism. Recently I have felt God’s presence, and so I’m trying to figure out my beliefs and what is right. However, sometimes I wonder if I am just trying to convince myself that God exists, out of comfort and fitting in. I’ve recently been looking into Christianity, but I’m having a lot of trouble. First, the evidence of Jesus performing miracles. I know it is stated in the Bible, but wouldn’t what the writers say be biased? Perhaps they wrote about Jesus performing miracles and rising from the dead because they wanted to keep people interested and believing in Jesus. (I don’t mean to be offensive, sorry if I have offended you.) Second, some Christian beliefs confuse me. For starters, do Christians believe Jesus is the son of God? This confuses me, as monotheistic religions believe there is one God; would God having a son be a contradiction of this? And worshipping Jesus, like a statue of Jesus, isn’t that worshipping idols? I thought that was also against Christian beliefs. Furthermore, what does the phrase “Jesus sacrificed himself for our sins” mean? Christians, and people of other religions, still sin today? So, let’s say a Christian murdered someone. Wouldn’t he still go to hell? Or would he not, because Jesus died? Finally, why don’t Christians do Jewish festivals? Christianity grew out of Judaism, half the Bible is the Old Testament, and Jesus himself was Jewish. Sorry for this really long e-mail, I would really appreciate any help. -E.D.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Thanks for your note. It sounds as if God is giving you some great graces, as he tries to nudge you closer to his embrace. You are a beloved daughter of God, and he only wants the best for you.
Your questions show that you are thinking deeply about Our Lord. That is a good sign. It is good, too, that you are asking questions; Our Lord wants you to use both your intellect and your heart to find him.
Permit me to try to answer your questions succinctly.
Regarding the biblical account of Jesus’ miracles (and don’t worry, your question doesn’t offend me!), a proper answer could fill a book. Suffice it to offer a few observations.
First, it is good to remember that the New Testament is the product of a believing community. The texts had credibility in antiquity because there were a lot of eyewitnesses still running around. Hence there were folks who could corroborate the stories of the miracles and the resurrection.
Now, there are other religions and cultures that have produced texts that speak of extraordinary things – so what makes the New Testament credible? One big reason might be this: Many of the folks who believed in the miracles of Jesus and his resurrection were willing to die for their beliefs. Most of the apostles were martyred. Peter was crucified upside down. Bartholomew reportedly was skinned alive. Paul was beheaded. You get the idea. This doesn’t prove the New Testament stories, but it does indicate that many folks sincerely believed in the events, enough to accept martyrdom.
Another key point, at least for the resurrection, was that no one ever produced the body of Jesus. All we had was the empty tomb. Without the resurrection of Jesus, the whole edifice of Christianity collapses.
You raise questions about specific Christian beliefs. The core mystery of Christianity is the Trinity, or triune God. There is only one God – the same God of the Jews and Muslims. What God revealed in the New Testament is that he is three divine Persons in one God.
“Persons” is a word that philosophers and theologians had to invent in order to explain the Trinity. A “Person” in God is, in theological terms, a subsistent relation. Each relation is something real, it is not what (in philosophical terms) an accident. Your best friend, say, is Susan. Today Susan has blond hair; tomorrow she dyes it and ends up with black hair. Her hair color is an accident, but her essence (her “Susan-ness”) remains the same.
Now, the relations within God are not mere accidents; they are Persons. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. All three Persons have the same divine nature, which is why there is only one God.
Don’t worry if you can’t get your mind around this – no one really can. It is a mystery beyond our comprehension. And that in itself is one reason to believe it isn’t a human invention – even the sharpest philosopher would have never dreamt up something like the Trinity.
Closely linked to this mystery is the Incarnation, that is, the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son of God) took on human nature and walked among us. This is Jesus.
We make use of images to help remind us of Jesus. We don’t worship the image, we worship Jesus. It is akin to a man who has a photo of his wife and children on his desk. He loves his wife and kids – he doesn’t love the photo. But the photo reminds him of the ones he loves. Our use of images doesn’t violate the commandment against worshipping idols, since we don’t worship the image. Moreover, Jesus himself is a living icon or image of the invisible God. So there’s no problem with images of Jesus.
Regarding sin: To sin means to offend an infinitely good God. We are finite creatures. This means we finite creatures can never really make up for our offenses against an infinitely good God. Only God could make up for an offense against God. That is why the Son of God came into the world – he suffered and died for our redemption, to make up for our sins.
This doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed heaven. We still have to do our part. People indeed sin today; we see the results all around us. A Christian who murdered someone and was unrepentant would risk going to hell. If he repents, then he can be saved. But even there, his redemption depends on the redemptive work of Jesus.
Now, why don’t Christians “do Jewish festivals”?
The answer could be something like this. Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. He is the messiah that the Old Testament pointed to and awaited.
Christianity fulfills Judaism, in part by elevating the Old Testament signs and practices and feasts. Baptism, for instance, is prefigured by the Flood in the account of Noah, and in the crossing of the Red Sea. The death that was brought by the Flood and the parting of the Red Sea prefigures the death to sin that baptism brings about. (“Death to sin” means it takes away original sin and any actual sins that a person has on her soul.)
Besides, Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
Many of the Old Testament festivals no longer needed to be observed because a new set of liturgical practices, etc., replaced them.
For more reading you might check out Salvation Is From the Jews. For an overview on philosophy of religion, Peter Kreeft has an insightful audio course, “Faith and Reason“. You might be able to get the CD’s through your local library system.
I hope some of this helps. Count on being included in my prayers.
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