Sunday, October 23, 2005

A Life of the Celestial Christ

He was born of an unnamed celestial woman and lived with his Father in heaven. He was in some sense from the line of King David. He was also subject to the Jewish Law in some way. God then sent him into the lower heavens to become a minister to the Jews, and to bring redemption from sin. On a certain “night” in these spheres, he took bread, broke it, said that it was his body, asked someone to do the same in remembrance of him, and was, literally, “handed over” or “delivered up”. In these lower heavens he was crucified by the demons who ruled over the earth. He shed blood, which presumably fell to earth. He was buried in these lower heavens. He rose on the third day according to the scriptures, though he spent enough time in the lower heavens, after his rising, to be seen by Paul, as well as men whom Paul met, and hundreds of others. He is, by the time of Paul’s letters, seated at the right hand of the Father. Probably after his ascension, he gave Paul at least one explicit command about how to make a living, and communicated with Paul and others in visions of a different kind.

That much is given to us in Paul's authentic letters. Writers other than Paul added scenes, which Paul may or may not have believed in prior to their writings. In the letter to the Colossians, God or Christ (depending on the translation) cancelled the “bond which stood against us in its legal demands”, sometimes translated as "the Law," by nailing it to the cross -- and on the cross either Father or Son took the evil powers captive and led them in a procession. The letter to the Ephesians transmits a saying, "When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men." The letter to the Hebrews adds a great deal about Jesus Christ as a heavenly priest who enters a sanctuary and sacrifices himself there; it speaks of Jesus as coming from the tribe of Judah, and as someone who suffered outside a gate. The Book of Revelation adds a future history for Christ. Etcetera.

Recently I decided to spell out what Christ's life must have been, according to the New Testament epistles, if Earl Doherty is right that Christ was preached to be a heavenly being who never came down to earth. A theory with a positive description can be tested far better than one that is merely suggested by challenges to the traditional evidence for Christ's historicity. There is no such reconstruction that I know of in Doherty's work, so I constructed the one you see above and posted it at Internet Infidels. After a little prodding, it started a debate which has gone very well, though that's all I'm going to say about it for now.

I also posted questions that might be used to challenge Doherty's thesis. In other words, would this picture of Christ make sense to the ancients? Here is an expanded list of the questions:

How can a cross be staked in the air? How can a man be buried there? If the tops of mountains are meant, there is no evidence for such a scenario in the Bible. If a floor of another kind is meant, it would surely be regarded as blocking the sun, or else invisible. Where is the evidence that the ancients believed such things to occupy the lower heavens? Are there any pagan stories that speak of crosses or burials or meals in the air? There is evidence in the Bible of followers and detractors doubting the plausibility of Christ's resurrection, but where are the objections to the plausibility of a cross staked in the heavens and a crucifixion victim buried in the heavens?

Why is it that when the epistles do speak explicitly of the "power of the air" or the spiritual "principalities" with which Christians are at war, no mention is made that these powers, specifically, crucified the Lord?

Why does Paul not reflect on why a crucifixion in the lower realms was much more "spiritual" and powerful than any cross could have been on earth?

Where does Paul believe the Last Supper took place? On mountaintops? Is that the place where a command could be given to a person that would be followed at earthly meals? Maybe, but where is the evidence from the Bible? And if the air is meant as the setting, are the lower heavens, open as they are, really capable of allowing any entity enough time to have an apparently mournful and private meal? How do you hide from demons who are powerful enough to kill you, in the sky where there's no place to hide?

Who was with Christ at this meal? The Bible says that Christ was sent by God, and mentions no one else being sent. Was Christ speaking to angels? Why is this not mentioned in the epistles? Why do angels need to take his body and blood? In what sense can these be for them? (Would no one in the Christian audience think to ask this question?) Why are angels being asked to do this in remembrance of him, when Paul clearly thinks that the Last Supper must be imitated by the Corinthians?

Who delivered him up to his crucifixion that night? Angels? Demons? God? Does even the latter choice fit the theology of the New Testament adequately?

Why does Paul use words which imply "delivered up" if Christ was in fact sent downward? Perhaps the words convey the meaning of "handed over," but why use ambiguous or possibly confusing words without giving an explanation?

Why does no Christian say something to the effect that though Christ was killed in the lower heavens, his precious blood did in fact make contact with the earth, or so may be the hope, when it dropped? Why were no shrines erected at the places where Christ's blood was thought to have fallen?

How was he thought to be buried in this realm? Did he go directly to the underworld of Sheol, bypassing the world of mortal flesh at the surface of the earth?

He rose from the dead on the third day, but seems to have spent enough time afterwards in the lower heavens to be seen by a long procession of people, including someone who was "late" to the party, Paul. Why did Christ linger in the lower heavens after his rising? Paul says that in his time, the demons were still passing away, which suggests that when Christ was raised, he was still in their realm. Apparently Christ had enough power after being raised to stay safe long enough to be seen from earth's surface, but not enough power to destroy the demons and claim the lower heavens for himself and for God. Is this what Christians believed, from what their scriptures tell us?

If Christ was buried in this realm, then why does Colossians say that his victory over the demons took place right on the cross? Is this a "metaphor" for events that are already celestial and unseen? Both the actual crucifixion in the heavens and its "metaphors" are unseen?

If the victory took place right at the cross, and the demons were led away in a triumphal procession, why does Paul say that the "rulers of the age" (which can mean both demons and earthly rulers) have still not passed away in his own time?

Why does Hebrews present the crucifixion as a priest entering a sanctuary, with various other details incompatible with a crucifixion? Is this another "metaphor" of events that themselves were unseen?

And why does Colossians say that God or Christ nailed the "the Law" to the cross? Christ would not be said to do any nailing at his own crucifixion, though Doherty seems to have "Christ" in mind for that passage. It makes no sense. If we mean God, though, then God is seen as descending himself to the lower realms. Why did he send Christ, then? This option also seems to reject a fundamental of the Christian faith as described in all models: namely that God sent his own Son to die alone. Rather, God sent him and followed him, and took part in the nailing of the "Law" to the cross. On this last point, if God descended to the crucifixion, would not the demons have fled in terror? Why does God not destroy the demons right there? Does he nail the Law and then abandon Christ? Why do the epistles not speak of these elements of the drama more explicitly?

In the historicist model, all these things make sense. Christ was a lowly carpenter who could be delivered up to higher earthly powers. The earth provides many places of temporary and private sanctuary for a meal. Christ could be nailed to the cross by earthly powers, and could be buried dead, while in heaven his spirit is in fact leading a procession of defeated powers -- but rulers on earth are still plainly in sight, not yet passed away. Because God's realm was not claimed to be physically seen, Christians could actually offer many suggestions, including the heavenly priest's story, as a way to suggest what happened near God: there would be none of the suggestions of the mythicist model that Jesus was believed to do mostly corporeal things that no one had claimed to see, in the air right above the earth. In fact most events in the historicist model were believed because people claimed to have witnessed them on earth, whereas in the mythicist model nothing is witnessed by human beings until the risen Christ is seen.

Edit 10/25/05: A thread has been started at the IIDB which concerns the cosmology of the ancients who lived in Paul's time.

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