« PreviousContinue »
WHATEVER be the spirit with which the four Gospels be approached, it is impossible to rise from the attentive perusal of them without a strong reverence for Jesus Christ. Even the disposition to cavil and ridicule is forced to retire before the majestic simplicity of the prophet of Nazareth.* Unlike Moses or Mahomet, he owes no part of the lustre which surrounds him to his acquisition of temporal power; his is the ascendancy which mankind, in proportion to their mental advancement, are least disposed to resist—that of moral and intellectual greatness. Besides, his cruel fate engages men's affections on his behalf, and gives him an additional hold upon their allegiance. A virtuous reformer and sage, martyred by crafty priests and brutal soldiers, is a spectacle which forces men to gaze in pity and admiration. The precepts from such a source come with an authority which no human laws could give; and Jesus is more powerful on the cross of Calvary than he would have been on the throne of Israel.
The virtue, wisdom, and sufferings of Jesus, then, will secure to him a powerful influence over men so long as they continue to be moral, intellectual, and sympathizing
* Paine calls him a virtuous reformer.
“Il fallait bien qu'au fond il fût un sage, puisqu'il déclamait contre les prêtres imposteurs, et contre les superstitions; mais on lui impute des choses qu’un sage n'a pu ni faire ni dire.” Voltaire's xx. Dialogue, by the Abbé de Tilladet.
Mendelsohn says, that intelligent Jews consider Jesus as a generous enthusiast. Jerusalem, vol. ii.
beings. And as the tendency of human improvement is towards the progressive increase of these qualities, it may be presumed that the empire of Christianity, considered simply as the influence of the life, character, and doctrine of Christ over the human mind, will never cease.
The most fastidious scepticism is forced to admit the truth of the facts, which such a view of Christianity requires. For no one who regards historical evidence will deny that such a person was put to death in Judea, and that he gave rise to a new system of religion. The four Gospels on these points are strengthened by many other testimonies, agree with each other, and contain relations conformable to the order of nature. Moreover, the excellence of the preceptive parts of the Gospels carries with it its own evidence in all ages.
But when a higher office is claimed for Christ, that of a messenger accredited from God by a supernatural birth, miraculous works, a resurrection, and an ascension, we may reasonably expect equal strength of evidence. But how stands the case? The four Gospels on these points are not confirmed by testimony out of the church, disagree with each other, and contain relations contrary to the order of things. The evidence on these points is reduced to the authority of these narratives themselves. In them, at least, the most candid mind may require strong proofs of authenticity and veracity; but again, what is the case ? They are anonymous productions ; their authorship is far from certain ; they were written from forty to seventy years after the events which they profess to record; the writers do not explain how they came by their information; two of them appear to have copied from the first; all the four contain notable discrepancies and manifest contradictions; they contain statements at variance with histories of acknowledged authority; some of them relate wonders which even many Christians are obliged to reject as fabulous; and in general they present no character by which we can distinguish their tales of miracles from the fictions which every church has found some supporters ready to vouch for on its behalf. In these books, and by the propagators of Christianity, the miraculous part of Christ's history is presented to us not as an indifferent fact, but as one which is to influence our whole life and conduct: the belief or non-belief of it is even to decide our condition in another world: we are called upon to count all things as loss for the sake of Christ: “ He that believeth in his heart that God hath raised him from the dead, shall be saved;" “He that believeth not shall be damned.” One would have expected that the clearness of the evidence would have been in proportion to the necessity for belief, and that a fact of which the recognition was requisite to the salvation or improvement of mankind in after ages, would have been attested in such a manner as to leave no doubt of it in any reasonable mind. Mark, or the person who has finished his gospel for him, would have done more to promote belief, if, instead of threatening damnation on the want of it, he had explained the apparent contradictions between his account and Matthew's; how it was that the latter sends the eleven disciples into Galilee, whilst the others seem to represent them as remaining at Jerusalem; why Matthew omitted all notice of the ascension; where and when Jesus was seen by the five hundred brethren mentioned by Paul; and especially how he and his fellow evangelists obtained their information. But the fact is, that the accounts of Christ's resurrection are in so imperfect and slovenly a state, that the evidence afforded by them would be hardly deemed sufficient to establish an ordinary fact of any importance in a court of judicature. The accounts of the crucifixion are very circumstantial, and agree in the main so well, that we should have no difficulty in admitting this as a fact, even
if it were not confirmed by Tacitus, Suetonius, and the Jews. But when the writers come to the account of the resurrection, on which, from its not being confirmed by heathen or Jewish testimonies, from its deviation from the laws of nature, and from the great importance attached to the belief of it, we should have looked, from their hands at least, for the fullest, clearest, and most accordant evidence,-here we find the story replete with confusion, contradiction, and chasms, and even to be made up apparently of fragments of different dates.
If the resurrection of Christ were necessary, as is pretended, to account for the rest of his history and the origin of Christianity, the attempts made to strain out a consistent account of it from the materials before us, by inventing supplementary facts ad libitum, might deserve some attention. But there is in reality no such necessity. The order of nature, the combination of human feelings and motives at the particular juncture in question, have been shewn to be enough to account for the life and death of Jesus, and the proceedings of his followers. And whatever be our disposition to accord deference to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or the persons writing under their names, the inquirers for truth are obliged to ask, Who are these that we should believe them in contradiction to the known order of nature, and receive from them, as indubitable truth, stories which, coming from other mouths, we should reject at once as palpable fiction ? Where are the proofs of their caution, judgment, and veracity? How are we assured that they could neither be misled, nor attempt to mislead? They vouch for the resurrection of Christ; but who shall vouch for them, and certify that they were so far different from the rest of men as to be void of credulity, and incapable of mistake or falsehood? What witness is there to prove that they were so insensible to common human motives, as to be incapable of gratifying their love of the marvellous, and of serving their own cause and that of their church, by either adopting or inventing “idle tales” ?
That the resurrection of Jesus was intended as a pledge to mankind of a general resurrection, is a delightful idea. But the only safe basis for such a belief is historical evidence. If this fail to establish the fact, the agreeable nature of the belief is so far from proving it, that it rather furnishes an explanation of the general prevalence of the belief in the face of insufficient evidence.
It is not pretended that the foregoing pages prove the absolute impossibility of Christ's miracles and resurrection. If we be so determined, we may still indulge in the belief of them, by overlooking difficulties, inventing hypotheses, and concluding that the whole is a trial of our faith. But if the reasoner will still hold the reality of these miracles, to what scheme must he have recourse? That God has caused a deviation from the course of nature for the instruction of mankind, and has left the account of it to be conveyed to them by means which, on the closest examination, occasion it to bear a strong resemblance to human fictions; a supposition so monstrous and perplexing, that, notwithstanding the value of the supposed lesson, our minds turn at last from this mode of teaching in weariness, and resolve to be contented to learn where we are sure, at least, that the lessons proceed from God himself—and that is in nature.
The miraculous birth, works, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, being thus successively surrendered, to be classed amongst the fables of an obscure age, what remains of Christianity ? and what is there in the life and doctrine of Jesus that they should still claim the attention and respect of mankind in remote ages? This : Christianity forms a striking passage in the history of human nature, and appears as one of the most prominent of the means employed in its improvement. It no longer boasts of a