Monday, March 16, 2009

What Thomas Paine Said About Jesus in The Age of Reason

In 1794, Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason: Being an Investigation of True and of Fabulous Theology. Thomas Paine and his Age of Reason were both immensely popular in Enlightenment Europe and his treatise against organized religion remains a classic with skeptics to this day.

In The Age of Reason, Paine professes belief in God, but rejects all of the world's major religions. Making his skepticism plain, Paine wrote:

"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turk church, or by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

"All institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."

Paine's central point is that, while God is capable of revelation, if that revelation is given to one or a few people only, then others (not privy to direct evidence or personal revelation from God) are not obliged to accept it. Such revelation, wrote Paine, is "revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other; and consequently, they are not obliged to believe it" (emphasis his).

Since American Creation is a blog that focuses on the religious dimension of early American history and given the significance of Thomas Paine, this is the first of several blog posts I will make on Thomas Paine and The Age of Reason. For this first post, I will focus on Paine's arguments against the divine nature of Jesus Christ, and evaluate whether his points have merit.

Thomas Paine on Christianity

Thomas Paine makes three primary arguments against Christianity in the opening pages of The Age of Reason:

1) Paine charges that the legends surrounding Jesus, including the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, are "hearsay upon hearsay."

2) Paine argues that the Christian church "sprung out of the tail of...heathen mythology."

3) He further argues that the Bible, being full of internal problems and being the product of human composition and voting, is "not within the meaning and compass of the word revelation, and therefore is not the word of God."

For this post, I shall concern myself primarily with Paine's points concerning Jesus.

**For information on Christianity's ties with ancient mythology, read "Origins of Christianity" and "Is Christianity Based on Paganism?"

**To explore issues regarding the composition and collection of the Bible, read A General Introduction to the Bible by Norman Geisler and William Nix.

However, before we consider Paine's arguments regarding Jesus, it's worth noting that he opens his attacks on Christianity by considering the topic of revelation.

Christianity doesn't make the claim that Christians (simply by nature of their heritage, geography, culture, etc.) have some special right to define God or establish Truth. Rather, Christians believe they have access to divine revelation through the written record of the prophets, apostles, and Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:19-20). This written revelation, backed (Christians argue) by sound reason and historical evidence, is available today in the Bible.

By defining and then targeting the Christian conception of revelation, Paine understands that he is striking at a foundational premise of the Christian church.

What Thomas Paine Said About Jesus in The Age of Reason

After trying to cast doubt on the Christian's understanding of revelation, Paine confronts the miracles and nature of Jesus. In doing so, Paine proves that he understands the nature of Christianity.

Paine begins his attempt at deconstructing Jesus by arguing that Christian beliefs in virgin birth, healing miracles, resurrection and ascension, etc. mirror those of "heathen mythology."

**Again, for more on Christianity and mythology, read "Is Christianity Based on Paganism?"

Lest Christians respond to Paine's mythology argument by pointing to the biblical evidence surrounding Jesus, Paine writes:

"Jesus Christ wrote no account of himself, of his birth, parentage, or any thing else. Not a line of what is called the New Testament is of his writing. The history of him is altogether the work of other people; and as to the account given of his resurrection and ascension, it was the necessary counterpart to the story of his birth. His historians, having brought him into the world in a supernatural manner, were obliged to take him out again in the same manner, or the first part of the story must have fallen to the ground."

By associating Christianity with mythology, casting doubt on the biblical record surrounding Jesus (and the nature of divine revelation), and accusing Christians of falsfiying miracles such as the resurrection (which Paine says has every mark of "fraud and imposition"), he has made his best effort to challenge the deity of Jesus and strike at the very foundations of Christianity.

The Deity of Jesus Christ

If the deity of Jesus is effectively challenged, then Christianity collapses. Sure, you'll still have a religious culture or movement full of rich traditions and provocative teachings, but you will no longer have the central core of Christianity.

**For more on the definition and nature of Christianity, read "Christianity 101."

I've sometimes been accused of being extreme, unfair, or even "bigoted" for making the claim that belief in the deity of Jesus is central to Christianity and defines who a "Christian" is, at least insofar as the term's historical meaning is concerned. I must point out that my understanding of Christianity is no more "bigoted" or inaccurate than that of the Apostle Paul.

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote:

3For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

4And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

5And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:

6After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.

7After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.

8And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

9For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

10But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.

Most scholars believe that this passage (taken from I Corinthians 15), from at least the second half of verse three through the end of verse seven, was a "creed" of the early Christian church -- a creed that dates to within five years of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The presence of this creed proves that the early church grew, based in large part on belief in the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What's no more, no serious scholar questions the bona fide existence of Paul nor his influence on the origins of Christianity. And Paul clearly taught that the resurrection was central to Christianity.

In fact, Paul writes that the resurrection of Jesus validates the deity of Christ, the basis for the Christian faith, and the hope for Christians in the future resurrection of the death. "If Christ be not risen," Paul writes, "then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain" (I Corinthians 15:14).

In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul writes that one must "believe in your heart that God raised [Jesus] from the dead," in order to be "saved" (Romans 10:9-10).

One can disagree with Paul. That's your right. But historical accuracy and intellectual honesty requires that we confront what Paul wrote and preached. While it's within anyone's rights to choose whether to be a "Christian" and to define what "Christianity" means to him or her individually, we must acknowledge the historical nature of Christianity - and we must do so honestly. To Paul and the early church, Jesus was God and his resurrection proved it. And the entire Christian faith (however it may have evolved, diversified, or acted in the centuries since) grew from that basic tenet.

Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?

Paine acknowledges that the Virgin Birth miracle is impossible to prove or disprove. He simply makes the point that he "has a right to believe [the claim] or not" and that he has only the "hearsay" evidence of the Bible to attest to it.

The resurrection, however, is a different story, since it "admitted of public and occular demonstration." And given its remarkable nature, along with the ascension miracle, Paine rejects the idea that a "small number of persons" who claim they "saw" the risen Jesus should be regarded as "proxies for the whole world" expecting the world to simply "believe" based on their claims.

Paine obviously brings a few presuppositions and makes a few assumptions in his arguments against the resurrection of Jesus. But, to be fair, Paine did not have the benefit of all the scholarship amassed in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.

There are very few serious scholars who question the historicity of Jesus and his crucifixion. By the standards of ancient history, the evidence for Jesus and his being crucified in Judeo-Palestine are pretty overwhelming.

The most controversial nature of Jesus' historical life is obviously the resurrection. Did a dead, crucified Jesus emerge from the tomb three days later - and appear to his followers as told in the Gospels?

If Jesus did rise from the dead, then all of Paine's criticisms concerning Jesus fall flat. Obviously, a resurrection miracle tends to end skepticism and doubt. I'm often amused by people who say: "Show me a contemporary non-believer in Jesus who testified to the resurrection!" The stupidity of this demand usually seems lost on the person making it. That's like saying: "Show me someone who doesn't believe the earth is round and who shows us evidence that the earth is indeed round!" Obviously, people who saw the risen Jesus tended to become believers in the risen Jesus. This is one of those "duh" things - a point that shouldn't even have to be made.

Since this is a blog that concerns itself primarily with the founding of America, I'm not going to make this long post even longer by detailing all the evidence for Jesus' resurrection. But, the evidence is available and it's compelling.

**For evidence on the resurrection of Jesus, read The Resurrection of the Son of God by Norman T. Wright and The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ by Gary Habermas.

**Prefer video? Then, here are a couple videos to get you started in exploring the resurrection miracle of Jesus...

Thomas Paine and Free Choice

Ultimately, no matter the evidence for Christianity, the Bible calls us to faith (see Hebrews 11). While a compelling case can be made for the central claims of Christianity, at the end of the day, a faith decision must be made.

Some, like Thomas Paine, recoil from that situation. Citing Thomas, the disciple who doubted Jesus' resurrection, Paine prefers to place his trust only in things for which there is "occular and manual demonstration."

Thomas Paine made his choice to reject the deity of Jesus. That choice was his right to make. And though I believe that such a choice has eternal ramifications, I agree with Paine that human beings must be accorded the right to make their choices. As Paine himself wrote:

"[I] have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it."

On this matter, I agree with Thomas Paine. For as Thomas Paine would himself say, religious freedom is one of the surest marks of true liberty. Those societies who embrace it are worthy of our esteem and respect.


raySoller said...

Brian, thank you so much for drawing our attention to Thomas Paine. I look forward to your future posts on this subject, especially if it sheds light on how Paine's "Age of Reason" may have had a direct influence on his contemporaries.

I'm sure I'll need to study your post in more detail, but for now I think you should be more cautious about how you use the term, "serious scholar." I would say that authors like Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier are serious scholars, but somehow I get the impression that you might disagree.

My views on the historical nature of the gospel account for the life of Jesus can be found at
Home - Praesepium

Brad Hart said...

Great post, Brian. I always appreciate something I need to read more than once to get the full scope of your argument. Very thorough.

I look forward to your next bit on Paine!

Tom Van Dyke said...

"I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine."---John Adams

bpabbott said...


Do I infer that you are in the position of agreeing with John Adams? ;-)

Mark Wilensky said...

Thank you for your well written analysis. Although, I have to admit I am more intrigued by the younger Paine. I'm a fifth-grade teacher in Colorado, and an intrical part of teaching civics is providing students with our primary sources: the founding documents. This is critical in understanding what “We the People” really means. Today, as they did over 230 years ago, those documents instill in students the belief that all our voices are important. Everyone of our citizens are given the right to pursue liberty. Futures do not have to be inevitable and "Little voices" can make dramatic impacts on events. That is Thomas Paine's greatest contribution to our country. His pamphlet, Common Sense, spoke to all the voices in the 13 colonies during a time of great fear and indecision. He gave a vast number of citizens a vision of what each could do, 176 days before the Declaration of Independence. A belief that power should radiate from the citizens. That message is still crucial to all our students today. For that pamphlet alone, Paine needs to be recognized as a integral part of the American miracle.

Mark Wilensky,
author of "The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine: An Interactive Adaptation for All Ages"

Brian Tubbs said...

Hi Ray,

I wasn't as familiar with Carrier, but I looked up his blog. Interesting that he will debate William Craig. That should be a fun debate. I'll be sure to get the audio or video of that.

Brian Tubbs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Tubbs said...

Ray, I went back and re-read my post to see my references to "serious scholar." In one, I said "no serious scholar" questions the existence of Paul or his influence on Christianity. I stand by that comment. Do you know of a serious scholar who argues that Paul didn't exist?

In my second reference, I said "very few serious scholars" have argued against the historicity or crucifixion of Jesus. By that, I mean that there are only a handful of scholars who say Jesus never lived at all - that he was a mythical figure.

Again, I stand by that. I'm only aware of a few that say this.

I'm NOT saying that all or most serious scholars believe in Jesus' deity. That's not what I said or meant. In my reference to serious scholarship, I'm only talking about whether Jesus lived at all.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I was being ironic, Ben, since John Adams, one of the most theologically heterodox of the Founders, was still revolted by Paine's attempts at theology. In fact, I have even more quotes of JAdams dissing Paine as a plagiarist and all-around intellectual dilettante.

Still, JAdams also credited Paine as the author of "Common Sense" with vitiating the American revolt. This is why I think Adams writes in the middle of his condemnation that

"I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine."

This is the point our visitor Mark Wilensky made, and made well.

No, I wouldn't have quoted the very religious Samuel Adams' vituperations on Paine's Age of Reason. That would have no mojo.

I did think of writing about Paine's influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson, juxtaposed with John Quincy Adams' dismissal of Emerson as an intellectual embarrassment, but I realized that would take us far too far afield. ;-)

quanton said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Brad Hart said...

Thank you for the kind words, Kaylee. We're glad that you enjoy the blog. Please feel free to comment anytime you like.

Our Founding Truth said...

I think Paine's age of reason had little props, as the majority of framers hammered it!

John P said...

This is a great summary of the ideas of Thomas Paine. It is too bad the videos behind the links have been moved.

Gary said...

Are our pastors telling us the truth?

Are Christian pastors honest with their congregations regarding the evidence for the Resurrection? Is there really a "mountain of evidence" for the Resurrection as our pastors claim or is the belief in the Resurrection based on nothing more than assumptions, second century hearsay, superstitions, and giant leaps of faith?

You MUST read this Christian pastor's defense of the Resurrection and a review by one of his former parishioners, a man who lost his faith and is now a nonbeliever primarily due to the lack of good evidence for the Resurrection:

-A Review of LCMS Pastor John Bombaro's Defense of the Resurrection-

(copy and paste this article title into your browser to find and read this fascinating review of the evidence for the Resurrection)