Does the existence of Christ even matter anymore?

Orthodoxy has changed.

I don't mean that so much in the obvious sense, in that what the church takes as accepted doctrine has changed; rather, the very concept of orthodoxy has changed so much as to become virtually meaningless. There is no "Christian orthodoxy" anymore; there hasn't been for a long, long time. Rather, Christianity is comprised of a myriad of denominations, subsumed under innumerable historical schisms, that all have their own competing orthodoxies. If you disagree with the orthodoxy of one denomination, it's a safe bet you can just find another that you do agree with. And if you can't? Just start your own! 

It wasn't that long ago in the span of human history that if you rejected the existence of Adam & Eve or denied the historicity of the Great Flood, odds were reasonable that you could be branded a heretic. Times have certainly changed — virtually the entirety of the Old Testament is historically dubious. We know that humans were not created in a puff of magic, from dirt and ribs. There's certainly no reason to think that Adam and Eve ever existed at all — nor Cain and Abel, nor Abraham, nor Noah. The consensus on the exodus is that it almost certainly did not happen. And as Steven Pinker so poignantly wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature, "If there was a Davidic Empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else seems to have noticed it."
Of course, some Christians will dispute these things — even going through great lengths to rationalize belief in a historical Adam & Eve in some cases, but that's not the point. The point is that one can be a perfectly orthodox Christian — to whatever dubious extent the term has meaning anymore — and reject all those things. You can believe that the stories in the Old Testament, from David & Goliath to Job to Jonah & the Whale, are just allegories meant to enlighten us about human nature — or, if you prefer, divine nature. You certainly can insist that Moses was a real person and that the exodus really did happen, and you can certainly argue with atheists on the internet about it until your fingers bleed. But in the end it doesn't really matter; you could also completely reject the historicity of the exodus and of Moses himself (or call yourself agnostic on the matter), and your cred as a proper Christian need not diminish at all. Who decides what a proper Christian is, anyway?

What about the gospels?

The gospels are documents of extremely dubious historicity. I've commented about it frequently in past posts. There is simply no compelling reason to believe that Jesus, as described in the Bible, ever actually existed. Nor is there any compelling reason to believe that the supernatural events described are anything more than typical religious mythology commonplace across all cultures. Some historians, fond of intellectual masturbation, like to argue whether some kind of secular historical Jesus existed. I think that's ultimately a speculative enterprise and beside the point. What really matters is whether Christ as described in the Bible existed, and there's simply no rational reason to think he did. Sure, maybe no way to prove he didn't, but who cares?

But to deny the historicity of the gospels and the existence of Christ would surely be going against whatever fiber of unified orthodoxy still exists broadly across the Christian church, right? Surely no one can claim that Christ is a mythological figure and yet still call themselves a Christian!

Or can they?Leaving aside for a moment the dubious state of Christian orthodoxy, consider the "penal substitution theory of atonement". Wikipedia:
It argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins

Not all Christians believe this particular theory of atonement; many more believe in other types of substitutionary atonement, or in something else altogether. Wikipedia, again:
Many but by no means all ancient and modern branches of Christianity embrace substitutionary atonement as the central meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. These branches however have developed different theories of atonement. The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics do not incorporate substitutionary atonement in their doctrine of the Cross and Resurrection. The Roman Catholic Church incorporates it into Aquinas’ Satisfaction doctrine rooted in the idea of penance. Most Evangelical Protestants interpret it largely in terms of penal substitution

What is Christianity, anyway?

Okay. So you can reject the idea, held by many modern evangelical protestants, that Christ's death means that he in some literal, metaphysical way assumed the guilt for your sins and was punished for it. You can even reject the broader idea of substitutionary atonement in its entirety and still count yourself among millions of Eastern European Christians.

So here's the conundrum: if Christ's blood and death do not have a literal metaphysical significance, is it at all a stretch to say that it's all, like the stories in the Old Testament, just a metaphor? Imagine a Christian saying something like this:
I don’t need to believe Christ literally existed or that the gospels are historical documents; I think that misses the point. I believe that through the Christ story God wanted to teach us about himself, and about our relationship with Him. He wanted to tell us that our sin hurts him, that its painful for him to watch us drive ourselves away from Him. And he wanted to tell us that he forgives us anyway, that through his grace he brings us closer to him despite our selfishness.
Here you would have a self-proclaimed Christian who, like millions of other Christians, rejects substitutionary atonement yet believes common doctrines of Christianity such as the fallen nature of humanity and redemption through grace. In fact, rejecting the literal existence of Christ may save a lot of headaches regarding how God could be a substitutionary redeemer to himself to satisfy the accords of his own laws and covenants. It would save a lot of headaches about what the Trinity actually is (it's three persons, but also one person... ?) because the Trinity wouldn't be literally real (it's not even in the Bible, per se) but a metaphor.

With Christianity itself being less a single religion and more a broad umbrella encompassing a wealth of competing orthodoxies regarding virtually every aspect of doctrine, is there any compelling reason why one could not fully accept the dubious historicity of the gospels, reject a historical Christ, and still call themselves a Christian?


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