The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Analysis of Paul's Conversion

We see from the account in Acts that Paul's vision of Jesus was a purely personal experience. There is a contradiction here in what his companions actually experienced. Acts 9:7 said that the man heard the "sound" but saw nothing. However Acts 22:9 said the complete opposite; his companions saw the light but did not hear the voice! Whatever the case may be, it was obvious that the companions' experience in no way vindicated Paul's vision. In fact Paul's own description of the event conveys clearly its intense personal nature:

II Corinthians 12:2-4
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven -- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise -- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows -- and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.

There is nothing special about Paul's experience. Muhammad, the founder of Islam was said to have experienced a similar kind of heavenly rapture where he was transported miraculously to the site of the Jerusalem Temple and lifted up into heaven where he spoke to both Moses and Jesus. [1] As Karen Armstrong pointed out

Paul's vision is not unique; nor is its transcendental experience limited to Christianity. Throughout history men and women have had similar visions and been impelled by them to acts of supreme courage and endurance. [2]

Obviously we cannot rule out simple and natural physiological explanations. It could have been a sunstroke that made him unconscious for three days. [3] After all, the road from Jerusalem to Damascus was a long one (about 200 km) and Paul was travelling trough a hot desert area. Or it could have been a epileptic fit. [4] For we do know that Paul had some kind of unsightly illness which could have been epilepsy. Paul said as much in his epistle to the Galatians:

Galatians 4:13-14
[Y]ou know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first; and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.

We find throughout history many famous religious personalities had had intense mystical experiences that are today recognized to be symptoms of mental disorder. The voices heard by Saint Joan of Arc which compelled her to save France are known symptoms of schizophrenia. Saint Teresa of Avila's three day vision of hell was very likely an epileptic seizure, as the experience was accompanied by a powerful stench, a common experience that is normally present with the attack. [5] In fact we have already concluded earlier that Paul's vision was probably due to a combination of his illness and his "Christ complex".

What did Paul do after his conversion? We would expect a rational person to seek out the original followers of Jesus in order to verify his vision and to learn as much as possible from them about the Galilean prophet. After all Paul never met the human Jesus, how could he be completely sure that the voice he heard was Jesus'? But this was not what he did, he withdrew into Arabia and did not care to meet the apostles until three years later:

Galatians 1:16-19
I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter], and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother.

Paul's behavior here is unexplainable and borders on the irrational. How is Paul to preach a belief when he does not even take the initiative to first learn about it? As Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), the famous defender of Darwin's theory of evolution puts it:

this strange man, because he has a vision one day, at once and with equally headlong zeal, flies to the opposite pole of opinion. And he is most careful to tell us that he abstained from any reexamination of the facts [Galatians 1:16-17-see above]...I do not presume to quarrel with Paul's procedure. If it satisfied him, that was his affair; and if it satisfies anyone else, I am not called upon to dispute the right of that person to be satisfied. But I certainly have the right to say that it would not satisfy me in like case; that I should be very much ashamed to pretend that it could, or ought to, satisfy me; and that I can entertain but a very low estimate of the value of the evidence of the people who are satisfied in this fashion, when the questions of objective fact, in which their faith is interested, is concerned. [6]

Paul, in fact, has no interest whatsoever in the historical Jesus as he himself admits: [7]

II Corinthians 5:16
If we did know Jesus according to the flesh, that is not how we know about him any longer.

With such disregard for the historical Jesus and his apostles, Paul's preachings did not come from them; it came from his own mind but he called it revelation.

Galatians 1:11
The good news I preach is not a human message that I was given by men, it is something I learnt only through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

As the famous French theologian Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) pointed out in his book The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930) [8], Paul did not develop his theology from the historical Jesus. He created the Christian idea. Paul, not Jesus, is the true founder of Christianity as we know it.

Theologians normally try to defend the idea that Paul was not the innovator by pointing to several passages found in I Corinthians:

I Corinthians 7:10
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord)...

I Corinthians 7:12
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord)...

I Corinthians 7:25
Now about virgins: I have no commands from the Lord, but give a judgement as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy.

If these passages are interpreted the way the theologians want it to, their complete contradiction to the passages from II Corinthians and Galatians quoted above cannot be reconciled. Furthermore, Paul did not seem to have learnt much from the apostles who would have been the person to consult about the teachings of the earthly Jesus. The passages above can only mean that he was able to distinguish, in his mind, his own thoughts and the revelations he received (see Galatians 1:11). In this respect, Paul is very similar to the other founder of a great (in the sense of having many adherents) religion, Muhammad. Muhammad too was able to distinguish in his mind revelations from God (which eventually became transcribed into the Quran) and his own thoughts.

As far as we can tell about the only thing which Paul acquired from early tradition was that Jesus was crucified and was seen by his disciples subsequent to that. He had no use for the apostles. The fact is that Paul was never accepted by the apostles of Jesus as one of them. We look into his relationship with the apostles in more detail next.

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1.Armstrong, Holy War: p39
2.Armstrong, The First Christian: p50
3.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p159
4.Armstrong, The First Christian: p52
5.Ibid: p52
6.Thomas Huxley, Agnosticism, a Rejoinder (1889) quoted in Knight, Humanist Anthology: p89-90
7.Armstrong, The First Christian: p59
8.Picht, The Life and Thoughts of Albert Schweitzer: p82-85

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