Comparing Religions IV: Supernatural Claims

Continuing my series on comparing the evidence for different religions...

3. Did the religious founder claim his message came from supernatural revelation, or is it only the reflections of some wise philosopher who didn't claim to have divine sanction for their teaching?

In this post we will consider a number of philosophers who touched on religious subjects, and compare their self-conception with Jesus' own claims.  We will see that many so-called "religious founders" never intended to put themselves forward as individuals with a supernaturally special role.

Confucius (Confucianism)

For example, take the case of Confucius, for whom I have the greatest respect.  (After I read the Analects in grad school, I immediately wanted to read it over again.)

Confucianism is sometimes called a religion, but if you go back to the actual primary sources it is clear he was a political philosopher and ethicist, not a prophet who claimed to have any sort of supernatural revelation.  Still less did he claim to be any kind of divine figure.  Naturally legends and cults of veneration sprang up later (e.g. stories of his miraculous birth appear in Records of the Grand Historian, composed 4 centuries later).  But Confucius himself made no claims to have any access to supernatural knowledge:

The topics the Master did not speak of were prodigies, force, disorder and gods.  (Analects VII 21)

He was a humane, pious, and wise man who taught principles of virtuous conduct, and who happened to live in a society in which all departed ancestors were venerated by their descendents (of which he had many).  And yes, one of his principles of conduct was sincere participation in the religious rites of his culture.  But it would be just as wrong to call him a religious founder, as to call Aristotle or Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln a religious founder.

This does not mean he was an "agnostic", as some have strangely claimed, since he does seem to have had an explicit religious belief in some sort of higher power providentially guiding history:

When under siege in K'uang, the Master said, "With King Wen dead, is not culture (wen) invested here in me?  If Heaven intends culture to be destroyed, those who come after me will not be able to have any part of it.  If Heaven does not intend this culture to be destroyed, then what can the men of K'uang do to me?" (Analects IX 5)

In this (and several other sayings) of Confucius, the term traditionally translated as "Heaven" is Tian (天), a word with a broad range of possible meanings.  According to one scholarly explanation of the classical Chinese word:

This term can refer to the sky, hence the standard translation "Heaven."  However, Heaven can also be a sort of higher power. Various thinkers conceive of this higher power in different ways, though.  Thus, Heaven seems to be very much like a personal god in the Mohist writings, but is more like the impersonal processes of nature in the writings of Zhuangzi and Xunzi, and is somewhere in the middle in the sayings of Kongzi [i.e. Confucius] and Mengzi.  In the period covered in this anthology, Heaven is not primarily thought of as a place, and is not connected with any explicit views about an afterlife.   [bolded emphasis mine]

Thus while 天 could be taken, without absurdity, to allude to a distant but personal deity, it could equally well mean "the grand scheme of things".  But this modern Western uncertainty about how to translate 天 into our own concepts shouldn't be projected onto Confucius himself, who clearly had a fundamental conviction about the reality and importance of the harmonious order associated with 天.

As I read him, Confucius' religious beliefs were at least adjacent to belief in God in the monotheistic sense, but that does not imply that Confucius thought of himself as having a relation to the divine beyond what any other teacher of ethics would have, if he were the last remaining voice in civilized society advocating for traditional moral culture.  While Confucius viewed 天 as a source of guidance for conduct, he did not view it as being responsible for any sort of verbal revelation, beyond what can be read from Nature itself:

The Master said, "I am thinking of giving up speech."  Tzu-kung said, "If you did not speak, what would there be for us, your disciples, to transmit?"  The Master said, "What does Heaven ever say?  Yet there are the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being. What does Heaven ever say?"  (Analects XVII 19)

Even on the most robustly theological interpretation of these passages, if believing that your mission in life comes from above makes you a religious founder, then quite a few of the Christians I know would also be religious founders!

The fact is, I have already given a highly misleading impression of Confucius simply by quoting three of the more "religious" passages in the book.  Read it yourself, and you will see how little there is on this topic.  Here is how Confucius wanted to be remembered:

The Duke of Sheh asked Tsze-lû about Confucius, and Tsze-lû did not answer him.  The Master said, "Why did you not say to him,—He is simply a man, who in his eager pursuit of knowledge forgets his food, who in the joy of its attainment forgets his sorrows, and who does not perceive that old age is coming on?" (Analects VII 19)

Laozi (Taoism)

Another example of a "religion" that clearly started out as a mere philosophy is Taoism, which is generally known in the West as a source of provocative but somewhat cryptic wisdom like the Tao Te Ching:

Thirty spokes unite around one hub to make a wheel.
It is the presence of the empty space that gives the function of a vehicle.
Clay is molded into a vessel.
It is the empty space that gives the function of a vessel.
Doors and windows are chisel out to make a room.
It is the empty space in the room that gives its function.
Therefore, something substantial can be beneficial.
While the emptiness of void is what can be utilized. (XI)

Its author, the sage Laozi, only makes these modest claims about his own wisdom:

I alone remain quiet and calm
like an infant who is pure and innocent.
And I alone appeared to be lost like one who has no where to go.
All people have a surplus,
but I alone was simple and left out like a fool.
People seemed bright and shrewd, while I seemed dull.
People like to dispute, while I alone remain quiet.
I am calm and peaceful like the boundless ocean.
I am open-hearted and free
like the wind blowing high above the sky without hindrance.
Everyone thinks of themselves as capable and outstanding
while I appeared unlearned.
I am the only one to be different from others
for I value highly the Great Tao [Way] and joyfully act accordingly. (XX)

While the Tao that pervades Nature comes across as a mystical concept, the text does not imply that Laozi has any special status, besides being a keen observer of Nature.  This is simply not parallel to the claims of e.g. the Hebrew prophets to have received special verbal revelation from God.

In practice a lot of later Taoism was mainly concerned with alchemical and sexual tricks to try to live as long as possible.  You can call that a "religion" if you like, but it would probably be better to classify that as a (mostly) pseudo-scientific medicinal tradition, competing with other forms of fad dieting advice.  Either way, Taoism is clearly better classified as a philosophy, not a religion.

(There is a third strand in so-called Taoism which is simply traditional Chinese paganism that venerates various local and heavenly deities, sometimes considered as manifestations of a single unifying divine principle, but this strand presumably predates Laozi and is not very different from pre-Christian paganism in the West.)

Socrates (Stoicism, Neoplatonism)

Of course, in the modern West it is not at all traditional to regard Socrates as a religious founder, instead we typically recognize him as one of the key progenitors of Western philosophy.  Yet when it comes to exotic Eastern traditions, Westerners usually categorize them as alternative "religions", when it might be more illuminating to treat them as philosophers.  So it seems illuminating to compare Confucius and Laozi to Socrates, who really is closely parallel to them.

Socrates was a pious man, but he was a philosopher and not a prophet.  (Even though two later religious philosophies, namely Stoicism and Neoplatonism, did take him as their hero.)  This is completely obvious to anyone who reads the Platonic dialogues.  True, when the prosecutors at his trial accused him of atheism, he did defend himself by ironically suggesting he had a divine mission (confirmed by the oracle of Delphi), to ask people annoying questions.  But no divine message:

I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle [that "there is no man wiser than Socrates"] he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.  And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise. (Plato's Apology)

It is also true that Socrates made mention of a daimonion, or divine sign, speaking to him; but he claimed that it never told him what to do or say, but only (on occasion) what not to do.  Whether this was just a poetic way of referring to what modern people would call a conscience, or whether (as I would like to think) it was an actual supernatural gift, is not something we need to decide here, since it was not in any case the basis of Socrates' teaching method.  Instead, Socrates believed in using reason and dialogue to draw the truth out of other people in conversation.

Buddha (Buddhism)

The case of Buddha is considerably murkier, but something similar may be true in his case as well.  If one goes back to the earliest sources, Buddha does not seem to have made the claim to be a divinity or god.  Nor does he claim to be a prophet in anything like the biblical sense.  Instead he was claiming to have acquired enlightenment about the nature of the "self", by his own meditations and contemplations.

(In some early versions of the Enlightenment of Buddha, the god Brahma appears to Buddha to encourage him to share his message with others; but this is only after he has already achieved full Enlightenment by his own efforts.  In general, early Buddhism was skeptical of attempts to ground religious doctrines in revelations by divine beings, who may not themselves be fully enlightened.  In any case, this putative supernatural event was seen by only a single witness at best, and then filtered through centuries of oral tradition.)

Far from being a divinely planned event, Buddha thought it was a freak coincidence that he happened to stumble across the correct path:

"Monks, suppose that this great earth were totally covered with water, and a man were to toss a yoke with a single hole there.  A wind from the east would push it west, a wind from the west would push it east.  A wind from the north would push it south, a wind from the south would push it north.  And suppose a blind sea-turtle were there.  It would come to the surface once every one hundred years.  Now what do you think: would that blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, stick his neck into the yoke with a single hole?"
"It's likewise a sheer coincidence that a Tathagata, worthy & rightly self-awakened, arises in the world."  (The Hole)

Unlike Confucius or Socrates, I think it is fair to say that Buddha intended to start a religion—if by that you mean a way of saving the human race from existential suffering, through the practice of a certain method.  But it is not a religion based on divine revelation; instead it is based on certain experiences (or, perhaps, a certain way of transcending experience) which he believed himself to have had.

On the other hand, a few of the (relatively) early Buddhist sutras do state that the Buddha claimed, as a result of his Enlightenment, to have knowledge that most of us would consider "paranormal".  For example, in the Greater Discourse of the Lion's Roar, he asserts the knowledge of all of his hundreds of thousands of past lives, and the vision of many different heavens and hells.  He goes on to strongly deny that he arrived at his views merely by speculative reasoning:

Sariputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: 'The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones.  The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him'—unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell.

For reasons that will become clear in subsequent posts, I do not know to what extent these sutras are authentic to the teaching of the actual historical Buddha.  If he did make such claims, they are hard for an outsider to test, since Buddha did not seem to think highly of using supernatural powers as a way to convince people:

"And what is the miracle of psychic power?  There is the case where a monk wields manifold psychic powers.  Having been one he becomes many; having been many he becomes one.  He appears.  He vanishes.  He goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains as if through space.  He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water.  He walks on water without sinking as if it were dry land.  Sitting cross-legged he flies through the air like a winged bird.  With his hand he touches and strokes even the sun and moon, so mighty and powerful.  He exercises influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.

"Then someone who has faith and conviction in him sees him wielding manifold psychic powers... exercising influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.  He reports this to someone who has no faith and no conviction, telling him, 'Isn't it awesome.  Isn't it astounding, how great the power, how great the prowess of this contemplative.  Just now I saw him wielding manifold psychic powers... exercising influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.'

"Then the person without faith, without conviction, would say to the person with faith and with conviction: 'Sir, there is a charm called the Gandhari charm by which the monk wielded manifold psychic powers... exercising influence with his body even as far as the Brahma worlds.'  What do you think, Kevatta—isn't that what the man without faith, without conviction, would say to the man with faith and with conviction?"

"Yes, lord, that's just what he would say."

"Seeing this drawback to the miracle of psychic power, Kevatta, I feel horrified, humiliated, and disgusted with the miracle of psychic power.  (Discourse to Kevatta)

Thus, in the absence of miracles, the only remaining way to check the metaphysics of Buddhism for yourself is to see to what extent its teaching matches human experience.

Of course, some people committed to Atheism or Naturalism think that Buddhism is the best religion for precisely this reason: they think that (after separating out all the chaff about reincarnation and psychic powers) the core doctrines of Buddhism do not require belief in any supernatural beings or events, but can be verified by one's own meditation experiences.  Some of them even argue that Buddhist doctrines can be supported by the discoveries of Neuroscience.  (We will return to this position later when we discuss religious experiences.)

Revealed Religions

In my own view, there's nothing wrong with philosophers teaching from their own personal experience; but if there are any legitimately supernatural revelations out there, I think that such revelations should take precedence over anything else.  If the God who made the entire Universe chooses to reveal himself explicitly to certain people, this seems like a more reliable way to come to know reality than groping towards it by our own efforts.

This criterion suggests we should focus primarily on religions with a strong claim to be revealed by God (or perhaps by multiple gods, but this criterion correlates strongly with Monotheism) to some prophets or holy persons.  This includes Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam, and various later religions.  If all of these turn out to be false or unverifiable, then we can look into the works of those who claim to have figured it all out on their own.

Among these prophets of "revealed religions", one major religious founder seems to have had a much more extraordinary conception of his own role in God's system than any of the others did.

Jesus (Christianity)

In the New Testament, Jesus does not merely claim to be a great philosopher, or even a (mere) prophet.  He claims to have a unique relationship with the one God, whom he called his Father.  Thus, if the accounts of his words are accurate, Jesus saw himself as the "Son of God" in a unique and special sense, implying that he himself shared in divine attributes.

It is true that there is a disturbing tendency for people to superstitiously worship religious leaders as divinities after their death, even if, like Buddha or Confucius, they would probably have been horrified by this development.  (There is even a religion, the Alawites, that worships Ali (son-in-law of Mohammad) as an incarnation of the Supreme Deity!  For anyone who knows anything at all about the Islamic religion that Ali was among the first to embrace, it is hard to express just how deeply ironic this is.)  But very few major religious leaders have actually claimed to be divine in a robust sense during their lifetimes (not counting pantheists, who believe everyone is part of God).

But in the case of Jesus it does not seem to be a later accretion; it goes back to the very earliest recorded traditions we have about Jesus.  For example, in the earliest biography we have of Jesus, namely the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a parable in which God is represented as a landowner who rents a vineyard out to tenants, who represent Israel.  (This story is also found in the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and the noncanonical gospel of Thomas.)  He represents the earlier prophets (like Isaiah and Jeremiah) as being "servants" of this man, but he represents himself in the story as the "son" and sole heir!

Later in the same conversation, he playfully questions the Messianic title "son of David"—in favor of a much stronger title as King David's "Lord".  Since David lived about a 1000 years beforehand, this strongly suggests a claim to pre-existence, a divine attribute.

More famously still, in all four canonical Gospels (plus the letters of Paul, who was even earlier) Jesus refers to his own body and blood as a sacrificial meal, that initiates a New Covenant between God and humanity.  This sort of thing is not really compatible even with being a merely human prophet like Mohammad with a verbal message from God; rather Jesus presented himself as God's message.

Please note that it's not really that much less arrogant to go around strongly hinting that you are divine, than it is to assert it overtly!  Either way, something is seriously wrong with you (unless it is true).

It is true that other remarks of Jesus in the Gospels emphasize his humility or humanity.  Some, like his retort to the rich young ruler, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good except one, God" (Mark 10:18, cf. Matt. 19:17, Luke 18:19) could—if taken in isolation from the rest of the gospel—be read as denying or minimizing his deity.  But this passage can also be read as a challenge to the young man to think about what he is saying, and ask himself whether he really means it!  This sort of challenge is compatible with the teaching strategies that Jesus used elsewhere when prompting people to reflect on his identity: "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29).

In the earliest strand of biography about Jesus unrelated to Mark (the hypothetical "Q" source which most scholars think the gospels of Matthew and Luke drew upon) Jesus says:

“All things have been committed to me by my Father.  No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:27, cf. Luke 10:22)

Despite its early attestation, this saying is quite similar to the kind of language Jesus makes in the Fourth Gospel, which contains some of Jesus' most explicit claims to share in his Father's divinity.  For example, after healing somebody on the Sabbath, Jesus gets into trouble with the Jews:

Because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.  Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.  For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.  Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.  Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.”  (John 5:16-23)

There are even more explicit statements of Jesus' self-existence and unity with God elsewhere in the Gospel of John, but I'm quoting this one to illustrate how this doctrine does not come out of the blue, but has precursors in some of the earliest, multiply attested words of Jesus.

It is possible to find biblical scholars who would reject all of these New Testament passages as inauthentic representations of what Jesus actually said.  But as we have seen, implicit and explicit claims to be the Son of God are present in all strands of Jesus tradition, including the earliest ones.  So this does not seem to be a position which could be obtained by a neutral methodology.  It can only be sustained by a sort of circular reasoning whereby one assumes that a "high Christology" must be a later development and that any passage exhibiting it can be judged to be inauthentic for that reason alone, even if it appears in the earliest sources!

Other Divine Claimants

A few megalomaniac political rulers and minor cult leaders have made divine claims for themselves (as opposed to having somebody else make it for them after their deaths), but I think it is pretty obvious that none of these claims were made by anybody of remotely the same spiritual and intellectual caliber as Jesus.  What sensible person feels themselves to be in the presence of a great divinity, when they ponder the wit and wisdom of Antiochus Epiphanes, Nero Caesar, or (outside of North Korea) Kim Jong-un?
(Not that any of these people were claiming to be divine in a monotheistic context such as Judaism.)

These figures belong to the category that Christians call "antichrists", namely earthly rulers who become so puffed up with pride that they demand worship from their subjects and persecute those who fail to applaud them.  (Quite the opposite from the real Christ, whose divine glory was wrapped in the garments of humility, poverty, and self-sacrifice.)

Krishna (Vaishnavism)

So far in this post, we've considered historical individuals, not mythological ones.  If we open the door to mythological figures, then of course there are many more accounts of gods and goddesses.  And much closer parallels to Jesus' extravagant claims can be found, most notably in Krishna, who is woshipped by many Hindu sects as one Incarnation of Vishnu.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is clearly portrayed as divine—not just in the polytheistic sense of being one god among many, but in the stronger sense of being the fundamental reality which sustains all existence:

Neither celestial gods nor the great sages know my origin.  I am the source from which the gods and great seers come.  Those who know me as unborn and beginningless, and as the Supreme Lord of the universe, they among mortals are free from illusion and released from all evils.  From me alone arise the varieties in the qualities amongst humans, such as intellect, knowledge, clarity of thought, forgiveness, truthfulness, control over the senses and mind, joy and sorrow, birth and death, fear and courage, non-violence, equanimity, contentment, austerity, charity, fame, and infamy.  (Gita 10:2-5)

Yet for reasons we will discuss in the next post, it seems very unlikely that Krishna actually existed as a historical personage (whereas only crackpots say Jesus never existed).  So that is a failure of parallelism to the Christian worship of Jesus.

Supernatural Effects

Of course, no such claim of divinity should be accepted without very good evidence.  But if you believe the Gospels, Jesus also performed supernatural acts to go along with his claims, e.g. miracles of healing:

Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.  The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing.  And they praised the God of Israel. (Matthew 15:29-39)

This passage gives a very brief account of mass healings, but the Gospels go into more detail regarding places and names for each one of these specific types of healing.

More dramatically still, the Gospels describe how Jesus rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb and appearing to his disciples afterwards.  We will go into more detail about the historical attestation for the Resurrection later; for now I will make a different point.  In many religions, the theology and the miracle claims are separable; the key parts of the religion have little dependence on any overtly miraculous events.  On the other hand, the Resurrection of the Son of God is the central claim in the earliest documented form of Christianity.  In this sense, the supernatural is far more tightly bound up with Christianity than many other religions. As St. Lewis wrote:

One is very often asked at present whether we could not have a Christianity stripped, or, as people who ask it say, “freed” from its miraculous elements, a Christianity with the miraculous elements suppressed.  Now, it seems to me that precisely the one religion in the world, or at least the only one I know, with which you could not do that is Christianity.  In a religion like Buddhism, if you took away the miracles attributed to Gautama Buddha in some very late sources, there would be no loss; in fact, the religion would get on very much better without them because in that case the miracles largely contradict the teaching.  Or even in the case of a religion like Mohammedanism, nothing essential would be altered if you took away the miracles.  You could have a great prophet preaching his dogmas without bringing in any miracles; they are only in the nature of a digression, or illuminated capitals.

But you cannot possibly do that with Christianity, because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature up with Him.  It is precisely one great miracle.  If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.  There may be many admirable human things which Christianity shares with all other systems in the world, but there would be nothing specifically Christian.  (The Grand Miracle)

It is rather convenient for Christian apologists, that the best documented miracle claim in the New Testament, namely the Resurrection, happens also to be the cornerstone of our entire religion.  (Although it should not be forgotten that the Gospels and Acts recount numerous more minor miracles by Jesus and the apostles.)

But, it is one thing to make a supernatural claim, and another for it to be historically plausible.  That issue will be addressed in the next several questions.

Next: Historical Accounts

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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8 Responses to Comparing Religions IV: Supernatural Claims

  1. Kyle says:


    Would you say that everything you've said in this post and future posts on the subject are common to all denominations (or non) of Christianity? Regardless, will there be anything in this series (or perhaps you've already written on the subject?) that explains why you have chosen your specific denomination?

  2. Philip says:

    Dear Aron,

    This series of posts is truly wonderful. I think it is no accident that you extensively quote St Lewis, as I feel your work in many ways follows in his footsteps - both in terms of clarity and wisdom. I look forward with great interest to their continuation.

  3. MrPete says:

    Hi Aron!
    I'm an acquaintance of your dad, (connected him with then went to the hospital instead of showing up the year he spoke :) )
    A fun hint: the shortest, most interesting comparative religion I've seen was created by storyteller, and amazing Indian author Vishal Mangalwadi. It's a brief chapter in The Quest For Freedom & Dignity: Caste, Conversion & Cultural Revolution

  4. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. David M says:

    I'm getting a Page Not Found message on the latest post: Comparing Religions: Historical Accounts.

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks David M, I just fixed the problem so the link should work now.

  7. Azher Siddiqui says:

    Just curious why theres no mention of Moses and Muhammad in your post? Both claimed to receive divine revelation.

  8. Aron Wall says:

    You obviously didn't read this post very carefully. I explicitly mentioned Judaism and Islam in the section titled "Revealed Religions". Also, Mohammed was mentioned 3 times by name in this post alone, as well as getting significant attention in several other posts in this series.

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