”Alex, thanks for reading and posing a great question. I have to admit as a Christian this type of question punches me right between the eyes.”
Good, that’s where your brain is! Sometimes a kickstart is just the thing.
”Obviously, in modern times the scenario you describe would be viewed by many as a cult. Just as some viewed Jesus in his time. I don’t have an answer other than the belief in Jesus has endured the test of time and persecution over the years.”
So has Islam, and they can’t both be true. Mormonism is also still going strong, despite intense historical persecution, including a government ordered extermination of all Mormons in the state of Missouri (Executive Order 44).
If you say “Christianity is still older than Islam”, Hinduism is much, much older than Christianity. So if how long a religion has endured equals credibility, Hinduism is the truest religion of them all.
Alternatively, there are qualities other than credibility which account for which religions succeed and which fail. More on that below:
”Cults tend to fade away relatively soon.”
Indeed, usually because they make no plans for the continuation of the group after the death of the founder. Some did however, hence why Scientology is still with us. Likewise Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism and Islam.
It’s interesting to note that the degree of “culty-ness” of each group correlates with its age: Scientology, being the youngest of the lot, is the most obviously cultic. Jehovah’s Witnesses is the next oldest, and still plainly a cult.
Mormonism is a bit older and is widely regarded as a religion, but often referred to as a cult, or having cult-like qualities. Then comes Islam, which is universally regarded as a religion, but an immature one which is still as violent today as Christianity was a few hundred years ago.
Then come mature religions like Christianity and Judaism, then Hinduism, none of which are considered cultic by the mainstream (as they aren’t currently cults and haven’t been for many centuries)
As a cult grows in membership, the more burdensome and obviously cult like practices that are necessary to retain converts early on become unnecessary. Undesirable too, since those policies are a red flag to many. So they jettison those policies and undergo various other changes as they mature from cult into religion, by which point their longterm survival as a group is all but guaranteed.
Eventually, many centuries later, what was once a fringe group regarded as loonies by the mainstream has grown to *become* the mainstream, embedding itself in the fabric of society. The calendar measures time in reference to important events in the history of the cult. There are holidays based on it. Books, movies, games, toys, monuments, hospitals, special schools and so on.
At this advanced stage it is all but impossible to recognize it for what it is, because it has changed so much and because it seems so solid/authoritative. It’s everywhere, all around you, reflected in every major institution, affirmed as true by every authority figure you encounter growing up. It would be very, very convincing indeed.
This is one of the reasons why you and I can see from the outside that (for example) Mormonism is false, but Mormons can’t see that from the inside. No, we’re not smarter than every Mormon; even clever people can be fooled in this way. The religion itself is designed in such a way as to keep them fooled.
An unfalsifiable future reward for belief. An unfalsifiable future punishment for disbelief. An invisible trickster who is responsible for causing doubts (preparing you in advance to reject anything non faith-promoting as an attempt to lead you astray).
They are not conscious of this. All of these mechanisms are presented in teachings that seem to make sense. But the end result of sincere belief in those teachings is that one will firmly believe, fearful of their own doubts.
They will go out and try to make others adopt the same beliefs, wanting to save them from the unverifiable punishment. They will close their ears and their minds to anybody who tries to talk them out of it. The end result being that the group’s numbers continue to grow over time.
This is how such a group can become extremely large and endure through the ages without necessarily being based on true claims.
”As for corroborating claims of miracles, there were no books written by the contemporary Jewish leaders, who condemned and executed Jesus, to refute those miracles. It seems that it would have been in their interest to do so. But maybe they did and I am unaware. It is an interesting question and if you know the answer please let me know.”
The only non-Christian historical mentions of Jesus I’m aware of were Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny the Elder, none of whom were Jesus’ contemporaries. Being that they weren’t around to investigate his purported miracles when he lived, they would have no way to determine one way or the other whether any of it happened.
But belief in sorcery was widespread back then, hence would-be prophets and messiahs (which were plentiful when Jesus lived) were very often reported to have performed feats of sorcery. The authors of the OT for example did not dispute that the Pharaoh’s magicians performed magical feats, they just attributed Egyptian magic to demons rather than to the Egyptian gods.
”I hope you are well and having a great day.”
Likewise! What an interesting discussion so far.