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The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth
Does Easter celebrate a man, a savior, or a myth? Some say Jesus never existed and was a myth created by early Christians.
April 7th, 2012
08:32 PM ET

The Jesus debate: Man vs. myth

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN)– Timothy Freke was flipping through an old academic book when he came across a religious image that some would call obscene.

It was a drawing of a third-century amulet depicting a naked man nailed to a cross. The man was born of a virgin, preached about being “born again” and had risen from the dead after crucifixion, Freke says.

But the name on the amulet wasn’t Jesus. It was a pseudonym for Osiris-Dionysus, a pagan god in ancient Mediterranean culture.  Freke says the amulet was evidence of something that sounds like sacrilege – and some would say it is: that Jesus never existed. He was a myth created by first-century Jews who modeled him after other dying and resurrected pagan gods, says Freke, author of  "The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God?"

“If I said to you that there was no real Good Samaritan, I don’t think anyone would be outraged,” says Freke, one of a group of mythicists who say Jesus never existed. “It’s a teaching story. What we’re saying is that the Jesus story is an allegory. It’s a parable of the spiritual journey.”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

On Easter Sunday, millions of Christians worldwide mark the resurrection of Jesus. Though Christians clash over many issues, almost all agree that he existed.

But there is another view of Jesus that’s been emerging, one that strikes at the heart of the Easter story. A number of authors and scholars say Jesus never existed. Such assertions could have been ignored in an earlier age.  But in the age of the Internet and self-publishing, these arguments have gained enough traction that some of the world’s leading New Testament scholars feel compelled to publicly take them on.

Most Jesus deniers are Internet kooks, says Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who recently released a book devoted to the question called “Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.”

Your comments on Jesus deniers

He says Freke and others who deny Jesus’ existence are conspiracy theorists trying to sell books.

“There are people out there who don’t think the Holocaust happened, there wasn’t a lone JFK assassin and Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.,” Ehrman says. “Among them are people who don’t think Jesus existed.”

Does it matter if Jesus existed?

Some Jesus mythicists say many New Testament scholars are intellectual snobs.

“I don’t think I’m some Internet kook or Holocaust denier,” says Robert Price, a former Baptist pastor who argues in “Deconstructing Jesus” that a historical Jesus probably didn’t exist.

“They say I’m a bitter ex-fundamentalist. It’s pathetic to see this character assassination. That’s what people resort to when they don’t have solid arguments.”

 The debate over Jesus’ existence has led to a curious role reversal. Two of the New Testament scholars who are leading the way arguing for Jesus’ existence have a reputation for attacking, not defending, traditional Christianity.

Ehrman, for example, is an agnostic who has written books that argue that virtually half  of the New Testament is forged. Another defender of Jesus’ existence is John Dominic Crossan, a New Testament scholar who has been called a heretic because his books challenge some traditional Christian teachings.

But as to the existence of Jesus, Crossan says, he’s “certain.”

He says some Jesus deniers may be people who have a problem with Christianity.

“It’s a way of responding to something you don’t like,” Crossan says. “We can’t say that Obama doesn’t exist, but we can say that he’s not an American.  If we’re talking about Obama in the future, there are people who might not only say he wasn’t American, but he didn’t even exist.”

Does it even matter if Jesus existed? Can’t people derive inspiration from his teachings whether he actually walked the Earth?

Crossan says Jesus’ existence matters in the same way that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s existence mattered.

If King never existed, people would say his ideas are lovely, but they could never work in the real world, Crossan says.

It’s the same with an historical Jesus, Crossan writes in his latest book, “The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.”

“The power of Jesus’ historical life challenges his followers by proving at least one human being could cooperate fully with God. And if one, why not others? If some, why not all?”

The evidence against Jesus’ existence

Those who argue against Jesus’ existence make some of these points:

-The uncanny parallels between pagan stories in the ancient world and the stories of Jesus.

-No credible sources outside the Bible say Jesus existed.

-The Apostle Paul never referred to a historical Jesus.

Price, author of “Deconstructing Jesus,” says the first-century Western world was full of stories of a martyred hero who is called a son of God.

“There are ancient novels from that period where the hero is condemned to the cross and even crucified, but he escapes and survives it,” Price says. “That looks like Jesus.”

Those who argue for the existence of Jesus often cite two external biblical sources: the Jewish historian Josephus who wrote about Jesus at the end of the first century and the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about Jesus at the start of the second century.

But some scholars say Josephus’ passage was tampered with by later Christian authors. And Price says the two historians are not credible on Jesus.

“Josephus and Tacitus – they both thought Hercules was a true figure,” Price says. “Both of them spoke of Hercules as a figure that existed.”

Price concedes that there were plenty of mythical stories that were draped around historical figures like Caesar. But there’s plenty of secular documentation to show Caesar existed.

“Everything we read about Jesus in the gospels conforms to the mythic hero,” Price says. “There’s nothing left over that indicates that he was a real historical figure.”

Those who argue for the existence of Jesus cite another source: the testimony of the Apostle Paul and Jesus’ early disciples. Paul even writes in one New Testament passage about meeting James, the brother of Jesus.

These early disciples not only believed Jesus was real but were willing to die for him. People don’t die for myths, some biblical scholars say.

They will if the experience is powerful enough, says Richard Carrier, author of “Proving History.”

Carrier says it’s probable that Jesus never really existed and that early Christians experienced a mythic Jesus who came to them through visions and revelations.

Two of the most famous stories in the New Testament – the conversion of Paul and the stoning death of Stephen, one of the first Christian martyrs - show that people seized by religious visions are willing to die, Carrier says.

In both the Paul and Stephen stories, the writers say that they didn’t see an actual Jesus but a heavenly vision of Jesus, Carrier says.

People “can have powerful religious experiences that don’t correspond to reality,” Carrier says.

“The perfect model is Paul himself,” Carrier says. “He never met Jesus. Paul only had an encounter with this heavenly Jesus. Paul is completely converted by this religious experience, but no historical Jesus is needed for that to happen.”

As for the passage where Paul says he met James, Jesus’ brother, Carrier says:

“The problem with that is that all baptized Christians were considered brothers of the Lord.”

The evidence for Jesus’ existence

Some scholars who argue for the existence of Jesus says the New Testament mentions actual people and events that are substantiated by historical documents and archaeological discoveries.

Ehrman, author of “Did Jesus Exist?” scoffed at the notion that the ancient world was full of pagan stories about dying deities that rose again.  Where’s the proof? he asks.

Ehrman devoted an entire section of his book to critiquing Freke, the mythicist and author of “The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God?” who says there was an ancient Osiris-Dionysus figure who shares uncanny parallels to Jesus.

He says Freke can’t offer any proof that an ancient Osiris figure was born on December 25, was crucified and rose again. He says Freke is citing 20th- and 19th-century writers who tossed out the same theories.

Ehrman says that when you read ancient stories about mythological figures like Hercules and Osiris, “there’s nothing about them dying and rising again.”

“He doesn’t know much about ancient history,” Ehrman says of Freke. “He’s not a scholar. All he knows is what he’s read in other conspiracy books.”

Craig A. Evans, the author of “Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence,” says the notion that Paul gave his life for a mythical Jesus is absurd.

He says the New Testament clearly shows that Paul was an early enemy of the Christian church who sought to stamp out the burgeoning Jesus movement.

“Don’t you think if you were in Paul’s shoes, you would have quickly discovered that there was no Jesus?” Evans asks.  “If there was no Jesus, then how did the movement start?”

Evans also dismissed the notion that early Christians blended or adopted pagan myths to create their own mythical Jesus. He says the first Christians were Jews who despised everything about pagan culture.

“For a lot of Jewish people, the pagan world was disgusting,” Evans says. “I can’t imagine [the Gospel writer] Matthew making up a story where he is drawing parallels between Jesus’ birth and pagan stories about Zeus having sex with some fair maiden.”

The words of Jesus also offer proof that he actually existed, Evans says.  A vivid personality practically bursts from the pages of the New Testament: He speaks in riddles, talks about camels squeezing through the eye of a needle, weeps openly and even loses his temper.

Evans says he is a man who is undeniably Jewish, a genius who understands his culture but also transcends his tradition with gem-like parables.

“Who but Jesus could tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan?” Evans says. “Where does this bolt of lightning come from? You don’t get this out of an Egyptian myth.”

Those who argue against the existence of Jesus say they aren’t trying to destroy people’s faith.

“I don’t have any desire to upset people,” says Freke. “I do have a passion for the truth. … I don’t think rational people in the 20th century can go down a road just on blind faith.”

Yet Easter was never just about rationale.

The Easter stories about the resurrection are strange: Disciples don’t recognize Jesus as they meet him on the road; he tells someone not to touch him; he  eats fish in another.

In the Gospel of Matthew, a resurrected Jesus suddenly appears to a group of disciples and gives them this cryptic message:

“Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

And what did they see: a person, a pagan myth or a savior?

Albert Schweitzer, a 20th-century theologian and missionary, suggested that there will never be one answer to that question.  He said that looking for Jesus in history is like looking down a well: You see only your own reflection.

The “real” Jesus, Schweitzer says, will remain “a stranger and an enigma,” someone who is always ahead of us.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Art • Belief • Books • Church • Culture wars • Easter • Easter • Faith • History • Jesus • Uncategorized • Virgin Mary

soundoff (8,773 Responses)
  1. crbrianb

    By the timing alone, CNN shows their discontent with the Christian faith by launching another attack Christianity on one of the holiest days of the Christian faith.

    Yet you don't see an attack on Islam on one of their holy days, or any day at all. What is it that CNN has to attack Christianity only? There are other religions, but you never see CNN posting articles that belittles the center of the other religions' faith.

    And CNN wants to claim that they aren't biased.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Bonnie

      Be assured that there is nothing "holy" about this celebration of Easter. Holy means incorruptible, spotless, in full integrity and genuineness. Chanting on beads, instilling false belief in children about easter bunnies and colored eggs, worshipping crosses and statues and a 3-headed god-ghost has no place in sincere honor and appreciation of what Almighty God and His Son, Jesus Christ did for us. Study the actual teachings of Jesus Christ found at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Holy Bible, and you will understand. I recommend beginning with John.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • JHC

      Did you even bother to read the article? It simply gives both sides of the debate. If your faith is so flimsy that it cannot bear the weight of an objective, historical, view, your faith isn't very strong.

      Get over it.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • JonO

      Because Christianity is the prominent religion.

      You're stupid. Go to the Middle East and see how often they talk about Buddhism, you ignorant, uneducated twit.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Ron

      It's HOLY alright, The whole story is FULL of HOLES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      April 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      A thought provoking article on easter? Go figure CNN. What were you thinking?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Martin

      yes, shame on CNN for encouraging honest inquiry...faith is best embraced blindly

      April 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  2. ptsdLOADING

    A Force has the ultimate power of life and death. It is all around us in nature on Earth and as it exists throughout the multiverses which it has made and now maintains chaos and creation. We being microbes can only imagine it as GOD, but this living force is much more! What ever MAN has conceived to be this power was created by MAN and has been perpetuated by MAN's limited mentality to construct! Just as the bible was written, passed down and edited by MAN and his own ambitions.

    The real truth is out there and more than we beings of this planet can imagine.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  3. nowave

    (Think about it this way, when you see a painting...do you even ever question there was a painter? When you see creation, everything from the world ,to the universe to our bodies, do you question there is a creator? God?)

    Our human minds could never comprehend the exsistence of God, the creator of it all.
    We think we can, we think we are wise, we actually think we know more than God.
    But we are nothing, we all are born the same & we all die the same. We turn to dust.
    Every human has a void in them, every human wants to know where it came from, every human will search for the truth in their life time.

    20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
    Romans 1:20-21

    (Think about it this way, when you see a painting...do you even ever question there was a painter? When you see creation, everything from the world ,to the universe to our bodies, do you question there is a creator? God?)

    18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
    1 Corinthians 1:18

    25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
    1 Corinthians 1:25

    19 For it is written:
    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
    1 Corinthians 1:19

    18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.
    1 Corinthians 3:18

    12 Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12

    5 For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus,
    1 Timothy 2:5

    6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.
    John 14:6

    25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.
    John 11:25

    8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,
    Ephesians 2:8

    For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
    Romans 3:23

    April 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Martin

      Colussians 3:22 slaves obey your masters

      April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • JonO

      What a stupid post.

      Your post doesn't prove the existence of a Christian God at all – using your own logic, it is equally possible that every other God is the real God.

      Think first, speak second. Because you're stupid.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Brett

      Thanks Jon, that was a good use of constructive criticism

      April 8, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Don

      Bible babble = childish nonsense

      April 8, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • pastel zombie

      Isaiah 45:7 I create evil. (note present tense)

      The bible is fear-based, contradictory, atrocious garbage, through and through.

      'Nuff said.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • nowave

      18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
      1 Corinthians 1:18

      12 For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
      Hebrews 4:12

      It is not about religion, it is about a direct relationship with Jesus Christ who is God.
      Most people who deny and are against believing this, never really tried studying the bible.
      If you don't agree or don't believe...why insult and spew hate?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  4. jemzinthekop

    Just to be clear... you don't need to be an atheist to see that religion is complete insanity. Religion is a bureaucracy between man and god and if we look at the evils committed in its name I would argue that those that support religion must be the true atheists as no man of god would ever stand by while such atrocities are committed against humanity century after century.

    I also refuse to believe if there is a god that he would punish anyone to eternal pain and suffering... so me that sounds like the power fantasy of an 8 year old, not an omnipotent being able to create an ever expanding chemical utopia like the Universe.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      D'accord!!

      April 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • B

      Well, I guess you are going to find out.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      Nothing funnier than a theist pointing his finger of judgement as if you know any better from the one text from the one religion you ever read (or was told all about by every authority figure in your life).

      April 8, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  5. brianna

    How dare you! Jesus is risen! Accept him as your savior for the time is near of his returning!

    April 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Please step back and read what you just posted. Don't you find that delusional?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • jemzinthekop

      I'll take "famous quotes of believers that have been uttered every day for the past 2000 years with no success" for $200 Alex

      April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      Near?? Haven't they been saying that for 2,000 years? Just what is your concept of near?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  6. thedindim

    I always find it very interesting how it is never sufficient to believe in something; it's necessary to try and convince others to believe the same thing you do. All faith is subjective. If we spent less time worrying about others' faith and more time in personal development and growth, our world would be so much better...

    April 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Elena

      totally agree onb that and that is part of Jesus teachings as well as Hinduism and budhaism teachings

      April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  7. Elena

    Based on scientific facts the chair you sit on right now do not exist at all! could you believe that, is not a tale from the Bible it is QM ideas

    April 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • RonFromNM

      Elena, that's a mystical nonsense interpretation of quantum mechanics from people who don't understand quantum mechanics. There is no substantiation that a macroscopic object like a chair you are sitting on "doesn't exist" per QM or any scientific theory. Only new age mumbo jumbo.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  8. edeveryday

    edeveryday

    To YeahOk and Robbie who are so anxious to slam Jesus on Easter morning and deny that he existed, did you know that both your mothers slept with black guys? Oh yeah! You can try and deny that fact all you want, but it's the truth.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse | Reply
    johnfrichardson

    Beauty. A Christian defends his faith by trying to get people riled up over the idea that their mothers slept with black guys. Has it occurred to you that the people you are addressing might themselves be black, you dip? In any case, I have a lot of friends, both white and black, who have slept with black guys. Crawl out of your cave and you may find out that the world has moved on from the days when the moral code was set by Christian bigots.

    April 8, 2012 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
    edeveryday

    Yes, that thought did cross my mind. If that's the case; they are denying and slamming Jesus on Easter morning AND they are black guys also, then they are in worse shape than I thought they were. You have white friends who have slept with black guys? Wow! I'll bet you've slept with a few black guys too! What's it like?

    April 8, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Peteyroo

      The Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Jesus–I could go on, but you get the point.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  9. Brett

    The internet truly brings out the best in people, God bless Al Gore

    April 8, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Ron

      wth is that supposed to mean?

      April 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  10. Ron

    It does not matter if Jesus was a myth or not. That story of events happened during a time when Religion was extremely influential in Governments.

    Times have changed, The truth of our world is finally being revealed to the masses through technology. This doesn't mean you must give up everything you know about you're religion, BUT you HAVE to consider the Scientific Factual Evidence.
    Keeping you're kids from seeing the Doctor because of you're religion is akin to torturing you own child. There-in I for one think it's extremely important to become educated by Scientific Facts. The only way we will be able to survive as the Human race is if we work together and count on the facts, not hope. Keep hope in the heart to ease you're own soul if needed. Just don't force it upon others.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  11. Jim970

    Those set on destroying Christianity must and do make every attempt to discredit any and all aspects.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Martin

      Christianity, as all theism, dies in response to the light of facts, truth, honest inquiry, and reason.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  12. Martin

    Colussians 3:22 slaves obey your masters. Matthew 5:32 to marry a divorced woman is adultry
    The myth is just a big ol' lie. Virgins don't have babies and Mary is the world champion liar.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  13. buckybadger

    @Sangre Diale, is it the Christians or the atheist suppressing groups not like them. I don't know to many atheist who spend their spare time working towards oppressive views. I feel sorry for you a little but even more the people you think you are better than even more because your type don't keep their views to themselves but try to get society to follow their view as well. That is just cruel but it is your way isn't it?

    April 8, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  14. reason

    Watch what anthropologists, archeologists and religious historians seeking the truth have to say about where god came from:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlnnWbkMlbg&w=640&h=390]

    April 8, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  15. sixsixsheep

    It's funny how the evidence against Jesus's existence is based off of real evidence, while the evidence for Jesus has no real evidence and is based off of denying the evidence against Jesus. Typical Christian thinking.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  16. Henry Bowman

    Hey CNN, here are a few ideas for articles you can run at the beginning of Ramadan next fall. "Mohammed, prophet or pedophile?" "Islam, the one true religion, or a 1200 year old lie?" How about you run a few of those, all in the interest of objectivity and fairness of course. I say all of this as an atheist who cares little for any organized religion.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • JonO

      Hey Henry, you're stupid. Christianity is America's prominent religion. That's why it's talked about a lot.

      Wander over to the Middle East and see how often they discuss Buddhism, you ignorant, wannabe-martyr.

      April 8, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • brianna

      I agree, you never here people say "Oh my buddah!" or, "Oh my krishna!" Why? Because Satan is heavilly at work and he knows who God is, and therefore will do everything in his power to take him out of society. The rapture is near, these news stories on "the myths of revelation" and "Jesus Man or myth?" are just setting the stage. Accept Christ As your saviour, before its to late!

      April 8, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  17. sez

    Jesus was made up to pacify people and keep them in line by the people who needed a labor force. If the authority who they are to obey. Endorses continually the approved people to work for. If the people that print the cash can print at will. (you might want to figure the printing of the bible somewhere in your life and just who printed it and still does.) Like the Muslim religion which both it and Christianty mimic the Hebrew religion to a large degree. Also the Catholic religion. These things make them scratch there heads and wonder: Just what is going on. Well all 3 were ment to keep people in line. Avoiding a hell by obeying all authority. Giving away to anyone that wants to take from them. They might just laugh at that one however. You look at how these people labor for paper and not assets. How the people that swindel them own all the assets while they get a place to live (which they don't usually own if they can throw you out you don't own it) Some food.

    Migrant workers in early Israel exchanged labor for food thats not a very smart thing to do. True the paper swindel is involved. However in early Jerusalem they did for themselves not others. This really isn't off topic. Because the very same people that made those religions up are the same people that laugh while you wait till the end and God is supposed to come and destroy them. Meanwhile they run off with everything and at the end your going to find out its to late. They took it all from you.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  18. Zargoth

    Myth- get over it already...

    April 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  19. Dennis

    "Though Christians clash over many issues, almost all agree that he existed." Now that is some amazing logic. Those Christians that don't believe Jesus existed have always confused me.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Zargoth

      Nice!

      April 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  20. Pipe-Dreamer

    Rejoice all of you who believe in God and the Godly and also in Godliness! For long ago Christ Jesus was born and lived and died for all peoples' sinning ways! Christ Jesus was the last atonement bearing the weightiness of past, present and future sins. Give thanks to God for one of His Son's willing way to redeem us all from the pit of darkness and hellish torments that many of today do live in and live with!

    April 8, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • brianna

      Amen! I can't wait till he returns!

      April 8, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.