An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 2: Analyzing Jesus
Chapter 9: The Profile Evidence – Did Jesus Fulfill the Attributes of God?
The Richard Speck Story
- Strobel uses the story of Richard Speck, who raped and murdered eight nurses in a Chicago hospital in 1966, only to be arrested thanks in part to a police sketch based on the description of the one surviving witness, to illustrate the importance of forensic artists.
- He also mentions how Electronic Facial Identification Technique software, which creates composite sketches of suspects based on witness input, was instrumental in apprehending a suspect in a 1997 kidnapping that occurred near his own home.
- The composite drawing, says Strobel, can be used as an analogy to help understand the truth about Jesus. Only instead of a witness, we get our details from the New Testament. Strobel suggests taking the attributes about God we find in the Old Testament and seeing how Jesus does or does not exhibit those same attributes, to evaluate whether or not his claims of godhood should be believed.
- Strobel mentions a few apparent contradictions between Jesus and the God of the Old Testament. That God, for instance, is said to be omnipresent and omniscient, yet clearly Jesus is only ever in one place at a time, and in Mark 13:32 he claims he doesn’t know what will happen in the future. Strobel wonders how these contradictions can be reconciled.
- So we’re just presuming the historical authenticity of the Old Testament. Strobel has entirely abandoned the pretense of addressing non-believers.
The Eighth Interview: Donald A. Carson, Ph.D.
- Donald A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, author of over forty books including THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, EXEGETICAL FALLACIES, and THE GAGGING OF GOD.
- That last one sounds kinky.
- Reads a dozen languages, member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research, the Society for Biblical Literature, and the Institute for Biblical Research. Expert on the historical Jesus, postmodernism, Greek grammar, and the theology of Paul and John.
- Carson not the “starched academic” Strobel was expecting, but rather warm and sincere.
- Is Strobel’s bigotry toward college professors starting to really bother anyone else? I mean, the guy denigrates academia and scholars throughout this book, he repeatedly expresses surprise that the educated people he interviews aren’t aloof, stuffy, condescending pricks, and yet every single person he has interviewed so far has been a Ph.D. He clearly knows that the “starched academic” thing is a stereotype, and yet he still defaults to it when describing his experts. What a repugnant asshole.
Living and Forgiving Like God
- Strobel asks Carson why he thinks Jesus is God. Instead of citing anything supernatural, as Strobel anticipated, Carson says the most striking thing Jesus did was to forgive sins.
- “[Carson:]‘The point is, if you do something against me, I have the right to forgive you. However, if you do something against me and somebody else comes along and says, “I forgive you,” what kind of cheek is that? The only person who can say that sort of thing meaningfully is God himself, because sin, even if it is against other people, is first and foremost a defiance of God and his laws.’” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 157)
- See what I mean about no longer talking to nonbelievers? This concept of forgiveness would only make sense to a theist. The god of a deist doesn’t care what we do to each other, and claims no right to forgive us for crimes we commit against other people. And obviously an atheist doesn’t think gods are involved in forgiveness at all. You have to be a theist, and accept that your crimes against others are also crimes against God, in order for this to make sense.
- With some helpful prompting from Strobel (there’s that Woodward and Bernstein-like journalistic tenacity again), Carson also cites the sinlessness of Jesus as evidence of deity. He says that historically in the West, the most holy people have been those who were aware of their own sins and shortcomings, but sought God’s help to rise above them.
- “[Carson:]‘But along comes Jesus, who can say with a straight face, “Which of you can convict me of a sin?” If I said that, my wife and children and all who know me would be glad to stand up and testify, whereas no one could with respect to Christ.’” (p. 158)
- Which we know is true because it’s in the book written by people who worshipped him.
- Let’s examine this idea of the sinlessness of Christ a bit closer. Is it really true, assuming for the moment the gospels are true, that no one could have convicted Jesus of a sin? What about the story of the fig tree we discussed in the review of the last chapter? Jesus gets angry that the tree doesn’t have figs, even though it isn’t in-season yet, and kills the tree. Even if, as some argue, this act is meant to be symbolic, the tree’s still dead. Is it cool to kill a tree just to prove a point? It’s not even his tree.
Or what about one of my personal favorites, Luke 8:27-33: “And when he went forth to land, there met him out of the city a certain man, which had devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither abode in any house, but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out, and fell down before him, and with a loud voice said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God most high? I beseech thee, torment me not.(For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For oftentimes it had caught him: and he was kept bound with chains and in fetters; and he brake the bands, and was driven of the devil into the wilderness.) And Jesus asked him, saying, What is thy name? And he said, Legion: because many devils were entered into him. And they besought him that he would not command them to go out into the deep. And there was there an herd of many swine feeding on the mountain: and they besought him that he would suffer them to enter into them. And he suffered them. Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked.”
Jesus casts the demons out of the man and they go into a herd of pigs, who then run into a lake and drown. So he kills an entire herd of animals, that didn’t belong to him, he devastates the livelihood of whichever farmer they did belong to, when he could have just cast the demons out without letting them jump into the pigs! We don’t see demons jumping into other people or animals any other time. You think Jesus can’t be convicted of a sin? Ask the guy who owned those pigs.
Mystery of the Incarnation
- Strobel challenges Carson to reconcile the omniscience and omnipresence of God with the fact that Jesus clearly has limited knowledge and abilities.
- “Pointing my pen at him for emphasis, I concluded by saying, ‘Let’s admit it: the Bible itself seems to argue against Jesus being God.’” (p. 158)
- I love how pitifully transparent these “tough questions” are by Strobel. He reminds me of Dwight on The Office. “‘Depression’? Isn’t that just a fancy word for feeling ‘bummed-out’?”
- Carson describes two attempts by theologians to deal with this problem: the dual-nature of Christ (fully God and fully human), and the notion of kenosis (that, in choosing to be Incarnated as Jesus, God chose to temporarily relinquish certain aspects of his deity).
- Strobel decides kenosis sounds good to him, and disposes of the issue by saying that we shouldn’t expect our “finite minds” to be able to fully comprehend something like the Incarnation.
Creator or Created?
- Despite the Old Testament suggesting that God is an eternal being, some verses in the New Testament seem to indicate that Jesus was created at some point, meaning he is not eternal. Strobel cites John 3:16 referring to Jesus as God’s “begotten son,” and Colossians 1:15 calling Jesus “firstborn over all creation” for examples of this.
- Carson explains away the “begotten” reference by claiming that it doesn’t refer to the begetting, or the siring, of Jesus. Instead, the Greek word translated as “begotten” in the King James Version actually means “unique,” and more recent versions translate it as “his one and only Son” rather than “his only begotten Son.”
- The “firstborn” reference from Colossians 1:15 describes Jesus’s status as the rightful heir of God, not to him being created. Carson also quotes Colossians 2:9, which refers to Christ possessing “all the fullness of Deity.”
- “[Carson:]‘The author wouldn’t contradict himself. So the term “firstborn” cannot exclude Jesus’ eternality, since that is part of what it means to possess the fullness of the divine.’” (p. 162)
- Why are we assuming the author wouldn’t contradict himself? Perhaps not on purpose, but do people usually contradict themselves on purpose? Sure, we could interpret it as Carson does, that “firstborn” means “rightful heir” and not “first one born.” But if we aren’t starting with the presumption that this is divinely revealed and perfect scripture (because there’s not a single reason to do that), doesn’t it make at least as much sense to suggest that the author’s theology is incoherent?
- They also address the passage in Mark where Jesus responds to being called “good master” by saying “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18) According to Carson, Jesus isn’t denying his divinity or his goodness, but merely forcing the other person to think about what he’s saying when he calls Jesus “good.”
Was Jesus a Lesser God?
- What do you think the answer to this question will be?
- Strobel quotes John 14:28, when Jesus tells his disciples “My Father is greater than I.” Carson suggests looking at the verse in context, not in isolation, to understand its meaning. (John 14 is the “Let not your heart be troubled” chapter.) Carson says that Jesus is telling the disciples, who are upset to learn that he will be leaving them soon, that they shouldn’t be upset because he is only leaving the human realm, where he is limited by the Incarnation, and returning to Heaven where he is truly powerful.
- Kind of renders the whole “sacrifice on the cross” thing meaningless, doesn’t it? Since we’re talking about the attributes of God in this chapter, how about we take a minute to mention one that Strobel and Carson avoid: his insatiable bloodlust. Think about this, now: Jesus dies on the cross because God refuses to forgive sin without a blood sacrifice. But Jesus comes back after three days, so he doesn’t really die. Not only that, but after he comes back to life, he ascends to Heaven, where he gets to pretty much run the entire Universe. Nothing was actually sacrificed. Which begs the question . . . why was the crucifixion necessary in the first place? God’s compulsion to see blood spilled in his name is so undeniable that he’ll indulge it even knowing that, ultimately, it’s nothing more than a gruesome bit of theater. That’s some sick, twisted shit.
The Disquieting Question of Hell
- By Jesus’s own reckoning, most people end up burning in Hell after they die. The word Strobel chooses to describe this, which he believes to be a fact, is “disquieting.” Just saying.
- If God is loving, what’s with Hell? And why does Jesus talk more about Hell than anyone else in the Bible?
- Carson explains sin: “[Carson:]‘Picture God in the beginning of creation with a man and a woman made in his image. . . . They wake up in the morning and think about God. . . . They delight to do what he wants; it’s their whole pleasure. They’re rightly related to him and they’re rightly related to each other.
“‘Then, with the entrance of sin and rebellion into the world, these image bearers begin to think that they are at the center of the universe. . . . And that’s the way we think.’” (p. 164)
And he goes on to say that things like war and rape are the result of people not being right with God, which is just background noise to me, I’ve heard it so much.
- God sure is a dick, huh? So, uncounted generations of people have gone to Hell because they wanted more out of life than doing whatever God wanted? The nerve!
- “[Carson:]‘So what should God do about it? If he says, “Well, I don’t give a rip,” he’s saying that evil doesn’t matter to him. It’s a bit like saying, “Oh yeah, the Holocaust — I don’t care.”’” (pp. 164-165)
- Yes, good point, except that it’s nothing like that. You’re comparing someone wanting the option of a life that doesn’t entirely revolve around God to the systematic extermination of millions of innocent people. It’s a good thing you lack the self-awareness necessary to truly grasp what that analogy says about you, Dr. Carson, because otherwise you’d probably really hate yourself.
- So Carson clarifies that people aren’t sent to Hell for believing the wrong stuff, but for defying their Maker (and Strobel capitalizes “Maker,” by the way).
- “[Carson:]‘Hell is not filled with people who have already repented, only God isn’t gentle or good enough to let them out. It’s filled with people who, for all eternity, still want to be at the center of the universe and who persist in their God-defying rebellion.’” (p. 165)
- Actually, one of the most fundamental and, for some, troubling realizations experienced by most atheists is that they are not the center of the universe, and that, in fact, on the cosmic scale they don’t matter at all. You’d think that Lee Strobel would have pointed this out to Carson — afterall, wasn’t he an atheist?
- Strobel asks if eternal torment in Hell might not be a tad excessive. Carson suggests that the torments of Hell are the result not of God, but of the sinners themselves, because they are living apart from God.
- “I grabbed ahold of that last statement. ‘In other words,’ I said, ‘at the time of judgment there is nobody in the world who will walk away from that experience saying that they have been treated unfairly by God. Everyone will recognize the fundamental justice in the way God judges them and the world.”
‘That’s right,’ Carson said firmly.” (pp. 165-166)
- It’s nice when the lawyers fill out the testimony for the witnesses, isn’t it?
Jesus and Slavery
- Strobel wonders if Jesus’s apparent tolerance of slavery means he isn’t ethically perfect, and therefore not God.
- Strobel asks Carson if Jesus was morally deficient for failing to call for the abolition of slavery, despite living in a society where he would have been surrounded by slaves all his life.
- Carson describes how slavery in the culture of Jesus was different — it was used as a means of repaying debt, some slaves were teachers rather than laborers, it wasn’t associated with any particular race, and in Jewish society slaves were supposed to be freed every seven years for the Jubilee.
- “[Carson:]‘But you have to keep your eye on Jesus’ mission. Essentially, he did not come to overturn the Roman economic system, which included slavery. He came to free men and women from their sins. And here’s my point: what his message does is transform people so they begin to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves. Naturally, that has an impact on the idea of slavery.’” (p. 167)
- Carson argues that Jesus and others like the apostle Paul encouraged ways of thinking and interacting that ultimately resulted in the overthrow of slavery, even if they didn’t explicitly condemn it.
- Carson cites Thomas Sowell, whom he takes care to describe as “an African-American scholar,” to explain how slavery eventually ended: “[Carson:]‘[Sowell] points out that the driving impetus for the abolition of slavery was the evangelical awakening in England. Christians rammed abolition through Parliament in the beginning of the nineteenth century and then eventually used British gunboats to stop the slave trade across the Atlantic.’” (p. 168)
- That the abolition of slavery in the West was the result of Christian righteousness is an article of faith for many people, but that doesn’t mean it’s a matter of fact. Certainly Christians like Beilby Porteus and William Wilberforce were very important in abolishing slavery in the British Empire, but I can’t help but notice these calls for abolition never really gained any momentum until after the start of the Enlightenment, which was not a religious movement but rather an intellectual one that emphasized reason and science. Europe had been populated and ruled by Christians for centuries and there was barely a whisper about abolition, and then within a few decades of the end of the Enlightenment, it was gone. So you tell me who deserves credit.
- By the way, the first published article calling for abolition of slavery in what would soon become the United States was written in 1775 by Thomas Paine, who was emphatically not a Christian.
- Strobel describes a friend of his, who went from being an open and unapologetic racist to someone who is “genuinely caring and accepting toward others, including those who are different from him” after converting to Christianity.
- “Legislation didn’t change him. Reasoning didn’t change him. Emotional appeals didn’t change him. He’ll tell you that God changed him from the inside out — decisively, completely, permanently. That’s one of many examples I’ve seen of the power of the gospel . . . to transform vengeful haters into humanitarians, hardhearted hoarders into softhearted givers, power-mongers into selfless servants, and people who exploit others . . . into people who embrace all.” (pp. 168-169)
- First of all, Lee, civil rights legislation isn’t passed for the benefit of people like your friend used to be; it’s passed to protect the people who would be abused by people like that. Secondly, you were a legal reporter, you must be aware of the difference between anecdotal and empirical evidence. Your friend became a Christian and now he’s a better person. Good for him. There are probably thousands — hell, millions of stories like his. But what about the people who use their faith as a justification for their bigotry? Quite a few of those. What about people who reform their character after converting to Islam, or Buddhism? Do their stories speak to the truth of the scriptures of those faiths? What about people who are moved to renounce bigotry when they leave religion altogether? What about those people, myself included, who consider themselves better people since they embraced their atheism than they ever were when they were clinging to a religious faith? Are you as moved by our stories as you expect us to be by that of your friend?
Matching the Sketch of God
- Strobel ends the chapter by reiterating what a “mind-boggling” concept the Incarnation is, then quoting from the New Testament to establish that Jesus possesses every attribute of God — omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, eternality, and immutability — even though, if we accept the concept of kenosis, he may have temporarily imposed limitations on the exercising of those attributes.
- “Also, the Old Testament paints a portrait of God by using such titles and descriptions as Alpha and Omega, Lord, Savior, King, Judge, Light, Rock, Redeemer, Shepherd, Creator, giver of life, forgiver of sin, and speaker with divine authority. It’s fascinating to note that in the New Testament each and every one is applied to Jesus.” (p. 169)
- What a terrible abuse of the word “fascinating.”
- What is so goddamn fascinating about those titles of God from the Old Testament being applied to Jesus? I know that the people who wrote the books believed he was God. What does it prove? Fuck prove — what does it even suggest beyond the self-evident fact that, as Christopher Hitchens liked to point out whenever people talked about Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the New Testament was written after the Old?
- Speaking of Old Testament prophecy, that’s the subject of the next chapter!
Next: Chapter 10: The Fingerprint Evidence — Did Jesus — and Jesus Alone — Match the Identity of the Messiah?