An Atheist Reads Reasonable Faith
Chapter 7: The Self-Understanding of Jesus
- “The Christian religion stands or falls with the person of Jesus Christ. Judaism could survive without Moses, Buddhism without Buddha, Islam without Mohammed, but Christianity could not survive without Christ. This is because unlike most other world religions, Christianity is belief in a person, a genuine historical individual — but at the same time a special individual, whom the Church regards as not only human, but divine.” (William Lane Craig, REASONABLE FAITH, p. 233)
- How could Buddhism survive without Buddha, exactly?
- The way Craig describes Christianity as depending on belief in the divinity of a historical person who was supposedly divine, it does sound unlike many other world religions. It sounds more like the Unification Church, or Peoples Temple, or the Branch Davidians — in other words, a cult. By the way, which major world religion did those cults I just mentioned explicitly seek to emulate? Was it Buddhism? No . . .
- What were the personal claims of Jesus? Craig asks. Did he claim to be only a prophet? Was he the exemplification of love and faith? “Who did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be?”
- Why are we being cute about this, as though the answer to this question isn’t blatantly obvious? I know it’s a rhetorical device, but come on — whether you’re an atheist or a Christian or whatever you are, this is a little insulting, isn’t it? The Jesus we read about in the New Testament claimed to be the Son of God. Whether the actual historical Jesus ever made that claim or not, I will likely never know, nor will I ever have reason to care. My rejection of Christianity has nothing to do with who Jesus thought he was — it has to do with who I think Jesus was. Most of the attempts to excuse Jesus from his claims to divinity come not from outside the church, but from Christians who want to hold on to some sort of faith in (or at least reverence for) Jesus without having to deny science and history as cheerfully as William Lane Craig does.
- Craig describes the Life of Jesus movement, which, in the works of Karl Bahrdt and Karl Venturini, sought to explain away Jesus’s divine claims by making him a member of a secret society. The Life of Jesus movement also attempted to find natural explanations for the miracles of Jesus. D.F. Strauss came up with the best explanation for the miracles of Jesus — they never actually happened. Rather, they, like most of the rest of Jesus’s story as told in the gospels, were mythical. Nevertheless, Strauss claimed that this mythical Jesus still embodied a great divine truth about God and humanity as a whole.
- Craig mentions other attempts to reconstruct a naturalistic, historical Jesus from the gospels, which fail since even the earliest texts are unavoidably theological. Finally, the so-called old quest for the historical Jesus ends with Albert Schweitzer, who declared that the real historical Jesus can never actually be known.
- The new quest, which followed the old quest (go figure) was defined by an acceptance of the theological content in the gospels, and an attempt to separate the genuine historical Jesus from the theology. New questers like James Robinson drew a distinction between the Jesus who actually existed in the past, and the Jesus who can be proven from the evidence still available.
- Finally comes the third quest, which seeks to understand Jesus within the context of Judaism. These efforts have largely focused on emphasizing continuities between the ethical teachings of Jesus and Jewish tradition. The miracles of Jesus are also reinterpreted in the context of Jewish culture at the time, resulting in a Jesus who is more a Jewish holy man than a figure of myth.
- “As we approach the end of the twentieth century after his death, Jesus of Nazareth, now as always, continues to exert his power of fascination over the minds of men and women. From sensational films and popular level speculations to scholarly debates in academic societies, journals, and monographs, Jesus is a matter of controversy.” (p. 241)
- Oh, evangelicals just love to jack off to how controversial Jesus is, don’t they? He’s the central figure of the most powerful, influential and unchallenged religion in the history of our culture, but oh, he’s controversial! He’s provocative! And believing in him — like the other two billion people who believe in him — is radical!
- “Who did this first-century Galilean take himself to be? A political or social revolutionary? A practitioner of magical arts? A Jewish rabbi or prophet? The Messiah? The Son of God?” (p. 241)
- How does this rhetorical masturbation belong in a book supposedly meant to provide instruction in practical apologetics? Are there huge numbers of people who reject Christianity because they don’t think Jesus actually thought of himself as the Son of God? Because they think Jesus actually thought of himself as just a rabbi? Or a magician? I’m sure there are people who think those things, but are any of these views of Jesus at all popular? Have they ever been? What are the odds Craig’s students are going to run into a proponent of the “Jesus thought he was a magician” hypothesis while handing out Chick tracts at the student center?
Denial of Christ’s Divine Claims
- Okay, so what about those who don’t try to explain away Jesus’s miracles or divine claims by making him a magician or a member of a secret society. What about those who say he simply never made any such claims to begin with? Craig says that most modern Biblical scholars no longer think that Jesus actually claimed to be the Son of God. He mentions the Jesus Seminar, which concluded that over 50% of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were inauthentic.
- “In particular, these results play havoc with the popular apologetic based on the claims of Christ. According to popular apologetics, Jesus claimed to be God, and his claims were either true or false. If they were false, then either he was intentionally lying or else he was deluded. But neither of these alternatives is plausible. Therefore, his claims cannot be false; he must be who he claimed to be, God incarnate, and we must decide whether we shall give our lives to him or not.” (p. 242)
- And then Craig goes on to say that most modern scholars consider Jesus to have been neither a liar or a lunatic, but nor do they worship him as Lord. Instead, they claim that the Jesus of the New Testament — the one who made those claims to divinity and worked those miracles — is a myth.
- Before I get into Craig’s defense of Jesus’s divine claims, let’s take a look at the logic of this popular apologetic that Craig will also be defending. So let’s say Jesus did actually claim he was the Son of God. And let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say he wasn’t willfully lying when he said that. We’re then left with two possibilities, according to Craig — that Jesus was sincere but mistaken in his claims to be the Son of God, or that Jesus was actually the Son of God. If we go with option two, we not only have to accept that Jesus was the Son of God, we also have to accept every supernatural claim underlying that. We have to accept that there is a god, despite the total lack of evidence for this. We have to accept that this god is the specific god of the Bible — again, despite the lack of any evidence compelling us toward that conclusion. We have to accept that Jesus was miraculously conceived, through a method never described other than “an angel did it,” as the child of this God and a young girl. And finally, if we are to accept this Jesus as Lord and worship him as he commands, we have to accept that he and the brutal, vindictive, incompetent God of which he is the incarnation, are moral and righteous and worthy of that sort of devotion. Now is it really more reasonable to accept all of that, than to accept that Jesus was deluded when he made those claims about himself?
- I reject this false choice — I think the Jesus we read about in the New Testament is a fictional character based on some nugget of probably undiscoverable historical fact. But even if I deny myself that option for the sake of argument, don’t assume you’ve backed me into a corner by asking me “liar, lunatic, or Lord?” “Liar” and “lunatic” are both vastly more probable than “Lord.”
- And by the way, you can be deluded without being a lunatic. Billions of Christians demonstrate that every day.
Defense of Christ’s Divine Claims
The Christological Titles
- Craig argues that the titles assigned to Jesus — Lord, God, Son of God, Son of Man, etc. — were not added to the narratives later, but appear in the earliest Christian writings.
- Though Craig acknowledges that many scholars dispute Jesus referring to himself using Christological titles, he argues that Jesus makes other claims about himself which strongly imply the status described by the titles. Jesus did not think of himself as an ordinary man. Rather, he thought of himself as the Son of God, spoke and acted with divine authority, believed himself able to perform miracles, and claimed that what one believed about him would be the determining factor for one’s ultimate fate.
- “. . . we are brought back around again to the same dilemma posed by the traditional apologetic: if Jesus was not who he claimed to be, then he was either a charlatan or a madman, neither of which is plausible. Therefore, why not accept him as the divine Son of God, just as the earliest Christians did?” (p. 252)
- Um, because we have 2,000 more years of science and history and philosophy separating us from people who thought the stars were lamps hanging down from a high ceiling than the earliest Christians did? Because even if “legend” is off the table and my only remaining choices are “Son of God” or “charlatan” or “madman” (which they aren’t even then — again, “deluded” doesn’t equal “insane”), “charlatan” and “madman”, no matter how implausible we take them to be, are both vastly more plausible than “Son of God”. Hell, make up another option — it doesn’t matter how crazy — Jesus was an alien! Jesus was a member of a species of intelligent shape-shifters that live a hundred miles beneath the Earth’s crust! Jesus was Doug Henning time-traveling back to first century Palestine to fuck with people using simple sleight-of-hand! All more plausible explanations than Jesus being the Son of God, because as I already went over, Jesus being the Son of God is one of the most ludicrously implausible explanations you could ever possibly suggest.
- “The refusal of radical critics to draw the obvious Christological implications of unquestionably authentic sayings of Jesus is due not to lack of historical evidence but to their personal anti-metaphysical and, quite frankly, anti-Chalcedonian prejudices.” (p. 253)
- Ooooh! Hitting below the belt there, aren’t you, Bill? Can I call you Bill?
- Chalcedonian means the hypostatic union, the doctrine that Jesus had two natures — a human nature and a divine nature — contained in a single person, by the way. It’s the view of the Incarnation that was agreed upon at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and which is held by most Christian churches today.
- I certainly can’t speak for any of the “radical critics” Craig is referring to, whoever they may be, but I can tell you that my own rejection of Christianity has nothing to do with any anti-metaphysical or anti-Chalcedonian prejudice. Who says I’m prejudiced against the metaphysical? I got nothing against John Donne. Or the philosophical exploration of the fundamental nature of reality, for that matter. I’m not prejudiced against the Chalcedonian view, either. I just consider beliefs about the nature of the incarnation of Christ to have no more bearing on reality than beliefs about the length of Santa’s beard.
- In closing, Craig advises his students to use the “Jesus’s self-understanding” material defensively rather than offensively. Why? Because if you open with it, obstinate non-Christians might assert that Jesus was a man from outer space. (Holy shit, do people actually do that? If so, good for them.) These Space Jesus believers might chalk up the resurrection to Jesus coming back to life like E.T. (I swear to God, this stuff is actually in the book.) Confronted with such an argument, Craig advises not arguing with the believer in Space Jesus: “If you argue with him, this gives the impression that his view is worth refuting and therefore has some credibility, which it does not.” (p. 254)
- So the best way to deal with people who believe laughably implausible, irrational, idiotic bullshit is just to ignore them? . . . Now he tells me!
Next week: Chapter 8: The Resurrection of Jesus, and Conclusion: The Ultimate Apologetic