An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Chapters 7 and 8
Part Two: The Case for Jesus
Chapter 7: Significance of Deity: The Trilemma — Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?
- McDowell begins by considering the influence of the life of Jesus. Whatever we think of him, McDowell contends, the life of Jesus and the existence of the church (which McDowell defines as the primary legacy left by Jesus) have had an unprecedented influence on human history.
- Citing the book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? by D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe (because I guess he was getting bored referring to quasi-scholarly sources), McDowell produces a litany of positive things the church has contributed to civilization, including:
- Hospitals, universities, literacy and education, representative government, abolition of slavery, modern science, European exploration and settlement of the New World, regard for human life, inspiration for great art and music, and (who could forget?) eternal salvation for countless souls.
- For his assertions here to be remotely plausible, McDowell has to grossly oversimplify things. Let’s take this one step at a time.
- First, the influence of Jesus. Christians like McDowell love to crow about how influential the life of Jesus has been, implicitly suggesting that there is some supernatural source for this influence, that the impact the life of Jesus has had on our history and culture is proof that he was no mere son of a carpenter. But the truth is, we’re looking back on events that have already taken place, that are frozen, unchangeable, in the past. But history is made moment by moment. As these moments were actually occurring, had any one of countless crucial events broken in a different direction, the life of Jesus today might be considered an historical footnote, or even forgotten altogether. I know McDowell might say that he sees the hand of God influencing how these events turned out, but as someone who rejects such a biased, self-serving interpretation, I have to point out that Jesus had nothing to do with Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, or Christian Europe surviving attempted Muslim conquests.
- As to Jesus getting credit for the good works of the church, the obvious question is: which church? Obviously, we can talk about “the church” in general, use “church” as an umbrella term to refer to all religious institutions and communities that consider themselves Christian. But that doesn’t get us very far — if we’re concerned about accurately representing the various roles the church, in all its myriad variations, has played in history, that is. Because while churches have played positive roles in things like the development of formal education, the advancement of science, support for the arts, and the abolition of slavery, other churches, whose members worship the same god and read the same scriptures, have worked tirelessly against those very things.
- Things like literacy, education, scientific knowledge, art and music, and ideas about justice and freedom and fair treatment of people are evolving concepts. It’s not as if the church ascended to prominence and slavery was gone and education and science and art and democracy reigned supreme just like that! It took centuries of cultural evolution, one generation after another, for these concepts to reach their modern forms. And I would contend that these things are emergent properties of humanity, and that they would have developed whether the Christian church existed at all.
- And that’s not just me falling back on my own biased assumptions. I’m basing that on other positive developments in our civilization that have had no help at all from the church, and actually a great deal of opposition. Two examples I’ll cite are the concepts of gender equality and equality of sexual orientation. Women’s rights and gay rights are two causes that have been the targets of unrelenting hostility from religious institutions from the very beginning (with some encouraging exceptions on both fronts). They are both predominantly secular in character, they have resulted in drastic changes in cultural attitudes toward women and gay people, and the church has had almost nothing to do with it.
- And speaking of positive aspects of civilization that the church had little or nothing to do with. McDowell (citing Kennedy and Newcombe) claims that the influence of the church is responsible for the development of hospitals, universities, and representative government. Now, these are not the only items on that list that don’t belong there, but allow me to have these three stand for the others. Hospitals pre-dated the life of Jesus by several centuries, and were developed independently in multiple cultures, including ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. The first modern universities were developed in the Christian era, but they belong to a tradition of higher education that goes back well beyond the origin of Christianity and includes the Academy of ancient Greece. And speaking of the ancient Greeks, most of you probably know that they were practicing representative government 500 years before the birth of Jesus.
- You cannot divorce Jesus from his teachings, McDowell insists. Therefore, we cannot merely ignore the fact that Jesus repeatedly claims to be God in the New Testament. We must reckon with Jesus’s claim to be God. And there are only three options:
- Jesus’s claims were true, meaning he is the Lord.
- Jesus’s claims were false and he was deliberately misrepresenting himself, meaning he was a Liar.
- Or, Jesus’s claims were false but he sincerely believed himself to be God, meaning he was a Lunatic.
- The other obvious possibility, that the historical Jesus made no such claims, is dismissed by McDowell, who again asserts the historical reliability of the gospels and declares, “Jesus definitely claimed to be God.”
- So, what if Jesus’s claims to be God were false? McDowell examines the two possibilities:
Was He a Liar?
- If Jesus knew he wasn’t God when he claimed to be God, then he was not only a liar, McDowell says, but a hypocrite (for teaching others to be honest), evil (for promising eternal life to his followers when he knew he couldn’t deliver), and a fool (because his claims to be God led to his being crucified).
- I’d just like to take a moment to say that I agree with Josh McDowell: promising eternal paradise to desperate people when you don’t actually know such a place exists is pretty goddamn evil.
- But that’s not all. If Jesus was a liar, how could his teachings have been so good?
- “Could a deceiver — an imposter of monstrous proportions — teach such unselfish ethical truths and live such a morally exemplary life as Jesus did? The very notion is incredulous.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 159)
- I’ve said before that I think Christians (and some non-Christians) overstate the goodness and moral value of Jesus’s teachings in the gospels. And since I’m on the subject of overstatements, have you noticed how McDowell insists on exaggerating the significance of everything Jesus supposedly said and did? Even the offenses of the liar Jesus supposed by McDowell are blown up beyond the point of absurdity. “An imposter of monstrous proportions?” No, he was an asshole who claimed he was god in order to mislead and manipulate people. He wasn’t the first and he wasn’t the last.
- McDowell’s incredulity at a liar being able to teach people unselfish ethical truths is equally unjustified if you think about it for two seconds.
Was He a Lunatic?
- Since it’s inconceivable that Jesus was a liar, McDowell says, the only other option that would allow us to reject Jesus’s claim to be God is that he sincerely believed himself to be God but was mistaken.
- But this can’t be true, because anyone who sincerely believed himself to be God would necessarily be deeply deluded, and most likely severely emotionally disturbed. But the Jesus we read about in the Gospels is not such a person. He’s intelligent, and wise, and loving, and self-assured, and serene, and lots of other things you wouldn’t expect from someone suffering from such a powerful delusion.
- Ah, but Jesus exhibits more than just those traits in the Gospels. If we consider his behavior in the Gospels as a whole and don’t just cherry-pick the noble bits, I think we find a character who is erratic at best. Yes, he tells people to love each other, he says peacemakers and the poor will be blessed, he shows great compassion for the downtrodden and outcast. But he also storms the temple and assaults the money changers, curses a fig tree when it doesn’t bear fruit out-of-season, and demands that his followers leave behind their families and occupations to devote themselves fully to him. Are these the actions of a stable, serene person?
- And let’s not forget the fact that, as McDowell reminds us repeatedly, Jesus makes the claim over and over and over that he is divine — he is the Son of God, he is God himself. If anyone other than Jesus were sincerely making this claim, McDowell would agree with me that he probably had some pretty serious issues, to say the least. The only reason Jesus gets away with it is because in his case, McDowell says, the claim is true. Jesus isn’t crazy for thinking he’s God because he’s right — he is God. But McDowell can’t provide any evidence that Jesus is God as opposed to deeply deluded, other than the opinion held by himself and other Christians that, you know, Jesus just doesn’t strike them as that type of guy.
- But the insistence that he is God is a red flag that he is that type of guy, and the only reason McDowell and his fellow apologists don’t see it that way is because they presuppose that Jesus is God before they even approach the question. And this tactic of saying, “Well, look how calm Jesus is, look how serene he is, look at how much of what he says makes sense — he couldn’t possibly be crazy enough to believe he’s God if he’s really not!” — that’s attempting to use textual analysis to prove a proposition about something other than the text. Because the question isn’t whether Jesus is God within the context of the story. The question is whether Jesus is God within the context of reality. And to accept that Jesus is really God, I’ll need evidence other than a biased psychological profile of Jesus from the Gospels.
He Is Lord!
- So if he’s not a liar or a lunatic, that only leaves one third of the trilemma! Jesus must actually be God.
- “Who you decide Jesus Christ is must not be an idle intellectual exercise. You cannot put Him on the shelf as a great moral teacher. That is not a valid option. He is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. You must make a choice.” (p. 163)
- There’s more of that inflating of importance I mentioned. There are countless religions in the world, all with significant implications for life and death if their claims are true, but for some reason what you think about Jesus is the most important opinion you will ever have.
- Okay, so I have to make a choice. I tend to want to reject the trilemma construction entirely and go with “legend” instead of one of these three choices, but I can play McDowell’s game, too. Of the three options McDowell presents, I choose lunatic. The behavior of Jesus in the Gospels is erratic, megalomaniacal, occasionally violent. He makes grandiose claims about himself, he claims not only to be God but to hear the voice of God, and to see angels and demons and even Satan himself. So that’s my vote. Lunatic.
- But the more important point is this: There’s a good case to be made for liar, too, and either liar or lunatic is far, far, far more likely than Jesus actually being God. Even if we assume God exists in the first place — and there’s no reason to — it’s still preposterous to assert that Jesus, or any other particular person, is the embodiment of that God. Such an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence in order to be accepted. So far, all McDowell’s given us is: early Christians believed Jesus was God, and Jesus himself seemed to really believe it, too. It’s simply not good enough.
Chapter 8: Support of Deity: Old Testament Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus Christ
- The majority of this chapter is devoted to listing passages from the Old Testament which McDowell claims as prophecies, alongside passages from the New Testament which McDowell claims as fulfillments of those prophecies.
- Many of the prophecies listed by McDowell are not prophecies at all, but passages that have been misinterpreted by Christians searching for ways to connect Jesus to the Old Testament concept of the messiah. One example that I’ve talked about previously in the series I did reviewing the book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler, is Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant passage. Many Christians, like McDowell, insist that the Suffering Servant is the Messiah — to them, Jesus — and they point to lines like “he was afflicted yet he opened not his mouth” and “he was wounded for our transgressions” that they seem echoed in the gospels as proof that Jesus is the Suffering Servant. But the dominant Jewish interpretation is that the Servant is Israel. And in fact, earlier in the Book of Isaiah, that is stated outright, unambiguously, by God, “Israel is my servant.”
- McDowell claims there are over 300 references in the Old Testament to the Messiah, and that Jesus fulfills them all. It takes some creative interpretations of both the Old Testament and the New Testament to get to that number, but even if I accept McDowell’s claim that 300 Messianic prophecies are fulfilled in the New Testament, I can’t help but notice that none of the details of the life of Jesus that match the prophecies have been confirmed, or even could be confirmed, by the external evidence McDowell used in earlier chapters to argue for the historical reliability of the Bible. And that’s one reason why it’s so important for McDowell to convince his audience to accept the New Testament as 100% reliable. Because he doesn’t have a single piece of evidence that Jesus’s mother was a virgin when he was born, so the only way someone would ever accept that that actually happened is if they will accept the Gospels as sufficient evidence.
- Most of the fulfilled prophecies are of the kind that any reasonably precocious pre-teen could fabricate without too much effort. The Old Testament says the Messiah will be called “Lord.” People in the New Testament call Jesus “Lord.” Check. The Old Testament says the Messiah will be a prophet. The New Testament uses the word “prophet” to describe Jesus. Check.
- By the way, while discussing the supposed prediction that Jesus would be a prophet, McDowell shoots himself in the foot by listing a series of similarities between Jesus and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, Moses. He means for this to establish Jesus’s cred as a prophet and the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament, but for me it calls to mind the much more credible explanation that Jesus’s story was deliberately made to echo that of Moses by early Christians in order to appeal to Jews whom they were trying to convert.
- It’s one thing to point out that these fulfillments of prophecies very easily could have been invented by early Christians. But is there any reason to think that actually happened? McDowell unwittingly provides us with a motive on the first page of the chapter:
- “Throughout the New Testament the apostles appealed to two areas of the life of Jesus of Nazareth to establish His messiahship. One was the resurrection and the other was fulfilled messianic prophecy.” (p. 164)
- The two main claims used by the followers of Jesus to convince people that he was the Messiah were the resurrection and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Sure sounds to me like the early Christians — the ones who first propagated the stories that eventually became the Gospels — had plenty of motivation to make it sound like Jesus had fulfilled as many of those prophecies as they could think of.
- One example of a prophecy fulfilled by details in the Jesus narrative that were probably invented is the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In the Gospels, Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph, are from Nazareth. The Gospel of Luke refers to a census that required everyone to return to their ancestral homes as the reason for Mary and Joseph being in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’s birth. But there are no records of this census, or any census like it (requiring citizens to return to their ancestral homes) ever taking place. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem probably found its way into the story because someone wanted that particular Messianic “i” dotted.
- A few of the prophecies are so silly that you would think even a self-respecting Christian apologist would disqualify them. Like, for instance, the claim that Jesus being born of a woman fulfilled a prophecy from the Book of Genesis. But being born of a woman is not an unusual experience at all. In fact, it’s one of the most universally shared of all human experiences. How is the fact that Jesus was born of a woman significant at all?
- McDowell has a knack for stating his case in the form of stark either/or choices. The problem (aside from how simplistic and formulaic it is) is that it’s usually very easy to go with the choice McDowell clearly wants us to reject. For instance, when talking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah would come before the temple fell:
- “The temple and city were destroyed by Titus and his army in A.D. 70; therefore, either Messiah had already come or this prophecy was false.” (p. 197)
- Okay. Sounds like we got ourselves a false prophecy, then, don’t it?
Next: Continue Part Two: The Case for Jesus
Chapter 9: Support of Deity: The Resurrection — Hoax or History?