An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Part Two: The Case for Jesus
Chapter 10: Support of Deity: The Great Proposition
- McDowell begins by asking three questions. First, he asks: “If God became man, then WHAT would He be like?” and “Did Jesus possess the attributes of God?” Then, to better explore the answers to those questions, he poses a third: “Why would God become a man?”
- McDowell’s answer to that last question:
- “One reason would be to communicate with us more effectively. Imagine you are watching a farmer plow a field. You notice that an ant hill will be plowed under by the farmer on his next time around. Because you love ants, you run to the ant hill to warn its tiny inhabitants. First you shout to them the impending danger, but they continue their work. You then try many other forms of communication, but nothing seems to get through to the imperiled ants. You soon realize that the only way you can really reach them is by becoming one of them.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 286)
- There are a few problems with McDowell’s ant hill metaphor. For one thing, it’s either confused or deliberately misleading as to how it represents God. Plowing under the ant hill represents unsaved people going to Hell, right? McDowell seems to be saying that God is the person trying to warn the ants about the farmer plowing up their ant hill. But God is also the farmer, isn’t he? Or if he isn’t the farmer, he’s the one responsible for putting the farmer on that tractor and having him till the field. Which begs the question, if he cares so much about the ants, why doesn’t he take it up with the farmer? Or better yet, why did he put the ant hill in this field in the first place — since we all know that God is far from the impotent bystander yelling at ants in this metaphor?
- Also, if God realized that the only way to communicate with the ants was to become an ant himself, why did he do it only once? Why did he become an ant, allow himself to die, and then allow thousands of years to pass without ever becoming an ant again? It doesn’t make much sense in the big picture, does it? God realizes that yelling at the ants doesn’t work. So he becomes an ant, deals personally with relatively few ants before dying, and then things go right back to the way they were before. The ants alive today are in the exact same situation, in terms of their communication with God, as the ants who lived before God became an ant.
- Finally, and just to get away from that ant metaphor, McDowell ignores the times in the Old Testament when God appears personally to people, to communicate with them clearly and directly, without feeling the need to undergo a full-on human incarnation. McDowell references the prophets, who he says gave us the words of God. But don’t the prophets claim to be getting these words first-hand from God himself? And are there not episodes in the Bible where it is made clear, or at least very strongly implied, that God appears physically and interacts with people? With Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with Abraham, with Jacob.
- In fact, God wrestles with Jacob. And Jacob said following that wrestling match: “for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” That’s from Genesis 32:30. Which — speaking of the perfect, harmonious word of God — seems to contradict a verse from the New Testament, the Gospel of John. And I only bring this up because McDowell actually quotes this verse on the same page as the ant hill metaphor and discussion of God’s attempts to communicate with us. John 1:18: “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”
- The Bible is the perfect and true word of God. Yet John writes that no man has ever seen God, while Jacob declares that he has seen God face to face — and more than that, wrestled him. Sure sounds like a direct contradiction to me.
- But I digress. The point is, communication seems like a strange reason for God to incarnate himself in the person of Jesus, since he demonstrates throughout the Old Testament that he is quite capable of assuming an earthly form and talking to people directly without going through the motions of being conceived, born, and living out a normal human lifetime.
- So, McDowell asks, if God did take human form (he’s talking only about Jesus, and completely ignoring the times God takes human form in the Old Testament), what traces of his divine presence would he leave behind for us to find? McDowell lists eight telltale signs we should expect to find (p. 287):
- An utterly unique entrance into human history.
- A sinless life.
- A more perfect life than any human has ever lived.
- The greatest words ever spoken.
- A lasting and universal influence.
- The ability to satisfy humanity’s spiritual hunger.
- The ability to overcome death.
An Utterly Unique Entrance Into Human History
- McDowell declares that it is clearly evident that Jesus satisfied all eight of these expectations. So let’s take them one at a time.
If God Became a Man, Then We Would Expect Him to Be Without Sin
- The subject of this section is the virgin birth. And can you guess where the evidence that this virgin birth even took place is going to come from?
- “The main body of testimony concerning the virgin birth occurs in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, the Old Testament predicted the Messiah’s unusual conception hundreds of years before Matthew and Luke ever wrote their Gospels.” (p. 287)
- Once again McDowell unwittingly suggests a far more plausible naturalistic explanation for the stories of the virgin birth found in the Gospels: the early followers of Jesus were well aware of the prophecy that said the Messiah would be born of a virgin and so, wanting to convince people that Jesus had in fact been the Messiah, some of their stories about Jesus came to include that detail. It’s far more likely that the stories told about Jesus were shaped to fit the prophecies than that Jesus was in fact conceived and borne by a virgin.
- McDowell spends several pages arguing about the meaning of the Hebrew word “‘almah”, which appears in the verse Isaiah 7:14, which McDowell claims as a clear prophecy of the virgin birth:
- “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14 KJV)
- The reason the meaning of “‘almah” is so important is that it is the word which has been translated as “virgin,” but it doesn’t usually mean “virgin.” It actually means a woman who is of age to be married. McDowell and the authors he cites for support claim that, given the cultural context, we can infer that any woman referred to with the word “‘almah” was a virgin, and therefore the translation is valid and this verse is clearly a prophecy foretelling the virgin birth of Jesus. They reference other usages of the word and argue that the women referred to in those examples were certainly virgins.
- But this misses the point. McDowell’s prolonged defense of translating “‘almah” as “virgin”, motivated by his desire to interpret Isaiah 7:14 as a fortelling of the virgin birth, begs the question: If Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy of the virgin birth — that is, if God intended to announce that someday a virgin would bear a son and that this would be a sign of something momentous — why didn’t the author of Isaiah use the more common word for “virgin”?
- That word, by the way, is “bĕthuwlah”, which appears in the Bible 50 times and is translated in the King James version as “virgin” 38 of those times. Compare that to “‘almah”, which appears seven times and is translated in the King James as “virgin” four of those times. It seems to me, if the author of Isaiah wanted to make it clear that he was foretelling the birth of a child to a virgin, rather than to a young woman, he would have referred to her using “bĕthuwlah” — a word that appears five times in the Book of Isaiah and is translated “virgin” in the King James each time, by the way.
- McDowell goes on to argue that the verse makes no sense unless we assume it is referring to a virgin birth, because it promises a sign from God. If the birth of the child referred to were not miraculous, how could it be recognized as a sign from God?
- As with the messianic interpretation of the “Suffering Servant” passage of Isaiah, McDowell ignores the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 7:14, which holds that the verse doesn’t refer to the coming of the Messiah, but to the non-miraculous birth of a significant person, probably Hezekiah, the King of Judah who is referenced later in the Book of Isaiah. In the Jewish interpretation, it is the person who is the sign from God — Hezekiah, the great king — not the miraculous circumstances under which the person is born.
- But anyway, McDowell is convinced that Isaiah 7:14’s “‘almah” is necessarily a virgin. But which “‘almah” is being referenced?
- “Since we have determined that the ‘almah of Isaiah 7:14 is a young virgin woman of marriageable age who becomes pregnant through supernatural means, we can safely conclude that the only woman in history who fits this criterion is the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.” (McDowell, p. 293)
- Well, if we don’t count the mothers of Buddha, and Zoroaster, and Houji, and Huitzilopochtli (weet-zee-lo-POACH-tlee), anyway.
- McDowell turns to objections to the accuracy of the birth narratives recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The two objections he responds to are the discrepancies between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, and the census which supposedly brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem when Jesus was born. We’ve already discussed the census in this series, and McDowell’s ultimate solution to the genealogies is the standard apologist assumption that Matthew is tracing the lineage of Jesus through Joseph — his legal father — while Luke is tracing the lineage of Jesus through Mary, his biological mother.
- Is it too simplistic of me to say that my biggest problem with the birth narrative of Jesus isn’t the contradictory genealogy or the invented census, but the claim that a miraculous conception and virgin birth took place? Once again, as with the claims of Jesus to be God and the beliefs about the resurrection, McDowell devotes his effort to arguing that a claim was made, not that the claim is actually true. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy foretelling the birth of a son to a woman who was a virgin. And let’s just say Matthew and Luke weren’t intentionally shaping their stories to fit the conditions of that prophecy, but were sincerely claiming that Jesus’s mother was a virgin when he was conceived. So what? These are claims. Where is the evidence that this actually happened, that Jesus really was the product of a miraculous conception and a virgin birth?
- The answer is, there is no evidence. As with Jesus’s claims of his own deity and his resurrection, the best McDowell can do is cite evidence that early church fathers believed in the virgin birth. He offers no compelling evidence that it actually happened.
If God Became a Man, Then We Would Expect Him to Manifest His Supernatural Presence in the Form of Supernatural Acts — Miracles
- McDowell offers four different views of Jesus, all of which show him to have lived a sinless life.
- First, there is Jesus’s view of himself. Evidence from the Gospels clearly shows that Jesus thought of himself as sinless.
- “Christ’s self-conscious purity is astonishing. . . . Every Christian knows that the nearer he approaches God, the more aware he becomes of his sin. However, with Christ this was not the case. Jesus lived more closely to God than anyone else and yet was free from all sense of sin.” (p. 307)
- You can see that we’re deep into “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” territory here.
- Next, there is Jesus as he was viewed by his friends. More references to the New Testament to establish that Jesus’s friends all thought he was sinless, too.
- “Throughout the Bible, the inconsistencies of all persons are revealed. None of the great Jewish heroes are presented without blemish . . . Even in the New Testament the shortcomings of the apostles are written about in almost every book, and yet nowhere do we find mention of one sin in Christ’s life.” (p. 308)
- I’ll accept that we don’t find acknowledgement of one sin in Christ’s life, but we find mention of several. He kills a fig tree that doesn’t belong to him; he casts demons out of a man and into pigs that don’t belong to him, which then run off a cliff and drown; he denies his mother when she comes to see him while he’s preaching, in violation of the fifth commandment. None of these acts is acknowledged as sinful, or the least bit wrong or troubling, in the New Testament. But if I read the text critically and use my own judgment to form opinions — which I know I’m not supposed to do! — it’s pretty hard to view Jesus as a perfectly noble and innocent and pure person in light of these actions.
- Third, there’s the view of Jesus held by his enemies. Although, as with almost everything else in this book, McDowell’s only source for what the enemies of Jesus thought of him is the New Testament. So what we have isn’t actually the view of the enemies of Jesus, but more like the view of the followers of Jesus of the view of the enemies of Jesus. Surprise, surprise, the enemies of Jesus recorded in the New Testament were unable to make any of their accusations of sin stick.
- Finally, there is the assessment of history. Not actual history, because there is very little in the way of historical evidence for Jesus, most particularly for the details of his life. Nevertheless, McDowell quotes a succession of Christian authors, all of whom agree that the sinless life of Jesus was an extraordinary thing which absolutely did happen, for sure.
If God Became a Man, Then We Would Expect Him to Live More Perfectly Than Any Human Who Has Ever Lived
- McDowell lists the miracles of Jesus as told in the New Testament, then addresses critics who deny the authenticity of the miracles. The thing is, Jesus performed his miracles out in the open, vulnerable to scrutiny from skeptics.
- “Let’s consider, for example, the biblical account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Bernard Ramm observes, ‘If the raising of Lazarus was actually witnessed by John and recorded faithfully by him when still in soundness of faculties and memory, for purposes of evidence it is the same as if we were there and saw it.’ (Ramm, PROTESTANT CHRISTIAN EVIDENCES, 140-141)” (p. 315)
- The deliberate lack of curiosity and skepticism on display here by McDowell and Ramm is appalling. How are we supposed to determine that the raising of Lazarus was actually witnessed by John when the only record of that event is the testimony of John? Yet again, we have the demand that we believe a claim from the Bible on its own authority. If someone claims that they saw a dead person miraculously brought back to life, the incredible nature of that claim should inspire our skepticism, not our unthinking acceptance. And that skepticism should be multiplied, and that acceptance withheld, even more so if the claim in question was made by an anonymous person two thousand years ago.
- McDowell argues that one cannot simply ignore the miracles of Jesus and still call oneself a Christian. The miracles of Jesus were central to his life and message, because they authenticated his identity. He again quotes Bernard Ramm from his book Protestant Christian Evidences:
- “Jesus came not only preaching but performing miracles, and the apostles from time to time worked wonders. It was the miracle authenticating the religion at every point.” (Ramm, PROTESTANT CHRISTIAN EVIDENCES, p. 142-143)
- Every point, except any point in the last two-thousand years.
If God Became a Man, Then Certainly He Would Speak the Greatest Words Ever Spoken
- Personally, I don’t see why we should expect the God of the Bible to be that great of a guy, seeing as how he spends most of the Old Testament committing genocide, demanding worship, and ordering people to start wars. But evangelical Christians like McDowell are well practiced in the art of kissing God’s ass, so that’s what we get in this section.
- Since McDowell never really defines what he means by “live more perfectly,” the section consists of nothing more than Christians taking turns proclaiming what an awesome guy Jesus was. The persuasive effect of this is similar, I would imagine, to seeing one member of the Korean Worker’s Party after another step forward to sing the praises of Kim Il Sung.
If God Became a Man, Then We Would Expect Him to Have a Lasting and Universal Influence
- The concept of “the greatest words ever spoken” is inherently subjective, and McDowell makes no effort to set any objective standards for what makes the supposed words of Jesus so great compared to words of other religious or historical figures. So again, we get a prolonged act of verbal fellatio, with McDowell quoting one Christian after another, all of whom express the opinion that the words of Jesus are just the wisest, most amazing, wonderful words anyone ever spoke.
- What a shame, then, that Jesus almost certainly didn’t actually speak any of the words attributed to him in the Bible. Oh well. Minor details.
If God Became a Man, Then We Would Expect Him to Satisfy the Spiritual Hunger in Humanity
- And McDowell extends the gang bang into a third section of the chapter, this time quoting a series of Christian authors describing, in appropriately worshipful tones, how influential the life of Christ has been on the world.
- Not addressed — not mentioned or even hinted at — is the large portion of human civilization today on which the life of Jesus has been practically no influence at all. The declarations of the influence of Jesus are decidedly Eurocentric in character — a fact of which McDowell, his cultural bias as blinding as it is impenetrable, seems utterly unaware.
If God Became a Man, Then We Would Expect Him to Overcome Humanity’s Most Pervasive and Feared Enemy — Death
- Jesus fills that God-shaped hole in all our lives, see. McDowell demonstrates this by — you guessed it — quoting a series of Christians who talk about how fulfilling their faith in Christ is, how they were satisfied, how their lives were enriched, by Jesus.
- If I may, an incomplete list of groups of people whose spiritual hunger (whatever that means) is not satisfied by Jesus: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, Bahá'ís, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Shintoists, Unitarian Universalists, Scientologists, Daoists, and atheists.
Next: Begin Part Three: The Case For and Against Christianity
- Jesus died, he was buried, he came back to life. We’ve already heard this story, so I’ll skip to the end:
- “The evidence shows that Jesus is alive (Heb. 13:8) and that ‘this same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:11)” (McDowell, p. 328)
- Now that, at last, is a point we can agree on. I have a firm belief that just as I saw him taken up to Heaven, I will someday see him come back from Heaven. I didn’t see the former, I don’t think I’ll ever see the latter.
Chapter 11: Is the Bible from God?
Chapter 12: The Presupposition of Anti-supernaturalism
Chapter 13: Archaeology and Biblical Criticism