Thursday, May 13, 2010

Is Jesus God? pt 2/4

Hello again my faithless Anteaters. Yesterday we started looking at Paul E. Little's article "Beyond Blind Faith" on all the evidence showing that Jesus was really god. In my last installment, my basic premise was that unless we presuppose Jesus' divinity, his story is the same as countless other man-gods and cult leaders. Him claiming to be god or the son of god doews not make him distinct, or accurate. So let's see what Mr. Little has for us today.
The Life of Jesus - Four Possible Explanations

As we face the claims of Christ, there are only four possibilities. He was either a liar, a lunatic, a legend, or the Truth. If we say He is not the Truth, we are automatically affirming one of the other three alternatives, whether we realize it or not.
This is, of course, a variation on C.S. Lewis' infamous "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord" argument (which you can read more about here.) I'm glad that in this case our author has included the option of "Legend" (though I wonder why he didn't stick with the alliteration and keep his "Truth" as "Lord.") Now I must disagree with our author's second statement. If we say Jesus was not god, we are still allowing for any one of the remaining three options. Also, I'm not sure this is the most exhaustive list of options possible; however, I am content to proceed from here as if these four possibilites are the only ones.
(1) One possibility is that Jesus lied when He said He was God -- that He knew He was not God, but deliberately deceived His hearers to lend authority to His teaching. Few, if any, seriously hold this position. Even those who deny His deity affirm that He was a great moral teacher. They fail to realize those two statements are a contradiction. Jesus could hardly be a great moral teacher if, on the most crucial point of His teaching -- His identity -- He was a deliberate liar
Well, I know I deny Jesus' divinity and I also disagree with the assessment that he was a great moral teacher. In Matthew 10, Jesus said*
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn "'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."
Such a swell moral teacher, that guy! Jesus only gets a reputation for being so stand-up when he's compared to his "Father." Jesus is less moral than, say, Harry Potter (who didn't have the advantages of being more supernatural than others, or of being impervious to temptation.) Harry Potter is a better self-sacrificing "good versus evil" moral guide than Jesus Christ of the Bible.

Turning to Mr. Little's claim that Jesus could not be a great moral teacher and be a liar, there is great question as to whether or not Jesus (if such a man lived) ever claimed to BE divine. Dr. Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford and a Christian, wrote,
Our growing understanding of the background to the New Testament, the way in which Christian doctrine has developed, the rise of the scientific world-view, and so on, force us to abandon the idea that Jesus was God in any meaningful sense of the word.
I bet that sounds pretty blasphemous to you, but you have to realize, the more someone knows about Biblical history, the less likely they are to believe in the miracles. Scribe errors, politically motivated revisions, exaggeration, myth - all of these are ideas more credible than Jesus turning water into wine for a party trick.
(2) A kinder, though no less shocking possibility, is that He was sincere but self-deceived. We have a name for a person today who thinks he is God. That name is lunatic, and it certainly would apply to Christ if He were deceived on this all-important issue. But as we look at the life of Christ, we see no evidence of the abnormality and imbalance we find in a deranged person. Rather, we find the greatest composure under pressure.
Why is the possibility that he was mistaken "shocking?" You probably don't find the suggestion that perhaps the Dalai Lama is mistaken about his reincarnation to be shocking. So why does Jesus get the automatic benefit of faith? (Answer: Sunday School.)

Presenting all mental illness as derangement is a strawman (or a red herring.) I have mental illnesses. Yet I am also a mom, a writer, and a dozen other things besides. Being mistaken about some aspects of reality, or having quirks, or mood swings, or whatever symptom of mental illness you may present, does not equal being ready for the padded room.

There's a spectrum of mental health, and Jesus could have easily been a tad shy of sane without being a gibbering, drooling person, evidently and obviously insane to everyone around him. I think probably L. Ron Hubbard had some mental illness (like maybe Narcissistic Personality Disorder) yet he was capable of running a large, money-producing criminal organization and died, hiding out on a ranch, with a barn literally filled to bursting with cash. It is possible to be both crazy and successful.
(3) The third alternative is that all of the talk about His claiming to be God is a legend -- that what actually happened was that His enthusiastic followers, in the third and fourth centuries, put words into His mouth He would have been shocked to hear. Were He to return, He would immediately repudiate them.
Haha, and how is "He" supposed to return to repudiate his followers for thinking he was god, if he was not god? I don't even think Christian apologists realize how much everything they say and believe rests on assumption and confirmation bias. It just comes naturally. Moving beyond this bit of silliness, a careful look at Biblical canon history shows how much the Bible really is "book by committee." For a beginner's crash course, I highly recommend this video series of a lecture given by Matt Dillahunty (hi Matt!) for the Atheist Community of Austin. (Check out their TV show and podcast if you like godless logic.)
The legend theory has been significantly refuted by many discoveries of modern archeology. These have conclusively shown that the four biographies of Christ were written within the lifetime of contemporaries of Christ. Some time ago Dr. William F. Albright, world-famous archaeologist now retired from Johns Hopkins University, said that there was no reason to believe that any of the Gospels were written later than A.D. 70.
Let's look at this phrase carefully now, "written within the lifetime of contemporaries of Christ" - So in other words, not written BY contemporaries, but within the lifetime OF contemporaries. The Gospels aren't eyewitness accounts. They aren't even memoirs written later in life. Modern archeology has also shown that Roman history and record keeping (which was quite thorough) has absolutely no record of Jesus. You'd think such a rabble rouser would have made it into the records, wouldn't you? And you know, the four gospels preserved in today's canon were not the only ones written. Online you can find the full text for the Gospel of Thomas, Judas, Mary, Peter, James, and others unattributed to authors. We don't know who wrote the four gospels we have today, but we do know they were writing down legends and stories (and sometimes editing things to make Jesus fit prophecies better.)
For a mere legend about Christ, in the form of the Gospel, to have gained the circulation and to have had the impact it had, without one shred of basis in fact, is incredible.
No, it's really not. Stories of witches, gods, sacrificial gods, resurrecting gods, spirits, demons, and men with superhuman strength are common throughout the world. Humans tell stories, and over time those stories change (especially in oral traditions.)
For this to have happened would be as fantastic as for someone in our own time to write a biography of the late John F. Kennedy and in it say he claimed to be God, to forgive people's sins, and to have risen from the dead. Such a story is so wild it would never get off the ground because there are still too many people around who knew Kennedy. The legend theory does not hold water in the light of the early date of the Gospel manuscripts.
This analogy is very poor. JFK wasn't just known by his family and friends. He was investigated thoroughly by opposing candidates, photographed, filmed, and followed for years. The level of local fame JFK held ws undoubtedly greater than the fame any man named Jesus had. Yet even though we have video footage of JFK being killed, there is still debate in the minds of some on what exactly happened. Eye witnesses to that event are still alive today, yet there are differing accounts (one problem with relying on eye witness testimony.) To suggest that simply because people who knew a (non god) Jesus and saw him die without resurrecting would prevent a resurrection story from circulating is ridiculous.

Think of Elvis sightings. Some people are alive today who knew Elvis. (My ex mother-in-law still carries a ticket stub in her wallet of the first Elvis show she went to.) Yet despite his well-documented death, which the vast majority of people accept as truth, a significant fraction of society believes Elvis never died, and is still wandering around today. And guess what? You can buy books about it! No matter how outlandish a story, it can very well "get off the ground" because humans are gullible and we believe things which are not true.

My next objection is that Kennedy was of course a politician and not a religious figure. A more fitting example would be the Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu, or indeed, Marshall Applewhite, who claimed to be Jesus and then died for those beliefs (along with many true-believing followers.) Again, nothing has been shown about Jesus that can't be said of dozens or hundreds of others who claimed or were believed to be gods. People make up stories about what we do not understand or do not like. The fact that some stories are appealing memes and get passed on for whatever reason does not mean the stories are true.
(4) The only other alternative is that Jesus spoke the truth. From one point of view, however, claims don't mean much. Talk is cheap. Anyone can make claims. There have been others who have claimed to be God. I could claim to be God, and you could claim to be God, but the question all of us must answer is, "What credentials do we bring to substantiate our claim?" In my case it wouldn't take you five minutes to disprove my claim. It probably wouldn't take too much more to dispose of yours. But when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, it's not so simple. He had the credentials to back up His claim. He said, "Even though you do not believe Me, believe the evidence of the miracles, that you may learn and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father."
But that's exactly the point! There is no "evidence of the miracles" to believe. All we have is hearsay, stories, and claims. Jesus doesn't have anything going for him that hundreds of other demigods didn't. As best as I can tell, the only difference is how many followers Christ's story has attracted over the years. The truth claims have no evidence; neither do the miracles. Mr. Little, you still haven't given good reason why the case for Jesus would be any more complex to dispell than the case for your own divinity.

I think a man named Jesus probably did exist (although there is no contemporary extrabiblical evidence for or account of Jesus) and I also think he was a cult leader. I don't think he could or did do any miracles, but I don't find the idea of an off-kilter rabbi claiming to be the longed-for Messiah more incredible than the idea of a god turning himself into a human, so that he could sacrifice himself TO himself, to forgive humans for being born with sinful natures that god gave them. Honestly, the probability gap between these two statements is tremendous.

Tomorrow we'll tackle "The Life of Jesus - How He Proved His Deity" which I hope will have something a little more substantial to bring to the table. Till then, be great and godless!

* When I say something like "Jesus said" please fill in for yourselves, "supposedly" or "according to the Bible." Consider this a blanket implication on any such Biblical claims. Thanks!