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The Answers that Atheists Hope No One Has? (Chapter Four)
Late Christian apologist and author CS Lewis, probably known best these days for his works of fantasy literature (the Narnia book series), set up a famous trilemma about the identity of Jesus Christ. Jesus, Lewis said, must either be lunatic, liar, or Lord. Naturally Christian thinkers have pondered and attempted to answer many questions relating to the divinity of Jesus. Was Jesus really God? Or just a messenger of God? Or was he perhaps just a wise teacher? Or was he none of these? Was he, to add a fourth prong to the problem, merely a LEGEND? Or is it some combination?
In his book The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask (With Answers) popular Christian apologist Mark Mittelberg attempts to answer some of the objections and questions about Christianity that his fellow Christians find challenging or intractable in some way. So far in this series of hubs he has dealt with the issue of why we should believe there is a God in the first place, why evolution might not make God obsolete and in the last chapter he made his best case for why we should trust the Bible.
In this chapter Mark looks into the issue of the divinity of Jesus in hopes of establishing it as a probable reality and just as with the last chapter I will be addressing his claims and arguments from my viewpoint as an atheist. Does Mark's argument have what it takes to convince an unbeliever? We'll take a look and find out.
(As always any excerpts used are credited to Mark Mittelberg and Tyndale House Publishers and are used for criticism and critique under Fair Use)
Mark begins the chapter by comparing and contrasting what is believed about Buddha to what is believed about Jesus. Mark asserts that Buddha was merely a wise teacher and of course never claimed to be a god or a divine but that people today worship him as such. I'm not sure how many Buddhists actually WORSHIP the Buddha as a GOD in the same sense that Christians worship theirs. While I have no doubt that Buddha is revered, perhaps even worshiped or prayed to, that alone does not make him a deity akin to the Christian God.
The Christian God created the entire Universe, governs and judges all things, and was never born and will never die. None of these are believed of Buddha to my knowledge.
According to Mark many people in today's world believe that Jesus was inadvertently made divine, much the same way Buddha was, and that there is a general belief that Jesus would look down on the church in shame if he was still alive.
Hell Hath No Fury Like a Savior Scorned
And here already we have my first point of contention with Mark. Mark already believes that Jesus is divine and he's about to make an argument for Jesus' divinity. Can we really expect that Mark will look at the facts objectively when he believes the fate of his very soul depends on remaining a Christian?
Having been a Christian myself I remember the fear that doubts can bring. I remember being taught that doubts often came from the devil himself an remember lying awake afraid of what might happen to me because I had blasphemed or doubted God in some way.
Fear of Hell is a very powerful psychological weapon in the arsenal of Christianity and it can get questioning Christians to abandon cogent doubts that might otherwise let the light of reason shine in. So I am curious to see if Mark can take an objective and unbiased look at the subject he is discussing. We are, after all, talking about someone (Jesus) who Mark MUST WORSHIP AND OBEY at the very high cost of an eternity of suffering.
But let's set that aside for now as no doubt Mark would argue that my atheism biases me against Jesus in all sorts of ways. Christians could hurl the same accusations against me, I suppose.
The Da Vinci Crock
While I haven't mentioned it up until now Mark has mentioned Dan Brown's the The Da Vinci Code numerous times usually to level criticism at the book's pseudo-historical nonsense. Here is a place where I can actually feel sympathy for Mark since Brown's book was big within pop culture and he no doubt got a lot of stupid questions from people, even fellow Christians, who actually thought that book was accurate. I can't imagine what it must have been like for Biblical scholars and Christian apologists alike to get bombarded by questions and arguments from people who took seriously everything The Da Vinci Code had to say about Jesus and Christianity.
He brings up Dan Brown's book not just to complain about its inaccuracies but to segue into talking about how early into Christianity the belief in Jesus divinity emerged. Mark references the New Testament, in particular Paul's epistles, as evidence that Christians believed, at the very least, that Jesus was the Messiah and the Christ.
Here I have to agree with Mittelberg completely, the New Testament clearly shows that early Christians revered, even worshiped, Jesus as a divine figure although it is unclear whether they actually thought he WAS GOD. They clearly thought he was equal to a deity. Here is a verse of scripture from one of the epistles of Paul, one of those believed by scholars to be authentically his, that explains how Jesus was exalted to the same level as God:
Jesus Who Part Two
So it does look as if there were early Christians who believed Jesus was equal to God and perhaps even that Jesus was God (although the verse here is sometimes translated as in the form of God). But what about Jesus himself, what claims did Jesus make about himself? Here Mark actually mentions some of the criteria that skeptical Biblical scholars often use when attempting to determine what things the real Jesus may have actually said. Now for Mark's sake I'm going to set aside the arguments of Mythicists like Dr. Richard Carrier who believe a good case can be made that Jesus never existed at all. We'll assume, for the sake of his argument, that Jesus definitely lived a mortal life in the early first century.
Mark's first real piece of evidence is that Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man, which Mark tells us is a reference to a prophecy in Daniel. Later in the Gospel of Mark Jesus answers in the affirmative when asked if he is the Messiah (although I'd like to point out that the Messiah does not have to be God incarnate).
Again I have no problem with any of this, other than the aforementioned fact that it is difficult to establish what Jesus might have actually said (which Mittelberg admits). This is especially true when we're talking about prophecy as many supposed Old Testament prophecies that the Gospels say Jesus fulfilled are misread or misunderstood by the Greek authors of the New Testament. Take, for example, in Matthew where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on both a donkey and a colt at the same time because of the author of Matthew misreading a prophecy.
It is clear that the Gospel authors believed that Jesus was the Messiah and they may have all believed that he was in some way divine. I have absolutely no issue capitulating this point to Mark. The idea that Jesus claimed to be divine is of no importance to me whatsoever if what we are trying to do is establish whether or not he really WAS divine. However I can't help but feel that this somewhat undercuts what Mark said in the last chapter about the Gospels being unbiased reports of eye-witness accounts. If the Gospel authors believed that Jesus was divine how can we assume that they were being unbiased?
But Mark's real enemy here is scholarship. He's arguing against folks like Bart Ehrman and other Biblical scholars who see the claims in Mark are different from the claims in Matthew and different still from the claims in John and believe that legendary addition is going on. As I explained in the last installment we know that additions were being made that made the stories more fantastical. It is possible that as the belief that Jesus was divine became more mainstream that the Gospels decided to make that point more emphatically with John, the latest Gospel written (90-100 CE), having Jesus making the eight famous “I AM” statements including “Before Abraham was, I am”.
Claiming Divinity vs Being Divine
Another example is the story of the woman taken in adultery in the Gospel of John. This story has Jesus famously say, “he who is without sin cast the first stone” as he defends a woman who was accused of adultery. In the Old Testament, of course, the just and righteous God ordained punishment was to stone an adulteress to death.
Scholars know that this story, however famous it is, is actually not present in many of the oldest copies of the John's Gospel and thus it is believed to either be entirely a new addition or to have been edited out only to then have a new version copied back in. Some scholars even believe that it may be two separate incidents involving a sinful woman combined into one. In short very few Biblical scholars believe that this passage was in the original copy of the Gospel of John.
As I said it is hard to know what statements Jesus ever really made about himself. Keep in mind that we are dealing with a cult or a religion here. The people who wrote the Gospels are the people who believed Jesus was the Messiah and Savior, so should we be surprised at how fantastical and miraculous they portray him in the Gospels? In the New Testament there is talk of visions of Jesus and of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
We are talking about people having visions or sightings, listening to stories of the risen Jesus, and then eventually writing down what they feel and believe about Jesus. We're not dealing with the ancient equivalent of Edward Murrow here. We're dealing with the ancient equivalent of Tom Cruise, especially when we talk about Paul, a man who's claim to fame was the vision he had on the road to Damascus, which made him a celebrity among Christians.
So we are dealing with people who believed Jesus was divine, and, perhaps, even a Jesus who thought that he himself was divine. Mark goes on and on talking about the claims that Jesus makes in the Gospels but I can't help but feel as if it will all be in vain once he sets them aside and tries to talk about the evidence at hand. After all claiming to be divine and actually being divine are two different things.
The Evidence that Demands a Verdict?
What is the actual evidence put forth for Jesus' divinity? I'd love to say that Mark has something new to tell us that I've never heard an apologist say before but unfortunately his first piece of evidence is: the early Christians believed. I guess according to Mark this means that we should believe their story. Put more accurately his claim is that if Jesus hadn't really risen from the dead than the disciples would have believed their Messiah was an utter failure cursed by God. In other words the Disciples and followers of Jesus' teachings would apparently throw up their hands and abandon their beliefs in the face of the overwhelming evidence of seeing Jesus crucified by the Romans.
So the only logical explanation left is that Jesus must have really risen from the dead?
Visions and Visitations
I'm drawn back to last week when we talked about prolific science-fiction author and cult leader L Ron Hubbard the founder of Scientology. After his death his followers believed that his spirit had passed on to another plane of existence to study and reach enlightenment in other realms or some such nonsense. On finding that their Messiah was only mortal all the Scientologists did not abandon their faith. They didn't all come to their senses about how batshit crazy beliefs in body thetans and Lord Xenu actually are. They continued to believe.
Sure some of the early Christians may have been disillusioned by their sorrow after the death of Christ but others would likely have been assured that Jesus was indeed going to rise. Let's assume, for sake of argument, that the story of Jesus is partially true as set forth in the Gospels. Set aside the miracles for a moment and we'll say that he was a man, he was a teacher and his Disciples were distraught after his death. We'll even give Mark and the Christians the empty tomb they love to go on about. Women arrive at the tomb as per the Gospels and find Jesus is not there and so they run back and tell the Disciples.
Now the Disciples have reason to assume that Jesus has risen from the grave. Their sorrow is transmuted to joy and in their joyous state they hallucinate some post-resurrection sightings of Jesus. Keep in mind that this is 2000 years ago and there aren't corrective lenses for people with bad eyesight so it could be as simple as seeing someone who looks like Jesus in a crowd. Hallucinations of the recently deceased are a commonplace phenomenon when we're dealing with people under a great deal of stress like the Disciples.
According to Mark there are three facts that PROVE the Resurrection is a real historical event. Fact number one: Jesus died. Fact Two: There was an empty tomb (missing body). Fact three: People soon after his death reported sightings, experiences and visitations.
Fanciful Stories and Fact Three
Maybe this was true back in 2010 when Mark wrote this book (though something tells me that isn't the case) however there is a growing movement of people who openly shoulder the burden of proof regarding Jesus' existence and who still deny he ever lived. Now personally I am not a Mythicist but I do find their arguments and ideas fascinating and I would encourage Christians and all other interested parties to research the claims of people like Dr. Richard Carrier and Dr. Robert M. Price.
And the ironic thing is when he mentions fanciful stories here he's not talking about the absurdity of the idea that a miracle took place, he's talking the idea that Jesus faked his death or had a double die in his place. That's right the idea that Jesus had a twin brother who was crucified in his place is a fanciful conspiracy theory to Mark BUT the idea that he rose from the dead supernaturally and is the ruler of all time and space at the right hand of the Father whose blood was spilled in a ritualistic sacrifice to atone for the sins of all mankind is much more reasonable.
However I am happy to concede that Jesus was probably a real dude who really died, although I don't think there is any way to know whether it was by crucifixion or not. As for the fact that his body is missing, well so are the bodies of most crucifixion victims. Archeologists have had a damned hard time finding the remains of crucified people despite the fact that it was a common Roman method of execution. The fact that Jesus' body was never found is meaningless in trying to establish the occurrence of a miracle no matter how he died. There are countless people from antiquity whose bodies are nowhere to be found. Hell we still haven't found Jimmy Hoffa.
Fact three is the nail in the coffin for anyone reading the book who thinks Mark has anything objective to say on the subject of Jesus that might influence the mind of a skeptical person. The fact that his followers reported experiences with him after his death is utterly meaningless. These are stories, reports from ancient times, and many of them are of a visionary nature denoting probable hallucinations.
Each Gospel also bears clear hallmarks of legendary addition to these post-resurrection visitations. In the last installment we discussed the original ending to the Gospel of Mark which has the women rush out of the empty tomb and tell no one. Later on an ending to the Gospel was added that involved Jesus appearing. By the time we get to the latest Gospel, John, we not only have a physical Jesus appearing to the Disciples but we have Thomas actually poking a finger into the wounds of the risen Christ. This is a clear and obvious example of legendary addition.
The Xtian Files
If Mark chooses he can visit with modern day alien abductees who can tell vivid stories of how they were taken aboard alien craft, experimented on, even impregnated. If Mark wishes to take seriously fantastic stories from the followers of some cult figure he can visit the customers of any popular Medium or spiritualist.
Mark can listen to stories of women who have been impregnated with alien-human hybrids only to have the fetus harvested in the night during an alien visitation. Yet something tells me that the vivid and genuinely frightening accounts of these people would inspire the same sort of skepticism in Mark that I have about his beloved Messiah.
And therein lies the issue. Mark is being intellectually lazy because he and his audience already believe, on some level, that the Bible is trustworthy and that Jesus is divine. Even the framing of the question in this chapter has the skeptic place Jesus on a pedestal as a great moral guide and teacher. Perhaps for the Middle East in the first century Jesus was ahead of his time but for every great pearl of wisdom Christians hold up Jesus says things equally horrible or unwise.
Take Matthew where Jesus demands that those who follow after him love him MORE than their families or else they are not worthy. In that same passage Jesus admits that he came to divide families and that he has no intention of bringing peace to the whole world. Jesus talks more about Hell than anyone else in the Bible and it is from Jesus' teachings about Hell that Christians get the idea of everlasting fire that is later reiterated in Revelation. A place where the fire is never quenched and the worm does not die and there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth is not mentioned in the Old Testament. It is Jesus, loving and merciful Jesus, who introduces us to the horrors of Hell.
It is Jesus who stands by the Law of the Old Testament, telling us that not one line will pass away until all has been fulfilled. It is Jesus who tells that we should not resist evil people but instead submit to them and that we should give no care for tomorrow because the world is about to end anyway. Jesus tells us that the sparrow is fed by God and so we should not save up any earthly treasures but save up treasures in Heaven.
Mark is a modern evangelical and so I wouldn't expect him to have a full understanding of what Jesus actually teaches. I don't say that to be condescending, I say that because I used to be a Christian and I understand what it is like to look at Jesus through lenses guided only by my own faith and the faith of those around me.
I know what it is like to not be able to look at Jesus objectively, to strip away assumptions of his divinity and actually listen to the man beneath the myth (even if it is impossible to know what the man actually said). I also know what it is like to be afraid to doubt and shoo away those doubts because if for some reason I lose my faith I will go to Hell.
Apocalyptic Jewish Prophet
Jesus is an apocalyptic Jewish prophet who believed that in the lifetime of his Disciples the end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God would take place. This is why the Gospels also speak of John the Baptist preaching that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. It was the belief of many early Christians that the end was near and that God would come in glory from the heavens and judge the living and the dead.
This is why Jesus tells his followers to leave their families and follow him. After all why should I feed my own children when the Kingdom is coming? The world is ending. There is no need to think of tomorrow when the end could come any day now. And indeed this sense of impending Armageddon still fuels some sermons and sects of Christianity to this day. I can recall countless sermons from my youth being about how Jesus will return any day, how the end is near. I can recall being but a child and wondering if I would ever be allowed to go to college or get married or have children or if God would end it all before then.
And this has been Christianity for the last two thousand years, the end is always nigh and it will come like a thief in the night.
As I pointed multiple times in my last hub on the subject even if we were to grant every mundane detail and saying attributed to Jesus by scripture a truly objective and skeptical person cannot simply assume that the miracles must also be true. We cannot judge claims of miraculous or supernatural events or abilities as if they are merely mundane claims. We cannot judge the idea that Elvis was an extraterrestrial who merely returned to his planet as if it is the same as the claim that Elvis existed and loved peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.
Mark has no argument to give us for Jesus outside of the same tired rhetoric that only tells us that Jesus' followers, the early Christians, found his tomb empty and believed that they saw Jesus after that. All he has told us is what early Christians apparently believed. Somehow Mark thinks that this is a big deal, in fact in the book he acts as if it is all the evidence he needs and doesn't really expand all that much on why it proves what he says it proves.
Of course this comes after the chapter about the Bible's reliability so maybe Mark is simply assuming that any skeptics reading along have already accepted the truthfulness of the Bible. Sorry Mark, you haven't said anything even remotely convincing to a skeptic, much less one who has read the Bible and researched some of the things scholars believe about it and why they believe that.
In previous installments in this series I've accused Mark of giving us fluff, filler, nothing new to ponder. This is by far the worst chapter yet because it is so unbelievably unconvincing. Mark wants his Christian readers to take these three “facts” out to their friends and family who don't believe in an attempt to convince them that Jesus was divine. These facts prove absolutely nothing about whether Jesus was God, they don't even come close!
Not only do I not believe that Jesus was the Messiah or a God I also don't believe that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Jesus has a few good sayings and his words are definitely interesting if nothing else but hardly impressive in this day and age. He was the leader of a first century cult who believed that he rose again from the dead – that proves nothing.
Here's hoping that in the next chapter Mark steps it up a notch. Thank you for reading everyone and please join me next week when I review chapter five where Mark addresses the question of the Problem of Evil/Suffering.