Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jamie correspondence: Jesus and the "Mad, bad or God" challenge

A nice Christian guy called Jamie has got in touch after he heard my podcast on the problem of evil. Here's the latest exchange (done with his permission).

Jamie writes:

I won't call it "the problem of evil" anymore since that's a misnomer. I was going off the title of the podcast. So as I understand it then, you were answering that problem (during the podcast) by basically refuting the idea of god (including an all-powerful, all-good god) on the grounds of reasonableness.

If I've got that right, let me address the god/evil idea from a whole other angle. Instead of starting with God, start with Jesus. (And I'll assume that there is enough documentation of his life to agree that he existed.)

C.S. Lewis said something like "Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord." If one believes him a liar or lunatic then any other Philosophy will do. Anything.

But if he was Lord then that changes everything. A believer is bound to accept the whole of the Bible, even with the apparent gaps and inconsistencies. So if one holds to that central Truth (Jesus is Lord) then all the rest of life has to be figured out in relation to that. And that results in centuries of philisophical discussions (starting with the first apostles). Some of the time -- even today -- that means grabbing at straws as new ideas, arguments, and philosophies come up.

I'm not sure I can adequately sum up what the Bible says about Jesus in an email, but I think it is accurate to say that the whole Bible (from Genesis to Revelation) is about Jesus and God's redemptive work through Jesus.

So when I mentioned the perfect solution to the God/evil issue in my first email I was talking about that redemptive plan (the corruption of everything from the Fall), which you dismissed as silly. But the reason it is not silly to me is because I have answered the question of Jesus by saying he is Lord and am therefore bound to the whole of the Bible.

May I ask what "school" (if that's the right word) of philosophy you consider your arguments?

Thanks again for taking the time to discuss this with me. Like I said in the first email, I appreciate the way you work counter-arguments in to your responses.

Sincerely,
--jamie


My response:

Hi Jamie

Happy Sunday will do, and the same to you!

I'm not sure I want to let you off the hook so far as the problem of evil is concerned - saying "Jesus solves that" isn't enough. OK, let's suppose believing in Jesus saves us and the world. But when did the world get corrupted in the first place, and by whom? How, by us believing in Jesus, will that prevent the tectonic plate movement - driven by (God-given!) laws of nature - which is the real cause of earthquakes and tsunamis? Why has God allowed literally unimaginable pain and horror to be unleashed on human beings and other sentient creatures over many millions of years - even if he's going to stop that horror now on the condition that we believe in Jesus?

I just can't make any sense of this.

I also don't buy the "Mad, bad or God" challenge that theists use to try to recruit new believers. The are lots more possibilities.

First off, I am not sure whether Jesus existed, or if he did, what he did and said. Remember, we have four documents, written decades after Jesus lived, by true believers, saying there was this person and he did these things. None of the authors was an eyewitness, it seems. It's all second-, third- or fourth- hand testimony. There were, in addition, many other gospels that the Church later suppressed. These gospels contradict the "official" four on many points (in some, Jesus does not even die). Even if we can put them to one side as "later" and "unreliable" (as the Church did), the fact is they illustrate that, at that time, the faithful were not at all shy about adding their own embellishments to the story, and indeed, just making stuff up. But then how can we be sure the four official Gospels don't involve a lot of made up stuff?

We also know that large chunks are made up (e.g. the nativity story was clearly bolted on).

There is no independent historical corroboration of anything AT ALL in the Bible at all about Jesus, despite the fact we are talking about astonishing miraculous events witnessed by literally thousands of people, and indeed very notable other events, such as the earthquake after Jesus' death, the massacre of all first born children born in Bethlehem ordered by Herod, etc. Just take this example (the earthquake after the crucifixion, in which tombs were opened and many dead came back to life and walked into the Holy City and were seen by many - Matthew 27:51-53):

Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

No one else mentions this! Not even the other gospels! Perhaps because it was made up.

I am sure you will say "But what about Josephus"? Yes there's a paragraph referring to Jesus (quite possibly doctored) But Josephus wrote decades later, and there is no reason to suppose he was doing anything other than reporting what Christians told him. In which case it's not independent corroboration at all.

If four Scientologists said, now, that they saw L Ron Hubbard resurrected, and witnessed him saying and doing some amazing and profound things, would you believe them? Of course not. But then why should we lend much credence to four documents produced by four somewhat anonymous true believers, who weren't even eyewitnesses themselves, decades after the alleged events, in the case of Jesus?

Real myths are generated in complex ways. It's rarely a case of someone simply going nuts, or deciding to fib. There is often a grain of truth in there somewhere. I would guess that's true of the Jesus story. Certainly, there were many people going round claiming to be the Messiah at about that time (as The Life of Brian correctly portrays). If one of them, somewhat deluded, but certainly not mad, then had their life-story heavily and imaginatively embellished (not all in one go, but by increments, through retellings, etc.) - at a time when such embellishment and myth-making was very much the norm - and that's how we ended up with the Jesus myth - I find that entirely plausible, don't you?

have a good day, Jamie.

Stephen

8 comments:

Kyle P. said...

Hi Stephen and Jamie,

No offense to the good ser Jamie, but this argument always made me laugh. It's clearly a false trichotomy, if I can invent a word. Jesus could simply be a legend, which is not covered by any of the three options, and is quite probable, in my honest opinion.

I always found C.S. Lewis' arguments to be ridiculous. He convinced many people simply because he lived in a time when people needed/wanted to believe due to wars and such. If you read Dr. John Beversluis' book "C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion", you will see a lot of his arguments fall flat on their face. I propose that book for future discussion in the book club.

I think Anticant would (most likely) call C.S. Lewis the Ultimate Humpty Dumpty.

One final thing: Some people may not have enough money for the book club books, especially if they're students. I recommend the website http://www.bookmooch.com. You send people books, and you request books and they are sent to you. You get points for the ones you send, and give them for the ones you get. It's a really, really great service, and I've gotten so many books from it that it just makes me happy (since I'm such an avid reader).

Kyle P. said...

Oh, sorry, didn't mean to directly hijack this post, but there's another book possibility here:
http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/

John Loftus has written another one. He says it's fairly dense, so that should appeal to Anticant. :)

anticant said...

My motto is Clarity, not Density. As for C.S. Lewis, "The Screwtape Letters" were fun, but most of his other apologetics stuff is, as you say, not up to much. And "Narnia" isn't a patch on Ursula Le Guin's "Earthsea" trilogy.

jeremy said...

And of course Jamie will still have to show why you can't play this game with any other of the thousands of gods.

E.g. Mohammed - mad, bad or God?

Rayndeon said...

Jeremy,

I think you mean Muhammad - mad, bad, or messenger/prophet. Muhammad is not a God according to Islam.

Amusingly enough, that actually *is* an apologetic trilemma employed by Muslim apologists and philosophers, long before even the Christian trilemma was ever formulated. Many Muslims argue that Muhammad was truthful (and was presumably recognized as such by his opponents, the Quraish), that he was not insane (since an insane person couldn't comprise an impressive work such the Qur'an and so on and so forth) - hence, he was a messenger. This argument isn't very convincing and of course, neither is the Christian trilemma.

jeremy said...

rayndeon,

Oops! You're right, of course!

Anonymous said...

The problem is that historical documents from secular eyewitnesses show that 12 out of the 11 disciples were executed for refusing to deny Jesus' resurrection(John was exiled to the island of Patmos)! You might expect the odd crazy person to die for a lie but surely not all but 1.
Matthew, Mark and John where Jesus's disciples. Okay, so we don't have the original manuscripts, but according to Sir F G Kenyon(once principle librarian of the British Museum):
"The books of the New Testament were written in the latter part of the 1stC; the earliest extant manuscripts(trifling scraps excepted) are of the 4thC- say from 250 to 300 years later.
This may sound considerable interval, but it is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts.
We believe that we have in all essentials an accurate text of the seven extant plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1400 years after the poets death."
-Christianity: A ready defence.
I'm assuming you understand the bibliographical test?

Anonymous said...

Also what would it mean to you if it was proved, categorically, that Christianity was complete false?
What effect would it have on you, if any?
What would it prove to you personally?



Then ask, what would it mean to you if Christianity was proved, catagorically, to be true?
What effect would it have on you, if any?
What would it prove to you personally?

I ask this because for decades there has been this determination to prove Christianity to be wrong. People go through such lengths to try to debunk it.
It's interesting isn't it?
Why is that, what's the purpose of trying to prove that it's not true? It's almost evangelistic!
It seems as though there is a need to prove it. As though if if Christianity isn't proved to be false then the whole world will fall apart!