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Approaching the Jesus Myth with Others

Given the Christmas cheer and the anti-Christian, anti-Jesus rhetoric one typically hears around this time, I thought I might do a simple defence of Jesus’ existence using some of my favourite sources. Out of interest, you might appreciate this small opinion piece in the New York Times involving an interview with Dr. William Lane Craig. It’s always nice to see the media occasionally stepping out to question a mainstream Christian representative and well-respected scholar, instead of promoting the vitriol coming from a community of 30 people in the state of Kansas.

In my experience, the sooner you can get people reading the gospels for themselves the better. I have encountered countless testimonies involving the powerful effects of reading the gospels with an open mind. However, getting people to read or do anything in our instant-gratification, sceptical society can be incredibly difficult. On top of this, how can we possibly get people interested in Jesus if people believe he was just a made-up story? Or if people think that the scriptures are riddled with fantastical exaggerations?

In this blog I will present an approach for helping people get past Jesus Mythicism, followed by several links for dealing with other sceptical beliefs that typically follow this extreme scepticism.

The General Approach

Before going on this journey of discovery with anyone, realise that to genuinely help someone change their mind, it is highly recommended that you converse in person. Any written exchange requires a high level of work and skill to communicate accurately without coming across as dismissive. Regardless of whether you decide to engage in written or face to face exchange, I highly recommend that the entire engagement is filled with questions on your side.  When desiring to get a point across, try to think of questions that might lead them to genuinely ask you to share what you know. Typically, this involves questions that portray your genuine interest in the justification or validity of what they know.

Remember, the best way to communicate is to genuinely treat the person you are talking with as if they know a lot of things that you don’t. Pretend you are learning from a tutor and must write an examination essay tomorrow on the truth of their position. Chances are they do know a lot of things you don’t. Recognising this will likely help you focus on the kinds of questions that help get to the core of the truth, instead of an infinite number of wild goose chases.

In my experience there are several stages sceptics typically go through when rejecting the Jesus narrative.

1 – Jesus was a Myth

2 – The scriptures are unreliable

3 – Jesus was just some dude, not God

4 –The resurrection is unreasonable

Now, not everyone is going to defend all 4 of these unjustified positions, but I typically get the impression that these are the most likely conclusions people will draw, each of which people will defend independently of one another. The first involving the highest scepticism, moving down to the fourth as being the least sceptical. This all being said; most people may present their position as being generally reasonable to accept without much evidence. This happens when people reject Christianity for some other reason more important to them. This means they won’t change their mind based on the evidence you present. Helping them to see that their position isn’t very robust may be where you need to stop, no evidence required, move on to the next doubt they may have.

We recently had a student from the University of Auckland spend an entire year discussing all the evidence for God with our student leaders. Each argument individually was easy to dismiss without justification. However, at the end of the year, when reviewing the broader summary of the Christian story with a street evangelist, the weight of all the evidence became overwhelming. He said it was because of his many conversations throughout the year that the arguments, which were easy to individually dismiss without evidence, became overwhelming evidence to the Christian story when put together with the message of Christ.

Agnostic biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, who has written books like “Misquoting Jesus” and debated Dr. William Lane Craig on the resurrection of Jesus, openly admits that “It was really the problem of suffering that lead [him] to becoming an agnostic”. So just remember that having this conversation about Jesus being a Myth may just be an important part of a bigger picture for whoever you may be talking to. You cannot expect people to become Christian from this one conversation, so don’t continue shoving evidence in people’s faces in the hopes that they will convert to Christianity right there and then.

Was Jesus a Myth?

Before getting into some of the push-backs you might want to use in a conversation with a Jesus Mythicist, it is very helpful to ask a range of questions to establish where someone is coming from. Even someone who is equipped with their reasons to lecture you on how Jesus never existed should struggle with the following questions. Being a sceptic with a sceptic is the best approach.

  • What is an appropriate standard of determining the historical accuracy of anything?
  • How can we have any confidence in this standard as an appropriate standard for evaluating history?
  • Do you know of any historical scholars anywhere in the world who agree with or teaches this standard?
  • Where should mainstream scholarship be adopting this standard and why aren’t they currently?

These questions may not persuade the sceptic out of their position. However, it may open them up to hearing the following information.

In 2014, Bart Ehrman attended a conference called “Freedom From Religion” where he gave a lecture regarding “what it is like to be an agnostic who writes about religion”. At the end of this talk he was questioned by an audience member who said “I do not see evidence in archaeology or history for a historical Jesus”. Bart Ehrman’s response was scathing. Addressing the audience of sceptics and Atheists, Bart said, “There is so much evidence”, “In the crowds you all run around with it is commonly thought that Jesus did not exist. Let me tell you, once you get outside of your conclaves there is nobody who [thinks this]”. Now appealing to the authority of a single academic is not a good argument, but if someone raises this point, you must emphasise that this is not the point of quoting Bart Ehrman. What you want to get across to the sceptic is that even the most sceptical of any academic scholar will tell you that the Jesus Mythicism movement is a joke. You are using the quotes of Bart Ehrman as testimony and evidence to the reality that academic scholarship is entirely against Jesus Mythicism.

One could go into arguments demonstrating the evidence of why historians come to the conclusions that they do. However, the average person isn’t likely to trust your interpretation of Biblical scholarship let alone understand the significance of well-established principles that undergird the evidence for Jesus’ existence. Therefore, the questioning of the Mythicist’s assumptions and principles is so essential. So long as they think they are justified in their conclusions, it doesn’t matter what counter perspective you may have, most people are unlikely to listen, and it is unlikely to change their mind. What you want to demonstrate is that they have no grounds for asserting anything they currently believe to be true and then demonstrate that there is a vast majority consensus among historians going against their relatively uneducated perspective. Always remember, you have just as much right to play the sceptic of anything they say as they do to you. Make sure to use that as much as possible. Ask them how they came to their conclusions and why you should believe the claims they make, even about the sources of their claims and how you can independently verify their claims and sources. But do this with genuine curiosity, for all Truth is God’s and God has given us the tools and moral witness of the Holy Spirit to discover His Truth.

Bart Ehrman goes on to say in the Q&A “This is not even an issue for scholars of antiquity. There is no scholar in any college or university in the western world who teaches classics, ancient history, new testament, early Christianity, any related field, who doubts that Jesus existed… I think that Atheists have done themselves a disservice by jumping on the bandwagon of mythicism because, frankly, it makes you look foolish to the outside world.”

Now, with the understanding that the objective of quoting Bart Ehrman is to provide evidence of a consensus, what we want to do is help our sceptic friend understand that if we are to go against the entirety of a peer reviewed academic industry, we better have a very good piece of evidence ourselves before demanding people explain away our baseless assertions of what is and isn’t appropriate.

If the person you are speaking with then wants to dispute their arguments and evidence that exist for Jesus Mythicism, first ensure that they establish how their views are defended by people who are well educated and scrutinized by others devoting their lives to this study. Maybe encourage them to go into the field of study and prove to the world the accuracy of what they are saying if they are so certain they are correct. Be a loving encouragement throughout. Remember to love your enemies. And if all is lost, propose that you spend time together going through the evidence presented by agnostic and self-proclaimed Atheist scholar of ancient history, Bart Ehrman. He wrote a book just for this called “Did Jesus Exist?”

The Other Stages

When dealing with the other stages of scepticism you will encounter, many of the principles are much the same. Treat the person like they are a subject matter expert from whom you eagerly and innocently want to understand how they came to their conclusions. You should genuinely want to know what evidence they’ve found which lead them to believe what they say, and where you can personally find the sources for such evidence. Although these other stages of scepticism don’t have as much consensus on the subject, they still have very good arguments which have been refined and made easily accessible for the public. This is where having good resources to go through with the person you are discussing with will be very helpful. However, this is probably a series of blogs for another time. For now, I would just recommend watching any of the following to get a solid summary of the arguments. Particularly for guidance around what direction you might want to take a conversation through asking tactful questions.

For people who think ‘The scriptures are unreliable’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0OWYAf2TNA

“Jesus was just some dude, not God”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSQDov6NNp0&index=

“The resurrection is unreasonable”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvTNFrjPjC0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9k3CBwj-ut0&t=

Christmas Wishes from Thinking Matters

On behalf of Dominic, Stuart, myself and the rest of our contributors, I’d like to wish all our readers a Happy Christmas. Thanks for your continued readership, participation, and support this year – we’ve had a great time writing and interacting on the blog and look forward to serving you through the New Year.

As you celebrate this wonderful day, may you take the the opportunity to open your minds and hearts to the great and glorious news of the Gospel: the King who became not just a man but a servant, and took not just a manger, but a cross so that treasonous, stubborn, rebels might become sons and co-heirs with Him. Let us humble ourselves in gratitude and together seek to prove the wonders of Jesus’ love far as the curse is found.

The Unique Gift of Christmas

“No other religion–whether secularism, Greco-Roman paganism, Eastern religion, Judaism, or Islam–believes God became breakable or suffered or had a body. Eastern religion believes the physical is illusion. Greco-Romans believe the physical is bad. Judaism and Islam don’t believe God would do such a thing as live in the flesh.

But Christmas teaches that God is concerned not only with the spiritual, because he is not just a spirit anymore. He has a body. He knows what it’s like to be poor, to be a refugee, to face persecution and hunger, to be beaten and stabbed. He knows what it is like to be dead. Therefore, when we put together the incarnation and the resurrection, we see that God is not just concerned about the spirit, but he also cares about the body. He created the spirit and the body, and he will redeem the spirit and the body.

Christmas shows us that God is not just concerned about spiritual problems but physical problems too. So we can talk about redeeming people from guilt and unbelief, as well as creating safe streets and affordable housing for the poor, in the same breath. Because Jesus himself is not just a spirit but also has a body, the gift of Christmas is a passion for justice.

But Christians have not only a passion for justice but also the knowledge that, in the end, justice will triumph. Confidence in the justice of God makes the most realistic passion for justice possible.”

Tim Keller in Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas, edited by Nancy Guthrie (Crossway Books, 2008).

Video from the Saddleback Apologetics Weekend

Last weekend, the Saddleback Church in Southern California hosted its second annual apologetics weekend. Hosted by pastor Rick Warren, the conference presented several scholars and pastors to discuss the life and person of Jesus Christ. At this time of the year when life seems to get more crowded with activity, these talks offer a great opportunity to remind ourselves of the meaning of Christmas and the God who took on flesh, the incarnate Christ.

If you’re having trouble accessing the links below, you can also get the lectures on iTunes.

Jesus Before He Was Born
Chris Wright (Langham Partnership’s International Director and author of The Mission of God)
Audio| Video

The Radical Message of Jesus
Scott McKnight (Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University)
Audio | Video


The Shocking Life of Jesus

Peter Kreeft (professor of philosophy at Boston College)
Audio | Video

Jesus’ Miraculous Death and Resurrection
Greg Koukl (adjunct professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University and president of Stand to Reason)
Audio | Video

The Jesus Left Behind – The Body of Christ
Philip Yancey (editor-at-large for Christianity Today and popular Christian author)
Audio | Video

HT: Brian Auten

The Mystery that Makes Sense of Everything

“The real difficulty, the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us, does not lie here [in the atonement, the resurrection, or the Gospel miracles] at all.  It lies not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of resurrection, but in the Christmas message of Incarnation. The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man — that the second person of the Godhead became the “second man” (1 Cor 15:47). . . the second representative head of the race, and that he took humanity without loss of deity, so that Jesus of Nazareth was as truly and fully divine as he was human.

Here are two mysteries for the price of one — the plurality of persons within the unity of God, and the union of Godhead and manhood in the person of Jesus. It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the profoundest and the most unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie. “The Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.

…It is from misbelief, or at least inadequate belief, about the Incarnation that difficulties at other points in the gospel story usually spring. But once the Incarnation is grasped as a reality, these other difficulties dissolve.

If Jesus had been no more than a very remarkable, godly man, the difficulties in believing what the New Testament tells us about his life and work would be truly mountainous. But if Jesus was the same person as the eternal Word, the Father’s agent in creation, “through whom also he made the worlds” (Heb 1:2 RV), it is no wonder if fresh acts of creative power marked his coming into this world, and his life in it, and his exit from it. It is not strange that he, the Author of life, should rise from the dead. If he was truly God the Son, it is much more startling that he should die than that he should rise again.

‘Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies,’ wrote Wesley; but there is no comparable mystery in the Immortal’s resurrection. And if the immortal Son of God did really submit to taste death, it is not strange that such a death should have saving significance for a doomed race. Once we grant that Jesus was divine, it becomes unreasonable to find difficulty in any of this; it is all a piece and hangs together completely. The Incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else that the New Testament contains.”

J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1993 – 20th-Anniversary Edition), Pages 53-54.

The First Last Great Christmas Movie

If there is one subject or theme that filmmakers repeatedly fumble, it is Christmas. For every good Christmas film there is a Bad Santa, Elf, or The Santa Clause. Yet, for a generation that prefers cynicism over sentimentality and values objects and people only for what they can contribute to pleasure, Christmas will always be misunderstood. The message of contemporary Christmas film, Love Actually, characterizes this predicament tellingly: ‘love actually is all around’, is its catchcry. Love, invisible and irresistible, can take any form. It is has no anchor, no zipcode in moral reality. But if love is everything, then it is nothing. When the objective realm has been supplanted by subjectivity, it is no wonder that moral principles evaporate and the heart of Christmas lost.

Joe Carter, over at First Things, gives a good argument for why Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life rightly upends the moral vision of our time and deserves its place as the best Christmas film. It’s a Wonderful Life is the translation of an older myth into a post-World War 2 world. That original story is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the tale of a miser who is given a shot at redemption.  It’s a Wonderful Life features not Scrooge but George Bailey, played by James Stewart, who is contemplating death after a financial crisis and the prospect of impending disgrace.  It takes a vision of a world in which he was never born to make him realise that life is indeed worth living and rediscover the spirit of Christmas. Carter, in comparing the work of Frank Capra to Ayn Rand, says:its_a_wonderful_life

What makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in film is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely for his efforts.

Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. In the end, George is saved from ruin but the rest of life remains essentially the same. By December 26 he’ll wake to find that he’s still a frustrated artist scraping out a meager living in a drafty old house in a one-stoplight town. In fact, all that he has gained is recognition of the value of faith, friends, and community and that this is worth more than anything else he might achieve. Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.

This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most counter-cultural films in the history of cinema. Almost every movie about the individual in society—from Easy Rider to Happy Feet—is based on the premise that self-actualization is the primary purpose of existence. To a society that accepts radical individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic. Surely, the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.

You can watch the whole movie online at Google Video.