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’
“Jesus was just some dude, not God”
“The resurrection is unreasonable”