Book Review: How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test for Faith, by David Marshall

Book Review

How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside StoryHow Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story by David Marshall.

(Full disclosure: David Marshall is a friend and a contributor to True Reason, in which he wrote an early, brief form of part of the argument in How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test. This review is based on a draft David sent me before final editing, so I will not be quoting much from it.)

In the earliest days of the church there was a skeptic named Celsus whose works have been lost, and whose name would be forgotten had not Origen written his important rebuttal, Contra Celsus. Today there is a skeptic named John Loftus whose works are very much in existence. One portion of those works has served as the occasion for David Marshall writing How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test. Much as Celsus has become a footnote to Origen, I suspect Loftus is destined to become a footnote to Marshall.

Loftus’s develops his Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) online and in a book of his own. He originated nine years ago, apparently; but more recently he explained it this way:

he OTF simply asks believers to do unto their own faith what they do unto other faiths. All it asks of them is to be consistent.

The OTF asks why believers operate on a double standard. If that’s how they reject other faiths then they should apply that same standard to their own. Let reason and science rather than faith be their guide. Assume your own faith has the burden of proof. Assume human rather than divine authors to your holy book(s) and see what you get. If there is a divine author behind the texts it should be known even with that initial skeptical assumption.

So the OTF uses the exact same standard that believers use when rejecting other religions. If there is any inconsistency at all it is not with the OTF. It is how believers assess truth claims. For it should only take a moment’s thought to realize that if there is a God who wants people born into different religious cultures to believe, who are outsiders, then that religious faith SHOULD pass the OTF.

Significantly, he went on to add,

If Christians want to reject the OTF then either they must admit they have a double standard for examining religious faiths, one for their own faith and a different one for others, or their faith was not made to pass the OTF in the first place.

David Marshall doesn’t reject the OTF. He claims it for Christianity instead. Jesus Christ passes the OTF, he says, in multiple ways beyond even the test that Loftus has proposed.

David has reason to know. He holds a PhD in (I believe) the history of religion, and has lived much of his life in Asia, where Christianity is anything but an insiders’ religion. His first argument in favor of Jesus and the OTF builds on Christianity’s worldwide growth as an outsider religion into country after country, people group after people group, down through history, so that it has become the world’s most culturally and geographically diverse religion by far. He tells that story well; so well, in fact, that this book becomes a book about Christianity, not about John Loftus.

Christianity was never an insider religion as it grew, not even among the Jews where it was founded. It’s rarely a true insider’s religion even today. I think back on my own childhood: I was born in the mid-1950s into a churchgoing, Bible-believing family. If anyone was primed to view Christianity from the inside, I was. Yet I grew up under the strong impression that religion was a thing of the past, on its way out, being displaced by science.

Most Americans born since then have generally entered a culture even less favorable to Christianity; and in the rest of the supposed Christian world, Christianity has become even less of an insiders’ belief. But the “Christian world” isn’t what it used to be: the great majority of believers now are in Asia and the global south.

So there is a sense in which perhaps the majority of believers worldwide have considered Christianity as outsiders, and have concluded that it passes the test. David doesn’t leave the argument with just that, however. He describes how Christianity passes the test from an inside-outside perspective. Here is where his book really leaves Loftus behind, as he narrates Christianity’s relation to all the major world religions.

It’s a theme I’ve heard from Craig Hazen of Biola University as well: Every religion wants to claim Jesus for themselves, in one way or another. There’s a sense in which Jesus belongs in every religion. It’s impossible for any of them to deny his ethical magnificence, or his astonishing impact on history. From a deeper theological perspective, we know that no religion can be completely wrong in every way, for every religion is an expression of humanity, created in God’s image though fallen, seeking re-connection with God. So Muslims are right to believe God is one.

Yet Christianity is uniquely by, of, and for Jesus Christ, whose life and teachings fulfill some aspects of every religion, while correcting others. In that sense, it is the ultimate insider’s religion, everywhere and at all times.

It’s an insider’s religion for the Greeks: it answers questions raised by the great philosophers of old. It’s an insider’s religion for the Norsemen of old, fulfilling the best aspects of their myths. It’s an insider’s religion for the Hindus, whose texts speak of a divine savior, begotten before the world, through whose sacrifice the world was saved. It’s insider’s religion for followers of Confucius, who “spoke of heaven as a personal being who answered prayers.”

David understands these things well. He tells them as a storyteller tells them, which is another great virtue of this book. In many ways it reminds of Vishal Mangalwadi’s story-telling in The Book That Made Your World. Mangalwadi tells his stories as an Indian who came to the West; David tells his as an American who went to Asia. The two perspectives complement one another nicely.

Marshall and Mangalwadi have something else in common–almost. When I reviewed The Book That Made Your World, I wrote,

When a reviewer recommends a book, he ought to be frank about whatever there might be in it that he did not like. With Mangalwadi, I’m afraid I’m going to have to fail in that responsibility. I feel almost guilty saying this, but there wasn’t anything I didn’t like about this book.

That’s almost true of David Marshall’s book, but not quite. There’s just one thing that bothered me in it: John Loftus really didn’t deserve as much attention as David gave him. It’s not that David gave him that much; it’s that the book could have stood on its own with only a passing reference to this originator of a certain version of the OTF.

If Loftus’s OTF has caused you or a friend to wonder about Christianity, by all means read this book. But if not, don’t let that stand in your way. This book answers the OTF and answers it well, but in reality it’s wider, deeper, and better than Loftus’s argument. It’s an outstanding read by a terrific storyteller, broad in scope, great in depth. You’ll enjoy it, I promise. And you’ll learn more than you ever dreamed about how Jesus Christ passes the tests of time and history, from the inside and the outside.