What Bob Seidensticker Got Wrong About My “Too Good To Be False” Argument

A few weeks ago Bob Seidensticker, atheist blogger at Patheos.com, attempted to deconstruct my argument that Jesus is too good to be false. Unfortunately he got the argument wrong, so of course his refutations, such as they are, are irrelevant. Why do atheists think it’s interesting to rebut arguments Christians aren’t making?

Still I want to answer him, because somebody might think he’d dealt some kind of blow to my argument, not knowing he’d actually missed the whole thing by a mile. And besides that, someday I’d like to know whether some atheist or skeptic has a good answer to this argument of mine. I’m putting this up here in hopes he’ll try again. Maybe he’ll read the argument for what it is. Maybe he’ll grapple with what it means that so far no one has actually delivered a good counter-answer.

The Argument He Said He Was Addressing

Here’s the crux of my argument, the one he said he was addressing (but wasn’t). I have argued:

No other character in all human history or imagination combines Jesus’ immense power and complete selflessness, as depicted in the accounts. This combination of power and selflessness is first of all an expression of high moral genius. Even if the story weren’t true, it would still be completely unique in all human literature, for no other individual or community has produced a character like Jesus, with such immense power directed to consistently, perfectly selfless ends.

But the accounts’ very uniqueness also argues for their truth. Skeptics propose that these accounts, four of them in total, came about through legend-producing processes involving (depending on which skeptic you ask) cognitive dissonance reduction, the “telephone game,” and/or other mechanisms of legendary development, none of which has ever been shown to produce the kind of character we see in Jesus. Instead they tend toward combinations of ordinary and fantastic, as for example the pagans’ gods, whose power was great but whose ethics were really quite ordinary, if not worse.

Therefore the skeptics’ legend hypotheses are unbelievable. The more likely explanation for the existence of a character like Jesus in literature is that the accounts tell the story of a life actually lived.

That’s my argument, in short form. Now, what does Seidensticker say?

Seidensticker’s Shots At It

1. “[Gilson] would say that Jesus was God and therefore the creator of everything…. but remember the tiny ‘universe’ he’s credited with creating.’”

Seidensticker is unimpressed with the depiction of Jesus as creator, but the fact remains that for those who wrote the accounts, Jesus was immensely powerful. He created everything that is, he fed the 5,000, he healed the sick, he raised the dead. That’s not powerful? Come on.

2a. There are other self-sacrificial, other-oriented, giving and caring persons in history and literature.

Well, of course. That’s not in dispute. The question is whether there are any who are also depicted as having such immense power.

2b. Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t so great. He “didn’t experience any agonizing choice; he simply knew the right path and took it. His sacrifice was a painful weekend — frankly, not that big a deal.”

Seidensticker here ignores the fact that Jesus never used his extraordinary power for his own benefit. That’s self-sacrificial in itself, and utterly unique among stories of powerful characters.

He also ignores the fact that Jesus was depicted as the Son of God who gave up a heavenly throne to be born as a human, suffer human pain and indignities, and be tortured and die. Unlike every other person who’s walked the earth, he had a choice whether to die or not. It was a very real choice; for unlike all other persons, he never had to die. In fact, he even had a prior choice whether to live on earth or not. His death was absolutely voluntary, and entirely for the purpose of helping others. That’s unique.

Further, whether Jesus’ sacrifice was the world’s greatest ever or not, it was certainly the greatest that he could possibly have made. So within his own frame of reference, as the accounts record it, his sacrifice was indeed ultimate. Suppose some soldier throws himself on a grenade to save his company. That’s an ultimate sacrifice for him, whether it’s the greatest sacrifice anyone has ever made, because it’s the greatest one he can make. Jesus’ sacrifice was ultimate in that same sense, though also with several other factors intensifying it considerably, as already mentioned above.

Jesus made an ultimate sacrifice of himself, completely of his own volition, and entirely for others. That’s unique in the proper sense of the term (it’s truly one of a kind). And for that reason it’s also thoroughly remarkable in human literature, whether Seidensticker recognizes it or not.

3a. Prometheus belongs on both lists.

I don’t think Seidensticker has read the stories. Borrowing from something Tim McGrew has said, the comparison he makes here will have its greatest appeal to those who have read neither account.

Prometheus’s power doesn’t come close to matching Jesus’, in the respective accounts. Remember how he stayed chained to that rock? That’s power for you! (Not.)

And there’s no trace there of his undertaking that sacrifice willingly for the benefit of others, as Jesus did on the cross. Prometheus took a risk for humans. Jesus made his sacrifice with full awareness of exactly what would happen. He did it willingly, whereas Prometheus, as Aeschylus — probably — said, was bound.

And there’s also no consistent, life-long practice of repeated giving in his account, just one single act or maybe two, if you think deceiving Zeus is morally praiseworthy. We simply have no record of him refusing or declining to use his power for his own benefit, as we have with Jesus.

3b. “Jesus gave us salvation, a solution to a problem he invented, while Prometheus gave us fire, something that’s … objectively useful.”

The problem of sin preceded Jesus by centuries, as recorded in the accounts known as the Old Testament, which everyone agrees were relied upon by those who developed the accounts of Jesus. So Jesus didn’t invent the problem. But he did solve it, through a very significant self-sacrifice.

And if anyone thinks Jesus invented the very human problem of death, which he also solved through the cross and the resurrection, that person is in no condition to assess anything about this argument.

3c. “We have a story that was transmitted orally for decades as it moved from Jewish culture into a new Greek culture (which already had examples of dying-and-rising gods, virgin birth, and other elements found in the gospel story), and you can’t see how legend could explain this?”

I need to at least mention that there are severe problems with all supposed parallels between the Jesus account and the mythologies he alludes to. But that’s actually not so important in this context. What’s important is that he’s offered a rebuttal to something I never said. (Yawn)

For I’m not saying (in this argument) that it’s hard to explain a new religion arising by those means. I’m saying it’s hard to see how legendary processes could explain the single most perfect account, repeated perfectly in four versions, of the one most powerful and self-sacrificial person in all human literature.

I thought his blog post was supposed to be about my argument. This part of it sure isn’t.

3d. “He marvels at the power of the gospel story, but why is that surprising? It was polished through retellings for decades before being written, and then reinterpreted for centuries.”

“Polished”? Really? No knowledgeable person would describe the telephone game as “polishing.” Cognitive dissonance reduction techniques, being essentially psychopathological, aren’t bound to lead to highly ethical, “polished” characters as an outcome, either.

Despite Seidensticker’s blithe assertions, no other legend-building community has produced a character like Jesus. Neither has any literary genius. Ever. There is no evidence that any person or community can do this. Yet he thinks we should be unsurprised by it?

And this idea of centuries of reinterpretation is simply false. The accounts of Jesus, in terms of his power and sacrifice, have been understood with near-perfect consistency throughout time, at least among people who take the account as worthy of study.

4. There are lots of good things Jesus didn’t do, like stopping slavery, for example; and some bad things he did do, like requiring faith without evidence.

Seidensticker has the “faith without evidence” story completely wrong, for one thing. He’s got all his examples wrong, actually, and I’ve dealt with them all on this blog at one time or another.

But again, it’s not necessary to rebut every point he tries to make under this heading.

Imagine you’re walking on the beach and you see a large diamond. You want to know how it got there. You don’t say, “It doesn’t mean anything – look at all the sand here!” You notice it for its uniqueness regardless of anything base, ordinary, or even (possibly, for beaches may have dead fish on them) putrefying.

Similarly, the accounts record Jesus as being extremely, remarkably, uniquely other-centered, for one who had so much power. That one fact, that one superbly bright shining facet of his character — so completely unlike all others in history and literature — demands explanation. Whether Seidensticker sees sand and dead fish in the accounts or not, this one fact is still like that diamond on the beach. It’s not easily explained through legend. It needs some other explanation.

Summary

I’d still like to see what would happen if some atheist or skeptic took a serious run at the argument. Seidensticker thinks he’s dismantled it, but if there’s anything he’s rebutted successfully here, it’s been something else, and not my argument at all.

He’s pretty triumphalistic about it anyway. I suppose I should congratulate him for rebutting something. Yes, there are some bad reasons for believing in Jesus, and yes, he’s shown they’re bad. I only wish he’d bothered to try responding to the argument he said he was answering. it would have been a lot more relevant. Possibly even more interesting.

 

The image shown above is an engraving by John Warner Barber, from the 1821 book The life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ : containing a full, accurate, and universal history from his taking upon himself our nature to his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension: together with the lives, transactions, and sufferings of his holy evangelists, apostles, disciples, and other primitive martyrs. To which is added the history of the Jews, etc. by John Fleetwood.

It’s only fair to note that Seidensticker has violated this blog’s comment policies often in the past, to the point that I’ve had to disinvite him from commenting here. I am not planning to make this post an exception to that rule. He’s free to answer on his own blog, and I expect he will. I hope he’ll take the time to consider carefully and respond, rather than react.

Comments

  1. Clark Coleman

    When weighing the magnitude of the sacrifice that Jesus made, consider what it would mean to a mere mortal to know for many years in advance that you were going to be crucified. What would that knowledge do to you? Yet, Jesus was hardly a picture of anxiety during his ministry. Which other ancient literary character knew of his torturous, painful death for many years in advance and marched on towards it? The “bad weekend” jibe is shallow and silly.

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  3. Travis

    Tom,

    I look at your argument in the same way that I examine C.S. Lewis’s “argument from desire.” Having become a Christian I see that the premises and conclusion are true, but the argument provides little brute force against someone predisposed to trying to contrive some reason to oppose the argument out of hand. I notice the same thing with variations of the cosmological argument. While the Kalam variant is the simplest version to articulate in a short period of time, Aquinas’s version is actually (to me at least) the more beautiful and rationally compelling of the two- but it requires an understanding of Aristotelian metaphysics to differentiate accidentally ordered cause and effect from essentially ordered cause and effect. Good luck getting an acerbic interlocutor to the point where they are able to understand the metaphysical nuances though. Generally it becomes quickly apparent whether or not one is trying to talk with someone in good faith.

    I don’t consider Mr. Seidensticker to be someone willing to have a good faith dialogue. In his latest two posts his puts forward his “ten tough questions for Christians” several of which ultimately are reducible to the argument from evil, the argument from the hiddenness of God, or blatant misunderstandings of Christian doctrine (“blind” faith) not to mention tacitly embracing long discredited Jesus mytherism.

    When I confronted Bob over his statement that there were no such things as objective moral truths, I was able to draw him into contradicting himself. He said that that some acts are “wrong regardless of what anyone thinks.” When I asked him how that could be if all ethical positions were contingent upon our private opinions (with nobody’s opinion carrying any more inherent value than any other) I was dismissed and given the perma-ban hammer.

    If someone is willing to accept absolutely despicable premises such as the idea that right and wrong are nothing more than matters of subjective opinion, they are either neophytes who haven’t realized the implications of what they are saying, or straight up sociopaths who understand but do not care.

    Have you considered putting the “too good to be false” argument into the form of a logical poly-syllogism? That might be a better way to clarify.

  4. Philmonomer

    He said that that some acts are “wrong regardless of what anyone thinks.”

    Could you point me to this exchange? Thank you.

  5. Philmonomer

    Can you help me see the contradiction?

    I understood his statement to mean (within context), “I think (or something like “Everyone here thinks”) child rape is wrong regardless of what anyone [else] thinks.”

    It isn’t immediately obvious to me that this is a contradiction.

  6. Travis

    @Philmonomer

    Bob S. was arguing as a moral anti-realist, that all moral statements are actually just subjective opinions which reflect our own attitudes rather than telling us anything about the real world. Moral right and wrong are simply social constructs then, with each of us having our own “personal” moral truth.

    In his statement he made the admission that certain actions were wrong regardless of what anyone thought. This is to make a statement about the wrongness of an action that transcends subjectivism because it seeks to classify that wrongness as irrespective of subjective opinion. He is changing his tune from saying that everyone has their own personal moral truth, to saying that X is THE moral truth.

    It’s a contradiction in terms because he’s trying to have it both ways. Either it is simply his own personal truth, or it is THE truth. It cannot be both.

    You’ll notice that some of his minions noticed the catch and tried to start making excuses (“it’s intra-subjective!” whatever that means).

  7. BillT

    3c. “He marvels at the power of the gospel story, but why is that surprising? It was polished through retellings for decades before being written, and then reinterpreted for centuries.”

    3d. “We have a story that was transmitted orally for decades as it moved from Jewish culture into a new Greek culture (which already had examples of dying-and-rising gods, virgin birth, and other elements found in the gospel story), and you can’t see how legend could explain this?”

    It should also be pointed out this these arguments contain a number of errors. Seidensticker wants to play fast and loose to the whole idea of legendary development. Legendary development or mythology is a heavily studied and documented academic literary form. We know that the time frame for their development isn’t decades it’s centuries. Why? Because you can’t develop a mythological story when the eyewitnesses to the events are still alive. This is what is true of the New Testament stories. They were written during the lifetime of (and often by) the eyewitnesses to the stories they record.

    Notice also the “polished through retellings for decades before being written, and then reinterpreted for centuries”. But what we know is that the New Testament is the best attested ancient text in existence. It’s historicity is far better than the texts we count on for our information about the Roman Empire or other similarly dated events. We know that the text we now have is 99+% accurate to the original manuscript and that majority of it was written within 30/40 years and all of it written within 60 years of Christ’s life. The “polishing” and “reinterpretation” claims are simply not valid.

    It has been a basic tactic of the skeptic crowd to misstate details of academic and historic facts. They count on the fact that not many people know about the academic elements of mythology or the historicity of the New Testament. It may well be that Mr. Seidensticker doesn’t either. He certainly doesn’t represent them fairly if he does.

  8. Philmonomer

    Travis,

    Bob S. was arguing as a moral anti-realist, that all moral statements are actually just subjective opinions which reflect our own attitudes rather than telling us anything about the real world. Moral right and wrong are simply social constructs then, with each of us having our own “personal” moral truth.

    It strikes me that something can be both subjective, and tell us things about “the real world.” For example, I believe the concepts of “tall” and “short,” as relate to a person’s height, is a subjective experience, such that they are contingent upon a number of factors (such as your shared cultural experience, your expectation, your understandings, etc.) I don’t think that there are “objectively” tall people out there (whatever “objectively” here means). However, if you lined up 1000 random American adults by height, the person on the far end (say) would be tall, and the person on the near end would be short. If you tried to argue that the person on the far end is actually short, you would be, simply, wrong. It wouldn’t be a matter of “well, it’s all just subjective, and so no one is wrong.” You would be wrong.

    That said, “tallness” IS still subjective. There is no “objective” tallness out there that exists. In that line of 1000 people, you would get different opinions as to where the “tall people” start (does it start at person 758? 802?). Moreover, if you get a whole different category of people (say, Germans), there might be whole different concepts of tall and short. But, again, you can still be wrong, by calling the person near the (either) end of the line the wrong thing.

    Furthermore, if I tell you, “My friend is Dan, he’s tall.” I am giving you real information about him, that is useful. It isn’t simply a subjective opinion that is meaningless to you. You can pick him out of a crowd, for example.

    Can’t I think that Dan is tall, regardless of what anyone else thinks? Moreover, can’t everyone else be overcome by some sort of mass delusion (say), and they wrongly then believe that Dan is not-tall? So it strikes me that I can say something like my moral opinion is subjective (in the same sense that “tallness” is subjective), but everyone else can still be wrong.

    What do you think?

  9. BillT

    Philmonomer,

    If I may, I think you have made a pretty good point but it may still fall a bit short when applied to morality instead of height. If you say “tall” is #758 and I say “tall” is #802 well we’re both subjectively right. And yes, we can both say “My friend is Dan, he’s tall.” and impart useful information though we don’t have the same subjective beliefs about what tall is.

    However, if the question is a moral one, can we disagree about what is moral but still and impart useful information about morality. I’ll try not to pick some extreme example to describe conflicting moral positions. Let’s say it’s my subjective belief is that lying in a certain context is ok because of those circumstances and your subjective belief is that circumstances can never play a part in deciding if lying is ok then where are we. Can we both say “My friend is Dan, he’s honest.” and impart useful information about Dan.

    Perhaps I just haven’t thought up a correct circumstance where conflicting subjective moral beliefs would still be useful in describing a moral position. Would you have a suggestion.

  10. Travis

    @ Philmonomer

    @ BillT

    Tallness is relative, not subjective.

    If I were to give you two sticks, one 5 inches long and another 6 inches long and asked you which one was the “taller” of the two you would have to say that the latter stick is longer, and therefore the taller of the two. Any reference to the “tallness” of something is implicitly making that reference within a relative scale.

    Subjectivity is something altogether different.

  11. Philmonomer

    Sure tallness may be relative (sometimes), but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s subjective.

    Dan is taller than Alex is a relative comparison. “Dan is a tall man” is a subjective assessment of Dan.

    Goodness too may be relative (sometimes), sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s subjective.

    It is better to kill a mosquito than a man. “Eating only non-meat are good acts” is a subjective assessment.

  12. Philmonomer

    Travis,

    In any case, when we say “X is a bad act,” aren’t we really comparing it to the whole universe of possible acts, and finding that it falls somewhere on a spectrum of good to bad? “Child rape is a bad act” then falls on one end of the spectrum.

    So even if “Dan is a tall man” is implicitly making a reference within a relative scale, why isn’t “Child rape is a very bad act” also implicitly making a reference within such a scale?

    Thoughts?

  13. Travis

    @ Philmonomer

    No, “Dan is a tall man” is an implicit reference to Dan’s height relative to other men. The point of reference is the heights of other men, not contingent upon the whim of the speaker. If Dan is in fact far under-average then people will rightly conclude that the speaker is either a liar or doesn’t understand the relative heights of men very well.

    “Goodness” as I use and intend the term refers to something quite real. This is because there is at least one moral statement which describes a real, intrinsic truth that is true regardless of anyone’s opinion concerning it.

    All things being equal, yes it is objectively better to kill a mosquito than a human person. This fact is not just a matter of “personal taste” based on anyone’s opinion. It is actually true because human beings actually have moral rights while mosquitoes do not. The free decision as to whether or not to consume meat is something I would consider to be a matter of subjective taste. There is nothing wrong with being a vegetarian or vice versa as long as it does not endanger anyone’s health.

    How do you conclude what actions fall on what “range” of your spectrum? Whatever you answer will be what you actually consider to be the metric for “right” and “wrong.”

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  15. scbrownlhrm

    “….Dan is taller than Alex is a relative comparison. “Dan is a tall man” is a subjective assessment of Dan….”

    This only concedes that on Non-Theism there is no Metric that is in fact reason’s terminus. As in:

    “Dan is good — FULL STOP.”

    That stopping point is in fact eternally open-ended (…see [3] below…). In the end all Men and all Acts qualify. The move of bracketing [“Mankind”] only kicks the can down the road. Aristotle’s famous doctrine that all practical reasoning must find a terminus discovers reason, appetites, will, and reality converging in the following:

    [1] https://www.str.org/blog/how-aristotle-can-help-christian-morality-part-1#comment-3334909619

    [2] https://www.str.org/blog/how-aristotle-can-help-christian-morality-part-3#comment-3343579900

    [3] https://www.str.org/blog/how-aristotle-can-help-christian-morality-part-3#comment-3334908474

  16. scbrownlhrm

    The elephant in the room is impossible to miss if one only pauses and thinks for a moment. The Story — the Metanarrative — which arrives in and by Christ has nothing to do with what Bob is inexplicably zeroed in on. Let’s take Prometheus. Bob speaks as if [1] the Metanarrative under review is of a Strong-Man sort of being and of [2] a make-believe fairy tale in which the contingent somehow — as if by magic — does not in fact NEED the Necessary (…the supposed problem which Christ supposedly invents and the solves…).

    Regarding [1] — the Metanarrative is not about a being at all. It’s not about any being among beings, but about the irreducible grain of Being/Reality Itself in and by the Trinitarian Life and (thereof) love’s ceaseless self-giving.

    Regarding [2] — as Contingent Beings we in all possible worlds necessarily NEED. The question of Salvation just is the question of Man’s volitional motion at that interface amid Contingency / Necessity — amid Self / Other — amid Insufficiency / All-Sufficiency.

    God could lie and pretend to reveal Man’s lack of All-Sufficiency and thereby affirm a logical impossibility. Or, instead, we can find the logically necessary in The Message infused into the consciousness of Mankind through the Metanarrative under review.

  17. scbrownlhrm

    Hmm… Correction:

    God could lie and pretend to reveal Man’s lack of In-Sufficiency and thereby affirm a logical impossibility. Or, instead, we can find the logically necessary […the Contingent (Man) subsisting on the Necessary (God)…] in The Message infused into the consciousness of Mankind through the Metanarrative under review.

  18. Travis

    @scbrownlhrm

    Drawing upon the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, the key phrase is that God is “ipsum esse subsistens” or “subsistent being itself.”

    The fact that many atheists appear to understand Christian claims about God as if they were claims about a contingent being (in the same pattern as “Thor” or “Zeus”) really just reveals their lack of familiarity. They will, of course, not stand to be told that they don’t know what they are talking about because from their perspective the simplistic sunday-school grasp of Christian theology is more than sufficient. Most Christians, after all, do not have the ability to articulate that God is subsistent being itself. This underlines the necessity of educating Christians to the point where theology can be pursued for its own sake rather than being viewed as the dusty province of clergy and academics.

    I think that this isn’t just a problem within academia too. I think that Americans have gradually become more anti-intellectual over time as media saps the attention span of the typical iPhone user.

  19. scbrownlhrm

    @ Travis ~

    …the key phrase is that God is “ipsum esse subsistens” or “subsistent being itself”….

    Well said & very helpful. Using that as the metric against which the relative statures of “straw-men” are measured against helps carry such definitions into the demands of the actual or proper terminus for the Christian metaphysic ~~

    :-}

  20. Travis

    @scbrownlhrm

    Have you by any chance caught the talk this weekend between William Lane Craig and Bishop Robert Barron?

    https://www.facebook.com/BishopRobertBarron/videos/1640096029362851/

    One of the big points it making Christianity intelligible to the laity and pointing out that Christianity has deep philosophical roots going back to the very inception of western civ. The story that Bishop Barron tells of the radio host telling him in an interview (after throwing some of the usual Hitchens-esque questions at him) that “at least these new atheists have made you Christians think about questions like these for the first time” is quite telling.

    I don’t see how things can get better until apologetics gets mainstreamed within Christian catachesis. I think Tom has been a big proponent of that for a while now based on some of the talks I have seen by him.

    @Tom

    If you have the time or have already seen the aforementioned talk- maybe you could share some of your thoughts on it? Maybe it would be a fertile topic for a new post.

  21. Tom Gilson

    Sounds good. I’ll give it a look. This business of “for the first time” is outrageous — not to mention inexcusably ignorant.

    I just co-presented a talk with Tim McGrew in New Orleans on early apologetics — early, as in 2nd and 3rd century. There’s not much new under the sun. Read Origen, Contra Celsus, (or skim it, at least, it’s lo-o-ong). It could have almost been written “Contra Hitchens,” it covers so much of the same ground.

  22. Travis

    @Tom

    Is there any repository of your public talks where I can find your latest talk with Mr. McGrew? I’m only aware of your youtube page and your posted talks there concerning Mr. Boghossian.

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    Tom Gilson

    Most of my talks either haven’t been recorded, Travis, or else they’re behind paywalls. Here are two places to look for the few that are easy to find, though:

    Vimeo and YouTube

    There’s not much there, I’m afraid. The YouTube list should grow as soon as NOBTS releases the most recent video.

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