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.
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.