Tom Gilson

Does Too Good to be False Make the Muslims’ Mistake, ‘It’s Perfect, So It Must Be From God’?

Most people responding to Too Good to be False so far have been Christians telling the surprise and delight they’ve experienced in it by seeing Jesus in a new light. There’s more to it than that, though, in Part 2, where I build on this fresh view of Jesus, and make a completely new contribution (new to this generation, especially) to our reasons to trust in the historicity of the Gospels.

Those who’ve commented on that part have mostly been skeptics and atheists. They’ve heard me give interviews on the book. They’ve been delighted to jump on me for mistakes they think I’ve made in my argument. Paulogia was particularly gleeful to “show” how my own friend David Wood had proved me wrong — because Paulogia thought my book was an embarrassing re-hash of the invalid Islamic argument that the Qur’an is divine because it’s a perfect document.

I hate to disappoint these happy atheists, but I’m not embarrassed that easily. That is, I would be if I’d made that mistake, but I didn’t. My argument bears no resemblance to that one at all. Not even close.

The Muslim Argument for the Qur’an

The Muslim argument starts from the perfection of the Qur’an. The argument fails on the subjectivity of the evidence. Simply stated, there are lots of reasons not to regard the Qur’an as perfect.

I won’t get into arguments over errors or contradictions in it. It’s enough to say that this “perfection” is either circularly defined, or else it’s not defined at all. There’s no independent specification to which one can compare the Qur’an and conclude that it hits the mark perfectly without fail on every point. The quality of the language? That’s subjective. The accuracy of the theology? Muslims only know it’s accurate if they know the Qur’an is perfect, which is obviously circular.

Mistakes Not Made

The case I make in Too Good to be False is different in just about every possible sense. It’s not an argument in the first place that the Bible is perfect. Christians often believe that’s true, and I happen to believe in the Bible’s inerrancy, but that has nothing to do with the case I make here. It’s not necessary as a premise and it’s not in the conclusion I draw. So that’s one major difference.

I come relatively close to an argument from perfections seen in the character of Jesus, but here again, I don’t move from that to the conclusion that the Bible is true. That would be a leap too far, the kind that some skeptics have happily laughed at me for making — except I didn’t do that.

I’ve said repeatedly that this is a new argument. It’s very safe to say that if you haven’t read this book, you don’t know what it is, and you won’t guess it, either. It took 150 pages of the book to present it, explain it, provide the supporting evidence, differentiate it from other arguments, and anticipate and answer skeptical objections. I won’t be able to reproduce that here, but I can at least state the kind of argument it is, so that the skeptics can quit wondering why I’ve reproduced the Muslims’ argument.

Outlining the Argument I Do Make

Here it is, then, in a nutshell. In it’s shortest possible form, the question is, “Could this cause produce this effect?” where the cause is legendary development as skeptics tend to hypothesize, and where the effect is the existing story of Jesus — the accounts everyone agrees we have, which exist today in the form we call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

I could stop right there, and it should be evident that I’ve settled the question: This is not the same kind of argument Muslims make for the Qur’an. Not even close. Since I’m here, though, I’ll explain it just a bit further.

The Effect: The Story and Its Main Character

I take the story of Jesus seriously as a story. I ask what kind of story it is, and especially what kind of character Jesus displays in them. I pay little attention to plot points, and almost no attention at all to the miracle stories. It’s all about Jesus’ character, as presented in the story.

That examination occupies all of chapters 2 through 8, plus chapter 10 and a few other scattered places besides. The cumulative result is that Jesus’ character is in many ways very unexpected, very unique, extraordinarily good, and presented with complete consistency — not in every possible way, but at least with respect to the unexpected, unique, and extraordinarily good traits I’ve explored.

This is the kind of story we have: a story with that kind of person portrayed as its main character. That’s the effect that needs explaining. Now the question goes back to the cause. Is the skeptics’ proposed legendary development theory sufficient to explain that effect?

It’s important to note that this is still about a character in a story. The question I’m asking does not assume that such a character existed. That would be circular, it would be the kind of thing skeptics love to mock, and it’s a mistake this argument does not make.

The Skeptics Proposed “Cause”: Legendary Development

The next step, then, is to examine skeptics’ theories of where the story came from. Obviously skeptics are not unanimous in all of this, but a typical and common explanation would be that the story was birthed out of cognitive dissonance reduction practices Jesus’ followers apparently undertook after his death.

It grew through proselytization; it spread by oral transmission across much of the Roman Empire; it changed by “Telephone Game” effects as it went; and finally it landed in the four versions we call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which were written semi-independently, sharing some source material, but at different times and places, and with different political and theological purposes in mind.

My Conclusion: Their Cause Doesn’t Explain the Effect

My conclusion after looking at this in depth is that this is not the kind of cause that could produce the effect, the character of Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels.

That’s the form of the argument. I follow it up with some cleanup work, anticipating and answering likely objections.

Clarifying

Two things to note at this point:

First, someone will undoubtedly want to complain that I’ve done a poor job of making an argument here. I would agree I haven’t made a good argument, but that’s because I haven’t tried to make one at all. I’ve only outlined the form of it. Since it’s a new argument, it’s hard to call on common knowledge and speak it in shorthand. There’s no shortcut. I do not say this to sell books, but just because it’s fact: You have to read it to know what it is.

Second, one skeptic was aghast: “Could Tom possibly be unaware that the four Gospels present Jesus’ differently?” He need not have worried. This is very much common knowledge, and it doesn’t interfere with the argument I make. Yes, the four Gospels differ in their emphases, even to the point of highlighting different facets of Jesus’ character. They differ in which teachings they include, and they cover different plot points, especially in John. Nevertheless, the points of consistency I speak of in Jesus’ goodness, uniqueness, and unexpectedness remain, and they remain difficult to explain as the result of legendary evolution.

If I’m Right: Then What?

This all leads to one direct conclusion, if I’m right: Skeptics’ view of where the story came from is wrong. It’s wrong enough, they might possibly even have to start again from scratch to develop alternate explanations for the accounts of Jesus. Meanwhile the Christian view — that the accounts accurately report a life really lived — remains perfectly consistent with the stories we have. That in turn counts as significant evidence for the Gospels’ historicity.

It’s not conclusive, but it ought to give skeptics pause, at least; and again, if I’m right, it ought to get them scrambling to re-think where this unique and unexpected character Jesus,actually came from. They might even want to re-consider the possibility that the Christians’ explanation might be true after all.

Now if that still sounds to you like the Muslim’s argument for the Qur’an, I recommend you start over again and re-read what I wrote here.

I do need to address one final possible objection, though. In my interviews you may hear Christians saying things like “Jesus is so good. There’’s absolutely no way his story could have come from a human source! It had to have been real!” Take that completely out of context, and it almost sounds like what the Muslims say about the Qur’an. You do have to take it out of context to get there, though. Hopefully no skeptic is so inhuman as to deny us the joy of exuberance in conversation. For our part, we are not so confused as to think that exuberance equals argument.

Image Credit(s): Jazmin Quaynor/Unsplash.

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"Engaging… exhilarating.… This might be the most surprising and refreshing book you’ll read this year!" — Lee Strobel

"Too Good To Be False is almost too good to be true!" — Josh McDowell

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