Benjamin Cain is an atheist who “did a doctorate in philosophy.” If I can tell his books by their covers, he spends much of his time now writing dark fiction. He’s also done me the favor of reading and responding to Too Good to be False, which I certainly appreciate. I’d appreciate it more, though, if he’d actually responded to it. He didn’t.
He left a comment here last week to notify me, “I refute your book’s underlying argument here on Medium.” He refuted something, there’s no denying that. He stated an argument and took it apart most effectively, but it wasn’t my argument. He refuted some other argument instead. It’s odd how often that’s happened since the book was published. None of the atheists who’ve set out to dispute it have actually disputed it; they’ve aimed at something else instead.
Here’s how Cain appears to have read it, the argument he thinks he needs to counter:
The “concept of perfect self-sacrifice” is unique. (Italics his.)
Jesus displayed perfect altruism.
Jesus displayed moral perfection.
Thus, “the miracle of Jesus’s life spilled over as the Church’s impeccable preservation of its record and message.”
That’s his version of my argument, attached to that point he even says, “what Gilson wants to say, is that … .” Then he proceeds to say something I can’t imagine wanting to say, because it’s so obviously wrong, so easily refutable. Cain accomplishes that easy refutation, and congratulations to him for it. Too bad it has nothing to do with the argument I actually make.
The Real Version
The argument I make starts on page 102 with the obvious: the story of Jesus came from somewhere. (The first hundred pages or so serve a different purpose in the book, as I explain in chapter 1.)
Whatever disputes Christians and skeptics may have, we agree at least on this much: There is a story of Jesus. Not only that, but the story came from somewhere. Doesn’t seem like much of a start, does it? But it’s at least something — and in a very real sense it’s all we need. All it takes from there is filling in the details. Where did this astonishing, unique story /[per the first 8 chapters] come from? From the real life of a real person who really walked the earth? Or from the misty beginnings of a legend that grew up around who knows what?
The Christians’ answer, in other words, is that the Gospels are a faithful record of an incredibly unique human life actually lived. The skeptical version is that the Gospels are the product of decades of oral tradition passed across many countries and cultures, and filtered through varying theological and political lenses.
The next 22 pages of chapter 9 fill out the skeptics’ version, mostly in their own words. Chapter 10 challenges whether that version of the Gospels’ backstory fits the Gospels we have. In more general terms, we have an effect clearly in view: the character of Christ as displayed in the existing Gospels. We have two proposed causes of that effect. Which proposed cause is actually sufficient to the effect?
The argument I make is that Jesus’ recorded character is great enough in certain ways, unique enough in other ways, and consistent enough across all four accounts, that the skeptics’ version of where Jesus’ story seems completely implausible.
More Major Misses
Cain saw none of that. He addressed almost none of that (he did say something about consistency). He refuted none of that.
He takes aim at the “concept of perfect self-sacrifice,” which predates Jesus, he says; and besides, what’s so great about Jesus’ dying for us when he knew he was going to rise again? “Perfect self-sacrifice would entail the lack of any survival or reward for the victim.”
He missed all of chapter 2 and part of chapter 12, in which I emphasize Jesus’ total uniqueness as is the only character in all literature or history portrayed as having all power, and using all of his extraordinary power for others, never for himself. That’s a major point in the book. Cain rebutted some other, imagined, rendition of “perfect self-sacrifice,” not the one I presented.
Confused on Consistency
He denies Jesus’ perfect consistency of character, saying (as if it were relevant!) that “the somewhat gnostic Gospel of Thomas is unlike the wisdom sage from Q!” Admittedly, he also points at the canonical Bible, suggesting “Jesus’s character in John is notoriously unlike the Jesus of the synoptic gospels.” Lydia McGrew has a strong rebuttal for that, but I’ll give grace; the book hasn’t been published yet.
But that’s not even essential to my argument. It still rests on the multiple points on which I show Jesus’ character is consistent, and the corresponding question of whether that consistency fits the skeptics’ theory of where the Gospels came from.
To that, all he says is,
Matthew, Luke, and even John copied from Mark. The later authors themselves added the parts that are original to their gospels, and those parts frequently disagree with each other, since each author wrote with different theological and political agendas.
“Those parts” don’t disagree as much as he says, though. Adapting from page 136, which he ignores in every respect:
None of the authors, from Mark on, portray Jesus using his extraordinary power for his own benefit.
None of them show him speaking of “Our Father,” except when he tells the disciples to do so.
None of them shows him faltering in forgiveness.
None of them — very strikingly — says he had faith.
Not one of them shows him saying “Thus says the Lord,” or relying in any way on any authority but his own.
No Gospel shows him deliberating with himself.
Nowhere does any Gospel depict him looking for advice from anyone.
No Gospel shows his humanity disappearing under his deity, or his deity being lost in his humanity.
(Earlier chapters make the case for each of those points.)
Someday, Someone Will Try It. Not Yet, Though.
Cain misses even further when he says,
What Gilson wants to say is that the consistency is so striking as to be miraculous, that the miracle of Jesus’s life spilled over as the Church’s impeccable preservation of its record and message.… Contrary to Gilson’s argument, then, the upshot is that the consistency of Church behavior and of the Christian record can’t be so one-sided as to count as a miraculous proof of Christianity
If I’d wanted to say that I would have; but there’s no way I would have wanted it. It’s a bad argument, as Cain so astutely pointed out. It’s a bad argument, and I didn’t make it. I made a different one, which somehow he didn’t see.
The same sort of thing has happened with every attempted atheist rebuttal. My argument is there in plain view, but they don’t see it. Maybe it’s because it’s a very new argument, not one they’ve been primed to expect. Maybe they’re reading their preconceived notions instead of the book, even when they’ve got the book in their hands.
Someday some skeptic will attempt an actual response to my book. I look forward to that day, if and when it ever comes. Mr. Cain is welcome to try again. I hope he reads the book with a bit more care this time.
Image Credit(s): Katerina Kerdi//Unsplash.