Refutation Fail: Benjamin Cain Utterly Destroys an Argument I Didn’t Make
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.
I find Cain’s argument against the “perfect self-sacrifice” argument to be especially weak. Cain argues that since Jesus knew that he would be resurrected, that his death on the cross was not a sacrifice. Jesus was both human and divine. Crucifixion is the most painful and psychologically degrading form of execution known to humankind throughout history. It was torture, that usually lasted for days before death ended the person’s suffering. Jesus knew that he would suffer. He also knew that because of his moral perfection, his execution on the cross was a great injustice. And because he was divine and in possession of perfect intelligence, he could have taken steps to avoid his trial and execution. But he did not. Remember his words in the garden of Gethsemane where he asks that this “cup” (of suffering) pass from his lips. But then he says to God, Thy will be done. He submitted to God’s will to accomplish God’s purpose. So Jesus’s knowledge that God would raise him from the grave cannot diminish the sacrifice of submitting to the unjust suffering and torture he was subjected to by the Roman and Jewish authorities. So, IOW, Cain’s argument displays a serious misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the core message of the Gospel.
“Matthew, Luke, and even John copied from Mark. The later authors themselves added the parts that are original to their gospels”. I am not sure exactly what that is supposed to mean. In one sense it is a statement of the obvious. Of course the authors added the parts that are original to their Gospels. The question is whether they were making up the original material (as he seems to be suggesting) or drawing on existing tradition. The claim that they were inventing all of the extra material is made by mythicists. It is not made by any reputable scholar.
There are good reasons for thinking that Matthew, Luke and John have knowledge that is independent of Mark. They all incorporate details of the setting which are not found in Mark. Pete J. Williams’ book is particularly informative on that subject.
I don’t know whether this person is a mythicist but he certainly appears to be using their hackneyed arguments.
Who says I read your book? My article isn’t a book report. I simply address some crucial assumptions you’d have to make to support the only relevant conclusion that would be a threat to skepticism/atheism/philosophical naturalism.
That conclusion is that the story of Jesus in the gospels must be historically accurate, in which case it has a supernatural origin. The assumptions that get you to that conclusion are that the story is too good, that is too moral, unique, and consistent to be explained in any other way.
My article addresses all those assumptions, showing that the story isn’t so miraculous or naturally inexplicable after all. Thus, in the article I call the argument that I address the “underlying” one in your book.
Regarding the goodness of Jesus’ character, I point out that the moral assessment would be subjective and dependent on a model of heroism. Yours comes from Christianity since you assume the greatness of altruism and self-sacrifice. And you ignore that whole section from my article.
I address the so-called uniqueness of a story that focusses on a perfect sacrifice and on Jesus’s altruism. I point to lots of forerunners of sacrificial deaths, the most obvious and important of which is just the entire ancient history of the Jewish people as they understood it. Jews regarded themselves as the chosen ones, compared to non-Jews, which meant not that God gave them the power to rule the world, but the opposite: God tested their faith by making them nomads and periodically conquered by idolatrous empires.
So the Jews as a people saw themselves as a sacrificial offering for God; they sacrificed their earthly happiness for love of God; they suffered out of righteousness (out of their faithfulness to the covenant). You haven’t even begun to deal with the naturalistic basis of the gospel-writers’ idea of self-sacrifice, as it’s embodied in the Jesus character.
Regarding the perfection of Jesus’s character as it’s told in the gospels (as opposed to the abstract concept of self-sacrifice), I point out that Jesus’s sacrifice is flawed because it’s not tragic. He resurrects and ascends to Heaven. From the standpoint of anyone looking for a perfect human sacrifice, the fact that in the story Jesus triumphs over death takes away much of the power of his sacrifice. Especially if you know you’re going to triumph in the end, that knowledge will give you the strength to endure the suffering. Mind over matter. So Jesus’s sacrifice isn’t so absolute, as told in the gospels.
Regarding the consistency of the portraits in the gospels, I point to what anyone who studies the New Testament already knows, which is that the consistency might be miraculous or a threat to skepticism or atheism only if the gospels were independent of each other. But they’re not, as the synoptic problem shows. Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, so that’s where their consistency comes from. Evidently, Matthew and Luke wanted to improve on Mark in relatively minor ways, not to rewrite virtually the whole thing. That natural fact alone accounts for all the points of consistency you raise.
Arguably, John also had Mark in front of him, but the author of John decided to rewrite that gospel in a more radical way. Thus, his portrait is much less consistent with that of the synoptic gospels. You point to one author who says John and the synoptics are quite consistent. I can appeal to the rest of the scholarly community that says otherwise, since it’s standard to notice that John’s Jesus doesn’t act or speak like the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Just read them and see for yourself.
I could add that even if the gospels were independent and yet consistent in their presentation of Jesus’s heroic and spiritual character, that wouldn’t necessarily require positing the truth of Christianity. There may be psychological and sociological patterns (archetypes) in how legends and myths arise, which account for the commonalities not just in the gospels but in religious stories all around the world. See, for example, Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey.
Now you want to ding my criticisms for failing to deal with the logic of what you call your book’s argument. As you summarize it in your response, that logic is the appeal to the best explanation. But that inference to the Christian conclusion is hardly a threat to atheists, so you should be thankful I tried to steel-man your underlying argument.
The claim that the Christian appeal to a miraculous origin of the gospels’ stories of Jesus is more “plausible,” as you put it in your response, than the skeptic’s naturalistic explanation founders on Occam’s razor and on David Hume’s reasoning against the appeal to miracles. All of the above already shows that the goodness, uniqueness, and consistency of the gospels’ stories aren’t so naturally inexplicable. That means there’s no anomaly that requires us to posit a miraculous cause. Any naturalistic account of how the gospel stories came to be will be superior to a miraculous one, on epistemic grounds. That’s just an application of Occam’s razor. If you want to talk causality, you’re in the naturalist’s wheelhouse which was built by modern science, so good luck with that mode of inference.
Of course, you oversimplify the skeptical explanations of the legends and myths in the gospels since there’s hardly just one such explanation. There are many (because the historical evidence is so meager and equivocal), but indeed they’d be united in not positing anything miraculous or supernatural. So for example, these non-Christian accounts would remind us how legends tend to form and to get more unrealistic and absolute in the telling. That’s what we see from Mark (and Q) to John. John’s is the more theologically elaborate account, although as Burton Mack showed, Mark isn’t as naïve and as innocent of theological preconceptions as previously believed.
The naturalistic accounts would point also to all the literary borrowing and transvaluations found in the gospels, from the Jewish scriptures and from Greek texts and traditions. The idea of the gospel authors was to show how Jesus is superior to various heroic figures from history, legend, and myth, such as Moses, Elisha, or a dying-and-rising god. To do that, you need to borrow the former story and retell it in a way that presents Jesus as accomplishing roughly the same feat but in a better, that is, more enlightened or Jewish way. That’s why we see the gospels taking the details and plot points from the Jewish scriptures (such as from Isaiah 53) and from other stories. Jesus fulfills and transcends the expectations.
For example, instead of saying that the gospels report the occurrence of actual miraculous healings, critical scholars say Mark simply drew his miracle stories from the Jewish exploits of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. It’s not like the gospel stories are so original that there were no previous accounts of miraculous deeds.
Again, the reason I don’t address the more specific points of greatness that you find so dazzling is that they’re red herrings. You presuppose the validity of Christian ideals in calling attention to the greatness of the distinguishing features of the Christian narrative. Moreover, the interpretations of the literary content of the gospel stories will be subjective, having no objective basis for deciding between them. But I’ll address these details here if you like.
You say none of the gospels portrays Jesus “using his extraordinary power for his own benefit.” But as my article says, that’s not so since everything Jesus says and does contributes to his pleasing of God the Father, which enables the Father to reward Jesus with resurrection and ascension to Heaven. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t selfishly have himself in mind when he helps other people, but the fact remains that he would have believed his moral deeds would have pleased God and that because God himself is righteous, God would reward him for being good. That’s precisely what Jesus taught his followers: the last would be first and the first would be last.
So this point of consistency need hardly be accounted for only by a miracle. What’s so miraculous about helping others to indirectly help yourself? That type of character acts out of enlightened self-interest, which is common in ordinary human experience.
You say none of the gospels shows Jesus ‘speaking of “Our Father,” except when he tells the disciples to do so.’ I don’t really see the point of this. Are you saying the gospels depict Jesus as assuming that he’s fatherless or that he’s identical to God the Father, whereas everyone else depends on God the Father for their creation? Yet Mark 10:18 shows Jesus chastising a man for calling him (Jesus) good since only God is good, according to Jesus. Are you saying the gospels are consistent in depicting Jesus as identical to God? There’s no such clear depiction. Hence the debates between Christians about the meaning of that thesis, and the ongoing heretical interpretations.
You say none of the gospels shows Jesus faltering in forgiveness. Yet Mark 3:28-29 says otherwise: a sin against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven since that’s an eternal sin.
You say none of the gospels portrays Jesus as having faith. Really? How about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he doubts his mission but finds the courage to carry on with his sacrificial death? “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he tells his followers in Mark 14, but he prays, ‘“Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”’ How is that not a case of Jesus carrying on out of implicit faith found through prayer?
By the way, that’s another example of Jesus referring to God the Father as someone other than himself. See also Mark 15:34, where Jesus alludes to Psalm 22 in asking God why he’s forsaken him.
You say none of the gospels shows Jesus ‘saying “Thus says the Lord,” or relying in any way on any authority but his own.’ Yet the Gethsemane story does the opposite, since Jesus says, “not what I will, but what you will.” Only in John, the later gospel, is Jesus emphatic and explicit about his oneness with God, but even in that gospel the relationship is elaborate and confusing (because the thesis of the Incarnation is self-contradictory).
In any case, even if the gospels were all united around saying that Jesus was God incarnate, there would be a naturalistic explanation of how that idea arose for Jews: syncretism with Greco-Roman culture, with the dying-and-rising god mytheme, Greek metaphysics, and so on. Philo had carried out just such syncretic thinking with his conception of the Logos.
You say none of the gospels shows Jesus deliberating with himself. Again, the prayer at Gethsemane arguably does otherwise. But this is just a red herring. Both the Jews and the Greeks had lots of stories of heroes acting heroically. Have you gone through them all to check whether any of them presents its hero as perfectly flawless? And even if a hero comes across as somehow flawed in the story, that flaw might add to the drama and make the hero relatable to the human readers. Who would have the final word on what counts as a character flaw (unless we’re talking about pure evil)? One person’s weakness may be another’s strength. In the gospels, Jesus’s spirituality and altruism appeared weak to Jews who were expecting a rebellious, political messiah, as those qualities would have appeared to the actual pragmatic and mighty Romans (as opposed to the Christianized Romans presented in the New Testament).
The point is that there’s no need to explain this Christian consistency by appealing to a miraculous origin, since different cultures have different models of heroism as a matter of natural fact. Christianity represented a merger of the Jewish and Greco-Roman models. No miracle necessary.
Moreover, the gospels avoid showing Jesus’s inevitable flaws and humanity by leaving them out of the story. Thus, Jesus’s childhood and teen years are left out, in which Jesus would had to have learned to walk and to talk and so forth by trial and error. The gospels don’t talk about Jesus defecating or farting either, since those aspects of his humanity would come across as inevitable flaws. Did Jesus cry out in pain while he was being tortured and executed? If he did, would that have been a flaw as opposed to a sign of invulnerable, supernatural heroism? Or was his humanity part of his charm and of his brand of heroism since Jesus was a hybrid between a mortal and an immortal? Again, the answers are arbitrary and subjective, so this is a red herring.
You say none of the gospels shows Jesus looking to anyone for advice. Big deal. No need to posit a miracle to explain any such consistency, since the gospels leave out Jesus’s formative years in which he would likely have learned from others how to walk, talk, eat, wipe his butt, and so on and so forth. They cut to when Jesus has already gone through his education.
Besides, there are lots of ordinary people who are arrogant, who think they know everything and don’t ask anyone for advice. That’s a familiar human character, so there’s no need to posit a supernatural origin of such a literary representation of that character.
You say, “No Gospel shows his humanity disappearing under his deity, or his deity being lost in his humanity.” Again, the gospels would do that in part just by leaving out Jesus’s early years and other awkward details like Jesus’ dealing with his digestion.
In any case, this is wholly subjective. What would count as deity being lost to his humanity? Wouldn’t dying on the cross do that? His divinity is regained when he’s resurrected, but that happens afterward. Thus, for all the time he spends in the tomb, he’s presented as being dead like a mortal. Likewise, descending to earth in the first place is arguably a matter of his divinity taking a backseat to his humanity. And what counts as divinity in the human Jesus? His miracles and his wisdom, presumably, but those are presented as being relatively limited. Why didn’t Jesus heal a billion people all around the world? Why didn’t he teach his followers about quantum mechanics? Aren’t those cases of his humanity overshadowing his deity?
Again, this evaluation of the story is entirely subjective. Basing your case for Christianity on this kind of literary analysis suffers from this inherent weakness, which is that literature is subject to multiple, often incompatible interpretations, with no objective way to correct them (without begging the question). That’s why in my article I don’t chase after these red herrings.
I’d add that Luke 1:35 specifically says that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Jesus’s mother, thus accounting for his miraculous birth, since she was supposedly a virgin. How is that not a case of his deity overtaking his humanity?
By the way, your book isn’t the first to treat the Bible as fictional literature. Jack Miles does so in “God: A Biography” and “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.” And as for my books, I wrote one novel and several anthologies that simply collect my many philosophical articles from my blog and from Medium.
Benjamin, your whole answer is one colossal waste of time. You begin by acknowledging you didn’t read the book, then, “I simply address some crucial assumptions you’d have to make to support the only relevant conclusion that would be a threat to skepticism/atheism/philosophical naturalism.”
My book presents novel arguments you haven’t seen before. They put a serious challenge to the skeptical view of Jesus Christ. If you want to address that, please do. If not, then take your ramblings somewhere else.
My article here shows how you failed to address my assumptions. Yet you dig in. Forget about it.
You’ve strawmanned my argument. I don’t say Jesus’s foreknowledge and lack of a truly tragic ending mean “that his death on the cross was not a sacrifice.” I say the implication is that the story of Jesus’s sacrificial death wasn’t perfect, absolute, or so unique as to require a supernatural explanation. If Jesus’s sacrifice were complete and tragic, with no happy ending, he’d be a much less heroic figure and few but pessimists and nihilists would want to follow his example.
Who says crucifixion is the worst way to die? Have you tried them all out and compared the methods of execution? The Catholic Church prepared many gruesome forms of torture for heretics in the Middle Ages. And you say the victims of crucifixion were usually left up for days, but Jesus was up for only around six hours, so doesn’t that mean he suffered less than most other victims of crucifixion?
You say Jesus was innocent. Do you have reason to believe that all the other crucified people under Rome deserved that punishment? Many were crucified because they were rebels against Roman oppression or authority. Would you want to live under ancient Roman occupation? If not, you should sympathize with the other victims and not pretend Jesus was the only innocent crucified individual.
Indeed, Matthew and Luke sometimes agree in what they add to Mark and sometimes they disagree. The agreements led many historical-critical scholars to posit the Q source. As for where Matthew and Luke go their own way in their additions to Mark, critical scholars (not just mythicists) point to how those additions are due to different coherent theological and political perspectives. Luke is the consummate catholic writer, smoothing over disagreements between different Christians. Matthew is fixated on showing that Jesus’s story is continuous with Judaism and with the Old Testament. The question is whether these additions are more likely to be historically accurate or expressions of the author’s particular agenda, as indicated by the distinctive coherence of the additions.
If you come from a Christian standpoint, I’d recommend holding back on dismissing the Jesus myth theory as harebrained, since every single supernatural element of Christianity comes across as much more so, given the modern paradigm shift into philosophical naturalism. The Jesus myth theory may or may not be well argued in certain formulations, but at least it doesn’t posit miracles. What’s more likely, that the Jesus story as depicted in the gospels actually happened exactly as told or that no such character lived in history and the story was pieced together from various sources? Occam’s razor provides the default answer.
“As for where Matthew and Luke go their own way in their additions to Mark, critical scholars (not just mythicists) point to how those additions are due to different coherent theological and political perspectives.”
Wrong. Scholars do not assume that material which is unique to Matthew or Luke has been invented. They posit additional sources, which are referred to as M and L. In some cases they may attribute unique material to the invention of Matthew and Luke but certainly not all. And, of course, the material shared by Matthew and Luke also requires an explanation. If there was a source, Q, used by both, how did it originate? Presumably, you would say that the author was simply making things up, but, again, that is not the view of scholars.
I don’t particularly want to get into a debate about mythicism. I will just point out that it is rejected by virtually all experts. The very fact that you either support it or are sympathetic to it tells me that you are not a serious thinker on this subject.
Benjamin, if you intend to continue these discussions here, I’ll ask you to state in no uncertain terms:
With respect to #5 — which I do expect you to acknowledge, since it’s true — I need to point you to item 3 here. This is not a forum for you to say just anything. You have your own for that.
Just in addition to what has been said the idea that the Gospels are legend or myth fails for a number of reasons. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, anyone who reads the Gospels and believes them to be mythical accounts simply doesn’t know how to read the English language. Further, the Gospels were written during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to the events they record. They would have been rejected out of hand if they didn’t accurately record the historical truths that those with first hand knowledge possessed. Mythical accounts are always written hundreds of years after the original events took place and avoid that impediment. And as Richard Bauckham points out in his seminal work “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” the Gospel writers are certainly recording eyewitness accounts. Thoughtful examination of the Gospels make this the most reasonable conclusion.
So as a Christian, I should follow “the modern paradigm shift into philosophical naturalism” because Benjamin Cain says so. Well, thanks for clearing that up.