Monday, January 8, 2018

Is Jesus Lord or Legend?

Tom Gilson, “a Christian strategy and communication specialist,” according to his Amazon webpage, formerly with the Campus Crusade for Christ (now called “Cru” to avoid the connotations of “crusade”) and Ratio Christi has an article out in a Christian journal called Touchstone. The article extends C.S. Lewis’s infamous Trilemma Argument, which Lewis intended as a rebuttal of the liberal view that you can admire Jesus’s moral caliber but deny Jesus’s divinity. That’s a non-starter, according to Lewis, because Jesus called himself divine. Thus, there are only three options: you either have to grant that Jesus was who he said he was, namely God, in which case you become a Christian, or you must condemn Jesus as a devil or a crackpot, that is, as a liar or a lunatic. You can’t have it both ways and accept some of what Jesus says (his moral teachings) while rejecting other parts of the gospel narratives (the parts where he indicates that he’s God).

Except that of course you can do that. Lewis seems to have forgotten that those who deny the Christian claim that Jesus was God naturally aren’t going to accept the Bible as God’s inerrant Word. Indeed, over the last two centuries, critical as opposed to dogmatic Bible scholars have shown how the legend of Jesus’s divinity would have built up over the decades after his death, such that the moral teachings in the gospels might go back to an historical Jesus while the more radical theological statements would have been added later by the early followers who were struggling to understand how their dear messiah could have been executed on the cross as a common criminal.

Gilson’s Argument against the Legend Hypothesis

Gilson’s argument is meant to shut down this “Legend” response to Lewis’s Trilemma. So Gilson argues that the early Christians couldn’t have invented the whole character of Jesus, that is, the character of someone who is perfectly moral (selfless, self-sacrificial, and other-directed) and perfectly powerful. Jesus’s sacrifice was “unique” and incomparable, according to Gilson, because Jesus sacrificed himself intentionally and from the very beginning, before his human incarnation, according to Philippians 2. Moreover, says Gilson, Jesus never used his supernatural power to benefit himself. Instead, his moral character is shown in how he laid aside his divine powers to sacrifice himself and save humanity from certain death (due to our original sin which forces God’s hand on Judgment Day). “By perfection,” writes Gilson, “I mean that there is no flaw in the consistency of the storyline, with respect to Jesus never using his power for his personal benefit.”

This is supposed to show how unlikely it was that the gospel writers invented Jesus’s character out of nothing, because everyone knows that power corrupts, so Jesus’s heroism is extremely counterintuitive. The gospel writers must have been Shakespearean geniuses to have conceived of such a fictional character. And Gilson doesn’t scruple about positing four separate gospel authors, to make the fiction seem all the more miraculous, as if the fiction had to have been created four times. Gilson acknowledges that “For the Gospel authors to have produced generally compatible pictures of Jesus would be no surprise: we can certainly assume that they worked interdependently, borrowing sources from each other, relying on common tradition, and so on. In the end, though, they all worked independently to some degree, and yet they all produced a character of unparalleled power and self-sacrifice, with no mar or imperfection of any sort.” Still, Gilson says that if Jesus were a fiction, “all four sources just happened to come up with a character of moral excellence beyond any other in all history or human imagination” (my emphasis). That’s contradictory, so Gilson is trying to have it both ways. If the synoptic gospels are interdependent, which they are, it was no accident that those gospels so closely resemble each other. They didn’t “just happen” to retain Jesus’s character. Luke and Matthew read it in Mark, and John’s likely independence explains why Jesus’s character in that later gospel is so different from the Jesus of the synoptic narratives. Whereas the synoptics are muted about Jesus’s divine role, in John Jesus is much more open and verbose about his relationship to the Father.

Gilson next shows how unlikely it would have been for the fiction to have developed by something like the Broken Telephone game, to have been orally transmitted before it was written down, and for the early Christian writers to have been motivated by the human need to avoid cognitive dissonance. According to Gilson, if the gospel narrative developed by word of mouth, adding distortions over time, we can’t say that the narrative developed in a “community of faith,” that is, within group of believers who were interested more in protecting their religious faith than in getting at the historical truth like Sherlock Holmes.

Unfortunately, Gilson misunderstands the Telephone game, since he equates it with “dispersed processes of quasi-random serial distortion,” reducing the historian’s point to a strawman. If there were an historical Jesus, his death would have shocked particular communities of faith, namely those of certain Jewish sects. Thus, their oral transmission of rumors about Jesus wouldn’t have merely distorted the message, adding only noise to the signal, as it were. In an actual Telephone game, the participants are often random instead of forming a community united by some ideology or mission. That’s why the message whispered from ear to ear ends up only garbled in the mere game. When the whisperers have something more in common, such as Judaism, their love of Jesus, and their shock by his crucifixion, they’re likely to sustain the message in such a way that it snowballs. In just the same way, it’s commonly understood that the size of the fish that’s caught according to a fisherman’s fish story often becomes larger and larger the more times the tale is told. Notice that the proverbial fish story is usually told just by the one person who supposedly caught the big fish, and the community of Jews who admired Jesus would have functioned as a collective mind because of their shared beliefs. 

Gilson dismisses the point about cognitive dissonance by associating it with a kooky cult leader who told her followers to give away all their possessions and wait overnight in their parked cars on a particular date for aliens to save them from Earth’s imminent destruction. When the aliens didn’t arrive and the planet wasn’t destroyed, the cult leader mitigated their anxiety by telling them their faith had saved the world. In his summary of the skeptic’s account of how the Jesus fiction was invented, Gilson insinuates that the early Christians wouldn’t have been so gullible or such con artists. Thus Gilson writes,
What these theories add up to is that the surpassingly good and powerful character of Jesus Christ was produced by a community that was no community, expressing the cognitive deficiency called faith through the heavily distorting process of the "telephone game," for the morally dubious purpose of dragging others along into their false belief. Beyond all this (according to some theorists, at least), it was also the product of cognitive meltdown on the same order as believing that waiting overnight in a parked car could bring about the salvation of all mankind.
Gilson thinks this lacks “the ring of plausibility,” since no such process would likely serve as the “authorial source of the one character in all human literature who was perfectly other-centered in spite of holding absolute power: a character expressing moral excellence like no other in all history.”

And to judge the likelihood of the two explanations, Legend or Lord, Gilson invites his readers to evaluate them “according to how they fit with their own backstory, how they conform to their conception of reality.” The Legend hypothesis is supposedly incoherent, while the Christian alternative makes perfect sense, since “It posits an all-good, all-powerful God, and Jesus as the incarnation of that God. Jesus, the man of perfect moral excellence, fits perfectly in a reality like that. And it also makes sense that those among his apostolic witnesses who were called to record his life would have done so faithfully.” Thus, Gilson concludes, “The life of Christ is just too good to have been produced through legendary processes. It's too good to be false.”

Gilson’s point is that the Lord Hypothesis is more likely than the Legend one, because the former is more coherent than the latter. Of course, plenty of insane conspiracy theories arising from the psych ward are internally coherent, meaning that there need be no conflict between the parts of some crazy account, say, of how the mental patient is actually the reincarnated Napoleon who is plotting to take over the world with help from his alien friends speaking through the snow on his old television screen. Indeed, they couldn’t conflict with each other, since the patient has thrown the logic book out the window, in which case anything is fair game. For the same reason, science fiction fans often scoff at fantasy novels that don’t have clear rules about how the fictional magic powers are supposed to work. Without clear rules, the author can make it all up as he or she goes along, which makes for a less satisfying story, one trivialized by deus ex machina.

The notion of logical coherence, then, isn’t decisive when considering a supernatural “hypothesis,” because coherence has to do with reasoning, whereas supernatural options have to do with Pauline (Hebrews 11) or Kierkegaardian faith. If you’re reasoning and considering the internal coherence of hypotheses, you’re naturalizing the phenomenon. If you’re talking about “an all-good, all-powerful God,” and about this God fitting into a human incarnation who sacrificed his life to defeat Satan and save humanity from the punishment inflicted by Jesus’s divine Father, who is supposed to be the same God as Jesus but a different person, you needn’t pretend to be interested in logic or narrative coherence. Lest the American Christian forgets, the point of a miracle is to disrupt the mundane narrative about how the entire apparent world works, to humble us with the realization that our rational standards come to nothing next to a transcendent God, as the Book of Job makes clear.

So technically, the Lord Hypothesis is far less internally coherent than the Legend one, since the Lord Hypothesis posits miracles and the Trinity and the absurdities of a God who is transcendent and anthropomorphic, benevolent but also responsible for Satan, and just but also willing to punish us eternally for finite sins, and so on and so on. But these technicalities should be irrelevant to a Christian who hasn’t lost his script: if you want mere reasonableness, historical plausibility, and narrative coherence, stick with naturalistic hypotheses; if you’re in the market for a supernatural one, revel in the religion’s incoherence, as the Catholic Church does by calling attention to the “Mysteries” of its dogmas.

Jesus the Jewish Legend

But I haven’t even gotten yet to the main weaknesses of Gilson’s argument. First of all, it should go without saying that even if Jesus’s character were unique in the way Gilson says, the human imagination could invent that character as a work of fiction. Certainly, as David Hume would point out, we’re much more familiar with the creativity of human imagination than we are with the miracles of a human incarnation of God or of a divine sacrifice to defeat a personification of evil and to appease a deity who demands someone’s mere blood for sin, even if it should be the wrong person’s blood. Again, mere reason (Hume on miracles and Occam on simplicity) dictates that we should go with the Legend Hypothesis, and a true Christian who understands the point of talking about a supernatural God should be fine with that.

There’s no need to stretch our imagination, however, in wondering how even a literary genius could have conceived of Jesus’s character ex nihilo. As all critical Bible scholars know, the early Christians had Isaiah 53 to work with, which spelled out how a righteous servant could demonstrate his greatness not by conquering nations but by an act of sacrificial suffering. Indeed, the details of Jesus’s great sacrifice, plus the notion that a person (as opposed to a scapegoat) could act as a sacrificial offering for the sins of others were evidently lifted directly from Isa.53:

Who has believed our message?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.

But the Lord was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors.

Does this only push the miraculous authorship back to the authors of Isaiah? No, because the Suffering Servant metaphor is based on the entire history of Judaism, according to which Jews suffered for their faith by being conquered by one greater power after another, from the Assyrians to the Babylonians to the Persians to the Romans (and later including the Catholic Church, the Nazis, and the Muslim nations surrounding modern Israel). That history was encapsulated in the story of the Jews’ slavery in Egypt where they labored under the heartless Pharaoh but were freed by Moses who sacrificed both his wealth and privileges as an Egyptian prince, and the latter part of his life wandering in the desert, prevented from setting foot in the Promised Land. That was how Jews felt about themselves in general. That was their identity, to suffer faithfully like Moses or like Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, because they were chosen to keep the true God’s covenant.

After they became monotheists, Jews typically thought of themselves as both suffering righteously in international terms and as nevertheless being supported by the almighty power of the one true God that could at any moment demolish their enemies but which over and over again mysteriously fails to materialize. The early Christians were Jews and the historical Jesus would have been a Jew, so they had all of Judaism to work with in creating the legend of Jesus, including Isaiah 53, the Exodus story, and the long history of Jews as being a self-described righteous, God-loving people who tended to suffer under foreign occupation even though they had a special connection with God which often didn’t pan out as expected. Sound familiar? So no Jewish Shakespeare was needed to conceive of Jesus’s character in the gospel narratives.

Jesus’s Character in the Second Coming

But did Jesus never use his supernatural powers for his benefit, as Gilson contends? How about the power to resurrect himself after his death on the cross? The Trinity only complicates instead of clarifying the matter, since whether the same God resurrected himself or Jesus trusted the Father to resurrect him, because the two were essentially identical, the upshot is the same. Jesus’s death wasn’t permanent and because Jesus was God, according to the emerging Christian understanding of Jesus, he knew he would be able to miraculously live again. Perhaps, though, the physical resurrection was meant as yet another selfless act, to prove to his followers that they, too, could escape physical death.

How about, then, the second coming of Christ, as foretold in Matthew 25:31-33? “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” The first coming of Christ is surely supposed to be the same person, if not the same incarnation or embodiment, as the Christ of the second coming. So when Jesus came to Earth the first time, he came meekly as the suffering servant. But according to the same gospel story, Jesus will return precisely as the Davidic conqueror, with glory and angels and using the power of judgment he had all along, perhaps even to take vengeance against the very individuals responsible for his crucifixion, by sending them to hell. Those who don’t help Jesus indirectly by helping the downtrodden, Jesus will send to “eternal punishment” (25:46).

The point, then, is that Gilson’s depiction of Jesus’s character is curtailed to make Jesus’s character seem too good to be naturally true. But according to the full gospel story, the very same Jesus who was selfless and merciful will return one day and behave in the opposite way, as a mighty judge who we could more reasonably suspect of being potentially corrupted by his power. Indeed, the way the gospel story functions is to reassure Christians that they can trust Jesus’s judgment when he finally returns to complete his task, because in his first coming Jesus demonstrated he wasn’t corrupt: instead of punishing everyone for falling short of his moral standard, he assumed the place of the guilty. Nevertheless, the two comings of Jesus, with their opposite characters, the one showing infinite mercy, the other implacable judgment, add to the incoherence and implausibility of the Christian narrative. Moreover, this second half of Jesus’s life, which Gilson leaves out of his depiction of Jesus’s character, makes the Legend Hypothesis more likely, because the legend of Jesus wasn’t so unique, after all. The first coming of Jesus departs from many Jewish assumptions about the messiah, but the second coming will fulfill those very expectations, according to the gospels.     

The Mystery of Gilson’s Intended Audience

So much for Gilson’s argument. However, the weakness of his defense of Lewis’s famously flawed Trilemma Argument raises the mystery of Gilson’s intended audience. Gilson writes in his response to a skeptic’s criticism of his article, which Gilson believes he’s refuted, that he’d “still like to see what would happen if some atheist or skeptic took a serious run at the argument” (my emphasis). So Gilson seems to think his article is meant to be received by atheists or skeptics, but that can’t be quite right, because the About page of Touchstone’s website, where Gilson published his article, says that Touchstone is a “Christian journal, conservative in doctrine and eclectic in content” and “a place where Christians of various backgrounds can speak with one another on the basis of shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith” (my emphasis). So Touchstone is meant to be read by fellow Christians, not by atheists or skeptics.

Why does this matter? Well, studies indicate that not only are atheists generally more intelligent than religious people, but that in the United States, atheists have more knowledge of religion than do the believers. These unsettling facts can explain the shoddiness of Gilson’s defense of the Trilemma: Gilson’s really talking only to fellow Christians, whose standards of argumentation are lower than those of skeptics, but Gilson wants to embolden Christians by making them think his argument would be devastating to critics of Christianity. So Gilson seems to be playing a double game in this case, but we can surmise that this is the true purpose of Cru and of Evangelical apologetics in general. The proper audience for these crude pretenses at Christian critical thinking is made up only of fellow believers, so that the arguments don’t have to come close to meeting atheists’ much higher standards—which they don’t generally or specifically in Gilson’s case.

What this means is that whereas I had some fun taking the bait with respect to this particular argument by Gilson, the lesson is that atheists and skeptics should have no illusion that these sorts of evangelical gambits are worthy of their attention. They’re not really intended for us; instead, they’re meant to contribute to the Christian’s strawman image of what would refute a skeptic’s case against Christianity. So we can say with Donald Trump that not only is there “fake news, but there’s a fake president (President Trump, whom evangelicals betray Jesus by supporting) as well as fake Christian apologetics (e.g. Gilson’s argument that has no business being directed to anyone who takes rationality seriously, such as the average atheist or skeptic).

Hyperrational critics of Christianity shouldn’t mistake an argument that's fit only for the faithful and for their strawman notions of skepticism, for one that’s fit for the hyperrational elites, but neither should the faithful make this mistake, just as C.S. Lewis shouldn’t have expected that his Trilemma Argument, which presupposes biblical inerrantism, would be of interest to skeptics. The faithful ought to be like Kierkegaard and recognize that faith means more to them than reason and that they shouldn’t pretend to care whether their religion is logical or scientific. They should focus on improving themselves with religious experience, instead of tempting their God by alleging they’ve encompassed the deity with their rational capacity or could even begin to fathom God’s ways. Alas, the reason Evangelicals pretend that they’re philosophers who only go where logic and the evidence take them is that these Christians are stuck having to defend not Christianity in the abstract but their unholy hybrid of Christianity plus Americanism or political conservatism, which hybrid is a largely secular abomination. 


  1. Hi Ben,

    This comment isn't relevant to this article, but have you considered writing an article in response to Jordan Peterson? As a leftist who has read some Marxist critiques of his beliefs, I would find your take on his liberalism very interesting.


    1. I used to watch Jordan Peterson when he was on The Agenda at TVO. He would be the politically incorrect panelist on that TV talk show. I met him once when he was buying tiles for his house in Toronto.

      I'm not sure I'd call him a liberal. He seems closer to the alt-right. He's famous now for his views on men's rights, which makes him similar to Bill Maher except that Peterson thinks it's important to make psychological excuses for religion. Another difference is that Peterson is into evolutionary psychology, which can make his views a little scientistic, like Sam Harris's, in that he'll justify some behaviours because they're natural (the naturalistic fallacy).

      I don't know if his views are unique enough for me to write an article just on them. At least, I don't know the ins and outs of his theory on the psychological origin of religion. His other views I've covered somewhat in my articles on Sam Harris, the naturalistic fallacy, and the alt right (Fred Gulpa in the Clash of Worldview articles). I think the thing to do would be to write something on feminism and men's rights, since that's what he's known for now on YouTube.

      My view would be that I'd agree we should reject postmodern obscurantism and the politically correct aspect of current feminist liberalism, but I'd also reject any social Darwinian prescriptions based on evolutionary psychology. I'd agree that dominance hierarchies are foundational to animal behaviour, but I'd maintain that authentic human values are chosen based on fictions (myths). I might agree with Peterson on that, too, but sometimes he seems to slide into social Darwinism, especially in his criticisms of feminism.