Shameless faith

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 8: “Who Was Jesus?”)

We’re getting to the end of Chapter 8, and it’s been interesting to watch William Lane Craig grasping at straws to try and make his case that Jesus thought of himself as something special. Unfortunately, he’s drawing his evidence from a community of authors who were united and motivated by a common story they were all collaborating on: the Gospel. In the end, all he can really show us is that those authors, over decades of working together, agreed that Jesus ought to be remembered as someone who thought very highly of himself. Whether he really did or not (or whether he even ever existed) is another question entirely.

But there’s one other thing that Craig can show us, and that is the skill with which many believers absorb conflicting evidence without letting the inconsistencies disturb their faith. This is why I have a problem with using “embarrassment” as a criterion for determining historical authenticity: before embarrassment can influence a story, you must first have someone who is capable of being embarrassed! And when it comes to their faith, many Christians aren’t, as Craig will demonstrate for us today.

Last week, Craig “proved” that Jesus intended to associate himself with Daniel’s reference to “someone like a son of man,” despite the numerous discrepancies between the description in Daniel and the circumstances under which Jesus applied a similar label to himself. Those discrepancies ought to have been an embarrassment to Craig, but he glosses right over them, and feels like he has done a great job proving that Jesus must see himself as fated to be king of the world.

The rest of Chapter 8 is devoted to Craig trying to prove this same point implicitly, by relating stories in which Jesus is described as speaking and acting like someone who saw himself as a future king of the world. These stories are all part of a lifelong collaboration between authors whose main purpose in life was to spread a common story in which Jesus is chosen by God for supreme exaltation as Lord of All, so it’s rather naive of Craig to assume these are trustworthy and unbiased accounts. But that, too, does not bother him in the least.

The first story he looks at is Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom. Craig’s goal is to show that Jesus (allegedly) predicted that he would have the authority to appoint rulers over the twelve tribes of Israel in the “new world.” But there’s a problem here.

Here we encounter the very interesting saying of Jesus concerning His twelve disciples’ role in the coming kingdom: “Truly, I say to you, in the new world… you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel…” The saying is likely to be authentic; not only because it seems to envision an earthly kingdom that did not immediately materialize, but also because of the awkwardness of envisioning a throne for Judas Iscariot…

Yeah, oops. Jesus promised (with a “Truly, I say to you” no less) to Judas and the other eleven, that he and they would be resurrected to rule in the new world over one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Either (a) Jesus made a false prophecy because he didn’t know Judas would fall away, or (b) Jesus made a promise—to a Christian—that he had no intention of keeping, or (c) the Bible is wrong about Judas losing his place. Or (d) Jesus didn’t care whether his prediction came true or not, since both he and his disciples would be dead long before then. Or even (e) Jesus never actually said any such thing, and the writers of the story just took advantage of the opportunity to write in a little extra rank for themselves.

The thing, is, this is obviously wrong. By the time this gospel was written, Judas was already famous as an apostate. Matthew did not have to write this, and if he did choose to write it, he could easily have inserted a parenthetical remark like John’s gospel does. But he doesn’t bother, because the inconsistency doesn’t bother him. All he cares about is that mystical number 12: 12 apostles on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel. So cool, isn’t it? Taking away one apostate apostle spoils the whole thing, so he just ignores the problem. The mystical power of 12 drowns the intellectual problem of internal consistency.

Craig’s next example is the authority he thinks Jesus is implying when he teaches by saying “You have heard… but I say to you…”

He began, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old …” and quoted the law of Moses. Then he continued, “But I say to you …” and gave His own teaching. Jesus thus equated His own authority with that of the divinely given law…

But it’s not just that Jesus placed His personal authority on a par with that of the divine law. More than that, He adjusted the law on His own authority.

You have to love the delicate language with which Craig tiptoes around this point. Jesus “adjusted” the “perfect law.” What, you mean Jesus changed God’s law?? Shh! Shh! No, keep your voice down. I only said he “adjusted” it. Sorta. Slightly.

This is a big problem for someone who, like Craig, promotes the idea of objective moral values and duties. An adjustable moral law, that you interpret and adapt and apply differently under different cultural conditions, is the repudiation of the absolute, perfect, and eternal moral law that Craig was arguing for in the early chapters of On Guard. Not only is it an embarrassment to the Christians that Jesus thought God’s “perfect” law needed some improvement, it ought to be embarrassing to Craig to bring it up as well. Which law is better, the law God originally gave, or the “adjusted” version Jesus gave? By what standard would you judge which law was better? And why didn’t Jesus and God judge by the same standard, and thus both give the same law?

Here’s the trick: Craig is using this passage to prove that Jesus claimed divine authority. That is, he’s putting this verse in the category of Apologetic Proofs of Jesus’ Authority. Now whenever anyone brings up this inconsistency, guess what? It’s not in the category of Inconsistencies that Disprove the Gospel, it’s in the category of Apologetic Proofs. And if it’s an Apologetic Proof, then it’s not embarrassing, so neither Craig nor the gospel writers are embarrassed by it.

This is one of the key maneuvers that make the Christian worldview work. It’s a kind of mental immunization: you take a theological problem, and link it somehow to some kind of theological support, and thereafter whenever you encounter the problem, you immediately identify it as a theological support, and faith goes on. The doubt has been neutralized.

The next example Craig gives is Jesus casting out demons (including “demons” that we now recognize as diseases like epilepsy). This ought to be embarrassing, not only because such diseases are not caused by demons, but because epileptic fits only last a relatively short time anyway, making the “demon” rather trivial to cast out—you just kill a bit of time by asking, say, “How long has he been like this?” or something similar, and then, when the seizure is dying down, begin commanding the demon to come out. By the time the next seizure happens, you’ll be long gone and your fame as a healer will have already been established. Plus you can always blame the poor kid for letting the “demon” back in again.

But of course, this is no embarrassment to Craig, because it’s an apologetic proof: it shows that Jesus believed he had authority over demons. Never mind that epilepsy is a physical condition rather than a spiritual one. Never mind the horrific abuse parents inflict on their own “demon-possessed” children trying to exorcise them. Never mind that demon possession only happens in ancient myths and modern fiction. This one’s an apologetic proof that Jesus thought very highly of himself, and therefore there’s nothing embarrassing about the exorcism stories.

Next, Craig brings up forgiveness of sins. Now, if you’re any kind of New Testament scholar, you know that in John 20, Jesus allegedly delegated to his disciples the authority to forgive the sins of anyone, thus providing the scriptural basis for the sacrament of confession. In other words, the authority to forgive sins can be delegated to men, and thus the question “Who is this who forgives sins?” has the answer, “Could be anybody, really.”

Finally, Jesus’ sense of divine authority comes clearly to expression in His claim to forgive sins… The problem is that no one but God had the authority to make such a proclamation… It’s no wonder that the religious authorities saw this presumptuous activity as blasphemous! (Compare the reaction to Jesus’ claim in Mark 2:1-12 that He has authority as the Son of Man to forgive sins.)

Jesus says the authority to forgive sins can be delegated to men. Dr. Craig says it cannot be delegated, and that it belongs to God alone. Otherwise, if God can give this authority to ordinary men, it means Jesus isn’t claiming anything more than an ordinary man, chosen by God, could claim. Craig ought to be embarrassed to be caught directly contradicting Jesus, but that issue doesn’t even show up on his radar. In fact, many Christians have been using this argument for a couple thousand years, even while partaking of a confession in which the priest forgives their sins. When a contradiction like this shows up, many Christians simply absorb it, neutralize it, and incorporate it into their faith, typically in safe, separate categories.

Craig next appeals to Jesus’ alleged miracles.

[T]he consensus of New Testament scholarship today is that Jesus did perform “miracles”—however you might want to explain these. At the end of his long and detailed study of Jesus’ miracles, the preeminent historical Jesus scholar John Meier concludes that Jesus’ role as a miracle healer “has as much historical corroboration as almost any other statement we can make about the Jesus of history.

The reason Craig puts scare quotes around “miracles” is that we see similar shenanigans going on today. Any number of people can likewise claim the role of miracle healer. The problem is that so many of them do so in the absence of any actual miracles. For example, I was listening to The Bible Answer Man show on Christian talk radio one day, and Dr. Hank Hanegraaff, an evangelical Christian, was relating how he had pressed Benny Hinn on the question of whether or not any actual miracles were happening in his ministry. Hinn assured him that there were many. Hanegraaff then asked him to provide contact information for anybody who could document that an actual, physical deficiency existed before hand, and that this condition was actually, physically healed as a result of Hinn’s intervention. And Hinn had to admit that he couldn’t provide a single one.

This ought to be embarrassing to Craig, since such signs and wonders are supposed to be God’s validation of the truth of the Christian faith. Instead, though, Craig finds a safe category into which to stick this problem.

The miracles of Jesus take on a deeper significance in that they, like His exorcisms, were taken to be signs of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. As such, Jesus’ miracles were fundamentally different from the wonders performed by pagan magicians or Jewish holy men.

Catch that? It’s not that Jesus’ miracles were fundamentally different in quality or verifiability. The fundamental difference is that his miracles have a “deeper significance” as signs of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Ooo, ahh. As it happens, we don’t actually see any kingdom of God “inbreaking” through manifest genuine miracles, but that’s no embarrassment (to Craig) because it’s the subjective significance that is, well, significant—whether or not Jesus did anything more than any other con man in the role of “miracle healer.”

Last but not least, Craig appeals to the stories about Jesus claiming authority to judge whether each of us spends eternity in heaven or in hell.

Think of it: People’s eternal destiny is fixed by how they respond to Jesus! Make no mistake: If Jesus were not divine, then this claim could only be regarded as the most narrow and objectionable dogmatism.

Got that one right, for a change. But check out what’s happening here. We do not have the opportunity to respond to Jesus. Jesus isn’t here. Our only opportunity is to respond to conflicting stories that men tell about Jesus. And to believe whatever men say, just because men say it, despite obvious internal and external inconsistencies in what they say, is gullibility. Is Craig trying to tell us that God is going to send us to Hell for not being sufficiently gullible?

Not a bit. Craig here is targeting his fellow believers. Craig is telling the faithful, “Look guys: no matter how unfair and irrational the Final Judgment stories may be, we need to put them in the category of Proofs that Jesus is God, because otherwise it would make the gospel look bad.” This is how to deal with the embarrassing inconsistencies in the Gospel. You never let yourself buy into the embarrassment. You never admit there’s any problem. You just take the difficulty and find some way to put it into a category of things that support the Faith. With practice, you get good at it, which is how you end up with a religion full of holes that only you cannot see.

And that’s Chapter 8. All this fluff and bother about proving that Jesus thought of himself as Da Shit, and in the end all Craig has come up with is a long exercise in Christians believing what they want to believe, both now and in ancient times. I can’t wait to start the next chapter, about the so-called resurrection.

5 Responses to “Shameless faith”

  1. Skepticali Says:

    Deacon – love this series! Keep it up. I’m particularly fascinated by WLC in debates. I understand now, after watching 3 or 4, how difficult it is to debate the guy. Pointing out and/or refuting all of the fallacies and plain errors he commits would take more time than the average 20-12-8-5 debate format allows. I’m impressed by your stamina!

    • inquisitiveraven Says:

      Pointing out and/or refuting all of the fallacies and plain errors he commits would take more time than the average 20-12-8-5 debate format allows.

      There’s a name for that: “Gish Gallop.” It’s named Duane Gish who was notorious for doing that kind of thing during creation/evolution debates.

  2. Michael Says:

    I’m loving this series – thanks a lot.

  3. pboyfloyd Says:

    “..the skill with which many believers absorb conflicting evidence without letting the inconsistencies disturb their faith.”

    To a Jehova Witness, “Why is God so mean to the Pharoah, hardening his heart, is this a God of Love?”

    The Witness arranged a meeting, outside the supermarket the next week, to give him a chance to deliver a good answer.

    “God didn’t harden Pharoah’s heart, he ALLOWED Pharoah to harden his own heart!”

    I don’t think that he believed it himself, not really.

  4. Neil Says:

    All Craig demonstrates is that a small number of people many years after Jesus lived (if he did) thought he was something special. Jesus himself may have thought it too, of course, but if so this indicates nothing more than he was a fanatic with delusions of grandeur.

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