We’ve already seen that the Judeo-Christian God is described in the bible as committing unimaginable atrocities and ordering human beings to do the same (Absolutely Horrific Things You Didn’t Know Were in the Bible, Would a God of Love Order a Stoning?, God Ordered Abortions). We’ve seen how it was “God’s Plan” for (unlucky) humans born in one time period to be executed for sins and (very lucky) humans in a later time period to be treated with love — a cruel, sadistic plan for a deity who could have decreed all people in all times should be treated with love (Either God Changes or He’s Psychotic: Comparing Testaments Old and New). These things are so disturbing we can hope many of them never happened, but all this is not an argument against God’s existence; it may be God exists and is simply an awful being.
We’ve seen how a deity is not necessary to explain human morality, and indeed that morality has varied so much throughout history it makes little sense to believe in a standard code of right and wrong given to us by God (Where Does Morality Come From?). We saw that the bible has many contradictions and recorded changes, as even Christian scholars admit (The Bible is Rife With Contradictions), how the science in the bible doesn’t require supernatural explanations (Is There Any Actual Science in the Bible?), and how secular writings about Jesus suggest he existed but don’t at all support his divinity (What Non-Biblical Sources Actually Say About Jesus). We saw that gardens like Eden, men made from dirt, worldwide floods, arks, monotheism, and even a god named Yahweh existed in human myths before the Hebrews or their bible even existed (Old Testament Tales Were Stolen From Other Cultures). We also noted that tales of gods being born to virgins, performing miracles, rising from the dead after three days, saving humanity from sin, and ascending into heaven existed long before the time of Christ (Other Gods Born to Virgins on December 25 Before Jesus Christ, Other Gods That Rose From the Dead in Spring Before Jesus Christ). However, it is possible a god exists despite these things.
All that can be put aside. The question now is: Is it more likely God created man or man created God?
After 25 years thinking God created man, I slowly came to believe the opposite because I found atheistic arguments more convincing and reasonable (My Path to Atheism). This writing is meant to summarize some of those arguments.
Mankind Loves to Create Gods, Including Out of Men
The first reason to suppose it is more likely man made God, rather than the other way around, is that man has a nasty habit of inventing deities. Believers understand humanity concocted millions of gods throughout history (Hinduism alone has millions).
We all understand these inventions most likely originated to explain the happenings of the natural world, which human science could not yet explain, particularly terrors like thunder, lightning, floods, droughts, and so on. Yahweh himself may have been associated at first with volcanoes and storms.
We could also add the fear of death. Some psychologists suggest religion is useful in fulfilling psychological needs, that the dread of disappearing from existence sustains humanity’s “need for gods.” No one wants to die, everyone wants to see their deceased loved ones again, and most would prefer a higher purpose to his or her existence. Religions like Christianity give us everything we could ever want — another reason to be skeptical, for when something seems too good to be true… It’s often said that the universality or near-universality of religion is somehow proof that a higher power exists. All people “yearn for God” in some fashion. But this cannot be proven, and there are other, natural rather than supernatural, explanations for the common creation and persistence of religion. Its invention may have aided individual or group survival through increased cooperation and cohesion around shared values, better morale and perseverance (gods will comfort and help you), faster and more confident decision-making (divination, for instance, like the reading of sacrificed animal entrails), and even better health through the placebo effect (believing the gods will heal you may actually help you heal, even if such gods are fictions). See Breaking the Spell, Dennett. Even if faith didn’t help humans survive, its commonality doesn’t have to be miraculous — after all, one could likely find mythological creatures in all human cultures, too, but that would not make them real. Likewise, think of other things that arose independently across human societies: sports, storytelling, language, music, art, song, political organization, and so on. Religion could simply be another phenomenon on the list.
Regardless, which seems more likely? That millions of fictional gods were produced across the globe but one worshiped in the Middle East during the Bronze Age just happened to be real? Or that that one was also make-believe, per humanity’s habit?
What a happy coincidence, after all, that your religion is the one true one (no matter what god or gods you happen to worship). What luck, also, that you happened to be born in the United States, where the true religion of Christianity is prevalent, or perhaps even into a Christian family. Or perhaps you were lucky enough to be born in Saudi Arabia, where the one true religion of Islam is so popular.
The atheist finds it a bit more reasonable to suppose you are not lucky. Most religious people follow the predominant religion of their nation or family, and most religions claim to be the only true one. It is more sensible to suppose you are experiencing what billions of others have experienced — the worship of a fictional character — than that you, by pleasant coincidence, have found the truth.
The atheist believes that because man has such an affinity for inventing gods, it is much more likely yours was invented than that he is real.
Further, humans love to take ordinary people, usually political leaders or religious teachers, and declare them divine or give them divine properties. We all know kings and queens across the globe were called divine and worshiped, such as the pharaohs of Egypt. Stars, meteors, and heavenly lights allegedly accompanied the birth of many man-gods and revered leaders, including Christ, Yu, Lao-tzu, and various Roman Caesars (Augustus was called the “Son of God” by 38 B.C., before he became emperor, being the son of the mortal Atia and the god Apollo). Plato was said to be born of a virgin and fathered by Apollo, Genghis Kahn was born of a virgin seeded by a miraculous light, founder of the Chinese Empire Fo-Hi was born when his mother ate a fruit or flower, Alexander the Great’s mother was impregnated by Zeus in snake form, and Buddha was born to the virgin Maya under incredible skies. These myths are recycled even today, for example Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba, who died in 2011, was said to be born of virgin and to have performed many miracles! As discussed in the articles mentioned at the beginning, virgin births, man-gods, miracles, salvation from sin, and resurrections were nothing new by the time the stories of Christ appeared. Which seems more likely to you: that Christ was divine and his life just happened to parallel older myths or that the stories about him were plagiarized and he’s just another false god?
Sometimes people are given divine status while alive, other times after they die.
Buddha, who lived in the 500s-400s B.C., provides an interesting case study. Although in ancient texts Buddha says he is not God and renounces miracles, a sect of his followers almost immediately made him into more than a man. Richard Gillooly (All About Adam and Eve, p. 157) writes:
After Buddha’s death…his followers assigned a number of miracles to him, including healing wounds, making flood waters recede, treading on top of water or passing miraculously over it, and walking through a wall. Finally, Buddha was given the status of a man-god.
Today, Buddhism is largely a non-theistic religion, but there still exist certain denominations that consider Buddha divine.
Things were similar in Palestine centuries after Buddha. Unbeknownst to most Christians, in the first 300 years after Christ’s death there were sects that argued viciously over whether Christ was just an enlightened man, whether he was fully God, whether he was a normal man who became divine, whether he was an angel, whether he had always existed, whether his human body was raised from the dead or just his spirit, whether he was subordinate or equal to God, whether a Trinity existed, whether the Trinity was one God or three gods, and other enormous topics. It was adoptionists vs. antiadoptionists, docetics vs. antidocetics, seperationists vs. antiseperationists, etc. (read Chapter 6, p. 151-175, of Misquoting Jesus to see how these conflicting ideas affected the current bible). Over time, certain sects grew more powerful and certain beliefs came to prominence, solidified into the Christian doctrine we know after the councils at Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus (325-421 A.D.) assembled their official bible. The dogma of the bible was not inevitable; things could have gone very differently. At least, that’s what the atheist believes.
Francis Xavier (1506-1552) provides a more recent example of a man quickly receiving godlike powers after his death. Xavier wrote carefully of his missionary travels in Japan and India. He never professed to perform miracles in his writings, but after his death Christian writers spread stories of Xavier healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and calming a storm. Incredibly, even though Xavier’s writings describe his struggles with foreign languages and his reliance on translators, it was reported Xavier had the gift of tongues and could speak and understand anyone using the Holy Spirit (Gillooly, p. 162-163)! Xavier, like so many others drowned in mythology by their fellow man, was made a saint.
If humans had a habit of making political leaders and religious teachers divine, it seems more likely they did something similar to Christ than that he was actually a deity. More on him later.
The Arguments For God Rely on Faulty Premises
There are several faulty premises used in arguments for God’s existence that won’t be explored here, such as the idea that if there was no god then humans would have no morals (see article at the beginning). But these are some of the major ones. A faulty premise is one that has not been proven (open to serious doubts) or has been disproved.
That complexity and existence can only be explained by a creator
Existence, the universe, the butterfly, the human cell, and basically everything else are too complex to not have been designed and first built by a creator, so the argument goes.
My purpose here isn’t to convince a fundamentalist Christian evolution is true (read The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins, or The Evidence For Evolution, Rogers, or my article on the subject), nor that complexity and so-called “irreducible complexity” are natural byproducts of evolution, nor that DNA is entirely made up of biological matter, not nonphysical or supernatural “information,” nor that scientists are inching closer to determining precisely how life arose on Earth and replicating it in a lab, etc.
My purpose is to point out the flaw in the logic: If something complex requires a creator then God requires a creator, for if he exists he is quite complex indeed.
It’s the most important question in all religion and one children often ask: Who made God?
If God created the universe, he is infinitely more complex than the universe. More complex than a protein, a living cell, an eye, a human, or the universe. If you believe a creator, not natural processes, is vital to explain a butterfly, why would you give a deity — more marvelous, complex, powerful, and intelligent than a butterfly — a free pass?
To the religious, existence needs an explanation, but God does not. Something has to be the “uncaused.” So God has simply been around forever.
To the atheist, it is just as sensible to suppose existence has always existed, that it was “uncaused” (and that “nothing” was never a thing; see below). Actually, it is perhaps more sensible. Isn’t it strange that it would be something we have no proof of (a deity) that a thoughtful person would deem the “uncaused,” but not something we do have proof of (existence itself).
Religious persons will counter that God’s existence is different. Why can he be uncaused? “Because he’s God.” Because he’s not of the material world, he’s supernatural, etc. This side-step doesn’t seem particularly satisfying, only raising the question of what it means to exist. If God “exists” in some fashion, a mind creating and interacting with the material world from “outside it,” how his existence came about is not an illogical question by any means.
Overall, God has little explanatory value. All this just takes things back one step and raises the same question. I don’t see any reason why if one existence (ours) needs a cause the other (God’s) wouldn’t as well; conversely, if it’s possible for something to simply always exist, why not our existence?
That “nothing” was an actual thing
Existence started with the Big Bang and before that there was nothing. God is the only explanation for how our universe and existence began. Nothing comes from nothing! (Except, of course, God.)
All that needs to be said here is we do not know for certain existence did not “exist” before the Big Bang. Scientists have a decent understanding of what happened during the microseconds of the Big Bang, but not what came before it.
We do not know if there was nothing, nor if true nothingness — no physical space even, not even a single centimeter — is even possible. Can you prove for certain that there was true nothingness? That would be impressive, as astrophysicists cannot. It is, and perhaps always will be, beyond the scope of human science.
We may never be able to confirm if theories concerning existence before (or independent of) the Big Bang, that is, multiverse theories — parallel universes, daughter universes, bubble universes, infinite universes, and so on — are valid. But at the moment, in insisting that “nothing” actually “existed” before the Big Bang, religious persons are simply filling a gap in scientific knowledge with God (a strategy used by humans since we cowered at thunder) and relying on an unproven premise at the same time.
That because you can’t disprove God, it’s sensible to believe in him
Is it then sensible to believe in Apollo, since he cannot be disproved? Neither Shiva, Jupiter, Isis, Quetzalcoatl, Allah, nor Santa Claus can be disproved. Are we to believe in them? Any figment of the human imagination — like Bertrand Russell’s teapot orbiting the sun — can be asserted to be true and defended with “You can’t disprove it.”
That’s not how reason works. We should believe things we have evidence for and remain skeptical of things we have no evidence for (see below).
Yes, like Zeus, the Judeo-Christian god cannot be completely disproved (hence this is why God “almost certainly” does not exist — we can only rely on reason). But, as with Zeus, that is little reason to believe in him. It’s not evidence. It’s simply the case that being confident God exists is irrational; confidence in the validity of something that cannot be proven or with insufficient evidence is inherently not a reasonable thing to do. That something could easily be fictional. That’s the standard people hold for basically everything but their own god. What’s most sensible is to doubt what is unfounded, not enthusiastically profess its existence.
The opposite idea that it’s irrational to disbelieve in something that cannot be disproved, or most rational to be open to something that cannot be disproved, is clearly not as rational as the idea that we should disbelieve or doubt things that cannot be proven. The first idea opens the door to not just your deity’s existence, but also to Brahma the Creator, the Easter Bunny, and the unicorns that roam my neighborhood. They are all in the same space, the same category, together. And perhaps these things are real. It wouldn’t be reasonable for me to say I objectively “know” God and these other entities aren’t real, as if I’d definitively disproved them, any more than it would be to say I “know” the opposite. But surely it’s more logical to disbelieve in them without proof or evidence. The second idea is simply smarter. It’s better, more reasonable. It keeps us in the real world and away from fantasy, closing the door to things that could easily be made up until there is proof or evidence to support them.
Related to this is Pascal’s Wager: Because you can’t disprove God, it’s safest to bet he exists, because if you believe you’re infinitely rewarded but if you don’t you’re infinitely tortured. So it’s more rational to believe. This obviously has less to do with trying to figure out if God is likely fact or fiction (like we do when supposing things with no evidence should be doubted because they may be man-made) and more to do with self-preservation, the human desire to avoid agony. It’s a fear-based appeal focused on consequences, rather than one that considers whether or not there’s anything to be afraid of in the first place — whether or not God actually exists. But Pascal’s Wager doesn’t make much sense because (1) you can’t actually “choose” to believe something in this way — you either believe it’s true or you have doubts, (2) a deity would see through this selfish, fear-motivated sham, (3) it assumes the bible can’t be wrong, when it is possible God exists but the book is full of misrepresentations of his plan — perhaps nonbelievers are actually welcomed into heaven (or perhaps only they get in, as a reward for being critical thinkers), and (4) it doesn’t help you decide which religion and god(s) to believe in — as pastor-turned-atheist Dan Barker pointed out, by the logic of the Wager, you should determine which religion describes the worst hell and follow that one. See, the Wager can be applied to any religion: “It’s better to bet Islam is true, rather than Christianity, because if you’re right you’re infinitely rewarded but if you’re wrong you’re infinitely tortured. Don’t risk being a Christian.” The Christian’s wager seems about as dangerous as the atheist’s.
That scriptures, feelings and visions, miracles, or answered prayers prove God exists
No, saying you know God is real because of what the bible says is not a valid or convincing argument. How seriously do you take the claims “We know Allah is real because of the Qu’ran” and “We know Brahma is real because of what’s written in the Vedas”? Other scriptures have gods and miracles and prophesies fulfilled; are these things true simply because the “divine work” says it is? I am often amazed at how believers send bible verses my way in an attempt to convince me everything in the bible is true. Even when I was a Christian, I didn’t try to convince people that way because it’s intellectually lazy and entirely unimpressive to any thinking person. One can’t use the bible as evidence the bible is factual (more alleged evidence, that for Christ’s divinity — from the bible and secular sources — will be explored later).
Personal feelings aren’t convincing either. Believers often “feel God guiding” them or “sense his presence” while worshiping or just going about life. First, I recall experiencing those things. Today I realize that was me feeling what I wanted and expected to feel, as someone who was taught (and believed) it would happen. If a woman can physically heal simply by believing she’s being treated (the placebo effect), why couldn’t she “feel” a deity speaking to her when she fervent believes (and wants) it to occur? If a man starts mistaking more cars for cops than usual because he’s on high alert for them (a mind trick most of us have experienced at some point while speeding), why couldn’t he hear the “whispers of God” in his heart because he’s expecting it? If you made up a deity right now and taught your children since birth she was true and would speak to them, do you not think they would feel her presence? Second, people of all religions describe such feelings of closeness with their gods. If I’d been raised in a Muslim family, I would have felt whispers from Allah. You are free to think your god is masquerading as others, the gods of multiple religions exist, or a god no one fully knows is trying to connect with all people, but this fact of universal feelings at the least means your feelings won’t convince anyone your god is real (plus, what if another god is masquerading as yours? Or what if the evil one from another religion is tricking you, keeping you in the false religion — how would you know?). Third, actual evidence can be shown to other people to convince them; this does not qualify. Related to all this are miraculous visions of God, Jesus, the virgin Mary, and so on, all of which can be explained in ways divorced from the supernatural: lies and embellishments (humans are skilled at this), hallucinations (as people who are ill and mentally ill, extremely stressed, sensory deprived, low on sleep, or on certain drugs often experience), psychological patterns of perception and misperception (humans tend to see faces where they don’t exist, for example, because of our evolutionary history; one study found religious people are more prone to this, which may explain why Jesus appears on so much toast), random chance (like the shape of a cross — quite a simple shape indeed — in nature), tricks (who hasn’t seen David Blaine and Chris Angel appear, disappear, walk through walls, or levitate), etc. These explanations seem more probable than a deity being behind such things. Consider that 4-5% of adults, regardless of whether they have a diagnosed mental illness, experience hallucinations, seeing and hearing things others cannot. That’s as many as 16 million Americans alone. If you believe in a specific deity, it’s not so stunning he or she might be included in your hallucinations. Still others claim to be visited by God or his voice in their dreams! A critical thinker would allow for the possibility it was just a dream. As with feelings, visions and dreams cannot be shared with others as evidence, and as people of all faiths experience them they would not help you decide which religion to follow if you took them seriously.
The case for modern miracles is not convincing either (past ones even less so, especially if your “evidence” is an ancient holy book). People being resuscitated from death, healing very suddenly, living through a disaster, and so on simply do not prove a higher power — whether Jesus, Allah, Shiva, or modern-day deities like Sathya Sai Baba of India. All religions claim miracles. Some of this is simple lack of knowledge; many “miracles” have scientific explanations that even the most fundamentalist religious folk would find reasonable if willing to learn, from psychogenic health problems (pains and illnesses that are “all in your head,” that you can cure by changing your attitude or mental state) to the spontaneous remission of some cancers (but only some — in others, remission without treatment has never been documented; why no miracles for those patients?). Even extremely rare events (those most likely to be called miracles, obviously) are often already understood through the collective work of scientists and doctors. In fact, most all the “miracles” you hear about theoretically have some scientific explanation — there is an entire website devoted to the question of why you never hear of an amputee regrowing an arm or a leg; perhaps it’s because it’s impossible and as a nonevent can’t be confused with a miracle in the way someone suddenly healing from illness can. Some events, like one person surviving a plane crash that killed 300, are simply fortunate happenings that are statistically unlikely but not impossible. Events that have no current scientific explanation likely will in the future — as humanity has found out over and over again. Again, the “God gap” — filling in a lack of understanding with the idea of a higher power — has always shrunk. Medical science is drawing closer to understanding why some people come back from the dead, for instance (and it’s important to ask why the resurrection always occurs minutes or hours after death, rather than weeks or months — yet another thing we understand to be biologically impossible for human beings; there are these limits to miracles because miracles do not actually exist). As with visions, we know that lies, delusions, and hoaxes can also explain many “miracles.”
Consider a miracle you hear much about: crosses or bibles that survive fires. When much of Notre Dame was recently burned, many of the faithful saw a miracle in the fact that a cross and a crown of thorns survived. Yet this isn’t evidence for the Judeo-Christian god, any more than a Qu’ran surviving a fire is evidence of Allah or superhero comics surviving a fire is evidence of Spider-Man. You can believe these events constitute good evidence for these existences (or just believe one of them, displaying personal religious bias regarding standards of evidence), but it’s not terribly convincing.
The fact is that during some fires some things survive. Many other items survived the Notre Dame fire (chairs, pews, candle holders, an organ), but we don’t really regard that as miraculous because they aren’t revered religious symbols like a cross or crown of thorns. We simply understand that in fires some things happen to be lost and other things happen to survive. Perhaps this includes religious items, too. In the case of Notre Dame, many religious symbols survived alongside non-religious ones because, while the roof collapsed in, the interior did not become an inferno; the fire mostly burned the spire, attic, and roof. Even though a fire like this certainly could have melted the gold cross and destroyed the crown, in this case it didn’t get the opportunity — it didn’t get big enough or hot enough inside the cathedral to do so (you can call this a miracle if you like, but then you’re just back to the Spidey problem and how valid such “evidence” is). Scientific or real-world, natural explanations are perfectly satisfactory to explain the survival of this cross and many of the religious items in the church, just like the non-religious items. Divine intervention isn’t the only (or simplest) explanation.
It didn’t have to go this way, of course. The interior could have become an inferno and the cross and crown could have been turned to ashes. That’s what happens in many fires: holy books and symbols and such are destroyed. This doesn’t often make the news, because, well, it was a fire. Same for any non-religious thing destroyed. It’s simply not very interesting. Something surviving is more interesting, surprising, or rare, but that in no way has to be a miracle, whether talking about a cross, comic book, or chair. But one thing to note is that no one says the destruction of a cross or bible is evidence that God doesn’t exist. One could say this with as much validity as supposing survival means God is real — the quality of the “evidence” is about the same. But it’s just as weak an argument as the reverse because, like taking a religious item’s survival as evidence for God’s existence, that connection may just all be in one’s head. It isn’t necessarily true. It could just be that in some fires some religious items (like non-religious ones) end up incinerated and in others some do not, and that’s just what happens, offering no actual evidence one way or the other as to whether a higher power exists — and indeed occurring that way even if such a being does not exist.
Answered prayers are likewise not evidence. What you’re praying to Christ for may actually occur, but there is no evidence it occurred because you prayed — even if the occurrence was extremely unlikely. This is in the precise same way that there is no solid evidence praying to Vishnu, Satan, Allah, or Aphrodite affects anyone’s life. Some studies have been conducted on whether prayer works, with no consistent results. For example, sometimes sick people being prayed for do better, other times there is zero effect, and sometimes they get worse. The largest study on this question to date found no effect. It noted that when patients knew they were being fervently prayed for by others, their health deteriorated because they thought if they needed prayer they were worse off than they actually were — the reverse placebo effect. In the same way, people who pray for healing or know others are praying for them may simply be experiencing a placebo effect — nothing supernatural — with optimism and confidence contributing to health benefits. God may not play along with human studies because he doesn’t want to be tested, but there is currently no good reason to believe prayer impacts real-world events.
That archaeology and secular histories confirm many events, people, and places in the bible, so why not believe it entirely?
This argument suggests that because Bethlehem actually existed, or because credible evidence exists for Hebrew captivity in Babylon, and as these things are mentioned in the bible, the bible should therefore be trusted when it describes the supernatural and divine. This is nonsense, as the bible could simply be a book written by people that includes both actual happenings (events, people, places) and fictional tales. If the Qu’ran mentions Mecca, or wars we have archaeological evidence for, or people with much historical documentation, does that somehow automatically make the deity and miracles mentioned in the book fact?
Alleged evidence for supernatural events themselves consistently disappoints.
The great flood and Noah’s ark are a prime example (nevermind the story was borrowed from older societies, thus evidence for it would make it more reasonable to believe in the gods of those cultures than Yahweh). There is no actual evidence a worldwide flood that wiped out the human race 4,000-5,000 years ago or even tens of thousands of years ago occurred. But every so often an article like “Noah’s Ark Has Been Found. Why Are They Keeping Us in the Dark?” appears on reputable sites like sunnyskyz.com, infowars.com, abovetopsecret.com, patriotupdate.com, and joeforamerica.com. That particular article declared a boat-looking structure found in the Turkish mountains was Noah’s Ark; it was the right dimensions and was found where Noah was thought to have landed after the flood. Of course, geologists determined the structure was made of natural rock, not petrified wood — and many similar rock structures existed nearby. It was another instance of the earth creating, over billions of years and through the random effects of geological processes, structures that appear man-made. It rivals rocks with faces carved into them, perfectly square holes in the sides of mountains, exquisitely sanded stone walls, etc.
Perhaps instead this rock formation is the birthplace of the myth. Imagine ancient peoples coming across something natural yet appearing man-made. Throughout history, man created fanciful tales concerning things he saw, didn’t understand, and had no scientific means to assess. How could one explain a massive “boat” sitting 6,300 feet high in the mountains? A great flood. What else?
What God Wouldn’t Know
Wouldn’t God wonder where he came from?
God, if all-knowing, would know he had always existed. But would he know how?
Above we wondered why God’s existence requires no explanation. Wouldn’t he also wonder how it was possible he, a thinking, complex, powerful being, came to exist?
If he asked a believer, he would get the answer, “Well, no one created you, that’s for sure. You’ve simply always existed.” Would that satisfy him? He would have no memory of a time when he did not exist, because such a time never occurred. He would have memories going back to infinity, with no end.
He would certainly never conclude, “I created myself!” or “Another god created me!” If he always existed, there would be no answer to his question, “How did I come to exist?” What can we say of God’s existence if he, an all-knowing and all-powerful being, would be unable to find an answer to this important question?
If God couldn’t conjure the answer for how he came to be, he is not all-knowing nor all-powerful.
Many argue Christ was all the evidence for God we need (in the same way the prophet Muhammad’s life and miracles were all the evidence for Allah we need and the life and resurrection of Attis substantial evidence for Phrygian-Greek gods). Let us consider Jesus Christ.
The Case for Christ’s Divinity Relies on Faulty Premises
First, I would like to point the reader to the articles mentioned above concerning contradictions and changes in the bible, and the similar stories, crafted before the time of Christ, concerning gods being born to virgins, rising from the dead, saving humans from their sins, and so on. The idea that the stories about Jesus are original is a faulty premise.
Even if the tales were original, remaining arguments for the belief in a divine Christ rely on premises that are questionable or downright absurd. Christians find certain arguments persuasive because they don’t slow down to question the premise, such as…
That Jesus must be one of three things
A classic example is from C.S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis recycled an argument from the 1800s, that Jesus Christ must either be a liar, a lunatic, or the divine Lord:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher.
This seems logical, but relies on an unproven premise.
First, it assumes Jesus claimed to be God. A Christian doesn’t stop to question this. He or she knows, “Of course Jesus claimed to be God, it says so in the Bible.” Yes, in the same way everything described in the Qu’ran is true because it’s described in the Qu’ran! What if the gospels are fictional? What if they do not describe real people, words, or events? The non-biblical writings on Christ don’t indicate he claimed to be God (What Non-Biblical Sources Actually Say About Jesus). Lewis’ premise rests on the assumptions that Jesus claimed to be God and that the Bible is factual. These are no small assumptions. These are enormous assumptions.
Second, Lewis is also assuming Jesus existed in the first place. Now, I’m not one of the skeptics who believes a “great human teacher” named Jesus never existed (the non-biblical writings about him and the human tendency to turn dead religious leaders into divine beings make it safe to suppose he did), but there is still debate about it among scholars. It is possible Jesus is a fictional character. Though that is perhaps unlikely, the possibility does mean this premise isn’t reliable. People truly underestimate the uncertainty of history — it’s still uncertain what’s myth and what’s fact when it comes to the existence and deeds of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Shakespeare, to name just three English examples from over a thousand years after Jesus’ time.
I don’t mean to be redundant, but this cannot be stressed enough: inherent in both these points are Lewis’ assumption that the gospels cannot simply be myths. It’s not even an option worth addressing for him — it’s that unthinkable — unlike modern Christian scholars, who are forced to try to counter the idea (see next section).
Regardless of whether one believes the bible is factual, that Jesus existed, claimed to be God, and wasn’t a legend but rather the true Lord, one has to admit this argument’s premise already assumes these things true. Thus, the argument is worthless.
Let’s consider another faulty premise.
That the decades between Christ’s death and the writing of the gospels comprise too short a time for man to concoct a legend
“Legend” is the obvious fourth option. Perhaps the stories about Christ (and, inherently, the prophesies he allegedly fulfilled) are simply man-made falsities, like so many other tales of the supernatural in other religions.
Christ died in A.D. 33 and the first gospel (Matthew) was written around A.D. 70, according to biblical scholars. Thus, a common sentiment is that 40 years is simply too short a time for legends to spread among primitive Middle Eastern peoples (similarly, 20 or 30 years, the supposed time between Christ’s death and Paul’s first epistles — the first New Testament documents, from A.D. 50s and 60s — is also too short). The stories about Jesus must be true.
This assumption has no merit. Humans have shown themselves all too willing to believe and spread complete fictions immediately.
Joseph Smith, a convicted con artist and self-described prophet from Vermont, wrote The Book of Mormon in 1830, in which he claims an angel helped him find buried gold plates in New York that told of Jesus’ visit to North America (he translated it from “reformed Egyptian” using a magic stone he used in his conman days), and that Native Americans used to be white and are descendants of Jews who crossed the Atlantic. In his other work, The Book of Abraham, he claims God lives with multiple wives near a star called Kolob, and in Doctrine and Covenants he claims Independence, Missouri, is the promised land where Christ will return. His works are full of historical inaccuracies, plagiarism, made-up languages, and are very poorly written. Yet these are sacred texts to the Mormons, all as divine and truthful as the bible. There are now over 6 million Mormons in the U.S., perhaps 15 million globally.
Thousands of Mormon believers were flooding Independence by 1831. In the same decade, some Mormons were willing to participate in violence to defend their homes, as Missourians tried to expel them by force from the entire state. Outlandish religious fiction can almost instantly produce thousands of gullible followers, people who are willing to traverse a continent, witness to others, pick up guns, and even die to defend beliefs based on new “sacred” texts. Those thousands can multiply into millions.
There is no reason to suppose if a man in the 1800s could whip up nonsense and immediately find it believed by thousands that someone in the first century A.D. couldn’t do the same in several decades. Despite the idea that 20 or 40 years is a timeframe short enough to ensure validity, it simply isn’t true.
Upon reflection, if closer proximity automatically meant greater validity, it would be much more sensible to be a Mormon than a Protestant or Catholic. There is far less time between Joseph Smith’s “divine revelation” (1823) and the holy book describing it than Christ’s death and the gospels, even if Smith did write his own scriptures (there is no way to know that Jesus himself didn’t write the first tales of his “miracles” and “resurrection”; plus, were there a Gospel According to Jesus in the bible, it is unlikely Christians would doubt its truth).
There are other examples, even more recent.
In 1950, a science fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics, by 1954 devoted followers founded the Church of Scientology, and today somewhere around 50,000 supporters (or millions, if you believe the church) are involved in the religion. Followers pay large sums for training and teaching to progress through “thetan” levels, toward spiritual enlightenment and the supernatural abilities Hubbard promised in Dianetics and other books and “scriptures”: mind reading, mind control, telekinesis, heightened intelligence and senses, and the ability to create your own universe — similar to the “Supreme Being.” And, while the church denies it (because non-thetans aren’t supposed to know such secrets), Hubbard also explained that humans (and atomic bombs) were brought to Earth by “Xenu,” head of a “Galactic Confederation.” All this from a man pretending to have knowledge of heavenly truths and writing books about it.
If Americans in the 1950s could believe such foolishness without evidence, couldn’t first century people in Palestine likewise believe certain things without evidence?
Likewise, couldn’t seventh century Arabians? Consider that Muslims believe the Qu’ran is the word of God transmitted by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad from the years 610 A.D. to 632 A.D. (the year Muhammad died). Now, there is debate among Islamic scholars as to how much of the Qu’ran was actually written down during Muhammad’s life, but agree it was all compiled and canonized by the third caliph, Uthman, who reigned from 644 to 656. Our oldest copy of the Qu’ran dates to 645 or earlier. In other words, it only took from 632 to 645 — 13 years — to go from the death of a religious leader who proclaimed God was speaking to him to the completion of a holy text held sacred as the word of the one true deity. That’s so short a time, shorter than 40 years. Is the Qu’ran therefore totally factual, without a trace of fiction? Is that why it grew to 1.5 billion followers across the globe?
Even though in Mormonism, Scientology, and Islam there is less time between divine revelation and the scriptures, none of that matters. Religious fiction is religious fiction, and it can spread like wildfire, especially in ancient times — if it can happen in more recent eras, it can surely happen in older ones! Even individuals who blatantly recycle elements from established faiths can get believers, from brother of Jesus and other son of God Hong Xiuquan in 19th century China to the multitudes of men who today, in the 21st century, believe they are the second comings of Christ. If your critical thinking still hasn’t fired up, it may be valuable to consider how fast conspiracy theories form and spread in the modern, supposedly more rational age: for instance, within hours of 9/11 (see Summers and Swan, The Eleventh Day), or seven years after the moon landing (Kaysing, We Never Went to the Moon, 1976).
That having four independent eyewitness accounts within a short time means the gospel stories are trustworthy
This is similar to the last point, but adds a twist. Doesn’t having multiple people saying the same thing (within a few decades) make something more likely to be true? This of course rests on the unproven and possibly false premise that the writers of the gospels were actually associates of an historical Jesus — the gospel writers could easily have been random people concocting fictions about him later on. It also assumes the gospel accounts are independent — that the later versions aren’t copies of Mark, or that all of them aren’t copies of some earlier text. This is a possibility. Finding Christian scholars who admit that we really have no idea who wrote the gospels, and acknowledge they may not be independent, is not difficult.
But even assuming that independent eyewitness accounts are actually independent eyewitness accounts, having four of them within a few decades does not necessarily mean a supernatural tale is more likely to be true. Consider the following examples in other faiths. Whether easily debunked or not, whether grand or small, miracle tales can be utter nonsense no matter how many independent eyewitnesses you have, no matter how close to the event the testimony is written down. (Or perhaps not. Perhaps faiths other than Christianity also experience real miracles, if the number of testimonies and years since the alleged event matter to authenticity.) The following examples also do away with the notion that the gospel claims are unique or special among faiths in their number of testimonies within X number of years.
The point is that these examples probably aren’t miracles; people may have witnessed things with natural, scientific explanations, but testified about them as if they were miracles. The gospels could easily be the same way. Or maybe the alleged eyewitnesses in these examples are making things up. Likewise, as stated, perhaps the gospels weren’t actually written by eyewitnesses of anything, but rather were stories that were simply invented. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.
THE MILK MIRACLE
A couple decades ago, Ganesha, the Hindu deity with the head of an elephant, performed an incredible miracle, global in scale. Newspapers around the world covered it. It was the Milk Miracle of 1995: statues of Ganesha everywhere began drinking milk. Plenty of first-hand accounts were documented in the book Loving Ganesha (1996), by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, guru and founder of Hinduism Today and the Saiva Siddhanta Church. The miracle story and eye-witness testimony from well over four people are included in the book’s preface, which you can read here. If more accounts increases reliability, is this story more reliable than gospel stories, by that standard?
Many of these eye-witnesses (who have rather respectable careers) are alive today who you could track down and question about this event, including, unless someone has recently passed:
Rajiv Malik, Hinduism Today reporter
Aran Veylan, lawyer and judge in Canada
P.C. Bhardwaj, Indian Army Vice Chief
Aparna Chattopadhyay, scientist at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute
Stories of modern supernatural events are really instructive. They deal a huge blow to the reasoning of apologetics. For instance, if the gospels are trustworthy because they were written only decades after Jesus’ death, rather than centuries, then the Milk Miracle tale is far, far more trustworthy than the gospels, by that standard — the eye-witness testimony appears only one year after the event!
Likewise, people argue that the gospels have to be factual because they were written while eye-witnesses and others described in the texts were still alive (otherwise, they would correct the falsehoods). Well, here we have the exact same situation. I suppose since the eye-witnesses are alive, and were alive when the book was written, the Milk Miracle must be true! Clearly, looking at this story, we understand that human beings will give independent eye-witness testimony to total nonsense. (Or is it? Is the god with the elephant head real?) That testimony can then be written down, while they’re alive. They can be around to confirm or deny all this. (We can prove, right now, whether these folks claim to be eye-witnesses and what they claimed to have seen in 1995; too bad we can’t hop on Twitter and ask the gospel writers, whoever they were. Wouldn’t a supernatural event with living eyewitnesses be more reliable than one without?) Eventually eye-witnesses die, and the opportunity to ever recant vanishes. Or, another possibility: decades or centuries later, recantation documentation gets lost (or destroyed) while the eyewitness testimony survives! Many possibilities exist. But the point is clear. This impenetrable link between eyewitness testimony/“the writing occurring while alleged eye-witnesses are alive” and the truth doesn’t actually exist.
And if all this can happen today, in a far more skeptical age full of advanced methods for finding and contacting eye-witnesses, there’s no question it could happen thousands of years ago, in more superstitious and primitive times (shorter lifespans to boot).
THE GOLDEN PLATES
There are four individuals who saw with their own eyes and attested that the angel Moroni, after years of promises, gave Joseph Smith gold plates of hieroglyphics (which contained the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ and all its well-known nonsense) in 1827 in New York. Joseph Smith (prophet) is one eye-witness. The other three are Oliver Cowdery (teacher), David Witmer (militia sergeant), and Martin Harris (farmer), who signed a joint statement together in 1829 that they had witnessed an angel showing off the gold plates, and heard the voice of the Lord speak from heaven. This statement was included in the primary Mormon holy book.
This isn’t my aim right now, but proving these four U.S. citizens existed and testified to this event would no doubt be vastly easier than proving who wrote the gospels and determining whether they were associates of Jesus. If so, that would make this story more believable than any apostles’ story, if such things affect the reliability of historical documents.
As with the gospels, we should be open to possibilities beyond dogmatic assumptions. Perhaps these eye-witnesses weren’t real, perhaps their claims are nonsense, perhaps they recanted later. But none of that matters. Their accounts are in the holy book forever. “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” is included in every Book of Mormon to this day (alongside “The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith”). The Mormons today simply assume these four eye-witnesses were real and telling the truth in 1829, precisely as Christians view Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
While these may not be accurately called four independent accounts (it’s more like two accounts endorsed by four people), it can be said Mormonism asserts four eye-witnesses to a supernatural event, dated to within a few decades. With only a two-year period for all this to occur, it’s far more likely to be true than any event in the gospels, if the size of the “event-first writing” gap actually has something to do with the authenticity of claims! This example is pretty insightful, because it shows how a new religion can be born from tales of complete fiction — even if there are supposed eye-witnesses, even if those named eye-witnesses are still alive at the time of writing, and on and on.
SATHYA SAI BABA
Sai Baba is God incarnate, a deity in the flesh, and is followed by Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and others around the world (“Sai” is a Persian word used by Muslims to mean a holy person, and “Baba” is Hindi for father). Being God, the Sai Baba, according to eyewitnesses, can levitate, remove and reattach body parts, raise people from the dead, make objects materialize, etc. The first Sai Baba incarnation was Shirdi Sai Baba (c. 1838-1918), who lived in India.
The next incarnation was Sathya Sai Baba (1926-2011). In the late 1940s, perhaps 1947, Sathya Sai Baba would stand on the hills near Puttaparti, India, and call forth a divine light, so brilliant and blinding that people fainted. The evenings would light up like it was day! It could grow so bright the divine figure would vanish from view. Sathya Sai Baba was in fact taking the form that the god Krishna had taken in the Bhagavad Gita.
How do we know for certain Sathya Sai Baba had such miraculous powers? Because 30 years later, in 1977 and the late 1970s in general, ten independent eye-witnesses gave their accounts to Erlendur Haraldsson of the University of Iceland. Witnesses like Krishna Kumar, Krishnamma, Suseelamma, Amarenda Kumar, and so forth. Throughout the book he put together, Haraldsson was sure to include as many details about his witnesses as he could, such as names, birthplaces, cities of residence, jobs, and family relations. If the gospels are reliable with four accounts (more so than stories with, say, one account), then ten must make these tales even more reliable! (One might also argue that Haraldsson, being a researcher separate from the faith, might be a less biased collector and preserver of eyewitness testimony; it was, after all, religious leaders who put together the Book of Mormon, the New Testament, and Loving Ganesha.)
Haraldsson’s collection of eye-witness testimony (Modern Miracles, 1987) of Sathya Sai Baba’s supernatural powers is honestly impressive in its scope. (See p. 257-263 here for the dazzling light story and testimonies.) He essentially devotes each chapter to a miraculous event or ability and finds as many independent eye-witness accounts as possible for each one — that’s the book’s sole purpose. Thus, there are more supernatural happenings that meet our criteria in this collection than just one, such as teleportation/super speed. Haraldsson and many witnesses in the book are still alive today, which again supposedly lends trustworthiness to any miraculous claim. (Or does it? Again, if people attest to fictions in the modern era, or in pre-Civil War America, they certainly did in Roman times as well.)
That Jesus’ disciples suffered and died preaching that Jesus rose from the dead, and they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t seen it happen
This was one of the arguments that Strobel, in The Case for Christ, said ultimately convinced him to become a believer, and it was something I took seriously for many years. It is another unproven premise.
First, for this argument to work you’d need to prove without a doubt Jesus was not a fictional character. It’s likely he wasn’t, as mentioned above, but it’s not unquestionable. After that obstacle you’d still have problems.
Yes, Christian tradition says Jesus’ 10 closest friends saw the resurrection and were martyred for preaching around the Roman Empire (Judas was obviously not among the martyrs, nor was John, who it is said died of natural causes). But the bible only mentions the actual death of one of these 10, as Christian sites admit: the apostle James, brother of John. In Acts 12:1-2 (written A.D. 70-90), James is among those killed who “belonged to the church.” (We don’t know if this was a willing death, a refusal to recant.) Another verse makes a prediction about another apostle, as we will see. But as explored above, the bible cannot be used as evidence for its own claims, any more than the Qu’ran could. What do non-biblical sources say concerning the disciples?
Unfortunately for this argument, there is no non-Christian source in our possession that mentions them at all. Thus far in the historical record of the ancient world, only members of the religion asserted their words, deeds, and very existence. Only one person close to Jesus — his brother James — is mentioned by a non-Christian historian, Josephus in A.D. 93, as being tried and put to death by the Sanhedrin for a violation of the law. But Josephus does not mention the specific violation, and the bible does not mention this James’ death. He was not among the 12 disciples.
So one has to look at Christian sources, but these are not terribly helpful. Christian apologist and professor John Oakes, writing for the Evidence for Christianity website, says that “the specifics of the deaths of most of the apostles is either unknown or based on a Christian tradition which is of questionable authority.” Here he is agreeing with Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and skeptic. Beyond the aforementioned James, Oakes believes the only apostle among the 12 with any good historical evidence of being killed is Peter. Ehrman seems to agree. Bob Luginbill, an apologist and academic who runs the Ichthys website, agrees with Oakes, while making a grave bias known: “Nothing outside the Bible can be taken as reliable.” Luginbill writes that “we know very little about the deaths of the twelve (apart from Judas, of course, and James).” Other instances of Christians admitting the uncertainty surrounding the apostles’ fates, and the contradictory stories concerning some of them, are not hard to find.
Here it’s valuable to bring in Sean McDowell, who wrote The Fate of the Apostles and, with Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. McDowell is a Christian who uses this argument, that the apostles being executed for their faith bolsters the likelihood of Jesus’ resurrection being fact. To that end, he compiles, in these works, the sources concerning the apostles’ deaths. Yet of the 10, he can only address Peter, James, Thomas, and Andrew. He adds in James, brother of Jesus, too. “It is difficult to know for sure what happened to the remaining apostles,” he explains. It’s worth looking at the earliest sources McDowell can present concerning the deaths of these five:
- Peter, died A.D. 64-67 — 1 Clement 5:1-4 (A.D. 96), John 21:18–19 (A.D. 90-100), The Apocalypse of Peter (A.D. 100), Letter to the Smyrneans 3:1-2 (A.D. 110), The Ascension of Isaiah (A.D. 100-150), The Apocryphon of James (A.D. 100-300). The other three sources listed are dated to the late second century or later.
- James, brother of John, died A.D. 44 — Acts 12:1-2 (A.D. 70-90). Two other sources are from centuries later.
- Thomas, died A.D. 72 — Acts of Thomas (A.D. 200-220). No further specific source mentioned.
- Andrew, died A.D. 60 — Acts of Andrew (A.D. 150-210). One other source came later.
- James, brother of Jesus, died A.D. 62 — Josephus’ Antiquities (A.D. 93). Three other sources come from the late second century and beyond.
(McDowell also addresses Paul. However, the bible does not make the case that Paul ever knew or saw Jesus while he was alive, and thus Paul doesn’t have as much relevance to this argument. The apostles and James allegedly spent time with Jesus in physical form before and after his execution, whereas Paul doesn’t seem to have spent any time with him until, some time after the execution, Jesus appears to Paul in a blinding light from heaven.)
The nature of these citations vary. Some are specific, others vague. Some state outright, others imply. Some reference the past, others predict the future (as discussed earlier, such prophesy isn’t too impressive — all these extant documents were written after the apostles died, meaning they may not contain any actual predictions). The Acts of Andrew and the Acts of Thomas have full stories of the crucifixions of those two. Acts and Antiquities plainly speak of executions that, if lacking detail, are over religious affiliations. In the Apocryphon of James, Jesus tells Peter and James “you have not yet been…crucified…as I myself was.” 1 Clement 5:1-6:1 and John 21:18–19 imply Peter was executed. Jesus tells Peter in the Apocalypse of Peter to go to Rome and “drink from the cup that I promised you at the hand of the son of the one who is in Hades” (assumed to mean Emperor Nero). Letter to the Smyrneans 3:1-3 suggests the apostles accepted death:
For myself, I am convinced and believe that even after the resurrection he was in the flesh. Indeed, when he came to Peter and his friends, he said to them, “Take hold of me, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless ghost.” And they at once touched him and were convinced, clutching his body and his very breath. For this reason they despised death itself, and proved its victors.
The Ascension of Isaiah doesn’t mention Peter at all, but rather “Of the Twelve one will be delivered into his hands” is believed to be the reference to him and his martyrdom at the order of Nero.
There are two important things to note here. First, as we saw in the last section with Islam, Mormonism, Scientology, and conspiracy theories, there is plenty of time between events and first writings to allow myth-making. These writers are not necessarily conveying facts. Clearly, their sources could have been fictional texts or tales from earlier years, or they may have invented the stories themselves.
That brings us to the second point, which many readers likely noticed: many of these sources are Gnostic. So are many of the unnamed ones. That is, these are Christian writings that the church later rejected as full of nonsense, not divine and thus not canon. In the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus gives Peter a tour of heaven and hell (where blasphemers hang by their tongues). The Ascension of Isaiah sees Isaiah get his own tour, led by an angel, of the seven heavens, and he later watches Jesus descend each heaven on his way to Earth to be born; in each heaven Jesus disguises himself in new forms to go unnoticed. Jesus reveals secret books to the apostles in the Apocryphon of James. In the Acts of Thomas, Jesus sells Thomas as a slave. These two men are in fact twins. In the Acts of Andrew, one of the titular character’s miracles is telling a woman pregnant with an illegitimate child to just believe in Christ and the baby would be born dead. Later, Andrew is crucified but preaches from the cross for three days. If these Gnostic texts are “of questionable authority” to Christians themselves, why should anyone take them as factual? Like the New Testament, there may be elements of real people and events in these works, but also much fiction, and deciding which category the apostles’ deaths fall into is arbitrary, solely for the convenience of argument.
As stated, the problem with this argument is that it relies on unproven premises. It simply assumes the existence of the apostles, their acquaintance with Jesus, and their martyrdoms over their professed beliefs. As hard as it may be to hear, the New Testament and other Christian writings of the time could be full of fiction. Perhaps the disciples were fictional characters, invented in the years or centuries after Jesus existed. Perhaps Peter and others were like Paul, who allegedly never met the historical Jesus and didn’t see a resurrection but died preaching about it anyway — unknowingly dying for untruths, as people of various religions have throughout human history. Perhaps, sword to the throat, the apostles recanted, admitting their conscious untruths, before being executed — not exactly something the church would publicize. Perhaps they were friends or allies of Christ, but went about their normal daily lives after his death, and fictional tales were concocted about them later. These are all real possibilities. Why are they less likely than someone coming back from the dead?
Because it cannot be established with certainty that the disciples were (1) historical figures (2) who knew Jesus and (3) died preaching his resurrection without refusal of recantation, this argument cannot be taken seriously.
That because we have more copies of the New Testament than any other ancient text, it is likely to be true
In this inane premise, the greater number of copies of a text somehow makes the original text less likely to be fictional.
So Christians argue that because archaeology has uncovered 24,000 copies of ancient New Testament manuscripts from multiple societies in multiple languages, and no other text even comes close (Homer’s Iliad, 700-800 years older than the New Testament, is in second place with just over 600 manuscripts), the miraculous stories of Jesus must be more likely to be true.
Well, to quote Barker, “What does the number of copies have to do with authenticity? If a million copies of [my] book [Godless] are printed, does that make it any more truthful?”
Indeed, if you were to write a book of fiction and thousands of years from now archaeologists dig up more copies of your work than any other, should your book be viewed as fact? If thousands of years from now more ancient copies of Harry Potter have been discovered than The Hunger Games, should the former be regarded as more true than the latter? If we take the New Testament most seriously because we have the most copies, should we then take second-place Iliad — with all its Greek gods and monsters — second-most seriously? Why should the work with the most copies be the only one taken seriously, if volume matters to validity? If the Iliad had the most copies in the world of any book before the New Testament came along, was the Greek religion then the one true religion? If one day man has somehow found more copies of Homer’s work than the New Testament, should that be viewed as more truthful?
Everyone understands that the number of copies don’t matter if the originals are full of falsities, when it comes to other religions anyway. “There are currently hundreds of millions of copies of the Koran in existence, in many forms and scores of translations,” Barker writes. “Does the sheer number of copies make it more reliable than, say, a single inscription on an Egyptian sarcophagus?”
A higher number of copies simply does not make the originals more likely to be nonfiction.
A similar argument is that because we have so many copies from the second and third centuries (the earliest copy of a gospel, or any New Testament text, is from the first half of the second century, a business card-sized fragment of John — Rylands’ Papyrus 52), we can be more confident of what the original texts said.
Obviously, a century or two is plenty of time to make significant changes, as the bible experienced in later centuries. But more importantly, whether the copies have many changes from the originals or none at all, this has nothing to do with validity either.
If it did, it would again be more sensible to be a Mormon, Scientologist, or Muslim. We don’t have any original New Testament gospel manuscripts, they were supposedly written 40 years after the events, and the earliest copy we have is from about a century after the events. But about 30% of Smith’s original manuscript exists, 100% of the printer’s copy survives, you can still buy first editions from 1830 at auctions, and it was written only seven years after the divine revelation. Even better, it was written less than 200 years ago (compared to 2,000) and we know published it: E.B. Grandin, 217 E. Main Street, Palmyra, New York. Scientology, with its 1950s texts, is likewise much better documented than the gospels. As noted, Islam has a Qu’ran manuscript written 13 years after Muhammad’s death — at the latest.
Weak or strong preservation of original texts through copies simply doesn’t matter. Perfect preservation wouldn’t make the originals nonfiction. Even if we had the originals they could be nonsense.
That the gospels are unique because they were the first stories of the supernatural deeply intertwined with historical fact, which makes the supernatural elements more likely to be true
This relates to what we’ve already noted, that religious texts likely contain some real people, events, and places mixed with fictional absurdities. Including Jerusalem or Pilate doesn’t mean someone rose from the dead. The above assertion, however, posits that the volume of historical detail in the gospels 1) make them unique compared to earlier tales of the divine and 2) make them more likely to be true because more details make stories more verifiable (if someone claims something happened in Jerusalem then people at the time could go there to investigate and interview witnesses).
All this is easily dismissed. First, even if the gospels had more historical details than any stories of the supernatural up to that point in human history (which may be utter nonsense) this fact would not make them any more credible. What of tales before the gospels that had the most historical details? Were they “more true” than texts that came before them? What of the stories after the gospels, from around the world? If they have more historical facts are they then more valid than the tales of Jesus?
Second, the level of historical detail in the gospels and other holy texts is difficult to measure, thus difficult to compare. The Sanhedrin was almost certainly a real body but did Joseph of Arimathea truly exist? Or was he a fictional character? The Sea of Galilee is real but did Peter exist to walk on it? The Roman Empire existed but would it really conduct a census where every man (millions of people) had to return to his birthplace, creating absolute chaos and contradicting the point of a census, which is not simply to see how many people you reign over but also where they currently live? The same problems exist in other tales: separating fact from fiction is a challenge. I don’t know of any analysis that lends credence to the notion that the gospels set a record for historical facts.
Third, with all the literature that existed before the gospels there are many texts that could be used to reveal the hopelessness of this argument. A Christian can say, “A writer wouldn’t say something happened when ‘Quirinius was governor of Syria,’ was witnessed by 500 people (‘most of whom are still alive’), or was caused by a well-known person like Paul if it wasn’t true. It would be too easy for people to investigate and discover it’s a lie or rumor.” Well, if we get to simply assume helpful details in texts are historical fact (such as Paul being well-known or existing at all), we can perform this same exercise to assert that the supernatural in, say, Homer’s Odyssey was true!
The Odyssey, written some 700-800 years before the gospels, is in the same format, with a cast of characters whose actions and words drive the narrative forward. It is full of both people who could have existed and events that could have happened alongside miracles, magic, monsters, and gods. The “level of detail” supports the precise same argument one could use for the gospels. We could easily say Homer, or whoever wrote the work, could not possibly have made anything up because the level of detail makes everything so verifiable to others.
For example, if it’s all a myth, why would you have your main character, Odysseus, be king of Ithaca? Kings can be questioned. Plus, people knew who was king and who wasn’t. Why have the king of Sparta as a character when Greeks who knew him could double-check to ensure accuracy? Why include the queen of Sparta, the former king of Mycenae, the king, queen, and princess of the Phaeacians? Why involve the king of Pylos? Why risk having as characters commanders of the attack on Troy, and soldiers who participated? Why have Menelaus, Nestor, and others? Why have your main character marry a queen and father a king? That lineage could be investigated, after all, like that of Christ. These characters are all so high-profile — even more so than characters in the gospels. Would one dare make up stories of the divine and include them in stories with real, famous people? Why set this adventure right after the war with Troy? Such a specific time would help people determine what was fabricated. Why mention locations, from Troy to Ithaca?
Again, some of these people, events, and places are likely fictional as well, but one gets the point! One could say the story has enough historical detail to argue all of it must be true because witnesses could verify and others could investigate. Homer had to be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But we know that is simply foolish to assume. The gospels are the precise same way. The argument that the level of detail means it all must be true because everything can be crosschecked doesn’t apply any better to them than it does to Homer’s book.
Now, one could argue Homer wrote this tale centuries after the events, much longer than the Jesus-gospels gap, but this same exercise can be done with other works around the globe before the time of Christ that have shorter gaps. (And we’ve already seen that short gaps between divine revelations and texts, wherein everything can be verified by “witnesses,” does not determine validity.)
That if you don’t regard the New Testament as accurate ancient reporting, you can’t regard any other ancient reporting as accurate
Well, at least we are moving in the right direction here. Indeed, ancient writings should be taken with a healthy amount of skepticism, especially if the author has a vested interest in glorifying someone’s life or deeds, whether a caesar or a “divine” religious leader, and doubly so if there aren’t alternative sources or archaeological finds supporting the specific claims.
Even so, it is nonsense to pretend like all ancient texts are the same — equally credible or incredible. Some ancient texts have gods, miracles, spirits, monsters, versions of heaven and hell, and so on. Others tell tales devoid of these things.
A text that claims a man performed a miracle cannot be held to the same standard as a text that claims a man conquered a foreign city. Why? Because extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. As human beings, we understand that the idea of a man leading an army into battle and seizing a city is not an extraordinary claim. We are free to be skeptical of the source or doubt the event, but we accept that conquering others is not supernatural and has occurred many times in human history. The claim that a man performed miracles like raising the dead, or was a deity himself, is an extraordinary claim. It requires much more skepticism than a simple history of a battle precisely because it is a supernatural event being described. It requires more proof to believe precisely because it is so unbelievable, given what we know about the natural world and what human beings are normally capable of.
Even a Christian would rightly hold something like The Odyssey, full of gods, sirens, and cyclopses, to a different standard than he or she might hold Julius Caesar’s The African Wars, an account of his conquests that could be full of self-glorifying embellishments yet does not mention gods or supernatural happenings at all. One would certainly hold something like the Qu’ran to a different standard than, say, Sima Qian’s Basic Annals of the First Emperor of the Qin, a Chinese history that only mentions gods and spirits when describing what a person believed — it doesn’t credit the supernatural with real events.
The different standards would be applied sensibly to modern texts, too (think of Hubbard’s ludicrous works). If someone wrote a book describing how she had encountered four gods who each spend three-quarters of the year resting and one-quarter controlling a season (in certain parts of the world), this book would be taken much less seriously than one where a woman describes her journey to South America and how she was kidnapped.
It is fine to doubt both, but one is held to a very different standard because it is much more believable and can be proven with much less evidence — in fact, it can be proven, period, unlike stories of gods and miracles.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. That is why I cannot “just have faith.” It is why I am an atheist.