Everything Iʼve said to this point you might describe as the negative reasons for my not being an atheist — things which others ﬁnd persuasive about atheism which I donʼt ﬁnd persuasive.
But the strongest reason I refrain from choosing atheism is because of Jesus. I suppose itʼs natural for someone like myself to be categorised as a ʻtheistʼ, but I feel no particular attachment to theism per se. I am a Christian — if I am a theist, it is not because I have highly developed arguments for theism which have led me there. It is because I am convinced — rightly or wrongly — that God took on human form in the man Jesus Christ, and that he did so in order to save humanity from his own judgement.
But again atheism is quick to expose my convictions as a delusion.
“Although Jesus probably existed, reputable biblical scholars do not in general regard the New Testament (and obviously not the Old Testament) as a reliable record of what actually happened in history…” (The God Delusion, p. 122)
Why do I hold on to my convictions about the historicity of Jesus Christ when there is so
much scholarship indicating itʼs a myth generated over time?
Well, the thing about this scholarship Dawkinsʼ talks about is that it doesnʼt actually exist.
I donʼt mean that there are NO scholars that propose the kind of things Dawkinsʼ says, but that the claim that ʻreputable biblical scholars in generalʼ say this kind of thing is just not defensible. There are SOME scholars who make those kind of claims, and often do so not in journals but in publishing direct to the public.
But reading a little more widely than just Richard Dawkins, and Barbara Thiering, you discover that within scholarship itself there is large ʻmiddle groundʼ which just gets on and analyses the NT documents in just the same way you would analyse any other document from history — neither to debunk nor to defend Christianity, but to see what they say historically. Sweeping claims that that scholarship slants towards a mythological reading of those gospels is just absurd. It shows that Dawkins is not acquainted with serious historical scholarship, or chooses not to write about.
Terry Eagleton is a marxist scholar who wrote a justly famous review of Dawkins book. In it he had this to say about Dawkinsʼ engagement with scholarship:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they donʼt believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a ﬁrst-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday. – Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, London Review of Books, October 19, 2006.
In talking about Jesus, I need to address that historical question, because you may be expecting me to defend my convictions about the historical Jesus. But I would suggest the shoe is on the other foot — if you are convinced of the mythology of the gospels, and heir mutilation over time … where have those convictions come from? Why are you so sure of them? Is it because you understand the history, or because you have taken on faith the claims of certain scholars and writers? I know you can run off to the web, or pull out the God Delusion and ﬁnd someone who agrees with you — but Christians can do that too.
Finding someone to agree with you can help, but it doesnʼt make it right.
For me, there is good reason to understand the documents of the New Testament as providing a historically reliable connection with Jesus Christ. The documents were written by eyewitness, or were the words of the eyewitnesses written down within the lifetime of those who had lived with Jesus. There were many other gospels, but these were second century documents that synthesised the original Jesus with 2nd century gnosticism — which was the reason for their rejection. The transmission of the documents was not without error, but there are so many copies of the NT from different periods and different regions that the copying errors are pretty easy to identify, and very few of them are of any real signiﬁcance.
Now they are just claims, and there is historical data behind those claims — I did a whole talk on it at CU last semester called “True Words?”— you can listen to it on CUʼs website if you want.
So when I say that Jesus is the deﬁnitive reason that Iʼm not an atheist, I hope you donʼt think to yourself, Well heʼs just deluded, and has an imaginary friend called Jesus, or that Iʼm worshipping some later myth about Jesus. When I say Jesus, I mean the real historical Jesus who I think it is plausible to believe was a man who claimed to be both the son of God and the saviour of the world.
But itʼs not Jesusʼ historicity — itʼs Jesus himself who is the main reason why I interpret atheism’s claims negatively.
I donʼt worship Jesus because Iʼve got good arguments about him — I worship him because he is supremely worthy of worship. He is the creator who has written himself into his creation. I hope you will forgive me if I speak about him!
He claimed to be without sin; he claimed to be God, and did things that only God could do; he claimed to be the only path to reconciliation with God. It was because of those claims that Jesus was treated without compassion. He wasnʼt cruciﬁed for telling people to love each other — but for claiming to be the king! He was lied about, arrested, endured a mock trial, beaten, whipped, nailed to a cross and a crowd mocked him and spat on him. In the face of that rejection, on the cross, his concern was for the forgiveness of his enemies. In his death, he paid a penalty, enduring our death for us – that we could be forgiven. The creator died for us in order to reconcile us to himself.
Jesus confronts us: he says we are corrupt, not just morally, but intellectually. That in cut
ting ourselves off from God we have forced ourselves into a position of having to invent
alternative explanations for the world that donʼt include God.
So I have a choice — I can listen to what the atheist says about Jesus (a mythological ﬁgure, misunderstood by Christians), or listen to what Jesus says about the atheist (humans loved by God but in rebellion against him creating philosophies with which to remove Godʼs inﬂuence). Each has an explanatory power about the other — itʼs not an easy decision. I am not an atheist, because I have listened to Jesus and for my part, I am persuaded he speaks truth.