I’m always looking for an innovative new argument for Christian claims, and “Jesus Christ: Greater Than You Knew, Too Great Not To Be True” by Tom Gilson didn’t disappoint. It didn’t disappoint because I expected it to be unpersuasive.
And my quest continues . . .
While we’re here, however, let’s take a look at Gilson’s argument. The key point, as you might guess from the title, is that Jesus is perfect—too perfect to be merely literature or legend. He illustrates this with three questions.
1. Who are the most powerful characters in all of human history and imagination?
He proposes Andrew Carnegie, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Superman. A few additional names come to mind, so I’ll add John Connor from the Terminator movies, the Watchmen (comics heroes), Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.
Gilson wants to add Jesus to this list, but let’s consider this. He would say that Jesus was God and therefore the creator of everything. Let’s ignore the fact that the Trinity was an invention centuries after the gospels and consider what God supposedly created. In Genesis 1, God shapes Play-Doh to make the water-dome world of the Sumerians. The stars are insignificant in this story and their creation gets a single word in the original, though science tells us that the entire universe is 1027 times more massive than the earth.
The actual universe is impressive, but God’s art project is minor by comparison. We can add Jesus/God, but remember the tiny “universe” he’s credited with creating.
2. Who are the most self-sacrificial, other-oriented, giving, and caring persons?
Gilson suggests Mother Teresa and Sir Galahad. (He clearly views Teresa as the saint that many Christians imagine rather than the controversial figure who celebrated suffering when she could have healed disease.)
We don’t need fiction or mythology to find self-sacrifice. The internet is full of stories of actual heroes who put themselves in danger to rescue strangers from drowning or from burning buildings. There are military personnel who died to save their comrades. A famous example within Christian circles is Maximilian Kolbe, a friar imprisoned in Auschwitz who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger.
About the unsung heroism in everyday life, author Peggy Noonan said,
The bravest things we do in our lives are usually known only to ourselves. No one throws ticker tape on the man who chose to be faithful to his wife, on the lawyer who didn’t take the drug money, or the daughter who held her tongue again and again.
Taking the noble or self-sacrificing path is a big deal for most people because we have a choice. Gilson, of course, wants to add Jesus to this list, but his sacrifice isn’t as substantial as Gilson wants to imagine. Jesus didn’t experience any agonizing choice; he simply knew the right path and took it. His sacrifice was a painful weekend—frankly, not that big a deal.
3. Who belongs on both lists?
Gilson proposes Gandalf and Superman for this category but imagines Jesus standing alone, unrivaled in both history and fiction as “a character of unparalleled power and self-sacrifice, with no mar or imperfection of any sort.”
But there are other contenders. Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars sacrificed himself for the benefit of Luke and the rebel cause—and this was the old-fashioned, died-and-stayed-dead kind of sacrifice. Neo from The Matrix trilogy sacrificed his life to save the city of Zion. Shiva is a Hindu god who drank poison to protect the universe.
My choice for this category is Prometheus, the god who brought fire to mankind. He was punished by being chained to a rock and having an eagle eat his liver each day, only to have it regrow overnight for the agonizing process to repeat. (And Christians think that Jesus had it rough.)
What did Jesus do?Jesus gave us salvation, a solution to a problem he invented, while Prometheus gave us fire, something that’s actually objectively useful.
If we separate Jesus from the rest of the Trinity and look at just what the New Testament tells us, Jesus didn’t do much. He killed a fig tree. He cured some lepers. He raised Lazarus. Sure, Jesus cured by magic, and that’s pretty cool, but he did less good in his healing ministry than a single modern doctor does. He didn’t eliminate smallpox, for example, but modern medicine did.
Of course, the New Testament is where we see the doctrine of hell, though I’m not sure that’s much to celebrate.
Gilson scratches his head trying to figure out the skeptical alternative to the Christian interpretation. We have a story that was transmitted orally for decades as it moved from Jewish culture into a new Greek culture (which already had examples of dying-and-rising gods, virgin birth, and other elements found in the gospel story), and you can’t see how legend could explain this? What’s left unexplained? It’s like Gilson has never heard of any new religion developing.
He marvels at the power of the gospel story, but why is that surprising? It was polished through retellings for decades before being written, and then reinterpreted for centuries as church fathers haggled over points of doctrine. Even now, Christians can’t agree on what the Bible says, the essential doctrine of the Trinity isn’t understood but taken as a “mystery,” and new denominations spring up at a rate of two per day.
The problem with Gilson’s apologetic
Gilson is a Jesus fanboy, and he has an inflated view of the contribution of Jesus. He tells us that any other literary or historical sacrifice “[pales] beside the sacrifice of Christ.” He was “a character of moral excellence beyond any other in all history or human imagination.” No competing story gets the “crucial aspect of Jesus’ character—his perfect power and perfect goodness—exactly right, without flaw.”
I think we’ve found the problem. Was Jesus that great? Not if you read the gospels.
- Jesus didn’t stop slavery, didn’t reject polygamy, and didn’t denounce God’s genocide in the Old Testament. Gilson acknowledges without rebuttal that Jesus did nothing to address the social ills that we reject today.
- Jesus wanted faith without evidence, as in the Doubting Thomas story (“blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed”).
- Jesus said that his mission was only to the “lost sheep of Israel” and cautioned his disciples to avoid wasting time with those who couldn’t appreciate the message (remember “don’t cast your pearls before swine”?).
- Jesus predicted the end in the lifetime of his hearers: “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (keep in mind that “these things” includes the stars falling from the sky).
- Jesus demanded single-minded devotion (“those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples”).
- Jesus demanded faith instead of planning for the future (“take no thought for the morrow”; “do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear”).
It may be that Jesus towers over all other figures from history and fiction in Gilson’s mind, but the gospel story itself shows him to be a not-especially-perfect deity. The Jesus story is nicely explained as legendary development.
A thorough knowledge of the bible
is worth about as much
as a thorough knowledge of Harry Potter.
— JT Eberhard
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/7/14.)