The Language of God: Truth Seekers

The Language of God, Chapter 11

By B.J. Marshall

Aside from summarizing the points he’s made in previous chapters, Collins uses this final chapter as his last chance to be a Christian apologist, but he surprisingly leaves the door open for other options.

First, I feel compelled to highlight Collins’ honesty. He states that, after twenty eight years as a believer, “the Moral Law still stands out for me as the strongest signpost to God” (p.218). I appreciate the candor because it’s sometimes difficult for theists to articulate the single best reason they have to believe in God. But here, Collins is explicitly drawing a line in the sand: The Moral Law is the single and best reason why he believes in God. Now, I’m not saying that he’d have plenty of other claims to fall back on if someone were to refute his A-game. But I appreciate him laying out what his A-game is.

In a subsection of this chapter entitled “What Kind of Faith?”, Collins give us this gem:

Most of the world’s great faiths share many truths, and probably they would not have survived had that not been so. Yet there are also interesting and important differences, and each person needs to seek out his own particular path to the truth” (p.219).

I’m not exactly sure what he means by “share many truths,” since “truth” and “idea” could be interchangeable here given the lack of validating those “truths.” Maybe multiple religions share the same truth that it’s OK to beat your slave if that slave doesn’t die after a day or two (Exodus 21). That these great faiths would not have survived for so long had they not been touching the “truth” is a textbook case of an Argument from Antiquity or Tradition. This argument basically says that the fact that an idea has been around for a long time implies that the idea is true. I have heard this often from acupuncturists: “It’s been around for thousands of years, so it must have something going for it.” However, the longevity of an idea does not necessarily correlate to its, to use a Stephen Colbert term, truthiness.

Many times in this book we’ve noted cases where naturalistic phenomena are completely explained, and yet Collins feels compelled to invoke God. I found it interesting that Collins states that each person needs to seek out his/her own particular path to the truth without invoking the caveat that one had better choose Jesus unless one wants to burn in Hell forever. Would Collins be cool with someone choosing a “path to the truth” that involves a deistic god that doesn’t intervene in the world? Given that Collins’ truth “can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul” (p.204), I suppose he’d have to. It reminds me of Shepherd Book’s final words in Serenity: “I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.”

But, still, Jesus is where it’s at. Collins says he spent considerable time discerning God’s characteristics. God “must care about persons, or the argument about the Moral Law would not make much sense” (p.219). Collins seems here to have started as his conclusion – the Moral Law exists – and worked backwards from it to posit a premiss that he insists is true, that there is a God who cares about people. This is backwards logic: Affirming the Consequent. It may very well be the case that, if a God exists (p) then there would be a Moral Law (q). However, q could obtain through means other than p. So, by saying “q therefore p” is an inference that Collins makes to his, and his readers’, detriment.

Anyway, now we have this God who cares about people. Well, God is way above us sinful humans, so Collins was having a really hard time bridging the gap to God. Enter Jesus. “As I read the actual account of His life for the first time in the four gospels, the eyewitness nature of the narratives and the enormity of Christ’s claims and their consequences began to sink in” (p.221). I think I only have space to touch briefly three problems this sentence poses: the accounts aren’t actual, they’re not from eyewitnesses, and the enormity of the claims count for nothing given the lack of extra-Biblical references.

Regarding actual accounts, I find the statement relating to four actual accounts as specious given that Matthew and Luke take 93% of their material verbatim from Mark, according to a presentation (Which Jesus?) by Jeremy Beahan of the Reasonable Doubts podcast.

Regarding eyewitnesses, Burton L. Mack, in “Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth” provides a timeline of the gospel authors based on the earliest manuscripts we have:

  • Mark was written around 70-80 CE and relied on the Q source in Galilee, the miracle stories in northern Palestine, and the kerygma in north Syria. Those three sources to Mark came about some 20-30 years after Jesus.
  • Matthew and John were written around 90-100 CE.
  • Luke was written around 120 CE.

The testimony of eyewitnesses is on incredibly shaky ground. You’ve probably all seen this video of kids – some in white t-shirts and some in black t-shirts, passing basketballs to one another. You’re told to count how many times some team bounces the ball. Meanwhile, a person in a gorilla suit walks in the middle, thumps its chest, and walks off. I attended an IT conference last year where this was done. The audience was then asked how many people saw a gorilla. Seriously, out of 1,500 well-educated IT professionals, a full third of them did NOT see the gorilla! Eyewitnesses can be amazingly fallible; “eyewitnesses” recounting their stories decades after the fact is just asking for fallibility.

Regarding the enormity of the claims, Collins also gives a quick reference to Josephus as among the “non-Christian historians of the first century” who bear witness to this Jesus guy. He doesn’t say who the other non-Christian historians are, but Josephus’ hat tip to Jesus is generally recognized as a Christian interpolation; a section in the Testimonium Flavianum reads like a Holy Bullet List of Christology: He was crucified, died, rose from the dead, appeared to them on the third day, “as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him”. The lack of good, sound extra-biblical evidence for the enormity of the claims leaves me with the Bible to prove itself, which is illustrated nicely in this comic.

Collins references one scholar who said “The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar” (p.224). Interesting, then, that a ton more information is written about Julius Caesar than Jesus (apart from the Bible, that is), and yet Caesar was considered a god after his death; sadly, I don’t see anyone worshipping Caesar anymore. It is possible to separate the actual history of whether a person existed from claims that the person was, in fact, a god.

Collins concludes this chapter, and this book, with a final word. I will save this for my next, and last, post in this series.

Other posts in this series:

Bangladesh Is Killing Atheists
The Rebirth of Nullification in Alabama
Atlas Shrugged: Hobo Sign
Book Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • kagerato

    Can you imagine if we based everything we know about Caesar on William Shakespeare’s play? That’s the equivalent move Christians take when they derive the truth of Jesus’ life from the Bible.

    (I’d like to head off one criticism of this comparison: Shakespeare’s writing was a lot better than the Bible.)

  • Ralf Muschall

    Are you sure that the timing of the gospels as given above is right? The common theory is that Mark did not know Q and wrote around 70[1], Matthew and Luke knew Mark’s text and Q and wrote around 90, and John wrote around 120.

    [1] Mark has the temple stuff (Mk 13:2) which happened in 72, but there are theories that it might be older.

  • Daryl

    Hi Ralf

    Dating the Gospels is pretty much guess work and conjecture,although there’s probably a majority of scholars that places them between 70-90 CE (this may be more down to the wishful hope that there were still eyewitnesses alive whilst they were being written). Dating Luke later than John (and well into the 2nd century) is more unusual and perhaps scandalous to fundamentalists. This may reflect the current tendency to date the Book of Acts – also written by the author of Luke – in the 2nd century. But it all really depends on whether you read conservative or liberal scholars…

    If one was relying on when the gospels received unambiguous external attestation – ie when they were first mentioned by someone else – then one would date all of them to the middle of the 2nd century at the earliest. This sound methodological practice, used commonly in other fields of ancient history when dating is uncertain, is unacceptable in much biblical scholarship, it seems.

  • juggler_dave

    If Collins is being quoted accurately, his stated belief in “…the eyewitness nature of the narratives…” is contradicted by his interview with Bill Maher for Religulous. In that interview, Collins says that the new testament “… reads to me as the record of eyewitnesses…”. Maher says “you know they weren’t eyewitnesses”. Collins replies that they were close to that and that they were within a couple of decades of eyewitnesses. According to the IMDb website, Religulous came out in 2008. When was the Collins book written? Either he lied in his book or he now knows that what he said in the book isn’t true.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Josephus: Yes, the passage he wrote about Jesus was clearly fake, as is widely acknowledged by historians. Beyond that, Josephus could not possibly have met Jesus as he was not born until 37 AD, while Jesus was allegedly crucified, resurrected and left the planet in ~ 33 AD. The most he could do is verify the existence of the early Christian church, which is quite different from verifying Jesus’ existence, let alone his divine nature.

    Caesar: We have writings by Caesar. We have coins with his picture on them, minted during his lifetime. We have writings to and about Caesar by others living at the same time. In contrast, Jesus left no writings of his own, and all we have are the accounts written by true believers several decades later, some of which are clearly derivative (as you noted) and others which differ considerably in their account of events (the gnostic gospels).

  • Leon Baradat

    “As I read the actual account … the enormity of Christ’s claims and their consequences began to sink in”

    I find it odd that he would point to the enormities in the Gospels as evidence for Christianity. Enormity doesn’t mean something enormous; it means something wicked or evil. So while there are enormities in the Gospels–the invention of Hell, Christ disrespecting his mother and brothers (in violation of the Fifth Commandment), cursing a gentile who begged him to heal her sick child, etc.–I find them convincing evidence against Christianity.