McDowell’s Trilemma – Part 1: An Eternally Bodiless Person

Here are the basic premises of McDowell’s Trilemma Argument (hereafter: MTA), from The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (hereafter: NETDV by Josh McDowell:

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…Jesus definitely claimed to be God (see below and in Chapter 6).  So every person must answer the question: Is His claim to deity true or false?  This question deserves a most serious consideration.

[…]

Jesus’ claim to be God must be either true or false.  If Jesus’ claims are true, then He is the Lord, and we must either accept or reject His lordship.  We are “without excuse.”

If Jesus’ claims to be God were false, then there are just two options: He either knew His claims were false, or He did not know they were false. …

If, when Jesus made His claims, He knew He was not God, then He was lying. But if He was a liar, then He was also a hypocrite, because He told others to be honest, whatever the cost, while He, at the same time, was teaching and living a colassal lie.   (NETDV, p.158-159)

…for someone to think he was God, expecially in a culture that was fiercely monotheistic, and then to tell others that their eternal destiny depends on believing in him, was no slight flight of fantasy but the thoughts of a lunatic in the fullest sense.  (NETDV, p.160-161)

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The first key premise of MTA is this:

  1. Jesus claimed to be God.

This first premise appears to be false.  Jesus did NOT claim to be God.  Or, to be more accurate, there is no good reason to believe that Jesus claimed to be God.  That is to say, none of the canonical Gospels report Jesus as having asserted the claim “I am God” nor the claim “Jesus of Nazareth is God”, nor the claim “God and I are the same person”, nor the claim “God and I are the same being”, nor the claim “The Messiah is God, and I am the Messiah”, nor the claim “The Son of Man is God, and I am the Son of Man”.   Strictly speaking, none of the canonical Gospels report that Jesus claimed to be God, so premise (1) is probably false.

However, it is possible to IMPLY that a person is God without saying so directly, so it is possible that Jesus IMPLIED that he was God, but did so without saying so directly.  To determine whether Jesus IMPLIED this, we need to understand the meaning of the following sentence:

JIG: Jesus of Nazareth is God.

In order to understand (JIG), we need to understand the meaning of a more basic sentence:

G: God exists.

Here is my analysis of claim (G):

God exists IF AND ONLY IF there is exactly one person P such that:

(a) P is an eternally bodiless person, and
(b) P is an eternally omnipotent person, and
(c) P is an eternally omniscient person, and
(d) P is an eternally perfectly morally good person, and
(e) P is the creator of the universe.

So, the meaning of (JIG) can be analyzed in similar terms:

Jesus of Nazareth is God IF AND ONLY IF:

(a) Jesus of Nazareth is an eternally bodiless person, and
(b) Jesus of Nazareth is an eternally omnipotent person, and
(c) Jesus of Nazareth is an eternally omniscient person, and
(d) Jesus of Nazareth is an eternally perfectly morally good person, and
(e) Jesus of Nazareth is the creator of the universe.

So, for Jesus to clearly IMPLY that he was God, Jesus would have to make the following claims:

I am an eternally bodiless person, and an eternally omnipotent person, and an eternally omniscient person, and an eternally perfectly morally good person, and I am the creator of the universe.

Does Jesus assert these claims according to the canonical Gospels?

  • There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts all five of these claims.
  • There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts four of these claims.
  • There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts three of these claims.
  • There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts two of these claims.
  • There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts one of these claims.

What if we weaken these claims by dropping the qualifier “eternally”? The weaker divine attributes would still work to INDICATE that Jesus was God, so  Jesus could INDICATE that he was God by making the following claims:

I am a bodiless person, and an omnipotent person, and an omniscient person, and a perfectly morally good person, and I am the creator of the universe.

Does Jesus assert these weaker divine-attribute claims according to the canonical Gospels?

  • There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts all five of these claims.
  • There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts four of these claims.
  • There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts three of these claims.
  • There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts two of these claims.
  • There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts one of these claims.

There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus asserts that he has any of these basic divine attributes.  Thus, Jesus did NOT directly claim to be God, and Jesus also did NOT clearly IMPLY that he was God, nor does Jesus clearly INDICATE that he was God, based on the words and teachings of Jesus found in the canoncial Gospels.

Someone might object that I am imposing a modern conception of “God” on Jesus, and that Jesus might have had a different understanding of the meaning of the word “God” than what is presented above in my analysis of the sentence “God exists”.  But based on the words and teachings of Jesus as presented in the canonical Gospels, it appears that Jesus would probably agree with my analysis of “God exists”:

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God is spirit…   (John 4:24) This implies that God is a bodiless person.

… for God all things are possible.  (Mark 10:27)  This implies that God is an omnipotent person.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.   (Matthew 10:29-30)  This implies that God is an omniscient person.

And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matthew 5:47-48)   This implies that God is a perfectly morally good person.

No one is good but God alone. (Mark 10:18)  This implies that God is a perfectly morally good person).

For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.  (Mark 13:19)   This implies that God was the creator of the universe.

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’  (Mark 10:6)  Jesus quotes from Genesis here implying that he accepts the inspiration and truth of the Genesis account of creation, and this account asserts that God created the  the universe.

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Although Jesus does not use the terms “bodiless person” or “omnipotent” or “omniscient” or “perfectly morally good” or “the creator of the universe”, he does say things that are very similar in meaning, and that strongly suggest these ideas.  So, it appears that the concept of “God” that is present in the words and teachings of Jesus (according to the canonical Gospels) corresponds closely with my analysis of the sentence “God exists”, even though Jesus does not use any of the key terms in my analysis of “God exists”.

But, since Jesus can suggest or indicate these various divine attributes without using the specific terms in my analysis (i.e. “bodiless person”, “omnipotent”, “omniscient” etc.), perhaps he claimed to possess one or more of these divine attributes without using the specific terms found in my analysis of “God exists”.

Jesus does not speak of God as a “bodiless person”, but he does speak of God as a “spirit”, which implies that God is a “bodiless person”.  Does Jesus ever claim to be a “spirit”?  There are no passages in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus claims to be a spirit.  There are, however, passages where Jesus implies that he is NOT a spirit:

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Mark 14:8
She has done what she could; she has anointed my body [Jesus’s body] beforehand for its burial.
[Jesus clearly refers to his own body here, implying that he is NOT a spirit.]

Mark 14:22
22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”
[At the Last Supper, Jesus allegedly hinted at his soon-to-come death by crucifixion, and used the bread to symbolize his body and his physical death.]

Mark 14:37-39
37 He came and found them sleeping; and he [Jesus] said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?
38 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.
[This implies that Jesus himself was praying because he had “flesh”, i.e. a body, and that having a body made Jesus subject to temptation.]

Luke 24:39
39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
[When Jesus allegedly appeared to his disciples after rising from the dead, they thought he was a ghost, but Jesus insisted that he still had “flesh and bones”.]

John 20:27
27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
[After his alleged resurrection, Jesus invites doubting Thomas to touch wounds in his hands and his side.  Clearly Jesus implies that he has hands and has a side, which means that Jesus had a body and was NOT a spirit.]

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Since I don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, I view the passages above from Luke 24 and John 20 as fictional.  However, a Christian believer does not have this interpretation as a viable option.  If a Christian grants me that Luke 24 and John 20 are fictional stories, then the case for the resurrection is seriously damaged, if not completely destroyed.

Because Jesus NEVER claims to be a “bodiless person”, and NEVER claims to be a “spirit”, and because Jesus repeatedly asserts that he has a physical body made of “flesh and bones”, Jesus clearly implied that he was NOT a spirit and NOT a bodiless person.  Therefore, Jesus clearly implied that he was NOT God.

In the next post on this subject, we will look at more of the divine attributes and determine whether Jesus used alternative terminology to imply that he possessed one or more of those attributes.

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