This is an installment of my series of replies to an article by Dr. David Madison: a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, who has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. It’s called, “Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said” (Debunking Christianity, 7-21-19). His words will be in blue below. Dr. Madison makes several “generic” digs at Jesus and Christianity, in the written portion (it details a series of 12 podcasts):
A challenge for Christians: If you’re so sure Jesus existed, then you have some explaining to do. A major frustration is that, while believers are indignant at all the talk about Jesus not existing, they don’t know the issues that fuel the skepticism—and are unwilling to inform themselves.
Yes, I’m up to the “challenge.” No problem at all. I’m not threatened or “scared” by this in the slightest. It’s what I do, as an apologist. The question is whether Dr. Madison is up to interacting with counter-critiques? Or will he act like the voluminous anti-theist atheist polemicist Bob Seidensticker?: who directly challenged me in one of his own comboxes to respond to his innumerable attack-pieces against Christianity and the Bible, and then courageously proceeded to utterly ignore my 35 specific critiques of his claims as of this writing. We shall soon see which course Dr. Madison will decide to take. Anyway, he also states in his post and combox:
[S]o many of the words of Jesus are genuinely shocking. These words aren’t proclaimed much from the pulpit, . . . Hence the folks in the pews have absorbed and adored an idealized Jesus. Christian apologists make their livings refiguring so many of the things Jesus supposedly said.
The gospels are riddled with contradictions and bad theology, and Jesus is so frequently depicted as a cult fanatic—because cult fanatics wrote the gospels. We see Jesus only through their theological filters. I just want to grab hold of Christian heads (standing behind them, with a hand on each ear) and force them to look straight ahead, unflinchingly, at the gospels, and then ask “Tell me what you see!” uncoached by apologist specialists, i.e., priests and pastors, who’ve had a lot of practice making bad texts look good. . . . I DO say, “Deal with the really bad stuff in the gospels.” Are you SURE you’ve not make a big mistake endorsing this particular Lord and Savior? That’s the whole point of this series of Flash Podcasts, because a helluva lot of Christians would agree, right away, that these quotes are bad news—if no one told then that they’ve been attributed to Jesus.
Of course, Dr. Madison — good anti-theist atheist that he is — takes the view that we are not at all sure whether Jesus in fact said anything recorded in the Gospels in the first place. I don’t play that game, because there is no end to it. It’s like trying to pin jello to the wall. The atheist always has their convenient out (when refuted in argument about some biblical text) that Jesus never said it anyway [wink wink and sly patronizing grin], and/or that the biblical text in question was simply added later by dishonest ultra-biased Christian partisans and propagandists. It’s a silly and ultimately intellectually dishonest game, and so I always refuse to play it with atheists or anyone else, because there is no way to “win” with such an absurdly stacked, purely subjective deck.
In my defense of biblical texts, I start with the assumption that the manuscripts we have are quite sufficient for us to know what is in the Bible (believe it or not). Going on from there, I simply defend particular [supposedly “difficult”] texts, and note with appropriate argumentation, that “here, the Bible teaches so-and-so,” etc. I deal with the texts as they exist. I don’t get into the endlessly arbitrary, subjective games that atheists and theologically liberal biblical skeptics play with the texts, in their self-serving textual criticism.
Dr. Madison himself (fortunately) grants my outlook in terms of practical “x vs. y” debate purposes: “For the sake of argument, I’m willing to say, okay, Jesus was real and, yes, we have gospels that tell the story.” And in the combox: “So, we can go along with their insistence that he did exist. We’ll play on their field, i.e., the gospels.”
Good! So we shall examine his cherry-picked texts and see whether his interpretations of them can stand up to scrutiny. He is issuing challenges, and I as an apologist will be dishing a bunch of my own right back to him. Two can play this game. I will be dealing honestly with his challenges. Will he return the favor, and engage in serious and substantive dialogue? Again, we’ll soon know what his reaction will be. A true dialogue is of a confident, inquisitive, “nothing to fear and everything to gain” back-and-forth and interactive nature, not merely “ships passing in the night” or what I call “mutual monologue.”
Dr. Madison’s tenth podcast of twelve is entitled: “On Mark 11:22-24, Jesus gets demerits for saying this about prayer.” Here is the latest “outrageous” saying of Jesus (or, oops, the fanatical cultist evangelists who supposedly made up His words):
Mark 11:22-24 (RSV) And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, `Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
This is a shallow, silly promise, and Jesus gets major demerits for this. . . . Jesus was wrong. . . . How much damage has this teaching caused? How many very devout people have prayed with all their might for a sick child to be cured, but the child dies? And then — far from blaming God for not delivering — they beat up on themselves for not having (you guessed it) enough faith. This damages people. This is harmful religion. . . . Jesus sounds like countless other cult fanatics that have come and gone in human history. . . . Why aren’t Christians themselves shocked by the cheap gimmickry? . . . baloney that Jesus has taught about prayer . . .
First of all, of course this — especially the “mountain” reference — is a use of hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point), which we have thoroughly dealt with in installment one of this series of twelve rebuttals, and so need not reiterate here. It’s simply exaggeration, to make the literal point: “you can do some truly extraordinary things through faith and prayer.”
And (equally obvious) we all speak like this today, all the time. We observe people who are rather confident in their abilities in various areas, who will say, “I can do anything!” No one takes it literally. Or one can think of married couples who truly believe that their love can “conquer all”, or a parent telling a child who is now a young man or woman, considering a career: “you can do anything you want with your life. The sky’s the limit!”
These things are common because exaggeration or hyperbole is present in all languages and cultures. The problem is that a double standard is often applied to the Bible and Jesus: as if the ordinary complex aspects of language somehow don’t apply in those cases. They do; and this double standard or miscomprehension is the cause of countless atheist errors and fallacies in their endless polemical attacks.
Ironically, in this very podcast, Dr. Madison was discussing the parable of the fig tree, that occurs earlier in the same chapter, and states: “seeing the story in the context of this chapter, it seems to be Mark’s metaphor for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple . . . it is a literary device.”
Great! This is truly progress, as Dr. Madison has now recognized the perfectly obvious fact that the Bible contains literary devices and various genres, which include things like metaphor, exaggeration, anthropomorphism, and various non-literal poetic specimens. Yet he can’t see this when it comes to the text we are presently examining. And he — more often than not –, misses them altogether.
He does make a good point that there are many Christians (who interpret the passage as he is doing: as if Jesus intended it absolutely literally) who read this and think that God answers absolutely every prayer and heals absolutely everyone, just for the asking, and/or with enough faith in the person praying or the one afflicted.
This is indeed an actual and serious problem among far too many Christians, and a legitimate concern. But it comes from ignorance and stupidity in Bible interpretation (precisely the same error Dr. Madison is committing in every podcast in this series). These folks are taking things literally that were never intended to be so.
Again, I have dealt with both these errors in other papers, and so will cite them here. I addressed the “unanswered prayer ‘problem'” in my article, “No Conditional Prayer in Scripture?”: one of my 35 refutations of atheist Bob Seidensticker, which he has utterly ignored and left unreplied-to. Here are two instances, where the Bible shows that not all prayers are or should be answered:
Prayer is conditional upon being consistent with God’s will. So if we pray (to use an extreme example) for a difficult neighbor to be struck down and not able to talk or walk, that wouldn’t be in God’s will and God wouldn’t answer it.
1 John 5:14 And this is the confidence which we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.
James 4:3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
Even something not immediately immoral or amoral wouldn’t necessarily be in God’s will, because He knows everything and can see where things might lead; thus may refuse some requests. When Jesus says “ask and you shall receive,” etc., it’s in a familiar Hebrew proverbial sense, which means that it is “generally true, but admits of exceptions.”
Moreover, St. Paul’s petitionary prayer request for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” (thought by many Bible scholars to be an eye disease) was expressly turned down by God (2 Cor 12:7-9). I gave a few other examples in that paper:
The prophet Jonah prayed to God to die (Jonah 4:3): “Therefore now, O LORD, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (cf. 4:8-9). God obviously didn’t fulfill the request, and chided Jonah or his anger (4:4, 9). The prophet Ezekiel did the same: “O LORD, take away my life” (1 Kgs 19:4). God had other plans, as the entire passage shows. If we pray something stupidly, God won’t answer. He knows better than we do.
Jesus also tells the story (not a parable, which don’t have proper names) in Luke 16 of Lazarus and the rich man, in which two petitionary requests (in effect, prayers: 16:24, 27-28, 30) to Abraham are turned down (16:25-26, 29, 31). Since Jesus is teaching theological principles or truths, by means of the story, then it follows that it’s His own opinion as well: that prayers are not always answered. They have to be according to God’s will.
But wait! Bob says, after all: “The Bible has no qualifiers” and “No limitations or delays are mentioned [for prayer].” Really? It’s sort of obvious, by now, ain’t it?: that Bob often is quite ignorant of what the Bible actually teaches. He displays his biblical illiteracy and ignorance rather spectacularly . . .
Now, one might say that, “okay, some of these are obvious examples where God wouldn’t answer, because someone would be harmed. But why wouldn’t God answer all prayers for healing, because that is a good thing, and He has the desire and power to do so, if He is an all-loving and omnipotent Being?”
And that leads to the large, complex area of healing, as taught in the Bible and Christianity. The fact is that the Bible does not teach that everyone would or should be healed for the asking, or with enough faith. It’s not nearly that simple. I have already provided the example above of the Apostle Paul, who certainly had enough faith and holiness. It simply wasn’t God’s will to heal him. We don’t know all the ins and outs of why God heals in some instances and not in others.
We don’t know everything and can’t figure out everything God does. We should never logically expect to, given other truths expressed in the inspired revelation that all Christians accept, since He is omniscient and our knowledge is very limited. But I’m here to inform anyone who will listen what the actual biblical teaching about healing is. I documented it at great length in my paper, “Divine Healing: Is It God’s Will to Heal in Every Case?”
Sometimes people are supernaturally healed; most times they are not, or are healed through natural means that came from thinking and brains and medical science, by means of the abilities to learn that God gave us. And sometimes prayers are unanswered, per the reasons above.
There is nothing whatsoever in this passage — correctly understood — that is “shallow, silly, wrong, harmful religion, sound[ing] like countless other cult fanatics, cheap gimmickry, baloney . . .” It’s Dr. Madison (in his ludicrous felt superiority to our Lord Jesus) who has been shown to be “silly” and “wrong”: as throughout these ten installments. There are many people who have a hard time properly interpreting the Bible, and he is assuredly one of ’em.
Photo credit: Healing of the Blind Man (1871), by Carl Bloch (1834-1890) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]