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 seventh podcast of twelve is entitled: “On Mark 4:11-12: Jesus taught in parables to keep people from repenting and being forgiven”. Here is the passage:
Mark 4:11-12 (RSV) And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables;  so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.”
Bizarre Jesus quote . . . Jesus teaches in parables so that people won’t turn and be forgiven. . . . It clearly doesn’t make sense at all. Is Jesus serious? Parables are meant to fool people, to keep them in the dark?
Mark 4:11-12 is a common scriptural / Hebraic way of expressing God’s judgment and His providence (while not denying that ultimately men decide their own eternal fates, by either accepting or rejecting God’s grace). Romans 1 explains it:
Note that the onus lies upon the people who “suppress the truth” and are engaged in “all ungodliness and wickedness” (1:18). They choose in their own free will to disobey God, then the text says that “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (1:24). In other words, He didn’t cause their rebellion; He only allowed them in their free choices, to rebel.
Romans 1:18-25 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse;  for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools,  and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,  because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
The same dynamic is seen in the juxtaposition between Pharaoh freely hardening his heart, which is then applied to God (in a limited sense) doing it (which means that He allowed it, in His providence; He didn’t ordain it). I explain this at length, in two papers.
A fourth similar example occurs in the book of Job. Satan comes to God and challenges Him to allow him to torment Job. God responds, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life” (2:6; cf. 1:12). So it is clear that Satan is behind the direct persecution of Job. But later, the text refers to “all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him” (42:11); that is (properly interpreted, with knowledge of the multitude of Hebrew literary devices), allowed in His providence. Then it is reported (now literally) that God “restored the fortunes of Job, . . . and the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before” (42:10) and “blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning” (42:12).
2 Thessalonians (written by St. Paul, as was Romans) is a fifth example, and it expresses precisely the same dynamic as we see in Romans 1 and the other three examples above. Men rebel in their wickedness (“they refused to love the truth and so be saved”: 2:10). Then it is stated (as a forceful hyperbolic manifestation of God’s providence and His permissive will) that “God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2:11-12).
It’s not a contradiction. This way of speaking is common in the Bible. When Paul talks about wicked men, he is being literal; but when He talks about God, it is hyperbolic and a form of sarcasm. 2:10 makes it quite clear what caused their damnation: “those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth.” Even 2:12 again reiterates that man’s rebellion was the cause of the demise of the damned: not because God willed and ordained it from all eternity. The Gospel of John teaches the same thing:
John 12:37-40 Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him;  it was that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”  Therefore they could not believe. For Isaiah again said,  “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.”
Coffman’s Commentaries on the Bible, in its treatment of the Old Testament passage cited in John 12 (Isaiah 6:9-10) states:
What is prophesied in this passage is the judicial hardening of Israel in their rebellion against God. The prophecy is stated in different forms. Here it appears imperatively; but in other places the prophecy is referred to as self-accomplished as in Acts 28:27, or as having occurred passively as in Matthew 13:13-15. Here, as Dummelow pointed out, “The result of Isaiah’s preaching is spoken of as if it were the purpose of it.” . . .
The classical example from the Bible is that of Pharaoh, of whom it is stated ten times that “Pharaoh hardened his heart …” after which it is said that, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” God never hardened anyone’s heart who had not already hardened his own heart many times. Thus it was said of this prophecy that Israel had themselves shut their ears, closed their eyes, and hardened their hearts.
Thus we may say that God hardened Israel, that Israel hardened themselves, and further, that Satan hardened their hearts. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (2 Corinthians 4:4). The “blinding” of this passage and the “strong delusion” of 2 Thessalonians 2:11 KJV, and the “working of error” (2 Thessalonians 2:11, ASV) are all designations of exactly the same condition described here as “hardening.”
The key to understanding lies in the parallel passage of Acts 28:27, which the commentary above describes as “self-accomplished” rebellion. This shows the same dynamic as the “hardened hearts” passages. In the overall context of Acts 28, we don’t see the language of God deliberately blinding them, etc. We see their own choices causing these things. Hence, we see references to “others disbelieved” (28:24); then the Isaiah passage is cited, but in a milder fashion, followed by “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (28:28). In other words, these hearers would not listen. It was their fault; they were rebellious. God didn’t cause that.
Likewise, here is how Jesus put it in Matthew 13:13, 16: “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. . . . their eyes they have closed . . . But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” If one looks at the larger context of John 12:37-40, one can also see that it is man’s rebellion, not God’s foreordination, that causes the disbelief and wickedness:
John 12:37, 47-48 Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him; . . .  [Jesus] If any one hears my sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.  He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day.
Photo credit: The Pharisees and the Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus, by James Tissot (1836-1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]