McDowell’s Trilemma – Part 3: An Eternally Omniscient Person

McDowell’s Trilemma – Part 3: An Eternally Omniscient Person August 28, 2016

McDowell’s Trilemma Argument (hereafter: MTA), can be found in The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (hereafter: NETDV) by Josh McDowell (see pages 158-163).  The first key premise of MTA is this:

  1. Jesus claimed to be God.

There is no good reason to believe that Jesus claimed to be God.  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 “The Messiah is God, and I am the Messiah”.  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.

Based on my analysis of the sentence “God exists”, the meaning of (JIG) can be analyzed as follows:

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.

There is no passage in any of the canonical Gospels where Jesus clearly CLAIMS 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.

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 about the nature and characteristics of God that are very similar in meaning, and that strongly suggest these ideas.  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”.

In Part 1 of this series, we saw that Jesus never directly CLAIMED to be a bodiless person, nor did Jesus IMPLY that he was a bodiless person.  Because Jesus never claimed to be a “bodiless person”, and never claimed to be a “spirit”, and because Jesus repeatedly asserted that he had 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 Part 2 of this series, we saw that Jesus never directly CLAIMED to be eternally omnipotent, nor to be omnipotent, nor all-powerful, nor almighty.  We also looked at some passages from the canonical Gospels put forward by McDowell in support of the view that Jesus was omnipotent, but upon closer examination of those passages, we saw that in none of them does Jesus clearly CLAIM or IMPLY that he was eternally omnipotent or even just omnipotent.

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Eternal Omniscience

In this post (Part 3),  we will consider these questions:

  • Did Jesus directly CLAIM that he was eternally omniscient
  • Did Jesus directly CLAIM that he was omniscient?
  • Did Jesus clearly IMPLY that he was eternally omniscient?
  • Did Jesus clearly IMPLY that he was omniscient?

In the canonical Gospels, Jesus never says “I am eternally omniscient” nor does he ever say “I am omniscient”, nor does Jesus say “I am all-knowing”, nor does Jesus say “I know everything that it is possible to know”, nor does Jesus say “Of the countless meaningful factual claims that have ever been made, ever will be made, or ever could be made,  I know of each one whether it is true or false.”   In short, Jesus never directly CLAIMS to be omniscient or eternally omniscient.

However, we also need to determine whether Jesus ever, according to the canonical Gospels, said something that clearly IMPLIED that he was eternally omniscient (or just omniscient).  In the book Jesus: A Biblical Defense of His Deity, McDowell puts forward 22 different passages from the canonical Gospels in support of the view that Jesus was omniscient (see pages 53 & 54).  I have examined each of these passages to determine whether any of them show that Jesus clearly IMPLIED that he was omniscient.

McDowell’s “Biblical” evidence for Jesus being omniscient comes in at least FOUR different types:

TYPE I.  A report that Jesus said something, and that something was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was omniscient.

TYPE II. A report that someone else (other than Jesus) said something, and that something was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was omniscient.

TYPE III. The author or narrator of a passage says something (in that passage) that was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was omniscient.

TYPE IV. A report that Jesus said or did something, and that event (if it actually occurred, allegedly) provides EVIDENCE that proves or supports the claim that Jesus was omniscient.

The only type of evidence that is relevant to assessing premise (1) of MTA is TYPE I evidence, a report that Jesus said something, and that something was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was omniscient.  For purposes of evaluating premise (1) we don’t care whether other people (including the disciples of Jesus) believed Jesus was omniscient, and we don’t care whether the author or narrator of a Gospel passage believed that Jesus was omniscient, and we also don’t care whether Jesus was in fact omniscient.  In this context, we are only concerned about what Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED about himself, which means that we only care about the Gospel passages that contain (or that appear to contain) TYPE I evidence.

Because we are only concerned about TYPE I evidence, we can quicly eliminate most of the 22 Gospel passages put forward by McDowell as irrelevant to the task of evaluating premise (1) of MTA.  The following image shows a chart about the TYPES of evidence contained in the 22 Gospel passages put forward by McDowell:

Gospel Passages on Omniscience

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actually, the 16th passage in the chart (John 13:21-26) is not from McDowell.  I just threw that one in as a free bonus; it is closely related to the 15th passage (John 13:10-11).

As you can see from the chart above, only five of the 22 Gospel passages contain TYPE I evidence, so only those five passages are relevant to an evaluation of premise (1) of MTA.  Only one of the passages from the synoptic Gospels contains TYPE I evidence:

Matthew 11:25-27 (NRSV)
25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;
26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

If the key phrase “All things have been handed over to me by my Father” was a reference to Jesus having POWER and CONTROL over everything that exists, then this passage would be about POWER not about KNOWLEDGE, and in that case this passage would be relevant as evidence that Jesus claimed to be omnipotent (all-powerful), but not relevant as evidence that Jesus claimed to be omniscient (all-knowing).

In Part 2 of this series I argued that this phrase is probably not about POWER, but is rather about wisdom and KNOWLEDGE,  so this passage does not provide solid evidence that Jesus CLAIMED to be omnipotent.  But if the phrase “All things” refers to bits of wisdom or KNOWLEDGE, then this passage would be relevant as evidence that Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED his own omniscience.

I previously argued, however, that the most likely meaning of the expression “All things” is, “all of the important spiritual, theological, and moral truths and principles that God wants to reveal to (some) human beings”.  The context of the phrase “all things” is in a discussion about KNOWLEDGE of important truths of religion and morality that God wants to reveal to (some) human beings.  In this context, there is no reason to dramatically expand the scope of of the topic to include every possible fact or statement no matter how trivial or irrelevant the fact is from the point of view of religion and morality.

An omniscient God would know the number of hairs on my head, but God has no interest in “revealing” this trivial information to the human race; that fact is trivial or irrelevant from the point of view of religion and morality, so that sort of “truth” is outside of the scope of the topic under discussion in this passage. It is unlikely that this expression was intended to refer to “knowledge of every single fact no matter how trivial or insignificant that fact might be”.  Thus, it is unlikely that in this passage Jesus is CLAIMING or IMPLYING that he is omniscient, that he knows every single fact no matter how trivial or insignificant the fact might be.

Furthermore, in stating that these important bits of wisdom or KNOWLEDGE “have been handed over” to Jesus by God,  Jesus IMPLIES that he did not alway possess those bits of wisdom or KNOWLEDGE, and thus Jesus IMPLIES that he is not eternally omniscient.  But a person is God ONLY IF that person is eternally omniscient, so Jesus IMPLIES here that he is not God.

Four of the passages from the Gospel of John contain Type I evidence.  The passages are very similar in content, so I will examine them all together:

John 7:28-29 (NRSV)
28 Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I am from. I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him.
29 I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.”

John 8:54-55 (NRSV)
54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’
55 though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word.

John 10:14-15 (NRSV)
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

John 17:25-26 (NRSV)
25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.
26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

In these four passages from the Gospel of John, Jesus claims to KNOW God.  Furthermore, Jesus also asserts that other people, at least some other people, do not KNOW God.  So, Jesus is claiming to have KNOWLEDGE that other people, at least some other people, lack.

There are several problems with using these four passages as proof or evidence that Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED himself to be eternally omniscient (or just omniscient).

First, most mainstream NT and Jesus scholars view the Gospel of John as an unreliable source for the words and teachings of Jesus, especially when it comes to reports in this Gospel about Jesus making exalted claims about himself.  This is NOT how Jesus spoke according to the synpotic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  So, it is doubtful that Jesus actually said the things attributed to him in the above four passages from the Gospel of John.

Second, to be omniscient means to know every single fact about every single thing that has ever existed and ever will exist, and having KNOWLEDGE of or about God does not IMPLY that one knows every single fact about every single thing that has ever existed or ever will exist, so the claim to have KNOWLEDGE of or about God is, at best, only partial evidence of omniscience, not proof of omniscience.  One must also know every single fact about every single plant, and every single animal, and every single human being, and every single planet, and every single star in the universe.  Having some KNOWLEDGE about God does not mean having all knowledge about everything; it does not mean that one knows every single fact about every single thing that has ever existed and that ever will exist.

Third, Jesus does not claim to KNOW every single thing that there is to know about God.  So, it is not at all clear that Jesus CLAIMS to be omniscient even with respect to God.

Of course, God is, if God exists, eternally omniscient, meaning that God knows every single fact there is to know about every single thing that exists or has existed or ever will exist.  So, to know every single thing that there is to know about God, one must actually know every single fact that God knows, because there are many facts about God of the following form:

God knows such-and-such about X.

For example:

(E) God knows that the Earth orbits the Sun.

In order to know this fact (E) about God, one must know that “the Earth orbits the Sun”.  So, in order to know every single fact that there is to know about God, one must know every single fact that God himself knows!  Since Jesus does not explicitly CLAIM to know every single thing that can possibly be known about God, and since making such a claim would IMPLY that one KNOWS every single fact that there is to know about every single thing that has ever existed or that ever will exist, it is unlikely that Jesus intended to make such a strong claim about his KNOWLEDGE of God.

If Jesus did not intend to CLAIM or IMPLY that he KNOWS every single thing that can possibly be known about God, then what did he intend to CLAIM or IMPLY in the above four passages, assuming that Jesus said what these passages report Jesus to have said?

In reading the four passages, and reading them in context, it seems fairly clear that Jesus was talking about having a close relationship with God.  God “sent” Jesus as a messenger (John 7:28-29 & 17:25-26).  Jesus refers to God as his “Father” (John 8:54-55, 10:14-15, 17:25-26).  Jesus speaks of “the love with which you [God] have loved me” implying that God has great love for Jesus.  In claiming to KNOW God, Jesus thus is claiming to have a close relationship with God.

Jesus KNOWS God in the way that a person KNOWS a best friend or a spouse or a sibling or a parent.  If you have a close relationship with another person, you do KNOW a lot of information about that person, and you have a lot of experiences of that person.  You KNOW what they like and dislike, how they think, what they believe, their personal history, and so on.  But having a close relationship with another person does NOT mean knowing every single fact that can be possibly known about that other person.

It is very likely that in the above four passages, that Jesus was IMPLYING that he had a close relationship with God, and this means that Jesus was IMPLYING that he had a good deal of KNOWLEDGE about God, but not that he knew every single fact that it is possible to know about God.  That is NOT an implication when we talk about having a close relationship with another human being, so it is unlikely that Jesus intended such an implication when he CLAIMED to KNOW God in the above passages, assuming that those passages accurately report the actual words of the historical Jesus.

Fourth, not only do we have good reason to doubt that these four passages provide an accurate report of the actual words of the historical Jesus (because most mainstream NT and Jesus scholars have concluded that the Gospel of John is an unreliable source of the words and teachings of Jesus), but we have a more specific reason to doubt the reliability of the Gospel of John on this particular point concerning the alleged omniscience of Jesus.

I stated previously that only the Gospel passages that contained TYPE I evidence were relevant to this question, but that is not entirely correct.  The idea that Jesus possessed supernatural or superhuman KNOWLEDGE is a theme in the Gospel of John, and it is clearly an important belief of the author of the Gospel of John, a belief that the author clearly wants to persuade his readers to accept.  Given this information about the author of this Gospel, this casts additional doubt on the historicity and reliability of the above four passages from the Gospel of John.

The other passages from the Gospel of John that do not contain TYPE I evidence provide us with evidence about the beliefs and ideological aims of the author of this Gospel.  This is particularly the case with TYPE III passages where the author or narrator makes comments about Jesus’s alleged superhuman knowledge:

John 2:24-25 (NRSV)
24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people
25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

John 6:64 (NRSV)
64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.

John 13:1 (NRSV)
13 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

John 13:10-11 (NRSV)
10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”
11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.

John 18:3-4 (NRSV)
3 So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.
4 Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?”

John 19:28-30 (NRSV)
28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.”
29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.
30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

The above comments by the author/narrator about Jesus having superhuman knowledge indicate that the author believed that Jesus had superhuman knowledge and that the author wanted to promote this belief by means of this Gospel.

Other passages from the Gospel of John contain TYPE II evidence where people other than Jesus say something that is (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus had superhuman knowledge.  These passages with TYPE II evidence provide further confirmation that the author of this Gospel wanted to promote the belief that Jesus had various kinds of superhuman knowledge (John 1:48, 4:16-19, 16:30, 21:17).  There are also a least three passages in the Gospel of John where although nobody says something that is intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus had superhuman knowledge, the event itself appears to provide evidence for this belief about Jesus (John 11:11-15, 13:21-26, 21:6-11).

So, it is clear that the author of the Gospel of John (a) believed that Jesus had superhuman knowledge, and (b) wanted to promote this belief by means of this Gospel.  The fact that the author of the Gospel of John had this belief and had this ideological aim in writing this Gospel amounts to a bias in the author that casts additional doubt on the objectivity and historical reliability of the above four TYPE I passages from that Gospel.

CONCLUSION

In the canonical Gospels, Jesus never directly CLAIMS to be eternally omniscient, or even just omniscient.  Nor does Jesus directly claim to be “all-knowing” nor does Jesus directly claim to “know every single fact there is about every single thing that has ever existed or that ever will exist.”

McDowell has put forward only five Gospel passages which contain TYPE I evidence, evidence consisting of a report about Jesus saying something, where that something was (allegedly) intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was omniscient or eternally omniscient.  Only one of those passages comes from one of the synoptic Gospels, and I argued that it is unlikely that what Jesus said in that passage (Matthew 11:25-27) was intended to CLAIM or IMPLY that Jesus was omniscient or eternally omniscient.  Rather, it is likely that Jesus was making the more limited CLAIM to know all of the important religious and moral truths that God wanted to reveal to (some) humans.  Furthermore, since Jesus states that this wisdom or knowledge had “been handed over to me by my Father”, Jesus IMPLIES that he did not always have this knowledge and thus that he was NOT eternally omniscient.

The four remaining TYPE I passages put forward by McDowell are from the Gospel of John, and Jesus makes the same CLAIM in those four passages; he claims to KNOW God.  But I argued that it is unlikely that this statement was intended by Jesus to IMPLY that he knew every single fact about every single thing that has ever existed or that ever will exist.  Rather, it is likely that Jesus intended to IMPLY that he had a close relationship with God.  Having a close relationship with a person does not imply knowing every single fact that it is possible to know about that person, so Jesus did not intend to IMPLY that he knew every single fact that it is possible to know about God.  Thus, what Jesus says in those four passages from the Gospel of John does not IMPLY that Jesus was omniscient nor that Jesus was eternally omniscient.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that the four TYPE I passages from the Gospel of John provide accurate reports of what the historical Jesus actually said, because (a) most mainstream NT and Jesus scholars have concluded that the Gospel of John is an unreliable source of the words of the historical Jesus, and (b) we can see from the TYPE II, TYPE III, and TYPE IV passages from this Gospel, that the author of the Gospel of John wanted to promote the belief that Jesus posssessed superhuman forms of knowledge.

Therefore, the Gospel passages provided by McDowell fail to show that Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he was omniscient, and fail to show that Jesus CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he was eternally omniscient.

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UPDATE:

I missed one of the Gospel passages that McDowell cited in support of Jesus being omniscient:  Luke 5:5-6 (on pages 54 & 64 of Jesus: A Biblical Defense of His Deity).  Here is the passage:

Luke 5:4-6 (NRSV)
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.

This passage does not contain TYPE I evidence, so it is irrelevant to the question of whether Jesus ever CLAIMED or IMPLIED that he was omniscient.  In fact neither the narrator/author makes this claim, nor does anyone in the story make this claim.  This passage thus contains only TYPE IV evidence.

Furthermore, this event is easily explained without the hypothesis that Jesus had supernatural knowledge of the presence of a large mass of fish and their location.  Jesus could have simply prayed to God asking for the fishermen to have a large catch of fish, and God could have responded to Jesus’s prayer by either creating a bunch of fish in (or right next to) their nets, or by causing fish to swim from various locations all over the lake to where the fish nets were placed.  (As an atheist, I don’t accept these alternative explanations myself, but they are perfectly reasonable explanations from a Christian or theistic point of view).

 

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