19 Oct 2008

An Atheist With No Sense of Irony

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While googling to find a Bible verse for this post,* I came across an About.com article concerning a portion of Scripture that modern Christians allegedly ignore because it is too uncomfortable. First, the gospel passages in question:

17 And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? 18 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.

19 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. 20 And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. 21 Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.

22 And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.

23 And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! 24 And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

So our atheist commentator thinks this is a great “Gotcha!” Let him explain:

This scene with Jesus and a rich young man is probably the most famous biblical passage that tends to be ignored by modern Christians. If this passage were actually heeded today, it is likely that Christianity and Christians would be very different. It is, however, an inconvenient teaching and so tends to be glossed over entirely.

The passage starts out with a young man addressing Jesus as “good,” which Jesus then rebukes him for. Why? Even if as he says “none are good [but] God,” then isn’t he God and therefore also good? Even if he isn’t God, why would he say that he isn’t good? This seems like a very Jewish sentiment which conflicts with the christology of the other gospels in which Jesus is portrayed as a sinless lamb, God incarnate. If Jesus is angry at being called “good,” how might he react if someone were to call him “sinless” or “perfect”?

It’s true, if this were the only place in the gospels where Jesus touched on the issue of His own divinity, then it would be a strong argument against it. However, there are other passages where Jesus clearly says that He is one with God. (I mention that because many sharp people confidently say, “Jesus never said he was God.” Yes He did–if the gospels are true–and that’s partly why the Jewish leaders were so furious with Him.)

Anyway, in the passage it doesn’t say Jesus “rebuked” the guy–at least not in this translation. In light of all the other evidence, what I think is (obviously) happening here is that Jesus is saying in an amused tone, “So, you think I’m good? Hmm, well according to your own belief system, no one but God is good. So…which is it? Am I not good after all, is your Judaic Law wrong, or…is there a third option?”

Everyone see how that works? Our atheist friend thinks Jesus just inconveniently admitted (a) He wasn’t God and (b) Christianity is in conflict with Judaism.

No, what Jesus just proved was (a) He is God and (b) He is the fulfillment of the Law.

I have said this before: There are plenty of very sharp atheists out there (not necessarily this guy). But their arguments against the existence of God are often incredibly silly. (Granted, the same is true of Christianity. For every C.S. Lewis you’ve got people who have McCain bumper stickers.) My favorite all-time atheist argument is, “According to your worldview, we must deduce that God does XYZ. Well I don’t want to believe in a God like that.” Great, and that’s my “proof” against quantum physics. How scientific.

In this post, I’m not going to deal with the more serious problem in the gospel excerpt above, namely Jesus’ discussion of riches. I agree that modern Christians–especially of the free-market variety–sometimes dismiss this aspect of Jesus’ teachings too glibly, along the “Aww, he didn’t really mean that…” lines. For now, if you’re curious at my resolution, you can check out my speech on “The Tension Between Economics and Religion” [mp3] at the Mises Institute a few years back.

* Just to remind everyone, the default setting is that Google pumps in whatever ads it finds appropriate (i.e. most likely people will click on) given the content of the post. It is indeed funny / annoying that when I write about God, the posts are either Scientology or for some DVD that “irreverently lays out the case that Jesus Christ never existed.” (I’m not sure how you would reverently say that Jesus never existed. “I mean this with all due respect, guys, but the apostles were a bunch of liars. And you Catholics, umm, hate to say it, but your first Pope was insane–and I’m saying that as a friend.”) There is a way I can go in and veto certain ads, but frankly that is not worth my time. It’s the same rationale for why I am not going to ban trolls etc. Once I go down that path, then I lose my plausible deniability. So just keep in mind, I am definitely not choosing the particular ads that pop up. Surely you don’t think I keep asking, “Is your bank about to close?!?!”

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