FAQ: What about Jesus?

I am often asked what my personal opinion (or explanation) of Jesus is. The following summary is not intended as a complete scholarly discussion of Jesus, but only a summary of my own personal conclusions after many years of reading the Bible and many, many books and articles, both critical and apologetic, about Jesus and the origins of Christianity. For that reason I do not include sources, nor do I develop all points of argument.

The False Dilemma (or Trilemma)

     Christians often argue that the only reasonable explanation for Jesus' life and for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus was, in fact, what Christians claim he is: the resurrected Son of God, the second member of the Trinity. This argument often takes the form of the dilemma: either Jesus was God, as he claimed, or he was a lunatic. Perhaps the most famous statement of the argument is by C. S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, where he says that we cannot simply say that Jesus is a "great moral teacher." He says we have only three choices (a trilemma): "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse." The three choices, then, according to Lewis, are: 1) God; 2) lunatic; 3) Devil.

     Lewis here commits the logical fallacy of the "false dilemma" (in this case, the "false trilemma"), which consists of proposing only two (or, as in this case, three) possible explanations for a set of facts, then demolishing all except the one being argued for, leaving it as the only possible explanation. The fallacy is committed when the advocate neglects to consider that there are other possible explanations which he has not demolished.

     In the case of Jesus, I believe that there is at least one other possible explanation, and one is all that is required to destroy the argument. And please note:   It is not necessary, in exposing the fallacy of the false dilemma, to prove that the unmentioned possibility is actually true. One must only show that it is possible and that it is a reasonable explanation of all the facts.

The Facts To Be Interpreted

     The evidence we have about Jesus is rather sparse, and none of it, strictly speaking, is contemporary. The earliest evidence is the writings of Paul, generally dated after 55 A.D., at least twenty years after Jesus' death. (Note, however, that Paul mentions no details about Jesus' life or even his teachings.) We also have the four canonical gospels, the earliest being Mark, generally dated around 70 A.D. All of these writings were by Christians, and reflect the undisputed fact that by the time of their writing, there was a belief among Christians that Jesus was the Messiah promised to the Jews, and that he had risen from the dead after three days (Paul) or two days (Gospels).

     It is important to remember that the documents only indicate Christian belief in these things, and that one cannot take such belief by anyone to be convincing evidence for the actual truth of what is believed, even though today's Christians may argue that the early Christians, who were much closer to those events, would not have believed if it were not true.

     Disregarding for the moment the miraculous and the theological, which can easily be explained as later pious embellishment on the actual facts, the bare facts of Jesus' life and times from these sources and from contemporary non-Christian sources are these:

     Jesus lived in Palestine at a time of political and religious unrest. Palestine was under oppressive foreign occupation, and had been for a hundred years. Jewish hopes for relief were based more and more on the writings of their prophets, which were interpreted to prophesy the eventual coming of an anointed king (Hebrew 'mashiah', Greek 'christos'), who would restore the Jewish kingdom as promised by God. It was believed by many Jews that this king would be a descendant of King David, and that his ascension to the ancient throne of David would usher in a period of peace for Jews and retribution and punishment for their enemies, and that the Jewish kingdom, under God and God's chosen people, would encompass all the nations of the world.

     These beliefs were not universally held among the Jews, and there were sharp differences among them. The Zealots advocated violence; the Sadducees (the more aristocratic, priestly Jews) advocated accommodation; the Essenes advocated monastic withdrawal from the world; the Pharisees advocated strict observance of the Law. There were also individual rabbis (teachers), prophets and holy men who gathered followers, such as John the Baptist. Every such charismatic rabbi was the possible King, and some even proclaimed themselves as such. A common theme of all these groups and prophets was that the history of the Jews showed that prosperity for the nation came only upon obedience to God, and that failure to obey God resulted in national distress. Thus, obedience to God was a prerequisite to the coming of God's kingdom and the rescue of the nation.

     Jesus was such a teacher. His message was a call to obey God. Like many of the prophets (Micah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), he taught that obedience to God did not consist simply in performing the proper temple sacrifices and avoiding unclean foods, but required also personal integrity, avoidance of all sin, and a sincere love of one's fellow man - an inner righteousness as well as an outer, superficial righteousness.

     Like all charismatic teachers in ancient times, he was a healer, and was credited with miraculous healings and other miracles by his followers, even though he insisted that miracles should not be used to authenticate his message.

     It is generally conceded by scholars that Jesus did not formally organize a church, nor did he intend to establish a new religion. He had a message to spread, and he called upon his followers to spread that message, but it was essentially a Jewish message, and intended primarily for the Jews.

     As with many other such figures in Palestine, some of his followers came to believe that he was the promised King. Perhaps he himself came to believe that. Perhaps he even proclaimed himself as the King. In any case, the Roman authorities could not tolerate a pretender to the Jewish throne. Palestine was a country seething with unrest already, without having a live pretender to the throne who was telling his followers (among whom were some Zealots) that a new kingdom was about to be established, and making triumphal entries into Jerusalem, welcomed jubilantly by the people, and causing riots in the temple compound. Such a doctrine and such acts were treason under Roman law, for which the penalty was death by crucifixion. And that was the sentence pronounced upon Jesus by the Romans.

     How did the belief arise that Jesus rose from the dead? Remember that we have no solid evidence of the resurrection except the fact that such a belief was held by at least some of Jesus' followers about twenty years after his death.

     I believe that there are at least two possible explanations for the existence of this belief.

One Possible Explanation of the Resurrection Belief

     One explanation is based on our knowledge from sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists about the two common phenomena now known as "urban legends" and "cognitive dissonance."

     "Urban legends" is the term given to those wild stories of odd or mysterious events that are rapidly passed nowadays from person to person and often even end up as news stories on the inside pages. Anthropologists and folklorists have collected thousands of them in the last few decades and studied them.

     Many modern urban legends are so common that they have acquired titles: "The $300 Cookie Recipe," "The $50 Mercedes," "The Kidney Kidnappers," "The AIDS Needles In the Pay Phone," "The Vanishing Hitchhiker," "The Choking Doberman." (See the Snopes collection of urban legends for more information and examples.)

     Some of the characteristics of urban legends are:

     Urban legends now being collected and studied are the modern urban legends, that is, those that are being spread today, in our supposedly sophisticated, educated and skeptical society. But there is nothing to indicate that they are a modern phenomenon. It would seem obvious, rather, that in the ancient world, an age of credulity, where miracle tales were common and belief in magic and the supernatural was widespread even among the best-educated classes, the urban legend would have had even more fertile ground. An urban legend that today can travel three thousand miles in six months surely could have had a counterpart two thousand years ago that could travel that fast over three hundred miles, even without today's modern means of communication.

     Jesus' resurrection is explainable as a typical urban legend. It has all the characteristics listed above, with the exception that its source is traceable to a specific supposed actual event, namely, Jesus' execution for treason. How that event became an urban legend can be explained by a study of cognitive dissonance.

     "Cognitive dissonance" is the name given by psychologists to a phenomenon which sometimes warrants psychiatric treatment, but perhaps does not always become so severe as to affect an individual's normal functioning. It arises in an individual (or a group) when two incompatible and contradictory facts seem to become so undeniable that neither one can be denied. An individual example would be a wife who is absolutely certain that her husband is faithful, but who is presented with evidence that he is having an affair. The person (or group), when faced with two such contradictory and incompatible facts, neither of which can be acknowledged as false, suffers from cognitive dissonance, and is forced to find some way, however absurd, to accept both facts. The belief in an absurd reconciliation of the two contradictory facts is the attempted solution to the cognitive dissonance. Forcing oneself to believe an absurdity causes the psychological damage which may require outside help. The cure, of course, is to abandon the acceptance of one of the cherished facts (e.g., admitting that her husband is a cad).

     In religious cults, for example, especially in those based on a leader who claims prophetic ability, the problem of cognitive dissonance arises when the prophecies do not come to pass. Cults that promise happiness in exchange for obedience cause cognitive dissonance when their obedient members realize that they are not, in fact, happier.

     For the followers of Jesus, the two incompatible facts were, first, that Jesus was the promised king ('mashiah') who was going to usher in the Kingdom under God and make the Jews the leaders of the world, and, second, that Jesus was executed before establishing that expected kingdom. How could his disciples reconcile these two contradictory facts?

     It is not difficult to imagine. Obviously a dead man cannot found a kingdom of any kind. Therefore, Jesus must somehow be alive. But how is that possible? The answer was at hand: the Jewish belief (at least among the Pharisees) in the resurrection of the dead in the "last days."

     But the mere logical conclusion that Jesus must be still alive (or alive again), and thus able to "return" to carry out the establishment of the promised Kingdom, would benefit from some tangible evidence. Here, our knowledge of how urban legends arise and grow helps. It is easy to suppose, and likely, that people might ask Peter or another disciple how he knows that Jesus is not dead. If Peter were to say, "I feel Jesus' presence with me often, as though he were actually here," the zealous believer could easily pass this remark on to others as, "Peter says Jesus is often with him," which, after a few more steps becomes, "Peter has seen Jesus alive!"

     Or two disciples meet a stranger on the road who talks like Jesus. They tell about this meeting, and in the frequent retelling it becomes an actual meeting with Jesus himself, whom the disciples had failed to recognize.

     Believers undoubtedly speculated about these things: What must it have been like? Do you suppose he just walked out of the tomb? Did someone see him come out? And there were undoubtedly imaginative guesses: I'll bet Mary was there. I'll bet Peter went to check the tomb. And soon these guesses became rumors, and then they became facts: urban legends.

     One cannot help but be reminded of the many stories circulating nowadays about people who have seen Elvis Presley alive. Just as it does no good to tell devout Elvis fans that such sightings are impossible, so too it must have been impossible to dissuade Jesus' followers from believing what they so desperately wanted to believe.

     There were also the pagan (Egyptian, Canaanite and Hellenistic) models of the god who rose from the dead (Osiris, Tammuz, etc.) Combining these two ideas led easily to the idea that Jesus was not just an ordinary man, but somehow partook of divinity. Adapting those stories to Jesus, along with familiar tales about virgin birth (from Alexander the Great), about shepherds attending the birth (from the Mithra myth), and other stories attached to great men, prophets and pagan gods, it is no surprise that within thirty or forty years Jesus' life story had become the myth-encrusted account we find in the gospels.

Another Possible Explanation

     I said that there were at least two possible explanations. I have suggested the first. The second is the possibility that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but survived, at least for a short time. This possibility has been suggested by a number of scholars, and in varying forms. Most suggested scenarios include some kind of plot by an inner circle of Jesus' friends (such as Joseph of Arimathea) to snatch the suffering Jesus unconscious from the cross before his actual death, then to nurse him back to health. Some suggest that he then lived for years in hiding (he was, after all, a condemned criminal), perhaps to participate and finally die in the rebellion of 69-70 A.D. Others suggest that he died soon after, having failed to recover fully from his ordeal on the cross.

     The irony of this suggestion is that it allows us to lend greater credence to some of the details of the crucifixion and resurrection stories as reported in the gospels and Acts, especially the appearances to the disciples. The stories of the ascension (especially the version in Acts 1, placing it forty days after the resurrection) then become the possible report of when Jesus actually died (and really "went to heaven").


     If a reasonable, possible explanation exists for a set of facts, we cannot logically accept a different explanation which defies reason, goes against all our human experience, and requires us to accept miracles or magic. One Christian to whom I suggested the above possibilities exclaimed, "That is absurd, to think that Jesus' friends took him from the cross alive!" But what is more absurd: to think that a condemned man's friends tried to save his life, or that a dead man came back to life after two nights in a tomb?

Jesus - A Great Moral Teacher?

     I am not among those people mentioned by Lewis who consider Jesus "a great moral teacher." I have two reasons for my opinion.

     First, none of his moral teachings are original with him. "Love thy neighbor," "act justly," the "Golden Rule" - are all much older, and have been taught in almost all systems of morality and ethics in all parts of the world. It is an error to give credit to Jesus for originating those teachings.

     Second, many of his moral teachings are not very moral or wise, and some are even reprehensible. Among the worst are:

     The ultimate condemnation of the value of his "moral teaching" is the long history of atrocities committed by his followers, using his teachings as their justification.

Another Logical Fallacy by C. S. Lewis

     A final side note on C. S. Lewis: In the same paragraph in which Lewis commits the fallacy of the false trilemma, he commits another fallacy as well, when he says, after giving us only his three choices: "[Therefore] let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

     This is the fallacy of the self-sealing argument, or the self-validating argument, which is a special form of the fallacy of the circular argument or "begging the question." It is a favorite argument of Christian apologists, appearing also in arguing for the validity of the Bible as the word of God: How do we know the Bible is the Word of God? Because it says so. Why should we accept the Bible's statement as proof? Because the Bible is the Word of God. Here: Jesus says we have to accept him only as God, not as a human teacher. Why? Because Jesus said so, and Jesus is God, so you have to take his word for it (God wouldn't lie).

What Would Jesus Say?

     Sometimes Christians suggest that I should think of what Jesus would say to me if he were to be sitting next to me: "I died for your sins. All I ask of you is to believe in me and follow me, to live your life as I would have you live it, to become as a little child and believe! And you shall have eternal life and dwell with me forever."

     My response to that suggestion:

     Your statement of what you think Jesus would say to me is the purest speculation on your part, and you have no way of knowing any such thing. Jesus has been dead for almost two thousand years, and his followers have turned him into a myth and a god. I do not consider that to be a very good basis for my life. Superstition by its very nature is dehumanizing and has a tremendous potential for evil.

     Allow me to suggest what Jesus would say to you if he were sitting next to you: "How could you be so gullible as to believe all those wild stories that my followers made up about me after the Romans executed me? I gambled on setting up David's throne again, and we failed. I wanted people to be good Jews, and instead they threw out everything that I based my life and teachings on! That damned Paul! Who did he think he was, anyway? I never met him in my entire life! Why would any of you think that he should have the last word? Hey, I was wrong... I thought the last days were when I was alive, and the world was about to end, and I was wrong. The world is still going strong, two thousand years later. So, all I have to say is: be nice to each other. That's all I was trying to tell you. And one more thing: I really am dead."

On the other hand....

     A very strong case can be made that there never even existed a man named Jesus as described in the New Testament. This notion may seem absurd to many, especially to Christians. But even many non-believers might exclaim, "Of course he existed! He may not have been divine, as Christians believe, but it's a historical fact that he really existed! Everybody knows that!"

     Actually, when carefully examined, the evidence for Jesus' having actually lived in Palestine is quite flimsy. To examine the case against the historicity of Jesus, see for example any of the following:

Doherty, Earl, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Jesus Exist?, http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/

Freke, Timothy, and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the Original Jesus a Pagan God?", Harmony Books, New York, 1999

Wells, G. A., Did Jesus Exist? (revised edition), Pemberton, London, 1986

Kenneth Humphreys' website http://www.jesusneverexisted.com

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