Arguments Against Christianity

An excerpt from the online hypertext Human Knowledge: Foundations and Limits by Brian Holtz

Since Feb 2003 I have posted a standing challenge for any Christian apologist to present an argument for Christianity  that is as succinct and as self-contained and as powerful as the argument below.  As of Apr 2004, none have accepted this challenge.

Evidence For Christianity
Since Christianity is the most prevalent belief system among humans, it deserves special attention.  The best evidence for the Christian doctrine of a divine Jesus is: There are at least eight insurmountable problems within the extant evidence that each independently refute the Christian doctrine of a divine Jesus: An omnipotent omniscience benevolent deity competently attempting a revelation would have foreseen and corrected all of these problems. The existence of any one of them implies that Christian doctrine is false. The reasons not to believe the Christian doctrine of a divine Jesus can be divided into four categories: In addition, the Christian gospels themselves are suspect because of their sources, contradictions, and apologetics.

Naturalistic explanations. Jesus of Nazareth was a faith healer and self-proclaimed divinely-special savior who tried to reform his native Jewish religion. However, the evidence about Jesus is less likely to have resulted from divinity than from misinterpretation, exaggeration, rationalization, delusion, deception, and mythologizing. Indeed, perhaps the greatest weakness of the claims for Jesus' divinity is the gospels' reliance on and vouching for the Old Testament, a patchwork of folklore, legends and myths about a tribe whose patriarch Abraham turned to monotheism because of fertility problems. Jesus was a Jewish prophet who affirmed Jewish law [Mt 5:17-18; Lk 2:27,39; Jn 10:35], observed the Jewish calendar [Lk 4:16, Mt 24:20], and preached about the God of Israel [e.g. Mk 12:29] in Jewish synagogues [Mk 1:21, 1:39, 6:2; Mt 4:23, 9:35, 13:54; Lk 4:15, 4:44, 6:6, 13:10, 19:47; Jn 6:59, 18:20] exclusively for Jews [Mt 10:5, Mt 15:24]. Jesus no doubt echoed the Torah theme that "all nations" would witness the majesty of Israel's God, but his only command to actually convert and baptize "all nations" is in a post-Easter speech alleged only in one gospel [Mt 28:19] (and in an appendix later added to Mark [16:15]).

Miracles. In the gospels Jesus heals the sick (possession, blindness, skin disorder, bleeding, fever, paralysis, withered hand), revives the recently deceased, calms a storm, multiplies food, and walks on water. The miracles ascribed to Jesus seem not to have been very convincing [Mt 11:20, Lk 10:13, Jn 6:66, 10:32, 12:37, 15:24], and seem explainable by a combination of conventional faith healing, exaggeration, and mythologizing. The three people Jesus allegedly reanimates [Mk 5/Lk 8; Lk 7; Jn 11] might not actually have been clinically dead, and the gospels report not a single indication supporting such a diagnosis. Any cases of blindness, paralysis, or demonic possession cured by Jesus could have been psychogenic. Jesus apparently admits [Lk 11:24-26] that his cures for demonic possession are often not permanent, and in the synoptic gospels there is only one mention [Mt 21:14] of a cure being performed in Jerusalem. The one case of congenital blindness is recorded as disputed, and only in the latest gospel [Jn 9].

God? The Christian doctrine of the "trinity", attempting to reconcile Jewish monotheism with Jesus' self-revelation, holds that Jesus 1) is both fully human and fully divine, and 2) is God (in a different "person"). The former is a contradiction, and the latter has no scriptural basis. In the gospels Jesus never claims identity with God or even explicit divinity, but rather a divinely special status as "the Son of God" and the "Anointed One" (Hebrew: messiah; Greek: christos). Jesus repeatedly distinguishes himself from God:

When Jesus' opponents say his assumption of authority could be interpreted as a claim of divinity, all three synoptics agree [Mk 2:10, Mt 9:6, Lk 5:24] that Jesus merely asserted "authority on earth", and none intimates that his accusers concluded he was affirming their accusation.  In the one instance in the gospels [Jn 10:33ff] in which Jesus' identity with God is explicitly discussed, Jesus cites a Psalm [82:6] as a precedent for his metaphor, and hastily retreats to his formulation of being "God's Son", adding vaguely that "the Father is in me, and I in the Father". However, 1 Jn 2:15 says this is true of anyone who acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, and Jesus used the same mutual inclusion poetry about him and his disciples [Jn 14:20].  When at another time [Jn 5:18ff] the Jews characterized the "Son of Man" title as "making himself equal with God",  Jesus answered not by claiming identity but by drawing distinctions: Thus Jesus retreats the only two times he is accused of claiming identity or equality with God. In the Passion story, Jesus was mocked or accused as a faith healer, prophet, king of the Jews, Messiah, and "Son of God" [Jn 19:7] -- but never as divine or as a god. When Jesus died, onlookers are said to have exclaimed not that Jesus was God, but rather the "Son of God" [Mat 27:54].

The title of 'God' is never reliably applied to Jesus anywhere in the New Testament. (In many translations of 2 Pet 1:1 and Titus 2:13, the description "God and Saviour" is seemingly applied to Jesus, but the scholarly consensus regards these two letters as late and pseudoepigraphic.) Acts quotes [2:22, 2:36, 3:13, 10:38, 17:31] Peter and Paul describing Jesus in terms of a man appointed to an office, but never calling him God.  The gospel authors never explicitly claim Jesus to be God, and the closest they come is the vague language of Jn 1: "the Word was God" and "became flesh". John quotes Thomas exclaiming [Jn 20] "my Lord and my God", but immediately states [20:31] as a creed merely "that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God". The "mystery" of Jesus' nature was hardly clarified by the Apostles [e.g. Phil 2:6, Rom 1:4, Col 1:15, Col 2:9], whose epistles never claim Jesus has any kind of identity with God. (Christian scribes tried to change that; cf. the differing manuscripts for Rom 9:5, Acts 20:28, and 1 Tim 3:16.) Even the alleged angelic annunciation of Jesus to his parents ommitted [Lk 1:32, Mt 1:20, Mt 2:13, Mt 2:20] the claim that Jesus was Yahweh incarnate.

Thus, just as Jesus failed to leave clear teachings about salvation, hell, divorce, circumcision, and diet, he also did not effect a competent revelation of who precisely he was. Depending on e.g. various 4th-century Roman emperors, there waxed and waned such christological heresies as Ebionism, Docetism, Adoptionism, Dynamic Monarchianism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Marcionism, Apollonarianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and Monothelitism. The doublethink of the "trinity" is not found in the Bible, but instead was invented to reconcile Jewish monotheism with Jesus' idiosyncratic Sonship claims.

"Son of God". Jesus seems to have been illegitmate, and to have been known to be such in his community [Mt 1:18-24, Jn 8:41]. His only recorded words before his ministry concern his disobedience [Lk 2:48,51] at age 12 to his mother and stepfather, whom he denied [cf. Mt 23:9] by calling the Temple "my Father's house". He spurned his stepfather's trade of carpentry to take up a ministry proclaiming himself the son not of Joseph but of God. Despite angelic revelations [Lk 1:32, Mt 1:20, Mt 2:13, Mt 2:20] to Mary and Joseph, Mary's knowledge [Lk 1:34] of the virgin conception, and Mary's witness of at least one miracle [Mk 2], they (and Jesus' siblings) did not believe in him [Jn 7:5, Mt 13:57] and thought him "out of his mind" [Mk 3:21], leading Jesus to repeatedly stress [Mk 3:33, 10:29; Mt 10:37, 12:48, 19:29; Lk 11:27-28, 14:26] that one should choose God over one's biological family. Only on the day of his death do the gospels record a single friendly word [Jn 19:26] from Jesus to his family.

Delusional Schizophrenic?  Jesus began his (apparently one-year) ministry as a follower of John the Baptist (whose embarrassing baptism of Jesus is played down or not mentioned in the later gospels). In the earliest gospel (Mark), Jesus never calls himself Christ/Messiah, is reluctant for his special nature to be known, and (as he does in Matthew) despairs on the cross. (By contrast, in the later Luke and John, Jesus asserts he is Christ, and confidently assures a co-crucified convict of their impending ascension.) Jesus "could not do many miracles" in his hometown [Mk 6:5, Mt 13:58, Lk 4:24], and he at times was considered mad by other Jews [Jn 8:48, 10:20]. Jesus' movement seems not to have been joined in his lifetime by a single family member or prior acquaintance, but only by strangers. Jesus satisifed the diagnostic criteria of paranoid schizophrenia:

However, Jesus was not so mentally ill as to believe he was omnipotent. The gospels say repeatedly [Jn 7:1, 8:59, 11:53-54, 12:36; Mt 12:14-15, Mk 3:6-7, Lk 13:31,33] that Jesus retreated from or avoided danger. He was secretive and evasive about his special nature [Mk 3:12, 8:30, 4:41; Lk 9:21, 10:22-24; Mt 16:20; Jn 2:24, 8:25-29, 10:24-38, 12:34], and reluctant to have his powers tested [Mk 8:12; Lk 11:29, 23:8; Mt 4:7, 12:39, 16:4; Jn 2:18]. He was likely neither liar nor lunatic, but rather a preacher, faith-healer, and apocalyptic prophet who in the months leading up to his anticipated execution came to believe he was the Jewish Messiah and even the divinely-special savior of mankind.

Resurrection. At his death the apostles abandoned Jesus in panic, even though they should have been expecting his resurrection if they had indeed witnessed his miracles, heard his divinity claims, and heard him say at least four times [Mk 8:31, 10:34; Mat 16:21, 17:23, 20:19; Lk 9:22, 18:33, 24:7, 24:46] that he would "rise from the dead" or be "raised to life" "on the third day". The New Testament accounts of the resurrection appearances develop over time from silent to vague to contradictory to fantastic. The Empty Tomb story could have resulted from a discreet reburial or removal -- perhaps by a disciple, as in a rumor reported in Mt 28. Possible conspirators were Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene, a longtime disciple [Lk 8:2] "out of whom [Jesus] had driven seven demons" [Mk 16:9, Lk 8:2] and who (unlike any apostle) attended both the crucifixion and entombment. She was the first to visit the tomb on Easter [Mt 28:1, Jn 20:1], and the possibility of removal [Jn 20:2,14,15] was not unimaginable to her. She weepingly lingered [Jn 20:11] after the apostles left the empty tomb, and thereupon was the first [Mk 16:9, Mt 28:9, Jn 20:14] to claim seeing an appearance. The appearances were suspiciously exclusive: "He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen" [Acts 10:40-41] "Why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?" [Jn 14:22]. Many of the "appearances" seem to have been unimpressive to the disciples who heard about them (and should have been expecting them) and even to those who witnessed them:

What probably happened is that some disciples began having epiphanies, perhaps involving the occasional dream, ecstatic vision, encounter with a stranger, case of mistaken identity, or outright hallucination (or fabrication). The disciples in their desperation and zeal initially interpreted these experiences as manifestations of a triumphant and vindicated (but not necessarily reanimated) Jesus, who had apparently predicted that he would in some sense return or at least that his ministry would require but survive his death. If a tomb had in fact been found empty, that doesn't necessarily imply that these early manifestations were initially interpreted as experiences of a physically reanimated corpse. The disciples might have just believed that Yahweh had “raised” Jesus' body to heaven so as to not “abandon [it] to the grave” and to “decay” [Ps 16:10, cited in Acts 13:35-37]. An empty tomb belief would greatly have helped the early epiphanic experiences be misinterpreted, exaggerated, and embellished over the subsequent half century into the reanimated corpse stories that appear only in the two latest gospels (Luke and John).

The gospels themselves give precedent for the idea of a dead person being “raised from the dead” [Mk 16:14] by inhabiting the body of some other person currently living. When some [Mk 6:14, Mk 8:28, Mt 16:14, Lk 9:19] -- including Herod [Mk 6:16, Mt 14:2] -- thought  that John the Baptist had been "raised from the dead", at least a few of these people would have known that Jesus' body had (like the Easter gardener's) been animate before the Baptist's death. There is no record that anyone ever considered checking the Baptist's body (the grave of which was known his disciples [Mk 6:29, Mt 14:13]), and there is no record that anyone wondered why Jesus' neck did not show signs of John's earlier beheading.

Missing evidence. A divine Jesus could trivially create new miracles to unambiguously vouch for some modern school of Christianity. For the gospel accounts of Jesus to be believable, two kinds of evidence would have to surface: However, available extra-scriptural records do not corroborate the gospel miracles. Christian apologists often claim that if false, the gospel traditions would have been refuted and discredited by skeptics in 1st-century Palestine. However, there is no indication that the Jesus movement was important enough then to merit the sort of early written debunking that would have been preserved despite skeptical apathy and Christian hostility. Except for the stolen-body rumor denied in Mat 28, the earliest records of anti-Christian skepticism date after the first century and are preserved mainly as excerpts in Christian rebuttals. Celsus (quoted by Origen) dismissed the miracles as the "tricks of jugglers" that he said are "feats performed by those who have been taught by Egyptians", and the Jewish slander reported by Tertullian claimed the empty tomb was faked.

The 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus is hard to count as anti-Christian, even after discounting his affirmation (unnoticed by all of his earliest Christian commentators) of the resurrection as an interpolation. Josephus may have written that Jesus "performed surprising works" and even that Jesus was believed to have been resurrected, but the (possibly interpolated) mention is only in passing. Josephus devotes more space each to John the Baptist and James, and while reporting much minutiae over the entire period during which Jesus lived, does not mention:

  • the Christmas Star that disturbed Herod and "all Jerusalem" [Mt 2:3],
  • Herod's massacre [Mt 2:16],
  • Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem [Mt 21:8-11],
  • the Good Friday earthquake [Mt 27:51],
  • the Good Friday resurrectees that "appeared to many people" in Jerusalem [Mt 27:53], or
  • the Good Friday 3-hour darkness "over all the land" [Mk 15:33, Lk 23:44, Mt 27:45].
  • These events in fact went unnoticed by every non-Christian writer, including the historians Seneca and Pliny the Elder. Contrast this with the supernova of 1006CE that was noted in China, Egypt, Iraq, Italy, Japan, and Switzerland. (Syncellus quotes a lost text of the Christian historian Julius Africanus which itself cites a lost text by Thallus: "Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse". The identification of Thallus' eclipse with "this darkness" might just be in the mind of Julius Africanus, and Thallus at any rate cannot be reliably dated as writing independently of the gospels.) The Alexandrian philosopher and commentator Philo outlived Jesus by 15 or 20 years, and as a visitor to Jerusalem should have met witnesses to the Easter miracles. His silence suggests that Jesus and his followers did not make the early impression that they should have if the gospels were true.

    Implausibility. The gospel story of a secretive unpublished family-resenting bastard faith healer in the rural outback of a peripheral province of a regional empire seems an unlikely self-revelation for the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator of the universe:

    The God of the Torah's holy scrolls is far too pedestrian in his works, parochial in his concerns, petty in his decisions, and primitive in his policies.

    Works. In the gospels Jesus heals the sick, revives the recently deceased, calms a storm, walks on water, and multiplies food. The god of the Torah makes appearances, speeches, promises, and predictions; raises the dead; and takes credit for various plagues, fires, floods, astronomical events, victories, healings, and deaths. It is implausible that the Creator's works would be so confined to ancient times and so apparently constrained by ancient imaginations.

    Concerns. After creating billions of galaxies in Genesis, the god of the Torah is implausibly obsessed with the family of Abraham and the Jordan valley where they live. It seems implausible that an omnibenevolent, omniscient, infallible deity would entrust a few fallible men in a backward corner of the world with such paltry evidence and then demand that everyone else either hear and believe them or suffer eternal damnation.

    Decisions. In the gospels Jesus damns entire towns [Mt 11:23], compares non-Israelites to dogs [Mt 15:26], and affirms even "the smallest letter" [Mt 5:18, Jn 10:35] of the Torah. The god of the Torah tests and torments his followers, commits mass murders of e.g. Noah's flood victims [Gen 6:7, 7:21] and the firstborn sons of Egypt [Ex 12:29], creates linguistic division for fear of an ancient construction project [Gen 11:6], and curses mankind because Adam dared to "become like one of us, knowing good and evil" [Gen 3:22]. It is implausible that the Creator of the universe would be so petty and wicked.

    Policies. The god of the Torah promotes or demands extravagant worship, dietary taboos, animal sacrifice, repressive sexual codes, human mutilation, monarchy, subjugation of women, slavery, human sacrifice [Lev 27:29, Jud 11:30-39, cf. Heb 11:17, Jam 2:21], and mass murder of even infants [Gen 6:7, 7:21, Ex 11:5, 12:29, 1 Sam 15:3, cf. Heb 11:7,28]. In the gospels Jesus affirms the Torah [Mt 5:18, Jn 10:35], endorses the murderous flood of Noah [Mt 24:38, Lk 17:27], and promises sinners not a thousand years' unrelenting torture, nor a million or a billion, but an eternity of excruciating torture by fire [Mk 9:43, Mt 18:8, 25:41, 25:46]. It is implausible that a competent and benevolent deity would in his revelation allow the endorsement of such heinous crimes and evil policies.

    Cascading implications. If the existing evidence about Jesus of Nazareth is considered a convincing proof of his divinity, then many other things can be proven with similar evidence.

    Gospel sources. The gospels were stitched together decades after the crucifixion by non-eyewitness zealots freely borrowing from oral traditions and now-lost earlier texts. Gospel contradictions. Among the many minor contradictions and inconsistencies in the gospels are several that cast significant doubt on the gospels' central message of a divine messiah foretold by the prophets. Gospel apologetics. Certain assertions and omissions in the gospels seem to either suspiciously deny or unwittingly create embarrassing alternative explanations for the claims therein.