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Blog - Mad, Bad or God?

There’s an old argument, popularised by C.S. Lewis, that Jesus had to be either mad, bad or God, and the choice is obvious.

All I think I’ve written on this topic is the brief aside in the middle paragraph1 of the “Alternative Explanations” section of “Problems with the Christian Worldview”. “I don’t subscribe to the “mad, bad or God” trichotomy that C.S. Lewis proposes. It’s not likely that Jesus directly claimed to be God (despite the suggestions in John), but it is likely that he acted out the role of Isaiah’s suffering servant. I would have to say that in this he was mistaken, but this doesn’t make him mad or bad.”

I ought to expand a bit on this, so here goes. The argument is that someone who said the extraordinary things that Jesus said would have to be either mad, bad or God. Since he clearly wasn’t mad or bad, he must have been God. There are lots of places this argument can break down. Some are:-

  1. We might accept that Jesus was either mad or bad. This is the orthodox Jewish view; not one I’d go along with, nor one that’s terribly popular with Jews these days.
  2. We might deny that what Jesus said was that extraordinary. The Gospels don’t represent Jesus as going round saying “I’m God, don’t you know”. However, there are some passages in John’s Gospel that have been taken to suggest this claim (certainly that Jesus claimed pre-existence, and may have ascribed the tetragrammaton to himself in the “before Abraham was, I am” passage in John 8:58; but all this can be disputed – see, eg. Web Link (http://www.opensourcetheology.net/node/722) Defunct; this looks quite an interesting site).
  3. We might attempt to distinguish between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of history. That is, we might pare away the passages in John that seem a bit odd or discordant with the synoptic Jesus. This isn’t my preferred option either. In the absence of contemporary revelation, we’re totally dependent on the NT for knowing what Jesus was like, and we could easily pick and choose or distort the record until we got one we liked. Note that there’s a subtle difference between what Jesus said or did, and what was claimed that he said or did, but we ought at least to stick to the claims without ignoring or distorting them. As I don’t enthuse over the miraculous, I have to argue that what was claimed of Jesus didn’t always happen in the way claimed, but I don’t want to claim this needlessly of the sayings just to get a more likeable Jesus.
  4. We might deny that Jesus claimed to be God. I think this is true, as alluded to above.
  5. There might be more options than the three suggested. This is equivalent to …
  6. We might accept that someone can make extraordinary claims without being mad or bad (or God).
Maybe we should focus a bit on the “mad” and “bad” claims. Taking “mad” first, presumably the idea is that someone making such claims would have to be deluded, like the madman who claims to be Napoleon. If I remember correctly, Lewis says that inappropriate claims to deity are as mad as claiming you’re a fried egg. But is this so? Setting aside whether or not Jesus thought he was God in the sense of identity (rather than being chosen, adopted, made of equal honour, or some such), there’s an example of a Greek philosopher who thought he was (a) god. To quote the famous doggerel “Great Empedocles, that ardent soul; Leapt into Etna, and was roasted whole". And he did. Apparently he left his sandals on the edge of the crater as though going for a dip (so said Anthony Grayling; knowing him, he may have made that bit up). Yet Empedocles wasn’t mad in the “fried egg” sense. He had all sorts of interesting and revolutionary philosophical and scientific ideas; some right, some wrong. He evidently had a high opinion of himself and believed deity was something that could be empirically demonstrated. He was proved wrong in a rather nasty way, of course, but many sane people are proved wrong, admittedly less dramatically, all the time.

As for “bad”, presumably this means that Jesus knew he was making false claim, yet persisted in the claim, deceiving his disciples and many others besides. This is clearly not on. However, it is not even necessary to be certain of one’s claims to avoid being a deceiver. Everyone has self-doubts and it is possible for someone to have doubts and yet not be bad. We’re not told anything about this aspect of Jesus’ psychology, though we gather that he had to work things out (the temptations in the wilderness). I don’t know whether the various so-called false prophets were what we’d call bad people. They were just wrong (we think). We imagine that THE false prophet is a bad person, because he intentionally deceives, but this isn’t so of those who think of themselves as prophets, but aren’t (at least not in the sense of being sent by God). Take Muhammad. Obviously he didn’t claim to be God, but he did claim to have spoken to the angel Gabriel. It used to be popular to say that Muhammad was mad or bad (before saying such things became illegal and dangerous to one’s health), but isn’t it just fair to say he was wrong (with respect to being a prophet), and maybe right and good in much else?

I think the Lewis trilemma is a fair sort of question to ask. It’s just a bit glib. We do need an explanation of how someone as obviously good and honest as Jesus could have said the sort of things he’s said to have said and been wrong (on the sceptical account, and assuming he did say them). In the dialectical context of my argument, I don’t need to say which of the sceptical alternatives is the correct one. There are too many unknowns for this. All I need do is provide a selection that might be true, and that undermines the argument that the trilemma is the only option.

Note last updated: 18/12/2010 19:58:05


Footnote 1: (Problems with the Christian Worldview)

Introduction

As always, this note will start off as a brain-dump, which I’ll tidy up and segregate into hyper-linked topics in due course. Note that while this caveat persists, this note (which has been whacked out in a couple of hours, and shows it) is in DRAFT, and cannot be taken to represent my considered views. As it’s hidden down a long chain of hyperlinks, maybe no-one will notice it until I’ve had the opportunity to tweak it a bit.

I’ve admitted that I have “problems” with Christianity. So, what are my “problems”? I need to address this question from at least three angles.

  1. Firstly, the issues themselves, focusing on the most critical ones, and
  2. Secondly, providing some form of alternative explanation of the pro-Christian data.
  3. Finally, I suppose, I ought to give an account of the alternative life-stance that I do espouse.
I’ve always maintained that our most fundamental beliefs are held as an interconnecting matrix, though with some form of hierarchy of belief. That’s what I tried to describe in my Christian Tractatus (updated version in progress). So, this statement of issues (and of the alternatives) can’t really be viewed in isolation. However, if I try to expand on all this here, I’ll be repeating what I’ve said elsewhere. This summary will have to remain simplistic.

A final preliminary point is that not all Christians (the more zealous may accuse these of being Christians “falsely so-called”) will find all of my objections to be real issues. However, the versions of Christianity I have “problems” with are those that posit an active God and a supernaturalist worldview. Weaker versions, it seems to me, make no practical difference to our lives, and confuse issues by using supernaturalist terminology with a naturalist meaning.


Issues

So, what are the issues? I’ll list them with elaborating footnotes to be provided in due course.
  1. Origins: This encompasses the 7-day creation, the creation of Adam, the Fall, and the Flood.
  2. The Place of Man: there is no saltation between homo sapiens and the great apes; just a difference of degree. Adam was not created from the dust, but evolved from an ape-like ancestor. There was no fall from initial righteousness.
  3. Life: Christianity appears to be committed to vitalism. Matter (“dust”) has to have the breath of life breathed into it in order to be alive. There is a division amongst Christians who think about the matter at all into tri-partists - who believe in body, soul and spirit - and bi-partists who believe in body and spirit only (the soul being a sort of fusion of the two). I’ve allowed that the bi-partists win the day, and not objected to souls here. Biology seems to view life as nothing more than the right sort of complexity and organization in matter, with no absolute divide between animate and inanimate entities, and the detailed rejection of vitalism by demonstrating how living tissues and organisms work is one of its major triumphs.
  4. Miracles: the contemporary evidence against them is so strong that I accept Hume’s analysis – we need to be more certain that there has been no dissimulation, distortion, confusion or error in transmission of the ancient testimony than we are of the initial improbability of a miracle occurring. This is a purely empirical matter, but all contemporary evidence suggests that miracles are very unlikely.
  5. Cosmology: Just where did Jesus ascend to, and where did Elijah’s chariot of fire go? Just what sort of place, if it is one, is heaven? What are the “new heavens and the new earth”, wherein righteousness will dwell? What is their relation to the old heaven and old earth?
  6. Spiritual Beings: There is no good evidence for the existence of angels, demons, and so on.
It may be that it is possible to make an accommodation for all these objections, as liberal Christianity has done, but in general the supporters of the “strong” versions of Christianity won’t have any of it – probably for good reason: such a version of Christianity is hardly worth believing in, and is nothing but muddle and equivocation.

It is worth pointing out that there are some aspects of Christianity that often feature in popular objections that I don’t take issue with, either because I reject the objections, or because the tenets objected to are not properly part of Christianity. A brief summary:

Firstly, those popular objections I don’t think cogent:
  1. The Universal Sinfulness of Mankind. This is an obvious empirical fact, but has other explanations than the fall of Adam.
  2. Theodicy: I expect a good account of the consistency of the evil we find in the world with the goodness of God can be made out, by appeal to sin, free will and Satan, if we had reason to accept the existence of all of these.
  3. Biblical Scepticism: I reject over-zealous skepticism about the general reliability of the Bible, and doubts about the existence and general character of Jesus as described therein. However, I don’t think the New Testament always uses the Old in the manner of a good Bible student, but ignores the context in the manner of the expository approach of the time.
  4. Horrid Things Done by Christians: Sadly, these are just what would be expected given the universal sinfulness of mankind.
Secondly, those items that are part of orthodox Christianity, but which may not me properly Bible-based, and so their rejection isn’t relevant to the rejection of Biblical Christianity:
  1. Souls: Popular Christianity has it that the Christian is committed to mind/body dualism. However, there is a growing band of Christian materialists, who stress bodily resurrection and deny the possibility (or at least the fact / desirability) of disembodied existence for human beings, and maybe a case for this view can be made out from the Bible. I think the empirical evidence for the correlation of brain activity to psychological experience is so strong, that no-one these days would introduce a dualist account without their religion obliging them to do so. That isn’t to deny that the possibility of sentient matter isn’t a great mystery that is currently unexplained, despite a great industry directed at it. But some problems are hard to solve, or even conceptualise. Maybe I should promote this to a real objection, because I’m not convinced that resurrection of the very same individual makes sense in the absence of a continuing immaterial substance (given, ex hypothesi, that there is no continuing material substance). However, I’m not yet sufficiently confident of this for it to bear the necessary weight.
  2. Eternal Torment for the Wicked: this would be a damnable doctrine, but it is not clear that the Bible teaches it.

Alternative Explanations

And what alternative explanation can be given? This is highly complex, as there are so many plots and sub-plots. Also, it cannot be incumbent on the unbeliever to give a precise alternative account of the origin of what he sees as myth. Who knows precisely how the Greek myths arose, but does this ignorance mean that it’s incumbent on us to believe in them. The reason I may have for feeling an obligation to provide an alternative account of Christianity is that it is (even to the contemporary western mind) not quite so ridiculous as the Greek myths. Also, it is a worldview I myself have espoused and a good many intelligent contemporaries also espouse. I excuse myself from having to give an alternative account of the other religions that satisfy the second point on account of the failure of the first: I am profoundly ignorant of them, and even if I wasn’t, think that experience “from the inside” is necessary before pouring on the scorn.

I suppose my alternative account would be along the lines of “religious progress”. An initial propitiatory, tribal account of the relation of the individual / society to God was improved upon, firstly within the propitiatory framework of animal sacrifice, ultimately seeing that such actions can’t work, and by refining the concept of God. I think it’s a suggestion of genius to see these sacrifices as “types and shadows”, leading up to the one true sacrifice of Jesus. But this doesn’t make this suggestion correct. Just why does God need propitiation in the first place? As for Jesus’ own views, I don’t subscribe to the “mad, bad or God” trichotomy that C.S. Lewis proposes. It’s not likely that Jesus directly claimed to be God (despite the suggestions in John), but it is likely that he acted out the role of Isaiah’s suffering servant. I would have to say that in this he was mistaken, but this doesn’t make him mad or bad.

I need to add a footnote on probabilities, maybe using the game of Cluedo (Web Link (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cluedo)) as a springboard. The basic idea is that if we deny that Colonel Mustard did it, we don’t have to believe that Professor Plumb did it. There are many alternatives. The most likely suspect isn’t thereby guilty. We can be assured that p(it is not the case that Colonel Mustard did it) = 1 – p(Colonel Mustard did it). If Colonel Mustard didn’t do it, then even though each of the alternatives has low initial probability, yet one of them must be true. Say I bought 1,000,000 tickets for yesterday’s lottery. Then, presumably, the odds on my winning the lottery were greater than the odds on any other entrant. Yet I still didn’t win it, and was unlikely to have done so. I mention this because I’ve recently read a somewhat silly paper asking whether it’s rational for Christians to believe in the Resurrection (of Jesus). The “pro” author thinks there are four sensible alternatives, and picks them off one by one. So Jesus must have risen from the dead. This reasoning is fallacious.

My personal worldview

… to be supplied: not because I’ve not got one … it can probably be deduced from my Christian Tractatus … but because I haven’t got round to writing up a quick summary yet. We don’t live in a vacuum, and it’s all very well being negative. However, ab initio, this is a very complex and creative task, which is why the alternative “package deal” approach is so much more popular (though maybe the “don’t know, care less” approach wins the day in the popularity stakes).

Note last updated: 24/08/2013 13:48:00



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Timestamp: 01/11/2017 17:28:59. Comments to theo@theotodman.com.