XFiles Friday: The “demanding” sayings of JesusNovember 14, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 11.)
Norm Geisler and Frank Turek have a problem. They want to say that it takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian, but God does not show up in real life. They have no choice, therefore, but to turn to the words of men to support their claims, and right now they’re trying to convince us that we ought to believe everything the New Testament writers tell us. Why? This week, the answer is “Because the NT writers included the ‘demanding’ sayings of Jesus in the New Testament.”
If the New Testament writers were making up a story, they certainly didn’t make up a story that made life easier for them. This Jesus had some very demanding standards.
This means that the Gospel must be true, right? Because nobody ever heard of a priest, prophet, or other religious figure telling people that they need to work hard to please some god, unless the gods were really real.
I mentioned before that Geisler and Turek seem to be padding their list just a bit so that they could come up with a “Top Ten” list, since #3 is really just a special case of argument #2, the “difficult sayings” of Jesus. Apparently, it’s hard to find a whole ten reasons, based on the New Testament, for why we supposedly ought to believe whatever the writers tell us.
G&T have essentially one argument so far, which is that the New Testament includes stories and sayings that allegedly would be unlikely to come from the pen of someone who was fictionalizing the Gospel. Whether it makes the disciples look foolish, cowardly, selfish, or otherwise disreputable, or whether it makes Jesus look suspicious, demanding, or just plain nuts, the argument is that the disciples wouldn’t have wanted to admit these things unless they were true.
Or, we might add, unless there was some other reason to tell the story. The Bible doesn’t include every detail of Jesus life. The writers had to be selective, as they themselves admit. Each story they chose was chosen for a reason. The broader goal, as some of them explicitly tell us, is to convince people that Jesus was the Son of God, and that he died for the sins of the world. Individual stories serve more specific purposes, such as conveying the idea that Jesus was misunderstood and rejected by his own people, or the idea that he was supernaturally and inscrutably wise and authoritative.
The “demanding” sayings of Jesus are a case in point. Of all the arguments so far, this one is where the disciples are arguably most likely to have “improved” the tale. A Jesus who went around saying “Everything’s cool with God” would be a Jesus whose deputies wouldn’t have a whole lot of authority to make demands on people. A Jesus who said God expects you to be perfect, however, is giving his disciples a broad warrant to stick their ecclesiastical noses into every aspect of people’s lives and to tell them in great detail what they have to do (on God’s behalf, of course). Portray God as a demanding God, and you automatically assume a greater authority over people’s lives and personal business.
According to the New Testament, one of Jesus’ accusations against the Pharisees is that they were doing precisely that. “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.” Nor are the Pharisees either the first or the last religious leaders to enhance their invasive authority by making exaggerated demands in God’s name. Tithes and sacrifices go way back, as do various rituals and prayers governing everything from what you eat to whose name you can say.
Some ancient priests portrayed their deities as demanding that people offer their own children as sacrifices (or at least so the Bible claims). Mohammed (and bin Ladin) would have us believe that God wants His followers to sacrifice their own lives on His behalf. David Koresh led his followers into armed—and suicidal—conflict with government forces in Texas, and Jim Jones led his followers all the way to South America before revealing that it was God’s will for them all to drink poison and die.
All in all, Jesus’ demands aren’t so bad, relatively speaking. Other religious leaders have demanded things that were much more serious (or silly—Joseph Smith commanded his missionary elders to wear special, “holy” underwear…get it? Holy underwear?). Yet Geisler and Turek aren’t going to tell us that Mormonism, and Islam, and Branch Davidianism, and the People’s Temple, are all reliable sources of truth just because they left in the demanding statements their religious teachers attributed to God.
Geisler and Turek are not really interested in pursuing the evidence here, they’re just using the materials they’ve got to try and build an argument to take them from where they are (a world in which God does not show up) to where they want to be (a world in which it takes more faith to deny His existence than to believe it). They list commands like “Be perfect,” and “Whoever lusts is guilty,” and “Love your enemies,” and then say,
All of these commands are difficult or impossible for human beings to keep and seem to go against the natural best interests of the men who wrote them down. They certainly are contrary to the desires of many today who want a religion of spirituality that has no moral demands.
Even in the act of arguing that Jesus’ words are contrary to the best interests of Christians, Geisler and Turek use the words of Jesus to insinuate that unbelievers are fundamentally immoral and are looking for a cheap religion that won’t require them to live morally. That’s exactly the kind of argument that stricter demands make possible, and believers eagerly grasp the message that their morals are better than everyone else’s. Oh, sure, they’re impossible to live up to (so believers aren’t really guilty when they fail to live up to them), but at least they have a superior, more demanding religion.
In fact, impossible demands are the best kind, because if someone made demands that were merely reasonable, and you failed to keep them, well, you suck. Nobody seriously expects you to keep the impossible ones, though, so you’re off the hook, obedience-wise. And you still get to claim to have a superior religion! It’s an excuse and a smug little taunt, all rolled into one!
It’s hard to believe educated men like Drs. Geisler and Turek could seriously believe that the founders and leaders of a major religion would have any more difficulty than any other religious leaders with making lofty-sounding and impossible demands, regardless of what religion they’re fronting for. Nor is it easy to understand how Geisler and Turek could seriously present, as evidence, the mere opinion that they they know exactly what ancient Christian writers would and would not have written under various circumstances.
This is not evidence. It’s the kind of argument you come up with when you run out of good ideas for excuses to believe what you want.