Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Richard Carrier's very human Jesus

I've just been listening to a debate on YouTube between the noted atheist Richard Carrier (pictured) and an apologist called David Marshall. You can watch it here. Its fair to say that Carrier wins this debate. Its also clear that one of his arguments against Jesus being divine is very strong and appears not to have an adequate rebuttal by Christian apologists. The argument is basically as follows (my summary):

Jesus is depicted in the gospels as having direct revelatory knowledge from the creator God. He is also depicted as being someone who cares about people and miraculously heals some of them. Given these two observations, why does Jesus do nothing to inform his disciples of a few health related things which could prevent disease? For example, he could have instructed his disciples in the merits of properly washing your hands before eating. He appears to actually do the exact opposite to this, by telling them that hand washing before meals is not important (Matthew 15:1-20). We know (from science) that washing is important and this simple action can prevent disease and infection, etc. Jesus does not know this. He appears to have no conception of germs. This is no surprise if he was merely a human being, but is very surprising if he was sent on a mission - which involved healing - by the creator God.

Furthermore, Carrier claims, the three most prevalent fatal diseases in the first century CE were tuberculosis, malaria and typhoid. Jesus is never recorded as healing anyone with any of these. Also, there are simple steps which can be taken to minimise the risk of catching these, such as mosquito nets and avoiding stagnant water. Jesus does not advise these actions, so clearly he has no divine knowledge of disease transmission.

Carrier has more to say, but you get the gist. I have to say that it seems like a very strong argument to me. But there are apologetic responses to it, for example this one.

As I see it, if Carrier is right, then there are only two options:
  1. Jesus was a man with no divine knowledge, or
  2. God doesn't care about the life and health of people.
When I say "doesn't care" what I mean is that God must have another - more important - agenda that would be hindered by healing more people and giving them advice that would prolong their lives and ease their suffering.

Let's think about these options, I'll take the second one first.

Healing and God's Agenda
The standard apologetic argument to the problem of pain is that God must have a morally sufficient reason for allowing this, and that even though we can't know what this reason is, we should trust God for other reasons and leave this in the hands of faith. I must say, this strikes me as yet another instance of the 'unseen infinite' argument that I've blogged about before. If prolonging people's lives and easing their suffering is not part of God's plan, then why does Jesus heal anyone? Why feed thousands of hungry people, why raise some from the dead? Again, apologists and preachers will tell you that Jesus did all these things to reveal aspects of the character of God, to reveal the heart of God - to show that God wants to heal. But if God wants to heal, then this must be part of his agenda. And if healing is part of his agenda, then he should have been able to do more, much, much more than is recorded for us in the bible.

But suppose we look at this the other way around. If God's agenda was not primarily to heal, but was to come to earth and suffer and die, and in this way to bring about post-mortem salvation for people, then surely he didn't need to spend 30 years doing nothing worthy of note, then up to three years of ministry in which he did not explain that this was his agenda. Why didn't he just come quickly, die quickly, and also hasten the deaths of all people, so that those who he would save would get to heaven more quickly?

Clearly, this is not consistent with what Christians believe, or what the bible apparently teaches. So I think we can say with reasonable certainty that Jesus simply did not know any more about disease and illness than his fully human contemporaries, and that if a modern day doctor were able to be transported back in time to the 1st Century, then they would be able to do many more kinds of 'miraculous' healing than Jesus is recorded as doing - because they have a far greater understanding of illness than Jesus. Which brings us to the second option.

Jesus was just a man
Is it conceivable that Jesus was genuinely divine in nature, but had no divine knowledge? We can discount the option that he had no inherent divine knowledge but God revealed things to him, using the reasoning above - if God revealed his agenda to a human Jesus, then we face the same problems as we have above with the question of God's agenda. If God only revealed part of his agenda and didn't empower Jesus to heal many multitudes of sick and dying, then we end up with a truly unbelievable or evil God. So barring this possibility, the only option we are left with is that Jesus simply didn't know more than his contemporaries about disease, and also didn't know any more than them about God's agenda. If Jesus was just a man without revelation, then nothing he said or did had divine authority, even if he truly had a divine nature. In this option, all of Jesus' teaching goes out the window as worthless, and all of his commands and life examples become meaningless. He becomes just an ordinary guy, and no more worthy of following than anyone else. Any good teaching he gave and any great insight he had came from human means, and other humans have just as much access to such wisdom as Jesus had. Indeed, the flip side is true, Jesus could just as easily have been wrong about a great many things. Even if he was right about some things, we have no reason to trust his claims about things he could not demonstrate, such as what happens after death. he knew no more about that than you do.

No, if the words and works of Jesus have any value, then he must have had knowledge and wisdom which transcended those of humanity. But in that case, we see a God who can only heal in limited measure or doesn't value the health and wellbeing of his people.

I can't see a way out of this conundrum except to say that the claims of Christianity about Jesus must be false or at least very flawed. It is much easier to suppose that these stories are simply that: stories, and that Jesus was no divine Son of God.

Jesus, if he lived at all, was just human. No more than that. If following his teachings bring you joy and happiness in this life, then all's well and good, follow him. But if following his teachings leads you into suffering and possible death, then be careful, because nothing promised after death is anything more than guesswork or wishful thinking.